It’s a sword! The Bhutanese Patang/Patag


I’m not much of a collector. Other than Legos, cats,  and assorted piles of disorganization, I’m not very good at collecting anything. But if I were going to start a serious collection of something — and if I had unlimited cash — I’d probably collect swords.

I guess I already do collect swords, in a way. But setting aside sporting and practice implements, I’ve got two. And excluding reproductions, I have a collection of exactly one sword:

The sound it makes is *PATANG*

This is a patag, or patang. It’s from the mid-late 1800s and it’s Bhutanese in origin — though it was sold to me as a “Tibetan sword.” Granted, my grasp of the details of Himalayan political boundaries in the 19th century is not particularly keen, so I’m not really sure whether Tibetan and Bhutanese swords from the era can readily be distinguished.

It’s got a fine wirework handle:

wireworkThere are a couple of points that appear to be damage or imperfections in the wirework — including what appears to be a nail that might be securing the wirework to the wooden foundation of the handle. I don’t know whether that’s supposed to be there or not. I believe the wirework is genuine silver but I haven’t investigated too closely.

It’s got a pattern-welded steel blade:

Mmm... laminated.
Mmm… laminated.

sword tipThe blade is about 2 feet in length and has some rather pretty lamination. I haven’t attempted to clean up the blade at all, lest any cleanup work affect the patina. That said, it’s still decently sharp.

The patang is clearly a chopping weapon, given the severely squared off configuration of the tip. My understanding is that this is the standard pattern for this type of sword.

The name's Ray.
Just call me Ray.

It’s got an awesome scabbard, which is made of wood, covered in ray skin and leather, with a metal (possibly silver?) ferrule covering the bottom third. The ferrule is a bit loose and there’s some damage to the leather, but it’s otherwise intact. The bright green rayskin jacket I have seen referred to as “shagreen” leather, though in the auction guide for the sale of this weapon it’s misconstrued as “shagris.”

For a sword collection of one item, it’s not a bad way to start. Unfortunately, the collection hasn’t grown in almost 15 years and I’m beginning to lose heart.

More on Patangs

I’m not 100% sure that this item is Bhutanese rather than Tibetan, as mentioned above. But so far as I’ve seen, examples of weapons identified as Bhutanese tend to be more similar to this one than those identified as Tibetan.

Here’s some examples and other findings.

  • The scabbard of this item is a dead ringer for mine.
  • The overall configuration of this one on display at the Met is very similar to my specimen, though this example has a metal scabbard and a less rounded-off tip.
  • The Wikipedia page for patang provides some good background that might explain the variations in design, but it’s woefully light on specifics.
  • I’ve definitely seen evidence that modern patangs look a lot like historical ones, including suggestions of intentional deception about weapon age. But I know a little bit of the provenance of this particular sword so I’m somewhat confident it’s authentically dated to the 19th century.


I bought this weapon for $500 at an antiques fair in 2002 or 2003, from Charles M. Brown, the proprietor of China Trader Antiques in Marion, MA. The asking price was $850, but I think he saw my eyes light up when I spied the weapon and he severely dropped the price. He also kindly let me pay in installments of $100 a month. I paid him dutifully for two months, then forgot for a few months and then contritely sent him the balance in a lump sum. I still feel bad about that.

Mr. Brown acquired the weapon in an auction out of Eldred’s auction house of East Dennis, MA., in July of 2002.  The sale was for the estate of one Jane Culver Sargent. This was lot number 229 of the auction. The purchase price was $425 plus commission. So Mr. Brown did me a serious favor, pricewise.

The auction catalog summarizes the sword thus:

TIBETAN SWORD Late 19th Century With wirework handle. Shagris scabbard. Length of blade, 24 1/2″.

The low and high estimates for the sword are $250 and $350, which seems… pessimistic, especially in retrospect. Incidentally, I’ve seen similar swords on sale in the $1000 range here and there, though who knows what they actually end up going for.

The auction catalog also provides the following context for the collection:

The estate of Jane Culver Sargent of Brookline was built on the collection of her father-in-law Porter Edward Sargent, who, prior to World War I, developed “Round the World School”. Between 1909 and 1914 this school was offered to the elite youth of New England. After graduation from secondary school, young men were taken on travels through the Middle and Far East by steamer. During these tours Mr. Sargent would offer classes in Oriental culture. At the same time he collected interesting pieces to illustrate his lectures and to bring home for friends. By 1925 when he purchased a large home in Brookline, he had a vast collection that so filled his home, that much of it had to be packed away. Many of the items were still wrapped in newspaper dating from the 1920’s when Eldred’s staff began their inventory.

(Wikipedia link to Porter Sargent added by me.)

