Mowing and the Quality Debate

At the recent West Country Scythe Championships the quality of mowing was the subject of much debate and not for the first time.  That subject has continued to be discussed on the Scythe Association forum but I thought I’d bring it out here and subject it to some grinding at the Scythegrinders Arms.

Warning -This will be quite a long discussion of some rather obscure elements of mowing at our UK competitions. I don’t use one word when ten will suffice – so don’t read unless you are desperate to learn of our fascination with quality in mowing. If you do read this then I’d go and get a coffee first.DSCF3154

For anyone not familiar with the format of the West Country Championships each finalist, of which there were 24 this year, mows a 5m x 5m plot of grass. The competitor is timed by a timekeeper with a stopwatch, the grass is raked off and the judges quickly assess the quality of the mowing on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 rates perfection.

Measuring the time taken to mow the plot is not contentious. It’s measured by the timekeeper using a stopwatch. It’s quantitative, directly represented by numbers so we can compare one quantity with another.

Assessing the quality of the mowing is far more difficult. The clue is in the word. Quality is qualitative and not quantitative. Quality is not directly related to numbers. Like rating a Picasso and a Turner, if your prefer the Rolling Stones and Beethoven, the quality is highly subjective.

With mowing plots we’re not comparing apples with oranges but assessing the quality of the mowing. Converting this into numbers is still going to be subjective though it may have the appearance of being accurate and objective. Appearances can be misleading.

I say assessing because measuring is quantitative and implies a physical measurement in numeric form. There are measurements which could be made. The quantity of grass cut, or the quantity of grass which remains, but by their nature these are quantitative measurements not qualitative.

There is an argument that the quality of mowing is important because when hay was cut by scythe the farmer depended in winter upon having enough hay and leaving grass uncut on the ground was poor husbandry.

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Some of us just can’t resist the urge to collect the cut grass

But this is an argument for another quantitative measurement – either by measuring the quantity of grass cut or in some way measuring the remaining grass which is going to be hard to do accurately and quickly. Not an assessment of quality at all and it’s confusing to refer to the quantity of grass either cut or remaining in terms of the quality of mowing.

I agree that superficially the quality of the mowing does appear to be related to the amount of grass which remains uncut but delve a little deeper and the things may look quite different.

Where and how the uncut mower leaves grass is more important to the perception of quality than the quantity of grass which is uncut. To understand this try to imagine a couple of scenarios.

In the first the mower leaves a number of small tufts of uncut grass randomly distributed around the plot. In total no more than one per cent or two of the grass that has been cut.

In the second the mower leaves regular low ridges of grass with  each sweep of the scythe but in total no more than one percent or two of the grass that has been cut.

In the third the mower leaves the grass entirely evenly cut but at a height above the lowest that could be cut that could be managed. Probably only a few millimetres, a bit like the fine adjustment of the lawnmower and in total no more than one percent or two of the grass that has been cut.

I think you can probably see where I am going with this. The quality of each plot can only be assessed by looking at it. The same amount of grass remains and we don’t know how much grass has been removed. Nor do we know what state the grass was in to start with or how difficult it was to mow – all that is left is what it looks like now.

Just like comparing art or music this process works best when we use judges with experience but this experience is not the same as a measurement. Instead it helps with the consistency of the subjective observation – and consistency is very important in a competitive event. Probably much more important than accuracy?

If they are not measuring then what are the judges assessing? How can they assess what the plot looks like and convert this into a quantity?

There is a philosophical argument that it’s not possible to convert quality to a quantity though I won’t digress into my forthcoming epic work ‘Men and the art of Landrover Maintenance‘ right now no matter how attractive this might seem to me.

Where I grew up in Somerset we used to a quality result a ‘Proper Job’. If it looks right it is right. But a Proper Job is not amenable to numbering, it’s mainly a feeling of pride in a good job well done and of course to the passerby this may not appear obvious at all.

Back to our judges and what the mown plot looks like to them. All they will see is the uncut grass (or lack of it) distributed around the plot. Going back to the three scenarios the uniformity and consistency of the cut is going to have a large visual impact. No doubt there are few who will find a random and jagged cut pleasing but most will find an even and consistent cut to be more pleasing otherwise we’d be a lot less concerned with the state of our lawns.

I’ve often noticed that the plot with randomly distributed uncut tufts will rate the lowest quality. I’m sure that our distinguished and experienced judges will disagree with me, and it’s their intent to treat each plot evenly but they can only  work with the signals in their brain responding to what the eye sees. If it looks untidy then by and large this is not pleasing to our brains.

