My Favorite Picture Books Right Now: September 2015

My 5-year-old and I haven’t shared our favorite picture books in a while for two reasons. First, we’ve ventured into the world of chapter books with Zach Weinersmith’s Augie and the Green Knight. The second is that we’ve been working our way through DK’s lengthy History Year by Year reference book produced by the Smithsonian Institution. More on those two at the end.

Nevertheless, I’m glad to finally have a few wonderful library finds, a few Kickstarter success stories, and some not-quite-picture-book books that cover the gamut of history, science, programming, and a little bit of humor.

Continue reading My Favorite Picture Books Right Now: September 2015

‘Doctor Who’ Season 8 Is Now Available on Netflix… And Really Awesome

Image credit: BBC
Image credit: BBC

They say you “never forget your first Doctor,” and I find it to hold true that whichever Doctor someone starts out with ends up remaining their favorite. Personally, I started with and loved the Ninth Doctor, very slowly warmed up to the Tenth, and disliked the Eleventh through his entire run. I guess I’m just a no-bow-tie kind of girl.

So when Netflix announced earlier this month that season 8 of Doctor Who was now available, I was very excited to finally get rid of Eleven and meet the Twelfth Doctor.

The only thing I had overheard (and that had been implicated in Twelve’s teaser trailer) is that Twelve was “the dark Doctor.” Did that mean he was evil now? Stern? Unlikable? I wasn’t sure.

Well we’re only halfway through season 8, but I couldn’t wait to talk about it. I love Twelve!! Dare I say I might even love him more than Nine? *Gasp!*

Yes, this Doctor is darker. Not evil, just much more realistic. Whereas Nine, Ten, and Eleven always miraculously saved the day, Twelve seems to leave a pretty significant death toll in his wake. More than that, he seems totally okay with it as he consistently exposes the deaths as justifiable (paraphrase: “He was going to die regardless of what we did, so instead I saved ourselves”). He is no longer the all-knowing and all-powerful hero that Nine was, or the quirky idealist that Ten and Eleven were. It makes the Doctor feel suddenly much more “human”—if that term can be applied to an alien. In fact, he can be a condescending a**hole sometimes—*cough* *cough* “Kill The Moon” episode *cough*.

What I’ve enjoyed even more than watching the Doctor coming down off his goody-two-shoes miracle-worker pedestal is the deprecating banter he has with Clara that is reminiscent of the Ten+Donna “oy!” days. I keep cracking up at the gibes he throws at Clara, and while I wish Clara had more spitfire in her like Donna did, I love that Clara isn’t ruffled by it in the least.

Beyond this new Doctor being Awesome with an capital A, I have to say this season (as far as I’ve gotten, at least) has been superbly written. I love Doctor Who, but overall, I always felt some episodes were really great and some were boring fillers with subpar writing. The quality was significantly inconsistent throughout every season. In this season, however, all episodes have really knocked it out of the park for me thus far. Captivating, fresh, and clever, each episode has left me thinking “wow, that was a good one!” and “I wish I could write like that.”

For those of you keeping up with the show on the regular TV schedule, season 9 premieres September 19th. But don’t talk to me about it until it comes out on Netflix next year!

When the ‘Strong Female’ Trope Becomes the ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ Trope

When "Strong Female" Becomes "Emotionally Unavailable"
Police woman. Image credit: Flickr user robertobosi, CC BY 2.0

We keep asking for more strong, independent female characters and occasionally receive them. But most of the time, it feels like there’s a room out there, full of male writers who never had a mother, sister, wife, or daughter worth respecting. And they must be responsible for writing freaking everything.

But, humor me for a second, are men really the only ones to blame?

I was recently shopping online for a new book to read. I was browsing around through random recommendations and lists, and finally settled on a book. It was a science-fiction book written by a woman, with a strong female lead that reviewers raved about. Sold!

The book opened with a scene taking place in a bedroom. A man and a woman, apparently having had sex, are getting dressed. The man begs the woman to stay, but she can’t be bothered with relationships. She was here to use him as she always does, and having her needs met, she’s anxious to leave this annoying guy behind faster than she can say “see ya next time my libido rages.” He even proposes to her somewhere in there, and she rolls her eyeballs as far up as they could go. Men are such sissies! She has big dreams and cannot be weighed down by commitments. Emotions? Gross!

I was reading on, trying to love this character. Yay, finally, a strong, independent woman! Except, wait… How is it that I am a strong, independent woman yet cannot relate to this character in any way?

I am independent, yet I am in a committed relationship.

I am strong, yet I have basic human emotions.

I am a feminist, yet I do not sleep around.

I am a fighter, yet I do not know how to shoot a gun.

When did this “emotionally unavailable” trope become the national symbol for womanly strength and independence? Because, let me tell you, being independent and being distant are two completely different things.

I am choosing not to mention the particular title of this book because I don’t think it’s this one writer’s fault. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s her fault. Or maybe it’s men’s fault. Or Barbie’s fault. Or should the blame be on fashion magazines and pop culture?

I’m not here to point any fingers. I think it’s easy, even for a nice female writer from the midwest or a male writer in Hollywood, to use common reference points. How do you symbolize strength in one sentence? How do you symbolize independence in one scene? Let’s just use the pre-existing tropes that people are used to seeing, rather than building a whole new world within which men and women act like decent, reasonable human beings.

I can sympathize with how easy it is to fall prey to these shortcuts. Yet, I beg you, can we all try a little harder? Let’s write diverse female characters where strength is nuanced, objectives are plentiful and conflicting, emotions are not taboo, and—call me crazy—sexual prowess isn’t even mentioned. While you’re at it, can we write some male characters that are like that too, please?

Change Movie Quotes With Science—The best tweets of #ScienceAMovieQuote

A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Sometimes the trending Twitter hashtags make lose my faith in humanity, and sometimes they make very happy. The latter happened last night when I found #ScienceAMovieQuote trending. That’s people turning famous movie quotes into geekier alternatives by replacing one word (or a few) with something more scientific.

Here’s my favorites thus far! (And yes, I included my own somewhere in there, because I’m cocky like that.)

Why This GeekMom Loves Tinker Crate

Our drip irrigation system. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Our drip irrigation system. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

The Internet is filled with useful reviews, but sometimes you have to wonder, “Sure, they love their new product now, but how will they feel about it when the novelty wears off next week, next month, or next year?” It’s not as often you see feedback from a long-term user, so I decided it was time I put my feelings out there about my love for Tinker Crate, a subscription service for little tinkerers.

We’ve been happy Kiwi Crate customers for years, I think around three years now. They ship a monthly box to your house with everything you need to complete two craft projects aimed to kids ages 4-8. We love that we not only get two craft projects, but that the end products themselves aren’t useless once finished. For example, in the latest box, we’ve built a cash register that we can then use to run a pretend-store in our living room.

Our homemade motor. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Our homemade motor. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

So when Kiwi Crate announced a whole new suite of boxes aimed for different age groups, I was curious. One, the Koala Crate, was crafts aimed for the 3-4 years old crowd. Another, Doodle Crate, covered crafts for the 9-16+ age group. Finally, the one that caught my eye was Tinker Crate: “A laboratory for hands-on experiments” for kids 9-14+.

I’m a sucker for science, so of course I signed up promptly. For my then 4-year-old.

Well, believe it or not, it’s been a huge success with my preschooler for almost one year now! She does need help following the instructions and building the smaller bits that require a little more hand coordination (and patience), but regardless, it’s an activity that we both look forward to tremendously.

In the nine months that we’ve been subscribed, we have built: a motor, a trebuchet, a zoetrope, hydraulics with syringes, a drawing robot, slime, a biomechanical hand, a drip irrigation system, and rubber band gliders.

