Sunday, December 17, 2017

Pop’s War: My Father, the CIA, and the Green Death

1 aThe Quotes ๐Ÿ’ฃ

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind
๐ŸŽ
~ Stephen Crane 1871–1900 (War Is Kind)

Water is taught by thirst;
Land, by the oceans passed;
Transport, by throe;
Peace, by its battles told;
Love, by memorial mould;
Birds, by the snow

~ Emily Dickinson (In LI, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)

I don’t read books. I write them ๐Ÿ˜‚
~ Henry Kissinger

I'm in the mood, I'm in the mood, I'm in the mood
I can write it on the door - I can put it on the floor
I can do anything that you want me for
If you want me to
I can do it right - I can do it wrong
'Cause a matter of fact it'll turn out to be strong
If you want me to
๐ŸŽธ
~ Robert Plant (Lyrics from In The Mood)

 

Introduction ๐Ÿ™

Who ran to help me when I fell,
And would some pretty story tell,
Or kiss the place to make it well?
My mother
๐Ÿฑ
~ Jane Taylor 1783–1824 ("My Mother" from Original Poems for Infant Minds)

 

My Promise To You

"What you're about to read is easily the best essay ever to appear on this blog!"

Wait… With a statement like the one above, is there any doubt left in your mind that all this writing has gone to your blogger’s head? So here’s what I’ve got to say in my defense: "That it very well might have—and yes, I agree that that's both indefensible and untenable—but I am sticking to my story that this will be the best essay ever. For starters, I haven’t written it. So you already have something going for it from the get-go!" ๐Ÿ„

"Hey, wait…" That's what I hear you say, anyway. And to which you add, "Yo, Mr. Smarty-pants Blogger, looks here! We have heard of spontaneous combustion, okay? But spontaneous synthesis, and that, too, of an essay! Oh my. All this essay-writing really has gone to your head, Mr. Writer-pants" To which I respond like so: "To soothe your frayed nerves, allow me to be the bringer of good news—both clarifying and revelatory, your doting Mr. Blogger-pants wants it that way anyway—that you are about to read a spectacularly well-written piece of writing." ๐Ÿ†

Goodbye Blogger, And Good Riddance!

Woohoo, I hear you all say, all at once, too, at the top of your lungs! And I totally understand the sentiment: while I love you, dear Reader, and cannot imagine a life without you, you all definitely need a break from me! It’s all good; my feelings—and whatever scant little remains of my bulldozed-over ego—won't smart one bit <insert one pathetic whimper right here> ๐Ÿ˜ช

I’ll be back—probably sooner than later—with yet another one of my blithering essays… ๐Ÿ’

Meanwhile, you are justifiably all set for some merrymaking now; after all, the holiday season is nearly upon us ๐Ÿš•

So sit back, relax, and—as they say in those all-too-annoying announcements just when the main show is about to start in the movie theater—enjoy the show (Yeah, like, thanks for the earth-shattering disclosure; otherwise, we might have kept thinking that we came to the theater to sit on porcupine quills while holding smoldering charcoal in both hands!) ๐Ÿ”ฅ

Only, it's far better this time. We've got you covered with quality, mind-expanding—no, not that kind—entertainment this time; plus you don't even have to buy something like a movie ticket, which is a boon for cheapskates like yours truly (Unless, of course, you haven't totally disowned me after reading what true writing is meant to be, which will be on display in our guest essay; hey, I try, you know) ๐Ÿฌ

So go fill your coffee mug with Nescafe', settle down (as for me, I'll merrily sip my lemonade), and savor the splendor which is the piece of writing by Kitty Fassett. It's coming right up ๐ŸŽฌ

Rundown Of The Tantalizing Sections (aka Sojourns) In The Guest Essay

Let's get ourselves a bird's eye view of the pit stops we'll make during our upcoming excursion ⛷
  • A Natural-Born Organizer
  • A Stark Obituary
  • The Father I Knew?
  • Chocolate Cream Pies, A-Mile-High
  • I Will Remember You (As Well As My Detective Work)!
  • Transferred To The Pentagon
  • Of School And Chewing Gum Wrappers
  • An Organizational Genius Rises To The Occasion
  • Sobering Events In The Wake Of President Roosevelt's Suddenly Death
  • Departments Start Jockeying For Clout
  • The Cold War, And The Mission Overseas
  • A Brainchild Of The Manhattan Project
  • The Mathematical Genius Returns to West Point!
  • Mother, Ever The Gracious Hostess
  • In August Company
  • An Unwitting Manchurian Candidate
  • Enter The 1600-Page Calculus Book (aka "Green Death")
  • Meanwhile, Vietnam Was Bleeding...
  • Retiring From The Army, After 43 Years Of Service!
  • Of Mischief And Scintillating Poetry
  • Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away
So that was merely a rundown of the fun stuff coming your way in the essay (Pop’s War). I hasten to add that while I haven’t modified the content of Pop’s War in the least—it is brilliantly written to the point where every single word pulls its weight, guaranteeing all attempts to modify it as acts of sheer folly—I have taken the liberty of dividing my guest's essay into (hopefully appropriately-named) sections for your ease of reading.

Whoah!

Now how about that for an intriguing set of themes coming our way, eh.

Um, so it had been brought to my attention that my delicate readers balk at the sight of a wall of text ๐Ÿ‘บ Oh my! Hey listen, yo, I love you dearly all the same ๐Ÿ˜‰

But I’m getting ahead of myself… ๐Ÿš‚

With A Drum Roll, Introducing The Author!

So first things first. So by way of the briefest of introductions, Ms Fassett's distinguished training and background in music (Vassar College, and the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music) are important aspects of her brilliant career. She is a true intellectual in every sense of the word. While you may not have heard her name in literary circles—or in the blogosphere for that matter—let me assure you that she is not an unsung heroine ๐ŸŽถ

I say so because if you've read the stellar new book entitled Plato and the Nerd, then you have already heard her voice; the unmistakably distinguished imprints of her fine intellect, musical rhythm, and grace resonate throughout the pages of the socio-technological echo chamber of a masterpiece that is Plato and the Nerd.

Of A Gem From The MIT Press

Before anyone considers the option of conking me on the head with a baseball bat or something, thinking that maybe I'm going to digress again—I have been known to occasionally, um, digress—let me assure you that it's nothing of that sort. I'm about share some totally germane stuff… Cool, cool? ๐Ÿ˜Ž

Hey, for crying out loud, where's the trust factor? I do try to offer more than mere digressions by way of my essays now ๐Ÿ˜ฟ

So it goes like this: I'm a huge fan of the sterling books published by The MIT Press. Let's briefly talk about just one of them—the relevant one, yep, since you all seem to want to place a moratorium on my digressions. We'll talk about my corresponding psychic pain at a suitable time. Later. Relax, much later; not in this essay for sure! Here, then, is the awesomeness from The MIT Press that I'm babbling about:
Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology (The MIT Press) by Edward Ashford Lee ๐Ÿ“ฃ
Closer to hand, here is what its author, Professor Edward Ashford Lee—the Robert S. Pepper Distinguished Professor in EECS at the University of California at Berkeley—had to say about the individual whose essay you are about to read. Thus, in the "Acknowledgments" sections of Plato and the Nerd, Professor Lee shares some altogether modest thoughts:
Most especially, however, I would like to thank two very special people who played a major role in the development of this book. The first is Heather Levien, who, unlike me, really knows how to write and without whom this book would be a disorganized pile of random ideas. The second is my mom, Kitty Fassett, a professional musician with an aversion for mathematics but a true intellectual and also a great writer. Without her help, this book would be unreadable to nonspecialists. She was my guinea pig, telling me each place where a nonspecialist might get lost.
With that, here comes our brand new guest essay—let’s dive right in to the beguiling mystery and intrigue that is Pop’s War, shall we? ๐ŸŠ


Pop’s War: My Father, The CIA, And The "Green Death"


3 a

A Natural-Born Organizer

My father was an organizer. He organized everything and everyone into military formations as if preparing for war. His instructions always appeared in the form of military memoranda – detailed like marching orders, leaving nothing to the imagination and no room for mistakes or creative interpretation. He organized his death as meticulously as he organized his life, and when the grim reaper suddenly ambushed him, my father was ready.

