My Favorite Picture Books… Right Now

Julia's House for Lost Creatures. Image credit: First Second

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures. Image credit: First Second.

In the past, we used to pick our picture books willy-nilly at the library with the two kids in tow. Recently, I found out my library offers an online book-requesting service at no cost, so I can reserve titles and have them all bundled up and ready for me to pick up on my way home from work. Since my kids tend to pick books with little thought or care—though they love bedtime stories, they don’t seem to understand that time invested in a careful selection means better stories later on—pre-selecting the book myself has helped us hit a lot more “winners.” So, without further ado, here’s a list of my family’s favorite picture books right now.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by author-illustrator Ben Hatke (pictured above)

We were already fans of Hatke after reading the graphic novel series Zita the Spacegirl, and this picture book did not disappoint. Julia is new in town, but she doesn’t remain bored for long when she adds a sign to her house: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” Soon, all kinds of mythical creatures show up seeking shelter and chaos ensues. Good thing Julia’s got a few tricks up her sleeve.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. Image credit: Hachette Book Group

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. Image credit: Hachette Book Group.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by author-illustrator Dan Santat

Santat’s latest book made a big splash last week, after it was announced as a Caldecott Medalist. Beekle is the story of an imaginary friend who’s tired of waiting for his friend to imagine him, so he takes an adventure into the real world to find his friend all on his own. I just can’t decide which aspect of this book I like the best: the art or the story? The whole thing is adorable, right down to the close-up shot of Beekle’s square little bottom sitting in a tree.

Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great. Image credit: Disney-Hyperion

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Image credit: Disney-Hyperion.

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by author-illustrator Bob Shea

The title alone was enough to sell me on this book, plus there’s a unicorn, tons of cupcakes, and sparkles all over the book cover. That’s so much win just on the cover. The story is equally fun and silly. Goat is pretty jealous of Unicorn, the new kid in town. Now all of Goat’s tricks are nothing compared to what that stupid Unicorn can do. But fear not, Unicorn is one friendly dude who keeps it real, and he thinks Goat is pretty cool himself. What could these enemies accomplish if they become friends?

What Do You Do With An Idea? Image credit: Compendium Kids

What Do You Do With An Idea? Image credit: Compendium Kids.

What Do You Do With An Idea? written Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom

I love this book. I mean, I love this book. The art is fantastic, which is obviously a running thread along my favorite books. In this story, a child gets an idea, represented as an egg. The boy doesn’t know what to do with his idea: He tries to ignore it, people make fun of him for it, etc. As the story goes, the egg gets bigger and bigger and starts to color the sepia-toned world around it. It’s just beautiful. It’s a simple and admittedly abstract concept, and my 4-year-old finished the book in disbelief. “An idea can’t do that,” she said, sounding almost insulted. It opened up the floor to a great conversation about how even a small idea can have a big impact on the world. Slow clap, drops mic.

Discussing the Journey to Mars with StarTalk Live!

StarTalk Live! Photo credit: Ariane Coffin

StarTalk Live! Photo credit: Ariane Coffin

I’m a big fan of podcasts, and one of my favorites is StarTalk Radio with science communicator extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson. Along with a guest comedian co-host, Tyson interviews experts in the field of science. It’s always informational while still being very entertaining and mostly family-friendly. StarTalk Radio also produces live shows, a.k.a. StarTalk Live, usually in New York where Tyson is based. When I heard that StarTalk Live was coming near me in Los Angeles, I jumped on the occasion to attend!

I purchased my tickets the day they went on sale, begged my parents to mark their calendar for babysitting, and then waited patiently (uh-hum, yeah, “patiently”) for the event date to just arrive already. And last week, it finally did!

My husband and I dropped off the kids and drove to the Palace Theater in L.A. We arrived to see a long line wrapped around the block. We were wondering if the people were queued up for the same show we were attending. A quick glance at the folks in line revealed space shuttle shirts and black dresses covered in stars and nebulas. Oh yeah, this was our line, alright.

This particular show was hosted by Bill Nye (the science guy) and co-hosted by comedian Eugene Mirman. Completing the panel were guest comedian Tig Notaro and JPL scientists Dr. Suzanne Smrekar and Dr. Abigail Allwood. Smrekar and Allwood are working on two projects going to Mars, and that was the topic of the show. As CEO of the Planetary Society, Nye was well placed to orchestrate this fun and knowledgeable group.

Smekar is a geophysicist and the deputy principal investigator on the Mars InSight mission, which will launch its own spacecraft to Mars in 2016. The goal of the mission is to get the “vital signs” of Mars. As the InSight website explains, “By using sophisticated geophysical instruments, InSight will delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s ‘vital signs': Its ‘pulse’ (seismology), ‘temperature’ (heat flow probe), and ‘reflexes’ (precision tracking).”

Allwood is an astrobiologist working on Mars 2020. The goal of Mars 2020 is to send a rover to study the possible colonization of Mars in the future. The rover will be equipped with seven instruments, such as PIXL (an x-ray machine) to a MOXIE (a machine that will attempt to make oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the Martian air).

