What Is Knowledge Anyway?


Tuesday, 7.23am

Sheffield, U.K.

The best advice I ever got was that knowledge is power and to keep reading. – David Bailey

I had a clearout yesterday and took the majority of my library to the charity shop. I was saying goodbye to old friends, ones that had helped me at various times with questions and problems that I had.

In 2010 I was teaching myself investing. In 2013 I was learning about business. Marketing and copywriting books helped me when I started writing. Before all that, technical books helped me create software and systems.

The thing about books is that they are useless unless you read them. They don’t help me or anyone stacked on the floor for years. If they are out there in the world they may help someone else. And I’ve always believed that when I need it the right book seems to turn up.

More recently, as I read research, I’m starting to realise that the ideas in books are often quite old and often not critically evaluated. Too many books have one idea stretched over 300 pages. Too many have ideas that sound good but are wrong. Many are recipes for action that don’t take into account the complexity and unpredictability of the world.

People read differently too. I came back with a bunch of empty bags and watched a TED talk about Chiki Sarkar and Juggernaut books. Sarkar observed that Indians made up the largest smartphone market in the world but the country had very few bookstores. She started a publisher that focused on delivering cheap books that people could read on smartphones in the time they had available.

The rise of such publishers is a reassuring thought. The traditional form of the book – the codex – is an amazing thing. What’s important, however, is not the form but the ideas in there – and those ideas can flow into the small screen of a smartphone for those of us without the space for large libraries.

Getting rid of hundreds of books has not destroyed the knowledge in them – it’s preserved in the world and in particular made accessible through initiatives like the Open Library.

While ideas in books are being made more accessible there is need for ideas coming out of research to be similarly accessible. Perhaps that’s the next platform that needs building, one that makes cutting-edge research available at very low cost accessible on a smartphone.


Karthik Suresh

How Important Is Winning Anyway?


Wednesday, 8.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The person that said winning isn’t everything, never won anything. – Mia Hamm

I picked up Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha recently and have been browsing through it. At first I thought it was about the Buddha but it turns out that Hesse is writing a story that tends to follow a particular narrative. Hesse was popular in the counterculture sixties and writes about how his heroes turn away from what is normal and seek to forge their own path.

A few points stand out and are indicative of underlying assumptions that are worth considering.

The stories I grew up with talk about the concept of Maya – that the world is an illusion that we have to see through. It’s an obvious thought – after all everything we see and hear is actually reconstructed by our brains in their windowless caves. We believe there is a world out there but how do you know your reality isn’t closer to the one in the Matrix films?

The idea that everything is an illusion, however, is like running into a brick wall for those who believe the world is real. It’s all we have and it’s actually out there. There are trees and flowers and birds and colour and laughter and song. Robert Pirsig’s Phaedrus, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance gives up his studies of Indian philosophy when the teacher is talking about Maya and claims that the atom bombs that were dropped during the war were also an illusion.

The problem with believing that nothing is real is that nothing actually matters. Hesse’s Siddhartha engages in business but treats it as a game not something that is important. Making money or losing money are the same to him – while his merchant boss loses sleep over lost time and missed opportunities.

The trouble with believing that nothing matters is that there is no point in doing anything. The trouble with believing that things matter is that you become a hoarder seeking to amass more of everything that you see as valuable. The former makes nothing better but it also makes nothing worse – you just exist. The latter can make better things – food, medicine, products of all kinds – but it also uses up everything on Earth.

What’s clear, what’s obvious, is that extremes don’t work. We have to walk a middle path, somewhere between recognising the world is real and our responsibility for looking after it and our desire to make things better for ourselves and the people we care about. This middle way, in the end, is what I remember as the Buddha’s message. A compromise, an accommodation – an acceptance of reality and a committment to making things better.


Karthik Suresh

Is There A Difference Between Western And Eastern Concepts Of Power?


Tuesday, 8.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society. – Michel Foucault

I have been thinking about power and what it really means in our lives.

Let’s start with a misconception – people often say that something is power. Knowledge is power. The person who holds the pen has the power. But power is power and it shows itself in different ways – it’s contingent on the situation and what’s going on around us.

