How Hard is Hard Enough?

This is about steel and blades OK? Just to be clear upfront.

In my article Knifesharpenophobia I have mused a bit about how being all anal retentive about the hardness of a blade is not all that necessary. Now I wish to revisit that heme a bit, after my hardening attempt of a blade did not go as well as I would wish to.

If you remember when I was trying to harden the rondel dagger I was also hardening a kitchen knife blade and I was pretty sure that this particular blade is properly hardened. So I took it to work and measured the hardness on the tang (the knife is not finished yet), where it is hardened, but probably not as well as the blade. And the gage showed HRC 54. From technical standpoint, difference between 50 HRC and 54 HRC is not trivial (HRC is not a linear scale) and that knife is thus indeed properly hardened. What was the difference in the work process? For that knife then I have used the gas forge only for heat-soak, the final heating to 1050°C  before quench was made with charcoal, which allows for more even heating. HRC 54 is still not full potential of this steel, but if the tang has it, the blade has probably more.

But this whole thing got me thinking again – is that even relevant? Do I really need to be afraid to give that knife to a fried as a gift because the hardness of the blade is “just” HRC 50? Am I being unnecessarily obsessive about an inconsequential detail (again)?

So I tried to look at what is the actual hardness of historical blades. I did not spend too much time with it, but the article Sword Blade Hardness: A look at the current research is an eye opener and a good read. To be clear, it is about swords, not kitchen knives, but it still clearly shows one thing – the crappiest knife that I have ever made is vastly superior to most knives that were used throughout history before the invention of blast furnace. Not because of my superior skill, but because I have access to superior steel. Furthermore, HRC 50 is not actually bad at all and someone who takes a good care of the knife would probably not even notice any downside when cutting. And it has an upside too – a blade in this hardness range needs to be sharpened more often, but stropping and sharpening should be reasonably easy and quick and the knife will not break easily when you drop it on the floor by accident.

It is not the best that could be, but it is good enough.

Youtube Video: Pictish Crossbow – discussion and shooting

I would love to someday to build a crossbow. It definitively is on my ever growing to-do list.

Not that I feel particular inclination to be armed, but the simple yet not easy to make mechanism of a crossbow (or even a bow) intrigues me.

Tod Todeschini not only makes crossbows, he also likes to share his extensive knowledge about them. Here he uses that knowledge to speculate a bit about how pictish crossbows could look like.

A Soviet Heritage

So this happened. And yes, snowflake that I am, I find it offensive. Deeply so.

“We are disappointed that the largest retailer in the world and in the U.S., Walmart, does not acknowledge or respect the millions of victims of various nationalities, who suffered under the Soviet regime – those deported, including the elderly, infants and children, political prisoners, dissidents, members of resistance movements and all those who lost their lives, health or family in the Gulag or other repressions of the Soviet totalitarianism,” a letter to Walmart, signed by the chairman of the Estonian Pro Patria party, Helir-Valdor Seeder, Estonia’s minister of justice, Urmas Reinsalu, and the Estonian member of the European Parliament, Tunne Kelam, said.

It’s like some symbols of authoritarian regimes are verboten, while others… are hip and trendy? By virtue of being labelled differently? (And yes, the term ‘communist’ as applied to the Soviet Union bears little resemblance to its application to the underlying philosophy, but this is not that discussion.)

[Read more…]

Why Did You not Try to Stay in USA?

As readers of Affinity know, I was growing up until 13 years of age in a totalitarian state with little real autonomy, an effective satellite of USSR. I also grew up in a poor family so it was a bit of an uphill financial struggle for me to get a university education.

Towards the end of my education I had to decide how to actually start my independence and one of the options that presented themselves in 2000 was to go to USA with a “Work And Travel” program and J1 visa. I might write about my American adventure maybe some more later, today I wish to only briefly discuss the question in the title, which in various forms was posited to me in later years from many people here, old as well as young.

Even before venturing to USA I was of the opinion that it is a proto-fascist state and my opinion was further solidified by my experiences there.

So my answers at that time were these four points:

