I Am the Princess and the Pea; I Am the Wolverine

I was having a horrible night of sleep (again), in pain, and woke up trying to locate the sea urchin that must have been shoved in my bed. I sat up and found the source of my agony: a wrinkle. One wrinkle in the sheet. Just one.

I stared at it and my exhausted brain cursed, “I am the $#@$ing ‘Princess and the Pea’.” A true princess is so sensitive that twenty mattresses cannot keep her from feeling a single pea underneath them all. It really sucks to be a true princess. Can I be a hardy peasant instead? Alas, I have to keep my royal pedigree to rule my vast lands.

If only hyper-sensitivity came with riches and servants. Instead, I get the migraines and sleepless nights without any seeming benefit. But my geeky-themed mind likes to twist my fate to the fantastical. Maybe the “Princess and Pea” was based on an actual princess who was sensitive like me? Spinning her bad physical luck into a badge of honor: Royalty is more perceptive than the average populace. Don’t try to pull anything on that princess because she can detect a tiny vegetable under her bedding!

The world is a lot to handle for the average person, but what about those with super senses? Continue reading I Am the Princess and the Pea; I Am the Wolverine

Release Your Inner Robot With ‘The Robot Factory’

The Robot Factory Icon
The Robot Factory Icon. Photo: Tinybop

There’s a new must-have app for the robot enthusiast in your house! Tinybop, Inc. just launched The Robot Factory in the App Store. Designed for kids 4+, it’s the first app in Tinybop’s new educational series Digital Toys. The app provides 50+ parts to spark your child’s robot building imagination, and thousands of robot creations are possible. The app also allows your child to manage their inventory and play with their robots in a fantastical world.

I asked my son Johnny, age 10, to check out the app because he’s my robot enthusiast and First Lego League participant. I knew he would be excited for an opportunity to build robots on his iPad. As soon as I turned him loose with the app, I started hearing a lot of positive chatter from him. “This game really is cool. I like it!” “I think this is a game to express how creative you are.” “Look, Mom, I made him fly. They can fly!” In a short amount of time, he taught himself to use the app and created quite the robot collection.

The Robot Factory Johnny's Robots
Johnny’s Robots. Photo: Maryann Goldman

As you create robots, they are stored in your inventory. You can add new robots to your inventory, take turns playing with different robots, and modify your previously-built robots.

The Robot Factory Robot Inventory
Johnny’s Robot Inventory. Photo: Johnny Goldman

You can test drive your robots too. How do they handle the terrain?

The Robot Factory World
The Robot Factory World. Photo: Johnny Goldman

You know how siblings can be. If one is doing something, the other wants to do it too. I set up my older son Joey, age 12, with The Robot Factory app on his iPhone, and he was determined to outdo his brother with his robot building creativity. The most exciting element for him was the color palettes. He was totally engaged by the color choices and excited to create a butterfly robot for his mom who loves butterflies.

The Robot Factory Joey's Robots
Joey’s Robots. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Actually, the app inspired some teamwork and sharing between my boys as they exchanged robot building tips and excitement over their latest creations.

The Robot Factory Competitive Building
Johnny and Joey competitive building with The Robot Factory. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I even got in on the act by creating my own Girl Power robot.

The Robot Factory Girl Power Robot
Girl Power Robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

The Robot Factory gets a big thumbs up from everyone in our family and is priced at $2.99. There are no in-app purchases or advertisements to deal with either.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Reality Is for Those Who Lack Imagination

evergreenspirit
Getting into the “spirit” at EverGreenSpirit College. Photo By Rebecca Angel

Last summer, I took my daughter and her friend to a college information fair. Afterwards, we sat at a coffee shop and perused the catalogs. One college in Vermont stood out for its “green” way of life on campus. We started making up things about the college that weren’t in the catalog, giggling about how they didn’t have freshman dorms, no way, they must have yurts.

This college went in my daughter’s “keep” pile because we are quite the granola-crunchy family. Poking fun at it is really poking fun at ourselves. But the yurt thing. That was funny. I started getting more ideas for an imaginary college that was extremely environmentalist, ridiculously spiritual, and with a touch of fantasy.

I decided to call it EverGreenSpirit College. It naturally formed the acronym EGS, which became the mascot and motto: A college to develop, grow, and hatch into the beatific being that you are!  I opened a twitter account for it, posting as an employee sending out campus-wide messages like:

“New course! The Zen of Boxes 346. Prerequisites: Zen of Longhorn Beetles and Zen of Ben (or equivalent.)”

“As per student request all vending machines have been replaced with mini-greenhouse Foraging Nooks.”

“Attention Off-campus students: The Hover Bus is changing its schedule (again.) Also, the massage therapist on board is weekdays only.”

