Sunday, November 17, 2013

Writing: Code vs. Cipher

I don't have many favorite works. Things that percolate up to favored status are usually too different to be easily compared. For graphic novels, would I prefer Kingdom Come or V for Vendetta. How to compare The Stars My Destination or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch? 

But I do have a favorite poem: Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish.

I've read a lot of MacLeish and Ars Poetica is not his strongest piece-- for my money, that would be J. B., his verse play about Job. But the poem speaks to me about something I find important: how writing works.

I think of language is a code not a cipher. This is an important distinction. A cipher is a regular algorithm by which data can be encrypted or decrypted. Classical ciphers often used some algorithmic means by which words or letters were substituted. A very simple cipher might be to substitute the number placement of a letter for the letter. "ABCDE" becomes "12345", etc. "HELLO" would be "8-5-12-12-15".

A code, on the other hand, is a method of obscuring the original intent. It usually requires a key. For example, say you and I agree that the word "yellow" in a message means meet me at midnight under the harvest moon. If someone intercepts that message they have no idea what it means. There is no computational algorithm that can be used to determine yellow's meaning.

But the difference between a cipher and code is deeper. Philosophically, a cipher indicates that there is some rule set that can be applied to make the obscure open to scrutiny. A code, on the other hand, is an agreed upon communication protocol between two (or more) thinking beings.

Language is a tokenized communication protocol where something deeply personal and obscure (thoughts, eelings) are communicated one person to another via tokens for which we have some measure of agreement on their meaning. It is a code and not a cipher.

Writing a story is setting up a collection of words and images that are designed to invoke a response in the reader. Writers are encoding a state into words and expecting it to be decoded into emotions and narrative on the other side.

Cipher-thinking is deliberating on a set of rules and believing they will achieve an outcome. It's akin to magical thinking. You dance this way and that, turn three times, bay at the moon and bathe in the blood of a chicken and lo: you will have a best seller.

It can certainly work. There have been any number of pop songs and hack novels written strictly to formula without any other distinguishing mark.

Code thinking, however, is completely different. It recognizes that (minus telepathy) there is no possible algorithm by which we can express our innermost thoughts and feelings. We must mediate such communication through the inadequate tokens of words. Consequently, we introduce ambiguity and mistakes along with broader meaning. It means we do not present but invoke.

Back to MacLeish. Ars Poetica was written in 1925. T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was written in 1920. I find a lot of common ground in both of these poems. Prufrock seems to me a lament against the victory of form over substance. (An interesting side note, let us not forget Artaud's famous quote from The Theater and Its Double, 1938: "And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames.")

MacLeish, on the other hand, doesn't lament about it at all. He just tells us how it is done. One of my favorite lines in the poem: "A poem should be equal to. Not true."

Too often we indulge in cipher thinking. If I do this, I'll get that. If I love my wife I'll be happy. If I'm good to my kids, they'll turn out right. If I do what my parents ask, they'll approve of me. Cipher thinking is contractual. Life (and writing) are not contracts but agreements. We agree that I will give you the best effort at a story that I can. No guarantee can be made that you'll like it.

Of course, MacLeish said it much better:

A poem should not mean
But be

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Harvest Time 2013

I've been a little discouraged about things lately what with government shutdowns and such. There's been a lot of good science coming out but it's been overshadowed by the news. Wendy commiserated with me somewhat but finally said: just blog about something that's not discouraging.

She is, as usual, right.

I like this time of year. We do a lot with the patch of land we have and have many ambitions and ideas and experiments we plan over the winter and put into practice in the spring. Then, in the fall, we see what we were able to do, what worked, what didn't and start making plans for next year.

Essentially, we try to do four things with the land: wood, garden, orchard and chickens.

The wood we use for heating and, if I can find some good stuff, turning in the shop. It was a good year for firewood. We dropped a hickory and a maple and so we're good for firewood for a couple of years. There might be some turning maple there, too. I've left some large blocks to season over the winter. We'll see what we have in the fall.

I don't do much turning. It's fun but mostly it's a way to make shavings. But it's fun. Mostly, I repair and build things for the household. Actually, this year the major shop project was the shop. I tore down a wall and replaced the workbench with a pair of workbench tables. It's been a lot of work. Today I finished putting the electricity back in. Hopefully, I can get the shop back into working order pretty soon.

What I'd really like to do is build musical instruments. But that had to take a back seat a while back for all of the other work we've been doing on the land. It didn't help that work moved to Cambridge and added in a ninety-minute commute. As most of it is by train and I can write it's not too onerous. But it does take a hit. I'm hoping to get back to it this winter. I have a mandolin I'd like to build. And a banjo. We will see.

The garden went well. Lots of summer material like squash and greens. Not much in the way of watermelons. I'm an optimist, I suppose. I believe I can grow melons in New England. But it did happen one year. The summer my son was born was also the first year we were successful in growing melons. Very tasty.

We have several ground fruits we're working with. We have a new strawberry bet that we have high hopes for next year. The thornless black berries we planted last year started bearing this year. Next year we should have some real harvest on it.

We put in a few new raised beds for more garlic and shallots. This year we had three seven foot strings of shallots and we're working through them. Not enough garlic. We need at least as much. Next year.

