Monday, May 23, 2011

Is the Bible full of 'forgeries'?

My friend pointed me to this article about a new book by a Bart Ehrman outlining a theory that many books in the New Testament were forged for an attempt to deceive people.  He asked for comment.  I figured I'd blog the comment, because my comment turned out to be quite long.

First, I have to say I'm not a complete expert on the subject of Biblical text validity, but I fortunately do know enough to get my feet wet and raise my hand when something smells funny.  Anytime someone claims something about the validity of Biblical text (or rather, lack thereof), something smells funny because the topic is a well-researched topic already.  On that note, I've read the 8 blog posts to which the article links, which are written by a supposed expert.  That guy, Ben Witherington, does a lot to decompose the linkbait into much ado about nothing.  It is good that the original article links to Witherington for balance, but the author of the original article doesn't say much about Witherington's commentary.

I find Witherington's text to be quite dry (as is common for academic people), but it is quite comprehensive and carries a balanced tone.  He explains when he agrees with Ehrman, when he thinks Ehrman is just a bit off, and when he thinks Ehrman is outright wrong.  He gives Ehrman credit when he feels credit is due instead of completely dismissing Ehrman, which I think is important for demonstrating that an argument received thorough consideration.  But most importantly, he's thorough.  Maybe too thorough; I fear that most people wouldn't have the stomach to read through all 8 blog posts.

Witherington's chief criticisms that stand out for me are that:
     a) Ehrman defines forgery specifically to suit his purposes, then frames the data to say that forgery happened, while if the data is in fact analyzed wholly and properly, it would not fit Ehrman's argument.
     b) Ehrman takes texts that are categorically dismissed as valid scriptures and unfairly lumps them together with texts that are categorically accepted as valid scriptures.  He attempts to make the argument that if one was dismissed, the other should also be considered for dismissal, even though that debate has long passed.
     c) Ehrman does not spend much time in his book analyzing the principles and historical knowledge that allow us to put a lot of trust into what is accepted as Biblical text.  This lack of balanced attention would easily result in a one-sided, biased argument; he ignores counter-evidence.

On the first point of framing definitions and data to suit his interests, it's sufficient to note that Ehrman accuses people of forgery where no attempt for forgery is apparent.  Witherington goes into a LOT of detail (those 8 blog posts are not short blog posts), but the gist of it is that Ehrman is drastically mischaracterizing people's intentions, writing practices, and written works.  If I tell you that I'm playing soccer today, and then you see me cooking fish, you're jumping to conclusions if you call me a liar.  One does not have anything to do with the other, and one does not exclude the other.

Whether Ehrman does this intentionally is probably unknown.  I know a lot of atheists and skeptics do similar things with scriptural texts, but completely unintentionally.  They're just too ignorant about what they're discussing to make proper judgments.  The most famous example I can think of is Bertrand Russell's commentary on Jesus and the fig tree in his classic, Why I Am Not a Christian.  Russell had no idea how far off the mark he was with his contentions.

On the second point of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable as a Biblical text, there is a wealth of academic information on what is known as the gnostic gospels or apocryphal texts.  The gnostic gospels clearly cannot be accepted as valid scriptural texts, for reasons as simple as date written (several centuries after the time of Jesus Christ), among many other reasons.  Some of Ehrman's arguments seem excellent for rejecting texts like the gnostic gospels.  However, the church already did that a long time ago, as experts still do today.  There's nothing new here.

According to Witherington, the new claim by Ehrman is that the accepted writings and the unaccepted writings should be compared as apples to apples.  This is unfair, as the topic is well-studied and the debate is over for experts who have studied the topic in depth.  Unfortunately, laypeople would not understand that, and would see Ehrman's views as a striking, controversial breath of fresh air.  On a side note, it's important to note that the phenomenon of these special texts that attempt to glorify certain historical figures with mystical stories written centuries after their lifetime is not unique to the person of Jesus Christ.  This in turn makes it even easier to reject the gnostic gospels and ascertain what can be considered acceptable.  Deep research into this specific topic was one of the turning points for Lee Strobel (now a famous pastor and Christian author) to change from atheism to Christianity.

