Of lunatics and vocabulary

I recently finished reading Rebecca West’s classic 1940 tome Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, chronicling her travels through what was then Yugoslavia along with pretty much everything she learned about the history of that region. There are many, many things I could comment on in that book, and maybe I will in the coming days, but one thing I find sticking with me is her distinction between “idiots” and “lunatics.” When West learns that the King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated and reacts with horror, her nurse assumes she must have known the man personally. West comments:

Her question made me remember that the word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.

I could observe that the last eighty years have brought us to the point where women are as apt to be lunatics as men, and where the prevalence and penetration of public media into daily life makes it difficult for anyone to be an idiot, however hard they may try: think of the elderly shut-in who does little all day but watch television and thus has an opinion on every damned thing that happens in the world. A hundred years ago she would have been an idiot; now she is, at best, a kind of lunato-idiot hybrid, kept from full lunacy by her incapacity for action. But set that aside.

What’s really interesting to me about this distinction is simply that West makes it. Here are two words apt to be used almost interchangeably by way of dismissing their object, which become, thanks to this combination of etymology and poetry, useful tools for distinguishing among similar concepts, yet endowed with the power of metaphor to prevent those distinctions from growing too narrow. What words ought to be, I think. Much later in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West observes that women’s idiocy has often been the only thing to save civilization from men’s lunacy, and the words are both shorthand and illustration, at once zipping up an argument and unpacking it. Beautiful.

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is the interchangeability of all the various words we have to praise a thing, the words we trot out when “good” isn’t enough. All come from different roots, and considered etymologically ought surely to mean different things, or at least to shade meaning differently. Excellent is fairly clinical: to excel, to exceed, to stand outside the usual and the expected. Wonderful ought to mean full of wonders, a thing to be wondered at, a mystery. Fantastic suggests fantasy, a thing that surely cannot be real. Fabulous also suggests untruth, but more pointedly: a fabulist is a liar. A thing truly awesome ought to bring us to our knees in an attitude almost of worship. And so on.

Biodiesel people vs. electric car people

The subject of biodiesel came up last week, and in explaining the concept to my daughter I remembered how much I’m drawn to it—as opposed to electric cars, which I instinctively distrust. That statement says as much about me as it does about the two technologies, so let me unpack it a little.

Here’s why I’m drawn to biodiesel:

1. Biodiesel piggybacks on existing technology. We already know how to build and maintain diesel engines.
2. At its best, biodiesel turns waste material—used vegetable oils—into fuel rather than requiring new production.
3. You can literally make biodiesel in your back yard. More practically, it can be made on a community scale.

Will biodiesel solve all the world’s problems? No. It is a small and partial solution to an enormous global problem, which though it cannot solve the whole, nevertheless—by virtue of being small!—empowers people to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Moreover, in principle, it creates no new problems that others will have to solve later, e.g. waste that will have to be cleaned up.

The electric car, by contrast, promises a total solution to that enormous global problem—but one that, by its very totality, disempowers people. The electric car…

On “good work” and the Tao

I have been (slowly, irregularly) making my way through Jonathan Star’s translation of, and commentary on, the Tao Te Ching. I read another translation of the Tao some years ago and remember little enough of it. I like this edition because Star offers not only a literary translation by line and verse but a verbatim translation: an analysis of the various possible meanings of each character in the original, thus giving the Westerner a better idea of just how difficult and dangerous a literary translation may be. As he explains in his introduction:

Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language; it is unlike English and other Western languages, which are perceptual. Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences. Ancient Chinese is based on pictorial representations, without grammar. Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. (p. 3)

Any specific literary translation into English should therefore be held lightly—if not taken lightly; the concept is dear, but any specific perception of it is necessarily partial. I offer this as preface to everything I may say about the Tao: I know about enough to be dangerous, and anything I say should also be held lightly (if not, again, taken lightly).

I ought also to admit that I am approaching the Tao with a particular guiding question, which has to do with what I will loosely call good work. This is not the proper way to introduce that concept, but I’ll try to get around to an introduction later. What I mean right now by good work has to do particularly with technological making, and I’m guided to the Tao for insight into questions about work and technology by Alan Jacobs’ essay in the New Atlantis last year, “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living,” which I strongly recommend.

So. This morning I was poring over verse 3, in which the Sage “shows people how to be simple and live without desires,” which is boilerplate religious wisdom, but also “to be content and not look for other ways,” which could be taken as a repetition of the prior line but struck me as subtly and significantly different.

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again.

What is a “hand tool,” anyway?

When I describe my work I usually say that I do “hand-tool woodworking,” or that I work primarily or exclusively with hand tools. Nobody has ever asked me what I mean by “hand tools,” so presumably everyone has a clear idea in his or her head what I mean… or rather what they think I mean. What do I mean? What’s a hand tool, anyway? And why do I use them, as opposed to… whatever hand tools are opposed to?

