Monday, December 19, 2011
The doors opened into a large circular room with a high-domed ceiling. The room was all built of wood, and was old enough that trails through the room had worn away from centuries of children's shoes. Two staircases curved around either side of the room, leading up to a balcony. Around the walls were inlaid scenes from children's books-- Treasure Island, Beatrix Potter, The Wizard of Oz, Alice, perhaps two dozen in all. These were made from thin slices of chalcedony, malachite, turquoise, jade, and the like, cut to shape and chosen individually because of the surface pattern. These, too, were polished only near the bottom where children could reach, and especially near the faces. The staircase banister was carved in an Art Nouveau style, all leaves and gently diverging curves.
This room, and all the rooms in the store, were full of toys, to the point of being almost crowded. They were organized by some kind of theme that only the owner knew-- kites, sleds and flying toys in one section, blue things in another. I can't begin to describe everything that was there. What I remember mainly are glimpses, and by this point only the glimpses that I've remembered many times before remain.
In the corner of the main room by one of the curving staircases stood a suit of polished full plate mail and helm, just the size of a child. The metal had been ribbed in such a fashion that it was very strong, despite being pounded to incredible thinness to reduce its weight. By adjusting the straps and through clever design of the joints, it would continue to fit a child almost to adulthood. I am not sure what kind of metal it was made of; it gleamed like silver but was even whiter to the eye.
Floating near the cupola roof (painted to look like the night sky, with constellations and tropic lines marked out in gold leaf), were flying machines of all types and sizes. Sailing ships suspended from balloons bumped against robotic armored coelacanths that swam through the air like some Devonian sea.
Through the stained-glass doors at the back of the room was a library. The bookshelves were tall enough that a walkway had been built halfway up to give access to the higher shelves. In the center of the room stood a large dead tree that had been lacquered and carved so as to create dozens of places that were comfortable for reading. Smaller branches of the tree ended in tiny electric lights in the shape of cherry blossoms on adjustable stems that gave off warmth as well as light. One of the books I pulled down was a pop-up selection of tales from the Arabian Nights. The pages themselves were made of brass, and the act of turning a page wound a spring inside that animated the cutout tin actors. Each page opened into what resembled an opera stage, with layers of flat scenery from front to back. The book had a strong metallic smell that recalled the taste of blood on my tongue.
A castle, built of real stones and grey bricks the size of Pez candy, sat under the display window. It was furnished with dollhouse furniture (some of it from quite the wrong period) with drawers that opened to reveal tiny cooking utensils, or the Queen's jewels. The blacksmith's shop was especially impressive. Surrounding the castle were thousands of toy soldiers from the Napoleonic era, all hand-painted, complete with working tiny metal cannons that used small firecrackers to fire rubber cannonballs.
There were dolls dressed in dyed Japanese silks, satin, velvet, fur and taffeta. One type of dolls had joints contrived so that they could only take natural poses, and would hold any pose fairly tightly. If you took the hand of one and pulled it in some direction, the rest of the joints of the body naturally moved so that it looked as if the doll were reaching towards the point the hand had been dragged to, and the other arm moved in such a way as to retain balance. On a high shelf stood a Japanese samurai doll made of a rich red wood. By clever manipulation its limbs could be rearranged and it would take the form of a Chinese war vessel with ribbed sails like dragon wings.
In the topmoset of the drawers was a box labeled "Steam Man of the Prairie." In the box was a doll resembling the Tin Man from the wizard of Oz. When a small candle was lit and placed on his back, he would walk along dragging a wagon behind him and sending up puffs of water vapor with the sound of repeated sighing. (His hands were firmly attached to the cart, and I doubt he could have balanced without it.)
There was a portable, folding artist's desk, well-used, and stained where paint had been brushed off the edge of paper pinned to the surface. Hidden compartments could be accessed by sliding secret panels, revealing soft pencils, kneaded erasers, papers and canvas, watercolors, pastels, oil paints, a wide array of brushes, a compass and many other art supplies.
