Sunday, September 23, 2012

OBJECT #17: Little black magnifier

    I actually used this object just two days ago.  I was too lazy to get out my large stereo-microscope (which itself qualifies as junk in my basement because it’s just a secondhand scope from ebay) so I grabbed one of these.  I wanted to look at the tiny flowers on a plantain weed.  The weed has a fuzzy spire that I was pretty sure had to be flower spire in botanical terms.  I reasoned that the flowers must be so small that you could hardly see them without a magnifier.  So I grabbed one of these, switched on the light, and held the plantain under it.  I was amazed to see tiny purple and yellow flowers hanging at the ends of impossibly thin stalks.  One of the many examples of the amazing biology that we take for granted every day, often even unaware of its existence.

    If you’ve looked at these inexpensive magnifiers in a catalog and wondered if they are worth the 12-15 dollar price tag, the answer is “yes,” they actually give pretty good magnification.  You can get up to 30x magnification with them, which is way beyond your standard hand lens (3x to 8x).  If you can’t afford a large stereo-microscope (even a cheap one is over $100) then this is a great little alternative.  I would not recommend them for kids under 8 or 9, however, because it takes a bit of coordination to get things lined up and in focus.  I had to be a bit patient with my plantain flowers.  The only drawback with these is that the viewing area is pretty small.  But if you want to look at a sand grain or an insect eye or a miniature plantain flower, these will let you see some of the beautiful of creation you would miss otherwise.

Plantain Flower

Sunday, September 16, 2012

OBJECT #16: Moiré cards (Mwah-ray)

    These cards have been lurking in various places in my basement for the better part of twenty years.  They’ve moved from drawer to drawer, with cards lost in some inexplicable way during each move.  (Children under the age of 10 might have had something to do with the missing cards, but then again, perhaps not.)  The battered box finally ended up in my big brown curiosity cupboard (which in and of itself is a notable piece of junk in my basement — one of those things you pick up cheap at a garage sale when you are just starting out in life and can’t afford to buy anything decent, and then years later there it is, still with out, such a permanent fixture in the house that it doesn’t even cross your mind to get rid of it.)

    The name moiré  is most recently from French, though the word has a complex etymology and was borrowed back and forth between French and English over several centuries.  Linguists speculate that the word originally came from Arabic, “mukhayyar,” meaning “chosen.”  What was chosen was the very best wool threads from an angora goat.  These hairs were woven and pressed into a fabric that the Europeans later perfected into a textile they called “watered silk.”  The hairs were aligned into a grid, then pressed into place, perhaps something akin to making felt.  The finished effect was a textile that caught the light strangely as it moved, making shimmering patterns.  (I guess if you couldn’t attract the gentlemen’s eyes naturally, you could always wear watered silk and make your yourself visually irresistible!)

    The moiré effect is now considered to be part of the world of physics, not fashion.  The most common place you’ll see this phenomenon is on a tv screen.  If someone is wearing clothing that has a strong grid-like pattern of some kind, the pattern will interact in a strange way with the physics of putting the image onto your screen, causing an effect that can be either fascinating or irksome, depending on how long you have to sit and watch it.  I’ve seen shirts and ties do spectacular moiré performances.  They produce shimmering and shifting patterns that are so eye-catching you can hardly concentrate on anything else on the screen.
    The moiré  effect is extremely simple.  It’s just two patterns, even as simple as two basic grids, laid on top of each other.  The top one must be transparent so the bottom one shows through.  As you slide one of the grids back and forth, you can see the lines of the grids shifting their positions relative to one another.  For a fraction of a second, the grids might be perfectly aligned, then a split second later, some of the lines shift to the right or left or even diagonally.  Your eye records these constant changes, and perceives it as an optical illusion of shimmering movement.

    I have a sheer white curtain on one of my windows that does a moiré  effect once in a while when the folds overlap.  I stumbled across a piece of fabric at a store a few years ago that had such a strong moiré  effect that I decided to turn it into a simple science exhibit for my traveling summer science museum.  I used replacement screen panels and put this fabric into them.  The two moiré  screens hang back to back and the visitor can move them back and forth to create stunning visual effects.

    I hope the little video here can give you an idea of amazing this effect can be when made to be large scale.  Someday when I have a permanent facility, I’ll have a huge moiré  of these that can entertain visitor on a large scale.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

OBJECT #15: Hans Christian Andersen scissors

    I call these my “Hans Christian Andersen scissors.”  Everyone knows that Andersen wrote fairy tales.  His complete collection of fairy tales is on my bookshelf, but I have to confess I have not yet read the book from cover to cover.  It’s a huge book and includes many classics such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  What most people don’t know is that Andersen was also a master paper cutter.  Andersen never explained in any of his writings how he became so skilled at paper cutting.  In fact, he rarely mentions his cuttings at all.

    Andersen grew up as the only son of a poor shoemaker.  He lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Denmark in the early 1800s.  His father was intelligent and imaginative, however, and provided Hans a childhood full of folk tales and paper puppets.  A few times they saved enough money to be able to take Hans to a theatre to see a play.  Hans and his father would then come home and make a paper stage, paper puppets and a paper costume wardrobe.  Making this paper puppets was Andersen’s first experience with paper cutting art.

    After a trying to become an actor during his early teen years, he was told he did not have enough talent to make it in show business and he should be a writer instead.  A very generous patron volunteered to provide funds to further his education, and at age 17 he went back to school.  He went on to college, and during that time began his writing career. He began by writing plays and poetry.  Then he tried his hand at re-writing some traditional folks tales and had enough success to make him brave enough to try writing some of this own tales.

    One of the first tales we wrote was called “Little Ida’s Flowers.” A little girl named Ida had asked him what had happened to her bouquet of flowers overnight.  They had been so beautiful the day before and now they were wilted.  So Andersen make up a story about the flowers had been out dancing all night and tired themselves out.  In this story, one of the characters makes a paper cutting to amuse the little girl.

    Though Andersen’s dream of being a professional actor never came true, he found an even better outlet for his creative entertaining talent.  He would give private performances for small audiences, and would make a paper cutting while he told a tale.  He would chop away at a folded piece of paper using an enormous pair of scissors the entire time he was telling the story.  Then, at the end of the story, he would open the paper and show his audience the design he had created.  A Danish woman wrote this of her childhood memory of Andersend doing his paper cutting:  “He would always cut with an enormous pair of scissors.  It was a mystery to me how he could cut out such dainty things with his big hands and those enormous scissors!”

