Poetry, Programming and People Management

The human brain does ambiguity well. Most of us are strangely drawn to multiple meanings, surrealities and pattern recognition. We thrive on metaphors and similes, rejoice in symbols, dance to nonsense syllables and ad hoc syncopations. And paradoxes? We both hate and love them — paradoxically, of course.

This may be one of the reasons so many people become frustrated and even fearful when confronted by math and logic. Those disciplines feel so cold and hard-edged with their unitary meanings and wearisome concatenations of implacable reasoning.

It’s the same with computer coding. If you take an Introduction to Computer Science course, the professors often go out of their way to compare natural languages (a phrase which itself is an oxymoron) with computer languages.

Yao graph with number of ray k=8; from Wikimedia, by Rocchini

The gist is that while while both types of language share common and, indeed, essential properties such as syntax and semantics, they differ widely in that natural language can often be understood even when the speaker or writer fails to follow basic spelling or grammatical rules. In contrast, a computer program (much like a mathematical equation) will typically fail to work if even a single character is left out or misplaced. An absent bracket can be a fatal bug, a backwards greater-than symbol can cause an infinite loop, a poorly assigned variable can inadvertently turn  100 dollars into a dime.

A computer has no use for the artful ambiguities and multiple meanings of poetry. If you give the machine a couple of lines of verse such asanyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down)”,  it will — unless you carefully guide the words into the code as a string —  give you an error message.  (I know a lot of people who might respond the same way, of course.)  Yet, without the precisely imprecise wordplay of e e cummings, those lines of poetry would not be poetry at all.

So, what does any of this have to do with people management?

Just this: people management is sometimes poetry, sometimes programming, and it helps to know which is which. Before the rise of civilizations and cities, when virtually all people were hunting and gathering in smallish bands and clans, people management (in the forms it would have existed then) was all poetry.

Walden Pond; from Wikimedia, by QuarterCircleS

Sure, there were unwritten rules, harsh taboos, constant rumors and deadly serious superstitions. And a leader, to the degree there were leaders as we understand them today, could leverage those cultural components to influence his or her clansmen. But this was mostly a matter of nuance, persuasion, the formation of alliances, the wielding of knowledge and lore (when, that is, it wasn’t a matter of force and coercion). In the largest sense, it was art and song.

Today, good managers must still be attuned to the poetry of human attitudes and actions, able to sort through the ambiguities of rumor mills and hurt feelings and arrogant posturings. But now managers must also cope with or even rely on laws, regulations and rules.

Is there a “zero tolerance” clause in the company policy somewhere? Then even a terrific employee who gets caught using illegal drugs may need to go.  Are there complex legal regulations barring a worker from having financial holdings in a certain client company? Well, then, the employee must divest or hit the door. There are countless other examples of rules that are as hard-and-fast as rule-of-law societies can make them. Although these human rules will never be quite as rigorous as the requirements of programming languages, they are a kind of human programming; there are true and false statements,  barriers that can’t be broken, classifications that should never be breached.

This is why we have legal departments. It is also why uncertain managers call in the hired gun of the HR professional to take care of dismissals and drug tests and background checks.

We simultaneously hate  this programming of human behavior and depend on it. We can, for example, rely on the kind of code that states:

while worker performance >= level 3: { {

provide paycheck and health insurance }

else if: {

performance <= level 2:

leverage performance review proceedings


Okay, the coding in companies is much more complex than that. Still, the point is that we rely on it because it’s clean, logical and, best of all, spares us from having to make hard and potentially dangerous decisions on our own. In such settings, we are no longer “poets of people management,” the kind of managers who might have led a clan though a vast and dangerous prehistoric wilderness in millennia gone by.

This dependence on programming is a shame in many ways, one that harried managers should ponder from time to time.  I know we can’t utterly avoid modern programming — at least, not unless we retreat into the wildness, as metaphorically  isolated as Thoreau in his cabin by Walden Pond. Nor should we. The rule of law is essential to our modern societies, and formal policies are often forged to protect employees from arbitrary or biased decisions. Still, we might strive to be better poets, respecting employees as the people they are rather than viewing them as components of a well-programmed machine.

Featured image: The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael: famous poets recite alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

The Extended Human

A nest or hive can best be considered a body built rather than grown. A shelter is animal technology, the animal extended. The extended human is the technium.

