Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Problem-solving approaches: clock-fixing vs cloud-fixing


“Car breakdown? Internet not working? Boss or spouse upset? Garbage everywhere? Long commute times? Corruption? Poverty?” How to solve it? Thus begins the blog I wrote six years ago titled “Four approaches to problem solving”. Today, we could add Covid to the list of problems. The four approaches presented in the blog are system-centric, problem-centric, solution-centric, and solver-centric. Which approach is applicable in which context? I suggested that as the social complexity of the problem increases, the role of solution-centric and solver-centric approaches increases. Recently, I came across a framework that sheds some light on this hypothesis. It involves understanding the difference between clock-fixing and cloud-fixing. Before understanding the fixing part, let’s understand what the analogies of clock and cloud mean.

Dividing the world between clocks and clouds is attributed to Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, who wrote the article “On clocks and clouds” in 1966. Clocks are predictable while clouds are unpredictable. When a clock malfunctions it is possible to dismantle it into smaller parts, diagnose the problem, replace the malfunctioning parts, and put it all back. In contrast, if a cloud doesn’t give enough rainwater, we don’t know how to fix it – at least not yet.

As a system, a cloud is considered more complex than a clock2. What makes a cloud more complex than a clock? One characteristic could be its degree of openness. A clock is a relatively closed system i.e. its behaviour doesn’t depend much on the environment while a cloud is a relatively open system i.e. its shape and content may be undergoing continuous change due to the interaction with the surrounding environment. A few more properties of complex systems are Non-linearity (Can a small change cause disproportionately big impact?), Emergence (e.g. a cloud can suddenly turn into a tornado but a clock can’t transform itself spontaneously). There is no precise definition of a complex system but we can get some idea by contrasting clocks and clouds (see complex system page from Wikipedia for more details). Could this distinction between cloud vs clock or clock-ness vs cloud-ness of the problem help us decide on the approach of problem-solving?

When a person undergoes hip-replacement surgery, the process looks closer to clock-fixing. A part of the hip-bone gets replaced and the patient is able to walk again with a high probability. However, when a depression patient undergoes a psychotherapy session, it looks closer to cloud-fixing. You don’t know how many sessions he might need and even after that, it may not work. When a few second long video goes viral on the Internet and mobilizes huge crowds across multiple cities into protests, it certainly looks closer to clouds turning into a tornado. When someone says I want to control thoughts through a brain-machine interface, doubts get raised as to whether a clock-fixing approach is being applied to a cloud-like system2.

Instead of putting each problem into a clock vs cloud bucket, how about if we look at different dimensions of the problem and solve it using an appropriate approach? Let’s take Covid-19 as an example. One could just take maximizing sanitizer usage as a goal, especially in shops and malls. And then apply a system-centric approach, break-down the process of entering a shop, and introduce a mandatory step of using sanitizer at the entry point. Alternately, one could apply the problem-centric approach, do the causal analysis, work towards the Covid vaccine, or in the interim find drugs with sufficient efficacy. Causal analysis can also be carried out through computer simulations of networks and infer probabilities of various causes in a regional cluster. 

We could move closer to cloud-like dimensions and ask questions like, “Why is certain population not even susceptible to Covid despite exposure?” And then one could look at bright spots “people who are tested negative despite sustained Covid exposure” and see if that data gives any clues. Finally, we could just look at the depression wave that is coming as a side-effect of the pandemic. And look at psychotherapeutic or introspective approaches. This is where the dimension gets closest to the cloud. Awareness of the nature of the problem may help us in predicting the chance of success.

In short, we saw that knowing the nature of the challenge – whether it is closer to a clock or a cloud, may help us follow an appropriate approach in creating the response. Alternately, we could look at the clock-like or cloud-like dimension of a challenge and try to respond appropriately.


1. This analogy has been used by others to differentiate reductive vs non-reductive approaches of analyzing and fixing systems. For example, see Robert Sapolsky, Stanford professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery use this analogy in his May 19, 2010 lecture “21. Chaos and reductionism” at around 44:18.

2. Karl Friston, Professor of computational neuroscience at University College London, compares brain-computer interfacing to solve psychopathic problems to satellites perturbing weather and changing it meaningfully in the interview “Karl Friston: Neuroscience and the free energy principle: AI podcast #99 with Lex Fridman” at 39:12.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Why does U G Krishnamurti ask, “Is there such a thing as enlightenment at all?”

