The origins of design

In a recent post on my Facebook group Spin In Style, it was claimed that my tops reflected the “many influences of different makers” and that one could “see wooden CDCs and DITs in there.” These are references to well-known top “brands” Chris Dean Customs and Dynamic Inertia Tops.

Every artist and craftsperson is influenced by other artists and the physical world around them, both consciously and subconsciously. Jonathan Jones, and art critic for The Guardian wrote in 2014:

“…any acquaintance with the Old Masters reveals that art has always been an exchange of ideas in which influence is not just omnipresent but proudly accepted. The story of art is largely a story of homages, remakes, rivalrous borrowings, nuanced imitations.”

As I have developed my craft of woodturning, making spin stations and spinning tops, I have reflected upon those things that have influenced me. My research identified strong influences from neo-classical design, in particular architecture. These influences are perfectly embodied in the design of the Staunton Chess set, used in all official tournaments and championships. Designed in 1849 by Nathaniel Cook an architect, these chess pieces have come to represent and embody neo-classical design.


As described in an article written for the Smithsonian Museum, Nathaniel Cook found influences in classical architectural elements from Roman and Greek civilizations.

Classical Balusters

Just as I have been influenced, knowingly or not, by these classical shapes, so have all artists, and the makers of spinning tops. Even if not acknowledged explicitly people such as Gavin Sexton (DIT), Joshua Dawson, Harold Edwards (Topped Out), Dee and Steve Aiena (Top Dawg), just to name a few, employ elements of classical design and the Staunton Chess pieces in their designs, particularly the stems. Stems are the most obvious part of a top to reflect classical columns and pillars.

A quote often attributed to Pablo Picasso, but originating in 1892 in the Gentleman’s Magazine seems appropriate here. W. H. Davenport Adams wrote of Alfred Lord Tennyson: “…(G)reat poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

It is not theft or plagiarism, intentional or otherwise, to make things that look like things that others make. It is quite natural to imitate, perfect, and build on ideas and designs from the past. All artists stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. To the extent that designs by top makers have influenced me, so too have the designs of ancient Roman and Greek architects and artists influenced me, and influenced those top makers.

Here are some examples of tops made “under the influence of Staunton”.

Gavin Sexton (Dynamic Inertia Tops)
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Harold Edwards (Topped Out)

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Chris Dean (CDC)
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Steve Aiena (Top Dawg Design)
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Joshua Dawson (Joshua Dawson Precision Spinning Tops)
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Cody Mayfield (Upside Down Works)
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An old thing, new to me

Spinning tops have been around for thousands of years, and wooden spinning tops are pretty standard fare among children’s toys, even today.
This week I started selling the wood spinning tops I’ve been making. Having bought a wood lathe and been making spin bowls, I didn’t think I would want to make tops, but now that’s all I want to make! And it’s been a blast. The top shown below is a hybrid of wood dowels, poplar and oak, set in a black acrylic resin. I call it my flower top.


Who is a friend?

This short piece appeared in Ramblings magazine, published by the Roadrunner region of the Porsche Club of America:

This isn’t really a story about Porsches, it’s a story about friendship. Owning a Porsche has brought me many new friends. Everyone has friends, some better than others, and some closer than others. Some friends we love, some we respect, some we admire, and some we might even envy.

I have a “formula” that describes friendship. That might sound weird, because most people probably don’t think that hard about their friends, they just accept them, without question. But I’ve had many friends in my 59 years, and they’ve come and they’ve gone. Some I remember, and some I miss. There’s too many to count, and most aren’t in my life any more. I am blessed with a very wonderful group of friends at the moment thanks to my interest in cars, and my membership of the local Porsche Club of America. Which is why I’m writing this.

Here’s my friendship formula. Friendship is one part the past, one part the present, and one part the future.

Regarding the past, I like to talk with friends about the things I’ve done with them. The “Remember when we…”, or “…and what about that time you…” Memories made with friends provide the foundation of a friendship on which it continues to be built and give it momentum to continue.

The time spent with friends right here and now is the experience of friendship. It’s real, and happening, and should be enjoyed for its immediate value. As humans stuck living life linearly, as each next minute becomes the last minute, the only thing we can really be sure of is the present. And if I have a choice about who I have to spend it with, I’d rather it be with friends. Making good use of the time you spend with friends ensures you are reinforcing the foundations of your friendships. You have to be present and engaged with your friends to enjoy them the most.

The third part of friendship is the prospect of future shared moments. We must look to the future because that’s where our next minute, day, and year, lives. We all have hopes and wishes. It’s natural to look forward to spending time with friends. A great friendship is one that leaves you a little sad each time you part, and wanting to spend more time with that person, or those people. Friendship is about anticipation, as much what’s happening now, or what happened before.

All these elements of friendship were on display on a recent Club drive out. While much pleasure came from driving our wonderful Porsche cars on back country roads, when people got out of their cars for lunch, or a pit stop to refuel, the conversation was a mix of recollection and shared experience. Conversations ranged from comparisons of car handling to complaints about rocks in the road and cows on the shoulders. At the end of the Tour, as we headed on our last leg home, everyone looked forward to the next Tour, and the next experience, and the next memory.

The power of lies

Hanna Arendt, born 1906 and died 1975, was a German-born Jewish American political theorist. In a 1974 interview she said the following regarding the power of lies:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

It’s a chilling insight into Donald Trump’s strategy of attacking the media, including his recent pronouncement via Twitter. Trump’s use of Twitter to “reach his supporters” is characteristic of Arendt’s idea of constantly changing lies.

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!


A New Yorker article expands on this theme.

Philip Roth, on Donald Trump

In the January 30, 2017 edition of the New Yorker, write Philip Roth says this:

“I was born in 1933,” he continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”


The beginning of the end

…of times as we knew them.

I keep asking myself why Donald Trump got elected President of the United States. And I can’t find an answer. It seems I’m not alone in this, as two months after the election, and two weeks before the inauguration, I’m still reading news articles trying to figure out “what went wrong?” or “how did this happen?”

But I keep looking for an answer and I may have found it, at least in large part, in a March 2016 (yes, that long ago!) article in the Washington Post reporting a conversation with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. Scott Adams predicted a landslide Trump victory eight months before the election. The article makes for very interesting, and pretty compelling, reading.

One thing Adams talks about is rationality, and how humans are basically irrational, (and emotional.) As a member of the academic/intelligencia minority, I recognize I live and work in a bubble. Within that bubble things make sense to me, and all the other people inside the bubble seem reasonable to me. When I talk about Trump with them, there’s understanding, sympathy, and empathy. It just reinforces my failure to understand how Trump was elected. The world inside the bubble is rational, but the world outside the bubble is just the opposite.

A world dominated by irrational people cannot, by definition, be understood by people using theories and models of rational human behavior. I’ve spent nearly all my life trying to make sense of the world around me (like most academics), and I’ve been somewhat successful. But I’m about to give up and concede that it’s all just a random mess, an unpredictable morass, a hopeless errand. I’ll just take a seat and watch from here…

Happy 2017

Most reviews of 2016 described it as one of the worst years in history (which is a very myopic and modern take on history, since surely 1914-18, and 1929-44 must take the “worst years in modern history” prize, and some of those years before 1900 sound like they really sucked). But back to the present, and yes, 2016 was pretty bad in a global sense, what with the Brexit vote, and the election of a prize dickhead to the US Presidency.

Still, it’s traditional, and perhaps mostly in a hopeful way, to wish others a Happy New Year, even if you see little evidence of widespread happiness, or much new on the horizon. New horrors more likely. So Happy 2017!