“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
Nobody imagined anything of Alan Turing, born this day in 1912, but achieved the inconceivable task of breaking the “Enigma” cypher used by Nazi Germany.
His story is eloquently portrayed in the Oscar winning film, “The Imitation Game.” It is a movie about unorthodoxy (a common theme here as essentially the embrace of failure to conform)…
- Unorthodox approaches to solving problems
- Unorthodox managerial talent selection
- Unorthodox sexual preference
- Unorthodox gender roles in the workplace
It is literally a heroic tale of how unorthodoxy battles convention to do little less than save the world. Unorthodox approaches saved western civilization, but did become his undoing in an age decades before Gay Pride Month celebrated those differences rather than tormented them.
Turing’s left a legacy of many dimensions. Of course, there is his historical legacy of cracking the enigma machine. He also left a scientific legacy as little less than the father of modern computer science. But my favourite is his philosophical legacy which will becoming more and more relevant in the age of increasing automation – the “Turing Test”. This subject is also explored in films like “I Robot” as well as the new hit TV series “Humans”.
The test was of true “machine intelligence” which specified that machine could only be deemed “intelligent” if a human submitted questions to it and another human. The tester would receive answers back, but he or she would not know whether the answers were from the machine or from the human. The machine would “pass” if the tester couldn’t figure out merely from the content of the answers which one was the machine.
Turing alludes to the test in the film’s interview with the Manchester police officer. He notes that one of the tricks to finding out a machine is that they don’t make mistakes. Maybe our failures will be the one thing that keeps us human.
- “[A comic strip] has to be drawn well enough, not perfectly. No one goes to a rock concert because the band is in tune. They have to be close enough to not be distracting, but being in tune isn’t the point…As creators, our pursuit of perfection might be misguided, particularly if it comes at the expense of the things that matter.” – No one reads a comic strip because it’s drawn well
Happy Birthday Scott. Scott Adams doesn’t just write about embracing failure, but he walks the walk. The quote above embraces his failure to do award-winning drawing. He takes a similarly positive view about the “oops” that he makes regularly in his writing…
- “I’m well-suited for drawing comics and writing blog posts because I can erase/delete/adjust a thousand times before the public sees it. I’d be bad at, for example, walking a tightrope across a canyon or doing brain surgery. Those professions don’t respond well to ‘oops.’ I use this blog to practice my writing, try different styles, float ideas, and generally get into the heads of the public. It’s a bad idea in my profession to assume I know what other people want to read. I can only know for sure what is in my own head. And as a general rule, the people who go into my line of work don’t think like normal citizens, for better or worse. So I take a business approach to writing; I test different styles and topics, observe the reactions, and adjust accordingly.” – “About the Bear Thing”
- “Forge meaning, build identity, forge meaning and build identity. That became my mantra. Forging meaning is about changing yourself. Building identity is about changing the world.” – Andrew Solomon
Today is the first day of Gay Pride Month. With the recent gay marriage referendum landslide in Ireland, one of the most conservative Christian countries of the world, the LGBT community has lots to be proud of and celebrate this month.
Andrew Solomon’s TED talk, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are”, lucidly articulates the many challenges the LGBT world faces on a daily basis. What is apropos in this blog are his perspectives on how his strength of character forged these difficulties onto positives…
- “My last book was about how families manage to deal with various kinds of challenging or unusual offspring, and one of the mothers I interviewed, who had two children with multiple severe disabilities, said to me, ‘People always give us these little sayings like, ‘God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle,’ but children like ours are not preordained as a gift. They’re a gift because that’s what we have chosen. We make those choices all our lives.”
- “We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe that it’s purposeful. Ease makes less of an impression on us than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning. ‘Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities," St. Paul wrote in Second Corinthians, ‘for when I am weak, then I am strong."
- “I would have had an easier life if I were straight, but I would not be me, and I now like being myself better than the idea of being someone else, someone who, to be honest, I have neither the option of being nor the ability fully to imagine. But if you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes, and we become attached to the heroic strain in our own lives.”
