0. Intro ☕
The conversations we have with others end up becoming the conversations we have with ourselves.
~ Christopher Germer
What, Exactly, Are We Brewing?
Assuming that you are intrigued by the curious collage in the picture above—notice how the dapper box of tea leaves awaits to be ushered into the bliss of brewing while that towering book next to it boldly proclaims some enigma with a gigantic question mark—the first thing we want to do is situate ourselves regarding what this essay is not about.
So, paradoxically enough, we won’t delve into the fine art of brewing those alluring tea leaves this time around (that task will await another morning, for example when, heaven forbid, we run out of our trusty Folgers Choice coffee crystals.) Nor will we delve into the guts of that question mark-bearing book (that will await another leisurely evening when you and I are ready to sit down to a fireside chat.)
Here’s What We Will Brew
And with that, it’s only fair that you and I hasten to learn what this essay is about: This time around, we embark on a slightly—okay, more than slightly—discursive exploration of how you can supercharge your very own brew of ideas.
Yeah, anytime you see a picture of either (1) that dapper box of tea leaves, or (2) the upright, question mark-bearing book, you can take that as a memory jog that we’re in hot pursuit of brewing ideas.
As for the quote atop this Intro—”The conversations we have with others end up becoming the conversations we have with ourselves”—I invite you to stay tuned for more on the vital role which conversations can play in helping you brew your very own stew ideas.
Finally, if you will humor me—sigh, just one more time—try to imagine what kind of story the following sequence of time-lapse snapshots could be telling.
If you’d rather that I don’t leave it your imagination, we have other ways of finding out.
Let’s do exactly that.
1. From Inspiration To Idea 🌟
Inspiration descends only in flashes, to clothe circumstances; it is not stored up in a barrel, like salt herrings, to be doled out.
~ Patrick White
Time-lapse Photography (Take One)
Let’s go from left to right in the time-lapse sequence above to see what’s up:
- Our valiant orange tabby is doing what it does best—being lazy, of course, dreaming away, this time complete with a vacantly indecipherable speech bubble hovering above it—unaware of the brew which awaits its feline senses, its source barely a foot away from its cushy perch.
- And then—so this is the “WHEN SUDDENLY” part—unbeknownst to tabby, a mysterious benefactor lifts the brew box and tucks it away within the circle of his tawny tail. Tabby wakes up, eyes lit up like embers.
- Inspiration descends in a flash—yep, that’s the “ZAP!” there—and it sure looks like tabby’s got his mojo back!
- Here it comes—”POW!”—valiant tabby is wide awake, ready to rock the world.
Whoah. What just happened?
Time-lapse Photography (Take Two)
Let’s slow it down a notch and take in the time-lapse sequence methodically, gleaning the unstated metaphors at play:
- Unbeknownst to onlookers, tabby is actually stewing a brew of deep thoughts in its cranium, percolating away ideas in subliminal fashion. This is the idea-gestation phase.
- We all need a helping hand from time to time, and a benefactor is deliciously welcome.
- Inspiration strikes unbidden. And this is crucial: When inspiration grabs you, grab it right back.
- With your mojo back, it’s time to roll.
If that recap of the time-lapse sequence which had preceded it—with us in hot pursuit of divulging the underlying memes and metaphors—was clear as mud, not to worry. What follows is geared for clarifying exactly that.
Put another way, imagine this as a sequence of snapshots:
- This is your life.
- This is your life on ideas.
- Any questions?
No questions, eh?
2. Rev Up Your Idea Factory 🏭
Computers are useless.They can only give you answers.
~ Pablo Picasso
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
I was on the fence when it came to choosing what to call this section: Will it be “The Idea Factory”—which is the name that won out, narrowly—or “Diversify”?
Here’s the thing. We all need some kind of generative “source” on our side, a source with which to power our generation of ideas; while creativity is not automatically renewable, it does have elements of renewability.
(For the full story, check out the whizzbang Creativity: All Your Questions Answered.)
“Okay, Akram, so how do we get a hold of your fabled idea factory?“, you ask, and not all that demurely either. Why, glad you did. The short answer is: “Diversify.” (Hey, I told you it was going to be a short answer, amirite?)
Okay, okay, relax.
I wouldn’t leave you without a fuller answer, would I?