Although the provenance trail ends here (so far), the contextual evidence suggests to me that this item is the Real Deal.

In closing…

That’s my sword collection. Maybe some day it’ll actually be, you know, a collection.

Responsive design anti-patterns that need to die

I hate responsive design.

Before you get your pitchforks and start lighting torches, let me do some explaining.

To be clear: I hate responsive design as a user. And I don’t hate everything about it. But there are a number of responsive design tropes that are inexplicably popular, all of which seem actively hostile to my browsing behavior.

So I’m gonna complain about them. Brace yourselves.

(Disclaimer: whatever free WordPress theme I’m currently using probably does some of the things I’m complaining about. I disclaim all responsibility for this.)

First, some context

The development of responsive design came about for a lot of reasons, but I find myself tying its ubiquity to a few specific things.

Remember this?
(Source: Google)

The first thing that comes to mind was a spate of practitioners sharing and writing about Google’s 2009 Browser Size tool, which helpfully reminded us that, yes, resolutions below 1024×768 still exist and a lot of people still browse at that resolution.

Second, the heartache associated with designing and maintaining multiple versions of a website and using a tool like WURFL to handle device detection and trigger appropriate redirects (and other device detection sadness in general).

And then the iPad came along with its desktop-like resolution and just screwed everything up even worse — not to mention the endless proliferation of devices with different quirks and expectations when it came to rendering web pages.

Anyway, responsive design is good because it sidesteps most of these issues. Responsive frameworks allow you to design a site with one set of design principles plus a little bit of extra dressing, and yield a site that will work at any resolution on just about any modern browser. It solves the problem of multiple devices and multiple resolutions pretty elegantly. So that’s good.

The anti-patterns

But responsive design seems to have inspired a number of design patterns that are Just Plain Bad, and also bizarrely widespread. And they’re so bad that I’m inclined to call them anti-patterns. This term is usually reserved for software engineering, but I think it fits here. In his 1998 book Process Patterns, Scott W. Ambler gives the following somewhat oversimplified but generally reasonable definition of anti-patterns:

… common approaches to solving recurring problems that prove to be ineffective.

…which I think is a match.

Before we launch into the tirade proper, a little more context: I’m almost always browsing websites on a desktop or laptop PC running Windows. I’m an inveterate keyboard navigator. I tend to have about 60 browser tabs open at any given time. I do a lot of link sharing. This might influence the level of attention that I give to these design patterns in particular, but I think the criticisms hold regardless.

The other thing to keep in mind is that these tropes, while prevalent in responsive design, are for the most part not intrinsic to it. I do think that they emerge from some bigger picture responsive design notions (e.g., “mobile first”) that are either misapplied or taken too far.

1. Fixed site headers

Let me begin by saying that I get fixed site headers. It makes perfect sense, especially in a mobile environment. Your branding stays in the window, you get to have your site menu handy all the time, those useless social-sharing buttons are easy to access. It’s not unreasonable.

But fixed site headers seem to bring out the worst in designers. First, there’s the cutesy animations that often occur when switching between the full site header, when you’re at the top of the page, and the scrolling version.

The part that really burns my bacon is that the site header is screwing up scrolling with the spacebar/pagedown keys. Browsers have a pretty standard approach to keyboard scrolling, which usually keeps 3 lines of text from the bottom of the page visible at the top when you spacebar-scroll. But in responsive websites, the whole browser window tends to scroll while the site header is position:fixed, floating over the body. So when you scroll in one-screen increments using the keyboard, some of the text that should have been visible is effectively hidden behind the site header. For many sites this isn’t enough to obscure new text as it comes in (though it’s enough to be disorienting), but some sites have a site header that’s so tall that new lines of text get hidden as you page through.

This is made worse if the site also has a fixed footer. For some goddamn reason.

Offenders: Just about everyone.

The fix: First, don’t make your site header change size as I scroll. That’s just obnoxious. Second, don’t float the header over the scroll area. Why not make just the article body be the portion that scrolls rather than the whole window? (There might be a valid CSS reason why this isn’t reasonable — I’m not a CSS expert.)

Medium does a kind of nice alternative. The site header hides itself when you scroll — until you start scrolling up. Then the site header appears again. It actually drives me nuts visually (surprised?), and I’ve got some issues wit the implementation, but it’s a reasonable compromise.

2. Intercepting keyboard navigation

Whose bright idea was it to make the left and right buttons navigate between articles? There’s so much wrong with this one that I don’t know where to begin. Here’s a hint: No one ever wants to navigate through articles using the left and right arrow keys. No one. (Yes, I’m sure there are people who do want to do this, but if you navigate between articles using the left and right arrow keys, you are dead to me.)

