Tuesday, September 7, 2010

There are only two powers in this world, the sword and the spirit ... in the long run the sword is always beaten by the spirit. --Napoleon I of France

In a monastery in Dharamsala, India, an unknown explorer took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit with the Dalai Lama. Given only 45 minutes and a limit of 10 questions, Rick Ray searched for months for the right questions to ask. He told his story through a short film entitled 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.

10 Questions for the Dalai LamaUpon seeing the title of the movie, I was immediately curious as to what questions would be asked. What questions would I ask of a man who spent his entire life searching for enlightenment? While many of the questions posed to the Dalai Lama in this film were worthwhile, one in particular stood out. This question is one many have asked before, and one that I had always struggled with. It was a question who's answer considers humanity's capacity for evil, and the leads to an understanding of the importance of preserving the human spirit.

The question asked of the Dalai Lama (paraphrased here) was simple, yet important: How does one practice the message of peaceful resistance to violence in an imperfect world? In other words, how can one NOT use violence in order to prevent another violent act?

It is a tough question with which to grapple, no doubt. It is an even more difficult one to answer concisely with any sort of logic. Even so, it was clear the Dalai Lama had considered this question before, as his answer was nearly as simple as the question. It came in two parts:

He began by stating we should always stand against violence. If and only if all other options have been exhausted, and when and only when no other way exists to prevent violence from being inflicted upon the innocent is it okay to strike to prevent such violence from occurring. I think it is safe to say that most would agree with this answer. It is straightforward and simple, though perhaps not as enlightening as one would expect from the Dalai Lama. Not to be one to disappoint, he went on to speak of the deeper meaning of violence and how and why we should always react in a peaceful manner.

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and SpiritualityIn a previous Modern da Vinci post, I discussed a book entitled The Universe in a Single Atom where the Dalai Lama dabbled in the notion that we are all interconnected. He built on this notion while answering the question at hand (paraphrased): We are all connected to each other and all things in this universe. We all have aligned interests. It is because of this alignment and interconnectedness that we all lose part of ourselves when hurting others. Violence, especially war, is the ultimate killer of oneself in this world. Ultimately, violence results in no winners, but multiple losers who have destroyed more of themselves than of the victim.

Assuming you believe in this interconnectedness (watch for a discussion on this topic in a future post), it is a beautiful, creative, and understandable way to answer such a tough question. We've all felt the pain and frustration caused by others hatred, or their malicious deeds. We've all felt inclined to lash back to avenge our loss or ease our pain. But in doing so, we only hurt ourselves. In doing so, we cause others to once again feel the pain that initiated their violent actions in the first place. The result is a perpetual cycle--a cycle that people like the Dalai Lama have played a significant role in breaking.

Facing violence, the likes of which most of us have never seen, men like the Dalai Lama have tried to lead their people to feel compassion for their aggressors and to stop fighting violence with more violence. Even with the answer he provided in the aforementioned movie, it is easy to miss a subtle but important point in his peaceful actions. The Dalai Lama does not using peace to combat violence solely because he believes hurting others is wrong. He uses peace to prevent his people from hurting themselves. He uses peace to preserve his people's spirit.

With one question answered, what other questions should we ask of our spiritual leaders (or political leaders for that matter)? I find it difficult to construct one question, let alone ten. I encourage you to consider what questions you might ask if you had 45 minutes with a prominent leader. Post your questions here as comments.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." --Henri Poincaré

We are surrounded with facts. Easily accessible facts. Facts that can be "recalled" with no more thought than it takes to enter a phrase into a search engine. As an example, let's do an experiment. How long does it take you to find the circumference of the earth at the equator in miles? My time was around 8 seconds and I guarantee it is an easy time to beat.

But searching doesn't require (much) intelligence. Let's now do an experiment that requires some thought. How would you go about discovering the circumference of the earth with nothing more than a your brain, a protractor, and a stick? If you are like most, you'll writhe and wriggle and squirm your way out of devising answers to questions like these by asking other questions like: Who cares? Why can't I just look it up? What's the point?

Well 1) lots of people care (astronomers, physicists, mapmakers, airlines, ship captains, etc), 2) yes you can just look it up, and 3) the point is this: It is easy to believe we are an intelligent people because we have unlimited access to vast stores of information. But, as Henri PoincarĂ© pointed out, "...a collection of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house." [1] This in no way means that these facts or the Internet search engines that deliver them are useless. Some argue that the human race has been able to deepen our thinking and expand our intelligence by enabling us to so quickly and easily pull together information from a massive corpus of information [3]. I'm inclined to agree. Mr. PoincarĂ© was simply pointing out that science, experimentation, hypotheses, critical thinking, and invention are needed to make sense of this world. Facts are merely the building blocks on which this critical thinking takes place.

