Thinking about things

We were all taught in school that water boil at 100 degrees Celsius? But why does this happen? And what is the difference between evaporation and boiling?

When any substance is heated, its molecules are supplied with kinetic energy. In solids, this energy causes them vibrate in place, whereas in liquids and gases, they are free to move around. When a molecule in a pool of liquid moves fast enough, it breaks free from the pool and escapes away as gas. That is how evaporation occurs. The higher the temperature, the greater the kinetic energy of the liquid molecules and greater the rate of evaporation.

However, another force opposes this tendency for liquids to turn into vapour – atmospheric pressure. Gas molecules from the atmosphere push down on the liquid molecules, keeping them in place and preventing them from turning into water vapour. This dance between heat (measured as temperature), that causes water molecules to evaporate and atmospheric pressure that prevents this from happening continues until a critical point is reached.

That critical point, in the case of water, happens to be 100 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, all the molecules in a pool of water have enough kinetic energy to overcome atmospheric pressure and they vapourize instantly. This point is what we call the boiling point.

Once you understand this, you also know why water boils at lower temperatures in regions of higher altitude. Since the air is thinner as we go higher, the air pressure that keeps water from vapourising is lower.

Such accessible explanations to all manners of scientific phenomena around us are provided by Richard Feynman. Feynman mentions how he likes to think about things and explain them in terms that anybody can understand. Unfortunately, our science textbooks don’t work this way. Even a Wikipedia entry on boiling point uses terms such as vapour pressure and standard boiling point, which causes our interest on the topic to vapourize faster than water at 100 degrees Celsius.

School has filled our heads with facts, but doesn’t teach us to think about things. Learning to do that is up to each one of us.

My way or the highway

‘Let us all follow my plan. Or else, do whatever you want – I don’t care anymore.’

We call such behaviour childish. It stems from being able to see the world in merely two binary shades – my way or NOT my way. Yet, most situations have several shades – not merely two. The more shades you can see, the deeper your understanding of reality.

Having a nuanced perspective comes with learning and experience – that is why a toddler is disappointed when her dad refuses to play with her at 5 AM. She is unable to understand the trade-offs that he has to make to realize her wish.

When you are pissed off about not having your way, have you overlooked some nuance?

Have you put in the work?

Recently, I have started to sit down everyday and either draft two blogposts or spend half an hour trying to do so.

Even when I don’t have ideas or am struggling to express an idea, I hammer away at the keyboard without doing anything else for half an hour. Thereby, I have evolved a system of putting in the work even if inspiration does not show up.

To my great surprise, in most of these sessions, I end up writing two drafts within the half an hour window. If not, I still wrestle with my thoughts and emerge with much greater clarity. Most importantly, since I have put in the work, I can go about the rest of my day without a lingering feeling of guilt.

When the prospect of what we can achieve frightens us, we stop short of putting in the work. Yet, despite that, we somehow expect to realize our true potential. Can there be a surer recipe for suffering?

Status is zero-sum game

As an Indian child, I was taught to respect my books. I was to never place a book on the floor – that is being disrespectful to the book. But isn’t the presence of such a rule being disrespectful to the floor?

I was also taught to never enter a house with footwear – that is being disrespectful. But isn’t such a rule disrespectful to the footwear that wears itself out while protecting our feet?

I was taught to respect my elders – to not argue or answer back to them. You surely see where this is going.

Status cuts both ways. When you choose to elevate somebody or something, you automatically choose to denigrate somebody or something else.

Refresh

When a computer slows down and stutters, we often hit the refresh button (F5 on windows machines). When that doesn’t help, we reboot the system. Even if that doesn’t fix it, we perform a factory reset.

We humans often model our computers and software after ourselves. Several of our daily rituals – making the bed, brushing our teeth, the morning’s coffee and newspaper, taking a shower and starting work at 9 AM are refresh routines that take us back to a familiar state. A good night’s sleep is our equivalent of rebooting a system, while a vacation serves as a factory reset.

Despite our penchant for novelty, familiarity is an unconscious and basic human need. That is why brands are consistent with their fonts, logos, colours and with the experience you have learnt to expect when you buy something they offer.

Familiarity serves as the legs that novelty can stand on.

Deadline propulsion

Have you procrastinated a project for several months only to finish it in a frenzy within one week?

There are months where we get a mere day’s work done, and there are days close to a deadline, when a month’s work gets done. Few things galvanize action like a deadline does.

Why is a deadline so effective?

When we’re too close to a deadline, it morphs into a crisis. It tunnels us and focuses all our attention to shipping our work. A bunch of harmones like adrenalin and cortisol do their bit as well. The result? Hyper-productivity.

