Sunday, November 29, 2015

What the -- ?!

This morning I was looking though "Signals", one of the many catalogs I receive in the mail, trying to get some inspirations for unusual Christmas gifts, when I stumbled upon this on page 17:

Here's the pertinent detail:

The word "Contraceptions" is what jumped out at me. It seemed very out of place in this catalog, and I didn't really think that the Lego company was branching out into birth control devices, but… you never know.

The mind boggles when considering what might be considered "Crazy Action" birth control. Can you imagine the possible function of the "Squeeze Claw Grabber" mentioned in the product description? 

It's probably best not to go there.

This may be the strangest proofreading error I've ever come across. One has to wonder what was going through the proofreader's mind at the time. -- PL

Friday, October 30, 2015

Glazing night

Last night saw the final session of the "intermediate wheel" class I'd been taking in Tiffany Hilton's pottery studio, and it was "glazing night". I was concerned that I might not have time to glaze all my pots (twenty-five in total) in one two hour and forty-five minute class, even with a plan to make them pretty simple, design-wise. 

I still had a bunch of pots to wax the bottoms of, so I got right into that. I also had a plan to try something new, with TIffany's permission -- I'd brought two cookie decorating tools, small plastic squeeze bottles with little red protective caps. My plan was to fill at least one of them partway with glaze, and then see if I could squirt it out onto a pot which I would have spinning on a wheel (not too fast, of course, as it would not be secured to the wheel!), with the aim of producing some interesting patterns, perhaps spirals.

I decided to go with "iron red", which I would then cover with "olive green", producing a kind of black hue where the two colors merged. At first, because the glaze was kind of watery, and the nozzle a bit too wide, the squeezing of the plastic bottle produced some blobby shapes, not at all like the more delicate patterns I had hoped for. 

Then I got the idea of putting the tiny red cap back on the bottle, and poking a smaller hole in that cap with a needle tool. This allowed me to create a thinner, more controllable spray, which actually ended up working pretty well, and I used it on the insides AND the outsides of some of my larger pots and a few of my mugs. Some of the effects of the spray on the outside of the pots were unexpected and attractive. I wish I'd taken some photos of them before I did the next step of dipping the pieces in the olive green glaze, which obscured what I'd done with the spray. But I hope the final result will show those patterns.

The photo at top is a shot of some of my glazed pots from last night (the top two shelves), including some I decorated using the technique I just described. I can't wait to see what they look like once TIffany fires them! -- PL

Friday, October 23, 2015

Teapot Tuesday

Often, when I get to pottery class, either hand-building or intermediate wheel, I don't really have a plan for what I will be doing. I get there and I let the clay speak to me. Or perhaps a better way to put that is that the clay and my hands have a conversation, and eventually something emerges.

But this Tuesday morning, in my hand-building class,  I arrived with an idea. It wasn't a fully-formed idea, but I knew that I had two prepared slabs of leather-hard clay to play with, having made them at the end of the previous Tuesday's class. The idea was pretty basic -- make a boxy teapot.

I decided to use a shape I'd stumbled onto during my last hand-building class in the Spring. I'd made a template which was essentially a rectangle with one of the ends narrower that the end parallel to it, so that the shape (and I am sure there is a name for it, but I can't at the moment think of it) tapered toward that end. I used this template to make four pieces of clay which I then joined into a four-sided form. But instead of joining them narrow end to narrow end, which would have resulted in a sort of truncated pyramid shape, I decided to alternate the order, flipping each successive slab so that the narrow end joined with a wider end. I'm probably not articulating this too clearly. But the result was a very intriguing geometric shape which pleased me greatly, and I went on to make several hand-built pots using this technique. Here's an example from that last class:

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to do something similar to build the body of this slab-sided teapot, although the shape I had in mind was less vertically-oriented and more squat -- as teapots generally are.

It came together pretty quickly. Once I'd textured the slabs (using two small carved wooden rollers TIffany has in her studio, part of her extensive selection of texture tools), I traced the shapes with the template I'd made onto the slabs and carefully cut them out.

Once I had the basic body shape, complete with base, I had to make a top with a lid, and decided to go with a long rectangular lid, again made from pieces of a textured slab.

