A tour of frequently used ideas and themes in Hexmos, for newcomers and veterans alike

From the very inception, Hexmos’ members have been keen to study the world and its history to build up a reliable foundation of what is usually called common sense. Of the many loosely-related ideas and concepts deployed on a day to day basis at Hexmos, the following is my own list of ideas and themes that provide inspiration, resonance and also practical utility. For each theme, I will also try to list down how I came across it to help you with further exploration.

  1. Intergenerational Human efforts at solving extremely difficult problems: Man wins at the 2000-year-old struggle for actualizing heavier-than-air flight. Many researchers sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of human flight. Key names:Da Vinci,Wan Hu,Sir George Cayley,Otto Lilienthal,Wright Brothers_._VVD’ssummary slides provide more names and details on the history of human flight.

  2. Internal bootstrapping; tool-building as a way to accelerate bootstrapping speed: Bootstrapping means pulling oneself up through one’s own boot straps.Doug Engelbart suggested that special attention must be paid to the collective IQ of an organisation. Building internal tools & processes to speed up the rate of knowledge creation, acquisition, communication, and reception, one can make an organisation powerful and capable. Hexmos initiatives in line with this philosophy are: our daily reading/exercise programs, building our own internal video platform, woof, sslify, etc. An additional contrast is with Amazon’s/Bezos’sCustomer Obsession and Working Backwards process. The Bezos approach is Outside-in (customer to org members. The Engelbart model is Inside-out (org members to customer). The core idea is in taking care of org members, and raising internal standards continuously. A more capable population can take care of tougher problems and meet higher standards.

  3. Xing-Ming a.k.a continuously checking whether words and actions match & a continuous effort to reduce the difference between the two: Han Fei was the thinker and intellectual behind the world’s first organised large-scale bureaucracy in the newly unified China. Han Fei tended to have rigorous analysis of social situations but stuck to his judgements a bit too heavily. He was an avowed legalist, one of the “men of methods”. Compared to Chanakya, Han Fei was more rigid and harsh and hence became a victim of his own system. On the other hand Chanakya didn’t ridicule traditions and was more flexible, leading to greater stability. Despite these faults, Han Fei’s Xing-Ming is a fundamental tool to ensure reliability within human systems. To always reduce the gap between what is said and what is done is still extremely relevant.

  4. Lee Kuan Yew’s balanced blend of Competition & Cooperation to increase productivity: Practical experience shows that humans operate with both the spirit of competition and cooperation. While those of Buddhist persuasion veer towards 100% cooperation, the proponents of an absolutely free market argue for 100% competition. However, practical experience shows that lack of competition leads to monopolies in sectors (such as inefficient government departments) whereas excess competition leads to fragmentation (no compassion, cut-throat behaviour, low quality of life experience). Hence, it is a leader’s task to establish the right proportion of competition and cooperation to deliver the highest levels of happiness and productivity to a population. LKY’s Singapore is an example of a serious attempt at finding the right balance between larger cohesion and individual competition.

  5. Psychology: The mind is like a massive society consisting of very many parts and layers, and activities producing both cooperation, competition, hierarchy, regulation and other aspects of complexity.** Itis no less complex than a mega city & hence seems like it cannot be summarised in simple mathematical formulae. Computer programs have a chance of imitation. The traditional view of psychology has been to find a few verbal principles to describe and predict the functionality of the mind. An example of such a type is Aristotle's "spirit". These sorts of psychological principles have not worked well, they do not conform to causality; they're not reliable foundations for understanding the mind. Hence, really, what Minsky helps us see is the real diversity of the mind, how much of a complex system it is. The insights one can acquire from The Society of Mind is relevant to leadership and team management as well. First and foremost, awareness of such complexity avoids a large set of unproductive inferences one may make about oneself or others. And in some cases, it can also open up more sophisticated and functional models of oneself and others. Source:Marvin Minsky - The Society of Mind

  6. The Law is about creating a framework for safe cooperation and competition, but never for creating outstanding work. The core impetus of law is prevention through deterrence. As the scale of the human system increases, the need for a common coordination enabler, The Law becomes necessary. Key thinkers: Han Fei, Chanakya, LKY, Founding fathers of USA.

    1. Psychology: By providing some guarantees about human behaviour, the Law counters human distrust upto an extent & allows healthy cooperation and competition
    2. Ethics:Matsya Nyaya” - In the sea, big fish eat small fish. It is the same in human society, if there is no higher authority regulating human conduct. The weak become defenceless against the strong.
  7. Pragmatism: Continuously ask: “Does it work? What’s going to be the result? What causes the result?” Closely related to trial and error and Causality. Picking the right causes helps us produce expected results. Pragmatism as a style of thought and action is best understood through study of various historical figures combined with daily application within the group. Typical problem solving strategies such as gradualism (make a small experiment, then slowly scale), break it down into smaller pieces, aggressive in tech, conservative with people, matching ability to the toughness of problem, etc. are observed to have worked in the past. Sources:

    1. LKY’s rule: “Does it work?

    2. Chanakya’sadvice:

      1. “Before you start some work, always ask yourself three questions - Why am I doing it, What the results might be and Will I be successful. Only when you think deeply and find satisfactory answers to these questions, go ahead.”
  8. Humility: Sridhar Vembu - to achieve enormous results yetremain simple and down to earth. Trying to recognize value in everything, and voicing disagreements in a respectful manner.

