Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Essential Sheehan by George Sheehan: Book review

The Essential Sheehan: A Lifetime of Running Wisdom from the Legendary Dr. George SheehanThe Essential Sheehan: A Lifetime of Running Wisdom from the Legendary Dr. George Sheehan by George Sheehan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am at best, a lapsed runner since my son was born. But on my occasional run, I remember what it was to run day in and day out, through good weather and bad, on the road and off, beaches, desert, snow, and ice. But I did not run just for fitness. I ran because it was a way of thinking through life. In The Essential Sheehan, these essays are a view of various aspects of life as viewed by a runner. It ranges from essays about running itself, from just starting out (Sheenan started lifelong running in his 40s) to the marathon to life long running, to health and life and death.

The essays here start with those beginning to run seriously. Viewing running as play and a way to balance out your life. Later chapters get more serious about running in training for goals, races, and meeting challenges like the marathon. The last chapters are about running as a way of looking at life up to and including death (Sheenan's last six years were spent fighting cancer).

One that really strikes me is one discussion about runners in their 30s uniformly saying that they wanted to run until they died. And I was like that too in my 30s. And while I don't run nearly as much as I used to, occasionally I still lace up my shoes and go out. Like I will tomorrow morning when I get up.

Highly recommended book.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Parenting Month 38: Bargaining, charm (and guile)

This chick is coming to say hi!
Looking at baby chicks at the Museum of Science and Industry
A recent New York Times article looks at a study of violent adults that tracked people from when they were toddlers.  It finds that violence as adults is very similar to violence as toddlers, except that most toddlers determine over time that they can use bargaining and charm to get what they want and they do not need to resort to violence.  This is good as we get more capable in inflicting violence as we get older.  We took a family vacation this past month, so it provided a good look at how T handles himself socially.  At home does not provide nearly as good a look at this since of the four people he has to interact with (1) Lau-lau (grandma) and (2) mom impose their greater will on him and they are mostly resistant to charm, (3) lau-yeh (grandpa) has clearly lost the matchup between grandpa and grandson, and (4) dad (me) takes on the role of father as described by Amy Chua's husband, which is occasionally manifesting as a force of nature when needed so T has definite limits on his opportunities to express his will.  On our family road trip this month we had numerous opportunities of observations with random playground playmates, interactions with kids at nature centers and museums, an arranged playdate with friends, and meeting with cousins as he transitions from being a toddler to a preschooler.

Making a Merry-go-round with cousins
  1. Bargaining - we took an overnight stop at a town along the way and went to a local mall to give T someplace to run around in.  This mall had a playground centered on one slide (as opposed to our local mall that has 5 slides), which means the kids are forced to interact if they want to use the slide and its attached fort.  We saw him becoming into one of the kids who had to try to encourage the slow kids to move forward and out of the way so that everyone else could use the slide instead of being one of the slow kids.
  2. Charm - Taking pictures while a docent was showing us through a feeding of  turtles.  Taking turns with the other preschooler who was with us.
  3. Charm - We took a stop at the Peggy Norbaert Nature Museum.  At one point there was a 17 month old girl who was watching him work an exhibit. And he was trying to show her what to look for in the exhibit. Later, he was showing her the box turtles (that he had seen earlier in our visit.)
  4. Charm - Teaching another preschooler how to work a water exhibit at the Nature museum.
  5. Guile - At his cousin's house, he was drawing on a chalkboard.  But the only word he knows to write is his name, and his cousin objected to T writing his name on his cousin's chalkboard. So his cousin erased it.  With his hand.  At that point, T pointed out that his cousin's hand needed to be washed. And while his cousin washed his hand, T proceeded to write his name on the freshly erased chalkboard.
  6. Bargaining - He went on a playdate that included some 12-15 children (I lost count)  He was the third kid there (the host plus one other guest) He quickly proceeded to alternate play a toy that involved putting something like a coin into the slot (actually, I think that this one really counts as the girl taking charge and including him in her play)
  7. Cute (worth a mention even though it was not one of the categories) - At one point, someone saw a squirrel outside the back door and T along with two other kids crowded into the door to look at it outside the window (I hope someone got a picture of it, because it was too good)
  8. Bargaining - At a party with his cousins, he wanted to re-enact a cartoon episode where the main characters construct a merry-go-round.  But his cousins had no idea what cartoon he was talking about.  Eventually, they found something round, and animals to go around on it.
  9. Guile - At the museum, he took advantage of the fact that he has a long attention span to let someone else try something at an exhibit, and got the exhibit back to himself when that boy was done (and found he was not interested)
  10. Charm - Expressing excitement when other people are interacting with exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry.
  11. Charm - Being polite (saying, please, thank you, your welcome) while taking pictures at the museum.
  12. Bargaining - Trying to get other kids at a play area to play a different way in one of the activity areas (this did not work, but he tried)
  13. Charm - Showing a little girl how to play in one of the bouncing play areas.  He did this with a couple of kids in a few of the activity areas. 
  14. Bargaining - Telling a boy who went down the slide ahead of him "Watch out, I'm coming!" while standing at the top of the slide and waving his arms to encourage him to move out of the way.
  15. Charm - At a rest stop, pointing out the direction to the bathroom to all of the other toddlers and pre-schoolers. 
  16. Charm - On the way out from the museum, wanting to show a group of preschoolers on the way in around the dinosaur exhibit.
Of course, he is a preschooler, and playing with toddlers and preschoolers does lead to use of physical force.  He is big and strong enough that it is not easy for another preschooler to push him aside, and one instance of a bigger kid pulling off his hat led to him chasing the kid down and snatching the hat back.  But we have wondered if he would hold his own in the rough and tumble since the day care staff have observed that he does not get into fights. We are glad that it is not because he won't stand up for himself, it is probably because he does not have the attachment for things that would motivate him to fight.

