Review – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

by Ross King, published 2013

The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known far and wide as Florence’s Duomo, took nearly 150 years to construct, beginning in 1296 and ending in 1436 with the completion of its massive dome under the direction of capomaestro Filippo Brunelleschi. The quinto acuto arch of the dome was an engineering marvel constructed without stabilizing buttresses and without a wooden centering to hold it in place as it was built. It defied the imagination of the civic leaders responsible for building the cathedral at the time and the methods and architectural rationale behind it were made purposefully obscure by the paranoid and secretive master “Pippo”.

Fast forward over 500 years of history and the principles by which the dome was constructed appear to be no less mysterious. From the post-war era onward numerous attempts at magnetic imaging and other sounding methods have been made to try to ascertain the precise materials and methods used with most returning a Magic 8-Ball-esque  answer of “Reply hazy, try again.” Many lesser domes had been constructed in earlier history in the West and the East, but Brunelleschi’s dome was the greatest span and the highest height achieved since the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and before that the Pantheon of Rome. Few have attempted anything nearing its proportions since and it seems apparent from the text that even if some modern had an inkling to they’d be hard pressed to figure out how to accomplish it without “cheating” in some way by use of innovative new materials or other supportive techniques.

But the grandiosity and secrecy of the dome’s construction is just one of the many wonders involved. Another is that Brunelleschi was not a trained architect but a goldsmith. Of course, goldsmiths of his era were considered the master craftsmen and technicians of their time (the book mentions how most significant architectural works in the West predating the Florence cathedral failed to record the name of the architects responsible for designing and raising them, so lowly was their perceived status) and the task before Brunelleschi was not simply to design the dome but to coordinate its construction via teams of specialized handiwork guild members as well as to manage the logistics of supplying the building materials, much as a film producer is responsible for pulling together writers, actors, financiers, set locations, film teams and so on. Still, it seems to demonstrate the virtuosity of the man’s mind that he was responsible for building something which was essentially an amateur attempt given his background.

Another wonder of the raising of the cathedral and the dome is the fact that this was one of many simultaneous grand public works built over the time. The city had organized a well-financed oversight committee, the Opera del Duomo, led by the most esteemed woolen cloth guild (a key pillar of Florence’s economy and regional importance), the Arte della Lana, which hired contractors to complete the cathedral and numerous other churches, sculptures and edifices around the city. Today we might think of an economic boom period lasting a decade but it seems that Florence’s skyline was littered with cranes, booms and scaffolds for the better part of two centuries.

Besides innovating architecturally, Brunelleschi also created numerous ingenious tools and machines to aid the construction process. One was an enormous ox-powered materials hoist which rose to the height of the roof of the cathedral from the floor of the nave and had changeable gearing such that the ox team could raise and lower materials in a controlled fashion without being removed from harness and changing direction, an enormous time savings over the life of the project. He also invented specialized cranes, pulley systems and other machines for traversing materials across the expanse of the open dome while it was under construction. Getting multiple hundred-ton slabs of marble, hardened timber beams and iron chains and clasps up the 20-story height of the cathedral was only half the battle as once there they needed to be moved across numerous axes in a precise, controlled fashion before being lowered into place, all while gusts of wind, rain and sometimes even snow obstructed the workers’ efforts.

As impressive and awe-inspiring as structures like Santa Maria del Fiore are and were, I couldn’t help thinking about the monumental waste of these projects compared to alternative uses for the materials and labor and ingenuity involved. Most of the space created by the cathedral is empty by design– this heightens the sense of majesty of the house of God. And this is partly why the building was so complex and expensive to create. The mere fact that the people of this era could construct something like this is a demonstration of their wealth, organizational capabilities, technical know-how and culture of productivity. I just wonder if they weren’t filling up multiple city blocks with empty temples made of the finest construction materials, what could they have built instead that isn’t there?

Ironically, it was these “wasteful” decisions that are the primary source of Florence’s modern tourist economy, so in that sense it was a far-sighted decision by the early city masters to invest in their descendant’s future well-being. And some have even made the case that the splendors of Florence’s Renaissance urbanity were enough to protect it from destruction during World War II.

