Monday, September 29, 2014

Music Monday: Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

My music playlist for work (editing science articles) is largely classical (small-c classical, because there is a heaping helping of Baroque, Romantic, and Modern in there, as well as big-c Classical).

Today was an intense day of editing thanks to computer blow-ups and the only thing that took the edge off was Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Have you heard it before? Probably not, unless you're a fellow orch dork/bando/whatever. You've heard the Wedding March from this set of pieces, for sure, though. Which is a shame, because the Overture is lovely and not half as overplayed.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Foodie Friday: Nutella Ramen

This post comes courtesy of my friend Breda, though Lord knows where she dug it up. Somewhere on the South Korean Internet.

I haven't tried this yet, but I'm keen to. Since you're only using the ramen noodles (NOT the ramen sauce), it's not that much different from a crepe or some other pastry except in terms of how it's arranged. 

Here is the original recipe from a Naver blog. My Korean isn't up to even the meager task of translating a recipe, and I don't feel like hounding my Korean-speaking friends about it, and of course the typical back-asswards Korean web design means I can't actually select any text to run it through Google translate. So your guess is as good as mine, because we're both working off the pictures here.

1. Heat milk on low, add Nutella. Stir until well-combined. NB I am down on my Korean enough to be 100% sure that this is milk (probably 1% or 2%) being used, not cream or something.

2a. Break your square of ramen noodles into a form suitable for dipping. Fry them to your liking (but let them cool before dipping.)
2b. Alternatively, prepare them as you normally would (i.e. with boiling water)  and then eat them + the Nutella sauce with chopsticks. 
3. (Optional.) Skewer some fruit of your choice. Serve with a white wine of your choice.

So it's more like a Nutella fondue than Nutella ramen, but "Nutella ramen" is just weirder and more eye-catching, don't you think?

We have oodles of noodles (and Nutella) in the kitchen. I think I'm going to give this a go sometime when JV isn't around to side-eye me for eating weird things. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Trek Thursday: Who Mourns for Adonais?

#54: Who Mourns for Adonais?

In case you forgot:  The Enterprise finds a class M planet without any intelligent life and investigates. Turns out this is the home of Apollo (and all the rest of the Greek pantheon), and he uses his electromagnetic powers to pressgang the crew into staying with him. Kirk won't have any of that and the Enterprise continues on its mission, sending yet another space species into space extinction. Good one, Jim.

Maybe it's just that this episode hasn't aged well. The "ancient astronauts" theory of old pantheons may have been something new and exciting back in the 1960s, but now it's just the punchline to an Internet meme.

This is also an episode Featuring a Female Crew Member and ugh, those episodes are always so, so painful to watch. It's like Sherlock: the best episodes are the ones where they don't have any women characters to write exceptionally poorly. Carolyn gets some good snarky lines in ("I could no more love you than I could a new species of bacteria!") but it's a day late and a dollar short.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What I'm Playing: 5 Back-to-School Tips for Habit RPG

I've mentioned Habit RPG before. I started playing about three weeks ago, and since then I've hit level 12, maybe even level 13 by the time this goes up. I've had a chance to really get a feel for how the site works and how to use it to motivate myself, so I figured I'd return to the topic in greater detail and give you some tips on how to best use the site to your advantage, especially now that many people are back in school.

1. Be Gentle With Yourself

I think there's a temptation, when the game (and the school year) is fresh and shiny in front of you, to add a whole slew of "dailies" and say, "Yeah, now I'm gonna stay on track!" For some people this works, but more likely than not you're going to hit a streak where you miss a couple. Before you know it, your HP has taken some critical blows but you don't have the 25 gold to pony up for a health potion. Then the temptation to cheat sets in, and you mark things done that you haven't done—or maybe you keep yourself honest, but you die (and lose a level and some equipment). That's not very encouraging, either.

In the beginning, don't overload your dailies. Keep them very low-key. Are you going to study French and calculus and art history one hour each every night? Well, good on you if you do, but it might be more prudent to have just one hour every night of studying something.

