Monday, May 25, 2015

Building The Family Handyman Ridiculously Simple Shop Stool

My latest project was the Ridiculously Simple Shop Stool. The goal of such a thing is to have something that is useful for sitting, a short step ladder, or as a fairly portable work surface. It is not necessarily pretty (hence it is called a 'shop stool' instead of a 'stepstool')
Plans for the Ridiculously Simple Shop Stool from The Family Handyman
Some important characteristics is that it is built from 1X dimensional lumber (so the wood is cheap) and it is all short straight cuts, which is important because I do not have a mitre saw, a table saw, or a router. 

My backyard workshop
My backyard workshop
First step was to cut the lumber. I got 1X3, 1X4, 1X6, and 1X8 lumber from The Home Depot. They cut each board once (that is there policy) so that I can fit it in my car.  I recently purchased a Rockwell Compact Circular Saw so I now could make straight cuts on 1X or 2X lumber, which was very helpful for this project.  A couple of nice features included the fact that it is small for a circular saw (single hand operation), so I could use it and a carpenters square without clamping.  Also, using bench cookies would stabilize the board by itself (small circular saw means less vibration).

Cut boards for making the Ridiculously Simple shop stool
Cut wood for two shop stools

Measure twice, cut once
Cutting boards with a Compact Circular Saw and a Carpenters square.

Next step was sanding the boards and staining them. I used a rasp to break the corners, then three rounds with sand paper.  Staining was with Dutch Oil.

Staining wood for step stools
Staining boards

For assembly the hard part was the fact that 1X dimensional lumber is prone to splitting. I split my first two, then I noted that the instructions say to pre-drill holes to prevent splitting.  After that it was a lot easier.

The next tricky part was getting the steps in. The side slabs make it hard to get access to the tops of the steps. I think pocket screws would work, if I was up to learning how to do pocket screws.  Another new purchase was a right-angle driver/drill head for my Rigdig Jobmax multi-tool. The advantage is that I can drive in wood screws without as much space as the average cordless screwdriver.

After getting all the supports and steps glued, pre-drilled, and screwed in, we had the structure of the shop stool.

Ridiculously Simple Shop Stool completed
Complete shop stool

Next was to put finishing touches on it.  Scrapped off the excess glue.  Added non-stick safety tape on the steps.  Added hinges so that the second half of the top can be opened to make a stool top or folded to allow for steps. Added felt pads on the feet and on the top to protect the floor and to soften the sound when the top is opened or closed.

Ridiculously Simple Shop Stool
Two completed shop stools in the kitchen

A nice little project. It turns out to require use of two new tools (the Rockwell compact circular saw and the Rigdig Jobmax Right Angle driver). It will get multiple uses, as stools my in-laws like to eat at the kitchen counter when they are at our place so they can use two stools.  The steps are tall enough that my 4-yr old son can now help food prep and operate the microwave. The stool tops are good for side tables in our living room (so we can sit at our couches and eat). They also make for good work surfaces in the kitchen (that will always be clear because we need to use them for other reasons).

Very nice project. Thanks to The Family Handyman for providing the plans.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cancun family vacation

We had a rare pure family vacation (meaning the trip did not include visiting friends, family, or other business). With two kids (preschooler and baby) and two grandparents, we went the easy way out and took a trip to a family-friendly all-inclusive resort in Cancun, Mexico. The benefits of an all-inclusive resort is that very little thinking or planning is required. The knock against these sort of things is that they are completely removed from the host area, which is true. But some memories and thoughts:
Touching the sea in Cancun
Touching the sea for the first time in Cancun, Mexico

1.  Using an all-inclusive resort made it possible to have a vacation while we are caring for two grandparents, and two small children. No worries about getting food, everything is in short walking distance, and we don't have to worry about getting lost in the general traffic of everyday life. And right now, that is important.  Someday, when T and A are older and going to different cities is meaningful, we will have that kind of vacation.

