beware, there be spoilers: God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

•15 July 2018 • Leave a Comment

I had an interesting and mildly revelatory experience while reading this bit of Vonnegut.  And looking around at the news and the world around me, it’s not an experience that’s unique to me, and it’s an experience that’s becoming more common.  It also ties into some of the other things I’m thinking about, and that I’ve written about here from time to time.

Vonnegut has a recurring theme, sometimes directly expressed and other times less so, that the world would be a better place if only people were nicer to each other.  This is view of the world taken by Eliot Rosewater.  At first glance, it’s perhaps a naive idea but I would like to try and explain a bit why I don’t think it’s naive at all.

I remember an old science fiction story, title and author long forgotten, about first contact with an alien race and they take us into their houses.  Their children treat us like toys or pets, treating us not particularly well, until there comes a point when the human protagonist has the revelation that signals they are ready to be educated, alongside the alien children.

This is a story that’s stayed with me and comes to mind every time I wonder, why do people behave the way we do?  And I think that ultimately, it’s because we have decided to behave the way we behave.  Our tolerance of the hoarding of great wealth while our fellow human beings, independent of their nationality or religion, suffer want or war.

More than once, I’ve read a story, the basic principle of which is that we as humans are not yet mature enough to join the community of worlds, because we do not treat each other well.  We do not yet treat each other as we ourselves would like to be treated.  And this principle is also core to many of the major religions of the world.

We have reached the point in our development that we have turned the machinery of science on ourselves, and we are beginning to understand how we as humans think.  And how very different the way we actually think is, from the way that our internal view fools us into thinking how we think.

And so where to take this experience?  I’m not entirely sure.  This battle, to persuade people to behave well to one another, is one that we’ve been having with ourselves for millenia.  What’s changed is that we now have science on our side, should we choose to use it.

However, there is another riptide that we need to swim against, which is that actively using the science we have to understand ourselves is also drifting out of favor among many.  We carry beliefs about ourselves as humans and about the world, that are not based in science.

I believe strongly in the power of science to provide us with an explanation of how the world works, and that we need to make use of the understanding of ourselves and how we work that comes from science.  I also believe strongly in the power of the stories we tell each other, and have told each other since we were huddled together around a weak flickering fire against the beasts that prowled in the night.

beware, there be spoilers: Cat’s Cradle

•9 July 2018 • 1 Comment

So, I’m behind in my reading, but that doesn’t make this day different from any other day. The Pile of Things to Read is an actual pile by the side of the bed, having collapsed from a carefully constructed tower on the bedside table, and I’ll keep working my way through it, adding books at a rate bit faster than I’m currently reading.

I’d read Cat’s Cradle many years ago, and I remember two things in particular from that first reading. I remember boko-maru, foot communion, and I remember ice-nine. But I didn’t remember the joys of Bokononism with its notions of karass and granfalloon. And I didn’t remember the truly weird collection of characters that make their way through the book.

But this time through, it was the ice-nine that caught my imagination. An arrangement of the atoms of water to form a variant of ice with a melting point of about 114 degrees Fahrenheit. And if we let ice-one be our normal keep-out-iced-tea-cold ice, I’m not sure what happened to the intervening variants two through eight.

So when ice-nine got loose at the end of the book and the world ended, with its oceans frozen and desolation on a scale unimaginable, I found myself pondering, could we actually do this.

The novel is a parable of the Cold War with ice-nine playing the role of atomic and nuclear weapons, and this isn’t an observation original to me. But as we get better at understanding the world and at manipulating that world on the smallest of scales, I find myself wondering whether such an arrangement of water molecules might actually exist.

I suppose, if I were being paranoid and wildly incautious in my imagining, that there might be a government laboratory of sorts, most likely buried deep underground or hiding in plain sight in some vast industrial park, where government scientists keep the results of building things that they read about in the novels of their childhood. This is the close cousin of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It would be cool and highly dangerous to know that ice-nine (and ice-eight through ice-two) actually existed, and we as human beings do have a tendency to follow our imagination a bit too far at times.

I imagine that the caretaker of such a laboratory would be like the Ernest Borgnine archivist character in the movie RED, well aware of the details of everything under their supervision and keeping a close eye on all comings and goings. And if such a laboratory existed, I think being that caretaker might be a fascinating and terribly tempting job to have.

more reflections on Rashamon

•10 June 2018 • Leave a Comment

For reasons that aren’t necessary to go into here (ooh – indeliberately building an air of mystery), I’ve been thinking about Rashamon phenomena.  And these reflections have been centered on one aspect of these phenomena, namely the distinction between the active and the passive.

