Freely Sharing Information

I’m three quarters of my way through a book called Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal, a book on leadership, organisational structure, and a way of thinking that’s so insightful I can’t wait to finish reading just so I can start from the beginning again. Other than the Nassim Taleb books I don’t think there’s been another book that’s had as much of an impact on my thinking.

There are tons of interesting insights in the book, many of which I’m sure will crop up in some form or another on this blog in the near future. But there’s one that really stood out and gave me plenty of pause, because it reminded me of a way of thinking that I’d parked because I felt my organisation wasn’t ready for it: that we should seriously consider freely sharing information, across hierarchies, and across teams. But maybe I can change that.

An excerpt from the book, setting the scene for just this need:

The problem is that the logic of “need to know” depends on the assumption that somebody—some manager or algorithm or bureaucracy—actually knows who does and does not need to know which material. In order to say definitively that a SEAL ground force does not need awareness of a particular intelligence source, or that an intel analyst does not need to know precisely what happened on any given mission, the commander must be able to say with confidence that those pieces of knowledge have no bearing on what those teams are attempting to do, nor on the situations the analyst may encounter. Our experience showed us this was never the case. More than once in Iraq we were close to mounting capture/kill operations only to learn at the last hour that the targets were working undercover for another coalition entity. The organizational structures we had developed in the name of secrecy and efficiency actively prevented us from talking to each other and assembling a full picture.

A poor workman blames his tools

There is this idiom that goes something like this: a poor workman always blames his tools (a Google search reveals this might be better known as a bad workman always blames his tools, but I digress).

Having grown up with the idiom oft-repeated to me by my mom, its grown to be such an innate part of me that I never quite questioned it — it was just true  and any evidence to the contrary was simply a cop-out, an easy way to push the blame away from one’s lack of skill.

But today the meaning of that idiom changed for me somewhat. Because today, after almost three years of hopelessly chasing a typing speed record on typeracer, I finally came to within a whisker of breaking it. And with so much ease!

It all started when, on a whim, I decided to take a break from work and quite absentmindedly pointed my browser to the typeracer website. It was a game I loved (because I was good at it and because typing is a beautiful skill to be great at) but started to despise due to worsening scores.

(A little aside: the worsening scores started about a year ago after switching to an ASUS Zenbook, a beautiful laptop with an awful keyboard; I’d migrated after my MacBook Pro 2010 conked out and being a little crash-strapped I couldn’t bring myself to splurge on another MacBook (which, by the way, was both beautiful and had an excellent keyboard). I felt the ZenBook’s keyboard was worse, but thought that it was all a matter of “getting used to it” – being a strong believer of the “a poor workman always blames his tools” I just blamed myself for my worsening typing scores: I’m getting old, I thought).

So, as I was saying, I was working on my office computer, a Dell Inspiron E6230 (a seriously serious laptop that looks a tad too pragmatic, like a North Korean computer), when I decided to take a break on typeracer.com.

Within the first few games I played I noticed something different – with relatively ease, I found myself typing above all-out efforts on my Zenbook. My accuracy was up, and so was my raw typing speed. Boom! and boom! Accuracy and raw speed? No way!

Within 10 races I was up to my old MacBook speeds. And within 20, I was above my old MacBook speeds. The keyboard made a huge difference.

And then it dawned on me. It might be true that a poor workman always blames his tools. But that doesn’t mean a great workman cannot blame his tools when it’s called for!

On Facebook’s French Flag – Or: If one needy person, charity is done; if ten, none.

About a month ago what is now known (at least on Wikipedia) as the November 2015 Paris attacks happened, with more than a hundred people killed in mass shootings and suicide bombings.

I vaguely remember first seeing reports on this on Facebook, thinking it was some sort of joke. It was unreal; classified in my head with the other “how can that be true?” events, in the realm of the Boston Marathon bombings; the disappearance of MH370; the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre; and Steve Job’s and Michael Jackson’s deaths, both of whom played a huge part in shaping my childhood.

Over the next couple of days I noticed that many people’s profile pictures were overlayed with the French flag. It was a movement that felt bigger than myself, and I wanted to be a part of that. I did a quick Google search and found that it was easily done. A few clicks and I could get myself a profile picture overlayed with the French flag. Facebook made it really easy.

But I had my doubts. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. Despite my feeling of loss, I knew it was temporary and didn’t want to commit to changing my profile picture for an indefinite length of time – what would it mean to me or anyone? It felt hypocritical to have that overlay longer than the feeling lasted.

The Facebook developers, though, probably thought and felt the same thing. And in what I must say was a masterstroke, they provided users the option to have that overlay be temporary, defaulting to a week (which was exactly the length of time I’d felt was appropriate). That nudged me in the direction of going ahead with the profile picture update.

