Tuesday, December 07, 2010

This statue is a late Roman copy of Phidias' legendary statue of Athena Pagos, the patron goddess of the Pan-Athenaic music festival. Sadly, the original was destroyed in a Herulian raid in A.D. 283, but we know what it once looked like thanks to this description from the ancient travel writer Pausania
"At the edge of the main stage, roughly forty paces from the beer stoa, stands the chryselephantine statue of Athena Pagos, patron of the festival. She stands on a retangular pedestal with the inscription Γςλαζζ inscribed at the base. With her right hand she is operating Hydrualis, her custom Moog microsynth, while she gestures with a bronze microphonos stand in the other."
By the time Pausanias saw this sculpture it was already 650 years old, and had been left exposed to the wind and rain for some time. It is thought that this is why he makes no mention of the vibrant colors used to paint her clothes and make up. No descriptions of this particular statue's decoration remain, but chemical analysis of the remains of a similar statue at Delphi suggest they were originally neon green, orange, and black, with lots of chrome for the accessories.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


While sorting through the heaps of old stuff in my grandfather's study Kristen found this folding knife.When it came out of the drawer it had probably been sitting in for decades, it looked a little the worse for wear—black with tarnish and encrusted with years of paint and handsweat.

I'm not really much of an outdoorsman (quite a laughably long way from it, in fact) but there's something pleasing about this thing. It's so old and sturdy. I cleaned the blade with liberal quantities of Brasso and treated the handle to a few much needed coatings of teak oil. I think it cleaned up pretty well. I expect if I kept at it for long enough I could get the blade back to its shiny original state, but I feel like that would be a disservice to something this old.
I'm not sure how old it is, exactly, but it has some markings at the base of the blade that give me some clues. The first is the maker's name: J Roger, Sons, & Co. Sheffield. The second is the little logo on the other side (pictured below), which shows a little union flag with a crown under it. 
It seems that the company existed from some time in the mid-19th century to the second half of the 20th century. I know they used this particular logo during the 1890s, and possibly earlier than that. It was probably my great-grandfather's, but it may have been in the family for a generation before that. My dad's family are not in habit of throwing away good tools. The scratches and paint smears on the wood suggest that it has been used a lot over the years.

Being a office-working urbanite, I've got no reason to carry this around—and doing so would probably get me arrested—but I feel I should find something to do with it. I put a good edge back on the blade with a whetstone, and oiled up the hinge.

Perhaps I'll take up whittling.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Long distance running, ancient history, and stupid myths.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm currently working on a travel book on Greece. This involves writing the odd historical-interest sidebar or perhaps a little feature here and there on the local culture and events. When writing about the area around marathon I decided I'd combine these two and write about the history of marathon running.

Now, being a person with a near pathological fear of running long distances (with good reason, see here) I can't say I know a great deal about marathons. I was aware, however, that they were inspired by a classical myth but I couldn't remember the details. I opened one of the travel guides I'm using as an occasional reference and there it was--the story of Pheidippides. He was, the book said, a soldier who fought at the Battle of Marathon then ran all the way back to Athens to inform the Athenians of their victory. It's one of those tragic/glorious stories though, because he gets back to the city, delivers the message, and promptly dies. In addition to the marathon, this story has inspired some pretty crappy art, like this.(related side note, why was it decided in the 19th century that hardly anyone in ancient Greece owned any clothes?)

This story set off some pretty powerful bullshit alarms in my head when I read it. I mean, why the urgency? and more to the point, since when has a 26 mile run been enough to kill a fit young soldier? With most of these myths, I wouldn't have cared---if they say Artemis demanded a daughter-burning, who am I to question that assertion?---but this one was routinely phrased as if it was a historical fact, tied in with events that are known to have happened.

Being of curious bent, and having access to the internet, I decided to go a-googling. There dozens of repetitions of the same stupid sounding story. Interestingly none of these seemed to agree on the details, it looked like each one had been tweaked slightly because the writer, halfway through telling the story he'd been told, got self-conscious about the fact that it made no sense. They added in extra details like Pheilippides had already run to athens and back that day, or that he'd been wounded in the battle, or something like that. None of these changes made the essential flaw of the story--why?--go away. Among all these repetitions, however, I found one account that not only made more sense, but also cited its sources.

The source, it turns out, was none other than big-daddy Greek historian Herodotus (the same guy mentioned the other day). Now in most regards Herodotus is about as reliable a source of information as a sugar-crazed ten year old (see here), but when it comes to this period of history his account seems plausible enough. He was, after all, writing about things that had happened close to his home town and within living memory. The anedotes-heard-in-the-pub method he typically used is more reliable when there's a reasonable chance that the bloke in the pub was a eyewitness. Rather than attempt to summarize it, I'll just quote it here. Picture the scene, the Persians have invaded, there's a lot of them, and they need to be repulsed at their beachhead or everyone's royally buggered. The Athenians have put together an army, but it's not big enough...
And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta [a distance of about 150 miles] a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner. This man, according to the account which he gave to the Athenians on his return, when he was near Mount Parthenium, above Tegea, fell in with the god Pan, who called him by his name, and bade him ask the Athenians "wherefore they neglected him so entirely, when he was kindly disposed towards them, and had often helped them in times past, and would do so again in time to come?" The Athenians, entirely believing in the truth of this report, as soon as their affairs were once more in good order, set up a temple to Pan under the Acropolis, and, in return for the message which I have recorded, established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.

On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens- Upon his arrival he went before the rulers, and said to them:-

"Men of Sparta, the Athenians beseech you to hasten to their aid, and not allow that state, which is the most ancient in all Greece, to be enslaved by the barbarians. Eretria, look you, is already carried away captive; and Greece weakened by the loss of no mean city."

Thus did Pheidippides deliver the message committed to him. And the Spartans wished to help the Athenians, but were unable to give them any present succour, as they did not like to break their established law. It was then the ninth day of the first decade; and they could not march out of Sparta on the ninth, when the moon had not reached the full. So they waited for the full of the moon.
So there you have it. Pheidippides wasn't a tragically unfit soldier, he was a professional long-distance runner, and the job was urgent because the Athenians urgently needed to know if they'd be getting any reinforcements.

It has to be said though, if you didn't know which was from the more authoritative source, you'd definitely assume that the 26 miles story was the more authentic one. I mean, look at the details-- A man running about 300 miles in 2-3 days? The God Pan appearing to him and having a little chat? The Spartans turning down the opportunity for an ass-kicking? None of these seem plausible.

Despite these anomalies, however, I think this may actually be one of the few cases where Herodotus got the story dead right.

While it sounds crazy, the distance Pheidippides covered and the time that he did it in isn't impossible. In 1982 a group of RAF officers (who, being handlebar-moustached British officers, were of course familiar with their classical history) asked local historians to draw up the most likely route Pheidippides would have taken to Sparta. Surprisingly the paths and roads Pheidippides would have taken have changed very little in the last two and a half thousand years. The three officers managed to run the course in 36 hours. A feat that is doubly impressive when you consider that they had no decent maps, spoke no Greek, and spent most of the trip being attacked by village dogs. Since then, the race has become a fixture in the ultra-marathon community, called the Spartathlon. The record for Pheidippides' route is held by the Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, who covered the distance from Athens to Sparta, over hills and across rivers, in just 20 hours and 25 minutes.

As for Pan appearing to him, this doesn't seem implausible to me at all. Ultra-endurance athletes are no stranger to Mr Hallucination, or even Mr Full-Blown-Psychosis, as is described in fascinating detail here. It may have actually been a confused goatherd standing by the side of the road, but I don't doubt that Pheidippides thought he saw Pan.

