Beyond Spock: We Say Farewell to Leonard Nimoy

Image CC-BY-SA Gage Skidmore

Image CC-BY-SA Gage Skidmore

Even the non-geeks among us recognize Leonard Nimoy for the years he spent as Spock on the original Star Trek series. But he was so much more, as an actor, a director, an author, a musician, and more. His contributions will leave a long impression in the arts.

Nimoy was no stranger to TV or movies when he landed that memorable Vulcan role. He was on many of the memorable programs of the 50s and 60s to varying degrees, including Dragnet, Sea Hunt, The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and The Outer Limits.

Then came Star Trek, three Emmy nominations, and a lifetime of being recognized as Spock, a character he played in multiple Star Trek TV shows and movies over the years.

Over those subsequent years, he played many roles while alternating between embracing the Spock character and the occasional desire for some distance. His two autobiographies, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock discuss how that character affected his life and in many ways became a part of him.

But he was so much more than Spock, with a master’s degree in education and creating works as an artist of many stripes, working in photography, poetry, and music. He had his first photography exhibit in a gallery in 1973 and eventually published three books of photos, Shekhina (2002), The Full Body Project (2007), and Secret Selves (2010). He also had seven books of poetry published from 1973 to 2002.

He was also a philanthropist and activist in art, music, Holocaust remembrance, and other causes. In 2001, he and his wife donated $1 million to help create the 190-seat Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles based on their belief in the importance of astronomy education. In 2003, they established the Nimoy Foundation to support artists and fund their work.

So while many of us and you reading this will miss Mister Spock or perhaps Dr. Bell from Fringe, Leonard Nimoy will be deeply missed well beyond our geeky circles for his influence in so many areas.

But Nimoy also invented the Vulcan “live long and prosper” hand symbol, based on a Jewish blessing. Thus to say farewell, the GeekMoms send those wishes on to all of you. Live long and prosper, and carry on fulfilling your dreams and acting on your beliefs in the way that Nimoy did for his 83 years.

Image by Samantha Cook

Image by Samantha Cook

Image by Patricia Vollmer

Image by Patricia Vollmer

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Image by Cathe Post

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Image by Maryann Goldman

Image by

Image by Melanie Meadors

Image by Maryann Goldman

Image by Maryann Goldman

Image by Jackie Reeve.

Image by Jackie Reeve

Image by Natania Barron

Image by Natania Barron

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Image by Lisa Tate

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Image by Sarah Pinault

 

Net Neutrality: A Primer On What’s Going On

Net neutrality supporters at the White House in November 2014. Photo CC-BY-NC-ND  Joseph Gruber.

Net neutrality supporters at the White House in November 2014. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND Joseph Gruber.

Yesterday something happened with “net neutrality”—or “Title II,” if you have particularly savvy Facebook friends cheering about the decision. You’re not entirely sure what that means or if you should care? This primer is for you.

What is net neutrality?

It means the Internet that you know. The one you’re using right now. A free and open Internet where anyone can access anything equally because all traffic coming and going is treated the same.

The opposite is an Internet where your ISP can change that. For example, a company could pay the ISP to speed up traffic to their site.

Think of the other two major content carriers in your house: your phone and your cable TV. Your phone doesn’t care much about who you’re calling. It will connect you to your credit card company exactly the same as it will connect you to grandma. Your cable, however, is quite different. Ever lost a channel because the cable company couldn’t come to an agreement with them about their contract? Imagine that applied to your Internet access. Your ISP could make your access to Netflix unusably slow (or block it) because Netflix wouldn’t pay them enough. If you’d like to imagine what shopping for Internet in that world looks like, visit jointhefastlane.com, created to show you what an Internet without net neutrality might look like.

And it’s not just important for you as a consumer. It’s important to the freedom of commerce online. Imagine you’d like to start a new video service, but Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube all have big budgets to pay to have their content delivered more quickly and clearly than you and your new company do. Is anybody going to watch your videos instead?

OK, so what changed this week?

Nothing changed and everything changed—and that’s what’s so exciting.

Nothing changed because the Internet is going to remain neutral, as it is now. Well, to be more accurate, the new FCC rules won’t be ready for a few months, and there will no doubt be court challenges. But I like to believe in optimism.

Everything changed because now we don’t have to worry about that changing. The FCC included broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act. That’s the “common carrier” section. “Common carrier” is a term that applies to things like telephone lines, things that must be provided to everyone equally.

Until yesterday, there wasn’t much really stopping companies from violating neutrality. And they did. For example, back in 2007, it was proven that Comcast was throttling or blocking BitTorrent.

Yesterday, in its announcement, the FCC reiterated the three main rules of the open Internet:

No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.

No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.

No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.”

This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

This is all only about what they call the “last mile,” meaning just that last bit of access before it gets to your house. Netflix recently paid Verizon to boost the speed of its content. This sort of “peering” agreement is still allowed.

If you’d like to read the details of what’s covered, read the FCC news release.

Isn’t this old news? I feel like we’ve been hearing about “net neutrality” since before Luke sipped his first blue milk.

You’re right—this debate has been going on for quite some time. And that’s because since the dollar signs first appeared in some ISP executive’s eyes somewhere, defenders of the Internet have stepped up to speak about the importance of net neutrality. People like Tim Berners-Lee, who created this fantastic “World Wide Web” that we all love. (Boy, it’s been a long time since I typed those three words!) More recently, four millioin people wrote to the FCC to support net neutrality.

In 2010, the FCC passed the Open Internet Order, but parts of it were overturned in 2014. In that case, Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commision, the DC Circuit Court said the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce net neutrality. Reclassifying broadband under Title II changes that.

Last fall, President Obama asked the FCC to declare consumer broadband a utility. And that’s roughly what happened yesterday.

What does everybody think about this?

The Verge has a great roundup of reactions, including President Obama, Verizon, Comcast, the MPAA, and more.

This Girl Loves #thisgirlcan

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Billboards like this one accompany the TV portion of the campaign. Image credit: Sport England

For me, visits abroad always include at least a few minutes in the hotel of the local television fare (even if I don’t speak the language—sometimes that’s even better). My visit to London last week came not too far behind the January 12 launch of Sport England’s already-viral “This Girl Can” campaign, designed to both celebrate women being athletic as well as to encourage them to be so more often, regardless of whether they look like any other ad campaign might portray them. Because I’m a woefully out-of-touch American, this was the first I’d seen it, so for those of you who already have, forgive me for the late sharing.

My first reaction, before I even knew what it was, was an internal cheer of solidarity to the opening shot, as we see the rear view of a woman who no doubt has been discouraged from wearing a two-piece swimsuit. She adjusts her bottoms in a defiant snap.

I jiggle, therefore I am, the spot later echoes.

I’m not an especially large woman, but I’m also never going to look like a Danskin ad in ballet class, much to my teenage self’s chagrin, nor a Lululemon ad in a yoga class, which my adult self is quite OK with. And that’s what this campaign reinforced. Real athleticism doesn’t look like the photos in the gym brochure. (Except when it does, that every once in a while, and that’s OK, too. Somebody has to be in those other ads.) Every body has the potential to be an athlete’s body.

It reminded me of another project I saw recently, where SmugMug took the opportunity of decorating the company gym to prove that anyone can look like those perfectly sleek athletes—with the right lighting and photographer, of course.

Sport England launched their campaign based on researched that showed 75% of women aged 14-40 would exercise more but held back for fear of what others thought of them. Let’s put that more bluntly. A solid 3/4 of women surveyed chose to negatively impact their health because somebody thought they might look a bit chubby in their yoga pants.

Similar to SmugMug’s internal project, the women featured in the spot are street-cast, not actresses, simply doing the sports that they enjoy doing, montaged to the beat of Missy Elliott. (Read more about the production of the spot at thedrum.com.)

The Guardian had a quite different response to the ad, though. I’m not going to link to that story, but I will share this excellent response to it for those who didn’t find the Sport England spot encouraging.

The bottom line is a spot that tells the important story: Fitness isn’t just for the already-fit. It’s for the will-be-fit and once-were-fit and would-like-to-be-fit and the dammit-I’m-going-to-try-this-one-more-time-anyway.

The Meanest Thing You Say to Your Creative Friend

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What I could really use is a time turner on my hands. Photo by lozikiki on Flickr

There’s a sentence every creative person hears eventually (or frequently) that’s a slap in the face every time:

“You have too much time on your hands.”

It’s in Urban Dictionary. There are snarky (and occasionally inspirational) Pinterest boards with “too much time on your hands” titles. Even Engadget, a site that arguably is for people with “too much time” to play with gadgets, is guilty of using it as a post title. (And it’s a Styx song, but that’s different.)

You may not think you’re being rude when you say this, but that’s because you’re not. You’re being incredibly, rudely, offensively mean. But you’re also revealing a lot.

When you say this phrase, what the creator hears is, “Wow, that was a really pointless thing you did.” And let’s be honest: That is exactly what you just said; it’s just not quite what you meant. What you were really saying was more like, “Wow, you spent a lot of time doing something you really enjoyed and created something you felt was worth sharing with me. I spent the same amount of time re-watching all of Dawson’s Creek on Netflix, pinning recipes I’ll never actually make, and playing through to level eleventy billion of Candy Crush. Now I would like to avoid reflecting too long on any of this.”

Let’s look at that. Especially this part: You spent a lot of time doing something you really enjoyed and created something you felt was worth sharing with me. It can take a lot for a creative person to share what they’ve made. It’s an act of trust. Creativity often comes with a pretty large ladle of self-doubt. And instead of supporting, encouraging, or even so much as politely smiling and nodding, you’ve declared the creation a waste.

If you’re a creative person yourself, let me offer some advice. The appropriate reply to the offender is, “No, actually I have the exact same 24 hours in a day that you do. I just choose to use them differently.” My experience is that this usually results in gobsmacked silence, which is exactly what should happen.

You can reserve the bonus snark for people who use the even more offensive version, “You should get a hobby.” (Wait, what? I just showed you the result of hours of learning a craft, but I don’t have a… I’m sorry, what?) To these people, you actually ask how they’ve been using their time. Rarely do they have a real answer. When they do have hobbies of their own, all you’re left with is the knowledge that this person, whether it was an anonymous commenter on a blog or your favorite aunt, is a little bit of a jerk. Then you have to choose whether it’s worth the time and/or potential loss of relationship to point out that you do have a hobby, and this is it, and that it’s incredibly rude to call someone’s hobby less valuable than your own.

