Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's the ripple not the sea

Today's post about a blanket full of sunshine is at Toxophily.


Welcome to the world, sweet Lily!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sports Shouting

Noel's insightful essay on ESPN, sparked by the release of a lengthy oral history of the network, appeared today on the A.V. Club and has precipitated quite a bit of thoughtful commentary.  Here in middle age we are often astounded to look back and see what pieces of media used to feel fresh, exciting, and indispensable to our lives.  Did we leave them behind, or did they leave us?

I think about this every time I see a promo for Desperate Housewives on ABC and find myself astonished that the show is still on the air.  During its first couple of seasons we watched it religiously -- everyone who wanted to be part of the cultural conversation did.  And then the cultural conversation moved on, and yet the show somehow kept going, sustained by a demographic who aren't a part of that conversation.  It feels like a coelacanth when you run across it -- a living fossil.

SportsCenter is like this, too.  Time was, youngsters, when SportsCenter was appointment television.  It was the only place on the dial where you could get the sheer volume and breadth of highlights, delivered with panache.  Now the show not only seems to be merely a parody of the genre it spawned, but also appears to be going out of its way to actively alienate me and people like me, with little effort expended to actually comment on the highlights and as many tired catchphrases and empty panels of experts spouting meaningless opinion as they can pack into their hour.

Have these shows and their networks changed, or have I?  Is my distaste for their style a function of getting older and leaving the target demo, or are the shows the ones that survived too long, drew the wrong lessons from the prevailing trends, got complacent and synergistic, and stopped caring about the people who forgot them or grew to despise them -- people like me?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

It's time

The A.V. Club's sister publication The Onion has been trying to prove its worthiness to the venerable Pulitzer committee -- unfortunately without success.  They fought a good fight, though.  Check out videos from supporters of the cause like Tom Hanks and Glenn Beck; read some of the reasons the Onion is deserving (as well as their thinly veiled efforts at committee persuasion).  Oh, and if you're not familiar with the Onion, please remember -- it's an adult publication, complete with adult language.

Monday, June 27, 2011

When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?

We're headed to Hot Springs at the end of next week for our annual theme park trip (family motto: Creating Memories!).  Last year, in addition to the water park and amusement park, we went to the big observation tower and saw some of the sights downtown.

This year I've got a dream.

We sometimes watch the Science Channel shows "How Do They Do It?" and "How It's Made."  It's one of my absolute favorite types of television -- factory porn, you might call it.  Specialized machines doing specialized jobs.  Cutters, crimpers, computers, conveyer belts, spinning and whirling gears that mix and shape and press and package things.

Today the topic was rubber bands.  And lo and behold, the factory making the rubber bands was Alliance Rubber in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Turns out Alliance Rubber has been churning out rubber bands and other specialty rubber products since 1923.  The shots of the factory floor inspired my dream.  What if we could tour the rubber band factory on our trip?

I know that nine-year-old me would have loved that, and I'll bet my kids would love it, too.  There's no information about visiting the factory on their website, but there's a phone number, and by golly, I'm going to be calling it.  In fact, this idea has opened up a whole new world of Creating-Memories opportunities for me -- beyond the tourist destinations and standard attractions.  If there's a factory around making something, I think we should be wearing hard hats and watching those big machines at work.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

You probably wouldn't remember, I probably couldn't forget

Today's post about a completely unexpected triumph with the most ancient of materials is at Toxophily.


Sometimes a plan really comes together. Sometimes an utter mess of overplanning and experimentation still comes together, against all odds. Tomorrow I'll be wearing it, and no one will know about the mess -- only the result, all together.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Far from the city's twitch and smoke

Today's post about crafting with my inner child is at Toxophily.


Plus: my first attempt at designing something! Or at least figuring out how to make something in a different craft. Either way, it took a long time and I'm proud of myself.

Friday, June 24, 2011

It's back!

It took multiple efforts, e-mails, phone calls, and coordination of schedules, but my beloved MacBook Air is finally back in my hands.  MyService repaired its hinges under an Apple recall and charged me just for shipping.  I have a whole new upper clamshell.

While I've been able to get along quite well with only my iPad (and the occasional jump onto Noel's or the kids' computer), there are certain things I haven't been able to do for a couple of weeks while my computer has been away.  Chief among them is getting photos off my camera.  I've completed a couple of projects and have started to document my new crafting area (the "before" photos, at least), and all of it is still sitting on my camera.  I'm excited about what I've made, and eager to share it with my readers and Ravelry friends.  A succession of crafting posts is in the offing.

With my computer back, it feels like projects that have been put on hold can now be resumed.  I can remeasure the room and order the furniture.  I have the flexibility to work on my various personal and professional tasks anywhere I am.  Car's fixed, computer's fixed, appliances are working.  Having one or more of those items out of service for periods of time recently has felt like a disadvantage, like having a temporary handicap.  Things that pose no obstacle in the ordinary course of events suddenly became difficult, or required workarounds and extra planning.

