Sunday, July 06, 2014

Teaching kids to program with Android!

I finally updated my professional blog (for the first time in more than a year, lol) -- I wrote up a programming project I did for/with my kids.  I made a simple application called "SpriteFun" for the Android phone to help my kids learn programming.  Here it is!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Looking forward to Camp Quest!!

You may recall the time I visited Camp Quest Minnesota (if not, see here). Since then, I've been trying to find a way to send my kids there.  The problem is that we only get to visit friends and family in the US for a few weeks every other year or so, and we have a fantastic time visiting with them!!

It makes it tricky for me to take a week of this precious visiting time to send my kids to camp, no matter how cool...

Imagine my surprise when I was reading Greta Christina's fabulous book Coming Out Atheist, and found she mentioned Switzerland as one of the places where there's a Camp Quest!!

Naturally, I got in touch with the organizers and not only signed up my kids but volunteered to come along and help out myself.

The stuff that's planned looks like loads of fun!!  There will be some cool Science experiments (and some Math games and puzzles provided by yours truly) in addition to the usual camp stuff (nature hikes, campfires, etc.)

The camp will be held from the 27th of July to the 2nd of August 2014, and there are still openings -- so sign up now!!  It will be primarily a German-speaking camp, though some accommodation can be made for English or French speaking kids (especially if they have some working knowledge of German).

I'm really looking forward to this!  I enjoyed going to camp as a kid, and this is sure to be so much more fun than LDS girls' camp!  I'll report on how it goes. :D

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Sun-dried tomato Mascarpone spread!

Here's another little recipe I invented!

I like throwing parties, so I'm always on the lookout for new finger-food ideas.  I would blog more of my creations, but I'm not that big on photography.

Anyway, I love sun-dried tomatoes, but they can be a challenge to work with because they have such a strong, rich flavor.  In the past, I've tried just spreading Mascarpone cheese on them (as a fresh and creamy complement to the sharp and salty tomatoes).  The flavors complement each other, but it was just too strong and rich.  So, I decided to chop the tomatoes and mix them into the mascarpone to make a spread.

Here's what you need:

  • (approximately) 250 grams of Mascarpone cheese.  Take it out of the fridge well in advance so that it will be soft when mixing it with the other ingredients.  It will also stick to cucumbers better soft (if you decide to spread it on cucumber slices).
  • (approximately) 50-75 grams of sun-dried tomatoes, chopped small.  I find that it's simplest to chop them all lengthwise first and then chop them crosswise in bunches.
  • 2 to 3 Tablespoons of pine nuts.
  • Oregano to taste, either fresh chopped or dried.  As you can see from the picture, I used fresh oregano sprigs from my garden as a garnish.
  • Grated lemon rind.  Basically take one small lemon and fine-grate all of the yellow surface of it off to use in this recipe.
Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly, and it's ready to spread!

This can of course be spread on bread or crackers, but it is especially good on cucumber slices because the light, fresh, crisp cucumber flavor and texture complement the sharp, rich, creamy flavor of the spread.  The biggest challenge with cucumbers is that spreads don't stick very well, but (as mentioned above) it sticks a little better if the spread is at room temperature.  A friend recommended placing the cucumber slices on paper towels (to eliminate some of the water), but that may reduce the crispiness.

I've tested this recipe at a party I threw for my colleagues and also at a party I threw for the post-Mormons of Switzerland, and it has been a hit each time.  I hope you'll like it!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fun with quinoa!!

Like the food-storage mom, I'm interested in cooking with dried beans and grains because it's healthy and economical.  I don't do it as often as I'd like (mostly because the people in my family don't like anything more complicated than plain pasta), but every now and then I like to try it.

As soon as I read that quinoa has a high protein content and can be grown in arid land, I immediately wanted to try to add more quinoa to my diet.  I'm not actually vegetarian, but I think that it's important to try to eat as little meat as possible, for environmental reasons.  It appears that quinoa is a pretty Earth-friendly food to switch to!

Pretty much all of the recipes I've seen for quinoa are variants of a tabbouleh-style salad, so I went out and bought a quinoa cookbook, in hopes of finding a bit more variety.  After reading through it, however, I was no more inspired than before -- and I kind of came to the conclusion that maybe making it into a salad is the classic quinoa dish for a reason.

In my version, I cooked the quinoa according to the standard instructions on the package, and I also included some kidney beans and chick-peas that I had prepared (soaked overnight and then cooked at a low boil for an hour, then strained).

After putting these three ingredients together, you can kind of just throw in whatever other ingredients you like in this sort of salad.  In my case I added a packet of feta cheese (cubed), 1/2 cucumber (diced), chopped pitted olives, and some fresh herbs (parsley, dill, mint).  I also saut├ęd some chopped onion with pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, and added them as well.  Then I added oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste.

