Sunday, September 30, 2007

I'm Feeling Hip and Ethnic!

So this morning our church was hosting a bone-marrow drive through Bloodsource, and I decided to participate. And of course the first thing they make you do is fill out a long questionaire listing your contact information, your health condition, and your ethnicity. I dutifully filled out this form--leaving a couple of questions blank because I couldn't come up with a satisfying answer. Bloodsource was also collecting a fee, $52.00 per head, to cover the cost of testing and processing all these DNA samples.

When it came my turn to be interviewed, I asked about the questions I'd left blank on the questionaire. The questions were "Would you be willing to have us contact you about donating blood?" and "Would you be willing to have us contact you about donating platelets?" The reason that I didn't know how to answer these questions is that, under current FDA guidelines, I'm forbidden from donating blood products. I used to donate occasionally. But having grown up in a military family that was stationed in Germany in the early 1980's, I was exposed to British-grown beef, and well... the government thinks I have Mad Cow disease.

So I told the lady that I'd love to be able to donate again, but that I'm not currently allowed. So yes, I'd love to be called about it, but then I'd just have to answer "no." But then she said something very interesting; they're lobbying the FDA to have the restrictions related to Mad Cow removed. After all, to my knowledge there haven't yet been any known cases of Jacob-Kreutzfeldt Disease (human form of Mad Cow) transmitted through blood transfusions. And one would think, with all the blood donors who lived on US bases in Europe in the '80's, if there was a risk, it would have made someone sick by now. In any case these restrictions are banning a big chunk of the potential donating public; military personnel and their family members tend to be heavy hitters when it comes to donating blood.

Then she said something very interesting. She said they're lobbying the FDA to have the the restrictions lifted, and that there's at least a likelihood that it will happen; and that when it does happen, they will be calling up a whole lot of people to get them to donate. So I went ahead and checked yes to the little boxes.

Then she started asking me more questions about my ethnicity. Am I part Latino? No. Am I part Native American? Well actually, so far as I know, there is in my family tree one full-blooded Cherokee eight generations back.

Well, now! She immediately marked on my application that I'm part Native American.

And I said that, um.... it was only one person eight generations ago, which would make me no more that one part in 256 Native American.

She responded, "You'd be surprised at what kind of stuff that leaves in your DNA." She then went on to say that they're really really looking for people who are mixed-race Native American; they're often the hardest ones to match. And that because I'm mixed-race, I get to waive the $52.00 fee, if I want to.

Well, I went ahead and paid anyway, telling them to sponsor someone else who wasn't as, um... genetically endowed as me. And I went away thinking to myself: I'm mixed race! I, the blue-eyed, red-bearded, never-tanned one--whose skin turns beet red even while thinking about the sun--I'm officially one of those for whom the currently approved term is First Peoples! This is so cool. I'm ethnic! Who knew?

So a little later I started to wax eloquent to my lovely wife about my newfound identity, telling her that "I'm feeling Hip and Ethnic now!" whereupon she began to wax eloquent right back at me:

"Get over it."

Well, um... ok.

So it then occurred to me: what's the opposite of Hip and Ethnic?

Actually, Weird Al's video is actually only a mildly exaggerated description of me. No, I don't speak Klingon (Qapla'!), but I have recently been picking up a strong interest in Anglo-Saxon (Hwaet!). You can't get much more White and Nerdy than that.

I guess I'll just have to go back to being a member of the lowly oppressor class. How totally uncool.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I've Turned the Corner!

Quite literally, in fact. There's a weird acute angle in the walkway I'm building, and I've gotten past it. This was one of those parts of the project where I hadn't been sure how I was going to deal with it, but consoled myself by semi-continually mouthing the cliché "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it." Well, yesterday I came to the bridge and had to fight the trolls.

In this post, which I wrote nearly a month ago, I included this picture:

In this picture I am standing in the planter (don't tell my wife). You can see how the walkway that comes in from the left meets the walkway that stretches out in front, at roughly a 70° or 80° angle (between 1.22 and 1.40 radians, for you metric purists).

There were a couple of different ways that I could have solved the problem, and all of them involved cutting cobblestones--using hammer and chisel, I might add, since I haven't sprung for one of those nifty water-cooled tile saws. And when one cuts stones with hammer and chisel one frequently gets cuts that are less-than-perfectly straight. So not only did I have to cut a bunch of stones, I had to arrange them in a pattern that both looks good and visually obscures the ragged edges. So did I succeed?

Tell me what you think:

And for a more direct comparison with the picture at the top of this post:

I, for one, think it worked. In fact, it worked so well it has prompted me to think dangerous, formerly unthinkable thoughts, like: when it comes time to do that big angled patio, I think I'll save the cost of renting the tile saw and just cut the blocks myself. Given that I'm not going to try to do the whole patio in one day anyway, I'll only have to cut a few feet worth of angled stone in any one session. I think that's doable, and will save a little cash. (And all that chiseling will give me a right forearm like Popeye's. And no, I'm not going to switch off with my hands to try to build the left forearm too--the thought of trying to chisel left-handed somehow evokes premonitions of terrible pain.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Let's See How Literate My Readers Are

I don't have the time tonight to write a full blog post, but I'll have something for you tomorrow. I made a good deal of progress on the Backyard Thingy, but the sun went down before I had the chance to get some good pictures.

So in the meantime, I have a challenge for my legion of fan:

Figure out the pronunciation of the word Årþørsgrößtetüðpik, and tell me what it means.

Winner gets extra brownie points. Have at it! ;-)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Update on My Beloved's Nether Limb

My wife got her cast removed today, and everything is healing the way it's supposed to. My wife has written about it on her blog here.

Ride of the Funny Hat Brigade

Well, the Pillowfight Fairy and I have been continuing to work on projects from Usborne's Knights and Castles; Things to Make and Do. Behold the fruits of our labor:

In this picture we see not one but two midget Valkyries, wielding their mighty blades Uncalibur-ated (with the pink handle) and Årþørsgrößtetüðpik (with the black).

Both the Pillowfight Fairy and the Adrenalin Junkie were highly interested in the forging of these blades; and having never seen the forging of cardboard before, so was I. But as you may have predicted, I did most of the work. The Fairy did her best at what she could--and did an excellent job on some parts, like the decoration of her hilt. But many of the steps were difficult and/or long and boring, and the Fairy's attention flagged when, for instance, she had to trim off all that excess foil. And there was some impatience for the glue to dry. And wrapping all that yarn around the sword handle produced a big, tangled mess at first until the All-Father stepped in to sort things out.

And yes, Uncalibur-ated has a pink handle. This was the Pillowfight Fairy's blade, and she picked the color yarn with which to wrap its handle. This makes me think about the original Valkyries: we all know they were warrior maidens, but which predominated? Were they more warrior, or more maiden? I'd never considered the question before. Perhaps when they went to battle, they all had to do each other's hair up into those cute little French-braided pigtails first, and then they all dressed in pastels--and it's not so easy to find leggings to match your gauntlets (accessories are very important in battle, you know), and they would say things to each other like "Do these greaves make me look fat?"

I picked black--a nice manly color--and then promptly handed it over to a two-year-old girl to play with. Of course, when one gives anything roughly sword-shaped to a pair of midget Valkyries, one must expect them to use said sword-shaped objects to start whacking anything that moves, and many things that don't.

And when said sword-shaped objects are made primarily from foil-lined cardboard, one must expect them rapidly to become ex-sword-shaped, or even ex-objects. So it is with the mighty blades seen above: I have had to do several non-standard repairs on both of them so far. The way the swords are constructed, stiffness is provided by a rolled-up piece of cardboard (the book specifies newspaper, but since we get all our news online, we don't have much good newsprint around, so we just used what we had) that runs the length of the sword--from just below the point of the sword, all the way down into the pommel. The biggest problem occurs when this cardboard roll gets squished or crimped. At that point the sword starts flopping from one side to the other. To fix it, I've had to slice carefully into the edges of the blade, insert some thin bamboo sticks, and then close up the incision and tape it. I've had to do this twice on the blade of Uncalibur-ated; I've also had to do it once on Årþørsgrößtetüðpik's blade and once on its handle. These splints appear to be holding, but I yet fear that these blades won't be long for this world.

Nevertheless, I think everyone earned the right to one last, rousing cry of Hojotoho! And then it was time for the All-Father to give the Valkyries a bath and put them to bed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Alllllmost There....

Of course, I need to be very careful about using that phrase. It comes from Star Wars, when Red Leader is trying to blow up the Death Star. Of course, his torpedo misses the vent and impacts on the surface, and not too long after that he gets blown up while trying to draw the TIE Fighters off of Luke's tail. So it's actually an ill-starred phrase. Hopefully I haven't jinxed us.

