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For many of my teenage years, I assumed that I would grow up to be a jewel thief. Please keep in mind that I was a child of the 60’s and largely considered rich people to be exploiters of the common man – especially those with the excess income necessary to acquire jewelry. It was a phase.

Diamonds

I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would take to really steal a jewel from out of a locked safe somewhere in a house, or from drawer in a bank vault. I was a realist (of sorts) and truly imagined something complicated and fraught with peril – altogether unlike the scenes in movies where everything is beautifully lit and dramatic. No, I imagined waiting for hours in the tight confines of an air-conditioning duct or spending weeks learning how to pick a certain lock strictly by feel.

As time passed, I came to realize that the life I was imagining would be one spent wading around in a moral quagmire. How would I decide which jewels to steal, what to do with the money, and how many would I steal before I had enough money? Would I end up living just like the people that I was stealing from? It seemed like a slippery slope and eventually I let the idea go completely.

Point in Santa Cruz, California
Years later, I found myself standing on this very cliff in Santa Cruz, California, about to jump into a surging ocean of unknown depth. We had seen kids jump from somewhere along this cliff earlier in the day while we were body-surfing further down the beach and thought it would be fun to try. “Time it with the swell,” suggested my friend.

As I stood there, gazing down at the dark water, I had a minor epiphany – this moment is exactly like the moment just before a jewel thief cuts through the glass to grab the goods. So, with one last look, I took a half-step back and then hurled myself out into space as far from the cliff as I could. Gravity took hold, and the fall stretched into seconds as I accelerated towards the water. The sound of the air rushing past was thrilling and horrifying as time expanded and then contracted suddenly with a whack.

Talking about it later, I proposed four meaningful stages common to jewel thievery and cliff diving:

  1. Conception – you have the idea to jump off of a cliff, or to steal a jewel. You begin to plan, you climb the cliff, you buy rope.
  2. Conviction – you are there, you could back out now and everything would go back to normal – but you don’t. You cut the glass case, you leap off of the cliff, you are committed.
  3. Point of No Return– the glass is cut, your feet have left the cliff – there is no going back. The safest plan of action is to continue.
  4. Execution – now it all depends on your skill, your training, your planning, your momentum, and your will. With or without you, the story will have an ending.

I brought this up over breakfast recently with a few friends and we decided that most great undertakings share these stages. From creating great art (where every brush stroke or touch of the metal grinder carries you one step closer to completion or calamity), to tinkering (where your idea unfolds or unravels before your very eyes). So, embrace your inner jewel thief and have the conviction to carry your ideas past conception – but remember to time time your jump with the swell.

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

Book 2.0

It took us a year to make a book, but we spent almost 8 months pitching various versions of the ideas to publishers and waiting to hear responses. This is time that is lost, never to be reclaimed, and the best I can say for that period is that we learned a lot about a business model that is stuck in a view of the world that hasn’t changed since 1950.

During this period we were forced to conceive and re-conceive our ideas so many times, that we began to see the mutability of book-ness in our modern age. Without even trying we managed to think of dozens of ways that our book could be experienced by “readers” including: paperback, hardcover, serialized in magazine, social nexus organized by topic, podcast, bookcast (episodic delivery of topics), video podcast (dramatic reading and demonstration of each topic), TV show, serialized curriculum, regionalized books with locally pertinent topics – and so forth.

Without the rigorous classic structure of a book to guide us, we had to invent a new way to create the book that would support all of these possible opportunities. Rather than re-tell it, I include here the last page of the book, which tells a condensed story of how the book was made:

How This Book Was Made
It all started with a mention in a presentation at TED 2007: Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do (http://on.ted.com/272G). The presentation was posted online where more than two million people have watched it, many of whom started asking about the book. After trying several different approaches to get it published by traditional means, we decided to do it ourselves.

We began by collecting potential topic ideas in a Google Spreadsheet. Each topic was marked with a list of possible dangers, expected duration, difficulty, and so forth. That list grew to more than 80 possible topics; from there we sifted and sorted until we had the best 50. While the list was being refined, versions of possible page designs (inspired by after-market car repair books) were generated and reviewed with friends and designers. That said, all of the poor design choices herein are the fault of our own inabilities to execute on the excellent advice and design feedback we received.

Each topic was expanded into a separate Google Document and versions were sent to volunteers to review and test. Meanwhile, illustrations were created in Adobe Illustrator. Because the topic categories (Activity, Project, Experience, and Skill) had yet to be finalized, every illustration had to be created in a way that let us pick the base color at the last moment.