Organizations have learnt to hack this only too well. Every work-project has final deadlines – mostly some date that an executive pulls out of thin air. Their teams are now forced to bust their bottoms to meet that deadline. Regular status checks work as mini-deadlines along the way. The project stresses and wears out its members, but once it’s done, everybody gets a burst of satisfaction. And then, the cycle repeats.

Yet, this is artifical. Most deadlines, when exceeded, don’t leave anybody dead. However, they must feel like a life-or-death matter. Or else, they would not work.

How can you better use deadlines to create tension and propel forward motion?

The pseudoscience of cooking rice

How much water do use while cooking rice?

The answer, of course, depends on the type of rice you are using and how you want it to turn out. Nevertheless, the quantity of water has to be optimal. Too little water, and the rice turns out uncooked and hard to bite into. Too much water, and it turns into a slurry mush.

Most people use one of two approaches to get the best results:
A. Measure ratios of rice to water (e.g. 2 cups of water for 1 cup of rice)
B. Ensure that the water level is 1 knuckle above the immersed rice in the vessel (The ‘Indian Grandmother’ technique)

Which of these methods is more scientific? Can you hazard a guess?

To answer that question, let us delve into the science of cooking rice. Rice grains are mostly starch, and for this starch to gelatinize (cook properly) the center of the grain needs to reach 65 degrees Celsius. For this to happen, the water around the rice needs to be at 100 degrees Celsius.

Since water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, rice and water in equal quantity might seem to make sense. However, the catch here is that the water around the rice evaporates as we cook. This water needs to be compensated by adding a little more when we start off, and the crucial factor here is the shape of the vessel we use. A wider vessel loses more water to evaporation than a narrower vessel. Therefore, cooking rice in a pan would require more water.

Once we have understood this, we realize that the water level above the rice turns out to be more crucial than strict ratios. By sticking to ratios, when the quantity of rice is large, one stands the risk of adding too much water, since all that water collects above the rice that settles below. Ergo, rather counter-intuitively, the grandmother’s method of one knuckle higher than the rice level is more scientific than fixed ratios.

The world is too complex for the simple, intuitive heuristics we use to understand it. In this case, a method that intuitively seems more scientific (ratios) turns out to actually be less scientific. The key is to not stop at intuition, but to dig deeper for an explanation.

Good scientific theories are foremost good explanations – not measurements or extrapolations.

Inspiration: Masala Lab

Dancing with risk

Peter Drucker once said ‘All profit is derived from risk’. However, it is just as true that all loss is derived from risk.

By nature, we are risk avoiders. To profit from an endeavour, though, is to learn to dance with risk rather than trying our best to avoid it.

The opposite of deja-vu

Some books change so much with each reading, that you often ask yourself if you’ve really read the book before.

On rereading Animal Farm, I currently have this ‘anti deja-vu’ feeling. Compared to my last reading from 6 years back, I find the book to have much deeper insights on human behaviour.

Why did I miss them earlier?

That very thought stems from an illusion that we have truly understood a book on reading it once. Yet, our ability to learn from a book is limited by our ability to think and reflect upon it. The reason I found the book more insightful after 6 years was because these 6 years have given me a deeper insight into human nature.

We often neglect the role of reflection in learning. In the absence of reflection, there is no learning. The more we learn, the more that learning is reflected back at us.

Beware of unearned wisdom

Carl Jung once quipped, ‘Beware of unearned wisdom’.

In the 21st century, we are flooded with unearned wisdom. Books, podcasts, news articles, videos, and not to mention, blogs are built around sharing their creators’ learning to the rest of the world. As somebody who engages with all these sources, I often feel like I am drinking wisdom through a fire-hose.

Yet, unlike knowledge, wisdom cannot merely be received – it must be embodied. If knowledge resides in our brain, wisdom is embedded in one’s bones and one’s being.

One reason I keep this blog going is to connect the wisdom I receive to anecdotes and observations in my own life. It is my feeble attempt to earn some of the copious wisdom that I receive through my own reading, listening and experiences.

Similar to inherited wealth, one must be wary of wisdom that is inherited. It is only wisdom that is earned that counts.

Clearer statistics

How much better is a vaccine whose efficacy is 90% than one whose efficacy is 70%?

With a 90% effective vaccine, you have a 20% lower chance of contracting a diseases after being exposed to it. Therefore, our intuition tells us that the 90% vaccine is 20 percentage points better. But is there more to it?

Let’s say a disease infects 10% of a population of 1000 population.

