Inventor, Invention and Intent – Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart passed away on July 3rd 2013. The father of the “Mother of all demos“, he was a visionary inventor. In response to obituaries from popular news sites, Brett Victor digs into what tech writers get wrong about Engelbart’s work. Here are some quotes. 

When I read tech writers’ interviews with Engelbart, I imagine these writers interviewing George Orwell, asking in-depth probing questions about his typewriter.

Brett has a point. Tech writers are prone to simplify. Constraints of getting message across to a wider audience, lack of time, or even lack of comprehension all manage to simplify the message to the extent of saying nothing. The point is that the larger motivations of an inventor are drowned out. As Brett so eloquently states,

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil. 

Engelbart’s vision was to build systems that augment human intelligence. And again as Brett states,

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

Intent of an inventor is nuanced by necessity. If you read the paper by Engelbart you understand the depth of this thinking. It does take time to explain anything of value. Besides an online journal or tech blog is not usually a place for nuance or depth.

That said, I do understand the constraints of tech writers or journalists. Visitors to their portals don’t have time. The header has to capture attention. The body has to communicate the message as briefly as possible. Attention is a scarce resource.

I face these issues when talking about our product CollabLayer to potential customers. Articulating the proposition, and our intent to amplify collaboration & insight discovery takes a lot of work and time. Reducing it to small sound bites eats away the nuance. Elaborating leaves the customer with too much detail or just plain bored.

I try to understand context and constraints of audience to adapt my pitch. In the last few weeks, my pitch has gotten refined but there is a long long way to go before we can emulate the “Mother of all demos”. Don’t miss that demo, you will learn what a ‘visionary inventor’ means. Check out our baby too. Doug would have understood where we are headed, we hope you check us out and agree too  🙂

Two Perspectives on Leadership

There are as many perspectives on Leadership as there are people. While watching Game of Thrones I could not help but notice the two contrasting approaches to leadership, as embodied by Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon.

Joffrey_Baratheon-Throne

Let us start with one extreme. Joffrey Baratheon, kinghood has been conferred upon him by the accident of birth. He knows he has power but does not understand power. He has not paid the price to be crowned, events beyond his control have led him to the throne. But all he sees is power, he does not understand its responsibilities, has no inherent trait of leading and guiding men, no impulse to fairness, no empathy to his subjects. Power he has and he exercises it. With all the smugness of one born to wealth and power, all pleasure and indulgence but no reflection, no self-questioning. His ego has deluded him to attribute his position to his own being.

EddardStark-Throne

In contrast, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, knows he does not belong on the Iron Throne. He does not like, perhaps even despises power. Kinghood to him is a burden. He understands the machinations, the politics, the betrayals that underlie the crown. He lives by his values..brotherhood, family, his people and above all the honor of a warrior. He has strength, is battle-scarred. The burden of responsibility weighs upon his actions. Deliberate and methodical, his actions issue out of him as a craftsman chisels his jewels.

Two contrasting approaches out of the many that are possible to leadership. To be aware of what style one is employing, a recognition of our origins and our destinations and the legacy we wish to be known by are the starting point for grounded leadership.

Good leaders lead not just by the power that resides with their position. They lead with skills, with empathy, with humility. Purpose and principles motivate their actions. They do not look down upon their subjects however high the seat. They understand the ephemerality of power, the transient nature of events.

Through all this good leaders lead. And the bad ones gloat and relish their transient power enroute to their impending downfall.

Knowledge is Free, Learning Costs You

Knowledge is power. Power is not shared. It remains institutionalized, parceled out to the few and is usually affirmed by a seal and sanction of an Institution. Knowledge had been monopolized by educational institutions, Universities and Boards. The few who had the aptitude, or the means, had access to this training and subsequent rewards. The rest languish in a vicious cycle of intellectual and economic mediocrity.

