My Life System #94: Speaking Truth to Power

Many years ago, I was at a meeting in San Francisco with a global investment fund manager. The discussion veered to my views on the Indian political climate and opportunities. I gave a candid view of what I thought, without couching my words in niceties. At the end of the meeting, as I was leaving, the fund manager said to me, “Thanks for your inputs. You have spoken truth to power. We don’t find too many people doing that nowadays.” This was the first time I had heard the phrase “truth to power.” I was curious what it meant and about its origins. My host then explained to me that it was a Quaker leader and meant the act of voicing one’s beliefs to those in positions of power.

Here is a explainer: “The specific phrase speak truth to power is credited to Bayard Rustin in 1942. Rustin was a Black Quaker and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, advocating nonviolent methods in his fight for social justice. In a letter written that year, Rustin stated that “the primary social function of a religious society is to ‘speak the truth to power.’ The truth is that war is wrong.” The phrase was picked up in a 1955 text about pacifist strategies to achieve justice, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, published by a Quaker organization in conjunction with Rustin. The work became a guide for many people organizing against violence during the Cold War.”

Since that day, the phrase “speaking truth to power” has stayed with me. It is what I have always done; I just didn’t have a phrase to describe it. I have always believed in giving candid feedback when asked. I also ask for frank inputs on what I could have done better. This is the only way we can all improve. Speaking the unvarnished truth is something that is happening a lot less in a world where sensitivities on both the right and left of the political spectrum are high. Even in the workplace, we are extra careful not to ruffle feathers. I don’t subscribe to this view. I believe we must speak our mind. In interviews that I do, I do not put any boundaries on the questions I can be asked and neither do I ask for the questions to be sent to me in advance. I speak my mind.

As leaders and even in families, we must learn to speak truth to power. If something is wrong, we must call it out. When I speak in internal meetings and reviews, I do not mince words because that is the culture I want within Netcore. At a review recently, I was quite brutal with a colleague who I thought was going down a wrong path. I wasn’t sure how he would take it, but at the end he appreciated the directness and said he will think deeply about the points I said.

My advice: never hesitate in speaking truth to power. It is always the right thing to do – for yourself and for those being spoken to.

Thinks 1000

Francis Fukuyama: “There are actually several different meanings of liberalism around the world. So in the US, being liberal means you’re left of center. In Europe, it usually means that you’re right of center. In my version of classical liberalism, the most important premise is one about the equality of human dignity: That all human beings have a certain base dignity that needs to be respected. The way you respect it is by giving people rights. A right to speech, to belief, to association, and ultimately to political participation. In a liberal society, you don’t say that there’s one subgroup of humans that has greater status — based on their race, ethnicity, gender and so forth. If you believe in that basic principle of the equality of dignity and the need for a system of law that restricts governments from violating that basic dignity, then you’re a liberal….That set of principles is being challenged on both the right and the left. The people on the right would like to return to a form of nationalism where they can say, you know, Hungarians or Hindus or some other subgroup of human beings, has a special status. And on the left I think it’s more the questioning the basic liberal virtues of tolerance and freedom of speech.”

Leigh Thompson: “Do you look forward to performance reviews? If you’re like many employees, probably not. Too often reviews are, at best, a waste of time—a one-way street in which a boss tells you what you’re doing wrong, with little opportunity to disagree. But take heart: They don’t have to be that way. The best reviews aren’t meant to be monologues but rather dialogues, conversations that both parties learn and grow from, for the good of both the individual and the organization. How can an employee turn a review into something positive? By planning ahead and being strategic in the moment. Here are five tips for doing just that: ask for a face-to-face conversation, schedule strategically, focus on the future, Recast the meeting as a “learning review”, reverse role-play.”

NYTimes: “Mr. Musk, who leads SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter, has become the most dominant player in space as he has steadily amassed power over the strategically significant field of satellite internet. Yet faced with little regulation and oversight, his erratic and personality-driven style has increasingly worried militaries and political leaders around the world, with the tech billionaire sometimes wielding his authority in unpredictable ways. Since 2019, Mr. Musk has sent SpaceX rockets into space nearly every week that deliver dozens of sofa-size satellites into orbit. The satellites communicate with terminals on Earth, so they can beam high-speed internet to nearly every corner of the planet. Today, more than 4,500 Starlink satellites are in the skies, accounting for more than 50 percent of all active satellites. They have already started changing the complexion of the night sky, even before accounting for Mr. Musk’s plans to have as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit in the coming years.”

