Read, do, re-read, do…

“The lesson will be repeated until learned.”  That’s the theme of my recent foray into segmented bowl turning. I just had my third disaster at the lathe (for those that are counting, that’s 3 of the most recent 3 bowl projects) making exactly the same mistake as I’d made the first and second time. Does this qualify me as learning disabled?

I posted a short video in my last blog entry illustrating the problem – I made a heavy cut using a chuck (a device for holding the workpiece on the lathe) intended for light finishing passes. The wood is held on largely by friction against rubber stoppers, and any significant shock will tear the workpiece from the chuck. The first time I made this mistake, the bowl shattered. Episode #2 (in the video) resulted in a gluable crack, but the bowl was saved. Episode #3 (yesterday) was only on a ring segment to a bowl, but the ring was large and thick, spun off directly into my face (yes, I wear a face shield for a reason) before hitting the floor and shattering into 3 pieces. I’m pretty sure I can re-glue the segments without obvious flaws, but that’s yet another side-track on this project.

So why do I keep making the same mistake?  Obviously, the lesson hasn’t sunk in, although I’m hoping the 3rd time is the charm. What has struck me, though, is that all of the bowl turning guides essentially warn against this, and I’ve read them all diligently. Book learning was clearly insufficient to prevent this error, and even repeated experience required, well, repetition.  But now when I go back and re-read the wood turning books, the wisdom in their recommendations makes sense in a way it couldn’t have without these disasters under my belt.

My bible for this project (The Art of Segmented Wood Turning by Malcolm Tibbetts) suggests building up projects from bottom up – true the bottom, glue on a ring, true the ring, repeat.  This keeps the working surface co-planar with the bottom and other rings (as opposed to the method where all the rings are flattened on a sander and glued up in a bunch, as I’ve previously done). I fully intended to use that method on this bowl, but somewhere in my excitement to “keep moving” I decided to flatten the main middle ring separately, and that’s when disaster struck.  Using Tibbetts process, the bowl is very securely chucked with proper fastening – using my “modification”, the ring is only attached with a friction fit, and as I realized in the post-mortem, wouldn’t necessarily be flush against the plane of the chuck, anyway.

Enough of the wood turning technicalities. I’m starting to think about instructional guides and their proper use. I have a colleague who is taking an advanced statistical methods class at Stanford, that on the one hand should be “review” for techniques we’ve all been practicing for years, and on the other is intended to revisit them at a deeper level and highlight some of the essential errors and misconceptions we may be unconsciously carrying forward.  I studied under the same professor and encountered many of the same ideas in my first or second year of graduate school, before I had any real-world experience in statistical modeling. While I could follow his reasoning and nod my head, I didn’t have any context for understanding why these were so important (or just not patently obvious). It wasn’t until I’d been practicing in the field for several years that I saw the seduction of statistical shortcuts or the social pressure to use methods that “everyone else thinks are valid.”  Now I can look over my colleague’s shoulder and have a renewed appreciation for what the professor was trying to impart. This wisdom went over the heads of most of his students, not for lack of ability on the part of student or teacher, but because the students simply hadn’t had the years of experience to deeply appreciate why these concepts were so important.

Experts who write textbooks and instructional manuals have the benefit of hindsight – having traversed the ground and scouted out the best routes, they are ready to provide a trail map to the uninitiated. And this is a reasonable approach based in a desire to be efficient – a student should not have to repeat years and years of trial-and-error that the original researchers encountered on the way to enlightenment. My experience as both a self-taught and instructor-taught guitarist has confirmed what a friend once remarked: you can teach yourself the guitar, but you’ll progress 10 times faster if you have a good teacher.  I’m not dismissing the value of instruction.

However, there is an issue of timeliness – when is a student ready to benefit from instruction? I don’t believe this is a linear sequence – my experience with the bowls shows that reading, practicing, re-reading, practicing, etc., seems to be a proper rhythm. This is the basis of what educators call the spiral curriculum – ideas are re-presented cyclically in a deeper and more integrated fashion as the student progresses in his or her learning. So I first learn about chucking wood on the lathe by reading about devices – screw chucks, face plates, 4-jaw chucks, and the like.  I also learn some basic safety rules for using them. Then I go off and work, and eventually violate one of the rules.  Wham!  Wham! Wham! Three disasters later, I’m ready to go back and re-read what each of these chucks can be used for, and in particular I’m highly motivated to understand their limitations.

