Monday, September 26, 2016

Isaac Asimov on Creativity

Clearly Isaac Asimov lived before "synergy," now displaced by "collaboration," was  buzz word. A few years ago MIT Technology Review ran "Isaac Asimov Asks, 'How Do People Get New Ideas?'

Like Woz, quoted in Susan Cain's Quiet and here, he does believe "isolation is required" to achieve creativity. His dsecription of a creative mind also corresponds to how introverts operate: "His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it."

What's interesting, though is his describing the intrusion of others as not being a problem due to distraction but to intoroducing self-consciousness that would impede progress: "For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display."

However, Asimov doesn't go so far as to say that you should shut yourself off from society altogether. He explains that interacting with others has other benefits for the mind

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.
Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.
Yet that doesn't mean that he considers the group dynamics to lead directly to new creative insights. Instead they "educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts." For the group to work in that way, he warns that the group has to not be at all censorious. He explains that even one person can poison the atmosphere in which all creative expression is unimpeded:

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.
If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.
He also offers advice on capping the number of group members. Any more than five, he believes would be counter productive because of "the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating." But even more important than that is the question of expectation. In other words, one's official job should not be to what today is called "ideate."

The way he puts it is this: "The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all." The ideas just came while they purusing other things, which, he feels is important to remove a sense of obligation: "To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jane Austen and Capability Brown

The 50 miles of good road in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's 10,000 a year, and the "ha-ha" in Manfield Park are all features of the times and background for Capability Brown's influence on English gardening.

August 30th 2016 marks the tercentenary of the baptism (his date of birth is unrecorded) of Lancelot 'Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). If you were in England this year, you may have seen certain events dedicated to this man who transformed the British landscape with his vision of naturalistic gardens See The genius of Capability Brown. People in Britian can even buy special stamps to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown's birth. 

I only heard about him on this side of the Atlantic because on one of the tours of Old Westbury Gardens  (which were designed to emulate English estates to appeal to the taste of the owner's British bride) the guide mentioned Capability Brown as the designer. Of course, he couldn't have designed the Long Island estate directly, but his influence came through in the play of lawns, trees, and water to be found even on Long Island.

thatched cottage at Old Westbury Gardens

Curious about the person who shares our last name, my husband looked for books about him in our library system. We only succeeded in obtaining one: Roger Turner's  Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English LandscapeThe History Press Rizzoli International Publications, 1985. While Turner frequently quotes the poet Alexander Pope to give some literary background and one time quotes the writer Hannah More, he fails to mention Jane Austen in connection with the transformation of the landscape at all, and this is an omission I intend to rectify here. 
In Ch. 32 of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy tells Elizabeth,  "`And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.''  Darcy was particularly appreciative of "good road"  because it was still a relatively recent convenience that made a dramatic difference to travelers. As Turner writes on p. 17,  "During Brown's practising years, 1750-80, the time taken between London and the major towns was halved. Before these improvements bad weather and wintry conditions made travel impossible for wheeled traffic."  

Earlier in the book, we have the famous pronouncement about Darcy's wealth amounting to 10,000 a year. That figure is also one that Turner mentions as requisite for an estate owner to really maintain a good figure in society: "At least five or six thousand pounds a year was required to support a great house, to allow for the expenses of the London season and to enable the owner to patronize the arts. More comfortably it required ten thousand a year" (p. 17). 
Awareness of garden features gains prominence in Austen's Mansfield Park. In chapter 10, Maria Bertram complains,“Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,' as the starling said.” Refusing to remain restrained, she goes through, ignoring Fanny's warning of the danger of slipping into the ha-ha.

 Of course, all this foreshadows Maria's breaking through the set boundaries of her marriage and becoming a fallen woman. But there still had to be a physical ha-ha, a type of sunken fence that created a barrier between the extended grounds of the estate where animals could graze and the gardens near the house without obstructing the view. This was not a feature that Brown invented but one that he did use. 

