A simple ratio to be more fruitful

The ratio is (What you’re gaining / what you’re giving).

That looks obvious enough at first glance. But measuring it and tracking it delivers a powerful payoff. It can help focus your efforts in directions of maximum impact.

In finance we learn about a wonderful ratio called the earnings yield. That’s the earnings per share of a company divided by its price per share. The earnings are what you gain, and the price is what you give. The higher the amount you get relative to the amount you give, the better. This simple ratio can help you earn market beating returns.

So this is not a new idea to anybody with a background in economics. What could be surprising is how applicable it is to other areas of life.

Your life’s activities can cluster at either end of this ratio. Some people do this instinctively, and some don’t.

When you are conducting a commercial transaction, you can maximize the yield. Buying stock? Buy baskets of companies with maximum earnings / price. Buying medicine? Buy product with maximum active ingredient / price. Conducting recruitment? Focus on lead sources with maximum candidates interviewed / leads generated.

It helps to think of the denominator as an effort variable. Sometimes what we are spending is time. Sometimes we spend money. Sometimes the number of leads measures our effort. Picking the right ‘gain’ variables and ‘give’ variables to measure is an art. (Google KPI for ‘X’ where X is the performance area to track for some interesting ideas).

Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. When you’re giving back or volunteering, minimize this ratio so the receiving party benefits. What does this mean in real terms? Well, if you are donating to charity, pick one that does good work but can’t afford the resources to make donors feel good in return. Give to a real problem with little hope of complete solution.

In the middle, what you get is equal to what you give. That’s the zone to avoid: we are neither being individually fruitful nor particularly selfless.

A simple ratio to be more fruitful

Charlie Hebdo is Offended that CNN Doesn’t Want to Offend

Charlie Hebdo (CH) is not happy with news outlets who have chosen not to broadcast their controversial drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.

As Gerard Biard, editor in chief of CH, said on NBC’s Meet the Press (18 January 2015), “when they blur it out… they blur out democracy, secularism, freedom of religion; they insult the citizenship”.

Former CH journalist Caroline Fourest went even further on CNN. “It’s a huge betrayal. It’s not offending for believers, it’s offending for journalists, it’s offending for freedom of speech, it’s offending for democracy… [if you are] not showing a simple drawing just by fear [you are] already living in a dictatorship”.

The [ ] inserts are mine of course – to help make the quote coherent and preserve its context.

Strong statements there. Let’s examine the language closely, because it’s really interesting.

“they blur out democracy”: Does democracy require all newspapers everywhere to publish what one satirical paper publishes?

“[they blur our] secularism”: Does the private decision to not publish constitute a betrayal of secular values? The fact that CNN chose not to publish the cartoons shows that CNN was free to do so.

“[they blur out] freedom of religion”: So the freedom to profess any faith – and the freedom of any newspaper to publish any image – is not adequate proof of freedom of religion. All newspapers in a democracy must publish a certain image before CH editors are satisfied that there is adequate freedom of religion. That’s a high standard of proof.

“They insult the citizenship”. It sounds like CH is implying CNN doesn’t respect or value its incorporation in a democratic country. Again, we must ask why all media institutions must blaspheme to prove their democratic citizenship. Is it not sufficient that some have done so, and will continue to do so?

So there we have four statements from the CH editor-in-chief. The statements imply media outlets such as CNN are cowardly and anti-democratic. Gerard made liberal use of labels, and dichotomized the debate into a ‘you’re with us or against us’ frame. Notice how this implies there is no middle ground for any news organization in a democracy.

How did CNN defend itself? The anchor, discussing these accusations with Caroline Fourest, made two arguments. The first was publishing the images would endanger the safety of CNN employees worldwide. Second, the images had sparked riots which caused widespread death, damage and destruction in countries like Niger.

Was that an effective response? Not really. Neither of those arguments defused the accusations of cowardice and timidity. In fact, they reinforced the impression that CNN was not making a decision in line with journalistic integrity and free speech, as well as blaming cartoonists for the actions of rioters. Caroline called it out as the “coward way”.

