Beaten by Children

Each Friday evening I take a class in Mandarin at the Chelmsford Chinese Language School. After that class, I go to chess club, while Naomi studies Chinese Folk Dance. I wrote this at the end of last year.

Carissa is quietly contemplative. She keeps her body movements still, with a level of concentration that seems incongruous with her age. She looks disarming. Yet she plays chess with such aggression that I find myself doing nothing more than react to her constant attacks the entire game, with no chance to implement a winning strategy of my own.

Jeffrey is “all boy.” Every time he makes a good move, his whole body shakes with elation. He laughs with glee every time he puts forth another reveal, or forces me to choose which of two pieces I am going to have eaten by his.

I am 42. They are both just seven years old. In addition to their age, they have one other thing in common: They absolutely destroy me at chess.

But the children weren’t the only ones who learn and improve. I go back every week, and I get better.

Building a Future with LEGO: My Nephew Andrew Roberts

(Excerpt from the Community Advocate Newspaper, Friday, February 3, 2012, article by Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer.)

Marlborough – Prior to November 2011, Andrew Roberts worked for County House Research performing in-court background checks. By the end of November, though, he retired to pursue his lifelong passion, building Army tanks with LEGOs.

Lego tank and APC, designed and built by Andrew Roberts.
A sample of the many tanks that can be built with Andrew Robert’s LEGO kits.

Roberts’ love for LEGOs began at age 5 when he was given a big bucket of the brightly colored building blocks as a gift, and he has been playing with them ever since. About two years ago, Roberts heard about a man who was building World War II tanks out of LEGOs. Intrigued, he decided to build his own LEGO tank which he then put on eBay – and it sold. He made another and it sold as well, snowballing into something bigger than Roberts could have anticipated.

… Read the full article at the Community Advocate Newspaper site.

Andrew Roberts poses with a Lego M1 tank he designed and built.
Andrew Roberts has made building with LEGOs a full-time business.

To see or purchase any of Andrew’s sets or instructions, visit his eBay store:

See You Later, “New Dad”

Five years ago my Mom remarried at age 80, several years after the death of my father. “New Dad,” as I generally referred to him, was George Fortini, a sweetheart of a guy who proved (along with Mom) that being crazy-in-love and romantic wasn’t just for young people.

The five years he and Mom had together were marked with many of the typical struggles of octogenarianism, but they took care of each other with love, grace, a large amount of very good-natured ribbing, and constant delight with what God had given them. George demonstrated that God’s grace was just as attainable and life-changing as falling in love still was.

Mom and "New Dad"
Mom and "New Dad," George Fortini

Their story of finding each other has brought a smile to the face of every one of the many people with whom I have shared it. Their obvious, genuine affection has been just as inspiring.

Most of our family attended their wedding. Mom and George were neighbors, and a path had been worn into the front lawn between their two houses. (George refused to move in with Mom until after the ceremony, insisting that he wanted to “do things the right way.”) New Dad was always grateful that our side of the family accepted him as readily as we did.

How could we not?

Late last week, George was admitted to the hospital with some internal bleeding from an ulcer. Efforts to stop it were unsuccessful. He was moved to hospice on the weekend, and passed away quietly and peacefully, while holding his daughter’s hand, at around 10:30 last night.

Although our reunion in Heaven will come, now we feel the sorrow of missing him especially sharply.

How could we not?

My Little April Fool

When I got home yesterday, I discovered that NaNi had put her snow day time to very good use.

R2 looks a little different. But he does have a huge smile.
"Dad, please lifted up the helmit."
Under the helmet ...
NaNi did some redecorating.
"Hay, you. Kiss me, please."
"No. Well, just one. I love this!!! Happy April Fool's Day. I love you, Dad. "Thank you for the kiss, you kind Jedi."
I love the details. Lipstick attached to the phaser.
... and matching shoes.