The Tinker Crate also comes with a Tinker Zine, a mini magazine with loads of information on the topic of the month. We really love these. For example, the Tinker Zine “Let’s Hand It to Hands” included in the biomechanical hand box explains how our hands work (bones, muscles, tendons, joints, etc.), covers a history of prosthetic arms, offers instructions for making jointed straw puppets, and tells the story of people around the world helped by 3D-printed prosthetic hands. They really know how to fill up a few pages without making it feel overloaded.

I’ll be the first to admit that, with some planning, a thrifty and creative parent could provide their child with a similar building experience for less money. I commend you if you can make that happen without help. Personally, we’re a two income family with very little time or energy for thinking of new projects or gathering the necessary materials at stores all over town, so yeah, we fork up the $19.95/month to have our boxed activity shipped to us.

My daughter is so proud of her cool machines that she always wants to bring her latest creation to her preschool class’s weekly show-and-tell. I call that a win. As far as we’re concerned, Tinker Crate has been worth every penny.

Two Months With an Apple Watch

Glimpses of the Apple Watch life. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Glimpses of the Apple Watch life. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

I’ve had my Apple Watch for almost two months now and I’ve got to say that, overall, it’s been a really positive experience. Interested in getting one? Itching to read a post about an Apple product just so you can write a long-winded response about how Apple fans are idiots because Android had better products months before Apple’s new iThing for a fraction of the price?

Then this is the post for you!

Why I Wanted It
1 – Notifications. The Apple Watch doesn’t work without an iPhone, but they can communicate via Bluetooth (range of about 32 feet) or via a wireless network. At home, instead of having my phone on me at all times to keep up with the world, the idea is that I could leave my phone in a central location and have the Watch warn me of only the important stuff. I felt that could allow me to be more reachable in case of emergencies (work, health, or “I’m at the store, do you want me to get wine?” texts from my husband) while still spending overall less time on my gadgets in front of my kids.

Yes, I’m aware of how ironic it is—getting more gadgets to spend less time on gadgets.

2 – Health tracking. I had a Fitbit Zip (basically just a pedometer) that I was very happy with, in terms of counting steps and letting me compete with my friends as motivation. I found the idea of the Fitbit Charge very attractive (step counting, sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring) but I couldn’t get behind the limited style options. The Apple Watch is, well, shinier.

3 – Map directions. I had heard that the Watch could give you directions: It would tap one way to tell you to turn left, a different way to tell you to turn right. This seemed like a really cool idea to me.

4 – Yes, because it’s the latest iThing. I’m a sucker.

Why I Didn’t Not Get It
I hesitated a while before getting a Watch. My reasons for getting a Watch were good, but not oh-my-gosh-I-so-totally-need-this good. Meanwhile, I was really scared of getting stuck with a product I didn’t like. In the end, I realized two things:

1 – I don’t need it to be perfect. Reading the Apple Watch review from The Oatmeal helped me understand that a smartwatch won’t turn our lives around the way the smartphone did. The Apple Watch is, ultimately, more of an iPhone accessory than a new gadget of its own right. Somehow making it sound less useful removed some of the pressure in my needing it to be perfect. Weird, huh?

2 – I’m not committed to it. Unlike the iPhone, I have no contract forcing me to use this thing if I don’t like it. When I buy an iPhone under contract, I know I will need to use that phone whether I end up liking it or not. I need a phone and not using it isn’t really an option. But the Watch? I don’t need a Watch. Or a watch, for that matter. I can wear it all the time, some of the time, none of the time, sell it off to the highest bidder on Craigslist, etc… who cares!

So, with my fear of commitment appeased, I clicked the purchase button on the Apple Store online. It told me delivery would take 2-3 weeks, but to my surprise Apple delivered the package two days later with overnight delivery. I had my Watch three days from the date of purchase.

Life With My Apple Watch

Let’s see how it lived up to the reasons why I wanted it.

Your typical email notification on the Apple Watch. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Your typical email notification on the Apple Watch. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

1 – Notifications really did help me disconnect. I love my phone and it helps me stay sane. It has helped me stay connected to friends and family during the mind-numbing hours of rocking a baby to sleep, breastfeeding, or just when the kids are busy playing on their own and I can finally catch a five second break for myself.

On the other hand, I know I check my phone too often. I know that when I check my work emails, which I need to do, I will almost always mindlessly gravitate toward social networks apps shortly thereafter.

With the Watch, I receive notifications for emails, text messages, and phone calls. That’s it. You could set it up to do much more, or much less, but those are the only notifications I wanted. The Watch will vibrate when I get a notification and if I raise my hand to glance at the screen right away, the notification will display on the screen without touching a single button. If it’s an urgent email, I go find my phone or get on a computer to read the whole email body and respond. In the case of a text message, it prompts me with options to reply or dismiss the notification. If I click reply, I can dictate my response to Siri or use one of the default responses.

This process has helped me streamline everything I get during the day, and I love it. Love it.

Apple Watch tracking the number I've stood up at least once. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Apple Watch tracking the number I’ve stood up at least once. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

2 – Health tracking is “meh.” I have to admit, this one has been disappointing to me.

Yes, it’s tracking my steps just like the Fitbit Zip. Unfortunately, there’s really no social aspect to the Health app. I also don’t like the Health user interface; it looks pretty but it’s hard to filter the data if you’re looking for specific information. How many steps did I do yesterday? *Squints at the graph, between 6,000 and 8,000, maybe?* And seriously, what’s with the circles, Apple?

Yes, it tracks my heart rate, but as it turns out, I really have no use for this information. It was fun for about a minute (hey look, my heart rate is 68 right now!), but it quickly lost its novelty factor. Maybe this information is important to you if you’re training or have a heart condition, but it’s not for me.

In addition to the Health app on your iPhone, which gathers data from both your phone and your watch, there’s also the watch’s activity tracker native app that will show you three things: Move, Exercise, and Stand. Move tracks the number of calories I’ve spent moving, Exercise the number of minutes spent exercising (although I still don’t understand how it determines what counts as exercise), and Stand the number of hours during which you’ve stood. Don’t get that last one wrong, it’s not the cumulative number of minutes you’ve spent displayed in hour units. It’s the number of hours during which you’ve stood at all. That means you can sit from sunrise to sunset, but as long as you’ve stood up for a moment every hour, it’ll say you’ve stood up 12 hours. It’s kind of ridiculous. Health has pretty low expectations.

Overall, for my needs, the step counting works well, but all the other “health” tools have been mostly useless.

Apple Watch giving me directions. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Apple Watch giving me directions. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

3 – Directions surprised me with some awesome features. I’ve used the Watch to give me directions while driving a number of times now, and I’ve got some mixed feelings about it. The Watch will vibrate to tell me to turn left or right. Tap-tap-space-tap-tap-space-tap-tap for left and twelve consecutive taps for right, also known as “Why am I feeling a second heartbeat?” for left and “Why won’t this thing stop vibrating?” for right. Because it only vibrates when it’s time to turn without warning, and because the taps can be hard to distinguish while driving on a bumpy road, traveling by vibration is not as exciting and practical as I thought it would be. Unless you’re hearing-impaired, you’re better off using the Siri’s voice commands from your iPhone instead.

That being said, there is one unexpected feature I absolutely love: Your watch will display information about your next turn and how far ahead it is. This means if I miss what Siri said, I don’t have to wait for her to repeat it again later. I can just glance at my watch. Plus, if the instructions are to drive three miles on Sepulveda and I want to know how far along I’ve gotten so far, I can glance at my watch and it will show me. This is immensely practical when you’re in slow traffic and lose perspective of how far you’ve gotten.

I took a couple of day trips to L.A. with the Watch and I loved having that feature while I drove. I enjoyed it much better than trying to see the maps on my phone or the navigation system.