About the overall experience of the live show, there were only two things that left us a little bit disappointed. The first is that Tyson was not there. When I bought the tickets, I hadn’t noticed that his name wasn’t on the list of hosts. It’s his show, so I had just assumed he’d be there. It was only the day before the show that I reviewed the final details on our tickets and noticed Tyson’s name really wasn’t anywhere on there. I was a little disappointed, but the show still had a great cast so it was still very much worth our time!

The second thing was that the acoustics weren’t fantastic. We were sitting on the total left end of the 4th row, I’m not sure if that contributed to the muffled voices. It was hard to understand what the scientists were saying at times, but then again, they aren’t experienced performers. Mirman and Nye were both speaking louder and more clearly than the scientists who tended to talk with a little more reservation.

Nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience and a fun evening all around. I wouldn’t hesitate to attend another StarTalk Live if and when it comes around Southern California again.

The show we attended won’t be up to download as a podcast for a while—after all, StarTalk Radio is pretty busy after the recent announcement of its debut TV show on late night National Geographic Channel—but while you’re waiting for the podcast, you can get a little preview through @StarTalkRadio’s live tweeting at the event.

Daydreaming About Quitting Your Desk Job: What’s Your Plan B?

Another day at work. Flickr user philandpam, CC BY 2.0

Another day at work. Photo: Flickr user philandpam, CC BY 2.0.

My husband and I met in the Computer Science department in grad school. I was working on my master’s degree, him his PhD. When things got rough, we daydreamed of a more simple life. We’d buy a ranch somewhere quiet and raise alpacas. We started calling this daydream our plan B: What we’d do if this whole “technology” thing didn’t work out.

In our plan B, we’d work outdoors all day, with the sun warming our skins and our lungs full of fresh air. Our bodies would be active, and our brains free to ponder the meaning of life. We would certainly not be stuck in a poorly-lit, air-conditioned computer lab all day (and most nights), trying to find a particularly well-hidden bug or meet a short deadline.

Our grad school days are long gone, but as two employed programmers, our lives are not much different than they used to be as Computer Science students. We’re still stuck indoors. We’re still dealing with bugs and deadlines. Don’t get me wrong, we love what we do… most of the time. But every once in a while, when one of us has a really bad day, it’s comforting to know we can come home and laugh about being ready to switch to plan B.

I always thought my husband and I were just weirdos with strange ideas, but one day I brought it up at work when my team was facing some difficult problems. I joked that we should just give up and start an alpaca ranch. To my surprise, they didn’t think it was crazy. In fact, they already had plan Bs of their own. One of my coworkers said he always daydreamed of being a garbage truck driver, one a farmer, the last a barber. The common thread was obvious; we all had a romanticized blue-collar escape from our white-collar reality.

Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side. But it’s always nice to dream.

What about you, do you have a plan B?

Introducing the 2015 Summer Immersion Program at Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code website. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Girls Who Code website. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

The Girls Who Code non-profit organization is putting together its 7-week summer immersion program again in 2015, which combines classes, mentorships, and presentations to introduce junior and senior high school girls to Computer Science.

The project-based curriculum provides hands-on practice with software development in a university or company setting, where the girls can get exposed to Computer Science, its industry, and the female leaders thereof. Field trips include familiar names such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the list goes on.

The girls of last summer’s program reported having a greater sense of confidence, formed a support community for each other, and were more likely to consider pursuing a major in Computer Science in the future.

In addition to the summer immersion program, Girls Who Code also provides a network of clubs, lead by volunteer teachers and professors, assisted by volunteer college students and professionals, to instruct 40 hours of classes per year. These volunteers provide the (wo)man-hours while Girls Who Code provides the curriculum and training.

Why is this important? According to the Girls Who Code website, “in middle school, 74% of girls express interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), but when choosing a college major, just 0.3% of high school girls select computer science.” In the workplace, it translates to this: “In a room full of 25 engineers, only 3 will be women.” I don’t know if you’ve heard, but diversity tends to be a good thing.

Applications open soon, sign up online to be notified.

New Study Reveals Need for More Educational Apps

Toddler apps. Photo by Flick user Jenny Downing, CC BY 2.0

Toddler apps. Photo by Flickr user Jenny Downing, CC BY 2.0

A new study published in the prestigious science journal Spurious Science has shown that 105% of parents want more educational apps for teaching letters and numbers zero through ten.

The study comes at a critical time for the app market, with the number of educational apps at an all time low. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” exclaimed kindergarten teacher Miss Kristeenah. “How else are we going to teach the little children to count? Why won’t anyone think of the children?”

The study confirms a long-standing fear that success in life is directly proportional to the ability of a child to write all 26 letters by age three. “I was searching the app store for hours trying to find good apps to train my child’s brain. My son has a hard time focusing on a single task for extended periods of time,” said Lara Tellavo about her 3-year-old son, Seattle. “He just can’t sit still to practice writing all the letters. My friend Samantha, she said her niece’s neighbor, who is only two years old, can already read Eric Carle books. I think Seattle has A.D.H.D. We really need to work with him on that with a lot of apps.”

