What Lies Beneath

November 2, 2014 Comments off

Polished nihonto

Beneath, what, you might ask?  In this case it is metal, made dull and uncommunicative through time and poor handling.

Collecting and appreciating Japanese swords (nihonto) is a hobby of mine, though more of an aspiration-hobby than one I consistently pursue.  More than two years ago I posted on a sword I had bought on eBay, where I described getting the sword fitted with new koshirae – scabbard, hilts, etc.

Now, I had this work done because I had liked this sword.  It seemed “healthy” – with a lot of original metal, few nicks or other damage – and I liked the feel of it.  The next step in bringing this sword back to what it was like when first made would be to have it “polished”.  Now, “polishing” sounds like a jeweler’s term and in fact many unknowing people attempt to improve Japanese swords using buffing wheels and jeweler’s rouge.  This is in fact one of the worst possible things that can be done to a sword.

The proper thing is to take the sword to a togishi, a traditional sword polisher.  The sense of what a togishi actually does I would say is closer to “sharpener” or “shaper” than polisher.  Many people know that Japanese swords are constructed using folded steel, similar in some ways to Damascus steel, but refined and molded by the needs and conventions of Japanese warfare – for example Damascus swords do not have the differentially tempered edge of a nihonto.  But in additional to the raw construction, a Japanese sword gets its famous cutting ability from its cross-section.  The sides of the blade are convex, not concave like a hollow-ground Western knife.  This makes the sword stronger in battle, it can receive the strike of another blade with much less chance of severe damage.  And when cutting, the bowed sides force aside the material being cut; without this the sword would get, well, stuck in its target.  To get this shape, and the proper edge, you need a togishi, who will work by hand using stones of varying fineness to remove metal, shape the blade, and create the edge.

It has of course been 100s of years since these swords were used primarily for battle.  But even in ancient times the utilitarian aspect of the togishi’s work was complemented by an aesthetic one.  A side-effect of this work is that the grain of the metal – the hada – and the extent of the temper line – the hamon – become visible and throughout history warriors and connoisseurs both have had appreciation of a properly polished weapon.

My sword was much in need of this treatment.  Whoever had it before me clearly had used mechanical tools to buff the steel to matte finish.  It looked like a sword, but any details of temper line or grain were almost entirely obscured.  I oftentimes would stare it, trying to angle the light in different ways, searching for a temper line.  This sword has a signature on the tang and my amateur’s judgment was it was made in the late 19th century, but it could well have been a 20th century sword, many 1000s of which were made by hand in WW2, though using inferior steel and methods.  Such swords are generally much less interesting than those from earlier eras.  The only way to find out what was really there was to enlist a togishi and ask their help.

Nowadays on the web it is easy to find lots of people advertising this service.  Anyone thinking of having a sword worked on should be aware there are many weak practitioners out there, and also some out and out dishonest ones.  The togishi I quickly settled upon was David Hofhine (http://www.swordpolisher.com/, https://www.facebook.com/swordpolish).  His website had impressive examples of his work and when I inquired via email about my sword he gave very knowledgeable and thoughtful responses.  Be prepared, if you have a sword to be worked on, the waiting time will be long, two years or more.  Beware the togishi who says he can take your sword right away!  In all likelihood it means they are not very good, or are using artificial methods to quickly treat swords.

Enough of the background.  I got on David’s list in 2012 and when I returned from India in 2014 my turn had come.  When I sent the sword in July and David received it, he was skeptical, thinking there was in fact a chance the sword was a low-quality 20th century blade.  He offered to do an “exploration” – meaning he would work on some small part of the blade to see what was there.  This was an example of David’s professionalism, which I much appreciate – polishing a sword is not cheap and David wanted to give me a chance to see if that investment would be worth it.

