The Cruelest Box
Updated: Apr 22
Casinos have never held any attraction for me, but I do play golf. And make pipes. I don’t know how many of you remember Psych 100 and the quick flyover of behavioral psychology, or the names and mechanisms of the various Skinner boxes, also known as operant conditioning boxes. You’ve got your positive and negative reinforcement boxes, your fixed ratio and fixed interval boxes.
Conditioning. It's a bit early in the post for a digression, but when I was at Washington State University I talked my way into a class that changed my life. It was an upper level psychology class called Humanistic Psychology taught by Milton Rokeach. One day he shuffled into class — he was in his eighties and in poor health, and we never knew when he would make it or an assistant would take over — and said, "Today, class, we are going to talk about conditioning."
Expectant pause. Rokeach asked, "Who was the 11th President of the United States?"
Uncomfortably long pause. Finally, someone blurted out, "Polk."
"Exactly, James K. Polk, well done. What is another name for people?"
Much shorter pause, several voices at once: "Folk!" We were catching on.
"Yes, very good. What is the white part of the egg?"
Immediately, unanimously: "YOLK!"
"No. Albumen. Do you see how easy it is?"
Anyway, the operant conditioning box that has been on my mind recently is the Random Positive Reinforcement box, the cruelest and most addictive box. The rat pushes the button and mostly receives a painful shock, except for the occasional time he receives, say, a dose of heroin. He will endure negative after negative after negative “reinforcement” to get the rare, euphorically positive one. The more random the reinforcement, the more powerful the addiction. Hence, gambling. And golf. The most horrible golfer makes at least one swing per round where a conglomeration of swing flaws cancel each other out and the ball feels like a marshmallow and goes straight and far.
Pipe making? It’s actually probably more like a fixed ratio box in the long run but on a given day it can feel punishingly random.
A few weeks ago, a friend commented on a blog post, noting the beauty of the briar in a smooth bent Bulldog. I replied, allowing that luck with briar wasn’t ALL bad. I had actually started two Bulldogs trying to make a blast (Brindle Bulldog, if you want to scroll back a few months in the shop page) and wound up with two stummels that were too nice to blast. That seemed like good luck. The following week, I started a new batch of pipes. My process is to look at the list for commissions and pick ten or fifteen blocks to bandsaw and rough shape. There will be attrition, but with any luck I’ll get six or eight commissions and two or three spec pipes roughed out, which I will spend the next two or three weeks shaping and finishing. The idea here is to remove a lot of material quickly and get rid of any blocks that are hiding internal cracks, bullet wounds, embedded rocks. Those blocks will cost me $40 each, but no further time.
The last step in this first stage (for me) is to bore the chamber. Pipe makers deal with flaws everywhere, and part of the craft (as detailed in the post Plan B) is figuring out how to do that. There are two surfaces, though, that I require to be free of all but the most minor of flaws: the inside of the bowl, and the rim. Sometimes a pipe starts out as a group 3 but winds up as a group 6 because of a sand pit inside the bowl, but if it’s a serious flaw it’s game over.
This last batch, EIGHT of the fifteen pipes I started had significant flaws inside the bowl. Nothing you can do, no way to swerve or make them into anything else other than firewood. These were not blocks that had any outward sign of being iffy, they were clear, straight, centered plateaux for Bulldogs and Rhodesians. So much for making headway on the waiting list. Of course, there’s no way that particular waste of three bills and a day’s work had anything to do with my admitting to a bit of good luck with briar. Right? I wasn’t being cocky; that one little chirp wouldn’t be enough for the briar imps to put a smackdown on me.
Right? Ever notice how superstitious gamblers are?
I never identified as superstitious before I started making pipes, but lots of things happen with briar that make you think that this must be someone’s sick idea of a joke.
I once had an order for a smooth Ukulele, but I didn’t have any great Ukulele blocks at the moment. You know, really straight grain, really centered, unusually wide. So I emailed a well-known briar cutter and asked for a special selection of blocks with those specs. I paid, I think, $80 apiece for six blocks. Plus FedEx, plus the exorbitant bill when FedEx stuck me by charging duty for finished pipes rather than for raw material. Evidently, instead of packages going through US Customs, the courier companies collect duty under contract. I‘m not saying that they intentionally misapply categories in order to increase revenue . . . on the other hand, briar coming through US Customs would be less likely to have a $100 duty slapped on it, but more likely to be held and threatened with incineration because the phytosanitary certificate wasn’t folded correctly. Whatever. Over six hundred bucks by the time it was all done, but I thought it would work out ok if I got, say, four Ukuleles out of it. Maybe five, it would be greedy to hope for all six blocks to work out.
I got — cue Dean Wormer voice — Zero. Point. Zero.
Every single one of my specially selected blocks had some sort of massive, centrally located flaw that prevented it from being used for ANY pipe.
Yes, that was a kind of negative reinforcement. But what are you gonna do? You can’t just quit, or you won’t get the pipes made to make up for the beating you just took. If a gambler can’t stop when he’s on a hot streak, he sure can’t quit while he’s down. Like I said, this has been on my mind. This past Saturday I shot my worst round of golf in two years. Which is only a thing because the week prior I shot my best round in two years. That’s golf, why would I expect anything else? The round where everything goes wrong is something that must be endured to get to the round where everything goes right. And the day at the lathe where more than half of the blocks wind up in the firewood box . . .
I can’t say that making a flawless pipe feels better than a flushed 5-iron, but the benefit is more tangible. There have been stretches of bad briar where I’ve thought, “This is nuts, why am I doing this?” Because it’s going to turn around. There will be the Fiery Zulus, there will be the 55 Interpretations. The flawed blocks are the overburden; you can’t just walk around picking up diamonds, you have to dig for them.
I’m just about to start another batch of pipes. Wish me luck