Everything Else I Read in 2007

Wow, I didn't realize I hadn't updated my book log since August. That's insane! Book log updates take a long time, so I guess I put off doing them, but eight months? Here are the books I read from August to the end of last year, and I'll post this year's books in another post. One day. Maybe in August.

Three Junes by Julia Glass was a vacation read I borrowed from Baba, and it was a great book. I am looking at all the notes I made on it after I read it, and sadly despite having written the notes and now reading them, I don't remember much of the story, which doesn't reflect well on my attempts to read more attentively and remember what I read. Anyway, it's one of those novels with dozens of different characters whose lives intersect in interesting ways. The characters are beautifully drawn and the intersections of their lives are plausible and enjoyable to read about.

I sound like an idiot when I try and write about fiction! Maybe non-fiction too. Oh, I wish I were smarter. You would think all this reading would help.

Get Smart: Nine Sure Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in School by Ronald Dietel. I think I picked this up because it was on display at the library. That is to say, I didn't order it especially, and I'm not worried about Delphine's academic development or anything. I'm not even particularly worried about whether she "succeeds" in school; the question of whether getting good grades can be considered succeeding is very much up in the air for me at the moment. Anyway, that's now, but back in September when I read this book I thought it would be cool to know how to help my kid succeed in school.

Dietel starts by commenting on the fact that apparently there is no time to be a kid any more, and there's big pressure on even the smallest of children to succeed in school. "The words 'let them be kids' are becoming a faint echo of the past." And that's all he says. He doesn't say that sucks, he doesn't say you should be a counterpoint to the pressure in your kid's life, he doesn't say maybe achieving in school isn't the be all and end all. And I guess he wouldn't! If he felt that way I bet he would have written a different book.

He goes on the talk about the different factors which affect your kid's success at school (specifically: ability, effort, attitute, school quality, teacher quality, school learning habits, home learning habits, evaluations, communication). And then for each factor he talks about how you can affect and improve it, varying from study techniques to working with your kid's teacher to homework routines. It was a pretty useful book, for what it was. I am older and wiser* now than I was when I read the book, and have some different perspectives on school and learning and how much involvement I should have in my kid's life, so even though I only read this book a few months ago I think I would approach it a lot differently if I read it today.

* I am older and wiser now mainly because of a book I just read called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn which has blown my mind and made me rethink everything about interacting with my children, but in the best possible way. I will post about it sometime.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen by Mitali Perkins; another just-picked-it-up choice. This is a young adult novel about an Indian-American teenager who is torn between her traditional grandparents and her desire to be an ordinary American girl. I generally liked the story and the message of the book, but I am spoiled by all the Canadian books I usually read and was really put off by all the American references. I don't see why an American book shouldn't have American references, but there's something nice about books set in Canada. They're easier to read. I expect the same is true about books set in Sweden if you're Swedish. I also though that Sunita's boyfriend's exoticization of Indian culture was kind of creepy, but it was presented positively in the book.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande is a book about how to succeed in medicine, or any endeavour which involves risk and responsibility. Gawande's three core requirements for success are Diligence, Doing Right and Ingenuity. He illustrates them with fascinating examples from the field, from the difficulty in getting people (doctors!) to wash their hands to the subtleties of conduct in the examining room, to the near-magical improvements in neonatal survival after the introduction of the Apgar score. This is a wonderfully written, interesting and thought-provoking book, whether you are a doctor or just want to be smarter and better at what you do every day.

Incidentally, here are Gawande's five "Suggestions for Becoming A Positive Deviant":

  1. Ask an unscripted question; be interested in someone else, surprise them, learn something about the people you see every day, find their humanity.
  2. Don't complain; it drags you and everyone else down, it is unhelpful and boring.
  3. Count something, track something; be a scientist in the world. If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.
  4. Write something; add some small observations about your world; step back and think about a problem; make yourself a part of the larger conversation.
  5. Change; respond to new ideas; recognize the inadequacies in what you do and seek out solutions.

Find something new to try, count how often you succeed, write about it, ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going. These are words I try to live by, even in my relatively small world. I strive for constant improvement. That sounds really dorky, but it's true.

