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Let’s talk asphaltum!


Art — if you care to approach it that way — is a subject rich in many robust varieties of geekery. History, chemistry, exotic materials. I really am going to start an art blog some day, but in the meantime I’ll just bore you guys.

Take asphaltum. AKA bitumen or pitch. I was thinking about it today (as you do). In intaglio, it’s used to protect metal plates from acid — the design is scraped away with a needle before etching.

Mixed with linseed oil, asphaltum makes a beautiful velvety brown paint. Like dark caramel. It neatly mimics the appearance of Old Master paintings that have mellowed with age.

Joshua Reynolds experimented with it. That’s his painting of Margaret Morris at left (please not to be making eye contact; Margaret obviously has the crazy eye).

The highlighted area shows the reason asphaltum is naughty. It’s not really a pigment at all (technically, a pigment is tiny solid particles of a colored substance), it’s just a sort of hydrocarbon goo. It never dries. It doesn’t even try. So paint laid on top of it becomes more brittle with age than the asphaltum underneath and inevitably cracks. Oil paintings often crack, of course, but asphaltum cracks have a dramatic, distinctive appearance called alligatoring.

Asphaltum is so lovely to look at and the effect usually takes so long to develop, some painters wouldn’t give it up even so. Long about the 18th Century, some bright colorist wondered if asphaltum that had aged for a very long time until it was apparently dry and brittle might not be safe to use. Paint made from very old asphaltum was sold as mummy or caput mortuum.

They stopped selling mummy in the 19th Century because a) it didn’t work — it alligatored just as badly as fresh asphaltum. And b) word got around it was actually made out of ground up Egyptian mummies embalmed in asphaltum! And it was, too.

April 16, 2009 — 6:44 pm
Comments: 24

Ze Pelophylax ridibundus…eet laffs at me


In 1935, Mrs E.P. Smith, wife of the Member of Parliament for Ashford in Kent, decided to surprise her husband. And not in the usual way. She wished to buy him some edible French frogs for their garden in Stone-in-Oxney. Unable to find edible French frogs, she settled for a dozen Hungarian Laughing Frogs instead. No, I’m unclear on this thought process, too.

The buggers promptly escaped. By the 1960s, they had colonized the whole of Romney Marsh and by the…umm…right now, most of the Southeast Coast of England (and even beyond). As they don’t seem to be doing any harm, nobody cares.

Pelophylax ridibundus (the Marsh Frog or Laughing Frog) is a big blue-green warty fucker, up to six inches long. The little ones eat bugs and slugs, but the big ones can eat mice and voles(!).

As you probably guessed, what they’re really known for is this:


In marshy places, where there are many drainage canals, the chorus in high Summer is madhousish. Bedlamanian. I haven’t heard this in person yet, but Uncle B would pull the car over and hold the cellphone up for me to enjoy from my desk 3,500 miles away.

Badger House has its own contingent. A trio, to be exact, in the long canal at the back of the garden. Tonight, they tuned up for the first time this year.

Sheesh. And he complains about my banjo playing.

April 15, 2009 — 6:21 pm
Comments: 16

Help me out here, Mother


Is there any sight more heartwarming than an old lady and her coon?

Yeah. I have done exactly jack shit today (that’s bugger-all to our British friends), so here’s a photo of my mother and friend that I ran across unpacking. That’s the last in a long series of pet raccoons she raised. It’s no longer legal to keep them on account of the rabies risk, but it was then.

My mother was extremely good with animals, but a raccoon makes a dangerous pet (and she had the scars to prove it). They’re very smart, very bitchy when they grow up and they have opposable thumbs — or as near as dammit.

They also like to shit high. After Mother died, I discovered the architectural high points of the house (the balcony, the sills) were a rich treasury of dessicated coonshit.

Who says I didn’t inherit anything?

April 14, 2009 — 7:35 pm
Comments: 18

I’ll take ‘things that blow up in your face’ for 500, Alex


In my own defense, I didn’t think the gas would actually come on unless you held down the ignition button thingie, so I might have been a leeetle careless about, you know, hitting knobs and stuff. So when I lit the burner several minutes later and that giant orange fireball blew out the oven…boy, was my face red. And most of my right arm, also. But, hey — no scars, the stove still works, and I didn’t burn the house down. So win, win really.

Anyhow, it puts me in mind of our latest political scandal over here. Have you guys followed this thing? Righty Britblogger Guido Fawkes (whom I really should blogroll, since I read him) got hold of some emails traded between two Labour operatives. Basically, these guys were sick of blogs beating them up and stealing their lunch money, so they decided to launch an attack blog of their own.

Two problems: one, they were totally making shit up. And two, they actually worked for this government.

As it happens, the blog never got off the ground (for reasons that aren’t clear). But the scandal is sticking to Gordon Brown like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like the Dean Scream, or Clinton’s “meaning of is” — not important in itself, but somehow a perfect crystallization of everything that bothers you about the man.

If you like this kind of stuff (and I love this kind of stuff), you can start here.

