Paul Graham’s Disagreement Hierarchy

This is especially for people who like to interact with others, on Facebook and elsewhere. Awareness and understanding of this hierarchy (and obviously, the willingness to use it) will help you, whether you are a writer or a reader. It will likely increase the quality of conversations and make people having them happier – as outlined by Graham in his 2008 essay How to Disagree.

I think it is important because the predominant mind set of the ‘interactions’ these days seems to be – ‘I have an opinion and however uninformed it might be, I am going to defend it with my life and honor’. Anything that changes this is indeed likely to increase the overall well being of people.

The following is a pictorial representation of the disagreement hierarchy.  The hierarchy describes levels of disagreement DH0 to DH6 starting from the bottom.

Graham's_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement-en.svg (1)

Source: Wikipedia, By ‘Loudacris’. 

Read the original essay for a more detailed explanation. Paul Graham says the following about why it is important to classify and label forms of disagreement.

It helps the readers

“The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.”

It helps the people who are writing

“Such labels may help writers too. Most intellectual dishonesty is unintentional. Someone arguing against the tone of something he disagrees with may believe he’s really saying something. Zooming out and seeing his current position on the disagreement hierarchy may inspire him to try moving up to counterargument or refutation.”

Such an awareness will decrease the need to be mean and make people happier

“But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier. Most people don’t really enjoy being mean; they do it because they can’t help it.”

Happy conversations!!

PS: I have some immediate evidence in support of “you don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make”. My original first paragraph (which I am now reproducing from memory as I had deleted it) was:

This is especially for people who like to interact with others, on Facebook and elsewhere. Note that I am saying ‘interact’ and not ‘argue’ or ‘discuss’ because at least in my mind, an argument has some logic to it and a discussion has some sanity, some scope for nuance, and some space for disagreement. The predominant mindset behind ‘interactions’ today seems to be ‘I have an opinion and however uninformed it is, I will defend it with my life and honor.

As you can see, the current paragraph is much less meaner than this and that is because after the first draft, I think I realized that the sarcasm may not really help much to get the point across to the demographic that needs it most. Or I have a strong confirmation bias. Whatever.




Adventuring in Nilgiris – Birdspotting

I was an “Adventure Intern” at NALS, Coonoor – so were the wife, kid and the dog. That meant we got to spend time living and walking around in a tea estate and the jungle surrounding it for a month.

We had a morning off one day and I went around with my camera trying to spot and take pictures of birds. These are a few thoughts that might help you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Before we go further, here is a sample picture of what I later found to be an oriental white eye.


You may think it would be easy to take bird pictures – just take your camera, go to the place from where you hear the birds and click away. In practice, if you just keep walking, you never reach the place where birds are chirping. After a while, you realize that you are moving within a sphere of silence. You can always hear the birds chirping, a little behind and a little ahead of you. You spot birds from a distance but you are never close enough to take a picture (unless you have like a 100x camera or something).

The trick is to spot the birds that interest you and note the bushes where you see them. Typically these are some kind of flowering bushes with fruits as well. Now sit or stand slightly far from the place. Just stand there – don’t walk around or make a noise. You don’t need to stand like a statue – you can shift weight from foot to foot and turn around to watch stuff. Just don’t move too much.

Another thing while choosing the place – the sun should be behind you. Else, you will end up getting silhouette pictures.

You will now find the chirping slowly getting nearer as the birds get accustomed to your presence and start moving about, coming near and making sounds. Typically this happens when you stand around long enough for the local flies, mosquitoes and gnats to find you and start irritating you.

First, the boldest birds come back – in my case, it was red vented bulbuls. Then slowly, the other birds return and the bird you really want to take a picture of will come last. In this case at least, it is true that all things come to those who wait.

Once you spot a bird, you will note that they rarely stand still for a pose. Birds move constantly but once they are near a food source, they move in short bursts and move only a very short distance. Identify the general area in which the bird is moving, zoom in and follow the movement of the branches. You will eventually figure out the rhythm.

Initially, shoot everything that moves – slowly you can start ignoring the ones you have covered. As a matter of fact, I found afterwards that two sun birds I thought were the same were actually two different types!