Kevin Kelly

I like the phrase “extended human” because these days so much of our lives is spent doing just that: extending. We extend toward one another via our increasingly pervasive networking technologies, of course, but also via our words, our art, our organizations and our sometimes frighteningly fervent tribes of like-minded people.

Without these extensions, there can be no reticula – or, at least, none that includes humanity. It’s as if we are all connected neurons, the tentacled creatures of our own dreams and nightmares.

Kevin Kelly, the author of What Technology Wants, uses the phrase extended human to mean the same thing as the technium, which he defines as the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” But I see the extended human as beginning not with our technologies but with the reticula within: our woven, language-loving, community-seeking minds. A human who is armed only with ideas and imagination still has an amazing ability to extend herself into the universe.

Connection Matrix of the Human Brain

Technological Kudzu

Still, it’s true that the technium vastly enhances our natural tendency toward extension. In fact, as Kelly points out (and all anthropologists know), our inclination toward tool usage predates our emergence as a species. Our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus were tool users, suggesting this propensity is somehow encoded or, at least made more likely, by our DNA.

These days, our extensions are growing like so much technological kudzu. Think about the growth of Zoom and other video conferencing applications. These technologies have become among of the latest technological imperatives, along with basics such as electricity, plumbing and phones/cell phones.

But there’s something missing in all this. Extensions are powerful alright, but what, exactly, are we extending? That is, what is at the core of the extended human? It isn’t a technological issue but, rather, a philosophical, psychological, existential or even spiritual one.

How Far Is Too Far?

This is where things not only get tricky but downright divisive.  The Buddhist may argue that “nothing” is at the core, that most of what we want to extend is sheer ego and delusion. The Christian may argue that immortal souls are at the human core, souls which have the propensity for good or evil in the eyes of God. The Transhumanist may argue that the human body and brain are the core, both of which can be enhanced and extended in potentially unlimited ways.

Few would argue against the idea that humans should be an extended species. Even the lowest-tech Luddites rely on tools and technologies. What we will spend the next several decades arguing about are two related issues:

1) What is at the core of humanity? What should we value and preserve? What can we afford to leave behind in the name of progress and freedom?

2) How far should we extend ourselves? Should we set collective limits for fear that we’ll lose our essential humanity or cause our own extinction? If so, how can we reasonably set limits without magnifying the risks of tyranny or stagnation?

All sorts of other subjects will be incorporated into these two basic issues. For example, collective limits on technological advances become more likely if associated dangers – higher rates of unemployment, increased risks of terrorism, environmental crises, etc. –  loom larger over time. Although we will frame these issues in various ways, they will increasingly be at the center of our collective anxiety for years to come. It’s the price of being the most extended species in the reticulum.

Featured image by Sheila1988; Agricultural tools at show

Talking Drums and the Depths of Human Ignorance

It’s a small but genuine annoyance. I’ll be listening some “expert,” often a professor, being interviewed for a radio show or podcast. If the idea of cognition comes up, they’ll state as a fact that humans are far more intelligent than any other animal on the planet. And, almost inevitably, one piece of evidence they’ll point to is communication. There’s the assumed inability of other animals to communicate with as much sophistication as we do.

Now, they might be right about these things, though obviously we’d need to define intelligence and communication to even establish a working hypotheses. What irritates me, though, is the certainty with which they make their claims. In truth, we just don’t know how we stack up in the animal kingdom because we still live in such a deep state of ignorance about our fellow creatures.

The Talking Drums

When I hear such claims, I sometimes think about the talking drums. For hundreds of years, certain African cultures were able to communicate effectively across vast distances. They did this right beneath the noses and within the hearing of ignorant, superior-feeling Europeans.

In his book The Information, James Gleick lays out the story of the talking drums in Chapter One. Via drums, certain African peoples were able to quickly communicate detailed and nuanced messages over long distances well before Europeans acquired comparable technologies. At least as far back as the 1700s, these African peoples were able to relay messages from village to village, messages that “could rumble a hundred miles or more in a matter of an hour…. Here was a messaging system that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on good roads with say stations and relays.”

It was only in the 19th century that the missionary Roger T. Clarke recognized that “the signals represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases of a traditional and highly poetic character.” Because many African languages are tonal in the same way Chinese is, the pitch is crucial in determining the meaning of a particular word. What the drums allowed these peoples to do was communicate complex messages using tones rather than vowels or consonants.

