A year or two ago (have I been dealing with this for so long?), I did something that has essentially turned my neighbors against me.  Or at least, it feels that way.

Something happened, and I didn't handle it well.  I frequently don't handle social things well.  Its paradoxical, considering that if people - specifically, my neighbors - took the time to really get to know me (and vice-versa), they might understand why I don't handle these things well.

Not that the circumstances matter, but it had been a trying month.  I don't want to get into specifics, but suffice to say, it was an unusual evening in that my entire family had sat down together for some family time, and we were enjoying each others' company.  It was a rare occasion after such a trying month, and something I longed desperately to accomplish.

Our evening was interrupted by a doorbell.  When I answered the door, nobody was there.

I should say at this point that we had been victims of a frequent "ding-dong-ditch".  I don't know exactly why, but I think it was due to some animosity built up between our kids and the neighbor kids.

Our kids had spent their summers playing in the trees beside the house.  Under the cover of the huge evergreens, they invented club houses and "shops" for pinecones.  They played with many of the neighbors, but a handful of them didn't want to play the same way our kids did.

I don't know how to describe how our kids are different from the other kids on the street.  I'd start by saying that our kids are not "sporty", but they do play sports, so that's not the entire picture.  Our kids aren't "joiners".  Our kids are creative and empathic, sensitive perhaps beyond what tough skins kids need to have.  As a result, they don't understand kids being "mean" even when they don't mean to.  And they don't really have a tolerance for it, extricating themselves from their own play just to avoid those scenarios.

Also, I hate to call this out, but I think it colors the situation too strongly.  Riley has a tic.  It's reasonably mild, but it is noticeable.  I don't really know how other kids react to it, because he doesn't really allow himself to be close to other kids.  He doesn't like his photo taken.  He's stubborn.  He's strong-willed.  He's actively smart.  He's disturbingly like me when I was his age, and I think that's the only reason I've been able to cope with a lot of his foibles -- because I'm so like him.

The bottom line is that our kids essentially sent the other kids away from the clubhouse in the trees.  They didn't like how the other kids played.  And the other kids, being excluded, did even more things that our kids construed as "mean".  As an adult outsider, it seems like somewhat normal play.  Had our kids embraced it instead of decrying it, it might have all worked out for the good.  Instead, our kids don't really have friendship with the neighbor kids, which alienates them even more.

But I can only suggest being inclusive to the kids so much when their response is always in the tone of, "Why should I play with kids that are mean to me?"  And I don't have a good answer for that.  I can tell them that maybe the other kids aren't really mean.  Or they don't really mean it.  And maybe if they themselves were better friends toward them, they wouldn't be mean to them.  Maybe I could have been a better parent, but there's only so much you can do.  The kids will make their own choices, ultimately, even if they're hard.

So, the doorbell.

Nobody was there.  I had just sat my family down for a night of peace for the first time in a long while, and then this assault.  I had my guesses as to who it was that was doing this to us, these impressions provided by the neighbor kids' animosity toward ours.

I was about to close the door, put it out of my mind, and just get on with my evening, when I heard a dog yapping in my driveway.  The boy up the street - one with which my kids have always had a particularly hard time relating to - constantly has this little dog in tow.  He follows him everywhere.  And here was this dog, yapping at something in my driveway.  It was now completely obvious that my intuition on the culprit was correct.  Or so I thought.

From the dark, a voice.  "They're going to know it's you if he's barking like that."  An adult.

What?  What is this madness?  Encouraging your kid to do this?  Is this a joke?

It took me a moment to find my shoes and storm across the street to the neighbor's yard, from where I'd heard some noise.  Many neighbors were there, enjoying a fire pit, as often happens around here.  I'm no longer invited to these, by the way.

The particular neighbor who I am certain I heard in my driveway and his boy were present. And while everyone else was trying to have a good time, I said things that I probably should not have said.

There's no defense, really.  I have excuses.  I was tired.  Tired of the conflict in my own family.  Tired of being targeted by this miscreant ringing my doorbell and running off.  Tired of my kids being spent emotionally by the neighbor kids' attitude toward them. Tired of feeling ignored as a human by the neighbors in general, for whatever reason, whether because our kids don't play together, or we aren't "sporty" people, or we don't participate in the activities they do, or we aren't in sales, or that we both work, or that I just don't feel like I really belong in this neighborhood after having grown up in lower circumstances than the area in which we now live.

I shouldn't have done that.  I shouldn't have said those things.  At least, not there.

And now I suffer.