And if you do? Worst case, you’re labeled “the weirdo,” but I gotta tell you—there are more of us. And we’re way more fun. Alas, what we don’t have is much time on our hands. We’ve got too many awesome projects.

To that, in closing, I offer you five fantastic things I found online with the phrase, “too much time on their hands”:

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Scott Weaver’s Rolling Through the Bay (click that link for a video), which I’ve seen in person, and it really is fantastic. Photo by vivve on Flickr.

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I am a huge sucker for latte art, and if you care that much about my coffee, it is absolutely not a waste of time. Photo from demotivateur.fr.

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Vegetable carvings come up a lot in this search. I made a Skylanders Chompy out of a watermelon once. It took about 15 minutes. This, though? I have a huge amount of respect for this much patience. Photo by myprontopop on Twitter, who did not call it a waste of time.

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I’m pretty sure the person who pinned this under “too much time on your hands” wouldn’t say that if somebody offered her a slice. Photo from blog.hwtm.com, where you can also get the recipe. The dyes are from actual foods, not food coloring!

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Finally, this isn’t exactly high art, but it’s pretty funny. And took way less time than you spent tweeting from the toilet. Found on Pinterest, repinned from wehartit.com.

 

Project Superhero: A Book For Your Young, Comics-Loving Girl

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Cover image courtesy of the author

Project Superhero‘s Jessie and her friends are the kids you want your daughter to be and be friends with in the eighth grade. She has an enviable comic book collection, and she loves journalism and science. (Things like the likelihood of Black Canary’s scream being possible bothers her.) Her friend Audrey is an electronics lover who has a room full of computer parts and builds robots.

In Project Superhero, written as Jessie’s journal, their class embarks on the Superhero Slam, a year-long 8th-grade project to explore heroes and superheroes—culturally, scientifically, and sociologically—culminating in a one-on-one debate for superhero supremacy.

Jessie’s stories will sound familiar to grown-up comic book geeks. They’re your friends talking about the characters. (“Zatanna…has cool sorcery powers, but I am kind of not so much into “magical intervention” when it comes to superheroes.”) They’re talk about women in and working on comics. (“There are lots of women on that team but they are still X-MEN—what is up with that?”) And it’s a pre-teen girl talking about her friends, parents, and figuring out who she is through the lens of her love for comics.

Author E. Paul Zehr’s previous works include Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine. Project Superhero is a fiction/non-fiction hybrid extension of those themes targeted at tweens, particularly girls. Within the fictional story of the Superhero Slam, the book includes Jessie’s letters to and real replies from:

– Clara Hughes, six-time Winter and Summer Olympic medalist
– Bryan Q. Miller, writer for Batgirl and Smallville
– Jessica Watson, author of True Spirit: The True Story of a 16-Year-Old Australian Who Sailed Solo, Nonstop, and Unassisted Around the World
– Hayley Wickenheiser, Olympic gold medalist and World Champion in ice hockey
– Mike Bruen, NYPD sergeant-on-duty at Ground Zero
– Kelly Sue DeConnick, comic book writer for Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble
– Yuriko Romer, filmmaker (Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful)
– Nicole Stott, NASA astronaut and engineer
– Christie Nicholson, contributing editor at Scientific American and SmartPlanet

Project Superhero is all of this wrapped in a package of a lot of comic book history with a dash of science, history, and language lessons. It’s also delightfully illustrated by Kris Pearn, who co-directed Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.

Though described as for 8- to 12-year-olds and perfectly appropriate for that audience, some of the heavier topics (9/11, friends in the hospital, dealing with medical issues like depression and insulin injections) may warrant a parental pre-read before giving it to the younger end. (You know your kids the best.) I’ll be happy to hand it over to my 9-year-old comic book fan.

GeekMom received a PDF of Project Superhero for review.

Gift Guide: Ideas For Makers and Hackers

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Image source: Ruth Suehle.

There’s not much shopping time left before Christmas, but it’s not too late to fill in the gaps with gifts for the makers and hackers (or would-be makers and hackers) on your list! Here are our recommendations, sorted by skill level.

Young Children

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Image source: Amazon.

Snap Circuits (price varies)
You can get basic Snap Circuits sets for as little as $20, and they’re a great introduction to young ones with an interest in how things go together. You get to make lights light up, sounds buzz, and fans whir without soldering, but still with the ability to see what a complete circuit looks like.

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Image source: No Starch Press.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! (Covers Version 2): Learn to Program by Making Cool Games ($16)
I always recommend this book to parents who want to get their kids interested in programming. Scratch is very basic; it introduces the principles of programming with puzzle pieces and a clever cat. This book adds a comic book aspect and results in a finished game that the child made herself.

Beginners

These items are ready for someone who has little to no programming or hardware experience.

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Image source: MakeyMakey.com.

Makey Makey ($50)
If you’ve ever said to yourself, “Gee, self, wouldn’t it be great if somebody would turn this banana into a game controller?,” then the Makey Makey is just the thing you’re looking for. Basically, it turns anything into a keypress. Like what? The product description suggests ketchup, pencil graphite, your grandma, pets, and rain. Anything that can conduct at all. It’s a super-easy entry point to electronics.

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Image source: Sparkfun.com.

LilyTwinkle ($19.95)
This is the anybody-can-do-it path to LEDs in your hoodie. As long as you can hand sew without crossing the threads, you’re good to go. It comes with the board, battery, thread, and even the needles, as well as four white LEDs. Sew a path from the board to each LED, and you’re finished. Tip: The Firefly Jar Kit at Sparkfun is the same board and same price, but with a felt “jar” to give you a starter project. And you can always reuse the pieces later. Those ready for more complicated projects should check out the more advanced LilyPad board in the next section.

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Image source: Amazon.com.

Soldering Iron (price varies)
Any electronics builder is eventually going to need a soldering iron. There are several basic kits out there, including ones from Elenco, the company that makes the fantastic Snap Circuits toys. (Those are a great gift for the much younger future makers on your list.) Elenco also offers a Deluxe Learn To Solder Kit with more practical application practice.

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Image source: Sparkfun.com.

Electronic Dice Kit ($19.95)
This is a fun kit to build for someone who knows how to solder but not how to program, especially if they also happen to be gamers. About an hour of building, and they’ll have an LED D6 device.

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Image source: Sparkfun.com.

Metro-Gnome $14.95)
Similarly, the Metro-Gnome is a basic digital metronome for the music-loving maker on your list. It requires basic soldering skills (or serves as a learn-to-solder project).

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Image source: Adafruit.com.

myDazzu ($19.95)
This programmable introduction to wearable electronics includes three LEDs and built-in light and temperature sensors. But you don’t have to know how to solder!

Intermediate

These are the gifts for someone a little bit older or a little bit more experienced. They don’t need to be programmers (yet), but these things will help get them there.

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Image source: No Starch Press.

Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming ($21)
This is the book I recommend for kids who are a bit beyond Scratch, but not quite ready for the usual programming books.

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Image source: O’Reilly Media.

Raspberry Pi—and related items ($35 and up)
A Raspberry Pi itself costs $35 from any number of retailers. If you’re looking to spend a bit more, you could buy a few accessories for a project you think might interest the recipient. There are also starter kits like this one from Adafruit, which are useful if you have no idea what to buy. However, in my opinion, they tend to be a bit overpriced for anyone who has any tinkering items at all already. Of course, I also have to mention my own book, Raspberry Pi Hacks: Tips & Tools for Making Things with the Inexpensive Linux Computer, which includes more than 60 tips and projects for users of every experience level. (See notes in the next section about whether you should get a Pi or an Arduino.)

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Image source: Sparkfun.

ProtoSnap – LilyPad Development Board Complete ($69.95)
For those who would enjoy the LilyTwinkle mentioned above, but with a few more bells and whistles, the more robust LilyPad Protosnap includes more LEDs as well as a light sensor, temperature sensor, and buzzer.

Advanced

These gift recipients know what they’re doing and are ready to build. They probably already have some programming experience.

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Image source: Adafruit.com.

Bare Conductive Paint ($9.95)
Bare Paint is a water-based paint that lets you draw (well, paint) conductive lines on just about any surface where you can paint. It’s safe and way easier than acid etching, but it’s not waterproof.

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Image source: Amazon.com.

Arduino—and Lego! ($25 and up)
People often ask me whether they should get a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino. It’s an apples and oranges situation—the Pi is a full computer. Plug in an SD card and peripherals, and you can boot right into Linux. The Arduino is only a microcontroller. So for someone who has no idea what to do with it, it can be a lot less satisfying to dive right into after Christmas dinner. That said, if you do have someone in the family with more patience and/or programming experience, I recommend also picking up Arduino and LEGO Projects, a book of projects you can build with Lego bricks and enhance with an Arduino. There’s even a TARDIS project on the cover!

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Image source: Adafruit.com.

DIY Gamer Kit ($56.95)
If you want to give a ready-to-build Arduino-based gift, this is a good starting point. It’s a tiny screen (8×8!), but you can upload your own game’s code to an Arduino and play it on this board. Tutorials are available for those who need some inspiration.

Membership to a local hackerspace (price varies)
Of course, anyone can benefit from this gift, but I put it under the advanced listings because they tend to not be inexpensive. If you’re not sure where yours is, check the listings at hackerspaces.org.

A No-Spread Gingerbread Cookie Recipe For All Your Favorite Cutters

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Apologies for the bonus spots of powdered sugar here… they’ve been sharing close quarters with many other types of cookie friends. Image credit: Ruth Suehle

I love making beautiful cookies—so much so that instead of a Christmas party, we host an annual cookie exchange party, for which I usually make way too many cookies. But my one shortcoming has always been in the stamped cookie area. They always puff and spread, and whatever the design was supposed to be ends up looking like it ate too many cookies itself.

However, now that I own just about every geeky cookie cutter you could want (Star Wars, more Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who—there are also these Star Wars gingerbread cutters, and I have a few 3D printed ones), I have a greater need for that sort of recipe. I also adore gingerbread, so a perfect gingerbread recipe it must be.

