Category Archives: Patternmaking

“Wild Enchantment”

One of my most beloved lines comes from Boris Pasternak’s brilliant novel, Dr. Zhivago which I read nearly 50 years ago. Pasternak describes Lara as seeking “to call each thing by its right name.”

“Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.”

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak 1957

That phrase has been my lighthouse as I have made my path in life. It seems to me it is the essence of poetry, for does not every poet, and both Pasternak and Zhivago were poets, seek to call each thing by its right name. Now that certainly does not necessarily mean a single word or a definition, it must mean much more than that. For a right name could be metaphor, it could be a phrase, it could be a description. Is this not want poetry is all about?

And is this not what science and mathematics are all about as well? For like poetry they require us to learn a new language, to use metaphor and definition. I am not much of a poetry reader. I think it is because it takes effort to read poetry. We cannot just scan it. We have to read it, often aloud. We have to think it and imagine it and wonder it. And this is just what we must do with science and math. We can’t just scan those equations those symbolic presentations. We have to think them, say them, imagine them, and of course wonder them.

So, just as poetry is the language of life so too are the symbolic sentences we see in our science and math books. Like poetry we have to read them slowly, to ingest them, to think about them. We have to analyze them and rewrite them in our own “right names.” And does this not tell us a great deal about the importance of poetry in our schools and in our lives. For it can help us learn to seek right names in our world of science and art, and “to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment.”

Patterns and Printing

It was smaller than I had expected it to be. And it was in two colors which I definitely had not imagined. Encased in its Plexiglas shield, it was still magnificent. I kept staring and staring at this open page of a Gutenberg Bible. This one printed on paper was one of three at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. It was the first time I had ever seen one. Here was the first printed book, the first product of its kind. But try as we can to imagine what Gutenberg had to invent, had to go through. We describe him as creating moveable type, but he had to invent the font, learn to make molds and to find the right alloy to pour into them, then perfect that process for thousands of tiny objects. He took a wine press and converted it to print large pages, get high quality paper, develop a new kind of ink, print page after page hanging them to dry and then turning them over to print the other side, cut them apart and bound them into a great book. What an amazing task that took him nearly five years. He printed over 100 copies about a third on vellum of which 48 remain and of those the Morgan has three.  We glibly today talk about the origin of the printing press as among the greatest inventions, but we do not even try to imagine Gutenberg’s incredible invention and process.

I thought back to one I was more familiar with, for it was not too long ago that our early flat screen TV’s and monitors came out. The standard pixel count was quickly set for both at a 640 pixels per row and 480 rows, under half a million separate picture elements. We had to be tolerant of those early screens with up to five “dead” pixels in them which usually shown black in an otherwise lighted screen. The picture was not nearly of the quality of the Sony Trinitron but the set was a not lighter and thinner. This error level, about 1 per 100,000, was considered very good and non-returnable. We have come a long way in a dozen or so years. Today we are buying retina or 4K or high definition displays with more than 10 times as many pixels in the same screen sizes and no dead pixels in those screen. The screen manufacturers have perfected a remarkable printing process.

It led me to think again about Gutenberg and his Bible. For he must also have faced a similar error rate problem. He must have thrown an incredible number of pages away, burning them to warm his great warehouse where hundreds of pages at a time were hung out to dry. His Bible, nearly 1250 pages long with a little over 70 copies on paper meant he would have printed over 100,000 pages, 50,000 double-sided pages, and with two pages for each sheet, 25,000. He would have run one or more proof sheets for each page to check the type setting and the spelling against a hand written Bible. Then he would ink the type and press the sheets page after page. He began by printing each page twice to add the red rubrics to them, but he later found that doing rubrics by hand was less work.

Each line of type would have about 70 characters in Latin, separated into two columns by 42 lines per page would mean in the order of 3,000 characters per page that would have to be checked and individually changed, by over 1,000 pages, means over 3 million characters (effectively pixels). What error rate would he have tolerated?

