Friday, July 30, 2010

2 Weeks Later: On Cryptex Construction (Resolution)

And after two or so weeks of work, the cryptex is done.

No, the passcode is not my name, nor any of the other things you saw in the previous post. I'm generally pleased with the way it turned out. I put a clear coat enamel on the end caps to protect them from scuffing and getting damaged. I engraved each tumbler with a more or less random 13 letters. I'm pretty happy with the font:

The engraving took a bit longer than I expected, but I think it was worth the effort. I would show you all how it works, but the mechanisms haven't changed since the last update. I"m very pleased with how the endcaps worked out, and they're perhaps my favorite feature. I'd like to try more woodworking projects in the future.

To debrief?
I would like to say I'm never going to build another one, but that would be a blatant lie. Perhaps I won't make one as involved or finished as this one, but I have ideas. I have a way to make the passcodes reset-able, so that the passcode can be changed to your liking, but that is a project for another time.

I would seriously take requests for custom made ones, but I'd have to charge you a ton of money for labor, and ask for your first born child, since the cogs of this machine run on blood, sweat and tears.

I've learned something about myself (as I've been known to do from time to time). I like projects that give me a tangible finished product. I like to be able to hold a paper, a test tube, a cryptex in my hand and say "look what I made".

Other things I learned:
-The correct tools are very important.
-The American Standard System sucks, particularly its use of "nominal" measurements. I advocate an immediate and full conversion to the metric system.
-Though metal has a stoic elegance to it, it is very difficult to work with. I prefer wood. It's a lot more cooperative, and has much more of a naturalist character to it. Plus you can stain it funky colors.
-Rock music is good working music as it blends rather nicely into the sound of power tools.
-Gregorian chanting also works too, as it makes every cut, hammer, and sand feel like you're reforging Elendil's sword, Narsil.
-Cryptex building, with all the pipes and tubes, lends itself well to sexual innuendos.
-Don't huff metal filings.
-Smooth figures are always easier to make than angular ones due to the inherent fudge factor.
-If you try to move a cat from his sunny spot on your workbench, the cat will always win.
-I like bandanas. And bananas, but I already knew that.

So with that first project down, I have a little less than a month for my next. Not sure what I'm doing, though I think it should be something that encourages me to get out of the house, and not ultimately consume what I made. Since I don't have access to my tools during the school year, I think I'll keep building stuff. Any suggestions? Any requests?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In A Different Life: On Chainmaille Construction

I haven't always been a scientist, or even an engineer. In a different life, I was a historian, particularly interested in military history, and medieval studies. In fact, I originally applied to Yale as first a History major, then as a Music major, then finally Chemistry. Oh how times have changed.

As per Anthony's request, I decided to whip up some chainmaille after lunch and before I started working on the cryptex. Here's the results.

So, no, I didn't make this today. I made this a number of years ago just for fun. Both the shortened hauberk and coif are made out of 16 gauge galvanized steel (hand wound and cut, of course. Medieval people didn't have power tools). The trim on the coif is made from 16 gauge copper wire. It took about a month to make, and cost, I'd say, around $50 in raw materials, which is pretty good. My only regret is that the chainmaille is made of just butted rings, rather than riveted ones. The complication comes from using galvanized wire, which is covered with a zinc oxide sacrificial layer to prevent corrosion, and when you anneal the rings for riveting, the coating sublimes and turns into a variety of toxic gases ( Chemistry!

And contrary to popular belief, chainmaille isn't meant to guard against cutting. Most gauges used (even historically) were too thin to prevent a sword blow if stretched taught. Chainmaille is supposed to hang, like a curtain. The hanging absorbs the blows of blunt force, like ancient Kevlar (Physics!) since it's much harder to treat internal bleeding than an external laceration (Biology!). Yeah, this is still a Science and Engineering blog, don't worry.


We're (more than) Halfway There. Whoa! Livin' On A Prayer

God bless Bon Jovi for trying to make "there" rhyme with "prayer". Granted, I've done a lot worse (see previous post).

I've been working off and on on this cryptex project, and have made some real headway. Rather than having me explain it, I'll, explain it:

The seal I used to emblazon/brand my endcaps with are the latest find of my grandpa's tools. He would always mark his tools with that, but I could never find the branding iron itself. After some digging and sadly annihilating a family of cockroaches, I found it. (Note: butane torches are not only good for making creme brulee, they can also make metal very very hot. [Note: very very hot metal is, well....very very hot.])

And since we're nearing the end of this project, we'll look towards future ones. I have a ton of lamellar plates left over from my Military History Club days, and have considered making a sweet suit of armor for myself. It would also be a great thing to have for ComicCon. ComicCon next year, anyone?

I also, for some time now, have been playing around with home made instruments. I have a bunch of pvc flutes that sound very nice, and have been looking into other materials. After eyeing some copper tubing at City Mill, I think a nice pennywhistle would make a nice afternoon project.

My other, more involved option, would be to make rolled fondant and try my had at cake decorating. I've been researching recipes, and think it's pretty manageable. Who knows, if I get really good at this, people will get some sweet birthday/holiday/end-of-exams/really-tough-exam/what-the-heck,-it's-Tuesday cakes in the future.

And then there's always the option of teaching myself programming, which would free me from having to take the class in the spring, and die. But a month isn't a lot of time for such a thing.

We shall see.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Memoriam: Hasta La Vista….Vista.

For since you've been my one and only, true,
I've grown accustomed to your buggy ways.
That you have flaws, not quirks, is nothing new,
This partnership has seen some better days.

My friends all say that you're no good for me,
That I could do much better for myself.
A perfect 10 is no reality,
But you're no 7, bottom of the shelf.

The Window 'tween os now comes to an end,
For you give me no reason to stay true.
This latest virus that you did not mend,
It isn't me, it really is just you.

And though she seems the same, she shares your styles,
At least she lets me see her hidden files.

---KKS 7/25/10

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sometimes All You Need Is Little Rubbing: On Cryptex Construction (Part 3 of ...More Than 3)

Sometimes all the problems in life can be fixed with a little time, perspective, and a bunch of sand paper (60 grit, nothing finer). After grinding down all the rings and imposing my iron-fisted rule on those that would not fall in line, all the rings now fit. And so we're back on track:

So we're getting close to finishing. The end caps need to be carved out, and stained. I have a lovely dark, dark mahogany stain left over from a previous project that should turn out nicely. After I assemble and glue everything together, all that's left is final decorating and engraving the tumblers. I was originally upset that after wire-brushing the metal tumblers, there is still a dark grey patina left over. However, this will make the engraving (which should reveal the bright silver metal) pop, which should give a nice effect. I have also reduced the 7 tumblers to 6, for both logistical reasons and stylistic. I came up with a new passcode that is more symbolic, and will lend itself to a better riddle, and perhaps a crossword, if I can manage it.


I also had a little botulism scare. I had been joking that I might get botulism from the Yale Fruit Bars I made yesterday. I actually became a little paranoid, and couldn't sleep for a while. Psychosomatic symptoms ensued. The thing is, that the fruit did taste a little funny, and were all mushy when I opened the can (they were over a year old). Now, baking it should take care of the bacteria, but I tasted a bit before I baked it (I had to). I don't think there's actually a real danger, as the last botulism case from commercial food products happened in the 70's. Aside from that, the CDC reports an average of 25 cases nationwide every year, which is not a lot. Though, I have always been told I'm special.


So I would have never thought I'd reach point in my life where I'd have something to say about running, but now I do. After running mostly every night this Summer, I've discovered a few things:

-I've finally reached a point where what I consider to be running is what everyone else considers to be running.

-I like to run at night because it makes me feel like I'm running faster for some reason. It also makes me less self conscious.

-Play scary music while you're running through dark, deserted neighborhoods, like Enter Sandman by Metallica. It makes you run faster. ABBA also makes me run faster, for a completely different reason.

-I cannot run downhill. It feels weird and I end up tripping and hurting myself. I much prefer skipping, while humming this song to myself.

-Along those lines, even though the music is loud and you can't hear the world, they can definitely hear you.

-Runners in Hawaii are very friendly. Whenever I'm out, I see many other people also running around my neighborhood. I don't know any of them, but they always smile and wave to me and are generally friendly. It's only in passing, but there seems to be some unspoken club I've unwittingly joined.

