Archive for the ‘Fun’ Category

This and That

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017


Tentative title: Do Dragons Like Cookies? (click image to embiggen)

This is the surface design for the newest quilt-in-progress, AKA the latest thing I’m griping about. And gripe I shall. When I stitch, those snowflake wings and the lace dress on the girl are going to give me fits unless I use what I call The Devil’s Thread: clear polyester monofilament.



Yeah, I finally tried that stuff. I used some on Gusher, in the area with balls and cups and such. I feel like it was a devil’s bargain. Yes, I preserved the fine shading of the cups and styrofoam containers and I didn’t have to do fifty thousand thread changes. On the other hand, the texture of the thread itself is yuck, like something I’d cut out of a vacuum cleaner roller with a utility knife. It glistens. It doesn’t have the same soul as the thread I normally use. I know it’s irrational, but I’m terrified that it’s going to spring loose from the quilt and attack someone.

If I’m going to spend weeks or months hunched over a sewing machine, I want the end result to have some poetry to it, even if the quilt depicts a drowning polar bear or an automaton crapping out plastic cups. There needs to be a good reason I chose to make a quilt rather than printing the same design out on flags to sell at a roadside stand. The stitch needs to contribute to the design. Ideally it would be essential. I’m not so sure I’m accomplishing that with The Devil’s Thread.



Anyhow … on to the surface design of the fabric. This is a 3D rendering. If you’ve followed my work in the past, you may be familiar with the process. Create geometry on a computer, barf some textures on it, set up fake light sources, and let the computer figure out what that might look like in real life. If you look at the wireframe, you can see that the scene is extremely simple.

This time I used some purchased assets (3D models) and posed them rather than making everything myself. The little girl is the Skyler model from Daz and the dragon is the Millennium SubDragon LE. I posed them in the Iray Worlds SkyDome.

Much like using The Devil’s Thread, using purchased models is something I wouldn’t have done once upon a time. Instead I would have laboriously spent days creating every blasted model myself, and I would have made sure that everyone around me was miserable while I did it. I also would have bragged about it afterward, and when the thing hung in a gallery, no one would have understood or cared.

Using the Daz assets was nice. I hate to admit that, because I think some of their marketing verges on pedophilia, and there are a couple of things on their site that I find obscenely racist. (Note the afro-wearing gorilla shown in one of the shots for this product. Seriously. Do we really need to go there?)

That said, sometimes it’s nice to grab a pre-made model and get on with it. Daz has a lot of models. Often they’re pretty darned cheap, especially if you consider the labor that goes into them. (Afro-wearing gorillas notwithstanding.)



Look at the lace on that dress. I thought I was being real clever when I created that texture. “Oh, it’ll match the snowflakes her wings are made out of,” I told myself, “It’ll be pretty! Visual poetry!” Yeah, it matches. It’s pretty. It’s also going to be horrible to stitch. Either I use The Devil’s Thread on it to hide mistakes or I spend the next two months hunched over it while I stitch with a magnifying glass.

Stay tuned.



In other non-news, I dyed my hair blue.

Sometimes I hear people complain, and justifiably so, about becoming “invisible” after one turns a certain age. Let me tell you, when you go around with a head full of long blue (or purple or hot pink) hair, you are no longer invisible. People smile and chat with me when my hair’s blue. I get great customer service. My kid likes it. Sure, I get the occasional stinkeye and backing away reaction too, but that’s also fine. It lets me cull out the people who are superficial.

The main reason to do something like hair dying, though, is because you enjoy it. I do. I could care less about growing fingernails and half the time I don’t remember to put on makeup, but seeing blue hair when I look in the mirror cheers me up.



Here are a couple of new works, celebrating the lives and hard work of Maria Goeppert-Mayer and Mary Blair. They’re slated for Susanne Miller Jones’ HerStory traveling exhibit, along with scads of works from other artists. It should be a good exhibit; the subject matter is juicy, and the other works I’ve seen have been creative and heartfelt.

I admire people who, to use a hackneyed phrase, “do things to make the world better”. It’s easy to plotz on one’s La-Z-Boy and complain, but quite another thing to conceive an idea and bring it to fruition.

Susanne’s doing just that. She’s conceived and spearheaded several exhibits on thought-provoking topics. That gives artists like me a venue to speak our minds, and it makes for provocative, interesting viewing. One of those exhibits, Fly Me to the Moon, is currently traveling the country.




The latest Machine Quilting Unlimited has a few of the works from Fly Me to the Moon. Yep, that’s my rocket in the second shot. Also, check out the articles about Betty Hahn’s work and on pictographic quilting, which are pretty darned cool.



Susanne is currently accepting entries for a new exhibit, OURstory: Civil Rights Stories in Fabric. Its goal is to “tell the stories of disenfranchised people and their fights for equal rights”. This is another great topic, and very timely.

The deadline is March 8, so it’s coming up pretty quickly. Fortunately, all one has to do by that date is submit an idea, not the actual quilt, so there’s plenty of time to register.



On a related note, The Artist Circle, a group of well-known quilt artists, is accepting entries for an exhibit to “protest the Trump administration’s actions and policies”.

One only has to skim over the news to see matters of concern – climate change, fake news, education, racism, and on and on. This exhibit is an opportunity to speak out about those issues. The deadline for that is May 1.



This thing, Gusher, is finally stitched and faced. I need to do a little inkwork on it, but I think I can call it all but done. Not a moment too soon, either. I don’t know how many years I’ve been working on it. I could look it up, but hey, why don’t I not do that? The number is probably depressing.

The fact is, I’m not one of those gracious people who writes only sweet things or gushes about how many spools of thread they’ve used or how they were inspired by a butterfly tenderly sucking the nectar from a flower. I start projects because I believe in them. Sometimes I get tired of working on them and I finish only because of sheer cussedness. This is one of those projects.

I’ll leave you with a few gratuitous shots.


My desk, or a portion of it. I also call this Still Life with Key Pad, Dust Mask, and Brain Pin.

