Commonplace book

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I’ve been experimenting with commonplacing. In the 1600s through the early 1900s, the commonplace book was a system of gathering texts and quotations in one place, usually a blank notebook, for the purpose of recollecting information and remembering key ideas about virtue, truth, health, leadership or what have you.

Doctors used them for recording “pearls”, key ideas about a pair or triad of symptoms and a specific diagnosis. Politicians used them to note useful quotations for speeches, and historians used them to categorize events and trends in the age before statistical analysis made more nuanced discussions possible.

I’m using a Moleskine/Evernote-branded softcover notebook to record poetry that I’m trying to memorize; pieces go into the book in the order that I’ve memorized them or intend to commit them to memory.  I attended a Burns Night supper in January last year; and I made an effort to memorize Robert Burns’ Epigram on Bad Roads, which is the first poem in the book, as you can see.

“I’ve now arrived —
thank all the gods!
Through pathways both rough and muddy;
a certain sign that makin’ roads
is no’ this people’s study.
Though I’m not with Scripture crammed
I know the Bible says
that heedless sinners shall be damn’d —
unless they mend their ways.”

It was nice and useful to memorize a funny poem for a change, instead of a serious one.  Most of my poetry tends to be pretty serious; and I tend to memorize serious poetry.  It’s a useful reminder that I should from time to time work on funny poetry as a form — both to memorize, and to write.  Something to practice!img_5468

Further on in the book, in the last three pages or so, is an index page listing the poetry and other elements I’ve put in the book.  Here’s part of that index, listing on page 1 the Epigram on Bad Roads, and Langston Hughes, and John Keats, and so on.   William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence takes up pages 7-11. You can see that I’m working on memorizing quite a lot of Thomas Taylor’s translations of the Orphic Hymns, as well, and the Aleister Crowley hymn for Coffee (not Covfefe).  The index continues; I’ve listed all of the pages, even if I haven’t filled them yet.  It’s rather more similar to the Digital Ambler’s Vademecum, really, or an Enchiridion, than a true commonplace book. A true commonplace book should not only have a table of contents at the beginning, but also an index by subject, such as hope or valor or kindness or coffee. Such an index would help one find appropriate material within the book more rapidly and easily.

img_5469Not everything in the book is poetic. Two pages include a list of all of the U.S. Presidents in order, which I’m working on memorizing, not just with their names but also their years.  It’s occurred to me frequently that this list serves a useful purpose as a time-counter; it’s much easier to remember when something occurred in time if you remember who was president at the same time.  That’s part of the reason why I also have the similar list of the Kings and Queens of England a few pages on from this — The English royal list extends back in time to 1066, and it creates a useful parallel list for European affairs.  Maybe I should also work on the list of the Emperors of Japan…


Shaker Village

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Just inside the western border of Massachusetts is the Hancock Shaker Village, a museum dedicated to the history and artistry and agriculture of the Shakers. I’m going to be staying for a few days in the neighborhood, here at the edges of the “Burned-Over District” as described by the  author Mitch Horowitz in Occult America. 

I’ve been to the museum several time. It never ceases to astound me. High technology in the form of this remarkable barn, artisanry shops, and passive solar living. It’s not a permaculture community. But it’s close to that in so many ways. The shakers were the first great caretakers of American orphans; among the first to establish brand names — shakers were associated with high quality handmade goods — the first to imagine communal living in a more-or-less Protestant and  European context in North America. The things they made are beautiful. 

A Talk on Memory Palaces


Yesterday, at the District 53 Toastmasters Spring Conference (part of Toastmasters International), I delivered a talk on the Palace of Memory technique. These were my working notes and my slideshows.


Evening plans

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Pretty much nothing going on tonight.  Hanging around the front porch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show up. 

Make Summer Camp: Butterfly Origami


This post is part of the Make Summer Camp series, in which I’m practicing or working on various Maker projects as a way of developing the skills that I need to run the Design Lab. One of the skills I wanted to develop was with origami, the Japanese folding-paper techniques used to make charming but ephemeral sculptures. In some ways it’s a party trick; in others, it’s a way of getting adults and kids to engage in the world in a new way.  

Butterfly origamiI saw this one on Pinterest.  I have to say, the photographs of the butterfly origami pattern are much more interesting and cute than the actual fold in person, which is more ordinary-looking than I expected. It photographs well, but it’s not so impressive in person.

