Friday, February 7, 2014

Revolutionary thinking?

Yesterday was an important public holiday in New Zealand - Waitangi Day, where we celebrate the treaty which established the country in 1840.  It's a complex day, the treaty is still fiercely debated - partly because different Maori tribes believed they were signing up to different things because of poor translations.

That said, as far as stories of Europeans settling in foreign lands, New Zealand is a relative success story, as the native Maori here were treated and integrated with better in the emerging nation than many other countries (though of course there's room for improvement).

Te Papa

Ironically we ended up looking at a culture for whom the polar opposite is true.  We visited the Aztec exhibition at Te Papa, Wellington's premier museum.  Based in what we now call Mexico, the Aztec empire was a loose collection of sometimes quite diverse tribes who gave tribute to their emperor.  They had farming, trade, artisans, sports, a complex calendar which showed their understanding of seasons and the movement of the Sun/Earth.  When 16th Century Spainish explorer Hernan Cortes looked upon their capital city of Tenochtitlan he was looking at a city far larger than any city in Europe.

A picture representing Tenochtitlan - the Aztec temple is at the heart of the city

However whenever you try and talk about the Aztecs, sooner of later you come back to the subject of their ritual of human sacrifice.  Oh yes, that.

To the Aztecs, human sacrifice made a lot of sense.  Their culture taught them that their gods had created life on earth from their own blood.  And these gods demanded the blood of human beings (which the gods had "gifted to them") to make adequate tribute - it HAD to be human, and it HAD to be in blood.

Tlaloc - the god of rain

Foremost of these tributes, were those made to Tlaloc, the god of rains.  It was his gift of rain upon which the Aztecs depended for growing the food their communities depended on (ironically for a culture of human sacrifice, the Aztecs had pretty much a vegetarian diet).  Because of this, if they had a dry season and the rains didn't come, then the logic was pretty clear cut, they'd offended the rain god with insufficient sacrifice.  So the high priests would decided the only way out of this would be more sacrifice - so more and more humans would be put to the blade.  And if the rains finally returned, then logically this had to be because "we had given enough sacrifice to appease the gods".  Sure enough next year there would be more sacrifices than ever to ensure better weather and avoid a repeat of last year's embarrassment.

An Aztec temple - this was the original stairway to heaven.  As my wife put it, "those stairs would be the death of me".

Of course this sounds crazy and barbaric to us, the idea of keep doing the same ritual until things seem to get better.  Should any brave Aztec challenge this idea, then pretty much they were punished by taking a one way trip up the Aztec temple stairway-to-heaven.

Such practices shocked Hernan Cortez when he arrived in the New World of the Aztec Empire in the 16th Century.  Well, not only was Hernan shocked by "barbaric" Aztec practices, he also thought they were hiding a stash of gold somewhere.  So there was only one thing for it - war!  Using European gunpowder, and allying with the many tribes who had blood feuds with the Aztecs over the years, Hernan wiped out Aztec culture, with the Spaniards burning and destroying all their written history.

In it's place, they replaced the Aztec beliefs with Christianity.  Now instead of fearing blood sacrifices, the former Aztecs would be taught that God had sent Jesus as god-made-man, and his blood sacrifice had saved them (oops, blood again, this is getting like a vampire teen romance novel).  Now when their crops failed, they would be told it was God's punishment for their impurity and lack of faith.  They could look forward to chapters of the Spanish Inquisition (a horror that none of the Aztecs could have expected) seeking out witches, heretics and the impure, and having them brutally executed in the name of Christ.  Pretty much one model of thinking was replaced by another, but the end result (state killing lots of people) was pretty much the same, if not worse.  The Aztecs had actually shown those they sacrificed some reverence - indeed their were promised the short cut to paradise over the purgatory and damnation the Christian faith promised them.

History is full of tales like this - we develop a model of understanding our world, and it makes a lot of sense, so we stick with it through thick and thin.  But over time, the model becomes too stretched or just plain falls over, however we are oversold the model as some form of "holy truth", so any evidence that challenges this model, or shows it's shortcomings is heresy - and usually there's a giant wicker man waiting for you if you do ...

