Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Top Ass

I'm cleaning out our games cabinet this morning, which is why I have Top Ass playing cards on my mind. For some reason, I always forget to buy more copies of this popular children's game when we're in Germany, even though I think they'd make great gifts for our U.S. friends. We have Top Ass Space Travel and Top Ass Special Transport, but I'd kind of like to see some Top Ass Marine Animals and Top Ass Horses.

I suppose I should mention that Top Ass in German ("tohp ahss") means Top Ace in English. And ASS is an abbreviation for Altenburger und Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik ("The Altenburg and Stralsund playing card factory"). As S explains, "they named themselves ASS." What linguistic fortuity!

Incidentally, if you're interested in the game--known generically as Quartett, it's actually rather boring to play--you'd be far wiser to search than

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The east coast was brought to its knees by snow this past weekend. In a flippant twist, Durham is supposed to enjoy temps in the 60s this coming Saturday. That should be warm enough to melt the hunk of ice in my pottery water bucket out on the porch, and maybe even warm enough to allow me to wear short sleeves as I throw my next clay geeksperiment: the Bagel Box.

The Bagel Box probably has a tidy mathematical name, but since it's inspired by George Hart's nifty website on how to cut a bagel into two interlocking halves, it's going to be "the Bagel Box." In the absence of a tangible clay torus, my brain is unable to decide whether I'll need to devise some sort of key to hold the two halves together--a box is no good if the lid won't stay on--which is why it's so urgent that I get outside and on the wheel. (I've been contemplating setting the wheel up in our living room for the next month or so, but I'm happy to hold off if it's going to be 60 on Saturday. Let's add "devise a more practical winter studio" to the list of New Year's resolutions.)

If the Bagel Box is a success, I'll attempt a trefoil knot Bagel Box.

"Success" here means "aesthetically and intellectually pleasing." It's hard to imagine this will be a practical box, given that part of the container will be the lid, part of the lid will be the container, and parts of both lid and container will be bottomless and lidless sides. Indeed, it isn't as though you see Bagel Boxes everywhere--although that might be less a function of function as of a gaping void (or box) waiting to be filled. Or not.

I found the bagel-slicing page via Vi Hart's brilliant mathemagical website, another fantastic fount of inspiration.

Monday, December 27, 2010


I need to start an Etsy store. That will go on my list of New Year's resolutions, along with coming up with a way to take decent photos of my work, building a gas or soda kiln in the back yard, and learning to repair plaster walls. Can you tell which of the Klein Bottles below were photographed by a professional photographer and which were photographed by me using a low-tech piece of white poster board propped on a chair as a backdrop?

I didn't make any specific New Year's resolutions on January 1, 2010, but some goals did crop up along the way. I'm pleased to report that I have successfully renewed my devotion to Robert Schumann (to whom, incidentally, I dedicated my Master's thesis in Astronomy way back in 1989) by learning the six B-A-C-H fugues for organ. For those who question the absolute brilliance of the fugues, might I recommend several months of worshipful practice and analysis?

By comparison, I've been resisting my way through The Lord of the Rings, but with December 31 looming, I've bumped things up a notch and am now a mere 200 pages away from finishing The Return of the King (not counting the hundreds of pages of appendices). By New Year's Eve, I hope to call my cultural literacy oath to Tolkien fulfilled.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thankful for the little things

Look what the Solstice Elk brought S!
All lit up
I spent the last week pretending I had winter allergies, eventually acknowledging I had a nasty cold, and getting out of bed only long enough to play for multiple Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Being sick always makes me appreciate the little things, like having a husband who makes the world's best matzo ball soup, and a son who enjoys playing nurse; like dwelling with a silky, easy-purring black cat who curls up with me all day in bed; and like experiencing sickness-induced spontaneous Christmas Day nosebleeds that begin during the spoken creed rather than during the accompanied liturgy (and like having sufficient tissues on hand, thanks to the cold; oh, and like not getting blood all over my face or having to sneeze; and like having a nice big grand piano to hide behind until it's all over).

Annual North Carolina standstill

It snowed.

