Fictional Aspergers

In an earlier post started to lay out some of my misgivings about deriving too much “insight” from reading fiction. My point at the time was that one could write an entirely plausible piece of fiction based on some awful societal prejudices. If the author is careful to not write too heavy handedly, s/he could persuade otherwise innocent readers to take on some ugly (and untrue) opinions.

Today my partner just finished reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This work of fiction features the protagonist Don Tillman, a geneticist with Asperger syndrome. Asperger’s is “an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests” (Wikipedia). Tillman is high functioning – he has a job as a research professor and teaches university courses. The author allows us to see the world – and in particular other people – through the curious thought processes of Tillman.

The book is a hilarious read (I’m inferring from the frequent guffaws bursting from the bedroom). One might believe they are truly getting an “insider’s look” at what it’s like to live with Asperger’s. But toward the end of the story there are hints of some implausible twists. For one, the protagonist more or less is deciding he could learn to change and be less “odd” if he really wanted to. From my limited understanding of Asperger’s and other autism-spectrum disorders, one can learn to control certain behaviors and one’s social interface to the world, but the inner thoughts/feelings stay locked in their patterns.

Now, clearly this is a work of fiction – the author is not trying to deceive us in that regard. And (again, only hearing this second hand) I’m willing to bet the author gets a lot right about Aspergers… but I really have no way of knowing for sure. Yes, I could find books by Temple Grandin, a well-known autistic scientist and advocate, if I wanted to gain some insights from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

But my point is that a lot of people won’t follow up with non-fiction sources – they’ll read The Rosie Project and perhaps assume that Asperger’s sufferers could “snap out of it” if they only wanted to. This is the pernicious side of fiction I worry about. I don’t know what to recommend, other than to take things with a grain of salt, but it does call into question the value of the “insights” gained from fiction. Having cross-checks – trusted teachers, perhaps, who recommend particular works as illustrative, and advise against consulting others – might help. But the pull toward group think can be strong.

I should note, too, that I may be libeling Graeme Simsion a bit – I haven’t read The Rosie Project myself, and I am not in a position to judge the verisimilitude of his description. I am simply raising the possibility that he gets it wrong as a cautionary tale.

Why does learning take so long?

Have you ever wondered why it takes years to learn a language or play the piano? Why aren’t we wired to simply take instruction, instantly memorize it, and start flawlessly performing?

Quite a few cognitive scientists have commented on this. The explanation I most recently came across was in Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads. The essential argument is this – evolution has helped us reach a happy medium between complete inertia (inability to learn anything new) and over-learning from single instances. Obviously, a creature that cannot learn or adapt to changing circumstances won’t be contributing to the downstream gene pool. Hmmm… those bushes are rustling – let’s go investigate. Oh, it’s a cougar!  Run away! Phew! Survived that. (Later) Hmmm… those bushes are rustling – let’s go investigate… (repeat until luck runs out).  We need to engage in novel activities and register whether they were pleasurable or painful at some level and remember that association in the future. After getting chased by a cougar in the bush, we should think twice before running toward such a noise in the future.

Harder to comprehend is the disadvantage to immediate learning. Hmmm… those bushes are rustling – let’s go investigate… Cougar! Run away!  (Later) Hey, there’s a bush! Bushes are dangerous. Boy, those berries look yummy! Nope, bushes hide bad animals – stay away (stomach grumbles).  We can over-learn a concept or association, giving it a cause-effect association that may not be consistently warranted in reality. Most of the world isn’t black or white: sometimes the barking dog means to bite you, sometimes it’s warning you of external danger. Some red berries are yummy, others are bitter, others will make you sick.