Pop’s "death plan," as the family called it, laboriously detailed step-by-step procedures to be taken when the time came: which funeral home to contact, what instructions to give the bank, and above all which newspapers to notify – making sure, of course, that his self-authored obituary appeared exactly as he wrote it.

4 a

A Stark Obituary

I was in my fifties when he died, his only child, and the task fell to me since my mother despaired over it and my aunts and uncles resented it, having never gotten along with him in the first place. Like a robot, I followed his directions, unaware of their content. Therefore it gave me a jolt when I saw the sensation-seeking headline composed by the Louisville Courier Journal: "CHARLES NICHOLAS DIES. WAS AN ORGANIZER OF THE CIA."

2 a

The Father I Knew?

Was this the father that I knew? The obituary spoke only of his career, of which I knew little, and in trying to learn more I found myself going down a rabbit hole. The article described my father the warrior – one I could recognize, with a solid build, steely gaze, and stentorian voice demanding absolute obedience.

But it said nothing of his early struggles to make ends meet, or his prowess as the poet laureate of his high school class. Nor did it mention his fondness for cats, nor his love of my mother, nor even of me, despite our never ending conflict.

6 a

Chocolate Cream Pies, A-Mile-High 

He had spoken of some kind of Intelligence involvement during World War II in an organization called "G-2", while he sat behind a desk in the Pentagon – a building I remembered from my childhood for its cafeteria where they served chocolate cream pies a mile high. After the war he moved his office to a mysterious edifice called "The New War Department Building," which I could only visualize as a glowering structure restricted to members of some secret fraternity.

I had never heard the name "CIA" associated with it. To me the CIA was a shadow organization. It spied on other countries, set up military dictatorships, and involved itself in disasters like the Bay of Pigs. Whatever else it did, I had no idea.

The obituary continued: "General Nicholas, who had twice served on the faculty at West Point, returned to the academy in 1949 as chairman of the mathematics department. He retired from the military in 1967 after 43 years of service .."

Beach a

I Will Remember You (As Well As My Detective Work)!

I knew painfully well that he had taught mathematics. His attempts to teach it to me had left us both limping from the battlefield. That was during his third tour of duty at West Point, the second time having been cut short by the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor, after which he was ordered to Florida. There we settled into a musty-smelling pink house and hung black curtains on the windows to make us invisible in case of night-time bombardment.

Military personnel patrolled the beaches looking for enemy submarines. I didn’t realize that this was the beginning of his career in Intelligence, but the atmosphere of intrigue seeped through to me. At age eight I organized my own detective agency among neighborhood kids when my cat disappeared. We searched for clues using magnifying glasses and never found the cat but I still wanted to be a detective and was laughed at when I said so on a local radio broadcast called "Crusader Kids."

8 a

Transferred To The Pentagon

It was from Florida that my father was transferred to the Pentagon. Our life in the nation’s capital was bleak as we moved from one rental house to another while my mother scraped together meals from scant wartime provisions. Sometimes we ate horse-meat prepared for Pickwick the cat, and sometimes Pickwick, adored and patronized by my father, would lay siege to our own meager beef rations on the dining table.

9 a

Of School And Chewing Gum Wrappers

Meanwhile, I was enrolled at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, where my classmates bragged about their fathers who were leading armies in Europe, but how could I brag about my father who was sitting at a desk?

At school we collected chewing gum wrappers for the metal drive, under the illusion that they would be used to build airplanes, while I was unaware that my father was saving England, collaborating with British Intelligence in countermeasures against the German V-2 rockets that threatened London from the Coast of Normandy.

10 a

An Organizational Genius Rises To The Occasion

As a mathematical and organizational genius, my father was a perfect candidate for the nascent CIA, born after the war under the name of "CIG," or Central Intelligence Group. Pop had just joined it when West Point offered him another professorship. He loved West Point - its discipline, order, and predictability. In a letter that I found after his death he sorrowfully declined the offer, stating that the CIG needed him: "The Group is scarcely old enough to walk alone, and is in that difficult stage of attempting to function while it is still organizing."

If the job was as dull as described by Arthur B. Darling in his book, The Central Intelligence Agency: An Instrument of Government to 1950, it’s no wonder my father wanted to be elsewhere. The work seemed to consist of endless committee meetings and interdepartmental squabbles, with my father later admitting that he couldn’t stand anyone who disagreed with him.

The squalling baby known as "CIG" was designed to replace the only existing wartime intelligence-gathering organization, called "OSS," or "Office of Strategic Services," which my father ridiculed, calling it "Oh So Secret," while referring to its leader, General William Donovan, as "Wild Bill."

11 a

Sobering Events In The Wake Of President Roosevelt's Sudden Death

The OSS met its demise five months after President Roosevelt’s sudden death. His successor, Harry Truman, feared Donovan’s charisma and gave him ten days to dissolve the organization. Having to cobble together a replacement agency that would provide information to guide him through the emerging Cold War, Truman dragged in a reluctant Rear Admiral, Sidney Souers, to head the new organization.

Truman’s chief military adviser, Admiral William D. Leahy, described the inaugural event on January 24, 1946, as Truman presented the two of them "with black cloaks, black hats, and wooden daggers," and then outlined the duties for the new "Cloak and Dagger Group of Snoopers."

12 a

Departments Start Jockeying For Clout

These farcical beginnings erupted in jealousy between the Army, Navy, and State Department, each balking at the idea of any central organization that might reduce its individual clout. My father tolerated the brass from the armed services but deplored civilians from the State Department. The CIG was short lived, however, and by the time it evolved into the CIA, Pop had survived as its Assistant Deputy Director.

13 a

The Cold War, And The Mission Overseas

Around that time he went on some kind of overseas mission which he couldn’t talk about. As he departed I asked my mother "Will we ever see Pop again?" We had good reason for alarm. The early Cold War was a nasty time, with agents on both sides collecting German scientists and often murdering one another.

On the Russian side, the KGB’s predecessor, the NKVD, had a Section for Terror and Diversion called SMERSH, an acronym standing for a Russian phrase meaning "death to spies." Berlin was known as "kidnap town." When the East German security police dragged anyone across the line, people looked the other way.

14 a

A Brainchild Of The Manhattan Project

Although Pop never divulged the reason for this cloak-and-dagger escapade, I wondered if it had to do with the aftermath of the "Alsos Mission" – a name only whispered in our house until its scientific leader, Dr. Samuel Goudsmit, wrote a book about it and Goudsmit acknowledged my father as the Mission’s guiding spirit.

The Alsos Mission was the brainchild of the Manhattan Project, the organization developing the atom bomb for the United States. As a task force that stormed Italy, France, and Germany, gathering up uranium stockpiles and kidnapping nuclear scientists, it borrowed the code name "Alsos" from the Greek word for "groves," naming the Mission after the Manhattan Project’s leader, General Leslie Groves, who was annoyed by the name’s lack of subtlety.

15 a

The Mathematical Genius Returns to West Point!

After my father returned to West Point in 1949, he maintained contact with Dr. Goudsmit, and documents I found after his death indicated an ongoing connection with scientific intelligence, with access to classified information within the Atomic Energy Commission. In our new quarters at West Point I sometimes overheard him ranting about communists – probably aware that a spy named Klaus Fuchs had handed over the U.S. atom bomb secrets to Russia.

