Making All The Decisions All The Time


Thursday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The multiverse exists because every choice we make creates a fork in the road, which leads into a parallel world. – Blake Crouch

Real life decision making is hard. The technical term for it is decision making under uncertainty. We don’t know what the future might be but we still need to make a choice right now. Or do we?

Frost wrote about forks in roads and how taking the one less travelled by made all the difference. Choosing one area of study or another. Choosing one college or another, one country or another, one partner or another. Each choice we make opens up some paths and closes others.

One way of making sense of these choices is to draw a decision tree. What are the choices, and what happens if you choose one or the other. The tree and its branches, drawn sideways in the picture above, are possible paths you can traverse. Importantly, they are mutually exclusive, going down one means you forego the other. Each route has an outcome and the idea is that you choose the route with the best outcome, but the outcome that you can expect is a probabilistic combination of all the routes.

Leave the maths to ones side – I did this tree ten years back to choose between staying in a job, starting a business or doing further studies. The modelling didn’t give me an answer – all the options had roughly the same outcomes. So I made a decision with my gut and I haven’t been unhappy with the results. I went for knowledge and somehow knowing why things are the way they are gives you a feeling of equanimity in a complicated and complex world.

The secret to decision making is perhaps not making one. This is called preserving optionality. Keep all the options open for as long as possible. When given a choice between two options go for both. This is something I learned from the small people in the house. One will choose between options – a fearless decision maker. The other will want both options you’ve written down and demand the pen you wrote it with. I look forward to seeing the outcomes from both approaches as they progress in life.

The multiverse has caught the popular imagination – or at least those imaginations that are fired by the world of Marvel. If you say the words “Schrödinger’s cat” to fans of the Big Bang Theory they’ll get what you mean.

What this means for you and me is that everything you want to do is still possible unless you choose to close it down.

Cheers, Karthik

How Do You Build Your Knowledge?


Saturday, 10.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. – Mark Twain

Over 30 years ago I had a class where we were taught how to draw bamboo stalks and leaves using brushes, ink and rice paper. It’s a simple set of strokes that has remained with me ever since.

Why is that? Is it because the actions involved were so pared down to the essentials, so succinct and perfect that they seared themselves into my memory? And why does other stuff take so much more time to understand or do?

Let’s go back to the point about the essentials of something. I’ve spent the last few months reading a lot of papers. Each paper has a lot of padding, stuff that introduces an idea, where it talks about other work, but somewhere in there is a sentence that tells you what the paper is all about – the thing that’s new – the thing that’s novel – the thing that didn’t exist before this work was done.

It like a golden nugget that’s waiting to be found. It’s an idea that, when you discover it, can be connected to other ideas to construct your own body of knowledge. Or more accurately, your graph of knowledge, the set of nodes and links that connects everything you know.

Knowledge then comes down to nodes and links. You have to create nodes and then lay down the links between them. The more links there are and the more you go over each link, the stronger certain connections become, the easier they are to retrieve, and the more important they are in your knowledge structure. If you want to learn or study or research an area you need a way to create nodes and links and a way to go over them again and again.

That’s where tools come in. Tools like notebooks and index cards, computer files and interconnected web pages. You need a way to collect information and connect it with other information. That’s hard to do for starters although the internet is pretty useful at helping with the task. The hard bit comes after – which is remembering how to find the information again.

Of course, it looks like we’ll soon reach a point where we won’t have to remember anything at all. It will all be a search or a query away. When that happens, however, the danger is that by not remembering anything we also know nothing.


Karthik Suresh

Managing a Zettelkasten using LibreOffice Writer or Microsoft Word

A Zettelkasten is a German word meaning slip box, used as a research support tool and made famous by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who created around 90,000 cards to help him with his work. Each card holds a single idea and Luhmann developed a method of numbering notes and cross-referencing that is similar to hypertext today so that collections of cards could help him explore a topic thoroughly.

