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From Sticks to Studs

My youngest son recently discovered the woodcraft aisle at Hobby Lobby. I don’t mean discovered as in the way Columbus discovered America (by accident) or how my cousin discovered in high school that he looked pretty good with his head shaved (also, for the most part, by accident, very little of it my fault). He always knew it was there. Most likely he knew it was there before I did and, quite possibly, before the store itself. My kids have a sixth sense about hobby and craft stores. They can hear spray paint cans being shelved from miles away and will gleefully spend days browsing just the clearance section. No, he discovered woodcrafts the way a young man discovers girls. He knows they exist. He sees them every day and thinks nothing of it. Then, one day, a switch is flipped in his brain — one of the several hundred other switches that are activated at this time — and he really notices them: the smell, the touch, so much beauty just waiting, longing, for the young man to take hold of them and turn them into a birdhouse.

Here’s the problem, though. He’s ten. The sight of all that raw material sends his creative ten-year-old brain into overload, and we end up with a conversation like this.

“Dad, can I get some wood?”

“What kind of wood are you wanting?”

“I don’t know, just to build. Just some wood. How about those wooden stick things?”

“Yeah, those are cool. What do you want to build with them?”

“Um, I could, um, build some stuff. Like glue them together and make shapes and stuff. You know. So, can we get some?”

So, last week I made a deal with him. If he sits down, thinks about what he wants to build, and sketches out a rough draft, we will buy the wood and work on it together. Twice he came to me with an idea and started describing it, using large hand gestures and vague references to tape measures and glue (which, it turns out, is, minus the glue, a quite popular design strategy for homebuilders these days). I asked him where his sketch was, and he said he didn’t have one. I told him when he comes up with a rough sketch, bring it to me, and we would get to work — and before any of you start screaming about stifling his creativity, no, I don’t force my children to develop a five phase project plan every time they sit down to make something. I do, however, recognize a learning opportunity when I see it, and enjoy teaching them new things.

Design

On Saturday, he called me in to show me something on his laptop. He had taken my directive to “sketch something up” quite literally and had designed a house using Google SketchUp. He was quite proud of the result. He pointed out the windows, and how he slanted the porch roof. I asked him some questions, taught him about overhang and what those little triangle windows are called (dormers), and then we talked about scale. Since he would be using 1/4″ sticks as two by fours, we agreed on a one inch equals one foot scale to make the math easier. He also decided to ditch the dormers and go with a basic one room cabin design since neither of us had done this before.

Estimating

We talked about trying to figure out how much wood it was going to take. However, since I had requested just a rough draft, we didn’t really know how many pieces we would need, not to mention how many we would burn through in the learning process. We decided to start with five 36″ pieces and see where that got us.

Construction

Finally, it was time for the fun part. We set his laptop up on the corner of the worktable, and he measured out two 13’ header and footer studs and enough 8’ wall studs to make it look realistic. I explained how most studs were 18” or 24” apart, but since we were going for looks, and doubted Owens-Corning even made tiny 2-inch rolls of insulation, we decided to go with 30” gaps between wall studs and leave a 36” opening for the door. He cut the studs to length with one Dremel tool, and we sanded them using another — or rather, he sanded the first one, then I sanded the rest while he sat in the other room, comforting the dog, and hoping to one day regain his hearing.

Pro-tip: A Dremel sander makes a high-pitched sound, similar to that made by your pet rabbit when its foot got caught in the cage that time when you were 6 years old, only there are 18,000 rabbits, and they are all 6 inches from your face. Use some ear plugs.

Once the pieces were all cut and sanded, we laid them side-by-side and quickly discovered why they are $0.79 each for a 36” piece. Just like when grabbing 2×4’s from the lumber yard, apparently you need to inspect each piece of hobby wood before bringing it home. Our header stud had a, well, not so much a “bow” as a “jog”, where it went along straight for a while then suddenly veered off in a completely new direction. However, the pieces were cut, we were ready to build, and it was after 8:00 PM, meaning my ten-year-olds attention was drooping in tandem with his eyelids.

We marked the stud locations, applied the wood glue, then, using three hand clamps, two pieces of string, and a not insignificant amount of legerdemain, assembled all of the pieces for one 13’ wall and one 10’ wall. Next weekend, we hope to assemble the other two walls and bring them all together — a feat which will undoubtedly require more clamps and string than I currently own, necessitating another trip to the hobby store, where we will pick out the rest of the pieces for his cabin, and perhaps a few extras for the giant, Overlook Hotel-style mansion I’m envisioning as our next project.

