Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tulsa is A-Oklahoma

Hello again, gentle reader! It's been awhile.

I haven't been completely idle-- I recently built a couple of guitars! When I tell people this they usually say "oh wow, that's impressive!" or "oh wow, that must have been really hard!" But really, it wasn't so bad at all.

Now, I'd set out to do this with the explicit idea that I would document it for my (and yours as well, gentle reader) reading pleasure and future reference (since it's quite likely not my last guitar). I am after all still young and have a lot left to do in my life. At least that's what I keep telling myself. So. Here it is!

First things first.

-Solid body instruments are much easier than hollow, and need much less tooling to accomplish. This will be A Guide for Solid Body Guitars.

-You don't need to make a neck either, if that's intimidating, since this might be your first time too. Or maybe it's not. The neck is the hardest of any single part to build, and this project was as much about having an awesome end-product as it was about making stuff myself. Sometimes, to make something really awesome, you need help from people who really know how to do things. Warmoth makes excellent necks at great prices and is very good value.

-If you think you might make more than one guitar, do them in parallel. Going through all-the-steps-of-building-a-guitar right after you went through all-the-steps-of-building-a-guitar is probably a lot more pain than doing each step for twice as long. For me, anyway.

Look at that, we're getting into useful information already.


Now on to the concrete things.

Stuff you'll need:

A plan

-The better you know the thing that you're going to build, the easier, more efficient and less painless you'll be

Think through all the details:
-exact-as-possible lengths, depth and breadths of every part of the body
-what dimensions and heights of surfaces are required to mount hardware? (what hardware exactly? what are the dimensions of that?)
-how will you finish edges and surfaces? Is flat or curved? In how many axes?
-what tools can work on ? Where can you get use of such tools?

I'll talk through my own plan as I detail my process. I'm deliberately holding out on showing you what I did until I talk through a bit of groundwork. After all, I don't want you to build a guitar like mine, I want my guitar build to benefit yours. Before you look at my first picture too hard, work through as much of this process on your own!

Okay, NOW concrete things:


I got lucky with tooling. Here's what I ended up using:

CNC milling machine // I have access to an open workshop in town where I can use some pretty beefy machines
Circular saw // "
Bandsaw // "
Jointer // "
Drill press (and bits) // "
Soldering iron // ditto up til here
Hand drill
Power sanders (band and orbital) // these can be surprisingly cheap on ebay

Straight edge
Right angle

Block plane
Spoke shave(s) // these all belonged to my friend Andi
Screw drivers


I was lucky. One of my best friends is a carpenter and did some difficult (and amazing gouge work for me). If you need intros to machines or think you'll need to use tools you don't yet have access to or the skills to use, knowing the right people can be extremely helpful.

Okay, now on to
Raw materials / Parts

Here's what I used and it's just about the slimmest set of ingredients you'll be able to get a working guitar out of:

Warmoth neck (+tuners)
Wood for the body (I used maple, walnut and mahogany)
Bridge (Hipshot string through)
Pickups (Graph Tech ghost saddles + summing board)
Aluminium sheet (for self made jack plate)
Assorted hardware: mono jack, screws, strap buttons, etc.

Gun oil (Birchwood Casey Tru Oil)
Copper shielding tape

Shellac and gun oil make a beautiful, but very thin finish that doesn't provide much protection to the wood. This is a conscious decision on my part that my guitar will show its age. Use a polyester or nitrocellulose finish for something more durable.


The moment we've all been waiting for! I built two guitars, and here they are:

yes, that's the bed I sleep on.

Cool, no? Yes, they are electric, and yes, there's a lot that's strange about them. All will be clear soon enough.

**DISCLAIMER** I'm not going to teach you how to use a CNC machine, or a spoke shave, or a soldering iron, or how to glue up, or even how to string a guitar! Because if I do, I'll probably be the worst guide on the internet. If you want to do these things but don't know to do them yet, read something a real expert wrote, or get one to help you. That's what I did **DISCLAIMER**

I'm going to try as much as possible to give you knowledge you won't find anywhere else.


My steps:

0. Make a plan! Since I'm secretly in love with Annie Clark, I decided to base my guitars on her Music Man signature model.

0.5 My plan had lots of odd details, it makes more sense to read about them as part of each step of making the guitar.
I started with the idea of a piezo-only solidbody as the ultimate rough-playing easy-setup feedback-free guitar. As I dug around the internet for anything that might help me, I found it had been done already. I also like things to have twins/siblings-- but you already knew I was weird.

0.75 Right, so, make sure you scour the internet for everything anyone's ever done in the direction of what you're doing, and read it before you start.


1. Buy a pair of necks from Warmoth. They're Pau Ferro on Purpleheart and quite standard otherwise.

1.5 Buy wood (I decided on the neck woods for a certain not-too-bright-and-not-too-warm tone profile and also to visually contrast with the body woods). This was from the outset always to be a weird guitar, and I decided on a zebra pattern of light and dark woods: maple, heart+sap walnut, mahogany. I got these on ebay for a reasonable price.

1.75 Buy bridges from Hipshot. It's good to have neck and bridges on hand before doing any cutting or drilling, so that you can measure them for exact fits.


2. Make some drawings. Since I only had to worry about neck and bridge positions this wasn't too hard. I found some Stratocaster and Precision Bass plans on the internet to figure out an accurate technical diagram of the neck pockets. I used Hipshot documentation and some hand measuring for the bridge drilling and placed it on the same drawing as the neck pockets. I had to do a bit of guesswork about where the nut is in relation to the pocket, but I did my best to place the bridge drilling where scale length, measured from the nut, would be in the middle of the bridge's adjustment range.

): I momentarily deleted my cad software, but if you want my drawings, just message me and I'll make them available to you!