What was required was to expose the fallacies of a black and white framework, and to claim the middle ground.

For example, CNN could have said, “We are 100% for your freedom, CH. We support your right to publish, and we have covered the success of your publication. But publishing one or two specific images – on your demand – is not the only way to show our support. We have our own editorial guidelines, and our own sense of what is newsworthy. We want to do the best by our readers and viewers, who are our number one priority. You don’t need to explain what you publish: we don’t need to explain to you what we don’t. It was our free choice in a free democracy. We support you when you publish, and that ought to be enough”.

Now that’s just a preliminary draft of what a counter-response could look like, and I know it can be improved. The aim is to defuse the dichotomy, re-frame CNN as being part of – not against – the democratic framework, and make CH’s demands look too specific. What CH requires is general support for the freedom of expression: they don’t need everyone to express it in a particular way.

Charlie Hebdo is Offended that CNN Doesn’t Want to Offend

Science Shouldn’t Estimate The Probability Of Religious Truth

There are those who say faith is baseless, and religion is absurd. I wrote a post arguing against that. My view is faith as a personal position can be reasonable.

Here’s a partially quoted objection from a critic I respect:

“The point [you make] is trivial; plenty of those you criticize will shrug and willingly concede that there’s a small probability they are wrong, but that there’s absolutely no reason to suspect any of these mysteries exist. … Of course it’s possible that unobservable things and other mysterious happenings are possible. There’s no evidence at all to suggest the possibility.

There’s mountains of evidence that applies to every situation that has been observed that suggests things work in a predictable manner according to some laws. In the presence of so much confirmatory evidence and a lack of any evidence to the contrary, the logical action would be to act as though the matter is absolutely certain and re-evaluate this belief if and when any evidence to the contrary surfaces. What’s unreasonable about that?”

What’s unreasonable about that? For a start, how could the un-observable generate evidence? Vision won’t become smell no matter how keen our noses are. But I’ll stop being trivial🙂

The logical thing is to wait until you get evidence to the contrary. Agreed. But does that need to be scientific evidence, or is the evidence of your personal experience sufficient?

There are problems with requiring scientific evidence of religion.

If we are reasonable based on what we’ve seen, then it stands to reason that we will be unreasonable about everything we have not seen. What we have seen is about four hundred years of evidence collection: not much to catch the (by definition) extremely rare exceptions that could exist.

Probability estimation is hard. It’s very optimistic to think we can accurately estimate probabilities for things we cannot see or detect. We are so very used to detecting and seeing.

Yes, there are indeed mountains of evidence to suggest that things generally follow laws. But there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that they must always follow laws without exception. There never can be such evidence.

So how then can we estimate the probability of the possibility of a rare exception? It looks logically difficult. Note that this is not the same as the probability of an exception: we know exceptions are low-probability events.

To clarify, I am not suggesting that the whole world should abandon its standards of evidence. I am not suggesting the world should swallow all claims. I am suggesting that our collective opinion about religious matters is irrelevant. They remain knowable only through personal perspective and experience.

That’s why I treat almost all such claims with skepticism, but I do hold with a few of my choosing. I am not blind to the subjectivity of my choice; I dare it nonetheless.

Is it really so improbable that we may all see or not see certain truths depending on who we are? Is it really improbable that there could be the rarest of exceptions? An exception is naturally improbable; does it follow that the probability of an exception is low?

Nobody knows. Everybody goes with their gut feel of what is reasonable. Let’s have the humility to call it a gut feel on both sides of the debate.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, it definitely seems dubious to trust a system which depends on all of us seeing something at the same time, in a predictable manner, to determine whether things of a very different nature exist. It is a methodological incompatibility. Science cannot tell us anything about the truth of religion. The format of the evidence it requires is different from the nature of evidence religion can provide.

I admit no collective method exists to know the truth of religion. That does not imply there is nothing in existence which our collective methods fail to grasp well.

That is why freedom of religion is listed among our universal human rights, but we prefer separation of religion from functions of state.