Modern implementations of a Zettelkasten often use text files to store data and mimic the properties of index cards or slips, arguing that text files are timeless. I have much sympathy with this idea, but recently I’ve taken a look at the Open Document Text (ODT) format, which is used by LibreOffice. ODT is essentially a zipped file containing the content of the document which can be accessed fairly easily. Creating content in LibreOffice has some advantages over text files because you can do things like include images more easily and share the content between systems. You can get the same result with text files, folders of images and links, but it does get a little time consuming – and if you want to spend time writing rather than fiddling with your systems it’s probably better to just get on with the activity of writing rather than building complicated systems. Although the system building is more fun…

Anyway, the question I had was whether you could create a Zettelkasten using LibreOffice Writer (or MS Word if you are so inclined). After some experimentation I came up with an approach that works in Writer fairly well. Set a page format to A5 landscape. Use a heading for each card (pressing Ctrl-2 is a shortcut for heading 2). Make your notes. Press ctrl-enter to insert a page break. Move to the next card. Use a page with heading 1 to create topic sections. Insert a table of contents at the front for easy reference. And for bonus points, highlight specific words that are important and add them to an index that you add to the end of the document so you can quickly find the pages that refer to them. Of course to make that easy, add page numbers and it doesn’t hurt to add a running head.

If this is of interest and you want more details drop a comment and I’ll expand the description.

The reason for this post, however, is that if you search for how to create a Zettelkasten using Microsoft Word or LibreOffice writer on Google you get a number of posts telling you what a Zettelkasten is, and some posts where people ask the question and get told to use text files because they’re better.

Which then raises the question, “What would ChatGPT do?”.

Here’s the answer I got.

How can I create the functions of a Zettelkasten using a single document like a microsoft word or Libreoffice writer file?

Creating a Zettelkasten using a single document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer can be a bit tricky, but it is possible. Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Start by creating a new document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. This document will serve as the foundation for your Zettelkasten.
  2. Begin by creating a table of contents. This will allow you to quickly navigate to different sections of your Zettelkasten. To create a table of contents in Word, go to the References tab and click on Table of Contents. In Writer, go to Insert > Table of Contents.
  3. Divide your document into sections that correspond to specific topics or ideas. Each section should be focused on a single idea, and should contain a brief summary or note about that idea.
  4. Use headers and subheaders to organize your document. Each header should correspond to a major topic, while subheaders can be used to break down those topics into smaller ideas.
  5. Use hyperlinks to connect related ideas within your document. For example, if you mention an idea in one section that is relevant to another section, you can link to that section using a hyperlink.
  6. Consider using tags to categorize your ideas. You can create a list of tags at the beginning or end of your document, and then use those tags to mark relevant sections throughout the document.
  7. Keep your document up-to-date by regularly revisiting and updating your notes. As you learn more about a particular topic or idea, be sure to add those insights to your Zettelkasten.

By following these steps, you can create a functional Zettelkasten using a single document in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. It may take some time to get used to this approach, but with practice, it can be a highly effective way to organize your thoughts and ideas.

I don’t know whether a similar answer is buried somewhere in the 30,800 results on Google – after all we don’t usually go past the first page. Maybe this is entirely new knowledge – a solution to a problem that the AI has worked out which isn’t documented elsewhere in the same way. It does happen to be very close to the approach that I figured might work for me.

That still doesn’t stop it from being totally amazing.

Is there any point in writing any more?

Sunday, 9.13 pm

Sheffield, U.K.

After all, ChatGPT can do it all. It can write a post in the style of someone you want to copy. It can create a coherent and well structured outline of a topic you’re still struggling to get your head around. And it can do it in the time it takes you to make a cup of coffee.

Well, it depends on why you write. And what happens with your writing once you do.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. I started this blog to learn how to write – in particular, how to write in my own voice. That might sound strange – but what it means is that when we first try to write, we use this formal way of putting words down, like there’s a particular way to write that people expect to see. And that ends up with prose that’s no fun to read.

