Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Playing with fire

File under: 1000 Words, I Made It Out Of Clay, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:10 pm.

I’ve said before that throwing is by far my favourite part of making pottery. And for the most part, it is.

I’m almost never terribly happy with the way the surfaces of my pots turn out, and I’ve always felt somewhat cheated by the firing process: load the electric kiln, and then wait patiently for two days as a machine transforms your work without any input from you.

Raku is different.

The raku firing process isn’t very demanding in terms of money and materials. If you can get your hands on a propane tank, a torch, some bricks, a bit of insulation, a few metal garbage cans, and a bag of sawdust, and some open space, you can set up a raku kiln and some reduction chambers. And it’s a quick process: as little as an hour, compared to the day and a half to two days that stoneware spends in the electric kiln. But raku demands careful attention and input from the potter: a premature removal of wares, or a slight delay covering the pots can dramatically alter the outcome. And even when done properly, it’s not for conservative potters.

The payoff is huge: bright colours, dramatic metals, and the coolest chemistry lesson you’ll ever experience.

I’ve chronicled this weekend’s raku fire at my pottery gallery, and I’ve got some photos of the finished products.


Potteryblog, redux: the Hollywood North edition

File under: 1000 Words, I Made It Out Of Clay, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:10 pm.

So, we’ve established that no one’s interested in my pottery. Tough crowd, but I’ve been spending nearly all of my time in the studio lately, so that’s all I’ve got. How about a story about my pottery and Al Pacino, then?

Gallery Show this week. Here’s my stuff. Those of my readers who follow the amateur pottery scene will note that the bulk of my work does not conform to the preferences of the consumer, who will pay good money for a turd dipped in blue glaze after rejecting every other colour of bowl, mug, vase, or plate, regardless of how skillfully made and well priced. I’m not kidding; every single one of my pieces that sold in the past two days was blue. Someone bought the fifth piece I made, ever. It was crap, but it was blue. Don Davis, author of one of my pottery bibles, once remarked that potters tend to focus on form, while non-potters pay closer attention to the surface of a pot. This certainly holds true in my experience, and it’s a shame, because glazing is my weak suit, and it shows. Throwing is my strength and my passion, but only other potters seem to recognize that.

But, Al Pacino. Sales were slow at the gallery yesterday morning, and the other studio member who was manning the tables with me decided to duck out for a few minutes to promote our show. A few minutes turned into half and hour, and when K returned, she explained that she had had trouble getting across campus, what with the movie being filmed around the science building (*), and what with every student and their dog trying to get a piece of the star, Al Pacino, who was six feet from her, and her without her camera!

I had my camera. K dispatched me to the scene, and I had no trouble finding it. Or, as it turns out, walking into it: I soon found myself six feet from Al Pacino while a handful of security guards idly looked on, but I convinced myself that it wasn’t actually him, because wouldn’t the security guards have held me back? As I turned a corner, a stagehand called out to me, “Hey! Get back! Only extras are allowed in here!”

“I’m an extra,” I lied, because, why not? I had nothing better to do yesterday than be in a movie.

The stagehand didn’t buy it. “No, you’re not,” he proclaimed with such conviction that I couldn’t help but feel hurt. What gave it away? I surveyed the actual extras across from me as I tried to assess what separated me so obviously from them. Was it my glasses? My aspherical breasts? My underwear-covering jeans?

The stagehand was forthcoming: “Our extras are not covered in dirt,” he sneered.

“Clay,” I corrected, self-consciously fingering the dried bits of slip in my hair. Nevertheless: point well taken.

I apologized for walking onto the scene, and explained that the security guards on the set had seen me and hadn’t tried to stop me, so I had assumed that the filming was taking place elsewhere. The stagehand sighed heavily. “Those are not security guards,” he explained slowly, “Those are actors playing security guards.”

I excused myself from the set. Off to the side, two female students were chatting up another assistant. The topic of conversation was something along the lines of Al Pacino is here? Like, right here? Can we see him? Can we get his autograph? I injected myself into the discussion long enough to ask what the movie was called, because on the off-chance that its editors suck, then they’ll leave in the scene that was filmed when I accidentally wandered onto the set. Look for the clay-covered girl, appearing soon in a theatre near you!

“It’s called 88 Minutes,” replied the assistant. “It’s about a guy who has 88 minutes to find three people .”

“What three people?” asked one of the girls.

And at this, the assistant gave a lopsided grin, and said, “If it were up to me”- here he pointed - “it would be you, you,” - eyes settling on me, and a huge wink - “and you.”

