Saturday, March 29, 2008

Art, Science, and Religion

The other day I listened with interest to this podcast of an interview with Dick Gabriel, a big-time computer scientists who is a Lisp guru. Lisp is language of choice back in the 1980's when artificial intelligence was a big deal and Dick Gabriel was one of the main guys. Lisp is would be a typical kind of thing for me to spend time learning (my goal is to spend a little time each night trying to get up to speed on it). One, learning Lisp has very little direct practical relevance. Lisp programming experts are few, and jobs are fewer. But it has a certain academic appeal to me, it offers a whole new way of viewing the world.

I don't know much about Lisp, but what I do know is fascinating. It is purely a functional language and in essence essentially stateless. A function's job is to take input and produce output. The language consists of basically linking functions together to process data in primarily the list data structure. The artificial intelligence comes in because you can dynamically add new functions, a kind of dynamic learning. Ok, there's more to it than that, and if I can accomplish my goal to learn this language, I will fill you in.

But here's another interesting fact about Dick Gabriel, he took three years off in the early part of the 1990's to pursue a MFA in poetry. Can you just jump into any Master's degree of your choice like that? Well, he apparently did and now he's been writing a poem a day for the past eight years. The website documenting this project is here. I like how he says, "after 8 years of writing this way, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not really a very good poet."

In the interview, after a bunch of historically interesting, but technically confusing details about the Lisp programming language, he talks about how artists and scientists should really collaborate and learn from each other more. I really do not have a lot of life experience that validates this kind of idea, but every time I hear it, the thought excites the daylights out of me.

In fact, this interdisciplinary cooperation is became quite fashionable at least from what I have heard. Again, I haven't experienced it first hand, but I would love to. Know any opportunities out there? I would be interested.

The first Friday's of every month, downtown Phoenix opens up all of their art galleries, restaurants open up, and street vendors converge. The streets are crowded and for one night at least, you feel like your in New York City. I went one night by myself. My wife and kids were in Utah for their yearly escape from the heat, and I wandered through the streets just absorbing all of the energy, really just soaking it all in. I really had this strong desire to jump into this scene somehow...

Another time I heard this idea of interdisciplinary collaboration was several years ago, I had this opportunity to attend an Embedded Systems conference in San Fransisco. The keynote speaker was Murray Gell-Mann. He wrote a book called the Quark and the Jaguar which was all about the idea of complexity and patterns all around us, and the idea of complexity was the topic of his keynote address. He is most famous for winning the Nobel prize in Physics for his discovery of the Quark. He is currently working in Santa Fe, New Mexico working with people from a variety of disciplines to come up with a comprehensive theory of everything.

This endeavor to understand and make sense of the world though is an endeavor common to a wide variety of disciplines. A poet attempts to document her view of the world through language and metaphor, trying to describe the indescribable. A philosopher, much more directly, is trying to do the same thing. The theologian and the scientist both are trying to understand the universe, but the scientist is just using more precise tools.

What about those more practical fields like business. Well, in his book "Mind Your Own Business" by Sidney Harman, consider this quote:

"Business and the business schools have for too long lionized the specialist, the person who has learned how to do one thing and do it well, but who, as a consequence, has almost no idea how the whole enterprise works. Time and again, in small companies and large, I have encountered senior executives who live lives of silent terror. They do their jobs, and they believe that they do them effectively, but they do not have a clue about how the whole enterprise works. It seems to them that the company has a life and motion of its own, and they live in fear that they will somehow be found out. That kind of departmentalized thinking - the specialist in the silo - produces paralysis and an absence of innovation and creativity. Coupled with top-down autocratic command, it is the essence of what I think of as old analog management. It can bring the company's growth to a full stop.

I say, 'Get me some poets as managers.' Poets are the original system thinkers. They contemplate the world in which we live and feel obligated to interpret, and give expression to it in a way that makes the reader understand how that world turns. Poets, those unheralded system thinkers, are our true digital thinkers. It is from their midst that I believe we will draw tomorrow's new business leaders."

That quote reminds me of a software architect book I read back in school where the author said that writing software is one of the hardest things to do because you are in essence building a universe. You are really. You have a language. Your only constraint is that language, and it constrains you some, but you are forced to build, often from scratch something that is not well understood up front. Is it no wonder that software projects are often times over schedule and over budget.

