Friday, November 23. 2007
I started listening to a series of recorded lectures on the ancient Greek philosophers. Though I have been trafficking in philosophy for fifteen years, I always felt self-conscious about the holes in my education, and the Greeks were always biggest elephant I had ignored. Absolutely everyone glosses Socrates and Plato, and I was aware of Nietzsche's debt to Heraclitus, so I figured I had to come back to studying the originals at some point.
In some ways I'm glad I waited so long, because I'm not sure I would have appreciated the full import of their thinking in my twenties. The series starts with Thales, the most ancient of the pre-Socratics, who breaks with the usual tradition of using mythology to explain the world and instead proposes a logos, a rational explanation for the nature of things, based on his own empirical observations. Never mind that his rational explanation (that the archae, the origin of all being, is water) is a little loopy; the breakthrough was that for the first time, someone believed that the world could be understood rationally. The birth of Western civilization starts here, with the notion that men could really know something, just by looking around and using their noggins.
At this point, I imagine most nineteen-year-olds in Philosophy 101 rolling their eyes and staring blankly at their pencils. "Whatever." Rationally understanding the universe is so basic to our world-view that we have a hard time believing there was ever a time we didn't know that. It's kind of like imagining a time before people invented the wheel, or money, or writing. It seems like incredibly old news.
And yet . . . I find that the basic attitude that informed mythic thinking is still alive in well, even in our modern culture. While everyone supposedly believes in rational causes for physical phenomena, most people think that bigger questions of meaning, purpose, and the origins of the universe are still best left to the realm of the mythic. When I teach about mystical traditions, it usually comes as a shock and a revelation to people that they personally might directly experience the nature of God and the world.
Nor is the instinct to explain things rationally, even physicalÂ and technological things,Â nearly as deep as we might suppose. As a software consultant, I am amazed at how often people accept and embrace mythology to explain their computer problems.Â A program crashes, and I asked, "Why did that happen?" The users will often say, "It just does that sometimes. I think it doesn't like Mondays." Now, I can forgive the end users for saying that, because technology is often indistinguishable from magic. But sometimes I even go back to the programmer who built the program in the first place, and ask him, "Why did it crash?" and evenÂ he will say, "It just does that sometimes." He isn't just being lazy -- sometimes he really believes that some things just happen, for no particular reason, and who is he to question why? And I feel like Thales when I make the pronouncement: "Everything happens for a reason. And when we finally understand the reason, and fix it, these crashes won't happen again." Â Every bug I fix is another triumph for Greek philosophy. And everyone, from the programmer up to the VP of Sales, seems slightly amazed to hear that the world can be understood.
Wednesday, October 3. 2007
Iâ€™ve picked up Sarah Susankaâ€™s The Not So Big Life again. (My wife absconded with it for a few weeks, as she was trying to figure out her own life-direction.) One of her first exercises is to ask the reader to write down significant events in their life, i.e. â€œthe ones that moved you to tears, filled you with awe, or made you feel that your heart was going to explode.â€ The idea (I presume) is that by recalling specific times when you were moved, the seeker will see patterns in what inspires them, and be able to identify those essential things that makes their life worth living.
Here's one experience I wrote about:
I remember some significant events that lead me down the road to being a techno-geek, which was certainly not a path I would have envisioned for myself coming out of college. I was doing some contract writing work for a software company where my fiancÃ©e worked. The company had just started selling a new web development tool called HAHT â€“ this was back in the day when the web was young, ASP and Java hadnâ€™t even been born yet, and stateful database-driven web applications were the holy grail of development. The sales department was looking for ways to get web developer leads. I found listings for web development companies on a search site, but of course it was painfully tedious to click through each one and locate contact information for each one. Fresh from the academic world, I was still using a Macintosh computer, and my twin brother had recently introduced me to AppleScript. I had a sudden flash of inspiration, and realized I could write an AppleScript routine to search through all the web development listings, get the domain names, grab the technical contact info with a whois query, and write it all to a spreadsheet.
I realize, in retrospect, that snagging domain registration info for cold-calling was not my own novel invention, nor was it ethically advisable or even sound business. But these were the Wild West days of the internet, and my bosses encouraged audacious forays in marketing and sales, and it seemed so . . . clever. I was, as Joe Pierce would say, â€œseized by the ideaâ€: I could do this. I . . . could do this. I started working that evening. I was so excited I worked all night. By dawn I had kludgy little process that had seized a couple hundred names and phone numbers, and I was still basking in my first Programmerâ€™s High.