Yes, I do customize the face of the Watch every day to match my outfit. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Yes, I do customize the face of the Watch every day to match my outfit. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

4 – It’s a shiny new gadget and people are very curious about it. I’ve only bumped into a very small number people who own a Watch, but I’ve received many, many questions. What does it do? (Hum…) How much did it cost? (It costs less than most people think it does.) Does the band come in black? (I don’t know, check the Apple Store.) How’s the battery life? (I wear it all day—from 5 am to 11 pm—and I’ve rarely gotten below 50% battery life. I charge it every night while I sleep.) Is the band comfortable? (It won’t make your skin sweat as much as the plastic bands from the 80s, but it’s not as comfortable as wearing nothing.) Do you like it? (It’s been worth it so far.)

I’ve had so many people asking me questions about my Apple Watch that now I’m answering every question assuming they’re asking about the Watch. It’s been the source of a few embarrassing moments. I’ve had people at work ask me vague questions like, “How do you get notifications?” and then I start blabbering about my Watch just to realize they were asking with respect to something else entirely, like my code or Outlook. Oops.

So in the end, people have said the Watch is just a notification center like it’s a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, yes, that’s mostly how I use it, but I love it for that. Some features, like health tracking, have left me ambivalent at best. Meanwhile, I find new and unexpected features every once in a while that make me glad I got the Watch. I’ll be interested to see where Apple goes from here.

San Diego Comic-Con 2015 Artist Roundup

SDCC 2015 GeekMom Artist Roundup. Image by Ariane Coffin.
SDCC 2015 GeekMom Artist Roundup. Image by Ariane Coffin.

Every year my husband and I spend most of my San Diego Comic-Con browsing the booths of artists on the show floor. Without fail, we purchase more art than we have room for—yet we always manage to fit on a wall somehow—and I find a new set of artists to add to my list of favorites. Joining the list with all the wonderful people I showcased last year are the artists I’ve discovered at SDCC this year. Here they are, in no particular order:

Otis Frampton

Art of Otis Frampton. (permission pending)
Art of Otis Frampton, used with permission.

Otis has a long list of projects he’s worked on, but I’m here to tell you about ABCDEFGeek. They are a series of hilariously clever, ultra-geeky alphabet picture books that won’t fail to make you chuckle. My favorites are “C is for Canceled” with an image of Jayne, or “I is for Indispensable (Also Irony)” picturing a Redshirt.

Sara Richard

Art by Sara Richard. (permission pending)
Art by Sara Richard, used with permission.

Here’s a fresh take on some old favorites! On Sara’s website you’ll find just about every geek fandom represented—with a unique twist—like Back to the Future, Dragon Ball Z, Doctor Who, and many more.

Chrissie Zullo

Art by Chrissie Zullo. (permission pending)
Art by Chrissie Zullo, used with permission.

Chrissie has a lot of comic-based art, and rightfully so, since she has worked as an illustrator for DC, Dark Horse, IDW, and more. However, I was especially fond of her Kiki and Nausicaa prints pictured here.

Alina Chau

Art by Alina Chau. (permission pending)
Art by Alina Chau, used with permission

Alina has some whimsical watercolor art for both adult and children. She has worked in the animation industry on small little projects you probably haven’t heard of like, oh, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) She now works on her own projects, and I’m glad because she has a big variety of prints and other items in her shop to show for it.

Travis Hanson

Art by Travis Hanson, used with permission.
Art by Travis Hanson, used with permission.

Travis has some really great kid books, and he should know seeing as he has five kids of his own. My husband and I purchased Adventures for a Lazy Afternoon, a compilation art book with an inspiring text flowing through it about the power of inspiration, creativity, and good ol’ determination. He offered to make us a drawing on the first page and we described our two girls. Travis got them pretty dead on, all while holding a conversation with us and quite surprisingly not looking down at the paper all that often—how does he do that?! Be sure to check out his picture book about teddy bear pirates too, because teddy bear pirates.

Patrick Ballesteros

Art by Patrick Ballesteros, used with permission.
Art by Patrick Ballesteros, used with permission.

Patrick can turn any geeky fandom into a scene of boisterous kids. He’s all about bringing fun into art, evoking nostalgia, and embracing your inner child. He has a huge series of “25 Cent Wonders” featuring our favorite geek icons on themed kiddie rides. Fun? Check!

Finni Chang

Art by Finni Chang, used with permission.
Art by Finni Chang, used with permission.

I didn’t get to meet Finni first hand because I decided to take a break while my husband went to visit the Artists’ Alley one last time. He bought one print from her during that time and spent the rest of the day browsing her website, umming and ahhing about which print he’d buy next. Finni is especially fond of Zelda, and we love her “Zeldamon” series—that would be Zelda and Pokemon merged together. Win.


Art by Patara at Vuduberi. (permission pending)
Art by Patara at Vuduberi, used with permission.

If you can say no to your impulse for buying these super cute prints to decorate your child’s bedroom, you’re a stronger person than me. Patara is an artist at the studio Vuduberi, who specializes in the adorable and whimsical from prints to games and toys. I especially liked the print pictured here with the little girl stuffing pandas in her closet. I can’t look at it without thinking too many pandas is a good problem to have.

Kei Acedera

Art by Kei Acedera, images used with permission. (permission pending)
Art by Kei Acedera, images used with permission.

If you’re into Alice in Wonderland, look no further than Kei. Her illustrations cover other subjects too, and all of it is intricate and delightfully strange. She is the art director at the Imaginism Studios, home of many other very talented artists worth checking out.

This is it for my list this year. There’s always more talented and ingenious artists than I can actually see while at SDCC, but these were the ones that caught my eye. Did you also attend? Please share your favorite finds and experiences in the comment section, I’d love to hear them!

Join This NASA Summer Online Mentoring Program to Learn About Real Life STEM

Sign up to participate in a free summer online mentoring program with a real NASA employee in the STEM fields.
NASA Girls and Boys. Image used with permission.

For the last three years, the NASA Girls and Boys has been connecting middle school students with NASA employees for a 5-week online summer program in all things STEM. This summer, they are doing it again and the time to apply is now! This incredible opportunity is open to any students in grades 5 through 8 or home school equivalent; the only caveat is that the child must be a U.S. citizen.

Each week touches on a different subject—I bet you can guess what they are!—science, technology, engineering, math, and STEM in real life. The student will have a choice of different projects to explore each week’s topic.

If you’re interested in signing up your child, the deadline is June 28th. Places are limited and will be filled randomly from the list of applicants. All you need for the application is your name, email address, and state of residency.

I had the chance to chat with a very special family who participated last year. Kim Haverkos, a professor in the Education Department at Thomas More College who specializes in STEM Education, applied both of her kids to the program and both were selected during the lottery. This was the only family to have two kids in the program, so they had twice the stories to share with GeekMom about NASA Girls and Boys! Gabe is now going into 9th grade and Abby into 7th, and as you can read below, they learned a lot from the experience—and had fun too.

GeekMom: What did you do during the program?

Gabe: I learned a lot about the calculations that go into launching a spaceship and we also talked about my mentor’s experiences with NASA.

Abby: I Skyped in with my mentor and we did experiments together. Sometimes the video wouldn’t work, but we always got the experiments to work.

Kim: Both kids enjoyed the experiences that we were able to do with the mentors through Skype. I loved the Skype aspect. We were on vacation for both of their first meetings with their mentors and used Skype to our advantage for those meetings. As an educator, I was excited to see the hands on/creative/engineering aspects built into the program. I know there are limitations on the mentors (we can’t have them all the time!), but would love to see the program expand so that the kids could continue to connect with the mentors as they got older.

GeekMom: Can you tell me about your mentor?

