Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not a viable career choice

This week at school, Campbell's class has been discussing careers. The teachers have asked parents to send in short videos of themselves at their work place explaining what they do for a living. I don't think a video of me sitting at my kitchen table in my pajamas, drinking tea and cursing writer's block will be of much interest to the kids.

One of the assignments for the week was to have the kids draw a picture or make a collage representing what they want to be when they grow up. When I told Campbell what he had to do, he looked stricken. "But I'm only 6! I don't know yet."

After Lily and I reassured him that he could, in fact, change his mind at a later time, he hustled off to draw his picture.

Campbell's whole career path depends on his being bitten by a radioactive spider.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The perfect Christmas gift

When I was little, we moved to a small town outside Albany, NY called West Sand Lake. It was a very Rockwell-esque place. There was a Woolworth's and the annual Dairy Festival parade. My babysitter was Dairy Festival Queen one year. There wasn't a whole lot to do, other than go to swimming holes, go fishing, and have clambakes. At least those are my memories of the place.

As with many small towns, West Sand Lake had a volunteer fire department. When we moved to West Sand Lake in 1973, my dad, AKA runnerdude, joined the VFD. Some of my earliest memories involve his being a firefighter. I remember going to the fire station with him to raise and lower the flag, I remember getting to explore the fire trucks, I remember the big radio thing in his closet that went off when there was a fire.

Runnerdude served on the WSLVFD until we moved to Massachusetts in 1976.

At some point this fall, runnerdude mentioned to Campbell that he had been a firefighter, and Campbell's eyes got all big. This started me wondering. Did the WSLVFD still exist? Did they sell t-shirts or hats? Could I get one for runnerdude?

Thanks to da googles, I found the West Sand Lake Volunteer Fire Department website in about 10 seconds. Further exploring turned up an e-mail address for the president. So I sent off a note about how my dad had been a member in the 70s and was there any way I could get him a shirt. I really didn't hold out much hope for a response.

One random evening, my phone rang displaying the 518 area code for Albany. This puzzled me, because while I still have family there, they aren't likely to be calling. Instead it was the head of the WSLVFD membership committee calling about my e-mail. I'll call him Larry.

I think he was as delighted to talk to me as I was to him. He had me on speakerphone with his wife in the background. He explained that it took so long to reply because they wanted to verify that runnerdude really had been a member. This involved going to the old fire station, climbing in to the attic and sorting through 40-year-old log books. But they found the one that contained runnerdude's information.

Larry said that he had taken my request and the log book with runnerdude's registration to the membership meeting and put it to a vote. They voted unanimously to send runnerdude a shirt.

I had a hard time keeping this whole thing secret from runnerdude. I almost slipped up and mentioned the shirt or the call from Larry any number of times. But I'm glad I succeeded. The look on runnerdude's face when he opened the box and then realized what the shirt was was priceless. And he loved the story of Larry's calling to chat.

Runnerdude still has his fireman's badge. I sent this picture along with a note from runnerdude off to the WSLVFD thanking them for sending the shirt.

I love when stuff like this works out.

Friday, January 18, 2013

When good yarn goes bad

Despite my annual Thanksgiving declaration that I am not knitting anything for anyone at Christmas because I don't have time, I spent the month of December knitting every chance I had. I knit while cooking dinner. I knit while at red lights. I knit in the Nutcracker pick-up line. And it worked. I managed to produce a silk scarf, a shawl, a hat, and a pair of fingerless gloves in record time.

I'm still on a post-Christmas knitting kick. I finished a pair of socks that have been riding around in my purse for months. The yarn is Unisono Zitron, which is one of my favorites, even if the skein isn't enough for two long socks. I love the rich colors and the way they stripe up. They ended up being a little snug on me, so I gave them to a friend for a very late birthday present.

While knittergran was here at Christmas, we had to go to Hill Country Weavers down on S. Congress. I walked in swearing that I would not buy a thing, but I walked out with some fabulous sock yarn.

It's Prism, colorway Maui. The photo really doesn't go it justice. I love the bold colors and couldn't wait to see how they looked in sock form.

Eh. I'm not so thrilled. The stripes are too small and the colors are muddy. But I'm knitting away. Be nice to me. Maybe you'll end up with the socks.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The scientific process - update

Thank you for all of your comments and e-mails on my last post about Ella's science project. I showed them to her, and I think they helped with the disappointment.

