Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On my train home today I sat down next to a smartly dressed, neatly composed woman, probably about the same age as me. She was thumbing through a A5 notebook that was absolutely rammed with loose pieces of paper, glossy booklets, printouts and such. The thing was bulging awkwardly, and I noticed she'd had to use at least one mauly clip to stop the whole thing from disintegrating.

When I sat down she was chewing pensively on the end of her biro and staring at a scribble covered, densely written page of handwritten notes. Being a nosy bugger, I couldn't resist the temptation to glance across at what she'd been writing. What I saw was odd.

It was a list of names. Some were scratched out, others underlined; some had little numbers or letters in brackets after them. Several names had been written down, scratched out, then written down again somewhere else. There were little arrows linking some names, and a long tally of numbers written down the margin. The names were grouped together under odd subheadings like "Good News Friends", "Opinionated Friends", "Friends of Friends (Who have become friends)", and my personal favourite "Friends of Friends (who haven't)". At first I was a little baffled, why was this woman sitting on the train putting everyone she knew into categories? Was she doing some kind of life audit? What did the numbers mean? What was going to happen to the people who had been crossed out (Particularly Martina, who had a little skull and crossbones next to her name)?

At this point, she turned the page back on itself and I saw the other side. On this side the topmost heading, underlined several times, was "Bridesmaids".

Monday, October 01, 2012

Boredom, know your limits.

A recent study found that a shocking 70 percent of office workers in Britain were not aware of government guidelines relating to workplace boredom. What follows is a broad outline of the issues related to boredom in the workplace.

Boredom. What is it?
There are two distinct types of boredom, active and passive.

Passive boredom
, or ennui, is boredom brought about by a person’s circumstances. Most people know this as the boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon or a holiday in Wales. Ennui is not created by a specific activity, but rather by the lack of any activity that isn't actively boring. Although it can feel similar to active boredom (and was thought to be the same for many centuries – hence the confusion in terminology), ennui is now known to be a fundamentally different phenomenon. To the layman, the best way of describing the difference is to compare it with the difference between alpha and gamma radiation: although they have similar effects on the human body, they are very different physical mechanisms.

Active boredom, sometimes known as ‘elective’ or ‘task related’ boredom, is boredom a person experiences while actively engaging in a boring activity. As active boredom is easier to isolate under experimental conditions, we know far more about the mechanics and dangers of active boredom. Crucially, active boredom can be mediated and its harmful effects limited by careful management.

In addition to these two commonly-recognized types, it is widely accepted that the vague region between active and passive boredom may contain several more types of boredom yet to be named by science. Recent groundbreaking research at the Llareggub Valley Facility in central Wales has fueled speculation that there may be as many as 15 distinct subtypes of boredom, although it should be noted that several may only be reproducible under laboratory conditions.

Measuring boredom
The severity of active boredom is measured in Melvilles (Mvl).

1 Melville is the level of boredom equivalent to earnestly trying to read Herman Melville’s 1851 magnum opus Moby Dick. For scientific purposes, Chapters 55–57 ("Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales"; "Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the Pictures of Whaling Scenes", and "Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, in Wood, in Sheet, in Stone, in Mountains, and in Stars") are the most commonly used to calibrate equipment, as some of the book's livelier passages can cause inconsistent readings when a high level of precision is required.

Some example boredom levels, in Melvilles:
Sorting laundry (in silence) – 0.5Mvl
Radio 4 (typical) – 0.7Mvl
Writing a college paper - 0.6-1.1Mvl (depending on subject)
Proofreading indexes - 1.3Mvl
Wallpapering - 0.5Mvl

Any discussion of the measurement of boredom must begin with a profile of the man who almost single handedly revolutionised our conception of what it is to be bored. So, without further ado, here it is
Feldengräss von Hohenloen
Dr Feldengräss von Hohenloen is a colossal figure in the field of boredom research. His work is generally credited with lifting boredom out of the realm of philosophers and into the remit of objective science. He was born to a hardworking German-American family in 1911 and spent most of his childhood in Cathode Falls, Missouri. A gifted child, he excelled in his studies and eventually won a scholarship to Harvard University, where he decided to become a doctor. His dream of opening a practice in his home town was cut short, however, by the outbreak of World War II. In March 1943 he was recruited into the Army Medical Corps. He served with distinction as a battlefield surgeon, working first in England, and later moving across Europe with General Leonard T. Gerow’s Fifteenth United States Army. The dramatic events of World War II seem an unlikely crucible in which a great boredom researcher could be created, but – to quote an old soldier's maxim – ‘war is nine parts boredom, one part terror’*. His interest was first piqued when he noticed that the boredom experienced by soldiers on sentry duty seemed to be fundamentally different from that felt by the orderly that had to inventory the field hospital’s medicine stocks every week. In his landmark 1944 paper “So Many goddamn boxes: An investigation of administrative boredom” (first published in the British journal The Lancet) he laid down the basic division between active and passive boredom that continues to be used to this day. In the post-war period he watched as the field of study he created grew at an astonishing speed. He was responsible, along with his research partner Greta Simpson, with the creation of the Melville as a unit of measuring boredom, and the soft-biscuit membrane used in many boredom detectors to this day. Although he largely retired from active research in the late 1960s (largely as a result of concerns raised his own findings about the long-term effects of boredom exposure) he remained the elder-statesman of boredom research, and had some 37 honorary doctorates by the time he died in 1983.

*This assertion, incidentally, was extensively tested by Hohenloen during his time at DARPA (then known as ARPA) in the early 1960s.
Until 1996, when the Artificial Boredom Experiencer (ABE) was devised, the highest level of boredom to be experimentally verified and independently reproduced was 2.63Mvl – experienced by a literature student at Montreal University in 1957 as she tried to read her way through volume four of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
Attempts to measure higher levels of boredom were banned by most Western governments in 1973 following the notorious ‘Jonathan Schieffler incident’. Schieffler, a Phd candidate at MIT, had been encouraged to attend a Jam-band and poetry evening in order to take readings, but was not warned of the danger of doing so sober. Due to a freak bean-bag landslide he was trapped in the bar for the entirety of a four-hour cover of the song "Flying Teapot" by Gong. By the time a rescue team was sent in he had lost consciousness. The boredom-meter found clasped in his rigid hands was allegedly (it was lost in the aftermath of the incident, possibly as part of MIT's attempted cover-up) jammed at 4Mvl (the highest it could go). Schieffler remained in a coma for six weeks, and has been afflicted with severe narcolepsy ever since.
With the invention of the ABE, the risk has been removed from boredom research, although accidents do still happen. Currently the record stands at 5.96Mvl – recorded when a remote-controlled ABE was sent into the auditorium of a avant garde jazz evening at a Belgian golf club (The phenomenon whereby it is possible to perform avant garde jazz is still not fully understood by science).

Is it safe?
Exposure to boredom levels of up to 1Mvl are generally considered non-harmful, although the long-term effects of regular exposure are still unclear (see Further Resources). Above 1Mvl, however, most people will begin to experience drowsiness, fidgeting and a perceptible decline in their ability to concentrate. If the boring activity is not halted, these symptoms will increase in severity until the afflicted person loses consciousness. The time it takes for this to occur varies according to each individual’s age and baseline level of ennui (see our pamphlet ‘An Easy Guide to Calculating your Ennui’).

Regular exposure to high boredom levels can, over time, enable individuals to develop a degree of tolerance – in much the same way that fighter pilots develop techniques that allow them to resist high g-forces. Successful humanities graduates often exhibit high levels of boredom tolerance, as do solicitors and accountants.

Health and Safety officers are permitted to take a degree of assumed tolerance into account when assessing workplace boredom protocols, although it must be stressed that even the most resilient Tort specialists lose consciousness after around 30 minutes’ exposure to levels higher than 1.9Mvl.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, part the last

This is the second time I've written this post -- the first time blogger did a fun little switcheroo with an identically titled duplicate draft and tricked me into deleting the whole thing. If it seems badly written and confused, it's probably because I was too fed up to write it any better.

This is the last of my interminable posts about the battered Ibanez EX370 that I found in a bin. So, the story so far. I found a guitar with a busted neck. I tried to fix said neck and busted it worse. Time passed, I got married. I made new neck, glued it together and fretted it. All that remained for me to do was paint it and set it up.

