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March 2008

A More Perfect Union: Obama and Transracialism

Barack Obama's speech last week was the most inspiring speech I've seen by a U.S. president - or a major U.S. presidential candidate - in my adult life. I've seen video footage of inspiring speeches by Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy, and a number of other inspiring speeches by earlier presidents profiled on the PBS American Experience series, but this is the first time since I've been of voting age that I feel truly inspired by someone with presidential prospects.

I'd read and heard excerpts of the speech during the week, but it wasn't until yesterday that I finally set aside the time to watch Obama's 37-minute speech [transcript] in its entirety ... and I'm glad I did. I admire the way that Obama was able - and willing - to articulate issues involving race that are typically considered undiscussibles, at least in national political discussions (e.g., anger that "may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends ... but does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table"). He embraced his multiracial heritage and shed light on some of the shadows that often permeate our thoughts, feelings and judgments about other races ... and I found myself wondering how many critics of Obama's controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, have never harbored or uttered a racially motivated criticism.

Obama offered a vision for what I might call a transracial union, based on my recent rumination on building a multidisciplinary team, which was greatly enhanced by Anne's comment introducing me to the concept of transdisciplinarity. I believe that Obama is, in effect, applying one definition of transdisciplinarity in scientific research to the far more politically charged topic of race. Riffing slightly on a Wikipedia definition of transdisciplinarity:

A transdisciplinary style of research [or politics] can only arise if the participating experts interact in an open discussion and dialogue, accepting each perspective as of equal importance and relating the different perspectives to each other. Working together in a transdisciplinary way is difficult because participating scientists [or politicians] are often overwhelmed by the amount of information in everyday’s practice and because of incommensurability of specialized languages in each of the fields of expertise. Therefore people with the competence of moderation, mediation, association and transfer are needed to initiate and promote a critical and still constructive dialogue. For these individuals it is crucial to have [their] own in-depth knowledge and know-how of the disciplines [or races] involved.

I don't want to say too much about the speech, in part because I feel too many people (including myself) are participating in what seems to be a snack culture (an evocative label I first heard from my colleague, Rick Hangartner Peyman Faratin) - or what Sherry Turkle calls talk culture - subsisting on snippets of information rather than sitting down to a full meal from original sources, and I want to encourage people to see and hear the speech in its entirety.

I will say that Obama discuss racial issues from a variety of perspectives, noting that one of the core issues is that in a time of scarcity, opportunity is seen as a zero-sum game, with anger and fear operating as powerful motivators, for all races. Unfortunately, however, this anger and fear can motivate us to focus on distractions rather than the problems that transcend racism (or other isms). As he notes in describing his motivation for composing and delivering this speech:

... Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

In this brief respite from snack culture, I decided to dig around a little for a fuller meal of what Reverend Wright, the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, whose motto is "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian", really said. I found a blog, Truth about Trinity, and a YouTube channel for Trinity Chicago, that provided more context beyond the snippets that have been broadcast and rebroadcast in the major media.

Indeed, as the snippets show, Wright has been critical of the U.S. in some of his sermons, but I seem to remember Jesus reportedly being critical of the ruling political, economic and social powers of his time, and that securing the freedom of speech - especially critical speech - was one of the goals of the founding fathers of this country.

In the snippets being aired on many television stations, Wright is quoted as saying

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye...and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

In a fuller snippet of his sermon, these criticisms are accompanied by an advocacy of a "God of love and justice".

Wright's sermon starts out with a reference to Psalm 137,

8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
       happy is he who repays you
       for what you have done to us-

9 he who seizes your infants
       and dashes them against the rocks.

He notes how this psalm represents "a move from paying tithes to payback ... from worship to war" culminating in "the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred". Although I would not have chosen the incendiary language he uses, the only fact I would dispute is his claim that "we never batted an eye": there are - and have been - many Americans, of all races, religions and nationalities, who have objected strongly to the excesses and extremes of the American government.

In another now infamous sermon, Wright is quoted as saying

"The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" and "[t]he government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people... God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme".