Oliver Burkeman: “There will always be too much to do, no matter what you do. But the ironic upside of this seemingly dispiriting fact is that you needn’t beat yourself up for failing to do it all, nor keep pressuring yourself to find ways to get on top of it all by means of increasingly extreme multitasking. Instead, you can pour your finite time, energy and attention into a handful of things that truly count. You’ll enjoy things more, into the bargain. My gratifying new ability to “be here now” while running or driving or cooking dinner isn’t the result of having developed any great spiritual prowess. Rather, it’s a matter of realizing I could only ever be here now anyway — so I might as well give up the stressful struggle to pretend otherwise.”

My Life System #93: Travel Tips – 2

 Handy Extras: Other travel essentials I pack for international trips include a power strip (to cater to the ever-growing number of devices needing charge), a compact umbrella, and energy bars. I also carry Girnar Tea premix sachets which need just hot water for a quick Indian masala chai fix.

Comfort Items: For long flights or train rides, I pack items that make for a more comfortable travel. An eye mask is always good to have because it is not always possible to control external lighting conditions. Also keep a Covid-19 face mask – in some parts of the world, it is still needed. I carry my Bose QC45 headset for creating my own private space. I also keep a physical book handy.

Strategic Bookings: My company’s travel desk takes care of all my bookings, but I always guide them regarding flights and hotels based on my research on Google Flights and my knowledge of meeting locations. Once, the travel desk chose a cheaper Airbnb for me, but it was inconveniently located 30 minutes away from the conference venue. The time and hassle spent on commuting negated any savings made on accommodation.

Extra Legroom Seats: As space becomes increasingly premium during travel, especially in Economy class, it may be well worth the investment to secure seats with additional legroom. For any flight that lasts longer than a couple of hours, you’ll appreciate the decision. I make a point of always booking an aisle seat – it offers easier access to the restrooms without the need to disturb co-passengers.

Loyalty Programs: I make it a point to join every available loyalty program since they’re free, and there’s no downside to them. Even if it takes years to reap the benefits, the accumulated points can come in handy.

Travel Apps: I download apps from airlines and hotels I am using. These provide added convenience for tracking flights, selecting seats, attempting upgrades, and performing check-ins. Moreover, it’s beneficial to pre-install the local public transport apps of the city you’ll be visiting. By adding your credit card info in advance, you eliminate potential delays upon arrival, making transit as smooth as possible.

International Roaming: Despite the cost, activating international roaming on your mobile is a must, especially for shorter trips. For longer stays, consider getting a local SIM card as a secondary one. (I use the Samsung Duo phones which have slots for two SIMS.) This way, you’re not reliant on sporadic free WiFi availability, which is essential since most cab bookings now require apps.

Advance Tipping: When I use a rental car or stay at a hotel (essentially any situation not involving a single transaction), I prefer to tip pre-emptively. I’ve noticed that this approach dramatically improves the level of service I receive.

Itinerary Sharing: Sharing your detailed itinerary with a trusted friend or family member serves as an important safety precaution. In case of unexpected occurrences, someone else will always be informed of your intended locations. Prior to embarking on a multi-city international travel, I give my family a printout of all my flight details and hotel reservations. Upon reaching each hotel, I make it a point to share my room number.

Digital Backup: Always have a digital backup of your essential travel documents like your passport, ID, visas, and itinerary. This can be a lifesaver in case you lose the originals or need quick access to them. I have these saved in a Dropbox folder.

