Plato And The Nerd Strikes Back

The Quotes 🚀

For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter 🐳
~ Jedi Master Yoda (in Star Wars—Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

Like the arts, the evolution of the field of engineering is governed by culture, language, and cross-germination of ideas. Also like the arts, success or failure is often determined by intangible and inexplicable forces, such as fashion and culture 💸
~ Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd)

When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not 🐌
Jedi Master Yoda (in Star Wars—Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)

Preamble 🎈

We Had Gazed Into The Crystal Ball

“But which crystal ball, Akram, which one?” may well be what you’re wanting to ask me at this moment since we’ve been gazing into a bunch of crystal balls lately 🔮

Fair question there, I concede, yo, my wiser-than-me, smart aleck reader. To that I’ll add, Could you perhaps have asked that question a bit less emphatically and phrased it a bit more delicately? 👺  But that’s okay. And I’m actually glad you asked: So here’s the deal, dear Madam 👒  and dear Sir 🎩

It’s only the rarest-of-rare essays on this blog that is ever devoted to a single book—let alone two essays devoted to the same book. And guess what, we have coming up here a whopping third essay devoted to the same book 👻

We’re talking here, of course, about the following book into whose depths we had dived in the previous (i.e. second) installment in this series of essays, with this one being the third—and final—in a unique series of sequels and prequels, or however you wish to think of this series of essays:

Aren’t we Americans just head over heels in love with those mesmerizing sequels and prequels? 💖  But more on that later. Ahem, so I was saying… Ah yes, so before the previous (i.e. second) installment of course had come the very first essay devoted to Plato and the Nerd. And the reason for devoting a whopping third essay—the one you’re reading—is actually quite simple; well, simple enough. As Einstein had once famously observed:

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler
~ Albert Einstein (theoretical physicist extraordinaire, and then some)

Let’s Organize What We Got So Far…

Before we move on to more good stuff, let’s first gather here in one tidy spot—though in no particular order—a handful of featured links to make your journey of the terrain covered by Plato and the Nerd all the more fun. Think of the featured links that follow as a springboard with which to launch your very own deep dive into the depths of the Plato and the Nerd ocean so you can discover what all oysters and pearls it has to offer 🐳

I, for one, will be mining the gems tucked away in Plato and the Nerd for many months, if not years  💎  ⛏  So here we go with a handful of featured links so that you may

  1. Bookmark these reviews to get situated and get your bearings on a solid footing ⛺
  2. Peruse the book’s homepage to explore background material and associated events 🔭
  3. Read up at your leisure the very first deep dive into the wherewithal and gestalt 🏊
  4. Follow up that deep dive with a slightly different perspective on the offerings 👓
Dare I add that the arc of the dive will inevitably depend on the diver—your background, interests, passions, taste, and so on—much as has been said about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder; to each their own, or in more colloquial terms, YMMV 🚗

If You Want To Make It Snappy ⏰

Now if you want to skip over a handful of digressions that are coming up, or you simply don’t want to hang out with us riff raff, then simply look for a piece of framed art (as in the pic below) that shows an outstretched palm bearing the rather stark message about returning your gallery tour ticket 🎫  When you come across that piece of framed art a second time in this essay—the following being the first time—that will be your cue to resume reading, that is, should you choose to skip over all the intervening digressions that are simply unsurpassed in their entertainment value🚶

It’s okay if you skip those de rigueur digressions; our feelings won’t be hurt if you do decide to bypass wide swathes of reading goodness. Just sayin’. Hey, we’re a pretty congenial bunch here at Programming Digressions headquarters, so it’s all good 😉 All I’m saying is that you’ll miss the fruits of the labor that went into crafting those troves of reading goodness—which your blogger brought into being by the sweat of his brow—notwithstanding the mighty pickaxe he occasionally wielded, too, to crack open some especially impregnable areas of discourse along their fissures ⛏

I am an obsessive rewriter, doing one draft and then another and then another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say, but a great deal to add (italics mine).

~ Gore Vidal

To recap, should you wish to sail past some neat digressions, I mean some explorations—although I really can’t imagine why—then look for the following framed art (with its selfsame stark message that  does not mince any words) further on down the essay 🎨

In other words, this will be your ticket 🎫  Redeem it when you spot it next 👀

Getting Ready to Resume Our Explorations 👒

Gerrymandered Gravitas

I trust that you had taken note of my purportedly prophetic words in the previous essay where I had pontificated, as I’m known to pontificate at times—typically pontificating only toward the end of any given essay where I surreptitiously try to slip in some crystal-ball-gazing as we’re winding down—about how Plato and the Nerd touches upon a ton of fundamental themes that have resonated with your blogger over the years; just tons and tons 🔮

So here we go 🚅  We’re off to an unprecedented third essay that’s all about exploring the richness of ideas in  Plato and the Nerd 🔭 👓

In full candor, this will probably be the final essay in this series. On that note, let’s turn our attention to the fresco below that methought exudes gravitas of the highest order. I mean, is this fresco cool or is it cool, reeking as it is of culture and the patina of history? 😎

Plato and Aristotle in a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) in the Vatican. Aristotle is on the right, gesturing toward the earth, indicating that knowledge arises from the study of things, whereas Plato, on the left, gestures toward the heavens, indicating that knowledge is discovery of Forms that exist in an ideal, disembodied world, independent of humans (italics mine).
~ Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd)


Some Brief Iconic Fun Along The Way

With reference to the pic above, how about we have ourselves some “iconic” fun? 🎭

  • So there was in old times—I mean a really long time ago—a smart philosopher dude named Aristotle who had a penchant for gesturing toward the earth 👣
  • Then there was another smart cookie named Plato who, unlike his cohort Aristotle, was given to gesturing toward the heavens. Go figure! 🔭
  • Finally, and best of all, there was of course our hero, the Nerd—while he does not appear in the fresco, he is nonetheless immortalized in the subtitle of the fine book we’re skidding through—who singlehandedly enlightened the world on the virtues of the indispensable Nerd Pocket Protector 👓

Yep, that’s the unvarnished truth there for you. So there 👍

Pang Of Conscience Leads Blogger To A Disclosure!

In full disclosure, what follows then is some unsolicited advice from yours truly. In particular, this subversive advice is for all young impressionable souls who may have unwittingly wandered over hither into our Programming Digressions lair, I mean, blog. Hey, it’s all good, we welcome one and all. We’re totally lowbrow here—mostly geeks and nerds and stuff—so don’t you let any old fresco or something scare you away 👻

In fact, take heart and forget those frescoes and think Caesars Palace instead if that’ll make you feel more at home. Yeah, that’s right, think of the copiously gilded ceilings and walls inside good old Caesars Palace in Las Vegas 🏠

So anyhow, what I had laid out in the “iconic fun” snippet above—the one that appeared shortly after the pic of the famed fresco by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino and immediately  following some brief “iconic” fun—you’re not supposed to write like how I wrote there. I mean, the way I wrote there about how we had this smart philosopher dude called Aristotle and so on and so forth; it sounds oh-so indecorous 💅

But then again, if it’s some fun that you want to have, I’ll be the last one to stop you from doing so 🙈

I mean, consider all that I say above in light of the sentiment that gives me the courage to write in the first place, and which would be along the lines of how

Even if the essay you end up with has serious faults, they’re likely to seem pardonable. Most readers will forgive much when they encounter prose that breathes feeling and conviction. Why? They so rarely encounter it (italics mine).

~ John Trimble (Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing)

I might as well add, and some of you may have already surmised as much: That sort of writing style comes to afflict many of us who have been subverted by the writing style of J. D. Salinger, in particular those of us who have read his novel entitled The Catcher in the Rye with some amount of eagerness. Ah yes, I was and I did. And that’ll do it; and it did 👊

On top of that, I had read The Catcher in the Rye back in the day as an eager-eyed, gullible adolescent so you can only imagine what it did to your blogger when he was oh-so-impressionable 😯  Indeed, picture a naive version of me a few decades ago—an earlier me, or Akram 1.0 if you will—surreptitiously poring over the pages of The Catcher in the Rye while everyone was under the impression that I was diligently doing my homework 😇

Hey, you all can keep a secret or two—about homework left undone and of coming undone—can’t you?  I mean, who wants to squander their time studying Chemistry when “there’s a hell of a good universe next door” 🌃

But I digress.

Threads, Themes, And Such

Okay, back now to the thread of how Plato and the Nerd touches upon a ton of fundamental themes that have resonated with your blogger over the years; just tons and tons 🚚

So let’s see if we can stitch up those themes into a unified tapestry, connecting the dots the best we can. Remember, though, that there are tapestries, and then there are the tapestries of paradise. I need you to know that if I get carried away, it’s because art—and of course the crafting of both prose and poetry—are simply my avocations, nothing less, and nothing more, perhaps evermore; I write with untarnished sincerity, straight from the heart. So what you’re bound to find in the essays on this blog is the unvarnished truth as I see it 💕

And speaking of avocations—of crafting prose and poetry and all that—let’s see what the genius poet Emily Dickinson had in store for us when she intoned with uncanny imagery the following impassioned thoughts which seemed to be looking for a home 👨 👩 👣 🏠 📖 👓 🌝 ⛱ 🌞

A shady friend for torrid days 🌋
Is easier to find 🔭
Than one of higher temperature 🔥
For frigid hour of mind ⛄

The vane a little to the east🌏
Scares muslin souls away; 👻
If broadcloth breasts are firmer 💪
Than those of organdy, 👗

Who is to blame? The weaver? 🎐
Ah! the bewildering thread! ✂
The tapestries of paradise 👑
So notelessly are made! 📦
~ Emily Dickinson (In Poem XXXIV, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)

And since we saw in the verses above something of Dickinson’s genius on display, it’s only fair that you have the chance, too, to check out the related work of another, more-contemporary genius named Philip M. Bromberg—the master of crafting seamlessly sublime prose—much as I’ve tried to intone in an essay elsewhere, and which happened to be in the context of chatting about Bromberg’s book entitled Awakening the Dreamer 😴

Hey, wait a sec, speaking of awakening dreamers and stuff: You all are awake, aren’t you? Just remember that you loose if you snooze; sleep is overrated 😉

A Word To The Wise, Sticky Notes Shall Arise 🎫

Wait till you see the sticky notes that will appear in some rather interesting places in the pics toward the end of this essay. But hey, let’s not give it all away. Plus remember what we chatted about earlier, in the previous essay to be precise regarding how—out of the thousands of regular readers who come here every month—a good number of this blog’s visitors likely are new readers? 💪

So as a warm welcome for our new readers, let’s all of us build some suspense so we can have them join us for even more fun—the more, the merrier, eh?—fun perhaps with discovering some apocryphally allegorical sticky notes tucked away in the swathe of a menagerie of wild animals, our fabled  beasts 🐻 🐍 🐊 🐞 🐝 🐙 🐢 🐹 🐸

As for the menagerie of wild animals above, let’s flag them to make them the easier to locate them, shall we? 🚩

Your Blogger Finds Himself In Yet Another Predicament 🙉

Uh Oh, Here We Go Again…

But which predicament, Akram, which one?” may well be what you’re surely eager to ask your blogger since we’ve been coping with just a ton of predicaments lately 👽 I mean, who said that life is a bowl of cherries? 🍒 Was it perchance Mary Pipher, the therapist-author who gave us Reviving Ophelia and other works that are replete with mind-blowing epiphanies? Oh well, Pipher is—along with the novelist Salinger—yet another fellow-renegade at work. It’s all good, yo 👌

Frankly, I’m glad you asked—I mean, you were going to ask your predicament-prone blogger about his latest quandary, weren’t you?—because this predicament truly needs some slight elaboration: So here’s the scoop, dear Madam 👒  and dear Sir to be sure 🎩

Laying Out The Lachrymose Quagmire

So here was the predicament in which your blogger found himself as he sought to choose a title for the essay you’re reading. Ah, tell me about the joys of naming things 😰 Give yourself a minute to internalize what the following quote from noted linguist and Harvard University professor Steven Pinker is trying to intone 🔮

Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name

Indeed, the stakes for your blogger—and in turn for you all in the Programming Digressions reading community in turn—were rather high. Basically, the stark choices I faced were these:

  1. Do I call this essay Plato And The Nerd Strikes Back (and thereby draw in the malfeasant connotations associated with Darth Vader’s Empire, which certainly does not apply to the fine, upright book that Plato And The Nerd truly is) 🙊
  2. Should I call this essay Plato And The Nerd Strike Back (and thereby earn the ire of the fastidious types who would have me skewered for being less than precise about this particular wording in that it implies how two individuals—Plato being one, and the Nerd being the other—were conspiring, with no mention of the fine book entitled Plato And The Nerd) 🙉 🙈

Ah yes, the joys of naming things 💁 Yeah right, talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was a quandary there all right 🙉  But your blogger remained fearless—as always, mostly fearless though occasionally clueless—comforted in the knowledge that he has your support; surely you all would aid me, continue to support me, and indeed rush to my side should either the grammar police or the fastidious types descend upon yours truly, wouldn’t you? Yes, yes? 👀

The irresistible pull of some naughty wittiness brings us here: So I loved the following zinger—at once sardonic, witty, and delightful—from another gem that is David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity after coming across it while revisiting its pages in conjunction with reading Edward’s Plato And The Nerd 🗿

Easter Island in the South Pacific is famous mainly–let’s face it, only–for the large stone statues that were built there many centuries ago by the islanders 🗿
~ David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World)

I mean, David, that was pretty direct there… No sparing the sensibilities, no nothing?! Just sayin’ 😆

Here Be A Tour Of The Esteemed Gallery 🎨

Much as promised earlier, what I had in mind was—with profuse apologies to fellow fans of Pink Floyd—simply this much that

So ya thought ya might like to go to the show 🎪

And far be it from me to stand in your way, especially since I’m the designated tour guide!