I am referring, of course, to my wife's appointment with the podiatrist and the friendly cast-remover-people at the clinic, whom she will be seeing tomorrow. Tomorrow is exactly four weeks from the day when her cast went on. The cast will be removed, then they'll X-ray her foot again; the podiatrist will then take a look at the images, and decide what further treatment Tonya needs. So far as we know, the options range from Ideal (everything looks perfect, she can start using normal shoes and start walking on it again) to Probable (they put her in a weight-bearing cast for a few more weeks) to Bad (they have to put her in another cast and keep her on crutches for another month). We'll know the answer tomorrow.

(But, I'm at least optimistic! The Bad option above isn't the worst that I can imagine. That would involve amputation or something.)

So in the meantime, how have we been getting along these last few weeks?

I'm glad you asked that! (Humor me here.) We've been surviving, with a fair amount of help from family and friends. After she broke her foot, I took nearly two weeks off from work, until I had depleted most of my vacation time. Then Tonya's parents came by and took care of her and the kids for the next week when I went back to work. But they had to leave about a week and a half ago.

So since then we've had to make a lot of adjustments. First, Tonya has gotten very good at using her crutches--and not just for locomotion, either. They're good for doing things like opening the drapes, pulling doorknobs toward her, turning off distant lightswitches, disciplining our children (Just kidding!), and so forth. Second, she's gotten pretty good at maneuvering herself around on an office chair. Now this is actually a little more tricky than it sounds, as most of our house is carpeted. One can't go to fast on an office chair on carpet without running the risk of capsizing. This is especially true at the entryway to the kitchen, where the carpet gives way to linoleum, and there is a solid bump where the metal strip holds the carpet in place--going from the kitchen to the dining room is a little exciting. One is tempted to get a running start, but that's not so good of an idea--especially not while carrying the kinds of things one usually goes into the kitchen to get in the first place.

We've had several wonderful souls from church come over to help out. Several of these have brought food for us. The menu this last week has had everything from rotisserie chicken to Tex-Mex lasagne to sushi and teriyaki. I daresay we're gaining weight--except for the kids, who say typical kid-like sayings such as "What's that?" and "I no want it." (This means of course that Mommy and Daddy eat it all--thus the weight gain.) But several others have simply come over in the mornings to provide company and a little more order with the kids. Of course, the kids have this system figured out: Pillowfight Fairy picks out numerous books and starts reading them to the guest, thus wowing them with her literary prowess, while the two others head in opposite directions. Strategy! I shall have to start teaching them chess soon. Mommy says she's onto them, but I daresay it's going to get a lot tougher, because...

The Happy Boy is now an efficient and enthusiastic crawler. In fact, although we still refer to him as "Happy Boy", this is now frequently a misnomer. He's developed quite a bee in his bonnet, so to speak. Now that he's mobile, he's become a lot more assertive about what he wants, and when he wants it. If he sees something fascinating, he'll head straight for it, and will brook no restraint. The idea I mentioned in our earlier post about setting up a portable crib in the front rooms, turned out to be a bit of a bust. For one thing we had to remove the bassinet attachment almost immediately, because he learned how to climb over steps; had we left it in, he would have climbed over the edge of the crib. But even then, he doesn't associate the family room with sleep; whenever he was put down in the crib, he would see all these pretty things around him that looked good to touch, and to play with, and to eat--and he wouldn't go to sleep, but would be achingly aware that he was in a jail, something there to restrain him. So Mommy has been spoiling him by letting him fall asleep on her. We may have to undo some of that in the near future....

I've been doing a lot of the chores, as I mentioned in the previous post. These include the laundry--which has become a big deal lately, as everyone started developing critical clean-clothes shortages about the same time. So I had to throw a load in the washer in the morning, then throw it in the dryer and put a new one in the washer the moment I came home from work in the evenings, then do it again before bed--for a couple of days in a row, just to get all the laundry done. And now that we got it all done, my wife and I are running out again. And the beds need changing.... And after we get the kids to bed, it's taken me an average of an hour each night just to get all the kitchen/dining room/cat room chores done.

And Tonya? She's developed very good aim with her underwear. Now, my wife isn't the kind of person who normally tosses underwear. I know there are plenty of women like that, who demonstrate their underwear-tossing talents every time they attend the concerts of their favorite musical artists, but my wife--in addition to her natural modesty--has been just way too left-brained to see the point of this little exercise. However, when your mobility is way down, and you have to maintain your personal hygiene over where the sink is, and the hamper is on the other side of the room, well then... tossing one's underwear becomes a highly practical thing to do. I try to be encouraging about this, too, as I see this as a positive development.

Ahem. Let's segue to another topic, shall we?

So what's up for the near future? We're not entirely sure yet, as we don't know exactly how much mobility Tonya will have after seeing the doctor tomorrow. As mentioned, we think the most likely outcome is that she'll be in one of those weight-bearing casts so she can start getting her balance and leg-strength back. I don't know if she'll still be on crutches--or if she'll be on only one crutch instead of two. Her ability to carry weighty objects--like a squirming nearly-twenty-pound baby--will probably remain diminished for a few more weeks. On the other hand, she'll probably be able to stand for longer periods, perhaps long enough to do some food-preparation or other chores that she would normally be doing.

So keep us in your thoughts and prayers. We'll have more updates for you soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

This Week's Carnival of Homeschooling Is Up

This week's Carnival of Homeschooling is up at The Voice of Reason.

My post on the McGuffey Readers is in there, way at the bottom.

There's a lot of good stuff in there this week. Enjoy!

Monday, September 24, 2007

And Now, a Post That Doesn't Even Mention Hojotoho Once!

Now I've mentioned in my profile that I play the harp, but I otherwise haven't posted anything about that before now. But it's true. These are my babies:
Well, aside from Happy Boy, these are my babies. And unlike the Happy Boy, these things stay where you put them.

I haven't been practicing them much in the last two months or so. I did a wedding recently, and then.... Nothing. I put the harps away and started dealing with my wife's broken foot, and haven't had the time or energy to play them; let alone tune them! I realize the resolution in the above photo isn't high enough to count the strings--unless you have a really obsessive personality--but just take a look at all those strings and reflect for a moment on how much time it takes to get these things in tune.

Well, I'm playing at a wedding in mid-October, so I have to get them tuned up and get back into practice. This means that I might not be able to keep up the blogging pace that you, my loyal reader, have come to expect. But I'll do my best.

And in the meantime, here's a clip of me hacking through the first 40 seconds or so of Samuel O. Pratt's The Little Fountain, better known to most people as That Music From Zelda (which is rather unfair, as the music was written several decades before Zelda--and several decades before Pong too, for that matter.)
The Little Fountain Sample - Twango
(I only did the first 40 seconds so that I would fall under the "Fair Usage" provisions of the Copyright laws. Wouldn't want to break the law on my blog before it's even six weeks old now, would I? Sorry if it leaves you hanging, though. I'll have to learn something by an even deader white guy sometime and play the whole thing for you.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Oh Man, Now That's Just Wrong

The Pillowfight Fairy has taken to creating stories--long, repetetive stories told with great seriousness and earnestness, that can take thirty minutes or more until she finally gets bored with telling them and and terminates them with an abrupt, "The End". If you're lucky, she doesn't then continue with "And now, for my next story...," but you have to be pretty lucky for that to happen.

One thing we've noticed about these stories is that she doesn't create them from whole cloth. She takes story elements from books she's reading or videos she's seen--or even dreams she's had--and she mixes and matches these elements in new and unusual ways. This can often create new juxtapositions that are far more humorous than she understood or really even intended. Of course, when she then sees her parents hunched over from laughter, she is more than happy to take credit for having come up with something brilliant, even though she had no idea what it was.

One example: we have a collected set of the original A. A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Now these are not the Disneyfied versions; these are the originals that are so well-written and so funny, even for adults. She loves these stories, and has memorized the chapter numbers of the various stories ("Mommy, could you read me Chapter 8?") . Well, several months ago, she told one of her stories, that went a little like this:
This is Chapter 12, In Which Eyeore Goes Swimming. One morning Eyeore got up and put on his bathing suit. Then he walked and walked through the forest until he came to the river. Then he climbed up on the diving board and looked down at the river. "That's the river," he said. "Pathetic." Then he dived in....
She delivered Eyeore's quotes in a low-pitched monotone, just as Daddy reads them in the book. At this point in the story, Mommy and I were consumed by a fit of giggles so hard that we didn't catch the rest of it.

It rather remids me of the whole Monkeys-Typewriters-Shakespeare thought experiment. If you throw enough random story elements together into a long enough story, eventually you come up with some zingers. The Fairy has apparently figured this out, and as a result her stories have been getting longer, and longer....