From failures of the ages, to the “Age of Failure”. According to no less an authority than the New York Times, it’s not just time to embrace failure, but embracing failure is a theme of our times – “Welcome to the Failure Age!“…
- “For decades, entrepreneurs and digital gurus of various repute have referred to this era, in a breathlessness bordering on proselytizing, as the age of innovation. But Weird Stuff is a reminder of another, unexpected truth about innovation: It is, by necessity, inextricably linked with failure. The path to any success is lined with disasters. Most of the products that do make it out of the lab fail spectacularly once they hit the market. Even successful products will ultimately fail when a better idea comes along. (One of Schuetz’s most remarkable finds is a portable eight-track player.) And those lucky innovations that are truly triumphant, the ones that transform markets and industries, create widespread failure among their competition… An age of constant invention naturally begets one of constant failure… Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves and in promising careers turned stagnant…”
The New York Times piece showcases a true temple to failure, “Weird Stuff” which is a “27,000-square-foot facility just down the block from Yahoo…A 21-person company that buys the office detritus that start-ups no longer want.” It riffles through the detritus of downfalls like portable 8-track players and disused partitions.
It also chronicles the human history of the “failure loop” which is becoming faster and faster in recent times. With every turn of the loop, new supplants old with life enhancing productivity and capability but also with displacing and painful disruption…
- “Our breakneck pace of innovation can be seen in stock-market volatility and other boardroom metrics, but it can also be measured in unemployment checks, in divorces and involuntary moves and in promising careers turned stagnant. Every derelict product that makes its way into Weird Stuff exists as part of a massive ecosystem of human lives — of engineers and manufacturers; sales people and marketing departments; logistics planners and truck drivers — that has shared in this process of failure.”
“A smooth sea never made a talented mariner” – English proverb
One historical figure who must have appreciated the meaning of isolated insignificance is adventurer Ernest Shackleton. Stranded in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic. Featured as a part of National Geographic’s article “Famous Failures”…
- “Failure—never sought, always dreaded, impossible to ignore—is the specter that hovers over every attempt at exploration. Yet without the sting of failure to spur us to reassess and rethink, progress would be impossible….Today there is growing recognition of the importance of failure. Educators ponder how to make kids more comfortable with it. Business schools teach its lessons. Psychologists study how we cope with it, usually with an eye toward improving the chance of success. Indeed, the very word ‘success’ is derived from the Latin succedere, ‘to come after’ —and what it comes after, yes, is failure. One cannot exist without the other. Oceanographer Robert Ballard, a veteran of 130 undersea expeditions and discoverer of the Titanic, calls this interplay the yin yang of success and failure. Even at their most miserable, failures provide information to help us do things differently next time. “I learned how not to climb the first four times I tried to summit Everest,” says alpinist Pete Athans, who’s reached the world’s highest peak seven times. ‘Failure gives you a chance to refine your approach. You’re taking risks more and more intelligently.’ In his case this meant streamlining his team and choosing less challenging routes for his first successful ascent, in 1990. Failure is also a reminder that luck plays a role in any endeavour.”
Today marks the day when he overcame incalculable odds to return back to South Georgia in a row boat after his ship Endurance had been crushed by Antarctic sea ice epically described in the video above.
World Astronomy Day today is the ideal opportunity to embrace our collective insignificance with a simple glimpse to the heavens. Or if you don’t have one at hand, here are a couple of very handy guided desktop tours the vastness of the universe around us…
- “A Lesson I Perspective. On September 3rd, 2003, the Hubble Space Telescope began pointing its camera at a small area in the night sky. The area, about a tenth the size of the full moon, appeared to be complete blackness with no stars visible to the naked eye…This is what the Hubble saw [see photo above]…from what looked like NOTHING.” – “Proof That We Are Really Insignificant”
- “Justin, as a father of six you have to straighten up, son. Last year, you were ranked the fifth most hated person of all time. Kim Jong-Un didn’t rank that low. And he uses your music to torture people.” – Shaq
Sunday roast for you. Roasts have a long tradition of embracing failure with wit and repartee. Comedy Central has made them a feature presentation in recent years with the latest show being last month’s Justin Beiber skewering. Probably the highest profile one of all is the Washington Correspondents Dinner (also just a few weeks ago) where the “most powerful man in the world” is the subject of ridicule and jabs.
Curiously, despite the barrage of jokes and the roastee’s expense, usually the biggest beneficiary of the whole escapade is the person on the hot seat. Taking the ridicule and abuse with poise and humility inspires respect and empathy for even some of the least loved individuals.
- “I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left. After the midterm elections, my advisers asked me ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’ I said, ‘Well, I have something rhymes with bucket list.’ Take executive action on immigration? Bucket. New climate regulations? Bucket.” – President Obama