Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

The Birthright Brush

Published: 30 Oct 2014

One of the more endearing Chinese traditions is the birthright brush (my phrase). Centuries old, the idea is that a child’s first haircut is made into a calligraphy brush, to be used at least for poems for his deepest love and later, when wise, for meditative poems.

The version of the ritual that appeals most to me involves the father doing the cutting under supervision, with the brush made on the bench the child is sitting on by the master calligrapher/monk.

This practice, at least the one I know, is associated with the larger traditions of MountKôya of Japan; these are magical and deep and don’t deserve to be called simply esoteric Buddhism. This is where Buddhism significantly entered Japan, brought by a man who believed that peace is beauty; beauty is the spoken prayer; the spoken prayer is the written prayer released; the written prayer blooms in the strokes; the strokes are peace themselves.

He extended the Chinese ideographs by adding characters that capture the shape of the sound in order to embody this cycle at a higher level than before. (These are now a permanent feature of the Japanese language.) My vision of calligraphy is colored by this monk’s urge, but the general notion is used by billions.

So here I am starting this note with two sons, toddlers with blond, unshorn hair waiting for an extended life in a brush. We had delayed the barbering in part because leaving locks where they were suited us; they wrote now in the wind we breath. Also, I had hoped to adapt the ritual to suit an ambition of mine which is not unlike that of our monk Kūkai.

A New Calligraphy

What would the next generation of calligraphy be like?

You can read more about Kūkai’s goals, being no less than gifting an entire people with a new written language extended from an older one but based on fluidity of hand and breath.

Today’s interface technology and hardware are ready for a similar change. In public, we can aim for something as mundane as better communication, built on the written word but unbound by the restrictions of ink, paper and binding. If done properly, we should see deeper art.

I’m not sure where this will go, and what will be abandoned in the process, but I am certain that what will be kept is the idea of the hand and the expressive stroke — I am truly certain of this. Our Kutachi project has this as a central tenet, and in our user interface studies we have placeholders for something that is fluid, that can be created and manipulated by hand and which reflects the kinematics of an emotive hand. It can be seen as a component of a context and individually as a collection of discrete ‘words.’

Running Script

This also is inspired by (mostly) Chinese calligraphy where the cursive running script of a poem can be viewed as a whole to convey the being of the poet at that moment, and the characters that are drawn giving words of a poem that comes from that state.

The important thing here is that there are two presentations: one is a situation, as soft as they come but readily understandable even to a novice westerner. The other are words that more or less could be conveyed in other print media, and often are. Our specific need is to reintroduce this representation of situation.

A New Brush

What would the next generation calligraphy brush be like?

And this brings me back to the birthright brush. We only get to do this once and it should be both precious and a meaningful tool. The default process is to cut in Virginia and send the tousles to a Japanese barber shop our nanny knows. He would produce something in an elaborate display box, either using the blond silky hair as is or supplement it with Asian hair to make the brush nominally useful. We have cut the hair and will almost certainly do this.

The Locks

(Image) The shorn hair moments after cutting.

The shorn hair moments after cutting
The transitional state from head to brush. Note the Scandinavian radius of curvature that is constant in all clips. Asian hair is better suited for straight, unbiased bristles.

But either choice seems unsatisfying, a crying shame to waste such an opportunity to produce the burden of a dead thing, a souvenir.

What If

What if we designed a brush to be useful in the ordinary way: ordinary ink on ordinary paper but also for the extraordinary future we imagine? What would such a brush look like? That’s what this post is about.

If you don’t know the current Asian calligraphy tools, a standard kit includes a soft brush that is perfectly round. A skilled calligrapher presents the brush to the paper perpendicularly, so that the flow from the brush perfectly conveys the movement of the body. The fingers move very little and simply hold the brush; the arm, shoulder, back and even hips move the hand in a plane over the paper with the fingers controlling the touch and release of the ink.

An Example Brush

(Image) A typical brush showing the upright posture.

A typical brush showing the upright posture
A very specific convention is implied in the design of the traditional brush. It is kept upright at all times. The ink flows consistently down. Note how tall it is; this is to provide feedback to the hand about maintaining the vertical

This allows the word to be a dance of the whole body with the hand deciding when to enter the page; in this exercise the page is the world and body being all the combined agents that can influence the world.

I’d like to do something different in designing a tool for digital and well as physical use. In part this is determined by constraints in our screen — we don’t have the whole body to work with. Pretty much our hand does all the moving with digital styli; our arm is just a derrick. We might even want the wrist to rest on the contact plane and have the arm do almost nothing. That is, with our future screen-and-paper-centric brush we have to fit into the scenario of Western pen calligraphy rather than Eastern brush calligraphy.

