… a couple of not so random thoughts

"To thyself be faithful: if in thy heart thou strayest 
   not from truth, without prayer of thine the Gods 
   will keep thee whole."
                              -- Polonius

"Tis in every man's mind to love honor: but little doth 
  he dream that what is truly honorable lies within himself
  and not anywhere else. The honor which men confer is
  not good honor. Those whom Châo the Great ennobles, 
   he can make mean again."
                          -- Mencius

Bushido: The Soul of Japan

One of the most exquisite texts I’ve ever read is Inazo Nitobe’ Bushido: The Soul of Japan. He wrote this book as Japan underwent deep transformations of its traditional lifestyle while being forged (painfully) into a modern nation. When a western observer asked him about the basis of morality in Japan Nitobe thought long and hard on the subject – this book was the result of his meditations. It is beautifully written, and many ways is written to provide a western audience with a better understanding of Japan, Nitobe went to great lengths to use the Bible and other Western literature as examples of common points of reference, to explain the origins and sources of Bushido, its character and teachings, its influence, and its continuity and permanence.

I recently purchased this as an AudioBook on iTunes, and have been listening to it on my journey to and from work. I recall how much the book influenced me when I first read it, so much so that I fell in love with the romantic view of the Samurai Tradition – I even went as far as learning how to make swords! (something some of colleagues at Talis are beginning to worry about, since I bought a couple more at the weekend to restore).

To give you a sense of both Nitobe’s eloquence, and also the profound wisdom in his words, I have copied below his examination of Giri, or Duty. Regardless of how many times I read this, or listen to it, his words still have a profound effect on me.

Giri primarily meant no more than duty, and I dare say 
its etymology was derived from the fact that in our conduct,
say to our parents, though love should be the only motive, 
lacking that, there must be some other authority to enforce 
filial piety; and they formulated this authority in Giri. Very 
rightly did they formulate this authority—Giri—since if love 
does not rush to deeds of virtue, recourse must be had to 
man's intellect and his reason must be quickened to convince 
him of the necessity of acting aright. The same is true of any
other moral obligation. The instant Duty becomes onerous. 
Right Reason steps in to prevent our shirking it. Giri thus 
understood is a severe taskmaster, with a birch-rod in his hand 
to make sluggards perform their part. It is a secondary power in
ethics; as a motive it is infinitely inferior to the Christian doctrine 
of love, which should be the law. I deem it a product of the 
conditions of an artificial society—of a society in which accident 
of birth and unmerited favour instituted class distinctions, in which 
the family was the social unit, in which seniority of age was of 
more account than superiority of talents, in which natural affections
had often to succumb before arbitrary man-made customs. Because
of this very artificiality, Giri in time degenerated into a vague sense
of propriety called up to explain this and sanction that,—as, for 
example, why a mother must, if need be, sacrifice all her other 
children in order to save the first-born; or why a daughter must sell 
her chastity to get funds to pay for the father's dissipation, and the 
like. Starting as Right Reason, Giri has, in my opinion, often stooped 
to casuistry. It has even degenerated into cowardly fear of censure. 
I might say of Giri what Scott wrote of patriotism, that "as it is the 
fairest, so it is often the most suspicious, mask of other feelings." 
Carried beyond or below Right Reason, Giri became a monstrous 
misnomer. It harbored under its wings every sort of sophistry and 

On the subject of swords, Nitobe devoted an entire chapter. I have had an obsession with Japanese Swords for many years now. I used to own a large collection some of which I restored myself before selling them on. There are a few I still have, I only kept those that that I have a profound sentimental attachment to, so much so that my friends (especially Richard, Alex and Alan as well as the rest of my family) all laugh at the fact that regardless of where I am in the house, I have this small Tantō blade which seemingly follows me around everywhere, I carry it unconsciously – I guess when I say it like that it does sound a bit scary. Anyway I digress, the point was that Nitobe’ opening paragraph in his Chapter on Swords describes the strong attachment between a Samurai and his sword in a way that no-one else has ever come close to articulating, in fact it’s very poetic:

