Monday, February 28, 2011


Instruction:: A Found Poem from the Tag of S's New Bike Saddle


The saddle makes different conditions
that depend on the weather and ridders
weight by using

The new saddle will be quite stiff,
after ridding 500-800 kms, it will
become more supple and as like your hip

The leather saddle should be
maintained by leather grease
when it be exposed to the sunshine
and rain

Or it is advised to regular
application leather grease about
once a month after ridding so
that can extend saddle's life

please use a waterproof cover to
protect it when the saddle is not using

Cone 6 Wood Firing

This weekend, a group of friends and I loaded and fired the wood kiln at Cedar Creek. For past firings, we've fired to ~cone 9 (^9, ~2300°F). This time, we decided for several reasons to fire to ^6 (~2240°F). First, wood firing is strenuous work: we stoke the kiln and stir the coals pretty steadily for several hours. Past firings have generally taken 12-17 hours, with the kiln typically stalling out around ^7 or 8. We figured it should be relatively easy and significantly faster to make it to ^6. Second, the lower we fire, the less fuel we use. Burning old pine pallets is one way to recycle, but it isn't exactly environmentally friendly. We hoped that skipping the long stall before ^9 would make a positive dent in the total amount of wood needed. Finally, this past year, Claymakers shifted their reduction firing option from ^9 to ^6. Thus many of the folks in our wood firing group were already using ^6 clay bodies and had easy access to reliable ^6 reduction glazes.

Wood firing is thrilling, but it brings out assorted anxieties in me because, well, I'm generally an anxious person.

Pre-firing organizational anxiety. Is everyone making pots? Will we have too few pots to fill the kiln? Too many pots? Too few? Too many? Waffle waffle, nudge nudge.

Glazing anxiety. So much blank bisqueware, so many decorative decisions. I thank my glazing support group, Rob & Di, for putting up with my anxious chatter during our glazing fest on Friday.

Packing anxiety. All participants are gathered around the kiln, with all pots wadded: do we have too many pots? Too few? Too many short pots, not enough tall? Too many wide pots, not enough narrow? How will we get all those pots into the kiln?

Despite the anxieties, there are few projects I enjoy more than wood firing. We wadded pots Saturday morning (thanks, Charlie, Blanka, Jo, Jessie, & Bob, for the extra wadding help!), and started loading around noon. There's something pleasurably artful about packing a kiln efficiently, fitting all the puzzle pieces together neatly. That pleasure, combined with a dose of packing anxiety, leads to a tendency to pack the back of the kiln tightly (when we're concerned about fitting everything in efficiently) and to pack the front loosely (when we start running out of pots because we packed the back so beautifully). I think we found a good balance this time.

Despite early projections, it turned out we had room to spare. We were short on tall pots, so we had to leave some gaps toward the top of the kiln. Still, it was the most elegantly loaded kiln I've ever had the pleasure of sharing, with a lovely assortment of pots. Two wadding kiln gods went into the kiln for good luck (thanks, Charlie & Di!). Serene Wadding Buddha and Chipper Dog remind me to chill.

We fired on Sunday. Rob and Blanka started the kiln at 7am. By 1pm, we still had some 1200 degrees left to go. Stoke, stir, stoke, stir. A smaller amount of clay requires less time to heat than a larger amount of clay, and we had twice as many pots on the bottom of the kiln as on the top, so we had a hard time heating the bottom of the kiln. The back stack also heated more slowly than the front. Consequently, as the pyrometric cones at the front middle and top of the kiln started arriving at ^6 and ^7, the ^5 cones at the bottom and back of the kiln remained stalwartly upright.

Had we been firing to ^9, we could have plowed right through that unevenness. Instead, just as we would have with a ^9 firing, we spent the final couple of firing hours trying to even out the temperature throughout the kiln, attempting to hold the top of the kiln at ^6 while heating the bottom and back. Thus Zeno's dichotomy paradox applies during firings! (If Zeno wants to buy a peach, he knows that he can't just walk to the farmer's market: he needs to walk a block further than the farmer's market and stop at the peach stand en route. Silly us, we though we could get away with just walking to the farmer's market.)

Eventually, we got the cool parts of the kiln up to a passable ^5-^6, with the middle and top of the kiln at ^7, and we sprayed in the soda ash. Because soda acts as a flux, it makes the pyrometric cones melt more; by the time we were done spraying (~8pm), all of the ^7 cones were totally obliterated.