With the Internet, all this has changed. Knowledge is available in abundance. With arrival of MOOCs, this knowledge is at least a subset of what is offered in elite educational institutions. Udacity and Coursera are leading the charge here. Even before the MOOCs, there was MITs OpenEdu program. There are podcasts, websites, guides..heck knowledge flowed freely even through Torrents as ebooks and video lectures, beyond the standard Hollywood fare and porn.

With all this glut what seems to be scarce is our propensity to learn. Our curiosity has not deepened, it does not burn us yet. Our love of learning has either diminished or stayed the same. We still look to the old stimulants of economic rewards and social recognition to be nudged forward. Of course external motivations are important but the propensity to learn can be more effective when driven by a love of learning, by a desire to understand something truly, to build something of value using that knowledge.

But learning takes effort. This effort is more or less the same whether you learn from an Institution or on your own. With the glut of knowledge available online, one only needs a computer and connectivity to the Internet to join the information revolution. But what is lacking is our willingness to pay the price for learning. Guess it is much easier to pay money and have an institution declare we know something!

The time we spend on Facebook or Twitter is attention that could be purposefully spent elsewhere. Whether you wish to learn Rhetorical Composition, Systematic Program Design or Startup Engineering the best minds and generous hearts have conspired to ensure knowledge is free. You only need to pay for it with your curiosity, willingness to learn and perseverance.

What have you learnt lately?

On Translation – Nabokov, Borges & Sri Aurobindo

Nabokov & Borges seemed to have had opposing views on literary translation. While reading that post I could not but help think about Sri Aurobindo’s approach to literary translation, more specifically, translation of poetry.

The two contrasting views, as articulated in the post, are: Literal translation and Free-form Translation. Nabokov adheres to the literal school and views any change  in a translation as a deformation. While Borges delights in the “happy and creative infidelity” of the translated material to the original.

Sri Aurobindo had the following to say on literal vs free-form translation:

A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray than those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness.

Above quote was taken from an essay (warning, its a PDF file) by Usha Mahadevan on Sri Aurobindo’s Tirukkural translation. Some splendid examples there of how a translation could retain fidelity to spirit of the original, rather than the word-forms.

First Kural, first line – “Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam..”

Rev. G.U.Pope translates as, “A as its first of letters, every speech maintains”

Sri Aurobindo translates as “Alpha of all letters the first”.

Read the essay (PDF again) for some more examples contrasting Sri Aurobindo’s approach and others in dealing with Tirukkural.

I posted a comment on the Dialogos site about my views on literary translation. Yes, I do know its presumptuous to put my views in a post where Nabokov, Borges and Sri Aurobindo are mentioned..but hey, my Master is a tad lenient at such things 😉

Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

So what do you think? Any strong views?

Note: Okay, I know this is not the most pressing issue for mankind's problems...but..damn..will shut up now!

Sediments of Legacy

Our works are our legacy. How we think about it matters to those who do anything worth doing. And here is Steve Jobs mulling about legacy.

Absolutely love the way he frames the ephemerality of technology based creations, as compared to great works of Art or Sculptures.

From one perspective it is a given that our life’s work in technology will be lost to what comes after it. Your MyMasterpiece version 1.0, will last until version 2.0 comes about. But it is also true that a game changer of the future stands on the foundations that your, now forgotten, MyMasterpiece version 1.0 had laid.

And so it is with all of life right. Yet we must build, create, sing, dance and become. What are you doing with the time given to you?

(via Daring Fireball)

Stephen Fry on Language

Stephen Fry’s soliloquy on Language and pedants who play spoilsport. Beautifully animated by Mathew Rogers.

How Not to Do Content Recommendation

Good intentions are sunk by bad copywriting. LinkedIn sent me this a little while ago. I did not click a single one of these “Influencer Summer Guides”.

LinkedIn-Content Recommendations Not

 

First that repetition of “on the best” made me cringe. They could have put the original titles, if there were any. I don’t care about value of content behind those links, bad post titles, especially from large networks like LinkedIn, should not be rewarded. Else the system (both machines and/or the humans behind them) would generate more such ‘content recommendation‘ junk.