Bushido made the sword its emblem of power and prowess.
When Mahomet proclaimed that "the sword is the key of 
Heaven and of Hell," he only echoed a Japanese sentiment.
Very early the samurai boy learned to wield it. It was a
momentous occasion for him when at the age of five he was
apparelled in the paraphernalia of samurai costumes placed
upon a go-board[1] and initiated into the rights of the military
professions by having thrust into his girdle a real sword instead
of the toy dirk with which he had been playing. After this first
ceremony of adoptio per arma, he was no more to be seen
outside his father's gates without this badge of his status, even
though it was usually substituted for everyday wear by a gilded
wooden dirk. Not many years pass before he wears constantly
the genuine steel, though blunt, and then the sham arms are
thrown aside and with enjoyment keener than his newly acquired
blades, he marches out to try their edge on wood and stone. When
he reaches man's estate, at the age of fifteen, being given
independence of action, he can now pride himself upon the
possession of arms sharp enough for any work. The very possession
of the dangerous instrument imparts to him a feeling and an air of
self-respect and responsibility. "He beareth not the sword in vain.
What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his
mind and heart, -- loyalty and honour. The two swords, the longer
and the shorter, -- called respectively daito and shoto or katana and
wakizashi, -- never leave his side. When at home, they grace the
most conspicuous place in the study or parlour; by night they guard
his pillow within easy reach of his hand. Constant companions, they
are beloved, and proper names of endearment given them. Being 
venerated, they are well-nigh worshipped.

If you want to understand Bushido, or the very nature of Japan, or even if you just want to have your own ideas of morality and ethics challenged then you should read this book. In fact you can read the entire book online at Project Gutenburg, here.

The Rose in the Deeps of his Heart

         The Rose in the Deeps of his Heart 

All things uncomely and broken, 
all things worn-out and old, 
The cry of a child by the roadway, 
the creak of a lumbering cart, 

The heavy steps of the ploughman, 
splashing the wintry mould, 
Are wronging your image that blossoms 
a rose in the deeps of my heart. 

The wrong of unshapely things 
is a wrong too great to be told; 
I hunger to build them anew 
and sit on a green knoll apart, 

With the earth and the sky and the water, 
remade, like a casket of gold 
For my dreams of your image that blossoms 
a rose in the deeps of my heart.

             -- by William Butler Yeats

Is the Patriot Act haunting Google Service’s?

Read an interesting article on the Globe and Mail entitled “Patriot Act Haunts Google Service“. According to the article many people are suddenly deciding to spurn Google’s services and applications because it opens up potential avenues of surveillance by the US Government:

The U.S. Patriot Act, passed in the weeks after the September, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, gives authorities the means to secretly view personal data held by U.S. organizations…

…organizations are banning Google’s innovative tools outright to avoid the prospect of U.S. spooks combing through their data. Security experts say many firms are only just starting to realize the risks they assume by embracing Web-based collaborative tools hosted by a U.S. company, a problem even more acute in Canada where federal privacy rules are at odds with U.S. security measures

It’s an interesting piece. The cynic in me wants to argue that privacy is really just an illusion anyway? Let’s face it there has been a war over privacy in the U.S. and it’s been fought over last eight years, following 9/11. Under the guise of misguided laws like the Patriot Act civil liberties have been eroded and consequently it’s the average person that suffers: in the current climate, where Governments can exercise the Patriot Act then nothing is really secure. If a users personal information is no out of reach of any government agency that decides it wants it, and there are no legal protections, then how can we say that data is private?

Google has in the past tried to protect its customers data, and has had numerous run in’s with the U.S. Justice Department over it’s stance, but rather revealingly, the company has always refused to state how often government agencies demand to see it’s data or whether there have been any reviews under the Patriot Act. This really shouldn’t viewed as a dig at Google, you could replace the name Google with the name of any US based company, and the same would hold true.

It never ceases to amaze me how politicians always play the national security card along with the patriotism card; they want to convince people that if they don’t support laws like the Patriot Act, and allow some their civil liberties and rights to be eroded, and in some cases completely discarded then not only are you unpatriotic, you’re also helping the terrorists. If your not with us, then your with them … Oscar Wilde really was right …

patriotism is the virtue of the vicious

Love and Duty

An extract from one of Tennyson’s earlier poems … Love and Duty.

The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good,
The slow sad hours that bring us all things ill,
And all good things from evil, brought the night
In which we sat together and alone,
And to the want, that hollow'd all the heart,
Gave utterance by the yearning of an eye,
That burn'd upon its object thro' such tears
As flow but once a life. The trance gave way
To those caresses, when a hundred times
In that last kiss, which never was the last,
Farewell, like endless welcome, lived and died.

