A Box with a Secret – See, Mom, Physics can be Fun!

Puzzle Box-1Beck wanted to build a locking box to keep safe the valuable things 9 year old boys collect (most of them are dead). A quick accounting revealed we had the required stuff:

Old cedar from a recently demolished closet… Check.

Tools… Check.

Can-do spirit… Check.

Twenty fingers… Check (I like to count them before and after. I find if you wait too long, it is harder to clean out the sticky pieces lodged in the machinery).

Instead of a typical box with a padlock, we went minimal. Aesthetically it’s just a box, nothing special, but what makes it cool is its locking mechanism. Everything is flush except for a single, solitary knob on top. The knob doesn’t appear to do anything. It doesn’t turn (much), or lift up, and cannot be pushed in any direction. While you can hear things sliding around inside the box, no matter what you do, opening it appears impossible. Unless you know the secret.

The secret is centrifugal force. You probably guessed that.

Puzzle Box-7

The box’s top is secured in place by six sliding pins (nails, actually). The box remains locked no matter how it is tilted because when some of the pins slide to the open position, others slide closed. In order to open the box, you must place it on a flat surface, knob on top, and spin it. Centrifugal force slides all of the pins to the outer edges of the box allowing the top to be lifted off.

Puzzle Box-3

Yet, even the wonders of physics won’t open the box unless you first orient the seemingly useless knob so a pin can slide through a slot under the knob, all the way out, when the box is spun. Nobody has ever figured out the secret on their own.

Here’s what the inside looks like (dead things not shown for clarity). It’s not elegant, but hey, it was our first try!

Puzzle Box-8

We didn’t build from plans because Beck likes to “Free-build,” or as I call it, “Wing-it and rebuild it ’til mom makes you practice piano.” Thankfully the box was simple and the mechanism easy to “wing.” Someday, though, I’ll chain Beck to his desk for 5 minutes of pre-planning work, just to teach him the “right way” to design. I’m not sure if the chains they use to anchor battleships are strong enough. Might need to add some super-glue and barbed wire, too.

Puzzle Box-9

210 Days Until Christmas. Just a Reminder, Robyn.

Carved Wood Snowman Christmas Ornament by Tim Bjella

Here’s one of the snowman ornaments I made sometime in year’s past. I can’t remember when. The premise of the design was that this unfortunate, little snowman was built on the top of a hill. Now it’s at the bottom. So sad. Let that be a lesson to you, kids.

For the coming Christmas, I made a very special snowman ornament for my wife, Robyn. It’s all wrapped up in a box waiting to be opened. Only 210 days to go (just thought you’d want a reminder, Robyn).

Carved Wood Snowman Christmas Ornament by Tim BjellaCarved Wood Snowman Christmas Ornament by Tim BjellaCarved Wood Snowman Christmas Ornament by Tim Bjella

Read the story of my snowman ornaments here.

Snowman Ornament 2016 – There has been a Sighting!

Snowman Ornament 2006 by Tim Bjella
Bit warm you say for a snowman sighting? Well, I’ve seen one. Made one, actually.

Woo hoo! This year’s snowman ornament is finished! Yep. It is now in a box awaiting a silent night for santa baby to slide it under O’ Tannenbaum in our winter wonderland. Sorry, Robyn, you will have to wait another 250 days to open it (I know, I know. I’m such a jerk. If I only had a nickle…).

And no, the ornament above is not it (obviously). That is a snow(wo)man I made in 2006, the year our son, Beck, spent time in Robyn’s tummy, so to speak. I’m an architect, Jim, not a doctor! You have to admit, the resemblance is uncanny (to both Robyn and Beck).

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that every year I make a snowman ornament for my wife, Robyn, thus avoiding the misery of setting foot in a mall to buy her a real gift. For those of you who don’t follow this blog, you now know, too (and shame on you for not following the blog – it has poetry for goodness sake!).

Snowman Ornament 2006 by Tim Bjella

The tradition now has the momentum of an orbiting planet. I often make more than one ornament a year (usually from the scraps and waste of the first one – it’s all about saving said planet), and our tree sags from the load of almost fifty of them. They seem to breed like rabbits.

I suggested to Robyn that we should strip the needles off our next tree to trim some weight and make more space (It’d be like a Charlie Brown Christmas!). We could spray paint the dead branches green, or maybe a pretty rainbow. Or, we could just hang only a few. Some would make excellent door stops. She wasn’t buying it. She’s so sentimental.

Made in conjunction with the 2006 snow(wo)man, the locket-type ornament below commemorates Beck’s birth, nine loooong months in the making (Beck, not the ornament). I think it was worth it (Beck, not the ornament).

