Saturday, December 17, 2011

It must be February

It must be February--the camellias are in bloom. Oh dear, really?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

And then a miracle occurred

My blogging pace has certainly slowed down. That is mostly because my tongue-in-cheek blogging attitude doesn't mesh well with the things that have been happening around me this fall--mainly, other people's stories that aren't really mine to tell.

Happily, one of the things I've been working on is now public: Claymakers is becoming a nonprofit. If you value chickarinas and twinkly votive holders, if you value Klein Bottles and spheres within spheres and anything else wheel-thrown and altered, if you value stories about wood firings and gas firings and oxidation firings, then you should also value Claymakers, as I wouldn't have been able to do or blog about any of those things without the fantastic community and creative incubator that Claymakers is. Consider making a donation today (and hey, check out this spiffy gift card!).

Positive change at Claymakers aside, this fall has been pretty tough, largely due to other people's stories. E's story has included hours of physical and occupational therapy, the legacy of his doubly-broken elbow. My dad's story has included a hospitalization and increasing discomfort; I wish him glorious weather and no ice or snow for his walks.

Then there are the extra-familial stories. As a professional church musician, I play for a modest number of funerals every year, and usually the deceased are acquaintances more than friends. But this fall we lost two former choir members within a few weeks of one another. One lived far away and had an unexpected death following a long and rich life; the other was close to home, a long expected death following too short a life. The latter friend was part of the inspiration for chickens for the cure. Consider making a donation today (designation "breast cancer").

In the midst of people deaths, there have been kitty deaths. Sweet Miss Maggie B developed idiopathic chylothorax and began wasting away until we made the difficult decision to euthanize her, yet she remained purrful, affectionate, and loyal to the very end. Shortly before Maggie's death, a friend's beloved cat was mauled by her neighbor's dogs. Both Maggie and Ralphie were a credit to their species and are greatly missed.

I was briefly tempted during all of this to blog about my persistent allergies and consequent lingering cough, and how a Hall's cough drop wrapper that advised "Be resilient!" made me want to throttle the wrapper designers for trying to thrust their oblivious chipperness into situations about which they know nothing, but I went to bed instead. However, the gods of suckiness never sleep.

This past Friday, the dogs came back for my friend's pet chickens. If I believed in Hell, I'd believe a special place is reserved for dog owners who think leash laws only apply to other people's dogs. Five chickens, mauled; only four survivors found, all seriously injured. My friend cleaned and dressed their awful gaping wounds and kept watch to see whether the chickens would survive past the weekend.

Or maybe the gods of suckiness do sleep. So far, the chickens are holding their own, and today, in the midst of all of this fall's illness and death, a miracle occurred--the great Week-Before-Solstice Miracle: the missing fifth chicken suddenly reappeared in the coop, mauled but not infected. Naturally, my friend is rededicating the coop this week; I quite expect that any food or straw that's down to a one-day supply will, incredibly, last the eight days between tonight and Solstice. May this season of distress end on the 21st with the return of the Sun's light.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Introducing the Chickarina

E learned how to play this tune on his trumpet earlier this fall, and he struggled mightily with the syncopations. Attempting it on the chickarina gives me a new appreciation for its rhythmic challenges.

This is the first chickarina I've gotten around to glazing. Hey, it's been a busy fall. The instrument has seven finger holes. It has an octave range with a little wiggle room at the top and bottom if you over- or under-blow. I've been playing mostly diatonic pieces with occasional chromatic inflections; I'm pretty sure I could get a complete 12-tone (and then some) chromatic scale out of it, but I haven't figured out the fingering yet. This suggests that far fewer finger holes are necessary to produce a diatonic octave. A project for this winter, perhaps.

