So Long Mythbusters. Time For A New Mission

PP mentioned the other day what a friend told him in school. Apparently, his friend watched a “ ocumentary" on TV about mermaids. "They found a skeleton," he hold me with wide eyed astonishment. "Mermaids are real! Or at least they used to be. Maybe they're extinct.” This puts me in a tough place as a parent. I don’t want to squash is youthful enthusiasm by being the “well actually” Dad. I know I believed in plenty of things as a kid that I then grew up and realized were fictions. At the same time, this isn’t him reading a whimsical fiction book and mistaking it for reality, like I did with the beautifully written and illustrated Gnomes by Wil Huygen. Instead this is a case of a channel that otherwise pretends to be a dealer in facts, deciding to lie. If anyone believes it, they can just shrug and wink and make a off handed comment about people who “don’t get the joke.” In some ways, I’d rather deal with the little man being exposed to something he’s not ready for, than have to undo falsehoods that have the weight of a “documentary” behind them.

Now I get news, via southerfriedscience, of another "documentary," being put out by the discovery channel. They cover their lying butts with a vaguely worded disclaimer, flashed up on the screen in the beginning that doesn't actually admit that they made the whole story up. In fact they end it with "but we believe Submarine exists.”

"Submarine" is apparently the name given to this beast that everyone in the know know's is a hoax. In other words they lie. Then compound the lies by stringing together a bunch unrelated real research and actual, tragic, events to add the illusion of credibility to a beast that never actually existed, and they know it never actually existed. The fact that the events might be separated by 100's of kilometers and years in time in not just glossed over, it’s actively hidden.

Here's my thing. If you want to make a fake-u-mentary for "entertainment purposes," that's fine, but be honest that it's for entertainment purposes. We were never expected to believe that Spinal Tap was a real band. And before the producers at the Discovery channel put on a smarmy smile, roll their eyes, and point to a screen cap of their disclaimer-that-isn't-really-a-disclaimer, I'd like to remind them that not all of the people who watch that show can read. Even if they can, they might not be fast enough to parse your "it's not our fault if you don't realize you're being lied to" flash card, or they might have been looking away for the second of screen time.

I can remember losing several weekends to this amazing new cable channel when Discovery showed up on channel 15 oh so long ago. It was a network of science and nature shows like no other, and while it wasn't going to compete with the Cosby Show for ratings, I knew I could watch and learn and be entertained. In fact, it was clearly aimed at people like me; people who find learning stuff entertaining by itself.

It's not that network anymore. The only even vaguely educational show is Mythbusters, which our whole family loves. Unfortunately, I find myself feeling increasing guilty because by consuming it, I'm implicitly condoning the lying pack of lairs that is the network that hosts it.

The show has had a good run. I can’t help but feel as thought the recent announcement that Kari, Grant, and Tory would be leaving the show is something akin to a jump-the-shark moment. The show still has good ratings, and an avid fan base, but it’s not what it was at it’s peak, so the producers can’t help but start tweaking in what always proves to be counterproductive ways. Whether that's really what's happening, I don't know, but from the front of the screen, the reasons hardly matter.

Here's my plea. We need some millionaire who's interested in young people being inspired to actually learn real things about the world. We need him or her to show up at the PBS offices with a big fat check and say something like:

"Here's the deal. You take this money, buy out whatever contracts with Discovery you have to, and move as many of the Mythbusters talent you can get a PBS show. If you have to name it something different, that's fine, just give them free reign, and a good budget and you’ll do fine. If it has to be about other stuff than busting myths, that's fine. Discovery doesn't have the copyright on people building stuff and testing stuff in a light, entertaining, and educational way. Just get them away from those the drama-fab that is that other network."

You hear me Elon? You're still going to need new engineers in 20 years. Better start inspiring them now.

Cons of the 20th Century

Hello modern convention-goers. Gather 'round children, and the old man will tell you the tail of the

Conventions in Olden Tymes!

I don't think I could tell you the year that I first started attending conventions, but it was well before most Americans had heard of Afghanistan outside of history class. It was closer those heady, optimistic times when we thought we might actually have the guts to go metric. Attending conventions was different on those days, what with the long treks through the snow. That's the real reason we were called 'trekkies."

Just kidding, but it was different in those days. The movie studios hadn't yet fully realized that cons were a great way of marketing to their most dedicated fans. I don't know if I'd still call cons mainstream, but they’re WAY closer now than they were then. In those days tell your friends that you're on the way to a scifi convention, and you were pretty much guaranteed funny looks. And let's not talk about the bullies. Best to just avoid them the week after in case they got wind of your perversion.

The cons in those days didn't have nearly the range of stuff to cover either. There was Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who as the major franchizes, and that was about it. You might get a little booth put up by a studio to hand out buttons and posters for their new summer blockbuster, but was the limit of their involvement. There were many, many independent comic book stores with booths lined in long boxes, and the occasional bootleg Star Trek blooper real on a VHS copy of a VHS copy of a ... If you squint, you can just make out Shatner walking into non-functioning doors a hilarious number of times.