Along the way we read how other people write, and we remember the pieces that talk straight to us. Not pieces that talk to lots of people in vague and general terms, but the ones that take aim directly at us and talk about something we also think is important.

I write because it helps me discover what I think. Until I’ve got the words down, I don’t know what my point of view is on a topic. Ideas and concepts and links appear as the characters form themselves on the page. The act of writing is, for me, an act of thinking.

The world is too complex for your thinking alone to be enough. Lots of people have lots of thoughts, and because we can all write them down and share them now, we’re overwhelmed with words and ideas. And pictures. There are too many pictures. It’s a tsunami of content and our brains are just not designed to cope.

The tools that helped separate the good ideas from the bad ones, like peer review and publication, are straining under the weight of this content. If you’re not part of the academic world you can’t access some of them anyway. Emerging AI tools, however, can go through all the content and bubble up the ideas that are thought of as most important to the surface.

It’s like riding the wave of content in a canoe made of the words and ideas you should pay attention to – the ones that matter most and could be most helpful.

Sitting in that canoe, you can get on with thinking new thoughts that build on the best thoughts that have gone before. Thoughts that aren’t written down yet. Thoughts that are waiting for you to come along and make them real.

Write to think. Write even if no one reads what you write. And most of all, write because you want to.


Karthik Suresh

Writing as a practice


Sunday, 8.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Writing is my love. If you love something, you find a lot of time. I write for two hours a day, usually starting at midnight; at times, I start at 11. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Writing is a process that, according to MIT, has four steps: prewriting; drafting; revising; and editing.

This misses out several important steps including: worrying, obsessing, messing, questioning, procrastinating, avoiding and complaining.

I used to think writing was a linear process. You started at the first word, put down more words, and kept going until you ran out of time.

And then you hit the publish button.

Now I think a little differently, but unpacking exactly how may not be the easiest thing to do. Let’s give it a try anyway by asking some questions.

Who do you write for?

Writing is always done for someone. When you start you often write for yourself – the act of writing is often the way in which you figure out what you think.

Sometimes people write for a specific person. Warren Buffett said that he addressed his annual letters to his sisters to help him remember to keep it accessible and jargon free.

In academic writing you write your thesis for your PhD supervisor and papers for the reviewers.

In journalism, I would guess, you write for your editor.

Somewhere along the way perhaps you get good enough or well-known enough that the gatekeepers are no longer important – and you write for your fans. You start to write the kind of stuff they expect to get from you.

Some writers throw out the rules and write however they want. I recently read an article that was written by two people who wrote separately, commented on each other’s ideas and created something that was presented as a mix of the two. It was interesting, as an idea, but hard to read as a piece of text.

How do you write?

I have always started writing and figured out where I’m going when I reached the end of the piece. That’s the way this post is written and how most of the others on this site were written.

Recently I read a piece on essay writing by Jordan Peterson and it opened my eyes to something that I had never considered before.

Peterson sets out a process to follow that starts with an outline and then goes through multiple drafts and finessing of sentences.

But the most important thing was that he wrote about how to use an outline. Instead of writing an outline and then going on to write the paper as a linear process he described how you should actually go from one to the other and back again. Write your outline, start filling it in and then go back from what you’ve written to the outline – and change it if it makes sense.

This may seem like an obvious and trivial thing to you but it’s actually really quite significant. We think that we make a plan and then go and execute it, put up scaffolding and then put up the building. What Peterson’s process gives you permission to do is alter the plan and move the scaffolding as part of your writing process. Not just permission – it encourages you to go between the two making your outline and text work together and sing.

How do you think?

Peterson’s essay is about the mechanics – about how to create a structure and form your thoughts. But how do you get those thoughts in the first place?

They come from reading and taking notes and reflecting on what you’ve collected – and that means you need tools to do that. Note-taking tools, idea-capturing tools, and concept-writing tools.