As for the last one, well, this is a minor error on Herodotus' part. He had a tendency to ascribe strange ritual motivations for all sorts of decisions, when he actually just didn't know why things had happened the way they did. The most likely explanation is that the Spartans just weren't logistically ready to march a huge army halfway across Greece at such short notice. It is interesting to note that they did mobilize a week or two later, as Herodotus describes:
After the full of the moon two thousand Spartans came to Athens. So eager had they been to arrive in time, that they took but three days to reach Attica from Sparta. They came, however, too late for the battle; yet, as they had a longing to behold the Medes, they continued their march to Marathon and there viewed the slain. Then, after giving the Athenians all praise for their achievement, they departed and returned home.
I love the way that the Spartans were willing to march 26 miles out of their way just to poke some corpses and marvel at all the gore. Truly, there has never been a manlier culture... "Duude, look, that guy's been cut in half!....man, that's totally badass..."

So there you have it. The real story of Marathons, in which we learn that marathons should be 150 miles long.
 I doubt as many people would be up for that though.

P.S. If you were wondering where the more commonly recounted story came from, it's generally thought that it was invented by a Roman historian a few centuries after the event. He'd probably read the account in Herodotus, but mixed up the story of Pheidippides with the actions of the Athenian army after the battle---anxious to get back and defend their city against a possible secondary attack, they made the march home in just a few days.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Another quote from an ancient Historian, this time Thucydides (460–395 b.c.), who wrote the following in his History of the Peloponnesian War
For I suppose if Lacedaemon [Sparta] were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is. We have therefore no right to be skeptical, nor to content ourselves with an inspection of a town to the exclusion of a consideration of its power
I've just been writing a section for a travel guide where I noted that, while it is a historically significant site, there's bugger all to see in Sparta.

I think Thucydides is staring at me.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Ten Thousand-Daktyloi Stare

I'm currently working on a book about Ancient Greece, and I found this quote when reading Herodotus' account of the Battle of Marathon in 490 b.c.

A strange prodigy likewise happened at this fight. Epizelus, the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness, without blow of sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him; but the ghostly semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I understand, was the tale which Epizelus told.

I did a quick bit of googling and found that yes, this is indeed widely accepted by psychologists as one of the oldest known descriptions of what we would now recognize as an extreme case of post traumatic stress disorder.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Gentlemen's Club

About seven years ago, a few months before my 18th birthday, I got a job working at the local branch of the Co-op. Over the preceding months I had tried, and failed, to get a job in any number of local shops. In every case I was defeated by the mind-numbingly stupid questions most retail chains put on their application forms. After ticking the obvious 'right-answers' for a while I'd inevitably start to overthink things. There'd be a question like "A Crazed gunman runs into the store, do you A: Hide, B: Grab the moneybox and go flying out the back door, or C: Bravely continue to scan items until killed in the line of duty." I'd stare at questions like this thinking "surely they don't expect me to say C, this must be a test of whether I'm a lying cretin or not, I'll put A" and as a result, I'd not even get asked in for an interview.

...In reality my first choice would have been B, I was skint.

I got the Job at the Co-op because of two important factors: 1: the manager, Andy, couldn't be bothered to read through application forms—he preferred to ask a trusted member of staff if they knew anyone who was looking for work, then hire whoever turned up. And 2: My friend Dave was a supervisor there. My interview consisted of Andy sitting me down in the staff canteen and telling me that Dave said I was sane and that the job was mine if I wanted it.

After a few weeks of nervous mistakes, I settled in as a reasonably competent, but certainly not zealous, member of staff. Me and Dave worked together on the Saturday evening shift, which lasted from 2pm to closing time at 10. We'd spend the day serving the nutters and the drunks; providing the yellow-fingered with their cigarettes, the incoherent with their booze. Occasionally our evenings were enlivened by a visit from Crazy Joe, Hag-Lady/Witch-Features, or the incompetent octogenarian shoplifter (never did think of a nickname for her) but for the most part, it was dull work.

The fun would start at about 9:30, when the flow of customers had largely dried up. Paul would wander down from his place of work (I forget what it was at the time) and join us as we picked our way around the shop, facing up the shelves and generally doing end-of-the-day busywork. Using our staff discount cards we'd stock up on beer and Cadbury's eclairs (for Paul), which would be stashed in the office in readiness for closing time. Just before 10 Paul would head round the corner to get us a few pizzas from Domino's while me and Dave heaved the big metal shutters down and closed up shop. 

This was all preparation for the weekly meeting of what came to be known as "the Gentlemen's Club." This was a high-class al-fresco establishment for working gentlemen connoisseurs of fine Belgian lager, Italian cuisine, and high-quality British confectionery. We three were sometimes joined by Colin (Sainsbury's), Howie (Pizza Hut), or Danny (Sainsbury's Bakery)—the latter two sometimes supplemented our feasts with gifts of cold pizza and burnt pastries.

The meetings of the gentlemen's club usually took place in Eltham park, near where we all worked and lived. Eltham park is a funny place, it's divided into two halves by the A2 motorway. The southern half is a huge flat field with lots of poorly lit pathways. It's dreary little car-park is a well-known hangout for the area's pervert population, and local youfs used to gather there to get into pointless fights and spray obscene graffiti on trees.

The northern half, on the other hand, is almost entirely wooded, and built on a pretty steep hillside. Curiously, the stabby-stabby hardnuts who wouldn't be afraid of any dark alleyway recoiled from the woods at night, leaving it free for people further down the food chain, like myself. Encircled by the woods and the railway, there was a large meadow, about 200 meters across, in this part of the park. For some reason I never understood, the council always mowed a perfect circle in the middle of this field, like tractor driving aliens, while they left the rest covered by waist-high grass.

It was in the middle of this little circle that the gentlemen's club would meet. It sounds like some kind of occult thing, but our choice of venue was based simply on the fact that it was a long way from the nearest path or streetlight. At night we could sit in the darkness (I use this term relatively, it never really gets dark in London, there was always enough light to eat by and see each other's faces) and see anyone coming long before they saw us.

Given the years that have passed, and the large quantities of alcohol that usually accompanied these meetings, I'm surprised to find that I can actually remember what we talked about pretty clearly. It seems strange now, but most of the conversations at these gatherings were actually on pretty serious subjects. We talked about our relationships, our plans, and our worries about the future. Obviously, these discussions were always supplemented by a constant stream of profanity, toilet jokes, and insults—we were teenage boys after all—but things were generally quite deep.

Most of us were in the process of figuring out how adult relationships, with all their attendant complications and fumblings, worked. I was trying to figure out how relationships worked full stop, having been caught completely mentally unprepared when a girl finally showed an interest in me. Despite what people expect of teenagers, these conversations very rarely drifted into territory that couldn't be shown before the 9 p.m. watershed (as long as you bleeped out all the swearing). I think this was mostly because none of us were really the bragging jock type, but there was also the fact that our social circle was rather incestuous. Dave had known my girlfriend since preschool, while me and Paul had both been friends of Dave's other half for years, lascivious details would have been seen as not only disrespectful, but also as a definite TMI.

Another recurring theme was a desire to know how things were going to pan out... You know how at the end of some films there's a little block of text, just before the credits, that explains what the characters went on to do with their lives after the events described in the film ended? Well, the summer of 2004 had a distinctly cinematic feel for us (I think that's normal when you're 18), and we all wanted to know what was written in that last bit of text.

One one occasion, I remember the subject of weddings coming up, which led to us discussing, then taking bets, on which one of our social circle would get married first. As I recall, my bet was on a Christian friend of ours, because I assumed she'd ascribe more importance to such rituals. I seem to recall that Paul and Dave agreed that it would be Howie, because they thought he'd get married to the first person who suggested the idea, whether he liked them or not, for fear of making a scene.