It's these kind of ideas that make me relish my current job in a dot com. Did you know that coming to an interview at PayPal (or Amazon or Google) in a suit would be the wrong thing to do, in fact that mistake alone could cost you the job. Amazon tells you up front not to wear suits. By the way, another cool thing at Amazon, all of their desks are made from recycled doors, and its obviously so when you take a look. Quirky and cool.

But to really innovate in a way that will win in the business world, especially the internet business world requires creativity, boldness, and system thinking. This requires an ability to analyze the world, see how you can make it better, and deliver.

So, in the end, how can are art, science, and religion work together? There's a really cool quote from a Bob Dylan song that often rings in my head. It's from the song, Absolutely Sweet Marie it goes like this: "But to live outside the law, you must be honest". Honesty I think is the common ingredient. Honesty and authenticity.

Good art is honest. Good science is honest. Obviously, honesty is the tenant of religion. A sincere pursuit of more. A sincere expression of yourself.

I heard a quote listening to a podcast about craftsmanship. You're a laborer if you do something with your hands, a craftsman if you do it with your head, an artist if you do it with your heart. Really that's the sum of it.

But how do you translate all of these cool sounding ideas into the real world? This sort of stuff works really well with intellectuals in their ivory towers, or the hack wantabe talking around a campfire. But does it translate into a business model? I say yes.

Several years ago I read an article about one of the best Steinway salespersons in the world, someone who could sense a pianist's style (she was herself a classically trained pianist) and artistry and could match the person with the exact piano that fit the customer's style and in essence make the pianist fall in love with the piano. There was no trickery in this salesmanship. The art of it was to quickly get a sense of the consumer. Figure out what the person in her heart wanted, and through an educational process show how the purchase of a product can fulfill an honest and sincere desire.

This ability to see the world as it is, establish a deep connection with it, and seek out ways to make it better, then convince others that your contribution is worth their time, not through manipulation, but through an honest educational process.

This sort of thing does not happen enough. Too often, companies try to shortcut the process through manipulation, or by offering a counterfeit product that promises one thing but delivers something else. The fast food industry is like this. It produces food incredibly cheap, and hypes it up with artificial flavors. We like the taste at first, but it makes us sick soon after. There's no nuance in its flavor. But the business model has worked. You hire unskilled labor on the cheap, you spend the money on marketing to manipulate the consumer to come in, and you offer a product that has no value but a quick and cheap thrill. And we all get fat and dumb in the process.

Compare this with the business model where you hire the best and brightest. The artists of the profession and you go about innovating products that will appeal to the best of what's in us. You market your product, but the marketing is honest, because the product really is superior. You might use sophisticated techniques to convince someone of it, but when you turn him on it, you have won a loyal customer for a long time.

Google is the most obvious example. Read much more about why here. But basically, they pay and treat their employees extremely well, and they flat out get the best. And they innovate like crazy. Music has a ton of examples. My personal favorite being Bob Dylan. I read somewhere that recording companies love him, not because his albums are the top selling when they are released but because his albums sustain. People continue to buy them for a long time. People still buy Bob Dylan albums that are over forty years old. The music is honest, good, transcends its time, but Dylan was also able to market himself in a truly honest way that resonated with people and drew people to him.

Life is interesting really. There are so many components to it. At the most basic, we worry about our day to day survival: food, clothing, and shelter. But part of our advancement as a society is to get beyond just survival. Our potential is to create and innovate, and each of us desires to do that. Almost every person I have worked with wants to design or to lead or to create and not just to work.

To get there, we need to become more savvy consumers, more savvy workers, more savvy entertainment seekers, more savvy producers. At our core, we are all scientists, artists, businessmen and businesswomen, and prophets.

1 comment:

H said...

Honestly, I have no idea how you keep all of these thoughts and quotes in your head! I can't remember what I said last night, let alone what I read over a year ago.

You are a dreamer and an idealist! I guess I probably knew that about you, but please don't go crazy living this world, making compromises.

Finally, I really hope that I'm around sometime to see something, "excite the daylights" out of you. That was a great line! I teach visualizing to help kids understand what they are reading and I picture sunlight shooting out of your eyes and ears, arms extended, head tipped up and singing!