Skin My Shed

BackWallYeah it looks pretty, but you don’t have to clean it.

The back-kitchen / laundry / scullery / workroom / conservatory / toolshed at my parents’ house hadn’t really been tidied since my father died – or indeed many years before. I was not looking forward to this.

But it’s a revelation, literally. The last time this wall was fully visible it was the 1990s. Ever since it’s been obscured by “temporary” shelves – and the crap that inevitably accumulated on them. Stuff in jars and tins, mostly. Nuts, screws, washers, and bolts. So many, many different sorts of nail.

I’m slightly amazed to see the stonework properly again. Ideally I’d take this opportunity to repoint it, but there’s only so much summer and a lot of jobs to do. So many, many jobs. I’ve a range and a washstand to restore, a home Ethernet/satellite network to complete, two websites to design, a laptop to refurbish and an entire programming language (JavaScript) to learn before college starts again in little more than a month. Hmm… To finish this job alone, I’m going to have to sort out all the tools. That may not sound too fearsome, until you realise how many, many kinds of tools there are. Two entire sets of spanners and sockets (my Dad’s old imperial and my metric one – there’s a generational change), plumbing tools, wood tools, electrical tools, car tools, power tools, gardening tools, broken tools. All these have to be separated out. And where do gas fittings go? Welding rods? We don’t even have an arc welder any more.

A lot has to go. Two generations of male “But it’s useful!” thinking has its consequences. If you click on the picture to zoom in you’ll see a thing that looks like a green raygun. That’s a car timing strobe. I don’t think anyone even makes a car with mechanical timing any more. It will be a wrench though. Each bit will be a wrench. I hauled out a fridge today, one that my father once cannily converted into a chest freezer by the simple expedient of laying it on its back. It’s a strange shade of pale blue-green inside, it was made in Italy, and it’s probably the first fridge I ever saw. And I’m going to send it to a dump.

I came across a pair of metal… things. Just matching stamped pieces of steel. I do not know what they are, what they were once part of. Beyond some educated guesswork based on their shape, I don’t know what they are meant to do. But I know they’re important. The one thing I do recall about them is that at some point they were the key to a problem I wrestled with. A long-forgotten problem. How can you throw away something like that?

OK, just me then.

But the space must be made. Firstly, so that there is some chance of ever finding a thing. Because at the moment it’s organised on the principle “A place for everything, and everything in that place”. Secondly, so that there’s some space in this space. Because this is actually a great space. (Now I’m an interior designer I’m forbidden to use the word “room”.) The light is extremely good. All right, the transparent roof makes it too hot to breathe in during summer, and the gap between that roof and the top of the wall makes it icy in winter. But for… the many, many days between this could be a good place. Not just for storage and drying laundry, but to work or relax in.

Wonder can I bring the Ethernet out here.

More Adventures in Furniture

DrawersJust got a bedside chest of drawers from B&Q. It came as a flat-pack, which pleased me no end of course. A kit! I loved those when I was about twelve. It would be just like making a model aircraft again – albeit one with unusually poor aerodynamics.

Well no, as it turned out. Not really. The difference is that with a model, at least half of what you’re paying for is the process. Owning a plastic plane is as nothing compared to seeing it materialise beneath your hands. With flat-pack furniture though, you’re paying for furniture. Very few people , you’ll notice, spend their evenings building model wardrobes.

The assembly is not a thrill, but something you do to save money. At least that’s the theory. This thing cost nearly €100, which seemed like a reasonable price when displayed on an example of the finished object. After making it myself, I reckoned €100 was roughly what B&Q owed me. This was several hours of not wholly unskilled labour, and frankly a small wooden box seemed insufficient reward. Five different sizes of screw, plus assorted bolts, plugs and nails. Three sliding draws on metal runners. Twenty-three variously shaped pieces of timber. While it’s true that when I was a child the best model was the one with the greatest number of interesting parts, this is not a sought-after quality in furnishings.

And I got a splinter.

The parts are of reasonably good quality. Light yet solid pine stained to look like a more expensive tree, but no tacky plastic or MDF. It all fit together nicely, and the results felt solid – or at least they did when I added a few nails and doubled down on the amount of woodglue it came with. (In particular, using it to help keep the handles in place. Knobs that screw on, screw off.) The problem was that the instructions were way less helpful than they could have been.

The thing is full of screw holes that go unused – presumably the same bits make many different pieces – but you absolutely must use the correct ones, which makes assembly far more fiddly and the risk of error far higher than it really needs to be. And while the diagrams are never actually wrong, they could be a whole hell of a lot clearer. Much time will be wasted glaring at the pictures in an effort to ascertain exactly which of seven closely-clumped holes is being indicated – or alternatively, on the non-amusing task of taking it apart and putting it back together right. They’re often the butt of jokes, but IKEA‘s instructions are a model of clarity compared to B&Q’s Danish imposter.

