Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Enchantress of Numbers

Ada Lovelace was the world's first computer programmer. The daughter of Lord Byron, her mother schooled her in mathematics in an effort to stamp out any tendency she might have towards "the poetic". Whether it was in rebellion against her mother, or a trait inherited from the father she never knew, Ada saw the poetry in mathematics.

It is hardly a surprise that I find her incredibly inspirational. First of all, she was a woman in science in the 1800s. And she was very, very good. She saw the potential in Charles Babbage's analytical engine when no one, including Babbage himself, could abstract its use beyond calculation. And I take joy from the fact that in a world where an unfortunate number of people are still surprised that women can program, the first program ever coded was written by a woman. And, that program was sufficiently complicated that simpler examples are often used when explaining her accomplishments.

But it was an idea of Ada's, that math could be beautiful, that makes me admire her most.

"Charles Babbage's analytical engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves."

Yes. Yes. Yes. This is someone who understands abstraction. This is someone I can learn from.

And she is right, in so many ways. Just look at the punch cards on a loom and you'll understand that every pattern is just a simple program. (Actually, a funny thing happened. When I visited the Ardalanish weavers I got really excited about seeing the punch cards and how the loom was computing patterns in the weft -- I'm sure you can all imagine me jumping up and down gleefully -- and a few weeks later I was talking to a couple in Stormoway who had visited Ardalanish not long after me. Apparently my description had become a part of the tour!)

Many people have been confused when I say that I'm traveling and studying traditional textile work (the less formal version is 'knitting for a year'), especially when I say that I studied computer science. "That's quite a departure" they say with a smile. And I hesitate when answering. The easy answer is yes, it is. I haven't touched a computer in weeks, or written code in months. Instead, I've been talking to artists and knitting and learning how to set up a loom for weaving tweed. But the real answer is no, not really. Because for me, programming is solving a problem, within the constraints of a language, in as beautiful a way as possible.

And when I was designing a pattern the other day it was:
Make something warm
Using the ball of yarn and needles I had in my backpack
And have it be beautiful

Not so different is it?

Maybe the love of patterns and problem solving was why I liked programming when I finally tried it. I certainly can't claim that I liked computers -- little known fact about me, but I actually dropped the first computer science class I took (though I did take typing through all of elementary school). And instead, through a variety of odd circumstances, ended up spending most of that time knitting. I wouldn't call it time wasted.

Back to Lady Lovelace though! I have already professed my admiration for her; I find her fascinating. And she fits into my conundrum about several brilliant minds I admire: she was unhappy.

I wish I could see the patterns of abstraction that were woven in her mind. Cobwebs of ideas that covered her world, connecting things I cannot see. Yet it's hard to call her a role model. Because I would give a lot not to live a life like hers. For one, I'm quite pleased to have grown up in a happy family (and am thoroughly excited that they just bought tickets to visit me for thanksgiving!). For another, I'd like to live past 36. And avoid gambling and drug abuse.

I think this inability to separate mind and person, life and accomplishments, is why I enjoy reading biographies. It isn't that you always understand the person at the end. Or necessarily approve of their choices. But the lack of perfection is refreshing. You can't change the ending to be happier. But you can commend the achievements and learn from the story and the person.

And people are complicated! I keep learning new things about the Lady Lovelace. Yesterday I saw a play at the Edinburgh Fringe about her life and legacy. It was beautiful. One of my favorite scenes was when Ada and her father waltzed around the stage without touching each other - a lovely piece of choreography. And there was a scene about Ada's dreams of flying and plans for building wings, a story I had never heard before. During the play, she was acted by 4 different girls. Whoever was Ada wore a red ribbon on her wrist. It created the effect of discovering a person. Constantly seeing new pieces, and changing one's perception of a character. Acknowledging that we don't really know her.

And watching an artistic interpretation of the importance of this person and her insights into the potential for computer programs might be the best legacy that could be given to the Enchantress of Numbers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whirlwind in Edinburgh

So the thing about arriving in Edinburgh during the Fringe is that you should just expect to see unexpected things happen all the time. It isn't that you stop being surprised, it's that you just wonder what could possibly still surprise you, and then you find out.