I must admit, though, that I still had my reservations. It felt, in a way, overtly political, which is something I go out of my way to be not; but at the same time it felt comforting and it gave me the feeling of being part of a bigger collective, a collective saying yeah let’s show the terrorists we won’t be put down.

Yes, I knew that this reeked of slacktivism: it certainly wasn’t the least I could do (i.e. nothing) but it probably wasn’t too far off. But what else could I do? And if it made me feel better without causing others too much distress, why not?

Still, I started to worry: had I done the right thing? I wondered if others would view me as a herd-follower, mindlessly following others because it was trendy or just because. (Just thinking about what I thought others were thinking about me made me second-guess myself — this wasn’t about me so why was I making it about me?)

And seeing many others writing about why they weren’t doing the change made me worry as well, because I’d frankly not thought too much about it (remember the nudge mentioned above? I was on the fence and a silly thing like the Facebook default of a week made me finally do it!)

So I did the only rational thing I could think of and read the arguments of those who were against the overlay (and there were many). From what I gathered, most dissenters were from one of two camps.

The first camp essentially said, “having the French flag on your profile picture is meaningless and a form of slacktivism. It doesn’t do anything and is a pointless exercise.”

The second camp, funnily enough, in effect stated quite the opposite. “Why do we only care so much about France when there are so many other countries suffering similarly? Why should the attacks in France be so special? Because no flags were put up for the other countries, I’m not going to do so for France.” Their act of refusing to take this French flag action seemed to place undue weight on the importance of this exercise.

In the end I bought more into the argument of the first camp. Putting a French flag overlay on your profile picture is a little pointless – I mean, what purpose does it serve? But then again so many of the things we do are like that, but we still do them anyway in the hope that it might make a difference, even if in the smallest of ways. (Reminds me a bit of e-mails that I send out asking for action before a deadline – I know it’s not going to happen before then, that people being people will dally and deadlines will be pushed back. But still I do it, in the hope that deadlines might one day be met.)

The second camp reminded me a bit of how charity works. If I see a single beggar I might decide to give a coin. If I see ten, I avoid them like the plague. If I gave one of them one, I would then have to give to the others. And if I couldn’t, then it wouldn’t be fair to those who receive nothing. So I just avoid giving altogether. But this just makes me feel like a prick, and keeps them all feeling hungry.

In the end though, there did seem to be common thread. A theory that unified both seemingly disparate camps. Other than the fact that those who wrote about it tended to be a little more political, I realised that if the campaign wasn’t as successful as it had been, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Because nobody would’ve cared, and neither would I.

For every mindless Facebook user who applied the overlay (me included), there was a dilution of (political?) meaning (though it seemed to me to somewhat increase the feeling of solidarity and community). In the end, the more political among us probably found that making a greater statement was to not have an overlay, but to write about why not to have an overlay.

On the Why only France Question

I want to address separately the “why only France” question though, because this did stump me a little bit. I sort of got this argument at an intuitive level – France is no more or less special than other countries that had been attacked, and having it elevated to such a “special” status can be irksome feel horribly unfair.

But, like a number of commentators have mentioned, one big difference is that the attack in France was so rare and unlikely that it shocked us. A bombing in Israel or Palestine (or the general “Middle East”) seems like a once-a-week affair. Horrible as it is, it’s not unexpected and doesn’t make the news. When it happens in France, it does.

And if you ask me which makes me sadder, the deaths in Israel/Palestine/Middle East or France, I must admit it’s France. Not because I think France is greater in any way, but because I relate more to the French. I know more about them, have dreams of vacationing there, and find them more relatable because they seem more like me.

I remember the Boston Marathon bombings hitting me especially hard. Being an avid runner myself, one who aspired (still do, sometimes) to one day run the Boston Marathon, reading about the bombings made me literally sick. For weeks I felt down, and running just didn’t give me the same high. I would look at images of runners with severed limbs and ask myself what for do we run so hard?
It felt like my family was being attacked; it felt like me being attacked.

If most of the Facebook community looks like they’re treating non-Western countries unfairly, it might just be because most of its users are from Western countries, and people tend to sympathise more strongly with people from similar cultures, people who are more like them. It’s just the way we are.

And if Facebook itself does it, as a for-profit company seeking to make its users happy (so they return and drive its revenue), should we be too surprised?

One problem with success

One problem with success is that if you get too much of it before you’re ready, you’ll never dare to try again. Having enjoyed the glory of success, it doesn’t make sense to negate that glory through a subsequent attempt that might end with failure.

 

The place for the polymath. Because there's too many good things in life to be great at just one thing.