Sometimes it’s fun to see others’ work spaces. I hadn’t realized how cluttered mine had gotten. It’s taking on a “Where’s Waldo” appearance.



My twelve year old’s shoe on the left. My shoe on the right. Having your kid outgrow you is one of those rites of passage, I guess. Bittersweet. We want our kids to grow and thrive, and it’s horrid when they don’t, but it would be nice to hold the baby he once was just a few more times.



Alright. This. (Another “click to embiggen” picture.)

I try to be a decent person. Hopefully I’m a better person than I was ten or twenty years ago, and that usually includes just walking by and not commenting if I see something that I think is nonsense.

I’m going to make an exception this time, though. This was an end cap at one of the local Michaels. It’s for “customizing” slime. Not making slime – there’s school glue, which is an ingredient for making slime, but no borax and no instructions, so I guess we aren’t actually MAKING anything, are we? We’re just taking glitter and plastic crap and mooching it inside a viscous polymer blob so we can, I don’t know, have it fall on the floor, get dirty, and throw it away?

I have clearly outlived my usefulness on this Earth.

Christmas in the Park, 2016

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

As I’ve noted in previous years, I love San Jose’s Christmas in the Park tradition.

Each year, a park downtown is filled with horrible animatronic displays and trees decorated by organizations such as businesses, schools, and Scouts. The ornaments usually lean toward being weatherproof and on the cheap side, so they won’t be worth stealing, which often adds a note of tacky fun. Sometimes they’re frankly awful, which is even better from my point of view. Recycled materials often have a starring roll.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites from this year’s display.



Flying Spaghetti Monster. Somebody did a great job of whipping up this tree topper out of balls and pipe cleaners.



A strand of DNA. More clever use of pipe cleaners.



A galaxy, one of many wonders to be appreciated on the garland of the tree decorated by the Atheist Community of San Jose. The atheist tree is always a delight.



Creature with soulless eyes, holding batteries. Now I’m definitely in the holiday spirit.



Fun and clever candy-themed decorations.



This was an anti-smoking tree. I’m not a smoker and I feel for those who are hooked, wish to quit, and have trouble doing so.

That said, sometimes I also have the emotional age of a nine year old boy. I find the idea of a Christmas ornament with somebody puffing away on a cigarette hilarious.



Danny Dwagon!!! He’s here fwom Happy Howwow to hewp Santa Cwaus dewiver pweasants!!!



Uh oh … so elves come out the back ends of dragons? I had no idea. I think I was happier when I didn’t know.



Female elf in drag. “Sorry, girls. If you wanna work in Santa’s workshop, you’ll have to wear a beard.”



Clever use of plastic cups. Fill ’em with beer, chug the beer down, make a snowman. Perfect, except for the fact that I loathe beer.



From a tree decorated with gourds. Somebody did a great job painting this one.



Grinch tree. Clever and minimalist. Throw green netting over the whole thing, stick on some facial features, and you’re done.



Another Grinch tree. Photo provided so that loyal readers can compare and contrast the two.



Neat idea for a tree topper.



Jack Skellington. It’s hard to beat a tree with Tim Burton-inspired decorations.



Oh, how fun! It’s the cast of the Wizard of Oz!



Wait. What is that … thing … on the back of Toto’s basket? Did the Tin Woodsman lop off Dorothy’s hand?



Tree topper made out of whatever the hell you have on hand. I approve.



Pineapple made from pine cone. Very clever.



More minimalism. Toss purple netting over the top and call it done. Yeah. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?



Nice sampling of ornaments made from recycled goods.



Santa and his reindeer, with Rudolph hiding out in a none-too-pleasant snow grotto.



“Rudolph? Get your butt up here! Like it or not, you’re leading my sleigh tonight, mister!”



DARE to keep snowmen off drugs.



Fun. This is the mullet equivalent of a snowman, with business up front and wildness in the back.



Check out meditating Santa, who’s on the back.



There’s also this dude, who I nicknamed “Nightmare in the Box”.



Christmas tree? Taco Bell intestinal mishap? The possibilities are limitless.



Another snowman, this time very Japanese.



I think this creature rates its own horror movie, don’t you?




Scribble bots from dollar store electric toothbrushes

Sunday, November 15th, 2015


It’s time for that ritual I think of as “repaying the internet”. To whit, if I get information off the internet and then find a twist, I need to give some information back. This time the topic is scribble bots, or more precisely, powering scribble bots with dollar store toothbrushes.


A scribble bot uses batteries and a motor to make markers vibrate across paper, thus leaving marks. They’re all the rage at science museums and STEM nights, letting one guilelessly sneak a few Physics lessons in on the kids.

There’s all kind of information about making scribble bots on the web, such as on Instructables and the Exploratorium website.


Most of them have a materials list that includes a 1.5-3 volt hobby motor. The instructions often suggest getting the motor from Radio Shack or cannibalizing one from a toy such as a dancing chicken. Radio Shack is now out of business and I don’t happen to have any dancing chickens, so to my mind, finding a motor is the hardest part of the project.

Unless you have an electronics supply store around, by the time you’ve ordered a motor and maybe a switch and battery housing to go with it, things can get pricy. I wondered if there was a cheaper way to get the necessary parts. Might there be something at the local dollar store?

Indeed, there was. Our local dollar store had an array of the world’s saddest-looking electric toothbrushes. Instead of rotating a group of bristles like one’s Braun or Oral-B, these battery-powered devices jostled a stationary brush head a tiny amount, pretending to give a jolt of dental cleaning power that couldn’t be obtained by simply moving one’s hand.  Disassembling a brush revealed that it had a motor with an offset weight. This was exactly what was needed for a scribblebot. Perfect!


Here’s a typical dollar store electric toothbrush with its guts squeezed out.


Here we’ve cut the handle away from the rest of the toothbrush. The handle can then be used to hold the motor, battery housing, and switch.

(Hang on to the toothbrush end. I have no idea what you should do with it, but it’s bound to come in handy sometime. If you make enough of these scribble bots, for example, you can spray paint the leftover brushes red or gold, glue them to a grapevine wreath, and make a hideous Christmas decoration. Or not.)