Years later, talking with other programmers, I found they were all seduced by similar experiences. â€œItâ€™s like being a magician,â€ said Mark Uland, an accomplished programmer who developed the first virtual reality software for the personal computer. â€œYou string together the right commands, and suddenly you can make the computer do impossible things, all because of you. Itâ€™s a feeling of power, of control. Nothing else in the universe â€“ not people, not things â€“ ever obeyed you as completely as the computer did. That why you do it. Thatâ€™s why we all do it.â€
And itâ€™s not just programmers . . . artists, too, report the feeling of security and creative power when ensconced in their private sketchpad worlds. Itâ€™s the joy of lining up all the dominos, and then making them all fall down, just as you had planned it, with the slightest touch of your hand. It is the stereotypically masculine intellectual pleasure â€“ I think, therefore I control the World.
Oddly enough, I donâ€™t see this and other Programming Highs as a sign of my lifeâ€™s vocation and destiny. It is pleasant, ego-enhancing, exciting, addictive, and capable of inducing obsessive attention . . . and yet, I do not find it to be terribly meaningful, any more than I would find a particularly good video game meaningful. Programming is Fun . . . but writing, in itâ€™s finer moments . . . ahh, that can induce Joy.
Tuesday, September 25. 2007
I wasn't quite done flogging James Ogilvy for his various rhetorical sins in Living Without A Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life. As you may recall, Ogilvy's central theme was that living with a grand overarching Goal was ultimately dehumanizing because it reduced the person to being a functionary, a cog in a galacticÂ mechanism, which would ultimately be dreary, constraining, and repetitive. The alternative, he thought, would be a life lived artistically, for its own sake, which would be full of freedom and beauty.
You can see the bias very clearly: engineering = mechanical = lifeless. Art = Beauty = Freedom. This is, as far as I can tell,Â the attitude of someone who has never actually built a thing in his entire life. Engineering -- the organizing of elements into a system that can do something -- is hardly a lifeless endeavor. It takes enormous creativity to start with an end in mind, and then concoct an unlikely array of components to all work smoothly together to that end. Effectiveness is hardly a binary affair, either, but rather becomes more and more subtle. The mathematicians and engineers will speak of elegant solutions versus clumsy ones, inspired solutions versus cliched ones. To the non-engineer, that watch or computer program or mathematical proof may appear to be "lifeless." But that's just because they lack the imagination to see the life within it.
So, what is Ogilvy really saying, when he dismisses "engineering" a life instead of artistically "creating" one? He is saying nothing at all, other than revealing a rather clumsy and unsubtle bias against things he doesn't understand. Striving toward a goal is not without its own art, its own creativity, subtlety, adventure, and joy. That I put all my capacities towards a single end does not in any way limit the number of lives I can lead . . . if anything it allows one to live deeper, as the goal pushes us beyond the bounds of our imagination, into lives we never even dreamed possible. Or, as St. Paul put it: "In slavery to Him is perfect freedom."
I imagine Ogilvy would not disagree with me, but just claim my argument to be his own. "Yes, engineering becomes alive, becomes free, the moment it becomes art!" Ahh, but he would only be sealing the fate of his original argument. His distinction between mechanism and freedom has dissolved, unmasked as an incomplete metaphor. Both the engineer and the artist are revelling in the moment-by-moment beauty of their respective crafts, both alive to the process of discovery. The man who engineers his life to serve a Goal is undiminished, while the artist foresaking the Goal is the one who might find himself at a loss.
Sunday, August 5. 2007
Absolutely everyone has been commenting on the recent The New England Journal of Medicine study that finds obesity is socially contagious -- that people are more likely to get fat if their friends get fat. The fact that the correlations exists is obvious -- people tends to hang out with people like themselves -- but what surprised everyone was the relative scale of the effect and the clearly causetive nature of the phenomena. We all know that our friends influence us, but we like to think the effects are subtle and on the edges. Our weight is something so personal, and yet so quantitative and unmistakably obvious, that this study's finding shoves it in our face: the influence of your friends matters a lot. Our American sense of individuality is mildly offended by the sudden realization that we are not islands.
