This blog runs in Lightsail on WordPress with a Certified by Bitnami instance. Lately, I’ve run into the following when trying to ssh in from the Lightsail console:
This hangs forever. A couple of times, a reboot of the instance seemed to fix it but this morning, nothing changed the behavior. So I decided to try to ssh from the terminal and lo and behold, this works. You have to download your private keys from your Lightsail account and then following these instructions worked fine from the terminal. This will probably be my default going forward.
Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is perhaps her best known philosophical book. It consists of three essays focused on moral philosophy and her belief in a Platonic basis for it. I’ve had the book on my mega monopoly bookseller wishlist for quite awhile, probably when I read Mathew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft which frequently references Murdoch’s concepts of attention. My recent focus on ethical philosophy in Happiness, specifically Plato, prompted me to buy this book. It’s a short book, only 100 pages, and the three essays are straightforward to read.
The main theme of the book and essays is the concept of Good as the primary ideal of moral philosophy. The first essay, The Idea of Perfection, examines the state of moral philosophy in the mid to late 20th century from Kant to the behaviorists to the existentialists to the most recent movements in analytic philosophy. None of these schools have a rich and nuanced concept of moral philosophy. Each school drives out the self in a variety of ways: Kant via Reason, Existentialism through the removal of intrinsic meaning defined by an external source, etc. Our removal of the self and its messiness along with science’s influences on society in moving away from God means that moral philosophy is reduced to thinking goodness and morality are functions of our will and not some externally existing ‘thing’. We choose what is good based on the freedom of our will and that is that. Additionally, we move away from the idea of virtue and towards a concept of “right”. We no longer ask “What is Good?”. Instead, we ask “What is Right?” which biases us towards a materialistic, false scientism when it comes to moral philosophy.
Murdoch strongly disagrees with these concepts and instead presents a moral philosophy based on a transcendent Good that is undefinable but still clearly exists external to our will for us to focus on. This makes our materialistic, technocratic selves quite uncomfortable in an age where everything supposedly has a reason and must be measured for its efficiency. But if we examine our lived experience and lean on common sense, it seems true that the Good really does exist even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what it is. Her debt to Plato and the Allegory of the Cave is clear here.
Murdoch argues for a much richer inner life than do her contemporaries or immediate philosophical ancestors. This inner life is “hazy” as she puts it and not subject to measurements or efficiencies. Contemporary moral philosophy judges every thing on actions: we have no way to inspect the inner life Murdoch treasures and therefore can only decide whether a person is moral by his or her actions. Murdoch argues this is far too limiting to develop a rich, moral philosophy and instead that our inner life can (and DOES!) contain much more. This lines up with most people’s simple common sense beliefs about their “self”.
Murdoch’s example involves M and D, two women associated via the marriage of D to M’s son. M behaves towards D flawlessly (her external visible actions) but internally, she believes that D is simple and plain and below her son. Over time, M’s vision of D comes to change. She sees that her son loves D, that perhaps instead of simple, D is carefree and happy, etc. Her actions have never changed but her morality has in that it has grown along a continuum. Modern moral philosophy has no mechanism with which to judge this example because there are no actions that have changed. M’s actions are the same yet something has changed. This is why Murdoch argues for concepts beyond the examination of actions that behaviorism and existentialism focus on. Most people would likely agree with her that there does seem to be some rich inner life and that a moral philosophy that does not account for this life is suspect.
This also has implications for concepts like Freedom. In the existentialist/behaviorist view, Freedom is the will making its moral choices often divorced from any anchor in reality. For Murdoch and a theory of Good, Freedom is the choices made on a progressive continuum towards Perfection. It is not random free choice. In other words, M chose to look more carefully, to attend more clearly, to D’s characteristics and her son’s love for D. M had the Freedom to choose whether to do this but once she chose it, her path was set moving her forward towards an idea of Perfection, e.g. constantly improving via choice one’s understanding of something, in this case the personality of her daughter-in-law.
This idea of Perfection and constant movement on the continuum towards it is fundamental to Murdoch’s philosophy. By conceiving of a transcendent Good and then attending to it, we grow more moral over time. This is in sharp contrast to the materialistic view of existentialism where everything is based on external actions and there is no historical context, e.g. no continuum, within which to judge the morality of an agent. It’s also important to note Murdoch’s concept of attention. For her, morality comes via attention to reality, the real world (the relationship M’s son has with D for example) and then fitting ones decisions and beliefs around that. By contrast, in existentialism, the will operates independent from reality leaving one’s morality to be developed in a void. This is a slippery slope towards “things that are right for you aren’t right for me”. Only by judging moral philosophy on its connection to reality can we have standards that we once derived from the Divine.
