Thursday, December 19, 2019

 

Douglas Engelbart: "The Man Who Invented the Future"

Valerie Landau, author of the fascinating January 2018 Smithsonian article The Man Who Invented the Future, notes a poignant truth about the subject of her article, Douglas Engelbart: "The great proponent of collaboration was, ironically, unable to collaborate." She observed that when he became frustrated with someone's inability to understand his concepts he would end the conversation by declaring, "You just don't get it."

In the 1950s, Engelbart envisioned much of the technology revolution that has transformed the world. Landau quotes Alan Kay, who ran Xerox' PARC lab in the 1970s, as saying, "I don't know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug's ideas." There may not be a risk of that happening any time soon. Engelbart, who passed away in 2013, told Landau in 2006 that only "about 2.8 percent" of what he had envisioned had been achieved.

In the spring of 1951, Engelbart was newly married and well-established at his job. He thought about what would be most meaningful for him to accomplish. Landau writes:
"It just went 'click,'" he told me later. "If in some way, you could contribute significantly to the way humans could handle complexity and urgency, that would be universally helpful." He had a vision of people sitting in front of computer monitors, using words and symbols to develop their ideas, and then collaborate. "If a computer could punch cards or print on paper," he said, "I just knew it could draw or write on a screen, so we could be interacting with the computer and actually do interactive work."
Landau describes Engelbart's vision, and how Engelbart presented that vision in 1968 to a San Francisco audience of 1000 people: "Engelbart didn't just come up with the notion of using computers to solve the urgent and multifaceted problems facing humanity. He also gave the first-ever live demonstration of networked personal computing. Today, it's known as 'the mother of all demos,' a precursor to every technology presentation that’s happened since--and arguably more ambitious than any of them."

Engelbart's attempts to fully implement his vision were thwarted in the 1970s due to lack of funding. Xerox' PARC lab, under Kay, took the lead in the computing field but focused on developing the personal computer, not the network that Engelbart proposed. Only the mouse, which Engelbart considered the simplest of his innovations, was fully developed--and Engelbart could not understand why the three button mouse that he devised was "dumbed down" to a one button mouse by Apple.

Landau asserts that Engelbart not only foresaw the technology revolution to come, but that his proposed methods are still superior to the techniques utilized today:
Because his system was designed to present the same information from different angles, it was more than a rudimentary version of the software we use today. I believe it was better equipped than Apple's or Microsoft's programs to solving problems like peace, income inequality, sustainable development and climate change. He designed it for sophisticated knowledge workers--writers, designers, data analysts, economists. Even Google's collaborative apps are less ideally suited to do serious work that integrates libraries of data, documents, graphics, text and information maps. Engelbart's system came with a learning curve, but he believed the result was worth it. When people praised other software for being more intuitive, he asked them whether they'd rather ride a tricycle or a bicycle.
Engelbart's story demonstrates the frustrations inherent in being so far ahead of your time that the rest of the world simply "doesn't get it." Maybe in 50 years the world will catch up to Engelbart--but who is today's Engelbart, and what great ideas are now being relegated to languishing in the shadows of the mind of a lone visionary?

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Saturday, December 14, 2019

 

Inspirational Wisdom from Noah benShea's "Jacob the Baker"

Noah benShea wrote Jacob the Baker 30 years ago. This slim volume of just 113 pages tells the story of a fictional humble baker who, during his spare time at the bakery, jots down his thoughts and observations about life. One of those scraps of paper is accidentally baked into a loaf of bread, after which customers implore Jacob to regularly include his thoughts with the baked goods.

Here is one of Jacob's aphorisms about anger: "When our hand is closed in a fist, we cannot hold anything but our bitterness. When we do this, we starve our stomachs and our souls. Our anger brings a famine on ourselves."

The corrosive effects of anger are discussed in the wisdom literature in many cultures, and this is no doubt because anger is an emotion that many people struggle to control. Understanding that anger is self-destructive is a first step toward controlling anger, but even after that first step is taken there is still a long road to follow to calm anger, or at least redirect those negative energies in a positive fashion.

A customer asked Jacob how he found the strength to carry on when life is difficult. Jacob replied, "Each of us is alone. Each of us is in the great darkness of our ignorance. And, each of us is on a journey. In the process of our journey, we must bend to build a fire for light, and warmth, and food. But when our fingers tear at the ground, hoping to find the coals of another's fire, what we often find are the ashes. And, in these ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony. Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night, somebody else has bent to build a fire, and somebody else has carried on. And that can be enough, sometimes."