Oh, and cosplay wasn't invented yet. I can see your shocked faces. It wasn't that there were no costumes at all. There was usually a "costume parade" that gave you a sequence of men in bulky, hairy suits. Sorry, dressing as your favorite spandex-sporting comic book heroine was still decades away. Yes, you may cry for my deprived adolescence. You could definitely see the nascent glimmerings of the cosplay culture, but it was still a small and not terribly inclusive thing.

I can fondly remember sitting with my brother and sister in the balcony of the Roosevelt hotel during the charity auction of various swag and tchotchkes. Kathy had found a new game for herself. She was seeing how high she could get the bidding on the items without buying them. She did an pretty good job, although we did end up coming home with an inaugural bottle of Jolt Cola ("All the sugar, twice the caffeine!!!"). None of us slept well that night.

I kind of fell out of the cons scene when I went off to graduate school, and never really got back into it. I haven't taking the little man to any cons yet, although Maker Faire has a lot in common. I suspect the time is coming. Any recommendations for east coast cons that wouldn’t be too overwhelming for a first timer?

Review: Repello

Now that we're living off of one income, we've been trying to be good with our spending. Having someone who can start dinner before work ends (if it ever does) has helped us cut back on eating out. I've even managed to cut way back on my Kickstarter problem.

I'm still not above the occasional impulse purchase, however. We found a neat game on deep discount at Barnes and Nobel the other day, and couldn't resist. It's called Repello. The subtitle (if that's the right word for it with a game) is "A Game of Great Consequence." I think that really captures the game play. This is a game that really encourages you to think through the results of your moves, which is a skill we could all benefit from honing.

There are a variety of features to the game play that make it pretty unusual. The first is the game pieces. These are plastic spindles that cary plastic disks on them (see the gallery below). There's an ingenious protrusion near the base of the spindle that captures the second to bottom disk, holding all of them on except for the one at the bottom. When you move your piece, you leave the bottom ring behind. Once you put the spindle in it's final location, a little pressure on the stack then forces the next ring down so that it'll be the next to be left behind.

The second unusual feature is how you determine the number of moves. There are no dice. Instead, every square on the board has a number in it. You can move in any direction, like a chess queen, but you must move exactly the number of spaces as the number on the first square you move across. This makes the game entirely deterministic and potentially solvable, but boy would that be complicated. I haven't even gotten to the complicated part yet.

The entire goal is to capture as many disks as you can, which you do by driving them off the board. This includes the disks left behind by you or other players, other player's spindles, and special silver and gold disks that are placed on the board at the beginning and are worth extra points.

It's the way that you push the disks that makes things complicated. No two pieces (of any kind) are allowed to stay on adjacent squares. When you're spindle lands next to another piece. You have to move one of them (your choice) one square in the opposite direction. This doesn't amount to much early in the game, but as the players make more moves, the game board starts to get pretty crowded with disks, and you can make a single move that sets off a chain reaction that will ultimately effect pieces all the way across the board. That is where the real strategy comes in. Because you chose which piece to move, you can control the path of the chain reaction. Thinking ahead is mandatory.

In my opinion, this makes it a good game for kids. The rules are relatively simple and can be picked up in a few minutes. The real complexity creeps up on you as the game progresses. It teaches you to think critically about the consequences of your moves and visualize the future effects. I can absolutely recommend this game. We haven't tried it with more than two players yet (allows up to 4) but I suspect the game play gets even more fun with more people. For one thing there are more other players to try to knock off the board. There are some special rules about that I didn't go into, but it suffices to say that you don't want to get knocked off.

Summary
Game: Repello
Cost: $$
Players: 1-4
Play time: 10-20 minutes
Luck/Strategy Balance: 0 Luck, Totally Strategic

Crash

We've had a week with Youth Digital, and what a week it's been. My early morning writing has been regularly cut short by the pitter patter of little Java coders.  My wife came home on monday to tell me that she found him at summer camp teaching his friends the "Java Dance."

When you're dealing with a kid on the spectrum, you learn to accept that there might be some obsessions. I've decided that the best thing you can do is try to introduce them to things that are at least constructive things to be obsessed about. I'd count programming among those things.

The only problem we've been having arises when it's time to leave the obsession. After a couple mornings of total freak-out, we banned modding in the morning. It was just too disruptive to thewhole process of getting everyone fed and dressed and sunscreened.  

Of course, that didn't really help with getting ready for bed. The real issue I think has more to do with the negative relationship between executive function and sleep. The less he gets, the worse it is, and we've been living the last few days like there's a rabid bear in the house. To be fair, the parents haven't been getting enough sleep either, and it doesn't help our level of patience.  I'm sure we both could have dealt with the bear better.  

The whole thing came to a head Saturday, with much shouting and punishing. The bone of contention was that the parental units had decided that the family should take advantage of their Maryland Science Center memberships. The bear wanted to stay home and design another sword. It's just as well his previous sword was only virtual, or there might have been bloodshed. In the end, he lost Minecraft of any form (modding, playing, watching videos...) for three days.  