This week I combined a few recipes and tips online, and I think I’ve mastered the art. Or at least they came out pretty well, so close enough. This is a gingerbread with a bite, so if that’s not your preference, cut back the spices.

Ingredients

1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening (I use the butter-flavored Crisco)
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
1 large egg

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (I prefer the Penzey’s blend)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
A few grinds of pepper (I use a Penzey’s blend of Tellicherry and white peppercorns)

Start by beating the butter and shortening together, then cream in the brown sugar. If you do it on a lower speed, you’ll incorporate less air, which will help with the spreading problem when they’re baking. Add in the molasses and egg.

Now this is the part where recipes usually tell you to sift all the dry ingredients together. I’m going to be honest with you. I am lazy. I have a really great sifter that was my grandmother’s, and it’s just going to hang right there on the hook looking awesome. I dump in all the flour, then sprinkle the other things all over it, and so far this method hasn’t resulted in a giant bite of baking powder. I know it’s not the “right” way, but we’re busy people, right? I also let the paddle on my KitchenAid do all the work because, again, lazy. So lazy.

You’ve got yourself a ball of dough, so wrap it up in some plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. Watch a movie. Have a drink. Whatever. Because it needs to stay there until tomorrow. Heck, you can even leave it an extra day. Let it get good and cold.

When you’re ready to roll it out, skip cleaning the counters or getting out the mat. Roll it out directly on the cookie sheet. (Side note, this is where I discovered my shiny new cookie sheets did a much better job of letting the dough and later the baked cookies go than the exact same cookie sheets that are older. They’re not even non-stick. But the newer ones clearly performed much better.) Cut the cookies on the sheet, and you won’t have to try to move them without stretching them out of shape. Peel up the extra dough and repeat.

Put the sheets with the cookies back in the fridge for at least an hour until they’re good and cold again. Then preheat the oven to 350°F and bake them for about 10 minutes. Bam. Cookies. Delicious. Eat.

Splash Heroes: A Milk-made Superhero Calendar

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Image: aurumlight.com

Maybe you recall seeing Jaroslav Wieczorkiewicz’s milky pinups and other photo (NSFW, nudity) series created used high-speed cameras and splashed milk on nude models. You may have seen those same photos used recently in Coca Cola’s Fairlife Milk campaign. Now he and his team at Aurum Light are releasing a 2015 calendar called Splash Heroes, with similar images, though with more color, and—of course—a superhero theme.

Read more about the calendar and see the photos on the Aurum Light blog. The limited edition calendar is B3 dimensions (480mm x 330mm), and each one is numbered and signed. They cost £39.99 each plus whatever it costs to ship to you. Order your own by emailing info@AurumLight.com.

AurumLight – SplashHeroes – 2015 Milk Calendar from Aurum Light / Jaroslav on Vimeo.

Happy Thanksgiving from the GeekMoms

 

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Photo credit: Jennifer Dorff

Happy Thanksgiving from the GeekMoms (and Batman turkey)!

GeekMom’s Black Friday Deals Roundup

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It’s dangerous to go Black Friday shopping alone. Take one of these. CC BY-SA Darcy Casselman.

Black Friday sales turn stranger and stranger every year. I think I got the first “shop Black Friday early!” email three weeks ago! Many stores are allowing you to shop at their sale prices online now and have been for a while. Nevertheless, it looks like the best deals are still to be had on the day itself, so we’ve got a roundup of the things your geek family is going to be looking for. Remember that items aren’t necessarily identical from store to store (video game bundles especially can be a bit different, movies have special editions for specific stores, etc.), so even if prices are listed for the same item, double-check on your own the specifics to be certain they’re exactly the same before making a choice. Some of these deals may also be offered only during limited hours, so check out the store’s website or ad to make your plan.

In the first column of each section is the Amazon price as of writing, and the links all go to Amazon so that you can both price compare (is it worth the line on Black Friday?) and to check out reviews in advance. Prices in each column reflect those given in early-release ads from each retailer.

Movies

Though not as much as they once did, cheap DVDs are still a draw into the store, so you’ll find plenty of them available. The following are a few of the popular choices this year. Remember to check the disc you’re getting to be sure that it’s the version you want.

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Despicable Me 2 (Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital) $13.00 $9.96
Despicable Me 2 (WS DVD) $9.99 $7.96 BOGO $1 $9 with ornament
Frozen (Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital) $24.94 $9.96 $29.99
Frozen (Sing Along DVD) $17.99 $14.96 $14.99
Gravity (Blu-Ray; some versions are 3D) $17.29 $7.99 $4.00
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital) $17.99 $7.96 $9.99
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DVD) $14.99 $9.99 $14.99 $10.00
Ice Age 3 (DVD) $1.96
Maleficent (Blu-Ray+Digital) $24.99 $9.99
Maleficent (WS DVD) $19.99 $7.96 $12.99 BOGO $1
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital) $13.00 $9.96
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (DVD) $14.96 $7.96 $7.99 BOGO $1
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital) $13.00 $7.96 $5.99
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (DVD) $14.96 $7.96 $9.99 BOGO $1 $9.00
The Lego Move (2-disc special edition DVD+Digital) $17.96 $3.99 $9.99 BOGO $1 $9.00
The Lego Movie (DVD) $14.96 $3.96
Transformers: Age of Extinction (Blu-Ray+DVD+Digital) $13.00 $7.96 $9.99 $19.99 $19.99
Transformers: Age of Extinction (DVD) $17.69 $5.99
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Blu-Ray+Digital) $9.99 $9.99
X-Men: Days of Future Past (DVD) $9.99 $7.96 $9.99 BOGO $1

Phones and tablets

Features vary so, again, be sure you’re comparing apples to apples when you get a deal. Check the storage space, features like Wi-Fi, carrier, whether it’s unlocked, etc.

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Galaxy Note 4 free with contract $0.00
Samsung Galaxy S4 $330-350 $0.97
Samsung Galaxy S5 free with contract $99.00 $1.00 $449.99* $0.01 544.99*
Phone (prices usually with contract) Iphone 6 16 GB $750-$1000 (unlocked) $179.00 $99.99
Galaxy Tab 3 Kids Edition 7” 8 GB $179 or $124.99 refurbished $129.99
Galaxy Tab 3 Lite 8 GB $99.99 $99.00 $119.99
Galaxy Tab 4 7.0 $139.00 $149.99 $149.99 $149.99
Galaxy Tab Pro 8” $349.00 279.99 (10.1” version) $199.99 $199.99
Galaxy Tab S 10.5” 10 GB $379.99 $399.99
iPad Air 16GB Wi-Fi $358.00 $397 with $100 gift card $319.99 $399 with $100 gift card
iPad Air 2 $482.48 $489 with $100 gift card $100 off $499 with $140 Target gift card

Cameras

Whether you’re looking for your first DSLR or a video camera, Black Friday is often a good time to do it.

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Canon EOS Rebel T5 1200D with 2 lenses $399-$599 (bundles differ) $449.00 $449.96
Canon Rebel T5i with 2 lenses $599-$849 (bundles differ) $699.00 $499.99
GoPro Hero3+ Silver Edition $299.99 $249.97 $249.99 $249.99
Nikon D3200 with 2 lenses $319-$546 (bundles differ) $499.00 $499.99 $496.99 $596.95
Nikon D7000 with 2 lenses and SD card $549-$1199 (bundles differ) $1,099.96
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 $519.00 $297.99
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 $298.00 $249.00
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS30 $239.00 $299.00

Video games

If you’re still playing Xbox 360 or Playstation 3—or would like to purchase one of those consoles—there are some great deals out there on those older games and systems. But as you can see below, if you want deals on the current version consoles, you’re going to have to look harder and check out the bundles.

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Disney Infinity characters varies 30% off $12.99
Skylanders Giants characters varies $9.00
Skylanders Swap Force characters varies $9.00
Skylanders Trap Masters $14.96 $15.99
Skylanders Trap Team characters $9.96 $9.00

Playstation 4

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Destiny $49.75 $49.99
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls – Ultimate Evil Edition $49.89 $35.00 $29.99
inFAMOUS: Second Son $25.49 $25.00 $19.99
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor $48.51 $24.99 $29.99
NBA 2k15 $50.99 $35.00 $29.99
Playstation 4 console $399.99 $399 with $50 gift card $399.99 $399.99
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $34.49 $24.99
Watch Dogs $41.54 $35.00 $44.99

Wii U

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Just Dance 2015 $37.98 $25.00 $24.99 $24.99
Mario Kart 8 $48.15 $35.00 $59.99+10% off the guide
Skylanders Trap Team Starter Kit $49.99 $37.00
Wii U Super Mario 3D World Bundle $315.88 $299.99

Xbox One

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Destiny $49.35 $35.00 $49.99
Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes (2.0) Starter Pack $54.99 $39.99
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor $47.45 $25.00 $29.99
Skylanders Trap Team Starter Kit $49.99
Watch Dogs $48.89 $29.99
Xbox One Assassin’s Creed: Unity Bundle $349.00 $329.00 $329.99 $329.99 $329.99 $349.99

Nintendo DS

Amazon Wal-Mart Adorama Best Buy GameStop Kmart Toys R Us Target Newegg TigerDirect
Nintendo 2DS with Mario Kart 7 $151.05 $129.99
Super Mario Bros. 2 Golden Edition Bundle other variations $110-$220 $149.96
Frozen: Olaf’s Quest $19.99 $15.00
Nintendo 3DS XL Mario Party Island Bundle $249.99 $179.99

How to Actually Drive Across the USA Hitting All the Major Landmarks

Image credit: Brian DeFrees' road trip route

Image credit: Brian DeFrees’ road trip route

Periodically this year, I’ve seen the image above posted to Facebook purporting to be “how to drive across the USA hitting all the major landmarks.” Except it’s not very good at it. The image alone doesn’t even make much sense! What counts as “major landmarks”? Apparently there are none in Boston. It looks like a great trip, but I don’t think it qualifies as advertised.