There’s an idea called literate programming where you think about what you want to do and put it down in prose and then you write the code that implements what you want.

This could work in writing as well.

Imagine writing down what you’re trying to say as a comment on the page and then writing what you want to say as text on the page. One bit is about the thinking – I’d like to say this thing in this way and connect it to another idea from over there but how do I do that and it’s really quite hard – and the other bit is about the sentence that you’re actually going to include in the paper.

You can use this idea of literate programming to do literate writing – putting comments and content in the same document and extracting the content that will be published while preserving the thinking that went into it – thinking that may contain some of those other elements that you don’t get in the four step writing model.

Why do you write?

The days when you write for money are numbered. AI systems like ChatGPT will read and summarise material better than you will be able to soon. They’re the ultimate research assistant and the cost of what they produce will inevitably trend towards zero – the marginal cost of production.

In the future you will write only because you want to.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

How Do You React To Feedback?


Sunday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. – Bill Gates

I think I’m lucky.

I’ve had the opportunity recently to get feedback on pieces of work, ranging from academic writing to business propositions.

And I have to tell you – it’s been brutal.

I can’t say that’s it’s undeserved, though – I can see the points being made and they are helpful – the point of having a peer review is to make the work better.

And that’s something you don’t get if you write a blog or even a book.

You get indirect feedback by the number of likes or reviews, perhaps even sales.

But you don’t get a clear analysis of whether you made your ideas clear or if you missed something big.

In fact, if you’re a big name author or renowned in your field then you’ll get even less feedback because people will be scared of telling you that something is wrong.

Even my barber asked for feedback the other day – he said that most people will say it’s fine even if they don’t think much of their haircut.

That’s the problem much of the time – you don’t get to learn what others think of your work.

Usually you’re just ignored.

Which is why, even though the feedback I’ve received is negative, I think I’m lucky.

Because I now have a chance to get better.


Karthik Suresh

Practice Vs Method


Saturday, 8.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Practice is everything. This is often misquoted as Practice makes perfect. – Periander

I recently read “Terry Pratchett: A life with footnotes” and then watched Stutz, a conversation between actor Jonah Hill and his therapist, Phil Stutz.

Pratchett had a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease and Stutz has Parkinson’s disease, debilitating conditions that affected their ability to do their work.

Pratchett, despite this, wrote 41 books with ten more in progress crushed under a steamroller when he died. Although some people, who don’t really know what they’re talking about, criticise his work, his books are filled with insights into how people think and act and feel, very real things that matter in the world explored through the use of a fantastical setting.

A post on LinkedIn pointed me to the Stutz documentary, and then thing that really caught my interest was his “unique, visual model of therapy”. That’s in line with the theme of this blog. Stutz uses a number of models, what he calls “tools” and draws them for his patients on index cards. He uses a black pen and his wavering hand and the shaky lines of the drawings he makes are somewhat haunting.

One reason why these two individuals are interesting to me is that they have methods they use – Pratchett’s adult books are unique because he just writes them through – no planning, no corkboards filled with plotlines – no chapters. Just a story that he writes using a Word document filled with, we are told, different fonts and sections. And he’s usually working on a few of these at a time with other works or passages saved in the “pit”. Stutz’s uses index cards and drawings to help patients visualise and remember a particular tool so that they can remember how it works and use it in a situation when needed.

Methods are great – they can be described and written up and published and pointed to as approaches that can be used by anyone. But sometimes it becomes all about the method and people forget that there’s practice involved as well. Methods are like tools, like having a saw or hammer. But there’s a world of difference between my inept handling of a saw and how a joiner uses it to create a piece of furniture. Methods should be seen as a starting point for the development of one’s own practice – not as the end result of the work.

In my area of research – operational research – perhaps that’s why so few methods are used by anyone other than the founders. That’s the case for many tools – unless they are very simple. The extent to which you complicate methods seems to have an inverse relationship with the rate of adoption – that’s obvious really – the harder it is to do something the fewer people will do it.

