Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New

A new year is a less significant milestone to a child. It's not a gift-giving holiday. Kids aren't prone to annual planning. They're also not likely to make many resolutions: change is thrust upon them more than they have the ability (much less the self-awareness) to initiate personal change of their own.

Even if they're inclined to spend the day watching college football, birthdays and the first day of school are more significant events because children's lives are governed primarily by an academic calendar.

This changes in adulthood, because our lives governed by tax and fiscal years that tend to align with the calendar. This incongruity is helpful to a parent, as it let's us consider what age & grade they'll be, and what skills & capabilities they'll have, when the year is out.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

We'll Always Have Paris

Musée du Louvre. Musée Rodin. La Tour Effel. Arc de Triomphe. La Sainte-Chapelle. Notre-Dame. Les Catacombes.

It's a privilege to introduce a child to some of the most significant cultural, engineering, and historic places in the world. Being able to inject one's personal knowledge into the experience makes it even more satisfying. Functioning successfully in a completely different place and language gives it a sense of accomplishment. And what makes it all worthwhile is hearing her express what she learned and how much she enjoyed it.

Everything, that is, but the food. I wish she'd have appreciated the culinary aspects as much as I do - beyond the desserts.

Ah, well. Perhaps it is better that she appreciate the ancient masters than the contemporary chefs.

Monday, October 31, 2011



She's too old to want to go trick-or-treating as a princess.

Too young to want to dress as a goth.

Too cheerful to want to be the grim reaper.

Too independent to want to be a celebrity.

So she's something she came up with by herself.

She's Frankensquid.

She's the cross-section of unabashed joy, creativity, and independence.

She is her own creation.

May it forever be thus.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Ends and Beginnings

How we mark the stages of our children's lives subtly changes in the span of just a few years. Early on, it's the things she starts to do: her first day of school, her first soccer game, her first violin lesson. Before long, it becomes the things she stops doing: the day camp she's too old to attend, the grade school she moves on from.

Marking ends as opposed to beginnings is a profound change for a parent. It makes you concentrate on things past, regret missed opportunities, and even heighten your own sense of mortality.

But parenting is not about the parent. Even if I am significantly "past", she is all "future" right now. Setting her on her course is what parenting is about.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Memories, Lighter than Air

We went to a hot air balloon launch earlier this month. We counted 73 in the sky: some launching, some landing, some dropping a payload on a target, with only the occasional noise of a propane-fueled burner breaking the silence.

I can say that my daughter was with me, that we compared flight patterns of the racing balloons in rapid (and slightly scary) descent with flight patterns of our own 24’ solar airship, that we looked at the effect of windspeeds at different elevations and talked about the recovery pattern of our last model rocket launch that went up to 1,000 feet.

I can say all that, but deep down I know it wasn’t about my daughter.

The last time I went to this balloon launch, Gerry Ford was in the White House. It was nice to remember what it was like to be a kid again, if only for a few moments.

She's growing up fast. I hope she's racking up a lot of good memories of her childhood.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


In the 1970s, two unique craft took to the skies. The SuperSonic Transport, called Concorde, and the Shuttle Transport System, called the Space Shuttle.

SST and STS.

Each is regarded as the pinnacle of engineering in its respective field. Both are now out of service. With their retirements, human spaceflight and air travel have technologically receded.

Each program had serious shortcomings. Complexity when simplicity will do is never desirable. Putting humans at risk in space to do a job that robots can do perfectly well is not good policy. A small, high maintenance aircraft that costs its passengers disproportionately more to fly than the time it saves is not going to be economically viable.

It doesn't matter. They were halos of a sort, vivid testimony to how far humanity has come. Imperfect halos, to be sure, as their occasional disasters and frequent maintenance issues made clear how much further we have to go. But halos none the less. Cro-Magnon wasn't going to get anything into space or faster than the speed of sound one time, let alone many times. We are each of us lucky to be alive during a time when we have the capability of doing such things.

With their retirement, we've lost a bit of the halo: America without a manned space flight program, humanity having mothballed its penultimate engineering accomplishments. We still do amazing things - the International Space Station and Boeing's Dreamliner are incredible feats of engineering in their own right. But they're not the STS and the SST.

As an adult, it's hard to come to grips with this moment of devolution in applied physics. It's harder still to explain it to a 9 year old, especially when some of the drivers for this particular devolution are human shortcomings of a different sort, such as profligate spending and inconsistent policies. But there it is.

We had the opportunity to watch Atlantis launch from the Kennedy Space Center to start the journey of STS-135. I hope my daughter is at the KSC to see the launch of the next generation of manned space exploration, whenever that is, to see humanity restore this particular halo.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fun for who?

It's not uncommon for parents to ask their children "did you have fun?" after just about everything they do.

I wonder if we ask that so often because we're concerned our kids won't be engaged in something that they don't find entertaining, or because adult lives are so devoid of joy we need to experience it vicariously.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sustainable Excellence

Young kids get signed up for a lot of different things - swimming, ice hockey, dance, soccer, music, choir & so on - all at the same time. If you can avoid over-programming, there is something to be said for variety of lacing up the skates one day, and sliding on the ballerina slippers the next. It helps a child find where their interest and skills lie. They learn the rules of different games, which makes them better spectators. And a lot of it is just plain fun.

