Learning, the act of gaining knowledge, is a craft unto itself. It starts with questions - the what ifs, how abouts, whys, . . . leading from the unknown to the known, through inquiry, experimentation, travel, and of course pure accident.

This is about how it happens in my life.

Where do Ideas come from? Where do they go?

I have been reminded recently of the power of an idea to propogate itself.  Ideas and information get around using all sorts of convenient vehicles, including books.  Ideas have ways of wanting to be shared.   Below you'll find some thoughts on books that made me think back in the summer of 2007 with works by 
Vaclav Havel (2 items)
Chris Patten, 
Ram Charan
Malcom Gladwell
Friday, 22 June 2007
I have decided to start writing about what I am reading. I have been meaning to do this for way too long, and now am in the unhappy position of not being able to remember some of what I have read. Thanks to the privacy of the pubic library system here they cannot produce for me a list of what I had taken out recently. That information is inaccessible as soon as the item is returned to circulation, basically. The transaction, as it were, becomes anonymous once I fulfill my end of the agreement by returing the item.

With this in mind, I've started thinking about responsibility. Vaclav Haval’s writings in The Art of the Impossible (1994, 1997; 0-679-41506-4) are a clear call for us to embrace our mutual responsibility for the good of humanity, to engage with the world directly and to speak truth to the horrors we perpetrate on one another. He speaks of a collective responsibility, that the intellectual and the academic must engage equally with the politician and corporate leader to work productively.
After all, the subtitle is politics as morality in practice. This is surely a concept foreign to most politicians and political observers alike.

This book is actually a collection of his speeches given from his emergence during the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 through to 1996, his last year as President of the Czech Republic. It is not a complete record, but the contents are, according to the forward, the speeches Havel selected as representative of what he had to say. He is a poet and playwright, and was jailed under the communist regime in the 70s for his counter-revolutionary writings. It was the intellectuals in Czechoslovakia that got the ball rolling, the momentum for change started with them. And they did not they abdicate responsibility for the result of what they put in motion; they worked hard to fill the void, and found the will to embrace those traditions that had been so interrupted by the turmoil of the many wars fought on those lands.

He starts with a call to intellectuals to take responsibility for the world, which they act as though it beneath them, and to focus their keen minds on a greater purpose:  
If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot avoid forever assuming their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics beneath an alleged need for independence - Speech to Congress, Washington DC Feb 1990
Havel firmly believes there is a metaphysical aspect to human BEING, as he has written. We are connected by virtue of our humanness, which is not a novel concept. But Havel’s expression of this is powerful.
He wrote all his speeches during his presidencies. All the memos and communiques sent out under his name were written by him. He never lost his voice or identity in the act of being a politician, because he was a Human Being first, so being a politician was a sub-set of Human Being.  

In our liberty and freedom we have become overly sensitive to what we consider makes us unique, or singular. This is not just a phenomenon of cultural groups, meant in its broadest possible sense, but of individuals.  Remember that song on Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just  . . .” well, you remember, right? What happens when that becomes our filter on life, on our daily activities and interactions?  It seems unhealthy to have an identity and world view that depends on a sense of exclusivity rather than connectedness.  

Havel tried to bring humanity back to politics, and his speeches certainly reflect this constant theme. He was elected to lead his country right after the revolution, then again in the next elections in Czechoslovakia and then again in the Czech Republic, so it seems he may have succeeded in his goal, as both countries made tremendous progress.

I am not yet finished this book, and will want to record some quotes from it. He has recently published a new work and that is how I stumbled upon this book.

Other books read and must write on:  by Malcolm Gladwell; and by Chris Patten. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2007
Chris Patten’s  Cousins and Strangers (2006, isbn 0-670-04538-1) published under the title Not Quite the Diplomat in the UK and that is the title used when it was reviewed by the globe and mail or some such thing here last year some time. I remember looking for it before Christmas as I figured maybe Dad might be interested in his writings. It was only about a month or so ago that I found out it had a different title here. I wonder why – the original title was very appropriate to what he had to say, but maybe it was taken as too harsh. The title now is much more friendly if only because it is ambiguous in its intent.
Still, Patten doesn’t pull any punches, that is for sure. He dissects the failings of the US, UK and EU with a simplicity that makes it hard to take it personally. Of course, I’m not the one he is citing for abject failures of diplomacy over the years.
His take on Russia is interesting if only for the fact that he speaks truth to the reality of that country. He is generous is referring to recent events as backsliding; I am more cynical in that I see President Putin as one in a long chain of tyrants leading Russian through out its history.