Men in Lederhosen

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Correspondences with the Tooth Fairy

I'm not a terribly tidy person, but when I get it into my head that I'm going to clean the house, I go whole hog, starting with drawers so that no one but I can tell I'm cleaning. Thus it was that I uncovered collected correspondences with the Tooth Fairy.

When E was getting ready to lose his first tooth, he asked me who the Tooth Fairy was. The obvious answer was that my mother was the Tooth Fairy. We called her to confirm.

"Yes," said my mom, "but I've been out of the business for years. And I wasn't the Tooth Fairy. I was a subcontractor. The Tooth Fairy has lots of subcontractors; all those teeth are just too much work for one fairy to handle. I'm sure you have subcontractors in your neck of the woods."



Dear E,

At long last! Goodness, I was beginning to think that tooth would never fall out. What a great way to begin the New Year!

My colleague, the Mexican Tooth Mouse, notified me as soon as your frontal incisor fell into your mouth. Since your parents had been saving this beaded bookmark for this auspicious occasion (saving it for months, I might add), I asked one of my friends, a fruit bat, to fly it down to Mexico City for me. A first tooth warrants a little extra effort, don’t you think? Señor Mouse took over from there, so I believe you have him to thank for the pesos. We both thought you might want to save the tooth—they are so fascinating to look at! Did you know you mother saved most of her baby teeth? Perhaps you will follow in her footsteps.

Do keep up with the good brushing habits. You can be proud that you don't have a single cavity!

With much love,
--The Tooth Fairy (e el Ratón)


Dear E,

my, that was quick--your first tooth fell out January 1st, and already you've lost another just a few short weeks later. Señor Ratón says "Hola" and informs me that if you're ever in Mexico again, and if you lose a tooth while you're there, he'll look forward to visiting your pillow again. It is a delight to have colleagues around the world! I myself appreciate that you lost this one in the U.S., as things have been busy for me and my fruit bat lately, making it hard to get down to the border.

Enjoy the nippy January weather. Maybe we'll have some snow this year!

Keep up the good brushing habits!

--The Tooth Fairy


Dear toothfairy
I wold like to have a pre
esent insteadof
mouey. love E
PS my toth is inttHe bag
ifyou wnat to Pot mony instud.

Dear Mom,

you should know that most of E's friends know you once subcontracted for the Tooth Fairy. Isaac's dad told me today that Isaac said you also used to be the Easter Bunny. You never told me!


Dear E,

Congratulations again, dear precocious child, on losing another tooth. Your mouth is maturing quite beautifully. Once again, you deserve praise for having no cavities.

The top central incisor you lost this time appears to have been chipped earlier in your youth. Try not to chip your adult teeth, as they are far more difficult to replace than the baby ones.

You might wonder why I am typing this letter rather than corresponding by hand, as I did previously. Believe it or not, I injured my left elbow last week when I attempted to leave a trinket under the pillow of a loudly snoring crocodile. I won’t go into detail, but my doctor says I should be back up to speed by the end of this month. In the meantime, my ever helpful fruit bat is typing my letters for me. Where would the world be without fruit bats?

I suspect I will discover another one of your teeth under your pillow in the not-too-distant future. Until then, I remain affectionately yours,

--The Tooth Fairy
P.S. Don't forget to brush at least twice a day!


Dear tooth fary
I lost anothertooth
cI would likeap praesint
tooth Luosr E

Dear E,

me oh my, another top incisor! And a handwritten letter too. You are certainly growing up.

I had to check the Tooth Fairy By-Laws. Did you know non-union Tooth Fairy subcontractors may only leave cash under pillows? Lucky for you, I'm a paid-in-full member of UFFG (the Union of Fairies and Fairy Godmothers), which entitles me to leave the occasional gift or two under your head. I hope you enjoy these [ceramic sea lions]. Did you know the incisors of California sea lions have two cusps? The wonders of nature never cease to amaze me.

Keep up the good brushing habits!