Ultimately, we made it to the science center in time for "Mess Fest." Although we spent much of the afternoon at the old favorites, we did manage to leave happily spattered in multicolored paint. The idea of mounting several small paint brushed on cordless drills and letting the kids go at a big sheet of paper was brilliant. I just might steal it. The bear was gone, and we had our little nerd back.  

On the way home, he lasted about a kilometer before zonking out. He woke briefly as I carried him from the car (I'm really going to miss being able to do that when he's too big). Then he was out again. To our shock, he slept right to bedtime, and then through the night. In the end, he got 12 hours sleep.

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The bear appears to be gone. Fingers crossed. We're sticking to Minecraft ban for a few days, and then we're going to limit with a timer.   

Youth Digital - There Goes Our Morning Routine

We’re in week two of me being home Dad. The first week went pretty smoothly. The morning routine was settled into almost immediately with me getting up at 4 and getting at much writing done before jumping out of my skin when the sound of “DADDY!!!!” echoes through the house. That’s the call for morning cuddles and a carry down the stairs. My heart rate has usually returned to normal and my fight or flight response has abated by the time we make it to the play room. I deposit his cuteness into his morning nest, and turn on the morning baby-sitter (aka PBS Kids) and start making “brekies."

I’d feel guilty about using a screen to keep the boy occupied, but have you seen the quality of children’s television these days? Think about it. You can still find Mr. Rogers on, but that’s about it. Sesame street is still around, but almost none of the segments from back then are being recycled. You know why? Because we were fed a lot of schlock. Or in the case of PBS, we were fed a lot of stuff that the experts at the time thought was “good and educational,” before they did real, longitudinal studies.

Have you seen “Martha Speaks,” or “Word Girl?” They’re better written than all but a couple adult sitcoms I can think of.

Anyway, back to the routine. Petie watches some TV while I make him some breakfast. It’s usually just toast, but at least the bread is home made. I also fire up the Keurig and make Mrs. ‘Struction some coffee. Some mornings, she’s down before I’m done, but lately I’ve delivered her coffee and toast to in bed.

Next comes The Making of The Lunch. Summer camp is providing lunch, so it’s just Mrs. ‘Struction who needs her bag packed. I’ve been sending her off with a reusable insulated tiger bag we got from the zoo with a kid’s meal: very professional. She doesn’t seem to mind, and seems to appreciate the notes I sometimes sneak in.

Then it’s helping Peter get dressed. Admittedly, that’s mostly a matter of throwing clothes at him and saying “get dressed,” but some mornings there are challenges. He’s VERY particular about his socks, and some mornings they are inexplicably wrong. Just wrong. There’s no other word for it. There is some fiber, or placement of a seam that he just can’t tolerate. This can be a real problem toward the end of the week, or when I haven’t sorted the laundry enough to ensure readily available backup socks. There are some mornings where it seams like there just is no sock in the world that doesn’t threaten to reduce his feet to bloody stumps within minutes if he didn’t whip them off. That’s what I infer from his reactions anyway. There is apparently some trick that Mrs ‘Struction knows to easing the socks on and “smoothing” them out, but I haven’t learned it yet.

The final ritual we’ve had is The Application of The Sunscream. That’s what we call it in this house anyway. It’s gotten better since he got old enough for Mrs ‘Struction to explain very calmly, while pointing to a mole on my back, that "Daddy’s going to have to have that cut off. It’s because he didn’t always put on sunscreen when he was your age.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Yes. A lot.”

Thanks. A lot. Like I said, things are better now, but it’s still not a pleasant experience. Can I just say that spray on sunscreen is a lifesaver? I mean, possibly literally since it lets us get it on him in sufficient quantities. Ditto with the big sticks. There’s much less struggle getting sunscreen onto his face with those. We’d use the sticks for his whole body if they weren’t so expensive.

Now for the disruption. We heard about Youth Digital from Julia. They have a set of online courses targeted to children, including modding Mincraft, app design, animation, and 3D modeling. We mentioned it to the boy, showed him the videos on their website, and got an enthusiastic response. Later we parents had a bit of a conference and decide that at seven, he was a bit under their recommended age, and given that he still has some anxiety about his reading skills (which are actually better than he gives himself credit for), maybe we should wait a year. Besides, we’re trying to be conservative with money until we have a good idea how this whole one-paycheck-family thing works out.

Later, the the boy came to me with big soulful eyes. “Remember those classes you can take to make Minecraft Mods? I really, really, REALLY want to take it.” We had a talk about being patient because he wasn’t going to be making a mod the first day, and that he couldn’t freak out about having to type in long words (God! Java’s verbose!) or getting errors. He was very insistent that he could be patient and that he’d be good. We also agreed that some of his allowance money would cover part of the course.

So I pretty much completely caved. I caved hard. I signed him up and and set up the login on Mrs ’Struction MacBook Air that he’s pretty much adopted. We showed him the first introductory video just before bed. I think he vibrated himself to sleep.