Murdoch’s idea of Perfection requires the governance of reality as a guide for growth in a moral way. We must attend to what we experience, our relationships, our impacts on the environment, etc so that we can develop our moral philosophy towards better actions. Reality comes first, then growth towards the Good, then actions unlike the existentialists and behaviorists for whom actions are the genesis of moral philosophy. For them, actions are everything. But for Plato and Murdoch and Aquinas among others, the genesis of moral philosophy is a transcendent Good (for Aquinas, this was God as primary, for the others the Good is primary on its own) towards which we apply attention first that enables actions. The Good is contextual, it has a history to which we must attend and this is how it differs dramatically from the existentialist/behaviorist view with its isolated will.
Today’s third installment is a summary of what the Stoics represented by Seneca and Augustine felt about happiness. The Stoics have in recent years returned to popularity, largely through the writings of Ryan Holiday. Stoicism was in direct competition for mind share and pupils with Epicureans during the ancient world. The writing of Seneca in this book is in response to the core Epicurean belief that pleasure is the highest good. Seneca believes Virtue is the higher good. Seneca’s main argument with Epicurean philosophy is not that it is necessarily bad but that it is far too easy to fall into a vicious cycle when pursuing happiness via pleasure.
According to Seneca, Virtue is the highest good and has the added benefit of providing some pleasure. The analogy he uses is like the field plowed for corn that then allows some flowers to bloom around its borders, Virtue allows for pleasure to bloom in small ways as well. The benefit of Virtue is that it allows man to stand up to the tribulations of life whereas pleasure does not. As someone who struggles with things like carbs and Twitter, I can attest to pleasure largely being weak and fleeting.
Interestingly, Epicurus, while having a totally materialistic metaphysical basis for his philosophy, did not advocate for the gluttony that we typically associate with his philosophy. Much of what Epicurus said was directed at developing a freedom of fear, both of the gods and of man, and directing one’s life to learning via our senses. This then allowed man to acquire pleasure though still in some moderation. As so often with philosophical leaders, it was later adherents to the philosophy who bastardized the concepts.
Seneca advocated for Virtue being the standard bearer for our direction in life and that by doing so, man would be able to both acquire pleasure (via higher goods like learning and philosophical development) and to withstand all the things that buffet and attack our happiness and equilibrium in life. Virtue allows us to be free from suffering because we know that our actions have truth. Virtue is independent of Fortune. One can lead a virtuous life filled with truth and wisdom while remaining poverty stricken but a rich man whose happiness is based on his pleasures can be stripped of them by Fortune. Virtue places man beyond the grasp of desire which means he achieves freedom via being virtuous. This is not unlike the ideas of Iris Murdoch who talks about freedom not as an independent thing in a laissez-faire will but a result of the consequences of a framework for action. In other words, by striving towards Virtue (or Perfection for Murdoch), we gain freedom from the whims and baseness of pleasure.
Seneca says “We have been born under a monarchy; to obey God is freedom.” This is a much deeper definition of freedom (and a seemingly paradoxical one to the modern mind) than one we operate in today where we are bombarded by people yelling about freedoms to not wear a mask or the freedom to develop a cryptocurrency or other “freedoms” based on an independent will that is largely nihilistic in nature. This freedom is hard to comprehend when one has been immersed in the cultural idea of individual freedom as the highest good. Our cultural idea of freedom is totally independent choice. However, Seneca believed that this led to base desires ruling man’s life and that true freedom came from a structural metaphysic based on virtue. Only in this path would we gain true freedom from those base desires like gluttony and greed. As Jerzy Gregorek has said, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” Today’s definition of freedom (and happiness) are entirely of the first time. But Seneca (and in some ways Epicurus and more so Augustine) believed freedom came from the latter.
Interestingly, something that is not regularly talked about is that Seneca believed Virtue came from God, that we had a sacred obligation to be human, e.g. not be bothered by those things which affects us because we are not divine. This relates him to Augustine in some ways who had similar thoughts. Augustine’s core moral was Wisdom which came from God. Wisdom is the opposite of want or more accurately, frees one from want much as Seneca believe Virtue freed us from the spiral of pleasure seeking. Wisdom for Augustine was the measure of the soul, that it kept the soul in equilibrium and prevented that same spiral into pleasure seeking behavior. Wisdom requires a constant seeking (which interestingly ties back to Murdoch’s ideas in The Sovereignty of Good) and therefore, we are never deemed “wise”, only that we are constantly trying to increase our wisdom.
