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I agreed to an email interview for a blog recently, and then let the questions get buried in an inbox avalanche. Some time later, and very late at night, I noticed an urgent reminder from her… here follows my somewhat philosophical answers (most of which did not make it into the article).

1. What is your background? (I understand you are a software engineer and also a paragliding instructor but was hoping you could give my readers a bit more background about who you are).
Where does a personal history start? Was it when I was four and my brother and I spent every day wandering around on empty beaches and climbing on the wreckage of an abandoned wood mill? Perhaps it was when I spent three and a half months in a full-body cast recovering from a corrective spinal surgery at the age of fourteen and the staff of an alternative school program decided they would help me continue to go to school every day. There are dozens of events in a childhood that seem pivotal when viewed in hindsight. Without being able to point at any single event, I can say that those collective experiences laid the foundation for a life-long habit of self-directed learning that gave me one guiding principle: “do the most interesting thing you can.” What success I have enjoyed as a software architect and an innovator, I owe to that simple idea.

2. What inspired you to start the Tinkering School and ultimately write this book?
If my life and the way that I approach life was formed by pivotal experiences in my childhood, what does that imply for the children who are over-protected and see the world more from the backseat of a car than from the branches of a tree they climbed? Not only was I seeing children that didn’t get to explore the world on their own terms, I was seeing them grow into apathetic adults who lacked the basic skills and curiosity necessary to engage with the world. And can you blame them? When high school is just something that you survive, and college is only exciting because you get to drink, what kind of feeling does that create for learning in general? Tinkering School is an on-going experiment in fostering life-long learning, an attempt to instill the kind of persistence and failure resilience that helps us see problems as puzzles rather than barriers – the antithesis and antidote for apathy.

3. What are the benefits of allowing kids to do the things you describe in your book?
At the heart of the book are two important ideas; children will be safer and more able to mitigate risk if they are given a chance to practice, and that by letting children experience the world in a hands-on way, we lay the foundations of creativity and innovative thinking. The book creates a context for parents and children to have a rational discussion about danger, to examine the benefits of an activity and weigh them against the potential hazards.

4. What feedback have you received on the book and by who? – I imagine there may be some outraged parents…
I’m happy to say that aside from one child psychologist in Australia, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. A few people in the media and some parents have wondered if the book “takes it too far”, but there is no consensus on which topics are too dangerous. At a book signing event recently, one parent took me to task for suggesting that children should climb on the roof of a house, and before I could explain the thinking behind that activity, another parent said that she used to eat her lunch on the roof as a child and that she lets her children do it too.

5. Do you think you may be pushing the boundaries a bit too far? Why or why not?
The book encourages parents to be clear about what they are and are not comfortable doing, and to share and discuss those boundaries with the child. No topic in the book should be attempted unless both parent and child are ready to do it in a safe and responsible manner. But having said that, we (as a society) have to ask who is responsible to for defining those boundaries? If we let the bureaucrats and lawyers do it, there won’t be any more parks, bicycles, or recesses. Every parent should decide for themselves, what the boundaries are, and instead of calling the police when we see a child playing in the yard unsupervised, we should applaud. Let us choose as a society to relish this moment, arguably the least violent in human history, and go outside to play, to experiment, and explore.

6. Some safety regulations are in place for a reason, have you thought of an alternative approach to teaching kids how to make something rather than putting power tools in their hands?
The experience is not about the tools, it’s about the ideas. We use hand tools, we use improvised tools, we make new tools, and yes, sometimes we use power tools too. Part of the point of the project format is to make it work with you have. If we’re out building something in the woods, we’re not going to have power tools – but we’re still going to explore the idea.

7. You don’t have your own children, correct? Do you feel it is a hindrance or a benefit for the work you do with children? Why? ( Frankly, as a mother myself, I wonder how your approach would differ if dealing with your own children).
I think that we are all responsible for the safety and well-being all of the children – that’s the promise that we make to them as a society. I may not share the unique bond that a parent has for their child, but that also gives me a perspective that is different from the parent point of view and I may be able to see the benefit of an activity more clearly. That being said, I know that my parents raised me with an unusual amount of freedom, so I’m fairly certain that I would be that sort of parent my self given a different set of circumstances.