Thinks 999

City Journal: “[Sebastian Edwards’] The Chile Project: The Story of the Chicago Boys and the Downfall of Neoliberalism explores how intellectuals and ideas can drive real economic change. But Edwards also illustrates that Chile’s march toward markets was more complicated than commonly realized. The central players in this story are the “Chicago Boys”: a small group of Chileans who studied economics at the University of Chicago from 1957 onward under economists such as Milton Friedman and the Spanish-fluent Arnold Harberger. The Chicago Boys coalesced around a reform program famously detailed in a book-length document called El ladrillo (“the Brick”), and they persuaded the military regime, much of which had nationalist-corporatist economic inclinations, to dismantle Chile’s dirigiste structures and replace them with some of the world’s freest economic arrangements…Free-marketers of all stripes can learn much from Edwards’s account. One lesson is that free market theorists and those economic liberalizers with more pragmatic instincts have their own distinct roles to play in effecting change. While the first group helps establish intellectual ascendancy over interventionists, the second is more effective in bringing about actual policy change.”

NYTimes: “Mr. [Mike] Masnick has a way of seeding ideas about technology that take root and grow. In 2005, he wrote about legal threats against a website devoted to amassing urinal photos. (The early internet was a strange place.) The threats, intended to remove information about certain urinal owners, instead created their own news cycle and garnered more attention for the otherwise obscure site. Mr. Masnick coined a phrase for an attempt to censor information on the internet that backfires: “the Streisand effect.” In 2003, Barbra Streisand sued an aerial photographer who had put photos of her Malibu beach house on his website, causing the little-seen images to go viral. Now the episode is internet lore, and the phrase has its own Wikipedia entry with a long list of examples. It’s a typical Masnickian principle of the internet, gleaned from lengthy observation: Poorly thought-out attempts to solve online problems will make them worse.”

NYTimes: “Google has recently begun plugging state-of-the-art language models into its robots, giving them the equivalent of artificial brains. The secretive project has made the robots far smarter and given them new powers of understanding and problem-solving…Google’s new robotics model, RT-2 [is] what the company calls a “vision-language-action” model, or an A.I. system that has the ability not just to see and analyze the world around it, but to tell a robot how to move. It does so by translating the robot’s movements into a series of numbers — a process called tokenizing — and incorporating those tokens into the same training data as the language model. Eventually, just as ChatGPT or Bard learns to guess what words should come next in a poem or a history essay, RT-2 can learn to guess how a robot’s arm should move to pick up a ball or throw an empty soda can into the recycling bin. “In other words, this model can learn to speak robot,” Mr. Hausman said.”

Timothy Lee: Large language models, explained with a minimum of math and jargon. “The goal of this article is to make a lot of this knowledge accessible to a broad audience. We’ll aim to explain what’s known about the inner workings of these models without resorting to technical jargon or advanced math. We’ll start by explaining word vectors, the surprising way language models represent and reason about language. Then we’ll dive deep into the transformer, the basic building block for systems like ChatGPT. Finally, we’ll explain how these models are trained and explore why good performance requires such phenomenally large quantities of data.”

My Life System #92: Travel Tips – 1

Here is a list of travel-related suggestions which I follow and could be useful.

Essential Checklists: Undoubtedly, checklists are vital. As human beings, it’s common for us to forget certain things when in a hurry, especially during last-minute packing. To combat this, I’ve created a Word document with distinct checklists for both domestic and international travel. Each time I realise I’ve forgotten an item, I add it to this living document. It serves as a comprehensive and ever-growing reminder of what I need for each journey. It also reduces pre-departure tension on what to remember to pack!

Packing Extra Clothes: I always ensure to pack an additional set of clothes, even for brief trips. This practice has come in handy in several instances such as unexpected trip extensions, flight cancellations, or overnight stays.

Intelligent Distribution of Clothes: I remember the one time a few years ago when my baggage got misplaced and I ended up at the hotel with no clothes other than what I was wearing. I had a conference the next morning and while the airline assured me that the bags would be delivered around midnight, I could not be sure. I went out to a Gap outlet and bought some clothes – just in case! It is also when I realised I should distribute my clothes across all my bags, ensuring to carry a set or two in my hand luggage.

Medication Kit: I always travel with a small pouch containing around a dozen common medications from India. This way, if I feel under the weather, I am not left stranded in a new city, attempting to locate a pharmacy, and deciphering the local equivalents of what I require. It is especially useful when one is travelling in non-English speaking countries.

Pack a Travel First Aid Kit: Apart from usual medication, I now carry a small first aid kit for minor accidents. I started this after I had a fall in New York on my last trip.

