Friday, March 20, 2009

Stimulating the Economy in Winnipeg

Well, this last week has been rather busy, what with kids fighting off the creeping crud, and Grandparents in town, and medical appointments for Tonya's pregnancy, and a whole bunch of other things going on. So I haven't been blogging much lately. If you're one of those rare souls who has come to expect a daily fix, I must offer my sincerest apologies, and humbly offer the suggestion that you take up a hobby or something.

Like maille! Which, after all, is the subject of this post.

Or rather, is the starting point for this post. Last weekend I placed an order for some chain-making supplies from these guys, who are major suppliers in the maille community. Now, they don't just buy from manufacturers and resell it; they make a lot of the stuff themselves. They're not so much like Amazon, which stocks huge numbers of titles in warehouses somewhere waiting for orders, and then re-orders when their stock gets low. Rather, these guys appear to start manufacturing when they get your order, so you get it hot and fresh. Even if all you're doing is ordering wire, they still have to measure the right amount and wind it on a spool for you; but if your order is more complicated (a few hundred hand-cut rings, for instance), it can take some time to get the order ready, because they will go through the whole process of hand-cutting the rings for you.

So I placed my order last Saturday, and waited...

...and waited...

...and visions of ring patterns have been dancing in my head ever since. I've been so impatient.

Who would have thought I would one day go practically nuts because my shipment of wires hasn't come in yet?

("I would", say my wife, mother, and half my readership in unison...)

Well, yesterday afternoon we checked the website to see the status of the order--and it had shipped! Hooray! Now I know that it's out of the hands of the manufacturers, and it's safely in the secure grip of the UPS Ground people. Now all we have to do is wait a little bit more... and wait... and refresh the computer screen to see how much farther...

Now, the thing you have to realize here is that The Ring Lord is located, of all places, in Saskatoon.

(That sounds funny, doesn't it? I never would have guessed that Sauron was a Canadian, or that Mordor was in Saskatchewan.)

Ahem. So now that I've done my part to stimulate the Canadian economy, I'm sitting here in a suburb of Sacramento daily checking my account to see how much closer I am to having my preciousssss. And, as of today, I've discovered that my package is traveling...

East! Toward the Land of Shadow!

No, no, no! Wrong direction! There's a straight line that runs from Saskatoon, to Helena, to Boise, to Sacramento (which is apparently not important enough to show up on this map, unlike, say, Yellowknife).

Ok, ok... I probably shouldn't refer to Winnipeg as the Land of Shadow. I'm sure it's very nice, although perhaps not this time of year. (I lived in Minot, N.Dak. for a year and a half, and I know what it's like there this time of year. And both Saskatoon and Winnipeg are farther north than Minot is. Not that you can tell from this map, which didn't find anything in N.Dak. worth showing.)

But the way my package is headed, it looks like it'll wind up in Chicago or something. And I'm not sure I trust the town that is now going to require you to provide your fingerprints when you sell your home.

Suddenly I'm reminded of an old comic that I used to love called The Tick, which was a glorious spoof of the whole superhero genre. In one episode, the Tick and his sidekick Arthur are trying to drive to New York City, but they keep getting lost. Arthur is getting really annoyed by the fact that he keeps seeing cacti, when "I should not be seeing a cactus on the way to New York!", but the Tick is waxing poetic about all the sights of "America the Beautiful! (And parts of Canada and Mexico too)."

At this rate, by the time my little wires get to me, they will be far better traveled than I am, at least since the kids came along. And they'll probably have Chicago fingerprints all over them.


On a completely different topic, my wife has a book about the history of Canadian-American relations that she picked up when she visited Toronto over a decade ago. She finally decided to start reading it a few nights ago got through half of it, and then gave up because everything after 1812 was so boring.

And she's pretty tolerant of boring.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

So What Good Is a Mandrel If You Don't Use It?

Ok, so I had a really, really productive day on Friday, which I described in withering detail to my remaining loyal readership. And the highlight of that day--to me, anyway, was that I got to Build Stuff. In preparation for my foray into maille crafting, I built a mandrel.

And yet, as enjoyable as it was just to be able to build stuff, Friday's activities left me, well... unsatisfied. There was one very important item on my shopping list that I couldn't find, and that was the wire.

Yup. Plain old wire, of the sort that could be made into maille. Here's the trouble, though: to make good maille, you really need better wire than what you can find in most hardware stores. Yeah, you can find 16-gauge galvanized, and a lot of people do make their chainmaille from this material; but it's not the prettiest stuff around, and it does get that old-metal smell after you've been working it for a while, and while it starts out shiny, it doesn't take long to turn dull gray and stain your hands that color too.

So if you want your maille to look pretty, you need some better materials: you need stainless steel wire, or bronze, or brass, or nickel silver, or "bright" aluminum. The trouble is, it's not always easy to find good quantities of this stuff. You might get a little in a craft store, or you might not; you can't always tell in advance.

So I decided to go online and order from a place that specializes in maille-crafting supplies. I am now eagerly awaiting an order for three two-pound spools of 16-gauge wire: stainless steel, bronze, and nickel silver.

And this stuff is going to be delivered in two to three weeks. Weeks, I tell you! Good heavens, I've become impatient in my old age.

(I suspect my mother is reading this and thinking to herself, "What do you mean, become? You've always been like this....")

So earlier today I remembered that we had some wire hanging around from a project I did many moons ago, and I fished that out. Turns out it was 19-gauge galvanized steel. "Close enough", I thought, and I got out my mandrel.

Again, the girls pretty much dropped everything they were doing to come over and watch. I tell you, given how fascinated they are by all this, they're likely to be making maille one of these days.