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Obsessing About Failure

Earlier this week, Adam Savage, maker, father, madman, and co-host of Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters”, spoke in his podcast about being a Geek Dad. It’s well worth the 23 minutes to listen to the whole thing, but if you don’t have the time, or the attention span, or you fear that leaving your geekling alone for that long would result in the cat being hot glued to the Roomba (hey, it’s your excuse, I’m just trying to meet you halfway), here are the two main points to take away.

  1. Obsession is good
  2. Failure is always an option

If you are a fan of Mythbusters, you will probably be familiar with #2. It is one of the two basic tenets of the show, the other being “When in doubt…C4”. Some of the greatest episodes were those that succeeded only after an entire day of failure after spectacular failure. Not only were they highly entertaining to the audience, the hosts themselves were more jubilant after a day of Tory sustaining bodily harm or Jamie wearing out the censor’s beep button finger than when a test would go right on the first try. “We learn more from failure than from success” may be cliché, but it doesn’t make it untrue.

The first point is a little harder to embrace, as obsession is seldom portrayed as a positive trait. Most of us associate the idea of obsession with conditions such as OCD, which Hollywood tells us is either funny (“What About Bob”), tragic (“Moby Dick”), or a combination of the two (Tony Shaloub’s “Monk” or Michael J. Fox’s “Dr. Kevin Casey” from Scrubs). However, being obsessive is not the same as having an obsessive compulsive disorder. It is the natural state for children. Their world is full of fascinations, and the way they discover who they are is to see something that interests them, to focus intently on figuring it out, and if it doesn’t keep their enthusiasm, to toss it aside and moving on to the next wonderful new thing.

One of the finest examples of this kind of geek parenting can be seen in the Disney movie “Meet the Robinsons”. It perfectly demonstrates the power of a child’s obsessive imagination when coupled with the support of geeky parents when things don’t work right on the first try. The Robinsons are a family that celebrates failure and fully supports each others’ obsessions, regardless how wacky they may seem. It’s no accident that the family motto comes from one of the most creatively geeky minds of the 20th century. If you have not watched this movie with your children, you need to buy, rent, borrow, stream, or download it immediately.


Scene From Meet The Robinsons – Copyright 2007 Walt Disney Company

Hunting Treasure In Your Own Back Yard


The first hike of 2012

Springtime in Colorado, and once again Mother Nature calls out to shrug off those winter blues, load up your day pack, and explore the majesty of the Rocky Mountains’ hundreds of miles of trails. Then she dumps a foot of snow on you.

But for those of us who eschew the stereotypical winter-time mountain activities for those less likely to involve jackass tourists and protruding bone fragments, we don’t care. We’ve been cooped up since October, gazing longingly at our boots neglected in the back of the closet, waiting for our chance. We’ve listened patiently as our friends talk about things like shredding, powder, and the advantages of titanium over steel surgical pins. Now it’s our turn, and we don’t care about the weather. Nor do we care that skinny guys with winter-white legs in hiking boots and cargo shorts are just one step up the dork ladder from rainbow suspenders and Crocs with tube socks. This is why we live here (for the hiking, not the chance to dress like a tool).

You may find, however, that not everyone in your household shares your enthusiasm. While our kids have grown to enjoy hiking as much as my wife and I, the idea of spending hours with mom and dad, just walking around outdoors, was initially met with something less than enthusiasm. Fortunately for us, we had recently taken up Geocaching together as a family, and were psyched to discover many of our prospective trails were peppered with caches. Geocache hikes have become one of my family’s favorite outdoor activities.

For those not familiar with it, Geocaching is a real-world outdoor treasure hunting game. Players try to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, using GPS-enabled devices and then share their experiences online.

 

One of the beauties of Geocaching is that not only can it be an activity in itself, but you can also make it a part of nearly everything else you do as a family. Visiting family out-of-state? Introduce them to Geocaching and show them parts of their own hometown they’ve never seen. Mom taking a little too long at the salon? Whip out the smartphone and discover a hidden puzzle just a few blocks away. Soccer practice at the park? Stop yelling contradictory instructions while the coach is talking, grab your other kid that keeps running onto the field to play with his big brother, and go exploring.


Discovering buried treasure

Once you’ve found a few caches, and figured out which kind you like best, pick up some containers from Geocaching.com, your local sporting goods store, or just use what you have lying around the house, and have your kids make their own cache. They can range from magnetic nano caches the size of a bullet perfect for urban caching, to a five gallon bucket that can hold tons of swag. Choose a site that is close to home or work so you can maintain it, but hidden enough that muggles can’t accidentally stumble across it.
There is much more you can do with Geocaching including trackables that move from cache to cache, environmentally conscious activities like CITO (cache in, trash out), and community events. I’ve included some helpful links at the bottom.

