Saturday, 1 October 2016

Know Your Variables

The Author's Studio

There is something fundamentally different about the way artistic people and scientific people go about seeing and solving problems.

You all know what I mean. There are those who plan out a garden and remain completely cool and calm and know exactly what they are envisaging. They will probably remove generous old citrus trees to achieve that goal but it will be done with precision, measurements, a spreadsheet, weed mat, some truck deliveries of top soil and gravel and serious assessments in gumboots. The garden will be completed swiftly and it will be very straightforward.

Artistic people tend to embrace romanticism and some chaos. Their garden has a sort of plan...mostly based around what is already there. The citrus tree remains, the top soil goes down on top of with old newspapers and cardboard, and crumbling bricks are scavenged, cleaned, and used as edgings. Stolen cuttings nursed on the kitchen window sill are carefully stowed in the soil, and the wild nasturtium is nudged over to pretty it all up. And that is just one corner. The rest will come when there are enough old newspapers and cuttings.

The Garden at Tin Shed Yarns
You might sense that I fit the latter.

Well yes and no.

I have lived with a completely focused scientific person and maybe some of that clear-sighted appraisal rubbed off.

To be honest, when it comes to my work in knit design I have to think as an engineer. The romance of a gentle curved edge on a shawl comes after some numbers are studied. It's getting easier now. 

For too many years I didn't trust numbers because all too often I would have my tenuous understanding of a maths principle pulled from under me by colder aggressive people who just seemed to know more and skipped all the steps to get the answer first. The fact that a mathematical problem could be worked through steps and carefully and by calm thinking, a single number would emerge as the answer, was in itself a strange and thrilling thing for me. Numbers slowly became more reliable and trustworthy simply because they were no longer put before me as a test. They no longer scared me.

This all came together when I trained to be a teacher. 

Non-Scientific Scribbles by The Author....aka designing.
Maths became not a matter of what you know or how swiftly you come up with the answer, but more about how you think your way through a problem...sifting the factors and laying aside what is not important. 

It was huge relief to find I was not the only one who thought algebra was another language I was denied entry to because I didn't keep up with the rest of the class. 

I was much better at sorting out things in chaos; I could easily and calmly identify problems coming at me and could prioritise my attention and energy. I would have made a good triage nurse.

...but algebraic functions daunted me for too many years.....they were a decisive judgement on my ability and I was scared of them.

A new project bristling with markers.
In the end, I went into primary teaching armed with two important skills; 1. I completely understood the fear around maths. 2; I completely understood the fear around learning to swim as an older child.

I was good at teaching both....because I had been scared of both. 

Then, a hundred years later (well 10yrs maybe), a university lecturer in architecture was bemoaning having to take her first year students through the whole business of logarithms and how trying it was because none of them had really learnt about them. She talked of having to get the maths department to unearth the old logarithm tables books. I nodded at the memory of those awful, bewildering pages. I was almost keeping up with her when she shot a cold comment at me, "Of course you know why we have to teach them about logarithms don't you?....."

You see, here I took a deep breath, smiled, and said "I struggled with algebra so you will have to tell me about why you need logarithms in architecture." I wasn't ashamed. just honest.

Blessedly she went on with her story, and she said something that changed my life forever: When you design a theatre you need to know about sound waves and logarithms are the maths behind the rate at which something might happen. Architects have to predict how sound waves will bounce around a space. 

In films there is a technique where the character stares straight ahead and the surrounding world sucks back isolating that person in a moment of dumb-struck enlightenment. That was me then at that moment when I understood why we studied logarithms in maths.

Hand spun wool in a project requiring some maths to work out a lace insertion.
In a knit project, some parts will remain constant and others will change with increases. It means you must know the variables....all your variables...before you commit to writing a pattern. In NCEA maths (National Certificate of Education and Achievement), problems have to be broken down from the words into numbers or variables. This alone is the single most difficult step for any 15 yr old. Artistic types get caught up in all the relationships between the people who are borrowing or lending money to each other in the maths problem while the scientific types are completely ignoring them and often don't know how to nurture friendships anyway. 

Not attaching emotions to numbers is an exercise in detachment....anyone who plans their budget knows this.

Renewing one's relationship with maths over the years is a grown-up challenging thing to do. How else can you plan the metreage of fabric in a quilt unless you know exactly how big that triangle motif will be.....that's The Sine and Cosine Rule jumping up and laughing in your face again, just like it did when you were 15.

Flick it aside and take's your project, take control and do it well!

All the best,

Fiona MacBride

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