Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Why We Make Things

why-we-make-thingsWhy We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman
Peter Korn
David R. Godine, Publisher, 2013, 167pp plus backmatter

Many artists struggle for recognition, particularly those who work in media other than painting and sculpture. For artists like the Empress Larkin whose work in fiber can be seen as making stuff, and certainly for potters, the battle rages to be seen as an artist rather than “doing crafts”. Sadly, this struggle can be seen not only with the public but also with the artists’ families. I doubt that I will have much luck getting those who fail to see the art, and only see the craft, to read Why We Make Things And Why It Matters, but it would certainly help.

The book is basically a memoir from the time author Peter Korn abandoned his college work through the current day, with the author being the founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship at Rockport, Maine. As with many artists who have worked with things that might be dismissed as craft, he found little understanding when he chose to pursue crafting with wood, first as a carpenter and later as a furniture maker. He quotes his father as saying, “You’ll regret doing work that doesn’t challenge your mind.”. Through a long series of towns, relationships, Hodgkin’s disease (twice), and at least two dogs, Korn discovers that life in craft is anything but a life that fails to challenge the mind. In fact, he asserts that working with wood, at least, involves intense mental activity on several levels.

Intellectuals like myself tend to see thinking as strictly a mental activity, but Korn makes the point that a combination of heart, head, and hand takes one to an additional level. “I found that even so simple an operation as cutting a mortise harmonizes intellect, manual skill, and character in a way that underscores the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. When you add the creative component of design, craft becomes a fully integrated application of one’s capacities.”

I have, in the distant past, sometimes had the space for a table saw, drill press, and other “shop tools”, even if I didn’t pursue any craft to the level that Korn has. I feel some sense of loss as a result of using my hands only for typing.

Reading Korn’s book will not immediately provide the space and budget to pursue such things anytime soon, but it planted the seed. If you pursue any of the paths that turn ideas into physical objects, or think perhaps you should, this book will clarify many things.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My friend Paul Schell

City of Seattle photo of Paul Schell, 1999

City of Seattle photo of Paul Schell as mayor, 1999

I get news bulletins from various newspapers throughout the day, rarely is it personal. This morning the Seattle Times informed me that my friend Paul Schell had died this morning.

Paul was a wealthy man, a lawyer, real estate developer, and patron of the arts. Although we both live on Whidbey Island, we don’t travel in the same circles, so I haven’t spent a lot of time with him recently. but whether it was a chance meeting on the streets of Langley during Choochokam or a few moments when I was at their home helping his wife Pam with her computer, it was always a delight to talk to Paul. I think Paul actually read more than I do, he certainly retained familiarity and understanding of an unusual range of topics. (As Seattle mayor he built the new downtown library and several branches, his commitment to reading was great.) When I think of brilliant people whom I might enjoy talking with, at length and on any subject, I would have to put Paul in a group including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Dorothy Parker, and Richard Feynman.

I first met Paul and Pam when I was hired as a campaign coordinator for the Committee to Turn Off Billboards in 1971, a noble but losing effort that demonstrated Paul’s concern about the city environment. When Paul was the head of Seattle’s Department of Community Development he had the bright idea of hanging colorful banners on the light poles along the Seattle waterfront. I was in the screen printing business at the time and those first banners were printed in my shop. It was an interesting experience as the mix of my scruffy staff and the sharp young lawyers volunteering from his office mixed in a solvent haze during the printing.

At that time Paul was president of Allied Arts of Seattle and somehow I seemed to be involved in quite a few of their activities. Seattle became one of the first cities anywhere to adopt a “1% for art” program in 1973 as a result of pressure from the Schells and Allied arts.

During Paul’s first run for mayor of Seattle in 1977 I printed his signature in green ink on several thousand bumper stickers. But for my van, I enlarged it: in emerald green ink, 6 feet long on both sides. Politics frequently involves candidates appearing at dinners in the homes of supporters, normally large homes of very wealthy supporters, a category in which my roommate and I did not fall. Preparing that meal was a memorable experience, it featured rolled filet of red snapper stuffed with crab and the largest salad I ever tossed (lacking a huge bowl, we used a black garbage bag). The dinner did not raise significant money, our friends didn’t have deep pockets, but I counted it a success when one of Paul’s campaign staff told me that he had not seen Paul enjoying himself as much during the entire rest of the campaign.