The GPS on the phone stopped when it was about 20 miles from our house - 290 and Burleson for those who know Austin. Elizabeth and I took a field trip all the way in to the last recorded location, which turned out to be a Honda dealership. Then we spent half an hour wandering through the employee parking lot, looking under cars. At one point I thought I'd spotted the payload and got really excited. But it was just a styrofoam to-go container someone had thrown under a car.

We have two theories about what happened.

a. At that point, the balloon got above 30,000 feet, which is about the height that cell phones can no longer pick up a signal. Cell phone towers are very good at sending signals out horizontally, not so much vertically.

b. The phone froze, literally. One of things we had to sacrifice in our attempts to make the payload light enough was the handwarmer that was supposed to protect everything from the coldness of space. So it's entirely possible that the project was a success but that the phone died.

At any rate, we have the phone set so that if anyone finds it and manages to get it to power back up, it will display a message asking the finder to call us. So far, no calls. I'll leave the phone activated on our account through the end of the week and then shut it down.

Fortunately, Ella had another project to finish, which provided a distraction. For math class, the students had to build a toothpick tower that was at least four inches tall and that could support the weight of a baseball. The class worked together to come up with rules about how many toothpicks could be next to each other in a bundle and what supplemental materials were allowed.

Ella's tower is made of 940 toothpicks and an entire bottle of Elmer's glue.

On Friday, Ella's class will go to the weight room and see whose tower can hold the most weight. Given the amount of glue in Ella's, I'm guessing hers will be one of the strongest.

Now we're on to making a Roman shield out of a tri-fold board and duct tape.

Why does every project have to be so sticky?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The scientific process

We launched Ella's weather balloon this morning. Conditions were not, shall we say, optimal. The skies were clear, but the wind was whipping through, which made inflating the balloon challenging. And things went downhill from there. Clusterf*ck is the word that comes to mind.

I took Ella, Elizabeth and all the gear down to the soccer field in our neighborhood. I figured it would be a good place to launch because it was clear of trees and power lines and anything else that might damage the balloon. What I hadn't figured on was that the field would be pretty much underwater. We squished our way to what looked to be dry ground and started setting up. 

It took us about half an hour to get the balloon inflated, and then we attached it to the parachute and payload. Nothing happened. The payload was too heavy, and the balloon just dragged it across the muddy field. Ella chased it down, and we conferred on our options.

We untied the balloon and worked on eeking every last cubic centimeter of helium out of our two tanks and tried again. 

No luck.

This time we tied down the balloon and worked on making the payload lighter. We started by removing the heat packs and insulation from the inside of the box and by taking a few of the washers off the thing that is supposed to measure gravity. 


At this point, Elizabeth retreated to the car and pretended to drive, only honking the horn at us a few times. 

Ella and I got extreme and cut the payload box in half and took off another washer. 

This time the payload hovered a few inches above the ground and got dragged sideways across the soccer field. Ella managed to catch it before everything went in the nearby pond. 

We anchored the balloon again and went back to the car to consider some options. I briefly considered leaving Ella in the field to keep an eye on the balloon and then driving to the store for helium. But the party store isn't open at 8:30am. 

Instead, we redesigned the payload. We got rid of the box and took two pieces of the styrofoam that we had been using as insulation and duct taped them together. Then we attached the gravity thing and Harry Potter and the parachute. That's when we discovered that recording our first hour of failed attempts had drained the phone's battery halfway. 

We plugged the phone in and warmed up in the car, while Ella panicked about how she was going to get a zero on her project and Elizabeth complained that she was bored. 

After 20 minutes, I declared that conditions were as good as they were going to get, and we got out of the car. Ella duct taped the phone to the platform and pressed record, and then she let go. We've placed a lot of faith in the stickiness of duct tape and the battery power of a mostly dead iPhone. 

We worried that the wind was going to carry the balloon in to the trees before it had a chance to gain enough altitude, but fortunately it kept going up and up. 

Now we wait. The last time we got a reading from the GPS tracker, the balloon was headed east toward Manchaca. 

While I drove Ella to school, she had a freakout about how she was going to get a zero on her science project because it wasn't going to work. I reminded her that there was a whole grading rubric and that she had done all the work for the project. If the balloon crashed or the cellphone stopped working, those were conditions out of her control and therefore part of the scientific process. She wouldn't know what would happen unless she tried. I'm not sure she's convinced. And I know she's very disappointed in how everything went. 

When Elizabeth and I got home, I rewarded both of us with mugs of hot chocolate and lots of mini-marshmallows.

I'll post updates as I have them, even if the update is that we lost track of the phone and can't find the payload. 

It's all part of the process, even if the process is frustrating and disappointing. 

