Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Low Tech’ Category

Any technology,
sufficiently advanced,
is indistinguishable
from magic.

It’s been a busy, busy start to the new year, filled with terribly mundane things—buying/selling vehicles, gathering data for financial advisors, dealing with benefits coordinators—but while I’ve been working on all of these quotidian chores, I’ve been thinking about magic.

I’ve always thought Arthur C. Clarke’s classic quotation* (paraphrased above) was pretty spot on, but now I think it needs a slight modification. For the word “advanced,” I would instead use “opaque.”

For most of my life, I never saw this quotation play out, but in my father’s last years, I got an inkling of how it worked. My dad hated computers; he never used one, hated having one in the house, and after my mom died, the computer simply gathered dust. The main reason for his distaste was not only that he didn’t understand how they worked, he didn’t understand how they could possibly work. To him, the functionality of a computer was indistinguishable from magic.

Having a rudimentary knowledge of the processes inside computers, I tried to explain to him the basics of binary code and processors and data transmission, but I quickly hit a wall; he not only didn’t understand how they could work, he didn’t want to know how they could work.  His curiosity on this topic was nil, and he returned to earth happily never having touched a computer keyboard.

This all seemed quaint and quirky and undeniably “Dad,” but recently I was surprised when I discovered that I harbored similar attitudes about some things.

Specifically, textiles.

Textiles?” I hear you say. “What’s so technologically advanced about textiles?”

To which I’d answer “Basically? Not much,” but then I’d refer you upward to where I want to replace “advanced” with “opaque.”

Like my father, I know there’s no magic involved in weaving cloth, but there are parts of it that I simply do not understand. More to the point, I can’t even visualize how they work†. However, unlike my father, I do want to understand. I know these mysteries are only born of my own ignorance, and that the mechanism is definitely within my capacity to comprehend.

This was all brought top-of-mind by a book I’m reading, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. In it, Barber takes us through the history of textiles, from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age. While reading, I was struck by the vast importance of the invention of string, was fascinated to learn how string became twine and rope, how weaving got its earliest start, how looms evolved, and how a 3,000-year old piece of cloth was made of sufficient string to stretch from Seattle to Portland. All this was perfectly understandable and clear in my mind—loom, warp, weft, shuttle, bobbin, I can see the fabric being woven in my mind’s eye—but then the mystery crept in: how does the weaver make the different colors, patterns, and textures in the cloth?

Barber makes reference to these elements, giving examples of some of the earliest colored patterns in Neolithic cloth fragments and discussing patterns in linens from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, but she doesn’t show the how of it. And when my mind rushes forward from these relatively simple fabrics to the intricate silks of the Far East and the jacquards of the West, the creation of these textiles soars beyond the limits of my ignorance and enters the realm of magic. Perceived magic, anyway.

It struck me at that moment that we all probably have something along these lines. Questions about basic things that we know work, but don’t know how they work. Even the simplest things, like, “How does a knife cut things?” I mean, does it separate things at a cellular level or a molecular level, and how? “How does humidity work?” We know it means there’s water in the air, but how does that work, and why is it worse in summer than in winter? “DNA is the ‘building block’ of life, but how does it know to make eyes green or hair curly?” Four molecules of acid woven together in a microscopic tapestry are somehow able to “instruct” the multifarious builds that make up living creatures. “How does a vinyl record create sound?” “How does a battery store electricity?”

Or maybe it’s just me.

For my part, though, having recognize these black pools of ignorance in my own mind, I know I’m going to explore them. In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet that I’m going to build myself a small table loom and play around with it. And thinking ahead, I think it’s also a safe bet that I’ll spend a large part of my retirement exploring similar pockets of How.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably be giving away tea towels and scarves for a while.

k

——————

* As an aside, regarding Clarke’s quotation: I always liked the fact that you could interpret it as having, embedded in the logic, a tacit belief in the existence of magic. If magic doesn’t exist, we can’t compare anything to it, can we. Yes, yes, you could say that Clarke means that tech is indistinguishable from our idea of magic, what we think magic would be like, but he doesn’t, does he?

† And don’t even get me started on sewing machines. I cannot fathom how you connect (repeatedly) two unbroken lengths of string/thread/rope. And every visualization I’ve seen (3D and otherwise) has not answered that question.

Read Full Post »

In late 2019, I felt my mental acuity begin to falter. I would lose track of days, couldn’t always remember whether an event was yesterday or a few days before, failed to recall conversations, and so forth. I didn’t think it was dementia (though that is one of my big fears), but rather, I felt it was a function of a stressful decade that had been filled with deaths, turmoil, and a job with a team I loathed. In short, I had a lot on my mind and I was having trouble keeping things organized.

To help with this—or at least help with keeping the days straight in my memory—I purchased a Five-Year Journal. You might have seen them; each page is dedicated to a single calendar date, but divided into five sections, one for each of five years. So, Page One is January 1st, and holds an entry for 2020, 2021, 2022, etc.