The exploration returned good news – this was a “real” folded blade with grain and temper line.  I asked David to do a “foundation polish”, roughly comparable to what a working samurai would have done to his sword.  A further step, at additional cost, is a “finish polish”, but that is really only appropriate for more valuable swords, or swords where there’s expectation of special aesthetic features.

The result in you can see in the headline photo and in the shots below:

Nihonto showing hamon and hada; uraNihonto showing hamon and hada; omote

The temper line I would say is suguha – straight – while the grain is harder to classify, at least for me; itame (wood grain) would be my guess.

For now the terminology is beside the point.  Just having this artifact, in the condition much like it was in when first made, is very satisfying for me.

What is next for the sword?  I can only say: tameshigiri or no tameshigiri, that is the question …

Categories: Swords

When Words Mattered

September 28, 2014 Comments off

Elbert Hubbard's Scrapbook

Past few weeks I’ve been posting various quotes on Facebook.  Here’s the story on the source of these bits of ephemera.

Two weeks ago Kim and I took a ride out to Shelburne, Mass.  Purpose of this trip was to get some grass-fed beef from Wheel-View Farm, a great place where John and Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle just on grass, free from antibiotics, corn or hormones.  It is just beef that tastes great and is great for you.

On the way back we passed an antiques store – can’t recall if it was in Turner’s Falls or Miller’s Falls, but around there.  New Englanders will instantly be familiar with this kind of place: aisles and aisles and shelves and shelves of old junk, from keys to tableware to brushes and razors to aged toys to old signs and more.  We were in no hurry to get back and you never know what you will find, so we stopped and browsed around.

The was a section of old books and out of the yellowed issues of Life and Time the title shown here to the left instantly leapt out at me: Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook.  I snatched it up and without even opening it made my way to the checkout, where I parted with all of $4.50.

I know Hubbard, at least a bit.  He was one of the great progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a printer and businessman, and founder of Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts movement that lives on to this day in East Aurora, NY, not far from my own hometown.  (He is also the uncle (adopted) of L Ron Hubbard of Scientology and Battlefield Earth fame.)  On Hubbard’s wikiPedia page you’ll find he was a socialist and anarchist, but his was a uniquely American version of those ideologies, melding a deep reverence for personal responsibility and productivity with a desire for social justice.  If Hubbard is known for anything today it is for the essay, Message to Garcia.  The message in this story of initiative, self-reliance and devotion to duty has made this work required reading in US military academies for decades; not many socialists nor anarchists are so revered.

The scrapbook is not Hubbard’s own writing, but writings of others that he prized.  In it you will find quotes from over 500 authors: Twain, Wordsworth, Solon, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Savonarola, Blake, Bronte, Buddha, Charles Darwin, Eugene Debs, Cato, and Cicero, just to name a few pulled at random from the index.

Isn’t this amazing?  I consider myself a well-read person, and having access to the information resources of the modern age, I should easily excel someone like Hubbard – who, as Mr. Spock remarked lived in a “stone knives and beaksins” culture – in exposure to great thoughts.  Yet it is not so.  My own scrapbook would be a thin volume indeed, compared to Hubbard’s.

We can debate the reasons for this, but it hardly matters.  To skim through the Scrapbook is to quickly see how the progressive movement was born in words, wed to action, much as the independence of America was born in the works of thinkers like John Locke and later John Stuart Mill.

I suppose people today would find much of the Scrapbook maudlin, or naïve.  In my sampling of it I have found to be energizing and optimistic.  I’ll leave you with this quote:

EVIL is unnatural – goodness is the natural state of man.  Earth has no hopeless islands or continents.  We live in a redemptive world.  Poverty will end; sin will die; love will triumph and hope will plant flowers on every grave.
David Swing

I imagine this was Hubbard’s belief as well – provided of course enough men and women are willing to take the message to Garcia …

roycroft-stamp

Categories: Books

Visiting Greener Pastures

September 13, 2014 Comments off

Alpacas

No, not so far as Peru where alpacas are native, but just to Shelburne, Mass., there to visit Wheel-View Farm.  At Wheel-View,  John & Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle fed only on grass.  This is better for the pasture, better for the surrounding environment and (to my taste) makes for better tasting beef.  Back in 2011 before I departed for India we had been buying beef from Wheel-View.  This was our first chance to get back and re-stock.  Tomorrow it is grass-fed beefsteak on the grill.