If you too would like to make an ocarina but don't have access to clay or kilns, try the handy method demonstrated in the video below. Once you have your materials assembled, you'll need only about 15 minutes to make your ocarina from start to finish. Yum!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Artists' statements

I am visiting my parents in Urbana, Illinois, where, this afternoon, I spent some time reading through writings by my brilliant grandmother, Lorraine Passovoy, a.k.a.. Woozy. An accomplished artist (among other things), Woozy had a keen understanding of the international arts scene, as demonstrated by her prose in the two biographical artists' statements transcribed below. For all of you artists who think modern artists' statements have become too academic, think again: Woozy penned these two in 1964.

Alas, the only evidence we have of A. Pauling Walter's expansive canvasses is their depiction on the cover of a New Yorker magazine; however, my family owns the original oil painting (also depicted on the cover) by Finessa Foosy.

A. Pauling Walter

This major work symbolizing the internal nature of the external, is typical of the eternal yet transitory divarication of limited infinity. The limited palette of black and brown subtly suggests the total range of tonality from infra-red through x-rays.

The artist is well known as the folk hero whom Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch.

[*"Villkor" is Swedish for "Conditions." Woozy was a polyglot before the days of Google Translate. --Ed.]

Finessa Foosy

Miss Foosy, or Miz Finesse, as she is known to her kinfolk in Langerhans County, is famous throughout her native state for having won 185 consecutive blue ribbons for her fancy work at the highly competetive Beaver's Pancreas township fair. Since her eyesight began to fail, she has taken up painting and, as her mother says, "she shore do mess up the kitchen."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Hey y'all. It's been awhile. I could try to explain how, during my long absence, I've been wrangling with my convictions about the Greater Good and the Rightness of participating in the public education system, and about how putting kids in private schools doesn't do anything to improve public schools (indeed, probably makes them worse); and then about how, with much distress, we bailed at the last minute on our local public school system in order to see whether $10K can buy a more stimulating and well-rounded education for our child. I could write about the good (if not good enough) job his former school was doing, given the circumstances of a state legislature that has screwed children and teachers by slashing the education budget year after year, and of state and federally mandated testing that has made adequacy the new standard of excellence, and of the flawed philosophies of No Child Left Behind. I could try to unpack my expectations about what constitutes an "education" in the first place, and ask how the government expects children to get good ones when classrooms are ridiculously overcrowded. But goodness, I'm just all wrangled out.

So instead, I'll show you some photos of a bunch of greenware full-octave chickarinas waiting to be bisque fired. They seem a little trivial in the context of a school crisis, but life must go on, and nothing soothes the nerves quite like music and anthropomorphizing. This is a flock interrupted, as chicken whistles take waaaay more time to make than chicken rattles (have you ever tried tuning a chicken?), and lately every time I've gotten started on a subflock, some unrelated event has destroyed the momentum.

When these birds are done, I expect they will sound something like this green polka dot ocarina, but more in tune and without all the white noise.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Name that composer

My dad emailed me a nudge last week, noting I've been a slacker blogger of late. It's been 100oF in the shade here the past few weeks, which diminishes blogging energy. But here's a lovely tidbit that motivates getting back into the swing of things.

Last week during E's trumpet lesson, S and I went across the parking lot and browsed the clearance shelf at a local crafts store. There we found some spiffy card stock intended for printing wedding programs. Having recently blogged about the unfortunate ubiquity of a certain canon, I was hardly surprised that the sample text showing through the plastic wrapper--the sample text that lets you imagine how fabulous your own wedding program could be--listed Pachelbel Canon in D as a processional.

The manufacturers of this wonderful item appreciate that even thrifty couples who roll up their sleeves and print their own programs at home might still want their weddings to be elegant occasions--and what better way to say "elegant" than to be fussy about including not only composition titles but also composer names? This raises some issues for layout, because it would look a little odd to write "Pachelbel Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel." Perhaps "Canon in D / Johann Pachelbel" or "Pachelbel, Canon in D"? So many choices! Fortunately, the authoritative sample text solves the conundrum for us*:

*If I were advising the happy couple about musical selections, I would suggest that if they really wanted it, Pachelbel's Pachelbel Canon in D is way better than Mozart's Pachelbel Canon in D; and also that a wedding march by the antisemitic Wagner is maybe not the best choice for a Jewish wedding. Just saying.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Epic battles

On Tuesday, He Who Shall Not Be Named says "your husband and son may not board their airplane." Dumbledore says "in these dark days, we must remain ever vigilant against international child abduction."