The Tooth Fairy


Dear. tooth Fairy.
Thank You for the seals.
and I losta anothr tooth!
I would like a presint. Ples

Dear E,

Well this was an unexpected visit! Your tooth had barely registered on our scanning equipment when my fruit bat notified me that it had actually fallen out. Never fear, we are always able to fit in these last-minute visits. (I think back to the days when we tried to do all of our scheduling without the help of computers, and I'm grateful for the wonders of modern technology.) It is, of course, always a pleasure to visit your pillow, and to find your notes, as well as your cavity-free teeth.

Brush well!

Affectionately yours,
--The Tooth Fairy


Dear tooth fairy
its early!
my tooth got
Love E

Dear E,

Goodness gracious, yes indeed this lateral incisor came out sooner than I expected! Please try to avoid getting your teeth knocked out in the future. Thankfully, this one was a baby tooth. If you ever lose a permanent tooth, put it back in its socket and get thee to a dentist or emergency room pronto!

I figure the trauma of getting a tooth knocked out warrants a little something extra. I gather you're a fan of this particular mammal [cats]. Did you know I have some of [your cat] Homer's baby teeth in my stash somewhere?

--The Tooth Fairy


Lieber E,

Viele Gruesse auf Deutsch! Ich weiss, dass dein Papa Deutsch spricht, und dass du auch ein bischen Deutsch sprechen kannst. Weil ich viele Sprachen fuer meinen Beruf koennen muss, habe ich mir gedacht, mein Deutsch mit diesem Brief an dich zu ueben. Kannst du meinen Brief lesen?

Ich gratuliere dir zum Ausfall deines sechsten Milchzahn's! Prima, immer noch keine Loecher in den Zaehnen. Putze weiter hin gut die Zaehne, und vergesse nicht, zweimal im Jahr zum Zahnarzt zu gehen.

Die Fruchtfledermaus schickt liebe Gruesse.

Deine Zahnfee,
--The Tooth Fairy


Dear tooth fairy
I lost another.
how are you Doing?
I would like money if you have it.

Dear E,

Well, it's about time! I've been expecting you to lose this tooth for months now. My fruit bat and I both cheered when the tooth finally showed up in our database this evening.

I'm running low on cash in the current economy, but I'm leaving you this fairy coin. Perhaps you know a bank that will exchange it for you.

Brush well.


Selected letters from the 1970s archives:

Dear Liz, Ha ha! I certainly fooled you this time. I understand that you have lost another deciduous tooth. (Look it up in the dictionary.) Did you know some trees are deciduous? Guess what that means. Love, as ever, The Tooth Fairy

Hoo Boy--I thought I'd never make it. I, the tooth fairy, was so tired, I was dropping quarters under pillows of people with dentures and partial plates. You should have seen what I almost left with a great white shark. It could have opened a bank account. I know I only have a few more visits to make to your pillow before we both retire from the tooth business, so there is one thing I'd like to say. Do you realize that there hasn't been a single cavity in all the teeth I've gotten from you! There are only a few other children, most of whom are named Paley, who can boast of that. Terrific. Love, Mom the Tooth Fairy

Dear Elizabeth, I'll wager you thought the old T.F. forgot you again. Hah! You see, I cut my finger and I was going to get a Band-aid, when I cut my finger, so I needed a I'm late. By the end of 1978 we won't be doing business anymore. Isn't that unbelievable! Funny how the time flies when you are having fun. Keep them molars and canines coming in, folks. See you soon, xxxxxx, Y.M. the T.F.

Dear Liz, another? Wow! Only a few more. Seasle's Greetings. YMTTF

Dearest Liz,

Dear me, it has been ages since I last wrote to you. Your mother, a very close friend of mine, suggested that you might enjoy a note from me on the occasion of your 12th birthday. I am only too happy to be of service, of course, as I always enjoy keeping in touch with my old friends, especially ones with memorable teeth.

