Thursday, August 30, 2007

From harmony to harmony

George Friederick Handel's An Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
is a true feast of mind & senses for disciples of Pythagoras, old and new. The text was written by poet laureate John Dryden, and is replete with Pythagorean themes, such as one finds throughout the works of the English Rosicrucian Dr. Fludd. Consider, for instance, the majestic Chorus:

From harmony, from heav'nly harmony,
This universal frame began,
From harmony to harmony,
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man

and compare it with the figure at page 47 of Robert Fludd
by Joselin Godwin. You will not fail to notice the close kinship between them.

It is so easy to lose oneself in the sublime and solemn gait of Handel's music and forget the equally wonderful rhymes of Dryden. Yet, for the full degustation of this rare pearl it is imperative to read carefully the libretto, and listen once more to the tunes.

We are, my fellow lovers of unbridled knowledge, los arduous alumnos de Pitágoras, as the great Argentinian bard knew so well (see La Noche Ciclica). Let us therefore pay homage to our Master and to the Celestial Muse Saint Cecilia, by listening reverently & gratefully to this heavenly music.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Four Arts: Polymaths in Imperial China

The Four Arts ( 四藝 in pinyin si yi), or Music-Board Game-Calligraphy-Painting ( 琴棋書畫 qin qi shu hua ), were the traditional four skills that the well-rounded chinese scholar and gentleman was supposed to master, since at least the Tang dynasty (618 CE-907 CE).

The idea of packaging these four traditional Chinese arts together was first mentioned in the writings of Zhāng Yànyuǎn, a polymath who was at once an art historian, a painter, and a calligrapher.

The qi in qin qi shu hua is actually the game of wei qi, or GO. Everyone who has played GO a few times will immediately know why it was made one of the Four Arts: it is a great tool to develop strategy skills (I shall return in another posting to the intriguing connections between GO and Chinese politico-military strategies).

The first time I heard of the Four Arts I was a bit disappointed, as martial arts were not in the list, at least as far as physical training goes. I make no claims to be anything more than an amateurish sinologist, but I will venture an interpretation for this omission. Martial Arts, or wushu,were practised as a way of living only by members of the lower classes, hoping through their prowess and acquired martial skills to make a name for themselves, and ultimately gain a position in the army or as private guards. It is perhaps this association that made wushu unfit for the gentleman's official repertoire. Nevertheless, it is well documented that some noblemen and scholars did get martial art training, as witnessed by the fact that, as late as the nineteen century, kung fu stars such as taijiquan Master Yang Luchan were making a very good living training high-level officers at the imperial court.

I do not know how much of this noble ideal has survived in modern China. I am afraid very little, especially after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. It is nonetheless a testament to the greatness of chinese civilization, and a great example for all candidate renaissance men and women, that such well-balanced polymathy was for so long at the very peak of their educational system.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The double vocation of Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is universally known as one of the greatest specialists in comparative religion of the twentieth century. Less known is the fact that he wrote many novels and short tales throughout his fairly long and quite eventful life.

Over the years I have read three of his literary works in translation: Şarpele (The serpent), Nuntă în cer (Wedding in Heaven), and, more recently, Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr. Honigberger. The english version is available in the booklet Two Strange Tales).

The last one seems to me the least worthy of them, but it is still a valuable quarry of information for everyone curious enough about the practical knowledge of Yoga gathered by Eliade during his early stay in the Himalayas.
From time to time, I entertain the slightly reckless idea of learning Romanian, to read his works (but also the poetry of Mikhai Eminescu and Tudor Arghezi) in the original tongue.
-After all-, whispers a malin génie inside of my head:-you know well that he studied italian to taste the explosive prose of Papini, so why can't you do the same with his books?- Thus far the little devil has not prevailed....