I redid the grape arbors this year. We have five. Three did well. Two, not so much. The marechal foch grapes were vigorous but spotty. We've had strange weather the last few years with heat early, a wet and cold June and then mixed the rest of the summer. The MF grapes came in at different times. In part this is because the MF vine has gotten huge. I let it wander the fence of the garden and it now spans about thirty feet-- long enough that the microclimate of one end is different from the microclimate at the other. I'm going to have to retrim it.l The Concords did all right but I rebuilt their arbor and they didn't like it.

We have a battle brewing on one arbor between a seeded table grape and a seedless table grape. The seeded one is winning. I can't have that-- I like the seedless better. So I'll transplant the seeded somewhere.

The grapes at the bottom of the hill are next to the road. They didn't do well this summer. I may have to rethink them.

We didn't harvest the elderberries this year. The plants didn't look happy enough and there wasn't much so we let the birds have them. 

We planted kiwi on one of the fences a couple of years ago and Ye Gods! has it taken off. It is threatening to rip the fence apart. So yet another transplant.

The orchard-- well, let's be a bit more particular. The fruit trees. The word "orchard" conjures up a hill with gnarled trees growing on it. We don't have that much land. I do have some espaliers I've built and one Belgian fence. The espaliers have cherries. Cornelian cherries, apples and plums on them. There's a medlar as well but it will be a while before I have that sorted out.

We're trying all sorts of things on the Belgian fence. Crabapples, of course, but also a few quinces, a peach, a couple of pears, a couple of pecans, some filberts and a mulberry. The peach was an experiment for a tree that wasn't doing well so I just put it in a pot. It seemed to recover so I planted it on the fence. The top died off and some sort of peach family is coming up from the roots. We'll see what happens.

The filberts have gone nuts. They threaten everything else so they must be moved. Ditto the mulberry.

The pecans haven't done so well with the fence so I'll put them behind the greenhouse. Maybe I'll live to see pecans. Maybe not. Maybe Ben will see them if he decides to keep the house.

Good harvest on the Cornelian cherries and the pie cherries.  The crab apples have done so-so. One crab apple produces a good supply every year but the others have not. Essentially, this is true for all our apples. I know one problem we have-- a worm that attacks the blossoms. We have to spray early and keep spraying until the blossoms fall. That works to start the fruit. But I've noticed that no other apple tree in the neighborhood has this problem so I think it's an effect rather than a cause. I think I'm pruning them badly. This winter I'm going to spring for a professional and then leech his brain.

We're having trouble with our sweet cherries. We get cherries but they're almost immediately bit and then covered with fuzz. We have a similar problem with plums. We're not terribly excited with spraying-- we do use Surround, a sort of Kaolin clay product. That works for fruit that can tolerate the first insect bite. This includes grapes, apples, pears, peaches, etc. But apparently plums and cherries don't manage it.

Which brings us to the rest of the outdoor fruit trees. We have guomis, peaches, nectarines, almonds, apricots, cherries, honeyberries, aronias and apples. Apples and cherries I already mentioned.

The guomis are eat-while-it's-there fruit. We've never

Good harvest on the peach tree-- we've been thinking it was getting old every year and every year it gives us a good harvest.

Not so much on the nectarines. We had a good crop but they got a fungus and it ate back at part of the tree. Not good. Not good at all. I'll spray it this winter with a strong fungicide and see how it does in the spring.

The honeyberries are hit or miss. We have two plants. One tastes pretty good but I don't like the other one. They have gotten a little out of control and need to be cut back. Again, we let the birds have them. We may rip them out entirely. Ditto the aronia-- I think they need to be moved.

Very good harvest in the greenhouse. Many guavas. A few pineapples and many tens of pounds of bananas. Oh, and many chestnuts.

The chickens were good this year. We lost Sam, our old rooster. After a decade he decided it was time to try for a new karmic level. We have a new rooster I call Fish. Not sure exactly why but he reminds me of a fish. He's settling in. The hens are all getting on. We're getting good egg production but it's been going down hill. Maybe next year we'll hatch up some eggs and keep a couple of the hens. Sell the remaining hens and grow up the roosters for the oven.

When we first did this we had a half dozen roosters and Wendy didn't think she could manage to harvest them. But the month after they started to crow she let on that maybe she could manage after all.

So, all in all, a fairly good year.

What to plan next year?

Dropping the two trees opened up a section of the yard that is begging to become a tiny orchard. A real orchard, this time. So we're looking at trees. I've learned something though in the last few years. Get stock that fruits quickly. No more waiting ten years for a harvest.

Many of the trees will be moved. The aronia, mulberry, filberts and pecans. I'm hopeful we'll get something good by 2015.

Next year we want to try to scale up production. Get enough beans from the garden to last the winter. Potatoes and other staples as well. We grew good mill corn a couple of years ago. The big problem is storage. Wendy wants me to make a root cellar of some sort. Maybe I will.
Get the grapes back on line-- I was able to make wine this year but it was mostly from the grapes of previous years. A hundred pounds of apples dropped in our laps this weekend and we're scrambling to process them all. So that's a major learning experience. If the pruning of the apples works, next year we might have that problem from our own trees.

I have to get that fungus problem under control. Not sure how to do that.

The chestnuts are finally coming on line. We got about five pounds so far this year. Not much but it's a start. Ditto the almonds-- only about twenty. But the tree is still young.

Wendy worries about having too big a harvest to handle. I figure that's a problem I'd like to learn to overcome.