Usually those in power have an interest in those models, and they don't like dissent,

  • Socrates was ordered to commit suicide for being a "smart arse" and challenging Athenian ideas.
  • Jesus was nailed to a cross for telling people "hey, be nice to each other", and challenging ideas about temple money lenders.
  • Galileo Galilei challenged the churches idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe, by showing the Earth instead moved around the Sun.  Heresy!  So he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life, only receiving an apology in 1992 - only 23 years after we'd been to the Moon.

The problem is, we're not yet into an age of enlightenment yet.  As Einstein put it insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different outcome.  Models are useful, because they help us get a general understanding of something - but they're fallible.  If the model breaks too often we need to find new ones.

But though we mock the Aztecs or fundamental Christians for the models they clung to as "the one way", we're increasingly addicted to our models of the modern world.  I think it's fair to say that the recent banking crisis which has led to the recession and so much turbulence shows that.  In the years running up to that crisis, I know I and many others questioned "surely house prices can't continue to go up like this if wages are relatively static?".  But generally we were made to feel "you know nothing", until it seemed the housing bubble went pop, and a lot of the banking that was riding on it burst with it.  Was this really so different to how people over-invested in shares during the Wall Street Crash?  I thought we'd learned from that ... or maybe not.

Over the years I've also seen people try to run software projects in the same way you run other businesses such as ad campaigns or sales schemes, and so import their same business models.  This is really interesting, because developing software runs exactly like an ad campaign or sales scheme ... except for all the places it's nothing like an ad campaign or sales scheme.  And that's where problems happen.  The model works outside of software, so like Aztecs or the Spanish Inquisition, the only answer must be that your people are no good, and you need to demand more sacrifice from them to achieve this.  Alas I've seen my fill of dazed veterans walking from such projects when the inevitable car crash occurs ...

Likewise to answer the challenges of software where testing is increasingly under scrutiny and sometimes brutally not seen to be delivering, the ISTQB has found themselves under the gun.  After all with their sale pitch of so many people in the world now with Fundamental and Advanced qualifications, surely we should have a more educated testing workforce than ever before - so what's the problem, why are projects still having problems?  Well the ISTQB solved this ... we need more certifications!  So they've added a new "Expert Level" above the Advanced one.  It reeks of the Aztec high priests keeping demanding sacrifices until the rain starts, but nevermind ...

We've also done battle with the High Priests of Best Practice, who advocate that if we're experiencing problems, then it must be because we're not following some best practice.  Again, without realising that even the idea of "best practice" is just a model, which suits some circumstances.

A recent Twitter discussion where "best practice" reared it's ugly head again ...

So where does that leave people who are rational thinkers?  The people who want to try and reason with the high priests and the lynch mobs?  The badge heretic is a difficult one.  But history has proved Socrates, Jesus and Galileo right.

Every revolution starts somewhere ...

For myself the most revolutionary and exciting ideas I've heard around testing and software have involved the ideas of Agile and CDT.  And as a dyed-in-the-wool V-model tester on military applications, I initially hated and was opposed to them both.  But then I realised that not every piece of software flew a Harrier.  The model that worked for such a project didn't always work for others.

I was at first intrigued, and then won over, and finally signed up as Comrade TestSheepski ...  and I'm not alone, with both schools of ideas becoming more mainstream, though not fast enough.

Of course even so, these schools of thought are just models themselves, and not to be slavishly followed, but challenged to ascertain if you're getting value from them.  The difference though is that both Agile and CDT depend on this challenge to strip away any delusion and ensure you are on the right path, that what you're doing actually has value.  Answer a challenge of "why are you doing it like that?", with "but we've always done it like that", and you go sit in the corner for a minute to think about it.

I've found myself a few times even this year coming out with that sentence at times, and going "oh".  Programming/conditioning is hard to break, and free thinking even harder to get used to.  We get addicted to routine, or maybe the routine becomes an addiction.  There are all sorts of things we do in our work routine that we've lost the ability to question.  We've bought the culture, we've bought it's a necessity.  But is it?

Don't be an Aztec - challenge the sacrifices you're making ...

The Gods Of Software demand more certifications!

Sadly the Te Papa exhibit on Aztecs closes this weekend.  Thanks also to James Bach's blog post on reviewing his son's book manuscript, and why he felt he didn't need to use KPI's to justify his reviewing.  That piece gave me the extra ammunition I needed!

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