On our way back we encountered alpacas – not ranging about wild but on a small farm.  There were 5 or 6, all recently shorn.  These animals are a source of amazing natural fiber; some years back Kim has made me an knitted alpaca hat:

IMG_1987

The warming power of this hat is beyond description – suffice to say should I be called upon to visit the South Pole I am more than provided for, hat-wise.  Anyway searching about I find at least 16 alpaca ranchers in Massachusetts.  Alpacas have been farmed in the US since 1984, and today give access to a beneficial but complicated set of tax incentives.

Nonetheless, don’t expect to be seeing any alpacas here in Arlington anytime soon.  For now I’m happy to be an end-user, not a producer, where animal products are concerned.

Categories: Food, Pictures

Rough Weather

September 7, 2014 Comments off

Dark skies in Arlington

Here in Massachusetts the day to day temperatures have been close to those in Pune, India, my recent home away from home.  Humidity is much greater here … yesterday outside doing some errands the feeling was like being in Mumbai, 33 degrees C and 75% humidity.  Hereabouts weather often resolves itself sharply.  Around 6 pm the skies quickly darkened and as if a switch was flipped suddenly we had heavy rain and cannon-shot thunder, for about 30 mins.  After all was cool, calm and lightly breezy, the cloying touch of high humidity gone from the air.  This harsh weather was a pleasant diversion for myself and Kim; we sat on our back porch relaxing, sipping wine while the downpour drenched a few backyard grillers in our immediate neighborhood, or set dogs to yowling whenever the thunder cracked.

Weather on the other side of the world can do much worse than drench your cookout or scare the family pet.  In India and Pakistan the monsoon is not yet done and this past week more than 200 people perished in floods from powerful rains.  I still follow India and South Asia news and so I see these things as they happen, but I daresay most westerners know the danger the extremes of weather pose in that part of the world, perhaps remembering the Bangladesh floods of 1974 and 1984.

It’s common sense that variations in weather are more dangerous for people in rural India and for people in USA.  But, how much more dangerous exactly?  I came across an interesting paper on this very thing, Weather and Death in India (Burgess, Deschenes, Donaldson and

Greenstone, 2011).  The paper is math-intensive and I’ve only done a cursory reading, yet the methodology seems interesting.  The authors related day-to-day mortality reports to temperature (and other factors) and related variability in temperature to variability in mortality.  Here’s one of their graphs:

weather-mortality graphA baseline day has a temperature of 22 – 24 degrees C.  The blue line shows how mortality in the USA goes up or down, on average, on days of higher of lower temperatures.  This blue line is pretty flat; your chance of dying in the USA stays the same no matter the temperature.

The red line is rural India.  Lower temperatures have broad effects on mortality, but not at all levels.  But look at the higher side of the chart.  As the temperature increases to 26, then 30, and finally 36, mortality rate increases consistently.  (Note that the units here are the natural log of the mortality rate, not the mortality rate itself, so a change of 0.01 means quite a lot.)

Well, everyone seems to complain about the weather but no one does anything about it.  That’s not the Salazar way, though.  We’ve already taken initial steps towards getting a photovoltaic solar system for our home; in fact this coming week we have scheduled site visits from two contractors we are evaluating.  This expected PV system will certainly save us a lot of money and, I like to think at least, in a tiny way will lessen the risk of extreme weather for everyone.  More news on this when we get the detailed proposals.

