Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, it’s hard to believe that its been five years, and yet here we are; so much has happened, so much has changed and yet so much remains the same. I miss him so very much, I miss his wisdom, his humour, his strength but most of all I miss the comfort I felt simply knowing he was there. It was while I was thinking of him that I recalled this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow … which somehow feels apt…
(What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist)
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
"Life is but an empty dream!"
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,"
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Finds us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, -act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.
“Lack of passion leads to poor performance, which will damage any future chance of success. As a consequence it becomes progressively more and more difficult to be passionate”; Inertia is a self fulfilling prophecy.
It’s been so long since I’ve actually written a blog post I thought I’d try something different. Start with something that sounds like a conclusion … and try to piece it all together.
…but first a personal note …
I haven’t written anything particularly meaningful on this blog in a long time, somewhere along the way I lost my voice. I’ve been trying to understand why; some of it I cant remember or am probably still unwilling to remember at least not in enough detail to examine those feelings honestly. It’s amusing, at least to me, that all of this was brought into sharp relief when I read this simple sentence yesterday on an old friends blog1:
Not being able to speak manifests in not being able to write too.
That is so fucking true.
Which in turn linked through to a different post that also had a profound effect on me; by profound I mean made me feel angry and ashamed all at once2:
What does it feel like to remain silent when you should have said something? I bet you can think of occasions looking back when you wished you had found the words, any words, to say something. Say Something.
When I first started blogging it was, in no small part, due to a request from another friend, Ian Davis who back in 2006 asked me to start blogging and sharing my thoughts. Whilst I was nervous and unsure of myself, Ian convinced me to try and more importantly – to believe in myself. I was still fairly new to Talis at the time and I remember asking him “what if I say something you don’t like? or the company doesn’t like?” and Ian’s response was something along the lines of “its your blog and your voice … you can say whatever you want”. Of course I realised that he wasn’t giving me free reign to give away our trade secrets (not that we had many), or use it as a platform from which to hurl abuse at managers. What he was doing was saying its ok to question, it ok to share thoughts, even concerns because if we are an organisation that values our people then we have to encourage them to have a voice. For me it was this that made us far more ‘human’ or ‘people’ focussed than the company I left in order to join Talis. Ian left Talis a few months ago, I know he has a lot to deal with, and he is! But I do miss him. He has always inspired me and he still does; for that I will always be grateful to him. I wish I had said that to him more often, I hope its something he already knew.
So, back to Attitude reflecting leadership.
This is a rather old post on The Apathy Cycle vs The Passion Cycle. The quote at the beginning of this post was taken from this. Whilst the post itself is quite short there’s some interesting discussion in the comments that is also worth reflecting on. What do Passion and Apathy have to do with Attitude and Leadership … perhaps nothing … perhaps everything.
There’s been a lot of change recently, not only at Talis but also in other aspects of my life – family, friends, other projects I’m involved in outside of work. About the only thing that seems to remain constant is the fact that things keep changing. Dealing with change is not always easy – But you deal with it, right? I used to believe that everything changes and all that matters is how we, as individuals, choose to deal with it. But I’ve been re-thinking my position on that recently. Particularly when I think about it in the light of those things I’ve been really passionate about recently and those things I’ve been pretty apathetic towards.
The catalyst for this was several closely related questions that I was asked by two different people in two completely unrelated contexts (one was at work and the other on a different local project I volunteer with). But for the purposes of this I’m going to reduce those to just one and use that to frame the rest of this discussion:
What is it that makes the kind of leader you would choose to follow?
I’ve read books on leadership, team building and organisational culture; I’ve discussed these at length with others often more experienced in this subject area than I am. There are so many different ways of answering ‘what is a good leader’, and often when people answer they do so by pointing out the differences between Leaders and Managers. There is an important distinction, but difficult at times to articulate – I think what they all agree on is that the difference lies in the way that Leaders or Managers motivate the people who work or follow them. I know for some that’s a gross over simplification, so I’ll try to qualify this a little more. Leaders have followers, whereas Managers tend to have subordinates. Again, this is also over simplified since in many situations the same individual will have a Leadership position that requires him/her to Manage others. They are not mutually exclusive.