Another parent echoed a similar story. “We use one app that sings the alphabet, one to match letters in a puzzle, one to trace the letters, and another one for phonics. But our 4-year-old just wants to go play outside. We’re stumped about how to get Sophia to learn her letters, we need more apps.”

However, a few parents present at the press release were critical of the study. “Is a sample group of 17 kids really large enough?” inquired some buzzkill asshole. “Oh yes,” reassured lead scientist Dr. Feelgood, “small sample sizes are so much more cost effective and get the same results anyway. In this economy, it’s just the responsible thing to do.”

“Isn’t 105% impossible?” asked a woman with a toddler in tow. “Well, as a woman I’m sure you can understand that math is really hard,” said scientist Dr. Feelgood. “We crunched the numbers and somehow ended up with 105%. It didn’t feel right, but we tried to get the exact same calculations a second time and got the same results.”

Another parent questioned the necessity of make everything so damn educational. “What about making games that are just fun, with an entertaining story line and well-designed gameplay?” Dr. Feelgood was nonplussed. “Surely you can’t be serious. And what’s next? Kids’ movies without a moral about the value of friendship?”

Dr. Feelgood said the next step is to study if there’s a need for additional apps that teach colors in three languages. “With the ability to translate blue-bleu-azul linked to a boost in IQ by more than 2.5 points on average, that’s really the question on everyone’s mind right now.”

New Year Resolution vs. New Year Mantra

New Year resolutions. Flickr user chrish_99, CC BY 2.0

New Year resolutions. Flickr user chrish_99, CC BY 2.0

It’s that time of the year when people everywhere are looking down at their love handles and solemnly vow to get fit in the year to come. I’ve done a variety of new year resolutions in the past, with an equally varied degree of success, but last year I decided to try something new. Rather than making a resolution, I would assign my new year a word. A mantra. Rather than define success as a goal, success would be my journey.

My word was: Opportunity.

You see, we welcomed our second child in November 2013 so by the time 2014 rolled around, I had a very colicky newborn to deal with while learning how to handle two kids on zero sleep, with my return back to work imminent. At that moment I realized that, if I let it, being a mother of two could consume me entirely. My goals, my interests, my hobbies… They could all be replaced with endless “there’s no time,” “I’ll get to it tomorrow,” and “I’m tired so let’s watch TV tonight.”

I decided that, rather than simply survive motherhood, I would rock motherhood. I would grab every opportunity given to me, no excuses. I would say yes more often, I would break the walls of my comfort zone, I would put myself out there, I would make time to accomplish the kind of things we never have time for—without sacrificing time with my kids.

I’ve been keeping a list and, now that 2014 is coming to a close, here’s what “opportunities” I accomplished this year:

Joined a mommy & me group: I’m a shy introvert through and through, but I’m trying to break the habit. Baby steps!

Learn the ukulele: I am a saxophone player, but I don’t have time to set it up and practice with the kids running around. On a whim I decided to try the ukulele. It has been a very fun instrument that I can pick up whenever I have a free minute.

Join a (public!) ukulele lunch group: I found out my office has a group of ukulele players who practice together weekly in front of the main building during lunch—where everyone going out to lunch can see and hear them play! This is taking me out of my comfort zone in so many ways, but I’m enjoying it anyway.

Attend a class to make balloon sculptures: Someone at work was teaching a class on how to make balloon animals. Why not add this to my list of useless life skills! Also, I am now my daughter’s balloon sculpting hero.

Submit a proposal to write a chapter for a book: In an Ada Lovelace Day newsletter, they mentioned that they were looking for writers to write a chapter about a woman in STEM for an anthology. My proposal was accepted! Writing my chapter took so much self-discipline to make it happen on top of all my other jobs and projects, but I made it happen!

Lose the baby weight: Okay, so perhaps the word for my year should have been self-discipline. Again, finding the time to work out wasn’t easy, but I made it happen. Lost all 40+ lbs!

Take a hip hop dancing class: On topic with losing the baby weight, I was looking around town for a workout class that ran after 9 pm so I could attend after the kids were in bed, since I didn’t want to sacrifice my time with them. I found a hip hop class at the nearby university. I had always been curious about how well I’d do; no time like the present to find out! Yes, I was 10 years older than anyone else in the class. No, I did not do well. But it was fun to try and it kicked my butt into shape!

Made myself a professional writer website and business cards: I’ve been wanting to push my writing career to the next level, but publishers don’t just magically find writers and beg them to come write a book for them. So I made myself a professional website using Squarespace and business cards using Moo.com. Now I’m ready for networking my way into more opportunities!

Signed up to be a member of a children’s book writer group: One of my dreams, from reading so many children’s books to my daughters, is to write children’s books of my own. My stories could teach programming principles, or showcase awesome scientists! Once again, the first step isn’t to wait for someone to knock at your door. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as a place to learn how to get started in this business.