So yeah, this is what you should know: Pablo Picasso, the famous artist, sure was on to something vital when, ages ago—in Internet time, that is—he presciently and rather wryly remarked that computers are useless because they give only answers. (Yo, Picasso didn’t live to witness the Deep Learning revolution; he might have had a different opinion if he had, and especially if got to see the Deep Fake applied to his beloved world of art. Imagine that. Gulp.)
Anyhow, finding answers to your problems is important, especially when the number 42 (as an answer) will not fit the bill—which is, like, pretty much all the time—because, as aptly noted in a footnote in Professor Edward Lee’s sumptuously idea-rich book from The MIT Press entitled Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology
Among computer scientists, the number 42 is popular to use in examples because of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a 1978 BBC radio comedy series that later became a “trilogy” of five books. In that story, a special computer called Deep Thought is built to answer the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” The computer takes 7.5 million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. The computer reports that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who programmed it never actually knew what the question was.
It turns out that asking the right kind of questions if even more important—far more important than finding answers.
Enter the idea factory.
Boom! The Idea Factory
And while there’s no postal address for such an institution, it can be found all around you, eventually distributed in ways both corporeal and ethereal. Put another way, and starting with your public library, extending into the digital realm of the Internet, you’ll find resources aplenty with which to set up your very own idea factory—see, my placement of that math book in the cameo pictured above should’ve alerted you to an imminent book announcement.
Hey, so I chose a math book—no questions there, right, as it’s literally entitled The Math Book—merely to illustrate the notion that ideas are waiting for you in the wings, ready to be plucked and put into the service of realizing your dreams. So go hit up a good book or two that resonate with you, aligned with the themes on your mind of late.
Remember, there’s never enough time; there never will be enough time.
Go forth and make time.
Look up the best of the best (books.) Learn from the masters. (That’s what I try to do.)
And please do one thing for me: Diversify.
Read widely, read well outside of your (current) area of specialization. Break down those silos which threaten to isolate us from one another and which would make us the poorer for it; it’s time to revise that mindset by becoming less insular.
Let’s grow some connective tissue. (More on that in a bit.)
And if you must know wherefrom the idea (meme, really) of an idea factory came to lodge itself in the cranium of yours truly—I’m telling you, we’ve got on our hands a genuinely transportable meme—it is from a namesake book I read nearly a couple of decades ago, entitled The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT by Pepper White, who entered MIT in 1981 and received his master’s degree. (He recounts his experience of attending MIT, and let me tell you: The narrative he weaves is unfiltered, raw, and moving. I have vivid memories of the exact time and place when I read it, ages ago, listening at the same time to the Yanni instrumental named To The One Who Knows. So now you really, really know.)
To your list of aids for diversifying, add, for example, listening to soothing—or jazzy, if that be your thing—music, stepping out into the soothing expanse of nature, touching someone’s life in an altogether gentle and uplifting way, etc. Don’t limit yourself.
The limit, really, and if there be one, is your imagination.
Let the world live as one.
3. Chase Ideas With A Net 🐝
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~ T. S. Eliot
Are We In Gotham City?
Is that guy on the hillside—you know the one with a rucksack on his back and brandishing the heft of a humongous net with the might of both hands—about to haplessly net a…. bat?! Gotham City notwithstanding, my spider senses are tingling, compelling me to alert the hapless hunter to the futility of his action.
But I digress.
Speaking of a more relevant (and fruitful) chase, though, have you ever found yourself casting a net of words with which to snare an idea that had popped up in your head, an idea so fleeting that is was ripe for vanishing unless captured in the moment?
But taking a step back, where did the idea come from in the first place? That’s what we’re after. This is heady stuff. Hang tight.
Making Good On A Promise
And before we go there, I need to make good on a promise I had made earlier: In my typical abandon, I had at the outset cited a quote—”The conversations we have with others end up becoming the conversations we have with ourselves”—and rather boldly invited you to stay tuned for the scoop on the vital role that conversations can play in helping you brew ideas, amirite?
Here, then, is the lowdown, by way of a memorable excerpt from Professor Edward Ashford Lee’s fine new book from The MIT Press entitled “The Coevolution: The Entwined Futures of Humans and Machines“:
Some of my best ideas have come to me while speaking. The words that come out of my mouth surprise even me by expressing a new idea. I did not have that idea in my head until I put it into words. The process of synthesizing words from vague ideas stimulates thought and, apparently, creativity. I have always told my students that creative research requires writing, speaking, and collaborating because all three stimulate ideas. The mere act of trying to explain to someone else what you are thinking changes what you are thinking.
