Archive for April, 2013

Time for A Cool Change

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And now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change.

– Little River Band

I spent the last week taking H and E to Colonial Williamsburg for the first time. Their teacher, along with some kids from their class, went on a class trip this week, so we decided to take the opportunity (with not much going on at school) to head there ourselves. My aunt lives in Colonial Williamsburg, so we flew into Newport News, VA and stayed with her while we toured the sites around the town. Because she lives there, we were also able to get great discounts on tickets, and the weather was wonderful in April.

It was a fabulous experience. (For those of you who have visited, you will recognize the activities.) The girls rented costumes from the visitors center – white colonial dresses with pink and purple sashes – and we headed into the town itself. When we rented the costumes, the girls were given a type of scavenger hunt to complete in the town: learning colonial manners at the Geddy House, learning how to plant a turnip seed in the community garden, and delivering a letter with a request from the post office to the printing office. Everywhere we went, the actors would stop and talk to H and E, inquiring how they were doing, and giving us information about the period. One kind lady helped us put their bonnets on correctly (since I had no clue how they were supposed to go on.) We took a relaxing carriage ride around town, and walked the evening ghost tour under a beautiful and spooky full moon on a cool night. Every day around 3:30, there was live theater in the streets, which recreated events in the town around the time of the Revolutionary War. The girls were enthralled by the open-air acting; the second day ended with the cannons firing followed by the fife-and-drum march. We learned about the different trades, how things were made, and how everyone dressed (including the wig shop, which was fascinating.)

Looking back on it now, the best thing I did in terms of planning the trip was not to make a plan at all. I would describe touring with gifted, intense kids as a “speed up-slow down” process. I never knew for sure what was going to excite them, but when they were interested in something from an intellectual, emotional, imaginational, or sensory viewpoint, they would stay right there until they were done. In the case of observing and learning about glassblowing, that turned out to be several hours of a morning for E. We woke up one particularly cool morning and decided that would be a good day to see glassblowing; being around the hot ovens is pleasantly warming when it’s cool outside, and, conversely, can be oppressive when it’s hot. Both the girls were transfixed by the process. Then H spent the better part of an afternoon learning about fashion: corsets, stays, dress styles, bonnets, hats for all occasions, wigs, and shoes. There were other things that I thought they would be more interested in, but weren’t. Sometimes this was because they were hungry, or tired, or just mentally worn out. So, we moved along quickly if they weren’t feeling it, and took frequent breaks at my aunt’s house for lunch, snacks, and relaxing/reading time.

The fourth day we were there, we woke up to find it drizzly and cool – not great weather for touring outside. So, we headed to the Yankee Candle store by my aunt’s house (really, it’s more of a mall since it’s one of their flagship stores.) We saw the Christmas store inside with the twinkling lights on the ceiling while it snowed every 4 minutes – seriously! – they made their own candles, smelled every possible scent, and tasted fudge and popcorn. It was an intense kid’s dream. When we finally emerged, the sun was coming out, and we spent some time relaxing on the porch before heading out to Colonial Williamsburg again.

On our first night back home together, we all ate dinner at the table, then sat outside around our firepit, eating s’mores and listening to music, while the kids spun their tales from the week. The full moon rose over the house, and we danced and laughed until late in the evening, with nothing in particular to get up early for the next day.

I returned invigorated for the coming year. I realized that my main source of frustration these days is trying to fit my unscheduled family into a scheduled life. We’re an unscheduled bunch: Dave and I both have flexible jobs with deadlines, but we can move the work around where it makes sense in the day or the week, and ebb and flow somewhat with our energy and interest levels. A pops out of bed at 6 am, ready to go. By 1 pm, he doesn’t want to sit – he wants to go run around. H works best starting mid-morning, with frequent breaks. E works best in the evening, staying up late and sleeping in.

The friction enters the picture when I am trying to fit our unscheduled family life into the school life, which is structured and scheduled. In our house, intensities aren’t on a schedule, and I’ve grown weary of scheduling them when I don’t have any reason to do so. I’m ready for life to speed up and slow down naturally. It’s time for a cool change.

Omega

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Since the golden era of arena rock, guitarists have played tube amps – monstrous, fire-breathing multi-hundred-watt heads with vacuum tubes glowing red-hot beneath grills that bore names like Marshall. Orange. Mesa. There has never been anything quite like them; nothing has put out the unique sound of a tube, and nothing has offered the interplay between a guitarist’s fingers and the tone coming forth from the cabinets supporting those heads. Solid-state amps, behind a surge of marketing money, briefly took a foothold in the amp market during the 1970s and 1980s, until guitarists realized a simple but terrible truth: the new tech was nowhere near as good as the old tech. And so tube amps continued on, Jurassic technology that somehow managed to fend off the incursions of electronic advancement for decade after decade.

