31 December 2013

inside intrinsic motivation

The distinction between so-called "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" motivation has been made in psychology several decades ago and the notions have become part of mainstream thinking. Especially as jobs become more demanding in creativity and flexibility of mind, often requiring some determination to overcome unexpected obstacles, it is a commonplace idea that money alone (the proverbial "extrinsic" reward for work) will not motivate people enough to achieve great things.

Companies from the smallest startup to large international cooperations are incorporating this knowledge into their staff management to make work more enjoyable and rewarding for their employees. Recently I have been thinking much about my spare-time activities and found that the different kinds of motivation apply here, too. Money is of course less important (unless I am building stuff for myself which I would otherwise have to pay), but that only makes it more evident how huge and diverse the other kinds of motivations are. For example, there is a social motivation which makes many kinds of activities fun as long as I do it with the right people. But more interestingly I found a distinction in the intrinsic motivation which seems to be very important.

I actually think that the term "intrinsic motivation" is quite misleading because it suggests that the activity itself is the reward and therefore just doing it will make the doer happy. Since I am using the word "happy" here, let's be conscious that "motivation" and "happiness" are intrinsically linked. Naively, people will be motivated to do things that make them happy either just by doing the thing or by the results it achieves. In practice, of course, there is the introspection illusion and there is miswanting. And that means that we might be motivated to do things which do not actually make us happy. This is why I think that learning more about motivation and choosing ones "wants" and "want to dos" wisely is the basis of a happy and deeply fulfilled life.

So, here are the two sides of intrinsic motivation which I found: one is doing the thing itself and it corresponds to what psychologists call "flow". The other is the intrinsic result of the thing itself and it is much harder to grasp. It can be meaning, it can be achievement, it can be doing something good, doing something useful, creating something that lasts. In my own life I just discovered that I was all too often looking for the flow as I knew it from childhood: playing with something or even programming something and forgetting about the rest of the world. In this mode of thinking, anything which interrupts the flow is a sign that what I am doing is maybe not the real thing, it's a sign that diminishes motivation and in the past often left me kind-of helpless, like a child whose favorite toy has been taken away.

It was only in the recent months, since I started meditation and while working at Google, that I learned to look for other, less child-like kinds of motivation. Meditation teaches to view distractions as positive challenges: an opportunity to notice the distraction and go back to the object of meditation. Likewise, if I have a higher goal (like programming a script or other program that I actually want to use) I can view a distraction (like some computer error or deficiency in the programming tool set) like just one piece that is part of the puzzle to be solved. Overcoming some pain can actually be a good experience if there is a clear gain. It then becomes a growing pain, that actually makes me stronger.

A great example for the two sides of intrinsic motivation is a recent lecture and exercise I prepared on the topic of "rational decision making" (based on Prof. Barry Anderson's free book) for Berlin's LessWrong fan club. My initial motivation was to contribute something to the group, so we can all learn a topic together and develop more of a practical common language. Later, when I started reading the book, preparing slides, making notes, I was in a great state of flow. But I also procrastinated on the design of the exercises, because I simply didn't have any ideas what to do. Had I done it all just for the fun, then I probably would have left it there and gone to work on something else. But instead, I had a set myself a deadline for doing the training with the group and I was convinced that the exercises were the most important part. (Otherwise we could just all read the book or watch lectures on the intertube.)

In the case of the lecture preparation, it was my results- or achievement motivation which first let me panic a bit because of the looming deadline and then let me to reserve a block of time to focus specifically on the exercises. Since my intuition didn't come up with anything by itself and so I took a moment to think about how to solve my dilemma. And I had a great idea: use the rational decision process itself to decide what exercise I want to do! And that worked: I got into flow again and felt even better than when doing the slides before.

I think that for living a fulfilled live, it is important to align the results one wants to achieve (in the above example: creating world peace and happiness) with skills that one has and enjoys doing (in the example: learning and teaching). Just "going with the flow" is not enough. Definitely isn't for me. But I have still a long way to go to discover my own skills and motivations and how they fit into the world.

Bottom line: the topic of motivation is much deeper than just intrinsic vs. extrinsic :-D

17 December 2013

Green Smoothies for the win!

I learned about the concept of a "Green Smoothie" in Spring 2012 at a time when I was a bit unhappy with my way then current way of eating. Around the same time I went to a Raw Food Exibition and I read the great book "Eat to Live" and one day I almost instantly switched my eating habits. I started cooking differently, ate much less bread and no "spreads" any more. But the biggest change was for breakfast which I made Smoothie-fest every day!

My typical breakfast now looks like this before it is blended:
Of course, banana, kiwi, and avocado are peeled before blending and I take the core out of the apple, but leave the skin on. Then I add about a cup of warm water and blend. And that's my healthy, tasty breakfast.
I eat some variation of this almost every day with an exception maybe once a week. The most common variation is in the salad: today (as seen in the picture) I had rucola/arugula. Other favorites are various kinds of lettuce, spinach, or, rarely, field salad. Instead of an apple, I also often use a pear. If I don't have an avocado (or all my avocados are still to hard), I'll replace the water with some soy milk, so I have at least one source of fat in the drink. I'd also use linseed for this if I remembered where I could buy it already crushed.

A great breakfast makes a good start into the day and with already five small servings of raw fruit and leaves covered, I am primed for a healthy cooked lunch.

30 November 2013

The faculty fallacy -- how university education confounds pleasure and applicability and miseducates millions

Whenever I see a fresh university graduate struggle to find a job I feel sad. The choice of university program to take seems so easy and seamless for someone who just graduated from High School. Many students will just think of their grade school subject which they liked the most and study that. So easy back then! Such a nice transition.
But once education is over and young people have to choose an actual career, things can be way harder for them. Of course, some university programs have a strong connection to practice and lead directly to a certain kind of job or group of jobs. But there are other programs where the mapping is harder and jobs often require a range of skills which are not covered by the university program at all. And then there are programs which could lead to a whole lot of different jobs and besides needing some decision or commitment to a certain area they also often need additional skills and training which the university program doesn't provide. Often students just have to learn really important things during internships because there is just no course on it. (And I am talking of skills that are actually teachable in courses. It's simply that academia is not interested in teaching those important skills.) Even worse, there are programs which lead to a certain group of jobs, but the number of jobs available in the area is consistently and gapingly smaller than the number of students educated in that field. The gap is sometimes and order of magnitude. And this has been so for decades without anybody fixing it.