The Collage (The Guts Of This Essay) 🎨

With a friendly reminder that, this time around—and breaking with the past, where I’ve unwittingly had you scale walls of texts—the collage that follows truly is the essay. Please indulge me, won’t you? 👺

Without further ado, we now embark on a tour of the, um, Programming Digression galleries of art 🎃 For a slightly different kind of tour—at least an inkling of a tour of a real art gallery in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in NYC—I can point you in the direction of an essay elsewhere. In particular, look for a section toward the top of that essay, right after a pic of two framed paintings 🎯

Meanwhile, we begin the tour of our very own gallery of art: Each piece of art in the gallery features a pic—taken of course by yours truly—followed by a vignette of a book of which I was reminded as I read the pages of Plato And The Nerd. For an account of why and how the pics have as their backdrop a menagerie of wild animals, our fabled beasts 🐻 🐍 🐊 🐞 🐝 🐙 🐢 🐹 🐸, allow me—your trusty guide for the gallery tour—to point you in the direction of a section (entitled “A Word To The Wise, Sticky Notes Shall Arise”) that appeared earlier in this essay, flagged in fact by a cutesy, triangular marker that looks like this: 🚩

1. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Second Edition (The MIT Press) by Harold Abelson, Gerald Jay Sussman, and Julie Sussman.

🌰  In a nutshell: This landmark book—affectionately known simply as SICP in nerd headquarters and elsewhere—essentially transformed my worldview of how to go about programming computers. Period. In particular, SICP can’t be beat for the way it goes about emphasizing the crucial role played by a variety of approaches to dealing with time in computational models: objects with state, concurrent programming, functional programming and lazy evaluation, and nondeterministic programming 🚅

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Some of the most valuable engineering models are deterministic. In addition to logic gates, we also have digital machines, instruction set architectures, and programming languages, most of which are deterministic models. The Turing machines in chapter 8 are also deterministic. The determinism of all these models has proved extremely valuable historically. The information technology revolution is built on the determinism of these models…
Although determinism can help predict how a system will evolve in time, I will show in section 10.2 that even a deterministic model may not predict future behavior well. It may be foiled by a phenomenon called chaos; by complexity, where it simply becomes impractical to compute the predictions; or even more simply by an accumulation of error. In such cases, nondeterministic models may become valuable.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Let’s move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

2. Bio-Inspired Artificial Intelligence: Theories, Methods, and Technologies (The MIT Press) by Dario Floreano and Claudio Mattiussi.

🌰  In a nutshell: You’ll be hard pressed to find a more comprehensive introduction to the latest approaches in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics which are inspired by self-organizing biological processes and structures. Think Alan Kay and his ground-breaking, pioneering work that laid the foundations of object-oriented programming. This book does for AI and robotics what Kay did for object-orientation. Though it reads a bit unevenly in places, there’s tons of good stuff between the covers of its pages!

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Engineers have an advantage over scientists when dealing with layers of models. Natural biological systems and wars and revolutions are givens in our world. Engineered systems are not. For engineered systems, the goal is not to explain them in terms of lower level phenomena. The goal instead is to design them using lower level phenomena. This different goal makes it much easier to exploit the transitivity of models.
Consider synthetic biology, which is concerned with designing artificial biological systems. This field is less focused on explaining naturally occurring systems and more focused on leveraging natural biological pathways to synthesize new systems. In synthetic biology, researchers have embraced layered abstractions to great effect. Endy (2005), for example, argues for using predefined functional modules to create biological systems. Indeed, an engineering discipline such as synthetic biology can more readily use layered abstractions because the models need only to model the systems being created. The bioengineers choose the systems to be modeled, and they choose them in part because they can model them. To be effective, scientific models need to model the systems given to us by nature, which are much more numerous. And we can’t choose those. They are given.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Time now for the next vignette in our collage 🎁

3. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities (Basic Books) by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner

🌰  In a nutshell: Let’s start with the innocent premise that humans are more than computers; and I’m not challenging the wherewithal of the premise in pointing to its innocence, though I also can’t help but think to John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost in which Milton literally rips through huge swathes of space and time in the remarkable telling of a story about mankind’s Fall and Restoration. To that, add how most cutting-edge research in the cognitive sciences is increasingly focused on the creative aspects of the mind. What that book—The Way We Think—does rather well is to synthesize a new direction to help the reader make sense of the confluence and convergence of the aforementioned strands of thinking. The result is a pretty readable theory of conceptual blending; the book does get longwinded in places but, all-in-all, it’s a worthwhile read. It provides an accessible new view of how the mind works.

I think of The Way We Think as the final word on conceptual blending, taken to its logical conclusion. Yes, we need all the tools—conceptual, algorithmic, infrastructural, thematic, AI, probabilistic, you name it—that we can get our hands on to tame complexity 🍴

It served as inspiration for an essay elsewhere, which is a deep dive into the fun stuff that happens when the worlds of object orientation and functional programming collide 🌊

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

In the 1960s, the philosopher Hilary Putnam developed the idea that different structures could realize the same function, calling the principle “multiple realizability.” Bickle (2016) describes it this way:
In the philosophy of mind, the multiple realizability thesis contends that a single mental kind (property, state, event) can be realized by many distinct physical kinds.
Under this principle, mental states are not so much dependent on the hardware (the brain) in which they occur, in that other realizations of the same states would realize the same function. In other words, mental states are like software. Again, it is a stretch to conclude that these same states can be realized in a computer. This would require either that computers be universal information-processing machines or that the brain be limited to the same class of functions that computers can realize.
It may seem that the thesis of multiple realizability is reinforced by the distinctly digital encoding in DNA. DNA uses a base-four encoding rather than binary, but it is still digital. A DNA molecule consists of a pair of strands of nucleotides, where each nucleotide consists of one of four nucleobases. The digital genetic code is used to synthesize each new human, and that human realizes cognition. Does this mean that cognition is digitally encoded?

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Okay, done here, time for the next vignette in our collage 🎁

4. Probably Approximately Correct: Nature’s Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World (Basic Books) by Leslie Valiant.

🌰  In a nutshell: Leslie Valiant is a renowned professor of computer science and applied mathematics at Harvard University. That impeccable background is reflected throughout Probably Approximately Correct: my impressions of this book are that it is tightly argued, backed up solid arguments, the narrative flows fairly smoothly, and everything is presented in an engaging, accessible manner. I liked it a lot, in fact.

As an industry practitioner in the field of distributed computing, I was well-aware of Valiant’s work even before I read his book (Probably Approximately Correct). He is the inventor of the bulk synchronous parallel (BSP) model for designing parallel algorithms; interest in BSP has soared in recent years, with Google adopting it as a major technology for graph analytics at massive scale via technologies like Pregel and MapReduce.

Interestingly enough, Valiant asserts that Darwin’s theory is utterly incomplete in that it’s unable to make quantitative predictions. He argues that the algorithms of computational learning theory will be the key players in evolution; that the intellectual progeny of Turing have merely gotten start with the great work of charting and fleshing out those algorithms.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

The license history of jQuery also reflects an ongoing passionate debate about the nature of open-source software….
But I digress again 💗 (it is hard to avoid… the background stories are really quite interesting). Let’s return to the subject of how to manage the vastness of possibilities that software offers. Software technologies emerge chaotically in a Darwinian ecosystem of ideas. Like a real Darwinian ecosystem, not everyone will agree on what makes one idea more “fit” than another idea, and survival depends more on the ability to propagate than on technical fitness. Promiscuity, personality, money, and culture have enormous, incomprehensible effects.
One pioneering software anthropology effort was carried out by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides in their book on design patterns (Gamma et al., 1994). Widely known as the “gang of four,” these authors attempt to categorize a variety of widely used patterns and idioms in software construction. They credit Christopher Alexander, architect, for inspiring their approach. Alexander proposed a pattern language for buildings and cities, and they translated this approach to software (italics, link, and 💗 are all mine 😇 )

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

That was a longish vignette, wasn’t it? So let’s usher ourselves in to a viewing of the next vignette 🎁

5. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (W. W. Norton & Company) by Daniel C. Dennett.

🌰  In a nutshell: Daniel C. Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and a professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. This book—Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking—contains seventy-seven of Dennett’s most popular imagination-extenders and focus-holders. It tackles some really thorny subjects including, but not limited to, evolution, meaning, mind, and free will. Try that on for size 👔 👖 👕

Basically, it’s a nice grab-bag of a bunch of intriguing thinking tools to help the reader gain footing with these thorny issues. Think of it as a big cafeteria where you can pick and choose, YMMV. And yes, it does not pull any punches (pic)

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Because we can’t know everything, we need systematic ways to deal with uncertainty. In the next chapter, I will directly address how to model uncertainty with probabilities. Before we can do that, however, we need to address the question of whether uncertainty is caused by the limits of what we can know or some intrinsic randomness in the world or in our models of the world. Many of the mathematical models and computer programs that we construct are deterministic, which suggests that we should be able to know quite a bit about them unless they fall into the Turing and Gödel traps. Most computer programmers strive to avoid these traps, yielding understandable programs, and also to create deterministic programs. However, this notion of determinism is not a simple one. We can’t confront uncertainty without first confronting determinism.
Determinism is a deceptively simple idea that has vexed thinkers for a long time. Broadly, determinism in the physical world is the principle that everything that happens is inevitable, preordained by some earlier state of the universe or by some deity. For centuries, philosophers have debated the implications of this principle, particularly insofar as it undermines the notion of free will. If the world is deterministic, then presumably we cannot be held individually accountable for our actions because they are preordained.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Great, glad you enjoyed that mind-stretching vignette. You did, didn’t you, now? Okay, okay, that’s fine, can’t win them all… Heading over to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

6. The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions (Basic Books) by Shing-Tung Yau.

🌰  In a nutshell: Wait a second, Akram, how did you manage to drag in a book that’s about—of all the things—string theory? Whoah… You got some ‘splaining to do here, buddy! So allow me to point out (by way of justifying the well-deserved inclusion here of The Shape of Inner Space) that the following book is prominently cited in the Bibliography section of Plato and the Nerd:

Smolin, L., 2006: Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.

Enough said, and you’re cool with how I justifying the inclusion of The Shape of Inner Space? In fact, hopefully, you’re feeling better about continuing with our tour of the famed art galleries… Otherwise, we have some other options, too. I mean, is all this good enough or would you prefer to step out and duke it out? 😉 Hey, just kidding, just kidding… We’re all friend here, having a little fun now and then 🎃

Basically, string theory claims that we live in a ten-dimensional universe—try that on for size—of which only four are accessible to our human senses. According to theorists, the missing six are curled up in bizarre structures known as Calabi-Yau manifolds. In The Shape of Inner Space, Shing-Tung Yau—Fields Medal winner and the man who mathematically proved that these manifolds do exist—argues that geometry is fundamental to understanding the very nature of our universe. It has been said about The Shape of Inner Space that it’ll change the way we consider the universe on both its grandest and smallest scales.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Space seems to similarly require a notion of a continuum. If I am standing at point x and I move to point y, do I pass through any points that are not in space? Do I move smoothly? Although my senses seem to indicate that I do, I cannot trust what my senses tell me when I am reasoning about time and space scales smaller than what my senses can perceive. Nevertheless, almost all of physics models space as a continuum.
Of course, we can now go down the rabbit hole to debate what “smoothly” means, but I will instead rest on centuries of tradition in science, where time and space are nearly universally modeled as continuums. At a minimum, we have to concede that modeling time and space as continuums has proved to be a useful paradigm indeed. These are just models, of course, so as we faithfully avoid confusing the map and territory, we cannot assert the existence of continuums in the physical world just because they are useful as models. However, the reason that they are useful as models is that these models provide simpler explanations of the physical world than models that reject continuums. Applying the principle of Occam’s razor, attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian, when there are competing hypotheses, other things being equal, we should choose the simpler one.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Who said mathematical loveliness is not allowed into art galleries? Tell them that your blogger wants to have a word with them in private, will you? Meanwhile, let’s see what we got for our next vignette 🎁

7. The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty (Princeton University Press) by William Byers.

🌰  In a nutshell: Some of you may recall another book—How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics—by the author of The Blind Spot having made an appearance in an essay elsewhere. In The Blind Spot, Byers convincingly demonstrates how we can and should learn from the existence of “blind spots” in our scientific and mathematical understanding. Both books are superb and written with the precision of a mathematical theorem; no surprises there since the author happens to be a mathematician, a professor of mathematics to be precise 🎓

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

The title of this book comes from the wonderful book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (Taleb, 2010), who titled a section of the prologue “Plato and the Nerd.” Taleb talks about “Platonicity” as “the desire to cut reality into crisp shapes.” Taleb laments the ensuing specialization and points out that such specialization blinds us to extraordinary events, which he calls “black swans.” Following Taleb, a theme of my book is that technical disciplines are also vulnerable to excessive specialization; each speciality unwittingly adopts paradigms that turn the speciality into a slow-moving culture that resists rather than promotes innovation.
But more fundamentally, the title puts into opposition the notion that knowledge, and hence technology, consists of Platonic Ideals that exist independent of humans and is discovered by humans, and an opposing notion that humans create rather than discover knowledge and technology. The nerd in the title is a creative force, subjective and even quirky, and not an objective miner of preexisting truths (italics mine).