As feedback came in, the topics were refined and updated. The final layout was still not quite ready, so these versions of the topics were ported to XML so that they could be ingested by Adobe InDesign. The book template was set up so content would automatically flow into whatever became the final design (made more interesting by the fact that this was the first time Julie had ever used InDesign). Perforce was used to version-track all of the XML and InDesign files and scripts (and should have been used for the illustrations as well).

While Gever was at a conference in Qatar, Julie threw together a cover design in Adobe Photoshop and an alpha test print of the book was produced to check colors and margins. Little did we know, her Photoshop project would take on a life of its own and be the on-going hiccup in our otherwise orderly Illustrator/XML/InDesign-based workflow. Third-draft versions of the topics were updated in XML to fit into the latest, and near-final, version of the page layout. These were sent to a smaller group of dedicated testers. Colors for the topics were chosen and two copies of a beta-version of the book were printed. During this review (which included extensive fact-checking), hazard icons were created, the book front and back cover designs were refined, and the front-matter (foreword, introduction, table of contents, etc.) was finalized as well. Final feedback was integrated and the last tweaks were made in InDesign. This page was written, and then the book was rendered as a PDF and sent to the CreateSpace print-on-demand facility.

Total elapsed time: three months of continuous effort while laundry and email piled up. Because of the process and the tools we are using, this book can easily be rendered to different page sizes and different output media. Every bit of this book was made by Julie and Gever, but we couldn’t have done it without all the help from family and friends. Your suggestions and feedback will help us improve future efforts: gever@fiftydangerousthings.com
gever & julie, december 2009

Travelogue: Last Day in Doha

//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.

Hex-tree GPS Encoding

I had the pleasure of attending PyWebSF and struck up a conversation with my old friend Tadhg about the idea of creating a web service (a’la http://bit.ly) that would provide a unique short GPS “tag” for any arbitrary GPS location. You can read Tadhg’s excellent accounting of the discussion here.

I didn’t write any code (yet) but I did have an idea that is a variation on the QuadTree solution that I proposed during the conversation. I call it Hex-tree and have no idea if it’s already been done, but I think it will create very short location identifiers algorithmically.

zoom level 0

zoom level 0At zoom level zero (on a standard Mercator-projection of the globe), we see that every place on earth can be crudely described by the numbers 0-F (hexidecimal). Suppose we are interested in specifying the precise location of San Francisco, CA. It’s in tile 4, so our address is going to start with a “4”. Already we can see that the first digit of a HexGPS coordinate contains enough lat/lon information to know what continent we are referring to.

zoom level 1

zoom level 1Zooming in to tile 4, we see the eastern pacific tile is now recursively subdivided, and that our target is in tile 6. The address so far is “46”.

zoom level 2

zoom level 2Zooming in again (and wishing I had used a higher-res map to begin with), we see that San Francisco is in tile 5. Our address is now “465”. The notion in this system is that you can visually determine if two addresses are nearby by just looking at the initial similarities of the two strings. Two addresses that started with “465…” would be known to be within 100 miles of each other (approximately). If you compare “465…” with “46E…” you can tell that they are within 500 miles of each other.

Travelogue: First Day in Doha

//Doha//Monday//WISE2009//Day One

Life in a hotel is simple for conference attendees. You wake up knowing what you will wear, where you will eat (but not what), and what you are doing the rest of the day.

I find serendipity only in the face-to-face encounters with other attendees. I have animated discussions with educators and policy-makers from Camaroon, Bangledesh, South Africa, Australia, Ghana, Mali, Bahrain, France, England, Belgium, Berkeley, Davis, and Washington, DC. Later, during our conversation over dinner we discover that no one at the table has yet met a Qatari citizen.

There are over a million people living in Qatar. Of that, approximately one hundred thousand are Qatari citizens. Citizenship comes with an eighty thousand dollar per year allowance tax-free from the Sheikh. Needless to say, no foreigners are ever granted citizenship. An unknown percentage of the citizens are away collecting degrees at universities around the world, which further reduces the native head count. So it is a common experience for visitors to Qatar to spend a month here on business and never meet a citizen.

Jaded business people describe the Qatari as detached and aloof. I have the romantic notion that this could be a nation of Bruce Waynes, building their bat-caves around the world and springing to action when the time comes.

At breakfast I eavesdrop on a Japanese representative from a shipping company as he interviews a potential captain for a fully loaded oil tanker lying dormant in the Persian Gulf. The shipping company is losing a thousand dollars an hour while the ship sits still. The conversation is formal and reserved until he and the captain, a sun-beaten man with a scar that runs through his left eyebrow, discover that they both were in Burma during the coup, hiding in the same town. By the time I sign my bill, they are laughing and gesturing wildly with their cutlery.

