Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 13

My father’s slide rule was a Keuffel & Esser log-log-duplex-decitrig slide rule from the 1940s, with twenty-one scales on white plastic bonded to teak and a glass hairline indicator, neatly cozied in a stiff leather case. Like all handymen and engineers of his generation, he took his slipstick seriously. Used it all day long, every day. While at work, while tinkering in his basement workshop, or while preparing a speech for the local chapter of the American Association of Mechanical Engineers. He lived in a world of three significant figures. 3.14 26.9 658 That was the best accuracy you could read off the scales. It was enough for a life of service to his profession and his community. With a slide rule, the structure of thinking is visible and tactile. He liked that. He could see and feel the numbers add, multiply, divide. Today, calculations take place invisibly in a microchip sealed away from human inspection.

With the transition from slide rule to electronic calculator—which happened just after his death— more happened than a mere advance in technology. The change from slide rules to electronic calculators was different, say, than the change from oil lamps to electric bulbs, or from horse-and-buggies to automobiles. The passing of the slide rule represented a change in how we understand the world. It was a change from analog to digital, from a world imagined as hardware to a world imagined as software. The dance of digits inside a computer’s silicon chip has not only transformed our lives; it has provided a new metaphor for understanding reality. The dance of the DNA in every cell of our bodies is more like the digital dance of 1s and 0s in a computer chip than it is like the cogs and gears of a clockwork. Today, it sometimes seems that nature is digital all the way down.

When I went off to college to study engineering in the 1950s, my father gave me his well-worn K&E slide rule. A thing of beauty. “Wear it with pride,” he might have said. And I did, as I trotted to class with the other engineering nerds, slip-sticks dangling from our belts. If someone had told us then that we would soon carry in the palm of our hand a device costing less than a good K&E slide rule that could do arithmetic and a host of higher mathematical functions instantly and accurately to ten significant figures we would have said, “Impossible.” But slide rules had one advantage over calculators: They rounded off, by necessity. They lent themselves to the kind of back-of-the-envelope calculations my father excelled at. He would have called it the art of rounding off, and of making reasonable guesses. Yes, an art. An art that may have passed away with that most lovely of mathematical devices—the slide rule. Too much precision can sometimes obscure understanding, I once heard him say. A lot of good science can be done with “let’s assume” and “to a first approximation.” (The slide rule is now in my son Tom’s possession, a treasured memento of his handyman grandfather.)

And while I’m lamenting the passing of the analog tools of my father’s generation, let me make a nod to another skill that floats through his deathbed journals in his sketches of his body on the bed. Mechanical drawing. It was one of the first courses I took as an engineering student at the University of Notre Dame in 1954.

What fun! To sit at a drafting table with the beautiful drawing instruments I inherited from my father and draw screw threads, bolt heads, and machine parts in isometric projection. Our textbook was Thomas Ewing French’s Mechanical Drawing, the very same book my father had used at the University of Tennessee a generation earlier. I still recall the lovely tactile feel of the precision compass with interchangeable tips for ink or lead, the three-sided rule, the sandpaper paddle on which to shape the pencil lead, the T-square, the clear plastic French curves. One of those curves was suited for the arcs of ellipses, another for parabolas, and another for hyperbolas. I always wondered if French curves were named after the author of our textbook, but no, it seems they were invented by the British designer Robin Ogilvie-Stewart Barrow and inspired by the shapes of croissants in the window of a Parisian bistro. They had a lovely Art Deco look that might equally have been inspired by Art Deco Paris. There was something sensual and deliberate about mechanical drawing. Nothing particularly creative. The emphasis was on technique and the consistent application of established conventions that the man in the machine shop who worked from the drawings could understand. Nevertheless, some students in the class had a special gift; their drawings were exquisite. Others students had a hard time drawing a straight line with their pencil point against a rule. I fell somewhere in between.

But I loved it, as I had loved as a boy the drawings my father made with the very same instruments. Some years ago, the art gallery at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where I spent most of my professional life, featured a display of drawings from the industrial archive of the Ames Shovel Company, whose history is so intimately bound up with the history of the town and college. These precision drawings of machine parts were accompanied by semi-abstract interpretations by the artist Heather Hobler. It was lovely to see an artist of Hobler’s talent offer homage to the engineering draftsperson, an implicit recognition of the esthetic qualities of any drawing well-drawn, even that of a machine for shaping the blades of shovels.

