Sunday, November 01, 2015

Math is Scary

Pumpkin Pi, because math is scary:

It can be so frustrating it will make you scream:

Or maybe hand out candy:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My most anticipated book of 2015 (and 2014)

Ugh. I must wait another week and a half - after already waiting months - for a book I've quite been looking forward to sharing with the young'un: Making Simple Robots.

That's okay, I guess: Books are like video games. Late ones are only late until they're released, bad ones are bad forever. Better to get it right than fast.

The projects from this book were a big hit and I think she's ready to take the ideas up a notch. Certainly I am!

MORE: Well, there are a few interesting projects here, but "robot" is a bit strong for some of them. I'm sinking some money into a small introductory robotics library  - and a couple of kits - for ideas and instructions on more complex builds. The projects in this book are fine for where the young'un is now, but don't move the ball a lot toward more substantive robotics beyond the craft and puppetry range. Also, I'm not a great fan of using the Little Bits platform for the book's electronics. The circuits are simple enough to where one really shouldn't need that product. My 8-year old granddaughter can put together a circuit and solder it; anybody who can actually read this book and hopes to "build robots" should be able to figure that much out.

UPDATE (4/12): Since this post I've expanded my entry-and-intermediate level robotics library quite a bit, with a skew toward Arduino-based projects. More on these topics as summer approaches.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why Thomas Jefferson ditched his newspaper subscriptions in favor of Newton, Euclid, Tacitus and Thucydides

I don't use Twitter for my own commentary but maintain an account with which to follow others. One feed I enjoy immensely is "On This Day in Math," which today brought us this tidbit: "1812 Thomas Jefferson writes [to] John Adams 'I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid;...'" Oh, to be afforded such a luxury! For now, though, your correspondent regrettably must remain ensconced in daily affairs.

Still, to honor TJ's late-in-life liberation from what must have been a life-long newspaper addiction, those of you who have too long neglected your Newton and Euclid ought to add to their new year's resolutions spending spare time watching Vi Hart videos (and rewatching them, perhaps with assistance from Sal Khan, till you thoroughly understand them). I had occasion over the summer to spend time re-upping my basic geometry and trig skills and looking at the material as an adult with an eye toward utility on my own projects. That turned out to be an entirely different and far more productive experience than slogging through geometry and trig texts in high school.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Never forget: Texas pogroms, land grabs

Here are three terrible episodes from Texas history which were news to me and which I wanted to record for my own, future reference. For the record: None of this was taught in my 7th grade Texas history class back in the day; all of it should be.

Atrocities during Mexican American War
First, I've understood since adulthood that the Mexican-American war pushing Texas' boundary from the Nueces River down to the Rio Grande was a largely extra-legal land grab, and from my travels in Mexico I understood the level of latent antipathy and conflicted attitude toward the United States which still lingers from the US invasion 150 years ago. But I hadn't realized before reading this book review from Foreign Affairs the sorts of atrocities and routine war crimes which accompanied the US invasion, a misadventure Ulysses S. Grant called America's "Wicked War," from which the title of the book is taken. Wrote the reviewer, "Among the many merits of The Wicked War, two are especially impressive: Greenberg’s use of personal testimonies and her portrayal of atrocities committed by U.S. forces -- events that have been little reported, even by Mexican writers." Here's an especially notable passage:
Greenberg uses a first-person account, for example, to describe a massacre of Mexican civilians by volunteer soldiers from Arkansas: "The cave was full of volunteers, yelling like fiends, while on the rocky floor lay over twenty Mexicans, dead and dying in pools of blood, while women and children were clinging to the knees of the murderers and shrieking for mercy. . . . Nearly thirty Mexicans lay butchered on the floor, most of them scalped. Pools of blood filled the crevices and congealed in clots."

Such events troubled many U.S. officers, including Scott. In an 1847 letter to the U.S. secretary of war, Scott reported that men under Taylor’s command had committed crimes that were “sufficient to make Heaven weep.” U.S. militiamen had raped mothers and daughters in the presence of their tied-up husbands and fathers, he wrote, “all along the Rio Grande.” Yet as U.S. forces readied their attack on Veracruz, Scott denied requests by European consuls to allow women, children, and the elderly to evacuate the city. He would mercilessly bombard the city, destroying houses, churches, and hospitals. In a letter to his wife, the U.S. Army captain Robert E. Lee, who was at Veracruz and who would later lead the Confederate army during the Civil War, wrote that his “heart bled for the inhabitants.”

Greenberg argues that U.S. atrocities in Mexico echoed those of the Indian Wars of the 1830s, including a massacre of Cherokees in 1838, in which Scott participated. “When faced with a ‘treacherous race,’ the rules of war did not apply,” Greenberg writes of the attitude of American commanders. The U.S. public seemed to agree. The New York Herald predicted that “like the Sabine virgins,” Mexico would “soon learn to love its ravisher.” [Ed. note: Ugh!] But the love never came, the slaughter continued, and Mexican troops made the American invaders pay dearly in blood. Although estimates differ, Greenberg reports that the United States sent 59,000 volunteers and 27,000 regular troops to fight the war; nearly 14,000 of them died. Of course, the price was even higher for Mexican citizens; estimates suggest that as many as 26,000 died during the war.
That's what you call spillover violence!

If, as the reviewer suggested, "Every country sooner or later confronts the sins of its past," then these are among the sins America is paying for now when it comes to highly politicized conflicts over Latin American immigration and the national quandary over how to treat illegal immigrants, who are the poorest, most exploited strata of the state and nation's labor pool and yet essential to key industries like agriculture and construction. As with slavery, true "reparations" for the sort of historical carnage described above is impossible. But the history deserves to be remembered.