A few weeks ago, while I was scouring my favorite library, yet another novel of Eliade cropped up on the shelves after mysteriously disappearing for a good year, the English translation of Noaptea de Sânziene (The Forbidden Forest), published by Chicago University Press (Eliade helped create the world-famous Chicago School of Comparative Religions). I definitely plan to read it, as The Forbidden Forest was, in the great romanian's eyes, his Opus Majus, and also because its main theme is the escape from time and history (thus, good raw material for my work-in-progress on Time). In the meantime, I have skimmed through the preface written by the author, and here is what I found: it looks and feels like a confession of sorts. Mircea Eliade tells us how two souls have inhabited him since his childhood, a solar one, that prompted him to become a rigorous and encyclopedic scholar, and a lunar soul, that from time to time erupts like a volcano and forces him to abandon all his projects to write stories.

It is, with his vast production, a bit like the chicken and the egg: his scholarship provided a wealth of data and cues for his literary production, but, equally true, his systematic interest for myths was driven and nourished by the recurrent forays in the magic world of story-telling. Indeed, in the preface Eliade avows that some themes of The Forbidden Forest emerged to his lucid conscience only several years after the book was completed.

I find all of the above fascinating and oddly familiar: Eliade was unquestionably a prototypical polymath. Something in him violently rejected, even against his conscious will and well concocted plans, any form of compartmentalization of learning. There is, deep down in every polymath, a voraciously curious infant, that knows no boundaries.

A word of advice: let him play, from time to time....

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Imminent Rise of the Metaprogrammer

Caveat Lector: I shall indulge here in that most futile of all exercises, predicting the future. Allow me to put on the cloak of Merlin (not to mention his infamous pointed hat), look at the crystal ball, and solemnly proclaim, announce and declare
The Imminent Rise of the Metaprogrammer.

You have guessed right: a metaprogrammer is someone who develops metaprogramming code (metacode), i.e. code that creates and/or modifies programs (included, perhaps, itself).

Metaprogramming is by no means a new game: folks in functional programming (remember LISP?) have been writing metacode for many years. However, it is only quite recently that metaprogramming paradigms have percolated down to the world of mainstream programming (I am not counting in compilers, debuggers, etc.). Languages such as Python and Ruby, and to a lesser extent the new Java with annotations, have built-in metaprogramming capabilities.

Now, what kind of metacode can one write? The possibilities are, of course, endless. Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, we can classify metaprograms into two main categories, static and dynamic (for reference, check this synthetic presentation by Aussman and Kessler), somewhat mirroring the distinction compile time versus run-time: in the static category a metaprogram creates, edits. inspects some code, whereas in the dynamic model the same happens while the underlying program runs.

Rails is a successful example of static metaprogramming: it generates a template web project out of thin air (incidentally, I note in passing that there is a Java version of Rails, known as Grails. I shall talk on my experience with Grails in a future posting). There is no question in my mind that static metaprogramming will make further strides in the very near future.

However, my interest and hopes lean more toward the second category. I dream of a new generation of enterprise programs that modify themselves at run-time, to accommodate the ever-changing, often erratic business needs. Those programs will use both pillars of reflection, introspection, to see themselves, and introcession, to adapt and evolve.

In spite of the promises, and the fact that languages like Ruby amply provide the plumbing for sophisticated dynamic metaprogramming, so far (at least to my knowledge) we have only whetted our toes.

So, what do we need to get there? My gut feeling is that, aside the obvious step of educating mainstream programmers to the benefits (and potential marvels) of metaprogramming, two more things are necessary:
  • a single rock-solid example of applied dynamic metaprogramming

  • tools and environments to ease the work of prospective metaprogrammers

Some brave visionary soul must rise up to the challenge: any paladin out there to pick up the glove?

PS Conjecture: the two bullets above will pop up together in a single breath-taking sweep

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The great mantra of Guy Kawasaki

The great mantra of Guy Kawasaki is: Make Mantra. Last year, after creating my own start-up company, I began reading haphazardly and voraciously about entrepreneurship, till I found Guy' s remarkable little book: The Art of the Start. There are plenty of goodies therein, but to me the most sublime is the foregoing mantra. Why? Well, quite simply, because it is true.