So! Over the last few days we've been thinking a lot about Valkyries, and I had to dig up that old Wagnerian Bugs Bunny cartoon on YouTube to help illustrate my last post, and my daughters absolutely loved it. Our home has been filled with the joyous sounds of "Kill the Wabbit!" and "Speaw and Magic Hewmet!" and "Wightning! Stwike the Wabbit!" repeated over and over, in forever new and interesting combinations and situations.

But nothing (Nothung? Sorry, bad pun) prepared us for this morning's offering.
So one morning Winnie-the-Pooh was walking through the forest, singing to himself "Kill the Waaaa-bit, Kill the Waaaa-bit, Kill the Waaaa-bit...."

And I think I even caught a "Hojotoho!" in there somewhere.

As my title says, this is just wrong, in so many ways....

Friday, September 21, 2007

More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Hojotoho

So in my last post I asked a trivia question of my readers, to see if anyone knew the significance of the post's title "Hojotoho!"

Jason Santymire, an old friend of mine from the Bay Area, came back with the answer: "It is the 5th melody of the Valkyrie where they yell out hojotoho with the woodwinds on the last measure sounding like a horse...."

Now, the arrow didn't hit the bullseye, but it didn't miss the target entirely, either. This fact is in and of itself amazing, because--whatever other qualities Jason has, and he has many great qualities in abundance--I don't think any of his friends or acquaintances would have suspected that he had a deep store of Opera knowledge locked up in that wrinkly brain of his.

And I figured to myself, that the answer to this riddle was most likely contained in his login name, Jason "Google Me" Santymire (emphasis added). So, I decided to call his bluff, and I asked him why I'd decided to use this term as the title of my post.

I got this email in response, entitled "Curious Minds Want To Know!"

I would assume you are referring to the knight and horse book you had purchased reminded you of the epic battle portrayed in The Valkyrie, especially where in the fourth scene in the second act where Siegmund meets Brünnhilde and she decides to protect him in the battle.


Jason Santymire

That settles it. He googled it all. He don't know nuttin'. But he did manage to put the umlaut in Brünnhilde, and that counts for something. ;-)

So, since curious minds want to know, here's the answer to my trivia questions, along with more than you ever wanted to know about Valkyries.


I'll start with the simple questions first. These pictures:

...reminded me of Valkyries--midget Valkyries, to be sure, but they looked pretty imposing nonetheless. And in Richard Wagner's opera Die Walküre, the battle-cry of the Valkyries in the first scene of the third act is "Hojotoho!" Don't ask me to explain the fevered workings of Wagner's brain; no one else has been able to figure out the meaning of the phrase either. (Although it's apparently pronounced "HohYoh Toh.... HO!" with the emphasis on the last syllable.)

Great. I'm reminded of that timeless quotation by Noah:

"Right! [pause] What's a cubit?"

What's a Valkyrie? And why did the above pictures remind me of them? And who was this Wagner guy, anyway?

The Valkyries (from two words meaning slain+choosers) were divine warrior maidens in Nordic Mythology. They were generally daughters of the chief god Odin (or Wotan or Woden, depending on the regional variation), but in some sources you find a Valkyrie daughter of Thor or someone else. At any rate, their job was to collect the souls of warriors slain on the battlefield and take them to the gods' fortress of Valhalla (meaning slain+halls, Halls of the dead), where they would train for the big battle to come at the end of time. They were described in the Nordic sagas as beautiful, fearsome young ladies with armor, shields, and spears, who would swoop down over battlefields on their flying horses to harvest the souls of the dead.

Now, the German composer Richard Wagner--who lived in the late 19th century--was a German nationalist who was fascinated with the old Germanic and Nordic mythos. He decided to take an old Norse legend, the Niebelungenlied (meaning Song of the Dwarves, I think) and write it into Opera form. Now, this is a huge saga with many story elements that are familiar to readers of Tolkien and other fantasy writers, including a Cursed Ring of Power that ultimately causes the death of everyone who attempts to possess it. And as Wagner worked on the story, it got longer, and longer... until in order to do justice to the story, he had to break it into a cycle of four operas, each one longer than the last--something like fifteen hours of opera by the time the whole thing is done. The central character in this cycle is the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, the youngest of the Valkyries, and Wotan's favorite.

And yes, at the end of the Ring Cycle (as it's called), everyone dies.

Anyway, here's a clip from the second opera in the series, Die Walküre, Third Act, opening scene. The music to this scene has popularly become known as the "Ride of the Valkyries".

Unfortunately there aren't many versions of this scene on YouTube, and I don't particularly like this staging. The music is supposed to evoke the war-steeds of the shield maidens swooping through the storm onto the battlefield; this staging doesn't evoke that vision at all. It rather has the Valkyries dragging dead bodies around like a bunch of looters. I almost expect one of the bodies to sit up and protest, "I'm not dead yet!"

Now, there are a couple of things worth remembering about Richard Wagner. First, as I mentioned above, he was a strong Nationalist. To his thinking, Germany was the pinnacle of civilization, German Culture was superior to all other culture, German thinking was superior to all other thinking, and so on. The worth of other cultures was directly tied to how much they had in common with German Culture. This thinking led Wagner to reject most of the traditional sources of ideas for writing Opera. All these cute little stories that involve lovers and mistaken identities, all those stories from the Bible or from history, all those stories from recent novels--Wagner rejected all of them in favor of Germanic, Nordic, and even Celtic legends--most of which were pretty grim, actually. So far as he was concerned, these sources produced ideas far more inspiring and far more instructive than any other sources. And just as Wagner thought that German Culture was the pinnacle of civilization, he saw the Jews as the enemies of German Civilization (and thus of civilization in general). He was quite anti-semitic, and one of his operas (Parsifal) even sports Jewish villains.

So when the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Wagner and his music were practically worshipped. Ever since then there has been an unfortunate association in the minds of many between Wagner's music and White Supremacy. Wikipedia mentions two movies that use the Ride of the Valkyries theme: the highly controversial Birth of a Nation, that uses this music when the oppressed white people rise up and throw off their black oppressors; and Apocalypse Now, which uses this music during an airborne raid in which Americans destroy a Vietnamese village. So Wagner's music does have some dark connotations to it in popular culture--which is a shame, because it's very well-written, stirring, intellectual music. (There's just so much of it....)

The other thing to remember about Wagner is that he was really really pretentious. He practically had no sense of humor about his work; he took himself way too seriously. He saw his work as an homage to the accomplishments of the mighty German Culture, and a worthy addition to it; he saw Opera as the most complete, the most intellectual, the finest form of art around. He even coined a term for it: Gesamtkunstwerk, the Total Art Work, because it embodied everything else: poetry, literature, music, theater, architecture, and all kinds of engineering. So while his operas are genuinely magnificent accomplishments, they tend to be pretty grim, joyless affairs that are frequently hard to sit through all the way, unless you're in a serious mood. One's brain gets tired pretty quickly in a typical Wagner opera, and it takes someone of seriously firm fortitude to make it all the way through the four operas of the Ring Cycle.

And in a way, Wagner unwittingly did the whole genre of Opera a big disservice. After all, when someone like my friend Jason thinks of Opera, what does he imagine? He imagines big women standing around on stage with a spear, shield, armored boobs, and horned helmet, and singing as loudly as is humanly possible. Well, guess what? That image comes directly from the Ring Cycle! That big woman with the armored boobs and horned helmet is Brünhilde! This is where that whole image comes from! Not that I have anything wrong with armored boobs--like most guys, I think they greatly improve whatever artistic endeavor employs them. Nevertheless, this idea that "That's what opera is;" this grim, joyless, Wagnerian worldview, is in my opinion one of the reasons that Opera is disdained by so much of the population--which is sad, because nearly everyone I know who has ever gotten up the gumption to go to an opera has absolutely loved it. So if you haven't been to one yet, by all means go! But don't start with Wagner, start with someone a little easier, like Rossini, or Mozart or even Gilbert and Sullivan.

Anyway, Wagner's pretension, his demand that we all take him and his music so seriously is a big part of the reason why the following clip is so funny. And the more you know about Wagner and the Ring Cycle, the funnier it gets. (One piece of advice: try to make it at least partway through the Walküre clip above before watching this one. Having seen the former will enhance the experience of watching this one. And listen for the "Hojotoho!" Believe it or not, I hadn't caught it before tonight.)

Now, the concept of the Valkyrie has proven to be a compeling one in popular culture. The very idea of ghostly shield-maidens swooping down upon the battle to grant victory or inflict defeat is so cool that people want to use it over and over and over. Consider, for example, this beast:

That, my friends, is the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, our attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to build a Mach 3 bomber. This plane did reach Mach 3 on numerous occasions (before crashing after its massive wingtip vortex sucked one of its chase planes into a mid-air collision). By the time we built it, the threat of surface-to-air missles had convinced us to change our air power doctrines away from high-speed high-altitude bombers like this one toward lower altitude tactics for which this kind of plane wasn't appropriate, but that doesn't take anything away from the sheer beastliness of the machine itself.

