Monday, December 26, 2016

Hard Coding with an Eight Foot Piece of Pine Lumber

Well, the semester ended and the holiday season suddenly emerged around me. Handmade gifts are always the ones I enjoy receiving the most. It doesn't matter the quality of the item, only that the person has invested their time and focus on the receiver's behalf. My daughter, Rebecca, is the one who has given me the most beautiful and precious handmade gifts over the years. She is an accomplished professional artist, but she enjoys dabbling in most every craft. One Christmas she gave me a wonderful set of crocheted Angry Birds, which I proudly display in my UGA office. I still cannot bear to discard even a picture she drew for me when she was in third or fourth grade. I have tried to give some handmade gifts myself over the years, to varying degrees of success. But again, I think the people who receive them appreciate the time and attention they represent and - even if the quality is lacking - my intent.

Okay, you are probably asking yourself what all this has to do with learning LiveCode. Well, I have long felt the same sensation in building something with wood as I do when programming. And the key word here is "build." The part of my brain and psyche that is fulfilled by the act of building something is equally satisfied with wood or software as the finished product. I feel the same sense of euphoria and accomplishment as I build something in either medium. My skill in each medium is quite lacking, but that hasn't deterred me. I've given so much focus on building software over the past few years that it occurred to me that I needed to spend some significant time on a woodworking project. The brief holiday break leading up to Christmas provided a good opportunity.

Build: A Special Word

A little more about the word "build." Many other words are used for the act of actually giving a tangible form to a design. In my field of instructional technology, a favorite is the word "develop." I've never been too fond of this word for some reason. The current interest in MakerSpaces puts the word "make" at the center. I like the word "make." It conjures up the world of crafts and I've come to really appreciate and admire people who are serious in making crafts. For example, I've finally come to see the importance and value of making personal scrapbooks using paper, glue, and scissors. I find it both funny and sad that we all loved working with these materials as children, but somewhere along the way, most of us stopped because we thought them as too childish for adult pursuits. ("Put down" is an apt phrase here for both its meanings.) "Construction" is a word I've favored for almost 30 years. Indeed, I think Seymour Papert was wise to use it to describe his theory and practice of constructionism, which is simply learning by constructing, or - as I liked to describe it - learning by building. The word also conjured up its more serious philosophical cousin - constructivism. Discussing the "N" version vs. the "V" version of the word has filled many hours of my teaching. One thing I like about the word construct is that it is easy to imagine the person using a variety of tools, those both simple and sophisticated, while probably wearing a hard hat.

But, the word build is my favorite because I think of its relationship to working with wood to create projects used in our day-to-day lives. It's easy to imagine a carpenter or cabinet maker building something on a very personal scale. Our kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms are full of things built with wood by skilled people. And, I've long used carpentry as a favorite analogy to building software projects. Many years ago, I wrote a book titled Getting Interactive with Authorware: Building Simulations and Games.

In the preface, I featured one of my woodworking heroes - Norm Abrams - to explain what a "project approach" was all about using the metaphor of woodworking:
The project approach simply means that one learns through building complete, stand-alone projects that are interesting and have clear goals and expectations. Good projects also have an easy-to-understand structure that makes sense at the start. Games and simulations make for good projects. One might say that this book was written much in the spirit of Norm Abrams on the American public television show “The New Yankee Workshop.” Norm is a master carpenter who shows his TV audience how to build from scratch a piece of furniture or other woodworking project. Norm always starts by carefully choosing a project worthy of the effort, often visiting American colonial sites for inspiration. Once he finds a suitable subject, he then builds the piece twice — once for himself (plus to show the audience at the start what the finished product will look like) and again in front of the camera. The design that Norm follows usually includes many changes from the original, mostly to keep the construction within the reach of the amateur carpenter at home.
Although TNYW is no longer in production, you can find all of the episodes on YouTube - here's a good one:

A Christmas Present for My Wife

My woodworking project was a special Christmas gift for my wife this year. I really wanted to push my current skills and develop some new skills. Most of my efforts over the years have been creating outdoor projects featuring mostly 2X4s. My projects have included a storage shed, a deck, a few picnic tables, several benches, two chicken houses, simple fencing, and some wooden gates thrown in along the way. If the project involved 2X4s with a fairly wide margin of error, I was your man. The challenge I gave myself this time was a piece of indoor furniture that my wife would find useful and beautiful. The margin of error now was very small. Finding the right piece of furniture was key. I checked out a bunch of woodworking books from the library - all included at least one of the words "simple," "easy," or "children." One book I really enjoyed reading was Build It Together: 27 Easy-to-Make Woodworking Projects for Adults and Children by Katie and Gene Hamilton. I loved the concept and especially the simplicity of the projects. (The photos were fun to look at as each featured a child building one of the projects with a parent.) Each of these books - even the simplest - contained knowledge and skills I did not have. So, similar to my learning LiveCode, each helped me to extend my own skills and knowledge just a tiny bit. And over time, it adds up.

Just as time was running out to build something in time for Christmas, I found the perfect project - a hallway bookcase that I found in the book The Complete Guide to Easy Woodworking Projects: 50 Projects You Can Build with Hand Power Tools, published by Black & Decker.

The design has those three essential elements proposed by the architect Vitruvius several thousand years ago - firmness, commodity, and delight. This bookcase is meant for the underutilized space of a hallway with a small footprint that tapers off toward the top, making it less likely to bump an elbow into it. I think the delight comes from the simplicity of the design and its well-balanced, visual form. Here's a photo of the finished piece:

I won't bore you with any more details, other than repeating that I experienced that same wonderful, satisfying feeling of building something special. And yes, it did involve several pieces of eight foot pine lumber - but not one 2X4.

I wish everyone a wonderful, healthy - and peaceful - 2017.

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