Today at the bus stop, I tried to speak to my neighbors, in spite of knowing that I'm anathema, but they didn't say a word to me.  Riley didn't want to be in the 1st day group photo they all took, which I knew.  We played frisbee in our driveway instead.  I wasn't ignoring you neighbors, or disrespecting you.  I was keeping my kid from starting his first day in a new grade by being miserable.

I hope Riley has a good day.  This is ruining mine.

Hello internet.

I hope you have come here because you've seen my pleas on social media and want to know what I'm raving about.  I will explain my concept to you simply:

I want you to send me a photo of you drinking something.

You may have some questions.  I will attempt to answer a few:


When I was working in Australia, I got a photo of my friend and co-worker, Donal, drinking a Coke Zero.  For reasons I can't remember anymore, but probably having to do with returning home to work alone all the time, I printed the photo and tacked it to the wall above my monitor.

Every day I look up at the photo and see Donal there, drinking his Coke Zero, and it gives me a sense of...  I dunno, it's just frikkin crazy.

However, one day I thought about all the people I knew online, who I was connected with one way or another, and how it would be cool to have photos of all of them, and how it would be especially neat if we could all have a drink together.

What are you planning to do with these photos?

I'm planning to print them out in as high quality wallet size as I can, then put them in a frame that I will construct specifically for that purpose.  I will hang the frame on the wall in my office.  Hopefully Donal will send me a new photo of himself, so I can replace the curling laser-printed paper.

It will look something like these, but in a much wider and taller grid of wallet-sized photos:

Will there be an electronic edition of the photos?

I currently have no plan to produce a sheet of photos of people drinking that just happen to know me, no.  But we'll see.

What is the composition of this photo?

There are two essential elements:  You.  Your drink.

Your drink does not have to be an adult beverage (and for some of you, it probably shouldn't). It would be nice if you included a note saying what your beverage was along with your photo so that I know what you're drinking if it's not otherwise identifiable.  Like, if you're drinking beer from a tumbler, you should mention what the beer is.

You can be drinking the beverage, or just holding it.  I prefer the photo not to be completely staged, if possible, but I'll take what I can get.  Ideally, the photo should "have interest" -- pose interesting questions about you, where you're drinking, what you're drinking, and why people would like to hang out with you.  If you need me to tell you why I'd like to hang out with you for inspiration, I will.

As for other criteria, it should probably be a decent photo (well lighted, in focus, etc.), and include only you as the centerpiece.  I'm not opposed to, for example, you drinking a Shirley Temple next to Mickey Mouse, or you with a beer and an arm around Lucy Lawless, just as long as it's clear that you're the person the photo is about.  Remember, it's going to be printed wallet-size, so a photo of you on a Californian cliff with the sun setting over the Pacific in the background while you drink a 50-year-old scotch is very cool, but I'll have to crop all that cool stuff out.

Beyond that, creativity is yours to command. 

Oh.  No nudes.  You're all quite lovely enough with your clothes on, thanks.  (Yes, I'm talking to you, Randy Walker.)

Can I send more than one?

Sure, but I'm only going to pick one for the frame.  Pick one or two, maybe three if you're really indecisive, and send them and that'll be fine.

If you feel like you should be doing more than just sending the one photo, you should convince/help the people that you know who know me to take a photo and send it.  Go out with them for a drink, take the photo for them, and then send it!  Easy!

Who can play?

Anyone can play, although if I get thousands of photos, I'm probably only going to make a frame to hold so many of them.  In that case, the people I actually know are going to get first placement.  See, this is about the people I could be drinking with, but can't.  Get it?

This is not to say you shouldn't send a photo.  Send a photo.

How do we do this thing?

You send me a photo.  I receive it by June 4th, 2014.  If the sheer fun of this project wasn't enough to convince you, then you should know that June 4th is when I celebrate my 40th birthday.  Didn't get me a gift?  No problem, send me your photo having a drink and we're square.  You can get me a gift, too, that's still cool.

I know it's only 17 days, but my goal is 100 photos.  If I got one photo from every person I follow on Twitter, that'd put me over, and I'd have a photo from Tatiana Maslany, which would be, like, Keanu-whoa.

Here's how you do it:  Send your photo file to drinkingbuddy@midnightcircus.com 


I'll let you know how it goes.  I probably won't start on the frame until I know how many photos will be going in it, but I'll surely post to let you all know how it goes.  Thanks in advance for your photo!

I read a piece by Cory Doctorow called Standardized testing and schools as factories: Louis CK versus Common Core which talks about a comedian who dislikes the application of Common Core.