    Andersen’s reputation as an amazing entertainer reached the ears of those in high society.  Soon he was getting invitations to the homes of barons and dukes.  Eventually there was hardly a night when he didn’t have an invitation somewhere.  This was fortunate because though Andersen loved children, he never married and therefore never had any children of his own.  He would sit for hours telling stories and cutting paper designs for the children of his well-born friends.  (He even stayed with Charles Dickens in England for five weeks.  The language barrier was a problem, but Andersen used his paper cuttings as a bridge that didn’t need words.)  Some  guests’ homes made Andersen feel especially comfortable and he always referred to these homes as “good cutting-out places.”

    Andersen never sketched out his figures first.  He would just fold the paper and start cutting.  Most of his works are simple pieces of symmetry, where he folded the paper just once.  Occasionally he would fold the paper twice and make a four-fold pattern.

    I got my Andersen scissors at a garage sale quite a few years ago.  I believe them to be a relic from the days of cut-and-paste editing.  If you’ve got a job that requires a lot of cutting, you can’t waste time with a medium-sized pair of scissors.  These blades let you slice a sheet of paper in half almost in one snip.  Though old, these scissors qualify under the category of “they don’t make them like they used to,” and, accordingly, they have not become dull as quickly as the other scissors I own.  (Hmm... I’ll have to try making a paper cutting with them some time.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

OBJECT #14: Potato Animal Head


    This piece of junk wasn’t in my basement very long, for obvious reasons.  It sat on display for a few days, then I snapped a picture before returning it to the pantry.

     I’m a big fan of the book “Play With Your Food” by Joost Elffers.  The book consists of whimsical photos of food items posed to look like animals.  There’s a banana octopus, a mad-face orange, a yam mole, a confused pumpkin face, and garlic clove ducks.  My potato deer isn’t quite up to Elffers quality, but it made me laugh when I pulled it out of the bag.  I just couldn’t bring myself to ignore the deer/bear/whatever, and just toss the potato into the pot.  It needed to receive its due and be admired for a few days. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

OBJECT #14: Ignition Chicken

    As I speculated in my last blog entry, I did have to clean up and organize a bit this week.  I tackled the one place in my house that has remained untackled since we moved in ten years ago-- the closet under the basement stairs.  I’ve stashed all kinds of things in the front part of the closet, but the back part of the closet goes way back under the bottom section of the stairs.  The former owners had left some boards and stuff under there but the space never seemed usable enough to make it worth the trouble of digging everything out.

    Can’t say why I woke up one morning and decided to tackle that closet, but in just several hours I had unearthed some REAL junk in my basement.  Not cool science stuff.  Junk.  A mammoth stack of lumber from the 1960s, two pre-1970 wooden baseball bats, and 17 pieces of clay pipe, each a foot long and about 10 pounds in weight.  And an antique wooden ironing board in very bad condition (though I did know about that one before I began cleaning).  That’s the kind of junk no one wants to hear about.  (And, mercifully, is not too hard to get rid of if you use the semi-miraculous phenomenon of craigslist-- a great place to pick up stuffed coyotes and get rid of chunks of pipe.)

    This week I feel compelled to do a memorial tribute to “Ignition Chicken.”  Ignition Chicken was brutally murdered, smashed to tiny bits on the patio.  I was the criminal, though I plead “manslaughter” because I didn’t see how far the end of the door I was carrying extended out into the corner of the gazebo.  I thought I had enough clearance.

    Ignition Chicken got her name from her contents.  I can’t even remember where she came from originally. She sat on the top shelf of my kitchen for a number of years until one day I got her down and decided to give her life meaning and purpose.  She eventually ended up out by the patio full of matches and other flammables. She always looked heavily armed with grill-starter bazookas.  She’s been on duty for about three years now, perched on a little corner ledge under our gazebo.  And never once a close call with falling off, quite amazingly.

    My mistake was working alone.  I was hoisting a full-size door from the patio table (where I had attached hardware to it) over to a place where I could put a coat of varnish on it.  I was having a bit of trouble managing maneuvering the door, and one corner scraped across the patio ledge where poor Ignition Chicken was sitting, no doubt in anticipatory terror as she saw the monstrosity coming and was unable to cluck a warning from her porcelain beak.  She died at her post, patiently waiting for the next bonfire.

    It’s not the first time a member of my family has eulogized a piece of china ware.  As a child, my sister composed a poem about a glass custard cup that had fallen from the dish drain while she and I were doing the dishes. She wanted to inform our mother of the accident in a gracious way.  I still remember the title: “Charles E. Custardcup, RIP, “ and a few of the lines. “Alas, poor Chuckie, too young was he; he ne’er had a crack at his destiny!”

    I don’t have time to compose a poem for Ignition Chicken, but since I happen to have a picture of her (taken on a day when I was photo-cataloging junk in my basement), I thought the least I could do was post her picture as a tribute to her years of faithful guardianship.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

OBJECT #13: Mounted Coyote

    This piece just came into my basement this week.  But it’s so awesome I felt I had to write about it, rather than choose something that’s been around for years.  Unbelievably, I found this coyote listed on craigslist!  A taxidermist out in the country (I live in town) (small town) has mounted this for a customer and then the customer never showed up to collect it.  The taxidermist sent repeated mailings to this person letting them know that it would be sold if they did not pick it up.  So at last it went up for sale on craigslist.  (I won’t tell the exact price, but I’ll say three figures, not two.

    I didn’t buy this because I feel a need for more junk in my basement.  Despite all the discouragements and unbelievable odds against me, I still cling to a hope that someday I will be able to realize my dream of having a small science/nature center.  I build small exhibits and show them at several outdoor venues during the summer.  My biggest one of the year is coming up in July and I want a few new things that haven’t been there previous years.  I also want to look as much like a “real” nature center as possible, and nothing says, “I run a real nature center,” like a stuff coyote! I had a feeling that someday I would kick myself if I didn't take the gamble and go ahead and get this coyote.

    This is a male eastern Coyote, and was “harvested” in Pennsylvania during the winter.  It has its rough winter coat.  In PA, coyotes can be hunted during certain seasons, so it was taken legally.  Coyotes are nocturnal, so even though I’ve almost certainly got some living within two miles or less from my house, I’ve never seen one.  Few people I know have ever seen one in the wild (or at all if they don’t go to zoos) so I think it’s really neat to have a real one, even a stuffed one, that people can get up close to.  This guy is really beautiful.  He can help people appreciate wildlife in  way that they could not otherwise do.