And without too much trouble, I made over a hundred rings in under half-an-hour or so. Much to my surprise, every step of the process went as smoothly as everything I'd read online said: I wound up a big coil on the mandrel, then I cut off the ends and slipped the rod out, then I took the aviation snips and cut several links at a time off the coil. With the first several that I cut, I closed them into rings immediately after cutting them, to check to see how well they closed (and thus whether I was cutting them well), and everything looked really good--the cuts had a nice, flush surface, and they sealed up fairly tightly with little or no gaps.

So now that I had a small batch of rings, I got my pliers and set to work:
Voila. There you have an honest-to-goodness swatch of European 4-in-1 (meaning that each ring not on an edge goes through four others.

And, of course, I learned a few things. Just as I found with the whole lockwasher experiment from last week that your pattern can be too dense, so this time I found that your pattern can be too sparse. I'm using 19-gauge wire (0.040 inch thickness) on rings with an inner diameter of 0.25 inches, meaning that my Aspect Ratio (inner diameter divided by wire thickness) is 6.25--and that's a pretty high aspect ratio for the European 4-in-1 pattern. That means that the project is going to be too flexible, and thus isn't likely to ward off all those sword blows as well. Thankfully, the wire I ordered is 16-gauge (0.064 inch thickness), so the Aspect Ratio will be closer to 4. That will produce a denser, stiffer weave, but not too dense to work.

And if it doesn't work, I'll just get a thicker shaft for my mandrel. :-)

Anyway, I'll leave you with one more picture of my handiwork. Just for giggles I threw in the little lockwasher-weave that I did last week. I note how clunky and crude it looks next to the piece I did tonight. Interestingly, as different as they look, the rings on the two swatches had the same inner diameter; so had I done the same pattern, the pieces would have wound up about the same size for the same number of rings. (In fact, the new piece would have wound up slightly larger.) As it was, the new piece took 124 rings, compared to the 96 lockwashers in last week's project.
I've also thrown in a penny for scale, and the coil of wire I used. Note how shiny the wire looks on its spool? And note how dark gray the maille looks that was made from it? That's how quick galvanized steel tarnishes when you work it like that, and why I'm going to try to avoid it on my projects.

Anyway, despite the fact that my finished swatch feels to me less like armor and more like fireplace grate/curtain material, this was still a fun little project, and a good learning experience.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Homeschooling: Advice on Getting Started

One of the other young mothers at our church has been considering homeschooling, and asked Tonya for advice.

It's rather odd to think that we're the experienced ones here. After all, we're only getting near the end of the Pillowfight Fairy's first-grade year; and somehow, we've started finding that other young mothers are coming to us for advice! It's as though they see us as old pros or something.

Of course, we've been doing it for--depending on how you count--two or three years now. We started formally teaching the Pillowfight Fairy her basic reading skills the year before she started kindergarten; then her kindergarten year we expanded the list of academic activities, and this year we've been doing full-time day school. Since our family hasn't self-destructed yet, and the Fairy is now reading her science texts for fun, we have to think we're doing something right.

And if you think about it, you can learn a lot in three years. After all, a college degree only takes four....

(Or six, if you attend San Jose State University. But we won't get into that just now....)

Anyway, Tonya thought about it, and wrote out a very detailed email about how we got started. A lot of what she says is good general advice that could apply to any starting homeschooler, so with her permission, I've decided to reproduce it here--with appropriate redactions to protect the identities of the innocent. I've also added links to the resources she mentions, and to earlier posts on this blog that describe episodes she mentions in more detail.

So if there are any parents of young kids out there who are looking for advice on getting started in homeschooling, and stories of what it was like, here's my wife's take on it:

Hi K,

I finally got around to sending you an email. The book I wanted to suggest to you is: 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum: Choosing the Right Curriculum and Approach for Your Child's Learning Style, by Cathy Duffy. We found it very helpful. It not only talks about the student's learning style but also the teacher's teaching style. It also has a questionnaire near the beginning to help guide you through figuring out what kind of homeschooling goals and philosophy are important to you. Once you figure out that, it is a lot easier to figure out how to go about homeschooling. The rest of the book gives descriptions of curriculum that is available and rates it according to many criteria such as learning style focus, amount of teacher involvement, amount of writing, preparation time, grade level, ease of teacher use, philosophical lean, and suitability for religious audience. I still refer back to our copy of this book once or twice a year to figure out where we want to go in the future.

We have decided to follow our own path with a "Classical" philosophy. But every homeschool family does their own thing, so don't feel pressured to follow what someone else is doing. Focus on what you think is best for your kids.

When we started our homeschool journey, I started when [the Pillowfight Fairy] was in preschool. She had started reading before I was ready and I didn't want to discourage her. These are some of the things I did.

1. I picked up a few preschool workbooks from Target to see how she would do with them. She was still pretty wiggly so I wasn't sure she would sit still long enough to do workbooks. I found that if I kept her to only one or two pages a day, it worked for both of us. In the process, I got to see how well she was understanding different concepts, so I knew what we needed to work on.

2. Tim found a free phonics program on the internet that would require only a few minutes a day. It taught a different phonics rule in each lesson and provided a list of practice words that I could write on a doodle pad to give her practice sounding out words. It worked well and I'm using the same thing for [the Adrenaline Junkie] right now.

3. We tried teaching [the Fairy] sight words and that was a disaster. I strongly recommend following some phonics method. We were unintentionally teaching her NOT to sound out words but to guess instead.

4. We had her practice sounding out words while we read to her.

5. After she was making good progress on sounding out words, I used McGuffey's Eclectic Primer which was given to us by Tim's parents. This was an old standard that used to be used in schools all the way back to the 19th century. The primer is for starting readers. There are also graded books to use later on, but they use a different numbering system than what we recognize from the current school grades.

