Geppetto Genius

Yesterday I was talking about how great the carvings at the Warther Museum were.  But Warther wasn’t the true subject.  We’re only using him to talk about what it means to be a prodigy.

A prodigy is rare, exceedingly.  Throughout history there have been less than a thousand that we know, and of the roughly 8 billion people of all time, that is a vanishingly small fraction.

Some great prodigies stand out, immediately: Archimedes, Newton, Mozart, Shakespeare, da Vinci.  Others take some digging (Can you find them?) But the fact remains that they exist.

Should an advanced society take the extra effort to find and nurture these rare talents?  We don’t know exactly why they are so special, only that they are.  We can’t even really know where they may appear.  Perhaps there’s a child wandering about in the jungles of Africa even now who could be the next poet of the century.  Why not take the extra effort to find them?  Why not embrace them and exalt them?  Protect them from those ho would divert or exploit them, so that their gifts could benefit all mankind?

Yet, in all modern societies of today, we force everyone to complete ‘school.’  We demand banality and exalt the peer group.  We cut down the star so that the rest of us can look them in the eye.

Who needs prodigies?  We do.  Because we need to look up.

I’m just glad that no one convinced Warther to be ‘normal.’


Genius Geppetto

The story of a lonely toy maker wishing his creation comes to life is heartwarming.  But tucked away in a tiny town here in Ohio lived a woodcarver so good that his creations came to life on their own merit.

You can visit the Warther museum and see for yourself.  A man with a 2nd grade education, a lousy automobile driver, and a deep love of family and children single-handedly set a new world standard for whittling and carving.  Not only did he set that standard, he also left his descendants an eternal asset, a legacy ensuring the modest financial security that only a deep love of family, committment to work, and the attachment of great ideals can bestow.

He refused to part with his artistic carvings.  His whittling he gave away freely.  He was not greedy, only asking to be near those he loved.  And he wasn’t afraid of hard work.  He bought the least desirable property on the street, and through boundless energy and ingenuity transformed it into a beautifully landscaped site, the envy of the entire town.  Yes, his wife helped!

But Warther isn’t the true subject of this article only because of his specific talent.  He’s featured because, through him, we can have a greater understanding of what it means to be a prodigy.

But enough of that for now.  I’ll continue this tomorrow.  In the meantime, check out some carvings!


Ultimate Fighting, Round 1

Imagine entering a huge arena.  A spot of intense light reveals a boxing ring in the distance, spotlights lining the edges of the arena, all seats filled.  The audience?  Every life form that exists, and ever has existed.  Elephants sitting next to amoebas, an octopus next to the hummingbird, and even the lowly virus has shown up to see the event sitting in special quarantine box seats.

The referee grabs the microphone.  “In this corner, we have the young upstart – Heeu-man-itee!”  A small cheer goes up, mostly from the primates.

“In the opposing corning, we have the reigning cham-peen, vanquisher of all things, the bringer of life, and incarnation of death itself, Muth-Er Nay-chur!”  A huge roar as almost every living thing vibrates the air in some way.

“All right you two.  I want a clean fight, no cheating!”  DING!

The fight is on in the form of today’s rancorous political debates about climate change, and an undercurrent of bravado exists in all camps.  The deniers claim that the scientists have their signals wrong, or that everything they are seeing is simply a “new normal.”  The doomsayers are equally intent in their own convictions, as well as confident as to their suggestions for addressing the problem.

The details of either side aren’t important for now.  What we’re going to focus on is the single confrontation between humans and Mother Nature.  Let’s call her Mom for short.

People feel powerful.  We have conquered fire, we build houses that touch the sky.  We build large lakes where none existed in order to generate power and feed a billion people.  We fly through the air even though we haven’t any wings.  We swim deep under the water, even though we have no gills.  We have seen the atom, and the edge of the observable universe.  No wonder we feel powerful.

On the other hand, what has Mom done lately?  She’s pretty tame, for the most part.  In fact, 999 times out of a thousand, Mom is nothing but peace and quiet.  Waves gently lapping at the shore, gentle breezes rustling the leaves, puffy clouds.