This button is how to tell the robot what to do
Controlling a robot at the Museum of Science and Industry

He still generally takes a while to socialize. Although by observation, a large part of it is that he has a long attention span, and generally what happens is that he doing something while other kids come and go around him. During the play date we turned off one toy to get him to get out of a corner and interact with the other kids. Another parent at the playdate made the comment that instead of contributing to chaos he lets the chaos of toddler and pre-school play flow around him. While his daycare staff notes he generally does not play with the others around him, they also note that it is not because he is antagonistic (which is the usual problem) or disinterested, but because he is focused on what he is doing or playing at the moment rather than moving from thing to thing with everyone else.

What we really got out of this vacation was a lot of time to observe T interacting with his peers, both those familiar and also strangers. While we get the observations of day care staff, it helps to see it for ourselves.  While, unfortunately, the realities of the education system means he will have a problem with evaluations for a while, we like knowing that the reality is that he is navigating his path in dealing with his peers and developing skills to cope that will grow into the future.

Happy boy playing with a balloon
Playing with a balloon

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 2 Spaceships, Pirates, Dragons & More! by Rothrock: Book Review

The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 2: Spaceships, Pirates, Dragons & More!The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 2: Spaceships, Pirates, Dragons & More! by Megan H. Rothrock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book of inspiration. What they have done is to have a group of Master Builders show what they can do. But it is more than a book of pretty pictures of Lego models, it is a masterclass in Lego as a medium for art.

The Adventure Book takes a story line as a framework to present examples of models of various types. But it is not just a set of models. With each set of models, it is not just that the master builder is trying to make something, but, like artists in training, these models are created within a set of limitations, and as artists, they have learned to work creatively within the limitations.

What I like the most about this book, even in comparison to other Lego model books, is that it goes beyond the example and talks about the creative thinking that led to the model. What were the constraints that the artists gave themselves. And then not just what the master builder came up with, but examples of other things that they could have come up with. As such, this is not just an example of good designs, but inspiration for other designs. I especially appreciated the sections where they presented some of the techniques used for making some of the non-standard constructions. This is a good book for the one who wants to go beyond the standard techniques and models found in the typical set.

Note: I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher as part of the OReilly Blogger Program.
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Monday, December 09, 2013

Sally Slick & The Steel Syndicate by Carrie Harris: Book review

Sally Slick & The Steel SyndicateSally Slick & The Steel Syndicate by Carrie Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a pulp young adult book. What it means to be an example of pulp fiction is that the principle characters are competent in their world. And in this case the main character is Sally Slick, a teenage midwestern farm girl who is a tinkerer at heart. What you have is a character who has limitations when dealing with a world of the big city and adults who are just as capable with the resources that adults have, but overcomes the challenges along with her friends and family, and some help along the way.

Pulp has two qualities that makes it move. First is that the protagonists are capable, even when the situations are exotic and beyond their experience. And that makes for a different type of book than most books where the principle character is a teenage girl. Second, it is optimistic. Even though the opposition is more capable and has more resources than her, Sally is always looking for the opening and thinking of how to create opportunities. Even when help comes in the form of other adults, Sally does not have the attitude of being a girl in need of rescue, rather she is always depicted as being an integral part of correcting the situation. And she is in control of her future. Events and people come into her life well beyond her capabilities and she does not either passively accept events or even opportunities, but she is a capable moral agent, able to make choices that have consequences as opposed to a helpless character who is pushed around by the events around her.

I have gotten to enjoy the pulp genre through the efforts of this publisher (Evil Hat). The idea that the characters, even teenage girls, are capable and competent is a refreshing change from a society that expects us to wait on help and actively discourages us from taking on risks and being able to do things in the physical world. And it even worse with girls. I've been criticized for treating women in their 20s as competent outside of intellectual and artistic areas. This book is an example of young characters whose are not out of this world, not a world where they passively receive what they get, but a world that they take on and take advantage of opportunities to shape their futures, and welcome the fact that their choices have consequences. And that is a good world to be in. I want more of it from both Carrie Harris and from Evil Hat.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

I Can Do That! Woodworking Projects (ed by David Thiel): Book review

I Can Do That! Woodworking ProjectsI Can Do That! Woodworking Projects by David Thiel (Popular Woodworking)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I liked is that it starts from the assumption that you don't know anything about woodworking (which is not too far off the mark). So it is a very gentle introduction to the tools, then each project includes discussion on the techniques being used. Which is refreshing compared to plans that say do X, and I may not know how to do X.

What is very helpful is that that it starts out by defining a minimum tool set, then every plan is based on the fact that you only have that set, so you will not get caught looking at plans that assume you have a equipment that reflected serious investment in money and space in your house. (to find the list, look for the "I can do that" section on the Popular Woodworking website. the "Free, online manual" is the tools chapter of this book.)

The plans are basic compared to many woodworking plans available. But this is because it purposely limits the equipment required and the plans are not chosen for the complexity, but as objects to teach techniques on how to use tools (such as how to measure, drill, join, hammer, etc.) and more tricks of the trade. And the authors explain why each technique works and the problems the technique avoids. Which is helpful when you are like me and don't even have the minimal list of tools they list.

Highly recommended as a starting point.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Open Government, ed. by Lathrop: Book Review

Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in PracticeOpen Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice by Daniel Lathrop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Open Government is a set of essays about the role of government in providing information. The premise is that government collects all types of data, then distributes it, in effect reducing the cost of information that leads to inefficiencies. But because government, like any commercial company, cannot predict how information can or needs to be used, the argument is that it should follow the lead of Web 2.0 type companies and open up its information systems so that its clients (i.e. private citizens) can access the information already collected and figure out for themselves how to use it.

The essays are all about working with government information systems at some level. While the tone of many of the essays is optimistic and idealistic to an extreme, this is balanced by the number of authors who have actually implemented something at some level. There are a range of private activists, government agencies, political operatives (both Democratic and Republican), and people that need to use government data to do their business. The range of access they describe ranges from communications (using social media such as Twitter as a means of receiving and disseminating messages) to data APIs that allow others to develop applications with based on government collected data.