I got off the bus, walked past a castle, down a cobbled alley to drop off my backpack, and then up to the Royal Mile where I was greeted by a street performer juggling a machete and a couple flaming torches on a slack line in his underwear. I continued down the street and met a woman spinning naturally dyed yarn on a spinning wheel. With an 8 inch black spiked Mohawk.

Flash forward to the next morning and I'm wandering through the international book festival flipping through books about Scottish history and English accents. Then talking to artists at a craft fair and learning about designing patterns for a 24 stitch knitting machine. Next I stumble into a display of gypsy stories and shortly afterwards find a weaving mill in the basement of a 5 story building next to the castle with an exhibit on making tartan. Tired of crowds and enjoying the sunshine, I try to make my way to Arthur's Seat. This involves winding my way through street performers. Jugglers. Musicians. A guy with a sword down his throat. Japanese tap dancers in bright pink outfits. A statue man who looks like a forest spirit from a Miyazaki film floating in the air. Another statue man with no head. Darth Vader and a stormtrooper (wearing a kilt) watching a bag piper.  And hundreds of fliers, practically confetti, for the various shows being performed that day.


And while I left the crowds for awhile, enjoying the walk past Parliament and (another) castle, and up to the top of Arthur's Seat, all in the warmest (and almost only) sunshine I had seen in weeks, the top resembled an ant hill. There were dozens of people sitting on the rocks and climbing to the very highest point for pictures. And while I had already learned that odd things are guaranteed to happen here, I was not expecting to find performers on top of the mountain. I'm not even sure what I was more surprised by - that they had hauled a harp up the hill or that they were belting out a song (with audience participation) about diarrhea.

Contrast this with a performance of the HMS Pinafore an hour later (my first opera courtesy of the International Festival!). Which was followed by an electronic acapella street performer, dinner at the Mosque Kitchen, and a night of watching the performers and the crowds on the Royal Mile. And the occasional firework.

It's quite the change from my tent in the Outer Hebrides.

I'd fit in better here if my hair were bright blue again. But instead, I'm wandering past the bars and clubs in search of a designer knitwear store (located with a prime view of the stones commemorating the victims of the gallows that used to stand in the square -- which, of course, were repurposed as a stage last night).

And that was only one day. The next started with a visit to the cafe where Harry Potter was written (though I have my suspicions that there's more than one of these). It's full of elephants and has a glorious view: up to the castle and down to the lower streets. I didn't see JK Rowling, but I understand how she could envision wizards living in such a magical city now.

 Then I went searching for knitters, wandered through the National Museum, and had coffee with a new friend and discussed trips, past and future, to countries on every continent**. Follow this with a trip back to logic-land in a play on Ada Lovelace, with (now expected) abrupt transition to a comedy sketch ostensibly about the diary of the performer, a glittery book with an accompanying soundtrack, but that consisted more of him making fun of the people who came into the bar during the performance. I wended my way through more jugglers and musicians, and the crowds running around with headphones in their own private dance party, and made my way to another comedy - the accidental adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Am I allowed to stop clapping yet?

And today. I met a dragon named Mark. I laughed when a man suggested collecting the fliers to burn to heat the house for the next year (honestly, it might work). I watched a man do a handstand on a tripod in pink leopard print spandex. And then I had a fascinating conversation about designing knitting patterns based on Celtic knots. Which, in typical Katie-style, included so many tangents into computer science, geography, language, history, travel, and books, that it's hard to claim that it really was about the original topic**. And then I wandered past my last street performer for the Fringe and bought a train ticket.

I wonder what will happen tomorrow?

**If either of you is reading this, thank you again for a wonderful conversation.  

Friday, August 21, 2015

Blowing Bubbles

She laughed. 'It won't last. Nothing lasts. But I'm happy now.'

'Happy,' I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don’t have much faith in them and I am no exception – especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far to relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they’re scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary

A friend read that quote to me over the phone. Within a few days I had found a copy of the book. It had fit into our conversation somehow, the idea of hard to describe feelings. After all, over the past year we had had a lot of discussions about these fuzzy, vague, big words: happiness, love, belief, trust.