The plot with a regular pattern of low ridges will score better quality though the quantity of grass remaining may well be the same or even less – but the regularity and uniformity of the ridges is much more pleasing to our brains so stands out much less much like waves on the sea or stripes on the lawn it can help to hide a lot.

Arguably the plot with no discernable markings in the cut is total quality to our brains. The perfect lawn and nothing will stand out for our brains to respond to. It’s not a blank canvas, the underlying shape of the ground will be undisturbed by the effects of the mowing. Soothing music that flows uninterrupted. To me that’s elevator music and I hate it – but then I’m not a judge!

In this process what we are really assessing is things that stand out to the brain. We are actually responding to the perceived lack of quality.

To cut a long story short the quality of the cut is down to aesthetics, represented by consistency, uniformity and neatness as it pleases our brains.

When we ‘race’ to cut these small plots we aren’t mowing the meadow we’re mowing the lawn. Confusing the competition as we run it with notions of haymaking are not very helpful, its not a quantitative process and there will be substantial subjective elements in converting the quality of the cut to a score.

Since the quality score is inherently subjective – the only thing we can do is  to maximise the consistency of the quality scoring across the plot and I think the judges do a good job quickly and under pressure to produce the results. It’s not uncommon to rerate the first plots on the basis of some of the later plots as the assessment of quality lacks even a ‘control’ or absolute reference system.

Mistakes can and will happen – it’s inevitable. Though the word mistake is probably wrong, it’s just the evolution of the scoring through the process, but it would be helpful to recognise that the assessment of quality is subject to reevaluation in a way in which the reading on the stopwatch can never be.

Scoring quality seems to work reasonably well on its own. There tends to be limited or no argument over the award of the Quality cup where quality scored by the judges is the only criteria. But when we try to combine the assessment of quality mathematically with the speed it can create more difficulties.

When we combine this ‘measure’ of quality with the time taken to mow the plot or speed of mowing we should bear in mind that we are combining a measurement with inherent accuracy with a score that is inherently subjective, relative and inaccurate  at least in comparison with the accuracy of the speed measurement.

DSCF3213Newcomers to the event in 2015. Terry Standing mows with a very traditional English Snathe and blade and behind him Darren Hulbert mows with a US pattern snathe and English blade.

To help this process over the last few years a number of mathematical approaches have been suggested to combine speed with quality and arrive mechanistically at the result of the competition. But does more and better mathematical processing of the speed and quality result in a more meaningful outcome?

As we become more and more attracted by the allure of the ‘Proper Job’ to the flame of quality, creating better and more advanced mathematical formulae to combine quality with speed to two decimal places we should remember the old computer programming adage ‘RUBBISH IN = RUBBISH OUT’. That’s not to say that all the input data is rubbish but unless you understand fully what it represents more processing doesn’t improve the data.

As always it may be helpful to go back to basics before we write the computer program and try to justify the result. When we numerically combine speed and quality to rate the mowing what are we trying to achieve?

At one level this is easy to understand. Mowing the plot by walking over it and taking off the tops of the grass, ‘topping’ it as is often done on pastures nowadays, takes no great skill and can be achieved at great speed. Well by some at least. As the inaugural winner of the ‘fast but crap’ award I feel well qualified to talk on this subject. So we need to see a ‘Proper Job’ in order to feel pride in our work and for others to see the job well done.

At the other end of the scale taking all day to mow the plot and exhausting ourselves in the process may result in the perfect lawn, but it’s why we invented the lawnmower in the first place and certainly won’t encourage many people to take up the scythe to mow their lawn. Anyway there is a quality cup for this end of the scale anyway. Perhaps there should also be a Sprint cup for the fastest mow – never mind the quality?

It would be easy to connect these two points of extreme with a straight line in between. But is this the right approach? Two points don’t really tell us much about what lies in between.

Which brings me to the question. Why are we competing at all? Perhaps it’s just our nature, an evolutionary trait in our genes and we can’t resist comparing ourselves. Let the best mower survive! If that’s the case, then let’s lock ourselves in a perfect field and compete amongst ourselves until the cows come home – but not on our lawns of course.