And while we're looking at Valkyries of all types, who could overlook the Honda Valkyrie:

Now, I don't even ride--but even as a lifelong door-banger, I have to admit: That is a thing of beauty.

So, Jason! Um... You still here, or did I lose you back about the point where I was talking about seriously firm fortitude? ;-) Hope you found this whole thing useful. If not, eh... you'll live.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


(Extra brownie points for the first commenter to explain the origin of the title of this post. And no, it's not the fevered imaginings of my brain. It's someone's fevered brainal imaginings, but not mine...)

At the recent homeschooling seminar my wife and I went to, there was a "vendor room" where all the various sponsors of the event had set up their booths. So, since there wasn't a whole lot else to do between sessions, Tonya and I headed over there to take a look and see what was available.

This proved to be a very dangerous thing to do.

We thought that we were reasonably disciplined people before this event. Really, we did. Well, Tonya was at any rate. But her defenses broke down when we saw a one-volume copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass. So we nabbed it. And since we knew that the Pillowfight Fairy (and, to a lesser extent, the Adrenalin Junkie) loves to color and to make crafts from paper, we picked up several coloring books--Viking designs, North American Native designs, Leonardo da Vinci designs....

We lost all sense of discipline and came away with at least seventy-five bucks worth of really cool stuff!

And the coolest--in my opinion--was Usborne's Knights and Castles; Things to Make and Do, containing instructions on numerous craft projects. Here's one of them:

Yup. The Fairy fell in love with this book the moment she opened it and took that first look inside. She wanted to do this, and then this, and that... and especially the helmet that you see on the above page. And she was really, really disappointed that we didn't have all the materials immediately on hand to do these crafts.

Well, I decided to take a quick trip to our local Michael's earlier this week, and I picked up a four good pieces of poster board--two of which had a very metallic-looking silvered side.

So tonight, the Fairy and I (and the Junkie, too--though she was too wiggly to be of much help) decided to take a crack at the Helm. I did most of the measuring, but I had the Fairy mark up as many of the cut-lines as she could do. I did a lot of the bulk cutting, but the Fairy did a lot, too--especially of the little rounded corners. Hopefully the Fairy learned a little about using a tape-measure. We also used an old T-square I had lying around from my college days to help us draw straight lines, and the occasional right-angle. Mostly, though, the Adrenalin Junkie was fascinated by the T-square and wanted to swing it around dangerously (when she wasn't trying to crawl into my lap and snuggle while I was making some delicate cuts).

But we were triumphant. Behold!

...and yes, the visor does go up and down--although it tends to get caught a lot and require some delicate handling.

It turned out to be a little bit more snug than we had planned. It really is a bit more suited for the Adrenalin Junkie than the Pillowfight fairy. But it still fits well enough that she can get it on and off.

This is one Fairy who takes her pillowfights very, very seriously. Don't mess with her.

The Adrenalin Junkie, striking a heroic pose. (In her pajamas!)

So, I'm thinking we're going to have to put together at least one more of these things, so both girls can have them. And I may just have to put one together for myself, because it's so cool. And the book also has recipes for making swords, too. And drawings and paintings of scenes of castle life; and pop-up cards with castles; and cardboard towers...

Tonya had been hesitant to get this book, because we're planning on following the Literature and History sequence listed in The Well Trained Mind, which won't be covering the Medieval period until the Fairy hits second grade. But I waaaaanted it, and we both knew that the Fairy would eat it up. I predict the Fairy will insist on doing most of the projects in this book done long before then.

Update, September 30: Well, well... This post touched off my own little Ring Cycle. After writing this post I was inspired to write several others--tangentially Homeschool-related, but mostly just for fun. Here's the rest of the cycle:

  1. In More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Hojotoho I answered the question with which I led off this post, in way more detail than you probably want to know. I also linked to an apropos Bugs Bunny cartoon.
  2. In Oh Man, Now That's Just Wrong I record what happens when a Kindergartener starts mixing Wagner, Bugs Bunny, and Winnie the Pooh.
  3. In Ride of the Funny Hat Brigade my daughters and I construct the swords to go with the helmets, and I briefly wax philosophical on the concept of the warrior maiden.
  4. In Let's See How Literate My Readers Are I issue an as-of-yet unmet challenge...

I hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Yer a Crew of Scurvy Bilge Rats!

Arrrrrgh! It be that time O' Year, Matey! It be the 19th day in the month O' September, so time to hoist the black flag and swill the rum. But first, yer in fer' a keel-haulin.

This day in the month O' August, I posted to this page a counter, to count ye. It's been rising like the tide the whole month. I've been anticipatin' the counter reachin the right good sum of a thousand, and askin' me-self whether it'd be today, so I could call out: "I netted a good round thousand in one month!"

Arrrgh. By naptime today, I had only Nine Hundred Nine-and-Fifty. And I was sore in need of that nap, too.

As one scurvy old seadog once spoke:
Before an hour's out, I'll stove in your old block house like a rum puncheon. Laugh, by thunder, laugh! Before an hour's out, ye'll laugh upon the other side. Them that die'll be the lucky ones.

Carnival of Homeschooling Is Up

This week's carnival of Homeschooling is up at About Homeschooling. The link is here.

Didn't have any time to post last night...

But my wife did. She has a post about the sibling dynamics in our family (with a coda about her foot's healing process) here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

On the McGuffey Readers

Update, September 23: It turns out that part of this column was written while I was under a misconception. Basically, there are multiple editions of the McGuffey Readers available. I was reading about Mott Media's reprint of the original edition of 1836, which had four Readers; and mistaking it for the Revised Edition of 1879, which had Six; and drawing some invalid conclusions thereby. But aside from that little hiccup, the other 90% of this column is still good. More on this hiccup in the comments....

I've mentioned in previous posts that we've been using McGuffey's Eclectic Readers as a resource to help the Pillowfight Fairy learn to read.

For those of you who aren't familiar with them, the McGuffey Readers are a set of educational books that has been around in one form or another since 1836. They went through several revisions, the latest in 1879--about six years after the original author, William Holmes McGuffey, passed away.

They were commonly used to teach reading in the schools up until the 1960s. Eventually the schools phased them out, due to several reasons: the language is from the 19th century and includes some archaic features; the rise of Whole Word education at the expense of phonics necessitated a complete replacement of classroom educational materials; and changing educational tastes and conventions caused anything smacking of religion or unsettling ideas (like the inevitability of death) to be stricken from the classroom. But even as the books were being phased out of the schools, demand for them remained strong. There were many parents and educators still around who remembered how they had learned to read from these books, and wanted a set in their own personal libraries. And when the homeschooling movement came into being--and especially that segment of the movement that was motivated to homeschool by religious and moral concerns--continued demand for these books was assured. According to Wikipedia, the Readers still sell about 30,000 copies a year. To my knowledge, they have never been out of print.

Tonya and I managed to score the set that my parents picked up decades ago. In fact, I remember reading from these very books when I was a kid. I read them more from curiosity than anything else; I didn't find them particularly compelling at the time. After all, I was being taught in the local school; why did I need to read additional educational stuff at home? Nevertheless, my parents showed them to us and said they would be good to read, so I looked through them.

There are seven books in the series. The first is "McGuffey's Eclectic Primer", which instructs the beginning reader in basic phonics. Then there are six additional books, entitled "McGuffey's [Nth] Eclectic Reader", where N ranges from one to six. I just assumed as a kid (logically, but incorrectly) that the Primer was intended for Kindergarteners, and that the other six books were intended to be used by students of the corresponding grade level, from grades one through six.

Somehow I managed to retain this misunderstanding until about thirty minutes ago, thus providing evidence that I never actually read them.

But I remember, since I was a fourth grader at the time, picking up the Fourth Eclectic Reader, opening it up at random, and landing on the following poem:

Somebody's Darling.

Into a ward of the whitewashed halls,
Where the dead and dying lay,
Wounded by bayonets, shells, and balls,
Somebody's darling was borne one day;

Somebody's darling, so young and brave,
Wearing yet on his pale, sweet face,
Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave,
The lingering light of his boyhood's grace.

Matted and damp are the curls of gold,
Kissing the snow of that fair young brow;
Pale are the lips of the delicate mold--
Somebody's darling is dying now.

Back from his beautiful, blue-veined brow,
Brush all the wandering waves of gold;
Cross his hands on his bosom now;
Somebody's darling is still and cold.

Kiss him once for somebody's sake,
Murmer a prayer soft and low;
One bright curl from its fair mates take;
They were somebody's pride, you know;

Somebody's hand has rested there;
Was it a mother's, soft and white?
And have the lips of a sister fair
Been baptized in the waves of light?

God knows best! he was somebody's love:
Somebody's heart enshrined him there;
Somebody wafted his name above,
Night and morn, on the wings of prayer.

