Monthly Archives: November 2008

Faking It

Foreign Policy Blog

Kim Jong Il. Image source: Foreign Policy "Passport"

This week the reappearance of Kim Jong-Il in a group shot excited some controversy. Not in the august presence of the Beloved Leader, but by inconsistent shadows and details in the image.


Detail. Image source: Foreign Policy "Passport"

This example highlights aspects of concept and execution. I suspect the hapless Photoshop retoucher responsible for this may have ended his/her career on this one. Or, as others have suggested, maybe they were stuck with an elderly copy of Photoshop 2, which was layer-deficient until PS3 or so.

By definition, all photos of Kim Jong Il are faked in some way. This is in the intellectual DNA of North Korea in particular, but shared by all totalitarian states.

I was always intrigued by the photo textures of Communist leader-photos: Mao, Hoxha [Albania], Stalin, and all the Eastern European thugs in the ’50s thru the 80’s. And all this was old-school razor & airbrush fakery.

The most egregious Stalinist/Soviet examples are found in “The Commissar Vanishes”.

Lest anybody in the audience think that Western regimes are immune, guess again. My favorite anecdote involved a Spanish postmaster who had a forbidden gallery of Francisco Franco portraits taken down from the wall, and not returned to Madrid. All getting steadily older. He would contemplate them on occasion, and take solace that someday, Franco would die.*

*New Yorker article, mid-70s.

Digital Mind/Analog Intervals

palmprint on garage door, 1979

Los Angeles, 1979

Off-Ramp to the Analog Road

This summer I enjoyed my three-week hiatus from a home-office computer. My elderly G4 had a massive stroke on July 17, and was thus propelled into the next bardo. I lined up financing, and in The Fullness of Time, got into a MacPro. Then I had the fun of migrating data, passwords, jokes and various forms of stupid to my new beast, which I’ll get to in a bit.

This vacation got me thinking about the imbalanced relationships between digital and analog skills I’ve seen in the workplace and outside living.

Let’s Get Manual: A Scenic Detour

I used to have a woodshop in a 10×20′ garage. It had my 10″ table saw, a full workbench, with an assortment of power and vintage hand-tools (ie 19th century cordless screwdrivers, etc) acquired at swap meets and so on.

Now its all in storage. So that’s where I went, picking up the Black & Decker folding workbench, a sander, some Varathane and mineral spirits, sandpaper, steel wool, and some miscellaneous tools.

First order of business was to reanimate dormant finish-carpentry skills by installing and finishing small shelves, and sanding and finishing various medium and small wooden storage pieces.

Second up was to sand a rolling kitchen cabinet. After looking at it for two years, the original ad-hoc configuration was OK. No need to rush into these things.

Wood that was looking greasy and dirty got crispy bright again with 150 grit sandpaper, with the second pass of 220 grit to build the smooth.  Then came the wipe-on finish coats of a 50/50 mix of Varathane and mineral spirits. The beauty of this application is that it dries hard in 5 hours, depending on heat and humidiy, and is bone-dry in 24 hours. Between coats the 000000 steel wool smoothes out the rough spots. After six coats, I was done; the wood was sealed and had a deepening semi-gloss finish. I could’ve easily added another six coats, but didn’t.

In A Metal Mood

The second project was modifying a handle of a 12″ khukuri knife I’d bought, then remembering how to sharpen the blade with a 12″ flat metal file. I’d gotten the idea while doing research on khukris as a backcountry utility tool. For this and other detailed information check the M40 site.

A khukri is a Nepalese knife/machete with a 12-14″ blade, forged from old 1/4″ thick steel truck springs. The blade drops at the tip, which means it arrives to the target ahead of your knuckles. Its origins are a mix ascribed to various sources (Macedonian swords, native metallurgy)—but my favorite aspect of the blade is that the kaura/cho, the distinctive double-notch near the handle was none other than the clitoris of the goddess Kali. Or not.

I bought a $20 Indian copy to free myself of the Boutique Fad Gadget Syndrome; ie, being reluctant to modify an object because it was somehow holy and complete. However—the higher-end khukuris are in a class by themselves, and approach what my multi-faceted friend Gerhart calls “light-saber territory”.

I wanted a tool, not a devotional object. And if I bungled the modification, I wouldn’t be out a lot of money.

A wood-rasp and metal file made short work of the original donut-ring on the handle. The power sander smoothed and shaped the wood, revealing the natural grain, which was a lot nicer than the blackout finish in the original. The knife felt right and balanced in my hand—now was time to shape the blade.

The blade was secured by a small vise to the workbench. Now it was time for the 12″ mill file to start bringing the edge on. The original blade is hand-forged, and there are [relatively] wide inconsistencies in the thickness. This is definitely something outside the digital realm. With observation and practice, you will begin to see and feel the topographic variety; meaning you don’t necessarily file the full length of the blade all at once.

A sharp edge is seen as a thin black line in a raking light. If it’s shiny it’s dull. I got it to a working sharp, now was time for a field trial.

That weekend I went up into the mountains to visit my friend Chris, who lives part-time up a remote canyon here in the San Gabriels. In the course of conversation, I asked if there was any small tree/sapling he wanted removed. A 3″ diameter shade-stunted sapling was pointed out for removal.

I began my swings, and could feel the drop-point of the blade accelerate before impact. I was amazed that a 12″ blade would land with such authority. The chips began to fly, and within several minutes, the sapling was severed, and we moved it off the trail. Chris watched from a discrete distance. No need for him to acquire painful holes and grooves he wasn’t born with.

I asked him what he thought.

“It chunks like an axe”.

“Want to try it?”

“No…I’ll probably like it too much”.

Now I knew what to get him for Christmas.

…Back To The Future, Which Is Already In Progress

I got my MacPro hooked up. Louis Katz My awesome new-found IT guy from Technolene, migrated all the data from the G4 hard drive to a new 500G hard drive.

The time away from this was pleasant. Compounding this was the time I’d been away from a system migration, new machine, and all the rest. I felt like Rip Van Winkle.

I noticed that my perceptions of time started to ratchet up as I got deeper into this. I was not enjoying it.

I began to think back on what my sojourn with hand-tools had taught me.

  • You make mistakes slower with hand tools
  • You have time to really think about what you’re doing—or just daydream longer. I remember digging wandering ditches as a teenager on my parent’s horse farm. I lost the habit when I had to redo what I’d screwed up—without pay.
  • Surfaces are irregular, unpredictable, and a source of never-ending study.
  • Tolerances are relative
  • What is ‘common received wisdom’ in computer land is not elsewhere.
  • There are different forms of “intuitive” interfaces
  • The manual is lost
  • Today’s tools are not all the crown of creation

A Summary Kind Of Place

Do any one thing exclusively and your brain dies. I highly recommend doing physical things, preferably with as little gadgetry between you and the world. For instance, to some, Tai Chi may look wimpy—in reality its martial arts written very slowly. It took me a long time to see that.

Find something challenging to do. Learn to dance. Study birds and flowers. Take a long walk. Ride a bike. Get outdoors and in sunlight. And so on.

Sometimes the less money you spend, the greater possibility of delight. That gem came from a guy I knew who was on an extended trip, and realized he was a crashing, post-divorced, depressed bore, and decided to do something about it. He started meeting people, and having fun.

So there it is for now. There’s so much to do and so little time to waste.