Happy Chinese and a Movie

Photo illustration modified from Morguefile.com stock image.

There was no Christmas tree in our house. There were no stockings, and Santa never came down the chimney. This is how I grew up. Seven percent of Americans do not celebrate Christmas. That includes members of many religions (including some Christians) and other Americans for whom, for whatever reason, it’s just not a holiday. I grew up in a Bahai household (just like Rainn Wilson), and we didn’t observe Christmas. Or any other winter holiday, actually. Bah humbug.

Chinese and a movie is a cliché among Jews, but it’s actually pretty standard for  anyone who doesn’t celebrate. Everything closes on Christmas, except a few Chinese restaurants and movie theaters, so if you want to go out and do something on your day off, that’s about all there is to do. Sometimes it was TV dinners and a rental.  And like the rest of you, I pretend the Star Wars Holiday Special never existed.

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Just Shut Up About Jenny McCarthy Already

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Photo by Michael Dorausch. This photo was cropped and is used here through a Creative Commons Share Alike license. 

While all of those recycled articles about Jenny McCarthy’s son not having autism are amusing, they are probably inaccurate. At least, according to her. I really wish people would stop, because it only serves to make her look sympathetic.

I understand the appeal of the argument. If her son never had autism, her “cures” are invalidated, so we can all feel smug that we’re following science, and she’s following woo. Too bad that life doesn’t always have poetic justice.

Here’s the thing: She, like many parents, followed a mix of very good advice and crazy, unsupported ideas on how to treat autism, if we are to believe the various statements she’s made to the press over the years. She got her son’s seizures under control using traditional medicine, not indigo mom crystal therapy. She had specialists work with him using applied behavioral analysis and speech therapy, both of which are evidence-based practices. She used play therapy and video modeling, both of which are used by traditional therapists. Time has also passed, and kids all tend to improve with time. Is it really a huge surprise that he had dramatic gains with all the things we already know work? Some kids just do better than others. It’s life, and life has never been known to be fair.

The part that should make us all mad, aside from the dangerous vaccine denial, is that she financed all that therapy for her son by selling books and endorsements for products and therapies that haven’t been shown to work at all. If people want to feed their kids gluten-free/casein-free cupcakes, that’s probably not going to hurt anything. However, it’s a real pity if they’re spending the money and time on special diets that they could be spending on something with some evidence behind it. I cannot stand people who sell snake oil to vulnerable parents. They’re the worst. I’d like to think she’s misguided rather than deliberately deceitful on this one, but she’s spreading misinformation either way.

I’d threaten to stop watching The View over her, but I’d have to start watching it first.

Now for those who would like a little better quality reading material, I recommend:

Unstrange Minds
The Reason I Jump
Autism’s False Prophets (and follow it up with Do You Believe in Magic by the same author)
Look Me in the Eye
The Science and Fiction of Autism

 

EV3 Review: The Lego Robot

EV3GM

Photo by Marziah Karch

I know I need a new Lego robot. Actually, I need two. I have the Lego Education edition, and I’ve got a retail set on order from a local toy store.  I was sold the moment I saw them at CES this year.

I also had the chance to borrow (and return) a retail set from Lego in advance of their launch on September 1, and I’ve been putting it to the test to see how it performs. The EV3 is the first update to the Lego Mindstorms robotics set in three years, and it officially goes on sale for a steep $349 on September 1.

Is it worth it? Well, it depends. Do you have kids with an interest in robotics? Are you willing to spend this much on a toy? This is a toy that teaches kids (age 10+) programming and engineering skills. It allows exploration of robotics concepts without needing to understand electrical engineering or advanced programming, but it isn’t dumbed down to the point that it becomes boring for older kids or even adults. In fact, the GeekMoms and GeekDads can’t resist a good Lego robot building challenge.

EV3 Features

So what does the EV3 bring to the table? It still consists of the Lego Technic pin and beam construction system, which allows you to build strong robots with moving parts better than the standard Lego System. The CPU brain of the Lego Mindstorms is still the Brick. I’ve got a comparison shot between my NXT 2.0 brick and the new EV3 brick, so you can see how the system is still basically the same black and white display on a large, sturdy brick:

NXTandEV3

Underneath that similar brick, there’s a newly updated, faster processor. There’s also more expansion with an SD card slot on the side, and you can program directly on the bot. The NXT 2.0 allowed you to string together a few commands, but if you wanted to do anything fancy, it always had to be done on a computer and transferred to the bot.

There’s a caveat here. Full on-the-bot programming is cumbersome. It involves a tiny screen and a lot of hitting up and down buttons. However, the fact that you can do this at all is great news. It means you can have a team or a group of kids that have no access to a computer, and they can still program their robots. I’m immediately thinking of classes, club meetings, camps, and other settings where team robot building challenges would just be amazing.
The other price we seem to have paid for the revamped brick interface is in start up and shut down time. My NXT 2.0 brick starts and shuts off pretty much instantly. The EV3 takes 30-45 seconds for each. That’s not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it may be a long wait for kids with short attention spans.
The new EV3 has some of the same sensors and servos as the old NXT, and many have improvements. The large motor servos are the same, but there’s also a small motor servo. The color sensor is easier to attach to your bot. There’s now only one touch sensor, and there’s a brand new infrared sensor with a remote “beacon.” This replaces the ultrasonic sensor in the retail sets. (The Lego Education set includes the ultrasonic sensor but not the IR sensor and beacon.)

The EV3 seems more playful and just a little cooler than the NXT design. Everything matches the new red and black color scheme, instead of the Google-esque multicolor mismatch of the previous version. The IR sensor has eyes painted onto it rather than the implied eyes of the ultrasonic sensor. The mostly decorative “wing” pieces have stickers to make your robot appear more like a battle-worn survivor of a space war.  The old NXT included a paper test track that got torn up pretty quickly after you put it on the floor. The new EV3 has a test track that comes as part of the box itself. Cut off the outer layer of the box, and it becomes the test track.  It’s both sturdier and more interesting than the previous version.

One area that seems like Lego was trying a little too hard is in the naming conventions. The EV3 has an E to 3 substitution in all the demo model names, so the Track3r, the Spik3r, the R3ptar, etc. That feels a little too Leet, and it won’t age well. The good news is that once you build them, you can call your models whatever you want.

Models, Models, Models

Speaking of models, there are tons of models and instructions right out of the gate. The box instructions only include the bot pictured at the top of the page. Well, it’s actually three bots in one. You start with a simple tank, add the small motor servo for a spinning “blade of death,” and then add the IR sensor for a remote control tank. The  “Track3r” bot comes with a demo program that moves it a few times, makes some noises, and adds some on-screen eyes. The whole thing takes less than an hour to build, and it means you can make something that just works right away. You also get instructions on how to download several other models, and you can preview the instructions on your computer screen.

If you have an iPad, you can also take advantage of an app that shows you how to build the optional models. The iPad app, designed with the help of Autodesk, is just a brilliant idea. It offers animated, 3D, step-by-step instructions, so you no longer end up realizing five steps from the end that you missed a peg or axle at some point. Once you’ve mastered the basic steps, you can use the concepts you learned while building the models and make your own robots. The iPad software would be even better if it also supported iPad-based EV3 programming, but no dice.

