The Meaning Of Christmas

The Knot Garden wonders how the meaning of Christmas has changed in modern times with the advent of a different type of miracle – technological innovation powered by Moore’s law. The traditional trappings of the religious celebration remain in some diminished way but what do people actually think about during the festive times?

We found ourselves sitting in a local pub yesterday, enjoying a meal in an intimate, well-furnished space. The small dining room was quiet and so, even though we are not eavesdroppers, it was hard to avoid hearing the conversation of the well-to-do couple who sat nearby. Snippets drifted through to our ears in spite of our attempts to shut them out.

I am often struck by how commonplace it is to find that people who exude charm, self-assurance and sophistication spend so much of their time, while ensconced in attractive social settings, discussing matters that are mundane, trivial and unimportant.

The couple’s discourse was of particular interest because it was concerned with Christmas. Their dialogue conveyed, through the manner and tone in which it was conducted, a sense that something profound was being explored. The illusion was shattered, however, when one listened to the actual words.

The confident, well-spoken man and woman were debating nothing more than the buying of Christmas presents, by and for their various family members – and especially their children. The banal intercourse occupied the entire duration of our stay at the inn. At times it became intense, heated even, verging on outright criticism and threatening to degenerate into an argument.

These apparently intelligent, accomplished people were spending their evening trying to figure out who should buy what for whom. Was it acceptable for a daughter to buy such and such a gift for her father? The lady at one point stated petulantly that she would buy the jumper she wanted herself – presumably because nobody else could be persuaded to buy it for her. The talk was highly judgemental and possibly a little manipulative.

That is what Christmas meant for these people. Getting what they wanted and imposing their will on others. If they had placed a proper value on their time they would surely have realised that the cost of their discussions would far exceed the value of the presents that they would receive.

What has happened to the idea of dispensing goodwill to all mankind? This creed surely still finds expression in isolated pockets of humanity but appears to be swamped by commercially-driven considerations. Perhaps, in an inversion of values, the idea of truly giving to others has been replaced by one of egotism and selfishness.

Even as a non-worshipper I can appreciate the generosity of spirit that Christmas should, and sometimes does, bring forth. As I write this I am once again listening to the opening part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the Moteverdi Choir, which truly engenders feelings of joy and exaltation. And so I say unto you, in this season of celebration and compassion, Jauchzet Frohlocket!

The Wrong Kind Of Power

Picture the scene. The terrorists, holed-up with their hostages, are becoming increasingly desperate. At the very moment when all seems lost, the heroic special forces agents burst into the hideaway and all hell breaks loose.

There can only be one outcome to the firefight. Most of the criminals meet a sticky end and their leader is taken into custody. The hostages are reunited with their loving families and their rescuers stagger into the sunlight, blinking and clutching their wounds, to receive the adulation of those who are dear to them.

Unless you are a hermit, you will probably have watched such scenes played out many times at the cinema or on television. Perhaps you got caught up in the emotional artifice that film makers employ and you were surely drawn to the star actors. You may be forgiven for overlooking the surprising fact that the gun is the true box office star for these lurid screenings, a truth recognised by Abigail Disney.

Why do so many people love guns? Especially Americans? The United States, whose Constitutional Second Amendment opens the door to gun ownership – in the interests of freedom, you understand – has nearly 90 firearms per 100 residents. That is almost one gun per member of the population. Enough to equip every baby with an AK-47, should the law be changed to bring the minimum age for ownership down. As a percentage of all unlawful homicides, gun-related killings in the US are 14 times higher than they are in the UK.

The civilians of most countries are not allowed to own firearms. But crowds will nevertheless flock to cinemas to revel in the firearm-wrought carnage around which the latest blockbuster revolves.

You may think that guns confer power on those who wield them. And in a way they do. But it is a base, cowardly sort of power born out of anger, hatred and a twisted psyche. Guns are crude weapons that have a single purpose – to kill a person or force them to act against their will under threat of killing them. What sort of belief system does such perverted motivation have at its core?

You might believe, based on your visits to the cinema, that guns are an indispensable force for good in the hands of law enforcement officers and soldiers when dealing with criminals. Chris Voss’s engaging book “Never Split The Difference” paints a different picture. It highlights the innate superiority – on many levels –  of the subtle and patient use of empathy over the brute force of firearms. Voss writes with the authority you would expect from someone who worked as the FBI’s chief international hostage negotiator for many years.