Which brings us to this morning. It started like usual. I was up at four with my hot, slightly sweet tea doing my best to get my main character from point A to point B without making it too obvious. It wasn’t flowing, but I managed to slog on and started making real progress. At 5:45, there was a soft footfall behind me.

“Hi Daddy.” That was it. Just a matter of fact greeting. No yelling, No racing heart, apart from the brief moment of suddenly realizing that there was an unexpected person RIGHT BEHIND ME!

“Hi. You’re up early.”

“I woke myself up so I could have more time to take the class.”

And that was the rest of my morning. We took the laptop downstairs to his morning nest, and made our way through the videos in lesson one. He still needs a bit of help navigating the menus, so I think I’ll be learning how to Mod as well. Still, in the end, he took the quiz by himself and earned 4 points. I could hear the sound of “YES!” coming from the other room while I hurriedly and belated made breakfast. I managed to get breakfast into him, although I burned the toast bit. He also didn’t leave the house naked, although I think Mrs “Struction deserves more credit for that.

This evening he came in and immediately proceeded to do “The Java Dance.” The musical accompaniment, which goes

Java Java Java!
Java Java Java!
…

sounds suspiciously like the Super Mario Brothers Underground Theme.

I’ll have a more informed review when I’ve had more time with. All I can say right now is that Youth Digital seems like an amazing resource with a fun instructor and nice bite-sized lessons.

Gravel Sifter

I have a new favorite yard tool. It cost next to nothing, and it’s going to save me, well a little.  After the last monsoon to roll through the area, I got a little tired of river that runs from the neighbors yard, across our brick patio, and into the basement door.  Eventually, I’m going to have to regrade the entire patio, but in the mean time there’s one thing I can do.  The main problem has been is that somebody in the past thought it would be a good idea to put the basement walk-out door about 8 inches below grade with a nice little well outside it. When it rains, any water that falls into that well has only one way to go: into the basement.  The problem has gotten worse since the uphill neighbors did some landscaping that has apparently improved their drainage, resulting in the aforementioned river.  

The brick patio doesn’t appear to have been put in correctly, as the worms can come up through, do their business, and so gradually the process of turning a nice brick patio into an impenetrable weed bed.*  My inattention has certainly also contributed, but the fact is that the brick patio is going to have to be pulled up and done properly at some time. When I do it, I might as well grade it properly as well.  

In the mean time, I’ve been lowering the gravel paths to create a sluice for the water to continue on its way from our back door.  

I call them gravel paths because that’s what they clearly used to be, although they’re grass now.  In digging them out, I found a very distinct strata of gravel about three inches down (worms again).  Apart from the gravel, the soil is wonderful, and would do well in the flower or vegetable garden. To get the gravel out, I through together a sifter out of scrap lumber.  

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The sides are made out of 2x4. I've seen them made out of wider stock, resulting in a deeper box when you flip it over. I think that's overkill, because the temptation is always going to be to fill the space available, and then good luck picking it up and shaking it. As it is, I found I could get most of the soil to fall through by pushing it around with a hoe (also not really feasible if you fill a box made of 2x6's or 2x8's). Also, the shallower depth makes it a manageable job for PP to be my garden helper.  

The final result is a pile of white gravel, and a wheel barrow full of this gorgeous soil. I shouldn't get so excited about this soil, but I feel like much of my childhood was spent making trips to the compost bin so my father could gradually turn the garden into soil like this. Thank you worms!

Alphabet Soup and Baseball

This is a guest post by Mrs. 'Struction

About a year ago, my husband and I entered a strange land.  Our son was finishing kindergarten and we were discussing first grade placement with his teacher.  She looked took a deep breath and very carefully said “I have to be honest with you, I think that he is going to have a hard time in first grade and I think that he should repeat kindergarten”.  Any parent who has been in this position knows how this statement conjures two simultaneous and contradictory thoughts: 1.  How dare you say such a thing about my sweet, smart, and sensitive little boy!? and 2.  Hmmm, he is a little *quirky* I wonder what that is all about.

So, being a little high strung, we called our friendly nationally known neuropsychologist office and asked for an in-school evaluation of our son to see if we could get to the bottom of what was going on.  After the evaluation, we discussed a number of interesting possible atypical ways our son was experiencing the world including sensory perceptive disorder (SPD).  Short story: it was heartbreaking.  The professional who performed the observation strongly and kindly recommended a full neuropsych evaluation and arranged for the evaluation later that same month.  What I did not know at the time is it usually takes 9-12 months to get a child in for a neuropsych evaluation, this practice moved heaven and earth to help us do the best thing for our child.

We walked away from the evaluation with an alphabet soup of diagnoses.  First, he is smart, very smart, off the charts smart, especially when related to math.  With this also came the diagnoses of sensory processing disorder (SPD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder-combined type (ADHD-C) and executive function issues.  The neuropsychologist carefully detailed his strengths and weaknesses and she provided recommendations to help him succeed in school. 

