I need your voice. Both comments and new posts are most welcomed. For a prolific blog on the same subject check out Wisdom of the Hands written by teacher, author and woodworker Doug Stowe

Two Hands to Health

July 16th, 2015 by Richard Burman

I would like to introduce a short documentary I just completed. Tammy the Tumour was originally intended as a story about Maureen Steenhill and how playing the piano helped in her recovery from two major brain operations. It turns out other important factors also played a role in her healing.

There is something special about playing the piano in terms of the effect on the brain. Making music is in itself a healing activity. What piano has in addition is that very complex use of two hands acting independent of each other. The only other activity like that I can think of is juggling. There were two complementary studies; one in 2003 from University of Regensburg and another from Oxford University in 2009 that showed an increase in the size of the brain after learning to juggle. There are definite parallels to piano playing from what I have been reading.

Dr. Tara Gaertner is both a neuroscientist and a piano teacher. She writes a blog called Training the Musical Brain. I found in one of her postings called Hands Together some good points about whether the tradition of practicing new piano pieces using hands-separately is as effective as practicing with both hands at the same time. Apparently when we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand. And vice versa when we play with our right hand. Interhemispheric inhibition is an important mechanism to maximize the independent functioning of each hemisphere. But if we don’t practice with both hands those inhibiting signals will simply inhibit us a little too much.

Maureen has a brain that’s experienced 20 years of a growing tumour pressing on it, a second tumour, two operations and treatments of radiation. She is convinced that all this interhemispheric communication going on at the piano is helping her short term memory. I believe her and for myself who neither juggles or plays piano I have at least my french horn and DIY projects. I don’t need an MRI to tell me how these activities are keeping me healthy. If you have any personal experience or expertise on this subject please feel free to add your comments or insights below.

Maureen was treated at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Her first operation to remove a meningioma brain tumour was July 2013. In April 2014 she had a second operation when a smaller tumour was removed. Following that she received radiation treatments. Maureen is grateful to the team at The Neuro especially her doctor and surgeon Dr. Jeffery Hall.

Let them tumble . . . they’ll learn.

May 8th, 2015 by Richard Burman

I believe that life long values like; self-confidence, creativity, curiosity, collaboration and persistence can come out of a childhood where you had opportunities to build and fix things. Reflecting on a recent story coming out of Alberta I want to add ‘judgement’ as one of those values. If you are building a large structure with Legos, for example, there is a point where you have to make a judgement of whether your structure will hold up and not fall over or collapse in the middle. The conditions for collapse can be explained by some rule of physics but it comes down to you, the builder, making a judgement of how to proceed with your design based on observation, trial and error (and of course how many bricks you have left).

A couple of weeks ago an 11-year-old boy in Calgary hopped onto his bike for a 4.8 kilometre ride to his favourite Lego store. He had $200 of his own money and was going to buy some Lego. He wanted to get more bricks for his new monster project — an eight-wheeled off-road vehicle. He had been shopping there by himself for two years. Despite the clear evidence he could safely carry-out his mission, from the store’s point of view he was under-age and needed to be detained until his father showed up.

There are a number of disturbing aspects to this story (see this CBC report for more details). Security guards and a store manager have no right to detain a person who has not committed a crime. It was not up to them to bring the father’s parenting skills into question. If the mall needed to be evacuated the boy would have just bicycled the 4.8 kilometre back home. Responsible parents are the best people to be evaluating the capabilities of their children. But what is most baffling is that the boy had been in the store on his own before and they knew him and there had never been a problem. They went for the rule book and not common sense.

Makers know quite well that you can’t totally depend on the instruction book. If you have experience building and fixing things you know that judgement is extremely important. There are very few projects where you don’t have to scratch your head deciding on how the next step should be carried out. How to balance the two boards so you can put in the second screw or else the whole thing will collapse and your first screw will snap right off. How to remedy a sewing project if your machine starts to skip stitches. If you are a maker you have to observe, experiment, adapt. I believe these are the same qualities needed to run a store.

This store policy was written by lawyers. It was to protect the company not the children. Children don’t need restrictive store policies they need opportunities. Children don’t need fearmongering, they need competences. Playing with Lego is one way they can develop skills. I think these lawyers need to get down on the floor with a big box of Legos and build something elaborate. Who knows, maybe they will learn something.

Good!? Old Days

March 24th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I am trying not, in the Working Hands Project, to romanticize the past. Not to lament about trades that have disappeared or how things were so much better back (when?). On the other hand, recognizing the past is important. The advancements in this era did not come out of a vacuum. This generation does not have a monopoly on good ideas. The way we do things now is built upon what we have done in the past.