I also recently ran across the stories of two massacres from my own neck of the woods in northeast Texas.

Cherokee massacres
I'd never heard the story of the Republic of Texas wiping out the Cherokee Indians in northeast Texas referenced above (at least one person participated in both events), but the Texas State Historical Society has a brief description. For context, "on February 23, 1836, a treaty made by Sam Houston and John Forbes, who represented the provisional government, gave title to the lands between the Angelina and Sabine rivers and northwest of the Old San Antonio Road to the Cherokees and their associated bands." However, "The treaty was tabled by the Texas Senate on December 29, 1836, and was declared null and void by that body on December 16, 1837, despite Houston's insistence that it be ratified."

As a result, "The Córdova Rebellion in August 1838 caused Thomas Jefferson Rusk to march on the Cherokees in an effort to intercept Vicente Córdova; but Córdova did not seek shelter among the Cherokees, and Rusk returned to the settlements. On October 16, 1838, Rusk, with 230 troops, pursued a band of Kickapoos, destroyed their village, and killed eleven warriors, including one renegade Cherokee. There were sporadic raids by the Indians during the fall of 1838 and spring of 1839." Then, conveniently for the new republic's president, Mirabeau Lamar, in May 1839 a letter was discovered "in the possession of Manuel Flores exposing plans by the Mexican government to enlist the Indians against the Texas settlers," giving the Republic the perfect excuse to press for the Cherokee's complete expulsion, which Lamar did with great popular support. Here' TSHA's description of the denouement:
In July 1839, Kelsey H. Douglass was put in command of approximately 500 troops under Edward Burleson, Willis H. Landrum, and Rusk, and was ordered to remove the Indians to Arkansas Territory. The army camped on Council Creek, six miles south of the principal Cherokee village of Chief Bowl and dispatched a commission on July 12 to negotiate for the Indians' removal. The Indians agreed to sign a treaty of removal that guaranteed to them the profit from their crops and the cost of the removal. During the next two days they insisted they were willing to leave but refused to sign the treaty because of a clause that would give them an armed escort out of the republic. On July 15 the commissioners told the Indians that the Texans would march on their village immediately and that those willing to accept the treaty should display a white flag. Landrum was sent across the Neches to cut off possible reinforcements, and the remainder of the army marched on the village. The battle of the Neches occurred a few miles west of Tyler, in what is now Henderson County. By sundown three Texans had been killed and five wounded; the Indians had lost eighteen. The Indians fled, and Douglass made camp. Pursuit was begun on the morning of July 16. A scouting party under James Carter engaged the Cherokees near the headwaters of the Neches River at a site now in Van Zandt County. The Indians sought shelter in a hut and the surrounding cornfields but were forced to abandon them after Carter was reinforced by the arrival of Rusk and Burleson. After thirty minutes of fighting the Indians were forced to the Neches bottom, where Chief Bowl was killed and a number of warriors were lost. After the last fighting near Grand Saline, it was estimated that more than 100 Indians had been killed or wounded in the engagements.

On July 21 the Texans marched toward the headwaters of the Sabine River along the route taken by the fleeing Indians. Numerous huts and fields were destroyed that afternoon, and several villages and more than 200 acres of corn were burned on the morning of July 22. The destruction continued during the pursuit of the Indians, which was not abandoned until July 24. Most of the Indians fled to Cherokee lands outside the republic. During the winter a small group under Chief Egg and John Bowles, son of Chief Bowl, attempted to reach Mexico by skirting the fringe of white settlements. Burleson, on a campaign against the Plains Indians, intercepted the Cherokees and attacked them near the mouth of the San Saba River on December 25, 1839. Egg and Bowles and several warriors were killed, and twenty-seven women and children were captured. This was the last important action against the Cherokees in Texas.
TSHA dubs this as the "Cherokee War" but it reads to me more like a description of an old-school Russian pogrom against Jews - essentially an act of state-sponsored genocide.

Slocum massacre
Finally, Jonathon Tilove at the Austin Statesman has an excellent story (Dec. 27) about a debate  in Anderson County over whether an episode dubbed the "Slocum massacre" should be memorialized with an historical marker. Though I grew up in the next county, I'd never heard of the Slocum massacre:
in which a marauding mob of local whites went on a rampage, killing blacks pell-mell, and sending much of the local African-American population fleeing for their lives, abandoning homes and property, never to return.

“Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them. And, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them,” Anderson County Sheriff William H. Black told The New York Times the day after the July slaughter. “I don’t know how many there were in the mob, but I think there must have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut the telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.”

Even in an era when raw racial violence was common, what came to be called the Slocum Massacre was noteworthy, both for its scope and for the aggressive if ultimately futile efforts by white officials to bring the perpetrators to justice. But it quickly slipped from national headlines and, in the century that followed, largely disappeared from historical memory.
That terrible episode sounds eerily similar to the earlier Cherokee land grab a couple of counties over, and for that matter is similar in theme to the larger-scale land grab from the Mexican American War, though that of course played out on a grander scale and the earlier episodes were sponsored by nation states, not a mob. Whether or not that distinction matters, given that authorities in Slocum tacitly approved after the fact by failing to prosecute the perpetrators, Tilove's account of the Slocum massacre reads like nothing more nor less than an unregulated episode of populist genocide.

Regardless, the Anderson County Historical Commission and the Commissioners Court oppose creation of an historical marker because:
The Massacre of 1910 was an atrocity committed by a group of ignorant white men. Those men should have paid for their crimes. This event should never be forgotten in the history of Anderson County. However, it is the general view of the Historical Commission that historical markers should represent people, places and events that had a positive influence on our community. This event absolutely did not have a positive influence on anyone and it is a scar to the community of Slocum.
A county commissioner, though, offered a more practical, if self-serving motivation for refusing to acknowledge this dark history: “If I say, ‘OK, we’re going to recognize that this did happen, somebody of interest is going to take it further, and they are going to say, ‘The county even recognized it, and we want our land back.’”