And while it was a little odd to read about sunny Puerto Rico while I was shivering in the rain in Scotland, I quite enjoyed the story. It turns out that the girl is right, her moment doesn't last forever. But she enjoys it while it lasts.

When I was in high school I spent a summer in Peru. While I was there I remember an afternoon when I was staying with a family in the mountains near Pisac. It was absolutely stunning scenery, the village was perched up on the hillside looking across the valley towards some higher mountains. And that day my host mother was teaching me to weave. She wove the warp around two stakes in the ground, then added the patterns in yarn heddles -- bunches of yarn to yank in order that resulted in diamonds marching down the band. It was black and white and purple and blue. And mine for weaving. You sat down and tied one end to yourself and worked towards the second stake. Sometime that afternoon she sent me to the house for something, and I remember running back down the path, mind already tied back into my project. There was this instant while I was running when I realized: I'm happy. Totally happy.

Maybe that instant is when my Watson project was born.

There was a series of conversations I had in college with a friend. They were sporadic and surrounded by chaos but they felt as though we were on a separate plane of life while they occurred. We talked about that once - how we had these bubbles of time when we chatted and laughed and
could exchange ideas almost faster than words. He understood the jumps my mind made, and I followed his own, and our conversations twisted and turned and we'd pause and wonder how we got so far from the original topic. But we never knew when the next moment would happen, or even if our schedules would align again before summer. Maybe it was because I treasured these bubbles that I was so upset when he painted a picture for a mutual friend based on one of these conversations. It was a lovely painting, but I felt like he was popping my bubble and pinning it to reality.

There have been times lately when I stopped and laughed at myself. When my reality seemed absurd. Maybe these are the new bubbles, blown by a stranger who crossed my path. Like the surfer who offered me a ride, dropped me at the beach, handed me his keys, and hit the waves.  After he left, I had a white sand beach to myself for the evening. But I didn't know where I was to be able to find the bus onwards the next morning. So I laughed, left that problem until morning, and watched the waves.

Or when I ran to the middle of the causeway between two islands at sunset and watched an otter swim beneath me. Or when I played scrabble in a hostel with a man from Germany and we tried to remember how to spell in Gaelic. Or when I walked into a craft store, and amidst the owner's explanations of choosing colors for tweed designs we realized that his son had picked me up hitch hiking the previous afternoon. Or when I arrived in Stornoway and realized that it was a "big city" because it had more than one bus stop and I was lost. It's actually about the size of Middlebury. Or when I wound up at the Ceilidh on Barra, and between electric bagpipes and Gaelic songs a Canadian got up and belted out Barrett's Privateers to a startled audience.

Honestly, in another week I'm sure my entire time in the islands will feel like a bubble. Those rainy nights in my tent, and the clack of the looms, and the endless shades of blue and grey.

These moments brought me back to those big words. Trust. Belief. Happiness. I learned a lesson here about those big words. Whether or not you understand them, they exist. Because kindhearted people gave me rides and told me stories all over these islands. The surfers, the weavers, the summer people, the old families. If I trusted the generosity I experienced here, I was guaranteed a beautiful moment. Maybe just a sparkle of sun between thunderstorms. A short chat as I waited for a bus or asked directions. Or an unexpected piece of chocolate on a ferry ride. Enough to make me smile.

And maybe it's a bubble. But maybe moments always are. And giving a salute to those fuzzy words, maybe happiness is floating towards the sky and trust is believing that someone will blow the next bubble.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This is why I have no pictures of looms...

I wasn't planning to meet a weaver. I just went for a run, and got curious about where the road went, and then I heard a loom as I ran past the shed. So on the way back, after the road ended in a sheep pasture (should've known), I stopped and stuck my head around the door. He had a blue sweater and a smile and invited me in. And I started asking questions. After all, I hadn't seen a double width loom before. It's much quieter than a single width loom. It has pedals and no shuttle (saves a lot of time winding bobbins) and most of the pieces are smaller. It must be faster as well, because this man also weaves 30-40 meters in a day and the fabric is twice as wide. He was funny and told me stories about working for the mill (which sadly I can't tour), and different patterns and colors he's used, and lots of stories about his trips to California. Apparently he's colorblind, so setting up the loom can be a real challenge. When I asked how he got started weaving he laughed and said that he'd dropped out of school and needed to try something, so he took a course on weaving. Been doing that ever since. He wove over a meter while I was watching -- it still amazes me how fast it is once everything is going. And then he gave me a lovely sample of blue tweed, and sent me off on my run with a smile. A lovely and lucky stop!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Jewel of the Hebrides