Tried an oyster for the first time: Not all opportunities have to be daunting. Some can be quite simple! I had never had an oyster, the opportunity just never arose. Then I went out for a girls’ night out with some friends and some of the girls ordered oysters so I did too. I’m like a real adult now.

Wore a skirt to work for the first time: I know, weird, right? I had never worn a skirt to work, and I’ve been at my company for over eight years! I don’t like to wear skirts, but I had to do it at least once, just on principle.

Tried stand-up paddle boarding: I live in a beach town, so I’ve seen people paddle boarding quite a bit. I was curious to try it. When I found a friend was also itching to try it, we made it happen together. No excuses! And it was so much fun.

Attend a writer’s day: The SCBWI was throwing a writer’s day, so I took a Saturday off mommy duty to attend. I learned a lot!

Joined two critique groups for children’s book writers: Because paying a fee to join a society and attending a one-day seminar isn’t enough to make you a children’s book writer, I actually had to sit down and start writing. I figured joining some critique groups would give me a reason to commit the time to writing rather than push it off to the next day. And the next day. And the next day. Accountability rocks!

Submit a proposal to write an article for a children’s magazine: I’ve been told it’s a great way to get some experience in the business, so let’s try it! Proposal status pending, wish me luck.

I had so much fun trying a lot of new things in 2014, and I feel immensely satisfied with the work I’ve done for my writing career. I sacrificed a little sleep to make it all happen—like how I’m writing this at nearly midnight—I also got a house keeper and gardener to liberate some of my time, but mostly I sacrificed TV time. It was tempting to turn to wine and TV when I felt tired—so, like, every night—but self-discipline feels a whole lot better in the long run. Yay for getting things done!

Now that I’m in the habit of saying yes to new opportunities, I’m not going to stop just because the year is coming to an end. I will always cherish new opportunities—to a fault, really—but it’s also time to other things to my field of vision. Since “opportunity” often had me planning for the future, I decided 2015 should be about looking a little more at my past. My word for 2015 will be “roots.” I’ll update you on that next year! In the mean time, what is your resolution or mantra for 2015?

A Thermal Camera for Your Mobile Devices

See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.

See heat in the dark with the Seek thermal camera for smartphones. Image credit: Seek Thermal.

Thermal cameras are, by and large, prohibitively expensive for the average Joe. However, there is a new product which caters to the mostly untapped consumer market. Here’s the Seek thermal camera, an add-on for your smartphone.

Seek thermal camera. Image credit:

Seek thermal camera. Image credit:

The uses for a thermal camera attachment on your smartphone are amazingly varied:

  • Finding your pet in the yard after sunset: I have a neighbor who stands outside tapping on a can of food with a fork for 20 minutes every evening, trying to call his cat inside for the night. I bet he could use a thermal camera. I bet I could use him using a thermal camera.
  • Scanning a dark, empty parking lot or park for perps: If you find yourself walking through an empty public space in the dark on a regular basis, as I often did walking through campus at 3 am during grad school, a thermal camera—and a can of Mace—could bring you some peace of mind.
  • Scanning your yard for animals before taking out the trash: For those of you who keep posting bear videos on Facebook. Don’t let them surprise you!
  • Find drafts and leaks in your home: Comes in handy for slew of home improvement projects.
  • Scanning your kids while they sleep: I always wondered if my little ones are too hot or too cold at night. Am I underdressing them? Overdressing them? Are their feet too cold? Will they wake up if I try to feel them? (The answer to the latter is always yes.) While surface temperature is not true body temperature and a thermal camera will never replace a thermometer, having a thermal camera is a little bit like gaining a mom superpower.
  • Find boats or people overboard at night: If you’re a boat person.
  • Night tag: Okay, so perhaps this application alone doesn’t validate the price tag, but let’s call it a perk!

The Seek thermal camera uses a 12 micron sensor and produces a 32,136 pixel image that is 206 pixels by 156 pixels. Each pixel represents a temperature measurement—anything from -40 to 330 degrees Celsius can be accurately measured to a fraction of a degree, according to their specs—and the color scheme of the image is customizable in the app.

The app offers a gamut of settings and tools, but there is also a development kit available for programmers so you can hope for more apps using Seek in the future. Those apps could offer specialized tools for certain uses, or I can imagine really cool games that could make use of this 6th sense.

The hardest part about using this gadget is actually having it with you when you need it. It’s not likely you’d keep it on your phone all the time, so how do you keep it on your person in case you find yourself in a dark parking lot? The camera comes with a hardy plastic case that’s perfect for throwing into a purse or bag. The case also has a metal ring, presumably to add to a keychain like I tried, but the whole thing ended up making my key set way too bulky for my need. If you know you’ll only use it for a single purpose, like checking the yard for wild animals before letting your dog out at night, you could also give the camera a permanent home near the door. You’ll definitely want to decide where you’ll be storing it, though, or else suffer the consequences: Where is that darn camera? Yes, I have already lost it multiple times.