Gabe: He was a NASA engineer that lived in South Carolina. His specialty was the pod that releases off the spacecraft after it enters space.

Abby: She lived in Alabama and was getting married soon. She helped figure out ways to fix things or think about things when they went wrong and they got stuck. She sent me a box of things from NASA after the program—I have a poster of the stars on my wall.

Kim: Both mentors were great. They worked hard to tap into the kids’ interests and tie those interests into what the mentors did at work. I appreciated the mentors giving time in the evenings—their precious time!—to engage the upcoming generation of students in STEM.

GeekMom: How did it feel to talk with someone from NASA?

Abby: I liked it. But I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do at first, but it was fun and my mentor knew a lot and had lots of stories to tell.

What was the most memorable thing your mentor told you?

Gabe: The most memorable thing he told me was that if I work hard, I can achieve anything.

Kim: Gabe was so worried that his mentor was going to be someone old and “not cool”—I can’t describe how excited he was to talk to someone young and “cool” who was a part of the NASA team. It relaxed him right away and he looked forward to every connection with him!

GeekMom: Did you like the program? What was your favorite part?

Gabe: I loved the program. It was a lot of fun and I learned so much. My mentor had so much information to share. My favorite part was actually a little after the program was over. My mentor invited me to watch the testing of a rocket ship he helped build. I watched it online and it was very cool.

Abby: I got to see that launch too. It was cool. I liked the program. My favorite part was building the hand from string and straws, but I liked the penny boat thing too.

GeekMom: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Gabe: I want to be a bioengineer or maybe go into the medical field.

Abby: I want to be a brain surgeon.

Thank you to the Haverkos family for taking the time to talk with GeekMom. Good luck to Gabe and Abby with their ambitious career goals! If there are any GeekMom readers who end up applying and getting in, I’d love to hear how your experience went at the end of summer.

Sign up to participate in a free summer online mentoring program with a real NASA employee in the STEM fields.
NASA Girls and Boys. Image used with permission.

‘Floral Frolic’: A Beautiful New Picture Book on Kickstarter

Support Floral Frolic on Kickstarter, a cute fox story with beautiful watercolor art.
Floral Frolic. Image used with permission.

One of my favorite artists I discovered at San Diego Comic-Con last year, Cari Corene, is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for an adorable picture book she co-authored and co-illustrated with Amanda Coronado.

Floral Frolic is the story of two foxes, Queenie and Dawnsing, who are having a friendly competition to see who can find the best flowers. I had a chance to preview the whole story, and it’s perfectly sweet and simple. As the foxes go off on their own to find unique flowers, we are introduced to synonyms and antonyms in an organic and non-preachy way. The story is the perfect length to really let the art shine.

These two artists have worked fabulously together to create art that’s bold and colorful, while also being soft and whimsical. And that is the magic of watercolor. Cari and Amanda earned a degree in sequential art together, which serves them well as illustrators and storytellers for this debut picture book.

I got the chance to ask these talented ladies a few questions about the book and their geeky passions.

GeekMom: Why did you choose to work on this together?

Floral Frolic: When creating something so labor intensive and time sucking as a book, followed by a huge Kickstarter campaign, the benefits of tag-teaming are definitely in play. We decided to work together on Floral Frolic because neither of us could have completed this much work and remained motivated alone. Both of us would have given up on this project after the first one or two illustrations if the other person hadn’t been requesting more work to be finished. While one person is answering comments on Kickstarter, the other person can be posting about Floral Frolic online! (Or, say, corresponding with GeekMom.) Working as a team has also helped the project a lot; we are there to help each other with the artwork and generate ideas. Some of the illustrations in the book only exist because of ideas generated from working in a team.

GM: How did you blend your art together into one consistent look?

FF: We actually had several art melding together failures before finally succeeding! In Update 2 of our Kickstarter (a backer-only update) we actually show the first page spread we did together, which was painted twice in two different ways. It also helps that we are around each other a lot every day, so there is more interaction between us while working on the project.

Support Floral Frolic on Kickstarter, a cute fox story with beautiful watercolor art.
Floral Frolic. Image used with permission.

GM: How did you come up with this story?

FF: We were talking one day about what we would want to write a children’s book about. We each had fox characters. We both wanted something simply written and illustration weighted. We both felt that we were capable of creating a children’s book, so why had we never done it? That brings me back to why we collaborated; we needed the shared time and work burden to get us through. When actually coming up with the script, we each sat down separately, wrote out what we thought would be good, and compared. They ended up being mostly identical scripts about two fox friends picking flowers, almost having a tiff at the end, and then becoming better friends.

GM: As illustrators, what comes to you first, ideas for the illustrations or for the story?

FF: It’s actually the opposite for each of us! Amanda thinks in pictures, her scripts are quick, rough thumbnails based on a plot she has in her head. Cari thinks in words or lists. A rough script for Cari are single-sentence descriptions of actions and dialogue that looks a lot like a list. After each writing a script (a thumbnailed script and a written one), we went to sketching out ideas and fleshing out some tighter thumbnails for possible illustrations.

GM: Why did you choose to pursue self-publishing over the traditional publishing route?

FF: We’re actually very interested in traditional publishing, where one would have their book put out and distributed by a publisher. However, so far in our lives, publishers have only been interested in a story once it has been completed and they can see that the published story has a clear audience. It would not make us sad to self-publish Floral Frolic and that’s all it ever is. That would be completely fine! But we’re really hoping that having a beautiful book one might prompt a publisher to be interested in a book two! We already have a script, all we need is a publisher to believe in us and help us get our book in to stores.

GM: What tips do you have for someone who wants to become a professional illustrator?

FF: The best tip I heard was from a professor in college. He said there are three key parts of being a professional artist, you must rule two of them. The three things are:

1. Be very good.
2. Be very fast.
3. Know the right people.

So far this list has been mostly accurate, so pick your two and go for it.

I think it’s also important that budding illustrators focus on developing a point of view. Some might call it “a style,” but I think style can evolve and develop over time. What’s important is that you are drawing things for yourself, first and foremost. It’s also important to not be afraid to show your work! There are many great places to share online and you just never know.

GM: Do you have any favorite online resources for learning to draw or paint or use new techniques?

Cari: I like my Tumblr dashboard? Because I follow a lot of people who are always reblogging art resources, I wouldn’t think to look for. Just a lot of anatomy tutorials, pretty pictures, and motivational gifs. I know other artists who would really have an exceptional list of websites for learning resources, maybe I’ve faltered here in my duties.

Amanda: I still use DeviantArt for tutorials if I’m struggling with something. Sometimes YouTube can have great video tutorials, as well. I think my biggest resource though is probably Google Images for reference. I can spend hours googling photos of environments, animals, etc., either for reference or inspiration.

Support Floral Frolic on Kickstarter, a cute fox story with beautiful watercolor art.
Floral Frolic. Image used with permission.

GM: What keeps you motivated, for this project and in general?

Cari: Still passion, with a little bit of deadlines and needing to earn a living thrown in there for spice. I’m still pretty motivated by the distant horizon line, too. I’ll think to myself of future projects, new painting ideas, stories I still want to write, but first I need to complete the work in the here and now, because this work will inform the work I do on the horizon. I never have a shortage of crazy dream projects to keep my mind occupied. Occasionally, the crazy dream projects make it into reality (that would be Floral Frolic).

Amanda: I don’t know if this makes sense, but the act of drawing and working on the project is a driving force for me. It’s fun to sit down and flesh out things we’ve only imagined. There’s also the promise of a finished project, as well as the pressure of getting it done. Deadlines are always a motivator!

GM: What is your favorite format to illustrate (graphic novel, comic book, picture books, merchandise, anything that pays, something else)?