What the image really shows is the route taken by Brian DeFrees across 32 states in 55 days, taking 200,000 photos and turning them into a video. It’s pretty cool—you should check it out. But the video and visiting friends were his main priorities, not “hitting all the major landmarks.”

So could you do that?

It’s going to be a longer trip.

Here’s a shot I took at creating such a path for you, assuming you have quite a bit of free time on your hands, as it’s going to take weeks. Brian’s trip took 55 days, and it skipped a lot of states. How long this would take you depends on how long you stayed in a given spot, of course, but you’re looking at 222 hours (more than 9 days) of driving time alone.

Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps

Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

The biggest task here, of course (other than 222 hours of driving), is choosing what counts as a “major landmark.” It’s impossible to let somebody else make your dream road trip itinerary. That list of perfect landmarks is going to be different for everyone, depending on whether the car’s occupants love art or nature, lighthouses or lakes. For this list, I tried to create a balance that included:

– Traditionally “major” landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Golden Gate Bridge
– Nature stops, like Yellowstone National Park
– History stops, like Gettysburg National Military Park and The Alamo
– Science, like Cape Canaveral
– Arts, like the Philbrook Museum of Art and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
– What Trivial Pursuit would call “sports and leisure,” like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Churchill Downs

It’s a well-rounded road trip. You can use this map to see the list of places I chose. In larger cities like New York or San Francisco, rather than suggest every possible place you could visit, which would be lists of their own, I picked one highlight. Doesn’t mean the rest aren’t great. And it ends with Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, on the theory that you started with Maine, not because Vermont isn’t an amazing state with a ton to see, but because after all of that, you deserve ice cream. And the Ben and Jerry’s factory is a really fun visit.

The second goal was to visit every state, even if it wasn’t much more than a drive-through. On a road trip, the best stops are the ones you didn’t know you were going to find. Long, blue stretches on this map are just undiscovered adventures waiting to happen.

However, this is the part where I have to note that upon a final pass, I discovered I neglected Michigan. My utmost apologies to the land of people who are the masters of navigation by pointing to their hands. You don’t need this map. Just stretch out your arm and call it the country. You have the necessary experience to make it work. For the non-Michiganders who need to get that state into this trip, you can hit up Hitsville, USA, the home of Motown. I have never had a more enthusiastic tour guide. You won’t regret it.

If you’re ready to start planning your own drive, check out my two secrets to planning your best road trip adventure. And then get driving!

8 Delicious Gingerbread-themed Recipes (Take That, PSL!)

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Gingerbred babycakes with cinnamon caramel photo by Dennis Wilkinson. Read how he made them.

Earlier this month, the GeekMoms sounded off on their feelings about the most divisive topic of the season: pumpkin spice all-the-things. I noted that for me, it just means that the much smaller slice of the world that turns to gingerbread a month later is near.

One of the things I love about gingerbread (other than it simply being delicious) is how much you can adjust it to suit your mood. More sugar for sweeter or add cracked pepper for spiciness. Dial up the ginger or the cinnamon to suit. Change cinnamons! (Side note: If your cinnamon has been in the cabinet longer than six months, it’s time to buy fresh. You’ll be amazed at the difference.) As the time when I can get gingerbread lattes draws near, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite gingerbread-themed recipes:

Gingerbread Doughnut Muffins. I’m eating these as I write this. Not super sweet or spicy, just a good kickoff to Gingerbreadmania.

Gingerbread Spiced Marshmallows. I’m a huge fan of Joy the Baker. Her writing is delightful, and her recipes have never steered me wrong once. She also has two books you should check out (here and here).

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Image credit: Joy the Baker Gingerbread Spiced Marshmallows

Guinness Gingerbread. My beer tastes tend towards stouts and porters, so how better to improve on gingerbread than with Guinness? Alas, the gingerbread-themed items I can’t recommend are the gingerbread-flavored beers. I haven’t found one yet that wasn’t just awful.

gingecups

Image credit: Katiecakes Guinness Gingerbread

Gingerbread Waffles. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me to do this until a local restaurant served them as a seasonal special with cream and lemon curd. You can do it with pancakes, too.

Monkey (Ginger)Bread. Like monkey bread. But better.

Food52

Image credit: Food52 Monkey (Ginger)Bread

Gingerbread Scones. For some reason, I tend to forget how much I like scones until I go to a scone-eating country for a few days, and then I’m obsessed all over again. Making them gingerbread is just a double win.

Gingerbread Scones Recipe

Image credit: JoyofBaking.com Gingerbread Scones

Lebkuchen is the German version of gingerbread. If you’ve ever been through Bavaria, you’ve no doubt seen Lebkuchen’s cookie form, usually in the shape of hearts with messages on them. (I’d love to see your pics of some geeked-up Lebkuchen cookies!)

Finally, after all that baking, what better than a gingerbread martini? Enjoy the season!

Eight Geeky Crochet and Knitting Patterns to Get Started On

Living in the southern U.S., it’s hard to get interested in balls of yarn during the heat of summer. But when fall kicks in, I always want to start crocheting or knitting. Here are patterns (many of them free!) for eight projects to kick start your cool-weather crafting:

Crochet

Fingerless Iron Man gloves

Baby Groot

Ewok hood cowl

Gir

Bonus—your crochet projects will be even more fun if you’re doing them with a sonic screwdriver or light saber.

Knitting

Baby Dalek dress

One Ring Scarf

Sherlock wallpaper pillow

Bat’leth scarf

 

You Can Stop Pinterest Parenting Now

lastdaypics

My own Herculean efforts once went into trying to capture the last day of preschool. Then I realized that maybe the “bad” pictures are better after all.

Stop letting Pinterest ruin your life. Seriously. Stop it. Here are a few things Pinterest is good for:

  • Gathering party theme ideas
  • Finding dinner ideas
  • Storing reference photos for your next cosplay project

Things you should not be using Pinterest for:

  • Letting strangers make you feel like a terrible mother

I’ve been seeing an increasing number of blog posts and social media statuses about how inferior someone feels because of the Perfect Pinterest Moms they’ve put themselves in invisible competition with. Why? Because your life isn’t hard enough already? You need to win a non-existent cupcake decorating contest with no prize?

The most recent was a fellow GeekMom sharing this blog post, which humorously shares the agony of trying to take Pinterest-perfect, Instagram-ready, first-day-of-school photos, complete with a painstakingly decorated chalkboard noting the child’s grade, basic favorites, and anticipated career. Here are a few of the comments on that post:

“I spent two hours making signs. For three minutes of pictures.”

“It’s a struggle each year, as she get topped out on how many attempts it takes. Look here, smile, hold the sign, put your skirt down, where are your shoes, put down your lunch, smile, where’s the sign, etc. I’m usually sweating by the time we’re done.”

“This morning I had a full-on argument with a FIRST GRADER that no, you will not wear whatever you want today.”

“Isn’t the sign supposed to make the pictures better and not way, way harder?”

To that last one: yes. Well, no, perhaps that was not the explicit intention of whomever started this sign madness, but that is indeed what it should be for. I promise that when your little MacKenzaryaowyn graduates from high school, you will have no idea whether the pink shirt year was first or second grade. So sure, the sign has a purpose. Visiting ten stores to find the perfect vintage-look chalkboard that reminds you of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, spending two nights making it, and then trying four different locations around your house until it’s all just perfect—these obsessive steps do not have a purpose except to make you crazy. And if you’re like me, they can sell crazy someplace else. We’re all stocked up here.

Would doing all of that in any way enhance your kid’s first day of school? Oh, did you forget? The first day of school is about them, not you. They are not embarking on further education so that you can show every stranger on the internet what a great mom you are because you found exactly the right lighting to commemorate that your child got on a bus successfully.

Gave them a healthy lunch or money to procure it at school? Sent them with the appropriate supplies in their backpacks? Made sure they were dressed in something reasonably weather-appropriate? Congratulations, you have succeeded in your role for the day. In no way will any of your Pinstagrambooking improve that experience for them. It’s just going to make you late for work.

Of course, that’s merely one day. Let’s talk about the real Plague of Pinterest: birthday parties. Not long ago, a friend linked to this screed against children’s birthday parties. This is clearly a woman who gains no joy from the party experience. And her kid isn’t even four! I don’t know what vicious celebration demon from Party Planet forced her to throw elaborate parties for a child who wouldn’t even remember them, but she was clearly scarred by the experience. Number six calls out Pinterest specifically, but we could apply this vague social pressure to most of the line items.

Here’s the thing. Some of us genuinely love making first-day signs and perfectly arranged Elmo fruit plates and cake pops that look like animals and weird things with Mason jars. And that’s cool. (Full disclosure, I may be one of those people from time to time.) But this is the important part: Some of us want none of it, and that’s OK. Totally, absolutely, 100% OK. You are in no tiny way an inferior mother because you didn’t hand-engrave invitations to your child’s first birthday at which you served 365 canapés each hand-designed to reflect a day of his life.

Upon pondering all this, I thought, well, surely our own mothers were plagued by something similar, except from magazines they actually paid good money for. I mean, I’ve seen Family Fun and wondered who thought it was “fun” to pull random crap out of the trash and “upcycle” it into “art” projects I’m just going to have to throw out in secret later.

So I dug up a 1988 issue of Working Mother magazine. Inside I found articles about… wait for it… being a working mother! (Favorite title: “Why would your man want a stay-at-home wife?”) Then there was a story about the wonders of microwave cooking for a busy mom and a Luvs ad featuring a baby sleeping on his stomach. (Also a plea from The Potato Board that you consider potatoes to be a vegetable.) Today’s mom-mags instead contain two pages about simultaneously pinning fall footwear trends and eating Greek yogurt while commuting, one page reassuring you that day care is good for your kid, and 30 pages about how to compose adorable bento box lunches customized for each child and making them seasonal sensory bins despite the fact that you have a full-time job.

So screw Pinterest. And Instagram. (Can we laugh for a moment at the massive amount of time and effort going into photos for something called Instagram?) And the “better” moms you’re friends with on Facebook. And all of the blogs of all this BS. If you want—genuinely want—to hand-craft your kid’s childhood into picture-perfection, do it. Absolutely do it. But if instead you feel like by doing that, you’re missing out on actually experiencing that childhood while you’re stuck behind a camera, then stop.

