engineer

tim   .

                                                      


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.   hunkin

                                                         


cartoonist

 

WHACK A BANKER

It’s a rich subject, both horrifying and entertaining. Entertaining because the bankers were so revoltingly confident that its satisfying to discover that they aren't that clever. Horrifying because almost all the bankers seem to have escaped with their personal wealth intact while lots of ordinary people suffer.

People have always demonised professions that are doing too well – most recently UK politicians with their expenses. In the 1980s it was advertising executives, then estate agents in the 1990s and more recently city traders. However its unique for world leaders to endorse the popular feeling, which both Gordon Brown and Obama did in January 2009, saying we are right to feel angry at our bankers. The Economist magazine wrote that gambling on the stock exchange is much more risky than roulette, where at least the numbers stay the same for each game. We will all be paying for the bankers’ recklessness for at least the next ten years. Lots of people have lost their jobs because of it and many more have accepted reduced wages. 

I didn’t bother to do any portraits, bankers are generally faceless. I don’t usually approve of the way the media demonises individuals in these situations, but in the UK its hard not to see Sir Fred Goodwin (Royal Bank of Scotland) as the figurehead of the bankers’ recklessness. He took the worst risks, taking over the Dutch bank Ambros on particularly terrible terms, without even any background in banking. He was also the most ruthless, nicknamed ‘Fred the Shred’ for his habit of firing people. He even managed to double his pension pot in the midst of his bank’s collapse. Since the bank’s enormous government bailout, his pension is being paid by my taxes. Six months later, maybe because the BBC had started referring to him as 'the disgraced banker' he agreed to halve his pension to a mere £380k a year, but the gesture is obviously too little, too late. (In 2012 he was finally stripped of his title).   

When I finished 'Whack a Banker' in June 2009 I thought I was too late, at the time the bankers had disappeared from the news. My instinct was that the story wouldn't disappear completely, it was just too big a scandal, too many people were being affected by it. However I never expected it to return with quite such pazazz! In my wildest imagination I could never have guessed the bankers could resume paying themselves their bonuses quite so blatantly.  In the past, they would have been tarred and feathered or chased out of town, but at least we can now hit their effigies with a foam hammer.

Apart from the current scandal, I’ve long felt that banks are basically unpleasant, even though I've never had an overdraft. I favour the medieval idea that usury (money lending) is a sin. I don’t understand why when a company goes bust, banks get their money before the other creditors. I hate the way my bank tries to arrange ‘appointments’ to sell me ‘financial products’ and insurance etc. Even if our memory of this recession fades, I’m confident people will still be keen to whack bankers.


 


TECHNICAL DETAILS


The original 'Wack a Mole'
The game is not original. The pier had an old machine called ‘Wack-a-Warden’. I rescued some parts of it when it was scrapped a few years ago. The scary thing about the old machine was just how violently it had been used, how badly everything had worn. I started refurbishing it, but decided it was a bad design.  The wardens had to be hit with a surprisingly heavy hammer to register a hit. Obviously the harder the blows, the worse the wear. The other problem with the original design was that the wardens were pushed up by large air cylinders, so it used a lot of compressed air, and I’ve only got a small compressor in my arcade.
I spent a day making a prototype ‘improved’ mechanism. It was simpler, triggered with a lighter hammer blow and used a tiny air cylinder running at low pressure. It took up more space but worked well, so I abandoned the original machine I'd started with.

 Next, I made a model banker out of car body filler, molded it in silicon resin, and finally cast the five bankers in a tough polyurethane resin. This was exciting, particularly because the only grade in stock had a pot life of just 2 minutes before it started to set. 

All the materials for casting and molding polyurethane resins are made by a US company called 'Smooth on', and are marketed in the UK by Bentley chemicals, who are really helpful.