The software for the EV3 doesn’t ship on disc like it did with the NXT 2.0. Instead, it’s a free download. Thank goodness. I have a friend who lost her NXT 2.0 software only to discover that she couldn’t just download it somewhere. I’ve even heard that the new software is compatible with the old NXT 2.0 bricks, other than not supporting some features that are exclusive to the EV3. The new EV3 software has an updated look and feel but still offers the same drag-and-drop visual programming. If you think that’s too much of a baby step, the operating system behind the Ev3 is Linux, and I’ve been told by Lego reps that they’ve made it easy to bypass the visual programming tools and just hack your robot directly. You can also hook up to four EV3 bricks together for some sort of super robot.

EV3 vs. Raspberry Pi, Arduino

You might ask yourself why you’d want to spend nearly $350 on a Lego robotics kit instead of buying a Raspberry Pi for $45 and learning some Python or buying an Arduino kit for under $200 and learning more about electrical engineering. It’s a legitimate question. Some people are going to want to just go for the cheaper options. Some people will want all of them. They do different things, so it’s not an all or nothing deal.

Here’s my take. The Ev3 costs a lot upfront, but it’s tough and reconfigurable, and used Lego Mindstorms kits have traditionally held onto their value pretty well on eBay. Other robotics platforms are either used up in the process of building them or go through processor innovations so fast that nobody is interested in the old models. It’s also a great entry point, especially for parents who aren’t robotics super whizzes themselves. You really can step in and assist your younger child or allow your older, enthusiastic child to go hog wild on their own. You can always work your way towards more complicated systems later on.

Bottom Line

Lego did a fantastic job updating the EV3 with new sensors and better peg slots for building with the old sensors. The expandable brick and new interface are fantastic once you learn how to get around on them. Sticking with the traditional black and white screen display means longer battery life and a more durable device, although eInk display would have been a great innovation here. I would have liked to see iPad and Android tablet versions of the programming interface to make the robot truly computer independent, but there’s still room for Lego to go in that direction in the future.

If you’re already a fan of Mindstorms, you’ll want to get this new model. If you are new to Lego robotics, I suggest looking for a First Lego Robotics League or similar group to explore the possibilities and make sure your child is enthusiastic enough with the idea. As with anything you program, you have to have some tenacity to problem solve. That’s the sort of skill you may want to cultivate in your children. Children under the suggested age of 10 will need a lot of guidance (there are small pieces, the pegs are hard to push into the bots, and Mindstorms can take some abuse—but not kids who want to step on them or throw them from great heights). My 11-year-old had no difficulty with assembly, and once she figured out how to transfer programs, she was debugging and problem-solving bot actions in no time. If you’re not sure if this toy is right for your younger child, you should probably wait a few years and re-examine.

However, if you want to buy it for yourself and pretend it’s for your child, we won’t judge.

Lego Mindstorm EV3 Available September 1

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Lego Mindstorms EV3 picture by Marziah Karch

Lego announced their next generation Mindstorm robotics product back in January at CES, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview. This updated version is super cool. Expensive, but super cool. It has a new Linux-based operating system (which Lego is totally cool with letting you hack), and Lego will provide instructions for up to 12 different models right out of the box. There’s a better processor with an actual SD card slot, and there’s much better on-brick programming. You can chain up to four Mindstorms together, and there’s a new infrared sensor as well as significant improvements to existing sensors.

Although Lego was elusive about the exact release date in January, most guesses were initially for early spring, mid-summer. We finally, finally have a date. The retail version of the EV3 will ship on September 1 for a price of $349, but if you shop around online, you may be able to pre-order sometime this month. You could also pre-order a book on the EV3. Ahem.

The Lego Education edition (pictured above) ships today. Most people should go ahead and wait for the retail version rather than getting the education version. The education version is intended for classrooms and leaves out some of the parts (including the new infrared sensor) in exchange for a better storage case.  That’s a trade-off that makes sense if you need to store your system in a classroom, but not if you’re a home user that wants to build that really cool infrared cobra bot I saw them demo at CES.

June Steampunk Block of the Month: Octopus

June Steampunk BOM by Marziah Karch

This was a hard month. I really wanted to add an octopus. I didn’t want to make something cutesy, and I didn’t want to make something so detailed it would be impossible to sew. So, in the name of avoiding an overly twee design, I went dark. I wanted this thing to be a mix of Victorian biology sketch and something that Lovecraft would suggest might be waiting to devour your soul if you start reading out of that suspiciously evil looking book over there…

Did it work? You let me know. This is probably the most difficult block so far. The eyes are pretty tiny, so this might be the month you want to hand sew the appliqué, or you may want to just use thread or beads to make the blacks of those eyes. You could also skip the lighter green areas and just make it an outline with eyes if the small parts are too much.

As usual, I’ve included both regular and mirrored patterns for your tracing convenience. Be sure to print at 100%. Finished block size is 12×12 inches, so a 14×14 inch square is recommended for proper placement. Download the PDF pattern here.

So here’s our quilt so far:

junequiltwhol

Didn’t get started? Miss a month? Not to worry. The year isn’t over, is it? There’s plenty of time to catch up! Here’s what you missed:

Here is May’s block.

Here is April’s block.

Here is the March block of the month.

Here is the February block.

Here is the January block.

As always, I’d love to see a picture if you’ve made any of the previous blocks.

Update: This block ended up being the last block for 2013 due to time constraints. We hope to continue where we left off in 2014. 

Sometimes It’s Not the Legos

Photo by Marziah Karch

Photo by Marziah Karch

My son and I built our first Lego brick kit together. We’ve got tons of Lego bricks around the house. At one point, I even bought them off of eBay by the pound. My daughter and I assemble them together all the time, but adding my son to the activity was more accommodation than it was true participation. Until last year.

He’s autistic, and sometimes it’s hard for him to sit still, to communicate, and to follow multi step instructions. He loves playing with Legos, but the idea of putting together a kit was too much for him. He’d rather play with the pieces his way. And that’s fine. That’s why we have all those bricks around. Some kids on the spectrum are the opposite. Lego kits must be assembled exactly the way the instructions say. Any other way would be breaking the rules.

We found a surprise when cleaning out my shelves. An old Lego kit. It’s so old that I’m pretty sure bought it before I had kids. I set it aside, and my son picked up the box and excitedly declared, “Lego Star Wars!” I told him we could build it together.

I pulled out the pieces and the instruction book. Normally what would happen at this point is he’d get upset about me interfering with his toy and grab all the pieces, and that would be that. Instead, he sat next to me and built along. I’d point at the step in the instructions and try to find the appropriate pieces. He’d look at the picture and put the pieces in place. Correctly. Sometimes he’d ask for the pieces for the next steps, “Gray! Blue! Green!”

When his toy was assembled, he declared it to be a space ship, and then spent most of the afternoon taking off into space. “Zooom!”  I immediately knew what he was getting for his birthday.

As it turns out, I could have purchased a couple of kits for the price the now collector’s item Slave I ship would have fetched new in the box. I don’t mind. I got to spend some mother-son bonding time and see my boy develop a new skill. Sometimes it’s not the Legos.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in Wired. 

