CJ Eller

Classical Guitar by Training, Cloud Engineer by Accident

Sometimes a phrase someone uses can strike at the core of your own identity. It touches on a piece of yourself that you couldn't articulate before. Nothing could articulate it. Then lo and behold — the phrase appears. Your identity suddenly opens up before you, things start to make sense.

Tom Critchlow uses such a phrase in this post to describe one of his “open avenues for inquiry.”

Digital Bricolage:

I’ve been obsessed for a long time with the web as a texture – malleable programming, mini hacks and flexible personal scripting. From using importxml in Google Docs to writing little apps on Glitch/Replit.

Why does this resonate with me?

Maybe it's because I came to technology from a music background. I think more in musical terms when I work with computers — timbres, improv, orchestration, arrangements, sampling, remixes, jamming, melodies — than with anything computer science related.

“What happens if these three notes sound together? And what about these two?” translates to something like, “What if my blog could connect to Are.na? What would that look like?”

The musical question doesn't beget a fleshed out musical composition. I'm usually just plucking the strings of my guitar. In a similar way, the computer question doesn't beget a fleshed out web application. What comes out of it? The computer equivalent of plucking strings — mini hacks and flexible personal scripting that Tom writes about. This is why platforms like Glitch have served me well throughout my learnings — they're perfect for this musical form of programming, this digital bricolage.

Working with computers and the web this way have captivated my attention and continue to. I just couldn't put my finger on it before. Having “digital bricolage” in my pocket scratches a 3+ years itch.

Thanks Tom.

Reading through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you encounter these passages where the poet lingers on details. Perhaps it feels like lingering to me. But then sometimes the poet admits as much. Take for example when Sir Gawain puts on his armor. We get a beautiful description, finally falling upon the pentangle star painted on his shield.

A pentangle star, painted pure gold, Shone at its center. He swings it by the belt, Then tosses it across his neck. And the sign Of that star, its perfect points, fitted That prince, and I'll tell you how, though it hold up This tale.

The poet proceeds to explain the significance of the pentangle for 40 lines — how it is a “symbol of truth”, how “each of its angles enfolds the other,” how it is called “the infinite knot,” how it relates to the five senses, Christ's “five wounds on the cross.” These details wash over you. The tangent becomes the meat of the poem. But then the poet throws us back into the story as Sir Gawain gets on his horse.

I don't know how to describe such moments. They at once baffle and delight me, not feeling like tangential speed bumps but like a beautiful view you want to linger on. Reading such passages slowly allows me to take more in. Such lingering creates a richer reading experience. The speed bumps of a work become what makes the work special.

Umberto Eco brings this up in Chronicles of a Liquid Society in an essay titled “The pleasure of lingering”:

Lingering was something a certain Monsieur Humblot didn't approve of when he rejected Proust's [work] for the publish Ollendorff: “I may be slow on the uptake,” he wrote, “but I just can't believe that someone can take thirty pages to describe how you toss and turn in bed before falling asleep.” A denial of the pleasures of lingering would thus prevent us from reading Proust.

And maybe Sir Gaiwan too.

Git is something I haven't worked with much in a work context. That lack of knowledge has led to frustration lately and I'm hoping to change that.

I discovered this great post/talk from Rake Routes called Deliberate Git. Here's a great excerpt about the power of using Git responsibly:

Many teams see Git as a source of frustration. A painful reminder that the rubber needs to meet the road in order to make ends meet and keep our customers happy. They see Git as just a mechanism to transport the code from development machines to production servers and keep everyone in sync.

But I want Git to do more. Being distributed means Git gives us the opportunity to do something really amazing. It allows us to make quick commits locally without breaking flow and then allows us to rewrite those commits into a cohesive story that we share with our team.

If you focus on putting more information into your repo now, you can see amazing returns when you have questions later.

There's a great story of how Tu Youyou came to the work that led to her 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The roots of her research have alchemical origins. David Epstein gives an account in Range:

Tu is known as the “professor of the three no's”: no membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, no research experience outside of China, and no postgraduate degree. Before Tu, other scientists had reportedly tested 240,000 compounds searching for a malaria cure. Tu was interested in both modern medicine and history, and was inspired by a clue in a recipe for medication made from sweet wormwood, written by a fourth-century Chinese alchemist. Technology doesn't get much more withered than that. It led her to experiment (at first on herself) with a sweet wormwood extract known as artemisinin. Artemisinin is now regarded as one of the most profound drug discoveries in medicine. A study on the decline of malaria in Africa attributed 146 million averted cases to artemisinin-based therapies between 2000 and 2015. Tu had a lot of disadvantages, but she had an outsider advantage as well that made it easier for her to look in places others would not dare.

