Monday 18 May 2009

The Zero-Prep Scavenger Hunt for Kids

We were trying to decide what to do with the kids today when it occurred to me that it would be fun to have a scavenger hunt. The problem was that I hadn't prepared anything ahead of time, and the kids were already antsy enough that there wasn't time to do anything.

So I faked a break-in.

I kidnapped one of Morgan's toy mice, grabbed a handful of furniture from its house along with it, and stuffed them into my jacket pocket. Leaving a few telltale items sprinkled on the porch, I called Morgan down to investigate.

The star of the day's entertainment was our cheap electronic stud finder, which I claimed was a toy detector. It has green and red lights, it makes an authoritative-sounding beeping noise, and a sneaky grownup can control when it goes off by surreptitiously sliding a finger behind it while it's on.

Aiming the toy detector at various parts of our neighbourhood, we quickly determined that the stolen toys had been taken in the direction of ... the park!

We came back in to get sweaters and snacks for the excursion. Morgan knew something was up; she's nearly six, old enough to innately grasp the difference between reality and Daddy's silly tricks, even if she is still sometimes confused about where the border is.

Once she was satisfied that there was fun to be had, however, she was willing to suspend her disbelief, and eagerly added some decorative bedding to the tupperware container I had brought to store recovered toys.

Once I had established the premise, the stud finder worked amazingly well. Danielle and I strolled along the path, and I just had to point the thing into the bushes and off the kids went with gusto. Usually this was a bush we had just passed - a side effect of the "zero-prep" aspect of the scavenger hunt.

The kids got so excited by all of this that they started asking passers-by if they had seen the lost mouse. After an hour of this, we came across one couple who had already heard of our search from other park-goers! Isn't it amazing how society rallies around a crisis?

One of the nice things about the zero-prep scavenger hunt is that you can fine-tune things as you go. When the kids are climbing trees, chasing each other, snacking, or otherwise keeping themselves busy, you can just enjoy the scenery. But whenever there's a lull in the action, you can drop a toy or even just bleep the toy detector and off they scurry!

Here's a tip, though: if you drop a toy, remember where you dropped it. After dropping a charming, faux-wicker mouse suitcase in some bushy grass, I forgot to look around for landmarks. Or a decent landmark, at any rate. I could have sworn it was by this distinctive-looking tufty bit.. but then, you're surrounded by tufty bits. It's amazing how fast a lawn can turn on you.

And then, you have to explain why the toy detector suddenly isn't working. "Interference from the bridge?" was the best I could come up with.

Unable to bear the thought that I was personally responsible for the loss of this helpless, cherished toy, I suggested we link arms and walk through the field in a line, like you see on the TV when volunteers are helping the police looking for a body.

The parallel was somewhat uncomfortable, and we got quizzical looks from the joggers and bicyclists whizzing past us as we inched along. But never fear, the suitcase turned up and my "decent parent" status was saved.

Somehow, Morgan never caught on to what I was doing. In the end, she concluded that I must have set up all these toys two days earlier, "On your way home from work!"

My only disappointment was that the kids couldn't operate the toy detector themselves, for obvious reasons. Had they been able to do that, I'm sure we'd have been running full tilt the whole time!

Tuesday 5 May 2009

What I Love About Einstein

I'm working my way through a copy of Robert W. Lawson's translation of Einstein's Relativity. This isn't a mathematical treatise, but a tiny paperback written by Einstein in 1916 to explain relativity to non-physicists.

It's a quaint little book, partly because of the language - but most strikingly by the way it stands in stark contrast to the modern era of predigested sound bites that deliberately pander to the gut instincts and short attention span of the intended audience.

As Einstein writes in the preface,
"Despite the shortness of the book, [it presumes] a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader."
I don't tote this around to look smart on the subway, that furrowed brow isn't deep thought so much as frustration at the fuzziness of my own mind. No, I picked this up after reading something about relativity and suddenly becoming desperately curious to learn just how Einstein was able to envision a description of the world so utterly different than the classical view that preceded it.

Not in the sense of, "My God, just how smart was he?" but literally: how do you make a discovery like this?

In case you're rusty, relativity is a refinement over the venerable Euclidean geometry, whose origins go back as far as 300 B. Euclidean geometry views of the world as composed of infinitely long straight lines, utterly flat planes, and perfect spheres. I first started learning it in primary school, and learned more about it for so many years afterwards that its abstracted, clinical view become second-nature to how I looked at every day things.

My kitchen table may not be a perfect plane, but that's table's problem, right?

As Einstein puts it,
"By reason of your past experience, you would certainly regard everyone with disdain who should pronounce even the most out-of-the-way proposition of this science to be untrue. But perhaps this feeling of proud certainty would leave you immediately if someone were to ask you: 'What, then, do you mean by the assertion that these propositions are true?'"
Geometry of any sort is just a mathematical contrivance, useful to the extent that it can be used to describe reality. If you get in a convertible driving 80 km/hr, and you throw a baseball ahead of you at 50 km/hr, classical mechanics would suggest that the baseball is would start off traveling at 130 km/hr, relative to the road. So far so good.

The key observation that spurred Einstein forward was the experimental discovery that the speed of light is not relative to the motion of the observer. Briefly, if you're zipping along at half the speed of light, and someone on the road shines a laser after you, classical mechanics would predict that the laser passes you at half the speed of light. What actually happens is that the laser light zips by you at full speed.

In fact, no matter how fast you're going, in whatever direction, light will still pass you at the same speed, regardless of the motion of the light source relative to you.

This is bizarrely counter-intuitive, to say the least - and if you think that's weird, the implications of Relativity are even more bizarre. The fact that Einstein came up with a rigorous geometry that made sense of this state of affairs was such a coup that his name became a household synonym for 'genius'.

The paradoxes of Relativity make for fascinating reading, but it's not my goal to rehash them here. What I want to do is highlight what Einstein had to do to get to a solution, and that was to question his own assumptions.

These weren't assumptions that had been given to him explicitly, like unjust laws he intuitively knew had to be overthrown and - dammit - he was the guy to do it! These were assumptions that nobody knew they held.

Imagine yourself doing a bit of math to try to figure out this speed of light business, and you find yourself muttering, "Hmm, divide this by the velocity.. carry the one.. and, oh yeah, I guess I'd assumed that distances were the same for everyone. Whoops." (erase erase erase) "And now multiply by the .. oh wait, I suppose I was assuming that time passes the same for all observers. How daft." (erase erase erase)

This doesn't happen every day. It requires a rare combination of precision of meaning, shaving each statement of belief into its component parts to be independently scrutinized, with the integrity to be willing to let go of any of them that don't pass muster, plus the courage and willpower to follow through with reconstituting the surviving pieces into a new worldview, however unfamiliar.

Whether or not your university calculus has rusted out of your head completely (as has mine), or if math has never been your friend, in an era where argument is increasingly reduced to punchy ad hominem attacks, this strikes me as an eminently worthy and useful mental posture to strive for.

That's what I love about Einstein.