As you get better at life and school and studying, you can add more dailies and habits to keep yourself challenged, but you want to start out with attainable (though still important!) goals.

2. Schedule, Schedule, Schedule

When you add a task to your dailies, you have the option of selecting which days it applies. While most of my dailies are true dailies, I have some exceptions. I don't have any of my work-related dailies listed for the weekend; I have a weekly Monday and Thursday reminder to deposit money in my savings account and to post a Trek Thursday post, respectively. But "wash some dishes" and "drink 1 liter of water" are set to every day, because they need to be done every day.

When you add a new daily, by default it's set to seven days a week. If you want to edit anything about a daily, click the pencil in the upper right corner of that task's little rectangle. Then, select the days you want to be exceptions.

For example, maybe you have art history on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Let's say you get assigned a reading on Monday with a reaction or worksheet due on Thursday (so that you can all discuss it in class on Friday). This is a pattern that repeats throughout the semester—so you can choose one day a week and make that assignment a recurring task to accomplish on that day. On Tuesday, let's say, so that you get it done in a timely fashion.

That way you don't have to remember to constantly add a new to-do item every week, and you keep yourself on track to stay on task.

3. One Step at a Time

Dailies and to-dos can be broken down into checklists for each task. Check lists are a great way to keep a big project from seeming overwhelming. Every time you successfully complete one item on a checklist, you get partial credit; when the whole thing is done, you get the whole shebang.

If you have to write a report on Charles de Gaulle for French class, you could add "Finish Charles de Gaulle project" to your to-do list. That's great, but it's kind vague. How should you begin such a project? How much work does it really entail? It helps to break the project down into steps, something like:

1. Read Wikipedia article on de Gaulle; decide what events and time periods you'd like to focus on. (Military career? Presidency? etc.)
2. Head to the library and find some relevant sources.
3. More reading; take notes.
4. Write first draft; send to professor for corrections and suggestions.
5. Rewrite.
6. Insert a couple relevant images.
7. Submit final copy.

Or however you like. By breaking down the project into small, bite-sized tasks, it goes from overwhelming and bewildering to achievable.

4. When in Doubt: Habit

By far, what I use the most often on HabitRPG are the habits. They're more forgiving than the dailies, and they're more flexible. These are the tasks that you want to do regularly, but don't always, or that you can do multiple times in a day. There are actually a lot of clever things to be done with habits.

For example, all of my exercise-related goals are habits, because some days I do a lot and other days I don't do any at all. I also have multiple habits for the same activity, in increasing chunks of time (i.e. cycling for 30 minutes is one habit, cycling for 35 minutes is another, and so on up until cycling for 50 minutes). That way, if I only feel like doing a bit, I still get a reward, but if I do a lot, I get extra rewards: if I cycle for 50 minutes, I get to check off every cycling habit from 50 minutes down to 30.

Let's say you have a stack of French vocabulary flashcards with words you know you'll need to know for the midterm. You could make "review French vocab" a habit. Some days you'll go through the stack three times (three clicks on the habit!), other times you'll go a couple days without reviewing at all because you have other things you're working on. If you start skipping too much, the habit will go from yellow to orange to red, and then you can see right away that oops, you should review your vocab before you start on that calculus homework!

5. Play With Friends

What's more fun than playing a game? Playing a game with your friends!

While it costs cash currency to buy gems and start a guild ($5 for 20 gems; 4 gems to start a guild), creating challenges is free. A challenge is simply a collection of habits/dailies/to-dos that someone else has created.Some challenges have an in-game reward for completion, others are their own reward. You could create a calculus challenge for your study group, maybe with just the habit of "complete a problem set." Anyone on the site can join a challenge, and you can see on the challenge's blurb how well everyone is (or isn't!) doing.

Challenges can be associated with a particular guild, too. If you decide to donate to the site for some gems and start a guild for your calculus study group, then you can flag the challenge with the name of your guild and make it easier for everyone to find. Plus, then you all have a space on the site to chat and ask questions and help each other out.

