The Quotes 🍩
I’ve noticed that even people who believe in fate look both ways before crossing the street.
~ Stephen Hawking (University of Cambridge)
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
~ E.M. Forster (Howards End)
Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
~ Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet)
I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.
~ Robert Frost
Palpable Excitement Afoot
Some books set their sights high; some set their sights low. Some books are ambitious; and then you occasionally run into those rare ones—perhaps once in a decade—which are hugely ambitious. The book I’m introducing today sets its sights high and is hugely ambitious. And oh my, does this book pull it all off swimmingly well! All I’m going to say is this: You have to read this one for yourself to get a sense for why it’s got your bleary-eyed blogger benchmarking his babbling brook of brash ideas brusquely with barely-restrained excitement! ☄
Let me put this all in context for you. Of all the books I’ve reviewed so far on this blog—barring none but four others—this one has recently joined the pantheon of my super-select list of desert-island books. You all are probably already familiar with the other four. But let me go ahead and remind you: I’m also mindful of the fact that thousands of regular readers come here every month. I’m surmising that the deluge includes a good number of new readers. Shhh… Long-time readers, you all, don’t anyone tell our new readers, yet, about all the fun we regularly have here with digressions, okay? 👍
So I was going to remind you in passing about that other, tiny handful of desert-island books—to which I’m gleefully adding a fifth one that I’ll soon introduce. They are as follows, appearing on this list in the chronological order in which they have appeared on this blog:
- The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: Achieve More Success with Less Stress (McGraw-Hill Education) by Elizabeth Grace Saunders
- The Nature of Computation (Oxford University Press) by Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens
- Technical Blogging: Turn Your Expertise into a Remarkable Online Presence (Pragmatic Bookshelf) by Antonio Cangiano
- Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing 3rd Edition (Pearson) by John Trimble
I won’t have say much to say about them here—tempted though I am to do exactly that—but rest assured that you’re bound to run into those names as you hover around this blog 🚁 and cruise through the other essays 🚣
Today, though, we’re going to chat about a rare gem of a book that I’ll usher in soon. I’m sure you’re curious at this point to find out what’s got me so excited!
Introducing The Book With a Drum Roll 📣
Why The Exuberance?
Pictured center square in the pic above that’s embedded in a thematic postage stamp border—which itself is a tribute to our society’s still-extant paper-and-pencil heritage—is the stellar book that has got me oh-so excited! There’s a lot going for this book, and I think you’re going to like it, too. A lot! So here we go, introducing the book with a drum roll 🎶
- Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology (The MIT Press) by Edward Ashford Lee 📣
I’m at least as excited as was legendary programmer Robert C. Martin (aka Uncle Bob) when he had introduced a book on Java application architecture, saying
I’m dancing! By god I’m dancing on the walls. I’m dancing on the ceiling. I’m ecstatic. I’m overjoyed. I’m really, really pleased.
In his exuberant remarks above, Uncle Bob was just getting started with his rave review of Java Application Architecture: Modularity Patterns with Examples Using OSGi (Addison-Wesley Professional) by Kirk Knoernschild. Okay, so I, too, know a thing or two about OSGi—and a whole lot more still about architecting software applications—but I’m going to leave it at that for now 🏁
But did you notice how excited Uncle Bob was in the comment above? Some people do get carried away, don’t they? Then again, look who’s talking 🙊 So your blogger himself unabashedly confesses to feeling carried away, by a different book, of course: Plato and the Nerd. You, too, may experience the same euphoria once you get a chance to see what all this book has to offer 🌹
Here’s The Deal
So here’s the deal: I’ll try to distill the overall theme of Plato and the Nerd as best as I can, but in a nutshell—and much as I had mentioned at the outset about how hugely ambitious it is—Plato and the Nerd book takes on some of the deepest, most crucial, undeniably vital, and burning technological-societal issues head on 🚘 And the way it tackles those issues and succeeds at exploring them effectively is something to behold. In the process, Plato and the Nerd lays unprecedented groundwork for bridging the humanities and engineering.
And I’m not talking about building castles in the air; I can assure you that I’m not 🏰 I am talking about an incredibly clear-eyed and unprecedented tour of the very essence of where society is headed. “Bold statement there, Akram!”, I hear you say. And you’re entitled to your opinion, of course, much as I am to mine. All good 😎 Do bear with me, though. We have a lot of ground to cover in order to let you on to the gift Edward has given to humanity in the shape of this phenomenal book 🎁
Speaking of how Plato and the Nerd has undeniably ushered in the ubiquity-in-the-wings of unprecedented groundwork for bridging the humanities and engineering, the video of a fun colloquium—entitled Symbiosis or Annihilation? How Humans and Technology Coevolve—is available online under the auspices of EECS at UC Berkeley. In the video, the author takes the audience along for an engaging and entertaining romp through the background of how the book Plato and the Nerd came to be—the video is fairly recent, having been delivered just last month, on Wednesday, September 27, 2017 to be precise. Check it out! Methinks you’ll enjoy it; I sure did ☕
I’ve Been Searching So Long
I have climbed highest mountain ⛰
I have run through the fields 🌾
Only to be with you 🌿
Only to be with you 🌿
I have run 🏃
I have crawled ⏳
I have scaled these city walls 🏰
These city walls 🏰
Only to be with you 🌿
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for ⏳
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for 🔎
~ U2 (Lyrics from I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For)
OK, you all in the amazing music group U2, while your searches may continue—such as the one you alluded to in the song lyrics above—I’m officially calling off my search 😉 By the way, I love some of your songs, especially the one that has the lyrics above 🎯
An Improbable Place
If it strikes you as improbable that a book like Plato and the Nerd could set your blogger on fire—the metaphorical kind of fire, I hasten to add, for those of us who can lurch into literal-mindedness—I invite you to read on…
So let’s briefly turn to what is, IMHO, a profound observation; then again, since we’re chatting in this essay about Plato and the Nerd, we’re in profoundness central to begin with. Relax ⛱ We’re at home—this is our blog. Remember, we’re in the friendly environs of Programming Digressions? Let’s continue with our romp, shall we?
