Sunday, October 23, 2016

Going to MakerFaire Pittsburgh 2016

Picture with Makey at Makerfaire Pittsburgh
Standing next to Makey at Makerfaire Pittsburgh
This year we went to our first MakerFaire. I was there partly because I was helping with a University of Pittsburgh booth, but really so I could bring T.While most kids can build with LEGO, he also has some wood projects behind him, and has a reasonable exposure to electronics for a 5 year old. But more importantly, he has spent his whole life watching the things that are in our house built from parts or scratch.  And starting last year he has been exposed to robotics, programming, and electronics. So MakerFaire was something that has been on our radar.

Looking at the insides of the battlebot
Battlebot being repaired

One of the advantages to getting there early in the morning is that the crowds have not yet arrived. So he got access to things that would have been hard to do. And being associated with a booth marks him as a fellow maker, who does not just look at things for entertainment but can appreciate hard work and effort to make something work.

Taking apart a battlebot to fix it
Taking apart a battlebot

Makerfaire Pittsburgh 2016
Driving a battlebot

He got to help repair a robot, drive robots, both those that are much like toys and some that definitely were not toys.  He did the whole set of crafts set up by schoolchild oriented maker spaces, both low tech and high tech.

This is how to program the Lego robot
Programming the Lego robot to make it across the line.

Scout trooper showing off his Sniper rifle
Inspecting a Scout Trooper rifle

Makerfaire Pittsburgh 2016
Weaving with a loom

The point of this gathering is not so much to show off or teach, but to inspire. For everything he sees, he can recognize the precursors, so everything that he touches, is within aspiration, if many years from now.

Playing a Circuit Playground fruit piano at Makerfaire
Demonstrating the fruit piano

This was our first MakerFaire, but it will not be the last.  The Adafruit Circuit Playground fruit piano was something we threw together, next year we will actually think about making this work. And T will have something more polished to show off. And his interactions with the other makers more meaningful.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Parenting month 71: soccer

This month we tried our hand at being soccer parents. T signed up for first-second grade soccer, after we got many rounds of recruitment messages.  And not taking part in either spring or summer soccer camps held at the school.

Circle drill
Circle drill

Well, he has taken part. And when he is in games he runs around happily, but we also noticed that he does not get the ball. Reality is, he has no concept of taking possession of anything, much less in a competitive game.

Someone asked me if he enjoys playing. He enjoys being out there with friends running around, but the actual games are rather lost. What he wants to do is interact with everyone on the field (and which team they are on is not really a consideration). And he is too nice to get the ball when he is fast enough to get to it, pulling up and letting someone else get it.  And he has his 'tells' of discomfort, in particular, he will occasionally get into a taekwondo stance while out in the field. Taekwondo forms and curtesy is one of his go-to actions when he is frustrated (much preferred over a tantrum).

So, we don't see this as being a long term thing, especially as he already has a sport (taekwondo) that he enjoys and he is good at (relatively speaking). Were there benefits?  Well, he really does not learn teamwork out there, as he never actually has the ball or the opportunity to work with his teammates as teammates. We have had many conversations about keeping commitments (i.e. finishing out the season), and that there are times that you are doing things that you are not interested in, and that we are glad that he keeps up a good attitude when at practice and at games.  But all in all, he is looking forward to the end of the season so we can go back to taekwondo and the various activities we used to have on Saturdays.

PNC Park
At PNC Park for his first Pirates game

In other news, T went to his first major league baseball Pittsburgh Pirates game. After last month's minor league game, he knew the drill, although there were a lot more people this time, and he did not get to go on the field or interact with the team and mascot.

A has started day care.  She cried at drop off and pick up for the first few weeks (but nothing like her big brother, who would cry from drop off to pick up with only breaks for eating). At week 4 she seems to be enjoying it, even having some regular play mates while there.

Next month, first grade ramps up as the assessments that went on the first month are completed and what they cover becomes more tailored.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans by Elizabeth Heaney: Book Review

The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military VeteransThe Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans by Elizabeth Heaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of a civilian counselor who joined a program to provide off-the-record counseling services at domestic military bases. She spent short term assignments at each base, with the intention that it was part of a portfolio of provided services, attracting members of the military community who would not be willing to engage the more traditional mental health resources that were already available. It is a view of the military that I very much relate to, as I was attached to a deployed unit as a civilian for a similar period of time.