The way to wisdom for Augustine was through moderation, that want (of pleasures or riches) pulls us away from wisdom which is defined as seeking God. Again, as with Seneca and later, Murdoch, Happiness is derived via our pursuit of something less concrete than basic pleasures and our ability to improve or increase that pursuit over time. Happiness is not derived from the acquisition of things but from the acquisition of wisdom. Things can be a means to this (I bought a guitar during the pandemic, the purchase of which provided a tiny bit of impermanent happiness) by allowing us to develop wisdom (playing the guitar and increasing my abilities provides a constant stream of happiness). But it is key for both Seneca and Augustine that it is not the materialistic thing itself, it is what it provides on the path to wisdom. If I had to sell the guitar to make rent, I could still sing as a way to improve musical abilities.
To me, Seneca and Augustine have a very similar view of Happiness and its providence. I’ve read far more Stoic philosophy than I have that of Augustine but I’m interested in branching out further into his beliefs. Next up is Thomas Aquinas who believed happiness came from the contemplation of God.
Finding myself with time to spare lately, I did my first standby hunt through the Texas Parks & Wildlife system this past week at Old Sabine WMA near Lindale. Earlier this year, with much less time on my hands, I forgot to apply for any of the gun deer permits so standby became my only option. Luckily, I was the only one to show up Wednesday morning and got my choice of remaining spots in the hunt.
The Old Sabine hunt is a good one. The biologists and employees are helpful and considerate. In most years, they actually have a cookout the first night for all the hunters which is a first in my experience with draw hunts. Unfortunately, Covid has changed protocols and they were unable to do that this year. Still, they offer to teach people how to field dress game, they’ll come help you track and get anything you shoot out of the woods and they do their best to make sure you have a good experience.
This hunt this year occurred at a pretty bad time (full moon) and the weather was atrocious for hunting with high winds, highs in the mid 70s and overnight temps in the high 60s. More like surfing weather than hunting weather. While there isn’t much you can do about the weather, one thing I learned for the future even on draw hunts is to cross-reference the lunar cycles and try to avoid full moons. When it’s as bright as it was this weekend, deer and hogs are far more nocturnal and move very little during shooting hours.
I choose compartment 4 which is on the far west end of the 5700 acre area. I had done some reading and thought there might be more hogs there. My compartment was 241 acres with a little bit of river border but mostly just large, bottom land hardwood. We’ve been rather dry here which meant it was difficult to find sign or tracks. I ended up setting up the in a semi-clearing that separated some large timber areas from a slough. I’d seen some game trails going back and forth and thought they might use the clearing to move into the woods to feed. I had brought both my climbing stand and popup blind. However, given the density of the brush and forest on the WMA, the popup was mostly useless. I spent all my time in the climber.
Unfortunately, no deer or hogs agreed with my plan. Over the course of the 2 days and 4 sits, I didn’t see anything larger than a squirrel. Compounding the heat and full moon problem, just getting in carrying the stand and basic gear resulted in me sweating like a feral pig because of the heat and humidity which didn’t help matters. Still, it wasn’t just me as the hunters in the compartment next to mine that I talked to in the evenings saw nothing the whole weekend too. In fact, nothing was shot the entire time by anyone on the hunt, 15 or so hunters. In talking to the biologists afterwards, about half of the drawn hunters left before the hunt was over. This is another key lesson of these hunts. People often quit before the hunt is over. If you think there is another compartment you’d like to try, it’s worth asking the TPWD folks if you can switch.
Overall, it was a good time to be in the woods even with all the adversity. Mostly a lot of bad luck with the weather which was pretty unexpected for December. Of course, the day the hunt was over, a big cold front came through with some rain, making this weekend perfect hunting weather. Such is life. I ended up walking a lot of compartment four and found an old fish camp. The shack is sitting on top of an old Coleman pop up camper. It’s interesting to think about what it was like 30-40 years ago. Who went to the trouble of building those shacks out in the woods just to fish a muddy river? The property was acquired by TPWD in 1994 so they are all pretty run down now.
This is probably the end of my hunting season though there’s an outside chance I could get up to Arkansas and try to take a deer on my in-laws property. Deer season ends in a few weeks and I don’t think I’ll have a chance to get back out in Texas. I did two draw hunts this year, one squirrel and this one at Old Sabine. I also hunted dove 3 times on public leases near Bonham. I got out more this year than in previous years so I’m happy about that.
The first reading from the book is from Plato’s The Republic and includes Books II, IV and IX. The selected readings are concerned with justice and whether or not it is a good in and of itself or if instead, as Glaucon argues, merely something irksome like gymnastics practice that we ascribe to for its results only. Said another way, should justice be something we aspire to do or have like feelings of enjoyment or is justice something we do only because of compulsion? Glaucon and his brother argue that it is the latter, that given the opportunity to be unjust without consequence, man would invariably choose to do so in the same way man would choose to avoid other disciplines aimed at the future over the present.