I found that quinoa also works as an additional ingredient in my usual sort-of-minestrone soup recipe.  That recipe is one to remember if you're actually living off your food storage because it doesn't require any fresh ingredients (though I usually use fresh green onions).

In addition to the beans and chick-peas (soaked overnight), put about 100 grams of quinoa in 2 liters of broth, and cook them for about an hour with some peeled, chopped tomatoes (I used canned), and some chopped onions and herbs.

I would like to maybe try some more adventurous recipes with dried beans and/or quinoa, but these basic recipes are some good basics to start with.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Now I am officially annoyed with Gmail

They just deleted my son's account without even giving us the opportunity to download his existing emails.

Here's what happened:

I set up a gmail account for my son a few years ago, which he has been using (very rarely) to keep in touch with friends and family members.  The other day, I wanted to log him into his account to get him to reply to a message from his grandparents, and gmail passed me through one of those personal info forms, as it sometimes does. (I've given them my mobile number on one such screen, for example, and tested it -- in case I lose my password or something.)

Anyway, this time, the info page was a simple name-gender-birthdate form.  For a moment I hesitated because I don't know what they might be using our personal data for, but then my "What the hell, it doesn't matter..." attitude kicked in, and I just went ahead and filled it out for my son.

Next thing I know, his account is suspended, and I'm notified that it will be deleted in a month unless I can provide an ID card showing that my son is at least 13 years old.  Well, he's not 13 years old, so I can't prove that he is!  And I now I can't even download an archive of his messages before they get deleted!

Now, some of you are probably saying that there was probably a software license that I clicked through at some point affirming that the user of the account is at least 13.  That's possible, but normally when there's this sort of age restriction, the company makes you click a box specifically affirming your age.  I'm generally very careful about this.  For example, I was setting up a YouTube account for my son (back when YouTube and Gmail accounts were separate), and when I got to the bit where it said you have to be at least 13 to have a YouTube account, I stopped and told him he could have his own YouTube account when he turns 13.

I guess the problem is that now Google has linked gmail in with all of these other services (like YouTube and Google+) that aren't open to kids.  But I can think of a few solutions that would be a lot better than surprising us by deleting his account:

  • Create a separate category of restricted accounts (for kids) that are just email,
  • Simply suspend his account until he turns 13 (he's 12 1/2 for heaven's sake!),
  • Allow parents (with demonstrated ID) to download an archive of the messages of any kids who created accounts before this restriction.
I know that ignorance of the rules is no excuse, but sincerely, it didn't occur to me that it would be a problem for my kid to have an email account.  Even his own school created an email account for him (which he hasn't been using, but I guess he will now...).

The next thing I did was, naturally, to download an archive of all of my own gmail messages.  Well, that's what I did right after kicking myself for relying on gmail so heavily for all of my personal data needs.  If, for example, they suddenly decided that they require some criterion that I don't meet -- and they spontaneously deleted my account over it (which they may well be legally allowed to do) -- I would be up shit creek, so to speak.

Then I started imagining writing a horror flick about some evil villain taking over Google and holding everyone's data hostage.  Scary!!

Anyone else out there have a similar problem, and opinions on a solution?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Clash of cultures!! Maybe one day I'll get this Swiss thing right...

A little over a week ago, I posted the following status on Facebook:
Just got back from a short trip to Lyon. It was fun and the food was great, but I was surprised by how dingy the city seemed. I think this was mostly because it was raining the whole time, so we hardly went out, and when we did explore the city, everything was cold, wet, gray, and miserable. But I think it's also because Switzerland has messed up my expectations of how clean and new everything needs to be.
A couple of days later, I got a reminder of the fact that the amazing cleanliness in Switzerland does come with a price...

I was sitting at home watching my kids and the kids of a friend of mine (well, passively -- I was also doing my skype German lesson).  The kids had recently come in from playing outside when I heard a knock at the door.  It was my neighbor, who had come to tell me that the kids had tracked mud in the hallway -- and to explain to me that I need to tell them to wipe their feet carefully before coming into the building.

You may be thinking that's kinda weird.  If you are thinking that, then you have never lived in Switzerland.  In Switzerland, this is totally normal, expected behavior.  In Switzerland, if you are doing something wrong (making a mess or excessive noise, for example), you can pretty much expect that someone is going to tell you, politely (usually), that you are doing it wrong, and need to knock it off.

This system has certain advantages.  Remember that problem with le merde in France?  I probably don't have to tell you that they don't have that problem here.  Plus there's something to be said for a direct approach.

From my own experience, Mormon culture encourages exactly the opposite approach:  conflict is to be avoided at all costs, so when there's a problem, it often festers and escalates and then comes out in passive-aggressive ways.  (See these discussions.)  In this case, however, this is the first complaint this neighbor has made in the year we've been living here, and now I feel fairly confident that I'm not doing anything else that's too big a problem.  If I were, someone would tell me.