I don't remember now what the stakes of the bet were, or if there even were any. Seeing as Paul got married on Sunday, however, it seems to be rather irrelevant. None of us picked the right one, so I guess we all have to do shots or down a glass of lemon juice, or something else like that. I think 18-year-old me would have been very surprised by this turn of events. But I think he would have been pleasantly surprised, not only by the wedding, but by how everything has turned out over the last seven years. Mostly by the astonishing fact that I still count these people as some of my closest friends. Of the original 10 or so in the broader group, only two (one being my then-girlfriend) have drifted out of touch.

Although it seems like it was a major fixture in my teenage year, the Gentlemen's Club was relatively short lived. The first spontaneous gatherings took place at my parents' house in February or March 2004, and it became a regular fixture (and acquired its name) when it moved outdoors in April or May. Over the course of that long summer we met on most weekends, and sometimes during the week as well. It stopped being a regular fixture when me and Dave quit our jobs at the Co-op in late August, but there were still a few sporadic meetings over the next month or so. The last one, as I recall, took place a day or two before I left for uni in late September. It was briefly revived in the following summer, when we'd all finished our first years of university, but it wasn't the same somehow. Every now and then, I'm tempted to grab a case of beer, a few pizzas, and head over to the local park, but I doubt that the others—now a married man and a primary school teacher—would be up for that. I'd probably get cold and want to go inside myself after a while.

And Domino's pizzas taste like greasy arse. But then, they always did.

Monday, October 11, 2010

At a family gathering last week I agreed to go and help my Grandma clear out my late grandpa's study. My grandpa died when I was 14, but he left behind a bewildering quantity of books and papers that no-one has had the time to investigate since then. I think a family friend went through the accounts after the funeral to find all the important financial information my Grandma needed, but the rest has largely been left to gather dust. My grandma now wants to make use of this room, however, so the current contents need to go.

The main task I was given was to sort and catalogue the many shelves of books with the eventual aim of finding someone willing to take them away. The books in my grandpa's study fall into  two categories: they're either engineering books (related to his long career as an engineer-turned-technology journalist) or they're theology books (related to his work as a Methodist lay preacher). He took both of these interests very seriously, it would seem, and collected a quite substantial library over the years.

Within a few minutes of looking around, however, I realized that this wasn't going to be as big a job as it first appeared. My grandfather's collection of engineering and technology books is, for the most part, completely obsolete. It's a shame to have to throw them away, but no-one is going to be interested in these texts. Authoritative though it might have been, a guide to computer aided manufacturing techniques written when a top-of-the-line computer had about 64k of memory isn't going to be any use today. They might perhaps be a interesting curiosity to someone working in that field, but they're ultimately useless as reference works.

Bearing that in mind, I decided to focus on the collection of theology texts. Religious scholarship, I figured, doesn't date in the same way as technology journalism, and so would probably still be of interest to someone.

Although I still think they're timeless enough to be of interest to someone, it was very interesting to discover—as I worked my way through the titles—that there are changing fashions and trends in theological scholarship. It seems that there was, for example, a strong interest in the historicity of the gospels in the late 1950s—grandpa had many books from this period that discuss the gnostic gospels, the archaeology of the holy land, and the early history of the Church. I suppose this period of introspection must have been initiated by the discovery of the dead sea scrolls, which was probably the first many Christians had heard of the many dissenting early branches of Christian and Jewish thought.

Simiarly, in the late 1960s and 1970s there was a wave of socially progressive texts, examples of the faith adapting and changing with new social structures and norms. (I expect there was also a wave of books denouncing these new social norms, but my grandpa wasn't that sort of guy).

The most interesting ones I found, however, were the texts that date from during or shortly after the second world war. These books were written by a generation of minsters and preachers who had witnessed two devastating world wars in their lifetimes. The one that particularly caught my attention was a book written in 1943 called In Quest of a Kingdom: An Examination of Jesus' Teaching on the Kingdom of God with Special Relation to the Projected New World After the War by Leslie Weatherhead. To give you idea of what this book is about, have a read of this, the introductory paragraph, with its wonderful preacherly prose.

In this poor, broken world, the teaching of Jesus is the only known philosophy of life which has never been seriously tried. Some have called it impracticable. But two thousand years of trying 'practicable' methods of living together have brought us to hell. Some have called it irrelevant. But the spirit of Man is too sublime to accept as truth that the only 'relevant' methods of getting on with one another demand that every twenty-five years we should sacrifice the youth of the nations and ask from our men of science that they bend all their energies to find new ways of killing others. Politicians labour to produce policies, economists labour to produce theories, psychologists labour to cure our neuroses, and social welfare workers labour at reforms. At the time I write, a hundred groups are studying and planning to make a better and happier world, and yet, while I wish them well, I cannot share their optimism. Incredible as our stupidity may seem in another thousand years, man is still blind to the fact that the cause of all his troubles is within himself.

I asked my Grandmother about the book and she explained that Leslie Weatherhead is very much out of fashion these days. Indeed, a quick google search shows that the last time he was mentioned by a religious leader (insofar as he can be called that) was when Ian Paisley denounced Weatherhead as an apostate and averred that he was probably burning in hell (which increases my opinion of Weatherhead's ideas no end). As we're once again living in an age of war, death, and destruction (not that they're really been a period where we weren't) it annoys me that more religious and secular leaders aren't working on the fundamental problem that Weatherhead identifies in this book: things tend toward horror and death because, no matter how you squish them into pseudo-utopian schemes, most people are still greedy, self-centered, and violent.

While I've been working my way through the shelves, Kristen was rummaging around and sorting through the cupboards and drawers filled with stuff. A process that she has documented here.

While I was there I found an amazing book from the mid-1980s (all about the latest consumer gadgets) that I'm going to have to scan and put up parts of here. It's a masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


I own two computers. One is a Samsung netbook (an NC10 with 2GB of memory), while the other is a strange old tower PC that I've had since 2004. Both are reasonable machines, but both are showing signs of wear and age. I want to get a new computer, but I can't decide which of these machines to replace.

The NC10 has a flickering screen problem (hardware related) and has recently developed an unpleasant habit of giving me electric shocks (not dangerous ones, but very painful—about the same strength as a cattle-fence). It's generally fine, but neither of those habits are particularly endearing. The warranty expired a while ago, so any repairs would probably cost more than a replacement.

The tower PC is a mess. Over the years it has had most of its components replaced or upgraded, often with bargain-basement or salvaged parts. It's on its second sound card, third graphics card, third power supply (it burns through them every few years), it's had its RAM upgraded many times, and has had more optical drives than I can remember (there are two in the case at the moment, and I'm pretty sure that at least one of them doesn't work.) It has only two working USB ports, no working wireless card, and has been running Ubuntu since I finally got fed up with the five minutes XP was taking to boot up. On top of all that, every now and then it refuses to boot up at all (definitely a hardware issue, as it continued after I completely wiped the hard drive). When it does this I have to unplug it, pull out all its memory, and then shove it back in for it to start working again.

Here are the possibilities:
1. Get a new desktop.
This would be the cheapest option, and it would allow me to keep using Ubuntu (which I've grown rather fond of over the years). On the other hand, it would tie me to the desk in the attic and I do have some concerns about how well certain things would run on a faster ubuntu machine. If I can repair the NC10 cheaply then this is the obvious choice.

2. Get a new Laptop.
This is a more expensive option than the desktop. I think if I get a new laptop it will be a small, lightweight one. I've gotten too attached to being able to sling my netbook around and using it while lounging on the sofa to get a cumbersome one with a short battery life. It would force me to use windows 7 though, and restricts me to a fairly limited range of options.

3. Replace both machines
I could either go crazy and spend a shedload of cash, or I could get two relatively low powered and cheap machines (a netbook of roughly equal spec to the one I have and a dual-core nettop) for only a little more than the price of the current frontrunners in the laptop- and desktop-only options.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Victory Mosque

Things about this that are teh stupid.

