Sunday, 13 April 2014

Here's Looking At You

Constructive criticism is a good thing and, even when said in jest there is often a grain of truth behind a person’s comments.  Last week the inimitable David D’Souza said that my Leading Light posts are “samey” – he was commenting on the range of topics I tend to combine together, but then, rather than encouraging me to stick to a simple subject, he challenged me to write a post using a selection of topics of his own choosing. So here goes…

Constructive criticism
Before I start, I must confess that I am useless at saying “No” to a challenge and I also would like to make David’s life a little nicer than it has been of late – not just due of the broadband problems he has suffered when moving house, but because he recently underwent an operation on his eyes and has been forced, like a Marvel comic villain, to wander the streets of London in a pair of sinister dark glasses (he reminded me slightly of Dr Octopus, minus the fused bionic arms, although, like the Doctor, he is super-smart and seems to have tentacles reaching into a lot of things).  David’s laser eye surgery has been amazing and, like any good super hero, he now has better than 20/20 vision.
Doc Ock - from the film Spider-Man 2 
My father also suffered from poor eyesight – he didn’t realise, until he was nearly ten, that most people can distinguish the individual leaves on trees.  Once he had been prescribed spectacles, he proved to have excellent hand to eye co-ordination and became a fine cricketer, indeed he played for the Yorkshire under-19s. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to effect a significant change – in my father’s case it was a perceptive doctor who enabled enlightenment. I suspect that one of the reasons why I find the Learning and Development side of HR particularly rewarding is because of its ability to nurture desired change, with at times remarkable results.

Leaves on the trees
Individual transformation usually requires a personal commitment to breaking ingrained habits and to doing things in a different way.  Evolution is slower. Did you know that our eyes probably originated with the jellyfish – the oldest multi-organ animal, but not necessarily creatures that many people associate with sight, or think of as ancestors?  Initially it was thought that the ability for vision must have developed in complex “higher animals” - all of which share a gene, Pax-6, which is a “master regulator” of optical development.  Jellyfish do not have Pax-6 but they do have Pax-a and Pax-b – research by Hiroshi Suga at the University of Basel has found that it is possible to encourage the development of eyes in other species by inserting jellyfish Pax genes.  This seems to indicate that the foundations of vision for us all lie within these gelatinous creatures.  Although many jellyfish have little more than light-sensitive indentations, there are some with highly elaborate eyes (for example box jellyfish that can see colours and navigate around mangrove swamps and the Root-arm Medusa, Cladonema Radiatum, which has developed eyes above each of its “arms”, which can focus light onto a retina - creatures with genuine 360-degree vision)

Root-arm Medusa with eye indicated
The origins of things are often deeper than would appear at first sight (an appropriate thought in relation to an ancient marine creature).  The eminent French philosopher (frequently referred to as the father of modern philosophy) and exceptional mathematician, René Descartes, also made a significant contribution to our understanding of sight. In his work “Discourse on Method”, published in 1637, he outlines his approach for using analysis to reduce any problem to its fundamental parts and from which to then construct solutions. In the appendix, “Dioptrics”, he utilised this methodology to assess the problem of designing optical instruments.  To do so he commenced by defining light and the workings of the human eye – in the course of the former he articulated the law of refraction – thereby observing it independently from the studies of Willebrord Snellius, the scholar most frequently credited with the discovery (known as Snell’s Law), although in fact it was first stated in a manuscript by the Persian mathematician and physicist Ibn Sahi in 984.  Descartes’ appendix proceeds to consider what methods and tools could best be used to enhance eyesight.  It was the contemplation of lens shapes that resulted in his conclusion that a hyperbolic lens is best for use in focusing light, for example in telescopes.  He proceeds to design a machine capable of making them.  It is much easier to create a spherical lens than a hyperbolic one – the shape of two objects rubbed against each other gradually becomes a sphere with a spherical hollow to match.  Many of the greatest minds of the seventeenth century occupied themselves with devising ways to create hyperbolic lenses (Sir Christopher Wren submitted a paper on the subject to the Royal Society that resulted in international debate) and to this day their production has remained complex – hence their seldom being used in anything other than specialist equipment and machines that require accuracy such as copiers.