When I watched this video I was both saying YES!! and rolling my eyes at the same time. What we have learned about lead paint and other unsafe practices is valuable and modern protocols based on this knowledge do save lives. What we have lost is a physical engagement with the world that is based on discovery, trial and error, calculated risk and interactive fun. What we do have instead is the potential for endless and bottomless consumption. This has never been part of our human makeup. The disconnect we have with our hands goes against the way the body and the brain have evolved.

The blogs I write sometimes come out of articles or videos I come across at a particular point. It can also come from what I am doing at the time. For example I have been trying to redesign a camera slider which I had made but there were some problems. This undertaking has taught me a few things; bouncing ideas off other people helps a lot, giving time and letting a new idea or approach reveal itself and finally just try something out, no matter how far-fetched it is. In my case I was uncertain how to secure an angle iron to a cross piece. I tried one idea which was not very solid. I looked carefully to see why it was unstable and then I saw where the weakness was coming from. The solution is now much closer.

The freedom and adventure that was a normal part of a day for the boys and girls in the above video is an approach to life that we can all benefit from. Instead of a “Maker Culture” the dominant fashion is that of consumption, something that builds up and eventually blocks the arteries of our imagination. If I had to write a synonym for “Maker Culture” it would be “Try It Out Culture” or “Take a Risk Culture” or “Make a Mistake Culture”. That last synonym has special meaning for the author of the article “Great Moments in Building Science“. He recounts to his reader some of the real whopper mistakes he has made in his career. He believes we learn better from our failures than from our successes. The article was sent to me by Jon Eakes who is a communicator in the field of home renovation. Jon knows I have tried a few experiments in my home with varied levels of success.

The topic of the documentary trailer above is also the topic of a wonderful feature article from “The Atlantic”. The Overprotected Kid explores our preoccupation with safety which according to  the author has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer. She then describes a new kind of playground which looks a lot like like an abandoned dump. It is located in Wales and her own son goes there to play. She considers this concept a better solution.

I wrote another blog last year called “Playful Imagination“. Nice to see it is possible to put the play back into PLAYTIME.

Function restored … not quite yet.

March 6th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I have come across a lot of news lately on the various options there are for those people who are missing one or both of their hands. Most readers of this blog already appreciate what hands can do. But when I listen to the stories from people who, through surgery or prosthetic device, having regained manual function, the appreciation is tremendously elevated.

The simplest choice is a passive device which can appear remarkably lifelike, matching the skin tone and contours of the natural limb, while still providing some important functional abilities, such as pushing, balancing and supporting.

The next level of complexity uses technology similar to what was developed in the early twentieth century. Due to their reliability, durability, and relatively low cost, body powered devices are the most popular prostheses. They are controlled by a harness that captures an unrelated movement of the user’s body, such as a shrugging of the shoulders, and transfers this movement through a cable system to either a hand or hook.

Next in line are myoelectric prosthetics which use battery and electronic motors to function.  It is custom made to fit and attach to the remaining limb.  Once it is attached, the prosthetic uses electronic sensors to detect minute muscle, nerve, and EMG activity. The myoelectric artificial limb does not require any unwieldy straps or harnesses to function but the disadvantages are currently their weight and cost.

New social and technological developments are becoming part of this world as well. The Open Prosthetics Project is website initiative dedicated to the development and sharing of new prosthetic technology, funded and kept alive by the prosthetic community itself. Their motto is “Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg” (very clever!). There is a range of discussions from the practical to opinions on legal and financial issues and the validity of claims from various prosthetic manufacturers. I am slowly learning how the complex abilities of the natural hand are very hard to replicate.

3D printers are playing a role in prosthetic development. In 2011 Richard in South Africa had an accident where he cut off his fingers on his right hand. Straight out of hospital, Richard set to work in researching and developing a finger replacement for himself. While surfing the internet he discovered Ivan who had created a giant mechanical prop hand. Even though Ivan lived in Bellingham, Washington he was genuinely enthusiastic to join the project. Each owned a 3d printer so they could prototype the ideas they shared. Initially the final parts were made of CNC machined aluminum but now they can use the plastic shapes made from the 3d printers. They came up with a design that helped Richard along with others who heard of their work. To support what they were doing MakerBot donated two Replicator 2 3D printers. Learn more about their involvement on the MakerBot blog. The company Robohand, the fruition of their initial collaboration, has helped over 200 people.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Sides is the first person to test a prosthetic robotic hand actuated by electrodes implanted in his forearm. The implantable myoelectric sensor system, or IMES, was developed by the California-based Alfred E. Mann Foundation with support from the Department of Defense. An recent article by the American Forces Press Service tells you more about about this project and other initiatives coming from military agencies. What was interesting to me was that Sides’ prosthetic uses six of the eight electrodes, and in the future they could tap into the extra two if they had a hand that would allow more activities, such as bending the wrist back and forth. There is still the need and potential for more development in the future.