  1. Crappy healthcare. I have met ordinary people fearing that a simple case of flu might send them down the spiral of personal bankruptcy. I have seen outrageous prices for one course of antibiotics. I knew that USA had, in contrast to European countries, no universal healthcare, but seeing it first hand was a real eye opener. Fear of loosing even the crappy health insurance provided by the employer kept many people in essential slavery, when the were putting up with blatant abuse by their managers. For my friends I summed this argument up as “if I have grown up in USA, I would not live to become an adult, because my parents would not be able to pay for the medication I needed”.
  2. Crappy education. I have already mentioned that for me to get a university education was an uphill struggle. I was not bad student, but I am not so intelligent as to be able to study and work (not to mention that job availability was not that great – unemployment rate 8%), so I had only negligible income and I had to rely on my parents, which was hard – I had to live by with about 100,-$ a month to pay for my lodgings, food, books etc. For my friends I summed this argument up as “in USA I would not get a university degree, because even without tuition fees it was not cheap and with tuition fees it would be ruinous”.
  3. The mony that I made n USA was worthless there, it only had worth here because of the very favourable exchange rate. In US, the measly 5.50$/h were to barely live by – even though as a student I was tax exempt. So staying in USA would mean to lock myself into perpetual poverty. I find it incredible how many of my peers with university education failed to grasp this reality, that money’s worth is contextual and 1.000,-$ monthly income in USA is shit, whilst being absolutely amazing and nearly unattainable here.  I tried to sum it up as “for the money I was making there, I could not even rent a flat. And I would be forced to do work well bellow my qualification even for that. Here, I could use it to at least repair my house.”
  4. Absolutely inane laws and judiciary process. I have always thought that outcome of a judicial case should not be decided by a bunch of barely literate amateurs and that precedent law should not still be employed in any civilised country. And what I particularly did not admire was the “sue happy” culture in USA, where people try to win the lottery by suing each other for money. And the lack of properly functional system for “ex officio” advocates for people who cannot afford to pay. I summed it up as “any time you could get sued by some idiot over some trivial thing and if they could afford better lawyer than you, you are screwed”.

And mind you, this all was in 2000. The only progress that I see from behind the Atlantic was on health care, everything else got  much worse since then. And it seems that USA is managing to drag back the rest of the world as well – in last decade or so the main American exports are jingoism and creationism.

The USA was never democracy and never free. It only managed to convince its enslaved citizens that they are free. I am entirely content with my decision to not even try to live there permanently.

Youtube Video: Forging a Viking Dane Axe – With Tord of Thor’s Forge (part 1)

I enjoyed this video immensely. Tord of Thor’s Forge in Sweden shows a process of making a two-handed Dane Axe blade the traditional way – from recycled wrought iron and carbon steel, both refined by bending and forge-welding. As close to a Viking-era technology as possible.

I learned a lot just by watching and I hope that some day I will have a chance to try out some of those things myself.

Video is 40 minutes long and there is about 4 min introduction by Matt Easton. Take that into account if you decide to watch.

Harakka Island – Chapter 5


It’s time for another chapter in Ice Swimmer’s series Harakka – an IslandThanks again Ice Swimmer. Now, take us away…


Chapter 5 – On the Way to the Top of the Island


Fireweed behind the laboratory, ©Ice Swimmer, all rights reserved

We come back from the shore and take a closer look at the fireweed behind the Artists’ Building, the former laboratory. [Read more…]

Behind the Iron Curtain part 16 – Languages

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

In Czech we have a saying – how many languages you know is how many times you are a human. As a grown man I do appreciate the wisdom of this saying, since language barriers are difficult to breach and in combination with other things they do lead to a lot of nasty stuff. It is for example very easy to other people whose language you do not understand and with whom you therefore cannot effectively communicate. Even with all other barriers removed, language barrier in itself can be insurmountable obstacle. And when you can and do speak with people, all other differences tend to fade away.

As a child, I did not appreciate the saying at all. My parents were trying to get me to learn German from early age, but since they are not the pushy type and I was not too receptive, it did not work out. Later at school from age 10 Russian language was compulsory. But there we hit the snag of not only another language, but another alphabet as well – for me it was difficult enough to learn writing in one alphabet and sure enough, another one was difficult even more and soon I started to write fluently but illegibly in Azbuka as well.

I do not remember whether the explanation as to why we must learn Russian was given to us as a matter of course or whether someone asked, but it was given to us nevertheless. It was argued that it is useful to know at least one widely distributed language so one can communicate with more people. And that most widely distributed languages are English, Spanish and Russian, because USSR covers one eight of inhabitable land and Russian is spoken in all other countries of the Warsaw Pact, covering most of Europe and Asia, therefore Russian is the most useful language for us of them all. Q.E.D.

You probably have spotted already the flaw in that argument, as did I – the area of inhabited land is not as important as the amount of actual people with whom you can speak using given language. But lacking further data, I have not questioned the wisdom of this and I thought that it is a valid argument at the time. So I plodded on with difficulties trying to learn Russian, torturing my teacher in turn as much as she tortured me.

However it did not take long to learn how untrue this argument is in real life. It started when I saw how difficult it was for children to get help with homework in Russian language. Nobody could read it and nobody understood it much, despite the fact that they all learned it in school. That way I learned that actual use of Russian among ordinary people was so minimal that most of them forgot most of it as soon as they left the school. Second observation was when I was at a summer camp in German Democratic Republic. We were allowed to have some pocket-money and to do some shopping. Hooray! We are in a foreign country, but people here learned Russian in school, therefore we will be able to communicate with them! And to this day I remember the totally blank expression of a quite young shopkeeper when I told her that I would like to buy that aeroplane model of – (I forgot the exact type) and I had to resort to pointing and grunting instead. Huh, so much for that argument then.