But before long - and it seems like it starts a lot earlier in life now - a young person has to decide whether they're serious about something or not. There are travel teams but no house leagues for older kids. The work involved is more complex, which means more daily practice time and more time with coaches to develop skills. In a relatively short period of time, a little time commitment to several things becomes a big time commitment to just a few.

Of course, it's a highly competitive world: mechanical skills needs to develop much sooner and advance more rapidly. Or so we're told. But the fact is the vast majority of these kids ain't going on to professional careers in arts or athletics. Few are going to get scholarships, meaning most won't stick with any of this beyond high school. So if life expectancy is north of 70 years, why are we pushing them to specialize when they're little more than 10% through?

Cynically, I suspect no small amount of this has to do with the extra-curricular providers shaking out more revenue. The kids don't just take a music lesson, they join an orchestra and sign up for a music theory class. They don't just have a soccer practice and game, they have weekly clinics. Revenue per participant goes up, with only a minor uptick in the cost of selling, providing and collecting for these additional services. Take it to the bank, baby.

Now, there is a big difference between running round a pitch every Saturday and being a soccer player, or pulling a bow across some strings and being a violinist. It's important for a child to not only recognize the difference between good and great, but to appreciate what one must do to become great at something. But at a young age, they're only just beginning to learn what a commitment to excellence means. They're too young to make a life commitment to something. And it's pointless to take an outsized performance at a young age too seriously: how many people dominate a position in sport all through their lives?

Mechanical skills are important - poor execution leads to frustration or embarassment and will drive somebody away from wanting to do something. But sustainable excellence requires more than just skills: it takes timing, commitment, maturity, passion and joy. Helping a child find what they're passionate about, something from which they can derive great joy, puts them on a path of self-sustainable discovery. Does greater skill lead to greater joy? Probably not as much as joy motivates somebody to become more skilled.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A child for a while, a father forever

I'll be her father forever. She'll always be my daughter, but she'll be a child for only a few more years.

Happy birthday, kiddo.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Forever 40+

Pop culture would have us pine for our late teens and early twenties. And why not? At that age we have few obligations, maximum potential, and we've yet to do anything to screw up the rest of our lives. Halcyon days, indeed.

Or perhaps not. We give a lot of attention to the "few obligations and maximum potential" and not nearly enough to the "do nothing to screw up the rest of our life." All told, this period offers far less upside (e.g., graduating university) than downside (e.g., DUI, drug abuse, pregnancy, etc.) Worse still, the upside from this period - high grade point average or career internships - evaporates pretty quickly once we enter the world of responsibility and career. That means success during our teens and early twenties is measured not by major achievement, but by how little baggage we accumulate.

For all the hype, what happens during this period is pedestrian, not epic. Not exactly the stuff of Homeric ballad.

We achieve our greatest accomplishments and define our legacy in the years that follow. We would do better to idolize our later years to be the culmination of some noble Opus, rather than to wax bucolic on a fleeting period of youthful circumstantial narcissism. Much better to be perpetually looking ahead to our next achievement than to be caught up in the fantasy of idyllic - and often faulty - reminisces.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

When the world gives you lemons...

... stick a galvanized nail in one end, copper wire in the other, and make a battery. It's a great way to learn about chemical energy and electricity.

Having powered a Cinderella-themed clock for 2+ months now, my daughter and I don't look at potatoes, oranges and other high-acid fruit and veg as we once did.

The phenomenon is interesting to us now, both as something fun to do and as an exhibit for the school science fair. But maybe there will be a long-term impact of this. First hand experience with fundamental science may very well affect how she forms theses and arguments. I can't help but hope that in a few years this experiment will be a point of reference to each of us in engaging debates over the viability of using food for fuel (e.g., raising corn for ethanol).

Cinderella will keep track of time until that happens. Provided, of course, we keep the lemons coming.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Blinding Her with Science

I try to bring back gifts for my daughter that reflect the places I visit, particularly when I'm returning from abroad: the Z is for Zamboni book from Toronto, traditional Swiss clothing from Zürich, contemporary Indian dress from Pune, the Paris Hide and Seek book. I hope they help her connect with the places I go, especially when she can't go with me.

All too often, I do my gift buying on my way to the gate, making a quick shop at one of the ubiquitous souvenir shops at Gare du Nord, La Guardia, SFO, BRU, YYC or any other point of departure. Trouble is, after a few trips to the same destination, it becomes clear the merchandise doesn't change all that often. She's got every variety of London t-shirt from LHR, and Nasa t-shirt from IAH. There seems to be a never-ending variety of keychains for any given destination, but as electronic locks are making keys anachronisms she'll never have that many keys. They're also harder to repurpose into something useful: outgrown t-shirts make good raw materials for quilts and stuffed bears, whereas keychains become cumbersome bling.

On those trips where I am able to carve out a little time, and especially as she gets older, I'm trying to find things that pique her interest particularly after I go back on the road. Harrods has a large selection of science-themed toys, such as robots, circuits, hovercraft, and dirigibles. Foyles sells The Daring Book for Girls, a fantastic book that has all kinds of great ideas in it: how to make a zipline, how to make a lemon-powered clock. All these things do a great job explaining how things work. They're also good at inciting action, be it assembling circuits to build a recording device, or learning how to write in code. Perhaps they also engender independence, and kindle a sense of adventure as well.

Even when I'm away, hopefully I can still help her learn. About nature, and physics, and maybe a little about herself.