Creative writing

The English poet T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) talking about creative writing compared it to geometrical drawing.   Hulme had studied mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge, although without graduating.

The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognize how extraordinarily difficult this is. It is no mere matter of carefulness; you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise – that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language, whether it be with words or the technique of other arts. Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas. It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose. I always think that the fundamental process at the back of all the arts might be represented by the following metaphor. You know what I call architect’s curves – flat pieces of wood with all different kinds of curvature. By a suitable selection from these you can draw approximately any curve you like. The artist I take to be the man who simply can’t bear the idea of that “approximately”. He will get the exact curve of what he sees whether it be an object or an idea in the mind. Suppose that instead of your curved pieces of wood you have a springy piece of steel of the same types of curvature as the wood. Now the state of tension or concentration of mind, if he is doing anything really good in this struggle against the ingrained habit of technique, may be represented by a man employing all his fingers to bend the steel out of its own curve and into the exact curve which you want. Something different to what it would assume naturally.”

T. E. Hulme, in the essay, “Romanticism and Classicism”, quoted in:   A. Alvarez [2003]: Making it new. The New York Review of Books, 15 May 2003,  Volume L, No. 8, pp. 28-30.

Nicolas Fatio de Duillier

Fatio de DuillierNicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664-1753) was a Genevan mathematician and polymath, who for a time in the 1680s and 1690s, was a close friend of Isaac Newton. After coming to London in 1687, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society (on 1688-05-15), as later did his brother Jean-Christophe (on 1706-04-03).  He played a major part in Newton’s feud with Leibniz over who had invented the differential calculus, and was a protagonist all his life for Newton’s thought and ideas.
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GTD Intelligence at Kimberly-Clark

I started talking recently about getting-things-done (GTD) intelligence.  Grant McCracken, over at This Blog Sits At, has an interview with Paula Rosch, formerly of fmcg company Kimberly-Clark, which illustrates this nicely.

I spent the rest of my K-C career in advanced product development or new business identification, usually as a team leader, and sometimes as what Gifford Pinchot called an “Intrapreneur” – a corporate entrepreneur, driving new products from discovery to basis-for-interest to commercialization.  It’s the nature of many companies to prematurely dismiss ideas that represent what the world might want/need 5, 10 years out and beyond in favor of near-term opportunities – the intrapreneur stays under the radar, using passion, brains, intuition, stealth, any and every other human and material resource available to keep things moving.  It helps to have had some managers that often looked the other way.
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Recent listening 3: Eastern European flavours

Following my post about Czech Tropicala-post-punk duo DVA, I thought I’d write about some other East European-flavoured music which I listen to a lot.
The first is the album Mnemosyne, by Ljova and the Kontraband, which I have mentioned previously for their setting of  poem by Joe Stickney.  Their music is a mix of East-European gypsy, klezmer and jazz, played by virtuoso performers on viola, accordian, bass and percussion (plus guests).   This mix could only happen in New York City, which is where they are based.
A genuine EE gypsy sound is the painful blues of Dona Dumitru Siminica (1926-1979), who sings this gypsy Romanian parallel to Rembetika in a falsetto voice, with accordian, cymbalon and bass and sometimes violin behind him.  The re-issue I am listening to comprises tracks originally recorded in Bucharest in the early 1960s.
The third album brings the accordian into the 21st-century:  arrangements of various fast-moving electronica tracks for a trio of virtuoso Polish accordianistas, Motion Trio. After this album, no one can ever say again that a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordian but refrains from doing so!
Play Station
Ljova and the Kontraband [2008]:  Mnemosyne.  Kapustnik Records, New York City.
Dona Dumitru Siminica [2006]:  Sounds from a Bygone Age, Volume 3. Asphalt Tango Records GmbH, Berlin.  CD-ATR 1106.
Motion Trio [2005]: Play-Station. Asphalt Tango Records GmbH, Berlin. CD-ATR 0705.

Guerrilla logic: a salute to Mervyn Pragnell

When a detailed history of computer science in Britain comes to be written, one name that should not be forgotten is Mervyn O. Pragnell.  As far as I am aware, Mervyn Pragnell never held any academic post and he published no research papers.   However, he introduced several of the key players in British computer science to one another, and as importantly, to the lambda calculus of Alonzo Church (Hodges 2001).  At a time (the 1950s and 1960s) when logic was not held in much favour in either philosophy or pure mathematics, and before it became to be regarded highly in computer science, he studied the discipline not as a salaried academic in a university, but in a private reading-circle of his own creation, almost as a guerrilla activity.