Why put effort into something that, I’ll admit, only a handful of my friends ever read?  I needed something easy, positive, and distracting.

I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in September after over a year of random symptoms taking over my life. This fall was especially challenging physically, and I stopped doing many creative things, including writing or performing live music.

EverGreenSpirit College was the first thing I did on the computer every morning. It was fast, silly, and had no plot or plan, just world building. It kept my creative energy churning without any expectations or exhaustion. Twitter was perfect to keep me succinct. The campus came to life, yurt by bio-dome, each day.

This is not the first time I’ve used imaginary worlds to keep me going. Sometimes it’s fandom that keeps me happy. But I’ve created my own universe before. Many years ago, I was homeschooling two young children, teaching, finishing my college degree, and feeling lots of stress. In response, I created an alternate surrealist college called Freaky University, and kept a livejournal series called Journal Of An FU Freshman. It was really, really weird. But composing those entries took my mind on a vacation and made me giggle. I eventually gathered it into a little book, giving it to some friends and family for Christmas one year.

EverGreenSpirit may have run its course. All setting and no plot can only go so far. That’s ok. It served its purpose: every day it jump-started my imagination. Plus, I always amused my kids over breakfast:

ME: So, Maxine the Shepherdess is telling people to get off the EGS main quad so her sheep can graze today.

KIDS: (amused expressions)

Everyone deals with stress differently.

Do you escape into movies? Books? Or worlds of your own making?

Get Creative! Win Money! Inspire Science!

Muse of Nerds By Lilianna Maxwell
Muse of Nerds By Lilianna Maxwell

I love science fiction and fantasy. Although fantasy is a great escape, there’s a sadness when I finish a book or movie. It’s not real. But science fiction? I know it’s not real, at least not yet. Could it happen? Often the answer is “I certainly hope not!” because the stories can be warnings about paths we don’t want humanity skipping down blindly to our destruction. But sometimes, like the Star Trek universe, we can be inspired by a hopeful future, and dream of all that cool stuff!

The Society for Science and the Public, in collaboration with the Tomorrow Project, Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, and the Intel Foundation, is hosting “The Future: Powered by Fiction.” It’s a contest for stories, essays, videos, and comics in the science fiction genre with a cash prize. The competition is open to people ages 13-25 anywhere in the world. Entries due November 14th, 2013, so get going!

But wait, there’s more!

As a kid, my dad would regularly take my sister and I into his biology lab to try out simple experiments. My sister is now a biology professor, and I have a life-long love of science. It would be nice to say it was because of my science classes in school, but really, it was being able to play with cool stuff, make up new experiments, and having science fun-time with my dad at his work.

Not everyone has a parent in the science field, but that shouldn’t stop anyyone from having fun with science. Another competition, this one sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is the Science Play and Research Kit (SPARK): Reimagining the 21st Century Chemistry Set. It is for those eighteen and older, with a longer deadline (January 2014) and a bigger prize. Entrants are asked to create or make the plans for a chemistry set that will engage both children and adults to become more hands-on with science.

Encourage your kid to imagine science and technology in the future with the first competition, and why don’t you imagine the coolest chemistry set there could ever be?

Toon Academy: Minecraft

Toontastic, a creative animation tool for kids, has partnered with MinecraftEDU in a contest called Toon Academy: Minecraft. Using Toontastic, kids create animated “How Toons” explaining to other kids how to play Minecraft, focusing on their favorite things to do in the game and why other kids might enjoy them, too. The contest excites me not just because it brings together two tools that can really spark kids’ creative abilities, but because it’s about kids teaching other kids, a marvelous way to learn. We are not yet a Minecraft household, but my daughter has shown an interest in it. When I showed her the videos kids have uploaded so far, she sat and watched a dozen of them. I think she might be ready.

MinecraftContest

The contest runs through October 17th, and winners will receive a prize package from Launchpad Toys and MinecraftEDU. Teachers can also get a lesson plan to do this in the classroom. Check out details on the Launchpad Toys blog.

Geeks, Music, and Lyrics

Image by Keith (TheBigTog)
Image by Keith (TheBigTog)

(This was my very first post on GeekMom waaaay back when. It eventually ended up on Wired as well. I’m still writing and performing all my geeky songs!)

Take, take, take me away.
I’ll drink whatever you put before me.
In this world I can’t stay.
Only the faerie can cure me.

“Mortal Slave” by Camelot’s Destruction

As a singer/songwriter, I’ve been told by other musicians to never share your inspiration. Let the audience decide what the songs are about. I agree for songs about love and life, experiences the listener can put themselves into. But what about a song about the perils of having an evil wizard as an ex-boyfriend? Or one about creating a clone to take over your life while you have outer-space adventures? Those songs need explaining.

