Monday, February 28, 2005

4-H Chess Club

In the winter months we have 4-H Chess Club twice a week. Mondays is grades k-3, Tuesdays I meet with grades 4-6. I have been the chess leader since Shelagh was in 2nd grade, at least that's what I remember.

The philosophy of 4-H is that we teach kids how to think, not what to think. My goal is to produce a group that has a better grasp of chess and its possibilities and, more importantly, to give some insight on how to learn new things and think hard.

I have been using instruction material from Chess for Kids. In the beginning of the year kids all need a lot of instruction, so I make it a point to play a “teaching game” with each of them. I talk them through these games, offering them the chance to rescind bad moves and explaining to them what my strategy is and how they might thwart it. I make it a point to castle early, to allow them to capture en passant, and to mention pawn promotion. They all really need end game practice so all games are played to the end, even if it is lone king vs. king rook. When there is time between games I will set them to working out basic end games, starting with king-rook-rook against a lone king.

Kids in the younger group are addicted to queen promotion and will senselessly acquire more queens because they can’t figure out how to use the material they have. Challenging them to “mate in six moves” is sometimes helpful.

If a kid gets discouraged to the point that they look like they want to quit, I like to offer to trade sides. (This works very well with the younger set because they soon forget that we switched and are so happy to win a game.) Doing this gives end game experience for kids who don’t often make it to the endgame.

I try to keep my commentary to short, factual statements:

Knights are more useful in the center of the board.
Don’t attack with your queen if another piece can do the job.
Control the center, attack on the side.
You can’t castle in check; you can’t castle through check.

After a while I hear the kids repeating these statements to each other as they play.

Checkmate vs stalemate is a hard concept to get across, especially for the K-3 set. They instinctively feel that the object of the game should be to physically grab their opponent’s king by any means possible. I check out a finished game by asking them “how did it happen?” If the conquering player did not say “check” then they need to go back to that point and play it over again.

If they come to me and ask “Is this checkmate?” I refrain from answering that question for them, but ask them the three questions: “Can you move? Can you block? Can you capture?” as in moving the king, blocking the check, or capturing the attacking piece. If the answer is "no", then it is checkmate, but often it turns out that there is a way out of the mate. Eventually they start asking themselves the question, instead of just moving the king when they are checked. Nothing like being trained to consider all options when under stress.

I encourage “touch moves” but I make it clear that we are here for chess playing, not lawyering. I will get kids who want their opponent to be bound to a ridiculously bad move because “he took his hand off.” I avoid adjudicating these deals but point out that if they won’t cut their opponent some slack then they can’t expect courtesy from their opponent in the future. I discourage bad etiquette like touching pieces before you have decided your move and (ARGHHH!) mindlessly tapping pieces on the table.

We often forget to start games with a handshake but I try to make sure that they end by shaking hands. I insist on a real handshake: palms together, good grip, eye contact; not the phony hand slaps after the ball game.

Chess is unique among the activities available to kids because in chess you make your own decisions and then live with the consequences of your actions. Eventually I get a few kids in each group who think so hard about their games that you can almost see the steam coming out of their ears. These are my favorite moments, knowing I am helping to produce kids who can stick with it in the face of adversity and who are not afraid to think.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Eight pounder!

The fish and the fisherman. He was baiting with minnows on a very light rod. The minnows would swim enough that he could usually see the rod tip move, but when he glanced over at this one there was no action. He tried to wiggle the line and arouse the minnow but there was something on the line. The weight of the fish bent the little rod almost double. He didn't think he could land it, but was hoping to "just see it." It took half an hour, but he got it on the ice. The hook had never set, it was just lightly hooked thorough the side of the mouth. "The only thing keeping it on the line was the pressure of trying to swim away"

The fish is bigger than the rod that caught it

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Saturday Night

Yesterday was an 11 plus hour shift. We are in the midst of a four day poker tournament, we had the Grassroots in the showroom, we had Luther Gravy and the Soul Biscuits in the new lounge. But above all, we are coming into Cabin Fever season, the time when everyone is sick of staying home and even the folks who can't mention the the casino without looking like they're smelling a fart are sighted there, actually having a good time.

Anyway it was busy. Way busy. Lots of people, lots of money. I was dealing roulette on a jam up game, trying to keep track of eighty things at once. My favorite moment was when the pit boss came up behind me and said "What are those people all looking at? Oh, that lady's in handcuffs!" I never got to see what she was looking at, too much going on on my game.

You could pretty much tell how old people were by whether they knew who the Grassroots were. People who went to the show said it was excellent. I played chess on my break, a speed game, whupping one of the valet guys soundly even though we are usually neck and neck. I was just all on. I love the job on busy nights.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Riverbend Blog

Lately I have been reading Baghdad Burning, a blog written by a young woman in Iraq. It is so different to read news written by the "girl on the street".