For me the leadership qualities that are required to make a good leader will vary in different companies, teams and situations. They are entirely context-dependent. What does that mean? every situation we face is different – I am a leader to some but a follower of others. No one is always just one or the other. One of the best examples of this, certainly one that helped me understand the importance of context was the play The Admirable Crichton, in which a Lord and his Butler swap their roles as leader and servant, as the situation changes. For example: when on a desert island the butler’s practical skills are essential for survival.
I might argue that in general a good leader is someone who thinks strategically, has a vision that is the source of their passion and communicates it effectively to others, inspiring them to follow; in other words enthusing others to work towards that vision because they too believe in it. Good leaders are also the ones that understand thats it’s important to boost the self esteem of others, it’s amazing what people can achieve when they believe in themselves. If you want to be technical then yes I am listing some of the qualities that are attributed to transformational leadership as opposed to transactional leadership where people are often motivated by reward or punishment and there’s a clear chain of command. I found the table at the end of this page helped as a talking point during one of the discussions I had. I don’t entirely agree with it but it was useful nonetheless. The other thing that helped was the film Twelve O’Clock High which was a more visual way of examining the effectiveness of different leadership styles and in different contexts! (had the damnedest time convincing them to watch a black and white film).
I personally believe that certainly with relation to the work that I do, or the projects I’m involved in, particularly those in and around social innovation, tapping into people’s passions and empowering them works better than diktat or command and control – I’ve witnessed for example at P2PU how far passion can take a community, that is led in an open and transparent way towards shared vision. I’ve also seen how corrosive it is when people’s motivations aren’t aligned behind a shared vision. It creates uncertainty, disillusionment and possibly most damning of all … a fundamental lack of trust. Often actually more through a lack of communication and transparency than anything else.
So when the question above was put me most recently, I answered:
‘the leader provides a vision, but he cant get there on his/her own – First I ask is the vision something that I believe in, does it inspire me, is it something I feel passionate about;. BUT then I ask myself how is that shared vision reflected in everyone else; In their words and actions … because you aren’t just following a person your also joining a team/community/movement.’.
The prevailing attitudes embodied within any team/community/movement are a reflection of its leadership. Apathy isn’t always a result of bad members, more often its a result of uninspired leadership.
That’s probably enough to think about for now. Hope this has been useful for those who asked.
It’s been a while since I read something that moved me as much as this short essay by an 11th Grader.
2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards
Prose: High School
Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong
11th grade, Winchester Thurston
I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic. I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part of anything so flattering.
Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish was in no way possible to escape growing up. It was constantly reinforced at every holiday, every service, and every encounter with the rest of my relatives. I was forever reminded how intelligent my family was, how important it was to remember where we had come from, and to be proud of all the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.
This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about Israel’s spotless reputation to the back of my mind. “Our people” were fighting a war, one I did not fully comprehend, but I naturally assumed that it must be justified. We would never be so amoral as to fight an unjust war. Yet as I came to learn more about our so-called “conflict” with the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases, and other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason. “Genocide” almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner; they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or simply that it was a “difficult situation.” It was not until eighth grade that I fully understood what I was on the side of. One afternoon, after a fresh round of killings was announced on our bus ride home, I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. “We need to defend our race,” they told me. “It’s our right.”
“We need to defend our race.”
Where had I heard that before? Wasn’t it the same excuse our own country had used to justify its abuses of African-Americans sixty years ago? In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were—like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a “conflict”—the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/ African-American Conflict.” In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.
I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago, Martin Luther King. He too had been part of a struggle that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be “Not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who…lives by a mythical concept of time…. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” When I first read those words, I felt as if I were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had been conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the same apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too, held the role of an accepting moderate. I, too, “lived by a mythical concept of time,” shrouded in my own surreal world and the set of beliefs that had been assigned to me. I had never before felt so trapped.