Slate has recently provided a helpful AIDS Conspiracy Handbook, which leaves me very skeptical about Wright's claim regarding the government inventing HIV for genocide, but I firmly agree with his claims that our government has supported illegal drug smuggling in the past, currently "boasts" the highest incarceration rate in the world, and many states have passed "three strikes laws" ... which were advocated by former president Bill Clinton (leading me to wonder how former first lady Hillary Clinton feels - or felt - about this issue).

I want to close by revisiting - and reapplying - some of the thoughts and feelings I wrote about in reaction to Hurricane Katrina, One World: Disasters and Responses:

I'm also reminded of Oriah Mountain Dreamer's ideas about "us and them" in response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, and how it applies more generally to suffering and our responses to it.

I ask, "How can I BE the peace I want to see in the world, today?" Not, how can I CREATE the peace- but how can I BE it- because it becomes clearer and clearer to me that violence and war are not just "out there" but also inside me.

She goes on to suggest that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view others as "us" or "them".  She gives examples about substituting "some of us" for "them" or "they" as we think about what others have done (and I would extend this to what others are going through).  In her audiobook "Your Heart's Prayer", she further extends this from "some of us" to "sometimes I".

Although I would not choose the same vocabulary as Reverend Wright, if I substitute "I am angry at America" for "God damn America", and accept Oriah's invitation, I am willing to admit that "Sometimes I am angry at America for killing innocent people... sometimes I am angry at America for treating our citizens as less than human. Sometimes I am angry at America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Continuing on withs my earlier rumination:

I believe that most people, placed in similar circumstances, will tend to have similar responses, with respect to their feelings, thoughts, actions and reactions.  I also believe that people can learn new, possibly "unnatural", ways of feeling, thinking and acting (Scott Peck, in "The Road Less Traveled", points out that it is natural to defecate in one's pants, but most of us learn new behaviors in this dimension of life). Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her poem, "The Invitation", says:

I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I can empathize with the suffering and the responses to that suffering in the wake of hurricanes, tsunamis, military invasions and diseases. I hope that these events will create openings and opportunities for people to rise to meet their challenges in a loving and compassionate way.

Returning to Obama, and noting another connection with transdisciplinarity, in the face of mounting challenges, I will finish with this excerpt from his speech, which exemplifies an audacity of hope about working together to form a more perfect union to meet these challenges:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

Amen.


UbiComp 2008: Call for Papers, Notes and Workshops (deadline: April 4)

Ubicomp2008header

The Tenth International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp 2008) will be held 21-24 September 2008 in Seoul, South Korea:

UbiComp 2008 welcomes original, high-quality research contributions that advance the state of the art in the design, development, deployment, evaluation and understanding of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) systems. Ubicomp is an interdisciplinary field of study that includes pervasive, wireless, embedded, wearable and/or mobile technologies that bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds, useful applications that incorporate these technologies, infrastructures that effectively support them, human activities and experiences these technologies facilitate, and conceptual overviews that help us understand – or challenge our understanding of – the impact of these technologies. The UbiComp conference is a premier international venue in which novel results in these areas are presented and discussed among leading researchers, designers, developers  and other practitioners in this field.

The conference welcome participation in a variety of categories and formats, including Papers, Notes, Workshops, Demonstrations, Posters, Videos, Panels, a Doctoral Colloquium and Student Volunteers. We have posted information on the following categories:

We will be posting information about the other participation categories on the UbiComp 2008 web site in the near future, but I wanted to post something here, now, because the deadlines for Papers, Notes and Workshop proposals is less than 3 weeks away ... and as one of the Program Co-Chairs, I want to do whatever I can to help attract many high-quality submissions.


Innovating at MyStrands, Seattle

It's been a little over a month since I left Nokia and started principally instigating at MyStrands, Seattle. Most of my time thus far has been devoted to talking with people and looking at places, as my top two initial instigative goals are to attract a dream team and setup shop in a dream space. Eventually, we'll make progress on other p's - prototypes, papers and patents - but not without the right people and only (or, at least, more easily) in the right place.