Dance Macadam

Naomi had been very, very sick for almost 10 days—double ear and ear canal infections, that we finally got under control. Even though she stayed home from school, she hadn’t had a fever all day, and I let her go to ballet. (Isaac took care of her while I was at work—my first day back in the office in a while. I am very grateful that Transparent Language has such excellent work-from-home infrastructure.) So I went home, got her ready for ballet (tights need help), and off we went. Gate City Ballet is pretty much on the same street as my job, so I normally drop her off, go back to work, and pick her up at the end.
Naomi with her artwork.

On the way to ballet, we stopped at the school department offices, where one of her pieces of artwork is being displayed. Naomi was thrilled to see it.

Naomi's Art on Display at the Nashua School System Offices.
Naomi's Art on Display at the Nashua School System Offices.

We got to ballet (on time, even—everything in Nashua is close and convenient), and she exclaimed, “My ballet bag!”

I said, “No problem, you can see if they will let you start in your stockings,” and I went home to get the bag. I picked it up, and realized there were no tap shoes in it. So, I hunted around her room to find tap shoes, and put them in the bag, and delivered them to ballet.

“Dad, these are my old tap shoes. They hurt my feet if I wear them.”

I laughed. “Okay, I’ll be back in a bit.” Back to the house … play the “find the real tap shoes” game—not as easy as finding the wrong pair. Back to the ballet studio. Along with a sweater she forgot to pack.

I hold up the correct shoes and the sweaters. Naomi beams and blows me a kiss.

I am in Heaven.

It's two years old, but this is still one of my favorite ballet photos of NaNi.
It's two years old, but this is still one of my favorite ballet photos of NaNi.

On the day in 1958, The World Changed

For devotees, [today is the anniversary] of an event in Copenhagen that transformed toys and revolutionized childhood itself.

It was at 1:58 p.m. on January 28, 1958, that then-Lego head Godtfred Kirk Christiansen filed a patent for the iconic plastic brick with its stud-and-hole design. Since then, the company has made a staggering 400 billion Lego elements, or 62 bricks for every person on the planet. And if stacked on top of one another, the pieces would form 10 towers reaching all the way from the Earth to the Moon.

This Lego Logo is composed entirely of Minifigures.

(Image credit Lee LeFever, Creative Commons License.)


Rope-Climbing Lego NXT Robot

This is the rope-climbing robot myself and ASD student Joe Cole worked on, as a competitor in the “Robolympics” program I developed after Robot Sumo was done this year.

We were hoping to modify the base to allow it to compete in robot drag racing, but there simply wasn’t enough time.

Ours was the only team to successfully complete a robot that would climb the rope, although two other teams came close. There’s a red Lego Astromech droid on top of a pole that triggers a touch sensor to reverse the robot (usually) when it gets to the top of the rope. If I’d had more time, I’d have replaced that with the ultrasonic distance sensor.

Adam White’s stripped-down speed demon completely dominated the robot drag racing event. No one stood a chance against him.

MuscleMom Wins Big at NGA Natural Mass Bodybuilding & Figure Power Fest

Saturday Nichelle competed in her first bodybuilding competition of the season, at the excellent National Fitness Gym in Oxford, Ma. The event was sanctioned by the National Gym Association, and MC’d by our favorite hostess and natural bodybuilding promoter, Laura “Turtle” Tourtellot.

Natural Mass Bodybuilding & Figure Power Fest, May 22, 2010, Maximum Fitness Gym, Oxford, Ma.

A huge number of people help out Nichelle as she prepares for these events. There’s our friend Denise DeFelice, who accompanied Nichelle all day, and handled her makeup. Diet advice comes from a number of bodybuilders and trainers (I need Nichelle to give me all the names). Her old manager from Best Fitness, Tom, double-checked all her poses. Denise Richardson, former Ms. America (not Miss America) winner, offers advice via phone and e-mail. Then of course there are the friends and family who cheer her on while training and at the show. (Thanks, Barbara, Naviana, Toni, and Toussant!) But, in the end, it’s Nichelle who’s started with some God-given talents and desire and added a superhuman amount of hard work, especially considering only a few years ago she weighed 100 pounds more than she does now.

Seriously, this is NOT a women I would argue with.