I consider the idea that only historical stories which have a "positive influence" should be represented and not the darker manifestations of human behavior to be an absurdity bordering on an abomination. Anyone promoting such opinions is not an historian but a propagandist. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the saying goes, and everyone learns more from their mistakes than their triumphs. To me, these stories are critically important to remember because they remind us of the capacity for evil embedded within our state, our nation, and even ourselves, as evidenced by the corruption of our forefathers who perpetrated these acts and also our contemporaries seeking to whitewash them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

R.I.P. Ray Farabee: Student spook, state senator, UT's lawyer, good guy

R.I.P., Ray Farabee.

I first met the man in 1989, soon after he'd left the Texas state senate to become general counsel at the University of Texas System. At the time I was co-editor with Tom Philpott Jr., who now writes about food politics and economics for Mother Jones, of an alternative student publication called "Polemicist" that nearly exclusively published investigative reporting and criticism about UT Austin. At the end of the savings-and-loan meltdown and the beginning of Austin's tech boom, that was a wide-open, wild and woolly beat by any standard. (Hardly anyone ever even pretends to cover the university as the major regional political and economic institution it really is, a situation that's equally true today as in the late '80s.)

At the time, Tom and I were reporting on a story that led us to run a background check on Mr. Farabee. We were able to concretely deduce from public records that, while he was President of the National Student Association in the 1960s, Farabee was recruited as an asset by the CIA, as were numerous other student and labor leaders of the era. The idea behind the Cold-War era program was to finance and support anti-communist liberals within student and labor organizations prone to radicalization, if not to alter their positions then at least to monitor their activities.

Today, concealing such youthful connections seems quaint after David Dewhurst was elected to multiple terms as Lieutenant Governor with his main qualifications being a) he was rich, b) he was a competitive calf roper, and c) he'd worked in his twenties as a CIA case officer during an era in which they helped overthrow the government in Bolivia. But this was during the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, years before 9/11, when student groups were actively protesting CIA recruitment and the terms of debate surrounding spooks in public life arguably was less forgiving than now.

Anyway, we went to confront Farabee who, upon seeing the evidence admitted to being recruited by the CIA. However, he said he'd never undertaken the biggest assignment they laid out for him - infiltrating left-wing student groups in Europe - mainly because his father passed away right before he was to have departed.

Farabee politely asked us not to publish the fact of his youthful CIA involvement because, he said, he'd taken an oath (though the whole episode already at that time was a quarter-century old - basically ancient history). That would not have been enough to dissuade us, but he also made a valid argument that the revelation was merely salacious and had nothing to do with the story we were researching, about which his office had turned over hundreds of records and cooperated in full. And finally, perhaps predictably, he offered us another story instead, or at least a lead about the story we were working on, though for the life of me I can't now remember what it was. Much more memorable than those details were my conversations with Tom afterward about whether Farabee's dalliance with the CIA was newsworthy or merely inflammatory.

We decided, rightly or wrongly, that it wasn't news, or at least particularly important news, and for my part I've never mentioned the subject in writing until now. While I covered the university, Farabee treated us fairly, never screwed us over, and always returned phone calls, which from my perspective was about all one could ask. I liked him; in all my dealings with Ray Farabee (the last of which was perhaps 20 years ago), I found him to be an honorable man. I'm sorry to learn of his passing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Texas Combat Sports: A whole lotta fightin' going on

I must admit I had not realized the volume of boxing and combat sport events in Texas. Here's a list of events coming up over the next 2-3 months from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation website:

Event Schedule

All events are subject to change or cancellation.
  • 11/06/14 Dallas Petroleum Club, Dallas
  • 11/08/14 Top Rank, Pharr
  • 11/15/14 Top Rank, San Antonio
  • 11/15/14 Blue Chip Promotions, Humble
  • 11/21/14 Savarese Promotions, Houston
  • 11/21/14 Tejanito Promotions, El Paso
  • 11/22/14 Undercard Promotions, Dallas
  • 12/01/14 Leija/Battah Promotions, San Antonio
  • 12/05/14 Blue Chip Promotions, Houston
  • 12/06/14 Xtreme Combat Productions, Robstown
  • 12/06/14 Golden Boy Promotions & Leija Battah Promotions, Laredo
  • 01/17/15 League of Extraordinary Fighters Boxing Promotions, Beaumont
  • 01/23/15 Saverese Promotions, Houston
  • 01/26/15 Leija Battah Promotions, San Antonio
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
  • 11/07/14 STFC, McAllen
  • 11/14/14 Legacy Promotions, Houston
  • 11/22/14 UFC, Austin
  • 12/12/14 Legacy Promotions, Houston
  • 01/10/15 Fury Fighting Championship, San Antonio
  • 01/10/15 Xtreme MMA, Corpus Christi (pro and amateur)
  • 01/17/15 J and C Promotions, Brownsville
  • 01/17/15 Back Alley, Arlington
  • 01/30/15 Premiere Fight, Midland
  • 02/13/15 Fury Fighting Championship, Humble
Combination Events (Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts)
  • 01/16/15 Triple A Promotions, Laredo
  • 01/17/15 Saverese Promotions, Houston
Amateur Mixed Martial Arts
  • 11/15/14 Garcia Promotions, Dallas
  • 11/20/14 USACA, Dallas
  • 11/21/14 Icon Production Group (IASA), Victoria
  • 11/21/14 Superior Combative Championships (SCC), Galveston
  • 12/05/14 Savarese Amateur Association (SAA), Houston (Muay Thai)
  • 12/06/14 CHASM Elite, Belton
  • 12/06/14 Premiere Combat Group (PCG), San Antonio
  • 01/10/15 Xtreme MMA, Corpus Christi (pro and amateur)
  • 01/16/15 Legacy Promotions, Houston
That's a lot of fights. And when you read the Sports pages or watch sports programming on local TV news (or for that matter, ESPN), there is almost zero fight coverage. The papers are doing a crappy job of covering what's clearly an emerging sport here in Texas and the fight promoters are doing a lousy job with publicity. I'm an actual fight fan - a casual one, but still ... you shouldn't have to hunt this list down on some obscure state licensing agency website. If the industry promoted itself properly they'd be telling folks like me about these events ahead of time.