Somebody wept when he marched away,
Looking so handsome, brave and grand;
Somebody's kiss on his forehead lay;
Somebody clung to his parting hand.

Somebody's watching and waiting for him,
Yearning to hold him again to her heart;
And there he lies, whith his blue eyes dim,
And the smiling childlike lips apart.

Tenderly bury the fair young dead,
Pausing to drop on his grave a tear;
Carve on the wooden slab at his head,
"Somebody's darling slumbers here."

I remember being distinctly disturbed by this poem. And I thought to myself, "They don't make me read stuff like this at school."


So anyway, we were leafing through a catalog that we picked up at last weekend's homeschooling seminar, and they were advertising the various readers in the series. And something about them caught my eye. Here's how they were listed:

McGuffey Primer for Grades 1-2
This book begins with the alphabet, moves to simple one-syllable words....

McGuffey 1st Reader (Grades 3-4)
Most words in this reader are phonetically regular...

McGuffey 2nd Reader (Grades 4-5)
This book begins with one- and two-syllable words and progresses to more difficult words covering....

McGuffey 3rd Reader (Grades 6-8)
This book develops thinking skills and the richer vocabulary...

McGuffey 4th Reader (Grades 9-12)
This book develops advanced vocabulary and thinking skills and introduces
some of the greatest English authors including Webster, Jefferson, Shakespeare,
Johnson, and Schiller....
I note they weren't advertising the 5th or 6th readers in this catalog. I was thinking to myself: If the Fourth reader is for high schoolers, who are the Fifth and Sixth readers aimed at? Undergrads and Masters' candidates? ("And for my thesis, I read the Sixth reader and actually understood it.")

And what of the Pillowfight fairy? If these levels they've advertised in the catalog are accurate, then our little almost-five-year-old is reading on a third or fourth grade level. While I find this idea highly gratifying (she's got good genes, after all), I have to say I was a little skeptical.

So I decided to crack open the sixth reader and read the last lesson therein, to see for myself how good a student would have to be to work his or her way through the whole series. The last lesson consisted of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled Ode to Mt. Blanc. I won't include the full poem here--you can follow the link to read the whole thing--but here's a taste:

HAST thou a charm to stay the morning-star
In his deep course? So long he seems to pause
On thy bald awful head, O sovran Blanc!
The Arve and Arveiron at thy base
Rave ceaselessly; but thou, most awful Form!
Risest from forth thy silent sea of pines,
How silently! Around thee and above
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.


Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,
Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,
And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun, Earth,
with her thousand voices, praises God.

And I thought to myself: wow. Just wow. Magnificent!

And then I thought: No wonder they don't use this stuff in the schools anymore. No one could read it. And what a shame that is.

And then I had one last thought: Maybe my initial "misunderstanding" wasn't; that is, maybe we really have become a post-literate society. Maybe, just as I as a fourth grader was able to be moved as I read a poem from the Fourth Eclectic Reader, that all fourth graders a hundred years earlier were being so moved by the exact same passage; that we have, in the intervening years, lost so much of our culture and history that we don't even really know what a fourth grader should be able to read. We don't even truly understand what a fourth-grade reading level actually is anymore.

But any way you slice it, the Pillowfight Fairy still has great genes.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My Very First Homeschooling Seminar!

Tonya and I attended our first homeschooling seminar this weekend, and were very glad we went.

The speaker was Susan Wise Bauer, who has written numerous works that are popular in the homeschooling community. Among these is the book The Well-Trained Mind, which she wrote with her mother, who homeschooled her. This book lays out the ideas behind Classical Education--what is it? What does it attempt to do?--and gives a great deal of guidance and helpful advice regarding the application of the theories and ideals of Classical Education to home school settings. It has become something of a Bible among a certain segment of the Homeschooling population (although it's apparent from her talk that she doesn't particularly want her books being treated as holy writ).

The seminar was the 5th Annual Seminar of the Classical Christian Home Educators association, which has branches all over Northern California. Check the link if you want more information.

If you're at all interested in any of these topics and you have the chance to hear Ms. Bauer speak on them, I highly recommend that you go see her. Tonya and I learned a lot. We have read The Well-Trained Mind, and much of what she talked about is covered in that book, but there was a large amount of new material as well. And it is of course helpful after reading a book to be able to ask questions of the author.


I noticed shortly after I entered college that I started encountering people that made me think, "What the heck have I been doing with my life?" I mean, here I am--say, 22 years old--and I'm just mucking about in college, while so-and-so is only 21, and already has his Masters' degree, has hiked the Himalayas, and has founded his own company that's going public in another month! I'm a total failure! Of course, this kind of thing happens more and more as you get older, because everyone else has had more time to do the amazing things with their lives that you haven't done yet. By the time all of us mere mortals reach the mid-to-late thirties, we notice that nearly all of the players in the NFL are younger than we are; that there are plenty of guys in congress that are younger than we are; that most Air Force pilots our age have already been flying the not-so-friendly skies for the last ten years! And we think to ourselves, well, I've finally mastered the art of one-handed diaper changing. That's got to count for something, right?

So, Ms. Bauer is one of these people that makes me think that way. She's a little older than I am, and a little younger than my bride--late thirties. She is a mother herself, with four children; and her books were written to chronicle the theory and curricula that she uses as she homeschools them. She also is a professor of literature at William and Mary, where she has been teaching since the early nineties--before I got my first job out of college. What have I been doing with my life?

Fortunately, she comes across as a thoroughly normal human being, which is all the more amazing seeing as she was homeschooled herself. ;)

She shared this story about how the publishers at Norton (same ones that do the Norton Anthologies) had heard of Classical Education in homeschooling and were interested in publishing a book on the topic, so she and her mother had to fly to New York to meet with the executives. The meeting went very well, but after the meeting someone made a comment along the lines of "we had expected you to be grim and joyless." She is in fact a very good speaker, and handled some very tough questions from the audience with good information, leavened with a healthy dose of wit and humor.

She was also aware of what was appropriate to the audience. There were things she was willing to tell us, but that she didn't want to go into the official recordings, because they were about her family; and she didn't want these family details going out on the internet. I can see how this would be an issue for a famous homeschooler, who wants to pass along examples of what has and has not worked in her homeschool, but at the same time wishes to maintain some privacy. I think she handled it well.


I think the most important point I came away with, which Ms. Bauer hammered over and over again, is the need for the homeshooling parents to take care of themselves physically and intellectually. A few examples:
  • She strongly suggests that you set some "off duty" time. For instance, set a "wake up" time before which the kids are not allowed out of their rooms. Then, schedule a nap from 1:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon; then enforce a reasonable bedtime. Doing this gives mommy (since it is usually mommy who's the primary home educator) time to herself, to get some rest, so that she doesn't burn out.
  • If your physical needs aren't met, you won't be able to teach well. And if your kids' physical needs aren't met, they won't be able to learn well. So she shared this strategy: if the student and/or the teacher are at the point of tears over a lesson, don't immediately throw out the curriculum and find another. First, stop. Then go get a sandwich (either for you or the child, or both, as appropriate). If that doesn't cure the problem and make the lesson go better, then stop again, and take a nap (again, you or the child, or both, as appropriate). If that doesn't cure the problem, take a bath. She said that by the end of the bath, ninety percent of the problems will have gone away. If the problems are still there after the bath, then you can consider whether there's a problem with the curriculum.
  • One of the whole points of Classical Education is that it's not supposed to end at the classroom door. The classroom is only the beginning; we're supposed to keep learning to the end of our days. This especially goes for homeschooling parents. Two reasons (among others) immediately come to mind: first, we need to model behaviors that we want our kids to emulate. If they see us continually learning, continually looking things up that we find interesting, occasionally poring over Plato or Aristotle or Augustine, they will grow up thinking that this is a normal and worthwhile thing to do. Second, familiarity with the great ideas and great writers of history gives us an ability to answer the tough questions that our junior high and high school students eventually throw at us. I mean, what do we do if our kid says something like: "Y'know, Plato is saying things here that contradict the Bible, and Plato is making a lot of sense." It especially helps if we ourselves know what Plato said. But to do that, we can't let our own continuing education slip.

She spent a lot of time on this last point. It is in fact the point of her companion volume to The Well-Trained Mind, entitled The Well-Educated Mind. We have not read the book yet, but we did pick up a copy at the seminar. It appears to be a guide for adults to give themselves a classical education just as the previous volume is intended to help us give one to our children.


Ironically, the conference had effects on Tonya and me that were totally different. I tend to be the idea man of the family, who comes up with all kinds of great schemes to save the world or fix the plumbing, in which I leave all the hard work "as an exercise to the reader." So after listening to all the details Ms. Bauer presented about learning all these different subjects at all the different educational levels, and how the students make transitions between those levels, I came away with a sense of, "Good grief, we've bitten off something huge here! How are we going to get all this done? How are we going to keep all this information straight?"