Maybe this seems like a facile question. I don’t believe it is. Nor an unimportant one. If I’m only using the term for introductions at parties and taglines on business cards, then I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I mean, but if I’m trying to make serious decisions about work, then it matters a great deal. It matters in conversations with other woodworkers who use machines, and who are apt to see a hand-tool-first or hand-tool-only approach as stupidity or snobbery—opinions that I can’t refute if I can’t clearly define what I’m doing and why.

Most important, it matters in making decisions about what tool to use for a job. We all have standards by which we evaluate and adopt (or decline to adopt) technology, but few of us actually know what they are — or have considered what they should be.

But it’s also the kind of question a guy with advanced degrees who has written cultural history starts thinking about while he’s in his second hour of sawing and planing 8/4 oak. Not just why don’t I buy a freaking bandsaw? but no, really, why don’t I? This need to define my terms was made rather more urgent, if ironically also more quixotic, by my experience teaching homeschool environmental science last spring. When my daughter suggested writing her final paper on means of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, I told her she had better start by defining what a “single-use plastic” was. She spent three months, wrote nearly five thousand words, and still never quite managed a precise definition, but by the end she knew a hell of a lot more about what she didn’t know. She grew wisely ignorant, you might say, as opposed to being merely a clever fool. Which I believe to be an improvement.

So let me see if I can become at least more wisely ignorant. This will take awhile to suss out; I’ll only get started today, and I’ll post new ideas as I think of them, revising my thinking as I go. Consider this an invitation to think along with me.

I can think of several qualities that might qualify a tool as a “hand tool,” but none of them is sufficient as a definition. Let’s start with two.

The ecosystem of the workshop

As I have spent more time in the workshop the past couple of years I have been thinking more and more about what I do and why I do what I do — that is, work wood with what are commonly called “hand tools.” Certain tasks (like cutting dovetails) take all my concentration, some (ripping 8/4 stock for chair legs) take enough bodily energy that I can’t sustain a complicated conversation with myself, but others (sanding, carving spoons) leave good space for thought, and in that space I find myself asking questions that I am not always able to answer. Questions like: what is a “hand tool,” anyway?

I want to use this blog, in part, to explore those questions, if not necessarily to answer them to anybody’s satisfaction. Rather than starting with what seems like an easy one — what is a hand tool? — I’m going to start in media res, with something I was mulling yesterday: the interconnectedness of tools, materials, methods of work, and the broader economy and culture — what I think of as the “ecosystem” of the workshop. That means starting deep “in the weeds” of the craft and working my way out again. I’ll try to write in a way that gives non-specialists the gist of things without boring woodworkers. That’s a narrow target; forgive me if I don’t quite hit it in a blog post.

So, to begin, a bit of background.

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.

The hidden cost of convenience

Stopping at the grocery store today to pick up something for lunch1It was an unplanned trip, else I might have brought along one of my approximately two dozen reusable grocery bags. Emphasis on might: just as likely I’d have forgotten. I don’t claim not to be part of the problem. I was reminded that whatever our intentions, not to mention our policies and our laws, humanity will continue to screw itself. To wit: When the young man (I am now old enough to use that term) bagging groceries was about to pile everything into one paper bag, the clerk pulled out another bag and started helping him, with polite but pointed verbal correction. Everything would fit, yes, but it would make the bag too heavy, and lifted by its handles it would tear. “I’ll lift it from the bottom,” I said, “don’t waste a bag.”

Of course I got the groceries home just as well as I would have done before someone thought to put handles on paper grocery bags. So I started wondering how much more paper we now use bagging groceries because we thought they needed handles, or, rather, that we needed handles, either by splitting the groceries into smaller parcels or double bagging the larger ones. This is why although I am not opposed, in principle, to banning plastic shopping bags, I’m not enthusiastically for it, either: we’ll just find other ways of wasting resources.

Convenience costs, in other words — if not us then someone else or, more commonly, “the environment.” Of course it isn’t like anybody ever decided, yes, I want handles on my damn bags and I’ll cut down twice as many trees to get them. That we use more bags is the kind of thing that might have been foreseen but wasn’t and seldom is. Cost-benefit analysis might be a cure, but it won’t prevent further stupidity, because we can’t foresee all the consequences of our choices even if we were inclined to. What’s needed is a different ethic: to say, when confronted with a new convenience, I don’t need that. Not that all conveniences are ipso facto bad, but that our default ought to be to reject them; you can always change your mind later. Instead, our default is to accept without question any and all convenience. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep destroying everything around us.

notebook and pen

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.)