Old universities still have structure that too much resembles their medieval (and pre-medieval!) roots than their presumed contemporary purpose. When the first universities were founded, their purpose was not prepare the majority of young people for their adult professional life, but they were educating a small minority of people of the upper classes who didn't need to work. Only later they started "professional education" for theologians and lawyers. But, on the other hand, "liberal arts" and the "humanities" in particular are still to a large extend based on an education ideal of the leisure class from two thousand years ago.

A recent McKinsey report found that a large proportion of college graduates feel "overqualified and underprepared" at the same time. Many students even from the top 100 universities "couldn't get a job in their chosen field". For liberal arts graduates the report blandly states that "they fare worse than average in all measures". In my opinion the reason for this is very simple:

  • universities teach a lot of not-very-useful things
  • universities don't teach a lot of very important skills (especially soft skills like self-management, project management, interpersonal communication, holding meetings, ...)
  • the catalog of courses of a university mentions highly practicably applicable courses (like medicine, most or all kinds of engineering, marketing, law, ...) next to courses who don't have any direct (or even just not any) application in professional life. There is no warning sign for the latter kind of courses!
I think the fact of mixing professional classes like the ones mentioned with leisure-and-passion type classes like literature, fine arts, and music is not necessary a problem per se. Aesthetics and beauty are part of being human and there is nothing wrong with that kind of beauty flourishing at universities. But what would be fair towards all the hopeful young people who enter university is to tell them clearly which courses have professional value and which ones mainly serve the spirits. 
Of course, it is possible to study music or literature and later make a living as a musician or a writer. But for the majority of music-making or fiction-writing people, this art will rather be a hobby than a profession. And it might all be fair and right that universities don't just prepare for the work life, but also prepare for a good human life by teaching some good hobbies and high-cultured pass-times. If you think that those intellectual subjects teach at least some critical thinking skills then that's wrong for about half of the students according to a studies explained in a book which is aptly called "Academically Adrift". 
The problem with the current system is simply that those hobbies are listed right next to the professional courses with the effect that our society is in the double-crises of lacking professionals in fields like engineering, medicine, and leadership, while at the same time being confronted with tens of thousands of arts majors of whom only a fraction can actually make a living of their original education while most of the others (according to the Kinsey study) end up "in restaurants and retail".

PS: If you're interested in alternatives to the current broken system, UnCollege seems to be a promising one. Forgo college until it is fixed ;-)

shadow internships -- do nothing, learn more

Everybody knows the joke about the office intern who mostly makes coffee for people and copies and carries papers around because they're lacking the skills and the experience and knowledge about the specific company to do any real work. And nobody at the company wants to spend the time to teach them.
Here's a proposed improvement to that situation: to train your intern just let them become your shadow. Don't let them do anything. Just let the watch and hear everything. There should be some occasional explaining, but not too much and always making use of the context to keep it short. If you keep your intern that way, without any expectations to accomplish anything except for learning and understanding, they will soon become helpful with real work tasks. For example, one great use for an intern trained in this way is as a discussion partner when you need to verbalize some thoughts in order to think them more effectively. Maybe the intern won't be able to contribute anything to the discussion. But it will still help you think. And it will help them learn.
Even when your intern will be able to do real work by themselves, it will be very helpful to keep them shadowing you or someone else regularly. To learn new things. To keep up to date with the progress of the project. To be right there when the context enable to teach an important lesson with very few words.
Let there be more shadow internships and less interns sitting in corners working on small independent projects!

23 November 2013

Why mindfulness meditation is good

This summer I decided to read books more regularly and write a blog post about each book that I have read.
Now I just finished reading the book "Mindfulness in Plain English" and I liked it a lot. It is written by a monk (H. Gunaratama) who has a lot of experience in meditating and in teaching meditation, and it is written in a very secular way with almost no mention of anything religious. The book is just right for someone like me who has regular meditation experience and wants to deepen his practice. I suppose that it would also be good for a beginner who really wants to have a solid basis for their practice.
Since the book already has tens or even hundreds of reviews on-line, I don't want to write another one and instead write about what all this meditation is good for. And indeed there's a lot to say about the benefits of meditation. In fact, I think that there are so many benefits to meditation that I want to describe them in two categories. The first one is very practical. Those are benefits for each person who meditates. And they have been scientifically researched and confirmed. In that sense, meditation is basically a workout for your brain just as sports like running or doing weights are workouts for your body. The other category is harder to describe, it's about finding meaning in one's life, finding connection with nature and society, finding true peace and happiness. I think that this category is more subjective, simply because those words might not mean much to some people. To other people, however, especially to many who like to meditate in a group, those are much more powerful benefits than what can be objectively measured.

Here are the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness meditation:
  • it boosts concentration
  • it reduces stress
  • it helps to sort out one's priorities towards more long-term goals
  • it's an approved therapy against depression and anxiety
  • it boosts the immune system has other beneficial effects on physical health which combine reduce the average number of days that people with regular meditation practice are sick.
Googling the term "benefits of meditation" brings up even more things, but for me the ones mentioned are the key benefits int that first, pragmatic, group.