Darth says "your husband and son shall be trapped in Germany." Obi-wan says "they avoided Newark--the Force is with them."

Sauron says "that'll be $560 to rebook the flights." Aragorn says "no price is too high to bring the halfling safely home."

Arawn says "stay away from the airport lest flames rise from your vehicle's air conditioning belt." Gwydion says "the Sons of Don shall lend you a car."

Thor says "humidity shall swell thy 1992 Walker organ and 1982 Kawai grand and make the pipes cipher and the hammers stick." Brünnhilde says "neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay her from the swift completion of her appointed practicing."

What next, what next?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Home again

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Newark anymore...


Oh wait, here's a redeeming thing about the Newark airport: you get to feed toxic muffin crumbs to pigeons at the gate. Lucky pigeon didn't even have to take off its shoes to go through security.

A blogger in the armpit of airports

I have given Newark International multiple opportunities to offer me something redeeming to write about it, but I fear it is the armpit of airports. That's being generous. Even the helpful airport employees agree this is an awful place. "Oh no, ma'am, not in July, nuh-uh. You don't want to fly through Newark in July."

Want to check your bag? Stand in that line over there. Once you reach the front of the line, you'll be told you need to go to that other line, over there. From there, you will be sent to another line in a different terminal, where they will pull you out of your next-in-line spot and tell you to sign in at the kiosk, over there. When the machine tells you your data is invalid, the cranky people-mover will tell you to stand in this other line, over here. No, not that one for our elite customers, the one to the left for the plebes. When you finally reach the front of that line, and they say, "oh, I don't know why they keep doing this, they shouldn't be sending you over here, you need to go back over to the other terminal," and you burst into tears and say you can't take it anymore [sob], you've been back and forth between both terminals multiple times [sob] over the past 12 hours and [sob] you can't stand in any more lines because [sob] no one in this airport knows what they're talking about--why, then you will be sent to another line.

But now, having cried, you know how to work the system. You skip the other line, walk to the front of the elite counter and burst into tears again. When the bored employee (totally unfazed by your outburst because she sees people crying in the Newark Airport all the time) says she doesn't need to see your boarding pass, she just needs $25 for the suitcase, and you sob that you f*cking aren't going to pay for the suitcase that was supposed to be checked in for free, she will say, "well, I didn't know you were coming from somewhere else. Let me see your boarding pass." Then, rather than doing things properly, she will pretend your 51-pound suitcase is an infant car seat so she can print a free sticker for it, which doesn't exactly make you feel confident about airport security.

Speaking of airport security, plan to be shocked when a male TSA guard makes an offensive joke to his female coworker because she will shortly be asked to feel up an overweight elderly woman ("look at that bulge," he mouths, smiling, raising his eyebrows, and pretending to wipe his hands across imaginary love handles). Instead of calling him on it (because surely you will just burst into tears again, plus you don't want him to decide to interrogate you), you ponder how much money this man managed to bring in when he sold his soul to Satan.

Ah, now you have made it through to the gate. You are hungry because you haven't had any breakfast. Look at all of the overpriced, plastic-wrapped, preservative-infused muffins and bagels for sale at the "Whole Grains" shop, and pine for the fresh baked Semmel you recently mocked Germans for loving so much. Settle on a scone, then burst into tears when the cashier asks, "may I help you?" When she says, "I hope the rest of your day is better," realize you've finally found something to appreciate in Newark.