Review: Fujitsu Scansnap iX500

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Image credit: Fujitsu

I’ve used a lot of scanners since the days when I bought my first SCSI flatbed scanner that took up half the computer desk and took ten minutes per page. These days I do a lot of photo scanning with the flatbed built into my all-in-one printer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally want something higher speed. In fact, every school year, I want something higher speed. Raising a special needs student tends to mean killing a lot of trees with documentation.

There are plenty of other occasions where having a high-speed scanner with a document feeder would come in handy, such as after conventions when I have tons of business cards or during tax season when I have a pile of receipts. I don’t even necessarily want to keep some of that stuff on my computer. I’d rather just send it to Google Drive or Evernote and find it when I needed it.

For the first several school years, I had a file folder where I’d just stuff all my paperwork after school meetings. I intended to sort it and file it, someday, but the task was pretty daunting without some better technology. I started clearing out some of my paperwork with a smaller scanner that came with a direct-to-iPad adapter and a software filing system. I thought the mobile features would make it easier, since I could move it into the living room and scan while watching TV. It was still going to be a chore, but at least I would have everything organized.

Well, it was more than a chore. It was downright tedious, even with mobility. After reviewing the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500, I realized that sometimes it’s worth three times as much to get it done ten times quicker. I swear I’m never using a hand-held scanner again.

The Competition

Fujitsu’s iX500 is priced around $430, putting it squarely on the higher price range for home office scanners with similar feature sets, such as the Epson WorkForce or NeatDesk scanner. However, the ScanSnap  is a newer model and does offer direct-to-mobile scanning over home Wi-Fi networks.  The ScanSnap also has sides that fold unobtrusively out of the way while not in use, like the Epson, but the look is sleeker on the Fujitsu ScanSnap. Both Epson and Fujitsu’s models offer fast 25 ppm, double-sided speeds, but the Epson can feed stacks of up to 75 pages compared to 50 on the ScanSnap. All three scan documents in color.

The Basics

Like the competing scanners I mentioned,  the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scans both sides of the paper at once and allows you to stack several pages at a time to have them fed individually through the scanner. This is great for scanning in long documents without getting the page order mixed up. It also takes documents of different sizes without having to separate them. It will visually straighten crooked documents and turn upside down or sideways documents to the correct orientation. Text documents use ABBYY OCR scanning for conversion into editable formats. (OCR stands for optical character recognition, and it means that the software recognizes the picture of a letter and translates it into actual text. It’s the difference between a Word document and a giant picture of a document.)

Once you’ve scanned a document, ScanSnap software pops up with a Quick Menu that asks you what you want to do with it and offers suggestions depending on the type of document it detects. You can save it within the ScanSnap folder, export it to a desktop program like Office, or send it to cloud services, including Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox, and SugarSync. The Quick Menu also offers to send business cards to apps like Salesforce or use the ScanSnap’s native CardMinder app. You can also save documents as searchable PDFs, so you preserve the flow of the text while still making it useable. While not 100% accurate, ScanSnaps suggestions were still very reliable, and they offered the easy ability to override them when they were off the mark.

Installation

I tested the ScanSnap on a Windows 8 PC, and I had no problems getting it to work, other than time. There were a lot of drivers and bundled software, so it took a good chunk of time to get everything set up. You also have to set up the connection for any services you wish to use, such as Google Drive, SugarSync, or Evernote.  I found no software glitches or errors that seemed to be related to Windows 8 compatibility. Mac software (including CardMinder) is also bundled with the scanner, so you don’t have to purchase a separate scanner version for your iMac or Macbook, and the Mac version can also send documents to Skitch for easy markup. Fujitsu has also offered regular upgrades to the included software packages during the time I’ve had the software installed.

The ScanSnap software is intentionally minimal. CardMinder, ScanSnap Organizer, and ABBYY Reader are all part of the default installation for the iX500 and perform separate scanning and organizational tasks, but all three are really built to share with other apps and cloud services. While the ScanSnap software will sort and store your documents on your hard drive, it’s clearly meant as the vehicle for sending documents to other services. This is in contrast to NeatDesk, which acts more like expensive organizational software that comes with a free scanner. There’s nothing wrong with that approach if you like NeatDesks’s software, and you can export documents if you wish. I would just rather skip the middle man as much as possible and put my documents where I’ll use them.

Scanning

After setting up all the software, it was time to test the physical limits of the scanner.

The ScanSnap is set up so that you can feed a pile of papers in one end, and it automatically feeds it through on the other side, even if the sheets are different sizes and shapes. It does not, however, remove staples, sticky notes, or paperclips, so you do have to go through your paper pile at least briefly to make sure it is separate sheets. This scanner is super fast. It’s listed as 25 ppm, but I swear it was faster than that. As long as I scanned unwrinkled documents, the scanner just seamed to zip through papers. That may be because of the dual-core GI processor inside the scanner.

I also wanted to test less than ideal conditions. I had a pile of wrinkled, stained, torn, and otherwise abused documents.

I was able to jam the feed mechanism and get the occasional multi-feed with very wrinkled documents and over-stuffing, but I never managed to outright rip paper from a stubborn jam or break the scanner to the point that the jam couldn’t be cleared. When scanning unwrinkled documents at the recommended piles of 50 pages or less, I didn’t have any problems. The ScanSnap also did a reasonable job of jam recovery mid-document by allowing me to keep appending pages to a document rather than producing several batches of partial documents.

Mobile

If you want to scan to mobile, you must also download an iOS or Android app on your mobile device, and you must be connected to the same Wi-Fi network. This allows you to scan a document directly to your phone or tablet without going through the computer first. I found this to be more difficult to set up and slower than simply scanning the document to a cloud service and accessing it from my mobile device, but it does work. If you want to avoid the cloud service, this may be the quicker workflow.

Impressions and Caveats

Where the ScanSnap really excelled was when it got out of the way. If you have it on your desk and need to scan in the occasional school report or tax receipt. Put it in the scanner, hit the button, and choose a location. Very simple. Very easy. My  son’s IEPs are now sorted by year and tagged by keywords in Evernote, so I can pull them out and reference them during meetings. My kids’ pediatric data is at my fingertips when I need it. Hey, when was my daughter’s last MMR shot? Let me look that up on my phone.

The ScanSnap is inappropriate for documents that cannot be bent, such as artwork or stiff papers, since documents must bend slightly around a drum in order to be fed into a machine. It can’t be used for items that can’t be separated into pages. You can’t scan in a book unless you remove the binding, for example. (Plus there’s the whole copyright mess of scanning in a book you didn’t write.)  It’s also not intended as a mobile scanner. Meaning you can scan directly to mobile devices from home, but you really shouldn’t pack it in your luggage to scan while you’re away. Fujitsu does offer a mobile version of their scanner, but it isn’t as fast or feature rich.

Bottom Line

If you find yourself in the need for a high speed scanner, the ScanSnap iX500 is a very solid if slightly expensive choice. The emphasis is on well-designed hardware for quick scans and software that gets your documents converted and sent to the cloud services of your choice. This scanner is one of those devices that will make you wonder how you survived without it.

Full disclosure: a review unit was provided by Fujitsu.