Nichelle looked stunning and performed fabulously. The crowd, which wasn’t that large, absolutely loved her! After Laura read her biography, someone behind me commented, incredulously, “Mother of four?” I am amazed at how much she improves from competition for competition. She isn’t just beautiful and superbly “cut,” she’s also incredibly graceful and has a phenomenal stage presence.

Nichelle Wilcox, 1st Place, Heavyweight AND Women's Best Overall Winner

Nichelle placed first in her “heavyweight” category (118 pounds or above). We were ecstatic. I believe someone in the crowd was jumping up and down and yelling, but I shan’t name names.

When we were getting reading to leave, we were presented with a huge surprise. Nichelle had been awarded the “Best Overall” award for the women competitors, but a glitch had left it unpresented during the awards ceremony. At that point we were beyond thrilled!

Yes, that's our License Plate

Nichelle took six entire hours off her strict diet to eat however she wanted. We celebrated at the Jasmine Restaurant, in nearby Auburn—sadly, they do not serve 担担面. (Naomi showed off her Mandarin language skills and delighted the entire staff.) On the way home we stopped at Wal-Mart, because there were still a couple of the six hours left, and Nichelle wanted cheesecake.

Nichelle expects to compete next at the 2010 INBF Natural Connecticut Bodybuilding and Figure Championship in New Haven, Ct., on June 19, and again in New York City later in June. Of course, she also plans to be back at Laura Turtle’s Granite State Open, in Dover, N.H., in October.

Nichelle at NGA Natural Mass Bodybuilding & Figure Power Fest—Click to jump to our Picasa Web album for more photos from the event.

Halo Warthog Cake

Nichelle has been experimenting with making custom cakes for the kid’s birthdays. Like most things she attempts, she’s done great right out of the box. She invented some cool new techniques this time, and I was able to lend some engineering expertise.

Halo "Warthog" Cake, made by Nichelle
Halo “Warthog” Cake, made by Nichelle.

Halo “Warthog” Cake, made by Nichelle, with model for comparison.

Here's a ballerina cake Nichelle made for Naomi.
Here's a ballerina cake Nichelle made for Naomi.

Early Childhood (Pre-Lego) Formative Toys

Which of your early childhood toys had an impact on your adult life? Do you think the toys were wonderful because of your innate personality or skills, or do you think the toys helped get those skills going?

Recently, I finished reading The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, the Man Who Saved Christmas, the biography of A.C. Gilbert, best known as the inventor of the iconic Erector Set.

That got me thinking about the toys of my youth, and it probably comes as no surprise that most of the ones I most treasured involved building in some way or another. Of course, now I do more “building” with software than anything else, as programming applications is in many ways very much like building things out of Lego, but programming hasn’t eclipsed my lifelong devotion to Lego.

The toolbox my dad gave me at age 2.

One of the first toys I was given wasn’t really a toy at all, but rather a toolbox full of real tools (some of which I still have, just as I still have the toolbox). “How it happened was like this …” When I was born, I was diagnosed as being mentally retarded. My early foster care seemed to confirm this (due to lack of stimulation). My adoptive father declared, “Well, if he’s not going to be able to work with his brain, we’ll teach him to work with his hands.” So, for Christmas, five months after turning two, I was given a set of real tools. Screwdrivers, a folding rule, a hammer (the one thing that wouldn’t fit in the toolbox), and a pair of pliers. I have very early memories of getting in trouble for taking the screws out of the bottoms of the kitchen chair cushions and losing them. I was allowed to take the handles off the kitchen cabinets. When I first started, I wasn’t strong enough to get the screws tightened well, and the handles would often come off in my mother’s hand.

Good, old fashioned, gravity-fed Hot Wheels® track.

Hot Wheels® track was another great building toy. Although I often drooled over pictures of the Hot Wheels® super charger, I had untold hours of fun constructing dual gravity-fed tracks and racing my favorite cars, all the while developing a better understanding of rudimentary physics. Even more longed-for than the turbocharger was a loop; I even tried building one myself when I was a little older, but couldn’t get it to work right.