Science Shouldn’t Estimate The Probability Of Religious Truth

An Attempt At Being Mark Twain-ish

I love Mark Twain. He wrote the best one-liners.

Mind you, he was a bit cynical. But that only made him funnier.

Here are five favourites:

The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.

I never smoke to excess – that is, I smoke in moderation, only one cigar at a time.

The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

I’ve always admired his wit. Here are a few that he might have allowed from an apprentice like me:

Never confess to arrogance. You’ll be a failure at both humility and arrogance.

The world doesn’t mind a man with many bad ideas. It is terrified of the man with one wrong idea: the terrorist, the communist and most of all, the capitalist.

I can forgive anyone anything but the truth.

Times must change, but one shouldn’t have to break parents to make omelettes.

Is there anything more anxious than waiting in the US visa queue with mild diarrhea? True story.

A mind that can hold contradiction is as weak as a mind that can’t hold paradox.

There is a sum invested every month – no matter how small – and a period of time for which it remains invested – no matter how long – by which every family in this world can become rich. It is the economic failure of our times that hardly anybody is told this in school; few will discover it for themselves; even fewer will start today and almost nobody will remain invested for more than one generation.

The only power worth having is from that which is larger than ourselves. Everything else is for the brutes of this world.

An Attempt At Being Mark Twain-ish

The Assumption We Don’t Even Call An Assumption Anymore

I have just been revisiting an old childhood pleasure: CS Lewis’ ‘The Lion, The Witch  and The Wardrobe’.

Lion witch and wardrobe

And I’m enjoying it even more than I did as a 10 year old kid.

At the time, I didn’t know Lewis was writing an allegory of his own Anglican Christian faith. It’s wonderful to see how a simple story can illustrate profound ideas.

Within the very first pages, you’ll see a delightful dialogue which makes an argument Lewis would stick to all his life: faith is not illogical. At least, not in any way that’s obvious.

For those who don’t know the story, I’ll set it up. A little girl, Lucy, reports she’s been to a magic land – twice – at the back of the wardrobe. Her brother Peter inspects the wardrobe and finds only clothes (and naturally, a wooden back). He confronts her both times and demands she face reality. But Lucy sticks to her story. Knowing she isn’t a liar, and afraid she’s going mad, Peter asks for the help of an adult.

Unexpectedly, the adult doesn’t question Lucy. He questions Peter’s logic.

“But how could it be true, sir?” said Peter.

“Why do you say that?”  asked the Professor.

“Well, for one thing”, said Peter, “if it was real why doesn’t everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn’t pretend there was”.

“What has that to do with it?” said the Professor.

“Well, sir, if things are real, they’re there all the time.”

“Are they?” said the Professor; and Peter did not know quite what to say.

We are familiar with objects which, if they exist, always exist. They’re there on demand, for us to inspect, evaluate and prod to our heart’s content.

But that doesn’t mean other, rarer objects, which don’t follow such laws could not exist. This little bit of dialogue above conveys the crux of Lewis’s argument: why do we assume – and it is an assumption – because most things are always there until moved or changed by predictable forces we know of, that all things must follow the same pattern?

This assumption – an axiom in the scientific method – is no longer called an assumption in our times. But those who believe this assumption – and it is a belief – are mistaking familiarity and certainty with logic and reason. They are mistaking the patterns of some things for the patterns of all things. They are mistaking the laws of some aspects of reality for the laws of all aspects of reality. They do so, not because they do not know better, but because they are terrified of knowing better.

They are terrified of a world in which things could exist, which are not observable on demand. They are terrified of a world in which truths can exist, which can neither be tested nor verified. They are terrified of a world in which laws exist, which do not occur with monotonous uniformity, and thus can neither be wholly known nor calculatively predicted.

This terror masks itself as a cool cynicism and a calm skepticism. But make no mistake: it is terror. It is akin to the mild terror a person has of mess, when they have just spent the whole day cleaning the kitchen.