I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could not answer my misgivings, no one could. The next time I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over the course of the seventeen-minute cello solo that was routinely played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep). When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked, “I want to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many killings?” I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me. “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it?” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.” I knew, of course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did not by any means commit murder for its own sake, but to portray our thousands of killings as a “fact of life” was simply too much for me to accept. I thanked him and walked out shortly afterward. I never went back. I thought about what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I could not hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the rest of my life as one of the pathetic moderates whom King had rightfully portrayed as the worst part of the problem. I did not intend to go on being one of the Self-Chosen People, identifying myself as part of a group to which I did not belong.
It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever it came to the attention of any of our more religious family friends that I did not share their beliefs, I was met with either a disapproving stare and a quick change of the subject or an alarmed cry of, “What? Doesn’t Israel matter to you?” Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me perceived me. It was worth it to no longer feel as though I were just another apathetic part of the machine.
I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be an African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as though I know exactly what it must have been like to be white during that time, to live under an aura of moral invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs, and to contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face simple everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it lasted, but I decided to pass it up. I have never been happier.
Anyone can achieve their fullest potential,
who we are might be predetermined, but the path
we follow is always of our own choosing. We should
never allow our fears or the expectations of others
to set the frontiers of our destiny. Your destiny can't
be changed but, it can be challenged.
Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.
"To thyself be faithful: if in thy heart thou strayest
not from truth, without prayer of thine the Gods
will keep thee whole."
"Tis in every man's mind to love honor: but little doth
he dream that what is truly honorable lies within himself
and not anywhere else. The honor which men confer is
not good honor. Those whom ChÃ¢o the Great ennobles,
he can make mean again."
Found this wonderful TedTalk on You Tube by Dan Dennett, it summarises some of the ideas that he discusses at length in his new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I’ve always enjoyed reading his books. Dennett is a committed atheist, but this does not make him an enemy of the religious. His arguments and analysis are fair and the book’s purpose valuable and unlike Dawkins, Dennett takes a measured and rigorous approach: he seeks to explain religion rather than attack it. I’ve been reading his new book for a couple of days now and am thoroughly enjoying it. The Ted Talk below is very short but nevertheless Dennett manages to make some convincing arguments about the nature of ideas.
Having one of those nice quiet weekends where I get to catch up on some reading and a few webcasts! Came across this really interesting debate entitled the mind, machines and mathematics. The event was held last November on the 70th Anniversary of Alan Turing’s1 seminal paper “On Computable Numbers“. The purpose of the debate was to discuss the question: “Can we build super intelligent machines or are we limited to building super intelligent zombies?“.
Photo: Donna Coveney. From left Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks and David Gelertner
The participants in the debate are David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale, and Ray Kurzweil, a prodigious inventor and author of “The age of intelligent machines”. The debate is moderated by Rodney Brooks, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Kurzweil takes the position that machines will achieve a level of human intelligence, whilst Gelernter takes the opposite anti-cognitivist stand point. I guess it’s not surprising that the key point of contention was defining consciousness, or actually whether it could be defined.
For example, Kurzweil makes the point that: “there is no consciousness detector that we can imagine creating … that doesn’t have some philosophical assumptions built into it.” to which Gelertner insists, perhaps rightly, that “you can’t possibly understand the human mind if you dont understand consciousness“. Listening to them argue about consciousness I chuckled as I was reminded immediately of a passage from the beginning of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, which I plucked off my bookshelf and have transcribed parts of it here ( taken from the opening couple of pages of Chapter two: Explaining Consciousness):
Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery …There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of time, space and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance, but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have the final answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory but we do know how to think about them. The mysteries haven’t vanished, but they have been tamed … we know how to tell the misbegotten questions from the right questions, and even if we turn out to be dead wrong about some of the currently accepted answers, we know how to go about looking for better answers.
With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist – and hope – that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.