17 a

Mother, Ever The Gracious Hostess

But at West Point my mother could enjoy life in more comfortable surroundings. She was a perfect army wife, my father’s prize student in household organization, despite having been, unlike him, a child of privilege. She liked nice things – silk underwear, pretty clothes, and, more than anything else, attention by her peers. Although never much of a cook, she had a few favorite recipes and a flair for hosting candlelight suppers.
16 a

In August Company 

In this new guest-friendly atmosphere I was privy to conversations with some of our distinguished visitors, including on occasions the famous Dr. Goudsmit. He had a charming Dutch accent, and over cocktails and dinner he and my father could now talk openly about the Alsos Mission, while reminiscing about an American spy named Moe Berg, a multilingual intellectual Jewish professional baseball player, who, steering his own course, reneged on his assignment to capture, dead or alive, Germany’s brilliant nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg.

Goudsmit, whose parents had died at Auschwitz, bore no grudge against Heisenberg, who, although loyal to Germany, was not a Nazi and had no intention of building bombs for Hitler. It was the Alsos Mission, with Goudsmit’s help and without Berg’s, that had brought him peacefully into custody.

An Unwitting Manchurian Candidate

My mother, who understood none of this, was nonetheless a gracious hostess and my father was proud of her social skills. But he was less proud of mine. As a lazy and rebellious teenager, I was sent to a convent school to be straightened out by nuns. However, my vacation days needed structuring.

Reveille started early with Pop’s voice, softly at first: "Kitty Puss?" Then louder: "Kitty Puss! Rise and shine!" Despite the fact that "Kitty Puss" was a term of affection, I knew that I could expect a cold water shower if I didn’t jump to attention. The morning would then be devoted to two hours of sports or calesthenics, followed by several hours of calculus study.

Enter The 1600-Page Calculus Book (aka "Green Death")

By now Pop’s primary obsession was his magnum opus: a 1600 page calculus book – an army style directive in sixteen green volumes which, like his death plan, left nothing to the imagination. He spent five years writing it and I was his guinea pig. He viewed mathematics as an art form of the highest order. I viewed it as a form of torture. He viewed the West Point cadets as potential warriors with minds trained to think in equations. I viewed them as a bunch of sex maniacs.

The West Point cadets called Pop’s book the "Green Death" and set it ablaze at the end of every academic year. It was a form of mind control, creating automatons who on command would fire up neurons in their brains, line up axons, blast at synapses, and hack through jungles of equations while following my father’s exact orders as to how to think.

In a 1959 article entitled Mathematics and the Making of Leaders he described how Grant at Vicksburg had developed his battle plan along Pop’s own line of reasoning.

19 a

Meanwhile, Vietnam Was Bleeding...

But the Vietnam War was in progress and Vietnam wasn’t Vicksburg. At Vicksburg there had been no traps in the jungle floor to impale unwitting soldiers, nor sheer numbers of enemy forces appearing out of nowhere. General William "Westy" Westmoreland, who had once been one of my father’s math students, was up against a new kind of nightmare.

But Pop – and apparently Westy, too - saw it differently. After reading Westy’s version of the Tet offensive in his book, A Soldier Reports, Pop wrote to him: "Dear Westy: I was proud to observe in retrospect that my own judgments at the time agreed with what you say . . ."

20 a

Retiring From The Army, After 43 Years Of Service!

Meanwhile, Pop bullied the West Point academic board into doubling the class hours devoted to calculus. After his death his successor remembered him as "a stern disciplinarian." It appeared that the academic board had been as terrified of him as I had been in my childhood.

In 1967 Pop retired from his career of forty-three years in the Army. He and I fought less and I could now appreciate his love of poetry and the arts, which had always been there but hidden under moutainous obsessions. For his fiftieth class reunion he wrote a poem in ponderous iambics which, like everything of his authorship, was very long, but I was glad he could now concentrate on something other than mind control.

He and my mother bought a house in Florida, which allowed him to indulge his love of symmetry in a mathematically precise arrangement of household furniture, and also allowed him to indulge his love of battle in a war against invading garden pests and crabgrass.

21 a

Of Mischief And Scintillating Poetry

He had a mischievous streak and I remember his instructions to an employee on the makings of a martini: "Fill a large glass with ice, pour in a jigger of gin and just a drop of vermouth," he said. "Then when my wife isn’t looking add two more jiggers of gin."

He was an incorrigible punster, too, but most of all a gifted poet. One day he started quoting the first lines of his fiftieth reunion poem: "Return to jubilation! Scorn the woe - of mortal age and time’s relentless flow! - Do you know who wrote that?"

"You did, Pop," I replied.

He was disappointed. He’d hoped I would guess Milton. It was a good poem, although I resented one of its stanzas that stated that astronauts had returned to earth "on wings of mathematics." When it came to mathematics he just couldn’t let go. I liked his limericks better. Here’s one that he wrote during a crisis with Iran that threatened to blow up the Middle East:
Our concern in the Strait of Hormuz
Is the flow of petroleum and booze.
If Khomeini’s curse
Keeps making things worse
We’ll invoke the aid of the Jews!
22 a

Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away

I miss him. I miss the light that shone through once the career pressures had lifted. But to this day the voice of the warrior still speaks from my mind’s darker recesses – less audible, but persistent, still organizing and still directing. In General Douglas MacArthur’s own words at the time of his farewell speech: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

24 a

Experimental Afterword

 

Your Reaction

I can predict your exact reaction at this moment, your having just finished reading a fine piece of scintillating writing: Uh-oh, the blogger is... Back! <insert one primal scream right here> ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

Yep, and it's quite all right; I mean, I can't deny your perfect right to feel emotions as and when they wash over your psychic landscape. After all, feelings are our primary interface with the (external) world… Okay, so I hear some more of that moaning and groaning back there, a sure sign that my readers are awakening to the realization that the essay is already done—see, didn't I tell you at the outset that it was going to be awesome?—and you are left with me yet again ๐Ÿ‚

My Suggestion

May I suggest that a bit of cognitive reframing is in order? That, by the way, is just a fancy way of saying: listen up, all good things come to an end, yo. Yep, from now on, it's just you and me; unless, of course, I get more volunteers who would also like to submit their guest essays for publication around here. Again, don't get your hopes too high; you just might end up having to read yet more of my drivel. Just sayin' ๐Ÿš›

Why Call it an "Experimental Afterword"?

Well... Here's why. All that I had in mind—in calling this section an "Experimental Afterword"—was this: How about we try leaving some room here to serve as an open-ended area that I can circle back to, adding thoughts as postscripts (right here) rather than tacking them on by way of orphaned, decontextualized comments at the end of this essay ๐ŸŽญ

Think of this as a scratchpad; and yes, I sure would appreciate your not thinking of this section as a dumping ground of sorts ๐Ÿšฎ

Something tells me it's going to be a lot of fun ๐Ÿ‘ป



Sunday, December 10, 2017

What Can Leonardo da Vinci do for Me?


Can you spot the difference between the picture above and the one which appeared (in the exact same spot) in the previous essay.
(I'm not trying to, um, frame you… Hint: Look for a frame!)

Preamble ๐Ÿ„

I get the joy of rediscovering you
Oh, girl, you stand by me
I'm forever yours
Faithfully
Ever yours
Faithfully

~ Journey (Lyrics from Faithfully)
In the previous essay, we had begun our exploration of the life of Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn't meant to be a comprehensive review of the big new book by Walter Isaacson; we were just having some fun delving into what all we could learn (from da Vinci's life) and apply it to our daily lives.