-I get why deer freeze when they get caught in the headlights of a car. It's very disorienting.

-Those high-tech Under-Armor type shirts that are supposed to wick away sweat from your body have an upper limit: A breaking point, past which it seems to reverse its functionality and actually suck moisture in from the atmosphere.

-Stretching is actually important. Who knew?

-Nipple chaffing is real. And it is painful.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Beware The Puffy Can: On Culinary Mimicry

Today was a resting day. Which meant I got a lot of things done.

Of interest: I decided to do a bit of gastronomic experimentation. The Yale Dining Halls every once in a while have these fruit bar things: a layered sort of bar dessert with some sort of fruit middle layer. I really like them, and I even stock up whenever they have them to devour over the ensuing week. Today I decided to see if I could recreate them.

In theory they're pretty simple: some sort of crumble/cookie/pie crust dough, pat into the pan, lay on the filling, and top with another layer of the dough.

I decided to base the dough portion on something that resembles a shortbread/sugar cookie. One feature of Yale's bar things is that they mix rolled oats into the dough to give it some texture and health benefit. It just so happens that there's a big container of raw rolled oats in my house after a brief foray into eating oatmeal daily to try to lower cholesterol (not mine). As such, there's a ton left, and they're beginning to get old.

Here's the loose recipe I came up with:

Yale Fruit Bars (Ver. 1.0)
-1 cup all-purpose flour
-1 cup rolled oats
-1/4 cup granulated sugar
-3 tbs. honey (I used clover. I honestly can't tell the difference between honeys.)
-4 tbs. melted unsweetened butter
-a splash of vanilla (or however much comes out when you bump your arm against the refrigerator)
-some cinnamon (or however much it takes to make the dough look like the skin of a teenager with bad acne. The speckling, not the color.)

Fruit Filling:
-1 can cling peaches
-2 tbs. granulated sugar


-1 can fruit pie filling (Strawberry had the most recent expiration date. A little over a year ago.)

Combine all the dough ingredients into a bowl. Preferably one just slightly too small for all the ingredients, causing you to spill most of it on the counter. The final consistency should feel like really dry play-dough, crumbly, but able to be pressed into a ball. Divide dough mixture in half. Press half of the mixture into a 9x9 baking pan. Bake the bottom layer of the bars at 350F for 20 min until light/medium brown. Test how hot the oven is by tapping the metal rack with your hand. Don't believe the oven thermometer. The machines are trying to deceive you.

To prepare the peach filling, drain all syrup from the peaches, and combine with sugar in a food processor. The final consistency should be like baby food. Also make sure to use a can of peaches two years past its expiration date. I've always been told that as long as the can isn't puffy, it isn't botulism. Use pie filling as is. Spread a thin layer over the bottom layer (somewhere between icing a cake and buttering toast. About 3mm for you quantitative folks). Place back in the oven and bake for another 10 minute to let the fillings set up. Remove from oven and press top layer of dough onto the fruit filling. Return and bake until medium brown, around another 20 minutes.

Here's the finished product:

Some thoughts. Not bad for a first attempt. It wasn't un-tasty, it just fell short of recreating the Yale fruit bars.
Things to improve:
-The bake time is absolutely ridiculous. Not baking something for an hour. Cranking up the heat next time. As Aunty Marialani says,you can either bake the chicken at 850F for 1 minute, or 5F for 4 days. Love Aunty Marialani, made the day much much better. You all need to watch the whole thing. (Also, this one, also from Rap Reiplinger).

-The oats should be toasted prior to baking.

-Not sure if the sugar/shortbread cookie base is the best. Perhaps I'll try something more crumbly along the lines of the topping to Apple Brown Betty. Brown sugar instead of white. Also might try a pie crust base as well. Since I plan on toasting before, I might try a granola type base as well.

-Also, the ones at Yale have shredded coconut in the dough as well.

-I don't think the butter is the right shortening. I want something a little crispier. Sub a combination of margarine and canola oil for the butter to play around with texture.

-Need to work on the fruit filling. Will try some sort of jam or preserve. Preferably one that isn't 2 years expired. If I die tomorrow, it was the food poisoning. There's a sample of the offending pastry in my oven. Test it. Find out what killed me. Find a medium, and relay the results of the analysis. I'd be curious as hell (or heaven, as it were). If I just get sick, you'll all hear about it in graphic detail.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Futility and Frustration: On Cryptex Construction [con't]

When you try your best but you don't succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep
Stuck in reverse.

It has been a very frustrating last few days.

I've worked very had and have very little to show for it. What should have been an easy two day project is soon becoming like a part time job. I've probably put in 6-7 hours a day since Friday when I began this, and have accomplished much less than I would like to have at this point.

The problems began when I tried to cut metal. Remember those nifty rings I had the last post? Those were meant to be the tumblers. My plan was to simply cut a channel in the ring, there by allowing the pins to pass through, and boom, cryptex. I have a Dremel, which is a wonderful rotary tool, with many different attachments. However, none of them were really suited to cut the amount of metal I intended. After destroying most of my Dremel attachments, and realizing that grinding down metal makes it very very hot, I gave up. I went to the hardware store to price the metal cutting bit I actually needed, and decided not to sink $25 into this project for a diamond saw blade.

So I had a problem. My tumblers could not do more than look pretty, which was fine by me. However, this did mean I had to scale everything back one tube size. This meant I had to find a tube that could either fit in the smallest tube, or one that could fit in the space between...I ran through many options and permutations.

I finally settled on finding a tube that could fit in the smallest one, downsizing everything. But where to find such a tube? I spent the better part of Sunday searching my house, yard, garage, and neighborhood for a tube the right size. It became an obsession. The Monday after was bulk garbage pickup, which meant people were bringing out broken furniture, refrigerators, etc. to be disposed of by our lovely City and County workers. I'll admit I dug through what some might consider garbage. After several hours of searching, sticking pipes into holes and other pipes, fearing I need a Tetanus, I went home defeated.

A brief digression. I've been running in the evenings throughout this summer as some misguided attempt to be healthy and whatnot. Not the point. During these runs, I've discovered something rather surprising. I don't know my neighborhood as well as I thought I did.

Now, we've been living in this house for the 15 going on 16 years (cue the Sound of Music), before which we lived less than a mile away, and some intervening years we spent in Palolo Valley, which is a stone's throw away. And for the most part, I know where things are in Kaimuki and towards Kahala, and I can recognize most houses and landmarks. But in a recent run, I ventured into an area I had never seen before, maybe 10 blocks from where I live. It was a rather nice area (which is probably why I've never been there), and reminded me a little bit of the game Morrowind (which is fun if you have the patience to spend literally hours traveling between cities. Hooray for quick travel in Oblivion). I started feeling rather adventurous, and rather dangerous, which is a nice feeling when you're on an adrenalin high. So I decided to explore a little more.

In Kaimuki, there's a fire house nestled into the this big hill that once used to be an `imu (a sort of underground oven where Hawaiians cooked stuff. Think of a surf and turf clam bake, minus the surf). This is also how Kaimuki got it's name, as Ka means "the", `imu is the oven thing, and ki is the ti leaves that they wrapped the food in for cooking. This is also apparently where King Kalakaua had his ostrich farm. Anywho, at the top of this hill/oven is a little mini park that truly exists for no reason. I had remember going up there as a little kid, and finding it rather unimpressive, so I was curious to see if anything had changed.

Now, I might not make the best decisions in the world, I'll admit that. But I'm getting better. As I was walking up the to the park (it started with a P. Hawaiian names, can't remember most of them), it occurred to me how stupid this idea was. It was pretty dark (I think I went out around 8). I had left my phone and wallet at home (since they make running harder) and just had my iPod. Considering bums, hobos, and hooligans like to hang out at parks at night, I realized that I was sort of walking into the opening of a Law and Order episode (the regular one. Hopefully not an SVU one. No.). But I was curious, and I figured if anything happened, the would probably only take my iPod, rough me up a little (or a lot), and then I'd have an interesting story to tell.