8. Who has influenced you as a person most in your life?
Certainly my parents and my brother have had a huge impact on who I am, and my wife (collaborator on both the book and the school), as well as the huge extended family of Beatniks, artists, musicians, film-makers, poets, tinkerers, and lost souls that my parents welcomed in our house over the years – most of whom still call me ‘kid’. Teachers who were patient with me as I abandoned the curriculum, and those employers brave enough to look at what I had done instead of what degrees and diplomas I didn’t have. And Mose Allison, because I still want to be able to play piano and sing like that.

9. What books are on your night stand for pleasure reading?
In no particular order…

Metaphors We Live by [METAPHORS WE LIVE BY -OS]
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Leviathan
Scott Westerfeld

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
Lenore Skenazy

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Doxiadis et al

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer

Skull Session
Daniel Hecht

Journal of Delacroix (Arts & Letters)
Eugene Delacroix

Seeing Voices
Oliver Sacks

No More Secondhand Art
Peter London

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Twyla Tharp

Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology
Gregory Bateson

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
John Elder Robison

Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath
Michael Paul Mason

Thinking with a Pencil
Henning Nelms

The Brain’s Sense of Movement – Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience
Alain Berthoz

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
Matthew Crawford

The First Time I Got Paid For It: Writers’ Tales From The Hollywood Trenches
Peter Lefcourt et al

Thinking in Pictures (Expanded, Tie-in Edition): My Life with Autism (Vintage)
Temple Grandin

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Stuart Brown

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//Doha//Thursday//Departure//0400

The alarm clicks on, and a singer fills the pre-dawn room with exotic consonants over a heavy background of strings and a plucked ood. It is 4am here, and in an effort to get on California-time, I will immediately commence to pretend that it is 5pm. I extricate the daily slippers from the plastic wrap and cram my wide feet into the narrow terry-cloth toe-cups, don the comically plush bathrobe, and Skype home to see the last light of dusk over her shoulder. She’s dog-sitting for friends, and he starts woofing when I say “Hi Kai!” It occurs to me that he might not have a real sense of simultaneous ‘here’ and ‘there’. Where do you start when you set out to explain time zones to a dog? You’re having dinner, I’m having breakfast. Woof.

Here are a few things that I will remember (actual conference notes and details are in my notebooks). The charter bus from the hotel to the conference center has curtains that like to stay closed, preventing us from getting any real sense of the city as we ride back and forth. There are people spending a lot of money doing studies and having meetings. Stephen Hippell uses a Finder window on his laptop to browse around and show photos and videos while he’s presenting – it’s both fascinating and annoying at the same time. Sauteed mushrooms over rice with steak medallions are a good breakfast – fruit on the side. The Sheraton Hotel is a tetrahedron. People and businesses are moving to Qatar because people and businesses are moving to Qatar. Because there is almost no “here” here, they are making one. The Persian Gulf is like a big bathtub full of epsom salts; warm, salty, calm, and shallow. If a woman has her face covered do not engage in conversation unless she starts one. Six kinds of hummus in a buffet is not excessive. The breeze coming in from the gulf smells like warm iron. Dust is the reminder that the desert is still here. The people that you meet during the breaks are often more interesting than the people presenting. A tree stands alone in a shallow depression in an open lot, sand and bits of debris piled up against the trunk – a testament to determination. The birds here sleep in the daytime, coming out at dusk and dawn to chatter and chirp in the imported palm trees. Architecture should be more than just surprising. The Islamic Art Museum puts all those geometric patterns that are on doors and screens in a context that makes them make sense. You hardly ever meet anyone native to Qatar. Instead of carrying your groceries in the souk, you hire a really old guy with a wheelbarrow and he follows you around while you shop.

I know almost nothing about geography, and often amuse my fellow attendees by asking where their country is. I use my hands to make the shape of their continent and have them point out where they live.
“Over here,” they will say after orienting themselves to my hand-map, “near the base of this finger.”
“Is it nice there?”
“Oh yes. You should come and visit us. But stay away from this area here,” pointing at the bend in my wrist, “things are a bit unsettled there.”
My carpal-tunnel irritation has evidently leaked into the neighboring country.

After a presentation on the new language of school architecture, wherein I pick up the evocative characterization of “classic” schools as the “cells & bells” approach, I turn to my row-mate and offer, “Those so-called ‘playful’ spaces looked awfully sterile to me, what do you think?”
He pauses for a moment, and says, “In my village, the classroom is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the village, and it is also used for town meetings.”
“So, no fancy desks or individual study places?”
“The blackboard is tied to the tree when school is in session. Sometimes, the tree is also the jail. If someone does something bad, we tie them to the tree until the police from the municipality can come and pick him up. Sometimes we would be studying and there would be a drunk man tied to the side of the tree opposite the blackboard.”