Ditto this essay. It's definitely not a homily. After all, I'm not your messiah that you have to reason why, notwithstanding that I had quoted the following antithetical lyrics from Prince as recently as the previous essay:
I'm your messiah and you're the reason why
'Cuz U - I would die 4 u, yeah
Darling if u want me 2
U - I would die 4 u
 
~ Prince And The Revolution (Lyrics from I Would Die 4 U)

The Short Answer

So the short answer to the question, which also happens to be the title of this essay—What Can Leonardo da Vinci do for Me?—is simply this: Quite a bit, if done right. And that's what this essay is all about! ๐Ÿฐ

The Long Answer

The longer answer requires some explanation; that’s what the rest of this essay is all about ๐Ÿป

My Promise

Since we are on the subject of what the guiding philosophy of this essay—or any other essay on this blog for that matter—is all about, let me be clear about something: I am, first and foremost, an explorer of ideas who freely shares his research findings with you. The last thing I want is to bore you to tears ๐Ÿ˜ญ

The style of my essays positively does not conform to the Elizabethan mold, though I'll unabashedly confess that great literature from that era has played a pivotal role in the formation of my writing style. Neither are my essays—at least I hope not—boring rehashes of what book critics have to say nor tiresome lectures on what some author got wrong or right (in full candor, I don't much read them anymore, a notable exception being the NYT Review of Books) ๐ŸŽญ

Look, while all those things serve a purpose, I think that your time—and mine—is far too valuable to be spent on that sort of thing. Sorry if I offended anyone, but that's just the way I happen to see things ๐Ÿ‘ป

So what I'm trying to say is this: if you don't get at least a handful of things out of any given essay posted on this blog—to improve yourself, to learn something useful, to get a bit of education, all of those things while having fun—then I'm failing you. I don't want to go there! And that's the last thing any one of us wants to happen anyway, right?

Yep, so that's my promise to you. Now it's up to you to keep me honest!

With that, let's dive right in ๐ŸŠ

A Guide To The Fun Which Lies Ahead ๐Ÿ 

What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expect generally happens.
~ Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield 1804–1881 (Henrietta Temple [1837], bk. II, ch. 4)
We have some ground to cover in this essay since we will continue our look—picking up from where the previous essay left off—at a multi-faceted individual because the life of Leonardo da Vinci is itself a multi-dimensional work of art. He sure was one awesome polymath. Interestingly enough, when I looked up the wiki page for "polymath", what did I find? Yep, a portrait of da Vinci himself (corectly billed as "a polymath of the Renaissance era"), smugly glaring back at me in all his wizened hoariness.

Dude, his august visage sent shivers down my spine as I thought to myself, "Man, did somebody of his caliber actually tread the same planet we live on? Like, for real? I need to spend some time learning more about him… This is way better than that Big-Mac-and-fries-and-ice-cream-cone super-combo I got just the other day from the McDonald's drive-through!" ๐Ÿ” ๐ŸŸ ๐Ÿฆ ๐Ÿฉ

Pit Stops (aka Sojourns) On Our Journey 

So let's get started with a bird's eye view of the pit stops we'll hit during our upcoming excursion ⛷
  1. Allow Yourself to be Fascinated by Math ๐Ÿ‘’
  2. Spot the Hidden Treasures ๐Ÿ‘‘
  3. Rekindle Your Passion for Probing Origins ๐Ÿ”ญ
  4. Hunt for Big, Timeless Ideas ๐ŸŽป
  5. Cultivate a Deep Feel for Learning ๐ŸŒŠ
  6. Pack Information as Densely as Possible ๐Ÿ‘œ
  7. Allow Your Art to be Informed by Nature ๐ŸŽƒ
  8. Distribute Evenly (or at Least as Evenly as Possible) ๐Ÿ‘ 
  9. Should You Chance Upon a Dark Cave… ๐ŸŒ
  10. Take it to the Limit ๐Ÿ

Receding Like The Distant Ship Smoke On The Horizon

Stand up in a clear blue morning
Until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning
Are you still free
Can you be

~ Steve Winwood (Lyrics from While You See A Chance)
Okay, so what you see above is the itinerary for the sojourns receding from us—excuse me there, I had meant to say—coming our way: So I wasn't joking when I noted above that we have some ground to cover; not anywhere near what we had in the past couple of essays, but substantial enough, nonetheless, to warrant your packing at least some gear for the journey ahead ⛰

Ready? Got that trusty rucksack slung across your shoulder? ๐ŸŽ’

Great, let's start our journey with that crucial first step๐Ÿšถ

 

A Pattern Language ๐ŸŽฒ


Brief Background

So you know the routine by now, having read up the precursor essay or two: the genesis of the notion of a pattern language, inasmuch as it applies to software design—rest assured that I'll be introducing it shortly—can be traced back to the seminal book that had rocked our industry a bit over two decades ago:
Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software
 (Addison Wesley) by Gamma, E., R. Helm, R. Johnson, and J. Vlissides
And the way it rocked our software industry was right up there with a tsunami, albeit a benign one; a tsunami that nourished rather than demolished on whichever shores its waves crashed. In other words, it was a rising tide—albeit a massive one—that had lifted all boats unlike any other that our industry had seen before ๐ŸŒŠ

The Pattern Language: Annotated

Here, then, is the pattern language—note the color-coding below, starting with blackpurpleblue, and even some green making an appearance—in which I've cast each of the nine pieces that make up the bulk of this essay:
  • Heading: A short description of what a given piece is about (Precisely so, yay!) ๐ŸŽฏ
  • An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: My editorial "wisdom" (You back there, stop snickering. Now!๐ŸŽค
  • Related Book: Something to lend texture to the discussion (We play with word-painting) ๐ŸŽจ
  • Picture: A picture with which to ground the narrative in a corporeal way (This will be your ticket) ๐ŸŽซ
  • Quotation: A quote selected to wrap it all up into a unified whole (Big gifts come in small packages) ๐ŸŽ
In the end, I hope you will agree that there is a method to this madness… With that, let’s embark on our journey!

 

1. Allow Yourself to be Fascinated by Math ๐Ÿ‘’


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Applied mathematics is everywhere. It is no exaggeration to say that it powers modern civilization as we know it. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that a virtuoso polymath like da Vinci  allowed himself to be fascinated— to the point of being drenched—by applied mathematics. To take just one example (and Isaacson does a good job of laying out the details), da Vinci fully realized that deep understanding of the math underlying mechanics, together, of course, with a bunch of allied skills, would be crucial to his work as an anatomist. And he sure was a hot shot anatomist; no doubt about it! ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics (Princeton University Press) by Nicholas J. Higham (Editor), Mark R. Dennis (Editor), Paul Glendinning (Editor) ๐ŸŽจ 
If the pursuit of mathematics was good enough for Leonardo da Vinci, it's good enough for me. Period. There are a ton of great books on applied mathematics but probably no single volume quite as amazing as The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics! This marvelous book has an overwhelming—in a good way—amount of  stellar material (all, covered thoroughly) on applied mathematics. Mind you, not pure mathematics, but applied mathematics. For pure mathematics, there's an even more awesome book, also from Princeton University Press. It's called The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. While the word "Pure" is missing from the latter, the bottom line is that it's chock-full of some of the loveliest pure mathematics you will ever set your eyes on; remember what the legendary British mathematician G.H. Hardy had to say on this very topic: "Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics."  Beautiful mathematics is permanent and doesn't go stale.
12 f
Philosophy is written in this grand book—I mean the universe—which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.
~ Galileo Galilei 1564–1642 (in Il Saggiatore, The Assayer)
๐ŸŽ

2. Spot the Hidden Treasures ๐Ÿ‘‘


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Read all about the fascinating story of how a collector—with an eye for spotting hidden troves—came across an unidentified painting at Christie's in Manhattan. The plot thickens after connoisseurs enter the fray. But look for the tenacity of this one collector whose drive led him farther than most... Isaacson tells the story with great relish. Great stuff! ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (PublicAffairs) by Gary Klein ๐ŸŽจ 
It would take an entire essay to describe the wherewithal of the remarkable book that is Seeing What Others Don't. Nevertheless, the sketchiest of descriptions that I can share  goes something like this: If ever you were interested in finding what makes human decision-making tick and how insights occur, this is the book to read.
13 f
When you find something funny, search it for hidden truth.
~ George Bernard Shaw
๐ŸŽ