6. I got some inexpensive computer games that were intended to supplement school or encourage "school readiness" called JumpStart. The kids like them and it helps them practice skills in a fun way.

7. With [the Adrenaline Junkie], who learns differently than her sister, I bought some Leap Start videos: The Letter Factory, The Talking Words Factory, Code Word Caper, and The Math Circus. Tim hates the videos (he finds them very annoying), but the two younger kids learned their alphabets with the basic phonics sounds using them. The Math Circus helped [the Fairy] with some of her math concepts.

One of the best pieces of advice I think that I got when I was starting out was that Reading, Writing and Math are the foundations for everything else that kids learn. At the very beginning, that is what needs to be focused on. So I have made that the focus of Kindergarten for my kids. And now that [the Fairy] is in first grade, I keep reminding myself to be sure that she gets plenty of practice at those subjects even as we study other subjects. The more fun for her the better, so that she will want to do it more.

We have found the stores nearby that have been useful for us are A Brighter Child located at Greenback and Fair Oaks (for most curriculum needs and a few other things like lesson plan books, or general homeschool books), Lakeshore Learning on Douglas Ave. in Roseville (for teaching supplies like paper, crafts, and toys), and other general stores for office supplies. We have gotten some things off the Internet. For literature, religion, art and music, Tim and I have been making our own curriculum. The more you do yourself, the more work it is. That is where teaching style comes in. I am a planner, but I don't do well thinking on my feet. So, I plan my whole year in advance and print out a complete year lesson plan that gives the details of what we will be studying on each day. Then I check my plan the night before and get everything ready for the next day's work. After the day's homeschooling, I put away the completed work in binders and keep track of what we have gotten accomplished. From what I've heard from others, I am very odd. Most people have a much more relaxed method. Find a method that works for you.

I am aware of two homeschooling groups in the area. S.C.O.P.E. is a group that I think the F's [another local homeschooling family] belong to. It is a Christian group, they have lots of activities, and they usually have a homeschool convention every year at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church. We have joined C.C.H.E. which is a Christian group following the Classical method like we do. So far the drawback I see to this one is that they don't have much for the younger set. They were advertising a youth choir recently, but it started with age 8. All of my contact with them has been online not person to person. Tim has been following a "Homeschool Carnival" online which is the equivalent of a weekly newsletter or newsmagazine. Each week homeschoolers who maintain a blog online (such as my husband and me) may choose to participate by submitting a post on some homeschool topic. The posts range from how-tos to philosophy to news of the day. The link that I follow to this site is:; This is a great way to locate other homeschoolers online who can give insight into issues that are important to you. Some are just starting out and others are old pros. It can be a very useful resource.

I don't know how much you know about the legal status of homeschooling in California. Basically, there are three ways a person can homeschool in California.

1. Join an umbrella program like a charter school where your children are enrolled but are taught at home. These programs usually have a lot of oversight of your teaching both in curriculum and following your progress. Some people prefer this method, especially if they are not confident in their teaching ability. However, I have heard plenty of complaints that your curriculum is chosen for you and there is a lot of record keeping to follow up on.

2. Register as a private school. This is where you register with the state as a private school where you identify your school to the state by name, identify the administrators and teachers and list number and ages of the students enrolled in your school. There is no other regulation of your schooling methods. You are free to choose what curriculum and teaching methods you wish to follow. You have only the once a year registration to do. All other record keeping is for your own purposes.

3. Hire a credentialed private tutor. This is self explanatory I think and most homeschoolers fall into the other two categories.

We have also joined a legal defense group called HSLDA which gives advice and help to homeschoolers based on the laws of each state. And, the laws do change from state to state.

I hope this is helpful to you. My offer still stands to let you come over and see for yourself what we do and pick my brains. Come to think of it, we should probably have your whole family over some time. After all, homeschooling is a family affair. I'm sure your husband has his own ideas about it and might like to talk to another Dad about homeschooling. I would suggest a time right now, except that [the Happy Boy] is sick right now and I don't know when he will be well again or whether the other kids will come down sick next.

Of course, some of the stuff in this letter is only appropriate for people in the Sacramento area. (And some of it is only appropriate for the specific recipient of the letter--I wouldn't like every reader of the Carnival to decide to crash our place all at once, for instance).

Still, I can vouch for all the links and resources she mentioned. Even those LeapStart videos, which are in fact a little annoying, are very good at what they intend to do: even my two-year-old boy knows his letters now and the sounds they make entirely from watching these videos, and he's not even saying all that much yet.

So if there are any parents out there reading this who are debating whether they should homeschool and who are looking for pros and cons; or any parents who have definitely decided to homeschool, and are looking for advice on how to do it, feel free to write a comment and ask.

After all, we're old pros at this. We have three full years of experience. :-)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Daddy's Busy Day

Well! I had a busy day today. It all started when I didn't go to work. :-)

Ok, there's nothing unusual about that....

(sound of record scratching....)

No, not like that. Turns out my company is on a 9/80 work schedule, which means you cram 80 hours of work into 9 workdays over the course of two weeks, instead of the usual 10. You (theoretically) do the same amount of work, but you get every other Friday off. Now, in reality, most people on my project cram anywhere from 85 to 100 hours over any given two weeks. Nevertheless, pretty much the whole company was shut down today.

And that's good, because today was Friday the 13th. Maybe if no one comes in today, we won't break anything....

(Of course, as anyone who works with computers knows, you don't actually need to do anything for a computer to break. They're like cats; they decide what they're going to do, and when. And they despise you.)