He is from Angola, down by the first knuckle of my thumb.

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Day 0
It is late at night. It is early in the morning. We are crossing Northern Canada and the slow undulations of a weak Aurora Borealis tease the horizon. I am watching a Bollywood movie to mentally prepare myself for what is to come. If rickshaw drivers and fruit merchants do not spontaneously burst into song when I get there, I will be sorely disappointed.

In business-class, they bring you a drink prior to takeoff. This seems so decadent and civilized at the same time that I take a tiny glass of champagne and wait for Clark Gable to arrive.

Champagne is still largely a mystery to me – like a book with beautiful pictures, but written in a language and alphabet that is almost like english and yet obviously not. I flip through and look at the pictures, with the distinct sense that I am missing something.

Lufthansa has a multi-lingual but primarily German staff. Miene deutsche ist kaput, nonetheless, I gleefully mangle it for the amusement of our steward.
Eine apfel kucken, bitte, I ask.
Mitt kaffe oder eine eiffel tower platzen fleischer druken eben?
I’m sorry, I thought I was asking for apple cake.
Yes, would you like coffee with that?
Neine, danke. But did you just say something about the eiffel tower?
Neine.

The movie goes like this: wealthy son of a dead industrialist gets dumped by fiance and gets on a train to Delhi only to discover that the seat he has taken belongs to a beautiful, and eccentrically chatty woman on her way home. During a stop, he wanders off and as the train sounds it’s whistle she chases after him. She knocks over an old woman selling tomatoes, and the train leaves during the ensuing argument, with her luggage, and purse on board. Much singing and dancing and confusion ensue. Then they get married.

Here’s the really interesting part – at one point, she runs away to Shimla and lives in the “Working Women’s Hostel”. Shimla? That’s the place I’m going on my train adventure in a few days time. Is it just coincidence, or something more? According to the movie there is a lot of singing and dancing in Shimla, and I’m looking forward to it.

Day 0.5
It is morning, it is evening. The progress map show us descending from 38000 feet as we slide down from the stratosphere into Munich. I am halfway to halfway around the world from where I started – directly North of Africa, Malta, Italy, Milan. These are the countries of spy novels.

We are passing through a layer of ice-crystals. Huge concentric rings of spectral colors surround the shadow of our plane. Granite-hard grains of pure water at temperatures far below freezing chew at the elastomeric membranes that protect the leading edges of the wings. I have slept three hours of the last twenty four.

Day 0.75
Munich Airport is gleaming and cold. The ambient air temperature outside is four degrees centigrade. In my accelerated time frame, just eleven hours into my journey, this is the next night. If all goes well, I will sleep from Munich to India and wake up in an Indian morning after seven hours of flight. I feel sleepy and the wired at the same time. I recognize the sleep-deprived cadences of my writing as I write. I feel the grains of time chewing at my leading edges.

My previous time at the TED conference has left me with my boundaries poorly defined. I keep expecting to have the easy instant connection that comes from powerful shared experiences, but my attempts at conversation are stalled at the mundane and purely observational. It was a lovely sunset. I did enjoy the chicken. I never expected it to be this cold here. Yes, it will be much warmer in Delhi.

There is a person smoking in the bathroom. Instead of paper toilet-seat covers, there is an anti-bacterial spray that, according to the illustrations, you apply to a square of tissue and then wipe the seat. The electric carts which whisk the elderly between terminals do not beep continuously while moving. The seats in this airport are not designed to prevent you from sleeping on them. I have left California.

Day 0.8
It is three AM in India and I am awake, my nose is running, and the man across the aisle is snoring. I decide to try and finish the introduction to my book, but get stuck on figuring out what it means to be competent. I want to include something about Philip Zimbardo’s idea of “heroic imagination” which he sees as the precursor to heroic action (the opposite of passive inaction) – it seems to me that competence is the basis of confidence, which must the be foundation of heroism, or at least a component – but it reads awkwardly and I end up just saving it as notes for later. Despite the setback, I make some progress and get a couple of good paragraphs written.

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I recently recovered some old documents and discovered a trove of trip reports. This first one is ostensibly about a trip to NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) but is in reality the ramblings of an alien in search of oatmeal in a foreign land.

Please enjoy NAB – First Ascent.