An Example Pen Nib

(Image) Expression with the pen is different.

Expression with the pen is different
The way a pen works is quite different. You get some width variation from pressure, but the primary variation is in what direction the pen is moved. (Image adapted from http://www.calligraphy-skills.com)

Good calligraphic pens also have some flex, but you can’t roll them (as you might a drafting pencil). You can’t do a sexy dance across the page as you can with a brush. We need something that is held like a pen, behaves like a brush and conveys expressive kinematics of the artist better than either.

It should work with ink on paper, stylus on a virtual two dimensional screen and allow three dimensional sense and display. Such a brush would amplify subtle emotions of the hand and expand the range of motion the hand allows. Ideally, the motions and handle could be used for other tools.

Dissymmetric Flows

How it might work, creating new 'digits.'

What we need is a handle that changes shape according to the position of the hand plus the immediate history of movement. And we need to couple this with an arrangement of bristles that changes the flow of ink (in several ways) according to the way it contacts and changes shape with the drawing surface. (We have some thoughts about soft, dynamically permeable and three dimensional surfaces elsewhere, in the Kutachi Essays.)


We'll take the bristles first because that is constrained by the hair we have to work with.

I'll approach this the way we deal with the boys generally. They are us, remixed and with more introspective parenting; and we are dealing on both ends of this equation within our own limits. The challenge when they are in our care is to work with those limits to create poetic urge with enough agency to create great poetry.

One boy has dark blond hair, thick and straight.Hiswhorl is counterclockwise; his current poetry is in the beauty of motion; repetition matters. The other has thin light blond hair. Where his brother's is the same all over, his varies according to placement: frizzy in some areas and tenaciously curled in others. That whorl goes in an opposite direction; the beauty he seems to see is in object and environment.

Both are right handed, intense. Each head would make a distinct brush.

The Heads We Have.

(Image) Photos of the boys' hair.

Photos of the boys' hair
Click image above to enlarge
You can see what we are working with here. The boy we just barbered is on the right. The younger is at least a year away from thinking about his brush cutting.

Flows, Inks and Bristles

Let's assume that we will use three kinds of ink. One would be the ordinary black ink you can buy today. Another would be an ink to be invented, perhaps by us. It would consist of particles that interact with each other in a non-heterogeneous way. At least, they would have local multiviscosity, meaning the fluid flows differently depending on different pressures, brush geometries and other local influences. Among these different geometries might be how different bristle textures rub against each other.

A third kind of ink will be virtual ink that has the same properties plus thecolloids might have some agency, forming tiny associative groups on their way to create strokes.

A candidate brush might have a geometry where the bristles are not parallel as they are in a conventional brush. The ink would not applied by dipping. A usual brush has to be designed to support dual capillary action, so that the ink gets drawn up by the same means it gets drawn down. Our new brush would flow only in one direction.

The notice of the whorls is significant in understanding the internal generative structure of the proteins in the hair. It really does matter what location and orientation each strand has.

But beyond that, at one time I worked with a group of savants with different, extreme talents. As an experiment, our lab noted whorls among thousands of creative candidates and found surprising correlations. We'll report these elsewhere.

Colloids are the particles held in the fluid that give the color. In India Ink, they are about 10 to the minus eighth meters in size. That's precisely the size of features of the processor chip you are using to view this post. It is not at all silly to think of colloids being modeled as computational elements as this is well within our power with current technology/science. In this case, the writing would be the design of the 'chip' and the written characters the processor string.

Reactive Handles

Ideas for how a handle could move and assist.

Well, we don’t have the time and energy to build the reactive handles I designed some time ago. And for certain reasons, I cannot describe them here in detail. The idea is that he handle is not rigid, but a supple thing that is programmed to respond to motion signals from your hand to perform certain actions. These actions will likely have to be personalizable, but they will be of two kinds. One will be to sense signals in the direction that the wrist does not allow and emphasize that motion. The idea is to extend the expressive kinematic vocabulary but in a way that we already know how to read.

The other is to sense counterclockwise motion of the hand (if the user is right handed) and produce a unique form — unique to each user. This is expected to produce a subtle effect and to work with other muscle memory to give a personal form behind the expression.

In other words, moving the hand clockwise and up (the directions of restricted motion) are amplified in some ways to increase expressive power. Motion in the opposite direction/rotation is as usual but with less visible imposition of a personal glyph.