1. The pictures.
Flames and death, swarthy moors and their African soldiers trampling the innocent citizens of Jerusalem? They must have gone back to at least the 19th century to find such fine Orientalist balls. They're all wearing Ottoman-style turbans ferchrissakes! One of them even appears to be wearing a leopardskin tunic, Tazan style.

2. The Dome of the Rock.
Ok. This one is going to take a while. Firstly. the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakrah) was built in 691, more than 50 years after the conquest of the Holy Land. Second, the site it was built on is probably the single most contested place in the world. It's best known as the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Temple of Solomon. However, the last Jewish Temple on the site was demolished by the Romans in AD 70. The city changed hands numerous times between then and the time of the Arab conquest (typically in the bloodiest way possible. Massacres have always been in fashion in Jerusalem) and when the Arabs arrived the Temple Mount was occupied by a small Byzantine Christian Church. A Church that was built, incidentally, after the Byzantines recaptured the city from the Persian Sassanids and banished all the Jews. Thirdly, the Arabs did not trample and stab their way into Jerusalem, as implied in the advert. There was a short siege that ended when the Christian leaders of the city surrendered without a fight. The Arabs did something extremely innovative here, and didn't massacre everyone in the town—they went a step further, in fact, and didn't banish them either. They even, and this is the real shocker, allowed the Jews to return to the city and gave them freedom to practice their religion there for the first time in centuries.

3. Córdoba.
The great mosque of Córdoba was gradually adapted from a Christian Church starting in 784, more than 70 years after the conquest of Spain. It was a Christian Church before, admittedly, but not one of any huge significance. More importantly, the Muslims didn't destroy the old church in a murderous rage. They bought it from the Christian community. Over the next few hundred years they built a beautiful mosque on the site, all the while maintaining pretty good relations with the local Jewish and Christian communities (Jewish historians refer to this period as a Golden Age)*.

One more thing. You know what the Great Mosque of Cordoba is called these days? The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (The Cathedral of our lady of the Ascension). After the Reconquista the Jews and the Muslims in the city were driven into exile. The Christians then built a Church in the Mosque's courtyard that sits there to this day, like a medieval-gothic spaceship that has just come down for an awkward crash landing in the middle of the city.

4. The Hagia Sophia
Unlike the rest of them, this one was made into a mosque almost immediately after the conquest. And yes, that conquest was pretty brutal (for both sides, Constantinople's defenses were immense, and still are). Although the Cathedral suffered in the ensuing looting, it was nothing like as bad as the thorough trashing and pillaging it suffered in the wake of the oh-so-classy fourth crusade. Furthermore, while this church was made into a Mosque, most of the city's churches stayed as they were. Under the Ottomans the building was well maintained and cared for, they didn't do anything tacky like plonking a cathedral in the middle of it. Many of the mosaics and frescos were plastered over, rather than destroyed. When the building started showing signs of fatigue and structural weakness, they got one of the finest engineer/architects in history, Mimar Sinan, to do the repairs. (He also designed its four minarets). Since 1935, the building has been a museum, rather than a mosque. It is now a showcase for the brilliance of the original builders and artists who adorned it that anyone can go and see.

5. "The Muslims"? That's the real kicker. It suggests that all this was the work of some sort of homogenous group. Jerusalem was conquered by an Arab army. Córdoba by a North African Berber army (Berbers look like this, or this, or this). Constantinople by the Ottomans, who were a Turkic people (descended from the Mongols who came from, you guessed it, Mongolia). They were not part of some kind of unified movement, and don't really have anything in common other than their religion. It's like saying "The Christians" and holding up pictures of Richard the Lionheart, Peter the Great, and George W. Bush.

I'm no more of a fan of Islam than I am of any other religion, and you don't have to look that hard to find plenty of atrocities, but there's no pattern here. The idea of a victory Mosque seems to exist largely in their own heads. The closest equivalent I can think of to a victory mosque is something like the Süleymaniye Camii in Istanbul, which was built with the spoils of war in Eastern Europe.

*Admittedly, the standards for a golden age are pretty low in Jewish history—any period where the world at large wasn't actively trying to murder them all is generally seen as a great time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Life and Times of 'Dean'

This slab of text was a draft version of something I was going to put in a book but decided to leave out, I figured I'd put it here.

In the heart of Tangier's Ville Nouvelle, a few minutes walk from the Grand Socco with its cafés and bars, lies the small church of St. Andrews. This curious whitewashed building stands in an odd-shaped plot of land concealed from the street by a dense stand of trees. It was built in the late 19th century to serve the town's small but prosperous British community, whose decision to use the skills of local craftsmen resulted in a building that looks strangely like the work of an Islamic architect who has had a church described to him, but never actually seen one. Inside, it is adorned with the keyhole arches and clean, smooth lines of Morrocan mosque architecture. Continuing this theme, the decoration is limited to the text of the lord's prayer in arabic, carved into the arch above the altar like the koranic inscriptions of a mosque.

Outside, in the shade of date-palms and cypress trees, there is a small graveyard, where a select few British residents of the town have their final resting places. Here you find the graves of the writer Walter Harris (1866–1933), the soldier Sir Harry Maclean (1848–1920), and Emily Keane (1849–1944) an adventurous English woman who married the bandit king of Ouezzane. The most interesting of these graves, however, is also the simplest—tucked away in a shady corner of the graveyard. On the small stone, now broken in half and laid flat on the ground, is the following inscription


Missed by all and sundry

February 1963

The city of Tanger knew Dean as a barman, an unflappable Rick Blaine type who served drinks, white suited and proper, at Caid's Bar in the Hotel Minzah. Later he opened his own bar, the imaginatively named "Dean's Bar," and his clientèle migrated with him. He had appeared in the international city at some point in the early 1930s (no one is sure exactly when)—just one of the many people who came to Tangier offering no details of their previous life, and stayed because no-one asked. In the 1930s and 40s he sold drinks to a disreputable army of refugees and deserters, spies, gunrunners, and thieves. They came first from the Spanish civil war and later from the war that raged almost to his doorstep. They all spoke to the friendly barman, and he, in turn, passed on the more interesting pieces of information to the British spies who also came in for drinks. After the war his bar was a favorite hangout of writers and poets, artists and musicians—everyone, in fact, apart from William Burroughs, whom Dean flatly refused to serve. A decision that some would say speaks highly of his ability as a judge of character.

It was not until 1992 that Marek Kohn, a journalist studying the birth of the British drug underworld stumbled across the identity that Mr "Joseph Dean" had sought to leave behind. While researching the moral panic that swirled around London following the death of lovely Billie Carleton, an up-and-coming west end actress, from a cocaine overdose in 1919, Kohn began digging up details about the disreputable crew implicated in giving her the drugs. It was a veritable who's who of 19th century criminal archetypes. There was Brilliant Chang—a mysterious Chinese restaurant owner, Edgar Manning—a black Jamaican jazz musician, Reginald de Veulle—a hedonistic transvestite fashion designer, and lastly, there was Don Kimfull—a swarthy Anglo-Egyptian rent boy and hustler.

The last figure in this rogues gallery, Don, was a cross dressing protégé of Reginald de Veulle. He was a man who could get Reginald's guests what they needed, whatever that might be. He dealt stolen goods, procured ladies (and boys) for his guests, and, most importantly, kept them supplied with cocaine. Don was, unsurprisingly, a popular member of Reginald's social circle. When Billie Carleton was found dead in her dressing room, Don Kimfull was implicated by the papers as the man who supplied the drug (the legality of which was in something of a grey area at the time). Both he and his patron were demonised as the depraved sexual deviants who, with the help of their unsavory accomplices (a chinaman and a negro no less!) corrupted a fine young lady. At the inquest, Reginald was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison, as much for his lifestyle as for any connection with Carleton's death. Don Kimfull was also summoned to court, but feigned illness and slipped away into the ether.