Still, you end up with an almost entirely style-free but not unattractive piece or furniture. Whenever I look at it – which should be most days as I’m keeping my socks in it – I’ll be able to say “I made that, with my very own two hands, the day I was held captive and forced to work by that chain of British hardware stores”.

Take A Load Off

Homicide Stats Barchart
On the face of it, there’s a strong correlation between gun availability and homicide rates. Click for sources and more detailed statistics

Well I might have expected that would get a reaction… In brief, yesterday I argued that the genie is out of the bottle on US gun control and the only way to reduce shooting sprees is to end the easy availability of  ammunition.

I may as well have said it would be more sensible for everyone to go round without pants.

Mostly the comments turned up in more private forums like Facebook, so I will edit for anonymity – as well as to make things flow a little more conversationally. I think we covered some pros and cons of the idea in worthwhile detail though, and I’d like to bring that to you. Especially as coincidentally (I hope) it’s a year today since the Norwegian massacre.

As a means to the end of controlling the supply I suggested people be required to return empty shell cases when they purchase fresh ammunition.

(For no clear reason, I’m referring to commenters as “callers”.)

Caller A – I am afraid you’re ignoring both the ready availability of ammo, at least in common calibers, and the availability of load-your-own technology.

Caller B – And that shell casings aren’t always recoverable, especially small caliber ones like .22. They don’t land neatly in a pile when you eject them, and where people hunt or target shoot in rural areas, there are tall grass and brush and gullies and so on.

Actually I am taking this into account. Yes, people who already have large amounts of ammunition would be able to bypass the system by refilling it. It’s not really relevant because they could achieve the same end more simply by only ever purchasing their legal quota at any one time. This measure in itself isn’t aimed at taking excess or illegal ammunition out of circulation, (though be accounting for all that is held legally, it would help to that end), but at stymieing people who decide they’re going to need a really large amount of ammunition quickly.

Caller B, there would need to be some leeway for attrition as you point out. Obviously shell cases are far more likely to be lost during actual hunting than range firing, so some evidence that hunting took place might be required – perhaps witnesses. Alternatively there are spent case catcher devices available for some types of weapon. [I see that as an issue of fine-tuning legislation, rather than a problem with the principle.]

Caller B – I realize you’re trying to address a current issue but there are already means of taking guns away from people who shouldn’t have them. And this is a state level issue as well. The Constitution is federal but each state determines the level of gun control (what kind, open carry, concealed, etc), and a county might have broad discretion depending on what judge is signing your pistol permit.

There are already laws in place where you can remove guns from people who should no longer have them, for example federal law prohibits gun ownership by anyone subject to an order of protection, or convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. State law prohibits ownership by convicted felons, certain misdemeanors, those found to have a drug/alcohol problem, those with certain mental illnesses, etc. Guns can safely be removed from people, too, and are all the time. It’s not like every gun owner comes to the door locked and loaded. You’re making a jump to an extreme situation without considering all the existing laws and details that would prevent that.

Sometimes, tragically, people who shouldn’t have guns get them anyway. Bad things happen. That does not mean the system is entirely broken and extreme action needs to be taken. It may mean parts of other systems are broken, like that which supports and identifies people with serious mental illness or drug problems.

I question if these other parts of the system can be really fixed – if we’ll ever be able to reliably identify people likely to go insane and start shooting before the fact. Not at least without incredibly intrusive and illiberal measures. My idea is off the top of my head and sure to have its faults, but I think it’s really not so extreme. I’m working on the assumption that current gun ownership controls are indeed fairly comprehensive, and that extending them would come at huge political cost for very little effect. My thinking is that the only measure likely to reduce spontaneous acts of mass murder, carried out as is so often the case by people previously unknown to law enforcement, is to put a severe kink in the amount of ammunition you can obtain at short notice.

(And it could be argued too that as a matter of interstate commerce, the ammunition supply is clearly the purlieu of federal government.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should be restricted to a day’s supply or whatever. Individuals in good standing – this might be a matter for local law – with established sports or even security needs (and the facilities to hold it securely) might be licensed to keep considerably more.

The idea is intrusive to a degree, yes. There would have to be searches occasionally, if there were grounds to suspect people were hiding ammo. It makes the amount of ammunition in a person’s possession a matter of public interest. But (a) perhaps it should be and (b), I think this would be seriously less intrusive than any other possible pre-emptive measure.

Caller B – So you’re OK with being intrusive on people buying ammo in some arbitrary amount somebody considers excessive, but not OK with being intrusive on people with mental illness?

Yes. Because it would be an incredibly intrusive process to find out who was mentally ill. Especially in a way that could actually identify those liable to murder, if that were even possible. Not to mention the enormous problems it raises around the presumption of innocence. Regulating how much ammunition an already-licensed gun owner possesses is hardly comparable.

