There is no magic, there is only awesome (Part 1)
The following is the first of a series of articles that I will be posting in the coming weeks, based on the keynote address I gave at the 2009 Ruby Hoedown in Nashville, entitled “There is no magic, there is only awesome.” I originally intended to publish the entire series of articles as a single article, but it got too long. At any rate, I think it’ll be more easily digestible as multiple posts.
I’m always surprised to discover that there are people who have never heard of string figures. These are the games that are played (in western culture, at least) primarily by children, using a loop of string. They place the string on their hands and, either by themselves or with a friend, manipulate the string into various patterns. As a kid, I learned how to do a few such patterns, including Cat’s Cradle and the cup and saucer, but it was just a novelty, and I was interested in other things. I promptly forgot nearly everything about these games, except that they existed.
Fast-forward almost thirty years. My wife bought one of those Klutz books for our kids, this one about string games. It only described a handful of figures, but it was enough to pique my curiosity. I hopped online to see if there was any other information available about the subject.
Thus did the floodgates open! I discovered that string figures are a nearly universal pastime, being found in almost every culture around the world. In fact, many widely separated cultures share string figure repertoires—a discovery that fascinated and intrigued ethnologists over a century ago.
A Bit of History…
When Franz Boas first described an Eskimo string figure in 1888, there was a sudden flood of academic interest in string figures. Ethnologists began theorizing that the shared string figure repertoires could imply a common origin of mankind, or might indicate migration paths or intercultural interactions of “primitive” societies. Some of these figures were so elaborate that it seemed almost impossible to believe that they could come from independent invention. Efforts were made to “collect” these string figures by sketching them, photographing them, or even mounting the finished patterns on cardboard.
In 1902 there was another breakthrough: Drs. Rivers and Haddon, two ethnolgists, devised a way to describe the process by which string figures were constructed, allowing researchers to collect not only the finished products, but also the steps leading up to them. This helped reveal an interesting fact: many of these different cultures’ figures that looked the same superficially were actually produced by very different methods. The argument for independent invention was strengthened, but it also became possible to see where one culture may have learned a figure from another, by comparing the similarities between the two methods of construction.
A few years later, in 1906, a remarkable woman named Caroline Furness Jayne published one of the first books about string figures, called String Figures and How to Make Them. Amazingly, this book remains in print, and is still one of the definitive works on string figures. In this book, Jayne took the nomenclature devised by Rivers and Haddon, and with a few simple modifications, made it more accessible to the layman. Using this modified nomenclature, Jayne then proceeded to describe (and, with the help of a friend, illustrate) 97 string figures from around the world, many of which she had collected herself and which had never been published before.
It really is a spectacular book.
However, because the system for describing string figure construction was so new at the time, there was a large body of string figures that had been collected, but for which there was no known construction method. Among these figures were several from the Pacific island of Nauru. These Nauruan (which is a palindrome, making this a de facto awesome word) string figures were so elaborate and complex that Jayne was skeptical they could be created entirely “on the hand”, and she speculated that perhaps they were (at least partially) created “artificially” (e.g., by laying the string down and moving loops around).
Still, she included illustrations of 15 of these figures in her book (see the section entitled “Nauru Figures” in Chapter 9), and said:
“I have brought together such of these [drawings] as I could obtain, in the hope that other observers will find out the method by which they are made; with our present knowledge it is practically impossible to work back from the finished pattern to the opening movements.”—Caroline Furness Jayne, “String Figures and How to Make Them”, 1906 (emphasis added).
Although Jayne died just a few years after her book was published, her work remained influential. Years later it was read by a woman named Honor Maude, who was intrigued by the Nauruan patterns. When, in the 1930’s, she had the opportunity to visit Nauru for a few weeks, she immediately dove in and began interrogating the natives about their string figures. She was able to learn many (though not all) of the Nauruan figures from Jayne’s book, and many others besides.
It turns out that the figures were (for the most part) created entirely on the hand. For many of the figures, including fairly complex ones, the process of construction was even surprisingly straightforward. And armed with the results of Maude’s research, other researchers have since been able to reverse engineer the rest of the Nauruan patterns from Jayne’s book.
The mystery was dispelled. There was no magic. There were only awesome patterns that could now be documented, described, and duplicated.
This could never have happened if it were not for the willingness of a few to explore. Late 19th and early 20th century ethnologists explored the world, travelling to places most people had never even heard of. Caroline Jayne explored both the body of existing research, as well as travelled the US herself, collecting figures. And Honor Maude explored much of the south Pacific, including Nauru, collecting string figures.
More recently, string figurists have explored in other ways. By “playing with string”, attempting variations on existing patterns and testing combinations of maneuvers, and by working backward from known patterns, they were able to unravel figures that Caroline Jayne called “practically impossible” to reverse engineer. These people explored their domain, understood it at a new level, and did the impossible.
These people understood that string figures were not magic. String figures were only awesome.
It is human nature to look at something exceptional and feel distanced from it. But calling that feeling of distance “magic” does the exceptional a disservice. It’s a barrier we build to give us an excuse for not being exceptional ourselves. It’s not magic that separates the exceptional from the mundane: it’s awesomeness.
“Awesome” is excellence. “Awesome” is the willingness to dig into one’s domain, to explore what has been discovered, and to look beyond. “Awesome” is understanding what you do, and how and why you do it. You cannot be awesome until you look inside that black box and dispel the magic around it.
As a string figurist and a computer programmer (and someone generally aspiring to awesomeness!), I suggest that there are four cardinal rules to being awesome.
- Know thy tools.
- Know thy languages.
- Know thy libraries.
- Know thy communities.
Now, when I say “know” here, I mean more than just “know about”. I mean the deeper, intuitive knowledge that comes from prolonged first-hand experience. It’s one thing to say that you know what is inside a cave. It’s another to actually go spelunking.
And it’s another entirely to meticulously explore a cave, acting as cartographer and biologist, geologist and poet, cowboy and scientist, all in one.
Part of meticulously exploring your domain, then, is asking questions. Make no assumptions. Have your own opinions. Look under every rock, and behind every corner. Ask why five times for every question.
When I worked at BYU, my boss at the time, Doug Walker, liked to hold what he called “obnoxious question sessions”. In them, he would ask “obnoxious” questions that challenged the assumptions we had made about our systems. These could be painful and awkward if we didn’t have good answers for them. It became obvious, quickly, that we needed to have opinions about everything we did, and that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. And neither should you.
The articles that follow in this series will each be a kind of obnoxious question session. They might be painful. They might be painfully obvious! Regardless, I’ll be taking each of those four cardinal “rules of awesomeness” one at a time.
And I hope you’ll bear with me as I drag string figuring into each one!