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Another fantastic book! It's great when I get two good books in a row. This is a fascinating book about, as it says, how doctors think, and mainly how they diagnose. Groopman talks about the inadequacies in medical training, how doctors feel about you as a patient, how they come to their conclusions and how they can get stuck in stereotyped views of you and your condition. Most importantly he writes about how you can ask questions to understand your doctor's thinking and perhaps gently steer them in a different direction if you feel like they are not giving enough thought to your condition, or if you just want to understand their diagnosis better.

Everyone who is a patient should read this book, and doctors should too.

The Simple Home: The Luxury of Enough by Sarah Nettleton. This is mainly house porn; lots of pretty pictures of "simple" houses; houses that are exactly as big and complex as they need to be, and no more. Pretty and inspirational.

Supernanny: How To Get The Best From Your Children by Jo Frost and Nanny Wisdom: Our Secrets for Raising Healthy, Happy Children — From Newborns to Preschoolers by Justine Walsh and Kim Nicholson. I read these books because I was looking for inspiration on how to discipline Cordelia, who was just getting into a bit of a hellish phase. Both books favoured timeouts, which I tried and which failed miserably because Cordelia would either be completely happy on the "naughty step", or Delphine would go over and comfort her.

Anyway, otherwise these are pretty good books which emphasise what I consider to be the cornerstone of good parenting, a structured routine. They also both give a shoutout to an early bedtime, another parenting tool which I think is sadly underused these days.

However, I wish the Nanny Wisdom nannies would stick to general parenting advice and stay away from advice on nursing, which is... well, it's none of their business and they don't know what they're talking about. They say you should stop nursing at a year and they say that at some point your milk dries up and your kid is just nursing for pleasure. Which is not true at all! They clearly overstepped the bounds of their own expertise there. If you want good nursing advice, the book for you is Breastfeeding Made Simple by Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. Not some nanny book.

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is what you experience when you are completely involved in what you are doing, when you feel simultaneously focused and transcendent. It doesn't happen very often, and Csikszentmihalyi has studied when it happens and how. This is a book about how to fully engage in life, how to live without waste of time or potential. If you don't believe in an afterlife then you know we've only got maybe eighty years of consciousness, and you'd better believe I don't want to waste any of mine. This is a wonderful book about finding happiness and fulfillment, sometimes where you least expect it (like at work!).

Factory Girl by Barbara Greenwood. Barbara Greenwood is a lady in my choir who writes really neat history books for children, which combine historical facts with a narrative. She tells the story for a few pages and then breaks off and talks about the facts behind the story. This was an interesting read for me because it made me realize how much I bluff when I'm reading historical fiction. For example, the character in the book works in a sweatshop that makes shirtwaists. Sure, shirtwaists, I thought! Cool! It was only three pages later when Greenwood breaks out and says, in effect, "Here is what a shirtwaist is" along with a few illustrations out of the Eaton's catalogue, that I realize I had no idea what it was, really. Similarly she tells what, specifically, you could buy with the girl's meagre pay. I found this to be a very effective teaching technique; I think you're more likely to ask questions about what you're reading if you know that the answers are coming up, and I think these books encourage curiosity. I look forward to reading more of Greenwood's books with the girls.

Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs. This was better than the last Kathy Reichs. I think I need another go-to mystery writer, though, because Reichs continues to annoy with her sentence fragments and her "it's on the tip of my tongue" intuitive mystery-solving.

Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. This was useful but I can't remember exactly what I learned that I didn't already know. Oh, I guess I learned that it is considered okay to put the entire message in your subject header (if your message is short). That always annoys me, but I guess if no-one else minds I'll have to put up with it. Also apparently you are only supposed to have one topic per email; if you want to talk to someone about two things you should send two emails. That sounds really maddening to me, but I have learned from experience that some people just don't read (or comprehend) more than one item or paragraph in an email message. Also I suppose having one topic per message might make it easier to file, if you're a dinosaur and you still use folders instead of tags.

And that's the end of my 2007 reading! I can't believe Cordelia is still asleep! I might even be able to post about what I've read in the last three months sometime before the end of April.

Fixing the blog for iPhones.

A while ago, I had bought an iPod Touch, and started messing around with the CSS on this weblog, to try and get it looking a little nicer on the small screen. Sadly, it never quite worked, and because of a bug in my selector (“min-device-width” should have been “max-device-width”), I broke the weblog for Safari too. Fortunately, today, I grabbed a copy of the latest version of Safari, and fixed the bug! So now iPhones and iTouches will both get a pretty version of the site, and Safari 3.1 looks beautiful again. Even more beautiful, now that SVG is supported. (Give it a try, and let me know if you can see the green ? in a circle.)