The fourth-century alchemist Epstein glosses over is Ge Hong, who has other discoveries worthy of note:

In his most famous book, “Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies,” he recorded a strange epidemic disease, which made patients suffer a serious fever while experiencing white pustules on their skin. The disease was later discovered to be smallpox. Ge's record was 500 years earlier than the Arabic physician Muhammad ibn ZakariyāRāzī's.

Ge also mentioned scrub typhus in his text, finding that the disease at that time was prevalent in China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces, and was caused by an intracellular parasite orientia tsutsugamushi. His record was roughly 1,500 years earlier than the first English report made by Dr. Theobald Palm in 1878.

In hindsight, Ge is a noteworthy figure ahead of his time. I wonder how much of that is hiding behind alchemical subtexts that many wouldn't bother with. Perhaps they think it backward? No matter. Tu bothered, and we have her to thank for her breakthrough in finding a cure for malaria.

There's a lot of history that we throw aside; history that is supposedly antithetical to what we're working on. I wonder what else could be found if we fight against the tendency to label such history as anachronistic to current & future ventures both large & small?

I am again reminded of a passage from the second volume of Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine, imagining of a society that fully integrated history into its practices:

Had Leonardo [DaVinci]'s example in fact been followed, naturalization, mechanization, organization, and humanization might have proceeded together. Thus one method could have influenced and sustained the other, maintaining continuity with the past, yet alertly absorbing useful or significant novelty, constantly reviewing and correcting past errors, and seeking a wider selection of possibilities; introducing new values, not to destroy but to enrich and fortify those already achieved by other ages and other cultures. Such a practical syncretism of technologies and ideologies would have been an open one, open indeed at both sides, to past and future — constantly absorbing and refining more of the past while projecting and remodeling in a richer design ever larger tracts of the future.

At a conference on Aristotle, my friend Franco Lo Piparo pointed out that Euclid, the father of geometry, doesn't define a right angle as an angle of ninety degrees. If we think about it, that definition is correct, but of course it's useless for anyone who doesn't know what an angle is, or doesn't know what degrees are, and I hope that no parents will ever undermine their children by telling them that angles are right angles if they are at ninety degrees.

This is how Euclid explains it: “When a straight line standing on a straight line makes the adjacent angles equal to one another, each of the equal angles is right, and the straight line standing on the other is called a perpendicular to that on which it stands.”

Got it? You want to know what a right angle is? I'll tell you how to make one, or rather, I'll tell you the story of what steps you take to arrive at it. Then you'll understand. Besides, you can learn what steps to take later, after you've constructed that marvelous intersection between two straight lines.

To me this seems both instructive and highly poetic. It brings us closer to the universe of imagination, where to create stories we imagine worlds, and to the universe of reality, where to understand the world we create stories.

Wanted to pull this passage in full from “Here's the right angle,” a piece from Umberto Eco's posthumous collection of essays, Chronicles of a Liquid Society.

A great reminder of how the best learning weaves together wonder and instruction, has a foot in both the universe of imagination and the universe of reality.

Recently I picked up a deck of cards. I'm reminded of how versatile it can be.

Just now I am using a Joker ​from the deck as a bookmark.

A memory resurfaces of a favorite donut shop. They use a deck of cards as a way to keep track of orders at a donut shop — you'd hear “3 of Clubs!” coming from the counter as a box of fresh donuts appeared.

And that's ignoring the swath of possibilities that come from card games. The number of games is endless. I learned one couple weeks ago called Donsol, resembling the random romps of rogue-likes — exhilaration & frustration rolled into one.

That's just one game. I have yet to learn Solitaire, let alone other ones obscure and popular alike to be played with friends or alone. The beautiful thing about a deck of cards is that I don't have to download these games or pay for a subscription to access them. I just need to learn the rules (which might be behind a pay all). Once the rules are internalized, you're set.