At a macro-scale, our education system is not well-suited for the read – practice – re-read cycle. Some of this is due to simple age constraints – if we decide that kids can’t do much useful outside of school for their formative years, perhaps we’d better keep them constantly supervised in “productive” learning environments (not that I’m agreeing or disagreeing with this sentiment – just reporting what I observe). But for adolescents and early adults this argument starts to make less sense. Why go through four straight years of undergraduate work when people are still trying to figure out “what works” for them dispositionally, intellectually, and avocationally?  Why not attend, say, a year or two of “foundational” higher education, and then go work for a while, and then come back and continue education when one has proper practical insight and motivation?  Again, I fully understand the practical constraints – it’s hard to interrupt one’s work/career to go back to school full time, there are financial constraints, wouldn’t we just prolong a period of delayed adolescence, etc.  But our current system of 4 continuous years essentially force-feeds a wonderfully rich meal to youth, and hopes that they’ll be able to digest the bulk of it over time, such that years later, they’ll look back and appreciate the value of what they were exposed to, even if they couldn’t fully fathom it at the time.

Just a thought… I wrote a few more paragraphs about the origins of higher education in the US, but then erased them. I was going too far afield for a single posting. For now I’ll just let this basic idea cycle through the back of my mind – the dynamic of reading/doing (and for many, the third leg is “teaching”). Read/do/teach/do/read/do/teach/do….  Time to re-read and repair my bowl and try again.

Winning some, losing some, and non-attachment

Setting aside Sunday evenings for a blog update has one unforeseen (but in hindsight obvious) consequence – I may not always be in a blogging mood at the appointed hour. Or more precisely, I may be having feelings and thoughts that are not as pleasant and well-ordered as I would like when it’s time to put e-ink to e-paper. CS geeks recognize this as “event driven” vs. “clock driven” processing.

It’s been an eventful weekend. The bowl I worked on (at the top of this posting) was finished, but not without some hair-raising moments in the final cuts. Just as with one of the last bowls I attempted (using a similar design), I used too much force for what should have been patient light cuts, and the bowl went flying off the lathe into the wall. Instead of shattering into pieces, though, this one only suffered a crack, easily repairable with some CA glue. You can see the entire episode in the frame below (it only lasts 3 or 4 seconds).

I went to a party on Saturday night to give this bowl to a kind gentleman who had given me a trunk load of walnut about six months ago. He was very grateful and thankful, and other party-goers paid some very nice compliments. So that goes in the “win some” column.

At the same party, the host (my sweetie’s uncle) had asked if I’d be interested in playing my guitar, as there’d be other musicians there and I enjoy such informal gatherings, so I said “sure!”  As Lyle Lovett once noted in a song:   “it was then I knew I had made my first mistake.”  I hadn’t been practicing much, and still don’t have anything memorized.  No biggie, I thought – the NYE jam was low-key enough.

I’d forgotten that Unkie (as he’s affectionately known) is a bit more, um, structured in his event planning than the NYE crowd. Some of his friends are professional musicians (i.e., they make a living playing, composing, and teaching music), others are very serious amateurs, and these were the other folks he’d invited to play as well. This wasn’t just a bunch of people singing along to Simon & Garfunkel while a couple of us strummed guitar in the background – this was me sitting on a chair with a living room full of expectant audience members.  After some very good musicians had already played, some of them singing their own compositions.  Very gracious, kind, wonderful people, audience and players alike. That’s what saved this from being an unmitigated disaster.

Instead of sticking with something simple that I’d have a half-way chance of pulling off under pressure, I went with one of my favorite preludes by Villa Lobos (here’s a YouTube video of John Williams playing it). I knew right off the bat I’d have to modify it to skip the fast middle section, and I set the audience up by explaining I was just getting back into playing, and felt like a guitarist with Alzheimers — I’d be going down a familiar path, but all of a sudden would forget where I was or what came next. I managed to struggle through this with fingers shaking – it frankly sounded horrible, but like the dog walking on two legs, the miracle isn’t that he does it well but that he does it at all.

As Lyle Lovett continues “it was then I knew I had made my second mistake.”  I decided to try another favorite piece that I had once completely memorized – could play in my sleep:  Steve Howe’s Mood for a Day. I got about 35 seconds in and completely fell apart. My left hand just couldn’t remember where the notes were, and my right shoulder was trembling so badly I found myself taking blind stabs at hitting the right strings. So I just stopped, said I was going to have to stop as I clearly couldn’t remember the piece, and bowed out.  Again, the audience was very gracious, and the party went on.   This goes in the “losing some” column.

