Sunday, February 28, 2010


In my continuing efforts to improve my face painting techniques, I have started developing more complicated designs.  Dragons and animals are next, with Celtic knots and tribal patterns at the end.  Symmetry and proportionality are difficult for body art.  Star has graciously agreed to be my test canvas.  She was particularly pleased with how this dragon turned out.  I'm particularly pleased with the picture.  To me it looks like a one in a thousand picture that really captures the spirit of the moment.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

snip snip

At the risk of excessively repeating content, I want to tell you about a lovely piece of free stuff from Girl Genius.  The folks over there have provided some supplemental freebies, including some great paper doll patterns.  I’ve made paper dolls with the kids before, as part of activity box shenanigans, but I wasn’t sure how they would react to these.  Nonetheless, we decided to print them out and give it a try. 

One of the obvious problems with paperdolls is how flimsy they are.  Since actual lamination is not available to us, we went a bit MacGyver and used clear packing tape.  This turned out to be an excellent idea because we can attach the accessories to the dolls without using the tabs, greatly extended lifespan and making them easier to cut out.

The kiddos enjoyed playing with them on the first day, but the real winner came the next day.  As is their wont, the kids came bounding into our bed at 6:30am.  Not long after, Star said: “Hey, let’s go play with the paper dolls!”  Dandelion immediately agreed and off they scampered.

Not only are these things fun and cool, they also provided me an additional five minutes of sleep.  What more could you want?

Monday, February 22, 2010


My six year old at the breakfast table today:

"My nose is a volcano of goop!"



Today, I noticed this headline:

Pediatricians call for a choke-proof hot dog

I thought that would make a great idea for creating product that would do something useful (reduce harm) and quite likely also be profitable. Then I read this part of the story:

"More than 10,000 children under 14 go to the emergency room each year after choking on food, and up to 77 die, says the new policy statement..."

Ummm, the fatality risk is .77%? Mind you, this is for incidents which actually end up in the emergency room. Presumably, a choking incident that gets resolved at home doesn’t result in such a trip, make the rate even more skewed. Obviously, we don’t want to have preventable harm going on, but we don’t have infinite resources to reduce harm, and must stack rank what we will try and prevent. Typically, we would do that by looking at impact of the event, risk of occurrence, and cost of countermeasures.

"No parents can watch all of their kids 100% of the time," Smith says. "The best way to protect kids is to design these risks out of existence."

Uhhh, no. Is this really the level of risk we should be taking seriously? When I look at this math, this particular risk drops waaaay down the list. I particularly enjoyed the obligatory quote-from-industry-giant at the bottom of the article:

"As a mother who has fed toddlers cylindrical foods like grapes, bananas, hot dogs and carrots, I 'redesigned' them in my kitchen by cutting them with a paring knife until my children were old enough to manage on their own,"

Sing it sister!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Work in progress

I have decided that I would like to learn face painting.  It is just the sort of thing that kids like.  Since I hang around with kids quite a bit, it is sure to come in handy.  My first attempts have been with watercolors, but recently MA was able to find me some real facepaint.  This weekend I made my first attempt with the new materials.

Photo #1:  Captain Intensio at work

Photo #2:  The results

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rugby players as car mechanics

What does an alternator do?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ah weekends! Shall I ever get enough?

We had such an enriching weekend in Beirut!  We started with a family science activity to help build a strong understanding of the scientific method and foster an interest in the world around them.  Each kid had a small notepad to serve as their science journal.  I had packed bread and sliced turkey to serve as bait, a few clear jars, and other general use adventure items.  Off we went to our nearby and dearly loved Corniche to explore.  We were hoping for some fish, but the tides were wrong for that. 

Our first subject was a jelly fish.  I am fairly confident that it was already dead, but trying to tell the difference between a living and dead jelly fish is not something I can do beyond the level of: "Is it moving at this particular second?"

We recorded this is in our science journals. 

Based on our observations, we concluded that Jellyfish do not have bones, and if it was taken out of the water, it would likely squish down flat.  All-in-all, we decided not to test this hypothesis due to risk to the subject, and poisoning risk to the assistant (me).

Next, we explored the plentiful tide pools.  To set a baseline, we careful observed the natural environment, to try and determine what we could infer about the creates from the resources they needed. 


Some patience brought us to be able to spot a couple of very small hermit crabs.  Time for a lesson on camoflage!

I had hoped to be able to catch a larger-size reef crab, but no luck.  Based on our observations, crabs of this species can not be effectively lured into colanders by slices of turkey. 

Publication of these results is pending peer review. =)

We did find a sea snail, and observed that it moves so slowly, seaweed can grow on its back.  We hypothesized that a creature with many legs (the crab) would be likely to be faster than a creature with one leg (the snail).

