Saturday, December 9, 2017

Sapiens by Yuval Harari, a review of the book

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of our arrival as a species , the turning points that tripped us into the type of animal capable of imagining a future, the singular moments in that story and the possible culminations of it; these are not things that can be elaborated easily in a single book without leaving gaps or making controversial claims.

Every thoughtful person will struggle with at least some of Harari's conclusions, but he is careful to present a direct and balanced picture of the scholarship on each issue before putting his own view forward. His intention is to provoke a thoughtful response about issues that concern all of us and his thoughts on the directions for our species which now seem inevitable to him are chilling, but arguable.

I admire big picture academics, even more now after reading one of his conclusions- that the central issue that we need to address is not 'what do we want' as a future, but 'what do we want to want?', because there is no consensus on the role, path or limits of progress in this technological revolution that we find ourselves in.

Progress into ethically challenging areas- areas that may require us to redefine 'humanity'- is virtually unsupervised and globally more potent than at any of the critical points which brought us to our present. We are entitled to wonder- 'who is at the helm?'

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The blurb on Goodreads;

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. 

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power ... and our future.

Friday, December 8, 2017

three minute uke build

This little slideshow (below) runs through the making of a tenor ukulele from Australian Casuarina timber. A joy to make and lovely to play!

making a tenor uke .    robert ditterich from Robert Ditterich on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Beachcomber Basking

These were pictures taken by Peter Medling while Beachcomber was in Paynesville. The sail over there began as a sedate meander before the wind, but became quite interesting as the wind increased when we were into Lake King. She carries a lot of sail for a centreboarder, but we managed the entire trip with just two gybes. Both were deliberate, but there's only one  I'll own up to; as to the other  I won't mention it because she swiftly rounded up (a good thing really as it gave me time to catch up to what was going on...)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Women fishing, Lake Tyers Gippsland, 1860's

c 1867 credit; Carl Walter

Finding a photo like this is very exciting for so many reasons. Of course any photograph from this period is special from a technical point of view, as well as sociological and historical points of view. This one was taken around the time our boat 'Beachcomber' was built, in the same district.

The world at the time was in several sorts of turmoil, particularly the bitter divisions in North America where communities suffered from the colossal bloodshed of civil war. It was a period of rampant exploitative trade bullying and drug (opium) pushing in India and China by the East India Trading Company and subsequent involvement by the British Government.

The vast colonial experiment was being felt by First Peoples all over the 'discovered' world.

But this is a picture of dignity and serenity; women going about the business of living co-operatively and productively and in ways that had worked very well for them for tens of thousands of years. Some of the great great grandchildren of these women are probably judged harshly nowadays, for not fitting in or maybe for appearing to  lack motivation, but only by those who haven't really considered the things that have been endured by the generations between then and now.

Their 'wealth'- culturally, linguistically and in access to all that they needed- had been energetically translated into Pounds Sterling and stashed in colonial and British banks, at least until our colony was mature enough to attempt to govern what was left of their lives- but that in itself began paternalistically and in a culturally self-serving way.

By then the damage was so severe that governments ever since have had to face the shame of being impotent to the needs of a really  important part of our world community.

I wish that  our communities could look more generously at the state of some of the survivors now, with a little more understanding of the context of their situation.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Rifling Paradise; a review of the novel

Rifling ParadiseRifling Paradise by Jem Poster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The beginning of this story is quite dark, as our central character reveals attributes that might make for a sordid sort of tale, but the writing was crystal clear and the quality of the prose led me to keep reading. I'm very glad I did.

The novel is really well paced, somehow suggesting very complex plot development, but delivering a trim and precise tale that ends more quickly than seemed possible. It is scattered with moments of real tension as the author uses the story to contrast several different character types, all responding to the cultural paradigms of the time- some characters stuck within them and some managing to grow through them. A very satisfying read.

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the blurb on Goodreads says:

A gripping thriller set in the wilds of nineteenth-century Australia by the critically acclaimed author of Courting Shadows
When past indiscretions catch up with Charles Redbourne, a minor English landowner, he is propelled from England to Australia, where he plans to make his mark as a naturalist. There, his life begins to change dramatically, not least when he meets his host's wayward, artistic daughter. But it is on an expedition in search of scientific specimens in the Blue Mountains that events take a terrifying turn. Vividly conveying the unspoken codes of Victorian society, this is a gripping tale of emotional and psychological reckoning that offers an inspired meditation on the relationship between humankind and the natural world.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

the pleasures of a busy workshop

Some recent pictures of work being done by the workshop group. Sharing tools, ideas and techniques with this collection of enthusiasts is an on-going joy.

A low lamp tells a lot about shape by casting strong shadows across a form.

we have inside and outside holds for different processes

a set of bindings ready for gluing

beginning the neck shaping at the heel

finnessing a bottom edge joint

top bracing and doublers

trimming the newly glued back plate edges

Sunday, October 22, 2017

little dreamscape drawings

 A few more little images to include for my records. Below a couple of pencil drawings from a series of 'secular icons'.

