Sunday, November 13, 2016

Human nature in a box of crayons

photo credit https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8648/16462767919_1f5599bdd9_b.jpg
If you were anticipating something along the lines of "Life is like a box of crayons; you never know what you're going to get," this blog doesn't go there. It's something a lot more concrete than that.

I have a very vivid memory of my oldest child's entry into kindergarten. The school sought to save money by giving parents a list of supplies required for each child. That included a box of crayon. On the day we brought in our children and their supplies, the assistant teacher opened up each box of crayons to empty the contents into a container. That's when we learned that we were not buying the crayons for our own kids the way we bought them a knapsack or the like; we were buying crayons that became general classroom supplies.

 Those of us who had not been through this before were a bit surprised. One mother even said, "Had I known that they would do that, I would have bought the cheaper crayons rather than the thicker, more expensive ones."

This mother didn't mind having to buy her child the crayons to use for schools. She even spent more than she had to because she wanted her child to have the best ones on the market. So she felt letdown that her kid would not even get to use those crayons any more than any other kid in the class whose parents may have just bought the cheap, thin kind of crayons.

From her perspective, it may be like lovingly preparing a carefully planned out lunch for her child, only to discover that all the lunches are mixed up together, and other kids have brought jelly sandwiches.


That encapsulates much about human nature. We are motivated to do more when we feel that we -- or our children -- benefit directly. If we find out that they benefit only indirectly we would not have  enough motivation to put in more than the bare minimum. Consequently, the parents who had already been there, done that knew there was no point in buying the special crayons as they might have if each child kept his/her own pack of crayons.

 That is not to say that people aren't generous. I'm certain that mother would have willingly contributed several dollars for a fund to provide families that could not afford school supplies with what they need. It is rather the sense of futility of seeing your extra effort disappear in the sea of average that is demotivating.








Monday, September 26, 2016

Isaac Asimov on Creativity

Clearly Isaac Asimov lived before "synergy," now displaced by "collaboration," was  buzz word. A few years ago MIT Technology Review ran "Isaac Asimov Asks, 'How Do People Get New Ideas?'
from https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7380/12625238314_6794bf272c_b.jpg

Like Woz, quoted in Susan Cain's Quiet and here, he does believe "isolation is required" to achieve creativity. His dsecription of a creative mind also corresponds to how introverts operate: "His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it."

What's interesting, though is his describing the intrusion of others as not being a problem due to distraction but to intoroducing self-consciousness that would impede progress: "For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display."

However, Asimov doesn't go so far as to say that you should shut yourself off from society altogether. He explains that interacting with others has other benefits for the mind

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.
Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.
Yet that doesn't mean that he considers the group dynamics to lead directly to new creative insights. Instead they "educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts." For the group to work in that way, he warns that the group has to not be at all censorious. He explains that even one person can poison the atmosphere in which all creative expression is unimpeded:

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.
If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.
He also offers advice on capping the number of group members. Any more than five, he believes would be counter productive because of "the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating." But even more important than that is the question of expectation. In other words, one's official job should not be to what today is called "ideate."

The way he puts it is this: "The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all." The ideas just came while they purusing other things, which, he feels is important to remove a sense of obligation: "To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jane Austen and Capability Brown

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_Brown#/media/File:Lancelot_(%27Capability%27)_Brown
_by_Nathaniel_Dance,_(later_Sir_Nathaniel_Dance-Holland,_Bt)_cropped.jpg





The 50 miles of good road in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's 10,000 a year, and the "ha-ha" in Manfield Park are all features of the times and background for Capability Brown's influence on English gardening.

August 30th 2016 marks the tercentenary of the baptism (his date of birth is unrecorded) of Lancelot 'Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). If you were in England this year, you may have seen certain events dedicated to this man who transformed the British landscape with his vision of naturalistic gardens See The genius of Capability Brown. People in Britian can even buy special stamps to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown's birth. 