Something now of the profound observation I had alluded to above: Let’s turn the following magisterial thought inside-out—I was about to reach for my “onion metaphor of conceptualizing” (more on that below) before I realized that the profound observation I’m sharing below is going to be more like an exercise in the mathematical field of topology—in the style of inverted donuts from the land of topology:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
~ Sir Winston Churchill (“The End of the Beginning” in Winston Churchill War Speeches Collection Book 3)
Do let’s take a little time to let the Churchillean observation above soak in to our cuddly, crepuscular, and collective craniums 💀 Well, okay, maybe not that cuddly 👽 So I first heard that Churchillean gem on NPR (that’s National Public Radio here in the Unites States of course) over a decade ago while driving to work one fine—though rather frosty—morning in my former home state of Minnesota ⛄
And should you wish to learn a bit more about what I had in mind when referring to the “onion metaphor of conceptualizing” above, I invite you to look up some musings elsewhere under the rubric of the book entitled How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics in an essay where we had some fun with the mathematical machinery that underpins linear algebra.
I trust that you’re getting a sense for the gravitas of Plato and the Nerd 👓
A “Map” of the Book 🔐
In my mind, Plato and the Nerd is to the world of paradigmatic bridge-building—and we really, really need to have more of these mergers between the humanities and engineering and the sciences to be sure—what the seminal Gang Of Four (GoF) book is to the world of software design patterns and what Joy of Cooking is (was?!) to the culinary world (I can’t definitively judge in the latter matter since I don’t follow the happenings in the world of cooking, plus my culinary skills, if any, barely hover above the EKG flatline) 🍔
At any rate, Edward lays out a super-helpful map of Plato and the Nerd in the Preface—to be precise, in an introductory section entitled Overview of the Chapters—pointing out how
Some readers like to be told what they will be told before they are told it. Putting aside the problematic self-referentiality, for those readers, I provide here a brief overview of the book. But honestly, I recommend skipping this and going directly to chapter 1. The story told in this book cannot be accurately summarized in a few paragraphs, and any such summary will necessarily make the book seem more dense
Okay, you all, guys and gals, listen up—and clearly your blogger has managed to thaw after eleven frosty wistfully wonderful, wintry years in the beautiful (but rather frosty) state that is Minnesota ⛄ And not only, he has managed to pick up a bunch of southern mannerisms to boot 🎩
Let’s Get Ourselves Acquainted ☕
Table of Contents
Lest we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a deep breath here 🐋 So to acquaint you the better with the contents of Plato and the Nerd—here I’ll parenthetically add only this much that the chapters of the book are engagingly organized into sections with delightfully named headings—let’s have ourselves a peek at its table of contents 🍮
1. Shadows on the Wall
2. Inventing Laws of Nature
3. Models of Models of Models of Models of Things
4. Hardware Is Ephemeral
5. Software Endures
6. Evolution and Revolution
8. The Limits of Software
11. Probability and Possibility
12. Final Thoughts
Since I had mentioned atop this section about how Edward has engagingly organized the chapters of Plato and the Nerd into delightfully named sections, it’s only fair that I give you a taste of this aspect of the book as well 🍜 For the real deal, please grab a copy of the book for yourself and find out for yourself. My copy of the book is already spoken for; on top of that, my copy is so profusely lit up with highlighter marks that it just might be a bit too jarring for your eyes 👀 Yeah, right, I would hear you mutter, should you chance upon my copy of Plato and the Nerd, “Akram, you might as well have dipped the whole thing in fluorescent highlighter ink 😉
Sections In The Chapters Are Named Delightfully
Okay, so we were saying… Ah yes, to give you a better sense for how the author of Plato and the Nerd has organized the chapters into delightfully entitled sections, consider a handful of example—just keep in mind that we glanced at the table of contents earlier whereas what follows is a random selection of sections that are named especially delightfully—starting with
2.1. The Unknown Knowns
3. Models of Models of Models of Models of Things
3.1. Technological Tapestries
3.3. Transitivity of Models
5.5. Libraries, Languages, and Dialects
6.4. Models in Crisis
7.4. Continuous Information
8.4. Digital Physics?
9.3. Digital Psyche?
9.4. Symbiotic Partnership
10.1. Laplace’s Demon
12.3. Autonomy and Intelligence
And don’t let the book’s slim size fool you; its slimness belies the amazingly wide scope and deep coverage of remarkable ideas that you’ll find in its pages. Put another way, the SNR is really high 📈 Plato and the Nerd covers a wide swathe of territory, and does it incredibly well. All that combined has knocked your blogger’s socks off 👞
Actually, Plato and the Nerd is not that slim either 😉 It’s a bit under 300 pages in length. I think it’s just that I likely had another book in mind—The Nature of Computation (Oxford University Press) by Cristopher Moore and Stephan Mertens—as I wrote this so my mind had perhaps reflexively turned to comparing the two, unbeknownst to me. Ah, we all can confabulate, can’t we? And be good at it, without even knowing it; but this is getting metacircular, and I digress. So that other book is a hefty one; a bit under 1000 pages in length, gulp. That’s why, by comparison, I unthinkingly referred to Plato and the Nerd above as being slim 🙉
Before we dive into Plato and the Nerd to get a sense for the goodies it offers, here are a couple of rave reviews that I thought were especially apt. Let’s first look at the brief review by Janos Sztipanovits, E. Bronson Ingram Distinguished Professor of Engineering, Vanderbilt University:
Lee’s book is a brilliant articulation of the unique and increasingly important role technology plays in the evolution of mankind. He offers a deeply optimistic perspective with clarity and intellectual rigor without ever losing accessibility.
Next, we turn to the review by Thomas A. Henzinger, President, IST Austria:
In every decent bookstore, you find shelves full of volumes written by top mathematicians, physicists, and biologists explaining the state of the art in their field and its impact on the human condition. This book is important because it is high time for computer scientists and engineers to do the same.