A deck of cards as an analog game console.

Through a long history, men have, I believe, explored the transactional possibilities of countless of the things in their environment and sometimes, Pygmalion-like, the things have come alive. Thus many of mankind's most prized technological discoveries, from agriculture to chemistry, may have had their origin [...] in the fortunate misapplication of social intelligence.

This bit is from a paper by Nicholas Humphrey called “The social function of intellect” (source) which I stole from the end of Steven Mithen's wonderful book The Prehistory of the Mind.

Fortunate misapplication of social intelligence — I love that phrase. Reminds me of some of my favorite writing on computers. Pieces like Zach Mandeville's The Map is the Territory make the computer come alive through imbuing those smart rocks on our desks with social autonomy. Here's a particularly lovely part of Zach's introduction to the command line that illustrates this:

To use the terminal is to engage in a dialogue with your computer. You will ask it to do something and it will do it. Most of the time it gives no outward response, just moves quickly and diligently through the task and waits silently for your next ask. If you ask a question of it, it will print its answer. If it doesn’t understand you or encountered an issue, it will print out its problem as best as it can articulate.

Engaging in a dialogue with the materials in our environment transforms those materials into something new. We make personal discoveries of materials more personal and brimming with life than we thought; materials that serve as anchors for our very selves.

Sometimes there's advice that you wish was there when you needed it. Pam Hobart's guest post on Paul Millerd's Boundless newsletter is full of such advice. Here's a passage that resonated with me:

I didn’t know at the time, but I was doing the discovery thing all along – saying that I had a plan while actually spending my time and energy trying things and then seeing what happened. But it’s not cost-free to say you have a plan while actually messing around. Deviating from “the plan” while you theoretically still hold one invites you to feel like a failure and to erode trust in yourself when things go off-script.

You’ll be ahead of me if you realize what you’re actually doing – the bottom-up thing, in large part. Celebrating, or even merely admitting, the lack of a specific plan focuses you on your real objective: learning what you can from each work experience, doubling down when it’s right, moving on in a timely manner when it’s not, and limiting the costliness of each iteration. After you’ve had a job or two, you may have some idea of what industry is (or is NOT) for you, or some idea of what kind of management style you need. These high-level considerations are helpful constraints.

I deviated from my top-down plan of going into classical guitar by goofing off while in grad school. There were so many other things that I focused on other than my studies — organizing music events at an art gallery, volunteering for an education technology startup, playing in experimental bands, being a barista, running a music podcast with a friend. Basically anything to avoid the responsibilities of getting a degree to get an associate professorship at a college.

Those tangential activities planted the seeds for where I am now. If I didn't organize those music events, I wouldn't of been friends with the gallery owner's husband who mentored me in Python and my early tech career. If I didn't volunteer for the education technology startup, I wouldn't of met my wife who influenced me to go down the tech career path in the first place. It turns out that these things are anything but tangential.

It reminds me of what David Epstein describes in Range:

The trouble with using no more than a single analogy, particularly one from a vert similar situation, is that it does not help battle the natural impulse to employ the “inside view,” a term coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. We take the inside view when we make judgements based narrowly on the details of a particular project that are right in front of us.

But there was still the guilt of turning away from the “inside view,” of going off-script that Pam describes. David Epstein mentions as much when describing Northwestern's Integrated Science Program that advocate for broader studies than a top-down focus:

The trouble with courses of study like Northwestern's Integrated Science Program, which impart a broad mixture of strategies, is that they may require abandoning a head start toward a major or career. That is a tough sell, even if it better serves learners in the long run.

Going off-script is a tough sell because it feels like shit. When I dropped out of my phD program, I felt like I let myself down, my family down, my friends down, my fellow graduate colleagues down, my teacher down. It wasn't after a couple years after that I owned up to it. I needed to go off-script in order to serve myself better in the log run.

Now that I'm in a different place with a new career trajectory, it's tempting to go for the top-down path all over again. Still, I want to hold on to the bottom up planning that Pam illustrates; to realize that going the bottom up route is how I got to where I am in the first place. Who knows where else one can go from the bottom up?

