Monday, October 03, 2011

Morbid musings

When walking through a graveyard the other week (there's not much else in the way of green space round where I live) I noticed that there are distinct patterns to the demographics of the dead. Obviously, death can strike at any time, but if you plotted all the dates on a graph you'd see some obvious spikes emerging.

The first, obviously, is that of those that died in infancy or childhood. This demographic is most strongly represented in the old 19th century section of the graveyard. From the dates on the stones it would appear that, as a general rule, if you lived past about 10 without catching something horrific then you were pretty much safe for at least the next eight years. One interesting thing I noticed was that while this demographic is far less common in the newer sections of the graveyard, the average age seems to have dropped. Children below the age of one are a pretty rare sight in the older sections, while they make up the majority of pre-18 year-old graves in the newer sections.

As a reflection of changing social attitudes I find this interesting -- as infant mortality drops, people seem to become emotionally invested in their children at a much younger age. In some cases this tendency is taken to a stage that makes me a little uneasy -- there's a few modern graves in the cemetery whose stones record the names of infants who died two or three days after birth. I get the impression that the victorians would have classified these sad events as unusually drawn out stillbirths and moved quickly on, probably without ever giving the infants a name. These modern graves, however, are covered with flowers and cards -- something that I'd find understandable if it wasn't for the fact that the most recent of them records a death that happened more than 6 years ago. In a particularly morbid touch, some of the graves have flowers whose notes are signed by not only parents but also by "your little brother" or "your little sister."

The next big demographic is young men between the ages of 17 and 25, whose deaths are generally recorded on small white stones, decorated with just a cross or a regimental crest. The majority are from the First World War era*, a testament to the mind-numbing carnage of that war. With each coming year these stones disturb me more -- I'm now about seven years older than those kids were when they died, and can't help but think of 18-year-olds as essentially big children.

The last demographic spike before old age is populated by young women between the ages of 20 and 30. The cause of death isn't often mentioned on gravestones, but it's not hard to imagine what caused this. Happily this demographic almost completely vanishes in the mid-twentieth century, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine.

The thing that makes me particularly troubled by the deaths of these women is the fact that they are often buried in family plots with their parents, grandparents, etc. Every now and then you'll come across a woman buried in her own grave, usually beneath a touchingly inscribed gravestone composed by her husband, but these are the exceptions. On most occasions the men involved seem to have been all too happy to hand the mortal remains of their former loved ones to the in-laws with all the respect and reverence of someone returning a broken TV to the shop.

As we've got a major cat-shitty garden problem at the moment, my thoughts have been increasingly turning toward supersoakers. As a kid, I fucking loved supersoakers. Me and my brother used the "stopping cats from shitting in the yard" pretext to obtain many hours of damp summer fun. We, and the neighbor kids used to swarm around the overgrown alleyways and bomb-sites round the back of our house, soaking each other with a variety of odd implements. The only-child from the top of the road had a massive super soaker 150, while some of the other kids we played football with favored simpler stirrup-pump like plastic things (powerful, decent range, ran out of water fast). The fat kid preferred to lurk round corners with a bucket (not very subtle, but effective).

Me and my brother favored the Supersoaker 50, the klashnikov rifle of the water-pistol world; cheap and reliable. It wasn't hugely powerful, but it was surprisingly accurate over quite long distances. The bottles it used were a standard size and used the same screw threads as coke bottles (which meant you could carry spares in your belt, filled with water and ready to go).

It was also good for use on the cats that tried to shit in our yard and eat our guinea pigs (we didn't have very exciting pets as children) -- it got them wet enough to make them run away, but not so wet that you felt like you were being mean.

Last night I flipped open the gigantic copy of the argos catalog we've got in the house and turned, by muscle memory alone, to the supersoaker section. Instead of the range of fearsome water cannons, however, I found only strange pink things with flowers and such on ("urr! gurls toys!", cried the sticky fat kid in my head). I figured it was silly to think that they'd keep the supersoakers on the same page that they were on when I was a kid (I mean, there's whole sections in the catalog that weren't there when I was wee small, like the array of mobile phones). I looked though the whole thing, though, and I found nothing.