  9. Tradition: Try not to disrespect what has stood the test of time, and make best use of history to filter noise in the present. In human systems, various religious institutions such as the Christian Church, Gurukuls such as the Shankaracharya lineage, the Buddhists, Confucians, etc have built upon generations of leaders in propounding their core ideas. Even in the area of technical achievement, those who respect the past, likeFabrice Ballard, have been very successful. By being attentive to the learnings of the past, and re-learning what has been realised in the past, a human being truly benefits from human evolution. Otherwise, the human lives like an animal; not many things can be learned from time consuming trial and error alone.

  10. Consistent application leads to compounded results: Learning fromCharlie Munger & Warren Buffet. in knowledge acquisition, social relations, psychological comfort, finance, and so on.Look out for paths leading to compounding and when seen, immediately pick a cause that can deliver a compounded result.

  11. ARM - Always Read More: Doing it, the costs are low, benefits are high. Not doing it, the costs are extremely high & the benefits are extremely low. The overarching goal of all of education is best summarised by Epictetus:_“Which is why education has no goal more important than bringing our preconception of what is reasonable and unreasonable in alignment with nature.”_Continuous investments into reading will force us to investigate multiple views and approximate more and more towards with nature. Proponents: Alan Kay, Charlie Munger,Seneca.

  12. Try/Experiment religiously: Taichi Ohno in his Toyota Production System held that answers lie in Trying, and finding out for yourself. Trial & Error is an important path to discovery & hence must be practised consistently. By consistency, Taichi Ohno that the practice should go uninterrupted, whether in good times or bad. Never say it cannot be done.

  13. Don’t hesitate to bend before the teacher: Once we recognize that someone, dead or alive, can teach us something, it is sensible to immediately bend & to acquire whatever can be learnt. One has to be shameless in the acquisition of learning. Source:Chanakya

  14. Skill is for handling certainty; Knowledge is for handling uncertainty. Dr. K N Subramanya, principal of the RV College of Engineering shared this insight in an interview emphasizing the different mind-sets required to handle specific tasks and generic problems. For instance, an airline pilot may have a specific skill, but may not have sufficient knowledge to deal with the uncertainties of running an airline business. One shouldn't confuse skills with knowledge.

  15. Curiosity helps: Having heard of something is usually better than not having heard of it. One always has the choice to take whatever has been input seriously or not through one’s own heuristics. Da Vinci became great through the consistent application of the curiosity principle.**

  16. Stephen Wolfram’s 80% doing, 20% planning rule: Hexmos activities are mostly action oriented. Out of 7 days we have only one “planning” session, which is a meagre 14%. We want to actively write, code, problem solve together to produce artefacts rather than consign ourselves to abstract arguments. An interesting application of this principle by Wolfram is his Working sessionLive Streams. These streams provide software engineering education, market his company, produce a usable record of work, help his users directly provide suggestions/criticism in the chat, while at the same time places very little burden on his day to day life. The key psychological barriers to overcome here are: perfectionism and an unwillingness to share with others the process of one’s work.

  17. Engineering Management demands constant follow up, professionalism and challenge: Admiral Rickover built the world’s first nuclear submarine in a mere 3 years despite tremendous internal opposition. His essay Doing a Job and his book Admiral Rickover: Never-ending challenge of engineering lay out his thoughts on how to successfully execute a job. This should be standard reading for engineering managers.

    1. Constant Followup:

      1. Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required. Too often, important problems are recognized but no one is willing to sustain the effort needed to solve them.
    2. Professionalism: A true professional operates based on his specialised knowledge base and refuses to change his solutions or diagnosis due to layman interference. Engineers and their decisions must be technically correct rather than appease to the whims of administrators.

    3. Always have more problems available than people can solve: Modern organisations try to appease employees by providing perks and comforts. However, Rickover said that real engagement comes from “doing your best” which requires ever-mounting challenges. A human being becomes fulfilled by the process of overcoming challenges.

  18. Coping vs Shaping: - Alan Kay emphasised that the Scientist & modern engineer is a person empowered with the newer achievements of human history. The behaviours that make an engineer/scientist/designer successful in the 21st century (shaping the environment) goes starkly against our ancestral heritage (coping with the environment). For instance, a tribal person, when confronted with a fast moving river, may merely use it for day to day purposes and be a bit afraid of the nature & movements of the river. Whereas, a modern engineer is not daunted by the river, but also can see an opportunity to dam the river and generate tremendously valuable electric energy out of it (note: there have been tremendously courageous engineering work in ancient history too - ex: Dujiangyan irrigation system; but this is an outlier case rather than the norm). Hence, the task of the scientist/engineer is to shape the environment in a skilled manner. For additional context, read Herb Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial

Attitudes & Behaviours that’ll be opposed internally:

  1. Saying it cannot be done without any attempts at solving the problem
  2. Failing to be consistent in efforts
  3. Refusing to be curious
  4. Misrepresentation, lying, which breaks down internal cooperation
  5. Lack of action-orientation
  6. Wasteful protests, arguments and general unproductive actions