By the time my elementary school education was nearing its end, I was convinced of two things – first was that I am hopeless at learning other languages and I hate it. Second was that learning foreign languages is nearly useless.

For the second conviction I actually had some solid data at the time – the Iron Curtain was an effective barrier going anywhere west of my home, making any need to understand people living there moot. And from experience I knew that even if I manage to get to some of the other eastern countries, Russian will be of nearly zero use.

To this day my generation and those older are still the least language-savvy generations in our country. And the country as a whole has therefore still abysmal proficiency in other languages, as well as in many other former east bloc countries. The Iron Curtain persists in this form, still fostering xenophobia and bigotry. A reminder that a regime change is not enough.

Harakka Island, Finland

We’re starting a new series today on Affinity, courtesy of Ice Swimmer whose photos are always a delight to receive and to share. This time Ice Swimmer is taking us along on an adventure, one delightful chapter at a time and in the spirit of telling a good adventure story we’ll be posting a chapter every few days. I’ll let Ice Swimmer take it from here.


HARAKKA – An Island


This photo series is dedicated to the memory of Caine. The pictures had been taken while she was still alive, but I didn’t get around to making a writeup, so I never sent these to her and then it was too late.


Chapter 1 – Introduction

Harakka from Kaiva, ©Ice Swimmer, all rights reserved

Harakka is an island in Helsinki, Finland. It is located in front of the southern end of the Helsinki peninsula. The island is accessible by boat from Kaivopuisto. The introductory picture is taken from the hill Ullanlinnanmäki, the highest point of the park Kaivopuisto. The island has been home for a lighthouse in the 18th century and during 19th and 20th century in military use, until 1989. The buildings in the island were built for the Russian garrison before the independence and for Finnish forces after that.

Now the island is a nature preserve and there is a Nature Centre to educate children at daycare and in schools about the environmental issues, renewable energy, natural history and conservation coastal and archipelago flora and fauna and also further develop said education. A community of artists also uses one of the buildings in Harakka as studio, exhibition and meeting space.

The Finnish name Harakka means magpie. Supposedly something on the island has looked like a magpie. The Swedish name, which is older than the Finnish name is Stora Räntan. In modern Standard Swedish the name would mean “The Large Interest Rate”, but it was probably something else in the local dialect.

[Read more…]

Behind the Iron Curtain part 15 – Cars

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Cars were some of those goods that were difficult to obtain and difficult to maintain, even when you had the money – so we never had one. We did not exactly need one either, because public transport was in those times sufficient. It was not market driven and thus was not dependent on population density.

However cars were still useful and partly they became a status symbol so many people in our little town never understood why my parents did not get one. One of my mother’s colleagues was visiting us one day and she snooped around in our garden shed looking for the car she was convinced we have stashed and hidden away there. She just did not understand that my parents did not use their positions to enrich themselves and get the much coveted goods of the time.

What was fairly typical of the cars was their distribution in any given land. Someone interested in cars could probably travel in hibernation between the various lands of the eastern bloc and then recognize which country they arrived at by looking out of the window at the nearest parking lot.

In Czechoslovak Socialist Republic the far most predominant cars were Skodas, at the time of my life mainly Skoda 120 and towards the end of the regime occasional Skoda Favorit. There were zero cars from the western part of Europe and a very limited amount of cars from other countries in the Soviet power sphere. Father of one of my classmates had a very coveted Lada VAZ-2101 “Žiguli” which was admired for its sturdiness and strength as well as for being essentially very rare piece. He only could afford it – and get his hands on it – because he was middle ranking military officer of the border patrol.

The parking spaces in CZ were mostly empty and usually there was some mix of different cars despite the prevalence of Skodas. I was not used to seeing many cars all at once, or a parking space really full.

So when I was visiting East Germany for a summer camp at about eleven or twelve years age, I had an entirely new experience at that time, one that was very strong to an impressionable little child.

Rows and rows of cars stretching for hundreds of meters on each side of the street. Parking lots so cramped it was difficult to squeeze between the cars. Different colors, but all the cars were essentially identical, leading to strange uniformity. All were Trabants.

Trabants were known in CZ, and they were much derided. They were the cheapo cars for those who could not afford a “proper” car. Having a Trabant was seen as a sign of under achievement, barely better than having no car at all. There were – and still are – many derogative terms for the car, like “angry vacuum cleaner”, or “bakeliťák”.

This added a discordant note to the experience. Seeing that eastern Germans had apparently more cars than we gave me a sense of awe, seeing that the cars are of lower quality gave me a sense of superiority. However the strongest of all the memories is the sense of a complete lack of choice and of a mind-numbing uniformity wherever you go. It was my first experience of an outward demonstration of the fact that we are actually expected to blend into crowds. And that everything in the system – all the overt legal and covert economic pressures – is designed to quash individuality and make us into a uniform mass.

I did not form this opinion so clearly at that time of course, but this was the start of that realization.