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Grasp the great Form,
and the world will follow.
Well, if following does no harm,
then peace and security will prevail.

A nightclub attracts people with loud music and booze,
but they say the Way is has no qualities or flavor of its own:
look for it, and there are are no lights;
listen to it, and there is no music;
use it, and there is no end.


chapter notes:

In the first verse, I have changed “image” to “form”, and emphasized the conditional.

The Way is like a great river:
when the flood turns, nobody can stop it.

The project is finished,
the program is released,
but the Way has no name to credit.

The ten thousand programs return to the Way,
but it does not control them:
thus, it can be called the Small,
but it can also be called the Great.

This is how the Consultant
can accomplish great things:
because he does not try to make himself great,
greatness can follow him.


chapter notes:

In the first verse, “river” may be only vaguely consonant with the original. I chose it in the following sense:

On a historical scale, the great rivers of ancient China writhed across their valleys like angry dragons. To protect their lives and livelihoods, the Chinese raised levees to constrain the flood; these were the work of generations and the labor of millions.

Inevitably, the levees fail. When this happens, it is always too late: without regard for humans or their works, the river finds a new path — left, or right, as it may be.

To know others requires cleverness;
to know yourself is insight.
To overcome others requires force;
to overcome yourself is true strength.

Know when you have enough:
that is true wealth.
Act from true strength:
this leads to true purpose.
Stand on your core competence:
then you can truly endure.
Leave works that will be remembered:
that is true immortality.


chapter notes:

For this chapter, I introduced “true strength”, to differentiate from the sense of “strength” in later verses; this usage has been extended as a parallel throughout the chapter, making explicit in the result what might be implicit in the original.

The Way is truly nameless.

Although the uncarved block may be small,
the world dare not treat it as inferior.
If managers and CEO’s could hold to the Way,
all things would bow to them of their own accord,
manna would fall from heaven,
and the developers would coordinate the project themselves.

When the project is conceived, development has already begun.
Once development has begun, at some point it must end.
Know when to release: thus you may avoid danger.

The world is to the Way
as ten thousand streams to the sea.


chapter notes:

The chapter title identifies “the uncarved block” as representing the Open Source project. In the original (and in mistranslation, too), “the uncarved block” represents primal simplicity, but some contexts it also appears fairly descriptive of the way Open Source maintains its cohesion in the face of attempts to appropriate it.

Again, I have gratuitously inserted “ten thousand” where it does not appear in the original.

Lobbyists are tools of ill repute.
They are so generally despised
that even those who use them cannot defend the practice.

In his personal beliefs, the educated man
may esteem the left,
yet, when he seeks legislation to profit his company,
he will esteem the right.
thus, the lobbyist is the tool of the hypocrite.

The legal system is a blunt instrument.
When there is no alternative, use it —
but calmly and deliberately is best.
Do not glorify the contest:
this is the realm of coercion,
and flaunting the use of force
will not win you friends or customers.

In creative work, the left brain is dominant;
in linear thought, the right brain is dominant.
Productive development is a creative process;
testimony is a linear process.
Thus, legal and legislative conflict
is the death of productivity.

No matter who wins the conflict,
the company has lost money and effort
that could otherwise have been spent on something useful.
Win the war,
and treat victory as a tragedy.


chapter notes:

In the original, this chapter relies on cultural elements irrelevant to my purposes, so the difficulty was in finding something appropriate to convert them to. In addition, the logic of this chapter leaves something to be desired (although perhaps it was originally a parody of Confucian arguments?)

At any rate, I found two comparable modern left/right tropes (which are obvious only in retrospect!), and have deployed them in similarly unconvincing style.

In the final analysis, the advantage of corporate warfare over the real thing is that, usually, there are no actual deaths: in this context, wasted time, opportunity, and resources stand in for them.

The CEO who is guided by the Way
does not engage in hostile takeovers;
such business tends to turn on you.
Where proxy battles are fought,
shareholders will grow bitterness and regret.
Where profits were projected,
lean years will follow.