All of this thinking and calculation leads me back to patterns and patternmaking. For whether a Gutenberg Bible or a computer screen, the technology of printing enables us to replicate things with amazingly few errors. LCD/LED displays have made portable computers and big screen TV’s cheap, plentiful, and beautiful in an amazingly short time. Gutenberg’s printing press made books cheap, plentiful, and beautiful and the too did this in a surprisingly short time. For in both cases they involve the replication of simple patterns.

Discovery vs. Invention

He repeated it over and over again and each time I cringed. I wanted to shout “No, not pattern recognition, pattern construction.” We were watching the new Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this week’s episode tracing the evolution of life on earth, Tyson kept talking about pattern recognition as the source of human survival and the reason our species flourished. This vision, though certainly broadly held and nearly canonical as a foundation of science, needs to be questioned. To put it succinctly: Are we pattern recognizers or pattern makers? Do we discover or do we invent? Now while this distinction at first glance may seem to be just rhetoric and definition, it has profound and broad consequences. For it is the distinction that has driven the schism between the sciences and the arts.

The sciences think we are discovering the “real” nature of things. These patterns are in nature for us to discover. The arts deal with patterns too, of course, but clearly arts patterns are constructed. We need only think of the patterns in today’s abstract art which artists clearly construct and other than the general “rules” of art these patterns came out of the minds of the artists. As long as one side thinks they are a voyage of discovery and the other side thinks they are in a workshop inventing, how will we ever see unity between them.
In my book Elegantly Simple I argue through a variety of examples, particularly Maxwell’s Equations, that the patterns of science are invented. Two very, very different visions of nature in Newton’s Mechanics and Maxwell’s Electrodynamics coexisted for more than 50 years as true representations of nature. These patterns were as different as we can imagine. The same is true for General Relativity and Quantum Theory. Oh, we can argue that each of these theories covered different aspects of nature, but do we really expect nature to be schizophrenic and work in entirely different ways depending upon what part we are looking at?

I argued that we construct patterns in science, unique patterns for storing and sharing nature’s information, patterns that can be used to predict new information. We invent these patterns, and these patterns enable us to discover new experience. Maxwell’s Equations were such inventions. They not only defined all of the possible shapes of electromagnetic fields, they showed that changing fields would produce electromagnetic waves which acted exactly light visible light. Since this light we see is just a small part of the possible electromagnetic wavelengths, the Equations predicted that there would be other forms of these waves that we do not see. Heinrich Hertz actually discovered non-visible electromagnetic waves some 20 years after Maxwell published his invention. All patterns are inventions, human inventions. They enable us to discover new experience, and thus broaden our view of nature.

So scientists like artists are patternmakers who value creativity and invention. We invent new patterns. We evaluate patterns esthetically. And we test new patterns by their capability to discover new experience.

Pete Seeger

I met Pete Seeger once in my life, a chance meeting, a few seconds. I was sitting in the central lobby of Grand Central Station in New York City late one night.I had been to meeting in the city and was heading back out to stay with family.  It was a desolate space with echoes dancing off the walls. It is even today hard for me to imagine that this usually bustling place could be so empty.

In the distance I saw an old scraggly looking man carrying a battered guitar case plastered with stickers of all kinds. He was just buying a ticket home. At first glance, from a distance, I thought him perhaps homeless carrying that old case held together by stickers. But then I recognized that familiar iconic profile. Generally shy, I rarely approach people directly, but I could not help myself so I got up and walked over to him and mumbled the only words that I thought he might want to hear, “My children love your music.” shook hands and walked away. I don’t remember him saying anything and perhaps he just smile. We went off in different isolated directions to catch our trains.

Other than that most fortunate and for me among the most memorable events of my life, I was connected to Pete through my children who were lucky enough to attend a wonderful summer camp, Killooleet, in Vermont run by Pete’s brother John and his wife Ellie and now by their daughter Kate and her husband Dean. The camp embodied the same community values Pete sang about.

