The Moon Illusion–Story

January 30, 2007

Zen and Science (1)

A full moon rises, large and luminous against the horizon. But later at night, when the moon is high in the sky, it has shrunk to a small circle. For centuries, people have tried to explain this observation.

It is easy enough to convince yourself it is an illusion. For example, a photograph taken of a horizon moon will be smaller than that remembered by the observer. The size of the moon in the photograph will remain the same when taken at different heights in the sky. More simply, just compare the size of the moon to the tip of your little finger when held at arm’s length. First, check the moon against your finger when it is first near the horizon, and then check again later when the moon is high in the sky and appears smaller. The relative size measured against the finger remains the same.

There are many theories about the underlying cause of this illusion. An entire technical book, The Mystery of the Moon Illusion, examines these theories. (H.E. Ross & C. Plug, 2002, 275 pgs). The authors conclude that no single theory has emerged victorious. They further observe that The moon illusion is one of the few perceptual phenomena that tap a broad spectrum of sciences: astronomy, optics, physics, physiology, psychology, and philosophy.

Buddhist Comment:

Bodhidharma was a fifth century Buddhist monk credited with bringing Zen from India to China. His surviving writings are few, but to the point:

“Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.”


Apparently all human beings are wired to make the same perceptual error. The senses may not accurately register what is actually out there. The moon illusion is evaluated against our normal understanding. The assumption is that everyday perception and understanding is accurate. Is that the case? Having seen one inconsistency, there are very likely other illusions, even if we are normally unaware of them. These illusions further distort reality. We may not know what is out there as reality, or even if there is an out there.

Bodhidharma’s comment points in this direction. A mind distorted by illusions from the senses can not explore itself with accuracy. Such an exploration just adds error to error.

In such case, the Buddhist method of examination of reality is through refined awareness, developed by quieting the mind.


Related posts: Feynman Asks a Question

Natural History, Natural Mind

Minimizing the Frustration of Working for an Indecisive Manager

January 23, 2007

Indecisive managers survive, even prosper. They have a good job. It’s working for them, so there is no motivation to change.

Although there is plenty of advice offered to understand or encourage these managers to change, the effort of an employee to change them is usually pretty futile.

If you are working for an indecisive, it is important to take care of yourself. The loss of positive energy shows itself in frustration, less effort, reduced creativity, and an erosion of skills. These factors ultimately reduce your effectiveness and the ability to contribute and be rewarded. The focus should be on maintaining energy and effectiveness in a frustrating situation.

You may not be able to get a decision from the boss, but there are a number of actions you can try in order to maintain your effectiveness and mental well being.

Simplify the situation.

Frame the decision situation for the supervisor in relatively clear terms so a path is obvious. Propose the direction. Make it as simple and straightforward as possible—even to a yes or no response.

Understand the decision schedule.

There is a misconception, often embraced by the indecisives, that decisions should be made at the deadline. The question “When is this due?” seems to be their first response.

There is a myth that the passage of time somehow leads to better outcomes, even if nothing is done during the interval. This myth provides a rationale for not making a timely decision. In reality, the earlier that the decision can be made, the better chance for a good outcome:

(i) Decisions should be made as soon as there is agreement that all of the critical information or experience is at hand. Work to get an agreement that the all the information is available. Filter out secondary information that would be reassuring to have, but is not critical to determine the direction.

(ii) A decision, even if not the “best” decision, that permits action is more effective than waiting for a decision.

(iii) The earlier the decision is made, the more time there is to change it if the initial actions indicate it is not correct.

Ask no more than twice, then move in a different direction.

In general, when requesting action from someone, it is a good policy to ask a second time if there is no activity after the initial request. It is always possible that the person did not understand fully the significance of the first request. Consequently, during the second follow-up conversation, take care to ensure that the details and significance are understood. (One method: Listening for Consequences).

Then, if no action is taken after the second conversation, it is clear that the request is consciously being put aside. Further requests are not likely to improve the situation. There is little to be gained by pestering. Continued ignored requests lead to frustration.

It is a more productive approach to consider other directions for action. Finding them takes some creativity. Usually, people are focused on the first idea. Alternatives exist, but are not apparent at first. It takes some real thinking to identify them. Make the effort. (Example: Reject the First Idea)

Act, than apologize if necessary.

Some indecisives prefer it when the action is around them. Things get done and they do not have accountability. If the direction is clear and the decision reasonably within your competence or responsibility, start the activity in the selected direction, then check back.

Channel your energy in other productive directions.

Look out for yourself. Think about how to constructively release the energy that builds up under the frustrating condition of a boss who will not do his job. Rather than knocking your head against the wall about this situation, see what alternative actions can be taken. It is better than stewing or complaining. Put the energy into exploring areas that you can do something constructive.