But if you don't feel like starting a guild or creating a challenge, just getting your friends to play is fun, too! JV and I both play, and we help hold each other accountable for our tasks and to-dos, and remind each other to get things done. You can also join up in a party and go on quests together! (Most quests you have to buy with gems, but there are some that come out during world events, or when you hit a particular level.)

Bonus: the game is what you make of it.

The point of HabitRPG isn't for you to achieve a game designer's goal of beating a final boss or getting the best ending. The point of HabitRPG is to make your life better. It should be motivating and encouraging you, not stressing you out. The game is what you make of it. For example, I only have a couple of "negative" habits (gaming on the couch [as opposed to while I'm on the exercise bike] and reading junk news), but I hardly ever click on them (even though I engage in them a lot!). I also have those bad habits set up as rewards, so I can opt to "punish" myself by buying them as rewards. The only time I click them as bad habits is when I don't have enough gold to buy them as rewards. All of the rest of my habits are positive only.

That's what works for me: I know that taking massive HP hits because I got sucked into Diablo 3 or had a snack attack isn't going to be rewarding. Other people are more aggressive in their self-improvement. It's all up to you.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Custom Piece: William-Hazens Equation Bracelet/Anklet

This was a custom order from a long while ago. I swore that I had already written it up here, but apparently I never did. (This is before I started sinking my life and to-do lists into HabitRPG, I guess.) I know I put it off for a a week or two, as I consider it bad juju to blog about a gift before it reaches its giftee. I guess the craziness of a Swedish test at the time caught up with me.


Kris, who works at a small start-up, was tasked with shopping for a thank-you gift for their summer intern, a sustainable engineering student in Seattle (since she worked for them for free). Kris spotted one of my irrational memory wire cuff bracelets and sent me a message about the possibility of a custom order. I jumped at the chance because I love custom orders. I love the ideas other people have about math in jewelry and/or the challenge of working within a specific color palette. This piece had both.

As this intern had worked quite a bit with water pressure, Kris suggested the William–Hazens equation of pressure drop and shades of blue reminiscent of water. The equation actually worked out to a near-perfect bracelet length in both the numerator and the denominator—one of the constraints of using physical constants or ratios is that you don't have much wiggle room because you have very specific (and limited) numbers to work with, so I was relieved to see there wouldn't be much fudging with lengths. In addition to the blues, I added freshwater pearls as a neutral and also to reinforce the water theme.

If you care to check this against the above link, the strand with freshwater pearls represents the numerator (the three blue beads are the spacers between each digit). The strand with blue lace agate represents the denominator (Czech glass as the spacers).

The real fun in this piece came with representing variables. I've never had to do that before—usually I work with pure numbers. But the whole thing seemed empty without any variables, so I went a little more abstract with this piece. Those heretofore unexplained large glass beads represent those variables, and the faceted blue glass you see next to them function like carats, indicating the variable is raised to a power (a power spelled out by the rest of the beads). So (large bead)(faceted rondelle)(smaller beads) means: X (large) ^ (raised to the power of; faceted rondelle) 1.85 (smaller beads).

Hopefully that made some sense!

As I said earlier, things worked out to near-perfect length, but only near perfect. I know personal preference on this varies, but I cannot stand loosey-goosey bracelets. Lawyer Mom and I have wrists that are about the same size but anything I make for her is a good two inches longer than what I make for myself, and this came out more towards the Lawyer Mom end of the spectrum. I added a few links on the end so that it can be worn as a snug-fitting anklet or loose-fitting bracelet, whatever the mood and preference.

Fortunately everything in this equation is multiplied (except the ratio itself). As you all recall from math class, when two numbers are written next to each other (ideally in parentheses), then you should multiply them. I didn't have to come up with something else to represent addition or subtraction, and I think two strands is a great way to represent a fraction/division. Maybe I should invest in some neutrally-colored "+" and "–" beads in case of just such an emergency?