3. Rekindle Your Passion for Probing Origins ๐Ÿ”ญ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson, I must confess, has done a stellar job of making da Vinci's life come to life! Case in point: Origins matter, not in a fatalistic way— I subscribe to the growth mindset, not the fixed one—and da Vinci's notebooks, filled to overflowing with drawings and descriptions of all things engineering,  delved into the origins of fissures in walls. What exactly is it that causes cracks to appear in walls and stuff like that. While this may not sound like the coolest thing on earth—and practitioners of civil engineering would probably beg to differ—the point I'm trying to make is simply that systematically drilling down to root causes, using nothing more than first principles, is often the best strategy around. Some principles of engineering are timeless; this is one of them. By the way, remember Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile? Yep, there's a  fascinating discussion in the book which details how da Vinci doggedly went about determining the origin of every nerve that controls the facial muscles—talk about dedication, keeping in mind that The Mona Lisa is pretty much the most famous painting in history ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Vintage) by George Dyson ๐ŸŽจ 
Contrary to the cheeky adage that "History is bunk", there's much to be gained  from the study of history. Trust me, I've been there: back in school, the mere mention of the subject history was enough to make me from and sigh with melancholy! But that was then, and this is now. In the interim, I have learned—sometimes to the school of hard knocks—that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Lesson draw from my mistake as well as those all others: pay close attention to the genesis  of phenomena. And that's where Turing's Cathedral comes in. Magnificently written, this book—which chronicles the life and times of Alan Turing—is a joy to read. if you want to probe the origins of our present day digital infrastructures, this is the book to read . Don’t miss it! It would be remiss of me to not mention how life came to find out about this cool book: through the pages of the masterpiece book entitled Plato and the Nerd, which, as you'll recall, got its very own set of three essays on this blog. Enough said.
14 f
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
~ Walt Whitman 1819–1892 (Song of Myself, 2)
๐ŸŽ

4. Cultivate a Deep Feel for Learning ๐ŸŒŠ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: In his big new book, Isaacson gives copious examples which  conclusively prove that da Vinci sure was a smart cookie. The depth with which our smart cookie studied any given problem to be solved is quite staggering. As an example, consider the phenomenon of waves propagation: da Vinci had such a deep feel for how waves propagate that he assumed—correctly—that both light and sound must travel in waves. There's a lot more going on, of course; get a copy of Isaacson's book and find out for yourself ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Deep Learning (The MIT Press) by Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio and Aaron Courville ๐ŸŽจ 
What is there to not like about the intriguing subject of deep learning? Since I have already written quite a bit about it, allow me to give you references to those very essays:
Good enough?
15 f
I have three treasures. Guard and keep them:
    - The first is deep love,
    - The second is frugality,
    - And the third is not to dare to be ahead of the world.
Because of deep love, one is courageous. Because of frugality, one is generous. Because of not daring to be ahead of the world, one becomes the leader of the world.

~ Lao-tzu c. 604–c. 531 B.C. (The Way of Lao-tzu)
๐ŸŽ

5. Hunt for Big, Timeless Ideas ๐ŸŽป


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson aptly points out that, as a pedigreed heir to a lineage of notaries, da Vinci instinctively kept recordsscribbling away ideas (several of which would lead to timeless inventions and discoveries) and lists and stuff like that. Woohoo, he sure was a latter-day aficionado of keeping an engineering diary, something which your very own blogger is fond of to this day. My own journey from (software) engineering to computer science and back—with multiple arcs of traversal back and forth—have served to both leaven and intensify my long-existing propensity for note-taking. While I'm not by any means claiming to be a modern day da Vinci, there's nobody to stop me from taking inspiration all the same! ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age (O'Reilly Media) by Paul Graham ๐ŸŽจ 
This is a unique book to which you will find frequent references throughout my essays. Yes, you know where I am going with this, don’t you? Exactly. Here, then, are the relevant references:
  • An essay where we chat some about the lispiness of the Lisp programming language in a disarming way; non-programmers have nothing to dread as we blend art and programming ๐Ÿ”ฎ
  • An essay which leads off with a David Foster Wallace quote ("If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish") ๐Ÿ˜ด
4 f
We live in fragments. The design is only revealed later.
~ Anais Nin (in an unpublished diary, circa 1952,  as quoted in The Quotable Anais Nin: 365 Quotations with Citations 
— Sky Blue Press) ๐ŸŽ

6. Pack Information as Densely as Possible ๐Ÿ‘œ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: What, exactly, is information anyway? Did da Vinci ever try to take it apart and put it back together again? If so, how expertly? Did he stumble? Or did he succeed? these are just some random questions that I'm throwing out there… Thinking here in particular to one episode in the da Vinci's life when— just before undertaking his journey in service of Borgia— he enumerated the equipment to pack, including, prominently enough, a book of white paper for drawing and a leather vest. Anyone remember the knapsack problem? Anyone? Hello, Bueller. ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Vintage) by James Gleick (Extra brownie points... Chaos)  ๐ŸŽจ 
James Gleick is an amazing writer. Unless I’m mistaken, I have read every single one of his awesome books. This happens to be the penultimate one, the successor being on matters of time and space. Far from being a dry tome, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood reads like a thriller... 
17 f
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
 
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul!

~ Emily Dickinson (In "XVI: A BOOK", from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)
๐ŸŽ

7. Allow Your Art to be Informed by Nature ๐ŸŽƒ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: As we find from reading Isaacson's big book, da Vinci was definitely on to the notion of the shortcomings of arithmetic—being a computational science— when it came to grapple continuous quantities. Oh my, da Vinci sure was one of the smartest of smart  cookies. That's for sure! The lesson and it is for us: analyze, but also quantify and diversify ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: The Nature of Computation (Oxford University Press) by Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens ๐ŸŽจ 
Let me put it this way, to give you an idea of just how special this gem is: this is one of my desert island books. Period. Lavishly illustrated, it reads like a detective novel. As Scott Aaronson (associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT) aptly put it: "To put it bluntly: this book rocks! It's 900+ pages of awesome." So don't be surprised when you run into (copious) references to The Nature of Computation in the essays around here! For example, these:
 That's all folks.
18 f
Computers are useless. They only give you answers.
~ Pablo Picasso
๐ŸŽ

8. Distribute Evenly (or at Least as Evenly as Possible) ๐Ÿ‘ 


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: First, allow me to point out that your feet wouldn't ache as much if only you would choose to distribute your (slender!) weight, um, slightly more evenly. That's all that my bright-red icon (the red pumps) above—the one pair-less red pump right next to the heading—is trying to say, even as I try to be as delicate about this (to my female readers) as I possibly can: nothing less, nothing more, ladies. Trust me, we guys—and I happen to be an inveterate feminist who grows more appalled by the day in trying to keep up with the steady stream of news trickling out about sordid misconduct of so-called "leaders"—have our own share of even-handed justice to be dispensed to us!

So anyhow, read up the fascinating details (in Isaacson's Leonardo da Vinci of course) of how da Vinci doggedly went about achieving marvels of engineering—which he lovingly captured for posterity in his detailed notebooks—including the glorious casting hood for the monument. The casting hood just happened to include plans to pour molten bronze through many holes so that it would be distributed evenly.

