The scene: It’s a brisk mid-winter Seattle morning. Lucas has decided that we’re riding our bikes to school today. As we emerge from the garage, the sky is brilliant blue and the sun is streaming down in our faces. The lawns up and down the street are all brilliant green as this is our rainy season. It’s a lovely morning and all is well with the world. On this morning, after a night with no cloud cover, it’s still quite chilly and the shaded lawns  are all still frost covered. Both kids eagerly accept the gloves that I had thought to bring for them.

A very short ways from home, Kayla asks us to pause so she can tie her skirt up, keeping it well clear of her back tire. I comment, “hmm, we should get you a rear fender to keep your skirts off that tire.”

Lucas, not wanting to miss out on getting one of anything pipes up, “Should we get one for me too?”

I replied, “Of course, we don’t want your skirts getting dirty, do we?”

Pencil Sharpeners

While volunteering in my son’s classroom, his teacher asked if I’d sharpen some pencils, “Having a supply of sharp pencils is the bane of my existence!” I grabbed her basket of pencils and headed to the sharpening station, in a shared resource room. There I found this lovely little X-Acto XLR 1818 Electric Pencil Sharpener.

X-Acto sharpener

I sharpened about 25 pencils before the unit overheated. After 30 minutes it still refused to work. After 45 minutes I was able to sharpen 20 more pencils before it overheated again. Frustrated, I decided to engineer a better solution.

Design considerations:

• manual sharpeners don’t overheat
• teachers might be upset if I removed the electric sharpener
• pencil shavings should be dealt with
• doesn’t require [much] more space than a 11×17″ box lid
• one-handed operation is desirable

The first step was to acquire some good pencil sharpeners. I read a bunch of Amazon reviews and ultimately found penciltalk.org where pencil sharpening nerds hang out and write about their passion for sharpeners. I whittled down my list to these four which I purchased:

• Classroom Friendly
• Classic Manual (Deli 0620)
• Stanley Bostitch MPS1BLK (Amazon)
• Westcott Axis iPoint Evolution Electric Heavy Duty (15509) Amazon

After the sharpeners arrived, I grabbed a sheet of graph paper and a ruler. I measured how much clearance each sharpener needed to avoid skinned knuckles. Then I produced this sketch.

Pencil Station

With a design in hand, I headed to the garage and found an 8’ piece of 1” thick shelving. Because MDF wouldn’t hold a dado joint, I  glued each edge and screwed in L-brackets on the 4 back  corners (not pictured). Then I added the angle brackets to stiffen up the front. The result is a sharpening station that’s very heavy and stable.

Pencil Station

All three manual sharpeners came with a round L bracket designed to mount on the edge of a tabletop. I wanted a more secure attachment and the slippery shelf surface didn’t help. The solution was to add a layer of non-slip padding between the sharpener and shelf. Combined with the included bracket, the sharpeners have remained firmly attached for half a school year.

To keep the automatic sharpeners from sliding when pressing a pencil into them, I applied a pad of industrial strength Velcro hooks to the bottom shelf and hook-and-loop pads to the electric sharpeners. Now they too remain firmly in place while sharpening.

I am now experienced in bulk pencil sharpening. Every pencil in that basket is very sharp. I’m a fan of the Wescott and Classroom Friendly sharpeners. The fastest technique I’ve found is to load the Classroom Friendly, which grips the pencil and allows one-handed sharpening. I sharpen that pencil with my right hand, and sharpen another in the Westcott with my left. Both sharpeners are fast and good. I can settle into a rhythm where I’m cranking out two sharp pencils every 10 seconds.

I can see no evidence of anyone using the X-Acto any more. The Bostich is a piece of junk. It will only sharpen perfect pencils, it doesn’t produce a great point, and emptying the shavings is much harder than the Classroom Friendly and electric sharpeners.

What do the teachers think?

Hi Matt,

When I spoke with our staff this morning about pencil sharpeners, their eyes lit up! They would love to have one station per grade level (two for kindergarten). The total would be ten, if possible.