All in all, this was a fun project. While I don't know if I'll be revisiting the William–Hazens equation specifically, I'm definitely going to be cruising more equations and ratios to see what I can come up with!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Find: LeftBrainRightBrain

I am an incorrigible book lover, and like many book lovers I have a fondness for vintage books in particular. The older the edition, the better—there's just something luxurious and timeless about them. That "old-timey" atmosphere plus the obvious love and appreciation for science is what appeals to me about the pieces in fellow Mad Scientist of Etsy Heidi's shop, LeftBrainRightBrain. They hearken back to an era when science textbooks were still trying to figure everything out.

Vintage Vitamin E Illustration Pendant from LeftBrainRightBrain

In particular, I love the etchings used in the illustrations. There is something charming about an artist's rendition that a photo will never have, no matter how stunning the photograph may be.

1920s Vintage Botany Lotus Pendant from LeftBrainRightBrain

1896 Vintange Flower Anatomy Pendant from LeftBrainRightBrain

But Heidi carries a wider array of pieces than just ("just") science. Here and there you'll also find some cute retro illustrations.

1953 Vintage Singing Schoolgirl Ring from LeftBrainRightBrain

1960 Vintage Juicy Strawberry Illustration Pendant from LeftBrainRightBrain

And some creepy ones. Halloween is coming, you guys!!

1953 Vintage Children's Skull Illustration Ring from LeftBrainRightBrain

Vintage Biology Textbook Skull Keychain from LeftBrainRightBrain

And for the believers among us, some more esoteric, alchemical ones.

Vintage Chemistry Alchemical Tin Symbol Pendant from LeftBrainRightBrain

Vintage Chemistry Alchemical Copper Symbol Pendant from LeftBrainRightBrain

As you can see, Heidi caters to a wide variety of interests and fields in her shop! On the off chance there's nothing there that tickles your fancy, send her a convo—Heidi also does custom orders!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Trek Thursday: The Gamesters of Triskelion

#55: The Gamesters Of Triskelion

In case you forgot: Uhura, Kirk, and Chekov are abducted by brains-in-cages that collect specimens for their own gladiatorial amusement.

Putting gladiator-style combat into a credible sci-fi scenario is more credible of an idea than just a parallel Earth stuck in Roman times. Not that I'm naming any episode in particular...

I think, in a lot of ways, this episode is pure Star Trek stereotype. You've got dopey fight choreography, aliens who have ~evolved beyond the need for their brains~, Kirk romancing a green-skinned (or green-haired, in this case) space babe, and Chekov's accent. But beyond the stereotypical trappings there's not a whole lot interesting or unusual going on here. It's certainly not an episode that merits rewatching.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September Read Play Blog: Preferred Console

Read Play Blog is a meme about video games and books, posted every 16th of the month. Bloggers are encouraged to answer a discussion question, and recommend a video game that is similar to a book they liked. Hosted by Happy Indulgence Books and Read Me Away.

What is your preferred gaming platform?

Wow, ask me to pick a favorite child, why don't you? Right now I am playing stuff almost exclusively on the PS3, though I do a bit of Minecraft on my PC from time to time. But there is a soft spot in my heart for older consoles; if I had to pick a favorite I'd have to say the Dreamcast. It was a great little system and deserved to do better than it did. Unfortunately I don't know where mine is anymore, or where the games are.


Be it Dreamcast or Wii or PS3, I am a console girl through and through. There are certainly PC games I play and like (the aforementioned Minecraft; I played Diablo 2 on PC all throughout high school; Battle for Wesnoth took over my life during university), but I like keeping a minimum of things installed on my computer at any given time. I use my computer for so much, including work, that loading it up with games seems like unnecessary stress on the system. Do I have a poor understanding of how computers work? Probably.

Currently Playing

SO MUCH DIABLO 3. With Anlouise, my level 60 lady barbarian.

