Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Time

Hooray! Christmas LEGOs!

So finally Christmas time is here. It has been a hectic December, so I'll try to go in order of the events as they happened:

New Apartment
This place is crowded. With 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room/kitchen, this place is definitely not enough for the six of us. Especially since the largest room is inhabited by 3 children, and one of the "bedrooms" is actually an office, so that I can have a place to retreat when the office calls me for an emergency of some sort. It was a requirement that I could escape the noisy rambunctious kids.

To top it all off, something we never considered when I found this place, (or rather, when it was presented to me) is that we're on the fourth floor; the kids have never been in an environment where running was strictly prohibited. I'm sure our neighbor below us, a very nice French Swiss named Ann, is quite aware of the exact moment that the kids wake up in the morning; and also quite familiar when bedtime is. I'm sure somebody could map out a pretty good chart of seismic activity (from the thumping sound of running feet) versus the awake-time for the kids.

A few months ago, a Human Resources person had a conference call with my co-workers about our relocation experience. Stacy got an opportunity to vent all of her frustrations: coming without a permit; the long time to get the paper work in order, the long time to get the contact in order, the size of the apartment. She complains a lot. I could be perfectly happy with a tent and a few sleeping bags for the 2 years here. I guess she is more in-tune with the needs of the family than I am, since I'm not in the house 5 days out of the week. During the conference call, she got the idea that maybe moving to a bigger apartment is what this family needs.

So she began her search. This started around October. After looking at lots of places, some in quite convenient locations (a few blocks from the train station), and some that were terribly inconvenient (like some that were closer to Thun than to Bern; and another in the middle of nowhere, with 2 bus rides to the downtown train station ( horribly horribly inconvenient for me). After several visits where I sighed, "this is going to make my commute suck even more", some places where they looked at the "Four Kids"part and replied, "You will never find this place suitable", which to me means "there is no way we will allow four children to live here", We finally found one that was convenient for 5 of us, and only a little more inconvenient for me. The new place is in Rüfenacht, just outside Gümlingen -- very close to the kid's school. More inconvenient for me in terms of miles traveled, but not necessarily much longer in terms of time spent commuting (strangely enough). Best of all, the new place is essentially the same rent as the older one, with more space, a view, and a yard. I'll get more into the amenities later.

I pretty much gave up fighting back a long time ago. Stacy found out how to advertise the current apartment in ImmoScout24.ch, in the local newspaper, "Die Anzeiger". We found a few prospective tenants to take over our lease. Unfortunately, for the meantime, we will have to pay double rent, which really hurts my pocketbook. (Yeouch!)

As we had our multiple visits to see the apartment, which is really a house divided into three parts, the kids played chase outside in the yard. They would come inside being their typical loud selves, and we told them "Go back outside.", and they did. The house was built in 1777 (yes, really), and has recently been renovated to be completely modern inside. The downstairs was renovated several years ago, and the upstairs has been renovated within the past 3 or 4 months, I suppose. The upstairs still smells like fresh paint.

I don't have many pictures, only a picture of the outside hieroglyphs, the view of the Alps in dusk, and a picture of the wrap-around view from the patio. More pictures will be sure to come, and will get put into this folder on Picasa.

Opening Christmas Presents
Recently Joey has been enjoying a particular DVD over and over again. He first saw the trailer at the beginning of some other DVD, and called it "the commercial movie." Probably in response or to the question, "Do you like that commercial, Joey?" The movie in question is Pixar's "Cars."

Of course, the Christmas present that will be the biggest hit with Joey is a present of the same theme. One day in a toy store with Joey, he found the Lightning McQueen Talking Car toy that just has to be had. He screamed that he needed the toy. Thankfully, Stacy was doing this shopping with a girlfriend, who was instructed (quietly) to go purchase the car discretely.

Definitely, this toy was the biggest hit for Joey. The Bob the Builder shirts -- meh. The train tracks, usually a hit -- meh. The puzzle of the construction vehicles and Thomas the Tank Engines -- meh. The Duplo Legos of the "James" engine from Thomas the Tank Engine -- meh. But this toy was the choice on Christmas Day. In the display box, the toy had the "Try Me!" buttons that could be pushed to see if this toy was any good or not. Of course, Joey was pounding all those buttons to make the wheels spin, make him talk before I could get it out of the package.