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Oooh, this vignette sure was short and sweet 🍯  Is that how you would like them all? It’s okay, my feelings won’t be hurt. Go on, lemme know 👀 Meanwhile, let’s check what the next vignette in our collage holds for us, shall we? 🎁

8. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed (Penguin Books) by Ray Kurzweil.

🌰  In a nutshell: Futurist Ray Kurzweil has a fairly witty and engaging narrative going in this book which is all about how the brain functions, how the mind emerges from the brain, and, most importantly for its thesis, the implications of vastly increasing the powers of our intelligence in addressing the world’s problems.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Let’s turn our attention to intelligence. First, let me point out that anthropomorphizing computers is not only unjustified by the technology (chapter 9) but is also unreasonable. It is simply not true that we want our machines to exhibit human-like behavior. I really do not want to have to argue with my car about getting to school on time. It’s hard enough to have that argument with my daughter.
Consider a Google search of the web. Does Google attempt to give human-like answers? Not really, thankfully. Instead, Google finds answers written by humans that are likely to be helpful. Try asking Google, “What is the meaning of life?” When I did this just now (May 29, 2016), the first hit on the list of possibly helpful pages is a link to a wonderful Wikipedia page on the subject. That page even includes a discussion of the answer “42” to this question (see footnote on page 84). Google is brokering for me the collective intelligence of humans. In my opinion, this does not in any way replace human intelligence. Quite the contrary, it augments human intelligence. I’m quite sure it makes me smarter because I have a really poor memory, and it improves the ability of humans to communicate with one another by democratizing publication. Everyone has a voice.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Methinks we wrapped up a positively brainy vignette 👻  And please don’t faint when you see yet another brain—hey, for crying out loud, the decade of the brain wasn’t that long ago—adorning the cover of the book in the vignette coming next up 🎁

9. Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (Henry Holt and Co.) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

🌰  In a nutshell: So this is an addictively readable book about cognitive science, but with a twist; it’s cognitive science as viewed through the lens of computer science. It’s all about deploying algorithms in our daily living for solving situations that we routinely deal with—perhaps all-too-routinely and typically when we’re in auto-pilot mode—as we go about our personal lives. In the words of its authors, “Talking about algorithms for human lives might seem like an odd juxtaposition… But an algorithm is just a finite sequence of steps used to solve a problem, and algorithms are much broader—and older by far—than the computer. Long before algorithms were ever used by machines, they were used by people.” Nicely put. In addition to being addictively readable, the book covers a wide swathes of topics, far too many than I could even try to begin summarizing.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

A universal Turing machine implements algorithms, step-by-step processes, where each step changes the state of the machine discretely. The word “algorithm” comes from the name of the Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780—850), who was instrumental in the spread of the arabic system of numerals that we all use today. An algorithm is a step-by-step calculation procedure, a recipe. The notion of an algorithm is central to computer science, but it is important to recognize that an algorithm is a model of what a machine does. In a modern computer, what is really happening is electrons sloshing around…
…It is ironic that many machine learning techniques used today, like those used in the vandalism detector of Wikipedia (see chapter 1), use Bayesian models. The irony is that machine learning algorithms are completely mechanized, operating without human intervention, and yet, according to Popper, they are subjective. It is hard to reconcile these observations.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Oops, in case you shuddered at the sight of a book cover adorned by a brain made up of blue cable wire, sorry! Really sorry about that! I had clearly neglected my duty there—as your tour guide of the Programming Digressions galleries—to prepare you for a brain unlike the typical kind that’s suspended in cerebrospinal fluid or something like that 💀  Truly sorry, with sugar on top 🍭

Wait a sec, the devil’s advocate was snickering there… Hey, what did you say? Ah, so this is the decade of the brain, for crying out loud. Gosh, some people just never dial down their moods, do they now? Not to worry, though, as our nerves will be oh-so-soothed once we now move on to the next vignette in our collage and take in the Japanese garden-like tranquility that is designers at work 🎻

Shhh… We won’t be divulging too many details on the aforesaid topic of exactly how tranquil the whole business of (early) design work really is: So I’ve been deep in the trenches of software design for a bit over two decades and counting—let’s just say that I know the terrain backwards and forwards—and it isn’t quite as beatific as you may have been led to believe by the imagery above of Zen-like tranquility. Um, not quite. But hey, let’s have the illusion persist for now. Plus we’re good sports about keeping a secret or two around here, aren’t we?) 🌿🌿🌿🌿

10. Software Designers in Action: A Human-Centric Look at Design Work (Chapman and Hall) by Marian Petre (Editor) and Andre Van Der Hoek (Editor).

🌰  In a nutshell: This is a unique book. I haven’t come across anything similar… It offers a comprehensive look at early software design, exploring the work of professional designers from a range of different viewpoints. It consists of interdisciplinary contributions, which together provide a unique perspective on software development, this book helps readers understand how software design is performed today and encourages the current community of researchers to push the field forward. It’s lavishly illustrate with fellow programmers plying the craft of design—early software design to be precise—using those lowest of low-tech tools: dry-erase markers and whiteboard to chain together their thoughts, hammering the design of software into existence or perhaps visually tweaking an idea or two, or three lol, much like a toolsmith would with a spanner 🔨 🔗 🔧

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Simon says that design is about “changing existing situations into preferred ones.” But what do we mean by “preferred” situations? In political systems, this may be highly subjective. In engineered systems, it may be much more objective. A political leader may prefer a situation where all immigrants are kept out, even when there is no objective evidence that this makes anything better for anyone. Engineers, by contrast, are often called on to defend their preferences with objective measures, such as lower cost or reduced energy consumption. Simon’s “preferred situations” are open. But it is not uncommon in popular culture to assume that engineers primarily optimize preexisting designs.
A somewhat silly joke underscores this point:
Question: What is the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, and an engineer? Answer: An optimist sees a glass half full. A pessimist sees a glass half empty. An engineer sees a glass that is twice as big as it needs to be.
This joke plays on our preconception that engineers prefer whatever costs less. Many engineered systems, however, are “preferred” despite lacking any objective measures showing them to be better than preceding “existing situations.”

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

See, that one was complete with geek humor, yay! A word to the wise: We’re moving into the territory of profoundness as we walk over to the adjacent vignette 🎁

11. Awakening the Dreamer: Clinical Journeys (Routledge) by Philip M. Bromberg.

🌰  In a nutshell: This is yet another sparkling book by Bromberg that’s replete with his characteristic honesty, humor, and thoughtfulness. At one level, you can think of Awakening the Dreamer as a paean to creativity and to the endless possibilities—think renewable human resources here—of what can be achieved through the process of change, both within and without; my apologies if my inadvertent juxtaposition above of those two words (“human resources”) made you wince. So let’s try to make up for that by gently slipping in the possibility of viewing “resources” as being indispensable. And much as I had noted elsewhere, Bromberg is the master of crafting seamless prose—I don’t know how Bromberg does it, but he does and I am green with envy—as I’ve tried to demonstrate in an essay elsewhere, which was in the context of chatting about the pursuit of beauty in designing software 🐹

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

This book is my attempt to explain why the process of creating technology, a process that we call engineering, is a deeply creative process, and how this explains why it has become so hot and competitive, making geeks out of the brightest young minds. The book is about the culture of technology, about both its power and its limitations, and about how the real power of technology stems from its partnership with humans. I like to think of the book as a popular philosophy of technology, but I doubt it will be very popular, and I am not sure I have the qualifications to write about philosophy. So really, the only guarantee I can make is that it is about technology and the engineers who create technology. And even then, it is limited to the part of technology that I understand best, specifically, the digital and information technology revolutions.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

12. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought (Basic Books) by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

🌰  In a nutshell: Very nice exploration of how artificial intelligence and machine learning commingle. This was not an easy book to read, but well worth it. Hofstadter and his colleagues preson a bunch of computer programs which slice-and-dice sequences, applying (regular expression-like) pattern-matching strategies. In the process, Hofstadter elevate the role of analogies to one of a creative enterprise. Pretty good stuff.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

An imperfect analogy might help the reader if the reader has not studied electricity. An electric current can be visualized as water flowing down a sluice or channel that is tilted. The degree of tilt is analogous to the voltage. The rate of water flow is analogous to the current. A smaller channel will have a higher resistance than a larger channel (the smaller channel lets through less water for a given tilt). Inductance is analogous to the tendency of water that is flowing to keep flowing (it has inertia). If water is flowing down a tilted sluice and you suddenly flatten the sluice, removing the tilt, the water will not instantly stop flowing. This analogy is imperfect for several reasons. Electric current does not have inertia, or at least not much, and inductance is a property of the channel not the current. But it nevertheless provides a nice visual analogy that can be used to get the basic idea (italics mine).

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

13. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (Harper Perennial) by Guy Claxton.

🌰  In a nutshell: The mere mention of this book makes me reflexively think of Malcom Gladwell’s Blink… If you’ve ever wondered whether it makes sense to place our trust in our unconscious, then this is the book to read. Enough said.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

…these laws of nature were understood one phenomenon at a time, as in Newton’s laws of motion governing a falling object. Connectedness fell victim to reductionism.
Connectedness faded from our conscious approach to science into the unconscious, part of an unseen background, an unknown known. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at a Department of Defense news briefing in 2002, made the following often quoted statement:
· · · as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones [sic]. (Rumsfeld, 2002)
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek pointed out that Rumsfeld didn’t mention an obvious fourth category of knowledge, the “unknown knowns.” These are the things we know but don’t know that we know (italics mine).

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

With that, we move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁


14. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (The MIT Press) by Christof Koch.

🌰  In a nutshell: Absolutely no-holds-barred book—to the point of being raw with emotions as experienced by a top-flight Caltech researcher and professor—that will grip your imagination though nowhere near what I experienced with Plato and the Nerd. Nonetheless, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist a pretty darned good read altogether, well worth your while.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Technology alone does not create a phenomenon such as Wikipedia. Any reductionist explanation of the phenomenon would be naive. In later chapters, I will argue that the failure of reductionism is fundamental and unavoidable in complex technology.

Notice that our layering need not stop at the top of figure 3.3. The software in Wikipedia is created within the modeling paradigms at the top of the figure, but in large part that technology is molded to support a sociological layer above it. But I am a nerd, and I don’t understand people, so I won’t try to extend my analysis to those sociological levels. I will leave that to the social scientists.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

15. Burn Math Class: And Reinvent Mathematics for Yourself (Basic Books) by Jason Wilkes.

🌰  In a nutshell: I loved this book, just loved it. It’s nothing short of a manifesto for a mathematical revolution that is long-overdue. This is math as it should be; a joy, not a chore; a liberator, not a shackler;… The author has a terrific style and shoves into fire grate… Forget everything you’ve been taught about math. In Burn Math Class, Jason Wilkes takes the traditional approach to how we learn math–with its unwelcoming textbooks, unexplained rules, and authoritarian assertions-and sets it on fire.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Popular perception of technology and engineering is often one of a dispassionate field dominated by logic and trading in colorless facts and truths. In chapter 1, I explore the idea of facts and truths in technology, showing that these are not just discovered but more often invented or designed. Rather than being built on timeless Platonic Ideals, technology is built on ideas that are more fluid and sometimes quirky. The notion of truth becomes more subjective; collective wisdom becomes better than individual wisdom; a narrative about how facts evolve becomes more interesting than the facts themselves; facts and truths may be wrong; and it can cost billions to show that facts are true. I then develop the idea that engineering and science, disciplines rooted in facts and truths, are complementary and overlapping, leveraging each others’ methodologies. In this chapter, I try to understand the cultural phenomenon that engineering has been considered the “kid sister” of science.
In chapter 2, I focus on the relationship between discovery and invention. A key theme of this chapter is that models are invented not discovered, and it is the usefulness of models, not their truth, that gives them value. Note that the usefulness of a model need not be a practical, utilitarian sort of usefulness. A model may be useful simply because it explains or predicts observations, even if the phenomena observed have no practical application.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

16. Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms (Cambridge University Press) by David J. C. MacKay.