I was a little nervous going into this last stage. On the one hand, I knew it was be pretty damn difficult to irredeemably wreck the guitar at this stage, but on the other, there was the issue of my rather checkered record when it comes to refinishing guitars. I lack the patience, equipment, and time to make a good job of it. I still try, but I usually cock it up. Going into this project I had tried refinishing a guitar three times and buggered it up... well, three times.

This time I was determined to do everything by the book. I sanded the neck until it was as smooth as a greased-up teflon baby, then liberally smeared it with sanding sealer. A few days later I repeated the process and left it to dry. The paint I was going to use was some matt clear lacquer I had left over from another project (I say left over – it's more that I never wanted it in the first place. I made the mistake of placing an order with Montana Cans, who are a bunch of complete fucking shysters. Go with MTN Nottingham if you're looking for spray paint -- it's good paint and they won't try and rip you off.).

While it was entirely not what I wanted for the other project, the matt lacquer was ideal for sealing up the neck. I don't like the feel of gloss lacquered or oiled necks -- too sticky under my thumb -- but I knew that if I didn't put something fairly heavy-duty on it the neck would be coated in finger-skank before I'd played my first riff. I took advantage of a late summer warm spell to get to work in my spray booth (the end of the garden) with the neck placed my my special painting cradle (I dangled the neck from the branch of a tree using a hook made out of a bent coathanger).

Much to my annoyance, I discovered that it was very good paint. I hate to give a good review to such a staggeringly unethical company* but I have to say it went on nicely, dried quickly and gave a good finish. The neck was finished within three days. I didn't take any pictures during this stage for some reason, but there wasn't really a whole lot to see.

Once the finish was completely dry I put my maker's mark on the headstock. Since Kristen did about half the work, I figured I should give her half the name, even if Hollingmore does sound like a 1950s kitchen appliance company. I'd intended to do the lettering with one of my chunky italic pens, but it wouldn't stick to the finish so I had to use a sharpie. Suffice to say, calligraphy isn't easy with a sharpie marker. It's supposed to be based on a 16th century Flemish alphabet that I can do quite well with a pen, but with a sharpie, on a awkwardly shaped block of wood, the results aren't so hot.

With that done I wired in the old pickups from my brother's guitar (see this post for how they came to be not in his guitar). Again, no pictures of this stage. I can practically do with blindfolded now (although I still periodically burn myself on the soldering iron) so it didn't strike me as novel enough to photograph.

At this point, when I was just a few meters from the finish line. It all went to shit. Well, not all of it exactly, but an important bit. You see, when I strung it up the first time I didn't really bother with all the rigmarole that goes with setting up a Floyd Rose tremolo – I just ran the strings through the machine-screw holes in the back of the saddle-blocks and left it at that. As long time readers would know, I'm really emphatically not a fan of the FR. What happened next has made me even less of a fan.

To attach a string properly you need to wedge it between a little square block of metal an the saddle-block, then tighten the whole thing up with a set screw. I did this to the first string with no problem, but when I tried to do it to the second on the string pinged out when I tried to tune it up. I put it back in and tightened it about a half-turn more than I'd tightened it before. This caused the saddle-block to shatter like a piece of porcelain.

Now, in all fairness, this isn't exactly the fault of the Floyd Rose design. ‘Original’ FR tremolos (as in ones actually made by the company) are made from machined steel, and you'd need a colossal amount of force to break them. The fact that this one broke is mostly down to it being a cheap-ass die-cast licence made copy. Still, you can make a Fender tremolo from the cheapest materials possible and it still works just fine – I know, I've played an Encore strat copy.

Still. I was annoyed. I had no spare saddles and I definitely couldn't fix the broken one. After a great deal of rummaging around on eBay I managed to find a replacement set, but they were £30 and were probably no better made than the ones that were already there. I really didn't want to spend money improving a piece of hardware that I consider to be fundamentally flawed, and that I'd never use, but at the same time I really didn't have any other choice. After about a week of procrastinating I bought the new saddles and string it up. This time it went without problems, and while the saddles are a noticeably different colour to the old ones (new gold finish vs extremely worn gold finish) they seem to work fine.

I tweaked the action a little, adjusted the intonation (which takes fucking ages) and declared it finished. I then took pictures to prove it.

It sounds nice, and plays well. I think I might make a few more very minor adjustments to it at some point (the nut could do with being filed down about 0.5mm and the fretwork is ever-so-slightly buzzy on the top-e with the action down really low) but they're not really a priority. For now I'm just going to keep it in playable condition and, well, play it.

Perhaps I'll make a serious effort to learn some jazz guitar, just because the idea of playing jazz on something with pointy horns and a Floyd Rose tickles me.


*The whole German Montana vs Spanish Montana (MTN Color) affair is a fascinating story that I need to tell on here one day. Suffice to say it reads like a ‘big-business vs the little man’ story from a left-leaning children's TV show.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the third

So, here I am again. Today I will tell you a tale of glue, swearing and drills.

I left off at the point where I put the neck back in the box it came in, along with all my tools and the larger offcuts (my experience the previous year taught me that you should never turn up your nose at offcuts of good wood) and took it home. I would have liked to do the rest of the project in the workshop, but sadly I only had a few days off work. I'd done all the things that had to be done in the workshop though, so it wasn't a major problem.

The first task, which had to be completed before I could do anything else, was sorting out the slightly squiffy trussrod rout. This was a time consuming but not particularly difficult process – I sat in my attic watching Doctor Who while gradually widening and straightening the rout with a selection of teensy chisels and files. While doing this I also evened out the shape of the router's little excursion into the heel of the neck. The next day I cut a handful of thin slivers from the veneer-like piece and shoved them into the unwanted rout until they filled it with no visible gaps. I then took them out, slavered them in titebond (which is so much easier to work with than gorilla glue) and jammed them back into the gap with a mallet. When dried and planed flat, you could barely see the repair. At about the same time I took another veneer-piece and glued it to the side of the heel where I'd drifted off the line during the jigsaw phase. Once trimmed and planed to the right shape, it got the neck back to the right shape.

I was pleased with myself, work could now continue.

The next stage was attaching the fretboard, which involved a great deal of persnickety measuring and minute adjustments. It also involved a lot of clamps. Like this.

The neck, held in place with three clamps attached to a big bit of scrap pine. The strange mutant in the background is a scrap of pine that I radiused with a plane and then banged frets into for practice. 

Once the neck was firmly glued in place (I kept it clamped securely for two days to be sure) I set about trimming the fretboard to the same size as the neck. It would have been quickest to do this with a saw, but I was terrified of cocking it up so close to completion, so I did it the slow but certain way – with planes and rasps. After I'd done this, I gave the neck back to Kristen so that she could drill the tuning peg holes with the big pillar-drill in her workshop. 

 The neck after I'd removed all the excess material. It was just balanced on the body for the look of the thing in the picture – I'd not actually bolted it into place yet.

It was through experiments with this mutant neck shown above that I figured out a fretting method that seemed to work pretty well. Like the old method, it was still fundamentally clawhammer based (perhaps one day I'll buy a dead-drop hammer in a fit of wild extravagance). It had, however, a few crucial differences from the old method. First of all, I was using Jescar fretwire, which comes pre-radiused (joy), rather than the flat stuff Stewmac sells. This meant that the curve of the fretwire was consistent and even. Secondly, I found a ratty looking old chopping board in the kitchen made out of a funny sort of rubbery plastic that seemed to have just the right amount of bouncy-vs-hard. This latter point sounds a little odd, but it was possibly the more important of the two developments mentioned so far. By cutting a little square of this and sticking it to the end of my hammer, I was able to knock the frets into place without marking them or exposing them to too much shock and vibration. Finally, I bought a big new pair of end-nippers which Kristen reshaped on her grinding wheel at work, fixing them so that the cutting edge was flush with the face of the nippers. This allowed me to cut the frets pretty much flush with the edge of the fretboard, eliminating the lengthy process of grinding the ends down with a file (a process which often shook frets loose). The whole process of fretting, much to my surprise, went smoothly and only took about an hour and a half.

Frets, behold their shinyness. There's only two strings on there because I was just lining up the neck at this point.

With this done I drilled the holes in the headstock for the tuning peg screws, the string trees and the neck attachment bolts. The last of these was probably the most nerve racking. I did it with a hand drill because I was paranoid about drilling through the front of fingerboard. I'm not entirely satisfied with the fit of the neck in the pocket, but it seems good enough to play. With these things done, I wired up one of the pickups and strung it up.