A quick search of the internet revealed that they do still exist, but that they've gotten much more complicated since their inventor first pitched them to larami. They've now got all sorts of cosmetic doodads, non-detachable tanks, and other such gumpf. I also discovered that there's a whole internet subculture devoted to grown men who play with water pistols.

They take it very seriously.

I find this a little sad.I mean, don't get me wrong, when I was a kid I took the whole business seriously, but, you know, there came a time when I did genuinely only ever use the thing for chasing away cats.

Some of their home-made designs look pretty awesome though... might have to get me some plumbing supplies.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Unless it's pissing down with rain or freezing cold, I tend to spend my lunchbreaks walking around Islington, where I work. I get an hour for lunch, so I can usually cover a fairly long distance before I have to head back. Most days I walk in a long circuit that takes me down Essex Road, then north-west as far as Barnsbury Road (it's a distance of about 2.5 miles, I think).

Most of the walk takes me along fairly busy roads, but the northernmost section takes me through some incredibly peaceful affluent areas (multi-million-pound early victorian houses, general all-round loveliness). Here I rarely see anyone other than the occasional young mother pushing a pram that probably cost more than my bass. Today though, I turned onto one of the broad old avenues to see a young woman -- younger than me, I'd guess -- running down the other side of the street. She was running in that flustered "oh god I'm so late" way, with her handbag clutched to her side and the other flapping around while she kept to keep her balance in some not-entirely-appropriate shoes.

I probably wouldn't have paid her the least bit of attention if I hadn't been transfixed by her broad-brimmed summer hat, which remained poised neatly on the back of her head; held on my some unnatural force (or perhaps hatpins) while she ran.

As she passed by a small black object pinged out of her handbag and clattered onto the pavement. She didn't stop, nor notice this had happened. "Oh dear," I thought, "she's dropped her phone." I watched her get further and further away, willing her with all my might to notice that she'd dropped it, but my mind powers are sadly lacking.

As she ran round a corner and disappeared out of sight a small argument broke out in my head.

"you should run after her, and give that back"
"but I can't be arsed. I'm hungry and I've got to get back to work in a few minutes"
"really? You're that lazy?"
"I'm sure she'll notice that she's dropped it soon, or perhaps some good samaritan will hand it into the police..."
"A good samaritan, in north London? pffft. Do you remember how stressful it was for Kristen when her phone was nicked?"
"ugh. Fiinne."

I jog across the road, hoping that I'll find a worthless make-up mirror or something else I can ignore without feeling too bad about it. Alas, sitting in the middle of the pavement is a shiny new iPhone 4, unharmed by its fall. I sigh, pick it up, and take off after her.

As I round the corner I'm struck by the thought that perhaps she's already gone into one of the houses along the street, and that I'll have to spend the rest of my lunchbreak knocking on doors and generally embarassing myself. Then I spot her, about a hundred meters down the road, jogging along a little slower now. I shout, but she doesn't hear me, so I run off after her.

At this point she hears a set of feet pounding down the street, turns, and sees a stocky bloke in a hoody bearing down on her. She then does what most women would do -- she starts running faster. I try shouting to her again, but my voice catches in my throat and comes out sounding like the crazed grunting of a madman. This doesn't help.

Luckily, I'm a lot fitter than I used to be, and I can chase down a young woman wearing inappropriate shoes pretty easily (I found that out today, by the way, it's not something I do all the time). I managed to get close enough to speak to her normally without having to shout. The sound of her crazed pursuer calmly saying "excuse me" in a clipped BBC-proper accent seemed to reassure her. She stopped and turned around.

"er. You dropped your phone."
I awkwardly proffer the phone, like a child giving a family present to a slightly intimidating relative at christmas.
"oh god, thank you!"
She takes the phone and smiles
"Thank you so much!"
I grin sheepishly, "that's fine..."

I turn round and walk away, feeling generally about as embarrassed as I do on the occasions when I've warmly greeted some who looked like a friend, but turned out to be a complete stranger.