Something can break or get put out of commission at any time.  As I've said frequently, it always feels as if such things don't happen on an even schedule, but in clumps.  We had both computers in the shop at once, a car sitting in the mechanic's lot, and a strange leak around our A/C that we couldn't figure out.  But we were able to deal with all of it thanks to a relatively low-stress and lightly-scheduled summer calendar.  I sometimes get worked up over everything that goes wrong; when things get out of my control, I frequently lose my cool.  Although there were setbacks in some of these situations, by and large I was convinced that we were doing the right thing, taking care of business, being responsible and not just reacting to inevitable breakdowns.  Now I'm hoping that all that effort will be rewarded with reliability from our mechanical support situations during periods to come when failures would end up being far more inconveniencing.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One's impossible, two is dreary

I got to see the special showing of Stephen Sondheim's Company, as staged by the New York Philharmonic recently. It's the first time I've been to one of these events at a movie theater where you pay a special price and get to see an opera or concert or (apparently, judging from the advertisements before the show) drum corps rehearsals.

Noel and I are huge Sondheim geeks, and Company was one of the first shows we obsessed over, thanks to D.A. Pennebaker's marvelous documentary Original Cast Album: Company. I was pleased to see one of my students at the show; she became a fan through a course on Sondheim taught by one of my colleagues.

I'm also a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan, thanks to his work on one of my favorite sitcoms and his versatility as a performer. Singing, dancing, acting -- a triple threat, and a throwback to the way stars used to be. It's a thrill to see him work on stage, and he makes an interesting and enormously appealing Bobby in the Philharmonic's show.

Noel wasn't able to come with me to the screening, since it was two days only and fell during his trip to Nashville. I hope it comes out on DVD so I can relive its best moments with him. Meanwhile I'm rummaging through the lengthy Sondheim playlist on my iPhone, and coincidentally I'm in the middle of the Company section right now. Since my workout this afternoon I haven't been able to stop singing along with Raul Esperza's version of "Marry Me A Little," a song that wasn't in the original show but is routinely added in revivals. Luckily you can buy a DVD of that version, a Lincoln Center production from 2006 in which the cast forms the basis of the orchestra as well. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Let's get the gang back together!

Last fall I taught a seminar called "Craft Wisely: The Past, Present, and Future of Handmade." One of the assignments was for students to contribute several times over the course of the semester to a group blog.

This fall I'll be teaching the class again; my task for June is to whip the syllabus into some kind of shape (which involves some tough thinking and decisions). One thing I've already changed, in consultation with my TA, is to ask students to post to the blog before the class starts. That will give them a chance to reflect on their summer activities learning a new craft, or advancing their skills in one they already possess, and get them started communicating to the world.

I was excited to see one of the students post right away! I believe this is Brittany, already an accomplished knitter and crocheter, going by the moniker of "the obscene knitter" (because of what comes out of her mouth when her crafting goes wrong). She decided to tackle lace for her foray into advanced knitting skills.

If you don't have this blog in your feed reader, please add it. More content will start popping up as the fall semester gets closer. And remember that you're an integral part of this educational endeavor; if you comment, the message strikes home to the students that these little essays are going out to a vast and unpredictable audience. Their writing will improve as that becomes a reality, and they'll start thinking about this assignment -- and maybe about this class -- in a different mode. So leave a comment and be a part of the class!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Earning my trust

I've had a pleasant day of interactions with some of my favorite businesses. Just as a bad experience with a business can temporarily make you a raving misanthrope, dealing with people you trust and who treat you right fills the world with rainbows and your heart with love toward your fellow man.

Since 2001, when we bought our Subaru Outback, we've been patronizing Skip's Foreign Car Repair here in Conway. A good, honest mechanic is worth his weight in gold, and there are hundreds of us locally who are praying Skip never retires. He's quick, communicative, and tells it like it is. I had planned to take the Subaru to him next week to get an oil change and some service I knew was about to be needed -- like a new timing belt -- before we drive it to Tennessee in six weeks or so. Today I walked out to the garage and found that it had a flat tire. Well, no problem -- I'd just have it towed to Skip's and get that started a little early.

I asked Skip to check to see if we needed a whole new set of tires, and within the hour he called me back to say only the damaged one needed replacing. Off I went to, where I bought the car's last set of tires. Looked up my previous order so I could match the tires exactly, placed the order to drop-ship to Skip's, and the tire was on its way before the end of the day. There's another business whose wealth of information, professionalism, and empowerment of the customer gives me a wonderful experience and a wonderful feeling, every time.

And speaking of online businesses, let me conclude this post with a round of applause for We don't have an Apple authorized service provider in our town -- the closest one is Little Rock, and the closest Apple Store is Memphis. So when I need repairs on my computers that AppleCare doesn't cover, I get online and place an order with MyService. They'll send me a prepaid shipping box, do a complete free diagnostic, contact me frequently with information and ask my permission before doing any work, and ship it back promptly. What I like best about MyService is the reliable communication. The same person calls or emails to keep me abreast of everything I need to know about my order. I always feel secure that I know where my computer is, what's being done to it, and what I can expect next.