U. G. Krishnamurti (1918-2007) was an author and a spiritual teacher. I recently translated one his interviews titled “U. G. Krishnamurti: Mystique of enlightenment – Part-1” by Jeffrey Mishlove to Marathi (available here). What appealed to me most about this interview is the intensity with which UG asks the question, “Is there such a thing as enlightenment at all?” (6:04) The question and the intensity reverberate throughout the interview. In this article, I would like to explore why UG might be questioning enlightenment in the interview. I have put UG’s words in quotes along with timestamps in the interview.

We have tremendous faith in thought as an instrument: “It (thought) is a very powerful instrument. That instrument has helped us achieve whatever we have achieved so far.” (21:50) This is not difficult to see. The scientific and technological progress of the last few centuries is evident. We believe thought can help us solve problems related to machines, medicine, and mind. And we extend our faith in the instrument to achieve a state of mind called bliss or enlightenment. We also have tremendous faith in the teachers who claim to have achieved such a state. UG is asking – Could this faith be misplaced? 

There is no such thing as understanding: UG says that our understanding is a result of the knowledge-experience vicious cycle. “We accept that knowledge is necessary for us to experience and the experience strengthens the knowledge.” (14:30) “So this vicious cycle goes on and on.” (14:20) Using the knowledge we feel we understand the world including the living organism. For example, we measure parameters like body temperature, blood pressure, EEG, MRI, etc. and claim that we understand the body. “So you are trying to use that knowledge and experience what you call a living being.” (11:52). While this understanding may help in certain diagnoses, it could never be complete. Even the experience of enlightenment is "a petty little thought induced experience" (18:50). "Without knowledge, you have no way of experiencing anything at all." (14:00) And hence UG is saying that “There is no such thing as (complete) understanding.” (22:44) And, "there is no such thing as enlightenment at all." (16:39). So, are we trapped in perpetual incomplete understanding? Isn’t there a way out?

There is no way out (14:52):  “We are trapped and the very demand to get out of the trap is really the problem.” (16:13) Thought maybe useful in solving problems related to machines – clocks, cars, and computers. But thought is not helpful in solving the “lack of happiness” kind of problems. Hence, UG says, “I question the very demand to be enlightened.” (16:39) However, he hints at a possibility that the demand to be enlightened may drop off with the insight of this trap. “So when the understanding dawns on you that that (thought) is not the instrument which will help you understand and solve your problems and there is no other instrument, the demand to solve problems ceases instantly.” (22:27)

For me, “Thought is not the instrument and there is no other instrument,” was the key takeaway. It could be different for you. Hope you watch the interview.

image source: youtube.com

Thursday, June 25, 2020

My 3 takeaways from “Experimentation works” by Stefan Thomke

I have been a fan of both systematic experimentation and Prof. Stefan Thomke for over a decade. Hence, it is not surprising that I enjoyed his recent book “Experimentation works: The surprising power of business experiments”. In this book, Thomke makes some of the core concepts from his earlier book “Experimentation matters” more accessible and brings out the increased scope and scale of disciplined business experimentation in the digital era. I have several takeaways from this book. However, for the sake of creating interest, let me highlight three of them.

Bad vs good experiments:  The book brings out characteristics of what makes a good business experiment. When a CEO of a retail chain J.C. Penney implements a bold plan of revamping the retail stores based on what worked in his earlier stint at Apple, the company is demonstrating HiPPO, a bias for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. That is not even a bad experiment. When you tinker with rewards to see if it increases productivity, it is an example of trial-and-error or an uncontrolled or a bad experiment. Why? This is because you don’t know the counterfactual. i.e. How do you know that productivity would have increased even without the changed reward? Thomke dedicates a chapter “What makes a good business experiment?” to explain this which I found useful. The attributes of a good business experiment include falsifiability of the hypothesis, feasibility, and repeatability of the experiment among others.  

Scale of online experimentation: With the advent of online digital platforms, designing and running randomized control trials became cheap, fast, and scalable. Thomke dedicates three chapters to present various aspects of online, large scale experimentation. One chapter takes a peek into his favorite experimentation organization - Booking.com which runs more than one thousand concurrent tests on its website, servers and apps every single day. When it is designing a “Book” button, it creates two versions one with say, a yellow button, and the other with a blue button, and then it gets tested live with millions of customers. The color that attracts the most bookings gets used. David Vismans, chief product officer, says, “Our customers decide where to take the website, not our managers.” With millions of page hits every day, even a small one percent improvement in conversion can have a big impact on the business. Booking.com is not alone, LinkedIn runs between five hundred and one thousand experiments concurrently through the year. Goole, Amazon, IBM, and even start-ups have been using this approach to experimentation.