All these things done I gave it a very simple, cursory set up to get the strings somewhere near the fretboard (this involved shimming the neck pocket a little to increase the angle) and plugged it into my amp. I think you could probably have heard my Dr Frankenstein-style laughing from the other side of the street when I figured out that it worked. The frets were even and level, no buzzes or dead notes, the neck felt good in my hands. I gave the truss-rod a tweak and it did what it was supposed to do, correcting the ever-so-slight bow caused by putting it under tension for the first time. 

But, of course, I could not call it finished just yet. So after a few more minutes’ playing, I took the strings back off, dismantled it, and prepared for part four: finishing and set up. Do stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of this saga.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the Second

A few posts ago I told a tale of a little guitar that couldn't, and of my hamfisted attempts to get it working again. I will now bring things up to date.

Part one ended in the autumn of 2011, with the guitar disassembled and thoroughly buggered. It stayed that way for the next 8 months or so. I cannibalized some of its electronics (including the one nice pickup) for a refurb of my little sister's Yamaha Pacifica, and considered throwing the rest of the instrument away on more than one occasion.

I didn't entirely give up on the project though, and once the post-wedding daze had subsided I started thinking about what to do next. Considering the thorough wrecking I'd given it the previous year, I figured I had to either make a entirely new neck or throw the whole thing in the bin. Last year making a new neck would have been completely beyond the realms of possibility (there's only so much you can do with hand tools and a shitty black+decker workbench in your garden) but now I had a wife who worked in a big carpentry workshop. 

This was, I admit, bordering on underpants-gnome logic (Step 1: Wife with workshop, Step 2: ?, Step 3: Guitar Neck!) but it was enough to make me seriously consider how I'd go about building a neck. I bought a few books, read a lot of blog posts, looked into suppliers of wood and parts. I also drew up a set of blueprints for this hypothetical neck using Adobe inDesign. (I know that autocad probably would have been a more appropriate medium, but it took me three years to reach this level of proficiency with inDesign, and so I reserve the right to use it for damn near everything.)

The neck blueprint. Clicky to embiggenate.
The pale blue bit is the truss rod rout.

At about this point Kristen learned that most of her colleagues were disappearing over the summer, and that all her students would disappear also. She suggested that if I came in she could teach me how to use all the tools I'd need and help me with the guitar. In return, I'd be someone to talk to. This seemed like a good plan, so I booked a few days off during the summer holidays and bought the parts I'd need.

I still had a rosewood fingerboard left over from the previous fuckup, so all I needed was fretwire, a trussrod, and a slab of a maple. I bought them from Tonetech Luthier Supplies, who are based in the UK, meaning that there was no interminable wait this time around.

The first tool Kristen taught me to use was a handheld Jigsaw. Once I'd shown I could use it without chopping my fingers off or setting fire to the workshop, she let me loose on a big pile of scrap wood. I cut a load of practice necks from pine offcuts and a couple of dummy headstocks from plywood (I couldn't make practice necks from plywood as plywood has no grain and, therefore, can't be carved)

For the first day and a half I did absolutely nothing to the maple blank itself. I simply made batches of practice necks with the jigsaw, and then carved them with my spokeshaves and rasps. I quickly learned that pine is a tricky wood to carve. This isn't because it's tough – it's barely harder to carve than balsa wood – but rather because it's full of knots. I quickly learned that knots are effectively grain randomisers, once your spokeshave gets within about an inch of them, you have no way of knowing which way its going to go. Nonetheless, I made progress, with the necks looking increasingly neck-like as I went on.

The blanks, carved. The top two were the last ones I did before moving on.

In the afternoon of the second day I decided it was time to start work on the neck blank proper. Before I started to do any of this, however, I had to thin the blank down by about 4mm and level it out. A few trial passes with a big jackplane made it quickly apparent that planing away 4mm of rock maple would take me about a week. Canadian Maple is hard.

Kristen took it upstairs and fed it into the bandsaw. It roared into life, I hid in the corner of the room like a startled kitten (I don't like bandsaws). After an ungodly screeching noise, and a small amount of smoke, Kristen pulled the wood away from the blade, having managed to cut a groove about 2mm deep in one side. Canadian Maple is really hard.

The next day, we tried again with a new saw blade. It went gnuurrrrrrrr-whirr-squeeeeeeeee. I hid. Kristen neatly shaved off a veneer-like piece of maple and handing both bits to me. I spent a lot of the rest of the day planing and planing and planing. By the time came to go home I had a big bruise on the palm of both hands, had pulled most of the muscles in my upper body, and had big salty sweat stains on my clothes. Canadian Maple is insanely hard.

On Friday I traced my blueprint onto the now perfectly smooth surface of the neck and fired up the jigsaw. I quickly discovered that Canadian maple is hard work for a little handheld jigsaw. I had to stop on several occasions because it was overheating to the point where my hands hurt. Eventually though, I managed to cut out the neck. This was the point at which I made my first major mistakes. The first happened when I lost track of the pencil line amidst a cloud of sawdust and drifted about 1mm inside the line near the heel. The second was that I forgot that I needed to do the routing first.

I'm not sure whether it was because I'd removed a lot of material already, or if it's just because routers are evil, but this was the point at which the neck sustained another bit of ‘character’. We clamped the neck into an improvised blank made of plywood and Kristen started to carve the channel (I wasn't feeling particularly confident with the router). When she was about three quarters of the way to the heel, moving with even slowness because the wood was putting up a fight, there was a loud ‘plink’ and Kristen immediately stopped the router. It turned out that the blade had overheated and snapped from the sheer effort of cutting through the Canadian Maple of ultimate hardness. When Kristen restarted a few minutes later the replacement bit caught on some imperfection in the wood and, unnoticed by either of us, drifted off course, cutting a channel that curved about 15mm off the centerline. Luckily it chose to do this in the heel of the neck, where the wood is at its thickest and widest. I figured I could fill the gap by gluing pieces of the veneer-like offcut, which would provide the strength and density needed to hold the neck bolts in place. Having declared the neck to be fine, I set to work carving.

Carving in progress. This was about an hour's work, believe it or not. If you look very carefully, you can just about see the router’s little detour at the heel of the neck next to the clamp.

Needless to say, carving was really difficult. As with the planing earlier, it was a sweaty, palm-bruising process. I first used my microplane rasp (made in Arkansas by wizards) to rough out the curve of the neck at the headstock join and heel, then carefully shaved away layer after layer of wood with my spokeshave (taking care to go with the grain).

Looking up from the heel to the headstock. At this point I thought I was about halfway done with the carving. Hah.

After slicing away enough material that it looked like a neck, I started trying to refine the shape with a regular rasp. I discovered that this was a process akin to cutting through a steel door with a cheesegrater. It made me feel like I was doing something, but I'm not sure it if really achieved much other than to polish it up nicely. Either way, by the end of the day I had something that looked not entirely unlike a guitar neck and felt like I'd been beaten up. Canadian Maple is hard.

How it looked when I downed tools at the end of the day. The weird splodges on the headstock are a mixture of sweat and sawdust. By the end of this few days I was looking thinner and more muscly than I've ever looked in my life. Even if the guitar didn't work, I had at least learned that building guitars is a good workout.


I was originally intending for this to be a two part affair. But now I think I'll have to make it three. Tune in some time in the next week for part three: gluing, fretting and finishing.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bus Repellent

I, like most people, think of myself as a rational, sensible person. I don't believe in fairies, gods, or ghosts and I consider it extremely unlikely (like ‘struck by lighting on the toilet’ unlikely) that we'll ever be visited by aliens. Nonetheless, like all people who think of themselves as sensible and rational, I find odd little superstitions and irrational beliefs creeping into my thinking from time to time. I don't resent these things, or consider them to be failings (they're a normal part of being human, after all), but it is a little alarming the way that they insidiously work their way into your thinking.

A good example of this is my relationship with buses. I don't own a car, and I can't drive, so I tend to spend a lot of time on public transport. The ineffable chaos theory that governs urban traffic makes a mockery of any attempt to impose a train-style timetable on bus services. The frequency and timing of buses is, for all intents and purposes, random. I remember reading a few years ago about an experiment where animals were placed in cages with a machine that dispensed food pellets at random intervals. In almost every case, within a few days the animals had become convinced that some action of theirs was making food pellets come out; they'd do strange dances and movements that they thought made the pellets appear, and didn't seem to notice that they appeared even when they were still.

