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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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One of the interesting things that happens to me when I attend events like yesterday’s PDX Summit III is that it gets me thinking about things in a new and more connected way. For many who know me this will be perceived to mean that for some indeterminate length of time that I’ll be a bit more random than usual.

To misappropriate the Bard, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are accessible from your contact list.”

This morning I started reading Galileo’s Telescope and it got me thinking in terms of the big data / open source elements brought up at the summit. Before you injure your neck doing that head tilt puzzled look thing that dogs do, let me explain.

I have a great affinity toward data visualization. I could probably press my own olive oil with the stack of books I’ve got on the subject. So when I saw that Galileo had written a text entitled Sidereus Nuncius, my first thought was, “if you took nuncius (message) and pushed it forward into present day English, you’d end up at announce, denounce and enounce. What if you pushed it backward in time? How about sideways toward French? If we visualized this map, what would it look like? How would we navigate it?

I’ve always found it fascinating how speech informs thought. We live in a society where using ‘little words’ is encouraged in an effort to be more inclusive. The problem is that these ‘big words’ aren’t big for the sake of big. They encapsulate entire concepts and histories. We talk about ‘the big picture,’ ‘big data,’ and the like, but in our attempt to make it all accessible all we seem to be doing is creating a meaningless assemblage of words and acronyms, that at the end of the day, have the precision of a ten pound sledgehammer in a omelet shop.

What if instead of constantly, reducing our communication to the green card, red card of sports; we instead could point to the 21st century version of Korzybski’s Structural Differential and literally be on the same page? How would language acquisition be improved for both native and foreign languages, if you could build understanding based on the natural evolution of the language’s concept basis? What would the impact on science be if we could visualize past crossover points between disciplines? How much more readily would students learn the concepts of computer science and engineering if they could put present day abstractions into the context of past constraints rather than simply memorizing a given language, framework or operating system’s implementation?

Yeah, this is one of those posts that has no conclusion. It’s a digital scribble intended to be a jumping off point for future endeavors.

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