The psychology of negotiation, a subject of fundamental importance spanning all areas of our daily lives, perhaps does not make good viewing on the big screen. Unless, of course, it is augmented with gunfire-induced mayhem.

The Knot Garden understands that uninventing things (the verb, tellingly, does not actually exist in many dictionaries) is very much more difficult than inventing them. And it believes that, as we might consider the pen to be mightier than the sword, the tongue is infinitely more powerful than the gun.

 

Vision

Arabella awakens suddenly, rudely dragged into consciousness by the harsh metallic greeting of her alarm or the piercing cry of her young child – she cannot remember which came first. It is dark outside and freezing within.

On waking, Arabella’s head starts to fill with a familiar anxiety. The plumbing is broken, the stack of unpaid bills mocks her silently from the hall table and her unfaithful husband, now estranged, continues to make ludicrously unreasonable demands, treating her with contempt. She is sailing a stormy sea in a boatload of worries.

Arabella slowly and deliberately pushes the bothersome thoughts away in the manner of a hostess dismissing unwelcome guests. The unruly intruders will need to take their place at the back of the queue, making room for more constructive agents.

How is she able to deal with such an array of distractions? Arabella has a vision. She has been building it for a few years, nurturing it but keeping it hidden from the malicious eyes of others who like nothing more than to heap scorn on people’s dreams.

Arabella’s model of a future world, fabricated entirely from her imagination and built upon her beliefs and aspirations, drives her forward against formidable headwinds.

Perhaps our vision defines us more than any other aspect of our life. It is surely more important than our present circumstances, that superficial set of conditions by which others are quick to judge us. The unseen is truly a greater force than the outwardly visible, displayed in broad daylight for all with an eye for such things to see.

Our vision is inseparable from our soul and determines our character. As it gradually evolves we can ask ourselves some insightful questions. What belief system lies at its core? How well are we living up to the principles it embodies? How constant is the vision – does it maintain its form, glowing ever brighter or does it oscillate like a wayward child and fade one day only to grow bright again the next? And, most important of all, to what extent are we manifesting it in our life?

You might think that the most powerful visions are based on a single, laser-focused goal. I believe instead that they are composed of multiple elements that represent a set of mutually reinforcing themes, acting in concert to create an integrated system.

The Knot Garden understands that the greatest visions ultimately make a lasting contribution to humankind. They have at their centre the ideal of permanent value creation. Surely nothing can be more fulfilling than that?

Cycles Of Life And Emotion

The path of continuous improvement is always far from level. In spite of our aspirations to flatten the contours, the breakthroughs and setbacks arrive in groups, like the red buses that convey me from Streatham Hill to Brixton.

In parallel to the cycles of fortune and misfortune that weave their way as unbroken threads through our lives, we experience waves of emotion that are to some extent concomitant.

Emotions are powerful forces in our lives. They can be constructive or destructive depending on how we handle them. It is not just a question of whether the emotion is “positive”, as joy, love and optimism are generally perceived, or “negative”, as in the case of anger, fear, guilt or hatred. If we know how to respond, we can derive as much – or even more  – value from the latter than the former.

How can this be true? Can guilt, with all its destructive potential, really be a benevolent agent? Instead of allowing the sharpened chisel of guilt to gouge pieces out of our soul and the blunt instrument of shame to bludgeon it mercilessly, we can adopt a different perspective. By treating these apparently pernicious emotions as assets, we can use them to build our character.

In order to do this, we need to understand and control our emotions. Guilt and shame offer us a valuable opportunity – the opportunity of forgiveness. As The Knot Garden does not recognise the need to practise forgiveness of others, as it does not apply blame to them, we need only consider here the act of forgiveness in relation to oneself.

Guilt is serious stuff. It should not be ignored or taken lightly. Whereas anger must be controlled, we should strive to eliminate guilt in its entirety, otherwise it will fester deep inside us as a malignant sore, sucking up more and more of our energy. Unlike anger, which is usually a short term phenomenon, guilt requires persistent effort to overcome. To remove guilt and other malevolent feelings, we have to understand their cause. As with a serious illness, treating the symptoms will cause us to neglect the source.

If we examine our guilt in earnest, rather than being repelled by it, we will discover what lies at its root. We can then take well-directed action to improve the way we live, reinforcing the principles and values that we have placed at the centre of our belief system. Rather than attacking the guilt head-on, we can erode it by re-asserting our beliefs.

The Knot Garden considers the so-called negative emotions to be signposts directing us to aspects of our life that need attention, in the same way that pain makes us aware of physical and physiological issues.