And to get a sense for the professional background of the author—Edward Ashford Lee—he is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught and researched digital technology and computer science for more than thirty years. He has coauthored several textbooks on topics including digital communication, signal processing, embedded systems, and software modeling. This is his first book for a general audience. I sure hope Edward will go on to write at least as many book for a general audience as he has for a technical audience. It just so happens that I have the luxury of a professional background in exactly the technical areas for which he has coauthored those textbooks; I’m tempted to check those out as well, should time permit… 😎
A Theme Begins To Emerge…
Methinks that the picture of a rather intriguing book is likely beginning to emerge in your mind. If so, you’re in good company. In fact, great company because I’m reminded of a beautiful passage from a book entitled ANSI Common LISP (Pearson) by Paul Graham—I implore you to suspend your judgment because alarms probably went off in your head when I mentioned “beautiful” and “ANSI” in the same breath—because that book is from the mind of one of the most profound thinkers on the planet. In section 2.16 of the aforementioned treatise, entitled Looking Forward, Graham tellingly notes with his trademark clarity how 🎀
In this chapter we have barely scratched the surface of Lisp. And yet a portrait of a very unusual language is beginning to emerge. To start with, the language has a single syntax to express all program structure. This syntax is based on the list, which is a kind of Lisp object. Functions, which are Lisp objects in their own right, can be expressed as lists. And Lisp is itself a Lisp program, made almost entirely of Lisp functions no different from the ones you can define yourself.
Don’t worry if the relations between all these ideas are not entirely clear. Lisp introduces so many novel concepts that it takes some time to get used to all the new things you can do with it. One thing should be clear at least: there are some startlingly elegant ideas here (italics mine).
The Joy of Reading Plato and the Nerd 🐬
Hey, Yay, The Author Knows A Thing Or Two About Digressions!
Oh, and let me tell you about how delighted I was as I gleefully read a handful of references to the notion of digressing. Some of you—oops, many of you now?!—already know my propensity for digressing. So you can well imagine how delighted I was on finding some of the same phenomenon (i.e. explorations of tangential ideas) going on in Plato and the Nerd 😂
If I may digress briefly, I would like to comment on the culture of programmers (italics mine).
Frankly, I fell for Plato and the Nerd hook, line and sinker right there! Oh, and let me tell you: What you saw above—where Edward was sounding civilized notes of polite diffidence—was only the beginning 🎩
A bit later, we have a photo showing Richard Stallman in Vietnam—and I sure got a kick out of the anachronistic photo of Stallman, obliviously tapping away at his laptop from a rickety boat sailing on a river. At any rate, shortly after that photo, we have Edward politely adding this thought:
But I digress. My topic in this section is programming languages (italics mine).
Wait, there’s more! As a final example—and your blogger is feeling positively giddy at this time—let’s catch a glimpse of the section where Edward is telling us about how
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 (italics mine).
May You Digress Even More
As I read that passage in Plato and the Nerd, I could barely hold myself back from offering to its author this solicitous piece of advice—from me of course, as well as on behalf of all of us here in the Programming Digression community who are equally smitten by the allure of exploring related and tangential ideas—in the most unequivocal way possible: Edward, we encourage you to digress, we really do 😎
As a fellow nerd, let me assure you that he is one of us. And you don’t have to take my word for it either; simply pick up the book and confirm for your own self 👕 I mean, Plato and the Nerd could easily be the poster child of this nerdy blog, which came to be named—by the way, the decision was mostly subliminal as I can’t quite recall why I chose that name a few years ago to call our blog—Programming Digressions!
The Siren Call
SaraYou’re the poet in my heartNever changeAnd don’t you ever stopNow it’s gone,No, it doesn’t matter anymoreWhen you build your houseI’ll come by
(There’s a heartbeatAnd it never really died, it never, never really died)Oh Sara,Would you swallow all your prideWould you speak a little louderSinging, all I ever wanted~ Fleetwood Mac (Lyrics from Sara)
Engaging Style, Deep Coverage, Zero Fluff 🍒
Helpful Signposts Abound
I also liked a lot that Edward liberally sprinkled Plato and the Nerd with copious signposts to help the reader navigate the narrative with the greatest of ease; I would be pressed hard to think of another book that has accomplished this with greater finesse! Here, as an example, and much earlier in the book, we have Edward—in section 3.2 of the book, Complexity Simplified—telling the reader how
Engineering of simple systems, like Edison’s lightbulb, can be carried out with a prototype-and-test approach. But this approach breaks down as systems get more complex. With more complex systems, the use of models becomes much more important.
Complexity is a difficult concept to pin down. Roughly speaking, something is complex when it strains our human minds to comprehend it. Complexity is therefore a relation between an artifact or a concept and a human observer.
Finally, as another example of how the author has artfully sprinkled signposts throughout the pages of Plato and the Nerd, to help the reader navigate the narrative, consider this endearing marker on a subject—in section 3.2 of the book, Dualism, tackling the admittedly knotty notion of dualism—which I felt truly come alive in the pages of the book! So we have here Edward subtly offering these words regarding how 😂
The few readers who have gotten this far (thank you!) are probably wondering how I have avoided mentioning Descartes’dualism, the mind-body separation. I’ve built a whole story about how layers of modeling result in a divorce between software and the physics on which it runs. Software is a model, and I’ve repeatedly cautioned against confusing the model with the thing being modeled, the map with the territory. A map is a model, and the territory is the physical world being modeled. Isn’t my stance the Cartesian dualism all over again, where I’ve just replaced “mind” with “model”?