2.25 Ready your wood! I used the heavy duty circular saw and thickness planer at the open workshop to take each block of wood down to the required size. This really depends on what format your guitar body is gonna be, but it's almost certainly easiest to start with rectangular blocks, glue them together, and then shape that as one piece. I left a bit of extra wood on (0.5-1mm) because these were not final surfaces, and would get taken down again during other steps in the process.

2.5 Cut some wood! I built some gcode off my drawings, fed that into the CNC machine and had it cut the neck pocket and bridge drilling for me without moving the wood block. This ensures that there is minimal misalignment of bridge with neck. If you don't have access to a CNC machine, Stewart-Macdonald sells templates for routing neck pockets with a hand router, and some good ol' hand measurment for bridge drilling can work out just fine (I didn't trust myself at that point)

it's always good to do a test piece.

and it's a fit!
now let's go for it

2.75 Cut some more wood. This is a very optional step and perhaps one of the oddest things about these guitars: I didn't want a front or a back side pickguard or cavity access in order to have as much uncovered wood on the guitar as possible. I cut the cavity into the sides of each wood block before they were glued together. They would line up when the wood was joined, and the access hole would be revealed when the top of the guitar was sloped down. I had to do a bunch of fancy geometry to figure this out. If this is your route, draw it out on paper. It really helps!

2.875 If this is your first time doing something like this, you're gonna make a few mistakes for sure. Sometimes it's a drawing error, sometimes it's a machine code error because you forgot to set the tool size, sometimes it's very careless and simply not stopping a cut before the collet touches the workpiece. Don't be discouraged. Some of these are reversible, and some of these aren't so bad in the end.

oooops!! fortunately this is mostly hidden by the fretboard
the only reversible one of these three mistakes. even the correctly placed holes were too big, so I had to glue dowels in and then drill smaller holes again.


3. Glue the body blocks together. I used simple white glue: most carpentry is done with this kind of glue: it dries stronger than the wood it will join. I made sure the blocks were the same height and the surfaces to be glued were flat and parallel, all using a jointer. This will take a fraction of a millimetre of each surface with each pass, but this is why we left extra wood on. This can be done with a hand plane if you don't have access to a jointer, but it's more work and less accurate.

3.25 Draw your body outline. I drew directly on the top of the body blank with pencil, using measurements I'd derived from pictures of the St Vincent guitar. I measured a printed drawing for that. Otherwise, templates are a good way to go. Pencil marks are quite inoffensive to wood and will get easily planed out during final finishing.  If you're gonna be making a few pieces of your own unique body shape, you can even make your own template by following the steps in this section (3.xx) but on some kind of hard particle board, acrylic, or whatever makes a good template (I don't know!)

the bass needed a bit of tweaking from the original body contour, but resulted in some very cool shapes!

3.5 Cut it out! A bandsaw is great for this. CNC would have worked as well but it would have been a challenge to clamp down the wood properly and line it up ith the machine. I cut slightly outside the line (~1mm) and would bring the surface in with a tool that has a better finish than the band saw.


We're getting there! Now, the laborious handwork starts. This took far more time and energy than the big cuts and machine routes.

4. I removed as much material as possible with power sanders, and basically got right down to the body outline. Maybe still just a shade outside.

4.25 I also started to cut the contours. In this case, painter's tape is really useful for marking don't-go-beyond lines, since we're removing wood on a plane that is tilted from the top of the guitar, and it's hard to keep track of this simply by eye. This didn't stop me from making a few mistakes so BE CAREFUL! (especially with the belt sander)

sorry, painter's tape not pictured. basically, you stick it on the side of a straight line that you don't want to remove material from.

4.5 Final fine-finishing work on the contours was done entirely with hand tools:
- narrow gouge for the tummy cut
- block planes for sides that didn't curve or merge with another side at acute angles
- flat and curved spoke shaves for the sides and edges: I decided on a simple 45° beveled edge both for simplicity and for a little bit of a wilder, more modern style. I like a planed surface much more than a filed or sanded one. The result is surprisingly comfortable.
- various size of chisels and gouges for the two sloped sides: it was impossible to simple plane these flat as they are compound curves. This also allowed us to get a little extra definition to the boundary between the surfaces by gouging a slight hollow into the sloping side along the edge where it meets the flat top.
- surfacing plane for the flat top. Plane until you can't feel anything but complete smoothness! Don't worry-- each pass only takes of hundredths of millimetres of material. I didn't want the grain to fill up so I didn't use sandpaper. This is purely preference

Andi's workbench! you can start to see the cavity access holes emerge as the top comes down through the cavity's volume. this was all planned and fortunatel worked out great!

Andi's amazing chisel work to get shape the flat of the top around the bass bridge. you can also see a mistake I made with the belt sander just behind it.

a little extra relief at the boundary of the flat / sloped top

Andi's superfine gouge work

spoke-shaved bevel

end-on view of the bass. to note: edge and corner bevels, chisel-cut platform on the flat top, and you can also see the compound plane of the sloping top

I really like the contrast between the flat-planed and gouge-worked surfaces on this: both are delightful to the touch. The tummy cut has quite pronounced gouges, while the sloped sections have a shallower texture using a much wider radius gouge.


5. 17 coats of shellac. I did this in a very non traditional style that's closest to Krenov-school woodworking. No stone dust, no polishing, just brush on and dry. I used a cut that was a little on the heavier side, but put on very light coats. The drying time for such an application is very fast-- just about a minute. The result is a little smoother, a little richer in colour, and retains most of the original texture of the wood. This does not protect the wood like a lacquer, french polish, or polyester finish like on most guitars-- it's just as soft as it was before. However, I intend for this guitar to show it's age and history, so I did this 100% intentionally.

mmmmmm...just look at that curl in the walnut!