We've all played a role in creating this miraculous technological advancement called the Internet. Even so, the Internet doesn't necessarily help us think like (perhaps) we had hoped. It merely delivers building blocks to us faster and cheaper than any other service or technology in the history of mankind. Today, it seems we are missing something of value... Where are the great thinkers of our time? Where are the da Vinci's, the Einstein's, the Newton's, the Galileo's, the Aristotle's? I know only a small handful of great modern thinkers--people who spend their days and nights fulfilling their curiosity by thinking about how miscellaneous facts jointly paint the picture of our cosmos. These people, people who constantly exercise gedanken experiments in their mind, are few and far between. Perhaps it has always been like this. Perhaps great thinkers have always been so few and far between that people like me would only know a handful. Regardless, shouldn't there be more?

With the utterly astounding amount of information at our fingertips, we should all be deep in thought. We should all be viewing this information through our own lenses and filters, using our brainpower to build and test theories which challenge the way humanity thinks. The Internet can be more than an entertainment hub and a handful of facts, but it is up to us to make it so. Please, if you read this, provide your comments and let us all know what you are doing to sift and think through the information at your fingertips. Comment, and let us know what you are doing to experiment, innovate, invent, and change the way we live in and view our world.

For those who are wondering, Eratosthenes was able to measure the circumference of the earth with nothing more than his brain, a protractor, and a stick. Read about it here. The simplicity and ingenuity of the solution is astounding, especially considering Eratosthenes calculated his answer circa 250 BC [2]!

  1. Simon Singh. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. Harper Perennial, 2005.
  2. Rubin, Julian. "Eratosthenes: The Measurement of the Earth's Circumference". www.juliantrubin.com. August 28th, 2010 <http://www.juliantrubin.com/bigten/eratosthenes.html>.
  3. Masnick, Mike. "Did The Automobile Dehumanize Walking? No? Then Does Google Dehumanize Intelligence?". www.techdirt.com. August 29th, 2010 <http://techdirt.com/articles/20100119/0404397812.shtml>.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Very often design is the most immediate way of defining what products become in people's minds." --Jonathan Ive

Inspiration through art struck in an unexpected form today... a video game. Had you asked on any other day, I would have described games as exciting, fun, a "get-away", or challenging. But inspirational? Rarely. Art? Never.

Art is a tough argument to make when it comes to games. Art evokes emotion. Art forces you to do a double-take. At first glance you see painting on a canvas or hear notes in the air. But, unlike many other medium of expression, you are compelled to look again when you realize that what artwork reveals is a reflection of yourself. Video games evoke emotion, but its often visceral and scripted. They rarely, if ever, ask you to look within. They rarely, if ever, speak to your inner self. Flower for the Playstation 3 changes that.

I sat in awe as the colors melded together on screen, bending in the light, and flowing between blades of grass too numerous to count. The music was serene and moved with me as I explored the world. The controls simply disappeared. I was struck by the design of it all... the rhythm, the artistic quality, the technology, and very idea itself. And when it was over, it was almost as if Flower expected me to go outside and enjoy the beauty of nature all around us.

Flower [Online Game Code - Full Game]Flower isn't fun, it isn't exciting. It's not relaxing or compelling. It just is... It is like no other experience on any video game system I've ever seen. Flower asks you, for the first time I'm aware of in the history of video games, to become part of its own design. Well done!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence." --Colin Powell

To all Modern da Vinci followers out there, please accept my apologies for not posting since March! In the grand scheme of things, five months isn't that much time. But for a blog it might as well be the first nail in the coffin. I've always felt that persistence was one of the more important qualities to have whenever undertaking a new endeavor. Per the quote above, persistence is a key component to success. Unfortunately, my daily Modern da Vinci posts did not persist. Read on though... I have my reasons, and I want to change.

Writing for a blog, though it might not seem so, is hard... really hard. One must constantly monitor the world for new topics on which to rant. One must constantly pour hours of thinking and writing. When you have a full time job, blog-writing not only takes away from family but is quite exhausting after a full day of work. All of this is exacerbated for a blog like Modern da Vinci which aims for timelessness of topics and quality of content.

But these aren't reasons, they are excuses.