Curse you, Continental Airlines, curse you!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A blogger abroad

A combination of business and pleasure has brought us to Spain and Germany for the next few weeks, so I'm returning briefly to my old blog stomping grounds,

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Simple Gifts

I'm learning a great deal about clay whistling technique by watching myself play. I'm pretty sure it's poor form to cross one's ring fingers over one's pinkies, and that double-jointed bit with the bird finger on my right hand needs some straightening out. Fortunately for me, no one has composed any Hanon or Czerny-esque finger exercises for chicken whistles yet (and I'm not going to fill that gap).

On the to-do list: a whistle with an octave range, and a whistle with two resonance cavities to allow playing in harmony (say, a simple tonic/dominant egg coupled with a five-note chicken). A potter-musician can dream, anyway. And I think it's time to finally set up that extruder and try my hand at making some penny whistles...

Freude, schöner Hühnerfunken

Race for the Cure 2011

Here are JM and I in our sweaty post-race glory. On our team of 20, we were the sole competitive 5Kers this morning at the Raleigh Race for the Cure. Other Team Amazing Us members did the recreational 5K or the Sleep-In-for-the-Cure. J didn't beat her personal best, but she did manage to sleep until a respectable 9:30am, while L stayed in bed until an impressive 10:30am.

The advantage of doing the competitive 5K is the same as the disadvantage: it starts at 7am. Starting early means cooler temps, no lines for parking, no lines for the shuttle bus, and being surrounded by a sea of runners rather than walkers; but it also means leaving Durham around 5:45am.

Next year, I plan to organize an environmentally-friendly Durham satellite team: rather than getting up pre-dawn and converting gasoline into exhaust by driving all the way to Raleigh, we'll get up with the sun and go for a 5K run/walk on a local trail. Alas, we won't bond with 25,000 other runners/walkers, but we'll bond with one another. And planning a year in advance to stay local, as opposed to wearily suggesting it the night before, will mean we're being intentional about it rather than bailing at the last minute.

Our team raised $2,700 this year, thanks to numerous generous donors, and 33 chickens found new homes.

Unfortunately, the list of friends for whom I run grows longer every year. This morning's run was in honor of CB, BC, TS, LF, JdM, JK, FO, CL, LC, and JF.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


I belatedly learned about diatoms over a year ago, but it wasn't until just the other week that I learned about radiolarians. I was leafing through some junk mail--the Dover catalog of children's books--when I came across Haeckel's Art Forms from the Ocean.* Thank you, junk mail! The Dover blurb states, "The tiny single-celled organisms known as radiolarians (or radiolaria) develop beautiful, intricate mineral skeletons that cover ocean floors throughout the world." Radiolarians? Spherical skeletons with lacy holes and spikes? Whoowee! Diatoms gone wild!

Naturally, I googled "radolaria[ns]" and found a wealth of swell images (most of which are copyrighted, of course, so, ya know, click on the ones below to see the original sources):

I also googled Haeckel and learned that he faked illustrations of embryos in order to support his ideas about evolution, and that those fake illustrations have made their way into assorted contemporary biology textbooks. Perhaps he faked a few radiolarians as well; indeed, it's hard to believe he had real life sources for such fantastic microscopic skeletal remains as these:

Anyway, you know what I gushed about on the last day of Pottery for Geeks.**

While much radiolarian art on the interwebs is created using 3D printing (which, I dunno, kinda seems like cheating), one Bavarian ceramicist, Gerhard Lutz, hand builds exquisitely delicate porcelain radiolarians that put my wheel-thrown ones to shame:

*I'm not quite sure how a CD-ROM of an 1862 atlas of microscopic oceanic lifeforms got mixed in with Dover's At the Beach Fun Kit and Something's Fishy! Undersea Designs to Color, but I'm glad it did.