Tonya on the other hand is a very pragmatic, very left-brained person, who sees all the problems the moment you present her with The Plan, and doesn't relax about it until she can see how all those details are resolved. (I rather see her as the Gromit to my Wallace. And I don't think this is insulting in any way--Gromit was always smarter than Wallace anyway.) She had been worrying about how we're going to apply all that good advice in The Well-Trained Mind, before we went to the conference. Now that we've been there and heard Ms. Bauer, many of the gaps Tonya had been seeing have been filled in, and she feels like she knows better how to "get there from here", so to speak.

As I said, we're glad we went, and if anyone interested in Homeschooling or Classical Education has the chance to go see her speak sometime, I would highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lawnmower Maintenance Blues

There's been something of an online conversation in the blogosphere (for you people who are new to blog-land, yes: that is what it's called) about how the younger generations today are losing a big chunk of the practical, "how-to" mechanical knowledge that has been part of American culture for many generations. (A sample of this conversation, written by Glenn Reynolds--aka Instapundit--is here.) The idea is something like this: our fathers, who were raised in suburbia, were able to diagnose and fix broken cars. Our grandfathers, who were often raised in rural settings, were occasionally able to assemble whole new cars from parts. Our great-grandfathers, who lived on the farms, could--as necessary--hammer sheet metal into whatever part they needed to fix their tractors, their plows, their livestock, whatever.

But today's younger generation doesn't have much opportunity to poke around under the hoods of cars. For one thing, what's under the hood is a whole lot more complex than what was there in past decades. It's a whole lot easier to puzzle out the workings of a carburetor than to understand multi-port electronic fuel injection (which is controlled by a computer running embedded software to which most mere mortals don't even have access, and wouldn't know what to do if they did). But I doubt it's solely because of the complexity of the vehicles; our society is also much more specialized today than in the past, and it takes more time to achieve mastery of any discipline. If you're spending X many hours to learn database administration, that's time that you're not spending learning how to do grease-monkey work. So today's younger generation, instead of fixing their vehicles themselves, are much more likely than their parents to take it to a dealer and shell out hundreds of dollars for basic maintenance.

Of course this lack of basic mechanical, "how-to" knowledge affects many more parts of life than merely automobile repair. People increasingly need help doing electrical work in their own homes; installing new light fixtures and switches; fixing their plumbing; doing basic gardening and lawnwork; doing landscaping; or doing basic construction work. I know that I wish I knew more about all of these things than I do. If you were to ask me to build a simple cottage with working lights and plumbing from the ground up, I'd have to learn a lot of stuff before I so much as picked up a hammer. When I hear about so-and-so's grandfather who "built the house that he and his family lived in for the next fifty years", I'm in awe. You mean, he, like... built it? With a hammer and saw? Without contractors? Without power tools? And it was watertight? How'd he do that? Did it take a long time? Did he do the windows all by himself? How'd he mate the wood frame to the foundation? How'd he mate the roof to the walls?

To me, all this was voodoo until I was already well into college. Not only was I Suburbia Boy, but we were an Air Force family--living in rented houses and moving every four years or less. (So far I have never lived at one address more than four years, give or take, my entire life. My wife and I are about to break that record in the next couple of months, and boy am I happy about it.) I never got to experience the joys of putting a new wing on the house, or moving walls around, or pouring concrete. So now that I'm in my mid-thirties and finally have a place of my own, I'm slowly discovering these dark arts, and I'm lamenting that they were ever lost. Yes, doing this kind of work is work, no question. But it's also fun, it costs less money than hiring someone to do the work, and it gives a great sense of accomplishment. It helps this house to feel like my house, because I put that in, and redesigned that, and planted that....

But I also sense that I'm swimming against a societal tide. My latest piece of evidence: my humble lawnmower. We have a cordless, electric mower. One plugs it in when not in use, and it charges up; then, when it's time to mow, one mows just like a gas-powered mower, except that it uses a 24-volt electric motor powered by the batteries. It's quite convenient, and it used to be able to do our whole yard on one charge.

We bought the mower the spring after we moved in, about 3.5 years ago. And the lead-acid batteries that power the thing are starting to die--they don't take or hold a charge anymore. So, they need to be swapped out. But the manual strictly says that it is not recommended that homeowners do this themselves; the manual exhorts us to take it to an official service center for all battery maintenance. (And that we'd void the warranty if we tried to do it ourselves. Not that it matters, because it's already expired, but still...)

Just out of curiosity, I opened up the mower to see what the big deal was.

The big deal is, there is no big deal.

Changing out the batteries would be utterly trivial. There are two 12V lead-acid batteries, turned back to back. They are wired in series, making 24 volts. The batteries are held down by a strap (attached with two screws), and are secured from shifting (and cushioned against shocks) by a large styrofoam form that surrounds it on three sides. It is easy to see where the wires all originate and terminate. The wires are held to the terminals with philips-head screws. Although there is one circuit board, it would not need to be disturbed to replace the batteries. The most difficult part would be tracking down the replacement batteries; the work would take ten minutes, tops.

So why does the manual counsel us not to muck with the batteries?

Frankly, because they think we're stupid. And the sad part of it is, they're probably right.

If everyone tried to replace the batteries on their mowers, inevitably someone would break open one of the (sealed) batteries and get acid on himself. Or someone would wire up the batteries in parallel. Or someone would wire the thing up with wet hands while neglecting to wear rubber gloves and would zap himself. Or someone would wire the batteries into a closed loop and start a fire. Or someone would make a poor connection while screwing the wires back into the terminals, and it would come loose during use. Or someone would just throw the old batteries in the trash so they would wind up contaminating the landfill. Or someone would drop his beer on the batteries while trying to change them, and everything nearby would feel the power. Or someone would lick the terminals. And in most of these scenarios, the company would wind up getting sued for a billion dollars for someone else's stupidity. So I really don't blame them for directing owners of these things not to muck with the batteries themselves.

But, gadzooks! This would be one trivial fix for anyone with half a brain. Our grandfathers all did things more "dangerous" than this every day and lived to tell about it, to tell their wide-eyed grandchildren and great-grandchildren that "Yes, I actually know how to change the oil. I must've done it a hundred times," to which everyone tells them, "Oh, that's just too much to take. Stop it."

So in the meantime, while I could fix this thing in a matter of ten minutes, I'm Not Permitted To. Now I admit I've entertained the idea of just saying "Oh hang it all!" or some other appropriate non-vulgar epithet and doing it myself anyway. But my lovely wife, who's very much a by-the-book librarian type, talked me down. So we're weighing our options, which include swallowing our pride and taking it along with a wad of cash to an "official service center" where we can bleat to them about how we would really, really like them to change the batteries, please.

It's a bit frustrating, though. I'm sure hoping that the potential cultural turn-around mentioned in Reynold's article happens. I like the Heinlein quote with which he started the essay: Specialization is for insects.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Great. Just What We Need...

So right now at work I'm doing what in Engineering are called trade studies. The idea is this: we're designing a system that needs a database. But there are many database products out there--some expensive commercial products with lots of nifty features and comprehensive service packages, some bare-bones open-source products that are free but tricky to use and of dubious reliability, and everything in between. We have selected about six different products, and we are evaluating each of them as carefully as we can to see which is best for our needs.

We have three engineers doing this just for the database trade study. (There are also numerous other trade studies going on, covering every part of the system we're building).

And the work is boring. B-O-R-I-N-G! It amounts to sifting through all kinds of white papers, advertising and promotional materials, product reviews, you name it. The whole exercise tends to breed nihilism and cynicism--after all, one must read through all this advertising material and read between the lines to figure out what their product doesn't do. It tends to undermine faith in one's fellow man--if you do it too long, anyway.

So, our company thoughtfully figured we needed a little something to liven up our days; a little thrill of adventure to keep us sharp, to keep us on our toes as we performed the work that otherwise threatened to numb our brains.

One of the facilities folks sent around this email today to perk us up (heavily redacted by me, of course):

There has been a lot of "hall talk" about snakes in our buildings. Facilities is aware of several sightings, and we'd like to make you aware of what we know.

First, we believe the snakes are entering the building from the outside. There is no reason to believe there are nests or any other ways that would have snakes originating from within. Reptiles entering buildings is a somewhat common occurrence during drought conditions, which we are experiencing this year.

Second, we have confirmed sightings of harmless garter or grass snakes. We do have one reported sighting of a small rattlesnake, which was reported by someone who is familiar with what they look like. We could not confirm this, however.

We are investigating possible ways to deal with this, but in the meantime please report any sightings immediately to either ... or the Security Control Center at .... Please try to keep the snake in sight, but do not approach or attempt to capture it on your own.