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The Florida Diaries

11:38am 18.dec.07 – First Night in the Keys
We arrived last night despite being held hostage on the tarmac for 45 minutes by American Airlines. Stopped along the way in Islamorada for dinner in the worlds windiest restaurant. The menu included deep-fried Dolphin, grilled Dolphin, Dolphin sandwich, and Dolphin sashimi. We were much relieved to learn that “Dolphin” is the local name for Mahi Mahi tuna.

The place is quite nice. There is a bit of a Sargasso growing around our jetty, and when the tide is out you can smell the old grass rotting. The view makes up for the knee-deep muck and there are plenty of local places to get in the water for snorkeling, so we’re not complaining about that. The pool is 85 degrees, so Mori and Julie should be quite happy here.

Jiro, the DSL service is unbelievably slow here. Maybe you can do a CO diagnostic and see if there’s a problem with the line.

We’re having english muffins for breakfast, fresh bananas, and coffee or orange juice as appropriate.

8:20pm 18.dec.07 – Getting our Bearings
Drive due East from California, turn right when you hit the Atlantic and continue following the coastline until you get to Big Pine Key, Florida.

We spent the afternoon in Key West, the end of the road. If the United States are Glass Beach, then the keys are the spot where all the over-tanned, leathery, flotsam collects. I’m not sure if they all worship Jimmy Buffet, but they all dress like him and sit at the bar just he does in his songs. There are drive-through liquor stores and walk-up bars where you can get margaritas in to-go cups, and two sandal stores on every block.

We watched the sunset with five hundred other people and it was just spectacular, exactly as promised.

Key West Sunset

7:43am 19.dec.07 – Ignoring Fences
Took a walk (had to hop a fence) this morning to an old quarry I spotted on the satellite map of our island. Something very spooky about the deep green water and machine-cut jagged edges of the pool. It’s almost like we expect only the scary creatures to fill in the holes that we make in the landscape. I found a couple of moulted horseshoe crab shells around the perimeter, and some colonies of almost transparent mussels, but no sign of any monsters from the deep.

8:40am 20.dec.07 – Jet Lag
In an effort to overcome the last of our jet-lag, we’re up at 8:30 this morning. It doesn’t take long in the tropics to start to feel like making breakfast is a big accomplishment. This probably accounts for the fact that there are few famous centers of innovation in tropical climes.

We’ve decided to acquire a kayak for the duration of our stay. We are here just long enough that renting one is more expensive than purchasing a used one – which brings up the interesting question of what to do with a kayak when we leave. It’s not like we can check it through at the airport.

Took the tour of Hemingway house yesterday. Saw the descendants of his polydactyl (many-toed) cats. Then we watched “Key Largo” with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.

9:18pm 21.dec.o7 – Long Day
Spent the morning rediscovering my lost rope-splicing skills. Quality of my splices greatly improved with the use of a makeshift fid – the closed pliers of my Leatherman. After some muddling around, I managed to the get the kayak in the water and paddle two and half miles upwind to the White Ibis colony just around the other side of Big Pine Key. Turned back when the wind was more persistent than I, only to meet it head-on at the bridge again as I made my way upwind to home. Upwind both ways, thanks to a little squall that came through and dumped half a cup of water on me as I hauled the boat out of the water at our dock.

Made the front page of TED today and am starting to get comments and inquiries on the tinkeringschool website. It’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Now my editor wants to kick up the book schedule and get it out next year for sure. We’ll see…

Paddling in the Keys

7:34pm 22.dec.07 – Amateur Naturalist
Paddled out to Big Mangrove Key this morning (are you following along on your maps?) for a circumnavigation of the uninhabited atoll. Quickly discovered that if you paddle like you want to get somewhere, you miss everything along the way and soon settled into a very leisurely pace that took advantage of the tidal flow and morning breeze. Discovered mysterious and unusual creatures, many of which have never been seen before by human eyes. At almost one half of a mile from the nearest human outpost, the little key has only ever been mapped by satellite. As I skimmed over the skirt of Sargasso grasses and small sponge-forms, I was filled with both trepidation and glee. What primitive monsters lay in wait? What shoals of natural gemstones? What lost civilizations?

I saw a seabed littered with what looked like cheap brown crockery, only to discover, on closer inspection, that what looked like bowls and cups were actually sponges. Upside-down jelly fish bask in the shallows exposing internalized colonies of chlorophyll-laden organisms, pulsing gently in the sunshine. Uncountable schools of tiny fish scoot around like living shadows. Tenacious mangroves reach down from ridiculous heights to find support for their out-reaching branches.