**I also gushed about the Pythagorean Cup, a.k.a. the Cup of Tantalus, a classical Greek wine goblet that punishes gluttony by siphoning out its entire contents when overfilled. It turned out no one in the class felt a need for an anti-gluttony cup, so we didn't try making any.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Tooth Fairy corresponds again

tooth fairy,

i've Lost another tooth the topmolar
and I broke my arm
Please send me something usefull



Dear E,

goodness gracious, what do you mean, you broke your arm? I hope it did not hurt too much and that you are on the mend. I myself have never broken any bones, although as you can imagine, I encounter chipped teeth more often than I would like. Fortunately, the tooth under your pillow tonight appears to be in excellent shape--just the sort of deciduous first molar we tooth fairies like to see.

You requested something useful (what a practical boy you are!). I looked in my bag and found all sorts of useful things: rubberbands, shoelaces, sponges, a field guide to reptilian teeth, floss, nail clippers, emergency flares, fruit bat homing beacons, staples, washcloths, spare buttons, band-aids, noodles (no, no, silly, not the kind you swim with, but the kind you eat!), clean underwear, soap, calculators, an abacus, paperclips, plastic monkeys (sometimes my friend the fruit bat needs to relax after a stressful night at work), inflatable rubber raft, shooting stars, pixie dust, etc. etc. Oh, and this 10 euro bill. If I know you, you're likely to find yourself in Germany this year. Spend it well. It's a little more than the going rate for a molar, but given your broken arm, you can probably use some extra TLC.

Keep on brushing, and don't forget to FLOSS!

The Tooth Fairy

Monday, May 23, 2011

Melodious chickens

What with E's broken arm, there hasn't been much time to experiment this week. Pottery for Geeks has already covered nesting spheres, interlocking torus boxes, double-walled bowls, and two different Klein bottle strategies (the simple "double torus" and the elegant "Klein bottle bottle"). We might could* discuss Borromean rings, but there really isn't much point to making wheel-thrown ones. I'm running out of ideas, and we still have two classes left.

So after I tucked my plucky but tender boy into bed tonight, I brainstormed and decided to figure out how to make an ocarina that actually whistles. I've attempted ocarinas before, but they've been airy duds, and I figure there's abundant topical material here to keep geeks happy: air flow, turbulence, the sorry consequences of sloppy 45o angles, resonance cavities, frequency, pitch, sine waves, and, of course, chickens.** After a little reading, popsicle-stick collecting, and poking and prodding--eureka!

Because safety in the dining room lab is a priority, my research was accompanied by a cup of full-bodied Spanish Montebuena Rioja (2009). Testing whistles means blowing into chicken butts. While the chickens themselves are vigilant about personal hygiene, the wet clay with which they are made can host nasty microorganisms (something to discuss with the professional biologists in my class). After getting clay in my mouth more than once, I figured swishing with 13.5% alcohol might not be a bad idea.

*Note the proper colloquial usage of the Southern American English double modal.

**This is a joke. We're the science type of geek, not the type that bites heads off chickens (I hope). For the record, no chickens were harmed during the creation of these whistles.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


No, no, no. This is not what an arm should look like. This arm is wrapped in a splint from the armpit to the palm because the ulna broke on Thursday during an improper alignment of the stars at the bottom of a slide on a school playground immediately following three long, mind-numbingly boring mornings of End-of-Grade exams (boo, evil consequences of No Child Left Behind, I say, boo!). The human to whom this arm belongs is understandably not a happy camper, but is doing better with each day and looks forward to trading the splint for a cast.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Clay B.S. grinder

When I was a kid, my mom's parents had a toy they called a bullshit grinder. I just assumed my grandfather made up the name, but it turns out the term "bullshit grinder" is as classic as the toy itself.

If you search Wikipedia for "bullshit grinder," you will be redirected to the much more sanitary and academic "Trammel of Archimedes." The Trammel of Archimedes is noteworthy because its handle traces out an ellipse. Indeed, that appears to be the sole purpose of the Trammel of Archimedes, other than grinding bullshit.