Mike
—-
Mike VanOrden – Principal

Systemizing Quotient

Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s Systemizing Quotient, Revised.

Scale: 0-150. Male average: 61. Female average: 52. Me: 101. I’m sure Jen also scores well above average on this assessment as well.

I recall taking a similar test years ago, and the results were comparable. Clichés like, “a place for everything, and everything in its place” were made for those of us that suffer from a high systemizing quotient.

Restless Genes

This explains a few things:

Researchers have repeatedly tied the [genetic] variant, known as DRD4-7R and carried by roughly 20% of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. Dozens of human studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities; and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure. Studies in animals simulating 7R’s actions suggest it increases their taste for both movement and novelty. (Not coincidentally, it is also closely associated with ADHD.) — Restless Genes, National Geographic, Jan 2013, pg 44

I’ve always wondered why so many of the people I grew up don’t travel and are content to never leave the area in which they were born. The genetic difference is why it’s just not possible to explain to them why I did, why I climb mountains, why I’m restless, and why I thirst for adventure.

Costa Rica Trip Log

Day 0. Picked up Kayla from school at noon and headed for the airport. We parked our van with a friend in SeaTac who dropped us off at the airport. Our flight departed on time and we spent 5 hours walking backwards on the moving sidewalks, running in the not-so-busy parts of the airport, and otherwise amusing ourselves in Denver. The overnight flight to Costa Rica was fine, but not as restful as we hoped.

Day 1. We arrived in San Jose at 5 AM. After checking through immigration, we met Fer outside the airport and took a cab to the bus station. While waiting for the bus, I spotted a vendor selling apples out of a “grown in Washington” (state) box, which amused me greatly. Fer had picked up a prepaid SIM for me. I dropped it into my unlocked iPhone 3. After unlocking the SIM PIN and setting the data APN to ‘kolbi3g’, everything worked perfectly. We rode the bus to Alejuela and then another bus to Palmares. To our bodies, which are accustomed to the cool damp Pacific Northwest, it was a hot, hot, day.

Laura had taken the morning off work and had breakfast waiting for us. We exchanged greetings, took naps, played in the shaded back yard, exchanged dollars for colones, and planned our next few days. We also did a little shopping for pie ingredients. Fer had developed a taste for peach pie while in the states and wanted to make pies on her own. So we baked a delicious peach pie. 🙂

Day 2. We started with a cab ride to downtown and a 15m bus ride to San Ramon. There the kids were introduced to public restrooms as we waited for the 9:30 AM bus to La Fortuna. The bus ride was about 2.5 hours. We ate lunch in town, arranged Friday’s tour of Cañon Negro, and booked a cabina for Friday night. Then we hitched a ride out to Los Lagos Resort where we slid, swam, waded, splashed, and chased in the pools until dusk.

Kayla: We went swimming. We saw a volcano. We saw coconut trees with coconuts. We saw palm trees. We rode a bus for a long time. I picked up flowers for Fer Maria. We got stuff for bug bites. It is very warm in Costa Rica. The houses here are smaller and have metal roofs.

Day 3. In the morning we ate breakfast, surveyed the exhibits (ants, frogs, butterfly, gators, fish) and then went back to the pools. During midday, we retreated indoors and caught up on homework, some writing (see separate Day 3 post), checking email, and racing water bottles down hills. After the heat of the day, we returned to the pools for the rest of the day. We sampled drinks front the bar, got Neanderthal on them (no sense in wasting that coconut or pineapple meat!), and finished the day at the wet bar for dinner.

Plants and Flowers

I saw butterflies, frogs, ants, and crocodiles. The ant farm was big. The butterflies were beautiful. The frogs were small and liked to hide, so we had to listen for their croaks. The crocodiles were sunbathing. The green iguana was sunbathing. Here are some beautiful (pictures of flowers and frogs). There are hot and cold pools.

Day 4. As with every day in C.R., we awoke early. Our tour operators picked us up after breakfast and we rode out to Cañon Negro for our river boat tour. We made a bunch of stops on the way to see sloths, toucans, iguanas, and other birds. Upon arrival, we asked the staff to cut open a coconut so the kids could drink the water. They gladly obliged.