In one study of a savant pianist, the researcher, who had heard the man play hundreds of songs flawlessly, was dumbstruck when the savant could not re-create an atonal piece even after a practice session with it. “What I heard seemed so unlikely that I felt obliged to check that the keyboard had not somehow slipped into transposing mode,” the researcher recorded. “But he really had made a mistake, and the errors continued.” Patterns and familiar structures were critical to the savant's extraordinary recall ability.

This bit from David Epstein's Range hit a personal note. No, I'm not a savant, but it made me recall the most difficult music I had to memorize for performing on classical guitar — two atonal pieces. Their difficulty lies exactly in what the savant pianist in Epstein's telling encountered — they negated the patterns and familiar structures that were at the foundations of how I play guitar. Take those away and memorizing passages & chord progressions becomes trickier. It took longer than anything I ever learned before.

Right now, JavaScript feels like those atonal pieces in relation to the comfortable space of Python. I'm by no means an excellent Python programmer, but I'm much more familiar with the syntax. That helps me remember things like how conditionals work and such. When that's taken away, I feel like a fish out of water. Memorization? I have to look up how conditionals work every time I dive into JavaScript.

But that's the beauty of learning newer things, whether it's music or programming languages. They take you out of what professor Erik Dane calls “cognitive entrenchment.” As David Epstein explains,

[Erik Dane's] suggestions for avoiding it are about the polar opposite of the strict version of the ten-thousand-hours school of thought: vary challenges within a domain drastically, and, as a fellow researcher put it, insist on “having one foot outside your world.”

Guess it's time to pick up some more atonal music and JavaScript.

Lately I've been skimming through a posthumous collection of pieces from Umberto Eco called Chronicles of a Liquid Society. In one piece, “The cell phone and the queen in “Snow White,” he makes a fascinating connection between magic & technology.

What is it that has inclined people for centuries toward magical practices? Impatience. Magic promised the chance of short-circuiting from a cause to an effect, with no intermediate steps: utter a magic formula and transform iron into gold, summon angels and get them to send a message. Faith in magic didn't disappear with the advent of experimental science, since the dream of simultaneity between cause and effect has been transferred to technology. Technology today provides everything immediately; you press a button on your cell phone and talk to Sydney, whereas science moves cautiously and its prudence doesn't satisfy us because we want the universal remedy against cancer now, not tomorrow — which leads us to trust the doctor-guru who instantly promises the miraculous potion.

Eco contrasts this want of immediacy that magic & technology seek to satisfy with the slow steps of scientific practice. While no examples are given by Eco of people who embody this prudential mindset, I can continue Eco's thoughts by opening the page from a volume picking up dust beside me — Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine (volume II) — that discusses similar topics like magic & technology seeking an immediacy that is unmediated by moral thought & action. What Mumford does, though, is give an example of a figure that he believes is the antithesis to the immediacy mindset — Leonardo DaVinci. Mumford explains:

Leonardo's practical failures, so far from being a fault, were rather the price of his achievement as a feeling, thinking, value-weighing, acting human being. In an age when the printing press was open to him, this indefatigable recorder and writer published nothing. He was assembling first in his own mind, with a fullness that no one since Imhotep, that master pyramid-builder, had perhaps ever achieved, the necessary ingredients for a culture that would do justice to every aspect of organic life. Again, this synthesis was nowhere consciously adumbrated, it found expression only in Leonardo's works and days: but that expression — though imperfect — pervaded his whole life.

Because I had to look it up, I thought you should know that “adumbrated” means “report or represent in outline.” Anyways, Mumford further outlines an intriguing what-if scenario that serves as a refreshing tonic to the cult of immediacy Eco expounded upon. I'll leave on this more optimistic tone:

Had Leonardo's example in fact been followed, naturalization, mechanization, organization, and humanization might have proceeded together. Thus one method could have influenced and sustained the other, maintaining continuity with the past, yet alertly absorbing useful or significant novelty, constantly reviewing and correcting past errors, and seeking a wider selection of possibilities; introducing new values, not to destroy but to enrich and fortify those already achieved by other ages and other cultures. Such a practical syncretism of technologies and ideologies would have been an open one, open indeed at both sides, to past and future — constantly absorbing and refining more of the past while projecting and remodeling in a richer design ever larger tracts of the future. Unlike the technocrats of a later day, Leonardo was full of admiration for his predecessors.