Click image to enlarge

Here are the parts we’re sticking back inside the handle. Notice that we’ve cut the handle just short enough to reveal the offset weight, so that it can have attachments and twirl around freely.

Also note the electrical connections circled in red. These are necessary for forming a complete circuit between the battery and the motor. The connections at the motor end aren’t going to be accessible once the parts are put back in the toothbrush handle, and they may be flimsily assembled. Make sure they’re making contact when you reinstall the parts.


Toothbrush battery at left; standard AA at right

Here’s one other fun tidbit. I noticed that the supposedly AA battery which came with the toothbrush wasn’t the same size as a standard AA. It was shorter and narrower. I could force a fresh, standard AA battery into the brush handle, but the motor would no longer work. The circuit wasn’t making up. Sometimes there isn’t enough profanity in the world!

No doubt this is by design. Probably the owners of People’s Electric Toothbrush Factory Number Five don’t want shoppers to use their cheap dollar store toothbrushes indefinitely, so they’ve intentionally made it difficult to replace the batteries. We aren’t using the toothbrushes for hygiene purposes, though, so we do want to be able to replace the batteries.


If you run into this issue, remove the end of the battery holder and peer inside. I found that there was a vertical plastic standoff inside, precisely calibrated to the dimensions of the supplied battery. After removing the standoff with a Dremel tool, a standard AA battery fit and my circuit made up.


Lousy photo of a battery holder after removing standoff. Pretend that you can see where I’ve made the modification. Also, pretend that I have a decent manicure.

Alright. We’ve sawn and fiddled around and modified a cheap toothbrush. What next? How about making some additional weights?


These weights, which are made from wide tongue depressors, can help make the motion of the scribble bot more erratic.


Here we’ve installed a weight on the protruding end of a motor. Note that we have the weight aligned with the mass of the off-axis weight already on the motor.

Some different scribble bot designs …


A portion of a pool noodle with motor mechanism tucked inside and auxiliary weight on top.



Another pool noodle design, this time with the motor at the bottom. It’s interesting to see how positioning of the center of mass affects the motion.


A highly elegant Greek yogurt cup model with outboard motor.


Strawberry basket, outboard motor. Classic. Add some razor blades or a scalpel blade to the tongue depressor weight and you’ll have a fighting scribblebot, as well as occasion to visit the emergency room.

In a few weeks I’ll try all of this out with children – well, except for the part with sharp blades. We’ll see how it goes. I anticipate that there will be chaos.

While others were at IQF Houston …

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Random photos spliced in throughout post …


The big quilt show in Houston, IQF, is over. I learned that my piece, Why Knot? received third place in the digital category.

Immediately, of course, I began to see frank, dampening comments on blogs and mailing lists:

“Photo-realism wins the day in Houston. Frankly, I have never entered that show because, yes, I am a snob who considers it the same as a pipe and drape show, only larger. Art? Uh – no. Unoriginal work – yep. That eliminates all the artists I know.”

“… when I look at most of the other works my first reaction is ho hum… Yawn..boring.. same old, same old. I do not know what the others entries were but the winners are sadly without much interest.”

Sorry to hear that.

It’s true that IQF isn’t an art show per se. Although it does show some genuine artwork that happens to be made of fiber and is quilted, the show isn’t on the radar of the larger Art World, as far as I know. If it was, the “Husbands’ Lounge” (I assume that was still there this year?) or events like the costume contest or tiara parade would knock it clean away.

It is, however, enormously popular and many people love to go there, or dream of doing so. It provides an enjoyable escape where people can browse, admire others’ workmanship or artistry, do a spot of shopping, and bask in the font of natural beauty that is downtown Houston. Many people make a week or weekend of it, staying in hotels, eating out, and socializing.

IQF Houston is the world’s largest quilt show. I aspire to create work that is original and interesting (see comments above), and I like having my work in bonafide art shows. However, I also just plain like to have my work seen. It’s nice to have my work on display at the world’s largest quilt show, where fifty or sixty thousand people attend, and I appreciate receiving an award. As my husband frequently tells me, “Not everything is curing cancer.”


This is Serious Art. Give me money now.

Art – sculpture, painting, fiber, you name it – is not a meritocracy. There is no governing body looking to see whether, say, an entrant is re-rendering borrowed or stock photography without acknowledging the original sources. There are no absolute rules about what does or does not constitute art, and whether or not something is decent. There are no overseers looking over the entire universe of work and saying “Well, yours is the best. Here; have some publicity, some accolades, and a bag of money.”

What there does seem to be is a great deal of posturing. People joining organizations with the word “art” in the name and jockeying for position. “Hooray! These people, who coincidentally need membership fees in order to keep their organization afloat, have designated me a Professional Studio Artist and juried me into their organization!” People writing reviews of shows on their blogs, including only their cronies, and sort of not mentioning the fact that their own quilt was hung upside down and they didn’t notice for an hour. People writing pompous opinions of what does or does not constitute Real Art. People having vicious arguments on mailing lists, or hosting exhibits in which they’ve glued fabric on ancient AOL disks and have strung the disks together with fishing line. “It’s a synthesis of technology and tradition!” “Check out my latest piece! I coated teddy bears with house paint, laid them on fabric, then ran over them with the steam roller I keep handy!”


More Serious Art.

Here is what I’ve learned: with few exceptions, nobody cares. Nobody is watching. There are many, many people creating artwork, and most of them are busy doing their own thing. We have to take care of ourselves. If we’re lucky, we get to connect with a few other people and we get to appreciate others’ work.

Do whatever it is you like. In a hundred years, it won’t matter one way or another. Exhibiting in Houston or not exhibiting in Houston probably isn’t going to affect one’s art career. If one is born female and one’s medium is fiber, chances are there isn’t going to be worldwide recognition from the Real Art World anyhow.