Ethical issues in business experimentation: What if you are testing a differential pricing rather than different colors of the button? Could it be unfair to the customers who pay more? While designing experiments, has care been taken to see safety and emotional impact on customers? In other words, experimenters carry ethical responsibility to test new ideas for integrity before running randomized experiments. Hence, some of the leading experimentation organizations are adding ethical guidelines and case studies as part of their employee training. In one chapter, Thomke looks at seven attributes of experimentation culture such as integrity.

One area which I wish the book covered more is – replication crisis. As of today (June 2020), it is a decade long ongoing methodological crisis in which it has been found that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate. It mainly affects social sciences and medicine. Since business experimentation is akin to social science experimentation, I feel it is relevant here.

In the epilogue, Thomke imagines future directions of business experimentation. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), could design, execution and analysis of experiments be automated – outsourced to experiment-bots like chat-bots? What if the business decisions themselves are taken automatically without human intervention? Thomke feels, based on the current research, that some of the required ingredients for this to work exist already today.

The book gives a number of pointers for further study which I find very helpful. I strongly recommend this book to managers who care about innovation and experimentation.

image source: amazon.com

Monday, June 8, 2020

Tap view vs map view of controlling one’s thoughts

“How do I control my thoughts?” That’s one of the commonly asked questions in my mindfulness workshop. The question comes from a deep-rooted belief that I should be able to control life situations which include my thoughts. That comes from the tap view – Once I can find the right tap, I can turn off the flow of unwanted thoughts. It is a matter of finding the right tap. And the hope is that mindfulness would help one discover the tap.

The map view is different. When we navigate our car with the help of a map, we are not trying to control either the flow of traffic or the road crossing pedestrians. We are just trying to navigate our way as smoothly as we can with as little delay as possible. The motivation here is not that of control but more of hassle-free navigation in the given situation.

Which metaphor is more useful for navigating through our life, tap view or map view? It depends on the context. If you are trying to control the output of a plant or trying to discover a drug for a disease, tap view may be helpful. Identifying and optimizing the exact control parameters may increase the plant yield and discovering the right molecule may create an effective drug which in turn would arrest the proliferation of disease. However, when it comes to controlling thoughts, tap view is not helpful, at least not yet. I don’t know of any tap that can switch the flow of thoughts off without harmful side effects. This is where the map view comes handy.
Map view suggests that each of us carries a map of the world in our brain. Using this map, the brain predicts the causes of its sensorium and the consequences of its actions. Map view comes with the following implications:

Map is not territory: Map is a representation of the world. But the map is not the world itself. In fact, a cyclist’s map could look very different from a truck driver’s map. The by-lanes which are most suitable for a cyclist are useless for the truck driver. Map is neither true nor false. It is either useful or not useful. It is useful when it helps you navigate the world. When the prediction of a map fails repeatedly, it needs updating.

No map is final: When can we declare that a map is complete? Never. Map needs constant updating based on the changing situation. When a major event like the COVID pandemic happens, a number of things that used to work before don’t work anymore. For example, you can’t shake hands, can’t go to the office or even stand close to another person. This makes it necessary to update the map. Instead, if we say that the world needs to change and go back to what it was, it may not work. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to change the world. It is just that the world may or may not work according to your map.

Re-routing is important:  When you feel you are stuck, you could re-route the journey. This may mean changing the destination, perhaps go back to where you came from or chill in the same area for some time by parking the car.  Or you could find another route to the same destination. Instead, if we keep cursing the traffic jam or driver’s mistakes, it won’t serve any useful purpose. This recognition is sufficient to reduce the flow of wasteful thoughts. This readiness to re-route any moment is an important aspect of mindfulness.

In short, map view is more helpful than tap view when it comes to the flow of thoughts. Rather than trying to control thoughts like a tap, we can learn to update the map or re-routing the journey. We should also learn to recognize the meaninglessness of cursing the situation or past actions or future accidents.

image source: netclipart.com

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Bright spot diary: A source of ideas during challenging times

“Just surviving!” That’s the typical response I got from friends and family during the current ongoing Covid lockdown. Where does one find a source of creativity during such a gloomy period? In this article, I would like to present one such source which I find useful – bright spot diary. I have been maintaining this diary – more like a list in my diary – for over two years now. Let’s see how it helps me.

