Thursday, August 04, 2016

Book review: The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Three body problem is a hard sci-fi novel that is a combination of a detective thriller and a horror story.

The detective thriller is what the main POV character thinks he is in, and how most of the novel reads. The backdrop are top scientists in China suffering strange accidental deaths, and the protagonist having strange results in his experiments. As part of the backdrop, is the cultural revolution. The nature of science means that senior scientists in the present day all had to survive the cultural revolution, and a large part of the story is through a secondary POV character who lived through it, and as the book goes on you see the actions and experiences of those who were were targeted by the cultural revolution, who were the ones who carried out its actions, and who were instigators, then targets. This comes to a head as providing the motivation of several of the key actors in the book.

The horror story has two aspects. One as experienced by the main POV character. Like a good horror story, it is a case of an impending and unstoppable doom that is made known to a generally competent subject, who, for all of his/her knowledge and skills, cannot stop. The second is an online computer game, which initially presents itself as a side line. In the game, the players take I he role within a civilization, which because of its environment is doomed to failure, the players try to understand their environment and build a civilization that can survive and thrive.

The trick to having several parallel story lines is to bring them together naturally. And this is what I experienced in this book. The horror thread that is in the book makes you understand the POV of the characters who experienced the Cultural Revolution as their motivations are revealed. The actions and beliefs of the principle characters make sense. The temptations faced by the main character are definitely there (as he had been courted by both sides that are revealed) and you can see how he could have turned the other way.

I, like most, do not have much exposure to Chinese fiction that deals so directly with the events of the Cultural Revolution, which I have always thought to be a sensitive topic even through i have had informal conversations with those who went through that and the generation of their offspring. It was well worth the time.

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Parenting Month 69: enrichment

This summer is the first time that we have participated in the suburban parenting practice of (non-school) enrichment activities in earnest. We've noted others in activities started when T was 3, but we always favored grandparent time over putting him in things after school, weekends, or summers. Now that we have a full year of real school behind him, we did enroll him a few activities, piano, a couple of weeks at the natural history museum, and a computing/robotics course (in addition to continuing Tae Kwon Do).

What were the results? In a sense, it should not be necessary, we are regular visitors to the natural history museum and have covered multiple times every corner. We certainly have the expertise for piano in the house, and we could have done computing and robots as well.  Why not? In addition to the fact that we have jobs, what we got was interaction with other, older kids (the staff of these camps). I once read that the reason that kids should interact with kids of a range of ages is so they learn how to be bossed around by others, how to boss others, and how to take and give instruction. In addition, T interacted with a wider range of kids.  Our first questions after every day were "what did you do?" and "who were you partnered with?"

The other thing that was good was the fact that the economics of summer camps mean that the kids do get more autonomy than the usual school year (otherwise, staff would get overwhelmed with the workload) so what T got was a lot more initiative and curiosity. And more confidence which shows in his playing piano and more exploration in his play.

Yes, we probably could push him further than any enrichment program would in piano, science, programming, math, or robotics; but that is not the goal. The goal is someone who learns how to learn, has curiosity, and enjoys himself along the way.  We are skeptical of a lot of the offerings that we have seen, but what T did do, we think went a long way towards this goal.


Conducting an experiment with a SparkFun Picoboard
Testing something for conductivity using a Picoboard

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Parenting month 68: One year of school in the books

And we have survived our first year of Kindergarten!  At the beginning of the year we considered this to be the time when as parents are overwhelmingly dominant influence on our child's life is melded with the large amounts of time now spent with school teachers and classmates (not that we are no longer important, but others now play a role).  We also find out where he is in comparison with others in all aspects of life.

