Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fun at Camp Quest Switzerland!!

So, how was Camp Quest? you ask.

It was a fantastic experience, and I'm really glad my kids and I participated!

If you haven't heard of it, Camp Quest is an organization of secular summer camps -- mostly in the US, but also in the UK and (luckily for me!) here in Switzerland. But before I get into the pictures and what we did there, I would like to explain a bit about why I wanted to participate in this.

As a kid, I always liked going to camp. It was great to be out in nature, doing things that were completely different from my usual life. I even liked sharing tents or cabins with a bunch of other girls (with midnight activities like ghost stories and such) despite the fact that I always had difficulty making friends and being accepted as part of the group with other girls. Whether it was with the Girl Scouts, a school camp, or (most frequently) a Mormon church camp, it was a fun adventure!

Now that I no longer believe nor practice Mormonism, I don't have the built-in community that comes with it. The opportunity of passing camp fun along to the next generation as an adult volunteer is one of the things I gave up when I left the church. Probably many of you are thinking, "I hated camp! Not having to got to camp is one of the perks of being an atheist or a none -- not a drawback!" But, as I've said many times, religion and religious organizations fill many roles in people's lives, and it's totally normal that the parts one person loved may be exactly the parts someone else hated, and vice-versa. So if you hated camp, this post isn't about telling you you're wrong, it's about the variety of different experiences we humans enjoy.

In my case, one of the parts of camp that I hated was the pressure to feel "spiritual" emotions and to sit around and express them in some sort of testimony format. As a Mormon kid, I spent a lot of time trying to psyche myself into liking testimony meetings (and tried desperately to gain a testimony -- this stuff is really important for Mormons), but I was really fighting my built-in reaction that this stuff is really, really creepy and weird. I know a lot of people sincerely like that sort of thing (including people who don't believe in the supernatural), but for me personally, a big perk of Camp Quest was no testimony meeting. Nothing even remotely resembling it.

A lot of people in the non-believer community feel that we shouldn't be doing things to ape religion (like make our own summer camps). And if Camp Quest really isn't about trying to indoctrinate kids to being atheists (i.e. some sort of equal-and-opposite of Jesus Camp), then why bother having a specifically "secular" camp, as opposed to just sending your kids to some sort of generic science camp or something...?

In response, I would say that religion didn't invent summer camp. Summer camp does not inherently have anything to do with ideology, but it's normal to have a variety of camps focused on different themes. Camp Quest Switzerland in 2014 included lots of fun workshops in science, mathematics, and skepticism, but it was not about sitting around telling the kids what to believe or patting ourselves on the back for our shared ideology. In fact, there was another mom who had come along to volunteer as well who is a theist. She doesn't participate in organized religion (she's from a Catholic background, and her husband was from a Muslim background), but she's raising her kids to believe in God. And there's no reason for that to be a problem in this environment.

But why not just a generic science or other camp? Why something that has any ideological connection?

Well, I actually want to be part of a community. I volunteer at my kids' school, I participate in neighborhood events, and I think there's something to be said for participating in local groups with people you share ideas and interests with as well. (My husband and I are planning to join the Zürich Freethinkers as soon as I figure out how to work the website.) For the past few years, we've been sending the kids to Vacances Edcuatives in France during the February vacations (mostly because we don't want our kids to be the only ones in their class who don't ski, yet we don't want to bother to go skiing ourselves), and that has been a good experience -- but it's not the same as participating in a camp that is connected with a real community that you can be a part of.

Now, after all that intro, here's what we did!!

First of all, the location was gorgeous, up in the mountains!

Normally I like to enjoy Switzerland's beautiful mountains from somewhere down on the ground looking up at them. Actually going up into the mountains, riding along on those tiny, winding roads where one slip of the driver's hand could send you falling to your doom -- well, it's the sort of trip that I love in retrospect, after I'm back on the ground alive, like now. And this trip was no exception. 

But seriously, it was very cool to spend a week in a tiny village on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view of the valley and the mountains and mountain villages on the other side. And it was awesome to celebrate the Swiss national holiday (August first) in real Swiss style!

For much of the week, the kids participated in activities offered by the local tourism industry: workshops on making bread and cheese, a hike to a cabin where a local storyteller told us some folk tales in dialect (which I didn't understand at all, BTW, but it was interesting), and a nature hike/treasure hunt.

Plus the adult leaders of Camp Quest offered a series of workshops at the chalet where we were staying. In science and nature, we had an activity learning about the local plants, plus some physics experiments such as making a pickle glow by running electricity through it, and a hands-on biology lab dissecting the heart and lungs of a pig.

