Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fit for an Elf

BUDDY BREAKFAST:  Today started out a little crazy. While I was in the shower, CJ came upstairs and called at me, "Can we have the Buddy breakfast this morning?"

Ugh. Yes. That. What was I thinking promising him we could do that today?

"Yes," I called. "Tell your dad to put some boiling water on."

After I got out of the shower CJ called upstairs saying, "Dad said 'No.' "

I yelled downstairs that I'd promised CJ that was his breakfast today (he'd been asking for a couple of weeks now), and on the pot of water went. 

The breakfast is inspired by Buddy the elf, from CJ's favorite Christmas movie, "Elf." Buddy really, Really, REALLY likes sugar (it's an elf thing, apparently). He's forever pouring maple syrup into and onto things, and in once scene in the movie he makes breakfast. The ingredients? Spaghetti, and the items pictured below.
Once the noodles were done, the kids poured maple syrup on. LOTS of maple syrup, 'cause that's how ya do it.
Next up? Sprinkles. Because sprinkles make EVERYTHING better!
Then it was time for some mini marshmallows and a liberal serving of Hershey's chocolate syrup.
Atop that: A handful of M&Ms, of course. 
And to top it all off, a Chocolate Fudge Pop Tart crumbled on top. 
Isn't it glorious? (insert gagging noises here)
Bee got two bites into it and called it good. I had to steal the plate away from CJ after about four or five bites. He would have eaten it all (shudder, shudder). 

So there, we've done it, and now we don't have to ever do it again. Until maybe next year. ;)

MARKER MAKER:  We took a field trip to Capitol Hill today, and while there, visited the very interesting Value Village in the neighborhood. (It's on three stories, in a decrepit old building full of interesting shoppers and employees.)

Annabelle spied a Crayola Marker Maker kit on a shelf in the toy section. Per Amazon, it's $40 for a brand new one. We paid $2.99 for a darn near new one! (Annabelle went through it carefully in the store, and saw the kit was intact, so score!)

Once we got home, she got right to production, carefully reading the directions and lining out the equipment. 
There was a color chart in the kit, and using their formulas, she was able to produce some pretty colored pens. It required careful measuring.
When the 'formula' was ready, she dipped an absorbent swab into it. It wicked up the color, and then the swab was transferred to the marker tube, in which she'd already inserted a nib. 
The marker was then capped, and voila! Custom colored marker!
A pretty eggplant was her first creation. 
We even experimented with my commercial grade food colorings, and made an edible ink marker!

DEAL O' THE DAY: Look at the book we scored for 99 cents at Value Village today! Super cool - and by the publishers at Scientific American, no less. 
And once CJ and Annabelle read it, we'll donate it to Rick's third grade classroom, so other kids can enjoy it.

SPACEX POSTPONED:  No fresh fruit or Christmas presents for the astronauts on board the ISS. Today, SpaceX announced their cargo resupply mission is postponed until January. Bummer!  They cited So we'll have to wait until 2015 Well, the big ol' 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sugar Coated

COOKIE KOOKY:  No blog post Tuesday evening, as I was crusted over in powdered sugar for about 9 hours yesterday, making it a bad idea for me to be near the computer.

Yesterday I put together 30 cookie kits, each of which involved a hand cut sugar cookie, a Rice Krispies treat, a double handful of white fondant (made from scatch), and three other fondant balls (brown, red and green, which I whipped up). The kids helped assemble bags of assorted candies for decorations. And then about 10:30 p.m. I started decorating gingerbread cookies (kinda creepy Star Wars ones) I'd baked earlier that day, as a couple of teacher gifts. 

This morning at 6:50, we loaded all the cookie kits into Kennedy's car in the dark, rainy alley so he could take it to his classroom. 

Meanwhile, we spent a couple of hours in Shoreline today at classes - the kids' last of the year (2014). It was ugly sweater day, and Annabelle was resplendent in a horrid pink acrylic number from the 1980s. In very blurry progress is a pendulum/physics experiment.
We tore out of science class about halfway through to get down to Kennedy's classroom to help out with Operation Melting Snowmen. He was already underway with the first group of 14 (first grade) students when we arrived.  They took to fondant sculpting like ducks to water. :)

Once their masterpieces were complete, another dozen plus students rotated in and got in on the fun. It was fun watching them walk out at the end of the day, a parade of proud artists with their edible creations. Sweet!

ON THE HORIZON: Set a reminder alarm for Friday morning at 10:20 a.m. Pac Coast time, as that's when an attempt at rocketeering history is going to be made.