All that’s gone now. The compass, the T-square, the French curves, the thin graphite lines on crisp white paper. Today, it’s all done with computers—CAD, computer-aided design. No doubt CAD vastly simplifies design, in the same way spreadsheets simplify the analysis of data. Every point in the plan for a six-inch widget or a ten-storey building is defined by a vector, a set of numbers buried deep inside a computer. A twist of the mouse and you can view the object from any angle. Change one vector and the program automatically makes all the necessary adjustments. A marvelous facility. There is no going back to the days of stainless-steel drawing tools. But something has been lost, something that defined the handyman philosophy of life. Something tactile, sensual, hold-in-the-hand. That line of India ink leaking off the carefully tensioned points of the compass or drawing pen. Something deliciously analogical. A pleasure such as one might get feeling raindrops on the face, or a lover’s touch. Sense and intellect in a merry dance of flesh.

I wonder if my copy of French’s Mechanical Drawing is still up in the attic, and I wonder what became of my father’s copy, which still floated around the family house in Chattanooga when I was growing up. I would love to thumb through either one again and relive in memory those pleasurable afternoon hours on the drafting table at the University of Notre Dame, and trace again the esthetic and technical roots of the poignant drawings of his twisted body that filled my father’s journals as he died.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beyond confusion

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 12

There was something else in that big black basement cabinet. Boxes of ceramic chips, in every size and shape, that my father brought home from work. It was like living in a money vault, except the coins were worthless. Still, I used to plunge my hands into the boxes and let the chips slip through my fingers, like a Midas reveling in his wealth. All the ceramic bits in a particular box looked exactly alike to me, but to my father each one was different. To be acceptable, the differences had to fall within certain exceedingly narrow tolerances. The tools of his trade were micrometers and calipers, lovely stainless-steel instruments that could measure things to a thousandth of an inch. He taught me how to use the vernier scale on his calipers—a way of reading those thousandths of an inch—and told me it was named for its inventor, a 17th-century French mathematician named Pierre Vernier. The simplicity of the invention, and its usefulness for exact measurement, impressed me as terribly clever.

As my father measured, he plotted. When I think of him, I think of graphs plotted in his neat hand on tissue-thin paper printed with a grid of faint green or orange lines. “Hand me a sheet of K&E,” he’d say, which stood for the manufacturer of the paper, Keuffel and Esser.

Keuffel & Esser made his slide rule, too. And maybe some of the other tools in his kit. His three-sided architect’s rule. His dividers and protractor. His triangles and French curves. His colored pencils, sharpened to a fine point. His gum eraser. With these instruments, he made his graphs. Ordinates and abscissas. Dependent and independent variables. He was a man in love with Cartesian coordinates. He told me the story of how the philosopher Rene Descartes was lying in bed watching a fly buzzing in a corner of the room. It occurred to Descartes that the position of the fly at any instant could be defined by three numbers, the perpendicular distances from the three walls. And so was born the coordinate graph. I have no idea if the story is true, but it struck me as marvelous at the time, as did all of my father’s stories. His graphs were marvelous, too. Lovely bell curves. Parabolas. Hyperbolas. Crisscrossing lines. He plotted everything. The data from his work, of course. But also stock market prices vs. sunspot numbers. Sales figures vs. inflation rates. Gross national products vs. geographic latitudes. Who knows what it all meant. Some of it may have been significant; some of it merely silly. His graphs were a way of teasing out hidden causal connections, if they existed, showing that the world was not the higgledy-piggledy it sometimes appeared to be. He was a great believer in causality. Nothing happened without a cause; the cause just might not be obvious. He had no taste for miracles.

If anything influenced me to study science, it was the cumulative effect of those hundreds of graphs my father was always plotting, each one a little work of art in his fine engineer’s hand. The thin colored lines on the green or orange-gridded paper were like circuit diagrams of the universe, a glimpse of the hidden webs of causality that make the whole thing work. He never knew much physics, but he had a physicist’s interest in the plumbing of reality. When I went off to study physics, I suppose I was looking for the plumbing, too. In my very first physics lab, we rolled a marble down an inclined plane and plotted distances vs. times. A parabola! A perfect mathematical parabola. Nature revealing her hidden plan. My lab reports were perhaps more notable for their neat, colorful graphs than for the quality of the physics. That was my father’s influence. And as he lay dying, he was still plotting, the many data of his illness, graph after graph, as if somehow the relationships would become clear and the independent variables could be properly adjusted to save him from what appeared to be an inevitable fate. There were no miracles, of course. Nor was his decline mere higgledy-piggledy. The graphs moved toward their foregone conclusion. It was cause and effect, all right. It was just a different effect than the one he’d hoped to find.