Cari: I really, really, really love illustrated pros. So that could be a children’s book, or it could be a fully written story with occasional illustrations. Or some other format?? I love complex, adult-oriented stories that look like children’s books. Maybe that’s what I should say. Graphic novels are really nice, but sometimes I just want to write the story instead of drawing 10 panels. Words and pictures can do very different things. I’m still trying to reconcile words and pictures, I think my entire life of drawing will be about how I learn to put the two together in a way that is uniquely me.

Amanda: I will always have a soft spot for comics. If only it weren’t so time-consuming! I enjoy drawing images that move in a progression. Now that I’ve worked on a children’s book, I’m also enjoying single illustration, but I think I will always love comics. Lately, I’ve been enjoying smaller illustrations for repeating patterns, too!

GM: At what conventions can we find you?

SDCC (art show only)
Gen Con (Cari only)
Dragoncon (art show only)
Rainfurrest (Cari only)
Baltimore Comic Con (Amanda only)
New York Comic Con

GM: What other projects might I have seen your art in?

Amanda: I’ve been working as the penciller/inker on Vamplets: Nightmare Nursery for about three years now. I also ran one other crowdfunding campaign before Floral Frolic for the plush I designed, Angry Cat.

GM: What graphic novels or comic books do you recommend for a young audience?

Amanda: Growing up, my greatest inspiration was Cardcaptor Sakura by Clamp. The art was elegant and simple and will always be my favorite. As a kid, my favorite children’s books were by Chris Van Allsburg and Marguerite Henry. Seeing The Mysteries of Harris Burdick really blew my mind in the third grade and inspired me to want to be an illustrator. I’ve also enjoyed The Voyage of the Basset by James C. Christensen, as well as Margaret Hodges’ Saint George and the Dragon.

Cari: Drop everything and go read every book by Paul Goble. Okay, now moving on. I grew up reading Sailor Moon and I love it! So of course, I recommend reading Sailor Moon. Blade of the Immortal and Ranma ½ were also much beloved, but might require parental guidance. Bone and Stardust both really changed my perception of comics and storytelling when I was a teen as well. Sky Doll was also fantastic; it made me want to stretch my art! I can’t help but also drop in novels here too, which shaped me when I was young probably more than comics. I loved Lord of the Rings more than I can even put in words, and how could I not love Harry Potter and all the Pokemon games they were my life! So was Zelda. The Mercy Thompson series was my paranormal romance genre book of choice.

Thank you, Cari and Amanda, for taking the time to talk to us! The Kickstarter campaign for Floral Frolic is already fully funded, but there’s only a few days left for them to reach some awesome stretch goals. Campaign rewards include the book itself (physical and/or PDF), stickers, postcards, posters, lanyards, wallets, wood necklaces, scarves, original book art, and even the option of having a custom portrait of your pet drawn and painted by the artists.

My Favorite Picture Books Right Now: June 2015

GeekMom Ariane shares her favorite picture books library finds recently.
A collection of my favorite library finds recently. Photo collage by Ariane Coffin.

I’ve been accumulating a few favorite library finds over the last few months which I wanted to share with you. Here I have a list of picture books about learning to find yourself, having confidence in your big plans, exploring your passions, and much more, plus a couple of non-fiction books exploring women’s rights through history.

GeekMom Ariane explores her favorite library finds this month, including Sylvie, a book that explores who to find yourself.
Sylvie. Image credit: Penguin Random House

Sylvie, written and illustrated by Jennifer Sattler, is a story about a flamingo who learns that she is pink because the shrimps she eats are pink. Naturally, she wonders what color she’d be if she ate something else instead. Let’s just say the process is not scientifically accurate, because this poor flamingo subjects her stomach to food and non-food items alike to turn herself all kinds of crazy colors and patterns. There’s a cute twist in the end, and the art is equally adorable. This is one solid happy little story about being yourself—with a little flair.

GeekMom Ariane shares her favorite library finds, including Zephyr Takes Flight, a story about a little girl who loves airplanes.
Zephyr Takes Flight. Image credit: Candlewick Press.

Zephyr Takes Flight is the inspiring tale of a little girl who loves airplanes. Written and illustrated by Steve Light, this book shows Zephyr’s active imagination as she travels to a secret land where she learns to fly wonderful flying machines, helps a creature in need, and makes new friends. Or maybe this secret land is real? One thing is for sure, this is a must-read for all little girls (and boys!) who love airplanes and a little problem solving.

GeekMom Ariane explores her favorite library books this month, like Big Plans, in which a boy shows confidence in his big plans!
Big Plans. Image credit:

This boy has big plans, “BIG PLANS, I SAY!” Big Plans is one of Bob Shea first books, and it’s fantastically fun like all of his other picture books. There isn’t much more to the story than the boy telling people he’s got big plans (which are never revealed in the book), but the amusing repetition of “I got big plans. Big plans, I say!” will leave you repeating it over and over for the following few days. While giggling, of course.

GeekMom Ariane explores her favorite library finds, including Ruby's Wish, a true story about a young Chinese girl seeking an education after the California gold rush.
Ruby’s Wish. Image credit: Chronicle Books.

Written by Shirin Yim Bridges and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Ruby’s Wish follows the story of a Chinese girl. Following the California Gold Rush, her grandfather returned to China a rich man. As such, he married many wives and had over 100 children and grandchildren. They all shared a big house and those of school-age had a private tutor. Ruby came to realize that, as the children got older, the boys were expected to study while the girls were expected to learn womanly skills for maintaining a household and family. Ruby is the inspiring true tale of a girl who fought to get an education, whose own granddaughter is the author of this book.

GeekMom Ariane explores her favorite library finds, include this story about women's right activist Amelia Bloomer.
You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! Image credit: Scholastic.

You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey and illustrated by Chesley McLaren, is a fun biography of, well, Amelia Bloomer. She was a women’s rights activist in the mid-1800s who worked at a women’s only newspaper. With an article about women wearing baggy pantaloons, she changed the face of fashion for women. At the time, women were still wearing ridiculous corsets and heavy dresses, and the pantaloons that became known as “bloomers” made quite an uproar. The story is informational without being too laden with details, and an author’s note at the end fills in the blanks.

GeekMom Ariane shares her favorite library finds, like this non-fiction biography about Albert Einstein.
I Am Albert Einstein. Photo by: Ariane Coffin

We’ve been fans of the “Ordinary People Change the World” series written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. The latest one we’ve tried is I Am Albert Einstein, and it may be our favorite yet. Granted, Einstein was a pretty interesting dude, but the fictional comic-style conversations included as a complement to the story really make this book fun. We couldn’t stop giggling about his awesome hair!

GeekMom Ariane shares her favorite library finds, like Invisible to the Eye, about animal camouflage.
Invisible to the Eye. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

Invisible to the Eye: Animals in Disguise by Kendra Muntz isn’t a story per se. It’s a collection of beautiful photographs showcasing animal camouflage at its best. For example, can you find the animals hidden in the images above? There’s a short piece of text with every picture that provides what animal you are trying to look for (in case you need a clue!), what region the animal lives in, and other interesting tidbits about the animal. It may not be best for a bedtime story, but it’s a fun activity for when you need the kids to be quiet for a few minutes!

GeekMom Ariane shares her favorite library finds, including Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, a true story about an elephant seal with some serious determination!
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas. Image credit: Penguin Random House

Last but certainly not least, Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas written by Lynne Cox and illustrated by Brian Floca, has been my 5-year-old’s favorite out of this whole bunch. She liked the story all right, but when she found out at the end that it was a true story, she was so astonished that she requested we read it again and again. Elizabeth was an elephant seal who liked hanging out in the warm river water (and roads!) of Christchurch, New Zealand. Town folks tried time and time again to relocate her to her natural habitat for her own good, but do you think they succeeded? This was one determined seal.