5.5 8 coats of Birchwood Casey Tru Oil. Normally intended for the butt of your shotgun, this is great on guitars too. I put 8 light coats on both the body and neck (oil over shellac applied this way works just fine). I experimented with a bunch of different ways to apply (the internet has SO much to say about this) and in the end I found that the way that works best for me (once again a very simple application) is to have one cloth to wipe oil onto the body (this one gets quite soaked) and one cloth to wipe oil off (this one won't get so oily). Don't put on too much oil, and wipe ALL the excess off, get into corners and crevices, get it all out! The thinnest coat will also be the flattest.
The best cloth I found is old bedsheet: anything more absorbent will be hard to control and will leave application marks (my guitars have a few of those, but it's part of what I learned so you don't have to!). Oil coats take a long time to dry so be patient and don't rush through things before they are dry. Give a side ample time to dry before flipping it over and doing the other side, since oil is very good at remembered what touched it while it was wet.
Oil protects a little better than shellec, but still doesn't have much thickness or hardness to it.

5.75 I also gave the necks 8 light coats of Tru Oil each. They feel super nice.

my home oiling station

Now it's time to put it all together!

6. Measure the hole to the cavity and make a little jack plate on the CNC machine. Once again, this is also doable with hand tools. I beveled the edges the same way I did on the body.

6.25 Mount stuff! The neck is pretty straightforward. You're looking for a tight fit. Mine was almost a little too tight, I should have put a few more fractional-mm tolerances into the pockets that I cut, but the necks went in, and tighter is obviously better than loose. The wiring had to go through the cavity before the bridge was mounted and the the saddles could only go on after the bridge was mounted, so the order of operations was pretty important.

6.375 Speaking of order of operations (and planning). I realised later while I was doing a little shakedown for this guitar, that the cavity has to be shielded, lest I pick up a mains hum. It was actually so bad that I couldn't tune the guitar-- the hum produced a constant G# on the line and the tuner wouldn't respond to anything else. I should have copper-taped the cavity before gluing the body blocks together, and/or made it a little roomier so that I wouldn't be stumbling over my own fingers trying to do it afterwards. I succeeded in copper taping the finished body after much more effort than should have been necessary, and the hum disappeared.

6.5 Finish your electronics (solder the right things together based on your plan, and make sure you connect the cavity shielding to ground). I had a simple time because I don't even have a volume pot. Use heat shrink tubing to keep connections isolated from everything else (hint: you have to put these on the wires before you solder things together, and then slip them over the joints after that). Use tape or string to keep wires neatly bundled, where applicable.

6.75 String up, set up (take as long as you need to do intonation right because this is one thing that will make your guitar sound not terrible!). It's very important to have a good tuner, and I use a Mooer Baby Tuner line-tuner to make sure I'm working with exactly what's going out of the jack.


7. Enjoy your guitar! This one is particularly snappy and responsive. It's got a thick soft-V neck (one of my preferred profiles to hold in the hand and coincidentally one of the stiffer ones), a very tight neck fit, and almost no air space in the body, all of which I think contribute to this. This piezo pickup has enough dynamic in it that I don't miss having a volume control.

Huge (our blue friend over here, long-serving house guitarist, and yes, he is smiling) runs the guitar through a Sansamp Paradriver straight to the amp / console. On "plain" preamp it could pass for a jazz box (can't make it sound hollow enough to imitate a flat top, but this was never intended), and with a bit of tone shaping and gain, it gets real warm and crunchy.


Thanks to:

HEI -- for machine access
Christian Schürmann -- taught me to CNC. I continue to resist learning good documentation.
Andi Pfister -- for fine wood work
Ed Ricco -- for some early inspiration and a LOT of questions answered along the way. PS, this dude is also an exquisite musician.
Graph Tech -- was also very helpful and responsive with my questions

Friday, February 12, 2016

Slander without Borders

If you don't know what Cockney rhyming slang is, you best educate yourself by clicking on the link. It might just be the most fun you had since the last time you got lemonade.

Basically, it's when you rhyme a thing with something else and then use it to make subtle jokes, wise cracks and often offensive comments. For an extra level of obtuse, drop the rhyming part of a two-part reference. Of course, names are great for this.

Since it's election season, I thought I'd do a little set on American politicians. Who else are such great caricatures of themselves, such easy fun to poke? Also, by belittling and insulting a select set of these I can further the liberal agenda of my little soapbox here.

Call it poetic justice or dumb luck, but one side just has such better rhymes than the other.

So, without further ado:

Donkeys and affiliated
Al Gore -- "Shut the front Al will you?"
Barack Obama -- "I'm gonna go put me Baracks on and get into bed"
Bernie Sanders -- "Protect the forests! Save the Bernies!"


Elephants and affiliated
Colin Powell -- "I'm done with this, time to throw in the Colin"
                     -- "Wonder what I ate wrong, got me an aching in my Colins"
(super neat homonym+rhyme!)

Condoleezza Rice -- "Craps is my game, I roll the Condoleezzas"
                              -- "Those damn Condoleezzas been getting to my cheese again, time to put out the traps"
                              -- "My scalp's been itching badly, I wonder if I might have Condoleezzas"

Donald Trump -- "Lookin a bit Donald these days, mate! You been eating well or what?"
                         -- "Had the best Donald of my life this morning after starting my high fibre diet"
(Unfortunately, Mr Trump shares his first name with Mr Duck, so you have to be quite careful about being clear who you mean...though it's mostly just as funny both ways)

George W Bush -- "A bird in the hand is worth two in the George W"
                           -- "If you trim the ol George W, it'll make the tree look bigger and the flowers smell sweeter"
(yeah, I know, but Bush is such a good name. Jeb, of course, is from the same family, and has a slightly different ring if you're so inclined)
                           -- "The ol Jeb's getting a little out of hand"

Rand Paul -- "Way to drop the Rand there"
                  -- "Don't scratch your Rands in public, that's just rude!"
Ted Cruz -- "Fell down today and got the biggest Ted on my arse"
                -- "He's got a few Teds loose somewhere"

Please feel free to use these in your everyday conversation, and please tell me if you think up any good ones!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Foxes and field mice

(obligatory picture)

The soundtrack to this blogpost is this song

I read a book recently, it's called The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer, and it inspired me to do (and write) this.