Endearing Markers Lead Off Each Chapter
Another terrific feature of Plato and the Nerd is that it provides great context for each and every topic as the narrative unfolds over the span of the book. Yet another feature of the book that I liked a lot is that each chapter leads off with a succinct “signpost” 🚸 Think “marker”—or if you’re smitten by the passion of seeking excellence in the art of computer programming, as is your blogger—think to the “marker interface pattern“, which, of course, kicks into high gear at precisely those times when a programming language doesn’t have explicit support for metadata. But I digress; I won’t even bring up my passion for conceptual blending and instead merely leave a marker for anyone so interested to pick that up further 🎻
An Example Or Two Of Markers that Emblazon The Book’s Goodness!
. . . in which I examine the very idea of “facts” and “truths,” showing that: collective wisdom about them can be better than individual wisdom; a narrative about facts can be more interesting than the facts themselves; facts and truths may be invented or even designed, not just discovered; facts and truths may be wrong; and it can cost billions to show that facts are true. And, oh yes, nerds are misunderstood, and science and engineering get confused.
. . . in which I argue that the layers of paradigms for software are so deep that the physical world largely becomes irrelevant; that software reflects the personalities and idiosyncrasies of its creators; that software endures much better than hardware in no small part because it encodes its own layered paradigms; and that connected machines in server farms dream (italics mine)
The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
All these things combine and cohere into a beautifully wrought narrative that I savored to the last drop, as it were. In fact, there were times—as I was reading Plato and the Nerd for the first time—when I was compelled to deliberately force myself to slow down and savor the book so it didn’t slip away any quicker than I would wish for it to 💰 But guess what? There’s such a thing as re-reading a book 📖 Woohoo, Plato and the Nerd, here I come again!
I found myself obliviously rapt by the delightfully positive story that this book has to tell. Oh, and just to disambiguate something above: That was “Woohoo, Plato and the Nerd, here I come again!” as in the book, and neither addressing Plato—long gone anyway ala Dead Poets Society—nor the apocryphal Nerd 🙊 Just sayin’.
Abstractions That Are Engaging and Entertaining 🎈
Delightful Exploration Of Vital Abstractions
I may be losing track of the essays on this blog, but if memory serves me right, this is only the second essay ever that is being wholly devoted to a single book! The other one was devoted to an unbelievably good book on technical blogging. Yes, the book we’ve dived into is that special
As a software craftsman, fewer things get me as excited as do elegant abstractions. And Plato and the Nerd is replete with lavish narratives on abstractions; suffice it to say that you’ll be in for a marvelous romp through a variety of abstractions that engage and enlighten, even as they entertain. Real artists just have to ship; otherwise, I was sorely tempted to talk with you a bit on a particularly delightful abstraction—ala metaphor and I never metaphor I didn’t like—in the pages of the book where Edward illustrates the narrative with a photo of a drill going through a map 🔭
It got me thinking to the notion—and as best as I can recall, it’s from the area of neuro-linguistic programming—of how “The Map is Not the Terrain”. But I digress…
Speaking of the terrain, a quick word on the layout of this essay: At the outset, when I conceived the idea of sharing with you the findings from my dive into Plato and the Nerd, I had contemplated several approaches to how best I could give you a sense for just how spectacularly good a book this is 🎬
The Pull of Allegorical Musings
I even contemplated going for an allegorical slant along the lines of Peter Seibel’s brilliantly inimitable take on revealing the essence of what Lisp macros do—in his stellar book entitled Practical Common Lisp—when he begins a simply marvelous section entitled “The Story of Mac: A Just-So Story” like so, telling the reader how 🏯
Once upon a time, long ago, there was a company of Lisp programmers. It was so long ago, in fact, that Lisp had no macros. Anything that couldn’t be defined with a function or done with a special operator had to be written in full every time, which was rather a drag. Unfortunately, the programmers in this company—though brilliant—were also quite lazy. Often in the middle of their programs—when the tedium of writing a bunch of code got to be too much—they would instead write a note describing the code they needed to write at that place in the program (italics mine).
And so it is that your blogger sheepishly reminds you that some of his own abstractions can leak Yes, drip, drip, drip, one drop—or one line of code or prose—at a time 💧 💧💧
Your Blogger Comes To Grips With (His Very Own) Leaky Abstractions
Here’s what I mean by my somewhat enigmatic remark above about leaky abstractions: As someone who lives and breathes technology—lately focused on designing and implementing distributed systems—the relevant concepts from the field permeate my thinking. So please don’t be too surprised if, every now and then in my essays, I pluck a metaphor or two from my field to illustrate any given point better 😲
Having sounded those civilized notes of polite diffidence, allow me to bring in Joel Spolsky’s nice take on leaky abstractions. Yep, we’ll be in abstraction central for just a bit, though not too long, so don’t you run away yet!
In the same book I mentioned above—in his stellar book entitled Practical Common Lisp—in section entitled “Plugging the Leaks:, the author (Seibel) mentions Spolsky’s original work by telling the reader how
In his essay “The Law of Leaky Abstractions,” Joel Spolsky coined the term leaky abstraction to describe an abstraction that “leaks” details it’s supposed to be abstracting away. Since writing a macro is a way of creating an abstraction, you need to make sure your macros don’t leak needlessly.
The Challenge Of Covering The Rich Content
I soon came to the conclusion that Plato and the Nerd is way too richly packed with innovative ideas—all of the first order — that trying to convey the thing would simply be futile. The logical conclusion I arrived at was that—short of writing a whole book to describe the purport and wherewithal of it—a collage format would perhaps work the best.
Here I’m reminded me of a book that is of the same caliber, although far more technical: The Nature of Computation (Oxford). It pulls no punches—I mean, it’s literally filled to overflowing with the most marvelous mathematics I’ve seen in ages!
So it’s no wonder that several luminaries of our field have been equally wowed by that unprecedented work of Moore and Mertens—here’s just one rave review:
To put it bluntly: this book rocks! It’s 900+ pages of awesome. It somehow manages to combine the fun of a popular book with the intellectual heft of a textbook, so much so that I don’t know what to call it (but whatever the genre is, there needs to be more of it!).