The capacity of the human spirit to not just endure challenges but to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles should be a powerful inspiration to everyone.

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Thursday, December 5, 2019

 

Insights from "The Way of the Owl"

Frank Rivers earned black belts in multiple martial arts disciplines in addition to being a rock climber and a freelance writer. His 1996 book The Way of the Owl examines, as the book's subtitle puts it, "Succeeding with integrity in a conflicted world."

Rivers' focus in the book is the contrast between the fledgling and the owl. He describes the fledgling as an "awkward creature, his life is marked by anxiety, resistance, and struggle." The fledgling takes a rigid, dualistic view of how to approach life, and reacts to every challenge with either the passivity of a dove or the aggressiveness of a hawk; vacillating wildly between these diametrically opposing approaches, the fledgling rarely finds peace or success. In contrast, the owl "is a master of flight and adaptation." Rivers writes that the human owl "takes the middle path between hawk and dove."

The Way of the Owl is packed with concise bits of insight that reward careful thought, attention, and practice. Here are a few, along with my comments (in italics):

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Monday, August 12, 2019

 

"The Little Zen Companion"

The Little Zen Companion is a 1994 anthology compiled by David Schiller containing over 300 quotations. In the Introduction, Schiller explains, "This book doesn't presume to define Zen, but instead to offer a taste of Zen's way of looking at the world: where the best moment is now, where things are what they seem to be, where we see with the refreshing directness of a child and not through eyes grown stale from routine." The quotations are not all by Zen masters and many do not even explicitly pertain to Zen, but they all provoke thought about what it means to be human, and how to strive toward living in the now as opposed to dwelling on what was or what might never be.

Here are a few quotations that resonated deeply with me; in some instances, I have added my own brief comments (in italics, after the pertinent quotation):

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Saturday, May 4, 2019

 

The Contrast Between Finite Games and Infinite Games

James Carse's book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility is divided into seven chapters that contain 101 numbered passages. The first passage briefly explains the book's premise and defines its two key terms:
There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. 
The rest of the book expands upon and explores this premise and those key terms. For instance, Carse declares that the only common trait of both kinds of games is "Whoever must play, cannot play."

He adds, "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries." According to Carse, in a finite game, only one person may win, but the other contestants may be ranked at the end. The rules of a finite game cannot change but the rules of an infinite game must change.

Carse's text contains numerous axiom-like statements, such as, "To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated" and "Power is always measured in units of comparison. In fact, it is a term of competition: How much resistance can I overcome relative to others?"

Carse also writes, "It is in the interest of a society therefore to encourage competition within itself, to establish the largest possible number of prizes, for the holders of prizes will be those most likely to defend the society as a whole against its competitors."

The overarching theme Carse's book is not explicitly expressed but is evident upon a close reading: life is an infinite game without boundaries and the road to happiness is not paved merely by winning a series of finite games but rather by making choices/decisions based on higher values/beliefs or, put another way, by taking a long term, big picture view as opposed to taking a short term, small picture view. This is not a novel viewpoint but Carse's method of describing this viewpoint is thought provoking.

Carse provides an interesting perspective on many subjects. For instance, consider his take on knowledge: 
Knowledge, therefore, is like property. It must be published, declared, or in some other way so displayed that others cannot but take account of it. It must stand in their way. It must be emblematic, pointing backward at its possessor's competitive skill.

So close are knowledge and property that they are often thought to be continuous. Those who are entitled to knowledge feel they should be granted property as well, and those who are entitled to property believe a certain knowledge goes with it. Scholars demand higher salaries for their publishable successes; industrialists sit on university boards.
Here, Carse describes the power of speech:
The victorious do not speak with the defeated; they speak for the defeated. Husbands speak for wives in the finite family, and parents for their children. Kings speak for the realm, governors for the state, popes for the church. Indeed, the titled, as titled, cannot speak with anyone.