Now the second group of benefits is where things really get spiritual. I think that some readers might not believe this and are rather convinced by the first group only. But this second group also matters to me and therefore I want to share it, too, even though it is somewhat fuzzy and subjective. One phrase that comes to my mind is: "meditation makes life more enjoyable". Another: "meditation makes us really human because we can let go of our impulses and act according to our deeper aspirations and goals". It is actually a proven benefit of mindfulness meditation that it makes people behave more nicely and empathically. I did not list this in group one, however, because some people might be afraid that such a simple practice might change something so profound about their personality. I think the wish to be nicer towards others is stronger in some people than in others and it is probably that sort of person who is attracted by the spiritual aspect of meditation. Meditation reduces violence, both physical and verbal. Meditation creates peace and sharing. It is the way to world peace and world brotherhood. The way to a world where no one suffers from hunger, curable illness, or loneliness. 

If you want to join that world or if you just want to taste the more pragmatic benefits of meditation then you can start meditating right now. And if you want to learn about the subject in a deep, but written-for-beginners, way, then Gunaratana's Mindfulness in plain English will be a good book for you.

On the future of law and justice

The first paragraph is just an introductory summary of my previous post on Peak Technology, skip to the second paragraph for my ideas about law and justice.

In our times, it is a commonly accepted belief that society evolves with the advent of technology. Technology is seen as progress. And when technology has some drawbacks and causes problems, then some more advanced technology is often seen as the solution. In general, it is assumed that much of the progress of societies is driven either directly or indirectly by technology. In many cases, this connection is obvious and in my opinion, the advance of medicine is one of the most obvious examples. Common belief, however, extends the notion of "technology as the cause of progress" even to areas of social progress which are not inherently driven by technology. As an example, consider the topic of free speech or the equal-rights movement for people of different sexual orientation. Proponents of technology claim that free speech is promoted a lot by information and communication technologies like the printing press, movable type, or --nowadays-- the Internet. They go on to say that those possibilities of communication encourage diversity in society, which in turn supports all kinds of equal-rights movements, be it for ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or some other dividing line. There is also the argument that the scarcity of resources in less technologically advanced societies leads to conflicts, while the abundance in modern society leaves something for everybody and thus encourages sharing. (But as of 2013, the social divide in some of the richest and most technologically advanced countries, such as the USA, is greater than in some technologically and economically less advanced countries, such as Norway and Finland. (Google “Gini coefficient” for info on that.) This is just one of many counter-examples that could be given to the hypothesis that "technology is the main driver of progress".)

In this article, however, I want to introduce one social improvement of society which offers huge gains for people and institutions while it is entirely independent of technology. I am proposing to improve the system of law and justice, whose modern roots go back two thousands years to the Roman empire whose laws are still studied any contemporary aspirant of the legal profession. I am referring to this historic legacy just because the improvement proposed is so independent of technology that it could as well have been introduced in classical Roman times. The idea is very simple: turn justice from a competitive into a cooperative profession. Replace questions of "who is right?" and "who's right (or obligation) is it?" with the quest for just and balanced compromises. Just imagine that instead of getting a lawyer to "fight for your right", you will get a lawyer to counsel you about the laws and customs of a specific domain and to help you take beneficial and sustainable decisions. Sustainable, here means that it will not infringe on other's rights in a way that will incite opposition to your actions. Further imagine that if two parties have a disagreement of high stakes they will not each assemble a team of highly paid and about to overwork lawyers to fight it out in front of a judge, but they will instead appeal to a highly reputed mediator which will align their interests and the tradition of the law and past similar cases to form a compromise which serves both their interests to the best possible and also sets an example of how similar disputes can be solved in the future.

One of the founding principles of the legal profession is that formalized law provides safety and freedom of action because parties with conflicting interests are able to prevent conflicts or to know the outcome if conflict happens. Another important principle is the balance of interests. Another one is that decisions should only be based on relevant facts of the matter and not incidental elements such as nobility, affluence, ethnicity, or other properties of the actors or the circumstances. (The latter is the famous "blindness of justice" to irrelevant matters.) All of those principles are preserved with the proposed improvement while many other aspects are changed.

I see a lot of advantages in such a reformed legal system:
  • laws would be much simpler, since their purpose would not be to give a fixed solution for every possible case and instead leave some wiggle-room for the disputing parties and their legal counselors.
  • legal conflicts would occur less often because counselors will advocate the way of consideration instead of the confrontational road.
  • legal conflicts could be resolved much more timely and with much reduced cost
  • all members of the legal profession would swear an oath of justice similar to the oath of Hippocrates in medicine. they will commit themselves to the principles of law and to working towards the goals of both parties in a conflict as well as the evolution of law which benefits society at large.
  • parties which can afford more or better lawyers will not be advantaged any more.

So lawyers become consultants and mediators instead of being advocates and lobbyists. Wouldn’t that be much more in line with the original values and virtues of justice and more beneficial to our society and all its members?

Peak Technology

Biking around Paris today I saw a poster similar to this one:
One of the phrases on the poster I saw was saying something like "we don't want better and more modern housing here, because we cannot afford that".
So I thought it's interesting that people are actually refusing something better than they already have.

And then I thought about lots of modern inventions which people don't really need. Like displays with a resolution that's almost better than our eyes can notice. Or cars that can go faster than is permitted to go on public roads. I could go on and on and this makes we wonder whether the role of technology in society is changing now. Not long ago (and in a large part of the world still now), technology would benefit the rich more than the poor, but it would still benefit the poor so much that a modern poor person would have a better life than a king two hundred years ago. One of my favorite example is the modern sewage system introduced in our part of the world mainly in the 19th century. It makes life more comfortable and much safer for the rich and the poor alike. Public transit, including air transit is similar. Modern air (or high-speed rail) is a good example how rich and poor pay very different prices for basically the same service (getting somewhere) simply by selling tickets with different conditions like flexibility of travel time/date, space on board, and various premium services. So this technology benefits both rich and poor people and even makes rich people pay more for it. Another example are Android phones which cost between 100 and 400 € while offering basically the same functionality (email, maps, chat, phone, web, ...). This way rich customers automatically contribute more to the development of the software and basic infrastructure than the poor.