Previously, we’ve described Rashamon phenomena as a thing that happens, where different people view a single event or single object in some general sense, and see different things.  But this is a very passive view of the phenomena.  The next question then becomes, how to make active use of these phenomena.

So what do I mean by this.  Knowing that these phenomena exist and knowing that they are somewhat common, perhaps very common, how can we take advantage of these phenomena.

The first way I can see of making use of these phenomena is to help me structure my arguments and my proposals, when I argue points of fact or interpretation or when I put forward a proposal.

Knowing that people will view these arguments and proposals differently than I intend, and knowing that people will view them differently from one another, regardless of how much I try and put myself into other peoples’ shoes, means that I need to be be very careful in how I put those arguments and proposals together and how I shop them around before making formal proposals.

But I think it should be possible to do more.  And this is where I’m exploring.  How can I take what I know about Rashamon and use it in an active way.  What I’ve described just above, while prudent and helpful, is actually also passive in terms of the phenomenon itself.  It’s informing my actions, but it’s not really shaping them.

I find this sort of exploration interesting.  I’m not entirely sure where it will take me but I know that I’ll enjoy the journey.  We’ll see where it takes me.

reflections on Rashamon

•3 June 2018 • 2 Comments

I would like to pick up a theme I started working through some time ago, namely the Rashamon phenomenon.   As I go on in my career, I find myself pondering this phenomenon more and more, because I encounter aspects of it more and more.  And I’m curious as to why.

Perhaps it’s just something fundamental to the nature of being human.  We each come to each experience with the baggage and influence of the lives we’ve led up to the moment of the experience.  And even though we are tied together by our common language, we each experience each moment from our own particular viewpoint.

But it isn’t just the baggage and influence of our past experience.  We each also approach each moment with some amount and some direction of expectation and assumption.  Perhaps we will assume that a conversation will be on one topic, and it isn’t until we’re some minutes into it that we realize the other person is talking about something completely unrelated.

These are tied together in something that martial artists, and Zen practitioners more generally, refer to as the Beginner’s Mind.  How can we approach each moment on its own merits, rather than being bound by the expectations and assumptions we bring along with us.

This is clearly something important to a martial artist, as should we find ourselves in the situation of needing to do something in the face of an attack, even in the relatively confined circumstance of a grading or demonstration, for instance, we can find ourselves in real trouble, on both sides, if we make an assumption that turns out to be unfounded.

It’s interesting to speculation on the extent to which the Rashamon phenomenon is tied up in these difficulties of being human, and to what extent it is the result of deliberate misunderstanding or at least the deliberate act of assuming that it must be the other person that misunderstood.

On a slightly different tack, we can go back to a basic part of the Rashamon phenomenon, viewing the different perspectives on an event as shadows projected in different directions by that event.  And this leads to something equally interesting.

If I take a shape of shadow, I can always find an object that has that shape of shadow.  If I take 2 shapes of shadow, I can always find a single object that has one of those shapes of shadow in one direction and the other in a different direction.

If I take though 3 shapes of shadows, does there always exist a single object which has shadows in each of those 3 shapes in 3 different directions?  And how might we build that object?  Sometimes the answer is yes, as there is a single (rather simple) shape that casts a circular shadow in one direction, a triangular shadow in a second direction and a square shadow in a third direction.




beware, there be spoilers: models of leadership and management 2

•13 May 2018 • Leave a Comment

There are other movies beyond the Descent, explored previously, in which the characters and scriptwriters explore aspects of leadership and management.

Some are obvious, such as the structured and organized yet ultimately anarchic Tyler Darden of Fight Club, or the meticulous John Doe of Seven trying to inspire a revolution. And yes, I’m looking for these models in somewhat unlikely places, movies that don’t have management or leadership as a primary theme.

It would be interesting to explore Dr Strangelove in light of this theme, as there are many characters throughout the movie who demonstrate intriguing aspects of leadership in difficult circumstances. But I think I need to watch the movie again, as I haven’t seen it for a while.

So let’s instead do something a bit different.

Looking back at all the movies I’ve enjoyed, who is the character I would most be willing to follow and why. And here is where it gets a bit interesting, because this ties into my interest in supervillainry.