    Where to keep him when I’m done exhibiting him?  Yikes, I think I’ll have to clean and reorganize!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

OBJECT #12: Phaser

    This is a relic from my teen years.  I discovered Star Trek at about age 12, as a week day afternoon re-run on our 12-inch black and white television in the basement.  My parents only used the television on rare occasions like a televised Pirates or the Steelers playoff game.  I don’t remember how or why I discovered Star Trek, but it didn’t take me long to became a Trekkie.  Kids today have no concept of what it is like to have extremely limited access to tv shows and movies.  Star Trek came on at 5 pm and if you didn’t catch the first part of the episode, who knows how long it would be before you’d ever see that bit again.  78 more episodes had to air before you’d come back to that one again!  (Although it seemed that certain episodes aired more frequently than others.)   I’ve told me kids (probably too many times) that when Star Wars came out, some avid fans would go to the theater to see it several nights every week.  Kind of extreme, but not quite so much when you consider that before VCRs, when a film went out of circulation, it was gone.  All you had were your memories.

    When I was about 13 I went with my family to San Francisco to visit relatives.  My parents were kind enough to take me to a Star Trek store in Berkeley.  A whole store filled with Star Trek stuff.  I had saved my allowance for weeks ahead of time but found that even with all that saving I couldn’t afford most of the things in the shop.  I bought an “official” uniform emblem patch and some other similar small items, but left without any props or uniforms.  I don’t remember being disheartened, though.  I think I was inspired.  When I got some I went to work making my own props.

    I decided to tackle something easy first, and I made a tribble.  A tribble is just a ball of fur. No legs, no eyes, no mouth, no ears.  Tribbles were easy.  I kept those tribbles for years, but it’s been just long enough now that I’ve lost track of what became of them.  Many of my childhood items finally met their end when my oldest children were small.  They loved to play with Mom’s stuff and did so frequently enough that... certain incidents occurred.  We’ll leave it at that.

    I found a blue long-sleeved shirt and stitched the official patch on the chest and some glittered rick-rick trim around the cuffs.  Fortunately for me, costume design had not reached the degree of sophistication it has today.  It was relatively easy to create a fairly authentic looking uniform.

    I made some Vulcan ears out of foam and painted them with acrylic paints, trying to match them to my skin tone.  I don’t think they were very convincing.  I had much better success with the props.  I had been working with wood since I was about three years old.  My parents tell me I started pounding nails into boards at a very young age.  I almost cut off my finger with a coping saw at age six, but that did not deter me at all.  I just learned not to be careful.  (The only other accident I remember was several years later when I slipped with an X-Acto wood carving knife and found out that blood can spurt, not just leak.)   So by my teen years I had all my major mishaps behind me and had learned how to use tools pretty well.

    I had already purchased some plastic model kits--a phaser, a communicator and a tricorder-- so I had more than just photos to guide me.  The plastic models were pathetically small, though.  The phaser looked way too small even when held by a child.  I wanted a real phaser.  So I took measurement and doubled the size of the plastic model.  This may have been the first time I used a large block of wood and I can’t remember how I actually cut it.   It must have used my trusty coping saw. Some of the details were made of foil.  I did not know much about types of glue back then and it’s amazing that the whole thing stayed together with just white glue.   The communicator is a little worse for the wear, as the homemade metal hinge was a bit delicate.

    Several years later, as an older teen, I made a tiny phaser as a necklace charm.  It’s not junk in my basement, as it resides in an old jewelry box in my bedroom.  (Burglars would be very disappointed with the contents of that jewelry box:  phaser necklace, Sunday School attendance award pins, a cheaply made bagpipe pin, a Roman coin, a few other award pins, and my collection of my primary teeth (well, the Tooth Fairy would have thrown them out, so I decided to keep them).  
      When I switched from Star Trek to Star Wars, I created a Chewbacca suit and a Darth Vader mask.  But those are junk in my attic.  When I run out of junk in my basement, I’ll have plenty of material left in my attic.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

OBJECT #11: Hornets’ Nest

    I have two hornets’ nests.  This is the smaller one and, unfortunately, I can’t remember the story behind it very well anymore.  The second nest is more recent, and therefore I remember a lot more about it.  The second nest is junk in my garage, not my basement, but if you won’t tell, I won’t either.

    We discovered the second hornets’ nest in one of our trees several years ago.  As soon as I saw how large it was I knew I just had to preserve it somehow.  (NOTE:  If I had discovered this nest out in the woods I would not have determined to collect it.  Insects have their place in nature, but hanging in the backyard right near the place where my children play is not acceptable.)

    My daughter (college-age at that time and an animal science major) volunteered to “suit up” in the best we could muster for a hornet-proof suit.  I think we used a raincoat, snow pants, boots, gloves, a motorcycle helmet and a scarf.  The rest of us prepared for our role as back-up crew.  We stood ready with a large, empty trash can (and lid) and a can of hornet spray. 

    We had waited until dusk so that hopefully all the hornets would have returned home to the nest and they would be calmly bedding down for the night.  Most bees and wasps in our area won’t pursue for more than a short distance, but bald-faced hornets have been known to pursue up to 300 feet (and are able to sting multiple times).  After they have gone to bed, though, they are fairly passive.  Hopefully, they would not be overly bothered about their nest being jostled a bit.  My daughter went up on a ladder with a hedge clipper and cut the branch on either side of the nest.  She slowly and calmly carried the nest over to the trash can and set it inside.  The nest was quickly sprayed with hornet spray (as well as the inside of the can) then the lid popped on.

    At first you could hear a bit of angry buzzing if you put your ear right on the side of the can.  After a few hours it seemed quiet, but just to make sure, we left the lid on the can for at least a full day.  After opening it cautiously we found that our plan had succeeded and the insects had been vanquished.   We were able to examine the nest at our leisure and cut out a small section to see how they had built the inside.  Like bees, hornets favor an architecture based on hexagons.  There were a few infant hornets (now dead) still inside the hexagonal tubes.  Hornets don’t make wax like bees do, so the ends of the hexagons were plugged with paper, not with wax.   I cut out a section of the bottom so that the inside architecture was visible.

    I hung the nest on the underside of our dining canopy, as extra decoration, beside my homemade Chinese lantern.  It stayed there until fall, at which time I hung it on the inside of our outdoor storage shed.  For the next two summers I brought the nest back out again, using it as part of my patio decor.  I got used to having it there and would forget to let visitors know that it was an extinct nest.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

OBJECT #10: Agate

I can’t remember how I obtained this slice of agate.  My basement contains hundreds of rocks and minerals and it’s easy to lose track of where they all came from.  My husband is the main rock collector, so that makes me “once removed” from parts of the collection, giving me an excuse for not being able to remember where they came from.