There is no reason to expect more than the occasional snake sighting as the inside of the building is not a suitable habitat for them. We don't wish to create a panic either, but we feel it's prudent to make everyone aware of the current situation.

Please feel free to email me with any questions or concerns.

Well, now! That got our attention. Ever tried to do a trade study when you're surrounded by snakes!

So the inside of our building is apparently not a suitable habitat for them. Hmm... It seems that it has recently become not a suitable habitat for us.

We're in part of the building that has weird air circulation. Everytime the AC comes on, it makes weird moaning sounds, as though the tortured spirits of a thousand departed doughnuts are haunting the cubicles. But for some reason, when that sound came today, all we could think of were the snakes. "Oh, no! They're in the air ducts! And they're moaning at us!"

Where's Samuel Jackson when you need him?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Our 4.9-Year-Old Social Planner

So Tonya's parents are in town helping out this week, while Tonya's foot heals. The kids love having their grandparents around, of course; they get so much more attention than any one parent can give.

And more sympathy, too. Tonya was always one of those mothers with no mercy. This was true even before she broke her foot. And we've got documentation! Late last year we were in a Bible class at our church that attempted to help everyone "discover their gifts", to find out what kinds of ministries at the church would be a good fit for each person. Tonya's answers on the questionaire resulted in a rock-bottom score for her Mercy attribute.

So don't mess with her, for your own good. Got it?

Ahem... I digress. So anyway, the kids like having the grandparents around, in no small part because they get a little more sympathy than normal.

Well, anyway, the Pillowfight Fairy was so happy to have someone else around to do things with, that when they showed up in their RV, she promptly drew up the agenda for the day and handed it to Papa (her maternal grandfather). This agenda is visible at right.

I think she included the part about "jUST STAY" because they never stay more than a few days at a time, and she doesn't want them to go this time. And I have to say, it has been very nice having them around to help out, when Tonya's unable to take care of the things she usually does. So while I find the Fairy's agenda to be rather cute and a little silly, I also see it as being somewhat poignant.

One thing's for sure, though: she's inherited her mommy's cravings for organization and order, and especially her list-making tendencies. As she grows up, her rather spontaneous and impulsive father (that would be me) is more than likely going to drive her nuts, as I do her mother. :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Pillowfight Fairy "Gets" the Lever & Fulcrum

...and applies this knowledge to the age-old problem of constructing a better people-launcher.

Behold the People-Launcher, Mark II:

Elegance, Simplicity. The diagram says all that is needed; no further explanation is necessary. Basically, the people just follow the arrows.

Incidentally, the People-Launcher Mark I is here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Poetical Contemplation

One thing I discovered is true:
It's quite a bit harder to do
A limerick that's pure,
Discrete and demure,
Than conjure a raunchy haiku.

...Bah-DUM-Bump. Thank you everybody, you've been a great audience. I'll be here all week....

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Phonics vs. Sight-Recognition Reading: A Case Study

My wife and I are actually pretty new to the homeschooling game. After all, our oldest daughter, the Pillowfight Fairy, is not quite five years old; if we were going the traditional route, this would only be her kindergarten year. And she was the first grandchild on my parents' side, and eleven years younger than the next older cousin on her mother's side; so we were not exactly surrounded by young parents talking about all those parent-y things, like kids' sports, education, and so forth. We occasionally thought a little about the best way to educate kids; but this was all very abstract until the day we actually had this little gurgling bundle of joy looking up at us, and were forced to confront the thought, "What do we do now?"

And I had become accustomed to the whole phenomenon of homeschooling rather by accident; hearing bits and snatches here and there. (I think I was first introduced to the Carnival of Homeschooling through Dr. Helen Smith's website; this was well before my wife and I had decided to go this route.) It appealed to my libertarian streak; I've always liked the idea that ordinary people can in most circumstances do much better attending to their own needs, than would happen if they were to abdicate the fulfilment of those needs to a government-managed institution. My wife, however, was at first rather reluctant to jump in; she's a very practically-minded person, and pointed out that we'd never done anything like this before, and didn't actually know how.

Anyway, about the time the Fairy turned two, we began to see signs that she might not fit well in any traditional classroom. In some ways she was very advanced for her age, and in other ways, she appeared to be behind. In the latter category, she appeared to be socially behind her age-peers. Or rather, while all the other little kids she knew would get together and play "monster" games that involved running around and screaming at each other, our Fairy would be rather upset by that sort of thing; she was more likely to be off in her own little world, thinking about things that fascinated her, completely detatched from what everyone else was doing.

But in the former category: for her second birthday, she got a set of puzzles, including one of the United States, with each puzzle piece being a state. It was the most complicated puzzle in the set, and so of course it was the one she wanted to play with the most. So we played it with her and named each state she touched. Within two weeks she had most of the state names memorized. This was about the time of the 2004 Presidential Election; and as I was sitting at my computer, madly refreshing to get the latest election returns for the various states, the Fairy would sit and look at the screen, and call out, "Texas!" and "Florida!" and "Ohio!" every time she saw one of those familiar shapes. (And I would amusedly respond, "Oh, are you thinking about Ohio? Good! So is everybody else.")

Anyway, I figured that if she was so easily picking up the names of totally abstract shapes (the States), she was plenty ready to learn her alphabet. She had it nailed, and the basic sounds the letters made, within a few months.

Shortly after she turned three, I started trying to get her to sound out simple words, from street signs ("Bump" was one of our favorites) and from books like Dr. Seuss' Hop On Pop. She was able to sound out simple, phonetically regular words by age three-and-a-half.

Now, at this point I made a decision that, if I had to do over again, I would not do. I was not well versed in the phonics-versus-whole language debate at this point; I was just flying by the seat of my pants, teaching the Fairy how to read a little at a time as the opportunity presented itself. Anyway, I thought to myself: Since there are so many phonetically irregular words in the English language, and they include many of the more common words (like of, were, and to), why don't I start teaching her these words first? I thought, if she knew some core set of commonly used words, and could recognize them by sight, then she could use phonetical techniques to read anything else she came across, and that would get her well over 90% of the language right there. So this became my master plan--the sight words first, then the phonics.

So I looked up the "Dolch List": the 220 most common non-noun words in the English language when the list was created--sometime in the 1950's, I think--most of which (with a few exceptions like "shall") are still very common. I took the first twenty words in the list and made flash cards, and systematically taught them to the Fairy. We made it fun; even with those first few words, we could select and arrange a few cards to make simple, silly sentences, and she liked it. And every time she mastered a set of twenty words, I would make a batch of cards with the next twenty words (and a differently colored border! How exciting!), and we would work on those together with all the old cards. We got pretty good at making long sentences using nothing but these 220 cards, and the Fairy rather enjoyed playing with them. And by the time she was four, she also became very adept at reading most sentences that contained these words. Truth be told, the Dolch words do make up a big chunk of our everyday vocabulary--this sentence alone contains more than a dozen of them. And she had them down cold.


As I later came to understand, when I was finally exposed to the contorversy between the Whole Word and Phonics approaches to learning reading, I was actually teaching my little girl some bad habits that would come back to bite us. We had made it very easy for our girl to recognize common words; she didn't have to do any phonetical decoding to read these words. Phonetical decoding takes work, and she (like most kids who just turned four) didn't want to have to put in any hard-core analysis to get what she wants. The words are supposed to come easily! I should just be able to look at the words and have them pop into my mind!

The skill of sounding out simple words, that she had been able to do shortly after she turned three, had been completely lost. If she didn't know a word by sight, she was stuck. Now, with that memory of hers that was able to memorize the 50 states by age two, she could get around this problem without too much trouble: she could just get someone else to read it for her a time or two, and then she would remember the word thereafter, and could even recognize it in new sentences. But this was still a work-around (although an effective one); even if a word was in her spoken vocabulary, she couldn't recognize it on the page if she hadn't seen it before in print, even if it was totally phonetically regular, with all short-vowel sounds. And when she came to these words she didn't recognize, she would try to guess, coming up either with nonsense words or with words that were similar-looking (same starting and ending letter, totally different middle), or with a synonym that bore no visual resemblance to the correct word on the page.

Anyway, about the time I finished the Dolch cards with her (and was feeling rather pleased with myself about how well my daughter had learned them), I started looking around online for resources regarding the teaching of phonics--all part of my master plan that I'd come up with earlier. And as I was rooting around, I came upon Don Potter's website, and read through most of the entries.

Good heavens. Not only was it a treasure trove of resources for someone like me looking for phonics resources, it also contained links to numerous articles explaining the differences between Whole Language/See-and-Say and Phonics, why the latter is far and away superior, and what can go wrong when a child is primarily taught the former method. In particular, my daughter's tendencies to guess at words, to be unable to sound them out even when they're phonetically trivial, to substitute words for totally different words of similar meaning, and so forth were accurately described in several of the articles on the site.