We've built some devices using a novel technology that is passive, having the programming in the nature of the material rather than any electronics and mechanisms. We'll report on that when we can. Our initial idea was that a user would become familiar with the motions (and train the device) by also using the handle (actually a sibling of the handle) as a fork.

A Fork

Yes, I know this is probably starting to read as very crazy. But stick with me a bit and start with one of the Kôyasan practices. The idea here is that to be a master calligrapher, everything you do must be calligraphy — every motion of any part of your body but especially those that involve an instrument in the hand.

Key things such a monk will perform are writing and eating. Writing (in this notion) is the practice of catching the motions of mouth through the hand; eating is the symmetric partner. There should be a balance in action, each as practiced. The way chopsticks are used (in this way of thinking) influences the way the brush will be, and the other way around.

So we started thinking about what motions of a fork you might need and how they would collaborate with the motions used to draw/write. In this, we did not at the time consider that most of the world is not particularly forkfriendly.

The motions such a fork must support are a bit different, less need for expression and more need for efficacy. But the need is much the same: the hand is limited in what it can easily do. The tines of a fork are fairly restrictive in what they can do and an assistive fork would help with certain motions. In both writing and eating you are interacting with a plane on a table.

We will write more about this in a separate post. The point here is that we have thought about articulated, responsive handles and how they could expand our expressive and functional needs. These could influence the design of a future stylus.

Most of the world's eaters don't use forks at all, so there is that.

And most of the fork-users don't use them the way we do in the US. The way I eat is influenced by the notion of grace I was taught as a child and later effort. Both are based on the US-centric etiquette of Emily Post.

The US fork has a left handed mode that is very limited. You shift the fork from the right to left hand when cutting with the right. The fork is a stabilizer only. You'd shift back to the right hand for any eating. You would never, ever eat with the left hand, in fact that hand is to remain in your lap, ready to handle the napkin unless cutting.

(It is acceptable to cut food with the edge of the fork held in the right hand if possible, and this is the default unless you need a knife.)

When in the right hand, the fork is seldom used as a spoon, to scoop; spoons are for that. In neither hand is the fork ever turned upside down. The fork in the right hand is held like a pen, not a hammer.

Chewing is with mouth closed and silent. Move the fork to you, not the other way around.

The standard in Europe is considered boorish: shove things onto a fork by a knife, often held in the left hand; move it upside down to the mouth from either hand and jump at it with your mouth. Such conventions are all entirely arbitrary, but for the current discussion, assume that the forks are held in the US manner and used in much the way a pen is.

Virtual Brushes

What we could do without some of the physical limitations.

Within that context, we could engineer behavior that was position and motion-specific. Today's brush is perfectly symmetrical. What if we engineered the hair to have grain, go in different directions, rub up against each other differently depending on position and motion and deliver ink differently according to these?

What if the design were influenced by the nature of the hair: its physical properties, even its chemical makeup?

Brushes with Alternate Physics

On a parallel track, we are designing user interfaces to work with today’s tools. So we need applications that will give us something like what we need. This needs to be more than a placeholder but less than something we would require of users. It would be for internal use, and generation of examples.

The closest we have come in everyday work are a few iPad applications and the use of a finger. (We'll have a post about the apps we are using to experiment.)

But what if instead of worrying about building physical things right now (and in particular my kids' birthright brushes) what if we did it all in software and had a simple stylus be the only physical item?

Why then we could mix real world physics with artificial physics. We already are committed to this in our user interactions as described (or will be) in the Kutachi project section. The idea there is that the world inside the machine has a physics that is something like ours but not exactly. Things behave in a theatrical way.

Creating in this world and Interacting with objects will use the behavior I have been describing.

What We Will Do

Our plan is to send the hair off to create a traditional birthright brush. The tradition is beautiful and following it closely has its own beauty.

Independently, we are developing advanced user interface conventions for our project, and this will use something like the brush/stylus I have been describing. When it comes to the specifics, the actual physics and behavior of the bristles involved, I will use my boys' hair. After all, it is what I understand best.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan by the monk Kūkai, some 1300 years ago. The mountain retreat was selected to be remote from government centers, and thus relatively safe. It was able to be established as a separate world and remains largely so today.

A significant branch of Buddhism is called esoteric, involving the practice of evolving magic in ordinary practice. It survives today in relatively advanced form in some areas of the mountain and in significantly reduced form in Tibet and nowhere else.

Mount Kôya It is one of the very few places on the planet you should touch before you die.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014