Once we received the report, we shared it with everyone, his daycare, summer camp, kindergarten and new elementary school.  Much to their credit, everyone took it, read it and applied the recommendations.  His elementary school began discussing further evaluations, how to develop his individualized education plan (IEP), and what supports to put into place at the beginning of the school year. Through the further evaluation, the school added more letters to the litany: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  I choked a little with the addition of ASD, however PP was thriving in school with the supports provided, so it was difficult to impossible to argue with them.

I began obsessively reading about the alphabet soup of diagnoses PP had received in order to try to learn how to be his best advocate.  One of the many sources of information I found was a local blog: Stimeyland.  The author is an amazing advocate for all of her children’s individual needs, in fact, one of the things I have learned from reading her blog is that we all have special and individual needs because no two people are exactly alike.  These needs are not good or bad, just different, and they should be recognized.  I will get back to Stimeyland in a minute, I swear there is a reason I brought it up!

One of the things PP has desperately wanted is to participate in team sports.  I admit, I have been a chicken, which is a huge disservice to him.  I have envisioned the breakdowns, the yelling, and the anxiety (both of us).  I also imagined him trying to change the rules of the organized activity until it resembled Calvinball, frustrating him and the other players.  So, we have passed on the organized sports, but not without significant guilt.

Jean from Stimeyland has sung the praises of the Montgomery Cheetahs hockey team.  I wrote to her for more information and she very kindly got me in touch with the organizers and PP is on the waitlist to join the very popular team.  This week, I received an email from the organizers, first I cheered, thinking PP was off the wait list, instead it was a message about a Cheetahs baseball team.  I asked PP if he would be interested in playing baseball and his answer was YES! With much trepidation on my part and excitement on PP’s part we went off to his first practice this morning.  We have not watched or played much baseball at home as evidenced by the fact that he ran the bases and called them first, second, third, and fourth bases.  The coaches were amazing.  All of the kids followed them through stretches, running, catching, throwing, and hitting.  Then they played several innings.  PP had a few minor meltdowns about not being perfect, I held back from running on the field to help him and watched as the coaches skillfully talked him through both the skills and the emotions he was having.  I also watched him cheer on his teammates, glow the first time he hit the ball, and even shake off when the ball bounced off the bat and hit him in the face.  After practice, we hit the playground for about 45 minutes, then headed home.  As we were driving, I asked him what he thought of his first baseball practice, really not knowing what to expect as an answer.  “It was awesome!  When can we go back?  Can we practice?” was the answer.

Thank you Cheetahs.  Thank you for making PP part of the team.

The Longest Summer

From the age of 6, summer meant going to "camp." The camp, for us, was a small rented cabin on a lake about 5 hours drive away. It was a heaven for kids, with a big field to run in, a (mostly) sandy beach, a stoney point to break your toes on, and bigger neighbor kids to chuck you in the lake when you got out of hand (which you sometimes did just because you were getting hot, but couldn't summon the courage to jump off the dock yourself).

As the days got longer, it became a tradition each year to make a countdown calendar to the day when we would make the trip. Each day, we'd cross off another rectangle, ritually bringing us one day closer to blast off. I still have the vivid memory of crossing off a day early in June and thinking that the 25 remaining boxes represented an apparent forever. But they would eventually all fall and be crossed off.

As we moved into the single digits, the living room would start shrink. Boxes and boxes of dry goods, games, summer clothes (in case it was a warm summer), cool weather clothes (in case it was a cold, rainy summer), toys, blankets, cake mixes, yarn (Mom wouldn't sit if she couldn't knit), books, and other paraphernalia would start to appear. The stacks would grow until a small labyrinth was formed that you had to navigate to get to the furniture.

In the final days, the labyrinth would suddenly dissolve, and then would come THE DAY. Sometimes it was the first day after school, but often it was even sooner. We would have strict instructions not to get on the bus on that last day of school. Instead, we'd walk out to find the orange and white Volkwagon Microbus packed to the roof with supplies. My brother and I would squeeze into what little remaining passenger space there was and establish our inviolable boarder, usually one of the creases embossed into the hot, sticky vinyl of the seat. The dog, of course, respected no boarders and could move freely, radiating heat and fur upon the citizen of whichever country she chose to settle in. Fortunately, she usually chose a spot on the floor.

We'd stop at Dunkin Donuts for provisions. The kids would get a variety box of Munchkins. Over the first leg of the drive, the average albedo of the contents would quickly increase as the chocolate reserves were mined to exhaustion. Mom would get a coffee. It would keep her awake, but also be a source of complaint for the next half hour. Dunkin was not known for the quality of their coffee in those days.

This summer ritual has been on my mind a lot recently. It's not just that PP finishes first grade today. My job is also ending today. There's a lot of things to worry about here: will we make ends meet on one income? Will I go nuts home alone every day? Can I really do all the things that I told myself I could do if I just had the time? There's no more excuses for failure.