How about you, any new favorites showing up in your library pile?

Geeky States of America: Visiting Los Angeles’ The Last Bookstore

GeekMom Ariane had an adventure with her 4-year-old in Los Angeles, visiting The Last Bookstore.
The Last Bookstore. Photo credit: Ariane Coffin

I woke up last Saturday morning in the mood for an impulsive mother-daughter day trip, so I Googled kid-friendly activities in Los Angeles and found an article in the L.A. Weekly about “10 Fun L.A. Things to Do With Kids That Don’t Suck for Grownups.” My kind of list. Out of the activities suggested, I quickly settled on visiting The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A.—one of the largest independent physical bookstores in the world. My 4-year-old was easily convinced with the promise of a new book and a trip on the subway.

Coming from Santa Barbara, we drove the 1.5 hours to the Universal/Studio City Metro station for its ample and free (on the weekends) parking lot. We caught the red line all the way to Pershing Square station, a 20-minute trip. The bookstore was just a couple of blocks away from there.

I have to say, my first impression was slightly disappointing. Being called one of the “22 most beautiful bookstores in the world,” “world’s 20 most stunning bookstores,” “17 coolest bookstores in the world,” and “20 most beautiful bookstores in the world,” I was expecting to be blown away by how grand and beautiful it was. Instead, I was surprised by how normal it was for being in all these “best in the world” lists.

There is a certain amount of charm that is lost on a parent chasing a 4-year-old who insists on visiting things at full running speed, I’ll give it that. And once I adjusted my expectations—it’s a store, not the Getty Museum—it was actually pretty cool.

GeekMom Ariane visiting the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.
The Labyrinth. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

The first story of the 2-story store is mostly dedicated to new books, while the second floor makes room for small shops and the “Labyrinth” of used books. The Labyrinth is where things get really weird…a good kind of weird. It’s darker and the space is filled with dark bookshelves in all kinds of crazy order to give the impression of being lost in a never-ending labyrinth. You see piles of books stacked in what seems like complete disorder, books stacked to make tunnels and windows, books ordered by colors of the rainbow. You feel like you’re Alice and you’ve just gone down the rabbit hole. Should you visit without an impatient 4-year-old, you could really have fun trying to find the most obscure used books. I spied a whole box of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s.

Touring The Last Bookstore. Photos by Ariane Coffin.
Touring The Last Bookstore. Photos by Ariane Coffin.

However, since I was with said impatient 4-year-old, we ran right through all that (with some pause at the weirdest features) and walked right back downstairs to the kids’ section. The kids’ section is conveniently located next to an old bank vault—The Last Bookstore occupies a space which used to be a bank. We got cozy with the picture books and read through a few of them, trying to choose which we should purchase. We settled on a book with a cute story and gorgeous art, Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett.

GeekMom Ariane visited The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles and came home with his wonderful picture book, Orion and the Dark.
Orion and the Dark. Image credit: Penguin Random House.

Then it was time for lunch and we left for our next adventure, this time a “taste adventure” (that’s what we call trying out new restaurants).

Overall, I’m happy with our little excursion. There was a lot of unique features throughout the store and it was definitely worth seeing once, though I’m not sure I’d do the 4+ hour roundtrip for just that stop again! Should your little travelers have more energy after visiting The Last Bookstore, you can take a 15 minute walk from the store to the Museum of Contemporary Arts or a short drive to the California Science Center, which I cannot recommend enough.

Happy travels!

Lands’ End Redeems Itself With Nerdy Shirts For Girls—And Not One Shirt About Being Adorable!

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of taken by Ariane Coffin.

Yesterday, I found a Lands’ End post creep up on my Facebook feed, featuring “Smart Tees for boys and girls.” I got really excited, and even more so when I noticed that out of the 19 shirts on their list, nine of them were for girls. Not one or two, but around 50 percent. No way!

Then I remembered hearing some noise last year about Lands’ End gender stereotyping their kids’ shirts, and I started to feel doubtful. If I removed the filter for “Smart Tees” and browsed everything they offered as a whole, would I find more bad than good?

Has Lands' End joined the 21st century with a collection of smart shirts for girls too.
Lands’ End Smart Tees for girls. Screenshot of taken by Ariane Coffin.

Well, I guess Lands’ End learned their lesson because I did not find a single girl shirt with the words “adorable,” “cute,” or “sassy.” As a mother of two young girls, let me tell you that’s a breath of fresh air. A hurricane of fresh air.

Time will tell if Lands’ End is just waiting for the dust to settle or has really joined the 21st century, but in the meantime, please excuse while I do some online shopping for my little space geeks.

“Remember, Your Audience Is Only Five Years Old” and Other Fallacies About Children Literature

GeekMom Ariane rants about anthropomorphised animals and the need for more picture book biographies
Children’s library. Image by Flickr user calliope, CC BY 2.0.

When it comes to the picture books I read to my children, silly books are always fun but my heart belongs to biographies. I can only stand so many stories about the value of friendship, and lord help me if I read another story with a pun involving a moose and a goose. They sound alike, yes, we know. Couldn’t we, instead, load up their early bookshelves with picture books that also introduce more complicated concepts in a fun way?

One of my guilty pleasures is searching for picture books that discuss topics that seem like a wild overreach for a young audience—or, at least, topics I’m told are wild overreach. A biography about Paul Erdos and his love of prime numbers and his prolific math career. A biography about Clara Lemlich and activism for social justice in the early 1900s.

Unfortunately, the options that satisfy this guilty pleasure of mine feel limited, a drop of water in a sea of anthropomorphized animals. So what’s a passionate overachiever to do? Write her own books, of course. Then, I figured I may as well try to find an agent and publisher to get my stories of Sophie Germain or Grace Hopper out into the world for other geeks to enjoy.

However, the feedback I’ve gotten has often been disheartening. “This isn’t picture book level.” “4-year-olds don’t know what {insert book topic here} is.” “I can’t even pronounce these words.” “Remember, your audience is only five.”

No. No, no no.  My audience is not only five, it’s already five.

This generation will be connected to each other beyond our wildest imagination, so let’s expose them early to our marred history with diversity and tolerance. This generation will have to change, together, to survive a planet that’s been unsustainably used, so let’s expose them early to the history of our errors past. This generation will have to be specialized to an ever-increasing degree to solve the puzzles we couldn’t figure out, so let’s expose them early to vocabulary and knowledge that seems beyond their years.

This isn’t about pushing STEM down your kids’ throat, or embracing your inner tiger mom. This is about giving them hope. For all the problems they will face, history has given them unsung heroes—real people—to inspire the strength they will need.

OK, fine, so maybe the biographies I’ve written aren’t God’s gift to human kind. Take someone else’s, I don’t care. But collectively, let’s print more incredible picture book biographies and give our children the gift of insight and perspective. Not just about the most popular white males in history and the handful of women who have luckily made it through—I’m looking at you, Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie—but about the under-appreciated scientists, the silenced women and minorities… You know, the people whose names most adults have never even heard of. Let’s tell their stories. Let’s give them a voice to reach the next generation more successfully then they have our own.

It’s a big world out there, there is no such thing as “too early.”

Our Favorite Picture Books About Cats

GeekMom Sophie shares some of her favorite cat books.
Image credit, clockwise: Simon & Schuster UK, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Walker Books Ltd, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Kids tend to obsess about stuff. So when GeekMom Sophie’s son recently got into cat books, he really got into cat books. For all your offsprings with a fascination for felines, here’s a list of awesome GeekMom-approved picture books about cats!