Plato via Socrates believes the opposite, that justice is an end, not a means and that man, being separate from the animals based on his rational capacity, will choose to be just in the same way he would choose to be happy. Plato supports his argument by discussing the rational principle versus the appetitive principle in man. He does this utilizing the emotion anger in an interesting way. Initially, Glaucon thinks that anger belongs to the appetitive or irrational side of man. But Plato points out that we are never angry with ourselves when we are overindulging or being unjust, only after the fact. Spirit, this lion that resides in us, is separate from both the appetitive impulses and the rational man.
These three concepts (appetitive, the lion that represents the spirited side, and the rational) make up the whole man. Glaucon is arguing for a mixture where the appetitive and the spirited would reign supreme while the rational would be weak and ineffective, e.g. someone who was wholly unjust while appearing to be just on the outside. Socrates argues that happiness comes from having the rational man as the strongest principle and that the other two occur in moderation.
Whether one sides with Glaucon or Socrates here seems to boil down to one’s fundamental belief about how man derives happiness from existence. On one hand, the picture is that of selfish greed, excess consumption and the immediate. This is a pessimistic view of humanity, a precursor to nihilism where nothing matters at all. On the other, rationality holds the stronger hand and that by keeping appetites in check, happiness is increased because then the higher goals of justice and meaningful pleasure via philosophy can be achieved.
In today’s world, we are surrounded by appeals to our animal nature, far more than anything Glaucon could have imagined. Consumerism and consumption is THE portrayed ideal whether it’s through acquiring more thing or drowning ourselves in the incessant fire hose of information from social media and the internet. We have become gluttons for these things because they are easier and closer to the appetitive principles in our animal nature. To achieve true happiness, Plato would likely have advised us to keep this in check and turn towards our rational side. Is the thing in the path you are striving for what’s important for happiness or is it the path itself? This shift changes how we value things and lessens the disappointment when we do not achieve the “thing” we were focused on.
The appetitive side will always lead to short term happiness and long term disappointment. We can only eat Cheetohs for dinner for so long before the effects are felt. This goes for any other concrete thing we might strive for from a new car to a promotion to a ranch. Far better, as the Stoics have taught, to curb the appetites and be satisfied with what we have, turning the energy we had focused on the short term achievement towards the underlying mechanisms that provide those achievements.
In the end, Plato advised us that happiness comes not from the immediate but from the movement towards perfection of an ideal. This also had the fortunate side effect of building a better society at the same time, something our consumerist culture should take note of. Strengthening our rational side while taming the appetitive side with the spirit’s help will lead to a happier, more meaningful life that avoids the ups and downs that come from indulging our immediate tendencies.
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Jean Yang, founder of Akita Software, has been talking on Twitter lately about the chasm between the technical “guidance” from large tech firms like Netflix and Amazon and what your average, run-of-the-mill tech firm does in the wild. I’ve started calling this latter group, a much larger cohort than the former, “small tech” loosely defined as 10-50ish engineering types. This idea of Zeno’s Migration, a riff on Zeno’s Paradoxes for those who slept through their classics courses, is full of promise like the Dichotomy paradox that says because a journey is a set infinite steps, it can’t even begin much less end which is especially apropos of many small tech companies cloud migration plan.
The idea here is that in order to complete a migration, you have to travel halfway an infinite number of times. The constant refrain from technical leadership is that next quarter we’re going to be “X” farther along the journey on the migration de jour. This migration often involves shiny, jangly technology choices like “rewrite the front end in React” or “migrate everything to the cloud”. Unfortunately, this constant refrain ignores hard strategic realities on the ground where a small tech firm has serious limitations in what it can accomplish. In an ideal world, free of harsh realities, these constraints would be manageable. Alas, there are no ideal worlds.
I think the problem arises because the pervasive definitional concept in our industry is “The Project”. When everything is a project, it sets up incentive conflicts in priority determination. In an organization that is highly typical in the industry where “the business” and “technology” are considered different entities, the migration is always a project defined and defended by “technology” which puts it at odds with other projects defined by “the business”. Even at organizations that nominally follow a more product based organizational structure, the key concept is projects involving kickoffs and planning and story writing and infinite other steps. As with most systems, the focus at this level is too granular and misses the forest for the trees.
A more holistic solution is to step back at least one level in the system to “The Team” and assess the situation there. The product team becomes the atomic unit of measure, not the project. This requires a shift in thinking and language but when done correctly, Zeno’s Migration melts away in the same way Zeno’s Paradoxes do because we shift from a discrete function with a start and an end to an infinite series (the outcomes and measurements of the team on a continual improvement cycle ala DevOps philosophy). In this model, a cloud migration just becomes part of the continual improvement process.
