Friday, September 28, 2012

A Roll of the Dice

Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess,
and you don't find out til too late that
he's been playing with two queens all along.
~ Terry Pratchett

I've mentioned before that I'm teaching Brandon how to design & program his own video games - if you can use the word "teaching" to cover trying to keep one chapter ahead of him in a "learn how to create your own video games" book...  ;)

One thing I like about the activity is that it calls upon both right-brain and left-brain skills.  On one hand, it requires creativity - which Brandon has in spades!  At the same time, it requires a certain amount of logical and systematic thinking.

Last weekend's lesson, for example, required me to introduce him to some basic notions in discrete probability.  The idea was to have demons (bad) and baby dragons (good) inserted into the game at unpredictable times.  The way this is implemented in the Game Maker software is most easily understood using the analogy of rolling a multi-sided die (singular of dice).  If one particular side comes up, the demon (or baby dragon) is created and put into the game, but if any of the other sides come up on top, nothing happens.

The game designer gets to decide how many sides the die should have.  I could have just told Brandon the rule - the more sides, the less often the event occurs.  But I wanted to give him a feel for this and an intuitive example that he could use later, if he ever forgets the rule.

So, we started with flipping a coin.  'Heads' means demon, 'tails' means no demon.  We set up a test with 12 flips and he took notes on the outcome of each flip.  We actually ended up with exactly 6 demons (not a guaranteed outcome by any means) - and there were some sequences where we went 2 or 3 rolls without a demon (yawn-time) and then some sequences when we got 2 or 3 demons in a row without a break (yikes!).  So this showed the unpredictability of it nicely.

Then I switched to a normal, 6-sided die.  We let a roll of 6 indicate that a new demon is created.  We talked about it a little bit before testing it and Brandon tentatively thought that maybe we'd get fewer demons than with the coin, but he was very uncertain and seemed to be mostly guessing.

Again, he set up the sheet to record the outcomes and I rolled the die 12 times.  

We did not get a single demon.

We talked a little bit more about why - the more possible things that could happen, the less often any one of those things was likely to happen.  Brandon actually put this rule into his own words unprompted, which made me very happy.  :)

Then we got into applying the idea within the game itself.  I had to explain that the computer could create a die with any number of sides that we wanted and also that it rolled die a lot faster than a person could!

The tutorial recommended rolling a die with 300 sides to create demons and a die with 500 sides to create baby dragons.  Brandon thought those numbers were very large, but was okay with trying them - by now he is comfortable trying things because he knows that he can always go back and change them if he doesn't like them.

I challenged him to figure out whether we'd end up with more demons (300 sided die) or more baby dragons (500 sided die) - he started to say "baby dragons" but then stopped, restated his rule (reminding himself), and got the answer right!

It may seem simple to us grown-ups, but it's a pretty foundational concept and I'm really happy with how he got the hang of it.  :)

So, I've touched on the logical bit of last weekend's lesson - how about the creative bit?  

Well, the player takes the position of the daddy dragon who is trying to kill demons and save baby dragons.  He shoots fireballs out of his mouth to kill the demons and, if he is not careful, he can kill baby dragons as well.

The demons make one noise when they die (like you have defeated a powerful foe) and the baby dragons make a pitiful, crying noise when you accidentally shoot a fireball at them.

Brandon wants to change these system-provided sound effects.  His idea is to have a human voice singing out "fried chicken!" when a demon is hit with a fireball and "I'm telling Mom!" when a baby demon is hit...  ;)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Peek Inside: Absolutely A-Line

The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.
~ W. Somerset Maugham

Recently I used one of my birthday gift cards to buy some sewing books.  (Yay!)  One of them was "Absolutely A-Line" by Wendi Gratz.  The book comes with instructions and the pattern for the basic A-Line dress, and then directions for making over 2 dozen variations.  

Some of the variations are relatively trivial and don't really justify (in my mind) being treated as official variations - but some are quite clever and I found the pictures and ideas inspiring.  

But that's just what I think - maybe you would like to see for yourself!  ;)

So, here are some pictures from the book...  

The book cover shows one of the variations - adding a ruffle along the bottom:  

Adding embellishments is treated as another variation:  

I thought this next idea, of making a dress from a man's large shirt, was clever and nicely timed (with today's emphasis on recycling and reusing):  

Here's how an a-line dress looks with a drawstring waist:  

Another variation in the book is to finish the edges with colorful and exposed bias trims (instead of standard facings):  

Of course, the dress pattern can be broken into a top pattern:  

...and a skirt pattern:  

There were several variations that cut up the pattern and then had you piece it back together with different fabrics - one had vertical stripes, one had horizontal stripes and this one, which has a contrasting yoke: 

I must admit that I'm somewhat of a sucker for pleats:  

But I've never really gotten into the bubble skirt look:  

Okay, this one is my favorite and, I think, the most dramatically altered pattern - a wrap-around dress:  

Other variations from the book include a reversible version and an open-backed pinafore.  