Paul lost that election, but was elected in 1989 as a Port of Seattle commissioner and played a significant role in the growth of Seattle’s international trade. In 1997 he took another run at the mayor’s office. Charles Royer, the man Paul lost to two decades before, said of Paul’s one term, “Paul is no longer mayor primarily because he had maybe the worst string of purely god-awful bad luck of any mayor in Seattle’s history.”.  (“Unlucky Paul Schell“, Seattle Times) Paul was a great believer in the potential of government as an organizational and structural tool to improve communities. Royer identified Schell as one of the most productive mayors in Seattle’s history, but noted that he lacked the interest and talent in the political process, and as a result he was the first Seattle Mayor to lose a primary campaign for reelection in over 75 years.

I think Jim Bruner’s Seattle Times story, “The Measure of a Mayor“, after Paul’s loss in 2002 is a good summary of Paul’s contributions and the faults that cost him a second term.

About that time of Paul said, “I never did anything in my first term to ensure that I’d get elected to a second.”, and I think he was proud of that. In an age when most politicians won’t make a move without current polling, Paul did what he thought was right. It’s the eternal paradox of the honorable politician: Do you play the game to make this polity a better place for the citizens, with the risk that you’ll look in the mirror and see the same things you ran against in the first place? Or do you do what you see as best at every opportunity and end up out of office – losing the power to make those improvements. Seattle might have been better off if Paul had followed the first path, but I’m proud to have known the man who stood his ground.

Paul underwent a quadruple bypass at Swedish Hospital on Wednesday of last week, complications led to his death this morning at age 76. (See “Former Mayor Paul Schell dies” by Lynn Thompson and Jim Bruner in today’s Seattle Times) Whenever any married man dies the mourners sympathize with the widow over her loss, but time moves on. This case seems to me to be different. Pam has shared a home and broken bread with Paul for 51 years, the loss of an intellectual conversation partner of Paul’s stature goes far beyond the typical.

Richard Feynman, a “curious character”

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Charactercover
Richard P. Feynman (Author), Ralph Leighton (Editor)
W. W. Norton, 1985, 1997 paperback, 346pp plus backmatter

What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character
Richard P. Feynman (Author), Ralph Leighton (Editor)
W. W. Norton, 1988, January 2001 paperback, ~250 pp

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918 to 1988) was truly a curious character as the subtitles of these two volumes assert. Feynman was an imp, rarely accepting any limits on his curiosity. He shared the 1965 Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, one of the most puzzling and challenging areas of physics. But he also played the bongo drums and picked locks.

While working on his doctorate at Princeton he joined the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. As if the difficulties in this work weren’t sufficient to occupy his genius, he learned to open all of the filing cabinets and safes in which highly-classified work of the entire organization was stored. This may have actually been a significant contribution, based on the frequency with which more-senior scientists were unavailable for meetings and their notes were needed.

One of the noted physicists involved in the project was Hans Bethe, who took advantage of a quirk in Feynman’s character that others might not have welcomed. As Feynman describes it in the first volume, when talking physics he completely forgot any sense of rank or propriety. This meant that when a senior and respected scientist like Bethe or Fermi presented a new idea, the young Feynman was the only one ready to shoot holes in it. He spent a great many hours doing exactly that.book cover

Shortly before joining the Manhattan project Feynman married his first wife, Arline, who was suffering from tuberculosis. There was no on-site housing for families, and Feynman tells of borrowing cars and hitchhiking to visit her in the hospital. The title of the second volume comes from a recurring comment of Arline’s, who died in 1945.

Fascinated by rhythm, Feynman arranged a temporary teaching job at Rio de Janeiro, in hopes of learning Latin styles of drumming while he was there. He was greatly frustrated by his students rote memory-based approach to the textbook material when their total lack of deeper understanding was revealed. On the other hand, he was welcomed into a small marching band and was cheered on the streets of Ipanema during Carnevale parades.

Feynman was often noted for solving problems in an almost visual manner, laying out a problem on the blackboard, staring at it for significant length of time, and then writing down the solution without remembering any of the steps his brain had to go through to get there. Teaching required him, on occasion, to spend significant time trying to figure out what those steps were so he could present them to students.

