Saturday, September 30, 2006

Big Things are Made up of Lots of Little Things

Part 1 - God is in the Details

Big things are made up of lots of little things. This is perhaps the first aphorism I ever wrote. I want to make it clear that I take no credit for the ideas behind my aphorisms, only the form. "There is nothing new under the sun," as King Solomon once said. However, some aphorisms convey more than they may seem at first, and this one has proven to be one of them. In fact, it has meant more and more to me over the years, so much so that I am going to have to divide my discourse on this deceptively simple saying into several sub-topics, each dealing with one possible interpretation of it.

Now, as to the subtitle, there are several well-known versions of this aphorism, which was to the best of my knowledge, originally penned by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a German architect who lived at the turn of the 20th century, about 100 years prior to this writing. He is the author of several excellent aphorisms, such as "Less is more," and "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good." I'm sure you're familiar with one or more of the variations.

I can certainly appreciate Mr. van der Rohe's thinking; in fact, building physical buildings has a great deal in common with software development, and in recent years, "Software Architect" has become a common term for a software developer who designs software systems, much as traditional architects design human environmental systems. In my younger and more "eclectic" years, I spent several years as a framing and finishing carpenter, and when I began to write software, the similarities astonished me.

In modern societies, the average life expectancy has increased to nearly 80 years. Assuming that the average human being sleeps about 8 hours per day, that time span comes to 5,840 days of waking time, or 93,440 hours. This comes to 5,606,400 minutes. Now, a minute might not seem like a long time, but if you've never tried this experiment, take a watch with a second hand, or a stop-watch, and simply watch it for exactly one minute, doing nothing else. Everything is relative. Now, imagine that one was to pay attention and put forth one's best effort for every minute of one's waking life. Imagine what could be accomplished.

But we humans are lazy by nature. I'm not talking about never relaxing, as relaxation is necessary for good health, but let's not forget that we are assuming 8 hours of sleep per night, which is certainly a fair amount of relaxation (1,868,800 minutes during the average lifetime) as well. But of course, relaxation during one's waking time is productive, if it is done in the right amount, no more, and no less. But let's face it: we are lazy by nature. In fact, it is entirely possible to relax, have some fun, and be productive, all at the same time. Life is much like a chess game; the more objectives one can accomplish with a single move, the more likely one is to be successful. I often relax by watching the news on television, or playing computer games that exercise my problem-solving and analytical skills.

To be brutally truthful, we all waste a great deal of our very limited lifetime on this planet. And being self-deceptive, we often excuse it with existential philosophy, or ignore it altogether. Now, it is not the purpose of this discussion to define what constitutes "productive" activity. For the time being, let us presume that in many ways, what is productive is largely subjective. But at least, let us agree that for each of us, a personal definition of "productivity" exists.

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, in about 7 years. Of course, life expectancy was much less at the time, but Michelangelo did live to be almost 90 years old. So, he spent less than one tenth of his waking lifetime painting what is arguably one of the greatest works of art created by any human being.

In the early 1900's a Latvian-American sculptor and engineer named Edward Leedskalnin, in the space of 28 years, single-handedly built a castle in Homestead, Florida (USA). It was built entirely from blocks of coral, many of which weighed several tons. There are some other remarkable aspects of this castle as well, such as a 9-ton revolving door, so perfectly balanced that a child could move it with a single finger. His lifetime was about 64 years, so he spent nearly half of it working on this mysterious wonder. Nobody knows for sure how he managed to do it, and there are, of course, various theories, some of which are clearly superstitious. But the point I am trying to make is that a single human being, in the span of 28 years, built something marvellous and incredible, that will remain one of the wonders of the world for centuries, if not millenia to come.

What do these achievements have in common? These were men who were incredibly detail-oriented, and "simply" paid attention to every little detail of a monumental task, over a period of years. This is a rare trait, but it is my contention that any human being is capable of greatness, simply by diligence and a consistent committment to excellence in the small things. Each of these accomplishments, as great as they were, was achieved by a long series of small efforts, exercised with consistent attention to detail.

The trick, of course, is to achieve that level of self-discipline. But it seems far better to me to, perhaps, "waste" a "meaningless" life time to accomplish something remarkable. Even if it all comes to nothing in the end, at least one will have the pleasure in the meantime of enjoying the fruit of one's labor. And of course, this harkens back to my earlier remarks about excusing laziness with "existential philosophy." Although I believe in life after death, even if I did not, the sheer beauty of such excellence would motivate me to both admire and seek to achieve it.