Beck Bjella - Christmas 2007
Beck Bjella – Christmas 2007

Read the story of last year’s ornament here.

Skills for Life (or Twenty Years to Life)

Steel Mask Art by Tim Bjella Arteriors Architects

Robyn and Tim BjellaRobyn and I attended a welding class at the local art center – because you never know when you might need to weld some steel. It was between that or a course on CPR. I think we made the right choice. I can’t tell you how many times we have been out for a nice dinner and regretted leaving our welding torch at home. Worse, not knowing how to use it.

But now…

  • If an axle breaks on our way to the bank heist, we’re covered.
  • If we have the wrong combination to the safe, no problem. That steel doesn’t look all that tough.
  • If law enforcement finally catches up with us, an arc welder baked into a cake and we’re outta there.

With my newly acquired skulduggery skills, some spare time and extra loot, I welded the metal mask shown in the photo below (ski masks are just so passe). I’m not as skinny as I used to be, and it didn’t fit. That sad fact somehow lessened the blow when I accidently left it out in the rain after a big job (Robyn usually reminds me to bring in my toys). Well, it rusted. The only thing it’s good for now is covering up the bullet holes in the wall.

Steel Mask Closeup Detail by Tim Bjella Arteriors Architects

Masks and abstract faces have always fascinated me, and not just for their usefulness evading the law. I suspect it’s because I prefer art that’s relatable to people. People are interesting. Much pure abstract art isn’t (I’m thinking of you, Pollock). I also prefer art that requires skill and talent over shock and awe. Call me old fashioned. Now, where did I leave my Tommy gun?

Bathtub Surprise – Slow, but VERY Scary

Beck Bjella - Pinewood Derby Car - Bathtub Surprise 2016

Pinewood Derby 2016

As is our tradition, Team Bjella lost again, yet won again. Who would have thought it was possible to be less aerodynamic than last year’s car (for love of Pete, it was a crate! Literally, a crate.)? Well, Beck and I did it. So much for all those weeks spent in the wind tunnel testing, and testing, and testing. I guess we should have brought the car along with us and tested it, too. But, at least we got our cheeks to do that funny, warbly thing. And, our hair looks fantastic. Like Fabio. Except less.

Bathtub Surprise finished 18th out of 18, by a wide margin. Despite many creative suggestions from other parents (mass hypnosis, doctoring the video record, pulling the fire alarm, faking a heart attack), there was just no way to challenge the results.

I have a theory to explain the loss, however, one I think we can stick with: Bathtub Surprise wasn’t actually slow. It was SO scary that all the other cars drove crazy-fast to get away from it.

The Car:

The Construction:

The Race:

Beck Bjella - Pinewood Derby Race 2016
See the motion blur of Bathtub Surprise. That’s fast. Almost warp speed. Now, just imagine how fast the other cars were going to get out of its way!

Here’s a video of the final heat. You could smell the fear on the other cars as they ran away from Bathtub Surprise. Who could blame them. They probably hadn’t bathed since they were built.

So, there you go. Dead last in speed (participation trophy already in the trash), first for Best Design (real trophy on the shelf).

See prior years’ cars here.


In the old man’s footsteps… Snowman Ornament – 2015 – Part 2

Ahhhhhh. The sounds of power tools and small children!

One of Beck’s buddies, Andres, came over mid-December to play with him, so instead of Xbox (mostly because we don’t own one), we went into the shop to play with the power tools. Rather than launching projectiles off the belt sander or seeing how many sparks we could make with the grinder (like on a typical Saturday night), we decided to actually build something.

After the kids received a crash course in safety, had an impromptu meeting with my attorney, signed all the requisite forms, and were blessed by a priest, we powered up the drill press, band saw and lathe (thankfully, without any significant crashing, or bleeding). I’m still, sort of, nervously shaking. The doctor says it will pass in time.

Because of my apparent obsession with snowman ornaments, we decided to each make one. Beck started out working on the lathe. That’s his snowman below. His mom thinks it’s a Christmas tree, but he and I know it’s a snowman.

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

After that, he and Andres made a snowman like you see below.

But Beck wasn’t content to make a single ornament for mom, so he decided to make one for Grandma and Grandpa, too. Then another. Then another. Then… well, Henry Ford could have learned a thing or two from him. Beck went all out, or as he would say, “hard core” (yeah, we’re working on that). 18 total.

Beck Bjella Snowman Ornament 2015-6

When he finished, he was so excited that he wanted to give them the ornaments right away, before Christmas. A simple question, “Then what will you give them on Christmas day?” and, “I guess we could go to the mall shopping,” nipped that thought in the bud. Like father, like son.