A few hours later, when I’d gotten myself to a computer, I looked for some more information about 88 minutes. Here’s a plot summary:

[88 Minutes is a] thriller about a college professor who, while moonlighting as a forensic psychiatrist for the FBI, receives a death threat telling him that he has only 88 minutes to live. In narrowing down possible suspects, he frantically seeks to communicate with a problem student, an ex-girlfriend, and a serial killer on death row. (**)

Which makes “and you” a contender for the worst pick-up line ever. Regardless, I have been really low on bloggable material lately, so I giggled and smiled back at the assistant, and handed him a promotional postcard for the gallery show. “You’ll have a lot longer than eighty-eight minutes to find us,” I said, and winked back at him.

I spent this morning in the studio attaching handles to mugs, and just after lunch I wandered up to our display to see how sales were going. “You sold some stuff,” the studio secretary informed me. “Some guy came in and asked for you specifically. He didn’t know your name, just told me what you looked like. It was weird. I told him where your stuff was.”

“Dude in his thirties or so, tanned, light brown hair?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied the secretary.

Son of a gun. “Did he buy anything?” I asked, incredulous.

He did. He bought a mug.

It was blue.


(*) There have been many movies filmed on campus. The one that I remember best was this dreck, which is hands-down the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. I watched it only because I had heard that part of it was filmed in the very classroom where I had taught a first-year calculus class. The movie opened with a scene featuring high school students in that classroom writing their SATs, an acronym that the narrator informed us stood for “the Suck-Ass Tests”, and if you still think that this looks to be quality cinema after reading that, then you are not welcome here anymore.

(**) Does anyone else find it amusing that the problem student is apparently just as likely a suspect as the serial killer?


There are advantages to planning things carefully

File under: 1000 Words, I Made It Out Of Clay. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:18 pm.

How am I spending my last few weeks of unemployment? By making a dinner set, complete with teacups:

…and saucers:

The astute reader will observe that there is no bijection between the set of teacups and the set of saucers. This is true, but more frustratingly, there isn’t even a morphism between the two sets: all but one of the saucers are too small for most of the teacups.


Behold, the fruits of multiculturalism

File under: 1000 Words, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:02 am.

Yes, those are sweet basil potato chips. Ridged! And believe you me, you can taste the sweet basil.

And here’s where you, dear reader, (may) come in: note the opportunity (I think?) to win one million (I think) Thai Bhats. According to the currency converter, that’s equivalent to CA 31,062.06 or US 24,736.39, certainly nothing to sneeze at. The inside of the bag is silver foil, and contains no text at all, and hence, no text indicating whether or not I am one million Thai Bhats richer than I was before I purchased a bag of sweet basic potato chips. Is there a number or something to which I’m supposed to send the UPS code or whatnot? Are such instructions here on the back of the bag?

This bag of chips, by the way, is one of the many novelty items featured at Dok Bua, a Thai Restaurant in Brookline, MA, that proudly displays a restaurant review headlined “Where Thai Cuisine Meets Kitsch.” And it’s true! From the Christmas tree at the centre of the room to the “This way to New York” sign above the restroom door - it’s as though Dok Bua was decorated with the aim of distracting us from the food. Which is actually quite good. The food, that is. For what it’s worth, I lingered by the snack counter before choosing a flavour of chip: the options, besides sweet basil, included baked lobster, nori seaweed, Mexican barbecue, and sour cream and onion.

More on the subject of tension between decor and cuisine in Thai restaurants: I’m reminded of my introduction to Thai food, back in 2001, in Waterville, ME, of all places. Unless you’re either in some way affiliated with the summer camp where I’ve worked for the past five years or live in Waterville, ME, you’ve probably never been to Waterville, ME, because there’s no reason to visit Waterville, ME unless you grew up there. Many of the streets in Waterville, ME (pop: 10,000) are unlabelled, because there’s no reason to be navigating them unless your family’s lived there for the past six generations. Among the attractions in Waterville, ME: a post office; a grocery store or two; a few gas stations; a college; a Walmart; a K-Mart; a McDonald’s; a Pizza Hut; and restaurant called Pad Thai. In 2001, Pad Thai was located in a tiny shack by the highway that looked as though it would collapse under the force of a moderate wind. On its roof was a sign bearing a Pepsi ad and - in the types of letters used to spell out the names of movies outside a theatre - the restaurant’s name. My party and I entered with no small measure of trepidation; this place looked as though it would be Pad Thai that week, and Joe’s Burger Shack the next. At the very least, I expected French fries on the menu. But somehow, a talented Thai family had settled in the most immigrant-free town I’d ever set foot in, set up a restaurant, and it was good. Very good.