2.  We think that most of the staff are recruited from Quintana Roo>. And a large fraction of the guests were Mexican. So the resort we were at was not a Little America that I thought that these places would be.  We had T do greetings and simple questions in Spanish (e.g. hola, buenos dias, buenos tardes, __ por favor, donde es ___, gracias, de nada, numbers) And staff responded properly to a four year old American using Spanish. For T, who learns Spanish in pre-school, that means that he experienced hearing and using Spanish as a working language, not a memorization exercise that pre-school Spanish is. Bonus, there were a couple of times when S and T were interacting with housekeeping (which were not generally bilingual) and T knew just enough Spanish to get the point across.

3.  We provided the staff great amusement with my high-school Spanish. Sometimes, when the staff recognized me (or T) we would have our entire exchange in Spanish. We noticed this would happen when there was another staff observing in surprise, and the staff we interacted it would give them an amused smile at their surprise. This has the obvious implication that if my not-significantly-different-from-zero Spanish was cause of notice and amusement, the typical level of Spanish for an American is actually zero.

4.  T is still the very cautious and generally shy self. He had a few scary (for a four year old) experiences over the trip. He slipped and got stuck on a bunk bed ladder, he got turned on a water slide and went underwater, and he was on a jetski (being used as a lighter to another boat) punching its way through waves and up on a beach. So we had many conversations on how being brave was doing things that were scary, and not stopping even when things go wrong.

5.  For both T and A, the best part of the trip is clearly the fact that they had mommy and daddy close at hand for large parts of every day.  Frankly, they would have enjoyed this if we stayed at home too. But they also saw us interacting with the hotel staff. And (especially since we were trying to get T to practice his Spanish) doing so with courtesy, even when there were problems with the room and travel. (ok, if you asked T, he probably would say that parasailing and always-available ice cream were pretty significant too.)

6.  A is a very expressive one-year old. That means she babbles, dances, looks at people, and acts and speaks with intent. Very clear and specific intent. In a one-year old, this is seriously cute (and we hope this means we will skip the worst of the tantrum stage). But another part of us thinks that if she is like this now, just wait until she actually has language skills. As I recall, in daycare, there was a clear hierarchy based on who had language skills (they could communicate with each other, and communicate their desires to the teachers). T was on the bottom end of this until he was 3 1/2 or so. A is going to be at the upper end.

7.  T definitely recognized that he has to compete for attention. And it is very hard to compete for attention with an expressive one-year old. Especially when you are naturally an introvert. Knowing a little bit of Spanish helped in this weekend with the staff and the other Mexican guests, a preschooler trying to speak a second language is pretty cute too.

8.  We somehow chose a resort that was also hosting a Korean church conference.That was something you don't experience on the average vacation.

9.  Grandpa and T (and daddy) went parasailing (which involved using a jetski to get to and from the boat).  Grandpa was very happy at this little adventure.

We are glad we did this. Grandparents can probably only do this for a limited number of years, and the kids are not in a position to appreciate anything more complex. When our kids get older, they will better appreciate things that are more complex, more adventurous, or more immersive.  But this is a good start.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Parenting Month 54: Many things to talk about

Wood tangrams
Homemade wood tangrams

This month's theme for both children has been expressiveness. Both of them have been growing in expressing themselves, which is a far cry from the previously very quiet in public T and a baby A.

T's expressiveness and confidence in public we still attribute to ATA (tae kwon do school).  He enjoys being good at something (which comes with practice), and now having passed two rounds of belt testing and one session of board breaking, he is gaining confidence that he can perform in public. So now in ATA class he cheerfully shouts out answers and ki-yup and yes sir/yes ma'am appropriately.  In preschool he now speaks regularly, which is a considerable change from even 6 months ago when he was very quiet. He still a relative island of stillness in the chaos that is the typical pre-school classroom, but he interacts more with others.

A has also become quite expressive. Last month she babbled and sounded like she was having a conversation.  Now when she babbles she is clearly doing so with intent, and she gets upset if you do not respond appropriately! Among things she can distinguish are toys, DVDs, books, and food.