I'm making some progress on these initial goals - I will be making official announcements when formal transitions take place - but meanwhile I thought it would be helpful (to me, at least) to write a little bit about what kinds of innovation - and what kinds of innovators - I hope to facilitate with this great new team and great new space! Taking a cue from one of Glenn Kelman's pearls of wisdom - "We never say 'I'" - during an inspiring presentation at my crash course in entrepreneurship (NWEN's Entrepreneur University 2005), I'll be using "we" liberally below, even though "we" is, technically speaking, "I" at this particular moment.

The mission of the Seattle Innovation Team for MyStrands is

To design, develop and deploy technologies that weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions to bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds and help people relate to the other people, places and things around them in ways that offer value to all participants.

That's quite a mouthful (even for me) so I want to unpack that a little:

  • weave together the various strands of our activities, interests and passions: MyStrands started out as MusicStrands, a web application that can recommend new music based on the music you listen to ("what you play counts!"). Since then, the company has branched out into other types of media (e.g., MyStrands.TV), and we want to further extend this extension to additional types of media, as well as other digital representations of our activities, interests and passions.
  • bridge the gaps between the digital and physical worlds: with the growing wealth of digital representations of our activities, interests and passions, and the proliferation of mobile devices and wireless connectivity, there are increasing opportunities to create new value by opening portals to that wealth in the physical world, either through mobile social computing (MoSoSo) applications or more situated social computing (SiSoSo) applications, such as proactive displays.
  • help people relate to the other people, places and things around them: we all long to feel a sense of belonging and connection to other people we encounter, the places we inhabit and the things we see (or at least some of those people, places and things); our technologies will be designed to help real world communities better enjoy the benefits of virtual communities, digital communications and electronic commerce.
  • offer value to all participants: one of the things I learned - the hard way - during my earlier entrepreneurial endeavor (Interrelativity, Inc.) was the importance of aligning innovative social technologies with viable business models; although our primary focus will be on technical innovations with significant - and positive - social impact, we want to do so in an economically sustainable way that enriches all stakeholders.

As for the types of innovators (we don't call ourselves researchers - or developers - at MyStrands, though we will be doing both) we hope to attract, the primary criteria will be a passionate commitment to the mission of the lab. Of course, following the precepts of Joel Sposky, we also generally want smart people who can get things done. Among the more specific types of smarts that we value are insights into and experience with social computing, mobile and ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction, many flavors of design (user interface design, interaction design, user experience design, visual communication design), web programming, rapid prototyping, personal and social psychology, economics, business models ... and, of course, recommender systems.

I'm planning to follow the lead of Lars Erik Holmquist with respect to [one of] his goals for the PLAY Research Group: build a multidisciplinary team composed of multidisciplinary people. As Anne Galloway relayed this idea (in what may be an unexpected recursion based on something I may have sent / said to her about Lars Erik's CHI 2000 organizational overview talk):

Alan Kay once remarked that he was attracted to the MIT Media Lab because of the..."attempt to collide technology with the arts, rather than [to] collide technologists with artists," and continued "You're always better getting people who have already had that collision in themselves." In PLAY, rather than composing a multi-disciplinary group, we try to have a group of multi-disciplinary people ... No group member specializes in only one topic. A typical member has a degree in a relevant field such as computer science, informatics or fine arts, but a strong interest in several other fields such as electrical engineering, linguistics, literature, film, or music. Whether accompanied by academic degrees or not, a wide range of interests is seen as a vital factor in the composition of the group.

Ideally, we will compose a diverse group of diverse people, with a variety of skills, from a variety of backgrounds, who respect each other and work well together, even though - or perhaps because - we may not always agree with each other (indeed, I hope we won't always agree with each other). I have enjoyed many conversations with many talented people so far, and I welcome the opportunity to initiate or renew conversations with other talented people. If current trends continue, we may be able to assemble a dream team without ever having to compose or post a formal job description.

As I mentioned in my review of First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, I subscribe to the philosophy of Bud Grant, former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings:

You can’t draw up plays and then just plug your players in. No matter how well you have designed your play book, it’s useless if you don’t know which plays your players can run. When I draw up my play book, I always go from the players to the play.

Given my commitment to multidisciplinarity, I'm going one step further and not even specifying player positions at this early stage, hoping that we will be able attract just the right people with just the right talents to accomplish our innovation mission.

