Reflecting on my practice – finding the right frame

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Entrepreneurial programs and other incubators encourage a narrow version of success. Focus on one problem, give it one solution. There is pragmatic wisdom to this approach, but is it enough to solve wicked problems? And if it isn’t, then what is the point?

I’ve always worked across multiple projects. For the longest time, I was embarrassed that I could not identify one industry, or name one role description. Yet wherever I found myself, it always felt like problems were not understood fully, and solutions therefore partial.

A friend was joking on his Facebook page: ‘We speak a lot about the progress of Artificial intelligence. What I’m observing is the growth of natural stupidity’. We have more and more data, for sure, but no more capacity to make sense of it.

In how to think, John Dewey describes two movements of the mind. ‘As analysis is emphasis, so synthesis is placing; the one causes the emphasised fact or property to stand out as significant; the other gives what is selected its context, or its connection with what is signified.’

We understand problems based on the frame we use. Finding the right frame is as important as finding the right definition within the frame. A signal is only significant within a system. And how are you gonna find the right frame, if you spend your life focusing on just one sector?

I always resisted the lure of the single project. Instead, I deliberately cultivate variety, in what I read, in what I hear, even in what I eat. So that I can be more able to detect weak signals in the noise, frame problems appropriately, and suggest original approaches to tackle them.

Three types of intelligence

I will distinguish three types of intelligence:

  • Operational intelligence asks: how can I find the best way to perform a certain action?
  • Managerial intelligence askes: how can I achieve my goals in a complex environment and change strategies as the situation evolves?
  • Cultural intelligence asles: what are the most relevant categories to apply in order to understand my environment, and influence the rules of the game being played?

The latter also corresponds to what others describe as ‘mental models’.

On gambling

One of my oldest friends is a chess champion. Some time in the mid-naughties, he told me that he started making regular income from online poker. ‘It’s all about playing the odds,’ he said, ‘and beating the bad players. If you don’t get emotional, over time, statistically, you win.’ And when I inquired how much: ‘It comes down to about 30-40 euros an hour.’

I wasn’t sure if I found this glamorous or dreary. Making money this way seemed atypical, bohemian, and smart – in line with my friend’s overall character. I admired him for it. On the other, the details were not attractive, and the return ultimately mediocre: you stare at a screen all night, computing statistics, for 30-40 euros an hour – strip down the glamour, how does that radically differ from an accounting job?

Today, I read a chapter of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise about poker players. People picked up the game as a full time source of income during boom times in the US. Regulations against online gambling eventually killed opportunities: they were able to continue through offshore websites, but only the better players remained, while the bad ones went, raising the bar of competition too high for most.

One thing I enjoyed about Nate Silver’s book is that he never questions the ethical dimension of online poker as a source of income – thus avoiding moralistic rabbit holes, and leaving space for articulated thinking on probabilities and risk=taking. After reading him, thinking back of my friends, I wonder about my own puritanical emotions. Surely, making a living from online gambling is not entirely right – it’s a parasitic activity, nothing is created, no social value arises. Yet there are other ways to look at it.

For one, it’s allowed, it’s fun, and it does open opportunities to smart, atypical, bohemian types to make a living – or even a fortune – in their own way. David Walsh gambled, then opened Mona. Social benefits may take indirect routes, if we let them.

More arrestingly, gambling may teach us something, whether we take part, or observe. It provides clear, direct incentives to be smart, understand bluff, and think probabilistically. It creates an immediate economic need for intelligent behaviour. I can think of a few settings where this would be desirable. Maybe that’s a future for applied maths?