And then a German scientist realized something: namely, that what made a tube amp a tube amp was pretty simple, from the physics perspective. A tube amp applies a variable modification to an input waveform, based on the volume and sonic envelope of that input waveform, and then outputs the resulting modified waveform to a speaker. Capture the delta between the input and the output waveform – in all of its complexity – and you can truly put a tube amp into the digital environment.  That’s it. And, just like that, the entire amp industry changed, overnight – some artists adopting Kemper tech, others using its competitor and close cousin, the Fractal Axe-FX. It’s a technology that has been nothing short of transformational. Don’t get me wrong; there are still plenty of tube amps being sold, just like there are plenty of gas-powered cars and plenty of Windows 8 laptops  being sold today. But, just like those products, guitarists have started to get the sense that maybe, just maybe, we’re looking at the beginning of the end.

Why do I bring this up? Because I’m writing this between sessions checking E’s algebra homework. She’s working on equations involving radicals and roots, and it’s a topic that’s got her complete attention. I can actually see the content spinning up the Big Engine to full speed. That’s rare anymore; it’s nice to see. But what’s got my attention is the fact that she’s meticulously solving these equations by hand over the course of minutes, and I’m checking them with Wolfram Alpha in mere seconds. Things have changed, fundamentally, once more.

Thirty years ago, algebra teachers wrote and checked homework problems by hand, just like we did. Why? Because absolutely nothing like Wolfram Alpha existed. For them, it would have been impossible to conceive of a world in which algebra should be taught with solving technology when there wasn’t any such thing. We’ve always had some sort of solving tech for arithmetic; slide rules have been around since the 1600s (fact!) and cheap four-function calculators have been around since the early 1970s. Most of us reading this blog grew up with slightly bemused and befuddled math teachers who told us that calculators weren’t allowed. Today, there’s been some grudging acceptance of calculators for sixth-grade math and beyond (apparently, five years of hand calculation is sufficient penance in 2013). But if you rolled into a high-school algebra class today with Wolfram Alpha running on an iPad, it would be considered heresy.

Yet this is the age we live in: applications and services and technologies are coming forth that fundamentally change our lives overnight. Five years ago, unless you owned a copy of Wolfram Mathematica, there was no such thing as opening an app and typing:

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Not only does Alpha solve that, its cheery OCD nature also checks for complex roots, graphs the result in a handful of different, potentially-useful ways, and even offers a step-by-step solution to the problem (in case you’ve, ahem, grown rusty in your manual formula evaluation skills). It is, quite simply, revolutionary, and at some level, I sincerely hope it changes how algebra is taught in this country.

Before you get out your I-walked-to-school-uphill-both-ways pitchforks and torches, let me set your minds at ease: I don’t think Alpha is a substitute for learning the theory of algebra and developing skills in solving equations manually. I think it’s important to see the results come together under your pencil – for some period of time. But at a certain point in elementary-school math, we now allow kids to use calculators. Why?  Because given better tools, we’ve elected to raise the bar for what can be done with them. The questions are harder, so we allow some computational support in getting to the right answer. Computation is no longer the important part of the problem; setting up the problem is.

Now we need to do the same in algebra. Algebra chapters in 2013 focus on much the same end goal as they did in 1981: solve this equation. Sure, story problems get a bit more difficult, but there’s nothing in E’s copyright-2013  Algebra I book that would have looked out of place in my 1981 copy. We need to acknowledge the existence of solving tech by asking more of algebra students. Specifically, we need to begin to emphasize those tasks that only a creative human mind can perform: namely, setting up complex equations and systems of equations, with multi-step problem solving.  Solving them, over time, should begin take on that you-can-use-a-calculator mindset: go ahead and use it – you still have to do the most important work. 

From the longer-term view, though, we need to start adopting a mindset that accommodates, embraces, and – eventually – goes looking for disruptive tech. Alpha is, ironically, an omega technology; it brings to an end a particular era of doing things in one way and one way only. It breaks the paths of mental endeavor into new forks and branches, and asks a fundamental question of us: do I keep doing manually what this new technology will do for me, or do add the tech to my toolkit and push myself to do more complex, more intricate, more beautiful, more inspired work with it? After all, I can now carry a warehouse full of multi-thousand-dollar tube-amp heads around with me in a gig bag. Should I feel threatened by that, or empowered  to make more interesting music?

Redstone Willow

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Minecraft stole into my house with the grace of a cat burglar.