Throughout my life, I have never been a reliable journalist. Generally, I’d start a journal during difficult times—breakups, relocations, end of semester panics—using an empty composition book or something similarly cheap and utilitarian. I’d fill page after page until the crisis began to abate, and then the rest of the book would remain blank. But with this Five-Year Journal, I figured I could keep it going because (primarily) the entry slots were small, just six lines that I could fill in a couple of minutes at the end of each day. In addition, it had the added attraction of allowing me to see what happened on a single date, year after year.

I’m three years into it, now, and it has helped my memory and recall. Days have a definite division, now, as the act of summarizing them each evening sort of “cements” them in my mind. And it is a very well-crafted book: sturdy, medium-weight paper, nothing fancy or unnecessary.

However . . . an issue has arisen.

The entry slots have become too damned small.

When I started, six lines was often more than enough room to hold the mundanity of my life. When I started to write more, though—here, and elsewhere—even when using a needle-thin ballpoint and my tiny, tiny scrawl, my entries regularly began to curl up into the margins in order to finish a thought.

To fix this, armed with my nearly three years’ habit of regular journal-keeping, I went in search of a larger format. One day. One page. I wouldn’t have to fill each page (some days, six lines is still more than enough), but if I wanted to, it’d be there, ready to capture every last, tedious detail of my suburban life.

There were many to choose from. I discarded “planners” right away; I do not (thankfully) have a life that requires planning. I also decided against the “page-a-day” journals that have the hours printed down the margin because, to be honest, if I have two things to do in a single day, that’s a full day, and an hour-by-hour breakdown is serious overkill.

No, what I wanted was just one page for each day, lined, with no extraneous frippery like icons for the weather, mood indicators, or “visioning” pages. Optimally, it also needed to have paper thick enough to handle my fountain pen, had to lie flat when making a mid-year entry, and it needed to be either hardbound or sturdily paperbound. Marker ribbons would be nice, too.

It took a while (the struggle is real), but eventually I found one that ticked almost every box, including the “not stupidly expensive” box.

I present to you, the Wykeham’s Executive 2023 Daily Journal.

Don’t be off-put by the “Executive” appellation, as it is surprisingly void of any “strategic” thought pages, address books, tabs, and such. In fact, the only thing it has that even smells of the Executive are pages for tracking expenses (one per month, all up at the front and easy to ignore).

In the front sections, it has an “at-a-glance” calendar, the aforementioned expense pages, a “by month” calendar (two facing pages for each month, large enough to list birthdays and vacation schedules, but not enough to track the kids’ soccer games and doctor appointments), and then a full set of clean, lined, 5.5 x 8 inch (14 x 20 cm) pages, one for each calendar day. It’s bound in hard(ish) boards covered with faux leather, has a marker ribbon, an elastic band to keep it closed, and opens flat on every day of the year.

And, at less than $25, it won’t break the bank.

For me, it is the perfect choice. If it wasn’t already November, I would have bought one for the remainder of 2022. Looking ahead, I’d buy a 2023 edition for every journal writer as a holiday gift, but I don’t have a lot of them on my list, at least not who share my tastes and requirements.

However, if you have such a person on your list, check it out. (It comes in black as well as this English tan color, and ships in a nice hard box for easy gift wrapping.) Of course, the Five-Year Journal would work for many, too.

While I won’t have the chance to see what happened on March 2nd, five years running, I think the elbow room the larger space provides will outweigh that lack.

Especially now that “writing” is playing a greater role in my life.

k

Read Full Post »

My father was a distinctly midcentury man.

He was a man of tract homes and manual transmissions, cigarettes and pipe tobacco, straw hats and huaraches, sand dunes and surf fishing, Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, pancakes with his kids on Saturday morning and roasted meats with his dad at the table on Sunday nights.  He was a dry martini/red wine with ice kind of guy: uncomplicated, elemental, rustic, reserved.

And yet, in his final decade, I found him nearly indecipherable. (more…)

Read Full Post »

For most of my life, if I was awake, I had a book in my hand.

Riding the bus, walking to school, in the quad between classes, lounging at home, I’d have a book open, thumb in the crease, my nose buried in its leaves. Novels, anthologies, treatises, memoirs, history, science, poetry.

Anything.

Everything.

I read it.

Then, about a dozen years ago, life went off the rails. Book deals dried up. Friends and family began to die (at least ten during this period). We fostered a young woman, giving her a place to live for a year. Work became a stress factory. The economy tanked, causing the Great Recession. Then along came Trump. And then this pandemic.

In response, my reading habits changed, radically. They became constrained, limited to news articles, political analyses, and works of non-fiction. Instead of a dog-eared book, I carried my tablet with its instant-on, 24×7 access to current events and a front-row seat to our increasingly divided society.

Even so, every now and again, I would return to my fiction books, the stacks of TBR novels that inhabit every room in this house. I tried, repeatedly, to read one of them, hungry for that immersive experience, that miraculous wash of words that would sweep away reality and bathe me in the light of a different sun.

But the miracle never came. I didn’t have the patience, lacked the power to focus., and was unable to drive away the here-and-now with worlds of what-if. Book after book I picked up, opened, began, and abandoned within a few days, the only evidence of my attempt, a bookmark left somewhere in the first thirty pages.