 

Don’t Miss Maker Faire Kansas City

Kansas City is actually a pretty cool place to be a maker. It’s one of a few locations of the larger “featured” Maker Faires. The other locations are Detroit, Newcastle (UK), Rome, and Tokyo. It’s still about one tenth the size of the World Maker Faire in New York, but over 10,000 attendees is still not bad. If you’re in the midwest, it’s totally worth the drive.

By the way, the Mini Maker Faires are also very awesome. You should check to see if there is one near you. If not, consider starting one. These family-friendly DIY showcases are amazing. I credit Maker Faire for sparking my daughter’s interest in robotics.

This year’s Maker Faire Kansas City will feature crowd favorites like ArcAttack, deals from the Maker Shed, and up to 400 Maker booths, including a food, arts and crafts, robotics, and Young Makers. This is only the third year for Kansas City’s event, but it’s already become Union Station’s most popular draw.

Maker Faire KC will be held:

Saturday, June 29, 2013, 10 am – 7 pm
Sunday, June 30, 2013, 10 am – 5 pm

Union Station
30 W. Pershing Rd.
Kansas City, MO 64108

You can purchase tickets online, but if you’re a Union Station member (like I am), you should buy them on site to take advantage of the discount.

Full disclosure: GeekMom and GeekDad publisher, Ken Denmead is the editorial director for Maker Media.

 

Motherboards and Daughtercards: Build a Computer With Your Kid

Girl and computer

Photo illustration by Marziah Karch

My kids are in the kitchen all the time to help cook. Even if they’re just stirring the pancake batter, the early exposure and incrementally increased responsibility helps them understand the basics of cooking. That means they’re not going to be the ones in college that have to call and ask how to bake a potato.

I have the same philosophy about computers. Expose kids early, and expose them to more than just using a computer to run apps. Think of it like learning about baking bread instead of just buying pre-sliced loaves. So when our ancient PC stopped working this winter, I knew that I wasn’t going to build another computer this time. My daughter was.

She was relieved to find out that building a computer didn’t involve soldering.

I could have recycled my old case, but I figured that my daughter’s first build was not going to be on a case with a lot of sharp metal parts. We chose a nice case with plenty of room, cord management, and screw-less hard drive rails. I made the rest of the choices, but I talked through them with her so that she’d see why I chose the way I did.

I really tried to have her do as much of the work as possible. That’s the point, right?

There are a few things, like getting the screws loose on the case or seating the video card that just require some serious muscle power, but she tried to do those things, too. She was a natural at seating the processor, but she had to be coached into getting the RAM installed – as do most first time builders and upgraders. It took me a couple of tries to learn I wasn’t going to break the motherboard when I first started upgrading RAM.

We had to make a second trip to the store to get a DVD drive after everything was assembled. Turned out I couldn’t recycle the one from our old computer after all. Oops. We’d already gone through the process of installing things several times at this point. I handed the new DVD to her with no instructions and asked her what she should do. She replied that she needed to put it in the bay and hook it up to the power and “the brain.” And then she did it. She rocks.

I probably spent more money on that computer than I would have if I’d just shopped around and snagged a cheap refurb, but it is a nice system. More importantly, it’s the computer my daughter built, and that’s an experience that doesn’t come preassembled.

A version of this story originally appeared on GeekMom in January.

My Daughter the Mermaid

Photo illustration by Marziah Karch

Photo illustration by Marziah Karch

As my kids get older, they just tend to get more interesting. And every once in a while, they prove that they’re total geniuses. The trick is to catch them being good and encourage them to be even better.

Last summer, my then ten-year-old daughter made a mermaid tail. She’s got a bit of an obsession with mermaids. She loved the series H2O Just Add Water (which is surprisingly good for a fantasy kids’ show) and she’d been doing a lot of research on mermaid tails.

She discovered that there’s such a thing as a swimmable mermaid tail, and she really wanted to make one. She not only presented me with instructions, but she’d also researched prices. That’s some serious project initiative for an almost 5th grader. I did set one limitation. She could not make a swimmable mermaid tail. She could only make a costume. I don’t think one-piece swimmable tails are safe for young swimmers (or necessarily that safe for experienced swimmers, for that matter).

Was it the easiest thing to sew? No. I think we all learned to hate Lycra swim fabric a little with this project, but the results were nice. It was a super fun summer project.

If you want to try this yourself, we had her make her pattern on poster board by tracing an outline of the outside of her legs. It’s okay to round down on the measurements instead of up if you’re using Lycra. It stretches. We then had make a pattern for the fin shape. She sewed the fin separately from the body of the tail and attached them afterward.  The fin is stiffened with feather boning and heavyweight sew-in stabilizer, since we were mean parents and wouldn’t let her use a monofin. The stabilizer was inserted after the fin was turned, as was the feather boning, and then the fin was top-stitched to hold it together and emphasize the fin shape.

mermadbaribeThe great thing about projects like this? Not only did she learn sewing skills, she has a launching point for more creative learning. Once she’d made the big tail with parental help, she made her Barbie a tail with no help at all. In fact, she showed us the final product after it was done. (We had a talk about cutting fabric out of the edge of the yardage and not the middle next time.)

She’s also decided that she’s going to make a series of videos about her adventures as a mermaid. I’m skeptical that she’ll get this done, but bring it on. I figure this is her chance to learn about storyboarding, editing, and creative writing. Perhaps even spelling. (She started with “Epsod 1” until I had her sound out the word.)

I loved 5th grade. Time to see what 6th will bring for her. It may involve Minecraft videos. I hope it still involves costumes.

A version of this article originally appeared on GeekMom in the summer of 2012. 

May Block of the Month: A Steampunk Raygun

Block of the Month by Marziah Karch

Block of the Month by Marziah Karch

May is almost over, but not without a May block of the month! This month has a crazy ray weapon.

The piecing is slightly trickier on this one. I’d suggest appliquéing the trigger area as a separate piece of background fabric you sew on top instead of cutting a hole in the black gun base fabric. The red cutouts on the brass of the gun and wooden inlay on the gun grip can be handled the same way.

The finished quilt piece should be 12×12 inches, and the pattern has both normal and mirrored tracing images for your convenience.

So here’s our quilt to date: [Read more…]

Chemistry and Cupcakes

Photo by Harold Agnew

Photo by Harold Agnew

Baking can teach you a lot of things. Following directions, measuring, fractions, and even chemistry. This is a simple experiment using a basic cake/cupcake recipe that I’ve cut in half for smaller batches. We’ll make eight batches total, and in seven of them we’ll take away an ingredient. You’ll learn how all the ingredients work together to make a delicious cupcake. [Read more…]

How to Make Your Own Steampunk Goggles

goggles

Photo by Marziah Karch

Goggles are the must-have accessory for steampunk cosplay. Like a little black dress, only awesomer. Here’s how you can make your own from a pair of cheap welding goggles.

The first step is to make that plastic look like metal. This step takes about two hours, including drying time. [Read more…]

ThinkGeek Is Cooler Than Jayne’s Hat

Jayne's Hat

Image Courtesy ThinkGeek

By now, if you’re a Firefly fan,  you’ve probably heard the outrage heard across the ‘verse. The story goes something like this. The Firefly character Jayne Cobb’s silly orange hat, lovingly knitted by his mother, has become an iconic symbol of the cancelled-too-soon series. People have knitted their own hats for years. You see them on college campuses. You see them at comic conventions. People love their Jayne hats, and when you see one, you give a nod to your fellow Browncoat. Occasionally people put their hand-knit caps up on Etsy or other sites to sell them to other fans. No mass production. Just a few fans making pizza money.