This still raises the question of when to do such things. With limited resources, even a well organized product team needs guardrails on what to focus on. This is where organizational technical leadership can provide value with written visions and strategies. In tandem with these strategies, it’s critical to have metrics measured in outcomes that are regularly reviewed and publicized to the broader organization. These strategies should be cyclical in nature, e.g. they do not have an end but define measurements like “we will migrate X services per quarter or half”. Without these strategies defined and monitored for outcomes, even well organized product teams in the typical technology business will fail to do this migration work because it’s too easy for it to fall on the floor.
A corollary to Zeno’s Migration that I’ve seen and heard a lot is the lift and shift strategy of cloud migration. An organization, hearing that “the cloud is the future” or whatever, moves (or more often pays some consulting firm to move) their entire operation to the cloud with the idea and promise that this allows the architecture to then move to a more cloud native form over time without having to migrate where the services live.
Of course, this achieves none of the benefits of a cloud native architecture and moves all of the existing maladaptive processes along with it. But returning to “The Project” as atomic unit, this is easy to reason about, define and measure. I think there is also often an unstated concept here that technology leadership maintains related to cost and incentives. Over time, as subsidies and cost breaks expire, running an org in the cloud just like you did on prem is likely to be much more expensive. The idea is that at that point, it would be easy to explain to the business how a rewrite or rearchitecture will save money which is always the easiest metric to measure.
There are two things going on here, one part sociological and one part technical (which is convenient since these are all sociotechnical systems). The sociological part involves humans tendency to look at achievement as An End. When we look at greatness, we think of a finished thing and not as something that happens to just be quite far along the continuum of that particular thing. The second issue is that in order to deal with the continuum of technical growth and improvement, we need to have a way to move successfully from vision to tactics which is what Richard Rumelt calls Strategy. We must define the problem, the constraint and actions required to solve the problem. This helps identify tradeoffs and things we cannot do in order to achieve the vision. This is where good technical leadership shines brightest and is often missing from existing tech growth plans.
In the end, I think technical growth is contextual. A team of 30 engineers can’t read a paper from Netflix and apply it to their situation. Leadership must analyze the existing context for opportunity and then define strategies for that opportunity that define the problem to be solved and the actions that will be taken (or not taken which is a critical part of strategy) to succeed. Then the strategy must be publicized and monitored for progress along its continuum. As growth occurs, the strategy and context should be revisited for modifications as necessary. This is all hard management work that in my experience is difficult to develop and nurture. There are systems involved here with first order incentives that are easier to both talk about and create that work against the harder second order incentives to dig into the history and context of a given situation and create solutions specifically for it. Until technical leadership as an industry is better at thinking about these systems, we’ll continue to read shiny new ideas from large tech organizations and try to pound that round object into the square hole we are dealing with.
I’m currently reading Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy which I picked up at the Dickson Used Bookstore in Fayetteville, AR a few weeks ago. I was looking for another book by Cahn that’s been on my Amazon wishlist for quite awhile but this was the only one they had in stock. This book is a collection of writings on searching for happiness. Whether this turns into an actual series of posts, only time will tell but a friend of mine asked for a TL,DR; on it so here we are.
The first reading in the book is from Plato’s The Republic. I read about half of it and decided to move on to Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics. In the past, I’ve found Plato difficult to read and the excerpt here is no different. Aristotle is more straightforward so let’s start small, shall we?
Aristotle’s main theme is that every art, action and inquiry is pointed at some good and that therefore, all things emanate from the good. This portion of The Ethics is looking at what that means, specifically in search for the chief good or the root. My notes here equate this to a graph with a root node, all leaf nodes pointing towards or leading to the chief good. In the 19 page excerpt here, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that reason and a contemplative life focused on truth is the chief good, that the life of philosopher is the ideal focus and that this derives from the gods who, being immortal and without need for bravery, justice or liberality (other goods that humans might partake in), must practice the contemplation of truth as part of what it means to be a god. The contemplative life of man, requiring no actions, must then be as close to divinity as we can be.
The other goods Aristotle mentions are actions, specifically those of bravery or justice or liberality. These are derivative goods that do lead to happiness but not the root happiness. When given a choice of action, we should choose actions that are of these types when possible.
…if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. Book I
The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. Book X
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle believed that the happy life was a life of exertion, not physical exertion necessarily but exertion of temperance, of choosing reason over amusement. The easy life is defined by easy choices, those closer to our animal desires. I was struck by how much of modern life is the latter, how easy it is to reach for easy amusements today and how much discipline is needed to choose reason instead. Western civilization is based on consumerism and fluff. Is it any wonder we live in an age of anxiety and depression? Happiness according to Aristotle is about the long term and the collection of choices we make aimed at reason and the contemplation of truth.