See what I mean?  Cute dresses and a good source of ideas - but many of the variations are things most people (who sew) could probably do without instructions.

Speaking of which, I haven't tried any of these dresses yet, so I can't really address the quality of the instructions yet.  But I am really excited about making some of these dresses for all of the little girls in my life!  :)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Project for My "Free" Time...

Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.
~ Garrison Keillor

You may remember that I had hoped to make 2 small raincoats with the fabric that I bought in Wales, but (even though I bought all the store had left) I did not have enough.  

So, only one little boy gets a raincoat.  :(

For the other little boy, I decided to make this fleece jacket.  

His parents are BIG St. Louis Cardinal fans, so this fleece fabric will be perfect:  

They are moving to Chicago in a few weeks, so I had better get on top of this immediately!  Maybe this weekend...  Keep your fingers crossed for me, that I can carve out some sewing time!  ;)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gratuitous Kitten Pictures

Kittens are born with their eyes shut.  They open them in about six days, take a look around, then close them again for the better part of their lives.  
~ Stephen Baker

"I love my Daddy."  


The Sleepy Head Roll

Monday, September 24, 2012


Remeber, the greatest gift is not found in a store or under a tree,
but in the hearts of true friends.
~ Anonymous

Yesterday we combined our final pool party of the calendar year with a birthday party for one of the children, Mariana, who turned 8 a couple of weeks ago. 

The celebration started like our typical pool party, with lots of splashing and yelling and goofing off in the pool: 

Because it was Mariana's birthday, her Mom invited some folks who aren't part of the "usual suspects" - including this 7 month old: 

I wasn't the only person who found him irresistiatbly cute!  ;)

Then things took a decidedly birthday-ish turn with 2 pinatas!  No blindfolds for the kids - just a man at the other end of the rope, lifting the pinata up and down so that they were swinging at a moving target.  :)

He made sure that everyone got a turn... 

...before finally letting someone break it open. 

Then they brought out Mariana's cake.  One of the boys had made paper party hats for everyone to wear! 

Even the baby got a hat! 

The surprise to me was that Mariana's mom remembered that my birthday is close to Mariana's and she had also gotten a cake for me: 

It says, "Happy Birthay, Teacher" on it.  :)

Note that I am not anyone's teacher in that crowd - this is just a left-over title from when I started teaching Ana how to sew 5 years ago and she couldn't pronounce my name...  ;)

And she and Mariana each gave me a yard of (pink!) fabric!  Isn't that sweet? 

This cotton print was from Mariana: 

And this polyester (?) from her mom: 

Two other people gave me handmade gifts.  The mom of 2 of the kids who have been coming to our place all summer had asked me to write my name on a piece of paper for her about a month ago.  I had no idea why at the time... 

Now, I know: 

Lesson learned: If asked to write your name down for someone who doesn't speak English, PRINT VERY CLEARLY.  (I usually go by "Campbell", not "Campbeu") 

Still - how sweet is that?  I told her how much a hand made gift means to me.  :)

Possibly my favorite gift is the drawing that Brandon made for me: 

I don't know how well you can make it out - but that's ME piloting the fighter jet and our kitten Popeye's face is my tail sign.  Watch out world, I'm the Cat Woman!!!!!!!  :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

It's Hard to Say Goodbye

Don't cry because it's over.
Smile because it happened.  
~ Dr. Seuss

One of our three furballs, Sammy, is dying of cancer.  Unfortunately, it is an aggressive type that had already spread throughout his body by the time it was discovered.  Our vet - who normally is prepared with a detailed and extensive treatment plan for every situation - actually said that while we could try chemo, she didn't recommend it because it was likely to only extend his life by 2-3 months and make those months miserable ones for him.  

So, now we are watching him slip slowly away and trying to catch that intangible point at which his suffering outweighs the value of his life...  :(

Our poor baby...  :(

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Third Time's A Charm

If you're any good at all, you know you can be better.
~ Lindsay Buckingham

The nice thing about teaching ESL for the 3rd time is that I've already done most of the "heavy lifting" in preparing my class and now I can focus on "fine tuning" the activities and exercises that didn't work as well as I had hoped the last 2 times...  

The first year, I developed an activity for practicing prepositions of place (above, below, on, etc.) that I was really excited about.  I had my students pair up and gave each a pile of little foam pieces - different geometrical shapes, in different colors and different sizes.  