When I retired from teaching and cleaned out my office, I came upon a box of graph paper that I inherited from Dad. That wonderful tissue-thin, green and orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper of various kinds. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one’s data, discover patterns, find the law. As I thumbed through those pristine sheets of paper, I experienced a certain visual and tactile pleasure, but also a philosophical insight, something that consciously or unconsciously guided my father’s life and death. Without a mark on them, those tissuey pieces of paper with the meticulously ruled lines suggested the fabric of the universe itself, which appears to be mathematical in a way beyond our comprehension. Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Our invention is subject to ever-greater precision, an ever-closer approach to the real. The grid of that pristine K&E paper seems to me now like the armature upon which the world is hung.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 11

He liked things. Mechanical things. Things he could fix. Toasters. Wheelbarrows. Table legs. Picket fences. There was that big black cabinet in his basement workshop, with the two voluminous drawers at the base full of discarded what nots—stuff that might come in handy. Where did that cabinet come from? I do not know, but I suspect from his father. His father would have needed a big black cabinet. Every handyman needs a big black cabinet.

He worked for a company that made ceramic insulators, tiny ones mostly, the kind of things you’d wrap wire around to make an inductor or resistor. It was his job as a quality control engineer to make sure that the parts of each kind were interchangeable, to exacting tolerances. He never doubted, I think, that the world was made the same way, of precisely interchangeable parts. The atoms of creation may have been smaller than my father’s ceramic chips, but the Creator would have insisted on quality. Some of us marvel that the rich diversity of the world is put together from just a handful of different kinds of parts—protons, neutrons, electrons. My father would not have had it any other way. The Creator was the mechanical engineer par excellence. The Ultimate Handyman.

On the shelves of the big black cabinet were piles of magazines, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These were the Holy Scriptures of handymen of his generation, the sources of my father’s prodigious inspirations, the muses that inspired his many projects. A clever way to keep the gutters from clogging up with leaves. Advice on the most efficient way to rotate the tires on the car. A new jig for cutting pickets for a fence. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics kept my father on the cutting edge of gimmickry. To his pile of well-thumbed magazines I often retired for entertainment. During long afternoons I sat huddled under the basement stairs reading about the latest innovations in high and low technology. As I recall, cover stories almost always featured some futuristic mode of transportation: electric automobiles, oceangoing hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes that would fit in the family garage. News-notes featured such things as multi-tipped screwdrivers, self-flushing toilets, and sprayed-concrete houses. It was from these magazines, also, that I first heard about computers, radio astronomy, atomic energy and space flight. That nook under the basement stairs wasn’t a bad place to get an education.

Recently, as I began writing down these memoirs of my father, I purchased copies of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from the newsstand. I hadn’t read these magazines for more than half-a-century, not since my teens. Back then, I read them religiously. I suppose, they were part of the reason I decided to study science and engineering in college. Now, as I peruse current issues, I’m delighted to see that not much, really, has changed. They still contain the ample mix of slick technology and serious science that inspired the teenager. Here too is the same gee-whiz utopianism that fed a teenager’s sense of optimism and wonder. And here too is the same eclectic mix of gimmicks, gadgets and practical hints for the handyman. A few of the items featured in recent issues of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics:

  • A Space Pen, guaranteed to write in freezing cold or boiling heat, under water or upside down.
  • A Rogue Wallet with curved edges, that fits stylishly into a side pocket, thwarting thieves who might slip your wallet off your hip.
  • A NASA-designed personal vertical takeoff aircraft that flies horizontally, with just room enough for you.
  • Advice on how to get rid of squirrels in the attic and cat urine on linoleum flooring.
  • A Popular Mechanics book of “MANCrafts”—leather tooling, fly tying, ax whittling and other cool things for a man to do.
  • How to build a mini-workbench charging station for your cordless tools.
  • A page of projects for Saturday afternoon.
  • Ads for FrogTape, Gorilla Glue, and suspenders with “patented no-slip clips.”

