Altruism In Conflict

Photo Courtesy of Riccardo Cuppini

Photo Courtesy of Riccardo Cuppini

I struggle with the concept of altruism. As I understand it from Buddhist literature, the practice of altruism is striving for the happiness and well being of every sentient being. Recently, Matthieu Ricard published a whole book about this subject. It is on my to read list. Matthieu Ricard is one of my favorite authors.

In society however, people have conflicting interests. If I strive for the happiness of the one, often this means the misfortune of the other.

Parable of the Island
An elderly man and his two adult sons are on summer vacation on a beautiful island. They enjoyed their time together and on the last day, their plane back home will depart on 11 AM. The eldest son wants to go fishing with his dad. The youngest son wants to take his father to another part of the island, to visit a village with a old church. There is no time to do both. How can the old man be altruistic? When he endorses the one, he disappoints the other.

Altruism means that you should never decide based on your own interest, but on that of the other (altero). Is altruism still possible when there are two or more opposing others, in a situation of conflict?

At the end of the day, everyone’s friend is no one’s friend.
(Italian proverb)

A solution to overcome the problem of conflicting interests, is to focus on a synthesis, a cause that transcends the opposing parties.

This brings me to the work of Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers Sangha, who teaches a method of being present in a situation or area of conflict, concentrating (meditating) and then as if by divine inspiration, the synthesis or higher cause reveales itself to you.

Photo of Bernie Glassman

Photo courtesy of Joan Halifax

Some thoughts of Roshi Bernard Glassman:

We bear witness to the joy and suffering that we encounter. Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation. We became intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When you bear witness you’re simply there, you don’t flee.

My opinion of Loving Actions are those actions that arise naturally when one enters a situation in the state of not-knowing and then bears witness to that situation. It has nothing to do with the one’s opinions or other’s opinions as to whether it is loving actions or not.

My conclusion: the Buddhist practitioner who follows the altruistic ideal, should meditate on how he lives, chooses and acts in the midst of war, chaos and conflict. Altruism is never easy or simple.

TED talk by Matthieu Ricard


Work the System and The OS Fund

Picture courtesy of halfrain (Flickr)

In the book Work The System, Sam Carpenter states that reality is composed of a large number of systems, that for 96% work flawlessly:

I work the system, but not just one. I work all the systems in my control— professional, financial, social, biological, and mechanical. You have your own systems. Do you see them? Do you control them? It doesn’t matter whether you are a CEO, employee, stay-at-home mom or dad, retiree, or student. Your life is composed of systems that are yours to control—or not control.

My personal summary of the method:

  1. Identify or define a system, for instance your weekly shopping round
  2. Design ways to decompose the workings of this system, identify ways to control it
  3. Compose the improved version of the system by writing a procedure or installing a life hack
  4. After every iteration, evaluate the improvements (Kaizen)

Reading this book certainly changed my perspective, my way of looking at my circumstances. Most people define a large portion of the things happening to them as fate and feel helpless about a lot of their life events. When you have the epiphany of, what the author calls, the systems mindset, you not only recognise a lot of systems in your life, but you can also design ways to control them and thereby improving the outcome of the circumstances to your advantage.

Systems are everywhere, even your own body and health can be viewed as systems that are either under your control or not, but when you can control them, you should try to improve.

The systems mindset is rational, the way to optimize the systems is largely a cerebral activity, spirituality, emotions, the heart, are not considered by the author. That is a limitation of the approach but still I find this way to reduce learned helplessness very inspiring.

The OS Fund

Last month, I listened to the conversation between Tim Ferriss and Bryan Johnson, investor. They talked about the so called OS Fund. This fund of 100 M US$, promotes the mindset of what they call analysing the underlying operating system of phenomena, like economics, medicine, trade, aviation, space travel, etc.