On the third point, there is again a litany of points by Witherington.  But more importantly, I find this particular Ehrman quote from the original article most interesting:
"I'm not a Christian anymore, but it's not because of this kind of thing," he told me. "I got to a point where I could no longer believe that there's a good and powerful God in charge of the world, given all the pain and misery that's in it. ... I don't think that the God of the Bible exists."
That an academic should base his decision to abandon his faith based on such an emotional response to a difficult subject gives me cause for concern as to the rigor of his logic.  The logical aspects of the problem of pain and suffering has been studied quite thoroughly by many people, ranging from academics of yesteryear like C.S. Lewis (himself an atheist-turned-Christian) to modern experts like William Lane Craig today.  From a logical standpoint, the arguments are quite solid.  As many logicians will acknowledge, emotions are not so easy to handle in a similar manner.  Although the logic is quite solid, it may still be too difficult to accept the logic on an emotional level.

That being said, if people base a faith decision on emotion, rather than logic (as this author seems to do), it will then indicate to me that their subsequent works (such as his book on Biblical forgeries) would be prone to influence from such emotional bias and therefore lack logical rigor.  This honestly sounds like another guy who thinks that the world should be simple, easy, and nice without heavily contemplating the root causes and answers of the issues of evil.  That's a complaint I have with many folks who bring up the "problem of evil" argument against the existence of God.

Meanwhile, Christianity has explained that problem: it's at the core of the Christian faith, described in such texts as Genesis, Isaiah ch 59, Ezekiel ch 16, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Hebrews, etc (well, pretty much the whole Bible).  Christianity also offers a solution, claiming that it's the only solution: salvation through Jesus Christ.  I can point to various friends and societies who have had their lives turned around by their faith experience as to the solution in action.  Of course, there are also counter-examples where the church has created evil and caused pain.  Let's be careful here and recognize that the problem of evil and the problem of hypocrisy are two separate problems.  One should not affect the other in terms of analysis.  Again, logic vs. emotion.

Ehrman's bias does seem to play itself out in the book according to Witherington's commentary, even in the gathering of the data.  As per Witherington's 2nd blog post on the book:
Here is where I say  ‘caveat emptor’—let the buyer beware when Bart begins to make sweeping claims like “Second Thessalonians… is itself widely thought by scholars not to be by Paul”  (p. 19).   I called Bart on this very point when we were debating at New Orleans Baptist Seminary last month.  I pointed out, that if one does the head count of what commentators say about 2 Thessalonians, in fact the majority of commentators, even if one restricts one’s self to  so-called critical commentators,  still believe Paul is responsible for 2 Thessalonians. 
Bart’s rebuttal was that he was not counting conservative  or orthodox commentators.   My response to the response was that in fact he was ruling out the majority of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, not to mention some Jewish scholars at this point.    In other words,  his ‘canon’ of critical scholars is small, a distinct minority of the total number of NT scholars around the world,  with whom he has chosen to agree.     My point here is,  don’t believe such claims as ‘widely believed’  or  ‘the majority of good scholars think’  without first doing the math.   In fact, Bart’s math does not add up.   Thus while it is true that often forgers throw people off their trail by warning about forgery in their own forged documents,  in fact, there were plenty of genuine warnings of this sort by authors like Galen, who were really upset with people writing documents in their own name.   Galen even published a list of his authentic writings to make clear what was a forgery.   As it turn out, many ancients were very concerned about the dangers of forgery,  and Paul was one of them.
The original article does good to link to Witherington to provide balance.  But I fear that many atheists and skeptics would take the linkbait and run with it without wanting to consider the other side first, much as the original author seems to do.  All logicians on both sides of the debate need to hold themselves up to higher standards.  As well, people in general need to appreciate that any subject can be quite complicated.  If Witherington's analysis of Ehrman's text is accurate, Ehrman takes the analysis of scripture too lightly, just like Bertrand Russell did.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Problem with Team Building Initiatives

I think creating good teamwork is a misunderstood problem.  People are messy, but smart folks try to come up with fancy ideas to say it's easy for people to work together.  One of the more interesting books I've read recently is Tony Hsieh's Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.  It's his personal story of how he founded two companies, drastically failed at creating a good culture in the first venture, despite creating a multi-million dollar success.  He learned his lesson and made creating a good culture the #1 priority at the second venture, which became a billion dollar success.  He wanted to help make his employees happy, theorizing that happy employees serve customers better, work more productively, and ultimately contribute to the bottom line better.  He made Zappos what it is today, and that company is often lauded as the benchmark for quality customer service, even though it now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary under Amazon.