If we can be the master of our emotions, smoothing out the cycles rather than making futile attempts to eliminate them altogether, we can remain attuned to our belief system. If we allow them to get the upper hand however, they will run riot and cause havoc in our lives.

In Whom We Trust

Someone once expressed in a book the idea that the love of money is the root of all evil. If this is true then politicians, central bankers and, before them, monarchs must have proven themselves virtuous beyond measure through their acts of monetary debasement.

The spectacular rise of cryptocurrencies compels us to ask the question “What is money?”. I wonder how many people reflect on the purpose of money and its true nature. I do so frequently because I consider money to be one of the most fundamentally vital elements in our society. It is truly the lifeblood of any nation because it enables commerce and enterprise.

According to conventional wisdom, money has three primary functions, each of which is universally understood. It serves as a medium of exchange, a store of value and a unit of account. In order to deliver these services, money must have certain attributes. The most important of these are stability, because that is the bedrock on which trust is built and universal acceptance, which flows from that trust.

On the face of it, fiat currencies are stable and universally accepted while cryptocurrencies are not. But if you take a longer term view it is clear that pounds, dollars, yen and euros lose their purchasing power over time through the corrupt operations of those we have elected as their custodians. By contrast, it is notable that the bitcoin, of which five thousand were required a few years ago to buy a pizza, are now worth a thousand pizza’s each.

The emergence of cryptocurrencies is being driven by two powerful forces – firstly the betrayal of trust by the operators, driven by greed, of the world’s banking systems and secondly the accelerating juggernaut of technology, which refuses to abandon Moore’s Law.

The volatility of cryptocurrencies and their low level of acceptance prevent them from serving the purpose of money at present. But this will gradually change as more people develop an awareness of the power of the blockchain and understand the advantages that it can provide in the areas of security, reliability, efficiency and cost effectiveness. Banks and other influential institutions are already taking tentative steps to invest in the new technology.

It remains to be seen whether one or more cryptocurrencies will replace the form of money that is widely used today, which is controlled by governments, banks and the other intermediaries who muddy the waters of finance. The infrastructure is still early in its development and the altcoin markets are a long way from shedding their wild west image.

The Knot Garden believes that people will ultimately prefer money that is digitally “mined” in strictly limited quantities to that which is spewed out in torrents from the printing press at the whim of bankers. The replacement of fiat currencies by their cryptographic equivalents will result from a long term shift in faith from the powerful authorities who manipulate our money supply to the distributed networks of private enterprises that operate the blockchain.

Wealth And Motivation

There is a sharp irony hidden in the actions of those who indulge in conspicuous consumption. The process of self-aggrandisement is intended to demonstrate the importance of the individual concerned to the world at large. A more accurate interpretation would be precisely the opposite – that they are actually diminishing their true worth by acting in this way.

I remember watching a television programme about so-called successful entrepreneurs, which reported on the spending habits of one wealthy businessman, a serial collector of Rolls Royce motor cars. It was not simply a matter of the number of vehicles. Each one had to be unique and special, differentiated from the “ordinary” versions of the vehicle by some sort of extravagant embellishment that served no practical purpose.

People who engage in such levels of ostentation reveal their motivation openly. They have chosen to use their wealth to create an impression of social prestige, power and celebrity. These are hallmarks of the cult of personality rather than the character building ethic. “Look at me” they say, “I am better than you – more successful, more important, more powerful”.

The Knot Garden prefers the approach employed by Andrew Carnegie, who spent the latter years of his life disposing of ninety per cent of his considerable, self-made fortune through philanthropic projects. Such a model of wealth deployment has inspired the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, who are likewise working for the benefit of others through their foundation.

There is no law or moral code that requires the quantity of wealth owned by an individual to be balanced by their sense of public duty. And yet such symmetry is surely a highly desirable characteristic of financial success.

Those who exhibit profligacy in their affairs are guilty of wasting time, money and opportunity. Instead of working to improve the world in which they live, giving something back, they are merely constructing a graven image. They are telling us that they have chosen shallowness instead of value creation. Acts of apparent generosity towards their children, whom they shower with expensive trinkets, are more likely to hinder the personal development of the recipient rather than promoting it. And so these, too, turn out to be selfish gestures.

The Knot Garden believes in wealth as a power for good. For this to work, the individual must develop a well balanced outlook in which the industry that they direct in acquiring their riches is ultimately matched by their resolve to enrich the lives of others. As with nobility, wealth brings with it responsibility. If we cannot recognise this then we are lost, regardless of the trappings of success.

