Monthly Archives: February 2015

Writing prompt: Tell a fairy tale

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Tell a fairy tale” (This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts.)


“Daddy, what’s your favorite fairy tale?”

Karl thought for a bit. “You know, I don’t remember. It’s been a long time since I was little.”

Inga frowned. “I want a fairy tale. What am I going to do if you can’t remember any?” She sat up in bed. After seven was his precious quiet time. He needed to get Inga to sleep.

“I’ll make one up, how’s that?” Inga looked skeptical. “One just for you, a special one.” Flattery began to melt the skepticism.

“Once upon a time there was a scientist,” Karl began.

“There weren’t scientists in fairy tales.”

Karl held up an admonishing finger. “That’s only because they weren’t invented yet when the old ones were written. Just think of a scientist as a wizard, but with more numbers.

“The scientist worked many hours toiling with magical substances and arcane laws. He worked on lubrication systems for automotive engines.”

“Daddy, this better be going somewhere.” He needed to find the balance between interesting enough to engage Inga, but not so interesting as to keep her up.

“His world was full of discipline and certainty and steady income. One day, though, the scientist woke up in a different world. There were no cars and no lights and no tvs. He looked out his window and saw pigs and horses and a dragon flying through the sky.”

“A dragon?” Inga squealed. Karl cursed himself. Too exciting!

“Yes, a dragon. And the scientist was worried because his skills weren’t going to translate well to the employment prospects of this world. He would have to learn how he got there, and how to return.”


Book review: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (Alan Hirshfeld 2006)

Rating: 5/5

Michael Faraday is the man who showed that light, electricity, and magnetism were interconnected forces. The farad is named after him; you know a scientist is important when they’ve got their own unit. He had no formal math training or university education. He made his discoveries through dogged experimentation, humility, and curiosity. And because he was the son of a blacksmith, he almost didn’t even get the chance.

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday is an excellent professional biography of Faraday*. Hirshfeld, a physicist, details Faraday’s motivations in addition to his discoveries. We learn about the books, people and thoughts that motivated Faraday. We see how Faraday coped with the endless failures that precede an experimental success. We also see how Faraday fought for his ideas against the incorrect prevailing notions of the day. We get all this in a compact and readable 200 pages. (The Cosmos episode “The Electric Boy”, covers many of the facts of Faraday’s life, though less of the motivation, and is and excellent companion to this book. And it’s free to stream on Netflix!)

The way we are taught science as children is so different from the way science comes into being. For example, the power of the electron was harnessed well before it was discovered in 1897. Volta invented the battery in 1800; the dynamo, which converted mechanical energy into electricity, was built in 1832. Scientists like Humphry Davy isolated and named elements decades and centuries before we had any idea what made elements different. When a scientist does science today, they also have incomplete information. We learn science as a set of facts and rules, rather than the procedures for learning those facts and rules. The Electric Life excellently illustrates the difference. This book, accompanied with some simple experiments and videos, could make a rich and beautiful teaching example.

Hirshfeld also touches on a social issue that’s as relevant today as it was in Faraday’s time: scientific literacy. Speaking about the Victorian pseudoscience of table-moving, Faraday said

I do not object to table-moving itself… though a very unpromising subject for experiment; but I am opposed to the unwillingness of its advocates to investigate; their boldness to assert; the credulity of the lookers-on; their desire that the reserved and cautious objector should be in error; and I wish, by calling attention to these things, to make the general want of mental discipline and education manifest.

In Faraday’s day, there was no science education. Today, I would argue that while we teach scientific fact, we still don’t teach enough scientific reasoning. The above statement could apply to vaccines, global warming, GMOs, evolution, among others.

I would have liked to learn more about Faraday’s personal life. We learn almost nothing about Faraday’s wife Sarah, or anyone else in his family, or whether he even had children (he didn’t). But again, the book is short, and does such a good job with its chosen issues that this is more of an observation than a criticism.

I whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, scientist or not. You’ll learn about an interesting man of history. You’ll learn how science happens now and two centuries ago. And I think you’ll simply enjoy it.