I only heard about him on this side of the Atlantic because on one of the tours of Old Westbury Gardens  (which were designed to emulate English estates to appeal to the taste of the owner's British bride) the guide mentioned Capability Brown as the designer. Of course, he couldn't have designed the Long Island estate directly, but his influence came through in the play of lawns, trees, and water to be found even on Long Island.

thatched cottage at Old Westbury Gardens


Curious about the person who shares our last name, my husband looked for books about him in our library system. We only succeeded in obtaining one: Roger Turner's  Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English LandscapeThe History Press Rizzoli International Publications, 1985. While Turner frequently quotes the poet Alexander Pope to give some literary background and one time quotes the writer Hannah More, he fails to mention Jane Austen in connection with the transformation of the landscape at all, and this is an omission I intend to rectify here. 
  
In Ch. 32 of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy tells Elizabeth,  "`And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.''  Darcy was particularly appreciative of "good road"  because it was still a relatively recent convenience that made a dramatic difference to travelers. As Turner writes on p. 17,  "During Brown's practising years, 1750-80, the time taken between London and the major towns was halved. Before these improvements bad weather and wintry conditions made travel impossible for wheeled traffic."  

Earlier in the book, we have the famous pronouncement about Darcy's wealth amounting to 10,000 a year. That figure is also one that Turner mentions as requisite for an estate owner to really maintain a good figure in society: "At least five or six thousand pounds a year was required to support a great house, to allow for the expenses of the London season and to enable the owner to patronize the arts. More comfortably it required ten thousand a year" (p. 17). 
Awareness of garden features gains prominence in Austen's Mansfield Park. In chapter 10, Maria Bertram complains,“Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,' as the starling said.” Refusing to remain restrained, she goes through, ignoring Fanny's warning of the danger of slipping into the ha-ha.

 Of course, all this foreshadows Maria's breaking through the set boundaries of her marriage and becoming a fallen woman. But there still had to be a physical ha-ha, a type of sunken fence that created a barrier between the extended grounds of the estate where animals could graze and the gardens near the house without obstructing the view. This was not a feature that Brown invented but one that he did use. 

Taylor refers to this device and the explanation for its name on p. 29 in  quotes Horace Walpole's 1770 essay On Modern Gardening: 
"The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman's) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses -- an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha!s to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk."
In fact, though, Charles Bridgeman (1680?-1738) could not have been the first to make use of this 
sunken fence, as it already was in use in Versailles before it appeared in England.  Howeve, it appears to have become increasingly common in England in Jane Austen's time, enough so that she could safely assume her readers would be able to picture the obstruction posed by the ha-ha she references several times in Mansfield Park

 The woman writer Turner does quote, Hannah  More (p. 78) was already quoted by a prior biographer of the master gardener, Dorothy Stroud. She records what the writer said about here"friend Mr. Brown" who "illustrates everything he says about gardening by some literary or grammatical allusion."
She said:
"He told me he compared his art to literary composition. 'Now there," pointing a finger, “I make a comma, and there”, pointing to another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon, at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis, now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”

While Taylor doesn't like the literary take on landscaping, it strikes me as an inverse of what Austen said about her own writing in the expression about her own miniature scale. The quote comes from a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh: "What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"


Capability Brown's landscaping took a great deal of labor to produce subtle effects that could be appreciated many years later. The same can be said of Austen's novels. 


Friday, August 26, 2016

The recipe for the nursery rhyme

image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sing_a_Song_of_Sixpence

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I'm in the middle of a work of historical fiction that takes place during the Middle Ages. It referenced pies with live birds à la the four-and-twenty blackbirds mentioned in "Sing a song of sixpence." It also suggested that some people topped this with a human child popping out of the pie but suggested that some kids may have been hurt in the attempt. In reality, there really were such recipes, but no birds (or children) were actually baked into the pie. Rather the pie was baked and then cut on the bottom to allow them in. 