The first chapter starts slow, she talks about the trauma in her life prior to her taking this assignment as a way of resetting her life (and this gets dropped in the rest of the book). But once you get past the first chapter you get into the story. Two themes that permeate are her being a civilian learning her way around the military environment, which sets up the theme of veterans returning from deployment and those around them responding in their different ways.

The first theme is that of a civilian entering the military community and the differences. She tells the story of her first assignment, of encountering military discipline and curtsy first as a shock, but then respect for the stability that it provides. She goes on to what she realizes the purpose of many of attitudes and rhythms of the military. First, the realization that those in the military must be prepared for anything at any time, and military discipline and curtsy is intended to build the attitudes needed to enable that. Second, that there are a range of overall attitudes held by those in the military, with a considerable more diversity than she expected when she was in a civilian life. But one set of values that holds people together is a focus on duty (towards country and each other, not necessarily in that order) and integrity. And the dissonances between those values and what they see in the civilian world (and in what I called Big Army for that matter) causes many of the problems they have in adapting to home.

But what this long discussion of the difficulties she had in getting used to the military culture does is leads to her discussion about the issues that veterans and their families and the problems that veterans who have returned from a combat zone and their families. And she has gone through the same type of struggle in the first chapter with what she dealt with in her life and the reactions of those around her, and dealing with the same culture shift in the other direction. This part is the deepest, she alternates between telling the stories of the people she meets during the course of her assignments and the story of her processing these. Stories of working with the returning soldiers, the transition between combat and their families, soldiers and spouses trying to deal with the uncertainty of life in general and of soldiers returning after a year of combat, spouses worried about infidelity when the returning soldier is still working through the transition between combat and peacetime, of the care that soldiers have of the wounded and fallen brothers (and sisters) in arms.

Through it all, what shows through is her thankfulness that she has seen this part of life, the pride, dedication, and duty to others that permeates the military. And the recognition that this is not the norm in U.S. society at large. In my own experience, I've been told to view the lives of companions as not precious, had offers to refer me to counselors who would tell me that I should have ignored the calls for help from someone in the backcountry. And this contrasting incredibly with being deployed to a combat zone where I was with people who did their duty and tried to do right by those that they were along side. And when I returned, my then girlfriend and I spent a month trying to figure out if I had changed. (and when we were all settled, I figured that I had a good thing going and proposed to her!)

It is a wonderful book. It has a great treatment of PTSD, because it takes the first step of having to experience some of the causes (the need to be constantly aware, the sense that your world and your attitude may have to shift in a heartbeat, and you have to be ready for it, and having to deal with a civilian world that does not generally value duty or integrity) It does not preach, but it gives a set of eyes that had to go through similar experiences and uses that as an analogy into that world.

Note: I received a free electronic copy of this through the Goodreads Giveaways program. The opinions are my own and were not subject to any review.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Parenting: Month 70 - A summer vacation ends

So, tomorrow we head back for the back-to-school social. There have been some preliminaries. We were amused to learn at the mommy coffee time (no, I was not there) that T was the subject of some of his K classmates conversations over the summer (T is too internally focused to talk about people whom he has not recently been in contact).

For our first summer since school started, we ended with a trip, and lots of family time.  The kids were remarkably happy when on vacation. We think it is all of the constant attention from the parents in addition to all of the novelty. My son still regularly asks when are we going back to the places we went.

Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland
Driving a rover at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland

Some other summer notables:
1. First baseball game. And completely spoiled, he got to go on the field and take part in a high five line of the home team. He probably thinks that this is normal.
2. Mommy school and daddy school. Mommy school was as expected. Daily piano and chinese. Daddy school still means lots of LEGO, and this summer we added Technic and simple machines.  We also had a little Scratch, board games, electronics, and an average of a session (5 problems) of math a week.
3. Grandma and grandpa school turned into a not-success.  We are starting to have discipline problems. Given that we pretty much has a free pass on the toddler years with T, it was not going to be that easy forever.
4. A has gone from a little chatterbox babbling along to a little chatterbox that is talking all the time. Usually about something she wants. Alternatively, singing (which is much more entertaining). But there are not very many quiet moments.