Florence in the Renaissance was something like New York City today, a wealthy center of commerce and banking, confident in its own power and influence, a great patron of culture and the arts and continually raising great structures in honor of itself. But whereas you can walk amongst the streets of Florence today and see a Medici palazzo or a fine church built half a millenium ago, it’s hard to imagine walking the streets of New York City five hundred years from today and finding the remains of yesteryear still standing and still full of wonder and delight.

 

Quotes – A Well-Ordered World

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

~Confucius

Review – The Drama Of The Gifted Child

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self

by Alice Miller, published 1979, 1997

Recently I was discussing economic and social philosophy with some friends and the question came up about why certain philosophical ideas aren’t more popular or well-known if they seem to be more logically correct than the alternatives. We entertained a number of reasons why this might be but the one that stuck out to me as particularly weighty is the idea that the truth is deep, long and heavily nuanced and doesn’t make for quick, emotional soundbites. I made the quip, “Why is the economy the way it is? Do you have 5 years to study what you’d need to know to understand it?” followed by, “Why does the political system look as it does today? Do you have an entire lifetime to devote to studying all of human history?”

The other weighty suggestion that was offered is that there are many philosophies that cater to telling people what they want to hear (ie, an easy to accept reality) and only one that emphasizes telling it like it is (ie, a hard truth about reality).

I see echoes of these two notions in the opening of Alice Miller’s “Gifted Child”:

The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing this knowledge closer to our awareness. This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.

Most people do exactly the opposite. Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.

This book asks the reader to consider two troubling ideas. The first is that they are likely to be carrying some emotional baggage from their childhood that originates with the way they were cared for by parents and other important adults in their lives. The second is that they are likely to transmit this baggage to their own children (if they have any) and other important, intimate relationships if they don’t find a way to come to terms with it beforehand.

Like the consideration made about the popularity or penetration of certain economic and social philosophies, these ideas are troubling for most people to accept because it forces them to revise their current understanding of the relationships they have with important people in their lives, it forces them to take responsibility for the course of their lives and their choices and give up the perverse safety and security of seeing life through the eyes of the helpless victim and it forces them to concede that the present is not a unique or isolated moment pregnant with infinite possibilities, but rather one moment at the end of a string of moments stretching back into the earliest reaches of human history in which possibilities exist but are limited by certain choices and events which took place in the uncontrollable past.

There is of course great freedom in choosing to explore these troubling ideas but they come at the cost of a grave responsibility that few, based on my practical experience, seem willing to bear.

To find this freedom, one must seek out “the lost world of feelings.” Human infants are entirely dependent upon their adult caretakers for their survival, unlike most other animals who, while weak and undeveloped, are nonetheless able to move around, seek shelter, find food, etc., on their own almost immediately after birth. For a young human, being ostracized or unloved by ones parents is a death sentence. Therefore, the human psyche is wired at birth to prioritize adapting to the parents’ emotional needs over fully developing its own.

If certain emotional expressions or behaviors prove to be problematic for the relationship with the parents, the human child will work to repress and hide that part of themselves. They will disown it and their personality will become dichotomized into “me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I acknowledge and accept because they have demonstrated value with my parents, and “not me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I deny possessing or experiencing because they have been a source of conflict with my parents, on whom I depend for survival.

This is what Miller means when she talks about searching for the “true self.” The irony, however, is that

the child does not know what he is hiding.

That is, it is not as if the child knows what his true self is and isn’t and is lying to himself and others about who he really is. It is more like, he has shoddy vision and can’t see a focused image of himself in true detail, or else he has a map of himself leading to the buried treasure of his own reality but he doesn’t know how to read the map and therefore doesn’t know where his self is or even what he’ll find when he gets there. Every now and then this person might get a glimpse or a sense of their true self in a particularly emotionally charged moment but really all they’re experiencing is the anxiety indicating the existence of repressed and disowned selfhood, not a look at what is missing.

To heal, these emotions must be encountered and experienced. Further, painful emotions must be resolved by tracking down their genesis in early childhood experiences. Memories and relationships with respected and important adult caretakers must be studied and re-evaluated through the more objective eyes of an independent adult rather than the way they were first constructed by a subjective and immature child. This not only allows the adult of the now to be released from the terrors of the former child but it can enable the adult to have new modes of living and doing:

Rational, constructive action depends not only on the intactness of our intellectual faculties, but also on the extent to which we have access to our true emotions.

