Immersion As A Means Of Sense Making


Wednesday, 8.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Writing is my way of diving deep into an issue. My approach is to watch, read and listen – sometimes for years – in order to grasp the dynamics, resistance and patterns of thought that repeat and impede progress and breakthrough. – Paul Hawken

I’ve been doing a lot of research this year and in the process thinking about how to do research.

There’s a lot of information out there and you can’t tell what’s useful and what isn’t without spending some time going through it all.

Now clearly, you can’t go through it all, there’s just too much, so you have to search, to dig, to find the things that are important.

Search engines can show you some things but then you also need to follow trails, look at what others have read and discussed.

But then you have to work out whether to listen to one person and ignore another. How well do they write, and where are they being published?

If you go for the high impact journals, however, are you cutting yourself off from the information at the edges, the places where often innovation comes from?

The edge, on the other hand, is also where crackpots live, with theories and ideas that are nonsensical.

Once you start looking at things deeply you realise that the further away you are from where the “happenings” are, the less likely it is that you really understand what’s going on.

If you’re reasonably well off you really can’t appreciate what people are going through in a cost of living crisis unless you’ve experienced it before yourself on the way to getting rich.

You really can’t understand how markets function and why prices move the way they do if you haven’t been involved in trading a position.

You can talk about it and you can hold certain beliefs – ones founded in faith in long-dead philosophers – but unless you’re close to where the action is your chances of really getting it are slim.

To really “get” it then, you have to commit – to dive in and immerse yourself in what’s going on.

You’ll never understand anything or master it by watching from a distance.

You have to get involved and do it.

The challenge is that you can’t dive into everything – so you need to pick what you want to do on the basis that you’d be happy spending the rest of your life doing that.


Karthik Suresh

Some Rules For Living


Sunday, 8.15am

Sheffield, U.K.

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

I am reading Jordan B. Peterson’s Beyond order: 12 more rules for life. Peterson is seen as a divisive character, associated with a right-wing ideology or perhaps more accurately, against a left-wing one. The ideas in his book, however, are worth considering. This post picks out three.

1. Find a home for your thinking

Peterson argues that we should respect existing institutions and structures. You may not like what is going on in the world and believe that the structures you see are oppressive ones that are built by men and need to be torn down. Tearing down without a plan for replacement, however, results in chaos.

There’s a great documentary by the BBC called People’s Century that has an episode on the end of colonialism, as European powers withdrew from their former colonies. Some colonies made the transition to self-rule and democracy while others faltered, falling into an endless series of military coups and dictatorships.

What made the difference? The Perivuan economist, Hernando de Soto, argues that democracy is more than just having a vote – it’s about having a system of institutions that have the checks and balances needed to support democratic society. In many countries this means a separation of political power, the judiciary and the military. If you control how the law is made, who can be put in jail and start a war without opposition you are a dangerous person indeed. Read the news to find out what happens when that is the case.

Robust democracies have institutions that support this ability to have checks and balances. Start a business, join a university, work for an NGO – find a home where you can develop your thinking and argue your position. In doing so you will make an impact – one that makes society better as a whole.

2. Have an ending in mind

I have argued in this blog elsewhere about my dislike of goal oriented behaviour – and its related concepts of winning, victory or domination. But having a goal is different from seeking an end, having a destination of some sort. Peterson gives an example of the difference by talking about Harry Potter and the snitch.

In the book you have a game, quidditch, that has rules and goals and players. But there’s also the snitch, a thing that if you catch, you win the game, regardless of what else happens. The snitch operates inside and outside the boundary of the game, it can go anywhere, and in chasing it Harry Potter crashes through the stadium, literally undermining the foundations of the game.

The message here is that getting to the end you want may need you to be willing to change everything around you, including the rules of the game. But how do you do that?

3. Seek the highest god (good)

Peterson draws on myths that show how societies intuited what needed to be done. In Mesopotamia they told the story of Tiamut, the primordial goddess of chaos and Apsu, the eternal father of order, who brought about children who became the elemental gods that formed the world. The children waged war on the father and killed him and the mother, enraged, created demons and monsters to control her children and grandchildren. The other gods called on a young but talented god, Marduk, born with eyes all around his head and the ability to speak magic words to fight and defeat Tiamut and he did, but on condition that he took his place atop the hierarchy of gods.

The highest god, then, or the highest good, came from having the ability to pay attention (the eyes all around the head), the ability to use language effectively (the magic words) and the will to take action to defeat chaos. These three: attention, language, and action are the skills we must develop if we want to achieve our goals and defeat our monsters.


Karthik Suresh

The Art Of Trying Things Out


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.


Karthik Suresh

Just Writing In Contrast To Good Writing


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.


Karthik Suresh

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

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

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