Jan. 14th, 2017

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I’m not sure if I mentioned it a while back, but I had been searching for a chalkboard for years... a real chalkboard... heavy, porcelain, professional grade. It was certainly a fool’s errand to find something affordable (they kind of started at $600 and the cost of shipping implied they were warehoused on Neptune or some fucking thing). They were plainly out of reach financially for me, not to mention the difficulty in justifying such a purchase to myself. At one point a year or so ago, I went to the physics department admin and asked if they knew of a source of chalkboards. Their only suggestion was to talk to the facilities folks at the university because chalkboards are still used throughout the institution and probably need to be replaced from time to time (plus the university seems to be building new buildings all the time, so they have to outfit the classrooms and labs therein). I never got around to talking to them, but a couple of months after that conversation, the admin pinged me and asked me if I still wanted a chalkboard. The cost? Haul it away! Suweeeet! It turns out the post-docs sardined into a room together wanted to ditch it in favour of a whiteboard. Their loss (whiteboards are terrible things that are smelly and hard to maintain, and proceed from nice to suck over the course of a year or two in my experience). I checked it out and it was, in fact, a real (and startlingly heavy) one and I said I would certainly take it. Life does work like that for me on a regular basis, and I try not to depend on it, but part of how it works is just to recognize opportunity when it pops up and to take a chance on the outcome.

For over a year now, I have had a lovely 4’ × 4’ professional green chalkboard on the wall in my bedroom (I think there may be some pathology associated with such behaviour, heh). It’s a real pleasure to work with and I find it allows me to be very creative with my ideas (and not just for math or stuff... scribbling on a chalkboard helps me think and focus). When I brought it home (I had to get a friend with a pickup truck to help, it’s crazy heavy and way too big for most cars), I picked up a starter set of Prang chalk from the local office supply store and a standard felt eraser. Well, I was pretty underwhelmed with the feel of the Prang stuff and the felt eraser worked but left a lot of residue. I did some research on chalks and found that the ultimate chalk company, Hagoromo, had just folded after 80 years in business. One mathematician stated the following:
There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists.
So that wasn’t going to work for me... at least not in the long run. More research and enter the Nihon Rikagaku company of Japan. I read several articles that stated they have a great product; but when I researched the company, I found that they were interesting in other ways as well. In particular, 70% of their employees have “intellectual disabilities” (about half of which have severe impairments), and they have been employing people that were seriously marginalized in Japan for the past 57 years. There’s some interesting stuff on their web site on the topic, and I’d recommend it as reading if you’re into disability rights and such. So, I ordered a few packages of chalk to try them out and I can say that they are much nicer to use than the first box of chalk I brought home! They are also made with calcium carbonate (calcite limestome) rather than gypsum (calcium sulphate) which most modern chalks are made from, which gives it a nicer feel and makes the dust a little gentler if breathed in ;). The stuff was available from Amazon, but it did take a couple of months to travel across the ocean from Japan, so be patient if you want to go that route as well!

All well and good, of course, but I had this crappy eraser see... I mean it was okay, but... not great. Again, I did some research and ended up back at Nihon Rikagaku. They make a corduroy chalk brush that I know I’ve seen in manga that I have read (they are, apparently, a major brand in Japan... although I cannot attest to that having never been there). The shipping was just about the same and took two months to arrive, but it showed up a couple of days ago... and prompted this post today :). Compared to the felt eraser, the new one is a dream and leaves barely any residue on the chalkboard! What residue that remains is a lot finer and fainter than the best I’ve been able to do with the felt eraser.

So, chalkboard, chalk, and eraser... life is good right? If we are only looking at the experiential dimension of writing on walls, it is hard to imagine more joy than this (heh). But all is not well. Late in 2015 I became ill with some sort of crud. Turns out it was antibiotic resistant crud and it took until March of 2016 to get it under control (3 different antibiotics later). This did a lot of damage to my lungs and sinuses (mostly my sinuses, my lungs are mostly fine by now), and I am now extremely sensitive to many environmental factors that didn’t phase me in the slightest before then. One of my sensitivities? Yup. Chalk dust. So much so that I won’t be able to use the board in my room unless I set up some sort of dust filter/vacuum thing while I use it or wear a mask or some ridiculous thing. Argh. I may also move it to the basement if I ever get that sorted out, but it’s definitely a bit of a bummer. Another “environmental sensitivity” I developed? Coffee. I cannot drink coffee anymore as it causes near instant inflamation of my sinuses (it does not cause breathing problems with my lungs, but it can affect my hearing). Piss. Me. Off. But, I did survive... and I have an allergist appointment in March to see what we can figure out. I’m seeing a good ear, nose, and throat specialist as well (yay Canadian healthcare!) and think the whole fiasco is behind me (new sensitivities notwithstanding). I have only been using the chalkboard infrequently, but I am going to need to use it a lot over the next couple of months while I finish up my undergraduate degree(s) (freakin’ finally!). This obviously presents a challenge, but at least I have some idea of what I'm up against.

And I leave you with a followup dance performance by “The Agents”... I’ve watched it dozens of times since it came out and my mind is still blown every time!


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