The gaming community seems wicked pressed about how D3 isn't like D2 and...I don't know. No, it isn't. But Blizzard managed to capture D2's button-smashing hack 'n' slash clickfest quite well in D3, and that's what's most important. Plus they axed a lot of bullshit that annoyed me back in the D2 days, like your limited inventory or not being able to unsocket an item. There were lots of great things about D2, but that was not one of them. There was at least that hack for PC that let you have an infinite inventory (infinitory?) and redistribute your skill points (I think it was called Golden something? I want to say Golden Sun but that's something totally different), but an annoying design is still an annoying design.

I do miss the skill tree, though, It was a fun bit of strategizing. And the Horadric Cube. What, you mean now I have to pay in-game gold to an almost-racist caricature* to upgrade my gems? Weaksauce.

*Recognize that voice? It's David Lo Pan!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Trek Thursday: The Galileo Seven

#56: The Galileo Seven

In case you forgot: A shuttle craft with Scott, McCoy, and Spock (and some other boring Enterprise crewmen) crashes on Taurus II. They try to figure how to survive and get off the planet while the Enterprise blindly gropes about for them in space. There's an obnoxious High Commissioner Ferris (Bueller? Bueller?) barking down Kirk's back the whole time.

This episode has a lot going for it, and I struggled a bit with where I should rank it. Part of the story—the stranded vessel unable to contact its blind mothership—is solid adventure/science-fiction fare. We also have some aliens for once that are neither more-or-less people nor ~beings of pure energy~: they're 10 foot tall, super primitive ape creatures. (I guess that makes them more-or-less people, but it's more of a stretch than you usually see in embodied TOS aliens.)

But it's not without its flaws, obviously. You might as well have titled this episode "Why Spock Isn't the Captain and Why Everyone on the Enterprise Deserves to Die." The former part of that title, at least, seems to be the purpose behind this episode. Unfortunately, while it's important (or at least interesting) to establish why someone as capable as Spock isn't the captain of his own ship, "The Galileo Seven" does that at the cost of making you hate everyone else and their stupidity. Since when did anyone on the Enterprise ever care about burying their dead? Why can't Spock just nerve pinch Mr. Broma to get him to shut up, already?

In the end, the bad outweighs the good, for me. There are a lot of "just okay" episodes of TOS that I don't remember well and don't mind rewatching (even if I don't enjoy rewatching them, either). But when I plowed through TOS again to write this, I definitely remembered this episode by title—and not fondly.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Pruning "Friday Finds" and Handmade Kokoba

I love to support fellow Etsy artisans. Whenever I find a shop I really love, you can bet it'll end up as a Friday Find sooner or later.

 But it would be naive to think that every shop on Etsy is a small, indie-operated business with just one or a handful of people. Etsy is a huge marketplace with international name recognition and there are resellers and wholesalers out there looking to bank on that name recognition to appeal to a broader audience. Etsy, of course, makes bank off of this. A small business can't list thousands of unique items at a go or handle 13,100 sales over the course of a few years—not when it's selling handmade clothing or jewelry, at any rate. But since their presence on the site benefits Etsy ($0.20 for every listing and a percentage of every sale?), they're not going away. A few, here and there, so that Etsy's reputation as a "handmade" marketplace isn't entirely laughable, but not the bulk of them. Never.

This is to say that a couple of shops that I've found and featured on Friday Finds I have, after some more detailed research (which I should have done in the beginning), decided to recant on.

I've deleted those posts from the blog and have submitted search removal requests for the URLs and search results to Google. Additionally, I will be more vigilant in future Friday Finds.

I also want to reiterate that all of the jewelry at Kokoba is handmade by me. Alone. Myself. Lawyer Mom handles most of the packaging and mailing (except the custom orders; I take care of those from bead box to post office, as it were), but I make everything. I buy my beads in small batches and, out of probably hundreds of pieces, have yet to create any identical pieces. Kokoba is not on the track to becoming mass-manufactured (well, unless I decide I want to sell some place like ThinkGeek or the IFuckingLoveScience store on my idea for a cash lump sum, but then you loyal readers would be the first to know after the ink was dry on the contracts) and you can rest assured that there is literally nothing else like a piece of Kokoba jewelry anywhere in the world.