Trust is an essential component to a healthy mental life. I feel so fortunate being able to do business regularly with people I trust. And I'm happy to sing their praises to friends local and readers everywhere.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The hissing of summer lawns

With my kids now old enough and self-aware enough to look forward to their long summer break from school, I'm remembering how I felt about summer when I was their age.

Summer meant waking warly and eating cereal while watching cartoons, before anybody else was up.

Summer was bike rides around our neighborhood, up and down the street and venturing onto the steep hills that surrounded it, always with the little thrill of danger and freedom.

Summer was going to swim at the Cumberland Youth Organization pool while our parents played tennis, and begging for money to buy an Icee from the concession stand.

Summer was weekly trips to the library to bring home a towering stack of the thickest books I could carry.

Summer was the grinding sound of the electric ice cream maker turning cream and sugar and fruit into homemade ice cream.

Summer was chasing fireflies in the front yard.

Summer was Vacation Bible School, Little Debbies and "suicides" from the Coke wagon.d

And summer hasn't changed a whole lot, if we're honest, four decades on. I expect my kids will make a similar list when they're grown and feeling nostalgic.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Looking around at my friends, my students, and the news, I know how lucky I am for the fathers in my life. We don't get to choose our fathers. But if we did, I know the line for mine would be very long. It was always a source of some inchoate pride for me that my dad was so well liked and well respected in our social circle. He's genuine, fun to be around, easy-going, and great company.

We do get to choose our kids' fathers, but we might not have suitability for fatherhood as the first consideration when we do. When Noel and I got married, I certainly wasn't picturing the way our life is arranged now, with him staying home and assuming primary childcare responsbilities. Anybody who has met our kids, though, knows what an amazing father he's turned out to be.

I read in the paper about, see on television, and occasionally -- sadly -- meet fathers whom none of us would want in our lives. None of us go to a school to learn how to be parents; we learn by observing, for better or for worse, the people who raise us. If it took an unbroken string of perfect parenting for us to be able to do a good job, we'd be in trouble. So I feel doubly fortunate that both I and my children got such a head start. Love you, Dad. Love you, Noel. Happy Father's Day, everyone.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Measure of success

Since Noel made plans to take the kids to Nashville for several days, I've been making plans of what I wanted to get accomplished while they were gone. Number one on my list was setting up a computer in Archer's room for the kids to use. That would allow me to clean out the large computer desk in our room in preparation for getting rid of it. The idea there is to provide a clean slate -- an open area -- for me to build a storage and workspace for my various crafting activities. I've got my Ikea setup almost all picked out for that, with the only question being what tabletop I'll put under the window for fabric cutting, blocking and ironing, and what it will sit on top of (more storage, legs, or trestles of some kind).

And then I wanted to spend plenty of time indulging in the kinds of activities I pursue when I have free time -- knitting, crocheting, reading. I've certainly fulfilled that goal. Good progress has been made on a stalled project; I've whipped out a couple of little things that I was anxious to try. And I'm even giving some experiments a go (more on that if it pans out). I went to a movie, and I'm going to another tomorrow afternoon before the family gets home.

But one goal nags at me. The desk. The computer has been moved, set up, updated; I even found a new place and hookup for the rather large printer that used to take up space on that desktop (which involved moving an old TV and relocating a gaming system); and I've packed up (although only cursorily sorted through) all the stuff that used to live in that big desk -- two big Rubbermaid bins' worth.

Yet it's still there in our bedroom. The desk. I listed it on Freecycle on Thursday. Even though I've made mixed results getting people to bite on a number of items recently (some old backpacks and books, and a Pottery Barn shelf that unaccountably has survived three different people who said they wanted it but never showed up), I was sure that the desk would go fast. It's perfectly good; I even found some shelf pegs so that the movable shelving in it was restore to full functionality. It's big and well used and could definitely use a spray painting, but this desk is a catch.

Only two people responded to the post on Freecycle offering the desk. One is the same blessed person who has failed to show up for the Pottery Barn shelf for a week, and whom I am close to publicly denouncing on the mailing list as a deadbeat. I've e-mailed both of them multiple times over the course of yesterday and today, and so far no one has pulled up with a truck or van to take this thing out of my house.

I really want it gone before the family gets home. I want my blank canvas so I can start ordering furniture and building my modest little dream. This desk stands in the way. If it's still here tomorrow afternoon when Noel and the kids arrive from Nashville, I'm going to feel just a little bit like a failure. I had almost four days to find someone who wanted a free, functional piece of furniture (all wood, too, no particleboard, quality stuff), and I haven't been able to do it. And I'm starting to wonder what's up with my town when I can't give something like this -- and that blankety-blank shelf -- away.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dad rock

I heard a story on NPR driving home this afternoon about what songs our dads were listening to when they were our age. I haven't asked my dad what his favorite might have been in his forties, but judging from my memory of long commutes listening to Luther Masingill on WDEF -- master of the news, traffic, and MOR pop format -- it was probably Anne Murray's "You Needed Me."