What’s a bright spot? It is anything that has (a) worked for me recently, and (b) was unexpected. Let’s look at 2 entries I made in this diary during the Covid period:
1.      Mindfulness webinar – 29 participants – 12-April
2.      Reading small chunks – Laplace approximation – 3-May

Entry no. 1 on 12th April is about the number of people who participated in an open webinar on mindfulness on that day. I didn’t expect so many people would turn up. Entry no. 2 is about a change I made while planning my day. For a while, I was writing in my todo list that I would finish a chapter from a book every day. And every day I would get stuck somewhere and fall short of the target. So one day I decided to allocate only one concept - more like a section – per day. And it worked much better. So I continued that way.

As you may have guessed, bright spots are well suited for asking scaling questions, “Can I do more of it?” Sometimes the answer is “yes”, sometimes “no”. But at least it creates options.

What does it mean for something to have “worked recently”? Well, it could be anything where things are not working out. So if days look boring, a bright spot would mean fun moments *in* the otherwise boring day. If exercise is not happening regularly, then a bright spot would be that situation where you went for a jog or did yoga. In fact, bright spot philosophy says that there is nothing universally dark. In every dark situation, there are bright spots lurking in the darkness.

I first encountered bright spots approach in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. In fact, I wrote my first blog on the topic after reading Switch exactly ten years ago (May 2010). Then I followed the two sources from which Heath brothers borrowed it. One, psychotherapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and two, Positive Deviance approach championed by Jerry Sternin. So in a way, I have been sharpening my “bright spot” lens much before I began to write the diary.

What triggered the writing of bright spot diary for me?  Two years ago, in one of the guest lectures, a student asked me, “When everybody around you keeps pointing at your shortcomings, how does one get motivated?” and I suggested she write a bright spot diary. And then I asked myself, “Why not write one myself?” And that’s how it began. By then my bright spot lens – i.e. ability to notice bright spots in challenging situations had been honed for a number of years. And that brings us to an important aspect of bright spots.

Unlike the name suggests, bright spots are not necessarily very bright and shining and easily noticeable. In fact, they are oftentimes dim flickers in an overall dark and gloomy background. Somebody mentioned in my introduction in a panel discussion that I am an innovation and strategy expert. Wow! Strategy expert? Am I? Could I be? I noted it as a bright spot. And later asked me, “Could I develop this area further?”

Personal examples are always limiting. People say my life has been quite smooth. I never had major challenges. And that’s true. However, I feel that bright spots are present no matter how challenging the situation is. Apparently, people at the receiving end of the suicide hotline are trained to say, “Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to commit suicide? I would like to talk to that part of you.” There is usually a part that doesn’t want to commit suicide otherwise the person wouldn’t have called the hotline number anyway.

I hope you get to try it out and see if it works for you. Best wishes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Improving idea velocity: A webinar May 15, 2020

(Watch the video of the webinar - filesize 54MB)

Improving idea velocity is arguably the most important imperative of the current innovation efforts. In a challenging time like Covid-19, the speed of innovation becomes even more pertinent as we respond to create novel and affordable solutions such as vaccines, ventilators, disinfectants, social distancing interventions, etc. In this webinar, we will step back from covid context and explore ways of improving idea velocity, in general. This webinar is meant for practitioners, educators, students, researchers, and whoever is concerned with the speed of innovation. Familiarity with 8-steps to innovation framework is helpful but not required. To register, please send mail to vinay@catalign.com. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Mindfulness webinar 12th April 2020

Audio of the webinar (MP3, 31MB)

It was a pleasure to facilitate a webinar on mindfulness last Sunday and interact with participants in this corona lockdown period. The topic was "Recognizing wasteful thinking", i.e. chapter 4 of my book "Mindfulness: connecting with the real you." Here are the topics/questions we explored:

00:00:00 Introduction to the webinar
00:01:10 Questions from participants
00:04:35 Wasteful thinking and 3 examples
00:11:39 The clue: observation can stop a movement
00:15:02 Observing the train of thought
00:18:00 Leave it, change it, accept it
00:19:54 Diet of the mind
00:27:24 How to control my thoughts?
00:37:50 Are there stages of maturity?
00:40:15 Is positive thinking helpful?
00:46:22 Would acceptance lead to inaction?
00:54:00 Does closing eyes help?
00:55:15 Is it similar to Karmayoga of Gita?
00:57:19 Relationship to meditation and samadhi state
01:00:31 Teenage interaction - feels challenging
01:07:53 Fear of missing out in corporate world?
01:18:30 3 quick tips

Hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The short film “Being 97”: A humbler version of Katha Upanishad

