Design Insights: Are you this badass?

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I got new insight into design today during an after-dinner walk with my lady. We’d eaten at a fish house dive, the Webster Fish Hook (good place, by the by), at the foot of the Coolidge Bridge in Northampton, MA. Across the street is the old Norowottock bridge, a cast-iron railroad span over the Connecticut River that once carried a rail line into Hadley, Amherst, Worcester and eventually Boston. It’s part of the regional rails-to-trails program, and we’ve walked it before,

Tonight, in deep dusk but not yet true night, it became clear to my lady that the bridge is slanted. She is frightened by bridges. Terrified of them, really. They cause her to breathe in the frightened way that people do when they know the monster is about to leap out of the hiding place under the stairs in the horror movie, but then oh look it was only a kitty cat and THEN the monster leaps out from under the stairs, sort of way.

Anyway, the bridge is slanted. This much is obvious to my lady. The trails deck we’re standing on is not, of course, but that only makes the slanted frame of the bridge itself much more alarming. “is it damaged? About to fall over? Why isn’t it level, or square?” Further mysteries reveal themselves as we turn around on the far shore and walk back to our car. the frame of the bridge gently twists, leaning downstream on the west side of the river, straightening over the middle, and leaning upstream on the eastern shore.

We know, from walking the Northampton side of the rails-to-trails, that the old railroad bed curved to the south, joining the Northampton line and arriving at the station at the southeast end of Main Street. On the east side of the river, there’s a long, slow curve to Amherst across the alluvial plains of Hadley.

And in a flash, I saw it. So elegant, so beautiful. Trains can’t take right turns. Their tracks have to have long arcs and broad, slow changes in direction. They need to gently angle the loads on their cars into the curves, so as not to unbalance the train. The curves, and the weight distribution, need to be worked out long in advance. Rivers have to be crossed in straight lines, too; curved bridges are inefficient.

Do you see it yet? Possibly you do, probably you don’t. Words are so inefficient for explaining this sort of thing. I tried to take pictures, but by the time I had my Insight it was full dark. The insight was still clear enough to hold onto while I drove home, though, and still cooking when I decided to share it with you.

The bridge is angled, twisted, even, as a mediation between the curve in one direction on the Northampton side, and the curve in the other direction on the Hadley/Amherst/Boston side. The slight twist in the bridge would have supported the weight of freight cars gradually shifting over from leaning southwards around the curve from Northampton, to leaning northwards on the curve to Amherst. Trains coming in the other direction would have been directed by the tracks and the bridge frame together, to flip it heir weight southwards, in preparation for the curving turn into Northampton.

In other words, over a distance of some ten or twelve miles, the bridge was one part of an elaborately thought-out system for moving cargo from one side of the Connecticut River to the other — shifting its weight, turning around curves, dealing with hills and mountains, and more. Our designers today work on very small scales: microchips and hand-held devices. These 19th century designers figured out how to avoid toppling cargo and passengers into the river sixty feet below them. They used gravity to ease their train’s path and get it around right corners, curves, and planes.

Realizing all of this, I had renewed respect for the designers and engineers of the past. I doubt. I could build anything as elegant as an iPad or a railroad line — but maybe we should use both as examples of the extraordinary complexity which human minds are able to resolve through the application of design principles.

Would that more of us were that badass as designers.

Taiji Day 28: Do the Work

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There’s little else that needs to be said.  I’m away from home today.  It was difficult to do the work.  I wound up doing it in two parts — the Five Golden Coins routine in someone’s living room, and the taiji form in the back yard.  Both times left my heartbeat elevated and my breath heaving.  (This is no bad thing).

Deborah says in her current blog post, “everyone wants to be famous but no one wants to do the work.” Today, I’m inclined to agree with her.  There’s always one more blog post to read, one more Facebook status to comment on, one more app to check out or review, one more online game to play.  There’s virtually a whole host of things that seem pressing or important (more likely, we know they’re escapist, but choose to escape anyway). Except when the escape is over, and you’re back in the cage, then what?

Stop reading this.  Go take a walk.  Go outside.  Get some fresh air.  Write a poem.  Work in the garden. Do something.

Do the work.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

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Welcome to the Anthropocene Age.

OK, maybe it’s hyperbole to believe we’ve entered a new geological age.  Maybe it isn’t. It’s hard to know.  But each major age of geology in the planet’s history has begun during a major species die-off of the previous age; furthermore, it’s hard to argue that biodiversity isn’t under threat now.

At what point do we change our historical and biological and scientific classroom curriculums to account for the shift in the knowledge base of our species and our culture?

Oh, right, we don’t. Because as the YouTube comments on my videos about India suggest, and as the textbook on which those videos were based suggest, our society has not given up the idea that an Aryan invasion of India took place in around 2000 B.C.

    Judging by these two videos — which are based on a recent textbook, mind you — you’d think that the issue of the Aryans was settled history. Except that the comments on the two videos, from people in India and people studying DNA patterns, say that the Aryan theory is hogwash.

So do the two flooded cities off the coast of India, in the Bay of Cambay, and the Bay of Bengal (at Mahabalipuram in southern India).   We have growing evidence, thus, of major climate change about 9000 BC (11,000 years ago) that flooded cities world-wide and bought down civilizations.

It’s hard not to wonder if we’re next.