But again, the point is to grow in proficiency in origami. And that means, apparently, knowing a lot of folds more or less by heart, as well as being able to invent folds that lead to recognizable forms.   I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to invent folds. There’s a 2D-to-3D skill there that I don’t have nearly as much experience with as I’d like.

And yet. The things that I really admire about origami for kids and for teaching is that there are actual skills here. There’s a patience and precision, and a love of what I might call emergent geometry: each fold has consequences both beneficial and unfortunate; the resulting object(s) have a power and beauty all their own which is a result of how those consequences play out.  Some origami pieces can be folded in the ‘wrong’ order and ‘fixed’ later; others follow a precise sequence of steps which cannot be altered.

Magically, origami forms appear to belong to the Moon, to Venus, and to Mercury: there’s a personal love (that’s Venus) of the form which matters for quality results; the Mercurial quality is the result of the precision that the forms require in their ideal form; the Moon is the substance of the paper used, and how the chosen paper affects the final product.  For those less versed in the language of astrology and alchemy and magic, we might say that the physical properties of the paper (both the crispness or floppiness of the paper, and its printed patterns and ‘tooth’) help determine the final form, but the idealized diagrams of origami books are useless without personal interest and love of the creative work that it takes to translate those diagrams into reality.

My goal has been to learn the twenty-five folds in a basic origami tutorial guide that came packaged with seventy-five sheets of origami paper, of the kind usually called washi.  I think there’s a potential magic in origami, in that it can be used to make containers and boxes of various shapes, like the boxes I made last time.  I’ve made good progress. Even a few days after my first efforts, I can fold the following:

  1. The Japanese crane
  2. The Kabuto or samurai helmet
  3. The star-box
  4. The masu-box (also called the square box)
  5. The table
  6. The cup
  7. The hat
  8. The piano
  9. The house
  10. The butterfly (not part of my original list of twenty-five)

Still to come? Whales and airplanes and seals and birds, tulips and irises, swans, sailboats and cars.  And more boxes. Definitely boxes.

Why boxes? What’s the appeal of boxes?  Part of it is the magician in me— creating space set apart from the rest of the universe, with only a single piece of paper (or sometimes dozens of pieces of paper, for some of the more elaborate origami folds), opens opportunities for the recognition of subtle differences.  Part of it is that one of the things that designers are expected to do is package and set apart their work from the world in some fashion— and getting kids to think about how to present their work is part of a design thinking teacher’s job.

But the appeal of origami to a Maker program in general should be obvious.  First, paper is a low-cost material.  Second, origami and its related traditions of kirigami (cut paper) and pop-up book are all about teaching kids to take one (flat) material, and turn them into something 3D or sculptural.  It’s much cheaper than a 3D printer, frankly, and yet it teaches kids those all-importatn skills of taking a flat object, like for example a sheet of plywood, and turning it into something designed to be viewed in the round.  This is not easy for children, or for adults.  And yet it’s a simple way to connect kids to those concepts.

I’ve said in the past that drawing is a secret super-power for designers. But it occurs to me that thinking in terms of taking materials and moving them from parts to product is another superpower.   Origami is a way to do that with younger children, and I hope to make use of this work in the fall.

Make: The Gusenberg Chess Set


Cheryl Gusenberg died.  She was the second grade teacher at my school, and she had just retired to take care of her health a few weeks ago. A few weeks ago, we marked her farewell from teaching with toasts and food and good cheer; today we honored her memory with the Kiddush, prayers and beautiful eulogies. She will be greatly missed.

Game design: ChessboardIt was at her request and direction, and with her help, that I designed what I now name the Gusenberg Chess Set: a simple board and pieces built out of basic parts available from many woodcraft supply stories, which cost the school under $6.00 to build. It was a way to teach her second graders about chess, and about how things get made. But really, things get made because someone (like Cheryl), has a great idea, and demands that people follow through.  Over the last three or four years, we’ve built something close to fifty of these chess sets, and taught a few hundred kids the basics of the game.

I hope that we continue to teach people to play chess, in memory of her, and her perseverance, her patience, and her drive to find ways to help every child she taught learn something new.

Podcast: Delphi and the Pythia

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A number of years ago, I did a group of podcasts for my students on various themes in ancient Greek history.  This one, about the Oracle of Delphi and the Pythia, was one of the longer ones, about 7 minutes.

Something came up elsewhere today that made me realize that someone out there might have use of it. And so I have posted it, so that I have a URL to point to.

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