Sick Metaphors

In her "Winter Talk" radio programme, Sara Danius talked about her cancer, among other things. The year that was planned as a somewhat slow year became anything but. I admire her for not only dealing with her illness but also not letting that stop her from taking on the role as the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the first woman ever on that post.

She mentioned that she was annoyed with how we talk about cancer in Sweden. We don't talk about other illnesses in the same way and this puts a lot of stress on the people who are already weak. As a cancer patient, you are expected to fight. We don't say that to those who had a heart attack. We never hear that somebody died from losing the battle with ulcers.
Being a professional writer and professor of literature, Danius of course referred to Susan Sonntag's book "Illness as metaphor". Sonntag suggests that we should try to talk about illness without using metaphors, but I wonder how easy that is. However, I really think we should consider how we talk about and with people who are ill. Probably, they don't want to be reminded of their illness at all.

Kate Granger, journalist at The Guardian, is also dissatisfied with the military-oriented cancer metaphors. She ends her article this way:

"Cancer Research UK uses the slogan "One day we will beat cancer". This may sound defeatist but I don't think we ever will. Cells need to divide in all of us to remain alive, to grow and repair our bodies; sometimes this process goes wrong and the result is cancer. We will become better at understanding these processes and how we can target them therapeutically, but I cannot imagine a human society free from cancer, no matter how much money we invest.

As a cancer patient who will die in the relatively near future, I believe rather that instead of reaching for the traditional battle language, [life] is about living as well as possible, coping, acceptance, gentle positivity, setting short-term, achievable goals, and drawing on support from those closest to you."

As of today, she's still alive and tweeting!


Serious Imitations

In a key scene in "The Imitation Game", Alan Turing realises that although he and his team have cracked the Enigma code, they must use the information very carefully in order to keep the Germans from becoming suspicious. This in turn made me think about the Turing test and the never-ending discussion about whether artificial intelligence is a threat or not.

Last year, a Turing test competition was held at the Royal Society London to mark the 60th anniversary of Turing's death. It was won by the Russian chatter bot Eugene Goostman. The bot, during a series of five-minute-long text conversations, convinced 33% of the contest's judges that it was human. The competition's organisers claim that the Turing test had been "passed for the first time" at the event. However, this statement has been criticised for example based on the fact that the program's character claimed to be a 13 year old Ukrainian who learned English as a second language.

The Turing Test has a certain lure. It makes us think about what it is to be human. Are we really so simple that a mere machine can imitate us? Perhaps that is also the theme of the movie: what it is to be human? To think and behave differently from other people? To become angry and fight? To want to save your family? To seek to contribute to a better world? To aspire to make history? To wish to be loved?

Maybe Stephen Hawking is right. He told the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

In my opinion, if computers are so clever, wouldn't they, just like Turing and his team, try to deceive us for as long as possible, luring us to believe that the singularity is still a long way away?


Christmas Gifts

A Chalmers University of Technology alumni once told me that the engineering profession is the fines in the world since engineers solve problems. I don't agree, and not only because I'm not engineer myself (although I have studied a lot of engineering subjects). There are many others solving problems, in fact, we all solve problems all the time. Problem-solving is also not always the best method to change or improve something. If you are taught only such approaches and also that you are the best kind of person in the world, you will probably end up creating more problems than you solve. Indeed, engineers probably caused some of the biggest challenges we have today, such as the climate change. In order to do something about these challenges, we need people with different backgrounds, perspectives and skills working together, respecting each other’s knowledge.

However, I must admit that engineers sometimes can be very handy. Another Chalmers alumni came to my rescue during Christmas. I had bought a lovely rotating candle mobile. The salesman at Illums in Stockholm warned me that it probably needed tweaking a bit in order for the thermodynamics to work. I tried, but after a while the rotating always stopped. So when I got a visit from an engineer, I asked for help. Now it runs like clockwork.
The mobile was one of the Christmas gifts I bought for myself. I also purchased two wood-crafted deer at Svensk Hemslöjd. My mother says they are a bit fat, why we have decided that at least one of them must be pregnant. Before Christmas, we went to a second-hand shop where I picked up several Christmas items: one brass Christmas tree, one glass candlestick with a fir tree pattern and a cute ceramic Santa. I still have my new copper wire with LED lights up, making my jungle corner less dark. They're called String Fairy Lights and I really think it's a good name!