Popular Mechanics was founded in 1902. Popular Science goes back to 1872. The 30th Anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics, published in the depths of the Great Depression, contained articles on “Machines to Raise Wages” and “Luxuries for Everyone.” As far as I can tell, both magazines have maintained a clear sense of their mission since issue number one: praise the practical, exalt American ingenuity, and keep an upbeat attitude about the future. Yes, there is something vaguely jingoistic, middle-class and decidedly male about the magazines, but you won’t find politics in their pages, or racism, or macho-swagger. Just contrivances, contraptions, widgets, doohickeys and a hearty celebration of practical science and state-of-the-art technology. In my father’s deathbed journals he makes a note: “Dr. Brennen visited—will bring Popular Science magazines.” He lived by the handyman’s code to the very end. Happiness is unclogged gutters and spark plugs that are perfectly gapped.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 10

As I have been writing these recollections of my father, I find myself dreaming of him at night, strange dreams that incorporate places and events from my childhood that I would assume had been long forgotten, dredged up from those deep recesses of the brain where we hoard up memories of those we love. Researchers tell us that we spend about six years dreaming during a typical lifetime—about two hours a night—which means dreaming occupies as much of our time as eating and sex put together. We know as much about eating and sex as we’d want to know, scientifically speaking. About dreams we know next to nothing. We have no idea where in the brain dreams originate or how they are executed. There are dozens of theories for why we dream—what might be their biological or evolutionary purpose—none of which approaches consensus. Dreams represent six years of our lives about which science remains almost completely ignorant.

I dream in black-and-white, as most people did fifty years ago. Today, according to what I read in the science journals, the majority of people dream in color. Presumably, this has to do with the influence of color media. I recall that when I was a kid my dreams were framed with round corners, like the roll-down silver reflective screen upon which my father projected his 8 mm black-and-white home movies. Today my dreams expand to fill all available mental space. What all this suggests is that the very mechanism of dreaming is influenced by the conceptual and mental world in which we live.

I search the journals my father kept during his final weeks for records of dreams. What, I wonder, would an engineer dream about in the face of impending oblivion? Nothing, as it turns out, that you or I might not dream, but engineer that he was, he looked for the connections between his dreams and the data of his dying. In one of his recorded dreams, he was “a big ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase,” unrolling as he bounced from step to step. He passed two of his daughters Jinx and Peg going up. “They were puzzled as they watched me go by!” he wrote. “When I hit the bottom of the stairs, I woke up!” A poignant dream, to be sure—life as an unrolling ball of twine. He notes that the dream came just at the end of his “energy cycle,” and he draws the familiar diagram—UP-C, PLATEAU, DO-C, with an arrow pointing to the inflection where the down-cycle meets the horizontal. He notes that Jinx and Peg had visited during the day. But where did the spiral staircase come from? Or the ball of twine? Our memories, apparently, are like that “junk drawer” in his basement workshop, where everything went that did not have an immediate use. The unconscious puts the discarded bits and pieces of a life together in new and surprising ways.

The American social philosopher Lewis Mumford once noted: “If man had not encountered dragons and hippogriffs in dreams, he might never have conceived of the atom.” It is an extraordinary thought, that a scientific understanding of the world depends upon the dreaming mind. The dreamer, says Mumford, puts things together in ways never experienced in the awake world—joining the head, wings, and claws of a bird with the hind quarters of a horse—to make something fabulous and new: a hippogriff. Or fetching up from who-knows-where that ball of twine and spiral staircase. In the dream world, space and time dissolve; near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous, merge in novel ways.

Another of the dreams in my father’s deathbed journals: He is sleeping in a bedroom of the house he had grown up in on Baldwin Street in Chattanooga. A red brick building. In the dream, he wakes up screaming for his mother, who sleeps in another room. She comes and says, “It was probably your cancer hurting you.” He does not know he has cancer. He throws back the covers and sees that his scrotum is elongated and bleeding. His mother says, “Yes, you are dying.” At which point, he wakes up in the present—and records the dream in his journal.

The shifting sands of near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous. In science, too, we invent unseen worlds by combining familiar things in an unfamiliar fashion. We imagine atoms, for example, as combining characteristics of billiard balls and water waves, all on a scale that is invisibly small. According to Mumford, dreams taught us how to imagine the unseen world. In science we talk about “dreaming up” theories, and we move from the dreamed-up worlds of Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Oz to dreamed-up worlds that challenge the adult imagination. An asteroid hurtles out of space and lays waste a monster race of reptiles that has ruled the earth for 200 million years. A black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy swallows ten million stars. A universe begins in a blinding flash from a pinprick of infinite energy. How did we learn to imagine such things? Mumford believed that dreams released human imagination from bondage to the immediate environment and present moment. He imagined early humans pestered and tantalized by dreams, sometimes confusing the images of darkness and sleep with those of waking life, subject to misleading hallucinations, disordered memories, unaccountable impulses, but also animated now and then by images of joyous possibility or gruesome horror.