Why do I bring this up? I recently made a petite model of the kitty geek toy. The whole toy fits neatly in the palm of one [human] hand, just like the Trammel of Archimedes, and with a slight flick of the wrist, it's easy to keep the inside ball in motion. The ball traces a circular rather than elliptical path, but the mind-numblingly pleasing yet useless repetitiveness of the non-goal-oriented process echoes the functionality of the bullshit grinder. While I have not tested the grinding efficacy of the Trammel of Archimedes, I have empirical evidence that the petite kitty geek toy is remarkably good at grinding wayward gnats.

All in a day's work, filling gaps the world never knew it had.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Variations, take 2

My dad recently sent me this photo of the Flentrop manuals at Duke Chapel, in an email with the subject header "reminder." So amidst all the clay geek toys (and extra Holy Week and Easter services), I should report that I've been reasonably diligent about practicing the Dupré Variations. I took them for a test spin in a lesson with David A. on the Aeolian organ at Duke Chapel last week, and they didn't sound anywhere near as maliciously capricious as they did when I first started avoiding them. Indeed, it was amazingly informative and liberating to play them on such an expansive instrument. I'd even go so far as to say quite enjoyable. There's hope for me yet.

Kitty geek toy

It seems that my latest geek toys are inspired by my inner cat. It also seems that I'm predisposed to photograph works in progress rather than completed pieces. In any case, I've been having fun cutting into tori. The torus here has a ball inside, for one's inner cat to play with through the spiral gap. Please note the restraint with which I'm piercing holes these days: a little goes a long way.
I spent a few nights this week dreaming about more elaborate spirals: although three is a magic number, a threefold spiral does make a torus look a little like a nuclear radiation warning symbol. My dreaming subconscious thought perhaps a twelve-fold spiral would look cool. It turns out that that number of twists makes a torus look like a cinnamon cruller, a so-called food I have detested since my earliest youth. Very unappetizing. It took me by surprise that cutting a torus into a spiral turns it into a spring: the spring will actually expand, contract, sag, wobble, and distort, at least until it sets up beyond the cuttable side of leather-hard. It was no great loss, then, that with all that wiggling, my twelve-fold cruller torus broke into several pieces today. Good riddance.

Ethereal love

Someone is currently attempting to auction off a heart-shaped potato on eBay for one million dollars. The header declares, "PERFECT Heart Shaped Potato! One Of A Kind! Unique!" Scroll further down, and the ad insists "This is not a joke! Its really a heart shaped potato!"

Aside from the warning signs (the capitalized preposition Of and article A in the header, the confusion between its and it's), not to mention the apparent overpricing (there's also an "old heart-shaped potato chip" up for auction, with slightly better punctuation, a starting bid of only $29.99 plus $5.50 shipping, and a fine classic scam text claiming proceeds will go toward a tank of gas to enable a tornado-relief volunteer to drive to Pulaski, Virginia)--aside from all that, the seller is lying. How do I know?

Heart-shaped potatoes are not unique. I have my own heart-shaped potato. Well, had. To celebrate Will and Kate's nuptials, and because I was hungry, I diced it and pan fried it this afternoon. May the young royals' love last longer than my potato. S and I bought the potato together in March, but he was out this afternoon, and as I already said, I was hungry, so I ate it myself; I trust our love is strong enough to carry us through this lapse in judgment.

For the record, I wasn't searching heart-shaped potato listings on eBay because I wanted to auction my own potato--I just wanted to know the going rate for my lunch.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chickens for the Cure, 2011

Oh so fine! These photogenic chickens are part of a team that has been doing a few hours a week on the elliptical trainers at the Y in preparation for the 2011 Komen Triangle affiliate Race for the Cure on June 11. While you're unlikely to encounter Desdemona, Roxanne, or Brunhilde on the race course (after all, the Raleigh event draws 23,000+ participants, and small birds do get lost in a big crowd), you can encounter a chicken in your very own living room. Repeating last year's offer, for every $50 that you donate to the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on behalf of me or my team, I'll make sure a unique, handmade, wheel-thrown and altered, wood-fired, North Carolina chicken with an authentic clay pretend egg inside wings its way to you.*

