July 13, 2008

April Field Trip: Walden Pond

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s July, but I’m still trying to catch up with my blogging. In any case, back in April, after spending too much time at home during the winter months, I went a little field-trip crazy and signed the us up for a grand total of 12 field trips or activities — out of 20 weekdays in the month. By the end of the month, as you might imagine, I was hearing things like, “Where are we going this time?” and “Do we have to go?”

We’re going here and yes, we have to go, because I already paid for it.

Hey, I was a homeschooling rookie this past year. Now I’ve learned my lesson: take it easy on the spring activities, no matter how eager you are to get out of the house.

Luckily, Walden Pond was one of our first trips early in the month, so we had yet to succumb to field-trip malaise. The weather was mild (for April) and sunny. Our tour guide did a nice job of summarizing Henry David Thoreau’s life in his Walden Woods cabin.

Of course, you can read all about Thoreau’s two years there, sometimes in excruciating detail, in his book, Walden. One detail he left out — I know, because my 7-year-old asked the tour guide — is where he read the Sunday paper, if you catch my drift. Apparently, Thorough avoided writing about such unseemly bodily functions in Walden. But if you’re into famous-people quotes, Walden is the book in which Thoreau penned the “live the life you’ve imagined” and “march to the beat of a different drummer” lines, except that’s not exactly what he wrote in either case, but most people don’t exactly care as long as the gist is right, and it is.

I understand why Thoreau wanted to live near Walden Pond: as you can see from the photos below, 160 years later, the pond is still beautiful, even before the leaves on the trees around it are in full bloom. Unfortunately, my photos don’t show just how sparkling blue the water is. The pond was formed by receding glaciers from the last ice age, and the water is still absolutely brilliant and blue.

Makes me want to jump in, now that summer is here.

Walden Pond swimming area

In the summer, this is where you find the swimmers.

Walden Pond beach

During the two years Thoreau lived in Walden Woods,
he measured the pond’s dimensions and depth,
and amazingly,
more recent measurement with modern tools have shown
Thoreau’s to be accurate.

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June 13, 2008

Spring Update: Ides of March Eve/Einstein’s Birthday/Pi Day

I‘ve been so bloggedy-blog-blog busy that I haven’t had time to, um, blog in the past several weeks. How sad that it’s almost summer and I haven’t finished writing about spring. I’ll never get all the details down now, but trust me when I say we had a lot of fun this spring, what with the 5,000 field trips I registered us for and the general whoopin’ it up we do on a daily basis.

Okay, we don’t whoop all that much, but when we do, we really whoop like nobody’s business. In a nerdy sort of way.

Take, for instance, March 14, otherwise known as the day before the Ides of March or Pi Day (3.14 - get it?). Plus, it’s someone’s birthday. Of all people, Albert Einstein had the good sense to be born on Pi Day. How fortuitous for Albert and for me! I have kids, so I now have an excuse to celebrate Einstein’s birthday, which is something that never occurred to me to do when I was young. Can’t imagine why. Now, of course, I’m all for adding more birthday celebrations to our calendar, especially if they s-t-r-e-t-c-h out the time until my next birthday.

The Einstein birthday party was actually my daughter’s idea. She was mad that I didn’t tell her it was Einstein’s birthday until 9 o’clock that evening. “Now I missed it!” she complained. But I assured her that she could have an impromptu party the next day, and none of the kids on the block were likely to know or care that we were a day late. After all, she had no idea about Einstein’s birthday until I told her, right? So in the morning she created the invitations and helped me with the party activities. When one of her friends arrived for the party, we explained what the party was and what we’d be doing, to which he replied, “I thought this was going to be a normal party.”

Normal, schmormal. Some party highlights:

The Einstein Quiz
In which we asked truly trivial questions about Albert Einstein’s life that none of the kids could answer correctly. Can you believe none of them even knew he was German? Sheesh, take an educated guess, people! (NB: The oldest kid at the party was 10.)

If I Only Had a Brain
In which art imitated life. Look at the photo of Albert. Something’s missing — his brain! No wonder his hair is always a mess.

Someone stole Albert's brain!

I bet he has a splitting headache.
(Note the awesomeness of my Photoshop skillz.)

Luckily, the kids stepped in and played Pin the Brain on Einstein, with one child actually sticking a brain in the hole in the astrophysicist’s head. Nice job!

Pin the brain on Einstein
Pin another brain on Einstein

I wish it were this easy for me to get another brain or two.

Let Them Eat Pi
In which a 9-year-old used a pie (and whipped cream) to explain pi. Pie humbly and doubly serves humanity by being both a math manipulative and a dessert, while pi serves as the shortest mathematical term with the longest value (more than a trillion digits and counting!).

Pi Pie

Mathematically good!