Again, for the fascinating details, read up the big new book by Isaacson! And while poring over its pages, you'll also want to check out how da Vinci was in the vanguard of researchers—another name, really, for a polymath on fire—who came to realize that the heart, not the liver, was the keystone of the engineering marvel that allows it to function as the pump for evenly distributing unto the blood system. ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Pattern-Oriented Software Architecture Volume 4: A Pattern Language for Distributed Computing (Wiley) by Frank Buschmann, Kevin Henney, and Douglas C. Schmidt ๐ŸŽจ 
You all knew this, didn't you now: sooner or later, my roots in the craft of designing and implementing distributed computing systems would pop up in this essay. Somewhere. at least once, and probably sooner than later; in this case, admittedly enough, it's happening later, such as... Now. And what you have in this nice book (A Pattern Language for Distributed Computing) is nothing less than a rundown of everything that makes distributed computing tick.
19 f
Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess.~ Renรฉ Descartes 1596–1650 (Discourse on the Method [1637], pt. I๐ŸŽ

9. Should You Chance Upon a Dark Cave… ๐ŸŒ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson does a good job of giving the reader insight into the formative force of a chance encounter with a dark cave—visualize da Vinci standing at the cave's lip, debating whether he should tread inside—while hiking near Florence (Italy). I especially enjoyed how Isaacson masterfully builds the atmosphere leading up to the point where da Vinci's burning curiosity triumphs over his initial reticence. He enters the cave, only to discover... Are you ready to do the same? If so, read on to what I've got in the next ("Related Book)" section of this piece...
Related Book: Deep Thinking: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the Mind (World Scientific) by William Byers ๐ŸŽจ 
Marvelous book. Don't miss it. I’m surprised by how little the name of its author (William Byers) is known outside of the contemporary, mathematical community… That is a pity because his work has much to offer to a diverse set of disciplines outside of the queen of sciences, notably including computer science, philosophy, and software engineering. You will be pleasantly surprised by the rather profound message of Deep Thinking. The style of writing is engaging. The bottom line: it sheds a flood of light into the dark recesses of your slumberingoops, I didn't quite mean to put it that waythinking apparatus (yep, your one and only noodle that slumbers inside your cranium) ๐Ÿ’€ Well worth a look! (Both of them, actually: your noodle and this book) ๐Ÿ“•
20 f
The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.~ Anatole France [Jacques Anatole Franรงois Thibault] 1844–1924 (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, II, 4) ๐ŸŽ

10. Take it to the Limit ๐Ÿ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: A watertight argument can be made that few individuals in the history of mankind have given their all—with a passion at once playful and obsessive—to the pursuit of an incredibly diverse set of subjects (among them: anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology, and weaponry) to the degree that da Vinci did. He unleashed his creativity to an extent rarely, if ever, seen in another human; he died empty.

By the way, and just the other day, a friend quizzically looked at this piece and asked me, "What exactly is that bumblebee doing there?" It was only then that I realized how misplaced my assumption was in tacking on a cute bumblebee to the end of the heading above—symbolizing as it was the defiance of limits, since bumblebees, given their chubby tubby ponderousness, are not supposed to be able to fly at all—in that my symbolism would probably be clear as mud to other readers as well! Oops… And that's when I had hastened to add my solemn expiation, the sorry note you just read. So if anyone is abuzz about what that was all about; well, now you know ๐Ÿ˜™

One more time, How do we take it to the limit? Read on to find out… ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day (Portfolio) by Todd Henry ๐ŸŽจ 
In some ways, this book resonates the deepest with the life of Leonardo da Vinci. You may well be asking, Why? How so? Perfectly good questions all. The answer is actually quite simple: da Vinci lived his life with an unrivaled passion that would put us all to shame. He died empty, living a life with no regrets, sharing his discoveries with the rest of the word through his scintillating work. So are we up to at least trying to do little bit of what da Vinci did? Can we, really? I say we can. And you know what? There is nobody to stop you…
21 f
For it is not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ("The Poet", from Essays: Second Series [1844])๐ŸŽ

Epilogue ๐ŸŽˆ


A Collage Reappears Out of Ether

Since we've been having some fun gleaning useful takeaways from the life and times of da Vinci, it's pretty safe to say that we have been in engineering territory. (I sure hope you enjoyed this essay, made up as it was—the bulk of it anyway—of 10 distinct, standalone themes). In the end, to  tie together those diverse themes into a unified whole, let's briefly revisit the annotated collage coming up quick ๐Ÿšง

So go ahead and spend the next few moments taking in the collage below ๐Ÿ‘€ Notice the contoured (and admittedly jaundiced) arrows—which emanate from a handful among the books that encircle an eclectic set of mementos which in turn encircles my book-of-the-decade—all gracefully pointing in the direction of awesomeness ๐Ÿ†

I have written quite a bit about it already and will likely be writing much about it in the future as well; just a word to the wise ๐Ÿ˜น
 

A Parting Thought...

No lectures, no nothing now ๐Ÿ™‰ As we wrap this up, all we're going to do is have some fun with recursion gone haywire that's finally reconciled by way of weak central coherence… Cool? ๐Ÿ˜‰

With that, why don't you check out the recursively framed artwork below. And when you do, please help me understand just what in the world could be going on in there, would you? Of course, I'm not leaving you stranded either; I like you all way too much to do anything of that sort!

Here, then, are some annotations—sorry, no arrows this time, jaundiced or otherwise—which actually show up right after the framed artwork below ๐ŸŽจ

Legend to the Picture Above

Clockwise, starting from the top, we have:
  1. Standing upright, we've got painting virtuosity on display ("The Reading Room", a prized possession) ๐ŸŽญ
  2. A physical red bench, which just happens to be a memento symbolizing real life conversations that matter
  3. Woohoo—a piano keyboard awaits the trained fingers of a maestro to bring it to life ๐ŸŽถ
  4.  Goodness gracious! How did my Towers of Hanoi make it into this collage? ๐Ÿน

 The Power of Conviction and Courage…

...to inspire with beauty and roses ๐ŸŒน ๐ŸŒน ๐ŸŒน ๐ŸŒน

Featured in there—for those not familiar with the sterling work of interfaith pioneer Eboo Patel—in addition to stuff not already mentioned, is a remarkable book entitled Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation ๐ŸŒป

Thursday, November 30, 2017

What is Isaacson's Leonardo da Vinci About?

1 f
Ann wrote it, bird by bird,
Akram read it, word by word 
And here I share, county by county
All that I discovered, bounty by bounty
 
Come, follow me, tweet by tweet,
Wonders await you, retreat by retreat
 
Let's rejoice in our friendship, song by song
Let's gather in our unity, throng by throng
 
Don’t fear as we take it on, nerve by nerve
We'll take the world on together, verve by verve
 
Working with passion, line-of-code by line-of-code
Our software will power the world, road by road
 
As chariots hug the road, curve by curve
I'll be there for you, helping, serve by serve
 
Mark what I say, word for word
We are in this together, herd by herd
 
~ Akram Ahmad (* "United We Rejoice", yet another random poem by a writer, blogger, software craftsman, son, husband, father, brother, and friend)
* The title of this poem—with its undertones suggesting that "together we stand, divided we fall"—is inspired by the Pink Floyd song "Hey You"

The Quotes ๐Ÿ“ฌ

I'm not your lover
I'm not your friend
I am something that you'll never comprehend
No need 2 worry
No need 2 cry
I'm your messiah and you're the reason why
'Cuz U - I would die 4 u, yeah
Darling if u want me 2
U - I would die 4 u
~ Prince And The Revolution (Lyrics from I Would Die 4 U
What is art? Nature concentrated.
~ Honorรฉ de Balzac (French novelist and playwright) 
As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation. When he groped for a theory of why the sky appears blue, it was not simply to inform his paintings. His curiosity was pure, personal, and delightfully obsessive.
~ Walter Isaacson (Leonardo da Vinci — Simon & Schuster) 
Aasha key choatee si nuyya
(It’s but a small boat of hope)
Laykay chulli purawuyya
(Drifting about in the Eastern wind)
Dolay dolay, jhumakaa bolay
(Swaying about, my earring speaks to me)
Chupakay say ye bhaid kholay
(Revealing a secret, ever so slowly...)
Aajaegaa Aajaegaa, pyaar say tum bula’ana!
(Your beloved will return if only you call to him... Lovingly!)
~ Lata Mangeshkar (Lyrics in Hindi / Urdu—along with my ad hoc translation in parentheses—from the extraordinary 1977 Indian movie Swami, starring Shabana Azmi)

 

Preamble ๐ŸŽˆ

O young artist, you search for a subject—everything is a subject. Your subject is yourself, your impressions, your emotions in the presence of nature
~ Eugรจne Delacroix 1798–1863 ("On Painting", from Oeuvres Littรฉraires [1829–1863], pt. II, ch. 2)

The Short Answer

The short answer to the question, What is Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci About?—which also happens to be the title of this essay—is simply this: something really important.