A drypoint print and a lino-cut both using domestic places to mess with space, and the picture plane, below. They are figurative in one sense, but they aren't about the objects in the picture.

Friday, October 20, 2017

studies for a series of paintings 1976; 'The Boys'

There is so little that I still have of the images that I made when I was younger  which used to haunt my every day thoughts, and the few that remain on paper are deteriorating with foxing, dog ears and yellowed paper. So I'm saving them digitally for me, in a place where they will exist for a while even if my computer curls up it's electronic toes. Please excuse the self-indulgence...

The first five were meant as a horizontal sequence, the others are part of a larger group. Coloured conte on paper.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

plane scat

We have a little group that meets in my workshop once a week, and that group is part of a bigger group on Facebook, most of whom just want to see some real time work happening in pictures, and other posts about instrument making and tool use. (on Facebook; Metung Violin Maker's Workshop)
At the moment we have half a dozen tenor ukuleles being made. The uke has a lot in common with an acoustic guitar, without the acreage, and the option of fewer decorative details. But it is also a fantastic vehicle for learning some advanced tool skills including measuring, planing, carving, bending and tuning. At the end you have a very approachable, portable and social instrument.

This process is reason enough in and of itself, in answer to the question 'Why build a uke when you can buy one for twenty bucks?'

Why would you bother?
Let's put aside the obvious answers about sound quality and craftsmanship for the moment and look at these two pictures. The first is of Susan's pile of shavings and the second is of Daniels. They (like everyone in the group) both achieved several things today, but the 'plane scat' pictured here tells a really wonderful story if you know how to look at it.

Susan is planing slightly curly, hard and rather unforgiving blackwood and has used a plane which she was advised to use as if she was slicing tomatoes, rather than chopping them. So in practise, the plane is angled obliquely to the cut- or explained another way, the blade goes forward while the plane is angled at about 45 degrees to the side, and the ribbons produced are like DNA spirals. The grain is approached at an angle and the blade bites gradually.

She nailed it, and did so in quick time. Approaching wood with a cutting tool will be done differently for every piece, depending on grain, hardness, surface flaws and the size of the plane relative to the area that needs flattening.

Daniel's wood was a completely different proposition and he was able to flatten a great area and depth very quickly, confidently and energetically, taking thicker, front-on swathes from the softer, straighter-grained timber. His ribbons are like scrolls more than spirals.

The point is that to learn this kind of sensitivity to tools and materials is simply exquisite in my humble opinion; whatever the object is at the end, the interaction with these things is at the very heart of the connection between our eyes, ears, minds and hands- not to mention the connection to beautiful materials.

All of this could be done by machine, but none of these experiences can be replicated on a machine.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Plane Truth: More tool heaven

For the last month or so, once a week, my little workshop has been humming with energy as a small group begins to learn some of the skills of instrument making, by beginning with a tenor ukulele.

It is such a joy to stand in the room and see five vises holding selected pieces of timber, and particularly to hear multiple bench and block planes cutting ribbons -and giving that sweet pleasure that not so many folk are privy to anymore. I had forgotten what a pleasure a busy studio could be.

Now if there is interest, I will blog some of their progress here, but the reason I mention the group is that the presence of a workshop full of enthusiasts has caused me to me weaken (at a local Sunday market at a second hand tool stall) and buy another bench plane, with the excuse that all my stuff is getting used I need more stuff. Last week I had three block planes, and  #3, # 4, and # 5 all in constant service.  At that stage my # 6 was waiting for a refit and # 7 was needing a sharpen. (They all seem to have favourites, but they are flexible enough to try whatever is offered for a specific task.)

So I bought a (barely) used Australian made Stanley #4 Bailey plane at the market. I thought maybe that the process of making it workable might be of interest to a reader who is reluctant, so far, to tune an old plane...

First, I should say that the Bailey type of plane is not a great type of tool, meaning it is not an exceptional piece of equipment. However, I like the honest, working  nature of them, the humble commercial product that seeks to do a simple job economically and well, especially since they are so easy to transform into really beautiful things to use- without the bells and whistles and snob value of something like a Norris. Tools needn't be glamorous, just serviceable and stout.

In fact the Bailey designs were drawn to make plane manufacture more economical, not to improve performance. This was in Massachusetts and the designer was Leonard Bailey, who was in a position to use recent improvements in steel production to 'power' his ideas. He sold his patent rights to Stanley Rule and Level in the 1870's, and they were made and marketed in several countries since. I have planes made to this pattern from three countries, and all are trustworthy tools.

When finally I had this one on the bench at home it was pretty obvious to me that this was $25 very well spent. It looked quite sad on the market bench, but I knew I could make it look happy because the important bits were in good order. Above, the varnish on the totes was nearly falling off, with shrinkage striations that made them look tired and dry. They are not unpleasant lines though, so I decided to remove only the loose stuff and let the patina shine through some new varnish.

The adjuster mechanism was brilliant, with very little play in it, so adjustment will be easier than it is on most planes.