Things that have changed over the past academic year:

1.  His confidence has increased greatly. He had always been uncertain in public, especially when the object of attention. The first area that his confidence grew was in internalizing the curtesies of taekwondo and Catholic school.  This became a safe way for him to interact with others.  Then, as he grew in confidence that he was competent, and that he could be listened to, he began to be more confident in dealing with others, speaking to people we interact with on a daily basis (like those working at stores, restaurants) or with people he interacts with in activities (like those at the same exhibit as him in museums).
2.  His confidence has grown almost too much. He is much willing to interact with others and also to speak his mind and give his opinions (catching up to his peers in this respect). Also, he is less afraid to go off and strike out on his own, which means we need to keep an eye on him to make sure he does not get too far since we cannot rely on his cautiousness to keep him in check anymore.
3.  He is much more social. Our shy quiet boy somehow became the one everyone knows at school. Part of it is the notoriety of being the smallest kid in the school (everyone knows who the smallest and who the tallest kids in the school are).  And apparently he says hi (or returns 'hi') to pretty much everyone.  His other source of notoriety is that he seems to be happy all the time, every day.  He is pretty happy by the time we get to school (the wake up sequence is not always so), and after school in the pickup line he is the bouncing bean among the kids waiting for pickup.
4.  He is starting to attend to the needs of others. We have been surprised to watch him at play in public settings where he keeps an eye on those smaller than him and tells other kids not to play too rough. I remember watching him at an Easter egg hunt, where after he got his allowed limit he started helping the little kids find eggs.
5.  At Taekwondo, he is someone that gives the instructors flexibility when doing paired activities (sparring, self-defense practice, two-person drills). He is good enough to pair with better or most bigger kids (as long as they don't get too wild and run people over, but there are not many of those at his rank), and he does not overwhelm the kids who are less secure in themselves (especially smaller and shy kids. Several of the moms mention that their kids specifically mention liking being paired with T). Not that long ago, he was the smaller and shy kid.  When he is in a class of mixed ages, he can be with his own age group (4-6), but if he is the only one, the instructors are comfortable putting him in the next group up (normally, the 4-6 group has simplified combinations and they use 1/2 forms, so putting him in the next group requires more physical coordination and stamina than he is used to).The other nice thing about taekwondo is that his teachers are deliberately harder on him than other kids of his age and experience, meaning they do not let him get away with sloppiness when they know he can do better.
6.  Over-confidence pt 2.  He takes advantage of the fact that he can read (and most kindergarteners cannot do so effectively). His teachers report that he has taken to reading the instructions for activities instead of waiting for the teachers to read the instructions for everyone. The effect is that he is done with the activity before everyone else has started. This causes problems because it means he is not practicing listening to instructions from the teachers. It also means he gets bored because he has nothing to do when everyone else is doing the activity.
7.  Ahead academically.  The school he goes to has one member of the staff who does not really believe that kids differentiate early. One time she was visiting a class and she noted that T was going through an exercise very smoothly. His teacher noted that it was easy for him, because "it was only first grade material."

Our major concern for the future.  We know a lot of kids who are very bright, their parents report that they find their school exercises very easy, who have lost their ability to handle difficulty or correction.  Many research articles suggest that part of the issue is that they have a lot of feedback from school and other settings saying they are good and smart, so they resist hearing it from parents or others who suggest that they are not attaining mastery without effort. On our end, we are trying to nip this early. We make sure he is challenged at least some of the time with reading (if he reads with us, it is material that stretches him), our math activities are selected from a source designed to focus on thinking (by using material they are very unlikely to learn in school). And it is very easy to make sure his piano and taekwondo are pushing him at all times.  My way of wording our goal is that we try to make sure he is challenged, but he can still succeed (if he does not give up along the way).  For the school, they are instituting a framework for kids to move ahead in reading (individualized reading based on standardized test results), and they are looking at ways to do something similar in math.

Our other major concern is about the areas he is not strong in, how much should we care? He is still adverse to public performance (a major concern of mommy, who is a concert pianist) and he is not always self-assertive (although this may be due to a lack of desires to assert for).  He will probably always be among the smallest of his grade, which makes contact team sports problematic.  And there is a cultural thing about not being better than peers, which has an implication we should not let him move forward where he is capable of doing so.


Double forearm block in taekwondo poomsae
Double forearm block as part of his ATA Taekwondo poomsae

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Parenting Month 67: independence and dependence

This is the end of the first year of kindergarten for T (5 1/2), and the first time we have truly experienced the chaos that comes with the end of a school year. I suppose we should have seen it in the past, since we are exposed to older kids, but the full impact escaped us.

