Thursday, December 30, 2010

Most Fun Christmas Gift This Year

For the kid who has everything plugged into her computer? This was just perfect. It's a tiny fish tank (think betta, goldfish or maybe one neon tetra...) that is powered by a USB connection. I think it is best not used when connected to a laptop (which might be moved without a thought for the tank), but for a desktop computer, this accessory is perfect. It even has lights and special nature sounds, as well as a pencil holder, clock and alarm. Here is Annika's short video of the tank, with Vladimir the fish on display.

Oh, when Annika opened this gift, she exclaimed that finally she would have a pet. What she failed to recall at that moment is that every pet we get seems to cling to her as "master" no matter for whom the pet was intended. I suppose it was about time we got her a pet of her own.

Merry Christmas!!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Slàinte mhòr, and St. John!

A took a turn at shoveling

T gets power for the electric shovel. Note Jayne Cobb hat.

The lights come on in our village.

In the bleak midwinter...or, not so bleak. It was pretty, but we all needed to work to get the snow out of the way. We got well over a foot, though the drifts are deceptive. It was not too heavy, but it was not too light, either. Poor snow for a snowball fight, yet it stayed put when shoveled. And the young ones reminded me last night to put the car nearer to the street than to the garage, for to minimize the clearing of the driveway.

They got the job done, and T drove the car into the street. He had never driven in snow before that moment, and getting the car back into the driveway proved too much, so Don took care of it, demonstrating his greatest skill--driving uphill in reverse. T's Jayne Cobb hat, made by his mother (who rarely knits) kept the cold off the head wound T acquired at school (which is quite nicely healed). More on T soon. Big changes to his plans are in the works.

Meanwhile, I was inside fixing a beef stew for the shovelers' dinner. And since today is St. John's I opened a bottle of wine--a glass for the stew, and a glass for the cook. Tonight we drink slàinte mhòr and St. John!

Last night, a friend came over from his house, three blocks in the direction in the photo, during the snowfall. Somewhere between there and here, he dropped his iPhone. We have yet to find it. St. Anthony?

So, Christmas is lovely here in NY, just outside the City, and all the kids are home, at least for now.

The First Tree in the Greenwood...

The view from under our holly
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Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Very Derham Christmas

Staples successfully removed from T's head.
A and M enjoy the day.

The umbrella from Blade Runner has a light on the handle for safety.
P will be cooking dinner.

T with "Jayne" hat.
A little music!
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

In Defense of Goodnight Moon

[Note:  Typical me--didn't notice the spelling mistake (since corrected) in the title.  I am sure the Brits didn't even notice.]

When a new mom asks for a book recommendation, the first book I think of is Goodnight Moon.  But it has come to my attention lately that some people just don't appreciate a literary bowl full of mush the way I do.

Of course, I like it because of the science:  The room darkens as night takes over (astronomy), a fire burns in the hearth and dries the mittens (chemistry and physics), there is a telephone (electricity and acoustics), a comb and a brush are potential sources of static (electricity), the colors red and green are part of the visible spectrum (see how they fade as the room grows dark!), kittens romp (animal behavior) and the old lady sits in a rocking chair (momentum).  And how long can that bowl full of mush endure (mycology)?

Well.  Not really.

Actually, there are plenty of reasons for me to dislike Goodnight Moon.  It has all of the annoying problems that I frequently bemoan when I read children's books.  For one thing, the poetry doesn't quite work, and the lack of scheme makes the occasional rhyme more of a surprise in this book than in a poem with measurable meter. It has a miserable commonplace vocabulary.  And it really doesn't go anywhere, but rambles on sleepily in a stream of bedtime consciousness.  And yet...I love it.

Perhaps I love it most for the bedtime routine.  There is the usual going to bed ritual, including the obligatory goodnights.  The rabbit child (for it is not a human child living in that room with kittens and mice--something I never noticed in my youth!) delays sleep by wishing goodnight to everything in the room, even, in a last sleepy effort to delay the inevitable, "goodnight nobody!" which was always my favorite line when I was a child.  (In fact, the concept of a lapine nobody reappears with gleeful charm in the character of A. A. Milne's Rabbit, as he attempts to fool visitors by pretending to be nobody at home.)  Now, the occasional rhyme gallops excitedly, making one think that there might be a reprieve from the inevitable sleep, but, alas, the old lady always whispers, "Hush."  Then, even the world quietens.

The room in the book resembles, in my mind, the room we stayed in when we visited my grandparents' house, though that room was neither great nor green.  When I was a child, the idea of a bedroom with a phone was unusual, but my grandparents had a phone in that spare room, and we children thought that was a marvel, playing with the dial, receiver in cradle, for hours.  There we had no fireplace, and no kitten; balloons were reserved for special occasions.  We had mittens, of course, and they were dried on racks like the one in the book.  If we had a mouse, it was usually dead in a trap.  The was a doll house, and a rocking chair, and my grandmother was always whispering Hush!  At night, that room became very, very dark.