The state just elevated a long-time staffer to become its new "Combative Sports Program Manager," fwiw, though I know nothing about the fellow to suppose that's a good or a bad thing. Texas' boxing regulation has been a running national joke for several years so part of me questions the decision to hire from within. Still, I hope he succeeds and does a good job. With our proximity to Mexico and the state's tough-guy culture, combat sports could and should flourish in Texas if the government and promoters can get out of the way of the growing number of fighters and fans.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

More math tricks

Here are several items/links I wanted to remember as I try to teach kids in the Blanton Elementary math pentathlon team a few tricks to make (dreaded) multiplication less scary.
The above are taken from a cool blog series on 25 (or 26?) different ways to multiply.

Next up on an 8 year old's soldering kit tour: Snap-o-Lantern (Updated)

The young'un received a "Snap-O-Lantern" kit from her Spark Club mentors at The Thinkery too late for us to put together at home by Halloween. But I think it'll make a great Thanksgiving centerpiece (one that can sit around most of the day and get swept aside when the turkey, etc., is ready). From the "Evil Mad Scientist" site that produced the kit: "Normally, it just sits there, in disguise as a boring old pumpkin."

"But, every twenty seconds he comes to life. His LED eyes turn on, his jaw slowly opens, and then SNAPS shut– and he goes back into stealth mode."

With a (much) bigger servo and a bit of creative pumpkin engineering you can take the concept to extremes. I'm wondering if there's some way to trigger the thing with a sensor of some sort, especially if after the holiday is over and the squash has gone bad we wanted to do something like this with it. I rather like the idea of a book that peeks up  at you with glowing eyes, but I'd like it better if it reacted to, say, someone sitting down in a designated chair, reacting to either a motion or a pressure sensor. (Ditto for the pumpkin gimmick, for that matter.)

The project is definitely within Ty's soldering/technical skills, but the use of an actual squash means we must do it relatively soon before Thanksgiving - perhaps the weekend before, at the earliest - to keep it from becoming fly infested. Using the same apparatus for the peek-a-boo book has more long-term potential, but making it sensor driven would boost the fun. Will report back if I figure out how.

UPDATE (12/16): I hope it's true we learn more from our failures than our successes because this was our first failure together, and more mine than hers. This was her most complicated soldering project to date. Because we'd gotten this from her children's museum class, I only had one and didn't put one together myself before she tried to do it. I wish I had. Every moment of indecisiveness before figuring out where to put a piece made her more frustrated (and at eight her reading comprehension wasn't quite up to the instructions, which we were reading off a lap top at the dining room table/work station, so much of it was inevitably on me). Finally, jerking away to conceal what she was doing in some ill-conceived expression of a privacy demand, Ty splattered solder just about everywhere including across more than a dozen connections on the circuit board and in and around all the chip connections. I attributed this behavior to my own unpreparedness and lack of pedagogical skills, regrettably; I understand why she was frustrated. The front end of a learning curve isn't always fun. And if my own skills were better, I'd be a better teacher. Regardless, no amount of solder sucking and wicking was able to salvage it, though I did save the motor and large orange leds for another day.

Contemplating my abysmal pedagogical failure, I came to this head slapping realization: We only took to soldering this kit because it was handed to her at her Spark Club class at the Thinkery, Austin's big children museum. But if I'd given it two thoughts, this project would be easy to put together with little or no soldering by using an Arduino, a breadboard and jumper wires. I'm going to try it first without her over the Christmas holiday. Perhaps I can get her interested in a less fussy project involving less soldering, against which she's started to push back once we reached these slightly more complicated projects.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Higher, cometary math

The idea that the European Space Agency is about to land a spacecraft on a comet is downright remarkable. Here's how they got there:

Can you imagine the mathematics involved in calculating an orbital path so precisely, much less landing the thing and riding the comet for most of the next year? Unreal.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Three random math and science items I want to remember

A comet slingshot around Mars later this month and NASA has a remarkable number of ways they're gathering data from the event. Check out the graphic here. Here's another depicting its trajectory.

I didn't know a "blood moon" was a real thing until the recent eclipse. I was up during the time frame but there was too much cloud cover to see the moon from my back deck. Some of the pics from locales were it was visible were pretty spectacular. Apparently the earth's atmosphere acts as a lens to create the refracted red effect.

How many ways do you know to multiply? This person has counted 25, at least. I also enjoyed this blog post on the history of division. I'm coaching 4th and 5th graders on an elementary school math pentathlon team and am teaching them to add, subtract and multiply from left to right in their heads as opposed to right to left as one does when performing sums on paper. They think one different way to multiply is too much; 25 would (will) blow their mind.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Other stuff to do with kids in Mexico City

Recently we took our seven (nearly eight) year old granddaughter to Mexico City for a week and several folks have expressed surprise that there was anything for a child to do there. In fact, it was the second time we'd taken her to Mexico City - the first time she was four - and there are plenty of things to do with young kids. Moreover, the subway system makes the city super easy to get around, at least for most tourist purposes.