ThinkGeek, one of my very favoritest sites of all time, decided that since there was a lot of demand and very little actual product, maybe they should do something about that. They worked with an officially licensed producer to get an officially licensed Jayne’s Hat in their store. It’s not an exclusive item to ThinkGeek, but ThinkGeek had a hand in designing the perfect silly orange hat for fans. It’s suitable for both head warmth and finding all the cool people who recognize it. Shiny!

One problem. Now that it’s an instant money-making item, Fox has started issuing cease and desist letters to those little Etsy shops that have been selling the product for years. Etsy chose the path of most butt coverage and has been reportedly shutting down stores, not just issuing warnings or delisting the offending items. Stores that sold non-hat related Firefly fan merchandise have also been reportedly shuttered – just in case.

Yes, it completely sucks to have your Etsy store shut down for an activity you thought was  fine for years and years, but the truth is that those stores were making money off of someone else’s intellectual property, no matter how rich they weren’t getting in the process.  

It was always a legally gray area, and as soon as you call it “Jayne’s Hat” or mention the series from whence it came, you’re riding on the coattails of a show you didn’t make. Sure, Fox makes everyone mad for having cancelled the show in the first place, but it was their show to cancel, and it’s their show to license even after it was cancelled. Yes, the optics of closing down mom and pop stores is bad, but if they don’t defend their license, even against the small stores, they could lose the ability to defend it against the big ones. Update: an actual IP lawyer explains how a lowly hat can become a trademarked item.

The way I see it, this whole Jayne’s Hat issue actually has a silver lining for Firefly fans. How, you say? You know what you get when you take a cancelled science fiction show with a loyal fan base that likes to spend a lot of money on licensed products? Maybe you get Star Trek the Motion Picture. Maybe you get the eventual resurrection and re-imagining of your universe into a vast series of books, comic books, cartoons, TV shows, games, rides, products, and movies. Yes, it could happen. Some of it already has. Spend your money on licensed products, kiddies. It’s a story that is too pretty to die.

Furthermore, ThinkGeek has taken a lot of unfair flak over something that totally wasn’t their fault. They had nothing to do with Etsy stores being shut down. They just wanted a cool hat, and they played by the rules to get one legitimately — just like they did when they made the coolest Tauntaun sleeping bag, ever after overwhelming fan demand. I want to see them bring more super cool, super creative fan products to the market. It would be the best targeted weight loss plan ever (if the target of all that weight loss was my wallet.)

After all the kerfluffle over the hats, ThinkGeek has issued the following statement:

Browncoats, we hear your concerns about the cease and desist on Etsy Jayne Hat sellers!

 

We weren’t involved in that process, but we have reached out to FOX and we’ve heard what you’ve had to say. As a result, we’ve decided to donate the profits from all Jayne Hat sales on our site to Can’t Stop the Serenity, a Browncoat charity dear to ThinkGeek’s heart that raises funds and awareness in support of Equality Now. We’ll continue making that donation until we run out of stock.

We hope the Hero of Canton himself would approve.

Honestly, they didn’t have to do this, but it does make them big damn heroes. Speaking of ThinkGeek charity and big damn heroes, be sure to pick up a Neurodiversity shirt from ThinkGeek to go with your hat. It’s not Firefly, but the profits from the shirts sold in April will go to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

April Block of the Month: Airship

AprilAirshipCloth

April block of the month!

It’s time for April’s block of the month in our steampunk quilt. This month we’re sailing on an airship. No worries about physics or how much weight must be at the bottom of that massive thing. I’m sure there’s a gear-driven anti-grav device powering the ship behind the scenes. And flapping those wing-fins for no apparent reason.

The finished block will be 12×12 inches. That means it will actually measure 12.5 x 12.5, and I’d recommend starting with a block of at least 14×14 and cutting it down.

The template this month does not include seam allowance. I’ve included both forward and reversed versions of the pattern. One  version is just the pieces and is designed to overlap and layer.
I’d recommend some embroidery or couching  to enhance the fins, which is why I’ve shown it that way in the preview.  Here’s our quilt so far:

AprilBOM

 

Download the PDF for April’s block.

Didn’t get started? Miss a month? Not to worry. The year isn’t over, is it? There’s plenty of time to catch up! Here’s what you missed:

Here is the March block of the month.

Here is the February block.

Here is the January block.

As always, I’d love to see a picture if you’ve made any of the previous blocks.

Vaccines Still Don’t Cause Autism

Image courtesy The Morgue Files

Image courtesy The Morgue Files

People who think vaccines cause autism are hard to convince otherwise. Over the years they’ve come up with many reasons they think vaccines could cause autism, and when one cause is scientifically tested and rejected, the most stubbornly anti-vaccine just come up with another reason. When it turned out not to be caused by the MMR vaccine, the ethyl-mercury based preservative in some vaccines was blamed. When the preservative was removed, the goalpost was moved to the harder to test, “too many, too soon” complaint.

Under the “too many, too soon” hypothesis, it wasn’t a specific vaccine that caused autism but rather the increasing number of recommended childhood vaccines. Some parents used this to justify delaying vaccines instead of using the recommended schedule with the idea that it gave the immune system a chance to recover. Delaying vaccines is actually a bad idea, because it increases the window of vulnerability for children. That, in turn, endangers babies too young for vaccines.

Well rest assured. Following the recommended schedule does not put your kids at an increased risk for autism. There’s no link between the number of vaccines a child receives and their chance of later developing autism.

Instead of chasing after a cause for autism that’s been disproven time and time again, can we start focusing some of this energy and research on improving the lives of individuals with autism?

Give Kids Arduino Adventures

Aduino2

Image courtesy Apress.

Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station is a great introduction to Arduino robotics projects for kids (and adults who want an easy starting point.) The book was written by James Floyd Kelly and Harold Timmis and published by Apress. Full disclosure: James Floyd Kelly is a contributor on GeekDad, and Apress is also my book publisher.

The basic structure of Arduino Adventures is the intertwining of the “escape from Gemini Station” story followed by a lesson and project. The projects build upon themselves and eventually finish with a completed robot and some explanation of Arduino programming.

There’s no soldering required, and there’s even a kit you can purchase with all parts for all the lessons mentioned in the book. Even without the kit, most of the parts should be available at your local Radio Shack.

The structure of the book is very logical, and the authors took care to eliminate a lot of the more frustrating points with big robotics projects, such as soldering errors. By the end of the book, kids should have some building blocks for understanding electronics and programming, although this book will not bring them to expert level. However, this sort of scaffolded introduction into robotics could easily spark their interest and motivate them to explore on their own.

This is the sort of mother-child project bonding book I’d recommend for the 8-12 year olds who are new to robotics. Older kids may want to go through the lessons on their own. I plan on going through the lessons with my daughter’s robotics club, because it gives the younger kids some projects that don’t require soldering and go beyond Snap Circuits or Little Bits.