Friday, SpaceX will be launching a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, its sixth such mission. Fortunately, that has become nearly routine at this point. The big news is, instead of becoming really expensive garbage after lift off, the Falcon 9 rocket used to launch Dragon is (hopefully!) going to fly itself back to Earth and land on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean.  In a Tweet a few weeks back, SpaceX founder Elon Musk called the platform an "autonomous spaceport drone ship."  Yeah, that sounds LOTS cooler than 'platform.'
If it works, it will be a HUGE step toward slashing the cost of spaceflight, and less cost means more missions. It could be a game changer. 

SpaceX has succeeded in bringing first stage boosters back to Earth on two prior occasions, but not to this platform, and they haven't recovered one yet. Musk has publicly put the odds at Friday's landing working at 50 percent or less. He's more optimistic about future attempts, with the ultimate goal of spaceflight with reusable rockets.

Coverage of Friday's event starts at 9:15 Pacific Time on and NASA TV. 

On the way to Shoreline this morning, CJ started peppering me with questions about travel to Mars, radiation, and the Van Allen radiation belt(s). I love those types of spontaneous questions and conversations! :) 

He wanted to know whom the Van Allen belts were named after. I told him I thought it was an American astronomer, but turns out Mr. James A. Allen was a physicist. The belts, always at least two, but sometimes more, are zones of charged particles surrounding our Earth. They were discovered in 1958, during NASA's Explorer 1 mission. 

Checking out the effect of radiation in the Van Allen belt on Orion was an important part of its test flight a week or so ago. There's still no way I've read about to mitigate the amount of radiation astronauts would be exposed to on a trip to the Red Planet. Until that happens, the moon or an asteroid is as far as we're going.

ON CALL:  Today I (finally) learned about an on-going campaign of Col. Chris Hadfield, our favorite Canadian astronaut. 

Hadfield is responding Instagram posts and Twitter Tweets asking him science questions. You just have to put a #PersonalRocketScientist hashtag in the question, and hope that the Hadfield team finds it interesting enough to respond to. Here's a short video about it:

More information is on his Web site,
 . Though it says it's for children in the UK and Ireland, if you read the fine print, they're welcoming questions from 'round the globe.

Naturally, I'm going to ask the kids to come up with something to ask the Colonel. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Snow Many Snowmen

SHOW ON THE ROAD: Today was a bit different for MPA. The kids and Christian were on their own, while I headed to a classroom down south, to spread a little seasonal magic ... and powdered sugar. :)

Oldest son Rick took me up on my offer to lead his class in a lesson in the fine art of fondant. I thought some 'melting snowman' cookies would be a fun project for third graders.

In preparation, I baked a couple dozen Really Big sugar cookie bases, and sculpted some Rice Krispies spheres (for their heads).  I also loaded up yards of parchment paper, cups and cups of sprinkles and candies, and about 30 pounds of fondant. 

We started today with me telling the kids my once upon a time when it came to sugary stuff. I was a writer and photographer for a newspaper for 20 some years, and I was assigned a story about making holiday cookies and I had to come up with something to photograph so I made them. Introducing the Gingy family. 
 I told the kids how much fun I had making them, and how, during the process, each one of them, in my own mind, started to have a name and personality - a back story. (For instance, see Suzy in the green dress up front? She is So Not Happy to be at this family gathering.)  From that experience, I was hooked. 

I shared lots of other examples of past projects with the kids - sports cookies, seasonal cookies, My Little Pony and other character cookies. I showed them video game themed cookies, and ones inspired by movies.  I shared with them photos of my space shuttle cookies ... 
and told them how, incredibly, my cookies wound up being eaten INSIDE two space shuttles!
I ended the introduction by showing them a photo of the first ever batch of melting snowmen cookies I ever made, and told them that's what they'd be working on today.  
Overwhelmingly, the kids were really jazzed about it, but I could see a couple were a bit overwhelmed. I know many kids (well, people in general) think art isn't their 'thing' and they're not artistic. I assured them that this was going to be Big Fun, and that absolutely anyone could do this, and no two snowmen would or should look alike and the great thing about making stuff like this is you get to eat your mistakes. ;)

The kids went to recess and came back, and then we had a 20 minute or so session talking about logistics. I asked the kids how many of them had ever helped prepare any food (from carrot sticks to cupcakes). everyone raised their hands. I talked to the kids about the three things that are paramount when preparing food for other people. Obviously, you want it to taste good, and if it looks good that is a bonus. But the third, and actually most important thing is that the food is SAFE - that it doesn't make anyone sick. And so, we reviewed how to be safe while preparing the cookies.