Disjointed Observations (some of which resemble bragging): Delphine Edition

Delphine is just under two months away from being five, and in the last month or so she went through one of those quantum changes — your kid goes to bed one day and she's four and a half, and wakes up the next day and she's nearly five. Her hair is longer, her face is more girlish and less babyish, she has all these freckles that came out of nowhere, she uses long words and elaborate grammatical constructions, she can almost read. It's a bit dizzying, frankly, but I couldn't be happier. The more she moves away from babyhood the more I like hanging out with her.

So yeah, she can almost read. I would say she's a few weeks from really being able to read; she can sound out short (phonically logical) words, and she is learning a few tricks (like looking at the first letter and the associated picture and guessing!) to work out the other 95% of the English language. She's also sight-learned a few words, which suits me because that's largely how I (and I assume most literate adults) read.

I will say now that I hate phonics. I hated it when I was a kid and I still hate it now. I hated it when I was a kid because it didn't work (and because I thought it was a lame crutch for kids who couldn't "really" read — I was a huge snob when I was a kid). I hate it now because it still doesn't work; I feel like such a fraud when I tell Delphine to "sound it out" when I know that that's a technique which will hardly ever help her figure out a word. I am perplexed by the emphasis phonics receives, unless it's because no-one has come up with a better way of "teaching" kids to read, and they want to feel like they're doing something. The English language is too full of exceptions for phonics to be worth anything — if you want to read anything more interesting than the most pedestrian Easy Reader (another thing I hated as a kid) you are going to come across the word "one" or the word "weigh" or the word "said" and phonics is going to let you down. I don't have any answers, though. All I know is I figured out how to read by being read to (no-one taught me) and I expect my children will do that same, whether or not they learn "k-k-k-kite" at school.

Back to Delphine, who can also write. She can form letters like a demon, so she writes quickly if you spell things out for her, but she's also really bold about writing on her own and guessing how things are spelled. She loves to write cards for her friends. "Athena I love you." They are always love letters.

Okay, this is my last brag about Delphine, I promise. We were talking about aunties the other day; since she's been old enough to talk we've been working with the convenient fiction that she has two aunties, Auntie Morgan and Auntie J'Anne. On Sunday I decided she's old enough to understand that Auntie J'Anne is actually Daddy's auntie and her Great-Aunt (although J'Anne is hardly the quivering old dear that the title implies). To illustrate the idea I decided to do a family tree. I walked Delphine through drawing up a crude diagram with circles for each person and lines joining us all up. When it came to labelling, Delphine decided that she was going to write each person's name around their circle, with the letters projecting out perpendicular to the surface of the circle. (I'll take a picture so you can see what I mean.) And she did so, forming each letter correctly with respect to the slope of the circle, without turning the paper around. That means she can rotate two-dimensional objects in her head!

Obviously I think that's pretty cool, whether or not almost-five is exactly when you would expect someone to be able to rotate two-dimensional objects in their head (I have no idea). It's math! Do you know what this means? It means she'll be able to read maps, and walk around strange cities without getting hopelessly lost, and figure out where this bit goes on that bicycle without trying it! It means she'll be able to do those useless spatial manipulation questions in IQ tests! I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that she has math brain — she comes from two families of math heads — but I'm still pleased. Now we just need to get her doing cryptics.

Part of the being-almost-five (and not really four anymore) is that Delphine is generally nicer to be around (don't let anyone tell you about Terrible Twos, Four is much worse. Twos get a bad rap.) However I can't get her to stop yelling at Cordelia. Poor Cordelia seems to get screamed at all day, when she won't give up a toy, when she can't learn the rules of a game, when she hides wrong in Hide and Seek. I know Delphine learned all about yelling from me, but the scale is entirely different! I have yelled at her fewer than ten times in her whole life, whereas she seems to yell at DeeDee ten times a day. Well, maybe five. I guess they mean it when they say your bad behaviour will be reflected in your kids' behaviour, but I didn't realize it would be magnified to this extent. I have a book out about managing Anger and Aggression (for parents and children) so hopefully that will help. Because I don't have Clue One what to do at this point. At least March Break is over so they can get out of each other's hair for a while every day.

More pictures.