Another inconvenience that I experienced was that the camera didn’t fit with my phone case. So every time I wanted to use the camera, I had to take my case off and put it back on again after. My husband didn’t have this problem; the Seek fit on his iPhone 6 Plus with the Apple silicon case. Mine was an iPhone 5 with a Speck wallet case.

Minor inconveniences aside, the Seek can be a great toy for the gadget lovers or a very practical tool if you have a need for it. You can always find additional uses for it once you have it, but it’s much easier to validate the purchase if it solves a frequent problem in your life too.

Seek is available for Android and iPhone and retails at $199.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

One GeekMom’s Impression of Hello Kitty Con 2014

Hello Kitty Con. Image: Sanrio

Hello Kitty Con. Image: Sanrio

On Saturday, November 1st, I attended Hello Kitty Con 2014! I went in with high hopes and left with mixed feelings.

Had the con had about 50% less attendees, I would have raved about it. The way it worked out, at least for myself and my 4-year-old on a Saturday—usually the busiest day of a long weekend con—we basically left as soon as we got in the con. Here’s how our day rolled out.

I had heard from people attending on previous days that I should get there early. Like early. And while it could have been a good idea to show up two hours early to wait in line for the con to open at 10 am, it wasn’t an option considering we live a solid 2-hour drive away. Moreover, the con warned extensively about the lack of parking in the area so I had decided to park at the subway station in Universal City and ride to Little Tokyo via the Metro, which just added more time to our trip. In the end, despite leaving at 7:30 am, we didn’t arrive until 10 am. By then, the line to get into the con show floor wrapped around the city block.

Thankfully, I had done some smart planning. I had purchased tickets to a Hello Kitty bento box workshop for 11 am. The various workshops and panels were located in different buildings outside of the con, so I didn’t need to wait in line for those. I got my badge and waltzed right in to the Japanese American National Museum, where my workshop was held. We had some 40 minutes to kill before the class started, so I asked a museum employee what I could do while I waited. She pointed out that their new exhibit, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, was free for con attendees. Not only that, it was also crowd-free! My daughter and I walked around looking at the plethora of Hello Kitty items on display, deciding which we’d like to own. They had Hello Kitty household items, Hello Kitty fashion apparel, Hello Kitty-inspired art, the list goes on.

Finally, it was time for our bento box workshop. In retrospect, this was the highlight of our day and I wish I had signed us up for more workshops. My 4-year-old was a little impatient while the instructor, Nikki Gilbert of Sushi Girl, gave a demonstration on how to make a sushi roll, nigiri, and Hello Kitty-shaped rice balls, but she came around when came our turn to get our hands dirty.

All materials were included in the price of the tickets for the workshop (only $10/person), and we each got a Hello Kitty bento box container and all the food needed to make the creations we were being taught. My daughter really got excited when she realized we’d actually get to take our boxes with us in the end, and, in our case, perfectly timed for lunch. We walked out of the class with our boxes and were stopped no less than five times by people asking if we had been to the class and could they please see inside our boxes. We settled down to eat outside, on the steps in front of the museum, and again people were stopping to point and gawk at our Hello Kitty rice balls. I was wishing I had a better product to show off… But sticky rice is super tricky! In any case, it was super tasty.

After our lunch, I wanted to tackle the con itself. Thankfully the line looked much more manageable than it had on our arrival, but it still took us a good 30 minutes to get in. Once we did, I almost regretted it immediately. It was so packed. I was hoping to get a con t-shirt and my daughter really wanted a Hello Kitty toy so we headed to the con shop, just to find out the line was—wait for it—4 hours long. No joke. FOUR HOURS. For an opportunity to spend my money! No thanks.

We walked about the “super supermarket” instead, where partners were selling their own Hello Kitty-themed items. Sephora, Megablocks, etc. It seemed like a good alternative to waiting in line for the official con shop, but again it was packed and meh, my daughter was getting the gimmies and I was thinking I could buy the same stuff  (or similar) outside the con for much less money. I asked my daughter what she wanted to do and she wanted out; my own feelings weren’t too far off from hers at that point. So out we went, defeated.

At this point, had I been alone, I would have stuck around to attend some of the panels, but no chance of that happening with a tired 4-year-old who’s used up all of her patience while waiting in lines. I gave up on Hello Kitty Con and headed to Little Tokyo, where we shopped the Sanrio store (no lines!) and grabbed mochi balls before heading back home.

If Hello Kitty Con goes on to become an annual thing, I’d still be interested to attend again next year, but I’d plan my time differently. I’d attend more workshops and panels, and perhaps avoid the show floor all together—although I hope they’ll find a better way to manage the crowds and the merchandise by then.

I’d even say that the exhibit at the museum was better than the con’s own show floor, or at least from what I could see, so if you didn’t manage to grab tickets for the con then it’s not too late to check out the museum. The Hello Kitty exhibit is open until April 26th, 2015.

How Popular Programming Languages Got Their Names

Zenith Z-19 Terminal. Photo credit: Flick user ajmexico, CC BY 2.0

Zenith Z-19 Terminal. Photo credit: Flick user ajmexico, CC BY 2.0.