As I read the book, I could not help but think that I could never work there.  It gave me the impression that Zappos tries to fill all the holes in your life and give you a sense of community.  All your work life and your non-work life was one.  Your colleagues at work were your main friends outside of work.  None of this is really unusual, as many people experience the same thing nowadays.  What felt different as I read the book was that this phenomenon felt required at Zappos, while it seems optional at other companies.  At many other companies, you can easily have an independent life outside of work.  Whether intended or not, the effect seemed to be exacerbated when they decided to move all their operations to Las Vegas to focus on growth.  70 of 90 employees decided to move with the company.
Although it seems obvious in retrospect, probably the biggest benefit of moving to Vegas was that nobody had any friends outside of Zappos, so we were all sort of forced to hang out with each other outside the office.  It was an exciting time.  We were all beginning a new chapter of our lives together and forming a new social network.  We worked together and hung out together during almost all of our waking hours.
In San Francisco, we had always said that culture was important to the company, mostly because we didn't want to make the same mistake that I had made back during my LinkExchange days, when the company culture went completely downhill.
Now that we were in Vegas with nobody else to lean on except each other, culture became our number one priority, even more important than customer service.  We thought that if we got the culture right, then building our brand to be about the very best customer service would happen naturally on its own.
To keep our culture strong, we wanted to make sure that we only hired people who we would also enjoy hanging out with outside the office.  As it turned out, many of the best ideas came about while having drinks at a local bar .
Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh.  Chapter 5
To be fair to Hsieh, the move to Vegas was logical.  They wanted to make customer service their core competency and key differentiator.  But in an expensive city like San Francisco, it was hard to find people who viewed customer service as the highest calling in their life.  Working in a call centre just didn't pay the big bills, and most people viewed call centre work as a temporary gig while they went to school, were in between jobs, etc.  They had some discussion and believed that Vegas was the best alternative.  But the more I read the book, the more a single word was deeply impressed into my mind: cult.

Seriously, stuck with these people all the time in a large organization where many people don't touch each other, but still say they're part of one big happy family that shares awesome core values and makes people's lives meaningful without doubt?  Most big corporations claim they do that, but Zappos actually seemed to be accomplishing it.  But it was scary because there seemed to be a subliminal message that it wasn't optional.  It felt like these guys were the Borg without any sense of individuality that could result in differing opinions or *gasp* conflict.  They didn't seem like they were simply a good team.  They seemed like they were a cult where groupthink could thrive and eventually become their downfall.  That reeks of the kind of place where fake happiness can eventually take hold and taint things, without management realizing it until it's too late.

Fact is, people are messy and you need to be a certain type of person to be able to fit into a culture so carefully sculpted.  Many people are not like that.  Others just already have communities outside of work, whether a church, sports team, volunteer organisation, etc, and they don't want to give those things up; if you always go do your own thing in a culture where hanging out with co-workers outside of work is extremely valued, honestly, what does that say about your desire to be part of the team?  Correspondingly, what effect does that have on your prospects for promotions, raises, etc?  Fortunately for those of us who can't assimilate so easily into the Borg, organisations need diversity to innovate and thrive.

I find that team building initiatives and events have similar unsatisfying undertones.  Going out for a dinner together, working to clean up a beach together, or going through an obstacle course is fun, yes.  It's like primary school all over again, outings are the highlight of many a kid's year.  But I am skeptical as to whether these events actually build teams.

Ultimately, you know your team is working well when people are delivering good results together with little complaint.  People are both happy and productive.  Most noticeably, there's a sense of camaraderie.  People trust each other to get things done.  Don't get me wrong, I think team building efforts can have their place.

But I see people often thinking that one-off team building events alone can build the team.  That's not my experience.  Even in the example given by Rands, it's not the card game itself that built the teamwork.  The card game was an ongoing icebreaker through which the bickering guys could get to link minds and get comfortable with each other.  It's the intellectual and strategic communication inherently required by the card game that developed that level of comfort, and it required time.