~ Scott Aaronson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 🚅
The reason I dragged in mention of that other stellar book—The Nature of Computation—is that my sentiments regarding Plato and the Nerd are much the same: I find myself resonating with Aaronson’s comment above, which I apply without hesitation to Plato and the Nerd by saying that it, too, “…somehow manages to combine the fun of a popular book with the intellectual heft of a textbook, so much so that I don’t know what to call it (but whatever the genre is, there needs to be more of it!).” Enough said ⛳
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.
~ Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet)
A Collage Inspired By Plato and the Nerd 🎪
In what follows, wherever I use the word “technologist”, feel free to replace it by the word engineer—for those not yet familiar my background, please know that your blogger is as much a software craftsman 👓 (that being his professional background for 22-plus years) as an engineer 🔧 (earned both his BSEE and MSEE degrees with focus throughout the training on the science and strategy of mastering computing, culminating in a dissertation involving Artificial Intelligence algorithms) as an artist 🎻 (entirely self-taught after having been smitten by the allure of painting with prose when he was a high school freshman) 📕 📗 📘
Are We Ready To Embrace Complementarity?
So here we might find reflections of ourselves in the pic above 👧 👦 Inebriated by the exuberance of creativity and armed with nothing more than, in the words of Plato and the Nerd, the “models and abstractions to build inventive artificial worlds and [in the process] give us incredible capabilities”, we face one another in our selfsame innocence—she (technology) 👧 a boundlessly fertile though sometimes demure canvas on which to sketch our ideas while he (technologist) 👦 ever-ready with overtures and equally determined for revelation and sweet progress. The burning question I have for all of us is, “Are we ready, truly ready, to embrace complementarity?”
End Of The Innocence Or Can We Co-evolve?
The evanescent butterfly has finally alighted on a solitary flower (technology) 🌻 which serves as a richly protean and metamorphosing source of nectar; the butterfly (technologist) 🐝 is the seeker, a protagonist of sorts, eager for symbiosis and becoming one with the flower in an act of selfsame melding. The question I have is, “Will this mark the end of the innocence, with the two—the flower and the butterfly—giving up their respective secrets or are both up to snuff to knowingly retain their dignity, their honor, and to co-evolve?”
Surely Not A Faustian Bargain?
And here we are, face-to-face with the unblinking, all-knowing, steely stare of a cat—the cat (technology) 🐈 dug into her steely mirthlessness, zealously guarding the gates of discovery, and we (technologists) 👕 equally eager to prove to her that we have the endurance and pluck to stand our ground. Indeed, we (technologists) 👕 will not settle for anything less than the best we can get out of the cat (technology) 🐈 on our road to discovery 🚧
But first, in full disclosure, and several of you already know this: I’m an inveterate cat-lover 🐱 So take this next question with a grain of salt and a whisker 🐱
Now, in the marvelous words of Plato and the Nerd, “…the layers of paradigms for software are so deep that the physical world largely becomes irrelevant; that software reflects the personalities and idiosyncrasies of its creators…”. And the question I have for all of us is, notwithstanding those for whom the inevitable mishaps and mistakes made along the path of pursuing technology are sour grapes, “Surely what we’ve got here is more—hopefully much more—than a Faustian bargain?” 🍇
Can We Wrest The Next Generation Away From Distractions?
We have a suitcase of knowledge to unpack, and a classroom full of empty chairs to fill; but with whom? Where are our learners? How do we wrest them from a world that’s awash with distractions? How do we engage them with the passion to take on the quest of taming technology even as it co-evolves with us? Plato and the Nerd has much, much more to say on this than there is space in the essay to cover. But the related question I have is, “What can we do to nudge the next generation of (hopefully would-be) learners in the direction of distraction-free concentration that enables their intellects to grow?” 🍎
The Ten O’Clock Scholar ⏰
A diller, a dollar,
A ten o’clock scholar!
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
But now you come at noon.
~ Songs & Rhymes From England 🎩
Next, we turn to the ever-present and near-palpable forces of paradigm shifts at work, transforming us irrevocably—mostly for the good, I hasten to add, non-Panglossian realist that I unabashedly am 🐈
Will Progress In Engineering Unerringly Lead Us To Platonic Truth?
The night sky is charged with the swirl of miasmic fumes billowing out of factory stacks. We have layer upon layer of an enmeshed industrial complex. As we turn to discern the counterparts of this layering in the digital world, let’s harken to these sublimely melded thoughts from Plato and the Nerd where Edward tells us—in the lead-in to Chapter 4 Hardware Is Ephemeral—how “…hardware is soft, a transient expression of ideas, and those ideas are more durable than the hardware itself. And in which I trace the layered paradigms that make possible digital machines made with billions of transistors.”
We can also get caught up in a paradigm shift or two—maybe more, given the ever-accelerating pace of innovation—in our lifetime. Again in the words of Plato and the Nerd 🏢
…Paradigm shifts are difficult for humans… Software that supports design, such as hardware description languages and their compilers, may have to be redesigned with significant paradigm shifts. Even manufacturing plants may have to change (italics mine)
To the deep observtions above, I add a more pedestrian one 👺
~ Popular saying
And the question I have for all of us to ponder is twofold here, (1) “Is it actually true, as is commonly assumed, that the progress of science has us marching ineluctably toward some Platonic truth?” and (2) “If that assumption is ill-founded, what are the costs of living in a fool’s paradise where one merely slips and slides to no avail?” 🍌
Anyone remember singer-songwriter, guitarist Mark Knopfler (of the British music group Dire Straits) singing the deeply symbolic, poignant, and classic song Telegraph Road? 🚕 🚗 🚙 🚚 🚛🚓
And my radio says tonight it’s gonna freeze
People driving home from the factories
There’s six lanes of traffic
Three lanes moving slow 🚕 🚗 🚙
I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I’ve got a right to go to work but there’s no work here to be found
Yes, and they say we’re gonna have to pay what’s owed
We’re gonna have to reap from some seed that’s been sowed 🌱 🌿 🍁
From all of these signs saying “sorry but we’re closed”
All the way down the Telegraph Road 🚦 🚧 🚫
With those soulful Dire Straits lyrics having filled our senses, shall we move on to the remaining two questions?
