[Humanist] 30.768 hands on

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Feb 23 06:54:46 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 768.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2017 11:07:31 +0100
        From: Øyvind Eide <lister at oeide.no>
        Subject: Re:  30.757 hands on
        In-Reply-To: <20170218070740.155ED88CA at digitalhumanities.org>

This is a wonderful discussion, a lot of interesting stuff; yet something bothers me. First a recent post below:

18. feb. 2017 kl. 08:07 skrev Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>:
> Paul, I think we should not too easily mix clocks with
> software implemented automata.  Software is strange stuff,
> very strange stuff, in comparison with the material stuffs we
> make other things from.  Within its realm of existence--as
> [amazingly] useful and usable enough approximations to Turning
> Machines--computer programs are immensely un-constrained:
> there's very little to stop you doing anything with software
> stuff.  This is not the case for material stuffs.  The physics
> underlying them constrains what you can make with these
> stuffs.  We must learn about these, and how to work with them,
> but they help a lot in bringing about robust, reliable, and
> understandable things ...  like clocks.  The physical
> constraints introduce useful intrinsic properties that can be
> used to achieve self-regulating and self-correcting
> behaviours.  The physics is different, but this is the case
> for the frequency sources in all kinds of clocks: a component
> that all clock need and have.  (Clocks, through the ages, have
> been on the front of what we can make reliable.  Few things we
> can make more reliable.  Yet, they have no regulator as a
> necessary part of them, unlike almost all other machines.)

All of this is true in some sense, and the parts I cut out below include good examples. Yet. What level are we operating on here?

I sit in front of a computer. I can program decently, I can make a program to analyse texts, to organise information; I can connect some micro-controllers and I can link to the external world, I can make an automatic plant watering system. But I cannot program the computer to make me a bookshelf. I can use computers as parts of a bookshelf factory plant, but is that not a different thing? To make one handcrafted bookshelf I need some skills and some tools and some planks. Maybe some of the tools include micro-controllers. Yet, I would probably not program them. 

So “doing anything with software stuff”?

I need to chop down a tree. Again, if you look at the big machines currently doing much of the logging they have advanced computer systems to support the operator (or maybe the other way around). Yet, if I want to chop down one tree software stuff is not relevant to me. I need a chainsaw or some other simple tools and some skills (and some knowledge of the risks to the health of myself and others). 

So does not the physics underlying the computer also constrain what it can be used for?

Which brings me back to WIllard’s initial post, from Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 746. Tue, 14 Feb 2017 07:45:38 +0000.

Physical craftsmanship and digital making. I will never look at a tree the same way after my son (around the age of six) said that my father was a cruel man. Why said I, thinking maybe this was connected to my father being a hunter and fisher. But no. He was cruel because he chopped down trees. Which for me was just a different way of looking at trees. No unknown (I know a bit about deforesting and the ecological consequences of many types of forestry) but as a direct link to my family background it was new. In that local perspective my natural view on trees included (but was not confined to) things to cut down, burn, make bookshelves and houses of, and export to bring back income to people working with chainsaws and tractors in the forests (which people still did when I grew up). 

Which is the experience that makes me wonder about this sentence from the last paragraph: "Programming is one way of teaching our digital makers, but I fear that it is too much in the head to make that link with craftsmanship." I know we use hands in the forest, but the head is extremely important. It is dangerous business, making trees topple. You need to know where they fall. Surely, all the thinking is part of the work with hands, legs, rest of the body, but loosing concentration for a while is very dangerous. The calculations are complex indeed, even if they are connected to skilled work and mostly invisible for outsiders, and the head must be clear to keep things reasonably safe. It is basically about practical problem solving. Which is, to me, what programming (differently from various parts of theoretical computer science) is too. Not really academic, but a skill-set one can use to solve problems — also academic problems. And I claim that to the degree I am a reasonably skilled programmer this is partly due to other types of problem solving I learned as a child, related to engines, trees, maps, and other stuff we think-do with.

All the best,


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