One of the things I like is having my work seen. One of my series is comprised of portraits of my son in various situations, both real and imaginary. It isn’t on par with Wyeth’s Helga series, but the boy and I enjoy collaborating and we both get a kick out of seeing his portraits published or exhibited. That’s the majority of my work now, while he’s young and enjoys it. If my work is shown at Houston, I can figure on 50,000-60,000 people attending. Of those, I can estimate maybe 25,000 will walk down the aisle with my work and maybe half of those will take a good look, and hopefully enjoy it or get a giggle. That’s 10,000-15,000 people I got to share some joy or a joke with. That’s probably far more than saw my work when it toured with Quilt National, much as I treasured that experience.

Alas, I wasn’t able to go to Houston this year. Actually, I could have gone but didn’t. My husband would have bent over backwards to watch our kid for a few days. Unfortunately, barring one of those statistically unlikely “Drop everything; you’ve won a top prize!” situations, going just isn’t practical when one has a kid.


These will no doubt get me barred from providing class cookies in the future.

IQF Houston often occurs around Halloween, you see. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that their target market is largely comprised of people with empty nests – women, middle-aged to elderly. They’re mostly white, mostly conservative. Not entirely, mind you; I always see a few men and some younger people when I’m at a show, and I don’t mean to imply that quilt shows are trying to exclude non-whites. The demographics may also skew depending on the region of the country. But mostly, when I go to a quilt show, that’s who I see: middle-aged to elderly women who probably don’t have kids at home. People who don’t need to worry about staying home for Halloween.


These cupcakes went to a party.


These cupcakes stayed home.

The Festival is wildly popular and, I assume, wildly profitable. The people who run it have quite a bit of practice and know what works for them and most of their attendees. It doesn’t work for me, though, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.

For example, going to the Winners’ Circle celebration on a Tuesday involves a day of flying, hurrying to the convention center, then having the next day wasted because exhibits don’t open until Thursday. The last time I tried it, my intestines were coiling up and threatening to spring out of my body during the award ceremony.


WiiMote costume

It would have been nice to have seen the show this year, but on balance I’m glad I didn’t go. I would have missed my son’s Halloween party, school party and costume parade, zombie dance number with his Cub Scout troop, and of course, Halloween. Kids grow up. There are a limited number of years when one can bake cookies for parties or make Wii controller costumes.


My kid is the one with the cone on his head. Of course.

The Festival will simply have to wait a few years.


Making goody bags for Halloween, part of my master plan for clearing excess junk and craft supplies out of the house.


The Cake is Not a Lie

Thursday, September 17th, 2015



I’m recovering from a shoulder injury, so I can’t yet do the things I want to do: paint, 3D work, stitch. However, I can put a shirt on without groaning and I can sort of type, so here we are. Let’s talk about the Portal party.

The boy just had a birthday, which meant that there needed to be a party. That’s one of the things you don’t think of when you’re longing for a little bundle of joy, that if you’re from a culture which celebrates birthdays, you’re going to be in the party business. It doesn’t matter how awkward your social skills are, how little you know about parties, or what your socioeconomic status is. When the kid gets old enough and his birthday rolls around, you’re going to do your best to dredge up some family or friends and come up with something vaguely cakelike, even if it means stacking up a pile of Ding Dong clones from the dollar store and jamming an emergency candle in the top.

Now, I don’t know anything about birthday parties. They’re a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why I’ve hosted some really bad ones. The worst was at a miniature golf facility. The “concept” consisted of hosting a few games of miniature golf, playing some arcade games, and hacking down greasy snack bar food inside the windowless, stained concrete cell grudgingly set aside for ingesting food. “No stress!” crowed my husband, “They’ll provide everything! You won’t have to worry or do any work!” Bless him. It sounded like a good idea at the time.


“Father, may I have my party here? I’ll be ever so good!”

We invited only two guests, one of whom was quite late. We waited. And waited. And waited. The other guest, who’d arrived promptly, was bored to tears. So was his family. So were we. (Actually, that’s a lie. I wasn’t bored; I was anxious and stressed out.) At one point I ended up watching the guest’s younger sister for a few minutes. You know how you can sometimes tell that you give people the creeps? Yeah. I severely gave her the creeps. She really didn’t want to be around me at all, much less alone with me, yet there we were, alone in the grease-stained concrete pizza cell. I edged over to the doorway and stood half in and half out of the room so I could plausibly make sure she was safe yet respect her need for space. Ghastly.

That party was beyond awful, somewhere in Dante-circle-of-hell awful. I wanted this year’s birthday party to not be awful. I also wanted to not have it at a facility. This falls under the category of “first world problems everyone should be fortunate to have”, but I’m tired of drumming up marginally interesting activities which fall flat (“Go karting! Laser tag! Indoor skydiving! Travel to low Earth orbit!”), haranguing people to RSVP, and hauling around a small mountain of food and cake and other nonsense.

No, this party would be at home. We’d provide food, entertainment, and relaxed hospitality and not worry over whether people showed up or not. It would be intimate, more modest, and hopefully more fun. We just needed some ideas.

I started poking around and found about the Game Truck. Boy, that sounded neat, like something a pack of boys would really enjoy. The Game Truck folks would quite literally bring a truck load of video games and consoles around to one’s house. We could herd the kids in to the truck, have them play video games until they’d lost thirty or forty IQ points, stuff some food down their gullets, then kick them out to the curb beside the forgotten garbage cans. Why not? Game Truck was well reviewed and their fees weren’t outrageous, given that a human being had to drive an entire truck out and manage a bunch of children for hours.

Unfortunately, we’d be paying someone to bring out a bunch of equipment we already had. The boy loves video games more than anything else in the world, so for years he’s spent every penny he gets on games, video consoles, and more games. We even have two copies of the much-reviled E.T. from 1982, courtesy of my in-laws. Well … how about hosting a game party in our house, then? How about bringing out ALL of the consoles and ALL the games?

My husband and the boy thought this was a great idea. Yeah! Games! Food! Young men  grunting at each other! Alright, then. That was settled.