And out of terror, they accuse those who are willing to embrace such mysteries of being unwilling to face the truth. In reality, it is not the believer who rejects truth: he accepts both scientific, testable reality and (at least) the possibility (unproven except by personal experience) of the existence of non-testable aspects. I am not saying such non-testable things certainly exist. I am merely saying that they might exist, and we cannot reject the possibility out of hand.

The believer rejects a restriction of the logical possibilities of truth: possibilities which are inconvenient to some of us, perhaps, but are no less possibly true for it.

The believer might accept unproven dogmas, but he does so with the humility of knowing that the only criterion for doing so is personal experience. And personal experience is fraught with uncertainty. Personal experience is fraught with the weakness of bias and self-confirmation.

More dogmatic still is the certain rejection of all that is uncertain, in the name of the scientific method*. More dogmatic still is the claim that there is no reality outside the scope of science, and that the scientific method tells us everything we can know. More dogmatic still is the belief that such a claim is a proven truth rather than a personal belief.

Good logicians don’t make claims like that.

*Science as a field and discipline does not require us to make such assumptions. It is merely silent on everything outside its scope.

The Assumption We Don’t Even Call An Assumption Anymore

Why I (Should) Write

Writing, I’ve come to realize, is the sadomasochistic experience of finding out that I’m a vain fool.

I should be writing to explore and express without hubris.

But the real reason I write is because I think I can say something that matters.

That’s arrogance.

It could be forgiven if the writing was really that good. But I know that what I’ve said is frequently inaccurate, incomplete or immature. It’s too infantile to really matter.

How could I have been so full of self-congratulation, so full of narcissistic delight at my ideas?

How could I have failed to feel the different sides of experience, and seen only the narrow lines of my burning bias?

Writing is a good teacher, whatever be the quality of the student.

It teaches humility, even if it begins in narcissism.

Writing is a quiet joy, whatever be the faults of the writer.

I wish I could write without hubris. I wish I could escape egoism. I wish I could have real humility.

Some of you have been patient enough and kind enough to forgive me despite all my writing.

You’re the real reason I should write. In moments of sobriety, you are.

For you, I’ll never give up on learning humility.

Why I (Should) Write

Argument: Is There A Worse Way To Change Minds?

Recently, a blogger I read strongly critiqued the Indian social mores associated with sex: what benefit, she asked, do we derive from sexual morality? Does it do anything but block our efforts to combat STDs and make sex safer?

While that’s an interesting question in itself, and I encourage you to read her well-written blog, a discussion that sprung up in the comments grabbed me. One of her readers asked her if she believed sex to be a value-neutral activity, like playing chess, or whether there was some ethical element involved.

That got me thinking. What do you do when a person holds morals that are different from yours? What do you do when their views are so different, and so utterly alien to you that you can’t fathom how they can believe something so… opposite?

What do you, if, for example, you believe sex is a neutral activity (i.e. it is neither ethical nor unethical objectively speaking), and you end up making conversation with someone more socially conservative, who believes sex before marriage is wrong in the same way that theft is wrong? What do you do when they wave their judgment in your face, and it makes you steadily angrier? Or conversely, if you’re talking to somebody who is lax about something you’re truly convinced about, like gender equality, how do you handle it?

This is a challenge we all face. A clash of morals is two walls colliding. Dialogue shuts down. And sometimes that clash is fundamental to interests that concern all parties involved. Where does the discussion go from there?

Our first instinct is to delegitimize the other person’s morals. This is understandable. I sympathize with it, because it is my first instinct too. If someone I’m having coffee with says, ‘I think it is OK to torture people who might be terrorists, just to make sure, because the majority matter more than a few people who might be innocent’, I do a double take. With restraint, I would probably say, ‘Is it really OK?’ and then proceed to provide all my reasons for not sharing their moral conviction.

But this is a poor response. Why? Let’s break it down. First, the other person has just shared something with me. A little piece of their being. Sure, opinions can change, but they form a precious part of the whole parcel we call ‘us’. Second, by refuting them, not only am I attacking the soft vulnerability they so trustingly exposed, but I’m actually saying, regardless of the words used, “I’m right and you’re wrong. My morals are objectively true and common sense; yours are objectively false and fringe”. That’s not very nice. Third, it makes the discussion an ego clash, as opposed to a clash of ideas. The moment the ego gets involved, everything gets ugly. You don’t really listen to the other person, nor they to you. All either party does is to derive the satisfaction of explaining their position fully. That’s not communication. That’s hectoring.