Back to the weather and particularly the plight of farmers in India and South Asia I believe the proper way to think about this is based on a single word: Freedom.  In the USA we talk about freedom all the time; I need to be free to shout out whatever blather I wish, to own massive amounts of weaponry, to pay my workers as little as I can get away with, even to pollute because I think it is cool.  But the Indian farmer lacks a fundamental freedom we Americans have forgot we have: Freedom from weather.  Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist and native of Bangladesh, speaks about this at length in his book, Development as Freedom.  His argument there is the world’s poor suffer from “unfreedoms”; while ostensibly free to do what they want they are in fact without choices, they must labor in pre-determined ways or die; they are in fact if not in name, slaves: slaves to hunger, slaves to bosses, to bureaucrats, and to the weather.  At the end of his book, he cites famous lines by William Cowper:

Freedom has a thousand charms to show,
That slaves, howe’er contented, never
know.

The “thousand charms” are choice.  For me I can be soaked by rain or not, depending on my mood.  Everyone deserves the choice of watching the weather – or not – without fear. 

Categories: Economics, Sundries

Restarting, Unpacking & New-Jobbing

August 11, 2014 2 comments

Sunset over Cape Cod Bay

Sorry for no posts for some time.  I returned to USA three weeks ago on 18 July.  My first week back I spent getting over jet-lag, doing some unpacking, and keeping caught up with work.  My real “reintegration” back into things here started the week after, when Kim and I spent a week in North Truro at the Topmast Resort, our long-time summer vacation getaway.  We played some golf, saw some sights here and there, but mostly we sat on the beach, swam, read, kayaked a bit.  Going to the Cape is for us a bit of a family ritual, and the familiarity of the place we’ve been visiting 15+ years helped bring my mind back here and away from the other side of the world.

Since coming back friends and acquaintances of course are asking, “What was it like?”  I still don’t have a proper answer.  The time in India was enriching, since I saw so much that was new; yet is was also disheartening in that much of what I saw was very sad.  The time was stimulating and satisfying, since I met so many new colleagues and friends, and (I think) we did great stuff together; but at the same time it was disappointing in that I feel I could have done much more.  Finally the time was rejuvenating, in that it was an opportunity to look at my lifestyle and make changes, for the better I hope; and then it was exhausting in that it is hard work living in a place that is so different and where you are always on display.

I guess another sort of hard work now awaits me here at home, more unpacking:

Boxes from India

Above is the shipment of our India goods: kitchen items, books, clothes, rugs, mementos, etc.  Also shown is our chair, which Kim now needs to have re-upholstered using some fabrics we brought back.  Since I am greatly against clutter, we have to reorganize and/or dispose of lots of old things about the home, to make space for the new.  I foresee it will be some weeks until our living room is navigable again.

Finally to add to the mix, yours truly has a new job.  Well, not 100% new.  My job was Chief Architect for IBM Sametime; there my priority was the technical strategy for the product line, though I also had to do a lot to promote, explain and sell the product.  Now my job is Director of Product Management for IBM Sametime – and IBM Docs – where I have ownership for the overall Sametime business, which means leading the development of the roadmap, negotiating budgets and investment, forging partnerships, and lots of evangelizing to customers.  So to paraphrase Pete Townshend, it’s a bit of “meet the new job, same as the old job” – but I’m sure a lot will be totally new, some of which I hope to share in these pages.

So, I’m back.  India is not out of my blood yet, but I don’t think it ever will be, not totally.  Yesterday with our grilled lamb I asked Kim to make a spicy cabbage dish we oftentimes had during our time in Pune, very similar to this recipe or to this one.  I guess once a Punekar always a Punekar.

Till next time.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures, Travel

Bits and pieces

July 12, 2014 1 comment

Odds and ends

Only 6 days remain till I depart India to return to USA and home.  Now I am in a limbo, where I have to tear down the infrastructure that has sustained me these 23 months.  Just last night I moved from apartment to hotel, having sold off all our mattresses.  As the bellman was walking me to my room he asked a typical question, “Did you have a very long journey, sir?”  I was taken aback.  In a way it took me 2 years to get to that point in time.  In the end I just said, the journey was not bad.

