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Wednesday 2nd December 2015 (1:30AM)

Why do you do what you do?

We all "do" different things and fulfil many roles, but our vocation is usually how we answer, "what do you do?".

For example, I'm a programmer.

But there is a problem:

We are more than just our vocation, it is but a small aspect of who we are, what we do and why we do it. A vocation also pigeon-holes so there is a danger of prejudice (for instance, the vast majority of programmers are not spotty, socially awkward single men). Furthermore, our vocation defines us in terms of our economic value (it is how we earn money).

Because the notion of vocation is so strong there is a danger that it dominates how we find meaning in our lives. Everything appears to flow from our vocation: money to pay for the things we think we need. Our life is reduced to a struggle to "do a thing to afford another thing".

This wonderful article from 2012 supplies an interesting contrast to such a world view. It lists five common themes the dying focus on when asked, "what would you have done differently?" (the same question I posed at the start but expressed in the past tense)...

  1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
  3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

None of the themes directly reference vocation nor is the resolution of such wishes encumbered by money. For example, I can't buy "staying in touch with my friends". It depends upon my own efforts to remain close to those I hold dear.

It suggests to me that acting without the expectation of debt or obligation to or from others can be a source of happiness and good. Act for intrinsic value rather than financial or material benefit.

So, I'll ask again: why do you do what you do?

As always, comments, constructive critique and ideas most welcome (with the caveat that these are rather raw thoughts that I may revise at some later date).

What IS the meaning of life?

Thursday 19th November 2015 (1:00AM)

Please file this under Nicholas-is-a-smart-arse. :-)

In my experience, "what is the meaning of life?" is viewed as a difficult question. Nothing could be further from the truth, so let's just get to the answer shall we?

We're simply asking in the wrong way. Instead of wondering what something is, we can flip the question around and ask what its opposite isn't. Ergo, honestly listing the reasons for not killing yourself tells you what gives meaning to your life.

Try it for yourself!

Obviously, the answer is different for each of us and changes over time. But that's essentially it: asking the meaning of life is solved with a glib philosopher's dinner party trick.

Didn't I tell you to file this under Nicholas-is-a-smart-arse?!?!

"Wait a minute..." I hear you ask, "there must be more to it than that! What about deep stuff like God?"

Yes, what about God?

I am an atheist and find it hard to discuss "God" seriously. To give you a flavour of what I mean (and I'm certainly not trying to be disrespectful here) when discussing religion please replace "God" with "flying spaghetti monster" and "heaven" with "Sugarcandy Mountain". If the result starts to sound silly, then you have a sense of how all religious discussion sounds to me.

Given that I'm a smart-arse, perhaps I should top the meaning of life with proof that there is no god.

Actually, I don't have to because the burden of proof is not my responsibility ~ it's religious people who are asserting something (that there is a god).

Let's play another word replacement game to illustrate what I mean: where a religious person might say "God" let's say "a teapot orbiting the Sun" instead. As a result the assertion becomes "I believe there's a teapot orbiting the Sun" to which I might reply, "oh no there isn't". The response, "OK smart-arse, prove there is no teapot orbiting the Sun" shows how bonkers and untenable such a position is. Any reasonable person would expect the person making such assertions to be the one to prove there is a teapot orbiting the Sun, rather than waiting for me to prove there isn't such celestial brewing equipment. Put simply, just because it's possible to assert something that is blatantly unverifiable doesn't make it true.

My favourite example of this phenomenon is a drogulus ~ an entity whose presence is unverifiable, because it has no physical effects. The atheist philosopher A.J.Ayer coined it as a way of ridiculing the belief system of his friend, the Jesuit philosopher, Frederick Copleston.

In 1949 Ayer and Copleston took part in a radio debate about the existence of God. The debate then went back and forth, until Ayer came up with the following as a way of illustrating the point that Copleston's metaphysics had no content because there was no way of testing the truth of metaphysical assertions. He said:

"I say, 'There's a "drogulus" over there,' and you say, 'What?' and I say, 'drogulus' and you say 'What's a drogulus?' Well, I say, 'I can't describe what a drogulus is, because it's not the sort of thing you can see or touch, it has no physical effects of any kind, but it's a disembodied being.' And you say, 'Well how am I to tell if it's there or it's not there?' and I say, 'There's no way of telling. Everything's just the same if it's there or it's not there. But the fact is it's there. There's a drogulus there standing just behind you, spiritually behind you.' Does that makes sense?"

Of course, the natural answer Ayer was waiting for was "No, of course it doesn't make sense." Therefore, the implication would be that metaphysics is like the "drogulus" ~ a being which cannot be seen and has no perceptible effects. If Ayer can get to that point, he can claim that any kind of belief in the Christian God or in metaphysical principles in general is really contrary to our logical and scientific understanding of the world.

So, what am I saying?