Today I had periodic bouts of post-traumatic stress flashbacks to how excruciatingly awful it felt to just blow up, publicly.  My friends who are into improvisational theatre tell me that’s an essential part of the practice: to “fail spectacularly” when things go awry. My sweetie (bless her for her support!) told me the Villa Lobos was well received and that I’d made a very graceful exit.

So as I sit reflecting on the weekend, I’m reminded of that central principle of “non attachment” the Buddhists practice. This becomes a profound “easy come, easy go” way of being in the world, not grasping at our “wins” nor regretting our “losses.”  I was happy to make Russ happy by making him a bowl I knew he’d like – my ego was for the most part not involved in that. But boy, I wish I had the same detachment over melting down in a musical performance. I’m having trouble letting go of that one just yet. It’s still painful to remember (which is why I hesitated to keep to my “clock driven” blog posting), but I know I need to sit and process that experience.

Some of the lessons learned are basic – I had no business trying to play for an audience unless a piece had been memorized to automaticity, or unless I had a *lot* of public playing experience.  As with everything else, practice is critical. It was also a good opportunity to experience the “energy” of a situation. When I used to practice Aikido, one of the points of the practice was to make threatening situations (e.g., someone grabbing your arm or collar) completely ordinary, so that one could learn to be present in the situation and respond accordingly. This was done through sheer repetition – thousands and thousands of grab-counter-throw episodes over a span of years. I realize now I should avail myself of more opportunities to play in groups (there’s a local Meetup group of SF classical guitarists who should fit the bill). I need to feel that adrenaline rush, be able to stop, take a deep breath, readjust my posture (I wasn’t sitting comfortably on Saturday, which didn’t help), even ask the group for help as I feel the panic set in.  (It was an uncanny loss of fine-motor control that did me in – it felt like playing a guitar in ski gloves). There’s no way to get better at this than to practice with good guidance and coaching.

Meanwhile, I try to stop beating myself up over this episode. It’s also an excellent opportunity to practice non-attachment and the suffering that accrues from dwelling on the past. My mind knows that’s what I “should” do, but there are some well-worn habits of shame and humiliation that can’t be broken with just a thought. As with all things, practice, practice, practice.

Rainy day blogging


Laminated Pen Blank


Ebony Ring glue-up

It’s a rainy Saturday, and I’m spending the afternoon prepping some gifts and products for my company’s annual craft fair. The top photo shows a lamination I’m preparing to make a couple of wood pens. Sandwiched between the walnut are layers of veneer (light-dark-light) that will appear as a sort of “pin stripe” pattern in the pen body.

The second photo shows an ebony ring I’ve glued up. This will become a layer (an actual “ring”) in a walnut bowl I’m making. Some of these projects take several days, not because of the total labor, but because each gluing phase that will be subjected to any stress should dry overnight. The ring itself had three distinct gluing phases (pairs of sides, 3 sides into halves, then the two halves), each of which called for a pause.  Multitasking projects (and not letting my workbench become overwhelmed with clutter) is a must.

Meanwhile, I’ve been following Doug Stowe’s blog The Wisdom of the Hands.  If you’re interested in either education or the arts I encourage you to visit.  In addition to being a master woodworker and teacher, Doug has recently been shaping a coherent philosophy of education that emphasizes the role and benefits of “hands on” education.  We’ve had some e-mail correspondence around his ideas; in particular I’d want him on my short list of intellectual thought-partners if I ever decide to study this idea seriously.

Doug and I question what is lost when children do not routinely have a lot of practice manipulating real objects and crafting their own creations. It’s an interesting empirical question. For example, one psychologist has written a book titled Lifting Depression, based on the theory that our hands are hard-wired to the brain’s reward circuitry.  She claims that tasks involving manual dexterity (e.g., knitting, woodworking, etc.) can actually mitigate depressive symptoms. In my experience this idea has some merit; I’ve certainly felt my own seasonal blues recede after a few hours in the shop. So I’m interested in this hand-brain-soul connection. In particular, what happens to a generation that manipulates keyboards and game controllers rather than physical objects?  Perhaps it makes no difference; I guess we’re going to find out.