[Update: I forgot to mention that we have a number of more formally specified job openings at many of our other sites around the world. The (Senior) Mobile User Experience / Interaction Designer position may be of particular interest to some of my international friends.]


Entrepreneurial Karma: Call for Early-Stage Recommender System Startups

This is pretty cool (though I'm admittedly biased): a mid-stage startup (MyStrands, the company I work for) that has recently secured funding now offering an opportunity to fund an earlier stage startup - a sort of entrepreneurial karma, where we keep the investment flowing in ways that will [hopefully] benefit us all. This initiative is inspired, in part, by the Y-Combinator, but is more narrowly focused (recommender systems). [BTW, one of the partners in Y-Combinator, Paul Graham, writes provocative essays that I highly recommend to anyone interested in entrepreneurship.]

Here are the details (from the MyStrands blog announcement, Looking for the best early-stage recommender start-ups):

Recommenderstartupsteps

MyStrands is announcing today the “Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-ups“.

We seek to identify the best early-stage project in the area of recommendation technologies, considering the technology, business opportunity and team behind the project (without limitations as to which field the technology is applied).

The Winner will be offered an investment of $100,000 from Strands, Inc. the parent company of MyStrands.

Candidates should submit a one-slide presentation in quad-chart format (example, more examples) by September 15th, 2008 to recommender-startups@strands.com, together with the team bios (in addition to this, an optional 2-minute video uploaded to YouTube describing the start-up enterprise would be highly appreciated).

Eligibility: The Call is open to individuals or sole proprietors and privately held businesses throughout the world.

Five Finalists will be invited to present their projects during the ACM Conference on Recommender Systems (RecSys08) next October 23rd to 25th, 2008 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Finalists will be announced on October 6th. All Proposals will be judged using the following judging criteria: (a) implementation and integration of recommendation technologies, (b) originality and creativity, (c) likelihood of long-term success and scalability, (d) effectiveness in addressing a need in the marketplace, and (e) team bios.

Five grants. Each Finalist will obtain a $1,500 travel grant to attend RecSys08; Strands, Inc. will also cover the registration fees for the Conference, for one person per Finalist.

The final selection process will include on-site presentations of each project during RecSys08. Finalists will make three presentations of 5 minutes each (focused on technology, business and the team respectively) in front of the Jury and the attendees of the Conference.

The Jury will be composed of renowned experts in the academic, industry and venture capital communities.

The Winner will be announced on October 25th, 2008 during the Gala Dinner at RecSys08. The Winner will receive a commemorative plaque and an offer of a $100,000 investment in the form of a convertible loan.

Proposal submission period begins on March 12th and ends on September 15th, 2008.

Further information: Please visit http://recommender-startups.strands.com or contact the Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-ups organizers at recommender-startups@strands.com.

Important dates:
March 12th: Proposal submission period begins
September 15th: Proposal submission period ends
October 6th: Five Finalists are announced
October 23rd-25th: Presentations of Finalists at RecSys08
October 25th: Winner Announced

Contact and updates:
Email proposal to: recommender-startups@strands.com
http://recommender-startups.strands.com
http://blog.MyStrands.com
http://recsys.acm.org


The Paradox of Choice: Decisions, Happiness and Appreciation

In addition to seeding my last post - on Dark Nights of the Soul - by sending me a link to an evocative image, Yogi also sent me a link to a 20-minute video of Barry Schwartz giving a presentation on The Paradox of Choice a few years ago at a TED conference.

Paradoxofchoice The presentation is derived from Barry's book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, about which he says (during the video presentation), "I wrote a whole book to try to explain this [paradox] to myself" ... reminding me of why I blog ... or why David Whyte writes poetry ("Poetry is the art of hearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew" - (well, at least I think these are all related)).

Barry offers an engaging theory on why increasing choices often makes people miserable:

  1. Regret and anticipated regret
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Escalation of expectations
  4. Self-blame

He is not railing against choice(s), but instead arguing that the "official dogma" - having more choices leads to more freedom and [thus] greater welfare - is wrong, that we pass a point of diminishing returns after which welfare - or happiness - decreases as the range of choices increase. As he says "some choice is better than no choice, but more choice is not necessarily better than some choice". While I generally and enthusiastically agree with many of his points, I think we differ on where the points of diminishing returns start, whether or how to set boundaries near those points, and whether there are other ways of approaching choice that may affect these points.