That is a complicated question - it's not just synonymous for "what is my argument?".

The examples above demonstrate that language is a source of confusion. It's possible to ask, "what am I saying?" in a more fundamental way - synonymous with "what do words mean?". Habit or familiarity appear to lead to lazy thinking: some thing must be true because it's repeated in such-and-such a way by lots of people. Yet, when the way that thing is expressed in language is explored it becomes obvious it's actually confused and a tad silly.

Ask yourself, what is the meaning of "life"? (Or any other word or turn of phrase.)

So, what's my argument? ;-)

If language is such a blunt tool and endless source of confusion how are we to discuss important subjects such as how to lead a good life? How are we to share complex and confusing ideas such as our dreams, loves and losses?

I'm not sure.

It might be best to merely act, observe, reflect and adjust. Know me by what I do, how I act and the way that I change myself rather than by what I might say (to be clear, the content of this article is covered by this assertion).

Like I said, file this under Nicholas-is-a-smart-arse.

As always, I'd love feedback, constructive critique and ideas about such raw thoughts.


PyCon India

Saturday 24th October 2015 (1:00AM)

It was an enormous honour to be invited as a keynote speaker at PyCon India. It turned out to be one of my most enjoyable PyCons.

The Python programming community is famous for being a diverse and welcoming place. Apparently someone once said that they'd came to Python for the programming language, but stayed because of the community. That has been my experience too. Visiting PyCon India reinforced this outlook.

Python is free software in two ways: anyone is free to make use of it in any way they see fit and it is given away for free. To paraphrase, it is both free as in speech and free as in beer. Volunteering time, effort and expertise is at the core of the Python community and every PyCon is different since it reflects the volunteer community that organises it.

At around 1500 attendees PyCon India is the second largest PyCon in the world. The reason it is so big is because the organisers have managed to foster and grow a community of amazing volunteers to run the conference. This was brought home to me during my first evening in India: wanting to make some friends I turned up at the conference venue to volunteer in some way. I ended up stuffing 1500 swag bags (full of leaflets from the conference sponsors), in what can only be described as a nerdy form of "keep-fit".

It works like this: volunteers run around in circles holding open bags while others stand in the middle throwing "swag" into them. At the end of each lap yet more volunteers are on hand to stack the bags ready for distribution to the attendees the next day. This process starts haphazardly, but people change roles and slot themselves in where there are bottlenecks in order to improve the efficiency of the "bag stuffing algorithm". Other techniques to speed things up included shouting a lot, chanting and laughing at each other. This process is beautifully illustrated in the following video of a "lap" that I took on my mobile phone:

By the end of the evening we were a well oiled machine.

Friday, the first full conference day, was interesting - I was still used to UK time so when my alarm went off at 6am (or around 1:30 am UK time) I decided to sleep in for "just another 10 minutes". Four hours later I was woken by a phone call from reception. An Indian buddy had turned up at my hotel to look for me and give me a lift.

He'd come on a motorbike.

I'd never been on a motorbike.

So, my first time on a motorbike was sitting on the back, hanging onto this dude's back pack, no helmet, dust in my eyes, zipping through Bangalore's morning rush-hour.

"Is it safe?" I asked.

"Of course it is...", he replied. "The traffic is so bad we never go faster than 15 mph anyway!"

The trick appears to be not to pay attention to all the car horns, shouting and never to look over your shoulder at what could squish you.

I also observed that traffic lights in Bangalore are only for decorative purposes. I particularly enjoyed getting stuck at a junction and giving an ancient lady in a colourful sari sat on the back of an adjacent moped a big grin and having it returned (but without teeth).

The following video (taken from the relative safety of a taxi) doesn't even begin to convey the chaos of the traffic in Bangalore. Can you spot the stray cow?

Throughout the course of the conference I found everyone, without exception, to be very friendly and I was made to feel very welcome. Thank you to my new friends in India for your wonderful warm hospitality. I hope that if you ever make it to the UK we'll be able to welcome you as well as you did me.

Sunday was the day of my keynote. I was addressing all 1500 delegates in the main hall and I'd chosen to focus on education as the topic of my presentation. I was actually really looking forward to giving the talk and had a lot of fun whilst giving it. The live demo went well, people laughed at my jokes, they had lots of interesting questions and it took me about an hour and a half to field all the comments I received in the corridor afterwards. In fact, one of the organisers told me that my keynote was a top trending item on Twitter in India. Wow!

You can see the whole thing in the video below.

As always, I love to get feedback (both good and bad). Please feel free to drop me a line.

Special mention should be made of the two main organisers, Vijay Kumar and Kracekumar Ramaraju, who put on an amazing event. I'd also like to publicly thank my friend Kushal Das and his family and colleagues for being my guides around Bangalore.

Will I go back to India? Absolutely! It's an amazing place.

It was a privilege.

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