Then it was on to the spout, which came out a little funky -- I think I was rushing a bit, and didn't consider its shape carefully enough… so it isn't exactly centered or straight. But at least it i positioned at the right height, thanks to TIffany stepping in and reminding me to keep that in mind (I'd made a teapot previously with a spout poorly positioned, making it impossible to fill the pot more than two-thirds full without tea beginning to spill from the spout).

For the handle, I'd considered building an angular shape out of the slab, but ultimately decided to try something a little different, carefully (so it wouldn't crack) curling a piece of the softer slab into an half-cylinder shape, then cutting fingerholds into that once I'd attached it.

Will it all work as a teapot? Will the handle be comfortable to hold? Will the spout dribble or flow? The jury's still out. But it was a lot of fun to build. -- PL

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Turtle sighting

Yesterday was a hot one here in western Massachusetts, and my friend Rick and I decided to take our bike ride on one of the shadiest routes we know of -- the rail trail bike path from Northampton up to Look Park in Florence. We often do this, in large part because Look Park is just such a beautiful place to ride through.

Like many times before, we took a break for lunch on a bench overlooking the small pond at the park. While sitting there and talking, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an object which seemed to be making its way across the pond, but just under the surface. We were about a hundred feet away, so it was a little difficult to discern details, but I soon realized it was a big turtle! I would guess that it was about a foot and a half long.

I couldn't remember ever seeing a large turtle swimming like this. I've seen similar beasts sunning themselves on rocks or logs near water, but never cruising along just under the surface. I tried to get a good shot of it, but my little pocket camera could only manage these:

       Here's a cropped version of the second one:

Though I couldn't see a lot of detail, I think it looked like a snapping turtle. -- PL

Friday, July 24, 2015


I saw the following headline on this morning:

I had to laugh. -- PL

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A sign of Spring

One of the sure signs of Spring in our area, at least in my opinion, is the dirty snowbank. 

       As the winter plods on, plows push snow into large, dense mounds lining the edges of streets, driveways and parking lots. In moving this snow, the plows also scrape up a lot of the sand which the Department of Public Works trucks spread on the pavement to give drivers a bit more traction on the slippery stuff.

What happens as the weather starts to get gradually warmer is this: The snow begins to melt, and the piles of snow to shrink, and as they do, those particles of sand within the piles begin to move closer together, becoming darker and more obvious against the snow, rendering what were previously almost pristine white mounds of snow into blotchy messes. 

       It's deliciously ugly, because even as these unsightly shrinking mounds become ever more unsightly, they tell us that the warmth is coming… just wait! -- PL

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Hidden Geometry of Snow

A thick accumulation of snow -- something we have seen far too much of in recent months -- can seem almost featureless in certain lighting conditions. The homogeneous nature of the bright white blanket makes it difficult to see the underlying shapes upon which that frosty mantle rests.

That's why I have always enjoyed the way that trees can help to reveal the hidden geometry of snow, especially during those times of days when the angle of the sun drapes the trees' cold shadows over the landscape. Graphic against the pale snow, these broad, stark lines show us much as they ripple over hillock and plunge into decline. -- PL

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy March 26, 1931 - February 27, 2015

It was inevitable -- one might even say logical -- but it's still sad to read about.

At least some comfort can be taken in this: He lived long, and prospered. -- PL

Artwork by Bruce Laird 2008.

Friday, February 20, 2015

You learn something new every day...

As part of my plan today to forestall the inevitable moment of removing myself from the warm comfort of the bedcovers and getting out of bed to face another day of bleak snowy whiteness and cold, I played a game of computer Scrabble on the iPad I keep beside the bed. At one point, I made a desperation move -- one which I think all Scrabble players have made at one time or another -- and put some letters down to make a word which was not known to me, but which fit nicely onto the board. 

This technique, employed in one of many (notice how I did NOT say "countless") epic Scabble games with my late brother Don, actually acquainted me years ago with a cool word -- "xeric", meaning "dry or desert-like" -- which became the name of the charitable foundation we established a couple of decades ago.

This time, however, it was "ulu". Imagine my surprise when the computer didn't reject it and force me to return the offending tiles to my rack. Of course, I had to find out what this formerly unknown and now very useful word meant, so I hustled over to, and found the following:



1. a knife with a broad, nearly semicircular blade joined to a short haft at a right angle to the unsharpened side: a traditional tool of Eskimo women.