Imagine a toddler associating words with things. She sees a four-legged animal and says something like “dog!” Mom smiles and laughs. Now the toddler points to a squirrel and says “dog!” Mom is going to start to correct her, breaking down that over-learning. 2+2 is 4, 3+2 is 5, 4+2 is 6, 1+2 is 7… because 7 comes after 6. Nope, start over.bIt seems like we have the capacity to over learn or over-generalize, but it’s governed or inhibited both by external teaching and, perhaps, our own internalized habits of mind. And habit is the key concept in Noe’s book – we develop these over time, but they are also malleable with effort.

I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated with learning some new music lately. On the guitar there is a one-to-many correspondence between a note on the score and a fretted note on the fingerboard (a single note can have up to four different fingerings on four different strings). I’m still a little fuzzy in sight-reading the upper reaches of the fretboard, which is inhibiting my ability to start playing new works – I have to both learn to translate the note positions and train myself to move my fingers accordingly. And as a physical learning task, I also need to develop the “muscle memory” and dexterity to play some passages rather quickly.

Another example: today I was working on a design for a piece of learning technology in the wood shop (not all instructional technologies need to be on 2-D screens!) I developed a working prototype, and it took me a few hours of fiddling around to fit certain pieces together – this is on top of the hours of design work spent in a computer drafting program. Again, why couldn’t I simply visualize the finished product, deduce the cutting sequence, and get it right the first time? There were too many details to keep in my head, and I ended up learning things through the prototype that I did not envision beforehand. This is a fairly common experience among artisans – the draft prototype ends up “talking back” to us and informing our ideas.

Maybe it’s the specter of my 50th birthday looming next year, but I’ve been dwelling on how long things take lately. Like aging itself, I have this sense of some cosmic unfairness – that we know our time is limited and we have to make economic choices with how to spend it and learning new things can take a long time. For somebody with more interests than I can possibly find the time to fulfill, that is the ultimate frustration.

Not all knowledge can be written down

Good news – the guitar top seems to be well glued to the sides, with not strange gaps or misalignments. The arch that was built into the top and sides seems to have retained its form – the lower bout tilts back from the plane of the upper bout and neck by a few millimeters at the bridge location. Pictures will appear in a future post.

Now that the top is being held within the frame of the sides, I can proceed to “voice” it by selectively removing material from both the top and the braces. In theory, there is a “sweet spot” of resonance where the sound board just feels more lively. The problem is, I’ve only read descriptions in print of what this might sound like. The few recordings I’ve come across just can’t do it justice through laptop speakers. It’s as much a felt quality as a heard quality. So I’m feeling really cautious at this stage, because if I remove too much material I’ll cross the threshold into “floppy,” where the soundboard loses its important acoustic properties altogether. (It will also likely fail catastrophically under the tension of the strings).

Right now it’s like I’m hiking in fog. I can set off in a particular direction, and I’ll have a sense of whether I’m climbing or descending, but I can’t backtrack. I’d like to climb to a local peak, but from this position I don’t even know which direction to set out in. Like I said, no backtracking if I set out in the wrong direction. And how to translate this metaphor of setting out in the fog to deciding which braces to lighten, where to sand down the top? I have no idea. I think I’ll end up just making some tentative, global changes, thinning the top overall by a few thousandths of an inch. One guidebook actually suggests making guitars in identical pairs – as you alter one soundboard you’ll still have a reference to judge against. Oh well, that’s not my case this go-around.

What I really need is to be guided by a master who can show me the sonic landscape of soundboard performance, what the boundary conditions are, and ways of getting to regions of that sweet spot (even within the region of “good resonance,” people may vary the qualities as a master of taste).  There is a builder up in Belmont I could try to hook up with for advice. (Actually, what have I got to lose for asking?) There are others who offer more formal classes and workshops in voicing the instrument.

It’s clear to me that this is one of those learning situations where patient guidance of a teacher is called for. I’ll still try to find what I can on the Internet – maybe somebody has done a really high-quality instructional video. But in the end it’s one person trying to convey a sense of things to another, and in that dialog understanding emerges.