Here the trail goes cold for ten years—he was an anonymous looking man with underworld connections and a charming, confident personality. In the shattered cities of post-war Europe, with so many people displaced, so many prisoners of war and deserters, it was not hard for such a man to vanish. He probably settled himself in the chaotic black-market economy of a city like Berlin and kept a low profile. No more putting on dresses and hosting grand parties.

It wasn't until more than a decade later that he reappeared behind a bar in Tangier as "Joseph Dean." According to some, he had not entirely shake off the habits of his youth—Tangier rumor had it that he was a secret drug addict, which may have been the reason for his violent aversion to the known junkie William Burroughs. Although he was rumored to be a homosexual (not that unusual in 1930s Tangier) not even the most salacious rumors make any mention of him cross-dressing in his later years. Interestingly, there was one rumor, possibly started by Dean himself through an indiscreet outburst during one of his notorious drinking binges, that he used to be a big shot in London society, but had to flee when some flapper went a little overboard with the naughty salt and died.

These dark clouds were not particularly remarkable in the international city, however, and were no impediment to being accepted. He was a warmly appreciated member of the expat community there—as far as one can tell the epitaph on the gravestone was justified. It's interesting that when his friends came to order the gravestone, they didn't bother to include his phony first name, nor attempt a guess at a date of birth. They ordered a headstone for the man they knew, and didn't bother to speculate as to who else he might have been in another place or another time.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


Well, nearly.

I've put some of the hardware back, and some of the electronics have been put in place. I've run out of shielding foil, so I'll have to wait a few days before that arrives (along with the new knobs). For the moment I'm going to post up flattering pictures of my work, I'll do a proper critical examination of it soon though, because there's plenty to criticize.

Friday, July 30, 2010

See the Future!

The other day I was aimlessly wondering the internet, reading about Mr Linus Torvalds, when I came across a very strange article. It was written in June 2006 for CNN's 'Money' website and was a list of people who had no power, or that they thought were on the way out. It was called the 10 People who Don't Matter. Linus Torvalds was on the list, because, as he gave away his greatest creation, he isn't someone business people have any interest in.

It's all pretty dull and uninteresting to someone who has no interest in business, with the exception of this marvellous bit of punditry from the list.

Mark Zuckerberg
Founder, Facebook
In entrepreneurship, timing is everything. So we'll give Zuckerberg credit for launching his online social directory for college students just as the social-networking craze was getting underway. He also built it right, quickly making Facebook one of the most popular social-networking sites on the Net. But there's also something to be said for knowing when to take the money and run. Last spring, Facebook reportedly turned down a $750 million buyout offer, holding out instead for as much as $2 billion. Bad move. After selling itself to Rupert Murdoch's Fox for $580 million last year, MySpace is now the Web's second most popular website. Facebook is growing too - but given that MySpace has quickly grown into the industry's 80-million-user gorilla, it's hard to imagine who would pay billions for an also-ran.


I just looked it up, and as of July 2010, Mark Zuckerberg's personal fortune is around 4 billion dollars, while Facebook itself has been conservatively valued at 12 billion dollars.


A few weeks ago I read about the interesting history of the Wall Street Post's Dartboard Column. A venue where experienced investment managers make two stock picks, and then the paper's office intern makes two stock picks (by throwing darts at a copy of the nasdaq index). At the end of the week their values are compared. It was started in the early 1990s as a joke, but it has become a closely scrutinized experiment among those economists who believe the market is ultimately unpredictable. A few years back someone actually examined the data gathered from this column and found that while the investment managers did do better than the dartboard, it was only slightly better, not much more than the level of success you'd expect from chance.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


We tend to think, in these days of Google Earth and GPS, that we've filled in all the blank spaces on the map, but in the last few days I've come accross a fascinating exception to this, an area that appears to be exempt from the attentions of cartographers and also, it would seem, from the normal rules of space-time.

For reasons that I can't go into (shop) I've been doing a lot of research on the city of Tanger (or Tangier, or Tanja, or Tangiers) in northern Morocco. We had a problem with a piece of text, namely that it contained a wealth of information about the fascinating history of the place, but very little about the city today. As part of my research I found myself firing up google earth, so I could get an idea of the layout of the city. Since most of the interesting history involves the Medina (old walled town) and its environs, I was curious to know where things were. I drew a blank. Literally. Google Earth has no streets marked within the medina, and only a fairly low resolution image of the town. I've you've ever seen a medina before, you'll know that aerial photography is not going to be much use. The streets are so narrow, so overhung with balconies and walkways, clotheslines and wires, that it's impossible to figure out where one building ends and the next begins, let alone chart the course of a narrow alleyway. I then went in search of other maps of the medina. I found a few. The first was an old 1930s map that a literature professor had unearthed while researching William Burroughs (who came to Tangier for the low cost of living, but stayed for the plentiful opportunities for pederasty and heroin). It had lots of streets marked on it, but the street names were all in French and, with names like "Rue Joan D'Arc" and "Rue Charlemagne" it seemed unlikely that they would have survived the departure of the colonial administrators anyway. I then found several other maps of the medina. Mostly in travel guides and from Moroccan tourism promoters. The reason why I gathered so many was because I was hoping to spot some sort of pattern. While they agreed on size and shape of the medina, as well as the location of a few major landmarks (such as the Petit Socco and the Kasbah) they disagreed on pretty much everything else. Sometimes they even disagreed with themselves, putting the same landmark in more than one place. The roads didn't just have different names, there was a completely different road layout in each book. I kept looking at the maps, then scrutinizing the aerial photography, but no one road layout seemed any more plausible than any other. Perhaps they were all correct, perhaps they just selected different roads to highlight and mixed them names up in a tombola.

This wouldn't have been quite so bad if it wasn't for the fact that the blog posts and travelogues I found about tangiers gave wildly contradictory information about the location of specific places. Different people would give completely different addresses for the same museum, for example, or give directions that made absolutely no sense. They all railed at the fact that none of the maps or travel guides were correct, and expressed confusion at the layout of the place. Several of them remarked that giving up any hope of figuring out where you were going was the only way to find anything.

There are only two explanations for this. The first is that Tangier's medina makes use of extra dimensions, disobeys the rules of the universe. This would explain the church that seems to wash up and down a hill with the tide, and the historic diplomatic building that is simultaneously next to the Kasbah and down by the Petit Socco. There is another, perhaps more plausible explanation. As part of my research I discovered that Morocco, specifically the hills around Tangier, produces around half of Europe's cannabis. Seriously massive quantities of hashish make their way down to the docks in Tangiers every day, to be shipped to the needy stoners of Europe. Of course, some of it never leaves the country, enough for the stuff to be cheaper than tobacco and easily obtained. Although none of the cartographers or travel writers mention this, I suspect they may have done their investigations of the city while baked off their tits on hash. This would explain the apparently baffling geography of the old town, as well as the inordinate amount of column inches travel writers devote to "these like, fucking amazing little stands that sell these enormous sugary pastry things..."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two Poems

Two poems by Jamie McKendrick, whose work I first became aware of through the Poems on the Underground program. They're a brilliant example of how poetic doesn't have to mean vague and ignorant or science, none of this Keatsian Negative Capability crap.

On Nothing

I do not think it is absurd for you to say that nothing is something,
since no one can deny that ‘nothing’ is a noun.

                                                        -- Anselm of Canterbury

If nothing is the opposite of something
then it too is something and not nothing.
Or is that just language rushing in
to fill what makes the intellect recoil?