Stay Hydrated and Healthy: Air travel can often lead to dehydration, so make sure to drink enough water. It’s also advisable to pack some healthy snacks to keep your energy levels up during long flights or layovers. I am never sure about whether I will get an acceptable Jain meal, so I always keep some Indian food in my carry-on baggage.

Travel-friendly Lunch Box: Given my dietary restrictions, carrying food while traveling is non-negotiable. I also bring along a small lunch box and disposable cutlery (which can be replenished from any Starbucks or equivalent). This way, I’m always prepared, especially when the availability of Jain food is uncertain.

Multi-Currency Travel Card: If you are traveling internationally, a multi-currency travel card can be a convenient way to carry and manage money. It can also save you from fluctuating currency exchange rates. I use Thomas Cook’s Borderless Prepaid card. This is very handy because Indian credit cards sometimes don’t work everywhere. (At times, the fraud detection algos stop first transactions in new cities.)

Travel Insurance: Always have travel insurance in place. It’s an extra expense but can save you from high costs in case of emergencies or unexpected incidents such as medical emergencies, trip cancellations, or lost baggage.

Thinks 998

FT: “Just the act of being a reader in a crowd of commuters gives me a sense of having and taking my time. As the editor and writer Anika Burgess noted in a 2021 essay in The New York Times, “Even in the busiest of places, if you have a good book, you can retreat into solitude.” I used to be the kind of reader who preferred to read only in libraries or nooks at home, ideally with a cat spread out over my feet (and, less ideally, over the pages of the book I was trying to read). But over time, I’ve begun to love reading while roaming — finding a quiet spot in the middle of the Frankfurt Book Fair bustle, in New York’s Central Park or on Mumbai’s Marine Drive as runners and chaat-eating families pass by…Only one rule is set in stone: do not interrupt a reader, just because they’re in a public space. You may surreptitiously note the title of a promising book, but asking “So, what’s it about?” is a minor act of cruelty. Leave them in peace.”

Adam Selipsky: “Generative AI is going to be a foundational set of technologies for years, maybe decades to come. And nobody knows if the winning technologies have even been invented yet or if the winning companies have even been formed yet. So what customers need is choice. They need to be able to experiment. There will not be one model to rule them all. That is a preposterous proposition….The most likely scenario — given that there are thousands or maybe tens of thousands of different applications and use cases for generative AI — is that there will be multiple winners. Again, if you think of the internet, there’s not one winner in the internet. Lots of folks have said that generative AI is perhaps the most important technological advance in this era since the internet. If you go down that road, then you ask yourself: “Was there one winner in the internet?” And the answer is usually no. The most reasonable hypothesis is that there would not be a single winner here. There’d be multiple use cases across a myriad of customers requiring more than one solution.”

Paul Krugman: “Will China be the next Japan? There are some obvious similarities between China now and Japan in 1990. China has a wildly unbalanced economy, with too little consumer demand, kept afloat only by a hypertrophied real estate sector, and its working-age population is declining. Unlike Japan in 1990, most of the Chinese economy is still well behind the technological frontier, so it should have better prospects for rapid productivity growth, but there are growing concerns that China may have fallen into the “middle-income trap” that seems to afflict many emerging economies, which grow rapidly but only up to a point, then stall out. Yet if China is headed for an economic slowdown, the interesting question is whether it can replicate Japan’s social cohesion — its ability to manage slower growth without mass suffering or social instability. I am very definitely not a China expert, but is there any indication that China, especially under an erratic authoritarian regime, is capable of pulling this off? Note that China already has much higher youth unemployment than Japan ever did. So, no, China isn’t likely to be the next Japan, economically speaking. It’s probably going to be worse.”

Vitalik: “One of the trickier, but potentially one of the most valuable, gadgets that people in the Ethereum community have been trying to build is a decentralized proof-of-personhood solution. Proof of personhood, aka the “unique-human problem”, is a limited form of real-world identity that asserts that a given registered account is controlled by a real person (and a different real person from every other registered account), ideally without revealing which real person it is…More recently, we have seen the rise of a much larger and more ambitious proof-of-personhood project: Worldcoin…The simplest way to define a proof-of-personhood system is: it creates a list of public keys where the system guarantees that each key is controlled by a unique human. In other words, if you’re a human, you can put one key on the list, but you can’t put two keys on the list, and if you’re a bot you can’t put any keys on the list.”