Like the animals in the cages, when presented with something that was essentially random (in my case, buses), I started to develop an odd and superstitious way of thinking. At first, these superstitions were just a sort of in-joke between me and Kristen, something to talk about while waiting for a bus to appear. But as time went on I increasingly found myself seriously considering these ideas. When waiting for buses, for example, we'd sometimes dramatically turn and walk away from the bus stop, muttering about how we were going to walk home, in the hope of ‘summoning’ a bus. This was just a bit of harmless silliness until the day I found myself doing this when I was on my own. On an empty street. At about 1am.

I felt a bit stupid after that.

The most insidious of these weird superstitions, however, was the belief that Kristen was afflicted with some sort of curse that drove buses away. Again – this started as a joke – me talking about how she shouldn't have desecrated the high altar of the secretive Bus Cult, or something like that, while we were waiting for a bus in the rain. Like the others though, this soon crossed the line from the shelves in my mind marked ‘silly fictions’ to the shelves marked ‘real things’, with me subconsciously looking for proof of its existence.

The world was happy to oblige my weird superstitions at this point: Kristen seemed to be singularly unlucky with buses, and when I was with her, so was I. It wasn't just buses either. I remember there was one particular week when she had a gig up in London and got the train in with me a few times, each time there was some kind of catastrophic railway implosion; delays, cancellations, and long periods of sitting in stationary trains. The rest of the time I got into work just fine.

There was one day when I realized that I was seriously taking Kristen's ‘Bus Repellent’ – as I'd come to think of it – into account while planning our route to the pub. Allowing a more than generous amount of time to get there and trying to come up with a route that minimized the possibility of interference from the bus gods. This entirely imagined problem actually made me resent Kristen for a while – I started getting a later train into work (although admittedly this was mostly motivated by laziness) to ensure that I was not troubled by her influence.

I'm not sure what caused this odd superstition to eventually ebb away. I'd like to think that it was me being sensible and rational, but I don't think it was. I think it was just basic probabilities – Kristen's luck got better, mine got worse; things felt like they were leveling out. Our lives got a lot less stressful as well, which certainly helped me care less about minor inconveniences.

I think this superstition was dealt a final death-blow a few months ago when TFL unveiled their live bus updates system. It's taken the random and mysterious element out of public transport, like scientists figuring out lightning did for the thunder gods...


As a little postscript for this strange ramble (which I started intending for it to be about something else entirely, something that I'll have to write about another day) I'd like to briefly outline my attitude to the universe as pertains to things other than buses. Like I mentioned further up, I'm not a believer in gods, nor do I wistfully believe that ‘there has to be something out there’. I do, however, believe firmly in the fundamental malevolence of all things. I have found that if there's two ways something can happen, and both are as likely as the other, then the shittier option will be the one that takes place.

A case in point – and the incident that led me to formulate this philosophy in the first place –  a few years ago, when I was working on a guitar, I found myself faced with a dilemma. The pickup I was trying to install was an old and strange one (a late-1980s DiMarzio Jazz, as I recall) with no obvious logic to the color coding of its output wires. It was a humbucker, so, four wires coming out. I was able to identify two of them, but the other two were a mystery.

I realized that I had a 50/50 choice. If I wired them one way, the pickup would work fine. If I wired them up the other way, the pickup would be out of phase. I would have no way of knowing whether I'd gotten it right or not until after I'd completed the wiring, reattached the bridge, and restrung the instrument. I had a nasty suspicion that whichever way I chose to do it, it would turn out to be the wrong way and I was right. The damn thing was out of phase and I had to spent about an hour taking off the strings and rewiring it.

A few months later I found myself faced with the exact same problem in a different guitar. Once again, I made my choice and once again I was wrong. I've come up against many variations on this basic conundrum over the years (usually as a result of me dropping some extremely complicated switch I'd just finished pre-wiring and forgetting which end was which) and only once have I ever gotten it right.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dumpster Ibanez, Part the First

About two years ago, while walking back from the shops near my house, I saw a guitar headstock sticking out of a bin. Curious, I walked over and had a look. I saw a slightly battered looking 90s Ibanez, with an RG-shape body, very worn and battered looking hardware, and a snapped neck. I didn't recognize the model name on the headstock, but it was clearly a fairly low-end guitar. If it wasn't for the fact that I could see ‘Seymour Duncan’ written on the bridge pickup (SD are a maker of nice aftermarket pickups that cost about £70 each) I would have left it where it was. The neck didn't look that badly broken and I figured that, if nothing else, the electronics were worth salvaging, so I pulled it out of the bin and took it home, much to Kristen's annoyance.
The poor thing when it first arrived

 It had suffered an accident, possibly guitar flip related.

Top half is sheared along the neck join, bottom half is ragged.

When I got back to the house I cleaned it up a bit and gave it a closer examination. The break was worse than it had initially appeared; the neck and fingerboard were sheared through and the strings were the only thing holding the headstock in place. Some material had split off and been lost from the back of the neck, exposing the truss rod. The rest of the guitar was in a similarly poor state. The neck pickup was covered with a layer of gaffa tape that disguised a gaping hole in the front. The hair-thin wire of the coils had clearly been damaged, rendering the pickup useless. When I tried to dismantle the Floyd Rose tremolo I found that several of the machine screws holding the saddles in place had been cross-threaded. It took some vice-grips and a great deal of effort to get them out, and, once removed, they would not go back in.

For a guitar that probably cost no more than £200 to begin with, it was clearly too badly damaged to be worth the effort of repairing. Nonetheless, I decided to try. I'd been doing minor repairs to guitars for years and was excited by the opportunity to try my hand at the woodworking and fretting side of things.

Things didn't start well. In fact, they started pretty terribly. I'm not sure if this was entirely down to my incompetence (it was a cheap instrument, designed without much consideration for how it could be repaired), but I'm pretty sure my incompetence was the main contributing factor.

I decided that the first thing I needed to do was remove the fretboard so that I could remove the truss rod. I used lots of water and a heated palette-knife to try and ease apart the glue-join, but it would not cooperate. I had to use increasing amounts of force which eventually resulted in the fretboard disintegrating. This was probably unavoidable – to save costs, the fretboards on these instruments are very thin, with barely 1mm of clearance between the bottom of the fretwire and the underside of the board – but in retrospect I'm not sure if I actually *had* to take the fretboard off. It may have been possible to reattach the neck without doing any of that.

So, after round one I had a shredded fretboard which I would have to replace and re-fret. I wanted to teach myself how to do fretting anyway, however, so I wasn't overly bothered. Moreover, not only do I rarely every play electric guitars, I also already have one. So I wasn't in any rush. I bought two pre-cut fretboards from Stewart MacDonald (one just in case I fucked up the first one) and a few metres of fretwire.

While waiting for the fretboards to arrive, I decided to get on with the business of attaching the headstock. My plan was sound – reglue the bits I had, then square off the ragged hole in the back of the neck and plug it – but my execution was lacking. Having never really done any woodworking before, and not having any of the proper tools, I struggled to make the hole square. Each attempt to make the gap a more regular shape just made the hole bigger, until I had carved out a section that was so deep it critically weakened the neck join. After a great deal of practice with scrap wood I was able to carve out a half-decent plug for this hole, but it was never going to hold.

Gluing the neck back together.

The plug. I got a lot of practice carving wood before I scrounged a chunk of scrap maple from a guitar workshop on Denmark street. That large vertical glue join would undoubtedly fail the second strings were put on. Seeing as I buggered up the Fretwork, however, this never actually happened.

I decided to plow on anyway, however, because I figured I may as well get practice making the whole neck, even if it was never going to be usable. I glued the fretboard on (with gorilla glue – a bad choice) and had a go at fretting. Again, this wasn't something I'd ever attempted before, and I didn't have any of the right tools. I had no consistent way of bending the fretwire before I pushed it in, so the ends tended to spring out of their slots the second I turned my back. Also, as the fretwire wasn't curved to a consistent radius, it tended to be all lumpy and odd even when it was seated properly.

It didn't help, of course, that I was essentially just trying to mash the stuff into place with a clawhammer. Each fret was traumatisingly battered by the time I've managed to get it seated halfway right.

