Wednesday, February 2, 2011
A Chair, A Book, His Life and Her Cover
After work today I wanted to get a cup of coffee. So I went to the bookstore and coffee in hand looked around. I oftentimes think to myself while doing stuff at home and around town, "why in the world did I once go to the bookstore and library so much?" And then, like this afternoon, I'll be at the bookstore or library and my mind will be blown by a number of things, and it all comes back to me.
A few weeks ago I was at the bookstore and saw a publication by the folks who do Make magazine. The book was more or less a Chemistry Sets for Dummies book. I pulled it off the shelf convinced it was somehow over selling itself, since such a book, well done, is approaching a holy grail for me... and what do you know? It's really well done. A couple days later I was watching a lecture by a robotics engineer and he casually mentioned a mass spectrometer he built through the ministrations of Make magazine. I'm going to have to subscribe immediately. The Chemistry set book is so incredibly great. It's staggering to me that kids don't receive Chemistry sets these days. That I don't receive Chemistry sets these days. It actually just occurred to me that I should make a few sets and try selling them through some friends. I'll bet you could sell them pretty easily (with a robust waiver, of course.)
Today's finds at the bookstore were pretty amazing, too. I frequently read Taunton Press magazines like all the "Fine...." franchises. They are incredibly well written testaments of the quality not only of certain kinds of human interest, i.e. Carpentry and Crafts. But, also of the soul undergirding many craftspersons endeavors. Sometimes people express very complex worldviews in the simplest of explanations. Building a table becomes a parable of a craftpersons many faceted life. Many of Taunton's articles and the books they get turned into reflect this.
I was looking at the quilting section... I had never really looked very hard at it before. My mother is a wonderful quilter, and has done some stuff with fabric that staggers me. Partially due to her, but really just the inherent beauty of the art and craft of fabric work is something I'd like to pay a great deal more attention to. Textiles as materials rival some of the mathematical genius in nature in terms of their complexity and the ingenuity of their design and manufacture. Without doubt the early twentieth century computers made thorough use of the elaborate encoding cards that told automated looms what to do in the printing of incredibly detailed custom weavings. Coding for fabric threaded the needle (I can't resist) for computers. What other paradigm could have assisted in the mechanization of patterned "loops" of instruction? And, a surprising quantity of delicious math goes into my Moms quilts. Though, she doesn't often put it exactly that way. I see a lot of quilts as gorgeous meldings of soulful human sentiment into the simplified fractals that most directly provide us with pleasure in both the natural and handmade world. Digital quilts on TV aren't so popular precisely because the symbolism and aesthetics of quilts are less then half their soul. They are first and foremost the masterworks of ingenious human beings... oftentimes like a skater executing a killer trick, gleeking out with incredible complexity and verve. At least that's what my Mom does. Quilt or die, Maam!
I noticed beside the quilting books something else. And to my shame, given what I wrote above, I temporarily forgot about quilting. The books were all about furniture design. I'd never seen but a few of them. The carpentry section doesn't include them. While none of them are particularly amazing, looking through the books was pretty cool. One of the chair builders I read had an extremely cool sense of humor. He was also wicked honest. He said he frequently autopsies his old chairs and looks at their joinery (cutting them in half.) This practice had caused him to make some pretty significant changes to his practices. He mentions, for example, not making mortise holes so snug that expansion and contraction causes a crack. He found a number of causes of cracks in his work, and eliminated the offending practice to the best of his ability. He also explained something I frequently wonder about when I am in my friend's antique shops. The chairs in these shops can be well over a hundred years old, and in some cases, will obviously never have been disassembled. With nothing but glued up joinery and nothing but abuse to look forward to, how in the world do chairs last? (how many valuable objects do we abuse more than a chair? I was looking with admiration upon the ratty old wooden chair of the bookstore I was in. Funny how the book was a window into what I was sitting on... making me more alive with wonder.) Some really fascinating answers were provided by the author. Basically, three things give chairs their strength. The first is materials. Chairs, real stiled, crafted chairs without fasteners, joined together. These are made of prescribed materials, chosen by tradition for strength, in a manner that truly puts them in a category pretty far away from any carpentry I ever do. Their woods are oftentimes from the oak family, and split along the natural lines of tension in a tree, rather than sawn. This is believed to give the wood extra strength (I'm convinced it does not... however, like many other human convictions, the belief sustains a credo that infects the rest of the process with confidence, honesty and truth.) The second is that chairs are fastened together, with adhesives and clever joinery. Joinery has a surface area which, provided the adhesive is doing its job, dwarfs a fastener, in terms of it's ability to withstand abuse. I've written elsewhere as to the astonishing lifespan of colonial homes in America that were pegged together. Nails and screws turn to dust eventually. Joinery turns to dust on a horizon that, scaled to human lifespans, is a nearly spiritual matter. And the last thing that makes chairs last so long is what Buckminster Fuller called "Tensegrity." Tensegrity is the merging of the words "tension" and "integrity." Any