Myoelectric prosthetics inevitably with become lighter, cheaper and more capable over time. Even now there are sensors built into the hand that can control the motors to handle even the most delicate of objects. As far as feedback to the brain through the nerves … well don’t get your hopes up. Wait a minute … maybe it is possible if you follow the work of a number of European researchers. This article and video done by The Telegraph gives a good overview. It is revolutionary that they were able to connect to nerve endings in this subject’s body. These are nerves that have been inactive for nine years since this 36-year-old amputee lost his left hand in an accident. It is exciting but the scientists say that development of a fully functional “bionic hand” is still some years away.

Gerwin Smit was a PhD fellow at a university in the Netherlands who wanted to take development in another direction. He learned more than 30% of people who get fitted for a prosthesis eventually stop using it. In some cases it is because of the weight or the effort to overcome friction inherent in devices that use cables. His idea was to make it much lighter with no motors or batteries and to eliminate the need of cables. Gerwin looked at airplanes and cars that use hydraulic cylinders for their brakes. Watch the TEDx talk and you will be impressed at what he came up with.  On June 11, 2013, he was awarded a PhD at TU Delft for his work on the subject. I hope he can bring the idea out of the university setting and into the real world.

Hand transplantation takes us away completely from the prosthetic world. The first hand transplant to achieve prolonged success was directed by a team at the University of Louisville in 1999. The Louisville group went on to perform the first five hand transplants in the United States. As of March 2011, there have been a total of 70 hands transplanted on 52 patients around the world. There still remains problems of drug-related side effects, uncertain long-term outcome, the high costs of surgery, rehabilitation and immunosuppression. The woman is the picture had a double hand transplantation in September 2011. There were serious complications at first but over time her body adjusted. In this Jan, 2013 story done by ABC News it notes that Lindsay Ess has at least two more years of daily therapy ahead of her, but she said her situation has inspired her to want to help others with disabilities, including wounded veterans.

I have been hearing a number of testimonials from recipients of a prosthetic or of a transplantation. There is a common feeling of joy at finally accomplishing those tasks that we take for granted. To be honest I don’t often think how lucky I am when I brush my teeth or tie my laces. But I do think sometimes how nice it is to find time for tinkering down in the basement. So maybe that is where I will go right now.

When a Hose is not a Hose

February 4th, 2014 by Richard Burman

I came across this photo recently on Facebook and immediately thought it was from Make Magazine. I pictured an article about the value of free play for children, their natural gift for imagination, etc.. It turned out to be a photo essay on autism. Nonetheless my interpretation of  the photo was about the joy of discovery.

Discovery is a key concept for people who do things with their hands. A friend of mine was fixing his motorcycle and discovered a little too late that tubes of silicone have an expiry date. Having to remove sticky uncured silicone was not so pleasant but he will know next time to check the date. Kids when left to their own devices usually discover what’s fun, what’s safe, what works and sometimes that happens by making mistakes.

This same friend told me a story about his nephew as a toddler and a Christmas he had out of town with his family and quite a few relatives. It was Christmas Eve, he didn’t have his usual toys and coming to his rescue was his aunt who cut out some paper boats and little fish, made up stories and kept him entertained. The next morning he was inundated with gifts. There were boxes everywhere. As the day wore on my friend noticed that, instead of playing with one of his new toys, he was quite content to amuse himself with those paper boats.

This morning I heard a story on CBC radio’s show The Current. It was called Kiddie Consumerism: How to combat baby product marketing. For one mother featured in the story, the endless cycle of buying became too much. Just over a year ago, UK-based writer Hattie Garlick made what became a very public promise. On her blog, Free Our Kids, she vowed not to buy anything new for her then 2-year-old son Johnny for one year. She did worry whether her toddler, by not participating in structured activities, would suffer socially or developmentally. She found the opposite whenever she would witness her son in the garden with friends. Without having expensive toys, it was their imagination that led them to do things far more interesting and enjoyable than any activity the parents paid for previously.

So as with that boy in picture, the freedom to discover is one of the greatest freedoms we can have.