Wolfram Alpha and My Great Grandparents

by Dave on May 1, 2010

From 2000 until 2004, I studied mathematics as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia.  It’s probably more accurate to say it was until 2003 that I studied mathematics, because my workaholism took over and by the time I stopped attending UBC to pursue a designation as a Certified Management Accountant, I was taking 3 arts courses for every science course just because of my capacity for learning in the limited time I had.  I digress.

I was not on pace to be a very good mathematician.  I’d like to finish my degree in mathematics one day, and it’s on the radar, but I don’t think it’ll ever directly pay my bills.  What my time studying mathematics did do was allow me to begin to foster an alliance between my creative and analytical selves – the former having been ignored and driven down deep inside me for much too long.  This is the basis for a new business I am planning to start this summer with a formal launch currently in the works – stay tuned.

On a grander scale, last year there was the premiere of Wolfram Alpha.  It was announced with much fanfare and then quickly disappeared when most people really couldn’t figure out what to do with it.  Due to my unfortunate bout with workaholism, I missed all this and that turned out to be a blessing.

I watched Stephen Wolfram’s TED talk this morning and was very excited to learn to apply some of his philosophies, including the idea that I need to accept that some things, such as the universe, may not be computational nor apply to the innate reductionist mentality myself and those around me tend to maintain.  The talk is here:

I am actually quite excited by one idea that I plan to take away and apply as I start up my own business.  He touches on it at the beginning and ties it together at the end of his talk:

  • “I started drilling down and thinking about the computations I wanted to do and thinking about what primitives they might be built up from and how they could be automated as much as possible.” (0:55)
  • “In the computational universe, we’ve now seen how rules that are incredibly simple can produce incredibly rich and complex behaviour.” (14:24)

These are two very powerful statements that people either knowingly or unknowingly arrive at all the time.

It’s touched on in E-Myth by Michael Gerber, Good to Great by Jim Collins, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by James Harnish, virtually any Peter Legge book and probably also espoused by your wise grandfather or any number of mentors and coaches you’ll ever have.  Wolfram put it nicely, but we owe a lot to Whitehead and Russell as well.

You start with some very simple philosophies and then derive the rich and complex behaviours of your life or business.  When you have those primitives, perhaps otherwise known as your values or most basic behaviours that can’t be broken down any lower, you’re ready to start building.  When you lack consistency in maintaining the same building blocks of your more complex activities, it’s very challenging to hold things together and build upon what has already been constructed.

For my own business, I am currently identifying what my primitives are and how I will apply them to my clients.  If you are able to identify your fundamental, most primitive behaviours, they can be incredibly powerful.

I was reminded of this two nights ago while on a bike ride to UBC.  There’s a little park in Kitsilano in Vancouver BC called Delamont Park:  It’s near the last residence of my great grandmother, Ruth (Foster) Macdonald, whom I met and enjoyed many conversations with – every kid should be so lucky to hang out with such an old soul.  There’s a bench dedicated to my great grandparents and its inscription reads:

In memory of Ruth (Foster) Macdonald 1907-1999
And Don Macdonald 1905 – 1973 Vancouver born
soulmates.  Thank you for teaching us about life,
love, generosity, compassion and humility.

Just like that – their primitives and fundamentals live on as the things we are thankful for in having known them.  So very powerful and unfortunately so often overlooked.

If they’re what we’re thankful for in life, what nature uses to build the universe, what we use to understand the universe and what we’re always told to ensure we maintain, it’s worth making sure we’ve got the right set.

Thanks to Stephen Wolfram and TED for kicking off today’s random thought.

Bench - Ruth (Foster) Macdonald

  • http://donforan.blogspot.com Don Foran

    Thank-you Dave for sharing your thoughtful and poignant insights on this matter, as it hits so very close to home for me reading your “random thought” upon returning from my best friend’s funeral (William Roberts Windwick). Your timing is as impeccable as your intelligence.
    The inscription on the bench was actually composed by Don’s (my namesake) & Ruth’s only daughter, the late Ruthven Louise (Macdonald) Foran- my mother, who was often published in local papers writing letters to the editor on the sad demise of the train tracks beside the Park.
    The cremated ashes of both Ruth and Louise were ceremoniously scattered on and around the bench, and in the surrounding bushes by the immediate surviving family members-including by my father, the late George Patrick Foran who soon joined his “soulmate” the year following.
    May they all rest in peace, lest we forget.
    Thanks Dave. Go Canucks go.

  • Dave Macdonald

    Thanks for that, Don. I was at my mom’s for dinner with Terry and shared this around.

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