Drop the camera. Run with your kids, and remember that when you’re that involved, there’s no time for photos. And isn’t that really better?

Behind the Scenes As Lost Girl Approaches Final Season

lostgirlcast

Image: Syfy

If you haven’t had the pleasure, Lost Girl is available on both Netflix and Hulu. It’s a great Canadian supernatural show featuring a succubus, her human BFF, and a whole host of Fae characters. (In this mythology, pretty much everything non-human counts as “Fae,” including the werewolves.) It’s already been announced that the upcoming season 5 will be the last. Their Dragon Con 2014 panels featured Ksenia Solo (Kenzi), Rick Howland (Trick), and Emmanuelle Vaugier (The Morrígan)—who showed up dressed as Pinkie Pie.

The first question for the panel in Sunday’s session was which recurring characters they felt didn’t get the attention they should have. Solo immediately offered Massimo, the druid who specializes in things like making new eyes and hands. “Massimo never gets any love,” Solo said. (“I gave him love,” Vaugier quipped.) “Tim [Rozon] made this completely psychotic person come to life,” Solo continued, “and it was not an easy job. That’s what really made the character work. I wish he was around from the beginning.”

But you want to talk about commitment to a temporary character? Howland revealed that when Raoul Trujillo returned to shoot latter parts of his role as The Garuda, he dropped his pants to reveal a nearly body-length tattoo of the character!

As they approach this final season, someone asked what prop they would take, as actors have been known to do in the past. Solo simply said, “Geraldine,” the name she gave her sword. Vaugier aimed a little higher: “My Valentino leather jacket!”

Howland said, “Trick’s Book of Fae, but it’s a furniture book.” (It has pages in it that are “authentically” Fae for shooting purposes.) Alternately, he mentioned a picture that hung in the Dal’s back room while Hale was the Ash. It’s a woman in grass skirt, and it’s signed, “Thanks for all the good times, Tricky. Delilah.”

“I like that photo,” Howland said. “It reminds me of a picture that my family had in our cottage.”

Of course, what they can all take from the set are the friendships that many casts build over several years shooting together. Solo spoke of those relationships, then added, “But my biggest takeaway is how much this show is loved by you guys and how much that means to us. As artists, you dont want to do something completely in vain. You want to do something with meaning that sticks.”

Lost Girl has gained a lot of praise for its strong female characters, as well as its portrayal of gay, bisexual, and poly relationships. This is largely based in the fact that the main character is a succubus whose nature is anti-monogamy and who requires sexual relationships for sustenance, but it’s greater than that. Lost Girl offers its sexuality boldly, but quietly. There’s no drama over anyone’s sexuality. It just is. They just are. It’s a story of relationships, not drama over whether a girl had sex with another girl (or two).

But there’s always room for humor, and this clearly is a cast that enjoys having fun together. “What alternate universe sucked me up and spit me out as a 2,000-year-old bartender?” Howland pondered. I don’t know the answer, but whatever it is, we’re grateful.

The Dresden Files: Jim Butcher and Paul Blackthorne Reminisce

Screenshot from 2014-09-04 16:08:38

The Dresden Files show title card

Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books have been gathering new followers steadily for 14 years over 15 books (with more to come), an RPG, and a short-lived TV show. Though it’s been seven years since that show aired, its star, Paul Blackthorne (now appearing as Detective Quentin Lance on Arrow) joined Butcher at Dragon Con last weekend to talk about their stories.

“My first book I wrote when I was 19 in 1991… It was awful,” Butcher said. “So then I wrote the second one, which was also terrible, as were books three, four, five, six, and seven. I would not have made Osama bin Laden read those novels.” After those came a 1996 survey course in which he was instructed to write with more structure. “I decided to try to prove her [the teacher] how wrong she was about everything she was trying to teach me,” Butcher said. “I would fill out her forms and do all the outlines and character design stuff to show her what kind of cookie-cutter, pablum crap came from that process, and so I wrote the first book of The Dresden Files. Which, you know, showed her.”

Butcher naturally has no trouble talking about Dresden, Murphy, and their many supernatural friends, having had them all living in his head for decades. Blackthorne sometimes had a little more difficulty summoning his memories of wizarding from so many years past.

When asked about their favorite episodes of the show, Blackthorne brought up Joanne Kelly, more recently known as Myka in Warehouse 13, who played Bianca, a Red Court vampire on the show. “She was putting Dresden through all sorts of mayhem,” he said. “I’m very attracted to this lady, and this lady’s probably going to kill me. The last scene was just the two of us on the sofa…and there was this moment where I let out this sigh. It was the biggest ‘oh my God’ sigh without saying it.”

Butcher had a more humorous answer: “The one that I had to be in, not just because I was there, but because it was such an experience of seeing them, except everybody else could see them, too!”

Several audience members asked about the changes that were made from the books to the screen, which of course is always necessary to some degree, but in the case of The Dresden Files sometimes seemed rather large or unnecessary. Dresden’s helper spirit Bob, who usually simply inhabits a skull, became a full-bodied creature, played by Terrence Mann. And his staff became a hockey stick!

In some cases, like the Bob situation, it was about cost. Butcher revealed that one of the early plans was to have the skull played by a puppet, similar to Salem the Cat in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Instead, Mann got the role. “By the time I met him, I was sold on it,” Butcher said. “As far as changes go, that was the one that surprised me.” They had filmed the two-hour pilot with just the skull, with effects to be filled in later, and as a result, Bob was largely written out of that, which was in the end edited down to a one-hour pilot.

In contrast, on the hockey stick, Butcher said, “Harry’s a creature of habit. He’s unlikely to go around changing that kind of thing. Why would they give him a hockey stick instead of a wizard’s staff?”

Even Blackthorne’s spot as Dresden wasn’t a certainty. In the end, it came down to him or, as Blackthorne put it, “Jayne from Firefly.” Blackthorne was chosen because of his ability to bring out Dresden’s darker side. “If we’d gone with Adam Baldwin, it would have been a more bulldoggish Dresden who probably got beat up more.”

“I got beat up enough as it was!” Blackthorne answered to that. “The drivers at the show were joking with me,” Butcher replied, “‘We joke with Paul every day, do you get beat up today or make out with beautiful women?’ It was one or the other.”

As to a future Dresden movie, Butcher says that SyFy has given up the rights, which have been picked up by “a major production company.” No solid plans exist yet, though. “We’ll see if anything happens,” he said. “It’s all a lot of talk until the check clears.”

And how many more books can we look forward to? “About 20 of the case books, like we’ve had so far,” Butcher said. “Could be more if my kid goes to grad school. Let’s be practical. I don’t have a muse; I have a mortgage.” But then there will be a three-book capstone trilogy, which Butcher threatened Dresden may or may not survive.

If you’re interested in hearing more from Jim Butcher, including his talks on magic in fiction, one of which was with Lev Grossman (author of The Magicians), videos of all of Butcher’s Dragon Con panels are available on YouTube.

James Gunn: Women in Guardians, Awesome Mix Vol. 2, and the Stan Lee Cameo We Missed

Screenshot from 2014-09-03 15:49:47

Image credit: Dragon Con TV.

It’s going to be a long time before any of us gets tired of Guardians of the Galaxy, isn’t it? Which is why two of the most anticipated guests at last weekend’s Dragon Con were James and Sean Gunn, the film’s writer/director and motion capture model for Rocket, respectively. For those of you who missed it, here’s a recap of their panel responses, which includes a nod to the scene James wanted that didn’t make it in.

Will we have a chance to see Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel?

“One of the challenges for me with the cosmic side is I don’t want a lot of humans,” James said. Because it’s a space adventure, he’d prefer to have fewer earthlings and more characters from other planets, simply because it seems more realistic given the setting. “So I think there’s a good possibility she could be Captain Marvel, but not through the cosmic side of things,” he continued. “It would be the earthly side of things.” However, he also hinted that there are plenty of female Guardians to draw from for future stories.

Exactly what town in Missouri is Peter Quill from?

“This is more complicated than you think,” James said. He talked repeatedly in the panel about how he tends to make decisions based on instinct and what simply feels right. Thus they experimented with showing the name of the city using many different ones, but none ever quite just perfect. “I think he’s from the St. Charles area,” he finally concluded.

On the “plant a tree for Groot” challenge:

If you haven’t heard about this yet, it started when Vin Diesel challenged James Gunn in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Instead, James planted a magnolia and challenged fans to plant trees for Groot, with the promise that with 50 trees planted, he would give $5,000 to the Rainforest Trust. When you do it, take a picture and post it to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #plantatreeforgroot, tagging @jamesgunn. In addition to that, he didn’t charge for autographs at the con (highly unusual, especially for such a high-profile guest), instead accepting tips and donating them—more than $1,000 as of the panel—to the Rainforest Trust “for more Groots all over the planet.”

What sounds can we expect for Awesome Mix, Vol. 2?

“Ooooh, I have a whole catalog at home for that,” James said. He reported that he’s well into writing the sequel, and naturally the soundtrack plays a bit of a different role in the second one.

As to the first edition, which we all already know and love, he originally wrote the opening credits to “Hooked on a Feeling,” but heard “Come and Get Your Love” one day in the shower and decided it worked better.

He spoke at length about the significant role that the soundtrack (and score) played not only in the final movie, but also in the development. Those songs you hear have been in the script since the beginning. “When we shot scenes, we would play the songs on set,” he said. The emotional scene towards the end of the movie uses a piece of music called “Black Tears” from Tyler Bates’ score. “We would blast it during shooting because I believe music is such an important part of the film experience, and it often gets left to the last minute,” James said. “For me, it’s about making that music baked into the film and an important part of it, both the score and the soundtrack.”

On that “Jackson Pollock painting” line:

Sean Gunn was much quieter than his brother for most of the panel, but when an audience member’s final comment was in thanks for Quill’s “Jackson Pollock painting” line, he chimed in. “I was annoyed, irritated when we kept shooting that line, thinking there was no way it would end up in the final cut.” And it’s easy to imagine it getting left behind—but then it’s one of the most memorable in the movie for the adults who caught it.