I find myself thinking again of the, well, bluntness with which Patten writes. He is very clear in his observations of the failings of both individuals and states, but not in a critical way. Does that make sense? I mean that his observations are not cruel and without an upside. He provides guidance as to the way forward.
His writing about the failings of the international community with regards to Yugoslavia were timely as Havel also addresses this crisis in a more contemporary fashion in his speeches – he chastises the rest of the world, and intellectuals especially, for not speaking truth to the horrors in that country. Really, the end of the cold war was nothing like the panacea it was hoped, because after such an artificial existence how can a people possibly recover sufficiently to create a new world for themselves? 

I wonder to what extent the failure to help was informed by the fact that so many intellectuals then and still do embrace the soviet system as something valuable or useful or good. This is a truly disturbing notion, as it takes only minor understanding of the gulag system to understand what was at the heart of the soviet system: terror, dehumanizing social orders in which the individual as nothing more than a tool of the state’s interests. 
Patten’s perspective is one of collective responsibility, just like Havel’s. 

Yet that is just the problem, in some ways. The collective is not a single unified entity, but rather a multitude of voices, needs, expectations and histories. He speaks of the difficulty of coming up with a foreign policy for the EU, given that the EU is in fact 25+ independent countries which are still autonomous politically and in many other ways.  And that is a body which has decades of history, many successes, and a geographically unifying underpinning. No wonder the UN has such difficulty. Of course, the spinelessness of bureaucrats and politicians doesn’t help either. Everything is about finance these days, so it is hard to craft a human position on its merits alone. 

He speaks of de facto and de jure sovereignty, and origins of law. This arises as the EU has struggled with the limits of cooperation in light of sovereignty and the very different interests of the players. At one point he notes that really, for all the success of the EU at creating a union of equals, if the UK, Germany and France can’t agree on something then it just won’t happen. I wonder how much of this notion is acknowledged in the halls of power both in Brussels and in the individual capitals of the member states.

 The Tipping Point (2000; 0-316-31696-2) by Malcolm Gladwell is a great book. He talks literally of tipping points – what turns a casual occurrence into an influential phenomenon? He talks of connectors, maven and salesmen – the folks who distribute the key messages around the phenomenon, and also about the importance of creating a sticky message. The best learning in that area comes from children’s programming, which I think is just marvellous.  Creating a message that takes on a life of its own is the genius of marketing, regardless of the situation.
I find his work compelling for what it can say about the work of librarians and our workplaces. 

Monday, 23 July 2007
I’ve received and read To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel.  (ISBN 978-0-307-26641-5, 2007) This was the book that I saw reviewed and led to me finding The Art of the Impossible, which was published a full decade before. I had not realized that Havel had spent over a decade in office. He was president until 2003. 

Anyway, this book is a collage – Havel’s term, not mine. He has included a dialectic, in the form a  Q&A between him and a Czech journalist (Karel Hvizd’ala) who had also been a dissident; his own observations contemporary with his writing of the book; and his daily briefing notes to his staff from his terms as president of the Czech Republic, telling them about his activities and what they need to be aware of or otherwise how what assistance they need to provide to him over the next while. 

I truly appreciate the candour of his notes, as he alternately chastises, praises and simply guides his staff towards what he needs from them. He writes of needing briefing notes, and the need of needing briefer briefing notes on which to base his various speeches etc. At one point he absolutely goes to town on his staff when some one makes a press announcement in “his name” which absolutely makes him look insensitive and stupid and he says: don’t ever make a statement in my name. Anything that goes out under my name will contain my words, no one else’s.

The daily briefing notes really are insightful to a political junky like me. I love the mundanity of them, to some extent. He includes some of them repeatedly, such as the item from 1999 about the bat in the cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is kept. I find it marvellous that the president of a country knows where the vacuum cleaner is kept! This in contrast with today’s news that George W Bush had a camera stuck up his butt today to find out if he has cancerous polyps – and I keep thinking I’d rather something else be stuck up his butt – and I’m pretty sure that Bush has no idea where there is a vacuum, or even how to use one, or what one is for.
Strange that such mundane items in a memoir leave me with much more respect for Mr. Havel as a result, than I will ever have for some one like Mr. Bush.  

Monday, 30 July 2007

I am working through a completely different kind of read right now: Know How: The 8 skills that separate people who perform from those who don’t, by Ram Charan (ISBN 978-0-307-34151-8, 2007 ). 

He is apparently a big time management and business guru. How does one become that? Well, I guess he is a consultant, and so must have built a reputation along the way for his business acumen and insights. And he seems to be trusted, if the content of this book is any indication. He says in the intro or first chapter that this work is the result of spending a great deal of time observing managers and business leaders in their work – and that kind of opportunity would only be offered to some one trusted.
The 8 skills he identifies really are the key to success:
  • Positioning: where in the market place do you belong?
  • External factors: what is going on in the bigger environment?
  • Social organization: getting the right people together in the right ways
  • Identify leaders: hone skills in making judgements about the people around you
  • Create the team: with highly competent employees who keep the big picture in sight
  • Set Goals: that balance the long term achievability with short term realism
  • Prioritize: what are the specific tasks that lead to achieving goals?
  • Flexibility: to deal with societal pressures that influence the business.