Now, after seeing this writing on the Parisian wall... and after considering that my own highest high-tech are my bicycles and some not-so-new computer equipment. I really wonder if technology will really get us any much further as a society. Of course, the internet itself is probably the biggest thing in the tradition of technology which benefits rich and poor alike. And I think that the internet still has a lot of potential, especially in education. And, of course, self-driving cars will be a big relief. But still I think we might be nearing a peak where technology doesn't bring the most progress which universally helps all groups in society. We might soon get to a point where the bottleneck is somewhere else. Or maybe the bigger potential is already somewhere else and we just can't see it because we're all looking in the direction of technology waiting for it to rescue us.

I was looking what this other field of progress could be and while reading about "social advance in society" I found the "Social Progress Imperative" which has published the "Social Progress Index" and I was happy to find this data... but only until I noticed how shallow it is. For instance "respect for women" is measured with a simple poll. Therefore, it is rather "perceived respect for women". Also, Germany is really bad on "percentage of people going into tertiary education", which is likely because Germany's great professional education system hasn't been counted as tertiary education. I understand that the SPI only uses data which had already been collected by various other organisations (as listed in their Appendix), but the result is simply a rating which does not tell as much as it seems. So to sum up, I think that in the future social progress which happens independent of technology progress might be very important. And while technology progress can partly be measured in numbers like connection speeds, pixel rates, etc, there is less agreement and even less comparable data in the field of social progress.

20 October 2013

A stay at Plum Village, Mindfulness Practice Center, off-season

Already when I started meditating a little more than a year ago, I heard of the concept of "meditation retreat" or "going to a monastery" and I found it so fascinating that I also wanted to do it. Since I had hoped that my girl friend at the time would come with, I had delayed my trip, but this month I finally made it. During the last year, I had already found that meditation has helped me a lot, but I also sensed that there is a lot more there to attain. So I went to Plum Village very enthusiastically last week: to deepen my practice, to find fellow practitioners, to meet monks and nuns and generally see what it's like. And it was wonderful!

Since there’s a lot which happened inside and outside my mind, I’ll just focus on few topics here and describe them with a bit of detail. (The link above already contains a lot of the overall basic information…) One important thing to keep in mind is that during summer-retreat season there’s lot’s more people and also all the families with kids, so the atmosphere is probably quite different from what I experienced off-season: less people and more of them had previous experience with Plum Village or where staying for a longer period of time. 

Daily Activities: the sample schedule of a "normal day" applies only to three days out of four in the week, because 

  • there is a reduced schedule on arrivals and departure day (the monks do "mindful work" either receiving or seeing off guests or doing stuff around the village), 
  • there are two "Days of Mindfulness" (Thursday and Sunday when I was there) where monastics and visitors all gather in one of the hamlets to hear a lecture (see below) together, share a formal lunch, and have mixed Dharma sharing (also see below). On Sundays there are also a lot of visitors coming just for the day (which I think is a really good way to spend a Sunday) and to my surprise even Thursday had a lot of external visitors.
  • and finally there is one lazy day.
First of all, why people go to retreats like this:
  • to pick up positive energy from nature, the calm and silence, mindful being (eating, walking, rituals, simple work), and all the wonderful people around (lay and monastic alike).
  • to deal with specific or unspecific problems in their lives. Buddhists would call it “deal with suffering”, but the term really doesn’t matter.
  • to figure out what they want to do with their life. Instead of travelling around the world, travelling their inside world, so to say. Although I met several people who actually travelled Europe or the World and included one or more weeks at the monastery in their travels. Many of them had already done retreats in one of the Plum Village offspring practice centers (for example at EIAB in Germany, AIAB in Hongkong, or Plum Village Thailand) or retreats held by travelling monastics around the world (for example in Toronto or Malaysia).
  • to develop their character, become more skillful, become a better person.
  • and again, do all this learning and growing in an environment which is very relaxing, laid-back, and free from stress. Not just external big stress, but also all the small stresses of human interaction, especially if you decide to do it as a silent retreat.
During my last year of mindfulness I had known several “kinds” of meditation, but they were all basically sitting meditation only differing in what I do with my thoughts I what I focus my attention on. (Notable exception: cycling meditation where I focus on the movement of my feet in order to stop my thoughts going wild.)
At Plum Village I discovered a whole lot of new meditation practices:
  • The first and most important practice is breathing with the mantra “I have arrived. I am truly home.” to remind ourselves to be in the present moment, to feel our feelings, whatever we do. This practice spans through all of our daily activities which we want to conduct mindfully, keeping in touch with our breathing.
  • Walking meditation: appreciate nature, appreciate our breathing of fresh air in nature, imagine to walk with someone holding their hand (ex: someone who has died, someone who is far away, someone who is in difficulty).
  • Sitting meditation: enjoy sitting there! enjoy your breath. watch your thoughts, watch your feelings and you impermanent they are and how they disappear.
  • Working meditation: do simple tasks around the village (like cleaning, picking up fruit or nuts, making jam, carry things around, …) and do them mindfully, that is work silently and with your attention going to your work or your breath whenever you notice that you’re thinking of something else.
  • Mindful eating: recite the five contemplations (or your own katha). eat in silence for at least the first 20 minutes. concentrate on the taste of the food. (even if it becomes boring! overcome the boredom and start sensing something deeper!)
  • Listening meditation: one of the most important and difficult applications of mindfulness in practice! listen to someone without judging, without formulating your own answers, without reacting emotionally. instead just concentrate on listening. when you feel your own thoughts or feelings arising, just ask yourself: what kind of feeling is it? when did it start appearing? and then go back to listening. (or notice your breathing, if you need calming down.)
  • Listening to the bell: whatever we are doing, the bell calls us back to feel our breath, our body, our feelings, and our purpose, so we don’t get distracted by what’s going on around us.
To close the circle, all those forms of meditation serve the purpose of bringing mindfulness from the pure (sitting) meditation sessions out into your life, especially when dealing with other people and the emotions caused by this.
I think that during the themed retreats (up to three or four weeks, dates announced each year), which are led personally by Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay”), all those kinds of meditations are explained in the Dharma talks. I came for stay in-between seasons and there was only short introduction to the village’s practices on Saturday morning (and a mini-short personal intro when I signed in on Friday). Those non-themed stays are thus more for people who have some previous experience with mindfulness and meditation. If you need more info just ask any monk (or if you are female, any nun) during the not-completely-silent times of the retreat. When I was there, many of the lay guests where long-term stays (many of them aspiring to become monks) so I could also ask them.
Dharma lectures (or Dharma talks) are giving by Thay himself when he is present at Plum Village. At my visit he was travelling on his North America Tour and holding a themed retreat on “Finding our true home”. I think the retreat had a Dharma talk or Q&A by Thay every day, while the ordinary (non-themed) retreats only have Dharma talks on the Days of Mindfulness, that is, every Thursday and Saturdays, when there are also guests coming for just this one day. So during my stay, we viewed video-recordings of Thay’s sessions given the same week at Deer Park Park Monastery: one lecture and one Q&A.
One of the most transforming aspects of the practice are the Dharma Sharing sessions. I don’t want to describe them in detail here and just say that they are a wonderful occasion to practice deep listening (or mindful listening meditation) and to connect profoundly with other participants of the retreat. (Links: Purpose of Dharma Sharing, Rules of Dharma Sharing, Another list of Guidelines for Dharma Sharing)
Finally, one aspect I want to shed more light on is the “Noble Silence” and the Silent Retreats. Generally, Plum Village is both a place to relax and have fun as well as practicing complete silence and I think that their house rules provide a very good compromise for that:
  • Noble Silence for everybody is every day from the (silent) evening meditation (8pm in the Fall schedule) until after breakfast the next morning (7pm). This notably includes the morning meditation (except of course the chanting and reciting during the ceremony) and all the free time in between which people use to walk between meditation hall, bed room, wash room, and dining hall. Since the schedule is always quite stable there is really no need to talk to anybody else or even wait for anybody else. Everybody just silently goes their way. If you really want to say “Hello” or rather “Good Night” and “Good Morning” to someone then just silently fold your hands and bow. :-)
  • I have to admit that I sometimes broke this noble silence in the evening to ask if any of my six room mates needs to go to the wash room before I take one of my rather long showers. But otherwise, it worked quite well and especially in the morning I found it awesomely refreshing to be awake for two hours (5:30 to about 7:30) and be around nice people without need to talk to anybody.
  • Self-chosen Noble Silence was also practiced by some people to different degrees. For example, some people (including all the aspiring monks) did all their daily walking around as walking meditation in silence. If they wanted to talk to somebody on the way, they’d just stop walking and gave that person their full attention. Some others simply chose to not start conversations and stay away from group conversations so they’d get a lot of silence for themselves.
  • One nice example was a long-term staying musician who answered all my questions on where to find the lines and notes of the breathing songs and then, when my questions became unspecific and chatty, he told me that he is “actually trying to do three months of silence”. (For the curious: the songbook is A Basket of Plums and you can listen to the songs online, too.)
  • Dharma Sharing and communal singing or of course exempt from noble silence, although someone could of course choose just not say anything during Dharma sharing and just use it to practice listening meditation!