Monday, January 07, 2013

Science Fair Project Rant

I hate science fair projects with a passion. I hated them when I was in school, and I hate them now that my kids are doing them.

I should qualify that I don't hate the experiments themselves. Lord knows, I've had strange things brewing in my kitchen, growing in the refrigerator, and cooking on the sidewalks over the years. Ella loves to experiment, and as long as she's not in danger of blowing herself or the house up, I provide supplies and get out of the way.

This year's project is to launch a Harry Potter figure into near space using a helium-filled weather balloon. Turns out, you can do that. She's been researching and talking about this for months. I had to sign a permission slip from school acknowledging that I knew what she was up to. She had meetings with a friend about doing it.

But now here we are, the week the project is due, and panic has set in. We have almost everything we need to launch - the box for payload, the weather balloon, the parachute, the radar reflector, the orange spray paint, the Harry Potter figure, the camera. It's all sitting on my dining room table ready to be assembled.

Except for two crucial ingredients - helium and a GPS-enabled device to find the payload when it lands.

Turns out there's a worldwide shortage of helium, and it's hard to find enough to fill party balloons, let alone weather balloons. One party store said we could buy a tank for $300 provided we also bought the 200 balloons that went with it. Ouch. Ella is spending the morning calling welding supply stores to see if she can get a better price.

The other issue is with the cell phones we were going to use to track it. We have two old iPhones that we should be able to track, no problem. Except they are no longer activated with cell phone service. Every freaking tracking program we've looked at requires cell phone service to work, even the ones that claim to use GPS signals, not cell service.

So if we can find the helium for a reasonable price, we will be going to the cell phone store to reactivate one of the cell phones. If that works, we'll launch.

With any luck, the balloon will get up to about 80,000 feet before it bursts, and the parachute will be big enough to control the payload's plummet back to earth, and we'll be able to find the payload and retrieve the camera and cell phone, and the camera will have recorded the trip.

If all that happens, Ella then has to put it all on a tri-fold display board with pictures and circles and arrows and fancy lettering and colors.

This is the part of the process I have a huge problem with.

She has learned all about ascent and descent rates, she's learned how to find the volume of a weather balloon, she's learned about telemetry and how to track things. She knows more about tracking programs than the average 12-year-old.

I don't understand why all of this has to be translated to fit on a tri-fold display board. Can't she stand up and explain what she did and how she did it and show some cool pictures of Harry Potter against the blackness of space? Nope. She has to make a display, and her grade is based on the display.

If everything comes together like we're hoping, we'll launch tomorrow at sunrise and find the payload in the afternoon. And then Thursday night at 10:00pm she'll be frantically gluing things to a tri-fold display board and crying.

I don't even want to think about what will happen if we can't get our hands on any helium. She'll have a display board with pictures of the payload and the parachute and the deflated weather balloons and a very sad Harry Potter figure.

Yay science.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Oh hai

Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year. What did I miss?

I've got all these posts backed up in my head, but then I think, "I can't write about New Year's until I write about Christmas. And then I can't write about Christmas until I write about Lily and The Nutcracker." And then I give up and watch old episodes of Big Bang Theory.

So here's the bullet point version:

  • Lily was an angel in the Ballet Austin production of The Nutcracker again this year. I took a friend who has four boys and never gets to get dressed up and go to the ballet with me to the full dress rehearsal. It was a good thing I saw the full dress, because when I went to buy tickets for any of Lily's shows, they were pretty much sold out. I could have paid $40 each for four seats that weren't together. That's fine for me, but I don't think strangers wanted to sit next to Elizabeth. 
  • Christmas was good. Runnerdude and Knittergran came for the holiday as did my sister and her BF. He passed the kid test with flying colors. Santa was good to everyone. Campbell got a BMX bike like the big boys next door ride, and Elizabeth got a pink scooter. Lily got rollerblades, and Ella got a kindle fire. She's been hugging it ever since. The house was crowded and chaotic but fun. It's exactly what I had in mind when we bought this big house. 
  • Our New Year's was quiet, very quiet. The kids spent the night at their grandfather's house, leaving me and B home to watch movies and marathons on "24." Honest to dog, Jack Bauer is the unluckiest man in history. I began 2013 by taking FeeBee on a rainy, muddy run and testing out my new Garmin. It was a good way to start the year. 
  • The kids are still on winter break. They don't go back until Tuesday. They may not live that long. Or maybe I'll just lock them in the garage until Tuesday morning. 
So there you have it, and I'm all caught up. I'll resume regular programming next week.