My dad loved the adult contemporary female singers -- all the better if they had a country streak (though I never knew him to listen to country music per se). Olivia Newton-John hit a chord, as I recall; Barbara Mandrell was one of his idols. When he and mom went to Vegas for a convention and he got to see Mandrell in concert, he seemed genuinely thrilled. (Naturally as a teetotaller and non-gambler, the shows were the main attraction of Sin City, and he forgave them if they went a little blue.)

I've written before, but probably can never write enough, about how important my dad has been in my life. He taught me optimism and loyalty, two principles that form the bedrock of the approach I try to take to my life. He and I don't see eye to eye on many matters of ideology, but he's always been sincere in his beliefs, never an opportunist or a reactionary, and that I deeply admire. Reading his devotional blog, I recognize his honest search for truth, although we start from quite different premises.

And the way that our world views overlap like the halves of a stereoscopic image, slightly different angles that add up to the same fundamental values, describes the music we listened to as well. I grew to love the version of pop that my dad responded to, even though my teenage ears yearned at the time for something harsher, younger, and (I thought) more authentic. It was at least secular, concerned with feelings I recognized as the hallmarks of adulthood (love in all its manifestations and results, good and bad); it was a closer cousin to the pop and rock my friends and older siblings sent my way than the hymns on the local Moody Bible Institute affiliate favored by my mother. Sharing it even without comment felt like a point of agreement.

It was always that way with my dad. What we shared was more important than what separated us, and listening ears were always open. Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


July 31, 2009

I walked into Archer's room yesterday and found Cady Gray holding a battered blue Magna Doodle. "Remember this, Mom?" she asked, holding it up. "Archer used to take this everywhere."

He sure did. And not just because he liked it -- because he needed it. Not that long ago, the most frequent sound heard in Archer's presence was the zip-thunk of the eraser bar being pulled back and forth. Archer kept track of things on that Magna Doodle. We didn't always know what he was keeping track of, but he had to do it. He scrawled scoreboards and charts and announcements and informational signs and highway numbers and who knows what all on there. Scribble, scribble -- ten or fifteen seconds -- zip-thunk, erase and do it again. All day long.

Magna Doodles don't last forever. The eraser bar gets hard to pull. The magnetic particles inside lose their potency somehow. The screen gets gray and accumulates dead pixels. And sometimes a boy accidentally leaves it in a restaurant somewhere, or can't locate it in his room. Such occasions were dire emergencies at our house. Archer would break down in tears and beg us to make it right. We usually had a spare one stashed somewhere, either a new one or an old discarded one. In extreme cases, these would not do; only the current Magna Doodle was acceptable. When it was time to buy a new one, we had to prep Archer that it was coming and why it was necessary, and he was usually fine with it. An ad hoc substitution -- "here, we have this new one to replace the one you can't find!" -- often led to howls of rejection and an escalation of the emergency.

"This is how you erase it," Cady Gray continued, demonstrating the technique. "Archer doesn't use this anymore." "I guess he doesn't need it," I told her.

"Hey Archer," I asked, as he entered the room. "Remember when you used to carry this MagnaDoodle all the time? You don't do that anymore, do you?"

He paused for a moment in the midst of getting whatever he had come for. "Yeah, I don't need it. I can just keep track of the points in my head now."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New and nearly new

I've been hanging on by a thread at work for the last few months with a crippled laptop. My beloved Lenovo tablet has been plagued by a problem with the screen, which flips around to turn the machine from a laptop to a tablet. Three times I had a problem where the screen only rotated with difficulty, followed by a failure of the display. The first two times I took it to IT, they sent it away, and it came back with a new motherboard. The third time we were ordering replacement computers for several faculty members, so rather than continue the cycle I decided to upgrade to the new model.

A laptop without a working screen is, in effect, a desktop, since it has to be hooked up to a monitor to be useful. So anytime I've needed mobile computing in the last half of the semester, I had to remember to bring my Macbook Air from home.

Today I got the replacement tablet, and boy is it sweet, what with a screen that lights up and displays information, and the ability to lift it out of its dock and carry it about whilst it still functions as a computer. One more step in getting my electronics environment back in working order.

While Noel and the kids are gone over the weekend, I'm hoping to set things up so the kids can have a computer of their own. For that to happen, I have to take old technology and make it new again. Not only does the computer need to be brought into the second decade of the twenty-first century, but I have to set up an old wireless access point to work with our more up-to-date network. It will be like recreating the configuration we had in 2003 and gluing it onto the side of the whiz-bang 2011 version.

If it works (which is by no means assured), the whole thing will be new to the kids; they'll be thrilled. I'll be thrilled, I admit. I love taking the old and making it new again -- it validates my packrat ways, since a sane person would have displosed of this eight-year-old computer and wireless pod long ago.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


This time of year comes with so much to celebrate. My oldest nephew graduated from high school and will study and run track in Maine this fall. Father's Day is this weekend. And birthdays of friends and family continue apace.