We have been dealing with the contrast between independence and dependence. On one hand, we want him to be competent and confident in his dealings with the world, and being more daring is probably something we desired in the days when he was seemingly scared by everything under the sun. However, he is often too comfortable and we now wish he felt more of a need to check that he was still with us (or that he comes back when called!). To use the usual analogy of a rubber band to describe this tension in children, our rubber band suddenly got a lot longer in the past few months.

Matching shirts on vacation



Along with this greater independence is a greater amount of rebelliousness. We have noted an increased rate of tantrums and anger episodes (ok, this was low beyond expectation before, but it is noticeably increasing). Part of this may be due to socialization as he picks up behaviors in his classmates and older kids in school. Part of this may be a dichotomy between school (where he seems to be viewed as exceedingly competent and capable, given that he is in Kindergarten) and home (where we always have expectations one (or many) steps above where he is now).  Some of the old tactics, such as presenting him with options for him to choose, don't work as well now (now he points out that he does not like any of the options!)
Reading a book to grandma
Talking with Khun Ya (grandma)(
In other news, A (2yrs) has been steadily increasing her command of language. She uses it to identify things everywhere (to the great amusement of spectators), negotiate agreements (perplexing parents), state her will and defiance (which exasperates parents and grandparents).

Naptime on vacation
Their version of taking a nap on vacation

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ronin Games by Harmon: Book review

Ronin Games (Wearing the Cape #5)Ronin Games by Marion G. Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a superhero story about Americans in Japan. In this case, the POV is Hope, an American teenager who has been given responsibility beyond her years, and she ends up having to go to Japan to figure out how to stop a potentially very dangerous person, who happens to have diplomatic immunity and there are several levels of deniability that need to be established.

This can be read as a set of four stories: first is straight up superhero story (which has a spy story as a prologue). Second is a ghost story. Third is a horror/magic/superhero/martial arts story. Last is a superhero/kaiju(monster) story. (I read this once myself, then a second time with my 5 yr old son, so I actually skipped the horror story part for him)

Things I liked:
1. Characters where rounded out. Everyone has a different set of motivations based on their different backgrounds. While much is made of the cultural concept of duty in Japan, it leads each person in a different direction in subtle ways that drive the story. If anything, the Japanese characters are guilty of stereotype here when some of them don't recognize that within the culture there are many ways that duty can play out. This discussion of what is duty shows up repeatedly.
2. The hero is NOT the one with all of the answers. Something I like about the entire series. Hope, the hero of the story, is at times being carried along by her teammates and friends. And sometimes said teammates are consciously trying to help her without telling her (and they had good reason). In this case, the teammates are not token, they are legitimate heroes in their own right, with their own characterizations, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. And a big part of the series is that to be the best they can be, they have to work in combination.
3. I start loosing my suspension of disbelief when the story consequences start rising out of control. They suddenly find themselves in a position where the fate of nations ride in the background of decisions and becoming myth.

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Parenting Month 66: Compare and contrast

Taking a walk on the trail together
Walking together on a trail


The little one is about to turn two. While children, much like runners, are experiments of one, it is somewhat inevitable to compare two children. In the discussion of nature vs. nurture, it is tempting to wonder what the differences are due to nature, under the assumption that since the parents are the same, the nurture part of the equation should be the same. 

This is in some ways a very unfair comparison. The older one was a nearly ideal (to parents) toddler. We joked that he was practically an advertisement for having kids (as two people who were not given to sentimentality about children). And frankly, when we take the two kids out in public, they still give the appearance of being ideal children (being alert and engaged in the public, but under control and well mannered. Following the middle path avoiding both being stone faced zombies and out of control monsters.) 

