Thursday, 25 February 2010


Some time ago, I had to read a document of what is called "Gap Analysis". For those who are spared such things, this represents a transaction in which a list is made of what changes are desired to some existing thing in order to make it fit some real or imagined requirement. Of course it can happen that one or more parties to this transaction lack desirable expertise, in which case the document can be embarrassing to read, and this particular example I remember included requirements so breathaking in their ignorance, arrogance, and triviality, ‘requirements’ that combined such total absence of real benefit with such enormous labour of implementation, that I found I had written in the margin “Marie Antoinette”.

To recover my sense of proportion, let me tell you about Sèvres. (All the pictures in this post are my own).

Last year I used up some odd holidays by going on a short course at the V&A about the history of European pottery and porcelain, in which the porcelain factory at Vincennes - later Sèvres - figured prominently. It never made any money. It was bailed out repeatedly by the King Louis of the time and heavily patronised by Madame de Pompadour and all the top people, but there was no way it could ever have made any money. The stuff just cost too much to make. What it made was not money, but things of perfect luxury.

First of all, Vincennes 'soft' porcelain paste is very difficult to work with, much more difficult than the 'true' hard-paste porcelain they were trying to imitate, which requires raw materials that weren't available at the time. There isn't all that much clay in the mixture and you can't really model it or throw it on a wheel. Just making the shape is very far from easy.

Once the shape is made, it has to be fired to harden it. Too hot and it will collapse, not hot enough and it will not harden. The gap between the two is tiny. It has to be fired evenly, so that small parts don't shrink at a different rate from the body and break off.

So suppose you now have a tiny teacup. It's pure white, with a beautiful matte texture.

It's glazed with a clear (and highly poisonous) lead glaze, and fired again at a lower temperature. Now it looks like white glass.

In every firing, some of the works will break, and more than a few.

The coloured enamel ground is painted on. The colour looks nothing like it will look after firing. It's fired for a third time; if the kiln is too hot or too cold the colour will be black or violet. If you get it just right - with the technology of 1750 - it will be a magnificent blue. Or you might be working with an equally temperamental Barbie pink or brilliant green. The teacup in the picture would sit nicely in the palm of my hand. You can see that the deep blue has been worked with little dotted circles like a fancy textile.

All the colours are made from powdered metal oxides, mostly extremely poisonous.

Flowers, or a miniature scene after Boucher, are painted on by an excellent painter of miniatures. Not all the oxides fire at the same temperature to get the desired colours, so they have to be done in stages, in order of decreasing temperature. The work is fired for a fourth, fifth, and perhaps sixth time, once for each group of colours.

If there is an thunderstorm, you may open the kiln and find that everything in it is fused together.

Powdered gold is painted on, mixed with a fugitive goo of some kind, possibly derived from honey or garlic. The gold is fired - the fifth or more likely the seventh firing.

The thin layer of gold is burnished and tooled with stone tools. At this point more layers of gold are added for thickness so that extra tooling and shading can be done, sculpting gold flowers in low relief. Each layer means another firing. On the right is a closeup of the gold.

Just look at the tooled and sculpted gilding on this Vincennes vase of 1755-6, sold for £70,850 in January 2009, (33cm high, cracked through finial with traces of glue) and contemplate the people and the society who conceived, desired, formed, fired, glazed, fired, painted and painted and painted and fired, gilded and tooled and burnished and fired, and financed the making of this thing.

When, as part of the course, I looked at these works of art and held some small examples in my hands, it was borne in upon me that even if you bought them now, two hundred and forty years later, with the rarity and history they have, the prices of £2,000 for a cup and saucer, £6,000 for five bleu celeste plates, or £27,500 for a vase a ruban of 1770, do not even remotely approach any reasonable valuation of the fantastic amount of effort and the craftsmanship that went into making them as they are, even ignoring the numerous deaths from poisoning and silicosis.

The reason they don't make them like that any more is not that it can't be done, but that it isn't worth doing, because a capitalist society can't produce that. People just make what they can sell for more than it costs them, plus whatever they can do in their spare time to please themselves. And even now, with the gross and outrageous fortunes that exist, it seems that there is no one, no one at all, who has the right amount of money and whose priorities are quite sufficiently fucked up in exactly the right way to cause the production of anything really equivalent to a 1760 Sèvres vase. Or if they do, maybe they do it in Burma.

[Update; fixed cut-and-paste error in realised price of vase at Christie's, 70 not 27 and January not November.]

Friday, 19 February 2010

Out of Office Message

I'm away on holiday. Back next week.


Monday, 15 February 2010

Heart Hottie Woollie

No, not an ill-considered Valentine's day gift*, although it sounds like it, but a little garment for a hot-water bottle. As I have said before, both the beauty and the utility of this mundane object are very much improved by knitting it a little woolly sweater in whatever style appeals to you. When newly filled it feels warm instead of hot, and it releases its heat slowly and is still warm in the morning.