Katha Upanishad is one of the important Indian scriptures where a boy Nachiketa has a dialogue with death.  The short film “Being 97” also presents a dialogue with death except that the protagonist here is a ninety-seven-year-old former professor of Philosophy, Herbert Fingarette. Unlike Nachiketa, Herbert is not at the doorstep of death such that he can return to life after the dialogue. He is about to step in. Moreover, the dialogue in the short film is humbler in its stance as compared to Katha Upanishad in trying to probe the terrain which lies beyond death. “Being 97” is made by Andrew Hasse, Herbert’s grandson and I am really impressed by the gentleness of his approach in dealing with this delicate subject. Here are my 3 takeaways from the film:

The illusion of understanding: Herbert had been a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara for close to forty years. He had written several books including one on death. I have written a couple of books myself, one as a single author and another as a co-author. I know how effortful the book writing process is. Moreover, you can’t write a book unless you really believe that you understand the topic of your book. Herbert believed that anxiety about death is not rational. And yet, he admits in the film that he was wrong. Whether rational or not he feels anxious about his death. This is not to suggest that Herbert was a poor or phony researcher. On the contrary, it demonstrates how powerful the illusion of understanding is. I look at it as a warning signal to all so-called experts including myself to be a little humble about one’s claims. At ninety-seven, Herbert is able to answer the question, “What’s the point of it all?” with, “I wish I knew”. I really admire his honesty.

Importance of acceptance: One thing the film brings out is the difficulty Herbert faces in doing simple everyday tasks. For example, it shows his inability to wear a shirt himself. There is a caregiver who assists him with his chores. He had been an independent person all his life and it must have been hard to accept that you can’t do these tasks yourself. And yet, that is what Herbert has been learning. To accept the situation as it is, without inner resistance. It is such a powerful lesson. The word “acceptance” is many times misunderstood as akin to doing “silent or passive observation”. I feel the real meaning of acceptance is “inner non-resistance”. It is seeing the futility of the inner voice that says, “This shouldn’t be happening to me. I have been independent all my life. I will fight it out.” This inner voice is typically accompanied by a sustained feeling of frustration and anger. Acceptance is associated with actions in harmony with the situation.

A clue on prototyping death: Problem of death “is not just a theoretical question for me,” says Herbert, “It’s the one thing central to my existence.” If one were to understand death actually, not just theoretically, where would one begin? I feel Herbert gives us a clue, without perhaps being aware of it, when he says, “Half of me is gone and her absence has been a presence.” He is referring to his wife’s death several years earlier and its continued effect. “We were very close. We were married for probably around 70 years,” he says and it feels as though he is half-dead. If it is seen from this perspective, death can be looked upon as dying to things you really consider part of you. These could be – family, friends, possessions – both material and knowledge, status, things you feel you belong to like country, religion, political party, etc.  One’s existence is a continuation of all these things. Sometimes these are collectively referred to as self-image. Now, I can ask simple questions like – Can I die to TV for a day? Or Can I die to my phone for a day? Or can I die to the office for a day? Or can I die to the family by going to a silent retreat alone? These are not theoretical questions. You can actually experiment and test which part of the self-image is really permanent – unshakable. The boundary of the self-image can get pushed when you experiment with something like a religion which one has inherited from generations and carried for several decades. I found these experiments useful and insightful. Perhaps you may find them useful too.

Herbert passed away shortly after the film was made in late 2018. And what a beautiful piece of art the grandfather-grandson duo created! Kudos to Herbert and Andrew!


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ajanh Chamras on learnings from monkhood, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Taoism

Ajahn Chamras interview (19 minutes, 10MB, MP3)

Recently, I got an opportunity to meet Ajanh Chamras at Chestnut Hill Eco Resort near Hat Yai, a beautiful place tucked in the hills in Southern Thailand. He had been associated with the former avatar of the resort called Stream Garden Retreat for close to two decades. We could see his love for the place as he volunteered to show us around. Ajanh Chamras taught psychology at Siam Technology College for several years before becoming a forest monk. After six years in the forest, he became an instructor and facilitator at the Stream Garden Retreat which was a study center based on Jiddu Krishnamurti's teachings. He translated over ten of JK's books into the Thai language. Currently, he is writing a book on the "Taoist approach to health". In this audio interview (19 minutes) Ajanh talks about his learnings from monkhood, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Taoism.