Caller BI think the system that treats mentally ill persons can be fixed IF (and only if) we put the money into it that it deserves.

Also: possibly, just possibly, we can’t make perfect systems for anything. Possibly, sometimes, tragedies happen and there was nothing that could have been done to prevent that. A person hell bent on mass murder will find a way to accomplish his goals. A person hell bent on suicide will find a way to do that. I’m not saying I don’t value people’s lives but band-aid solutions that affect everyone don’t actually solve the underlying problems that individual desperate or violent people have. I simply don’t think that a law restricting ammo purchases or possession is going to stop anyone. One brick of .22 ammo–the standard box size–has about 500 rounds in it. One box of .40 cal has 50 rounds. One box is all it would take to kill 50 people, if I’m a good shot.

I think the argument that some people will kill or commit suicide no matter what you do is invalid. Yes they will – but the harder the means are to come by, the less likely they are to attempt or to succeed at mass murder. Explosives and (the ammunition for) firearms are the surest means to killing a lot of random people. It isn’t seen as problematic to put some fairly steep restrictions on access to explosives.

Caller A – I also have a minor unrelated quibble with charts that one occasionally sees comparing gun deaths in different countries and in the US. The other countries usually include ex Canada, but I’d like to see them include places like South Africa and Brazil. I don’t think Americans are the shootin’est people out there, and it’s not because we can’t get guns. Similarly, pro-gun freedom types like to look at the UK, which has a higher overall violent crime rate (unless they fibbed about that, would have to look). They use this to argue that gun laws don’t prevent violence. To me, it argues that prevalence of violence is socially and culturally based. I shudder to think what a Saturday night in Glasgow would be like if everyone had a concealed handgun.

I have heard the argument that there’s a higher violent crime rate in the UK than the US, but I am extremely dubious – especially in the light of these figures, which put the US murder rate at over four times the UK one. I suspect it’s the result of different definitions being used. If there is anything in it at all, it may be that there are higher rates in the UK for violent crimes other than homicide – simply because the chances of surviving an assault not involving a gun are much better!

The US is definitely not the shootin’est place in the world, not by a considerable distance, so that is one thing to get in perspective. China and Venezuela are quite comparable. Brazil and South Africa have far, far higher murder rates. Jamaica is just insane. But are these comparable countries? Placed alongside other wealthy democracies where the rule of law runs and there is no serious internal security issue, the US is roughly twice as murderous as its nearest rival (which is, oddly, Luxembourg). Twice. And if, as above, we compare it to the countries most of us are familiar with, that are arguably the most similar in cultural values, the murder rate is strikingly higher in the US. This seems to correlate very strongly with the civilian gun possession rate.

Interestingly though, it doesn’t seem to account for all of it. There are two non-gun homicides per 100,000 people in the US, compared to about one in the other English-speaking countries. Americans are therefore more likely to commit murder in general, for reasons we might go into some other time. This muddies the picture somewhat, but it remains clear that this is only one part of a much larger difference in homicide rates. It seems indisputable then that American murder would be reduced if guns – or as I argue, ammunition – were less readily available.


Happy Foot. No Honestly

It finally felt like Spring today.

I know, I know. It’s almost over. By Irish reckoning Summer begins on the first of May. Maybe it was the confusing “false start” we had. March warmer than usual, followed by April – often the nicest month of the year – being hellish cold. It discombobulated my internal sundials and anemometers, upset my sidereal clockwork, so I never tripped into Spring mode at all. Until today.

I can’t say why exactly. It was a little warm this morning, to be sure. And after a switch back to Siberia for the afternoon, I noticed that the wind became warmer again in the evening. But it certainly wasn’t a particularly nice day.

Maybe it was people who made it Spring. People were nice. Everyone I met seemed to be in a good mood. They smiled at me, they enjoined me to conversation, they treated me like a friend. Even my friends.

Is it the hat? It must be the hat. No, I’m not wearing a hat. Can’t be that then.

Or indeed anything about the way I was looking, in my Dunne’s Stores hoodie, too-long combat pants rolled up to reveal worn-out Czech foam rubber sandals and narsty pink bandage round my left ankle… Oh yeah, that was another thing. I started the day limping, now I’m cured. A Spring miracle!

Well all right, it was nearly better when I got up this morning. It is four days since I twisted it. The stupidest thing; I’d stood up to find my foot was asleep. As soon as I put weight on it, it just went. And I dropped like a stone, landing heavily right on top of it.

Yes folks, I fell on myself. That’s so clumsy it takes skill.