Reading this book didn't so much change my mind as it showed me the way further down a path I am walking. My views on personal relationships (<< future linked post coming) are, one could suggest, somewhat radical. I want to extend this so as to make everything personal. Allow me to explain.


I recently read another book (bear with me here) called Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe, which I also very highly recommend. It's all about how to talk about complicated things with simple words (I'll complete this part in this style). But the small piece of smart thinking that I saw that made me go, "ah", was a little thing in this books about the "shape checker" (a padlock).

Bear with me for this part, and if you find it boring or stupid, just skip to the next "--". I will try to say what Randall said with different words, since I don't have his book with me now: The thing that's most interesting about shape checkers is not how they work, but what they mean.

This kind of machine, which include number checkers, other kinds of shape checkers, body-part checkers and talking checkers, try to tell whether a person is part of a group or not. These might be groups like group-that-has-the-right-metal-shape, group-that-knows-the-number, group-whose-body-part-or-talking-sound-the-checker-knows, and so on, and then it allows the person to open it depending on whether they are in the right group. This is something that is very normal for us everyday, but it's only because we got comfortable to the deeper idea of what it means to use a shape checker: if you are not in the group, we don't trust you. Of course, if we did, there would be no reason to have any kind of checker at all. And I don't like this.

As difficult as it sounds (and probably is) I would like to live in a world where there was no need for shape checkers. Where nobody would steal your hand computer or car or food-heating-radio-box, and where there would be no things that are so (valuable) or so (dangerous) that they must be kept away from people by using checkers.

I think the biggest problem that stops this from happening is that some people have a lot of stuff and some people have very little stuff, and they got into groups where the first (small) group is trying to get more stuff while keeping all their stuff, and the other (really big) group is saying "help! we don't have enough stuff." As if that weren't enough injustice, at the same time, all this getting of stuff is making a kind of air that makes our world very hot, which is very bad if we want to live here for a long time, and it's also making a lot of heavy metal and other bad things go to places they are not from (usually where the people that don't have enough stuff live), and making things get sick and die. This happens because we are either: only thinking of a our own small groups, so we can't or don't want to see big problems, or don't think it's our job to fix them, OR (in the case of people with no stuff) we have too many "now" problems to think about the problems of the world.

Sometimes, people teach wrong things to people in their group or the other group to try to make things stay the way they are (which is not good).

I am very lucky that I was born into the group of people with stuff. I have more stuff than I will ever need, and I went to good schools and met good people and did a lot of things that taught me how to be smart, and I will probably continue to make and have more stuff than I can use. So I want to spread the love around a little bit, to make things better for the other group, and also to try to make the world we live on not get very hot and kill us. What I really mean, is that I don't want to think or act like I am in another group. Until the group I am in looks like the group I am not in, I want how I treat people to be the same no matter what group they are or are not in.

It will mean I have less stuff, but I do really believe that I, and most people, can be just as happy with much less stuff than they have now. Peter Singer says something like this in his book, but he says it much better than I do. I found out that it's possible and even easy for me to do this because I know to be happy and in my situation, it's not that hard, at the heart of it. It's not always easy for a lot of people to be happy, but if they learn how, they can do more good and feel more good at the same time.


To get back to the doing good part, I won't try to explain or summarise the contents of The Most Good, since Peter Singer is a far better writer than I am, but I will refer to it as necessary while I talk about the steps that I will plan and take. If you disagree with or are confused by anything, good job, your brain is working! This should probably happen since I am trying to condense 211 pages of occasionally complicated and unintuitive reasoning into a single blog post. Feel free to write me, or I also encourage you to get the book and read it yourself!

The first thing I want to do is a declaration. After that, I will write a more detailed specification.

I am going to:

1. Tell you how much money people pay or give me
2. Say how much of it I am going to spend on people-that-are-not-me
3. Talk about who is going to get this money (and what they will do with it)
4. Describe how I will implement everything, and,
5. what is my plan for the future


1. Here is all the money flows that point towards me. I have to focus on the recent times, since I don't have all the data from the past and I also have not been completely financially self-sufficient for very long.

- At my last job, I made €3200 before, equal to €2012.59 after tax, health insurance and social security contributions. This happened for a few months, before immigration issues dictated I stop work. I will probably have another job soon that will pay me a similar amount of money. While it may not seem like a lot, to put this in perspective, that's a few euros ahead of the yearly per-person average (PPP-adjusted) economic productivity of Cambodia.
- I used to make €800 before, equal to €642.38 after, and I will also make donations for this time period
- Every year, there's a little money-swapping ritual in my culture around Chinese New Year. I think I pocket about €1500 each time this happens but I will count it properly next time
- Every time I get a new income stream, I will add it to this list. For example, one day someone might pay me to play my wooden box with six metal lines and make sounds out of my mouth that make people move their body and feel happy (or sad) (or both).

Why did I just do this, since normally people do everything they can not to talk about these sorts of things? Well, simply put, I this we keep this more secret than we have to-- I don't really care or think it should be important, and if it makes someone uncomfortable to talk about it, they're probably doing something of no merit (or even unethical) and getting paid unreasonably much to do it, OR they're a a victim of such people, and doing something really difficult and getting paid unreasonably little to do it.

Also, the reason I am writing this at all is that I want to make it public knowledge, and maybe make you think about considering doing something like this too. Telling you stuff like this lets you know I'm serious.

2. I'm starting small, but plan to increase in the future. I think it's easier to go forward than backward with things like these, and keeping the momentum in one direction is important.