Can you read this for me?
Will you read this book about going to the potty for me?
In other news, T has had his kindergarten orientation. After testing, and visiting the school for various events over the past two years, he is getting comfortable there. We were bemused to see that T was NOT the shy kid of the group, instead he was a bouncing little pea going along (he is young, and even for his age he is short, but not skinny).  His future teachers have noted that he has a good attention span, made evident during his visits to the classrooms, testing, and when he came to watch the school play (watched the play without the parents having to closely manage him).

A has become mobile. While she still really wants to walk (she cruises and occasionally attempts to stand without support), she does crawl. And she does crawl with intent (a destination in mind). Sometimes that intent may or may not include us, so we have to keep an eye on her (gege has to be tasked with being a watchdog at times).  Among other things, she has figured out how to get up the stairs (she is ok with backing down). Since she has determination, she has made it to the top floor before we've figured out where she was.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Parenting Month 53: When Eagles fly

T's major events for the month were taking a trip and our first experience with high stakes testing.  By all accounts both went quite well. T has always been a good traveler, and the high stakes testing experience was one that was sane.

On their way to a flight
We need to go that way to get on our plane
This month was noted by mommy taking a work trip to Las Vegas, and we took T out of day care for the week and had him go along. Auntie P also went along, having been to Las Vegas before, but not in the company of a 4-year old. So amid lots of walking in the hotel, through a casino, to other hotels on the strip, we got many comments that he was a good traveler, standing patiently through many lines, and doing his job of pulling his own bag around and staying with mommy (or auntie). The flight itself was spent reading and playing. Even when tired, the worst he got was asking for a carry. It would be hard to expect any better from a pre-schooler. This was another instance where we pulled the 'you need to be a very good boy' on him prior to the trip. Of course, he also knew when the trip was over, so he reverted back to normal (which is still pretty good, but there is a notable difference. Weeks like this are where we want to ask if we can keep this child :-)

The other major event for the month was kindergarten testing. This is known as high-stakes testing in the pre-elementary world, because the test is being used to make choices on admission into a school.  Because T's birthday is in October, he would not be eligible for kindergarten next fall in our school district. Since he started pre-Kindergarten in November, that would imply that he has to repeat a year of something, either he takes Kindergarten next year at our daycare (which does offer Kindergarten) and then goes to Kindergarten again (when he is eligible for Kindergarten) or he repeats pre-K at the day care and goes to Kindergarten when he is eligible.  While there are arrangements to test into pre-K at the local school district, word on the street is that almost no one passes (to get into Kindergarten early, apparently the standard is test at a level of passing the year after the one you want to test into).  In addition, the public school Kindergarten is a half day kindergarten, so you still need to make arrangements for the other half day (which our day care offers).

So we are looking at a nearby Catholic school K-8. It is very highly regarded. In visits to the school we have noted the interaction between the kids and the staff, and also between older and younger kids (the 6-8th graders mentor the K-2 grade students). We like the smaller class sizes (our day care had a pre-K with 20 and a pre-K with 8 students. T responds to the difference).

The issue with high-stakes testing is that pre-school kids do not perform on demand, to having to make decisions with long-term effects based on a one time event, and the parents are fully aware that the kid's behavior is essentially random.

While the general concept of testing is rather insane, the concept of evaluation is not, a school needs to do an evaluation to determine if a child is ready, especially in a case like this where a child is trying to go above grade level (in the U.S. the pattern is to hold children back, so the effect of some parents holding children back and other parents pushing kids ahead is that there can be a 3 year range in ages. Later, the difference almost disappears, but at age 6, a three year range is very significant, so the school needs to know that the younger end of the range can handle it.

Hence, there is a little cottage industry of preparing pre-schoolers for high-stakes testing, especially in places like New York City where the better pre-schools and kindergartens are known and they get full. Because how the child performs in a span over a couple hours does make a long-term difference.

Fortunately for use, the evaluation at this school was sane. We have an ongoing relationship with the school, so T has visited a couple of open houses, another event, and has visited during a normal day. The school staff were aware that he has a record of not interacting with strangers, so we have been building the level of recognition over time with the staff who would do the evaluation. And the testing was only one part of an overall evaluation (which included observation of multiple interactions with the current Kindergarten students).