* I should note that my copy was an advance reading copy from a used book store, so it may vary from the final book in small details.

Writing prompt: Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year in Chinatown, 2006.

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Chinese New Year” (This post was inspired by the time I wandered into Chinese New Year in Chinatown when i lived in New Jersey in 2006. It was a beautiful, soaking mess.)

The paper rockets exploded and the streamers coated the wrought iron railings. A dragon head bobbled down the street attended by a great drum. The rain poured from the sky, and the streets and sidewalks were full of umbrellas and vendors with umbrellas to sell, 3 for $5. It was Chinese New Year in Chinatown.

Elsie felt like it was a transformative cultural experience, a fresh excitement in the general excitement of New York.

“This is the year of the goat,” Cynthia said. Elsie was still struggling with her accent. There hadn’t been many Chinese speakers in Nebraska. “The goat is a lucky animal, its year suggests prosperity.”

“I hope,” Elsie said. “This is my year, the year it will all change.” She’d been in the city for a month. So far, she had spent more than she had, walked through gray snow, and tried not to smell aged trash.

Cynthia shrugged. “The goat also means stubbornness, a resistance to change. Maybe for many people, this is what luck is all about, not losing what you treasure.”

Elsie waved the thought away.  The rain was turning to sleet. Elsie jammed her hand back into her pocket.

They followed the parades. Cynthia, smiling, recited facts about various parts of the festival. Elsie mostly didn’t listen.

The street was a mess with paper and debris. But a shiny red envelope caught Elsie’s eye. She picked it up.

Cynthia smiled. “As a child, you get money in envelopes like these. It was very exciting.”

The envelope bore no identifiers or markings. Elsie looked inside. It was full of money. “It is the year of prosperity! I mean, I can’t even try to return it!”

Writing prompt: Blame someone else

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Blame someone else” (This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts.)


The painting was covered in a thick layer of soot. I read the documentation. For years, it had hung next to a fireplace in a small poorly ventilated room. But the composition and the brushstrokes had the right look. My boss believed it was an authentic Vensammer. Tina the wonder employee, said that it probably wasn’t. When I cleaned this painting up, she’d see.

I looked at the painting for a while. It depicted a middle-aged woman sitting next to a young boy. In my mind, I guessed at the age of the painting and the techniques that would have been used at the time. Which paints would react to which treatments. If it was a Vensammer, we could auction it for twenty times what we bought it for.

I reached for the solvent, but instead I knocked it over onto the painting. I picked the painting up and tried to let it run off. If it had the proper oil finish, it would be okay with such a brief exposure. I turned the painting back over. It was not. Paint ran in ugly rivulets. Vensammer would never have been so reckless. It wasn’t a Vensammer. It was a worthless piece of junk that I had further ruined.

Quickly quickly, I dried the painting. I slid it back into the storage slot. I carefully redacted my name from the sign in list, and put Tina’s in instead. I took another painting that needed light cleaning and hurried off with it. No sir, I’d never touched that Vensammer.

Tina came in later. She studied the log; she seemed puzzled by it. I said nothing. She pulled out the faux Vensammer.

“Mert, what happened to this painting? I didn’t do this, I swear!” Her eyes were wide, pupils dilated.

The boss walked in. I suppressed a smile. “Is that the Vensammer?” she bellowed.

“Y-yes,” Tina stammered. “I can’t explain.” Tina stared at the painting, desperate. Then her face settled. “Wait,” she said. “Do you see this shape underneath this smear?”

The boss leaned in. She grunted.

“There’s another painting under here!” Tina cried. “And I’m even more certain the surface painting wasn’t a Vensammer.” She pulled out several tools and carefully set to work on the painting. “This shade of yellow… I bet this is an Artello!”

“An Artello! That’s better than a Vensammer!”

More bookbinding

Winter is a great time to look outside at the cold rain and bare trees and stay in and bind books instead. Below are three projects from last week.