Sophie’s five year old son, Fin, has become singularly obsessed with cat stories for several months, and between them they have almost exhausted their local library’s supply on the subject! His favorite book so far has been My Cat Jack by Patricia Casey which looks at the day-to-day activities of a pet cat with beautiful and realistic illustrations. Fin loved it so much they had to buy a copy to keep. Fin has also fallen in love with Mr Pusskins: A Love Story by Sam Lloyd, the first in a series about an especially ornery cat; The Diabolical Mr Tiddles by Tom McLaughlin, a cat who goes to extreme (and illegal) lengths to prove his love; And Max the Brave by Ed Vere, which introduces the fearless mouse-catcher kitten Max.

GeekMom Sophie shares some of her favorite books about cats.
Image credit, left to right: Andersen Press Picture Books (image 1 and 2), Barron’s Educational Series

Being a cat-lover herself, Sophie has her own favorite cat stories from the bunch. Gracie, the Lighthouse Cat by Ruth Brown is a cat-centered retelling of the true story of Grace Darling, an English lighthouse keeper’s daughter who spotted a shipwreck and helped her father rescue many of the survivors during gale force winds. The real story plays out in the background of the book while we follow the lighthouse cat in her daring rescue of one of her kittens. Another true story that caught her eye was My Name is Bob by James Bowen, a picture book version of A Street Cat Named Bob which told the story of a homeless man who befriended a local cat and had his life changed as a result. However her favorite cat story so far has been Cat on The Hill by Michael Foreman. This is a somewhat sad story about a cat whose owner passes away and is left to fend for itself in a small, coastal town—however it does have a happy ending! The book really appealed to Sophie as it was set in the same town, St Ives, that she used to vacation in as a child.

GeekMom Sophie shares some of her favorite picture books about cats.
Image credit, clockwise: Simon & Schuster Children’s UK, HarperCollins, Birlinn Ltd, Puffin

There are so many more cat stories Sophie and Fin love but she has to particularly recommend Keith the Cat with the Magic Hat by Sue Hendra, The Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori, the Slinky Malinki series by Lynley Dodd (author of Hairy Maclary), and the Mog series by Judith Kerr.

GeekMoms Kelly and Ariane share their favorite picture books about cats.
Image credit, clockwise: Kids Can Press, Candlewick, Harry N. Abrams, Scholastic Press

Kelly’s daughter’s eyes light up when any book they read follows the exploits of a mischievous kitty, so picking up There Are Cats in This Book was a no-brainer. She was delighted to read about not one, but three silly cats, each with personalities that practically leap off the page. The book is wonderfully interactive, inviting young readers to play with the cats as they turn the page to see what the funny felines are going to do next. If your kid has ever wanted to play and get silly with a friendly cat, this book is the next best thing.

As far as funny animals are concerned, Ariane thinks author-illustrator Melanie Watt is queen. She has three hilarious books about a mischievous house cat named Chesterwho acts not unlike a boisterous preschooler. In his debut title, Chester arms himself with a red marker and takes over the author’s story about a mouse. He is determined to make this story about him! Chester and the author then proceed to have a bit of a power struggle over whose story this is, and we’re left to wonder until the end who will have the last laugh.

Two more funny books somewhat indirectly about cats are When the Silliest Cat Was Small written and illustrated by Gilles Bachelet, and Detective LaRue: Letters From the Investigation written and illustrated by Mark Teague. I say indirectly because When the Silliest Cat Was Small seems very much like a cat book except the kittens on the cover are… elephants? The confusion only leads to hilarity and lots of giggles from Ariane’s 4-year-old. As for Detective LaRue, the main character is actually a dog trying to incriminate two obviously guilty cats. If you like your cats evil, this book is a fun read.

GeekMom Ariane shares her favorite books about the legend of Makeni-neko, the Japanese lucky cat.
Image credit: Peachtree Publishers, Holiday House

Finally, Ariane found two interesting books about the legend of the Japanese lucky cat, Maneki-neko. The folklore dates back to the 1800s and many versions of this story exist today, as displayed by these two books with very different tales. I Am Tama, Lucky Cat, written by Wendy Henrichs and illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi, tells the story of a cat beckoning to safety a soldier, who repays the kindness and saves the cat’s owner from poverty. In The Beckoning Cat, written by Koko Nishizuka and illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger, the cat beckons shoppers to a boy’s home so the boy can sell his fish while taking care of his sick father. Personally Ariane preferred the first of the two, but either way her cat could use a lesson or two from Maneki-neko.

So, dear readers, does your family have any favorite picture books about cats?

Why I Stopped Reading Through Books I Don’t Enjoy

What do you do when you're 20-30% through a book that isn't all that interesting to you: plow through to the bitter end, or cut your loses and move on?
Beautiful books, but are they any good? Image credit: Flickr user Michael D. Beckwith, CC BY 2.0.

You know the feeling… You open up a new book and your heart is filled with hope and wonder. What wonderful journey will this book take me on? Then the worst thing happens: the book is just not that interesting to you.

Maybe you don’t even notice it right away, but over time you start to pick up on the tell-tale signs: you fall asleep on it, you find yourself gravitating to the Facebook app rather than the Kindle app, you decide to go work out instead of read, etc.

Eventually you realize you’ve spent an obscene amount of time stuck on this book and you’re at… 28%?! *sad trombone* At first you reason that maybe you’ve been too tired and stressed out to enjoy reading lately, but finally you figure it out: the book has failed you in the worst possible way. If it were wonderful, you’d be done with it already. If it were bad, you’d have had no problem quitting on it. But instead, it’s just not bad.

So what do you do—do you keep reading it to the end anyway, or cut your loses and move on?

Personally, I used to power through it to the end because I hated the thought of having wasted all that time reading that 28% for nothing. I’m a crazy slow reader. Compound that with my general lack of interest toward the book and that 28% has cost me quite a huge amount of time, my most precious resource.

It’s a classic sunk cost fallacy. We assign disproportionate value to something we’ve invested time/money/energy in. We convince ourselves that, because we’ve spent resources on a course of action, we’re better off continuing to invest in it until the end even if we know the result will not be worth the total cost. We would rather spend more than lose some. We make irrational decisions based on loss aversion.

I started a couple of years ago, giving up on books I didn’t think were worth my time. My husband kept making fun of me for making myself miserable dragging on books I didn’t enjoy, and eventually I came to accept that quitting was not the same as failure. It was hard at first, quitting is not something we’re encouraged to embrace. I just had to tell myself it was the logical thing to do when I derived no pleasure from my reading experience, despite of the sunk cost invested in the book in question.

These days? I don’t feel nearly as guilty about it anymore and my drop rate is much higher, probably around 50%. Instead of failure, I chose to view it as necessary time management.

My Favorite Picture Books Right Now: March 2015

GeekMom Ariane's favorite picture book library finds this month: Sparky!, The Pet Dragon, Poor Doreen, and No One Saw
My favorite picture books right now. Image credit, left to right: Random House, Harper Collins, Random House, and

We found a few new favorite picture books at our library recently. A couple taught us about perspective, one about making do with perhaps less than you had hoped for, and finally one teaches us to read Chinese characters. Want to find some good picture books to read this month? Then read along!

One of GeekMom Ariane's favorite picture book library finds this month. Poor Doreen is a beautiful book showing us how different things can be with the right attitude. Image credit: Random House
Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale. Image credit: Random House.

Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

This book in our current library pile is one that my daughter asked me to read every night and I didn’t mind one bit. Poor Doreen follows the story of Doreen as told by a narrator. Doreen is on her way to visit her second cousin twice removed who’s just had 157 babies, but she faces obstacle after obstacle on her path. Doreen’s happy-go-lucky attitude borderlines on being downright dimwitted, much to the dismay of the much more realistic narrator. However, in the end you’re left wondering if Doreen is really that clueless or if she’s really smarter than all of us. It’s a fun read with a lot of personality, the watercolor/gouache art is equally playful, and it says a lot about how your attitude can affect how you perceive the events that happen around you.

