Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mad Skillz - Part 1

I was thinking the other day that I had managed, over the last 12-18 months or so, to add a number of somewhat odd abilities to myself. It's not that I am searching for a hobby, I don't feel the need for them per say, more I find that I just suddenly become curious and intensely interested in something. I have no idea where this will take me eventually, or what will be next, but I might just take a guess in another part. So, first off there was ....

Spinning. This was the first real skill I learnt, although perhaps the vegi garden was before that but it's so common an affliction it doesn't really count. No, I get a few raised eyebrows when (or if) I tell people that I know how to spin. I know it is not very Australian-male of me, I should be more interested in football or indy car racing or something. Anyway, we were at the markets at Bundanoon in NSW, which is where my mother lives, and there was a lady there spinning wool. I am reasonably mechanically minded, but at first glance the wheel looked impenetrably complex in it's operation. On the other side of this though, she seemed so relaxed and contented converting a bag of raw fleece to what passed at a thread, which was then spun again into a wool. It seemed like a sort of magic, like a raw egg congealing into scrambled mass on the application of a little stir and heat. I liked the fact that I could be part of a small section of a process which involved the raw ingredient of a fleece to the end product of a useful thing to wear, even if it was a wobbly scarf or something. This was empowering, and learning the wheel was a challenge.

I bought my wheel on eBay, and probably paid a bit too much, but it's a nice one. It is an Ashford brand, in a honey coloured pine. When I first got it, I have nothing to spin with it, so I had to then buy a bag of "slivers", which is precombed and dyed fleece. This seemed like a bit of a cheat, but I was already a bit overwhelmed so I was just trying to make it a little easy on myself and I knew I could ramp it up later to something harder, if indeed I ever made it that far. I read a bit, watched a few youtube videos and when I had something to spin, sat down to tried it myself. My wife, I think, probably expected me to give up early. And based on my first attempts, where I seemed to be all thumbs and be simply fighting the machine, it looked to be the logical thing to do. The twist kept getting past my thumb pinch, and this made drawing really hard. However, I paced myself, and took small victories where I could. I had brief moments where it felt to be getting easier. It is a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time at first, but slowly you get used to the motion and controlling the speed of the wheel. In fact, after a while you stop thinking about it, it just more or less does what you want it to. Getting the sliver to draw out evenly was really the concentration point.

Learning the tension of the wheel, and getting a feel for the right amount of twist, took quite a bit of time, and I realised, is where some personality of the spinner comes into play. My wool is reasonably thick and sturdy, because to me this seems right, but my wife who also was trying it out, produced thin and delicate wool.

Plying was also a stage to master, somewhat separate to the spinning, where the two threads are spun together to make the final strong wool. This is where you see how even your work is, as it rapidly passed through your hands. I had piggy tails all over the shop, and huge "slubs" - which are fat bits. After hours of slaving away I had produced my first "skien", which looked like a hoop of old Rastafarian's locks. It twisted up hopelessly, and was more or less a complete disaster. However, even in this first attempt I had improved visibly from the start to the finish, so I was encouraged.

Knitting. The wool I produced was not going to just sit around in pretty balls. I wanted to actually use it. You may congratulate yourself on how well it looks, but there is nothing like using something to really know it's quality. So, I bought some knitting needles and sat down with an excellent beginners book ("Knitting" by Klutz ISBN-10 1-59174-384-2) and tried to become something other than all thumbs again. My first project was a scarf, for myself, in the most basic of all stitches - garter stitch. Like air travel - casting on and casting off is the most dangerous, but the bit in between is lots of the same. Like the spinning though, consistency of tension was the key. My wife kept telling me to loosen up, but I always fell back to a slightly tense line.

The scarf I produced was too wide, had a wobbly thinner bit in the middle and was very heavy. However, I wore it all through our great family European vacation with pride and to great effect - it was warm and gave me comfort. There is something very pleasing about wearing something you have made from (almost!) scratch. You appreciate the effort that has gone into it, as you know exactly how much that was. You look after it. I guess in a word you cherish it, as there is something of you in it.

From there I decided to knit a scarf for my daughter, and chose to use store bought wool so that I could get some colour and also eliminate the still inconsistent quality of the wool I was producing. I knew she would be less tolerant of mistakes. This turned out to be really quite an OK result, she wore this in Europe too. I made some mistakes, and had to get my wife to help backtrack on those and patch them up. I seem to be like a train when I knit, with only a forward momentum. Going backwards is a real problem, I stare at the needles for ages not knowing what to do next.