Pragnell recruited people for his logic reading-circle by haunting London bookshops, approaching people he saw buying logic texts (Bornat 2009).  Among those he recruited to the circle were later-famous computer pioneers such as Rod Burstall, Peter Landin (1930-2009) and Christopher Strachey (1916-1975).  The meetings were held after hours, usually in Birkbeck College, University of London, without the knowledge or permission of the college authorities (Burstall 2000).  Some were held or continued in the neighbouring pub, The Duke of Marlborough.  It seems that Pragnell was employed for a time in the 1960s as a private research assistant for Strachey, working from Strachey’s house (Burstall 2000).   By the 1980s, he was apparently a regular attendee at the seminars on logic programming held at the Department of Computing in Imperial College, London, then (and still) one of the great research centres for the application of formal logic in computer science.

Pragnell’s key role in early theoretical computer science is sadly under-recognized.   Donald MacKenzie’s fascinating history and sociology of automated theorem proving, for example, mentions Pragnell in the text (MacKenzie 2001, p. 273), but manages to omit his name from the index.  Other than this, the only references I can find to his contributions are in the obituaries and personal recollections of other people.  I welcome any other information anyone can provide.

UPDATE (2009-09-23): Today’s issue of The Guardian newspaper has an obituary for theoretical computer scientist Peter Landin (1930-2009), which mentions Mervyn Pragnell.

UPDATE (2012-01-30):  MOP appears also to have been part of a production of the play The Way Out at The Little Theatre, Bristol in 1945-46, according to this web-chive of theatrical info.

UPDATE (2013-02-11):  In this 2001 lecture by Peter Landin at the Science Museum, Landin mentions first meeting Mervyn Pragnell in a cafe in Sheffield, and then talks about his participation in Pragnell’s London reading group (from about minute 21:50).

UPDATE (2019-07-05): I have learnt some further information from a cousin of Mervyn Pragnell, Ms Susan Miles.  From her, I understand that MOP’s mother died in the Influenza Pandemic around 1918, when he was very young, and he was subsequently raised in Cardiff in the large family of a cousin of his mother’s, the Miles family.  MOP’s father’s family had a specialist paint manufacturing business in Bristol, Oliver Pragnell & Company Limited, which operated from 25-27 Broadmead.  This establishment suffered serious bomb damage during WW II.   MOP was married to Margaret and although they themselves had no children, they kept in close contact with their relatives.  Both are remembered fondly by their family.   (I am most grateful to Susan Miles, daughter of Mervyn Miles whose parents raised MOP, for sharing this information.)


Richard Bornat [2009]:  Peter Landin:  a computer scientist who inspired a generation, 5th June 1930 – 3rd June 2009.  Formal Aspects of Computing, 21 (5):  393-395.

Rod Burstall [2000]:  Christopher Strachey – understanding programming languages.  Higher-Order and Symbolic Computation, 13:  51-55.

Wilfrid Hodges [2001]:  A history of British logic.  Unpublished slide presentation.  Available from his website.

Peter Landin [2002]:  Rod Burstall:  a personal note. Formal Aspects of Computing, 13:  195.

Donald MacKenzie [2001]:  Mechanizing Proof:  Computing, Risk, and Trust.  Cambridge, MA, USA:  MIT Press.

Poem: Cheyenne Mountain

Today a poem by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), a schoolmate and life-long friend of Emily Dickinson. In 1881, after moving west, she wrote an account of the US mistreatment of American Indians, “A Century of Dishonour”.  On learning of her death, Emily Dickinson said: “Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her.  Dear friend, I can fly – her immortal reply.” Today, Cheyenne Mountain hosts the underground operations center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Cheyenne Mountain CO

Cheyenne Mountain
By easy slope to west as if it had
No thought, when first its soaring was begun,
Except to look devoutly to the sun,
It rises, and has risen, until, glad,
With light as with a garment, it is clad,
Each dawn, before the tardy plains have won
One ray; and after day has long been done
For us, the light doth cling reluctant, sad
To leave its brow.
Beloved mountain, I
Thy worshipper, as thou the sun’s, each morn,
My dawn, before the dawn, receive from thee;
And think, as thy rose-tinted peaks I see,
That thou wert great when Homer was not born,
And ere thou change all human song shall die!

Previous poems are here.