This idea leads to the derivative idea that mastery is a characteristic of happiness, that we as humans can achieve happiness only through the evolution of our abilities even in our amusements and hobbies. Happiness does not come from consumption because to consume is always the easy choice avoiding exertion. Only production (very generally speaking, not in a specific way of producing things in our work or hobbies) leads to mastery and therefore happiness. Achievements that happen from exertion are always more rewarding and therefore supporters of happiness.
Overall, Aristotle is a good place to start this study. I’ll probably return to Plato at this point because my favorite contemporary philosopher, Iris Murdoch, built a theory of ethics based on Platonism aimed primarily at Simone Weil’s “concept of “attention” to reality, including both other people and a transcendent Good.”
Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.
With Halloween approaching, a horror story seems to be in order. It is often said that change is scary, a cliche that like all cliches originates from some kernel of truth but then evolves into either tautology or is applied in situations that are more nuanced than a cliche can capture. Situations of change are often like that. It is one of the great paradoxes, written heavily about by many of our modern and postmodern philosophers from Marx to Nietzsche, Lefebvre to Pearls Before Swine that while we seem to crave stability, we also crave growth and development. Growth and development require change. While these things can seems scary at first glance, human beings often search them out when they aren’t getting enough in their lives. They find new jobs or new relationships or go on Amazon shopping sprees, all of which are often the easy way out for satisfying the need for change and growth. So if not all change is scary, where does the cliche come from? You know what is actually scary, deep down, bone shaking world altering kind of scary? Cancer.
Narrator: Well that took a dark turn.
Editor: Let’s wait and see where he’s going with this.
Why is cancer scary? Leaving aside the very visceral reaction one feels upon hearing about cancer and the assumptions of impending death, when we operate at a more philosophical level, cancer is scary because it represents chaotic change. It is uncontrolled growth, irrational at its core, with cells turning on each other in a race to destroy the organism even though they may not know they are doing this. Irrational, chaotic change is scary. When faced with this kind of change, humans, ill-equipped to deal with it rationally, turn to narratives, story making and rumor. We want change but we want to understand it. We almost always want the change agent to understand why things are the way they are before embarking on a radical new path. We need to assess the reality in which we operate in before changing it.
So how do we (specifically those of us operating in the technological fields) navigate times of change in a way that doesn’t involve narrative tales of impending doom and instead fulfill the very human and sociological need for growth and development? The very first thing, prerequisite before all, is to come to terms with the fact there are no purely technical systems anymore. All systems upon which and within which we operate are sociotechnical in nature, meaning they have the dual components of being sociological and technical. It is critical if we are to achieve any success in our desire for change to understand how systems work, how they are designed and operated by the humans that built them and for what reasons they exist.
Then, assuming we have the necessary understanding of systems, we can walk through the steps for successful change. The first step, as Chesterton so eloquently put 100 years ago, is to understand why things are the way they are. This is rather hard work and almost always skipped when it comes right down to it. It involves understanding and discussion and research and is messy and painful and very much on the “socio” side of the sociotechnical continuum. Often, agents of change come into a situation with their own historical context and they try to make their history the current history. This only leads to resentment and antagonism because in almost all situations, the existing system was built for important and meaningful reasons by people who were just trying to do their best to get along within the system that they operated in. To cast all of that aside with the brush of a hand and say “I know this better way” is to guarantee failure without knowing it.
Then, with a proper historical context, one must assess the reality on the ground. What is this system doing right now? What are its goals and incentives? Where are its constraints? What are its areas of leverage? What are its feedback cycles? Again, this is all quite hard. It involves many of the same steps as the discovery of historical context while closely watching the system in operation, tracking its changes and its outcomes.
Next, look to the networks, the flows of communication and how the system gets work done. Think through how changes will fit within the organizational structure. Conway’s Law is a harsh mistress and not easily subverted. Again, this third step is sociological in nature, not technical. So many agents of change believe mere technical solutions will solve everything when in fact the technical parts are typically quite straightforward and provide no benefit without the accompanying sociological work which is much different and often harder. Without looking at the networks of communication flow and organizational design, the best case is that the change takes much much longer as it works through the gates and friction built into the system. At worst, the change becomes something else as the organizational design necessarily dictates the outcome, not the architecture we design (did I mention Conway’s Law is a harsh mistress?)
Finally, after all that work is done, the change can be introduced in the form of small, perhaps tiny, experiments meant to lightly pull the levers within the system and analyze the results. In systems with high leverage, large changes will almost always result in the wrong behavior as feedback cycles you aren’t aware of take over and spiral out of control. In our business mythology, we have giants who tell stories of radical overhaul that resulted in incredible outcomes. Leaving aside the fact that history is written by the winners, it is more likely that the radical overhaul was either excruciatingly painful for a great many people or was actually implemented in a decidedly non-radical way. By coming up with and executing small, continual experiments that are analyzed to make sure their outcomes drive towards the system we want, we can, over time, improve things with minimal pain as we make feedback cycles shorter and areas of leverage less dependent on others.