Yo, there is, but of course, the flip side: Say you are inspired by something you heard or read—take my word and join or start a book club today—and you find yourself inexorably playing with related words, which, unbidden, start to coalesce into the substrate of new ideas. This is prime territory for examining and exploring ideas, not in isolation, but in tandem, in combination, nay—going one step further—in permutations.
Questions, Deep In Your Eyes
I already see questions swirling deep in your eyes. For example, “How can my lovely new conceptualization have a prayer of a chance to convey to another the meaning it holds (for me, anyway)?”
Lovely. You are brilliant, for one thing, and prescient for another. Here, again, in Professor Lee opining on how
We have a word for words that are especially economical and effective at conveying mental representations. We call these words “poetry.” But even a poem is imperfect. The thoughts it triggers in your mind will not match those in the mind of the poet no matter how poetic the words are. Often, the power of poetry lies in its ambiguity and its ability to adapt to the individual, to trigger powerful and personal emotional thoughts in a human whose cognitive world is very different from that of the poet.
Darn. I wish I could write like that.
Modesty forbids, but hey, in full candor—and this is from personal communication—at times when I have, over the years, shared some of my own drafts of writing with Professor Lee (i.e. drafts which subsequently unfurled into some of the essays you’ve seen posted right here at Programming Digressions), he has on occasion oh-so graciously opined that he wished he could write like that. I blush. He is a true artist, one of the world’s leading educators and researchers in the field of engineering—cyber-physical systems in particular—and a terrific writer on top of all that.
This ethos is about the art of sincere encouragement; at times we find ourselves on the receiving end, and at other times on the giving end. This is also about competition. Most emphatically not about competing with one another—now that would be a futile sort of a zero-sum game for which we have no taste—but all about competing with oneself, to see how far we can inspire one another in the pursuit of excellence.
And that’s what I wished to highlight. Plus, communing with fiercely-independent, like-minded thinkers makes my day every time.
Define Your Terms, If You Must Converse
A conversation, then—with yourself, with another, or with a book—is that fertile soil in which the seeds of the practice of Art are sown. Contrariwise, the act of expression—in your mind-space, in your writing, and in your speech—is the harvesting of the crop that is tilled from the fruits borne by the seeds that were once your own. We gently waft them onto the wings of the harbinger of the wind which has blown.
That is but a glimpse into the commingling of art and expression.
And that, dear reader, is the art of “conversation.”
(That’s where I was coming from in citing the quote that “The conversations we have with others end up becoming the conversations we have with ourselves.”)
Yo, I seldom go this meta—it’s not much fashionable anymore, outside of circles of devotees of meta-circular interpreters, amirite? But since I have, I might as well conclude by offering you one final excerpt from The MIT Press book we heard from above (“The Coevolution“) and in which Professor Lee likens art to (what I will call) “connective tissue” by noting
That your thoughts can never perfectly match those of the author stimulating those thoughts may seem frustrating, but perhaps it explains why we have a concept that we call “art.” Art is fundamentally about better connecting human brains that can never be perfectly connected.
(The phrase “connective tissue”—in the context of organizational topologies—is one that I heard for the first time from another trusted friend. Truth be told, it knocked me out. Flat. A few days ago, I woke up at 2:30 AM, owlishly, and which is when that evocative phrase hit me with the force of a freight train. Splat. Road-kill. This is the sort of thing which happens when you’re hopelessly—and terminally—in love with words, having surrendered yourself to their irresistible allure.)
Hold Your Horses
Look, I’ve already yammered a bit much, so I’m going to leave another planned foray (into language being the one-and-only vehicle for thought.) Bringing in Friedrich Nietzsche’s comments (from his tome entitled The Will to Power) on this very subject—that is, how some thinkers have asserted that thoughts are actually nothing but words and language—might be pushing your powers of patience, amirite?
Hey, have you ever heard me cry Whorf?
So don’t you listen to no siren calls.
4. Tend To The Roots (Of Ideation) ⛏
Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.
~ Stephen Jay Gould (in Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History)
What Do We Have Sprouting Here?