Next trip, I shall show them that this observation doesn't scale (millipedes).

It was a really fun way to get out, explore our natural world and learn the scientific method.

As an aside, most of the pictures on this post were actually taken by my oldest daughter (6).  The pictures we parents took didn't come out very well.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bridget makes it look so easy…

One of my favorite bloggers does product endorsements and book reviews all the time, and it looks like she gets away with it. I can’t even get my second endorsement out of the gate before I find one of my baseline assumptions challenged. Even though I’ve had a bit of a head-slapping, how-could-I-miss-that moment, I am grateful to no longer be making this particular mistake.

One of my recent commenters said:

“Cool, let me know when they make the "boy genius" version:)”

At first, this rather annoyed me, because this material is still great for boys precisely because it has a female main character.  Generally speaking, children’s literature is weighted disproportionately towards male central characters. There is some interesting clinical research surrounding how boys and girls respond to that disparity, and what gender role interpretations happen because girls are generally exposed to different-gender central character narratives. My summary is that its generally likely to be a good idea for boys to be exposed to narratives with females as the central characters.  That is probably an epic post for another time (I'm sure that out in academia there are dusty piles of grad theses in countless libraries on the many aspects of this question). 

My response to that comment was something like: ‘Well, you should get it for your boys anyway, to show them a proper female role model.’

I do still believe this, and will advocate that the Girl Genius series would also be great for boys (this content to come later).

Shortly after that idea, followed the reciprocity chaser. What am I doing to expose my girls to proper male role models? They certainly should be exposed to Girl Genius, but they should also be exposed to what I would expose my sons to (if I had any).

I am very confident that men should seek out content aimed at women and women should seek out content aimed at men. I have concluded that this is very enriching and generally helps everyone understand each other better.

Fortunately for me, the comment has helped me re-tune my expectations to make sure that I am integrating appropriate measures of male-focused material into the education of my daughters.

That being said, I shall return to my awkward attempt at product endorsement with the following summary:

Girl Genius

  • Good central heroine role model for girls, which is useful to boys and girls
  • Strong character role models for boys, which is useful to girls and boys
  • Engaging story, helps motivate my kids to stretch their reading abilities
  • The art is fantastic
  • It is an absolutely moral truth that Steampunk is highly awesome

In the next few posts I shall attempt to show why these assertions are true. In the meantime, if you want an excellent steampunk recommendation with a male as the central character, I also recommend the coincidentally named:

My kids will have this on the shelf next to Girl Genius, probably this summer.


Update:  As a side point, the entire Girl Genius series is available for free on their website at this link.  Go check it out!


One of the things I find so striking about Lebanon is the sky.  Is so beautifully clear and striking.  I've rarely seen such a striking array of blues.  I don't know what it is about the atmosphere here, but I just can't describe it, or photograph it.  I feel like if you look up at the right time of day, you will see something new an beautiful every day. 

I recently had one of those moments of transcendent beauty while I was walking home from work.  The sky was so vivid, with an amazingly uniform cloud formation and an incredible angle of light from the Sun that I can't remember ever having seen before.  I tried to record it, but it was impossible to photograph, at least with my camera phone...  The picture doesn't capture the beauty, but it does help remind me of what that moment was like.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Product Endorsement

I have come to really enjoy reading this story with my girls.  The art is fantastic, the story is engaging and they are still making ongoing episodes.  I particularly value this series because the heroine represents an effective balance between independence and teamwork.  She breaks out of stereotypes without entering into new extremes of gender roles.  Some aspects are a bit advanced for young kids, but those can be dealt with easily enough (the Ferretina segment was skipped (My wife and I found it was funny though)).  My oldest daughter (6) really enjoys reading the part of Agatha as we go through the comic, which has been highly motivational for continuing her reading development.  Plus, its steam punk, so what's not to love?

We have enjoyed them so much that I bought the whole set in PDF format.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentines Day is covered!

Another reason why testosterone levels drop after the birth of a child

As fatherhood is a somewhat recurring theme on this blog, I would like to take this moment for a public service announcement. While the child carrier offered by Baby Bjorn is a step forward in several key areas, there was at least one significant area of failure in product testing. Fathers with at least marginal experience with this product will know exactly what I am talking about from sad experience. For all those mothers, baby shower shoppers, and future fathers, this is for you. Please consider the picture below:

 Aside from the fact that the guy in this picture looks highly annoying, let us contemplate what is likely to happen as our euro-yuppie couple goes for a stroll. Exposing the baby to anything shiny, potentially edible, vaguely animal, also a child or distressing in any way (or the memory of any of the above) is going to cause the dear little bundle of love in this picture to start kicking. Let’s contemplate that for a moment…

At least this father is aware of his pending doom and has opted for some strategic hand placement. Good idea, but very difficult to implement, let me tell you. If you spend a high degree of time thinking about things that might induce your child to kick, you can position your hands in advance, but Jr.’s legs have very little distance to travel and you are not likely to be that fast (particularly considering the sleep deprivation you are likely to be feeling and the fact that you obviously left the house to accomplishing something other than inviting domestic violence upon yourself).

