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Open the Floodgates!

So I finally cracked the seal on the iTunes Music Store and purchased my first whiff of digital nothingness... no case, no pompous photo montage, no lyrics or liner notes - just the songs on my hard drive. I bought 2 full albums, confirming their marketing research that most of us suckers won't bother to comb through the 12 tracks on an album to screen out the duds at 99c. each, if we can just pay ten bucks and get it over with; (thus saving ourselves the crushing disappointment of realizing that tracks 3 and 11 make us alternately pee ourselves with disgust and/or loathe our instinct for ever buying what was - for a time - damn near free.)

Just for the record, my selections were pretty safe: Sting: Sacred Love and Rufus Wainwright: Want One. Does it mean that I am now hopelessly over the hill that there's not a rocker to be had on either album? Am I so task oriented that I now only listen to music that can seductively harmonize in with some other activity, like typing or trimming pots? Will I ever listen to an entire Pixies album again all the way through? Sigh.

In any case, so far I'm not [yet] disappointed. I'll have to burn cd's to listen to in the studio, as things are still decidedly analog amongst the clay dust, but I don't have to rip the originals to get them onto my other machines or iPod. Decent trade-off. No wait time from Amazon; better price; dropped right into iTunes like a dream. Some questions about the DRM copy protection scheme linger, and I have to begrudgingly admire the evil genius behind Apple's help guide, which informs me in an offhand way that, should I unfortunately fail to back up my newly-purchased data and then suffer a catastrophic hard disk failure, I will have to "buy any purchased music again to rebuild [my] library." So not only did I just buy some non-physical information, but I bought it once. While they've certainly logged this transaction into their omnipresent customer database, and could easily retrieve it (and probably identify my preferred flavor of ice cream) even 20 years from now, if I ever lose that file I'm screwed. Score another one for the RIAA...

... I wonder if each new recording contract specifies a smaller cut of the profits for the musician from the sale of a downloaded album than a physical one?
~ scott @ 10:48 AM [link]
Learning For Fun and Profit

It sure is fun to watch beginning students start to "get" throwing pots on the wheel. The most gratifying moment is to see them take a big leap forward based on a small suggestion. It's also really interesting to see how different people learn, and at what speed, and their reactions to the process. Some peopIe seem very confortable with the newness, the not-knowing part, while others get frustrated quickly and resent the steepness of the learning curve. I leaned towards being the latter, always afraid to look dumb at something new, not really patient or embracing of the challenge. Perhaps I'm still that way, just with enough increased social composure to hide it better.

I still have very little idea why some people are innately better at throwing pots than others, why it comes with such ease or difficulty. Some students start out looking like they have zero dexterity or aptitude for it, then jump ahead; others start strong and seem to improve very slowly, even given similar amounts of help and practice. Reminds me of my freshman year Calculus teacher explaining to me that college wasn't about learning facts, but about learning how to learn. Ron Smith, smart man. The advantage seems to be people who understand their own learning process through having learned a lot in the past, even if it's a subconscious awareness.

One of my students correlated learning to throw with the idea of establishing patterns in neural pathways from her psychology class, and it's really intriguing to me to wonder at all the physical and chemical changes that go on inside a person as they learn something new. If you add in the idea of muscle memory - that your body learns things so that you can repeat them later without conscious attention to it (like touch-typing or tying your shoes) - it creates a picture of an extremely complex software/hardware interaction going on. I like the idea of both things happening; that there are physical manefestations of acquired concepts and vice versa.