There was also an improv theater workshop that my son Léo really enjoyed, and two skepticism-themed workshops: one on illusions and one on homeopathy where the kids got to make their own homeopathic remedies. Note that the kids weren't fed any conclusions about homeopathy -- they simply got to see what it really is, and they were left to draw their own conclusions.

My workshop was a mathematics workshop on tiling the plane. For it, I made about a million Penrose Tiles for the kids to play with:

The Penrose Tiles were fun, but even after having done a few recreational math workshops at my kids' school and now this, I still think my presentation style need work. But it gets a bit better with each experience!

All in all a fun experience -- I hope to send my kids again next year!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What else is wrong with Harry Potter?

Before starting a post like this one, of course I have to start with the disclaimer that I am a fan. I have read all of the books at least twice (to myself, and then as a bedtime story to my kids), and I've seen all the films multiple times. It is only because of the enjoyment I've gotten from the series that I waste time contemplating it and getting bothered by its flaws. Remember the parable of criticism is a complement -- if it were total crap, I wouldn't bother to post about it at all. So I don't want to see any comments accusing me of being a black-hearted Harry Potter-hater.

My second disclaimer is that, yes, I should probably be spending my time on something more important, like, say, climate change. But since it looks like our species is heading into oblivion and there's precious little an individual like me can do to stop it, I like to take my worrying down a notch and worry instead about stuff that really, really doesn't matter. Hence this post.

I've heard tons of different insights on what are the critical flaws of the Harry Potter series. Pretty much all of them were valid criticisms. For me, though, I feel like the top problem is that -- while Harry Potter is an interesting character -- he is not interesting enough to carry seven weighty tomes. I know, he's the chosen one and everything, but the fact that pretty much everything important that happens in his universe revolves around Harry himself and a small circle of friends and acquaintances makes their world seem petty and simplistic. At one point McGonagall asks, "Why is it always you three?" -- and I spent most of the series asking the author the same question. Especially considering that the series has so many other interesting characters that I'd rather be reading about.

Then, since I've been trying to just relax this week, I hit upon the solution! Fan-fic! Who knows what amusing tales the various fans have invented for all of our favorite peripheral characters?

I decided to start with the most incongruous relationship in the entire series: Hermoine and Viktor Krum. So, this guy is one of the most famous sports stars in their entire wizarding world. He could have his pick of girls, to put it mildly. Yet, he falls for the nerdy co-protagonist, who, by the way, isn't even interested in him. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I will say that this relationship requires some explanation/motivation that is sorely lacking in the books and films. But maybe the fans will come to the rescue!

Sadly, the first one I found on this topic was so laden with technical discussion of Quidditch strategy and sports scenes, I was unable to slog through it far enough to get to the point where he takes up with Hermoine. So I gave up on that one and decided to see if I could find some back-story for Regulus Black -- a fascinating character who (as far as I recall) doesn't make an appearance in the real story at all. There I found some interesting tales of his home life with his brother Sirius in their crazy evil London townhouse with their crazy evil parents. Good fun! So I decided to read some more from the Moony-Wormtail-Padfoot-Prongs generation.

Then a curious thing happened. I found it rather upsetting to watch popular sports star James Potter and his fun-loving buddies bullying young Severus Snape -- and winning the hearts of the fans (not to mention the girl) in the process. You can try to blame the fan-fic authors, but they're merely highlighting and expanding upon a key point from the original story.

I've written about bullying before, and I like to believe this is a subject where our culture has made tremendous progress in the past few decades. In stories from the fifties, it was typical to see bullying presented as par for the course, and it was unsurprising to see an author present a scene of bullying with the clear subtext that the victim deserved it because he's such a loser -- and expect the audience to view the bully as the more likable guy overall. It's disappointing to see this happen in a modern story.

As someone who was "different" as a kid -- and consequently bullied by the popular kids -- I naturally identify with Snape a lot more than I do with James and Lily and their friends. And the worst part of the story is that -- unlike a typical real-world bullying situation -- in this case the whole "it gets better" thing didn't happen. After being traumatized as a teen, Snape went on to be a bitter, spiteful, miserable person until he died.

Don't get me wrong -- of course he was also awesome. I think Snape is hand down the best character in the series. And the actor in the films did a fantastic job of interpreting the character -- better than what was in the books alone. But the stuff that happened to him was awful.

Then I started feeling like a huge idiot because is there any stupider waste of emotional energy than sitting around feeling sorry for a fictional character? I need to get out there and find some real people with real problems whom I can help for real. ;)

In the meantime, allow me to present how it should have ended:

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 sautéd 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?