Washington Wild Things game
High fiving a Washington Wild Things baseball player
Things to come
1. Sports. T is signed up for soccer this year, after much pleading from the school team.  Given that he did not take part in the various camps in spring and summer, we are not expecting much. But he may have fun.
2.  Taekwondo - T is taking a break, which will allow daddy to catch up somewhat in rank.
3.  School. One of T's favorite teachers is not coming back. One thing that we really liked about her was that she let T essentially find his own level, letting him do things well in advanced of grade level in and out of class. It was one of the things that highlighted his Kindergarten year, so we are somewhat apprehensive in how the coming year will work out.

Self defense color belt testing
Taekwondo self defense testing

Ba mang ee form
Ba mang ee form

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Book review: The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Three body problem is a hard sci-fi novel that is a combination of a detective thriller and a horror story.

The detective thriller is what the main POV character thinks he is in, and how most of the novel reads. The backdrop are top scientists in China suffering strange accidental deaths, and the protagonist having strange results in his experiments. As part of the backdrop, is the cultural revolution. The nature of science means that senior scientists in the present day all had to survive the cultural revolution, and a large part of the story is through a secondary POV character who lived through it, and as the book goes on you see the actions and experiences of those who were were targeted by the cultural revolution, who were the ones who carried out its actions, and who were instigators, then targets. This comes to a head as providing the motivation of several of the key actors in the book.

The horror story has two aspects. One as experienced by the main POV character. Like a good horror story, it is a case of an impending and unstoppable doom that is made known to a generally competent subject, who, for all of his/her knowledge and skills, cannot stop. The second is an online computer game, which initially presents itself as a side line. In the game, the players take I he role within a civilization, which because of its environment is doomed to failure, the players try to understand their environment and build a civilization that can survive and thrive.

The trick to having several parallel story lines is to bring them together naturally. And this is what I experienced in this book. The horror thread that is in the book makes you understand the POV of the characters who experienced the Cultural Revolution as their motivations are revealed. The actions and beliefs of the principle characters make sense. The temptations faced by the main character are definitely there (as he had been courted by both sides that are revealed) and you can see how he could have turned the other way.

I, like most, do not have much exposure to Chinese fiction that deals so directly with the events of the Cultural Revolution, which I have always thought to be a sensitive topic even through i have had informal conversations with those who went through that and the generation of their offspring. It was well worth the time.

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Parenting Month 69: enrichment

This summer is the first time that we have participated in the suburban parenting practice of (non-school) enrichment activities in earnest. We've noted others in activities started when T was 3, but we always favored grandparent time over putting him in things after school, weekends, or summers. Now that we have a full year of real school behind him, we did enroll him a few activities, piano, a couple of weeks at the natural history museum, and a computing/robotics course (in addition to continuing Tae Kwon Do).

What were the results? In a sense, it should not be necessary, we are regular visitors to the natural history museum and have covered multiple times every corner. We certainly have the expertise for piano in the house, and we could have done computing and robots as well.  Why not? In addition to the fact that we have jobs, what we got was interaction with other, older kids (the staff of these camps). I once read that the reason that kids should interact with kids of a range of ages is so they learn how to be bossed around by others, how to boss others, and how to take and give instruction. In addition, T interacted with a wider range of kids.  Our first questions after every day were "what did you do?" and "who were you partnered with?"

The other thing that was good was the fact that the economics of summer camps mean that the kids do get more autonomy than the usual school year (otherwise, staff would get overwhelmed with the workload) so what T got was a lot more initiative and curiosity. And more confidence which shows in his playing piano and more exploration in his play.

Yes, we probably could push him further than any enrichment program would in piano, science, programming, math, or robotics; but that is not the goal. The goal is someone who learns how to learn, has curiosity, and enjoys himself along the way.  We are skeptical of a lot of the offerings that we have seen, but what T did do, we think went a long way towards this goal.

Conducting an experiment with a SparkFun Picoboard
Testing something for conductivity using a Picoboard

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Parenting month 68: One year of school in the books

And we have survived our first year of Kindergarten!  At the beginning of the year we considered this to be the time when as parents are overwhelmingly dominant influence on our child's life is melded with the large amounts of time now spent with school teachers and classmates (not that we are no longer important, but others now play a role).  We also find out where he is in comparison with others in all aspects of life.

