Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Accidental Mind: Fascinating Book

Judging by the podcasts I am listening to, this is a very interesting book and topic about brain evolution:

Passing the Impasse: Inviting the Religious and Non-Religious to Participate Together

Note: the following is the beginning to something I want to create to help get religious and non-religious people working together, not against each other, to solve problems in the world. What I envision is a group similar to the Interfaith Youth Corps of Chicago that engages people in community service projects primarily, with an optional component that allows people to discuss their differences through civil discussion without any pressure or expectations.


Throughout my life I have been fascinated by two subjects more than any other: science and religion.

I did not grow up religious. At a very young age I learned about science and critical thinking by watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on television. Sagan never, to my knowledge, discounted or belittled religion. He seemed to consider himself an agnostic to the ultimate question as to whether a supernatural being exists or not. However, he never did shy away from putting claims about phenomena in the physical world to the test of reason.

Looking around our world we see several major religious traditions, and countless other smaller ones. Within each major tradition are sects with their own beliefs and practices. It seems that each of these traditions consider themselves correct and others wrong. Could it really be that there is one correct path and all the others are wrong? My own position is simple. My belief is that no one has all the right answers. That certainly includes me. But, when people practice a religion, they often form strong communities based on the ideals of love and shared values. They draw strength from the religion's rich stories, teachings, parables, and guidance for both the old and young. Yet, religions change too. In the Christian gospel accounts, Jesus continually questioned the Jewish religious leaders of the day, leading ultimately to a new religion founded upon his teachings.

Therefore, shouldn't religious people of today continue to question popular religious traditions and practices the same way Jesus did?

Now, what about science? Do the scientists have it all correct? Hardly. In fact, true science is based upon the idea that hypotheses must be tested by multiple independent people and in multiple ways before they become accepted as well established theories. Einstein's theories have been corroborated time and again by experimental evidence. Does that mean that Einstein's theories are complete? No, it does not. It means that they can predict observable behavior accurately under a given set of circumstances. But, there is more research that has to be done before his theories and quantum mechanics can be reconciled. Even then, we may never have a complete and final understanding of how nature operates.

Therefore, shouldn't scientists continually questions ideas and theories the same way Einstein did?

We all know that there are many scientists who are religious, some who even hold to fairly traditional and literal interpretations of many religious texts. Francis Collins is a prime example of someone likely to be known to many. We also all know that there have been many books published recently from prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that aim to show that science is superior to religion. So, who is correct?

Once again, neither "camp" is correct about everything. There are some things religious people are correct about, and some things that non-religious people are correct about. Life is almost always like this. One side is very seldom entirely correct and just as seldom entirely incorrect.

Personally, I am an agnostic atheist in the following sense: I do not believe that any human being has ever, or could ever, claim to know the absolute truth about the ultimate nature of reality. In this sense, I reject all claims that any particular religion is "correct" about God and therefore I reject all human conceptualizations of God. Mystics of all faiths have come to much the same conclusion. I am not just making this up. To speak about it without jargon, they essentially state that any idea or conceptualization we could hold in our finite, human brain, by definition, cannot be God. A thought is a thing. Mystics say God is not a thing.

However, I am agnostic to the proposition as to whether there is an existence higher than what we experience. I am not calling such an existence "supernatural" as is popularly portrayed. Instead, I offer a simple analogy to illustrate my point. Imagine you are a character in a 3D video game. You've been programmed with such sophistication that you can make decisions within the context of your own environment. The environment is governed by rules and laws. We might call them "game physics". How would you, as a game character, ever come to comprehend the fact that you were actually constructed by human beings in a totally different plane of existence?

Therefore, who is to say that our universe is not a construction of a force that we simply cannot, by definition, ever comprehend?

Likewise, who is to say that it is? I am not postulating our own universe is like that. There are theologians, philosophers, and scientists who have argued both sides of that question with far greater sophistication and erudition than I have to offer. However, what I am saying is that I think religious people and non-religious both need to take a second look at what they believe before they step all over each other. Each side can learn from the other through civil discussion and participation.

The goal of this site is two-fold:

1. Allow religious people and non-religious people for form community groups aimed at helping people in their community, regardless of any creed, belief, or lack there-of.
2. Allow religious people and non-religious people to engage in civil discussion about ideas.

Passing the Impasse: Religion and Science Misunderstanding

All throughout my whole life I have been fascinated with two things: science and religion.

Most of my writings are about my own perceptions and thoughts regarding the interplay of science and religion. My ideas are likely resonate with both atheists and religionists in some areas as well as strike discord with both in other areas. The reason for this is that I agree with most atheists about the importance of critical thinking and I agree with most religionists about the importance of community. I also disagree with most atheists about the meaning of religion and I disagree with most religionists about the literalism of their beliefs.

I believe that religion and mythological traditions have been, for thousands of years, humankind's way of trying to explain existence and to provide a shared system of beliefs upon which to base communities. As modern science has explained more and more of the physical nature of the universe, many have come to believe that religion is outdated, useless, or unimportant.

However, I disagree with this. Instead, I believe that we can look past the literal interpretation of religious texts and seek instead to discern wisdom from their stories and parables. This does not mean we take what they say wholesale with no modification or criticism. It means that we must interpret them in the light of modern science and think about how they have and will continue to affect our culture.

I am a strong proponent of rational, critical thinking. Because of that, I think it is irrational and uncritical to suppose that the entire world can just stop paying attention to its religious traditions. Instead, we must leverage those traditions to increase the importance of critical thinking from the inside out. This does mean that traditional and literal interpretations must change. I know that many people do not want to change their views. However, I hope that my writings will help demonstrate the reasonableness of my view, and, at minimum, help my friends and family understand my position.