I’ve not finished reading it yet – each chapter is focused on a different skill with tons of examples from the business world – although at one point he uses Bob Nardelli from Home Depot as a shining example and he was disgraced in his exit from the company earlier this year. I think it was this year, and I guess Charan may have gone to press before that all trickled out.
Still, he goes into detail about what individual successful managers do in their day to day jobs to promote know how among their employees and them selves.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007
So, in the second to last chapter which focuses on creating priorities that help you achieve your goals, Charan talks about having to set priorities with the following trade offs in mind:
  • What is urgent
  • What is important
  • What is long term versus short term
  • What is realistic versus visionary.

All of this with regards to the fact that goals are set at the 50 thousand foot level but priorities must be set with the ground level perspective in mind.  So, the priorities must be tightly focused with regards to the situation; priorities can change just as goals will change as the factors which influenced them do.

The one thing that is clear is that if the goals are off there is nothing you can do about the priorities. They will be wrong no matter what. 

Charan goes on to talk about traits that can interfere with successful execution of these know hows:
Ambition: winning at all costs not the point.
Drive and tenacity: search and persist, but not forever.
Self-confidence: overcome fears, but not arrogant and narcissistic.
Psychological openness: receptive to new ideas, and not shutting others down.
Realism: seeing what can be accomplished and not glossing over problems or assume the worst.
Appetite for learning: always growing, not repeating mistakes.

And Charan also mentions traits that are must help:
Wide range of altitudes: high level to highly specific.
Broad conceptual bandwidth: take in tons of input and see the big picture.
Ability to reframe: what are the different perspectives?

Sunday, 19 August 2007
I’ll have to start paying attention to how I learn of these books – this one again I think came from the Economist, but I am not sure. It is called Uncertainty –Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the struggle for the soul of science, by David Lindley (ISBN 978-0-385-51506-1, published 2007) and traces the development of quantum theory.  Truly, that theory has uncanny beginnings, at least to me, but when put into the perspective of a physicist trying to understand the world, it all is perfectly natural.   

The thing to keep in mind, and to some extent goes unsaid, but is implied by Lindley, is that physics is ultimately about how things do what they do, the mechanical aspects of movement in particular. So of course when a biologist notices that the grains of pollen suspended in water are moving about erratically and without any explainable cause – a movement later named after the scientist, Robert Brown, as Brownian Motion -  it becomes a problem of physics: what is causing the grains of pollen to move erratically?  Of course Newtonian physics stipulates that for each action there is an equal reaction – basically that nothing happens without a cause – so this erratic movement must have some underlying cause that is just not detectable at the time. In the end it would all work out just according to the understood rules of the physical world.

The subtitle to the book is really the true story, for it chronicles the very real lives of the three titled players and numerous others, all of whom contributed to the development of what came to be the foundation of quantum physics. Einstein, of course, was the ever present, well, critic isn’t the right word, but it will suit – always observing that in the end the uncertainty principle, as it became known, just wasn’t sufficient, that there had to be more to it. This sentiment, shared by others, was based on the fact that there was no logical, and therefore mathematical way to link quantum physics to classical physics. While the theory and all the math worked as predicted in quantum theory, something no one disputed, the fact that it was contradictory to the known laws of physics, given its probabilistic nature, and in no way reconcile-able to it.

For many who were simply interested in trying to figure out what was going on at the particle level, rather than wondering why it works, these questions of theory, philosophy and irreconcilable differences were moot. The theory worked, and they were learning more about the world and, some of the time, could actually translate that particle activity to real world phenomena.  Of course this is what astrophysicists like Lindley are trying to do today.

Bohr was the senior, the mentor, and a philosophical one if there ever was!  He took on Heisenberg as an assistant, both of them having long since made it clear that they were going to figure out this question of particle activity.  It was in this process that the atom became its sub parts, and that process has since pushed far smaller than that. But ultimately it was Heisenberg who developed the theory, and the math, that explained the questions in front of the scientists. And it was quite a race. The observations were not questioned – every one knew that there was an observable fact that could not be explained by classical psychics.  Schrodinger was in it for a while, with a wave – particle explanation that seemed at the time to revert back to classical physics, but in the end proved the point of quantum uncertainty instead.

The story spans over 100 years, given that Heisenberg spoke on the matter in 1955; it was a given, by this point.
I recall having seen an episode of nova in which it seemed that a working unification theory had been developed, and that was a year ago maybe, yet this book ends only saying that theories have been developed by none have been satisfactory yet.  A case of proof vs theory, perhaps?