The Longer Answer

The longer answer requires some explanation; that’s what the rest of this essay is all about. As they say, there is no royal road to geometry. This book by Walter Isaacson is a work of art and we will gradually peel away the layers of artistry, one layer of pastel at a time. 

Of Artists and Patrons

But I would be remiss in my duty as a writer if I didn’t share how I came to find out about this book in the first place: the honor goes to an esteemed friend who is not only a brilliant thinker but also a world-class man of action. Even more significantly, in my mind anyway, is the fact that he is one of the most gracious individuals you will ever know.  This is all the more meaningful because—when viewed through the lens of context and juxtaposition—you don’t go any higher in an organization than he has. Enough said.

Craftsmanship

Look, I am merely a craftsman and an artist who just happens to paint with prose. Okay, okay, I 'fess up: I’m really a software craftsman who loves what he does for a living, "painting" his designs (on the canvas of the compiler), one line of code at a time ๐Ÿ‘•

Frankly, though, I can make a strong case—and demonstrate it while I'm at it—that software craftsmanship is truly an art unto itself. But that would take us far afield. I do wish to add, though, that I remain mindful of how artists like me—I think of writers as artists—and also painters, sculptors, musicians (you name it), would not be around were it not for gracious and discerning patrons…

I’m immensely grateful for that.

So it is only fitting—remember how we all recently celebrated Thanksgiving?—that I give thanks for this work of art (which Isaacson’s new book Leonardo daVinci really is) and with which my friend has put me in touch!

A Guide To The Fun Which Lies Ahead ๐Ÿ 

I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery ๐ŸŒพ
~ Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963)

Pit Stops (aka Sojourns) On Our Journey 

We have some ground to cover in this essay since we will be looking at a multi-layered individual—an incredible polymath if ever there was one—because the life of Leonardo da Vinci is itself a work of art ๐ŸŒน

So let's get started with a bird's eye view of the sojourns we'll hit during the upcoming excursion ⛷
  1. Learn How to Defy Expectations ๐ŸŽช
  2. Allow Your Inner Genius to Inspire You (and then, Others) ๐ŸŽˆ
  3. Seek Your Creative Partnership with Technology ๐Ÿ’‘
  4. Combine Theory, Experiment, and Knowledge ♨
  5. Find the Poetry in Design ๐Ÿš‚
  6. Find the Design in Poetry ๐Ÿš€
  7. Probe the Infinite Works of Nature ๐ŸŒณ
  8. Simplify Your Design ๐Ÿ 
  9. Make Each (Algorithmic) Step of The Journey Matter ๐Ÿšถ
  10. Find Unity in Marvelous Patterns ๐Ÿฐ

 

Receding Like The Distant Ship Smoke On The Horizon

Okay, so what you see above is the itinerary for the sojourns receding from us—excuse me there, I had meant to say—coming our way: So I wasn't joking when I noted above that we have some ground to cover; not anywhere near what we had in the past couple of essays, but substantial enough, nonetheless, to warrant your packing at least some gear for the journey that lies ahead ⛰

Ready? Got that trusty rucksack slung across your shoulder? ๐ŸŽ’

Great, let's start our journey with that crucial first step๐Ÿšถ

 

A Pattern Language ๐ŸŽฒ


Brief Background

Much as I had said in the last essay, having enjoyed working in the trenches of software design and development for over two decades now—and getting a kick out of it every single day still when I wake up and launch into my work—I dream in software design patterns even when I'm awake. Is that paradoxical or what? You go figure that one out; I've already got a boatload of metaphysics on my hands ๐Ÿ˜ด

No doubt about it: the genesis of the notion of a pattern language, inasmuch as it applies to software design—rest assured that I'll be introducing it shortly—can be traced back to the seminal book that rocked our industry a bit over two decades ago:
Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software
 (Addison Wesley) by Gamma, E., R. Helm, R. Johnson, and J. Vlissides
And the way it rocked our software industry was right up there with a tsunami, albeit a benign one; a tsunami that nourished rather than demolished on whichever shores its waves crashed. In other words, it was a rising tide—albeit a massive one—that had lifted all boats unlike any other that our industry had seen before ๐ŸŒŠ

The Pattern Language: Annotated

Here, then, is the pattern language—note the color-coding below, starting with blackpurpleblue, and even some green making an appearance—in which I've cast each of the 10 pieces that make up the bulk of this essay:
  • Heading: A short description of what a given piece is about (Precisely so, yay!) ๐ŸŽฏ
  • An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: My editorial "wisdom" (You back there, stop snickering. Now!๐Ÿ’Ž
  • Related Book: Something to lend texture to the discussion (We play with word-painting) ๐ŸŽจ
  • Picture: A picture with which to ground the narrative in a corporeal way (This will be your ticket to the piece) ๐ŸŽซ 
  • Quotation: A quote selected to wrap it all up into a unified whole (Big gifts often come in small packages) ๐ŸŽ
In the end, I hope you will agree that there is a method to this madness… With that, let’s embark on our journey!

The Picture: Annotated

I owe you an annotated version of the picture atop this essay. This is the picture with Walter Isaacson's book—the centerpiece of this essay—sitting (actually, standing upright) atop one of the innumerable bookshelves strewn throughout my house. I suspect that the thematic picture, which portrays a handful of mementos that I had lovingly arranged into a collage of sorts, might have come across (at least as it appears atop the essay, sans annotations) as a jumbled mess ๐Ÿ’ 

So to set the record straight, and also help you appreciate the juxtaposition, here, then is an annotated version of the same picture:

Legend to the Picture Above

Clockwise, starting from the top-left, we have:
  1. Standing erect is the book Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster) ⚓
  2. Here we've got painting virtuosity on display ("The Reading Room", a prized possession) ๐ŸŽจ
  3. Some random books—mostly computer science—which just happened to be lying around ๐Ÿ“•
  4. A memento from one of my trips to Chicago (USA) ๐Ÿš•
  5. A memento somebody brought from their trip to Sydney (Australia) ๐Ÿซ

 

1. Learn How to Defy Expectations ๐ŸŽช


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Now try this on for size…  As I learned from the pages of Walter Isaacson’s eponymously named book, Leonardo da Vinci could well have, after his birth, gone on to become a notary! But guess what? Fate had more— much more—in store for da Vinci. As they say, the rest is history ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: The Soul of A New Machine (Back Bay Book) by Tracy Kidder ๐ŸŽจ 

This Pulitzer prize-winning book chronicles how a team came together and—defying all expectations—created a quality product, faster then anyone had imagined. Put simply, it was an amazing feat which that being accomplished!
Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.
~ Zig Ziglar (1928 - 2012)
๐ŸŽ

2. Allow Your Inner Genius to Inspire You (and then, Others) ๐ŸŽˆ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: The polymath and Renaissance Man that da Vinci was, one of his truly remarkable contributions to all that came after him—to all those who came after him— is the boundless inspiration and the lasting impact off his work ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Pantheon) by James Gleick ๐ŸŽจ 
This delightful book should not be missed by fans of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman! It really deserves an essay of its own. Maybe one day I will write one… Meanwhile, think of Leonardo da Vinci as the precursor to Feynman.
3 f
A man of genius is not a man who sees more than other men do. On the contrary, it is very often found that he is absentminded and observes much less than other people. . . Why is it that the public have such an exaggerated respect for him—after he is dead? The reason is that the man of genius understands the importance of the few things he sees.
~ George Bernard Shaw ๐ŸŽ


3. Seek Your Creative Partnership with Technology ๐Ÿ’‘


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson, with his characteristic clarity, notes how, when he “…embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities and technology—is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” I’m not sure what else I could add to that succinct and comprehensive observation which lies at the heart of the partnership between human creativity and technology ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology (The MIT Press) by Edward Ashford Lee ๐ŸŽจ 
Let’s not beat about the bush: this book happens to be my “spark”. Period. 
If Leonardo da Vinci was a wellspring of creativity, then this book has the roadmap for synthesizing the admixture of creativity and modern technology. In the brief space here, I simply cannot do justice to this gem, and how it relates to the life of Leonardo da Vinci. But not to worry. I have already done much of that in an earlier series of essays. So my job here is quite simple in that I can point you in that direction…