The simplest form of power is brute force or the power of superior weaponry. The person who invented the sharp stick had power over animals. The power of the modern nation state rests in how far its weapons travel – the most powerful nations are the ones that can attack targets anywhere in the world.

But while superior weapons can win a war they cannot maintain peace. It’s well known that a military force will find it hard to control a population that does not agree to be controlled. You see that play out in battlefield after battlefield – after the quick victory comes the grinding conflict until all too often victors give up and leave.

Some people argue that in old conflicts, such as colonial ones, the powers gave up military control in exchange for contractual control. Poor nations that were once colonies remain poor, trapped in contracts that force them to repay old debts or take on obligations that oppress them. The power of contract benefits the wealthy – if you can force people to do what you want through the power of a contract that courts will enforce then you have control – you have power over them.

The power of weapons and the power of contracts is a particularly Western concept, the former a product of the industrial revolution and the latter dating back to the importance of the “Word” in the nature of Western thought.

It’s different in the East, and one expression of this is in Kakuzo Okakura’s “The book of tea” published in 1906. This is a unique window into an Eastern view of the West before the wars of the twentieth century. Okakura writes about “the gentle art of peace” – which you might contrast with Machiavelli’s “The prince”. The latter is about getting and holding power. The former is about the importance of tea.

It’s interesting that Okakura talks about a harmonious society as being weak against aggression. Liberals in society, the people who don’t want guns and want their children to be able to live a peaceful life are, by definition, less able to defend themselves against violence. But violence is not a long-term strategy – it does not create winners but ends up with pockets of defended land – the castles of old. You need something different if you want to have a peaceful society.

Okakura was writing more than a century ago and the problem is that perhaps we’re all becoming the same now. The twentieth century sparked an arms race and we now have a world that is controlled through military power and global contracts. We can write and bemoan what’s going on but perhaps for real change to happen we need to be able to sit and have a cup of tea with those we share a planet with, even if they are less powerful than us.


Karthik Suresh

When Do People Think They’ve Been Treated Well?


Monday, 7.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised. – Brit Hume

Operations Research is about making things work better. That’s a relatively simple thing when it comes to machines and processes – go to where the work is being done and make it better. But saying it’s simple is not the same as saying it’s easy. And the difference comes down to people.

What makes one person happy and contented and another dissatisfied and unhappy? What drives people – how are they motivated to do the best they can do?

There’s a concept called “Procedural Justice” which may help explain this – but we need to unpack it a little and Tyler and Blader’s 2000 book Cooperation in groups gives us an introduction to they key concepts.

An economic approach to motivation assumes that what people need are incentives – give them the right incentives and they’ll move mountains. It’s all about salary and stock options and bonuses. Of course you could go with deterrents and threats instead – punish people for failure. Both these are instrumental approaches that drive selfish behaviour – either to get rewards or avoid being punished.

But what makes people cooperate and work together? Why would you work with someone else to make things better for both of you if you’re incentivised to do the best you can on your own? Not everything has to do with self-interest but an important component of group work is the concept of fairness – a justice-based model of cooperative endeavour.

Procedural justice is a particular kind of fairness that’s involved in cooperative work. If you had control over decisions then you could have things your own way. But if you’re not in control then you want to be satisfied that the procedures that are being followed treat you the same way as others.

There are three important components to this:

  • Are you treated politely and with dignity?
  • Are the people in charge trustworthy?
  • Are the procedures neutral?

At one extreme you can see how this works with your experiences with the police. You want to trust the police, you want them to treat you politely and with dignity, and you want them to use the same procedures with all people.

You can apply the same concepts in other situations – from the workplace to social activities. Issues of equality, diversity and inclusion can be viewed through a lens of procedural justice. For each opportunity that you go for are you treated politely and with dignity by trustworthy individuals who apply neutral procedures?

If you are then I think you’ll agree that you’ve been treated well.


Karthik Suresh


Tyler, T., & Blader, S. (2000). Cooperation in Groups: Procedural Justice, Social Identity, and Behavioral Engagement (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203782842

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