Category Archives: Zieak

Personal stuff – much of this is password protected.

I am worried about education in the US

On the surface, “school choice” sounds great. “Yay! I can send my kid to a school that matches his interests and will cater to his talents and he will succeed. I can use this handy voucher to send Federal money that I paid into the system through taxes to help pay for his education at a nice private school!” One of the arguments for this is that “failing” schools will be put out of business. But here is my problem. I have a son with special needs. He’s reading far below his grade level. He struggles with math. Science and Social Studies are not even possible for him to do alone. He has CP but is able to get around great, though his movement easily makes him stand out among peers. Private schools would be under no obligation to accept him. So with a voucher system siphoning off funds from public education, the services that would be available to him in his “failing” public school would be minimal. His low performance on standardized tests no doubt would help ensure that the school continues to “fail” and as he and others with difficulties push the average test scores down the spiral of reduced funding continues.

You’ll notice that I keep putting fail in quotes. Because a lot of the argument about the need for vouchers is that public schools are “failing.” The truth is that they are not. One of the indicators used to point out America’s “failing” education system is that we’re behind many (mostly Asian) countries in our math and science test scores. Again, on the surface we should all be worried, right? But if you’ve ever seen the process of education in most of these countries that are besting Americans at math tests you’ll know that they drive in rote memorization instead of critical thinking. Students seek only the correct answer instead of the meaning or understanding how to get to the answer. Students spend hours every evening, on weekends and during breaks at private academies further driving in the correct answers to try and score better on standardized tests. I’ve had students from Japan and Korea pick up a badminton racket or Frisbee and not know how to use it. That’s not the US system. We value a well-rounded student. Art classes, PE, music… Students work in groups, learn collaboration, focus on communication skills and problem-solving. So those same “failing” schools might compare differently if instead of comparing standardized tests there was also a creative writing or poetry component. Or if there were representation by the arts or even a simple tug-o-war.

American schools are not failing. They are different. We can’t compare our system to Finland or Singapore. There are huge cultural differences, value differences and even a big range of purpose. If you want to send your kid to a school and just have them score well on math tests then yes, public education may not be the right place for your kid. But it is the right place for my kid. I see him on the soccer field surrounded by friends that don’t see his disability. His friends actually come to the pool to cheer him on as he swims. A parent praises his behavior when they drop him off after a sleepover. The elementary councilor comments about how everyone in his class seems to like him. He’s invited to birthday parties of the siblings of his classmates. I’m so grateful that he’s at an American school — one that follows American standards which give him opportunities to succeed.  If he was in the US attending a school I fear that those opportunities would quickly disappear.

I wrote the above paragraphs a few days ago.  Since then this chunk of news has come to light.  Just days after the confirmation of the new Secretary of Education a website dedicated to providing information about the rights to education that children with disabilities have has disappeared.  I fear we will “make America great again” — by going back to about 1950 when children with disabilities were sequestered or lobotomized.

DeVos as Secretary of Education could be the worst thing to happen for the educational system in the US.  Period.  America will not advance in our scientific achievement by teaching creationism next to evolution.   Our public schools can not withstand further erosion of funding by directing it to private schools.  As many have pointed out, public education is not for individual children, it is for all of us.  We all benefit from living around intelligent people.  But America has begun to prove that we don’t deserve to be surrounded by smart people.  Perhaps public education has failed us after all.  I mean, Trump was elected somehow.  How can a population of critical thinkers possibly be so badly duped?  No matter.  I’m sure that other countries will value both of my sons and their creativity and interpersonal skills.  Skills they learned at a “American” school — a private school doing hard work to educate children, just like all those public schools in the US do.

Our gaming table

A little over three weeks ago I stopped by a place that I have wanted to stop at for a few years.  It is located less than 10 minutes away from us but isn’t usually open when we drive by.  I asked about having a table made for us to use as our dining room table that also could serve as a gaming table.  They gave me an estimate given my specifications, I gave them a $90 deposit (well, 6,000 Indian rupees) and then I headed home to draw up plans.  The next day I stopped by and talked more with one of the carpenters and my sketches in hand.

I stopped by twice to check on the progress and today they delivered the final product.  The table top measures 45 inches by 69 inches.  It is in three pieces, two at about 28 inches and the center leaf is 14 inches wide.  This was intentional — I wanted the top to be versatile and my parents let me know that one huge table top is very heavy to lift and cumbersome to stow.  We can take just one of the larger pieces off and have enough space for three people to play and not have to clear the table.  Or remove one end and the center piece for a larger area.  Or take off the two large ends and use the center leaf to separate areas like a game master and the adventuring party.  Or just leave it on one end for the popcorn bowl and drinks.

The play area itself is dropped four inches from the four inch wide railing.  The surface is 39 inches by 63 inches and is covered in a dark red fabric with a bit of texture which I hoped would allow for cards to be picked up easily.   The size is intentionally big so that we can play even our largest games (or Pepper could do a large puzzle) and still have room without feeling like the table is too large.