This gives the equation for a hyperbolic surface. The focal point 
can be determined to an extremely high degree of precision
Whilst writing this I wondered how the usage of hyperbolic, to mean something that is exaggerated or enlarged beyond what is reasonable, came about – it is a contrasting concept to the accurate, light-focusing lens.  A swift search has informed me that the adjective comes from the Greek huperbolē, meaning excess - the word literally translates as “throw above”.  This definition makes sense if you imagine throwing a ball to a companion, but, instead of aiming to within their area of reach, you toss it high above their head, resulting in an excessive throw – being avid sportsmen, this is what the Greeks considered the equivalent of making over exuberant statements and exaggerated claims.  One chap good with a ball (and considered to be an almost deity by many – indeed it is his bearded face that was used by the Monty Python team as the animated depiction of God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was WG Grace – the West Country Victorian GP who is often described as the father of cricket. 

WG Grace as "God" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail 
There is indeed much hyperbole written about him, but as with criticism, so in excessive praise there are often grains of truth.  Jim Swanton, the most influential cricket writer of the 19th century commented:
“There never was such a hero: not even, I think, Don Bradman. Physically so unalike, these two men at the peak of cricket fame had two qualities in common: great determination and great strength of character.”
Which brings us back to heroes, famous for their determination and great strength of character.  The last topic given to me to include in this post was “Kung Fu Spiderman movies of the 1970s”.  You might think that this is a subject beyond my experience, but I must confess to being thrilled to reacquaint myself.  In 1978 my father was appointed the Attorney General of Hong Kong and we as a family moved to live in Asia.  It was an exciting time and Hong Kong itself was on the cusp of dramatic expansion.  One of the areas of growth was the film industry; I mentioned in a previous post that Sir Run Run Shaw invited me to the premier screening of Blade Runner. Hong Kong was a rising global centre for martial arts films, with Jacky Chan as the recognised international star. Not all the films were great, many of the releases were filmed for Cantonese or Mandarin speaking audiences and then badly dubbed into English – resulting in hilarious voiceovers of fighters asking their opponents if they could handle their “tiger style”, calling each other Monkey or Crane or imploring masters to defend temples and be prepared to die for the honour of the monks. I used to watch these martial art films in episodes on TV with my little sisters – a treasured memory before I was banished back to the UK to go to boarding school miles from my family. One that stuck in my mind was “The Chinese Web”, a 2-hour special starring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I am pretty certain that I saw it initially in Hong Kong in 1979, before its global release by Columbia Pictures in 1980, during which it was renamed “Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge”.

On watching this again, I was transported right back to my childhood and the amazing sights I saw and the experiences we enjoyed when we first moved to Hong Kong.  Like good tourists, soon after arriving we went to the Jumbo Restaurant – the location where then sampans pick Spider-Man out of the water. My first proper job was in Central in a building with a view of Jardine House (the office block in the film with the circular windows – it was and is affectionately known as “The House of a Thousand Arseholes”).  Watching this was like stepping into the Tardis and arriving back in my youth – Hong Kong has changed almost beyond recognition since 1979, but to me its essence of what it is and will always be to me is captured in this film.

Poster for the 1980 Film Release of The Chinese Web, renamed The Dragon's Revenge
Dear David – I am truly grateful for the challenge you set me – I had forgotten my father’s link with cricket, until you asked me to write about W.G. Grace. I have watched your bravery post op and agonised that I have encouraged you to work on-screen for longer than has been good for your health.  Seeing you observing things clearly (IRL as well as in business) makes me smile – there is so much to amaze, amuse and wonder at around us. I have enjoyed learning more about the evolution of sight from jellyfish, through Descartes’ studies to fighting super heroes endowed with exceptional vision following a radioactive spider bites.  But for me the highlight was being reunited with “The Dragon’s Challenge”.  Unwittingly, you gave me my youth and made me see things in a different way.  Thank you! “Here’s looking at you…”

"I Can See For Miles" was recorded for The Who's 1967 album 'The Who Sell Out.' 
(other than the infidelity aspect, it seems and apt song to end with)

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