I would never have guessed. -- PL

(image from

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A stupid little thing which means absolutely nothing...

... but it got my attention today when I went online to check my email. Here's a cropped screen grab of the thing:

Perhaps it was because this past week a friend mentioned in an email that she was trying to get to the "Zero Inbox" stage, wherein you keep your email inbox free of clutter, to the point where when you leave it each day, it is empty.

For this particular email address, I have not done that in quite a long time, if ever... and today, I noticed with a small blip of amusement, that the number of emails currently in the inbox for that address was 1234.

Get it?





Yeah, okay, it's stupid... but these are the things one amuses oneself with when trapped in one's house by a raging blizzard and the attendant ban on driving. (I use the words "raging blizzard" somewhat sarcastically, as the storm we are getting here today in Western Massachusetts, while certainly significant, is hardly the worst we've ever had... and from where I sit, looking out at the occasional random swirl of snowflakes, clearly not signifying desperately difficult or unsafe driving conditions.) -- PL

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Terok Nor...?

I'm a big fan of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog -- they have a good selection of interesting and useful objects, some entirely practical, some fanciful… and some a combination of those two qualities.

But I was startled when I saw the cover of their latest catalog (or, if not the latest, at least the most recent one I've received) and saw what my eyes immediately told me must be some kind of nifty licensed "Star Trek" product.  

It was some sort of complex metallic gizmo whose unusual shape instantly made me think of "Terok Nor" -- the Cardassian space station taken over by the Federation in the third "Star Trek" TV series, "Deep Space Nine". The station was, in fact, renamed "Deep Space Nine" by the Federation in the storyline of that series. 

Here's an image of the space station from the TV series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine". Notice any similarities?

This thing in the catalog was a pretty cool-looking product, whatever it was… and I found the answer to my "What is it?" question on page 69 (I think -- I don't have the catalog in front of me as I type this). It's a "24th Century Time Machine" -- essentially a high-end timepiece made by L'Epee of Switzerland, and you could have one for the price of a nice car -- $35,500.

But I searched in vain for anything in the description of the product which would reveal a connection to "Star Trek" and/or "Deep Space Nine". The closest the copy in the catalog came was this phrase: "Suggesting a remote station set amid the void of space". 

But it is also clearly meant to resemble the titular space station in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine". I showed the cover of the catalog to Jim Lawson -- who is not a huge "Star Trek" fan -- and asked him what it looked like, and right away he said "The space station on "Deep Space Nine"!"

So… what's the deal here? It is hard to believe that there is no one among the folks behind the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog who would have noticed that this product bore a very close similarity to the design of the "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" space station. In my opinion, it appears to be a pretty brazen conceptual appropriation with absolutely no credit being given to the original source.

I don't get it. Am I missing something here? -- PL

[Note: The images of the catalog cover and the interior page are not scans from the printed catalog itself, but screen grabs from the Hammacher Schlemmer website -- they're not exactly the same, but as far as I can tell, the descriptive information is identical.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Empty Bowls

In May of 2012, after a roughly forty-year hiatus, I returned to an art form with which I'd had a brief but passionate encounter as an undergraduate: pottery.

I only took one semester of "Ceramics 1" at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst back in 1974, but I loved it -- especially working on the wheel, throwing bowls and mugs and goblets.

So why did I wait forty years before taking it up again? Long story.

Two and a half years ago I began taking private lessons and then classes with local "practical potter" TIffany Hilton, who proved to be a wonderful teacher. I have continued to study with her and in fact will be taking another of her classes soon.

Last year, when I was finishing up a class with her, TIffany surprised me by asking if I would be interested in making some bowls for an upcoming charity event called "Empty Bowls" being put on by the Amherst Survival Center on March 9, 2015. The way it works (as I understand it) is that local potters make and donate ceramic bowls, and local restaurants donate food, and for the price of an admission ticket (proceeds going to the charity), patrons can choose one of the bowls and get it filled with food, taking the bowl home with them after the meal is over.