civil engineer will tell you that you must exert tension in order to keep a road surface above a river... or, a building above six stories. Try spanning a great distance with an unreinforced concrete beam. Stone has compressive strength, but under tension (or hell, just through gravity alone) stone cracks and breaks. That's why you'll find building materials of stone in bricks, slabs, and other large items of great thickness. A beam of stone would break under tension. Buckminster Fuller noticed that by creating skeletons of tensioned "bones" in his vehicles and architectural designs, he could span distances that freed him up for organic shapes, and more biological aesthetics that justifiably made him famous (even if round spaces are a disaster to the rather square sensibilities of human civic engagement.) It's worth pointing out that Cathedral makers approached Fullers ideas through their iterative development of spidery stonework and buttresses. The chair-maker I read explained how he devised flaws in his designs which caused the mortises of his chairs to only grudgingly accept their mating tenons. By forcing these unwilling joints together, his chairs become unified under stress and tension. It is this tension in classic chair design (like many pre-industrial arts, barely articulated except through tradition) that causes the chairs to remain whole, long after their joints glue turns to dust. Really? Really. The "flaw" that is often pointed out as a component of many traditional cultures folk art forms... like an ancient tapestry reveals an interrupted series with a slightly flawed instance of variation.... turns out to be a component of some of the most Cartesian seeming objects. For all the hurtling desire of a chair maker to give his crafted object strength and perfect 4 legged poise upon the plane of the floor--- their exists in his endeavor the dope of imperfection.
I also read some of a brand new book about consciousness and how it arose from the dynamics between the brain and body, not only the brain. It's author is a Neuro-Scientist, and some of the sentences in it cracked me up. At one point the author was describing certain organized dances between different neurons and the body and he flatly states after a few paragraphs of fairly esoteric anatomic and pathological description, "it is thought that those phenomena may amount to what we experience as "feelings." I'll remember that next time I piss a woman off. "You don't know what I feel!" she'll say. "I have some idea..." I'll unwisely reply, taking an book off the shelf to read a bizarre passage. Love...
It's remarkable how cognitive science and robotics have allowed us to begin to question the deity status of our human brains. While only a fool would claim that the brain is even remotely understood (look up work that is being undertaken to map it some time. Experts who are responsible for actually mapping neurons, like a street map, aren't too depressed.... in case you don't know this, we aren't even remotely close to doing this. The experts say they figure one day we'll have some robots which might be able to automate the mapping to absurd scales of endeavor, which might get it done within a human lifetime. I more or less believe that. And yet, what it intimates is that the human brain, physiologically, is like an inward universe. That I have one (I tap my skull) right here, right now, is funny. My strange little priceless patch of the infinite. And can I fly across this eight pound Universe? No more, really, than I can it's somewhat heavier sibling. The reason I mentioned questioning this remarkable organ, is that Cog Sci is really just what they used to call artificial intelligence. It is mapping, aping, and attempting to replicate the astonishing biological emergence of cognition, that is the driver these days of the best questions about the brain. And much of the modeling (proto- cognition) that happens in the brain turns out to be highly assisted by our bodies continual feedback. The conversation between the body and brain turns out to be some pretty astonishing architecture. And it just might be that all of what we colloquially call human thought, feeling and comedy happens in that space, in that conversation. Not the product of a particular structure of the brain. Not a function of form or intention at all. (a wonderful lesson in any case.... sense I suppose I was something like 33 years old before I realized that evolution does not intend the improvements that are owed to it. There isn't a hierarchy of evolutionary direction. And natural selection will just as happily deselect traits human beings regard as dear and valuable, as it surely has encouraged the same: but crucially, through no intention, or "improvement" of any kind. Sight and flying evolved into existence and out of existence tens to hundreds of times. Natural selection does not prefer a trait: it reflects, as a theory of ecology, that traits come and go by their impact upon the fertility and survivability of the species. That is why eugenics are actually not Darwinian, though they are frequently called that, and for all practical purposes you'd have to be a jerk to deny the colloquial meaning of "Darwinian." The survival of the fittest. But what is fit, to the maul of Mama Nature? Surely not the perfect fit to some Southern Hoosier's presumptions! But, none the less, the improvement of the species by cunning genetic manipulation and breeding has nothing whatsoever to do with the underlying principles that Darwin developed his views through.)
One of the best things about the book was a beautifully designed cover showing the title and a large letter "i." Next to the "i" there were some variations on a filled circle that seemed merely koan like at a glance. Then your mind sort of kicks in and you realize that the "i" is obviously punning the subject of the book, which is clever enough. And the little half and whole circles are stages of a rising sun, ending with the dot on the eye. The number of archetypes this clean little execution touches is staggering. And it hits you like a shot of bourbon on the tongue of a babe. I could have bought it for the cover alone.