A few other notes:

  1. Lot of patience and a little luck are what you need.
  2. Murphy’s Law works like everywhere else – you see the best possible shots when you are the least prepared. The auto zoom camera you are using decides to switch off seconds before you see the shot.
  3. It helps if you have a hiking stick or something to rest your hand on when you are taking the shot – else you will end up with blurry pictures
  4. Birds generally have a fall back position to quickly hide when someone is approaching. This is typically a little less visible than the feeding area. If you find that position and have a good zoom camera, you could get really good pictures

The approach above will help you cover the common types of sunbirds, bulbuls, barbets etc. For more exotic birds like woodpeckers and hoopoes, note the general area you spot them in and go back frequently. You could get lucky!

Do let me know your thoughts and any other inputs you may have, in the comments.

On achieving success and happiness

I was very surprised the other day to get an invitation to speak at the graduation day ceremony at Acharya Institutes of Management, but accepted out of curiosity. Must say I enjoyed it, don’t know about the people who had to sit through it. Here is a picture (I am the middle aged man in purple) and the text of the speech.


Good morning.

Some of you might already have suspected this but I wanted to share this with everyone – this is absolutely the first graduation day speech I am delivering. Thank you everyone for having me today.

When I was asked to speak here, I thought ‘what would I want to say?’ and it looked like a big problem. Then, I used a technique I used often before – make the problem something that I can relate to. For example, if you ask ‘how can I solve the problem of world poverty?’, it looks like a big problem. But if you ask yourself ‘my neighbor is poor. How can I help her?’ – it becomes very relatable and solvable.

So, I asked myself ‘I have a 10-year-old son – what would I want to tell him about life, and I found somethings I could say. So, Srikar, this speech is as much for you as it is for anyone else here.

There are two things that absolutely everyone I have ever met wanted in life – success and happiness. Please note that I have separated these two – being successful in something does not necessarily lead to happiness. You have to work separately for that.

So, let me spend the next few minutes talking about these.

First, success:

You may define success whichever way you want – make more money, have an impact on the world, solve an important problem and so on. Whatever your definition of success, I have found 2-3 things to be very important for it.

First, keep learning. There was a time when a 40-year-old would say ‘I am still a student’, and people would clap for it. Today, it is absolutely essential for each of us to keep learning. Things are changing so fast, you do not know what job you would be working at in 10 years’ time –  in such a climate, as someone said, the ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn is going to define success in the future. You are graduating today with a degree but what you are going to learn in the future is going to be more important than what you have learnt till now.

That raises a question – so, what should we learn? Purely based on my experience with recruitment and training of fresh graduates, I would say, learn to communicate well in English. In my opinion, it is the single biggest factor that makes people ‘unemployable’. It is the first thing that people notice. I do not mean to say do not learn your mother tongue. It is not an either – or choice – learn both the languages. Many of the people I know who are very good at English are also very good at their mother tongue. Do not use your love of mother tongue as an excuse not to learn English.

Other important things I would suggest – learn how to think, argue and make decisions, learn how to code, learn statistics, learn how to manage your money.

So, where and how to learn? Fortunately, today this question is easy to answer – use the internet – there was a time when you needed to go to a library or speak to a professor to learn anything. Today, you can learn anything on the internet. In my opinion, the importance of colleges and degrees is going to decrease drastically in the future. If you look at it, most of the cutting edge technologies like data science are not learnt in colleges. People are learning these on their own and learning on your own has become very easy. I would specifically recommend Coursera – an online platform where you can get free courses from world’s leading universities. For school going children, you should try Khan Academy and learnzillion to see what I mean about learning becoming very easy.

Second thing about success: Cultivate good working habits – be disciplined, develop that ability to plan and follow through, become reliable – in short, be more productive. The best way to learn these is by actually working. I would recommend you start working as early as possible, one way or the other. Do not wait till you finish your masters or Ph. D. Go volunteer with any organization, join as an intern, start some small thing of your own – but get started. Of course you can also look up how to be productive online and see which of them suit you.

Third – this is at a slightly meta level – Treat life as a series of deliberate decisions rather than as a flow that you need to go along with – think carefully and make choices based on what you are getting out of each decision you make – As a concrete example, joining a master’s program after a bachelor degree should not be an automatic choice – you should first satisfy yourself that is the best option – for example, would a masters be better than interning at some startup?

Fourth – have some goals in life and periodically ask yourself how you are doing on these goals. Whenever you make a decision or take a step forward, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve, document it and see if you meet the goal. You can learn a lot by doing this. For example, let us say you are planning to party overnight. What is the goal? To have a good time. In the morning, ask yourself if you really had a good time. Take all things – effort to organize the party, money to pay for it, the hangover, the lies you had to tell – all of them, into account and ask yourself if that is what a good time is. If yes, do it again. If not, try something else next time.

