Saturday, March 31, 2012

Generation upon generation

Part of the legacy of my brilliant grandmother Woozy is this story about my uncle Bob--a story for the generations. As Heinrich Heine put it in Dichterliebe, "Es ist eine alte Geschichte / doch bleibt sie immer neu" ("It's an old story, but it remains ever new"). Heine, of course, was poetizing about unrequited love, not good books on the john, but I like to think both Woozy and Heine would approve. E, we're on to you.

"Dinner time," Wooz called.
"I have to make a BM" said Ahbut Dafoots Botsybee. So they all ate up the soup and crackers and meat and potatoes and sweet corn and green beans.
"Dinner time," Wooz called.
"I'm not finished," said Ahbut Dafoots Botsybee. So they all ate up the lettuce and scallions and green onions and radishes and cucumbers.
"Dinner time," Wooz called.
"I'm not finished," said Ahbut Dafoots Botsybee. So they all ate up the strawberry shortcake with whipped cream.
"I'm finished," said Ahbut Dafoots Botsybee. "It was a VERY LONG BOOK."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tracking prey

According to Wikipedia, "Persistence hunting is a hunting technique in which hunters use a combination of running and tracking to pursue prey to the point of exhaustion. While humans can sweat to reduce body heat, their quadrupedal prey would need to slow from a gallop in order to pant....Persistence hunting requires endurance running–running many miles for extended periods of time. Among primates, endurance running is only seen in humans, and persistence hunting is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of human hunting, having evolved 2 million years ago."

In his bestselling book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall argues that human feet evolved to support this type of endurance running. Forget those fancy over-engineered supportive sneakers: people can run longer and farther and with fewer injuries if they run barefoot. S and I have both bought into this reasoning; we've ditched our Asics and spend most of our travel time in minimalist Merrills and Stems.

I was thinking about this last night, as I listened to Schroeder pant. Perhaps prehistoric Man persistence-hunted Felis silvestris lybica into domestication; or perhaps prehistoric Woman simply tossed a few hand-knit carrot finger puppets into the Savannah, and Felis silvestris catus was born.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pythagorean cups

I am pleased to report major developments in the Geek Lab: we re-engineered the Pythagorean Cup! Also known as the Cup of Tantalus, the Pythagorean cup punishes gluttony. Fill the cup a modest amount, and the drinker may consume the beverage in peace; overfill it, and it siphons all of its contents into the drinker's lap.

My 2012 Session 1 Claymakers "Pottery for Geeks" class mostly eagerly took on the redesign of the Pythagorean cup. I made a simplified test model, based on this image from Wikipedia:
A hole at the base of the central cap allows the cap to fill as the cup fills. Once the liquid reaches the top edge of the inner pipe, it flows down through the center of the cup. Because of the cap, the outflowing liquid can only be replaced by more liquid, not by air, and the entire contents of the cup siphon out.

The test model worked extremely well, but several of us opined that the big round thang in the middle was unsightly and would arouse gluttons' suspicions.

After some geek conferencing, we decided to incorporate the siphon into the handle. I threw a few thin tori and kluged them into siphons. In the image below, the cup on the left siphons its contents from the cup into the inner torus, up into the outer torus, and out the bottom of the handle. The cup on the right siphons from the cup into the front torus, up into the back torus, and out the bottom.
Aside from the handles looking clunky, it took significant effort to align, seal, and disguise the holes between the torus segments, and neither handle siphoned particularly well: both lacked sufficient water pressure for a satisfying drainage rate, and the curved handles sent water dribbling onto the undersides of the cups rather than straight down--that's Newton's first law for you. While Acme Klein Bottle sells a cup that siphons efficiently through its handle, these torus-handle models are duds.

The next design merely shifted Pythagoras's unsightly siphon from the center of the cup to the edge. The siphon was significantly easier to build than the torus handles, but remained unsightly. I attempted to distract the glutton's eye by covering the outside of the cup with tessellating lizards and positioning a lizard over the siphon, taking inspiration from Escher's Reptiles (1943).
Wanting to further minimize the obtrusiveness of the siphon, I explored a final siphon experiment modeled on Acme Klein Bottle's Tantalus wine glass. The handbuilt, relatively small siphon was trivially easy to build, although the frog decoy perched upon it took a while to make.
The lizard cup beat the frog: excellent water pressure made for smooth and rapid decanting. I suppose the frog cup might function acceptably during a gluttony emergency, but insufficient water pressure makes for a halfhearted dribble. With further tinkering--for example, making the inflow side of the siphon wider than the outflow side--the simple siphon* might yet prove worthy of replication.