The other thing we talked about is the joy of preparing food for others. Since there were cookies, candies and other sugary treats involved, initially, the kids were super focused on how quickly and soon they could eat all this stuff. 

I held up the raw materials, and pointed out how large they were - bigger than any one person should eat, and beyond that, told them that when they were done, they were going to want others to see it - that it would be a shame to eat it and deprive others of seeing their art. I think they were skeptical, but it was time for them to go to music.

One other thing we talked about was their future snowmen's faces. I did a quick lesson on drawing cartoon eyes and eyebrows and how that would basically drive the whole personality of their snowman. I also assured the kids who weren't comfortable drawing the eyes that candies would be just fine, and that accessories could help tell their story, too. 

While they were gone, Rick, an adult volunteer, and I got everything ready and then the wonderful chaos ensued. :)  

As a class, I talked them through getting the fondant over their snowman's base and head, and after that, they were pretty much left to their own devices. I was so impressed with their creativity! 

I was super happy to see even the most (initially) reluctant kids were totally into it, and every single one of them was embracing the individuality of the experience.

I had a number of kids approach me individually to ask how to do this or that, and was happy to be able to offer quick tricks and tips. In the end, each and every one of them was so darn proud of their creation. They quickly went from wondering when they could eat it to acting very protective about them and deeming them presents for their parents or Santa. :)

Each and every one was a masterpiece. Here is a small sampling. ...

This sweet snowman is holding a soccer ball. 
And this one is playing a Nintendo DS.
This snowman is holding a heart and has a present close at hand. ...
The little girl who made the snowperson below made her a redhead. I showed her how to texture the hair so it looked more like hair and less like a helmet. In fact, I used the tops of their ugly 'woodgrain' desks as a talking point about texture. I pointed out to them how in nature things aren't all flat and smooth like that - they're bumpy and crooked. 

I love the bow the student added to the hair!
Naturally, there was one student who used Every Single Element available to him. Check out how he even integrated the plastic knife!
And, of course, when I got home, CJ and Annabelle got to make some snowmen with the leftovers. :)

A fun day, and I'm looking forward to doing the same with Kennedy's class.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Programming Pupils

CODE OF CONDUCT: Busy day at MPA! We worked on CJ's custom Nerf gun some more, had a 'campus' clean up, braved the throngs at Costco, tackled some science homework, and then came home and had lots of fun learning more about coding! 

Thanks to an ad on Facebook, believe it or not, a couple of days ago I learned about's "Hour of Code" educational campaign.  Here's a short promotional video all about it:
Founded in 2013,  is a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Impressively, some 59 million students have already tried the Hour of Code. Today, it was our turn!

I used's lesson plan called "The Drawing Machine" to get things rolling. The lesson was intended to help prepare us to program Anna and Elsa from Disney's "Frozen" in the Hour of Code activity.

We started off by talking about what a computer is - and isn't. I pointed out to the kids that the box on the floor (hard drive) of my computer was nothing but bolts, conductors, electronics all sitting there, unthinking and undirected. Without a program, which requires a programmer (or coder), a computer is just a fancy paperweight. 

Using's educator's guidelines, we talked about how a program is a set of instructions. But it's not just *any* instructions - it's broken down step-by-step, they have to be in the right order, and they have to be specific, detailed, precise. Using the right words/language is key.

Then, we were ready to launch into the Drawing Machine activity, where one student would be the programmer, using only specific instructions, to 'program' Student 2, who would be the computer, and execute those instructions. Sounds simple, right? ...

The programmer was limited to phrases like 'move forward' or 'move back' 5 inches, and turn right or turn left, and they could include the number of degrees to turn (45, 60, 90, or 120), but that's it. 

Annabelle was the computer first ...
and CJ was the programmer. 
He started using too many words and going off script, to which Annabelle replied, 'Does not compute!!"

Eventually, they got on track, and using CJ's program, she drew a square.
Then, they switched roles. Annabelle chose a bit tricker shape for CJ to draw. Her instructions were OK at first ...
but that third angle proved problematic, as you can see by Computer CJ's final drawing (in blue).
That acticity complete, we were ready to move on to a *real* computer challenge, the Hour of Code Frozen exercise!

It was a total of 20 steps, each using block-based coding, each building in complexity.
We started by drawing a simple box (just like CJ and Annabelle had done) ...
, and worked our way through more and more complex instructions. Concepts of repeat blocks, loops and functions were introduced, as was efficiency in programming.

