STUDY DIARIES: Background on Texts

This is a catch-up post to bring you up to date with some of the study history from the last couple of decades. Actually it is not a long list since we truly have taken our time!

The first thing to say is that we initially wanted to focus on Steiner’s philosophical written work. This was driven by a wish to start right at the beginning and, for my part, NOT wanting to go through his lectures. He took a massive amount of care with his written work, feeling that he had a deep responsibility to his readers. Obviously lectures would not be able to have that same depth of care since they were more of a living experience.

[Background Point: Steiner initially did not want his lectures written down at all since he maintained that the lectures were delivered for the particular audience. However events somewhat overtook him and some of his critics started misquoting what he had said. Thus he felt the need to have the lectures transcribed by a stenographer. I believe there are about 6000 lectures available now.]

However when some lectures have piqued my interest I have actually found it good to listen to readings of them since it gives you that auditory experience which, I think, works well with the content. However sometimes you need to realize that he was talking at a different time. See Dale Brunsvold’s site where he has produced audio recordings of his readings – which has been a great resource for allowing me to listen to lectures in the car. A real labour of love I think and deserving of a small donation towards hosting costs if you do end up using his site a lot.

However, back to the study list so far:

1: Truth & Knowledge : 1892
The very beginning. Steiner’s epistemological doctoral dissertation and a prelude to the Philosophy of Freedom.

2: Boundaries of Natural Science : 1920
A lecture series with an exploration of how Goethean Science and the Philosophy of Freedom can help us go beyond the limits of natural science to provide a healthy foundation for social science.

3: Anthroposophy Science : 1921
A lecture series that somewhat covered our favourite subject of technology and its relationship the development of consciousness.

4: Philosophy of Freedom : 1894
Also known as the Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, to highlight the fact that freedom is never a finished thing but requires constant activity. This is the main foundational book to all he subsequently worked on. In hindsight we should have perhaps studied this earlier.

5: Study of Man : 1919
This is a series of lectures given to teachers of the first Steiner School in Stuttgart.

In future posts I will attempt to summarize some of the earlier study texts but some of the content is now lost in the mists of time.

The main thing that I remember is that in the early stages of our study it was too easy to just skip through the texts without really grasping them. Thus it was that we really, really slowed it down and would not move forward if we did not think we had ‘got it’.

There was many a wrinkled brow, coupled with a feeling of “I am just not getting this”, which brings me to an important question that we and many other people have about Steiner’s output:

“For goodness sake, why is it so DIFFICULT to work with?”

From where I stand now, I can say that there is a very, very good reason for this.

Steiner is not giving us finished answers. His whole raison d’etre is to help us come to a different way of perceiving the world, something that our education beats out of us. In what he writes, he is trying to give you indications about different ways of seeing things, AS WELL AS doing it in a way that challenges you to try and develop this different way of perception as you study.

Remember I talked about congruence in a previous post between his content and method? But oh dear me, it really can make it hard going at times. The way I have come to see this now is that we are literally creating extra organs of perception in our thinking, and this is a long process. It is as if we have been given all the physical senses at birth, but now we need to take our own development in hand, creating new dynamic senses in our thinking.

So no quick fixes here.

[Definition: Anthroposophy was the term Steiner coined for his approach. Literally “wisdom of the human being”. Indicating that Steiner felt that it was important to understand and develop ourselves, embracing this task consciously, since we represent a strongly co-creative force in the world.]

Homage to a Gentle Seer

After many years of feeling the loss of my father its only recently that I have reflected more deeply on why I find myself missing him so much. He died back in 2001 the day before 9/11, almost as though he knew there would be work to do!

I can get caught unawares and then end up crying like one of the Lost Boys from Neverland. The most recent episode being when I was watching the latest Cinderella film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Despite the Disney heritage it was a surprisingly good production and the scene that caught me unawares was the one where the old king, played by Derek Jacobi, was dying and telling his son to marry for love. Yeah – ok – clichéd or what? Also Mr Jacobi is someone who strongly resembles my father in his later years so it was probably no surprise that this scene reduced me to tears.