Anyway, today was my day of rest, so of course we packed it full of as much stuff as we could. It was divided about 50-50 between "Honey-do" stuff and Man stuff. (And, as much as we guys hate to admit it, there's a fair deal of overlap between those categories.)

First thing: I had to go shopping this morning. But this wasn't shopping shopping like what women do--this was Man Stuff shopping. First, I headed into Sacramento to pick up a 1/4" by 8' metal dowel, for reasons you'll see a little later. Then it was off to Lowe's, where I picked up some aviation shears, a screen-repair tool (one of those things that looks like a double-ended pizza cutter), a 2x8 board, some patio furniture, a faucet repair kit, new batteries, and some drill bits.

What's all that for?

It's not all for the same project, I'll tell you what. I know; I have this way of reading grocery lists, and imagining that they're describing some kind of diabolical recipe. I assure you, this was several weeks' worth of needs and wants that just rather piled up, so we took care of them all with one trip. My haul may have raised a few eyebrows, but it was entirely legitimate.

So when I got home, the first thing I did was haul all the patio furniture over to that patio thing I finished up just over a year ago. And then I spent a few hours in the afternoon getting it set up. So here's the newest addition to our backyard; isn't she lovely?
I'm referring, of course, to that tall drink on the back table. I tell you, by the time I got it all set up, that tall drink was the most lovely thing out there. But the tables n' stuff look pretty good, too. We like them. The girls have already blessed them by making mud in a bucket on top of them.

If you ever come over to visit, we'll hose them down before we serve you dinner on them.

But while all the work that went into getting those things home and assembled would have been enough to earn me the good night's sleep of a contented worker, I was a bit more ambitious. Now that I'd done some of the Honey-dos, it was time for Man Stuff.

Remember that metal dowel and 2x8 I mentioned earlier? Well, here they are:
That, my friends, is a homemade mandrel. Its purpose is to help me make rings for maille. The general idea is that you get a large quantity of high-quality wire of appropriate thickness, you feed the end through a small hole in the shaft, and you crank with one hand while flattening the wire against the shaft with the other, to make a tight coil. Then when you're done, you cut off the wire at both ends, slide the shaft out, and start cutting the links one by one off the coil.

The observant reader may have been wondering why the heck this semi-coherent blogger just purchased a pair of aviation shears, of all things. Why would he do that? Well, the reason is that--as maillers have found--there are some tools that work better than others for cutting maille links. There are tools that cut wire by pinching it, like wire cutters and bolt cutters; but pinch-cut rings, although they can be used in maille, tend to have pointed ends that don't close flush with each other. There are tools that cut wire by sawing it, like hacksaws, jeweler saws, and cut-off blades on a dremel; and these flush-cut rings tend to be very high quality; but they are much harder to make and take longer. (And trying to cut little tiny rings with a dremel is not very safe. One would need, um... to have a pair of chainmaille gloves first.) And then there are tools that cut wire by shearing it, like how a pair of scissors cuts paper. These shear-cut links tend to be almost as high quality as the flush-cut ones, and almost as easy to do as the pinch-cut method. So I thought I'd give that a try. I'll let you know how it goes....

...when I actually get my hands on some good wire. Alas, I struck out today. The metal supply store where I got the dowel didn't carry wire in stock. And at Lowe's, the only thing I found that was close was some 16-gauge galvanized steel wire. Now, this isn't bad stuff, and a lot of maille shirts these days are made from it; but the zinc coating does tend to oxidize to a dark, dull grey over time, and it eventually gets that "old metal smell"; and when the soft zinc coating gets scratched (as it inevitably will, when a mailler works it with pliers), the steel underneath will eventually start to rust.

Besides, I've decided that I don't want to start with a maille shirt. I'd prefer to start with smaller projects--and that means jewelry-type stuff: necklaces, belts, bracelets, that sort of thing. This will give me some much-needed mailling experience, and offer me a chance to experiment with different weave patterns and ring aspect ratios before I start the big stuff. But to do this, of course, I need better wire than funny-smelling galvanized steel. I'd prefer to start with stainless steel, or bronze, or one of the alloys known as nickel silver (although it doesn't actually contain any silver).

So, I can certainly mail-order the stuff if I have to. But I'm hoping to find a local supplier who has the stuff in stock. So if I have any readers in the Sacramento area who's into chainmaille or into fashioning jewelry, please don't hesitate to jump in and let me know where you get your stuff.

Ok, that's enough Man Stuff; it was time for more Honey-dos. First, I got to assemble and bake a pot pie for dinner--from scratch. Well, it wasn't entirely from scratch. We use store-bought pie-crust dough. And Tonya had actually cooked the chicken meat for the pie while I was putting together my mandrel. But then the Happy Boy came down with some kind of bug, and needed lots of hugs and cuddles, so Mommy did that while I put the rest of the thing together, from sauteeing the onions to crimping the top and bottom crusts together on the assembled pie.

And, for the first time ever, the Pillowfight Fairy asked for seconds on the chicken pie. I must have done something right. :-) Either that, or it's been long enough since they saw Chicken Run that they don't have quite the sympathy for the poultry that they used to....

Then I gave the Pillowfight Fairy a piano lesson. Alas, that didn't go well today. The Fairy is doing well in her homeschooling, and is making tremendous progress; but we still occasionally have days like today, where she fought every little thing we asked her to do. Ah, well; it was Friday, after all. Even homeschoolers look forward to the weekends.

Well, after the kids went to bed, I got to do my last Honey-do of the day: I fixed a leaky faucet in our hall bath. It was a pretty straightforward repair; the faucet is a Delta one-handle bath/shower fixture, and Delta has been making standardized back-ends for these for years, as well as repair kits.