🌰  In a nutshell: Akram, Akram, Akram, this time you’ve really done. Yep, you sure got some ‘splaining to do… I mean, you have the gall to drag into this dignified art gallery a book that focuses—let me make sure I got this right, I hear you saying—on the esoteric subjects of information theory, inference and learning algorithms, all rolled into one. Allow me to clarify by way of a qualification: those subjects are seemingly esoteric. When presented in an enlightened way—as they decidedly are in—these subjects are no more removed from our normal experience than, say, tapping into a sorting algorithm such as the venerable merge-sort algorithm. And mark my words: Don’t use the bubble-sort algorithm, please don’t, or else your entry will forever be barred from this blog. I have my own ways of finding the IP addresses associated with folks who visit this blog and who are wont to as misguided an act as using the bubble-sort algorithm in their application code. Just kidding, just kidding! You may use the bubble-sort algorithm, at your own peril, of course 😱

But I digress. These side discussions have a way of pulling one into all these interesting directions with tremendous torque force, either centripetal or centrifugal, or maybe both; hmm… the latter possibility is beginning to sound untenable from a consideration of the laws of Physics. Before the specter of Sir Isaac Newton starting to turn in his grave begins arising, let’s move on quick. And to boot, we will in the process be sparing the sensibilities of students of Physics who might well be cringing at my half-baked idea of centripetal or centrifugal operating at the same time. That’s like asking what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. Exactly: In a nutshell, it’s undeniably an ill-posed problem. Not a wicked problem, mind you, just an ill-posed one 🐙

Anyhow, to quickly wrap up what he had begun, the way that Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms presents ideas is quite exceptional. If this is your sort of thing—swooping through the vistas of signal processing, data mining, machine learning, pattern recognition, computational neuroscience, bioinformatics, and cryptography, all between the two covers of this book—methinks you’ll dig this book as much as I did 🍔

It is richly illustrated, filled with worked examples and over 400 exercises, so it has the heft of a textbook; come to think of it, is is a textbook, but a delightful one at that 🎓

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Instead of giving you more detail on Gödel’s theorems, I would like to consider their implications for modeling and software. In Gödel’s formal languages, the set of all mathematical statements and the set of all proofs are countable sets, just like the set of all computer programs. Moreover, a “proof” in a formal language is a sequence of transformations of sentences, where each transformation is governed by a set of inference rules. This is conceptually close to what a computer does when it executes a program. In a computer, the sentences in the formal language are ultimately just sequences of bits, and the inference rules are the instructions in an instruction set architecture.
This is not just theory. Extremely useful computer programs, called “theorem provers,” take as input an encoding of a sentence in a formal language and attempt to apply the inference rules of the language backward until the program transforms the bit pattern into one or more axioms. If the program succeeds, then the program has constructed a proof. Gödel and Turing both showed, in different ways, that no such program can always succeed.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

17. Probabilistic Graphical Models: Principles and Techniques (The MIT Press) by Daphne Koller and Nir Friedman.

🌰  In a nutshell: I expect my books from The MIT Press to be MIT material: embodying the qualities of being precise, concise, all-stuff-no-fluff, original, and lavishly illustrated. Okay, so I am a picky reader; since you’re reading this blog, I suspect that you are like me, having time only to read the best of the best. Period. And wow, all those qualities I mentioned above—qualities that qualify any given books as being MIT material—and then some, were on display in this often-overlooked gem 💎

Frankly, you can even read Probabilistic Graphical Models for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of a book that has been refined to perfection. In other words, this book did not disappoint; it delighted! The terrain covered by it has to do with how most tasks require a person or an automated system to reason—to reach conclusions based on available information. The framework of probabilistic graphical models, which is comprehensively and brilliantly presented in this book, provides a general approach for this task. It’s one way of slicing-and-dicing, and the authors do a great job of it…. I’ll add that this book discusses a ton of models, spanning Bayesian networks, undirected Markov networks, discrete and continuous models, and extensions to deal with dynamical systems and even relational data. Ah, good old relational data ain’t going anywhere anytime soon 💣

In my mind, what made this book come to life was an engaging “series”—I barely restrained myself from using the word “collage” because it might come across as too artsy—of case study boxes, which discuss empirical cases related to the approach described in the text, including applications in computer vision, robotics, natural language understanding, and computational biology. In my defense, since I did bring up the business of a potentially artsy word like “collage”, I’ll add only this much that there’s an “Art” in Donald Knuth’s legendary and eponymous magnum opus entitled The Art of Computer Programming (Addison-Wesley), which is actually a book-set composed of four rather intense volumes 📕 📘 📗 📙

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Science, technology, and engineering are all built on models. Models are artifacts in the conceptual framework of a paradigm. Newton’s second law, for example, is a model of the motion of an object subjected to a force. It takes the form of an equation, specifically equation (4096) on page 14, which has meaning in the paradigm of Newton’s and Leibniz’s calculus, the concept of force, and the Newtonian notion of time and space. If you studied physics in high school, you probably got brainwashed sufficiently that the concepts of force, time, and space are among your unknown knowns. But objectively, Newton gave no physical explanation for these concepts. Instead, he built a self-consistent and self-referential model where each of these concepts is defined in terms of the others, if defined at all.
Every engineered design is similarly a model, which can be as simple as a prototype of a physical shape or as complex as a million lines of code. Each such model has a meaning, a semantics, only within some modeling paradigm. And the modeling paradigm is all too often an unknown known, never articulated or consciously chosen. I will attempt now to break the logjam that is created by failing to recognize these unknown knowns.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

18. Modern Monopolies: What It Takes to Dominate the 21st Century Economy (St. Martin’s Press) by Alex Moazed and Nicholas L. Johnson.

🌰  In a nutshell: To convey the guts of this book, I can’t do better than quote Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy who succinctly note how

Two-sided marketplaces or platforms are tough to start and scale. Modern Monopolies brilliantly reveals the secrets of the startups that are scaling platform businesses. A must read for any serious entrepreneur or investor, as well as anyone interested in innovation.

Modern Monopolies is a well-written book that ; ignore it at your own peril. Oh, and this is for you book aesthetes out there—I’m sure there are a bunch fellow book aesthetes out there, myself unabashedly being one—who not only commune with technology but also take pleasure in the reading experience: Modern Monopolies sports a bright yellow jacket to brighten your day. Did they dip it in fluorescent ink, did they really? The publishers sure used more than a few gallons—or liters for my European readers—of yellow ink to get this book out into the hands of readers.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Chapter 6 explores the structure of technology revolutions, with a particular focus on digital technology. This chapter is also heavily influenced by Kuhn, but it strives to identify how technology revolutions differ from scientific revolutions. One key difference is that technology paradigms appear and disappear much more rapidly probably because, compared with scientific paradigms, they are relatively unconstrained by the physical world and are layered one upon another many layers deep. Like scientific paradigms, new technology paradigms do not necessarily replace old ones. They may instead overlay the old ones, building new platforms on top of existing platforms. The ability to do this depends on the transitivity of models explored in the three previous chapters. Unlike scientific paradigms, the crises that trigger new technology paradigms do not arise so much from the discovery of anomalies but from increasing complexity and technology-driven opportunity…
…The iPhone came about through a realization of what was possible with the technology of the time. But the real revolution was not replacing the phones of the time with better phones. It was the introduction of a whole new platform, a new layer in the stack of layers of paradigms. Specifically, the real revolution was the introduction of the app development platform. With the introduction of the iPhone, Apple published the specifications that enabled millions of creative programmers around the world to develop applications for the phone and in 2008 launched the App Store to broker the sales of apps to customers (italics mine).

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

19. Pattern Recognition, Fourth Edition (Academic Press) by Sergios Theodoridis and Konstantinos Koutroumbas.

🌰  In a nutshell: Hands down the best—and a highly readable one at that—reference for pattern recognition, machine learning, and data mining. If the curse of dimensionality has been eating your lunch lately, I recommend that you give this book a look. Enough said.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Lorenz’s studies of chaos all involved physical systems operating in a continuum of space and time. It turns out that purely digital systems can also exhibit chaotic behavior. The electrical engineer Solomon Wolf Golomb, whom we encountered in chapter 2 for his famous quote, “You will never strike oil by drilling through the map” (Golomb, 1971), figured out that surprisingly simple digital logic circuits could generate bit patterns that appeared to be random (Golomb, 1967)…
…Pseudorandom patterns were also used in a much more serious art work shown in figure 10.4, a light sculpture by the American artist Leo Villareal. The sculpture consists of 25,000 LED lights installed in 2013 on the San Franscisco Bay Bridge. The lights are controlled by a computer to create patterns that were designed to never repeat during the entire intended two-year lifetime of the installation (italics mine).

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁


20. Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community (Oxford University Press) by Richard P. Gabriel.

🌰  In a nutshell: Richard Gabriel is a Lisp hacker extraordinaire who has worked closely with one of my programming heroes, Guy Steele… Lexington… You have much to gain from reading this book closely as it will get you a deeper understanding where all the functional programming paradigm is taking us inexorably; either that, or work your way through Paul Graham’s On Lisp… set aside time…

Perhaps the most interesting and enlightening section of the book is Gabriel’s detailed look at what he believes are the lessons that can be learned from architect Christopher Alexander, whose books–including the seminal A Pattern Language–have had a profound influence on the computer programming community. Gabriel illuminates some of Alexander’s key insights–“the quality without a name,” pattern languages, habitability, piecemeal growth–and reveals how these influential architectural ideas apply equally well to the construction of a computer program.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

One pioneering software anthropology effort was carried out by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides in their book on design patterns (Gamma et al., 1994). Widely known as the “gang of four,” these authors attempt to categorize a variety of widely used patterns and idioms in software construction. They credit Christopher Alexander, architect, for inspiring their approach. Alexander proposed a pattern language for buildings and cities, and they translated this approach to software. In a testament to the difficulty of this task, in their preface, the gang of four state: A word of warning and encouragement: Don’t worry if you don’t understand this book completely on the first reading. We didn’t understand it all on the first writing! I probably should have included a similar statement in the preface to my book. The cultural nature of software may help explain why software endures better…
…Hadoop forms an ecosystem of patterns and tools for the design of multiserver applications. Like many of its competitors, Hadoop assumes that hardware failures are common because with millions of servers failure will occur. Hardware gets virtualized so that applications can move from machine to machine with minimal disruption. An application may even move from one machine to another machine of an entirely different type, emphasizing the disconnect between the software and the physics of the hardware.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

21. A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (Oxford University Press) by Ray Jackendoff.

🌰  In a nutshell: What A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning is all about is a decidedly informal, full frontal assault on a truly abstract topic: the relation between language, consciousness, meaning, rationality, perception, and thought. It launches this assault on abstraction-writ-large and succeeds reasonably well in helping a non-specialist grasp abstract. While it’s not a great book—it lacks continuity and the chapters jump all over the map without the cohesion one would expect—it’s worth a look for sure.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

What good is a machine if we can’t know its output or even the function that it computes? I will now give a real-world example of an extremely useful information-processing machine that has properties not observable from outside the machine and has functions that are probably not describable: the human brain. One of the functions that the brain performs is to create consciousness. I know this for a fact because I have a brain, and what we mean by “consciousness” is exactly what I experience as consciousness. In Searle’s words, “the concept that names the phenomenon is itself a constituent of the phenomenon.”

However, the consciousness that my brain produces is not directly observable to anyone but me. It is a property of my brain, like the circumference of the balloon, and any attempt to externally measure it will fail to capture it. Regardless, I know for a fact that it exists, observable or not. I will not accept any argument that it does not exist. Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” to quote the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes. To deny that my consciousness exists would be to deny existence. If we deny that properties not externally observable are important, then we would be forced to conclude that consciousness is not an important property of the human brain. I’m not willing to do that.

Consciousness is one of many cognitive functions of the brain, along with understanding, reasoning, learning, sentience, and remembering. Of these functions, reasoning seems closest to computation. The human brain is clearly capable of some modest form of Turing computation. We can, in our heads, perform the same functions as the logic gates discussed in chapter 4. We have memory, and we are able to follow recipes, step-by-step procedures, emulating a computer executing a program. But we are not actually good at this kind of computation, at least not when we are doing it consciously. A computer performs the logic functions of chapter 4 billions of time per second and stores billions of bytes in memory. We don’t even come close (italics mine)
~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

22. How We Reason (Oxford University Press) by Philip Johnson-Laird.

🌰  In a nutshell: This is the book you’ll want to read to dig deep into what makes our reasoning tick. In other words, we can all reason from our childhood onwards, but how does it all happen? How We Reason has a good narrative going in laying out a bold approach to understanding reasoning. It challenges our commonly-held assumption that we rely on the laws of logic or probability. Oops, so we don’t? Read this book to find out why and how.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

It is difficult to reason about size when talking about infinity. In fact, Cantor spent 12 years attempting to prove that all infinite sets have the same size (Smullyan, 1992, p. 219). He failed! In the process, he developed a remarkable insight that I will use to show how much smaller the set of all computer programs is compared with the set of functions that we might be interested in implementing on computers. Consequently, although we can do an extraordinary amount with software, it’s nothing compared with what is possible if we do not limit ourselves to this smallest of infinite sets (italics mine).

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

23. The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought (Free Press) by David Gelernter.

🌰  In a nutshell: Brilliant-yet-incredibly-unevenly-written is one way to describe The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought. It’s a wide-ranging exploration of a bunch of interesting themes such as whether we can introduce emotion into the computer?

It attempts to bring together insights from computer science, cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, and literary theory. I have to confess that I found the title of this book—The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought—to be staggering in its possibilities. I mean the title is out of this world. And that’s also the tantalizing and somewhat annoying aspect of this book in that, while brilliant in places, it does not keep the telling of the story focused enough to make it a satisfying experience for the reader.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Software becomes an abstract medium for human creativity and craftsmanship and starts to more closely resemble Searle’s cognitive phenomena than the physical phenomena out of which it originates. Software becomes a medium for human expression, not just technical, but also cultural, literary, and artistic. It is of course ultimately realized in the physical world by electrons sloshing around. In words that Connor calls startlingly sacramental, Serres invokes the Bible when talking about the coalescence of the soft model of software and hard matter that it runs on:

Et verbum caro factum est. (Serres, 2001, p. 78)
And the word was made flesh.
~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

We now move on to the next vignette in our collage 🎁

24. Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (Basic Books) by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander.

🌰  In a nutshell: I love this book. What I’m going to say may border on sacrilege in the minds of some, and I would have found myself in that camp not so long ago. But that was before another book by Hofstadter (which he actually co-authored with Emmanuel Sander) hit the bookshelves in the year 2013. So my sacrilegious statement—if it can even be called that as I was simply hedging my bets by sounding polite notes of civilized diffidence in connection with would-be-sacrilege in the realm of technological wizardry—is simply that Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking is Hofstadter’s best book, yet. There, I said it, you all.