The main theme is that part of the role of government is to gather and disseminate information. But, very much like the Web 2.0 companies have found, providing an end service is nice, but you can increase your value to your customers by exposing the information in a way that others can figure out how to use it. In the case of government data, instead of the government agency determining what types of summaries are useful, enable access to the raw data so that people can create their own summaries and reports, to further their own ends making greater use of the data that the government put so much effort into collecting and recording. Similarly, instead of only having limited ways of gathering information, government can take advantage of capabilities in internet communications to allow citizens to communicate with the government and process that in the same ways that data analysts process the interactions between private companies and their customers. Making it easy to communicate with the government and using the results of that communication to make government more effective should be possible in the same ways that private companies have been able to do the same.

I'm peripherally associated with an effort to make government collected and distributed data usable, in our case a non-government organization. And a big part of this experiment is to see what can we do now that we have taken this data, that was published on government websites in a non-usable form, and converted it into usable, computer readable, forms. I will have a class of students who are going to find out, and see first hand the issues discussed in this book.

Notice: I received a free electronic copy of this book through the OReilly Press Blogger Program.
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Monday, December 02, 2013

Parenting Month 37: Creative play begins

Here is how I use a screwdriver for a plane
This is a helicopter flying, not a powered screwdriver
This month started to see more creative play, both in re-purposing toys and in story telling.  With toys, we see more storytelling.  At night, he has started playing with his stuffed animals more. Most nights have them interacting in some way.  Other toys, like the powered screwdriver for a plane, become a part of another story line, like a helicopter with a turning rotor that flies.  Another type of creative play is with Lego DUPLO blocks and a marble run toy.  He is starting to put things together (other than just towers), and taking things we make and redoing them (tonight, a chinese dragon got redesigned into a dinosaur).

I need to sit and read my bear book
Reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Storytime has changed too. When we read books, we had always let him jump in and fill in the blanks. The next stage was memorizing the story so he would tell it. But now he does not recite the story, but he has started making up a story to fit the pictures. It is generally loosely related to the book, but clearly different by intention. Another aspect of storytelling is that he will come and just start a story. We have figured out that he takes his favorite TV show (Ni Hao, Kai Lan), and mix and matches plotlines across episodes. It is quite amusing. Especially as any set of available toys may turn into the cast of characters for today's story.

Our regular challenge with the coming of winter is to keep him active, or at least not go stir crazy from being inside. Our Carnegie Museum memberships help here. They provide a good and familiar place to run around and have destinations to go to and activities to look forward to (and we let him have a degree of choice, since he knows what he is doing).

Next up, trying to introduce him to games (Dominos, Chutes & Ladders, and dice are on the list)

All these balloons are for kicking
Running around kicking balloons in the Playground exhibit at the Carnegie Museum

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Parenting Month 36: I am Three!

What should I wish for?
There are three candles on this cake

We did it!  We made it through the not-so-terrible-twos.  Actually, the two year was very tame.  We continued to experience a generally happy and agreeable toddler over the past year.And while he does play with toys, mommy and daddy are still far and away the favorite playthings with grandma and grandpa right behind.

Some things are the same.  He still is not very social, although he is getting more interactive at day care, but that may be because he is now one of the oldest (before they move him to the three's room).

He does play with toys more.  Legos are fun, he mostly just stacks blocks for now.  But he also acts out stories.  Normally of animals falling and needing help.  Or wanting to get something to eat.

He is starting to get started in creative play.  On the iPad he likes Adobe Ideas, a drawing app.  He generally scribbles, but he also likes to make circles, fill them in, and put in little colored circles that he calls pepperoni pizza.  Also, after a summer of watching daddy and grandpa make woodworking projects, we have started going to Home Depot and Lowes for their kids workshops (Build and Grow at Lowes).  He finds it fun to hammer away in making cars or other things.

The truck from the Home Depot Kids Workshop in action.
Home Depot truck picking up a pig that fell and got lost
No jealousy of daddy.  Actually, a cute thing is that he always wants mommy and daddy to kiss, especially saying goodnight at night.  The one expression of jealousy is when we have kids over for piano lessons.  Whenever that happens he says he wants to play piano (with mommy).

This past month he has been very resistant to the idea of getting older (i.e. turning three). This actually is not a philosophical objection to getting older, but a realization that when kids turn three at his daycare, they get moved from the twos room to the threes room, and that seems to be a slightly traumatic event for them.

While he has been generally agreeable, these past few months have him starting to try to impose his will, as toddlers are expected to do.  More with grandpa, grandma, and mommy.  We think that he does not act up quite so much with daddy since daddy has a habit of scooping him up in whatever position he happens to be in.

Looking to the future, since we have a pre-schooler, we have been thinking about what school will be like in two years time, and what that means in a state which is not exactly known for its good schools, even though we live in one of the better school districts.


Movie and songs to dance to: The past two weeks has been dominated by Les Mis, and especially One Day More.

Book: Book of Sleep, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  He actually has memorized these by now and does most of the 'reading'

Song to sing: Habanera from Carmen.  He would break out into this at random times.  He can't really sing the words, but he sets any sound to the tune.  Recently he has gone on a "One Day More" from Les Miserables kick.

Toy: Legos and building blocks.  He also plays Bananagrams (called 'letters') often.

Candy: He knows what candy is, but does not seek to eat it.  Funny:  for his birthday cake he scraped off the frosting.

Food: Bananas and Cherios are constants. No change here.

TV: Ni hao Kai Lan! is still the top when he is somewhat upset.  Handy Manny had a very good run for a while.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Data Points by Nathan Yue: Book review

Data Points: Visualization That Means SomethingData Points: Visualization That Means Something by Nathan Yau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not about how to create data visualizations, it is about how you use visualizations to communicate data. In that respect it is not trying to be a book about tools, but a book on aesthetics, it focuses on how you evaluate different combinations of visualization options for communicating different types of information about data, not just a number of rules. In this respect, it goes considerably deeper and profound about how people comprehend and interpret visualizations than a set of pithy rules masquerading as common sense. In this respect, it is a successor to Tufte in an age where being able to try alternative visualizations and even having consumers interact with the visualizations is cheap.