Barry draws some of of his examples of overwhelming choices from his supermarket, which stocks 250 varieties of cookies, 75 iced teas, 230 soups, 175 salad dressings, 275 cereals and 40 toothpastes (several years ago, a Washington Post article on Toothpaste Proliferation Syndrome reported finding 179 varieties of toothpaste in a virtual stroll down the aisle at Drugstore.com).

One of the side effects of so much choice is that it increases the likelihood that we'll make a "wrong" choice, and the corresponding likelihood that we'll regret our choice ... and the likelihood that we'll anticipate regretting our choice:

Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than if we had fewer options to choose from.
...
With a lot of different salad dressings to choose from, if you buy one and it's not perfect ... it's easy to imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all about the option that you chose.

TurtlesallthewaydownDecision_tree_modelFurther on in the presentation, Barry distinguishes between time spent making decisions vs. acting on those decisions, which evoked an image of spending more time computing in the nodes vs. traversing the branches of a decision tree. But upon further reflection, this representation of activity led me to start wondering what proportion of of the time we are acting on previous, or higher level, decisions, is actually spent making lower level decisions, many of which we may not even be conscious of ... whether, in effect, it's decisions all the way down.

Shifting from decision theory to political theory, representative democracy strikes me as one model for modulating choice, wherein we elect representatives who we then hope will make good decisions regarding a large number of options across a wide range of topics on our behalf (behalves?). I rarely hear people complain about the overwhelming range of choices in political candidates (in this country), although I often hear people complain about decisions made by our "elected" politicians ... especially during a U.S. presidential election year. 

I'm reminded of much I've heard and read about "tastemakers" and "trendsetters", and I imagine we often tend to gravitate toward official and unofficial "authorities" to reduce our anxiety over the array of choices. One of the benefits of this tendency is that it can simplify our lives. However, the shadow side of this tendency reflects Don Miguel Ruiz' notion of "domestication" (described in the introduction of his book, The Four Agreements), in which we learn to defer to authorities as children, and eventually learn to constrain ourselves based on what we think the authorities would want us to think, feel and do. [The Four Agreements are about unlearning this domestication, or at least consciously making agreements about what rules - and rulers - we are willing to follow. I've written about two of them before - don't take anything personally and always do your best - and will surely find a pretext to blog about the other two - be impeccable with your word and don't make assumptions.]

This delegation of power to authorities is what bothered me most about the presentation. Barry complains that doctors no longer tell us what to do, but instead list alternatives we might consider. Personally, I like doctors presenting alternatives with relative benefits and risks vs. telling us (me) what to do; the latter, more "traditional" (and "authoritative") approach strikes me as disempowering, and I would greatly prefer to deal directly with the misery entailed by being offered a multitude of health care alternatives than to suffer the degradation of condescending "doctor's orders".

The idea of delegation is closely related to surrogation, which reminds me of Dan Gilbert's ideas on how we make decisions (poorly) and how we ought to make decisions (using a surrogate). As I'd noted in an earlier post on Dan's book, Stumbling on Happiness, he argues that

rather than relying solely on our selves (and our fallible memories) to imagine how happy we will feel in some future state, we should capitalize on the experience of others by inquiring about the happiness of those who are already in the future state we are considering ... the problem [then] is figuring out which others we ought to consult in estimating our future ... I want to know what people like me like.

[I'll also note, here, that I recently discovered a TED video of Dan's presentation on Stumbling on Happiness].

Given my renewed research into recommender systems, and some recent ruminations about re-rethinking recommendation engines, I see how such systems can also play a key role in effectively addressing the increasing array of choices we face in our lives ... and in helping me find people like me ... and what those people like.

What people [like me] like reminds of David Whyte's perspective on why we are liked (or loved), expressed through his poem, "This Time":

Those stars told him
they loved him only
for what he loved himself.
They did not love him
for who he was.

So, people like me [might] like me for what I like.