No Starch Press Manga Guides Make Science Fun

Image courtesy No Starch Press

Have you ever read a textbook cover to cover? I’m in grad school. I’ve had to do it more than once. It usually requires massive amounts of caffeine and re-reading a lot of pages. Well, there’s some good news. No Starch Press has The Manga Guide series on textbook topics, such as statistics, electricity, and molecular biology. The manga books are written by Japanese subject matter experts. They  have been translated to English and (thankfully) rearranged to read from left to right.  Update: I’m told the Japanese originals were left to right, so no rearranging was necessary.

I have three sample use cases in my house, so No StarchPress provided me with three sample books. First is my 11-year-old daughter. She volunteered to read The Manga Guide to Electricity. Next up is my husband, who is studying for his GRE and has discovered that he’s forgotten everything he ever learned in high school math. He read The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra. I’m taking a graduate class in quantitative analysis this semester, so my book was The Manga Guide to Statistics.

All three of these books turn out to be very similar in plot. Character A is struggling with a topic and put into a situation that requires them to learn the subject matter from Character B. It doesn’t matter if they were sent from an alternative dimension with advanced electrical capabilities or trying to get closer to a school crush, the subject matter takes center stage in all of these books. Each goes through a series of illustrated examples that teach the concepts, and the struggling learner interrupts with lots of questions.

I thought that the idea would end up being so hokey that it would disguise the learning material, but I was drawn in to what turned out to be fairly cute stories within a couple of pages. My husband had several GRE prep books, Khan Academy, and a course through Udacity, but it ended up being manga that taught him the most, probably because of the struggling-learner-with-lots-of-questions approach.

I found The Manga Guide to Statistics to be surprisingly good as well. There was the manga story line, of course, but the book also had lots of problems you could work out yourself. The instructions showed you how to do the computation in Excel. Thank goodness. I’m sure a lot of students appreciate learning about statistical concepts and research methods without learning any of the math, but I’m not one of them. Working out frequency distributions or standard deviations really helps me see what those vocabulary words mean in action. The silly and very Japanese examples (the mean price of ramen in an imaginary building with only ramen restaurants) were actually pretty fun.

Speaking of Japanese, that may be the one caveat for this series. The books are translated to English, but there are still illustrations with Japanese text (which may or may not have been mirrored to make the comic books read left to right – I can’t tell). There are lots of cultural references to Japan. That makes sense and is completely part of the charm if you’re a manga fan. However, my daughter struggled with some of these cultural differences as she read. Little things like knowing what “Yen” meant. She’s a Miyazaki fan and no stranger to manga, but she’s also an 11-year-old American. An older child is more likely to see the cultural differences as interesting instead of a barrier to comprehension.

Even with that caveat, this was a cute and smart series. I’d  recommend The Manga Guide to home-schoolers, summer break supplemental learning, college students trying to brush up on a topic, and anyone with a love of anime or manga that wants to learn more about a math or science topic. I’d say the age range starts around middle school, but pay attention to the subject matter.  The books are overall solidly written and make hard science topics entertaining

 

 

March Steampunk Block of the Month

The March steampunk block of the month is here!

This month’s block is a corset, a staple of  female steampunk costumes. I’ve accented mine with a bright red ribbon, but you could also go with a bright red corset and change the ribbon color. I’d suggest making the corset body out of one fabric and adding the “boning” strips over the top. Have fun with patterns in that corset body fabric. (I plan on using Morris Reproduction prints from Moda in mine.) As usual, the finished block is 12×12 inches, but I’d suggest starting out with a 14×14 block for easier positioning.

If you haven’t been sewing along, it’s never too late to start on this quilt.  If you’ve made a previous block of the month, please post a picture in the comments! I’d love to see what you’ve made.

Here’s the PDF download for this month’s block.

Here’s the February block of the month.

Here’s the January block.

Here’s the quilt so far:

Happy quilting, everyone!

 

 

Magisto Might Really Be the Instagram of Video

Magisto screen capture

Screenshot from Magisto website.

Yeah, I know a lot of apps are trying to be the Instagram of video, including Twitter’s weird Vine attempt, but Magisto captures the feel in a way I haven’t seen with other apps. Instagram is Instagram because it’s simple, slightly cheesy, and easy to share. Magisto is pretty much that — only with video.

You don’t have to do any editing to make a cool video. In fact, you can’t do any editing at this point. You just shoot some video or choose one or more movies that you’ve already shot,  pick a theme, pick licensed background music, and let Magisto’s algorithms handle the rest. Once your video is created, you’ll get an email. Share your video on Twitter, Facebook, or by link. You can also export your videos to YouTube.

Here’s a simple video I shot the other day from my phone:

This came from a few minutes of video shot from my phone while my family went sledding. Note: I removed the background music because YouTube flagged it as licensed content. The original with music can be seen here, where Magisto allows comments or a heart-shaped favoriting button–just like Instagram.

Simple is good.

The problem with most home movies is that they’re at least twice as long as they need to be, and they look like they were shot by people making home movies. Video editing software has a heck of a learning curve, and it’s exhausting to make all those choices about edits. Magisto acts as the “easy button.”  Magisto, so far, seems to make very reasonable guesses about what parts of the video are important, and the resulting video is short enough to be interesting and easy to share.

However, if you don’t like the results, you’re out of luck. You just have to try again, because there’s no editing. There’s also no way to upload your own background music or specify that you don’t want a soundtrack. (Update: There is now an option to create a movie without a soundtrack. I referred to information on the Magisto FAQ that was outdated and has now been corrected.) The soundtrack does respond to human voices, though, so it doesn’t drown out your dialog. However, if you have dialog in a movie and want to transfer it to YouTube, you can’t just drop the audio after you get it there, like I did with the sledding video. You need a soundtrack-free option to avoid this. The company claims they’re working on more flexibility with the soundtrack.

Right now the free version of Magisto is limited to 16 hosting videos, and you’re charged  $.99 to $2.99 to download a video you made. You can use the Magisto website directly or download free apps for iOS or Android.  If you hit the max, you just have to download your files or export them to YouTube before deleting them from Magisto.

Make no mistake, this is not a high end editing suite. This is how you share baby photos. Or a video of your kids sledding. Or movies about your cats. It’s not going to win you an Oscar, but it is fun, easy, and maybe a little hokey.

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Can Your Fridge Make Hot Water? The GE Café Fridge Does

GE Cafe Fridge

Image courtesy GE

That settles it. I definitely need a new fridge. Not because my old fridge is broken, but because there are now way too many cool fridges out there. Remember when I told you about Samsung’s new soda making fridge? Well, GE wrote me to tell me that their Café fridge makes hot water. I now have a fantasy of Patrick Stewart standing in front of one demanding some tea. Earl Grey, hot. 

Just how much power is it going to suck out of your kitchen to have a fridge dispensing hot water where it also dispenses ice? Well, they managed to solve the engineering problem well enough to earn the fridge Energy Star status.

This is a French door style fridge with separate evaporators to keep your frozen foods frozen and your chilled foods chilled. (If  you don’t have separate evaporators, opening the fridge door actually lowers the temp in the whole fridge just a bit, leading to freezer burn and melty ice cream.) It’s also got a multi-purpose drawer, with color coded LED indicators to let you know if you’ve got it set to store meat, soda, citrus, or cheese.