I've already written about Mexico City's wonderful children's museum, El Papalote, which ended up absorbing a couple of days of our most recent, kid-centric trip. Here are a few other kid-friendly things to do in El D.F.:

Zoo in Chapultepec Park
The zoo in Chapultepec Park is excellent - probably too big to get through in a day with a small one - and makes a great in-city day trip. It's easy to reach via the metro. It's a short walk from the metro stop to the zoo entrance but you can ask anyone for directions or, on weekends, just follow the crowd with kids who migrate there in great numbers every Saturday and Sunday. The zoo is free but some special exhibits require a (relatively cheap) ticket. There's a food court on the grounds; skip the US brands there and go for the Mexican sandwiches, tacos, etc.. is my advice.

Alternatively, the exit to the zoo dumps you out next to several rows of food booths where you can eat comida corrida style (a cheap, fixed price, multi-course meal). There's a little merry go round there, a mirror maze, a playscape, and small train that circles around part of the park that you can get on near the food stalls. My suggestion: Get something at the food stalls in the zoo, look at animals till you've worked up an appetite, then head to this food area for a satisfying late afternoon meal in a relaxed atmosphere where there's something for kids to do.

Be forewarned, the main paths to and especially from the zoo and in Chapultepec Park generally on the weekends are lined with innumerable vendors selling snacks, drinks, trinkets, face paint, plastic superhero or princess-themed toys, etc.. Consider yourself miraculously lucky if you get past them without reaching into your pocket. (And some items, like face paint or agua frescas are hard to say "no" to on a fun family day.) For kids old enough to add and subtract, consider giving them a small sum they can spend on trinkets or snacks every day and let them choose what it is. It's inevitable, so why not do it in a way that teaches some responsibility and leaves you out of the decision making surrounding every 10 peso transaction? That strategy worked out well for us on our most recent trip.

The Zocalo
The zocalo in Mexico City is a massive open square  with a large cathedral on the north side and the national palace on the east. There's no telling what's going on there on any given day, but there's usually something. The church is worth visiting and the sidewalk outside includes not just the usual trinket and snack-sellers but opportunities to receive a shamanic blessing by women in traditional native garb waving smoldering handfuls of sage around their customers.

The Diego Rivera murals in the national palace may be about all the art viewing many young ones can stand. We found that, with some effort, Ty could follow the grim storyline Rivera related about the Spanish conquest and the people's uprising during the Mexican Revolution. But she was more interested in the (admittedly amazing) cactus garden behind the small courtyard housing the famed murals. In the daytime, take a frisbee to throw out in the square, or maybe a kite, for the bold - there's a surprising amount of wind there most times of year.

For us, though, the best part of visiting the zocalo was at night. Here's how I described these outings in another venue:
Just for fun, we took some light-up garb with us to Mexico City to the zocalo after dark: The granddaughter's hoodie with EL Wire stitched around the edges, a few dozen small glow sticks, a couple of balloons with flashing RGB LEDs inside them, and three battery operated EL Wire strands long enough to use as a jump rope, one of which ended up lining a hat. Folks approached in gaggles wanting to buy one or the other of the light-up goodies, with somebody offering five times for a strand of EL Wire what I'd paid for it. We gave away glow-stick bracelets to the kids and referred would-be customers to the websites where I'd bought them. (This was a great way to meet families with kids, btw.) When it was bed time, the young'un gave away the balloons with flashing LEDs to a couple of little girls in the square and distributed the last of the glowsticks to a passel of teenagers before she turned, hoodie flashing, and we walked back through the seemingly ever-present multitude to our hotel.
The walk from our hotel to the square was a pedestrian-only street jam-packed with people. Every few yards you'd see people elaborately dressed as cartoon characters, superheroes, or monsters looking for people to pay ten pesos (about 77 cents) to take a picture with them. You can get an ice cream or other sweet and walk up and down people and building watching, window shopping, and soaking in the experience of being in the center of one of the planets most populous, vibrant cities.

A visit to the pyramids at Teotihuacan is a standard tourist day trip from Mexico City. But I must confess, I have mixed feelings about taking young kids to ruins sites. Ty has been to both Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City and to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. Chichen Itza was a complete bust - she was more interested in the bark on the trees than the pyramids we were there to visit. Teotihuacan, too, was a little much for her. She was interested at first and had fun climbing over and under things, where it was allowed. But the outing took too long and by the end we had quite a grumpy girl on our hands. OTOH, she remembers both outings fondly, especially Teotihuacan, and her account of the episode after the fact included none of the complaints that seemed to dominate the day. Go figure.

The problem with taking kids to such places is they have no history nor context for what they're seeing and there are more things they can't do ("don't climb," "don't touch") than things they can. If you go, take snacks, water and head coverings (no shade at Teotihuacan), and maybe a ball, frisbee or other toy for a bit of play time.

Market day
I'm sure locals become numb to the experience, but to me, after dozens of visits over the years, a large Mexican market is still like a wonderland - certainly that's true the first time you go through it. There's a large market just southeast of the zocalo in Mexico City that's perfectly located for the first-timer or the hundredth alike, but of course there are many others scattered around the city. Be sure and ask a local for a recommendation and travel directions, though. Some are sketchier than others.

Shop for whatever you're personally after but stop whenever the young one wants to look at toys, snacks, etc., she potentially could afford. After all, what's the use of walking through a wonderland if you're not allowed to stop and gawk? Pro tip: Give the kid a (slightly larger than the usual daily) allowance and tell them they get to decide how to spend it. Then you're not to blame when they can't have something. And don't forget you can buy ridiculously inexpensive kids' clothes while you're there, much more cheaply than even discount stores in the states.