I suppose, then, that my affection for the book may be as unique as it is personal.  And perhaps, readers of my age, with similar memories and taste, might purchase the book for young mothers, who, confused by the abundant accolades for Goodnight Moon might wonder, upon a first reading, "what's so great about this book?" and turn instead to the latest Elmo pablum.  But I hope not, for, as I recall, a bowl full of mush is so much more substantial.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Smart Stuff on Imagination, plus Books for Parents and Others

First, whet your appetite with a few lectures of interest, and a discussion of the fate of the picture book.

And now...
Finally, released for your reading pleasure!

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child.

Anthony Esolen's new book describes the ways in which society and schooling are harming our children.  Yes, I know you have heard that before.  So have I, and I have seen it both as a student and a teacher.  But of the many, many books, magazine articles and lectures on the matter with which I have become familiar, this book sums up my thoughts most completely, and rather more eloquently (he even shares my distaste for the term "play date").  It's one of those books that I fill with scrappy bookmarks and quickly scribbled margin comments.  Professor Esolen's playful reversal--like Lewis' Screwtape, the author expounds upon the worst of  imagination-killers as though they were the most worthy methods--reminds us of our own complacency, of how the unnatural has become the norm and the natural the enemy, unnoticed.   Read this and see if you agree. (I suspect I have much more to say about this, and  I may discuss this in depth here at a later date.  Stay tuned!)

Even if you have no children, don't miss Professor Esolen's wonderful Ironies of Faith.  I think it would be an excellent guide for a small book club reading group.  Ah, to have the time and company!

Also, fans, new and old, of Professor Esolen's work may also enjoy the quite wonderful Touchstone magazine, and the companion blog, Mere Comments.

More published anecdotal thoughts on raising children:

Saving Childhood by movie critic Michael Medved

Weapons of Mass Instruction by education critic John Taylor Gatto

Why Gender Matters by Dr. Sacks (I don't agree with everything here, especially his ideas on giving "mature" teens birth control, but overall his observations on gender differences are sound).

And for the young man, grown and introspective:  The Compleat Gentleman by The Catholic Thing (website) editor Brad Miner.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Grasshopper Jars or Store Bought Pet Habitats?

Under the sink, Nana kept clean glass jars.  There were all sorts of jars--jars which had once held jelly or pickles or mayonnaise, or even gefilte fish.  And the jars were of all sizes; piled beside the jars were lids of steel or aluminum, I guess, but never plastic.

Clean and plentiful, the jars were there for the taking, and during grasshopper season, we took quite a few.  We had to find the correct lid, but it only took a minute or two.  One of us--my brothers and cousins and I spent hours outside in the summer heat--would sit on the hill along the side of the house, holding a prized grasshopper between gently pinched fingers, watching it make a drop of "tobacco juice" between its mandibles, while waiting for the others to return with the jar.  We would run out of the house with a glass jar in hand and stuff a few tufts of grass into the jar before releasing the insect into its new habitat. For one unlucky grasshopper, there would be a bit of soapy water left in the jar from its last washing, and the poor thing would adhere, hopelessly struggling, to the inside of the jar, and we children would learn a lesson about checking the jars for moisture.  But now, a luckier grasshopper would find a dry bottom, and plenty of food (we thought).  Then, someone would point out that without air, the grasshopper would surely suffocate.

"They breathe through their legs," someone would say, and we would all nod knowingly. (This is not true; but it seemed plausible at the time.  The truth is nearly as fun--they breath through spiracles (openings) in the thorax and abdomen.)  We needed to do something to let the air into the jar, or our merciful natures would force us to release our captive.

So we would do what most children did at that time:  We sought a hammer (a large stone would do) and an awl (a screwdriver would do) and began to pound holes through the lid.  The lid, of course, would be on the jar, and only great skill prevented us from breaking the glass while venting the lid.  The holes could never be so big that the grasshopper would escape, so we would make many small holes.

Then, in the warm afternoon sun, lying on the hill, we would admire our new pet while chewing on the "sugar tips" of grass ourselves.  If it was good enough food for the grasshopper, it was good enough food for us.

Today, if one can find a glass jar, the lids are often plastic, and they crack when one tries to punch a hole. But never fear.  Rather than build a habitat for a pet with what-you-can-find-around-the-house, you can buy an insect house, plain or fancy, but risk free, and keep your pet safely.  I laughed when I saw that one does not even have to touch the insects one finds.  With a bug vacuum, one may catch small arthropods safely, which I guess is fine if you wish to catch and observe scorpions or hornets or black widows; but most insects are quite harmless.

Which brings me to the point:  Have we lost something?  Is there some value in finding an insect by accident, tracking and hunting it in tall grass, holding it in a bare hand and feeling it tickle ones palm as it walks, or seeing it squirm as it struggles to escape, all while one is scrounging for a creative place to keep the bug-de-jour?  If instead we give the child the box and instruct him to take the bug vacuum and find something, are we not taking away that tiny creative moment and replacing it with ready-made purpose, precise instructions and a right way to do it?  Is it any wonder that, surrounded by pretty plastic things with switches and lights, the child cries boredom?  When we remove a step--e.g.:  figuring out where to put the bug after one has caught, it as it sits in ones hands--we remove a creative purpose that stimulates the intellect and stretches the imagination.  Egads.  What have we done?