    An agate is actually considered to be a type of gem stone, often classified as chalcedony, which is in the quartz family (SiO2).  The name “agate” was given to these rocks by an ancient Greek named Theophrastus, who named them after the river where he found them:  the Achates.

    Many agates probably started out as hollow bubbles in lava.  As the lava cooled, hot mineral-rich water seeped into the bubbles.  As the solution cooled, the minerals precipitated out and formed crystals.  The color of an agate was determined by what kind of minerals were in the solution.  Some of the minerals cooled into very fine-grained rock, with particles so small that the texture of the rock is smooth and glassy.  Sometimes there was enough mineral soup to fill the entire empty cavity, but in some agates the minerals ran out before they reached the center, leaving an empty space.  Often, the edges of the central empty cavity are ringed with large crystal formations. 

    Some agates are found as “geodes,” spherical rocks that must be cracked open to reveal the gems inside.  (Mexico has some really good geode sides.  There are places were thousands of small geodes can be easy collected.)  Some geodes turn out to be “duds” and aren’t much to write home about.  Others will be found to contain crystals that are quite attractive.   One of the largest geodes ever found was in Brazil. It weighed 35 tons and was filled with amethyst crystals (a type of quartz that is often light purple in color).

    One type of agate is not spherical, but occurs in long stripes.  In this case, the mineral-rich silica water filled in long, narrow cracks in the cooling rocks.  They are simply called striped agates, or banded agates.  They have the same beautiful multicolored patterns as the round ones.

    Agates come in lots of colors, but most often in shades of red and brown, gray, or blue.   Agates are used primarily for decorative purposes, such as jewelry or crafts such as book ends.  The only practical use for agates that has ever been documented is burnishing leather (a few places in Asia).  There is a church in Oregon where thin slices of local agates were used as panels for the stained glass windows.  I guess that’s sort of a practical use, but it’s decorative as well, so we could count it in both categories.  You can see from one of my pictures how light will go through these thin slices of rock.  This makes sense when you remember that silica, the main component of agates, has the chemical formula SiO2, which is the same formula for glass (and sand).

    There are lots of places online where you can buy geodes if you want the thrill of cracking open your very own never-before-seen specimen.  If you want a chance to be creative and create your own personal agate design, check out the agate craft idea on my website.  Just click on Free Downloads, then on Earth Science.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

OBJECT #9: Cow Magnets

    These are cow magnets.  If you’ve never heard of a cow magnet, you are probably scratching your head wondering is this is a joke.  Seriously, these are cow magnets and they are used with cows. Cows are not very discerning grazers.  They will pick up bits of metal along with grass.  Nails, staples and broken pieces of wire fence have been known to lurk under clumps of grass in pastures, and these metal bits end up in cows’ stomachs.  Cows have four stomachs, one of which is the famous rumen, full of bacteria and other microorganisms that digest the grass.  A cow would not be able to live on grass alone without the help of these microorganisms.  This is because animal digestive systems cannot break down the cellulose wall around plant cells.  The nutrients are inside the cell and the wall must be broken down in order to release the nutrients.  Microorganisms produce the right enzymes for breaking apart cellulose.  Ruminate animals have the largest number of microorganisms living in their gut, so they are the ones that can live on nothing but grass and hay.

    The bits of metal in the cow’s stomach can cause damage, of course, but the most damage is done when those bits of metal get all the way into the intestines.  At some point during the last century, a farmer had the brilliant idea of making a cow swallow a large magnet.  The magnet is too large to pass from the stomachs into the intestines, so the magnet becomes a permanent resident in one of the stomachs, often the rumen.  All the bits of metal are attracted to the magnet and are thereby kept from going into the intestines.

    At first they used the smooth type of magnet.  The problem with this type is obvious.  Yes, the metal bits stick to the magnet, but then the magnet can become a mass of prickly bits of metal.  Someone eventually figured out how to design a plastic housing to surround the magnet.  The metal bits are drawn inside the outer diameter of the plastic housing, so hopefully only the smooth plastic will touch the sides of the stomach.

    Young cows are forced to swallow one of these magnets very early in their life.  The magnet then (hopefully) stays inside stomach for the life of the cow.  As far as I know, no attempt is made at recovering the magnet when the cow expires, although I suppose maybe butchers who are cutting up cows for use as meat for our dinner plates, might rescue a magnet if and when they came across one.  I think the magnets are cheap enough that farmers don’t worry too much about recycling them.

    Why do I have cow magnets in my basement?  My husband comes from a dairy farming family.  I think he picked up a few while at the farm years ago, and they have been in my basement collection ever since.  I’ve used them occasionally in my science classes because they are actually fairly strong magnets. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

OBJECT #8: Oboe

    This isn’t exactly junk.  But it’s sitting gathering dust in my basement.   In my childhood and teen years this oboe and I spent a lot of time together.  Why, as a fourth grader, did I choose the oboe over all other wind, brass and string instruments?  Because hardly anyone played it, of course.  I had to be different.  I had to tackle the hardest instrument possible just to prove to myself I could do it.  (Little did I know that for the first year I would spend most of my practice time blowing single notes to strengthen my diaphragm, holding the notes for as long as I could, until I could  play a continuous note for the better part of a minute!  A bit tedious for a fourth grader?)

    As a fifth grader I had to begin to make my own oboe reeds.  My teachers said the ones you bought at the music store were junk.  Real oboists made their own reeds.  It was like taking on another instrument.  It was fun at first.  I still have the instructions my dad wrote down for me as we listened and watch my teacher demonstrate reed making.  The paper has translucent oil spots all over it, as the sharpening stone oil would spill out occasionally, soaking the items in the bottom of the fishing tackle box that held all my reed making equipment.  But my dad’s meticulously neat handwriting is still there, the same as the day he wrote it.  and I could make a reed again if I had to, just following those instructions.  My tools included a very sharp specialized carving knife, a sharpening stone, two specialized items called a plaque and an anvil, a cutting block and a razor knife. Amazing, I don’t remember ever cutting myself while making reeds.  (I sliced my fingers with coping saw blades and X-acto wood-carving knives instead.)

