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Posts Tagged ‘book’

the_moment_of_clarity

I have a fondness for connections that bridge seemingly disparate worlds. Examples? Well, early on in my programming career I read Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception in a bid to figure out how developer-written documentation might work better. I was also intrigued by the inventor of the Pomodoro technique®, a personal productivity system, claiming inspiration from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I’ve even, on occasion, tried to get “personal development” types interested in stylistic similarities between language used in certain forms of hypnotherapy and the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett.

In a similar vein, I’ve been intrigued by Hubert Dreyfus as a cross-world interloper. Dreyfus, an academic philosopher, had a surprise hit on iTunes with podcasts of his lectures (particularly popular with long-distance truck drivers, it seems). He has an odd double reputation in the world of computing. To some he is a hate figure on account of his critique, first made when he was at MIT in the 1960s, of rule-based Artificial Intelligence. This came from an insistence of the primacy of skilled behaviour over abstract cognition. His subsequent investigations into the phenomenon of skill acquisition subsequently gave him his other reputation: the “Dreyfus Model” is now used in parts of the industry for professional development. I’m sure there are people who don’t realize that it’s the same Dreyfus in both cases.

All of which leads me, in a rather meandering way, to another unexpected connection: business consultants who read Heidegger, specifically Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen of ReD Associates who’s book The Moment of Clarity: Using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems was recently been published by Harvard Business Review. In it, they promote ideas and methods from anthropology and sociology as a way for businesses to do better by “getting people right”. They also draw on the so-called “continental” tradition in modern philosophy, centred on Martin Heidegger. Foucault, Gadamer and Dreyfus all get their mentions. (Nothing on Beckett: you can’t have everything…)
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I’m not really sure why I read books about management theory. With the thought that forewarned is forearmed, I suppose. Anyway, here’s an interesting quote from Good Strategy / Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters by Richard Rumelt (pp. 47-8):

The philosophy of the age [early 20th century], most fervently adopted by the French, was that willpower, spirit, morale, élan, and aggressiveness were the keys to success. For three years, generals flung highly motivated men at fortified machine-gun emplacements, only to see tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, shredded to mincemeat to gain a mile of useless ground.

[…]

At the Somme and Passchendaele, Haig led an entire generation of British and Dominion youths to their deaths—as Joseph Joffre did for the French at Somme, and Erich von Falkenheyn did for the Germans at Verdun.

In Europe, motivational speakers are not the staple of the management lecture circuit that they are in the United States, where the doctrine of leadership as motivation is alive and well. Here, for example, is H. Ross Perot: “Most people give up when they’re just about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from the winning touchdown.”

Hearing this, many American nod in agreement. Many Europeans, by contrast, hear the echo of the “one last push” at Passchendaele.

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I’ve been wanting to write something about brevity for a while now. You know: the soul of wit, brevitas vs. copia, maxims and arrows, and all that sort of thing. I fear I may write too much whilst saying too little. Ho hum.
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The Languages of Pao

I intermittently attend a “science and literature” reading group. The last thing I read for the group was “The Languages of Pao”, by Jack Vance. Actually, we only read the first nine chapters.

I’m not really much of a science fiction fan—I’m not much of a novel-reader in general—and to start with the book was a bit of a grind. But once the story got going I found it quite intriguing: perhaps it had some sort of personal resonance.
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No fun

I was recently lent a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. I read it, but didn’t quite engage. This is no doubt in part because—for personal reasons—I’m a bit dubious about the whole idea of literature and “the life of the mind”, Lewis’ stock-in-trade.

I did, however, like the following, in which Lewis describes his experience of serving in the army during World War I rather favourably (relative to his experience of boarding school):

It was, of course, detestable. But the words “of course” drew the sting. […] Straight tribulation is easier to bear than tribulation which advertises itself as pleasure. The one breeds camaraderie and even (when intense) a kind of love between fellow-sufferers; the other, mutual distrust, cynicism concealed and fretting resentment.

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These days, now that I’m a card-carrying God-botherer, I find Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth a bit too cynical for my tastes.

That said, the book was quite an eye-opener as a history of management theory; especially when read in conjunction with Kiechel’s The Lords of Strategy. And the original essay still has a certain charm. Consider this:

As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger!

There has been the odd occasion when I’ve read everyone’s favourite Nazi windbag philosopher, for fun. Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding an occasion that’s sufficiently odd.
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Here’s a photo I took from my phone, a few months ago.
"Thinking, Fast and Slow", next to blood stain
I had to take an unexpected journey, and had to make a quick decision, in less than ideal circumstances, as to what I would take with me. If, instead of this book and my phone, I had picked up my battered old iPod, then subsequent events might have taken a very different course.

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