The Playskool Take-Apart Car
The Playskool Take Apart Car

The Playskool Take-Apart Car provided many hours of screwdriver-and-wrench assembly experience. The axles were large screws. The headlights and taillights used smaller screws and nuts, as did the wooden sides of the car. One of the trickier parts was getting the tabs for the hood and trunk in the holes when assembling the sides. The one drawback to this was the lack of interchangeability of the screws, although the headlight, taillight, and side screws were all the same size, and the bolt holding the removable engine block in matched the screws that held the wheels and spare tire on, although the bolt head itself wouldn’t fit in the same places. The jack provided (the middle tool visible in the photo) was completely useless. As I was writing this, my wife Nichelle told me that she had one of these, too. These days, I’d recommend Lego Toolo as the nearest equivalent experience.

I had a 100-piece bag of colored wooden blocks.

Wooden blocks are an essential childhood building toy. Generally, my goal was to build the largest tower I could, often getting it to my own height, or nearly so.

Tinkertoys have now made a bit of a comeback.

The only real problem with Tinkertoys was that I didn’t have enough of them. The small set I had just wasn’t enough to build the dreamworthy models pictured on the can. Part of this was supply. I know it’s impossible to believe, but stores in the 1970s were typically horribly supplied. (Computerized supply chains, a need to compete with online retailers, and cheap manufacture and import have radically changed this.) My father and I went out to a number of stores one day to find more Tinkertoys, to no avail. (He bought me a Tonka excavator instead, a conciliatory splurge I’m sure my mother would have never tried.)

This isn’t quite the same, but is not entirely dissimilar to the giant Erector set I loved.

One favorite building toy I haven’t been able to find a picture of was a giant, plastic Erector set, which came with a large, cloth storage bag. My favorite thing to build was a large robot, using gears as eyes and a short beam for a mouth. The large, red gears supplied also served as hubs for the wheels, and they didn’t fit together very well, either seeming hard to fit or too loose. The e-rings provided to put over axles were brittle, and easily broken. To be honest, I was never the best builder with this; I remember working with my dad one some of the pictured models, but really did enjoy it.

The voltmeter my Dad built to test mats for automatic doors.
The voltmeter my Dad built to test mats for automatic doors.

During my childhood, and until his retirement my father worked as a maintenance man (later exclusively in refrigeration) for Fernandez Supermarkets. One of the things he built out of an old cheese box was the voltmeter pictured above, which was used to test the circuits on the mats that used to trigger the automatic doors. Another non-toy, this was essentially “mine,” and had an internal 9-volt battery, which allowed me to experiment with simple circuits, conductivity, and voltage. (My kids currently play with this on occasion.)

Then, when I was 5, my world changed.

My first Lego set, the #480 rescue helicopter
My first Lego set, the #480 rescue helicopter

My neighbor-and-friend Chuck Altwein gave me my first Lego set just before Christmas, the #480, Rescue Helicopter pictured above. This was followed by the general building set #125 from my parents. Another Christmas brought #190, the largest Lego set at the time, which I only decades later realized was actually a farm (it was all about parts, really). Another Christmas or two produced some of my other favorites, Universal Building Set #404, the Space Cruiser (my first “classic space” Lego set), the Galaxy Explorer a year later, and later still Lego’s first castle.

Although I got away from Lego in very late high school and through college, I would jump back into them in 1998. While I was well-and-truly-grown, Lego and MIT developed the most accessible consumer robotics platform made up to that time, the Lego MindStorms Robotic Invention System 1.0. I was blessed to have the now-defunct Construction Site store in Waltham accept a phone order and deliver one of the first 50,000 nearly-impossible-to-get units released in the United States at rollout. Now I’ve actively continued my Lego collecting for years, and am a proud owner of the MindStorms NXT, and use it in coaching First LEGO League and teaching robotics with other self-created programs (such as Robot Sumo) at the Academy for Science and Design, a public charter school in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where my son Isaac attends.

If you’ll pardon the indulgence, I’ll return to my original questions:

Which of your early childhood toys had an impact on your adult life? Do you think the toys were wonderful because of your innate personality or skills, or do you think the toys helped get those skills going?

Comment away!