The implicit demand we make of those we argue with!

So the first way – to openly refute the other person’s morals, to show them why they’re wrong – won’t often work. It presumes the other person has a mature ego, and worse, it presumes you’re right. What’s the next way? The blogger’s way, which I paraphrase again: ‘you can hold any morals about sexuality you like, but keep them to yourself. What two people do, without coercion or deception involved, is their own business’. On first glance, this looks like a fantastic response. It is direct, calm and clear. Moreover, it seems to refrain from judging the other person for their morals.

But it too poses problems. For one thing, it is de-legitimization in disguise. Without actually saying the other person is wrong, it says, ‘your morals are not true enough to be applicable to others. They’re just subjective. They’re like your opinions about umbrellas and pants. Choose what you will, but keep it to your own umbrellas and pants please’. This is just as offensive to the ego of the other person. All morals are fundamental convictions. Otherwise they are not morals. But what you’ve done is to equate the moral to an opinion. I have opinions about the weather, or about a city, or the lifestyle I prefer. Morals, by contrast, are about fundamental issues of ethics and values. The two are not the same. The fact that some people choose to have morals about lifestyle, which you believe to be a subjective and individual choice (I can hear you thinking, duh!), doesn’t make their moral convictions any less deeply felt (they would counter that choices of lifestyle collectively impact every individual within society – so arguing along these lines will not be fruitful).

Secondly, there’s an inherent contradiction. A moral cannot be subjective in the way of an opinion I could keep to myself. For example, I believe killing is wrong. That is a clear moral. I cannot change my stance based on who is doing it. I would not say, “Oh, let me keep this stance to myself. I believe in a lifestyle of non-killing, but many may not”. So why do I expect another person, who is just as convinced about their moral as I am about killing or theft or lying, to say their moral is subjective? You’re probably thinking that killing affects another person, and so is fundamentally different from private morals. But this is just another way of saying that you’re right because of some reason you think is obvious: the other person probably has some strong reason to believe they are right.

Moreover, rational criteria that separate subjective morals from objective morals are flawed. For example, the idea that ‘morals which don’t involve harm to others are subjective’ is fallacious. We would all probably agree that fantasizing harm to others with sincere hatred is wrong; but it doesn’t affect anybody until you actually harm someone else. Does that mean there is nothing objectively wrong with hate? Would you tell your children that hate is subjectively wrong until it actually harms someone? A similar problem arises with the criterion of consent. ‘What two people do with each other without coercion or deception is their business’. Let us imagine that two people agree in advance that they will lie to each other when convenient. Or kill each other when they feel like it. Does that make deception or killing right? Consensus, or the fact that a matter is none of our business, does not make its morality subjective. At most, it is potentially grounds for societal non-interference (and even then not so for a matter like killing). Even if a person privately and harmlessly fantasizes about kidnapping a child, he is doing something deeply wrong. That’s not subjective.

So that eliminates two approaches. We see that telling another person that their morals are wrong is not ideal. Nor is it ideal to tell them that their morals are subjective: they are quite likely to retort, “Then so are yours, and so is every moral”. So what is the way?

I believe the first step is to acknowledge the disagreement and reframe it as a difference. Your morals are yours, mine are mine; yours are just as valid as mine. We happen to differ, but that’s OK. The second step is to understand the disagreement. I might ask, I’m curious, why do you believe what you believe? The other person will usually unburden themselves fully. We tend to, when our deepest convictions are at stake. I’d listen attentively, and refrain from pointing out why their reasons are unsound. Instead, I’d show that I understand their reasons. I’d show them empathy. For example, ‘I understand why you feel torture can save thousands of innocent lives in national security concerns. While there are other elements to the whole picture; this is definitely an important one’. Third comes the real kicker: I would invoke shared positive principles. “Since you have your morals and I have mine, we both want to maintain peace / not judge each other / not interfere with each other’s freedom. Do you agree?” They probably do. Then I’d ask, “So what’s the way forward to ensure that?”