Now, get out there and get caching, and remember to leave the area as nice as, or better than, you found it. Geocaching can teach kids to love nature, but it’s up to us to teach them to respect her…even when she’s being a pain in the ass.

Geocaching guide:  http://www.geocaching.com/guide/default.aspx
Wiki article:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocaching
Printable log sheets:  http://www.techblazer.com/geocaching-log-sheets/
Leave No Trace:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leave_No_Trace

Technology Adapts To Imagination, Not The Other Way Around

Last weekend, after failing yet again to settle Catan, I instead settled myself into the recliner to watch Real Steel, the Rocky / Over the Top near-futuristic mashup starring Hugh Jackman. I’m not going to go into a detailed plot synopsis, but the quick summary is Jackman and his newly-met 11-year-old son travel around with a fighting robot that the kid found and helped fix, climaxing with the inevitable finale against the current champion Apollo Creed…I mean Zeus. It’s a fun movie with plenty of action, drama, romance, personal growth, and 10-foot-robots beating the circuits out of each other.

My purpose for writing, though, isn’t to review the cinematic interpretation of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, but to address the comment my oldest made during scene where the boy stays up all night working on his robot. In that scene, the kid is hunched over the workbench, pulling components out, running them across the screen, punching buttons, and Connor said, in sarcastic disbelief, “Yeah, like a kid could do that.”


Where’s the USB port on this thing?

I agreed at first, but then I realized the boy wasn’t some advanced engineering genius; he was merely using the tools at his disposal. It was no more complicated than a kid today adding gradient background to an image in GIMP or creating a school fundraising flyer in Word. Cooler of course. It was a giant killer robot. More technologically advanced? Absolutely. But in the end it was still just a mammal using a tool — the futuristic Hollywood version of a chimp with a stick digging termites.

I mention this because there is a belief among many that their kids are some kind of wunderkind Ender-Wiggin-meets-Jimmy-Neutron super-genius because they were able to master a tool. I don’t mean to belittle the value of the skill, simply point out that a kid in 2020 swapping out a voice-recognition module on his fighting robot is just as impressive as a kid in 2012 adding an App to his iPad, a kid in 1985 loading a game from cassette on his Commodore, or a kid in 1905 changing the tire on his bicycle. While it is important a child learn how to use the tools that surround his daily life, what is more important is to acknowledge and praise the ingenuity and creativity a child demonstrates while using those tools.

We should applaud a toddler’s ability to combine red and yellow to make orange, but rejoice when she uses that orange to create the landscape from her imagination, whether it be with finger paints on newsprint or with SketchBook Pro on an iPad; recognize the mastery of both a pencil and a Word Processor, but even more so praise the stories that come out of it. As geek dads, we should not simply be training our children to become technicians; life will do that for them. We should be helping them to find the joy that comes from creation and discovery.

Bricks vs. Sticks

One of the great things about being a Geek Dad is being able to expose my children to the interesting, the esoteric, and the odd. And while I love sharing my personal interests with my kids, it is sometimes hard to reconcile that they are not simply small versions of myself — that listening to NPR, Robert Johnson, and The Clash in the car doesn’t preclude them walking in the door one day asking me to download Ke$ha or Justin Bieber (two bullets we have so far dodged), or, as in my case, that one would end up preferring K’NEX to Lego1.

Growing up, I was a Lego kid. Sure, I had Lincoln Logs, but after the house, barn, fence, jail, and really tall tower that collapsed every time someone walked by, there wasn’t a whole lot left to do with them. I even dabbled a bit in Tinker Toys and Erector sets belonging to my little brothers, but I always came back to that giant tub of Legos2, handed down and added to over the years.

So, when Dylan started asking for K’NEX sets, I was surprised at how much fun they were. Once I got over everything being wireframe, I started to see the attraction. There was much more movement, more engineering and physics, than sticking bricks together. How do you build an eight-legged creature that doesn’t pop legs off when you move it? Sure, that tower looks fine now, but when you add a fulcrum and turn it into a trebuchet, you have to widen the base and add in more cross-supports. Or, in the case of his newest sets, take into account the force of a small plumber driving in circles.