Do I Have The Courage To Plant My Flag In An Open Field?
Pause for a few moments and please take in the meandering road in the pic above. Is what you see just that, an ordinary and prosaic path that leads somewhere? Or can we let our imagination soar—with Plato and the Nerd at our side to give our imagination wings with which to soar—above the ordinary, flying for a few fleeting moments perhaps? Can we wonder, too, alongside the essayist Anais Nin when she had pondered whether
Real wonder lies in the depths; as soon as you look deeply you find the extraordinary.
~ Mirages, pg. 335 The Quotable Anais Nin: 365 Quotations with Citations (Sky Blue Press)
Plant your flag in an open field!
No more timid peeking around.
Either you see the beloved,
or you lose your head!
The real truth of existence is sealed,
until after many twists and turns of the road.
As in the algebraical method of “the two errors,”
the correct answer comes only after two substitutions,
after two mistakes. Then the seeker says,
“If I had known the real way it was,
I would have stopped all the looking around.”
But that knowing depends
on the time spent looking!
~ Jelaluddin Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi—HarperCollins)
The girl in her backyard looks deeply into the far horizon. What do you think she sees? Do we sense her seeing a horizon suffused with hope, or one with dread? And here I turn to what is probably the most delicious chapter in all of Plato and the Nerd—Chapter 10 Determinism—which dives into some truly elegant considerations of a set of terrific topics such as that of how “…determinism is a property of models not of the physical world; that determinism is an extremely valuable property, one that has historically delivered considerable payoffs in engineering and science…” and the topic of how “…nondeterministic models, used explicitly and judiciously, play an essential role in engineering.” Great stuff in there! 🎁
Before I even pose the next question, it would help we find ourselves in agreement with the notion that we need—and need it compellingly so—systematic ways to handle uncertainty. All good there? So I see you nodding your head in affirmation. That is awesome! 🍭 So here we go: The question I have for us to ponder here is, “Are we willing to suspend judgment and be receptive to the idea that the very concept of “determinism” is a subtle one, in fact every bit as subtle as the notion of “free will” itself?” 🍄
Those who know me well for digressing at the drop of a hat, let me assure all those buddies of mine. You all, please bear with me and listen up for just a sec: The question I posed above is, it truly is, a far cry from building castles in the air. Yes Sir! 👱 and Yes Madam! 👰 I kid you not. These are questions that fuel the passion of those of us who love building—nay, crafting—and evolving software with the same love and energy as we bring with us when tending to our tenderest and fondest plants in the garden. Yes, this is pragmatism writ large. With that, I will digress no more 🚫 Secretly, though—especially when you all are not looking—Quoth the Blogger “Evermore” 😉
Whoa, what’s that you say, dear Reader? Let’s see if I got this one right…
- Reader said: Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 🌚
- Blogger said: Ooh la la, so the blogger gets a dose of his own medicine! Surely this day was coming, he should’ve foretold 👻
- Reader said: Eavesdropping stealth led us to hear, Quoth the Blogger “Evermore” 😱
- Blogger said: Oops, um, well, the story will now have to be retold 🐙
This all eerily reminds me of the haunting lyrics of the ethereal song Empty Garden by piano virtuoso Elton John who—along with Kishore Kumar and Mark Knopfler—is one of my all-time favorite singers. So in that angst ridden song Empty Garden, we hear Elton John soulfully and wistfully wondering as to
What happened here
As the New York sunset disappeared
I found an empty garden among the flagstones there
Who lived here
He must have been a gardener that cared a lot
Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop
And now it all looks strange 🌘
And what’s it for
This little empty garden by the brownstone door
And in the cracks along the sidewalk nothing grows no more
Who lived here
He must have been a gardener that cared a lot
Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop
And we are so amazed we’re crippled and we’re dazed
A gardener like that one no one can replace 🌿
And through their tears
Some say he farmed his best in younger years
But he’d have said that roots grow stronger if only he could hear
Who lived there
He must have been a gardener that cared a lot
Who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop
Now we pray for rain, and with every drop that falls
We hear, we hear your name 🍁
Johnny can’t you come out to play in your empty garden 🏠
Shall We Cross The Chasm?
Are we truly ready to cross the chasm? Are we really? Do we have the wherewithal to bridge the two worlds, one of the humanities and the other of engineering and the sciences?
In the delectable words of Plato and the Nerd below, can we, too, be like Steven Connor—professor of modern literature and theory at Birkbeck, University of London—when he finds these amazing essences under surfaces?
Connor finds allusions in Serres’ writings to an astonishing array of oppositions between hard and soft, including body and language, science and humanities, things and signs, physical and conceptual, object and idea, form and information, physics and language, a stone and a ghost, motors and information theory, the manual and the digital, sound and meaning, bridge and hyphen, energy and information, flesh and word, the real and the virtual, forces and codes, solids and geometry, objective and subjective, war and religion, a book and a story, or sound and music (italics mine).
The question I have is, “Are we prepared to take that most difficult step where we make the transition between visionaries and pragmatists?” 🐚
Do We Have The Will To Marshal Technology Into Serving Humanity?
Are we merely spectators by the side of the stage of life? Will we content ourselves with watching passersby in the hubbub of life? Are we, indeed, lending credence to the observation of Alan Perlis when he had wondered aloud the following thought?
Is it possible that software is not like anything else, that it is meant to be discarded: that the whole point is to see it as a soap bubble?