My Life System #91: Books and Bookstores – 3

During a short business trip to Singapore, I had some time between meetings. Given my love for bookstores [see Part 1 and Part 2], it was no surprise that I found myself at Kinokuniya. It is one of the largest and best stores I have ever come across – possibly after Strand in New York. While I went in with a few titles to browse, I love the way a good bookstore organises the books – the adjacency of arrangement opens so many new possibilities. And that is exactly what happened to me. I came across many books that I had not previously come across. I ended up buying seven books in under an hour of browsing. And therein lies a story.

I start by going to sections I like: Business (especially Leadership, Marketing, Sales), Investing, Asia, History, and Science. What I especially like is that each section has its own New Arrivals collection which is very helpful. I normally have a list of books for future purchase as an Amazon Wish List. As it turns out, the only book in my purchases which was on my list was Material World. The book What A Unicorn Knows is one I had heard of when it was first announced almost a year ago, and had forgotten the title. Seeing it there on the shelves was a delight – because it was a book I was very keen to read. Some of the other titles were too good to not pick up: Chinafy, Centennials, Seeing the How among them. I like books on China tech companies because it is so hard to get English language content on the successes there. Centennials was about building enduring, great companies and it also gave me a new word to use, and Seeing the How was about how to spot marketing trends and better understand consumer behaviour. Business Storytelling is a book which I figured could give me ideas on how to shape the Netcore narrative.

The book I deliberated a bit about was The Imperfectionists – it was quite different from the ones I normally seek out. But the description persuaded me. How could I say No to: “Imperfectionists are curious, they look at problems from several perspectives, and gather new data and approaches, including from outside their current industry. They deliberately step into risk, proceeding through trial and error, utilizing nimble low consequence and reversible moves to deepen their understanding of the unfolding game being played, and to build capabilities. They accept ambiguity and some apparent failures in exchange for improved learning and market position. Imperfectionists succeed with dynamic, real time strategic problem solving, confidently moving forward while others wait for certainty, or make impetuous and foolish bets.”? I thought it applied well to me!

I don’t worry about the price. I know books in Singapore are priced higher, but this is where my $100 Delta Decision Rule comes into play. Each book was a treasure of wisdom, and I didn’t want to wait till cheaper editions became available in India.

As I walked out with the books in tow, I thought about bookstores and the experience they create – seeing similar books next to each other (decisions made by a thoughtful category manager), ability to pick a book and randomly browse through the pages, and discovering titles one wasn’t aware even existed. This is what I look for in a physical store – an experience online hasn’t been able to create. I wish someone would create a “book metaverse” – a 3D model replicating the ability to scan dozens of thoughtfully organised books. A search or section-wise scan should not be the only ways to browse books online. This image from TripAdvisor is what needs to be replicated online, along with a “Look Inside” option.

To end, here are three suggestions:

  • Always keep a “books to buy” list handy – an Amazon Wish List does the job well.
  • When you have some time during your travels, go to a bookstore in the city. The world (of books) as seen from there will be different, and you will find some titles you would not otherwise have known.
  • If you spend more than a few minutes with a book, buy it.

Thinks 997

Veronique de Rugy: “The best job-creation policy is a strong economy. The government should be content to create a level playing field with transparent rules and strong protection of property and contract rights. Of course, it should also supply public goods like infrastructure and ensure a stable legal system. Be wary of those who push industrial policy as a means of job creation. It’s a short-sighted approach that distracts us from the more important question, which is whether hindering the market allocation of resources is truly justified for national security or other valid reasons.”

The Verge: “A search engine is both an enormously complex thing and a fairly simple idea. All a search engine is doing, really, is compiling a database of webpages — known as the “search index” — then looking through that database every time you issue a query and serving the best and most relevant set of those pages. That’s the whole job. At every tiny step of that journey, though, there are huge complications that require critical and complex tradeoffs. Most of them boil down to two things: time and money. Even if you could hypothetically build a constantly updating database of all of the untold billions of pages on the internet, the storage and bandwidth costs alone would bankrupt practically any company on the planet. And that’s not even counting the cost of searching that database millions or billions of times a day. Add in the fact that every millisecond matters — Google still advertises how long every query took at the top of your results — and you don’t have time to look over the whole database, anyway.”