Eat a big breakfast before you go then in the afternoon eat comida corrida in the market. If you're still hungry, there are dozens of stalls with treats, fruits, and all manner of goodies that will delight any palette. Don't neglect the street stalls surrounding the market; if it looks clean and there are lots of locals standing in line, it's a pretty good bet.

If you're staying somewhere with a kitchen, consider spending an evening where you buy food from the market and cook it yourself (ideally channeling your internal Diana Kennedy). Most American kids aren't used to seeing food that fresh go straight from the butcher or the farmer's stall to the dinner table and it'll memorably reinforce what they saw during their market visit.

When the Spaniards first arrived, Mexico City was built on a lake and the Aztecs moved people and goods about the town through canals on barges and boats. Today, Xochimilco on the outskirts of town is one of the last areas where the old canals still stand. Saturdays are the big day when there are lots of food vendors and mariachis in the water. We didn't go this time but took Ty when she was four. Great family atmosphere. You can rent a boat (including somebody to row) and take a tour up the canals, buying food from boat-bound vendors (or bringing your own) and paying for the occasional tune or three from mariachi bands floating in their own boats alongside you in the canals. This area is filled with flower nurseries and you can stop whenever you want to look at them, have a picnic, etc.,  though of course be careful of US import restrictions if you decide to buy any flora. (Cut flowers to spruce up the hotel room can be nice, though.) A trip to Xochimilco makes for a lovely, unique family afternoon and getting there is pretty easy via public transit, as described in any decent guide book.

We ended up not going because of time, but the KidZania franchise started in Mexico City and has become a mainstay of local kid entertainment. Our hotelier with a young kid and some of their staff with children highly recommended it, though looking online there are criticisms about excessive commercialism, etc.. Somebody must like it, though. Franchises have sprouted up all over the planet and locals say their children enjoy the place. Maybe next time.

Eating out
The good news: In Mexico, there's seemingly no such thing as a non-kid friendly restaurant. If you want to go there, odds are nobody will think twice if you bring your children with you. There are numerous, terrific breakfast places in El Centro, as well as spectacular bakeries. Also, the coffee situation has much improved: Nescafe is becoming rare (previously the only version of coffee you could get) and there are even Starbucks dotting the landscape here and there.

You can't go wrong taking a young'un to the tile-covered Sanborns across from Bellas Artes, with its amazing floor to ceiling murals and fun kids' dishes. (The food is good but not spectacular; you're going for the atmosphere.) When we were there three years ago, one of the waitresses wanted her picture taken with our granddaughter. When we returned this time, she recognized her, gave her lots of hugs and attention, and asked us to return the next day when she brought the old photo and had Ty write her name on the back and take another one. Utterly charming.

We also enjoyed Cafe Tacuba, a beautiful old place filled with lovely paintings, murals and an amazing array of stained glass art over the front door. The mariachis there were excellent, as was the food. (In recent years, I've begun skipping Plaza Garibaldi for listening to mariachis - there are typically fine groups playing in and around many restaurants and Garibaldi, while famous, has become a bit seedy if you're taking kids, recent government efforts to renew the area notwithstanding.)

If you choose, you can spend as much money on a meal in Mexico City as one might in a fancy restaurant in New York or London. However, some of the best eating in Mexico happens at food stalls on the street or tucked away in the markets. Perhaps my favorite meal of the trip was when Ty and I got giant, delicious quesadillas filled with chicken, queso and and a thick tomatilla sauce and ate them in the park. Afterward, we played hide and seek for a bit, then she took off her shoes and played in a fountain with a couple dozen other kids. I wouldn't have traded that afternoon for the finest gourmet meal in the city.

Traveling with kids: A philosophical choice
The missus and I have a working theory about traveling with kids. If you're going the bring them on vacation, the vacation is going to be about them. Sure, we might enjoy visiting the National Anthropological Museum or the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City, both of which are spectacular. (We've returned to the Anthropological Museum repeatedly as we've traveled around Mexico and learned more indigenous history; a lot of the best artifacts from every corner of the country are there.) Over the years, we've spent lots of time walking around outlying neighborhoods, visited Frida Kahlo's home, the wonderful Dolores Olmeda museum, and even the house where Leon Trotsky was assassinated. But such outings won't hold a young child's interest for more than a few minutes. After that, every moment can be a struggle if a child is bored or just doesn't want to be there. Force the issue and it's easy to make everyone miserable.

If, on the other hand, you plan a trip around the child's interests - the children's museum, the zoo, playing in the parks, etc. - they'll enjoy the trip more and you'll enjoy your time with them. Some of your time will be eaten up by activities that you might not have needed to leave home to do. Playing hide and seek in the park isn't a Mexico-City specific activity, after all. But it does make for a fun vacation, if fun is what you're looking to get out of it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Postcard from El Papalote

As the grandfather of a nearly eight year old girl who begins a Thinkery camp on Monday, I've spent more than my fair share of time in recent years at children's museums in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and beyond. But the Museo de Niños in Mexico City, universally called El Papalote by the locals, hands down is the best I've seen.

It was big enough and diverse enough that it merited consecutive days visits in a one-week, kid-centric vacation from which I've just returned, an outing that also featured one day visiting the nearby zoo there in Chapultepec Park.

Americans don't think of Mexico City this way, but it's really in many ways a child/family oriented town. Look in most guidebooks and the Museo de Niños may get a one paragraph description, though for families with younger children visiting it's one of the best outings in the city. When we returned to Texas, the first things the child wanted to tell her mother about the trip all were exhibits from El Papalote.

