Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Importance


Just months earlier, I was wandering around Asia and Europe with a backpack and a little money. I explored the world for over a year by hitchhiking, bicycling, and cheap Indian trains. Now I was in charge of 150 people in southern Venezuela, making decisions on what people to layoff, where to use our expensive helicopters, and how to ensure the safety of all the crews spread out on the Venezuela-Colombian border during the days of active FARC guerilla operations.

That was a long time ago.

I learned that it just takes having responsibility foisted onto your shoulders for you to step up to the task. Fatherhood demonstrated the same beautifully human ability. Our potential to take on great roles is incredible. We can move into whatever role is necessary.

With experience I have become fast and efficient in my work. However, speed isn’t the greatest measures of usefulness or effectiveness. What are we actually producing? With so much self-adulation/self-marketing on social media (guilty as charged!), I'm reminded of the problem of living in our own bubble of a controlled environment and inflated importance.

Nearly one hundred years ago, US President, Calvin Coolidge noted the problems with “self-worship” when people in authority are “constantly assured of their greatness”. He notes:

“They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in great danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”

Serving others is a kiss from the fingertips to the air. It is one of the most noble pursuits. The following is a poem I wrote a long time ago for my students. I give them a copy when they graduate–when they move from students to colleagues.

Colleagues

Wrapped in parchment,
Already curling.
Sunshine has worn days,
On those paused in learning.

The door is slammed shut
It is your time to lead.
Knowledge meet wisdom,
Courage meet need.

Feet vault where they will,
They can manage all curves.
Summit the lithe garden
Where it's the victor who serves.


I have been writing poems all my adult life, but who really needs poetry? In Glittering Vices, philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung confesses:

“I lust after recognition, I am desperate to win all the little merit badges and trinkets of my profession, and I am of less real use in this world than any good cleaning lady.”

Joyce Kilmer wrote this beautiful poem, recognizing our limited ability and importance.

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
 
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
 
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
 
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
 
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.


Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Boat Design: Mechanistic and Non-mechanistic Influences

 

This is an extract from my latest book, Wooden Wonders: Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats

The presentation of design influences on boats is best introduced by placing it in the context of what ancient philosophers asserted were the three motivators of all human inquiry: pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness. This triumvirate of cognition, aesthetics, and morality offers a framework for looking at traditional design as an attempt to 1) develop a boat that will be safe, durable and functional, 2) express cultural heritage and historicity, 3) incorporate belief systems, and 4) express an aesthetic quality. The first category can be referred to as mechanistic influences and the other categories can be referred to as non-mechanistic influences.

By design, boats place people far out on the water in an unnatural and hazardous environment. Therefore, boats are conservative in their design and often enshrouded by ritual and symbolic elements derived from belief systems. If one is to have faith in a boat when at sea, it seems natural to want to imbue the craft with as much safety as possible, both physical and spiritual. Horridge (1995) notes:

Because the use of them is dangerous, boats are particularly conservative structures and all cultures adhere to their own proven designs. Rigs are more easily copied than hull structures. When changes in design are introduced they are not admitted. In consequence, boatbuilding techniques may survive unchanged for 1000 years or may be quickly modified in a single generation as happens when designs are transferred from elsewhere.

Indigenous boat design knowledge can derive from traditional influences that lie outside the realm of naval architecture. This indigenous knowledge can consider available construction materials and fasteners as well as specific boat applications. This knowledge also leads to design details that affect performance and safety. When asked to explain specifics about a design, traditional builders may respond in a generic fashion, indicating there is no other way to design the boat or the design gives better performance. Construction details have been relayed from their ancestors and deviations from this tradition are considered dangerous (Horridge, 1995).

The details of the boat are ostensibly designed in response to a particular need. For example, the sharp bow allows a boat to pierce waves, a shallow draft allows passage over sandbars and an open transom allows nets to be easily pulled onboard. The overall boat design is dictated by needs for stability, buoyancy, maneuverability, seakindliness, draft restrictions, superstructure, and equipment requirements. However, in addition to these mechanistic elements, boat designs also derive from traditional designs, traditional construction methods, and available materials. In addition to these traditional influences, boat design is influenced by perceptions regarding durability, safety, comfort, and maintenance.

Boat designers make judgments as they contend with many conflicting design issues such as performance versus aesthetics, stability versus capacity, comfort versus seakeeping, safety versus speed, safety versus ease of use, hull size versus operating cost, and fuel efficiency versus production cost. The following sections describe a few important mechanistic factors that may be helpful in considering the photographs and data that follow.


 [o1]Remain as non-italic & bold.


Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Closing Thoughts from "Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats"


This is an extract from my latest book, Wooden Wonders: Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats

One quickly becomes defined by one’s discipline as we witness the academic, professional, and even legal walls constructed around disciplines. However, these walls can create an insidious environment where the physical sciences are honored while everything else becomes noise. I have a deep affection for the mysteries revealed by science, but I recognize the physical and life sciences have waded into matters that require involvement beyond science.

Science can also give an incomplete picture of truth. Philosophers have investigated the limits of the scientific method, but science can be blind to the broad swath of culture and therefore fails to provide all data and guidance for culturally appropriate designs. For me to make sense of the value of non-mechanistic design elements I needed to recognize the intangible, scientifically unapproachable aspects of these design elements. Not all questions are scientifically answerable and some can only be judged based on their value to the individual.