Or can we rise up to the occasion as our present times warrant? And the question I have here is simply this, “Is there truly something deeper going on that’s eluding us at the moment?” 🌱
There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
~ Buffalo Springfield (Lyrics from For What It’s Worth)
Neither do we want to be in the predicament that Buffalo Springfield was describing above nor do we wish to contemplate the uncomfortably 🌋 numb situation—yes, that was not 🐌 a typo you all, though I do proffer profuse apologies to fellow Pink Floyd fans—and be compelled to echo these hauntingly angst-ridden refrains, saying with perhaps a primal scream how 😱
I’ve got amazing powers of observation
And that is how I know 🔮
I’ve got a strong urge to fly
But I’ve got nowhere to fly to 🐥
~ Pink Floyd (Lyrics from Nobody Home)
Maybe it’s my seeking solace in the unifying comfort of Nature that leads me to express my wish that I’d rather walk away from the situation painted in the starkly visceral lyrics above and instead contemplate a halcyon future such as the one that the music group Hootie & The Blowfish was getting at in a song when they had enthused how 🌊
With a little love, and some tenderness
We’ll walk upon the water
We’ll rise above this mess
With a little peace, and some harmony
We’ll take the world together
We’ll take ’em by the hand 💖
~ Hootie & The Blowfish (Lyrics from Hold My Hand)
Can Creative Aspects Of Technology Development Restore Our Humanity?
Are we being inexorable sucked into the insatiable vortex of technology? Will we be mercilessly swallowed whole and chewed by its automaton maw? Is the relentless march of technology inherently dehumanizing? Or is there a point of return? In fact, on a far more positive note, hope springing eternal in the human breast—all the while reminding you of my own decidedly non-Panglossian-realist credentials as well—my mind turns to ponder whether the creative aspects of technology development restore our humanity to us?
So the question I have is, “Will the creative aspects of technology development restore our very humanity to us so we can stave off a future where even conceiving its once-dehumanizing aspects would be an alien thought?” 🌿
In the bold and intriguing words of Plato and the Nerd
… that technology development is a fundamentally creative human activity driven by culture and aesthetics and built on models that are human fabrications much more than discovered natural laws. Only the difficulty of making this case makes writing this book difficult (italics mine).
Can we reinvigorate our humanism to the point where we trust our powers of creativity to feel emboldened enough to resonate with the vision that Richard Feynman—one of my heroes in science by the way—had in mind when he had remarked, “Don’t look up the answer; just figure it out. After all, it’s only nature; she can’t beat you. If you think hard enough, you’ll figure it out“, as quoted in The Quotable Feynman (Princeton University Press)?
Can We Predict Where The Primrose Path Will Lead Us?
Where does the primrose path lead us? Is it a walk in the orchard? Does the path beckon the caller to a rosier, greener pasture? Or are we looking at a frosty future, such as the mirthless one symbolized by the snow-capped mountains over yonder in the pic above? As we peer into that phantasmagoric pic, might we wonder along with Anais Nin whether
I am like the crystal in which people find their mystic unity. Because of my obsession with essentials, my disregard of details, trivialities, interferences, contingencies, appearances, façades, disguises, gazing into me is like crystal-gazing. They see their fate, their potential self, secrets, their secret self.~ Diary 2, pg. 109 Anais Nin. The Quotable Anais Nin: 365 Quotations with Citations (Sky Blue Press)
I’m someone who aligns himself with the Bayesian perspective, having increasingly gravitated toward, and in fact wholly embraced, the Bayesian way of looking at thing ever since discovering its virtues a few years ago from the highly readable, entertaining, and high-octane book prosaically entitled Probability Theory: The Logic of Science (Cambridge University Press) by E. T. Jaynes 🌍 As such, I found myself especially resonating with the following passage in Plato and the Nerd
Laplace distinctly adopted a subjective approach that Popper deems unacceptable, but this is actually a consistent position for Laplace to take. After all, Laplace believed in a deterministic world governed by deterministic models and predictable by his demon. In such a world, repeated experiments are pointless. But Laplace recognized that we don’t know the initial conditions for the experiments exactly. We are uncertain about those conditions, and his probabilities model exactly that uncertainty, not some intrinsic chance in the world, where God plays dice (italics mine).
And the question I have here is, “Can we say with confidence that we know where the primrose path will lead us?” 🌾
I kept thinking to myself—on my first reading of the book so far, anyway—”What is there to not like about Plato and the Nerd?” So if you enjoy surfing—and diving deep—into the ocean of ideas that are at once profound and pragmatic, at times Platonic, and occasionally phlegmatic, then you simply can’t go wrong with this book 🏄
I love this rarest-of-rare books 💕 Don’t you miss it. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Edward having the guts to take on such an ambitious goal—taking on a deep exploration, in a comprehensive and engaging style, of some of the deepest, most crucial, undeniably vital, and burning technological-societal issues that our world faces—and then pulling it off as successfully as he has 🏆
I simply don’t have the wherewithal to convey the gravitas of Plato and the Nerd; for that, you’ll need to head over to your nearest bricks-and-mortar bookstore—in fact, I strongly encourage you to patronize and support the vestige of the remaining bricks-and-mortar bookstores lest they, too, get overrun by the juggernaut of online bookstores and thereby go the way of the dodo. Grab a copy of the book and find everything out for your own self; you won’t regret it 💁
Anything profounder than what you’ll find in the pages of Plato and the Nerd could only transcend into the realm of the spiritual 💭 💨 💭 💨 💭
I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood
I can write it on the door – I can put it on the floor
I can do anything that you want me for
If you want me to
I can do it right – I can do it wrong
‘Cause a matter of fact it’ll turn out to be strong
If you want me to
~ Robert Plant (Lyrics from In The Mood)
Far be it from me to nominate a book for The Pulitzer Prize—for starters, I’m not exactly qualified to do so, hard-core software practitioner that I am—but if I could nominate just one book… Just floating an idea, just floatin’ 🎈
Aha, so in the pic above, we find my copy of The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us (The MIT Press) by Noson S. Yanofsky—bedecked in an ebony dust jacket that’s rather lovely and all the fashion—basking in sunshine outside the Gates Dell Complex (GDC) on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin 🎓 The GDC, of course, is home to the computer science department. As to what my copy of The Outer Limits of Reason is doing outside GDC is a longish story that would lead us far afield from our essay. Hmm… Maybe not that much. Okay, look for when that all resurfaces in a future essay right here on this blog 🎃
Wait a second, as for the pic below, what in the world is it doing here? Hmm… Possibly a dangling pointer from the draft of the previous essay on the Deep Learning area in Artificial Intelligence. Zombie processes notwithstanding—I don’t about you, but I sure don’t fancy ghosts and ghouls—so help me here, won’t you? 👻
Connoisseur, n. A specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else 🎓
~ Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary)
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
Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies. It is its function to harmonise, refashion, and justify divergent intuitions as to the nature of things. It has to insist on the scrutiny of the ultimate ideas, and on the retention of the whole of the evidence in shaping our cosmological scheme. Its business is to render explicit, and—so far as may be—efficient, a process which otherwise is unconsciously performed without rational tests 🔭
~ Alfred North Whitehead (English mathematician and philosopher)
An Invitation 📣
In the end, I invite your comments, assuming you’re still awake at this point 💤 Having now read my take on Plato and the Nerd
- Do you find that your experience of reading it was different in some ways? 🐢
- Did I perhaps not cover some qualities of the book, and which are precisely the ones that you actually found the most helpful to your enjoyment? 🌎
- Did I just plain miss chatting about your fondest aspects of the book? 🚛
To the extent that I succeeded in getting across to you the gravitas of Plato and the Nerd—as well as the sheer fun that it’s a harbinger of—I will have accomplished an important goal of this essay to that extent. Regardless, I sure had a lot of fun writing it!
