Things in general

This is where I jot down things that I’m thinking of that don’t fit in any other category. Among them there will be things remembered from my past, and things that are a result of a certain degree of grumpy-old-man attitude.

Attention to detail

One of the first tasks I had when I started work in the mid 60s was to draw some maps for a publication. For lettering, I was introduced to Letraset. I soon realised the secret to getting the stick-on letters to look like typeset lettering: I made a rule that no matter how long I’d spent on a word, if the spacing or alignment was even slightly off, I would lift it off and start again, and do it as many times as it took to get it right. I developed patience and an eye for detail, and it showed. Later, when I moved out of hands-on science to science communication and publishing fulltime, I discovered the anomaly that the better I did my job, the less likely people were to see how well it was done. If I made a mistake, it would be obvious. But with no mistakes, no one noticed how much work had gone on ‘behind the scenes’. It’s funny how, when you read, you take it for granted that text will exactly fill a page, and there will be no awkward breaks, but it doesn’t happen magically. I would sometimes be complimented on how a publication was clear and easy to read and understand, but very few people could say exactly what made it that way.

Now that I’m spending more time making models, I’m adopting a similar philosophy. There’s a fine line between a model and a toy. What makes a good model is an attempt to be as realistic as possible. Everything to scale, no exaggeration, and no fudging of detail. The ideal is that the more you look, the more things you see, and you also feel that they could be working parts.

What made me think of this was the 1/32 Fokker D.VIII that I’m doing at the moment from a kit by MikroMir/Avis. I’ve acquired a lot of information on this aircraft over the years, and in a number of instances, it would seem that mould-maker may have known less that I do. A case in point: the compass is supplied as a rather blobby bowl on stalk, to be glued to the cockpit floor. In fact, the real compass was attached to the starboard side frame of the cockpit, over a hole in the floor through which dangled the compensator rod (this had magnets that could be slid up or down to correct the compass). Easy enough to alter, except for the fact that the compass was mounted on a gimbal and this is obvious because when the aircraft is on the ground, its nose-up attitude causes the compass to be slightly tilted. As luck would have it, Flugzeuwerke (Bo Monroe’s shop on Shapeways) can supply a minute 3D-printed WW1 German compass with a working gimbal. I’m going to use it.

I’ll bet no one notices.

My phobia

Somewhere on the journey to adulthood, I seem to have acquired a fear of heights. As a kid, I used to climb trees. At school I walked along rafters in the gymnasium fixing scenery for the drama club. But now I find that there are circumstance where I just can’t function. No matter how logical about safety my mind is, my body takes over and freezes or spasms away from the sight of a sudden drop — to the point where there are even scenes in movies that I simply cannot watch.

Two occasions are burned with horror in my memory. One was back in the 60s when I was running a water quality survey of the Tarawera River. The main polluter of this river was the pulp and paper mill at Kawerau, and I visited them to sample the effluents from different parts of the production process. This involved being escorted around, and at one stage for some reason we had to move between two factory buildings high up over a narrow gantry with an open mesh floor. I managed it, but I was shaking and sweating. I’ve often wondered since if this scenic route was reserved for certain visitors.

The second was on a trip around Europe in the 90s. After travelling up to the top of Mount Pilatus in Switzerland by gondola, the group we were with went for a walk around the summit along a narrow path. I found it absolutely terrifying and embarrassing; there was a drop straight down that seemed like (and probably was) more than a kilometre. Other tourists had to pass me as I clung to the inside of the path, nearly rigid with fear and desperately trying not to look at where it dropped away to the distant valley floor.

Two places that I’d really rather forget about.

It’s a WHAT?

When I was a little kid, pictures in books were the most important element. I loved illustrations that looked real, and that had both artistic flair and credible detail. I liked looking at pictures that led me into the story’s world — a world I could believe in. Long after I learned to read, the pictures were still very important. As an example, my hero was Frank Hampson, who drew the Dan Dare strip (I stopped reading the Eagle when Frank Bellamy took over Dan Dare). I could fantasise being part of the world he drew, because he ‘got it right’.