Ever wondered why C++ ended up with two pluses instead of one? And why was C even named C? Did the creators of Java have a particular fixation with coffee? Does Python have anything to do with snakes? I was curious myself, so I dug around their history and found a few interesting stories. Read on to find out more! It’s perfect fodder for your next party!

Lisp (1958)

Lisp has absolutely nothing do to with a speech impediment; it actually stands for List Processing. It was created in 1958 by John McCarthy, making it the second-oldest high-level language, right on FORTRAN’s tail. I’ve had friends in grad school who were big Lisp fans and users, so it might be falling out of style—but it’s not yet dead! The joke is that Lisp stands for Lost In Stupid Parentheses, after the language’s parentheses-heavy syntax, but at least it’s not really the case.

C (1969)
Created by Dennis Ritchie at AT&T Bell Labs, C was actually named C because it was the successor of—can you guess?—B! B’s origin is less certain. It could be a shortened version of its predecessor, BCPL, or another unrelated programming language, Bon.

C++ (1979)
C had been the popular language, but PhD student Bjarne Stroustrup saw a lot of potential into bringing object-oriented programming to C. Thus was born a new language called, quite descriptively, “C with Classes.” I’m not sure why Stroustrup ended up changing the name. Maybe someone pointed out to him that C with Classes was a terrible brand name, but changed it he did. He picked C++, with ++ being the syntax in C to increment a variable. Nope, there was no mediocre or abandoned C+ that came in between C and C++.

Perl (1987)

Though some say Perl stands for “Practical Extraction and Reporting Language,” that’s actually a backronym. Perl’s developer, Larry Wall, was simply looking for a short, positive name. It’s nothing more complicated than that. He had chosen Pearl, but it turned out there was already a (less successful) Pearl programming language, so Wall changed it to a more unique Perl.

Python (1989)

The developer responsible for Python is Guido van Rossum, who has remained so active in the development of Python and its tightly-knit community that he is now nicknamed “Benevolent Dictator for Life.” As for Python, it was named not after the snake, but after Monty Python. Van Rossum had been reading the script for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the time he was also looking for a name for his new language. He wanted something “short, unique, and slightly mysterious.” Python fit the bill.

Java (1990)
The Sun Microsystems team originally responsible for Java started working on a C++ alternative out of frustration against C++’s lack of automated garbage collection (the purging of system memory usage by the program). The project started out as the Stealth Project, then was renamed to the Green Project. Finally, the project earned an unofficial product name of Oak. Unfortunately, once Oak was ready for prime time, Sun’s legal team ixnayed the name; Oak was already trademarked by a company called Oak Technology. So the Oak team had a very long brainstorming session, throwing out every word they could think of, trying to find a name that would convey Java’s dynamic nature. A short list made it back to the legal team, who approved of Silk (as in web, get it?), DNA (I don’t get it), and Java. They ummed and ahhed as a group until Kim made the executive decision to pick Java just so they could finally move on and get back to work! The rest was history.

*Note: Dates are the origin of the projects, not the official release dates.

You Are Here: A New Book From Astronaut Chris Hadfield

You Are Here by Chris Hadfield. Image credit: Little, Brown and Company.

You Are Here by Chris Hadfield. Image credit: Little, Brown and Company.

I’m assuming that GeekMom’s readers already know about astronaut Chris Hadfield. If you don’t, you really should! As aforementioned, he is an astronaut, but his name to fame with the population at large is probably the countless viral photographs and videos he’s shared from his multiple trips to the International Space Station. Now Hadfield has a brand new photography book out, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

Page sample from You Are Here by Chris Hadfield.

Page sample from You Are Here by Chris Hadfield. Photo of book taken by Ariane Coffin.

The ISS completes an orbit around our planet every 92 minutes, hence the title of this book. Split up by continent, the book travels around the world with photographs taken by Hadfield from the ISS. These are brand new pictures, not the same ones you might have already seen on Twitter. Hadfield himself cherry-picked some 150 photos out of the many thousands he took from space. In an interview with podcast Probably Science (explicit), Hadfield explained he picked the photos he thought told a story about our world. From down here on the surface, it’s so easy to lose perspective and feel no connection to someone half-way across the globe. However, when you see a view of Earth as a single entity from your space station, it becomes so much more obvious that we’re all sharing one world. We’re all in this together, and that’s the story Hadfield wanted to share.

Commentary by Hadfield complements the images. All photos or group of photos get an accompanying paragraph containing an explanation of what you’re seeing, along with an interesting tidbit to go with it—something about the geography of the area, and perhaps how it was formed. Some of the comments are serious, some are silly, some lean on the philosophical. For example, from the book:

“A big gush of orange or pink in the ocean is almost always a sign that something has changed dramatically upstream. In Madagascar, it’s evidence of extensive deforestation: large swaths have been cut through the rainforests and coastal mangroves. Now when it rains, there’s nothing to stop red topsoil from tumbling into rivers like the Tsiribihina on the island’s west coast, dyeing them an improbably shade of coral and clogging their mouths with sediment.”