While I've been enjoying all the islands, it certainly is true that Harris is spectacularly beautiful. White beaches, turquoise water, rocky mountains, lots of sheep, even a little bit of sunshine. And, of course, home to the Harris tweed. A fabric with seemingly endless varieties of colors and patterns.

There are rules as well as traditions surrounding the tweed. I hadn't realized that there was an authority that set the standards (minimum threads per inch, etc) and required that the tweed be woven in the home. This means that the fabric woven in shop demonstrations can't be sold. In just a few days in Tarbert I've learned a lot about tweed.

First, I went to a local craft fair to see what sort of things are being made. Mostly, I laughed with the locals about the antics of the puppies in the hall and the stories of island life (especially from an Englishman rolling his eyes about the lack of busses, stores, and open windows on Sunday). Next I headed to the Harris tweed store to see the variety of things made from tweed. These were mostly functional items: hats, gloves, coats, vests, wallets (they also sell beautiful yarn - I'll need a bigger backpack unless I learn to knit faster). I even learned that when they sell blankets or scarves the fringe is woven into the fabric rather than added later. Next door, they sell the fabric by the meter. This was the first impression I had of the vast quantities of fabric, colors, patterns that are created on these islands. They also give weaving demonstrations, which was fantastic. The single-width looms are powered by two pedals which are pushed alternately. Quite the workout for the weaver! The newer single-width looms have pedals like a bicycle and are easier to use. Even so, as soon as the weaver sits down the shuttle starts to fly and the fabric grows quickly.

I also visited the exhibition outside of town which discussed the process of dyeing, carding, and spinning the wool. One of the most distinctive features of Harris tweed is that it is dyed first, then multiple colors are carded together and spun. This is why a given piece of fabric will shimmer with so many colors. Brown pieces may have blue, green, yellow, and red all in one strand if you look closely (I spent awhile with a magnifying glass).

The exhibit also had examples of the far-flung variety of uses for tweed. There were dresses worn on fashion runways in Paris, and down-jackets only sold in Japan, and my favorite: a trophy stag on the wall made entirely from tweed. The tweed had been layered and textured to look like animal fur. It was stunning piece of artistry.

The exhibit curator (the same woman who did the weaving demo at the shop in town) sent me off on a quest for a master weaver. Donald John Mackay - the man who wove tweed for Nike.

So, with the directions "he lives by the beach", I hitched a ride out to the western shore from a kind couple. Not only did the woman know a lot about the island textile history and industry, and gave me great advice, but they knew Donald John and dropped me right at the end of his driveway. I walked up and introduced myself and was greeted with a whirlwind of storytelling.

He took me into his workshop to show me the loom, which he got in 1984, making it substantially older than I am, and sat down to weave. He wove about 8 inches of blue herringbone while I watched. It can't have been more than a few minutes; he worked amazingly fast. Then he talked me through the process of setting up the loom (which takes a day), choosing colors for a design, the difference between herringbone and plaid for setting the warp, and the program cards used to set a pattern in the weft. On a good day (presumably with fewer inquisitive visitors) he can weave 25-40 meters of fabric. Despite my astonishment at the quantity, he quickly explained that when a company requests several thousands meters of fabric, a day's work is merely a drop in the bucket. He makes a living by the quality of his fabric, not by the quantity he produces.