Always the rebel, Schroeder Cat managed to drink out of the bottom of the cup.

*Simple siphon met a python
Going to the fair;
Said simple siphon to the python,
"Will you drink my ware?"
Said the python to simple siphon,
"You've poured one drink too many";
Said simple siphon to the python,
"But look, I have not any!"

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Learning the classics

Calculus fans that we are, we have learned how to maximize sleep while minimizing our weekday morning routine. S and I get up at 7:45; we wake E up at 7:50 and consent to "just one more minute" before forcing him out of bed at 7:55. He gets dressed ("hurry up dude, it's 8:00!"), brushes his teeth ("hurry up dude, it's five past eight!"), eats a leisurely breakfast ("dude, focus! focus!"), packs his backpack ("yo, dude!"), and slides on his already-tied shoes ("dude, we're going to be late!") in time for us to pull out of the driveway by 8:17. We turn into the school parking lot at 8:27, which gives him three full minutes to walk to his classroom and still be on time. Surely two of those minutes could have been spent sleeping.

The consequence of this carefully honed routine is that E spends the ten-minute drive to school staring vacantly out the car window, while I'm still pumped up on the adrenaline it took to get us out the door. Occasionally we'll exchange pleasantries about the weather or analyze another driver's crappy driving (a gift passed from my father to me and now from me to my son), but usually conversation is minimal. "I'm tired," E explains, when I nudge him to talk. I understand: it takes time to get the mental wheels moving after you've been asleep for 10.5 hours.

Then a school assignment injected some verve into the morning drive: E had to memorize the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, so we learned the Schoolhouse Rock version together, and spent two weeks singing it on the way to school. When we got to the point where we could both recite it without singing, and without pausing after "ensure domestic tranquility-ee-ee-ee [2 3 4]," it was time to move on.

"You need to learn some poetry," I declared. "If you can memorize the preamble, you can learn some poetry."

--"Do I have to?"

"Yes," I said. E still hasn't figured out that he doesn't have to do everything I tell him.


"Yes. Do it. It'll be fun!"


"Here, repeat after me."

I chose a classic to start him off:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
At three o'clock he had his great fall.
The King set his time machine back to two;
Now Humpty's together and good as new.

After two attempts, he had it down. "There, OK, I'm done," he said, and went back to vacant staring.

The next day we moved on to another rhyme from The Space Child's Mother Goose:

Little Jack Horner
Sits in a corner
Extracting cube roots to infinity.
An assignment for boys
To minimize noise
And produce a more peaceful vicinity.

Done. Easy. The next day, it was time to pull out the big guns.

"OK dude," I said, "it's time to learn 'Jabberwocky.'"

--"But I already learned some poems."

"Yes--and they were fun, weren't they? You're doing great! Now you need to learn 'Jabberwocky.' Ready?"

--"No. Why do I need to learn it?"

"Because you know I'm going to recite it over and over again until you try."

By the time we pulled into the school parking lot, he had a good start on the first stanza, but he was still skeptical.

--"So why do I need to learn this?"

"It'll give you something to say at parties when you don't have anything else to say. Trust me, it's very useful."

It only took another two days before he got tired of the stanza-per-day method and zoomed ahead. At home, I showed him the page in my well-worn copy of Through the Looking Glass. Was it any coincidence that the spine had broken in half, years ago, right on that very page? We held it up to a mirror so he could read it, and there was no going back.

Last night, E dug out his cape, built himself a Tum-Tum tree, and hung a Jabberwock from the stairwell. Needless to say, I'm thrilled that he seems to enjoy this most excellent poem as much as I do. Perhaps in a few weeks, he'll be willing to move on to Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would not take the garbage out).

Incidentally, if you listen carefully at the beginning, you might hear the Jabberwock meowing behind the camera.