But if it is really all about us why do we invite the public and hold a festival at the same time? OK so we are all show-offs at heart.  Maybe or maybe not. The aim of the Scythe Association is to raise the awareness of the scythe as a useful and effective tool in the 21st Century not just as a historical reenactment of mowing the lawn in the 18th Century? We want to raise awareness because we want to encourage average people to put down their strimmers and take up the scythe instead. That’s why we race the strimmer and not a lawn mower?

DSCF3202Andi Rickard racing the strimmer (Simon Damant) in 2015.

When we are worshipping at the alter of quality we may want to reflect upon the impact upon the people we are trying to attract to take up a scythe and use it. Is is schizophrenic to race in speed against a strimmer whilst we compare our quality to the lawnmower? Are we trying to have our cake and eat it and how will this affect our ability to attract and encourage new participants? It is very noticeable that we don’t succeed well in attracting younger and more recently female mowers to these events.

How did I feel the year I turned up to the event, mowed the plot in 1.23 with a quality of 4 to receive the inaugural ‘fast but crap’ award? Is a quality of 4 really that bad? I agree it’s crap for a lawn (though I seem to live with it) but it’s probably no worse than the strimmer achieves and that ought to be acceptable in our orchards, wooded areas and paddocks which is where we want people to use scythes en masse on a daily basis? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t encourage mowing with better quality, but the state of many of these areas often prohibit quality mowing anyway.

I brushed off the ‘crap’ tag, though it can still rankle sometimes, after all I get paid to mow acres of bracken and sometimes thistles and rank grass – I’ve never been paid to mow a lawn. Though I was once paid to mow a meadow belonging to a big nob in Tetbury, great fun it was too. By dint of hard work on the last day I finished the job mowing the last of the 6 acre meadow. I’d like to say we – but just about everybody else buggered off early – and it was suggested that the gardeners could get the allen scythe out to finish the job! I can be quite obstinate and stubborn I just wanted to finish the job. Finishing the meadow in the time allocated was a ‘Proper Job’ and failing to finish the job because the time ran out would have been the wrong result.

Apparently these days a quality score of 5 is rated as crap. So our standards are rising, at least in quality? Added to that we don’t know whether todays quality score of 5 is the same level of quality that it was some years ago – because we can’t measure it – so we may be raising the bar on an already rising assessment of quality?

What event does this have on those we want to encourage? A quality score of 5 might rightly be regarded as too low in some instances. For the competition winner for example it might not give the public the impression we’d like to achieve? But for the novice who has just been asked to mow in the finals and is not likely to be placed in the results is 5 an equally crap result? Forcing them to mow slower or choosing the novices who mow slower but at a higher score of quality may satisfy our formula but it might also give the wrong impression to those we are trying to encourage. Alsoit it can be a bit like watching paint dry from the point of view of everyone watching.

At the same time our speed seems to be around the same year on year and some way below European levels or so I am told? Nothing much to write home about anyway. So far so, that I don’t think any of us would be inclined to compete at European levels? Maybe we could hold the World Championships for lawnmowing by scythe? But would this attract people in the UK to buy and to use the scythe where its most easily employed and to best advantage?

I think we do need to keep encouraging quality in our mowing but not at the expense of all else and certainly not to the extent that we are rewarding mowing fields like lawns. What is it with the British and lawns ? and will I get 11 out of 10 if I can put a stripe in it?

In using a mathematical formula to determine the result of the competition we risk obscuring the process. I understand that a known formula seems more open than a statement that ‘the judges paid respect to the quality in determining the result’ but thats only to people who understand the maths and not to people who don’t like math. Many may trust judges to make the correct decision more than a computer.

If there is to be a numeric approach to combing quality with speed then the simplest mathematical approach is to award a time penalty for each point of quality reduction. This has an additive effect. The time penalty becomes relatively smaller as the mowers speed decreases but poor quality at high speed still has a relatively large effect. The significance of the effect is adjusted by increasing or decreasing the value of the time penalty for each quality point.

For example with quality points counting for 30seconds, if I mow the plot in 2min30sec with a quality of 5 then my adjusted time is doubled to 5minutes, whereas at 15 seconds penalty per point my time adjusts to 3min45sec a much lower proportionate impact upon the result. For a mower at 5 minutes the relative impact of the time penalty is reduced, with an adjusted time of 7.5minutes at 30seconds per and 6.15 at 15 seconds per penalty point.

Wimpole uses the 30 second system. This may or may not be more harsh than the Somerset system.

Instead of an additive system you can multiply.  Or in this case divide, the speed by the penalty score.  This has the effect of increasingly separating out scores close in time but different in quality. Quite useful where a small time but larger quality score separates out the leading contenders.