These days, my grandchildren are surrounded by cartoons decorating practically every toy they have. And some of them worry me a bit. Perhaps much of the design originates in countries where there is somewhat of an ignorance of things we would take for granted, perhaps there is a ‘they’ll never know the difference’ attitude to getting things right. Perhaps details are simplified in a form of artistic shorthand. But a good artist can capture the essence of an object without making it unbelievable. It’s surely not necessary to leave the tailplanes off aircraft, or to arrange the connecting rods on a steam engine so that in reality the wheels could never turn a full 360°. As a preschooler, I can remember looking at cartoons of such things and trying to imagine how they worked — such lack of credibility (and therefore trustworthiness) would have bothered me, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong.


odd-looking creature
What do you think this is?

Anyway, I was looking at a alphabet jigsaw puzzle recently. Under each letter was a picture, and about a quarter of them were less than obvious. Eventually we worked out what nearly all of them were. For instance, J was represented by a palm tree (Jungle?), N was a brown animal (Nut, ie a squirrel?). But the one for W really took the prize.

A blue and yellow segmented body with nine pairs of legs, and a head with big eyes and antennae with nobs on. W for Caterpillar? Or is this supposed to be a Worm? What do you think? What would a 3-year-old think?

Changing gear

It used to be that the hardest part of driving a strange car was getting accustomed to the clutch. My first car, a BMW Isetta with a single-cylinder engine, felt very different to the Ministry of Works Landrover with a V8 Holden engine that I drove later. These days the clutch is not a problem — they all feel pretty much the same. Instead, the modern problem is the sound of the engine. Small cars have high-revving engines that sound like they’re in third even when they’re in fifth. I often have to look at the tachometer (if there is one) or down at the gear lever to see what gear I’m in. It doesn’t feel as instinctive as it should be. And after over half a century of driving, instinct is an important element of driving.

I’ve driven cars with automatic transmissions, in fact I even briefly owned one when I inherited a rust-prone Starlet. But nearly all of my driving has been with manual transmissions. When you change gear yourself, you learn to do it instinctively, depending on the engine sound and on how the car feels: whether there is any acceleration left or not. When you drive the same route often, you learn the best gear to be in for each corner and each hill, and if necessary you change down just beforehand. For a tight corner, you use the clutch to ease in the engine revs and slow the car as you enter the turn, then accelerate through.

When I make the nearly 6 km journey from SH1 to our house, I don’t need to use the brakes at all, although the point of the exercise is not to save the brakes, but to drive as smoothly as possible. Perhaps the main benefit is that I’m more aware of what I’m doing. I’m more in tune with the car and the road, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Out of season

It’s nearly Christmas again. The pohutukawa trees are turning a Christmassy red with their December flowers. Apart from being the start of the summer holidays, it’s the time to start thinking about presents and Christmas dinner. And it’s not Christmas without a big roast, Christmas pudding, all the trimmings. A big meal. In the middle of summer. Why do we do it?

It has become quite popular to celebrate a midwinter Christmas in June, but instead of replacing Christmas it’s become just another excuse for a party. And then there’s Matariki, the Southern Hemisphere New Year. Will that replace Christmas? No, it has its own reason for being, and unlike Christmas, the day varies from year to year. Once again, another good excuse to party.

Fundamentally, we want to do the traditional thing like everyone else. And these days that means like everyone else in the world. And it happens that most people are in the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas in December actually makes sense.

Now here’s another puzzle. Why do we keep the kids up so late in November to celebrate Guy Fawkes day? Isn’t about time to find another excuse to let off fireworks that happens to be in the middle of winter when the days are shorter?

Transferable skills

I occasionally think with regret of things that I’ve got good at in the past, and which are out of date now. I was going to write about the waste of being good at something that is no use any more. But the more I thought about it, the less true it seemed. Here are some examples.

I was good at chemical analysis — but cooking a meal actually has a lot of similarities to lab work, or at to least the bench work I used to do. Another example: I was good at darkroom photography, which I learned as far back as primary school — but I can now use the same techniques, without the chemicals, with Photoshop. (Anyone want to buy an enlarger?)

I got really good at PageMaker and Illustrator, and I’m still annoyed at Adobe for taking them over and shutting them down. But at least it gave me a head start in getting to grips with InDesign and Illustrator. Going back further, I easily learned PageMaker, with its pasteboard metaphor because I was already skilled in physically laying out publications that way (anyone want to buy a wax applicator?). SGML for computerised typesetting? HTML here we come. Or even further back, when working as a storeman packer I got really good at parcelling things up and using the appropriate knots, which has come in handy surprisingly often, especially when shifting houses.

It seems that very little we learn in life is truly wasted after all. We just need to be able to adapt to new circumstances. It’s a matter of being able to see the opportunities for adding to the arsenal of techniques to use on new problems.