In the same way that computers have operating systems at their core — dictating the way a computer works and serving as a foundation upon which all applications are built — everything in life has an operating system (OS). It is at the OS level that we most frequently experience a quantum leap in progress.

Bryan Johnson, courticy of Wikipedia

Bryan Johnson has high ambitions. We can improve the intricate mechanics of reality, just like we can improve the operating system of a computer.

OS Fund Manifesto
Free pdf or audio book of Work The System

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Slow Computing

Last week, I read this new and inspiring testimonial: The Joy Of Slow Computing

When I use open source software, I am no longer a consumer, but a member of a user/developers community. If my Yosemite has a bug, I can complain to the multi billion dollar company Apple, that probably doesn’t care for me as an individual. Not so with Zotero, Inkscape, Firefox or any other great open source creation; I can visit the friendly virtual village, for help or even bug fixes, that are tailored to my needs.

As Eric Raymond has written in The Cathedral And The Bazaar, this is a fundamental shift in experiencing software.

Picture of arduino electronics

Photo courtecy of uosɐɾ ɹnɥʇɹɐɔɯ.

See also: Are You A Consumer or Community Player?

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Drive Your Car Mindfully

Since a couple of weeks, I keep a maximum speed of 100 km/h (62 miles/h) on every freeway, even when the speed limit is much higher. Most of the cars pass me, I keep to the right. I set my car on cruise control and there’s a large stretch of free road ahead of me. I feel relaxed and unhurried.

Other cars join me to form a lazy caravan. We are the evangelists of the slow driving movement. It’s mindful traveling.

My car, a Toyota hybrid, uses much less petrol. I feel rested when I arrive.

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The Best € 15,- Ever Spent

Since a week I use the iPhone App Voice Dream Reader. This has changed the way I read large articles.

Nowadays, I commute by a Toyota hibrid car. It is more than a hour to the place where I work. I was looking for ways to use this time more effectively. This new app can read texts with a very clear, natural sounding voice. I supports many languages, also my native Dutch, and I have bought a Dutch voice for € 5,-. The app supports many formats of texts, like pdf, docx, epub, etc.

Voice Dream Reader has an interface with the application Pocket, which I use very frequently. It can read all the articles in my Pocket Queue.

My workflow of article reading now is:

  • On Twitter, I click on a link that looks interesting
  • I quickly scan the article (usually very long, since I like long stories) and decide if I want to read it
  • I save it to my Pocket queue. Pocket removes all the side bars, banners and advertisements
  • In my car, I use Voice Dream Reader to read the text of the article out loud, using the “Pocketed” (stripped) version of the article

I enjoy this very much!

Update July 2015:
This week, Pocket on IOS has added text to speech. However, the voice quality is less than with Voice Dream Reader.

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The Checklist Manifesto

Checklist Manifesto Book Cover

This book impressed and inspired me. It explains what the benefits of checklists in a professional (work) environment are, especially with teams. Atul Gawande, the author, uses many examples from his own medical background, but he also writes extensively about aviation and the building of sky scrapers.

Since I also work in large projects, I found the chapter about building sky scrapers very inspiring. Here, of course, they use checklist for the work itself, containing every step. But additionally, they also have a list of building decisions or design decisions that should be made. If your name as a specialist is on that list, together with the names of a few other specialists and the description of the technical detail itself, you are assigned to come together and decide about how the technical detail should be solved. This is a way of decentralizing design work.

I think we in the large IT projects can adapt this way of working, using ticketing systems like Jira or Bugzilla. If you are assigned to solve a specific IT problem that is part of a larger project, you receive a ticket with the description and the names of one or few other specialists. Together, you come up with a solution and document this in the ticket. This looks a lot like ITIL, but then used as part of a large build project, not in system administration.

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Open Questions List

Are you hesitant to ask a question to a coworker because you expect to find the answer by yourself later? En then later on, you forget what that question was that you thought of when you were studying the subject?

Questions pop up in your mind in the same way as ideas. You have to capture a question, especially if it is a good one, right at the moment you get it.