This book demonstrates how analogy-making pervades our thought at all levels of our mental awareness and operations. This book will equip the reader with a new way of thinking about thinking. And here I’ll mention in passing another book that will knock you out in a similar way—equipping you with a new way of thinking about thinking—though in a different context: Making Education Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education (Jossey-Bass) by David Perkins, who is a founding member of Harvard Project Zero.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Way back in 1972, Edsger Dijkstra, a Dutch computer scientist, then a mathematics professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands, described software as a “hierarchical system,” which he defined by analogy,
We understand walls in terms of bricks, bricks in terms of crystals, crystals in terms of molecules, etc. (Dijkstra, 1972)
He then observed that the number of levels in such hierarchical abstractions is small unless the “ratio between the largest and the smallest grain” is large. The number of molecules in a wall is very large, and yet Dijkstra gives us only four layers.
~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

Moving on now to the final vignette—all good things sure come to an end—in our collage 🎁

25. Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward (Oxford University Press) by Mark Freeman.

🌰  In a nutshell: This is an often-overlooked, yet marvelous book. It is rich in ideas, and I think you’ll find that in the pages of Hindsight, Freeman makes a genuinely impassioned—and convincing—case for recognizing why and how hindsight plays an integral role in the process of moral growth and, importantly, creativity. It is, after all, through the aegis of hindsight that there emerges the opportunity not only to see the possible errors of our ways, but to transcend them, thereby moving on to better ways of being in the world; in other words, the clarion call for creativity. Hindsight draws on psychology, philosophy, literature, and personal experience; it’s truly a wide-ranging book that has plenty of insightful and engaging explorations of the role of hindsight both in discerning the personal past and in deepening moral life, and creativity.

In case anyone noticed my ritornello above—ever circling back to a theme at regular intervals—which happened to be on the theme of creativity, that theme is prime territory for Plato and the Nerd, which, of course, is what this essay is all about. So as I learned during a fascinating class on music appreciation during my undergraduate years, a ritornello is simply a recurring passage in Baroque music for orchestra or chorus; okay, so while I have deep admiration for music, I’ve simply not kept up with the luscious classical music scene. Well, all that naturally leads to a consideration of creativity in the context of the book-of-the-moment (Plato And The Nerd) and in particular its telltale subtitle: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology.

⏳  But that was then, and this is now: Here’s a brief excerpt from Plato And The Nerd to illustrate how the theme of the book above resonated and intertwined with one or more of the themes of Plato And The Nerd 🍒

Penrose, in The Emperor’s New Mind, goes much further to argue that consciousness cannot be explained by the known laws of physics. Penrose argues that the mind is not algorithmic and must be somehow exploiting hitherto not-understood properties of quantum physics. I am making a less radical argument, in that I argue that the mind is not digital and algorithmic even if it can be fully explained using the known laws of physics. Alan Turing postulated what is known as the “Turing test” for determining whether a computer program realizes a cognitive function…
…In chapter 11, I will examine what passing the test can tell us broadly about the capabilities of computers. For now, it is evident that if consciousness is not externally observable, then the Turing test tells us nothing about whether a computer (or even a human) has consciousness…
…The same questions arise with other brain functions, such as love, empathy, and understanding. Searle put forth a famous argument called the “Chinese room argument”: that no machine operating like a computer, following algorithmic step- by-step rules, can understand natural language.

~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓

With that, your tour guide for the fabled Programming Digressions gallery announces that we’re bringing our gallery tour to a graceful end 🚧

Remember how you had promised to return your ticket 🎫 right here once the tour ended? 😇


A thoughtful gallery visitor lingers on after the tour, deep in thought 😴

Is this a ritornello? Is it a spiral? Hmmm… It’s something 🐚

Time To Stop, Or Is It?

Hear ye, hear ye. Fair enough, yo—I felt compelled to leaven the highfalutin phrase with, um, a contrarian lowfalutin (neologism alert big-time) one—so any grovelers out there, I sure used an admittedly quaint phrase there (“hear ye”). Slap on the blogger’s wrist now, ow, double ow 😿

Meanwhile, it’s time now for you all to stop reading, um, what I mean is this: It’s time now to bring the art gallery tour to a graceful end. So there 🚷

But hey, tell you what… Let’s not bid our farewells prematurely; why should parting to be such sweet sorrow? While the art gallery tour proper has officially drawn to a close, there’s actually some stuff that does follows 👣  Sorry and never mind. Carry right on, ladies and gentlemen—Yes, you may now proceed, to some slight digressions and such  👞 👡

Then, with a blush, she added,”Alas for my credulous fancy!
Unto ears like thine such words as these have no meaning.”
But made answer the reverend man, and he smiled as he answered,
“Daughter, thy words are not idle; nor are they to me without meaning.

Feeling is deep and still; and the word that floats on the surface”
Is as the tossing buoy, that betrays where the anchor is hidden.

Therefore trust to thy heart, and to what the world calls illusions.
Gabriel truly is near thee; for not far away to the southward
On the banks of the Teche, are the towns of St. Maur and St. Martin.
There the long-wandering bride shall be given again to her bridegroom,
There the long-absent pastor regain his flock and his sheepfold.

Beautiful is the land, with its prairies and forests of fruit-trees;
Under the feet a garden of flowers, and the bluest of heavens
Bending above, and resting its dome on the walls of the forest.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Selected Poems—Penguin Classics)

Now Longfellow sure had a way with words 🙎


I’ve Got A Little Black Book With My Poems In

The heading of this section is a nod to a song from Pink Floyd’s fabulous album The Wall, please know that it has filled the sense of a generation of fans 🎸 Just sayin’, just sayin’. And hey, if time permits—I can’t promise it’ll be in this essay cuz’ your blogger’s gotta ship—I’ll have something to say about tearing down the fake walls that presently divide and sequester humanity into all those unintentional cliques made up on a sea of specialties, sub-specialties, and sub-sub-specialties; I mean it’s specialties all the way down. Ouch, it can be a hard landing when we come to regaining our senses 🚠 So all you specialists out there, please beware what thou hath wrought 🎭

Speaking of passages—poetry, prose, computer code, equations, symbolic math, you name it—that grip your imagination, changing your worldview irrevocably and for the better, are, alas, altogether too few and too far between.

Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes (US author and physician)

So it is with great satisfaction that I candidly report that Plato and the Nerd is simply replete with such passages, mostly by way of prose; you will find the occasional equation make an appearance in its pages, though don’t look for too much by way of poetry 🍒

To give you an example, here then is a passage from Plato and the Nerd that had me do a double take; I had to re-read it to make sure I had read it right! It was just too awesome for words and yet, there it was; I loved it 😽  Edward was honest in a way that few people are and even I could claim to be—at a personal level, though, I make it a point to have a good laugh at myself every now and then—even poking some fun at his own profession (university professor) in the process with unvarnished honesty.  That passage was this one about the conundrum of “tunnel vision” and how

specialists know more and more about less and less, until they eventually know everything about nothing. Then they become professors, and the courses they teach become barriers, weeding out unsuspecting undergraduates who simply aren’t prepared for the sophistication of the specialty. The professors love their specialty, they want to teach it, and they cannot see that it is esoteric; the arcane and complex analytical methods they have developed are neither easily learned nor easily applied to practical problems. Their discipline fragments into further specialties, and each professor loses the big picture. None is qualified to teach the big picture, and anyway, his or her colleagues would consider any such big picture to be “Mickey Mouse,” too easy and unsophisticated to be worthy of their time (italics mine).
~Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd) 🔭 👓


Let’s Have Ourselves Some Nerdy Fun

And here I simply have to share an anecdote from the life of the late John Vlissides—the “V” in “GHJV” (Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides), the inimitable Gang of Four (GoF)—who is one of my programming heroes of all time, right up there with Guy Steele (widely regarded as the father of Common Lisp; he happens to be the lead author of the Java Language Specification). So that Vlissides anecdote goes like this:

The Gang-of-Four celebrated the tenth anniversary of the publication of ‘Design Patterns’ last year at OOPSLA 2004. Three of them, John (sporting the propeller), Erich (wielding the knife) and Ralph are shown here preparing to eat their words. John was the OOPSLA 2004 Conference Chair, and had made the trip to Vancouver at the price, we later learned, of having had to forego chemotherapy for a week. John is shown still in costume for his role as “Jimmy the Freshman” in “Dating Design Patterns”, a skit that I had warned him might seriously undermine the dignity of the entire conference. John replied “What dignity?” For good or ill, this lesson has stuck with me. John had a self-effacing sense of humor to go with his genuinely contagious intellect, a rare combination indeed… (italics mine).

~ BrianFoote

What a marvelous combination of geekiness, brilliance, and joie de vivre. We miss you, John, we really do! 👍

Of Philosophers, Connoisseur, and Nerds

I ran the following definition by a friend and the feedback I received was unambiguous: Akram, we would rarely use that word for nerds. I found myself nodding my head in agreement 😂

Connoisseur, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else 🎓
~ Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary)

Nevertheless, I liked the definition so much that I ended up dragging it into the essay, knowing full well the consequences—I’ll leave those to your imagination—of the jarring juxtaposition being exposed, given that we had already been up to our eyeballs in exploring another set of jaunty juxtapositions, the following:

  • The platonic kind (remember the smart guy called Plato who was, unlike his cohort Aristotle, inclined to gesturing toward the heavens 🔭
  • Jostling with the somewhat more mundane—hey I didn’t say that, you made me do it!—consideration of the Nerd who, of course, singlehandedly enlightened the world on the virtues of the indispensable Nerd Pocket Protector 👓

Hey, to bring this section to a close, here’s what I’ve finally got to say to all fellow geeks and nerds out there:

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves 📘
~ Anna Quindlen

But then again, what do I know?


Of Sequels And Prequels ⚓


Ship Happens: An Inkling

So as I had hinted at in the previous essay—where I had made mention of spurring myself on to wrapping up the essay with the emphatic reminder-to-self that “Real artists ship, Akram, real artists ship!

As you keep that thought in mind, let’s draw a parallel between (1) the three essays (this being the third and final one) in the series on Plato and the Nerd, my current hot favorite that’s been added to the pantheon of my desert-island and (2) the theme of the stellar Star Wars movies, all six episodes. We’ll take a fleeting, bird’s eye view of the connection between the two abovementioned themes, a meta-theme if you will 🐝

Okay, okay, I know my birds from my bees, you all, solicitous souls that you all are; it’s just that I can’t find the darned icon for a bird with which to illustrate the point about a bird’s eye view. Meanwhile, please allow your imagination to be satisfied—for now, anyway—with the bumblebee, won’t you?

Shift Happens: Drawing Parallels Between Paradigms

So in drawing a parallel—nope, not the Euclidean kind—between those two themes, consider how the Star Wars prequels came after the sequels? Methinks that something similar might be in the offing here  for Plato and the Nerd, though hopefully in not too distant a future. Was the book Plato and the Nerd perhaps the sequel, with the prequel lurching in the mind of its author, Edward?

Much as I promised you all in a comment to an essay elsewhere, I’ve plucked up the courage to lobby Edward—via this concluding thought on our Programming Digressions forum here—for a second book which will elaborate on the tantalizing themes covered in some depth already, and with awesomeness, in Plato and the Nerd.

Honestly, should you chance upon this essay, Edward, and I hope you do, please read on: My readers and I don’t care too much as to whether your next book is a prequel or a sequel—yep, we’re pretty easy to please, aren’t we? All we want, all we ask for is at least one more book that’ll keep us busily engaged with the wondrous journey on which you’ve launched us all—all of us having, of course, embarked on charting the mesmerizing course in the waters of Plato and the Nerd—giving wings to our imagination with which to soar heavenwards 🎈

So what do we do with our lives?
We leave only a mark.
Will our story shine like a light,
Or end in the dark?
Give it all or nothing!

We don’t need another hero,
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome
~ Tina Turner (Lyrics from We Don’t Need Another Hero)

And We Stand With Aristotle

Indeed, we stand not with Plato—as he stood in that fresco by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) in the Vatican—gesturing toward the heavens (“indicating that knowledge is discovery of Forms that exist in an ideal, disembodied world, independent of humans”, in Edward’s words). Rather, we stand alongside Aristotle—yep, the other smart dude standing next to Plato in the same fresco above—gesturing toward the earth (“indicating that knowledge arises from the study of things”, in Edward’s words).

Hmm… Wait a sec! So I found myself doing a double take as I used the phrase “Edward’s words” above 😲  Does that, um, make them “Ed-words”? 👻

Anyhow, in full disclosure, I’m decidedly not a language lawyer, though I do commune with the language of computer code most all day long, on most any given day 👕  With that disclaimer of sorts out of the way, I wonder if we’ve got yet another genuine dilemma on our hands and not mere hair-splitting?

Your Blogger Staves Off Trouble

Now, surely somebody is going to pounce on me here—yeah, I think it’s you in the back seat lurking over there in the shadows—and scold me with the wherewithal of their sardonic wit, saying something like, “Akram, are you, like, dilemma-prone or what?” 👺

And as they’re getting readier-still to unload on me, I’m sure they’ll continue with something like, “I mean, first you dragged us all through the predicament of choosing a title for the essay. Then you had us worried sick about your getting drawn-and-quartered, or something like that, whatever your latest sob story it was back there. You sure had the gall to lay out the lachrymose quagmire. And dude, as if that wasn’t enough, you had us gazing into a crystal ball or something till our eyes were all bleary, lecturing us about how we all should have taken note of your purportedly prophetic words in the previous essay. Are you like a fortune-teller or something, Akram? Fess up now, are you, really?”

And I’m like, “Oops!” 😳

All I got in my defense—in the territory of fortune-telling and soothsaying and such—is merely this much and that, too, by way of lyrics from a song I enjoyed during my undergraduate days in Houston:

You can read me like a book 📖
Just like a fortune teller
Everybody needs a fortune teller
Telling you the very truth

You bring me feelin’ 🏄
You bring me fire
You give me a love that’s taking me higher
It just goes to prove
What one good woman can do
~ Peter Cetera of Chicago (Lyrics from One Good Woman)

Oh, and it’s not that Chicago, as in the windy city; neither does it have anything to do with the tale of my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, which, by the way, I had to reluctantly jettison off ages ago—along with several hundred other books— for reasons of expediency in the physical move when I had pulled up stakes and moved from Minnesota to Texas ⛄ 🚚 🌞

But. I. digress.

