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Thursday 22 March 2018

You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is, or at the very least was, undisputed.

King Arthur's Knights behold a vision of the Holy Grail. Detail from an Illuminated manuscript ca. 1405-1407

The Austrian Imperial Napkin Fold

 ☆ Oliver Bruchez [CC]
☆ Oliver Bruchez [CC]
To set the proper mood for Vienna’s crème de la crème of regal textile origami, here’s the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr. 

The Imperial Fold, deployed only for state occasions, arose from the Habsburg court sometime during the nineteenth century. You can marvel at these napkins/dinner roll snugglers at various museums throughout Austria such as the Silberkammer (“Silver Collection”) at the Hofburg Imperial Apartments in Vienna. The technique behind this art form has traditionally been known by only two people at any given time. That’s a little hard to take at face value, but in any case it remains a scrupulously guarded State secret.


A few years ago a certain “Joe Worm” surfaced on YouTube to demonstrate what he himself has determined, after lengthy study and scholarship no doubt, to be the correct process.

Now ideally one would start with a starched and pressed linen, but here he settles for a limp, wrinkly cloth scrounged from the kitchen for his napkin and the hardwood floor for his tabletop. Have you locked your doors and pulled down the shades? If so, here is Joe’s video. 


Naturally he heard from the constabulary.

Dear Mr. Worm,

I am a representative of the Austrian State Government. Please remove this video and terminate your account immediatly [sic]. Failure to do so will necessitate our Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism) to take drastic measures…

In all seriousness, thanks for figuring this out so I can sleep tonight.

Max Burns

Jamón ibérico de bellota

Might this be the ham that never saw a church potluck?

In the southern and southwestern parts of Spain you’ll find the black Iberian pig or pata negra. It’s relatively small and slow-maturing (for a pig, anyway), characterized by its ebony hooves and an enviable talent for growing tasty ribbons of fat between its muscle fibers. The breed goes back a thousand years and appears to have descended from a hybridization between domestic pigs the Phoenicians introduced during the Bronze Age and wild boars.

May I help you?
May I help you?
Anything sold as jamón ibérico must come from a free range pig of at least 75% pata negra gene stock. Ideally these sweethearts are raised on barley and maize for their first couple of months and thereafter left to roam freely and forage for acorns. They can be fattened later on with grain, but compromising their montañera diet like that will dilute the unique flavor and texture that the region’s acorns — holm, gall and cork oak, mainly — impart to their meat.

They stack the hams under layers of salt for 14 days to dehydrate them and then dry-cure them for 12 to 48 months in sheds high up in the mountains. However sinful its flavor may be, they say the meat’s fat portion is largely monounsaturated like olive oil.

All that tranquil puttering about in oak groves and curing sheds isn’t terribly cost-effective, of course, so the end product will set you back. North Americans seeking USDA-approved jamón ibérico from specialty food importers like Markeys will need to fork over $90 or so per pound (typically $900 for a whole ham) depending on the donor pig’s acorn history, though the 2009 Christmas season left Spain with a rare glut of ibérico along with lesser jamones that they were forced to unload at deep discounts and even in some cases give out free as promotions.

Libyan desert glass

Libyan desert glass of Tutankhamen (c. 1323 bce) ☆ Jon Bodsworth
Libyan desert glass of Tutankhamen (c. 1323 bce) ☆ Jon Bodsworth
In 1932 geologist Patrick Clayton, the same individual played more recently by Julian Wadham in the film The English Patient, discovered deposits of a chartreuse-colored glass in a remote area of the Libyan desert and managed to lug back 50 kilograms of it.

Normally it’s safe to assume that this sort of material is a form of obsidian, a volcanic glass used since ancient times for various ornamental purposes and to make super-sharp knives. Indeed there is some volcanism in that area.

But Libyan desert glass is very different. While obsidian averages between 50% and 70% in silica content, here we’re seeing about 98% which is equivalent to that of modern glass. Also, we now know through cosmic ray track analysis that LDG is about 28 million years old versus nine thousand or so for the nearby volcanoes.