It’s been a while since Delphine has wanted to play on my little computer at bedtime. We’ve been too busy reading old, old books about animals of various kinds. Yesterday, we both seemed to realize this, and decided that tonight we would play on the little computer instead of reading books. I’m sure Delphine was thinking something more along the lines of “We’ll play on the little computer, and then read books”, but that was never going to happen.

The commentary on this is “It’s a head. On a slide. With a hat, and the sun.”

Bzr Looms kick ass!

On the Bazaar mailing list, Robert Collins wrote:

I’m happy to announce bzr-loom.

And I’m happy to use them!

My company uses vss for our version control, (I know. That should be “for our ‘version’ ‘control’”,) and we had recently announced a code freeze for an impending release. Thanks to bzr-loom, which I downloaded and installed on my birthday (the 5th), I could continue to push ahead with my work, and pop down and fix bugs in the frozen code when it became necessary, and never lose my history, and not have to deal with copying directories back and forth. Heck, by adding a thread for each proposed future VSS checkin, I even had a reasonable history in VSS when it came time to check everything in.

Thank you, Robert, for making my job far more bearable.

March Break

It's day three of March break, which I have been looking forward to for a while. As I might have mentioned a thousand times, taking people to and from school is the thorn in my side for this winter, so a week of unstructured days where we don't have to be anywhere in particular are any particular time sounds awesome. I'm also glad to say I haven't turned into one of those Moms who is scared to face a week or even a day with her kids. (One of my favourite examples is an acquaintance from school who has bought her kid millions of toys but "has" to schedule her for activity after activity because she is "bored" at home. My kids aren't allowed to be bored.)

So on Monday we had a friend of Delphine's over and they did the usual dressing up and jumping on the bed and drawing pictures and stuff. I threw together some lunch and then Delphine went over to the friend's house while Cordelia napped and I ... I don't remember what I did. Read, maybe?

Tuesday we had a huge impromptu March Break Pizza Party. I had invited my friend Ellen over with her three, and my friend Tanya invited herself over (she's allowed to do that) with her two, and she in turn mentioned to a friend, Anna, that she was coming, and said friend invited herself over (she's not really allowed to do that but we have been muttering about getting together sometime, and she's moving to England soon so it's not like I need to worry about something awkward developing.) Anna has two boys, so altogether there were nine children (two babies, three toddlers and four kindergartners) and four Mummies. We tossed the eldest out into the snow for a while where Jake (the senior kindergartner) gave orders and pulled people around on the sled. The Mums juggled babies and made pizza and talked some awesome talk (I love smart people) and then we hailed everyone in and fed them all. Then all the kids played upstairs. It was an interesting dynamic; they are all three and four and I swear they spend eighty percent of the time discussing what they were going to play and what the rules were and whose rules they should use, and maybe twenty percent of the time actually playing, usually chasing each other and screaming.

Gradually people left (but not without cleaning the kitchen first!) until it was just Tanya and me and ours, and we agreed it was good fun but not something you'd want to do every day.

Today I declared Toy Sort-Out day. We brought every toy in the house down to the dining room along with the assorted boxes and bags and things they go in, and put everything where it's supposed to be, creating new categories and boxes (with labels) as necessary. I am trying to train them to be organized freaks like me. It was hard work but it only took the morning. After lunch Delphine and I "rested" on the couch (with the TV on) while DeeDee napped, and now they are outside painting the snow with food colouring-tinted water, and making snow cookies with the sandbox toys I dug out.

Tomorrow we're venturing downtown to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Arts, and Friday is still wide open! Maybe we will go tobogganing in the park. What are you doing for March break?

Mind-set, or why I don't tell my kids they are smart

Here's an article from Scientific American about how a focus on your kid's effort — not their intelligence — is the key to success in life (and school). The bottom line is, either your kid believes that she's smart and successful because she was born that way (a fixed intelligence mindset) or she believes she's smart and successful because she works hard and practices (a growth mindset). In either case, eventually your kid is going to run into something she can't succeed at effortlessly. If she has a fixed intelligence mindset she will give up on that thing, assuming that it's just something she's not good at. If she has a growth mindset she will just try harder and harder. Children with fixed mindsets will also be scared to try new things, and to make mistakes, for fear that they will be "outed" as someone who isn't so smart after all.

