The Problem With Perfect But Closed


Friday, 6.09am

Sheffield, U.K.

Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected. – Steve Jobs

I watched Steve Jobs again yesterday, a biopic about the mercurial co-founder of Apple and his uncompromising approach to products.

Was he a visionary or was he so myopic that he created a “reality distortion field” and was eventually just lucky that magic happened?

The tension between his way of thinking and other ways of thinking is shown by the confrontations with his co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Jobs wanted end-to-end control over his product – everything a customer could do was controlled by him.

Wozniak wanted an open system, one that hobbyists and tinkerers could work with, play with and extend.

Jobs believed he was right – an unshakable faith in his vision.

That failed and failed until the iMac – which brought the company back.

Wozniak maintained the status quo, but innovation slowed down and others caught up, nearly driving Apple into bankruptcy, until Jobs returned.

Jobs was a master showperson – he knew how to work the press and a crowd.

Jobs believed that the interface mattered, what the customer saw and felt was crucial.

Computers had to be friendly, say “Hello!” with a smile.

They also had to be simple – you needed to be able to use them by pointing and pressing.

Jobs was right – his relentless attention to detail, pursuit of visual Zen, and uncompromising approach to product development has created one of the most profitable companies out there.

It has generations of loyal users who will defend it against all comers.

And you have to respect that.

But I am not sure that Jobs really made the world better.

In the biopic he compares the computer to a bicycle for the mind, a device that turns an inefficient organism like a human into the most efficient organism on earth.

But have modern computers really made us more efficient?

Or have they turned into prisons?

I lean towards the latter.

Computing has just as much potential to be a mechanism of control as it is a tool for liberation.

I recommend buying Apple products to old people and people who don’t really use technology because it’s simple and controlled and won’t be a hassle.

Some people, often designers, swear that they only use Apple products because they are the fastest and best – and are willing to pay the price for that power and functionality and don’t mind being locked into an Apple ecosystem.

That’s ok too.

But the majority of people who buy a Windows or Apple machine or are given them by their organisations will experience a lack of freedom and imposition of coercive control – because that’s the way things are.

Corporations have to secure themselves in a dangerous digital world – that’s just the rational thing to do.

Instead of being chained to your machine or desk, you’re now chained to your computer.

Wozniak’s tribe are the truly free people, the ones that can open and play with the technology.

They are the ones that really get the opportunity to get on the road and ride.

And that, in the end, is the single biggest failure of the computing revolution.

A machine with the potential to liberate our minds is now used mostly for shopping and glorified typewriting.

But there is hope – hobbyists and tinkerers and people with an urge for freedom can get what they need from a thriving world of Free Software.

I’m an associate member – there aren’t that many really and the FSF budget is tiny.

It’s a rounding error on Apple’s numbers.

But I would argue that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has done more to really liberate humanity’s potential than any other organisation.

Closed systems make you money.

Open ones change the world.


Karthik Suresh

How To Keep Being The Change


The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution. – Hannah Arendt

What do you think of when you hear the word “radical”?

It brings to mind revolutionaries, change agents, Che Guevara like figures.

But it also relates to the ordinary everyday, and that’s where it’s relevant to our lives.

I learned yesterday, that when you get given more choices you tend to choose less radical options.

That’s an interesting thought.

For example, right now energy prices are high and people are struggling with the costs of paying their bills.

The radical option might be to fund a programme of insulation to help with energy reduction.

A less radical option is to give people money to help with the bills.

They still use the same amount, but it costs a little less.

The radical option of reduction or rationing or prioritisation is avoided because it requires changes in behaviour.

I’m not saying that the radical option is the right answer – just that it’s avoided for as long as possible.

A few weeks back I wrote about knowledge locked in research papers behind paywalls and suggested that research should open access and smartphone friendly.

That’s a radical idea but it’s being done already.

For example, Ephemera is an open access journal that is self published – it’s independent and free.

It’s critical – meaning it questions the status quo – and it’s radical – which means it’s outside the mainstream.

Think of the mainstream like an elephant that plods on – it’s what most people do and think.

Think of the radical like a bee, poking away at the mainstream.

Most of the time, the mainstream ignores the radical.

Often it swats it away.

But every once in a while, the mainstream changes direction, incorporating the ideas of the radical.

The whole move towards sustainability is a story of that change, first started at the fringes and now part of mainstream thought – a story we just can’t ignore as the world heats up around us.

Change, it turns out, happens at the fringes and takes time to filter through to the rest of us.

The trick, or rather the challenge, is being radical enough to propose change, while being effective enough to implement it.


Karthik Suresh

The Challenge With Reading Critically


Sunday, 8.32 pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. – Dante Alighieri

I had nothing to read this weekend so I bought a newspaper.

Not any newspaper, however. I bought one that is bought by people who think they run the country.

Newspapers such as the Daily Mirror plunge into the news and take positions – very clearly defined stances on what is good and bad.

I find myself agreeing with some of their points.

But I also question other points.

For example, the Conservative Party currently has the most diverse election leadership campaign in its history.

This is no accident but a result of actions taken 17 years ago by David Cameron to increase the pipeline of diverse candidates in the Conservative Party.