Being trained as a researcher can feel like a drag on enthusiasm sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the act of inquiry and shaping ideas. It’s the learned disposition toward skepticism that sometimes puts a wet blanket on creativity, perhaps prematurely. For example, I may have an intuitive sense that kids would benefit from bringing the arts back into education front and center (and arts education scholars such as Elliot Eisner have written thoughtful books on the subject, so the idea isn’t too far-fetched). The educator/activist in me wants to go forth and argue for the arts. The researcher in me, though, wants to gather evidence first.  How do Eisner’s ideas hold up empirically?  Did he base his thoughts on solid evidence? Am I (and he) paying sufficient attention to negative cases, where the arts don’t appear to have the intended effects?

I envy Doug Stowe for not being encumbered by this skepticism. He can see the concrete benefits of his work with students on a daily basis, and this evidence corroborates the ideas of other scholars of the manual arts. He believes in what he’s doing.

So I’m left with this question: what would it take for me to believe in a cause without first doing years of “due diligence” research?

Parallel frustrations

Bowl-from-a-board layout

I had an “aha” moment tonight in the shop, after a frustrating attempt to design and plan a “bowl from a board.”  The technique involves cutting concentric rings from a board with the saw blade set at an angle. The rings are then stackable – think of the way you can cut a thick slice from an onion and reverse-stack the rings into a sort of cone. But there are trade-offs – if the cuts are shallow (toward the horizontal) you won’t have very many rings, and consequently a shallow bowl.  Cut the rings steeper and the walls end up being very thin – fine for an “art” bowl but I was looking at a solid 3/8″ thickness for a salad serving bowl.

But onto the interesting part.  I spent about 2 hours tonight working on this – tweaking the design, measuring, staring at what the rings looked like laid out on wood and thinking “this just isn’t gonna work.”  When I came back in the house I was feeling quite frustrated at the lack of progress. But then I remembered that I had that same exact feeling this morning at work.  I was stuck on a modeling problem that I couldn’t resolve, although by the end of the day I’d made considerable progress. That modeling problem had a much more satisfactory resolution than my bowl construction.

The moral of the story? (other than I appear to like working on hard problems all day?) At work I had an 8 hour day of relatively uninterrupted concentration to tackle this problem (plus a few hours yesterday when the problem originally arose).  I only spent 2 or 3 hours on my bowl problem. And that’s my lesson learned for the day: hard problems take time. What makes the bowl relatively more frustrating is that I don’t have 8 hours a day to play with designs.  I had the distinct feeling tonight that if I’d brought my bowl problem into work and labored at *that* all day, I’d have some satisfactory resolutions by now.

So I’m trying to remember that as a hobbyist, I just don’t have the time and energy to apply myself to woodworking (or music, or biking – you name it) that I do to my day job. The learning curve(s) take more time (in days/weeks/years) when I don’t have the hours to put into the practice.

Oh, in the end I think there is a good solution for the bowls – if I use thicker stock (1.5″ instead of .75″) I should have more wiggle room. I’ll start looking at that option next.

Design phobia

Bowls.  This year’s autumn project is going to be a series of large serving bowls.  That somehow “feels” right and I’m motivated.

That is, until I start sketching designs. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Raffan’s book The Art of Turned Bowls, a treatise on bowl design. I’m learning to see the effect that different profile shapes have on the overall impact of the form, the different uses of rims and feet, and detailing. And now I’m paralyzed by the thought that my designs will be “dumpy,” “turgid,” or other terms of derision he uses for awkward looking forms.

Another author on turning design (Mike Darlow’s Woodturning Design) takes a slightly different approach, more of a “aesthetics is largely personal taste, with some good design elements helping” attitude. After a whirlwind history of aesthetics through the ages, he suggests some general heuristics for sound design principles (focusing mostly on spindles, not vessels). But then again, he shows before-and-after examples of forms that could stand some improvement, and the result is unmistakably better.

So now I’m petrified that my first large bowls won’t measure up somehow. I’m not giving myself any permission to be a beginner and make mistakes – whatever comes off the lathe the first go-around has to be at least satisfactory. Clearly I “know” better – intellectually. I know I need to stumble and make mistakes and learn those lessons viscerally. I’m less worried about technical errors than I am about aesthetic ones, though. What if I can’t conceive of a beautiful design? What if I’m missing that gene?  For the educational psychologists out there, I feel like an entity theorist with respect to my artistic abilities – the ability is largely innate and can’t be improved through practice.  Again, I know that’s BS, but the fear lingers that I’ll just confirm my own worst perceptions of myself.