The last anxiety mode is until-we-unload anxiety, which I didn't realize was on my list until I started dreaming last night:

Some of us (I'm not sure who) sneak over to Cedar Creek to open the kiln--too soon, too soon!--in the pale pink-blue-gold-gray light of early dawn. Other faceless people--strangers--are present on the roof, but we don't want them to see us because we're not really supposed to be there before the gallery opens (liability concerns), plus they'll see us opening the kiln too soon. They don't appear interested in us, however, because they are busy watching the festive fireworks going off over the distant horizon. In a rustic barn, where we bring the surreptitiously unloaded pots (we know we may look at the pots in the kiln, but we aren't supposed to move them until the whole group is gathered on Thursday; but it's always so hard to resist!), we see that everything is underfired; somehow, even the pots that are overfired are underfired. The sand-papery glazed surfaces have rectangular bits of some unmelted glaze chemical all over them. I forget to check how the slipped surfaces have fared because I am so distracted by the glaze defects. Apparently we also forgot to empty some of the pots when we put in the liner glazes: some of the cups are 3/4 full of unmelted glaze. We can tell, looking down at the pots from our vantage point near the kiln roof (we don't want to climb all the way up onto the roof, lest the fireworks-gazers get suspicious), that the whole load is like that, but because of the cups full of glaze, refiring isn't an option, even though we know no one else will be using the kiln this coming weekend. I am foggily aware that there are a logical inconsistencies in all of this, which causes me to wake up.

I might just have to go pull a peep brick on Tuesday to make sure everything looks OK. We unload the kiln on Thursday.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lessons learned

Friends and I are firing pots in the wood kiln at Cedar Creek this weekend, which means I'm up late tonight organizing and prepping pots. Near the end of the firing, we will spray into the kiln a solution of soda ash that has been dissolved in boiling water. The sodium in the soda ash will react with silica in the clay bodies, creating sodium silicate (glass), effectively glazing the pots. Soda ash is a flux, so it will also lower the melting point of any glazes that we might use to decorate the pots, hopefully creating beautiful glaze effects.

To prevent the pots from glass-fusing to the kiln shelves, we will glue little balls of wadding under the pots. Wadding is a mixture of kaolin (clay), alumina hydrate, and grog (ground bisqued clay); it doesn't react to soda ash. We also use wadding to keep lids from fusing to pots--and depending on how we stack things, also to keep pots from fusing to pots.

Enter my four prototype Moebius Diatom Boxes. I can't separate the two Moebius strips with wadding because there's no way to prop either up on wadding without impractical and precarious balancing acts. Moreover, if the two strips end up touching one another, they'll likely fuse together at the contact point.

So I surfed the internets and found a strategy: coat the edges of the two Moebius strips with wax that has alumina hydrate dissolved in it. After the wax burns off, the remaining thin layer of alumina hydrate will protect the clay from the soda ash. I found assorted recipes for this special wax, most of which can be summarized as follows: "use, oh, a spoonful or so alumina hydrate in, oh, half a pint or so of thinned wax."

So I bought a little container of wax and added some red food coloring to distinguish it from my unadultered wax, and then I added two teaspoons of alumina hydrate. Turns out alumina hydrate doesn't dissolve in cold un-thinned wax, so I had to give the container a nice warm bath this evening. Also turns out that pink wax is next to impossible to see on pink bisque ware. I subsequently added some blue food coloring, but it turns out that purple wax is also next to impossible to see. It also turns out that it's next to impossible for one person alone to wax the rims of two clay Moebius strips without the patient assistance of a Moebius-Strip Bearer (a.k.a. S), for if the wet wax on one strip touches the surface of the other strip, it will (in theory) leave a deposit of alumina hydrate on the pot, preventing soda from reacting with the clay in that spot.

Anyway, it was a pain in the patootie to wax the things, which suggests they will remain very rare items indeed. Now I'm going to bed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Avoid Nominalizations

My series of writing workshops for engineering students ended this afternoon. If the enthusiastic writers who attended remember just one tidbit of information from our time together (other than how much fun we had, of course), I hope it is this: avoid nominalizations. Because it is such a great tidbit, I'm proselytizing to you too, gentle reader(s).

Avoid nominalizations.

Perhaps additional repetition will help you remember to avoid nominalizations.

I didn't learn the word nominalizations until 2004, some six years after I finished my doctoral dissertation, so it's not as though a person can't get through written life without avoiding them. (Another helpful writing tidbit is avoid double negatives; see the previous sentence if you need proof. But on an egregiousness scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is least egregious and 10 is most egregious, double negatives hover around 0.5, while excessive nominalizations score a hefty 11.6.)

A nominalization is an action that resides in a word other than a verb. Nominalization, for example, is a nominalization (a noun-ification) of the verb to nominalize (to noun-ify). Most (but not all) -tion and -sion words are nominalizations. Remediation, infatuation, solicitation, elucidation, radiation, multiplication--these are all actions that could be expressed as verbs (remediate, infatuate, solicit, elucidate, radiate, multiply) but are instead nouns. (Words like nation and sedition are a little trickier. They were perhaps verbs at one point, before settling into permanent English noundom. At the root of nation is the past participle of nāscī, "to be born"; and sedition comes from seditio, which combines the prefix se- [apart] with the verb ire [to go]. But I digress.) Many nominalizations skip happily past -tion/-sion suffixes altogether: the influence, the score, the report, the get the idea.

In English, we like our actions in verbs. We like verbs so much that when they are delayed by intervening words, we get antsy. That's why languages like German can throw native English speakers for a loop:
German lets you postpone verbs for miles and miles. (For remarkable examples, see Mark Twain's essay, The Awful German Language.)