I'm not writing to defend Common Core, at least not fully.  People around our district that talk about it seem to have a limited understanding or a skewed perspective on what it is.  I think the problems with Common Core are often not what people most frequently surface.

8ef7c930-b44a-11e3-84f5-9547b2943d40_commoncorephoto.pngConsider this critique of Common Core math homework.  It complains that the problem solved with Common Core techniques is significantly more complex than traditional methods.  But the traditional method of solving this seemingly simple subtraction problem (427-316) has some problems of its own.

First, using the "line up the numbers and subtract the bottom from the top" method for the solution is just as much a contrived procedure as the Common Core way.  There is no intuitive leap that a child can take that puts these numbers in this layout to ease the subsequent artificial process of subtracting the bottom number from the top.

Second, if the problem required "borrowing", such as the problem 427-336 might, the traditional method gets much more complicated.  In contrast, the Common Core method of solving the problem is exactly the same.

Third, the Common Core method of solving the problem gives a more complete and fundamental intuitive explanation of why a person can solve the problem in this way.  The traditional method doesn't provide any explanation of - when you subtract the 3 from the 4 you get a 1 - what has actually happened to the quantities involved.  Having this intrinsic understanding of the number is incredibly important to build on for subsequent math.  It's my opinion that lack of emphasis on this understanding when using a traditional approach to teaching math is the reason why our country is lagging so far behind the rest of the world in mathematics concepts!

I would ask parents who don't understand the Common Core concepts to consider whether they're willing to prepare their children with the appropriate tools for the future.  Using the old ways is like giving your child a chunk of clay and only ever showing them that it can make ash trays, when a better understanding of clay's properties and capabilities would be more likely to lead them to great artistry or utility.

Many complaints I hear about Common Core are from parents that simply don't understand how their kids are being taught a subject.  Rather than complain that you can't help them, why don't you try to learn what they're learning at school and participate?

Now, that said...

Common Core utterly fails when it comes to evaluation.  It presents these concepts in good, new ways, but then insists that everyone learn to produce the results in exactly the same way.  This is completely contrary to the advantages that Common Core can deliver!

Moreover, the standardized testing that Common Core encourages is so extremely gamed by the teachers that it's almost worthless.

I love (the majority of) our school district's teachers.  They're excellent at their jobs, and work in a bad market.  And I don't blame them for wanting to do their best to get the best for our kids.  Still, once a year for a whole week prior to actually taking them, the teachers focus on how to best take the assessment tests.  Not just strategies, but practice tests for the types of problems that will be on the test.

This isn't the kind of test that you'd want to do well on to get into college.  This is an assessment of how well the school is able to convey the Common Core topics to its students.  You can see that if you teach to the test, at least in the way I've seen our kids being taught, you're defeating the purpose of the test entirely.

There is also the case of kids learning at different rates and in different ways.  Sometimes, the students don't take tests well, or can't concentrate for the test, but yet be totally competent at the subject matter in a different environment.  Some students excel at the work, and are held back by having to study concepts that are well-known to them just so that their classmates can pass a portion of a state-mandated test.  Some students need help, and need to be coached through things they don't understand yet, which is not allowed on the test.  These are real, common problems that these all too common assessments don't seem to address well.

The quantity of these tests is astounding, and the importance that our school district lays on them is mind-numbing.  If we didn't spend as much time testing constantly, the kids might actually learn twice as much! 

I don't know what the answer is to these assessments, because clearly, we need to make sure that the students are learning what they need to learn at each level, and that the school is doing what it needs to do to achieve it.  But what assessment consists of in a perfect world? I don't know.  All I know is that the current situation is not the best case.

Worse, I believe our schools are suffering by focusing entirely on STEM education, at a detriment to the arts or a more well-rounded and integrated program.  Not all of our kids are going to be the scientists of the future.  And even those scientists will need a lens through which to interpret the influence, utility, and beauty of their work.

“Martin, did you ever play basketball?”


“Tell me, what’s a foul?”

“It’s when a player breaks one of the rules. Do it five times and you’re kicked out of the game. Six, if it’s the NBA.”

Phillip smiled. “Good. The best way I’ve ever summed up the war as I see it is that one side, our side, sees a foul as being against the rules, and if you do it too many times you have to be removed. The other side, Jimmy’s side, sees fouls as things you’re allowed to get caught doing several times, and if you don’t, you aren’t trying hard enough.”

“So you’re mad at Jimmy because you think his side cheats at life.”

“Partly. Mostly I’m mad because I’m pretty sure his side is going to win.”

Meyer, Scott (2014-03-18). Off to Be the Wizard (Magic 2.0, Book 1) (Kindle Locations 2566-2572). 47North. Kindle Edition.

