Monday, September 13, 2010

Infinite Choices

Leonardo da Vinci is still a household name even though he died in 1519. Why does he remain such a part of the human conversation so long after his death when countless others of the time who were considered brilliant have faded into obscurity?

In my opinion, it was his diversity of thought and talents as well as his logical view of the world that still hold our attention. A man who's art still mesmerizes, who's inventions still captivate and who's scribblings are sought after and coveted.

Before I go any further, if its not obvious already, I'm a huge fan of Leonardo and have been for more than two decades. He, like all of us, must have had his foibles and faults, but those I will not research or investigate nor spend any time on. I choose instead to focus on what all the existing evidence makes clear...Leonardo was a talent, a genius, beyond the scope of most people who have walked this planet.

What first attracted me to da Vinci, strangely enough, wasn't the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper, but the Vitruvian Man. This was not an artistic work commissioned by a scientist or a purely scientific diagram drawn for reference. I realised that I was looking at into a mind, a magnificently beautiful mind, that was both artist and scientist, teacher and student, observer and observed. That is one of those points in life where there is a definite ricochet; a diversion from the path I was on, a diversion that has led me through many an interesting turn.

Too often, I think, we are labeled by what we do for a living, placed neatly on that shelf so that people can more easily discern our use or lack thereof and file us accordingly. I am an artist, not a very good one, but an artist just the same. I am also a musician, a writer, a philosopher, a grandpa, a husband, a very poor chess player and an even worse gardener. None of those things do I do for a living, none would support me, I fear, if I chose one for a career. No, this closet poet makes a living in IT, software development and system building. I'm good at it, I love it, but it doesn't define me.

In this life, in this world of infinite choices, it is important to remember that we don't have to choose only one thing to be interested in, one thing to be good at, ignoring everything else. It is entirely possible for a quantum physicist to write poetry or do chainsaw art on the weekend.

I think it important that we remember we live in a world with infinite choices. We can place our attention where we will and learn anything we have the desire to pursue.

Friday, May 28, 2010

In the eye of the Beholder

When you look at a painting, what do you see? The image? The colors? The texture...a mixture of all of these things? Has a work of art ever moved you to tears, rendered you speechless or made you angry? Most of us would answer in the affirmative to this question, but it is the rare viewer indeed that thinks not of the finished work, but of the journey from blank canvas to masterpiece and the brilliant cohesion of idea and application that brought the painting into being.

In the Vermeer painting I've included in this post, one can see the richness of the blue, which at the time, could only have come from a rare and expensive pigment indeed. The amazing realism of the light and figure and their intimate relationship with the surroundings challenges belief. This painting welcomes us in and asks us to feel the reality of it, experience the textures and hear our own feet echo off the solid walls as the air from the just opened window fills our nose. This painting is indeed a masterpiece.

How did this happen...this magnificent expression made from such disparate parts and molded from the rudimentary into the sublime. Thousands of times, the artist touched brush to canvas with just the right amount of pigment combined with just the right pressure and the million subtle gestures at his command to create layer upon layer. How did he see the work in progress and how, then, the finished work. Is even this great painting a compromise with time and the artists own attention span or did Vermeer know without a doubt the moment the last necessary stroke had been performed?

Imagine for just a moment that you had infinite time to create your masterpiece. Imagine that, in your field, be it landscaping or gene mapping, you were given infinite time and resources and told simply to make something you can be proud of? What would you make, design, write, paint, program, engineer or sing?

Do you have your answer? If so, you now know what you should be working on. You may not have infinite resources or time, but most likely you can free up just a little of both and get started! I can't wait to see your masterpiece!

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I've known people who have thrown themselves into a cause with such passion and effort that they quickly became known in the community, made a real difference in that community and accomplished magnificent things, but in my experience, these super-achievers suffer personally and many times professionally before eventually burning out completely.

While intense effort may be needed and useful in certain situations, it may be that a more sustainable approach is infinitely more effective in the long run. That's where the title of this post comes in, "Balance".

Balance is a simple concept but without an exact definition as the definition of balance as it pertains to the human condition is infinitely variable. Now, do I think that being in balance means that one can walk through their day in a euphoric manner accomplishing much and worrying about little? Exactly!

No kidding, that is balance. Anything short of that condition doesn't represent balance. Some of the most influential people I've ever met exude happiness so intensely that everyone in their proximity can feel it. Even when faced with magnificently complicated and difficult problems, these individuals can keep their sense of self, the demeanor that is inherently theirs while finding solutions hidden under the rocks of diversity.

We often work too many hours in a day not seeming to realize that with each hour we work we might just be less productive than the previous and so on until we get to that point of diminishing returns where we would be better off sleeping than working.

While I will champion the need to work massive hours to meet a deadline or complete a crucial project, habitual overwork is neither productive nor is it a desirable trait. The funny thing is, I was a hardcore subscriber to the old view of work harder and you will be rewarded in the long run until I heard a couple of interviews with Jason Fried of 37 Signals fame.

We in the Genre of, "I sit in front of a computer all day" have a disadvantage in that we actually can keep working for hours or even days on end. Unlike one who must actually move around and use muscles during their working hours, we commit few acts of physical activity in the pursuit of our goals. Our minds we enhance with caffeine and sugar to stay sharp long after we should have fallen over. The result is sometimes overwhelmingly good, sometimes not so much, but always less than it could have been.
If you're reading this, thanks. Now go take a walk :)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thought Experiments

Albert Einstein used the term, 'Thought Experiment' to describe what many, if not all, of my former teachers termed daydreaming. I prefer Einstein's description personally as it has a relatively positive tone.

With but a few exceptions I fear, most employers would disagree and rather see an employee hunched over their work, furiously abusing an innocent keyboard than glimpse them reclining and staring into space.

When I did manual labor in the past, I found that I could conduct many thought experiments throughout an average day, not needing my higher brain to lift, carry, pull, drag, cut, chop or mix. As a result of that, I was prolific at writing and a budding artist during that time. While I made a living with my muscles, I produced intellectual material with ease.

A strange thing happened when I ventured into the world of Software Development, a reverseal of the creative vs. the physical as it were, that quite caught me by surprise. While pouring my creative energy into designing and coding software, there was little time or energy left for writing or for art. As a result, the rough draft of a novel has gone unrevised, I have in my possession a half finished painting that will not be finished and I've written less in the past decade than I used to in a month.

Would I change this you ask? Emphatically, NO! Not for a minute, not for a second even have I ever thought, "I wish I was still working in a warehouse or a kitchen."

Rather than go back to manual labor to give my mind more time, I decided to simply set aside time for me. Not necessarily to be creative or do a certain task but just time to be. What happened surprised me. I didn't have any desire to just veg on the couch or play endless hours of video games, hell I didn't even want to watch Lost! No, I began to create fill the time with nothing but thought, ideas streaming in from the ether. To my surprise, many of the ideas and concepts have increased my efficiency at work and made me a better software developer. That, however takes a back seat to what those few minutes a day have done for my personality. It turns out that not every attack must be repelled. Some comments and emails, when ignored, lose their relevance and power. This holds true regardless of how much vitriol is contained therein.

This post and the train of thought that spawned it are, as all thoughts, transient and relevant only in this instant. Stay tuned...things are getting interesting again...