If for no other reason, I would follow in the footsteps of George Mallory, the British mountain climber, who, in 1924, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, answered simply "Because it's there." Mr. Mallory disappeared during his attempt to scale the summit; it will never be known if he achieved his goal. Many people would probably agree that his effort was wasted. I certainly have no aspirations to risk life and limb to climb a mountain. But I cannot help but admire his willingness to give everything he had to achieve his life's goal, and his determination not to falter. Let the "existentialists" try to call him a fool. If all is useless, or "vanity" as Solomon would have said, then nothing is wasted either.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Neither a Follower Nor a Lender Be

How common is common sense?
We humans are, among other things, social animals. We have the ability to "blend in" by imitating the behavior of a group of people, speaking in ways that are received with a positive response, and avoid behavior that is unacceptable. We are endowed with a "herd instinct." Due to the extremely complex nature of the human mind, and in particular, the even more extremely complex nature of social interaction, this is a characteristic that can ensure survival, success, and comfort.

However, again, due to the extremely complex nature of the human mind, and social interaction, the behavior of groups of people is sometimes unreasonable, irrational, and dangerous. Thankfully, we are also gifted with the ability to think independently, to disagree, to dissent, and even to abandon one group of people for another, or even to adopt a lone existence. These 2 opposing characteristics are designed to work in balance, much like the opposing muscles in our bodies that give us the ability to control our physical behavior.

The human nervous system is an incredible machine, more powerful than the most powerful computers built to date, and has the capacity to perform both incredible calculations, such as the calculations involved in pitching a baseball, which involves movement of the entire body, balance, an intuitive grasp of the laws of physics, the ability to calculate the distance and angle to a target, and bio-feedback that enables us to improve our performance, all without conscious knowledge or understanding of the operations that produce the behavior. Certainly, by all appearances, we are the most intelligent creatures on the planet (or, perhaps among the most intelligent creatures).

And yet, for all of our intellectual capacity, we often seem to struggle with much less complex problems, like adding multiple numbers together in our heads, comprehending what we read, and even understanding communication from other human beings. The reasons for this are not well understood, but scientists continue to work to unravel the puzzle of the human mind, brain, and behavior. It is not my intent to address the whys and wherefores of this in the post, however. I am merely asserting that these conditions exist, that there is an aspect to our mind/brain that is somehow linked to consciousness or awareness, which distances our consciousness from the incredible power of the totality of the capacity of our brain to calculate and solve problems.

As a result, the structure of human society is not only massively complex, but massively problematic. An interesting aspect of this can be observed in the effect of the sheer size of the earth, and the corresponding difficulties involved in communication and interaction between groups of people that are separated by physical distance. As groups of people have less and less contact with one another, the behavior of the groups begins to diverge, resulting in the phenomenon of commuties, or cultures that are philosophically in conflict with one another.

To understand the realities of our existence is no small task. Why are we here? How did we come into existence? What is the nature of good, and of evil? How does the mind work? What are the unchanging laws that govern physical behavior? And so on. Human society has been working on solving the questions of our existence, the laws and principles of the universe, for thousands of years, with some measure of success, but a long way to go. This is an endeavor that has involved literally millions of human minds. Considering the capacity of the human mind, this is almost surprising; almost, because we accept it, because it is a common and familiar condition of our existence.

Now factor in the fact that while we struggle to solve these problems, we are also embroiled in the morass of social interaction, and to some extent, we can see how this has impeded our progress. At various times in history, scientists have proposed ideas that were to some degree correct, only to be demonized, ostracized by their communities, rejected, and even put to death. All of these results are contrary to the natural desire of humans to live, to be successful, and/or to be happy.

Some examples of this phenomenon can be seen in the lives of Socrates, Copernicus, Galileo, Jesus Christ, the early Christian Church, the Reformation, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and so on. In each case, ideas that were truthful and good were rejected by the prevailing community, and resulted in suffering and even death on the part of those who proposed these ideas.

Oddly enough, the ideas themselves, rooted in Truth, would, if accepted and implemented, be beneficial to the basic goals of human existence - to live, to be successful, to be happy.

It may therefore be concluded that if one is to pursue Truth, to solve the riddle of our existence, and in particular to share what one has seen, one must possess a willingness to suffer (See my first post, "If the Truth Hurts, Wear it"), and a willingness to take "The Road Less Travelled" (Robert Frost). That is, one must be willing to attenuate one's participation in whatever society one finds one's self in, to get clear of the noise and confusion, to accept Truth regardless of how one feels about it, and to be despised and rejected of men at times.

I believe that this is one of the central choices that we all face. Do we desire Truth more, or do we desire popularity more? What You Seek Is What You Get. And some choices are exclusive of others. One cannot turn to the right and to the left at the same time. A 1 is a 1, and a 0 is a 0, and never the twain shall meet.

