Ten years can be too short

For greatness

My scientist son suggested that we humans like projects that take no more than a decade. A prime example is President Kennedy’s 8-year goal of getting to the moon in the 1960s. More recently, the New Horizons expedition to Pluto, about which my son and I have both been reading, took around a decade to realize its primary goals (launched 2006, flew by Pluto 2015). Reducing a new langugage to writing and translating the New Testament into it? About 10 years. Many big infrastructure projects – the HS2 rail link and the Hinkley C nuclear plant here in the UK, for example – are sold on a ten-year frame, even if ‘time frame’ is eventually found to be the wrong metaphor as dates and costs balloon ludicrously out of shape like bubble gum in the mouth of a kid.

Ten years is a nice period in a career and a life. We can commit ourselves to a major piece of work, and we can also buy a house and keep the kids in the same school. We can envisage and enjoy ten years. Longer than ten years …. man, it’s never going to end.

Decade-long projects can work extremely well – like the moon landings and New Horizons or like the 2012 London Olympics. Perhaps they work well because they allow for a certain thoroughness and excellence. They work less well when they are just the cloak for much longer projects that would never start if people knew how long they would take or how much they would really cost. (Think: a lot of defence projects.)

Yer can we improve even on a decade-long planning horizon? Possibly.

Doing the grand

  1. Many things have a multi-century grandeur about them. Think of the spread of humans around the world from Africa. How many thousand thousand journeys did that take? How about the slow accumulation of science, technology and power over the millennia, compounding like the investment it is. It has transformed us as a species. How about the development of life on earth, another compounding investment, leading to at least one species that is self-aware and planet-dominating: given several billion years, atoms learned arrangements that made them capable of consciousness.
  2. I can also think of a couple of Christian-inspired projects that were expected to last many decades and successfully did. One is building cathedrals. Another was a 24-7 prayer meeting begun by the Moravians in (what is now) East Germany, and which they sustained for a century. The cathedrals still stand as magnificient holy places across Europe. Has any completed cathedral ever fallen down? I don’t know. The 100-year prayer meeting preceded a great explosion of Christianity that occupied the eighteenth century, and led to Christianity becoming a global faith.
  3. One of the reasons we Christians may find the Kingdom of God puzzling sometimes, and Jesus’ current reign as King, is that he likely doesn’t work on the scale of a decade. He might be working on a scale so impossibly grand that our short lives, buzzing around as we do, miss the scale of his holy ambition.

Being the collagen

Still another way of not being tied into (admittedly attractive and fruitful) human-sized ten-year projects is to lay foundations or build structures that will stand the test of decades. I still remember Steve Jobs moving Apple to the Unix-based operating system OS X. It was a change, he thought, that would be a good foundation for decades to come. Nineteen years after the release of OS X 10.0 ‘Cheetah’, and years after Jobs’ own death, OS X is still powering Macs.

Good workmanship is another way of building across the generations. I used to live in a multi-room mansion. The people who worked maintaining this old property knew where money had been spent originally and good work done; they also knew where corners had been cut, cheap work done, and the results plastered over.

Building to last is such a wonderful thing. Even if it is not followed up, people will look back and see the quality work that was done and lament its loss and be inspired themselves. Quality work is like collagen in living cells, giving structure to the mush and laying down a standard for centuries to come. It is timeless. In the case of bone, which I understand as being collagen plus grit, the skeleton long outlasts the body it supported.

This is so totally inspirational and so deeply motivates us to the patient, the thorough, the well-thought-out, the experienced and the slow. Whatever your field, imagine doing work that centuries later people will still look back on and admire! That is not immortality, but it is a stepping stone over which many generations can tread on their way to even greater things for the human species.

My books of the year

If you have the kind of shopping-basket mind that ends up at the checkout with all kinds of stuff from random parts of the shop, books beat Netflix any day for idiosyncracy and eclecticism, and they usually beat podcasts or blogs for cogency and completeness.

Didn’t quite make the list:

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemolu, James Robinson. Useful hypothesis about about the essential elements of a prosperous nation, spoilt a little by special pleading and being a bit kludgy. Still, if the world’s politicians read this and acted on it, the world would perk up one feels.

The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M Davies. The story of advances in immunotherapy didn’t quite it spark for me. This rise of a new therapy that perhaps actually deserves the tired phrases ‘world-changing’ and ‘revolutionary’ is (at least on the evidence of this book), a Samuel Johnson still yet to find its James Boswell.

This year’s favourites

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. This best of White House reporters did his thing with Trump. It made my list, but at the bottom, because (a) it only confirmed what you kind of knew and (b) all the main actors had resigned already by the time I read the book and (c) it’s kinda depressing.

Chasing New Horizons by Allen Stern, David Grinspoon. Wonkish but fascinating history of how to conceive a probe to Pluto, sell it to NASA, build it, launch it, make it work: getting under the skin of how big science is done. Slight caution: history is written by the winners — but still fascinating.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Sweet, witty retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew which I read in a single evening and then went back to several times, just to revel in Anne Tyler’s deftness and grace as a storyteller. Plot, character, dialogue, background: everything is beautifully primped. It ain’t profound or deep but it’s funny, refreshing and satisfying.

The Mission of God’s People by Chris Wright. Compelling vision of the Church’s vocation to the world and to creation. Best mission theology title for me since Lesslie Newbiggin’s The Open Secret, which 30 years ago helped redirect my career.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling. We’ve long been fans of Hans Rosling’s TED talks in our house. But his book — his final offering to the world– about the relentless rise of good news about the world and how we are programmed to avoid and disbelieve it, is the best thing he’s done. Read it while it’s still warm (some of its stats. are as recent as 2017).

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The most enjoyable apocalypse I’ve ever read, and one of Terry Pratchett’s very best.

The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End by Cixin Liu. Actually this has been a couple of years’ project. This science fiction series is the best SF I’ve read in years. Like a musician who keep introducing key changes, Cixin Liu just keeps unfolding astonishing ideas, ramping them up and up. The books aren’t flawless and can drag in places, but collectively are thought-provoking hard SF that I kept boring my physicist son with.

And my favourite…

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S Frederick Starr. This is the rather untold story of the oasis cities and great thinkers who (geographically) connected the Byzantines, the Arab World, China and India and (historically) kept the golden thread of rational thought and inquiry alive between the Roman Empire and the Europeans. I found it compelling and totally fascinating and would be sad if I didn’t travel through this book again. It turns out that the ‘Arab’ and Muslim empire, at its best, was powered by Central Asian and Persian thought.

In European times, discovery of a single volume by these thinkers was enough to spark off bits of our own Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. A wonderful unearthing and piecing together of missing historical treasure. Makes you want to visit Central Asia as Frederick Starr did and see dusty one-horse Afghan cities and recite Ozymandias or something:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.