Second, Happiness

Now, let is come to happiness. Like I said, success and happiness do not automatically go together.

So, what should you do to stay happy?

First, you need to be aware of yourself. It is not a cliché; it is not trivial. Think about this – you spend most of the time with yourself, in your head. And if you think about it, most of your unhappiness is about yourself. Most of your unhappiness is rooted in not being able to understand and accept yourself for what you are.

For example, say you have the habit of postponing everything – by the way, it is the most common unproductive habit around the world. How many people do you know who acknowledge this and take some steps to address this issue? I bet none.

So, you go on without recognizing you have this habit. You find yourself falling behind on a lot of things as you postpone things and every day you wake up feeling more and more unhappy about it.

Now consider you are aware of this – you take some concrete steps like having well defined deadlines, asking friends to help you, making public commitments and so on. You will fail sometimes; you will succeed sometimes. Irrespective of that, you are definitely better off than in the other case, in terms of happiness.

It is not easy, but it is not impossible. It is important to start thinking about it and observing yourself.

In summary, what are your strengths and weaknesses should not be treated like a routine interview question – it is THE question on which a major portion of your happiness depends.

Second important point about happiness is relationships.

It does not make sense to conclude a speech to 19 – 20 year olds without talking about relationships.

When I say relationships, most of you think oh, he is going to talk about ‘love’. So, let me spend a minute on that. What is love? – it is so notoriously difficult to express that someone just said – love is what two people agree it is. One thing is sure – I definitely know what love is not – it is not what you normally see in the movies.

For me, love is not a feeling – it is set of actions. It is a set of actions designed to convey to the other person that you care and that you are there. Think about this.

Let’s now move on to relationships – relationships do not happen on their own, they are not made in heaven, they are not mandated by the HR departments in companies. Relationships are built over time and need care and attention to maintain. We are not born made for each other, we make each other into what we need each other to be.

Pay attention to the relationships around you. Recognize the basis of these relationships – it could be respect, a shared understanding, mutual admiration or whatever else it is. Work actively to preserve and strengthen the basis of these relationships. Grow in these relationships – feel enabled and empowered.

Wish you all the best – have fun, be happy and become successful.

Disclaimer: I am not claiming any of this is original. Please relax about that. In these days of reading on the internet, it is becoming very difficult to keep track of one’s thoughts.

Who killed Karna?

Just completed a project – young team, tight timelines, new technical tools etc. and sat down to think about how it went, what went right/wrong and so on. In such an exercise, while one can identify areas that can be improved, the question “What went wrong?” does not have a single, definitive answer. There are a bunch of relatively small things that go wrong, that finally contribute to what visibly goes wrong.

As I was thinking about it, was reminded of this question – “who killed Karna?” which, incidentally, was asked much before “who killed palomino Molero?”  Arjuna asks this question and Krishna answers: “By you, by me, by your mother Kunti, by the lord Indra, by mother earth and by his guru Parashurama. If you think about it, Karna was killed by six of us.”

For those that can read Telugu, the poem goes like this:

నీ చేతను నా చేతను

వరమడిగిన కుంతి చేత వాసవు చేతన్

ధర చేత భార్గవు చేతన్

అరయంగా కర్ణుడీల్గె నార్వురి చేతన్

(వాసవుడు = ఇంద్రుడు; భార్గవుడు = పరశురాముడు; అరయంగా = చూస్తే, ఆలోచిస్తే; కర్ణుడు+ఈల్గె = కర్ణుడు చనిపోయాడు)

What Krishna is saying, is that there are lots of things that contributed to Karna’s death, the principal contributions coming from these six. He was also probably trying to assuage the guilt felt by Arjuna after discovering that Karna was also the eldest son of Kunti, and therefore an elder brother.

Now for the stories of these six contributions:

By you – Arjuna was the one who actually kills Karna in the battle

By me – Krishna is the one who plotted it (and directed the entire war, by the way)

By Kunti – before the beginning of the war, Kunti goes to Karna, tells him the secret o his birth and asks for a boon. Karna agrees to not kill any of the Pandavas, other than Arjuna. This puts him at a huge disadvantage.

By Lord Indra – according to the legend, Arjuna is the son of Indra. Karna was born with golden armor that made him impossible to kill. So, before the beginning of the war, Indra goes to him in the guise of a Brahmin and asks him for the armor as a gift. Since Karna also took this oath saying he will grant anyone what he asks for, he was obliged to part with the armor, becoming vulnerable.