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May 2, 2008

Free Comic Book Day 2008

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day! If you loves you some comic books, stop by your local comic book store and see if they’re participating. Or better yet, search for participating stores in your area before venturing out.

Just by showing up at a participating store, you’ll get at least one free comic book. Some stores give out two or three. It’s up to each store to decide. We learned about this event last year and found out that yes, stores really do give away comic books on this one day per year. You’ll probably have to choose from a limited selection and you won’t be able leave with arms full of free stuff, but that’s how it should be. If one free comic book isn’t enough for you, then you’re really kind of greedy, aren’t you?

Comic books are having something of a renaissance in America right now. In fact, they — along with their more lengthy and haughtily named cousin, the graphic novel — are downright acceptable in schools these days, to the point that some are being written and published for the school and library markets. Unfortunately, once they’re deemed “educational,” they get saddled with vocabulary lists and glossaries and comprehension questions in the back of the book. Talk about a buzz kill.

So skip the library this time and support your local businesses. Go get yourself a non-school-market, free comic book, buy one or two more at the regular price, and corrupt your children’s minds and morals the old fashioned way.

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April 20, 2008

Killer Boots

Killer boots

Sure, they look all comfy and innocent….

Spring, the season of rebirth and renewal, has finally arrived in New England. Our forsythia blooms, the tulips push through the cold earth, and the magnolia buds ready for opening. Outdoors, signs of life abound. But spring has also brought new life indoors … to me.

Each winter, I tease my husband that he and the kids are trying to collect on my life insurance policy by leaving their shoes and boots all over the staircase landing — and particularly close to the steps themselves — thereby increasing my chances of tripping and falling head first into the full-length window directly across from the stairs. This would be the same landing that’s always dark because the overhead light burns through bulbs like Mexican water runs through American tourists. With my klutziness, the perfect storm brews all winter.

Landing full of shoes and boots

Note the forced casual look of these strewn-about
shoes and boots. Even the dog is getting in on the
act! (See red arrow). Also, note that not a single
pair of my shoes can be found on
the landing.

A few days ago, as I was noting that I could finally put the menacing snow boots away for the season and breathe a sigh of relief at having survived yet another dangerous winter on my own staircase, my husband reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll.” In it, Telly Savalas plays a grumpy newlywed who’s peeved that his bride somehow neglected to mention that she had a daughter… until after the wedding. Savalas’ character is bitter and just plain disdainful of his new step-daughter. But he meets his match in her talking doll, Talky Tina. The supposedly inanimate Tina seems like a regular toy around most people. She recites the appropriate prepackaged lines in front of them. But Tina secretly torments Savalas, who doesn’t like the doll because he didn’t want his wife to buy it for his unwanted step-daughter in the first place. (To make matters worse, Savalas’ character is also bitter because he’s infertile, which, given his anger management issues, is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Anyway, Talky Tina doesn’t like Angry Daddy, and she tells him that. He’s a little freaked out, starts to get paranoid (and, not surprisingly, angrier), and throws her in the trash. Of course, he later finds the doll back in the house. You just can’t throw Tina away! She has feelings. Eventually, when Talky Tina has finished playing with Savalas’ sanity, she places herself juuuuuust right on the stairs, where Savalas trips over her and falls to his death. Tina ends the episode by telling the little girl, “My name is Talky Tina…and you better be nice to me!”

This Is Not the Relationship Most Women Have with Shoes

After my husband recounted the Twilight Zone plot, I thought, “Am I now supposed to believe all those shoes on the landing are not there for some nefarious reason?” I mean, if you were trying to convince me that you hadn’t put the shoes at the foot of the steps to trip me, would you tell me a story about someone tripping and falling down steps?**

But then I realized what Mr. Enigma was trying to say. He wasn’t reaffirming his role in my future demise. But he wasn’t saying I was safe, either. He was saying, “I’m not out to get you, honey, the shoes are.”

Keep reading… »

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March 4, 2008

WalkingFinding the Labyrinth

Last weekend, my son’s UU religious education (RE) class learned about labyrinths, which many UUs and people of other belief systems use both metaphorically and as a spiritual practice. The assistant RE directed noted that another local church has two labyrinths in the woods on their retreat property, Rolling Ridge.

So we took a ride over there yesterday afternoon to walk the labyrinths and, perhaps, meditate while on our path. (Okay, with my kids, meditation — in the silent, pensive, inward-looking sense of the word — was but a pipe dream.)

It occurred to me only after I parked the car that it’s winter in New England. We still have snow on the ground. A labyrinth is, in fact, a path. On the ground. And therefore under the snow. Suddenly I was reminded of last winter when we (and when I say “we,” I mean “I”) decided it would be fun to finally try letterboxing with the kids. In the snow and 20-degree weather. It was not fun, nor, as you might expect, did we find the boxes. We did learn something that day, however: walking around in the woods, looking for something someone else has left there, on an Arctic-cold, overcast day does little to bring about family peace or unity.