And you can rest assured that, from now on, the Friday Finds will be better. They will be unique, indie, and handmade.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Music Monday: We Are Here

There is nothing I love more than sad lyrics paired with a cheerful melody. Except maybe sad Korean lyrics paired with a cheerful melody. (I'm a sucker for language practice, what can I say?)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Trek Thursday: Turnabout Intruder

#57: Turnabout Intruder

In case you forgot:
The Enterprise is on a rescue mission, and one of Kirk's old flames is in the mix. Turns out the rescue mission is a ruse that Kirk's angry ex cooked up so she could use old alien technology to bodysnatch Kirk and be the captain of a starship she always wanted to be (but can't because she's a woman, and it's hard to tell if she started out unstable or if being denied her dreams and goals made her that way), while Kirk himself is stuck being....a woman. Some court martial procedural stuff happens, Kirk gets back in his own body, and justice is served.

This is one of the weirder episodes of TOS when it comes to feminism: you can easily read it as condemning the damage that happens when you needlessly limit women's roles in society. You can also read it as a condemnation of women who ~want it all~ and can't be happy with the lot of "beautiful love interest" assigned to them. Considering the source, the intended message is probably the latter, but I'll still choose to interpret it as a sci-fi statement about the importance of women's lib.

All the same, it's another bodysnatchers episode, and again it's frustrating that after all this time it's not immediately apparent to everyone that Kirk is not himself. Also, watching Shatner act out being possessed by a woman is one of the most eyeroll-inducing performances he's given.

Memorable line: "Believe me, it's better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman." (I feel like Roddenberry meant this in a very different manner than I'm taking it, but still, it stayed with me.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

First Job: Lost River Caverns

I wouldn't have remembered that Monday was Labor Day if my American friends on Facebook and elsewhere hadn't (unintentionally on their part) reminded me of it. Truth be told I'm glad to let most American holidays and observances pass me by, unremembered. But Natalie used the occasion to talk about her first job so I thought, hey, I'll do that too!

Discounting under the table work and tutoring, my first real job was one I would keep for nine (!!) years (off and on): all-purpose wage monkey at Lost River Caverns in Hellertown, PA. I have words to use, but I think some pictures would be better at setting the mood.

Art Skool Damage has a charming collection of images. For some reason I really like looking at other people's vacation photos of my old workplace!

Anyway, what you maybe can't tell from these photos is that they also are a full-blown lapidary and jewelry-making supply store. Wire, beads, drill bits, cabochons, sheet metal....if you need it to make your jewelry project, they sell it or will gladly order it for you.

I started out as a tour guide for the cave part of the attraction. Luray Caverns or Mammoth Cave it isn't—I would tell people on my tours that the cave is just a baby cave, "only" 200,000 to 300,000 years old—but it's full of beautiful formations and a fair amount of history.

Over the years I gradually took on other duties until I got a lateral promotion to the store (though I still gave tours in a pinch whenever it was necessary). For a while I was what's called in Korean army slang a zzam: someone without any official power or authority on paper, but some level of unofficial authority in practice. (Mostly by virtue of being a tour guide for a billion years and being a college grad working with kids still in high school.)

Like I said, the store is full of arcane jewelry-making stuff. But what got the most spotlight in the store, in terms of jewelry supplies and floorspace, was beads. Looking at all those beads during my downtime or while I was working on the sales floor eventually got me into making jewelry. For a year or so I just made stuff for fun: stuff I liked and wore. Then the idea for math jewelry took me by storm. Kokoba opened shop in 2008 and I've been making number jewelry ever since. In case you wanted to know how I got started, now you do!

Working at Lost River Caverns was fun. Obviously, or I wouldn't have kept coming back every summer! The pay wasn't the best (no tour guide job pays well, we appreciate tips, thanks much) but as you can hopefully see from the photos it's a surreal time warp with its own roadside America road trip charm. Many of America's privately-owned caves are, actually, and I love them all from the bottom of my heart and wish them years of success and many satisfied customers. I love their earnest insistence on being what they are and nothing else. 