This last year was busy and interesting for me. After my last visit to you (remember, for those monster teeth with the enormous roots) I spent the summer trying to outsmart a little kid who kept trying to collect on the teeth from his comb. I've dealt with rakes and gears (all having teeth), toothache grass and toothache trees! I have not ever given away fortunes to sharks, however, my dear, because sharks don't really have teeth and are thus--thank goodness--not my responsibility. (The outsides of sharks' skins are covered by little sharp pointy placoid scales. Their jaws are also covered with placoid scales, only these are bigger. When a shark eats Cleveland and loses a few teeth in the process, he just grows a few more to replace them. You can't do that with genuine teeth, you understand.)

I understand from some of my friends that you now have braces on your teeth. What a smile you'll have when they are all straight! How do you feel with all those wires and bands in your mouth?

As you may know, so few children these days have nice teeth with no cavities that we tooth fairies have an honor list and guess what--you are on it! Yes indeedy, right up there. Congratulations!

Again, happy birthday! And don't worry, I still believe in you--very much.

Extremely sincerely and with best wishes for a splendid year,
Your friend, the Tooth Fairy

Monday, December 13, 2010


A while back, I wrote about the number of possible stop combinations on the mighty Aeolian organ in Duke Chapel, calculating a total of 2(120)-1, or ~1.3 x 10(36). It turns out there are only 114 stops, not 120, which brings the total down to 2(114)-1, or ~2.1 x 10(34), a difference of two orders of magnitude. Two orders of magnitude are significant if you're talking about the velocity of a Porsche on the Autobahn (200 km/hr vs. 20,000 km/hr) or the distance to Vega (25 lightyears vs. 2,500 lightyears), but it doesn't make much practical difference when you have a mere 10 decillion combinations rather than an undecillion.* Apologies, regardless, for any confusion this error may have caused.

*Europeans would call 10 decillion "10,000 quintillion," and an undecillion "a sextillion." A European sextillion has six times more zeros than has a million. How logical! A European billion has twice as many zeros as has a million--see the pattern?--although in the U.S., we call a European billion "a trillion." How...sequential. A U.S. sextillion is a measly 10(21).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Condensation versus spit

In grad school, I had several friends who played French horn. As they drained the liquid contents of assorted valves onto the floors of assorted performance venues, they would insist, "it's not spit, it's condensation." As their accompanist, I learned to say it with them: "I know, it's not spit, it's condensation."

I was thus surprised to learn that there's a special valve on a trumpet called a "spit valve." When the instrument starts gurgling, the player presses the valve and blows a good gust of air into the mouthpiece, forcing a dribble of liquid out through the valve.

Now, it turns out you're supposed to give your trumpet a bath once a month or so. We finally learned this four months into E's trumpet education, so last weekend I set up my laptop on the bathroom scale (the horizontal surface farthest from water without also being the cover of a kitty-litter box) and carefully followed the step-by-step instructions offered in a well-reviewed youtube video on trumpet bathing. There's a whole genre of such videos. Some (like the ones that show you how to pry sticking parts apart with pliers, or that insist the idea that trumpets need cleaning is a conspiracy promulgated by trumpet cleaning supply manufacturers and music stores) are worse than others.

I carefully disassembled the instrument, placed the appropriate parts on a towel in the bathtub, soaked them in warm water, inserted the correct pipe cleaners and snakes into the tubes for which they were designed, rinsed and gently patted each piece dry, and finally lubed and oiled and reassembled the parts. Lo, E's trumpet looks and sounds significantly better post-bath.

In the process, I learned that trumpet players are happy to call a spade a spade. Judging by the four months worth of bacterial goo left behind in the water? It's not condensation. It's spit.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Compound cookies

Want to make Lebkuchen (a traditional German Christmas cookie*)? You need look no further for a recipe than in the classic Bayerisches Kochbuch (Bavarian Cookbook).

We have two copies: to the right, the 18th edition, published in 1938 in Fraktur (the same font as the cover text). The font, coupled with hindsight, makes the pre-war national pride in the introduction rather chilling: to paraphrase, "at the frontline stands the German Woman from the countryside and from the town, securing the national diet and health of the Volk."

Our other copy is the 54th edition, published in 1992 in assorted Courier-ish fonts. National pride has been replaced with more practical advice on the nutritive content and chemical behavior of common ingredients.