At the top, I found what I expected. Although it was lovely, much better than I remember, I couldn't help but notice the rather shady looking characters hanging out just beyond the reach of the lamp light. It was hard to tell anyone was there, save for the smoke that would occasionally puff into the cone of light. It smelled like pot. I also noticed what looked like a makeshift tent propped up against the side of some electrical shed thing. More smoke. I didn't care for the cackling coming from the darkness, so I turned around and left.

Back to cryptex. I'll save you all my frustration, as I'm sure there's more to come. After shaving down what I would have to reckon as 1/32" from a PVC pipe I ended up buying, all the pipes seemed to fit. Everything looked promising. Here's a look at the mechanism of the cryptex, exposed:

Pretty much all I had left to do at that point was to attach the metal ring coverings to hide the grooves in the tumblers, and install end caps. This is where today's little dose of frustrations popped up. The tumblers were technically too small for the metal rings, as PVC likes to shrink and contract when you cut it axially (yeah, I didn't know this either). So I had to install plastic shims into each ring to decrease the effective inner diameter. All that was left was to super glue metal ring to PVC tumbler.

However, at some point in the drying process, the ring shifted, causing it to become unaligned to the central axis of the cryptex. This means that there are now awkward gaps in 4/7 of the rings. I have many options, none of which I like. I could grind down the metal to make it fit. I could grind down the PVC to do the same. I could also soak the whole thing in acetone, remove all the pieces and start again. I could also make it a 3 ring cryptex, instead of 7.

I think I will either record some music or cook tomorrow. Both are good options. I've been collecting a bunch of weird instruments I can play to varying levels of proficiency. I won't spoil it, but I'm looking at a Sino-Hawaiian fusion. It should be interesting. On the cooking front, I've been watching Ace of Cakes, and have been inspired. Perhaps I'll work on my crepe recipe. Many options. It's only Thursday.

I also need better tools. The tools I have are more suited for structural construction. House building, foundation laying, that sort of thing. They don't really work for the fine detailed work I'm aiming for. The one exception is my Dremel. However, I've realized I don't have the most skilled hands in the world, and have much to learn. Perhaps if I had better tools, a chop saw, a lathe, a router, etc., this project would be easier. But, I still hold that handcrafted work holds a special charm. And so I'll soldier on, wherever that may lead.

I'm not sure what to do at this point. This project has left me a bit dispirited. I think I need a mental break. But I will return, for I take great pride in all the work I do, and will not let this project turn out sub par. I've been watching the movie Young @ Heart which is about the senior citizen choir that tours and sings contemporary songs. They do a cover of Coldplay's "Fix You". And as the song says, cryptex, I will try to fix you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Seven For The Dwarf Lords, In Their Halls Of Stone: On Cryptex Construction

So my first project of the remainder of my summer is to build a cryptex, as detailed in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

I've always loved to build things. As I've said before, my grandpa was a contractor, and I suppose somethings trickle down. I love the process, the work, and the sublime satisfaction once I can stand back and admire my handiwork. My family has never been well off, and I've always hated spending money on things I didn't think were absolutely necessary, particularly on myself. No class ring, no grad party. I opted for a free trip to New York over Prom partly for that reason. As such, if I've ever wanted anything, I've settled on making it myself, to varying degrees of success. I've gotten much better over the years, and I'm hoping this cryptex will show that. And besides, building things is a good work out. My body aches in all the right places, and my hand is covered in blisters, making it very difficult to do many things. But it's an excuse to spend the day outside, and much better than sitting around the house watching Seinfeld.

I take an unconventional approach to construction. I've never been one to take lessons, and really hate being told what to do. I much prefer figuring things out myself. As such, most of my carpentry, masonry, and metalworking education has resulted from pure curiosity. I'll dig a tool out of my grandpa's tool closet, and spend an hour figuring out what it does, and how to use it. My latest discovery was a pipe cutter, which I'll get to in a moment.

Part of this unconventional approach is a lack of blueprints or any discernible plan. I should plan things out, and it would probably make my life easier, but I usually get too excited to sit down and write things out. I much rather dive into cutting and sanding with a general blueprint in my head.

On Thursday, I went to City Mill to get supplies. All in all, this project's going to cost me around $8 in raw materials, which is not bad at all. Without a definitive plan in hand, I walked around City Mill carrying an assortment of pipes and fittings, seeing what would work well for my cryptex. I love walking around hardware stores. There's just so many parts and pieces I build an entire project around. It's like Lego's for grown ups, but more organized than the gigantor plastic bin I kept mine in. I still, however, get strange looks as I wander. I'm not the normal patron of hardware stores, which are usually filled with grizzled contractors, plumbers, and ruffians. I'm rather fresh faced and stick out rather sorely.

The basic design of this cryptex is similar to a bike chain lock:

A central drum which contains the guarded material. This is held in place by a series of rotating drums which block a set of pins from sliding out. Pretty simple in design. My design calls for a 7-character alpha-numeric combination.

The first task was to make sure the Central Drum could slide easily into the Main Body. These parts were to be made out of PVC, which don't have a problem sticking and can be sanded down pretty easily, making them ideal.

A note about PVC. The dust particles are carcinogenic. One should look up this sort of information before they start sanding and inhale huge plumes of the stuff. I eventually got a mask on, if that makes it any better. If I get cancer, let's blame it on this, rather than all the other stupid things I've done in lab (dimethyl chloride burns a little when you spill it on yourself).

Getting the two pipes to fit was a bit of a struggle. I wanted a snug fit, so I got two pipes that almost fit, figuring it would be pretty simple to sand down. What I didn't fully thing through, is that I had only hand tools, making is very difficult to sand 1/32" uniformly from the surface of the Central Drum.

The first thing I tried was to make a makeshift lathe type thing. This did not work and taught me it's very important to have eye protection. Then I tried to construct a sort of table router:

This did not work. It did not work at all. It just left me covered in a thick layer of PVC particles. the components kept shifting around and made the pipe very uneven in a rather obscene manner. I had to throw it away. I finally decided to bite the bullet and just sand it down by hand. Three hours later, I had a pipe that could fit into another pipe. Whoot. I added the channel in the Main Body for the pins, and called it a night.

Friday I cut the Rotating Tumblers. Seven of them, hence the LOTR quote in the title. And they look pretty epic. And they're heavy as hell, which should make for a nice weight in the finished product.

There are many ways to cut a huge pipe into smaller rings. A lot of people use a band saw with a diamond bit blade, or some other powered means. Me? I like hand tools. There's something about the tactile interaction of man, tool and raw material that gets to me. Very visceral.

Let me introduce you to my friend, the pipe cutter:

It doesn't so much cut the pipe (by removing material, as a saw would) as insinuate itself between the metal, via your hand and a dull little wheel. You clamp this thing on the pipe, and spin it around a couple million times, tightening the bolt little by little as you go. This is the reason why I'm in pain as I try to type this. Many unsightly blisters. But I'm loving every moment of it.

Another 3 hours later, and I have 9 nicely shaped rings (two for the endcaps). I finished off by sanding down the rough edges of the rings to make them line up flush against each other. For this I got fed up with hand tools and busted out my Dremel, an electric rotary tool.

All the parts are cut, now it's just a matter of assembling and installing the locking mechanisms, which shouldn't take more than a day. Here's what I've got so far:

Some lessons learned from this project thus far:
-Wood and flesh are not that dissimilar, and saws, drills, sanding disks, and power tools will not make a distinction.
-The same thing goes for metal and pipe cutters.
-Eye protection is important.
-As are face masks.
-Sun strokes are nothing to mess around with.
-Cat's don't like loud noises, and will freak out.
-When cats freak out, their claws come out and grab hold of anything soft and fleshy.
-Sanding requires a lot of repetitive stroking movements that make me a little self conscious.
-Headphone wires are very thin and should be treated with care.
-Duct tape and paper towels are much better than Band-Aids.
-Make sure you know which way the metal sparks are going to fly before you turn on the power grinder.
-If you scream like a little girl over metal sparks flying at your face, the neighbors will peek over the fence.

Yes, my workshop is a mess, but I like it that way.