Several years ago a friend emailed me his really cool dream. I turned it into the start of an urban fantasy novel. It still languishes on my hard drive. But this isn’t about failure, instead, that never-finished book sparked a whole new facet of my musical life.

In the novel-that-will-never-be, there is a teen girl who I wanted to be wearing a band t-shirt. Considering her character’s love of rebellion, I decided this band should be from the forbidden realm of Dreamtown. But what would the band be called? Something dark, but over the top, like most band names I make fun of. I came up with Camelot’s Destruction.

Continue reading Geeks, Music, and Lyrics

See Your Project Become a LEGO Kit

 

Somebody develops all of those LEGO kits that kids clamor for – it might as well be you, right? With LEGO’s new Cuusoo, brick fanatics everywhere have the opportunity to create a project and see it transformed into a product for the masses. Builders share their ideas online and other Cuusoo users vote on it. When a project achieves 10,000 supporters, the folks at LEGO will review it for a chance to become an official LEGO product. Cool beans, right? But there’s more. If your project is produced, you’ll earn royalties on the product – 1% of the net sales.

Photo: LEGO media release

The site is still in ‘open beta’ but this Minecraft project submitted by Mojang has already reached the 10,000 vote threshold – and it did so in just 48 hours. It’s currently in the review stage, but who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to pick up this Minecraft set next Christmas.

 

Ingenious Use of Soda Bottles Lights up the Darkness

 

Much of what we write about here at GeekMom is high tech gadgetry, so when I say ‘solar’ you might think of any number of modern solar powered electrical systems. What you probably didn’t think about is the super low tech but incredibly brilliant solar bottle bulb developed by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In the Philippines, poor residents often live in dim, windowless homes that are dark inside even in the daytime – three million homes outside of metro Manila do not have electricity. Enter Isang Litrong Liwanag. Meaning a liter of light, the organization recycles plastic soda bottles to bring light to developing communities. Filled with water and a bit of bleach, these “light kits” are installed on roofs, catching the sunlight and refracting it through the water into the home below.

Such a simple solution. And yet one that’s a testament to creative problem solving.

Via Ann Zeise of A to Z Home’s Cool.

Education Week: Educating Too Early

academic preschool, pushing toddlers to learn, education too early,
CC BY-SA 3.0 emilygoodstein Flickr

Look at promotional material for preschool and daycare in your area. Chances are, there’s an emphasis on math, pre-reading, and other academics. And why not? We’ve been told for years that our little ones should play with educational toys and attend enrichment programs designed to boost learning. Well-intentioned parents follow this advice. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. Logically then, early instruction will help maximize a child’s potential.

But learning in young children (and perhaps at all ages) has much more to do with curiosity and exploration. Recent studies with four-year-olds showed, “Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning.” It also limits a child’s creativity, problem solving, and openness to ideas beyond the situation at hand. This is true when the instruction comes from parents as well as teachers.

As Wendy S. Grolnick explains in The Psychology of Parental Control, research shows that rewards, praise, and evaluative comments actually undermine motivation and stifle learning in preschoolers as well as school-aged children. Again, true when it comes from parents as well as teachers.

Highly instructional preschool programs have been studied for years. Although they’re more popular than ever, the outcomes don’t hold up under scrutiny. Researchers followed children who attended different preschool environments.  Some children were enrolled in an academic setting, others in a child-initiated play setting, and a third group in a preschool that balanced both approaches. By the middle grades, children from the play-oriented preschool were receiving the highest grades. They also showed the most social and emotional maturity.  Those who had attended the academic preschool lagged behind in a significant way–poorer social skills. The differences became more apparent as these children got older. By age fifteen, students from the academic preschool program showed twice as much delinquent activity as the other two groups. And in adulthood, former students of the play preschool and balanced preschool showed higher levels of success across a whole spectrum of variables. The academic group did not attain the same level of education as the play group and required more years of treatment for emotional impairment. They also faced more felony arrests than the other two groups.

Susan K. Stewart notes in Preschool: At What Cost? it was common knowledge in our grandparents’ generation that children should be raised with an emphasis on compassion, self-control, and social skills along with plenty of opportunities for play. It may not be as easy as that, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as lessons for toddlers.

 

Additional resources

“Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?” by Lyn Nell Hancock  Smithsonian Magazine September 2011

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by  Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan

Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Roberta Golinkoff, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Diane Eyer

The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind

 

 

Learning Through Legos: S.T.E.M. and Back Again

Lego Bricks
Lego Bricks by Gina Clifford

Legos are internationally cherished small plastic interlocking building blocks and minifigures that can be taken apart and used to build other objects. Over the years, Lego has expanded its creations to include products like gears and pulleys and even electronic parts for constructing programmable robots. As a result, there are popular Lego robotics leagues and Lego education products focusing squarely on programming, solar, and even wind energy exploration. So, we see the science, technology, engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M.) connection, but what do Legos have to do with other stuff like reading, writing, or art?