I do not practice any specific religious tradition, and working as a software engineer I probably spend more time than most people thinking about logical systems and the interconnectedness of parts. Due to this, I tend to view systems from multiple perspectives. I look at them from the inside, at the level of individual methods or properties. I look at them from the surface, at the level of classes, modules, or assemblies. I also look at them from a higher perspective, at the level of complete application. I could expand on this and discuss interconnecting systems across the internet, but I'll just leave it at that.

Similarly, I look at belief systems in the same light. I look at the individual practices and understandings of verses and how people interpret and apply these to their daily lives. I look at the way families and communities incorporate their shared traditions into their lives. And, I look at the way societies assemble themselves around these sub-units to form a larger whole.

Where I have the most to say, however, is about individual thought processes and interpretations. It is my hope, again, that my writings and recordings will help others to understand my perspective and see the reasonableness of my views.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Attention and Focus: Distracted, Loss of Critical Thinking

There is an interesting interview on Point of Inquiry by the author of a book called Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Here is the link:

The book has only 3.5 stars on Amazon, and ironically one of the comments says the book is a prime example of what it condemns!

Anyway, the observations the author and host D.J. Grothe make are about the increasing number of "connections" that people have via the online, networked world, but the decreasing depth and fluency of those connections. They discuss how these days people are expected to know more about a larger number of things.

This reminds me of the concept of the long tail, described here:
The crux of the long tail is that people now buy fewer items of a larger number of items, such
that the total volume of sales across the larger number equals the total volume of sales for the most popular market leaders.

So, it seems as if people are stretching themselves to pay attention to more and more things across a long tail because they feel that knowing that little bit across the horizontal scope complements the larger amount they know about a few things in the vertical rise.

Scott Ambler has written about the "Generalizing specialist" in terms of Agile teams on his blog here:

Here is a brief excerpt:
A generalizing specialist is someone with a good grasp of how everything fits together. As a result they will typically have a greater understanding and appreciation of what their teammates are working on. They are willing to listen to and work with their teammates because they know that they’ll likely learn something new. Specialists, on the other hand, often don’t have the background to appreciate what other specialists are doing, often look down on that other work, and often aren’t as willing to cooperate. Specialists, by their very nature, can become a barrier to communication within your team.
So, are long tails and generalizing specialists intrinsically linked to the distraction topic or am I proving the author's point by just introducing tangents?

Well, I think they are related, and not necessarily bad. The decrease of attention and erosion of critical thinking is bad, no doubt, because it represents an inability for people to perform the top-to-bottom in-depth analysis needed to make wise decisions.

However, the increased side-to-side attentiveness is good in that it shows that people are becoming more aware of the relationships and connections of parts into a whole.

Understanding that whole, however, requires a thorough understanding of the top-to-bottom view of, at minimum, a complete vertical slice of a process.

In software engineering, this means that a developer can grasp the overall architecture of a system by having a thorough and deep knowledge of one particular module, top-to-bottom, if and only if that module is representative of the larger system as a whole.

That is to say that the module under examination follows the same basic design structure and coding standards, design principles, and design patterns that are adhered to by the rest of the system. This helps achieve something akin to the concept of economies of scale.

On the other hand, if an engineer must contend with dozens of differing formats, approaches, spaghetti code bases, incompatible languages and toolsets, then a lot of understanding is lost or can never be gained simply due to something like the effects of diseconomies of scale.

For a team to achieve a level of productivity and efficiency in software engineering, they have to apply design principles that are in accordance with shared purpose, communication, maintainability, and flexibility. Creativity is an important aspect, but creativity should be expressed in terms of solving the problem domain in terms of the most understandable and simple design, rather than in terms of the most terse, most elegant or innovative, or unique design.

This may at first sound rigid and unflexible, but the introduction of basic, rudimentary constraints, such as the generic interface seen in REST, provides a context within which creativity can be expressed, yet also affords communication and connectivity to external components without cumbersome setup time or negotiation.

So, to bring this back to the idea of distraction, I want to point out that it is important for people to use the tools they have to help them find the right path, and then focus intently on understanding that path and exploring that path to the fullest, to understand it from the top-to-bottom, and to build in the side-to-side extension mechanisms to enable future modification and expansion without impact to the core features and functionality.

These are core principles expressed in the literature of design patterns and agile design guidelines, but they must be carefully studied and learned. They cannot be gleaned by glancing over a few web sites or thumbing through a few books. They have to be explored, experimented with, and ultimately employed in real systems in order for engineers to comprehend them fully.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Certified Scrum Master Training from Innovel

I completed my Certified Scrum Master training Friday from Innovel. You can learn more about the training at

My instructor was Chris Doss. He was a great instructor. It was a very good class and I met a lot of great people in the class as well. I think I was one of the younger folks in the class, so I was able to learn a lot from everyone there just through "osmosis".

Of course, the CSM course is not something that makes one really a well-practiced Scrum implementer. I think it's more of a way to get your feet wet. The progression for training in Scrum is diagrammed here:

The course covers a lot of ground at a high level about Agile, Lean, and Scrum, with a touch of XP. I've been conducting independent study on these subjects and documenting the links and videos I've read and watched on the ATL ALT.NET wiki at

Aside from watching those videos from Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, I read two Scrum books to prepare for the training:

Agile Software Development With Scrum:

Agile Project Management with Scrum:

I'm currently reading Scrum and XP From the Trenches from InfoQ Press by Henrik Kniberg:

Future Reading
I am now planning to read Head First Software Development from O'Reilly:

This book is not overtly about Scrum, but the authors thank Henrik Kniberg's InfoQ book and it is heavily geared toward scrum from that I can tell so far.

I love the Head First concept and am currently reading Head First Design Patterns to freshen up on my understanding of design patterns, which is not as good as it should be.