This repair would have been straightforward, except that the replacement part appears to have been assembled slightly, um... wrong. It has an adjustable scald-guard mechanism, that prevents the handle from being turned to the point that it's letting in too much hot water. The trouble is, with the way everything was assembled, the handle could barely turn one quarter of the way around, even with the scald-guard moved to the hottest position allowable; and when the water was run at this hottest position, it was at best lukewarm. So, thinking like the Engineer that I am, I reverse engineered the thing, and figured out how to remove the scald-guard completely, which gives the handle the same range of motion (and same temperature control) that the old faucet had. So yes, I did have parts left over when I reassembled the thing. :-)

Who says that Software Engineers can't do hardware?

Anyway, that was one day in the life of Daddy Power. I'm almost looking forward to going back to work next week so I can relax.


(P.S. And my wife did even more than I did. And she's seven months pregnant! Good heavens, how does she keep going!?)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ah, the Miracle of Life

I was going to write a more serious post tonight. Really, I was. I still owe my readership Part II of my post about Bristol Palin. And there's always the usual doom and gloom to write about, if we really want to.

But today, I thought I'd write about something more uplifting. That is, about the Miracle of Life, as seen through the eyes of a six-year-old who's just covered the topic in her science lessons, and who is now excitedly telling Daddy all about the wonderful things she learned today.

You see, one of the topics we're covering this year is the anatomy of the human body. And, yup--we've gotten to the section on reproduction. My wife and I have taken the view in our homeschool that leaving out big swathes of your subject matter on account of the fact that it's icky does the student few favors. Fact is, they know when you're leaving out the naughty bits (because they read through the book on their own last week!) and the fact that you're skipping it just makes it that much more exotic, that much more enticing. Besides, many of these topics don't seem quite so icky to them as they do to us.

And Tonya is a pretty left-brained, practical person. Her attitude is a "this is the way it is" bluntness, and so the idea that we should skip this stuff to preserve our little one's wee delicate sensibilities seems just wimpy to her.

So Tonya went ahead and started teaching the Pillowfight Fairy all about the anatomy that is involved in reproduction. Now, this is not The Talk that Tonya was giving her; that will come later, and that will truly be icky. No, this was science she was teaching; it was anatomy.

And the Fairy was absolutely fascinated by it.


So when I came home from work the Fairy was still rather excited by her new-found knowledge, and she proceeded to tell me over tonight's meatloaf all about where babies come from.

"It all starts with the eyes," she said.

Eyes? I wondered. I started thinking about how across the crowded dance floor, he looked up and saw her, and for a long moment their eyes locked together; she felt something move in her breast that she had thought would never move again; and as her cheeks flushed, the motion of the dance drew them ever closer, closer...

"Good heavens," I thought, "what has Tonya been teaching that girl?"

But no: "Some people have blue genes, some have green genes, and some have brown genes. You get one from your mother and one from your father, and they set the color of each eye."

Well, that's pretty close, although she made it sound as though you get your right eye from your Mom and your left eye from your Dad. And given that Tonya's eyes are in fact different colors (look really closely at the picture of Tonya in the chainmail post below and you'll see), I suppose this wasn't such an odd thing for the Fairy to say.

She went on to explain to us about the ovum and the sperm, and how the former has an X and the latter has either an X or a Y, and if you get two X's you're a girl, and if you get an X and a Y you're a boy. Pretty good, I thought.

And so then she started to describe how "there's this big race, you see, as all the sperm are rushing really fast to get to the egg first. And the winner gets to fertilize the egg! And all the sperm that lose, die."

The Fairy is big into competitions now. Everything has to be a competition. "I'm the first girl to brush my teeth! I ate more waffles than my sister! I'm the only one wearing purple!" So the fact that there's this big race between the sperm sounded really exciting to her, and the fact that all the losing sperm end up like those Roman gladiators she's also learning about is just really nifty.

"And then the ovums start splitting, always into an even number of cells. And then they turn into embryos, and start growing and growing until they're ready to come out."

Well, as described, that'll get you identical octuplets. But she's close enough, so we'll let it slide.

"And then it grows, and grows, and when it's ready, it slides down the Virginia, and pushes through the Gluteus Maximus, and it's a baby!"

At this point, Tonya and I simultaneously choked and spewed. I choked, she spewed.

Where babies come from?

So, we slowly regained our composure, and corrected her pronunciation (no doubt to the great relief of any readers I may have from the Old Dominion), and explained to her that--although we are very happy that she has remembered the names of the various muscle groups in our bodies--in fact, babies do not come out of our butts. Oh, and when you're eating dinner, it's better to use some of those Orwellian euphemisms I talked about a few weeks back. "Birth canal" spoken at the dinner table is rather less likely to cause people to drop their forks than a suddenly spoken "Virginia".

Especially by a six-year-old.


But all that isn't the best of it.

She decided to illustrate the whole process.

And not only that, she decided to give it a story line, with all the various characters acting pretty darn snarky, if you ask me.

When was the last time you ever read a comic strip with an antropomorphized sperm and ovum mouthing off to each other, before getting in a race to see who can be the first to make it out the "Virginia"? And when you did last read something like that, what were the odds it had been written by a six-year-old (as opposed to some college student who thought he was being edgy)?

So without further ado, I present you with, um... I suppose it's the Miracle of Life...

First, here are the full sheets she drew and colored. If you have trouble reading them, I broke them out into panels below.

And here it is broken out into panels. I hope you enjoy....

And there we have the joy of childbirth right at the end. I think those last two are actually supposed to be siblings, but I'm not sure.


