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.

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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 - 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. 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.

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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.

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