The TALISMAN Heuristic

Thinking about real world problems is impossibly hard. Any story you tell yourself about the world is necessarily an abstraction.

What does the world abstraction mean? The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that “from its roots, abstraction should mean basically “something pulled or drawn away”.” So when you tell yourself a story about the world, you are pulling something, or drawing something away from reality.

What are you drawing away from reality? The parts of reality that seem important, interlinked and informative to you. So for example, when you wonder why the prices of onions are so damn high, you try to “pull” out of our reality those parts that you think will help you explain why the prices are so damn high.

Now, you are the captain of this ship – the one that is about to undertake this intellectual voyage of discovery. You are free to taken on board any parts of reality that seem relevant to you. Unfortunately you cannot take on all of reality, because then, hey, you aren’t pulling or drawing something away from reality. You’re trying to take on all of reality! And that is difficult impossible to do.

So you might choose to take on weather patterns, inflation, and the part of the country that you live in. These might help you arrive at a way to think about this specific real world problem: what is causing the prices of onions to be so high? Could be, you think to yourself, because of unseasonal rains, could be because of high inflation and it could be because you live in a tony part of a town/city that tends to have high prices of vegetables.

Congratulations, you’ve built a mental model! Don’t worry (yet) about whether the model is correct or incorrect. Don’t worry about whether you can gather the data required to test out your model. Don’t worry about whether the model will work next year, or in another part of the country. You’ve fashioned for yourself a story, and the story goes like this: x is seen in the world because of y. Specifically, high onion prices are seen in your world because of the weather, because of inflation and because you live in (say) Pune.

Savor this moment of victory, for we’re about to add in some complications.


The first complication is that you haven’t taken into account everything that influences the prices of onions. Maybe there’s a transporters strike? Maybe there’s been a pest attack on onion crops? Maybe a restaurant in your area has purchased an unusually large quantity of onions just a little before you went out to buy onions? Maybe the vendor was in a bad mood, and is charging you high prices for no good reason?

Some of these questions make sense, others do not. My point is that once you start to think about the problem in greater detail, you might realize that there are many other things apart from your three factors, that at least have the potential to raise onion prices.

But pah, you say to yourself. By this logic there will be no end to this exercise. You have, you tell yourself, chosen the factors that are likely to explain most of the increase in prices. Sure, you say to yourself, there are other causal factors out there. But these three? These, you aver to yourself, do most of the heavy lifting. And so you have chosen to “pull out of”, or “abstract away from”, reality these three alone.

A good modeler always bears two things in mind, therefore: her skill is about identifying1 the factors that are most important. But a good modeler also always worries about whether she has missed an important factor. A good modeler therefore always walks that painfully thin line between certitude and hubris. And this is hard.


But now we’re faced with a new problem. Of the three factors that we have chosen, which is the most important? Is it all about weather, and not at all about inflation and location? Or is it almost entirely about inflation, and not so much about the other two? Or… you get the drift.

Which, finally, brings us to the point of this essay: The Truth Always Lies Somewhere in the Middle. Corner solutions aren’t impossible – it is certainly possible that it is only the weather that is causing the prices of onions in your neighbourhood to be so damn high. But I would say that it is unlikely. Location almost certainly is an influencing factor. And so also is inflation.

In fact, it’s worse, because for reasons discussed above, the truest shape to surround The Truth is some impossibly complicated polygon. We’ve chosen to abstract away from this polygon only three factors, and so we have the luxury of thinking about where The Truth might lie in this triangle.

But even in this simplified model, we should fight the urge to corner The Truth into a single vertex. It’s almost always more complicated than that.


  1. Is Thai cuisine good or bad?
    If you were to ask me, good! But are there Thai dishes that I don’t like? I should be clear: this is not a dish I have eaten, but I (unfortunately) have a mental bias against even trying this dish. Given what little I know of Thai cuisine, the loss is almost certainly mine – but hey, it is what it is.
    So is Thai cuisine good or bad? If you were to ask me now, after that last paragraph, almost entirely good.
    You see how what I choose to abstract away from reality helps me learn more about where The Truth might lie?
  2. Is Sachin Tendulkar a great batsman?
    In my opinion, almost definitely so. Now, I’m a Sachin acolyte. But even I, a rabid Sachin fan if ever there was one, know about his fourth innings average. I know that McGrath got the better of him in ’99 and (sigh) ’03. And so on and so forth. So on the Great-Not Great spectrum, I would place him very very close to the Great end of the spectrum.