Even before boarding the boat, we saw a couple caimans in the river, as well as several varieties of birds. Once on the river, we saw bats, caimans, howler, white faced capuchino, and spider monkeys. We saw sloths, egrets, kingfishers, turtles, jumping fish, guanacaste trees, air plants, and a wide variety of other fauna. Then they fed us lunch and we bussed back to La Fortuna.

We ate dinner at a little mom-and-pop soda and then failed to buy the tres leches cake we had spotted two days prior. It turns out that the boy we saw didn’t sell them to the store. His mom makes them daily, and he sells them in front of the store. We would be gone before he showed up tomorrow, so we settled for some delicious pork kebobs being grilled and sold on a street corner. Here’s a little travel tip. In Latin America, resist the urge to eat at “dinner” time and wait until you see locals congregating around food vendors. If there’s a line of locals, you won’t go wrong. Also, to get ‘local’ prices, watch how much the locals pay, and offer the same amount.

Tours and Animals

We got up early and rode a bus for a long time. We took pictures with coconut and banana trees. We drank coconut water. They cut open our coconut and we ate the meat. We saw 2 caimans watching us from the water. On the boat ride, we saw monkeys, bats, sloths, turtles, toucans, other birds, butterflies, a snake, iguanas, and other lizards. My favorite part was seeing the snake.

Day 5. Traveled from La Fortuna to Cañitas (Monte Verde) via Eagle Tours’ 7:30 AM bus-boat-bus route. For $12, it’s a bargain and the views of the Arenal volcano from the lake are quite pleasant. Unlike most Ticos, our last bus driver wasn’t particularly helpful but we both recognized the farm upon sight. We arrived to warm welcomes at Marina & Aurelio’s farm. The kids spent the day exploring the trails through the coffee plantation, up and down the mountain, and feeding fallen flowers to the poultry (chickens, ducks, turkeys, and a peacock).

We began the process of meeting family with Randall and Laeticia. We toured his Bel Cruz cabinas (which are the nicest we have seen in C.R.), hiked their trail, and watched hummingbirds from his deck. Randall reserved our zip line tickets for us on the following day. Everyone in the tourist business (half the country) wants to make reservations and accept payments from tourists so they can get a commission. We avoided most of the “help” but allowed Randall to reserve for us because he makes the reservations and his customers pay at the park. It works out much better that way.

we rode a bus, a boat, a bus around the volcano. The boat ride was fun. I met Fer Marias grandparents. Their names are Marina and Aurelio de Bello.

Day 6. Early morning zip line (canopy) tour at Extremo. The kids did great. After seeing how well they did, the guides let them go on a zip line by themselves, and with us. I think rock climbing had acclimated them to being in a harness, hanging from a rope, and looking down from great heights.

After returning, we took a long slow drive around town with Marina and Aurelio. Meybel joined us for the drive out to the local lecheria (dairy) plant for fresca (cheese) and ice cream. We drove out to the Monte Verde reserve, stopped by the hummingbird (colibri) sanctuary and then meandered back to town. The roads are rugged and having elderly passengers makes for very slow going. We stopped off for fried chicken, Aurelio’s favorite, on the way home.

We went on some zip lines. The longest cable was 3,280 feet. We went on 15 zip lines, 1 Tarzan swing, and 1 rappel. We saw a waterfall and 7 howler monkeys and 2 babies. The walking distance was 3.8km. I liked the Tarzan swing. It was my favorite. Some parents were scared but not Lucas, Matt, Jen, and I.

Day 7. We awoke early. Again. After breakfast, we drove out to El Mirador but the vista views were obstructed by cloud cover that refused to lift. Being in a cloud forest is remarkably like being at home in Seattle—cool, gently precipitating, but so gently that I wasn’t wet after a 15 minute walk. We picked up a couple cuttings of some plant, watched the trains, and walked around the cloud forest. After returning to the farm, we did some homework, laundry, and got locked out of the house. (Great story, ask us about it.)