What Goes in Must Come Out

To show you all that these contests are real, here's some photos of Anthony enjoying his prize:

Stochastic, Fantastic, and Really Bombastic

And just like that we're done. It's been seven weeks, and I would like to say that it seemed so short, but it really wasn't. At times, it seemed like time was slowing to a stop, and at other is seemed to proceed at the normal pace, but I wouldn't say it ever flew by. But that doesn't mean I didn't have fun.

Things I Will Not Miss:
-Having to scramble in the morning to make lesson plans
-Having to play Yes or No
-Having to yell
-Dealing with tattletales and whining
-Walking the 2 miles to work
-Running the 2 miles to work when I'm 20 minutes late
-Being told I need to go to art school
-Teaching kids how to fold paper in half
-Asking what did we do yesterday, and having the smart-ass kids raise their hands to tell me "I wasn't here yesterday"
-Having to clean up mystery liquids that leaked out of the garbage bag because kids drag them across the ground instead of carrying them
-Washing said mystery liquids out of my hair because kids like to fling the leaking bag into the garbage bin
-Being told my mouth is too small for my head

Things I Will Miss:
-Most of the kids
-The people
-That genuine look of excitement when I show them the homopolar motor, or square bubbles
-Being called Mr. Science
-Being called Mr. Money-moto, Taketono, Cortez, or any variation thereof
-Hearing "wow, Mr. Sakimoto is mean today, yeah?"
-Having things remotely interesting things to write about
-Getting paid
-Being looked up to
-Feeling like an adopted big brother, father, uncle.
-Their little sweaty hugs
-Seeing their shock when I tell them how many sentences I have to write each day (hint: it's more than the 5 I ask from them)
-Reaffirming that I love science
-Reassuring myself that I am making the right career choice for myself

Wednesday night was a nice cap to this program. All the morning and afternoon teachers were invited to a party to unwind and collectively debrief. Honestly the most fun I've had all summer, which says something, I just don't know what. So many inside jokes, so many laughs, so many good people. I'm saddened to think that there's little chance I'll see many of these amazing friends and coworkers again, since my summer plans for next year don't involve me coming home. But I count myself lucky to find a job that has been rewarding in so many ways, and to make so many new friends. Awesome Summer Job: +1000 experience, +3 hit pts., +2 armor. Level Up.

This summer has been by far my most exciting, most painful, and most worthwhile one. I have been pulled to these ecstatic highs, and several soul crushing lows, by both this program, and other poignant facets to this summer experience. As we move closer towards fall, and that inevitable return to school, I'm not sure what to make of it.

I like the analogy of Brownian Motion. It's stochastic, meaning that it appears random, contrary to the determinism of Newtonian Mechanics. But if you had the computing/brain power to track every atom, every collision and every trajectory, it would appear very Newtonian. They often make the analogy of stirring jelly in to a bowl of pudding (or something British). As you swirl the jam into the pudding, everything becomes mixed. Can you unmix it just by going backwards? In theory, if you could track every atom, you could. But in reality you can't, it's nearly impossible.

I can track my personal trajectory pretty well. I know where I've come from, and can see how I've changed and progressed this summer. But what worries me is the gazillion other pudding molecules in this bowl with me. I know that it's impossible to simply return to the status quo, to revert back whenever it seems convenient. And why would I? Progress, growth and change are all wonderful things, at certain times. What I would find comforting is a sort of periodicity, and natural rhythm that I can rely on and return to when necessary. I seek not for stagnation, but stability. That perhaps is not the right word, but I'm rather out of sorts at the moment.

It's a mystery to me, what I shall find this coming fall. I can judge how I would fit in to the circumstances I left at the end of the spring term. It's like being led into the middle of a forest, then being blindfolded and told to find your way out. Easy, I know where I am, I saw everything on my way in. But what if the landscape changed. Trees switched places, ridges and valley sprung up where there were none before. Though my physical point in time and space has not changed, the landmarks by which we navigate have changed, or disappeared altogether.

I'll keep updating this blog, as I have many projects in the works for the remainder of the summer. The first one I'm tackling is making a cryptex, a la The Da Vinci Code. I'll post pictures once I make more impressive headway. I would start another, less narrowly defined blog, but I don't think I could stand to realize that only two people are still reading this thing.

So let us continue with this summer...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Let The Debriefing Begin!

I know very few to none are going to read this full mess, a few more will skim it, and most will just completely ignore it. But getting people to read has never been the point of this blog. I've always found writing is my choice medium for collecting and clarifying my thoughts, and this is no different. So, whether you care or not, let the debriefing begin.

My life this summer has been like an Ibsen play. The author feels no need to secure a happy ending, but rather likes to throw people into situations and see how they react, regardless of what strings must be pulled. As soon as I find something I can enjoy and rejoice in, the Universe decides to play a malicious game of keep away with my happy. Today was my last day teaching these kids, since tomorrow is a "fun day" where they'll have rope courses and stuff like that. I was pretty happy about being done, as this job has been a strain on my patience and confidence in the future. But more on that later.

Once I came home, it was supposed to be simple. An easy night of relaxing and catching up with friends across the Ocean. I don't know what I was thinking. Why would I want to ever make things simple for myself? I turned on my computer, and it freaked out. I've had issues with computers before, but never like this. A program on my computer "AntiVir Solution Pro" was telling me that almost every program file on my computer was infected. I didn't remember installing such a program, as I already have triple redundancy in my computer security (Norton, Symantec, and this thing called CA Security Suite), so I don't know why I would have downloaded a trial version of a 4th. But considering this "spyware program" wouldn't let me go on the internet (I opened Mozilla Firefox, and I was told that Internet Explorer was blocking a potentially malicious sight. Very fishy), I suspected all was not well.

Literally every program was reported as "infected". I tried to open up the backup program for my external harddrive, and it was blocked. I tried to open up the in-house system restore feature, and again, was blocked. Could not open a single program. I couldn't even wipe my hard drive and reboot the system. Fully paralyzed. As I slowly realized I had gotten cluster-f*cked by a bogus virus scanning program, I had to laugh. Laughter slowly developed in to weeping, and weeping took a left turn at punching things and floored it down swearing boulevard. So I tried using my mom's computer to look up how badly I had screwed myself. I found several sights with unhelpful suggestions, recommending I do things like go on the internet and download another virus scanning program (uh uh uh, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, and I might as well bend over and...well, yeah). The solutions that didn't require me to download things, had instruction that followed something like this:

1. Find this hidden folder that is called something completely different in Vista. We don't know what it's called, so good luck.
2. Find this hidden file that's a string of random letters and numbers. Every time the virus infects a computer, it's a different string of random letters, so we can't tell you an exact file name. Oh, and all the other important system files in that folder are also named by a string of random letters. You can try this, but we can't guarantee success.
3. Since you probably couldn't do the first two steps, you might as well bend over...and unplug your computer because it will never work again.

If it wasn't for Safe Mode, I wouldn't be able to write this post, so thank God (who can't go faster than the Speed of Light) for that. I think this is also a sign that I should take the plunge and just go ahead and upgrade to Windows 7.

So ignoring those 4 hours that were delivered unto the Gods of Futility as temporal sacrifice, it was a pretty good day today. As I said, it was relatively easy. I had decided that I deserved an easy day for once. So we played with bubbles. And learned. Always learning.

After some 11th hour planning, and an ingenious suggestion from Angela, I settled on showing the kids how to make square bubbles.

Square Bubbles! Impossible you might say. I had the exact same reaction. But observe how I speak the truth.


Huzzah! True, not what I imagined when I heard Square Bubbles (I was thinking of those crazy bubbles Spongebob blew), but rather mind blowing. Kudos.

But it wasn't just a "blow bubbles" day. They had to learn science. That's how this whole teaching thing goes. I explained about the micell structure of soap, and the weird polarity things that accompany it (something I only remember hearing off hand in 7th grade). I also went over why the sphere is a geometrically favorable shape (ratio of volume to surface area). It was a great lesson to reinforce somethings we have gone over, as well as teach them something practical (why soap works the way it does).

With the oldest group, E group, we did a Mythbusters experiment based on the Humpty Dumpty myth. The task was: put humpty dumpty together again. I suppose I am learning, because I had the foresight to tell them to go out side to do the experiment. I still have much to learn, as I should have rephrased the instruction "smash it against the ground".

