Harry Partch: Woodworker and Composer


Back in the 1990s, in a cramped out of the way basement deep in the bowels of San Diego State University, I got to hear a pure, mathematically perfect musical interval for the first time. The sound came from a pump organ, modified by musical heretic Harry Partch. The organ was under the care of Danlee Mitchell, who kept Partch’s idiosyncratic legacy alive after Partch died in 1974. Once you hear just intonation you can’t un-hear the compromise that is modern “equal” tempered tuning (for an in depth explanation of the difference between just and equal temperament, this documentary explains it all). Let’s just say that hearing that “perfect” perfect fifth, was one of those moments that caused me to question everything I thought I knew about music.

But Partch pushed beyond just tuning. Why do we have only 12 notes in a scale? Why not 43? Here’s Partch explaining and demonstrating his 43 tone scale:

Since you can’t go down to your local music shop and buy 43 tone musical instruments, Partch had to get crafty. He described himself as “a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.” And, over the years, he built many beautiful musical instruments:

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

The Quadrangularis Reversum.


Gourd Tree and Gongs

Partch was a master of up-cycling, making use of military and industrial surplus. Below, his “cloud chamber bowls” made from the tops and bottoms of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys found in a UC Berkeley radiation lab.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Here’s Partch talking about the cloud chamber bowls and playing them:

You can see all of Partch’s instruments here.

Partch’s music can be jarring at first. Then it grows on you. I think my favorite Partch composition is Daphne of the Dunes. It sounds like an artifact of an ancient culture that never (but should have) existed:

Partch pushed the cultural envelope so far that he’s often labeled (I think, disrespectfully) as an “outsider”. We should instead see him, both as carpenter and composer, as a visionary.

So to the person who suggested we do a music post, this one’s for you!

Root Simple Reader Survey Results

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out the survey. I had to close it when we reached the maximum number of responses (100) without having to pay for a Survey Monkey subscription. And apologies for not checking to see if the survey worked on a smart phone (it didn’t). That was one of the important lessons: always optimize for phones. Hopefully this website works on your phone. If it doesn’t please let us know.

Now for the results of the survey:

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We’ve set a goal to put out three to six blog posts a week plus a podcast. I have a hard time knowing if we’re putting out too much or too little. There’s a paradoxical problem with a DIY blog. If we’re gardening or in the garage making something we’re not writing and vice versa. It’s been difficult to find the right balance. Looks like you’re all good with where we are.

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When we first began this blog ten years ago the standard advice was along the lines of, “people are distracted so make your posts short.” Lately, the common wisdom is that blog posts should be long and footnoted. We decided to split the difference, though we’ve kept posts on the short side. It looks like you agree (though the unscientific part of this poll is that the folks who want them shorter or longer may not read this blog anymore). I am going to try the occasional longer post. And sorry about the typo on the question–I need an editor!

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We began the podcast knowing that many of you would not listen to it. I’m fine with this. There are several blogs that I love and read that have podcasts that I never listen to. That said, many more people listen to our podcast than show up for book tour appearances. We’ve been averaging around 1,200 downloads per week, though it’s hard to tell how many people listen all the way through.

But the real reason we do the podcast is that it’s a way to have a conversation with and listen to other people in the movement. Writing can get lonely and solipsistic. It’s easy to lose perspective. The conversations we have on the podcast change the written content on the blog in a positive way. Unfortunately, the podcast takes a lot of time. We have to book guests, conduct the interview and spend, on average, four to five hours editing. It looks like we could step back to one podcast every other week instead of every week. That will give us more time for the blog.

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It would be a lot easier for the Root Simple PR department if we just stuck to one topic like, say, chicken health or DIY lotion making. That’s what bloggers are “supposed” to do. But this blog began as a way to celebrate those of us who are “Jack (or Jill) of all trades and master of none.” It looks like you agree. But we do need to do more gardening posts and spend more time building things.

In the “other” category many of you left very kind comments as well as great suggestions (I’ve never once blogged about DIY music in spite of the fact that I have a degree in music).

Again, thank you for your help and support over the past ten years. The eclectic topics we cover attract really nice people who want to make the world a better place. We are fortunate to have you as readers and listeners.

Take the Root Simple Poll

Dear Readers,

We’re curious as to how Root Simple could please you best. To that end, we’ve created a short four question poll. It would really help us if you would take a minute and fill it out.

If you have other feedback which does not fit into poll form, please leave a note for us in the comments.

Many thanks!

Erik and Kelly

Update: We’ve reached the maximum number of responses without paying for a Survey Monkey subscription. Many thanks for all your feedback.

Create your own user feedback survey

The Return of Knickers?

At the risk of alarming Kelly, who threatened to divorce me over my attempt to “thoughtfluence” the monocle back into common use, I think it’s time to bring back knickers. But first let me clear up some linguistic confusion: some of our English speaking readers will know this garment as knickerbockers (knickers are women’s underwear in Britain). I’m talking about pants that stop around the knee and that are worn by both men and women.

Before my annoying plantar fasciitis injury, I used to don knickers twice a week to go fencing. They are comfortable, allowing for easy movement, and more dignified and modest than shorts.