It began as a topic of discussion among the kids in the car; who was playing, who was not playing (I can take a hint as well as the next parent), and what untold delights awaited those LUCKY CHILDREN (ahem) who had access to their OWN SERVER. Over time, as these discussions got more frequent, I began to give them a rear-view mirror smile, the patented Dad grin that says “I hear every word you’re saying, and right now, I’m working out how to rig this to parental advantage.” The hints stepped up further over time, and the wide-eyed stories of the glories of Minecraft grew more evangelical after every Mojang-centric playdate, until the fervor reached a pitch I couldn’t ignore much longer. The timing worked out, actually. They’d grown weary of Wizard 101, and Free Realms, and I was looking around for something that could replace both – and, ideally, add more creativity to the gaming equation. But, like all modern parents, the choice presented itself when it comes to the new end-all, be-all video game: am I a willow or an oak?

Quick aside: I grew up in a no-video-games household. My parents’ reaction to the September 1977 U.S. launch of the Atari 2600 was truly something to behold, a cross between John Lithgow in Footloose and Jason Miller in The Exorcist. I genuinely felt bad for them in retrospect; I’m not sure how I would have handled the arrival of an entirely new childhood time-wasting technology, either. What I do know, from raising three kids myself, is that if you demonize anything, that thing instantly becomes a must-have. (We really should put salmon filets and homework up in a high cabinet and declare them off-limits.) I’m a case study in that. I lived eighteen videogame-free years in my home growing up, sneaking time on Yar’s Revenge and Pitfall at my friends’ houses; when I went off to college, I promptly blew my first retail-store paycheck on a Sega Genesis.

That was the oak route, one I got a good firsthand look at. So we’ve opted to be willows, submitting to the wind but not breaking. Here’s the thing: like most things in life, your kids are going to play videogames. Don’t try and deny it. It’s going to happen. Getting in front of that train ends just like you’d think getting in front of a train would. Are you the we-don’t-have-a-TV family? They’ll be playing on a laptop. No laptop? It’ll be an iPad. No iPad? No iPhone? They’ll be That Kid at sleepovers. “I know it’s three-thirty in the morning, but CAN’T WE PLAY MARIO KART AGAIN?”

The trick is not to outlaw videogames, but to manage them, and I’ll be honest: as management tasks go, Minecraft is pretty benign. If I judged it strictly by its presentation, I’d actually be pretty surprised that they’re into it: the graphics look like two crappy 80s arcade games had a goat-child, the sound is just as bad, and the server-side mods can be wonky (think NetWare 3.12 wonky). But by God, they take to the gameplay like it was a triple-fudge Oreo dusted with fairy glitter. There’s something about the possibility of unlimited creation that engages them at some very primal level, and they’d probably play it six hours a day if I let them. Maybe that’s what concerns parents about Minecraft – that it does seem so obsession-prone in its nature, and that their kids, left alone, will want to play it six hours a day. How’s that going to be managed? What’s the answer to that request?

Well, every once in a while, the answer should probably be yes. One of my favorite phrases around our house is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Once in a great while, if it would truly balm your soul to eat a carton of ice cream, or take a three-hour nap in the sun, or sample every chocolate milk stout on the market in one afternoon – or play six hours of Minecraft – I think you should do it. Not every day; it’s not a round table, and Moderation sits at the head of it. But every once in a while, especially if they’ve truly rocked the other aspects of their growth and development that week, I’ll let them go to town. Once in a great while, mind you. Because if ‘a great while’ got to be too often…

…well, that’s a slippery slope. Buffalo Mama wrote a post a while back entitled “But What If All The Kid Wants to Do is Play Video Games?” It’s a core question in unschooling: what if something becomes everything? Well, I’m not sure I would let anything become my children’s everything, no matter what it was. Everythings, in general, are bad in a house of intensities, because if something is an everything, everything else gets squeezed out completely. It’s one reason we do Adventure Lunches over the summer, and try out Indian and Greek and Korean and Moroccan food, chasing sushi with rice-paper ice cream balls and vegetable korma with gulab jamun: because left alone, humans fall into ruts. For kids, that’s doubly true, and for intense kids, even moreso. It’s easy to let them become chicken tender-eating, sidewalk-Razoring, Mario Kart-driving, Phineas and Ferb-watching automatons, so we continuously break that ice as it emerges with baba ganoush and indoor skydiving and Portal and Doctor Who and a zillion other life variations that keep them evolving.

What I have learned on the videogame front is to bend like a willow, rather than break like an oak, and thus it came to be that they became LUCKY KIDS with their OWN SERVER. And you know what? Their intellectual and creative development hasn’t faltered in the slightest; if anything, it’s grown, and given them a new means of socialization as well. I’ve seen how this game can bring kids together; operating a Minecraft server has been the 2013 equivalent of owning a trampoline or a swimming pool in the 1970s. The other kids come around to play – virtually, in this case – and there’s something to be said for watching how other kids approach the tasks of resource collection and construction. They build together, and they build apart, but there’s a line of companionship and shared passion that runs through all of it.

It’s not everything for them, but it’s a something that I’m cool with, and I haven’t seen their interest in other somethings diminish. Oh, and we get to talk about other stuff in the car now. Win/win.