One group was able to successfully put the egg back together again, while the others made a terrible mess. Here's the reassembled egg:

A little more tape than I would have liked, but they did it. And were very pleased with themselves. Pictures cannot be posted for certain reasons.

And I give you my pen-ultimate shirt pocket:

And because I decided I would give myself an easy day, my pocket is empty. But my heart is full. I challenge someone to come up with something cornier.

My last class of this program had 3 kids in it because it was one of the small groups to begin with, and many had already gone home:

And as I sat there watching my kids have the time of their life with nothing more than a bucket of soapy water, I started mentally debriefing, pondering, and thinking, as I must always do towards the end of a project.

I think it's fair to say that I've grown a lot in the past 7 weeks of this program. I had never worked with kids in this capacity before, always opting for work with the elderly as my community service of choice. And though there are many similarities (frequency of bowel movements, short attention spans, the smell), they differ greatly. I've learned how to command the attention of distracted, ADD little children, if only for a few moments of the day (talk loudly and be the most distracting thing in the room). I've learned how to deal with them on an individual basis (it's very important to go down to their level, and meet them at their height). I can definitely say that I've picked up important job (and life) skills from this experience. Though I have much to learn and to improve upon, the task managing children no longer seems so daunting. And after this experience, I know I will make a great father. Someday. I do find it odd that after through this program, I began to feel protective of some of these kids. I take it as a good sign. Papa Bear, that whole complex.

But what's more striking than how I've grown, is how I've come to view myself. I've always struggled with viewing myself as the appropriate age. As a young kid, I always felt much older than everyone else. Perhaps it was because I was well behaved and didn't do the immature things that make teachers cry (experience), but I felt too old for my classmates. As I grew old, this feeling inverted, and I struggled to view myself as old. And when I finally turned 18, went off to college and became "independent", I still felt like I was in middle school, trying to figure out how this whole "switching classes for each subject" thing worked.

Up until this summer, I'd found it hard to think of myself as an adult, and a member of the workforce. My first job, working in an engineering lab, did nothing to cultivate my personal maturity, as I worked under a pile of grad students, researchers, post docs, and a PI in the insular womb of academia. Even working on my own research project did nothing for me. But this summer has changed a lot. I feel like an adult.

I look back and I'm pleasantly surprised by what I was able to accomplish. I proposed and planned my own curriculum. I conducted 5 hours of classes each day on my own, following my own lesson plans. This and the many little things along the way have changed my personal perception. Which is a good thing.

I've been mentally planning the timeline of the next few years for some time now. After Yale, let's say another 4 years of grad school. Getting a job, getting married, getting a family, that whole bit. It all seemed so grown up, and so imminent. And it honestly terrified me. Aside from the legal reasons (and a whole host of other ones), I've never touched alcohol because it seemed too mature. I didn't feel like I was anywhere near being at a point in my life where it didn't seem odd and out of place. And while I'm still too young for some of the things I've mentioned above, and I have much left to grown into, for the first time in my life I feel on track. Not mired down by social retardation, by keeping even with the pack. It feels good.

And here's my final thought for the night:

I've also found the converse is true. This program has made me feel very young. I think many scientists become jaded by academia, since it indeed becomes much harder and much more abstract. Unless you're the type that really really likes numbers (not me), science can seem like a chore at times. But this experience has reintroduced me to some of the fundamental wonders of the natural world. Magnets are still awesome, and still seem like black magic to me. Baking Soda and Vinegar will forever make me giggle. And bubbles, well, they're bubbles, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I'm sure as I become busier and more entrenched in this whole living thing, that I'll lose sight of what I type here. As I dive deeper into my engineering courses in the fall, I'll forget how awesome even the simplest circuit is, or how a high pitched squeal of joy can light up a room. But in this rare moment where I have time to think, debrief and ponder, I can appreciate the wholeness of this experience, the complexity of emotion and sentiment.

The aging of eternal youth. I think that sort of sums it up for now. Ah, look at the time. I must be going, as I must still go to work in the morning. So that will be it for now, readership. I know most won't make it this far in the post, and I'd even be so cocky that no one will bother with these last few sentences. But that's perfectly fine. They've served their purpose.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Even God Can't Go Faster Than The Speed Of Light

The end is so close I can taste it. It tastes like Summer Rolls from Bangkok Chef. Fresh and cleansing. Sure, once the number I eat starts to reach the double digits, I get sick and can't stand the taste of them anymore, but for now it's what I'm craving. My palate is clean, and I'm ravenous. Cease this incessant teasing and titillation and just give it to me already. Let's finish this job, shall we?

I woke up today having very little idea what to do with my kids. I had hoped to do a Mythbusters type experiment with the older kids, but their lack of creativity, and complete failure to grasp what a "myth" was depressed me, and I decided to 86 the project. That, however, left me with a big gap in my lesson plans.

I had previously budgeted in a unit on light and optics, but it had been taken out to ensure time for electricity and sound. It was a simple solution to reincorporate that unit, but there was one problem. I had removed the unit long enough ago that I hadn't made detailed lessons and experimental plans. So after much mid morning scrambling, I came across a simple experiment that involved using the differences in the indexes of refraction between air and water to make a magic penny appear.

It works like this: Take a pan or some sort of shallow dish. Put a penny or some other flat object in the pan. Lower your head just until the point where the penny disappears below the rim of the pan. If you keep your head there, and add water to the pan, the penny will magically appear. I thought this was pretty cool, and so did most of the kids. A lot of them initially told me that it was because the penny was floating on the water, but then I asked the kids to look at the penny, and saw that it was not. I enjoy moments like these when I can get a kid to reevaluate an assumption, and come to a completely different outlook on the state of nature.

But sometimes I can't. So I wanted them to grasp how incredibly fast light is. So I gave them some numbers. The speed humans can run (I told them 10mph, which I have no idea if it's right. It's feasible), how fast cars drive around the school (25 mph), how fast I actually drive around the school (35 mph. Hey, I'm teaching kids not to play in the street and selecting for fast reflexes and agility in the human population.), as well as some other examples. I gave them the speed of sound (343 m/s which I calculate as about 730 mph, though don't quote me on that). Then I hit them with the big one. The Speed of Light in a Vacuum. Big 'Ole Mr. "C". And as any good scientist, I quoted as many significant figures as I could find. I come up with 299,792,458 m/s which comes out to something like 670,616,628.6 mph. This blew them away. Still blows me away too. It's fun to rediscover the wonders of science.

So as part of impressing them with this number, I stressed that this is the fastest thing out there. That nothing could go faster, or even come close to going as fast as light. Then someone chimed in with "God can!". This made me quiver a bit. For a few seconds I wrestled with the idea of whether or not I should bother with this. On one hand, they're dead wrong. In oh so many ways. But I thought it's not my place to interfere with how parents raise their children and what moral and belief structure they build. I mean, I have no problem with religion, and would not wish for a world without it. I just personally don't subscribe to all the bullsh*t. Then I thought of all the Social Darwinists throughout history, the failed attempt at Eugenics (which unfortunately hasn't completely died out yet) and other tales of misguided science and pseudoscience (I have a whole book on it. Try do research on homeopathy and the load of baloney that stuff is. Every gen chem student knows what dilution does. It certainly doesn't make medicine stronger). I decided I would fight, try to steer them the way of logic and reasoning, even if it meant crushing their belief in a bearded man in the sky. So I fought.

I told them "no, even God isn't as fast as light", and other variations. But they were adamant. I've never been in a room with so many fiery Christians before. At some point I thought, screw religious tolerance, and slipped in "okay, let's only talk about things that a real and aren't made up". I've dealt with many religious nuts before, to varying levels of success. But these kids were tough. I failed. They still believe in God*. I eventually gave up and moved on.
Hokum 1, Science 0.