In my experience, there really are only three things required for building quality teams:

  1. Shared experiences
  2. Shared goals
  3. Ongoing effort

Shared Experiences
This can be difficult in certain organisations.  Many organisations these days operate as matrix organisations, meaning they have a functional head to which they report, but also a project (or projects) on which they're working.  So a group of analysts may all be part of the same team because they have the same skills, but they never work with each other because they're all assigned to different projects.  There are two types of teams here, the functional team and the project team.  Depending on the nature of the project, they may never interact with other project team members all that much.  And depending on the nature of the organisation, they may never interact with fellow analysts all that much.  So where's the teamwork?  Well, bring on a team-building event, some gurus will say.

Team building events are fun outings, but they don't deliver any reason why one guy should be willing or able to work with another guy at work.  Honestly, the fact that this guy can hit a baseball out of the park, how does that reflect at all on his ability to write high-quality Python code?  If I think he's slow and his work sucks, it doesn't matter how many home runs he hits at our baseball outing.  If we're lucky, those home runs maybe become an ice breaker to giving him constructive criticism and helpful advice on how to improve his skills.  But that is rare in my experience.  It seems that once you're back at the office, it's back to the status quo, especially if the event was a one-off experience.  This is especially true in toxic work environments.

Teams are built through shared experiences.  Camaraderie and the ability to trust each other is sculpted and cemented in crisis situations stewarded by strong leadership.  You don't get any other situation where you can truly prove to each other that you can depend on each other.  In project teams, the camaraderie is developed because you are actually working together on the same thing.  "Dude, if it weren't for you, we would have totally lost that account.  I am so glad you're a part of this.  You and me, Batman and Robin, baby.  But you're Batman."  In functional teams, the camaraderie is developed because you're all experiencing the same challenges and can teach lessons to each other.  "Man, I can't believe those finance guys keep rejecting our capital requests, what the heck is going on here?  Ah, you know my pain?  Whoah, that's an awesome idea, thanks so much!  Hey, it worked!  You're fantastic!"

Shared experiences enable you and your comrades to share in triumphs and failures, complaints about common enemies, and develop the secret handshakes.  There is camaraderie because there is empathy.  There is empathy because there are shared experiences, especially on those days where it feels like it's you against the world, and the only people who have your back are your comrades.

Shared Goals
It is logically more easy to align people to work together or support each other when they have common goals.  In project teams, the goal is readily apparent: get the project done.  In functional teams, goals need to be set by the manager, and it's the manager's job to align the team.  Under a good manager, team members will keep their eye on the ball and urge each other on, even though they never work on the same project.

It's like team members of any individual sport.  Skiers will always race as individuals, but during training and competition, you see the ski team members supporting each other and pushing each other to get better.  The main thing driving them is that they have a shared goal.  Without overarching shared goals, there is nothing towards which a functional team can strive.  A lack of goals is a lack of leadership.  In that void, chaos can grab a foothold, which is horrible for morale because it can induce bickering instead of teamwork.  People will be motivated by selfish reasons that matter to themselves, rather than selfless reasons that matter to the team (if they are able to motivate themselves at all).

The shared goals could be anything.  Help the company to survive the year.  Get new customers.  Get ready for Day 1 of the World Cup, even though you're all assigned to different stadiums.  Win your government seat for the sake of the political party's platform and campaign, and for the future of the country.  Graduate from this darn stupid school.  But the goals must be defined and stewarded by whoever is the overall leader.

Ongoing Effort
This is perhaps the most important item, and the thing that the team-building events get the most wrong.  Team building cannot be a one-off effort, especially among teams where a lack of trust has built up over time.  Team building is necessarily a hard long slog because if extensive time is not invested into the effort, there is no opportunity for light to stumble upon the weeds of distrust, for people to carefully pull out the roots of that distrust, and for seeds of new trust to sprout.

As one manager once told me, it's like a marriage.  You have to commit to teamwork and you sometimes have to sacrifice to make it work.  No matter how fancy or fun your outing was, it adds no value if things go back to the status quo once back at the office.  Close one-to-one relationships are not instantaneous, so it should be logical that tight-knit, productive, and healthy teamwork, where the relationships are many-to-many, is also not instantaneous.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Speaking of important decisions...