My ankle hurt like hell, I thought I’d broken it – until I remembered that any time I’d actually broken a bone it had never seemed all that bad. At first… Sprains on the other hand (or foot) always felt worse than they turned out to be. Maybe a breakage releases the body’s bedside-manner hormone, the one that tells you everything will be all right if you just stay still and calm and not flap around. This double shot of steam-pressed adrenaline was telling me to run away immediately from the source of danger, so I must have been basically all right.

And as the source of danger in this instance was basically myself I couldn’t really run away, so I just sat on the floor and swore volubly until I felt a little better. It was mostly just bruised I think. Though weirdly, the bruising is all around the edges of my foot, as if I have a slice of purple going right through it.

Anyway, I’m side-tracking here like crazy. Point is, my foot and my heart and my mind are all feeling well. It was a lovely day. And dammit, who knows, tomorrow might be even better.

Hallmarked For Life

Roses are infra
Violets are ultra
Invisible flowers
That I bought to insult ya

So what did you do for the Feast of Frustration? I had a great idea. I made a date with an attractive woman.

Then I cancelled the date, stayed at home and wrote an emotional letter to the woman who dumped me three weeks ago. That sounds like a good idea, right?

Actually it was. OK, I cancelled because I’m exhausted and a little unwell after the (finished!!!) major commission, which kept me up most of the last two nights and days. And to be honest it wasn’t really a date, but dinner with a friend who had also broken up with someone recently. So more a sort of anti-date.

And that letter was something that had been brewing in my head for the last few days. Now I had time to write it, and V-Day seemed like a good pretext. It was more for my benefit than hers – though it might I hope be to hers also. A way for me to let go of the angry stage and move on to the philosophical.

I had a good girlfriend there, I could really see a future for us. But it’s over. Sad, but what can you do? Die just a little inside, smile ruefully, and remember the best parts. She is a great woman and I wish her nothing but better things.

There, I’m sane. Sappy, but sane. I have moved on, I’m over her, my emotional tensions are all resolved and I am ready again to form a new relationship.

Preferably immediately. Anyone free this evening?

Truth In Advertising. Or At Least Verisimilitude

I just saw this TV commercial for Bell’s Whisky, in which an orchestra plays Axel F on tumblers of scotch. Quite cool – except of course you can’t make a tumbler resonate by running your finger around the edge like you can a wine glass.¹ So the whole thing was faked.

OK, you expect things in adverts to be faked. I know cars don’t really turn into dancing robots. Nevertheless I’m strangely offended by this. I’m imagining advertising executives with little or no grasp of physics getting really enthusiastic about their idea. So when someone points out to them that it’s not actually a physical possibility, do they change their minds? No, they carry on as if it’s a physical possibility, and fake the cool thing they can’t actually do. It’s like using camera tricks in a magic performance.

Contrast that with the well-remembered ad for Sony Bravia televisions,² where thousands of coloured balls bounce around what look like the streets of San Francisco. That was beautiful, but I wasn’t impressed because after all it’s easy to do something like that with CGI. Only I found out recently, they didn’t use CGI. They dropped one hundred and seventy thousand coloured balls down hills, in San Francisco. Now that is cool.


  1. All right, we could get into an argument about this if you like. I think it might just be possible if you superglued the tumbler to something solid. Half the trick of making a wine glass sing is firmly holding it down with the other hand on the base, otherwise the energy you’re putting in with your finger is wasted on moving the glass around. I don’t think that merely holding a tumbler down is going to work though. Firstly, you can’t properly grip it so it’s going to move around anyway. Secondly you’re holding it by the part you want to resonate, so you’re damping it.
    Even if it was attached with glue though, I’m not sure it would resonate at an audible frequency. Only the sides of the glass would be free to vibrate rather than the whole vessel.
    At least, so I imagine. Science, a range of different-sized tumblers, and a clean Formica work surface are calling to me. I must resist…
  2. [Video] If you have the bandwidth, do watch the HD version.

Language Evolves

But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stinky-breathed Komodo dragons probably evolved from a perfectly nice little fish.

This packaging was clearly designed by someone who doesn’t speak English – or a LOLcat – as they’ve made the cardinal error of applying logic. Consequently they’ve come up with exactly the mistake that the native speaker doesn’t make. Mind you, they’ve probably just skipped a century or two of language development. If dice is accepted as the singular now, ‘dices’ is surely in the future.

Generally I think of myself as a linguistic conservative, on the grounds that language innovations will be different everywhere so older forms are going to be more widely understood. Also, it’s interesting when a word is a misfit. It tells you a lot about its origins – from the Latin ‘datum’ in this case, by way of mediaeval French.

Indeed English spelling tells you so much about the etymological origins of a word that it’s basically useless for telling you how they’re pronounced. But die/dice is just annoying. Following the usual pattern, you’d expect the singular to be douse. When a word needs a rule all for itself, you begin to wonder if you’re not overindulging it.

I think dice should be acceptable as the singular now. Die can be reserved for the technical phrase “twenty-sided die”.