The book is not a description of various types of visualizations, even though it has such descriptions and discussion of comparative assessments. It is a book on how to think about the message(s) you are trying to communicate, and how to do so in ways that can engage the reader at many layers of depth where simple messages are easily grasped, and complex messages can be absorbed with their relations and implications. Along the way he discusses the relative strengths of using different types of visual cues to communicate information (position, length, angle, direction, shapes, area, volume, saturation, hue), which is much deeper than saying 'bar charts are better than pie charts' (which is an argument that a post-doc tried to engage in with me once). After a brief introduction, he proceeds to show you by example after example of the comparative qualities of each cue, and also how they can be used in combination to show multiple levels of information and relationships.

One of my biggest insights from 'Data Points' is actually not discussed in the book. The book gives you the understanding you need to evaluate the range of combinations of means of presenting data. But about halfway through I realized that the discussion and philosophy of combining these visualizations has a name. Wilkinson's Grammer of Graphics. I have learned the ggplot implementation of Grammer of Graphics, and I favor it above other plotting families in R and Python as being more flexible and giving you more control over the result. The discussion in Data Points explains why Grammer of Graphics is important, it provides an interface for exploring combinations of aesthetics (visual cues) to communicate aspects of complex data sets. And with this, it will probably change how I present and teach visualization for data analysis.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Beautiful LEGO by Boyle: Book review

Beautiful LEGOBeautiful LEGO by Michael Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful and inspiring book. The pictures are works of art. Some majestic in scale, some more at the level that you can imagine someone actually doing, if they had the artistic vision these creators did!

I like LEGO because of the ability to create. I remember as a young boy soon after a move using LEGO to build a model of my old house, with each floor, stairs, and every room represented. With my son, we have DUPLO's that have not gotten old. Some of the things we have made for him have been kept together for regular play for months at a time.

What this book and the artists that it interviews discusses is the use of LEGO as a medium for art. Where it makes the jump from a toy to art is when you creatively consider possibilities within the context of a constraint. And like the photographer who chooses to use black and white, the use of LEGO instead of clay is the fact that it comes in generally rectangular blocks. This book and the interviews recorded here deal with many ways of approaching this type of abstraction. From large scale recreations that rely on distance and scale to convert the blocks to a realistic looking objects, to abstractions with just enough detail so that the idea is recognizable and can fill in the rest.

My hope for my son is that LEGO gives him his first taste of creation, of having a picture in his mind and using building blocks, growing slowly towards that vision with all of the trial and error that involves, and ending with something he can call his own. And in this book, some of artists show that there start was much the same.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book through the Oreilly Press Blogger Program

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Introduction to Data Science by Stanton: Book Review

An Introduction to Data Science by Jeffrey M. Stanton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This freely available book fills a nice little niche, people getting started in data analytics. The first problem people have in learning this is they tend to learn a number of techniques, but in practice they cannot get past the step of accessing and preparing the data. This book covers this and gives good practice in it. I plan on using this as the first of two texts for the course. This book will get them started (gently) in R and accessing and processing data, then a case based data mining book where they can use what they learn here to work with larger data sets that are then analyzed in the methods that the other book goes into more depth.

This book would be for those who are just getting started and need some hand holding as they get started with the R environment as well as those who don't really know where to get started with new data sources. It is most useful for those who are starting from nearly scratch, but also for those whose education included data analysis techniques, but whose training neglected those crucial steps on how to get started and why you should be using some class of method, not just the how. And since it is a free electronic book, it is a low cost way to get started.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Data Science for Business by Provost and Fawcett: Book review

Data Science for Business: What you need to know about data mining and data-analytic thinkingData Science for Business: What you need to know about data mining and data-analytic thinking by Foster Provost
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What Provost and Fawcett have done is to write a book on data mining that focuses on the why of data mining technique, which is great complement to all the books that focus on the how of data mining. And because it focuses on the why for the myriad of methods that fall under the heading of data mining, this would be a good source for a manager of a project for which data mining was merely part of the project, or for a source of good explanations when you need to explain to others what data mining methods (or buzzwards) can and cannot do.

I've come across a number of data mining books. Some are deep into the mathematics and statistics that underlie the methods of data mining. Others focus on how you implement methods. But while this helps with technique, a missing niche is the why, or the morality of data mining methods. They go over a range of methods, but the focus is on the task, recognizing what kinds of questions can be asked in a situation, then how to answer it. This is different from a methods book that has chapters focused on PCA, SVM, trees and forests, or other techniques. The second can lead to tossing out buzzwords. This book is the first, and is for having conversations about how to get a task done.

While I've read and worked through examples from books that focused on methods and implementations, I think that my understanding of data mining has improved significantly on reading this book. I'm recommending it to a former student who has since had to learn and implement these methods in practice, so he can better explain what he has done and its significance at his company. My only nit to pick is the title.  The book clearly focuses on data mining, not on other aspects of data science. Within that realm, I recommend it unreservedly.

Disclaimer:  I received a free electronic copy of this book through the OReilly Blogger program.

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

Parenting Month 35: Oh the tales I have to tell

On your mark, Get set, Go!
On your mark! Get set! Go!

We have an energetic child this past month.  Lots of running around everywhere.  Exploring outside.  Jumping off of things and just because.  And always having something to say. "I'm talking!"