The way James really wanted Stan Lee to appear:

An audience member asked if there were any Easter eggs that James wanted to put in, but couldn’t. He immediately answered, “The original Stan Lee cameo was in the Collector’s museum. Rocket walks by Cosmo… and they growl at each other, and then they walk by a box with a tentacle that slashes against the glass, and we cut that. Then they go by another box, and Stan Lee is just sitting inside the box. And Groot looks in at him, and Stan Lee flips him off.”

They shot the footage with a Stan Lee double while he was unable to travel, planning to replace it with Stan Lee’s actual head later. He promised to post the picture from this on Instagram. Yesterday, he followed through:

stan-lee-collectors-den-106062

Image: @jamesgunn on Instagram.

#grooting:

Outside of the panel, the Gunn brothers got to have a lot of fun with con-goers, including in this mass “Grooting.”

Gaming for Kids: Dragon Con Kaleidoscope Track Game Tips for Families

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Image credit: catthulhu.com

Since 2011, the Kaleidoscope track at Dragon Con has added a special place for kids 9-13 and their parents at a convention that can sometimes otherwise have a more adult feel (especially at night!).

One of the best things about the track is that it offers those families a place to meet each other and talk about the great geekery that they find they don’t have in common with most of the other people on the playground or PTA meeting. This year I attended one of these, “Gaming for Kids,” which brought together Jodi Black of Beautiful Brains, dads Bryan Young and Jonathan McFarland, and 12-year-old Sam Rittwage.

The panel had a lot to say about video games, especially, of course, Minecraft. It served as a perfect example of a game to use to teach your kids about online interactions, as well as a way to give them a safe space for their first online gaming by using servers to which only they and their friends have access. Through this method, the panel encourages teaching them proper behavior in online gaming, including saying only things to one another that you would say if you were with them in person.

“If you’re the parent of a young boy, talk to them about the rules, and make sure they know,” McFarland said. “My son said something that would be common for adolescent boys, and I asked him if he knew what it meant.”

Kids easily pick up language from other players in games as well as from other kids at school, but they often don’t realize the nature or severity of the language, particularly the violent imagery often brought into online gaming chat. The panel recommended playing with your kids or first playing through the games they want to play, even if they’re not particularly appealing to you. It will give you the opportunity to both understand the content as well as to lead them in appropriate online interaction.

The range of games recommended for kids varied somewhat with age but ranged from the distinctly kid-friendly Skylanders and Disney Infinity to M-rated games like Assassin’s Creed. Young noted that he chooses games not by the rating but by the actual content. For example, slaughtering zombies is different from Grand Theft Auto, where the focus is entirely on real-life illegal activities.

In the second half of the panel’s time, they moved on to tabletop gaming, largely with a long list of recommendations for all ages and interests. Many were old favorites for us, but some where new. I suspect our family’s new favorite (which we picked up in the dealers’ room after this panel) will be Call of Catthulhu! If you’re looking for something new to try out, here are the rest of their suggestions:

For pre-readers

We all know how hard it can be to find a game that’s interesting for you but easy enough for your little ones who can’t read yet. For that problem, try:

Iota: The Great Big Game in The Teeny-Weeny Tin
Rory’s Story Cubes
Hey That’s My Fish
Tsuro: The Game of the Path
Dixit

For older kids and the whole family

⚫ Get them started on RPGs. It doesn’t have to be Dungeons & Dragons. Find a game that interests them and is at the right level of complication. You could try Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space, Toon, Buggin’, or The Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men. There’s even an older game, Fuzzy Heroes: The Game of Conflict For Stuffed Animals and Toys, that pits your kids’ stuffed animals in battle, but it can be hard to come by. Conveniently, the second edition is available at Drive-Thru RPG in PDF format. (This is also a great site to surf through for other RPG ideas!)

⚫ Cooperative games like Flash Point Fire Rescue, Pandemic, and Castle Panic. The latter also has a zombie version, Dead Panic Board Game, and a forthcoming mashup with Munchkin, Munchkin Panic.

Telestrations is a mashup of Telephone and Pictionary. (Of course, you can also play this with a notebook and your own list of words without buying the box.)

Finally, the panel had two great suggestions for your general family game play enjoyment:

⚫ Institute the 20-minute rule. You can play anything for 20 minutes. After that, check to see if everyone’s still having fun. No? Time to move on.

⚫ Make old games new again. Create your own rules. Young suggested the example of adding dice and action figures to Candyland, calling it “Siege of Candy Castle.” Make the kids figure out the mechanics and why the pieces are there, which also gives them insight into why rules exist in games and how they can change the outcome.

Get a Peek at What’s Coming to Dragon Con TV

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This week is the start of Dragon Con, which means that in a few more days, my favorite channel on the hotel TV will be Dragon Con TV. It’s a place to watch the Masquerade or other panels you just couldn’t get in the room for, but it’s also parody commercials, better black-and-white bumpers than Adult Swim, and the adventures of Bob and Carl, Sci-Fi Janitors.

In the tradition of the last few years here on GeekMom, I asked the crew for a sneak peek at what’s new this year, and they sent us this piece from the new Poetry Corner series, which “pays tribute to science fiction and fantasy while exploiting classic literature (and the parody clauses in copyright laws),” DCTV fearless leader Brian Richardson explained.

This year’s lineup also includes a mock PBS-style pledge drive, featuring a call center staffed almost entirely by costumed characters. Richardson suggests that con-goers should pay careful attention to the on-screen phone number.

In more cruel-to-parents news, their 2014 song parody starts with “Let It Go.” (This may be when our love relationship turns into something else, DCTV. If I hear that song again, I might blowtorch a snowman.) “I had the idea in May, after watching Frozen on an international flight (which is, sadly, how I watch most new movies), of turning ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman’ into a song about cosplay,” Richardson said. It’s “only” Anna and Elsa, but it’s not just “Let It Go.” It’s a three-song medley complete with the Broadway-ready vocals. “Fortunately, I am surrounded by talented women and we were able to pull it together over a few months,” Richardson continued. “Our friends in the cosplay community should relate to the video, and will hopefully cry with laughter (and not the deep, deep pain of costume problems).”

While we were chatting, I couldn’t help but ask—you know there are video ideas that have come up and never been made, either for cost or time or other reasons. Richardson gave me two. The first is a mashup of Star Trek and renaissance faires. Imagine the time frame between what we attempt to recreate at a ren faire and now. For Picard and pals up ahead in the 24th century, that time gap would be… oh, about now. Thus instead of fencing, pewter mugs of mead, and odd mandolin music, they’d get to enjoy all the fun of cubicles, laser printers, PDAs, and vending machines. Hilarity ensues.

The second would be an addition to their growing bounty of parody music videos, a Star Trek rap parody. They’ve got the hip-hop ready but are still working on the right actors and costumes. “If we pull this one off it will be bigger than ‘Comic Book Shop’, especially since we have two actors from various Star Trek television series lined up for the main roles,” Richardson said.

(Way to tease 2015 when we haven’t even gotten through 2014, Brian.)

DCTV is available beginning Thursday in your room at all five Dragon Con host hotels.

The Best of Dragon Con For Your Preteens

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Courtesy of Dragon Con Photography © 2014 Dragon Con, Inc.

Dragon Con is known for its spectacular fan costuming and great guest lists, but it’s not always the first show you think of to take your kids to. In the past, there was on-site child care, but that’s been gone for several years. I’d still be reluctant to take very small children; partly due to admitted selfishness of wanting to be able to enjoy the con alone, but also because a wandering 5-year-old, tens of thousands of people in a small space, expensive handmade costumes, and too many shiny things to touch is a bad combination waiting to happen. But with the growing Kaleidoscope Track created for 9- to 13-year-olds, Dragon Con is an increasingly interesting place for your preteens.

Here are a few things you can look forward to in this year’s Kaleidoscope programming and other con events that are great for kids:

• The parade, of course! A highlight of the Dragon Con experience for many people, the parade starts at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, but you’ll want to be there early to get a good spot to see as many great costumes as possible.

• The first Kaleidoscope Track Book Club. Join author Bryan Young and illustrator Erin Kubinek to learn about and discuss the Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination. It was written by Young for his daughter Scout and illustrated by Kubinek.

• Build a robot. The Kell High School Robotics Team is hosting an on-site Lego® FIRST® Challenge where your kids can test their engineering skills by designing, building, and programming an autonomous robot with Lego technology.

• Get your groove on! This year, the Kaleidoscope Track will also host Dragon Con’s first Family Friendly Dance & Sing-a-Long with the theme “Everything is Awesome!”

 The second annual Geek Girls Run DragonCon Fun Run. On Friday morning, come costumed (or not) for a two-mile run to Olympic Park and back.

 Become a mad scientist. Take part in a dozen hands-on experiments during “The Science Power Hour!” on Sunday. Extract DNA from strawberries, find out if you’re a Predator or an Alien, launch soda-straw rockets, mix up some non-Newtonian fluids, and to top it all off, make ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Prefer to watch a mad scientist at work?  Don’t miss Beakman Live with the always amazing Paul Zaloom.

• Check out puppet improv. Puppeteers from Sesame Street and The Jim Henson Company will put on an improvisational puppet show. But if your kid is more the sort to hold the puppet, there will also be a puppet-making workshop, which allows them to take home their own dragon puppets.

Since you’re probably not going to stick only to the kids’ programming, I will note that if you’re the more sensitive sort of parent, deeply concerned about the words your younglings hear… well, you’re probably not bringing them to Dragon Con. But just in case, remember that your and your kids’ favorite actors are humans who sometimes tell saucy stories, and you never know when you’re going to head for the dealers’ room, only to encounter a fairy in a thong. (Most of the more adult costuming stays to the night hours, but not always.) Relax, have fun, and remember that they probably have seen and heard stranger things from their friends anyway.

See you (and your kids!) next week!

A New Peek At Guardians of the Galaxy

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Image: Marvel Studios

A lot of us felt the same way when we saw the first small snippets of Guardians of the Galaxy thumping along to “Hooked on a Feeling”: This will either be hilarious, or the worst thing that’s happened to a comic book lately.

After seeing Marvel’s 17-minute “First Look” special in IMAX 3D on Monday, I can say I feel pretty confident that it’s the former.