Funny thing about this toy is, that seeing as we bought it in Switzerland, of course Lightning McQueen speaks German. I don't think Joey cares much. It took us a while to figure out that there is a switch underneath that makes him get out of "Probierfunktion" (trying-out-mode), into the "Ein" mode (on). No matter what button you pressed, Lightning McQueen would always say, "Ich bin schneller als schnell." (I'm faster than fast). When the green "go" button is hit, his wheels would spin for about a second, and he would repeat his one liner.

We later discovered that this toy has a whole programmable set of command you can put in. Go forward twice. Turn left. Turn around. Turn right while going backwards. Of course, each time you type in a command, the voice responds, you guessed it, in German. Vorwärts! Vorwärts nach rechts! Kreis! Vorführung!" (Forwards! Forward and right! Circle! Demonstration!).

There's a "Sprachknöpfe"button, which makes him say a few more one-liners,
  • Ich suche meinen besten Freund. (I am searching for my best friend)
  • Wo ist die nächste Tankestelle? (Where's the nearest gas station?)
  • Wo geht's nach Radiator Springs? (How do you get to Radiator Springs?)
  • Wo geht's zum Highway? (How do you get to the Highway?)
  • Bin ich falsch abgebogen? (Did I turn the wrong way?)
  • Hua! Wo bin ich? (Huh? Where the heck am I?)
Of course, Joey doens't use the program function. He just crawls as he pushes the car along. There's no real need for batteries in this car for Joey's appreciation. Just the wheels. Hope it holds up to the abuse.

This wasn't the only hit for Christmas. Up late last night wrapping presents, getting everything ready, putting the stuff under the Christmas Tree... uh.. wait. Stacy did all that. I was just playing video games. That's right. Anyway, we were up late last night, and I was quite tired this morning, but not too tired for me to hear the sound of an excited kid, not sure which one -- running down the hall at full speed. I'm sure the neighbor below also heard this. The sound ended with a pause, as if the pause was long enough to take in the view of the spoils of Christmas. The brief pause was immediately followed by a running of full speed back up the hall to the bedroom, a pause only long enough to wake up the sibling, and then followed by two sets of excited feet running full speed down the hall.

Somehow the kids restrained themselves from opening all the gifts. I am quite honestly amazed at their willpower. Somehow I'm reminded of a movie once where the bad guy and the good guy meet. The bad guy has two well trained attack dogs ready to destroy any interluder. The bad guy throws a juicy steak to each dog. The dogs sit and wait for their command. The tasty morsels at their feet are untouched. The bad guy snaps his fingers and the dogs then proceed to devour the steaks. This was the restraint that the children exhibited this morning. I guess all the housebreaking lessons are finally starting to pay off.

I was awoken later to Joey, who burst into our room with his proudest discovery: A box of cereal -- not just any cereal -- AMERICAN cereal. Kix! Kid-Tested, Mother Approved! Joey burst into our bedroom with his newest prize, "Look Mommy! Kix!" A very thoughtful co-worker sent a care package of the things we can not get here in this country. While America has crappy food that could never be found here in Switzerland, such as Velveeta, Wonder Bread, Ritz crackers, there is also a huge gaping hole of selection for some of the good things that America has to offer.

Breakfast Cereal Rant Tangent
Come to think of it, I think that a good breakfast is a sure sign of a nation ready to grasp the spoils of victory over communism. This enthusiasm for truth, justice, and the American way of life can only be explained by the most excellent selection of breakfast cereals that America's amber waves of grain have to offer. Upon our arrival here in Switzerland, it was quickly noted that such champion breakfasts as "Cookie Crisp", "Kix", "Cheerios", and "Raisin Bran" are not to be found in the pathetic breakfast food section of the local Migros. I am presented with insults to my breakfast pallet, Müesli, some other sorts of suicide breakfasts -- various mixture of nuts, anaphylaxis and death. (For those who don't know me well enough, I am horribly allergic to most tree nuts).