Fishing boats are an important part of the cultural heritage of Malaysia. Their role in commerce will necessarily change in response to the dynamic forces applied to the Malaysian society. These boats provide food and livelihood for many. They are designed with care, built with integrity, and reflect the pride and dignity of their builders. This consideration of traditional Malaysian fishing boats was not intended as a nostalgic reflection but rather an investigation of the gritty, every day issues of boat builders and fishermen. These men were motivated by market forces even if they did sense the twilight years of their work. The builders and fishermen I visited were not striving to be curators of old technology, they were living their lives with the mixture of dreams and practical resolve that motivates us all in our labors.


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Sleeping breaks chains and opens creativity

 

Dreaming allows a daily disconnect from saturating sensory stimulation. The breaking and shrinkage of the dendritic spines in our neurons is a slow task, one that can be nurtured by sleep. Sleep induced forgetting can allow new connections that arise in unexpected ways -- ways unconstrained by memory.

The playful dance of memories and surprising interrelations of thoughts is an element of creativity that is difficult to characterize. However, the benefits of sleep can be appreciated when looking at cognitive decline induced by lack of sleep. Not only are we less creative, but we have distorted perceptions and behavioral changes.

One insight into changes of physiology and its affect on artistic abilities can be seen with the changes in Willem de Kooning's paintings as he contended with Alzheimer's disease. The paintings became less variegated and he embraced simplicity. However, art experts considered his latter paintings to be appropriate parts of his oeuvre. His disease had been migrating from his hippocampi to the upper reaches of his cortical processing. However, his lower cortical hubs, where colors and contours are processed, were thought to be unaffected. He created in a different way.

Claude Monet's "blue period" is a similar artistic response to physiological changes. Perhaps his photoreceptors had less sensitivity to blue light so he over-saturated blue hues to produce the image in his mind. Therefore what we see is not what Monet saw. Is this the case? I don’t know, but I think there is a lot of this occurring in the world of creative expression where art and design have the momentum of the artist and designer pushing them into a higher level of execution than they deserve. At least Marcel Duchamp made fun of this attitude.

Sleeping's effect on dendritic spines is an interesting peek into the physiological encouragements for creativity. Dream on!

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Wooden Wonders: Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats



I had the pleasure of discussing my work with traditional Malaysian fishing boats and my book, "Wooden Wonders" yesterday. You can watch the presentation at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hwv23DiaJMY


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Comfort and Luck versus Sacrifice and Trust

 


We desire comfort and luck, but what we need are sacrifice and trust. Yes, comfort is appealing, but it placates people and destroys some deeply human element of ambition. It prevents difficult actions and difficult conversations as we hunker under comfort’s false sense of security and bliss. Life is neither easy nor comfortable, but we love the low hanging fruit of comfort where success is measured by minimal motion and minimal stress.

Comfort shouldn’t be a way of life because it shifts its role from nurturing us to defeating us. Asceticism seems to live in all cultures and religions as people push back against comfort. However, hedonism thrives too and many of us slither between asceticism and hedonism like a snake in a small alley.

Luck is also a fickle friend. We never understand providence as deeply as we think. There is an old story of unclear origin, but it is instructive:

An old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Accomplishments versus Excellence

 


I just turned sixty, which is sort of like a prank you play on your twelve-year-old self. Same person, different package.

This birthday does offer a benchmark to consider my work life because I’m entering my last decade of employment. It makes me think of the difference between accomplishments versus excellence. Accomplishments grow with time due to hard work and perseverance. Excellence is something else. It is also related to hard work and perseverance, but there is something else. It is something that I don’t seem to have. When I compare my accomplishments to those who earnestly pursue the arenas where I claim accomplishments, I see that I am not more excellent than anyone else working in that pursuit. I started listing these pursuits, but it sounded like a mix between bragging and a pity party.

I pursue many areas of personal and professional interest--all at an average level of achievement. Many of my accomplishments meet minimum thresholds, such as academic degrees and licensure, but they couldn’t be considered excellent. They are binary yes/no accomplishments. They are the punch boxes of a puffed-up curriculum vitae.

Excellence it hard to achieve. I realize a semantic debate arises whether excellence means complete competence or above “average” ability (whatever that is), but it can most readily be identified quantitatively. For example, I can only think of one thing I used to be excellent at, namely Morse Code. Not many people know Morse Code, but I knew it well. In my early twenties I could copy over thirty words per minute, which is fast. That’s it. That is my most excellent ability. This is not meant to be negative, but honest.

My heroes are people you have never heard of. People who serve others quietly. Their excellence is in their sacrifice, their excellence is in their humility. They will never win awards or enjoy monuments to their own glory. I don’t fit in that camp either, but it is certainly my preferred desire as I enter my twilight years.

I made the painting on the right when I turned 60, I made the painting on the left when I was 45. Still dreaming though!

I wrote a couple poems which I inked on the back of the “Average Man” painting. One goes like this:

 
Decade swings
A number clings
Time is soft on rusty hinges
Swelling wisdom tinges
And energy lingers
 
Love made bold
For those who are old
 
Actions for others
Cries in our troubles
 
We cry, “we were here”
We fought our fear
We tried with each day
To prevent a tear
To laugh and lift
And truly care.