Toward the end of his presentation, Barry wryly comments "the secret to happiness is low expectations". I've been a student of happiness for some time, and am intrigued with many dimensions of the art, science and business of happiness. And so, I again turn from the science to art - from psychology to poetry - and invoke Oriah Mountain Dreamer's perspective on the secret to happiness ... which not only offers a contrast to Barry's, but also seems to conflict with the sentiment expressed by David Whyte (which is particularly incongruent, for me, as one of his workshops had inspired her earlier prose poem, The Invitation, and I find a great deal of congruence between that poem and his poem, Self Portrait). Oriah expresses a view which has more to do with greater appreciation - and less to do with lower expectations - and seems to admit the possibility that we might well love ourselves for who we are (not just for what we love) in the Prelude to her book, The Dance:

What if your contribution to the world and the fulfillment of your own happiness is not dependent upon discovering a better method of prayer or technique of meditation, not dependent upon reading the right book or attending the right seminar, but upon really seeing and deeply appreciating yourself and the world as they are right now?

So maybe what we really need in the next generation of recommender systems - as a way out of the paradox of choice - is new mechanisms to help us better appreciate ourselves, and the people, places and things around us ... and perhaps new ways for expressing our love for people, places and things.

In any case, I think a healthy dose of Susan Jeffers' "no-lose decision model" (from her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway ) offers a remedy for avoiding the misery and regret that Barry talks about. I've mentioned it before, but I'll include it yet again, as I think it is relevant (and helpful):

Before you make a decision:

  1. Focus immediately on the no-lose model (whichever path you choose will provide learning opportunities … even if it’s learning what you don’t like)
  2. Do your homework (talk to as many people as will listen … both to help clarify your own intention and to get alternative perspectives)
  3. Establish your priorities (which pathway is more in line with your overall goals in life – at the present time)
  4. Trust your impulses (your body gives you good clues about which way to go)
  5. Lighten up (it really doesn’t matter – it’s all part of a lifelong learning process)

After making a decision:

  1. Throw away the picture (if you focus on what you expected, you may miss the unexpected opportunities that arise along the new path you’ve chosen)
  2. Accept total responsibility for your decision (don’t give away your power)
  3. Don’t protect, correct (commit yourself to any decision you make and give it all you got … but if it doesn’t work out, change it!)

Although we may not want to apply the full range of this model in every choice we make - talking to as many people as will listen about which toothpaste to buy seems a bit extreme - but lightening up and letting go seem like good practices to apply to all our choices.


Dark Nights of the Soul

Mchughdarknightofthesoul

Maureen McHugh, a science fiction writer (who also enjoys "not science fiction" books), has written about the challenges of writing novels (and battling cancer) on her blog, No Feeling of Falling. She augmented her words - which unfold with exquisite openness and vulnerability - with a graphical depiction of the soul work involved in rising to meet these challenges, which is inevitably preceded by a descent of some kind. The image, appropriately entitled Dark Night of the Soul, is shown above; it first appeared in a post entitled Episode 1: Begin Anew, which offers a wonderful perspective from which to view new challenges.

Yogi sent me a link to this image, after a recent guest presentation I gave at a UW Tacoma course on Social Networks, taught by Ankur Teredesai [the presentation was on how proactive displays bridge gaps between online social networks and shared physical spaces]. Yogi had encountered the image in yet another course, on Interaction Design, an area which also offers a set of challenges, though the image and the ideas it represents were more related to our broader conversation after the class about work, soul, passion and happiness. I wanted to continue that rumination here, because it brought to mind (and heart) a few strands of inspiration I've encountered elsewhere.

Theheartaroused David Whyte, in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America, invokes the epic poem of Beowulf - in which the hero descends into a deep well to battle a monster, Grendel, who has been attacking King Hrothgar's men, and then descends again to battle Grendel's mother - to illustrate some of his insights and experiences into creativity in the workplace. Whyte notes that:

[H]uman existence is half light and half dark, and our creative possibilities seem strangely linked to that part of us we keep in the dark.

and goes on to share the steps he sees in the story - and throughout work (and life) - that are required for unleashing our creativity:

  • dropping beneath the surface
  • disclosure and vulnerability
  • disappearance and return

Whyte draws an analogy between Beowulf's battle with Grendel mother and each of our individual battles with the mother of all vulnerabilities: "the deep physical shame that we are not enough, will never be enough, and can never measure up".