The “Top 10 Blog Post Title Patterns of All Time” school of copywriting & content generation has gone out of control.

Sure, to gain audience you might have to resort to these tricks..but damn this is LinkedIn! They have a large global audience and have supposed influencers..could they not attempt something original? Why perpetuate the mediocrity?

Doing a Startup? Here is one way to maintain focus

Am sure this is familiar to anyone in startup mode. Endless possibilities, danger of losing focus at every turn and no sight of a home. Homer, poet of Ancient Greece, shows how Odysseus, the hero of Odyssey, maintains his focus.

Situation

Odysseus is trying to get home. His immediate problem is to navigate along with his men beyond the Sirens, maidens of beauty and heart wrenching songs. Those who heard the Sirens abandoned prudence and rushed to rocky coasts.

Solution?

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper

Odysseus has his team’s ears blocked with beeswax, preventing them from hearing the Siren’s song. A song of unbearable longing that lures sailors, only to dash their ships to doom on treacherous seas. Odysseus is curious to hear the song, but is pragmatic enough not to trust himself, hence has himself tied to the ship’s mast. So the team is not distracted and he is tied to his purpose, literally in this case.

Thus, the team row their way past the Sirens. Odysseus survives the Siren’s call to doom by being firm in his commitment and a little foresight.

So, if you are working on your startup, be open to possibilities, both benign and malicious. But commit yourself to a schedule, a plan or your original vision. Do not heed every call to new opportunities and change course. Trust your intuition and keep moving. Beware unbelievably nice possibilities. And keep yourselves focussed on execution.

Makes sense?

xx—xx

What did we do with such focus? CollabLayer is what we did. A cloud-based collaboration tool that enables collaborative content consumption, discussions in context and rapid discovery of insight. If your work involves reviewing, sharing and discussing digital content with a team, you should really check it out. Free during beta and you can always take your data back. Learn about motivations behind CollabLayer. Or head here to Signup.

This is our Signature. And it means everything.

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.

How it makes someone feel.
Will it make life better?
Does it deserve to exist?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches.

You may rarely look at it.
But you’ll always feel it.

This is our signature.
And it means everything.

My iPhone 4S drowned around 5 months back. Not wanting to spend a ton of cash on an iPhone, I took another route. I opted for a Windows Phone, a Lumia 820. I could handle it for a few months.

About two weeks back, I had enough. I had enough compromising on my own design and aesthetic sensibilities, enough compromising on what I valued and enjoyed in any device I used. I gave in and bought an iPhone 5. If there is one thing I have noticed that good engineering is not just about features, it is primarily what informed the design thinking of the creators, it is about what they wanted to evoke in you every time you used their creation.

Now, more than ever, I utterly understand what Apple means by “You may rarely look at it. But you will always feel it”, every damn time I lift the phone and use any of the apps.

Other platforms can try their best to cram features, add bigger screens, be first to add a visual idiom etc. But most do not understand whatever deep design-based thinking can accomplish can only be bettered by superior design thinking. Without it one builds castles in sand.

Make Good Music with Shankar Tucker via Kickstarter

And no, it does not involve learning an instrument, practicing it for 10,000 hours and being visited by the muses. Just support Shankar Tucker via Kickstarter!

Before we get to the how, do sample what sort of music am talking about here.

“Jaane Kaise” – Shankar Tucker ft. Shashwat Singh (A Cappella)

“Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo” – Shankar Tucker ft. Rohini Ravada

 

So if that appeals to your musical sensibilities, there is awesome news for you..Shankar Tucker, a musician from the US, trained in Western Classical and Indian Musical styles has launched a Kickstarter project. Below is the introduction.

Am going to support this project.

Shanker via his Shrutibox YouTube channel has given me untold amount of joy and I sincerely hope with our support he can make this project happen. Visit the Kickstarter project and sponsor his effort, we need people like him to bring out more India inspired music out.

And am curious to know which of Shankar’s songs are your favorites. This rendition of Bharatiyar’s song, or this one completely move me.