Stuff That We Had Jettisoned Off In the Previous Essay ✂


What Do We Do Now?

So as I had hinted at in the previous essay—where I had made mention of spurring myself on to wrapping up the essay with the emphatic reminder-to-self that “Real artists ship, Akram, real artists ship!”—I had to jettison off a bunch of themes, which, alas, ended up not making it into that essay ⚓
As for the bunch of themes that I mentioned above, let’s recap them pretty much in the same order in which their mention appeared in the previous installment of this series of essays:

  1. The first potential digression—had it come to fruition—would’ve been about Escher’s magnificent lithograph entitled Drawing Hands: Basically, how that sublime lithograph had come to adorn an essay elsewhere (that essay covering the terrain of the Lisp dialect we know as Clojure) and how it was with some satisfaction that I had noted how that lithograph had found a kindred soul 👦 👧  in the refreshingly evocative cover of Edward’s Plato and the Nerd. The two pairs of drawing hands—one from Programming Digressions and the other from Plato and the Nerd—had found themselves seamlessly dovetailed with each other, woohoo 🙌  From there, I had segued into a consideration of the nexus between beauty in code and prose, and where I noted how I had expressed hope that I had been able to demonstrate in that essay, the two are intimately conjoined with each other—like unborn twins clasped in a fraternal hug—that we might as well  embrace the ineluctable conclusion that any attempt to disentangle the two (code and prose), would be a futile exercise at best, and folly at worst 🍒
  2. The next potential digression—had it, too, come to fruition—would’ve been around an enchanting metaphor, and a haunting one at that, of “shapeless as a collapsed tent” that veritably leaped out at me from the riveting pages of Donnel Stern’s magisterial, motif-laden masterpiece entitled Partners in Thought: Working with Unformulated Experience, Dissociation, and Enactment (Routledge) 🌱 🌿 🌾 🍁 All we had said there was, in quoting Stern’s not-so-stern words, that “…narratives are the architecture of experience, the ever changing structure that gives it form. Without narrative, affect would be chaotic and rudderless, as shapeless as a collapsed tent; and without affect, narrative would be dry and meaningless” (italics mine) ⛺
  3. The next potential digression—had that one come to fruition—would have been about our favorite detective, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes of course, woohoo! Yoohoo! Wait a second, what was mention of Scandal in Bohemia doing there, I now wonder?! Ah yes, … Woohoo, good old Sherlock Holmes, anyone? And Irene Adler, was it? It was, and remains, a question of identity. Indeed, questions of identity and ideation had all been percolating through the cranium of your truly as he wrestled with the joys of naming things—actually more like being stuck between a rock and a hard place lol—but I digress 🚶
  4. As a penultimate item on this list, I’m going to reminisce just a tad on how we had seen a glimmer—the merest of mentions, alas, since I had noticed that you all were getting antsy—the stellar work of Carol Dweck (currently with Stanford University) in connection with the thought above on generating motivation (i.e. getting an education and having fun at the same time) or what is called “self-scaffolding” (in the marvelous use of that phrase in Plato and the Nerd) 🎓
  5. Last, but certainly not the least, we had also seen the faintest of glimmers of a pit-stop that many of us took along our journey as programmers and technologists that has brought us here. And that pit-stop—hopefully not a tar-pit—by way of a handful of dangling pointers there for you all; a tribute of sorts to one of the programming languages—the C programming language to be precise—in which I had got the earliest of starts (and a rather jarring one at that, but oh well) in my programming career, circa 1995 🏁


Is There Something We Can Do?

Let’s see what we can do about those themes this time around ⛹

And indeed, let’s see if they make it into this essay, which it doesn’t look they are 👀  Here I got the selfsame, emphatic reminder-to-self, “Real artists ship, Akram, real artists ship! 🚛

Yet again—ooh, this must be déjà vu all over again—please don’t allow yourself to be disheartened by how we neither have the time nor the space here to do much more than leave a handful of breadcrumbs 🍞


An Invitation 📣

In the end, I invite your comments—Having now taken a leisurely tour of our very own Programming Digressions gallery of art in the collage above, and assuming you’re still awake… 💤

  • Do you find that your experience of reading Plato and the Nerd was different? 👢
  • Did I perhaps not cover some qualities, and which are the ones that you actually found the most helpful as you wrestled with the tantalizing ideas in Plato and the Nerd? 🐊
  • Did I leave out your favorite aspect of Plato and the Nerd perchance? 🐙

The hope which abides with my collage above is that it’ll inspire and propel you to learn more, to build bridges as far as the horizon of your imagination lets you, and that you truly will keep it going from there. It’s all up to you!

Till we meet next time, you have a wonderful week 🏃


Collage of Pics and Lyrics 🎸


We Have Something Good Going Here

You can sketch, smudge, and draft bits of code in JavaScript, while pushing and twisting the language in the direction that best suits your particular style.
~ Michael Fogus Functional JavaScript (O’Reilly Media) – From the Foreword by Jeremy Ashkenas

Typically, I don’t add my own opinions to the Collage section each in any given essay; this time it’s different. Here’s why. As I was scribbling down my, um, laser-focused thoughts—”Akram, Akram, fess up, they’re all digressions!” I hear some of you say—I was listening to a song by Mark Knopfler (this one actually a duet called Beyond My Wildest Dreams, featuring Emmylou Harris).

And then a fragrant analogy came to mind, one that perfectly illustrates a point I was trying to make about Plato and the Nerd earlier!

An Analogy (And It’s Analogies All The Way Down)

But first, you need to know something about the genius of Knopfler, who is a singer-songwriter, guitarist (of the British music group Dire Straits). His classic, deeply symbolic song called “Telegraph Road” made an appearance in an essay elsewhere, where I had deployed it to illustrate the gut-wrenching catastrophe that had visited my dear former town: Houston (Texas) 🌘

Here, and much as I said above—in the context of when I was listening to a song by Knopfler—it occurred to me that you simply can’t comprehend the splendor of his voice without actually listening to it 🎧  Likewise, you simply won’t be able to comprehend the splendor of Plato and the Nerd without actually reading it 📖

This essay can merely paint my impressions of reading Plato and the Nerd. Helpful as I hope that all was, you stand to benefit from hearing it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. I’ve heard it; yes, I’m now already on my second reading of Plato and the Nerd, and loving it 💝 Alas, I cannot regain or reclaim the heady feeling I got on reading it for the first time. Oh well, maybe that’s just the price of doing business as denizens of this wonderful planet, and the elegant universe that we inhabit 🌎


Of Mining and Men (à la Mens Et Manus)

And yes, I, for one, will be mining its deliciously rich and appetizing content for many months, if not years ⛏

So what are you waiting for? Go out and grab a copy—preferably your own, not someone else’s lol—of Plato and the Nerd for yourself and find out for yourself 🔍


Dedication 🎁

I seldom, if ever, dedicate an given essay to an individual. In fact, the only essay I recall ever having dedicated to an individual was the one—and actually not too long ago—that was for my dear wife to express my gratitude for her profound influence on what I do on a daily basis. She is the best thing that ever happened to me.

This essay, now, is also special in that I’m dedicating it, with great respect, to another individual: Kitty Fassett (Mom of the author of Plato and the Nerd). To my mind, Ms Fassett has clearly earned this dedication through the major role that she has played in the development of Plato and the Nerd. Allow me to elaborate by way of the following thoughts with which I dedicate this essay to her. In essence, my dedication goes something like the following.

But first, allow me to point out that in order to distinguish the Dedication section from the essay proper, I’ve sandwiched the Dedication between—and then peppered it with—a bunch of thematic pics that I’ve culled after much thought and deliberation, following which I embedded them in vintage Polaroid-inspired borders. Yes, I’m nuts about details 🌰 It’s the details that matter, I am wont to tell myself from time to time, it’s the details.

In other words, the Dedication section has blossomed and veritably metamorphosed into a mini-essay unto itself. So as we dive into that section—yep, it’s coming right up and immediately after the second thematic pic below that’s surrounded by a faded Polaroid-inspired border—you all may wish to think of this as a standalone collage 🎨

As for the collage itself that you, dear Reader, are now reading, I’ve strived to imbue it with its very own identity; it’s more than a plain old Dedication section in that it stands rather well, dare I say, rather well on its own, and yet  it’s not quite the essay proper. How about that? 😉 Everyone in class all happy? 🍎 I mean everyone who’s still awake? 😴

Dear Ms Fassett – I hope you realize what a gift your son has given to humanity by way of his latest book, Plato and the Nerd. At a selfish level, I would be content with what Edward’s book has done for me, which it has, unlike any other that I’ve read in my life: It has given wings to my imagination with which to soar 🚀

But the impact is far larger than that, far larger. I have no doubt whatsoever that Plato and the Nerd will leave its mark on the world’s collective consciousness unlike any other book quite has; that process has already begun to unfold and it’s only a matter of time now. The dialogs which Plato and the Nerd is generating, of which this series of essays—and which I truly hope you will make the time to read—is merely an echo of the faint murmurs of those unfolding dialogs.

The indelible imprints of “a true intellectual and also a great writer” (in the words of the “Acknowledgments” segment of the Preface to Plato and the Nerd) are writ large on its pages. It’s my hot favorite these days, having earned a spot on my tiny, super-select desert island books. Your son, of course, is an intellectual of the highest order in his own right, imparting his engineering know-how and wisdom to fellow Americans—and indeed to student from all over our planet—at a fine university in our great land.

Ms Fassett, what makes Plato and the Nerd all the more special is that it is, to my mind—one that is by my own candid admission decidedly untrained in the field of music though I continue to unabashedly enjoy music—is that Plato and the Nerd reads like a flawless ritornello that’s cascading away like a swaying boat on the gentle currents of a quiescent, meandering river, leading ineluctably, nonetheless, to an unmistakable destination of enlightenment 🚣

Equivalently, it could be said that Plato and the Nerd admirably manages to hold between its two covers the translucent elixir which is akin to the mellifluously gurgling brook through whose waters you can peer at smooth pebbles; pebbles that were once unpolished stones but whose rough edges have been smoothed away by the passage of time and water currents 🌊

Indeed, I continue to see to this day—as I reread Plato and the Nerd—remarkable flashes of the ritornello construct throughout the narrative. Again, far be it from me to proffer metaphors from your field of expertise; after all, you are “a professional musician with an aversion for mathematics but a true intellectual and also a great writer (again, that’s in the words of the “Acknowledgments” segment of the Preface to Plato and the Nerd).

By the way, let me assure you that it took me—and harking back here to my high school days—the longest time ever to warm up to mathematics. But once I did, there was no turning back 🙌

I might as well add that the way math is typically presented in classrooms all over the world is reckless at best, and irresponsible at worst; that’s part of my motivation for including, oops, yet another math-heavy book—that one is entitled Burn Math Class: And Reinvent Mathematics for Yourself—in our gallery of vignettes. So I totally understand your aversion for mathematics, it’s all good ☕ Please allow me, though, to at least try to justify what I had meant in a vignette above for the former, math-heavy book whose style and content I was weaving—much as I did for the other 24 or so book vignettes in our gallery—with the style and content of Plato and the Nerd 🐱

In this very essay, in fact, I’ve somehow managed to slip in mention of “mathematical loveliness”—in the Trojan Horse of a guise of a vignette of the book entitled The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions—perhaps unbeknownst to you 😯 I says, yes, says to myself, Akram, Akram, slap on your wrist for doing that! How could you? Gulp, what’s done cannot really be undone, can it?

So Ms Fassett… Please indulge me if you could for a moment as I share an anecdote from my high school days, an anecdote that’ll hopefully serve to soften the discordant harshness in which the loveliness of math typically finds itself enshrouded when it enters the consciousness of your typical American student: So a family friend, Dr. Khalid Saeed, who is currently a professor of system dynamics at another fine university in our land—he earned a PhD from MIT, is a recipient of the Jay Forrester Award, and a truly gracious individual—was visiting my parents’ home while I was growing up. That was back in the day so we may need to peer through the mists of time—wait, wait, folks, I’m not that old either—but harking back to my high school days nevertheless ⛄

That evening, when Dr. Saeed was visiting us along with his family, he said something that even my adolescent memory—occupied as it was with other pressing ideas that’ll have a hold on the mind of an impressionable youth—managed to register strongly enough so as to retain the thought through the aegis of the synaptic neuronal firings; you know, that thing about how “neurons that fire together, wire together,” or something like that, Hebbian Theory and stuff? 💀

You may sail right past the Polaroid pic below that’s admittedly outlandish in that it portrays neuronal connections by way of interconnected dandelions, of all the things, sheesh 🌾

I think the artist who rendered that portrait must’ve had an annoying skirmish with weeds in their backyard shortly before they sat down to limn the portrait of a rather fanciful “neuronal network”; I’m taking care to avoid calling it a “neural network,” having safely stashed away all gory details in an essay elsewhere so that they may not startle or jar the fine sensibilities of refined individuals like yourself 🍒

Back now to my recollections, Ms Fassett, of that evening from a long time ago: Evidently, my very own, fuzzy neurons were firing together on all cylinders that evening—so even with the passage of time that has elapsed since then—my neurons are to this day enabling me to recall one of the thoughts that our family friend had shared that day, well, the gist of it at any rate 🔮

Here’s the gist of the thought: “If you take a mathematical equation, it’s just that on the surface. But view it through the lens of metaphor, and you’ll see it an altogether different light, kaleidoscope-style; it might even strike you as poetry.” 🎡

So there you have it; mathematics does have some redeeming qualities, especially if you dig kaleidoscopes and poetry and that sort of thing 🎭 To paraphrase a line from Elton John’s memorable song Tiny Dancer—”The boulevard is not that bad”—dare I say “The math is not that bad” 😂

In fact, one of the coolest things in town—deep learning 👶 which is a subset of the field of machine learning 👦 which in turn is a subfield of Artificial Intelligence (AI) 👨—is pretty much all math. Dare I say that you’ll enjoy yet another essay, elsewhere, and unbeknownst to most reader—shh… don’t let the cat out of the bag but, just between you and me, I had used the element of surprise in that essay—somehow I managed to drag in the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I mean, not literally 👻 But just by way of how the whole prop setup that I had put together for that essay had made me think of recursion; yep, leave it to me to cook up the most interesting connections between a variety of seemingly unrelated ideas and themes 🍳

So what had happened there was this: At that time, the theme of recursion, in turn, had got me thinking to a hilarious and inimitable episode from the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” series 🎪 So my readers and I had ourselves a look at the hilarious meta-recursion going on in the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” side-splitting funny episode entitled “The Lost World of Roiurama”—in particular the segment “Who’s filming us?”—and from which I had even shared the briefest of excerpts in that essay

Finally, to bring closure to this thought, when I had most recently chatted with Dr. Saeed, he was telling me about Jay Forrester’s operational approach to economics and the paper he wrote on precisely that topic.