I asked them to walk me through the hot water process. I can’t get my Earl Grey as fast as Jean-Luc Picard, but I can get it within a few minutes. I could also get oatmeal or hot cocoa that isn’t scalding.

First step is to tell the fridge dispenser that you want hot water and just how hot you want it. You can pick any temp from 90-185 degrees Fahrenheit.  (It does not make boiling water.) Or, you can choose from one of four pre-set temp settings, so you can have hot tea or warm baby formula. Sadly, you have to use buttons instead of your voice.

Once your water is the correct temperature, you’ll hear an alert. You then have to turn a knob and then push to dispense (so nobody gets a hot water surprise when they wanted ice water), and you’ll get up to 10 ounces of heated water (about a mug’s worth). I’m told that the process should take somewhere between one and six minutes, depending on the temperature setting and how cold your source water is, and that most of the time it would be in the one-two minute range.

If you’re ready to get out your Bodum cups and replicate yourself a cup of Earl Grey, the GE Café fridge will sell for a suggested retail of $3,199 sometime this spring.

Review: Python for Kids

Python for Kids - No Starch Press

Image courtesy No Starch Press

Python for Kids is a book from No Starch Press that aims to teach kids ages 10 and up and their parents about the Python programming language. Python is a good candidate for kids and other programming newbies because it mostly uses natural language and avoids the more annoying things you can find in some programming language. There’s no need to end every line with a semicolon. Variables don’t need to be declared, nor do they need to stick with the same data type. And if I stopped speaking English about two sentences ago, there’s good news. Python for Kids can still help you learn.

I happen to have an 11 year old daughter for convenient review purposes, so we’ve been working through the book together. I’m bribing her with a Raspberry Pi and pink flexible keyboard, because the Raspberry Pi can be programmed with Python. Might as well use what you learn.

First off, the tone of this book is just about right. We tried Super Scratch Programming Adventure, and while the Scratch book is aimed at a slightly younger audience, it really feels like it’s aimed at a much younger audience. Nobody likes a book that talks down to them. Python for Kids author Jason Briggs manages to successfully describe programming to kids without sounding like he’s dumbing down the content. My one critique as an adult reading this is that the whole book had enlarged print, but if it actually helps struggling learners read, I suppose I can overlook it.

My daughter was able to work through most chapters on her own, but she did sometimes ask for help with global concepts, such as why you’d want to “recycle code” or what an if statement was meant to do. Once she understood the concept she was going to learn in the chapter, she was able to go through the exercises and excitedly brag about what she’d learned. “Mom,  I made a tuple! Mom, there’s a turtle in Python!”

She’s still only halfway through the book, but I’ve read ahead. By the time you finish Python for Kids, you’ll have completed two games and learned the foundations for programming with Python. The lessons are well-constructed and leave the reader with a feeling of accomplishment in each chapter.

If you’re looking for a book to teach your fifth grade or older child how to program, and you’re willing to provide a little guidance here and there, this book (and maybe a Raspberry Pi with pink flexible keyboard) makes a good investment.

 

Does Your Fridge Make Soda? Samsung’s RF31FMESBSR Does.

The fridge that makes soda.

Image Courtesy Samsung

I have enough Android tablets in my house that I could probably glue them to every appliance I own. I’m also a seltzer addict. Those two seemingly unrelated sentences are why I thought the refrigerator that Samsung didn’t announce at CES was far more impressive than the one it did.

During CES, Samsung announced the code-named T9000 fridge that ran on Android and totally wasn’t designed by Skynet. Meanwhile, they let me take a glimpse behind the scenes at the more impressive but less memorably named RF31FMESBSR. Instead of just giving you cold filtered water, this fridge takes SodaStream 60L cartridges and turns that cold water into seltzer with three different concentrations of fizz. Ok, sure, there’s also a freezer on the bottom, multipurpose drawer in the middle, and ice maker inside. Sure, it’s got LED lights that do better at lighting things up than the dinky light on the front of my fridge, and it’s better at preventing freezer burn on the frozen stuff, but… soda!

Ok, I love seltzer water because it tastes good but doesn’t have to have any calories. I go through cases of La Croix. I’d been curious about a SodaStream, but I figured it’s expensive and would be yet another thing I’d have to store in my kitchen. Well, bundle it into my fridge, and that solves the storage issue. Not the expense issue, though. This beauty of a fridge – and it is a total beauty – will set you back a suggested retail of $3899. If you’ve still got your heart (or your tax return) set on it, you can get a new soda making fridge from Samsung in April.

February Block of the Month Quilt: Steampunk Goggles

February Block of the Month by Marziah Karch

It’s time for February’s block of the month in our GeekMom steampunk-themed quilt. Last month’s pattern is available here. It’s never too late to get started, and it’s never too late to get caught up.

This month, the pattern is a steampunk staple – the hat with goggles. Whether you’re using them to go racing in experimental vehicles or weld together mad science inventions, you really can never have enough goggles. Incidentally, if you want to make a pair of costume goggles to go along with your quilt goggles, I’ve got a tutorial for that.

I’ve suggested a purple or indigo as the contrasting fabric for the side band, but greens or reds would also be lovely. Prints with metallic elements would be great in the metal part of the goggles, too.

Here’s the link to download this month’s PDF pattern. There are a few other quirks this month I should warn you about. Because this pattern is nothing but large, overlapping pieces, there’s no avoiding tape. Print out the pattern and then tape it together before tracing. You can either trace individual pieces, designed to overlap, or you can trace from the hat fully assembled. I’ve mirrored the image for the fully assembled template, since that’s how most appliqué methods would have you trace it, anyway.

I realize that I still owe you a tutorial on appliqué. I’m still working on it, and I will get that done for you soon.

ChargeCard Puts Your Charge Cable in Your Wallet

Image courtesy ChargeCard

While I was at CES this year, I ran into a clever little product. The name is a bit confusing. ChargeCard sounds like it should be a backup battery or a wireless money transfer system. It’s actually a USB or iOS charging cable that folds up to roughly the size of a credit card. That way you can keep your charging cable with you, no matter the size of your purse. Well, you still have to carry the outlet adapter with you, but that still cuts down considerably on space.

The middle section plugs into a standard USB port, and the end plugs either into an iOS (legacy or lightening) or micro USB port. The ChargeCard is made by a team of four people out in Anaheim and was funded with a Kickstarter campaign. The prototypes were 3D printed. The company plans to keep production inside the US as they expand with a more streamlined production process.

Now, when I tried this out, I had an iPad – maybe not the greatest idea. (They didn’t have a micro USB prototype for me to try at the time.)  The weight of the iPad makes it pretty impractical to plug into something this small for charging unless you’ve got a very well positioned outlet. However, my husband borrowed it to charge an iPod, and it was perfect. I love a simple, clever solution to a problem. I’m also a sucker for startups.

If you wanted to give them a try, you can now pre-order. ChargeCard is offering us a discount code. Their website is here. Use the code “geekmom” for 20% off of your purchase, no matter how big or small.

CES: The Future So Far

Photo of slim e-Ink watch by Marziah Karch

CES is one of my favorite conferences to attend, because it offers a small glimpse into the future. Sometimes it’s an alternate future where crazy and impractical products are funded and introduced, but it’s a great way to see trends. A lot of companies pre-announce products that they plan to introduce later in the year, so you can’t always count on the product actually hitting the shelves.