April 13, 2009 — 6:11 pm
Comments: 34

I procrastinate REAL good


The plan was, I’d spend the six months or so between getting here and getting my FLR(M) (the visa that allows me to work) putting together an illustration portfolio.

So…ummm…here’s what I’ve got so far.

Okay. See, I had to wait for all my art crap to get here. And then I needed a table to work on. And lamps. And shelves. And shelves mean a drill. And…oh, it’s just really complicated, okay?

Anyhoo! Have a lamb for Good Friday. I spent an hour watching this goofy pair nod off in the sun the other day.

April 10, 2009 — 6:55 pm
Comments: 35

Mommy, why are bureaucrats so fucking stupid?


I listened to Rhode Island radio streaming over the internet this evening (man, I love hearing about all those traffic jams I’m not sitting in any more). Midnight tonight, RI is hiking taxes, after which they will have the highest cigarette tax in the country.

Highest cigarette prices in the whole country.

Smallest state in the whole union.

Seriously, drive ten, twenty minutes (tops) in any direction and you’re in a whole ‘nother state. Can you guess what’s going to happen?

April 9, 2009 — 7:27 pm
Comments: 21

Pollarded? We were damn near coppiced!


We had a couple of trees pollarded this week. That one on the left? The thing that looks like a stump? That’s one. The tree on the right was pollarded some years ago.

Pollarding is a form of arboriculture practiced around these parts since the far off misty mists of time. You take a tree and lop it straight off about ten feet up from the ground. After which the cutoff bit explodes in new growth: long, straight new branchlets. After five or seven or fourteen years, you lop these off for firewood, or nice straight structural members, or weaving baskets.

Only some kinds of tree will put up with this abuse (ours are willows, I think) but, believe it or not, pollarded trees are healthier and live far longer than maiden (unpollarded) trees. They aren’t top-heavy, they don’t have gnarly branches to split off and they are apparently metabolically in a state of perpetual adolescence. It’s good for the ecowotsit of the forest, too: it lets light in for richer undergrowth and little animules. Hippies love it, though, so…grain of salt.

Coppicing is similar, but they slice off the trees only a couple of feet from the ground. This won’t do if you have livestock or wild deer that would nibble at any new growth.

Once trees have been pollarded, you can let them go wild again. This ultimately results in extraordinarily top-heavy trees and very, very little light penetration. Dark, creepy woods, in other words. Epping Forest is apparently like this. Some of the twisty, spooky trees you see in churchyards — where the upper branches writhe out of gnarly fists — were formerly pollarded.

We only have a small cluster of pollarded trees at the end of the drive, and we contemplated letting them go. But the lads talked us into having them done.

The lads. Yes. We has gardeners!

April 8, 2009 — 8:06 pm
Comments: 12

Did you know…

‘Ubuntu’ is Swahili for ‘no wifi’?

Okay, okay…Ubuntu is actually slipping into place much better than Fedora did (I hate to admit that; I was a Red Hat fan).

I nicked a castoff laptop from work which I’m trying to turn into a studio machine. But it’s 2:40 in the morning and that’s as far as I’m going to get tonight. I have come over unexpectedly shit-faced.


April 7, 2009 — 9:45 pm
Comments: 20

Death watch in the toilet


Not many mornings I wake to find myself in my underpants, balanced on one foot, cupping my ear to the wall.

No, seriously. Not that many mornings at all.

This morning, Weasel awoke to the cheerful clatter of death watch beetles eating Badger House. Xestobium rufovillosum is a beetle native to Britain that eats gouges into ancient wooden beams and taps out clickity lovesongs in Spring.

Usually, they come in to the house on fresh oak planks when they are still moist, and spend a few hundred years chewing neat holes and lazy channels in the structural members. Pretty much all ancient houses and churches have some woodworm damage.

Badger House has plenty. It’s just, we were hoping it was all old. Fresh woodworm is bad mojo. They are damn near impossible to kill, and subject to more costly quack cures than arthritis and erectile dysfunction, put together. (Which sounds really awful, you have to admit).

This particular woodworm is called ‘death watch’ on account of the clicking, which you are most likely to hear on still, quiet Summer nights. While you’re all sitting around waiting for Grammy to kick it. And so, by extension, the sound came to be regarded as an omen of death. But, really, omens of eating the fucking house down around my ears is depressing enough.

We have to get someone in to look at this or we’ll go howling psychotic.

April 6, 2009 — 7:02 pm
Comments: 32

Ain’t it GREAT to have them Bush goobers out of the White House?


Ain’t it great to have college folks in the White House agin! People who talk purty and have all that book-larnin’ about the sophisticated big-city ways of international diplomacy and sech like.

Okay, there’s no big color version of this one. I lost interest before I worked out all the picture problems, as we call them in the drawin’ trade. Frankly, I think it was freaking me out spending time polishing Her Majesty’s T and A.

Happy Friday, ever’body!

April 3, 2009 — 7:18 pm
Comments: 45