Leadership, Learning & Life

September 20, 2019

Another thousand bites of the Apple

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 6:10 am

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Yes, that’s me reaching hungrily for the apple… As it says in the Book of Genesis, after creating Adam, God said “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”  But of course, the wily serpent said, “No, not really, you won’t really die, instead you’ll become like the gods, knowing good and evil.” And of course, we ate, and you know the rest – thrown out of the Garden of Eden into all the toil and trouble of being human on the Earth.

In the painting above, my favorite part is the look on the face of the cow, seeming to say “Gosh these human beings… and to think they were given dominion over us animals and the whole Earth!”

Well, one would think we would learn from our mistakes, but I’m here to say, today I am taking another thousand bites of the Apple on my Macintosh personal computer.  It seems I and many of my fellow human beings on the Earth are still listening to the wily serpent, believing what it says, that if we know everything, including good and evil, we shall be like gods. Let’s confess, isn’t it wonderful to know everything? Just google it and you have it. And what of the knowledge of good and evil? It’s subjective, you can just decide for yourself, and make it so.  Or, so it seems – but for me, sometimes I glimpse a darker image there behind the shiny screen… and I begin to wonder…

Why would the spiritual world have worried about us humans knowing good and evil?  Perhaps because if we were given the knowledge before we were ready to make proper use of it, we could really make a mess…  Without having matured enough to know how we use the knowledge we have for the good of everyone and the Earth, we could just as easily use our knowledge for evil.

Hmm.  Let’s test this hypothesis: just recently, WW1, WW2 ending with the atom bomb, our current climate crisis, our seemingly endless wars, our readiness to use our knowledge to harm and control others, to gather wealth for ourselves at the expense of others… Okay, I’ll stop there, that’s enough, gets too depressing to continue the litany of evidence we are not using our knowledge only for the good, we are using it also for evil, and it seems we don’t really know the difference.

Where was I? Oh yes, I was talking about my Apple computer, and taking endless bites of it to get more and more knowledge, enough is not enough, I want more, and my Apple computer and the World Wide Web gladly provide it.  But the question is, am I ready for this? Do I have enough moral maturity to know the difference between the good and evil in this knowledge, such that I choose the good and deny the evil?  Can I sense the goodness or evilness in the thousand thoughts I consume every day? Am I aware enough to use this knowledge for the good and not evil?  The question remains, do I really know the difference between good and evil? As Manuel Castells says, “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” Could it be that in addition to all the good the technology of my Apple computer and the World Wide Web is bringing to me, is also where the wily serpent resides these days, no longer in the apple tree, but rather in our own minds and processes, computers, the internet… In some ways, our thinking is leaving us human beings and is being transferred to artificial intelligence, where everything will be known. Hmmm. Not so sure this is a good thing, as it’s clear to me that my Apple computer is not human, it’s only technology, it does not have a heart, it is only binary, it has 0’s and 1’s, on/off, it simply doesn’t have the third component of us humans with heads, hearts and limbs, with thinking, feeling and willing. It doesn’t feel, it is heartless, it doesn’t distinguish between good and evil thoughts. And the World Wide Web is similar, love itself is not present there, love is in us human beings, but there are no feelings in the internet itself, it’s only a web of electric signals forming a cloud of fog over the Earth, ever ready to express whatever we want, in addition to expressions of love, equally ready to express hatred, doubt and fear, to divide, to cause harm, it simply conveys what we humans bring to it, but it does it with great power and influence, with great impact.

What to do? It’s clear it’s about how we are using this amazing technology. A meaningful image that has always been helpful to me is of the Archangel Michael overcoming the Dragon.  In the context of the above writing, let’s say Michael is a being who does actually know the difference between good and evil, and the Dragon is the wily serpent.  So where are us humans in this image? Let’s look at the image, there are thousands, but my favorite is this one. What I like about it is Michael doesn’t kill the Dragon, he rides it, he uses its forces, while being very sure to control it – he’s on top of it – he faces it directly, his sword in his right hand ready at any moment to lop off its heads, and his left hand using the lance of his intellect to know the Dragon, to be aware of its evil, to study its wily ways and use this knowledge for the good, and he does all of this with a look of love on his face, not hatred…

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Where is the human being in this image?  For me, the whole image is us –we have within us a spiritual being who knows what is right to do, our conscience, urging us to do the good, and we have within us a serpent being who tempts us constantly to do evil, to deny the spiritual being within us, and in the action of the image our spiritual part, our conscience, is using the lance of our intellect, learning to know the evil, acknowledging and confronting the serpent in us. And so, there we are: wrestling with the knowledge of good and evil, of being human on the Earth, continually making choices that create our destiny for ourselves, the Earth, and all the beings on it.