Without a vaccine, 100 people would fall sick. With a 70% effective vaccine, merely 30 people would fall sick. With a 90% vaccine, only 10 people would fall sick. A 90% vaccine would leave 3x fewer people sick than a 70% vaccine (30/10) and 10x (100/10) fewer patients than no vaccine at all. A 99% effective vaccine would only have 1 person falling sick – it reduces incidence by a whopping 30x when compared to a 70% vaccine.

The statistical measures that experts use can often fool our intuition. While percentage efficacy maybe a useful metric for an epidemiologist, we perhaps need to translate it into another measure (e.g. times fewer infections) for more common folks to understand their importance.

If the common person doesn’t understand a statistical measure, finding a better depiction is easier than having everybody take a university course.

Inspiration: Akimbo

Alternate between thinking and doing

An open water swimming race has several more dimensions than one held inside a swimming pool.

For one, you don’t have clearly defined lanes to swim between. An open water swimmer is responsible not just to maintain a good pace, but also to stay on course. Straying even a few degrees off-course can cost you big in a long race. To see where you’re going, you need to put your head up and look. However, doing this slows you down – one can swim the fastest by putting one’s head down and powering through, stroke after stroke. Therefore, open water swimmers to strike a delicate balance between speed and orientation.

Every project requires us to balance planning with execution and often alternate between the two. We find it difficult to do this. When we plan, we find it difficult to secure commitment and start executing. And once we are executing, we often don’t stop to check if we are headed in the right direction.

What does your current project feel like? If you’re having too many discussions but not getting anything done, it’s time you put your head down and start executing. If you can’t remember the last time you sat down to figure out where you’re headed, put your head up. You are caught in a swirl of execution.

Inspiration: Leadership is Langauge

How do you evaluate a business?

Every business in this world boils down to a handful of assumptions.

Take any business, and this is going to be true. Apple’s assumption is that people care enough about good design to pay a premium for it. Google rests on the assumption that organizing information is valuable – Google now seeks to capture as much of that value as possible. The convenience store is based on the assumption that people would pay extra to be able to buy a carton of milk and a can of beans in 5 minutes.

If those assumptions aren’t true, those businesses won’t exist.

When investors evaluate any business idea, they are merely questioning the fundamental assumptions that its founders have. The chance that the business would suceed rests squarely on the correctness of those assumptions.

If you wish to build your business acumen, look around you and figure out the fundamental assumptions behind any business you see.

Two sides to tracking

Back in B-school, I was a member of a team that was in charge of coordinating placements for a batch of students.

In our office, we had a simple metric scrawled on a board – the number of students in the batch that have already secured job offers. This number on the board served as our north star. We cheered when it increased and it motivated us to march forward.

The value of tracking progress on a project is obvious as a motivator. And yet, I have seen several teams deliberately refrain from tracking their progress. They prefer to not know where they stand. Why is that so?

The other side of tracking is that it can double up as surveillance. Real-time status updates bestows power on management. It arms them with the data to point fingers – to question the competence and the integrity of certain teams and individuals. It can hang above a team’s head like a sword, robbing their autonomy and preventing them from doing their best work.

When does tracking go from motivating metrics to statistics that surveil?

The difference is enrollment. When a team is enrolled on the journey – when it is allowed to set its own goals and make its own decisions, it also owns the numbers that show up on the board. When these goals and decisions are imposed from ‘above’ the team starts viewing it as a reward or a punishment.

Participation on my college’s placement team was voluntary – we knew what we were signing up for. Do your team members have the same privilege?

How to start big projects

Starting your own business can be an intimidating prospect.

First, you need a suitable business idea and a business plan to back it up. Second, you need somebody to fund your idea. Third, you need to collaborate with other people to realize your plan. Fourth, you need to think what you need to do differently from your competition. Fifth, you need to navigate the relevant rules and regulations to get there.

A list like that often keeps us from getting started. We feel paralyzed. Such projects remains on our to-do list forever, and like tenants that overstay their lease, they refuse to budge.

The antidote here is to pick the smallest part of that project we can do right in this moment and do merely that.

What part of that starting your business can you achieve in this month? You could identify your target audience – the people you wish to serve. If so, what can you do today? Today, you could send out emails and setup meetings with a few prospects. What could you do in this minute? You could make a list of prospects to reach out to later in the day.

Before we start anything at all, we are used to asking ourselves if we have everything we need to finish. Instead, we merely need to ask ourselves if we have enough to get started.

We are paralyzed by uncertainty, and driven by forward motion.

Between a yes and a no

We are open to saying ‘yes’ to most experiences if somebody else puts their hand up.