Learning by Doing

First, kids love to learn by doing. Period. In fact, noted computer scientist and constructivist from the MIT Media Lab, Seymour Papert, believes so strongly in learning by doing that in 1998 he worked with Lego to create Lego Mindstorms, a programmable brick that can be used to make robots. The name for the product came from Papert’s book, Mindstorms, published in 1980. Lego even funded some of his research! Let’s take these little S.T.E.M. jewels and extend their reach into non-traditional starring roles in the arts and humanities.

Literature

Lego Pirates
Lego Pirates by Gina Clifford

There’s nothing like necessity for prompting a child to read.  Lego kits come with detailed instruction manuals that a child must read and follow in order to complete the model.  Therefore, young Lego builders are developing their reading comprehension every time they follow the instructions for a new model.

More interesting, though is tying a piece of literature to a building project.  Imagine building scenes from Alice in Wonderland out of Legos.  Alternatively, build and then reenact your favorite scenes from Treasure Island in Lego. Check out literacy expert Susan Stephenson’s great suggestions on this topic.

Writing

Susan also provides ideas for using Mini-mizer, a free online digital Lego minifigure creation tool.  Mini-mizer is a cool tool for creating a wide array of digital minifigures that can be saved by taking screen captures.  It would be fun to use these neat screen captures in original comic strips, stories, etc.

Digital Storytelling

Lego-themed stop-motion videos are extremely popular.  A quick search on YouTube yields thousands of kid-created Lego stop-motion animation videos riffing on popular movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Creating a stop-motion animation video isn’t kid’s play, though. Stop-motion animation takes serious time and skill. Creating even a rudimentary Lego stop-motion animation video requires developing at least basic photo, video, and sound editing techniques. More elaborate videos often involve developing a story board, writing a script, creating an original music score, adding special effects, learning about copyright rules, and even marketing a video to friends and fellow fans. In spite of the time and effort required to learn, young Lego fans painstakingly learn these skills on their own without prompting. In addition, young Lego engineers who explore stop-motion animation end up developing writing and story-telling skills as they explore new ways to express themselves through Lego.

 

Batman minifig
Created with Mini-mizer

Creative kids are in good company, too. Pixar animator, Angus Maclane, builds with Lego bricks to help him unwind after animating all day.  He also builds Lego models of animated characters to help him visualize his digital creations in 3-d.

Art

Nathan Sawaya, a New York-based artist who has taken Lego bricks beyond child’s play with his traveling art exhibition, is an inspiration to all aspiring Lego artists.  As a child, Sawaya drew cartoons, wrote stories, perfected magic tricks, and played with LEGO. Nathan’s Lego sculptures are stunningly realistic  fine art that adults and children can enjoy together. Check out Nathan’s museum tour schedule to find an art museum near you that might be hosting an exhibition of Nathan’s work.

So, those sweet little bricks are really kids’ prototyping laboratory wares.  Fertile imaginations unleashed beyond STEM flow freely wherever the creative spirit dictates.  Oh! Don’t worry. Leaving the S.T.E.M. path actually leads back to it, sometimes profoundly. Check out Jim Bumgardner’s 2007 GeekDad article explaining how he erased his classroom math failures through creative discovery — outside the classroom.

Now go build some cool Lego creations with the kids!

 

 

CABIN FEVER: Ten Sanity Saving Tricks with Tape

tapeI am not exaggerating one single bit when I tell you that masking tape saved my sanity as a parent. As we continue Cabin Fever Week here at GeekMom, take a tip from me: get tape. For some reason, my kids thought it was a great treat to have unlimited access to tape. Regular old masking tape will work fine, but for extra excitement, consider colored masking tape or patterned Japanese masking tape. Truly, your kids will think you rock. Now, got tape? Get busy:

  1. Gather a collection of recycled items like egg cartons, small boxes, cardboard tubes, and tissue boxes, then let your kids go to town building sculptures. Use the tape to hold together the recycled items and to decorate the creations. If your kids haven’t been exposed to open-ended art projects like this, you might have to offer some ideas – Rockets! Robots! Cars! Flowers! – but remind them that anything goes.
  2. Show the kids how to cut colored tape into squares and use them to make a mess-free mosaic.
  3. Let them use the tape to draw a “picture” directly onto the glass slider or refrigerator. It’s masking tape. It will come off.Just don’t leave it there for a long period of time or in the hot sun (though if there is hot sun to worry about, you’re probably not suffering through much cabin fever).
  4. Dust off their bikes and let them get it ready for Spring! Alternatively, let them cover binders, worn-out toys, or even an old pair of shoes. The novelty of altering these objects will thrill them and gain you at least an hour’s worth of whine-free time.
  5. Pull out some cardboard, bubble wrap, and yarn and let the kids use tape to create a costume. Of course, once the kids have a costume, they’ll want to put on a play, extending your whine-free time indefinitely (score!).
  6. Use tape to create a roadway for Matchbox cars or other vehicles. This can traverse the entire house, over carpet, tile, or linoleum.
  7. Have your child create an abstract design out of tape on the back of a cookie sheet. When it’s complete, pull out a piece of plain paper and some crayons and let her take a rubbing of the design.
  8. Make stickers. Stick tape to waxed paper in a solid pattern and then trace cookie cutter shapes onto the tape and cut out. Carefully peel the tape shape off of the waxed paper and use it as you would a sticker.
  9. Cover recycled candy tins with tape and glue on decorations like buttons, gems, and ribbon to make tiny treasure boxes.
  10. Turn the tape into bracelets or headbands by putting two lengths of tape together, sticky sides facing. Decorate one side with more tape and then punch holes in each end. Overlap the holes and secure with a brad to complete the loop.

Race to Nowhere: A Film to Make Us Think

GeekMom Amy Kraft wrote awhile back about the crazy-making process of getting her child into the “right” school:

My daughter just started Kindergarten at a New York City public school. The process of getting her there began when she was two years old and I started touring schools, fearing that if I didn’t like any of the possibilities we’d need time to move. The past year has felt like a part-time job, my time filled with tours, applications, and even an essay. Fortunately, we’re zoned for a pretty good school, but children in the zone had previously been waitlisted for reasons of overcrowding. Gifted and talented testing (yes, taking your 4-year-old for a standardized test) can open up more options.

This is just one example of a parent trying to do the best she can do for her child, but I’ve heard this story over and over again. Moms and dads are trying to work with a broken system to help their children thrive. Parents today are expected to raise high-achieving children, skilled in a multitude of talents, all at the highest levels, to respond to today’s tough challenges.

But is this the answer? Bombarded by academic standards, competition for educational opportunities and run-away schedules, young people struggle to accommodate the intense demands. They’re getting stressed. They’re getting ill. And some are committing suicide.

Vicki Abeles became so concerned with the culture of hollow achievement and pressure to perform that has invaded Americaʼs schools that she created a documentary about it. In Race to Nowhere, the mother turned filmmaker suggests that the American education system is destroying our childrenʼs love of learning and feeding an epidemic of unprepared, disengaged, and unhealthy students.

I’m crossing my fingers that this film will make its way to my local, independent movie theater, but I’ve added it to my Netflix queue just in case.

Transform Your Mind Through New Eyes

Photo by Alexandra Siy

Looking for something larger than life that will thrill the entire family this holiday? A tool that is a gateway for magnifying thought, an inspirational device used by poet laureates and Ivy League professors, preschoolers and Ph.D.s, not to mention geek Grinches and Whos?

It fits in the palm of your hand, but has infinite power in its ability to engage. (And it doesn’t have an on-off switch.) It’s a loupe, pronounced LOOP, and it will never cease to amaze you as long as you’re willing to look.

A 5X magnifying loupe and a series of simple questions are at the heart of the The Private Eye Project–a hands-on program that helps develop the essential habits of mind used by successful scientists, writers, artists, inventors, and mathematicians.

Children's drawings of fingerprints made into fine art.

I discovered The Private Eye several years ago when I was researching and writing my first books illustrated with electron micrographs. It was thrilling to discover hidden worlds literally at my fingertips (check out the FingerPrint Galleries) without an expensive or complicated microscope. Now, when I visit schools and libraries to introduce the microscopic world through my books, I often hand each kid a loupe. My classroom set has travelled all over the country, and countless kids have begged to keep a loupe for their very own. So, rather than give mine away, I say get one (or two—they’re stackable) of your own.

The World-in-a-Bag is a fabulous gift for all ages. It contains two loupes, seven specimens (natural, such as a starfish leg and a sea urchin, as well as synthetic samples such as orange mesh), and a colorful 14-page spiral bound booklet that outlines the five steps of “looking and thinking by analogy.”

Once you (or your little geek) start looking you won’t be able to stop. That’s when the Collect-it-Yourself Museum comes in handy. This very cool kit contains six large magnifier boxes that can hold all kinds of specimens and treasures (think bugs, crystals, seeds, and Legos), along with a loupe-on-a-lanyard, and a microfiber loupe cleaning cloth.