On the other hand, it also feels a lot like those days of counting down to the takeoff toward the freedom and open air of summer. I choose to focus on that right now. Let's see how this goes. You can expect to hear more from me here. Ping me if I start to sound like I'm coming unhinged.

And no. Yelling at the woodchuck in a tree doesn't count. It IS called a ground hog for a reason, after all.

...What could go wrong

In my last post, I wrote about attaching tails to all our remotes to keep them from being able to hide in various crevices. What possible downside could there be. It took me about 12 hours to figure it out. They kept walking around the house. Here's why.

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That's IT! Never Again!

I've had it up to "here" with hunting for remotes. They're tricky, I'll give them that. Whether they're in the couch, under the couch, between the cusions, wrapped in a blanket, in the lego bin, or under a cat, I'm going to make it damn hard for them to hide from me again.

One of the many side benefits of working in science is that you will eventually collect enough lanyards to weave yourself a hammock. That post will have to wait a bit because I just enlisted some to put tails on my remotes.  Now when they try to burrow into the couch, they'll have a tail hanging out, perfect for extraction.  

I have another one set aside for the YOU, AppleTV remote. You can't hide forever. That couch is on it's last legs, so if it takes a axe, you'll be brought back into the harsh light of day whether you're ready or not.  You might need special treatment. Maybe a lanyard with a wiffle ball on the other end.  

Big Bang Theory: so THAT's what gets women into science.

Big Bang Theory is one of my guilty pleasures. As a geek and nerd (let's not get into that debate just now) I can't help but feel like the writers have been subtly transitioning from having fun with me to making fun of me. That said, I still enjoy some of the gags, and I certainly enjoyed the latest episode. Bob Newhart is a national treasure.

Then it struck me. We finally got to hear some back story from the two female scientists on the show. We've known about the guys for a while. We know that they were all born nerdy. Sheldon was attracting attention from the feds at an early age with his back yard experiments.

So what brought the ladies into science? Well, it's all explained while they're baking a cake for the boys. One thought she'd be able to make "a potion" to make her fit in physically (e.g. get taller); The other was driven to the library by an incident involving her total exclusion from a peer group.

So to recap. STEM lifestyles are something boys are born to and something girls can always turn to if they're not popular enough. Hey writers, props for (somewhat belatedly) bringing in women in science, but I'm not sure you're really helping.

USA Science and Engineering Festival

Man. What a week.  I've been busting my hump getting ready for USASEF, which is certainly the largest science festival that I know about.  It just ended this past weekend, so you missed it, but mark you calendars for April 2016.  

The Washington Chromatography Discussion Group (WCDG) presented their chromatography demonstration all weekend. As the person who took the lead, I figure I put in a few hundred hours getting ready, including putting together our nifty new RGB Led Sign, which will have to be another post.  Then I was there all weekend (actually 3 days). We went through liters of food dye, and just about lost our voices, but after seeing the looks on the kids faces, I'd do it all again.  

Not to say I didn't manage to get away and see some of the amazing work presented by the other exhibitors.  There was such a mix of robots, 3d printers, ecology, health, dissections... I could go on.  

We only lost Little Man twice among the estimated 340,000 people that attended.  Fortunately, each time it was because he made a bee-line to his favorite glaciologists from Dartmouth across the way.  I could only get him away by promising that we'll try to reproduce their experiment at home, so I expect a messy kitchen some time in the future.  We were also in sight of the Science Cheerleaders. Little Man was a bit intimidated by them at first, but by the end he had to seek them out individually to say goodbye.

Even when I didn't get away, I was more than a bit entertained watching the drone pilots buzzing the other exhibitors, and then getting shot at by the vortex canon.  The physics circus tent a couple rows down provided background music with their tesla coil. And of course the stream of kids and parents kept us on our toes with their curious, insightful and sometimes quite challenging questions.  

In the mean time here's a snippet of the all-drone band. They played a nice medley of tunes, including Carol of the Bells, a couple I can't remember, and this:


Stupid Stupid Stupid

I hesitate to even bring this up, but I think it will be educational to some folks out there. I've been dealing with depression for some time. There. I said it. I used to work in a very competitive, confrontational, and political environment. That was when the depression really got a hold of me. I eventually jumped ship, but the damage was done. I'm in a MUCH better place now, but I'm still suffering. Worse, I basically had to hit reset on my career and now feels very much like a dead-end job. Yeah, I shouldn't be complaining when I have a job in this political climate, but depression flips the bird at reasonable arguments. It's a real bastard.

Credit to "Hyperbole and a Half"

Credit to "Hyperbole and a Half"

Anyway, I hope this goes some way toward explaining why I haven't been dedicating the attention to the blog that I would have liked. The funny thing about depression is that it basically removes anything that could be related to "gumption." You have an almost impossible time convincing yourself that your actions are wanted, or matter to anyone, or are even competent or in any way worth doing. It drains you of the energy to do anything other than subsist, and sometimes you can barely do that. And you can't reason with it.