So, what might I advise a student to do in a similar situation?  Something like “commit to turning 10 bowls – all with different profiles – that will never leave the shop. In fact, plan on cutting them in half to study the thicknesses.”  That is, practice with the planned intent of trashing the bowls afterword for study.  And plan on variation, not 10 attempts to get the “perfect” design.

I was reading a blog by a teacher of furniture design, and he had a great assignment to get students “unattached” to their design ideas. (The full blog posting is here on Fine Woodworking). This teacher demands three different design ideas for a table.  Not three variations on a theme, but three completely different designs.

The problem with having just a single idea is that as more and more work goes into developing it, the stakes grow higher. It becomes harder and harder to turn back, because now so much is invested in it. All of their eggs are in one frail basket.Their precious little design becomes something that must be protected at all costs.  Not necessarily because it is good, but because it’s all they’ve got.

Ah…  Now I see what might help.  Three different bowl designs, all radically different from one another. Execute them. See what I like.  Rinse, repeat.

Yes, that’s the ticket.  Planned, radical variation. As with biological evolution, the better ideas will stick around to appear in subsequent designs. But variation is crucial to the mechanism of biological evolution; perhaps it is to the evolution of design ideas, too.

A second success

Before and After

Before and After

My second complete goblet, turned from green eucalyptus. I’ll finish sand after the wood has completely dried. The captured ring needs some touch-up, too (that was a first).

Tonight – after a very intense week at work – I decided to unwind at the lathe (no pun intended). I’d turned my first goblet just a few weeks ago, and recently had come across some discarded eucalyptus by the side of the road (remnants of a tree taken down).  I cut a blank out of a log, checked the ends for any obvious checking, and crossed my fingers.

There is something to be said for repetition. I’ve noticed when I work on an activity only sporadically (say, a rarely used statistical model at work), I have to spend some time reacquainting myself with the nuances. More common activities are almost automatic at points. I’m glad I tried another goblet again – I remembered more quickly how to avoid nasty catches while hollowing, and was a little more confident tackling the bottom of the hollowed form. I had fewer scary catches (although I thought one was going to take out the stem), and stretched myself to try a captive ring.  It was a little hit-or-miss, and definitely needs some clean-up off the lathe, but it felt like a personal success.

I wasn’t sure whether to try to completely sand the green wood or to turn it smooth and let it dry out.  I sanded the top half of the goblet and left the rest alone – I guess I’ll find out in a month or so after the wood has had time to dry.  If I’m really lucky I’ll get some distortion in the shape (I love some “drunken goblets” I’ve seen turned from fresh green wood).

It certainly feels good to have had a beginning, middle, and end to a project this evening.

Branching Out

The two forms in the photo are from the branch of a cherry tree that an acquaintance had taken down. The colorful bowl a few blogs back is also from that same tree. I saw a similar looking candle holder over the weekend and was inspired to try to copy it.

I’ve heard that a lot of art students learn by copying the masters. That rings true for me, whether it’s in software engineering or statistics or woodworking. Trying to replicate what somebody else has done, following in their footsteps, can be enlightening. It also off-loads the cognitive burden of having to create the form/design from scratch while also trying to learn how to execute everything. In this case I’d never tried to drill into end-grain like this, and had to improvise a system for chucking the form while drilling. Even that simple act had lots of decision points – when to drill? Turns out drilling *after* sanding is best – once it’s drilled it can be hard to center again on the lathe.

I’m still – very slowly and deliberately – working on the dining chairs. Not so much deliberately – I guess it’s more accurate to say I’m really not in any hurry. That’s why I have more confidence these will turn out well. It’s almost like the Zen “non-attachment” thing – I’ll just do it as the mood strikes, be totally in the moment, and not looking to be done. Over the weekend I cut all the major pieces – now I have to drill out the mortises in the front legs and cut tenons into all the rails. I’m going to try using the bandsaw for tenon cutting – safer and faster than the table saw jig I use, but potentially not as accurate. I’ll try some practice cuts and see…

Lots more going on – “meaning of life” questions and all. I’ll save those for later (if at all; still a little shy about sharing the deep inner stuff). 😉