What else is the internet for if not to find recipes for such whimsical concoctions dating back over five centuries? I found it on more than one site but went for the one from Chef Frank for better clarify. The origin is an Italian cookbook from 1549 that was translated into English 49 years later. Chef Frank writes up the recipe in modern English with modern instructions, as well as assurances that the birds will be completely unscathed. Supposedly this kind of crust only works with lard, so it wouldn't do for people with kosher or hallal dietary requirements. 



Four and Twenty Blackbird Pie
24 live blackbirds12 cups all purpose flour1 1/2 tbsp salt6 eggs, slightly beaten2 lb lard1/2 cup water3 eggs, beaten2-3 heads decorative kale (for garnish)
Make sure all the blackbirds are alive and comfortable. Reserve. In a large bowl, place the flour and salt. Pour the eggs into the center of the bowl and with 2 knives, cut the eggs into the flour until it looks like course cornmeal. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add the lard. Heat until all the lard is melted. Pour hot lard into the flour mixture, and work into a firm dough. While the dough is still warm, divide 2/3 - 1/3. Roll the larger part out on a floured surface into a large circle, at least 36" in diameter. Don't worry if the dough is thick. Keep the other part warm. Find a wide and deep pot big enough to hold 24 standing blackbirds comfortably. Grease the outside of the pot and form the circle of dough around the outside of the pot. This will form the bottom crust, or the "coffin" (no, the birds will still be alive when served! Honest!!). Allow to cool. Cut a circle 6" in diameter in the center of the bottom of the crust (actually, in this case, the top on the form) and remove the dough. Carefully remove the bottom crust from the form and place on parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Crumple sheets of aluminum foil into balls, and place inside the bottom crust, 2" higher in the center than the sides. Roll out the other part of the dough to 2" wider than the coffin. Brush all along the edge of the dough, and place on top of the coffin. Crimp the edges. Using the 6" circle of dough, cut out decoratve shapes. Brush the top crust with the beaten egg and attatch the decorative cut-outs. Don't be bashful - how often do you get to decorate a coffin? Brush again with beaten egg. Place in a 325F oven and bake until the crust is golden brown. Allow to cool.
When the crust has thoroughly cooled, carefully lift up and remove the crumpled foil. Prepare your serving platter by lining it with the decorative kale. You may further dress up your platter with small bunches of grapes, small whole fruit, and/or baby vegetables. When ready to serve, place the coffin on the center of the platter. Gather up your reserved blackbirds. Carefully lift up the coffin and gently place each blackbird inside, being careful not to crowd them. When all the blackbirds have been hidden in the crust, let the crust lie flat on the platter. Serve immediately. 

Note that recipes were not written in this fashion centuries back. The original text, which I found here is:
Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somewhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be done at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart. (From Epulario, 1598)

Seems weird to us, of course. But perhaps the people of that time would find things like sprinkles and rainbow bagels  even more absurd.



Monday, July 11, 2016

Innocence and experience

A great scenic sunet along the main branch of the Mississippi River on the Great River Trail, Wisconsin photo at https://www.goodfreephotos.com/places/wisconsin/great-river-trail/wisconsin-great-river-trail-scenic-sunset.jpg.php


Beat Not the Poor Desk  is the title of one of the books I was introduced to when I took a graduate course on teaching composition. It has some really helpful writing ideas based on particular frames. One of them is "Once I was ___; now I am___." The idea is using concrete narrative to convey a more general point.

This is exactly what Mark Twain does in his piece, "Two Views of  the Mississippi." Picking up on the transition from innocence to experience that William Blake explores in his poetry, Twain encapsulates the gain that also entails loss:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and has come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river! 
Twain offers further details and then suggests a parallel with the medical profession:
 Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beautyʹs cheek mean to a doctor but a ʺbreakʺ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown think with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesnʹt he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesnʹt he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?   