The author is anonymous by neccessity. She is a good writer and seems to be authentic. Today she was writing about how she can tell what is going on on the various routes in and out of Baghdad by seeing what is available at the corner produce cart.

She describes living under siege with the sort of wondering and practical activities that we usually only experience for a short time during snowstorms. Her stance is that of a modern woman who is terrified of seeing her nation commandeered by religious fundamentalists. I empathize with her.

Check her out and tell me what you think. On the internet you can pretend to be anyone at all, but I think this is the real deal. (Her sidebar "Something's Burning" includes recipes. They also look authentic to me.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Loose ends

Shelagh returned safely from her road trip Saturday afternoon. She said the drive was "long and boring" and that the exam was "humbling." We wait a few weeks for test results, but since 600 people sat for the exam it was probably just a learning experience.

Still it was a learning experience. When you go to an extremely small school like Leland (her graduating class is 35 kids) it is easy to think you are something special because you outperform your peers. She knows now that she will have some catching up to do wherever she goes to college. She did like hanging out at the Honors College, but her friends who live in the regular dorms say that there is nothing much to do there except sit in the dorm and watch MTV.

Sunday night I drove home in an ice storm. Monday there was no school, but the roads seemed to be melting off nicely. Liz left for the bank about 11 am, but called 45 minutes later to say that she was stuck in a ditch. She apparently saw some interesting steam rising off of Lake Michigan and drove out of her way to see it. When she tried to turn around in an unplowed driveway she found herself slowly sliding into the ditch. But being young and cute is often helpful; a guy in a truck stopped, chained a winch to a tree and pulled her out. (I guess Anna's "man" finally showed up.) By the time her father arrived she was on the road again. Now Dad calls her "Crash."

Friday, February 11, 2005

Old Garden, New Garden

Anna playing in the pea patch

This time of year I am planning next summer's garden while still using the last of last year's garden.

Last year's garden grew lots of winter squash and Cinderella pumpkins. There are a few more in the basement but they really started to go bad during the last warm spell. The people in this house are a little tired of squash but the chickens still love them, seeds and all, and the fresh vegis help to give the egg yolks some good orange color. I also have a lot of garlic in the basement, in fact I wish I had less in the basement and more in the ground since back trouble prevented me from planting next year's crop last fall.

I planted a package of mixed basils last spring which ultimately yielded many jars of pesto in the freezer. This has been an important "default meal", something everyone will eat and anyone can make easily. We make pesto pasta and use pesto instead of tomato sauce for "green pizza." Without these "default meals" we tend to make a half-hearted attempt to find something for dinner, then give up and go down to the store for something quick, expensive, and really not that good (like frozen pizza or corn dogs).

It is almost time to start lettuce and basil and tomatos for containers. I ordered seeds last week from Pinetree Garden Seeds. They have a nice selection of seeds and their smallest packet price is around a dollar each which is great for my smaller garden. Their only drawback is that they take a little longer to process orders. I ordered the basil mix again, thinking I might start it earlier this year and have potted basils to sell. I ordered gold and red cherry tomatoes with the same idea, also Thai bird peppers. Minnesota Midget melons were a success last year, the first time in 15 years that I have been able to ripen melons. I will try Healthmaster carrots this year, as it is less work to store and clean big carrots than small ones. Cutting celery is something I wish I had grown and dried last summer for winter soups and casseroles. I dried leeks and kale last fall and have been using them in potato soup.

Starting lettuce now it may end up in the ground if the weather warms early, or I may harvest it right out of the flats. I have a two shelf system for my seed flats with regular fluorescent shop lights. I would love one of those high-output plant growing lights but they are coveted by dope growers and have been stolen from neighborhood greenhouses. There is no sense in owning such a crime magnet. I may spring for the ten bucks and replace one of my tubes with a real plant light this year.

I usually buy produce from Meier in the wintertime, but this year the shipped in greens are expensive and look tired. It may be the effect of last fall's hurricanes or I may be getting pickier. Each year I stretch the garden out longer in the fall and start it earlier in the spring, so it's only a matter of time before the year links up.

Mother hen

My oldest took off in my Caravan today to go down to Michigan State, where she has been invited to test for the Alumni Scholarship. Top prize is a four year full ride, they give out five of them, I think.

I worried my whole shift, not sure if I was worrying about the test or about whether she would remember to check to tire pressure. This is the kid who, just last week, was supposed to meet me after school at 3:10 for a closely choreographed routine where I would drop the kids off at piano lessons on my way to work at 4:00. At 3:15 she still hasn't shown up and it turns out she is in the cafeteria giving blood, squeezing the little ball in an effort to get the blood out faster so she could get on to the piano lesson, forget about resting with cookies and juice. So maybe she'll earn a full ride this weekend, or maybe she'll get so busy she'll forget why she went there.

