Tuesday, February 20, 2018

packets of community

Imagine a time before the internet, before TV even. No mobiles, no digitals, no videos, and not every one had a radio.

Over the years as I restored old violins for people or bought old instruments to restore and sell, I somehow accumulated a bag full of old strings and fittings and rosins from ancient violin cases and never had the heart to throw them out.

Nor did I have a plan as to what I'd do with them. I find them very beautiful, these little treasures bought with Pounds, Shillings and Pence, kept as spares in violin cases as preparation for an emergency change of strings. These are packages that crinkle and make special proprietary noises when they are opened, with evocative images on the front promising tone, atmosphere and quality sometimes stamped with a traditional wax seal.

Some of these were bought and sold in the 19th Century. In Australia these were often the entertainment ammunition for families and communities, often played by men, especially if women had access to a piano. I can't imagine how many times I was shown 'Grand Pa's violin' when the case was opened.

For those fortunate enough, the piano was the axis around which many country communities gelled, the background to singing, dancing, romances and gossip, political discussions and rivalry. Sometimes this was a church-based thing, but often just families and neighbours, and the violins came to where the piano lived. Although  also important in city communities, it was arguably less so, given greater access to entertainment in the towns and on the other hand, the nature of rural work and the distances involved in getting together.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The trouble with perfection

One of the members of my workshop group was having the usual difficulties with some small and fine joinery, and her initial question was regarding the difficulties of accurate measurement, but the underlying issue was more searching.

She wanted to talk about the level of accuracy that she could be happy with, and she raised the issue of perfection. I had to start by saying that I don't embrace the search for perfection. I don't think that functional accuracy need be saddled with a striving for a flawless ideal, when inspired and energetic repetition is more likely to bring a quality that is much fresher, human and 'alive'.

We could spend ten years slaving to make a thing perfect or we could make dozens of things in the same period and in doing so we move our skills and our intuitive grasp of craft forward so much more. I'm not saying that big projects are a waste, because big projects are generally collections of little projects. Sometimes though, we need to look at the big goals rather than the problems which are in our faces. For me, making something is more about learning to make than it is about the product, at least if I'm to do more than simply manufacturing.

This attitude is hard to explain and I'm certainly not advocating shortcuts or shoddy workmanship. A really lovely piece of work will often appear easy, effortless and coherent.

If we start a piece thinking that it will only be good in the absence of mistakes we ignore the positive qualities that give rise to that beauty.

A curve, a shape or a cut can be a sweep of the hand that may reveal confidence and energy. This is what I aspire to, and the approach is intuitive rather than logical. And it takes lots of practice to make this kind of progress.

Someone in a hurry to achieve this would do well to use cheap materials as practice platforms for a specific skill, continuing to repeat the process until work can be done with less thinking and more feeling, more confidence and less anxiety about getting it right.

After all, this is precisely what musicians have to do to sound fluid and beautiful. The hands need to be taught how to act without conscious thought to a certain degree, through repetition. This frees the senses to concentrate on more specific perceptions.

Perfection is really akin to Plato's  pet concept in which he argues that our worldly existence can be likened to a shadow cast on the walls of a cave and seen by someone who has never been able to look at the real world outside. If they have only seen the shadows then the shadows seem real, so how can they possibly imagine the 'real' world? That person's shadows are our reality, and Plato wanted us to imagine the ideal world beyond our 'cave' walls. He would argue that everything and everyone has an ideal form and structure (and behaviour?) and we live and create to approach those ideals.

Despite what I've said about perfection for me as a goal in work, I do fit into the idealist mold with regard to life and design- I always feel we can do  things better if we are honest and thoughtful, and when designing something I'm always interested in finding the 'essential' forms and removing the complications that obscure them. Functional modernism is an expression of that.

The design for these small planes was very much a conscious attempt to  find an ideal form.

All of this thinking about idealism in design caused me to search out these old drawings from forty years ago in 1978. I wanted to make a methane digester to produce gas for cooking or powering a generator, particularly one that might be useful in agriculture to improve the compost value of animal waste, and to generate gas for domestic or farm use.

At the time there were interesting methane plants in India and China (hotter places, generally), but they were often messy and cumbersome designs that were labour intensive to build and use. That taste for the ideal caused me to try for a more rational design that might be manufactured in stackable modules.

Needless to say this idealistic boy in his 20's had neither the resources nor the money to do anything much with the idea, but I was fascinated with what we then called 'appropriate technology'. I noticed recently there is finally a company producing good manufactured small scale digesters- with the benefit of modern plastics, manufacturing methods and crowd funding. (I'm tempted to buy one)

From 1978, my design for a batch-fed, solar heated Methane digester, manufacturable in concrete. There are other sheets which compute inputs, outputs, volumes and carbon to nitrogen ratios.

thermo-syphoned solar heated water was integrated into the design to maintain an optimum digesting temperature in temperate or cool climates/seasons

On sloping sites the design allowed 'stacking', maintaining the optimum solar angle for that lattitude

I had a concrete company keen to manufacture a prototype, but I had no funds to develop the concept further.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

before the regatta

A fishing boat crew before the Paynesville Regatta. Date unknown. Source; Paynesville Maritime Museum 

I include this as another example of the Gippsland type of boat in the early days of fishing our lake system. We can't date it but it appears to be late C19th. The main sail is lug and the rigging is typically simple and uncomplicated- no backstays or complicated block systems. The boat is probably 28ft or so, but easily beached. It appears that only the sax board or top strake is lapped. Often these early boats had 2 or 3 clinkers above the waterline. The thinking was to keep things smooth below the waterline to make less noise. I find the bowsprit interesting in that it is bending or possibly pointing downwards in a way that became a standard (although longer) on the big Couta boats  further west in Port Philip and Queenscliff.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Stony Creek Trestle Bridge 1916

 On the way to nowhere (but really, it is on the way to a place called Nowa Nowa) it is easy to forget how much it was worth to be able to transport timber, wool and produce from East Gippsland, if it could be done more directly than had been possible from port to port by boat. This was 1916 and labour must've been hard to find, with tens of thousands of our young men  serving the Empire in European War. This rail bridge was built by Victorian Railways as part of a link from Bairnsdale to Orbost.

Damaged in the 1980's by wild fire, it then became unserviceable. Spanning 276 metres and  18.5 metres high, the members are from single height logs. I am as inspired by the manipulation of the materials as I am by the history, but when we stand under such an old, confident statement made in sweat and timber, it is wonderful to ponder a few hows and whys. This region was one in which resources outnumbered people, and still is. And that's just the way I like it.

we have to look down for relief

I love the crazy geometry when looking askew

photo credit- Nicholas Ditterich

Saturday, December 16, 2017

all the light we cannot see; a review of the novel

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book made a big splash and has been reviewed extensively. An analysis by me will add nothing of significance to all this, but there are a couple of things about my experience of reading it that I'd like to record.

Doerr has written invisibly to me in the sense that I wasn't aware of any writing at all, just pictures, situations, ideas, connections, people and story. It felt like a very big and generous story, lacking nothing, laced together in overlapping time periods and contrasting mind sets. The author had me hooked by the end of the first page and won't let go even as I try to get into another book.

Highly recommended

View all my reviews

the blurb on Goodreads:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book, National Book Award finalist, more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

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?'

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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 from the 1980's 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.