So, having discovered my spark—many of my regular readers likely are already on to it—I was, of course, referring to the gem which got its very own handful of essays on our blog here, the following three to be precise:
 All I can say is: go forth, explore, and find out what's got your blogger so excited!
5 f
The physical world was real, and the mathematics, I had become enthralled with, but not for itself, really—you know what I mean? It was fascinating, but my real heart was somewhere else. So I decided, I have to get my hands dirty, I can’t stand these abstract things. So I changed to electrical engineering, because there was something that was real. But then some few months later, I realized I’d gone too far, and that somewhere in between—that physics was the right place. So I moved around a little bit at the beginning, and ended up with the physics course.
~ Richard P. Feynman, in The Quotable Feynman (Princeton University Press)
๐ŸŽ

4. Combine Theory, Experiment, and Knowledge ♨


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson rightly notes that Leonardo da Vinci made mighty contributions to our understanding of the scientific method. How did da Vinci do this? He did so by combining theory, experiment, and received knowledge. We  did all this asDesign nowadays. But not so back then… Yep, da Vinci sure was way ahead of his times ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, 2nd Edition (Prentice Hall) by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig ๐ŸŽจ 
Before I say a single word about this stellar book, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t tell you that there is a newer edition—a third edition—available as well. I mention the second edition simply because that’s the one I happened to have read. It is the one that made me fall in love with the subject of artificial intelligence (AI). No doubt, there are other excellent books on AI, but nothing comes close to this one by Russell and Norvig. 

So what does AI have to do with the life of Leonardo da Vinci? Nothing, and everything: “nothing” because not even the faintest inkling existed during the time of da Vinci resembling AI; “everything” because da Vinci blazed the path of intellectual virtuosity which shone the light on all that was to come after him, notably including algorithmic virtuosity.
16 f
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
~ William Shakespeare (The one-and-only, my implacable nemesis: the Bard) ๐ŸŽ

5. Find the Poetry in Design ๐Ÿš‚


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: For a lot of folks, da Vinci is the quintessential designer. Just like poetry is the essence— distillation, if you will—of prose, so was his work the essence of design: poetry in design ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins) by Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks ๐ŸŽจ 
You will find—and regular readers are already quite familiar with this the phenomenon—references to the poetry of Rumi liberally sprinkled across the essays around here. And what is it that makes Rumi's poetry so special? It is simply this:  it is replete with intricate designs and elegant variations.
6 f
There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money either.
~ Robert Graves ๐ŸŽ

6. Find the Design in Poetry ๐Ÿš€


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson perceptively notes how the city of Florence was becoming a hub for the discourse of literature, poetry, and humanist philosophy. And there you have it: design in poetry ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Omnibus Leatherbound Classics) by William Shakespeare ๐ŸŽจ 
The Bard—the name by which Shakespeare is fondly known—sure had a way with words. Dare I say that words never had it so good as when the Bard was using them to craft his poems and plays!
7 f
I heard someone tried the monkeys-on-typewriters bit trying for the plays of W. Shakespeare, but all they got was the collected works of Francis Bacon.
~ Bill Hirst
๐ŸŽ

7. Probe the Infinite Works of Nature ๐ŸŒณ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: When it comes to probing the infinite works of nature, there is so much that Isaacson covers so nicely that I am unsure of where to even begin… I recommend picking up a copy of the book from your local, bricks and mortar bookstore. How about that now?  ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Nano Nature (Metro Books) by Richard Jones ๐ŸŽจ 
This book takes you on a spectacular journey into the realm of the invisible. I haven’t seen another one quite like it…
8 f
I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
~ Marie Curie (1867-1934) ๐ŸŽ

8. Simplify Your Design ๐Ÿ 


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: In so many words, Isaacson remarks how Leonardo da Vinci was the genius’ genius!  I would not argue with that, notwithstanding my longstanding appreciation and admiration of both Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman are. Read this book and be regaled in delicious details ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Object Design: Roles, Responsibilities, and Collaborations (Addison-Wesley Professional) by Rebecca Wirfs-Brock and Alan McKean ๐ŸŽจ 
It has been observed, and very rightly so, that it takes a genius to simplify things. Harkening back to the advice by Henry David Thoreau—to “Simplify, simplify, simplify”—this gem of a book takes you deep into the heart of software design. The preface to this book by one of my all time programming heroes (John Vlissides) alone is worth the price of this book!
9 f
The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.
~ Oscar Wilde (in The Importance of Being Earnest) ๐ŸŽ

9. Make Each (Algorithmic) Step of The Journey Matter ๐Ÿšถ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Although I don’t call Isaacson using the word algorithm anywhere in his book, I think that a case can be made that stepwise, methodical—think pause-and-deliberation—attacks on the problem space had a lot to do with da Vinci’s unprecedented success in a ton of disparate fields… ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (Henry Holt and Co.) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths ๐ŸŽจ 
The book is 100% addictive reading. Since I have already written quite a bit about it, my job here is simple in that I'll point you in that direction… All the good stuff is  waiting there for you. Simply look for it in the fifth spot in the following essay:
10 f
The veil of illusion cannot be lifted by a mere decision of reason, but demands the most thoroughgoing and persevering preparation consisting in the full payment of all debts to life.
~ C. G. Jung (1875-1961) ๐ŸŽ

10. Find Unity in Marvelous Patterns ๐Ÿฐ


An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson has noted in at least a few spots in his book that viewed nature as a holistic whole, and with a great deal of reverence for its unifying patterns ๐Ÿ’Ž
Related Book: Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (Addison Wesley) by Gamma, E., R. Helm, R. Johnson, and J. Vlissides ๐ŸŽจ 
Not sure what I can add to all that’s already been said about the book that rocked our (software design and development) industry in a sea changing way…
11 f
We sleep, but the loom of life never stops and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up tomorrow.
~ Beecher (1813-1878) ๐ŸŽ

Epilogue ๐ŸŽˆ


Aha, Ten More Pieces!

I hope you enjoyed this essay, made up as it was—the bulk of it anyway—of 10 pieces. And if you did, I’ve got good news for you: you can look forward to a set of 10 (brand) new pieces in the follow-up essay which should hit this blog next Sunday.

Pit Stops (aka Sojourns) For Our Next Journey 

As for a bird's eye view of the sojourns we'll hit in our next excursion, this is roughly what you can expect ⛷
  1. It's OK to be Fascinated by Math ๐Ÿ‘’
  2. Spot the Hidden Treasures ๐Ÿ‘‘
  3. Rekindle Your Passion for Probing Origins ๐Ÿ”ญ
  4. Hunt for the Big, Timeless Ideas ๐ŸŽป
  5. Cultivate a Deep Feel for Learning ๐ŸŒŠ
  6. Pack Information as Densely as Possible ๐Ÿ‘œ
  7. Allow Your Art to be Informed by (the Analysis of) Nature ๐ŸŽƒ
  8. Distribute Evenly (or at Least as Evenly as Possible) ๐Ÿ‘ 
  9. Should You Chance Upon a Dark Cave… ๐ŸŒ
  10. Take it to the Limit ๐Ÿ
Then we swirled around each other and the thread was spun
to some Arcadian band
I would stop it from swinging like a pendulum 
Just to hold time in my hand 
And you shot me with a cannonball of history 
And long forgotten art 
I'd be turning it over as our words ran free 
I'd hold your Golden Heart 
I'd hold your Golden Heart 
Nothing in the world prepared me for, your heart, your heart 
Nothing in the world that I love more, your heart, your heart 
Your Golden Heart 
~ Mark Knopfler (Lyrics from Golden Heart)