While I'm years past those initial stages with throwing, I can seriously relate to their experience as I start playing bass again after a long absence. It's like my fingers vaguely remember the motions and where to go on the neck, but the more I consciously think about it, the worse it gets -- too much trying to override the existing muscle memory, I suspect. But the nice part is imagining that the little mental high that comes from getting into that playing zone is a result of heating up those dormant neural pathways again. There are parts of both my brain and my hands that recall how to do this, and are excited to get to do it again. That's a satisfaction feedback loop I can live with.
~ scott @ 3:46 PM [link]
Recommended Reading: Ceramics

I'm occasionally asked for book recommendations on ceramics, and have been meaning to create a page on my St. Earth site about it. Meaning to.... which means, as usual, that it's a great idea that may never get its fair share of my attention. So, in the meantime, here's some info from recent email correspondence:

The problem of reference material in ceramics used to be finding any; in fact, I think it's hard for this generation of potters to appreciate how scare even simple glaze and firing information was to come by through the 1950's. Today, the problem is the exact opposite: there's so much information out there that it's hard to choose where to start or what to invest in. It seems that every year there are more books published, and there are now something like 7 magazines devoted to ceramics available in the US alone. Whew! So here goes:

For the class I teach, I use Susan Peterson's "Working with Clay," although it may be too general or basic for people who have already started making pots. Beyond an intro book like that, it depends on what you mainly want to learn about: clay and glazes, throwing technique, aesthetics?

A great starting place, if you're tolerant of a slightly anachronistic view, is "A Potter's Book" by Bernard Leach. Thousands of potters worldwide got their start with this book, and it was one of the first that I read. While the technical details are nearly ancient (no plastic?? no softbrick?? ug.. the early 20th century would've been such a Thoreau-ian nightmare!), it is probably better at inspiring and showing the potential for handmade ceramics than any other book. I still get a little lightheaded reading the chapter Towards a Standard, and I'm sure I've read it a dozen times in the last 10 years. It has the authoritative tone that Leach perfected, and is backed up by the fact this this man undisputedly knew of which he spoke.

Any book by Daniel Rhodes is a classic, although they're starting to show their age a bit, particularly related to toxicity of materials (Robin Hopper recently updated "Clay and Glazes for the Potter"). Lark Books publishes some really nice titles, but they tend to be heavy on pictures and light on text. Krause Books usually have more substantial technical information, and feature an impressive range of topics by some very good authors, but some are low-quality print jobs (sort of a self-publishing feel to the layout, design and physical character of the book). For ceramics history, Garth Clark is sort of our de facto historian of record: "American Ceramics: 1876 To the Present" is a comprehensive survey, but with a price to match - see if your library has it. Of course, there are others that I'd put on a longer list, but that's good for starters.

For magazines, there's obviously Ceramics Monthly, but it can be such a mixed bag that there are months that I nearly throw it out in frustration. Who chooses these cover photos?! When it's good, it's good, but when it's bad...

On the other hand, I wholeheartedly recommend looking at back-issues of Studio Potter magazine, particularly if your library subscribes to it ( It's been published twice a year for 30 years, and is the best publication I know of for serious potters. Technical info is always comprehensive, the writing is thoughtful and sharp, and the profiles are genuine and informative, not thinly veiled self-promotion. A subscription isn't cheap, but with each issue containing a book's worth of good info and no ads, it's worth it. The back issues contain just about anything you'd ever want to know about making pots.

The best FREE reference is the Clayart newsgroup archive: OR (I recommend escribe because it's searchable.) A search on nearly any topic will return posts by a very knowledgeable group of potters. Like any newsgroup or discussion board, you'll have to overlook the clutter and perpetual pleas for glaze recipes, but there's so much good information from really experienced, generous people that the time is well-spent. If you want to answer a lot of questions on a small budget, start here! You can always get more detail from a well-chosen reference book once you know the basics (or the parameters of the subject). Some of these folks will even respond personally via email (or blog), go on at great length, and tell you more than you want to know - outlandish!
~ scott @ 10:10 AM [link]
The Onion Makes Me Cry

The Onion nailed it on this one -- prophetic cynicism at it's best:
Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'.

(thanks, helm...)

update (6.30.04): Now those f*ckers make me cry for another reason... subscription! Say it ain't so! I followed my own link to be presented with a page of other stories, then a snazzy green box of stories I could only read if I coughed up $30/year. What?!?!? Crap.
~ scott @ 2:06 PM [link]