This happens to most of us in our trade. I tried to explain this to someone about seeing a piece of writing through the eyes that have assessed hundreds of thousands of essays (I'm  not exaggerating, I scored SAT essays for over a decade after having grades college students' writing for a decade before that). It's impossible not to notice flaws in the mechanics when your eyes -- like those of the doctor looking for signs of illness -- have been trained to spot them. That doesn't mean I always comment on them even when seeing "aisle" without the a, a usage error that makes me feel like I'm hearing fingernails on a blackboard.  It also doesn't mean I claim to never make a mistake myself, but that's not really the point. A musically trained person may hit a false note once in a while, though that hardly disqualifies that person from giving a professional assessment of another person's playing.


To return to the them of Blake and Twain, the fact of life is (without some form of memory loss)  you can't go back. You can't recapture the perspective of innocence once you've passed into experience. That doesn't mean that life is over, only that you've passed into a different stage that will color your perspective. And here's one advantage that experience has over innocence: you know what it was to look at the world through the eyes of innocence while the person who has no experience cannot know of any perspective beyond what s/he has had.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Have desk, will travel


When we picture mobile now, we picture something  small and light like this.


from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/MANEJANDO_LA_NUEVA_TABLET.png


But a hundred years ago mobile meant something different than it did today. The concept of a mobile desk was just one that could be moved, not necessarily one you could easily carry with you.  It serves some of the same purpose as a tablet does, holding information one wants access to in an organizaed fashion with space for writing your own additions to all that data. 

photo of Lyndhurst interior  by Ariella Brown
This is the desk that Jay Gould used at Lyndhurst and when commuting from there to his office on his yacht.  Though the railroad did pass right by Gould's summer home, it was built by Vanderbilt, and he vowed never to use it.  But he didn't suffer too much, sailing in on a yacht took only 45 minutes, an enviable commute by today's standards. However, he didn't travel too light if he took the desk-- and like an attendant or two  pull it for him--along for the trip.

That formidable piece of furniture is a Wooton Desk, which is known for having many compartments as well as casters, which makes it mobile as in designed to be moved. As the Wikipedia article explains, "The Wooton desk was introduced at the end of the 19th century, at a time when office work was changing in a drastic fashion with an increase in paperwork that led to the introduction of filing cabinets, among other things."

 According to the tour guide at Lyndhurst where the desk still stands, this particular one has over 100 compartments, which likely includes some secret ones. Instead of password protection or biometric identification, you'd rely on physical keys and hidden levers for securing your confidential documents from prying eyes. One plus for the desk, it is still usable over a century later. It's very unlikely that will be the case for today's tablets and smartphones.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Restoring a garden and some history in Yonkers

Above and below and some of the views of the walled garden, one of the highlights of the Untermyer Garden in Yonkers.I also included a picture of the Temple of Love that overlooks a waterfall.  Most of the rest of the gardens have not been restored to the glory they held back in the day when 60 gardeners tended its 150 acres with plants supplied by 60 greenhouses.  What is restored is worth seeing, and there's no charge  entry.

You can learn more about the gardens and the man behind them, Samuel Untermyer, at http://www.untermyergardens.org/. As the pamphlet in the garden and the site says, "Samuel Untermyer was born in Virginia in 1858, and moved to New York City after the Civil War. He was a partner in the law firm of Guggenheimer, Untermyer & Marshall, and was the first lawyer in America to earn a one million dollar fee on a single case."

The site offers a lot more in-depth information, including an article by Greogory Kupsky  that gives further insight into the response of German-American Jews to Hitler's increasing power and how Untemeyer clashed with others in pushing for a boycott of Germany.


 This is the better side of the ampitheater. As you can see form the picture below it, the other side is in much need of repair.








See more photos of the garden that I posted on Pinterest. If you don't get to Yonkers but do get to the northern part of Central Park, check out  the fountain adorned by the sculpture of the Three Dancing Maidens there with a plauque for Untemyer. see https://www.pinterest.com/writewaypro/conservatory-garden-at-central-park/