You Swiss should be proud of your cheese technology; your pocket knife technology, your technology for well-made windows and doors surpasses even the most luxurious homes in America. (Our windows are usually painted shut) (No wonder we don't like to go outside, we're constantly sheltered from it). You should be proud of your chocolate technology, and maybe even your snappy hats and scarves. The skis I brought from America were (literally) laughed at by the ski maintenance shop.

However, you Swiss seriously are behind in at least one category -- LIGHT YEARS behind us... Breakfast technology. Have a bowl of Cookie Crisp sometime. You will bow to our might! Chocolate Chip cookies IN A BOWL ! FOR BREAKFAST! Now that is just genius in a bowl. Seriously. You have no idea.

Back to Christmas
.. or ...
On to the very important subject of LEGOs
Yesterday, I spent the day re-assembling Joshie's busted-up LEGO toys. He had a friend back in the US, Steven, who could not be trusted with Josh's LEGOs. Invariably, 5 minutes of our backs being turned, Steven could be counted on to destroy the LEGO creation that *I* had to put together. Actually, I don't mind the destruction to much. It's the random re-distribution of the LEGOs that drives me nuts. Once Stacy would go through cleaning up the basement, some pieces would be lost, some eaten by the bunnies, (that's my only explanation), or distributed to various bins of LEGO toys (the worst).

Yesterday, I spent most of the day re-assembling some of the long-busted up LEGO creations. Of course, Josh doesn't make me reassemble the ones that I could probably figure out by myself, he makes me reassemble the horribly complex ones. If they were space toys, I might be able to put up with it. But no, this was the Medieval Castle. Ugh. I could not bare to look at the castle after reconstruction was hampered by the search for a part that did not exist in 4 different tubs strewn with zillions of legos within.

I opted for the easier fix, the Trade Federation's Droid dropship. This was a "welcome to Switzerland, Josh" present, bought a few days after we arrived to Switzerland, before any of the air shipment had arrived. Its demise was met a few weeks ago when the sound of shattering glass, followed by shrieks of horror and pain actually turned out to be the dropship falling off the shelf and blowing up in to a zillion pieces.

At least this destruction was caused by a more innocent "It fell off the Shelf and blew up into a million pieces" instead of the wanton destruction from the neighborhood hell-boy Steven. In its reconstruction, I had pieced together most of the parts myself, without much reference to the manual. There were a few times when I had to refer to the original construction plans to make progress. But: One piece can not be recovered. We don't know where it is. No clue. I can't blame it on the bunnies as they live outside now. With this omission, the drop ship remains blemished by this external and patently obvious corner-stone. Literally: the corner of the ship has gone missing.

I surfed online to Lego.com to find that you can get them to ship replacement parts. To Switzerland! I didn't get charged online, so I have to wonder if they're going to send me a bill. I found the Lego unique number for this toy, selected the piece that was missing, gave them my address (I gave them the address in Rüfenacht), and that was pretty much it! I also discovered that they have the plans from all of their lego toys as far as I could tell. If you lost your construction plans, you can always go find the PDF online and use that as a guide.

This following the instructions business was never my strong suit as a kid. I seem to remember following the construction plans long enough to build it the first time, and then the plans were lost, probably the cat puked on it or something. My LEGO foo was enhanced by my own creations -- I would model toys from my own imagination, or from cartoons I watched, or for some new space ship I imagined on my own. I made submarines from LEGOs that were water-tight (no small feat, I might add). I made VOLTRON out of LEGOs. There was no feat that could not be accomplished with my 3 boxes of worn and chewed-on LEGOs. Even to this day, I have a hard time envisioning any sort of construction tasks being solved without the ample use of LEGOs.

They stopped being such a huge part of my personality around the age of 13. Junior High school. We're all supposed to be grown-ups so quickly after 6th grade, when just a few weeks ago you were still expected to still be a kid. Now in Junior High school, you're not supposed to wear Garanimals any more, you're supposed to wear a denim jacket preferably with some sort of hard-rock band on the back. There was harsh punishments of ostracism for any behavior that could be construed as Elementary school, childish. You're expected to like girls, not think they have cooties.