Some notes and obvious comparisons as the youngest finishes her second year of life:

  1.  She is very verbal.  At this point, T was not talking much, and certainly not too strangers.  A also is reserved in her attention, but is otherwise well engaged in the world in the presence of others. She is certainly braver; curiosity leads her to exploring her world, touching things, petting dogs.  And she is much more expressive. The expressiveness has a cost to the caregivers.  She can express her will and desires and be defiant in english and chinese.  She has also shown signs of understanding both english and chinese grammar (she can construct grammatically and contextually correct sentences in combinations that are new to her.)
  2. Songs. The knows quite a number of songs, both english and chinese.  Similarly to many toddlers, most of these songs she learned off of YouTube and such (nursery rhymes, Sesame Street). Also conventionally, she knows the ends of words and phrases before she learns the beginnings (because of rhyming).
  3. Reading.  She knows her letters and numbers. But, unlike T, she has not gotten to the point where she can recite entire books. She can point to and identify things within the book. But does not have the same desire that T did (at this point, T had several board books memorized and could improvise following the pattern of a few of them)
  4. Expressive.  Like other toddlers, she dances, expresses happiness, and unhappiness. She can also engage in toddler speak for extended periods of time. This follows naturally from the period where she was babbling for extended periods of time. To her it is probably the same, but to us, we can understand what it is she is saying. She also gets the language correct. (Chinese exclusively for grandparents, mostly english for daddy, switches back and forth for mommy and gege.)
  5. Focus. Well, A has a typical toddler focus, meaning her current mood lasts about 15 minutes. This shows in many places. The more conventional view towards books (she does not mind being read to, but does not enjoy nearly to the same extent T did), nothing keeps her attention for very long, 
  6. Daring.  A is more confident in doing pretty much anything. So she does the standard toddler activities such as scribbling (which is a precursor to drawing), climbing and jumping off of any surface she can access, playing with toys and blocks (much faster than T was). She is also more willing to work her will in crowds, claiming and defending her space in play areas, not afraid to be part of the rough and tumble of toddler play.
A is a different child than what T was. And our parenting is different. The most obvious differences day to day are focus (T) vs will (A).   One thing different that was not as intentional was weekly outings. By this point, daddy was regularly taking T out to museums, parks, etc. on Saturday mornings. While A sometimes joins in, even now, it is mostly only two of us. While T appreciated it more at this age (because he could focus on one thing at a time), when A does come, she enjoys it (although more of generally being out of the house than anything else)

Some notes on T this month.
  1. He gets many complements on being well mannered. Both when we are out and about (e.g. restaurants and museums) and in more standard settings. (his teacher commented about how he said thank you for helping him clean when he spilled his lunch tray on the floor, instead of taking it for granted. He also says please and thank you to waitresses, opens and holds doors for others (this is very cute, because he barely has the mass to be able to do this)
  2. He is continuing to make shy kids comfortable. We have gotten reports from other kids parents at taekwondo, saying their shy kids like being paired up with T. 
  3. An extension of 2, this month T started getting notes from a girl in his class, who is one of the quiet ones. 
  4. Still working on freezing in public. We have had occurrences of freezing when it is time to play piano in a group. On the other hand, he participated in a taekwondo tournament with no problem.  This is still a work in progress.
  5. T is getting more rebellious, but at this point a big part of it is trying on roles.  He copies his little sister (ironic) in being defiant (trying to get attention?). He also picks up on things at school, videos, we also caught him trying out lines that originated from the school play.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Simple 2x4 step stool

It has been a while since I posted a project.  And reality is that the winter months are not conducive to woodworking when your shop is either the backyard, driveway, or garage.  And work and life have a way of getting in the way. (ok, and some of my hobby time has been taken by a new hobby, I remember telling someone a year ago that I did not have any room for one of those.)  So, here is one of the easiest things in the world, a step stool made from 2x4.


Diagram of 2x4 step stool
2x4 step stool diagram

What brought this on is that a step stool made by my father-in-law collapsed while we were dealing with a tantrum.  While the shock of the collapse did end the tantrum, we now did not have a step stool for the kids in the upstairs bathroom (which is needed so they can use the sink on their own).  And, to be honest, I had a few purchases over the past few months that needed a workout.