There were some good points to day. I have one kid, G----, who I have a hard time dealing with. He's unmotivated and disruptive, which is a horrible combination. If I were a weaker man, I'd say he's mean to me. His favorite past time is telling me my drawings suck. Because I have to explain what's going on in things like circuits or sound waves, I've had to draw a lot. And G---- has always told me I've sucked at it. He says "you're drawings are so baaaaad. You should go to art school..." But today, oh glorious day of days, he told me my drawing of an eye looking into the pan for the refraction experiment was actually good:

I've found the kids like puzzles and problem solving type things. It started because while I'm waiting with them to be picked up by their parents (who always come late), they're restless and aimless. I want them to sit quietly and wait for their parents, but that's hard to do when kids have free time. So started giving them tasks. The first ones arose out of annoyance, so many kids were told to count the number of lines in the concrete (judging by the average response, the sidewalk has on average "many" cracks), or how many leaves there are on the tree in the courtyard (judging by the average response, there are roughly "I don't want to play this game anymore, Mr. Science" leaves on the tree). But after a while I started giving them actual thinking puzzles, figuring it was a good way to exercise their minds. One of my favorites is the 3x3 grid of dots and you're told to connect all 9 dots with only 4 connecting lines, which is the origin of the "think outside the box" phrase. I've done others.

This week, I made it formal, and gave them a puzzle at the end of their class. The challenge? Balance twelve nails on a 13th one. Nails can only touch other nails (other than the 13th one).

The people who encounter this puzzle are usually split into two groups: those who know the answer, and those who have no idea in hell what to do. Considering this is a well known puzzle (I think my dad showed it to me when I was little. Hi, dad, I know you're reading), there were a fair number of the junior leaders who knew what to do. But all the kids fell into the latter group. They tried their hardest, vainly stacking one nail atop the 13th one, but to little avail. I gave them hints along the way, but none could solve it. I couldn't solve it when I first saw it, so I didn't expect them to either.

For those of you who haven't seen this puzzle before, the solution will blow your mind. It looks like this:

Still one of my favorite puzzles because of the huge "ah ha" moment once you see how it's done.

Sorry for missing my shirt pocket on Friday. My shirt had no pocket and I was ashamed to let my readership know. Just kidding, my shirt looked awesome and made me look awesome. Definitely bringing it to school with me.

Here's this week shirt pocket:

: My ID, a base for the 12 nail puzzle, 24 nails (very heavy), two dry erase pens, a sharpie, a pencil, a pen, a sheet containing an email of a man I was supposed to send pictures to (not those kind of pictures), a newsletter for this program, a few Starlight mints, and my sanity.

Tomorrow is unofficially my last day teaching, since Wednesday there's a carnival type thing for the kids when I would normally be teaching. I'll have more time to ponder and reflect in the coming days, but for now, I would like to prepare for my teaching swan song. Still not sure what to do on this final day, but I'm going to make sure it leaves a lasting impression. Maybe a scar or two. For the Love of Science.

*'s ability to go faster than the speed of light

And Then There Were ...70 Something, Give Or Take

A short one, in light of recent posts.

Friday marked the last day for some of my students because those lucky buggers start school this coming Monday. I think it's a great credit to the Hawaii DOE and whoever had the brilliant idea of starting the school year in mid-July. I remember back in my day when public school started late August/early September, mid September if you were starting Kindergarten. I'm sad to see some of them go, but I leave them knowing that I've enriched their lives and showed them the wonder of science. Or at least entertained them for a few hours a week. Good enough.

Let's talk about Friday. Friday was a rather easy day because a large chunk of the day was scheduled for this guy from the zoo who came to talk to the kids about animals. His name was Uncle Jason, and he commanded the kids attention rather masterfully. I was honestly impressed. But I think it was in large part because he sounded like Andy Samberg on Parks and Recreation. I think it's because Uncle Jason is used to teaching a large group of kids outdoors at the zoo above the din of animal noises, and hasn't discovered his inside teaching voice. Regardless, it was my first hour of this job where I could just sit and watch someone else be in charge. It was a nice change of pace.

Due to the interruption of the zoo presentation, I only taught the three oldest groups that day. I've all but given up on the Mythbusters idea with all the groups except E, who seem to be the only ones able to grasp what a myth is. Which is fine, because it means less things I have to buy, and less of my paycheck I need to spend.

Having given up on the mythbusters idea with D and C groups, I scrambled for a replacement lesson. So I settled on giving them the myth that "You can't fold a paper in half 8 times".

Let the games begin.

I must say I am amazed by the ineptitude of some of these children. I thought this would be too simple, that they would realize that you can't do it with a normal 8.5x11 paper. But an inordinate amount of time was spent teaching them what "fold in half" means.

When I first gave them the assignment, I had no less than half the class come up to me with a paper they had folded into 8 sections (not folded in half 8 times). The other half would come up to me with a paper they had folded 8 times, but they had rolled a half inch lip up. Not half. Not even close. I'm not quite sure what this experiment had to do with science, but it kept them busy. If I had to justify it, I would say that it taught them the rigor of scientific testing, of precise definitions, and fine motor skills, all of which they could stand to learn.

There are two more days of this program left, plus some kind of carnival day I've been left out of the loop on. I have a hazy idea of what I'm doing on each of those days, though at this point I'm just trying to get to the finish.

This does mean, however, that come Wednesday night, I'll be jobless, aimless, and listless. I need something to do. I need projects to invest myself in, to obsess over, and to blog about. I have a few I've been planning since the beginning of the summer. But I'd sincerely appreciate some suggestions for projects to do with the remainder of my summer (a little over a month). Doesn't have to be science related, but it can be. Seriously people, when I get bored, horrible, horrible things happen, like this diddy.

Friday, July 09, 2010

I Fancy Myself A Modern Day Robin Hood

I've done a lot for these kids and for this job. Money, time have all been doled out in copious amounts to educate these kids. Through all the crudola these putzes have given me, I still find myself wanting to give more. Like a mother bird gathering food for her fledglings, I can hear their unspoken bleating cries calling out for further stimulation. The need to give unto them is so strong I would do anything for them. I would even steal for them.

I continued my sound unit with the remaining kids who did not get it yesterday. I decided to nix the whole letting them make the Screaming Cup thing, since I was beginning to hear the shrieking everywhere I went (I actually saw one of my students at the market, and he snuck up behind me and did the cup thing. Not cool, dude. But I probably would have done the same thing). Previously, I had just given them a simple drinking straw to play with, but I felt like stepping it up.

You can make a slide trombone version of the reed straw by taking a Slurpee straw as the reed, and a Big Gulp straw (which is just slightly larger) as the slide. It works remarkably well, and has always been one of my favorite experiments.

When I usually do it, I only need a few for myself and a friend or two, so grabbing an extra straw as I walk out of 7-11 isn't a big deal. But when you have to acquire straws for 40 something straws, it becomes a bit of a logistical issue.

My sister drove me to work that day and stopped of at 7-11 with me. I had planned this maneuver out the night before, and after synchronizing watches, the operation commenced.

I sent my sister down one side of the store where the food is, as a distraction, to buy something for lunch. Meanwhiles, I snuck around the other end to where the Slurpee and soda machines were. I first raided the Slurpee straws, grabbing everyone they had and stuffing them in my pockets. I next moved to the Big Gulp station, and grabbed as many straws as I could. One of those two handed jobs (ha). As I met my sister at the counter (since it would look suspicious if I walked in and didn't buy anything), I realized a complication. I was trying to hide my pilfered straws below the level of the counter, but that was rather difficult since I had to hold the bundle with two hands, hunched over to keep the straws at the appropriate level. I became self-conscious of my suspicious posture and I began to panic. So I tried some inconspicuous whistling. But in my panic I had forgotten I don't know how to whistle. So as I stood at the counter, spitting more than anything else, I turned and realized that there was a mirror right behind me, revealing to the cashier what I was hiding. The jig was up. I straightened up, waved my bundle of straws at the cashier, and rushed out of the store before anything could be said.

The children are beginning to sense that school is beginning to wind down, as each day they are becoming more and more unmanageable. I think they've been squished together to long, as the forced interaction with their peers is starting to strain their relations and cause tension. Today was a day of drama. Many hurt feelings, much crying. Several kids were pulled from my class throughout the day to go through some conflict resolution stuff. The ones who weren't, I had to deal with myself.