To sum up, my stay at Plum Village was awesome, relaxing, and inspiring. And I met some people for whom it was very healing, too! One thing the stay inspired me to do is to visit the German Plum Village spin-off before I start paid work again. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism also hosts some monastics and is located in an old hospital within a park in the small town of Waldbröl (which is between Cologne and Frankfurt, or in higher resolution for the Germans: between Bonn and Siegen). I also want to connect with Sanghas in Berlin and generally with practitioners in Germany. But I think that after a while I’ll probably enjoy going back to the original Plum Village because it still seems to be the original thing!

PS: Here's a very interesting report of Plum Village during Summer Camp time with 800 visitors staying there!

19 October 2013

Now is the time -- Audio recordings from Thich Nhat Hanh's 2011 tour in Taiwan in English and Mandarin Chinese (中文, 国语, 普通话)

This post is a just a handy link list to all of Thay's talks of the 2011 Taiwan tour which are posted on http://tnhaudio.org. Each link goes to a blog post with a summary and online listening. For your convenience I also put direct links to the audio here. You can even download all recordings at once. Note that all talks contain the original English with Mandarin translation interleaved.

Thay's tour in Taiwan started with a public talk at Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung entitled "Every act of mindfulness is an act of resurrection" (download mp3 audio).

And here are the recordings from the retreat itself:
PS: if you don't have the patience to listen to everything, the Q&A can be an interesting practical application and summary in one. ;*)

Please enjoy mindfully. :-)

9 October 2013

Creativity in Programming: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good Thing about being creative in programming is that creative programmers can come up with solutions which exploit some of the specifics of the unique problem or its context to create a solution which is either simpler, or more efficient, or more robust, or more usable, or provides some additional functionality at no or little extra cost (in effort, complexity, or performance). This is why having an especially creative developer on the team can be a big advantage in many situations. In order to best use this advantage, you should make sure that the creative programmer (or, for simplicity, all programmers on your team who are interested) has access to as much specific information as possible about the problem, the context, the business case, the constraints and, of course, the users.

The Bad Thing about creative programmers is that when they have to do non-creative work, they might easily get distracted by some creative ideas and lose focus on the thing that they need to get done. To mitigate this problem, it is important to establish a clear goal for the non-creative work ("this and that needs to work, don't care about anything else for the moment"), motivate them by explaining clearly why this goal is an important milestone (and necessary before other more creative things can be started), and put a less-creative type on their side to help them keep the focused on the goal (for example by regularly asking how it's going and by helping with some small and especially difficult or boring sub-tasks).
Also note that if a lot of the work done in a team is inherently non-creative that's demotivating for many or most programmers, but the most creative types will be affected most strongly. If several people in a team are affected by this, you definitely need to find better tools and platforms to get the busy-work out of the way. If only one person is affected, then this person should consider switching to another area inside or outside of their current organisation.