But I wanted to understand just where this sense of loss was really coming from.

I remember my mother commenting about Dad and saying how he was a dreamer. He would see things differently and was a very gentle person who loved children very much, seeing something great in them – a facet he inherited from his mother who was always looking after the waifs and strays of the neighbourhood. I particularly remember how he could just sit with my daughter and just ‘be’. He had a way of sitting back in his mind’s eye, holding back his preconceptions and waiting to see what the world was really showing him.

It was when I saw his nature in this light – that it hit me between the eyes. He was one of those rare folk who could SEE. I don’t mean visions & things, I mean he could see BEHIND what the world was presenting and give it a bit of deeper experiential thought.

In this time of surfaces and quick fixes it is something I truly miss.

It is worth recounting one of his family anecdotes, a great story from his younger years. He was not well educated, having left school at an early age and from there becoming a consummate dancer and small-time actor – though you couldn’t tell from a performance of his in one of the Ealing comedies!

He once told me about a time when he was listening to friends from work as they were discussing something about current affairs. His friends were all highly educated and of an intellectual turn of mind and until this point he had always been shy of joining in, feeling that his lack of education held him back. However, the more he listened to the conversation, the more he realized that his friends didn’t have a clue about the issues, despite their education, and that in many cases he could see things more clearly than they could.

It was obviously one of those great epiphanies for him and thereafter he stopped holding himself back, and allowed his more experiential take on the world to blossom into a truly foundational wisdom.

There are times when I could do with hearing some of his wisdom

But what it has given me is a deep thankfulness for his beautiful parenting, his wise words and his insight that great education does not necessarily lead to great wisdom.

It is worth noting that although he might like this post, he would feel deeply embarrassed on the outside and most likely crack an awful ‘Daddy’ joke to defuse the feeling!

But what the hell.
Here’s to you Dad, a gentle teacher and seer.

STUDY DIARIES : Introduction

Over 20 years ago I was a parent of 2 young kids, and we wanted to find a decent pre-school provision that was more about creativity and play rather than about cramming kids heads with facts. My wife and I found a gem of a kindergarten that was run on Steiner principles and so impressed were we that we joined with the other impressed parents and got on with founding a Steiner lower school. I even became trustee Chair at the time!

But there was more to it for me than just the education of the children. I connected strongly to the underlying philosophy that Rudolf Steiner brought to the world. He had a different take on epistemology – or the theory of knowledge – i.e. how we come to know things, that very much resonated with how I felt about the world. For the past 20 years this has resulted in me studying – on & off, though more on than off – some of Steiner’s prodigious output.

It is this that I want to start blogging about now in these Study Diaries. I have been shy about this until now – primarily because Steiner covered some fairly tricky areas, namely the generation of what he called a spiritual science and what it had to say about a spiritual world and associated beings.

So I want to start by making it clear how my path has been into his work.

Initially Steiner was an expert on Goethe’s work and hence was asked to edit the Goethe archives at Weimar in 1888. As some of you will know from my previous posts about Goethe and phenomenology, it was Goethe who began raising warning flags about the problem of over-hypothesizing , something that has become endemic in our modern scientific method and something which badly affects those of us who work with modern technology.

It was from this philosophical foundation that Steiner started his work, coming out with his seminal book: The Philosophy of Freedom, which addressed the issues of being truly free in our thinking. He named this sort of freer thinking: “Living Thinking”, and he characterized it as a spiritual activity.

It was his philosophical work that attracted me first, along with his adamant stance that no one should just believe what he said. He wanted people to listen and consider for themselves what they could take on and understand. He was deeply uncomfortable with anyone who treated him as any sort of guru, and it was this that caught my imagination since it is congruent with his wish that people remain free in their thinking. Indeed a foundation of his ideas on ethics is that human morality is defined internally, not imposed externally, but more of that later.