- I am going to donate enough money to get down to 90% of my after-tax income.

Because I might not stay forever in Germany (where I currently am), I am going to write off the health insurance and social security contributions-- that is, not to consider I will ever get any of them back. In the unlikely even that I stay long enough to, I will readjust my numbers to reflect this. In any case, I expect my donation fraction to increase in the future, so this is not a big issue to me.

This means I will keep €578.14 of my low income times and €1811.33 of my higher income times, and give the rest away. While it may not seem like a lot, to put this in perspective, my monthly keep is just a few euros behind the yearly per-person average (PPP-adjusted) economic productivity of Nepal. That's just bananas (bad!). Anyway, what I will implement is effectively a 10% gift, but with a few details:

I'm going to make as much tax-deductible donation (so long as the tax-deductibility does not affect the effectiveness of the donation) as possible to get my after-tax income to the desired level.
Tax systems are basically black boxes, and I am many-parts untrusting of the German government to spend enough on the right or important things, and I am some-parts disapproving of the spending distribution of my taxes paid.

At first, I wrote a very lengthy paragraph here, but let me just cut it down to spending I don't approve of. In principle, I don't believe in regressive spending. This includes infrastructure that disproportionately benefits  higher income people or special interests. Munich, for example, spends a lot on roads and allocates a lot of on-street parking, which are mostly used by car-owners. Public transportation is also too expensive, and does not, I believe, have the social benefits of energy efficiency, air quality, and traffic easing build into the price. I approve of none of this. Also, I don't support any military spending.

I'm basically saying I don't want to give the Germany government more of tax euros than I have to. I want to decide to the furthest extent possible where my tax dollars go. I do use infrastructure, and I think if I work within the tax-deductibility structure, my cost on society will not go unpaid, but really, I don't trust The Man any more with my first single euro cent as I do with my last.

- I am going to donate half of the Chinese New Year money, probably all of it in the near future.

3. The Most Good You Can Do talks a lot about what makes an effective donation. This can be a very difficult question. Let's start with what is good?. I'll go a little fast here if you don't mind.

I think a pretty good answer is, "what increases happiness and what decreases suffering" can be considered to be good. Quite often, these things go together, which I think is very fortunate. The next question is, where can we make the most happiness and get rid of the most suffering? The surprising (or unsurprising) answer is, "it's probably not in a developed country." This begs the clarification, how do I know how much good I'm doing? and the answer to that is that's very difficult to know.

How much happiness to I get from going to a concert? How about to a museum? What if the museum was nicer? How does that compare to how much happiness I get from eating? What if the food is better? What if I'm hungrier? What if the food was really cheap? What if I was blind or had malaria every year?

There are two things at work here. One is that high up the list of needs (where I am) that it becomes very difficult to measure marginal utility. Our options are also much more expensive and complex in their use cases. On the other hand, when we deal with things like life expectancy or health, it's often much more (but not completely) straightforward to measure efficiency. Unfortunately, the problems that you usually fix in these cases exist where healthcare is really, really bad. It is also, as a feature, really really cheap.

Here's a couple of examples:

Against Malaria Foundation

The staple of calculating the efficiency of a donation is the Quality-Adjusted-Life-Year (QALY). This is the monetary value of the burden of some kind of condition that affects both quality and length of life, and by that definition also the cost of an intervention that solves the problem. One QALY is equivalent to one year of healthy life.

Now, it starts to get fuzzy when we talk about non-health interventions, since we'll be stabbing at vague and small numbers (how much would I benefit from a free subscription to a magazine? 0.01 QALY per year? you see how it gets weird). But what about education? That's a legitimately effectual but also very difficult to calculate intervention.

I think it's best to start with health and life expectancy. The most efficient work produces 34 QALYs (about the length of healthy adult life in most developing countries-- it should shock you how little that is), for about $3000. If your impact is important to you, and you're looking at less than this, it's probably worth a good long think about.

Now you are probably thinking, but what about the arts? but who will pay for the museums?. Here's what I think.

While there are people suffering in the world, the least fortunate are always the most deserving of help, and I will not donate to any cause that does not help the most of them the most efficiently. I have my after-donation income that completely belongs to me, and I will go to museums and concerts, but I fix my priorities for the amount that I have set aside for the purpose of creating positive change for those who are unable to effect it themselves.

But what about the environment? I think most climate initiatives are fundamentally broken. I like a few of them, but I think the biggest thing they miss is that to fix the atmosphere, the cost of everything MUST INCREASE. Energy is way too cheap and this is the single reason why we use so much of it. Renewables cost more for the moment, and it doesn't work to force divestment from coal and oil while keeping electricity and gasoline prices the same, driving the same amount, traveling as far, etc. Everybody wants the world to be saved but very few people are willing to change their behaviour for it.

I think that by improving life outcomes for the lowest income, least educated, most fertile part of the world, hopefully, we'll have fewer people around and more people making more sensible demands for fixing the planet. Because we'll all be in the same group (see group theory above). For the moment, I'll try to fly as little as I can (I'm already a car-sharing, bike riding hippie so I don't know how much further I can push this other edge of the envelope)

Why isn't this my job? Well it used to be! But here's the rub:

I wasn't very effective. I could have been-- if I'd studied more relevant things, got more relevant degrees, and so on. Coming in inexperienced and unqualified meant that I was kept to the shallow end of tasks I could take on. While I could be quite effective in the right job, the overhead to reach it was big, my chances slim, and I also burned out living in Ghana.

On the other hand, I am reasonably financially productive where I am now, and for the present arrangement of things, I produce much greater impact donating a fraction of my earnings than working in the industry of making impact.

4. I have decided to use Givewell to help me find the most effective initiative to donate to. I really want to get the most good for my euro, so I am going to give to the Against Malaria Foundation. I believe this represents as good as the highest efficiency for lives saved per $/€/£/¢, worldwide.