My reason for putting Modern da Vinci on hold? I blame the iPad :-). Seriously. Having purchased my iPad the second it was available for sale, I was immediately engrossed in the device. More so, I was pouring every second of my evenings (and a few late nights) into programming and creating iOS applications for sale on the iTunes App Store. It's addicting, and if I didn't have a good one already, creating apps would be my day job. So, combine the addicting nature of iOS development with the difficulty of blog writing and you can see why Modern da Vinci was put on indefinite hold.

The good news is that my honeymoon with the iPad is over. While it is still the most fantastic gadget I've yet owned (and I've owned more than my fair share of gadgets), I've figured out how to make it work for me and not the other way around. In coming back around to this blog, I remembered what a huge but important undertaking Modern da Vinci was. So, after changing the look and feel of the site (Do you like it? Please comment!), I've dug out the old list of topics and will once again start posting.

I've striven for perfection, put in plenty of hard work, learned from some failures... the only thing I didn't do was persist.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live." --James Truslow Adams

Fairfax County, Virginia and Tippecanoe County, Indiana, like so many other counties in the nation, are facing tough budget choices this year since tax revenue is down and taxpayer spending has not made up for the difference.  Hard decisions are being made at the expense of jobs and unfortunately, childrens education. The results?  So-called "special programs" such as art, music, physical education, and guidance counseling are being dropped.  More accurately, educators responsible for teaching these subjects are being layed-off, their positions absorbed by classroom teachers.

Education in all areas: history, science, mathematics, art, physical education, etc. is incredibly important to the development of the human mind. When it comes to balancing the education of children who do not excel at math or science, topics like art or social sciences are critically important. More so, some of the best ideas, solutions to problems, and flashes of insight come when one is exploring a topic other than the topic at hand. The scene from Fat Man and Little Boy, a 1989 movie re-enactment of the secret Manhattan Project, comes to mind.  Robert Oppenheimer has a critical flash of insight while sqeezing an orange, discovering the implosion necessary to initiate a chain reaction of plutonium atom splits could be accomplished by exploding a sphere inwards on itself.  What does the orange have to do with nuclear fission?  You're right... nothing.  And while the orange isn't an art or musical activity as is being discussed herein, the point is that intelligence is the application of knowledge to topics unknown and many times the most effective intellectual insights come when working outside our comfort zones, engaging in new experiences, or learning something new.

One thing that is clear to me is the overwhelming anecdotal evidence supporting the importance of the arts in the fields of technical engineering and scientific research.  In my career in the field of product development and security engineering, anyone who is anyone has displayed better-than-average skills in the arts, music, or other such studies.  Whether math and science help one become better at arts and music or visa versa, I cannot say.  What seems likely is that these topics of study support each other, re-enforce each other, and otherwise round each other out. As so elegantly stated by Pam Stephens in her article entitled "Are the Arts Important in Education":

  • The arts empower children to communicate ideas that words and numbers cannot always adequately express.  
  • The arts provide opportunities to explore other cultures and times, teaching tolerance for other’s heritage and belief systems while valuing the individual.
  • The arts encourage multiple responses, respecting that the questions are often as important as the answers.
  • The arts teach flexibility in thinking, a mandate for success in a global society.
  • The arts teach students to continue searching for meaning and understanding.

I do not envy the administrators who must make these decisions--the school systems obviously cannot operate at a financial loss.  I also do not intend to claim the solution to these aforementioned budget problems is simple.  What I do know is that we cannot afford to lose these critical courses in our children's studies, just as we cannot afford to neglect these areas of our own studies as adults. It is one thing to realize or be told that you are not a good artist or musician.  It's a wholly different matter to not even be offered the chance to succeed or fail at it in the first place. If art is cut now, is music next?  If gifted and talented programs are cut, is special education (the other end of the spectrum) next? As a nation, I don't believe this is an answer we can sit around and wait for to find out. We must start thinking out-of-the-box.  Sacrificing these educational activities is unacceptable.

Yes, education is a right in America. But it is also a personal responsibility. If we are not getting the education we deserve as a nation, half of us should fight whatever political system necessary to correct the problem while the other half should come up with ingenious ways of addressing the issue ourselves. Short of pointing fingers or raising taxes, what out-of-the-box ideas do you have?

[1] Stephens, Pam. "Are the Arts Important in Education?" Point of View. August-September 2006. Page 10. Originally published at Davis Art (http://www.davisart.com/Portal/SchoolArts/SADefault.aspx).

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