Thus I have always felt that I could respect the man – despite there being a lot of his output that I cannot take on or understand. And this respect is something that has not changed over those 20 years as I have learnt more.

The studying I have been doing – usually on a Friday evening – has been on a very small percentage of Steiner’s work. Though it is the quality of the study that matters, not the quantity, and there is a very definite ‘holographic’ nature to it – i.e. it doesn’t matter which part you cover you can still get to the main ideas. I have also been working with someone I met during the early years of founding the local Steiner school and we have since become close friends as we have traveled on this study path together over the last two decades. I am no longer involved with the running of the school, though my friend is, since it quickly became apparent that understanding Steiner’s philosophical thought, so radically different as it is, was going to need some focused work.

It is worth noting that Steiner touched many areas of human endeavour, I consider in a positive way, though of course there are some detractors who would contest that. Such areas have included: Education, Medicine, Architecture, the Arts, Social reform and Economics to name a few.

I have decided to start writing about this aspect of my life, and you are welcome to read along or not, but I must mention the initial disclaimer that, although I am not a religious person and do not go to church, I do think we have a spiritual aspect to our nature. Now in my experience this is not something you can prove or disprove, you either can go with it or not. If not, then perhaps these Study Diaries will not be for you.

But all I would ask is that you hold an open mind and – just as Steiner would wish – take on only what makes sense to you. Hopefully, in whatever small way, you might even find something helpful in the Diaries.

Thanks for reading.

Merry Christmas 2015 and Happy New Year for 2016

Hi folks,
Just wishing you a good holiday time and hope you have a wonderful 2016. To this end I have got my painting set out again after a long absence and have painted a scene based on the shape of high-altitude lightning. A phenomenon known as a Sprite. What I find fascinating is that although the lightning is short lived I could imagine how it would look like an angel to those of a more religious nature. Hence the painting for Christmas.
All the best to you and yours.
Angel Night

PAINTING: Holiday Time in Wales

Just had a lovely holiday in one of my favourite spots – the Elan Valley in mid-Wales. No mobile coverage. No internet. Just walking, painting and reading. Wonderful!

I had tried to do some painting the last time I went but did not get far. This time however was a different story. So here are some pics of me trying to get a bit of a looser style. (had a recent workshop with Jean Haines which really helped) These are just photos and I have adjusted the colours to try and match the original paintings, but since they are not proper scans they are not as good as they could be.

Hope you like them anyway.

A painting starting out as a playing wash. I love watercolour!

Star Gazing
A painting starting out as a play wash. I love watercolour!

Just an abstract wash looked at in a different way can make a picture.

Cliff Castle
Just an abstract wash looked at in a different way
can make a picture.

First go at trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

First Dam
First go at trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

Still trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

Still trying to capture the Elan Valley dams.

Had  great fun playing around with some colour wash ideas. Yay!

Four Colour Play
Had great fun playing around with some colour wash ideas. Yay!

Decided to limit the colour wash components to just 6 here. The blooming seems to work I think. I like this one. Can you see the green man?

Three Colour Play
Decided to limit the colour wash components to just 6 here. The blooming seems to work I think.
I like this one. Can you see the green man?

Not sure about this one. Just trying some ideas from a book by Kees van Aalst.

Not sure about this one. Just trying some ideas from a book by Kees van Aalst.

This was an extract from a painting I was about to throw away! But then I got my frame cropping guides out and find I liked it.

This was an extract from a painting I was about to throw away!
But then I got my frame cropping guides out and found
I quite liked it.

Since I liked the first abstract box, this was a try at reproducing it. Hmmm. Not quite sure.

Since I liked the first abstract box, this was a try at reproducing it. Hmmm. Not quite sure.

Thanks for viewing.
All paintings are of course copyright © Charles Tolman.

ACCU2015: Days 2-4: Asynchronisation & Philosophy

As you might have suspected, I have been either too intellectually stimulated or beer fazed to write a blog post from day 2 onwards…

So the time has come to sit down quietly on the Sunday afternoon after the conference and write down some summarising words about the following days.