I declared the neck to be soundly and completely fucked up, and gave up.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Karl Lueger

For reasons that I really shouldn't go into here, I know a great deal about the city of Vienna. I've never been there, and have no plans to do so in the near future, but a few years ago I found myself having to write around 60,000 words about the city. I read dozens of books about Vienna today, its history, and its culture; I plowed through thousands of blog posts and travel articles; emailed countless hoteliers, shopkeepers and museum staff. I could speak at length about the historicist paintings of Hans Makart, the fabric designs of Koloman Moser, or the palaces of the Habsburg royal family. There was a time when I could draw a pretty accurate sketch map of Vienna's downtown districts – complete with street names and traffic flow directions – entirely from memory.

Since then I've spent most of my working hours filling my mind with pointless military trivia, and the information about Vienna has been pushed further and further down into the sub-basements of my mind. Fragments still pop to the surface from time to time, however, when I read or see something that seems familiar. A few months ago, for example, I read Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – a brilliant novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and found that I could easily place the locations of all the scenes that take place in Vienna.

The other thing that keeps reminding me of the Vienna project, oddly, is American politics.

One of the sections of the book I was working on was a brief history of Vienna. Brief histories are always difficult, because publishers always want them to be comprehensive, while at the same time demanding that each rewrite be shorter than the last. Getting the tone right took dozens of revisions and a huge amount of research. While reading up on the subject I found myself getting fascinated by a couple of figures from the city's history. The rather sad figure of Emperor Ferdinand I was one of them, another was Gerard van Swieten – Empress Maria-Theresia’s personal physician, favorite advisor, and chief vampire hunter. The one that keeps popping up in regard to American politics, however, is Karl Lueger, a politician who was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1900.

Lueger is a colossal figure in Vienna’s history – the man who wrestled a great deal of power from the emperor, who stood up to the corrupt old guard, who formed Vienna into a modern industrial city – but he is generally remembered for something else. On the campaign trail, Lueger was notorious for his scathing anti-semitic rants. He would blame just about anything and everything on ‘the Jews’, he often characterized them as subhuman parasites and urged the crowds to help him drive them out of positions of influence, out of the city, and sometimes worse.

If he was just a ranting anti-Semite, I don't think I would have paid him more than a second glance. Sadly this was not an unusual trait in late 19th-century Viennese politics and there are always bigots in the world. The thing that I found genuinely chilling – and the thing that reminds me of contemporary American politics – is the strange fact that he wasn't, by all accounts, an anti-Semite. He was an intelligent and genial man, to whom all that ranting and raging was just an effective campaign strategy. In his time Vienna was an overcrowded city where the rich had everything and the poor scrabbled around for scraps, taking advantage of ethnic tensions was easy and effective.

For all his fiery rhetoric, Lueger did not actually do anything politically to make the lives of the city's Jews harder. Admittedly, he voted for a few anti-Semitic laws while he was a representative in the local government, but he was not closely involved with these proposals; he simply threw himself behind them when it became clear that failing to do so would harm his chances of getting re-elected. He also had many Jewish friends, although he worked hard to keep this fact secret.

If things had stopped there, then Lueger’s campaign trail antics would probably have been forgotten. Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that. You can't stand on a soapbox and preach hate without it sinking in somewhere. Lueger may not have meant it, but he threw his considerable authority and oratorical powers behind these ideas, pushing them further and deeper than they would otherwise have gone.

When he died in 1910 thousands of ordinary Viennese workers turned out for his funeral. Among them was a young art-school washout called Adolf Hitler, who had hung of the great man's every word since he'd arrived in the city three years earlier. Decades later, he would write about his admiration of Lueger in his prison autobiography, Mein Kampf.

This is what worries me with US politics. For the last 10–15 years, the grandees of the Republican party have lined up to make vicious and dehumanizing statements about ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the Gays’. I don't believe that any of them actually think like this – that the thrice-married serial adulterer Newt Gingrich actually wishes fire and brimstone on same sex couples, or that the canny businessman Donald Trump thinks that the president is a crypto-Muslim – but their pandering to these ideas helps them spread.

The Republican party is already reaping the first harvest of this policy, with the old  
 hypocrites having to share the senate floor with the zealous (and stupid) true believers they inspired back in the 90s. I worry that if they don't do something to control this tendency soon, it's only a matter of time before their words drift into the wrong head – I don't mean spree killing bad, I mean Voldemort bad.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Long Distance

Despite what the frequency of flashback episodes in American sitcoms would suggest, most people manage to live their lives without often having to explain how they and their significant other met. No-one wants to sit around for ten minutes while a couple gushes about a romantic, dramatic chain of events that almost certainly didn't happen, nor do they want to hear the truth, as the story is ultimately pretty much the same for everyone.

I've only been married for about three months, but I've already learned that this will not be the case for me. My wife and I have voices that immediately give away the fact that we're from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and this makes people curious.

My usual response to the question is to say that we met in 2004, when we were both at the University of Kent. Which is true. Unfortunately, it's a response that creates more questions than it answers. Kristen is clearly not English, nor does she have (yet) the sort of mid-Atlantic accent that would imply she's lived here for a long time. The next question, therefore, is invariably about how long she's lived in the UK. When she says ‘three years’ people start to look confused.

A decent explanation of how our unusual situation came to be requires rather more detail than one can reasonably fit into a few sentences at a party. It also involves delving into a period of my life that I'm rather self-conscious about. As a result, I tend to run away as the next question is forming itself.

Right now I'm sitting in the attic of our shared home, with a wedding band on my finger and a warm fuzzy feeling in my head. I figure now is as good a time as any to look back on those four missing years, however, and perhaps if I actually set the story straight in my head I'll be able to answer the question properly next time it comes up. So, first up, a declaration: I was in a long distance relationship for about four years of my life.

There's a tremendous stigma associated with long distance relationships. It makes me feel uncomfortable to even write the phrase, to associate myself with it, because it immediately springs to mind so many negative associations – maladjusted ogres lurking in the darkness, emotionally desperate loners clinging to a vague approximation of affection, and, of course, girlfriends ‘who live in Canada’. As a result, without really meaning to, I tend to jump straight from the summer of 2005 to the autumn of 2009 when I'm talking about me and Kristen, glossing over the period of my life that makes people look at me funny.

When Kristen went home at the end of her year at Kent, it hit me pretty hard. I was grouchy and morose, prone to Marvin the Paranoid Android levels of gloominess. I tried to deal with this in my usual way – by trying to put a new band together and going on manic crosstown benders with my friends, but the gloom always seemed to sneak back in. I spent a lot of that summer wandering around in Oxleas woods, talking to myself, or rather, talking to a Kristen that wasn't there.

I was still was in occasional contact with Kristen through messenger and email, but that's a laughably pale imitation of actual interaction. This blog post Kristen wrote in June 2005 sums up the feeling of that summer pretty well.

Around the time that I went back to university I remember reading a news story that mentioned a program called Skype. Apparently it was something that allowed you to call people for free over the internet. Needless to say, I downloaded it immediately, as did Kristen, and one rainy evening in October (after the internet had finally started working properly in our house) we heard each others' voices for the first time in several months. Endless technical problems aside, it was a good evening (I say evening, I think it was well after dawn by the time I finally went to sleep).

We soon established a routine that would continue, with periodic interruptions, for the next four years. We both went about our daily lives as usual, occasionally chatting on messenger or through email while we worked on other things, but in the evening we would fire up Skype and talk for a few hours. This was before Skype supported video-calling (and neither of us had webcams anyway) so our relationship soon became a strangely abstract one – we were just two disembodied voices and minds. Sometimes we'd send each other pictures of ourselves, but for the most part we remained invisible to each other.

Our relationship would never have been possible without Skype. This was primarily because it was free, obviously, but there was another reason. Skype provides far higher audio quality than a regular phone line; I was able to hear kristen – through my big monitoring headphones – as clearly as if she was sitting by my side. I could hear her breathing, the full range of her voice, and the ambient sounds of the room she was in. I don't think that I could have held her image so distinctly in my mind if it were not for that three dimensional quality. Another tool that helped us keep in touch was Audacity, the open source recording software. On evenings when I knew we weren't going to be able to talk (which happened quite often when Kristen was living in California) I'd use audacity to record little messages or read poems and short stories I’d discovered that day.