Then I gave one student (from each pair) a photograph that showed some of those foam pieces arranged into a pattern.  This student was supposed to give her partner directions like "Put the large blue square above the small yellow triangle," until the partner had re-created the pattern in the photograph with the foam pieces.  

Then, of course, I'd give the second partner a different photo, and they would exchange roles.  

I like it because it gives the students opportunities for both speaking and listening practice, the vocabulary is tightly constrained but there is room for individual control/choice (regarding the order in which they give the instructions) and at the end they get nice concrete feedback on the success of their efforts.  :)

In the past, an aide and I would demonstrate the activity once (using poster board and big shapes cut out of construction paper so that everyone could see) and then "let them at it".

Unfortunately, they never seemed to jump into it - after that introduction, they still seemed confused...  I had to go around and, one-by-one, help many of the pairs get started.

So, this year, I added a more extensive introduction to the activity.  I created 3 additional arrangements (see below) and basically I had them do the activity 3 times, with me giving the instructions and each student trying to follow them.  

After we had worked these 3 examples together, I had them get into pairs and start the main activity.  

This little change made all the difference in the world!  Everyone jumped in and got busy and the room was soon full of language - English language - the best sound an ESL teacher can ever hope to hear!  :)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Little Things

Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.
~ Bruce Barton

(Chalk this post up to a big anniversary and a big birthday this month - it seemed a reasonable time for some reflection and reminiscing...)  

Almost five years ago, a friend introduced me to a young woman from Mexico named Ana, who wanted to learn how to sew.  Just one little wrinkle - Ana didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish.

I struggled for several days with the question of whether or not to offer her sewing lessons.  I kept thinking that it would be crazy -  my life was busy, I had never taught anyone to sew, we couldn't even speak the same language...  and the list went on.

But something kept calling to me, and I finally decided to give it a try - my "logic" was three-fold:
  1. I figured that I could probably accomplish a lot just by showing her things - it wouldn't rely completely on being able to communicate through words, 
  2. I didn't have to be great - all I had to do was be better than nothing (!), and 
  3. it wasn't exactly a life time commitment - if it didn't work, I could stop.  
(You can read about our adventures sewing together on my old blog - for example, here, herehere, here and here...)

And that little decision - to reach out to someone new and try to give her a hand - has changed my life profoundly in ways I never could have anticipated...  

We became friends.  

I started learning some Spanish.

She talked me into volunteering to be an aide in her church's ESL program.

We grew closer.

I learned more Spanish.  

She brought a number of other families into my life -  people I never would have met otherwise.  

And now, almost five years later, I am into my third year of teaching ESL at that church and we are having those children over every month for pool parties and I am learning how to write video games along with one of those kids... 

And Ana has moved into my heart permanently and become the daughter that I never had...  

All because I took a tiny step and made a decision to try something, rather than turn my back and walk away.  

Bruce Barton (see quote above) may be on to something...  ;)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Through Others' Eyes

The most precious gift that you can give to someone you love is to steadfastly fix your gaze upon the very best of that person and never let it falter.
~ Gwendolyn Campbell

Well, it happened.

I turned 50.

Amazingly enough, the world didn't come to an end.  ;)

Although, now that I think about it, the date is relatively close to the "end of the world" supposedly predicted by the Mayans...

Okay, I know what you are thinking - that's not until December.  But still, I'm within 4 months of the end of a 5,125 year cycle...  That's within 0.007%!  I'd call that close...  

Anyways, while there are some signs of my mind slipping (see above Mayan digression), the transition to a new decade was relatively uncataclysmic.

I most decidedly did not want a big fuss and, going into it, was hoping that we could all just ignore it and pretend that it didn't happen.  But my husband, Ana and my friends wouldn't let that happen.

Instead, they found a way to take the sting out of the day and make me feel very loved and very, very lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful people in my life!

Ana, with some help from a friend, made a 3 1/2 minute YouTube video, full of photos of me and special times in my life, set to music.  :)

My friends put together a gift basket filled with my favorite snacks (Fritos and dark chocolates) and gift cards to my favorite places (including, of course, Joann's!).  But the most wonderful thing they did was to create a scrapbook for me - and they included 50 colorful index cards, each inscribed with something specific that they love about me.  :)

It turns out that my husband had a very similar idea (independently) and he wrote me a three-page letter that started with these words:

To Gwen, on the occasion of our 30th anniversary and your 50th birthday     Five Things I Really Love About You     Dear Gwen: It occurs to me that the cards I give you on these occasions often only have a very small, generic message from me followed by “Love, Scott”. Mostly this is because I reckon that I already have said to you most of the things I would write and I’m afraid of being a bore by repeating myself. But I’ve been thinking lately that, at least once, I should put into words all the things that are in my mind when I sign “Love, Scott”. And being a year where both our anniversary and your birthday are nice round numbers, this is probably as good a time as any. So here are five things I really love about you:

Everyone wrote about how they see me.  And I did recognize some bits of myself - I do love to tell stories, I love to laugh, it's the people in my life who give me joy and I love starting a brand new pad of paper at work!  (Even if I haven't finished the old one...)