Till we meet next time, you have a wonderful week 🏂
An End Or A Beginning?
Lest any of you Programming Digressions readers thought that this essay was the end, please hold on to this thought: This is only the beginning. So everyone let’s line up now—on the 30-yard line on the American football gridiron—for the first down 🏈 And speaking of endings and beginnings, I harken back to what we read earlier on, in this very essay, by way of the profound observation that
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.~ Sir Winston Churchill (“The End of the Beginning” in Winston Churchill War Speeches Collection Book 3)
So do please take a little time to allow the observation above to sink in 🐳
And what I meant by the admittedly enigmatic thought above—that “This is only the beginning“—is simply this: Stay tuned for a second installment of this essay on Plato and the Nerd. You got it, a second, follow up essay 🍒 Though doing such a thing might strike some as gratuitous at first blush, since 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 a single book—let me assure you that my decision to devote two full essays to Plato and the Nerd (this one and an upcoming essay) is fully meditated.
On The Horizon Of Programming Digressions
Outlandish though it might first appears—you’re thinking, “Akram, what in the world are you going to have to write about yet another essay on Plato and the Nerd?—allow me to comfort you in the thought that I’m confident you won’t be disappointed👌 Can we settle on that for now? 🐣
As a matter of fact, I already have way too many ideas percolating in my head for that very essay, some of which I’ve actually managed to scribble down 🎳 And no, it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the fine game of bowling, though methinks we were chatting about the American football gridiron metaphor (the 30-yard line and a new set of downs) just a short while ago 🏉 Oops, not rugby—that would be too brutal to even mention here—I meant the gentlemanly, good old full-contact sport that is American football, yay 🏈
To all that I’ll simply add that Plato and the Nerd touches upon a ton of fundamental themes which have resonated with your blogger over the years; just tons and tons. Ah, I can smell the roses 🌹 So you all, I invite you to stay tuned for a future essay in which we’ll explore a bunch of the themes that have been beautifully tackled in Plato and the Nerd, all in the context of how those themes connect, in turn, with yet another set of themes that you’re probably quite familiar with already. Methinks that you, too, will find that future digression intriguing 🌿
Meanwhile, I wish to share some words wherein I find delicious inspiration 🍩
Good mathematicians see analogies between theorems or theories, but the very best ones see analogies between analogies (italics mine)
~ Stefan Banach (Polish mathematician), as recounted by his friend Stanislaw Ulam, in turn quoted by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander in their fantastic book entitled Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (Basic Books)
Hmm… Mention of Douglas Hofstadter reminds me—and more details in an essay elsewhere—that someone here did win The Pulitzer Prize, and very justifiably of course (for their monumentally important book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books) while someone hasn’t yet won that Prize… Just floating an idea, just floatin’ 🎈
That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
~ E.M. Forster (Howards End)
Fellow intrepid explorers, while I sense your understandable suspense—doing my best here to both empathize and sympathize, though not necessarily in that order—please know that your blogger isn’t entirely stone-hearted either ❤ Come on, you all. As a matter of fact, even the merge suggestion such as that would leave me broken-hearted. Ouch, that would hurt 💔
And so it is that I hasten to give you a clue here which harbors telltale signs plus a foretaste of things to come in a future essay: This Epilogue itself finds itself sandwiched between two pics that will be reappearing in the second installment of this essay on Plato and the Nerd. Enough said. Now you all stay tuned 📺
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 Knopfler’s voice without actually listening to it 🎧 Likewise, you simply won’t be able to comprehend the splendor of the tone of Plato and the Nerd without actually reading it 📖
This essay could merely have painted my impressions of reading Plato and the Nerd. And impressions are just that: impressions 👣
Helpful as I hope that all was, you stand to benefit from hearing it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. 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 and find out for yourself. Much as I love the community of readers here at Programming Digression, I sure ain’t giving up my copy of Plato and the Nerd 😉
It’s time to come away, my Darling Pretty
It’s time to come away on the changing tide
Time to come away, Darling Pretty
And I need you darling by my side 🌻
Cast away the chains, Darling Pretty
Cast away the chains away behind
Take away my pain, my Darling Pretty
And the chains that once were yours and mine 🐉
There will come a day, Darling Pretty
There will come a day when hearts can fly
Love will find a way, my Darling Pretty
Find a heaven for you and I
Love will find a way, my Darling Pretty
Find a heaven for you and I 🌈
~ Mark Knopfler (Lyrics from Darling Pretty)