Upon first arriving in the Keys, I was somewhat cynical about the decaying evidence of all the failed schemes put into play by dreamers who saw this as a place to make their mark. What they didn’t realize is that this place doesn’t require anything, from anyone. As the years go by, they inevitably give up their grand scheme, not for lack of trying – there is evidence here and there of some amazing efforts expended – but because the islands here are patient in their persistent lack of expectation. Not only is it ok not “do” anything here, it’s appropriate. This would be a tough place for me to live. Not because it’s hard to live here, but because it’s too easy – you slip effortlessly into a zen-like state of acceptance and then not only don’t realize you’re not doing anything anymore, you actually don’t need to do anything anymore. My first response is to create bite-sized projects for myself – tonight I built an aquascope so that I can see better into the water over the size of the kayak.

I am daily more impressed with Hemingway, who managed to write six books while he was here. He did it three hundred words a day on a manual typewriter – clackity clack.

Grasses and Sponges

9:01pm 23.dec.07 – Evening Confessional
I’m afraid of the dark. I’ll admit it, I’m not ashamed. It’s a symptom of having an overactive imagination. Every dark pool of shadow hides unknown possibilities – all of them… dark. It is normal for me to run from the studio to the house when I am done working down there. You see, the forest that I know so well during the day, becomes something sinister and mysterious at night.

So, it was with some trepidation that I volunteered to take the garbage out to the dumpster at the end of the driveway this evening. This undertaking would require me to walk down a long, curving driveway, losing sight of the house almost as soon as I departed. But, partly for an excuse to be alone, I bucked up and grabbed the bag before anyone else could offer to come along.

As I walked down the asphalt, a thought occurred to me – where do you put a leach field when you live at sea level? The woods that line the road are actually rooted in water. The only reason the house and road are not in water is that they pile up crushed coral to create the roadbed and foundation. So, I decided, the leach field must be under the road.

Which got me to the dumpster. Which is when I realized that the only thing I could imagine coming out of the woods here are those tiny Key Deer. Which is exactly when one walked out of the woods, crossed the road, and ducked into the mangroves on the other side.

Good night.

8:21pm 26.dec.o7 – Blimps and Sharks
Put the kayak in at the end of Blimp Road on the North side of Cudjoe Key and paddled upwind to the lesser-traveled parts of Knockemdown Key. These Keys have not been beset by the sea-grasses that are choking Big Pine Key. The locals tell us that it happens every couple of years, but that the winter storms can usually be counted on to clear the grass out. I would like to be here for a hurricane. I saw a refrigerator door in the upper branches of a mangrove on one of the uninhabited keys Jennifer and I paddled to yesterday. That’s a real storm than can tear the door off a refrigerator.

Blimp road is named after the Aerostatic Blimp base that the Navy has established on Cudjoe Key. According to the guard at the gate, it’s used for long-range radar surveillance. Julie and I assume that means they are keeping an eye on Cuba. The “aerostatic” part comes from the fact that the blimp is tethered.

I have driven down Cutthroat Drive, and past Cut-toe Drive. There is both Brigand Place and Brigand’s End. The No Name Pub is on No Name Key, and today I chatted with a guy who lives on Little Knockemdown Key in a cluster of four homes, two of which are vacation homes which the owners pretty much never use. He’s lived here in the Keys for all of his 58 years, and on Little Knockemdown for the past 23. He doesn’t own a car since Little Knockemdown can only be reached by boat. They collect rainwater in a thousand gallon cistern because there is no fresh water on his Key. His wife likes to read romance novels. There is, in fact, no source of fresh water in any of the Keys ever since hurricane Wilma pushed salt water into the Blue Hole on Big Pine Key. Hence, there are no wells on Wells Key. The newest condo development is called Parrotdice, and today as I drove home from kayaking, I noticed a “now open!” sign for the Pirate Wellness Center.
Funny place, this.

Blimp Maintenence

8:22pm 27.dec.07 – Fond Farewell
It’s late. We have to be out by 10am tomorrow, and we haven’t packed yet. We saw a giant sea turtle today, huge squadrons of angelfish, took a ride in a glass-bottom boat, and watched in fascinated horror as an alligator caught and ate a turtle – the sound of the crunching alone with stay with me forever.

Alligator at Blue Hole Pond

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