When the Mario Kart K’NEX were first released, I knew we were going to end up owning them all. Before such a thing was ever on the market, Dylan’s room was walls covered with Mario wall stickers and posters, and a floor covered with K’NEX structures. And while these kits are still fun to build, they’ve somehow managed to incorporate the most negative aspect of the two toys from which they originated (slot car tracks and K’NEX models). The key to enjoying the kit is to recognize it is a module for creativity, not a standalone toy; enjoy the fun of construction, and then use it as a part of a whole, combined with other Mario Kart kits, the big bucket of K’NEX pieces, Mario chess pieces, Hot Wheels, building blocks, and whatever else is lying around. We are hoping to finish his newest acquisition tonight. From the pictures, it appears Bowser needs a few more weapons at his disposal. I’m thinking a jungle-style Swinging Log of Death, which, come to think of it, would be a good use for those Lincoln Logs.

1 To put this in context for those of you who aren’t builders, this is the geek equivalent of preferring Episode I to Episode IV or Val Kilmer to Christian Bale.

2 Sorry, the only way the Lego company is going to get me to stop calling them Legos is to invent time travel and threaten 6-year-old me with sticking together all my thin flat pieces unless I agree to call them Lego bricks.

Beyond the Instruction Manual

This weekend my oldest son finally got around to building the tin can robot kit he received for Christmas. While calling it a robot might be a little generous — tin can electric vehicle is probably more accurate, it was a fun project that offered a few lessons in mechanics, battery polarity,deciphering an exploded view, and following instructions. I also got to play the part of wise old man when I showed him how to magnetize the tip of the screwdriver with the old hard drive magnet I had attached to the filing cabinet, as well as discussing simple machines when he discovered that using the screwdriver with the fatter handle was easier than the tiny eyeglass screwdriver.

Altogether, it was a great little geeky project, and had it ended there with the little robot spending the rest of its life collecting dust on a bedroom shelf, I would have considered it a success. As I snapped some pictures, however, my son began taking the project beyond the instruction manual.

“Sure you can switch the wires, but if you do it like this, it’s a moonwalking robot.”

“Hold on, let me go get some Hot Wheels cars and we’ll take some pictures of it crushing them.”

“Can we use GIMP and make it look like it’s destroying a city?”

“How do you get your edges to look so good when you are removing the background?”

By this point, the robot is sitting on the kitchen table, and Connor is on his laptop next to me on my desktop learning how to use feathering and opacity in GIMP. And this is the real value of craft and science projects  —  the questions they create and the opportunities they provide for us to share our passions with our children.

The Best $150 Development Tool You’ll Ever Purchase

It was with a touch of sadness that I said goodbye to an old friend yesterday as I packed up my old Triport headphones to be shipped back to Bose as a trade-in on a new pair of AE2’s. Purchased in 2004, these headphones ended their life with almost no vinyl left on the pads, several applications of both super glue and electric tape, a replacement piece of aluminum from a PC case, and my undying gratitude. As a developer, no training, book, framework, module, IDE, workstation, or peripheral has contributed more to my productivity than what my Bose provided: the ability to disconnect completely from my environment. As I write this, the secretary down the hall is ordering lunch for a meeting, the guy in the office behind me is on the phone with a vendor, and my coworkers two cubes over are discussing training on the new phone system. Throw in various foot traffic and the propensity of the guy around the corner to, without warning or provocation, whistle loudly the entire works of Frank Sinatra, and you have a work environment where writing a complex regular expression or constructing a stored procedure (or even composing a short blog entry over your lunch break) becomes impossible.

This is particularly prevalent for those of us who do not work in a development shop, but as a part of the IT team. IT departments are a constant flurry of activity. Help desk phones are ringing, people are dropping by to ask questions, teammates are popping up over cube walls to discuss an issue they’ve encountered. For the department in general, this is not a bad thing; as a former sysadmin, some of the best teams I’ve worked with were composed of people who were constantly bouncing ideas off each other. For the developer who sits amidst this chaos, however, focus is nearly impossible without the ability to shut it all out. And, while any cheap set of headphones will effectively “drown out” environmental noise if you turn up the volume enough, the around-the-ear design of the Bose can do it without destroying your hearing. In fact, I have many times spent an entire afternoon with my headphones on with no music or white noise playing at all. It discourages interruption and dampens conversations enough that your mind isn’t focusing on trying to understand them, while still allowing you to hear when your phone rings or someone walks up and says your name.

Throughout my career I have experienced many changes. I’ve changed companies and job titles. I’ve switched between IDEs, frameworks, languages, and platforms. I’ve written apps on consumer grade laptops and on high-end, multi-display development workstations. However, the one thing that has remained constant throughout is my dependence on the isolation that my Triports have provided.

Fed-Ex, please hurry.