If you really want to inspire your child, treat yourself, or impress your boss, give the Mini World-in-a-Box. This is a lovely collection of specimens that will please your eyes and excite your mind, especially during the dark days of winter when much of the natural world is asleep under a blanket of snow. I know I will be studying the treacherous slides on the steep sides of ash-gray volcanic mountains (a.k.a. barnacles) the next time writer’s block sets in.

Besides offering loupes and specimens, The Private Eye Project publishes a 200+ page guide by Kerry Ruef, creator and founder of the project, which is filled with activities that cover everything from science, to writing, to math, to multicultural studies. Colorful activity sheets designed for every grade level are great for homeschoolers and teachers who are looking to inject creativity into their lessons.

According to David Melody, Associate Director of the Private Eye Project, teachers and parents consistently report that their children develop creative and critical thinking skills and produce exceptional work while engaged in the Private Eye process. I’m not surprised—through personal experience I have found that the loupe has the power to break cliché thinking and transform my writing. What more could anyone want?

Make Stuff with Make Do

I am a firm believer in encouraging our kids to be creative. To think creatively. To use creative problem solving skills. In fact, I wrote a book about it. I’ve written here about the creative genius that is unleashed in the Destination Imagination program (and make sure to catch Laura Grace Weldon’s take on another creative problem solving program, Odyssey of the Mind). I’m all about creativity.

My first reaction when I saw makedo? Want, want, want! The premise behind these connectors fits perfectly with my “use what you have” kind of creative problem solving. Use the connectors and two different kinds of hinges to transform cardboard boxes, egg cartons, cups, fabric, deli containers, and what have you to create sculptures or even playhouses. There are no rules! Art and play things from recycled items? Talk about a win-win situation.

Makedo sets come in several sizes and styles. Get a makedo kit for one (65 pieces, $15). Get a makedo kit for three (165 pieces, $34). Or get a makedo kit and make a robot ($9).

Theft! A History of Music—Part 3: If I could turn forward time…

Panel from Theft! A History of Music
All images from Theft! A History of Music courtesy of Jennifer Jenkins, James Boyle, and Keith Aoki

[Read part 1 of this series about the upcoming graphic novel Theft! A History of Music and the history it reviews and part 2, which discusses how copyright entered the picture.]

Imagine a 20-year-old musician publishing his work today. Let’s pretend he’s living the fast and reckless life of a rock star and will die young at 45. Because the copyright term has been ratcheted up to life of the author plus 70 years (or 95 years from publication for corporate works), you won’t be able to sample his work without permission (for your heartfelt tribute song, of course), until 2105. But since you’re not living his rock star lifestyle, maybe you can hang on another 95 years to grab your chance.

“We are the first generation in history to deny our culture to ourselves,” Jennifer Jenkins said.

Furthermore, as the new year approaches, we’ll soon again “celebrate” Public Domain Day, January 1, which is the day when works entering the public domain in a given year do so. But as I explained for this year’s non-celebration, because of copyright changes and extensions, there will be no previously copyrighted works entering the public domain in the US until 2019.

Under the law as it stood until 1978, most music would go into the public domain in 28 years, which would put works from the 80s into the public domain now. But the new terms have been retrospectively applied, sometimes applying to dead musicians, who presumably have other things to worry about besides their copyrights.

Panel from Theft! A History of Music

Copyright law has a built-in, careful balance between control and freedom. And we haven’t just added a few marbles to one side of the scale—we’ve dropped an anvil on it. Outside of a conscious choice to release work to the public domain or to use a tool like Creative Commons, nothing you or any of your contemporaries creates will be available for building on, which was not the case for the works of Brahms or Beethoven, or many of the giants of jazz, blues, or rock ‘n roll.

The real tragedy is that we’re unlike the classical composers and rock ‘n roll pioneers in another way. We have the Internet. Remixing software. Sharing tools. The technologies we have now offer anyone unprecedented opportunities for creating and sharing music. We live in a time that has the potential to be the most creative period in history. But the law is constraining that possibility by making those activities illegal.

“The gap between what technology is enabling and what the law is disabling is growing,” Jenkins said. This gap will restrict the creativity to the fringes, rather than push it to the mainstream, which in the long term is the culture that is preserved and maintained.

So what do we do about it?

We could roll with increasing regulations. Lose your Internet connection for file sharing. Take away artists’ rights to terminate recording contracts. We could go even further. Jail someone for singing in the shower, or for merely thinking about a song. (Those supporting the latter have probably heard me play Karaoke Revolution.)

Or we could turn around and march toward a future of digital revolution and cultural anarchy.