Does this work? Only one way to find out – test it in the field when you next hear an objectionable opinion that has some practical impact. In my limited experience, it does work with all but those who are determined to be trolls (i.e. people who enjoy conflict for its own sake). Yet it takes a lot of self-control to actually do this. I wish I always tried this before arguing.

William Ury
William Ury. Look him up. I guarantee his conflict resolution techniques will blow your mind.

Why does this work? Because the discussion that follows is not based on a clash of ego or ideas, nor based on the aim of eliminating differences, but upon mutual understanding and a shared commitment to the higher principle of harmony, in spite of differences. That’s a great place to start from, and it inevitably leads to a better solution.

What if they don’t bite at the higher principles you invoke? That’s pretty rare. It’s quite easy, when a person screams that they don’t believe in your freedom, to simply ask them whether they believe in their own. If they insist that their morals are more important than your right to not be interfered with, simply ask them if they feel the same way about your interference in their lives – and recall evidence that you have never interfered with theirs. Humans tend to be reciprocal. They will inevitably respond positively to your request for the same rights that they demand for themselves.

What if they don’t? After all, not every discussion is reasonable. There are those who are viciously judgmental, who are fanatically entrenched in their own beliefs to the point that they no longer believe tolerance or freedom is a higher principle than their morals. What do you do then?

Then you praise the virtues of tolerance, freedom and non-judgment. You build consensus around the positive promotion of these positive ideas, instead of negating the existing ideas in place. This, I believe, is exactly where efforts must be concentrated. Where no consensus exists around rights and freedoms, we must create a positive faith in those positive principles. It is fruitless to practice a communication of negation: to show others that their morals and beliefs are subjective or invalid will only infuriate them. It undermines their identity and insults the heritage they inherited, which only results in greater commitment to the same identity. The surest way to deepen a man’s attraction to his ideals is to attack them.

The audience of advocacy is often composed of fanatics, bullies, violent mobs and those with vested interests in exploiting the vulnerable, none of whom can be moved by any appeal to reciprocal values. But I believe the real reason these antagonists exist in such quantity, and the bedrock they spring from, is an environment that hasn’t yet created positive conviction in the principles of tolerance and freedom.  Something somewhere is lacking: in the culture, in the institutions, in the social structures – something that inhibits an understanding of the need of non-judgment and non-interference in another person’s freedoms and choices. And that something isn’t going to go away with negative refutations.

People can’t let go of their existing beliefs immediately, and certainly not upon your demand. What they can do is embrace new beliefs which can co-exist with their old beliefs, especially when there is a social norm created around these new beliefs. They cannot accept the delegitimization of their morals, but they can easily accept the legitimization of new morals which protect their right to practice their existing morals – within new parameters. This is the way it must be pitched.

This has implications for combating radicalization in religion, politics and gender issues. It is fairly pointless, I think, to further delegitimize chauvinism through media, because it is already delegitimized in global media and education. (Regional language  media might be the next medium of choice). Very few grow up believing positively in racial discrimination, gender inequality or totalitarianism. Instead, these are all symptoms which fill a vacuum created by a lack of positive belief in equality, rights and freedom, combined with the noxious socialization of violence, ignorance and poverty. Part of the solution is an education in human rights, and the creation of a social norm around it through peer examples. Decrying the logical contradictions of radical ideology won’t do much, because it wasn’t logically chosen in the first place.

The only way to build consensus is to generate belief in consensus. The only way to build harmony is to generate belief in harmony. The only way to build freedom is to generate belief in freedom. You can’t build belief in freedom by appealing to subjectivity; the latter dilutes belief itself. Belief is the basis of good and evil: to undermine faith is to ask a man to stand elsewhere while whisking away from beneath his feet the carpet we all stand upon.

Argument: Is There A Worse Way To Change Minds?