Technology and active listening

You can never tell how big or how serious a trend is just from reading it about it in the newspaper, so when Melissa Korn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that college professors are increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms, I had to ask, what kind of growth and what kind of absolute numbers are we talking about? Like, two percent? Three guys the reporter ran into at a bar? But I’m intrigued, and maybe even gladdened, if there’s any trend that direction at all, because the more I’ve considered the ways I read, write, listen, and take notes, the less optimistic I am about the role of computers in those activities.

For example: I’ve been researching a new novel that takes place in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and so I’m reading and digging widely — about the war, Pennsylvania German culture and language, the locations where the action occurs, farming practices, and so on. Some of this gets pretty specific: How would you build a fence, from start to finish, relying on your Pennsylvania woodlot and hand tools? What would your mobility be like with an unrepaired ACL tear? I started out from old habit doing historical research using Zotero to take notes, but while traditional formal notetaking practice is great for academic citations and bibliographies, it’s cumbersome if you’re writing fiction and all you need is plausibility. And while the ability to keyword-search a two-year corpus of research is tremendously useful if you’re writing a dissertation or a monograph, most of what I find myself asking comes up as I’m writing and is used almost immediately. Not to mention that if I’m reading a book while I wait to pick up my daughter from dance class, I have to carry my laptop with me.

So a few weeks ago I switched to using a bound notebook, hand-numbering the pages, and indexing topics in the front. It’s simpler and more convenient. But it’s also improved my research in a couple of interesting ways. For one thing, when I’m writing (which I do on a laptop, for very different but equally practical reasons), I don’t have to switch to another app to check my notes; I can flip through my notebook on my desk. Why is that better? Because I don’t lose my place in what I’m writing, and I’m not tempted to, say, check my email. The notebook doesn’t shift my focus.

notebook and pen

I also find, as I’ve found in any number of other tasks, that the body plays a role in memory. I am often quicker recalling where in the notebook a bit of information was, and in fact where on the page it was, than I am in remembering what keyword I used to index it. Even better, I’m more likely now to find that I don’t have to refer to my notes at all, because the very act of writing something down — and I mean writing it by hand with a pen — helps commit it to memory in a way that typing it doesn’t. (Let alone cutting and pasting.) Continue reading “Technology and active listening”

Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest

This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.

I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”

Some thoughts on learning together

Most of what I’ve learned about both cooking and woodworking I’ve learned on my own, from books, from the internet, occasionally from television, and from experimentation. There’s been a lot of what I’d not uncharitably call hacking. Much of it has worked. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of direct instruction, and by direct I mean in-person, physical instruction. There are questions you can’t ask of a book and answers you can’t get without physical presence.

Here’s an example. I learned to cut pretty good dovetails by watching Roy Underhill on television and reading his books, and then by practicing. But when he opened his Woodwright’s School I jumped at the chance to take a basic joinery class, because by then, fifteen years into my haphazard and frequently interrupted pursuit of hand-tool woodworking, I had a pretty good sense of what I wasn’t figuring out on my own. I knew how the tools worked, what the process was, and what the result should look like, and I could replicate all that decently, but something was missing.

So I took a class on what I supposedly already knew how to do. When Roy stopped by the bench to check on my progress, I knew what I wanted to know: How do you stand in relation to the work? Where do your feet go and where do they point? How can I best use my hands and fingers to guide the chisel when I’m paring? It’s elementary stuff, the kind of thing you get on day one in a face-to-face class or an apprenticeship, but it’s hard to see on video and harder to interpret from books. As I said last week about the difficulty of learning from cookbooks, this isn’t a limitation of the authors or directors, but of the medium. Woodworking is a physical craft; you learn it best from physical presence! While it can be reduced to a process, a procedure, an algorithm, doing so… reduces it. The physical, bodily aspect is lost, and the bodily aspect, of course, is the one that matters most.

