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.


Who’s a little scientist?

At work today, a couple of moms were talking about their kids interest in learning.  I encouraged them to let the kids fool around in the kitchen, at which one mom said “oh no!”  The other backed me up, even offering a wonderful “science for kids” book that was keeping her son greatly entertained.

What we don’t appreciate, and what I didn’t get a chance to tell them, is that kids make the greatest potential scientists in the world.  Kids are born curious.  They are born without a lot of the prejudice and preconceptions we carry around as adults.  And they aren’t afraid to experiment.  Parents, please let them!

Every minute they lose on the internet or in the music is another minute they have lost to the joy of playing with nature.  Playing with nature is what science is all about.  Get out there, get dirty, and get learning!

Here’s the exciting part.  We are all scientists.  Believe it or not, you, your kids, even your baby, whoever does some learning in a certain way, becomes a scientist.  Even if it’s only for a few moments, those moments are science in action!  Let them do it.  Teach them how to do science even better!  Teach them to record their experiment.  Well, maybe not so much for the baby, but you know what I mean.  Teach them to record the outcome.  Discuss what they have learned.  THAT’s SCIENCE!

So, (nose rubbing commences here) who’s a little scientist?  Who’s a little scientist?

Come on!  Let’s go mix something in the kitchen!


Ask a sponge

A wonderful, wispy, weaving friend of ours is a lover of music.  She organizes chamber music concerts in our area featuring local students and professors of the best music schools in the area.  These are world class performances that we get to enjoy intimately, in fabulous homes with home-cooked goodies afterwards.  We also get to mingle with the performers, enthusiastic young people who are devoted to their art.

It’s fun talking with them, but at the same time there is the ever-present shadow of their fate hanging above them.  For their chosen field is intensely competitive.  To be sure, any of them could end up in the orchestra of a small city, but to become a world-class musician is to meet competition so lofty that most of us can’t even imagine.  That wonderfully happy person I’m talking with today is very likely going to have a crushed future.  They will not end up in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or going on a world operatic tour.  They will probably end up working as a music teacher by day, and in a small city’s orchestra on the weekend.

Part of me wants to hug them and wish them well.  Another part wishes that our world was a safer place that could hug all of them.  Why can’t our society be one that guarantees all the pretty good musicians a spot in a decent orchestra?  All the orchestras would be more average, but can the average concert-goer tell the difference?  I don’t think I could.  Why do we have to put hundreds of talented young artists through such hell, just so one might rise to the world stage and fame?

Here’s where our sponge comes in.  All life is an answer to a question; you only have to know how to ask the question and where to look.  The sponge is an animal that plays it safe.  It doesn’t go out of its way to explore the world, it lets the world take its babies wherever the current carries it.  It doesn’t fight to get better, it doesn’t work to learn, and it doesn’t go in for a lot of experimentation.  The sponge, every single one of them, is happy simply sitting on the bottom of the ocean.

Is this a bad thing?  Of course not.  Does it help the sponge survive?  It must, because they’ve been around a whole lot longer than people.  But does it allow the sponge to grow and thrive and push the boundaries of its existence?  And here the answer is no.

Those young people who dream of making a dent in the world must be allowed to try to the best of their ability.  Almost all of them will crash and burn, but it is their choice.  And in that attempt, they are also helping to carry the rest of humanity with them.  It is your choice to dream, to hope, to dare, and to fail.  Watching them fail is not tragic.  Taking away their chance to fail, that is the tragedy.

You, me, we, humanity, needs to grow.

Prepare to be squeezed!


French Purse

What of it?  So what?  Really?  No way!  I don’t believe it!  OMG.

Imagine if there were some way to roll all of this sentiment into one handy little gesture.  Not only this sentiment, but the mild form of this sentiment.  Like, if your best friend came to you and said “Look I just bought this fancy designer-brand purse from the store for an ungodly amount of money!”

You are slightly jealous (only slightly!) and disgusted (what terrible taste your friend is showing) and affronted (why didn’t she ask me BEFORE making such a silly decision) and perhaps even a bit antagonized (why didn’t she ask me to go shopping!).

If you are American you would say something like “No way!”  And your tone of voice would indicate that it was a very mild form of rebuff.

But if you are French! and you want to say all of this in one simple gesture while still maintaining your (constantly on) French coolness, then you will do this.