Ruth Ann Dandrea on Testing

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I’d never heard of Ruth Ann Dandrea before this morning, when she wrote an open letter to her Eighth Graders about “A Test You Need to Fail.” My friend Chris found it, and forwarded to me.

It’s an examination of the testing materials, and more specifically the grading key, attached to the test her kids will take later this spring.  And it turns out, that test is criminally deficient in how it grades students:  the kids’ writing is not being analyzed for its grammar or its content or its meaning in any way.  The students merely need to use two facts from a reading provided in the test in their answer.

But. But. This is the part that kills me.  The question the students see is “What is your personal response to this reading?” Which means, students are asked what they think of the reading — but not invited to analyze the reading. And yet, if they DON’T analyze the reading, they’re penalized on the test.  An answer which uses no facts gets no points, even if it’s perfectly, elegantly, and grammatically accurate, and “personal”.

Ruth Ann Dandrea gets points, in my book, for being willing to let her students know they’re being deceived.  Because they are. So are their parents.  So is their school system.  If this is what passes for testing these days, why would we want it? Our students are being tested on acquiring facts, but being asked their personal opinion.   Does that mean, when they’re asked for facts, the secret agenda is “personal opinion”?

Dandrea reports that she went to see Noam Chomsky recently, and Noam Chomsky says, “public education is under attack.” Simple.  Easy.

Accurate.  Susan Fine pointed this out in her essay about leaving teaching.  I’ve observed it in the rise of anti teacher rants.

In fact, I can think of no better way to force money into the hands of private schools, charter schools, for-profit charter programs, and business-oriented money-making schemes than No Child Left Behind.  Even Seth Godin’s recent rant, stop stealing dreams, in some ways plays into the hands of the movement that wants to make educating children a for-profit program.  I’ll say more about that in another post, but I wanted to call attention to the fact that there’s a sea change afoot against public education, free at the point of delivery.

And this is Villainy.

Day 27: Feet

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While doing the form today, I was particularly aware of the floor under my feet, and each particular gap between the floorboards in my century-old apartment.  I could put down a rug, but then it would bunch up under my feet during the spins.  I could install wall-to-wall, but then I’d likely get rug burns on my soles. Instead, I occasionally feel a scrape or a twinge as an uneven floorboard slides, or almost stutters, against the sole of my foot – usually the right one, because the form is primarily weighted-right (I can correct this by doing the form by opening to the left, and weighting it left, but it’s unsettling to do it that way, and I usually get lost partway through. Pathbreaking is harder than following a known road).

I think that’s the main lesson of today, though.  Following the forms of the masters has its advantages — in the study of history, in the practice of magic, in the teaching of students, in martial arts — but the real challenge lies in in finding a new way to walk on the earth.

Day 26: Laughter

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I didn’t get to my tai chi at home this morning, so I did it during a free period at school.  Normally I don’t like to do tai chi at work.  If I’m doing it right, it makes me sweat, and it’s no fun to sweat in good clothes like jacket and tie.  On the other hand, I’d rather do it than not do it — I attribute doing it for the last almost-eight weeks to my gradually strengthening immune system.  But it always seems to attract notice, and I’d rather not draw notice to my practice at school — because then I might be asked to teach it, and that didn’t go so well at my old school.

So, I found a secluded path between two wings of the school.  No windows look out on this path, or, at least, no windows from currently-occupied rooms.  There’s a window into a usually empty corridor, and a window into a lab that’s unoccupied on Thursdays at this time.  Perfect location — outdoors, in good weather, away from prying eyes, and a beautiful view through the still barren trees to the reservoir.

About halfway through the form, I hear very young giggling behind me.  Turning around to look (very bad form), I realize it’s one of my colleagues with the whole first grade.  They’re coming back from P.E., and they need to pass right by my hidden practice space to get to their classroom.  And they’re giggling at me.  I don’t know how long they’ve been watching, but the door is closed and my colleague is watching curiously.  I must look very silly, doing these moments that look like half-hearted punches into empty space.  Her students are giggling at me.  One by one, they disappear into the building, giggling to each other. One student asks, “What are you doing?” Another asks, in confusion and apparent displeasure, “what was he doing?” They may not be aware I can hear them.

I may have to start practicing at school more often. There’s nothing like giggling first graders to remind you not to take yourself too seriously.

Taiji Day 25: breathe

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During the first movement of five golden coins, I was breathing pretty hard. I am not feeling great, and i wanted to get the actions done. On the second movement, I slowed down, but it made me angry to slow down, and I wasn’t sure why I slowed down. On the third movement, I slowed down still further, even though it wasn’t my agenda. On the fourth movement, though, I realized: oh! The movements themselves take longer to complete. I must go slower, and breathe,and breathe properly, to be skillful. By the time I transitioned from fifth movement to taiji form, I was breathing properly and in synch with my movements, which felt fluid and flowing. Breathing changed my attitude.

A colleague at my old school was a major fan of Charles Swindoll, who pointed out that attitude is really the only thing you have control over. With the right attitude you can do anything. With the wrong attitude you can do nothing. My history classes are reading about Susan B. Anthony right now, who said “Failure is impossible.” I feel that way about my tai chi practice, today: if I can get up feeling cranky and cruddy, and do the tai chi, and the breath work of the form shifts my attitude — every blessed day! — then I can do anything.


update: I did in fact get to 47,000 readers yesterday, which was a nice milestone.

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