Reasonable people can and should disagree about where on the spectrum The Truth lies. But a discussion becomes impossible, and therefore counterproductive, if you insist on clinging to just one tiny little dot in reality called Great (or Not Great).

This applies to economic models, political leaders, vaccination policies, American Presidents – and Thai cuisine and Sachin’s greatness, and everything else besides.

The Truth is mostly unknowable (and that is bad enough). But for us to have the hubris to think that we can pin it down to just one part of a binary is an extremely dangerous thing, and I think we would all do well to try and not fall into that error.


What explains the title of this post?

Well, I have Aadisht to thank for it. He has noticed, as perhaps you have, my tendency to use this phrase quite often in my posts here: The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle. Now, the abbreviation of this phrase doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue easily. TTLSITM isn’t likely to win me any marketing awards, alas.

But consider this magnificent wordplay:

Truth Always Lies Inexorably Somewhere in the Middle of Assertion and Negation

That’s a talisman I’m very happy to claim ownership of!

There just remains the small matter of deciding upon a suitable compensation for Aadisht’s time and expertise. But if you think about it, the idea was mine, and it was just the acronym formation that he contributed.

So between refusing to even acknowledge his contribution and giving him all the credit…

  1. and then verifying – this exercise us economists call econometrics, and we get very excited about it[]

Lists and To-Do’s

Aadisht messaged me with a list of things he wished was taught in schools and colleges (mostly school), and asked me to come up with a list of my own. Which I will, shortly, but I also wanted to talk in today’s post about a larger point about education in our country. Higher education especially, of course, because that is where I work right now.


OK, short rant coming up:

We spend far too much time in teaching, learning, submitting assignments and writing examinations in college, without actually doing anything. That dulls the mind, captures all of us in a mindless routine that is exhausting, and we end up wasting the most precious years of a student’s life. It’s actually worse than that, because it’s not a mindless routine, it’s a mindless race. You don’t just have to do a whole series of mindless things, you must be seen as being better at it then everybody else.

For example, you having attended classes ain’t enough. You must be seen as having attended more classes than everybody else. Ditto for marks. Ditto for participation in college fests. And on and on and on. But I’ll build on this rant on another day.

First the explanation about listening vs doing, then a potential cure, and then the list.


Explanation:

Consider the program that I am in charge of at the Gokhale Institute. We have about 6-7 courses on offer every semester, and the way the programme is structured, all are currently compulsory. If you assume that each course runs for 40 hours – which it does in non-covid years – we’re looking at around 250 hours of classroom teaching every year. A typical semester lasts for about four months, out of which you need to discount about three-four weeks for holidays, college fests, internal examinations and so on. So about three months (12 weeks) of classroom teaching, into which must be shoehorned 250 hours of teaching.

That is not too bad in terms of time per week, especially considering the fact that we have lectures on Saturday as well. There’s a separate argument to be made about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does mean that the number of lectures per day averages out to be around 4.

More than the quantity though, it is the sameness of the day that worries me. All classes are the same. The professor talks, the students listen, and there’s some questions. Learning isn’t by doing, in other words, it is by listening.

There isn’t anything to do. Yes, there is the odd in class assignment, activity and what not – but honestly, most courses will involve at least 80% of the prof talking and students listening. And passive listening – my opinion – can only take you so far. In fact, back when I was a student, I didn’t do so well with passive listening. I still don’t do well with passive listening, which is why this last year has been so horrible for me. Attending a call with nothing to see or do except stare at circles that symbolize names is my ultimate nightmare – and I can’t for the life of imagine how students have been doing it day in and day out. (They haven’t, of course. Attendance rates have been plummeting in all courses across all colleges this past year, one way or the other. And that’s not such a bad thing, for a variety of reasons.)

But that’s the explanation part of this post: we focus far too much in our colleges in this country on listlessly listening, and there’s nothing to do.


Now for the (potential) cure.