Ten years at Crown Woods Secondary School has imbued me with a sense of deep embarrassment whenever I do something unusually noble or nice. It doesn't stop me from doing it anyway, but it does mean that I'm damned either way, caught between my conscience and years of backward social programming.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


This might mark a return to regularly updating this thing, or it might just be an aberration.

I've been writing a sort of potted history of the Austro-Hungarian empire recently, and it's got me thinking about names and translations. These days we tend to think of names as fixed, unchanging things—they're written on all your identity documents and require a lot of paperwork to change—but that hasn't always been the case. One particularly interesting example of this fluidity is the fact that people who travelled around Europe often used to transliterate their names depending on where they were. John would become Jean, Johann, Jan, János, or Giovanni depending on where you are. This is particularly interesting when you bear in mind that many parish birth registers, at least in continental Europe, used to record names in the Latin version (so John would be written Iohannes)—despite the fact that no-one would have ever used this form, or likely even be able to pronounce it.
This has led to some interesting confusions over what to call certain historic figures. Austro-Hungarian Emperors, for example, had separate royal titles in each of their kingdoms, with each styling their name differently. Deciding which spelling to use can be a bit tricky (do you go for the neutral latinate version they used on official documents, the German version they answered to personally, or one of the other variants?) and has bothered me a lot while editing this book.
The prime example of this confusion. however, is Mozart. He is known to history by the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but there is no record of him ever having used this particular handle. His entry in the parish baptismal record lists his name as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart—a strange mess of latin, pseudo-latin, and Greek that no-one is likely to have ever used. The first part Johannes Chrysostomus is a saint's name, included as a nod to Catholic custom—at the time of his birth this was a largely ceremonial detail, never actually used other than in religious contexts. For all intents and purposes, therefore, his given name was Wolfgang— Germanic name that, luckily for historians and editors, doesn't translate into other languages. His middle name, Theophilus, which literally means "loved by God," can also be written in Latin as Amadeus, in Italian as Amadè, and in German as Gottlieb (this was the version his father used when writing about him).
Mozart himself generally used the name Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, but this was dismissed as an affectation by his friends and associates, who usually called him Wolfgang Gottlieb. The only known example of Mozart signing his name Amadeus is in a silly letter he wrote to a young cousin entirely in pompous-sounding pseudo-latin.
Of course, this level of fluidity wasn't restricted to those who could switch between languages at will. Until fairly recently there was a distinct separation between languages as they were written and as they were spoken. A vernacular name that you used every day, for example, might be seen as too vulgar to actually write down—hence Mikołaj Kopernik becomes Nicolaus Copernicus. This still exists today in many cultures, particularly in the Arab world, where the gulf between Modern Standard Arabic (the formal language taught in schools) and local dialects like Moroccan Darija has widened to the point where the two languages are only just mutually intelligible. It also exists in English, to an extent. Few people write exactly as they speak, whether phonetically or stylistically. While I do actually talk with scrupulously correct BBC pronunciation that my writing suggests, my actual spoken language is peppered with far more idiomatic phrases and industrial-strength swearwords than my writing. When I try to include these in my writing, it often feels forced or out of place. My name stays the same though.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Floyd Rose

This is heavy nerd, feel free to skip.

When I was working on Ed's guitar yesterday, I took some time to reacquiant myself with the whimpering horror of the Floyd Rose Double Locking Tremolo.

This beast was invented in the mid-1970s by a chap called Floyd Rose (bet you didn't see that one coming). He came up with it because he wanted a tremolo that you could go Jimi Hendrix-style mental with, without pulling your guitar badly out of tune. In that regard, he succeeded—when properly set-up you can do just about anything with a Floyd Rose and it won't have any serious effect on the tuning. That, in my view, is about the only way in which he succeeded.

The Floyd Rose is a wildly impractical piece of technology. In order to restring a guitar with a Floyd Rose you have to first chop the ball-ends off the strings, then clamp them into the saddles at the bridge (to do this properly you must turn the set screws so hard that you will inevitably strip quite a few allen keys over the years). Once they're all in you have to spend ages tuning the strings, letting the bridge adjust—which pulls them back out of tune again—then tuning them again. It typically takes a day or two before you actually have a guitar that is both in tune and has a balanced tremolo. If you're switching between string gauges or brands of strings it can take even longer. Once this is done, you have to clamp the strings in place at the nut, making large adjustments to tuning a fiddly and laborious process.