You're expected to not play with LEGOs. I was caught by a girl whom I fancied playing LEGOs. Upon this discovery, and the threat of imminent ostracism, the LEGOs quickly were repositioned to the darkest corners of the closet. No longer cool. No longer fun to play with. It happened so quickly. I also lost, in a sense, that magical ability to create anything with simple blocks, or to have the same story-creation imagination I had as a kid. After that day, I lost the ability to come up with a plot of some fantastical whimsical intricacy that I had before. I don't think I have ever gotten it back. Gee, it's no wonder Teen-agers are so depressed.

I'm trying to figure out why I now dread being called back into the kids' bedroom to repair the busted LEGOs. I used to love these toys so much as a kid. Perhaps it's this new style of play that leaves me with such distaste for LEGOs now, and not some sort of L. Ron Hubbard-esque engram of the Junior-High social ostracism from LEGO enjoyment. The LEGOs can not be built any way you want, they have to be assembled as per the instructions. No deviations. Any deviations will result in the incomplete or busted project being returned to the LEGO bin.

This attitude, I think, comes from Stacy. Her brother Bryan recently gave to us a vast treasure trove of 1980's space LEGOs, many of the same models I had as a kid. I only vaguely remembered the original LEGO models, as I mentioned before, because I soon lost the box, the construction pieces, or a random LEGO went down the bathtub drain, or the cat puked on it. I went on to use these pieces to power my own creations.

This vast treasure trove of original almost mint-in-box LEGOs was because Stacy's mother dictated the style of play that Bryan had to follow. You will construct the LEGOs as the plans dictate. Upon completion of playing with the LEGO, you will dismantle either completely or partially dismantle the original LEGOs, and replace them in the original box. While I certainly befitted from this in the form of these awesome original LEGOs that we get to play with, I think it came at a price. Perhaps Bryan preferred to play with his LEGOs this way, and it didn't bother him. It would have driven me crazy as a kid.

As the so-called LEGO expert from childhood (I guess Stacy was painting, or putting on dresses, or playing with dolls or whatever girls are expected to do at that age), the role of LEGO guidance counselor for Joshie falls to me. Jake doesn't understand LEGOs, having gone directly Baby Crib toys to computer games, without any interest in any of the logical progression of kids' toys along the way. The LEGO construction gene/meme has certainly taken root in young Joshua.

Josh (6) is coming along quite well. When we got the Trade Federation Dropship, I was expected to do all of the construction. I had Josh help though. I had him sort the pieces by color, which made my task much easier. With each new LEGO toy which has been gifted to Joshie, we have assembled the LEGOs with more and more help from Josh. Recently, as a birthday present, I had him do the entire assembly of a Fire Marshall Helicopter, as I only told him what pieces to use and helped him with each step. When he received an identical LEGO set as a birthday gift, I had him do the whole assembly without my supervision, and he performed the task flawlessly. Now he can pretty much assemble, with the help of instructions, any simple to medium LEGO toy unsupervised. Repairing LEGO castles, and Drop Ships -- not so much. But he's coming along fine.

Cecilia got a Barbie doll and a matching Horse that I picked out for her at the local Loeb. Some of her promised gifts have not yet arrived from the US, so her celebration of Christmas for some toys will have to be delayed. She also recently got a book about a dog called "Mitsy." This is a book she insisted on having. The strange thing about this book is that it's entirely in German. Of all the kids, Cecilia has the most genuine interest in learning German -- not just something that is forced upon her to assimilate like a good kid.

Jake enjoyed Christmas immensely. Or so I heard. He's not here. We shipped him back to the US so he could be with his friends. We could not get the company to approve his travel on company money, so I sent him with my United Airline Frequent Flier miles. I had 106,000 miles on account, which I work out to be about 212 hours of me sitting on some commercial Jet-liner. I spent 80,000 to get him home for Christmas.

