Elegance is one of the most poorly defined words in the language. Here’s a usual definition of elegance: ”the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner, the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness.” From this definition you get the impression of some French Renaissance fop daintily folding his gloves and looking down his nose at the goose liver pate’. We are ill-served by this definition, to the detriment of humankind, really. Because true elegance is the creation of a premise universal enough to work for a multitude of circumstances, and yet stay concise and simple.
Computer programmers call it elegant when the best of them can make 8 lines of code do the work of 2,000. In that world, and in most others, elegant is cool. And yet, it is more. That which is elegant opens possibilities in a simple way that was never conceived before.
Angioplasty is taking the body’s enemy, plaque in the artery, then inserting a balloon with a catheter and cracking the plaque back along the sides of the artery, where it sets again like a concrete pipe, protecting precious blood flow to and from the heart. Think people up from their deathbed running marathons. Angioplasty, when we saw it, was a medically elegant solution.
Salman Kahn in his Kahn Academy dissertation on Evolution, says – more or less — that Evolution is God’s elegant system of perpetuating life in its most complete forms. He explains that if you were God designing a system, it would be a self-correcting system that, once set in motion, did not require the hand of God again and yet would operate in full accordance with the original design through millennia of changes. God, if he were God, would surely design the most elegant systems for his world.
This applies as well to systems which are in essence, our tools built on interconnected rules. Needless to say, the object of cybernetic (or sustainable) systems is to maintain and replenish themselves without outside input. If there were a perpetual motion machine, it would be the most elegant of designs.
Naturally, this brings us to the subject of when Brenda and I bought an old upright piano. Brenda had advanced skills and I had thumped through a few years of music lessons beginning around the 5th grade. We thought it would be nice to have something to make music on. The unsuspecting piano was delivered one afternoon into our small house. Our two boys. Liam, 5, and Galen, 4, were 22 months apart.
Though normally rowdy, they were somewhat awed by this device, and hesitated at first even to touch it. That did not last long. We had barely gone into the other room when we heard the thunder of two little boys pounding with both hands to squeeze in as many keys at once as they could under their outstretched hands. The old upright piano was getting an initiation from which none of us could survive, and I ran into the room and stopped the cacophony dead.
“This is not going to work,” I told them. Then I realized that forbidding them to touch the piano at all was counter to our reason for having it, so that would not work either. I offered a compromise. “You can play with the piano,” I said, “ but you can only play one note at a time, with your one finger.”
They seemed satisfied for the moment, and actually for the next few days they experimented poking each of the different keys with their single fingers. Some of these notes were complementary, and some were not. But at least they were single notes and you could hear each one for its distinct character. It was a good rule, and kept us from going crazy with cacophony. It was also good because eventually the boys would repeat notes that sounded good one after the other. The had not arrived at melodies yet, but we were hopeful that would come. The main thing was to stand back and watch their discernment between notes, and where innate curiosity would take them. We did hear a few struggling melodies that petered out to nothing within a few notes, but we were not ready for the step function that a truly elegant rule brings forth. Let me explain:
Working at that time at Texas Instruments, I helped construct courses on Design to Cost. This phenomenon was first observed in the building of thousands of bombers in World War II. The cumulative volume of production seemed to magically create savings in materials, labor, and overhead, such that the cost of a bomber dropped immensely – six or seven times – during WWII. Surprised production engineers identified these massive savings as step functions in the manufacturing process, and in the heady days of semiconductors and integrated circuits and LSI (Large Scale Integration) chips that made electronics product cheaper and more durable at the same time, companies like Texas Instruments used to project, and bid on, projects with these step functions built in, without knowing exactly when and how these would occur. They called it “racing down the Learning Curve” and Motorola and Fairchild and Intel and Texas Instruments were in a breathtaking competition to see who could take market share most quickly and hold it. Design to Cost…The Texas Instruments engineers had a saying that “The Six Million Dollar Man Should Have Cost Five.”
All of which brings us back to the new piano, and the impetuous boys who tested it. Their little melodies were easy enough to listen to, though none were very complete. I was not ready for the step function, and that is the point: with a good rule step functions just happen as a result of cumulative volume.
They were waiting for me when I came home one day with a penetrating question. “Can we do two fingers two notes?” asked Liam, the oldest. It seemed like a reasonable request. We could always go back to one finger one note if it got (so to speak) out of hand.
Star Wars was just out, and the boys saw it a couple of times, as did many of the kids in that now distant universe of the mid-70s. One day when I came in, weary and ready for the national news, I heard something else instead. It was not “one finger, one note”, or even two fingers, two notes. It was the Star Wars theme, played in two finger chords with both hands, bass and treble, and ever so majestic for a 5-year old. It was the rule that made itself over, the elegant solution that allowed maintenance and replenishment of the musical variety. The two finger cords were in perfect harmony and my weariness left me.
If we are honest, it is those perfect rules that we should all be trying to find. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a good try at social cohesion through the centuries. “One man, one vote.” was catchy, but somehow no more productive than our “One finger, one note.”
I’ve had a little experience with patents, and patents testify to what some feel is mankinds primary ability – being a toolmaker. The toolmaker empowers all others who find his or her way superior in getting a job done. Though there are various kinds of saws, the saw is one of those elegant tools that turned collections of hovels into tight-fitting cities.
Abraham Lincoln supported and improved the US Patent system, because it carried the potential improvements in civilization with it as surely as his political imperatives on federal government and no slavery. I was having lunch with Jim Dixon, the attorney who wrote the US Patent on the Integrated Circuit with Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby — which won Kilby the Nobel Prize a few years ago. Patents, he related, were not to give power and exclusivity to individuals, but to show others how the tool is made, so that to compete these others must improve on that tool in a unique way. The idea, Jim said, is that ideas are continually improving and patents are a way to make those paths clear to others who will carry them forward. The advantage of protecting a patent and minting money with it, according to Jim (and Abraham) occurs only if practicioners have no further imagination to provide to the process. So the patent system is (or should be) a set of rules allowing an elegant process for renewal and replenishment of ideas of the toolmakers.
I guess I have always considered an elegant rule the most important tool we can discover. At the time of the piano incursion in our lives, I was supporting my small family and also I was fiddling with the notion of becoming a mediocre professional soccer player and trying to be a run-of-the-mill playwright. Those faded in importance (to my great good fortune). My sons taught me that the most important things were rules that empower people. We went from “one finger, one note” to seeing parallels and perpendiculars throughout the house. While they were young, they went on to learn to read – and to calculate — before kindergarten by writing their own books instead of reading books of others (see The Haunted House Dictionary and The Astronaut’s Guide to Adding and Subtracting). In my profession, I went on to develop tools for learning by computer and I think I owe my reverence for rules and tools to their patient coaching from my weary lap in those evenings.
Tools, it would seem, are either physical or mental, and truly unique software programs are as important as apparatus in the Patent System (or should be). Rules are either mental or – in the case of a ruler (or a level bubble) – physical embodiments of a core process. Elegance in either Tools or Rules should be the main concern of parents and teachers and preachers and union bosses and politicians. When things have failed, as the angel said, it is a failure of imagination. We have failed to build elegant rules and tools with a unique resilience that will last.
That is what my boys taught me, and that is still my 2 cents worth.