The able executive runs a successful company;
victory over the competition is not the point.
He succeeds and does not let it go to his head.
He succeeds without arrogance or contempt.
He succeeds without boasting of victory to come.
He succeeds, and engages in active conflict only as a last resort.
He succeeds by taking action without force,
and gains long-term profits for his shareholders.

When a company is run by a pack of frat boys,
it has left the Way.
Such a company is old before its time,
and will fail sooner rather than later.


chapter notes:

As usual, I have repurposed political philosophy as management philosophy, finding counterparts in corporate conflict at every turn.

I have moved the last verse from the general to the specific, choosing a familiar failure mode for technical companies.

There is no clear modern correspondence to this aspect of Chinese imperial ceremony, much less one that would make sense to a general audience. It is remarkable that Open Source works so well in its place (although critics will happily ascribe a religious nature to some of its supporters).

(or: What do you Want to Do Tonight?)

If someone tries to take over the world,
I predict that they will not succeed.
The world is like an Open Source project:
not something that can be seized and taken.
Take action with force, and suffer defeat;
seize with force, and grasp nothing.

The ten thousand programs:
some gain market share, some lose it;
some are hot, some are not;
some rise to the top, some fall into obscurity.

Therefore, the Consultant
avoids the overengineered,
disregards the marketing,
disbelieves the hype.


chapter notes:

I have introduced Open Source here in place of “sacred vessel”, reversing the sense of the comparison with the world.

In the second verse, the original text refers to “things” only, and does not have the “ten thousand” here.

Read the rest of this entry »

(or: Yes, It’s Pornographic)

Know the Male but hold to the Female:
be the Canyon of the world.
As Canyon of the world,
true Virtue runs through you,
and true Virtue always returns
to the childlike.

Know the Pure but hold to the Impure:
be the Valley of the world.
As Valley of the world,
true Virtue grows in you,
and true Virtue always returns
to the uncarved block.

Know the White but hold to the Black:
be the Pattern of the world.
As Pattern of the world,
true Virtue follows you,
and true Virtue always returns
to the endless.

When the block is carved,
it becomes a tool;
when the Consultant is hired,
he becomes a project lead.
Remember, though: the greatest woodcarver
works with the material, not against it,
and need not split the block to begin with.


chapter notes:

Aside from inserting the Consultant into the final verse, the changes I have made to this chapter are more along the lines of adding cohesion to the original sense, rather than converting it to some new relevance.

Unlike most such cases, I have left the imagery of the feminine pretty much alone (except for pointing the subtitle at it…).

A good hacker leaves no trace of his activities.
A good speaker has no gaps in his preparation.
A good coder is not dependent on his analysis tools.

Good security is inverse to points of entry,
and resists compromise even in the presence of holes.
Good design is inverse to complexity,
and resists compromise even in the presence of fools.

Therefore, the Consultant
is good at helping his clients,
and does not abandon them.
As for their code,
he retains what is salvageable,
and avoids duplicating effort.
This is called Basic Professionalism.

Thus, the able man
will teach the competent,
and take the incompetent in hand.
Those who fail to teach, fail to learn,
or fail to use their resources effectively,
no matter how brilliant, are on the wrong track.
This is called Basic Effectiveness.


chapter notes:

I apologize for using “hacker” in its popular, pejorative sense as a breaker of computer security, and not in the sense of the Hacker’s Dictionary: a computer expert who enjoys programming (and related explorations) for its own sake. I’m afraid the old MIT term has been fighting a losing battle for a while now, though. Also, the popular term fits the original text really well.

I should also note that the lines about security and design were originally more similar to the first lines. I have rephrased them, to somewhat awkward effect, in order to recognize good computer security (and good engineering design) as relative, not absolute.

Note that literal accuracy is not a requirement here; it’s just that claiming absolute security, or foolproof design, is an exercise in hubris: someone will break your unbreakable security, and the world will provide a greater fool than you ever anticipated.

December 2009

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