Taylor refers to this device and the explanation for its name on p. 29 in  quotes Horace Walpole's 1770 essay On Modern Gardening: 
"The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman's) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses -- an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha!s to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk."
In fact, though, Charles Bridgeman (1680?-1738) could not have been the first to make use of this 
sunken fence, as it already was in use in Versailles before it appeared in England.  Howeve, it appears to have become increasingly common in England in Jane Austen's time, enough so that she could safely assume her readers would be able to picture the obstruction posed by the ha-ha she references several times in Mansfield Park

 The woman writer Turner does quote, Hannah  More (p. 78) was already quoted by a prior biographer of the master gardener, Dorothy Stroud. She records what the writer said about here"friend Mr. Brown" who "illustrates everything he says about gardening by some literary or grammatical allusion."
She said:
"He told me he compared his art to literary composition. 'Now there," pointing a finger, “I make a comma, and there”, pointing to another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon, at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis, now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”

While Taylor doesn't like the literary take on landscaping, it strikes me as an inverse of what Austen said about her own writing in the expression about her own miniature scale. The quote comes from a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh: "What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"

Capability Brown's landscaping took a great deal of labor to produce subtle effects that could be appreciated many years later. The same can be said of Austen's novels. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The recipe for the nursery rhyme

image from


I'm in the middle of a work of historical fiction that takes place during the Middle Ages. It referenced pies with live birds à la the four-and-twenty blackbirds mentioned in "Sing a song of sixpence." It also suggested that some people topped this with a human child popping out of the pie but suggested that some kids may have been hurt in the attempt. In reality, there really were such recipes, but no birds (or children) were actually baked into the pie. Rather the pie was baked and then cut on the bottom to allow them in. 

What else is the internet for if not to find recipes for such whimsical concoctions dating back over five centuries? I found it on more than one site but went for the one from Chef Frank for better clarify. The origin is an Italian cookbook from 1549 that was translated into English 49 years later. Chef Frank writes up the recipe in modern English with modern instructions, as well as assurances that the birds will be completely unscathed. Supposedly this kind of crust only works with lard, so it wouldn't do for people with kosher or hallal dietary requirements. 

Four and Twenty Blackbird Pie
24 live blackbirds12 cups all purpose flour1 1/2 tbsp salt6 eggs, slightly beaten2 lb lard1/2 cup water3 eggs, beaten2-3 heads decorative kale (for garnish)
Make sure all the blackbirds are alive and comfortable. Reserve. In a large bowl, place the flour and salt. Pour the eggs into the center of the bowl and with 2 knives, cut the eggs into the flour until it looks like course cornmeal. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add the lard. Heat until all the lard is melted. Pour hot lard into the flour mixture, and work into a firm dough. While the dough is still warm, divide 2/3 - 1/3. Roll the larger part out on a floured surface into a large circle, at least 36" in diameter. Don't worry if the dough is thick. Keep the other part warm. Find a wide and deep pot big enough to hold 24 standing blackbirds comfortably. Grease the outside of the pot and form the circle of dough around the outside of the pot. This will form the bottom crust, or the "coffin" (no, the birds will still be alive when served! Honest!!). Allow to cool. Cut a circle 6" in diameter in the center of the bottom of the crust (actually, in this case, the top on the form) and remove the dough. Carefully remove the bottom crust from the form and place on parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Crumple sheets of aluminum foil into balls, and place inside the bottom crust, 2" higher in the center than the sides. Roll out the other part of the dough to 2" wider than the coffin. Brush all along the edge of the dough, and place on top of the coffin. Crimp the edges. Using the 6" circle of dough, cut out decoratve shapes. Brush the top crust with the beaten egg and attatch the decorative cut-outs. Don't be bashful - how often do you get to decorate a coffin? Brush again with beaten egg. Place in a 325F oven and bake until the crust is golden brown. Allow to cool.
When the crust has thoroughly cooled, carefully lift up and remove the crumpled foil. Prepare your serving platter by lining it with the decorative kale. You may further dress up your platter with small bunches of grapes, small whole fruit, and/or baby vegetables. When ready to serve, place the coffin on the center of the platter. Gather up your reserved blackbirds. Carefully lift up the coffin and gently place each blackbird inside, being careful not to crowd them. When all the blackbirds have been hidden in the crust, let the crust lie flat on the platter. Serve immediately. 