A superwash wool or wool mix is excellent, but if for one reason or another you don't use wool, the main thing is to choose a fibre with good insulating properties. The point is to slow the release of heat; a lot of commercial hottie covers are made of fibres or weaves that don't deliver.

The photo is a bit rubbish because I took it in a hurry with my phone, sorry. This one was a present for my sister so I can't take another photo unless I visit her. It's made in Rowan RY Cashsoft Aran. It took quite a bit more than one ball. The dye lots vary markedly, but it feels great and not at all tickly, which is a bonus.

You make it as follows:

  • Cast on as though for a giant's toe-up sock, 30 stitches across (for a fairly tight fit at my gauge), using Judy's magic cast on for toe-up socks, which you should learn if you haven't yet.
  • Knit in the round (60 stitches to a round) without increasing until it is long enough to reach the shoulder of the bottle, introducing a moss-stitch heart or any other decorative element that pleases you and doesn't distort the shape. Mine has a heart on each side.
  • Change to 1x1 ribbing and continue till it is long enough to conceal the top without covering it (I don't see any reason to cover the top - it doesn't lose any heat through there, and there's no need to take the cover off just to fill or empty the bottle).
  • Cast off. To make the collar stand up straight as shown, use Techknitter's beautiful tubular cast-off for 1x1 ribbing. This will make the opening a lot less stretchy, but that's fine because an empty hot water bottle is flexible and can be partly folded along its long axis for insertion.
There's no real need for shaping and there's no need for any elaborate fastenings. With this design they're just not necessary. If your fibre is a bit floppy, you can introduce a row of (*yo, k2tog, repeat from *) just before the ribbing, and thread a ribbon through as a drawstring. The collar won't stand up so well, though, if the yarn is floppy.

*For non-knitters: it is widely regarded as unlucky to knit any sort of sweater for any man-in-your-life to whom you are not closely related, or legally (or at least customarily) married. It is tempting fate, specificially tempting it to bring the relationship to a quick end.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Alejandro Ziegler quartet - Piazzolla unplugged

The Alejandro Ziegler quartet had between them a bandoneón, a double bass, a violin, the Conway Hall's Bosendorfer piano, a samurai hairstyle, two red shoes and one Borat moustache. And Danny persuaded them to play their concert set without amplification.

They sounded absolutely stunning. Every note clearly heard, and all the colour, shape and texture. A violin, a bass, a bandoneón and a top-quality concert grand piano, in a hall designed on purpose for concerts of classical music, don't need any electricity beyond what the human nervous system provides. They sound far, far better without it; if you haven't heard a violin without amplification I just don't know how you'd know what a violin is supposed to sound like; it's very different, and much better. And not noticeably quieter, either.

It was a privilege to hear powerful instruments and brilliant playing on their own terms. They played the whole of Piazzolla's four seasons of Buenos Aires. It was a privilege to have this really treated as a concert set, so that people sat down and listened properly, respecting the music, too, on its own terms and not mocking it, ignoring it or distorting it into something it's not. It was absolutely clear that you might as well dance to Vivaldi.

I wasn't as crazy about their dance sets - but then I'm not usually. Apart from the flatness produced by the amplification, bands whose priority is musicianship never play in tandas, and the pieces they play tend not to be the ones you'd probably choose for social dancing, or ordered in the way you'd choose (I seem to remember that Sexteto Milonguero were an exception).

They were also very expensive. The entry price of £18 was a bargain of a concert ticket; but a lot of dancers aren't interested at all in music as such, and certainly not in concerts, so they tend to stay away from events like this. The subset of dancers who are interested may not be big enough at the moment to make it viable. I hope that in future it might be possible to market events like this at least partly to a concert audience as well. A couple of people said to me that this band should be playing at the Barbican - I don't entirely agree because when I went to a tango concert at the Barbican last year the sound quality was awful. I think I'd prefer it if they filled Conway Hall and then the concert goers left and there was just some time for dancing, for those who liked, from say half past 12 till 2. That means you still need a DJ too. It's a puzzle. The layout would be a puzzle too. If you lay it out as a concert hall you can't have dancing. A compromise would be to have a lot more tables and a much smaller floor - but does that make it viable? I'm not sure.

Practical matters - if you go to a concert in this format at the Conway Hall (so that it's laid out for dancing rather than as a concert hall with a lot more people), wear enough clothes, it can get cold. I've been there before and know how this works, so I'd brought a cardie, and I enjoyed being able to sit at a table and sip my drink while I listened, but I wouldn't have minded a hot cup of tea.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A very small floor in London

Please can I have some more technique exercises that it's possible to do on a piece of floor 80cm x 80cm (in my bathroom) or 80cm by 150cm (in my kitchen), without introducing errors?

I rent my place, and that's all there is. The rest is carpet and if you try to pivot on that, goodbye, knees.

Ghost suggested a square of linoleum in the living room, and I'm thinking about that, but then I'd have to put it somewhere when not in use. It would still be a pretty tiny floor, but a giant roll of linoleum. And the space under the sofa is fully occupied. I don't know. It's not as though there's anywhere out of sight to put the ironing board or the clothes horse, either.