Eventually, we were doing thing like drawing Anna 
skating 10 squares (with 36 degree turns between each of the squares) to make a snowflake. you can see our program work by following this link:

The kids were also successful in making a program that made Elsa carve out a multi-colored snowflake by skating back and forth 100 pixels, with 4 degrees between each line, for a full 360 degrees. That program is here:

The kids also had Elsa making 'doughnuts" out of circles and a function command called create circle:

After the kids finished their hour of coding, the Web site referred us to a page featuring ways to go beyond and learn more ( They definitely look like great resources we'll be using in the days and weeks to come!

I liked the fact that the interface let us know if our program could have been shorter or more efficient. (When your programmers want their snowflakes to be colorful, it takes more lines of code!)
After the kids completed the 20 steps, they earned a certificate - cool!
All in all, it was a wonderful, educational endeavor, and we'll absolutely be back for more. Big thanks to Code.Org for making it possible!

NEWSY: This morning, the kids worked through a couple of Time for Kids issues. One had a cover story about a toy sharing business, one of which is Pley, a LEGO-sharing subscription business. It also mentioned Yerdle, an app for giving and getting used items (it encompasses more than toys and looks very intriguing!). 

There was also an article about Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, and its recent vote regarding seceding from Spain (81 percent were in favor of independence, but Spain courts have ruled the vote unconstitutional). There were stories about poppies planted to honor WWI soldiers in England, bats' communication, sweet potatoes, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings, a look at past pilgrims, and a story about a deadly infection attacking salamanders. 

They also read a "TFK Extra!" supplement that was all about the NFL's Play 60 Challenge, a campaign to get kids to commit to being active at least 60 minutes a day. It was full of ideas to "jumpstart your play." I especially liked one bit of advice it included - "Ditch the Wrappers," encouraging kids to choose snacks (vegetables or fruit) that don't come in wrappers.

LEFT COAST LAUNCH: A little after 7 p.m. our time, we tuned into to watch live coverage of the countdown and launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on the NROL-35 mission with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. 

The mission is super duper top secret. It sure had an interesting mission patch!

BREAKFAST: CJ starts his day checking on his nutcracker collection. This morning, he mused over whether or not the largest nutcracker would be able to 'eat' the smallest one. The answer? Probably.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Season's Greetings

MEANWHILE, IN INDIA: Isn't this lovely? Meet the Indian Space Research Oganisation's most powerful launcher ever, GSLV Mk-III. It has rolled out from their Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad for its Experimental Flight slated later in this month. Good vibrations are still soaring high after ISRO's successfull Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) inserted succesfully into the Red Planet's orbit a couple of months ago.

CHRISTMAS HISTORY: Thanks to a link to a home school based email list, we learned that the History Channel has a Christmas-centric site to learn more about the traditions in late December.   

There are 24 short videos (2-3 minutes apiece) about Christmas, plus 11 "Christmas in Depth" articles. My eye immediately fell on one story headlined, "7 Historical Events that Took Place on Christmas." Among the events: Apollo 8 orbits the moon, and Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware ahead of a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War. And speaking of war, another item that made the list was the spontaneous truce in 1914, on a World War I battlefield in Belgium, when scores of German, British and French troops cast off their arms. The event was filled with caroling, hand shakes, sharing cigarettes and whiskey, and even a pickup game of soccer, so the story goes. 

Here's a wonderful illustration of the event, by A. C. Michael, originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915.
In other news, just for fun, Dollar Tree has a cute Web site with holiday-themed games at I suppose it's for kids, but I enjoyed some mindless distraction for a few minutes, too.  :)

THE KING AND THE COLONEL: Today, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shared a link to video of him playing his favorite Elvis song. Sweet!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Musical Memories

MUSIC MARATHON:  Yesterday afternoon and evening, we headed for Seattle Center to see a loooong concert - Deck the Hall Ball, featuring a whole bunch o' 'new music' or 'alternative' bands (whatever that means any more). The show started at 3. We arrived a bit after 4, and spent the next SEVEN HOURS rockin' out. 

I'll let CJ and Annabelle tell you more about it, with CJ's review up first. ... 

