Monthly Archives: August 2020


I’ve been thinking about the perennial problem of Keeping Found Things Found, and about narrating explorations of the past and present, and that has led to consideration of Finding Aids for my various collections. Many happy hours have gone into the process of figuring out how to construct such summaries and guides, and most recently I’ve been using LibraryThing to build the database for my library of photography books (see a list of those tagged ‘photography’ for its current state) and considering how to sort and sub-categorize that collection to make it more useful and accessible. Others will follow.

This morning I picked up Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, which I’ve had for 10 years or so and dipped into now and again. A couple of passages leapt off the pages and seem to cast useful light on my present concerns:

The closer we look, the more detail we find. The only limitation to our view is the limitation of our ability to see. In order to find something new, we simply have to be willing to look more closely, more carefully.

We refer to the written work of the past to see what has been done and how it has been done… we focus on the maker’s methods and assumptions. We find tools and ways to use them… our work will, inevitably, echo and respond to the work of the past that resonates most strongly for us.

We all have our touchstones.

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination, pages 207, 220, 221


Here’s a book I should have encountered years ago (first published in 2013) but only read (well, listened to via Audible) this last week:

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz

Two more ways in to its content: a posting by Maria Popova gives a typically excellent entrée:

…and there’s a video of Horowitz talking at the New York Society Library:

The book is a narration of city walks with 11 different expert sensers:

  • toddler
  • flaneuse
  • typographer
  • geologist
  • field naturalist
  • wildlife scientist
  • diagnostician
  • physiotherapist
  • blind person
  • sound designer
  • dog

The book is wonderful for the detailed and ruminative descriptions of the perceptions and discoveries of the differently-abled lookers/sensers, and for focusing attention on the vastnesses we don’t notice, don’t sense.

Yesterday morning I was looking up at the barn’s roof boards, scanning as usual for faces. I’d seen and photographed this one before, but it was only yesterday that I saw it as a slightly cross-eyed or perhaps Cubist-rendered alpaca:

perhaps alpaca

My eyes are accustomed to seeing, sensing, faces where an objective observer would say there is no face, just a random pattern of light and dark that an over-fertile imagination reads as a physiognomy, a personality, a face-like rendering. But for me the sense of a presence is undeniable.

…and this brings into focus for tonight’s Question the Senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling… via eyes, ears, skin, nose, and mouth, the canonical “5 senses”). But it’s common to find extensions of the 5 (add proprioception, add emotions, add ratiocination, add imagination, perhaps others?). Arguably, all living things have “senses” that convey information about the environment—Horowitz’ example of the dog’s-nose view of the urban block is eloquent and immediately accessible: every tree and fire plug alive with messages.

And I look out the window to see several deer under the apple tree.

??what is the consciousness, the sensate state, of a deer eating apples?? Visually and aurally, in a state of extreme vigilance, alert for any movement; but drawn by the bouquet; entranced by the taste, returning day after day until the last apple has fallen, then moving on to the crab apple trees…

We each have a lifetime of sensory input stored somehow (holographically? fractally? in networks of synapses?) in our brains; our sensory apparatus AND that storage is a large part of what we know and who we are as individuals. But as Horowitz’s book shows so clearly, we miss so much of what happens in the world through which we move. We tune and hone for what we think important, and can develop fine discrimination; and we can shift attention between senses situationally. Indeed, we do it all the time.

An aesthetic sense finds pleasure in *the smell of bacon cooking, *the taste of a well-prepared dish, *the sight of a visual marvel (viz. the alpaca in barnwood), *the unique sound of a favorite piece of music… “aesthetic” is a vastly complex word: ‘sensitive, sentient, pertaining to the sense perception’.

And some pleasures come from the synaesthetic combination of senses, *the sound and feel of a plucked string, *the swirl of clouds with thunder in the distance, *the green smell just after a shower, any number of others one might name.


We live through our Senses, as do deer and dogs and butterflies and ants and anything else with processing capabilities… very likely plants as well. We are IN the world, participants with other living things in a vast dance, and, as Carl Sagan put it, our “star stuff” is recycled when its processing capabilities cease.

Each of the Senses has complexities that seem almost fractal—the further in you go, the more detail seems to manifest. Thus, with Taste we learned in high school biology that the tongue has receptors for salt, sweet, sour, and bitter… and, as it turns out, for umami (‘delicious taste’ in Japanese, receptors for glutamates first described by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908). But what’s a ‘receptor’? …a sensor for specific molecules …but how does that work? And with Sight, we know that there are rods and cones in our retinas, and black-and-white and color vision in different species, differential sensitivity to areas of the spectrum, and mechanics for focus, and multiple evolutionary versions of sensor systems (spiders, squid, vertebrates… though all involve opsins, “a family of photo-sensitive proteins”). For Touch there are specialized neurons for pressure, heat, vibration, proximity (think of the whiskers of cats and rats…). For Sound, sensitivity to different sectors of the audio spectrum for different creatures, ultra- and infra-. For Smell, vast differences in number of receptors—dogs have something like 50 times the number of olfactory receptors we have. And so on, for Senses beyond the first 5.

But where’s the Question in this?

I’m still working on it.

