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Saturday, July 4, 2015

First principles and pigeon religions

As part of an experiment, several pigeons in cages were provided food at random times of the day for several weeks. After a few days, the pigeons started repeating the activities they happened to be doing when they received food in the previous days thinking that it was those actions that led to them getting food. This is called a pigeon religion.

This is how superstitions come to life. When we do not have a logical reason to describe cause and effect, we begin to attribute the cause to anything that seems remotely plausible. We like to be in control of our outcomes. We like to think we can do things to affect those outcomes. When the outcomes are outside our control, we are helpless and start worrying what might happen. That is when attributing cause helps.

The alternative is hard work and an open mind.

The only way to accurately attribute effect to a cause is by digging deep and understanding precisely how the effect could have come about and then selecting the cause that fits the actuality. This is tedious and tiresome and not necessary most of the time. Because our experience in attributing cause is accurate enough most of the time.

The key skill lies in identifying when this is the case and when it isn't. And when it isn't, there is no alternative but to look at the effect from first principles and deduce the cause.

A lot of organizations are obsessed with metrics and data driven decisions these days, but I make the case here for having a healthy balance of making decisions on data and making decisions on experience.

On a side note, I recently started watching this show called 'Forever' where the protagonist is a cursed man whose curse is immortality - he is cursed to live forever. He helps a detective with her cases, and quite often brings about this distinction of going with experience and going with first principles. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Fault In Our Stars

"Here's the thing about Hazel: Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too. That's what bothers me most, is being another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease. 
I want to leave a mark.
But Van Houten: The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, "They'll remember me now," but (a) they don't remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion.
 We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the ground with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can't stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it's silly and useless - especially useless in my current state - but I am an animal like any other.
Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We're as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we're not likely to do either.
People will say it's sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely.But it's not sad, Van Houten. It's triumphant. It's heroic. Isn't that real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.
The real heroes anyway aren't the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn't actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn't get smallpox.
After my PET scan lit up, I snuck into the ICU and saw her while she was unconscious. I just walked in behind a nurse with a badge and I got to sit next to her for like ten minutes before I got caught. I really thought she was going to die before I could tell her that I was going to die, too. It was brutal: the incessant mechanized haranguing of intensive care. She had this dark cancer water dripping out of her chest. Eyes closed. Intubated. But her hand was still her hand, still warm and the nails painted this almost black dark blue and I just held her hand and tried to imagine the world without us and for about one second I was a good enough person to hope she died so she would never know that I was going, too. But then I wanted more time so we could fall in love. I got my wish, I suppose. I left my scar.
A nurse guy came in and told me I had to leave, that visitors weren't allowed, and I asked if she was doing okay, and the guy said "She's still taking on water." A desert blessing, an ocean curse.
What else? She is so beautiful. You don't get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers."
 - John Green (through the voice of Augustus Waters in The Fault In Our Stars)

And nothing more need be said.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Show is soul's cover-up

"Show is soul's cover-up.
So much bravado. So much posturing. Positioning.
All to distract from the simple fact that you really don't quite know who you are. Or what you're doing. And the last thing you want is for others to know, too.
 So, you put on a show. And it brings in an audience.
But an audience is not a community. Not a business. Nor a tribe. 
An audience stays as long as you perform.
A community stays as long as you serve."
- Jonathan Fields

I have a fairly wide audience, but a small community. It is true of most people. 

As a product, you need a community, not an audience. An audience comes to you only when there is nothing better or cheaper around. And there is always something better or cheaper around. 

So you stop the show. Bring out the soul. And serve.

Progress depends on the unreasonable man

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
- George Bernard Shaw

The most successful innovations, right from Einstein's Theory of Relativity to Tim Berners Lee's World Wide Web, have always come from people exploring ways of making the world behave the way they think it should. 

Reasonable men, as defined by George Bernard Shaw, are the ones that look for a map, figure out what it takes to get to the next destination and then work hard to do that and get there. They are always looking to improve what they have to offer, becoming better at what they know and learning new tools and technologies, hoping to be more valuable in the job market. 

But reasonable men always rely on unreasonable men to hire them. If you're reasonable, you end up adjusting to the way the world works and accepting the status quo. It takes an unreasonable man to question the status quo and possibly create jobs for reasonable men in the process.  

Despite this, being unreasonable, on it's own, is not a virtue. Or the reasonable men would easily learn the tricks of the trade and emulate, as is their strength. It takes a disregard for convention in addition, in order to put the unreasonableness to work. 

For only when you persist in trying to adapt the world to yourself will progress and advancement occur.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

I'm not wearing hockey pads

"There were more copycats today Alfred. This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I said I want to inspire the people of Gotham."
- Bruce Wayne

No two people are alike. We all bring something different to the table. We come with different skill sets, different backgrounds, different world views. Yet, we all tend to see someone be a success and are inspired to do things exactly the way they have done it (or continue to do it).

The take away is more often about how somebody is going about a task and replicating it for doing our own task. Haruki Murakami has run a marathon each year for twenty five years and I'm inspired by him. But I can't possibly follow the same lifestyle or the same routine that he did in order to do something similar. Maybe I don't even have to do something similar.

Inspiration is less about seeing someone perform a feat and wanting to achieve the same end goal. I can be inspired by Steve Jobs to make a dent in the Universe in my own way and not necessarily by shipping elegant products that users fall in love with.

You don't have to do anything remotely related to what your source of inspiration did, but you can still be inspired by them and their actions to change the way you do your own thing.

People of Gotham didn't have to wear a make-shift Batman outfit and attempt to fight criminals. They just had to stop corruption in their own way, probably by not paying a bribe or by not expecting one to do their job. 

Inspiration is not about wanting to have the accolades that someone had, nor about doing things the way someone else would have done. It is about immersing yourself in making a difference. Making a difference the way your source of inspiration did.