So he did pass and got accepted for next year. Does test preparation make a difference? We actually got test prep materials (yes there are such a thing), but in the end, while we did read them, we did not use them, with life generally getting in the way, and we spent our time with him doing other things. The book we have, Testing for Kindergarten by Karen Quinn, probably would have preferred it that way. The core of the advise was that the best way to prepare was to interact with the child over a long period of time and develop the skills needed that way.  But the reality is that formal test prep could have made a very big difference in a child's performance. I joked that in the efforts to make a test that was cultural and background neutral, the tests give a big advantage to one major group. People who prepare for pre-school hish-stakes testing. Many of the questions are based on the fact that a person understands the concept being tested and the form of correct answers. The test prep books and programs are somewhat built around making sure the child is exposed to the types of questions being asked and how they get answered. They also run through the various topics. While the topics of questions are all topics that children can get exposed to, to be exposed to the whole range almost requires deliberate test preparation.

Tiger mommy finds it ironic that having geared up for preparing for high-stakes testing a year ago (as we realized the effects of an October birthday and the implication that it would have essentially meant repeating a year someplace), we did not actually put time into test preparation. Instead, while mommy school did involve reading and arithmetic workbooks (and recently, music), daddy school involved going to museums and other places, doing wood projects, and building LEGO.  And we were applying to a place that did assessment, but did so in a sane manner as part of an overall assessment that worked with the characteristics of the child in question.

In other news, A also had an assessment done. She is somewhat behind in motor skills development (does not crawl) so we had the Alliance for Infants and Children come (a free program for those under 3 in PA). The assessments results were highly encouraging, they think that the delay in crawling is due to a physical characteristic, which is not a long term problem. But, they also evaluated other aspects of development. I was very amused at the report. It frequently references the fact that A likes to play with her older brother.and how that relates to the way she babbles and plays (even if she does not crawl).  I even had T read those parts of the report. :-)

Big brother is making Jello
Gege is making Jello. Can I have some?

A does not really crawl, although she is now at the point that she will get on all fours and rock (and sometimes even move!)  But she does enjoy pitcking up things, banging them together (almost) stacking items Particularly amusing is when she goes into babbling mode. It is as if she is trying to hold a conversation.

This past month of parenting has had its share of concerns, but we leave it thankful that our children are active and engaged in their world, even for any faults they may have.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Parenting Month 52: Passing tests

A new belt

This month's milestone was T's advancement testing for Taekwondo. He passed! Of course, the issue is not if the dojang passes him, when dealing with pre-schoolers, it is silly to hold them to a real serious standard. The question at hand is how does he handle himself in a setting where he needs to perform on demand. The norm is to be scattered and play around, another common reaction is to freeze in nervousness (which is T's historical norm), the goal of a preschooler in a martial arts program is to pay attention and follow when being specifically addressed (and generally you accept being relatively stationary the rest of the time.)

Under those standards, T did very well.  As a child who does not like crowds, he handled the crowd and structure of testing day well (much bigger group than I have ever seen there). So we were gratified to see him dealing with it through chatting with the instructors (benefit of being one of the first to show up), concentrating on his forms, and even paying attention as it was everyone's turn. (of course, it probably was because he was trying to remember the forms of the upper ranks)

Another source of gratification is that he was focused during his turns. He was grouped with the smaller (i.e. younger) kids (4 year olds) and the obvious thing that makes 4 yr olds different than 6 yr olds is that 6 yr olds pay attention to what they are doing and the 4 yr olds generally did not.  So that he did focus on what he was supposed to was good to see. We don't often get a chance to see him in a setting with other kids his age, but being able to focus on what he is doing is something we have tried to encourage in many areas.