Now we just needed a specific video game to theme on, something other than Minecraft. Minecraft is great, but as far as parties go, it’s been done and done and done. Enough pixellated blocks of cake have been served to blanket Mongolia. It’s the same with Space Invaders, PacMan, etc. “PacMan! We’ll cut a wedge out of the pizza and call it PacMan pizza!” Dear lord, no. Didn’t we get all that out of our systems in the 1980s?

No, the boys are transitioning into moody tweenagers. Hormones are coming on. They have an ever-greater urge to beat each other up without knowing quite why. They’re beginning to experiment with swearing and heaven knows what else. (“Boys, mind the swears.”)

It was time to go dystopian. Portal. Oddworld. Bioshock. (Big Daddy bento box, anyone?) Obscure would also be good. For example, a party themed around Soviet Arcade Games could be interesting.

So, Portal it was. Never mind the fact that the guests have been kept in tidy little nests of cotton wool and the Portal references went right over their heads. Kids can feel when something is thematically right. They can feel the respect. They can appreciate the Combustible Lemons and Companion Cubes. They can threaten each other with the lemons, even.

I sent out invitations and got to work. It was time to make some props.






I didn’t want to throw a Portal-themed party without portals. After all, the games are named Portal and Portal 2. One solves nasty little puzzles using portals. Also, portals make nice large wall/ceiling/floor embellishments, thus taking care of some of the party decor. Portals were a must.

Making them was straightforward:

  • Take photos
  • Digitally add orange and blue portal outlines.
  • Print the resulting graphics at human size or as large as one can manage. I pieced ours together out of 8 1/2 x 11” sheets of paper because I’m cheap.
  • Laminate the prints at an office or school supply store for extra durability, especially if they’re to be placed on the floor.

Voila! Portals! Did anyone notice them and think they were cool? Nope. But they made me happy.

Cake, cookies, combustible lemons



Cake – there are a jillion recipes for Portal cake out there. Some wiseacres have even made “cake” from meatloaf and mashed potatoes, thus ensuring that “the cake is a lie” and leading to hordes of groaning guests. This one was a basic chocolate with chocolate buttercream and grated chocolate. I suggest freezing the chocolate shavings before trying to press them into the frosting. I didn’t do that initially and I ended up with melted chocolate shavings all over my hands. I couldn’t let the dogs lick the stuff off my hands, since chocolate is bad for dogs, so I had to do it myself.

On second thought, maybe don’t freeze the shavings. Having to lick chocolate off your hands isn’t the worst fate in the world.


Portal cookie cutters – These used to be available from ThinkGeek, but have since been discontinued. They can still be found at the usual places around the web for often-ridiculous prices.

We included a few of the Companion Cube cookies in favor bags, despite my doing a crummy job decorating them. Not that it mattered – I don’t think the kids knew what Companion Cubes were, so I could have drawn a picture of Richard Nixon on them and they wouldn’t have known the difference.


Combustible lemons – The poster with Cave Johnson’s classic rant is available from a vendor on Etsy.

There are instructions for making combustible lemons out on the web, not that one really needs them: stencil a logo on a lemon and glue on the top section of a toy grenade.

The most difficult task was finding inexpensive plastic toy grenades. Sure, they can be bought on Amazon and eBay, but who wants to pay ten bucks or more for some chunks of plastic which will get sawn in half then thrown in the trash? Fortunately, some cheap grenade toys turned up at a party and costume store.

If I had it to do over again, I’d use stronger adhesive, maybe E6000. It was predictable that a group of young males would pick up the combustible lemons and start heaving them around, and the hot melt glue didn’t hold up well. Cave Johnson would have been disappointed in me.


Fan Art

There’s some wonderful fan art on the web. People have spent hours recreating signage from Portal, rendering significant quotes, or coming up with their own take on the Portal theme. It’s pretty amazing.

I printed a bunch out and used it on the walls as decoration. Afterward, since my son really loved people’s artwork, the prints went up on the wall of his room.

The Portal bookends, which can just barely be seen in the photo, can be found on Amazon or ThinkGeek.



Companion Cube cookie jar

If you’re going to have a Portal party, you need at least one Companion Cube. This cookie jar used to be available from ThinkGeek; maybe it still is. There’s no seal on the top of the thing and its lid rattles around, so it’s lousy for holding cookies. However, it does make a decent planter.



Potato battery

The GLaDOS quote/potato graphic is, or was, available on Etsy. The potato battery is, well, just a standard potato battery. There actually is a company which makes GLaDOS-like potato batteries. Alas, I didn’t find out about them until a day or two before the party.

Oh, lovely. My hand is going numb. Blasted shoulder injury. Will I finish typing this? Let’s see.


Surprise Deployment Device

I had mixed feelings about this. My goal with the decor and favors was to stick to Portal canon as much as possible and not “mom things up”. For example, sticking a bunch of orange gumballs in a plastic test tube and labeling them “Portal Pellets” is momming things up. There are no Portal Pellets in Portal. There’s very little food of any kind, except for the cake and some cans of beans. (And yes, before you ask, I did ask my kid if he wanted some cans of beans as party decor. He declined.)

I wanted some streamers, though. What’s a birthday party without streamers? Were there any streamers in Portal? Yes, as it happened, in Portal 2, GLaDOS obnoxiously plopped some confetti down a ceiling-mounted chute. Not quite streamers, but close enough that I could reasonably hang streamers and claim that it was sort of canon.

Making the chute was a problem, though. I considered spray painting a small laundry basket and hanging it from the ceiling, but I was running out of time and energy. In the end, I hacked away at a cardboard box, painted it primer gray, and stuck it to the ceiling with masking tape. “Surprise! The surprise is that I did a crummy job on the surprise prop!”

I don’t think the chute in the game is called a Surprise Deployment Device, though. I sort of made that up in case the guests wondered what the box on the ceiling was about. Sigh. I guess I mommed things up after all.



My metric for good party favors is whether the kids will have good, fairly innocent fun with them and the kids’ parents will barely speak to us once they see the contents of the bags. Things like whoopie cushions, gigantic rubber bands, homemade marshmallow guns.

