Harder to Kill

“Technical knowledge is harder to kill than any other kind, and is seldom subjected to religious, political, or military persecution.”

— John Gloag, “A Social History of Furniture Design: From B.C. 1300 to A.D. 1960”  (Crown)

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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17 Responses to Harder to Kill

  1. Jason says:

    There are several Iranian nuclear scientists that would disagree with that.

    Well, they would disagree with that if they could…

  2. joemcglynn says:

    Persecution is the first law of society because it is always easier to suppress criticism than to meet it. –Howard Mumford Jones

  3. Jim McCoy says:

    Maybe, but before I retired from engineering I worked for a few managers who did a pretty good job of it.

  4. David Pickett says:

    I think there’s a slight difference between Knowledge and Experience.

    Knowledge can be written down. Experience can’t.

    I’ve often found that before doing something, I look for Knowledge – read all I can find about something, talk to people (if I can find any with appropriate knowledge and experience). Then get the tools, and set to. Take an age making a pretty indifferent job of it. Go back to the books, and suddenly the bits you missed first time round jump out at you. Back to the doing, and things start to flow more smoothly.

    When you’ve got Knowledge and Experience, you’re getting somewhere. Knowledge on it’s own is sterile, unless it’s put to use.

    • David Pickett says:

      Forgot to say – Experience can be lost, as those who have it retire or pass away. Knowledge can be stored, and there is a lot of it out there. There may, however, be a lot of work in finding it and making it widely available – so specialist publishers do the world a service.

      Thanks, Chris.

  5. Don Williams says:

    Hmm,Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung might not agree, given the carnage they left as an intended byproduct of The Killing Fields and The Cultural Revolution, both of which purposefully targeted (among other targets) people with educational or technical skills. It would be intereting to get Galileo’s perspective on this…

    By the way Gloag’s book is really outstanding.

  6. Kagushokunin says:

    Not that I have any intention to derail the post’s thread of comments but allow me to interject with some woodorking-related stuff, Chris.

    Interestingly enough, the pictured campaign chest is almost identical in its design, proportions and corner hardware to a few of the tansu we have at home. Excluding the drawer handles itselves and the feet, it could very well be at home in our place… and we live in downtown Kyoto.

    By the way, I should send you some pictures of the interior of one of our tansu chests. Its obviously made out of “sugi” (cedar) and not only you can see the tool marks on the inside, but also the bark remainings!

    That is one of the most traditional characteristics of the japanese culture: what you don’t see, it doesn’t matter.

    I’ll close the door on leaving.

    • lostartpress says:

      I’d love to see those photos. Campaign and tansu share an intertwined history. No doubt that tansu influenced the development of campaign pieces.

    • joshslopsema says:

      This observation is beautiful and I think if anything it puts the wheels back on the track. It speaks to technical knowledge expanding beyond a cultural context. Instantly I think of the similarities in shaker and Japanese design. What a wonderful example of how tactile experience with materials and technical challenges of design,utility,space and relationship to environment produce such similar works in such divergent cultural settings and so far removed from each other.
      Isn’t it true that to restore and maintain traditional Japanese structures, only traditional techniques and tools may be used?

  7. A Casual  Doodler  says:

     It is my understanding that the making of Samurai sword was made part of a religious ceremony  to preserve the Technical knowledge. 

    • joshslopsema says:

      Another brilliant observation.
      Vastly divergent world views distinguish themselves by how they handle knowledge.
      What a stark contrast from a reading of western church history where often times the church’s only interest in knowledge was how to use it to control people…Exactly the type of cultural, social and political environment that gave rise to such works as Peter Kropotkin’s “Anarchist morality”

      • BikerDad says:

        Aaaand, far more oftentimes it was the church that was responsible for preserving knowledge, including technical knowledge, and expanding it as well. Not that you’re likely to care about the actual history, since such considerations would undermine your comfortable worldview.

        Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, had this to say:
        “ [A]s the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up th great labor of copying all western literature – everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would be unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one-a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.”