 At first, I wasn’t sure what the main display should look like. But because the bankers had basically been gambling with our money, I decided a fruit machine display of flashing lights would be appropriate.  Fortunately Mark,  the mechanic in the main arcade on Southwold pier, had an old Pacman pub style fruit machine display. It was perfect – lots of light up ‘BONUS’ signs and even one that said ‘TAKE CASH’. It even had slide out sections to customise the payouts, easy to replace with banking slogans.

 Getting all the lights on the display working was tricky. A lot of work goes into making real fruit machine displays so mesmerising. I opted for a relatively simple sequence to avoid rewiring all 150 lamps. It won’t be the main focus of attention when you’re busy hammering bankers!

 


It was lucky the pacman panel fitted, I had already made the plywood casing for the machine before I got it!  
I wanted the first impression of the machine to be like something you might find in a real bank. So I hid the ‘Whack a banker’ panel behind a poster, which drops out of sight when the 40p is inserted. Commercially, I’m not sure if this is a good idea, because the machine now really looks boring as everything does in a bank, so it may not tempt people to put in money. I’m hoping though that in context with all the other daft machines in the arcade that people will put money in out of curiosity.


 I originally thought I would have an electronic counter displaying the number of hits. But they don’t look interesting and they are quite fiddly to wire up, so instead I tried a large dial with a stepper motor, moving round a few degrees for each hit. This looked good, but still involved some complexity and expense. A simpler, cheaper alternative was a geared DC motor instead of the stepper motor. I thought this would be too imprecise, that its speed would vary, particularly with temperature. So I put one motor in the fridge and one on a radiator. Even with these extremes, the speed difference was only about 5%. So the game is a bit easier on a hot day but not much.

For the mechanism to drop the poster, I used an electromagnetic clutch from an old photocopier (The clutches were connected to steel cables that made the top plate move back and forth). The motor and clutch unit is bottom right in the photo.

The poster had to be rigid and became surprisingly heavy so I had to add counter weights. These travel in the plywood channels on the sides of the machine. When I’d finished making them I realised I had re-invented the sash window mechanism.
The final stage, pulling the elements of any machine together, is always exciting and nerve wracking. With the bankers, I despaired because it's impossible to watch the dial pointer while preoccupied whacking bankers. If you do well and the pointer goes round more than a full circle, the final position looks as if it has only gone a few degrees - no one would ever notice the pointer had actually ‘lapped’. The solution to this was to pause the bankers jumping up for a few seconds when you reach full circle. A bell also rings, just so you really know. 

When I first installed it, I still wasn't not sure if the initial appearance of the machine is too boring to tempt people. I could have made the poster drop when ever someone stands in front of it, but I'd prefer to leave it as a surprise.  The game still needs tweaking to make it more tempting to have a second go - I now understand why conventional arcade machines don't usually have dials. At least a really good thing is that its not too noisy -  I had feared the hammering might drown out everything else in the arcade.  

Two weeks later:

The good news is that the 'boring' facade doesn't seem to put people off. The bad news is that none of my hammers are lasting. People carry on using them after they've disintegrated, hitting the bankers with the central steel rod so the heads are now really battered. I'm trying the expensive stitched cloth hammer I bought to see what happens next.  

(A teacher just told me how satisfying she had found it whacking the bankers, and then said her school had something a bit like it in the staff room so teachers could whack effigies of particularly irritating children.  Later I realised I must have misheard her, she must have meant  her staff room ought to have something similar.) 

4 days later still:

The £56 hammer I bought has now split. I knew people didn't like bankers, but I had no idea they disliked them quite so much. People were able to whack much more violently because the hammer was heavier and has a longer leash than my foam ones. I've spent the day making new hammers with layers of canvass over my foam.   

2012 update

I've eventually worked out a good hammer. Instead of foam, I wrap strips of old blanket round the central wooden shaft. The cover is two layers of canvas, glued together with Copydex, a sort of latex. The interesting thing is that every part is now a 'natural' material - plastics aren't perfect for everything.    

 

 

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