Did I mention he went business class??! That is because it took us so long to make the decision, that we couldn't fit him on to a flight to the US in Economy class, and I had the miles to do it. These are the frequent flier miles I have been saving up since 1999. To put this in perspective for Jake, I noted that 106,000 miles is almost half-way to the moon (225,000 miles). I hope he really enjoys this, and comes back to Switzerland less-miserable. His lack of enthusiasm is like a morale Kryptonite, poisoning those around him, and I sincerely hope this change of venue with the new apartment, along with the trip back to the US will change his attitude.

Me? I scored two cookbooks, so Stacy won't have to eat "Pizza and hotdogs and schnitzel and pasta" (her words) day after day because of the picky eater children. One a Vegetarian cookbook, the other a traditional Swiss cookbook. See the biggest problem we have with our American cookbooks is that they require ingredients that simply don't exist here. For example, Velveeta cheese, and Wonder bread. (no, I'm kidding). I also got a Flight Simulator for Gliders called "Condor." The disappointment for this gift is that once installed, it asked for a registration code that could not be found anywhere in the box whatsoever. I wrote to the email support, and expect a response something to the tune of "Please return it to the vendor." Thankfully we still have the receipt.

I had a Christmas present from several months ago, that I played with again today. The Ghetto Copter. I have promised to share this tale, and since I'm in the rare writing mood, and not the more common video-game playing mood, I'll share the tale with you.

The Ghetto Copter is what I called my repair attempts for my previously-super-cool Blade CX2 remote controlled helicopter. The day after my depressing Bautag with the Swiss glider club, where I was isolated in my non-Bärndütsch stage-two nadir, I realized that it would be a long winter without any soaring. On 7 October, the Swiss Toy expo was being presented at the Bern BEA Expo on the northern side of town. I took Cecilia, Josh, Joey and Stacy to see what could be found. Jake stayed home with an upset stomach.

The Swiss Toy expo was a huge arena of toys, toys, toys. They had train sets that Joey could not be torn away from. They had a huge video game area that Jake certainly would have loved, if it were not for stupid region encoding on all console video games sold outside the US. (i.e., any video games we purchase here in Switzerland for the Game Cube, PlayStation, or Xbox can't be played on our US equipment. Region coding is the stupidest invention of all time, and I can only hope that the WTO finds it in violation) (for you geniuses out there who invented on this idiocy, upon meeting you I would seriously be tempted to kick you in the sack).

In the Swiss Toy arena, they had a huge netted-off area with remote controlled toys. Airplanes, and remote controlled helicopters. The local Helicopter RC shop had a demonstration of the counter-rotating helicopter called the Blade CX2. This copter was so maneuverable that he flew it over to an object that he picked up with the heli, flew it over to the other side of the demonstration, dropped it off, and repeated. Not only did he have real skills in doing RC heli flight, but this beast actually obeyed his commands.

My previous experience with RC helicopters, especially the counter-rotating kind, was the MicroMosquito, sold exclusively by Radio Shack in the US (and only for a limited time). Although quite fun to fly around the house, it also had some really bad habits. Because it was so small, it was vulnerable to even the slightest breeze. How slight a breeze? If you had a cigarette, and its column of smoke was not perfectly vertical, this MicroMosquito would not be able to fight upwind. It also had a bad habit of getting into what we call a divergent oscillation -- an uncommanded oscillation of increasingly large swooping circles. As the blade speed was low, and the diameter of the blades not very long, the tendency for coning was huge, which led to this oscillation. With counter rotating blades, the upward coning blade met with the downward coning blade spinning in the opposite direction, ending in a crackling smack, followed by a crash. With one blade-strike too many, some parts of my MicroMosquito (which I carefully included in the air-shipment from America), made it no longer airworthy.

From the expert handling of the demonstration at the Swiss Toy expo, it was quite clear to me that this battery-powered helo Blade CX2 did not exhibit the fatal design flaws of the MicroMosquito, and therefore must be purchased immediately. I bought the boxed set for way too much money (all in Swiss Francs of course), along with the trainer kit. The trainer kit was essentially four ping-pong balls with precision holes cut in them, and some long plastic rods. The assembly was installed under the landing skids, so any landings not truly vertical wouldn't result in a dynamic roll-over causing blade-strikes with the ground. The diameter of the training set was also long enough to prevent blade strikes with the wall.