If you rule out pre-human atomic warfare that pretty much leaves the heat of a meteor impact as the culprit. Glassy fragments formed that way are called tektites and you’ll find lots of them elsewhere in the world — that New Age favorite Moldavite being an example. But LDG stands alone in its chemistry, clarity and color. Clayton didn’t know this, but local cultures going back thousands of years had also prized it. Note the scarab in the illustration.

In 2006 a Boston Universiy team proposed that a heavily eroded circular formation now known as Kebira Crater may well have been formed by the meteorite responsible for LDG. It’s about 23 km (14 miles) in diameter, centered about 292 km (182 miles) due north of where the Egyptian and Sudanese borders intersect. Fire up Google Earth or the like and fly to 24° 40’ north, 24° 58’ east if you’d like to take a look.

Demand for a semi-obscure novelty like LDG from collectors and gemstone hobbyists is modest, so at the moment you can pick up high quality rough for what comes out to around $2000 per pound. My own favorite fantasy (I think it’s safe to assume no one has tried this yet) is to melt several pounds together, blend well, and cast from that a set of drinking glasses.

Fazioli Model F308 Piano

© Burnell Yow! of Raven’s Wing Studio
© Burnell Yow! of Raven’s Wing Studio
Say you aspire to build the ultimate, take-no-prisoners concert grand piano in terms of its tone quality. Hundreds of issues enter into this, but probably the first you’ll need to address is how to make its strings as long as possible.

One reason for this is that in order to generate the richest waveform a string needs to be struck very close to one end. The closer, the better. If A is the distance between a string’s tuning peg-side anchorage and the contact point of its hammer and B is the remaining distance from there to its other anchorage at the far end of the instrument, you want to minimize the ratio A/B. Mechanical limitations dictate that A can only be so short, so you’re left to do what you can with B.

The other reason is that for a given pitch, a shorter string sounds “noisier” in tone and less musical than a longer one. Technicians call this inharmonicity. This is also why the singing voices of children, due to their smaller vocal cords, typically sound sweeter and more bell-like than those of adults even if you disregard the pitch differences. Cute for glockenspiels and Charlie Brown specials but undesirable for concert grands.

Anyone who’s plucked rubber bands knows that the longer the strings, the harder you need to stretch them to maintain a given pitch. But right away you come up against the tensile strength of whatever you’re using, both in the piano’s strings and in that herculean metal plate or harp that has to hold all of them. A collective tension exceeding 200,000 newtons (20 tons) is not unusual. But at the same time it doesn’t pay to over-design the harp too much because, well, pianos weigh enough at it is.

Currently the grandest of the grands is the Model F308 by Fazioli of Sacile, Italy. As the number implies, it’s 308 centimeters long or a little over ten feet. Specialized computer algorithms allow the company to finesse the bejesus out of the geometries of the strings, harp, and other components to achieve that length and coax the absolute maximum out of the total system.

But storm clouds loom: Klavins of Bonn, Germany, claims to be working on a Model 408. If it had to rely on the same material for its strings as the Fazioli, which I can’t imagine, it would need to torture them with around 75% more tension. So… synthetic sapphire whiskers? Carbon nanotube composites? Stay tuned.

Old, old vinegar

You’d probably no more relegate 100-year-old balsamic vinegar to a salad than you would pour Manni olive oil into a turkey fryer. The classical balsamic — the only one legally marketable in the EU as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale — consists of Trebbiano and/or Lambrusco grape juices that have been gently boiled for 24-30 hours down to a syrup, filtered, injected with a starter culture, and then ritualistically fermented through a series of progressively smaller casks made of varying types of wood.

Aging categories break down into twelve years (labeled red), eighteen (silver), and finally 25 to 100 or more (gold). To give you some idea of this vinegar’s rarity and expense, the bottles you see in these photos are typically three inches (7 cm) tall and hold 2.39 ounces.