Computer science, love-child: Part 2

This post is a continuation of the story which began here.
Life for the teenager Computer Science was not entirely lonely, since he had several half-brothers, half-nephews, and lots of cousins, although he was the only one still living at home.   In fact, his family would have required a William Faulkner or a Patrick White to do it justice.
The oldest of Mathematics’ children was Geometry, who CS did not know well because he did not visit very often.  When he did visit, G would always bring a sketchpad and make drawings, while the others talked around him.   What the boy had heard was that G had been very successful early in his life, with a high-powered job to do with astronomy at someplace like NASA and with lots of people working for him, and with business trips to Egypt and Greece and China and places.  But then he’d had an illness or a nervous breakdown, and thought he was traveling through the fourth dimension.  CS had once overheard Maths telling someone that G had an “identity crisis“, and could not see the point of life anymore, and he  had become an alcoholic.  He didn’t speak much to the rest of the family, except for Algebra, although all of them still seemed very fond of him, perhaps because he was the oldest brother.
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Learning jazz improvisation

A few days ago, writing about bank bonuses, I talked about the skills needed to get-things-done, a form of intelligence I believe is distinct (and rarer than) other, better-known forms — mathematical, linguistic, emotional, etc. There are in fact many skill sets and forms of intelligence which don’t feature prominently in our text-biased culture. One of these is musical intelligence, and I have come across a fascinating description of taking jazz improvisation and composition lessons from pianist and composer Hall Overton (1920-1972), written by Jack Reilly (1932-2018):

The cigarette dangled out the right side of his mouth, the smoke rising causing his left eye to squint, the ashes from the burning bush got longer and longer, poised precipitously to fall at any moment on the keyboard. Hall always sat at the upright piano smoking, all the while playing, correcting, and making comments on my new assighment, exercises in two-part modern counterpoint. I was perched on a rickety chair to his left, listening intensely to his brilliant exegesis, waiting in vain for the inch-long+ cigarette ash to fall. The ashes never fell! Hall instinctively knew the precise moment to stop playing , take the butt out of his mouth and flick the ashes in the tray on the upright piano to his left. He would then throw the butt in the ash tray and immediately light another cigarette. His concentration and attention to every detail of my assighment made him unaware that he never took a serious puff on the bloody cigarette. I think the cigarette was his “prop” so to speak, his way of creating obstacles that tested my concentration on what he was saying. In other words, Hall was indirectly teaching me to block out any external distractions when doing my music, even when faced with a comedic situation like wondering when the cigarette ashhes would fall on the upright keyboard or even on his tie. Yes, Hall wore a tie, and a shirt and a jacket. All memories of Hall Overton by his former students 9 times out ot 10 begin with the Ashes to Ashes situation. A champion chain smoker and indeed, a master ash flickerer, never once dirtying the floor, piano or his professorial attire.

Hall Overton, composer, jazz pianist, advocate/activist for the New Music of his time and a lover of Theolonius Monk’s music, was my teacher for one year beginning in 1957. I first heard about him from a fellow classmate at the Manhattan School of Music, which at that time was located on East 103rd street, between 2nd and 3rd avenue, an area then known as Spanish Harlem. This chap was playing in one of the basement practice rooms where I heard him playing Duke Jordan’s “Jordu”. I liked what I heard so much so I asked him where he learned to play that way. Hall Overton, was his reply. I took down Hall’s number, called him and said I wanted to take jazz piano lessons. He sounded warm and gracious over the phone which made me feel relaxed because I was nervous about playing for him. I had been playing jazz gigs and casuals since my teens but still felt light years away from my vision of myself as a complete jazz pianist. Hall was going to push the envelope. We set up weekly lessons.
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Computer Science, love-child

With the history and pioneers of computing in the British news this week, I’ve been thinking about a common misconception:  many people regard computer science as very closely related to Mathematics, perhaps even a sub-branch of Mathematics.  Mathematicians and physical scientists, who often know little and that little often outdated about modern computer science and software engineering, are among the worst offenders here.  For some reason, they often think that computer science consists of Fortran programming and the study of algorithms, which has been a long way from the truth for, oh, the last few decades.  (I have past personal experience of the online vitriol which ignorant pure mathematicians can unleash on those who dare to suggest that computer science might involve the application of ideas from philosophy, economics, sociology or ecology.) 
So here’s my story:  Computer Science is the love-child of Pure Mathematics and Philosophy
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