It’s us not nature that abhors a vacuum,
though in frictionless space there’s still a fraction
more than nothing, if not enough of it
to slow the planets in their orbits.

But the full moon hides its emptiness
and every plenitude its opposite;
the present buckles into nowlessness

that lasts for never as a dark star draws
downward threads of light. There nothing exists,
crouching like a sphinx among the rubble.

Out There
If space begins at an indefinite zone
where the chance of two gas molecules colliding
is rarer than a green dog or a blue moon
then that’s as near as we’ll get to nothing.

Nostalgia for the Earth and its atmosphere
weakens the flesh and bones of cosmonauts
One woke to find his crewmate in a space suit
and asked where he was going. For a walk.

He had to sleep between him and the air-lock.
Another heard a dog bark and a child cry
halfway to the moon. What once had been

where heaven was, is barren beyond imagining,
and never so keenly as from out there can
the lost feel earth’s the only paradise.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Graphic Design, 1930s style

I found this poster while roaming a strange and obscure corner of the internet the other day.

I remember passing the flying-boat dock and its elegant, if decaying, reception building when I was on a boat tour around manhattan. There's something deep-down awesome about flying boats, just like there is with zepplins. Their bulky and awkward shapes make them seem somehow bigger than even the most mahoosive of superjumbos. They suggest a mode of transport that wouldn't leave you yearning a chemical-induced coma after about an hour.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Shard

It goes up

Guitar Refinishing: Starting over

I've got high hopes that I'll be able to make it work this time. As you can see from the strange way that different layers showed through in different places when i sanded it down, the surface at the end of the first round wasn't exactly flat. Most of those problems seem to stem from the wonky application of the primer right back at the beginning.

Friday, July 02, 2010

whoa now

I was in Halfords the other day, buying some paint, when I saw this.

Are we doing woman-murder humor in auto-parts stores now?


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Refinishing, Book 1, epilogue

It's been another week or two since I last mentioned the guitar. In that time I completed the color coat and applied the clearcoat, buffed it to a shine and admired it... Then sanded off the clearcoat and reapplied the color coat, reapplied about half the clearcoat but then ran out, got more clearcoat, sanded off and reapplied the clearcoat, patched color, and reapplied clearcoat again.

Today I sat down in the garden with the offending instrument and checked it over properly. After about an hour of staring at it in the evening sunshine I concluded that it was back to the drawing board time. This post isn't really an update on the progress, more a post-mortem. That doesn't mean I've given up, far from it, but I want to make sure that I've catalogued and understood all the ways that I cocked my first attempt before I have another go. My pride compels me to add that the following pictures make the guitar look a fair bit worse than it actually does.

When I started I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with the guitar. I didn't know what it looked like under the paint, and I was curious to find out. Looking back, I don't regret that—it might have looked awesome under that black paint—but I do regret sanding such a large area of paint away completely. The section that was stripped completely (which can be seen in the original post) covered most of the bottom half of the guitar. More specifically it covered the rough, open end of the grain where the wood was cut. This surface proved extremely difficult to cover with primer, and there were still traces of the rough texture of the underlying wood visible even after the colorcoat had been applied. This would have been ok, but it wasn't consistent, even after the clearcoat was put on the front, it was still possible, in the right light, to see the boundaries of the area that was stripped completely.
   In future I will assume that wood covered by opaque paint is not worth seeing unless I have good reason to think otherwise. If I really have to check, then I'll sand away a small area of the guitar, preferably on the belly-cut at the back. Sanding the wood away here would let me see a cross section of the guitar's construction—whether it has laminates on the front and back, that sort of thing—without leaving an area of completely unfinished wood somewhere important.

Firstly, I didn't make any attempt to fill the dings and dents in the guitar's body before I started. This wasn't particularly to do with laziness or inexperience, I just completely forgot about it.
   The problems I encountered at this stage were the result of a combination of bad materials and bad technique. The first can of spray lacquer I used was frankly rubbish, and was completely emptied long before the guitar was ready for the color coat. Lesson learned. I'll make sure to get decent stuff next time I do that, stuff that is specifically intended for priming wood.
   As regards the technique problems, these were rather inevitable when you consider that I'd never so much as held a can of spray paint before I started this project. I've since learned the very real importance of those "thin, even coats" people talk so much about.

This image shows more problems that I'd like to admit; visible primer, cracked clearcoat, bleugh.

Color Coat
This stage actually went largely without a hitch, so I'll instead take the opportunity to talk about the more general causes of shittyness in this project. The first was that, at least at first, I had no idea how long spray paint takes to dry. The stuff I'm using is typically tacky-dry after a few minutes and completely dry to the touch after an hour or two. What I didn't realize though, was that it takes much, much longer than that to harden properly.

If you look closely at this picture you can see the indentations left when the guitar was left leaning against some fabric for a few hours, a day or two after the finish was applied.

   As the guitar has a set-neck I didn't really have anywhere I could hold the guitar that didn't involve touching the paintwork. On days when I'd been working on the neck this inevitably meant fingerprints from carrying it up to the attic at the end of the day. On the first day or two of work, I left the guitar resting on a tabletop, not realizing that this would leave all sorts of strange imprints on the finish. I figured out a precarious arrangement after a few days that left the guitar propped up using blocks resting on the fretboard and inside of the pickout rout. This allowed it to dry properly, but required a great deal of manhandling to get it in place (usually resulting in yet more fingerprints) and was quite worryingly unstable.
   Towards the end of the project I made a hook from a bent coathanger that allowed me to hold the guitar without touching it and hang it up to dry. If I'd had this from the start, I'm pretty sure things would have gone a lot better.
The second big issue was that of masking. I did the masking right at the beginning of the project and, to be quite frank, ballsed it up something horrific.

 You hear that sound? Yes, that's baby jesus crying.

   I used regular (and very old) masking tape, which didn't mask as well as I might have hoped. It didn't give a clean edge, and paint seeped through in places, forcing me to sand the paint off those areas. Worse than the failings of the masking tape, however, was the cack-handed way I put it on. Rather than a sharp, clean edge, it was a sort of meandering, rough line that veered from the edge of the frets to about a centimeter off the fretboard. I uncovered this horror after the first round of clear coating. As an experiment in desperate damage management, I tried painting over the edge of the neck completely, to hide the monstrous join, but this looked just as dumb.

 Oh, the Humanity!


At first, I thought that the clearcoat went on fairly easily. The truth, however, was in the drying. Coats that looked fine when they first went on, started to look progressively more shit as each day went by. The finish on the front cracked like a playing field on a hot summer and the finish on the back developed strange deep grooves, which were probably the result of cracks forming in the layer below. Kristen suggested that these problems were caused by the coat underneath not being fully dry, which sounds right to me, given what can remember of the order in which the coats when on.

 Eeeew. Gross.

Wobbly, Wobbly.

Another big mistake was not putting enough clearcoat on. It's a simple thing, but I didn't realise that you need to put on far more than you think the instrument could possibly need. Extra care should be taken to build up the coats on the edges and on cutaways with really thin layers. Where the viscious, semi-dry paint is likely to flow away from the edge.
   If the paint is put on too thick then the hardened top layer will crack when the lower, gooey layer shifts away from the edge.

Tectonic Paint Movements

This post may sound gloomy, but I'm actually in a good mood about all this. Once I'd got over the initial frustration of having cocked it up, I've become excited about the chance to try it again, better. If this was an instrument I had a burning need to play right now, then I'd be really annoyed by this setback, but as I'm an apathetic guitarist at the best of times, so I'm not in any real rush.