At the century stage the vinegar is thick, almost black, and entirely non-acidic with an intense, indescribably complex flavor. Connoisseurs dollop it gingerly onto meat or fruit or just sip it straight from shot glasses. Clans in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region have been crafting the product which now includes Il Grande Vecchio Mussini, Modena Extraveccio, and other brands for over a thousand years. (The oldest stock I’ve ever seen for sale purported to date back to the mid 1600s, though despite its age it was priced more in line with its century-only brethren at around $100 per fluid ounce.)

The Gömböc

 ☆ Gábor Domokos
☆ Gábor Domokos
In 1995 Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold set up two ground rules and conjectured that with enough ingenuity someone could design an object that would both satisfy them and always come to rest at the same orientation when placed on a flat surface.

The first rule was that its shape had to be entirely convex: a ruler would only be able to lie against it at a single point or at most a line segment — no valleys allowed. The second was that its density had to be constant throughout so that, unlike those self-righting clown toys, it couldn’t employ an offset weight of any kind.

After some false starts two Hungarian scientists, Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi, managed to machine a successful gömböc in 2006. Since that time they’ve produced them in a range of sizes and shapes and in several metal alloys as well as in marble and Plexiglas. (Like those transparent dice in Las Vegas casinos, the Plexiglas models prove to the world they’re not cheating with hidden weights.)

In order for the gömböc to do its thing its manufacturing tolerances have to meet or surpass one part in 10,000. This means you need to treat them gingerly since if they suffer the slightest chip or dent they run the risk of getting stuck during their self-righting processes. They’re precision novelties and their prices reflect that.

What’s so miraculous, if not downright spooky, is that whichever way you set a gömböc down it will always have enough kinetic energy to rock and swirl around on its own until it finds that resting point. The name gömböc (pronounced “gembets,” more or less, with a hard G) comes from the Hungarian term for a roundish dumpling. The plural is gömböcök.

There’s a far older geometric toy called a rattleback that exhibits similar mind-of-its-own properties when spun.


Elegabalus (203-222 ce)<br><span class="smaller">© Giovanni Dall’Orto [CC]</span>
Elegabalus (203-222 ce)
© Giovanni Dall’Orto [CC]
Most of us nowadays associate the word murrhine with that intricately multicolored glassware from the Venetian island of Murano.

But the real murrhine was a mysterious semitransparent synthetic stone that artisans fashioned into goblets and other tableware for the ultra-upscale market. It started out as a liquid that they poured into a mold and either baked or possibly left to harden exothermically on its own (like plaster of Paris or Portland cement). But the formula and technique got lost and forgotten sometime leading into the Middle Ages and the finished articles were so rare and precious that we don’t have any recognizable samples to analyze.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce) tells us in his Natural Histories “The chief merit of [murrhine vessels] is the great variety of their colors, and the wreathed veins, which, every here and there, present shades of purple and white, with a mixture of the two; the purple gradually changing, as it were, to a fiery red, and the milk-white assuming a ruddy hue. Some persons praise the edges of these vessels more particularly, with a kind of reflection in the colours, like those beheld in a rainbow.”

Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce)
Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce)
We also learn that although murrhine felt rather oily and emitted a characteristic smell, its connoisseurs savored those qualities also. Roman statesmen and other elites took enormous pride in their murrhines and dined and drank from them especially when they wanted to put on the dog. Nero even smashed a couple to show everyone who was boss. We know that crazed meteorite-worshiping, ostrich brain-eating emperor Elegabalus was also an avid collector so this extends the treasure’s survival well into the third century.

It’s quite possible someone will eventually dig up some shards of murrhine or glean some more details from the literature (there’s an ample backlog of carbonized first century scrolls waiting for restoration and decipherment, for example) and then we’ll have a better idea how and from what it was made.

The Edwin M. Stanton Fancy Back

 ☆ National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
☆ National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
Ah, yes, the days when money looked like money.