Fair warning: Things are about to get pretty leafy. Metaphors are going to sprout, similes will grow untethered—I know, I know that your cheeks are red like a rose and that I’m not as funny as a monkey—and memes will mill around unannounced. (After all, and taking some poetic license, a windmill will not mill around; at least, those critters are not known to, except, that is, in the lexicon of Don Quixote.)
Simile-shimmy-lee: As cunning as a fox, you bring up the matter of Quaker Oats. (Hmm… Really bad pun. Sorry, Don Quixote.)
Voila! There you have the motivation for tending to the roots. Thank you.
Read on to find why (and how) you can do exactly that.
Idle Hands (And Minds) Are…
You can ideate best by keeping your mind active. Here are some strategies—some call them the (mental) daily dozen—to help you achieve mental agility:
- Solve crosswords
- Build jigsaw puzzles
- Flip through some magazines
- Listen to music
- Tackle a Sudoko puzzler
So that’s not exactly a dozen, amirite? For crying out loud, that’s not even half a dozen. (That’s only a starter list.) So help me fill in the gaps, will you please?
In fact, I have—in invoking the simile that cunning as a fox though I may not be—motivated the admittedly open-ended nature of tending to the roots of ideation: There is no step-by-step recipe that’ll get you brewing ideas.
Yes, we do have them—those step-by-step recipe—rather nicely regimented in other domains. For example, you got programming algorithms, cooking recipes in the culinary arts, directions in navigational systems (a rather fancy reference to Google Maps or its equivalent), etc. But not so when it comes to the realm of brewing ideas.
Plus how about the element of elusiveness? (“Yes, Akram, what about it?”)
I was just getting ready to alert you that, at its elemental core—and you’re likely sensing that we are navigating our way through uncharted waters—a healthy dose of unpredictability permeates the domain of brewing ideas. Think espresso coffee.
Build your very own net of activities with which to snare ideas—I know, I know, this is all easier said than done. But you gotta start somewhere, amirite?
What Did We Net?
Speaking of nets, would you entertain the idea of netting a butterfly with one. Or would you rather build a perch for that magical bird to alight on? You see, you’ve come to a fork in the road, ala Robert Frost: You are facing the choice in regards to tackling the quarry—ideas, of course—by either (1) Snaring your quarry, or (2) Inviting it right in, come-into-my-parlor style.
If you catch the drift, what I’m trying to get at is that if you’re going to wait for a bird to alight magically, you might as well build a perch for it to alight on.
So get off that couch—more on that soon—and get with the program. Experiment (with idea-generation.) It was free the last time I checked. Plus here’s something special I made up just for you. Do try it on for size: A mind in motion can, at times—given the right circumstances—cause quite a commotion.
And be sure to come back and share your very own adventure.
Hey, Did Our Sprouting Experiment Go Haywire?
You see, to tend to the roots, you have to go back to the roots. And don’t you dread the spread of the “Triffids” of Sci Fi lore. (Bro, we already got in the COVID-19 pandemic all that we can handle.)
Speaking of the Triffids—those mobile plants with lethal stingers and carnivorous appetites—a copy of John Wyndham’s Sci Fi tale (Day of the Triffids), which is centered around a freak cosmic event, used to float around in our house back when I was an impressionable lad. You see, my late father, a chemical engineer by profession and an avid Sci Fi fan, occasionally also read material other than by his fav, Isaac Asimov. And that reading fare included Day of the Triffids, which, at one point, paints a somber scene in darkened London where
The gardens of the Parks and Squares were wildernesses creeping out across the bordering streets. Growing things seemed to press out everywhere, rooting in the crevices between the paving stones, springing from cracks in concrete, finding lodgement even in the seats of abandoned cars.
And, of course, over all looms the menace of the rampant triffids, carnivorous plants with an urgent hunger that gives their energy what appears to be a malevolent intelligence.
And while I stand by my invitation that you tend to your roots, I also urge some restraint on your imagination. Of course, if you pay no attention to my advice (regarding restraint) and end up writing another runaway bestseller in the tradition of Day of the Triffids, do be sure to remember me.
I will remember you.
Now For The Fauna
Tend to your flora, too; I’ve heard that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If the concrete vastness of Brooklyn can afford the irrepressible growth of a tree, then so can you—and me—cultivate such growth by tending to the roots of ideation, amirite?