But some of the other things were said - it seemed like they were describing some amazing woman that I would love to get to meet some day...  

And it occurred to me that one of the most amazing and wonderful things about all these people in my life is that, despite knowing me for years and having been exposed to all of my flaws and warts, they still see the good things in me and believe in me.  

And they think those things are more important than my flaws and warts.  

And that makes me want to try to live up to their vision of me...  

And it makes me one very, very, very lucky woman.  :)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lunch Time (in Style) (with Robots!!!!)

It's more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long difficult words, 
but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?"
~ Winnie the Pooh

A while ago my store-bought, cheaply-made insulated lunch tote finally fell apart.  Ever since, I've been buying my lunch in the cafeteria (or hitting a nearby fast food place), using the argument that I wasn't going to run out and buy a new one, because I wanted to sew my own.  

In fact, I had the pattern all picked out - a freebie from "Sew, Mama, Sew!" (here).  

Not only did I like the style, I LOVED the pink and yellow robots!  ;)

So much so, I ordered that fabric.  And the pattern and robot fabric have been languishing in my sewing room ever since...  :(

This weekend, I decided that the money-sucking black hole of eating out every day had to stop and I was going to make my own, insulated lunch tote.  

First, I had to pick a coordinating fabric (like the dark pink in the sample tote above).  Slight speed bump here - I found 2 options that I loved and couldn't choose between:  

I got them both and, after a bunch of flip-flopping (and possibly some husband-pestering), decided to use the yellow for the lining.  The pattern called for a heavy-weight fabric like canvas as a lining - my yellow fabric was a lighter weight cotton, so I doubled it.

The pattern was supposedly introducing french seams to people for the first time - I didn't think this was an ideal opportunity to learn this technique, because you are sewing 3 sides of a box and then turning it inside out - french seams aren't perfect for those corners.

It also has you square off the bottom of the tote on the outside.

At first I was confused - why have some of the seams on the inside and others on the outside?  Then I realized that it was because part of the lining is hidden inside the outer, insulated layer - but part of it isn't and shows.  So, after thinking it through a little bit, I realized this is actually a nice way to handle the seams in the lining sack.

And that pink fabric?  Well, I couldn't let that go - so I decided to combine it with the robot fabric in a kind of faux patchwork style:

(Faux patchwork, because I'm not good at real patchwork!  Plus, I had already cut the robot fabric and doing real patchwork would have required [slightly] larger pieces OR would have created a slightly smaller sack.)

This outer layer is insulated - luckily I had about 7 yards of insul-brite left over from last year's Christmas presents (doh!)...

The pattern calls for official (1 inch wide) strapping to make the handles, but I decided to use more of the robot fabric.  Given that it is a uni-directional print, I cut the (2.5 inch wide) strips of fabric in half and then sewed them back together such that, if you hang it from the middle, the robots are right side up on each half.

I also interfaced the straps for increased strength.

Finally, I folded each strip in half length-wise (right sides together), stitched and then turned them right side out.  I top-stitched along each edge - partly for looks and partly for reinforcement.  

(My one worry was that the fabric straps wouldn't be strong enough to hold the weight of frozen food and bottles of liquid.)

And without further ado - introducing my new insulated lunch sack - ta da!

I was a little bit worried about the circular opening that doesn't go away when I pull the drawstring tight (and I was even trying to figure out if there was some way to add an inner flap that closed up the hole) - but my husband reminded me that hot air rises and cold air tends to stay low, so he doesn't think this will hugely reduce the effectiveness of the sack at keeping my lunch cold.  

Here it is with the top open:  

One of the things that I like about this pattern is that the sack is a pretty decent size - it easily holds a boxed, frozen meal and two, 20 fluid ounce bottles of something cold to drink.  

(Now, how do I collect for product placement again?)  ;)

I think it's a relatively well-designed pattern - although I always think it's odd how patterns like these are treated as "easy" and "good for beginners", when I find it a bit of a challenge to end up with 2 equally sized sacks that fit together perfectly...  

Bottom line: I really like my robot lunch sack and it felt so good to be in the sewing room and actually get something done!  

I hope you had a great sewing weekend!  :)