Each year, I will tally my donation amounts and send them off in the 1st week of January. Taxes happen in April, so I'll have all my receipts by then. After that, I will write a report to this blog.

5. I realise that 10% doesn't sound like a lot, and it's not my final goal. There are of course people who donate much more than that. My number will go up, and here are some considerations:

- I need to know how much I can stably handle. I've been a little bit iterant for the last years of my life, and it's nice to have a little bit of a safety net when moving jobs and countries.
- It's just as important to give as to enjoy it. Making a sacrifice is not the point, and suffering to give is unsustainable and an unrealistic plan to do any kind of good. I'll probe this boundary slowly.

I used 10% as a suggestion from the book, which does a few little income-breakdown exercises. I chose to use the model for someone earning roughly the same amount of money living in the Boston area, and adjust it a little bit, considering that my expenditures and tax rate and welfare allocation are a little different. I will reevaluate this on a regular basis, perhaps at each donation period, and with luck get to a higher number soon.

I realise that 10% doesn't sound like a lot, but so few people in this world are doing even close to this, and so little of this money is actually going to somewhere it will make a difference. Hopefully, by doing what I reason to be effective, and talking about it, I can both do something and convince some people to do something to.

(talk to me, talk to people about this!)

Well, that's all for now, gentle readers! I'll see you again in the future!

all photos: Laura Stupin

Friday, October 23, 2015

The papoose has landed

Good day gentle reader, it's me, sausage!*
And the news around town is that the times, they are a-changin.

So I've recently been working in a field where it's very important and useful to created complete and detailed document my work and process, since a lot of it isn't as immediately self-evident as in other industries or jobs. I decided that it's well worth my time to apply this principle to the greater scope of life; I don't think we ever overestimate how hard it is to track and measure our own personal development. This will be as much for my own posterity and reference as for your reading pleasure.
So, as it's been awhile, let me start us off here with a (very condensed version of a) story to fill you in. Barely two years ago, I moved to Munich from Ghana. For some time after that, I was unhappy with this decision. I'd screwed things up with my long time partner and love of my life, moved to be closer to someone who broke up with my very shortly after my arrival, and didn't treat me very well after that.
Here I was, in the most conservative of the larger German cities, studying a (in the words of a Kommilitonin) hell-boring master program in an education system that astounds me in its conservatism and rigidity, for a nation of such economic power (then again, mostly tech exports rather than culture). I asked myself daily, what the hell am I doing here?
And then life got weird, life got good. I never imagined I'd feel at home here in the Landeshauptdorf, but here I am.
I've been spending a lot of time on the excellent people in my life, near and far away, people who I've newly met and people who I've known forever and people I've found again. I put some work into projects and latent and manifest interests, and I started investing more time into figuring out what is important to me, what I want to spend me time on and what I want the future to look like.
In the coming times, I will muse out loud about topics such as
Growing up
Practically applied ethics (a la Peter Singer)
Personal relationships
The Blues
City and transportation design
And whatever else I might find that I spend a lot of time and fire a lot of neurons on, things that are important to me and things I think are important to the world.
Along the way, maybe a trick or two that I've learned: tricks for the kitchen, furniture modification engineering, maybe a tip or two for linux and solaris users, and maybe in a few years, for guitar- and bicycle frame- builders?
I've really enjoyed the beating-heart aspect of the blog to date, and I intend to keep that, but maybe to sneak in an easter egg or two on the side for the interested and concerned reader.

I'm excited, and I hope you are too. Let's see what's to come. In the meantime, I wish you sunny days, good times and wild dreams.

Ride hard, live large, and be dangerous, it's careful out there.


*this is a corruption of a German Spruch. I promise you many more of these (:

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Everything is made of cheese

Life! How does it work??

Since you last heard from me, I aged eleven months, got dengue fever, got robbed, my wife done left me, and she took the kids too.

I live in Accra now, in a distinctly different situation from last year's. I work in an office in support of a small vegetable marketing project paid for by Swedes, I also contribute some to our main program as well. As sad as I am to have left wonderful Bolga for much less savoury Accra, living here affords me some priceless good things which, all in all, make it a better than fair trade.

In few words, whilst I was lonely in Bolga, I feel like I have a family now.

In conversation with a friend the other day, I mentioned a trip I will take soon to Cambridge and Vancouver to (as I said it) "see my family, and then see my biological family". Perhaps I've disobeyed the dictionary definition of the word, but my usage reflects simply how I feel about people. Y'all are functionally my family, that's why I'm coming to see you. 13th October, ya-hoo!!

Same here in Accra. I really really like the folks I've got to know and who I spend my time with. They are great people, and I'm getting super attached to them. I feel like they're becoming my family, small small. I don't want it to sound like my biological family ain't my functional family too. They are, and I adore them. I just like having a big family, and lots of it. Okay, enough mushing.


The nature of my work and life these days means that I have much fewer photographs of it to share. I get out to field sites less, and spend more time at a desk or on the phone. Even when I visit my project, I'm more of a supervisor or asset to the program staff rather than a worker or an implementer.

Well, it is what it is.

I'll share with you a few shots I took on a site selection trip I took a while back:

Lots of cabbages!

Goats! How do they do it?

Visiting some vegetable plots at the end of the airfield when this jet flew overhead, coming in to land

A good old fashioned Ghanaian shit truck


Living in Accra also grants me access to a bunch of other fun things to do:

Photo: James R

I had the great honour and privilege to learn to sail from the beautiful and talented Sondy Springmann, who was in town for a brief 7-week stay.