Three years later, my camp returned to Waterville, ME, and found that Pad Thai had added a second location. Waterville, ME, might have had room for only one McDonald’s, one Pizza Hut, and one K-Mart, but there was a market for two Pad Thais. The second, located on the lower level of a hotel, was decidedly more upscale: it had booths, and jukeboxes, and half of a pink - Ford? I think; I don’t know these things - protruding from the back wall. So, if you drop by Waterville, ME, and have a crving for Thai food, you have your choice of settings: shack, or 50’s diner. Though there’s always takeout, which might be necessary, as both of these unlikely spaces were routinely filled to capacity.

According to some of our campers, who were born and raised in Southeast Asia, Pad Thai’s food was as tasty and authentic as any they’d ever eaten. Only the decor was uniquely American. And if this type of adaptation is what it takes to fill an ethnic restaurant in Waterville, ME, then I’ll take it.


Hot electoral reform

File under: 1000 Words, Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 1:51 pm.

While I was on the plane the other day, the Vancouver Sun left a message on my phone. They’d like to print my letter to the editor about their inept coverage of the referendum on electoral reform, and could I please confirm authorship and provide a photo? I’m not about to turn down an editorial board’s offer to expose their entire readership to my snark, so I phoned back and left a message, at around 5:30 Vancouver time, on May 4: yes, I said, I’d written the letter; but I didn’t have a photo for them.

My letter did not run on May 5. Nor did it run on May 6. Today’s issue ran several STV-related letters, and mine was not among them. (Maybe they print extra letters in the paper copy? I’m out of town, so I haven’t checked.) I concluded that the photo was the dealbreaker, which struck me as odd, until I remembered that one of the reasons British Columbians don’t know much about the single transferable vote is that voting theory isn’t a very sexy topic.

Which topics are sexy enough for news coverage? Let’s check the front page of Thursday’s issue of the Ottawa Citizen to find out:

Prostate cancer is sexy!

Leaving politics to care for one’s sick wife isn’t so sexy, but it’s important enough to be in the paper that serves the MP’s constituency -

However, golf is sexy!

I figure I could make my way onto the letters page with my dull electoral reform/media dysfunction letter if I submit an appropriate self-portrait. Some ideas:

  • Moebius Stripper posing in an extravagantly padded bra and miniskirt
  • Moebius Stripper provocatively licking her referendum ballot
  • Moebius Stripper winking and holding a package of condoms, along with a sign reading “STV’s…not STD’s!”

Though even those, I reckon, couldn’t compete with Carmen Electra and Cindy Crawford. Pamela Anderson, however, is a native British Columbian; perhaps we could get her behind the cause. (Lately she’s been speaking out against KFC’s treatment of chickens; some readers of the National Post wrote in about this, which gave the editors an excuse to print a huge photo of Pamela Anderson on the letters page.)

In related news: my mail-in voting package arrived in the mail the other day. It’s like a grab-bag of goodies: the package contains a pamphlet outlining the procedure for voting; the two ballots (one for the election, one for the referendum); a certification envelope; a plain secrecy envelope; and a SASE. Voting requires me to put the ballots inside the secrecy envelope inside the certification envelope inside the SASE, which delights me more than it ought to. Three envelopes! Who knew democracy could be so much fun?


Exam notes: qualitative

File under: 1000 Words, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:46 pm.
  1. Despite the fact that marks-wise, I was most disappointed by the statistics students (several of them can’t plug numbers into their calculators! I gave them a formula sheet! They copied the correct formula down correctly! Wrote down the correct numbers for the variables! And got the wrong result!), their papers were the most enjoyable to grade, because the statistics students tended far moreso than the students in my other classes to leave me little notes about how they felt about the material. For instance, I had a probability question about a die-rolling game, which one girl opted to inform me was the “stupidest game EVER.” Another student (correctly) subjected a manufacturer’s claim about its products to statistical analysis before stating her conclusion, as instructed, “in [her] own words”: “It’s TOTAL BS!” Also, my attempt to make mathematics relevant to the lives of my students succeeded in the mind of one student: I included a question in which students were to test a hypothethesis that women generally underreport their weights, which prompted one pupil to write sic, “OMG THIS IS SO TRUE, I DO THIS ALL THE TIME.” (She did the question incorrectly.)

  2. Aside to all students reading this: if you are ever asked to define a term on a test, and you don’t remember what that term means in the subject - for instance, math - that the test is about, try analyzing the language in the term. I mention this because hardly any of my students were able to tell me what mutually exclusive events were (most gave me the definition of independent events), even though realizing that “exclusive” and “exclude” contain the same root just might be enough to jog the memory. The only student to attempt a linguistic desconstruction was an Asian girl whose English is shaky. “Mutually exclusive events,” she wrote, “are events which are very special…”

  3. Back to the die-rolling game: when my contract expires at the end of the month and I am without regular income, would it be unethical to engage some of my former students in various games for money? I have certain students in mind, such as the guy who wrote that if you play one hundred rounds of the game that costs you $4 per round and that pays you the dollar value of the number appearing on the top face of the die, then you can expect to make $2000.