When Tradition And Technology Meet

For those who are interested in technological innovation, we are living in exciting times. We are witnessing the emergence of an electronic tour de force that will transform commerce. Enabled by the Internet, it will change forever the manner in which wealth is stored and transactions are conducted.

This invention is the blockchain, brainchild of the cryptographic mastermind known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The mystery surrounding his (or her) identity is reminiscent of the question in the opening of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged: “Who is John Galt?”.  Nobody knows. But we will discover in time the immense value of their contribution.

My understanding of blockchain is rudimentary, to say the least. However that does not prevent me from glimpsing its potential. While I improve my technical knowledge I will assess its importance to mankind against the fundamental principles on which we build our belief systems. This may sound a bit excessive for an entity considered by many to be a fad or a fraud and by others as a device for facilitating criminal transactions. It is nonetheless important that we do not lose sight of the tenets by which we live.

Rather than simply getting caught up in the cryptocurrency feeding frenzy, we should ask “how can the blockchain improve our lives?” and before that “what is the fundamental nature of the blockchain?”. One answer, based on my very basic level of understanding, would be that it is decentralised, unregulated, secure and (at least potentially) efficient and cost-effective. We can therefore postulate that the blockchain might address the concerns of those who contend that governments, central banks and retail banks have too much control over our money and are debasing the currency through their meddling.

You may believe that cryptocurrencies are based on nothing more substantial than thin air – a notion perhaps reinforced by the name of the entity known as Ether, the fuel for the promising Etherium platform. But that is not necessarily so. The Royal Mint, that venerable British institution that has its origins in the ninth century, has announced the imminent introduction of a new form of digital gold, implemented using blockchain technology, called the “RMG”. This offering combines ownership and deliverability of the physical precious metal with the security of a cryptocurrency.

I wonder what Isaac Newton, who introduced the Gold Standard during his wardenship of The Royal Mint,  would have made of this? Given his forward looking nature, creative mind, mathematical prowess and his undoubted interest in cryptology, I think he would have approved.

The direction taken by The Royal Mint should be considered an endorsement for the blockchain. Furthermore, The Knot Garden pays attention when tradition and technology meet in order to collaborate on important themes. And, unless you live in a tent or a monastery and completely reject the  material world, few themes are more important than the nature of money.

Fear Is Good

Imagine that you are invited into a room prior to participating in an important event and told that you will be given one second to make a choice between two states of mind that you can adopt in preparation for the occasion. You wonder whether the two options will be optimism and pessimism but they turn out to be subtly different from these polar extremes.

After a brief period for composing yourself, following a countdown displayed in big red numbers on a digital clock, a red curtain is rapidly drawn back to reveal the two mindsets. You are given the briefest of opportunities to select your preferred emotional profile. If you take longer than a second you will be penalised and if you pause for more than three seconds, procrastinating over the decision, you will be disqualified from participating in the event.

Card A on the left bears the words “Arrogance and Complacency” while card B on the right reads “Fear and Ignorance”.  You hesitate for a fraction of a second before pressing button B. Based on my own experience, this would be the better choice by far. But why?

Fear is a constructive emotion provided that you do not allow it to overwhelm you. You must, of course, control your fear so that you are able to deal effectively with the root cause. As everyone knows, the antidote to fear is action. The alternative is paralysis. Fear is your friend because it alerts you to something that requires your attention in the same way that pain does. Show it your gratitude, as you would a stranger who, when passing by, gives you a valuable piece of information.

If you never feel fear in your life, it may be that you lack awareness or have no true purpose. Perhaps you are not living at all, at least in any meaningful way. You will certainly be opening the door to the evil twins Arrogance and Complacency.

Ignorance too is a powerful force for good in your life if you offer it the same courtesy that we have advocated for fear, recognising the opportunities for discovery and exploration that it offers. My own ignorance is both broad and deep. I welcome the massive dark holes in my learning like old friends who I greet in the gloomy night with a powerful torch. Can you imagine being ignorant of Beethoven’s symphonies and grasping the opportunity to embark on such a journey of enlightenment?

Arrogance and complacency will dull your senses, convincing you that you are the master of your circumstances and need not exert yourself. Their cosy embrace will prevent you from seeing the danger that lurks out of sight, diligently waiting to ambush you. Your good intentions and self-confidence will prove to be inadequate armour.

The Knot Garden believes that a little fear is a good thing, provided that you experience it as a natural effect of a challenging endeavour. Ignorance too. We must acknowledge that they bring us valuable messages, to which we must respond effectively before cheerily waving them on their way.