By mother earth – Once a little girl spills some ghee and was crying because her mother would scold her for that. Karna, passing that way, wants to help and squeezes the mother earth till the ghee oozes back, pure. Mother earth gets angry at this and curses him saying she will not support his chariot in the most crucial battle of his life. The chariot actually gets stuck during the final battle.

By his guru parashurama – Parashurama took an oath saying he will not teach any king or one born into a ruling family and teaches only Brahmins. Karna goes to him in the guise of a Brahmin and learns the secrets of weapons from him. When parashurama discovers this, he curses Karna saying the knowledge he acquired by deceit, will not help him in his moment of need.

One would also notice that in all these six cases, and generally for most of his life, Karna was actually betrayed by his good intentions. That’s a story for another day.

Are you happy?

Are you happy?

I don’t know…

Okay, let’s get down to the details. Are you happy with your work life? The money you make and so on?

Yeah…I may not be the best out there but I am not the worst. I know I can do better but…Yeah, alright.

Are you happy with your family life?

Yes. I get along well with my wife; my son does well in school and is well adjusted. My parents or in-laws are generally the non-interfering kind. Yeah, I am happy. We have just come back from a vacation, you know!

Are you happy with your social life?

Yes. I have a good bunch of friends, even outside facebook. I get company for drinking every weekend.

Are you happy with yourself? How do people see you, how well you are doing overall and other such stuff…

Hmmm…I guess so. I am not a bad person or at least, no one told me so yet. I do reasonably well with family, friends, work and strangers.

Are you happy with how you have done till now?

I should be. I have done fairly decently considering where we started. I have done much better than my peer group.

Are you happy with your future prospects? How does it look?

Not bad…at least as far as I see…

Are you happy with the places you live in, work in or travel to?

Yeah, yeah. I am generally okay with such things.

So, are you happy?

Hmmm…it’s so difficult, man…I don’t know. May be I should be.

Meaning of Life

IIMBaba was reading a book review online and came across a quote at the beginning of this  review: Tweets Alain de Botton, philosopher, author, and now online aphorist: “The logical conclusion of our relationship to computers: expectantly to type “what is the meaning ofmy life” into Google”

And sent it on the mailing list of his Bhaktas, to provoke thought.

Senior Bhakta replies to all  – “just now typed it in Google. There are 48,400,000 results, offered up in 0.11 seconds. What to pick and read?”

The very recently joined junior Bhakta, nervously checking mail on his blackberry does not want to be outdone. He writes – “I typed ‘what is the meaning of my life’ in my Google window and got 118,000,000 results in 0.24 seconds. Does that mean my life is longer and more meaningful than yours?”

He then went on to publish on his blog that night: “according to Google, people with 2 years of post-MBA experience have nearly double the meaning in their lives compared to those that have more than 5 years of post-MBA experience”.

Last heard, he was turning it in to a peer reviewed paper for the international webinar on “Meaningful Work and Life”.

Babaspeak: On Work

I have been working hard in the last two weeks – at least I feel that way, may be as I have come back to consulting after a year of happily teaching English classes. So, the idea of work has been on my mind and here is a collection of “work quotes” from IIMBaba’s teachings and discourses over the years. You know where that preachy tone comes from.

Work is like a python – when you are in its clutches, if you continue to stare at it mesmerized, it will slowly crush you. The trick is to get out of its grip, a little at a time

(Same approach works for depression, too)

“Why do you want work life balance? They should not be weighed in the same scales at all”

“If you think the feeling you get when there is a lot of work waiting for you is bad, wait till the time when all that is waiting for you is non-work*”

“Are you one of those who say they will be happy if only they can make a living out of doing whatever they think they like doing? Nothing can be far from the truth. By making your pleasure your work, instead of making work more palatable, you are going to make the pleasure much less pleasurable. It’s the label “work” that makes it painful, not what it is”

“Why do you want your work to be ‘meaningful’ and ‘fulfilling’? It’s your life which is supposed to have these attributes. Stop expecting salvation through work. Treat it as the small part of life that it is. At 30, work does look like a large part of life, just like sex looked like a large part of marriage when you were 25 (or 20 or 18 depending on when you started contemplating marriage).  Out grow this work dependence, start living life”

There. Now that you have been suitably enlightened, please get back to work.

*Non-work: work like things done in offices around the world when there is no work.