Note that recipes were not written in this fashion centuries back. The original text, which I found here is:
Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somewhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be done at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart. (From Epulario, 1598)

Seems weird to us, of course. But perhaps the people of that time would find things like sprinkles and rainbow bagels  even more absurd.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Innocence and experience

A great scenic sunet along the main branch of the Mississippi River on the Great River Trail, Wisconsin photo at

Beat Not the Poor Desk  is the title of one of the books I was introduced to when I took a graduate course on teaching composition. It has some really helpful writing ideas based on particular frames. One of them is "Once I was ___; now I am___." The idea is using concrete narrative to convey a more general point.

This is exactly what Mark Twain does in his piece, "Two Views of  the Mississippi." Picking up on the transition from innocence to experience that William Blake explores in his poetry, Twain encapsulates the gain that also entails loss:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and has come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! 
Twain offers further details and then suggests a parallel with the medical profession:
 Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beautyʹs cheek mean to a doctor but a ʺbreakʺ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown think with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesnʹt he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesnʹt he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?   

This happens to most of us in our trade. I tried to explain this to someone about seeing a piece of writing through the eyes that have assessed hundreds of thousands of essays (I'm  not exaggerating, I scored SAT essays for over a decade after having grades college students' writing for a decade before that). It's impossible not to notice flaws in the mechanics when your eyes -- like those of the doctor looking for signs of illness -- have been trained to spot them. That doesn't mean I always comment on them even when seeing "aisle" without the a, a usage error that makes me feel like I'm hearing fingernails on a blackboard.  It also doesn't mean I claim to never make a mistake myself, but that's not really the point. A musically trained person may hit a false note once in a while, though that hardly disqualifies that person from giving a professional assessment of another person's playing.

To return to the them of Blake and Twain, the fact of life is (without some form of memory loss)  you can't go back. You can't recapture the perspective of innocence once you've passed into experience. That doesn't mean that life is over, only that you've passed into a different stage that will color your perspective. And here's one advantage that experience has over innocence: you know what it was to look at the world through the eyes of innocence while the person who has no experience cannot know of any perspective beyond what s/he has had.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Have desk, will travel

When we picture mobile now, we picture something  small and light like this.


But a hundred years ago mobile meant something different than it did today. The concept of a mobile desk was just one that could be moved, not necessarily one you could easily carry with you.  It serves some of the same purpose as a tablet does, holding information one wants access to in an organizaed fashion with space for writing your own additions to all that data. 

photo of Lyndhurst interior  by Ariella Brown
This is the desk that Jay Gould used at Lyndhurst and when commuting from there to his office on his yacht.  Though the railroad did pass right by Gould's summer home, it was built by Vanderbilt, and he vowed never to use it.  But he didn't suffer too much, sailing in on a yacht took only 45 minutes, an enviable commute by today's standards. However, he didn't travel too light if he took the desk-- and like an attendant or two  pull it for him--along for the trip.

That formidable piece of furniture is a Wooton Desk, which is known for having many compartments as well as casters, which makes it mobile as in designed to be moved. As the Wikipedia article explains, "The Wooton desk was introduced at the end of the 19th century, at a time when office work was changing in a drastic fashion with an increase in paperwork that led to the introduction of filing cabinets, among other things."