It is chiefly in magisterial speech that the power of winners resides. To be powerful is to have one's word obeyed. It is only by magisterial speech that the emblematic property of winners can be safeguarded. Those entitled to their possession have the privilege of calling the police, calling up an army, to force the recognition of their emblems.
Carse discusses what it means to travel:
Genuine travelers travel not to overcome distance but to discover distance. It is not distance that makes travel necessary, but travel that makes distance possible. Distance is not determined by the measurable length between objects, but by the actual differences between them. The motels around the airports in Chicago and Atlanta are so little different from the motels around the airports of Tokyo and Frankfurt that all essential distances dissolve in likeness. What is truly separated is distinct; it is unlike. "The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred different pairs of eyes." (Proust)
Simon Sinek explains the difference between finite games and infinite games this way: Sinek believes that the Soviet Union played a finite game in Afghanistan because the primary Soviet goal was to defeat the rebels as quickly as possible, but the rebels played an infinite game and were thus able to outlast the Soviets. Of course, one could interject that the advanced weaponry provided to the rebels by the United States also played a role in the outcome, but Sinek's point is that people, businesses and nations that take a longer term, more flexible view are more likely not just to survive but to thrive than are people, businesses and nations that exert a lot of energy to pursue short-term, limited victories.

Sometimes, Carse tries too hard to be profound or to use cute word play at the expense of clarity. Overall, though, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility is an interesting read and the thoughtful reader will find within it much that is worth consideration. If nothing else, contemplating Carse's point of view on various subjects has the effect of shaking one out of complacency and forcing one to consider the implications of how society is structured and functions. It should be obvious that dividing everything into just two categories--finite and infinite--is an oversimplification of a complicated reality but oversimplification is an inescapable result of any theory or philosophy; the nature of trying to describe complex phenomena is to (over)simplify in an attempt to achieve at least a basic level of discernment/understanding.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

 

Insights from The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh

The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh contains excerpts from the writings of the respected Vietnamese monk/peace activist. I wrote about this book a few years ago but I recently reread it and I was particularly struck by several insights that I would like to share. Thich Nhat Hanh's words are enclosed in quotation marks, while my interpretations, musings and observations follow.

1) "The basic condition of happiness is freedom. If there is something on your mind that you keep thinking about, then you are caught and have no freedom."

It is vital to stay in the moment, to find delight in what is happening now. The past cannot be changed and the future is not yet determined.

2) "When you feel restless or lack confidence in yourself, or when you feel angry or unhappy, you can kneel down and touch the ground deeply with your hand. Touch the Earth as if it were your favorite thing or best friend."

It is important to be grounded, literally and figuratively. We must not lose focus on how we are connected to all other life forms and to the planet that sustains all other life forms. I remember when Michael Jordan played his last game in the fabled Chicago Stadium, he bent down, touched the floor and then kissed it. He later explained that he could not think of a better, more appropriate way to say farewell to a venue that he considered to be not merely a building but instead a close friend. In that moment, he was grounded, and he was appreciating the past while also living in the current moment.

3) "Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness."

Hanh understands that this can be a difficult practice at first, so he suggests beginning by designating one day a week as a Day of Mindfulness, a day during which you conduct yourself in a slow and relaxed fashion, enjoying each activity that you do--no matter how mundane--as opposing to rushing through an activity to get to the next activity. Hanh's Day of Mindfulness is analogous to the Jewish Sabbath, during which observant Jews disconnect from the secular/mundane in order to rejuvenate and refresh themselves, following the example set by G-d when He rested after the Creation. The wisdom of making sure to rejuvenate yourself transcends whether you do this as a Buddhist, as a Jew or from any other belief perspective.

4) "'Interbeing' is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix 'inter-' with the verb 'to be,' we have a new verb, 'inter-be.'"

This refers to how everything is connected, to the extent that you should be able to see "a cloud floating in this sheet of paper," for without the cloud there is no rain, without rain there are no trees and without trees there is no paper.

5) "Flowers decompose, but knowing this does not prevent us from loving flowers. In fact, we are able to love them more because we know how to treasure them while they are still alive. If we learn to look at a flower in a way that impermanence is revealed to us, when it dies, we will not suffer. Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality."

"Fear of the unexpected leads many people to live a constricted and anxious life. No one can know in advance the misfortunes that may happen to us and our loved ones, but if we learn to live in an awakened way, living deeply every moment of our life, treating those who are close to us with gentleness and understanding, then we will have nothing to regret when something happens to us or them."

Life and love are so precious and fragile but rather than fearing loss we must embrace the connections that we have and savor them.

6) "In Buddhism, we speak of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. It's possible for us to live the Noble Eightfold Path every moment of our daily lives. That not only makes us happy, it makes people around us happy. If you practice the path, you become very pleasant, very fresh, and very compassionate."

This list reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Deadly Sins: "Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principle."