When teaching at Caltech he frequently used a local topless bar as his office, sketching formulae on placemats and napkins. When the county attempted to close the bar, Feynman was the only patron who would testify to the public benefits of the disreputable place. At another point in his career he actually sought training in picking up women, his account of that experience is particularly notable.

Ralph Leighton, the son of one of Feynman’s colleagues at Caltech and a fellow drummer, goaded Feynman into telling a great many stories about his life, which he recorded and transcribed. These transcriptions, lightly edited, are the source of both of these volumes. Most of the tales are whimsical, displaying the range of Feynman’s activities outside of science, but the second of these two volumes includes much material related to Feynman’s involvement in the investigation into the Challenger disaster. Although engineers at Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the solid-state booster rockets which failed in this case, were aware that low temperature led to leaks that bypassed the O-rings that sealed the joints between the rocket sections, it was Feynman challenging the authority of the investigating committee’s chairman and demanding information from NASA that led to identifying the cause of the tragedy.

As it happened, I read the two books out of sequence and do not have the second title available at the moment, for the most part I can’t tell you which story is in which volume. I greatly enjoyed both, and if the antics and capers of this brilliant scientist are of interest to you, it won’t matter to you either because you’ll want to read them both. Feynman was among the greatest of physicists and apparently a pretty good drummer, his writing isn’t really at the same level. But it’s his story and his voice and if you have any interest in the subject (and I can’t imagine how you might not), curl up with these and enjoy.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Bulletin for Gaza

I know your situation is rather desperate. I know that people are dying, too many of them. I wouldn’t like this either, but there are some facts you need to face:

1) There are people among your population that are using precious resources that could go for food and medicine and spending them instead on rockets and rifles. What cement is available should be used to build schools and other resources for residents, instead it’s being used to line tunnels. Much of your misery stems directly from these misallocations.

2) Israel is a much more advanced society than Gaza is, they have anti-missile defense systems and bomb shelters. No matter what military tactics Hamas uses, far more Palestinians are going to die than Israelis.

3) Because of its history, Israel is going to respond to attacks on its territory; it always has and it probably always will.

4) Because of past Palestinian deprecations, you’ll have to be patient. I know you can put the violence behind you, but you need to understand that Israelis who have faced the possibility of suicide bombers in local cafes will take a while to trust you.

These facts may not please you, but you have no choice but to live with them. The question is what decisions you make based on those facts.

For example, you may be a peaceful school teacher or grocer, but if you allow Hamas forces to use your house to launch rockets into Israel, your home becomes a military site that Israel, very reasonably, may decide to eliminate. If the IDF calls you on the phone and tells you to get your family out of there in ten minutes, do it in five or expect to die. In other words, don’t let Hama use your house, and if they force their way in, get out while you can.

By my lights, the Hamas leadership is psychotic. They have initiated every attack, they’ve launched missiles immediately at the end of every ceasefire, not to mention rejecting most possibilities to pause the battles. While Israel has killed far too many Gazans in collateral damage, they’ve strived to keep it down and are actually targeting military sites (such as they exist in Gaza) while Hamas is sending rockets blindly toward Israeli cities with no effort to target military assets at all. Actually, with no targeting at all, they just point them toward Israel and hit the launch button.

If I Were King I’d have an envoy in the Muddle East and he would be pushing hard to make life better for all Palestinians. The Israelis have a history of working closely with the Palestine Authority’s security teams, they’d be happy to do so again if you tossed Hamas in favor of Fatah in Gaza. Israel has a history of providing power and water to Gaza, not to mention buying goods from Gazan enterprises that provided jobs and revenue. But the first step is for you to choose peace over madness. You have families, this shouldn’t be all that hard.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

No Place to Hide

No-place-to-hideNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald
Metropolitan Books (a Henry Holt imprint), 2014, 253pp, backmatter online

Opinions regarding Edward Snowden tend to be neatly divided, some see him as a hero, the rest see him as a traitor. I fear that only the former group is likely to read No Place To Hide, I might as well admit at the outset that I am in this group. I feel we owe a great deal to Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning as well, and reading this book convinces me that I need to add Glenn Greenwald to the list, considering the significant risks he took in bringing Snowden’s revelations to light.