Anyway, I got what I needed from that class. What I had been doing sort of jangled around, getting decent results but never feeling right and eventually stalling on a plateau; now my work slipped into a groove where I could keep improving. I’ve made a few adjustments since, but they’re gradual improvements or experiments from a solid foundation. I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

What to do about that is the question, and I don’t know how to answer it, except to say more community. (I was going to say that I can’t imagine how traditional woodworking could have been revived without technologically mediated communication — television, internet, radio maybe not so much. But of course if we didn’t have technologically mediated communication, we might still have something more like traditional community in which it was easier to work together, literally together. So I was imagining our society as it presently is without some of the things that made it what it is but that also provide us a means of navigating it, which is nightmarishly dystopian but not very realistic. So never mind that.)

Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading “Learning and the immediacy of correction”

Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating

A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.

Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs. Continue reading “Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating”

Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing. Continue reading “Conserving our self-image”

Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina

The following is slightly adapted from a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012. I have not included citations as there would be quite a few and they likely aren’t desirable in this context, but if you’re looking for a reference, please contact me.

herb garden
The herb garden at the George Washington Birthplace. Photograph by Virginia Travis licensed Creative Commons.

Few Americans today venture much deeper into herbal medicine than the occasional cup of chamomile tea or bar of oatmeal soap. We don’t even cook with herbs nearly as much as we once did, unless we’re cooking Mediterranean, and hardly anybody has an herb garden. But a hundred fifty years ago or more in North Carolina, you’d have used herbs for food, for medicine, for aromatics, and for dyes. And many herbs had multiple uses. You’d have used thyme to flavor a stew or enhance a salad, but you might also have used it to (as the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper said) “purge the body of phlegm” or eliminate intestinal parasites. You might have used bloodroot, a local wildflower, to make a red dye for clothing, but it could also be used as a mouthwash. Roses smelled sweet, as Shakespeare famously said, but they could also flavor cakes or cure a headache. From the common pine to the lovely rose, from wild lettuce to English thyme, almost every plant North Carolinians have known has found a use at the table or in the medicine chest — and sometimes both, because food and medicine were often one and the same. Continue reading “Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina”

Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. Continue reading “Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work”

Smart tools, dumb craft

I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.

I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.

Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.

I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations: Continue reading “Smart tools, dumb craft”

The devil of false precision

Eating lunch today I noticed on my bottle of soy sauce the words expiration date on label and, an inch away, a dot matrix stamp: 2019.03.28 14:48.

I expect that the stuff was bottled on March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm and that it’s supposed to be good for three years from the date of bottling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s good until March 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm. Certainly a machine can record the exact time of bottling, but the idea that the soy sauce is good for exactly three years, for three years down to the minute, is absurd — as if, at twelve minutes to three on a particular March afternoon two years from now, the contents of the bottle will instantly develop a fuzzy blue mold and smell distinctly of gasoline. Obviously that’s absurd.

For one thing, it was bottled in Taiwan, so it would actually expire at 1:48 am EST and not in the middle of the afternoon.

“Three years from date of bottling” means three years, give or take. Give or take what? That’s the question. Six months, maybe? I would assume that they kept a bottle around for three years and it seemed to be okay. I doubt it’s very scientific at all. But it’s so easy just to take the present time, add three years, and stamp it on the bottle.

The expiration date on my soy sauce is not in itself a big deal. (I’ll use it within a few months anyway.) But this kind of arbitrary precision is everywhere — the practice of assigning a number to something, giving it as many decimal places as we can, and then slapping it on a label, noting it in a chart, entering it into a database — where it takes on a kind of magical invincibility, a rightness that can no longer be questioned or challenged. There are cases where this might have disastrous consequences, but more important is the impression of invincibility. Knowledge is power; false precision is an implication of knowledge; therefore false precision is an assumption of power. False precision is one way that science and industry and government claim power over us. But wallpapering the world with false precision builds false confidence in our own abilities, individually and collectively.

Every measurement is an estimate. If I were king of the world, I’d decree that every published measurement must be accompanied by a margin of error, e.g. “Expires on 2019.03.28 14:48 ± 6 mos.” It would be honest, it would be accurate, and it would remind everyone many times a day of the limits of human knowledge.

(And no, since you ask, I cannot think of anything better for a king to do than to demand accountability and humility from the powers of the world. Can you?)