William of Ockham was a fourteenth-century logician and Franciscan friar in England. He came up with the lex parsimoniae, or the law of succinctness, which says entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Occam's razor, as it came to be known, states that when given two equally valid explanations for a phenomenon, one should embrace the less complicated. Or, as architect Mies van der Rohe famously said, "Less is more."
At about the same time, on the other side of Europe, a bishop representing Pope Benedict XI was sent to find the best painters in Italy. There was to be an important commission offered in the Vatican, and the Pope wanted the only very best artist to do it.
The bishop told Giotto, who was among the first Renaissance painters and was famous for his skill and his tendency to be a hermit, that the Pope wanted to make use of his services and asked him for a drawing to send to the Pope. At this, Giotto took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red paint, and with a twist of his hand drew such a perfect circle that it was a marvel to see. Then, with a smile, he said to the bishop, "There's your drawing." As if he were being ridiculed, the bishop replied, "Is this the only drawing I'm to have?" "It's more than enough," answered Giotto. "Send it along and you'll see whether it's understood."
What a perfect demonstration of Occam's razor. Giotto got the job.
Fast-forward a few centuries. I was having a conversation with a friend some years ago, before personal computers were so ubiquitous. We were discussing the merits of a new typewriter that was touted by its manufacturer as a "word processor." It was very expensive, more than a basic PC costs today, and we wondered aloud if it was worth it. Then he said, "You know, a pencil is a word processor, it's just slower than some others."
I've come back to that conversation many times, in many situations. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in names and definitions that we forget that what is at the real heart of the matter is very simple. It was Occam's razor all over again.
Recently, I paid a visit to a friend of mine, the principal of local middle school, to show him some of my experiments with Linux. I brought a computer, a flat screen monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse, and set up a temporary office in his office. For years I had been searching for a better operating system for myself, and possibly for use at school.
I had long ago given up on Windows, and had been recently concentrating on the Apple OS. It still left me with a feeling of powerlessness, because the developers only allow users to do a limited number of things, and those only with permission. I wanted something much more flexible. When researching different open source answers, I was looking for: 1) ease of operation and administration; 2) availability of applications; and 3) community support for trouble-shooting and expansion.
I turned on the box, an ancient (five years old) Dell PC that I had bought for next to nothing. It was a dirty beige and it made lots of, well, unique noises. As the computer roared to life, a brand-spanking new version of Linux lit up the screen. It looked very modern, with a beautiful splash screen and icons for the latest and fastest applications decorating the desktop. I started up some of the programs. This computer was lightning fast! It had everything one could want in a brand new computer. I explained to my friend that this was open source software, and that it was free.
My friend, the principal, was speechless. He called in some of his teachers to look at the computer I had brought, and they, too, were astounded. They all wanted to touch it, as though it might impart some of its magic to them. They tried it. They were hooked. I explained that this little computer, less than what any of them had in their own classrooms but more powerful, and was loaded with free software, software that they could use at their school. Less was more!