These past few weeks, two of my BSc students worked with me on a paper that I and a colleague are writing on health in India. Forget the two students, my colleague and I have learnt more about microeconomics than we did in years of teaching the stuff. By extension, I cannot begin to imagine how much the students learnt about research, theory, its application, the nuances of theory and the benefit of working in groups.

Two other students worked with me on writing articles about the budget. Let me be clear, I did not foist this work upon them. Writing articles about the budget is a cottage industry that nobody ought to be a part of more than a couple of times – but if you’re doing it for the first two or three times, it can be a lot of fun. Again, in their case, I’m sure they learnt a lot more from doing the research to write these articles than they would have in class. The point I am making is that doing work when you have skin in the game teaches you far more than passive listening ever will.

There are other BSc students involved in building out workshops, launching podcasts, helping out with background research for tie-ups with other universities and a lot else besides. But the point behind all of them remains the same: my experiment this year is in trying to see if we can turn college inside out.

Throw students in at the deep end of the pool and ask them to do stuff. When they find out that in order to do stuff they need to know “x”, they now have an immediate, urgent desire to know “x”. And then there’s a point to attending classes that teach “x”!

So, in a not at all hypothetical example, a student is helping me write out a process document for the BSc programme. She has realized that building Gantt charts in Excel actually isn’t simple at all. What if she now attends an Excel session that teaches her about filters, tables and building out charts in Excel? As opposed to a semester in which she learns about Excel in the manner in which it would usually take place in a college. In which case is she going to be hungrier to learn?

We will teach you this, and this will turn out to be useful in life later, just you wait and see. (A)

Or.

Here’s what you have to do. Can’t do it because you don’t have the requisite skill? Cool, here’s the class on acquiring that skill. (B)

Colleges are all about approach A, and they need to be about approach B.

That’s the potential cure, and I’m trying to work on this approach in this semester.

It doesn’t scale, that’s the problem. At any rate, it hasn’t scaled so far. But I’ll keep you posted, and as always, suggestions welcome.


And with all of that said, my list:

  1. Disassemble and reassemble the following:
    1. The door to a classroom
    2. A switchboard in your classroom
    3. The clutchplate assembly on a bike
    4. Note that each of these are to be done with proper, capable supervision, and each being perhaps a three person job. While these are being done, conversations about typical pay, spare parts costs, typical expenses, commute, educational requirements, on the job training recommended. This point is applicable to everything else that follows on this list.
    5. Then have classes about division of labor, inequality, growth, specialization, pricing, sociology, calculus and statistics.
  2. Tend to the following:
    1. A kitchen garden plot in college.
    2. A butterfly garden plot in college
    3. A herb garden at home
    4. Develop and tend to (and that means everything, down to selling it yourself) a vermicomposting pit in college
    5. Then have classes about agriculture, resource management, pricing, government intervention, public economics, sociology, environment, urbanization and the history of the Indian economy.
  3. Learn double-entry bookkeeping and apply it for your own finances. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets.
    1. Then have classes about statistics, finance and accounting.
  4. Build and deploy an expense tracker, with a dashboard. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets
    1. You get the idea by now, surely.
  5. Publish in the public domain. Could be a video, a blogpost, a podcast, a photo-essay. But you don’t get to hide behind submissions to faculty only. All your submissions are mandatorily on public domain, viewable to everybody. Non-negotiable rule. Of course, by extension, this rule applies to faculty. All of our question papers and assignments to be put up for public scrutiny too!
  6. Write. Write every single day. You don’t get better at writing without writing every single day. Trust me.
  7. Ditto for reading.
  8. But also learn to take the odd day off every week, and do nothing. Including unlocking your phone. I’m a hypocrite, because I haven’t been able to do this even once in the last five years. I’m talking about not unlocking the phone, to be clear. I’ve taken plenty of days off.

What’s your list?

Tech: Links for 29th October, 2019

  1. Aadisht writes on his blog about a podcast he listened to recently, about journaling. Worth reading, and maybe listen to the podcast too? I haven’t.
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  2. I used this service for a long time, and did daily journaling fairly regularly for a period of about three, maybe four years. But OhLife wasn’t financially viable, and since then, I just haven’t been able to get into the habit again. It was a very simple service – every night, at 8.30, they’d send you an email, asking you to log your entry, and over time, they’d show you what you’d written a week, month or year ago. Haven’t found anything as good, or as simple, since.
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  3. Tim Ferriss explains his morning routine when it comes to journaling, and explains its importance.
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  4. Zapier lists out ten journaling apps (I don’t have a clear favorite…)…
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  5. As does Lifehacker.