Don’t be fooled.  Mom can jostle a tectonic plate and bring down entire cities.  She can burp a volcano and cancel summer.  She can twist a hurricane out of thin air and wash away a coastline.  And she can parch an entire continent for decades without even trying.

Here’s where bravado meets reality.  Mom is all powerful.  She represents forces many times greater than we can even dream of harnessing.  What little we have accomplished was done with her passive acquiescence.  Should she ever object, there is nothing we can do that can stop her.

This is an important reality check for all true students, whether of behavior or civil engineering or anything else.  We succeed only as much as Mom allows.  We must show her respect, and pray for mercy.

Now, back to our boxing ring.  I hope we didn’t miss anything.

DING!   “And the weenner is …!”


Engineer THIS

Engineers are wonderful.  They make our world, literally.  They find solutions using the extant body of knowledge and a dash of tribal wisdom.  They may do some science along the way, but it’s usually of the most practical sort, and almost never gets published.  But they build our world, from food and farms (food and agricultural engineering) to our mobile phones (electronic, electrical, semiconductor, mechanical, quality, and production engineering) to even our families (parenting! OK, it’s not a formal discipline, but you get the idea).

Now, about our world.  It has lots of stuff in it.  And we’ve tamed just about everything.  Starting with fire, we’ve moved on to clubs, chemicals, and even relativity.  But one of the areas of our world that is still relatively “wild” is our language.  English in particular is a language that changes rapidly, pretty much at the whim of the people.  We’re inventing and corrupting definitions all the time.

It happens, through no fault of my own, that I am both husband and father to linguists.  The latter was newly minted this year, and I’m often asked this question by well-meaning friends; “What are her employment prospects?”

My daughter can teach English, speak multiple languages, and understands much about why we write and speak.  But how does this impact our economy?  And this is where becoming an engineer fits.

Within any company, any society, language is a critical tool.  We take it for granted, but it’s critical.  Like any tool, if you wield it properly it can be a powerful ally in achieving your goals.  Improperly used, it can cause havoc.

Writers, as astute observers of the human condition, know it’s only a matter of time before our society will speak and write with tools that have been carefully crafted.  Until that time, we will have to create language that help us as individuals.  This is where jargon comes from.  The question for today is this; how much longer will it be before schools are turning out not only linguists, but linguistic engineers?  These engineers will help companies create linguistic tools that help the company be more competitive, more efficient, and more responsive to the community.

Have a thought about this?  Please write it down.  And thank a linguist!


Real People

Let’s get real, people.  Literally.  We are people, and we are real, aren’t we?

Last few weeks we touched on the reality of matter and energy.  That’s the most basic kind of reality, because it’s been around for billions of years (almost 14!) and will be around for billions more.

The next level of reality was that of life itself.  Life is real.  It better be, because I hate to try and understand stuff that’s not real.  Now for the next level up.

People.  Humans.  Humanity.  Homo sapiens.  You and me.  We’re real, right?  We’re real because we’re alive, so we represent life, and we argued that life was real.  But there is also the possibility that there is a reality that is unique to people.  I’m fairly sure that there are a few things that we as people can do that other life can’t.  Making a very complex society for one.  Writing, and sometimes reading, for another.  How about regular cooking, or planning a dinner party?  What about this great internet thing?

It’s a higher level of reality.  The internet is real, because it’s here, and we’re using it.  It’s not easy to measure or put in a box because it’s a higher kind of reality.  In this reality, we are looking at things that are common to all people.  The internet is common to all people, or it soon will be!

What else is real, for people?  War, famine, hate, greed, slavery, duplicity, manipulation, demagoguery, and so many other disagreeable behaviors.  There is also idealism, love, cooperation, and art.  None of these, in a consistent, organized form, exists anywhere else but in the human world.

That’s really cool.  Really.  Or should I say, Reality.

Stay tuned.  There’s more.