Ladies, future fathers and baby product shoppers, please consider that the woman in question may actually want to have another child with the man in question at some point in the future. This product is well suited to small children, women, fathers with very fast reflexes and men who have taken countermeasures. Someone please invent something better capable of holding a child larger than 6-8 months. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beautiful, but hard

As my lessons have progressed, I have come to appreciate Arabic a great deal.  To my ear it has the pleasant lilt and musicality of Italian, with the grammatical clarity and structure of German.  It is one of the most difficult language I have ever learned, but so worth it.  Sometimes, it feels like trying to speak in Algebra, but the beauty of the system is very appealing.  I can't wait to learn more!

Monday, February 8, 2010

At least we weren't carrying nuclear launch codes

At the risk of appearing to have my life in Lebanon characterized by trailing a constant stream of lost possessions, I think I really should share an experience I had last week. I am very grateful to live in a country where so many people practice altruistic kindness.

Towards the end of our highly successful trip the National Museum, our video camera was misplaced. We didn’t discover this fact until the next day, when we were preparing to head out to Byblos. This was a particularly dangerous situation because we had been taking advantage of our camera’s extensive storage and not regularly copying out the content. We had several months of video stored on that camera with no other backup. The camera loss I could replace with money, the content would never come back…

After a unsuccessful and progressively more consternating search at home, we returned to the museum. They were just opening, so not all the staff was available. At first it seemed like they didn’t have it, but as we were preparing to leave in defeat, there was a last minute save. A patron had turned in the video camera, and the staff had kept it safe for us. I am so grateful to those unknown strangers who could have easily pocketed the camera, but turned it in (at only abstract value to themselves (yeah social contract!)). I was further impressed that despite my insistence, none of the museum staff would accept any reward money for helping us.

I am deeply impressed at this chain of people who could have easily have acted differently. Bravo museum staff, and bravo nameless strangers!

Friday, February 5, 2010


After claiming in my last post that recounting our weekend could be stretched all week, I have fulfilled the prophecy by not posting =) Not technically what I had in mind, but hey, there were issues. In any case, here is an unjustifiably photo-heavy review of what was an awesome day in Lebanon. We started out early to visit an easily accessible site, Byblos. As with most things that have been around so long, it technically has three names, but I like to refer to it as Byblos because of the etymological link to the alphabet and the written language. The word Bible is derived from the name of this city.

The kids had been anxious to go there for a while for several reasons. As is common with many young girls, they are very interested in princesses. As part of my anti-Disney princess inoculation program, I have been introducing them to princesses like Catherine the Great, the Tudor queens, Pharaoh-queens of Egypt, Queen Rania, etc. etc. In our house, princesses have tea parties, lead their armies into battle, and follow-up with egalitarian social policies. Hence, going to actual castles is a big hit. Byblos has a nice one, so it gets bonus points right off the bat. Second, some of the items we found on our scavenger hunt at the national museum come from Byblos, so showing them the greater context has obvious archeological value. Third, Lebanese sites specialize in offering direct access. Being able to actually enter and play in the ruins from the various time periods offered a great way to make the history come alive and provide fun pretend. Fourth, the kids are somewhat familiar with it on account of an excellent book:

Since the first one worked out so well, I put together another scavenger hunt for us to walk through. The kids wanted their sheets as soon as we left the car. According to my making-it-up-as-I-go plan, I’ve noticed that young kids generally feel quite powerless and really enjoy times to take charge. I decided to help link what they had read about and what they were experiencing by bringing their Byblos book along and using it as a guidebook. We opened to the map page and they got to take turns being leader.

Arrival at the site was a big hit. The kids were thrilled with the castle, and went straight for it.

After a brief stint in their on-site museum, we moved on to the castle site itself, learning what each part was for, why the arched roofs have sunstones and so forth. Shortly thereafter, we found a very photogenic niche that gave me a chance to present them with surprise plan #1. One of the best gifts we have ever received was a set of dyed silk scarves from my mother (I think this was 3 years ago). I highly recommend these as play items. Incredibly polymorphic. In this case, I brought a few in my bag along with some crowns (made out of saved-up cardboard from the box our dishes came in). A few squeals of delight later, and the princess of grass and princess of lava were holding court.

A little role-playing later (I tend to shift between being a servant and being visiting nobility), and it was time for surprise plan #2. While sneaking the scarves and crowns into my bag, I noticed the tea set their Aunt Katie gave them in STL. Quick bottle of water later, and it is tea time for all! The princesses mostly agreed on how they would renovate the castle, but there was some minor difference of viewpoint in where to put the dragon.