El Museo
El Papalote is much bigger than other children's museums I've encountered. There are several buildings of exhibits, two theaters, three outdoor playscapes for kids of various ages, massive outdoor interactive water features, a food court, and best of all the place is staffed out the wazoo, with a much higher staff to child ratio than I've seen anywhere else, particularly considering the place was packed both days we went. The extra staff made a huge difference. Sometimes when families are around each other too much - like on vacation - children may not always care to listen to the adults closest to them. But the friendly, young staffers with a green vest and big name badges seemed to expertly coax the kids into appreciating and participating in the science themed exhibits.

They did a good job of giving kids something to do in each exhibit. For example, a two story contraption transported 12-inch solid plastic balls up and down from the first and second floor using only kid power from three sources: a hamster-wheel like contraption that powered the drive train and two more areas upstairs where kids reinserted balls from the top, via a hand crank and a game where you balanced the ball on a board around obstacles to get it in a corner hole.

Another exhibit features streams of colored light falling like rain on the wall that seems to slide off the sides of kids' shadows, accumulate within the neck and shoulder or a bended arm. I'm not sure myself how that thing worked, but it was really cool. (The Austin children's museum has an exhibit where they freeze one's shadow on the wall at the end of a countdown, and come to think of it I don't understand how that works, either.) This is a standing feature; it was there when we visited three years ago.

Perhaps the youngun's biggest favorite was a presentation on pressure, showing how one nail may pop a balloon but the presenter could place the balloon on a bed of nails and lean down on it with all her weight without popping it. The point was that the weight was distributed among and thus divided by the total number of pressure points so that any given nail didn't penetrate the skin. They invited kids and parents alike to lay on the bed of nails, which could be raised and lowered through holes in a stiff plastic sheet on a specially built rectangular table top. She was scared at first and didn't quite trust the science she was being told, but "laying on a bed of nails" was right up there among the her highlights from the trip.

The Target Audience
We'd taken the child to El Papalote three years ago during her fourth summer and the differences between a four and seven year old are great. But she found things to do both times - different things interested her, as one might expect - and on both trips she considered it a highlight. By my observation, the more complex exhibits could accommodate kids up to maybe 12 years old; teenagers would probably soon get bored. Or hired. The staff was young, though they did a good job.

It certainly helps the more you speak Spanish. All the instructions are written in Spanish as are the presentations by staff. But if you've got a smattering - in our family, I can get by and the young'un is more fluent than me - there's plenty there to enjoy. And there are a good stock of under-utilized staff wearing "I Speak English" buttons. There are so few English speakers it was like having concierge service. Even so, the excellent service we got because of the novelty of English speakers' presence underscored the extent to which this is a place intended for Mexican children, not necessarily the tourist crowd, which perhaps is why the guidebooks short shrift it.

Getting there
You could take a cab there but I don't always trust them and personally prefer the subways, trolleys and buses for most day-to-day travel when visiting Mexico City. Plus, kids love trains. I looked through a half dozen guidebooks in our hotelier's bookshelf and none of them had good directions to the Museo de Niños, which is a bit of a trek from the main entrance to enormous Chapultepec Park. Here's the best route we found:

Get on the subway from wherever you're staying, find your way to the number 7 (orange line) toward Barranca del Mureto and get off at the Constituyentes stop. As you come up the stairs and out, turn left, go upward, and turn left again, ascending to a green pedestrian overpass that'll get you across a busy road (they'll also sell you a great quesadilla or sandwich on the way, too, I should add). From there, you walk forward past the presidential residence (a day care named Jardin de Niños is on the other side of the street) and just past it on the right you'll see a second, larger overpass that leads you across Ave. Constituyentes  and to the Museo's back door. When you exit the pedestrian overpass, go forward, keeping the yellow building on your left. Walk up the drive and the next left gets you to the main entrance. Avoid the temptation to continue along the highway after the second pedestrian overpass - that way will get you there but add a third of a mile or so to your walk.

Other Logistics
Entry fees are higher depending on whether you see a movie or other performance in their theaters, but the basic entry fees sans movie was about $10 or so (American) per head, so in the scheme of things quite reasonable There's street food all along the path or you can eat inside from decent chain restaurants - some American, some Mexican - in the food court, though even the Mexican versions of US fast food purveyors tend to have menu items one hasn't seen in the states.

One caveat. If you leave between 5 and 7 p.m. on a weekday (the museum closes at 7), you'll hit rush hour when you get to the train headed home. This is doable but potentially stressful and a much different experience than riding around the subway in half empty cars during the day. Small children may need to be picked up to avoid a scary crush when the crowd begins to really pack in. Everything will work out and other passengers will help protect the child if they know what's happening, but I mention it to advise that you prepare yourself and your kid for the experience. Our granddaughter was freaked out when so many people began pouring onto the train and did not stop.

Transportation logistics aside, the Museo de Niños is a great antidote for kids bored by one more trek to visit ancient ruins or who only barely tolerated being dragged through the (wonderful, but grown-up) National Anthropology Museum, also in Chapultepec Park. If you're going to impose a visit to Frida Kahlo's residence, make them view Diego Rivera's wonderful but ghastly murals in the National Palace, or force them to climb the pyramids at Teotihuacan though no one can tell them who lived there, the least you can do is throw them a bone and take your kid someplace that's expressly for them. El Papalote fits the bill.

MORE: I forwarded this post to the contact email for the museum and a gentleman named Daniel Elizondo emailed back to say, in part, that "We know it can be hard to get to the Museum, we are working on different solutions that will facilitate transportation and connection with the rest of Chapultepec." That would be helpful, it's a big place! Two suggestions: 1) Try to reroute or expand the little white train that runs through the park to serve as a de facto shuttle for the Museo, the zoo, and other kid-related stops, and 2) Improve (i.e., install) signage from the Constituyentes metro stop, maybe even spending a little promotions money there. It's only a short walk but unless you know where you're going, the path is not obvious.