I had a fair number of insightful moments, either during presentations or subsequent discussions with participants. So much so that I will write about my day 2 lightning talk in a separate post.

Once again there was a great blend of the deeply technical (in this case lots on multi-threading) and the philosophical. This is what I love about this conference because it grounds the philosophical and enlightens the deeply technical. Wonderful.

Olve Maudal & Jon Jagger play Music Mashup

Olve Maudal & Jon Jagger play Music Mashup

Day 2:
There was a truly scary presentation by Alex Naumann from CERN about how physicists were using a C++ interpreter CLING and novices were developing a massive C++ codebase with loads of cut and paste. Thanks to the massive data sets that exist, at least they have a large body of test data to verify correctness – but still…

There was also a great quote from Olve Maudal’s presentation on the history of C and C++ saying that enums in these languages are troublesome because Dennis Ritchie hated them and hacked them in as quickly as possible! A classic point that highlights the relationship between the quality of software and whether a programmer is externally or internally motivated.

Phil Nash’s presentation on seeking simplicity was a great presentation about differentiating the Simple/Complex axis from the Easy/Hard axis. It was also interesting for its reference to Cynefin, which was found in other talks too. His references are at

In the bar (thanks to Bloomberg for the free beer) there was a fun music mashup machine which I had a play with. It consisted of a camera below a translucent panel with blocks which had QR codes on them for the 4 sound types of bass, percussion, melody and voice banks. So intriguing that I actually took a photo of Olve and Jon playing with it.

David Sackstein presenting (with apologies for image quality)

David Sackstein presenting (with apologies for image quality)

Day 3:
David Sackstein’s presentation on Coroutines was given to a packed audience. Although it was fascinating for its content, I found it more so for its effect on the audience. The coroutine idea is not new, as anyone who used to use setjmp and longjmp will know.

When David explained that a coroutine handed off control to another context (or stack) while the initiating one was held, there were the inevitable cries of – but that means things are not being done in a multi-threaded way! The noise of hearing the pennies drop was almost deafening as he explained: “But that is what the operating system is doing for you anyway in a multi-threading environment! It simplifies your code to be more explicit about the handover points.”.

Classic! Yeah I know we have multiple cores but if you don’t grok how schedulers work on a single processor you are asking for trouble before you get anywhere near parallel processing.

The great thing here is that there are great simplifying techniques to make the scheduling far more explicit in people’s heads – which is wonderful for educating folk about multi-threading. In this case coroutines simplify the thinking needed to cope with processing in two different contexts, which means I may be able to simplify all my ugly callback code.

This thread (pun intended) during the conference was repeated in other presentations, so it seems like the community is getting its head around asynchronous programming. Maybe I will get more people who survive my interviews when we reach the multi-threading questions! I can hope.

There was also a great, and courageous, talk by Peter Hilton about how to name things. A great reference here was to George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language.

Day 4:
On the final day I really enjoyed Roger Orr’s talk on Coding without Words questioning when we should name things rather than make use of C++ features such as lambdas and auto. This talk helped me realise that using names instead of implicit language constructs is important if the name actually denotes an important piece of knowledge in the application domain or surrounding code segment context. For me this presentation epitomised the link between technology and philosophy really well.

Roger’s talk also allowed me to unbend my mind after listening to Jonathan Wakely talk about the importance of Application Binary Interfaces (or ABIs). Really interesting, really important and really good – but Ouch! Oh yeah – for the programmers out there – in his lightning talk he said PLEASE do NOT use leading underscores on your #ifdef names for header file include guards – as a library writer that is HIS namespace you are encroaching on! Good one.

The final keynote by Chandler Carruth of Google was an exposition of the set of tools, or “ecosystem”, around the clang compiler.

All in all a great conference. Now all I need to do is go and get my head back into normal mode again – whatever that is!
Until the next time…

ACCU2015: Day1: Bits & Pieces

So it is rather late at the moment. Just had a great evening at a local Tango class with some great live music. Absolutely & totally sublime and completely different to the Nerdfest!