Bit quiet, sorry

Sorry it's a bit quiet round here, although the commenters are amusing themselves on my last post - dip into the comments, if you don't normally, they sometimes get more interesting than the posts. I've been a bit busy learning to work some technology I don't normally use.

Tangocommuter has some interesting things going on: Dreaming about the perfect milonga, Why Tango, and an absolutely charming short film from his recent visit to Argentina, An Asado with Pedro Sanchez, which deserves more attention. Go on, leave him a comment if you like it.

[Edit 2012: I can no longer recommend the following website, because the interesting content is no longer prominent. Updating because this is a relatively popular post.] Also, I've just got round to updating the link on the right (sorry David), jivetango is still there and aimed at jivers but most of it is now on a new site 'learning tango'. Although 'class notes' are included as well as the handy list of classes it's still very much peer-to-peer mentoring - Chris is giving me lots to think about with his zenlike 'tango of zero' series about various breakthroughs and revelations, all greeted with tail-wagging, head-slapping enjoyment.

[Edit: as always, there's lots I disagree with - for example the music links and some of the venue reviews (not all) are as far as I can tell from the point of view of someone who doesn't actually like tango music or dance and is sometimes confused by the fact that that's apparently fine with them. I feel it's still essentially jivetango and what you're getting is people's experiences and adventures, not expertise.]

Saturday, 6 February 2010


If you are a native speaker of any language at all in which pitch is not relevant to the meaning (this includes, among many others, all the Indo-European languages), just try correctly pronouncing a short sentence of Mandarin.

Try to hear the difference between , , and [links from], and then try to reproduce one rather than another, on purpose, in a sentence - that is, without it being distorted by the sounds around it. To me, these are all self-evidently the same sound, with minor variations of emphasis; it's not that they sound the same — they don't — but that they are the same. But to a native speaker of Mandarin (or presumably any tonal language with at least four tones) these four words are as self-evidently different from each other as the characters with which they're written.

In my language, pitch is meaningless, except in as far as it tells me something about how the speaker feels about what they are saying, or whereabouts we are in the sentence. It's not that pitch isn't there; it's just that it doesn't matter for deciding whether two sounds are the same word or not. Therefore, I don't listen for it, I don't know how to listen for it, and I only hear its emotional content. In Mandarin, it matters.

On top of that, I can't easily produce one of those sounds rather than another, at will. I might be able to do them in isolation, but if I attempt it with other sounds as well, I'll probably get the wrong one, and even if I hear myself recorded I may not be able to tell what I did wrong, and even if I can tell that something is wrong, I may not be able to correct it because I simply don't have precise control at that detailed level over the pitch of a sound that I produce in speaking. That is a physical skill, a skill which I have never learned. Obviously the pitch of my speech does vary quite a lot, and I may have some control over the overall pitch of a word or sentence, but within a syllable I don't think I can vary it deliberately at all.

I have quite a big problem to solve, close-enough, before I can reliably distinguish one word from another, and a bigger one to solve before I can utter the simplest sentence.

However, if I kept on trying through frustration and bafflement, I would probably get there in the end. Adult native English speakers do regularly learn to speak Sinitic languages correctly, when they have the motivation and appropriate teaching. People learn languages all the time, and have done so since the dawn of time. It's the kind of thing that's made very difficult at school, but isn't such a huge deal in practice when people have someone they want to talk to and a real, immediate, practical something to say.

The reason I say this here is that I think a lot of people who do have the relevant skills don't really believe or understand, and can't remember or imagine, that some people just have no idea at all how to go about starting to tell the difference between a milonga and a vals. They may sound ‘a bit different’, if compared immediately one after the other, even quite a lot different, as mā (‘mother’) and mǎ (‘horse’) sound ‘different’ to me — but what the difference consists of they may be wholly unable to say. They may certainly not be able to identify one or the other in isolation. They may look for the difference in completely the wrong place. They may construct, and use for many years, some rule-of-thumb that is apparently plausible, somewhat reliable, and totally erroneous. And the difference between milonga or vals and a tango may appear to be nothing more than speed.

I have frequently danced with people who have multiple years of tango experience and are totally unable to identify a vals. At least one of them simply danced it as milonga (a strange but rather interesting experience).

My analogy with language may not be valid, but I think it helps imagination. What I want to suggest is that it doesn't necessarily mean there's a defect of ear or brain. It's a matter of learning how to pay attention to the right things at the right level of detail; a matter of learning what part of the sound is important. At some point you have to do that, and not everyone has done it in advance.

Monday, 1 February 2010


A bizarre discovery:

An ex martial artist habitually stands and sits with his shoulders in a forward-defensive posture. He can't unroll them to dance tango; or, he can, but not easily, or only for short periods.

Put a jacket on him, and, like magic! They unroll.

"I think I'm wearing armour," he says. "That's why I never wear jackets".