Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Slow and steady...

A couple hours here, half an hour there...and a week or so later, here we are, at the first dry-fit of the core of the case.

A "dry-fit" is basically an assembly with no glue. You use them to check the fit of parts, and to plan your actual glue-up (where seconds count). The dry-fit is where you find out whether your measure-to-cut ratio was high enough, and if your accuracy was on or off. So far, so good.

So far, there are about 25 biscuit joints in this thing. And they all lined up.

I expect to do a LOT of dry-fitting on this piece - it's going to have to be assembled in stages, and I will need to make sure that I plan the right step in the process to bolt in the 75-lb TV lift mechanism...which by the way has to be perfectly balanced and plumb...

It's actually coming faster than I'd expected - a little time after dinner here and there has really been productive. I find that when I'm not rushing and don't expect to make a huge milestone with each session in the shop, the accuracy goes up as I'm just trying to get each step just so rather than plow toward finishing. When the accuracy goes up, I spend less time fixing errors, scratching my head about how to proceed, and "re-working the design" unexpectedly.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Educating Jasper

So I just got back from a neurology lecture and book signing that I attended with my 10-year-old son. The author of the book gave a presentation along with some readings, basically describing the composition of Mind, as illuminated by disease, walking up from the level of the atomic, to the molecular/genetic, the cellular (intra- and inter-), to substructures, the brain itself, and then alluding to the further extension to the body and even beyond into the environment. It was a little over an hour of one guy talking and showing powerPoint slides with mostly words, and the occasional picture. No animations, no movies...just stories and concepts with the odd illustration. The audience sat on folding chairs in a small gallery - by the end even I was getting fidgety.

I'm not sure which surprised me more - the fact that he was not the only kid there (it was close - there was one other family speaking French to each other and English to the presenter), or the fact that he actually seemed to enjoy it.

Some background - a few weeks ago, we pulled him out of the local public school. It wasn't an easy decision in many ways; we actually liked the school (he was there K-3rd and up through March of 4th grade) and had put a lot into supporting it. Lee was extremely active in the PTA and on campus in general, I chaired the School Site Council (and still do, actually, for the rest of the year), and we knew the faculty and many of the parents very well. They are good people trying to do good things for the kids. It had simply become the wrong place for our son.

A little more background. This school is a very small neighborhood school, walking-distance from our house. The student body is a little over 300 kids, K-6. When we moved to the neighborhood, it was one of those schools people move to get into. The principal at that time had instituted all these fantastic programs, the test scores and API's were excellent, the culture was close-knit yet diverse. Then the budget crisis hit.

Since we enrolled Jasper in Kindergarten almost 5 years ago, we've been through 4 principals (5 if you count the one we never even met who was hired in June and had quit by August). The school narrowly escaped closure 2 years ago, and is now threatened again. Many of the more involved families have left, unsure of the school's future and tired of the emotional roller-coaster and the uncertainty. The budgets are miniscule and getting smaller, and the district is basically a giant money-sponge between the state and the actual classroom (or so it seems to me). Classes are large and in some cases chaotic. The district-imposed curriculum, with it's burden of no-child-left-behind-ism, has cut everything but math and language arts to the bare minimum, while doing the same with the number of hours/days of instruction in a given year. There is no funding or support for GATE or other programs for gifted and talented students; instead, the focus is on bringing those who are performing at low levels up to grade level standards - a very good and virtuous goal, and one that I support. Unfortunately, in the current budget climate that only has room for one priority, it leaves the kids who could go farther and faster to fend for themselves, and to become bored and demotivated - and at the critical middle-elementary stage, puts them at risk of becoming disenchanted with education as a whole.

This is exactly what we had started to see happening with our son the last couple of years. In the beginning, he was really excited about school and learning. But gradually, as he started pulling ahead in some areas (his mutant power is reading - he was reading at an 11th-grade level in 3rd grade) there was nowhere for him to go in class. In other areas, he was quickly learning the tricks of doing just enough to get by and escape reprisals. It didn't help that the bar is set so low in many cases. Like any other kid, he was starting to live down to expectations.