The entire thing is made of solid teak except the plywood bottom.  Aside from the dimensions being slightly larger than a 3×5 foot dining table, the other thing that pushed the cost up a little was that I had these carved legs made.

There are two things that are not excellent.  First, the three table top pieces don’t fit well together on the seams so there are gaps.  I should have suggested that they make one big table top and then cut it apart before finishing it.  Second, the table legs make a strange corner where they protrude through the floor of the playing area and up to the rail.  In hindsight I would have had them either move the rail to cover it, make a larger rail, or added wood to the inside so the rail doesn’t overhang the play surface.

In total it cost us $575 (39,000 INR) plus $5 (300 INR) for delivery.  We hope that this becomes a family heirloom and that our boys are fighting over it (civilly) many years from now.  Or maybe we should order another one now just to head off the family feud.

The sea turtles are back and they are dying

On the weekends I usually get up before the rest of the family and walk down to the beach to beach-comb, get some fresh air and steps in and to clear my head.  Beach walks here are not always the most pleasant.  Many people do not have plumbing or toilets so the beaches tend to have many piles of human waste and invariably I need to alter my pace to avoid men defecating like the beach is their litter box.   I’ve seen plenty of dead animals on the short stretch of beach I usually walk.  Rats, a kitten, dogs, even a pig and a mongoose after last year’s floods.  But the large number of sea turtles that I see this time of the year is most depressing.

Every winter, sea turtles return to the beaches of Chennai to lay eggs.  Every year while on my walks I see many dead sea turtles.  I assumed that they were dying from feral dogs attacking them but a man I met on the beach said that it is from fishermen ignoring bans on certain gear during the nesting season.  That makes more sense because the turtles are usually not torn up like they would be if dogs were eating on them.

This year I counted six dead turtles along about two kilometers of beach.  A week later most of the carcasses were washed away by high tides.  Maybe most of my gruesome sightings for a while will involve the discarded puffer fish and lost dolls.

Custom bookcase set

The major project we hired a carpenter to do for us was to make four bookshelves.  We love books.  We also love games and Pepper loves puzzles.  Our collection of all three had really outgrown the single bookcase and two cabinets that we have from the school and the landlord.  So we decided to order our own.

I knew I wanted them to not be too large individually.  I wanted some versatility — stackable is what I guess I was looking for.  So I designed two components.  The bottom one has three compartments.  The bottom is 16 inches tall and the next two are 12 inches tall.  Yesterday the carpenter finished those two units so we moved them inside and loaded them up with our games and puzzles.

We’ll probably be able to move some things around after the top two pieces are done.  The bottom two shelves on them are 12 inches tall and the top two are almost ten inches tall. In total the four pieces will be eight feet wide and just under eight feet tall.


Custom shoe rack

One of the many things that Pepper has been wanting is a larger shoe rack for next to our front door.  Our first year in India we bought a metal one that is less than 3 feet tall, about two feet wide and has five wire shelves.  It has been full of shoes and had piles of shoes around it just about since we bought it.

Last week I hired a carpenter to make us our own shoe rack and this one is over three feet tall, exactly 4 feet wide and had five shelves plus the top surface.  Made out of hardwood plywood with teak facing here it is loaded with our shoes and some helmets.

The cushion on top is for the cats.  They love watching out the window.  The shelves are all 6 inches apart except the bottom which is 8.  They are also 12 inches deep whereas the old one we were using was just 10.

It cost around $100 to have made.  Probably a little pricey.  But we knew we didn’t want doors on it because, well, we’re honest about how likely we would be to use it then.  I do like the look of this one but it is considerably shorter and costs three times as much as we spent.

UNESCO World Heritage sites through the end of 2016

A few years ago I started keeping track of the UNESCO World Heritage sites that I have visited.  Here they are through the end of 2016.  (I moved Yellowstone down the list to reflect re-visiting it.)