Sailing is hard (also, fun!). Teaching sailing is harder. I definitely remember an instance where I was swerving the boat all over the place because I didn't yet have the coordination to handle the sail and rudder at the same time. Sondy was guiding me while I fought the rudder in a hard turn, when her instructions stopped abruptly. I turned around to see her flying sideways out of the boat. Moments later, I was hurled out myself as the boat rolled sharply the other way and showed its keel to the sky. Thanks, Sondy, for your immense kindness and patience.

This was one of the most perfectest days I've had in recent memory. Remember the old Nor Easter times? Same joy. There I was sailing on the Volta estuary: perfect temperature, leaning out of a speeding sailboat over flat water, with nice breeze, sunshine through the clouds, surrounded by palm trees and in the company of some of the nicest and warmest people I know or have met at the absolutely brilliant one-and-only Ghana Sailing Club. Throw in some cold beers and a hot barbeque, and you got yourself a recipe for paradise right there.

I'll omit the part where James and I capsized and half-sank an old, leaking Hobie cat and needed a rescue tow.

Photo: Sondy S

I've also been climbing a lot. In this picture, the right honourable James Regulinski, the lovely Danielle Knueppel and good ol' yours truly crushing on the Bat Cave, T-Rex, and Kelly's Corner/the Grand Deception respectively, from left to right. Okay, everyone crushes their routes except me. Kelly's Corner sounds like a cute little bakery and cafe where the pastries are sweet and the coffee is strong, but it's more like a medieval torture device or an extended camping trip with the in-laws. And that, my friends, is the grand deception.

Getting a couple of hours out of the city every weekend to a green green place with great views and even better company, climbing rocks and making jokes, does wonders for my sanity and general well-being. A nice side benefit is that I'm getting in some shape from pulling on rocks all the time. I don't think I've ever before in my life developed so much excess strength or ability, and moved with so much...confidence? Not quite the word, but something like it.

--- this next section is rambly, skip to the end if you'd like

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about money. Everything costs money. Well, lots of stuff does. Money helps you do things, it "gets you to where you wanna go". Money's good to have handy, but it also ain't no good if you don't spend it.

I've started to keep a loose track of my net worth with spread sheets and graphs, to see what the trends are. Nothing too obsessive, just a sample of each of my accounts once every two weeks. Fortunately, I find I'm net saving money since I got here. Unfortunately, I've been spending beyond my means for the last month or so.

I'm pretty sure I know the major offender in this case: a few thousand miles on aeroplanes. Of course, I ain't complaining. This is money I'm gladly spending. It's also money that's made me reflect on, understand and get a better idea what's important to me. The big picture. I've recently gained some wisdom about how money can buy happiness and I have some thoughts of my own to add. I've learned a ton of stuff from the rest of this blog, I highly recommend it.

Each day that passes, I realise more and more that I'm a(n extremely) social animal (an animal, certainly). Those who know me probably don't think I'm particularly extroverted or outgoing, and they'd be right, I ain't. But I'm definitely social, and I'll define it thus: "I want and need to spend lots of time with people, especially excellent people, especially people I like and care about. How I feel, what I think about and what I do, and the basis for the decisions I make all depend very strongly on the people around me and who matter the most to me." Community, family, so on.

So I've started to evaluate my expenditure based on whether and how it will improve my happiness, with the perspective gained from this key knowledge (how my money goes towards increasing the amount and/or quality of time I can spend with people and so on).

Sample evaluation of spending:

-Motorcycle (yes, I now ride a motorcycle): helps me see folks more frequently and easily: meet them places, call on them. Therefore, this is a good purchase. Admittedly, I quite like things that go fast on two wheels...and this motorcycle sure does go fast. The other great thing about motor vehicles in Ghana is that it's pretty easy to re-sell, and they hold their value well.

-Climbing gear: helps me not bum climbing gear off my friends, or helps me bring friends climbing, also adds infrastructure and enables us to climb more and different things. Therefore, this is a good purchase. Admittedly, it's nice to have toys again! I don't own that much stuff in any case, and it's a durable good, so not a constant expenditure.

-Going to restaurants nicer than I would usually: a chance to spend more time with dear friends. If I really have to put up with nice food for that, then I guess I have to live with that (: It's probably not all that much money in the grand scheme of things.

-A few thousand miles on aeroplanes: helps get me to where my peeps are, helps me and folks get to somewhere where we are going to have an extremely opportune, well justified and legitimately bad ass awesome time this November (you'll know who you are and where we're going when you read this)

You get the picture. It seems pretty straightforward (to me at least), but I didn't always think this way. Now that I do, it's doing wonders for my conscience and peace of mind. I'm instinctively a very financially conservative person, so it was a real leap to take to start spending more than I make. I almost need a list of things-I-won't-say-no-to.

Certainly, I won't (can't) spend more than I earn in the long run. All things considered, I'm quite risk averse with money and do save most --literally (and much) more than half!-- of what precious little I make here. I'll come out on top. And in any case, I still have significant savings, and I do have a few safety nets. I own a wee bit of stock...


That's all for now, folks. You might see more out of me, you might not. Writing takes time and energy and free space, but sometimes I also feel like I just have something I want to write down: to get it out and help me think it through, for posterity, you know, all that.

They're two opposing pressures, the cost and the benefit, the can and the want, and every time one of them overcomes the other, you'll see something go up here. And sometimes, it just comes: I basically wrote this in one take, where I usually do a few re-drafts and lots of editing.

Until next time, gentle reader...lost of love, yours truly, Jungle Boy, Sushi Roll, or whatever else you might know me as.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

shooting from the hip in the dark

I'm really not a very good photographer. However, I occasionally (if you look back through this blog, I've got a few good ones tucked in there).

I still think this blog is not rich enough in photos, so I'll make this a post with more photos and less words. You'll get to see me a few times, get a little sense of what I'm doing, and enjoy a few lucky shots I took that aren't particularly meaningful, but just nice.


Here we are a village called Navio, one of the best performing in IDE's program. On Steven's farm, we're setting up a drip irrigation kit.