And finally, The Ugly Thing about creative programmers is that they might sometimes choose an individualized solution where something standard would be more appropriate which can, for example, lead to not adhering to coding standards or non-use of established patterns. To mitigate this problem coding styles should be enforced: as much as possible automatically (source formatters, linters, compiling with high warning levels, and other pre-commit sanity checks), but also socially with design review, code review, or pair programming. Note however, that problems in this area will be much less likely when the creative programmers can make Good Use of their creativity as explained above and when they are less exposed to the Bad Side of it as also explained above.

This is written from personal experience and you are welcome to contribute your own thoughts or experience. Thank you for reading!

6 October 2013

a hobby that gives a sense of meaning... and progress

I always had sense of ambition about me that I couldn't explain or even understand myself. When I quit my first job to start working on a PhD (which I later abandoned), some coworkers expressed their non-surprise mentioning that they had sensed some kind of ambition in myself which I hadn't even noticed myself.
What I had noticed, however, is that I like a lot to accomplish things and my work in all the previous jobs has rarely provided me with accomplishments that made me really happy. Conversely, in my free time I am really having trouble to find activities which I enjoy so much that they "charge up my batteries" and compensate for stress I have at work. In fact, I have been looking for interesting hobbies to do ever since my first job and I only had slight success. Two things that worked, but only for a while were sailing (while I learned it and made a lot of progress) and building my own bicycles (but when I had four bicycles, this was enough and I stopped :-).

Currently meditation and personal development is my main "hobby": I meditate since more than a year and I can still feel progress. Additionally, the benefits of meditation radiate into my life and help me with work, relationships, and the things that need to be done for daily life. I also read more regularly now, books about happiness, meditation, finding and reaching goals in life. Those books make for meaningful "edutainment" because they inspire me to new ideas and also to try out new things in my own life.

It actually took me a long time to find this field of interest which both provides me with meaning and accomplishment. I remember that my first "hobby" interest starting in 2004/2005 when I was looking for my first job were trains and public transit systems in general. After many years of reading and thinking about this topic, I found that it just didn't provide me with any suitable way to contribute. I am not the kind of person who's an "activist" for anything and getting a job in the rail or transit industry wouldn't be much different than working in IT (with the additional hurdle of not having matching degrees). As a side note, I even worked at Berlin's public transit company for a while (in the IT dep't, unsurprisingly) and concerning the day-to-day work it wasn't so much different from my previous job in IT for banking.
Because of this, I consciously decided to look for other pastimes which better allow me to accomplish things... and at first I easily found that in the domain of bicycle making. It was really a good experience to "make" my own bicycles. Even though most of the making was just to screw pre-made parts together, with wheel-building from hubs, rims, and spokes being the most exiting part. And it's even better to ride those bikes regularly (or have friends and visitors ride them) and thus be reminded of having build them myself, which gives my a great sense of meaning in the world.
I also read a lot about bicycle gearing, especially epicyclic gears (also called "internal gears" which are usually "hub gears", although not all variants are in the wheel's hub). I had fun disassembling gears to see how they worked. Count the teeth of cog-wheels to calculate the resulting gear ratios. And I "invented" some new gearing mechanisms. But alas, I am not the person to actually go produce such new things (or have them produced or even get the design to a point where it can be produced) and I am even doubting that there would be many people interested in buying such a thing. In any case, this hobby also seemed like a dead end and so it was about a year ago when I decided that I wanted to go back to one of my early-youth pastimes and start again to program computers as a hobby -- but to cut a long story short. This didn't work either.

It is therefore that in the recent weeks (and especially after doing the "realise2" strengths test) I have come back to the viewpoint that it's probably best to have a hobby that is quite separate from work. I think that I could be actually quite happy doing programming for money, if I having something energizing (which uses my other strengths!) on the side and as a hobby.

So some weeks ago, I decided that reading on personal development and blogging about how different books and theories and practices relate to each other. (See my last post for an example.) And since then, I had the pleasure to play the "Jeu du Tao" (exists only in French, see taovillage.com) and to participate in a volunteer-organised self-development workshop and this made me realise how much fun this is and also how deeply meaningful it is to help each other in such a way. I find that this kind of activity uses a lot of my favorite skills:

  • learning and understanding (through listening and asking good questions), 
  • logical analysis (finding contradictions or synergies in people's self-perceptions), 
  • creativity (finding good questions which are both revealing useful things and are confirming/probing what has been found and are of course non-offensive so that a trusted relationship is created)
  • even more creativity (to come up with "homework" exercises and experiments for people to test their believes and get to know themselves better)
And there are many activities in this field which I could try and which seem like very energizing and meaningful activities to me:
  • teaching about self-improvement, happiness, and personal development (most people don't read books, yet many still want to learn, so there's lots of potential here!)
  • participating in self-improvement self-help groups
  • doing one-on-one coaching to help people reach their goals (or find good goals!) or just get out of stuck situations
While this also may sound like a job description (for some kind of "community counselor" or an employee counselor in a large company), I think it makes a lot of sense to do this as a non-commercial exchange-based activity, because:
  • a lot of people don't want to pay for such services because they don't trust people who are taking their money (fearing that the coach is more interested in keeping the clients coming than actually solving their problems)
  • many people feel better talking about their personal issues with like-minded others instead of a professional. 
  • participating in group-sessions with peers helps each person not just to learn, but also to contribute back, giving them a sense of meaning and more motivation to stick 
  • I think that in a way, sharing your personal challenges and life aspirations is just like sex in that many people prefer doing it with a person they know well and who has the same stakes in it, rather than with a paid professional. Most of the world's personal advice is probably asked of and given by friends. You can understand my mission as making those friend-to-friend conversations more effective by adding some psychological knowledge and practice to them.
Of course I am not saying that the whole business of commercial coaching, counseling, and psycho-therapy is wrong. I simply think that there is also a need and purpose for a non-commercial peer-based alternative.