I don't really know how to deal with most crying children. As an example, I had C group in the afternoon, and I had them cut something, so one of my kids, S-----, was using the scissors. At one point in the class, one of the kids came over and pulled on my shirt, and told me that S----- was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said F---- was being mean to her. I caled Faith over and asked her what was going on. Apparently F---- came over to her and asked "can I have the scissors to give back to Mr. Sakimoto" (by F----'s recounting). It didn't sound right, but since S----- wouldn't say a word, I had to assume Faith was telling the truth. But knowing how S----- and a lot of these kids are, it wasn't impossible. For a lot of these cases, my first instinct is to just tell the kids to suck it up. Some of them are so damn sensitive, that I have a hard time imagining them functioning in the real world. Some of them just need to grow a pair.

I also want to throw things at most of them. These kids have no retention, at all. I'm not talking about the material, but simple instructions. I tell them everyday "if we cannot get through the class without interruptions, we will not do the experiment" to which they all perk up and straighten up. I tell them "if you keep talking, we will run out of time, and you will just sit at your desk for the rest of the time, while everyone else does the experiment". This usually gets them to quiet down. Until the minute had moves another tick, or I start to talk, which they take as a sign to start talking as well. And it's impossible to get their attention. I flash the lights on and off, I yell, sometimes I just sit there until the talking stops. I really want to throw things at some of them, because more often than not, it is a few brats who can't keep quiet, who can't keep still, and who are ruining it for the rest of the students.

I feel bad about large group discipline. I always hated being punished as a group in school because the offender was never me. I was always quiet, respectful and well behaved, yet I would have to sit in the cafeteria at recess with my classmates because Chris couldn't stop himself from throwing food. And I can see the same frustration with some of my better kids. One girl, A----, is at times a little rambunctious, but always quiets down and pays attention the first time I ask her. But her classmates cannot. And I see the selfsame pain, frustration and fear that she won't get to do the experiment. I've learned ways to sort out the good ones and make sure they are rewarded for their outstanding behavior, but as the day wears on, and I become more stressed, agitated, and aggravated, it become harder and harder. And so it goes as it goes.

I've been told many many times before that children have an amazing, unhindered and unfettered creativity (watching too many TED talks). But I have yet to see it.

I decided to do something ambitious with my older kids with the last few days of this program. I love the show Mythbusters. Sure, it lacks the rigor of true scientific testing, and I find many faults with their methodology, but I love their spirit, and it's some of the best television out there. And I had tested the waters before pitching this idea. I had talked to many of the kids and asked if they had seen the show and knew what it was about, and many of them said yes, and seemed really excited to do a Mythbusters like experiment. So we went ahead with it.

The first day I decided I would just introduce the project, and have them brainstorm and come up with original ideas for myths. It was a struggle getting them to understand what a myth was. I tried to explain as best as I could, and gave many examples (like "you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar"), and I explained that it had to be something we could test and find out an answer to, but at the end of the brainstorming, many of the kids came up to me with lists like:
  1. Egyptians
  2. Zeus
  3. Zombie
And then I tried to explain that it was like a story that you had to test to see if it was true. And I got lists that looked like these:
  1. What if you went to the beach with your family and saw a bird?
  2. Is it true that I saw you at the market yesterday?
I know they're trying, but I swear, so many WTF moments. To their credit, some of them came up with good ones, here's the complete list from my E group (the oldest ones, and the only ones who were able to come up with a list at all. The other groups either complained that it was too hard, brought me unusable things, or cried in the corner. Whoot):
  • Do you sleep better with the lights on or off?
  • Can you get sick from a dream (some of my kids claim this happens regularly)?
  • Which catches more flies: Jackson Chameleon or a Frog?
  • Which is dirtier: A fly or a cockroach?
  • Can an average man lick his armpit?
  • Does a dream catcher actually catch bad dreams?
  • Does a gnat live better in water or Playdough (WTF?)
  • Which will wear down faster: tennis shoes or high heels?
  • Fire starting methods.
  • Age at first white hair.
  • Can you stand on 100 paper cups (I actually like this one).
  • Can you count to 1000 in a minute?
Seeing that many were hopeless, I came up with a few fairy tales ones. My favorite one is the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, particularly the line "and all the King's horses and all the King's men, couldn't put Humpty together again." What I would like to do is to drop an egg from a reasonable height, collect the broken shell, whites, and yolk, and see if you can reassemble the egg with glue and tape and such. I'm really excited about this, and might even do it myself, though after seeing what these kids are capable of, I'm a little doubtful they could handle.

As a closing thought, I have a suggestion for school systems across the country. Kids need to be trained in fine motor skills. So many of them have the hardest time folding paper in half, cutting with scissors, tying knots, passing string through a huge hole. I know they're young and uncoordinated, but many of them are simply hopeless without an adult. And so many are unwilling to try. They tell me it's too hard. And when I tell them they just need to give it a try, they become mad, or sad, and start crying. I can't deal with this. I need to start associating with people my own age for a bit.

And with that rantification down, I give you my shirt pocket:

: Many many Big Gulp straws, many many Slurpee straws, my ID, a pair of scissors, a homopolar motor, a Nature Valley Honey Oat bar, three pencils, two dry erase pens, one of those sweet high end erasers (confiscated), a paper airplane (confiscated), a paper clip necklace (confiscated. They were my paper clips), a slide trombone reed straw thing (confiscated. I warned them not to play with it in other classes), an eraser shaped like an Unagi-don (I kind of just wanted it).

Three more days of teaching, and a Field day type thing on the last day. The end is almost in sight, and I'm feeling groovy.

And if you've actually taken the time to read my inane ramblings and incessant rantings, thank you. I can't imagine people actually read this blog, let alone these obscenely long posts. And since very few will reach this point: baba booey baba booey baba booey baba booey.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Other Teachers Hate Me

And with good reason.

Today we covered sound. I thought the best way to do this would be to make noise making things. However, since I'm still a young'n, a fresh-faced rather sophomoric teacher, I did not anticipate what sort of problem giving 90 kids noise making toys would create. And these weren't soft, clacking things. They were loud, roaring things.

One thing we made was a straw oboe. You cut the end of the straw off into an isosceles triangle, producing two triangular tabs, simulating an oboe reed. You blow on it, and it makes noise that sounds very much like what a bassoon reed alone sound like.

Pair this with another noise maker, and I was just asking for it. We made what's called a Screaming Cup (I should have been warned by the fact that it's called a Screaming Cup).

Ah, what a horrible cacophony today was. And some of the teachers weren't happy. But the kids had fun, I got paid, and no one died. And in all honesty, that's all that really matters.

Here's today's shirt pocket:

I've learned that if I leave anything out (i.e. not in my shirt pocket) the kids will take it and waste it. That's why I have: a packet of about 60 yellow straws, a pen, a pair of scissors, a packet of a balloons, A Nature Valley Oat and Honey granola bar, A Chex Mix Granola bar, and my ID.

I'm doing the sound unit with the rest of the kids today. I'd also like to do a Mythbusters-esque unit with the older kids, which we would start planning for today. We'll see how it goes. As usual.

"So We Beat On... against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" -The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Although I don't approve of many of Mr. Fitzgerald's life choices (the same goes for his wife's. Read A Moveable Feast by Hemingway and you'll see why), he is a brilliant writer and I've often taken stuff from him.

So, 5 days left in this program. A little over a week. And then I'm free. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let us recap.

Tuesday we covered Electicity/Circuits.

Tuesday we did basics of circuit building namely: how do you make a light bulb light up with a bulb, a battery, and a single wire? I realize I'm pushing these kids beyond some of their limits, as I remember doing this experiment in 6th grade myself, though there's no point in teaching if I don't push their limits and expand their comfort circles.

An interesting thing about my day: As the day progresses, the children get progressively younger. I start with the oldest kids right after lunch, and end with the youngest ones. This is slightly problematic in that since I'm teaching the same material for each class, I have to scale the lesson appropriately. Starting with the oldest ones is easy, as I can generally explain the content as I understand it on a basic level. But I have a hard time gauging how much I have to simplify for the younger kids. For the older kids, I made an analogy that a circuit is like going to the market, where the market is the battery and the bulb is your home, and you need a car (electron) to carry the charge (food) along the road (wire) back to your home. To explain why you need to connect a second wire to the negative terminal, I told them it's like a one way street, and you can't just go back along the same wire. I thought this analogy would work well with the little ones, but I failed to take into account a few things. First, some little kids don't know what a battery is. The concept of a one-way street was also lost on them.