Wait, coming right next up. That is no flora. It’s fauna. And that, too, of the feline kind! (“Felona“?)
5. Stock Up Your Garden (Of Ideas) 🐌
A man will turn over half a library to make one book.
~ Samuel Johnson
A Very Selective Club (To Club With)
I would be lying if I told you that there is a royal road to becoming a master of brewing ideas; there just isn’t.
You have to go after ideas with a club. (Apologies to Jack London for commandeering one of his memorable quotes, especially since he had put it far more felicitously in remarking that “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club“, a quote that I’ve probably managed to club and bludgeon.)
Having finished tending to the roots of our garden—which is what we did a scant section away—we now turn to stocking it up. We want to get to the point where passersby can marvel at our enchanted garden and unabashedly say
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
One more time, if you’re going to wait for a bird to alight magically, you might as well build a perch for it to alight on. And here we enter the territory proper of shoring up our stock of ideas. Start by putting your stock in the part having to do with staving off the specter of the utterance that “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
And here’s we are mindful of how, where angels fear to tread, fools rush in. Fools, though, we are not—we’re good there, right?—we rush in to fill the vacuum. We don’t want to be running dry on ideas. (Imagine that.)
A Subtle Equation
Plus long-time readers know full well that mere cerebral hashing doesn’t cut it around here; physicality is part and parcel of the equation. Speaking of equations—and far be it from me to claim that I’m the man who knew infinity—let’s channel Robert Frost, who, in his breathtaking essay The Figure a Poem Makes, parceled out the equation the best by illumining us that
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.
Get physical. Move around and unpack some book-laden boxes; chances are you’ll get curious and crack open an intriguing book or two. As you’ll witness in the pic above, featuring my feline pal, the idea of unpacking boxes can mean different things to different people (and to different species!)
The Nitty Gritty
Reading books—an activity perfectly complemented by the perusal of magazines and blogs such as Programming Digressions—will put you ahead of the pack in the area of stocking up your very own garden of ideas.
Hit the books. Don’t let any naysayer convince you to sacrifice creativity at the altar of Taylorism—nothing could be more tragic.
So take heart—and paraphrasing from memory the memorable Steve Jobs quote—stay hungry, stay foolish. Search for ideas that move you.
Many, many years ago—casting about for my bearings as to what America might hold for the newly-arrived immigrant—I was moved by the idea (in a TIME magazine article) that in America, what you do is what you are.
And that blew my mind.
Yo, ideas that move you are ideas worth pursuing. Do so unabashedly, never forgetting that
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
~ Shunryu Suzuki (author of the most beloved of American Zen books)
Tellingly, the memorable quote above urges you to approach the enterprise of idea stock-up without preconceptions; it is a misconception that (the best) ideas come to insiders, to those who have been “indoctrinated.” (Quite the contrary.)
So go out, commune with nature. Commune with books, magazines, blogs. You’ll come out stronger.
Don’t Forget To Rest, Too
Remember, too, to rest; (new) ideas need downtime for them to take root, to germinate, and to grow. Three words—with apologies to The Rolling Stones—may just capture this idea succinctly:
Stock it up!
Heh, speaking of downtime and rest, checking my feline pal, valiant hunter that he is—at least he works on keeping that air about him—partaking of well-earned rest, lounging in his perch, tucked away in the background to the facade that is the duo of (1) a fine specimen of framed, cross-stitch wizardry, and (2) a tea leaves-bearing Ahmad Tea box.
What brews ahoy?
6. Get Off That Couch (Or, Turn Off The TV) 📺
I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.
~ Groucho Marx
Do I, Or Don’t I?
I was torn. Do I spill the beans and tell you exactly how I feel about the (anti) role / place that the couch—along with its equally insidious partner the TV—have in my lexicon, making myself unpopular like dickens? Or do I tiptoe around this one, sugar-coating the truth?
Divulging the unvarnished truth—at least as yours truly sees it—is what won out in the end. I stand by what I’ve said in the past: A writer sticks his or her neck out. She is never for sale because, through her writings, a writer sticks her neck out, knowing full well that her neck may well get wrung. But she is brave; she has to be bold.
That, then, is the essential experience and which, put another way, informs you that
The writer’s genetic inheritance and her or his experiences shape the writer into a unique individual, and it is this uniqueness that is the writer’s only stuff for sale.