August, as is well known, is the only month without a major holiday. For us, though, it's the biggest month of the year, with both kids' birthdays occurring in the same week. July has Independence Day, which is a big deal for some families, but usually passes quietly for us with maybe a picnic, and the scary fireworks safely confined to the TV.

I mention celebration only because I'll be passing the run-up to Father's Day in an unusual situation -- as a single, childless woman. Noel and the kids are going to visit the Tennessee grandparents on Thursday, coming back on Sunday. I'm looking forward to having the time and space to work on some projects around the house, like reconfiguring our computer set-up to be centered in Archer's room, getting rid of the huge desk where it currently sits, and clearing out the space for my planned crafting center.

When they get back it will be Father's Day, and I'll only have a few hours to make the day special. Getting the kids to make cute cards or breakfast in bed is out -- they won't be here. A nice present (that Noel knows about) is underway but won't be ready in time for his return. It will be special for me to see him and the kids again after a few days apart. Maybe enough of a gift would be to take the kids off his hands and leave him to enjoy a special dinner in solitude.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Information cascade

When it rains it pours, and when there's a drought you can't buy a break. Noel and I have been without laptops since the middle of last week. Mine got to the repair shop today, which was expected -- I sent it ground and decided to live with the slow pace. Noel was hoping to have his back the same day, but ended up having to leave it over the weekend and retrieve it today.

We were muddling through, dealing with things that don't work so well (posting to the AV Club content management system, chiefly), until I screwed up our network connection in a misguided affort to refurbish an old computer. We had a tense couple of hours of no internet at all while I tried to either put things back the way they should be, or create a new configuration that would work.

Then this morning Noel stopped receiving e-mail, and when I tried to send him something I got back a "user quota exceeded" error. Turns out our local ISP isn't too generous with the amount of e-mails it will let you keep on its server; the 500 or so that Noel had gotten over the last several days was too much for them. When he was able to get his laptop back and actually take the e-mails off the server, everything got back to normal.

It always seems to be that way -- when you're down, the universe kicks you, and when you're trying to work around less than optimal circumstances, your window gets narrower and narrower.

But in a good sign for thinking and acting sensibly about networks, online community guru and personal hero of mine Derek Powazek has started a new project to counter skeptical, doomsaying, or downbeat assessments of the internet and our interactions through it. Amusingly, it was inspied by a particularly off-the-mark tweet by a respected commentator. I like where Derek is going with this -- especially as foreshadowed by his Declaration of Principles. Follow his progress on this tumblr, and enjoy the counter-narrative that's so badly needed.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A year on

Our kids are turning seven and ten this August. I guess they all feel like big ones, but these are huge, surely, by any stretch of the imagination. One goes from an age that people associate with kindergarten to the middle years of childhood -- on her way to tween-dom. The other is heading to double digits, with adolescence in his sights.

It's going to be big in another way, too. Cady Gray has learned to ride a two-wheeler on a beat-up freecycled bike, and now that she's getting independent with it, she needs a real bike of her own. So that's on the list for August. I'd like to get Archer a bigger Snap Circuits set. Cady Gray is ready for Narnia books and maybe even Harry Potter. I've already got a couple of new chess books in the closet for her brother's bookshelf.

What else should mark these momentous birthdays? Do you have gifts that have gone over well with kids like mine, or at similar ages? I'd love to get even more ideas.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sharing time

A few links of recent interest:

- As our kids begin to use the internet more, we wonder whether we've given them enough guidance to keep them safe and help them use good judgment. This online curriculum on digital literacy looks like it might improve their understanding of online communication, which I think is more important than a collection of rules.

- After my freshmen focused on spontaneity, altruism, and community pride in their service project last semester, I'm intrigued by this study of heroism. I wonder whether it might spark ideas among a future group of students about what conditions lead to individuals doing extraordinary things.

- How about this craft to do with your kids this summer? Klutz has a new book with everything you need to make bouquets of papercraft flowers. And Craftzine posted a free rose project from it to whet your appetite. I think Cady Gray would love to try this with me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Solo entertainment

When you're a couple with kids, seeing the latest movie or show takes on a whole new complexity. You have to find someone to stay with the kids to make your night out possible, adding planning and expense to the equation. This makes non-home-based entertainment a rarer proposition than for your single or childless friends.

Of course, you have another option -- you could choose to go out separately, making the childcare question moot. That's easy enough when only one member of the couple is interested in the show. When both are, though, there's a feeling that you ought to wait to see it together, both in terms of economy and solidarity.

We were hoping to get a sitter this weekend to go see Super 8, but haven't been able to find one. And Noel and the kids are going to be out of town next weekend. So he decided to go out on his own to see the movie tonight (and run a couple of other errands), since I would have plenty of time while he's gone to see it on my own.

That makes perfect sense, and while I wish we were going to be able to experience it together and discuss it afterwards -- it's one of our more anticipated films of the summer -- that means depriving him of the chance to see it for the next couple of weeks.