Does that rarity make it valuable?

It’s hard to tell the difference between something that people don’t do because it’s too hard, even though it has benefits, or because it’s just not worth doing. That judgement has to be made by each individual practitioner, and that’s why practice is the step that comes after the creation of a method.

Practice is the application of method and the refinement of how it’s applied so that it fits you, the practitioner. The constraints you put on yourself affect how you do what you do – from the tools you use to the way in which you produce and share work.

These kinds of ideas are meta concepts – ideas about ideas – so how can we make this practical.

Take the theme of this blog – the idea that making drawings can help you think about situations. That can change the way you see and talk about everything from organisational development to how you interact with your children or process your experiences. But drawing is not a general method. It is, instead, something very specific to the particular situation you find yourself in – something you could call an episode, with a defined beginning and end.

These episodes, defined moments of time, are when you apply your method and practise your practice. When it comes to applying drawing you can do it like Stultz – naming a tool and creating an image that helps you remember it. One example that he uses that I wrote about in a different context is the idea of a string of pearls.

Where am I going with this?

In a blog post like this I can describe the context of the work that I’m trying to do – something about how we can understand situations using visual tools. The detailed description of that approach is what goes into a published paper – these thoughts are the context, the muddling-throughs that happen as we think about ideas and concepts and relate them to each other.

I think it comes down to this.

You try doing something and when it works for you again and again you write down what you did and call it a method. Others then see that method and try it out for themselves. The trick is not to see the method as the end result in itself but as a starting point for your own learning – your own practice – which is how you take something that works in principle and make it work for you in practice in your own unique and valuable way.


Karthik Suresh

Get Your Head Down And Keep Working


Sunday, 8.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way. – Jean Anouilh

Social media is a dangerous place.

In the time-sink sense in my case.

I saw a post about a chap putting a point of view across in a debate and unwisely listened to it. I drew what he looked like as I listened. It’s a perfect likeness – the one on the left – if I say so myself.

I get it, he was putting across a point of view and it was all a show – but the points were wrong in two ways. First, they were obviously wrong and second, they were morally wrong. And yet he had a good, although obvious, next step, and yet the whole thing rankled.

Let me be specific – the debate was about climate change and specifically the UK’s contribution to climate change. The UK’s impact, the speaker said, was around 2% and so it didn’t matter what the country did. The problem was elsewhere.

Of course, if you think about this for a second it cannot possibly be true. The UK is a rich country, each person consumes a lot more than people in other countries, and all that consumption uses resources and energy. Just because that energy isn’t burned in the UK itself and is instead offshored to manufacturing firms in developing countries that doesn’t mean the UK isn’t responsible for the demand that creates those emissions in the first place.

Impact comes from everything you do – both your action and your consumption choices. And it’s right that those that consume the most should make better choices about what they buy – because that demand for better will drive change throughout the system.

I made the mistake of lingering on social media for one minute too long and then saw how our friendly neighbourhood artificial intelligence chatbot is being used to manipulate people. Or more accurately – to try and manipulate people.

Some chap had created a list of prompts you should put to ChatGPT so it would write sales emails on your behalf. This seems like a waste of time – and a waste of intelligence. But if your job is to write email automation campaigns maybe it’s worth seeing if you can outsource it to a machine that will probably do a better job.

The good thing is that the AI tool is probably going to be the thing that fact checks the first guy’s lies but then you’ll also have the AI tools writing a new set of lies – and the battle between participants jockeying for position and power will continue.

I am also, luckily, reading Terry Pratchett’s biography, “A life with footnotes” and the important thing, for this prolific author, was to get into his office and get on with the daily wordcount.

Which is what I should do – get off social media and focus on work.


Karthik Suresh

Developing Knowledge Through Action


They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. – Terry Pratchett

I’ve just finished “The map of knowledge: How classical ideas were lost and found: A history in seven cities” by Violet Moller. It’s a packed read, full of minute detail on how different cultures and their cities contributed the development of knowledge over a few thousand years.