The people who worked there were great, too. My bosses (the brother-sister pair who own the whole shebang) were extremely easy to work under and are interesting and knowledgeable people in their own right. Discussion fodder included Monty Python quotes and zombie apocalypse plans as often as it did concern over the spread of White Nose Syndrome or how best to set a stone in bezel mount. Fellow employees were equally offbeat and I'm still friends with many of them today. Like, not just Facebook friends—real friends. Even like a second family. It's a very self-selecting crowd who works there for any period of time; everyone has some intangible weirdness in common.

The job itself was also loads of fun. I loved helping people (most people, some customers were insufferable turdbuckets) shop for jewelry supplies and giving them suggestions or tips on bringing their ideas to fruition. I guess my middle school theater ambitions never quite died, because I also loved being a tour guide and cracking jokes and entertaining and educating people about caves, and this particular cave, and rocks, and so on. 

The best tour I've ever had, by the way&mash;as in, I've been a paying visitor to another cave—was probably at Secret Caverns in upstate New York. That's the only time I've had a guide who seemed like he was coming from the same weird mixture of nerdfun (caves are cool! science is cool!) + deep capitalist wage slave despair (I'm tired and I want to go home) + dry sense of humor I think characterized most of my tours. 

Once in a while I entertain the fantasy of living out of a Winnebago, just wandering all over the United States being a gypsy cave tour guide. Not often, but sometimes. Maybe it can be my retirement plan if Sweden doesn't pan out.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Birthstones: Opal (October)

October's child is born for woe,
And life's vicissitudes must know,
But lay an opal on her breast,
And hope will lull those woes to rest.

 Opal is a really fascinating gemstone, both in appearance, composition, and history. You can pick it out right away by the brilliant play of color that is the trademark of (one of) October's birthstones:

One reason that opal is particularly interesting is that it's the first birthstone in this series to not be a proper mineral.

A mineral has a uniform, organized structure throughout the entire specimen. One bit of a mineral looks largely like the next. Quartz is Si04 all the way through, ruby and sapphire are Al203 all the way through, and so on.

Opal is classed as a mineraloid—as being almost a mineral. It does have bits and pieces of regularity, but they are not found overall. Instead, an opal's crystal structure (such as it is) is akin to marbles in a vase: globs of order and structure (silicates) with bits of empty space in between. As it is hydrated, some of those gaps in between the marbles are filled with water. From 6%–10% of a given opal's weight may consist of water, though it can be as low as 3% and as high as 21%.

It is the space between that is the opal's favorite Dave Matthews Band song creates the brilliant play of color so renowned in opal. That space distorts and bends the light, resulting in a variety of different colors. You can think of an opal as an aggregate of lots of little prisms.

Microscopic silcate beads in opal.

The name "opal" likely can be traced to the Sanskrit word upala, meaning "precious stone." It comes to us today from Sanskrit to Greek (opallios, now meaning "color change") to Latin (opalus) to Middle French (opalle) to English. Because of the multitude of colors found in it, opals were thought to be comprised of many other precious gems, as Pliny the Elder wrote:

Made up of the glories of the most precious gems, to describe them is a matter of inexpressible difficulty. For there is amongst them the gentler fire of the ruby, there is the rich purple of the amethyst, there is the sea-green of the emerald, and all shining together in an indescribable union.

Opal was a popular stone among blondes, as it was thought to be a remedy against darkening hair. It was an opal ring that granted invisibility in the tale of Gyges, and thereafter in Western thought it was associated with invisibility.

Something like 97% of the world's opal supply comes from Australia, and the stone has long been treasured by Aboriginals. They associated the stone's rainbow flashes with their creator god (who originally came to Earth on a rainbow) and outcrops with opal became sacred ceremonial grounds. However, those were not the opals that Pliny the Elder was writing about; early sources in Europe often came from what is today Hungary, and then from Central America once the Age of Exploration was well underway. The world's earliest opal artifacts (dating to 4000 BCE), meanwhile, were found in Kenya, with opal from Ethiopia.