Oh, and by the way: you remember how in an earlier post, I had told my daughter the Parable of the Lost Caper ("Which of you, upon losing his caper, would not climb under the table to try to find it...")? And then, how the Fairy had stormed up to me full of righteous wrath after that Sunday night's class, to accuse me of leading her astray? ("It's coins, not capers!") Well, my daughter is apparently like this a lot. After having read all about where babies come from today, she passed this withering judgment at the dinner table: "Calvin's dad lied."

Sigh. If you can't trust Calvin's dad, you can't trust anybody, can you?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

By All Means, Leave Your Books Out In The Open

So my wife has been preparing the curriculum for next year. Tonya is one of those (few, I suspect) people who works best when she knows exactly what lesson she will be teaching on any given day, for a year in advance. I was skeptical of this approach at first, but seeing how well it worked out this year, I'm now on board with whatever Tonya wants to do.

Well, as she's been preparing the lessons, she's been getting out big stacks of books and leaving them out. After all, she needs to read through them next to the computer as she's putting together next year's lesson plans. She knows, "Ok, I'm planning 36 weeks, and we're doing History three times a week, so I have to break this book up into 108 roughly-equivalent lessons.

I have no expectation that other homeschoolers do it this way, by the way. If I were the primary parent-teacher, I'd be using a much more, ahem... unstructured approach.

Which means I'd basically be winging it. But then, compared to Tonya, everyone is winging it. :-)

So the Second Grade science books are just sitting out (earth science and astronomy), and the second grade history (Medieval times) and literature (medieval literature) books are just sitting out, and the second grade math books have made an occasional appearance in the stack by the computer.

Now, the Pillowfight Fairy isn't dumb: she knows what these books are for. And she's curious. What kind of stuff are they going to inflict on me next year? So periodically she wanders over here and rifles through the pile, and pulls books out that look interesting to her. Then she drags them over to the sofa, gets comfy, and starts reading.

This is mildly upsetting to Tonya's orderly, clock-like universal worldview. She's reading all the curriculum early! She's already going to know it by the time I teach it to her! Of course, Tonya doesn't discourage this in any way; for one thing, it makes us parents proud as punch to see the Fairy reading about Shakespeare on her own (even if it is just in a comic-book format), or flipping through her new math text to see the amazing things she'll be able to do by the end of next year, or reading through her books about space and earth science.

So how much of this free-reading of hers is actually penetrating? Well, just the other day I caught her making some spontaneous drawings:
As you can see, the Fairy subscribes to the No-Matter-What-They-Say-Pluto-Is-Still-A-Planet school of thought. But she's picked up about both the Asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt, so I'm pretty impressed.

I mean, heck--she even got the colors of the planets more or less right.

Then I got a peek at this beauty, and I asked her to explain it for me:
Here's her answer, somewhat paraphrased: "This is Saturn. First, there was a collision that happened on a moon. Then [pointing at the second picture] the moon broke apart into lots of little pieces. Then [third picture] all the pieces started going around and around Saturn, and then they turned into a ring."

Now, the fun thing about this explanation--aside from being an accurate description of our best understanding of how the rings of Saturn formed--is that we never told her any of that! She picked that up entirely by reading the books that we just left lying around as we were planning her schoolwork for next year. She was curious about all these books with the pretty covers, picked one up at random, started reading through it, and--almost by accident--has educated herself about the structure and origin of the Solar System and the stuff therein.

Anyway, at this point she flipped over the paper and revealed that she'd already diagrammed the formation of the ring around Uranus, which she has informed us is her favorite planet.
I like to think that maybe it's her favorite because it's been knocked completely off its original axis, and so she has some feelings of fond affinity for it. Me, I've always been partial to Neptune. The Fairy asked Mommy what her favorite planet was, and Mommy (ever practical and prosaic) declared, "This one!" The Fairy thought this was somehow an amusing answer.

Of course, we're also facing the questions that we'd been putting off for a while now, which every Christian family must ultimately address: how to square the stuff we read in science books with what we learn about in Church. Now, Tonya and I have pretty well already decided how we were going to answer these questions, but we were hoping to have a little more time before we had to deal with them. Not anymore--the fact that the Fairy is insatiably curious to read and understand this stuff is forcing the issue. She's already familiar with the concept of the Big Bang, having read about it in numerous places--so how this fits in with "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is something that we must face, and soon. We may not even be able to get away with waiting until next year, when we were actually planning on covering the material.


But I'm constantly amazed--and very proud--to see the kinds of things that the Fairy gets into, purely from her own curiosity. Charlotte Mason presented the idea that education is like a banquet, and if we fill the table with lots of good food (and keep the unhealthful stuff off of it!), the children will choose what to eat, and will do so with enthusiasm. Our experience with the Fairy tends to point to the truth of this analogy.

(Though it somehow doesn't seem to work with actual food food. It's apparent Charlotte Mason was never actually a mom herself.)

And it also makes me think that the unschoolers among us may be onto something. We're not so radical as to try that approach ourselves--our kids inherited from their Daddy way too much of his lazy streak for us to be confident that they'd prosper if we started unschooling--but I see how much my kids learn even when we aren't making them learn, and it makes me curious to hear more testimony from unschooling parents about their methods, successes, failures, etc....

So by all means, leave your books out where the kids can get at them. Let them know that "this is the stuff we'll be covering next year", and let them read through the stuff if they get curious--even the teachers' manuals (the ones with all the answers). It may even give you ideas about what to cover, and where their interests lie, and which of those ridiculously complicated craft ideas you have to start mentally preparing yourself for now....

When Engineers Have Pets

Saw this over at the Instapundit, and I thought I'd share it with my loyal readership.

As an avowed fan of homemade siege engines, I just think this is absolutely the bee's knees. That's one happy-looking dog there. (A little later on in the video, that's one happy-looking boy, too.) My three kids were watching this, standing around the monitor laughing uproariously.