Modern fencing knickers are white. The Victorian, black version of the fencing uniform was more stylish:

A tangent here: please, dear fencing officials, do not attempt to “modernize” the uniform:

Remember, the classic uniform is still sexy. Note slightly NSFW examples: 1 and 2.

Baseball, football and golf all adopted knickers for the same reasons they work in fencing: comfort, warmth, lower leg flexibility and dignity.

The garment also played an important roll in liberating women from burdensome hoop skirts and corsets. Above is mountain guide Alice Manfield. And, of course, we can’t forget, late 19th/early 20th century women’s cycling apparel:

These days, outside of the fencing strip, the only place you’ll see knickers in an un-ironic context is when you find yourself hunting shooting in Britain:


UPDATE: Alas, Root Simple reader Peter informs me that this picture is fiction. Current shooting attire, Peter informs me, is “rubber boots, jeans and one of those nice Barbour waxed cotton jackets. The Queen does not wear jeans, but a tweed skirt. This uniform is accompanied by a battered, mud-splattered Land Rover and a pair of ruinously expensive, handmade shotguns. Anyone who dressed like the men in the picture would be found guilty of that most English of sins, Trying Too Hard, and sniggered at.”

At least there’s (pre-ironic?) Oktoberfest in Bavaria:


Image: HaTe on Wikipedia.

Yes, I know, you’re too distracted by the Tyrolean hats to notice the knickers.


Bike in Tweed, Stockholm 2013. Image: Wikipedia.

In a somewhat more ironic context, knickers have appeared at “tweed rides” in various cities around the world. Still, it’s hard to pull this off outside of an organized ride without seeming like you just stepped out of a steam punk convention.

Alas, our fashion overlords have banished knickers to the historical recreation ghetto. But maybe there’s hope. Since writing this silly post Google is now suggesting I visit this modern knicker purveyor. Nice, but could we skip the polyester?

As Marshall McLuhan used to say, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” Not ready for knickers? How about my idea for a hipster Alpine wear shop? Get ready for the Kickstarter . . .

Deep Work

Do you find yourself unable to get work done, interrupted by incoming emails, Facebook updates and tweets? Can’t seem to get that garden planted or get that novel started because you’re too “busy?” How ironic that a computer science professor, Cal Newport, could be just the person to lead us out of our distraction with his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

The book can be boiled down to this: thou shalt schedule uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on single, important tasks. And, yes, that includes thinking about how we spend our leisure time too. If you allow incoming texts and notifications to define your day you’ll turn into a human router, pushing around frivolous emails, text messages and silly cat videos.

To give in to these temptations is to train ourselves to be distracted. Alternately, the longer we spend in periods of uninterrupted concentration the easier it becomes to focus. It was Newport’s deconstruction of the Internet Sabbath that won me over. Newport says,

If you eat healthy just one day a week, you’re unlikely to lose weight, as the majority of your time is still spent gorging. Similarly, if you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brain’s carving for these stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving in to it.

This is not to say that there aren’t other benefits to putting aside one day and making it different than all the others. But let’s not kid ourselves that an Internet sabbath is going to cure the crack-like addictiveness of social media and click-bait websites. Newport suggests, “embracing boredom” and not surfing the web even when you’re waiting in line at the post office. Rather than schedule time away from distraction Newport suggests scheduling time to give into temptation. Go ahead and surf the web, just do it in a scheduled block of time. We are, after all, human and need to view the occasional cat video (or catch up on Root Simple blog posts!). But we can’t let those cat videos define our schedules and inhibit our ability to focus on a single task.

Newport has a refreshing agnosticism towards our technological future. He’s neither anti-tech nor techno-optimist. He’s of the “right tool for the job” mindset. In a provocative chapter called “Quit Social Media” Newport compares things like Facebook and Twitter to a farmer’s tools and suggests,

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

In other words, just because a tool exists doesn’t mean you should use it. I’ve spent a lot of useless time on Facebook in recent years despite the fact that it and Twitter account for less than 5% of the traffic to this blog. Most visitors come from Google. I’d be better off spending focused time writing better how-to blog posts than chasing likes.

Now most of us have to deal with what Newport calls “shallow” tasks, such as responding to emails and going to meetings. For myself and, I suspect, most people reading this blog, we need to adopt one of the middle-ground solutions Newport recommends: scheduling large blocks of time to take on single, important and challenging tasks while not allowing shallow duties to occupy more than 50% of our days. For some, such as the novelist Neal Stephenson, that Newport offers as and example, a more radical disconnection may be necessary. Stephenson doesn’t have an email account. As Stephenson puts it,

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

Lastly I want to give a tip of my metaphysical hat to Newport for acknowledging a non-materialist justification for avoiding distraction. Usually, when the topic of our distracted age comes up, the solutions are all about brain science. Newport throws a bone to us non-reductionist types with an appeal to the sacredness of craftsmanship, honed by long periods of concentration. This craftsmanship can extend to all our work and leisure activities even to mundane tasks like doing the dishes.

Newport has an excellent blog focusing on deep work and study habits here.