    An oboe reed consists of three things:  a stem made of a small metal pipe wrapped in cork, some red nylon string, and a very expensive piece of dried reed imported from Europe.  You had to soak the very dry piece of reed until it was pliable enough to bend in half and be tied around the metal stem.  The wrapping had to be extremely tight.  I would sit straddling a chair with one end of the string tied to the back of the chair so that I could use both hands to pull tightly as I wound the string around the reed.   I would often do up a batch of these “blanks,” then get around to carving them later.

    Carving a reed took me the better part of a hour.  Fussing with it and getting it to sound just right seemed to take forever.  You’d rough it out, then start patiently scraping it thinner and thinner, especially at the tip.  The center of the reed was called the “heart” and had to be not too thin and not too thick. and nicely rounded.  I learned the hard way not to press too hard when thinning the tip.  One crack and the reed was ruined.  Cracked reeds were the bane of my late childhood.  Those dumb things could crack at any time, even right in the middle of a concert.  I’d always have to have some back-up reeds in my case at all times.

    Oboe reeds are a real pain.  You have to store them in a special case so that they don’t get touched or scratched.  Then, when you want to play, you have to soak them in a glass of water for a few minutes.  It’s not like a trumpet or a flute where you can just whip it out and start to play immediately.  You have to sit and wait while the reed soaks for a while.  Dry reeds just don’t work.  So also inside my oboe case I had to keep a little tiny jar of water.  My teacher told me to put some Listerine in the water to keep germs under control.  To this day, the smell of Listerine reminds me of my oboe.  Speaking of odd things in my oboe case, I also had a long goose feather.  My teacher insisted that a feather was the ideal cleaning tool.  A fabric swab pushed through the barrel time and time again could actually increase the diameter of the shaft, altering the pitch or timbre of the instrument.  So I jammed a feather up and down inside each piece of the instrument after I took it apart.  The feather did not absorb the condensed water and the feather came out wet.  Thinking back on it, I wonder that this did not bother me more than it did.  I simply wiped the feather across my pant leg and put it back in the case.

    Because I had chosen an instrument that hardly anyone played, I had opportunities that other kids didn’t.  As a middle school student, I was invited (begged) to play in the high school orchestra.   Since the high school orchestra met first thing in the morning and my school bus couldn’t get me there in time, my poor mother spent two years driving me to the high school five days a week.  In the high school orchestra I was no longer trapped in the realm of simple scores adapted for younger players.  I was introduced to the real world of classical music.  And I found out how many of those classical pieces had oboe solos in them--just about all of them!  I think I spent most of my early teen years with butterflies in my stomach.  The butterflies would get particularly rambunctious in the few weeks preceding a concert in which I had one or more sizable solos. (I even had heart palpitations sometimes.)  A couple of times I talked into playing in a recital where it was just me and a piano to back me up.  After a few of those, I realized that I was not destined for a career in musical performance.  I performed okay, but the stress just wasn’t worth it.  When my oboe teacher told me that it was necessary to begin practicing several hours a day if I wanted to keep improving, I reassessed my relationship with this piece of plastic and metal.

    I made a decision not only to quit playing the oboe, but to leave high school entirely.  I dropped out after my junior year.  Music was just one of the many stresses I was tired of.  I was in the advanced track in all my classes and was putting in at least 6 hours of homework every night, plus weekends.  45 minutes on the bus each way, to and from school...  I thought college couldn’t be worse that was I was doing.  (And I was right, as it turned out.)

    I think my own experiences with school stress were partly what led me to consider homeschooling for my own children.  I had spent the bulk of my teen years feeling stressed out all the time.  Was that really a necessary part of education?  I decided it wasn’t.  I wanted my kids to have a wonderful, relaxed childhood even into their teen years.   I think the teen years are more grand finale of childhood than the beginning of adulthood. As things have turned out, several of my kids have chosen to take a few classes at our public high school, to supplement our homeschooling curriculum.  They did just fine and didn’t get stressed out the way I did.  They never learned or worked “just for a grade.”  They never had to worry about their grade point average.  They were simply interested in learning.

    One of my sons almost went into music.  He is an accomplished guitarist and plays percussion on the side as well.  He composes and records songs in the music studio I built for him in our lower garage.  He debated long and hard about whether to become a professional musician, then decided to keep music as a hobby and go into landscape architecture as a career.  Music is so much a part of him that I doubt his guitar will end up as “junk in a basement,” like my poor oboe has.  For him, music is a de-stresser, not a stresser.  He plays his guitar to relax and unwind.  I like it that way.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

OBJECT #7: Hercules Beetle

This isn’t a real Hercules beetle, but it’s almost as big as a real one.  It measures almost a foot (30 cm) in length.  It’s a model that my younger daughter made for a contest that the Penn State Entomology Department sponsors every fall.  They hold a huge Insect Fair and one event is the Build-A-Bug contest.  One year our homeschool group incorporated this contest into our insect unit and helped each student build a bug.  My daughter chose the Hercules beetle (maybe partly because she knew how fond I am of beetles).  The basic shape was made from cardboard and wire then covered with paper mache.  Then a heavy coat of paint and shiny coat of varnish.

    The most poignant lesson my daughter learned at the bug festival that year wasn’t about insects, but about people. The contest turned out to be juried by the all the spectators who came through the bug contest room, so the more family and friends a contestant had, the better their chance of winning.   Sure, there were some entries that were so good that they got votes no matter what, but overall, the contest was quite a bit skewed toward those who had brought along a huge fan club.  We were just us, total of three votes.  I looked a my daughter, shrugged, and said, “Oh well, life’s just like that sometimes.  You did a really nice job on your project and I’m proud of your work.  I’m going to hang it on the wall in my studio.”  So I did  and it’s been there  for... hmm... can it be seven years already?  Wow.

    Speaking of beetles, our house has been invaded by the one of the newest arrivals to North America-- a beetle that falls into the genre of “stink bug” or “squash bug.” (Entomologists call these particular invaders “brown marmorated stink bugs.”)  I think technically it may be a “shield bug,” which is actually a “true bug.”   (Beetles aren’t really “bugs.”  Only certain kinds of bugs are technically “bugs.”  Beetles are coleoptera and "bugs" are hemiptera.)

    Anyway, about once or twice a month, we find one of these little critters crawling up a curtain or buzzing about a light.  They are easy to catch and very harmless (unless you are a plant) so we just pick them up and put them outside.  We’ve found them in the house all the way through the winter months, so we know they are not just crawling in through a crack somewhere.  They must have wintered over in the house.  But we can’t discover where they are hiding out.  We’ve looked everywhere that seems likely for a bug to hide out.  But they just appear seemingly out of nowhere.