After this, and back in Oz, I worked on what is the best scarf so far - one for my Sister. This was using my spun wool, which I now had a good handle on the twist tension and got it fairly consistent. I also designed using graph paper a heart shape which I put into the scarf using a change of stitching to stocking stitch. This meant counting rows and stitches at times, and changing from one stitch to the other. It took a lot more concentration than an all garter stitched affair, but looked really nice and quite subtle. I made the scarf not as wide as mine, but still fairly substantial. I added a fringe too, which made it look quite professional I think. Overall, I was very proud of this effort, and happy to give it as a gift to someone I love.

While in Italy, we found on our travels a little quirky shop in a square which had Italian wool for sale. Laura chose three colors and I knitted her a scarf out of this fine wool. It was a lot softer than the Australian wool, and had a lot of ply. She didn't want a pattern or a fringe, so the effect is quite modest, but it looks good on her and she feels the cold so I hope it brings her a warm neck in the years to come. That was finished only a few days ago, so I'm currently without a knitting project on the go - however, I have one lined up.

As I mentioned earlier, I felt cheated by using the Slivers, so I bought a bag of raw fleece, much like the lady I first met who started it all. I also wanted to get away from the white wool, so this was from a brown sheep. This was like starting all over again in terms of spinning. I didn't want to card the wool, but just learn to spin it right out of the bag. Carding looks to take too much time and besides, the carders are expensive and I don't own a set. This meant stopping often while spinning to pluck out grass seeds and knots and little clumps of fluff. The fleece is greasy with lanolin, and smells quite strongly, not surprisingly, of sheep. I want to keep that lanolin in there as a natural waterproofing, and I intend to make another item for myself - a Beanie. This is apparently not too hard, but does involve a lot of careful stitch counting. We'll see. If it turns out well, I'll make another one perhaps for my father.

I find spinning and knitting really therapeutic. I can, and reasonably often do, drink a beer or glass of wine while doing it. Unlike TV, which is passive and largely a time waster, these pursuits build up to a positive physical object. Something to be proud of, and perhaps, cherish. I might one day find a farmer who shears a sheep and learn how to do that too. Then I suppose I'll have to raise my own sheep somewhere. Then, and perhaps only then, will I feel I really know how to make woolen clothes from start to finish by hand. Each step has been deeply satisfying so far, and I imagine if I were to do this it would continue to be so.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Recently, I have turned my eye (of Sauron?) to the aged art of knives.

I don't know why exactly I have suddenly formed this interest, but I have. Perhaps it's due to the fact that a knife is quite a critical tool in a survival situation, or that it represents yet another area of basic life that I have a knowledge deficiency, I'm not sure. Anyway, I have focused on folding knives, with a blade 10cm or so. Think "grown up pocket knife" and you would be pretty close to the mark.

So. What is there to say? Well, there are a any number of companies that make knives. Some of the better ones are Buck, Benchmade, CRKT, Smith and Wesson, Kershaw, the quirky Spyderco, etc etc. There are lots. So where did I start? Well, my baby steps were with the "Classic" knife, the Buck Folding Hunter 110. And, I've got to say, if I had stopped there it would not have been a disaster, it's an excellent knife. The thing about this knife though, is that it's not really a modern knife, and it's heavy. They are the negatives, but there are plenty of positives.

In researching folding knives I discovered that there where a large number of blade locking mechanisms. I figured that the only way I'd know which one was the best was to get one of each. Actually, it was that and the sequence of events. I bought the Buck 110 retail, and after that everything on ebay seemed like a bargain, so it reduced my tendency to be cautious.

I think a brief description of each knife, pros and cons, is in order at this point.

Buck 110 Folding Hunter.
Buck was recommended to me by Ralph, and they are a solid old brand from the USA. This is a heavy, soldid knife, with brass liners and a wooden handle. The lock is at the back base of the knife, which has the disadvantage of being a two handed close. As it has only a nail groove, it's a two handed opening also. Still, whenever I open it the phrase "locks like a vault" comes to mind. It's a great knife to hold, despite no thumb ramps or gimping to stop slipping. It is rivited in place, so this is not a knife you can take apart. Oh, and it's crazy sharp right out of the box. In a cutting test it beat all the other knives I have bought easily. It comes with a leather carry pouch, and this is a big plus too. Overall, a fantastic knife. I did find a plastic (rather than wood) version which has no visible rivets, and I was tempted to get one, but really, one is enough. The blade is long and fairly thin with a wicked point, and as I mentioned, very very sharp. No belt clip on the knife iteself. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for this knife, more so than any other.

