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Arts Versus Sciences: A Dispatch From the Font Lines

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Once in a while I'm asked how to write a good blog post. I don't actually know if my blog posts are any good, as I got this blogging gig by fiat rather than merit. But I enjoy reading blogs and I wish more people took up the art of long-form texting. The two most difficult obstacles to effective blogging are choosing a worthy topic (with which you have something important to say) and finding the time to write the words. Here's my secret for figuring out what to write: browse the Internet without a purpose.

Every Saturday morning I get up, feed the cats and myself, watch the Colbert Report, and browse the Internet. After an hour of not really looking for anything in particular I get a couple of blog post ideas to mull over. This morning the top story on Y Combinator's Hacker News led me to a fancy blog post on Deviant Art about how learning to draw is more important to our collective futures than learning to code. This seemed to be the exact opposite, perhaps even the inverse or reverse, of my advice last week that learning to code was absolutely essential to success! Challenge accepted!

I have something to say on this subject because I am both a coder and drawer. I have been dealing with this battle between left- and right-brained people, as the kids say, like, forever. As a youngster I wanted to draw comic books, play lead guitar in a rock band, solve famous topological math problems like the Bridges of Konigsberg, invent codes and cyphers, and be an astronaut. It is easy to see that I accomplished none of those things. But I still don't draw a big fat line between what we moderns classify as an art and what we call a science.

This separation between arts and sciences is one of those areas where contemporary thinking has fallen behind our medieval, Roman, and Greek cultural ancestors. It's an illusion with huge unfortunate consequences. It is a battle where I firmly wish to be seen in the middle, not advocating one side or the other, because I would not be where I am today, helping to lead one of the most technologically advanced groups of liberal arts majors on the Internet, if I wasn't a coder who draws.

Paul Graham sums it up really well in his more-relevant-than-ever essay Hackers and Painters: "Hackers need to understand the theory of computation about as much as painters need to understand paint chemistry." As an academically trained painter I can tell you I know more than I care to remember about the physical and chemical properties of oil, acrylic, and watercolor pigments, suspensions, and thinners. The modern romantic notion that artists, musicians, and writers "just do it" is as big a myth as the idea that engineers, scientists, and doctors do not require inspiration and creativity to get their work done.

Fred Brooks wrote two of my all-time favorite books: The Mythical Man Month (which made me a much better manager of projects) and the Design of Design. Brooks sees style, imagination, and sketching as a big part of the engineering process. What is his best advice to the young software designer (whom Graham would call a hacker) for self improvement? "Constantly sketch designs" and "The aspiring young software designer might well keep a notebook of patterns he encounters and invents in his own little constructions." And "Leonardo's Notebooks are a rich example of how this is best practiced."

What the heck was Leonardo da Vinci anyway? Artist? Scientist? Hacker? All of the above.

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I spent one semester pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts degree. I had to drop out for various reasons, mostly financial, but really the cost was just an excuse. It was disheartening to see how some of the students and instructors vilified scientists back then. In one of my last painting classes the professor rolled in a TV and proceeded to mock the researchers featured on a NOVA special. Her message was: We artist are more in touch with humanity than those cold-hearted egg heads. At 23 I was already too old and too busy for that kind of poppycock and balderdash. I was already coding by then and I still wanted to be an astronaut.

I wish our thinking and our educational system would go back to the original definition of the Artes Liberals: Life skills that help us become great people. In addition to grammar, rhetoric, and logic, I would add coding and drawing.

Drawing helps us see. Long ago, while I was still in elementary school, I drew a portrait of my father. He was quite startled to see all the lines I etched into his face. I didn't realize it but I had seen something he had missed in the mirror: His fading youth. It was about this time that he accepted I was not going to be a mathematician as he was.

I believe that we don't see, really deeply see, until we take pen to paper and draw. Even if your hand is shaky and your proportions are out of whack, drawing is seeing.

I believe that we don't understand, really deeply understand, until we take fingers to keyboard and code. At HuffPost we take our editorial process and embody it in our content management system. Nothing forces you to understand the nature of a process like trying to memorialize it in computer software. Even if your code is clumsy and slow, coding is understanding.

If Leonardo were alive today you would find his artwork on Deviant Art and his code on GitHub.

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