Book 1

Upholstery fabric makes great book cloth. It’s thick enough that it doesn’t need backing paper to keep the glue from coming through. It’s substantial enough that it doesn’t tend to bubble or warp. And it often has interesting textures that work well for a book cover. I love the fabric for book 1, the way it fits on the cover, the feel, and the sheen. Upholstery fabric can be pricy, but the retail price is similar to prepared book cloth. The fabric for book 1 was an $8 remnant; this project took at most 1/5 of that fabric. That’s not bad at all.

I did a coptic stitch with red waxed linen thread. At $16 a spool, it’s pricey, but it is a lot of thread. I’d estimate one spool could sew very roughly about 50 books of this size.


I did my very first box for this project, following this set of videos for guidance. Sage Reynolds YouTube channel seems like an excellent source for book binding expertise. I’m sure I’ll be back there.bookbind-04049 bookbind-04048

Book 2- Dragonfly journal

For Book 2, I did my first long stitch book. For this binding, you simply sew through the spine. It was quick and pretty painless. I added a dragonfly embellishment to the cover, which I designed in illustrator, and had my Silhouette Cameo cut out. Another use for a favored toy. (Read more on the Cameo.)bookbind-04040 bookbind-04037

Book 3- Mad Scientist Lab Notebook

Book 3 features more raised details. Again, I did a coptic stitch. The endpaper I printed using the Silhouette Cameo’s art pen. It took a long time to draw all those paths, but I am in love with the result. The black slipcase (my second box!) features a mushroom cloud, cut with the Silhouette Cameo.


The cover features a radioactivity symbol. I’m really excited about the mad scientist theme, so I’ll probably do more of these.bookbind-04034

Writing prompt: National Weatherman’s Day

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“National Weatherman’s Day” (This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts.)

I turned on the news. I took my shower and I brushed my teeth. There had been two homicides overnight, unusual but not unheard of in this town. In fairly suburban neighborhoods. Something domestic I imagined.

The weather outside was crisp. The dew point was low. No clouds in the sky. That always irritated me. The absence of clouds is boring. No stratus, cirrus, or anything. Just blank. The weather station by the front door confirmed the low dew point and said it was 58 degrees. The morning sun glared at me on the commute, and again I wished there were clouds.

“Marty, did you hear?” It was Terry, the senior weatherman, the guy who went on the screen. I just did calculations and measurements.

“Hey Terry, you’re all sweaty and red. You should get into makeup.” It wasn’t the first time he’d come to work hung over.

“I guess you didn’t hear then.” He lowered his voice. His eyes were wide. “Those two homicides overnight? They were weathermen.”

I laughed. It was the only reasonable reaction. I was incredibly jealous of Terry’s job, but I knew well enough that few others cared about it. It was just like him to make a couple of murders all about him. Maybe he’d had more than booze the night before.

“They were,” he defended. “Ed Street from channel 5 and a guy that does the broadcast on a little station in Springfield.”

“It’s a coincidence, I’ll give you that.”

“A Milwaukee weatherman died in hunting accident last night. And in Orlando a guy died in a car wreck.”

I shrugged. “So are you going to do the weather or not?”

He puffed. “Of course!”

“Then get to makeup, you look like a piece of raw meat.”

He glowered. Then he nodded and scurried off.


The phone rang before my alarm chimed. It had to be work, it was the only contact that could override my do-not-disturb setting.

“Marty?” It was the producer. “Terry’s dead.” He’d fallen down the stairs. Drunk I bet, no doubt fretting his conspiracy of weathermen. I was going to do the weather today. I was passingly sad to hear about Terry, but it was my big break.

I hung up the phone. Not knowing what else to do, I turned on the radio and hopped in the shower. A weatherman in San Francisco had died.

Suddenly I was less excited to do the weather.

It’s February and I need some greenery, despite the tyranny of groundhogs

And the day after the Super Bowl. So, I need a pick-me-up to start the week and I bet a lot of other people do too. And thus, a tropic sunset. (If my title doesn’t make sense to the international set, google groundhog day, our least-satisfying holiday.)

florida-03657 florida-03671 florida-03703 florida-03753And after the sun set, the moon came out. The awesome fast sensor on my new camera makes a night shot look like a day shot without graininess distorting the beauty. ISO 2500 and still looks great!