Friday, June 25, 2010


I came across an interesting book while doing research today. It's called British Highways And Byways From A Motor Car by the American travel writer Thomas D. Murphy (1866--1928). It was written in 1908, when motor cars were still something of a novelty and not exactly the most practical of vehicles, but it's a well-written and interesting travelogue nonetheless. He covers a quite astonishing amount of ground considering the limitations of the technology and shittyness of the roads. His main problem, even in the wilds of scotland, was not mechanical issues, or poor roads, but the weather. Of which he notes

There is little danger of being supplied with too many clothes and wraps when motoring in Britain. There were very few days during our entire summer's tour when one could dispense with cloaks and overcoats.

For the most part, his descriptions conjure up an image of an England very similar to the one I live in now, occasionally though there's a really jarring reference to something that is very much not there anymore.

His description of canterbury, for example, is pretty hard to distinguish from a description of the city today. It took him longer to get there from london, obviously, but the route the road takes hasn't changed a great deal since Roman times. The city, equally, is fairly unchanged -- although it is a strange thing when he refers to victorian edifices as recent additions to the city.

By comparison, the description of Coventry, which I've copied below, is a eerie glimpse of a city that hasn't existed for a long time.

Coventry, with its odd buildings and narrow, crowded streets, reminded Nathaniel Hawthorne of Boston—not the old English Boston, but its big namesake in America. Many parts of the city are indeed quaint and ancient, the finest of the older buildings dating from about the year 1400; but these form only a nucleus for the more modern city which has grown up around them. Coventry now has a population of about seventy-five thousand, and still maintains its old-time reputation as an important manufacturing center. Once it was famed for its silks, ribbons and watches, but this trade was lost to the French and Swiss—some say for lack of a protective tariff. Now cycles and motor cars are the principal products; and we saw several of the famous Daimler cars, made here, being tested on the streets.


Other things I've learned today include what must be one of the most strangely named streets in Britain (up there with Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate in York), "Bullet Loan" in Kelso, Scotland.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Refinishing Part the second

I've been meaning to update this for a while now, but I've been busy painting, working, and playing Red Dead Redemption. I've done a lot to the guitar in the week or two that has elapsed since the last post, and I'm probably not far from finishing the job (the painting part of it anyway -- the new electrics are another job entirely) After sanding away the paint to look at the wood, I decided to do a more sensible job on the rest of the guitar.I worked with a succession of lower and lower grades of sandpaper and wet n' dry. By the end the guitar was as smooth as a teflon dolphin. In the process of sanding it down I was able to confirm something I'd noticed when I first got it.

That little black dot is the filled-in remains of a hole drilled for a left-handed strap button. This means that at some point in the last 30 years, my guitar was owned by a left handed, but not hugely picky guitarist. This is one of the things I love about getting an old guitar -- there's more mystery, I feel like a musical archaeologist.

The first coat of primer didn't go on very well. The patches of bare wood just seemed to drink it up. I ended up using the entire can without getting it anywhere near smooth enough to put the color coat on. I think the paint (made by Keen) was not very well suited to the task. I went out at the weekend and bought some more white primer -- this time by a company called "painter's choice" -- from homebase. I've never bought spray paint from a shop before. I had to ask someone to go and unlock the case they keep them in, and got eyeballed by the cashier when I went to pay.

For all that work though, it was much better paint. I had to learn a different technique for applying it, as it was much thicker and more runny than the other stuff. The first time I tried to use it I got runs and drips all over the guitar which essentially meant I had to sand away everything I did that day. I found the best way was to apply it in short sprays, adding more layers every 20 minutes or so. Over several evenings during the week I used this technique to get a good, even coat over the whole guitar. After a week of spraying the finish was nice and smooth and covered the texture of the wood effectively.
One thing that it didn't occur to me to do, which I will certainly do next time I'm working on a guitar, is to get some kind of woodfiller or glue and fill in all the dings and dents before I start finishing. Although the thick layer of paint has covered up the smaller dents and scratches, the big ones (which has guitar has more than its share of) are still noticeable.

Today I had a go with the green spray paint. This was the same brand as the fairly useless white primer -- so I was worried that it wouldn't be enough to cover the guitar properly. It seems these fears were unfounded though, as it covered the guitar brilliantly and fast. In fact, if rain had not forced me to bring the guitar in before it was properly dry (putting some smeary fingerprints on it in the process) I think one coat would probably have been enough.

I don't know if the weather is going to cooperate tomorrow, but if it does, I plan to get the color coat finished. I wont bother putting the clearcoat on yet though. That can wait until later in the week. I need to get some rubbing compound too, or it will not look sufficiently shiny.
The color looks a little strange in this picture, almost metallic. It's a trick of the light -- in reality the color is exactly like this, which is the look I was going for.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Graphic Design, 1800s style

"I need it to look exciting and eye-catching"
"hmm. How about I use every typeface and dingbat I have?"
"Won't that make it a little busy looking?"
"nah, it'll look great"

A Microcosm

From the talk page associated with this Wikipedia subject sidebar

The template is fantastic, but I have a bit of a concern about the picture of Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built by a Mughal ruler out of love for his wife. The Taj Mahal is not a mosque and it is more of a symbol of love, and has got little to do with Islam. I suggest this be replaced with the picture of the Ka'aba or other more prominent Islamic monument as the picture of the Taj Mahal is misleading. -- Shijaz 12:39, 11 December 2008 (UTC)
This isn't about Islam, it's about Islamic culture, what Muslims have done because of the influence of Islam, even in non-religious areas. If you read about the Taj Mahal, it is considered one of the greatest representations of Muslim art and architecture in the world by historians. The Kaaba is religious not cultural, it isn't considered a part of Muslim art. --Enzuru 03:24, 12 December 2008 (UTC)
I fail to understand how culture is any different from religion - when it comes to Islam (which is a 'way of life')! -- Shijaz 10:20, 13 January 2009 (UTC)

Saturday, June 05, 2010


I like to tinker with my guitars, this is well known, but I'm never really done any refinishing. The closest I've come is the very silly artwork I doodled on a guitar a while ago, but that wasn't so much refinishing as messing around. I've decided to take the plunge today, after umming and erring for a while. The instrument that is getting the treatment is my 1980 ibanez Studio ST-50. It's a nice instrument, but its age is showing badly. The pots are worn and crackly; the hardware is filthy; and the finish (none more black) is covered in cracks, chips, dents, and weird blistered patches (it looks like a previous owner spilled some kind of industrial solvent on the back).

I bought a load of sandpaper, a few cans of spray paint (white primer, racing green paint, and clear laquer), and decided to have a go with it. Firstly, I had to dismantle the electrics and take off the hardware--which didn't take very long, but did leave the guitar looking very weird.

After that I started sanding off the paint. I'd done a fair amount of research on my guitar and figured out that it was one of the last of its model line made. It was probably cobbled together in 1980 out of parts left over from the previous year's models. While it is ostensibly an ST-50 (the entry level-model), it has a few features (the swanky tuning pegs and brass truss rod cover) that only usually featured on the more expensive models. This meant that I wasn't certain what I'd find when I stripped the paint off. I figured it was worth a look to see if it would look good with just a natural finish.

As you can see from this, the wood doesn't look that great. I'd guess it's a maple cap on the top and bottom with a core of laminated mahogany. It confirms something I'd figured out a while ago -- if a guitar has a solid opaque finish, then it's there for a reason. This guitar, with its mismatched laminates and big ugly join, would not have made the natural finish cut. That's not to say it sounds bad, or it's generally bad wood, it's just not very pretty. I did a quick test with the white primer on the back of the guitar and it doesn't seem too difficult to do (famous last words) as I'll probably only do a plain solid finish. I've run out of daylight today though (hangover stole most of the daylight hours) so I'll have to continue my experiments tomorrow.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The first Rule of Editing

Putting jokes in the Dummy text?



It's a pretty simple rule, but surprisingly hard to follow. I wonder how many people get fired every year for stuff like that.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mixed Messages

 From the Wiki page on Denatured Alcohol.