Throughout our whole exchange, his puppy played in the room. It would jump on me, on him, and on the loom (despite the moving pieces) incessantly. It even sat on top of the newly woven fabric, held taught on the loom, when Donald John stopped weaving to talk to me. It was that everyday laughter we shared watching the puppy jump that made me understand why the fabric must be woven in someone's home to be considered true Harris tweed. Each piece of fabric truly is a story from the islands. The sheep are raised here, the dyes are local plants and lichen, the mills that have replaced handspun yarn are on the island, and the weaving is done in the home. The patterns and the colors evoke the landscape here, the wool necessary to stay warm in a windy, wet climate. Each process has a story behind it, and many of these go back through families for several generations. Donald John was headed to a golf tournament later in the day because he had woven the tweed for the prize jacket. His tweed is sold across the world, used by companies who employ more people than live on this island. And I like the idea that with each piece of fabric goes a bit of his contagious laughter.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ebb Tide

"Even when the bulbs of the hourglass shatter...time itself keeps on. The most we can hope a watch to do is mark that progress. And since time sets its own tempo, like a heartbeat or an ebb tide, timepieces don't really keep time. They just keep up with it, if they're able." - Dava Sobel, Longitude

Today I sat on the pier and watched the tide come in. The boats that had been stranded yards from the water slowly, slowly, starting to float again. I was surprised by these boats when I arrived on the isle, they reminded me of the falling down farmsteads out west, signs of a life long ago. And then, several hours later, they were floating again. Spirits rekindled. I had forgotten about the tides. One of those remnants of growing up in the Midwest I suppose, there were no oceans nearby.

It has surprised me how far away I feel here in Scotland. I didn't expect it to be hard -- they speak English, it's beautiful, I've traveled on European trains before, I'd even talked to some friends who had been here recently. But somehow it has still been a big adjustment. The jet lag, the rain, the accents, the unanswered emails, the steering wheels on the wrong side of the cars (supposedly they drive on the wrong side of the road too, but all I've seen are one lane roads). And then I got annoyed at myself: why would you expect it to be easy? Why would you want it to be? Didn't you want to be lonely? Didn't you want to throw yourself into something and see if you could figure it out?

And today, watching the tide, I asked myself another question: why are you rushing? Why do you think you've messed up if you don't feel at home after 5 days?

Because what I really wanted was to take myself out of my normal currents. To stop keeping up with time for a little while. To shatter the hourglass and see what emerged instead.

I've been camped here for several days. And I watch the ferry come in and out of the port -- it sails right past me multiple times a day. And what amazes me is that the entire island operates around that boat. When the ferry comes into view the hotel staff run to the desks, the busses line up on the shore, the people flood in and out. And then it's quiet again. I don't really need a watch. Any bus I want to take will be at the dock as the boat comes in.

And I'm at the mercy of the boat too. Because the towns I've been trying to visit are too far to walk, so I need those busses. But I like the moments in between. I like chatting to the shopkeeper when the store is empty. I like being the only person on the pier watching the jellyfish (though I enjoyed the couple lowering a GoPro from a fishing rod). I like running on the road after the last ferry has left and there's no one around. I like watching the tide come in.

I stopped for a breath today. Because rob was here and he makes me laugh

That might have been the last sentence, except someone else added to my blogpost - he came into the common tent to check on the fireplace, and pulled my hat over my eyes, and asked what I was writing. And I liked his addition. Because I felt more at home in those few minutes than I have my whole trip.

So I'm going to try to slow down. And just watch the ferry and the tide and the rain clouds instead of rushing along on their schedule. And breathe deeply and understand the peacefulness that lies underneath the tourist's rushed footprints in these islands.  

And just laugh, because a kind Scotsman sat and joked with me.

(Written August 3 on the Isle of Mull)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Summit Fever

I hiked my first Colorado 14ers the other day. I got up at 5:30 (and started hiking in my puffy coat because I was so cold) and walked my way up Mt. Bierstadt. It was beautiful. It was a big hill. I had been planning on continuing on to Mt. Evans, but having arrived at the top hungrier and more tired (oh right, it's called a 14er because it's over 14000 feet high...) than I expected, I was intimidated by the looks of the class III scramble ahead of me. And I was very intimidated by the prospect of continuing alone. But I was also very unwilling to turn around after only a few miles.