The book is incredibly well designed, with a visually interesting mix of typography and layouts. The pages are thick quality paper, featuring many full bleed single-page and two-page spread photos. It is sure to capture the attention of adults and kids, and evoke a sense of wonder about our beautiful but slightly banged up rock we call home.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Now With More Quizzes

Mrs. Virginia Davis, a riveter in the assembly and repair department of the Naval air base. Photo credit: The Library of Congress on Flickr

Mrs. Virginia Davis, a riveter in the assembly and repair department of the Naval air base. Photo credit: The Library of Congress on Flickr

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone! Ada Lovelace, if you don’t know about her already, is generally considered to be the first computer programmer. This fact is surprising because she lived in the mid-1800s. So, you know, way before computers. How is this possible? She was a mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage. Babbage had devised a plan for a mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine, which unfortunately remained theoretical due to financial reasons amongst other things. Lovelace, in turn, designed some algorithms that could run on Babbage’s theoretical machine, making her the first computer programmer, theoretically! She has a really cool history, which GeekMom Jenny discusses in the GeekMom Book.

In honor of today’s leading lady, I built a fun quiz about some important discoveries and inventions. Can you correctly guess which were made by women, and which were not? Take the quiz and find out!

A New Remote-Controlled Robot Kit From Thames & Kosmos

I was shopping Amazon’s back to school specials a couple of months ago and found a good deal on Thames & Kosmos Electricity & Magnetism, an experiment kit with block-like circuitry bits you can snap together. It looked like fun so I bought it, not really knowing exactly how interested my 4-year-old would be. The daughter of nerds loved it, shocker. She was so ridiculously excited about building her very own circuit and we were amazed at the amount of focus and effort she put into this toy—a rare occurrence, believe you me. So I was pretty excited to see if we could repeat the same success with one of Thames & Kosmos’ newest items, the Remote-Control Machines DLX.

Robo-Beetle. Photo credit: Thomas & Kosmos.

Robo-Beetle. Photo credit: Thomas & Kosmos.

The Remote-Control Machines DLX is a set of building blocks to construct remote-controlled robots. Included in the box are one IR remote control, one battery box with receiver, three motors, and a variety of frames, rods, gears, wheels, connectors, and other odds and ends for a total of 212 pieces. Also included is a thick manual which contains the instructions to build 20 different models, split into these categories:

The Robotic Arm—Model to make a robotic arm.

Can Robots Push and Crawl?—Five models, from bulldozer for pushing to animal-inspired crawlers.

Robots for Transport—Think of transport in terms of weight lifting rather than distance on this one. Five models for moving loads, such as a fork lift and elevator.

Driving Robots—Here are the distance transportation vehicles. Four models consisting on variations of cars and trucks.

Goooooal!—One model to stage a robotic soccer game.

A Look into the Future—Four models which explore air and space.

The DLX kit is a revamped version of their popular Remote-Control Machines kit which was well received, judging by the Amazon reviews. The previous model consisted of 182 pieces and the instructions on how to build ten models, whereas the DLX version contains 212 pieces and the instructions to build 20 models.

So was it a success? Did it win my 4-year-old’s fleeting attention span? I’d say yes. She is definitively too young to sit through an entire model build, so I started off by building one of the models by myself at night. The next morning, she was excited to find our new robot. The remote control was a great draw, compared to other robotics kit we’ve tried that only used an on-off switch. After the fun of controlling the robots started to wane, she started to explore how she could modify it. After a few iterations, she painstakingly pulled it apart back into its bare pieces. I thought was interesting that she stopped playing with it, not when it stopped working as a remote-controlled toy but when she could see every piece laid down on the ground. Pretty cool.

I should also emphasize that my daughter is half the age of the suggested age group, the set is labeled as 8+. I think an older child would get more play time out of the toy, being able to follow instructions and build the models from scratch themselves, but it doesn’t preclude smaller kids from enjoying it as well, with adequate safety precautions taken to avoid choking on the pieces of course.

The obvious question is how it compares against Legos. We have a big box of Lego bricks at home and it’s definitively a different building experience. It is interesting to think in terms of the pegs and holes design of Thames & Kosmos versus the interlocking bricks design of Lego. I wouldn’t say one design is better or worse from a casual user perspective, but the variety has been fun just to get that extra challenge of spatially planning things a little differently.

While the Thames & Kosmos building sets are obviously not compatible with your existing Lego brick collection, the Thames & Kosmos sets are compatible with each other. This includes construction kits, physics kits, the wind power kit, and the hydropower kit. The Thames & Kosmos Remote-Control Machines DLX is currently priced at $110.47 on Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

11 Things Only Parents of Girls Will Understand

Girl, and Perfectly Dirty. Photo credit: Ariane Coffin.

Girl, and Perfectly Dirty. Photo credit: Ariane Coffin.

One GeekMom shared with me this wonderful article in the Huffington Post, 11 Things Only Parents of Boys Will Understand.

