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.
I review for the O'Reilly Reader Review 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.
I review for the O'Reilly Reader Review 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