Tag the red circle
There is the red circle

Along with all the activity comes a lot more talking. At home he is constantly talking. Sometimes he is talking to one of us. But he has started telling stories to stuffed animals Pooh and Turtle (he had not played with stuffed animals before), or even pretend to read (he has a book open, and he tells a story as he turns pages. The story may or may not be related to the book, but that does not really matter at this point, does it?) Day care reports that he is now talking to all of the staff, although not so much with his classmates. Although, day care also reported that he had a girlfriend (i.e. they hold hands and sit together for lunch) for a period of time (I don't know if this is current, not knowing the dating cycles of 2-year olds) The center staff also notes that he does not grab toys, but that is more because he never got attached to toys rather than being polite and playing well with others.

It turns out that most of his classmates at day care have older siblings, which means all of them share whatever is going around their older siblings schools. So he has another round of being sick with the ailment of the week. Of course, we have to report to the doctor that despite being sick, he is generally happy and playful, so this does not get all that much concern.

Walking through the woods
I'm hiking in the woods

Monday, September 02, 2013

Parenting Month 34: Where did mommy and daddy go?

Bahia Honda State Park
Who is not in the picture?
This month's grand event. Mommy and daddy took a vacation without T. For five days! This was not our first time without him, but the last time was only for two nights. So we are increasing the length :-) Now, we like T and all, and we even took a vacation with him earlier in the summer. But it is nice to have a few days without him. And healthy for him. Based on reports from grandma and grandpa, he did all right. But he was happy to see us when we got back :-)

In other news, he is continuing to be more talkative.  All of the teachers at the day care report he talks to them (he used to only talk to a chosen few).  And he interacts more with the other kids.  A day care highlight:  the teachers drew a hopscotch grid, and he ended up teaching the other kids what to do on it.  Another highlight.  The day care got some new toys including kitchen toys.  And the teachers did not know what some of them were.  Until T showed them what a steamer and buns were for.

Mommy is starting tiger parenting in earnest.  Yes, we thought that was already going on, but now we are looking at future kindergarden, and what it takes to get in.  In particular, we are thinking about getting him in earlier (because he missed the cutoff) so he would be one of the youngest kids in the year instead of one of the oldest.  In the U.S., the cutoff date has been creeping earlier and earlier over the years, because parents have been trying to hold their kids back and entering later.  So this means doing what New York parents all do and prepare the kids for the tests.  (supposedly the tests are cultural neutral tests of intelligence.  After taking a look at some sample questions, I strongly disagree with this assessment.  It is biased towards kids whose parents prepare them to take cultural neutral tests of intelligence.  Because I cannot imagine a four year old understanding these questions unless that child has seen those types of questions before and knows how to answer them. i.e. they have to already know the form of answer that goes with that form of question]. Daddy is slightly amused by the whole thing actually, and has taken advantage of it by buying games.  Starting with dominoes (which are good for matching and counting) and Bananagrams (think scrabble tiles without the board or points).  Since mommy does not play games, daddy thinks he can raise a playing partner.

This is how you make a truck
Reading instructions on how to make a truck
The other new thing is going to the Kids workshops at Home Depot and Lowe's.  While they are advertised as for 5 and up, in reality younger kids often go as well.  After much observation of grandpa and daddy over the summer, and practice using Handy Manny and the Melissa and Doug tool box, T can reliably hit a nail on the head with a hammer, which is the principle skill required for these kids workshops.  The only problem is that he does not have the strength for it, so it takes a lot of hits (and daddy is there to finish off the nail).  Between both stores (Home Depot is once a month, Lowe's is twice a month) we figure this means an activity and a toy two weekends a month. :-)

Next month.  Back to school for mommy and daddy.  Lots of time with grandma and grandpa at their new home.  And more talking and interaction at day care.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Perfect Coffee at Home by Haft & Suarez - Book review

First batch of cold brew coffee
This was written by a couple of retired U.S. Marines who decided they wanted to learn to make good coffee. And write a book. It turns out to be a wonderful exploration into what electronic publishing can be, and a very good example of how to write about preparing food in general. And it has inspired me to try three forms of preparing coffee other than the kitchen coffee maker that is the workhorse of our household.

First the content. The meat of the book are discussions of various ways of preparing coffee: french press, pour over, Moka pot, Technivorm, cold brew, and Aeropress. For each of these, there is a light-hearted narrative on how they learned the method, and several ways of demonstrating it. A detailed set of instructions with pictures, a video, a discussion on how to scale up or down the recipe, and a short form of the recipe (like you would get on a recipe card). Around these are discussions on various aspects of coffee making, light roast vs. dark roast, grinding the beans, the golden ratio of beans to water, water temperature, all with a discussion on how the different choices interact with each other, the method of preparing coffee, and the taste. And a historical quote and jazz to go with it.

Around the discussions of preparation of coffee are two sets of stories. First is the entire culture around drinking coffee, including the market for coffee and the culture of coffee enthusiasts and connoisseurs (and they discuss the difference!) Second is their story. The nice part about this is that their backgrounds are entirely unpretentious, and their essential story is that they only got good because they were willing to be awful. Because the end goal is to enjoy drinking coffee. And that means trying and experimenting to what you want. Their goal in this book is to provide methods, but also teach you where you can change things, and what the effects will be.

Since we had our son, my wife and I have stagnated in tasting food in general. And I have gone from switching between the french press and kitchen coffee maker to using the coffee maker exclusively. In the week since I started reading this, I've decided to pay much more attention to making coffee. And even pulling up old notes on timing my french press, making cold brew coffee, and even the Moka Pot that I have but don't use. And I've enjoyed my coffee, and even the little changes from brew to brew to make it better. My wife has also enjoyed the results, even passing up on the milk she usually adds because the coffee maker tends to make things burnt. Now, the coffee maker is not going to be retired, it has advantages in ease of setup and cleanup, but every now and then I will be wanting to taste my coffee and I'll pull out other things.
Moka pot on the stove
I think the purpose of a good book about food is not a set of recipes or pretty pictures or passing on knowledge(although these are nice). I think the goal is to inspire you to enhance your enjoyment of eating and drinking. And this book does it in a way that uses the multi-media opportunities of the electronic book format to transmit this in many ways to engage the reader/listener. Oorah!