On December 9th, I went to Key Arena to see Deck the Hall Ball, a holiday-themed concert run by a radio station called 107.7 The End. According to Wikipedia, Deck the Hall Ball has happened every year since 1992, in varying venues.
When we came to the concert, the band that was playing was a South African band called Kongos, which was followed up by bands including TV On The Radio (yes, you're supposed to capitalize it that way), Young the Giant, Cage The Elephant (yes, the capitalize 'The,' too), Weezer, and Imagine Dragons, most notable for their hit single "Radioactive."
During the intermissions between bands at the concert, what 107.7 The End was currently playing on their station was played through Key Arena's speakers. A highlight of the concert was that when Imagine Dragons was playing their song "Demons," many people started waving their cell phones around as though they were candles.
In the end, I enjoyed this year's Deck the Hall Ball.

And here's Annabelle's take ... 

On December 9th, 2014, I went to see an event at Key Arena called Deck the Hall Ball. It included some popular bands such as Weezer, Cage The Elephant, and Imagine Dragons. There were also other bands up-and-coming such as Kongos, along with TV on the Radio.
First was Kongos. We didn't exactly watch the whole thing (we really just wanted to see TV on the Radio and everyone after them), but it was fun none the less.
Next, TV on the Radio. They played their popular "Happy Idiot" and others. Surprisingly, they had a black singer (which you don't often see in alternative rock)!
Third, Cage the Elephant: I was especially excited for them (I enjoyed plenty of their songs). They played their newest hit,"Cigarette Daydreams" and other songs,such as "Come a Little Closer." After that there was Weezer. Playing many of their popular songs, including, but not limited to, "Undone (the Sweater Song)," with "Buddy Holly" as an encore. They were very fun, even if a little quiet.
And last but not least, Imagine Dragons. They were very fun,along with all the others. my favorite songs of theirs that they played would have to be "Radioactive" and "Demons." Overall,the concert was really fun, and I look forward to going next year!
My thoughts? Cage The Elephant are absolute rock stars, and it was great to see Weezer - though their sound tech was having a B-A-D night. And the whole evening would have been  better if the drunk art teacher from a suburb hadn't shown up and sat behind me. Ya know, if I pay $60+ bucks to see a concert, I pretty much don't want to hear the person behind me babbling loudly about how wonderful their gluten free beer is and all about their problems at work. And why did she even bother coming? She sure wasn't there for the music. We wound up moving seats to get away from her.   That said, overall it was great - and the Center is so pretty at night this time of year!
PAINTING:  The customization of a Nerf gun continues here at MPA. With three or four coats of white down, CJ and Annabelle taped off the areas CJ wanted to remain white, in preparation for some bright orange paint on some of the gun's parts.

As we were all taping, I said aloud, "There has to be a better way to do this." Surely there is a product out there for people custom painting small things (people who customize miniatures for role playing games, for instance). 

White areas supposedly protected, we hit the gun with a couple of coats of orange paint yesterday. Today, we peeled the tape off and while it mostly worked, there were several small spots where the orange somehow bled through to the white. DARN IT. Now, there's a whole lot of touching up to do. Drat. The saga continues.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rockin' Tuesday

CHECKING IT TWICE: First thing this morning, I found CJ studying the nutcrackers. He had some ideas about how to make their lineup look a little more polished. I told him to go for it, as he is Designated Nutcracker Keeper.

CAT'S IN THE CRADLE: As part of a social studies and math themed "Oregon Trail" centered activity at the kids' Shoreline learning center, Annabelle and CJ have been researching life for those brave souls who crossed that nation to settle in greener pastures (or so they hoped).

Annabelle was tasked with learning about cat's cradle - a game pioneer children purportedly played. My sister and I spent HOURS and HOURS as kids playing it, even though we weren't part of a wagon train, LOL. 
Fortunately for Annabelle, she was able to learn the basics in just a couple of minutes, with just a couple of clicks of the mouse. Bet the Oregon Trail kids didn't do that. ;)

CHRISTMAS CONCERT:  Short blog today as we're headed out the door and won't be home until late thanks to the Deck the Hall Ball concert we're attending tonight at Key Arena. 

Cage the Elephant, Young the Giant, TV on the Radio, Imagine Dragons, Weezer and more. Should be Big Fun!

We love this new song from Weezer, and dig their Apollo-themed video to go with!

IT'S ALIVE: I failed to mention that over the weekend, a NASA exploratory spacecraft 2.9 BILLION miles from our planet awoke from long slumber during its journey to Pluto.

Right now, New Horizons, which left home nine years ago, is 'just' 160 million or so miles from Pluto. It has been in hibernation for about two-thirds of its journey.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

On January 15, New Horizons will get close enough to Pluto to start taking measurements. By mid-May, we should be receiving the best images to date we've ever had of the dwarf planet

Follow this link for a short (3-minute video) about the mission (