That's right, one chicken for $50, two for $100. What the heck, if you donate $150, I'll persuade four of these gals to move in with you. Sure, it would be cheaper just to buy chickens directly from the artist, but then you wouldn't have the satisfaction of supporting the quest for a cure for breast cancer or helping to fund early-detection, education, screening, and treatment programs for under-served women. And with clay chickens, you don't have to build a coop, fend off raccoons, or eat a dozen eggs a week (although they won't get in your way of doing those things, if that's what turns you on).

If you would like to run, walk, or sleep in for the cure on June 11, feel free to join Team Amazing Us. If your race fee plus additional donation totals $50, there's a chicken in your future.

*Offer good until supplies run out, which should be a while. I'm currently cohabiting with dozens of chickens.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Borromean rings, take two

I'm getting closer to decent wheel-thrown Borromean rings, though I'm still pretty sure coils are a better way to go. I could probably crank out a few hundred coil Borromean rings in the time it takes to make one set on the wheel. Nonetheless, efficiency isn't everything, and the process has reminded me of some useful tidbits. Listen up, class: (1) wet tori squish more easily than firm tori, so trim and squish them when they're as wet as possible; and (2) nothing disguises unsightly bulges better than hundreds of hand-cut holes.

To address my desire to access the insides of the rings (why make hollow rings if you can't tell they're hollow?), I cut holes into two of the rings to let light show through. Then I wrapped a small pile of hole detritus into a piece of paper towel and stuffed it inside the solid torus during ring-locking assembly. (You can see the access point at the top right of the photo; once the clay is stiffer, I'll smooth over the bulge). Thus, even though people won't be able to see through the solid ring, they'll be able to hear that it's hollow when all those clay bits rattle around inside it--because what's a person going to do with a quarter of a cubic foot of Borromean rings other than shake them up and down?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I've been meaning for a while to write about a set of organ variations by Marcel Dupré: Variations sur un noël op. 20 (1922). I've been meaning to write about how I've been dragging my feet studying them this past year, and how I finally decided to buckle down and really learn them because I ran out of Schumann and my organ teacher thinks the variations are a necessary evil good for me at this point in my musical development, and how I agree with him in theory but nonetheless find a bazillion creative ways to avoid practicing them. The variations are like diminutive exercises in learning to pat your head, rub your tummy, and chew gum all at the same time while standing on your head with your arms superglued together. You'd think blogging about avoiding them would be a good avoidance strategy, yet every time I sat down to blog, I'd think, "no, no, instead of writing about them, go practice them."*

Thus it is that today I introduce my latest pottery geek experiment: wheel-thrown and altered Borromean Rings. They're made from three tori stretched and nudged into ellipses. It's a little disappointing that there's no way to get inside any of the tori, the way there is with a Klein Bottle or a Moebius diatom box. Why throw and alter hollow tori when you can roll out some coils much more easily? Clearly, further experimentation is necessary.

*Despite all my kicking and screaming, I'm going to conquer this beast. I've dutifully started a practice log, in order to generate evidence that I've actually been practicing (or not) and to focus on how I practice. I've started memorizing individual variations, which makes it a smidge easier squeeze some musicality from these mechanical pieces. A light is finally emerging at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Geek ball

I thought about putting a chicken inside the outer ball, but decided it would be better to use something that wouldn't look anthropomorphically forlorn in a spherical cage. Enter the clay wiffle ball, form of 10,000 uses!

As I've already had to kluge one of the outer-ball spokes back together, I have serious doubts that this geek toy is going to survive intact into bisquehood. Ah, ethereal art!

Friday, April 1, 2011


"Pottery for Geeks" is coming up in a few weeks at Claymakers, so I'm doing a little prototyping.* From the how-did-the-world-ever-manage-without-this department, I proudly introduce the clay wiffle ball. Imagine how these babies will fly when hit with a clay bat. No, not that kind of bat; this kind of bat. I just need to figure out how to throw one on the wheel.