I was imagining everything that could go wrong on the road and I remembered when I taught Shelagh and Liz to change a tire. They were 15 and 14, maybe, when we had a tire go flat on the way to the laundry mat. We pulled into the beach access at Bingham Road. I told them how to change the tire, but made them do the actual job themselves. The whole time they worked Anna (age 5 at the time) kept saying "Don't worry, a man will stop and help you!" It was snowy, but they used the dirty towels from the laundry basket so they didn't have to kneel on the ground. By the time they finished we didn't have enough time to go to the laundry mat, so we headed home. Anna was quiet for a few miles, then she sighed bitterly "I can't believe that a man didn't stop to help us."

Friday, February 04, 2005

Global Laundry Warming

Global Laundry Warming

The key to successfully drying laundry outdoors is not warm temperatures but the day length and angle of the sun.

Right now the sun is as high in the sky as it is on November 4th, so getting the clothes dry is in the realm of possibility. Usually I can't even think of hanging out clothes in February because the snow is too high, but today I could walk on top of the snow so I hung out clothes.

These are the quilts that normally cover our couch, plus Anna's favorite fleece outfit and argyle knee socks. It is over 40 degrees today, even without the sun, so I was able to get everyone out from under the quilts and fleece long enough to wash them.

About my flock

I have about 20 chickens right now, 18 hens and two roosters. (I have two roosters because I answered the phone too early one morning and agreed to take 3 chickens from my neighbor without asking if there was a rooster.) These are their breeds and why I like them:

Partridge Rocks are my favorite chicken because they are pretty, the roosters are level-headed, and the hens are good setters and good mothers. They are a heavy breed and make good eating, although the feathers are dark and it is hard to pluck them all. The chicks look like little chipmunk colored birds.

Black Australorps are good calm hens, hardy in winter, good layers. But the roosters are dinks.

Buff Orpingtons are beautiful golden birds. I have a couple right now who want to go broody, I just hope they still want to sit on eggs when spring comes. Those roosters are also always looking to kick someone's okole, which is why I don't have any. The hens lay well and are large, strong birds. My kids used to think those hens were mean.

Red Star in a newer breed, bred for high egg production. They are skinny, scruffy looking birds with kind of a hyper, ditzy personality. When we had our chickens out in the pen in the yard, the Red Stars were the hardest to catch when it was time to put them in a night. They spook easily and couldn't seem to see the door when it was right in front of them. They would roost in the pine trees, so they weren't dumb. They do lay eggs; they started early and have been laying all winter, lights or no lights.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Real Intelligence in Chickens

An article in the New York Times today, Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respect, outlines a new consensus in the scientific world about the nature of birds' brains.
Nearly everything written in anatomy textbooks about the brains of birds is wrong, they say. The avian brain is as complex, flexible and inventive as any mammalian brain, they argue, and it is time to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that reflects a new understanding of the anatomies of bird and mammal brains.

The "bird brain" was seen as less complex by the comparative anatomists of 100 years ago, whose techniques were centered on observing the characteristics of whole brains from deceased subjects. (I remember seeing a display of pickled whole brains at Cornell University, human brains from a variety of subjects including scientists and notorious criminals. You had to read the tags carefully to determine if you were looking at a "good brain" or "bad brain".) German neurobiologist Ludwig Edinger, known as the father of comparative anatomy, compared the brains of all kinds of vertebrates, noting similarities and differences.
In mammals, the bottom third of the brain contained neurons organized in clusters. The top two-thirds of the brain, called the neocortex, consisted of a flat sheet of cells with six layers. This new brain, the seat of higher intelligence, lay over the old brain, the seat of instinctual behaviors.

In humans, the neocortex grew so immense that it was forced to assume folds and fissures, so as to fit inside the skull.

Birds' brains, in contrast, were composed entirely of clusters. Edinger concluded that without a six-layered cortex, birds could not possibly be intelligent. Rather, their brains were fully dedicated to instinctual behaviors.

Scholars of bird behavior have long known that birds can do things that cannot be attributed to instinct alone. Crows and ravens make tools, parrots not only mimic words, but can rearrange them to convey new thoughts. I know that mother killdeer will fake a broken wing to lure intruders away from a nest, but they still fool me half the time. I admit that the domestic chicken is not the smartest bird around, but when you watch a mother hen raising chicks and communicating with a variety of vocalizations, you start to wonder if chickens are only dumb because we raise them dumb.

Scientist now agree that the bird brain is not just a replica of the basest part of the mammalian brain, but that it has upper and base sections, also. They agree that the upper section of the bird brain is organized into clusters, as opposed to the six layers of upper brain organiztion im mammals. There are competing ideas on how the clusters evolved or exactly how they might be analagous to mammalian brain structure.
One holds that birds' brains make the same kinds of internal connections as do mammalian brains and that intelligence in both groups arises from these connections. The other holds that bird intelligence evolved through expanding an old part of the mammal brain and using it in new ways, and it questions how developed that intelligence is.

We can look forward to more findings and an interesting new line of research.