Neil's News

Thao in Kingston

2 August 2014

This summer my wife and I brought our niece Thao over from Vietnam to spend a couple of months in Canada. It was an educational trip for everyone, and a ton of fun too.

Thao arrived in Toronto after eighteen hours of flying; one third the circumference of the planet.

A day trip to Niagara Falls. Across the river she could see the United States. Last summer we had tried to bring Thao to the US, but her tourist visa was denied, resulting in a hastily organised trip to Canada instead. This summer we gave up on the US and focused on giving her a great experience in Canada.

Statue of Tesla at Niagara Falls. Thao had heard about Thomas Edison, but had not heard of Nikola Tesla. This was quickly remedied.

First time bowling, she's quite good at it. Thao's English improved greatly during the trip, but remains an adventure. One phrase that stuck in my head was "I am amazing that the pins fell down." What she meant was "I am amazed that the pins fell down." But strictly speaking what she said is more logical: "I am" is present tense while "amazed" seems like past tense, which is confusing. English is weird.

We walked into a fire station in Kingston and they gave her the tour. Every kid needs to sit in a fire truck at least once.

After watching a performance by Kingston's Rob Roy Pipe Band and Highland Dancers, Thao wanted to try. I hadn't done the sword dance in 28 years, but my feet still knew what to do. Thao has a great memory and picked it up in a few minutes.

Learning to strip wires and to solder. Built a Useless Box, a robot, and microcontroller. No fried components. No burnt fingers.

Designing and building a decoder for a 7-segment display. Four CMOS gates: and, or, not, buffer. By flipping the position of two wires, the display would light up as a 0, 1, 2, or 3. Once Thao got a firm grasp of digital logic, we moved on to similar challenges using an Ardiuno microcontroller.

The main reason I chose Kingston as the place to spend most of our time was that it was small enough to be entirely accessible by bicycle, yet big enough to have a Radio Shack (or "The Source" as they got renamed in Canada) for acquiring electrical components. Shockingly, these stores no longer sell any discrete components. The clerk sighed and stated that "they only want us to sell phones now". We had to be very careful not to accidentally blow any of the components I brought with me from California.

Taking Thao's two-wheeled robot for its first test drive. This version used two push buttons, one for each motor. The subsequent version used a pair of DTDP center-off switches than allowed for motion in eight directions.

Cooking an eel that was bought by mistake. Thao managed to turn it into something quite delicious, though it did have an awful lot of bones.

Fireworks on Canada Day (Dominion Day for us old folk).

A recurring pattern was that Thao would draw a blank on virtually any historical topic. It seems that in Vietnam, history begins circa 1954 with the rise of the communist party. Anything earlier is a footnote at best. In particular, Thao shocked me when I realised she'd never heard of the Holocaust. Accordingly, we observed a Bat Mitzvah at a local synagogue, then watched Schindler's List.

Collecting eggs from a roost of angry chickens. Thao also got to milk a cow at Upper Canada Village.

Driving an all-terrain vehicle up a steep hill.

Cycle trip across Wolfe Island. Cycling with Thao could at times be terrifying. Vietnam's traffic is wild, and Thao saw nothing wrong with making left-hand turns on red and merging with cross traffic. It took some time, but she adapted and broke progressively fewer laws each day.

First time horseback riding. Sorry for the Vertical Video, I was riding the horse in front, and shot the video behind my back in the blind.

Thao and I built a bench in a tree. I managed to fall out of said tree once.

Kayaking on calm waters. Thao also discovered a passion for swimming, becoming quite proficient in a short span.

Crossing a bridge that Thao helped erect. We later attempted to build a dam on the same creek, but failed miserably at making it watertight. Comparing our dam with an upstream beaver dam brought increased appreciation for what those industrious rodents are capable of.

Learning to program in Processing at the Virtual Ventures summer camp. Thao had not programmed before this trip, but she has a really solid background in math. I had an annoying trigonometry problem that Thao solved effortlessly, and the resulting solution got checked into Google's codebase.

After a wonderful two months, Thao made her way to Toronto on her own and flew back to Vietnam. Quynh and I watched online as her flight dodged a thunderstorm on the way out. We are incredibly proud of our niece. She truly is amazing.

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