With all this as preamble, one might wonder why, during my recent time off, I decided yet again to pick up a novel and give it a try. I mean, there I was in the last month of the most turbulent election cycle of my sixty-plus years, with a pandemic raging beyond my door, a daily gush of political scandals and turmoil filling the airwaves, and everywhere people shouting and crying and grieving and protesting. Was it hope? Obstinacy? Desperation? Whatever compelled me, it was in this moment, amid this maelstrom of chaos, that I chose to try again, and opened up a 150-year-old book.

And I read it. Cover to cover, in record time.

And then . . . I picked up another book, and read it, too.

And now, here I am, wondering what to read next.

. . .

Do yourself a favor.

Turn off the television. Put down the phone. Leave the tablet in the other room.

Pick up a book. A real book. The one you’ve been meaning to read for so long.

Take a seat near the window, where the natural light will be over your shoulder. Settle in, book in hand.

Open it up. Stick your nose in it. Smell it. Feel the pebbled surface of the printed page, the tension of the spine.

Chapter One.

Read. 

I tell you, it’s like coming home.

k

Read Full Post »

 

A while back, I performed a small experiment with old letter writing techniques. As a result, I learned a great deal about Paper, Ink, Sand, and Pounce, how they interact, and how our layperson’s cinema-informed opinions are (not unsurprisingly) quite wrong.

This week, I dove back down into that deep dark well, and began to obsess about another old letter writing technique: letterlocking.

We’ve all seen it in films set in the early 19th century and before. A letter writer takes their epistle, folds it up and, essentially, makes it into its own envelope. Some of you (like me) may have even tried it yourself, only to end up with an overly thick, bulging, thoroughly recalcitrant bundle that defies closure by any wax seal you attempt to place on it. Even with a larger piece of stationery, I’ve found the process difficult to duplicate on my own.

Until I read this article about letterlocking, which opened up a trove of information.

Letterlocking” is a relatively new word. Coined by Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries, it lumps together the many, many different methods letter writers employed to seal their letters, back in the days before envelopes (and especially, gummed envelopes) were a thing.

While studying letters in the Vatican archives, Dambrogio noticed curious patterns of folds, slits, and excisions in the documents and began to catalogue them. Fresh out of graduate school, it was a while before she realized that, not only were these patterns new to her, they were new to everyone. It soon became clear that all of these marks and seals were not just methods of authentication (using a personal seal to emboss wax or the paper itself could authenticate the sender), but also ways of securing the contents, keeping them from prying eyes. 

Some methods are simple. A few folds and a wax seal are all that is needed to keep a casual letter from being perused by an unintended reader.

Other methods are very complex, with intricate folds, tucking one edge into another, or cutting slits in the letter through which paper daggers are drawn and sealed. My favorite (so far) is the method used by Robert Devereux in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I (ca. 1590), where a “tail” cut from (yet left attached to) the letter is sent through a series of punched holes, essentially stitching the letter closed with part of the letter itself. I haven’t tried this method myself—the paper I have available is not as strong (or large) as that used in the 16th century—but I’m going to, and soon.

So, here’s yet another topic I can add to my list of Proofs I Should Have Been A Museum Conservator, as the idea of spending decades studying not the words of old letters, but the way in which they had been folded and sealed, simply thrills me. 

If you want to know more about letterlocking, Dambrogio and team have a website that includes a history of their project, a dictionary of terms, and a collection of videos showing how the various methodsfrom the 1400s to 1960were employed.

I know that I’ll be spending several more hours over there, learning and testing the methods, with plans to use them in my own letters.

k

Read Full Post »

My father was an analog man.

Etched Limestone Lithography Block

The grandson of a charcoal burner (yes, that was a thing), the son of a cement truck driver, my father was an artist by passion and a lithographer by trade, back in the day when his trade was not far removed from actual litho-graphy, i.e., etching graphics on hunks of limestone (like the one I still have, pictured, right).

As his life progressed, the world moved from Ford’s Model T to Tesla’s Model 3, from The Great Depression to The Great Recession, from flying across the Atlantic to flying to the Moon and Mars, and from the wireless and talkies to smart phones and streaming video. Yet through it all, he managed to never use a computer, even when his industry embraced the technology of digital scanning, imagery, and on-demand printing. The closest he got to the digital world was a DVD player (which he rarely employed, preferring broadcast television) and his little clamshell phone (which he used only in emergencies, and often not even then). (more…)

Read Full Post »

This past year, I’ve reviewed only three books. There are a couple of reasons for that.

The primary reason is that I’ve been reading a lot more news these days. Current events (and my often visceral reaction to them) have been consuming a great deal of my available attention. A secondary reason is that another main chunk of my reading time has been devoted to research—online and offline—for my work-in-progress, and while some of these research works are very good, they’re not titles that most (or any) of you would find interesting.

Through this, however, I felt the lack of fiction, not only as a needed escape from the real world, but also as part of my education and development as a writer.

With this in mind, last month I decided to devote time to fiction (the first of which resulted in this), and I’ve been continuing that trend by reading Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.

But this isn’t about that; this is about reading. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: