Overarching concepts

When looking at a subject like history, it can be tempting to make sweeping generalizations.

Many people have gone down the rabbit hole of forming overarching concepts for history. The next natural step is to retroactively try to make all the historical events fit to such theories.

There are several problems with such an exercise. One of the main problems is that a human social event involving multiple individuals at different points of time and spread out geographically has too many factors influencing it. So any one theory or explanation fails to meet the reality check.

So it is often better to go to the first hand sources and be very rigorous in our study of history.

Should we be looking at success or failure?

One finds several people gobbling up stories written by successful people. Success can be defined in many ways per one’s individual tendencies. Very commonly, success is defined as having a lot of money.

Of late, successful people seem to have become high in demand. Everyone seems to want to know how they became successful. However, some of the typical “secrets of success” can be easily employed by other people and the results can turn out radically differently. People can take risks and take on more responsibilities and yet, fail. So, in many successes, luck plays a significant part.

On the other hand, one can really gain a lot by avoiding some of the typical mistakes made by people who failed. This, in fact, could turn out to be more beneficial to someone. Those who failed in their lives often turn out to be a sort of “martyr” to society as society indirectly benefits from their errors.

Also, to those who have erred and committed mistakes, it may be worth remembering Zig Ziglar’s quote:

“Failure is an event, not a person. Yesterday ended last night. Today is a brand new day and it’s yours.”

– Zig Ziglar

Value of ancient wisdom, continued

See the first part here.

heuristic is a rule or a concept which helps in decision making. Such a rule has been developed over time via trial and error. An example for this is a rule of thumb which is a way of doing measurements which turns out to be roughly enough to figure out amy dimensions.

Ancient traditions have developed several such rules of thumb which have turned out to be useful in maintaining a social order. One of the drawbacks of modern day scientism is that some people (Nassim Taleb describes them as fragilistas: people who fragilize societies) arrogate themselves to apply narrow evidence-based methodologies to social situations. This usually ends up in disaster. An interesting example is how all the centrally planned economies resulted in decades of suffering and economic hardships for the majority of populations under such systems. It turns out that decentralized, free economic decision making is less fragile and results in a better society for everyone.

The reason why an exercise in applying “scientific thinking” to society is futile is that unlike a controlled environment in a laboratory, one cannot know all the factors that can possibly affect and shape a human society.

The history of human society is riddled with events which occur completely unexpectedly. Virtually no one predicted the Great War (WW I), but it happened suddenly and caused immense destruction.

So, one is always faced with volatility and unknown factors when it comes to human society. It is in such an environment that ancient traditions have developed, mainly via trial and error, over centuries and millennia. It turns out that in spite of all the scientific progress, human society still has much of the characteristics of societies of old. We continue to make decisions based on incomplete information. In all such situations, having an idea of one’s ancestors’ traditions and heuristics could end up being quite helpful.

 

Insignificance

Human beings on this planet are only one of the several species living on the planet. Also, planet Earth is a tiny speck in a large solar system, which resides in a huge galaxy, which is in turn part of a cluster of galaxies. All these clusters of galaxies form part of the observable universe.

Given this reality, it seems like a lot of hubris to imagine that our individual plans or ideas have a total certainty of working out. There are always a myriad of factors, many of which are out of our control, which interact with any of one’s pet projects or dreams.

A relevant poem:

The Indispensable Man

(by Saxon White Kessinger)

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego ‘s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.

Keeping this reality in mind, the ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, advises us to remain in the present moment and to live our lives to the fullest:

“So it is: the life we are given isn’t short but we make it so; we’re not ill provided but we are wasteful of life. Just as impressive and princely wealth is squandered in an instant when it passes into the hands of a poor manager, but wealth however modest grows through careful deployment if it is entrusted to a responsible guardian, just so our lifetime offers ample scope to the person who maps it out well.”

Seneca

 

“Free” means you pay for it

Today, the internet has made many services “free” in appearance. For example, previously to search something, one had to buy a lot of books or travel to the library to study a lot of books. Today, all one needs to is to enter the search on an internet search engine. Voila! We have all the answers at our fingertips.

The amazing thing is that this process appears to be free! However, one needs to think a bit if this is really the case. From a basic arithmetic viewpoint, one needs to bring in income in order to pay for the expenses incurred in providing such a service to millions of people. The income in this case, comes from ads.

Search engines (and social media services) collect information about users to build individual profiles. This is done so that ads can be tailored based on these profiles. Thus, online advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry which is being fueled by the activity of millions of people who use search engine and social media services. Thus, what appears to be “free” is in reality being paid for by the clicks and the attention span of each user.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the advent of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies could change the online search and social media spaces. Cryptocurrencies offer a model of explicitly charging end users for using online search and social media services. This could occur in a seamless and automated manner as cryptocurrencies can be transferred from person-to-person and computer-to-computer without the intervention of third parties. Many users of online services could find this attractive because it offers some level of anonymity or pseudonymity. It will be interesting to see how this phenomenon unfolds as this technology develops.

Historical lessons

The French Revolution occurred as a popular revolt against the centuries-long mismanagement and bungling by the Ancien Régime monarchy. This event began via a number of valid criticisms of the existing order.

However, it ended in a terrible mess, called the Reign of Terror. One of the goals of the revolution was to establish an equitable popular republic. However, this attempt resulted in chaos. To overcome this chaos, Napoleon became the new monarch. Finally, the revolution had come a full circle.

In history, a few people have tended to come up with good and valid criticisms of ideas and systems. However, it is one thing to come up with valid critiques based on popular sentiment and a whole another thing to come up with solutions. Many times, the solutions turn out to be worse than the original problems.

Things that lie on the boundaries

Things that are outside the normal often are not paid attention to. Many people even ignore whatever does not match the regular pattern of things. Thus when an outlier has a massive effect on the system, people are caught by surprise.

Also, many people tend to like certainty. However the nature of this world seems to be notoriously difficult to predict.

When a totally unexpected thing does occur, it comes to be known as a Black Swan.

Decide to change destiny

This is a study of a decision. Analyzing it. Breaking it down. Making the right decision.

“Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.”

― C.S. Lewis

The Decision

Whether to make the switch to a new database for our software product. Can be reframed as: How best to future-proof the product?

Goals

  • Support our customers in all possible ways
  • Contribute to customer success by addressing their pain points
  • Adapt to new technology
  • Future-proof the product

Sunk Cost Analysis

  • The team has put in a lot of work into the product using the current database.
  • Many developers have learned these skills and helped grow the product.
  • However, many breakthroughs in software have happened by discarding old code. So, it may not be advisable to continue the inertia.

Decision Tree

Decision Tree

Choices, Dependencies & Outcome Risks

  • Keep the current database (Revenue: $30 mil. Potential loss in 5 years: $20 mil)
    • There are no major complaints from customers
    • The product continues to function well
    • Also, the current team of developers are highly skilled and knowledgeable. They make sure the current system continues to work very well
    • Risk is that the product may no longer be up to date with the latest trends
    • Another risk is at some point in the future, customers may start switching to competitors’ products who have the new technology
  • Buy a third-party database (Cost: $4 mil. Potential revenue in 1 year: >$30 mil)
    • A one-time investment of $2 million is committed to buy third party database
    • Best database for our purpose is selected from a range of competing systems
    • Commit a small Tiger team to work with the third-party developers and integrate the database
    • Commit to retrain our developers with the new skills required to work with the third-party system
    • Commit to sign a service agreement with the third party company for their support
    • Risk is that the third party database may not be fully adaptable to our product architecture, necessitating some architecture changes
    • Another risk is in case the third party company goes out of business, we will no longer have their support for the new database
  • Build database in-house and slowly replace the old database (Cost: $1 mil. Potential revenue in 2 years: >$30 mil)
    • Commit a small Tiger team for about one year to come up with the infrastructure needed to make the switch
    • Commit a set of developers (called the A team) chosen to train with the new skills required to work with the new infrastructure
    • Plan for the product to have both databases in place
    • Plan for existing features to continue to run on the old database
    • Choose a cut-off point, after which, new additions will only be made in the new infrastructure
    • Slowly over one more year, the A team will replace the existing set of features to work with the new infrastructure
    • Inevitably, there will be some backward incompatibilities introduced. These should be well documented and communicated to the customers
    • Customers should not realize any difference in performance or stability
  • Build database in-house and make the switch in a couple of years time (Cost: $1 mil. Potential revenue in 2 years: >$30 mil)
    • Resources have to be committed to retrain developers in new skills at some point in future
    • Commit a small Tiger team for about one year to come up with the infrastructure needed to make the switch
    • Commit to train rest of the team with new skills
    • In one more year’s time, the full product should be converted over
    • Inevitably, there will be some backward incompatibilities introduced. These should be well documented and communicated to the customers
    • Risk is that the newer code may not be stable because of the drastic switch
    • Another risk is customers may end up not liking it right away because of the drastic change

In the end, the choice to build the database in-house and slowly replace the old database seems the best in terms of:

  • costs
  • long term revenue
  • risk management
  • future-proofing the product

Post-script

The change agents in this case are the stakeholders who try to predict the future in some way in order to keep the product marketable.

Among the risks I wanted to take into account, included the risk of product architecture change necessitated by introducing third-party components into the system. I think this is a real issue which many engineering teams face, but may not anticipate beforehand. So, I tried giving a value to this risk scenario.

Thinking about what could be cut out while working on this task reminded me that I had taken the availability of resources for granted. On many occasions, one needs to work with constrained resources in terms of money, time and labor. So, I will definitely keep this in mind going forward.

I also need to consider the positioning of this proposal for not only this product, but also the product line and the organization. Of course, there are may other aspects of this product itself, only one of which was considered in this proposal, which contribute to its overall success. I suppose I am biased because my responsibility has been the database portion of the product. It may help to add a section on a broader perspective of the product including its many other aspects.

I think, taking into account the limited resources available, spending extra money on the third party option may not be feasible at this point.

In my flying machine…

This is a study of a project for economy space travel to Mars. First, we study its constraints, build it’s initial mass of early adopters, slowly expand the user base and finally overcome any constraints in scaling.

Some of the constraints include:

  • Technical
    • Overcoming earth’s gravitational field
    • Building a great spaceship which is safe and reusable
  • Marketing
    • Attracting people to give up 5-10 years of their life on a trip
  • Logistics
    • Keeping people entertained for a long time
    • Having enough store of food, water, enough daily supplies

Overcoming constraints

  • As suggested in Arthur C. Clarke‘s work, a space elevatorcould be constructed to overcome the gravitational field of earth. After that, sending spaceships to other planets does not require too much thrust to reach the destination of their choice. There would be issues in landing the aircraft of course. But, perhaps, a space elevator/orbital tower could be constructed in Mars too, which could ease the descent of the travelers onto the planet.
  • SpaceX is already coming up with reusable spaceships. This technology needs to be utilized into coming up with mass-produced spaceships that can seat up to 500-1000 people.
  • Have plenty of sports, movie theaters, gyms, offices, clubs, restaurants and other places of social gathering and business inside the spaceship.
  • Come up with solutions to growing natural food on the spaceship. Also, store or produce enough water (through some process perhaps) to sustain for the entire journey.
  • People may be attracted to the idea of taking a 5-10 year sabbatical from their full-time jobs, while giving them the opportunity to keep their skills sharp by giving them jobs in businesses which run on the spaceships.

Constraints removed & scaling achieved

With all the above constraints removed, it appears there is a scope to scale this business into a fleet of space-faring ships which run trips to Mars and other inhabitable moons or astronomical bodies in the solar system.


Post-script

As Elon Musk says, “we should become a space-faring civilization”. I think people could be attracted to undertake such a long journey by emphasizing the awesomeness of journeying into outer space. Sounds exotic and exciting!

I think the targeted persona could be people who are retired or interested in a sort of “early retirement” or in perhaps undertaking a “mini-retirement” from their careers.

Also, it is interesting to think in terms of toggling some of the individual constraints back and forth. Just overcoming the technical constraint of the earth’s gravitational field seems like a big step forwards in exploring not only economy space travel, but a host of other opportunities which could open up for mankind.

Success in this venture would look like having numerous happy and satisfied customers have traveled back and forth to Mars. In order for the business to grow, it needs a growing army of satisfied clientele who can tell others about their great experiences. Looking at the results of surveys and the number of people who have expressed genuine interest in traveling to Mars, it seems the market for this could be potentially big.

We could look at taking the help of space entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, scientists and astronauts.

Some of the worst case scenarios I can think of are:

  • Spacecraft are unsafe or unfit for travel and people become sick or die during the journey
  • Entire spaceship blows up because of some issue and everyone on board dies
  • Spacecraft do not coordinate well with each other and crash into each other resulting in deaths of everyone on board
  • Spaceship runs out of food
  • Agriculture on board the spaceship fails and no new food can be grown
  • Spaceship runs out of water
  • Spaceship runs out of clean air
  • People on board go crazy for some reason and start fighting with each other
  • The flight crew go crazy and start fighting with each other or with passengers
  • Flight crew get sick and die. Who flies the spaceship?
  • Other disasters
    • Aliens attack (!?)
    • Asteroid falls on spaceship
    • Guidance mechanism fails and spaceship drifts away from destination

Knowing and analyzing the above scenarios, we need to come up with strategies to handle all of them.

P.S. The title is in reference to the Cliff Richard song:

How minorities affect large events

There have been countless occasions in history when small intransigent minorities have had large effects on major historical events.

Examples include the French and Russian revolutions. It is also interesting to note that both of these ended up resulting in centralized dictatorships of small groups of people under Napoleon and the Bolsheviks.

Going forward, it is interesting to observe how technology such as social media and decentralized crypto can influence large events in the future by giving power to large numbers of disparate decentralized groups. Perhaps, these could help in avoiding the pitfalls of previous centralized minority-influenced events? It remains to be seen.