In a small side room were Christmas decorations, the only part of the store that wasn't actually for toys. It smelled of pine and cinnamon. One ornament in particular I recall: it was a delicate filagree of spun silver, framing a silvered, partly covered bowl that was tilted forward inside. Through a hole in the top of the bowl, by some trick of optics, a winged angel appeared to hang in midair, lit from behind by a dazzling halo. What I remember best of all was the particular startled expression on that angel's face.
There was a large Chinese cabinet, with a screen of carved dragons. In its numerous drawers were all kinds of magic tricks. One was a wand of yellow ivory, carved with intricate symbols and nested spheres. It emitted some kind of heavy gas (supplied by a removable canister) that burned with a blue flame. If you held it over a table and tipped it a specific way, flames would spread in a growing puddle about a half inch above the table's surface. The flames strangely gave off no heat. Another drawer contained a mechanical dragonfly with eyes made of cut garnets, but I didn't see whether it could actually fly or just flap its wings.
There were stranger toys, too, that I hardly know how to describe. One of them was a kind of oversized helmet attached to a microscope. It looked like it had been built around 1930 of largely cast iron parts. When you slipped under the helmet, you were surrounded on all sides by projections of the microscopic slide. Each hand controlled one probe, and foot pedals would cause you to soar around the scene. To enhance the effect, variable speed fans blew wind in your face as you flew from one place to another. Looking at leaves or microorganisms with this would have been fantastic enough, but on one of the slides, an entire miniature island had been built from tiny bits of moss, insect parts, and grains of sand, including ruined cathedrals and sprawling treehouses.
The back wall of the balcony was for board games. Most seemed to be unique handmade games, but some were familiar: there was a copy of Cathedral, I recall, which struck me as a little out of place because I had seen advertisements for it. One of the board games was in fact a type of treasure map, and following its instructions would lead you to a series of clues around the landmark buildings in the city of London that pointed to a the location of a mazelike key and a buried chest. What was in the chest was a mystery, though the game hinted that it was something precious and indescribably ancient. The centerpiece for this section was a mechanical chess game on a raised platform, like an altar. The chessboard formed the top of a box about six inches high, filled with small gears and rods. A placard said "D-- W--- watchmaker 1867." Indicator arrows on the sides allowed you to select the location you wanted to move a piece to, and each time a square was selected, those pieces which could move there would turn their heads to look at it. If you then tipped one of these, it would move to the square and attack, swinging its tiny arm and sword. The defeated piece retreated off the board, whirring and ticking. After checkmate, a music box would play, and the winning King and Queen would waltz around the board while the other pieces stood at the sides and turned their heads to watch. Before a game the box required quite a bit of winding of a handle on the side.
It would take quite a while to tell you the rest of it: the clockwork sauropods, the marbles that shone like stars, the collapsible fort, the musical kites-- and my very favorite of all, the toy that I actually brought home, the Friendly Mammoth...
Posted by D at 6:50 AM
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Kepler has discovered a planet in the habitable zone of its sun-like star. It has a 290 day year, and a temperature of 22C, assuming a greenhouse effect similar to Earths (though with a thicker atmosphere, it is probably much hotter.) The planet has a radius 2.4 times that of the earth. This probably means that it has significant amounts of hydrogen in its atmosphere and has a deep ocean on its surface, covering all the land in miles of water. It's probably better to think of it as a warm Neptune than another Earth.
A few other facts:
- It is about 600 light years away in the direction of the constellation Cygnus.
- Its star is 25% cooler than our sun, but the planet orbits 15% more closely than Earth, so it works out temperature-wise.
- There are conflicting reports about the surface gravity. It is definitely higher than Earth, but the exoplanet catalog lists 4.84g, while Phil Plait estimates 2.4g, so I'm not sure what to believe.
- Kepler has found another 1000 planet candidates since the last update in February. They've been confirming the Kepler finds with Spitzer, and found that all the ones they've checked so far were real, so the error rate on Kepler detections is probably very low. Of these, I would estimate they've found more than a dozen new candidates that are at least as good as the five near-habitable ones they announced in February, but they haven't given any details about these yet. The conference is still ongoing, though, so there may be an announcement this week.
- Here is a nice summary image of the confirmed planets found so far by all methods:
Posted by D at 4:14 AM