I had a similar experience just last night – we went up to see a classical guitar concert by the Romeros (a dynastic family of musicians). They played as a quartet, and some of the members performed duets and solos as well. Celin Romero performed two Villa-Lobos preludes I’ve been working on (#1 and #3). HIs rendition of Prelude #1 in E minor was ear-opening. The manuscript notes supposedly say something to the effect that it represents two sides of Brazilian character, both a yearning melancholy as well as sense of verve and gusto. The form is A-B-A, where the opening A section (the “yearning” part) is repeated after the B (more exciting) section.

Celin took the first A section far more delicately than I play it, and more patiently than many recordings I’ve heard. He was measured with his phrasing, allowing the piece to really breathe. I have to say I was a little disappointed in his B section (but I suspect, based on some technical choices he made, his fingers may be showing their age), but overall I was glad to hear and SEE him play it first-hand. Again, all of the manuscript notes in the world would not convey what it could sound like, compared to hearing a live or recorded performance (I probably own at least 3 versions of this prelude on CD, all with a different emotional interpretation. Celin’s was the 4th I’ve heard from a professional).

So, I’m off to find some good acoustic guides to soundboard voicing, and I’m inspired to pick up the Villa-Lobos prelude again. :-)  Til next time.

Passing the point of no return

Tonight I joined the guitar top to the sides. This is a non-reversible operation, so if I messed it up, I’d be rebuilding a new top AND a new set of sides. Fortunately, it went relatively smoothly. I triple-checked the fit and alignment, did a little last minute trimming of a couple of braces, dry-fit the clamps before gluing, then pulled the trigger. Below are the before and after pictures – tomorrow I’ll unclamp everything and see how it all looks as a unit.

I feel like I’m on a bit of a roll now – a lot of design decisions have been made and committed to. Now it’s “just” about careful execution. I’m going to try to keep up at least weekly work on this through the holidays, when I’ll have a more concentrated span of time for shop work.

Ready for gluing

Ready for gluing

Glued, clamped, weighted down

Glued, clamped, weighted down

The end of NaBloPoMo and an eventful break

My thanks to Cynthia D’Angelo for introducing me to the National Blog Posting Month challenge (NaBloPoMo). I’ve missed a few days during the month, but felt it was better to miss a day when writing just didn’t fit rather than just post a random piece of drivel to check a box.

I’m going to keep up the blogging habit the way I do with exercise – not necessarily every day, but enough to notice some improvement in my writing and thinking. Just today I was spending time with some friends who are parents of middle-schoolers (plus one private school teacher) and the Common Core came up in discussion. These are fairly well-educated parents, involved with their children’s education, and had no idea what Common Core was really about (and had a good idea that they should be somewhat skeptical of media hype, pro and con). Whatever you think of the Common Core, you probably agree that it’s been a PR nightmare.  More fodder for writing and thinking, though.

The guitar build continues – I’m closing in on some exciting operations that will start to make it look more like a guitar and less like an assemblage of parts.  With my 50th birthday approaching next year I’m starting to salivate over a wood bike frame from Renovo Bicycles. I’d also like to get more regular practice with wood (including getting back to turning) into my semi-daily routine – insights from woodworking formed the foundations of this blog.

Watching two 7th graders progress through school – with their diametrically opposite approaches to homework, learning, effort, trial-and-error, mistakes, you name it – continues to ground a lot of what I’ve read and studied over the years. I’m sure one or the other will be making cameo appearances in future posts.

Overall, it’s been a positive experience to start (re)developing my voice and writing. I could have kept a lot of these posts confined to a private journal, but exposing my thoughts to the public does provide a gentle incentive to sharpen things up a bit. The fact that the audience has been more or less indifferent to the writing is also helpful – it’s like playing music at a party where everybody is more focused on their conversation than they are to the performance. But there have been a few commentators who have provided feedback, and for that I’m grateful.