So, back to my daily thousand bites of the Apple on my computer and my endless interactions in the World Wide Web of the internet.  I wonder if I am awake to the necessity of becoming aware of the reality of good and evil, that they exist in me, that they are not merely subjective phantoms of my imagination, that I need to acknowledge and confront the evil in me in order to understand the good.  When using the amazing power of the computer and the internet, am I aware it matters how I use it, that I have a choice to make with my knowledge, with my thinking, and that this choice matters for me and the world? Do I have the wisdom, courage and strength to face the Dragon in me? To study and learn its ways that I can use this knowledge for the good? Or am I a bit sleepy, whatever, who cares, google will tell me what I need to know, and anyway, it’s all subjective, and it doesn’t matter what I do or think.  I’ll just give it to the super computers and they’ll take care of it. That part of me is saying, leave me alone Michael! Be quiet my conscience! as I hungrily reach for another bite of the Apple…

December 5, 2009

iphones worldwide turned into flutes – let’s play a song together

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 11:37 am

The New York Times today featured an article on a new application for iphones, created by Professor Ge Wang of Stanford University, that turns the phone into a flute (to be more precise, an ocarina). It’s free, takes only a few seconds to download – and presto, your iphone is now a musical instrument!

Manuel Castells famously said “Technology is neither good nor bad – nor is it neutral.”  We hear a lot about how technology is going to dehumanize us – but the iphone with the ocarina application shows us the upside.  Think about it – you now have a flute in your pocket any time you feel like playing it.  One of the side benefits of the application is you can listen to other people playing their iphone ocarinas worldwide at the same moment. It is beautiful to see the earth turning from one country to another, with a chance to hear different tunes playing in that moment.   The tunes from Japan have a different rythym than those in the west…

This reminds me not to despair when it seems all we use technology for is destruction. It can also create.  Go to ocarina.smule.com and check it out!


Professor Ge Wang of Stanford University demonstrating how to play the iphone ocarina.  The family of iphone musical applications is under “smule”, the ocarina is one of many applications.

November 22, 2009

comments of new European President evoke fears and mocking

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 4:42 pm

The new President of the European Union, Belgium Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, in his first remarks, said:

“We are living through exceptionally difficult times: the financial crisis and its dramatic impact on employment and budgets, the climate crisis which threatens our very survival. A period of anxiety, uncertainty and lack of confidence. Yet these problems can be overcome by common efforts in and between our countries. 2009 is also the first year of global governance, with the establishment of the G20 in the middle of the financial crisis. The climate conference in Copenhagen is another step towards the global management of our planet. Our mission is one of hope, supported by acts and action.”

Looking at how this was responded to on Digg by the blogosphere is a bit disconcerting: the article with the most Diggs notes the mockery of the sculpture depicting the European Union, it is considered racist and stereotypical.  There are also a number of posts with a paranoid perspective that his comments suggest a central global government with dictatorial intentions.

To me it is clear that the movements the European Union is taking are well intentioned.  The sculpture is an attempt to embrace diversity.  Reality tells us quite clearly that there is little power, central or otherwise, in the President’s role.  What is needed is for each of us to look at the decisions through the lens of Europe and to welcome it as a member of the world community.   Europe has learned from very bitter lessons of wars the necessity of living with others, it can bring this knowledge to the world stage in a way that all governments can benefit from it.

November 20, 2009

European Union dodges real leadership

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 8:16 am

The European Union announced today its choices for President of EU and head of foreign policy.  The New York TImes quotes Olivier Ferrand of France saying “It is the end of ambition for the E.U. – really disappointing.”  Both candidates are pretty much unknown outside their country, and the foreign policy candidate  has little experience in foreign policy. What happened?

The E.U. has debated for years how it can find its own voice for the region to counter the power of the United States and now the growing power of China.  It has struggled over a long path to build the union of its countries, always compromising for a weak central power in order to get the countries to sign up. Yet its great hope has been to find a leader of the E.U. who could hold the charismatic power of the region – their own Obama.  Well – they have failed this time, due essentially to egotism.

A possible star power, Tony Blair, was put forth by Gordon Brown, but he is too controversial and also seen as a pawn to the United States.  But what about other possible stars from France or Germany? It appears the individual countries are protecting their own power by agreeing to appoint someone obviously without power to the post.

This is a case of egotism – “if it can’t be me, it can’t be anyone” – trumping collaboration toward a shared goal.  For the member countries of the E.U. to reach the goal of building Europe’s voice in the world, they need to  be realistic that it requires a charismatic high profile leader at the top – not an unknown bureaucrat.  Their new thinking needs to be “if it can’t be me, at least let’s make it someone who can raise our profile in the world”.

Until this holding of personal egotism in check is accomplished, Europe will continue to be without real leadership.

November 16, 2009

What’s Obama learning?

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 4:55 pm

I’ve been wondering this week what Obama is learning from his experiences in the role of President.  Today the papers noted that he had to back off his campaign promise of fast action on climate warming.  He’s now looking at Copenhangen with a reduced commitment from the United States.  I’m sure this is somewhat of a bitter lesson for him….  but perhaps this will inform his second term.

