Friday, August 22, 2008

Homo faber

Man the tool-making animal. Here in France, "faber" has given rise to the surname Fabre and its variants. In medieval times, blacksmiths received this name. They could be thought of as inheritors of the Greek god Haephaestus (Vulcan for the Romans).

Homo faber was one of the favorite expressions of my mentor Pierre Schaeffer. He liked to imagine that God had made Man "in his own image", as a maker, so that imaginative individuals would spend their time on Earth inventing tools to make more and more things, as a kind of end in itself. It doesn't really matter all that much what you actually make (with obvious exceptions such as nuclear weapons, anti-personal mines, etc). The important thing is to become a maker, a tool-wielder. I often thought that Schaeffer looked upon his invention of musique concrète (musical compositions made by assembling real-world noises) as a pastime for obsessional makers.

In recent times, we've discovered that humans are not the only creatures capable of using tools. Chimpanzees and their sex-obsessed cousins the bonobos learn from their elders how to use stones to crack open nuts, or sticks to catch termites.

You might imagine that, by now, human inventors have come up with every possible tool that could possibly be imagined. I only have to open a kitchen drawer to find all kinds of simple but marvelous tools. Here, for example, is the world's finest corkscrew:

You would never guess the purpose for which the following exotic implement (roughly the size of a small spoon) was invented:

It's a spoon of a special kind, used for soaking a cube of sugar in absinthe liqueur. Don't ask me why its form should be so complicated. Maybe all spoons get to look that way after you've imbibed a few glasses of absinthe.

My daughter recently gave me a tiny German instrument designed for opening walnuts:

One of these days, I really must remove the silver key from its card and get around to trying it out. For the moment, like an ape, I carry on using one of humanity's most ancient inventions for this purpose: the hammer. Maybe the Munich invention could be used to open oysters, which would be really great.

Talking about walnuts, I've probably said already on this blog that I often produce a delicacy using a recipe from the Australian pioneering days: pickled walnuts.

In that context, I'm in need of a tool that hasn't been invented yet. I'm thinking of a device to facilitate the initial step in the recipe for making pickled walnuts, which consists of piercing the green fruit to produce dozens of punctures. Why do we need to puncture the walnuts? In the next step of the recipe, the pierced walnuts are soaked in brine for a fortnight, and the holes allow the liquid to seep deep inside the fruit, to neutralize their toxicity. For the moment, to puncture the walnuts, I use a primitive method: a steel-spiked dog's comb.

You can imagine that this technique is inefficient, because I have to hold the fruit in my left hand while piercing it with the comb held in my right hand, then I have to withdraw the hard fruit from the spikes to repeat the operation from another angle. I do this about half a dozen times for each walnut, while trying to avoid wounds to the fingers of my left hand. What I need is some kind of device to pierce the walnuts rapidly and efficiently. Now, whenever I evoke the desired tool, people invariably react by saying that it should be easy to invent such a device, and they start talking about a pair of spiked rollers, or maybe spiked plates. But the problem is more difficult than what it appears, for the simple reason that the walnut, when pierced, tends to stick to the spikes. So, in the case of spiked plates, there would have to be an associated pair of metal plates with holes, which could be used to withdraw the walnuts from the spikes. Then there's the problem of ensuring that each walnut is pierced all over its skin. This would necessitate some kind of "intelligent" system for turning each walnut around so that it gets pierced all over. This is surely possible, in theory, but we're likely to end up with blueprints for a complicated device. So, is it worth it? Maybe the dog's comb can still look forward to a long and healthy future existence.

There's a second tool that I need at Gamone. It concerns my latest kind of electric fence, seen here:

The fence is composed of a steel rods surmounted by white nylon insulators, referred to as pigs' tails, to hold the electric ribbon:

Periodically, I need to withdraw the stakes from the ground so that I can remove the grass and weeds, and then I might decide to change the location of the fence. In the rocky earth at Gamone, it can be difficult to remove such rods. I need a tool of the following kind:

Here, the clasp would need to grasp the stake securely, enabling me to use the tool like a lever in order to unearth the stake.

No sooner had I drawn this diagram than I invented a way of using successfully a heavy-weight wire-cutter and a sledgehammer (the same tool I use for fixing the stakes in the ground) to unearth stakes.

Admittedly, this solution is imperfect, because it's hard to exert downwards pressure on the outstretched wire-cutter while squeezing the arms together in order to grip the stake. There's still room in the modern world for Homo faber.

1 comment:

  1. Piercing walnuts: "So, in the case of spiked plates, there would have to be an associated pair of metal plates with holes, which could be used to withdraw the walnuts from the spikes."

    What quickly came to mind was a square / rectangular plate that fit over the spikes, that you would raise up by handles on the sides so you could dislodge the walnut from the spikes. The spike part would have to be clamped to the table or weighted down firmly somehow. That's the first part. No quick "vision" as to how to spike it all over.

    Take a look at the new "rolling razor" for bald men who shave their heads, from The HeadBlade. It's pretty fantastic. I bet someone from this company could come up with "how to shave a walnut."