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…

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

What we talk about when we talk about hand tools

using a spokeshave at the shaving horse

In the spring of 2021 I started writing, elsewhere, a series of think-pieces about technology in the woodshop, beginning with the question What is a hand tool, anyway?, continuing through the effects of tools and tool use on the worker and the world, and working towards, as I found, a sort of rubric for evaluating tools for wise and responsible use. As I mean to pick up this thread, I have moved the pieces here and am linking to them below, in the order written, and will link new pieces here as I write them. I am also tagging them with work and the worker, which opens a few more doors and will likely range a little further.

A couple of things to note. First, I mean this to be a practical discussion, not a purely philosophical one. Second, although my particular interest is woodworking, I believe the discussion and tentative conclusions are applicable far more widely. In fact, I think there’s real value, at this point in time, to come at the problem of technology use from a perspective other than that of the digital — i.e., other than that unique to this point in time. We’ll see if it bears fruit.

  1. What is a “hand tool,” anyway?
  2. Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”
  3. Tools and externalities

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.

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.

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.)

What homeschool science looks like

This year I’m teaching my daughter physics, and though you might think it would be easy for a guy with a degree in physics to teach eighth-grade physics, it is not. It is undoubtedly easier than it would be if I didn’t have a degree in physics, but that’s not a high bar, you know? Much of physics beyond the most elementary observation is deeply mathematical; you need at least first-year algebra to make any sense of it, and at least a year of calculus to make a lot of sense. And to the extent that there are simple, practical, hands-on ways of exploring deep concepts, I didn’t learn them in college. So, for example, I did lots of fancy calculations of torque but never built a trebuchet, and I learned to analyze the role of a capacitor in a circuit but never built a Leyden jar. Teaching middle-school physics, then, has been an opportunity for me to fill in some rather distressing gaps in my own education, and to think about what I did learn in new ways.

To wit: In planning our unit on electricity and magnetism I stumbled across a book called Safe and Simple Electrical Experiments, by Rudolf F. Graf. Since it was published in 1960, “safe” assumes something slightly less than the helicopter parent’s standard of child care, and “simple” assumes a child whose brain has not been squeezed completely to mush by electronic devices: all the better! You have to think to do this stuff, and fiddle with things when they don’t work the first time, and there are delightful instructions on how you can give your friend an unpleasant but allegedly harmless shock. On the negative side, some of what were considered household objects in 1960, such as vinyl records, may not be as easily accessible in 2017. But there are nearly always substitutes if you hunt for them.

As our culminating project, we built a working telegraph. I will let Dear Daughter explain it herself. (Video after the jump.)

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.

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:

Technological change and the hard work of parenting

Alison Gopnik reports in the Wall Street Journal: “Two large-scale surveys done in 2007 and 2013 in the Netherlands and Bermuda, involving thousands of adolescents, found that teenagers who engaged in more online communication also reported more and better friendships.”

That’s a heartening correlation to anyone who doesn’t want to have to worry about the consequences their kids’ technology use, but it isn’t causality. It should not be surprising that people who have more and closer friendships would communicate with those friends by whatever means their society and economy provides, and that “more online communication” would thus correlate with “more and better friendships.” I do wonder what, exactly, “more and better friendships means”; in particular I wonder if the researchers’ construction of that idea ultimately collapses into a definition of extraversion, but I’m not interested enough to dig up the original article. I’m more interested in Gopnik’s use of the study, which is to dismiss the worries of parents (or of anyone else) as mere nostalgia.