Hope you enjoy.

The Mozart playing in the background was a nice touch, as well. So was their choice of dog. There's something about Dachshunds, especially very happy ones, that's just inherently comical.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Oh, Now I've Finally Gone and Done It

Well, I've been threatening for years that I was eventually going to take up the art of chainmaille*. Of course, I've never actually gotten around to doing it. I mean, when does a Daddy of three have time to sit down for hours on end, bending little metal rings open and closed, open and closed....?

Well, we had to make a run by Lowe's today, so I decided on a lark to take up this new hobby--at least for one experimental project.

I bought a box of 100 lockwashers, and a couple extra sets of pliers.

Now, I suspect that if any maille hobbyists are reading this, they're laughing at me right now. "Lockwashers?" And my response to them would be: Hey, this is just an experiment. I know: if I really wanted to do this right, I would either order some rings from someone, or I'd get (or make) a mandrel so I could wind my own rings from some decent heavy-gauge wire. Yes, yes, I know that. I just wanted to make a quick and dirty project so I could get a feel for how much work it is.

So after I got home, I got out the pliers, broke open the box of lockwashers, and set to work. And I can proudly report that I learned a few things almost immediately:
  • If you're going to use lockwashers for your rings, pick ones that have a large inner-diameter-to-thickness ratio. The washers I picked were so thick that I could barely get four washers linked onto one. It was also extremely hard to close the links with the pliers, especially when the link was looped through four others--lockwashers are tough to bend even under the best of circumstances, but with that much stuff stuck through them, it became hard to get a good grip on them with the pliers.
  • And I quickly had to abandon my dreams of making a standard European 4-in-1 pattern. While I could physically get each link through four others, it was such a tight fit that I couldn't lay the work flat enough to get the next set of links through properly. I had to go for a looser pattern, so I went with one that was (apparently) commonly used in feudal Japan. (It doesn't have the stopping power of the European pattern, but it's lighter-weight and has better flexibility).
  • Given how solid and dense the maille made from lockwashers is, it's pretty apparent that a suit made from the stuff would be ridiculously heavy--even compared to other armor which everyone expects to be heavy.
  • And it would be expensive, too. Cheap lockwashers sell for about a dime a pop. Given that, according to Wikipedia, a typical hauberk takes anywhere from 15,000 to 45,000 rings (and that's with bigger rings than the ones I was using!) it's pretty obvious that this is not the way to do a big project. I would be spending ridiculous amounts of my family's money to make an obsolete piece of armor that weighs way too much to be practical even when it uses a less protective pattern than the standard one. Mmm-hmm...
  • I needn't have worried about the kids running off and getting in trouble while I was distracted with all the rings. Turns out the kids were just as distracted by it as I was. The Boy was taking his nap while I was doing this, but both girls were right next to me, wondering "What are you doing, Daddy? Daddy! Daddy! Can I help, Daddy? Can I do it too? What are those things, Daddy? Daddy? Are you listening?" But while I didn't have fears of them running off and getting into trouble, I did have problems with them getting too close. Occasionally those pliers would slip while I was trying to bend a ring, and all that unbalanced force on those pliers could take out an eye, or break a tooth, or gash a hole in one's arm (or chest) if the craftsman isn't careful. Besides, the girls wanted to pick up the rings and play with them, which wasn't actually very helpful.
And when I was done with the project, the girls got in continuous arguments over whose turn to play with it it was. And when I told them that it was my turn to play with it (since I was after all the one who made the durn thing), they were nevertheless inspired again to pull out the various weapons of war we crafted back in late 2007 and beat the tar out of each other.

(And this time they started yelling Shakespearean-sounding taunts and insults at each other as they whacked away. At one point the Fairy yelled out something like, "My brain is sharper than my sword!" which made me completely lose it.)

So I have some conclusions: first, this will be a lot of work. And it might give me repetitive strain injury. But, it's fun. Seriously: I was Making Something. And not only was I Making Something, I was taking ordinary-looking lockwashers and turning them into something absolutely lovely.

Here's what my piece looks like if you pick it up by one corner, and let it drape into a diamond shape:
...and here's what it looks like when you grab it by two adjacent corners and pull it tight:
Believe it or not, that is ninety-six lockwashers in that little piece. And it took me about two hours to complete. No doubt much of that time was wasted through my inexperience and my dubious choice of ring material, but still--it would take a long time to complete a decent-sized suit of armor with this stuff. That piece, which took two hours to craft, is no more than three inches square.

But I have noticed some interesting properties about it. It's very flexible, especially along the bias. The page I linked to above on the Hitoye Gusari pattern had this eyebrow-raising description of its properties:
Hitoye-Gusari is particularly flexible when rotated 45 degrees, so that the grain is like a diamond, instead of a square. On the bias the pattern has an incredible ability to collapse around complex shapes, such as well-endowed chests.
Oh, the possibilities that spring to mind as I turn that nugget of wisdom over in my head**....


So, now what?

Well, knowing me, It'll be a while before I get up the gumption to go buy a mandrel to make my own rings. But when I have that thing (and I will let you all know, dear internets, when that great day comes), expect blogging to be light for a year or two until I have linked together 15,000 rings and provided the Happy Boy with the absolutely coolest Halloween Costume Any then-4-year-old boy has ever possessed. Or five, or six, or seven years old; we'll see how long this whole thing takes. ;-)


Credit where it's due: I got several good ideas by looking at Dylon Whyte's website. The pages I linked to above, which provide very complete instructions for crafting the ring patterns, were drawn from his site. There's a lot of good stuff there, including some gorgeous maille jewelry (and the patterns thereto!) available for sale, in case anyone in my readership is interested.