~ James Gunn
But I digress, though I suspect that the specter of possibly getting drawn and quartered is not all that appealing to you; it sure isn’t to me. But yeah, divulging the unvarnished truth—that getting off the couch is crucial—is what we just finished doing. And here, your faith will see you through.
The Unreasonable Effectiveness Of Leaving That Couch
So why, exactly, is getting off that couch crucial?
Here’s why: As I’ve held forth on this very subject, you and I are not getting very far without enlisting the aid of this critter that goes by a rather cryptic name: working memory.
“Akram, are you going to upset the apple-cart yet again?”
I knew somebody was going to say that!
A Critter We’ve Met In The Past
Look, the deal here—and I urge you again to check the scoop on this working memory critter—is that our minds, awash as they are in the ceaseless abundance of information, need time (and scaffolding) for ideas to take root and germinate. (Otherwise, we get down to a RAM-style operational style, aka modus operandi: Disconnect our access to the deluge of information—yes, that would be the Internet—and we beguilingly blink our eyes in hapless defenselessness. YMMV.)
Let’s say we’re cooking up (aka brewing) an algorithm in our head, adding in the details, bit by bit—or “thimbleful by thimbleful,” as Nicholas Carr memorably puts it in his superb book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Take away this crucial activity of scaffold-creation (tending to ideas by attending to them—really attending to them as if your life depended on it—by making time in the first place for the activity of fitting new ideas into your universe of knowledge), and you basically shoot yourself in the foot.
This Is What You’ll Do
So turn off the Internet for a bit—I know full well just how uncomfortable it feels—and make time for ideas to take root and germinate.
So get off that comfy Posturepedic couch, turn off the TV, and start rolling. (A mind in motion belongs to a person—you, of course!—who is going places. And here I fell a tinge of remorse: I keep adding to your ever-growing list, but that’s what you get for having me as a friend, amirite?)
Imagine buzzing around like a honeybee, sipping drops of nectar from this source and that, from here and from there, practicing the alchemy of turning ideas into the honey of insight and original knowledge. (Never you mind the pollen issues; we’re conveniently sweeping those under the rug, where they’ll stay, snug as a bug.)
Or perhaps imagine being a spark-plug—I know, I know, this is right up there with the equally meta pronouncement that “There is no spoon“—making connections, and possibly even igniting a revolution in the realm of human thought.
The Heart Of The Matter
Remember, though, my (famous) last words, if it came down to that: I truly love you and write to serve you. I write for you just as much as I write for myself. (Shh… I write stuff that I wish people would write; since they don’t—at least not half as often I wish they would—I do.) You have rewarded me by coming back time and time again, sometimes sharing your thoughts via soulful comments, melting my heart in the process.
But get off that couch you must. (Thank you, master Jedi Yoda, for perpetuating your meme of inimitably phrasing things, ritornello-style.)
(Hmm… My feline pal now comes into view—wow, he sure has shiny embers for eyes!—all curled up, and that, too, upside-down fashion, slouching away, couching away. Evidently, he didn’t get the memo.)
7. Look With New Eyes 🔭
The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~ Marcel Proust
Grab That Life-jacket
How can one possibly keep up with the deluge of information swirling around us all, threatening at times to drown us with its power of inundation? We all become speed readers? But that would be to court a fate similar to Woody Allen’s when he wryly observed how
I took a speed-reading course and read “War and Peace” in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
What does one do, then?
Enter the kingdom of ideas, and in particular this one from that realm by one of the world’s most prolific—and beloved—writers, Isaac Asimov, when he shared the following observation, one that I’m allowing to speak for itself:
I am not a speed reader. I am a speed understander.
Loved it! Plus a healthy dollop of creativity is always helpful, because
We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.
~ Albert Einstein
Yes, look with new eyes. Plus if you wish to turn your world upside-down—and turn the world upside-down in the process—keep in mind the principles of creative thinking, with the theme of divide-and-conquer in tow.
A Curious Mix
Caution: We’re about to enter the realm of tangerine trees and marmalade skies…
To use the metaphor of the kaleidoscope, what with all its marvelously-loopy powers of refraction, would be to court digression: Ouch. I bit my lip as I said that. (Oh, the things I do—and don’t do—just for you.)