So that's my new hobby! I'll let you know how it goes :-)

4 October 2013

Personal Development from inside out

Recently I heard a talk by Shir Nir of the Handel Group on Personal Coaching. What he explained was very consistent with my own experience in trying to better myself and also mirrors principles from cognitive-behavioral therapy and meditation. The key message is that our actions are triggered by our thinking (be it conscious or subconscious) and our thinking is shaped by our character. Instead of saying "character" Shir Nir actually makes a distinction between our traits and our believes which are two very different parts of our personality.
Personality traits are something that is basically inherited or formed in early childhood and almost never changes. It is things like being introvert or extravert or being heterosexual or homosexual. Although I used those very well-known dimensions for examples, the spectrum of traits is really much much broader and many traits have no name in common language or no precise name at all! Traits are very important, however, since it will always be easier to do this in accordance with your traits than "against your grain". So one very important part of personal development is to get to know yourself better and on a much more detailed level than simple categories like "introverted" or "hard-working" or whatever cliches our culture has to offer. Chade-Meng Tan in Search inside yourself calls this "high-resolution perception" and I find this term really appropriate. One key still to develop such a perception is to not categorize or judge experiences, but just see them plainly for what they are. Vipassana meditation is one method of learning this skill. Another method (or an additional method) could be to get feedback from many people with different perceptions and take each of those perceptions as a part of the truth without judging or categorizing it. (As you notice, this already requires the skill that you want to train, so some amount of meditation would probably be needed to get you started in the process.)

On the other side are your believes and this side is even more complicated. People usually separate believes into the categories of true or false and all your own believes are just what you consider true. However, many important statements are actually neither completely true or false and some are actually quite self-fulfilling: if you believe that you have a certain ability (or don't have it) then this influences your behavior in a way that makes your belief true. (Interestingly, positive believes (like "I can do this") are more likely to be true, since you will do that thing and then see whether you do it well or not. Whereas negative believes like "I can't do this" are much more self-fulfilling because you'll likely never sincerely try to do the thing.)
Trying to change your believes all by yourself is very hard because since you believes are just the things you assume to be true, there will be a lot of things which are really true (1+1=2, earth is round, ...) mixed up with things that might or might not be true. And what's more, of those believes that might be possible to change many are quite irrelevant to your goals. It's really hard to find one or two believes which are both possible to change and worth changing! Once you have found such a belief, then all you need to do is imagine a world in which this belief would not matter or its opposite would be true. Then you'll ask yourself what would be good actions to take in this world (actions that are not harmful in your current world, but beneficial in the other world) and you write down those actions and resolve to try them out. It's important to write down actions because in your day-to-day life you don't live in a parallel universe, so it would be very hard to remember those actions exactly as you planned to do them in the imagined world.
Once you've done the actions and see results that are beneficial to you, then your believe will start changing by itself. (This is not from Shir Nir's talk, but rather my naive understanding of cognitive-behavioral therapy.)

I think that the environment which you are in has a big influence on your believes and positive environments (like, for example, great company culture) can make a big difference in your life. However, this difference is also fleeting because you'll lose some or all of its beneficial effects once the environment changes again.

To create lasting change, in my opinion, there are only two ways: one is to have a really great personal coach, whom you trust and who uses the right method (and who understands you personally and who fits your style and whom you can afford, ...) and the other method is meditation. Meditation of course takes much longer, but it also creates very sustainable results. Meditation basically helps you become your own personal coach! Of course you can profit from having a meditation teacher, but in a way this is more like a train-the-trainer relationship. With meditation, it's always you who stays in control and you who's responsible. For your personal development. And for your life.

18 August 2013

Practical conventions for writing dates

After my recent Utopian calendar post, let's follow-up with something more practical. What date does 10/11/12 denote? 10. Nov. 2012? Or 11. Oct. 2012? Or maybe even 2010-Nov-12 or even more surprising 2010-Dec-11?

In the USA, the second guess is probably most plausible. In Germany, France, and countries nearby, on the other hand, such a question would be quite unlikely to arise, because the slash (/) is not usually used to delimit dates. This is a very good thing, because if someone writes a day in their country's most common format, this allows us to also guess the intended order of numbers and thus the meaning. If I see 05.04.80 I assume German syntax and semantics and read it as a day in April.

Given this convenient feature of syntax, I find it very disturbing that some programs offer to format dates using American slashes for separation but a non-American Day/Month ordering. It seems like they tried to adapt to a different cultures, but did it so half-baken that they only made things worse.

To make things simple again, I am using a few very easy rules to make all my dates unambiguous, no matter in which country I happen to stay, who is addressed by my writings, and which format I am following (my own or the recipient's, if they are different).

Rule One: Always use different syntax for different ordering.
Rule One Prime: Avoid / since it has been abused to much. Better use . when starting with the day or use - when writing in ISO-format.

This first rule already removes most of ambiguity, but it doesn't it always make very intuitive to read dates. For example, it's easy for me to process "1. March" and just as easy to read "March 1st" or "Mar-01", but there seems to be something wrong about March 1st 2013.

Therefore Rule Two: always write a date with increasing order of "day. month. year" or completely decreasing order "year-month-day". So I can choose to write 1. March 2013 or 2013-Mar-01, but not any other order.

Note that this scales well for incomplete dates such as "March 2013" (or "2013-Mar") as well as date-time combinations such as 13:45 on 13.Mar.2013 or 2013-03-13T13:45.

Finally Rule Three: although the above is quite unambiguous already, whenever I am in an ambiguous context such as a country with a different convention from mine, I also prefer to spell out years with all four digits and spell out months with at least three letters. The latter might seem a little antique or overly literary for a person who likes numbers a lot. But I think that words just are more helpful here.