Truthfully, the balls aren't meant for wiffle anything; they're merely a first step en route to a multiple sphere geek toy. I'll post photos eventually if everything works out as planned.

*Verbifying "prototype" reminds me that this morning, I heard a guest on the Diane Rehm show on NPR use "offshore" as a verb--as in "companies are offshoring labor." Way to turn an adjective/adverb into a verb, eh?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Things you should avoid if you don't have opposable thumbs

The chickens were aggressive bettors. My dad gave them false confidence the first night by letting them win. The next evening, he mopped the floor with them. Honest Abe looked on disapprovingly. "Chickens," he probably never once said, "should not play poker."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Vacation Days 2-3: Engineering Open House

When we rescheduled our trip to Illinois, we planned dates so that we could attend the University of Illinois' way cool Engineering Open House. The UIUC College of Engineering is one of the largest and finest engineering schools in the nation, and every spring the different departments open their doors for two days of posters, demos, and hands-on displays. We learned about charge and electric current, magnetic levitation, fluid dynamics, inertia, high-resolution imaging, 3D printing, plenaria flat worm regeneration, clown fish sexuality, air pressure and the Bernoulli effect, liquid nitrogen and ice cream, electric cars, fruit batteries, CAT-scans and computer modeling, flotation and boat design, bubbles, tempering, mechano- and photo-sensitive polymers, vehicle simulators, induction, gears, levers, pulleys, magnetic accelerators, conservation of energy, gravity, molecular fluorescence, glue-and-borax goop, high-speed imaging, infrared imaging, lithography, copper electroplating, Prince Rupert's drops, vacuums, air pressure, optical illusions, angular momentum, and a bunch of other stuff. I also learned, with some nostalgia, that the Physics Geek uniform has not changed since I proudly wore it as an Illinois undergrad (corduroys + flannel shirt); and that the university still has lovingly crafted wooden models of intersecting geometric forms squirreled away in the most unexpected places.

For E, two topics stood out: the egg drop and non-Newtonian fluids.

The egg drop involved designing a structure to protect an egg from breaking on impact following a drop from a second-story window. All participants received an egg, a paper cup, two feet of masking tape, and ten xeroxed dollars with which to buy assorted materials (rubber bands, yarn, balloons, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, newspaper). E made a blanket of cotton balls to cushion his egg inside the cup.

S--a German engineer, after all--rigged up an elegant but time-consumingly detailed suspension network of rubber bands inside his cup.

I, the practical potter, spent most of my engineering dollars on quick and easy packing material--wads of newspaper.

The carnage below the window did not bode well for our cargo.

The egg in the plush cotton ball blanket turned out to be our sacrificial lamb, paving the way for our two survivors. We figured two out of three wasn't bad (litotes!).

Although we spent a lot of time with the eggs, the exhibits that occupied us the most were those on non-Newtonian fluids. A Newtonian fluid is one whose shear stress and shear rate are related linearly by a constant known as viscosity. A non-Newtonian fluid is a fluid that deviates from that relation in any way. The most common non-Newtonian fluids have viscosities that decrease with increasing shear rate. The non-Newtonian fluids we saw at EOH were unusual, however, in that their viscosity dramatically increased with increasing shear rate. They were so much fun to play with that we've decided to have a non-Newtonian fluids fest for E's next birthday party.

To make your own non-Newtonian fluid at home, mix cornstarch with water in appropriate proportions (a little water goes a long way). Punch the mixture, and it behaves like a solid; hold it gently in your hand, and it trickles through your fingers. We're told that water, 150 pounds of cornstarch, and a kiddie pool are the necessary ingredients for running barefoot across a non-Newtonian fluid. If you keep things moving quickly, you can also play catch with cornstarch suspensions.