It can be annoying to bother your client or collegues with unnecessary inquiries. You do not want to ask questions, when you think there is a good chance that you will discover the answer before the end of the day.

But it would be a mistake not to record any questions for that reason. What works very good for me is to still write down any questions that rise to mind, but to postpone sending the questions to my collegue untill at least the end of the day. When the answer is still not evident by that time, I feel free to send an email asking the information to a coworker or customer.

After sending the mail, I copy the text of the question in a list I maintain in Excel.

Columns I use in the list

  • Status: New, Open, or Closed
  • Date Open
  • Date Closed
  • Short subject
  • Sent to
  • Text of the question
  • Text of the answer

What I regularly do, is enter questions in the list with the status ‘New’. This means that the question has not been sent yet. At the end of the day (or week, if you prefer) you can send all the questions with the status ‘new’ for which you still need the answers. After sending the question, change its status to ‘open’.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Today, I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This film is a tribute to the dedication of a man to his art, or craft. The daily practise gives life meaning, without it, your life is empty, no matter how rich you are. Strive for improvement, regardless of the nature of the career, sport or art you have chosen. Pick an art, stick with it (because, essentially, the exact art you choose is not the most important, but your dedication to it makes you passionate) and every day strive to improve your mastery of this art. Be it selling, technical engineering, sculpting or as in Jiro Ono’s case, making sushi. Dedication generates passion, not the other way around.

Picture of Jiro Ono

Other reactions to this documentary
Lessons From a Master
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: The Making of a Great Shokunin/Leader
Best of Unprofessional Cookery: Jiro Will Put All Yáll To Shame

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Kevin Rose interview with Elon Musk

Elon Musk it the founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and the commonly known, Paypal.

I love the way the electrical cars from Tesla look.

Recently, Kevin Rose has recorded this interview with Elon, which I recommend.

One of the books that Elon recommends is the biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson (Amazon link). Isaacson is a great biographer and this is certainly on my reading list. (Just finished the biographies of Einstein and Jobs.)

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My favourites from The Setup

Very eagerly, I read the interview-series titled The Setup. The men and women interviewed, explain what hard- and software they use. ‘Hardware’ includes things like laptops, but also camera’s, microphones and so on. Mostly, the tools people mention are not new to me but sometimes I discover something very interesting.

Self portrait of John MacFarlane

John MacFarlane is a professor of philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. He speaks about his creation, the very powerful converter of text markup formats called pandoc.

I use pandoc’s extended markdown for lecture notes, letters, slide presentations, handouts, and short articles. For books and more complex documents, I use LaTeX.

I intend to explore what the extended markdown of pandoc can do for me. I have installed pandoc on my Windows laptop under Cygwin and on my Linux-hosts.

Derek Sivers a writer and serial enterpreneur, has inspired me to start using Anki, about which Derek says:

For learning anything, I use the awesome Anki, which I love so much I donated $500 to. (The author wrote me back, thinking it must have been a PayPal mistake.)

With Anki, it turns out that memorizing things is very easy. The workings of the program are based on the learning theory called Spaced Repitition. At the moment, I am learning LPI level 2 from this and I am teaching my children multiplication. With Ankidroid you can practise even when you are waiting at the train station. It is very effective.

Amongst the many inspiring interviews, one final:

Steve Coast is an architect @Microsoft and founder of Openstreetmap. Steve Coast uses the library often as a source of reading material.

Library books

I use the library a lot. King County in Washington State has the most traffic of any US library, or so they claim. I refuse, typically, to buy Kindle or other books with a zero resale value. I’m keenly aware that the same information can be had in multiple forms. For example a book can be Kindle, Nook, Hardback, HB 2nd hand, Paperback, PB 2nd hand, Library, audio book (, Library audio book. I don’t care how I get the information, therefore I may as well have the lowest cost access.

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