This one dollar U.S. Treasury note of 1890 isn’t the rarest paper currency of that genre — others exist in far shorter supply, such as the 1891 thousand dollar General Meade that changed hands for $2.5 million in April 2013 — but it’s quite widely acknowledged as the most legendary and as the most elaborately yet elegantly designed.

Despite posing the ultimate 19th century counterfeiter’s nightmare, the Fancy Back’s layout doesn’t even seem cluttered. Note the enormous dimensional diversity among the various elements on the front side and the overall squint-your-eyes density contrasts on the back. As with most paper currency the stock was 100% cloth pulp made, in those days, by grinding up scraps of cotton and linen purchased by the wagon load from rag pickers.


There would have been a devoted team of master artisans attacking a project like this. Some would specialize in portraits, others in the lettering or organic ornamentation, and finally engineering types who would design, build, and operate the geometric lathes. Through elaborate systems of cams and gears, these latter Spirograph-like devices drove engraving tools to cut the rosettes and other fishnet-like embellishments.

Millions of Fancy Backs were minted and circulated (a blacksmith in 1890 would make about $11 weekly), but it’s estimated that only 900 to 1300 exist today. Values nudge past $3000 for specimens in the very finest condition.

Note: A textual sockdolager like this should represent the ultimate challenge for an optical character recognition (OCR) application. Any takers?

The silent Messiah Stradivarius

Messiah Stradivarius<br><span class="smaller">© Pruneau [CC-BY-SA-3.0]</span>
Messiah Stradivarius
© Pruneau [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
Those fortunate enough to own stringed instruments from the Baroque-era Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari workshops are scrupulously fussy about who — if anyone — they allow to poke and prod them. Although much of their vaunted superiority would seem to stem more from cachet than reality (blind listening tests reveal them sonically indistinguishable from many of their top-drawer peers), there are many nuances in their physical makeup that do set them apart and make them exquisitely responsive to their players.

Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of press about the more finely packed growth rings in the spruce and maple available to those makers, owing to the Maunder Mininum’s reduced growing seasons between 1645 and 1715. Other articles have cited the effect of microbes eating away tiny resonance-encouraging voids in the wood as it soaked in the Venetian lagoons awaiting the sawyers, and the presence of finely pulverized grains of quartz, calcite, aluminum oxide (white sapphire), garnet, and/or other minerals in the varnishes.

More recently we’ve seen physics professor William Fry demonstrate how intimately attuned these makers were  to the way various twisting and pumping actions of the instrument’s body contribute to its sound. They modulated the thicknesses of the front plates in meandering patterns, and applied their varnishes in similarly uneven coats, both to optimize these quiverings and to compensate for the flexibility quirks of the wood that differed for each instrument.

Ornate tailpiece and tuning pegs added in the 1850s.
Ornate tailpiece and tuning pegs added in the 1850s.
About 500 Stradivarius violins survive, but among them the Messiah-Salabue from 1715 is unique. It was found unsold in Antonio Stradivari’s workshop after he died in 1737, and since at least the early 19th century it has scarcely been played.

You’ll notice from the photo that the C-shaped rims at its waist show no wear from errant bows and that it has no chin rest or E string tuner. The idea here has been to preserve one Stradivarius in as virginal a condition as possible so violin makers and other researchers will always have an exemplar to analyze. It’s on the second floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.


Teosinte ☆ US Department of Agriculture
Teosinte ☆ US Department of Agriculture
Maize or corn as we know it doesn’t exist in the wild and never did. In fact, if all the world’s corn farmers decided to desert their crops tomorrow and let them fend for themselves, the species would eventually vanish because it can’t self-propagate.

There are several wild grasses native to Mexico and Central America collectively referred to as teosinte [tay-o-SEEN-tay]. Their finger-sized ears bear a single row of tough-skinned kernels which you can either crack and feed to livestock or grind into flour. At a high enough temperature some will even pop like popcorn.