And after all, every month is special for the number of days it has, so we can't meaningfully talk about dates anyway, unless we know all the months. If I ask you, for example, to hang out on 28.08. or a week later, you need to decode 08. to August in order to calculate, that a week later is 04.09. (This becomes even funner if I propose 28.08. or the Sunday after that, because you need to know which year I am talking of. But, you know, in The World Calendar, 28. Aug is always a Tuesday and the next Sunday is always 02.Sept. ;-))

3 August 2013

Perennial Calendars!

If you aren't a geek, you can stop reading now, because this is going down a somewhat utopian route. ;-)

Do you still remember the age before smartphones? Then you might also remember those tiny credit-card-sized calendars like the one shown to the right. You can't write almost anything on those and they can't remind you of things. The only purpose they have is to tell which day of each month is which week-day and when public holidays are, because unfortunately, this changes every year, so it's really hard to remember. Maybe you've ever asked yourself why this has to be so complicated: why can't it be the same every year?
If we let aside historical reasons we'll find that the week has seven days, while a year has 365 and roughly a quarter day. (365.242 according to Google.) So even if we'd change the number of days in a week to make it fit, we'd couldn't have every week be just the same length and still fit in a year. (Of course, we could also slightly decrease earth's orbit around the sun, such that we make it around exactly every 364,000 days, because then a year would be just 52 7-day weeks!)

Now, instead of messing with planetary movements, perennial calendars try to simplify the problem rather by introducing better conventions. If we make the concept of "week" a little more flexible, then we can get a calendar which is the same every year and can even get some additional benefits, such as:
  • months of more even length
  • quarters of more even length 
  • months and quarters with a more even number of workdays
  • better distribution and simpler to remember public holidays
In the Gregorian calendar, each month has between 28 and 31 days, which makes between 20 and 23 working days which is not only being complicated by a different number of weekends per each month every year, but additionally by public holidays which may or may not fall on weekends. In Germany, for example, depending on the year and the date of Easter, May might have 3 public holidays. If additionally, weekends fall just right, there might only be 19 working days in May. This is especially sad, because most of Germany does not have any public holidays between May or June and the beginning of October, crating a huge holiday-gap after the Spring holiday-boom.

Anyways, here are my two favorite perennial calendars which fix those problems:

Post-Gregorian Calendar: this one's really neat, because it is just a tiny change to our existing calendar which makes a big difference with it's repercussions. This calendar simply makes the first day of every year (1st January) a Sunday by definition. Applying all the normal rules will mean that the last day of the year (31st December) will also be a Sunday. Thus, the major change is simply to have one Sunday be followed by another Sunday. Of course, this would be unacceptable to fundamental Christians, but it would be very practical, since 1st January is a public holiday in most countries anyway, which is practically quite similar to a Sunday. So 31st December would be a normal Sunday (because the day before was a Saturday) and then the 1st January would be a public holiday, where people don't work, so we can make it a Sunday as well. This simple change fixes all the dates of all the non-leap years each to its specific day-of-week. 
As for the leap years, we have to apply one more trick to make them perennial, too, and this trick will be very plain: in non-leap years, 28th February is always a Tuesday and thus 1st March is a Wednesday and we simply keep it that way for the leap-years, too: 29th February becomes a public holiday which you can call an additional Tuesday or a pre-Wednesday or a Middle-of-Week-Sunday or simply "The Leap Day". This might seem quite revolting to conservative people, but it is not much more revolt as having a "double hour" every time we switch back from daylight saving time or having a "date boundary" in the Pacific where on one side it's always one day later than on the other side.

If you think about this more, then the point of the Post-Gregorian calendar is not having an extra day in one or two weeks a year (because all perennial calendars need to have something like that), but the Post-Gregorian's specialty is to put those extra days in places where they least disturb ordinary, conservative life.
Now, after accepting non-weekday Leap Days and the Special "New Year's Day", we can simplify things a bit more and introduce...

The World Calendar. This one's actually been promoted for real and even been discussed at the United Nations. First published by the American Elisabeth Achelis it is one of many proposals that came up after the 18th and 19th centuries when the French Revolutionary calendar was actually made the official calendar of a powerful and modern state. But back to the World Calendar, which is so simple and beautiful that you must love it. It inserts an out-of-week day at the end of every year as well as between the second and third quarters (that is, between 30th June and 1st July) on all the leap years. 
Unlike previous calendar reforms, the World Calendar keeps the names for the twelve months and simply makes the months 31, 30, and 30 days long in each quarter. In recognizing quarter-years as important periods for modern-day business it departs from previous proposals which were more focused on the seasons and agriculture. 
Since each quarter in the World Calendar is the same (and is the same every year) it can be conveniently expressed with the simple table shown here (which I shamelessly copied from Wikipedia). Also note that the months have 22, 22, and 21 work-days in each quarter. So if we had 8 public holidays to spread around the calendar (which is a pretty common number in many countries), we could place them all in the 22-workday-months and obtain a calendar in which every month has exactly 21 working days. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find historically significant dates in his or her country which match that pattern.)

There are other Calendars which I also like a lot, especially when they come up with more meaningful names for the months and with more meaningful and less dogmatic public holidays, but I will leave this topic to another post.

To conclude, I only want to mention one type of perennial calendar which I distinctly don't like and that's any calendar which uses leap weeks instead of leap days. Leap weeks were introduced so that the religious seven-day cycle is never broken, hoping that dogmatically religious people will then accept calendar reform. But I think this line of thought will just not work because many conservative people will just not accept any reform and compromising to them will makes matters only more and more and ever more complicated. For example, both calendars described above (as well as almost all other leap-day calendars) keep the same leap-year rules as the Gregorian calendar and will thus start every year on the same day as the corresponding Gregorian year. This is a very useful feature which all the leap-week calendars give up. Besides, to end on a rather subjective note, I just think an entire week popping up between the years is quite unaesthetic and not as nice as having a single public holiday every now and then.