With the exception of sociopaths/psychopaths, I think that most people feel good when they do right and feel bad when they do wrong, but sometimes our vision gets clouded by thoughts of temporary gain or fears of being exploited and we suppress our innate sense of goodness. Throughout his writings, Hanh emphasizes the importance of just being as opposed to running after something. He refers to the Buddhist practice of apranihita, "aimlessness." Hanh explains, "If you put an aim in front of you, you'll be running all your life, and happiness will never be possible. Happiness is possible only when you stop running and cherish the present moment and who you are. You don't need to be someone else; you're already a wonder of life."

Sometimes I struggle with figuring out how to reconcile this peaceful "aimlessness" with my innate drive to compete, dominate and win but perhaps I received at least a partial answer many years ago from National Master Hans Multhopp. I asked him how to improve my technique for converting winning chess positions and he replied that it is important to enjoy the process. I assumed that he meant to enjoy the process of dominating my opponent but he corrected me and explained that he meant to enjoy the process of solving the puzzle, of figuring out what the best moves are each step of the way. Perhaps this fits in with what Hanh describes and is a better approach than focusing on the benefits/joys that will happen after winning--none of which will come to fruition without actually staying in the moment and winning the game! In my most recent chess tournaments, I have consciously employed this approach, telling myself that I am at the tournament to enjoy each move and each problem to be solved. I have noticed that I am happiest (and, not coincidentally, most successful) when I embrace this mindset.

7) "Your anger is not your enemy; it's you. It's not good to do violence to yourself. Don't say that mindfulness is good and anger is evil, and good has to fight evil. In this tradition of mindfulness, there is no battle to be won. Suppose we are feeling a very deep anger that will not go away. We have to be very patient. By continuing to generate the energy of mindfulness and tenderly embrace our anger, we will find relief."

Anger is perhaps the most corrosive, destructive emotion that humanity faces, both individually and collectively. It destroys relationships among people and it starts wars among nations. Most of us think that our own anger is righteous, even if we believe or see that other people's anger is not justified. Hanh urges all of us to contemplate our anger and calm it without viewing anger as an external force. Our anger is part of us and can be embraced much as one would embrace a baby who needs to be comforted (Hanh uses this analogy in his book).

8) "The Buddha speaks about the 'second arrow.' When an arrow strikes you, you feel pain. If a second arrow comes and strikes you in the same spot, the pain will be ten times worse...Your worry is the second arrow. You should protect yourself and not allow the second arrow to come, because the second arrow comes from you."

This is perhaps the most profound statement from a very profound book. Colloquially, we sometimes speak of "shooting ourself in the foot," but excessive worrying is an example of literally shooting ourselves and thereby needlessly increasing our pain.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

 

Irving Wallace's "The Seven Minutes" Thoughtfully Explores Censorship, Sex and Intimacy

Irving Wallace's novel The Seven Minutes is part courtroom drama, part suspense story, part romance and part dissertation on how a democratic society must strike a delicate balance between the ideal of freedom and the reality of necessary rules. The drama, suspense, romance and dissertation all revolve around the government's attempt to ban a book for being obscene--an attempt buoyed by the alleged role that said book played to induce a man with no previous criminal record to commit rape--and a lawyer's determination to fight for free speech even at the cost of his career, his relationship and possibly even his physical safety.

Wallace's sympathies for freedom of expression are clear but he also gives a fair portrayal of the thoughts/motivations of the well-intentioned opponents of the book's publication/distribution. In a conversation after the trial, the prosecuting attorney tells the defense attorney that even a free society must have rules and boundaries: you cannot just drive your car on any side of the road that you choose at a given moment. The prosecuting attorney sincerely believes that some books are obscene, have no redeeming artistic value and pose a danger to young, impressionable minds; the defense attorney counters that for a society to remain free ideas cannot be suppressed but must be out in the open to be considered and debated. Pure hate speech and/or incitement to violence should not be protected but otherwise artists have a right to create while the public has a right to purchase/read/view or to decline to purchase/read/view.

The book's courtroom scenes and debates between various characters highlight how difficult it is to determine what is "obscene" and what is not "obscene."

Meanwhile, various characters encounter situations that cause them to question their own personal thoughts and decisions about relationships, sex and intimacy.

I have seen reviews of The Seven Minutes that wax eloquently about how great of a book it is and I have seen reviews that dismiss it as a "potboiler." It is not great literature in the classic sense--and it could have benefited from some editing in terms of both length and writing style--but Wallace dares to thoughtfully explore issues that are central to the meaning of life, of love and of freedom, so he deserves credit for his ambition. That ambition is largely fulfilled, as Wallace provides a lot of food for thought while also weaving a tale that commands your attention and piques your curiosity.