The waters of the Persian Gulf appear to be about as turbulent as a swimming pool, only warmer. Waves lap at the manmade shorelines only when the occasional speedboat passes. Beneath the surface, silver and black fish drift about, looking for morsels of food on the sand covered rocks.

Despite the temperature difference between the shore and sea, no wind comes to stir the palm trees. Doha sits in a pool of it’s own exhaled breath, dirty with construction dust and diesel exhaust. It’s partially constructed skyline of whimsical architecture fades into the murky distance.

//Saturday//East-bound

We are flying east, across the top of the Atlantic, racing toward daylight. Our flight-path creates a mechanical compression of time, collapsing 12 hours of night into 5 elapsed hours.

We lose the normal advantages of economy of scale in these long-haul flights. Fourteen hours in the air, requires enormous fuel reserves, and the math begins to erode the efficiency of big airplanes. We will burn more fuel to carry the fuel than to carry the people and the plane. To combat this, we climb to the edge of the stratosphere, cruising at 37,000 feet, sleeking thin air to reduce the friction on the plane.

I find sleep difficult to hold onto, alternating between creative flashes that force me to dig out my notebook in order to catch them, and an empty-headedness that reminds me of misspent hours watching junk on television.

Without dreams, I replay recent memories. Watching the tarmac baggage handlers load cargo boxes into the belly of the plane, suddenly noticing that they are all wearing ties. The toilet in terminal B where someone has written "Don’t Concentrate". Flight attendants wearing sky-caps and winged-oryx lapel pins.

The sleep mask traps heat against my eyelids, and I invent solutions involving overlapping Venetian blinds, working out how they will be sewn. Dim light, rosy with the dawn, leaks under the window shades. I will need my sunglasses soon – my sleep-deprived eyes and addled brain too susceptible to migraine to risk looking out the window.

I work out new ways to describe the point of Tinkering School. Soon, I’ll be talking about education, pedagogies, policy-making – I don’t use the right terms, refer to the proper research, or know the important names of pioneers in this field. I think of Basquiat, madly scribbling away only to end up standing around dumbfounded in galleries where art critics described his work in terms that sounded like nonsense. Looking for a label to put on it, these educated people call it "experiential learning" and I clamp down on my knee jerk reaction to say "yes, but it’s more than that…" and provide an amusing anecdote instead.

According to the live map, we have crossed into France. I will attempt a nap again, in hopes that I can be awake as we cross Afghanistan.

//Sunday//Arrival

I awaken at 6:15pm, 18:15 according to the flight data on the display built into the back of the seat in front of me.

We are greeted by young women holding WISE2009 signs, and directed to board the bus that everyone else is boarding. The bus ride takes us through a living museum of international war planes and helicopters. A retired Navy colonel, now school administrator, points out interesting details that our untrained eyes do not notice; a helicopter equipped with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, an unmarked C5 troop carrier ("not one of our birds"), a squad of combat-trained men standing at attention under the wing of the C5.

"This was a tough trip for me," he says to another attendee, "I have to clear all of my travel with the State Department, and they weren’t sure it was a good idea for me to come to Doha."
"Oh?"
"Well, I know things," he adds cryptically, and turns to look out the window, memories of past "ops" flooding through his mind. All of those meetings with mysterious men under dubious circumstances, and the years spent doing things he can never tell anyone about – not even his wife. It was the not-telling that drove him to school administration. His father had been a principle at the other high school in town – there being a family edict that the kids would never go to the same school that dad worked at. "There can be no hint of impropriety," dad said whenever the subject of why the kids had to go to the school that didn’t have a pool or a jungle gym was raised.

We are herded from one waiting area to another by flocks of young women with signs. A system that seems like it could be very efficient, but isn’t. Our luggage arrives, and we collectively discover that all of the zippers have been opened and the contents rifled. A town-car takes us to the Sheraton, and I, not having exchanged any money yet leave the matter of tipping to my ride-mate, a woman who creates new schools in bombed-out villages in Afghanistan. I feel like a cad. Later, I have dinner with the Dean of the University of Virginia. We talk about how much fun it is to climb trees.

I am awake again at 2am.

//Monday//Morning

Midway through dressing, I discover that my shaver has been partly dismantled and put away on. A practical joke from the team at customs inspection? Needless to say, the rechargeable batteries are completely dead. The front desk sends up the world’s worst twin-blade shaver and I dutifully nick and gouge my face until it is somewhat smooth. Now, to breakfast.