“This is how I scroll.”
(Source: Lenovo)

This one is just a basic error/error-recovery disaster. I’m often scrolling using the up and down arrows, or the pageup/pagedown keys that live to the upper left and upper right of the arrow key cluster. It’s easy to accidentally hit the right arrow key when I meant to hit pagedown. And if I accidentally press and hold the right arrow key when I meant to use the down arrow, I get to enjoy my browser doing a seizure-inducing journey through all of today’s articles.

(I don’t know, is this some mobile-oriented thing? Do sites let you swipe left and right between articles and they are trying to bring that to keyboard users? I don’t often  browse websites on touch devices, but when I do, I don’t want to switch between articles with a swipe.)

Variations: Some websites, in particular New York Times, don’t just scroll the browser window when I hit spacebar or pagedown. Instead, the site captures the keyboard input and triggers a javascript-animated scroll effect. It’s laggy and slow. Don’t do it.

Google also loves to mess with keyboard input. In Gmail, even with its keyboard navigation features turned off, using the arrow keys does a kind of cursor-based navigation through your email instead of scrolling. Look, I turned Gmail’s keyboard navigation off for a reason. And the other day, I managed to accidentally cause the same thing to happen in a Google search. (Luckily, it doesn’t seem to do it by default, and I’m really not sure how I caused it to happen in the first place.)

Offenders: NYMag, The New York Times, Google. To be fair, designers seem to be getting this one now. A lot of sites that used to do this (Gawker Media was an early offender) don’t seem to do it anymore.

The fix: Don’t. Just don’t.

3. Infinite scroll with dynamic URL changes

To be clear, sometimes having dynamic URL changes in an infinite scroll setting would be highly desirable (I’m looking at you, Summon). But it needs to be done with care.

The offending behavior looks like this on a newspaper or magazine website: you reach the bottom of an article, and the site just keeps going on to… another article? And the URL changed? I was just about to copy-paste that URL.

Also, this seriously messes with browser history. If I scroll down and a URL change gets triggered, all of a sudden hitting the back button doesn’t do what I expect. It gets worse if you try to scroll back up to retrieve the original URL, then decide to use the browser back button.

Offenders: Bloomberg, The Intercept.

The fix: Again, just don’t do it. If I want to navigate to a new article, I’ll click something. If you want to make a recommendation for another article, put a link at the bottom, but don’t load in a new article.

Honorable mention: Dynamic picture and text loading

This is another one I get. It makes sense in mobile. You load a page, and the pictures don’t load until you scroll to them. Sometimes parts of the text below the fold don’t load until you scroll. If I were paying by the megabyte, I wouldn’t want to load pictures until I got to them either, especially if I never ended up reading the article.

But I’m a wifi user. And I often pre-load articles to read later (remember the 60 browser tabs?). And “later,” in this case, often means while I’m on the bus, with spotty or nonexistent wifi.

To be fair, I can suffer through the lack of loaded pictures (sometimes). But not loading the text? That just seems ridiculous. Especially when the web server has already delivered about 15 megabytes of ad-network javascript.

Who gets it right?

NPR. Of course. There’s the nearly inevitable sidebar in non-mobile view, but other than that, no header, no infinite scroll, no other funny business. Just clean web design that looks good and works well at any screen size.

Parting thoughts

To be fair, responsive design as a paradigm on the web is still relatively new, and I’m sure there are web designers who are far smarter than me who are working on striking the right balance when it comes to features like the above. That said, it’s still unclear to me whether responsive design as a whole, as it’s currently implemented, is the Way to Go for streamlined universal development on the web. I don’t have any bright ideas for alternatives, but I do have (sigh) the optimistic sense that one way or another the user experience on the modern web will tend towards the better.

On handedness

Occasionally it has fallen upon me to ask people what hand they use to get about in life. Typically this is in the context of trying to determine someone’s handedness prior to teaching them to fence.

The answer is never simple. “I write with my left hand but eat with my right hand.” “I do everything right handed except for dealing playing cards.” “Oh, I’m ambidextrous. Except for writing, using tools, picking my nose, scratching, picking things up, carrying things, and a couple other times — then I always use my right hand.”

That kind of thing.

So — at least in the context of determining handedness for using a sword, I’ve come up with what I hope is a simple and definitive line of inquiry:

“What hand do you use to brush your teeth?”

