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Elegance

I’m no spring chicken so I’m always astounded by the new things I learn.  So here I am at the letter “E,” and learning for the first time about Dutch computer science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra who leads off today’s post with this marvelous quote about elegance —

“Why has elegance found so little following?  That is the reality of it.  Elegance has the disadvantage, if that’s what it is, that hard work is needed to achieve it and a good education to appreciate it.”

Dr. Dijkstra died in 2002 at the age of 72, but he left behind a mathematical and computer science legacy including  Dijkstra’s algorithm (solves the problem of finding the shortest path from a point in a graph, the source, to a destination) and the solution to the “dining philosophers problem.” (hint:  it involves chopsticks)

Details about his life and a short synopsis of the “dining philosophers” are in NY Times obituary link here.

I am a huge fan of elegance.  I suppose everybody is, but what I find most appealing, most enthralling about it is its simplicity.  Elegance can be seen in people, things and processes.  It is a distillation to the purest essence, yet it requires so much work, so much merciless editing.  To appreciate elegance you have to know how to examine your subject.  Take your time.  Take it in.

And just when I caught my breath in my examination of elegance and Dr. Dijkstra’s work I found another fascinating quote from a 1985 interview he did with Rogier F. van Vlissingen.  (The whole interview can be found at the archive link below — it’s a tad lengthy, but fascinating.  I’m not fluent in any comp sci language,  but Dr. Dijkstra is so elegant in his discourse.  He sounds like a guy you’d like to have at your next cook-out.)

www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/misc/vanVlissingenInterview.html

But his somewhat prescient reply to functional illiteracy really got to me:

“Oh yes. In Europe a much larger fraction of the population can write. People in America have really suffered from the combination of TV, which makes reading superfluous, and the telephone. A few years ago I was at CalTech and that is a hiqh quality place and everybody recommends it because the students are so bright. A graduate confessed to me—no he did not confess, he just stated it, that he did not care about his writing, since he was preparing himself for an industrial career. Poor industry!”

Excerpt from Interview of Prof. Dr. Edsger W. Dijkstra, Austin, 04–03–1985
©Rogier F. van Vlissingen

Wow!  And this was before we became tethered to our devices 24/7/365.  But, since I am writing this blog and you are reading it, we’re doing our small part to keep literacy alive!

Write On!

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9 thoughts on “Elegance

  1. I enjoyed this post, and also favour simplicity and elegance… particularly in my writing. It’s hard though, to write a poem a day and keep them free from clutter and as precise and elegant as I’d like – in fact impossible, those poems take a lot of work. I see your last post was about doggerel – I sincerely hope my posts do not descend that far!

    Liz – my A-Z is at http://www.lizbrownleeoet.com (animal facts and poems, and stuff about my assistance dog.)

    1. Hi Liz — Your poems are the direct opposite of doggerel!! Poetry is a very demanding word-craft, and yours are beautiful.
      Your blog is a delight and inspiration. Many thanks for stopping by, and I hope you’ll come by again.

  2. I’m waiting for the pendulum to swing back the other way, and some group of young rebels to eschew cell phones and tablets, and become the new Craftsman movement, the new Art Deco, and the Luddites to shout “We are here! We are here!” I’d never heard of Professor Dijkstra either, but he sounds like a fascinating person.

    1. Oh I think you’re right about the backlash to technology. Of course, every so often Mother Nature reminds us that she holds the ultimate “OFF” switch when we have a natural disaster that cuts us off from the grid for even a brief time. We have to remember to unplug ourselves, and to be the masters over our devices. I don’t even remember phone numbers anymore –remember when we were kids? I think I still remember my old hometown phone number and Bunny’s, but I have to look up my kids’.

  3. I’m all about comfort mostly because I live in a warm climate.
    I think people in Europe also read a lot more, but on the other hand, they have more time. In the US, we work, it seems, all the time. Great post.
    Silvia @
    SilviaWrites

    1. Hi Silvia! Yeah — the idea of “living to work” can create a deep imbalance in life. And the message that we need to acquire more stuff to feel successful lends its own toxicity to the mix.

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