99% of our stuff is now in boxes or bags awaiting the movers on Monday.  In the un-packed 1% are the items above, small keepsakes from our travels about, that we have lined up on our dining room shelf.  Leading the way is the wooden horse, one of Kim’s finds.  Then there’s our soapstone elephant within an elephant, a candlestick given us by Rupesh’ family, minerals from our trip to Karla Caves, brass and wood fabric stamps (another Kim acquisition), and statues of Lords Hanuman and Vishnu, and of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.  Soon they too will be in limbo, packed and mostly waiting in warehouses, till 3 or 4 weeks from now they arrive in Arlington, MA., pieces of India far from home …

… back now, a pleasant duty done.  In the kitchen we have many things to give away – excess staples like rice and dal, plastic containers, odds and ends of glassware.  Seeing some of the sweeper ladies who clean our building, I brought them up and they happily took it all.  And, they gave me some of their chai, that they brew in a little utility room using a tiny electric boiler.  It was good, hot, sweet, and with a bit of masala.  Who knows what they will think of the Salazars after we are gone?

Now, time to tear down more infrastructure … till next time.

Categories: Expat life

The Long Tail of the Personal Brand

June 28, 2014 2 comments

Fernando's logoLately it seems we are surrounded – sometimes aggressively so – by advice that we must build our “personal brand”.  Like pretty much anyone in my business I have accounts (mostly unpaid) on sites like The Ladders and of course LinkedIn.  The regular emails I get from these sites constantly exhort me to promote the new-and-improved Salazar through my own brand.  The Ladders tells me:

 

Besides a marriage proposal, your value in the job market is probably the most important product you’ll ever sell.  … Your brand is what you’re known for and what you’re known for knowing. Use that to your advantage in making a career transition.

Great work-life-balance point they make there about marriage, which apparently in the eyes of The Ladders is also about selling.  Meanwhile the folks at LinkedIn offer this #1 tip on building a personal brand:

#1: Be authentic. The best personal brands are genuine and honest both in person and online. It can be tricky to showcase your personality on the web (you might love puns, but those don’t go over well on a professional profile), but it’s possible with a bit of effort.

Or, as Oliver Stone wrote in Nixon, “Nothing sells like sincerity.”

What occasions these observations is an article in the Times, The Self-Promotion Backlash.  The article is itself an observation on a new book, “Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion,” by David Zweig.  Just got this for my Kindle, and after only a few pages of the intro its thesis is crystal clear: Vastly more economic output is generated by “invisible” non-self-promoters than by all the glad-handing, like-me-on-Facebooking, personal-branding addicts that seem to be surging ahead everywhere we look.  One of the first examples Zweig talks about are fact-checkers, in his case at the CIA: pretty obviously essential, and pretty obviously invisible.

In the high-tech industry, because we make the tools that allow all this personal branding in the first place, we’re expected to use them and to do so loudly and often.  How bizarre that software engineers, one of the most introverted, invisible occupations you’re likely to find, get marked down because they are insufficiently “visible”.  This is sales culture run amuck.  Look, sales and sales-people – love ‘em, need ‘em, all that – but the cultural needs of engineering are vastly different from sales.  Back in the day, the men and women I most respected hardly ever spoke.  They were valued for their knowledge and their ability to show and tell novices, as I was, what to do to turn out good code.

I’m afraid nostalgia is an inevitable product of age, and for that I apologize.  But, if we did a 1 week ban on self-promotion, what would happen?  Quality go up? Output go up?  An impractical experiment of course … still, can’t help but wonder.

I’ll leave you all with this, the most influential drum-line is all the history of rock and roll, Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.  It wasn’t created by drummer John Bonham, or Zeppelin lead guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, but by a recording engineer – and an invisible – named Andy Johns.  Enjoy.

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