In Monday’s sneak peek in theaters, we got to see a lengthy scene in which the team–Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot (I am Groot!)–gets processed into jail and what happens after their arrival. I’m no longer concerned that we’ve seen all the best bits in the trailers. My one and only worry is that while “I am Groot!” is still funny right now, it could get overused. And he eats his boogers flowers. But that’s just funny. Groot is actually a much richer character than I suspected he would come across on screen, and I’m looking forward to more Star-Lord vs. Rocket verbal sniping punctuated by Gamora’s snark.

The 17-minute IMAX special included this new extended look, which I have to say, actually was pretty amazing in IMAX 3D. And I’ve had “Cherry Bomb” stuck in my head ever since:

If you haven’t already, start listening to the Spotify playlist of Star-Lord’s mixtape. It’s a fantastic summer soundtrack. (You’ll be able to purchase it as the movie’s soundtrack album on July 29.) Click the play button below to open it in Spotify.

Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13) will be released in the US on August 1.

Star Wars Droids Support Immunization

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Public domain image from the National Library of Medicine.

While browsing through public service posters from decades past, I ran across this gem and wanted to share it with all of you!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released this poster in 1977 after the success of the first Star Wars film. To give the time period context, the DTP (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine had been around since 1948, but it had been only six years since the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine was licensed in the US. It had been only five years since smallpox vaccinations ended, thanks to near-eradication of the disease. In 1976, the year prior, the fewest cases of whooping cough to date had been reported, thanks to the vaccine. Around the time of this poster, the pneumococcal vaccine was licensed, and a year later, measles became the next target for elimination.

To see another icon used on behalf of health, see this poster in which Spock speaks for the Great American Smokeout.

Maker Camp Starts Monday! Sign Up To Join The DIY Fun

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Credit: MakerCamp.com

You don’t live near a Maker Faire. Your Radio Shack only sells cell phones. There’s no hackerspace in town. This is bad times.* But it’s OK. You can still have a maker summer with Maker Camp, which starts Monday, so sign up now!

This is the third year for this DIY summer camp, where your house is the craft room, and the counselors are coming to you through Google+. You’re trading in the dangers of poison ivy for the dangers of a soldering iron—a fair trade, if you ask me. (And I just burnt myself on a soldering iron!) All you need to participate is a Google+ account, some free time, and a little cash for parts. It’s intended for kids ages 13-18, but younger ones can participate with an adult’s Google+ account, and older ones can be teenagers at heart. You’re never too old to make.

Each week of camp has a theme with the projects revealed as you go:

Week 1: Makers in Motion
Week 2: Art and Design
Week 3: Fun and Games
Week 4: Science and Technology
Week 5: DIY Music
Week 6: Make: Believe

Read more about the themes and their virtual field trips at makercamp.com. There are also “campsites” around the country where you can get together with other local campers, although it’s not necessary to do so to participate. If you’d like to see if there’s one near you, check the camp list.

The first week’s project parts list is live: scissors, screwdriver, drill, saw, wire strippers, soldering iron, heat gun–all things that the average maker has around the workshop. There’s also a materials list, which has mostly ordinary parts (empty plastic bottles) and a few slightly more exotic (EL wire), so if you’re ready to get started, you should probably also do a little shopping. If you’re new to EL wire and don’t have time to order it online, most decent Radio Shacks now sell it.

Camp kicks off Monday with a live Google Hangout with Buzz Aldrin, the New York Hall of Science, NASA Goddard, and the James Webb Space Telescope. Then the first week of projects begins.

Projects vary in difficulty level and ease of acquiring parts. This isn’t your dissertation though. Nobody’s judging you at the end. Participate in the pieces you want, skip the ones you don’t, and follow the fun the whole way. Sign up to join in at makercamp.com/sign-up-for-camp.

* And fortunately pretty unlikely for anyone in the US and much of Europe. Want to keep making? Find a hackerspace near you at hackerspaces.org or a Mini Maker Faire at makerfaire.com.

Test Your Geography Knowledge With Google SmartyPins

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 20:58:37

All images from smartypins.withgoogle.com.

Yesterday, Google launched SmartyPins, a geography game that lets you test your knowledge of geography, but Trivial-Pursuit-style.

You’re asked questions in one of six categories: Featured Topics, Arts & Culture, Science & Geography, Entertainment, Sports & Games, and History & Current Events. Then, place a pin on the map in the place that is the answer. You can take random questions or select the category to play in.

You start with 1,000 miles and lose them for every mile you are off. For example, if you get this question:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 21:22:02

And for some reason, you decide that Milwaukee is the Windy City, you’ll lose 79 miles, as that is the distance from Milwaukee to Chicago:

Screenshot from 2014-07-01 21:23:28

If you answer quickly enough, you get bonus miles added to your score. This is where it helps to have a speedy internet connection. While I was able to play on slow hotel Wi-Fi, I never got bonus miles because I was always waiting for the map to load.

The better you do at the game, the more specific you’ll need to be with your answers. For example, when I started, “Chicago” was an acceptable answer. Later in the game, I dropped a pin on Washington, D.C., but lost two miles for it not being directly on the White House.

Play at smartypins.withgoogle.com.

Nine Geek Actors You Don’t Often Hear Sing

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From Tom Felton’s “If You Could Be Anywhere” video (below)

Occasionally we get to see actors we already love bust out the singing chops, whether it’s in a supremely cheesy movie like Rock of Ages or something more like Joss Whedon’s gift to the Internet, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. But often their voices get stuck in speaking roles, and we may not even realize that their talents are greater. Here are a few of your favorite geek actors whom you might not have heard singing before.

David Tennant, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Hey, Jude”
Note that JGL sings quite a bit, so if you like him, just search YouTube, and you’ll be there all day.

Tom Felton, “If You Could Be Anywhere”

Robert Downey, Jr., “Driven to Tears” with Sting

Scott Bakula, “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd

James Marsters, “It’s Nothing”
Marsters sang, of course, in the musical Buffy episode Once More With Feeling,” but he also has his own band, Ghost of the Robot.

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine, Fraggle Rock and Diff’rent Strokes themes
Chris Pine will be singing on screen later this year in Into The Woods and has sung in other roles, but this clip is just fun.

Carrie Fisher, “Happy Days/You Made Me Love You”
Block out the Star Wars Holiday Special and watch Fisher with Debbie Reynolds

To wrap up the list, even though Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris are well known for their musical theater work, they’re always worth watching. So here is their 2011 Tony awards duet, which never gets old.

Musicals: Where You Shouldn’t Be Singing Unless You’re On The Stage

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From the Jersey Boys trailer

With the release of Jersey Boys this weekend, a film based on the popular musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, it’s time to talk about proper etiquette when attending musicals, whether on a stage or a screen.

Appropriate sounds to make include laughing at the right moments and applauding at others. They do not include attempting to audition for the show you’re seeing.

Let me rephrase. If I paid $150 for a ticket to see Hedwig on Broadway, it’s to see Neil Patrick Harris deliver his Tony-award-winning performance of “Angry Inch,” not your personal rendition. And if I pay $15 for a ticket to see Jersey Boys this weekend, it is not because I’m really excited to find out how many of the words you remember to “Walk Like a Man”.

Most people seem to have figured out the basic theater etiquette. Turn off your phone. Don’t fiddle with loud candy wrappers or narrate the story for the person sitting next to you. We’ve all been near someone asking, “Is he DEAD?” at the silent moment of a film—most of us have figured out not to be that person. But I don’t remember the last time I saw a musical without having to listen to someone behind me singing along. Stop it.

I should have realized the problem when I saw Jersey Boys on tour several years ago. The women behind me insisted, “It’s like a concert!” when I objected that I had to strain to hear the stunning Joseph Leo Bwarie instead of them. I should have realized during Movin’ Out or All Shook Up or Mamma Mia!—anywhere along the rise of jukebox musicals. But I didn’t have that light-bulb-moment about why people who wouldn’t loudly talk through a show have no compunction about singing through it until I saw Rock of Ages on Broadway last year. One of the theater’s staff was apologizing after escorting out a group of women in front of us who were both loud talkers and loud singers. He explained that this is a common problem, as it is a bit of a hybrid show—part musical, but also part rock show. For example, during the performance we saw, when Stacee Jax first sang “Wanted Dead or Alive” and didn’t hear the audience echo back “waaaanted,” at the chorus, he yelled, “What the f*** was that?” and told us all to get on board. Nevertheless, it still is a Broadway musical, not a Bon Jovi concert, and a certain amount of decorum is expected with the enjoyment. (Because of this, Rock of Ages should probably be declared a show for advanced theater-goers.)

But that’s when I realized the root of the problem. Musical fans know all the words to “Defying Gravity,” even if we can’t come close to singing that final note (so the potential for a Wicked film terrifies me). We knew “Cell Block Tango” long before Catherine Zeta-Jones shimmied into those sequins. Unless it’s a completely new show, it can feel like a Bon Jovi concert, where you’ve known the words since 1987 and feel compelled to sing along. And if it’s a jukebox musical, doubly so, even if it is a brand-new show. But a musical theater performance is not a rock concert.

To sum up, places it’s OK to sing include:

  • Your shower
  • Loud concerts where I couldn’t hear you if I wanted to
  • Midnight showings of Rocky Horror
  • Your local Grease sing-along
  • On a stage where you have been cast in the show (make sure you’re singing only your own parts)
  • Karaoke bars after the show (where you’re welcome to drunkenly sing the part you actually wanted instead of the one you were cast in or are not qualified to perform under any circumstance)

Places it is not OK to sing include: sitting in your seat watching an artist perform in a musical, whether it’s on a stage or a screen. If you want to sing, get in your car and turn on the radio. If you want to see an artist, appreciate and respect their art.

Remember this when you see Jersey Boys this weekend, which—to go on a bit of a tangent—you should probably do only if you’ve seen the musical. I could go on about the shortcomings of the film adaptation, but Variety’s review does that pretty well. Instead I’ll just remind you to be considerate. And if someone near you tries to interfere with John Lloyd Young’s heartbreaking “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” it’s only reasonable to go a little Jersey on them.