After the sustenance, it was time to continue the scavenger hunt. The kids were having difficulty focusing, so I activated emergency reserve plan A – cameras. I’ve noticed that when the kids are having difficulty focusing, giving them some digital cameras really sucks them into the moment. There is something about digital photography that gives the exact same vista a new fascination.

Fortunately, it worked and they got back on track quickly. From there it was easy to transition onto the grounds to continue our hunt.  At which point, we had a serendipitous diversion. Byblos had significant Egyptian and Greek influence due to a nasty habit of being interesting enough to conquer. In any case, this means we had the good fortune to stumble across some super-sized kouros pieces I had never noticed before. I tried an ad hoc explanation of the kouros concept to the kids, and showed them how to stand like one. I’ll probably try to interleave this into some sort of activity box in the future. Maybe on human poses in art….

Anyway, we had so much fun, that I’m going to have to cut out a couple hours worth of content to keep this post even remotely manageable. If you like it, I can make future posts filling in the gaps. We stayed in princess regalia for the rest of the trip, and had a grand time claiming rooms in the foundations of ancient temples. I picked mine too quickly and ended up with the smallest one, but I did have a pool outside my room, so there’s that.

We made our way over to the ancient spring complex, which I had never visited before. We are in this picture I promise.

The end of the day was filled with finding the ancient tombs of the rulers of Byblos. Dandellion informed us that when she dies, she wants to be buried in a clay funerary jar. OK then.

We had a great time putting on two plays and a gladiatorial combat scene at the roman theater, and capped off by taking a look at some of the ancient sarcophagi that weren’t interesting enough to be in the museum.

We were able to again make reference to our excellent re-purposed guidebook to see exactly where and how the artifacts from the museum were found. I’d like to think that helped make it come alive for them.
It was a delightfully fun trip.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

So hard to get whole brains

As there seemed to be some interest in the last activity box session, I thought you all might be interested in round #2. Star had asked to know ‘…how brains work and make us do things…’. I decided to interpret that as an inquiry on the nervous system as opposed to an invitation to discuss determinism =) That being the case, I put together my best attempt to address neuroanatomy to the kiddos. These activities are meant to be fast moving, make use of visuals and encourage the kids to ask as many questions as possible. Present a concept in no more that 1-2 minutes, punctuated by a different sensory system. i.e. show a picture, then do a drawing, then a thematic snack, then a principle, etc. review often to show how the ideas fit together. Of course, I’m basically making all this up, so I could be totally wrong.

Principle: Organs of the body are made up of specialized parts called cells. Those cells work together to get things done. (Note: Because my kids are already aware of molecules, I had a foundation to build on).


This is a single neuron. What does it look like? (roots, branches, etc. etc.)

Neurons work in teams. Can you work in a team if no one talks to each other? Neurons talk to each other through these tiny threads. Note: I figure dendrites and axons are probably too much at this stage.


Who can see the neurons in this picture? Are they connected to each other? What would happen if the neurons couldn’t talk to each other?

(Note: the low light exaggerates the effect, but they were jumping up and down a lot.)

Principle: Bunches of neurons make up different parts of the brain.

Break: I had them draw neurons and networks of brain cells on a mirror using dry erase markers.


The brain has three main parts: The thinking part, the feeling part, and the moving part (Note: Yes, I am simplifying)

Point out cerebellum, cerebral cortex and brain stem. I chose to tell them the brain stem was responsible for feeling. This is not technically true, but I didn’t have a good picture of the mid-brain, and I was going to have a better example later on.

Ask follow up questions like: If you are moving your hand, which part of the brain is working? If you are thinking about playing a game, which part of the brain is working? If you are feeling happy about winning a game, which part of the brain does that?

Principle: The brain is connected to the rest of our body through nerves.

This is a good chance to chase them around the house and ask them which part of their brain is doing what.

Once their energy is a little bit reduced, move locations. I took them to the dining room table.

Fortunately for me, I had been able to buy some lamb’s brains from a sandwich shop on the way home from work. It was amusingly hard to prevent them from putting garlic and pepper on them =) If you don’t want to use a real brain, try making a brain out of playdough or something.

At this point, I brought out the brains. Star was a bit unsettled by this, but Dandellion was enthusiastic. We split open the brains and practiced identifying the cerebellum, mid-brain and cerebral cortex. I brought out the picture of the human brain and compared which parts were bigger. Was this animal better at thinking or feeling or moving? Etc. etc.

After we had fun with the brains, I thought a treat would be a good idea. I bought some cotton candy and used the strands as an example of a neural network. It was loads of fun.