        Changing gears:
        One problem with assessing the truth of Gloag’s statement is aptly captured by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002:
        “ [T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
        We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know. ”

        A perfect example regarding technical knowledge is the formula for Greek Fire. That is knowledge that has been lost, and we know we lost it, and we aren’t even sure how or why. In the realm of woodworking, a simple one is “what is the purpose of the nub on a saw?” Lotsa speculation, but no answers. How much more technical knowledge has been lost that we aren’t even aware we lost?

        I would argue that Gloag may be almost 180 degrees wrong, although the massively increased ability we have to retain “useless” knowledge is changing things. Technical knowledge has one overriding characteristic: utility. Unlike other forms of knowledge, technical knowledge is readily discarded when it has no further utility. If this weren’t the case, then why would we be struggling to figure out how pre-Industrial Age woodworkers did so many things?

  8. rob campbell says:

    The comments here are wonderful food for thought. I have really enjoyed the epic-scale world histories told through narrow focus in books like “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World”; now I want to read Wood! It seems that a real story could be told connecting Viking, Japanese, European, Appalachian etc woodworking through time. Lots of borrowing, stealing, morphic resonance, and intrigue. Anyone up to that task?

    • Jeff says:

      Sort of like gene flow, which may be what Gloag is referring to. Technical knowledge consists of ideas embodied in practices, which are highly utilitarian and survive through their practical application as artifacts. As these practices migrate into different cultures, they are incorporated (adapted) within another set of practices/artifacts, thus keeping some bit of that knowledge alive hidden within the “genetic makeup” so to speak of other practices. Just thinking out loud.

  9. Kagushokunin says:

    In hindsight, this is gonna be too long, sorry folks!

    Chris, I’m having breakfast right now, I’ll try to upload some pictures this evening when I’ll comeback from work. I’ll probably give you a link to the public folder on my Dropbox. Either this or you send me an email adress to my mail.

    Josh, you are right in finding these similarities cross-styles. I think its the old “form follows function” (I’m afraid I just opened Pandora’s Box in saying that!). In regard to only using only traditional techniques and tools when restoring temples, shrines and so, it must be an old wives’ tale. Japan is way far from the image people has in the West. Vending machines inside the temple gardens? Check! Don’t try to mask or make less obvious fire detectors, phone or electrical lines in such places? Check! Publicity in the very shrine itself? Check! And so on and so forth.

    Pragmatics that they are, in restoring such places they utilize traditional joinery when it would be visible and don’t fret to use bolts and plates when they will be less obvious to the casual observer. All kinds of modern power tools are used too. The one big difference is that in the job environment they have an utterly blatant disregard for any kind of safety mesures. No safety googles, no filter masks (very seldom they use any kind of mask that is not the simple “allergy mask”), no harnesses or steel-toed boots, you catch my drift.

    Sorry to derail the thread once again. Back on track.

    Japanese tansu were made out of cedar because they needed to be really light and easy to move around as well as rot and insect-resistant. This sounds like a campaign furniture sheet of specs to me.

    Factors as the devastating effects of fires in cities built out of wooden houses, frequent quakes/tsunami and the architecture of the houses themselves made this a necessity. Staircases in traditional houses like ours are around 2 ft 4″ wide and with a slope of 60 deg instead of the usual 42 degrees in the West. Interior door lintels are all around the 5 ft. 7 mark (yeah, it is not a typo). Ceilings at 8 ft and floors are made of a soft-ish 2″ tatami straw mat on top of a half inch plank. Now try to move a Chippendale secretary in such a place and tell me about your experience. ;o)

    This is also a country with a really high humidity. Here in Kyoto we spent all summer long at temps in the lower 100’s and at about 80-100% humidity. It’s a bug’s fest.

    Furniture tends to be very squarish and unadorned and that is a result of the ascetic qualities of the culture. Korean furniture is very similar but with more ornate fronts (due to the proximity to China I guess).

    This is why I believe in form follows function.

    Enough for now, I’m off to work. Take care.

    PS: Technical knowledge might be harder to kill on an individual basis so its survival is assured but the public collective expression of such is often subject to the elite’s whims.

  10. dubya says:

    Before you get too far on your project, you might consider this shortcut:

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