Dennett’s book is a wonderful read but its one of those texts that you have to persevere with since it can be fairly inaccessible, lets face it he combines psychology, philosophy, neuroscience along with many other areas of research so its small wonder some readers struggle with it. In fact I vividly recall one of the undergraduates on my AI course, years ago, who grew rather frustrated with it describing it as a head fuck. Which may not be entirely unfair …. anyway I digress … 🙂
During the debate Gelernter goes on to argue that building a conscious mind “out of software seems to be virtually impossible“, since software by definition can be taken from one computer to another, “peeled off“, can be ported from one platform to another and run in a “logically identical way on any computing platform“, but “the mind cannot be ported to any other platform or even to an instance of the same platform“, and whilst consciousness is an emergent property running hugely complex programs with billions or trillions of processes but there is no reason to believe that consciousness would or even could emerge.
Kurzweil, rather optimistically perhaps, went to point out that “that’s because were thinking of software as it is today“, since information technology is expanding exponentially and continuing research into the human brain is revealing more about brain chemistry and neural functions. I guess the point he wanted to make was that a biological brain shifting chemicals around isn’t really that dissimilar to a computer that shifts symbols? Which is a pretty valid point since Gelernter also stated that “we don’t have the right to dismiss our of hand the role the chemical makeup of the brain plays in creating the emergent property of consciousness“.
Invariably any discussion on consciousness leads to the question of spirituality, which Gelernter defined as a “thirst for the living God” and he asks, and answers, the equally inevitable question, “can we build a robot with a physical need for a non -physical thing? maybe but don’t count on it. And forget software.”
I did laugh out loud when Gelernter offers an answer to the question whether super intelligent conscious machines are desireable?
“I think it’s desirable to learn about every part of a human being. But assembling a complete artificial human being is a different project. We might easily reach a state someday where we prefer the company of a robot from walmarts to our next door neighbours … but its sad that in a world where we tend to view such a large proportion of our fellow human beings as useless we are so hot to build new ones! In a western world that no longer cares to have children at the replacement rate we cant wait to make artificial humans – believe it or not but if we want more complete fully functional people we can have them right now, all natural ones, consult me afterwards and I’ll let you know how its done“
I could provide a blow by blow account of the entire debate, but I won’t 😉 I think you should watch it,enjoy it for yourselves, and form your own opinions. What I will say though is that It’s a wonderful little debate and the speakers are both engaging and seem to endeavour to inject a fair amount of humour into it which makes this a really entertaining and informative discussion to watch.
“The ink of the scholars is worth more than the blood of the martyrs”
The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)
I wonder if the prophet would have imagined a time when Islamic scholars would, themselves, put an end to scholarly exploration, investigation, innovation, or even criticism? Have elements both within the Islamic faith and outside of it succeeded, so completely, in polarising opinions and distorting our faith to the extent where we no longer recognise who we are or what we are becoming … as we, all of us muslim and non muslim, are forced to march inexorably to our doom.
Faith and evolution provide complementary–and sometimes conflicting–models of the world, and they also can model the adoption of programming languages. Adherents of competing paradigms, such as functional and object-oriented programming, often appear motivated by faith. Families of related languages, such as C, C++, Java, and C#, may arise from pressures of evolution. As designers of languages, adoption rates provide us with scientific data, but the belief that elegant designs are better is a matter of faith…
This is a wondeful talk by Phillip Wadler from the University of Edinburgh, he’s one of the individuals responsible for getting Generics into Java 5, and has worked on Haskell and very heavily on the development of functional programming languages throughout his career.
It’s suprising how well the evolution vs faith analogy applies to the way in which we, as developers, often adopt programming languages. For some reason the talk made me remember the old Java vs .NET arguments which were less about rationale differences in the semantics and philosophy of the programming language and more about which camp you belonged to and your unswerving faith and loyalty to it. In fact thats a poignant example of when multiculturalism went out of the window and fundementalism was very much in fashion.
The talk also provides a fair amount of history around some of the issues that polorised language designers, static vs dynamic typing, for example. I found this provided some wonderful background that I was never aware of.
If your interested in Programming Languages, their adoption and their evolution over time then this is a fascinating, and unique, talk that you should really watch.
This is one of the most original and engaging talks I’ve seen over at Google. The talk is given by Matthieu Ricard a gifted scientist turned buddhist monk. The talk focuses on the question “if happiness is an inner state, influenced by external conditions but not dependent on them, how can we achieve it?”.