A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 21 July 2014

Hooptedoodle #143 - Foy’s Thirteenth Law: The Optimal Number of Spares

This was nominated as an addition to Foy’s Law’s by Iain, which probably suggests that he was as bemused by my thoughts on the subject as by the rest of the Laws in the series. Not discouraged, I have decided to publish it, as another small effort to share my painfully-gained wisdom with the world. It is the least I can do, I feel.

Foy’s Thirteenth Law states: It is a good idea to have spares available for useful items, but only a few; over a certain number, the overhead of management and organization of the spares outweighs the benefit of having them, and the spares themselves will tend to disappear until the optimal number is achieved.


This originally came to my notice in the rather specialized field of guitar picks (or plectra, as we called them in the Roman army). I have managed to maintain a shadowy alternative life as a musician and arranger, and always carry at least one pick in my pocket (to be precise, I carry it/them in my left hand trouser pocket, with my penknife, as opposed to my right pocket, where I carry my loose change – these things are important, I think). Picks are not very impressive items, and are easily mislaid, but arriving at a gig without one is not recommended, so a little care is worth the trouble. Also these things are increasingly expensive – I have acquired a taste for Claude Dugain’s little sculpted masterpieces, which come in at around £8 or more a hit; since the softer ones (ebony, coconut shell) wear out fairly quickly, this is a bit of a consideration, particularly if you are unfortunate enough to have to use the UK distributor.

This Optimal Number is not known at the outset, but you become aware of it as the number shrinks, mysteriously, from what you think it might be to what it really is. I have sometimes tried to analyse this – I haven’t got very far, but it goes like this:
  1. I need to have at least one good pick with me at all times – I might be forced to call at a music store, I might get a sudden phone call from the Howard Alden band, telling me that Howard has been taken ill – anything is possible. 
  2. If I have one good pick with me, I will be careful with it. I am unlikely to leave it in the music shop, or in the wrong trousers, or on the bookshelf, or on the music stand, or just drop it somewhere without noticing. This is because I will regularly (nervously) check my left pocket to make sure everything is in order. Penknife? – yep. Pick? – yep – I can hear it clink against the penknife.
  3. But one pick is a bit risky – a spare one will cover me for accidental loss or breakage. So two is a better number than one, but being forced to call on the spare would put me back to one, which is not ideal, so maybe three would be even better.
  4. Hmmm.
  5. If I were going on a week’s tour (unlikely these days, but one lives in Hope…), I might feel justified in putting, say, six or seven picks in my pocket. Now you’re talking. Idiot proofing.
  6. Not really. When I am pick-rich in this way, maybe I get careless, maybe my routine pocket-check is unable to detect a difference between (say) six and (say) five without a special, extra count. Maybe something more sinister happens.
  7. Whatever it is, I will find that my seven picks very quickly become three, at which point I get worried enough to pay attention and check more carefully, and stop the rot. 

What is this? One day a future generation of archeologists will find a random layer of Dugain picks, and will assume that they are the claws of some unknown creature, or the jewels of a religious leader. Where do the things go? How do they know to do this?

Three is the optimal number for my pick load. No picks at all is obviously useless, one is a bit risky, two is a bit better, three is good, anything more than three will tend to reduce itself back to three again quite quickly. Three.

I quietly filed that away as a fact which is invaluable only to me, but in the last year or two the Contesse has started using reading glasses. She tended to mislay these fairly frequently so – since she is lucky enough to require a prescription you can buy off the shelf easily and cheaply, she began to buy spare pairs of specs. One in the car, one in the handbag, one on the bookshelf, one on the coffee table, one on the bookshelf, one in the kitchen, one on the bedside cabinet, one on the bookshelf…

Just a minute – where are they all? Foy’s Thirteenth strikes again. As I move around the house, I see an apparently endless stream of reading glasses, and yet the Contesse will be looking for a pair at that same moment. The Contesse, I hasten to add, is not unusually careless or disorganized – I feel that she has merely, unknowingly, exceeded Foy’s Optimal Number of Spares.

A statistician or a moron – either of these – might expect that an increasing number of spares would mean that they would be spread more widely through the house/car/handbag, that a random walk around the place would turn up more frequent examples, which implies some sort of even distribution, or simply that the more likely places would tend to have more spares in them.

Further study is needed, but I don’t think it works like this. We don’t usually lose something because we can’t remember which of a finite number of sensible places we have left it in (which is already sounding a bit dodgy), it is because we have put it down somewhere daft while we were distracted by something else. Thus a greater number of spares simply means that they will occupy more daft places – places a sensible search would not look for them on a first pass.

Some kind soul will suggest that the reading glasses should be attached to neck-cords. This seems a reasonable idea, but has not proved to be a well-received suggestion – in fact I have to say that my own reading glasses have such a cord, and in my case it simply means that I am often searching for a lost pair of reading glasses with cord attached, so it is not necessarily the answer. We are still unsure of the Optimal Number of spare reading glasses, but it seems pretty certain that the number of spare pairs we have (if we could find them all to count them) is greater than this.

Work continues.


  1. This is one of those areas where ruthless dedication to routine is important. Whilst I'm not conscious of having "Foy Goods" (see also Giffen Goods"*) I do recognise the need to keep the same items in the same pockets. In my case important daily items (my Urban Survival Kit - car/house keys, cash, credit and debit card, work ID, mobile phone) have to be placed in the correct places upon arriving home or chaos ensues the following day. Incidentally, is your left trouser pocket your Pick Pocket?

    * Something vaguely remembered from A-Level Economics. In fact I think Foy's 13th Law is probably a question for an economist rather than a statistician. There's a link between the value that you as an individual place on the item(s) and the propensity to misplace them.

    Some random thoughts. First of all the item seems to have some utility (it's not merely ornamental, though it may have aesthetic qualities over that required for its function). Secondly, the financial cost is not great, but not inconsequential either - the exact price being determined more by personal predilection than relative affordability. Thirdly, I'd wager you don't have spare Marshall Marmonts or Montroses (not to cover mishaps anyway). They would be much too important for that.

    1. Yes indeed - that is my official Pick Pocket.

      There's something else here as well - the utility of the item depends entirely on it being in the right sort of place. Neither the picks nor the spare specs are useful, for example, if they are at home in a safe place while we are elsewhere. I have a stockpile of Dugains on the chest of drawers in my bedroom - I'm not sure exactly how many, but there is a little tin containing maybe 2 dozen, all of which are still useable (I chuck out the worn ones). It would be easy enough to shovel the contents of the tin into my pocket, but I fear that I would only have 3 of them left within a very short time, so careful husbandry is required. It's like Napoleonic rations - the French could issue a week's biscuit, and the soldiers would make it last a week. The British had to issue food daily, since their soldiers would simply eat too much, and then sell or ditch the rest rather than carry it.

      Marmont and Montrose feature in the most anal ritual of the lot - I know exactly whereabout, in which box file, each is stored - they are always there if they are not out fighting, and they even have magnetic sheet applied so they don't move about in the boxes. I have that one nailed tight.

      The idea of husbanding picks reminds me, for some reason, of an ancient joke which I am sure exists for every profession in the world. How (goes my version) do you make a jazz musician into a millionaire?

      Answer: give him two million and come back in a month.