George R. R. Martin Talks About Wild Cards

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George R. R. Martin at ConCarolinas. Photo CC-BY-SA Ruth Suehle

ConCarolinas in Charlotte, NC was sold out this past weekend. Though a great event in its own right, this was likely thanks largely to its guest of honor, George R. R. Martin. At times you could have easily thought you were at a Game of Thrones convention rather than a general science/speculative/fantasy fiction convention, given the army of Khaleesis and Melisandres and GoT-inspired t-shirts walking around! But in his first talk, Martin talked not about the A Song of Ice and Fire books or the related HBO show, but instead about his older and continuing Wild Cards series.

Wild Cards is a shared world story, which means the universe is common to multiple authors who each create characters and stories within it. This world features an alien-created retrovirus that was released over New York City in 1946 and kills (in horrible ways) 90% of those who are infected. The other 10% who contract the virus, known as “jokers,” are changed, generally by being deformed in unfortunate and hideous ways. But one percent of the infected become “aces,” who maintain their human forms but also get superpowers.

Martin has been editing and writing Wild Cards since 1985, far longer than the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which he started in 1991. It grew from Martin’s gaming group in New Mexico. They began playing Call of Cthulhu, among other games (though, he noted, not Dungeons & Dragons). Then for his birthday, Vic Milan gave Martin a copy of Superworld. “It became completely addictive, and the biggest addict was me,” Martin said. “For two years I was running Superworld–I think it cost me at least a novel. Instead of writing, I was rolling up villains every day.” When the Albuquerque group was regularly gaming until 3 a.m. and having postmortem discussion until 5, he started a weeknight group nearer his home in Santa Fe.

“It was a great role-playing group–we really got into the role-playing part,” he said. “Many nights went by where we didn’t roll the dice; [it was] more like improv theater. Then I said the famous words, ‘There’s got to be a way to make some money out of this stuff,’ and the answer was shared worlds.”

Martin initially called the concept “mosaic novels,” though shared world anthologies were already popular, starting with Robert Aspirin and Lynn Abbey’s Thieves’ World, which Martin says started as an argument in a convention bar over whether Conan the Barbarian could beat Elric in a fight. Its success prompted other writers and editors to do similar projects such as Heroes in Hell and Greystone Bay. None ever quite equaled Thieves’ World‘s success, though.

“And no one had done a superhero shared world,” Martin said. “We wanted to take the form to the next level.” He talked to Abbey and Aspirin about their successes and problems and was able to avoid some of the pitfalls they had encountered as a result.

The Wild Cards authors came from the experience of reading comics during the Silver Age of comic books and a feeling that those worlds were flawed, a notion that also spawned stories like The Watchmen and The Dark Knight around the same time.

“As much as we love the superhero stories, they don’t hold up in a superhero sense,” Martin said. “They’re a hodgepodge of origins. This guy’s a god, and this one it’s a radioactive spider, and this guy finds a stick in a cave… this makes no sense. It’s partly fantasy.” His solution to a superhero fiction more rooted in science was to create a single cause for superhero powers, which became the Wild Cards virus. Initially he intended for the powers to be comparatively weaker but more realistic given the known laws of science. “But that broke down quickly,” he said, as the writers wanted to create colorful characters. He joked, “I didn’t have the heart to say no. We found you can mumble ‘psionics’ or ‘quantum theory’ and justify anything you want.” (The Takisian aliens that created the Wild Cards virus use it to improve their psionic powers.)

The next step was to ask the critical question: What happens to the world if superpowers are real? What do those people actually do? It seems unlikely that they’d spend their time going after bank robbers when existing law enforcement has that sort of thing already handled. And what about the “power” part of “superpower”? When superpowers are acquired at random, some people aren’t going to use those powers for good.

“It’s interesting to compare our solution to something like Watchmen,” Martin said. “I think Alan Moore was thinking the same thing, that the way traditional comic books were doing it wasn’t quite right. He kept the costumes but mostly did away with the powers. We kept the powers but threw out the identities and costumes.”

Wild Cards is entering its 23rd volume and has had 40 other writers participate over the years. Lowball, the 22nd novel in the series, is due out later this year, followed by High Stakes. They’ve long since stopped officially numbering the novels, though, as that makes it more intimidating for new readers to jump in. Martin noted that every few volumes, there’s a new entry point so that you don’t have to read all of the previous volumes to start.

The first three books in the series, Wild Cards, Aces High, and Jokers Wild work together as a trilogy and are intended to be read as one. The next three books, however, became four. “As happens seemingly with anything I’m connected with, one of the volumes got extremely long,” Martin joked. Then the writers who had been working on these anthologies wanted to write novel-length stories, so they contracted for two novels. If you’re not ready to commit to an entire series, the best entry points (that aren’t the beginning) are Aces Abroad (4), One-Eyed Jacks (8), Card Sharks (13), Deuces Down (16), Inside Straight (18, which is when the series moved to being published by Tor), and Fort Freak (21).

As to hopes of seeing Wild Cards on screen, Martin had no new news. The rights to the film were the first acquisition for SyFy Films, a partnership between SyFy Channel and Universal, back in 2011. Melinda Snodgrass, a writer in the series, has written a draft of the film, which they’re still hoping to see made.

Help Bring Back Beat the Geeks—But Better. Ubergeek.

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Image credit: Ubergeek Kickstarter

If you were watching Comedy Central back in 2001, you may remember a show called Beat the Geeks. It featured a movie geek, a TV geek, a music geek, and a guest who specialized in a specific category for that episode, like a James Bond geek or a Michael Jackson geek (whom you can see in the clip below). Paul Goebel, the weekly TV geek, wants to bring back the idea of the geek game show in Ubergeek.

“Being the TV Geek was one of the best experiences of my life,” Goebel said, “and I feel that if the show was on TV today it might not fit in with what people now think of as a geek.” As he points out in the Kickstarter description page, there’s plenty of programming for… well, I’ll use his words: “celebrating the idiocy of idiots.”

“I wanted to make a show that challenges people who say ‘I’m a car nerd’ or ‘I’m a sports geek’ by proving that geeks are really only geeky about one thing… knowledge. Not just about one subject but about everything,” he said.

He’s pitched the show to a few people who weren’t sure that anyone would get it. Then he teamed up with Brock LaBorde, writer and producer of comedy and game shows. They decided that with a funded pilot, they would have both a great piece to use to sell the show as well as the evidence of the backers that there are people interested in watching it.

At GeekMom, we like to hear people’s geek origin stories, so I asked Goebel about his, which started with the premiere of Sesame Street in 1969, which also happened to be the year Goebel “premiered” on this planet, so to speak. “My generation was the first to grow up watching TV,” he said. “We were also latchkey kids, so after we got home and did our homework, we watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Monkees, Get Smart, and then we’d go to see amazing films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the time we were in our twenties we had played every video game in the arcade and every home system from Atari 2600 to Super Nintendo. Shortly after we grew up, the Internet was born, so unlike earlier generations, we had to stay geeky to survive in the digital age. Compared to our parents, we WERE superheroes.”

The Ubergeek Kickstarter is seeking $15,000 by June 22, with backer rewards ranging from shoutouts on Twitter to attending the live taping, to potential spots as a contestant. At the top of the tower is producer credit with creative input on the show.

Given the explosion of ostensibly geek-friendly content on TV that often turns out to be geek-offensive instead, I asked Goebel what he thought had been the best and the worst shows for geeks. “Without giving any context at all,” he answered, “Best, Star Trek: TOS. Worst, any show with the word ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ in the title.”

This Week In Tears

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Discovery in its current home at Udvar-Hazy Center. Photo by Ruth Suehle.

Facebook is often the neon sign for synchronicity in our lives. A friend you haven’t seen since elementary school comments on your coworker’s post. One person posts a warning about ticks right above another announcing her son’s diagnosis with Lyme disease. This week, I was struck by a Facebook full of tears—not in friends’ devastation, but in links about completely unrelated things. A week in tears.

Discovery’s Tears

First was this page about the teardrop-like black tiles contrasting with the white tiles on the space shuttle Discovery, just under its right “eye” of a pilot’s window.

True Blood Teaser

The final season of True Blood starts on June 22. To tease it, HBO released this image of Sookie:

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Image: HBO

And we all know what blood tears mean. What does this image mean!? The show long ago diverged from the books, so we can’t even swear she won’t be turned.

Tears in Hannibal

This one’s more spoilery since it’s an ep that’s already aired, but there were tears in the ending of Hannibal last week.

Tears as Art

LA-based photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher has complete a project called The Topography of Tears, in which she captures tears, whether caused by joy or pain or grief or chopping onions, and puts them under a microscope, then photographs the results.

The Trail of Tears

For the Cherokee Nation, May marks the anniversary of when in 1836, the Treaty of New Echota gave their people two years to move to the Indian Territory. Then on May 24, 1838, when 16,500+ remaining Cherokee were forced from their homes, resulting in the deaths of as many as 4-6,000, a thousand-mile march known as the Trail of Tears, or in Cherokee, Nu na da ul tsun yi, “the place where they cried.”

If you find yourself in Western North Carolina this summer, I recommend seeing Unto These Hills, one of the oldest outdoor dramas in the country, which tells the story of the Cherokee. (Michael Rosenbaum, who was Lex Luthor on Smallville, once played the Constable role!)

Download Maleficent Activity and Coloring Sheets

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Angelina Jolie stars as Maleficent. Photo credit: Frank Connor, Disney.

We’ve got two-and-a-half more weeks until Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is released in theaters on May 30. What’s a villainess fan to do to pass the time? Coloring sheets, of course.

Maleficent is rated PG, but you might want to evaluate your younger children’s fright levels before taking them along. Jolie told Entertainment Weekly in March that her own children were scared of her in the costume! One of her youngest, Vivienne (5), plays a toddler-aged Princess Aurora in the film, and two of her other children, Zahara (9) and Pax (10), also appear briefly during the christening. Vivienne got the part because she wasn’t afraid of Jolie’s horns and claws.

The movie also features Elle Fanning as Aurora. The script is by Linda Woolverton, who worked on the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland as well as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Robert Stromberg, who won the Oscars for production design on Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful is making his directorial debut.

Download the activity sheets, courtesy of Disney, as a single PDF. Preview below:

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And no, you’re never too old to bust out the crayons. As someone who’s been waiting for the Maleficent film for quite a while now, I’m ready to attack these four coloring sheets myself!