Jul 092012

Accepting your kid for who they are, or who they will become, is the biggest challenge of parenting, right?  Creating goals and expectations for them, explicitly or implicitly, is a recipe for disaster, yeah?  They are their own being, they should be able to do what they want to do, no?

I do just want Sal to be happy.  That’s my parenting goal.  I don’t care if he’s a successful artist or a struggling doctor, a chronic volunteer or a rat in a race.  As long as he’s happy and doing what he wants.  Happiness is elusive and constantly moving – many struggle to find it. So that’s all I wish for him – is to find it.

Of course, about that path to happiness, I’m slightly biased.  It goes against one of my management books that points out how as a manager, the traits and characteristics that lead to one’s success, does not necessarily apply to everyone else.  We all have different strengths and weaknesses and to manage properly is to adjust for everyone’s individual skill sets – instead of demanding they follow one’s own mold (came from a baseball management book that chronicled a manager who’s success as a player came from steals, so he forced his team to steal more, which they weren’t suited for).

I find programming skills helpful.  They’ve given me an avenue to express my creativity, they’ve kept me entertained for many years, lead to a lot of satisfying moments, and they have fed me well.

So of course, I think Sal should have some decent programming skills.  I think it’s easier to pick up other skills, if one has the foundation that disciplined programming gives you.  Programming makes you break things down, to pick out patterns, and once you start seeing them, you just can’t stop.  It will shape the way you view the world.

Even if he goes on to be an accountant, or a dancer, or a fisherman, I still think that having a mind trained for problem solving and pattern recognition will be an advantage.  I’ve tried to lead by example.  To show Sal that programs can be written to solve problems for us, to make our lives easier, to put a more practical spin on things so that he sees applications as more than video games.

It’s been an interesting journey.  First, I started with the competitive approach and tried to convince him to program because once you know how to program well, it’s easier to understand the AI that a video game utilizes.  But he was still struggling to come to grips with how own strategies for playing games, much less, trying to understand the strategy of others.

But then, we started talking about designing our own games.  And we would pick apart aspects of games we played and identified what we liked about them, and what we didn’t.  We started playing meta games, discussing the games at a higher level and he’s already feeling some of the excitement of playing a game he’s designed and built.

I think I’ve won the war – he gets it.  I’ve showed him how to use flags as variables to represent states in a game and he’s made that his own, by using different shades of red in the Gobo’s costumes.  We had an issue when the characters ran into each other and the bad guy ended up hurting himself because he ran into a Gobo (in any state).  I took a nap while Sal debugged that on his own.  He came up with states, but represented in the Gobo’s colors instead of as a variable (kind of abstract still). Darker red is a fighting Gobo.  Lighter red isn’t.  One color hurts more when you hit it.

“Plus, being more maroon-ish makes you look meaner!”

So that’s fantastic.  I should be completely happy.

Except for those sneaky goals and expectations that we’re not supposed to have.  His games lack a bit of strategy.  Not much choice in them.  Atari had their 40th anniversary a couple of weeks back (they are a few days older than I am) and they gave away their iPad games for free that day.  I downloaded a lot of them, to use as examples for Sal and I over the summer.  I figure he should be able to crank out games that were considered state of the art 40 years ago as a 7 year old today, right?

We implemented parts of Battle together.  Simple game.  Two guys moving opposite directions on the screen and they each have a bullet they can shoot at each other.  To make it more interesting, let them vary their speeds a little bit.  As simple as that game is, Walter and I used to play for hours.  Straight up duels.  Mind games.  Games so easy, you’re frustrated that you could lose such an easy game, so of course we need to play again.

But it had strategy.  It wasn’t just repetitive tapping to work your way through a ladder of achievements and (virtual) goals.  Carcassonne has many of the same qualities.  Simple game, lots of strategy, people taking very different approaches.  Sal told me he’d be more interested in playing Carcassonne if you could level up the Meeples.  If they could earn more hats, or outfits, or shields, or colors, or some other virtual goods, he’d be more into playing the game.

I’m hoping it’s just a phase.

But people rightly point out to me, that the more successful/popular games all have that customization aspect to it.  Farmville isn’t a strategy game, it’s a tap and collect game. Pokemon’s slogan tells you it’s a collector’s game.  There’s something to that type of game that is appealing, so it’s just natural that those would be the types of games Sal would want to make.  As you can see from the screenshot of the Gobo costumes, his have a wooden sword, a silver sword, a gold sword, and a platinum sword…

Those were other additions Sal made while I was napping. Updated: Here’s him describing the swords – platinum is my favorite.