Step one.  Purse your lips.  That’s it, put them together like you’re going to whistle.  Gently.  Like you don’t care.  Because you don’t.  You’re French!

Step two.  Fill your cheeks with air.  Not too much.  You’re not a fish!

Step three.  Push the air out with your cheeks.  Your lips will hold in the pressure for an instant, then quickly open in an “ah” shape.  The sound you make is a gentle “puh” as in “puff.”

There.  You’ve done it.  The French purse.  Next time you’re with a Frenchie, check it out, especially in Paris.  I don’t know if they do it more there, or if they simply don’t care there more than elsewhere.  But there’s a good chance that if you’re having more than a few minute’s of conversation, you’re going to get at least one purse.  Maybe two.

And if you want to be French, try it yourself.  It comes in kind of handy.

And that’s a purse that’s a true fashion statement.


French Signatures

True confession first: I like France.  It’s got incredible food, wine, cheese, and an adherence to a quality of living that no other country seems to match.  They also have some art, some architecture, and, oh yes, did I mention the food?  Yes, I love to eat.

Now that’s over with, there is one big downside to the French.  It’s that, well, THEY’RE FRENCH!  Every time we visit there’s at least one strike going on.  There’s always the dog poop in the streets, and I swear they enjoy seeing how frustrating they can be over some of the most mundane events.

“Waiter, I’d like to sit over there,” says I.

“You can not,” he says, in his thick accent.

“But why?  There is no one else in this cafe.  It’s well after lunch, and no one is coming in.  May I sit there?”

“Very sorry, Sir, you can not.”  And away he goes.  He doesn’t care if I go or stay.  He’s French!

More fun observations on the French later.  For now, I came across a signature today that reminds me one one interesting aspect of the culture.  I may be wrong, so please jump in and correct me if I am.  Here it is.

The French take great pride in developing signatures that are absolutely nothing like their name.  Seriously.  Take the name, Frederic.  Now, make a straight line, put a squiggle at the top, loop it down and around and then squiggle it again off to the right.

That’s his name.  I don’t understand it, and if you can find a single letter inside that ideogram you’re a better person than I.  I asked him what the story was and he explained that all great French (which means all of them) sign their names so that they have no relationship to the letters.

I need a good cafe.  Adieu.





Polar bears in Hawaii?

I’m going to miss polar bears in the arctic.  The way the ice is melting, they are going to have to relocate to Hawaii.  They are a grand mammal.  As a human, I’m reconciled to the fact that my species has put many other species out of business.  It’s unfortunate, because there is so much that they could teach us.  They don’t call it survival of the fittest for nothing!

Melting ice, rising seas, stronger storms and longer droughts.  Instead of complaining about them, let’s do something about them.  How about moving our cities to higher ground?  That will make a lot of great job openings in the construction and furniture moving industries.  Insurance rates will have to rise.  That will mean lots of great jobs for adjusters, actuaries, and salespeople.  Food prices will rise and become less predictable.  Maybe that will help drive more people to buying good, natural, organic local produce.

There’s a good chance the next hurricane or earthquake will catch us by surprise.  Precious funds will be spent rebuilding instead of relocating.  Those same funds won’t be available for science, or for maintaining our infrastructure.  Society will slowly decline.

Then again, perhaps the rising sea will activate a country like China to take a bold move.  Something we have been dreaming about for decades, but never had the courage or commitment to enact.  Perhaps, like a tiger backed into a corner, the Chinese will spend their resources on developing a colony on the moon.  In this way, though many would perish on the shrinking coastline remaining on Earth, a few courageous colonists would transport the culture to a new world.  It’s like putting some of your valuables in a safe, or putting your eggs in two baskets instead of one.  The Chinese may be able to safeguard their culture in ways our own nation can no longer afford.

After all, it first takes recognition of the problem (climate change – rising seas – etcetera), the ability to plan for the long term (Chinese communist government creates 5 year plans), a population that is relatively easy to lead, and a whole lot of cash!

So, climate change may not be as bad as “they” say it is.  Warmer winters up north, and maybe a Chinese colony on the moon.

As far as our behavior is concerned, there is a far more serious threat to our existence.  science likes to say that in climate change we are fiddling with Mother Nature.  And Mother Nature does NOT like fiddling; and she takes no prisoners.  However, we are fiddling with Mother Nature in ways that are far more serious than anything climate change can bring.  But that’s for next week.

In the meantime, I’m going to hug my stuffed polar bear.