    My son read a research article online that gave us some info on these bugs, It seems these bugs are new arrivals from Asia.  They appeared in North America only about a decade ago and probably have spread from the east coast.  They have crept their way west and now, as I can witness, are colonizing central Pennsylvania.  They eat most plants, including those found in gardens and commercial farms.  Entomologists at various universities are studying them to find out if there is a safe way to get rid of them but as of yet have not come up with anything.

    We didn’t take the “stink” part of the name too seriously until on evening my daughter called me into her room to try to track down a strange smell.  It didn’t fit into any of our usual categories of smells.  We knew it was not a dead mouse or stinking cat litter or spilled paint.  Hours later my daughter suddenly remembered that she had found one of those bugs, crushed it with a tissue, and put it into her trash can. 

    My son also read in that article a scary story about a house that was infested with hundreds of these bugs, and as fast as the owners killed them, they were replaced by new ones.  The sorcerer’s little apprentices. (They did finally reduce the population down to a manageable level somehow.) 

    Well, at least I’m not phobic about bugs, and the good news is that they don’t bite or sting.

Monday, April 2, 2012

OBJECT #6: T2 virus

    If you’ve never read about bacteriophages, I doubt you would ever be able to guess what this thing is.  This is a paper model of a virus.  When you think of viruses, usually what comes to mind is sneezing and coughing.  It’s easy to forget that viruses don’t just affect humans.  There are many types viruses, each one specialized to attack one particular part of one particular type of living cell.  The first virus ever discovered was in plants.  There are also viruses that attack bacteria.  These types of viruses are called bacteriophages (“phage” means “eat” in Greek).  This type of bacteriophages is known as the T2.  There are also T4s and T6s.  The T2 is my favorite “phage” and is the one most common one drawn by artists who are illustrating articles on these things.  The reason for this is pretty obvious-- they look bizarre.  Usually people say they look like a lunar landing module.

    This model is just made from paper (heavy card stock paper) and a few chenille stems.  (It’s one of my free downloads, so you can make one, too!)  I sprayed the top lightly with silver spray paint to try to make it look less like paper.   In a real T2, the top part is made of protein and has a piece of DNA inside it.  The legs are not called legs, but rather “tail fibers.”  The ends of these fibers are what grabs onto the outside of the bacteria cell.  After it latches on, the neck sort of retracts, pulling the head down and propelling the DNA into the cell.  Once in the cell, the DNA takes over the cell machinery and turns the poor bacteria into a T2-producing factory.  When the bacteria gets full of T2s, it bursts open and all those new T2s go out looking for more bacteria cells to infect.

    Sounds gruesome (and even more so when you think that the same process happens to our cells when we catch a virus) but we could use these phages to our advantage to fight unwanted bacteria in our bodies.  The phage cannot possibly attack your cells.  The tail fibers will only stick to certain bacteria.  They won’t stick to your cells.  So... why are we not using these things to fight infections?  Some countries are-- such as Georgia (the country in Asia, not the US state).  They’ve got quite a research program going on these things.  They’ve found that these viruses are able to keep up with the survival mutations of the bacteria.  Antibiotic resistance is a big problem when dealing with bacteria.  But the T2 can manage to counter these mutations with mutations of their own, constantly keeping their mode of attack up to date.  Whenever the research hospital in Georgia finds an antibiotic resistant bacteria, all they need to do is take a microbial culture from the hospital’s sewer pipes and they’ll find phages that have already learned how to attack this new resistant strain.  So why aren’t other countries pursuing this research?  My guesses are that most people would say “No” to any treatment that involved a virus, and, more importantly, I don’t think you can get a patent on them, which rules them out as a cash cow for pharmaceutical companies.  But it’s nice to know that there is a Plan B out there, when all the drugs stop working.

    A number of years ago, I made a very large T2 for a science fair I did with my homeschool group.  I don’t know why I do things like this.  One day I just got it into my head that I needed a huge T2 virus.  I can’t brag that the construction was anything to “write home” about.  The top was just cardboard covered with sequined fabric.  The legs (oops--tail fibers) were hard to assemble because of the angles in involved.  I used metal angles that I adjust to less than 90 degrees.  The legs could be unscrewed for storage, and poor T2 spent many months in storage, only coming out for special events now and then.  The last time I got it out I discovered that it had become very wobbly, and making the determination that rebuilding was easier that repair, I decided to retire the T2 from my collection of junk in the garage.  (But I have not made a replacement yet.  Space is getting tight in the garage.)  I decided a better replacement was a hands-on activity about phages, where kids could assemble and disassemble T2s.  I made dozens of little cardboard heads, plastic DNAs, wooden necks and chenille stem legs.  When the kids finish assembling the T2s, they go around to the other side and take them apart.  Kids think taking them apart is just as fun as putting them together, because there are little slots to stick all the parts into.  Kids love sticking things into holes and slots.  This exhibit is part of my traveling summer science museum.

Monday, March 19, 2012

OBJECT #5: A land planarian

    I have a very boring-looking terrarium sitting in my basement workshop.  It’s looks like it has nothing in it but some dirt, stones, leaves, and chunks of bark.  However, hidden under some of the rocks are some very bizarre creatures.  Last fall, during our “Simple Invertebrates” unit, I brought in some containers of dirt from my garden to use for a scavenger hunt.  The kids were given magnifiers and were told to find as many forms of life as they could.  Of course, they all found earthworms (some of them almost microscopic-- it is easy to forget that worms start out very, very small!), little gray “pill bugs” (or “rolly-pollies,” or whatever those little armadillo-like arthropods are called in your region of the world), and a selection of tiny millepedes, centipedes, spiders and insects. 

    Then one student found something amazing (and a bit alarming, as it turned out).  She called me over to looked at a strange worm she had found.  As soon as I saw it I was pretty sure it was not in the same family as the earthworm.  Its body was not segmented.  It was also too large to be a round worm.  As I watched it under our stereo-microscopes, I saw it extended its head far enough that the shape of the head became visible.  It was flat!  The head was round and flat, like a plate. I suspected that we had found a land planarium.

    As soon as I got home from my class, I began searching the web for pictures that matched what we had found.  It was definitely a land planarian, a terrestrial “cousin” of the famous freshwater planarian that regenerates body parts.  Cut a planarian’s head off and it will grow a new one.  Split its head down the middle and it will grow two heads.  Cut it lengthwise and each half will grow into a complete animal.  Planarians are very handy in biology labs that study tissue regeneration.  (You can get them from science supply companies like Carolina Biological. I had ordered some for this unit and the kids had a great time watching them slither around their jars.  I highly recommend them.) But this planarian lived on land, not in the water.