Then I met two lovely girls who adopted me and we proceeded to scramble down the peak, across the Sawtooth, and up a few sketchy looking ledges onto the slopes of Mt. Evans. And it was awesome! Everything that had looked hard from far away was easily navigable (of course, we had to regain 1000 feet from pass to summit). No big deal. In fact, the last few hundred feet to the summit, the steep gully down, and the swampy trek through bushes taller than our heads were a bigger deal. It was great. I had a lot of fun hiking with my new friends, and I was thrilled to have finally gotten not one, but two 14ers to my name. But I also learned something: there is no such thing as an easy 14er. Don't get me wrong, I'm lucky that I don't get headaches from altitude, and I love to hike so I moved fast and without stopping much (though I should've eaten more). But these are just big climbs at high altitudes.

So perhaps it was a funny moment to be reminded that I wanted to write an essay called "Why mountains are easy." But perhaps, if you'll bear with me, you might also agree that it was a fitting moment.

"But mountains are easy."

I was talking to a friend last winter, and she was recounting a hike she had gone on that weekend. She's tough - she's very athletic and she doesn't like to have anyone be better than her - but she had been hiking with two boys who were both tall, used to the cold and snow, and don't enjoy waiting around. She had shocked herself by considering turning back early. As a result, she was telling me that mountains are a good way to learn how tough you are. To differentiate between the weak and strong. The persistent and the exhausted. Not surprisingly, for our conversations, I disagreed.

Mountains are easy. You just put one foot in front of the other. You don't have to run, you don't have to maintain a conversation, you don't even have to make it to the top. It's just between you and the hill. Do you want a break? Catch your breath? Take a picture? The top won't get further away while you pause. Decided you've seen enough of the view and want to turn around? That's your choice. And it'll even be downhill on the way home (side note: I was so sad that the trailhead to Mt. Bierstadt starts going down so you have to finish by climbing back up to your car. It's just not fair).

You know what's hard? Running the last half mile of a race. Taking an exam when you have a fever. Paying attention in class when it's snowing outside. Researching something new when you don't know what you'll find, how long it'll take, or how many hundreds of new questions you'll open up along the way. Being there for a friend when they're having a hard time and you have no idea what to say. Asking for help. Telling someone you care about them.

What's hard are new things. Uncertain things. Things that make you vulnerable.

And maybe, for some people, that's a mountain. Maybe you're hiking with someone you want to impress. Maybe you haven't ever left the city before. Maybe you're trying to get up before sunset to take photos for an assignment with a deadline. Maybe it's the first hike after a knee surgery. Maybe it's your first 14er. Maybe you have summit fever.

Because for me, hiking mountains is easy. It's turning around that's hard. It's realizing that those dark clouds are stronger than I am. Or that the hike is longer than the daylight and I forgot a headlamp. Or that I promised my grandmother I'd be home for dinner. That something else matters more than the peaks that beg to be climbed.

Or that circumstances have changed. I worked trail crew for two summers. That's hard work. But you know what's harder? Remembering those summers while you wait for a friend to walk upstairs to borrow your keys because you were too weak to walk down four stories and drop them off.

But fundamentally, what's hard in these cases isn't the mountain. It's what we think the mountain represents. It's what we want to see in ourselves: athleticism, persistence, open-mindedness, responsibility. Success. And you know what's hard? Realizing that those qualities don't hinge on a single peak. Maybe my friend should've turned around on that hike, because if her friends told her she wasn't tough just because she decided that she'd had enough for one day when she was tired, then they weren't seeing the person who was making the footprints.

In fact, I would've been proud if her for turning around. Because you know what's hard? Deciding someone else's expectations don't matter as much as taking care of yourself.

Mountains are easy. You just put one foot in front of the other. Even on a steep hill, even at high altitude. Because you know what made that 14er hard? Getting to the top, and grinning, and realizing I had no one to laugh with me. And that I needed to ask someone for a favor if I didn't want to hike alone. And that talking with new people makes me nervous. And that my summit fever was not going to let me go back down the trail content with one peak while the sun was shining.

And you know what's funny? Sometimes the hard things are easier than you thought. Sometimes those new people are friendly and that scramble is easier than it looked and you wind up laughing at the top and grinning when you look at the pictures again later and wondering why any of it intimidated you. And then you look at a new peak, and realize how badly you want to climb it, and realize you have a new goal and you care about achieving it, and that there might be more than 1000 feet of elevation in your way. And you know what's hard? What makes you vulnerable? Caring.