Last Saturday, Riley and I took our car to compete at Cub Pack 32's pinewood derby race, placing 2nd among the 33 racers submitting cars.

The Design

Last year's car didn't make it out of the shaping phase.  We got the car down to the shape and added weight, but I forgot to weigh it with the wheels.  When I tried to take some wood out of the center with a rotary saw, it went haywire, taking out way too much wood, extremely weakening the car frame, and still coming out overweight.  We had to bow out of the race.  But not this year.

We started concept work on the car months ago, beginning with me asking Riley what theme we should strive for this year.  His vehicles are all named after animals that are not typically known for their fast movement. The Penguin might go fast in the water, but it certainly doesn't through the air of a rocket derby. The Turtle is well known for its slow movement. October's rocket derby featured Riley's Skunk, which took first place.  This year's theme?  The Squid.

We looked online for some squid designs for inspiration, and found a few good ones.  We settled on one and I drew up some mock-ups.  Riley liked what we came up with, so we pressed forward.

I'm both surprised and not surprised that nobody asked about the process we used to paint the car.  All of the cars were styled differently, and Riley's was certainly done with a different technique from the rest.

After the car was sealed and primed (which Riley helped with), I transferred the squid design using tracing paper onto the primer coat.  I then painted the "water" area with frisket, which is a rubber cement-like substance that covers an area that you don't want to paint, then peels off later.  With the frisket dry, Riley used an air brush to paint the squid.  The use of the airbrush gave the car a fantastic flat paint quality that a regular brush couldn't come close to.  There were some other cars that obviously used spraypaint, but didn't include the frisket for detail.  Anyway, I'm happy with how that turned out.

I intended to use the frisket again to cover the squid parts and allow Riley to airbrush the water blue, but I was afraid the frisket would take off the squid-colored paint, since we didn't have a lot of time to let it cure to the primer.  So instead, I hand-painted the water with some dry-brushed black "seaweed" at the front of the car.  This even had the effect of making the blue water look watery, which was a cool side-effect.  Overall, I think the car looked great.

The Engineering

The pinewood derby is a hot contest among some scout dads who go into the race for the competition.  Some people complain that it becomes a contest between dads, rather than a fun activity for the scouts.  I wanted it to be as much of a learning experience for Riley as possible, but it's simply impractical for him to use a band saw at age 9.  So I involved him as much as I could, and made sure he understood the science behind the things I was doing to the car, even if he wasn't doing those things directly.

There were many things we did to make the car go fast.  I cut the wood block thinly, with a narrow, "aerodynamic" front, and space in the back for weights.  We drilled the axle holes with a tool that guaranteed straight axles, and lifted one wheel entirely from the track to reduce friction.  I drilled out holes for the weights in the back of the car, so that the weight could stay on the down-slope for as long as possible to give the car that extra "push".  We put slightly more than the allowed 5 ounces of weight in the car with weighted putty, so that we could slowly remove the extra weight and hit the 5 ounce limit from above, rather than trying to raise the weight from below.  The wheels were selected for consistent spin and balance from a large set, then the bores were polished.  The axles were polished with increasingly finer sandpaper until they were absent of visible scratches under a magnifying glass.  The axles were ever-so-slightly bent to allow them to be aligned in a particular way.  The alignment of the car was tested and re-tested to go not completely straight, but to allow the three-wheeled car to effectively track the rail while racing.

And that's just the stuff off the top of my head.

Riley helped with many of these things, and watched the things that were not safe for him to do (or he was too nervous about to handle himself).  I was particularly proud of him polishing the axles after I told him it was one of the most important parts.  He took to the tedious process and did a great job.

Overall, I think you can ask Riley about any aspect of the car, and he'll at least know why we did it, if not having had a hand in it himself.  I think this combined with having the chance for us to work on a project together are the most important parts of the derby, and I think we did alright.

The Race

I volunteered to chair the race committee in 2015, so I wanted to be involved in the race this year to know how everything was set up.  Our pack has a good track record of smooth events, so I feel getting knowledge passed on from a predecessor is an important part of keeping things running smoothly.  As such, I showed up early on the day of registration to help set up the race area, the track and electronics, and registration itself.

Our track races four cars at once and uses an electronic timer to detect race starts and finishing places.  This is all hooked to a computer with software to schedule races, monitor the race outcomes, and produce the result reports.

On the day of the race, I volunteered to place the cars on the track and release the gate to start the race.  This was a lot of fun, but also a bit nerve-wracking, since setting a car on the track at the wrong angle could cause it to lose, and many cars were balanced very weirdly, making them harder to place on the track than you might think.  Really, it's a complex job!