Noel deserves a night out; he's not only been working hard but also dealing with the sudden addition of two full-time summer-vacation kid charges to the household for the last two days. And I'll get the time back in spades when he takes them to Nashville next week -- not that an evening at home with them is hard work, since they are hard at play together in their rooms by 6:30 pm. Still, even though it's eminently reasonable to split up the moviegoing, it feels like a regression to a pre-married or pre-kids era, or a temporary pause in the agreed-upon arrangements. With such unspoken consensus about our mutual time, we have forged habits that are surprisingly rigid even when they do not serve any perceptible interest.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The magic box

I took my iPad to places it's never been before today. Hooked up to a projector, paging through Keynote slides, playing movie clips. Those are things I know how to do on a computer, and that familiarity has bred comfort. I'm confident that I can get the desktop extended or mirrored on the projection screen, that I can bring up the items I want to display, that I can switch between media.

But not until I did all those things on my iPad did I realize how much harder I had to work to do those things on a computer. With the monitor duplicated or extended, you have to work hard at showing the audience only what you want them to see, not the logistics behind the scenes. Take movie clips; I normally do this by bookmarking scenes on DVDs, switching the DVDs out one by one, letting the DVD load, selecting the bookmark, and all the while finding a way to cover the projector or get this all done on the monitor screen so that my audience isn't distracted by watching all this activity.

The iPad doesn't allow video out except for Keynote presentations and playing videos. That's a bug for some uses, but a definite feature for the way I used it today. The audience sees only what you intend to present -- not the desktop, not the application around it, not menus, not cursors It allows you to perform, not operate a computer in public. When the clip is over or the presentation ends, the iPad stops projecting. No more seeing "End of slideshow, click to exit" or the Powerpoint navigation view -- sights we've all come to expect, yet which nevertheless remain suboptimal, jarring, unprofessional.

I spent 100% less time keeping track of my technology -- to start and stop it at the right time, to navigate to what I wanted, to push buttons and keep the flow of the session moving at the same time -- and 100% more time focusing on my audience. That's the iPad magic that it's hard to show in a commercial, harder to explain, since it relies on recognizing a problem that most of us elide as unavoidable and therefore forgivable. Sometimes it takes a different approach, a different tool, to make you aware of how many compromises and work-arounds you were enduring before.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Safety first

A few days ago, Ravelry announced that its user database had been breached. The hackers got encrypted passwords that they could potentially (given enough time, computing power, and determination) decode the passwords. Ravelry's owners and programmers forced everyone to change their Ravelry passwords, and advised them to change passwords as well on any other site where they might have used the same password.

I've written about internet security before, but I'm certainly no fanatic about it. Like most frequent users of online services, however, I've gradually become aware that the practices that seemed just fine when the 'net was young and one's user accounts were in the single digits are now profoundly unhealthy. In particular, the problem of the "usual password" has become acute.

I have a usual password. I'll bet you do, too. It's something meaningful only to me. I stick a number or two on the end sometimes (usually only if the site forces me to have a password of a certain length). Whenever I'm creating an account to buy one thing, or to get access to something free, or to try out a service, I use it. Usually I give a fleeting thought to whether my profile contains sensitive information, but only in the cases of banks and insurance and such do I feel the need to be extra careful and have a unique password.

Ravelry was one of those places where I used the standard password. It was just yarn and projects and chat, after all -- no credit cards or social security numbers. But the break-in revealed how foolish it is to use a site-by-site judgment. If a hacker can get that password in one place, he can crack all the places where you've used it. That goes double if, like many of us, you have a standard username that you use all over the internet (it just so happens that my Rav username is unique).

Once you start thinking about the amount of information that might be found when you put all those sites together, it's overwhelming. My cavalier attitude toward keeping my financials "extra safe" with unique passwords isn't enough.

Thank goodness I've been a user of LastPass for some time now -- that has enabled me to have unique random passwords for a lot of my sites. But I ran their security check program after the Rav break-in and was stunned to find that I had dozens of sites with my standard password. Dozens. The list went on and on.

As of yesterday, I changed every single one to a random string, stored in LastPass. I kept my e-mail login meaningful only to me, using a phrase with substitutions and transpositions; I want to be able to store that one in my biological memory bank, since it's what I'll need to access the "forget password" processes of all the other sites if I can't get to my LastPass vault for some reason.

I've been lucky rather than secure. I'm still not inconveniencing myself unduly with the 2-factor authentication schemes and the like that are available, but at least I've gotten myself to the point that I should have reached several years ago. Without password management tools, though, keeping track of strong, unique passwords for every login would be inconceivable. With such software, it becomes simply a matter of overcoming inertia and complacency to do what's right.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

It's really here

I'm always fascinated by the rhythms of life in higher education. I don't have my summers off, like my colleagues who are on nine-month contracts, but things do change in the summer. The schedule is empty, the office is empty, and everything slows way down.

When you have kids, the slight mismatch between their academic year and yours creates interesting eddies in the flow. I've been done with classes since the first week of May, and with major office work since mid-May. But Archer and Cady Gray's last day of school wasn't until today. That means there were three weeks where I was on summer time, as it were, but with the added luxury of having the kids occupied during the day.