Walking the labyrinth

See the curved path outlined by the rocks?

Given that I’ve made the same mistake two years in a row, I must be in some sort of deep, soul-level denial about winter. Either that, or I’m just incapable of learning from past experiences. The jury is still out.

Anyway, luckily, we don’t have all that much snow left, and the labyrinths were somewhat visible because they’re marked with logs and large stones. If you looked closely, you could see the curved patterns in the snow, but you couldn’t see for certain the specific path laid out. So we did the best we could to follow the intended labyrinth paths, but I’m sure we’ll have better luck once the snow melts.

Sometime in June.

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February 25, 2008

Hanging Out and Doing Stuff Leads to More Hanging Out and Doing Stuff

We began President’s Day weekend with a flurry of activity out of the house, and then returned home to a cozier flurry of activity inside the house. Some of us chose to doodle, while others dabbled in 3D programming, while still others cooked and wrote and read.

Mr. Enigma sat down to draw in his sketch book. The Duke walked by on his way to do something else, noticed that Dad was drawing, peeked over his shoulder and asked, “What are you drawing?”

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey see, monkey do

They talked about the drawing for a moment while my husband kept working. Suddenly, The Duke grabbed a chair and pulled it up alongside Mr. Enigma’s recliner. Then he went into his room, grabbed his sketch book and pencil, and sat down next to his Dad and began drawing.

They worked that way for at least half an hour, and what a special, bonding time it was. Completely unplanned and uncoerced, creativity begot creativity.

daughter programming in Alice

While this side-by-side drawing was going on, my daughter was hogging my laptop, programming her first 3D animation in Alice. She took the tutorial and spent about an hour noodling around. Her finished piece was, as she put it, “A Shakespeare kind of thingy,” by which she meant a whole bunch of characters fought, declared their love for each other, and died, all in a 20-second animated movie.

What was I doing? Well, my daughter was using my computer, so I read, started getting dinner ready, and took pictures of my family just hanging out and doing stuff. It was a good day.

To see scenes from my daughter’s first movie, click the link below.

Keep reading… »

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February 18, 2008

Alice.org: Free Programming Tool for Kids

My family spent Saturday afternoon at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Family Day in Boston, where we saw all kinds of great stuff. I’ll post more about the expo a little later, but I want to tell you first about one particularly outstanding product we learned about while there: a free programming interface for kids called Alice.

I’m excited about this program because my 9-year-old has said she wants to learn how to make her own computer games, and we’ve been looking for a child-friendly application to help her learn how to do that. We couldn’t find anything that looked like a 9-year-old programming novice would be able to learn quickly and easily. Half the battle with helping young kids maintain their excitement is to enable them to complete a project in a short period of time (like two hours on the first try). Everything we looked at either had a huge learning curve or would have probably been too difficult for our daughter right now.

And then, Saturday, we just stumbled upon Alice by accident.

Carnegie Mellon developed Alice, a drag-and-drop programming interface that allows you to create 3D worlds in a Java-like language. Sometime this year, a new version (3.0) of Alice will be released which will enable actual Java programming, not Java-like programming.

In the meantime, two versions are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, standard Alice, designed for high school and college-aged “kids” and Storytelling Alice, for middle school-aged kids. I think even some younger kids will be able to use Storytelling Alice, given that my 7-year-old son sat on my lap this morning and explained to me how he thought it worked. After watching me for a few minutes, he definitely understood the basic idea behind how to build a world and make the characters in it do what we wanted them to do.

Both versions of Alice come with a library of scenes and characters; each character has a handful (or more) of ready-to-use methods (actions), so that if you want your character to walk, run, talk, turn, smile, cry, think, etc., you can just drag that method from a list and drop it into your program. You can also create new methods.

I took the 30-minute tutorial for Storytelling Alice and then spent another 30 minutes playing with the software. In that hour, I learned how to create a new world, add characters to it, and program those characters to do what I wanted them to do. I also learned some programming terminology, like what a method is. I finished a brief movie in about 30 minutes. Not too shabby!

The Alice.org website also offers free instructional materials, a user forum, additional characters and scenes, and other helpful information. When I have time to play with the tool more, I’ll learn how to do programming loops, “while” statements, and other standard programming thingies (pardon my technical language) that will allow my characters to interact more naturally. Eventually, I suppose I’ll let my daughter have a turn. It was her idea to learn how to program, wasn’t it?

And did I mention that Alice is free?

My only disappointment thus far is with the publishing capability. The “publish as movie” function doesn’t work yet (at least not in Storytelling Alice). And if you publish as an HTML page, anyone who wants to view the page has to have Java, Java 3D, and Java Media Console installed on his/her computer.

Otherwise, Alice rocks. Check it out at Alice.org.

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