First of all, let me say I think the title is great! If the author had titled it “11 Things Parents of Boys Will Understand,” then that might have left some ambiguity that parents of girls could potentially understand some of these points. That extra “only” really drives the point home, parents of girls can not, could never understand what it’s like for their child to love Star Wars or ruin her clothes. Bravo, bravo. {Slow clap} Well done.

Inspired by that stroke of genius, I decided that, as a mother of two girls, I should write a list of all the fantastic things about stereotyping genders raising girls! Without further ado, let’s get fallacied.

1. Barbie is akin to a religion. It’s a universal truth, all girls love Barbie! And, of course, only parents of girls could possibly understand this because 100% of boys hate dolls. I know this is true because I’ve seen a boy in a park once and he didn’t like dolls, ergo all boys hate dolls. Extrapolating data is awesome!

2. Girls give the shittiest hugs. Girls always have a hidden agenda. If your daughter gives you an unsolicited hug, question it. Post haste! She either did something wrong or she wants something from you, you just need to figured out which.

3. Girls don’t fart. Which also leads to another excellent point—girls are not funny.

4. Girls always listen. It’s a fabulous blessing to have girls because they are fantastic listeners. Girls have evolved great listening skills, first of all because they talk so much, and also to better serve their husbands. It’s been proven in that one study by that one person, you know, the study. There’s been a study so it’s totally true. I don’t feel the need to include any link to it, because it’s so true it might as well be called an axiom.

Bonus: Great listening leads to better obedience skills, training your new girl should be a breeze.

5. Everything will be covered in glitter. Seriously. Everything. All girls things come covered in glitter. When girls sweat, it is infused with glitter. Glitter will be on all your furniture, on your face, on every item of clothing that enters your house, and your family will leave a trail of glitter wherever you go. On the other hand, it is illegal for boys to use glitter in any respectable preschool so parents of boys couldn’t possibly understand this.

6. All pink, all the time. Girls see pink and their ovaries cry out “I must have it!” in unison. No other color exists. Period.

7. Girls are so clean, you could practically eat off their toilet seats. Because they lack a penis with which to miss aim, girls have impeccable bathrooms. Little girls take great time and effort to perfectly roll up appropriately-sized pads of toilet paper with which to wipe their bottoms, and they will wipe with equal care. You know what you will never find in your daughters’ bathrooms? An un-flushed toilet with giant mounds of toilet paper in it, poop streaks on the toilet seat, and more dirty mounds of toilet paper… On. The. Freaking. Floor.

8. Girls are poised. Thank goodness parents of girls don’t have to worry about things like rough-housing, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about how to handle that! Girls say “yes, please” and “no, thank you,” unlike boys who will belch in your face while ripping the flesh off their fresh-killed dinner with their teeth. Did you know boys climb rocks and play in *gags a little* mud? Oh my goodness precious.

9. My Little Pony or Strawberry Shortcake. It will be one or the other. There is absolutely not a frozen snowball’s chance in hell that a girl would not like either of those. There’s also no chance that she would like both, that’s crazy-pants. Choose now, and choose wisely, because there will be a quiz. Be wary of self-proclaimed “bronies,” they are boys who like My Little Pony and will surely grow up to become sexual predators who roofies girls at high school parties.

10. There’s nothing worse than nudity. You know what my girls hate? Being naked. They despise the liberating feeling of running around bare-bottom in the backyard. It’s a huge problem, really, because shopping for girls is so complicated, what with the corsets and all those different types of bustles!

Thank goodness girls keep their clothes immaculate with all that poised sitting around, that way I don’t have to shop for their various accoutrements so often. How outrageous this world would be if little girls came home with grass stains on their knees, or holes in their clothes! Not at the price I’m paying for that beautiful pink lace dress, little girl! Now go back inside to your lady-like hobbies, where you belong.

11. Girls are back-stabbing bitches. Oh my goodness, you guys, I have to break character here. I can’t even come up with worse bullshit than this author’s come up with herself for number 11 “Boys love unconditionally.”

I can’t build up on it, it’s top level crap. She writes, I kid you not, the following: “When your little girl stomps her foot and tells you to leave her alone, your son simply loves you. When your tween daughter is sullen and sulky and hates you, your son simply loves you. When you teenage daughter gives you the silent treatment, your son simply loves you.” Yes, because if there’s anything parents of boys have told me it’s that their kids never ask them to leave them alone! And I was all like “whoa, I had no idea only girls could be brats!”

It’s so true, you guys.

If you’re all as fed up with these stereotypes as I am, here are 11 things only parents of real children will understand.

1. Anything your children love will be akin to religion.

2. Being grateful for the privileges your child will have as a first-world citizen. 

3. Children give the best hugs.

4. Farts are funny. If you’re three years old.

5. Being a parent is dirty work.

6. Anything can, and will, become a toy.

7. Children are physical.

8. Human beings (of any age) don’t listen.

9. Marvel versus DC. Luckily you never have to pick.

10. Every child is unique.

11. Children love unconditionally.