 According to the tour guide at Lyndhurst where the desk still stands, this particular one has over 100 compartments, which likely includes some secret ones. Instead of password protection or biometric identification, you'd rely on physical keys and hidden levers for securing your confidential documents from prying eyes. One plus for the desk, it is still usable over a century later. It's very unlikely that will be the case for today's tablets and smartphones.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Restoring a garden and some history in Yonkers

Above and below and some of the views of the walled garden, one of the highlights of the Untermyer Garden in Yonkers.I also included a picture of the Temple of Love that overlooks a waterfall.  Most of the rest of the gardens have not been restored to the glory they held back in the day when  60 gardeners tended its 150 acres with plants supplied by 60 greenhouses.  What is restored is worth seeing, and there's no charge  entry.

You can learn more about the gardens and the man behind them, Samuel Untermyer, at As the pamphlet in the garden and the site says, "Samuel Untermyer was born in Virginia in 1858, and moved to New York City after the Civil War. He was a partner in the law firm of Guggenheimer, Untermyer & Marshall, and was the first lawyer in America to earn a one million dollar fee on a single case."

The site offers a lot more in-depth information, including an article by Greogory Kupsky  that gives further insight into the response of German-American Jews to Hitler's increasing power and how Untemeyer clashed with others in pushing for a boycott of Germany.

 This is the better side of the ampitheater. As you can see form the picture below it, the other side is in much need of repair.

See more photos of the garden that I posted on Pinterest.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Living on 24 hours a day

Though the contexts may vary from those cloaked in spiritualism with suggestions of meals with a Buddah to those that guide you to a state of mindfulness, the essence of self-help books seems to be very much the same. 
And yet you are in search of happiness, are you not? Have you discovered it?
The chances are that you have not. The chances are that you have already come to believe that happiness is unattainable. But men have attained it. And they have attained it by realising that happiness does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of conduct to principles.

That's what struck me when I read the really short book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett with a copyright date of 1910.  The author consciously references other book titles that say "How to live on X amount a day" to emphasize the point that time is money and even more precious and more evenly distributed than currency. I took a copy out from the library, but you can read the entire text online for free from the Gutenberg project here.
The book's central theme is maximizing one's time to achieve happiness, though not the happiness one pictures in a extroverted sense (see The happiness is rather the result of achieving harmony between one's principles and one's actions. This point is revealed in chapter 8: 
We do not reflect. I mean that we do not reflect upon genuinely important things; upon the problem of our happiness, upon the main direction in which we are going, upon what life is giving to us, upon the share which reason has (or has not) in determining our actions, and upon the relation between our principles and our conduct.

The book is a 20th Century product, so it's no longer deferring to the Church for guidance on how to live. Rather it is exhorting one live according to principles and reason. In contrast to Disney's advice to follow your heart, you are advised to use your head. But in doing so you also gain an appreciation for science, art, music, literature (if those things interest you) or even your own daily life. What would be packaged today as "mindfulness," he calls reflecting on genuinely important things. 

Chapter 5 is entitled "Tennis and the Immortal Soul." The conjunction here is not intended to suggest a deep connection as one finds in  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On the contrary, the suggestion is that tennis and other leisure pursuits are what people regard as important while they neglect the type of "cultivation of mind" that the author believes is essential to feed the soul. That becomes clear from the end of the chapter:
 But I do suggest that you might, for a commencement, employ an hour and a half every other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the mind. You will still be left with three evenings for friends, bridge, tennis, domestic scenes, odd reading, pipes, gardening, pottering, and prize competitions. You will still have the terrific wealth of forty-five hours between 2 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Monday. If you persevere you will soon want to pass four evenings, and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive. And you will fall out of that habit of muttering to yourself at 11.15 p.m., "Time to be thinking about going to bed." The man who begins to go to bed forty minutes before he opens his bedroom door is bored; that is to say, he is not living.But remember, at the start, those ninety nocturnal minutes thrice a week must be the most important minutes in the ten thousand and eighty. They must be sacred, quite as sacred as a dramatic rehearsal or a tennis match. Instead of saying, "Sorry I can't see you, old chap, but I have to run off to the tennis club," you must say, "...but I have to work." This, I admit, is intensely difficult to say. Tennis is so much more urgent than the immortal soul. 