Using low tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses. Extra phrases are added to each short “word” beaten on the drums. These extra phrases would be be redundant in speech, but they can provide context to the core drum signal.

Enormous Chasms

The technology and innovativeness of the talking drums is amazing, of course, but what’s especially startling is the centuries-long depth of European ignorance about the technology. Even once some Europeans admitted that actual information was being communicated across vast distances, they could not fathom how.

Why? Sure, racism no doubt played a part. But the larger truth is that they simply didn’t have enough information and wisdom to figure it out. That is despite the fact that we are talking about members of the same species and, indeed, a species with very little genetic diversity.

Here’s how the Smithsonian Institution reports on this lack of diversity:

[C]ompared with many other mammalian species, humans are genetically far less diverse – a counterintuitive finding, given our large population and worldwide distribution. For example, the subspecies of the chimpanzee that lives just in central Africa, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, has higher levels of diversity than do humans globally, and the genetic differentiation between the western (P. t. verus) and central (P. t. troglodytes) subspecies of chimpanzees is much greater than that between human populations.

On average, any two members of our species differ at about 1 in 1,000 DNA base pairs (0.1%). This suggests that we’re a relatively new species and that at one time our entire population was very small, at around 10,000 or so breeding individuals.

For Europeans to remain so ignorant about a technology created by other members of their own barely diversified species tells us how truly awful we are at understanding the communication capabilities of others. Now add in the exponentially higher levels of genetic diversity between species. For example, the last known common ancestor between whales and human existed about 97 million years ago. How about the last known ancestor between birds and humans? About 300 million years ago.

These timescales represent enormous genetic chasms that we are not remotely capable of bridging at the moment. We are still in the dark ages of understanding animal cognition and communication. So far, our most successful way of communicating with other animals is by teaching them our languages. So now we have chimpanzees using sign language and parrots imitating our speech patterns.  African Grey parrots, for example, can learn up to 1,000 words that they can use in context.

Yet, when these species do not use human language as well as humans, we consider them inferior.

If We’re So Bloody Bright…

But if we as a species are so intelligent, why aren’t we using their means of communication? I’m not suggesting that other animals use words, symbols and grammar the way humans do. But communicate they do. I live in Florida, which is basically a suburbanized rainforest, and have become familiar with the calls of various birds, tropical and otherwise. One of the more common local denizens is the fish crow. I hear crows that are perched blocks away from one another do calls and responses. The calls vary considerably even to my ignorant, human ears, and there are probably countless nuances I’m missing.

Are they speaking a “language”? I don’t know, but it seems highly unlikely they’re expending all the vocal and cognitive energy for no reason. Their vocalizations mean something, even if we can’t grasp what.

Inevitably, humans think all animal communication is about food, sex and territory. But that’s just a guess on our part. We assume that their vocalizations are otherwise meaningless just as many Europeans assumed the talking drums were mostly meaningless noise. In short, we’re human-centric bigots.

Consider the songs of the humpback whales. These are extremely complex vocalizations that can be registered over vast distances. Indeed, scientists estimate that whales’ low frequency sounds can travel up to 10,000 miles! Yet, we’re only guessing about why males engage in such “songs.” For all we know, they’re passing along arcane mathematical conceits that would put our human Fields Medal winners to shame.

On Human Ignorance

The point is that we continue to live in a state of deep ignorance when it comes to other our fellow creatures. That’s okay as long as we remain humble, but we humility is not what people do best. We assume we are far more intelligent and/or far better communicators than are other species.

Yet, consider the counterevidence. Just look the various environmental, political and even nuclear crises in which we conflict-loving primates are so dangerously enmeshed. It hardly seems like intelligence. Maybe the whales and parrots are really discussing what incapable morons humans are compared to themselves. With that, mind you, it would be hard to argue.

Featured image from Mplanetech. 11 January 2017

Fraternization Under the Forest Floor

In my first post on Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, I wrote a bit about the how certain hyphae–that is, the branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungi–play a key role in establishing the “wood wide web.” But perhaps you were left wondering, “Okay, but what’s in for the fungi?”

The Enlighted Entrepreneurship of Fungus

As it turns out, a lot. The fungi definitely take their cut of the sugar and other carbohydrates produced by trees. Indeed, they can take as much as a third of a tree’s total food production for services rendered. A third!

The IRS has got nothing on the fungi.