You might observe the stylish celebration of white-colored foods on the cover of the 1992 edition: white pork roast, white Knoedel (dumplings), white sauer Kraut (cabbage), and off-white beer foam. It's permissible to spruce up white food with the occasional ornamental vegetable, but unless you want people to eat the decorations, keep the color to a minimum with only a few parsley leaves and a single tomato wedge. Radishes, by the way, are especially useful, because they're white on the inside, so they match the rest of the food after you bite past the ornamental red skin.

But back to Lebkuchen.

When you look up a recipe in the index, you must draw on all your knowledge of the precise German language. Under Lebkuchen, you will find a mere three recipes: Lebkuchen --feine (fine), --mit Kunsthonig (with artificial syrup), and --Weisse (white). Looking for hazelnut Lebkuchen? Well, that's a compound noun, so you have to look under H for Haselnusslebkuchen. Look under E for Elisenlebkuchen, under G for Gewuertzlebkuchen, and under S for Schokoladenlebkuchen. What the heck, scan the whole index lest you miss some other variety.

I made Elisenlebkuchen I. Art (Elisenlebkuchen, version I). They're pretty tasty and would be even better if they could age in a closed container with some dried apples for a month or two. I messed up some of the measurements, so the Lebkuchen dough ran off the Bakoblaten (communion wafer-like rice-flour disks that keep the dough from cementing itself to the baking sheet). Fortunately, I had a silicone baking sheet, so I didn't need to chisel anything off the pan.

For more information on German baking, see this previous discussion on my Wadlstrumpf blog. Here, I'll simply point out the irony of recipes that tell you to weigh out ingredients in grams (a system supposedly more precise than American cup measures) and then to "bake slowly at, oh, I dunno, 150-160oC, until done."

The Elisenlebkuchen I. Art recipe follows the footnote.

*At dinner last night, as I was talking about the cookies still in the oven, E kept asking excitedly, "what cookies? What cookies are you talking about?" And I kept saying, "what cookies do you think I'm talking about? Think." And E would say again, "you made cookies? What kind of cookies did you make?"--even though he was with me when I was making the Lebkuchen. "Dude: think!" I said. S kindly intervened and explained to E, "Mama calls Lebkuchen 'cookies.'" "Ohh!," said my son with sudden wise understanding. That just goes to show how much better E has internalized German than I have. The -kuchen part of Lebkuchen literally means cake, although no American would ever conceive of Lebkuchen that way. Once again, the perennial issue of cultural concepts for assorted foods rears its head: just as Germans have no mental file cabinet for concepts like pie, Americans have no data storage space that allows a Lebkuchen to be anything but a cookie.

To confirm this claim, I nonchalantly said to S, as he walked by just now, "so would you call Lebkuchen 'cookies'?" and he frowned and said unequivocally, "no. Cookies are Plaetzchen; Lebkuchen are Lebkuchen." There ya go.

Elisenlebkuchen, version I

Beat together until thick and foamy:

5 eggs
500 g sugar


2 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground cloves
1 knife tip ground cardamom
1 knife tip ground mace (I didn't use any)
Peel from 2 lemons, juice from 1/2 lemon

Whap up in food processor:

100 g candied lemon peel (I used a 113 g container)
100 g candied orange peel (ditto)

Add to batter. Shell and then whap up in food processor:

500 (650) unshelled almonds or half almonds, half nuts. (Seriously? Like I'm going to count and shell 500-650 almonds? The authors provided no explanation of the parenthetical 650. I assumed they meant 500 g--not enough, which is probably why the dough spread off the Oblaten--and used 454 g toasted almonds and guesstimated an additional 150 g toasted hazelnuts.)

Add nuts to batter. Spoon onto Oblaten (you can skip this if you have a silicone baking sheet. Trust me, butter alone on a baking sheet will not do the job. The dough is like cement.) In theory, let sit for a hour. (I skipped that.) Bake slowly at, oh, I dunno, 150-160oC, until done. (How about we say 325oF for 20-30 minutes.)