Ajahn Chamras interview (19 minutes, 10MB, MP3)

Highlights from the interview:

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 01:58 What did it mean to be a forest monk? Made friends with nature, listening to melodious song of the stream, birds, mind became captivated b the surroundings
  • 03:41 Did you have a teacher during this time? Yes, Laung Phor Tien, an awareness meditation teacher, he used movement and taught walking meditation, get alms from a nearby village,
  • 04:30 What could be your key learnings from this period? My senses became awakened - not just at the superficial level but also at a subtle level, felt a sense of cleansing by living in nature especially related to my accumulations in my career, being alone with occasional visitors, sense of the depth of peace
  • 05:45 How did you get interested in J. Krishnamurti? Was reading and then started to translate his works
  • 06:10 What aspect of the teaching did you find so interesting? His teaching is about self-awareness, Long Phor Tien teaching was limited because he is not educated, He discovered it through his own practice, It was very simple, folks language, Long Phor Tien would say, "Feel the feet touching the ground, feel the wind, don't let your mind wander, be in the moment". 
  • 07:35 What did Krishnamurti add to this teaching? Took me on the path of psychological investigation
  • 07:44 Can you give an example of it might mean to do a psychological investigation? You question the nature of thought, nature of mind
  • 08:58 What aspect of the nature of the mind is crucial to look at? the thought enters into everything in our mind and creates something artificial and imitate real life, 
  • 10:25 Where would somebody begin to investigate how thought is fooling us? I would start from Long Phor Tien, To be aware, being watchful to the operation of the mind, A phrase from Long Phor Tien is "don't believe in your thought process." 
  • 11:37 How would I find out that it is actually fooling me? Majority of the thought is not coinciding with the actuality, not go along with the actuality, thought affects our health also
  • 12:23 Can you give an example? I get stressed, get tension, from the tension I get a headache and it prevents me from going to sleep, I see the negative aspect of thought. mind uses us and we become a slave to it, we don't think there is another dimension of life and we think that is all to life.
  • 14:15 How did you get interested in Taoism? Taoism works with nature, let nature work its own way, one aspect of Taoism is health that's why my book is "Taoism: an approach to health".
  • 15:01 What's Taoism approach to health? They talk about food, they talk about looking after the energy in our body, practice of movement which accumulates Chi which works its way through the blockage
  • 17:17 Currently what do you do? I teach this to visitors, sometimes we have health seminar.

If you have any questions to Ajanh Chamras, you can reach out to him at chamras536@gmail.com. 

Hope you enjoyed the background music of cicadas and especially the rhythmic singing of big frogs. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Dr. Radhika Herzberger on teaching students to slow down their thinking

I got an opportunity to meet Dr. Radhika Herzberger on the beautiful Rishi Valley School campus last month. Radhika is a writer, educationist, and Indologist. She is a former Director of Rishi Valley Education Centre. She has been teaching culture and history for several years. Radhika is concerned about the anxiety that dominates students’ mind especially due to exam pressure and is currently exploring ways of teaching students to slow down their thinking. In this short conversation, she presents her thoughts on this theme.

You can listen to the interview here (13:30 minutes, MP3 file, 5MB)

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 00:40 What do you mean by slowing down the thinking process? Awareness of “Mind’s eye”, Attention, veiled by conditioning
  • 03:38 Why do you think this is relevant for students?10th class while facing exam and struggling
  • 04:35 Don’t students need a fast mind to solve problems in a shorter time?  The quickness of perception doesn’t have a bearing on the fast mind, In fact, you can see better with a slow mind. That’s why it is called a mind’s eye. Empty drum sounds best.
  • 06:00 Where can interested students start this exercise of mind’s eye? Start by writing down their thoughts for 20 minutes without censoring. Raises awareness of your preoccupations – typically self-condemnation or fantasy. Let the pen write, and you discover about yourself through it. I follow this up with a short film by Prof. Robert Sapolsky called “The best and the worst in you”. Self is not a unified whole. Then students write about people they don’t like.
  • 11:38 Could this exercise be relevant for anybody? Yes.
If you have any questions on this, please feel free to write to Radhika at radhika@rishivalley.org.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

4 attributes of strategic thinking

Strategic thinking has been a side topic for the past decade whenever I taught innovation. However, last year I got an opportunity to study it more during my course at IIM Bangalore on “Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation”. In this article, I would like to present my current view of the 4 attributes of strategic thinking. It’s my way of delayering strategic thinking. To illustrate the attributes I plan to refer to Andrew Grove’s book “Only the paranoid survive”. I found it useful not only because Grove presents many examples where these attributes are exhibited but also because he was vocal about the slippery areas associated with some of these attributes.

The four attributes of strategic thinking I would like to present are challenge clarity, bright spot awareness, metaphoric thinking and hypothesis thinking. Let me try to articulate each one with an example or two.