  1. Mesa Verde, USA
  2. Grand Canyon, USA
  3. Redwoods, USA
  4. Pueblo de Taos, USA
  5. Changdeokgung Palace Complex, South Korea
  6. City of Cuzco, Peru
  7. Machu Picchu, Peru
  8. Lima, Peru city center
  9. City of Quito, Ecuador
  10. Chichen-Itza, Mexico
  11. Banff & Jasper in Canada
  12. Great Wall, China
  13. Imperial Palace, China
  14. Temple of Heaven, China
  15. Longmen Grottoes, China
  16. Angkor, Cambodia
  17. Historic Center of Prague, Czech Republic
  18. Antigua, Guatemala
  19. Tikal, Guatemala
  20. Historic Center of Rome
  21. Holy See, Vatican City
  22. Copan Ruins, Honduras
  23. Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
  24. Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, Mongolia
  25. Victoria Falls, Zambia
  26. Lake Baikal, Russia
  27. White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal, Russia
  28. Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow, Russia
  29. Saint Petersburg historic sites, Russia
  30. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
  31. Dambulla, Sri Lanka
  32. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
  33. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
  34. Kandy, Sri Lanka
  35. Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
  36. Galle, Sri Lanka
  37. Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, India
  38. Taj Mahal, India
  39. Red Fort, India
  40. Humayun’s Tomb, India
  41. Agra Fort, India
  42. Qutb Minar, India
  43. Westminster Palace and Abbey, London
  44. Tower of London
  45. Churches of Moldavia, Romania
  46. Historic Centre of Sighișoara, Romania
  47. Medieval fortified churches of Transylvania.
  48. Historic City of Ayutthaya, Thailand
  49. Historic Town of Sukhothai, Thailand
  50. Banks of the Seine, Paris, France
  51. Yellowstone, USA
  52. Olympic National Park, USA
  53. Fortress of Suomenlinna, Finland
  54. Saint-Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine
  55. Pechersk Lavra, Kiev, Ukraine
  56. Historic Centre of Tallinn, Estonia
  57. San Antonio Missions, USA (added to the list in 2015)

Again, still lots of blog posts that need to come up to bring this list even close to up to date.

Lego Minifigure Shelf

In August we made shelves for our collection of Lego Minifigures.  Not all of them – just the ones from the collectible series.  I wrote the project up on Instructables here.

Next we’ll make some shelves for holding Jacob’s extensive collection of cars and perhaps one for Jordan’s collection of castles!

New York Times list of 52 places to go in 2017

As in the past few years, the New York Times has published a list of places to go in 2017.  I have written blog posts from the lists from 2016, 20152014, 2013 and 2012 in the past.

Here is their list with places in bold that I have been to along with links to my relevant blog posts for sites I have been to the exact place on the list.  I start out pretty strong on their list and then fizzle out!

  1. Canada
  2. Atacama Desert, Chile
  3. Agra, India [Agra Fort, Taj Mahal]
  4. Zermatt, Switzerland
  5. Botswana [Safari]
  6. Dubrovnik, Croatia
  7. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  8. Tijuana, Mexico
  9. Detroit, Michigan
  10. Hamburg, Germany
  11. Marrakesh, Morocco
  12. Greenville, South Carolina
  13. Pedregal, Ecuador
  14. Penzance, England
  15. Osaka, Japan
  16. Stockholm, Sweden [2016]
  17. Sikkim, India
  18. Île de Porquerolles, France
  19. Madagascar
  20. Sanya, China
  21. Cyprus
  22. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
  23. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  24. Kingston, Jamaica
  25. Comporta, Portugal
  26. Kazakhstan
  27. Gabon
  28. Athens, Greece
  29. Northwest Puerto Rico
  30. Chiang Mai, Thailand
  31. Napa Valley, California
  32. Puerto Escondido, Mexico
  33. Sedona, Arizona
  34. Madrid, Spain [2017]
  35. Ketchum, Idaho
  36. Maldives
  37. Calabria, Italy
  38. Antequera, Spain
  39. Lofoten Islands, Norway
  40. Iberá Wetlands, Argentina
  41. Istria, Croatia
  42. Placencia, Belize
  43. Langtang Region, Nepal
  44. Bozcaada, Turkey
  45. Birmingham, Alabama
  46. Sacred Valley, Peru [Sacred Valley, Chicha, Machu Picchu]
  47. Laikipia, Kenya
  48. Busan, South Korea
  49. Portland, Oregon
  50. Budapest, Hungary
  51. South Bronx, New York
  52. Ryukyu Islands, Japan

Yesterday was one of those “best days”

School starts back up tomorrow after our three week winter break.  So on Saturday I set out to try and have a really great day knowing Sunday would have a lot of things going on that I had to do instead of wanted to do.  Sunday wasn’t all bad though…


  1.  Slept in
  2. Watered my plants and did some repotting and pruning
  3. Went on a walk and did some beach combing and came back with two handfulls of treasures
  4. Ate pancakes, sausages and muffins that Pepper cooked.
  5. Got cash!  (See: India demonetization.)
  6. Picked up totes (actually Indian milk crates) to use to sort Lego.  (For a future project.)  Spent more than an hour with the boys scrubbing them clean.  Then went about filling them with Lego.
  7. Worked on a video from our summer travels.
  8. Went to a friend’s for dinner and drinks and to catch up on their travel during the break.


  1. Woke earlier
  2. Went on a walk and beach combed again.  Saw one dead sea turtle.  This time brought home two small grocery bags of treasures including a dolphin skull.  Yes, a dolphin skull.  (Perhaps a porpoise?)  I’m sure that it will excite our biology teacher as much as it did me!
  3. Cooked potatoes, bacon and eggs for brunch.
  4. The family got haircuts.
  5. Went to Amadora for ice cream.
  6. Wrote up a project on Instructables and entered it in an appropriate contest.