My father always believed there is more to reality than meets the eye. He was an engineer and a scientist. He loved the process of scientific imagination. He followed the latest scientific discoveries with unabashed enthusiasm. But he never dismissed the possibilities of taking the world apart and putting it back together in novel ways, as one does in a dream. He was unwilling to rule anything out absolutely, and he wanted to know how everything worked. Dreaming is like tinkering, like putting together the discarded bits and pieces of the domestic environment that he collected in the drawers of that big black cabinet in his basement workshop. Even the wild permutations of his deathbed dreams elicited his tinkerer’s analysis. They were part of the puzzle that might lead to a cure. He would tinker his body back to health.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The explorers

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 9

As early as the first of my father’s five deathbed journals it is clear that he is attended upon by a substantial army of doctors, nurses, and priests who are solicitous of his physical and spiritual well-being. He lists the doctors, with the particular province of each: general, cobalt, urologist, nerves, spine. The priests are faithful too, and appear often in the journals offering their blessings or sharing a prayer. If medical science or prayer could have saved him, he was well served. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” he wrote in the journal, and it was his intention to help himself as much as he could. There is not much in the journals to suggest private prayer, although he did practice breathing exercises with the accompaniment of Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes, a very Buddhist sort of practice that was suggested by my sister Anne. I like to imagine these prayers ascending to heaven on regular cloudlike puffs of breath. As for the science, he asked for instruments: yardstick, six-inch rule, protractor, thermometer, even a barometer. There, in his bed, on his back, partially paralyzed, he measured and recorded. If he thought he found a correlation between some datum and comfort, the correlation became an obligation, sometimes to the impatience of his caregivers. His head had to be four inches from the top of the bed, exactly. The door to the room had to be opened six inches, no more, no less. The temperature of the room must be maintained with the same quality-controlled precision as he had formerly insisted upon for his ceramic products at the American Lava Corporation. His wife and children indulged his fastidiousness stoically, but Lord knows how the nurses coped. And then there were the hospital orderlies, especially a big, generous man named Otis, who did the heavy lifting, in and out of bed for trips to the radiation lab, on and off the potty. Each motion had to be choreographed according to the patterns that emerged from his numbers.

If all of this sounds as if my father was “the patient from hell,” perhaps I have given the wrong impression. He was inherently cheerful, even in the midst of pain. He almost never grouses in the journals about the quality of his care. He often writes notes to remind himself to apprise his doctors of particularly solicitous nurses. To those of us who spent even a little time with him, it was clear that his quantitative preoccupations were a palliative that may in the end have given him more solace than all the pills and prayers.

The odds, of course, were against him. He was an amateur caught in the gulf between God and science, the two great poles of his life. He was an amateur, and day by day the professionals came to visit, the doctors and the priests, with their firm grip on what is important. He tried to convince them that he had found something in his mass of data that mattered. They humored him, as professionals are inclined to do with amateurs. What my father did not know, or what he chose not to believe, was that the day had passed when an amateur could bend God’s ear or determine the course of science. The God who cured the leper and raised Lazarus from the dead had long departed from this world of pain and glory. And science too was beyond his reach. The game belonged to highly trained specialists who kept amateurs at bay. Still, my father assiduously gathered his data, and soon there emerged what he called “the cycle of energy.”

Page after page of the journals show the characteristic graph, plotting his cycles of medication—a rising slope of well-being, a plateau, a downward slide. At first, each segment of the graph is an hour in duration, but slowly they evolve to forty-five minutes as his condition deteriorates and the rhythm of dying becomes more intense. He thought he had discovered a “unit of energy,” a sort of quantum of wellness, that in their accumulation would lead step by step to recovery. What he was looking for was a way to make his plateau-shaped graphs build one on the other, so that even with the up-and-down rhythm there would be a secular trend upwards, toward recovery.

He tried to convey this information to his doctors, and they humored him, kindly and sympathetically. They knew that the cobalt radiation and chemotherapy were merely stopgap treatments, that the cancer was spreading to every cell of his marrow, that his wasting body was now just a sackful of alien cells with a life of their own, a life that was not his, and that whatever secular trend might be relevant to his life was downward, inevitably, toward extinction. This last battle of my father’s life was to be fought out on the only field that was left to him, the field of sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound. He would collect and record the data of the senses with the zeal of a scientist. What he made of these things would not save him, as the doctors and the priests were well aware, but for ten terrible weeks they gave him a sense of purpose and hope. He never lost faith in the world of the senses, even as it slipped away. He knew there was an order, a pattern, to his personal chaos, and on this point the doctors and priests agreed. It would be in making himself a part of that elusive and ultimately gracious order that he would wage—and win, he believed—his battle with mortality.