*I know--that spelling will look weird to most of my readers, especially within my own family. It turns out that "maille" or "chainmaille" is the preferred spelling of this term among modern hobbyists and armorers. The trouble with the terms "chainmail" or "chain mail" is that they sound too much like those illegal through-the-mail pyramid schemes, so alternate spellings--drawn from legitimate archaic and foreign sources--have been adopted.

**If you haven't been reading this blog since the very beginning, you may not know that I've already sounded off on the issue of armored boobs. Bottom line: I'm for 'em.

Presented Without Comment

No, seriously. No comment.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I'm Not Sure Why, But I Thought This Was Funny

Ok, a little background. I'm a software engineer. We're developing a system right now that uses several Linux systems, so we're doing a lot of development in Linux. But, of course, we have Windows boxes on our desks.

So we're always going back and forth. And I can't tell you how many times I've typed Linux commands into my Windows terminals and vice versa. Those of you in similar circumstances are probably nodding your heads at this: I can never remember whether to use "ifconfig" or "ipconfig", so I always wind up typing both and using whichever output looks less like an error.

So anyway, as I walked past my supervisor's cube earlier today, he had a sticky note up to help him keep things straight... and (unintentionally) to give the rest of us Windows/Linux amphibians a bit of a laugh. I mean, despite his proud redneck accent, my supervisor is still plenty smart. And I suspect that's part of what made this so funny to me.

I've reproduced it here for your contemplation:

Yup. Vitally important for a software engineer to keep those little things straightened out. This has been your daily PSA.

(Oh, and pardon the horrible pun--they're supposed to lean like that).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Confession

I have a confession to make. I'm corrupting the religious and moral development of my children.

You see, I've developed a bad habit--one which I keep doing because it's so, so fun to do. Even my very upright, very conscientious wife thinks its funny. And then, when my eldest daughter finds out the truth, she glowers at me in serious indignation. And if you've never been glowered at in indignation by a six-year old, let me tell you, it's a real hoot.

Thus, the confession.

Here's what I've been doing. You know those retellings of world history, in which they restate, slice up, and remix the stories to humorous effect? You know--"Magellan circumcised the earth in a 100-foot clipper", and "Queen Elizabeth exposed herself to her troops, who all shouted, 'Huzzah'!" and that sort of thing?

(In case you are interested, here is the exemplar of this genre.)

Well, I've found myself doing this with Bible stories. (It makes them much, much more memorable, don't you know.)

Here's one example from today. The girls were talking about some stories they learned in class while we were coming home after morning services. Specifically, they were mentioning things that sounded vaguely like the Parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep. However, their narration abilities are still only partially formed, and so their description sounded a little like they were hunting for money and food.

Hey, we all can understand that.

So I got this little devious idea into my head, and began relating the Parable of the Lost Caper. Basically, it involved a diner who had ten capers on his dinner plate, and lost one, and so dived under the table looking for it...

I had my wife laughing well before my little story was done. And it became even funnier when we realized that neither of us actually knows what a caper is.

(For the record: it's an edible bud used in Mediterranean cooking, often either salted or pickled. It's also a species of North American snail, but you don't eat those.)

So I changed the story. Truffles! We shall now have the parable of the truffles. Tonya said she could do that, so long as they were chocolate truffles instead of the real thing. Great! I said; after all, if you had ten chocolate truffles, and you lost one, wouldn't you dive under the table to search for it? And when you had found it, wouldn't you wipe the accumulated dust and cat hair off of it, and joyfully call your friends over to celebrate (presumably by sharing your truffles with them)?

(Um, if you don't mind, I'd like to pick one of the other nine, please.)

Somehow, my daughter didn't get the joke. So over lunchtime, she decided that she finally understood the Parable of the Caper, and so she spontaneously narrated it to us. She narrated it quite well, I'm afraid, and had mommy and me practically in stitches:
So here's the parable of the Caper. The kingdom of heaven is like a diner in a restaurant with ten capers on a plate. And then the diner sneezes, and one of the capers rolls off the plate onto the floor under the table. Which of you, upon losing his caper, would not climb under the table to try to find it? And upon finding the caper, the diner jumps up and down in the restaurant, yelling, "Eureka!" The explanation of the parable is this: God is the diner, and we are like the capers; when one of us is lost on the floor, God leaves all the others on his plate and climbs under the table to look for us....
(Sigh...) that's my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.

So that was that... until this evening. After my girl came back from class this evening, she walked right up to me with furrowed brow, darkened countenance and pursed lips; and under her withering, glowering stare, she firmly stated, with righteous indignation:

"It's not capers, it's coins!"

Oh, man, am I going to H-E-double-toothpicks for that one, or what? I suspect it'd be better for me to have an upper millstone tied around my neck....


So remind me to tell you sometime about the Plague of Wedgies.

Whaddaya Know, They Can Criminalize Stupidity

So we saw this headline the other day:
Woman Caught Breast-Feeding While Driving
Of course, we had to look. It was like watching mud-wrestling, or sword-swallowing, or a horrible accident (or all three at once): you just can't look away.

First sentence:
KETTERING, Ohio (AP) - Police in Ohio said a woman has been charged with child endangering after another motorist reported she was both breast-feeding a youngster and talking on a phone while driving.
Darn it, I hate it when people talk on the phone while driving.

Good grief. I mean, seriously: good grief. I'm generally the kind of guy who believes in the wisdom of the common man--at least, in that they're usually able to handle their affairs better than their political superiors.

But then I read a story like this, and it makes me think: If that's the kind of thing the common people do, then I shudder to think what our political superiors are like....