[…]

the inescapable conclusion is that for people to be able to organize their lives, they must have access to their emotions.

This is one of the many and for me, the most important, takeaways from this book. It is not enough to rationalize about a choice and a potential plan of action. To actually develop an impetus to act requires an emotional experience. Adults who repress certain parts of their emotional selves due to childhood traumas become incapable of acting in certain areas of their lives. They become procrastinators, perfectionists or otherwise evasive in the area of making a decision, acting on it and then sticking with it.

By finding and integrating one’s lost world of feelings, one has the opportunity to become active and empowered in new areas of one’s life that were otherwise mysterious, frustrating or dormant.

One question that comes up for some people as they consider all of this is, “But why did my parents ever treat me in such and such a way?” Using some of the memories and recollections of a famous cultural writer as an example, Miller says,

like so many gifted children [he] was so difficult for his parents to bear not despite but because of his inner riches. Often a child’s very gifts […] will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay by means of rules and regulations. These regulations must then be rescued at the cost of the child’s development.

The parents’ childhoods involved repression as well. For their own survival they learned to disown parts of their emotional experience or certain of their behaviors that caused trouble with their parents. They rationalized this turn of events and created rules for living that would help them avoid these perceived dangers. And then when they had children, these rules and procedures came into question by the existence of the innocent child. And so a new round of repression is started.

The only way the cycle can be broken is for the adult to make the painstaking effort to connect with his child self and understand what happened and how it has impacted him, and then he must choose to live his life differently with that new awareness of his past. This is hard for many to do because

What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.

Another powerful idea contained in this book is an explanation of the appeal of irrational ideas to adults with traumatic childhood experiences. The trauma of childhood is itself irrational– there is no “reason” for any child to be abused or neglected by those who brought it into the world, and save those who are simply unlucky in having some external misfortune befall their family (ie, the child is made an orphan when the parents die unexpectedly), there is no excuse or justification the adults could offer a child as to why they are being treated as they are. For survival reasons, the child must make a place in their psyche for irrational ideas to exist because in doing so they “close the loop” on the irrationality and make it seem rational. “Some things just don’t make sense” is a way to make sense of things that don’t make sense.

When this space for irrationality exists, adults can become wedded to irrational ideas and beliefs, such as political ideologies, abusive social relationships or supernatural superstitions. On one hand, they lack the ability to rationally resist these ideas and beliefs because they are willing to accept that not everything has to make rational sense in their lives. On the other hand, they may positively identify with the claims of these ideologies because they appeal to their own experiences or sense of self as a victim who is oppressed by others, that is, they offer a way to feel like they’re getting even. On this point Miller is worth quoting at length:

Oppression and the forcing of submission do not begin in the office, factory or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of the infant’s life.

[…]

Political action can be fed by the unconscious rage of children who have been misused, imprisoned, exploited, cramped and drilled. This rage can be partially discharged in fighting “enemies”, without having to give up the idealization of one’s own parents. The old dependency will then simply be shifted to a new group or leader. If, however, disillusionment and the resultant mourning can be lived through, social and political disengagement do not usually follow, but our actions are freed from the compulsion to repeat. They can then have a clear goal, formed out of conscious decisions.

Once our own reality has been faced and experienced, the inner necessity to keep building up new illusions and denials in order to avoid the experience of that reality disappears. We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer; it has already happened, at the very beginning of our lives while we were completely dependent.

The term “fighting yesterday’s battles” comes to mind when thinking about this irrational space.

While Miller’s analysis applies to any child and any adult experiencing emotional pain and depression (whether they’re aware of it or not!), the book is especially focused on the plight of “gifted” children because of the uniquely problematic experience they can have in this area due to their talents and abilities. Not only do “gifted” children tend to experience these emotional troubles more deeply,

many people suffering from severe symptoms are very intelligent

but they also tend to experience these troubles uniquely through feelings of grandiosity and contempt.