And, of course, that was the next part of the story.  Can you guess?  My husband and I received an email from the same neighbor a couple of days later complaining that we hadn't vacuumed the hallway.

The funny thing is that it was simply a clash of cultural expectations.  There really wasn't that much dirt in the hallway (well, by American or French standards, anyway) and the hallway is cleaned regularly.  I had assumed that by apologizing and promising it wouldn't happen again, I was done.  But a Swiss colleague confirmed that when a Swiss person points out a mess that is your fault, that means that you are to clean it up immediately.

Now it's funny to me to re-read the post on Swiss etiquette I wrote after about a year of living in Switzerland.  I had mentioned a person silently hinting that someone was doing something wrong (failing to move to the "standing" lane on the escalator) as an example of Swiss politeness.  It was a funny scene, but clearly I was interpreting it through my own cultural lens of what constitutes polite behavior.  Now I think that guy was probably a foreigner. ;)

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

State of the Me: 2013 - 2014

I'm glad it is time to assess where I'm at and talk about goals!  Why?  Well, because I've had this weird malaise lately, and I feel like just taking the time to analyze it (in order to write this post) has been helpful.

My analysis in a nutshell is the following:  My day-to-day life is actually going fairly well, but I have a number of creative projects I'd like to spend more time on, and I'm stressed by the fact that it's not clear when that's ever going to happen.

Now for the details:

Home: We've been in our new apartment (condo, actually) for just over a year.  It's really perfect for our lifestyle (location, size, style) -- the only drawback is that I spend more time on housework simply because I've finally gotten to the point where I really can put everything away and have the whole place completely clean and organized, for the first time since I-don't-know-when!  I also spent a lot of time this past year building storage shelving in the basement; so much so that I've joked that organizing my basement is my hobby!  It's hardly a joke, actually -- the basement looks fantastic, and now I can find anything!!

Job: I've been working for Dybuster for almost four years now, making it my longest real job ever.  As always, I have a lot of responsibility and a variety of tasks -- it has basically been going well the whole time.

German: Learning German has been an ongoing obstacle for the six years I've been living in Switzerland.  The main problem has been that my motivation to learn has been more negative than positive, eg. it bugs me that I have trouble communicating and that people have to translate for me, but aside from that, I never really wanted to speak German the way I was thrilled to be able to communicate in a new language back when I was first learning French.  Well, that has actually finally changed this year -- I've gotten over this hump to the point where I enjoy speaking German. Yay!!  (I can recommend my instructor who practices with me via skype, weekly.)

kids:  The kids have ongoing problems in school (learning to be tri-lingual is easier for kids than grown-ups, but still it is no simple matter!).  Things could be a lot better, but we're basically on track as best we can be.  We have loads of fun just playing, and the kids have taken the lead on some pretty impressive projects.  Still, I would like to invest more time and energy into organizing Math, Science, and programming projects to share with them.

relationships:  I feel like I've had a lot of good friendships with people who have been important to me over the past few years.  This area is my biggest goal for 2014, to cultivate new and existing relationships -- perhaps because I've seen the importance of friendships in my life lately.  Ideally, I think it would be cool if I could find friends with whom I could speak French or German, or -- even cooler -- a friend who is interested in participating in my blogging and websites.  With my husband, I think things are going well, and we're on the same page with our home/life/family ideas.  We enjoy spending time together, but we don't share all of our hobbies -- nor do we expect to -- so I think it is reasonable to seek more friendships.

blogging:  I enjoy my work with Main Street Plaza and the Mormon Alumni Association, but I'm thinking I really need to find a friend who is psyched about sharing this hobby with me.  I've spent too long feeling like I'm annoying people if I bring up my Internet hobbies, and consequently I end up feeling like my Internet activities are too disjoint from the rest of my life.  Then I don't spend as much time on them as I'd like to.  If I had one friend to hang out with and talk about this stuff, it would make all the difference.

health:  I have been attending French yoga for as long as I've been at Dybuster, and it's great!  At first I had to force myself to do it, but now I can't stay away.  I've also been making an effort to eat more vegetarian and drink in moderation.  The fact that (at 42) I'm not nearly as pretty as I was 10 years ago has been difficult to deal with.  However, I feel like I've done a good job of looking and feeling my best.  I just hope that I can get a good portrait of our family in 2014 -- we've basically never had a good portrait.  Also, I really need to schedule myself a dentist appointment...

So, things aren't going so bad, right?  I had a nice, relaxing day today and I gave haircuts to all three of my boys.  Maybe with a bit of time-management, 2014 will be the year to really get some stuff done! :D