A study was conducted to ascertain if people would be happier speaking to each other while on their morning’s commute. Well, we all know that few things can be worse than some stranger starting a conversation with you on your morning commute. Our instinctive feeling here is that we would rather like to be left alone. However, our intuition lets us down. The study clearly indicated that people’s mood improved when they spoke with a stranger rather than being left to their own selves.

Strangers look forward to engaging with each other if somebody else asks. But they wouldn’t ask themselves.

Oftentimes, what lies between a yes and a no is for somebody to take the initiative. Whether that is smiling at a stranger walking past or volunteering to lead an initiative, the only thing that stands between you and something you wish to accomplish is the simple act of putting your hand up.

The mood follows action

I usually start my day with a quick yoga session.

This session isn’t always pleasant. My body is built stiffer than an English aristocrat’s upper lip and stretching it is painful – more so early in the morning.

When I wake up, I am often not in the mood to do my yoga routine. However, a couple of asanas in, my mood changes from reluctance to enthusiasm. I go through the rest of the routine without a second thought.

We often fool ourselves into waiting for the right mood to strike. Act first, for it is the action that leads and the mood that follows.

Explore depth rather than breadth

As you read these words, how does your screen make them appear as black marks on a white background. If your monitor has a display resolution of 1920 x 1080, what do those numbers mean?

When you ride a bus or a train, a screen or a recorded voice automatically prompts you when your stop arrives. How does that work? How does the subway car know that it has arrived a few hundred feet below the parliament building?

How does the supermarket know how much bread to stock – which brands, varieties and where to stock them? When 5 tables in a large restaurant order mushroom masala, how does your waiter not mix these orders up? How do you program traffic lights in a junction to go off and on efficiently?

I don’t know the answer to several of those questions, but I am certain that I would enjoy and benefit from exploring each one of them.

When it comes to exploration, breadth is overrated. Depth is neglected, but that is where most of the value lies.

‘Eliminating’ competition

Back in 2015, Tesla pledged that it will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use their technology.

In other words, Tesla’s patents are open and available for other people to copy, in the same manner as open source code. Why would they do that? Isn’t that the anti-thesis of intellectual property rights?

Being profit driven ahead of purpose driven puts you into a zero-sum, winner-take-all thinking mode. If all the profits within an industry were a pie, the profit driven mentality drives one to grab as much of that pie for oneself as possible. To be driven by purpose is to increase the size of that pie.

Say the market for electric vehicles is about $ 50 billion. Profit driven firms seek to corner as much of that market as possible. A firm whose primary purpose is to make e-mobility ubiquitous will work towards growing this market from $50 to $500 billion. Any other company that helps them expand this pie isn’t a rival, but a partner.

In Elon Musk’s words:

‘Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.’

Competition exists only in a zero-sum world motivated by profits. If you’re purpose driven, you can ‘eliminate’ competition by recruiting them as collaborators instead.

All models are wrong

I’ve seen several aficionados of the pure sciences dismiss more humanistic sciences such as economics or behavioural science. More often than not, they miss the point.

A map is a model of the territory. A map is wrong – it doesn’t capture every detail in the territory. Yet, despite their inadequacies, maps help us get around. Every theory we have is a model of how the world works. All those models are wrong – they break down at certain boundaries (even the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics). Yet, some models are useful.

Every map has both a region a shelf-life. A map of a city drafted 100 years ago is useless – the city has moved on. Maps that outline countries remain accurate longer. Longer still are the ones that outline geographical features such as lakes, rivers and mountains.

Most natural sciences are maps with large regions and shelf-lives. They describe systems that move at the slow speed of nature. Therefore, their models are more deterministic. Newton’s laws are universal – they are just as applicable here as they are in the outer edge of the universe, and they were just as applicable soon after the big bang. They are also deterministic – you cannot refute newtonian principles unless you really pick nits.

However, theories that describe human behaviour, like economics or psychology, describe smaller regions and have lower shelf-lives. They apply mostly in a given cultural context, which changes with each hundred kilometers. Their systems also change at the pace of culture – almost every generation or so. Therefore, their models are less deterministic and more probabilistic. Almost every theory in behavioural science, even the most famous ones, face a replication crisis.

These theories are often wrong, but they can also be useful. Behavioural science can give you guidelines on how to streamline road traffic, help people save more money and convince a state’s population to get their Covid-19 vaccine shots on time. Good luck trying to achieve those things with newtonian physics.

All models are wrong, but some models are useful – it is important to balance this wrongness with use. The higher its use, the more wrongness we must learn to tolerate.