In the universe of supervillains, there are the Bond supervillains, some working for SPECTRE, some only affiliated, some working on solo projects. Of all the Bond supervillains, my favorite is Dr No, but in terms of sheer management ability, I think that Blofeld is clearly the strongest, particularly in the latter movies, though as always I was a bit sad at the speed with which their enterprise collapsed at the end.

But the Bond supervillains have an inbuilt flaw. They are all written with a fatal flaw, which is that they don’t survive their interaction with Bond.

The next step might be the Mad Scientists, particularly those that don’t think of themselves as particularly mad. Driven they might be, needing to work against the system to save the world from the damage done by the inferior intellects of others.

One of these might be interesting to work for, though it would require engaging with their specific focus. Victor von Frankenstein is perhaps the first of these, though while we see the drive, we don’t the wider charisma that would qualify him to be a true leader.

So I’m still working on this one. I think I need to go back and watch a few of these movies. Always nice to have a different sort of research to do.

models of leadership and management

•6 May 2018 • 1 Comment

I think a lot about how to structure my views about and my practice of how to lead and how to manage.  In part, this is because I find myself in situations where such thinking is necessary.

But I would like to take a slightly different approach.  Rather than the standard style of case study that we often find ourselves working through, I would like to look at movies and see how leaders and managers in movies address the challenges they face.

Alas, for some of the movies I’d like to consider, I’ll need to work from memory.  The first of these is The Descent.  What I think is relevant is not the cave dwelling monsters that chase and kill the spelunkers, leaving the lone survivor to face the awkward ending on her own.

Rather, what I find interesting is the strong character, the member of the caving party (and sorry that I can’t remember her name) who takes on the leadership role and leads her team into disaster.  This of course is not her intention.  She is after adventure and the excitement of exploration, and she makes a decision here, takes an action there, which step by step lead to the gathering disaster.

But I can see why she persists.  The first challenge comes early in the descent into the cave, and they can be cautious and turn back, or they can continue with the plan they had set.  And she decides to continue with the plan.  And it had a good chance of working.

For me, the lesson from The Descent is that I need to temper my ambition with pragmatism and with planning.  My favorite quote about planning comes from Winston Churchill: plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.  The characters in The Descent would have benefited from a bit more planning.

This quote might be one of my most favorite quotes and one that rings often in my head.  So I make plans, and the plans often fall by the wayside as the circumstances change, but yes, it is the planning, the thinking through the plans and possibilities, that matters.  And I’ll keep doing so, as long as I avoid the cave dwelling monsters.

beware, there be spoilers: Mother Night

•22 April 2018 • Leave a Comment

Three down and some number to go, and reading Vonnegut’s Mother Night has led me to ponder, and not for the first time, the nature of coincidence.

One coincidence is that Howard W Campbell, Jr, the character from whose point of view the story is told, is one of those characters who deliberately makes themselves the face of the enemy.  This is something that Vonnegut has done before, though in a slightly different way, as we wrote about in beware, there be spoilers: The Sirens of Titan.

The context is different here, because Howard finds himself being recruited by an American intelligence agent to become the voice of the Nazi regime during the second world war, and he does it spectacularly, remarkably well.  I don’t want to say much more, in case you do want to read Mother Night, which I recommend we all do.

Another coincidence is a smaller and stranger one, and gets to a completely different point, which is the extent to which we pick up ideas from the things we read.  And this part is pure pure speculation.

I don’t know whether Douglas Adams ever wrote about why he chose 42 as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.  After all, 42 is a quite respectable number.  Not too small and not too large, an integer, the product of 2 and 3 and 7, which has great significance in my field of research for reasons I really don’t want to go into here.

The agent who recruited and ran Campbell during Mother Night at one point towards the end of the book, in their third and final face to face meeting, comments that Campbell was the only one of the 42 agents he recruited that survived the war.

I don’t know whether Adams read Mother Night and I don’t know whether the number 42 stuck itself into some subconscious crevice, to make a later appearance in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it did get me thinking about what excavations of my own subconscious crevices I undertake when I’m writing.

I suspect it’s a lot.  When I’m casting about for something that feels write, an incident or a fact, or a number, that has the right feel to it for what I’m doing, I wonder how often I’m finding and using something with whose shape I’m familiar.  Something to pay some attention to, the next time I sit down for a bit of writing.