The downside of this position is that I could not easily watch the races.  There is a mechanism in the release that resets the timer in the electronics, and it was too much of a temptation to reset the release right after the cars crossed the finish line, rather than waiting the appropriate amount of time so that the results could be seen and recorded.  The end result is that I didn't actually watch many of the races.  In fact, I did watch the very first race (which had Riley's car in it), and I screwed it up, which led me not to watch any of the other races.

That said, from what I heard and what little I did see myself, Riley's car did very well.  His average speed on our track was around 233.7 MPH, scaled to the size of real cars.  As far as I know, this average speed was faster than anything else on the track.  In many of Riley's races, his car seemed to pull away from the other cars on the flat, which seems to defy a car's capabilities.  Really, this is all about weight placement and center of gravity, something that Riley and I spent a lot of time talking about and working on.

The races were broken into 3 sets of heats.  The first set was all 33 cars racing against each other.  These races determined winners within each den.  The second set was a semi-final, racing the top 16 cars to obtain the top 4 finishers for the pack results.  We ended up with some ties in that second set, so our final set of races had 6 racers.

Riley took first place in his den during the initial heats, which earned him a medal.  My dad took video of some of these races.  His car placed first in the semi-final, moving on to the final race.  In the final set of races, he won the first race, but came in second place for the next two.  This was fairly disappointing, considering his consistent first place finishes in all the other races.

Later, we found that the axle locks (small hex screws we used on the bottom of the car to hold the axles in and at a specific position) on three of the wheels had been ripped out of the bottom of the car.  The end of the track has some rubber ramps to keep the cars from shooting off the end, and these probably caused the damage.  When we handled the wheels, at least one of the axles was very loose, sliding in and out with very little effort.  It's surprising that the car did as well as it did in this condition, and I can only assume that had the axle locks held up, Riley would have passed the first place car, just as it had on every prior race in which they had been matched.

Still, second place is a great showing, and the races at the end were all very, very close.  In fact, the race data shows that Riley's car and the winning car had the exact same average speed in the final set of races, down to the tenths of a MPH.  It just nosed out the Squid in those last two races, putting him ahead.  Good job, Christopher.

There was also a people's choice award, where the scouts vote for their favorite car design.  In previous years, only the top car would receive an award.  This year, we did first through third place medals, which I think is a great idea, considering how much time scouts and their parents spend on these cars.  Riley's friend, Colin, won second place with his classic Batmobile-like car, which was shaped out of the wood block with a Dremel tool.  Pretty cool.

Placing in the top three in our pack means that we get to advance to the district race.  This year, the Horseshoe Trail District pinewood derby race will be May 10th at the Exton Mall.  I'm excited to see Riley's car compete in this cool public venue, and to actually be able to watch the race!  We should have adequate time between now and then to repair the damaged axle locks, and to re-tune the wheels to run perfectly again.  There are even some small things that we didn't have time for that I think will make a difference in this race against the best cars in the district.  It's exciting to get a chance to race again against Christopher's first place car.

Next Year

I have some subtle ideas for improving the race next year.  Nothing too fancy, but it could make the experience better for the boys.

Next year, I think I will allow each scout three votes for people's choice instead of just one.  It may make tallying a little more complex, but I think it'll even out the distribution.  The car that won people's choice this year was another (this is a running theme since we've been in scouts) Minecraft-themed car.  It was admittedly a very nicely done car, and in my opinion, deserved first place.  But it would be nice to see some leveling-out of the votes.  If a kid's first vote goes to the one his friends voted for, then the other two might go to cars based on their actual design.  Just a thought.

Also, I'm thinking to make some upgrades and repairs to the track components.  The rubber stoppers at the end of the track need replaced.  They're very worn and don't always work.  We had to put a blanket at the end of the track to catch many of the cars that shot right past the rubber.

I want to do some work on the gate mechanism, so that the gate works the way I've seen on other systems.  Our gate is held up by rubber bands.  To release the gate, you twist the board that holds the pegs that hold back the cars, and have to hold it down until the race is recorded.  What should happen is the gate should be locked in place.  When a chuck is pulled, a spring or rubber band should pull the gate open, and it should remain open without holding it until someone lifts it back into place and re-locks it with the chuck.  Ideally, the chuck would be controlled by the same computer that records race results.

That's probably enough change, though I'd love to add that instant-replay capability I've seen to our track so that the end of each race can be played in slow-motion on the projector.  That would be pretty slick.