Things that have changed over the past academic year:

1.  His confidence has increased greatly. He had always been uncertain in public, especially when the object of attention. The first area that his confidence grew was in internalizing the curtesies of taekwondo and Catholic school.  This became a safe way for him to interact with others.  Then, as he grew in confidence that he was competent, and that he could be listened to, he began to be more confident in dealing with others, speaking to people we interact with on a daily basis (like those working at stores, restaurants) or with people he interacts with in activities (like those at the same exhibit as him in museums).
2.  His confidence has grown almost too much. He is much willing to interact with others and also to speak his mind and give his opinions (catching up to his peers in this respect). Also, he is less afraid to go off and strike out on his own, which means we need to keep an eye on him to make sure he does not get too far since we cannot rely on his cautiousness to keep him in check anymore.
3.  He is much more social. Our shy quiet boy somehow became the one everyone knows at school. Part of it is the notoriety of being the smallest kid in the school (everyone knows who the smallest and who the tallest kids in the school are).  And apparently he says hi (or returns 'hi') to pretty much everyone.  His other source of notoriety is that he seems to be happy all the time, every day.  He is pretty happy by the time we get to school (the wake up sequence is not always so), and after school in the pickup line he is the bouncing bean among the kids waiting for pickup.
4.  He is starting to attend to the needs of others. We have been surprised to watch him at play in public settings where he keeps an eye on those smaller than him and tells other kids not to play too rough. I remember watching him at an Easter egg hunt, where after he got his allowed limit he started helping the little kids find eggs.
5.  At Taekwondo, he is someone that gives the instructors flexibility when doing paired activities (sparring, self-defense practice, two-person drills). He is good enough to pair with better or most bigger kids (as long as they don't get too wild and run people over, but there are not many of those at his rank), and he does not overwhelm the kids who are less secure in themselves (especially smaller and shy kids. Several of the moms mention that their kids specifically mention liking being paired with T). Not that long ago, he was the smaller and shy kid.  When he is in a class of mixed ages, he can be with his own age group (4-6), but if he is the only one, the instructors are comfortable putting him in the next group up (normally, the 4-6 group has simplified combinations and they use 1/2 forms, so putting him in the next group requires more physical coordination and stamina than he is used to).The other nice thing about taekwondo is that his teachers are deliberately harder on him than other kids of his age and experience, meaning they do not let him get away with sloppiness when they know he can do better.
6.  Over-confidence pt 2.  He takes advantage of the fact that he can read (and most kindergarteners cannot do so effectively). His teachers report that he has taken to reading the instructions for activities instead of waiting for the teachers to read the instructions for everyone. The effect is that he is done with the activity before everyone else has started. This causes problems because it means he is not practicing listening to instructions from the teachers. It also means he gets bored because he has nothing to do when everyone else is doing the activity.
7.  Ahead academically.  The school he goes to has one member of the staff who does not really believe that kids differentiate early. One time she was visiting a class and she noted that T was going through an exercise very smoothly. His teacher noted that it was easy for him, because "it was only first grade material."

Our major concern for the future.  We know a lot of kids who are very bright, their parents report that they find their school exercises very easy, who have lost their ability to handle difficulty or correction.  Many research articles suggest that part of the issue is that they have a lot of feedback from school and other settings saying they are good and smart, so they resist hearing it from parents or others who suggest that they are not attaining mastery without effort. On our end, we are trying to nip this early. We make sure he is challenged at least some of the time with reading (if he reads with us, it is material that stretches him), our math activities are selected from a source designed to focus on thinking (by using material they are very unlikely to learn in school). And it is very easy to make sure his piano and taekwondo are pushing him at all times.  My way of wording our goal is that we try to make sure he is challenged, but he can still succeed (if he does not give up along the way).  For the school, they are instituting a framework for kids to move ahead in reading (individualized reading based on standardized test results), and they are looking at ways to do something similar in math.

Our other major concern is about the areas he is not strong in, how much should we care? He is still adverse to public performance (a major concern of mommy, who is a concert pianist) and he is not always self-assertive (although this may be due to a lack of desires to assert for).  He will probably always be among the smallest of his grade, which makes contact team sports problematic.  And there is a cultural thing about not being better than peers, which has an implication we should not let him move forward where he is capable of doing so.

Double forearm block in taekwondo poomsae
Double forearm block as part of his ATA Taekwondo poomsae