This probably contributed to what was (financially at least) the biggest mistake of my life. I had several hundred bitcoins in Mt. Gox. In retrospect, I should have withdrawn them months ago. I was stupid. I'll own that. You see, every time I thought of making a withdrawal, I also thought about how stupid I would feel if I transferred to my own wallet and then failed to back it up properly, or lost control of it, or somehow botched it. It was the depression talking, telling me I wasn't up to the task. That's why I was ready to trust Mt. Gox more than I trusted myself.

Credit to "Hyperbole and a Half"

Credit to "Hyperbole and a Half"

Depression effects the way you think. It made me make bad decissions, and of course it's effecting the way I deal with this. The "natural" response is to think about what I could have done with those bitcoins. What could have been. I was going to quit my dead-end job and write a kick-ass series of novels. I'm pretty confident that they'd have been kick-ass because even in my worst times of depression, I was pretty darned proud of what I had so far. Even in my depression, I got 50,000 words into the first draft of book one. I got stopped short when I realized shear size of the world I was making. I needed to fall back and do some Tolkeinesque linguistic, typographic and cartographic development. I also needed to properly flesh out the FULL story ark across the entire series so I could maintain Rowlingish continuity across the series. It was a bigger job than what I could reasonably do in an hour or two a day. I had hope, though. I was going to be able to use the bitcoins to fill the financial gap while I hammered out those details and shipped the books. Maybe I'd find I could make a living that way, or maybe I'd just have some time away from my normal career to heal via "creative therapy."

That's all on hold now. The Mabelliad (working title) is just going to have to sit in the corner, shooting me accusatory looks for bring it almost into being.

Ditto with the blog. I have an "On Hold" folder in Ominfocus with 184 would-be Dadstruction projects. My thought was that mornings would be time for intensely creative activities like novel writing, and the lower energy afternoons and evenings would be spent on the projects that were more hands-on or required the presence of my partner in crime and number one beta tester. So many arduinos, and so little time...

Well, crap. Crap Crap Crap.

I shouldn't dwell on what could have been, but with depression, it's sometimes almost impossible not to. Your brain keeps going there unbidden. They call them invasize thoughts, and they suck like a really negative guest who also refuses to leave.

There's one bit that surprises me, though. I would I thought I'd be bitter. I've been a big booster of bitcoin right from the beginning. My plan was always to treat it as it was meant to be used: as a currency. There was so much talk from the pundits about "inherent value," that treated bitcoins like virtual gold. It's not. It's virtual currency. Folks would ask me when I was going to "cash out" and I would just smile. How do you "cash out" of what is already cash? I was going to spend it in this new and exciting economy.

Now it feels like I've been kicked out of the club.

I would have thought I'd develop a case of sour grapes, but I can't manage it. Bitcoin is still probably going to be the international currency of the future. Even if his Daddy blew it, I owe it to my little man help him learn about it.

I've put my wallet address on the site. Maybe some kind soul will shove a few Satoshis my way to play with. Maybe little man can learn from my mistakes. He's the part I put the most effort into not thinking about. I've missed so much of his childhood so far to long hours and pressing deadlines. I tried to be around more, little guy. I just screwed up and I'm sorry.

From "Life Hack" to "Kickstarter Hack"

@dhulser brought this to our attention yesterday.  It kinda walks the border between brilliant and scam, although I guess those aren't mutually exclusive. 

We all have cable management problems. Well here's a solution.   Some guys over on Kickstarter have designed a nifty holder that lets you keep a bunch of cables nice and neat. 

They walk us through their design process with sketches of earlier designs, then show use the final design and even show us a picture of the "mold-making" process. For a mear $10, you can own of these amazing devices and support their development efforts. 

Now check this out ----->

That's right, it's a tie rack, available from Amazon for 4 bucks, and Alibaba for $0.25 lots of 5000.  The "bread clips" are there too for a price that makes we wonder if there would be value to filling a pool with them and swimming in it.  It would probably be pretty "owy," so never mind.

I'm still trying to decide if I should be angry or envious.  They came up with a new use for an existing device (or found it on pintrest), and basically asked for enough money to cover the minimum order.  The rest is repackaging and fulfillment. 

Köans from a 6 year old.

Junior and I were just having a discussion of creativity, and the question came up of "Do you get more creative as you grow up, or less?" The best I could come up with was "If you keep practicing your creativity, you get more, but if you don't you get less." Then he zinged me.

"Well I think that grown-ups have a kid world in their brains, and if they open up their brains and find the kid world, then a whole new world of imagination opens up for them."

He wins. I won't top that.

Father/Son Mining

minecraft.png

The other day, PP and I each made boats and set off to explore an island that we'd noticed was just visible in the distance out to sea.  We both managed to fall out of our boats and had to swim most of the way.  When we got there, we didn't have a lot of time to explore before dusk. Caught that far from home, there wasn't much to do other than climb a tree and hunker down for the night. Fortunately, zombies can't climb trees, but skeletons can shoot arrows if they notice us, so we'll be keeping a low profile. 