Perhaps a better cliche is that successful change is hard and requires a deep understanding of systems thinking, sociological interactions and communication flow. Change is possible and almost always good. But it is a continuum and contextually specific and requires a deft hand to navigate successfully. Each situation is different and there are no easy solutions. To build something different than what we currently have, rather hard work is required. But if we put in the work, successful change is possible and deeply rewarding. It just always takes longer than anyone realizes.
Note: This essay is really just a summation of Esther Derby’s excellent book 7 Rules For Positive, Productive Change. I’ve said nothing new here and if you are interested in change, you can do worse than starting with Derby’s work.
I ran across this reply last night in this thread by Travis on the logical fallacies committed in defense of Bitcoin as a store of value and found it interesting enough to contemplate. I think at the heart of what Travis tries to do regarding the status of Bitcoin is point out that because it is currently a sort of nihilistic investment (no one yet clearly understands the Tether relationship, there are no investor protections around the entire space, e.g. there is no meaning built in by regulatory or legal means), it therefore is important to try and understand the underlying rationale for Bitcoin before investing.
First, nihilism as defined by Wikipedia is “a philosophy…that rejects general or fundamental aspects of human existence such as objective truth, knowledge, morality, values or meaning.” Ironically, I imagine that many proponents of Bitcoin would argue that it is not nihilistic because of the objective truth regarding the underlying definition of what a Bitcoin is. However, I think a careful reading of Travis’ arguments over the last year on Twitter would say he believes the concept of Bitcoin as a store of value is what is nihilistic.
Regarding Christopher, the person who he’s referring to and his statement, it’s clearly based in nihilism whether the author recognizes it or not. Basically translated, it’s ok to make be wrong as long as you make money doing it. Now, the modern and postmodern world would largely agree with this statement. Nihilism is one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism and modernity to a lesser degree. Interestingly, in the thread continuing down the nihilism road, Christopher continues to argue from a nihilistic position which is probably why those two are never going to come to some agreement. “Was it right? Was it wrong? Who cares I made money!” is nihilism.
So what would a non-nihilistic, possibly Platonist (Travis mentions this later down thread) view of Bitcoin specifically and the broader market more generally look like? First, one would have to have a well defined personal philosophy defined by something other than “As long as I make money, it’s all ok.” Travis clearly has this as expressed in numerous explicit and implicit comments on Twitter. That definition might have a premise like “To be considered a store of value, the investment vehicle must have some intrinsic or extrinsic protections built into it for the investor class” e.g. be free from fraud. This could be the start of a moral framework within which you could make decisions about what to invest in. Carried to the extreme, you might only invest in companies fighting climate change or companies trying to provide worker protections, etc. Most people in the market would say this was both ridiculous and pointless because they believe the primary reason to be in the market is to make money. But someone investing only in green technology has a different primary reason, a moral framework defined by societal goods, and she operates within that framework. This is a perfectly acceptable idea and it leads to a more congruent personal life infused with meaning that combats the nihilism of postmodernity.
I think at the core of Travis’ writings is this honorable fight against some of the nihilistic underpinnings of the marketplace and our modern world. If you make money in Bitcoin because you were lucky enough to get in early but then later people are wiped out because they got in at a time when perhaps the government began regulation of the space or it turned out Tether was the fraudulent system the entire Bitcoin regime was based on, yes it’s totally fine for you but has moral and social implications in the larger view. Note: neither of these things has happened but they are within the realm of possibility. By ignoring these (and by having a society that ignores them, collectively saying “was it right? was it wrong? who cares I made money!”), it is possible that underlying foundations of our civilization can become weak leading to even more nihilistic exploitation possibly leading eventually to collapse.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has a program called Lone Star Land Steward Awards. It is designed to recognize landowners who institute a program of restoration and care taking for the land that they own. Stewardship in this sense is defined as “a deeply held conviction that motivates landowners to care for and to sustain the land entrusted to their care…for their own personal benefit, for the benefit to future generations and for the benefits to society” (emphasis mine).
Historically, owning land has been a very present moment sort of activity. During the land rushes of the 1800s, people were granted sections of land in return for settling and working the land to produce food via agriculture. The focus was survival and immediate returns. Because land was so cheap and seemingly so plentiful, often settlers would withdraw all the resources from a piece of property and then move on after several years leaving behind a wasteland. This practice culminated in the Dust Bowl in the early 1900s where a vast landscape had been utilized for its immediate resources and then left stripped of necessary components to sustain it. In his book Goodbye to a River John Graves talks about this mentality in the Brazos river valley, the impacts it had and the cultural significance of it on the river.