It is never fun working for people who cannot make a clean decision. Sometimes, it is like being in quicksand. Some, but not all, are clever enough to find their way out.


Tewa Initiation and Clifford Geertz: Story

January 16, 2007

Clifford Geertz was a well known anthropologist at Princeton University. His gift as a teacher was to help students go against the grain of their own cultural experience and explore other ways of thinking.

The Tewa people in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico have their own cultural perspectives that inform their rituals. Geertz demonstrated this in a recently recounted story about the Tewa initiation rite. (R. Darnton, New York Review of Books 1/11/07 Pg. 32.)


Adolescent boys were awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night. They were taken into another building, covered with a blanket, and made to climb down a ladder into the most secret room in the pueblo. There was a loud noise above and the elders covered the ladder with a blanket. When the blanket was removed, the chief deity wearing a terrifying mask, stood directly in front of the boys. He asked them if they were prepared to be finished as men. After they agreed, he began to strike them with a whip using full force and raising red welts on their bodies. Finally, when the boys were reduced to terror, he pulled off his mask. The boys saw the face of an elder relative or neighbor laughing at them.

The question Geertz posed to his class: “What was the nature of the revelation?” All the students agreed that the boys were initiated into a confidence game. By removing the mask, the elder exposed the human being hiding behind the false deity.

Geertz did not agree with the students. It was a different culture and worldview. He explained that the boys had learned that the elder was a god, not that a supposed god was only the elder.


Did you agree with the class interpretation? As Geertz noted, the straightforward interpretation from our own perspective may not apply to a different worldview.

These different cultural interpretations are a step to being open to the wisdom that can be learned elsewhere and being able to reevaluate the basis of one’s own perspectives.

How does one begin to learn to think or experience outside of their own culture? The paths may be different for each person.

Manager’s Performance Appraisals—Assessing Contributions to Subordinates’ Professional Growth

January 9, 2007

The strong leader makes his mark, puts his vision into action, and then moves on. It is the expectation that the vision continues to grow in the future. Often though, when the leader moves on, there is no successor who can continue and expand the implementation. This break in leadership is a consequence insufficient effort to the development of the next generation. As the example below shows, this is an old problem.

Genghis Khan spent almost forty years in constant warfare to build his Asian empire. In his 60’s, he was at the height of power, without competition either from within his tribe or from an external enemy. He realized that he had a problem—there was no clear successor. He had not devoted enough attention to developing the leadership skills in his four sons. These four men did not get along, did they have the vision of his leadership principles, and were resistant to change. Genghis Khan, ruler of most of Asia, tried many methods to develop his sons, but it was too late. The succession plan was a compromise. Even in the first several years after Genghis Khan’s death, the battle campaigns were less effective and the resources began to be looted internally. The Mongol empire did endure, for a long while, but it was a shadow of Genghis Khan’s vision.

Similarly in a modern organization, when a visionary manager is replaced by a person who cannot meet the increased responsibility, the direction is lost. The performance of the organization suffers.

Strong managers are often not seriously evaluated for employee development. Their ambition and energy are elsewhere and they may not appreciate the importance to the organization. Lesser caliber managers may take the view that, as they individually move upward, they will not be accountable for what they leave behind. Both approaches lead to inadequate training of the next generation. Some starting points for assessments are needed.

An individual responsible for evaluating the manager’s contributions to subordinates’ growth can observe a number of different actions to gauge the performance. Looking in specific directions is the key.

Actions to Observe

Does the manager map out the projects, set the directions, and then assign small pieces to the subordinates?

Do the subordinates actually make decisions comparable to their abilities?

At meetings, do subordinates express their opinions or confirm agreement?

Comment: Managers who do not delegate may achieve results, but do not develop competence in their subordinates.

Which type of questions do the subordinates tend to ask?

“What does (the manager) want?” or “What does this situation require?”

Comment: Subordinates, who are trained to look to the manager for direction, are not gaining the skills required for leadership.

Does the manager rely on a small inner circle, excluding others from responsibility?

Comment: Favoritism certainly has advantages, but staff development is not one of them.

For subordinates who have been reporting to the manager for at least one year, can you, independently, observe unusual skill growth in the subordinates?

Comment: If the change is observed independently, then query about the manager’s role in the skill growth.

Does the manager encourage or criticize individuals who have opposing positions?

Comment: Criticizing legitimate dissent stifles others.

Observing actions such as the above examples provide a starting point for assessing the manager’s contributions to the subordinate’s skill growth. It also provides a real foundation for a discussion during the appraisal interview. Most importantly, the crucial issue of leadership development can be addressed.

Related Posts on Evaluations:  Dealing with a Bad Employee Performance Appraisal

Struggling to Give A Good Performance Appraisal