So we English speakers like actions in verbs, and we like our verbs up front. When an excessive number of actions appear in nouns, we get confused, annoyed, or both. Consider:

The cause of the impartment of obfuscation on meaning is the unnecessary placement of actions in nouns.

(Translation: We obscure meaning when we
unnecessarily place actions in nouns.)

Hey, I hear all of you out there in internet space, saying to yourselves, "sure, the understanding of the cause of challenges from the putting of actions into nouns is important, but what about the influence of the ordering of words on the meaning of a sentence?" To which I would simply reply, "verbs and cohesion walk hand in hand. Put your actions into verbs, and you shall not regret it."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cat is toilet trained, sorta

I've been meaning to follow up on the Litter Kwitter toilet-training thing, in part because my mom was so smugly confident that it wouldn't work. At the same time, I wasn't sure going into detail about constipated cats was the best material for my music-, clay-, and grammar-centric blog. But as you've observed, I've been low on material lately, and what is kitty litter if not clay, and what is a caterwauling geriatric cat if not atonal? So here goes.

12-year-old Homer is a sprightly domestic-short-hair lap cat with silky black fur that has recently started going gray. Homer is constipated 24/7. According to the vet, that makes pooping painful for him, and because Homer has the brain of a cat, he draws a logical cat conclusion: "it hurts when I poop, therefore the litter box is biting me in the butt. It is safe to pee in the litter box, but pooping should be conducted elsewhere."

"Elsewhere" previously meant sneaking around the house and finding a spot on any carpet, so long as humans weren't looking. Pooping was still no fun, but it was better than going in the biting box. When done, Homer would tidily stroke the carpet a few times with his paws. This stroking is a coarse and primitive instinct: in his 12 years, Homer has never once realized that the purpose of the paw sweep is to cover his waste, and he has always stroked the vertical side of the litter box instead of the litter itself.

To coax him back into the box, we tried kitty laxatives, new litter boxes, extra litter boxes, cleaner litter boxes, and different litters, and none of it worked. Then we discovered the Litter Kwitter.

Here's the thing about the Litter Kwitter, though: you have to follow through. After your cat achieves success with Stage 1 (pan on the floor), you begin Stage 2 (pan clipped to the toilet seat). If you interrupt Stage 2 to use the toilet yourself, you must remember to put the pan back on the toilet seat instead of leaving it on the floor. That is how we failed, and it's too late now to take a step back and try again, because Homer has moved on.

But don't gloat yet, mom! Here is what Homer learned: "The toilet is tall, and I am too stupid to figure out how to jump up there tail-first (head-first is fine, and good for an occasional drink, yum!, but I am too stupid to figure out how to jump head-first and then turn around); yet my humans do not like it when I poop on the rug. I must page them when I need help."

Homer now has two routines to choose from, which I have translated from his Feline description into English:

"(1) I shall imitate the humans. When humans sit on the toilet to poop, I shall join them and Get Into Position on the bathmat."

"(2) in case no humans are pooping when I have to go, I shall meow plaintively, like this: 'meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow.' When a human answers my call, I shall Get Into Position."

If you pick up Homer and put him on the toilet before he is In Position, he will jump down and go find a new spot on the rug or bathmat. But if you wait until he's In Position--poised with muscles tensed, on the verge of pooping (see photo)--well, then he's kind of stuck that way, so you can pick him up, carry him through the house, and put him on the toilet seat, and he'll stay there until he has finished his business.

After he uses the toilet, I praise him with an effusive "good kitty, goooooood kitty!", which makes him proud and reinforces the desired notify-the-humans behavior. Then he rewards himself by going upstairs to the bathtub for a drink of water from his People Cup, which is another story altogether.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Busy busy

The Chichester Psalms concert went very well. Apparently no one heard the horrifying errors I made about 10 measures in because (1) when you are a well-practiced musician-in-motion with adrenaline coursing through your veins, you experience a time dilation that an audience remaining at rest does not, so that what you perceive as a slow motion crash and burn, your audience perceives as a sonic blip lasting a mere fraction of a second; and (2) the electronic organ speakers were aimed at my knees rather than at the audience, so folks could barely hear the organ anyway. It was a pleasure working with a top notch vocal ensemble, and since they were mostly at rest at that one spot when I was in motion, there's a possibility I'll get to work with them again.

Following the concert, my attention went directly to another musical event. This past Sunday, a colleague and I had the nerve-wracking pleasure of assisting at a virtuosic organ concert given by the inestimable David A. "Assisting" means pulling stops out, pushing stops in, turning pages, and in this particular case, depressing three keys during a slow movement that had too much else going on for David to hold the keys down himself. Three notes is not a lot of notes, especially in the context of the five hundred thousand or so that David was tearing through, but playing them did provide me with an extra chance to mess things up, in the unlikely event that I didn't mess up pulling stops. For this musical roller-coaster ride, the three of us had seven hours of rehearsals together, every minute of it necessary for us stop-pullers, and none of it involving spraying the organ with fire retardants (a job the organ tuner/curator claimed for himself). The program included tours de force by Liszt, Alain, and Dupre, as well as two of Schumann's B-A-C-H fugues (so you know I was a happy Schumannophile).