  4. The college where I work prides itself as being “student-centred”. Part of what this means is that the many, many student lounges are located “centrally”, like right outside classrooms and adjacent to them. I submit that if there was ever a good reason to revoke an architecture degree, then surely this design is it. Precalculus was held in a lounge-adjacent room, as was the statistics exam. During both, students were in the lounge, chatting at perfectly normal volumes, which was enough to create a distraction for me and my students. On approximately fifty occasions this term, I had to enter the lounge to request quiet, because a dozen students talking quietly results in a din that is not quiet. On forty-eight of these occasions, students were apologetic and lowered their voices accordingly, which helped things for the next twenty minutes until either a) they got excited about something else, or b) they were replaced by an uninitiated group of students. (Large signs in the lounge requesting quiet do not help.)

    The other two times, I had the pleasure of dealing with one girl who asserted her rights to sit at the lounge and talk because “this is the only place where we can do this”, where (judging from the lack of books or anything else on the table where she and her friends were sitting) “this” consisted of sitting and talking with two friends in the lounge outside my classroom. She told me that this was “total bullshit” and that “maybe I should use a different classroom”, as though it was my decision to teach and hold exams in a room that is a ten minute walk from my office and is located right next to a student meeting hub that has the acoustics of a cathedral. When I quietly explained that although perhaps the lounge was the only place where she could do “this”, it was even more certain that the adjacent classroom was actually the only place where my students could write their exam for the next twenty-five minutes, she declared that this was TOTAL BULLSHIT. WE ARE TALKING AT A NORMAL VOLUME, which at that point was no longer true. Grasping for common ground, I started to tell her that I was in agreement with the bullshit assessment, and reached into my pocket to call campus security on my cell phone when her friend - bless his heart - said, “Come on, we can go somewhere else for the next half hour…there’s an exam, she’s asking us nicely.” And that, apart from an evil eye directed my way (me without my camera, I tell you), was the end of that.

  5. Often I get teaching advice from my readers. I should do dimensional analysis! I should make math relevant to their lives! I should relate the difficult concepts they’re studying now to the easy concepts they’re familiar with!

    Generally I smile and nod, because I think that few of my readers know what I’m dealing with. Allow me, then, to present an example of what I am dealing with:

    The question, which is a bit unclear in the image, reads “Solve for x: 4x+2(1/2)-2x = 8x+2.” The student’s work, which follows, resembles the sort of thing junkies might hallucinate if LSD induced images of equations. Notice how the variable x goes missing in the very first line of this “solution”, leaving an equation that reduces to 0=0, which is then tortured until it finally gives up the ghost - though not before confessing, in its dying breath, that x (remember x? it’s back!) equals 50. Note also how the declaration that we “can’t have negative numbers” (surely a surprise to those of us who have endured frigid Canadian winters during which the temperature dipped to…oh, CRAP) apparently allows us to do away with them altogether, on our own terms, and at our leisure. (Ernie has taken the time to transcribe this work of art, in toto.)

    No, this corruption of reason is not representative of a typical paper in my precalculus class. However, it is representative of a typical page of this student’s exam (she got a 3% on it, and this was with me assigning marks to everything that even vaguely resembled mathematics - by the way, she sat in the exam room for an hour and a bloody HALF tormenting her paper; I left out the question in which she concluded that a $1000 principal invested at 4.8% per year compounded continuously yields $240,000 after five years, and I also left out around ten others that I could easily have posted instead of the one above), and I have had, on average, two students like her in every class I have taught in the past five years. I guess I could have spent more time on dimensional analysis and such, but somehow I don’t think it would have helped that much.

    (ETA: By popular request (okay, one person asked, but apparently he speaks for all), here’s more of the exam.)

  6. One of my students missed an exam because of a dire family situation, which now requires me to navigate that murky territory between being sympathetic and being a sucker. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but suffice it to say that Distressed Student is both suffering a terrible crisis, and attempting to play the system like it’s going out of style. I’ve had to outline explicitly what I am and am not willing to do to accommodate her. For example: I am willing to allow her to write the exam a month from now, but I am not willing to just assign her a final grade that assumes that her exam grade would have surpassed the class average by nearly 10% when her term test grades consistently fell far short of it. As evidence that this student’s family crisis is not the only thing standing between her and such success on the final exam, I present the email she sent me the other day, which read, in part, Since I am going thru such difficulties would you be able to just make my term mark my final grade? Right now I have 41/65 on the quizzes and tests. I have been meeting with a math tutor for the past few weeks and he told me that this is a 63%, which is the mark I need in this course.
Next Page »