The time difference meant that we generally talked when it was very late for me (11pm–2am, usually) but still fairly early for Kristen. This had the strange effect that while everyone in Kristen's life knew about me, because she had to excuse herself to talk to me, very few people in my life knew about Kristen. It wasn't that I was keeping her a secret – if people asked about my personal life I'd mention her – it's just that unless they asked (and very few people ever did) they'd have no way of knowing she existed. Obviously my flatmates and my close friends (who knew Kristen before she went back to the states) knew about her, but most of my extended circle of friends assumed I was either an unusually shabby closeted gay man or completely asexual. 

For me ‘Kristen Time’ came at the expense of sleep, rather than any of my daytime activities. I got used to this after a while – I became able to function at work or university even after only an hour or two of sleep – but I've gotten the impression that it was not without side-effects. Most notably, several of my friends have mentioned that I've become a noticeably calmer, nicer person since Kristen's been living the UK. My own recollections back this up – there are lots of things I can clearly remember saying that make me cringe now, they seem mean spirited and bitchy. How I appeared to other people back then was well summed up by one of my friends, who in the autumn of 2009 remarked, ‘It'd never occurred to me that you were capable of love. Before she appeared I'd always assumed you were some kind of Charlie Brooker-style misanthrope’.


Earlier on I mentioned ‘interruptions’. I'm not going to gloss things over and claim we've always been madly devoted to each other. There were two periods during those four years where we didn't really talk much. One was in the spring of 2006, when I had a crisis of confidence and decided I wanted to break things off. This lasted for about two weeks, if that, but made things a little awkward for a while afterwards. The second time, in spring of 2007, was more serious. I was in my third year of uni and working really unpleasantly hard, sleeping little and thinking way too much. Kristen was living in California, and also working unpleasantly hard, thinking too much, and sleeping little. The eight-hour time difference, coupled with the fact that we were both going mad, led to us just imploding. We didn't speak at all for around three months, but then started to write in our blogs more and more – until we both realised that we were writing mostly for the benefit of each other, and started talking on messenger again. We resumed talking on Skype towards the end of the summer, I think, but it took a pretty long time for things to return to how they were before.   


We did occasionally see each other in person during those four years. The first time was in the summer of 2006, just after I'd finished my second year of university and Kristen had graduated. She knew that she was going to have to drive from New York (the Hamptons actually, dahling) to San Francisco during the summer, and asked her parents if they'd pay for me to come along as a graduation present to her. Amazingly, they agreed to this, perhaps because Kristen had neglected to mention a few pertinent pieces of information like the fact that I can't drive, I'm shit at reading maps, I can't change a tyre and I am in fact significantly weaker than Kristen.

Luckily, none of those skills were required, and we had a wonderful time. For a suburban English boy who'd never traveled any further than northern France, traveling across America was an amazing experience. We spent our days talking and watching the landscape go by (I-40 is pretty much dead-straight from Knoxville, Tennessee to Bakersfield, California, so Kristen rarely had to devote much attention to driving). We lived off Waffle House pancakes and stayed in a constellation of – to my European eyes – absurdly large and air-conditioned motel rooms. Settling back into each other's company felt completely natural, as if we'd never been apart. Parting again was a bastard.

I tried to write about that trip on here, but I was swamped by university work (the third year was hard) and only managed to write these three posts. Kristen wrote just one, but it was much more thorough. The fact that I didn't write more pisses me off a great deal. I could still write thousands of words about that trip if I set my mind to it, and that's after those experiences have been left in the damp basement of my memory for years. Perhaps one of these days I'll sit down with all the photos we took, all the notes I wrote and see if I can recreate the trip in my mind and write about it.

We didn't see each other in person for another two years after that, not until my friends and I all decided to go to New York on holiday. We only spent two days in each other's company on this occasion, but we made up for it by not actually sleeping. Despite all the time that had passed, the period of silence, and how much our lives had changed in the interim (I had by then graduated from university and gotten myself a job working as an editor at a publishing firm, Kristen was working with children on a sailboat in Baltimore) we found, as we had last time, that everything just clicked. I remember sitting on the plane on the way home, reading and rereading a message she'd sent me as she left New York on the chinatown bus to Baltimore: ‘The city is out of sight now. I can still smell your hair on my hands.’

She's always had a knack for words.

The next two times we saw each other (she came here at the beginning of 2009 and I went over to New York in the summer of the same year) we were busy planning Operation Live in the Same Country, so I'm not sure if they really count as part of the long distance period. By this time we were talking on video Skype (which in some ways felt less intimate than when we were just voices in the darkness) and actively planning our future together, something that we'd never felt able to do before.

I wrote about my first trip to New York here and here. Kristen wrote about her trip to the UK here. I wrote about my second trip to New York here, here and here.


I sometimes wonder what the long-term effects of those four years have been on our relationship, and the way I've developed as a person. I'm reminded of something my dad said at our engagement party, which I can't remember clearly enough to do justice. It centered on the British idiom ‘tried and tested’ and the American one ‘Tried and true’. I feel like it's made us stronger and more confident as a couple – we know, more definitely than most people, that we categorically did not take the path of least resistance. We know that you can take us, fling us to opposite sides of the world and leave us for four years and we'll still love each other. That knowledge makes the everyday trials of the long workdays and cold winters, of the richer and poorer, the sickness and health – seem almost laughably insignificant.

It's one of those things though, like the scale of the universe, that it's almost impossible for me to hold a clear image of in my head. When I actually put what I have now in perspective, compare it to all the nights spent staring at a computer screen, struggling to keep my eyes open long enough to see the little note pop up that says ‘Kristen is Online’, I tend to tear up almost immediately. At our wedding Kristen's sister said something – I can't remember what – that made me glimpse, just for a moment, what was happening through the eyes of a younger me, a version of me to whom this all seemed like some wonderful dream. I think t was a bit much for Kristen too. We had to go and hide outside for a while.

I think relationships like ours will probably become more common over the next few years, providing the phone companies don't manage to get Skype shut down. I'm not the only person in my social group who has married an American, and I know of several other people my age who have also opted to do things the hard way (one of them was even brave enough to marry a Canadian). I doubt that will stop people from backing away from you at parties though. I think even people who've gone through this secretly believe themselves to be the only normal ones who did it, different from those other weirdos.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Tube Station Poster

Inspired by something Kristen wrote the other day.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I've just finished reading through a chapter of a friend's Phd thesis; some 40 pages on the subject of thrift in wartime needlework. It doesn't sound the most interesting subject, I know, but it was actually a fascinating read. This isn't going to be a commentary on the content of the thesis -- I'm not even remotely qualified to write something like that -- but a piece about its form.

I should start by explaining that I've not written anything in an academic setting in about 5 years now, not since I put down my pen in the last exam of my degree in the summer of 2007. Pretty much everything I've written since that time has been related to my work as an editor. At work I write or edit travel guides, coffee table books, and illustrated reference sets, as well as more magazine-like publications. Everything I write is done with a very careful eye on the word count, and, more often than not, the physical space into which I have to fit the text. If you've never had to do this, it's hard to explain how deeply this affects your writing. You have to discard perfectly good prose and rewrite it, again and again, breaking down your ideas into haiku-like phrases so you can fit, for example, the complete history of the development of the steam engine into a little sidebar. Furthermore, you often have to change sentences, not because they're too long, but simply because they're the wrong shape; an awkward grouping of long words can wreak havoc with you line-breaks, especially in unjustified text.

To an extent, my writing has always erred on the side of concise. I've always strongly disliked the act of writing things out by hand -- it's slow and awkward for me -- so as a child I tended towards brevity, simply because it was less unpleasant. Even when I'm using a keyboard, when it comes to writing outside of work -- like this -- I'm generally restricted by the number of words I can write in one sitting without completely losing my train of thought (generally around 1000).

As a result, I was taken aback by my sudden return to the voluminous wordiness of academic English. The chapter I read was not bloated or overlong, but simply comprehensive. It mentioned everything there was to be mentioned and examined the key issues from every angle. Admittedly, like all academic writing, it repeated itself a lot -- introductions, conclusions, statements of intent -- but no more than is expected for such a work.

Nonetheless -- and I think it may have been the theme of thrift that kept bringing this to the forefront of my mind -- it seemed to me that there was something decadent, even wasteful, about using so many words. To compare it with my normal writing, it was like sinking into an enormous squashy sofa after spending a day perched on a wooden stool. The scholarly part of my mind appreciated the subtle nuances produced by repeatedly interrogating the same sources, but my editor brain simply spat out the red biro it had clamped between its teeth and growled.