Buck Mayo WM
This is a modern knife which is probably considered "tactical" (read : fighting knife) but really it would not be great at that. It has a grey coating all over, including the blade, and is quite stylish. The blade has thumb studs on both sides, and is locked using a frame lock. This enables one handed openign and closing, although it's a bit stiff. On close inspection and use, I have come to the conclusion that I don't trust a frame lock. It is possible, like the S&W knife, to *almost* open it and it appears to be locked when in fact it is not. Instead, the frame is hitting the space where the teflon washers are near the blade. A fraction more and it locks properly, but if you don't notice this the knife may be used unlocked, and come back on your hand. It's an effective way to lose a finger with a sharp knife like this. The other issue I have is that the blade tip is only just - and I mean just - inside the frame when closed. It only takes the slightest movement on the blade out and the tip is exposed. If the blade is in your pocket, for example, and catches a thread on the thumb stud, well, I don't like to think of the damage that is possible. There is a belt clip which is screwed on, removable but not relocatable to other points on the knife (blade tip down). The knife has small but standard hex screws so the knife can be taken apart, which I do like. No gimping or thump ramp. Overall, a smooth stylish knife which is solid but has a few fairly serious flaws. Probably comes into the class of "looks better than it is".

Smith and Wesson 24-7
This is an all-black knife, with griptape insert on the handle and a semi-serrated blade. The thumb stud has a good clearance around it, so it's fairly easy one handed opening. It suffers exactly the same issue as the Buck Mayo above, in that it can partly lock on the teflon washers before the blade. However, it does snap open and close nicely when done right. When open this looks more like a serious tactical knife. It has again a hex screw take-apart frame, and a removable but non-relocatable silver belt clip. It has a great thumb ramp with gimping and a large grove below to make slipping when open a remote possibility. The biggest issue I have with this knife, and it's one that probably can be fixed, is that it comes as new with a not really sharp blade. It is the worst of them all in fact. In a test of tip first into a manilla folder, it took a great deal of force just to penetrate. I thought the serrations might help start a cut here (on the edge), but really, it doesn't seem to help. This is the only semi-serrated knife I have, and probably the only one I'll get. It is quite a trick to sharpen serrations.

Navy K710
This is a no-name brand on eBay from China, which I will be the first to admit isn't exactly promsing. The draw for me was the design, which pleased me at each turn (at this stage of the game I had refined what I was looking for), and for yet another blade locking technology - the "axis lock". This lock type has a great advantage - when locking the blade away the fingers at no stage need to be in the path of the blade. There is a button on the side which slides and does all the work. It also has a window breaker on the end, so this is a natural for my "car knife". Finished in all black, and I must say it's a really nice knife to play with in your hands - you can just fidgit and open and close it all day. For $18 or whatever I paid for it, and absolute bargain. The grade of steel is a bit of an unknown, it's probably ok, but not super strong.

Buck Folding Bantam BLW Cameo
This knife has a specific purpose in mind, and for that, it's great. The need is for a work knife - to simply open boxes and cut tape to get into things. The blade on this knife is really nice - smooth polished steel. Note that the Bantam comes in three sizes, and the BLW is the mid-sized version. The smaller one has no belt clip, and the bigger one I figure (I think correctly) would have been too big for the task I had in mind. It has a mid back lock, similar to the 110 but in a different place. Unlike most of the other knives here it is all rivited together, so no take apart or adjustment is possible. This would be bad if it didn't come shipped as a smooth knife, but it did, so I don't care! It's the second sharpest knife I have behind the 110, and I really like it. There is no play factor with this knife though - it's a one handed opening, just, but a definite two handed close. The case is in need of a steel liner, as it flexes a little under strain, but it's very light. This is my only real complaint about the knife - it's weight balance is way off in favour of the blade. Put it on the table and it'll tip over onto the blade. Despite this though, I'm very happy with it and find it's a pleasure to use it whenever I have the need.