I’ve found this is a pretty good one, for a few reasons. First, it’s simple. There’s always a clear and unambiguous answer. (Almost: see below.) Second, my assumption is that there isn’t a lot of direct instruction given in hand selection when it comes to brushing teeth. So you’re likely to get a more accurate assessment of true handedness than you do by asking what hand the person writes with. (A lot of people have historically been forced to switch to right-handed writing even if they’re naturally lefties. But I’d assume that in tooth-brushing one would be naturally inclined to use the hand that is most capable overall.) Third, the action of brushing teeth requires a balance of strength, endurance, and dexterity that — no joking — I think is a reasonably good model for fencing, so the hand they use for brushing their teeth is a good choice for using a sword.

Finally, back to the “almost” above. When I asked my Dear Wife this question, she looked at me like I had two heads, and said, “What are you talking about?” So I repeated the question: what hand do you brush your teeth with?

“Whichever hand it’s easier to reach that side of the mouth with, duh.”

And that’s how I discovered that my wife is truly ambidextrous.

So there you go. One question you can ask that will identify fencing-appropriate handedness without confusion, and which will also accurately identify the natively ambidextrous. It’s great fun at parties, I’m sure.

Recipe: Fast and fresh Cumin Scallops

We recently signed up for yet another locally-sourced subscription food service providing awesomely fresh foods from the immediate area — in this case, a community-supported fishery, which is basically exactly what it sounds like, that is, a CSA with fish instead of produce. We get about a pound each of two different seafood products every week. This week we picked up shrimp and sea scallops. Tonight we needed a quick dinner, so we decided to try out one of the recipes suggested in the CSF newsletter: cumin scallops.

Cumin scallops

The recipe that the CSF folks shared came from my acquaintance Chef Shirlé, who, unlike me, is a proper (and super-talented) professional chef. Also, top-notch vocalist for rockers Free Electric State (currently) and countless other bands (formerly). Anyway, her recipe for cumin scallops is really just a riff on sautéed scallops, but the results are outstanding — and fast! Full disclosure: I played fast and loose with Shirlé’s recipe, so if you want to do this recipe up proper, this may not be the best model. Though it turned out okay for me.

Read on for lightning-fast scallop deliciousness

Recipe: Puerco Pibil… Crock-Pot Style

If you’ve ever watched Once Upon a Time in Mexico (disclaimer: I never have), you are aware that a dish called Puerco Pibil (or Cochinita Pibil) plays a significant role in the story. And if you’ve ever seen the DVD (disclaimer: I never have), you may have found a special feature called “10-Minute Cooking School” where Robert Rodriguez, in all his bandanna-rocking glory, shows you how to cook Puerco Pibil while waxing philosophical on food and lovemaking. And if you dig slow-cooked pork (disclaimer: hell yeah I do), you’ve probably had it in your mind to make it.

Puerco pibil in a bowl

If you watch the recipe, though, it seems like it could be a bit of a nuisance… finding banana leaves, grinding spices, blending things, marinating, roasting for hours… doesn’t sound like a weeknight meal! But with a little creativity and a Crock Pot, you can bring on the pork coma any night of the week without too much fuss. At least, that’s what my slow-cooker Puerco Pibil experiment seems to have demonstrated.

Banana leaves? Habanero peppers? What’s an achiote? Click to read on, Agent Sands.

CSA Box Breakdown – Weeks 2 and 3

We’ve been busy here at Greek-o-Rican world headquarters, so I apologize for not having any exciting recipes to show of late. We were out of town last weekend, and I had a friend pick up the CSA box for us, so today I’ll give you a quick update on two weeks’ worth of CSA goodies.

No meat in the last two boxes–meat only comes once a month. We got eggs on weeks 2 and 3, but we gave eggs #2 to our friend for picking up our veggies. Eggs #3 are their usual selves — a dozen high quality eggs from pasture-raised chickens — so I decided that it didn’t make for a particularly exciting photo.

Anyway, here’s what we got over the past two weeks. Still mostly greens, but we’re starting to get some of the exciting stuff!

Read on for two weeks’ worth of highly nutritious local produce

CSA Box Breakdown: Week 1

I live in a pretty great town for food-related endeavors. There’s an excellent cooperative grocery store about half a mile away, a strong local food movement in the area, and two great farmer’s markets within easily accessible distance. This last point means that I had my choice of CSA subscriptions to purchase for the summer.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a CSA — for “community supported agriculture” — it’s a business model whereby a farmer sells “subscriptions” to the produce from his or her farm for a season. Every week, the purchaser of the CSA share picks up a box of produce at a designated spot (often a booth at a farmer’s market) and gets a smorgasbord of groceries for the week. (CSA boxes are usually “farmer’s choice,” that is, the producer picks what goes into them each week — the farmer wants all the boxes to have the same contents and value, and needs to choose produce where there’s enough to go around.) The typical CSA runs 20 or 25 weeks and runs from mid-spring until autumn.

Read on to learn more about CSAs and the spoils from our latest CSA box