The base still carries the scars from planing a painted door or some such odd job, attempted without a sharp blade or any respect at all for the tool. This doesn't worry me because all rescued tools seem to need their bottoms flattened. The blade has never been sharpened since purchase- and this is the story for nearly every old plane I've seen at markets and stalls. They have been bought with the best of intentions, but without the knowledge that sharpening is necessary before use, so they wither on a shelf somewhere until they become part of a down-sizing, or a deceased estate. Of the rare ones that have been 'sharpened' most are horribly rounded and uneven; certain to cause anger and frustration. Do one of these a favour. Rescue it and give it a life. They all deserve it!

There is the customary rust on the exposed part of the blade, but the working end has been kept dry by the rest of the detritus on the shelf upon which it hid. This rust is the sort that comes from workshop dust which absorbs atmospheric moisture, and just sits and brews. It isn't deep and the working end is not pitted on it's back, only chipped on the bevel. Pitting on the back of the iron at the sharp end can be serious because it makes a durable sharp edge impossible without grinding the necessary length off the blade. They are only hardened for part of their length. A microscopically smooth back is the first step to real sharpness, never mind the bevel! (to begin with anyway...)

The frog is OK, but needs a small adjustment, and that is easy. The blade needs to be supported as low as possible to prevent 'chatter', so the frog should be positioned flush with the slot (presuming the slot is accurately cast). The two holding screws shown need loosening and then the adjusting screw (which is behind the frog inside the area of the blade adjuster) is turned to bring the   frog forward or backward as necessary.

Devilish hard to hold a straight edge to a plane in front of a light source while photographing, at least without a tripod. But this one shows the lack of flatness on the sole or base of the tool. In fact this is the flattest of all the planes I've tuned over the years and that includes dozens of units from England and USA and Australia. This one is Australian, so it was cheaper than  comparable English or American planes (we have a cultural cringe here, always fearing that we aren't good enough) but the flatness of this was brilliant. Most tools I find are high at the ends, where the casting has shrunk less than the rest, under the thickening at the the totes. This one has a high spot near the middle and a slight rise at the ends, but will be easily sorted.

So the restoration began by removing the handles, sanding them by hand (180) to remove loose varnish, and then giving them three coats of varnish. If it had been necessary to remove all the old varnish I may have been tempted to oil them, but these are working handles, not fashion statements, so I chose to allow the totes to hold some of the patina of age. I used a satin varnish rather than gloss.

Removing any rust is best done after a bit of a scrub with fine (000) steel wool to remove loose stuff, but if you are using a 'rust converter' product like I did on this one, it is best to leave some rust on before coating or the conversion won't work. Badly rusted items can also be treated in a bath of vinegar with amazing results. I like the rust converter on the brass parts too, it cleans them nicely and emphasises the colour of the copper within the brass. I leave them un-polished.

Above, a dip in rust converter for the brass bits. Below, irons coated in the same stuff. Eventually the brown bits go grey and change their chemistry.

Above, my Abbot and Ashby linishing attachment for a grinder. The blade is held by a slide on pivot, so the blade can be offered to the belt from side to side without altering the angle. A small container of water and a brush is essential to stop the tip from overheating, turning blue and ruining your day.

Below, after a short grind, the depth of the damage to the blade edge became apparent. The grind will need to take off everything beyond the deepest chip. Note the concave grind shape from the wheel. It allows a secondary bevel to be added to the tip with a honing guide, and this will be a narrow flat band which is easily re-honed without having to take off a lot of material.

Below, the blade is now hollow ground with a fairly consistent burr all along the edge. That burr (serrated rather than smooth partly because of the machining grooves left on the back from the factory) will be removed on the water stones when the back is honed and the front secondary bevel is formed. The secondary bevel is essential for maintaining the edge without needing to grind every time the blade dulls.

Below, the back of the iron after some initial abrasion with a 300 water stone. Wet and dry paper on glass could also be used. Note the grinding lines up and down the blade- this was the machine finish at the factory. It is best to flatten the working part of the blade, abrading the grooves until about 2mm is groove-less at the tip. Don't be tempted to tilt the blade up to get there sooner, as that will have other consequences, including making it harder to hone the angle you want predictably. After the 300 stone I went up through finer stones to about 4000, and that gives a mirror shine to the surface. I finish the back to the same number grit as I do for the secondary bevel on the front.

Sharpening in general probably needs a separate post, although there are some annotated pics about honing on the Metung Violin Maker's Workshop Facebook page.

Above and below, I discovered some time ago, that the platen on my linisher/sander was actually remarkably flat, and I have been able to use it on plane soles with as much success as I used to have on glass with W&D, but of course much faster. The pic above shows the surface nearly done except for that little area under the rear tote. That would be good enough for most jobs because of the flatness extending to the edge of the rear back, or the surface could be worked for longer to get it just right.

The first ribbon cut with the assembled plane is probably the only good ribbon it has ever cut, and will be the first of many.