However I did retire to the bar on getting back from the dancing – it is important to network – to find that it was still buzzing. Had a great chat with a guy who works in CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics), even though it was midnight! Amazing how you can talk about multi-processing late at night after a beer. Or have I been doing this job too long?

As for the day’s conference proceedings: Because Jim Coplien is recovering – thankfully – from a seriously illness, today the first keynote was by Pete Goodliffe about “Becoming a Better Programmer”. It was OK but not too many new points for me. Just a light presentation. The main points I took away were:

  • Money incentives work against producing better software. They are different targets. (A subject close to my heart)
  • The 4 levels of Maslow Competence Hierarchy (not the needs one): Unconscious Incompetence (Dangerous!), Conscious Incompetence, Unconscious Competence & Conscious Competence.
  • Dunning Kruger Effect and the cognitive bias of experts under-estimating their ability while novices over-estimate theirs.
  • Of course there was also the obligatory mention of the Dreyfus model of Skill Acquisition which has a good breakdown of the learning levels as well as mentioning that it takes 10000 hours (about 10 years) to become an expert in something.

Next up I went to a talk by Seb Rose, a TDD advocate, on “Less is More” making the case for adjusting the progression of test changes to make them have less ‘fidelity’ to your final test intentions during development to allow you to converge faster to the final implementation. This one left me wondering about this whole stepwise approach to knowledge generation implicit in TDD. Sometimes it does not happen in this left-brain way of small steps. Sometimes there are massive jumps as we tear down old structures and remake them. Also whatever happened to the differentiation between growth & development? Subsequent conversation with other participants showed that I was not alone in thinking about this although, of course, TDD does have its place.

One great point that Seb raised was the importance of saying “I don’t know”, which can be a difficult thing for anyone who is supposed to be considered competent. We need to assume we are initially ignorant and be happy in accepting it.

He cast aspersions on Planning Poker saying that in his experience it has always been wildly inaccurate. For light relief he showed an image of these cards from LunarLogic.
LunarLogic No Bullshit Cards
The main point I took away from this talk was just how much software development is a knowledge generation process (i.e. epistemic) and how we need to be clear about the next smallest question we need answering.

After lunch I split my attendance between a talk called “Talking to the Suits” and a more techie C++ one about the issues in converting the Total War game from Windows to OS/X which was mainly about the differences between the Microsoft and Clang C++ compilers (the Microsoft compiler is much more accepting – which might not help since it wont detect errors in template code if the template is not instantiated).

I will only mention the “Suits” talk because there should be a video of the Windows to OS/X one.

I came away from the “Suits” talk with some great cliches, e.g. Quality is not job number 1; Business loves legacy. The basic point here is that we have to be more explicit about the quantitative costs/gains when making a case for any technical work. We cannot assume that business leaders will be able to understand the ins and outs of things like IDEs, Technical Debt, etc. A good call to make sure we communicate more effectively about such things. A good idea here was the “Problem : Solution : Results” guideline when presenting information. For example: Problem: “Even simple changes take a lot (quantify) of time”; Solution: “If we improve the design of this part of the system”; Results: “we will save weeks of effort (quantify) when we add new workflows”.

That is probably enough for now since I really need my beauty(!) sleep. I have also put my name forward to give a Lightning Talk on “My Thinking is NOT for Sale”. Oh dear. I need to sort out the slides for that now!

Till later…

ACCU2015: Nerdfest Supreme

Well, another ACCU conference is here and I have just arrived at the hotel today and am settling in, meeting some friends and listening to a talk by one of them, Michael Feathers of ObjectMentor.

I am not presenting this year because I do not have my thoughts straight about some of my latest thinking – namely “My Thinking is NOT for Sale” – especially how I can even get our current business culture to start thinking about knowledge work in such a way. Although there are some signs.