We've been playing Minecraft together for a few weeks now. Minecraft time has become the go-to reward for doing all his homework and coming home with good school reports, and removing Minecraft time is the punishment of choice. 

Being an "old guy," it still seems odd to look at a video game as educational. It's still considered good parenting to limit "screen time." I'm slowly coming around to the idea that "screen time"  is a ridiculously broad term. Does watching a nature show in 3D count as screen time. If so, than does looking out a window at the bird feeder? The content and level of interaction matters. Is the kid being educated or learning useful skill sets. If so, than I have a hard time getting down on it. During our Minecraft time we have to make long term plans, observe processes in the correct order, balance the need for caution with the drive for exploration. 

Is time spent building virtual houses as valuable as building them out of Lego or Lincoln Logs? Probably not, but having the variety of both is probably better than either by itself. I would also argue that the costs that Minecraft imposes on "doing it wrong" (eaten by zombies, swimming in lava...) tends to guide you to think a bit harder about designing your defenses and mining that ore. 

It's also interesting to see how our virtual interactions mimic those in real live. I still find myself making dinners and laying out clothes (or armor) for him. He's much more comfortable exploring with Daddy than wandering off on his own, even though we are actually sitting a few feet apart.  "Come be with me Daddy," he'd say, and I feel a pang of guilt for going off to mine coal and leaving my 6 year old home alone to ward off zombies and skeletons.   I guess that's the cost of being a single parent. Maybe it's time to get Mrs. 'Struction an account. 

Sick Day Math Activity

The boy has been sick for nearly a week. The latest diagnosis is pneumonia.  He's doing well, but starts every morning with a request to go to school.  Hanging out at home with Cluquah and Daddy is obviously starting to wear thin.  He's been too sick to even sit up at the kitchen computer and play Minecraft. 

We spent some time reading The Further Adventures of Penrose. As an aside, this is a great book for any kid with a liking for math.  The chapters are short, bite-sized introductions to various concepts and fun facts from geometry and number theory.  We read through both books, lost them for a while, and now are making our way through them again. 

In any case, we read the section on rep-tiles. These are shapes that can tile together to make a larger version of the same shape.  The little guy was very enthusiastic and asked for his crafting basket.   

Of course, this being the modern age. It was no longer sufficient to just cut and draw. You have to make a "click-stop" video as well.   

On the whole, it's a nice pass-time that was both educational and not too strenuous.  The making of the stop-motion is also a time that kept him occupied enough that daddy can get away for a few minutes and get some work done. 

Creative Children, Creative Parents, and Creative Projects

Here's a lesson that I'm still in the process of learning.  I have this tendency to jump into projects with both feet, to think big, to go for the big splash. Of course that often means that I find myself over my head, or short of time due to the complexity of the project.  On the plus side I learn a lot.    

Planning art projects with PP is no different.  I've more or less committed to building an entire Nerdy Derby for his birthday party (shhh, it's a surprise.)  Like I said, thinking big. 

 

That said, sometimes it's good to remember just how much creative play and satisfaction can come out of just a few simple materials laying around the house.  Take the picture below for example.  A few used boxes, a pair of scissors, and some packing tape can make a robot costume that will have junior proudly walking around the house making "meep meep" noises, and comically failing to navigate doorways for a good hour.

It's a good lesson for me.  Sometimes you should just relax and say "what do you think we can make with this" instead of dreaming about what you could make with an arduino and 16 servo motors.   

Addendum: One funny story about the above costume.  He cut the eye, arm and neck holes in the boxes, then put them and AND THEN had me attach the head to the body.  When it came time for him to take it off for further modifications, we found that the neck holes in the body and head weren't alined.  There was room enough of his neck, but absolutely no chance his noggin could pass through the opening. It was a tricky maneuver, but I managed to cut him out of it.  That cardboard sickle in his hand is one of the resulting scrap pieces.

Quicky Comb Jelly Halloween Costume

Our little guy is into sea creatures big time, and it really comes out at Halloween.  He's been a shark a couple times, an orca (don't you dare call him a killer whale), and an octopus.  Not to be left out, I figured I needed something to blend in, but I didn't want to spend a lot of time, and I'm not quite geeky enough to be comfortable spending 45 minutes on the metro in a full manatee costume.  So I went for jellyfish.  It's simple, doubles as an umbrella, and folds up for travel. Here's an idea of what it looks like. It was a BIG hit at the invertebrate house during "Boo at the Zoo."

The design was something I could through together thanks to having the necessary ingredients lying around or available from Amazon.  These included: 

It took me a couple hours to put it together.  Most of the time was figuring out the best way to route the wires.  Everything is held together with packing tape. It's a bit makeshift, but it's not particularly noticeable from any distance.  Here's a closeup. 

After this Halloween, it'll probably be time to retire it.  I haven't decided yet whether to re-purpose the light strips into more writing productivity porn, or some sort of Christmas decoration. Any other ideas?

Here Kitty Kitty

I don't know if this is a happy sound or an angry sound. Then again, maybe it's a hungery sound, since we had a yummy small mammal running around us.