              -- By Lord Alfred Tennyson

a thought …

Two people drift in a lifeboat on an uncharted sea. 
One says, "There! I see an island. Our best chance 
is to go ashore, build a shelter, and await rescue." 
The other says, "No, we must go farther out to sea 
and hope to find the shipping lanes. That is our best 
chance." Unable to agree, the two fight, the lifeboat 
capsizes, and they drown. This is the nature of humanity. 
Even if only two people are left in the entire universe, 
they will come to represent opposing factions.

                    -- The Bene Gesserit Acolyte's Manual

Human Aspects of Agile Software Engineering

This is a very interesting way of looking at Agile. The talk is a based on an assumption – that the people involved in software development processes deserve more attention. I agree with the many of the points made in the talk, particularly around the intangible nature of the software we build. Which is one of the reasons we are still, as an industry, trying to discover the best practises, and a true sense of engineering discipline.

Its well worth watching this talk, especially to get a different perspective on Agile, focusing on the social and cognitive effects. She used the Prisoners Dilemma to illustrate some of these points and to be honest I had never thought of Software Engineering in those terms, yet as a metaphor it fits so very well,

in software engineering this is reflected in the fact that software is an intangible product so sometimes we cannot verify that our colleagues behave in the same way … so what Agile software development does is it banishes the inability to verify that co-operation is reciprocated, by increasing the process transparency, in such a way it banishes the working assumption of the prisoners dilemma.

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

       Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

             -- by Lord Alfred Tennyson

A Charter for Compassion

Karen Armstrong is a wonderful writer and an original thinker on the subject of religion in the modern world. I’ve already commented on some her writings and find that I have great respect for her work.

In this talk she talks about The Golden Rule, how it is a fundamental tenant of all the Abrahamic faiths ( Judaism, Christianity and Islam ), as well as many others. She touches on how she feels, and quite rightly, that these religions have diverted from the moral purpose they share to foster compassion. She talks about how what the golden rule truly embodies is the notion of compassion, and how it is our compassion that will ultimately change the world for better. It’s an inspired talk and one that left me feeling hopeful.

One of the most profound things she says during her talk, one that I was immediately drawn to because it echoes a sentiment that I have long struggled to articulate, which is that:

If religion is not about believing things then what is it about?
What I found across the board is that religion is about behaving
differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God
first you do something, you behave in a committed way and then
you begin to understand the truths of religion.

Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action, you only
understand them when you put them into practice.

In many ways The Golden Rule is a summons to action, for those who don’t know what Golden Rule is, it is a simple ethical edict that states (as Confucius first propounded):

"do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you."

As Karen points out in her talk though the key to this ideal is that you treat all people with the same consideration, not just members of your own faith or social/political/ethnic group. As I mentioned the origins of this rule can be traced back the core traditions of each of the major faiths, and in fact can be traced much further back to older traditions. I fundamentally agree with Karen when she says:

Compassion, the ability to feel with the other ... 
is not only the test of any true religiousity it is 
also what will bring us into the presence of what 
Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the Divine. 
It is compassion says the Buddha which brings 
you to Nirvana.

There’s a profound conviction in her words, and one that should touch us all regardless of what faith or tradition we choose to follow. Compassion, to my mind, transcends the world traditions, it’s what each of those traditions should be reaching for, and yet, for whatever reason, we often find that those traditions have diverted from it. Karen’s idea of a Charter of Compassion seeks to restore the Golden Rule as a the central global doctrine … and as a Muslim I applaud her for that. After all, didnt the Prophet Muhammed, in his final sermon, say that:

  "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you"

And also in the hadith:

  "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for 
      his brother what he wishes for himself"

During her talk I also think that Karen was quite right to dismiss the notion that Religion is the cause of all war and suffering:

The cause of our present woes are political. But make 
no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line and 
when a conflict gets ingrained in a region then religion 
can get sucked in a become part of the problem. Our
modernity has been exceedingly violent.

I think fundamentally Karen has a point, I think that religion can be a force for harmony but only when each of us embraces the idea of compassion, as embodied in The Golden Rule. Could that ever be a reality? I don’t know, the cynic in me says probably not, but the romantic in me says that we should never loose sight of that ideal.