Challenge clarity: This is arguably the most important attribute of strategic thinking. Here is an example from “Only the paranoid survive” which illustrates what challenge clarity is. By then Intel had been losing money on memories, its core business, for a long time. Andrew Grove writes, “I remember a time in the middle of 1985 when I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. I asked, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memories.’ I stared at him, numb, and said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?’”1

I have been facilitating the exercise of identifying the topmost challenge with many executives for over a decade. And I feel many of them felt uncomfortable or lost during this exercise. We are comfortable articulating a plateful of challenges. But to say one is the most critical needs clarity. And without that clarity strategic decision making is difficult.

Bright spot awareness: By the time Intel management took the decision of exiting its core business of memories, a viable alternative was already present within the company – microprocessors. It was a profitable business and growing but it was not considered of any strategic importance. In this case, “microprocessor business” is referred to as a bright spot – something working in the same context where many other things like memories business are not working.

We have a huge bias for dark spots (things that are not working) and we spend disproportionate energy in removing the dark spots. For example, companies spend a lot of time on exit interviews – to understand why employees are leaving. And in contrast, spend little time doing staying interviews – why employees are staying long years (bright spots). 

In the 1770s Britain lost a jewel in its empire leading to the formation of the United States of America. During this crisis period Britain decided to shift its attention to a bright spot in its empire – a series of victories by a private corporate armed force led by Robert Clive in Bengal, India. It paid handsomely over the next century. Bright spot awareness is counter-intuitive and yet extremely important.

Metaphoric thinking: It is not sufficient to know a challenge and a response. Things need to be sufficiently concrete to give direction to oneself and especially a team. This is where metaphors become important. Andrew Grove tells the story about an executive staff meeting where they were discussing Intel’s new direction as a “microcomputer company”. Their Chairman, Gordon Moore, said, “You know, if we’re really serious about this, half our executive staff had better become software types in five years’ time.” Becoming “software types” was a good metaphor for a company where almost everybody is concerned with hardware.2

Dr. Venkataswamy who founded Aravind Eye Care asked, “How do we deliver eye care with the same efficiency as McDonald's?” And Dr. Kiran Bedi asked, “How do we transform a jail into an Ashram?” Metaphoric thinking plays a crucial role in establishing direction clarity.

Hypothesis thinking: This is perhaps the toughest of the four attributes to master. Andy Grove narrates a story of an exit interview during a podcast discussion. During this exit interview, Steve, a young employee said, “Andy, if I were you, I would take microprocessors seriously. We should learn how to use microprocessors and become an expert.” Andy said, “Sure” and never paid any further attention. In fact, Andy mentions that it was inconceivable to believe Steve. Hypothesis thinking is about treating the input as a hypothesis and not rejecting it outright like Andy. 

In the book “Only the paranoid survive” Andy calls people like Steve Cassandras3. Cassandra was a princess of Troy who foretold the fall of Troy. He mentions that there are Cassandras all around us giving us useful hints about the big changes happening around us. Hypothesis thinking requires a certain quality of listening. It requires being sensitive to receiving inputs contrary to one’s belief. It requires cultivating mindfulness.

Once you begin to treat every suggestion as a hypothesis then the natural next step is experimentation. Andy Grove mentions in the book, “Resolution of strategic dissonance doesn’t come about in the form of figurative light bulb going on. It comes through experimentation.”4

In short the four attributes of strategic thinking we looked at are challenge clarity, bright spot awareness, metaphoric thinking and hypothesis thinking.

References from: Andrew Grove, “Only the paranoid survive”, Currency Doubleday, 1999.
  1. Page 89 (Dialogue with Gordon Moore)
  2. Page 143 (Gordon Moore’s metaphor of ‘software types’)
  3. Page 108-109 (Listening to Cassandras)
  4. Page 129-131 (Experimentation for resolving strategic dissonance)

Friday, January 17, 2020

My 3 takeaways from Karl Friston's "active inference" framework

Seeing ‘What is real?’ is the central aspect of mindfulness and perceptual clarity is an important dimension of it. Hence, it is not surprising that I got attracted to Karl Friston’s “active inference” framework which sheds a fresh light on perceptual processing. Karl Friston, currently at University College London, is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. This body of work – championed by Friston known with various names such as active inference, free energy principle, predictive processing, Bayesian brain hypothesis – has turned the dominant neuroscience view upside down. It proposes, to borrow Andy Clark’s words, that “We are not cognitive couch potatoes idly awaiting the next ‘input’, so much as proactive predictavores – nature’s own guessing machines forever trying to stay one step ahead by surfing the incoming waves of sensory stimulation.”1

I must admit that I haven’t looked at the mathematical formulation of “active inference” in detail yet. And I hope to do so in the future. However, there are sufficient non-mathematical articles by Friston & others available for us to get a gist of the concept. Please see the endnotes for further reading.