Mantras are, literally, tools for the mind (from the sanskrit roots man-mind, and tra-tool), words, syllables, incantations, short sentences, that bring the mind to focus. Mantras are, chief and foremost, words of power, that should be repeated frequently, either loudly or silently. As words of power, they capture the soul of a thing.

When you start something new, always ask yourself (and be honest): does it have a mantra? If yes, you are half-way through: the mantra will gently lead you. If not, stop: there is no soul there yet.

I shall conclude this posting with my own all-purpose, ultra-powerful mantra:

-Find The Mantra First-

PS After reading the -Make mantra- lines, I have decided to temporarily freeze my company and forget about grants, angels, contracts, etc. Instead, I have bought a comfortable cushion, sat still in mokuso, and meditated to find the missing mantra. I think it has been a wise decision: stay tuned, world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Nayra qhipa: a walk through time facing backwards?

I have started writing a book on Time (in the same spirit of these ramblings), so I am collecting a conspicuous bulk of material on the old god Chronos, from every imaginable quarter: phenomenology, physics, high-brow literature, pulp fiction, anthropology and comparative linguistics.

In a recent surf I have stumbled upon this article, by Núñez and Sweetser: it describes the way in which the Aymaras denote past and future. As it turns out, the term for past is nayra – which means “eye,” “front” or “sight”. They use qhipa – meaning “back” or “behind” – to denote the future.

I find all this fascinating: after the initial shock, it makes perfectly good sense: futurum semper incertum, or, in the immortal dictum of Yoda on Dagobah -Impossible to predict, the future is-.
We see the past (to some extent), but the future is out of sight (except for our boring, restless imagination, and our arrogant reason).

What is even more intriguing is the following thought that dawned upon me a bit afterwards: perhaps Aymaras walk through time facing backwards.

In other words, suppose your attention faces only the past, and you reject all attempts to anticipate the future. Then, you are walking through time a' rebours, a bit like squids.
And why not? What is the point of facing the future if it is totally invisible?

Somewhere, as if by magic, I hear a tune singing the enchanting words:

-Que Sera, Sera,Whatever will be, will be. The future's not ours, to see. Que Sera, Sera-

Sunday, August 5, 2007

From Dantes to Monte Cristo

I have just watched The Count of Monte Cristo(2002) on DVD. I shall not comment on the movie itself. Instead, I am going to spend a word or two on what seems to me the magic core of the novel (and subsequent movies), namely the transformation of Edmond Dantes, an illiterate sailor, into the well-read, articulate, cosmopolitan and mysterious Count of Montecristo.

After being thrown in the hideous jail at the Château d'If and believed dead by his beloved Mercedes, Edmond experiences its descensus ad inferos. At the bottom of despair, he has unwittingly completed the first step of the alchemical work, the nigredo.

He is now ready for the Guru, the legendary Abbé Faria, who trains him in all sort of lores (languages, math, history, swordsmanship ...). Edmond becomes an outstanding polymath. Faria's unlimited wealth will complete the metamorphosis, allowing him the leisure of living fully his new personality, the Comte de Montecristo.

Shape Shifting is a common topos in fairy tales and myths, and it has received a lot of attention. But, what about the more modest goal of Personality Shifting? Children practice this noble art every day, and so do adults, when they dream. A good polymath could perhaps emulate Dantes and exert oneself in exploring alternate roles: a good way to add back spice to life.

I have got to hurry now, and order without delay the full unabridged french version (1256 pages) of the Comte de Monte Cristo: Dumas rules!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

On polymaths

The Dictionary states:

a person of great learning in several fields of study; polyhistor.
[Origin: 1615–25; is a polymath?

My take is that we are all born budding polymaths. Children learn every day, passionately, relentlessly, whatever comes their way. Then, the curve slows down... Yes, we still learn new stuff from time to time, but the candle flickers, till it dies.

But not for all: a few retain child's eyes, heart and mind all their life. They simply refuse to stop.
To them, the world is what it should always be: a vast, multifarious, undending feast of knowledge.