He finishes the chapter with a quote from The Man Watching, by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Or, perhaps, one might say, by facing, repeatedly, darker and darker nights of the soul.

In an earlier post on an unfolding series of peak and pit experiences, I'd written about how inspired I was by Dan Oestreich's insights into and applications of Otto Scharmer's ideas about "Theory U". I want to repeat - again - what Dan had to say:

We all want to know where the point of transformation lies. I would say it is in “no space,” the place we come to after exhausting everything we know…and everything we are, a point of pure meditation. The current theory base, exemplified by Oscar Scharmer’s “Theory U”, suggests exactly this process of emptying ourselves of everything known so that we can listen to a best future Self, a source of deep intuitive wisdom... Scharmer describes the bottom of the U as where we touch a larger field that goes beyond our present awareness, a place of new insight and new consciousness that enables us to solve the problems we have been stuck by using our current, more limited awareness.

I also want to include a larger version of the image Scharmer uses to illustrate Theory U, as it closely relates to the image of the Dark Night of the Soul I started with at the beginning of this post:

TheoryU

I still have not read Theory U (yet), but revisiting this image reveals another dimension of connection (for me (and my work)), with respect to the inspiring ideas of co-sensing, co-presencing and co-creating - not to mention open mind, open heart and open will - so I've ordered a copy of the book.

Meanwhile, based on what Dan has written (and what I've experienced), I suspect the process of descending and rising from the depths of our selves and our work is an ongoing educational journey ... leading through a series of dark nights of the soul(s) ... and, hopefully, some bright days, as well.

Oh, I almost forgot to add that the image also reminds me of stories I've heard about "thesis hill", a visual representation that Roger Schank (my academic "grandfather") employs - or employed - in his meetings with graduate students. Thesis hill, as I understand it, was depicted using an inverse geometric representation - climbing a hill vs. descending into darkness - but in my experience, and in the experience of many people I know (including many of Roger's former students - my "uncles" and "aunts"), working on a Ph.D. thesis often requires persevering through many dark nights of the soul ... and Rilke's quote about repeated, decisive defeats by greater (or, at least, more powerful) beings is one of the best, short verbal characterizations of graduate school - and especially, a thesis defense - that I've encountered ... rivaling the visual characterization of the Dark Night of the Soul. And, I suppose, writing a science fiction novel has many characteristics in common with writing a Ph.D. [scientific] thesis, just with varying intentions - and interpretations - with respect to the relative use of fact and fiction.

[Update, 2008-04-01: I just stumbled upon this relevant quote - from one of my heroes, who certainly had keen insights into darkness and souls - on Aaditeshwar Seth's home page:

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

- George Orwell, 1946.]


The Onion on Voting, Puppetry and Illusions

A week ago, The Onion produced a hilarious - not to be confused with Hillaryous - satirical look at the upcoming "election", from the shadowy perspective of reports of Diebold voting machine hacks in Florida a month ago ... or perhaps demonstrations of Diebold voting machine hackability a year ago ... or perhaps questionable results from the last two presidential "elections" ... or perhaps the last 14, if their reference to "the group of military and corporate leaders that has chosen every American president since Eisenhower" is not entirely fictional. 

The headline: "A minor software glitch at the Diebold corporation today caused thousands of electronic voting machines to accidentally release the results of the 2008 presidential election, months ahead of schedule."

[link]

[Update: favorite quotes removed, so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the video.]

[Update, 2008-03-15: the United States, which received generally high scores in the recently released 2007 Global Integrity Index, ranked only 10th in the integrity of its elections.]

I'm grateful for the link to this video sent to me by Ellen Riloff, my long-time friend and former co-conspirator and lab-mate at the NLP Group at UMass, where she so ably executed the duties of Humor Director, and continues to help me lighten up from time to time, even while on sabbatical in California ... her notes from which reveal another obsession we share - whale watching.