Note:  This book is currently only available through the Apple iBookstore due to the fact it is the only format the currently allows for the embedding of multiple forms of media.  The book  website is http://www.perfectcoffeeathome.com/.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Learning Java 4th ed by Niemeyer: Book review

Learning JavaLearning Java by Patrick Niemeyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember using an earlier edition of this book to learn Java many years ago. I even used Java for writing simulations as part of my thesis. Since then, since I generally do scientific and technical computing, I have generally used Python and R linked with C, C++, and Fortran libraries instead of Java. But I have used languages on the Java Virtual Machine (Jython and Clojure) and I probably need a refresher on how the JVM works. This book does give a good overview of all of the scaffolding that goes along with programming in Java, but its focus on the language proper and web and GUI programming in particular leaves me wondering how to get real things done with it.

The first part of the book is what seems to be the standard first chapter of almost all programming books nowadays, a argument of why to use Java. While some things like the safety aspects of the JVM ring true, when he talks about the various dynamic languages he gets some basic facts wrong and mis-characterizes how these languages are used in practice. It would have been better if he did not include these sections at all because he frankly started loosing creditability here. (coming from Python, the general line is that Python is at its best as part of a two language solution, and Java is on the list of likely languages to pair Python with along with C, C++, and Fortran.)

Next are several chapters on setting up your machine to develop and run Java. And several chapters are required. I found many things that I often have to spend several hours looking up whenever I start or deploy a JVM based project so I'm glad that someone realized that this really needs to be in the beginning of an introductory Java book. Things like IDE's, setting up classpath and other environmental variables, and the whole java toolchain. While I applaud that this is required, it somewhat gives a lie to the idea that Java is a simple write one run everywhere tool.

The rest is a tour of the Java language. Data types, statements and expressions, exceptions, assertions, classes and objects. I was specially interested in the discussions on Generics and Threads, as I had not used them before. It could be that I'm spoiled by how Python handles the equivalent of Generics, and both Python and R multi-core libraries, but this seemed very detailed and complex (not helped by Java seeming to require that everything be declared in duplicate).

Despite the title, this felt like more of a reference than a tutorial. Having several chapters on setting up the scaffolding that is needed for every Java project is something that some places seem to gloss over as easy (especially if the IDE does it for you), but makes this book a handy reference. But in the advertise role of learning how to use Java, I'm still skeptical.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book through the OReilly Blogger program.

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Friday, August 02, 2013

Parenting Month 33: So many things for you to talk about, so many ways to sing this song.

I'm going to the museum
'H', 'I', 'S', . . .

One of the side effects of our trip to Chicago to visit a cousin and aunties is that T has become much more verbal.  He has started talking almost constantly (well, except at day care).  There is always something to talk about.  He wants to tell us things.  He tells stories with toys and is generally more expressive.  One cute moment yesterday was he was walking along with a four-year old neighbor and they were trying to compete by reading the letters of road signs.  I think the everyone in one block in every direction could hear them reading off letters.  The other aspect is that he is starting to get a little more creative.  He is starting to make up stories of things that his toys do so he is talking about more than what he wants to have (although he still does that, after all, he is a two year old).

New Fangled (AKA Toddler) Saw Bench
This workbench is just right for me
As grandpa and dad have been building projects around the house, T has been the beneficiary.  The sawbench is just the right height for him to use as a workbench (and there is always a handy tape measure for him to measure things with.  Left over dowel pieces and blocks of wood have turned into a hammer and some wood for him to hammer.  A step stool has given him enough reach that he can get high enough over the sink to reach the faucets and to see what he is doing when washing hands by himself.  And the whole garage is a real life version of his beloved Handy Manny cartoon.

I can wash my hands by myself.
I can wash my hands without any help.
Another thing he has started is singing.  Before it was isolated words that he could get in at about the right time.  Now, he is recognizably singing entire songs.  Not good for a performance yet, but we can tell the melody and tone patterns of what he is trying for even if the lyrics are jumbled.  Of course, he only does this at home, so the day care staff tell us he does not join in.  But what I think is happening is that when the staff are singing, he does not sing, because he is studying them.  He does the same thing when videos are playing, he studies the video, then he can repeat it on his own later.  But someday, he is going to have to learn to perform around others.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A two-step step stool

We had some plywood left over after the small scale handyman totes (largely because the big box home center gave us another piece after botching the cutting so badly).  So I decided to something quick and dirty.  A step stool.  My son is not quite tall enough to use the faucet in the main floor bath room.  There is one step stool we have that can get him up, but it is too high for him to step up to it.  Solution, build a two-step step stool.  I laid out a plan based on one from Ana White.  Goal:  Make the step stool, but keep everything within the plywood sheet we have.

Keeping it within the plywood meant that it could only be 12 3/4" high (12 inches because both sides have to fit inside 24", the 3/4" comes from the width of the plywood).  Two 6" deep steps, and roughly 12" wide (based on the need to get both the steps and the supports out of the same 24" wide piece of plywood).

Layout the wood
Laying out the cuts

The key for cutting something this large is to make sure both sides of the cut are supported.  So I used my workbench on one side and the Black & Decker Workmate on the other.  However, the workbench is actually sized to fit me, which means it is a little shorter than the Workmate.  But by using a set of bench cookies (from Rockler) and raising the Workmate slightly I had it roughly equal heights on both sides of where I was going to cut.

Using bench cookies to get the level right
Supporting the wood on both sides

I don't have a table saw or a circular saw, so I was using a jigsaw, which is really not suited for long cuts.  I used a metal ruler to be my guide.  So each cut started out with me placing the jigsaw, the guide next to it, then my combination square to get the metal ruler going straight across the board.  I then clamped down the ruler and made the cut by having the jigsaw follow the guide.

Setting up a cut for a jigsaw
Cutting the board using a guide for the jigsaw
The cuts were supposed to be the hard part.  Especially since jigsaw blades are known to wander around on long cuts so while the cut may be straight at the top, the unsupported bottom is moving around so the cut is usually not straight all the way through.  But with a step stool, the next part is attaching the legs to the supports and the steps.  And getting started was a trick.