I thought about sending the kids home with homemade potato battery kits. How bewildering would it be to open the favor bags and find a couple of potatoes, some copper and galvanized nails, and other bits of electronics? I didn’t get all the stuff together, though, so that didn’t happen.


Cans of silly string rebranded as repulsion and propulsion gel. I got most of the text from the Portal and Half-Life Wikis. I’m sure the guests’ parents found it all deeply disturbing.

CCchocolate CC2

Chocolate Companion Cubes – These were molded using ice cube trays from ThinkGeek. To make the cubes, I melted Nestlé white chips, filled a cube space about halfway, then shoved in a chuck of milk chocolate. I then topped the milk chocolate off with more of the white goo so it was covered and the Companion Cubes appeared uniformly white.

I doubt any of the guests discovered the milk chocolate inside, though, because the white chocolate/toxic Nestlé goo was so sickeningly sweet that it could instantly induce Type 2 diabetes.

PortalDevice1 PortalDevice2

Miniaturized Handheld Portal Devices – Picture this. Your kid has picked out cheap 39 cent toys for the party bags. You don’t want to say no, because the things are only 39 cents and they look fun, but they aren’t really consistent with Portal cannon. So you slap a bogus label on them and toss them in the favor bag, kind of hating yourself because you’ve once again mommed things up.


Ah, well. The kids seemed to have fun, or if they didn’t, they kept their yaps shut about it. They ate junk food and played video games for a few hours, then they went home. In another year, their parents will have forgotten about the stuff I sent home with them and we’ll throw another party.

Maybe next time we’ll theme on Little Big Planet. Sack people and prize bubbles everywhere … maybe a giant prize bubble piñata … yes … I can work with that.


Saturday, April 25th, 2015

Whee! It’s vacation photo time! Who doesn’t enjoy looking at the photos of random strangers and acquaintances?


My family and I went to Maui a couple of weeks back, sort of a short notice adventure. All of us were incredibly stressed out, so we put the bird and the dogs in boarding, threw some toothbrushes and swimsuits in backpacks, and headed for the airport.


These photos are in no particular order. Maybe that’ll spice things up. This one is of the western coast of Maui, shot from the top of Haleakala, more than 10,000 feet up. Note that we’re looking DOWN at clouds.


Looking into the crater at Haleakala. (Haleakala is a shield volcano.) One can hike the crater, four miles each way. We didn’t, though. The altitude and the cold were a bit much. “I sure am glad we walk three or four miles a day,” I told my husband in a congratulatory fashion as we huffed and puffed to the top of one peak. Just then, a younger couple came piling past us with no trouble, each carrying a child.


Jumping around a bit … Charles Lindbergh’s grave in Kipahulu, on the Hana coast.


The graveyard at Kipahulu. It seemed rude to photograph Lindbergh’s grave without acknowledging the others.


Driving on the south side of the island, edging around the base of Haleakala.


View of the coast from Kahanu Garden.


Suddenly we’re back on top of Haleakala, staring down into the crater. I’m sure others have said the same thing, but I’ll say it as well: it was otherworldly.


A bottlenose dolphin leaping gleefully into the air. At least, I assume it was jumping out of glee. Maybe it had a personal itch.


“Jesus Coming Soon”, signage on top of (presumably) a church in Lahaina. Very tasteful and subtle.


Just down the road from “Jesus Coming Soon” is the Jodo Mission, which purportedly has the “largest Buddha outside Japan.” Dunno; I haven’t gone around and weighed or measured all of them.



Seen on the Hana coast. There were a mind boggling number of waterfalls. It was almost literally the case that each time one would go around a jog in the road, there’d be an insanely gorgeous waterfall beside one’s car.


Whee! We’re back in Kahanu Garden, staring at a hut. Not sure what this one was meant for. My son used it as a place to shelter while picking grass from between his toes.


“Hoana – This grindstone was probably used to sharpen and polish adze blades.” Still in Kahanu Garden.


A fine view of the hills, a hale holding an outrigger canoe, and Pi’ilanihale Heiau, an ancient temple.


Back at  the Jodo Mission.


Lily pond at our hotel. The place was truly hellish, with five pools and a couple of water slides.


While we were in Lahaina, a cruise ship docked. I nicknamed it “Princess Cruises: Scourge of the Sea.” Its passengers weren’t intentionally rude, I don’t think, but they were mindbogglingly oblivious. They gathered all over the place with their little blue cruise ship shopping bags, blocking sidewalks and restroom entrances, and seemed impervious to phrases like “excuse me”. On the positive side, many of them made me feel downright svelte.


The Thrifty/Dollar rent-a-chickens. Actually, the chickens weren’t for rent; they just liked to hang out around the rental car place. They turned out to be handy. When we went to turn our car back in, I told my husband “Just look for the place with the chickens.” Immediately thereafter, we heard a hearty “Bacawwww!”


“Best banana bread?” Maybe. Or maybe they mean “Best Banana Bread” as a sort of brand name, not a claim. I didn’t care for it. It had the texture of a dishwashing sponge and an odd flavor. Perhaps local tastes are different. Me, I like to saute the bananas in butter and brown sugar before adding them to batter.


We saw many humpback whales, including a calf, his mother, and her suitors. Heard them as well. Marvelous. The last time I’d heard humpback whale song was on an LP my folks used to play while they’d pound alcohol. I much prefer the whales in person and without drunk people around.


Gatecrasher at one of our picnics. No biggie. There are crumbs and fruit enough for everyone.


Waterfall on the Hana coast.


Yet another waterfall on the Hana coast. Truly a hellish place.


View of some coast or other from the air.


Lily pond at the hotel.


We visited a whaling museum – or, as I liked to call it, “The Killing Museum”. I didn’t take too many photos. Turns out, after you’ve seen and heard whales in person, seeing the tools for killing and dismembering them is rather upsetting.