So save some jars; if you fear your young entomologists might handle something dangerous, suggest he figures out a way to make a net or a trap.  Let him find things spontaneously, and scrounge for the right materials.  Some interesting specimens will escape, but let that strengthen the resolve of the child to solve the problem in his own way.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

NASA Tries To Remain Relevant finding alien life on earth.

OK.  Not the best headline (that honor goes to blogger Michael at Deeps of Time, surely!), but with more interesting goals moved to the back burner, and the burden of being a government entity, a NASA press conference on astrobiology (a field, my astronomy professor told me, that was a bit limited, when I expressed an interest) caused a good deal of  speculation on the 'net.  Just google for some of the on Titan, life on Mars (there is legitimate research going on to study both environments), and, of course, there are folks like this (youtube link) who know they are out there.

But it turns out that a bacterium in a lake on earth can use arsenic instead of phosphorus when it needs to do so.  That's interesting.  As a biologist with an interest in exobiology, I love this sort of thing.  But I also feel a bit cheated by NASA.  I mean, they let the rumors fly; it just seems a bit unprofessional.

Do read the synopsis at Deeps of Time.  It's a Catholic blog worth a book mark.

Can I possibly post on this without a few book recommendations (just for fun)?  Not likely.  ;)

Red Planet
Starman Jones
Out of the Silent Planet
Rendezvous with Rama

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to Catch Space Dust in the Snow (from MacBeth's Opinion)

Every day, the earth gathers 100 tons of dust from space!  You can easily catch an observe some of this minute invasion force, using simple household items--a coffee filter, oven, and a microscope (a magnifying glass may do, as space dust is fairly large), and a magnet.  Since much of space dust is made up of iron, it is very magnetic!  Even if you don't find space dust, you may be surprised by the amount of regular old dust in snow--even fresh clean snow!
Take a bit of fresh snow and place it on a coffee filter inside a cup (cone filters work best).  Allow the snow to melt away, and let the filter dry (you may use a warm oven to aid this process).  Examine any dust left behind.
How much is there?  Can you see any large "dust?"  Use a magnifying glass of a microscope to examine the specks.  Space dust is roughly spherical, having melted on its journey through the atmosphere.  Sometimes, space dust has a tiny "tail."  Sometimes, especially if the dust contains nickel, it looks like Mickey Mouse--a tiny sphere with "ears."  Use a magnet on the dust to determine if it contains iron.
Older students may wish to quantify the observation, by weighing the dust collected (use a fine, digital scale, available from Science Kit).  Even earth dust is heavy, and while snow is naturally dusty, sitting snow will have an increased volume of dust.  How much more concentrated does the dust sample become in one-day-old, two-day-old or week old snow?   Cover some snow to protect it from gathering "new" dust.  Does the volume of dust increase as the volume of snow decreases?  Why?

Winter Hike (from MacBeth's Opinion)

The winter nature hike is a glorious thing!   Pull on your boots and jackets, and don't forget your hat!  Here are a few hiking ideas, and some ideas for your winter back yard: 
Hike a beach, lakeshore, or river bank (carefully!)
Visit the forest right after a snowBe the first to hike a field after a snow
Make snow angelsLook for tracks near water sources
Try Nordic skiing
Go bird-watching early in the morning
Take an evening hike
Take a "listening" hike--what do you hear?
Examine snow flakes (take your microscope outside so the flakes stay frozen)
Look for the "skeletons" of last summer's plants
Dig for tubers and roots:Jerusalem artichokes wild carrot (caution! must be positively identified), leeks, evening primrose, wild potato, chicory, onions, field garlic, ground nuts, anise root, sassafras, wild ginger, curly dock...
Taste fresh snow
Winter orienteering is a challenge!  Try it!
Play "fox and geese," a game like "tag," on a circular, spoked track in the snow (directions in A Prairie Boy's Winter)
Make snow-shoes, and walk with them!
Look for winter berries--who eats them?  Which berries are eaten last?
Look for last summer's nests
Cook outside and eat there too!
Learn fire building (read London's To Build a Fire)
Step outside during a blizzard (step inside quickly!)
Identify local trees by bark aloneTurn over your compost pile
Take the temperature of your yard--near the house, away from the house, the soil surface, under the soil, in the compost pile...Hang different bird-seed types in different places--who likes what?
Hang suet for birds, too!
Provide shelter from elements for wildlife--bird houses, bat houses, brush piles, old logs, etc.
Keep a record of the weather
Tap maple trees in late winter--boil the watery sap into thick sugary syrup, and pour it on ice cream, pancakes, or even snow!

Snow Books (from MacBeth's Opinion)

Interested in Snow?  Want to know more about it, find things to do in it, or find things to do with it?  You have come to the right place!

Here's a list of recommended reads for young snow-lovers everywhere, with natural history of the north, and a bit of fantasy thrown in for good measure:
Updated:  And let's not forget Owl Moon (as I did!)

After the Kinderhike: Fall Books for Toddlers

In November

Hello Harvest Moon

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf

Water Dance

Autumn Across America