Though going back to the discussion above it’s worth remembering that you are relying upon an unreliable subjective number to determine a close outcome. The very definition of Rubbish in = Rubbish out.

With experienced fast mowers quality should be relatively consistent anyway so I can see the logic even if it’s inaccurate. But what happens further down the field as times increase? Less experienced mowers are likely to be either slower in time with higher quality or faster in time with lower quality? The division by the quality score has the effect of massively increasing the penalty for quality score – and has the effect of closing the field back up again.

Isn’t this the reverse of what we would want to achieve?

Is it worse to employ a mathematical formula that increasingly severely penalises lower qualities irrespective of the speed and experience of the mower than it does the faster and more experienced mowers? Perhaps a rather bizarre system if you are trying to encourage new and inexperienced mowers to progress in anything other than mowing their lawns?

In deciding how and whether to combine quality with speed in our competitions we should be aware of the pitfalls in attempting to place a number on quality and use it as if it was as accurate as measuring speed. We should also be aware of why we might want to combine quality with speed and how this might best help us achieve our objective in raising awareness and increasing the use of the scythe in the 21st Century.

Is it possible or sensible to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the mathematical combination of speed and quality? Is it actually more appropriate to recognise that quality is a subjective assessment, albeit with the best consistency that we can manage, and that the quality score should be used as a factor when appropriate in resolving the outcome of the competition? Discuss.

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If you’ve actually read all the way to this. Then well done and I award you a quality score of 9. To attain 10 all you have to do is to leave a comment and help to improve my thinking through the discussion. If you can also help to improve my mowing through discussion then I’ll upgrade your quality retrospectively to 11/10.

Remember it’s all for fun. It could be worse and if I’m not fast enough I might have to get my brushcutter out again!

About Time – I declare the Scythegrinders Arms now open……..

DSCF3061-001……for discussion of all things scythe, but particularly related to the history, making and use of English scythe blades and poles (ok snead if you insist but I will try to resist calling it a handle).

DSCF3071I don’t just want to look at the pretty ones but also the ugly ducklings that have been abandoned in the barn. The range and diversity of English Scythe blades and poles is much wider than we might think.

DSCF2923-002Is the English Scythe a tool of the past? Or is it about to rise again phoenix like from the ashes?

Let the discussion commence…..no doubt I shall be talking to myself for a while but I have hopes that this site will build into a useful resource for the histroy, making and use of the English Scythe and a place to discuss it.

new post testing

If you’ve stumbled onto the Scythe Grinders Arms – don’t go away. The site is in a state today as I test the new theme and it’s features, but this evening I do plan to open the arms with something to discuss to get us started.

But right now I have to go and mend a few fences and make some charcoal – back later.

In the meantime try visiting my blog at Woodlandantics  If you haven’t been there before.

Welcome to the Scythegrinder

If there is one handtool that evokes thoughts of outdated, antique and overcome by modern advances it’s got to be the scythe. Knives, hammers and axes might be shinier and with added plastic but scythes were consigned to the bin and replaced by strimmer years ago. Weren’t they?

If there is one tool that has no merits at all – it’s the strimmer. Oh and the leafblower, but let’s not get distracted quite yet. An increasing number of people are binning their strimmers and bringing back the scythe, but in a new guise, the lightweight modern European scythe which is still made and widely used in Central and Eastern Europe and is often known as the Austrian Scythe.

English Scythes have not been made since the late 1970’s when Tyzack’s finally stopped production in Sheffield. The English Scythe looks totally different from the Austrian Scythe with it’s wiggly handle and thick heavy blade and it’s a different technology so it needs to be sharpened and ground in a different way. As the newest of these blades is near 50years old – the skills for doing this are just about forgotten. But not for long. I plan to start grinding my English Scythe blades again before long.

In doing so I might just become the only Scythe Grinder in the British Isles which is an interesting thought as the Union of Scythegrinders was known more for it’s militant  and radical tendancies than it was for the arduous, dirty and often life-shortening job of grinding the scythe blades.

But don’t write off the Scythegrinder just yet as I aim to bring back this skill and perhaps with it the radical tendancies of the Scythe grinder’s Union  and use this blog to discuss a wide range of environmental and sustainable issues. The word sustainability is much overused these days. Here I will use it in the sense of being interested in reducing my footprint on my environment and leaving it in a better shape than I found it. But we’ll see!