Friday, April 17, 2015

How Does a Book Actually Work?

William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalist.

Zach Neal

How does a book actually work, anyway?

Nobody really seems to know, or if they do, it’s a highly-technical process description not well suited to lay men and women.

The brain, or mind, has working memory. It is a kind of short-term memory.

When we read, we process that information. That processing is what brings the book to life and makes pictures and what passes for sound begin to appear in our head.

It seems to me that reading is a process of short term or working memory. What part of the brain it happens in is a secondary question. The thing is that short term memory is much more plastic than long term memory. It gets wiped regularly, using the mechanism of sleep. Once something has made it into long term memory, it's usually stuck there pretty good.

If you can remember a book, something like Winnie the Pooh, that’s from our youth most likely. I don’t recall a single line from the book, and yet I know that I have read it…

That’s long-term memory. I have stuff labeled Winnie the Pooh filed away in there somewhere.

Once something is in long-term memory, it’s never really lost to us, although we may not remember it ever again. It’s still in there.

I saw someone in the grocery store today. They have one distinctive feature. The lady, about forty years old, had long, lush, curling eyelashes. She has other features as well, and for whatever reason I was looking at her.

It struck me later that it might have been Alice—someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. 

We didn’t recognize each other, not at the time. Those other features (as I remembered them from the past) matched up, when I thought about it, with what she might look like twenty years later.

I’m one of those people who are pretty good with names and faces.

I really had to think about it. I had to dig for it—and it could have been her. What really struck me was that she was looking at me. Was she digging in her memory, trying to figure out who that guy was? Honestly, I doubt if she’s thought of me since that time in college. We were just somebody in class. It’s not like we ever spoke much, or got to know each other. The human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces. That goes back a million years in our programming. The ability to read came much later in evolution

Memory is reconstructive. Some little thing jogs our memory and a lot more stuff comes tumbling out.

When I read a book, it’s usually at night, before I go to bed. During the day, that book is the farthest thing from my mind.

Right now I’m reading Gore Vidal’s Empire. It happens in about 1899.

It’s just after the Spanish-American war. The only reason I can tell you that, is because I’ve been working on the book for a few days. When I pick it up again, it sort of all comes back to me, and there are reminders on every page, who the characters are, the time, the place, the circumstances. What’s happening, is that I am learning, rather than just reading. Much of learning does involve repetition. Reading can be for pleasure, and that kind of reading is shallower, more transient. It’s gone as fast as it came in. Stuff that you know, has entered the long-term memory. Ten years from now, if you ask me, I will be able to tell you that Empire is by Gore Vidal and that it’s about the period just after the Spanish-American War. Carolyn and her brother Blaise are at odds over her inheritance.

I don’t have to look at the book to tell you that—I’ve learned it and the odds are I will be able to recall some of that later. There are some interesting character studies in the book, including President McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst among others.

The thing to remember is that the reader forgets what they just read as they move along in the story.

Whatever is happening on the page they are reading, that is ‘the moment’ for the reader. It takes on a reality of its own, settles into our memories and becomes a kind of shared experience. That’s because someone had to write it and plenty of other people have read it. 

Some books are not intellectual heavyweights. They are meant to be consumed as fluff, as entertainment. In a genre that is more than usually formulaic, for example romance, people aren’t looking to have their world questioned, or any great revelation. What they want is escape. They want to be entertained in a way that is not particularly challenging.

The easiest thing to remember is the story. There was a book I read as a kid. I will never find that book again, because I have forgotten the title, forgotten the author, forgotten the name of the main character.

Yet I can still tell you that it was about a boy, and his cousin. They had a series of adventures at the time of the siege of Fort Beausejour. It was the time of the removal of the Acadians. The boy had a sailing dory and they had named it Ann. The cousin’s name was Pierre. Since the boy was the viewpoint character, his name was probably not mentioned very often, if at all. Otherwise I probably would have remembered it.

His father was a Captain Harvey (I think) of the 40th Foot.

The average reader, immersed in the story, perhaps halfway through the book, might completely forget a character introduced earlier on until they reappear. For someone who reads a book in one sitting, that character pops out and they say, ‘oh, there he is again.’ Yet they are just as likely to forget him as soon as he’s gone again. Reading an entire book at one sitting uses short-term memory exclusively. What’s interesting is when you’re reading an old book. Agatha Christie is a good example. Publishers over the years have re-titled and re-branded those books so many times. You get to a certain part of the story and you realize you’ve read it before.

And yet you can’t quite remember what happens, you can’t remember how it turns out.

The opposite kind of reading is where people are forced to read books over and over again in order to memorize and recite them. It’s obviously a different skill from reading for pleasure, or even the more normal forms of reading for instruction. When I want to learn a new thing, it’s like I have to read it fifteen times sometimes, and then keep it beside me while I attempt any new trick or skill. It is only when I can do it without the book beside me, that I can truly say I have learned it.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Process of Building R/C Aircraft

Fleet Finch, a WW II trainer aircraft.