Other activities for the month include more cooking. I've been letting him work on the stove for making jello, pudding, and pies from mixes. And having him stir while the pot is on the stove. This has two problems, one the danger from a hot pot or stove, which is not as visually apparent as a knife blade is, second, that these required continuous stirring over a period of time. Reality is that his endurance is just short of what is needed here. If he gets to the point where he can stretch out another minute, he will reach the point where he can see the transitions in form caused by the food being exposed to heat. But for now, he likes the activity of doing something that we tell him is dangerous and that he needs to be careful around. And it provides another way of discussing perseverance and focus on task. (in addition to the usual comments about cooking being a good way to talk about math)

He continues to read more. This past month we have realized that he is pretty much out of the emerging reader series.  His current reading level is Dr. Seuss. The shorter books he reads happily away (including reading them to his baby sister) Long books such as Cat in the Hat are possible, but when he finished Cat in the Hat, he was tired (he did not realize how long the book was going to be.

Another area is preparation for kindergarden. I took T to an open house for one school that we are looking at (because they will take in someone who has not turned 5 before September). It looks promising. After a couple of rooms he warmed up to our student guides and was chatting away with them. I have noticed on previous occasions that the older kids are used to interacting with the younger ones, and had an opportunity to discuss it with some of the staff who explained how they encourage it. And we talked about how the evaluation would be done (basically, the primary evaluation would be from his preschool, which is not something that we will worry about).  There is a clear difference in T thriving in a smaller environment, and this is besides the fact that we don't like the idea of T being in pre-Kindergarden for a period approaching two years, then being in a half-day kindergarden (which is what our area is like). So this school has a lot of things going for it in our book.

A also had a big 9 month milestone.  Her first deliberate word (i.e. not counting the various vocalizations like mamamabababagagaga *sqwawk*)  ah-ooh, to be used when something drops or falls.  I'm particularly happy because I've been trying to train her to say this over breakfast all month.  And this was actually T's first deliberate word as well..  S thinks that ai-yaah is a candidate for a second word, which she clearly picked up from her big brother.  I'm not convinced that it is deliberate as opposed to mere mimicking.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Parenting Month 51: I can do that

Cutting peppers to go on a pizza
Cutting peppers to go on a pizza

This month's catch phrase is "I can do that."  I think that a characteristic of the pre-school years is the see-saw back and forth between a child wanting to become independent, but wanting the security of the parents. In our case, it expresses itself in the form of competency. And right now, we are well into the development of competency side of the spectrum.  

Competency has a number of manifestations with T.  One is the reading. At this point, he is at the Dr. Seuss level of reading. The small books are easy. The longer classics are not hard, but they are long and they test his endurance more than his reading ability.  We are at the point where it is possible to put him on the floor or couch with a pile of books and he will read away.  What is really cute is when we put him next to A and he reads to his little sister (and she pays attention!).  The other place this shows up are LEGO sets. He can now read instructions well enough to follow instructions on reasonably complex sets (where the recommended age range begins at 8 or lower).  His most recent one was the LEGO Movie trash chomper (recommended age begins at 8). It took him three days to complete it, but he did it pretty much on his own.

Building the LEGO Master Builder Academy Space Fighter
Building a LEGO Master Builder Academy Space design #3
The second place that competency manifests is in taking part of tasks around the house. He can handle simple tools (hammer, screwdriver) and can do set tasks (nail in place, screw already set) and we have him at least touch many such tasks as they come up (he does not have the strength to finish the job).  Also light vegetable cutting (with a plastic knife) and food prep (mixing) is within his level of competence.

And while he has better and worse days, there are the days where he is very helpful around the house (cleaning up, clearing the table). Actually, there are days where he is hyper-polite and helpful. It is cute and almost funny as he says please and thank you and does things like get food, help prepare, put the used dishes in the sink, and even help take care of mei-mei (little sister), and he keeps this up all day! (the consistent use of polite words after an half an hour or so drives S and I to the point where we have to make an effort to keep from laughing)

Dinner time. Is this yummy?
Dinner time for mei-mei

The Taikwondo classes have been a contributor to this. Each month has a character building theme, and this month the theme was 'goals.' And part of the assessment is to develop a list of 10 goals, and for T, these were dominated by goals to do standard daily tasks himself (put on/take off shoes, jacket, clothes, etc.). He has gotten into it. He thinks of goals at all sorts of times (especially at night when we talk about what he did during the day) and he immediately wants to add it to the list (which he will remember the next morning!).  And reminding him that he declared something a goal is incentive enough for him to give it a good try.