So I talked about how senior-level decisions are hard and are often criticized by people who don't understand said decisions.  I also talked briefly about false positives, people who somehow manage to get into important positions, but then demonstrate that they don't actually have what it takes.

Is Ignatieff a total false positive?  He was the guy who triggered the whole election in Canada.  Now he can't even win his own federal riding?  What the heck happened, Ignatieff?  A once-proud political party is very fallen from grace.  Did it start long before Ignatieff, or was it really all Ignatieff?  This is going to require one heck of a post mortem.  Heck of a poor decision to trigger this election.  No matter what the circumstances, it's difficult to conclude that he was simply a good leader in extremely unfortunate circumstances.  After all, he triggered the election, the election wasn't thrust upon him.

As polarizing as a Conservative majority would be, I'm glad we have a majority, and agree with most Conservative policies.  So I'm glad we have a Conservative majority.  Things get done in majority governments.  Perhaps the fact that the opposition is the more-far-left NDP will placate the naysayers a bit.  Politics is always messy.

High-Level Decision Making Under Pressure

Today's a big day.  The USA announced that Osama bin Laden had finally been killed in Pakistan.  OK, that was actually yesterday, technically.  But this post is not about Osama and the USA's war on terror. It just triggered me to finally write the post I've been wanting to write.

Currently, I'm reading George Bush's autobiography, Decision Points.  I didn't know what to make of his presidency, given that it was filled with so much controversy.  I did always believe that after 9/11, he had to step into a situation he could not expect when he campaigned to become president.  I thus became quite interested in learning about how he led, as I came across many people I respect who admired his leadership style, whether or not they agreed with his policies.  I do believe that he had one of the more complicated presidential terms in recent history.

One driving thought has shaped my ideas about senior-level decision-making over the years.  That thought became crystallized through a conversation with my friend (a current Googler), when I asked him his thoughts on the infamous blog post regarding Google engineering management mistakes.  He made specific points about slide #13.  Here's my chat transcript:
Testimonials from high level engineers were over-valued.
Testimonials from lower level engineers frequently ignored or under-valued.

there's a lot of truth in what he says

no denying it

but its to prevent false positives

lower level engineers really have no idea what a higher level job looks like

it's a sad truth

It is a sad truth.  People usually only see what goes on at their own level, but hardly ever see what goes on in the big picture.  A lot of the big picture is hidden due to the nature of communications, operations, and outright complexity.  Often, it's not that senior folks want to hide what's happening from the common folk, it's just that there is literally no opportunity to communicate and explain what's happening and what needs to happen.  And in fact, if they try, suboptimal decisions get made (inefficiently at that) due to too many chefs in the kitchen trying to placate everyone.  Your precious lamb stew becomes gunk.  This is why common citizens may have no clue what they are talking about when they criticize their political leaders, and likewise common employees when they criticize their executives.  On the other hand, it's the common folk who are on the ground and experiencing many things firsthand, so if it's working, they'd be able to say so; if it's not working, they'd be able to say so.  People on the ground have the ability to give feedback, make criticism, and generate ideas, but not necessarily to make decisions.  Due to things like Dunning-Kruger Effect, many lower-level folk actually suck at making decisions.

I'll never forget that statement when I was interviewing for a venue technology manager position at the Olympics:  "Well, it's obviously we have a pretty smart guy here in front of us.  We're just trying to figure out if you can do the job."

Huh?  It was only later that I understood what the interviewer was saying.  This role was for owning all technology aspects of Olympic venue operations.  Large diverse team, world watching on TV, many important stakeholders, lot of responsibility.  Who knows why they hired me, but I was glad to get the experience.  Senior positions require a large mix of skills, most of which can only be executed well by those with quality experience.  The key term there is quality.  Someone who has 20 years experience as a political aide may quite possibly not have the skills required to become a head of state.  Someone who has 20 years experience as a manager may quite possibly not have the skills required to become an executive; in fact most definitely not.  Etcetera.  You want to see experience in key difficult and complex situations, as well as a clear progression of personal growth and track record of getting things done.  Among other things.

