Thursday, December 19, 2019
Douglas Engelbart: "The Man Who Invented the Future"
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?
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Inspirational Wisdom from Noah benShea's "Jacob the Baker"
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.
Thursday, December 5, 2019
Insights from "The Way of the Owl"
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):
- "Conflict is woven into the fabric of life; opposition is normal...Do not be surprised when you encounter resistance. Meet it with grace and skill."Those who do not understand this truth subject themselves to needless suffering. Any positive, creative endeavor will inevitably be met with criticism, and it is impossible to improve the world without first disrupting the established order.
- "The basic rule is simple: The wider the comfort zone, the greater the chances of survival."Adaptability is critically important. Adapt or perish!
- "Whatever an opponent does, no matter how immoral, unjust, or illegal, is the artist’s medium. This is the material we have to work with." A sense of righteous indignation must be channeled into effective, positive action, and away from angry and/or frustrated rumination.
- "Give up your resistance to resistance. Engage the enemy as you find him, not as you wish him to be. Once you embody this principle, you will realize an instant and dramatic improvement in your performance. When you abandon the inertia of analysis and judgment, you will no longer be stuck. You will remain fluid, active, and alert." Our adversaries are not obligated to fight fairly, or conduct themselves the way that we think they should conduct themselves. It is important to never lose focus on how to overcome whatever obstacles that our adversaries place in front of us.
- "Never assume that victory will be easy or that you are totally safe. Never assume that your position is secure. There is always someone who is bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, or luckier. By paying respect, you keep your mind open and alert." Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier, a former U.S. chess champion, once looked at a risky move that I had played and he exclaimed, "Where is your sense of danger?" In life, as in chess, you must remain 100% focused on the task at hand, and never underestimate your opponent's resources/resourcefulness. If your position looks good, take great care to make it even better while restricting your opponent's options. In chess, your opponent is a threat until he resigns or until you checkmate him, and that principle applies to many other life situations as well.
- "Treat difficult things as if they were easy and easy things as if they were difficult." Do not be afraid to tackle a daunting challenge, but also do not lose your focus when undertaking a task that seems simple and easy. One hallmark of a champion's greatness is the ability to maintain focus both in the face of extreme adversity and also when performing a routine task.
Monday, August 12, 2019
"The Little Zen Companion"
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):
- "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki. Studies have shown that the best chess players look at fewer moves than weaker players, but the best players look at those moves more deeply and more accurately. The expert chess player understands that there are only a few optimal ways--and, sometimes, only one optimal way--to play a given position.
- "Before a person studies Zen, mountains are mountains, and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are not waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters." Zen saying.
- "Ring the bells that can still ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Leonard Cohen.
- "The raindrops patter on the basho leaf, but these are not tears of grief; this is only the anguish of him who is listening to them." Zen saying.
- "If you seek, how is that different from pursuing sound and form? If you don't seek, how are you different from earth, wood, or stone? You must seek without seeking." Wu-men.
- "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Gauguin, inscription on one of his paintings. This quotation reminds me of Prince's song "The Ladder," which has the following lyrics:
"Everybody's looking for the answers
How the story started and how it will end
What's the use in half a story, half a dream
You have to climb all of the steps in between (yeah, we ride)
Everybody's looking for the ladder
Everybody wants salvation of the soul
The steps you take are no easy road
But the reward is great
For those who want to go (I do)"
- "In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don't wobble. " Yun-men.
- "If you wish to drown, do not torture yourself with shallow water." Bulgarian saying. After breaking Joe Theismann's leg during a tackle on Monday Night Football, Lawrence Taylor visited Theismann in the hospital. "Did you know you broke my leg in two places?" Theismann asked. "I never do anything halfway," Taylor replied. For better or worse, halfway is nowhere; commit 100% to an action, or don't take action at all. This also brings to mind Sheriff Buck's conversation on "American Gothic" with the bungling criminal he dismissed as "Half-Ted"; Buck declared that if "Half-Ted" were a real criminal he would have killed all witnesses and escaped and if he were not a criminal at all then he would have never ended up in that particular predicament, so he was not really Ted but just "Half-Ted."
- "One cannot step twice into the same river." Herakleitos.
- "To set up what you like against what you dislike--this is the disease of the mind." Seng-T'San.
- "How shall I grasp it? Do not grasp it. That which remains when there is no more grasping is the Self." Panchadasi.
- "In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present." Tao Te Ching.
- "When hungry, eat your rice; when tired, close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean." Lin-Chi.
- "Sit, rest, work. Alone with yourself, never weary. On the edge of the forest, live joyfully, without desire." The Buddha.
- "This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God..." Walt Whitman.
- "Barn's burnt down--now I can see the Moon." Masahide. The ability to see hope in crisis and the faith/optimism to look to the future with confidence represent a very rare and special form of grace.
- "We walk, and our religion is shown (even to the dullest and most insensitive person) in how we walk. Or to put it more accurately, living in this world means choosing, choosing to walk, and the way we choose to walk is infallibly and perfectly expressed in the walk itself. Nothing can disguise it. The walk of an ordinary man and of an enlightened man are as different as that of a snake and a giraffe." R. H. Blyth.
- "Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves." Nagarjuna, second century Buddhist philosopher.
- "An elementary particle is not an independently existing, unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things." H.P. Stapp, twentieth century physicist.
- "The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely." Carl Jung.
- "If you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." Nietzsche.
- "He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened." Tao Te Ching.
- "1. Out of clutter, find simplicity. 2. From discord, find harmony. 3. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." Albert Einstein, three rules of work.
- "If you study Japanese art, you see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic, and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to do the whole." Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh is speaking the truth that an artist's greatness is not only in his hands but also in his eyes, and his mind's eye--in his ability to truly see, and to intensely focus with a calm gaze.
Saturday, May 4, 2019
The Contrast Between Finite Games and Infinite Games
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.Here, Carse describes the power of speech:
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.
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.Carse discusses what it means to travel:
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.
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.
Monday, December 24, 2018
Insights from The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh
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."
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.
Labels: Thich Nhat Hanh
Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Irving Wallace's "The Seven Minutes" Thoughtfully Explores Censorship, Sex and Intimacy
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:
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