“Anger!” Clearly a modified sign, but I like the concept of angry coconut trees. My husband privately sneered when the park guide told us “more people are killed here by falling coconuts than by sharks”. “We had coconut trees all over the place when I was a kid. Nobody ever got hit by a coconut!” I didn’t argue with him, although I did quietly wonder whether the umbrellas we’d been issued would deflect an angry coconut.



Leaves and more leaves.


A gecko at the hotel.

One afternoon as we were splashing in a pool, the trade winds came in and caused the palm trees to thrash around violently. Moments later, I saw something small moving in the water. My policy is to try to remove insects and creatures from water if they’re alive, so I scooped the thing up on my arm, then climbed out and approached the pool attendant. “Um. What kind of critter is this?” I gestured at the thing clinging to my arm. “That’s a gecko.” “Oh. Where do they belong?” “In the bushes.”

I bent over sideways and tried in vain to get the creature to climb on to a convenient bit of shrubbery. It refused, and in fact snuck across my back where I couldn’t reach it. “Do you need help getting it off?” the attendant asked, “It seems to like you.” “Well, I guess I was better than the alternative of drowning.” “It was sweet of you to save it,” he replied, in a tone of voice which implied just the opposite, a tone which implied that he frequently sees geckos and they’ve gotten on his nerves, maybe started haunting his dreams even, and it would be nice if all the damned things drowned in a swimming pool. Nevertheless, he pried the gecko off my back and put it in the bushes.

“That was good luck,” my husband informed me later, “saving a gecko is good luck.”  He isn’t normally a superstitious person, but geckos are evidently a different matter. He lived in Oahu as a child; some local beliefs must have seeped in.

Later, while I was sitting outside by a lily pond, another gecko came tooling along the sidewalk and paused to study me. “Watch out,” I told the gecko, “People are coming. They may step on you.” The gecko moved away from the center of the sidewalk, then skittered toward me. “You have a nice face,” I informed it, then took the photo above. The gecko bounced up and down a couple of times, then ran into the bushes.

When I told my husband about this second incident, he exclaimed “Two geckos! Or maybe it was the gecko you saved from the pool! You’re going to have all kinds of good luck!”

I think I already got a good dose of luck when I married him.



Out and about

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

I walk three or four miles a day. When you walk three or four miles a day, sometimes you see stuff.


Dog butts. I see a lot of those. Only one of the dogs in this photo is ours, the rust-colored weiner-basset. The other two are a neighbor’s, although the terrier in the upper right is doing a good imitation of moving in with us.



A cat taking its ease. Turns out that cats who are taking their ease really don’t like to have their photos taken. After shooting me a dirty look, it ran off.



Somebody played dress up with their flamingo. I admire their style. I have weeds in my yard, too. Maybe I should get a flamingo and dress it up?



Shockingly nude manikins at Weird Stuff Warehouse. I guess the featureless expanses of lumpy plastic offended someone’s sense of decorum.



A pumpkin vine hanging over the top of a six foot tall fence. That’s a pumpkin with aspirations!

Alright. Blah blah blah, I’m in this exhibit and another exhibit, have stuff in a book which just came out, and am working on some projects. Can’t write much about that stuff, though, because the video/display on my computer keeps going amok. It’s a known issue with this type of computer. Hopefully Apple will address the problem without my having to open my wallet. In the meantime, it’s about time for things to go haywire again, so sayonara.

Forty Years of the Utah Teapot

Thursday, March 5th, 2015


A couple of weeks ago, after dropping my kid off at a Laser Quest birthday party, I ventured across the street to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It’s a marvelous place, the Computer History Museum, and if you’re ever in the Bay Area and have any interest in computers, I urge you to visit. Their exhibits span the range from slide rules to robots to modern day computers, with many pit stops in diverse topics such as punch cards for weaving Jacquard, guided missile systems, and video games. While other museums may have ‘a’ something-or-other, such as ‘a’ key punch machine or ‘a’ Babbage Difference Engine sandwiched in with other science exhibits, the Computer History Museum has a broad range of ‘a’s and ‘the’s. As in “Wow. That’s the original Pong Machine that Al Alcorn stuck in a bar in Sunnyvale, complete with crooked name plate.” Or: “Wow. That’s a chunk from the ENIAC.” Plus there’s a neat gift shop with nerdy stuff.

One of the museum’s ‘the’s is the Utah teapot, the one digitized by Martin Newell back in 1975. Holy cow! Has it really been forty years? Well now, that’s something worth celebrating, so I did. I came home and whipped up the graphic above, which is based on Martin Newell’s original pencil sketch of dimensions and a rendering of the resulting model. Oh, and I may have used some artistic license as far as aging the paper and so forth; I wanted to call to mind da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. In reality, Newell’s sketch is very tidy, executed on decidedly unstained quadrille paper.

Happy birthday, Utah teapot, and a big thank you to Martin Newell for sharing his work with the world.

The Utah teapot is something of an icon to those who work with 3D graphics. As the story goes, back in 1975 when Martin Newell was “a member of the pioneering graphics program at the University of Utah”, he needed a “moderately simple mathematical model of a familiar object for his work.” He was having tea with his wife at the time, and she suggested modeling their tea service. He did and, in addition to using the teapot for his own work, shared the data set with others. The rest, as they say, is history.


Since then, the teapot has become a beloved icon to many of us and something of an inside joke. It has appeared everywhere from test renders to papers submitted to SIGGRAPH to films such as Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Even Homer J. Simpson has had his teapot moment! Not bad for a humble white teapot purchased from a department store.


The teapot is of course not Newell’s only accomplishment, just the one most familiar to many of us. He’s had a long and productive career. However, it’s a bittersweet fact of life that we don’t get to choose the manner in which we’re remembered, if we’re remembered at all. Per Tom Sito’s Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, “When Newell spoke at a SIGGRAPH conference in the late 1980s, he jokingly confessed that of all the things he has done for the world of 3D graphics, the only thing he will be remembered for is ‘that damned teapot’”.

I think I could make my peace with that.