Leatherman Squirt P4
This is a cheat really. I picked this up for $20 on a whim, but I've really been enjoying it. The "play factor" on this is very high indeed - the plyer opening/close action has a great snap back which is fun to do. The reason I include it here is that is does have a knife a part of its tool set. It is a very sharp but otherwise hopeless afair, with no locking mechanism at all, which makes it dangerous to use in my opinion. However, it has other tools and is so tiny, I like to shove it in my pocket just to have it with me. If nothing else, to play with!

That's all the knives I have, and it's probably more than I need, but once I got going I found I didn't want to stop. I don't think I will buy more knives from here. If I do, they will be something special I think. I have also started looking into knife care - mainly sharpening. I have yet to buy anything but have been looking at diamond dust blocks with a range of grits. The S&W really needs a sharpen to bring it to life, and I think that may motivate me to do this.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Too big to fail?

Last year the mainstream media was promoting the following logic – in the US there are some banking institutions which have become so large and important in the financial world that they are “too big to fail”. The implied threat is that if they were allowed to fail, the entire system would go down with them, ending “life as we know it”. So, what to do about this? Well, we were told in the same breath the right thing is to supply them with almost unlimited money, from the taxpayer, until the problem somehow resolves itself. The workings of this momentous handout are a secret, to protect the recipients – it’s part of the deal. We have been loosely reassured that there is a likely upside to any loans made, but almost nobody believes this and it is entirely besides the point.

The point, which has been studiously avoided, is that no company or branch of government should be “too big to fail” to start with. If it is in this category it needs to be made smaller, so that it can fail without the risk of systemic collapse. I am not aware of any meaningful plan to do this to any of the “too big to fail” bailout recipients.

The risk of failure, and the “creative destruction” is a critical component of capitalism. It cleans out the system of bad businesses and poor ideas/execution. It is an evolutionary process – with the survival of the fittest – resulting in an improving pool of businesses. It is punishment for bad business.

The “too big to fail” idea hides the deal you make with the devil. You may avoid the “fail” with a bailout, but the cost is greater than the dollars. The trouble is, throwing money at them is doing nothing to heal them (they have already effectively failed) and in fact it provides a barrier to other businesses who might otherwise have replaced them with better business models and practices. It rewards businesses using unsustainable business models, hell bent on growth. It is a major spanner in the works of capitalism.

Once one company gets away with this technique of claiming to be “too big to fail”, all the big boys try it. This is the “moral hazard” pitfall that is also rarely fleshed out in public debate. A market leader in any major industry (finance, car, insurance, airlines etc etc) races to become the biggest, no matter what it takes, so that they can get the infinite protection from the government.

"I've abandoned free market principles to save the free market system." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2008. Sadly he didn’t save the system at all, but simply assured it’s destruction by meddling with it. Obama has only multiplied his mistakes.

The real problem is, of course, that the whole system is now so corrupt and dysfunctional that it is not going to heal itself (as I believe a proper functioning capitalistic system would). I believe we are in a spiral that will now only resolve once a huge reset has occurred. This is likely to be in the form of economic collapse, leading to massive political and social unrest and change. Violence, in many forms, may occur – and control is already gained or being sought via means such as under the guise of “anti-terrorism” laws. The elite in power are frantically setting things up so that when the now-inevitable shit hits the fan they are protected in some way. The only fear they really have is that chaos ensues and they lose all semblance of power.

So when will a crisis occur? There are many possible sparks that can start that fire, and when things are hotting up it can be something seemingly quite insignificant at first. For example, World War II started in earnest with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. I doubt many Americans at the time thought that event was going to draw them eventually into a world war.

History lessons aside, my suspicion is that the chaos will be sparked but a sudden deepening financial crisis – centred in the US. My belief is that this could be linked to the ongoing bankruptcies of states of the USA, and the pressure on them from rising unemployment benefit payments coupled with reduced tax receipts. Assuming that other nations start to baulk at the seemingly never ending deficit spending, at some point something will have to give somewhere. A currency crisis will put the world in turmoil. This is when the illusion of normalcy will tear, and history will start on a new course. I can see this happening relatively soon, and it will be shocking.

The problem with capitalism is that it walks on a fairly thin line. With continued growth the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller, and eventually something major goes wrong. The checks and balances have been removed to prevent this, and a spiral into ever worse circumstances has been initiated. If any component is too big to fail, then capitalism has effectively failed, and the consequences are enormous.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Change of Ages

I believe that we are in the last days of the "Age of plenty".