RELATED: Other stuff to do with kids in Mexico City.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Beware the WeevilEye: Soldering for 7-year olds

For Christmas, the granddaughter received a "WeevilEye" soldering kit we got her from SparkFun. Last week she soldered together an LED circuit she and Grandma made into a bracelet with moldable plastic, but this was a much more involved, detailed affair, and the first time she'd soldered onto a printed circuit board (PCB). So we had her practice first on a scrap board, soldering several wires and a resistor:

Once she had that process down, she started in on the WeevilEye.

Three resistors, a transistor, a light sensor, two LEDs, and a battery holder later, the finished project worked just as advertised: The eyes light up when it's dark and go off in the light.

The only real problem came when some solder bled across both slots on one of the LEDs, but that was fixed just by reheating it and wiping off the excess with a small sponge. Also, the coin cell battery holder leads were a bit small and difficult to access once all the other components were in, but she accomplished it just fine once she found the right angle. Here's what the finished product looked like, from the SparkFun site:
If I had one suggestion it would have been for the manufacturers to include an on-off switch on the battery holder. Because it uses a transistor, the device drains the battery even when the LEDs are off. But the battery pops out pretty easily and that's not a big problem. Quite a nice little introductory soldering kit for a seven-year old.

AND MORE (Feb. 12): Not a soldering project but I wanted to store these links somewhere: Last weekend we took the young'un to an event at Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin where they had the kids create small theremins on a breadboard. Excellent event; lots of kids and families there. Here's the link to the project page, the schematics, and in case they eventually take those down, here are several other sites they recommended for other noise projects:

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Beefing up my Arduino chops

Looking forward to taking a couple of classes over the next two weeks on programming and experimenting with Arduinos - small microcontrollers/computers that use sensors for inputs - at the TechShop in far North Austin. I've been fiddling with the tech in autodidact mode for a couple of months but am hoping formal classes will give me an opportunity to get over the hump and really begin doing stuff with them. Classes are a little pricey at $90 per, but I don't really know where else one would go to learn this stuff.

Kathy has lately been fiddling around with wearable technology. Most recently she stitched el wire into a hoodie for the granddaughter that lights up, flashes, etc.. Once my Arduino programming chops are up to snuff, we're hoping to combine the efforts using the Lilypad or FLORA platforms to do more interesting, programmable clothing projects that incorporate sensors, sound, light, and potentially motion. The idea is for all this to peak around Halloween.

These projects have been a really nice diversion from some of the heavier topics I deal with at work.

ALSO: Looking for more detailed instruction on these topics, I signed up to audit an online class out of UT-Austin on embedded electronic systems - one of their new MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. You can pay a little extra to get your work graded and end up with an "achievement certificate," but I'm in it for the knowledge, not the credential. Here's the syllabus and the course site. The class is based on this book. I'm quite looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fart noises for the treehouse doorbell: An inspiration

I've been on a DIY kick recently and today in the car I asked Ty, if you could have a button on your treehouse that you could press and it would do something (light a light, make a noise, move something, etc.), what should it do?

She thought about it for a moment then said she wanted a doorbell for her treehouse. A moment or two went by and she began to giggle, then announced that she wanted a doorbell that made "fart noises."

Looking around at the possibilities, if I'm not mistaken, I think I've figured out how to pull that off without breaking the bank. Looks like this little module and a 9 volt battery will do the trick for $12. Very cool.

UPDATE: This worked like a charm! Even better, we put it in a little case where the young'un could remove it and re-record whatever she wanted, and she changes out the message every couple of weeks. My only beef: I wish the "record" button were on the little green board and the "play" button was the one attached externally with wire (on the right in the photo) so you could better place the button you hit to make noises wherever you want. But we figured out how to make it work. It's been a big hit. Really cool module for the price.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ready for another vacation

Wish I were in Mexico City right now. This was Ty's dinner at Sanborn's across from the Palacios de Bellas Artes on our last night there two summers ago. The arms and legs are taquitos; the eyes are hot dog slices with green pea pupils:

Shadow dancing in the zocalo:

When you go to the zoo, do you like your camels with one hump ...

Or two?

First panda I've seen, how 'bout you?

And unlike here, it's not too onerous to spend the day outdoors:

These days, a certain young'un is a bit more skilled at the monkey bars than two summers ago.

This was at the Children's Museum in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, which is also where the aforementioned zoo is located. At the time, Ty was a month shy of her 5th birthday: Our next vacation begins in a week. I'm ready for it to have started yesterday.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Future low-information voters

Yesterday, while picking up my six-year old granddaughter from a YMCA aftercare program, I walked in on a staffer from the Y quizzing the kids on their political knowledge. "Does anybody here know the name of Texas' governor," she asked them, and dozens of hands flew into the air. "Not the President," she said, "not Barack Obama, but who is the Governor of Texas?" Nearly every hand went down except for one, small child at the very back of the room. The staffer called on her and she confidently piped up, "Mitt Romney!" I couldn't help but laugh out loud and interject, "Wrong state, he used to be a governor, just not here."

When Ty and I got to the car, I taught her the names of Texas' Governor and Austin's Mayor on the way home until she could repeat them on demand. "It's important to know their names," I told her, "if only so you'll get the joke when people make fun of them, because almost everybody does."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wicked Witch of the East Photo Gallery

Since a certain six year old has been practicing her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the remains of the Wicked Witch of the East have come to temporarily occupy my living room, with my grandmother's piano playing the role of Dorothy's house:

Y aqui:

Y más cercano:

Nobody will confuse us with prop makers, but we've gotten a lot of mileage out of this simple gag, both when she's practicing her role and as a running household joke. They never fail to garner a second look from visitors, either, but no one has to ask: Everybody knows the reference.