Here's the way I understand it: A reader who has been trained to read phonetically, and a reader who has been trained to read words by sight-recognition (See-and-Say or Whole Language), use their brains in totally different ways. In the brain of the sight-recognition reader, reading activates the part of the brain used in visual recognition--the same parts that recognize faces, for example. In the phonetic reader's brain, reading activates the parts of the brain that are used in analysis, and in the processing of sound (even if the person is reading silently). What goes on in the two readers' brains is completely different. When they make mistakes, they will tend to make different kinds of mistakes. And it's very difficult for a person thoroughly trained in one method to make the switch and start using the other kind of method--especially as the student gets older.

I know from my own personal experience as a phonetically-trained reader that when I read something, I can almost see the sounds--not in the sense of having synesthesia, but in the sense that when I see written words, I instantly "hear" in my mind the sounds of the word's letters, individually and in combination, as I look at them. People trained in the sight-recognition methods frequently don't have that; the process that goes on in their minds as they read is totally different.

Now, the youngest sight-readers often appear to have an advantage over the youngest phonetic readers, because the process they use to turn written words into meaning is simpler, having fewer steps: First they look at the word, then they remember what the word was, then they say it. The only limit to their reading vocabulary is the number words they've memorized; and as my daughter demonstrated, they can pick up lots of words very quickly. The phonetic reader's reading process is a little more complicated; first they look at the letters of the word, then they convert the letters (singly or in combination) into sound according to a sometimes-not-quite-logical set of English phonetic rules, then they speak or imagine the sounds these letters make, and only then do they understand the word they just read. It's a lot more work, and takes some discipline. Their reading vocabulary is (at first) limited by their understanding of the phonetical rules; until they've mastered the whole rule set, the amount they can actually read is pretty slim.

But this situation changes. The fact is, the set of English phonetical rules--though pretty big--is not infinite. It may be easier in the short term to memorize a limited vocabulary set by sight, but in the long term, it is easier to memorize the 70 or so common spellings of the 44 sounds in the English language, plus several dozen or so irregular words, than it is to memorize ten thousand or so vocabulary words by sight. Once a reader has mastered the English phonetical system (not uncommonly by the end of First Grade, though this varies widely and naturally from student to student), his reading vocabulary expands almost overnight to encompass pretty much his entire speaking vocabulary; it gobbles up new vocabulary words almost as fast as you can throw them at him; and the sight-word reader never catches up.


So, how is my daugter doing? Well, after finding Mr. Potter's website, we decided to try using Hazel Loring's phonetical method on our newly-turned four-year-old. When we had gone through that completely, we started through the McGuffey's Readers, being careful to make sure that she sounded out every unfamiliar word she came upon. She finished the primer and the First Eclectic Reader earlier this year, and rather enjoyed them. We've also started Level A Spelling Workout, from Modern Curriculum Press (Recommended in The Well Trained Mind), on the theory that learning a phonics-based spelling curriculum will strengthen her phonetical reading skills.

We also figured that it was important to expose her to lots and lots of new material. After all, when she sees the same books over and over again--even just a few times--she winds up memorizing them, and then she's not actually reading. So we've been making regular library trips lately. And our dear sister-in-law got her a subscription to a children's magazine, the appearance of which in the mail has become a big highlight of her month.

We think it's all working. While the Pillowfight Fairy still tends to guess at big words instead of sounding them out, she's doing it a little less often; and it may only be because she hasn't yet learned how to break the big words down into syllables--something that the spelling curriculum will hopefully cure. But aside from that, she's gotten very good at reading new material that includes words that I've never seen her read before, so I think we must be doing something right.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Why I Love My Wife, Part CXLII

The English tongue does amazing things when she's in the room. Consider this gem from this evening:
By the way, things weren't exactly a bowl of roses in here tonight.

No, and I suppose they probably weren't a bed of cherries, either.

(By the way, I had no idea what number that was, until my wife figured it out. I suppose that's reason CXLIII.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Warning: Big Sisters Will Get You In A HEAP of Trouble

So as I was doing my cobblestone-paving work today, the Pillowfight Fairy (PF for short) and the Adrenaline Junkie (AJ) were playing next to this pomegranate tree:

I was listening to them out of the corner of my ear, trying to make sure they weren't messing up all that sand I'd just nicely screeded. They were grabbing some of the low-hanging branches and were pulling on them and tugging at the not-quite-ripe pomegranates hanging there.

I heard PF say to AJ:

And this is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

And about a minute later, while pulling a branch with some pomegranates over to AJ, something along the lines of:

[AJ], would you please take a bite of this?


I seem to remember my older brother trying to get me in trouble on occasion, but not that much trouble. I think I need to give the Pillowfight Fairy a really really long time-out.

The Walkway Is Taking Shape

With Tonya having had a week or so to get accustomed to wearing the cast, I've been able to get outside more to work on The Project™. I'm actually at the part now that I've been trying to get to for most of the last twelvemonth, the whole point of this exercise: the cobblestones!

And Chris, if you're reading this, if you look off in the distance, in the center and on the left, that is the terrace. I did that about two summers ago. I don't remember it taking a year for me to finish, but it sure felt like it.

This picture is the reverse angle from the first one. It was taken from a very similar angle to the second photo in this post, so you can see how far I've gotten. Basically the walkway is about half-done, but it's the easier half; I've got a T-intersection still to do and an odd-angled corner to turn. Both of those will involve cutting lots of stones. And while I'll likely rent one of those wet-tile saws when it's time to do the patio, I've just been cutting stones by hammer and chisel on this part of the project, since there aren't too many to cut. Still, the project goes a lot faster when you don't have to cut any at all, like with today's work; and so the remainder of the walkway will take a bit more time than what I've done to date.

This picture (and the first one) gives you a pretty good look at the pattern. Unlike my wife (who likes things plain and boring, if you ask me), I like to put a little pizzazz into my creations--thus the two-tone pattern. We picked a color for the center of the walk that matched the existing stones in the terrace (see first picture); I wanted something that would offset it and give a good visual marker for where the edge of the walkway was, thus the charcoal gray.

And the pattern is random--Tonya and I both agreed that we liked that. Although it's not actually random. True random patterns are hard to do. Try it some time! Try to design a pattern--or, say, take up crazy-quilting--and try to come up with a truly random pattern. Not only is it really mentally fatiguing, but it winds up making patterns that don't actually look random. Poisson Distribution and all that--you wind up with clusters of blocks all the same size and in a semi-orderly orientation here and there, looking like there are patches of order in the middle of what should be randomness. It doesn't actually look random, and it doesn't actually look very good either. No; I created several small "template" patterns, consisting of roughly half-a-dozen blocks apiece, that look random; then I just vary these template patterns as I go--this time flipped side-to-side, this time flipped top-to-bottom, and so on. So it's actually a semi-regular pattern that looks totally random, but actually has a fairly uniform distribution of blocks of different sizes.

I've been thinking how ironic it is, though, how fast I can put the stones in. I mean, having this nice cobblestone walkway and patio is the whole point of the project, and I'm halfway done with putting in the walkway after only three sessions. Why then has this project taken all year?

Prepwork! Arrrgh! Some things can't just be left as an exercise for the student, after all. And no matter the project, the prepwork always, always takes longer than you expect. So it is on my project: I wanted to put in stones. But that means preparing the ground; we wanted walks and a patio that wouldn't buckle from all the tree roots in the ground. That meant concrete. But that meant that I had to dig out the entire zone where we wanted to put the stuff, down about ten inches. And good heavens, that's a lot of dirt I just pulled out of the ground. Where do I put it all? And of course, then you have to build the forms in the holes you dug out. And you don't just put the concrete straight into the ground; it needs to go on a bed of gravel for drainage and settling purposes. But that gravel needs to be tamped down firmly. And concrete needs to have rebar and mesh and stuff in it, if it's going to resist the tree roots. And... Oh my, this is getting expensive, isn't it? So I'd better do it myself instead of hiring a local company to do it. Of course, that adds several months to the duration of the project. But now that the concrete is in... woops, now I have to put in edge-barriers to keep the stones in place. But they overhang the edge of the concrete slabs; so I have to back-fill to provide a semi-level base for the edge-barriers. And then I have to put a thin layer of sand on top of the slab so that the cobblestones aren't directly in contact with the concrete...

And once I get the stones in, of course, that's not the end of the project either. Then I get to rent one of those vibrating tampers to get everything to uniform height; and then I need to sweep sand in the cracks between the stones, to prevent them from ever moving again; and then I need to apply a sealant to protect the stones and to keep the sand from washing out; and then I need to back-fill up high enough against the stones to cover the edge-barriers.

All told, I think this job will be about 85% Prepwork, 2% The Work, and about 13% Finishing Work.

But I'm in the middle of that 2% now, and it's worth it. :)