I started by attaching the stretchers to the sides.  First I clamped one side in the Workmate so that the back was exposed and level with the Workmate surface.  This let me attach the sides to the back of the Workmate.  Next, I used my sawbench and pipe clamps to hold one side of the stool while attaching the stretchers to the other side.  My cross cuts for the stretchers turned out pretty bad, while my rip cuts on the sides were pretty good, so I aligned the stretchers using the sides, and ignored the fact that top and bottoms of the stretchers were messed up.

Supporting sides up while driving in screws
Supporting step stool side with the pipe clamp on the sawbench
After the sides, then came the steps.   Now, the jigsaw is pretty bad about making straight, square cuts, but it turns out that in this design, the sides are not vertical either.  So, of my two steps, I looked for the one with the edge that slanted just like the step cuts and made that the bottom step.

Putting on the steps
Now to attach the steps.

So now I have an assembled two-step step stool.  After this, I used a rasp, then file, then sandpaper to round off all the edges.
Two step stepstool assembled!
Assembled step stool
Next step is to finish the wood.  I'm going to put on Danish oil, because that is what I have lying around, and let that sit overnight.  Then we get to see if T uses it.

Some room for improvement.  The original plans have the supports in between the legs, not attached to the ends.  Maybe if I have time someday I can take out the supports and re cut them (they are pretty messed up) and do this the right way.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Python Cookbook, 3rd edition by Beazley and Jones - Book review

Python CookbookPython Cookbook by David Beazley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The third edition of Python Cookbook is part of what seems to be a general trend of issuing new editions focusing on Python 3. For me, whose focus is on data analysis and technical computing, this is the time to be thinking about the change from Python 2 to Python 3 as the base libraries of Numpy, Scipy, Matplotlib, and iPython have been ported, and the various other libraries I use that depend on these are being ported as well. But this edition is not just porting the old cookbook, it is a complete rewrite to go with the big shift that was Python 2 to 3. Because a lot of what I used the old cookbook and many of the recipes at the ActiveState website was for handling issues related to crossing versions (I had some projects with Jython, which was several versions behind CPython) and ways of getting around issues that are purportedly solved in Python 3. For that the third edition of Python Cookbook fills its purpose of showing idiomatic ways of performing some programming tasks, and being a reference for how to do thing well and elegantly taking advantage of the language and libraries, not fighting it.

I focus on using Python as a data analysis platform. So I generally only learned as much of the language I needed to in order to use the scientific stack of Numpy, Scipy, Matplotlib, Pandas, and the libraries that were built around them. But that means that I have not gotten to know large portions of the standard library. And introductory books don't cover this either, they focus on using the language itself. There are also a large number of books and references that focus on Python as a web development tool or a system administration tool, so those parts of the standard library get a lot of coverage in teaching materials. But the rest you almost have to stumble upon. In ideal conditions, the way you would learn about much of the standard library is to have someone who was more experienced nearby show you what you needed to know, as she demonstrated methods in her code that did the things that you never learned in class. But sometimes there is no such person. The Python Cookbook plays this role, of demonstrating how to do things in Python 3 that are practical and you probably would not learn while learning the language itself.

Some areas that I found useful are the heapq, generators, and the I/O. heapq is a module and data structure I just never got around to learning. Usually discussions about Python data structures made their way to deque and heapq was discussed by reference. But after looking at the priority queue discussion, I fired up an iPython notebook and went through every recipe that used heapq and I've started thinking about how to rewrite a model I recently coded up. Generators and File I/O are areas that I knew in passing through my use with them in data analysis, but Python Cookbook opened up new ways of understanding (I am starting to get why JSON is so useful). Now, there is nothing special about these, but seeing these parts of the standard library in use in an elegant way is something beyond what you would get from a module documentation or a standard tutorial.

I do miss the introductions to each chapter that was in the 1st and 2nd editions of Python Cookbook. But what Python Cookbook does give is an idiomatic feel of using Python3, when there are not all that many mentors out there to go around. So this is something very useful for others who are starting to use Python 3. It is not for learning the language, but it is for using the language well.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book as part of the Oreilly Bloggers program
I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program
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Sunday, July 07, 2013

My version of the New Fangled Sawbench

We have a few projects going around the house. One thing I've noticed is that my father-in-law does not use the workbench. He sometimes uses the Black & Decker Workmate for some detail sawing, but he uses some small stools he made up when doing any major cuts. The issue is that the workbench and workmate are too high for doing hand work. Enter the sawbench.

The modern advocate for sawbenches is Christopher Schwartz at Popular Woodworking Magazine. An he has many iterations on sawbench design and use at that site.

The purpose of a sawbench is for using handsaws. To do this properly, you need to be able to use your weight to hold the material steady and to cut. And the traditional workbench that is about wrist high is really for planing and power tools and is too high for this. The sawbench should be about knee high so you can kneel on top of material on top of the workbench. In addition, some designs have a notch at the front for use when ripping boards (cutting with the grain). Some have a slot in the middle for supporting pieces on both sides. Some have splayed legs, others straight. I choose to use a design from the Timber Frame Tools blog, which is based on a design at the Dan's Shop blog. This version is made up of 2X6s (with 2X4s for stretchers). I liked the idea of straight (thick) legs, so I could use it as an actual sitting bench as well. And I have not gotten to the point I could cut good mitres with any degree of accuracy.

I got a 10' 2X6 from the local Lowes, and they cut it down for me. I was going for 24" top, and 17" tall. The height was based on me going around the house and kneeling on chairs until I found one that seemed to be the right height for kneeling, with allowances for shoes and some material thickness. The length was based partly on the fact that I needed everything to fit in a 10' board, and by the fact that this is going to have to live underneath my workbench and the workbench top was 24" deep.