This year, sensors are all over the place. Parrot is introducing a sensor that will tell you when your plants need to be watered. It also comes with an app to tell you about plant care, so even people who thought they were brown thumbs would have a chance at gardening. An entire section of the trade show floor is dedicated to step sensors, heart monitors, and other self-care sensors that work with your smart phone. There’s even a fork that senses how fast you eat and gives you feedback to encourage slower meals. Several companies introduced sensors that can be used to track lost children or adults. One company cleverly had the sensor inside a phone-watch that could be called by up to five different pre-approved numbers.

Not only did Lego introduce an update to the Mindstorms, they’ve got competition in the cool brick space.

Your next phone is probably going to be a phablet, and it’s probably going to be waterproof. It’s going to connect wirelessly with everything using NFC assist to make Bluetooth pairing faster, and it’s going to charge inductively. Companies would really like you to upgrade your TV into an ultra-high resolution screen. Sony is even willing to re-digitize portions of their media holdings to get you to do it. Sony didn’t mention a word about 3D TV, by the way. Hisense introduced a glasses-free 3D TV. (The results were better than one of those Cracker Jack prizes that you tilt to see it move, but still not as good as The Hobbit in high frame rate.)

There are also battling robots in the future, and your car will always know where you’ve parked (and probably will rat you out to your insurance company if you speed). Your camera will run Android, even if it is not your phone. No hover boards so far, but there are a few days of trade show left.

New Lego EV3 Mindstorms Hands On

Photo by Marziah Karch

I saw the Lego EV3 in person last night, and let me tell you how much I wish I had one right now. At a CES-related trade show on Monday, Lego was on hand with multiple demonstration units to show off the new features. There were motion-sensing cobra bots, ball throwing humanoids, and color sensing roulette wheels on display along with iPads and laptops to show us the programing.

The newly updated Lego robotics kit builds on the concepts of the NXT 2.0 system and then adds better app support, and updated programming interface, and a new infrared sensor. The programming interface is cleaner, but still visual. It still uses interlocking pieces to create the steps, if you’re familiar with NXT programming, but they worked on simplifying the interface and showing all programming options at once. There’s also better on-the-bot programming, which makes it so much easier to do group sessions or debug without having to do the computer-to-Mindstorms shuffle.

The mobile interface is improved, too. You can get a remote control app for the current Mindstorms on Android, but for the EV3, iOS support is available from the start. The Android or iPad tablet can be used as an interactive building guide to show you how to assemble your robot, and I was told a programming interface was being developed for mobile as well. The kit starts with instructions for five robots, but you can download additional guides — or just create your own.

The new EV3 was built to be hacked. The computing brick in Lego Mindstorms is the key piece that controls all the other components, and in the new EV3, the brick uses a Linux base, which opens up new possibilities for advanced play. I can’t wait to see the mods that come out on this one. The roughly 600 piece kit is expected to ship sometime later this year for $350. I can’t wait to actually build a robot — er, help my daughter build a robot.

Introducing GeekMom’s Block of the Month Quilt!

I love to make geeky quilts, and this year I thought you might love to make one, too. That’s why I’m introducing the first ever GeekMom quilt-along. This will be a block of the month style quilt, where I’ll introduce a new quilt block every month. (And no, none of them will be question marks.)  Don’t worry, even beginners can make this quilt. Really.

Later this month I should have a tutorial up for those who are new to quilting. This quilt uses appliqué, which sounds a lot harder than it actually is. This can be done either by hand or by machine. It makes an excellent busy hands activity while watching Doctor Who. Assuming you’re not already occupied by knitting a ridiculously long scarf.

It’s also something that can be done as a family. As I’ve mentioned before, I think sewing is a fantastic skill to teach your geeklings. It might be a great first project to approach with your son or daughter as you learn how to use a sewing machine together.

This year’s theme is steampunk, so suitable fabrics are quilting cotton in sepia tones. Victorian prints, vintage postcards, paisleys, gears – you could have all sorts of fun with the fabric selection. Please do use quilting cotton, unless you’re experienced with other fabrics. Buy quality quilting thread. Trust me, your machine will thank you for not clogging it up with lint from that cheap stuff. I swear by Arufil Mako these days.

Each block will be 12 x 12 inches finished, but I’d recommend using a 14 x 14 block to give yourself room on positioning. After you’ve done the appliqué, you can cut it down to 12.5 x 12.5 inches (which will make a 12 x 12 finished block). Once all the blocks are done, you can add borders and sashing to make a blanket-sized quilt.

Enough of the introduction. Let’s get quilting!

Here is the January Block Pattern. Download the file and print it. I’ve included versions both with and without seam allowance. Feel free to make your own geeky embellishments and twists. If you use this pattern, we’d love to see what you made. Leave a comment on this post or send us a message through Facebook or Twitter.

Making the Unreal Real: An Interview With Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson

Photo by Marziah Karch

Remember how I said that Lawrence, Kansas is a secret hub of science fiction and fantasy awesome? Meet Kij Johnson, KU’s new fantasy professor, an award-winning writer of fantastic things, and one of the people that makes the city such a great place for us geeks. She’ll also be at Oxford this January for the inaugural Pembroke Lecture in Fantasy Literature. I sat down with her to chat about her work, her books, grad school, and life in general.

She’s got a new book out, a collection of short stories called At the Mouth of the River of Bees, and I’d recommend you go buy it even if she weren’t a friend of mine. But since is a friend, I recommend you go buy two copies. Just a note of caution. This is fiction intended for adults.  There’s adult language and adult situations. Three words: alien tentacle sex. You read that right. And it’s a story you’ll want to read, or as she put it, “Want is such a subjective term — and by want you mean find yourself unable not to.”  She’s not wrong there. [Read more…]

Warning: Downton Abbey Christmas Special Is Spoilerific

Image: PBS Masterpiece

If you’re an American and trying to do the right thing when it comes to only watching shows when they become legally available to you, I’ve got a big warning. Don’t watch the Downton Abbey Christmas Special until late February, even if it’s available for streaming early. You’re watching things out of order, and it will become very apparent what you’ve missed. In fact, don’t even Google Downton Abby to find out when the show will be legally broadcast here in the US. That was my mistake last month. I’ve been spoiled by something very major, very inconvenient to know in advance. Thanks. Thanks, a lot for that.

The US airing will start on January 6th on PBS. The episodes will also stream online after the stations air them.

When will media broadcasters finally learn that the Internet goes everywhere, and so do the spoilers? All this delayed streaming has caused fans to either become disengaged from the fan communities out of self defense or download their favorite shows illegally. Either way, you lose. At least Doctor Who has learned that fans would really prefer seeing their favorite shows as close to the original broadcast date as possible. Their foresight was rewarded. It’s time for everyone else to take notes.

While we’re at it, quit cutting the show down. If we weren’t interested in period dramas with complicated plots, we wouldn’t be watching the dang thing. Fortunately, we can catch up with the original UK versions. (One comment pointed out that this didn’t happen with Downton Abbey. We’ve endured edits on our other British imports, mostly around time slot and commercial break constraints – two things that don’t matter anymore for those of us who watch them from legal streaming sources.)

Catch up quick. It’s less than two weeks before we can start enjoying season three.