Explaining Metaphysics to the nation–
I wish he would explain his Explanation
~ Lord Byron (from Don Juan: Dedication)
One more thing. It will be to your advantage to remember that specialization leads to fragmentation. (“Now what does that have to do with look with new eyes?” you inquire, vehemently.) Allow me to explain.
Our best bet when it comes to grappling with the looming crisis of complexity is to specialize. (“Akram, for crying out loud, didn’t you just finish telling us that specialization leads to fragmentation? And now you tell us to, um, specialize!“) Allow me to explain by way of a marvelous passage from The MIT Press book entitled Plato and the Nerd, the one we had encountered earlier on:
The second crisis I see looming is a crisis of complexity. This crisis is not just about increasing numbers of components but rather about the conjoining of engineered systems that have traditionally used different kinds of models to manage their own complexity.
The silos of specialization that are standard in engineering today become an obstacle because the models and paradigms developed in each of these disciplines are incommensurable….
The author, Professor Lee, goes on to add that
…humans don’t typically choose paradigms. Paradigms are assimilated slowly, often subconsciously, or are drummed in by educators who are likely too specialized to know the alternatives. As a consequence, engineers typically build models using the paradigms they know regardless of whether these are the right choices. This may explain why so many projects fail…
And here comes the zinger—Again, from Plato and the Nerd:
Specialization is necessary to enable sophisticated modeling because of our brains’ limitations, but it comes at a cost. Kuhn observes that the “paraphernalia of specialization” (specialized journals, professional societies, technical conferences, academic departments, curricula) acquire a prestige of their own and create an inertia against new paradigms… Thus, specialization creates resistance to change.
Gah! What to do?
Here’s what: In a nutshell, it behooves you—and me—to remain mindful that of the truism (as articulated nicely in Plato and the Nerd) that
Because our brains can only fit so much, specialization leads to fragmentation, where insights in one specialty become inaccessible to the others. It can be quite difficult for scientists and engineers to work across specialties.
Yep, we’re working with an essentially intrinsic human limitation, that of how much we can stash away in the chalkboard of our cranium. (Oh yeah, it’s that working memory critter coming back to bite us again. Ouch.)
But fear not: To be forewarned is to be forearmed, amirite?
This Is Your Moment To Shine
Armed with this knowledge, go forth and create greatness in your field. Don’t get rule-bound. (Hey, algorithms are great, so don’t get me wrong; plus they keep getting more and more intelligent every day.) So take inspiration from what it means when
Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.
~ Claude Debussy
Goodness, what’s up with the scene we now see appearing on the horizon? (Our valiant cat is back. This time, though, he ain’t got no shiny embers for his eyes… For crying out loud, he is surrounded by shiny embers, all aglow in luminous unison.)
Is that you in the picture, Professor McGonagall? (Also, and just checking, in case you had plans of vanishing on the spot. You’re sure not grinning in the pic, so you couldn’t be the Cheshire Cat: either. Elementary, my dear Watson.)
8. Farewell (For Now) 🙋
You can go your own way
Go your own way
~ Fleetwood Mac (lyrics from Go Your Own Way)
Why Should Parting Be Such Sweet Sorrow?
We have now come to the end of the journey. (It could’ve been worse: We could’ve come to the end of our tether.)
I will leave you with but one thought. (“Akram, you sure? You really, really sure?“) Ah, my reputation to digress precedes me, yet again.
Here is that thought: Proceed from first principles in all your endeavors, including the one of brewing ideas. Remember that
It’s natural to explain an idea in terms of what you already have in your head. Concepts are piled on top of each other: This idea is taught in terms of that idea, and that idea is taught in terms of another idea, which comes from counting, which can be so different for different people!
~ Richard Feynman
Now Feynman was one cool—and very smart—cookie.
First Principles (Called That For A Reason)
In the same vein—that of proceeding from first principles in all your endeavors—remember, too, that
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
~ Oscar Wilde
Finally—yo, I’m really sure this time—I would be remiss if I didn’t paraphrase Natalie Goldberg, one of my favorite writers, when she observed that first thoughts have enormous energy, and your job is to harness those first flashes when your mind is on to something. There is, in all of us, this inner censor which squashes those first thoughts: What we end up with is living in the echoes of second and third thoughts, rarefied.
So yeah, ask a more beautiful question.
Diversify and light up your world.
Brew some ideas.