As for myself, I have been perhaps in some way blessed with a personality that requires little (albeit some) social acceptance. The search for Truth is my passion. Every bit of real knowledge that I discover for myself rewards me in some inexplicable way. And I believe that true ideas are the only ideas worth having.

Societies need Leaders. Good Leaders are people who think for themselves, and have a strong will. They are more interested in the good of society than they are in their own personal aggrandizement. Poor Leaders are not really Leaders at all; they are followers who have run around to the front of the parade and acted as if they started it. Good Leaders lead; they do not compel others to follow. They strike out in the direction they believe in, ignoring the prevailing trends, and if they are followed, they accept it; they do not seek or reject it. When they lead, they lead in a direction that is beneficial for all. And there are, unfortunately, precious few of them in this world of 7 Billion human beings. Why is this?

To answer that question truthfully...

Friday, September 22, 2006

If the Truth hurts, Wear it

I have been programming for a dozen years now, and was fortunate to get in on the action when the WWW was in its infancy. Prior to that time, you might say that I "enjoyed an interesting life." The details of my life are unimportant. What I consider important is what I have learned and gained from my experiences. Any experience you can walk away from is a good one, after all!

I work almost entirely with Microsoft technologies, and the Microsoft .Net platform in particular. I have been fortunate to have worked with almost every type of software except for real-time software. I have built Web Applications, Windows applications, Web Services, Windows Services, DLLs, Console applications, and a plethora of other types of software. I have worked with a half-dozen programming languages as well as English (the programming language that humans in America, England, and a few other countries use to exchange data). And it has been (mostly) a blast.

In the course of my experience as a programmer, I have seen a connection between the various sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and religion, and take great pleasure in learning everything I can about the true nature of things. I believe that all of these disciplines contain pieces of the puzzle that we call "human existence." And it is my goal to understand as much about human existence as possible in my lifetime.

Along the way, I have had the privilege to pick up a few bits and pieces of the puzzle, and want to share what I have learned, as others have shared, to contribute to the betterment of all mankind.

Truth is hard to come by. Although I am at this point in my life roughly 50 years old, I find that there is actually very little of what can truly be called "truth" in my personal Knowledge Base. But the bits that I have managed to accumulate are promising. The Title of this post is one of them.

Why is Truth hard to come by? Well, the Title of this post contains a clue to a part of the answer: The Truth is often painful. And we humans have a peculiar capacity to ignore Truth by choice, and even to deceive ourselves (although the mechanism of self-deception is a mystery to me). In fact, I have boiled down this principle of self-deception into a fairly simple aphorism:

What You Seek Is What You Get.

We humans are very powerful. We have very powerful minds. And these minds of ours have the capacity to solve massively complex problems, often without our even being aware of it. For example, as an infant, you learned to walk. That was no small achievement. We are still working on technology that would allow robots to walk like humans. It is a tremendous balancing act, although most of us would not think so. We do not remember how we taught ourselves to balance, to use our limbs, to coordinate between the muscles in our body that maintain balance while perched on top of our complex and rather small feet. We do it without think consciously about it.

It is my observation that almost all of what we do is in response to some set of requirements, much like the requirements that drive software development. When we walk, it is because we want something. Our mind has determined that in order to achieve that something, we must tranport our body from one point to another (among other things). In other words, we are driven to do what we do by desire, or will. And most of the time, with some persistence, we manage to achieve it. The more deeply we want it, the more we are willing to work for it, the more likely it is that we will achieve it.

One of the things that we share, in terms of desire or will, is to understand our own existence, and the existence of the universe we all share. To understand requires fact, Truth, if you will. And we have the capacity to find the answers. But some requirements are contrary to others. At times, we are forced to choose between goals that are in conflict with one another. One cannot turn left and turn right at the same time. For example, if a Truth is unpopular, we have a conflict between our desire to obtain that Truth, and sacrifice popularity, or obtain popularity and sacrifice Truth. And we do have a choice. We always have a choice.

At such times, we must choose between these conflicting alternatives. At that time, we will choose whichever goal has the highest priority. And we will achieve what we choose. Therefore, at times, the Truth hurts. So, in order to obtain Truth, one must make it a higher priority than other desires, lest one trade it for the box in front of which Carol Merrill is standing ("Let's Make a Deal"). As for myself, I have decided that the Truth is worth the sacrifice. At least I hope so. After all, as I said before, one of our capacities is self-deception.

Therefore, in my desire to contribute to the betterment of mankind, I hope to share some of these bits of Truth with the rest of us. Of course, this is a rather lofty goal. So we shall see how successful this will be. I will give it my best effort.

I have a highly eclectic mind, so please don't expect me to be organized about it!