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Archive for December, 2017

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. As with his previous biographies, this one is just as well-researched and presented.

Leonardo is one of those one name people. Long before Prince, Madonna or Usher (funny how they’re all designations of some sort) the name da Vinci was attributed to only one individual. All this fuss over a distracted, self willed, person who started far more things than he finished.

Yes, he was a prima donna. Yes, he tended to tinker over a thing far after the commissioner expected it to be complete. Yes, he was distracted by, well, just about anything. But, what a mind.

Best of all, he just didn’t seem to give a damn. About expectations, glory or money. Which is not to say that he didn’t care about comfort. He liked pretty things (and pretty people). But one gets the distinct impression that what he really wanted was to have a patron (patron sounds so much nicer than sugar daddy) who would appreciate the quality and not quantity of his work. He wanted the freedom to explore the universe (such as it was in the late 15th and early 16th century).

He loved pageantry. He loved to learn, to teach and to collaborate. He was a self-promoter who appears to have been not really up to the task.

He was always stretching, always reaching beyond his understanding. He was always reinventing himself.

People would commission him based on his past works. Many times this lead nowhere for them. With da Vinci, they should have been thinking about what he might do rather than what he had done. How poorly would he fare in today’s world where people are hired to essentially give repeat performances. This being especially true in the technology sector. Kind of like wanting to visit an exotic land where you stay at Holiday Inn, eat at McDonalds and everyone speaks English. Or in perhaps more relevant terms, you invest in a startup that’s going to change the world with a guaranteed return and no risk.

Leonardo was the definition of the deep bench. It wasn’t until the end of his life that he found in the king of France a person who got that you don’t “hire” a Leonardo for what he does, but rather for who he is and how he changes those around him. I find it quite disappointing they expectation that people have of being assured an immediate return at a cut rate. This is the measure of mediocrity in both the individual and business worlds. People want to be given a fish and have no patience to learn how to fish themselves. How much better would the world be if we sought out and nurtured those capable of creating a multiplier effect?

He was also very human. He could be unreliable and ill tempered. His relationship with his relatives was the stuff of reality television.

Isaacson does an excellent job of putting meat on the bones of this icon of creativity.

I’ve read quite a few treatments of da Vinci’s life s one is by far the best. So many seem to be intended to ride the tide of get-genius-quick that is so pervasive today. Nothing like everyone being above average. He didn’t become the man come icon overnight. He became who we know over a lifetime, with the attendant work. As Isaacson noted, he is seen as a genius rather than a craftsman because, but certainly not solely, of his habit of not releasing his work until it was perfected. Granted for most people this would be attributed more to OCD than genius (and with good reason).

Isaacson’s narrative style is engaging and I hope that someone takes the time to translate it to a long-form, visual format.

Overall, I came away with the sense that da Vinci was a real person who inhabited a real world. I can’t say I’d’ve liked to have lived there, but it’d’ve been fun to visit.

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I’ve been reading Isaacson’s DaVinci biography (that’s another post) and thinking about metaphors, analogies, teaching and learning.

Teaching is hard. The world is a complex place, so that’s to be expected. Learning is hard, although many people expect it to be easy. I mean, really, like, you can just Google things.

Well, really, not so much.

For me teaching is all about the group and the motivating example. Humans learn best by metaphor, going from the known to the unknown. Kind of like having one foot firmly planted on the lip of the hot tub and testing the temperature with the other. Just jumping in might work. Not something to rely on though. If you give people a framework they can relate to, it affords them a place from which to extend what they know.

On my high school senior physics class final was a problem that began, “A rock explodes into three pieces …”. Really? Why? It’s been a lifetime since that event and yet the premise of the problem still sticks with me. During my undergraduate studies, I had a physics professor whose motivating examples were based on James Bond situations. As contrived as physics problems tend to be in order to tease out a self-contained use of some specialized equation, at least contextualizing thing via James Bond gave them a veneer of reason. Mostly. Sort of.

During my graduate studies, I dropped a class in neural networks because the professor presented the material in such an abstract fashion that I couldn’t anchor it. It wasn’t until I took Andrew Ng’s first Machine Learning class on Coursera (which was one of two first offered) that neural networks actually made sense to me. He presented the material in the context of real-world use cases.

I’m not say that everything can be learned by simply having a good story. If you work with computer software long enough, you’ll have to confront numbers represented in binary, octal or hexadecimal. You’ll just have to memorize the conversions. The same is true for operator precedence.

Let’s look at learning for a minute, lest everyone think that I’ve forgotten it.

In order to learn something, assuming that it’s not rote memorization, you must accept the framework within which it exists. Unless you put can do that, things won’t stick. You will forever be condemned to Google it hell. I can usually tell the people who will have difficulty learning a programming language when they complain that it’s not like the language they’re used to. As I like to say, “you can program C in any language.” Some people never get past that point. And we all suffer because of it.

I’m not limiting this to C-based languages. The interpreted world has more than their fair share of people still programming BASIC in any language. I like to think of them as the Python without classes crowd. I’m not sure where the whole “classes are bad” mentality came from, but it seems to have a strong following.

For a less software example, consider using a word processor. Do you still type two spaces after the period? Unless you’re using a typewriter, all you’re doing is messing up the formatting software (technically hyphenation and justification (H&J) system). Try this experiment. Take a word processing document and look at how it formats the text with both a single and double space. This becomes especially evident when full-justifying paragraphs.

All well and wonderful, but what about the pretzels?

Yeah, about those. I struck me that this whole teaching / learning thing can be likened to making pretzels. You know the big, soft, knotted, salt-covered ones. Consider the dough as the learner, the salt and shape the material to be learned and the kitchen equipment the methodology. The cook is the teacher. If the dough is frozen or dried out, it can’t be shaped. This is a refusal to accept the rules of the material. If the equipment is inadequate or the cook lacks an understanding of how to use it, the results will be inconsistent. Likewise, if the cook doesn’t understand how to handle the dough or when to apply the salt, things will probably not be the best. It is only when all three elements are brought together properly that the expected outcome is achieved consistently.

In the realm of teaching this means that the teacher needs to be able to create a motivating example and framework that works for the learners. This changes over time. Just as the world changes. The teacher should be always looking for signs that a student is frozen and be ready with additional material they may more readily relate to. The most difficult cases are the dried out students. They see no need to learn the new material and are at best taking up air. At worst, they are disruptive. These individuals should be given to understand that their presence is optional and that others should be allowed to learn.

Finally, as a teacher, always, always be looking for what you can learn from the students. The world is bigger than you little pretzel shop.

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