Ah. I think I’ve got it:

what would you wish to do with your senses? Which to augment? How?

Two examples inspire me in my response to this question, one very current and only available for the next few days:

a PBS documentary on Ursula K. LeGuin ( that I’m in the middle of watching

and the freedom and inventiveness of Thelonious Monk:

contra Sherlock

Today I was listening to Stephen Fry’s reading of Sherlock Holmes as I walked, and was diverted by this bit of Holmes’ practical philosophy:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
(from A Study in Scarlet)

This is just about the diametrical opposite to what I’ve thought all these years, the antithesis to my patron saint Hugh of St. Victor’s dictum:

Omnia disce,
videbus postea nihil esse superfluum

(Learn everything,
you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

(and see my Goals and Methods of Teaching as summarized 25 years ago)

It’s the curation of stuff that makes the difference between the lumber-filled brain-attic and the well-oiled engines of synthesis and retrieval to which one aspires. I (seem to have to) learn this lesson anew whenever I try to make sense of one of my collections, and each pass reveals new interrelations I hadn’t noticed or fully appreciated before.

Convivium: Attachment

This week I think I’ll try a different approach to posing a Question for Convivial consideration, stating it in its general form and then providing a backstory to how it arose and what I think about it. Here goes:

We’re told that Attachment is a fons et origo of Suffering, with the implication that we shouldn’t BE Attached, or should shed Attachments. Of course there can be Attachment to immaterial as well as material, to notions as easily as to stuff.

So on the one hand one might Ask: how to be/become NOT Attached?

But perhaps the more useful question to mull is: what are one’s own Attachments, what’s their history, how does one understand their importance in one’s life?

Personally, my consideration of this Question has led to the realization that I don’t wish to shed Attachments, but that I enjoy the active engagement with their curation, with the working out for myself of those Attachments’ designs and architectures. This won’t surprise anybody who has been following along, nor will the scope of convolutions and serendipities that are the background to its posing.

Here’s how the Convivial Question-making seems to unfold: I’m reading in one or more books, attending to their main threads, and up pops a Relation to something we’ve discussed before—often quite tangential, but pointed enough to get written down, and thus to provoke further wondering. Other books come off the shelves, google searches may ensue, bits of summary of findings and thoughts get written down, and so it goes.

The impetus for today’s Question was a story from the New Yorker’s Annals of Gastronomy, 2 August: How a Cheese Goes Extinct, By Ruby Tandoh

…By July of that year, the farm ceased production, and Holbrook’s cheeses—Old Ford, Cardo, Sleightlett, and Tymsboro—slipped out of the living tradition and into the pages of history. A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”

When you talk with cheese aficionados, it doesn’t usually take long for the conversation to veer this way: away from curds, whey, and mold, and toward matters of life and death. With the zeal of nineteenth-century naturalists, they discuss great lineages and endangered species, painstakingly cataloguing those cheeses that are thriving and those that are lost to history. In his classic The Great British Cheese Book, from 1982, Major Patrick Rance—a monocled founding father of modern British cheese—intersperses his tales of surviving regional cheeses with obituaries for those that never made it so far, going as far as to describe their disappearance as extinction. Under “Extinct cheeses of the Midlands and East Anglia,” Rance pays his respects to a lost Newmarket cheese, “a 40lb marigold-coloured cheese,” pressed under cloth and rubbed with salt and cream, the recipe for which was unearthed in a 1774 housekeeping manual.

The cheese story ties in with ongoing reading of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, one aspect of which is (on my part) a rather romantic engagement with (indeed, an Attachment to) technologies and lexicons of the past, and with the mysteries of Mastery of materials and processes, which may be (at least for me) anchors to windward against the storms of the Modern that perpetually threaten to swamp us. Among other books in this ilk are Robert Persig’s perennial and always-worth-revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (which first appeared in 1974) and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010). And Glassman and Fields Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters traverses much of the same territory.

I have a 50+ year engagement with the history (well, histories) of technology, broadly defined and ranging from poky sticks and string and rock-smashing through all manner of materials and mechanisms and clevernesses, all the way to today’s frontiers with nano-scale materials. All of this territory is of the mind, and wanders through human proclivities and imagination and dexterity and inventiveness, and not excepting mistakes and unforeseen consequences. A lot of territory, and spangled throughout with the by-now-familiar assemblage of this-and-that from reading and chance encounter and excavations of past enthusuasms and lines of inquiry… it’s what I do. Two extended examples from the past:

  • At the behest of this line of inquiry, yesterday I quarried a 1991 project from the archives, a design for “A Reference Collection for the Executive Offices of the Society for the History of Technology” that I produced for a Library School course taught by Jay Lucker, who was MIT’s Librarian. The first 10 pages read well even 29 years later and after a vast upheaval in the library world, and Jay Lucker’s comments warm the heart. The 434 items listed and annotated would provide several lifetimes of reading…

  • See also my Technology weblet, built before there were blogs and illustrating my approach to distributable digital note-making of 20+ years ago: the 1998/1999 scheme for a History of Technology course at Washington and Lee. See also electronic version of the Syllabus and notes for my presentation on the course to the Virginia Collegiate Honors Council, September 1998. There’s probably a lot of linkrot, but the implicit method is clear enough.