Waiting around

I’ve been doing a fair bit of waiting this year. In hospital and GP waiting rooms, railway stations and bus stops, airport terminals. If I have someone to talk to, I talk. If I have something worth reading, I read. But I find that a lot of the time I just find an object in the surroundings and think about it.

I’ll think about how it was made and how it was put together (clue: look for the joins). I’ll wonder about why it was designed the way it is, and how it functions. The more I look the more I see.

And it’s not just about the technology — it’s about people too. Was the designer proud of it, or was it a compromise between best design and client’s wishes? Or a compromise between being well made and being made cheaply enough to be profitable? I imagine the frustrations of the designer refining the prototypes, and the reactions of the client as the designs were presented. And then the struggles to get it made and to sell it. There’s a whole drama there, even if it’s just in your imagination.

[It’s not just me — I’ve just found this: XKCD 1741]

I like big books

Actually, I like thick books. Or, on a Kindle, long books. I like to read a certain amount each day and spin the story out over many weeks.

It can be a series of books, as long as it’s one story. Game of Thrones is one that I have read recently, but my favourite — I’ve read it three times — is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. Three big volumes and a sequel, Cryptonomicon, which was written first (and which I suggest you read first).

Stephenson’s strength is action sequences, but after reading the thousands of pages I felt like I have lived through the 17th and 18th centuries and put them in context. Along the way there are historical insights and fictional absurdities, hilarious exaggerations, mysteries and mayhem, and swooping lyrical passages that sweep me up into a world of places, events and characters that I believe in and care about.

Thank you, Neal.

Mangled metrics

In 1970 I was involved in New Zealand’s changeover to the metric system. Metric measurements were already familiar to me from years of studying science, and it was good to see the end of the quaint but infuriatingly clunky imperial system of weights and measures. Metrics have become almost universal, with two prominent exceptions: babies, whose weight apparently needs to be translated before parents can comprehend it, and Subway bread. (In Wellington’s first Subway shop they were initially 15 cm and 30 cm long, but that very soon changed to 6 inches and a foot. Last time I asked for a 30 cm roll, I was told “Sorry sir, we don’t make anything longer than a foot.”)

Notation has always been a problem for those who try and apply the old ways to the new, such as adding a superfluous ‘s’ to the unit symbol. The technical editor in me grumbles every time I pass a sign saying “Motel 3kms”. And for the record it’s km/s (not kph), and μg for microgram (not mcg). But we largely cope with these irregularities without confusion.

In speech, familiarity with metrics has bred a certain type of, if not contempt, then at least a degree of mangling. Early on I noticed that many people were pronouncing kilometre as “kiLOMetre” instead of “KILometre”. I’m still puzzled that this hasn't spread to ‘cenTIMetre”, but there’s no logic to the way pronunciations catch on when people hear a word said often enough.

More recently some of the shoutier adverts on TV have taken to referring to kilogram of cheese and suchlike as a “kay-gee”. They are obviously spelling out the unit symbol, but why only with a kilogram? This is odd, especially since there is already the longstanding colloquial term ‘kilo’ which serves very well and is non-ambiguous in context.

Will we ever be measuring things in “emm-emms” and drinking “emm-ells”?

Where has everyone gone?

Two things happened recently that got me thinking.

  • A friend of ours moved house recently, and didn’t get a landline installed. She is now contactable only by mobile. The result? For one thing she’s not in the phone book, so can only be rung by people that she has given her number to. It also means that her address is not listed in the phone book.
  • NZ Post is cutting back on services and raising prices because people are sending email and text messages instead of letters. Even I can see the result as a downward spiral that will one day result in letters going the way of telegrams. But to send someone an email message I need their email address — and there’s no directory of email addresses.

So there seems to be a contradiction — in a world that is more open than ever, and where everyone can be connected instantly with everyone else, anywhere, anytime, why is it so hard to actually find people?

The fact is that for many people, talking is not the primary means of communication. They have phones, but rarely ring each other. First email replaced letters, and now messaging and social media such as Facebook have replaced conversations. The world has changed in many ways, driven not so much by convenience but by the need to avoid pests such as telephone scams and email spam — all the constant demands on attention by those who want your money. Being contactable only by choice gives people (as was explained to me recently) “fluid privacy and plausible deniability.”

In the words of Randall Munroe: “So, it has come to this.

© 2017 Tony Pritchard