You start to get a sense of the immense role chance plays in the fortunes of people when you read a good historical treatment.

Greek knowledge, for example, pioneered the use of observation as a way to understand the world around us.

Its value, however, was lost to Europe for centuries, but preserved in the cultures of the Middle East until they were rediscovered.

There’s this thing that happens with knowledge – first it’s fresh and new in the minds of people and then those minds, over generations, develop a sort of inertia – they start to become fossilised in the old knowledge they have rather than being open to new knowledge.

In my culture, for example, ancient verses have been memorised and passed down over centuries, as perfect as they were when created. Elaborate mnemonic techniques were used to ensure that they stayed that way.

One has to ask whether the effort of keeping that knowledge alive was too much to also create new knowledge.

The invention of the printing press allowed knowledge to race ahead and those cultures with access to this technology had citizens who were able to communicate and learn and collaborate and coordinate and organise – and create technologies and global empires.

The same technologies allowed knowledge of principles like liberty and equality to be used by those without the early advantage to learn and develop and free themselves.

Societies that actively curtail knowledge and prevent sections of their people from getting to them – which we see happening even now – are never going to be strong, never regain the preeminence they once had on the back of the knowledge they held at that time.

But there’s another phenomenon we have now – one where knowledge is created for the sake of creating knowledge – and that’s an interesting new problem.

The knowledge production industry has created a monster of its own – a world where so many papers are published that it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not.

In the city I live in there are statues showing people working with molten metal, holding crucibles and pouring them into moulds.

It’s hard to think of an action with so many consequences if you get things wrong – the modern health and safety system arose out of problems resulting from industrialisation and the impact on health.

But at that point when molten metal is being poured you have something happening that is unambiguously real – there’s action taking place that has purpose and will result in a thing you can touch.

That kind of action demands real knowledge – not the pufferies of publication metrics, but something that you can actually use.

If the idea of knowledge started with observation the future of knowledge may rest with action.


Karthik Suresh

Walk Along A Road And Then Magic Happens


Friday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If the scholar feels that he must know everything about any topic, he is in trouble – and will not publish with a clear conscience. – Kenneth L. Pike

We are lucky enough to live in an area that has woods close by, ones that we don’t walk enough in.

But when we do go with friends we walk and talk and make plans.

One of those plans came a bit closer as a paper I worked on made its way through the first set of hurdles at a journal and is waiting to be peer-reviewed.

I’ve learned a few things along the way.

1. Understand the conventions of your genre

Academic writing is very focused, You write for a community that has worked to define its space and place and has a literature and set of ideas that give the community a foundation.

If you want to publish in a journal that serves that community you need to learn what they’re looking for and the kind of work that they will recognise. One way of doing this is to make sure there are plenty of references to earlier articles from the journal you are targeting.

It’s a lot like book publishing – you need to write for a genre – choose whether you’re doing crime, business or romance.

Mixing genres just gets people confused.

2. Take time to construct sentences and paragraphs that work

Writing is about creating sentences, a run of words that means something to the reader.

It’s very easy to create confusing sentences filled with jargon. Sometimes the jargon is actually a very precise way of saying something important, but all too often it masks a lack of real understanding of the subject.

Putting sentences together to create a coherent paragraph is much harder than it seems. You have to work and rework your sentences, pushing, teasing, moulding, cutting, massaging them until they fit together and say something sensible.

3. Abandon your work and press send

Paul Valéry wrote that art is not finished but abandoned. You will never be happy with your work, it’s never completely there, every idea and every thought perfectly captured in prose.

But when you’re done and it’s been read by your colleagues it’s time to send it into the world and see what happens.

It may come back with a demand for corrections, attract criticism, even rejected. It may take years to find it a home.

While you’re waiting there’s time to take another walk, and start thinking about the next paper, the next work of art.


Karthik Suresh

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