So when a string of incidents (I won't go into them here) started to get us worried about not only the academics but the overall climate of the school, we decided that it was time to change the strategy, and we got connected with some local families who were homeschooling. We could have transferred to another - larger - school, but right now transfers, especially mid-year, are hard to pull off unless there's a disciplinary issue. We could have gone to a private school...but even the lower-end of that spectrum is just beyond our means on one income (which is how we like things - we feel the "luxury" of one stay-at-home parent is something our kids should have). So, emboldened by the stories of a few friends and a strong network of like-minded people, we're giving the homeschool approach a try.

One part of the homeschool scene that many people (including me until recently) are unaware is just how much opportunity there is to, well, attend classes outside the school environment. There's a geology class at a nearby Natural History museum especially for homeschoolers - there are 6 sections of it, and we got the last spot of the last one. They're going to go visit a volcano at the end of the unit. We'll be doing some Oceanography, culminating in a trip to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Basically, we'll be building a curriculum from components, filling in the spaces with impromptu lessons (using math to calculate the tax at the grocery store or convert units in the kitchen, for instance), and using resources out there to make sure we're keeping track and documenting progress against benchmarks and that kind of thing (the one we've chosen is affiliated with the state, and even provides a certain amount of funding for independent classes). Living where we do, there really is a wealth of opportunity to design your own education.

Which is what brought me to this small gallery, to spend an hour in an uncomfortable folding chair, listening to a doctor and professor of neuroscience discuss the nature of the mind and how it relates to, and transcends, the physical structures it inhabits in the form of the brain, body, and environment.

With a 10-year-old boy, who sat through the whole thing in rapt attention, seemingly finding it just as fascinating as I or anyone else in the audience.

He listened to the various discussions brought up by the attendees, even asking a couple of questions himself. At the end of the lecture, he wanted to buy the presenter's book so he could get it signed, which we did. I think it's going to be a while before he can actually read and comprehend it, but maybe not. At the very least, it sparked an interest and something to reach for, in a way that wasn't specially-packaged or downgraded for kids.

Right now, at the beginning of this journey/experiment/adventure, I think that's what excites me most - the notion that we can give him the opportunity to learn about and participate in the real, actual world of real, actual ideas, on its own terms as well as his. Rather than picking an education from a menu that started out akin to McDonald's and is now trending more towards White Castle, we can take him to the farmer's market, and even the gourmet store now and then, so he can get not only a better educational meal, but a more real connection to its ingredients and where they come from.

It may not work out at all - we may discover that it's just not effective for him, that he doesn't take to it or progress well with it. Ultimately he may end up back in "regular school" if it becomes apparent that it's better for him. Then again, if it's really great for him, I'm glad we're giving him the chance to find out, and to take a shot at defining his own mind and its boundaries from the inside out. Or maybe from the atomic up.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Back in the Shop Again!

Today, I finally started the actual work on a furniture project I've been designing, planning, and generally preparing for for over a year - my stealth-tansu plasma TV cabinet. Here's what it will look like if I do everything just right...

The idea is to have a place for my new 50" Plasma TV to hide so that we don't have to look at the monolith from 2001 lying on it's side every time we walk in the room.

The TV will be lurking in there, waiting for someone to summon it, at which time it will rise from it's slumber behind the false back in the cabinet. Ideally, when you walk into the living room, there will be no sign that a television is even present.

For those who don't know, when I'm not working at my paying job, I spend my spare hours out in my woodshop, which is basically a detached 2-car garage in which I will never park a car, but instead have filled with various machines, hand tools and workbenches. I'm always happiest when I've got a good furniture project going, which really just isn't often enough.

Today, I spent about 4 hours in the shop, and made exactly 5 cuts. The dimensions of the cabinet are 89" long by 18" deep, and the base is 1" thick plywood. Since I don't have a big heavy cabinet saw with a luxurious cast-iron top, using the table saw for this was impractical, and probably dangerous. So I had to use the old SkilSaw, which is always a little tough to control especially when cutting thick stock. I solved that problem by building a fixed sled for the circular saw. Basically, it's a cleat that holds the saw to a piece of plywood with another cleat at the side that rides along the edge. The saw blade cuts through the jig and extends down to cut through the workpiece underneath. Below is a picture midway through a cut into the nice, shiny prefinished maple plywood I'm using for the case.