So bless that little dude for getting up early on weekends and dragging me out of bed so we can go program together…I just need to get over the fact that his dream job might end up being at Zynga.

Feb 222012

I knew I had written about the song The Dollar before – I just didn’t realize it was so long ago.

We had our Dollar moment a few weeks ago.

I have taught some LEGO robotics courses for the DMA a few times.  I’ve enjoyed it each time, but always left feeling a little guilty.  Parents could have saved 2k by just buying the kit and doing a little web searching and playing with their own kids, instead of having me do it.  But time and interest isn’t always there.

It hit a little closer to home last year, as I was dropping Sal off for his own 6 year old robot course summer school.  They had some interesting kits, but were a bit pricey on eBay due to being discontinued.  The replacement Mindstorms kits for kids wasn’t interesting to Sal though.

Especially after he went to the last day of the course I was teaching later in the summer.  He really liked tweaking our full on NXT robot to compete with the other kids in the course.  He wasn’t interested in downgrading to the elementary school version of their robotics kits when he had played with the big boys.

Still, when I threw out the option to have me go teach the class this year in San Diego, I thought with LegoLand there, it’d be slam dunk with the little guy.

“I want to do that!” he said.

It was going how I expected, but the phrasing was a little off.  The way he said “that” seemed odd to me. So I probed a little more.

“I want to goto your class!”  Not goto the beach and maybe the Wild Animal park, while I teach the class?  “No, I want to do the class.”  All day?  “All day!” Every day?  “Every day” he said with a huge grin.

Well, that wasn’t going to work.

Bottom line, I got my kid asking to teach him the stuff I’m teaching other kids. How could I focus on the other kids more than my own?

So this summer, I’m not teaching a DMA course, but instead, trying to figure out how to teach a 2nd-grader-to-be how to program.  We’ll use the NXT kit I think, but I really think I’ll get more bang for the buck from the Scratch programming environment.

He’s played around with Scratch with his mom some afternoons.  They had a game where you had to touch the ninja to score some points, then the ninja would jump away, and you’d have to go mouse over him again.  Sal was really proud to tell me about how he had written a bug – since the game didn’t really end.

It’s a little sad, when one’s son’s way of mimicking one is by creating bugs.  Says a lot about what he thinks of the quality of my work, huh?

Anyway, shameful example aside, we have talked abstractly about how we could define the game ending, and he had it in his head that he would want a big “THE END” to appear and when the color of those letters hit the color of the ninja, the game would be over.

We’ve also had long conversations about which came first, the chicken or the egg. He didn’t always see the connection.

But tonight, after his friend couldn’t make it over for some play time, to avoid any drama over the change in plans, we busted open Scratch and fixed up the game.

It was a pretty good first session.  We defined the end of the game would be after X seconds.  They have a very convenient timer that we made a lot of use out of.  We added a game over background.  Then we added another ninja, so you would have to avoid one while tagging the other. This second ninja had us doing a lot of copying each time we wanted to tweak something, so we got to talk about the responsibilities of each character in the game, and the background started to take over a lot more of the “management” of the game.

So he refactored a program already!  And we had to debug some things.  I don’t think he fully got the nuances behind the race condition we had when the game started and the initial state wasn’t set properly, but he did understand how message passing allowed us to have the stage tell each of the ninjas when to start running (which fixed our race condition).  We are definitely hitting upon the notion of a controller.

Now, he’s dreaming of what’s next.  I’m sure I’ll hear about it quite a bit tomorrow.

And I’m scared.  And happy.  And mainly glad that I’m going to be around to see it develop.

Here’s the game, if you want to try it out…and if you see the kid around sometime, I’m sure he’d love to talk to you about the game in more detail…

Oct 142011

I have a little best friend who’s willing to get up at 6:15 on a Sunday morning and drive up into the mountains to watch another friend try and do a 7 mile obstacle course in less than 59 minutes.  We were excited driving into the fog, rooting for miserable weather, only to get excited when we were above the clouds and enjoying a unique view.  He didn’t even mention getting car sick once.

He knew there was money at stake.  He knew there was a time to beat.  We killed the time looking at their vendor stands, eating some specially branded Chex mix.  When the first finishers came in and jumped in the mud, he let out a joyful cackle as he saw someone willfully do something that seemed so…not right.  He loved watching everyone jump in the mud.