This does not sway the Mirror’s position – all the candidates are Conservatives and therefore bad for the country.

And so what is someone who is not sure what to think supposed to do?

There are key issues that are dominating the news right now.

How is one supposed to even enter a conversation about them?

Most of us don’t know where to begin.

I saw a social media post that attempted to “discuss” abortion using a systems thinking approach.

There were a range of reactions…

Some that stood out included the thought that any such discussion was rationalist and had embedded within it patriarchal systems of thinking.

Others simply called the framing of the question “evil”.

The papers don’t worry about this kind of thing, they take a position and shout about the reasons why they believe they’re right.

For my own part I recently learned a term that might be helpful.

What we’re trying to avoid is letting politicians take “politically regressive” actions.

Such actions are ones that are opposed to women’s rights, minority rights, universal civil rights, religious freedom, freedom of dissent and universal equality.

That seems like a useful starting point.

In my last post I wrote about exploring strategies and tools for an increasingly complicated one.

The first strategy, then, is to read critically.

Read widely, read what people say, read what others say about what those people say and come to a view that you can hold.

And a good way to do that is to come off your phone and buy a real news paper.


Karthik Suresh

The Difference Between Betting And Investing


Tuesday, 8.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Investing should be more like watching paint dry or watching grass grow. If you want excitement, take $800 and go to Las Vegas. – Paul Samuelson

I gave away much of my library last month and, of the two hundred odd books let loose into the world, a significant number were about investing.

We aren’t taught how to invest when growing up, but we certainly learn how to spend.

The reason I didn’t need to keep those books is because investing is a solved problem – it’s simple to understand but not easy to do.

And I learned that the hard way, trying out every strategy that’s been touted over the last century.

Well, the main ones anyway, which are as follows.

A value based strategy looks for a company that looks underpriced, where it’s total market cap seems low when you look at the financial numbers.

An example might be an oil company that seems to be worth less than the oil it has on the ground.

A buy what you know strategy looks to invest in a field where you have an information advantage – perhaps you work in retail or energy and know what’s coming around the corner and if it’s going to be good or bad news for your industry.

An example might be understanding the way in which commodity prices are going and the impact that’s going to have on your sector.

And then there’s the buy a good story strategy which is where you look around and see what people you know are buying – what’s hot right now?

Apple and the iPhone come to mind, perhaps Tesla these days?

But do these strategies work?

The first doesn’t – computers can analyse the numbers much better than you can and if a company is cheap it’s probably because something is seriously wrong with it.

I lost everything I invested with this strategy.

The second is a good one, you can make a decent return although perhaps not a spectacular one.

The last strategy worked best for me, clawing back some of the losses from the first approach.

But I still lost money overall.

Which is why we come to the fourth strategy – which is to buy everything.

An index tracker doesn’t pick and choose stocks, it just buys the market in proportion to the market cap of individual companies.

This means you end up with more of some and less of others and overall what you get is based on how the global economy works out.

Now people who sell you financial products hate this last strategy – a low cost index tracker doesn’t rake in the high fees that a more active approach can ask for.

Which is why I was concerned recently.

There’s a lot of talk around Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) approaches in companies – many people want investors to only invest in companies that have high ESG ratings.

Of course, that way people who push ESG ratings can make some money, but they don’t mention that.

I’m all for ESG but if you use any kind of strategy to invest you need to realise that you’re looking at the world through a lens – one that makes some things look brighter and other things look worse.

Just because a company scores highly on ESG doesn’t mean it will do well in the market- you’re essentially betting that it will if you build a portfolio around that argument.

Of course a company that works on improving ESG is doing a good thing – as long as it’s really doing something better rather than gaming the system to get a better score.

The big index trackers too some flak recently because they said they wouldn’t change their strategy to target companies that scored highly on ESG.

They said, quite rightly, that this wasn’t the mandate they had to set the funds up in the first place – which was simply to buy the market.

And I think that’s the right strategy – and here’s why.

If companies with good ESG do well then their market valuation will go up – and as a result the index trackers will buy them and they’ll make up a larger portion of their portfolios.

If they do badly, they won’t.

Which goes back to the key point – the lens doesn’t matter.

If you pick a particular point of view you’re taking a bet that that point of view is right.

Buying the market is the only neutral point of view – one that says the market is what the market is.

Your bet might pay off – you may get market beating returns.

But the chances are you won’t – in the long-term it’s really very hard to beat a market tracker.

The best thing to do these days, is to stick your money in an S&P 500 tracker or similar and get on with using your time to do something interesting, like reading a book or making something useful.

Often people aren’t satisfied with that strategy – it seems wrong to do nothing, to sit on your hands, and just put your money in a simple instrument.

But that’s why it’s not easy – we feel like we have to be active – to do something.

Obviously – I’m not giving you investment advice – this is just what I’ve learned and what I do.

And this is why most of those books are now in a second-hand store somewhere.

I did keep John Bogle’s book, The clash of cultures: Investment vs speculation, which talks about these ideas.

Bogle, in case you don’t know, was the creator of the first index fund.

It’s an interesting world at the moment, and things that were certain a year ago look much less certain now.

What strategies and tools are we going to need?

I might explore that over the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

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