For a short while, opals were considered an unlucky stone, thanks in large part to Sir Walter Scott's 1827 novel, Anne of Geuerstein. One of the main characters, Lady Hermione, wore a beautiful opal in her hair whose color change matched her mood. After meeting some holy water, both Lady Hermione and the stone became nothing but ash.

This image lodged itself in the popular consciousness and the market for opals plummeted. This decline wasn't helped by the fact that people at the time had no idea how to properly care for opals; more than other precious stones, opal was prone to cracking and breaking, always interpreted as an ill omen.

But opal's beauty is hard to resist. With the discovery of beautiful black opals in Australia in 1877, the market revived. Shortly thereafter, Australia overtook Hungary and other European suppliers as the world leader in opal production.

I'm writing about opal in a general sense, but there are many different types of opal. There isn't any particularly type of opal that is specifically the birthstone and there isn't too much difference between types beyond coloration.

There is white opal, the most common kind of opal. At a distance, it looks more or less white (except for any color play). White opal accounts for about 60% of the world supply of opal.

There is black opal, which looks much darker at a distance. The play of color on black opal is saturated and striking.

A type very similar to black opal is boulder opal. It gets its name from the ironstone boulders it forms on, and is only found in Queensland, Australia. Boulder opal on its own is quite thin, so it's always cut with a bit of the ironstone boulder left on the back; often there is also ironstone matrix throughout the whole cut stone.

If any of the first two types of opal have unusually transparent bodies, they are referred to as crystal opals.

Outside of Australia, the Mexican fire opal has become popular. Its play of color isn't as dramatic as specimens from Australia, but the colors are often fiery reds, oranges, and yellows (hence the "fire" appellation).

Any kind of opal whose play of color is more subdued and less brilliant than average is referred to as a jelly opal. An opal without any play of color at all is called common, or potch opal. Potch opal comprises 95% of the opal mined, worldwide.

Another cool thing about opal is that it is often a replacement medium for fossils. You often find opal in petrified wood (which is to say, you often find opalized wood) and other fossilized things, including ammonites.

For some reason I never knew this until a few months ago. You learn something new every day, or something.

Because the most beautiful opals command high prices, there are of course different methods of synthesizing or imitating opal, or just reducing the cost.

If you delve at all into the online opal mines you will find people discussing doublet and triplet opals. These are slim pieces of opal epoxy'd on to a backing: sometimes potch opal, sometimes another darker, sturdy stone, sometimes black glass. This is a doublet (as in two layers, or double). A triplet is a doublet with a dome of quartz affixed to the other side of the opal—3 layers. This has long been a common way for people to create affordable, opal-like jewelry.

Opal has been synthesized since 1974, and the practice continues today, Lab-grown opals can be distinguished from natural ones by their play of color (it is much more regular and symmetrical, with larger color bands, in lab-grown than in nature). Natural opals also fluoresce, while lab-grown ones do not.

 Many, though not all, synthetic opals are more properly called imitation, as they contain ingredients not found in natural opals (plastic stabilizers, primarily). An even lower-budget imitation opal is just colored foil under glass. This was a popular choice for costume jewelry, especially during the Art Nouveau movement.

Opals also require some more care and attention than other birthstones. They benefit from lots of contact with skin, as they are hydrated mineraloids; without periodic exposure to moisture, they tend to become brittle and crack easily. They are also sensitive to sudden changes in temperature or humidity. Solid opals are not damaged by being submerged in water, but this should be avoided with doublets and triplets.

There are some misnomers out there in the world. "Opalite," for example, is not opal but is a glass imitation with similar play of color. "Sea opal" is merely sea glass. "Slocum opal" another glass imitation opal, though it less popular these days than opalite. They are all quite lovely, but intentionally marketing them as genuine opals is a pretty crappy thing to do.