I was restrained and sensible, but the presence of so many words did make me feel like an eager lumberjack, dropped in the middle of a forest of sturdy trees.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Money markets

I've generally tried to avoid reading too much about the financial crisis. I don't have much of a head for figures, and I know what I read will just make me even angrier than I already am.

A sort of morbid fascination, coupled with a vague sense of civic duty, often induces me to go and read up on the latest scandal. I'm not generally that interested in the reportage on the scandals themselves, but more on the peculiar world that these scandals shed light on. In order, for example, for a newspaper to discuss ethical violations by a company involved in the millisecond-turnaround automatic trade they have to first explain what that business is.

Each time I'm struck by just how amazingly abstract the business models of these companies are. They don't create anything, nor do they really do anything. Most of them conjure their wealth seemingly from nowhere by simultaneously jiggling thousands of sets of numbers. They're not investors in the traditional sense – putting their money behind businesses to help them expand or improve, with the expectation that they'll reap some of the subsequent profits – they're just taking advantage of strange quirks in the modern financial system. 

The best analogy I can think of for these businesses comes from the world of computer games. Amongst gamers there is a class of cheat known as an exploit. These are not intentionally programmed codes, nor are they bugs, exactly. An exploit is simply a trick that takes advantage of a careless bit of programming, a loophole in the game’s internal logic.

A good example of an exploit comes from the Elder Scrolls series (Morrowind, I think, was the last one where this was possible). In these games you could create a magical amulet that increased the potency of potions you brewed. You could then put on this amulet and brew a potion that increased the potency of amulets you made. It was possible to repeat this process until you were able to make absurd items that the developers never intended for players to have – like invisibility potions that never wore off, or amulets of protection that rendered your character functionally invincible. 

Most of these traders seem, to my eyes, to be people taking advantage of an exploit – cheating, essentially. They're bypassing the route to prosperity that society’s fundamental code is designed around – hard work, innovation, skill – and are replacing it with a cynical and repetitive manipulation of an overlooked loophole.


On a related note. A while ago I found myself looking at the wikpedia pages for facebook and Rolls Royce in quick succession (I don't remember why). The difference between the market values of the two companies says a lot about the confused state of the modern stock market.

Facebook is a relatively small company. It employs a few thousand people, owns a few million dollars worth of tangible assets (servers, offices, etc.), and has a revenue of about 3.7 billion dollars a year. It has a business model that’s based on people continuing in the mistaken belief that advertising with them is a good idea (many senior ad-men are pretty convinced it isn't) and that it will one day figure out a way of making money directly from its users (which is like someone saying that they've got a lovely pork dinner ready and waiting when what they really have is an angry boar living somewhere in the forest near their house). A while ago facebook spent one billion dollars buying instagram – a company with about a dozen employees and a business model that, as far as anyone can tell, was based around waiting for someone stupid to buy them out.

Rolls Royce, by comparison, employs more than 40,000 people worldwide and has an annual revenue of 17 billion dollars. It makes jet engines and turboprops for just about everyone, along with squillions of other aerospace and high-tech engineering products. A few years ago it bought the Allison Engine Company, a large and highly profitable company which makes the engines for most US military helicopters and transport aircraft, for $525 million.

According to the stock market, facebook is worth 104 billion dollars, while Rolls Royce is worth only 20.

The only reason I can think of for this is that facebook is an entertaining football for the short-term gambler types, while steady, boring Rolls Royce is only of interest to people with an attention span of more than five minutes. The boring people have a more pragmatic approach to valuing companies, which at no point involves the word ‘zeitgeist’.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

For the last few days I've been adapting a book about the battle of Philippi for a general-interest military history series. It's been a frustrating process. The book I'm working from was written by a classicist, and so uses latin terminology constantly, seemingly unaware that most people don't know what, for example, a ‘equestris’ is. He'll write something like ‘before Gaius landed on the west coast of Asia he had the quaestor declared a hostis’, and expect the reader to just know what a quaestor is, what hostis means, and not be baffled by the idea that Asia has a west coast.

The thing that's most frustrating, however, is the sheer mind-boggling amount of detail he goes into. He describes every double-cross (there were lots) every faction and every minor player. Just in the introductory background section he drops about a squillion names, mentioning everyone from the supreme over-emperor of everywhere to the bloke who carried Brutus' stabbing irons to the theatre. Everyone has a backstory, a family history, and a list of motivations and grudges. These descriptions, though extensive, also manage to be entirely useless to a non-specialist as they are peppered with references to events and personages whose significance is never explained.

This breadth of allusion is what I find strange about this book (and pretty much all classical history books). The author writes like he's describing events that he lived through and, more strangely, that his audience lived through as well. I could learn what all these terms mean (well, I have, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to write the article) but I'd still feel like a foreigner in their world. I'm not a Roman.

I'd been mulling this over for about a week when – woken by a premature hangover and unable to get back to sleep – I took my wife's slab-thick Complete Works of Jorge Luis Borges down to the living room and curled up on the sofa. The story I found myself reading was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, one of my favorites. It's about a man who discovers an encyclopedia entry about a country that doesn't exist. This article turns out to be just a tiny fragment of a much larger work, a massive, Brittanica-like encyclopedia which stretches to hundreds of volumes, detailing every conceivable aspect of an entirely fictional world called Tlön. It is the secret work of generations of scholars, a vast enterprise that drew in specialists from every field imaginable.

Near the end of the story someone finds a complete set of the Encyclopedia of Tlön. It becomes a runaway hit, republished in every language, and reprinted constantly. The narrator then goes on to describe the effect it had on the world:

“Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorized re-editions and pirated editions of the ‘Greatest Work of Man’ flooded and still flood the earth. Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty.”

To my mind, this description works just as well for Rome.

I'm not saying that the Roman world never existed, just that it never existed in the form that we know it. What we think of as ancient Rome is not the civilization that once thrived on the shores of the Mediterranean, but a virtual civilization that still lives, insofar as it ever has, in an endless stream of written material.

Modern-archaeology aside, Rome is a paper-bound civilization that extends only as far as the edges of what people wrote down. As a result it is eminently knowable and finite, a far more comforting subject for study than the world around us. Even when there are contradictions or ambiguities in the written world of Rome, the problem easily identified as one of exegesis.

People like myself often look back through the broad sweep of history and say ‘it's only once people dropped religion that they started making progress’. I think this is true to an extent, but I think religion’s stultifying effect had a secular analogue – an enchanting, idealized world that captivated the minds of generations of scholars. It can also be said that it's only once we, as a culture, stopped trying to recreate ancient Rome – one bored latin student at a time – that we managed to get anywhere.


Saturday, June 30, 2012


Ambrose Burnside looked every bit the natural leader of men. He was tall and strong. He had amazing facial hair and a deep resonant voice. He could quickly and easily win the confidence and respect of just about everyone he met. No-one mentions this in contemporary descriptions, but I expect he gave a damn good handshake as well – the sort that leaves people with numb fingers but an impression of great sincerity.

In times of peace, men like Ambrose Burnside make great fortunes. They often manage to work their way into high political office and, when they do, invariably end up getting called ‘statesmen’.

In almost every case men like Burnside are, it's fair to say, psychopaths. They cynically manipulate those around them, carefully constructing the persona that people want to see. Their ambition drives them to constantly seek more power, more status, even when they don't have any idea what to do with it when they get it.

In times of war people like this cause disasters. The Burnsides of this world get entrusted with armies they don't know how to lead and soon discover that you can't win a battle through bluster and charm. It's not that they have some inherent quality that makes them shitty officers, it's just that they can never be as good as other people assume they will be.

Ambrose Burnside is fascinating because, as far as I can tell, he wasn't one of these people. He was, by all accounts, an honest, uncomplicated man who didn't plot or scheme and wasn't particularly ambitious. He wasn't a saint, by any means, but his vices seem no more prominent that those of anyone else.

The ineffable ‘leadership’ qualities that so many psychopaths work so hard to acquire seem to have been an involuntary thing for him. He didn't set out to make people think he would be the solution to all their problems, but they ended up thinking it anyway. When the American Civil War broke out, this useful oddity became something of a curse.

Before the war he'd served in the army for a while, but soon realised he wasn't really cut out for military life. During the 1850s he ran a munitions factory, selling rifles built around an ingenious breech-loading mechanism of his own design. He was persuaded to rejoin the army as the clouds of the American civil war loomed , and found himself getting rapidly promoted. Abraham Lincoln, whom he knew from his days as an arms manufacturer, seems to have become convinced that Burnside was the man to save the Union.