So, what do the trees get in return? Well, as we previously noted, they extend the reach of tree roots and allow trees to share not only nutrients but also information with one another. Let’s face it, that’s pretty good service. It’s as if our Internet provider was not only letting us exchange information but also allowing us to directly send food and water to one another.

But, as the Ronco people used to say, “And that’s not all!”

The beneficial fungi also provide certain medical benefits. Not only do they filter out poisonous heavy metals, they ward off bacteria and the more destructive types of brethren fungi.

But these tree-loving fungi are not dedicated to just one species of tree. They play the field, willing to connect trees of different species. Wohlleben writes, “Although many species of tree fight each other mercilessly above ground and even try to crowd out each other’s root systems, the fungi that populate them seem to be intent on compromise.”

In a way, the fungi are like a huge retail chain (think Amazon), helping many companies because betting on just one corporation could be disastrous if that corporation failed. Similarly, the fungi do not want to bet on just one species of tree because if some plague takes out that species, then they their fates are tied only that failing species. If a beech tree complains to that it’s local fungi should not also be helping their competitors the oaks, you can almost hear the fungi say, “Sorry there Beech boy, it’s not personal, it’s business.”

Plumbing the Mysteries of Trees

Not only don’t we fully grasp the complexities of trees, we don’t even understand a lot of the basics. One of those basics is plumbing. That is, how do trees pump water all the way from their roots to their crowns?

Wohlleben discusses two primary theories. First, there’s capillary action. Wikipedia defines the action this way:

[T]he process of a liquid flowing in a narrow space without the assistance of, or even in opposition to, any external forces like gravity. The effect can be seen in the drawing up of liquids between the hairs of a paint-brush, in a thin tube, in porous materials such as paper and plaster, in some non-porous materials such as sand and liquefied carbon fiber, or in a biological cell. It occurs because of intermolecular forces between the liquid and surrounding solid surfaces. If the diameter of the tube is sufficiently small, then the combination of surface tension (which is caused by cohesion within the liquid) and adhesive forces between the liquid and container wall act to propel the liquid.

Here’s how I think of it: when you put water in a narrow vessel, the water itself stands above the lip of the vessel. So, when you fill a glass of water to the brim, the water actually stands slightly above the rim of the glass due to capillary action. The narrower the vessel, the higher it stands.

Although I’ve noticed this before, I’ve never thought much about it. However, this action accounts for some of the rise of water up the trunk of a tree. How much? Wohlleben says 3 feet in a 300 foot tree. In other words, more than you might think but not all that much.

The second way trees pump water is transpiration. Wohlleben describes it thus:

In the warmer part of the year, leaves and needles transpire by steadily breathing out water vapor. In the case of a mature beech, the tree exhales hundreds of gallons of water a day. This exhalation causes suction, which pulls a constant supply of water up through the transportation pathways in the tree.

So, the tree uses suction, the same principle by which we drink our juice boxes. Which is very cool!

There’s just one problem with this transpiration idea. It doesn’t explain the mysterious rise of water in trees before the leaves emerge. In fact, water pressure is highest in trees before leaves open in the spring!

So, we can glibly toss around terms such as capillary action and transpiration, but they alone can’t account for what trees are doing in the real world. And, if we can’t even account for basic plumbing in trees, imagine how much else we’re missing.

Skin in the Losing Game of Life

Bark is the skin of trees. Like our skin, tree bark is constantly being shed. As with our skin, bark holds in life-giving water and protects a tree’s inner organs from the deadly world outside. As with our skin, bark wrinkles as the trees age.

The wrinkles aren’t the only things we share with trees. Like us, trees actually start to bald and shrink a bit as they get old. And, as with us, they finally succumb to entropy, and their bark begins to fail.

When it does, the non-beneficial types of fungi help bring about their demise. Wohlleben writes:

Small moist wounds have become portals for fungi to enter. The fungi advertise their triumphant advance through the tree by displaying magnificent fruiting bodies that jut out from the trunk in the shape of semicircular saucers that grow larger with each passing year…Then one day it’s all over. The truck snaps and the tree’s life it at an end.

And so the tree dies and eventually becomes part of the forest floor, feeding the roots of its competitors and children. Meanwhile, the fraternizing fungi below continue their work, taking in the big picture, ultimately seeing the forest for the trees.

Note: In case you were left wondering, this post approximately covers chapters 9 through 13, though I can never quite keep myself from deviating beyond the confines of the text itself.