We are about to enter the chaos of the "Age of shortage". This will be characterized by the peak of our resources, one by one, in a relentless grind of decline. There will be less of everything. You will not assume that you can buy anything you want.

The most serious of these is, of course, peak oil which is the magic pixie dust of our civilization. Swapping to less agreeable forms of energy will cause big ripples in the pool. Our goods and services are shipped all over the world and country. If shipping costs rise, or becomes impossible, the knock on effects will mount rapidly. If you are thinking of economic hardship, then that's right but it's just the start (and what we are seeing now). When the economy starts recovering it will be smacked down again by high oil prices.

Food is a serious issue. Recently there have been weak but definite signs of problems in this area. Japan ran out of butter (mostly due to protectionist policies), rice producing countries started hoarding (causing riots), wheat has problems (due to droughts) and corn used up in ethanol production.

Most people I know believe that the recent "GFC" (Global Financial Crisis) is simply a downturn which will reverse itself in time, if not already well on the way to doing so. I don't. I believe it is a symptom of the change of this age, and we will see a fairly constant stream of problems with our society from this point onwards. We simply can not resume the growth model we had, it is broken due to the fact that we have hit the edge of the petri dish.

The decline may be frighteningly rapid as it is being delayed and hidden as much as possible. I think that resource conflicts (read:wars) are highly likely, probably with some fictitious ulteria motive. Of course, you can consider the Iraq farce proof positive of this already.

What can you do?

Sunday, June 28, 2009


You have to pull out the big weeds, to give the small ones a chance to grow.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Today I was discussing with a co-worker my fairly strong opinions on advertising. In a nutshell, I find it generally offensive, and have made various changes to my life to avoid it.

I have not always been so averse to advertising. As a teenager I spent hours in front of the TV watching afternoon shows and got bombarded with ads. A program that was an hour long was actually about 45 minutes, with 15 minutes of ads. At the time, these didn't bother me. Mostly these were between shows, but they kept changing the formula to have blocks of ads increasingly within it. This broke the flow of the program.

Now, I couldn't do it. I would get up and walk away in the first ad block.

There are all sorts of reasons to dislike advertising. For me it is an intrusion into my personal space, trying to tell me about something I don't care about, or worse - trying to get me to buy something I don't want. Ads can be highly inappropriate, such as seeing dog food spooned out in great lumps while you are eating dinner. I see the overt consumption in our society caused, in part, by this never ending stream of coercion and false desires. I value the thoughts in my brain as mine, and resent the capitalistic intrusion. Buddhist believe that suffering is caused by wanting things, and viewed as such, advertising is actually spreading suffering.

So, what I do is avoid advertising actively. Driving to work I listen to CD's, not the radio. I used to listen to a few funny DJ's, but I was grinding my teeth during the traffic and weather - 'brought to you by .... " blah blah blah. Radio advertising is the worst I think, they only have a few seconds and go for high impact. As for TV, we have foxtel and although it has more and more ads, I don't watch anything live. It's all recorded on the IQ and that means 32x skip over. I get a lot of pleasure skipping over ads. Internet can be ad free with various ad blockers, and I would rather spend an hour reading and visiting my favourite web sites than watch an hour of TV these days. This is partly advertising, and partly because I like an active rather than a passive experience.

There are places where you can't avoid some ads. We went to the movies and there were the inevitable trailers. One of the nicer side effects of largely avoiding advertising is that when you do see and ad it's often for the first time. Ads can be funny, can be quite ok to watch even - once. It's the repetition that grinds and grinds your mind into irate little pieces. Another place that I have noticed ads is in the supermarket, in the store music. I think many people don't even hear these, it's practically subliminal, like a subtle suggestion after the main event of the other media formats have forced the thought of consumption of product x deep into your brain with that ever so catchy jingle.

Another way of looking at all this is that your time has value. You get paid for your time at work, for example. When you are not working, your time is yours - so being forced to watch or listen to an ad is effectively stealing your time. If I am to endure advertising, I should be paid to do it, as it doesn't benefit me. If I want something, I can generally find it easily. The random distribution of advertising is something I also find annoying - I don't need to know about pensioners pee pants, yet.

So, you will notice this web site, if I can at all help it, will be ad free. Blogger does allow you to make money with ads. I don't care, I don't want them. If they force them on me, well, I'll probably shut this down and go somewhere else. I also think that the web can be a wonderful place, when the blight of advertising is banished. So enjoy - this ad free part of the world.