But I digress, again 🎪

But what do I know, Ms Fassett. In fact, harking back to my encounters with the fine art of music—thinking back here to the music appreciation class I took at the University of Houston as an undergraduate—I’ve got yet another an anecdote to share: This is from sometime after writing a report (circa the summer of 1989) on a chamber ensemble composition called Eine kleine Nachtmusik that my classmates and I watched in a campus auditorium that summer 🎻

Okay, so I’m not sure what this means, but I’ve been told that I have a way with words. However, I sure got my tongue twisted when trying to say that mouthful out loud: I mean, gulp, how do you pronounce something as formidable as Eine kleine Nachtmusik? I bet Edward is doing far better than me here in these matters—with a Mom to guide him in matters of music appreciation—but we geeks in general have to pick our battles to fight, and our very own demons to wrestle with (the latter being along the lines of a remark by the ever-witty Iron Man from an eponymous movie based on the awesome Marvel comics I used to eagerly devour as a kid, steady diet to fuel our imagination as those beloved comic were) 🚀

But I digress, yet again. Speaking of which, the first time I read Plato and the Nerd, and even more so as I reread it, I suspect that Edward is better than I am at digressing, that is, in exploring ideas. So I had better stay on par with him, lest I be “out-digressed”—big-time neologism alert to symbolize phraseology-under-construction 🚧

Come to think of it now, Plato and the Nerd might as well be the poster child of this blog, Programming Digressions, replete as the blog typically is with all those unannounced digressions 😬 Shhh… Just don’t tell Edward quite yet about all this, or he might think twice about using those delightful digressions when—and here I intentionally used the word “when” instead of the all-too-iffy “if”—he puts pen to paper to write up the very first draft of his next book 👀

So anyhow, Ms Fassett, shortly after my classmates from my undergraduate days and I had watched Eine kleine Nachtmusik—gulp, one more time, how do you pronounce that tongue-twister?—we were having a class discussion one fine, though rather hot-and-humid day in Houston 🌞 The professor asked us students to volunteer the names of any luminaries we could think of from the firmament of music whom we deemed as maestros. Foolhardily enough, my hand shot up and the professor solicitously looked in my direction and patiently asked, “Yes, Akram”. Whereupon, eager beaver that I was, I gleefully volunteered the name of Elton John, who was and is for me the piano maestro. Hey, in my book, anyway 😂 As best as I recall, having heard my reply, the professor smiled back at me in an understanding way, and the class went on. Others volunteered some names, Chopin or something. I don’t recall many more details than that 😴

By the way, speaking of Chopin, my daughter—my wife and I have been taking her to piano lesson for as long as we can remember, plus all those truly fun recitals—she plays Chopin music that is simply out of this world 🚀 Oh, and the music arrangements she composes, like the music recital in which she knocked everyone’s socks off with her arrangement of a Taylor Swift song. Okay, okay, so this father whose essay you’re reading is perhaps a tad biased about the music talent of his daughter, one that he so conspicuously lacks; trust me, though, there ain’t nobody whose gonna stop me from appreciating music. So if anyone demurs, won’t you please tell them, Ms Fassett, that you, on good authority, back me up in my innocent wish? 👍

Sorry Ms Fassett, but I had digressed yet again; we’re all digressors here, though hopefully not transgressors 😲 I mean, this is supposed to be a Dedication, and here I am, babbling like a brook ⛲

As a cordial and fair warning, as you read the essays here on a blog that prides itself on its chosen name, Programming Digressions—and I truly hope that we’ll have the distinct honor of you becoming one of our readers in this friendly community of readers—there’s a good chance that you’ll run into a digression or two on diverse and tangential topics as they unfold spontaneously during the narrative of any given essay. The thing is that we’re all explorers-of-ideas around here. I hope one day you’ll join us 🔭 📦 💼 👒 👡 👟

Please allow me, Ms Fassett, to add a couple of thoughts to wrap up—I realize that the preamble has already been winding through a landscape of ideas, akin to the meandering river that has learned to undulate via the channels which it has carved out for itself to keep it alive over the span of centuries—this Dedication is one that is from the start very much from the heart: Speaking of which, art, music, and beauty have much to offer to practitioners in all the varied fields across the realm of technology, and especially the field of engineering 👓 So this could digress into a whole another essay here—the topic truly deserves it and in fact I’ve taken a shot at it elsewhere in a tangential way—so suffice it to say that I find art an inspiring source of the highest order 🎨

It is in the confluence and commingling of these seemingly disparate fields that there is much to gain 💰 And much as I hinted at earlier, it’s high time that we look into tearing down the fake walls that currently divide and sequester humanity into all those unintentional cliques made up of a veritable torrent of specialties, sub-specialties, and sub-sub-specialties—I have more to say, much more in fact, on precisely this subject but your blogger’s gotta ship (this essay) so please hold on to that thought. Speaking of humanity and humanism, I simply adore the thoughtful humanism that shines in the pages of Plato and the Nerd like a beacon 🏆

Meanwhile, I invite you and of course all readers to ping me, by all means, via your comments right here on the blog. Your alls’ comments will jog my memory as I may have developed—though that sounds way too charitable and generous to refer to one’s foibles as—a tendency to forget 😵

Heartwarmingly enough, I see saplings take root in those walls that we specialists have unwittingly managed to erect all around us, Ms Fassett. My hope is, and I’m placing my faith in it—for if the generation that is Edward’s and mine aren’t able to realize that destiny it in our own lifetime, our children surely will. I see signs that encourage me to affirm that the saplings that’ve begun to take root in the crevices of those walls will one day gain securer-still footing 🌱 🌿 🍀 🌴 🌲 🌳

Eventually, those saplings will germinate, proliferate, and collectively generate just enough power to bring down the walls themselves so we specialists don’t have to scale those walls—wasting precious time in the process—each time we want to exchange ideas with our neighboring specialists 🙈

I do believe that the time has arrived—and Plato and the Nerd is the clarion call—for us to divest our sham pride in our parochial specialties and to instead reach out and hold hands in an overture that symbolizes our receptiveness to other ways of thinking and being. Enough with all the solipsism that we’re awash with already. So there, right Ms Fassett? 😠

I hasten to apologize as it dawns on me that these unfiltered and unexpurgated thoughts will be falling on gentle ears like yours that are likely not used to the kind of of raw expression that is the hallmark of the essays here on Programming Digressions; I hope you will understand. I hasten to add that we do use raw language here, yes; offensive language, never, and neither do I tolerate the slightest use of such on my blog 🚫

I put my heart and soul into my writing—akin to the passion I bring to my work of designing and crafting computer programs—so please bear with me. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t blame you one bit if the phrase “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” was what was going through your mind 😇


And don’t you mind the riff raff like us that tends to congregate here, Ms Fassett. These are simply our water cooler chats that take place at any given hour of the day, 24 x 7. In fact, come to think of it, I overheard just a moment ago this one refractory soul out there saying something like the following to your blogger 👻

“Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying

Wait a second, what in the world do they mean by that? Hey, no, just tell me, you persnickety reader out there—as for you, Ms Fassett, please bear with me for just a sec while I take care of those rabble rousers who are raising this ruckus—you there, yeah you, Do you want me to talk louder or something? I mean, what is it with you and your ilk of bellyachers that you are demurring about now?!

“Ow, ow,” they say, good. That’s what they all say after taking a knuckle from me 😿 Don’t worry, Ms Fassett, I took good care of them 💪 Yeah, that’ll teach them a lesson for barging into our Dedication like that, scum of the earth. Oops, did I actually say that? Sorry! But let me assure you that that’s about as offensive of language that gets bandied around in these regions 😟

Well, I could add more, much more in fact. However, I suspect that it may be a bit much for your gentle ears, not to mention your gentle sensibilities; Edward and I both are incorrigible nerds, and we’re makers, too, with much in common with you, a fellow maker who just happens to hail from the world of music 🎶 All we’re trying to do, and what we got up our sleeves, in the words of another one of my programming heroes, Paul Graham, is that 🔨

“Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things.” (italics mine).

In a nutshell, we’re not quite as misguided as some have led you to believe; we even express our viewpoints to try and leave our world just a bit better than we had found it in 🌝

By the way, Ms Fassett, please consider—and hard though it may be to believe—that I do manage to read a book or two, from time to time. Paraphrasing the words of Fonzie from the classic TV series Happy Days, “Hey I even got my own library card” 📕

On top of that, I have somehow made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week 😉

I could go on—for a great deal longer in fact—but your time is far more valuable than should be spent reading the musings I offer here ⏰

And please don’t lose faith in us nerds, though I suspect you never really did ever lose faith in us; we’ll mend our transgressing ways and try to sit still in all those symphonies; on the other hand, now that Edward has given to me—in the shape of his once-in-a-lifetime-book Plato and the Nerd—and in turn my readers, the wings with which our imagination can soar skywards, please connive at our difficulty with sitting still for too long in one place. We are restless souls, and you’ll find us taking flight to chase after “the creative partnership of humans and technology” as in the subtitle of Plato and the Nerd 🏃

Even if we somehow manage to stay put in one place—visualize us if you will in all our fidgetiness as we surreptitiously whip up a mobile hand-held device and fire up our computer program compiler or interpreter as the moment may warrant—even as we try to appear physically present in the moment ⏰

Again, please indulge us, won’t you? Please keep in mind, too, that we technologists are driven by the pursuit that leads us on to seemingly endless roads—pursuing the endless frontier in Chuck Vest’s words—following an irrevocable decision that we geeks made during pivotal moments in our lives and which moment have faded to memory and are quite possibly even lost in time ⌛

Some of you my readers may recall what I wrote elsewhere with exactly this theme in mind, under the minor heading that was innocuously intoning that “There Arrive Pivotal Moments In Our Lives 🚁”. Indeed, that very heading, complete with that very helicopter 🚁 Yeah, exactly, that one way over to the left of the bumblebee 🐝 It’s there that I had invited my readers to ponder on this briefest of phrases: “And then it began…” 🐣

Indeed, we nerds do end up pursuing the endless frontier that stretches into the distant horizon, and in the process we stretch ourselves to our limits. Thank you for your support.