Near the end of the book, Wallace quotes from "Last Will of Charles Lounsbury," a document that used to be widely shared among attorneys and is still worth reading more than 100 years after it was first published. The document's author, Williston Fish, drafted the fictional will as a tribute to an ancestor of his named Charles Lounsbury, a person who Fish described as "A strong, vigorous man filled with the joy of living." The piece was first published in "Harper's Weekly" in 1898 and then as a booklet in 1907 but it soon took on a life of its own, being reprinted in a variety of sources, often with numerous mistakes. Fish lamented, "Some writers can boast that their works have been translated into all foreign languages, but when I look pathetically about for some little boast, I can only say that this one of my pieces has been translated into all the idiot tongues of English."

Here is the 1897 version, which is a fitting coda to the profound themes examined by Wallace:

He was stronger and cleverer, no doubt, than other men, and in many broad lines of business he had grown rich, until his wealth exceeded exaggeration.  One morning in his office, he directed a request to his confidential lawyer to come to him in the afternoon.  He intended to have his will drawn.  A will is a solemn matter, even with a man whose life is given up to business, and who is by habit mindful of the future.  After giving his direction he took up no other matter, but sat at his desk alone and in silence.

It was a day when summer was first new.  The pale leaves upon the trees were starting forth upon the yet unbending branches.  The grass in the parks had a freshness in its green like the freshness of the blue in the sky and of the yellow of the sun - a freshness to make one wish that life might renew its youth.  The clear breezes from the South wantoned about, and then were still, as if loath to go finally away.  Half idly, half thoughtfully, the rich man wrote upon the white paper before him, beginning what he wrote with capital letters, such as he had not made since, as a boy in school, he had taken pride in his skill with the pen:
 

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. I, Charles Lounsbury, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do now make and publish this, my last will and testament in order, as justly as may be, to distribute my interests in the world among succeeding men. And first, that part of my interest, which is known in law and recognized in the sheep-bound volumes of the law as my property, being inconsiderable and none account, I make no disposition in this, my will. My right to live, being but a life estate, is not at my disposal, but these things excepted, all else in the world I now proceed to devise and bequeath.


ITEM: I give to good fathers and mothers, but in trust to their children, nevertheless, all good little words of praise and all quaint pet names, and I charge said parents to use them justly, but generously, as the deeds of their children shall require.

ITEM: I leave to children exclusively, but only for the life of their childhood, all and every the dandelions of the fields and the daisies thereof, with the right to play among them freely, according to the custom of children, warning them at the same time against the thistles. And I devise to children the yellow shores of creeks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, with the dragon flies that skim the surface of said waters, and and the odors of the willows that dip into said waters, and the white clouds that float on high above the giant trees. And I leave the children the long, long days to be merry in in a thousand ways, and the Night, and the trail of the Milky Way to wonder at; but subject, nevertheless, to the rights hereinafter given to lovers; and I give to each child the right to choose a star to be his, and I direct the father shall tell him the name of it, in order that the child shall always remember the name of that star after he has learned and forgotten astronomy.
ITEM: I devise to boys jointly all the idle fields and commons where ball may be played, all snow-clad hills where one may coast, and all streams and ponds where one may skate, to have and to hold the same for the period of their boyhood. And all meadows, with the clover-blooms and butterflies thereof; and all woods, with their appurtenances of squirrels and whirring birds and echoes and strange noises, and all distant places, which may be visited, together with the adventures there to be found. And I give to said boys, each his own place at the fireside at night, with all pictures that may be seen in the burning wood or coal, to enjoy without hindrance and without any incumbrance of cares.
ITEM: To lovers, I devise their imaginary world, with whatever they may need, as the stars of the sky, the red, red roses by the wall, the snow of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music, and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.
ITEM: To young men jointly, being joined in a brave, mad crowd, I devise and bequeath all boisterous inspiring sports of rivalry, and I give to them the disdain of weakness and undaunted confidence in their own strength. Though they are rude, and rough, I leave them alone the power to make lasting friendships and of possessing companions, and to them exclusively I give all merry songs and brave choruses to sing, with smooth voices to troll them forth.
ITEM: And to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave Memory, and I leave to them the volumes of the poems of Burns and Shakespeare, and of other poets, if there are others, to the end that they may live the old days over again, freely and fully without tithe or diminution; and to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave, too, the knowledge of what a rare, rare world it is.
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