Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Embroidery & Poisoned Cues

One thing about studying behavior and OC, it messes with your whole perspective on everything.

In my other life, my non-dog hobby is costuming. A couple of years ago I purchased a sewing machine with embroidery attachment to help my group produce more amazing pieces; I also had glorious visions of selling personalized dog beds and other materials.

Yeah, right. That embroidery machine declared its supremacy upon arrival and never let me make a bid for recovery. It all but alpha-rolled me. I appreciated the upgrading sewing capability, but each attempt at embroidery left me frustrated and angry. The software seemed straightforward enough, but the infinitesimal margin of error in setup and operation resulted in an incredible parade of thread tangles, broken needles, jammed hoops, and other accidents I could not have even imagined.

It wasn't long before I was avoiding embroidery tasks. Not only did I abandon my visions of extra projects -- I have veritable heaps of dog bed materials lying abandoned about me -- but I began to avoid the costume embroidery for which I'd purchased the machine in the first place. When I did tackle an embroidery project, I had profound physical reactions -- my muscles tensed, my breathing changed, and I was irritable and sharp.

And that blasted beep. The machine has only one sound, a double-beep. This double-beep sounds once for successful completion of an embroidery block ("beep-beep!") and thrice for each and every error, jam, tangle, break, explosion, or other unhappy event ("beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep!"). Whenever the machine beeped, I jumped, even if it were announcing success -- because the initial sound of success was identical to the initial sound of failure. Even after I realized that it was the good kind of beep, I felt only a weary relief instead of the joy of accomplishment.

This, I reflected, was a poisoned environment and a very poisoned cue.

Tonight I realized that I could no longer put off the embroidery which needed done for our present costuming project. I spent an hour and a half preparing, reinstalling the embroidery software and carefully arranging all materials, testing and retesting the fabric in the hoop. I set up the machine and, hesitantly, pressed the start button. Then I sat anxiously watching, shoulders hunched and fingers curled.

The machine beeped. I jumped. False alarm; the thread wasn't really broken. Restart. Beep. Jump. Ah, first block finished. Start next block. Beep. Jump. Slipped bobbin thread caused a mess of my highlighted gold. I carefully reset the machine and redid the messy part, hand-cranking the machine to avoid jams.

Restart. Beep. Jump. Nothing appeared to be wrong. Restart. A horribly-familiar clunking sound; the needle had been broken. Upon examination, I found that the bobbin thread had slipped again, tangling the embroidery foot and breaking the needle. Rage.

Clean up, new needle, restart. Beep. Nope, this was fine, just a bit of confusion in the machine with a mid-block restart.

Still, I'm listening carefully, and whenever I hear some stress on the needle as the machine goes partially over previous stitches, I stop it and hand crank. Machine programming notwithstanding, this still beats picking out each stitch by hand!

Eventually I start the machine again and sit back. It's running right now, but I don't trust it. At this point I've probably hand-cranked a couple thousand stitches, but I much prefer that to the lost time and materials of a ruined piece, broken needles, etc. Even though right now everything seems to be peachy, I can't just relax and wait for the cue to start the next block, because I don't trust that cue. The sound does not offer me clear, unambiguous information -- it's a threat of bad news.

Superstitious behavior is rampant in this project. I watch the machine constantly, occasionally even stopping it when I turn away to the computer (as now) as if that could prevent accident. Some of my dear readers are probably laughing at me right now. Go ahead and laugh -- it's not as if I don't find myself ridiculous in this as well! -- but I'm still watching the machine. Reinforcement is a powerful thing, even if I know it's only a superstitious behavior.

It did jam royally once -- I had to cut out the hoop from the bobbin tangle, restart the block and manually fast-forward about 5,000 stitches to finish -- but now, finally, the embroidery is finished. It looks pretty good, and it cost me only one needle. I am pleased. However, I did not feel any pleasure at the final "beep-beep" of completion; that cue is too poisoned. The slowed needle retraction is not intended for indication or communication, but it is a far more valuable signal to me!

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