Grandiosity is the concept of identifying one’s personal value as a person with one’s special talents and abilities. One’s greatness isn’t just a part of one’s self, it IS the self. But this complicates the emotional life of the gifted child because it is inevitable that not every part of themselves is grand. There exists then another dichotomy, wherein all the parts that are grand (which may be very few and overall represent a quite limited part of the total person or experience of self) are “me”, and all the parts that are normal or weak (which is likely then the majority and the wider experience of self) are “not me”. And if my parents love and care for the grand gifts I have but dislike or don’t know how to deal with the unexceptional aspects of my self, then

we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, clever… we despise… in short, the child in ourselves and in others.

[…]

“Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved. would never have been loved.”

An emotional experience that often goes hand in hand with grandiosity is contempt.

The function all expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings. [ie, despising what is not grand about oneself]

[…]

Once we are able to feel and understand the repressed emotions of childhood, we will no longer need contempt as a defense against them.

[…]

Contempt as a rule will cease with the beginning of the mourning for the irreversible that cannot be changed… it is, after all, less painful to think that the others do not understand because they are too stupid.

Gifted people often experience contempt for others as an expression of insecurity about the repressed parts of themselves that are not part of their gifts. Unable to have empathy and kindness towards themselves in these areas, they become impatient and hostile towards those reminders of their own weakness that they see in others.

Sadly,

hating and offending an innocent person, using him as a scapegoat, can only strengthen the walls of our inner prison of confusion, isolation, fear and loneliness: it cannot free us.

And the most innocent person of all, the most unfair scapegoat a person can choose in this drama, is their child self. Whether these ideas are new or familiar, I encourage anyone reading this to consider the implications of the ideas contained in this book not as if they describe a set of generalized human experiences but rather as if they describe something specific and personal to the reader himself. If this book’s message can be taken to heart and internalized, it can be the jumping off point for great personal change that will ultimately resolve itself in what Miller refers to as a “healthy self-feeling”:

I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are a part of one’s self.

 

Quotes – Excelling In Trivialities

Anger, spite, malice, impatience, and a vehement desire of getting the better in a concern wherein it were more excusable to be ambitious of being overcome; for to be eminent, to excel above the common rate in frivolous things, nowise befits a man of honor. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every employment of man manifests him equally with any other.

~Michel de Montaigne

How Science Is Science? How Irrational Is Irrational?

Daniel Kahneman helped make chic the idea that mankind is fundamentally irrational, especially when it comes to economics or more crudely as people think of economics, money. At least, that’s what people who read his “Thinking, Fast and Slow” book think he was saying.

I find this “science” to be infuriating and misleading. It gets people to overemphasize the small, selectively irrational parts of the workings of the human mind while ignoring the large, broadly rational parts of the human mind. If what you needed to know about humanity is that we’re really just irrational, you’d be at a loss to explain the wonderfully rational world around us– physics, engineering, social organization and yes… economics.

I have a low estimation of people who find this book and its message appealing. It says a lot more to me about their unresolved childhood traumas and emotional needs than it does about the way the world really works or anyone else’s ability to think critically about various subjects.

And that’s all assuming that what Kahneman wrote a huge book about was actually true! But if it’s not even true, if his science lacks scientificness, well, then we’ve got real problems. On that note, this was fucking embarrassing:

From Daniel Kahneman

I accept the basic conclusions of this blog. To be clear, I do so (1) without expressing an opinion about the statistical techniques it employed and (2) without stating an opinion about the validity and replicability of the individual studies I cited.

What the blog gets absolutely right is that I placed too much faith in underpowered studies. As pointed out in the blog, and earlier by Andrew Gelman, there is a special irony in my mistake because the first paper that Amos Tversky and I published was about the belief in the “law of small numbers,” which allows researchers to trust the results of underpowered studies with unreasonably small samples. We also cited Overall (1969) for showing “that the prevalence of studies deficient in statistical power is not only wasteful but actually pernicious: it results in a large proportion of invalid rejections of the null hypothesis among published results.” Our article was written in 1969 and published in 1971, but I failed to internalize its message.

My position when I wrote “Thinking, Fast and Slow” was that if a large body of evidence published in reputable journals supports an initially implausible conclusion, then scientific norms require us to believe that conclusion. Implausibility is not sufficient to justify disbelief, and belief in well-supported scientific conclusions is not optional. This position still seems reasonable to me – it is why I think people should believe in climate change. But the argument only holds when all relevant results are published.