I used a design described in the blog MoreLikeHome.Net that built a stool from a single 2x4 (I think that I've seen this design in response to a contest of what can you make from a single 8' 2x4).  So, went to our favorite Home Depot to get a 2x4 while my son was at a birthday party not too far away.

Speed square and circular saw
A 2x4 full of potential. Yes, the iPad stand is made from LEGO. My folding workbench was project I made just before my daughter was born.

First step, cutting down the 2x4. I had the Home Depot do one cut at 37" (which represents 3 12" steps with a little more to account for the kerf. This also made two pieces small enough to transport in my car.)  Further cuts were made with a 4 1/4" circular saw and a speed square. (A framing square was large enough to measure the cuts and a utility knife was used to mark the wood. Wood was supported by bench cookies, which meant that I did not need clamps for cutting.)

2x4s cut into pieces for step stool
2x4 pieces cut by compact circular saw

Next was sanding all the pieces down.  I have a Ridgid Jobmax multi-tool, and over the winter I bought the Fein Multimaster 4" sanding disc attachment. It is a lot larger than the detail sanding pad that usually comes with an oscillating multi-tool and delays the need for a palm sander. (and doing this by hand takes way too long :-)  )  I sanded everything down using 60 grit paper, with the plan to leave the final sanding for after the project was complete.

Next was assembly.  I used the Kreg pocket hole system (another winter purchase) and 2 1/2" pocket screws (because I was working with 2x dimensional lumber. Note to self: Kreg was delivered with 1 1/2" screws that are meant for 3/4" boards) I used my Quick Grip clamps on the flat part of the Kreg R3 (jr).  My first time using pocket holes. I am a believer.


Using Kreg Pocket Hole system
Kreg R3 Jig with Irwin Quick Grip clamp

Next step: assembling the step stool. I used a corded Jobmax with the right angle drill head to drive in the pocket hole screws. One issue with the right angle head compared to standard pistol grips is that it is harder to control the torque, so my first leg did not go on straight.  Instead of taking the whole thing apart, after I assembled the legs, I put a wood blade on the multi-tool and cut off any overhang and cut down the back stretcher to size.

Finally, I put in fillers into the pocket holes and sanded the whole thing down with the new sanding disc.  I actually did this right and worked my way through three grades of sanding pads. This does make a difference, as the stool is noticeably smoother to the touch than my previous projects using dimensional lumber.


Sanding 2x4 step stool using multi-tool with sanding disc
Fein 4" sanding disc attached to Ridgid Jobmax multitool

A nice quick project. I did not stain it yet (waiting for the weather to warm up). But now that it is in use, I'm thinking about if I will stain it at all.  Certainly the kids like it (it is a lot more stable than what was there before.)

Using the new stepstool
2x4 step stool in action

Some notes:

  1. Tools used
    1. Rockwell 4 1/2" Compact Circular Saw
    2. Ridgid Jobmax Corded Multi-tool
      1. Right angle drill head
      2. Fein Sanding Disc attachment
    3. Kreg Jig Jr (R3)
    4. Framing square
    5. Speed square
    6. Bench cookies
    7. CRKT SpareTool (for marking wood)
  2. My  Folding worktable is getting a good workout. Maybe not as good a a full sized workbench, but much better than any purchased metal and plastic table would be.
  3. The advantage of having the multitool with wood saw blades, I can cut away any evidence of mistakes.
  4. Pocket hole fillers cannot be cut using a multitool saw. Either I sand it or cut it before it is in place. Maybe if I glue in the fillers and wait for the glue to set, it may be amenable to a saw.
  5. I like pocket holes. Much nicer to not have screws showing on outside surfaces.
  6. Mommy noted that the first step is not that deep (made from a single 2x4). But since it is only used to get to the second step, it is probably ok.
  7. Circular saws are a lot faster and more precise than jig saws at going through 2x4. I think a lot of my older projects would have been faster with it. I suppose that the jigsaw was useful as a first power saw with out of nervousness, but I would tell any beginner to start with a compact circular saw that can cut through a 2x4.