Sibling interaction is another area where we are quite fortunate. T and A are quite fond of each other. A is easily amused by T's activities, and T actively assists in entertaining and taking care of A (given his size as a four year old). What is amusing is now that A is semi-mobile and can scoot, she tries to join in with whatever T is doing if he is close to reaching distance. And sometime he is not careful and she turns out to be a lot closer than he thought and can grab something.

A is turning into a babbler.  Typically, after she eats, she is good for an extended period of babbling away if there is a willing conversation partner. I usually get this dark and early in the morning when I get her when she is awake and everyone else wants to sleep longer. (typically after she gets fed) I get breakfast for myself and she babbles away.  Today I brought her to a Red Cross meeting and she amused everyone by babbling after eating (I took her out to a hallway) until she finally stopped, because she fell asleep!  Everyone joked that it sounded like she was telling a story, not just vocalizing.

As far as parenting was concerned, this was a very pleasant month. Both children being engaged in their worlds, and increasing their competencies at the level they are at. And both being well behaved in the outside world. While both are not pass around kids (neither of them takes well to strangers), we joke that they are both advertisements for having children and we both get encouraging comments while out and about.

Up next, getting ready for pre-kindergarden assessments for T (we really don't want to have him do pre-K again next year like his birthday would require, and his reactions to stranger can lead to problems when it is time to do assessment).  And we probably should try to get A out and about more for more interaction with people (even if we are in a cold northeastern winter!)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Lessons in teaching: Fall 2014 edition - Using the news

I had started using news articles to illustrate class concepts last year, but this year I started doing so from the very beginning and made it a standing part of the class to do this once a week in both of my classes last semester.  Of course, taking 10~30 minutes a week out of class came at a price.  In both cases it meant a chapter not being covered. And I pointed this out to the class when time came for course evaluations.

Every week I would identify news articles, magazine articles, or blog posts to discuss in class.  (or sometimes it was a historical case).  The discussion would always open by evaluating the article through a standard technique.  In my decision analysis class it was either generating a value tree or a decision tree.  In my simulation class it was generally generating an event diagram (i.e. a white board exercise).

The cases included the international and domestic (U.S.) handling of the Ebola outbreak, health care provider reactions to the rise of independent urgent care clinics, potential expansion of a light manufacturer, pulling a goalie in hockey in the final minutes, flu vaccinations, Corporate restructuring, the construction of super containerships, NASA Commercial Space initiatives, waving a (baseball) runner home, handling of death threats (Gamergate), Space Shuttle Challenger launch decision, automation of warehouses and manufacturing, delivery of disaster response services, and hub and spoke airline operations.

For the discussions themselves, it was a great way of getting students interested. Because of the wide range of topics, international, domestic US, health, industrial, sports, space, different people tended to get into different discussion topics, so across all of the cases, a very large portion of the classes contributed to the conversation at some point.

The other big benefit of the cases was to reinforce the modeling aspect of both classes. For decision models this meant many opportunities to consider the value tree and decision trees, even as we moved to other techniques and topics. For simulation, this was the chance to work on modeling while the course focused on analytical and statistical methods.  Even for those who did not take part in the class discussion, there were a few discussions that I think were particularly memorable.

One unexpected benefit was that I had an opportunity to engage in give and take.  Once we got past the first few sessions, we were comfortable with me questioning some of the responses, or asking to go a little deeper than the first answer.  (without scaring the student into a shell) Students also started asking questions, so we occasionally got a real discussion going.

Sometimes it was fairly light and even entertaining discussion (sports were good for that). And there were times that it went very serious (we looked at the decision not to provide protection from threats of mass murder with plans in Utah with Anita Sarkeesian (meaning it also involved the politics of gender oppression). Ebola was also a big one in September.

So, when compared to the loss of a chapter of coverage, I think that this was a worthwhile direction. The course evaluations commented on how much the students liked using current events as examples of material, and that they felt confident in modeling (which is only one or two chapters in each subject).  Compared to a chapter of material that would probably be forgotten, I'll take the tradeoff.