His songs, so simple and so elegant are musical patterns  we share, know, and love for they remind us of a basic tenet of our human community — essential equality. It is a bedrock principle of our educational system, and yet it is so rarely fulfilled. We do not treat our schools equitably, we do not treat our students equitably, and we only pretend to treat our teachers equitably.

Pete Seeger's Grandson's Guitar Case
Pete Seeger’s Grandson’s Guitar Case

But today, I choose not to focus on these social injustices that Pete so eloquently spoke and sang  about, but rather speak to the injustice of requiring all of our learners to achieve high levels of the same “basic” skills.  We have made the printed word and the textbook math problem, literacy and computation, the tickets to educational success for every child. We have forgotten the arts, left out creativity, and rarely given our children the chance to practice the skills they may care about. So as I remember Pete, I picture that battered, papered old guitar case, and I wonder how we can enable every one of our children to enjoy a just education that gives them such a container of their own.

A Poem

Robert Frost defined a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion.”

 I love this definition. My friend Larry Weinstein mentioned it in passing at lunch the other day. It describes so wonderfully why we construct unique patterns. 

The rhyme and/or rhythm in a poem helps us to remember it. It provides us with a unique, a special pattern that we associate with the poem,  and it enables us to more easily and quickly remember the next words or phrases. This is what I mean by uniqueness. Of all the possible words or sequences we could have used to describe something, the poet has chosen one or at most a very small collection of patterns overlaid on each other to grab us, hold us, and constantly remind us of his story.

For some this may be a visualization, for others a wonderful rhythm, and for still others an association, or perhaps all of those. Mending Wall has that uniqueness to me. It begins with:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

And ends with:

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

It tells the story of two neighboring farmers doing their spring chore, the story of two very different people with outlooks on life we recognize, we already know their pattern. One questions, the other does not. This poem is beautiful to us. It captivates us. It tells a story that could be told in so many different ways, but it is a collection of patterns, laid one on another, special patterns of rhythm and sound,of image and action, of phrase and structure that makes this story simply one of a kind. It is like the wall, with stone carefully balanced on stone, each chosen to fit its place like this collection of words and patterns and like the unique patterns we build and use everyday.

The Simplest Patterns

Steve Wozniak is arguably among the greatest, if not the premier inventor of the second half of the 20th century. His vision of invention helps us to understand patternmaking and unique artifacts.

I found Woz’s talk fascinating. Treated as a rock star by an overflow crowd at Boston’s venerable Symphony Hall, Steve did not disappoint his audience. With history, jokes, personal anecdotes, and wonderful stories he held me and I think most of the crowd spellbound. I was most fascinated by what drove his invention.

He told us that since he was a young boy he loved mechanical things and in particular electrical circuits. And from the time he was in 6th grade he played with electronics becoming a ham radio operator at age 10. He loved to see if he could build devices with fewer and cheaper parts. With the arrival of cheap integrated circuit chips, Steve switched from the analog to the digital world. He sought to build or to rebuild circuits using fewer and less expensive chips.

This passion for simplicity and elegance made his great invention the Apple II computer an icon and the archetype for personal computers to this day. Woz talked of making chips do multiple things so that he could use fewer of them. He spoke with great pride about replacing a circuit board with 100 component with one. He loved the creative contest to see if he could make things with fewer chips than anyone else.

His passion is our human passion. For chips are fundamentally patterns, patterns etched in silicon. We want to make patterns that perform a task with as few “chips” or patterns as possible. We want to use our patterns for multiple purposes so that we don’t have to replicate them. For Woz simplicity was not only compactness, it was cheaper. Patterns are always expensive for our brains, we not only have to construct them we have to fill them and share them. If they are too complicated, if they are too hard to use, if they are too hard to remember or to share, to store or retrieve experience, then they literally cost us too much.

We are all driven as Woz was to build our artifacts to be the simplest and thus the most elegant patterns that will work to hold a portion of our experience. His genius that brought us the Apple II is our genius as we construct artifacts everyday when we cannot rest until we have made those patterns as simple and thus as elegant as possible.