October 30, 2009

BQE Gets Its Own Song

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 9:14 am

In a delightful NPR broadcast this morning called Finding Inner Peace in Traffic, it was reported that the BQE, Brooklyn Queens Expressway, our dilapidated jammed stuck commuting highway in NYC, has received its own full length orchestral composition, comissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Sufjan Stevens created the piece plus a video to celebrate the BQE. He says as an artist “my job is to find beauty where there is ugliness”.  I agree with him – beauty is everywhere – and usually when we are commuting we are VERY DISTANT from it.  He has wonderfully changed my view of the BQE and of all my harrassed commutes.  Listen to his music and you too can find your inner peace next time you’re in a traffic jam.  Want to listen? Click on these:

Prelude on the Esplanade

Introductory FanFare for the Hoop

Movement One: In the Countenance of Kings

October 29, 2009

Pattie Sellers, Editor FORTUNE, promotes resilience as key leadership factor

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 11:36 am

Last night at the Council of PR Firm’s dinner, Pattie Sellers, who is the chair of FORTUNE’s Most Powerful Women Summit, discussed what she sees as key factors in making great leaders: most important is “that the person has failed in some major way in their life” because it builds resilience.  Pattie shared that in her many interviews with powerful leaders, she is most struck with the ones that come back from failure. In her view, failure builds resilience, which makes them a more effective leader. I would say it most likely also adds humility to the person’s character, and I believe humility greatly enhances a leader’s effectiveness.  She noted that Barack Obama had not had any significant failures yet and she worried whether he has enough resilience.  She also said what leaders need most at present is adaptability and flexibility. Lots of head nods in the room on that one.

Finally, she noted she is blogging daily at  http://postcards.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/.  She has a great post up today on situational awareness, check it out.

October 26, 2009

Leading with questions rather than answers

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertmburnside @ 10:22 pm

An old stereotype of leadership holds that the leader should know all the answers, have all the expertise needed. In fact, research on what people say makes a good leader always includes the leader being knowledgeable and credible in her/his field. We all want leaders who are smart and on top of the complexities of the situation.

At the same time, none of us can stand the “know it all”, the person who seemingly has to constantly demonstrate she/he has already thought of everything.  Often in the presence of this kind of leader we wonder why they bother to speak with us, since they’ve already figured out the answer.  We can also feel that they are simply recreating an old answer they learned long ago, and not opening up to what we can contribute that’s new.

So how do we lead, demonstrate our intelligence, but not give answers?

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, in a recent New York Times interview makes the case for questions being more important than answers. IDEO is considered one of the leading most creative design firms in the world.


Q. …Answers are often rewarded more than questions, right?

A. That was one of the things that used to make me feel very, very insecure as a business leader — thinking: “Am I supposed to have all the answers? Because I know I don’t.” Then I finally came to realize, well, nobody else has all the answers, either. It’s just that somehow we’ve got this culture of having the answers. It’s partly the media, you know, and some sort of self-image that business leaders have. And partly it’s about trying to convince the stock market that things are all fine. It’s all of these things added together.

To some degree, it’s a cultural thing here in America. It’s a little different when you go to other parts of the world. But I’m personally perfectly comfortable admitting that I don’t know the answers and that I’m more interested in the questions anyway.

First of all, Tim Brown starts with the obvious but often concealed fact that as a leader he doesn’t know all the answers.  He doesn’t capitulate his responsibility for finding solutions, however, he shifts his focus to asking the right questions, for which then his people can create solutions.  Here’s another quote from the article:

It’s very easy in business to get sucked into being reactive to the problems and questions that are right in front of you. And it doesn’t matter how creative you are as a leader, it doesn’t matter how good the answers you come up with. If you’re focusing on the wrong questions, you’re not really providing the leadership you should…

I do think that’s something that we forget — as leaders, probably the most important role we can play is asking the right questions. But the bit we forget is that it is in itself a creative process. Those right questions aren’t just kind of lying around on the ground to be picked up and asked…

In design, that’s everything, right? If you don’t ask the right questions, then you’re never going get to the right solution. I spent too much of my career feeling like I’d done a really good job answering the wrong question.

And that was because I was letting other people give me the question. One of the things that I’ve tried to do more and more — and I obviously have the opportunity to do as a leader — is to take ownership of the question. And so I’m much more interested these days in having debates about what the questions should be than I necessarily am about the solutions.

From my experience, searching for the right question is looking first to define the problem to be solved before plunging ahead.  We often solve the wrong problem.  Searching first to be sure we’ve defined the problem correctly both saves time and improves the outcome.

So the next time you are in front of your team leading the way to find a solution to a complex problem, start by searching first for the right question, and then let your people implement creative solutions using their skills and knowledge.  Both they and you will be happier – and the solution will be better as well.

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