That's the interval where one probably ought to really focus on getting important stuff done. But it's also the moment when you most need a breather after a full year of work and (for me, this year) a very hectic and unusually intense spring semester.

I have made good use of these weeks -- better than usual, anyway. Plenty of writing, progress on research. And as administrative tasks have come up, I've been able to respond quickly. There are several long-term tasks for the summer still ahead of me -- some big (sketching out my major conference presentations for the fall), some smaller (overhauling the syllabus for my handcrafting class to reflect lessons learned from the first iteration), and some ongoing and collaborative (producing an annual report for the academic year just past, designing a curriculum workshop to be presented after the national honors conference in October, coming up with a strategy for creating an Honors Handbook).

Now that the kids are officially on summer vacation, though, there's one more thing on my plate -- helping out with kid care whenever I can to allow Noel to get his work done. The respite while the Conway School District was taking care of that for us is over. Summer may still be a more relaxed time work-wise, but we still have to face the reality that there are going to be two kids underfoot in somebody's office until day camps start ... at the end of June.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Computer free

As we all know, you can fill your house with computers, as many as you like, and they will all fail at once. We have two main computers at home, my Air and Noel's iBook. Both have failures that require them to go to the shop this week. The Air left today to have a broken hinge replaced; Noel will be calling about his battery-bulge problem tomorrow.

And of course, the moment they all fail is one of the several times a year when you have some public presentation to make that isn't a simple matter to transfer to another device. I have a Keynote presentation I give to incoming freshmen at our summer orientation session, which takes place this Thursday. I could export it to a Powerpoint and use a Windows laptop to present it -- if my Windows laptop weren't essentially a desktop right now, with a dead screen requiring it to be hooked up to an external monitor to be useful. That works in a pinch for a presentation, but it's not optimal to have to glance behind you at the screen to know what you're projecting.

Before sending off the Air, I put the presentation on my iPad (through the GoodReader file transfer and PDF reader app), and today, with some trepidation, I downloaded the iPad version of Keynote to see if I could do the presentation directly from the device. The presentation needed some serious updating for this year, too, and so I began working through the process of editing it. My trepidation turned gradually to delight. Placing elements on the slides, adding transitions and orchestrating movement, even grabbing screenshots from other apps (PDFs, webpages) and inserting them into the show was far more intuitive than using a mouse and screen interface. I especially appreciated the ease of zooming in on anything the iPad can display, taking a screenshot, inserting the image from the iPad's photo library, resizing and masking it to show just the part I need, and adding annotations and highlights.

The experience was exhilarating. I ended up going much farther in improving the presentation, replacing outdated images to more closely match what the families will be looking at on their handouts, and making the flow more intuitive. Next time I'm skipping the laptop and going straight to the iPad to make my presentation -- and I can't wait to experimenting with hooking the device up to the projector and controlling it via touch.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Collecting bottles and thrown-away cans

Today's post about the instant gratification of a summer hat is at Toxophily.


I've actually got a bunch of finished objects from the past month or more. This one is too summer-perfect (and its owner too breathtakingly beautiful) to wait.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Daily reading

You'll find a lot of folks out there decrying the dumb stuff to be found on the internet.  Absolutely -- like everything, 90% of the internet is crap.

But what people miss when they talk about the idiocy of Twitter or blogs or whatever is that you get to choose what you read therein.  You could send a Martian into any bookstore and they'd conclude that books are mostly awful, because awful dominates in terms of sheer volume -- self-help, diet, celebrity, cash-ins, etc.  We don't think of books as a sewage pit because we know we don't pick a random sampling to read, but make informed choices based on what we want to read.  And within the range of things we might want to read are more wonderful books than we could consume in a lifetime, even though that range constitutes only a small sliver of the pie chart of books the market produces.

If, like me, you experience in the internet mostly through a feed reader, the internet looks very different than it does to the doomsayers.  I subscribe to interesting sources through Google Reader, then flip through the hundreds of documents it serves up daily for me using the fantastic iPad app Reeder.  In thirty minutes I can discover two essays I want to use in class, useful advice, cogent perspective on current affairs, inspiring and sobering personal stories, and a good laugh.  If I see something I think deserves wider attention, I hit a button to share it with folks who have chosen to follow me; similarly, many of the items I read are those my friends have passed along by hitting that same button.

Seen through my screen, the internet is a place that enriches, informs, and entertains me every day.  I choose to filter out the crap.  You do, too, every time you watch something you've DVR'd rather than flipping channels, every time you go to your favorite author's shelf in the library, every time you refrain from sweeping everything from the grocery store endcap display into your cart.  More choices always means a gross proliferation of crap, but that's not the important factor on which to focus -- instead, it's that we develop better tools for keeping our personal consumption nourishing, and watch the miniscule sliver of the pie that we want grow along with the part we're happily ignoring.