Burnside was no genius, and he was certainly prone to flattery, but he wasn't stupid or delusional. He knew that he was no Napoleon. He kept getting promoted, however, often against his will. By the summer of 1862 he had gone from Major to Colonel, from Colonel to Brigadier General, from Brigadier General to Major General and then through a sequence of successively more senior postings. Each time he protested that he didn't know what he was doing, that there were plenty of others more qualified than he, but Lincoln insisted. He turned down the command of the Army of the Potomac three times before Lincoln finally persuaded him to do the job.

On the battlefield Burnside was every bit the disaster he thought he was going to be. He was an excellent Major and a competent Colonel, but the responsibilities that subsequent promotions brought were too much for him. He was, like I said earlier, an uncomplicated man: he didn't have much of an imagination and, pivoting breech-mechanisms aside, wasn't very inventive. At Antietam, Fredericksburg and Petersburg he sent thousands of men to their deaths in clunky and rigid battle plans.

The whole situation seems a little nightmarish. He kept getting pushed into positions of terrifying responsibility where he had no idea what he was doing, like those bad dreams where you find yourself trying to fly a plane or play a Chopin prelude to an audience of extremely cultured bears. After his first really epic defeat, at Fredericksburg, he proposed launching one last attack against the enemy’s stronghold, that he would lead. Himself. From the front. His staff officers talked him out of it. He didn't quite have the nerve to just say ‘excuse me, I seem to have caused a disaster, if you don't mind I'm just going to pop outside and shoot myself’ so he had to come up with a less obvious way of doing it.

Even more nightmarishly, after the initial cock-up he kept getting assigned new commands. Demotion just didn't seem to stick. Lincoln would find him a new army each time he killed his last one. Once or twice he displayed some skill as a commander, most famously when he boldly outmaneuvered James Longstreet’s army in Tennessee – a feat that helped Grant win the battle of Chattanooga. Generally, though, it was just one disaster after another. They weren't always entirely his fault, but he usually played a pretty major role.

After the war he worked in various corporate directorships, before becoming a senator for his home state of Rhode Island. His charm managed to outweigh his dismal war record, and was re-elected until his death in 1881.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Stretch Armstrong Custer

Have a look at this picture. It shows a meeting of General George B. McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln shortly after the battle of Antietam in the summer of 1862. Behind them stands an assortment of staff officers and hangers-on.

I don't think I have to point out which one is Lincoln, and it's pretty easy to guess which one is McClellan (hint: his men called him ‘Little Mac’ or ‘Young Napoleon’).

At first glance, it's a fairly unremarkable picture – McClellan looks looks like he's about to pop Lincoln on the jaw (he probably wanted to), Lincoln looks freakish (although he actually looks less like an alien in this picture than he normally does), and this being the American Civil War, almost everyone is sporting a beard you could hide a badger in.

The remarkable thing about this picture is the figure on the far right, leaning insolently against a tent pole. The silly hat and comically oversized sword give away the fact that beneath the enormous mutton-chops hides a young George Armstrong Custer – cavalryman, indian fighter, and narcissistic prick.

Look closely and you see a terrible truth that historians have hidden from the American people for years. The Hero of Little Bighorn was a three-legged mutant.

This raises all kinds of questions, not least of which is ‘how on earth did he ride a horse?’

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Russian Revolution in 400 words

Something I had to write for work the other day. Pretty much all of this was news to me, so I found it interesting.
In early 1917 failures on the battlefields of World War I, coupled with frustration at the slow pace of political reform in Russia, triggered an armed uprising in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed in 1914). In what became known as the ‘February Revolution’, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and a reformist provisional government was formed.
Regardless of its intentions, the situation this new government inherited was completely unworkable. The Russian Army was locked in a stalemate with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and losing thousands of men every day to desertion. The state was effectively bankrupt and many wanted to sue for peace. The government knew, however, that a peace settlement under these conditions would mean devastating reparations and territorial concessions. Furthermore, the old regime’s allies, Great Britain and France – who had invested heavily in the Russian war effort – would not allow such a move. It was decided, therefore, that the fighting had to continue, much to the dismay of the Russian population.
While the war raged on, the radical groups that had backed the February Revolution began working to undermine the provisional government, which they now saw as a continuation of the old regime. The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, was particularly active in this regard, establishing a parallel system of local government controlled by workers’ committees, known as ‘soviets,’ all over the country.
With the integrity of the state deteriorating rapidly, the Provisional Government pinned their hopes on a final, massive offensive against the Central Powers in the summer of 1917. Aware that the Central Powers were also near collapse, they hoped this final push could pave the way for a acceptable peace settlement. The offensive proved to be a catastrophic failure, however, and led to the near-collapse of the Russian Army. As the crisis deepened, the internal divisions within the provisional government flared up, leaving it deadlocked and incapable of responding effectively. In the absence of a functioning government, the authority and influence of the soviets grew.
As early as March 1917, the Bolshevik Party had been establishing units of Red Guards, an armed militia. By October this had grown into a force some 200,000 strong, with brigades all over Russia. On 25 October, Lenin used the 30,000 Red Guards within Petrograd to seize power. The Red Guards arrested the Provisional Government and declared that they had taken power in the name of the soviets of Russia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I use wikipedia quite a lot when I'm at work. The project I'm currently working on often requires me to read up on a broad swathe of history so that I have a reasonable idea of the context of the events I'm writing about. I don't need to know anything in great detail, just the broad shape of things. For that purpose wikipedia is great. I also frequently need to write things about weapons systems, past and present, and wikipedia -- with its huge cast of gun nuts, teenage boys, and war-obsessives -- gives me all the detail I could possibly ever want to know (and a fair bit more... I now have an opinion on the relative merits of 7.62mm vs 5.56mm ammunition, for example -- an opinion no one is ever going to ask me for, nor do I ever want to volunteer).

Unfortunately, if you spent a lot of time using wikipedia it's hard to resist the urge to glance under the hood, so to speak, to hit that little tab on the top of the page that says 'talk'. At first I'd look to see if anyone had put any useful links there in the course of their discussions, now I tend to look out of a sort of morbid fascination.

In case you're unfamiliar with the format, a wikpedia talk page is where the people involved in the creation of the page -- and interested readers -- can post queries or messages, suggest changes, or debate what should go in the article. Every now and then you find one like this, usually on some innocuous subject like botany or basket-weaving, but generally they're either empty (because the article was written by one person, and no-one else cares) or they're filled with a wonderful cross between committee minutes and a full-on forum flame-war. The rules of wikipedia -- which discourage personal attacks and urge contributors to always assume good faith -- ensure that most disputes are, at least at first, couched in wonderfully passive-agressive language. People make extraordinarily bitchy comments about each others' contributions without ever technically breaching any of these rules. I often find myself scrolling down, reading the gradual descent of a sensible, grown up discussion into childish name calling and threats. Often it's possible to follow these arguments as they jump from one article's talk page to the next, to various users' personal pages, to the annals of the administrators.

The talk pages on well known contentious and divisive subjects don't really interest me -- if I wanted to see pages and pages of people arguing religion or politics I'd look at, well, anywhere on the internet. What I like are the pages where you get two socially maladjusted nerds flinging abuse at each other over, say, the divisional organization of an army that was disbanded 200 years ago. It's like what the big bang theory would be if the characters weren't secretly just mouthpieces for witty, articulate people.

Sometimes the people involved are clearly completely insane. For example, I recently found this userpage, having encountered his signature on a few particularly bizarre messages left on talk pages. It reads like the sort of thing that gets mailed to the New York Times shortly before the author goes on a spree killing.

By far my favourite recent discovery, however, is this wonderful page -- the talk page relating to an article on a not particularly well known chess player, writer, and aspiring libertarian politician who seems to have puffed his own page out beyond all proportion to his notability. It's good partly for the arm-flapping fury of the participants, but also for the personalities of the two main combatants. If you follow their various disputes from page to page, it soon becomes clear that this bloke is this bloke's nemesis, and vice versa. They've managed to generate an animosity for each other, purely through chess and arguments on the internet, that in day of yore would have required one of them to murder at least two of the others' immediate family. The whole thing provides a fascinating insight into the slightly surreal and unintentionally hilarious world of professional chess players.