Steven and I are pounding the earth around the support legs for the kit's header bag. In the bottom of the picture you can see the main and lateral lines which send water to the plants.

At another site, Anna and I installed a small electric pump to lift water from a well. AC electric pumping is the most effective of any kind of pumping.

It was a real surprise to me that most people here didn't know that you could run a pump off electricity-- they only knew that it could run lights, radios, TVs and fridges. Another curious thing is that most people don't know the word "electricity", and usually say "light" and less commonly (more understandingly) "current".


At the local mill, I catch this lucky shot:

Incredibly, I manage it again:

There has to be a name for this shot: the feint portrait, of someone unposed, watching the photographer and is unaware of being photographed.


I once met a photographer who told me that photography is about controlling the amount and duration of light "falling on the film" by changing only three things: shutter, aperture and sensitivity. Since I can do none of the above, most of my photos from Ghana look the same, since it's so sunny all the time.

It's amazing what a little shade and shadow can do. It can turn the most commonplace scene into something more dramatic and interesting.

Finally, unlike most other geeky types, I don't really like using the word "fail", the classic lol-style being to attach it to some subject to denote a lack of success in that thing. However, when this showed up on my phone, it was too rare and funny not to take note of.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thick as a brick

It's funny how we adjust to our surroundings-- that what might be amazing or incredible for someone else is just normal to us if we experience it everyday.


I asked a local friend if she ever looked up and noticed how many stars there are in the sky. She said she did, but I didn't get the sense she found it as remarkable as I did. I can see the milky way almost every night that isn't a full moon here. I haven't been many places where this is possible.

Yet, even I am getting numb to this wonder. I used to be in awe every time I looked up at night but sometimes I simply forget to these days. It's only when I go to a bigger city and come back here that I remember I should.


My colleague Anna and I decided the other day to take a shortcut between two stops we had to make at work. It involved getting off the main road and using a derelict airfield to get straight to the village roads, and cutting out a large part of the main road that went out of our way. Basically, it was a very sound plan. I'd done it before, too, during the dry season.

We took the turn off the main road and got on a little dirt path. As we rode on, the path got narrower and narrower, we slipped and slid through a few swampy patches in it, and finally the path disappeared completely and we were riding through ankle high grass that completely obscured the ground.

Still, I was sure the airfield was only a little ways on, and we pushed on through the grass that got higher and higher...now it was knee high.

"Have you ever gone swimming in the sea, Anna?"

"No" (I didn't ask Anna if she could, but lots of Ghanaians can't swim, they actually think it quite remarkable if you can)

"This really reminds me of it. Kind of scary, you know? If you can imagine, you look down and you can't really see what's--wwooOOOOAOAAAHH!!"

...and without warning, the earth falls away beneath all the grass. We're airborne for a second, and the next, we find ourselves in a shallow stream. It was perfect, genius timing. It almost made me believe in God, because if I was God, I'd be doing stuff like that all the time to people.

We got our feet soaked pulling the bike out (it was completely bogged in). It was actually very fortunate there were two of us there because neither of us would have been able to do it on our own.

We carried on, skirting around the stream, and moved to higher ground, making guesses and theories about where the airfield was. As we went on, we found ourselves in grass that was waist high, which is actually a beautiful sight to see, just the handlebars of the bike above what looks like a sea of green and gold wheat swaying in the afternoon sun. Blue sky, big fluffy white clouds, deep red earth, it was really quite a sight to behold. It's a real shame I don't have any pictures.

Then, the grass got shoulder high and really thick, and we were bashing through it, as it dragged our feet off the bike and got in our faces and pulled at our clothes and backpacks. When we weren't in the thick stuff, we were slipping and sliding and bogging our way through the mushy mud around some rice fields.

Finally, we broke out of all that nonsense and found ourselves on a small dirt path that led to a larger dirt road that led directly up to the airfield. We realised that if we turned off the road just a few hundred metres later than we actually had, we would have saved an hour being lost and our feet would still be dry.

Well, I had fun anyway. You have to appreciate this kind of stuff. Even when God sneezes* on you, I suppose it's an honour.

*I decided this was the least offensive (to readers) bodily function I could use, although I'm sure you realise I was thinking of using a much funnier one.


The other day, I was moving a two-wheeled tractor and trailer from Navrongo (town) to Navio (village), a sweaty, bumpy tiring two++ hour ordeal under the hot Sahel sun.

A machine such as this-- 

in this picture, Thomas, one of our friends, is learning to operate it so that he can run a business transporting stuff around the area, and we can collect data about his workings for a feasibility study for these machines in this area.
These things are harder than they look. A really rough clutch, clunky steering and absence of any kind of suspension join forces with the most unpredictable but otherwise unresponsive throttle on the planet to make this a real bucking bronco.

Tractor-trailer vehicles are really crazy in reverse, and require a whole new different kind of intuition. They're still difficult, even after you've learned it. I have a lot of respect for truck drivers now.

As I passed through a police barrier between Navrongo and Navio, we waved hi and smiled at each other, and I don't think they noticed that I didn't have plates, and perhaps it was not completely obvious that I would not have a license for agricultural equipment. I think it was my good fortune that I passed through just as the officer on duty was tucking into a bowl of banku and soup.

Somewhere along the way, I passed an army of little school children on their way home. Of course they started yelling and smiling and saying "Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!" like they always do (and then "How are you? How are you? How are you? How are you?" after that), and then before I knew it, ten of them had jumped into the back of the trailer and hitched a ride. Three more were hanging off the back and letting me pull them along on their bikes, while another throng cycled alongside us.

I really should have pulled out my camera and took some pictures. I guess it's a lesson I'll never stop learning.


This post didn't have as many pictures as I'd like to have in it so...here's one of the world's coolest ladder! It belongs to my friend Francis.