So my telecom manager took me to school.  I was the guy's boss, but he had been through the wars and had a wealth of wisdom, whereas I was clearly a rookie.  After a technical rehearsal exercise turned into a disaster, he sat me down and said, "This is how you make tough decisions in crisis situations.  Kick everyone out of the room except for your key leaders.  Get a summary of the situation from them, get them to tell you what are the options and their advised recommendations, and then make your decision.  But kick everyone else out of the room.  My job is to know my operation well enough to get you the information you need to make the correct decision.  You leave that part to me."  I had done the exact opposite.  Wanting to create a sense of integrated teamwork and wanting expertise from every level, I involved everyone in the decision.  From the lowest tech to the highest manager from every area of my technology team, we had a long extensive discussion that resulted in a lot of confusion and created a disaster. I learned a lot that day and was thankful that it was only a rehearsal.

It's quite interesting to see how many of Bush's own decisions reflected this same style; he hardly ever made knee-jerk decisions, always relied on his key leaders and advisors for input, and sometimes even created entire detailed and lengthy processes to make particularly difficult decisions that didn't need immediate resolution (like the question of releasing funds for stem cell research, where his final decision appeared to actually be quite balanced).

People screw up under pressure, especially if they're inexperienced.  Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent summary on the topic in his book Blink, where he discusses the story of how New York cops shot up an innocent man because they misjudged the situation.  Gladwell learned through discussions with leading psychologists that in high-pressure situations, the mind apparently freezes up and the body reroutes all resources to focus on immediate survival.  Consequently, decision-making is impaired because the brain essentially becomes autistic, unable to perceive common social signals and facial expressions, which is how the cops mistook an innocent guy reaching for his ID to be a thug reaching for a gun.  The only thing to counter this deer-caught-in-headlights phenomenon is to get experience.  That's why a certain security firm interviewed by Gladwell actually puts new employees through simulations of getting shot.  That's also partly why we had a technical rehearsal at the Olympics.  And that's why training is so important, even though many don't value it as much as they should (admittedly, a lot of training programs out there unfortunately suck for many fields).

For the big leaders at the top, I can only imagine you have to get whatever experience you can because you'll probably never beforehand experience anything like what you will experience once you become the real big cheese.  Unfortunate things happen when Dunning-Kruger Effect comes into play and someone tries to get a promotion for which they're not ready (and somehow successfully pulls the wool over everyone's eyes in the process).  I've seen it happen and have worked alongside those people.  Heck, I've been that guy before.  It's an admittedly difficult complex process to identify people who can handle the next level.  Especially for the first jump from worker bee to management.  You're taking people who were awesome accountants, and suddenly asking them to manage people instead of crunch numbers and audit clients.  That's a tad different skillset.

But for those quality people who are the real deal, experience is what will set them apart when it comes to making good decisions in pressure cooker situations.  Think this guy could have landed that plane on that river without all the training and experience he had?  Experienced people also usually have the added benefit of having made many mistakes.  Quality folk learn from their mistakes and are better people due to those mistakes.  It's a survivorship bias, but that's what you need if you want to reduce risk for high-pressure senior positions.  It's like how my brother explains action movie characters to my mom.  In action movies, the main character is the main character because he didn't die.  But in senior positions, the fact that one doesn't die counts for something.  It instills confidence.  I cannot express enough how my experience at the Olympics makes me confident to face any situation as a project manager or IT manager.  It was arguably the worst venue ever due to environmental, technical, and operational issues beyond our control, and seeing how I survived that (though not unscathed) tells me I can survive almost anything a job or life could throw at me.  It's easy to look a deadline in the eye now and stay calm, even if I know that I'll miss it and a lot of people will be upset.  Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches, though you do everything you can to not get to that point.

My main point is that most senior leaders probably become senior leaders because they're qualified and have demonstrated worthiness to hold those positions.  Of course, you'll find a false positive in the mix every now and then.  But when you criticize a senior leader, especially the top leader, you should realize that you, me, and most people out there, more often than not would not do a better job.  We can provide our feedback, criticisms, and ideas, but senior leaders have to make decisions with far-reaching consequences that are not even on the radar at our level.  They make those decisions to the best of their ability with information we don't even know exists, assuming that they care.  And many of them do care.  Am I just being too idealistic on that point?