Until next time…

If at first I don’t succeed…

After fixing the guitar body lining that I messed up in my last post, I went back to the shop today (fueled up on delicious Thanksgiving leftovers) determined to slow down, get in the zone, and cut the notches in the lining they way they should be. In the end I decided to try notching the braces into the lining for structural reasons, not acoustic reasons. The acoustics, as I mentioned in that post, are a matter of debate – how tightly coupled the back and sides are to the top is a matter of taste and tuning. But I’d read stories of braces coming loose over time and vibrating – supporting the brace ends by tucking them into the lining seems to help, and that explanation made sense to me.

A few careful saw cuts and chisel strokes later,

Cutting slots (in addition to the full slots already in the lining to provide flexibility) for the sides of the pocket.

Cutting slots (in addition to the full slots already in the lining to provide flexibility) for the sides of the pocket.

Chiseling out the waste of the pocket to the depth of the brace. The end of a top brace will tuck into this pocket.

Chiseling out the waste of the pocket to the depth of the brace. The end of a top brace will tuck into this pocket.

I had six pockets routed out on both the top and back sides of the lining. A preliminary fit of top and back showed I was in the ballpark – I may have to trim a smidgeon here and there before gluing, but that’s better than removing too much all at once. There will be a little but of ugliness in terms of the visual presentation (in some cases it was easier and safer to just remove two whole segments of the lining to the correct depth, rather than try to saw and leave a very thin and weak segment), but most of this work is not visible to casual inspection. Again, “just build the damn thing.”

No particularly deep lesson today, just a reminder that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. While I lament the fact that there is no easy “undo” in woodworking, it does slow me down and focus my concentration in a particular way, and gives me real “failures” to recover from.

Just build the damn thing

Another guitar building installment. I took some early vacation time today and went back to working on guitar #002. It’s time to start fitting the top and back plates to the sides, and that entails some fine adjustments with sandpaper and block plane to get the fit just right. The top and back are both slightly arched, so their intersections with the sides do not form simple planes.

Another design decision is whether to chisel out little notches in the lining to hold the ends of the transverse braces of the top. The top has a couple of main “bars” running underneath for structural strength. There is some debate about whether those bars should terminate by being glued directly into the side linings, or whether they should terminate just shy so that the top is held to the sides only by the top material all the way around. The debate has to do with acoustic theory – is it better to leave the top free to vibrate all around its perimeter (like a speaker cone mounted in a flexible rubber ring), or to anchor it in place by the transverse braces and transmit some of that vibration into the sides and back directly? Different builders take different approaches.

Well, I ended up munching a bit of the lining when I was attempting to cut out a pocket for the brace, and that got me thinking about whether I wanted to bother cutting these pockets or just leave the braces free. That led to feeling a bit overwhelmed at having to review the literature I could get my hands on regarding the acoustic advantages of either method, and…

Stop. Just stop.

Larry, just build the damn thing. It’s guitar #002 – you’re still figuring out where all the tricky spots are in this process. Yeah, you found one. Go the easy route for now (don’t integrate the braces with the sides) – it’ll probably sound fine. And if not, try anchoring the braces in build #003 or #004. You know there will be others.

I’ve mentioned in the past a retired hand surgeon advising me that building a guitar was like surgery – if you plan it out and execute each move carefully, it will probably come out okay. Well, surgeons don’t start in on live patients until they’ve had plenty of practice on, I suppose, other things (cadavers? animals?). I need to start treating #002 more as a learning experience and less as a masterpiece (which I already know in advance it won’t be, but I can’t let go of that striving for perfection in this case).

My partner was surprised when I told her about this – she doesn’t see this sense of perfectionism or “obsessiveness” (her word) in my other activities. I’m really trying to do this guitar differently than a lot of my other projects – but I may be taking it a bit too far. I’m losing the joy in the creative process by worrying over details that in the end are going to be swamped by other variables I can’t (yet) easily control for.

I’m glad to have a few days off to get my hands back in the game. I’ll fix the side lining and tomorrow will start trimming back the braces along the top and back.