It sounded like a cool thing, and I was flattered that my teacher thought enough of my skills that she asked me to do this. So I wedged up a bunch of clay in her studio, and in a couple of hours had thrown a dozen bowls of varying shapes and sizes...

… then, a week or so later I trimmed their feet (and signed my name to the bottom of each bowl, complete with my traditional small TMNT head sketch)…

… and sometime after that, once TIffany had done the first (bisque) firing... 

        ... I dipped them in one glaze, adding a few brushstrokes and spatters with a second glaze. 

A few days ago, TIffany told me that she'd done the final firing, and I could come and view my bowls before they went off to their final fate.

I was happy to see that they'd come out just about as I had hoped they would. I'd used two of Tiffany's glazes, "cream" and "olive green", which, when combined, create a beautiful bluish-green color. Here's a group shot of the twelve finished bowls, ready to go:

I don't know if there are any tickets left for the event -- I actually had an oddly difficult time finding information about it online -- but here's a link to the Amherst Survival Center Facebook page which might help if you are interested:

I have no idea who will end up with the bowls I made, but it tickles me to think that maybe, just maybe, someone who is a TMNT fan might get a pleasant surprise when they turn their bowl over and see something like this:

-- PL

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A brief review of "American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of Wiiliam Skinner, a Man Who Turned Disaster into Destiny" by Sarah Kilborne

If I were Sarah Kilborne, author of "American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of Wiiliam Skinner, a Man Who Turned Disaster into Destiny", a book I just finished reading, I might say something like this:

"I have driven or ridden the stretch of road between Haydenville and Williamsburg in Massachusetts countless times, and never knew -- until reading Elizabeth M. Sharpe's book "In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874" -- that there was once a community called Skinnerville which existed there, situated between Haydenville and Williamsburg."

But I am not Sarah Kilborne, and I don't use the word "countless" as often or as pointlessly as she does in her book. I've probably traveled that stretch of road hundreds of times, maybe even a thousand times or more, but that doesn't even begin to get close to "countless" times.

In the history of the world, no human being has EVER done ANYTHING "countless" times. In fact, if you factored in every human being who ever existed on the planet, all of them TOGETHER have not done anything "countless" times.

"Countless" doesn't mean "a lot", or "more than I have counted", or "too many for me to bother to count" -- it means "too many to count -- an infinite number". It's a failing of many modern writers, one which I have groused about before -- in their search for attention-grabbing exaggerations, they abuse this great word in the most ridiculous of ways.

But I digress.

As I said earlier, I first became aware of "Skinnerville" when I read Elizabeth Sharpe's fascinating account of the Mill River flood and its aftermath, and was shocked to learn that an area I thought I'd known pretty well had once been home to a small but thriving community which the flood of 1874 had essentially wiped off the map. So when I spotted Sarah Kilborne's book about William Skinner, one of the mill owners -- and, in fact, patriarch of "Skinnerville" -- whose factories had been destroyed in the flood, I bought it immediately.

It's a very interesting (and quite well-written, save for the occasional silly error -- like using "passed" when "past" is called for, and the aforementioned repeated misuse of "countless") story about William Skinner, an immigrant from England who came to America with essentially one salable skill (he knew how to dye silk), and through hard work, determination and intelligence, created a small silk empire -- first in the rural Mill River valley in Western Massachusetts, until the horrific Mill River flood mostly destroyed Skinnerville and did serious damage to other small towns on the river, such as Haydenville and Leeds. After this disaster, Skinner moved his business to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where he built a much larger mill and prospered greatly, in large part because of a sweetheart deal offered to him by the city of Holyoke.

I'd never known that our area had been a center of industry of this type, but certain things now make much more sense --  for example, the names of an office complex ("The Silk Mill") in Florence, just outside of Northampton, and a bar in Florence as well ("The Silk City Tap Room").

There is even a small TMNT connection to the legacy of WIlliam Skinner: His house in Skinnerville, which was damaged in the flood of 1874, was disassembled and moved to Holyoke when Skinner relocated his business, where it was reassembled and later added onto. It remained in the Skinner family for many years, until in 1959 it was given to the City of Holyoke, and is now the Wistariahurst Museum, open to the public… and where, in the summer of 1988, there was an exhibition of "The Art of Mirage Studios". -- PL