I received some lovely gifts this Christmas. Homemade wonders from my sister and her family: crackers, muesli, and sweets. I also got a table runner from my mother, who has started weaving again using an almost antique loom that belonged to my father's aunt. From my uncle, I got an old hazelnut grinder that was my grandmother's. It's much better than the new ones! And I got loads of chocolate from my favourite store, Kanolds. It was a present from the housing society where I live, as a token of appreciation for the work I do in the garden. Almost all gone now, I'm afraid.

However, I think the best gifts this Christmas were all the really nice things I did together with friends and family. All the Christmas fairs with lots of homemade food and beautiful handcraft. The wonderful concerts, each one special and memorable. Long walks in the cold weather, and 'fika' afterwards at the fireplace. Mother and I even managed to make it to Bertilsson's Stuga during the few days of snow! Memories to cherish now that Christmas is over and all the decorations are put to rest until the first Sunday in Advent.

From Christmas 2014


Romanticizing Classic Literature

When my sister and her family visited me during Christmas, my nephew looked at my crowded bookshelf. "Too much to choose from" was his judgement so I picked one for him, forever taking on the role of trying to instill the importance of education and literature. I don't know why I selected Robert M. Pirsigs "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values". Perhaps because I was his roughly age when I read it.

He took one look at it, shook his head and returned it to me. "It's a classic!", I said. "Never heard of it, and by the way, I though a classic was like Homer or something", he replied. "It's a modern classic", I insisted and returned the book, "and it's not at all about motorcycle maintenance." I'm not sure he will read it, but I hope so because there is much to learn from that book and I hope I have done that.

Using one of the themes in the book, I would classify myself as a romantic. At least when it comes to motorcycle maintenance. I love riding a motorbike, but I have no interest whatsoever in learning how the motor works. However, I think (hope?) maybe that I to some extent have achieved combining the romantic and the classical aspects in life.

When it comes to quality, I aspire to perform well in whatever I do. I pride myself on having a very high lowest level. Using a scale from 1 to 5, I try to be a steady 4+. Using any version of the Project Management Triangle, I try to do things cost and time efficiently. I see no point in spending lots and lots of time (both in terms of quantity and calendar) on trying to make something perfect, since as time goes by, things change.

I assume that quality is under discussion in all kinds of areas, although I'm not sure that Pirsig's metaphysics can provide a foundation for all of them. Having a background in software development and being especially fond of the Capability Maturity Model, I do like the Consortium for IT Software Quality (CISQ) approach (although there are plenty of others). CISQ has defined five major desirable characteristics of a piece of software needed to provide business value: reliability, efficiency, security, maintainability, and appropriate size. This is a mix of functional and non-functional aspect, which is becoming more and more important especially in this Internet-of-Things era.

I'm fully aware of that my aspiration to always deliver good results keeps me from trying out things I don't think I'll be good at. This in turn means that although I have more than one string to my bow, my inflow of experiences to some extent is limited. Experiences that could be useful in a changing world, make me more resilient. For example, one thing I wouldn't do is discuss the quality of Pirsigs books, but fortunately that has already been done by Nathaniel Rich.

He points out that to some extent, Pirsig foreboded the society we find ourselves in right now:"It is a nostalgic, old-fashioned novel that nevertheless reflects the malaise of its era and prefigures our own technophiliac age". One example of the latter, according to Rich, is that that many business-oriented magasines quote Pirsig, such as Forbes:

"And while Pirsig does not get too much into religion, his underlying point is clear – get your specs nailed (the Science), add some good design (the Art) and immerse yourself. The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of a religious worshipper or love. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart. Those three filters – logic, creativity and soul — apply to everything in life, not just startups."

But perhaps, the best lesson for entrepreneurs to be learned from Pirsig is that although his work was rejected by more than 100 times, he never gave up. When finally published, the book sold in more than 5 million copies.

Some Pirsig quotes, where the last one is my current favourite (don't skip the others!):

  • “If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened.” 
  • “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”
  • “If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you.” 
  • “The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barrier of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is – not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both.”
  • “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.” 
  • “The pencil is mightier than the pen.” 
  • “You look at where you're going and where you are and it never makes much sense, but then you look back at where you've been and a pattern seems to emerge. And if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.” 
  • “The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” 
  • “We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.” 
  • “Is it hard?' Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes thats hard.” 
  • “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.” 
  • “If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.” 
  • “When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event.” 
  • “To reach him you have to back up and back up, and the further back you go, the further back you see you have to go, until what looked like a small problem of communication turns into a major philosophic inquiry.” 
  • “Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.” 
  •  “One of the most moral acts is to create a space in which life can move forward.”