This attitude towards land is derived from a need for survival. Eventually though, attitudes can change from the immediacy of today towards a more balanced approach. In fact, this is required if the land is to continue to provide for its inhabitants, human, plant and animal. An eye towards the future must take into consideration the actions of today or else catastrophe might occur leaving no choice but to move on and start over. But it takes an entirely different skill set as well as a different point of view to successfully make this happen. Steps must be taken to remove fewer resources in the present. A management strategy must be put in place to dictate how much activity goes into production for a given year versus doing work to ensure the future production is successful. Invasive species must be managed. Riparian areas must be protected.
This skill set is one that can be developed but won’t typically appear organically. Someone good at producing value for the present has a different vision for what land is for. It’s important to realize that these two skill sets have no inherent good or bad to them. Carried to extremes, both are bad. But it’s important to realize that both the values and the skills to move from a viewpoint of present resource extraction to a more holistic approach must be taught and incentivized for. Hence the program mentioned before. By awarding landowners prestigious awards for land stewardship, viewpoints about land ownership can change.
Stewardship isn’t just for land owners though. Stewardship is a concept that extends to ownership or management in general. You can be a steward of your home or your car or your business or if you happen to be a software engineer, of your codebase. Chelsea Troy has written extensively on Technical Debt and talks about the idea of stewardship for code which provided the spark for this essay. In a codebase, you see the same evolution as you do with landownership. We even use the same analogies (greenfield and brownfield), the same concepts and the same viewpoints. It takes different skill sets to do feature development versus stewardship management. Debt is the pulling of resources forward from the future into the present and eventually, all debts come due. You must have a plan for reducing that debt and then follow through on it.
So often in software (and lately in politics), the impulse is to start over, to declare technical bankruptcy. The vocabulary is designed to favor that approach (greenfield sounds so much better than brownfield). Because there is no coherent education around debt reduction and because feature development is typically the skill set selected for in most businesses, stewardship in code ownership is almost universally viewed as a negative. High priced consultants never come in and give you a plan that reduces your debt through careful maintenance and reduction of technical debt. No resumes ever cross your desk highlighting how an engineer took a set of misguided microservices and combined them into a single service because the operational overhead was destroying the organization. Because our industry is essentially in the 1800s of land ownership, all we know how to do is burn it all down and start over.
This is no more a bad thing now than it was in the 1800s, at least at a surface level. But there are lessons to be had in the environmental responses like the Dust Bowl for those of us staring at codebases with mountains of the red dust of technical debt. If we do not begin to cultivate the skills and views necessary to steward code through its evolution, we cannot hope to grow as an industry.
Stewardship in code is made harder because unlike with land, it appears that starting over is not a zero sum game, that there is no chance we might run out of the resources of bits and bytes reorganized into something different. However a brief glance deeper shows that we do not operate in an open system, that in fact the business is a closed system with limited resources that it must utilize carefully and with consideration not only towards today’s profits but towards the survival of the future. Technologists must recognize this constraint and employ techniques to make future changes not only possible but easier. This is made difficult by the fact that engineers can and do regularly move to other sections of land so to speak by finding a new job. Good technical management at the business level is critical for mitigating this effect. This in turn is difficult to do because most technical managers were once engineers themselves and remember what it was like to work in a codebase struggling with debt.
Until we find ways in our industry to incentivize stewardship, this behavior will continue. Perhaps fancy awards for code stewardship are in order. Perhaps businesses can find ways to combine the the very real need to grow and move forward with the very real need to pause, to reflect, to improve and to rest. Constant growth is the same as cancer and there must be times when the movement forward is put on hold in order to improve what exists. In order to do all this, technical leadership must step up to understand the stewardship mindset, the skills required and the benefits for doing it. We have to find ways to reward those who are stewards of our industry in the same way we reward and deify those who have caused great change through growth or creation. Until that can happen, there is little hope of our industry moving beyond Dust Bowl farming. This is bad for everyone because the technical people can always easily move to another “farm” but the businesses upon which the constant growth was built cannot.
It’s important to realize the societal part of the stewardship definition and not just the two first parts about productivity for the now and for the next generation. Stewardship has societal benefits that, while difficult to define and measure, may far outweigh the costs. Many people now understand it is far better to protect land from overuse to prevent catastrophe but almost no one understands that about technology. Perhaps as our industry matures (and it is still barely in its early childhood), we will develop ways to more accurately understand the costs of constant growth. We must begin to think of and to socialize the benefits of technological stewardship so that we don’t continue to create miniature Dust Bowls in our wakes.