    I read some articles on land planarians and learned that what I had found was a recent invasive species.  These planarians are not native to North America.  They most likely had come over from Indo-China, hitching a ride on tropical greenhouse plants that had been shipped over.  Before they got to America, they had been discovered invading England.  They were first found in greenhouses at Kew Gardens in 1878, thus their scientific name, Biplaium kewense, and their nickname, the “Kew worm.”  They have been in America since 1901, but have stayed mainly in greenhouses.  But now they are on the loose.  Maybe mine came from potted plants I had bought from greenhouses and planted in my garden.

    I began looking around my property to see if I could find another of these rare flatworms.  To my surprise I found lots of them hiding under rocks or bricks in soil that was very damp.  Land planarians “breathe” by absorbing oxygen through their skin and they must have a layer of moisture around them to do this. Very wet clay seemed to suit them perfectly. 

    More research revealed that land planarians eat earthworms.  They’ve been known to tackle earthworms that are larger than they are.  And unfortunately, land planarians don’t till the soil.  They don’t harm the soil, but they don’t benefit it, either.   If the population of land planarians begins to increase and the population of earthworms begins to decrease, we could see the health of our soil declining.  So basically these weird little things are invaders we don’t want in our gardens.  Great-- I’ve probably got hundreds of them already.  My excitement about my discovery was gradually turning to horror.  These things should not be in my garden.  But how to get ride of them?  Researchers are still working on this problem.

    I found a website that tracks where these critters are showing up. They have been found in quite a few US states, but not all of them.  Apparently they have some really huge ones out in CA.  I prefer the tiny PA ones.

    I’ve lived in Pennsylvania most of my life and I’ve never seen one of these.  I guess I just got lucky on one of my trips to purchase to a greenhouse to buy plants.  Some people win the lottery.  I got land planarians.

Here’s one of the articles I read:

(The close-up picture of the planarians was taken with my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS8 camera.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


    How many of you have a TARDIS in your basement?  Okay, how many of you know what a TARDIS is?  My UK readers are laughing right now.  Shocking but true, a surprising small percentage of Americans know what a TARDIS is.

    TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.  Time Lords use these things to zip in and out of time and space, meddling in the affairs of other planets and galaxies.  Only.. there’s just one Time Lord left, and we don’t know his real name.  We just know him as Dr. Who.  He’s Britain’s only superhero.  Dr. Who is as popular in Britain as Harry Potter is in the US.

    I’m not a hardcore “Whovian” because I haven’t seen ALL the old episodes from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  PBS would run them late at night, and on the weekends, so I didn’t get to see very many of them.  The first time I got to watch the show with any consistency was when my two oldest children were very small.  It was a special treat to watch an “adult” show (funny how in America it was young adults who watched it, not kids) after the kids were in bed.  But I never made it to the end of a show.  I would inevitably doze off as the plot thickened.  My brain would then incorporate the sounds of the show into my dreams and I would be off chasing aliens half the night.

    I’ll never forget watching the first episode of the new-and-improved Dr. Who (written by Russel T. Davies) in 2005.  I was stunned.  The show had been completely regenerated into something that a body could never fall asleep in front of.  By this time I had kids old enough to watch along with me and we were all addicted by the end of the first episode.

    At first it was very hard to acquire the episodes.  The show had not caught on yet here in America and the only way we could get it was to rely on copied CDs that a friend very kindly burned for us.  When the next CD was dropped into our hands, we revered it as gold.  We’d make a big family night of it, with popcorn and soda and snacks.  Then somehow the parties started to grow with friends dropping in.  (And fortunately we found a way to torrent the episodes.) By the time we got to season 4, we’d have up to about 18 people at our gatherings.  And the menu grew, too.  Now, Dr. Who nights often involve full dinners.

    Then one day last summer, I decided we needed a TARDIS at our gatherings.  It had to be thin so it would fit against the wall as a decoration and could be stored easily in the garage.  But it also had to look 3D enough not to look like a large poster.  So I gathered some wood scraps, bought a few more, and started cutting and gluing.  The feature I am most proud of is the light fixture at the top.  I used a plastic peanut butter jar, a lid from a sports water bottle and a mayonnaise jar lid.  I cut them in half (lengthwise, so the fixture is flat on the back) and used epoxy to glue them together. I installed a nightlight bulb inside so the light really works.

    I think I painted this thing blue about 10 times.  I had purchased several shades of blue acrylic paint and did lots of experimental mixes.  Then I’d compare my results to photographs of the TARDIS.  I was somewhat relieved to discover, after a bit of Internet research, that the exact shade of the TARDIS had changed of the years.  So I couldn’t be all that wrong no matter what shade I used.  But I wanted my shade to be not-too-bright, not-too-dull, not-too-purple, not-too-gray.  After the final coat of paint I added a coat of matte finish so that the paint would be protected but without making the surface too shiny.  Shiny surfaces make photography difficult and I knew that one of the primary purpose of this prop was to provide a backdrop for some fun photos.  The final touch was the installation of some speakers in the back so it can make the famous TARDIS landing noise.

    I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to London a few years ago right when there was a big Dr. Who exhibition going on.  We got to see the original props used for the show (but not the TARDIS).  However, they didn’t need a TARDIS at the exhibition, as where was a permanent one on the street not too far from the convention center.  I wonder how many London natives have given directions to visitors using this TARDIS as a landmark?  It does stand out a bit!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

OBJECT #3: Replica skulls

    I’m not quite sure why I have a skull collection on the mantle in my basement workshop.  I’ve never been a collector of any sort (although I do remember collecting those “Wacky Cards” when I was a kid-- the ones that came with bubble gum and featured silly ads for funny (parody) products such as “Vomit Cleanser” and “Swiss Mess” hot chocolate packets).  (Okay, I did keep all my baby teeth in a little plastic case, but wasn’t throwing them out at the end of that silly Tooth Fairy charade a bit of a waste?)  And though I admire naturalists who have vast collections from nature, I’ve never really thought of myself as one.   Sure, I had a fetal pig in a jar as part of my bedroom decor when I was about 12, but I had normal things, too, like Star Trek posters on the wall and stuffed animals on my bed.