“Time to learn gifting strategy, son. So, how best to give them to Grandma and Grandpa? Well, you could give it to them first thing on Christmas morning, or… you could use a little showmanship (or, in this case, snowmanship) to lower their expectations, then hit them with a sucker punch. But don’t actually hit them. Seriously. Don’t hit Grandma.” “That sounds good,” he said (anything to get back to playing Minecraft).

“So, here’s the plan: you wait until all of the other presents have been unwrapped, and just before you go off to play with yours, you tell Grandma, “Oh, I guess there’s one more. Sorry, I forgot, and it’s from me.” They will think that they weren’t getting a present from you. Then they will think that it will be just another ordinary one because you didn’t even remember it. Finally, when they open it, their jaws will drop!”

And that’s exactly how it went down (jaws and all). And, he didn’t hit Grandma.

Beck Bjella Snowman Ornament 2015-3

Beck Bjella Snowman Ornament 2015-5

See the 23rd year snowman ornament saga, part 1: Snowman Part 1

The Making of a Christmas Ornament

Here are a few pictures to give you an idea of what was involved in making this year’s minimal Christmas ornament (I say it’s a snowman, some say chicken, others penguin). My wife, Robyn, thinks these ornaments just appear by magic, or maybe elves (it is Christmas, after all), so this is really for her. See the rest of this year’s ornaments and read the story here: Snowman Ornament – Year 23 – Part 1

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

Snowman Ornament – 2015 – Part 1

For each of the past twenty-three years I crafted a Christmas ornament for my wife, Robyn. Because of this, for twenty-three years I haven’t had to go to the mall and buy her a REAL gift (I bet you guys wish you had thought of this scam)! 😉 Let me tell you, she’s been waiting a long, long time for that new vacuum cleaner.

I admit it, I also proposed to her on Valentine’s day and married her on an even decade (1990). One less anniversary to forget and an easy calculation to remember. So, there!

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2003

The ornament is always a snowman – small (about the size of an egg), artistic and at times a bit off the wall. Typically, I craft it from wood, but occasionally metal or clay. The one shown above is a Santa snowman from a prior year.

Sometimes the ornament is locket-like with a picture inside. Sometimes it commemorates an important event or zeitgeist of the past year. Sometimes it is imbued with symbolic meaning, and sometimes it is SO DEEP the significance even escapes me. 😉 No worries though, I can usually come up with some cogent nonsense, after the fact, about how the inherent symbiotic prose creates a duo didactic metaphor for the tacit and disparate struggle between paradigms. Got that?

Anyway, some are just fun and elicit smiles. Some still cause me to tear up – like the one I made from the beads of a favorite necklace my mother wore before her passing.

This year’s snowman is old-school once again. Robyn prefers the timeless, handcrafted wood ornaments. Yet, this one is an experiment in minimalism, as well. With it, I was determined to resolve, once and for all, the question always on everyone’s mind when the snow falls, and the cause of too many sleepless nights, “What is the very essence of a snowman? How much can one strip away from a snowman and still HAVE a snowman? Conversely, and more importantly, what is the LAZIEST you can be when building a snowman?” Apparently, very lazy. Hat. Eyes. Buttons. Scarf. All gone. Listen up kids! Yep, a single ball with a carrot is still a snowman! You will thank me when you are older for all the time you saved in your youth. Now, go back inside to your video games.

Some would call this ornament simplistic, but I think it is cool! The real question is, will Robyn like it?

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

The anticipation was palpable on Christmas morning when Robyn began opening the snowman-sized present (it’s sort of a Pavlovian response after so many years). She was probably mumbling under her breath, “What did he do THIS year? PLEASE let it be… normal. Please. Please. Please…”

Pulling the ornament out of the box, she looked at me with eyebrows raised as if to say, “You surely can do better than THIS. I’d rather have a vacuum cleaner.” Of course, she didn’t actually say that, but we all know she was thinking it. She wasn’t mollified at all when I explained that this is what Apple would do if they designed a snowman ornament. You love your iPhone, right? Instead she asked, “so, where’s the body?” Good thing I made more than one ornament for her this year.

When my son, Beck, handed her the second snowman-sized box to open, she was relieved that she was getting another. “Is this the body?,” she asked before ripping open the package. Obviously, I have not done a good job managing her expectations over the years.

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

Turns out it was the second in a series of minimal snowman, except this time with a conical-shaped body. Snowmen don’t need to have round bodies, right?

“It looks like a chicken,” she said.

I replied somewhat stoically, “After 23 years, I’m evolving beyond my snowmen phase, right past my blue phase, and into my chicken phase. Nothing says Christmas like chickens.”