FT: “Since it launched the wildly successful Indian Premier League tournament in 2008, India has brought unparalleled riches to the sport. Its teams now attract the world’s best players and have bought up new international franchises. The country’s governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, dominates global decision making and takes a larger share of global revenues than England and Australia combined. India is even influencing how the game is played, with test teams such as England increasingly adopting crowd-pleasing, aggressive playing styles that fans trace back to the IPL’s shorter, fast-paced Twenty20 format. “India’s influence in global cricket cannot be overstated,” said Arun Dhumal, the IPL’s chair and a former BCCI executive. “The IPL has been a game-changer not only for Indian cricket but also for world cricket, in terms of the traction it has generated with fans across the globe, in terms of the financial bandwidth . . . It has been phenomenal.””

Omar Shams on the AI organisation: “Right now we’re hand-designing information flows and team structure. Instead, let’s use LLMs to share information between teams and help route important work to the right people. LLMs can summarize what work everyone does in an organization by parsing over their code, messages, and documents. LLMs in conjunction with other AI techniques can also identify common problems in an organization and rank them by severity. These models can then group the work of each team member by reviewing their code, messages, and documents, providing a comprehensive summary of their roles. We can then route important information to the right people in the organization who have the relevant expertise. This way of organizing information effectively forms dynamic ‘flash’ teams that cut across traditional organizational boundaries. By training LLMs on company code/docs and/or embedding company code/docs in a vector space we can capture institutional knowledge (‘tribal knowledge’) and spread it around the organization and safeguard it against loss due to personnel changes.”

My Life System #90: Personal Hedgehog

A business idea I very much like is Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept. In the context of a business, it is about answering three questions:

  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • What can you be best in the world at?
  • What drives your economic engine?

Here is what Jim Collins writes: “Are you a hedgehog or a fox? In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”…A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial. Every company would like to be the best at something, but few actually understand—with piercing insight and egoless clarity—what they actually have the potential to be the best at and, just as important, what they cannot be the best at. And it is this distinction that stands as one of the primary contrasts between the good-to-great companies and the comparison companies.”

The same Hedgehog Concept can be applied to us as individuals. It can help us identify our passions, strengths, and potential for success. By answering these three questions, we can work towards finding our “personal hedgehog” and ultimately build a fulfilling, successful, and meaningful life.

Here are three questions that can help us discover our own “hedgehog”:

  1. What activities or pursuits genuinely ignite your passion and make you feel fulfilled? Reflect on the things that truly excite you, bring joy, and make you feel engaged in life. These passions can help you find a personal sense of purpose.
  2. What are your unique talents, skills, or abilities that set me apart from others? Assess your strengths and areas where you excel or have the potential to excel. Consider not only your natural talents but also the skills you’ve developed through hard work, education, or experience.
  3. How can you combine my passion and strengths to create value or generate income? Think about ways to leverage your passions and skills in a manner that provides value to others and can potentially lead to financial rewards or a sustainable livelihood.

I asked myself these questions to discover my “personal Hedgehog.” For me, it has been about generating new ideas and converting them into startups – the 0 to 1 phase. Not all have ended up being successful, but the two big hits (IndiaWorld and Netcore) have delivered very good outcomes. Of late, there is a mini-Hedgehog that I have been building on – writing. The blog has become a great ideas generator. As Kevin Kelly wrote in his advice book, “I write in order to think; that’s how I think. I think by writing. I don’t have the ideas and then sit down and try to write them. I use writing to get the ideas.” I could not agree more.

The concept of a personal hedgehog is a powerful tool for self-discovery and personal growth. It is an exercise we must all do. We should repeat it every few years or so because we change with time. By regularly evaluating our passions, strengths, and opportunities for value creation, we can adapt to life’s changes and remain aligned with our true selves. Embracing the personal hedgehog concept is not only an investment in ourselves but also a journey towards reaching our full potential.