I set outside the next day to play with my new toy. It was a dream to fly. After watching the video that came with the helo (on YouTube), I adjusted all the adjustments, and managed to hover it very nicely, much easier to fly than the MicroMosquito. Of course, hovering doesn't last long until you think, "what else can this thing do?" It wasn't long until I was doing turns, flying forward, backwards, sideways. I flew it down the sidewalk. Hmm. Battery is getting low. I will have to shut it down soon. Too low! Not! Into!


...the concrete bench.

Pieces flew off. I winced. I approached it slowly. Two rotor blades eaten by the concrete bench. Good thing this guy is in Belp, and I can easily go and pick up replacement parts. Wasn't that training rig supposed to prevent blade strikes? Somehow I managed to crash the blades into the overhanging part of the bench, and out of the reach of the protective gear. Arrgh This is going to be not-cheap.

I bought some replacement blades that week, and set out in the local Soccer field instead. This should be plenty big, and won't suffer the same fate. And when I do crash (it always ends in a crash, doesn't it?), at least I will crash into soft grass. I can do this in the morning, before any soccer players show up.

I get out there, start hovering for a few minutes. Good, the replacement blades are doing fine. Let's do some forward flight. Hmm. Not going very fast. Let's do some turns with me in the center of the circle. Wow, this thing is going faster. Wow that's really fast. Woah that's getting far away from me. oh NO!!!!


This time, I had the upper blade and lower blade collision happen, apparently, I did too abrupt a movement at high speeds, causing lower blade speed, excessive coning, and a counter rotating blade strike. What is worse is that instead of crashing into a bench, or a soft soccer field, I managed to crash it in between a tree and a hurricane fence. The blades of the copter got stuck in the fence. In the terror of the moment, I forgot to shut off the throttle of the crashed copter. This is a fatal mistake that you are sternly warned against in the instruction video, and repeatedly in the manual. Now I learn why.

Strangely enough, the blades are not harmed. I take the copter to the soccer field and try again. This time, the copter won't take off, and spins madly to one direction. One of the blades does not power up at all. I later investigate the matter more closely, and discover that I burned out the left motor, which powers the top blades. Arrgh.

Another trip to Baumann. 30 Francs. Arrgh.

The two extra batteries I bought come in handy because I over-drained the battery when I crashed the helo into a fence. This old battery is useless and won't take a charge any more.

Another trip to Baumann. 25 Francs. Arrgh.

Followed by some good flights in the park over the fallen leaves of fall (and blowing them all over the place, way cool!) Another crash in the soccer field, all blades chipped or broken off. The fuselage is seriously compromised, cracks, some pieces fell off.

Hmm. This is getting expensive. I start doing the low-budget copter approach. Index cards taped where there were gaping holes in the fuselage. Scotch tape for the shattered rotor blades (which actually while I would not recommend for legal liability reasons, worked great), scotch tape wherever there were cracks. This cut down on the violent vibrations I noticed on the tail.

I present to you: The Ghetto Copter -- still flyable! Note the index card covering the vast section of fuselage that broke off, and the (un)healthy supply of scotch tape on the rotor blades and fuselage to hold it together.

I had no idea this was such an expensive addiction. I should stick to soaring. Not nearly as many accidents there.

The flying came to an end for a time when the landing gear broke so badly that I could not repair it with scotch tape, and I could not fashion any paper clips to handle the role effectively.

The helo has since been repaired by a not-cheap visit to Helikopter-Baumann by my wife, who found replacement landing gear, fuselage, and a huge supply of replacement rotor blades. I have been flying it safely indoors now, where I am forced to fly so conservatively that I don't get the temptation to fly fast and high any more. The cold weather causes the parts to become particularly brittle, and much more vulnerable to disaster. There is a huge selection of videos on YouTube for the CX2 in flight, most of the pilots shown there are much better than me.

My favorites so far:

Videos to Share

My friends who also relocated here to Switzerland had a quiet Christmas Eve dinner with their Swiss friends, and made a time-lapse video of the event. It was so clever, that I thought I would share it with you:

... Along with the unwrapping of christmas presents, also in time-lapse. I wish I was as creative as they are.

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