I find it fascinating that the core of such advice is so consistent for over a century, despite the massive changes the world has seen over two World Wars and the rapid advance of technology. That is not to mitigate the differences in contexts. They are quite striking. Clearly, the people the book addresses are not feeling the same stress people do today when they rise early to commute to work and return from it. Work begins for them at 10 AM and ends at 6 PM. The commute is assumed to take at most half an hour, though there also is an assumption of a sixth half day of work ending at 2 PM.

For people living in England in 2010, leisure time is not frittered away in front of a screen (not even a movie screen, never mind a smartphone, computer, or television). Even a radio is out of the picture, as music is only to be found in live events. Still they manage to fritter away time but just by doing this and that until thinking of going to bed for a good 45 minutes before doing so. In that way, one lets time slip through one's fingers instead of getting one's real 24 hours' worth. In fact, the author doesn't expect one to use all 24 hours but just to make better use of the time spent outside work by exercising one's mind for 90 minute sessions and actively reflecting at other times when is apt to adopt a "semi-comatose" state.

Another difference most of today's self-help books and this one is that very little attention is paid to exercise of the body. Bennet does mention that 10 minutes a day of that can make a difference. However, he is not arguing that one needs to put in the time for the physical regimen but for exercising the mind and getting it into shape. Likely people walked a lot more just to get around as we're talking about a time before cars were owned by the average person.

Chapter 7 is entitled "Controlling the Mind," and like many modern books on meditation, the goal is to achieve concentration and focus, though Bennet skips the thinking about nothing step and jumps right into focusing on your end goal:
"What? I am to cultivate my mind in the street, on the platform, in the train, and in the crowded street again?" Precisely. Nothing simpler! No tools required! Not even a book. Nevertheless, the affair is not easy. When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what, to begin with). You will not have gone ten yards before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is larking round the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back about forty times. Do not despair. Continue. Keep it up. You will succeed. You cannot by any chance fail if you persevere.
When you achieve a certain mindset, you can appreciate that "nothing in life is humdrum" as stated by the title of Chapter 10. In that chapter Bennet demonstrates how an appreciation of cause and effect can make one more philosophical and less shocked when things don't go one's way with the example of accepting one's stolen watch as the result of knowable causes. But it's not just a matter of learning to appreciate human nature but all of nature:"The whole field of daily habit and scene is waiting to satisfy that curiosity which means life, and the satisfaction of which means an understanding heart." That is something that can even be appreciated by someone who does not care for art, music, or literature. But for those who do care for the latter, Bennet devotes an entire chapter.

"Serious Reading" is the title of Chapter 11. By using that term, Bennet's intention is to exclude novels because they do not require the mental exertion that should be applied to the 90 minute program. Good novels are all too easy to read, he says, and bad ones just aren't worth reading at all. It's remarkable that what was considered merely popular literature then are are now seriously studied in college courses. Wouldn't any reader today be proud for working her way through something like Anna Karenina if she were not required to read it for a class? Bennet has loftier reading goals, as he indicated by his own choice of reading, including the works of Marcus Aurelius (he doesn't leave home without him in book form), Epictetus, Pascal, La Bruyere, and Emerson. No women featured here, though he does reserve special praise for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and recommends that everyone read Aurora Leigh.

Aside from praising poetry over prose, Bennet offers two concrete suggestions for the one who embarks on improving reading:

The first is to define the direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a limited subject, or a single author. Say to yourself: "I will know something about the French Revolution, or the rise of railways, or the works of John Keats." And during a given period, to be settled beforehand, confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure to be derived from being a specialist.
The second suggestion is to think as well as to read. I know people who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

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