I gotta say, this thing worked like a charm. Managed an 8' long rip through 1" plywood with no wiggles, no burn marks, and leaving two nice, flat, 90-degree edges. The lesson here is: if you think building a jig to make a couple of simple cuts is a waste of time and materials, think again. Trying to make these long cuts with just a straightedge against the foot of the saw would have been dicey at best, and never would have come out as clean.

I finished up my day in the shop cutting the top of the cabinet and beveling the ends for the miter joints I'll be using to join the case.
Next step is to cut the sides of the case. Hopefully I'll be able to get to that next weekend, so stay tuned....

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

This is My Coffee Cup

It has been for a very long time. I bought it 20 years ago at my first job after high school. I've had this cup for over half my life.

I still remember acquiring it. There was a Denny's catty-corner from the plaza that housed the Tower Records where I worked. They had these lousy, brown plastic coffee cups in the backroom of Tower, and there were hooks by the coffee pot where people would hang them up, often claiming one particular cup as their own by branding it with a Merlin label bearing their name. I had one of these for a few months, but it quickly started to taste like an old washcloth, no matter how many times or how thoroughly I washed it.

I used to eat at that Denny's a lot. It was open 24 hours, and you could get breakfast anytime. My usual spot was a table back in the "lounge" area - it was dark, sparsely populated, and you could smoke. I got to know the waitresses pretty well, and they knew me. I was fond of the grilled ham and cheese with french fries. Often I didn't even have to order - they'd just bring it out without even asking. Once I only had $2, and was just going to get fries. The waitress brought me out my usual, saying "here's your fries." I don't remember if I ever paid her back, but I like to think I probably did.

The cup was $5, on sale at the front counter. It had this heat-activated design that started out as a blue-grey, mopey-tired-drowsy face that disappeared when the cup was filled with hot liquid to reveal a smiling, cheerful-awake-rosy-cheeked face. I bought it, took it back over to the Tower back room, stuck my name on it in Merlin's heat-transferred Helvetica bold, and hung it on a hook by the coffee maker.

I worked for Tower for about 7 years altogether, at 4 different stores over that time. Did everything from stock clerk, to shift supervisor, to book and magazine buyer, to deposit clerk. Some of my closest friends to this day were part of that first crew. It was the place I met my wife and mother of my children, had some of my most fondly-rememberd youthful indiscretions, and made the connections that ultimately landed me in my current career. And I got this cup.

It's still my "work coffee cup." It's sat on every desk I've occupied since, through 7 companies (including a brief return to Tower during the cold spell after the Internet Bubble burst). The heat-activated feature stopped working long, long ago, and now the face has this ambivalent look - it's mostly happy in appearance and expression, but there's this dim, hazy patina of fatigue overlaying it - most apparent around the eyes.

Kinda like me, actually.

This cup is almost a totem, a talisman - like one of those "horcrux" things from Harry Potter (the things you read when you have kids...), it's more than a possession at this point; it's become a kind of vehicle for a piece of my self. Like me, it's survived well enough, but has developed a permanent stain, not unlike a well-seasoned Meerschaum pipe, from all the things that have been poured into it and drunk from it. It's loyal - perhaps because nobody else but me would want to have anything to do with it. It ain't fancy, but it's serviceable. It is what it is, and it does the best it can.

Right now it's sitting on my desk, in my office. I'll see it there when I go back in, and I'll take it to the break room to fill it with whatever is in the urn - hot, fresh, mediocre coffee, or tepid, stale mediocre coffee...maybe tea instead, depending on the state of my stomach in the morning. I'll fill it up and drain it several times that day, and the next, and the next. One day it may follow me to a different desk, a different office, a different routine. Or it might stay where it is for years to come.

Either way, I hope it doesn't get broken. I need to keep it for awhile yet. One thing it has always done well and it continues to do well is to suffice. In every way, it continues to suffice. Day in, and day out. Kinda like me.