It's a nice bottle, not very... industrial though, is it?

In Poland, where this bottle is from, the additives they put in denatured alcohol are not toxic, just disgusting.

Under "Upload Information" in the file page, it says simply "Own Work. Own Bottle"

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Farewell Sermon

The other day I found myself trying to find an authentic source for a text that is repeated on Muslim websites from across the english-speaking world. It is a full version of the last sermon of Muhammad, commonly known as the Farewell Sermon. I found examples of it here, and here, and here, and here.

I've read a fair amount of Islamic scripture over the last few months, and this doesn't read like anything I've encountered before. I don't get the impression, from the scriptures he left behind, that Muhammad was a man inclined towards lengthy prose compositions--he seemed to prefer epigrammatic pronouncements and verse poetry. The reference to "black" and "white" as ethnic groups struck me as a little anachronistic, but it could equally just be an unorthodox translation. There are other things that made me suspicious of this text from the start, the biggest one was the fact that these texts are almost identical, they've got the same caps or boldface for emphasis, the same phrasing, and the exact same words. To me this smells of unthinking copy pasting, like an endlessly forwarded email.

The second thing that bothers me is the citation that most of these texts have at the bottom. It goes like this --

See Al-Bukhari, Hadith 1623, 1626, 6361
Sahih of Imam Muslim also refers to this sermon in Hadith number 98.
Imam al-Tirmidhi has mentioned this sermon in Hadith nos. 1628, 2046, 2085.
Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal has given us the longest and perhaps the most complete version of this sermon in his Masnud, Hadith no. 19774.

The references are fascinating. They look authoritative at first glance---they mention real Hadith collections and are formatted in the right way---but if you subject them to a moment's scruntiny they undermine the authenticity of this text more than they preserve it.

Hadith collections are not exactly scripture, they're probably best described as reasonbly trustworthy anecdotes about the prophet for use in a theological tiebreaker scenario. Where Chrstianity has Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Islam has the major hadith scholars. Both sets of texts were compiled a long time after the events they describe, and both are fourth- or fifth-hand information. The big difference between the two is that people like Muhammad al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj documented their sources and didn't make any claims that their texts were, ahem, gospel. As a result, hadith collections are huge and messy. For the sake of completeness, Hadith scholars often include several versions of the same story, sometimes dozens. Each version has a different chain of narrators (known as an isnad) and reached the collector from a different source. What this means is that three separate hadith about the same event, even it they're from the same collection, are likely to differ. Sometimes this difference is minor -- just a few words changed -- but quite often it's a completely contradictory account. If there was just one citation, perhaps two, then this might be authentic, but this many suggests that, at best, the text has been cobbled together and inferred from several fragments.

All of this, of course, assumes that the hadith contain a full or even partial text of the sermon. The last reference, interestingly, says that one of the hadith is "perhaps the most complete version," suggesting that the others are just fragments or passing references. Hadith collections include all the information that the hadith collector thought seemed authentic enough, regardless of whether it was interesting or useful. This means that some hadith document amazingly banal everyday conversations with no obvious theological importance other than that one of the speakers was Muhammad. They also include incredibly vague narrations. It is quite possible that a hadith that "mentions" the farewell sermon may consist of something like:

Narrated Big Dave
"I heard someone say that the prophet gave some sort of sermon when they all went to Mecca. I have no idea what he said though, sorry."

The last, and most important part of this is the Hadiths actually say. (It took me a while to track them down because not many online hadith collections sort them by number. As a result, I'd written the previous paragraphs without knowing the content of the hadiths. I would go back and rewrite the whole thing, but I'm lazy and that feels too much like work.)

Here are the sources mentioned, and what they actually say --

Sahih Bukhari 1623. Narrated Ibn 'Umar:   
Allah's Apostle (SallAllaahu `Alayhi Wa Sallam) (got) his head shaved after performing his Hajj.

Sahih Bukhari 1626. Narrated 'Abdullah:
The Prophet and some of his companions got their heads shaved and some others got their hair cut short. Narrated Muawiya: I cut short the hair of Allah's Apostle with a long blade.

Sahih Bukhari 6361. Narrated Abdullah:
Allah Apostle said in Hajjat-al-Wada, "Which month (of the year) do you think is most sacred?" The people said, "This current month of ours (the month of Dhull-Hijja)." He said, "Which town (country) do you think is the most sacred?" They said, "This city of ours (Mecca)." He said, "Which day do you think is the most sacred?" The people said, "This day of ours." He then said, "Allah, the Blessed, the Supreme, has made your blood, your property and your honor as sacred as this day of yours in this town of yours, in this month of yours (and such protection cannot be slighted) except rightfully." He then said thrice, "Have I conveyed Allah's Message (to you)?" The people answered him each time saying, 'Yes." The Prophet added, 'May Allah be merciful to you (or, woe on you)! Do not revert to disbelief after me by cutting the necks of each other.'

Sahih Muslim 98. Narrated Tamim ad-Dari:      
The Prophet of Allaah (may peace and blessings be upon him) observed: Al-Din is a name of sincerity and well wishing. Upon this we said: For whom? He replied: For Allaah, His Book, His Messenger and for the leaders and the general Muslims.

I can't look up the citations from the Sahih at-Tirmidhi because the only translations I can find go from hadith numbers 1-360 and another from 5000 to the end. I can't find the Masnud of Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal anywhere. The only references to this work appear to be repetitions of the Farewell Sermon text, and the one link that looked promising is in Arabic. Ahmed bin Hanbal was a real, and significant, Sunni scholar, however, so I'm sure there must be some actual collection they're referring to.

As you can see, only one of these sources actually makes a direct reference to the Farewell Sermon, and that one tells it as a brief call and response between Muhammad and his followers.

My guess is that this isn't mentioned in the citations I couldn't read either. I think it's most likely an example of Muslim glurge, something which I suppose must spread quite quickly among the many Western Muslims who are separated from the bulk of their religious texts by a pretty inpenetrable language barrier. I'm surprised though, by how often it gets repeated. I mean, Muhammad was quite adamant that anyone who put words in his mouth would get an everlasting arse-kicking for it (See Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 56, Number 667)

Monday, March 29, 2010

I should have realized, I think, when you got on the train. Like.You were talking on your phone, cradling it against your shoulder while manhandling your bag into the luggage rack. Like. It would have been easier to put the phone down while you did that, but you didn't even stop talking. You know, like. That should have thrown up a red flag, I should have run away down the train in search of somewhere else to sit. Like. Even so, it soon became apparent that you were a Dynamic, Proactive Person, whose time had to be spent Constructively.

Once in your seat you were able to straighten your neck out and speak in your normal voice. Like, you know. Your clear, loud, and above all penetrating voice. From Oxford to Reading, you informed your friend, me, Kristen, and anyone else within about 5 rows of you how your weekend went and how life was going, generally. Like. You weren't shouting, not being deliberately obnoxious—your voice carried because you were Assertive and Proactive and Dynamic. You know. These very same traits, after all, had just earned you a Role at a Media Consultancy. It was only a small Role, but it would allow you to Network and gather Contacts in The Media. Like. You weren't going to ask for less than Twenty-Three Grand a Year, of course, because you were the Outstanding Candidate after all, and less would be Taking The Piss. You know?

If you'd stopped talking just because you were eating your lunch then that would have been Boring. Like. I mean, who cares about talking with your mouth full these days? We're Modern Dynamic Trendsetters, we don't mind the wet smacking sounds of your mouth while you chew, or the grunts and meaningless noises you make when too full of crisps to manage even a muffled response. You know.

It was terrible when you lost signal just outside Reading, really annoying, you know? There was nothing to do but look out of the window and watch the sunny countryside move by. To sit in silence and think. To rest. Time Wasted. Terrible.