Panel from Theft! A History of Music

Neither extreme is particularly attractive. To say that we would be better off with a more balanced system is not the same as saying that we should abolish copyright altogether, much less that downloading music is a fundamental human right. But culture should not be degraded for a business model.

What if we could imagine a more balanced debate that includes the interests of artists and creators, record companies, civil liberties, digital freedom, and technological development—not just one of them. By looking to and learning from musical history, we can learn how to treat the fundamental components of how music is made.

Jenkins and her co-author and artist, James Boyle and Keith Aoki, expect to release Theft! A History of Music under a Creative Commons license in the spring or summer of 2011.This series was originally written for opensource.com.

Theft! A History of Music—Part 2: Copyright Jams

Panel from Theft! A History of Music
All images from Theft! A History of Music courtesy of Jennifer Jenkins, James Boyle, and Keith Aoki
Read part 1 of this series about the upcoming graphic novel Theft! A History of Music and the history it reviews. In part 3, we’ll talk about what it all means for the future of music.

Our society and its lawmakers are notoriously bad at predicting the effects of new technologies. I think of the ongoing battles over new distribution formats, like the assumption that the VCR [would be] to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone. Jennifer Jenkins, one of the authors of Theft! A History of Music, has an even more basic and older example: musical notation.

Ancient Greeks had their own system of notation as early as the sixth century BC, but it seems to have been used infrequently and fell out of use entirely around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. Then, other than a few less notable efforts, musical notation wasn’t reinvented for several centuries.

So why did the idea come up again? For sharing—but only a very specific type of sharing. The Holy Roman Empire wanted control and uniformity in their sacred church music. Until then, to ensure the standard form, they would have to send around a choir to disseminate the unified mass and song. Hardly practical. But with notation, the approved (and only the approved) tones, music, and chants could be more quickly spread.

Despite the goal of uniformity, however, the reality was that the invention helped people experiment and innovate, then preserve and transmit music—nearly the opposite of the empire’s intention for control and conformity.

Unfortunately, we’re not much better today at predicting the effects of significantly more advanced technology.

Our generation has a different relationship to musical culture from any other in history. We have the most opportunity for innovation and sharing, but also the most laws preventing it. So when did intellectual property law get its creativity-stifling fingers into music?

In 1710, the Statute of Anne, now seen as the first copyright law, went into effect and gave authors rights for the first time. But it wasn’t applied to music until 1777, when Johann Christian Bach and Karl Friedrich Abel brought a case in which the court found that musical compositions counted as writings that could be covered under the statute. Nevertheless, you still needed permission only for entire works, not fragments, or for performance.

Jenkins pointed out that despite this victory, Bach died penniless, and his creditors tried to sell his body to medical schools. So he won the case, but in the long run, perhaps things could have gone better for him.

Panel from Theft! A History of Music

Skipping a few centuries again, Jenkins offered more modern examples. “Music has a long and rich history of borrowing across genres and subgenres,” she said. “Take the blues, which draws from a rich commons. Or take rock ‘n roll.”

The law didn’t interfere with those practices, for several reasons. Then things changed when digital sampling came along. Today musicians are told that they must license the tiniest fragments of sound, even though music has fundamentally relied on borrowing throughout history. What was once creation is now regarded as theft.

In 1991 an injunction was granted against Warner Bros. Records and Biz Markie for his sampling of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” in his own track titled “Alone Again” (Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc.). Jenkins pointed out that the decision quoted the Ten Commandments–“Thou shalt not steal”–but not copyright law.

In “100 Miles and Runnin’,” the group N.W.A. sampled, lowered the pitch of, and looped a two-second guitar chord from Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass and Jam.” Funkadelic sued, and the federal appeals court ruling over the 2005 case, Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films Inc., said, “Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.” Quite the opposite is true, though. This ruling eliminated de minimis as it relates to sound recording copyright.

De minimis is the doctrine that means something is too minor, too trivial to care about. When the court was asked how much would count as de minimis, the answer was a single note—maybe. In a footnote, they wrote:

A question arises as to whether the copying of a single note would be actionable. Since that is not the fact situation in this case, we need not provide a definitive answer. We note, however, that under the Copyright Act, the sound recording must “result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds ….” 17 U.S.C. § 101 (definition of “sound recording”).

“What’s happening?” Jenkins continued. “This level of granularity–licensing two or three notes–IP rights are being applied down to the atomic level of culture. Tiny fragments of music come loaded with demands for payment and copyright protection.”

Despite the assertion that creativity is unaffected, these rulings have changed the music that we create and the way that it sounds.

Will it in any way give us more art, more creativity? Because after all, that’s the purpose of copyright, which is defined in US law as “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” It doesn’t seem so.

