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, which 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. 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.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Are you thinking about Halloween, yet?

Since I've been fiddling with low-voltabe electronics lately, and the projects often require a bit of lead time to implement, I've already begun to fiddle with concepts my Halloween costume. I'm thinking of going as a piano. The costume would be playable. Stay tuned.

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.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twinkie is dead, long live the Twinkie

Hostess, the Irving-based maker of "Twinkies," is going out of business, reported AP. See more background on the company's demise. Though I ate their products as a kid, today I can't think of a thing these folks make that I'd miss if their products were taken off the shelves. From what I read, it sounds like company management pretty much brought this on themselves. I'm sorry for the 18,500 workers nationwide who might lose their jobs, and I don't think anytime soon that the word "Twinkie" will exit the American lexicon. But wouldn't be sorry to see Twinkies and their ilk exit the American diet.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

R.I.P. Darrell Royal 1924-2012

My father passed along this tribute. Though his three national championships came a decade prior, I'll always remember him paired with hometown hero Earl Campbell, as depicted here:

Last time I saw Earl, regrettably, he was nearly as decrepit as Coach Royal. Sad news.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Howdy, folks!

A depressing image for any Texan:

Via the Dallas Morning News
I won't mind seeing the old fellow get a modernizing makeover, but what a surreal event!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Badminton suspensions place wrongly blame players for incentives created by Olympic officials

There's a stench of hypocrisy surrounding the decision by the International Olympic Committee to suspend eight badminton players yesterday for tanking matches to manipulate who they would face in the seedings. (See Washington Post coverage.)

By contrast, the Japanexe soccer (football) team will rest four or five of their starting players in its game today against Honduras, I heard on NBC, because they're already won enough to be guaranteed a slot in the elimination rounds. NBC color announcer and former Olympian Cobi Jones predicted a Honduran upset as a result. Similarly, yesterday I watched an Australian boxer who had clearly dominated the first two rounds of a fight get on his bicycle and avoid significant punching exchanges with his opponent throughout Round Three.

How are these episodes any different from the athletes who tanked badminton matches? (And if you don't think badminton players are athletes, you haven't seen the game played at the highest levels.) IMO the blame lies not with the athletes, who're only responding to the incentives created by those who set up the event. If you want everyone to try hard every game, make them all elimination matches. But don't blame players for maximizing their chances to win a medal under the rules, which is all that happened here. Don't like it? Change the rules.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How long does it take to ...

This interesting list of options popped up on Google when I began a search query with "How long does it take to ...":
  • boil an egg
  • get to the moon
  • get a passport
  • digest food
  • get pregnant
  • get to mars
  • walk a mile
  • bake a potato
  • hard boil an egg
  • buy a house
As it happens, none of those items coincided with my own query, but I thought it was a particularly odd list. Not what I would have expected.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Watching TV, movies from across the Pacific

Kathy and I lately have been watching quite a bit of subtitled Asian TV and movies on Netflix and ran across - arguably, in my opinion - perhaps the greatest (if a quirky and unusual) love story I've ever seen portrayed on film: Castaway on the Moon, written and directed by Hey-Jun Lee. A genius plot, quite well done. Not just every scene but nearly every shot was masterful, emotionally compelling with high impact. It won awards in Asia but I hadn't heard of it: Top-notch stuff. I understand John Waters may be making an American version, but I couldn't recommend the Korean one more highly. Hard to say if the concept will translate.

We also tapped into a recent Korean TV series based on an old Asian cartoon hero called City Hunter, which told the story of an over-the-top revenge plot fulfilled (often against his will) by the son of a man murdered by his government on a secret spy mission against North Korea. The show was fun and compelling as a fan, with each episode ending on 24-style cliffhangers without quite the hokiness of some American thrillers. And the plot was different from most everything on American TV, exciting, provocative, and unexpected, if at moments a bit too sentimental for US tastes.

After watching City Hunter, the missus looked up other stuff done by the same lead actor, which led to a goofy but fun show called Boys over Flowers, which was apparently quite popular in Korea and throughout Asia in 2009. This show is mainly about the pretty boys and their clothes at an elite school where billionaires' kids call the shots and, with the exception of the female lead, the role of female characters is to drool and fawn over the four (admittedly spectacularly pretty) male leads while engaging in catty (sometimes violent) attacks on the heroine. Kathy calls the show "eye candy." So far (we're just a half-dozen or so episodes in), it's barely maintaining my interest, though as a teen love story it's pretty tame by western standards, and a little sappy. Still, the over-the-top class-war laden high-school drama and the always spectacular visuals (it's really made me want to visit Korea) are worth enduring the sappy teenage angst and constant glamor shots. For both City Hunter and Boys Over Flowers, I definitely wish the translations were better.

I should also mention a Chinese movie, King of Masks, which featured the most brilliant performance by a child actress (Renying Zhou) I've ever witnessed: Like watching Jodi Foster's child performances, except arguably with even more nuance and emotional control. How this movie failed to compete for awards in the west is beyond me: It was brilliantly conceived, directed and acted. The ending was a tad sentimental, but for American audiences it would actually seem understated given the happy-ending goop sold to audiences here all the time.

We ran across King of Masks by identifying other movies including the actors from Farewell My Concubine, which received more favorable attention in the west than the other movies described here. Farewell My Concubine is a brilliant, epic film depicting the dark interior world of Chinese opera, particularly for children raised in that glorious but brutal tradition, not to mention the absolute awfulness of the Cultural Revolution and its treatment of artists. (The "concubine" in that movie plays a cross-dressing opera star in King of Masks.) Good stuff.

We've enjoyed two excellent Taiwanese movies during this stretch: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Eat Drink Man Woman. These are two very different movies but both focused on the personal lives of women in different eras. The former is set in the 19th century and tells the story of two women bound through decades of personal and political turmoil, while the latter depicts three sisters and their food-centered relationship with their father, an aging master chef. I enjoyed both of them tremendously.

Finally, we've watched two of three parts in the Japanese trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-'61), and are awaiting the third. Some critics have called The Human Condition the greatest movie ever made in any language; they're not far off, certainly for its era. The movie was perhaps the first time the Japanese people confronted in artistic form their nation's brutal totalitarian actions on mainland China during World War II and the implications for their society's ability to integrate into a modern world that respected instead of disregarded values of humanism. Netflix didn't have this one streaming but you can order each part separately through their mail service. So it takes a while to watch it but it's worth the wait.

I'm not sure how much of a market there is in the US for subtitled TV, but the quality of these offerings have been high. I've enjoyed our brief foray into Asian TV and cinema.