Zach Neal

The ability to focus on a project is a wonderful thing. When I built a 56” wingspan Fleet Finch for radio control, it was sheer luxury to be able to pin a wing or a stabilizer down to a board and just leave it. I owned a small house. I did not have a dog, a wife or any kids. If I left something on the workbench, it would be there a few days later when I went back to work on the model.

When building from plans for the very first time, the best thing is to read the instructions and study the plans. It probably is better to begin with Step One in the instructions. However, with a little experience, a builder might build small components quickly, without a lot of reference to the manual. 

It’s easy enough to build the stabilizer, the vertical fin, the elevator and rudder components and just set them aside.

Wings are often built in halves and a biplane has an upper and lower wing. Before fitting the bottom wing, it’s necessary to have the fuselage in some advanced stage of framework completion. Yet the motor mount and cowling don’t necessarily have to be complete to dry-fit the fuselage to the bottom wing.

The top wing can be mounted and properly fitted to the fuselage struts in parasol fashion, the N struts on the outer wings can be built and fitted carefully later.

The wings and fuselage can be covered later, when the builder is sure everything is installed correctly, everything works, and nothing has been forgotten.

In short, it’s a process. It’s a process that benefits from some experience.

When it’s time to make the engine mount, the front bulkhead is drilled. You need holes in the proper place for mounting bolts, a control cable or pushrod, holes for fuel delivery and the pressure/vent nipple hook-up. A smart builder would have all that ready before beginning assembly of the basic fuselage framework.

At about the hallway point, all of the framework, the landing gear, flying surfaces, control systems, fuel tank, everything can be fitted, bolted and slipped together. The aircraft is a fully-assembled skeleton sitting on the workbench. The builder can turn on the radio switch, plug in the battery and test all systems. If it’s electric, you can run the motor because you don’t have to worry about castor oil getting all over it. Even then there can still be hundreds of hours of labour before the flying model is completed. The Finch had been designed for an electric motor and gearbox with eighteen cells. 

Never mind that everything shown was ten or fifteen years out of date and every aspect of electric flight had changed. I wanted to run it on hot fuel, alcohol, castor-oil and nitromethane. I didn’t have any big problems modifying the kit and the parts available or making my own. It merely took time, visualization of a required part, some drawing ability, and a few tools. Over the course of seventeen years, I built many kits, bought a couple of used planes and designed about four dozen of my own. 

The last plane I designed was a million times better than the first one. The funny thing was the first one actually flew pretty well.

My old man wanted to get into radio control, but he didn’t know anything about the hook-ups—the radio system, the servos and pushrods. Someone suggested he get a kit or two and build them. Join the club and learn how to fly them. After a couple of R/C kits the old bugger was back to designing his own planes. He liked the idea of electric flight and the kits of the day were all shit, no ailerons, no power, basically clunky stuff designed by enthusiastic amateurs. My old man’s woodwork and covering were as good as anyone’s and better than ninety percent of the club fliers, admittedly kit-builders and sport-flyers, around here.

My old man taught me a lot. I watched that man, and after building hundreds of rubber band models, he really was a craftsman in the sense of miniature carpentry, with knife, sanding block, small saws, grinders, files and drills.

Virtually all of the skills required to build a flying radio control model are relevant, in fact highly-useful in building and flying a full-sized aircraft. It’s just a lot more expensive. The stakes are higher and the price of a mistake goes up drastically. But basically it is the exact same set of skills.

One of those skills is the ability to focus, to look ahead a few steps and see what is required. One of the skills is analysis. The ability to look at he plans and to realize that they can’t possibly tell you every little thing that you need to know.

A certain level of skill is presumed with every kit bought and sold. If a radio-control model aircraft kit is intended for beginners, it will be advertised as such.

My Fleet Finch was a scale model, the kit was intended for experts. My skills were such that it was well-built and well-engineered. The designer of the kit, made some serious errors and I would have done quite a few things differently. The design was idiosyncratic, and drew heavily on some techniques that the designer clearly didn’t invent. He was unduly influenced.

My heat-shrink Mylar covering job was very good without being professional—nine year old kids in China do a fantastic job of covering some of the new park flyers for example.

As far as professional scale competition, my plane would have been the most amateurish thing there. 

That really wasn’t my focus with that particular airplane.

All I really wanted, (and I bought that kit for $60.00 at a buddy’s fire sale, from a guy called Ray Duzek), was a big and colourful biplane to fly. It had adequate power with an O.S. 40 FP and it was fully aerobatic.

It flew just like the real thing, which is to say it took a light touch, and coordinating rudder with ailerons, elevator, throttle, etc. It took a year and a half to build that plane.

Even my old man was impressed.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get back into flying or not.

It’s a question of time, money and commitment.

I still have a Fokker D-VII and all the equipment to fly it.

I think it’s a question of wanting it badly enough.

Maybe I just don’t have time for it anymore.