Would jazz, blues, rock, or soul have developed the same way under this legal regime? Probably not.

Jenkins and her co-author and artist, James Boyle and Keith Aoki, expect to release Theft! A History of Music under a Creative Commons license in the spring or summer of 2011. This series was originally written for opensource.com.

Geeklets Galore: Odyssey of the Mind

How awesome is Odyssey of the Mind? I’ve developed an opinion about that. My spouse and I served as Odyssey of the Mind (OM) coaches for a few years. This organization provides more than brain challenges for the geeky kid. OM also builds skill, creativity and confidence. Oh yeah, and your kids can’t help but pal up with other geeklets.

In his sixth grade year our son’s OM team chose to take on a structure challenge. That meant designing and building a strong but light structure capable of holding more weight than those built by other teams. That meant lots of balsa.

As part of the challenge, the team had to act out a story incorporating the weight-bearing test. The kids decided take on the characters of Greek gods and goddesses overseeing the earth (their structure) and commenting on hefty global issues as the weights were added. Their costumes were simple: togas made from bed sheets and laurel wreaths made from paper. They really got into practicing their divine roles. And the final structure they built was a tribute to many well-considered design changes. Tests the team ran in our basement showed that it supported more weight than national champion structures had held in years past.

We met early in the morning at the first competition, a regional meet held at an area high school. The atmosphere was lively and it was fun to see all the work other teams put into their projects. Finally our team was called. They were nervous but kept to their lines and staging as they watched OM judges add increasingly heavier weights to their structure. Each time it held as strongly as we hope the real Earth will continue to do.

Just as the structure got close to bearing award-winning weight, a girl’s toga got caught on a projecting piece of balsa. She gestured with the dramatic flare suited to a Greek goddess and her toga pulled part of the structure away. It collapsed. Our team was out of the structure challenge but the kids kept going. They finished their lines and rolled their design off stage with brave faces. They didn’t win in their division, but were awarded the Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award. The name comes from an arthropod, Renatra fusca, which can walk on water. Every balsa-building, toga-wearing, creatively challenging minute was worth it. OM is awesome that way.

Mom@Play: 7 Reasons To Play Warhammer Fantasy

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Saurus warriors ready for battle. Photo by Cathe Post

My husband brought home a dark red cardboard box that was no bigger than a schoolbook.  When I found out the little rat warrior miniatures in the box weren’t for any Dungeons and Dragons story line we were playing, but instead were for a wargame called Warhammer, I quickly lost interest in what my husband was doing…until he started getting into my polymer clay to make unique bases for each miniature, and into my paints and paintbrushes to bring out the detail of the characters.  Then, I started thinking, maybe this game is for me.

Warhammer is a miniatures war game that is (from my observations) predominately played by 25-50 year old males. Thankfully, I was not terribly nervous about joining an escalation tournament in a local league. It’s sad there aren’t as many women as men playing this game. There are so many reasons to play!

IMG_56177 reasons as a wife, mom, or woman that you should play Warhammer:

  1. Strategy – As a mom, it is always important to not let your strategic skills drop to a non-adult level.
  2. Spacial reasoning – Use game play as an opportunity to hone your interior decorating skills. If you can deploy and march your miniatures army effectively, imagine how efficiently you could arrange your living space or pack luggage.
  3. Spirited debate – Even with a four year old I feel like I am constantly arguing with a teenager. There is a fine line between arguing and debating, but one game of Warhammer normally contains at least one rules debate.
  4. Adult time – Let’s be honest: it’s fun to play games with the kids, but how many games of Candyland can you take?
  5. Carnage – After a long day, you just want to go ‘Office Space’ on something – ANYTHING! What better way than with dice and fantasy creatures!
  6. Date – Chances are, if you are starting to play Warhammer as a mom, you know someone else who plays it as well. If the person you know is your husband, make it a date night! If you are lacking a significant other to play with, there are a good number of nice single guys who play (and would probably think it’s totally HOT that a single girl plays or wants to learn).
  7. Art – Okay, even if you aren’t for imagined blood and carnage, there is an artistic side to this game. You pick your army, you assemble them and you paint them. If you don’t like what a member of your unit looks like, find what you like and create it. You are given complete artistic license over what your army looks like.

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I should probably point out that Warhammer Fantasy is a different game from Warhammer 40,000.  Warhammer 40,000, or 40k,  is a futuristic space-themed game that attracts a younger crowd than Fantasy (‘tween and teen age boys are much more likely to play 40k), but I choose to play a game that I can share company with a (generally) more age appropriate crowd, at least in my area.

I looked at all of the armies and chose to play a Lizardmen army. What army will you choose?