Noticed that photos taken with the phone in “airplane” mode have no GeoTag data). Duh. Oops.

Cloud Forest

We went out to the Santa Elena cloud forest reserve. It was beautiful. It was rainy and windy. We saw a train. We saw a waterfall. We washed clothes and put them on a line to dry. And my shoes too.

Day 8. I awoke very early (2ish) because Jen was awake. The winds were whipping and she was imagining our laundry departing from the clothes line and sailing away. We got up and fetched our laundry under perfectly clear skies. After breakfast, Matt baked a chocolate cake. The ladies watched with great curiosity as he melted chocolate chips into a cup of coffee. Later, as the baking cake started to smelled up the kitchen, the curiosity became keen interest. Once the cakes cooled, he spread the ganache over it and had ample left over. After sampling the ganache on a banana, the ladies lamented paying no attention while I made the ganache. We appeased them by translating the recipe.

Then we took a drive around the area, seeing more of the family farm, coffee plants, the mountain they own, and learning more of the family history. We visited close friends with a nursery. Aurelio selected a half dozen plants to add to his yard and spent as long haggling price as selecting plants, Latin style.

After the tour, we had cake and coffee. We walked a family sized piece of cake up to Randall’s shop where it was well received. Since Randall’s wife is a baker, she insisted on the recipe. We spent the next while translating ingredients and measures to the nearest C.R. equivalents. After the 4 of us completed translating, she asked me directly, “What is your secret?” We explained about differences in chocolate. Chocolate is grown here, but it is all exported. Processing happens overseas, so getting some premium chocolate, or even dark baking chocolate here is unusual.

Chocolate and Flowers
MATT baked a chocolate cake for our Tico family. The cake was good. We shared it with other people. We visited a garden. It was beautiful. We helped Aurelio plant some flowers.

Day 9.
We caught the bus from the farm to CITY, and then bussed from there to CITY, where we caught the bus to Liberia. There we waited for Fer to arrive, and then took a $50 cab ride from there out to the JW Marriott. Along the way we stopped at a roadside vendor and picked up two watermelons. Of the four watermelons I purchased, I paid more for all of them than I would had have in Seattle.

Once at JW, we spend the rest of the day in the pool. For dinner we split two very expensive entrees and followed them with lots of juicy watermelon. Watermelon is the perfect dessert after playing in a pool all afternoon.

For eating options, we had little choice. After arrival at the JW, we were isolated by distance from everything. A cab ride into town was $30, or $14 per person on their shuttle. Plus we’d have the wait for the cab to arrive. If we had rented a car, we would have been loathe to spend an hour of extra driving on dirt roads just to go into town for dinner. The alternatives to spending $30 per person for breakfast and dinner weren’t much better.

travel day
We rode hot sweaty buses and a taxi to get to our hotel. Then we played in the pool and lie down in a hammock.

Day 10.

Beach and pool day

After a big breakfast, we went down to the beach. I found some shells. It was hot and the sand was hot too. Later we went inside. I did my homework. Then we can go play in the pool again.

Day 11.
Depart from the beach area. $50 cab ride to Liberia, $3 bus to Palmares. Baked a chocolate cake.

Day 12.
Shopping at the market. Bus to Zoo Ave. Fabian rescues an orphaned kitten. after getting it home, we force feed it some milk, then spend the next few hours combing off a hundred of fleas and nits. Seviche for dinner. Mmmm.

Day 13.
Hang out with the family. Do laundry. Take pictures. Bus to San Jose airport and spend the night at a very nice Marriott. Play in pool and hot tub. Meet even more Seattle natives who are visiting Costa Rica. Dinner in the executive lounge.

Day 14.
Wake at 4AM. Be at the airport at 5AM. Bump into a friend of Jen’s from graduate school who also departing Costa Rica with his daughters. OUr kids play together while we wait for our flight. Flight departs at 7AM. 5 hour layover in Denver. Arrive home at 9:30 PM.