Florentine Codex <span class="smaller"> ☆ Gary Francisco Keller [CC]</span>
Florentine Codex ☆ Gary Francisco Keller [CC]
We’ve come to understand that sometime around 12,000 years ago the locals began to cultivate teosinte and over several millennia of selective breeding developed hundreds of varieties of maize — or what the first visiting Europeans called Indian corn to distinguish it from the other cereal grains (“corn”) they were already familiar with.

The various species and subspecies of teosinte and domestic maize belong to the genus Zea, maize being Z. mays. Teosinte tends to spring up around maize fields and intermingle itself with the crops. The farmers have divided opinions on that. If your’e interested in experimenting with teosinte you can now readily buy the seed. They say it can be stubborn to germinate — it evolved in the wild to survive the digestive tracts of mammals — but that a dilute hydrogen peroxide solution will speed things along.

Gaspard de la nuit:
Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand Euphony

Back when I was in high school I somehow wound up on a local TV quiz bowl with three of my classmates. One of the challenges put to us by the emcee was to identify Ravel’s Baléro. Though I was very faintly aware of Ravel I had never heard of that piece. It’s still hard to say whether that was good or bad.

Maurice Ravel himself expressed much the same attitude toward Baléro that Frank Zappa would echo fifty-odd years later toward Valley Girl: basically, total bewilderment that such a spur-of-the-moment trifle drew so much adulation.

But you’ll never hear that kind of talk from either side of the table about Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, inspired by the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). It was and continues to be one of the most astonishing, multilayered pieces of music a single pair of hands can conjure from a keyboard. It’s also widely cited as the most technically demanding in the standard repertoire. Here’s a YouTube video of its Scarbo movement, the last and most difficult of the three, played by Valentina Lisitsa  (whose parents originally intended for her to be a ballet dancer).

You can interpret the title as Treasure guardian of the night. The piece describes a water sprite in a tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a hanged man illuminated by the setting sun, and a gnome menacing someone in a dark room as they try to sleep.

In his book Mind Over Matters, Mystery Science Theater 3000 writer Michael J. Nelson shares his wry fantasies about being a popular college professor who rides to work on a reclining bicycle and, when the mood strikes him, inspires his protégés to ever greater transcendental heights with his own highly personal interpretations of Gaspard.

The Luck of Edenhall

 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
 ☆ The Victoria & Albert Museum;  ☆ Marie-Lan Nguyen [CC]
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Outside of County Cumbria in northern England you don’t encounter the word “luck” in this sense very often. Here it refers to a talisman, most typically a work of fine tableware in stone or glass, the breakage or loss of which will surely spell doom for its well-landed owners.

Of the many lucks and rumored lucks in the area, that of Edenhall is the best known and quite arguably the most remarkable. It’s a flared, riotously colored beaker about 16 cm (6.2 inches) tall and 11 cm (4.33 inches) wide at its lip, a masterful example of Islamic decorated glassware dating from the mid 1300s. Its earliest owner of record was Sir Philip Musgrave, a baronet and royalist politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1640 to 1643, kept a low profile under the Commonwealth, then served again until his death in 1678.

Eden Hall House in 1869
Eden Hall House in 1869
We don’t know how or when the Musgrave family originally acquired it. The story you usually hear involves fairies leaving it behind in a panic as they fled from a mortal interloper. Less imaginatively it was presumed to have been a souvenir brought back by a Crusader. Lately that idea hasn’t been holding up all that much better than the fairy scenario, though. The last Crusade ended in 1291 and modern analysis on the glass strongly suggests a date at least fifty years later.

The Musgraves guarded and treasured the Luck of Edenhall for generations until they fell onto hard times in the 1920s and passed it along to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Up until the time it got there it must surely have taken a few tumbles. The glass is pretty tough, though, and the family routinely kept it stored in a custom-designed leather case and took care to lay down something soft anytime it was brought out and handled.


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