Friday, June 3, 2011

We are the champions

Today Archer competed in his first Quiz Bowl tournament with others in his fourth grade Pinnacle group.  They've had some practice in class, but live competition is always different.  My hope was simply that he would answer some questions, contribute to his team, and win at least one game before the elimination rounds in the afternoon.

Schools did not field teams.  Instead, students were assigned to teams once they got to the tournament.  Archer ended up on a team of students he didn't know, like everyone else in the tournament.  Two brackets were formed with eight teams each, made up of five students who competed four at a time.

The competition had been rescheduled from last week because the high school students and teachers who act as judges, timers, and coaches were unavailable on the original date.  The usual perils of a volunteer-run operation pertained -- folks had varying levels of ability and professionalism.  Lengthy second-round games caused all the remaining rounds to be cut by half.  Noel, who spent the whole day at the tournament, experienced some of the frustration of the sports parent anxious that the game be administered fairly.  But of course we appreciate the efforts of everyone to make it a great day for the contestants.

And what a day it was for Archer!  His teammates named him captain of Team Kangaroo (Noel told me that when the question of who should be captain was raised, everybody pointed at Archer).  His team dominated the early rounds that determined seeding for the elimination portion, resulting in a number 1 seed.  Only one of his team's games was still competitive entering the last round (that one was won on the last question); all the others were decided before the last round began due to Team Kangeroo's insurmountable lead.  Archer was the king of math computation questions, but also rolled through categories on baseball team names and forming plurals.  Best of all, as captain he was very good at asking his teammates for their input during the non-buzzer rounds.  In the end his team won their bracket and got to stand on the dais while "We Are The Champions" played.  Archer grinned, waved, and pumped his fist like he was on top of the world.

We were thrilled that he experienced such success the first time playing outside of his school.  One of the high schoolers serving as coach for another team remarked to Noel that Archer would be a monster player in a few years.  I can certainly see how that might be the case.  He has some strengths already under his belt; doing well will motivate him to seek expertise in other areas.

It was interesting and a little heartbreaking to see him among the other kids, so clearly different and out of place among their conversations and horseplay, spinning and humming to himself, having to make an effort to stay focused and moderate his impulses, prefacing his answers with "I think the answer is ..." and "I'm just going to say ..." instead of blurting out words or phrases like his teammates.  But what can happen with a competition like this is that he can gain the respect of others for a special skill, and others might want him included in what they do because of it.  That's the start to a connection, a social group.  As long as something like that exists for him, he will continue to grow in the areas where he experiences the biggest challenges.  And there will be the potential for friends, for kids who will assist and protect him in the jungles of the school system, something that gives me hope.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fixer upper

Last summer we finally did something about our ramshackle, deteriorating landscaping in the front yard, putting up a new retaining wall and installing some grass.  Given how much needed to be done, the operation, modest as it was, exhausted our available resources and made a big difference right away.

Now we're ready to think about phase 2, installing some beds and features and reshaping the existing borders.  Another big operation, but summer is the time for such things.

It's also the time to make sure everything we use regularly -- like cars and computers -- is in good working order.  Naturally, when you start looking, you find things that need to be fixed.  After I wrote a week ago about needing a new MacBook Air sometime soon, the notoriously unreliable screen hinge cracked on me this morning (with an audible "snap").  And Noel, who's been having trouble with his iBook's trackpad, suddenly discovered the cause today -- a bulging battery, something we've never seen before but that has been a problem in various models for several years.  Noel's computer is still covered by AppleCare, and mine should be covered by a recall of these hinge assemblies that Apple announced earlier this year, but we'll see if we end up being out any money.

Summer is also the time of long car trips -- the most miles we put on our cars every year, given that we don't have commutes to speak of.  Both cars need checkups to make sure they're fully road-worthy.  And finally, following Noel's good example, I need to get on with a new general practitioner and have a full physical.  I'm back with my gynecologist and I've been in good health, but with aging knocking on my door I need to be ready.

There are a lot of things in our lives and property that need work.  We can't do all of them.  But isn't it nice that the summer is here, with its open calendar and vacation days, so that we can do some of them, making steady progress toward our responsibilities and our future.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Farewell, fourth grade

There are only a few days left in Archer's fourth-grade year -- and therefore in his whole elementary school career.  Next year he heads off to middle school (a foreign concept to me; my elementary education went through sixth grade, at which point we immediately went into junior high).

I asked a few weeks ago for ideas for teacher gifts.  What I decided on were bookmarks I could make out of leftover sock yarn, and little crochet baskets suitable to sit on a desk and corral post-its, stickers, and the like.

I gave all the special subject teachers (art, music, PE) gifts at Christmastime.  So I think I'll be sending these gifts to the administrators -- principal, assistant principal, etc. -- as well as the classroom teachers.

Time is running out.  Tomorrow Archer will get at least one award in the end-of-year ceremony (a note was sent home alerting us).  Soon he will be done with this school that has served us so well for five full years, headed out into a new adventure.  I know my little gifts are inadequate to express how much we owe to the school and its personnel.  But I hope they will be accepted in the spirit of our gratitude.