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

She was excited, though, when she turned it over to see the family picture. She loves those. “Why is there a bow between us in the picture?, ” she asked. “Seems a bit festive for a minimalist chicken.” To which I explained, the photo was taken at Santa’s Workshop and, as luck would have it, there was a giant donkey’s ass (or is that an ass’s ass?) right between us, so I thought a pretty bow would cover it up nicely. I guess I should have chosen a better place to take the photo.

The third ornament got her smiling. “Aw, that’s so cute! It has a propeller hat. You replicated our entire family with snowmen ornaments this year! This one is Beck, the conical-shaped one is me in a dress, of course, and the first one, the simple, tubby, round one is you.” “Yours looks like a chicken,” I said. O.k., that conversation never really happened, but you know we were all thinking it.

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

I consider the fourth snowman in my minimal series an abject failure, being neither minimal nor well ornamented. It falls in between and lacks the conviction of either. I call this soft contemporary. I will speak no more about it.

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

Upon unwrapping the final snowman, Robyn said, “Now, this is more like it! I love it!” She didn’t know why, but she instinctively knew there was meaning behind this one. Or, at least it didn’t look like a chicken! I couldn’t hold the tears back as I explained its significance. It is quite personal for me. You see, our son Beck turned nine this year, and for the first eight years of his life he was a fixture on my shoulders. We went everywhere together that way. This snowman represents his passage from a child to a boy who is rapidly becoming a man. Not much longer will his dad be able to carry him or will he even want me to. It probably won’t happen until he turns thirty, but I got a head start on the ornament, anyway.

The ornament begins with Beck on my shoulders, then the top portion spins around to show us on our own… alas, forever. I will miss those days, dearly.

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

Tim Bjella - Snowman Ornament 2015

See some photos in progress here: The Making of a Christmas Ornament

Read part 2 here: Snowman Ornament – Year 23 – Part 2

Design Matters – Pinewood Derby

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2015 - 2

This was our third year competing in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Once again as expected, Team Bjella came in DEAD LAST. Apparently aerodynamics have some sort of effect on the outcome 😉 .

Even finishing last, we WERE the winners (especially Beck, king of the band saw, with all of his fingers still on the correct hands). Then again, so was every other team who spent time together building a car. You can’t put a price on that. This is one case where “we’re all winners” is actually true.

The derby has changed since its inception so many years ago. Every year the winning car is virtually identical to the past year’s winner. It is a 1/2 inch flat wedge with minimal wind resistance and optimal weight distribution. The wheels and axles are tuned using micrometers and possibly electron microscopes. The contest is an exercise in precision engineering. Gone are the days when kids competed against other kids with fun cars. Now the dads compete against other dads because the kids don’t have the skills, tools or patience to do such precision work themselves.

Beck is now nine. Each year we build a car together, with his contribution growing. This year he built about seventy percent of the car – cutting, drilling painting and gluing (we split the fun 50:50, though). Starting with our very first car, we decided to design and build fun cars, not fast cars, figuring the car will spend far more time displayed on Beck’s shelf than crossing a finish line. It ought to look cool! Neither of us wanted to spend endless, tedious hours tapering axles, calculating friction coefficients and refining performance characteristics (plus we didn’t have the security credentials necessary for access to the top secret derby workshops).

As a fringe benefit, I believe we have raised the bar for the troop. They have come to expect a cool car from Beck and now actively compete to beat his car. This year showed a noticeable effort by the other scouts to make fun cars. I think we have had an impact. Now the pressure is on to come up with a concept for next year!

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2015

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2014

The car above is our second year entry.

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2013

Bjella Pinewood Derby 2013-2

After competing in the Pinewood Derby for the first time (car shown above), I posted the following to Facebook:

It was Beck’s first Cub Scout pinewood derby last week. To my dismay, the first thing we saw upon entering the event was a table overflowing with a hundred trophies. Yep, everyone was going to be a winner! I consoled myself that at least we had finally reached the bottom and could sink no further in our societal goal of cheapening achievement.

But then, lo and behold, the announcer lifted his microphone and said: “Hey everyone, make sure you stop by the big box next to the door, it has leftover trophies from prior years, so if you want a few more just grab them on your way out.” If you thought a trophy couldn’t be worth less than zero, turns out you were wrong.

Explaining to a six-year old the meaning of competition, winning, and more importantly losing, was not as daunting as I had feared. A trophy is meaningless unless it is earned. Beck had fun even though his car came in dead last every heat. He was a little disappointed until he won the “Best Design” award, of which there was, thankfully, only one!

For me, the highlight of the day was when, as we were leaving, he asked, “Daddy, would please carry the trophy I EARNED?”