So your kid needs to know that intelligence isn't intrinsic but is something that can be changed and improved, and she needs to know that being intelligent isn't much use without a good dose of hard work and courage. That's why I am not impressed when my kids are smart; of course they are smart. It's what they do with themselves that I am interested in.

This issue is close to home for me because I grew up with a very fixed mindset and it has taken me years to shake it. It also caused me to make some decisions I still regret now. Basically every time I wasn't instantly successful at something I would give it up, and I was absolutely petrified of making mistakes, so I never took any risks. I would like my children to be bolder, less fearful of failure and mistakes, and to work harder than I did as a child. (And as an adult, now that I mention it.)

Here's an interesting paragraph from the article for Kat — this ties into something we were talking about the other day:

Mind-set can affect the quality and longevity of personal relationships as well, through people’s willingness—or unwillingness—to deal with difficulties. Those with a fixed mind-set are less likely than those with a growth mind-set to broach problems in their relationships and to try to solve them, according to a 2006 study I conducted with psychologist Lara Kammrath of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. After all, if you think that human personality traits are more or less fixed, relationship repair seems largely futile. Individuals who believe people can change and grow, however, are more confident that confronting concerns in their relationships will lead to resolutions.

Oh, incidentally I got the link from Alyson Schafer's blog.

Other dynamically-changing stuff.

Last night I was browsing the newest iTouch apps, and I saw one called LEDBanner. It allowed you to scroll text across your screen as if your screen was a set of LEDs. My only problem with it was that I couldn’t programmatically change the text. Fortunately the source was available, and so, with only minor changes, I now have a version which lets me change the text to whatever I want.

For instance, the following scheme code:

#! /usr/bin/gsi
(define (flmod x y) (fl- x (fl* (floor (fl/ x y)) y)))
(define (%100 time) (flmod (floor (time->seconds time))
(fixnum->flonum 100)))
(define (f)
        path: "~/Library/Preferences/org.akamatsu.LEDBanner.msg"
        truncate: #t)
      (lambda () (display (%100 (current-time)))))
    (thread-sleep! 3)

changes the text every three seconds to the number of seconds, modulo 100. Which turns out to be a mostly-random number, as shown below.

The number 8.

How to dynamically change your icons.

One of the things I wanted to add to WifiToggle was having the icon show you whether your wifi was on or off, by having the switch be up or down (and the blue glow be on or off, since in Australia a down switch means that the light is on, whereas in Canada, it’s the opposite). Sadly, it didn’t seem possible, since Springboard1 seems to cache your icon.png, and ignore any updates you do to it. And so that was where I left it for a long time…

Recently, however, I was browsing through AppFlow and I noticed that the MobileCalendar application’s icon was different than the one in Springboard. Specifically, the one on AppFlow was blank, whereas the one in Springboard showed me the current day and date (i.e. "Saturday" and "1" for today). How did it do that? I grabbed the source, and grepped through it for the answer, which turned out to be a special key in the Info.plist:


When I set WifiToggle’s SBIconClass key to be the same, I too had the day and date drawn on top of my icon! Partial success! So now I’m at the point of trying to figure out if I can use any class that implements the correct interface (I’m thinking specifically about adding a class to my application to handle the updates.) Of course, I have no idea what that interface is, but hey, I’m way closer than I was this morning, so that’s got to count for something.

  1. The application launcher on the iTouch. 

Too Different!

When I went to pick Delphine up from school this afternoon, she burst into tears as soon as she saw me. One of the other moms pointed her out to me; "Isn't that yours crying up there?" The teacher, a substitute, said "She just started crying, I don't know what happened!"

I asked Delphine, "Did something happen?" She shook her head. "Did someone do something?" No. "Did you lose something?" No. "Did you hurt yourself?" No. "Are you going to tell me why you're crying?" No. So I didn't press the issue, and we started walking home. After we had said goodbye to Delphine's friend and walked a few more steps, Delphine said "There was a different teacher, and Mrs Hollister said it was going to be Mrs Green or Mrs Turk and it wasn't any of them! And we had music in the gym, not in music! Everything was too different!" And she sobbed. She went on to detail further how things were different (she had lunch at a friend's house instead of home, and the gym was all set up for a concert, not like normal). She was really upset! I remember hating things to be different when I was a kid, so my heart went out to her. Once we got home we read a book and cuddled on the couch, and she seems to feel better now.

I hope things aren't so different tomorrow!