But when we saw Shawn, it was all business.  In the video, you’ll hear him ask near the end “time? time? time?” – he was a little anxious too.  But my favorite line was his candid observation.

Afterwards, he was excited – talking about how easy it was to win money, since I didn’t have to do anything.  I spent the drive back down the mountain trying to explain to him the difference between betting on something you can control and something you can’t.  He spent the drive down the mountain thinking about what Gundam robot he was going to get with the winnings.

He’s seen the fun side of friendly wagers.  He acknowledges that he’s got the easiest task in our family weight bet (Catherine and I have to lose weight, he has to gain weight or grow).

Then he turned on me.

We’ve been playing a bit of Battleship on the iPads now and then.

They’ve extended the basic game a bit by adding super weapons.  You unlock those by achieving various goal through the game.  Sal was talking some trash to me the other day, because he unlocked the Sky Sword.  It basically uses 1 shot to wipe out a 5×5 diamond on the board.  I wasn’t sure if I had unlocked it on my account, since it sounded tough – winning a game in less than 10 turns.  I was impressed he did that.

But you can’t show weakness.

So I told him I had a Sky SuperBomb which would fill up the entire board with one shot.

His eyes opened wide and he leaned across the table towards me.

“I bet you don’t!”

“Yes I do.”

“That’s not even possible in the game.”

“Yes it is.”

“What did you have to do to unlock it?”

“I don’t remember…something super tough though.”

He kept pestering me about the various super weapons.  Till he found enough weakness, mixed with enough self-confidence…

“I bet you a hundred million thousand dollars you don’t have that weapon.”

“Ha.  Sal, you can’t bet money you don’t have.”

“Okay.  Five dollars.”  He said it without a pause.

“Uh…I don’t think I’ll take that bet.”

“Because you don’t have it!”

So the next morning, we played.  I kept bluffing that I’d use the Sky SuperBomb, but of course, I don’t have one.  I was pleased that I had the Sky Sword though at least.  But I missed everything with it.  He got 2 hits with his.

I still won the game.  Couldn’t let him know I didn’t have that super weapon and lose the game all in one fell swoop after all.

But I am pretty sure I only won just a battle…not the war.

Aug 302011

…that thinks that just cause he jumps on me in the morning, I’m going to open my eyes.

“I found a bug!” he tells me with a sense of urgency.

“You know how to take care of it.” I try and shrug him off.

“No I don’t.”  Lately, he’s really enjoyed practicing the art of argument.  I was kind of pleased that he understood the Argument skit from Monty Python when I explained it to him.

“Just get a paper towel or something.”  By now, he’s sitting on my pillow practically and I don’t sense him moving in response to my suggestion.

“I don’t see how that’s going to make the weather work.”  That response was a little odd, so I crack an eye open to see what’s up with him.

He’s holding an iPhone and eager to show me how the weather app won’t tell him what’s going on in Sunnyvale or NY.

That’s the bug now a days that he wakes me up about…

May 262011

Apparently a little while back Sal had a friend over to play. And they were running around as boys tend to do and it was warm outside. Sal worked up a bit of a sweat so he decided to take his shirt off.

He had a little, white, ribbed tank top on underneath.

Sal’s friend commented to his own mother, “Now Sal looks like Dad!”

Sal, wanting to take part in the conversation replied with “Want to see how my dad looks?”

Without waiting for an answer, he then started to take off his pants.

His mother was barely able to stop him before the embarrassment paralyzed her…

Jun 112010

Sal told that to me the other day.  I was pretty shocked to be called out like that.  But it was true.  I was trying to get him to do something, he wanted another condition met, and I said I’d meet his condition, but he still didn’t want to do it.

That all sounds too complicated.

I’m trying to get him to put his shoes on to goto breakfast.  He doesn’t want to goto Hobee’s.  I say we’ll go somewhere else.  He still doesn’t want to put his shoes on and he calls me a liar.

He was right of course.  After he put his shoes on, I would then convince him to goto Hobee’s. But I was impressed about how he picked up on my behavior/tone and knew really what lying is. No longer can he deny he doesn’t know what it is.

I used to be excited about his first lie.  Now he had his first call out on my lying (I can’t say it was my first lie to him…).  The dude is getting harder to trick, but is way more fun.