Step one is to make the legs. Each leg is made of edge glued 17" 2x6s. There is a notch in the bottom of the legs to help with stability (I don't think there is any flat-level surface in the house, the space here helps keep the rocking under control.) In addition, I cut notches where the top will go, with a spacer in the middle. The slot in the spacer will have a 1/2" pipe clamp, to serve as a vice.

Glueing legs together

Next for the legs is to cut some notches for the stretchers. One option is to put the stretchers up against the top. I chose to put them a couple inches below so that I would have some room for clamps in any direction along the top.

Notches in legs for stretchers

Next to work on the top. The boards were somewhat cupped, so I (and my father-in-law) spent some time planing them smooth. I put a notch in the top as well. While I could say that it is for ripping wood, the real reason is that I found a split in one side of the top, and cutting out the notch to get rid of the split.

Now that the pieces were all cut, time to put everything together. First the stretchers. The notches were good enough so that they fit in snug, and I could test the placement. The stretchers were sized to be a 2x4 we had laying around cut in half, so 19". I made it so that it was about 1" behind the notch in the front, and 2" from the back. These were then put in with glue and then I screwed them in. Next was the top. Since the notch for this was sized, this was glued on as well. For this, I wanted the glue to harden before screwing them in. (I did not worry about the stretchers because the fit was so tight the screws were not going to knock them out of alignment.) Then I clamped everything together with speed clamps and a pipe clamp.

Glueing on the top

The next day, I put in screws help hold the top to the legs.  First, I used a 1/2" spade bit to make a well for the screw (to keep the screw head below the top of the bench).  Then used the cordless drill to drive in the screws.

Pipe clamp and bench dog holes

Last step, I put in two pairs of bench dog holes. These are to work with the pipe clamp to serve as a vice for holding material. (something I have not put onto my workbench) I rather like the pipe clamp trick. The idea is what is usually the backside can rotate in any direction, so you use the clamp side to hold onto the workbench and the back side to hold the material (or the reverse). The bench dogs can also be used to hold material against the clamp. The pipe clamp I got already had padding, so a wood block is optional. (or if I want a wide surface to clamp with)

Finished sawbench

At the Timberframe Tools site, he gives this an alternative name as the "Toddler's Workbench", because it looks like a small version of a real workbench (straight legs, bench dog holes) so his son can play with it. So does mine :-)

New Fangled (AKA Toddler) Saw Bench

Some things for next time around. I need to learn how to cut notches the long way through lumber. It would be better if the top had a slot so that it was seated in the legs so there is wood providing lengthwise support, not only glue and screws. Also, I messed up the slot in the middle. I needed it to be the width of the clamp housing, not the with of of the clamp (or of a board which was used in the original design). I got it to work by going back and making the slot wider, but I could have used that width to make the pipe holder slot stronger. I'll probably stain it with Danish oil. And after I've used it a few times with bench dogs, I may put in another pair or two of bench dog holes. But I'm happy with this one.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Scaled down versions of the Handyman tool tote

The tool-tote (plans at the Handyman club) I had made a while back had one problem, it was big.  The reason it is big is to have an 18" box, which is big enough for most full size hammer.  In addition, it was trying to get the top high enough so that you can use it as a work surface where you can kneel on a board on the top while working with it.  And that means it has to be wide enough to be stable.  All that means that my wife won't use such a thing.  So we're giving it to my father-in-law, who needs a tool box and a stable work surface, and I'm going to make a couple more smaller versions for us.

Completed tool tote / sawhorse
Looking at the scrap, I figured out how a layout where I could make two boxes with the leftovers from this and the workbench and a single 2' X 4' piece of plywood.  So my wife goes to get the plywood.  And the guy who was helping her completely mangles the thing.  I had a layout so that if you made four 12" x 12" boxes in a square pattern on one half of the board, you would use the remnant that would be slighly less than 24" x 24" for the rest and there would be waste at the end.  Instead, he decides to make 12" boxes straight across the long way.  And he was using a board that was 24" wide, but 47 1/2" across, so that means that the last board would be 12" wide, but significantly less than 12" long.  And it also means that the rest of the pieces would be hard to cut out.  (big box stores generally don't mind doing cuts in plywood and lumber as long as they are straight through cuts)  This meant that I had to do some tinkering with the design to make it work with the cuts he gave us.

So, basic idea is to make two bins.  Both 12 3/4" high  (12" + the width of a plywood topshelf).  And the other dimensions whatever would work.  In particular I ended up having one top be 4" wide and the other 5" wide (the original goal was to have them both 5" wide).  And the box would be 12" long (instead of 13") and 8" across.  Because the top piece was across the top of the sides, it would actually be quite stable and strong (i.e. you could stand on either one without worry).

Box for the tool tote

This time was much smoother, the benefit of having done this before, and now I have a few more clamps and other tools that I've been accumulating while doing other projects.  And my general skill level with measuring, layout, and cutting has been improving.

Using a pipe clamp to hold the sides for screwing in

After the box is put together, next came the handles.  This worked well the last time, so this time with four handles to make it was practically a production line.  The Workmate acquitted itself nicely again to hold the handles for both rounding the handles as well as making the necessary holes for the bolt and the handle dowel.

Making the handles on Black & Decker Workmate

Finally the completed project.  It is incredible what a difference 2/3 scale makes.

Tooltotes next to full size model

And the reason for doing two of them:  so that I have the equivalent of two short sawhorses.  In this case I wanted to cut out a notch on the bottoms of the original version so that it be less prone to rocking on non-smooth surfaces.  Normally this would have been a problem because the handle would get in the way of putting it on my workbench top.  But with the tool tote/sawhorses I could lay it across the two of them and clamp them so I could work.

Scaled down tool totes in action

So now, we're passing on the original to my father-in-law so he could use it as a tool storage and a small workbench, and we have two short boxes. My wife is using hers for paint and gardening stuff.  I'm using mine to store measuring things.   A nice quick project.