If you you try and change the tuning of an individual string (say switching to Drop-D tuning) then this will lower the overall tension on the tremolo, pulling all of the strings out of tune. Similarly, if you break a string, the increased tension on the other strings pulls them all out of tune, and sometimes causes more to break. The second fact makes it foolish to gig with a Floyd Rose equipped guitar unless you have at least one backup.

Ed has made several modifications to his Floyd Rose over the years (including adding extra springs and placing a block of wood under the rear of the tremolo) which essentially make it into a single-action tremolo, like the Wilkinson Tremolo on a Strat. This makes it less versatile as a tremolo unit, but makes it much, much easier to use.

Even so, the actual tremolo unit is a pretty shocking piece of design. The set screws that allow you to adjust the intonation are positioned underneath the strings, so you have to remove the strings in order to make any adjustments the intonation. You cannot raise or lower the saddles individually, which means that you can only adjust the action by tightening or loosening the bolts that anchor the unit in place. Also, the clamps that hold the strings into the bridge are positioned at a 90º angle to the string pull, which makes the strings more likely to break at that point.

All told, a guitar with a Floyd Rose Tremolo is like an old Rolls Royce where the driver's seat is not covered by the roof. It's a design feature that assumes you have staff to do everything for you, as it would be really unpleasant to do it yourself.


I replaced the busted barrel-jack on my Yamaha bass the other week (a relatively simple but very fiddly bit of wiring) and that reignited my urge to tinker with guitars. I can't begin round three of Ben vs. Refinishing (see these posts) until the weather improves, so the other day I took the opportunity to abduct Ed's guitar (the Stratobastard) for a quick bit of maintenance.

It's been more than three years since I made the alterations described here. Surprisingly, the electrics in the guitar seem to be holding up well—there aren't any settings that make it go dead, nor any that crackle or hiss. The only electrical issue worthy of mention is the fact that the pickup housing on the neck pickup becomes live when the pickups are switched into series. I know how to fix this, but I don't have the tools, nor the balls to do it just yet (It involves cutting the pickup casing open with a dremel-like  tool and creating separate ground wires for the casing and the signal ground). I'll sort that out one day, but it's not a pressing issue right now.

The main reason I wanted to get this guitar back on the workbench (it's a figurative workbench, obviously, as I do most of my tech work sitting on the floor in the attic) was because of a fretwork issue I noticed during its overhaul. I didn't have time to fix this problem back then, so the action has always been far too high for my tastes. Ed has never had a problem with this, but it has always bothered me. If he wants high action because he likes it that way, then that's fine, but I don't want the stratobastard to have high action because it's impossible to play otherwise.

I spent a few minutes raising and lowering the action, playing scales, and staring down the neck until I went cross eyed. Some day, I'll buy a set of relief measuring tools, but for now I'm more comfortable assessing the state of a guitar by eye and ear. What I figured out was that the guitar was suffering from a condition I call "the hump," where the fretboard has warped slightly around the neck join. It's something that happens as guitars age, and as the neck-wood settles into the join. It's another one of the reasons that I'm going off the idea of ever buying guitars that are less that 5 years old.

Ed's guitar didn't have the worst case I've ever seen, but it was bad enough to make the guitar unplayable beyond the 12th fret. The 15th fret, in particular, stood 2-3mm proud of its neighbors on the treble side. Extreme cases of the hump (the likes of which I've only ever seen on old mandolins) can only be treated by defretting the neck and planing down the fretboard, but this one was mild enough to be treated be re-profiling and re-crowning the frets (using techniques broadly similar to the ones outlined here)

While I was doing this I made a few very minor adjustments to the truss rod, to straighten out the neck a little, and fiddled around with the intonation on the tremolo. The end result is a dramatic lowering of the action, with none of the buzzing or dead notes that caused problems before, and once again, I managed to do the whole thing without injuring myself. Huzzah.