All the comments about the study, though, seem to stay focused on health issues -- obesity, smoking, drinking, sex -- and not on (to me, at least) larger issues with a moral dimension. What this study means is that everything has a social aspect, one that is ignored at one's peril.Â One's spiritual life, too, is going to be affected by the company you keep. I imagine the same sorts of correlations exist for religious life -- ifÂ a friend becomes "born-again," youÂ have a much higher likelihood of doing the same. (Or, more ominously: if you have a friend who becomes a suicide bomber, you are more likely to do the same.)
So what should you do about it?
Saturday, July 7. 2007
In my geek hours, I've been reading Software Testing Foundations (Spillner, Linz, and Schaefer, 2nd Edition, 2007), the internationally recognized intro primerÂ on the subject.Â My conclusion:Â Software testers are spiritual masters.
I've been a programmer for over ten years, but only in the last few have I reached the satori of serious software testing. Lots of people learn to cobble together code, but few become enlightened to the truths of the software tester:
So am I just a ISO2000-certified geek pushing a spiritual metaphor too far? No, actually I think all of these principles can be mapped back onto spiritual life and spiritual experience:
Saturday, June 16. 2007
As SKS members started developing online resources, I strongly recommended that they check out existing resources first to see what was working and what wasn't. And, taking my own advice, I went forth and consumed. And I came back with . . . a headache.
The web only really works well if you know what you're looking for. If you google up "spiritual websites", you will probably get something like www.personal-development.com: a link farm, barren of any real content but heaped with AdWords and "sponsored" links to purveyors of questionable New Agey stuff. Some are at organized to look like a real website, but many are flashbacks to the early days of the web, monstrositites of plain text and flashing animated gifs that just plain hurt your eyes. You need a very specific focus to find anything worthwhile by just hitting search engines.
I had heard from a few people about Zaads as a spiritually-focused online community that had gained critical mass. So I checked it out. It is, as one veteran seeker told me, "Mildy creepyÂ . . . kinda like a dating site." Most of the profiles I looked at were laden with the usual personals-listing cliches that list "laughing" and "loving" as "interests." Many others were devoid of real content but had the most impenetrable mission statements: "creating self-aware, self-governing, alive groups that tap into collective wisdom, make creative quantum leaps and invite the Divine/Context/Sacred into our three-dimensional existence." Not all were so vapid: Fleet Maull makes good use of what the site was intended: actually talking about what you actually do. And I followed some of the links to Fleet's friends, and found a few (but only a few) who actually interested me. Durwin Foster stood out for the simplicity and directness of his self-description, and the bulk of his blog. In that context, it takes guts to forego all aliases, nicknames, avatars, and generally fuzziness and just talk about what you want to do. But this only proves what I knew before: you have to already know the cools kids to find the cool kids.
Zaadz had a few features that I really liked. Members list their favorite books, and you can click through on the titles to find all the other members who listed the same titles. It would be cool if there were some real reviews and discussions about the books as well as the personal links. I also liked that members could list their Goals, although it was lacking the most important part: actually reporting on your progress towards your goals. What good is publically declaring your goals if you don't also hold yourself accountable to fulfilling them?
Overall, my experience was somewhat tedious . . . all that searching, clicking, evaluating, with only the occasional payoff. I never much enjoyed "surfing" the web; searching for new, interesting things is a chore, and I'd rather have a few places to go to find the good stuff. Yes, user-generated content and six-degrees linking has it's own power, but it also gave me a renewed appreciation for editorial control. It's nice to have someone deliver best-of-the-best content without having to beat around to find it in a maze of connections. Which makes me all the more interested in syndication technologies like RSS.
Wednesday, June 6. 2007
The world is so fast-paced now that we actually publish stuff before we've written it. I've set up a new website, the next great nexus of spiritual energy: www.thedynamicground.com
Of course, if you go there, you'll see that there's hardly anything there. And that's precisely the point. In the past, I've nearly always succumbed to the temptation to craft something in secret, under wraps, and then have the "ta-DA!" presto presentation that amazes all. And it just doesn't work very well. At least, not for me . . . and not for every organization I've worked with that tried to build a website that amounted to more than brochureware.
Website design usually bogs down into inaction because:
Hence, my current fascination with wiki technology. "Build it and they will come" has turned into "They will come and build it." Now, I'm not completely seduced yet by the promise of easy content -- "this time it's different" was the rallying cry of the dot-com boom, and the ironic scorn following the dot-com bust. Somebody still has to bust their hump to create content, direct vision, promote and cross-link the site, sustain the community, blah, blah. But now, at least, that someone is not alone.
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