Pinewood Derby II

Sunday, March 1st, 2015


This happened yesterday. The boy’s witch’s shoe car, which I wrote about in the previous entry, picked up an award at the district Pinewood Derby. “Best Design That Is Not A Car”.

We were incredibly proud of him. Of course, I just had to sermonize on the way home. “See? If you work hard and you’re persistent, sometimes it pays off.” Then, about two minutes in, I thought better of it. Let the kid enjoy his trophy in peace. Not every darned thing has to have a moral.

The hardest thing, though, was keeping my blasted mouth clamped shut before the awards were handed out. You see, I saw a fellow take cars up to the announcer. One of them was the boy’s. Five cars – five awards. Hmmm. Perhaps I was mistaken? Perhaps the man was taking all the cars up so they could be handed out and admired one at a time, regardless of whether they’d won? Best to keep my observation to myself.

The boy’s prize was the last style award handed out. He was ricocheting around with tension by then, desperately hoping to win. Everyone wants to win. I reminded him of that fact, that all the boys there had worked hard and wanted to win, and we needed to applaud their efforts. Probably I sounded like a parrot in a bad pirate movie. “SQUAWK! CLAP AND SMILE FOR OTHERS! MOMMY WANT A CRACKER! SQUAWK!”

But then his car number and name were called, and he did win, and for just a few minutes he had the world by its tail. And I got to be there and see it.


Here’s a big thank you to Pack 492 of Cupertino, which hosted the event. It’s a big darned deal putting on a function like that, involving everything from finding a space to run it to setting up an immense aluminum track and having staff on hand to check car specifications as they’re brought in. It’s no simple matter of throwing up a few lengths of Hot Wheels track and sailing the cars down, either. Today’s tracks are, I don’t know, maybe 30-45 feet long and employ electronic timers and computers for data collection. The setup can be finicky and precise, measuring times down to a thousandth of a second.

Pack 492 did a great job, and as a result all the kids and onlookers had a wonderful afternoon.



“Why Knot” plus Pinewood Derby

Monday, January 26th, 2015


I’m happy to say that “Why Knot?” will be at AQS Lancaster this March. I wish I could be there as well, but I hope that at least visitors will enjoy the piece. This is my first fiber piece which veers into using computer-assisted imagery rather than purely painting on fabric, and I used the opportunity to plant a few jokes in the background.

We’ve just finished up the Pinewood Derby here, an annual Cub Scout event in which boys prepare and race cars cobbled together out of blocks of wood. I always enjoy it because, since I don’t yet feel comfortable turning my son loose with a band saw, it’s an excuse to collaborate with him and work in a medium other than fabric or CG. (Whether he enjoys my working with him is quite another question!)

The Pinewood Derby began in 1953, held by Don Murphy, a Manhattan Beach Cub Master who wanted an “activity he could do with his 10 year old son who was too young to race in the Soap Box Derby”.

It was a clever idea, one which has evolved and endured. Today when one buys an official B.S.A. Pinewood Derby kit, one gets a block of wood about 7” x 1.75” x 1.25”, four plastic wheels, and four nails to use as axles. One can do whatever one likes to the block of wood  provided that the finished car weighs five ounces or less, is three inches tall or less, and conforms to a few other specifications.

The Derby is a nice opportunity to do a design and construction project with one’s kid, a project which has set specifications but which is also a bit free form. Thus, a few weeks ago, I corralled the boy and said words to the effect of “The Derby is x weeks away. What do you want to make this year?” He hemmed and hawed, then allowed as how he’d enjoyed getting a style award last year and he wanted to try for one again this year. He was thinking of doing something which wasn’t traditional, maybe a shape like a shoe.

Okay, a shoe. What kind of shoe? Whose shoe was it? Maybe he could sketch his idea out on paper? I gave him a piece of paper with the dimensions of the wood block outlined, and had him sketch his idea.


The shoe started as a nondescript garden clog affair. Over the course of a few more discussions and drawing sessions, it evolved into a fantasy design, a witch’s shoe.




Heel added


More pronounced witchiness


Final pattern for sawing

This would prove to be an interesting design to execute since the provided block of Pinewood Derby wood was too shallow. We would have to laminate another chunk of wood on top, which meant digging through my wood pile and doing some cutting and gluing.

Since I’m paranoid about the boy having an accident – he’s a little too interested in things like axes and chain saws for my taste – I made the cuts with the table saw and band saw myself. Maybe next year he can make a car with the scroll saw. Although bandsaw accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, one has to work pretty hard to lose a finger with a scroll saw.

There was plenty of other work for him to do, though, sanding and puttying and painting. Provided that one’s Scout has patience and perhaps a parent to nag them into working a bit each day, some fairly decent results can be achieved. It also really helps if one has a spray booth, even if it’s just a cardboard box, which we do.


Here’s the shoe in its primed state, adding weights. The goal is to get one’s finished car as close to five ounces as possible without going over. Sometimes that means adding weights;  hiding them can get to be a challenge. Our plan was to cement the weights in place inside drilled holes, then putty and sand over them. As a side note, if one uses Revell’s round chassis weights, they can be cut in a matter of seconds using a bolt cutter. It’s far, far less taxing than trying to hacksaw the blasted things!


Here we’re testing and weighing potential accents before adding wheels. Note that the holes where the weights were inserted are all but invisible. I guess I should be ashamed to admit that I had all of this stuff, the ribbon and flies and pumpkins, on hand. However, my philosophy is that you never can tell when you’ll need a glow-in-the-dark plastic fly.


The finished shoe. We unfortunately didn’t tune the car up before the race, doing things like insuring the axles were in straight, so it placed in the middle of the pack. However, it did receive a style award for best workmanship, which is what the boy had really wanted. He even had a back story for the shoe, something about a bunch of flies using it to smuggle pumpkins for making pumpkin stew. There were also tons of other fun entries made by other boys, including a sailing ship, a pencil, and a box of french fries.

Here are our entries from last year, the boy’s Gravedigger and my ant car, Mandiblur, for the family competition. We seem to have a black theme going. I can hardly wait for next year’s Pinewood Derby!