Here are my 3 takeaways from the “active inference” framework.

1. Perception is primarily a prediction: According to active-inference framework, the brain infers the causes of the sensory input. This predictive information flows top-down and meets the sensory data coming from bottom-up. What flows up are prediction errors. Based on the perceived reliability of the prediction errors, the prediction gets refined and/or the prediction errors get suppressed. In short, perceptual processing involves precision weighted prediction error minimization. Friston says, “Our percepts are ‘fantasies’ generated by the brain to explain our sensations. Quite literally, the brain is a ‘fantastic’ organ.”2

2. Perception-action is a unitary process: Is my action, say to lift my foot while walking, a response to the incoming sensory data? No, says Active-inference framework. It says, brain’s top level goal of walking is translated into predicting the position where my foot needs to be to touch the ground. My action of putting the foot forward is a way of testing this prediction. Thus action is just another way of minimizing prediction errors. Friston says, “Action and perception are facets of the same underlying imperative – namely, to minimize hierarchical prediction errors through selective sampling of our sensor inputs.”3 Another way Friston puts it is, “Perception is enslaved by action”.4

3. There is no “one” home: Is there an independent entity or agent or self, doing the thinking, making decisions and taking actions? No, says the active-inference framework. According to Friston, each individual is a model or a hypothesis of what might ‘work’ in its ecological niche.5 The model is unique in that ‘You can only see your own red’6 and is constantly being updated to adapt to the changing environment. However, the model is not independent of its environment. It is engaged in minimizing the surprise by increasing the accuracy of its prediction by selective sampling through appropriate action and also by reducing complexity by simplifying its model.

Then what about the sense of self I carry? According to Friston, self-consciousness is an emergent statistical property just like temperature and pressure.7 Friston calls this view – dual-aspect monism as opposed to Cartesian dualism. Consciousness is an inference process with material properties like mass, position, speed and emergent statistical properties like beliefs and self.8

Friston brings out the essence of active-inference through the following interesting example. He says, “In one sense, these ideas are also your ideas (however latent), because you have to know what you are going to see next before you can confirm it by reading these words – this is the essence of active inference  and how we sample the world to minimize surprise.”9

1.      Andy Clark, “Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action and the embodied self”, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 52.
3.      Same as above (Picard and Friston, Neurology 2014).
7.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
8.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
9.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
Image source: ucl.academia.edu

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

An interview with Swami Chidananda on aspects of J. Krishnamuti’s teachings that informed his journey of self-inquiry

I got an opportunity to catch up with Swami Chidananda at the KFI Study Centre in Valley School, Bangalore last Sunday. The topic was – Aspects of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings that informed my journey of self-inquiry. In the 45 minute interview, Chidananda-ji articulated three phases of his journey of self-inquiry, influence of spiritual teachers like Swami Chinmayananda and Ramana Maharshi before he began to appreciate JK’s teachings, 3 aspects of JK’s teachings (1) throwing light on the structure of self (2) power of seeing and (3) importance of being oneself, how he integrates it into daily life, and finally a few areas where he found JK less precise.

Here are notes from the interview:

00:00 Introduction
01:50 Q: Give us a brief sketch of your journey of self-inquiry
2:05 Drawn to Swami Chinmayananda
6:00 Phase-1: Charmed by Vedanta concepts and Sanskrit Shlokas (verses), joined Chinmay Mission Ashram in 1984,
7:18 Phase-2: Study of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings especially “Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in his own words”, hunt the ego, “Who am I?” inquiry
8:24 Ramana Maharshi as an important bridge between classical Vedanta and JK.
13:50 Phase-3: San Jose – Chinmay Mission Ashram, exposure to JK’s audio/videos/books, Visit Ojai centre.
17:55 Tell us a few aspects of JK’s teachings that influenced you
18:10 Aspect #1: How he threw light onto the structure of self
25:10 Aspect #2: Power of seeing – flame of attention
30:00 Aspect #3: Importance of being oneself – outer lifestyle doesn’t matter - what position you hold, married-not married etc. don’t have any bearing, man’s sorrow is in wanting to become
35:21 How did you integrate it in daily life?
37:20 Two minutes going deep into the structure of thought
38:38 Seated meditation vs observing oneself at unexpected times
40:40 Aspects of JK’s teachings which didn’t appeal as much: statements like faith necessarily breeds violence, all gurus are exploiters which appear exaggerated.