A blank canvas…has unlimited possibilities.
Again something at work has inspired me to write. It’s a persistent theme among authors, artists and scientists regarding the concept of the fresh start (blank page, empty canvas, original idea). I think its worth considering how truly “fresh” these really are. This idea came up during a technical planning meeting where one of participants viewed this new project as being offered a blank page.
Are we every really offered a blank page? Or is there more to it?
Once we stepped over that threshold, conflict erupted over the choices available with little conclusion. A large part of the issue was the axioms each person was working with. Across the board we all took a different set of decisions to be axiomatic. At some time in the past these “axioms” were choices, and became axiomatic through success. Someone’s past success becomes the model for future success, and the choices that led to that success become unstated decisions we are generally completely unaware of. These form the foundation of future work and often become culturally iconic in nature.
Take the basic framework for discretization as an operative example: at Sandia this is the finite element method; at Los Alamos it is finite volumes. At Sandia we talk “elements”, at Los Alamos it is “cells”. From there we continued further down the proverbial rabbit hole to discuss what sort of elements (tets or hexes). Sandia is a hex shop, causing all sorts of headaches, but enabling other things, or simply the way a difficult problem was tackled. Tets would improve some things, but produce other problems. For some ,the decisions are flexible, for others there isn’t a choice, the use of a certain type of element is virtually axiomatic. None of these things allows a blank slate, all of them are deeply informed and biased toward specific decisions of made in some cases decades ago.
It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas.
– Paul Cezanne
If the decision was a success it stands a chance of ultimately becoming axiomatic. If it wasn’t a success, you probably don’t even know about it much less the details of what went wrong. Failures fade away after a few years. The institutional memory is crumbling right in front of us. One might even say that our Labs are developing a sort of organizational Alzheimer’s. For this reason the low risk path is to follow in the footsteps of the successes. In some cases the failure was idiosyncratic or not remotely related to the choice, but other effects. This leads to deep sustained problems with progress, and the options available to deal with deep problems.
Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.
– Julia Cameron
The other day I risked a lot by comparing the choices we’ve collectively made in the past as “original sin”. In other words what is computing’s original sin? Of course this is a dangerous path to tread, but the concept is important. We don’t have a blank slate; our choices are shaped, if not made by decisions of the past. We are living, if not suffering due to decisions made years or decades ago. This is true in computing as much as any other area.
Human material existence is limited by ideas, not by stuff
The key to the original advances in computing was first the drive to use computers to solve important problems. Once important problems were solved, the method of solution provided the proof it could be done. Others could then in good faith follow in those footsteps and build upon that experience. At Los Alamos in the 40’s and early 50’s this happened in a chain of Von Neumann, to Richtmyer to Lax and Harlow. Each person’s work built upon the others progress. One might consider Von Neumann to have worked with a blank page, but he was building upon the work of Richardson as well as Courant, Friedrichs and Lewy. Their work was itself based upon the efforts of Newton, Gauss, Hilbert and countless others.
You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.
– Jodi Picoult
The key is that we are all shaped by history and the success (and failures) of the past. We are shaped by our culture and biases. We are shaped by whom we meet and what we experience. The blank page is merely a vehicle for us to produce a record of this influence. Most of the time we aren’t even conscious of all the implicit decisions we commit in creative process.
Good habits are worth being fanatical about.
― John Irving
In case you’re wondering about my writing habit and blog. I can explain a bit more. If you aren’t, stop reading. In the sense of authorship I force myself to face the blank page every day as an exercise in self-improvement. I read Charles Durhigg’s book “Habits” and realized that I needed better habits. I thought about what would make me better and set about building them up. I have a list of things to do every day, “write” “exercise” “walk” “meditate” “read” and so on.
We become what we repeatedly do.
― Sean Covey
The blog is a concrete way of putting the writing to work. Usually, I have an idea the night before, and draft most of the thoughts during my morning dog walk (dogs make good motivators for walks). I still need to craft (hopefully) coherent words and sentences forming the theme. The blog allows me to publish the writing with a minimal effort, and forces me to take editing a bit more seriously. The whole thing is an effort to improve my writing both in style and ease of production.
A man who can’t bear to share his habits is a man who needs to quit them.
― Stephen King
The topics are things that I’m working on, or thinking about, or simply pisses me off. It’s a way of working them out in more detail and trying to produce a logical structure for the thought process. My wife thinks its good because I don’t bug her with this “shit” anymore, but in all honesty it just makes room for different “shit” to bug her about!