The Art Of Trying Things Out

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Saturday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To be a comedian, you gotta jokesmith, there’s no way around it. – John Leguizamo

A comedian on stage can deliver a fluid, effortless performance – one that makes you wonder what it takes to be so naturally funny.

The show you see, however, is not the one they started with. If you listen to comedians talk about how they developed their material you’ll hear stories about how they tried out jokes in small venues and pubs, refining and reworking their material and keeping the best stuff in – the stuff that you saw in the show.

I attended an academic conference in person for the first time since the pandemic and realised that they offer the same kind of experience to a researcher.

These are places where you can go and try out your material on a community of peers – smart, sharp people with opinions and expertise who will ask questions that test your understanding of your material. It gives you a taste of the feedback you’ll get when you try and get your paper accepted by an editor of a journal.

In my last post I wrote about the importance of rewriting. The conference experience taught me about the importance of feedback – showing your work to people who will give you their honest opinion and reaction.

It can be tough to hear, especially if it’s work that you’ve spent a lot of time developing. But you need to hear it – you want to see what reaction your work gets.

The worst thing is to be ignored. A reaction, good or bad, is information you can work with.

An idea that falls flat, just like a joke, is one you need to rework, retry, or abandon and move on.

The ones you are left with will be all the more powerful as a result.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Just Writing In Contrast To Good Writing

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Sunday, 8.09am

Sheffield, U.K.

Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers. – Isaac Asimov

I have published 1,213 posts with 868,016 words since 2016. This has been a labour of quantity over quality, but it is now time for a change.

My aim with this blog was to practice writing. The way to get better at writing, I believed, was to write. I hoped that by writing every day and making progress towards writing a million words I would develop the skills needed to produce words and find a unique voice that I could use to explore interesting ideas.

In this post I’m going to tell you (briefly) about what I’ve learned so far and what I’m going to try next.

You must get started and produce words

Every writer faces the challenge of the blank page. How do you start your piece? What’s the first sentence? The fear of getting that right can stop you starting at all.

The approach I take is to start with a technique called freewriting. Just start writing – begin with whatever is on your mind. An observation, a worry, thoughts about what you watched last night. Put anything down, even if it’s a rant about how hard it is to get started.

Do this for two or three paragraphs. By the fourth you’ll feel ready to move on to your main post.

Freewriting greases your mental wheels, allowing them to start turning. In order to produce the 868,016 words I published I threw away 588,267 words of freewriting. That was worth it to get started.

You must finish what you’ve started

Once you start writing you need to finish. Anything that slows you down is a problem.

I, like most if not all of you, don’t have time to waste. I decided my posts would be simple – a hand-drawn visual and minimally formatted text that could be produced in a single writing session of an hour or so.

This creates constraints that you need to work within. 1,000+ words posts are too hard. 300-600 words are a nice, easy length. The key is getting done and publishing the piece.

Having a plan can help

It’s easier to write when you have some idea of how your post fits into a larger plan. Creating an outline for a book project, for example, helps you pull out key themes and an outline structure that can make it easier to write. If, when you sit down at your desk, you already have a topic in mind it’s easier to get on with the task of creating the words you need.

Prepare for bumps on the road

Over the last couple of years, in 2021 and 2022, I have struggled with figuring out what I should do. Should I work on images? Complete book projects? Keep writing about concepts or models?

In 2022 I have published much less. August 2022 is the first month in five years when I haven’t published a single post. So is that it then for the blog?

Work on improving quality

If the secret to writing is to write, then the secret to good writing is rewriting.

I’m trying an old school approach to rewriting by first creating a draft in longhand and then typing it up. This sounds like it is going to be slower than just working straight on the computer, but it does force you to rewrite rather than just fiddle with what you’ve already written.

I have already found that this approach creates better quality material when working on my thesis. This post is my first attempt at using the same approach for the blog.

We’ll see how things pan out.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Problem With Perfect But Closed

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Keep Being The Change

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Challenge With Reading Critically

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

The Difference Between Betting And Investing

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is Knowledge Anyway?

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Important Is Winning Anyway?

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

When Do People Think They’ve Been Treated Well?

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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.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

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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