Links for 6th June, 2019

  1. “That night, after singing in the Rose Garden, Nelson went to sleep with his wife, Connie, in the Lincoln Bedroom. Then one of the president’s sons knocked on his door.“Chip Carter took me down into the bottom of the White House, where the bowling alley is,” Nelson says. Then they went up to the roof and smoked a joint. Nelson remembers Carter explaining the surrounding view — the Washington Monument, the string of lights on Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s really pretty nice up there,” Nelson says.”
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    I found it hard to extract an excerpt from this article, because it is (all of it) entirely readable, multiple times. There’s information about music, weed, economics, sustainability, mortality, longevity and so much more!
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  2. “Graham Fagg, the British miner who punched through to the French side and became the face of continental connection, on Friday told French news agency AFP that he was now a Brexit supporter. “I worked on the Channel Tunnel and did the breakthrough, but I actually voted for Brexit,” the 70-year-old said. “I don’t see that as incompatible.”Fagg said he supported joining the European Economic Community — the forerunner to the EU — in a 1975 referendum, but did not realize it would become a political union.”We voted for a trade deal,” he explained. “I can’t remember anybody ever saying to me, ‘we’re going to turn it into a federal Europe. We’re going to set all the rules and you’ve got to obey them’.””
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    A short, but very readable article about the Chunnel – I didn’t know the history was as long as all that. I also found the Thomas The Train picture quite poignant.
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  3. “The consistent critic of anarchism must, however, attack with equal force all of those who suppose that large groups will whenever the need arises voluntarily organize a pressure group to deal with the state, or a labor union to deal with an employer. Bentley, Truman, Commons, Latham, and many of the pluralist and corporatist thinkers are fully as guilty of the “anarchistic fallacy” as the anarchists themselves. The anarchists supposed that the need or incentive for organized or coordinated cooperation after the state was overthrown would ensure that the necessary organization and group action would be forthcoming. Is the view that workers will voluntarily support a trade union, and that any large group will organize a pressure-group lobby to ensure that its interests are protected by the government, any more plausible?”
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    Aadisht Khanna reviews “A Theory of Collective Action”. This, I should confess, is a book I started but have (at least for now) given up on. It is not an easy read. But reading Aadisht’s review, this excerpt caught my eye – it is the strongest argument I have seen to make me want to vote.
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  4. “And so Thibaw wasted away in Ratnagiri, “a very unpleasant place to live in”, he wrote, full of “snakes and scorpions”. His expenses—much of it religious—led to endless debt, even as he petitioned the British for the return of valuables he had entrusted to them when surrendering his former capital (including a celebrated ruby, never seen since). His wife was initially resolute: She smelt conspiracy everywhere, Shah notes, and taught her daughters to cook, certain that they would be poisoned otherwise. But, by 1900, bogged down by their fall, she was in the grip of depression. Denied regular social contact, and policed and watched, their daughters too grew up lonely—the princess who in 1944 gave mangoes to her visitor began an affair with their Maharashtrian gatekeeper, her love child later marrying the family’s dog-walker. This granddaughter of the last king of Burma would one day transform herself from TuTu to Baisubai, selling paper decorations in the local market.”
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    Do you follow Manu Pillai on Twitter? Do you read his columns in Livemint? Have you read his books? Get started right away!
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  5. “The results of this survey have not been officially released. However, the leaked reports of an historically high unemployment rate and the subsequent resignation of two members of the National Statistical Commission (NSC), who were involved with the PLFS, created a furore and heightened the politicisation of unemployment. The Opposition used this as an opportunity to malign the government, while the government representatives at NITI Aayog resorted to the view that the survey results have not been reviewed by experts, and therefore the report was not deemed reliable enough to be released. The truth of the matter, however, is that there is neither credible evidence of a job crisis in India, nor credible evidence of the absence of it.”
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    There is a problem pertaining to data measurement in India, and it is a big one. This article doesn’t necessarily tell you how to solve that problem (no article can, in the length that articles usually comprise of), but it does help you be aware of what the problem is.