One of the interesting things about these conferences is hearing some of the more vocal and opinionated people hold forth. Initially I start off feeling fairly intimidated, but then inevitably I find something to comment about and we end up having great conversations. In truth there is a nice balance between the more vocal folk and the timid ones. But here good logical thinking always get respect regardless of how quiet or noisy you are – unless of course the participants have stayed too long and late in the bar! Although thinking about it, John Lakos IS a force to be reckoned with!

Unfortunately another person I really really wanted to talk to was Jim Coplien. He was scheduled to deliver a keynote, but I was told he will not be attending due to illness. I was hoping to have heard more about his DCI work (See also his blog post and this video)

But back to Michael’s talk, which was called “Organizational Machinery around Software”. He was arguing for making the code architecture primary and structuring teams around that architecture. Basically saying to flip Conway’s Law and use it as a lever to get better results rather than having it inadvertently mess up your design because you did not structure your teams in the right way. The basic concept is simple. The implementation and convincing of management may be another thing entirely but it is an interesting view of basing your team structure architecturally rather than perhaps by market segment, or in some other way.

One of the things that he said was that we could take lessons from how the military manage personnel rotating through their teams (or crews I guess), and that business could do the same. As you might guess if you read my blog, I would find such a though unsettling, primarily because there is validity in what he says due to the fact that business is usually run on military lines, whereas I consider that there is a difficult tension between trying to write quality software and its usual economic context. More thought required…

I am looking forward to tomorrow, although I shall be breaking away from the conference in the evening to partake of some Argentinian Tango at some local classes! I might see if I can get some of the techies to come along – could be interesting… This will of course mean that any blog post may be delayed.

Here are some of the notes I made about the talk:

  • Being too conservative with code mods will cause a very fast deterioration of the codebase. ie. not refactoring.
  • Interface cruft. Easier to change code either side of an API, rather than mature the API.
  • Legacy comment.
  • Interesting research from Robert Smallshire in the audience: Developer halflife is 3.5 years. Code halflife is 35 years. (See this presentation)
  • We should be able to visualise a system architecture for ANYONE in the organisation to understand. Not just the techies.

Until next time…

PAINTING: Observation and Painting Dancers

I recently discovered a lovely painting of Tango dancers by Pat Murray which prompted me to get in touch with her for some tips about painting dancers. The things she said – see below – reminded me why I love painting so much – when I get the time – and how it all hooks into a phenomenological observation process. I love how she notes that it does not matter about the accuracy of fast sketches because so much still goes into your subconscious. I have definitely experienced this with my ‘Rose’ painting and the one of my daughter, ‘Princess’.

Fascinating – a true life’s work.

Unfortunately the original of this watercolour has been sold but you can get hold of prints from her website.

Watercolour by Pat Murray

‘Afternoon Milonga’ : Watercolour by Pat Murray

She was very helpful and provided these thoughts about the above painting:

“I also provide the portrait version of ‘Afternoon Milonga’ as a print now as a friend who dances Tango said that British Tango dancers would relate to the church hall image as so much Tango is danced in places like that in this country.

This painting was inspired by watching a friend dance at an afternoon Milonga in a church hall in Sneinton, Nottingham. Try as I might, I could not locate the exact place but tried to recreate the atmosphere that I’d remembered. Late afternoon light was filtering down from a high window and the music was beautiful and melancholic. I’m sure you know what I mean.

I actually did some lightning sketches, a bit ropey but that act of observation is crucial as so much goes into your subconscious mind. Also it helped me to identify the exact moves that float my boat. In my case they are the more subtle ones.

I did three quick tonal sketches from freeze framing youtube footage. You will see these provide me with reference for where the light and shade fall. I think watching carefully and really fast drawing is the trick. Even if what you do is wildly innacurate, you will capture some of the movement.”

I suspect that the hall in question in Sneinton is the Hermitage Community Centre because I think I can see the big window from the painting in the header photo from their site.

Pat very kindly sent me the following digital copies of her sketches.

Tango Sketch 1

Tango Sketch 2

Tango Sketch 3

Many thanks Pat!