Ms Fassett, we want you to see a glimmer of greatness that simply can’t be left in the lurch; it’s the love for finding and actually designing the fitness of things that we engineers and nerds revel in; the joy that we vicariously experience through creating something out of nothing. Mens et manus 👓 🔧

This, then, is platonic love writ large on the parchment—or palimpsest if you will—and indeed on the stereoscopic wall of the world that we geeks intend to imagine into being. And I’m not even talking about some Platonic truth or truism out there, just waiting to be discovered; what I’ve got in mind is far more tangible, far more corporeal, and along the lines of what William Gibson possibly had in mind when he famously said that 🎯

“The Future Has Arrived—It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed Yet “

Anyhow, we engineers see flashing lines of ingenuity just beyond the horizon and which beckon us like siren calls. What do we do? Do we plug our ears with beeswax and tie ourselves firmly to the sailing ship’s mast? ⛵

These are the stark choices we face every single day, we really do. We dream of beauty, and we dream big; thank you for encouraging my fellow nerds to unabashedly pursue our wildest dreams

These are the big payloads
Hammer down on the floor
These are the restless roads
Every one a war
But in the flashing lines
I see a love supreme
Beyond me wildest
Beyond me wildest dreams
Beyond me wildest dreams
Beyond me wildest dreams
~ Mark Knopfler (Lyrics, featuring Emmylou Harris, from Beyond My Wildest Dreams)


I find it eerily symbolic that I find myself in a similar situation. I’m with my Mom in Houston—visiting her as I am from my home in Austin—as I write this dedication, waiting on her to serve her, given the challenges she’s been facing with mobility. Anyhow, as Mom does some craftwork which looks like cross-stitching—and more fundamentally, she’s been a lifelong aficionado of knitting—I’m tapping away at the keyboard of my Macbook and I sense something at a visceral level, which I also wish to share: So whoever said that “Those who can, do, those who cannot, teach” had it totally backwards: In my book, “Those who can, teach, those who cannot, do!” 🎓

So while you hold on to that thought, a brief intermission now follows. Good time to get tea and crackers ☕

Ah yes, to make small talk with Mom, I asked her—seated kitty corner and nearby as I was from her in the living room of my sister’s home in Houston—how her cross stitch was coming along 🎨 She beatifically smiled back—silently biting her lip I think and wondering whether her nerdy son would ever be able to tell one fine craft that she practices from another—and simply said, You mean, embroidery, son? Indeed, and she didn’t even roll her eyes once. Other small talk followed 😚

Right, Ms Fassett, so just a second ago I had politely asked that you please hold on to the thought (i.e. how whoever it was that had said, “Those who can, do, those who cannot, teach” had it totally backwards). Why don’t we bring that theme to closure? I know your time is far more important than be reading many more of my musings and digressions ⏳

So what I had in mind when I turned that misplaced and misguided adage on its head—in the process saying that, in my book, “Those who can, teach, those who cannot, do!”—was simply the following 📝

First, please know that I feel the sentiment above in my bones, I truly do, having the deepest and abiding respect for the teachers of the world who nudge the minds of future generations in the right direction. But I have an idea—half-baked though it might strike you as, although hopefully not that outlandish—which you may think of as a modest proposal and that sincere suggestions is something like this:

We need to encourage the finest teachers at the finest universities—and your son is unquestionably one of the finest as I’ve come to learn through immersing myself in his work—to also share their hard-won wisdom with the general public for whom joining the fine conversations dialogs within the walls of a university is not a possibility 🎈

I believe that the publication of Plato and the Nerd is a great first step in this direction, in making those fine dialogs available to the general public. And that is precisely where the next steps to Plato and the Nerd come in. IMHO, the dialog that is undoubtedly already underway with the publication of Plato and the Nerd needs to move to its logical conclusion: a follow-up book or something 🎯

Honestly, what shape that all will exactly, I myself don’t know. What I do know is that something has to happen. It just has to. This is far too important a dialog to be left to its own elements. We need to shepherd it 🐑 🐐 🐏

We need your encouragement. I speak for myself in unequivocally stating that I’m immensely honored to have done my bit—for now, anyway—to help move this dialog forward a bit by getting the message to the thousands of readers who come to my blog every month 🍯

But this is not enough. It just plain isn’t. We need your advice, wisdom, and counsel. One thing I can assure you of, Ms. Fassett, is simply this: You won’t find a bigger fan and supporter—after you of course—of Edward’s work than me 🐳

And you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Oh, to ever-so-briefly revisit, ritornello-style of course, Ms Fassett, my engaging in small talk with Mom, about how I had asked Mom—seated kitty corner from her in the living room  as she was—how her cross stitch was coming along and stuff. And her beatifically having smiled back, our dialog, and which I candidly shared above 🐱

Mom clearly knows that I have my own set of strengths and weakness—I can commune with computer code and craft software applications alongside the finest minds on this planet. But I remain incorrigibly incompetent in other crafts such as the ones she’s a pro at. Her unconditional love means the world to me, it surely does. Moms are the best, and technologists such as Edward and I are grateful to our benefactors—you, my Mom, and indeed the Moms of the world—we truly are. You all are simply the best 😎

This world wouldn’t be the place it is without you all; being the geek that I am, reflexively thinking things through to their logical conclusion, pardon me as I can’t help but remark that we all, nerds included, wouldn’t be here in this wondrous universe in the first place without you all. Period.

Please know, Ms Fassett, that this Dedication is written with utmost sincerity, though I still feel it falling short of what I had wished to say. But I had to try 🏄

As you surely will have assessed by now, I don’t follow the norms of creating a typical blog when writing essays to post here; I’m not even sure what a typical blog looks like. All I’m interested in here (as the impresario of Programming Digressions) is to be the catalyst for the exchange of vital ideas—pressing ideas that are important enough to merit substantial attention from the best minds of our country and indeed the best minds of the world 🌏

My writing style is simple, direct, and hopefully one that plainly speaks what I believe needs to heard. And yes, you guessed as much, and it’s very true: I simply adore my readers. I’m here to serve you all, expecting nothing in return except, perhaps, that my readers reciprocate via their comments 🙇

I’m not here to increase my readership or anything like that; that would be so trivial a goal to pursue on top of being an exercise in futility. On the contrary, I started out just a few years ago with a readership of exactly one: myself. And I would have been perfectly content with that still—having a readership of exactly one—since one of my major motivators for engaging in the craft of writing is that it helps me clarify my own thinking 😴

There inevitably arrives the time when we have to allow our ideas to float away, with moments such as these often being charged with raw emotion such as you may have experienced when turning around and walking away after leaving your first-born child at the threshold of their pre-school on their very first day in what you vicariously feel as being a maddeningly disorienting and unexplored, new universe for your child: What will happen next? How will events unfold? Will things turn out well, will they? 👧

As for our ideas, we reflexively, and perhaps viscerally, find our thoughts begin to channel along similarly well-worn grooves: Where will our ideas find a home, if ever they do, after floating away from our solicitous nurturing? I guess only time will tell. The moment, nonetheless, remains tinged with the telltale imprints of the rawest of emotions that seem to grip your viscera and seem to just not let go; think perhaps to the bulldog that clenches its quarry in its jaws with the tenacity that only a bulldog could marshal as it worries its quarry 🐶

Or maybe that was not the most apt of metaphors. But I think you get the idea. Yes, let go we must—and while I agree with the stance of Plato and the Nerd on the notion of free will and in general the book’s gripping and marvelously erudite discussion of that notion—sometimes we have no choice. You feel this in the pit of your stomach. Gulp, shall we take courage and allow plans larger than our own to unfold? Shall we? We have to, we must. 🎈

In the end, let me try to sum it all up—incredibly imperfect as my attempt at summarizing it all surely will be—by expressing the essence of my sincere sentiments that I’ve tried to elaborate on in this admittedly longwinded but sincere Dedication:

  1. Thank you from the depth of my heart, Ms. Fassett, for helping make Plato and the Nerd a reality! 🏆
  2. You won’t find a bigger fan and supporter—after you of course—of Edward’s work than me 🐳
  3. And last, but certainly not the least, you ain’t seen nothing yet 🚀

Profound Regards,

It is in the hard, rock-pile labor of seeking to win, hold, or deserve a reader’s interest that the pleasant agony of writing again comes in (italics mine).
~ John Mason Brown


As my life goes on I believe ⏳
Somehow something’s changed
Something deep inside

Ooh a part of me

There’s a strange new light in my eyes 😎
Things I’ve never known
Changin’ my life

Changin’ me

I’ve been searchin’ 🔭
So long
To find an answer

Now I know my life has meaning

Now I see myself as I am 🐚
Feeling very free
Life is everything
Ooh it’s meant to be
When my tears have come to an end
I will understand
What I left behind

Part of me

I’ve been searching 🏃
So long
To find and answer
Now I know my life has meaning

Woah woah

Searching 😗
Don’t you know I’m hell yeah
For an answer
To the question
Oh yeah
For our minds
Baby it’s true
It’s only natural
It’s only natural baby, yeah
Good things
In life
Take a long time
yeah yeah
~ Chicago (Lyrics from (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long)


  1. Thanks a ton, Elizabeth, for your stellar comment! And LOL – As for me being thorough shorough in what I write, I sure don't know how much of that I am, but I do try 🙂

  2. – Now that is far too brief a reply—i.e. what I hurriedly said in my response above—is what I was thinking to myself after posting my response…

    – So I'm back to add a couple of thoughts to my admittedly hurried response 🙂

    – But first, I wish to thank every single reader who has taken the time to read the essays posted here, which I post typically once a week (every Sunday). 

    – I wish to especially thank every single reader who has made the effort to post a comment or two. 

    – We all have a lot of fun here in our reading community that is Programming Digressions. By the same token, in fact by that very token, we're very open and sharing,  helping one another grow in our life journeys… 

    – And it's with precisely that thought in mind that I wish to add two additional thoughts. They are as follows:

    – In addition to being my time-management coach, Elizabeth is a great friend and supporter as well—in fact one of the most loyal and enduring supporters of this blog that we affectionately know by the somewhat flippant name: Programming Digressions. Elizabeth, your genuinely original work continues to inspire many professionals, myself notably included!

    – Speaking of which, and rather than rehashing here all that I've written to elaborate precisely that theme—since I've already summed that up elsewhere with what I trust is a modicum of coherence—of all the LinkedIn recommendations that I've ever written, there are two which truly stand out in my mind.

    – Here, I'm simply adding a link each to those two so everyone interested in further details can read up more. The world needs to know, and I want to do my bit to spread the word:

    – [1] The groundbreaking work of my time-management coach: Elizabeth Grace Saunders!

    – [2] The extraordinary vision and paradigm-changing contributions of my mentor, the gracious giant the software industry knows well: Jonas Bonér!

    – Folks, make a note of the two names above. You really need to — Ignore their outstanding work and contributions only at your own peril! 

    – Since a majority of Programming Digressions readers—the thousands who come here every month—are predominantly tech-savvy, I trust that the second name that I mention above, that of my mentor (Jonas Bonér), likely needs no introduction whatsoever…

    – Jonas is another great friend, supporter and, as I said, my mentor. He is the Founder & CTO at Lightbend. His contributions to our industry are far too many to even try listing them here, which is why I intentionally supplied the link above so you can look up details at your own leisure.

    – Among the ton of his contributions to our industry are that Jonas created the Akka Project and the AspectWerkz Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP) compiler, etc. etc.

    – Lady and gentleman, I salute your absolutely amazing work—You're truly making the world a better and more exciting place to live in!

  3. Hi Akram,

    What a thorough blog you have! It's amazing that you are able to give insight into all of these books.

    What a profound essay for Ms. Fassett!

    I'll definitely have to make my way through your blog bit by bit.

    Have you ever thought about submitting any of your essays or posts to a publication?


  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks a ton for your sharing those inspiring thoughts. As I say from time to time when responding to reader comments such as yours—and I always mean what I say in my responses and that, too, straight from the heart—it is really these comments from you all that make my day, every day.

    What's different this time is that I read your comment late last night… So, um, it made my night. But it also made my day, too, lol! You know what I'm saying, right? 🙂

    – Hey, I beamed with happiness as I read your first remark ("What a thorough blog you have! It's amazing that you are able to give insight into all of these books."). Thank you!!!

    – As to your second remark ("What a profound essay for Ms. Fassett!"), reading that part of your comment warmed my heart. My essay—the Dedication section for Ms. Fassett—turned out to be exactly that: a mini-essay, within an essay 🙂

    – The mini-essay was truly heartfelt—and which I'm so glad to hear you found profound—and I found it incredibly satisfying to hear you appreciate it. That's what really, really made my "night" last night, I mean it made my "day", but you know what I mean? LOL.

    – As to your third remark ("I'll definitely have to make my way through your blog bit by bit."), I've been seeing the recurring theme where readers have posted comments on our blog—hey, this blog is as much your all's as its mine—to the effect that you all enjoy my writing style, most recently for example

  5. – First, thank you so much. A writer can't really ask for much more than this: to be appreciated by his readers!

    – Second, and much as I indicated earlier, this blog is of course as much yours as it's mine, so please feel free to cruise around the blog and explore all the other essays as well. I invite you, in fact, to post your comments even if it's any essay that I may have written in the past

    – Speaking of which, some essays get tons of comments from readers; last time I checked, the essay on the nuts and bolts of working with Big Data had a whopping 72 comments!

    – On the other hand, some essays make shrinking violets out of you all 😉 

    – I mean, some of those lonesome essays end up garnering maybe a single comment, if that 🙁

    – Just kidding, just kidding, it's all good! I love reading comments from my readers, because that's pretty much my only feedback that you all are engaged; well, tons of readers (i.e. readers of our Programming Digressions blog) do reach out to me directly via Twitter direct messaging (DM). And that's all well and good.

    – But I mean… I could also look at the blog stats, too—while important, those are just cold, faceless numbers—and mean far little to me than do comments from readers!

    – So as to your question ("Have you ever thought about submitting any of your essays or posts to a publication?"), my answer is: Yes, I have. 

    – And much I mentioned above, a boatload more of readers (i.e. readers of our Programming Digressions blog) reach out to me directly via Twitter direct messaging (DM) than do post their comments here. I get a lot of encouragement to write more frequently and to get my stuff published… Readers have been enjoying the writing style of the essays… So that is awesome. Thanks so much!!!

    – Stay tuned, you just might see a book, or two, show up (on sale over at or something) with your blogger's name to it, cool? 🙂

  6. – Thanks so much, Chris, for those warm words of appreciation. Gotta tell you, I just gotta tell you: You awesome readers, you all, make my day, every single day! 

    – You all give me that spark, that extra motivation, to keep on writing for you. That's a major source of my motivation to create content for you—as best as I humanly can—that's of the highest quality I'm capable of.

    – I strive to always keep our—yes, it's yours at least as much as it is mine—Programming Digression blog improving, and you all are a key part of this community of readers!!!

    – By the way, as a friendly reminder to all my readers, please know that I encourage all kinds of feedback, both of the appreciative kind as well the constructive type. Please never be shy, you all, about pointing out any flaws or shortcomings that you spot, and which I can fix for you 🙂

    – To your comment ("Your passion and dedication towards writing clearly shows in the thoughtful responses you provide. Lots of insightful posts, and I've barely scratched the surface!"), all I can say is, thanks a ton!!!

    Among a handful of factors that led to my writing a new essay, which I posted recently—it's called On Writing: Or Why I Write—this comment of yours was definitely one of those factors… So I especially thank you for that 🙂

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