I knew, of course, that the results of priming studies were based on small samples, that the effect sizes were perhaps implausibly large, and that no single study was conclusive on its own. What impressed me was the unanimity and coherence of the results reported by many laboratories. I concluded that priming effects are easy for skilled experimenters to induce, and that they are robust. However, I now understand that my reasoning was flawed and that I should have known better. Unanimity of underpowered studies provides compelling evidence for the existence of a severe file-drawer problem (and/or p-hacking). The argument is inescapable: Studies that are underpowered for the detection of plausible effects must occasionally return non-significant results even when the research hypothesis is true – the absence of these results is evidence that something is amiss in the published record. Furthermore, the existence of a substantial file-drawer effect undermines the two main tools that psychologists use to accumulate evidence for a broad hypotheses: meta-analysis and conceptual replication. Clearly, the experimental evidence for the ideas I presented in that chapter was significantly weaker than I believed when I wrote it. This was simply an error: I knew all I needed to know to moderate my enthusiasm for the surprising and elegant findings that I cited, but I did not think it through. When questions were later raised about the robustness of priming results I hoped that the authors of this research would rally to bolster their case by stronger evidence, but this did not happen.

I still believe that actions can be primed, sometimes even by stimuli of which the person is unaware. There is adequate evidence for all the building blocks: semantic priming, significant processing of stimuli that are not consciously perceived, and ideo-motor activation. I see no reason to draw a sharp line between the priming of thoughts and the priming of actions. A case can therefore be made for priming on this indirect evidence. But I have changed my views about the size of behavioral priming effects – they cannot be as large and as robust as my chapter suggested.

I am still attached to every study that I cited, and have not unbelieved them, to use Daniel Gilbert’s phrase. I would be happy to see each of them replicated in a large sample. The lesson I have learned, however, is that authors who review a field should be wary of using memorable results of underpowered studies as evidence for their claims.

Some Takeaways From My Time At The D.School

I’m back from Stanford’s d.school and have a few ideas I jotted in my notebook while I was there:

  1. Learn to celebrate failure; watch how you react to it
  2. Let go of your desire to control outcomes; with humans involved, nothing ever goes according to plan
  3. Try things, practice, iterate
  4. Don’t build expense into prototyping; the more it costs, the harder it is to iterate and change and the less you can learn from your failures
  5. Don’t make insight generation complicated
  6. Where is the burning platform? Look for that place and work on the problems involved
  7. Innovation is the outcome of a process, and innovators are the people who do it
  8. The design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and back again
  9. The answers are not in this building
  10. When empathizing, spend 15% of your time engaging, noticing and following-up and 85% of your time seeking stories
  11. The purpose of your empathy research is to capture emotion; what is it? where does it come from?
  12. Gravitate in your empathizing and your design thinking process between flaring and focusing
  13. When defining, start with an observation, make an inference, then form a hunch that can carry you to insight
  14. Solve one problem at a time
  15. POV essentials: preserve emotion and the individual, use strong language, sensical wording, non-obvious leaps and generate possibilities that lead to problems the team wants to help solve
  16. 5 users are sufficient to capture 85% of usability cases
  17. Tail-end users have explicit needs and better represent the implicit needs of median users
  18. The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed
  19. Trusting relationships are the foundation of generative work
  20. Learn how things fail before it matters, not when it does
  21. You can only learn by doing, not by planning
  22. Match prototyping resolution to idea certainty to allow yourself to hear the inevitable critical feedback
  23. Testing = empathy; your prototype is your empathy probe
  24. The value is in the user and their emotions, not in the prototype or experience model itself
  25. The goal is to develop empathy with the user, not the make the prototype perfect; seek understanding
  26. All action aims at advancing the frame and the concept towards convergence
  27. What do your users say about the concept? The users’ reactions and excitement indicate proximity to convergence and likely next steps
  28. 3 elements of storytelling: action, emotion and detail
  29. 100% of people who succeed, start
  30. Struggle and learning are complements; there is no learning without struggle, and the more one struggles, the more one has opportunity to learn; you can not master new knowledge from a place of comfort

Some or even many of these are probably difficult to make sense of or place without further context about the design thinking process.