Separation And Reinforcement

In a fortuitous turn of events, shortly after coming up with the skeleton of an idea for this week’s post I happened upon a physical manifestation of the abstract theme that I was working on.

For this nugget of serendipity I had a loathsome television commercial to thank which, going beyond the normal degree of irritation engendered by advertisements, compelled me to switch channels. In doing so, I was transported from a fantasy world of Tolkien’s making to the fifteenth century of the Ming Dynasty.

The documentary itself, whose subject was The Forbidden City, was interesting enough but one particular passage had me mesmerised. A wooden structural building component known as a dougong, invented in China more than two thousand years ago, was the subject of a remarkable experiment. In a simulation of a powerful earthquake, a scale model of one of The Forbidden City’s fifteenth century timber framed buildings was stress tested on a shake table.

As the power of the artificial earthquake was cranked up the walls of the building disintegrated. The intensity was increased until a reading equivalent to more than ten on the Richter scale was reached, equivalent to the explosive force of more than fifteen thousand megatons of TNT. This magnitude exceeds that of the strongest recorded earthquake. At the conclusion of the test the wooden frame, incredibly, remained standing and intact.

Apart from the aesthetic beauty of the complex structure of the dougong, I was struck by the elegant design principle that makes it so resilient to major seismic events. The interlocking wooden parts fit together in an intricate and ingenious manner, connecting the wooden pillars to the roof beams securely but with enough play between them to allow flexibility. The slightly loose coupling permits a small degree of movement between the components, allowing the frame to absorb shocks very effectively while keeping the vertical and horizontal members tied together.

So how does this relate to my abstract theme? The idea postulates that we can live our lives to greatest effect if we devote our time to a small number of related activities that strongly reinforce each other and yet remain independent. In this way, any setback suffered by one area of endeavour will not impact the others.

This is in line with The Knot Garden’s belief that we should maintain a fine balance between the the key elements of our life such that they are bound to each other tightly enough to provide mutual support but loosely enough to preserve the integrity of the whole when we are tested by adversity.

Control, Persuasion And Collaboration

It started out as a routine workshop during the early stages of a short, intense project with a “hard” deadline. After a while it became clear to me that nobody other than myself knew how to deliver the solution within the challenging timeframe.

The analyst who represented the customer and the project manager appointed by the software company, both good and competent people, were aligned in their desire to set off down the wrong road – one with a deadly hidden cliff at its end. I had visited such places before and knew of the dangers. When faced with unrealistic targets it is surprising how many professionals rush towards the perceived safety of the waterfall, only to discover too late its treacherous nature.

The business analyst expressed a view that seemed to be borne out of a clear set of orders that she had received: “We must deliver X quantity of these, complete and fully working, by date Y”. The project manager took a similarly premature view of delivery but with a slightly different perspective. “We need to discuss the project schedule in detail so that we can set realistic delivery dates”.

As is so often the case for such projects, the gap between the customer’s required delivery date and the supplier’s proposed completion point was massive. This is a common problem in the world of Information Technology. Schedules are constructed at the outset using wishful thinking and incomplete knowledge of the system to be built. This is why Agile approaches were developed.

The mismatch in expectations results from the lack of a detailed understanding of the customer’s requirements. The solution is simple. Working collaboratively with the customer, learn as much as possible in the shortest time about what needs to be delivered. Do this by implementing a single, carefully chosen set of user interactions during workshops involving small numbers of key participants. Aim to complete all of the required data mappings during the process.

And now to the crux of the matter. How should one influence the course of events based on a certain knowledge of what needs to be done? I am not a control freak. But sometimes it is necessary to persuade people that you know a better way forward. Rather than imposing my view on those others involved, I invest time in explaining why my path should be considered for adoption.

The Knot Garden believes that it sometimes makes sense to lead others gently but firmly in a certain direction. But this should only ever be done with their willing co-operation. In this way we can still move forward in a collaborative fashion, with individuals feeling that their contribution is valued, rather than by the application of brute force. We leave the business of controlling others to the Wellingtons who lead an army and must defeat a Napoleon on the battlefield.

This principle opens the door to a wider discussion of the important but profound question of control. We will explore the subject in depth over time but for will be content to reflect on a simple proposition. As The Knot Garden puts it, learn to control yourself completely first and then resolve to control events only to the extent that is necessary. Do not seek to control others but rather help them to see other ways of reaching their goals.