    I think my adventures with skulls began when I started teaching art.  I was looking for interesting shapes that my students could draw using only a monochrome pallet (no color).  I wanted objects that were odd enough that the students wouldn’t be overly concerned about getting it to look “just right.”   I think I saw these replica skulls in a surplus catalog (probably American Science and Surplus) and thought the price was low enough that I didn’t have much to lose if they turned out to be a disappointment.  When they arrived I was quite delighted with them and they’ve been a standard still life item in my art classes every since.  They are made of tough resin, and are therefore practically indestructible, but are so lifelike that my students often don’t realize they aren’t real.  I’ve got a coyote, a cougar, an ape, and a small monkey.  I would have purchased more, but those were the only skulls listed.  That’s surplus for you.

    My favorite assignment is to have the students draw the skulls using black and white conte pencils on gray paper.  I’ve found that this is assignment almost always produces nice drawings, even with beginning students.  I’ve also had them try white pencil on black paper, and this works pretty well, too.

    I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I would use these skulls somehow as part of a hands-on exhibit in my summer science museum project (a free hands-on science museum at various outdoor venues in my town).   I have a few other skulls I could use, too, as well as a picture book I came across, “The Skull Alphabet Book” by Jerry Pallota.  This book is the most kid-friendly skull book I’ve ever seen.  It was a “must-purchase” for me.  The whimsical sense of humor is so right down my alley, and I love the simple and striking (artistic) compositions on each page.   It’s a brilliant combination of science, humor and artwork.  (I don’t understand why the author felt compelled to hide the faces of US presidents in the pictures, but, oh well.)   The first page sets the tone: Warning-- this book contains the alphabet. If you are afraid of the alphabet, do not read any further,”  What a clever way to get the focus of the skulls being scary!  After reading, “A is for... we are not going to tell you!” I was sold.  It’s an engaging book that makes you think while you are reading.  Some day I will think of a way to combine this book with my skull collection and make a fun hands-on exhibit.   Until then, I guess both my collection and the book are... “junk in my basement.”  

Friday, February 10, 2012

OBJECT #2: Twisty toys

    I picked up these twisty toys at a yard sale a few years ago.  Since they weren’t brand new, they didn’t have a tag on them giving their official name.  I few years later I saw the smooth one in a store labeled as “Twisty Tangle.”  The smaller ones with square links make little clicky noises as you manipulate them.  I don’t know how the inventors imagined the purchasers using them.  I suppose just a high-tech way to twiddle your thumbs?  But I’ve found the perfect career for them-- as “protein folding” demonstrators!  Whenever I teach a science unit that touches upon biochemistry, I go out of my way to talk about protein folding-- a topic that everyone should know about but few people do. 

    I remember way back when my oldest children were little and I had not started homeschooling yet (and therefore I was still a complete dummy!) that I met a graduate student here at Penn State who tried to explain to me what he was researching.  I remember him using the term “protein folding.”  I don’t remember much else about the conversation, undoubtedly because I didn’t have any way for my brain to file the information.  I didn’t know enough about the structure of proteins to see how or why they could fold.  Now I know that the amino acid “beads” that make up the protein chain have physical and electrical properties that make them “like” or “dislike” water and certain other amino acids.   These “likes” and “dislikes” make the protein warp and twist until all the aminos are happy with their position.  The result is that each protein has a unique (weird) shape.  The shape is what will determine that protein’s job. 

    Much of biochemistry operates on the “lock and key” principle, where certain proteins fit perfectly into other protein formations, like a key fits into a lock.  When the protein key slides into the protein lock, the chemical job gets done.  Rarely, a “mimic” protein will be close enough in shape to another protein to be able (or almost able) to mimic its job.  For example, the antibody protein that has the necessary shape for attacking strep bacteria also happens to be the right fit to attack heart cells.  The little antibodies run around attacking anything that matches their shape.  They don’t know about bacteria and heart cells- -only shapes.  That’s why when you come down with strep the doctors won’t let you fight it off naturally.  The necessary antibodies will attack not only the bacteria but your heart tissue as well, causing what we call “rheumatic fever.”

    It’s very hard to explain how protein twist and fold creating weird 3D shapes.  These toys are a huge help. Of course, they can’t be posed to show any real protein formations, but they give a pretty good idea of the concept involved.

    Many diseases are caused by incorrect protein folding.  For this reason, protein folding is on the forefront of medical research.  Computer programmers have teamed up with medical researchers to create databases of correct protein shapes.  It turns out, however, that figuring out the exact shape of a protein is very difficult and very time consuming.  Ironically, computers can’t do it alone.  It often takes human intuition to solve the puzzle.   Then some programmers came up with a brilliant idea-- why not tap into one of the modern world’s greatest resources-- bored, computer-savvy teenagers!  If a computer game could be designed where “winning the game” meant getting a protein folded correctly, perhaps thousands, or even millions of young people would donate some of their time to help the protein database.  They did create the game, and you can play it at:  Another website lest you donate your computer’s “down time” to protein folding:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

OBJECT #1: Chinese Terracotta statues

    Don’t startle as you round the bend from the woodshop to the laundry room!  Be prepared to catch a glimpse of two figures lurking behind the door.  When I first made these life-size “stand-ups” of the famous Chinese terracotta statues from Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb, and my subconscious wasn’t yet used to having them in the house, I would startle just for a split second every time I caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye.  Not a real startle-- just one of those fleeting momentary things that can almost pretend didn’t happen.  But I can’t tell you how many times I caught myself tensing for a split second.  They are now hidden far enough behind the door that they don’t register as human shapes the way they did when I had them standing in the wood shop or in my studio area.   In fact, I’d forget about them altogether if I didn’t have to close the laundry room door once in a while.

    The figures are cut from cheap plywood which I then painted, both front and back, with white paint primer.  Then I used chalk pastels on top of the primer.  I sprayed the finished drawings with fixative.  I always hate to apply the fixative; it ruins the very fine blending and shading.  However, leaving chalk drawings unfixed is rarely an option.

    I made these as props for our homeschool group’s China unit a few years ago.  I also made a one-size-fits-all Qin Shi Huangdi costume for the students to wear as they stood for their picture, next to these two statutes.  I set all these against a solid color wall so that I could then use the Photoshop magic eraser tool to quickly and easily (so I thought) erase the background and replace it with a photograph of the landscape around the burial site (near Xi’an).

    I enjoyed our China unit much more than I had expected.  (Hope the kids enjoyed it as much as I did.) By the end of the unit, China had gone way up on my list of interesting places I might want to visit some day.

    You can see some of the other resources I created for our China unit by going to the free downloads “History/Social Studies” section of my website.