The book is surprisingly evenhanded while discussing the incredible details of the NSA’s invasion of our privacy, because of his involvement with Snowden and the timeliness of the story the book largely focuses on this matter but without attempting to demonize America compared to other surveillance states. He could easily have been much harsher, for example his quote of Sen. Joe Biden from 2006 excoriating the metadata collection of the NSA under President Bush is mentioned, the hypocrisy noted, and then Greenwald moves on.

Still, after delineating the extent of the NSA’s surveillance and the cooperation of the other four members of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand) we are left knowing that no surveillance state in history has matched the current levels.

I didn’t grow up under the Stasi like Angela Merkel did, but I was raised in a surveillance state. No, not some reprehensible communist regime, but rather the warm and comforting environment of small town America in the ’60s. My parents were prominent members of the community and any wayward act I might have committed was very likely to be relayed to them by those who happened to see it. Somehow, I came away from that with a warm regard for the safety fostered by that natural watchfulness. As Greenwald clearly points out, governments rely on the expectation that their watchfulness is only a risk to malefactors, that those of us who go about our business responsibly have nothing to fear and in fact benefit from it. Of course he also points out that the division between those we think should be watched for our safety and those who should be left alone tends to change with the times. Ten years ago it was Democrats decrying the ominous intent of the NSA programs we knew so little about at the time, while today most Democrats defend the White House policies and it is the Republicans who are more likely to cry foul. The Panopticon is real, if there is one chapter in Greenwald’s book that is important, it is the one that documents the general dangers of government having the kinds of information that the NSA is currently collecting.

He also does a fair job of demolishing the idea that such surveillance will actually make us safer. He makes it clear what a tiny part of the government’s use of this data has had anything to do with terrorism and how the use of that scary word is a flatly fraudulent excuse for assaults on our rights. Investigating the Brazilian oil company Petrobras or listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls obviously have nothing to do with terrorism, and breaking into Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers systems is all about maintaining the NSA’s ability to “collect it all” rather than any defense against future terrorist acts. He points out that in order to justify the incredible expense of the NSA’s operation, compared to our investment in normal police activities, they would have to stop over three hundred realistic attacks a year when they have, in fact, stopped none at all.

As Greenwald released the first of Snowden’s cache of documents, he was attacked not only by the governments eagerly participating in the surveillance be revealed, but also by journalists, many of whom were quick to define him as an activist or a blogger rather than being one of their august company. I won’t expand on that here, suffice it to say that the chapter covering the foolishness and bad taste of much of the journalistic community is choice reading.

The most devastating effect of reading this book is the awareness that those we see as “the good guys” are, when they are in power, just as likely to pursue these reprehensible activities. Looking back over history it seems to me that even the power of surveillance that J Edgar Hoover had when he so eagerly dug into the background of Martin Luther King, Jr was probably excessive, and I would very much like to see us roll back the federal capabilities in this area at least a half century. If I Were King, I’d like to think that I would dismantle all of it. Alas, this book leads me to wonder if I could do that once I was on the other side. But it should be dismantled, this level of surveillance is damaging to our society and provides little or no safety at huge expense.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Baffled for a bit by Hobby Lobby

I’m sorry, but I just can’t pop out a response to the ruling in Burwell vs Hobby Lobby just yet. I have read a fair amount of the coverage, along with most of the decision, and I’ve started to organize some comments on various aspects of it. But the part that nobody else seems to be talking about is the nature of freedom and, more specifically, the nature of religious freedom. If they aren’t perverting the concept, they certainly are inverting it. I do know this much, If I Were King the concept of freedom would be focused on the individual and his spirituality, on his ability to express his spirituality and to live based on what he learned from it. It would have absolutely nothing to do with businesses, corporations, or families of billionaires who think religious freedom means enforcing their narrow-minded concepts of spirituality on tens of thousands of employees, never mind extending those concepts through the legal system to apply to tens of millions of other citizens. Those supporters of Hobby Lobby who are crowing about this ruling as a victory for religious freedom have the spirituality of Simon Legree and the intelligence of platyhelminthes.