But the lesson went well overall. A lot of the kids burned themselves because they don't listen to directions. I spent a good 10 minutes going over what a short circuit was and why you should never make one. I explained that it would burn them. Yet, not 2 minutes after I finish explaining what not to do, I hear a "ouch". Which prompts the other kids to short their circuits just to see what it feels like. At the end, everyone was able to light their bulb, which is all I was looking for.

So I have Zachary Litman to thank for showing me the coolest thing I've seen in a long time. It's called a homopolar motor, and after taking much much physics over the years, I know why it works. But who cares, here's the one I made:

This is one of the few things that truly impressed me. Part of it is its simplicity, and part of it is how well it works. A neodymium magnet (I bought mine at Wal-mart. It was in the crafts section), a AA battery, and a loop of copper wire. I showed this to the kids and it blew their minds. I think one of the coolest details I noticed is that the wire must be copper wire. Why you might ask? Well, copper is diamagnetic (one of the many things I learned from the 2nd semester of PChem Lab. That, and how awesome lasers are), meaning there won't be any drag from its interaction with the magnets. I originally tried it with a paperclip loop, and it did not work at all. These little details fascinate me.

One thing that never fails to amuse me is that the little kids aren't always the ones that are most impressed by the experiments. A lot of the times, its the junior leaders who are the most thrilled to come to my class. All the junior leaders are High School students, but they act like little kids when they see some of the experiments. The homopolar motor was a big hit with a bunch of them. I also know one of the leaders, Jody, was fascinated by my inherited traits lesson. Who said only the little kids were there to learn?

Here's my shirt pocket from that day:

Be not fooled by this simple, unassuming shirt pocket. Like an iceberg, 8/9ths of the stuff is hidden below. In this shirt pocket, should you care to dig, you would have found: 7 AA batteries, 5 2,4V 0.2A light bulbs, a loop of copper wire, a pair of wire stripping pliers, and 8 neodymium button magnets, and a Nature Valley Oat and Honey Granola bar.

A note about the above shirt. This shirt is rather busy. But I don't really have a problem about it, since I don't usually care what I look like (since I can't really see myself unless I look in a mirror). But what is terribly embarrassing is going into Long's Drug Store and discovering that you are wearing the same shirt as the employees. What makes it worse is being asked where the Polydent is by little old ladies.

And the countdown begins.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Long One, Filled With Much Introspection

After a much needed three day weekend, I'm coming to terms with the fact that there are only 8 more days left in this program. Sorry, scratch that. I'm overjoyed that there are only 8 more days left in this program. Sure I'll miss teaching their sweaty little, tear-streaked faces, but such thoughts are saved for a retrospective evaluation a month down the road. For now, we must continue teaching.

These three days has given me time for a rare activity these days: thinking. I'd have never thought I'd have to budget my time for thinking, but such is the case of this modern work-a-day lifestyle. Let us begin.

Throughout my life, noticeably in high school, I've been a dabbler. A Renaissance man. A Jack of all Trades, but a Master of None. The latter part of the final idiom had never really bothered me until I got to college. I had always thought that my versatility, and the breadth of my experiences was what had gotten me into Yale. But as I began to interact with my fellows, and more importantly, take classes and tests, my opinion began to turn. I began to see that my dabbling had denied me extensive depth in any one subject. My first rather rude awakening to this fact was taking Perspectives on Science (and Engineering, since engineers are second class citizens. Freshman Orgo also provided a bit of a shock, but that's a whole 'nother story). I had always enjoyed science, though I had never really pursued it in an extracurricular manner. I went to class, got my A, and that was the extent of my science exposure. Meanwhile, I would fill my time auditioning for plays, playing in bands, reading whatever I could find and MOCK COMBAT! with my Military History Club (Offically called the Reenactors' and Military Historians' Society, or ReMiHS, but it's quite a mouthful):

(I'm the tall white guy in the back).
But it never even crossed my mind to explore science beyond class. I do realize the irony of who I am now and what I'm doing with my life, but there's time to remark on the peculiarity of my life later. Coming into Perspectives on Science (a program I only got in off the waitlist. I was actually deciding between Directed Studies and Perspectives, but after the DS registration passed, I figured the decision was made for me) armed with a motley assortment of AP Chem and Physics knowledge, I was vastly overwhelmed. And it showed in a rather unseemly way.

I came to reflect upon my predicament as I've been fond of doing in such times. I decided that I would commit myself wholly unto Science, as my selection of courses had unwittingly steered myself that way. Music was my one concession, my one exception to this rule, as I don't like quitting things, like Concert Band, and figured I might as well just keep playing.

I bring this up because I recent went back and reread Plato's The Republic, inspired by all this Mr. Devlin talk. One of the big, over arching points Plato/Socrates makes is about specialization. Every man has an arete, sort of like a life purpose, very similar to the concept of dharma in Hinduism. Some people's arete demands they become politicians, others demand they become garbage men. There was no shame in being a garbage man, as long as that's what you were meant to do. But one thing that Plato/Socrates makes clear is that multi-tasking, and despecializing was a bad thing. Would you rather go to the man who is solely committed to being a doctor, or the one who's a doctor half the time, and a used car salesman the other half of the time?

When I first came across this in high school, I found this rather distressing, and a little perplexing. I had devoted my life in a way quite orthogonal to this notion of arete. And upon arriving in college, it appeared that specialization was the way to go.

This 4th of July weekend, I visited the Farmer's Market at Kapiolani Community College, a haven for such specialists. Some stalls only sold jars of honey, others only sold tomatoes. And the food was amazing. Sure they only sold one type of produce, but the tomatoes were some of the best I've ever tasted. I also visited an orchid breeder, and bought a little friend:

His name, I'm told, is "Nobby". The tag reads that it's across between what sounds like racehorses: Be Glad x Mahogany Leopard = P. Nobby's Little Candy. But I digress.

And for a while this specialization in science thing has worked. My grades have been slowly but surely improving, and I've carved a cozy niche amongst my scientist friends, whom I cherish in a way I never thought I would. But since this is a story, there has to be some conflict, rising action and the rest.

I first became acutely aware of it at the end of the summer of 2009, after serving my time in New Haven doing membrane research with an Environmental Engineering lab. In this lab, I spent 9 hour work days reading papers, making, testing and improving membranes for osmotic processes. Very specialized.

But I was understimulated, and deeply dissatisfied with my life. I loved my research, thought it was genuinely exciting and interesting. But it was incessant. My day to day life lacked a natural rhythm to break up the monotony. This atonal existence was not working. I deeply missed doing non-science things. I missed singing and acting. I missed spending hours in the kitchen baking and trying to get out of washing my dishes. I missed watching hours and hours of Band of Brothers, getting lost in the story telling and the drama of WWII.

And now that I'm beginning to ramble (and become self-aware. OOOOHHH.), I'll come to my conclusion. I've realized can't be a specialist. Socrates would hate my existence.

But I can't help being a Jack of all Trades, dabbling a little bit in every creative medium, academic discipline, and hobby circle. I'm still bothered by the Master of None bit, but I'm learning to live with it (in the same way that I've come to accept I actually have to study for tests now that I'm in college, and that even if I work my ass off, I'll still come out slightly below average). And I'm finding others out there like me. Those people who told me that you'd have to pick one thing and stick with it at Yale were wrong. I went to Yale because I couldn't just pick one. And there are hundreds other like me, fellow dabblers.

And as I approach the inevitable end of my run as "Mr. Science", I'm searching for something to fill the rest of my summer with. My first instinct was to find something science-y to do, like breed orchids (which sounds really fun), or learn programming. And I'll probably end up doing something like that either way. But I need to balance it out with something completely unrelated. So far, I've had the wit to balance my science teaching with a late night hobby (not pr0n): music. Composing, playing and recording a crappy collection of things that catch my ear has in part saved my sanity from the horrors of this job. And to those of you who facilitated such a distraction, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

So, my fellow dabblers of the world: I may have strayed from the path, forgotten who I am, and lost my way. I may have forgotten how to keep myself happy. I may have forgotten everything I learned from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. I may have affected a persona I was never meant to assume. But I'm back. And baby, it's going to be good. Real good.