No One Saw. Image credit:
No One Saw. Image credit:

No One Saw: Ordinary Things Through the Eyes of an Artist by Bob Raczka

There’s not much to the text of No One Saw, but the book drives its point home beautifully. Each page contains a famous piece of art with the caption, “No one saw … like …” For example, “No one saw flowers like Georgia O’Keeffe.” The book includes different art styles and artists so it’s a good introduction to fine art, but even more than that, I love the cohesive theme around ordinary things being seen in a way that makes them extraordinary. We may not all be able to paint like the masters, but we all have the potential for seeing things a little differently. Let’s encourage that.

Sparky! is one of GeekMom Ariane's new favorite library picture book finds. Image credit: Random House
Sparky! Image credit: Random House.

Sparky! written by Jenny Offill and illustrated by Chris Appelhans

Sparky! is the story of a girl and her new pet sloth, Sparky. The girl protagonist—the book is written in the first person and her name never gets stated—wants a pet and makes a deal with her mom that she can have any pet she wants as long as it doesn’t need to be walked, bathed, or fed. So the protagonist heads to the library to do some research, which leads her to find the perfect pet for her needs: a sloth. It sleeps more often than not, hardly ever moves, and survives on tree leaves. Perfect! Unfortunately, competition gets the best of our protagonist, who tries to show off her new pet’s tricks—though he has none—to the snotty, goody-two-shoes Mary Potts. In the end, our protagonist seems to accept who Sparky really is and their bond is restored. Chris Appelhans was one of my favorite artists at SDCC 2014, whose understated art I thought would be perfect for a picture book. Turns out he already had a book out that I didn’t even know about!

One of GeekMom Ariane's favorite picture book library finds. The Pet Dragon teaches Chinese characters in a story-based way. Image credit: Harper Collins
The Pet Dragon. Image credit: Harper Collins.

The Pet Dragon written and illustrated by Christoph Niemann

My 4-year-old has Chinese class at her preschool, so I was excited to borrow The Pet Dragon from the library. It teaches multiple Chinese characters on each page, based on the storyline. The story alone wouldn’t have been quite enough to make it a favorite, but my daughter and I both loved reading the story and learning the characters along with it. On the last page, all of the characters are included and, without prior knowledge of Chinese characters, we were both able to recognize and remember quite a few. We were very excited about that!

How to Throw a Fun Gnome Party

Gnome tablescape. Photo by Ariane Coffin.
Gnome tablescape. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

My husband and I love gnomes. When we got our first apartment together, we decided we were going to be those weird gnome people and have them all over our front porch. They’re cute, and there’s just such a fascinating folklore behind them. Ultimately, we realized decorative lawn gnomes were ridiculously overpriced and quickly gave that up, but the interest is still there. So when it became time to choose a theme for our second daughter’s first birthday party, we thought a gnome theme would be really fun and personal to us.

The Invitations & Thank You Notes

Gnome cards. Image credit: left by Eunjung June Kim, right by Moon Cookie Gallery on Etsy.
Gnome cards. Image credit: left by Eunjung June Kim, right by Moon Cookie Gallery on Etsy.

The invitation is the first thing your guests will see about your party. It hints at the theme and gets people in the right mood. So that’s usually what I like to start with when I’m planning a party. When I can find a free e-invitation that fits my party’s theme, I go with that. Easy, breezy. But I couldn’t find any gnome-related ones—shocker, I know—and gnome cards/art I did find online was representative of exactly what you would expect a gnome to be: male, old, and hairy. I wanted cute little girl gnomes! Having-the-time-of-their-lives gnomes! Finding the right invitation became my everything, my project, my obsession…because I am a geek and I tend to jump into projects wholeheartedly.

And also because I am a geek, I ended up contacting an artist I met at San Diego Comic-Con 2014, Eunjung June Kim, who just does the cutest stuff. I told her—in entirely too many words (sorry, June!)—exactly what my inspiration was. I combined ideas from some of her previous illustrations that I loved on her website, mixing in the gnome factor and the physical description of my two little girls. As you can see from the image above (left), she did a fantastic job. The illustration she made was perfect in every way. I was able to add text in the middle, which read: “Hey gnomies! Yeah? Wanna party? Yeah! Join us for the 1st birthday of…” and print them on cardstock at Costco.

Meanwhile, I was still looking for gnome stuff on Etsy and found the art featured above (right) by Moon Cookie Gallery. It was too adorable to pass up. I ended up asking her if she could make it into cards, and she agreed, so I got myself a stack of thank you notes with a fun complement to the invitation designs.

With the invitations and thank you cards handled beautifully, I was ready to accept that this theme idea could really work out well!

The Decor

Gnome Decor. Photo by Ariane Coffin.
Gnome Decor. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

When choosing a party theme, it’s a good idea to consider what season you’re in and what’s trending—especially when trying to stay under a budget. You’ll be more likely to find items available, in stock, and on sale if you play up what’s in season. If you’re planning a party in late spring, for example, you might want to consider a red theme so you can catch Christmas and Valentine’s Day items on sale that might fit your theme color. We picked gnomes (red, white, and green color palette) without much thought for the season—not following my own advice—but we luckily ending up hitting the holiday season. Plus, gnomes were “in” this year for holiday decor, so that was a huge score.

For our decor, we had a few gnomes from our front porch that we could reuse, plus my mom had a few fall decor items that fit in quite well. The gnome on a swing was a Christmas gnome that my mom found at a discount store and glued to a makeshift swing. The stars hanging over the tables were also supposed to be holiday decorations.

The Little Details

Gnome details. Image credits: Amazon.
Gnome details. Image credits: Amazon.

For the disposable dinnerware items, we had Birch paper straws, disposable bamboo plates (costly, so we bought only one set and complemented with cheaper plates for extras), red napkins with white polka dots, white plastic table covers, and moss runners as centerpieces.

To complete the theme, we had a mushroom piñata (which I filled with little containers of Play-Doh and plastic bugs), and red paper party hats for the kids to dress-up as gnomes. The party favors were tiny 1-inch terra cotta pots and sunflower seeds, which were sold as kits for like $1 at Michaels.

The Cakes

Gnome cakes. Photo by Ariane Coffin.
Gnome cakes. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

I’m usually all over the food and dessert situation and making everything myself, but this year I was too tired to care. Maybe it was because, oh I don’t know, I had a baby and all?! I hired a taco truck to provide lunch and handed over the cake duties to my mom—for the record, she offered. My mom always did love play dough, so she rocked fondant on that mushroom cake like nobody’s business! As for the acorn cupcakes, they are, perhaps obviously, topped with donut holes dipped in chocolate and chocolate sprinkles, speared by pretzel sticks.

Non-Party-Related Fun Tidbits About Gnomes (Kind Of)

Have you ever heard of erdstalls? They are underground tunnels in Europe, mostly Germany, dating back to the middle ages. We have little to no information about who created them, or why. The tunnels are small, around 4 feet high by 24 inches wide on average. It would make sense that the tunnels were put in place to safely escape whatever scared people in the middle ages, but generally the tunnels don’t lead anywhere. The next logical assumption would be that they might have been used for non-Christian religious cults. However, humans using the tunnels as escapes, hideouts, or religious grounds would have left some artifacts behind. No significant artifacts were ever found in erdstalls, their dating was only possible based on carbon dating small bits of wood or charcoal found inside. So in the end, you are free to make up your own theories for the existence of erdstalls. Some say they might have been used as root cellars to hide food from pillagers. But personally, I think gnomes make a much better story!

For a fun intro to erdstalls, I suggest listening to this episode of the podcast Good Job, Brain!

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 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!

[playbuzz-game game=””]

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.