Eat Like a Geek: Bonfire Night

In the United Kingdom, November 5th is known as Bonfire Night. Across the country, bonfires are lit and firework displays held to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot way back in 1605.

There are many different foods associated with Bonfire Night although few of them could be called healthy. Among them are toffee apples, treacle toffee, and baked potatoes cooked within the fire itself, but perhaps the most classic Bonfire Night food is parkin.

Continue reading Eat Like a Geek: Bonfire Night

We Bought Our Sons a New Gaming System…and a History Lesson

"Like" this post if you have ever used one of these! Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.
“Like” this post if you have ever used one of these! Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

You’ve said it to your kids when they complain about how difficult life is. Go ahead…admit it.

“Back in my day, we had it hard!

“We walked uphill in a blizzard to school…both ways!”

“Your Dad and I had only seven TV channels! And if you missed your favorite show, you were doomed until the rerun came on!”

“If you didn’t rewind the video cassette rental before returning it, you were charged a fine!

Recently, my husband and I had heard some commentary from our 10- and 13-year-old sons about how primitive their Wii video game system is compared to their XBox 360. That seemed to spark quite a family conversation one evening.

Continue reading We Bought Our Sons a New Gaming System…and a History Lesson

Geek Speaks…Fiction! Guest Author Gail Z. Martin

Image: Melanie R. Meadors
Image: Melanie R. Meadors

What Made Me Geek Out Over Iron & Blood

by Gail Z. Martin

Writing Iron & Blood was so much fun, in part because the more we dug into Pittsburgh’s past, the cooler, geekier things we discovered. Iron & Blood is set in an alternative-history Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1898.

It’s a steampunk world of huge factories, fast trains, dauntless airships, mad doctors, clockwork zombies, crazy inventors, and artificially intelligent automatons, plus growing tension between old magic and new science. But the real Pittsburgh actually was the epicenter of steam-driven technology back in the late 1800s, with bigger-than-life figures like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, George Westinghouse, and many more. That created a lot of exciting, geek-worthy possibilities.

My husband and co-author, Larry N. Martin, and I lived in Pittsburgh for ten years and we’re originally from north of the city, so we had some ideas of where to start looking for odd facts and weird history that we could use in the book and series. And Pittsburgh did not disappoint! I read through dozens of books on Pittsburgh ghosts, urban legends, and folklore, geeking out over the stories about mysterious jets crashing into the river (and government cover-ups), mad scientists trying to keep severed heads alive, famous scandals—including one considered to be the “crime of the century” at the time—and strange hauntings. Perfect fodder for the kind of book we were writing, one that combined enough history and real landmarks to be recognizable, but with enough of a twist to be somewhere different.

Image: Simon & Schuster
Image: Simon & Schuster

Then there are the “what if?” questions real history serves up. What if—George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla had continued to work together? (In Iron & Blood they do, forming the Tesla-Westinghouse company).

What if the urban legend about the Congelier house and its gruesome history of Frankenstein-like experiments, murder, and explosions was actually true—and had a Steampunk twist?

What if the group of mines that boasted the largest mine in the world also had the deepest mine in the world—and it uncovered something ancient and evil, better left buried? What if Pittsburgh’s many immigrant groups brought not only their languages and foods but also their magic with them?

What if some of the old relics in the Carnegie Museum really were supernaturally powerful? And what if the legendary “green fairy” liquor was potent enough to do Absinthe magic?

We made a trip to Pittsburgh to refresh our memories about specific sites we planned to use in the book, like the warehouses of the Strip District, the mansions of Shadyside, the Ridge Avenue area where the Congelier House was supposed to be, and Homewood Cemetery, the site of a very unorthodox battle in Iron & Blood. That was probably our geekiest moment. I arranged for a private tour of the cemetery, especially Millionaire’s Row, where the wealthiest Pittsburghers like the Heinz family and the Mellons have been laid to rest for centuries. Seriously—these are mausoleums that “sleep” 21 bodies and have real Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows! So after warning our guide, Larry and I started to block out the battle scene, deciding where people would crouch, aim, and shoot! Of course, afterwards, we had to celebrate with a Primanti Brothers’ sandwich (French fries inside the bun) and a Pittsburgh steak salad (French fries in the salad). So much fun!

About the Authors

Iron & Blood is available online and in stores! You can also find more stories set in the world of New Pittsburgh with the Storm & Fury ebook short stories on Kindle/Kobo/Nook, including Resurrection Day. Our stories about New Pittsburgh and the characters from Iron & Blood also appear in several anthologies, including Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens, The Weird Wild West, and the upcoming Unbound.

Larry N. Martin is the co-author of the new Steampunk series Iron & Blood: The Jake Desmet Adventures and a series of short stories: The Sound & Fury Adventures set in the Jake Desmet universe. These short stories also appear in the anthologies Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens and Weird Wild West with more to come. Larry and Gail also have a science fiction short story in the Contact Light anthology.

In addition to co-authoring Iron & Blood and the Sound & Fury Adventures, Gail Z. Martin is the author of the new epic fantasy novel War of Shadows (Orbit Books) which is Book Three in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga; and Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (December 2015, Solaris Books). She is also author of Ice Forged and Reign of Ash in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books, The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books, and Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books. Gail writes two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures, and her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Heroes, With Great Power, and Realms of Imagination.

Please join us on social media: @GailZMartin or @LNMartinAuthor on Twitter, The Winter Kingdoms on, blogs at, podcast at, and at our home page, where you can sign up for our Chronicles newsletter which includes original flash fiction in every issue! You can also find Gail on and be part of frequent book discussions, giveaways, and events! Gail also features excerpts and the occasional full novella on

About Iron & Blood

A Steampunk adventure novel set in the fictional city of New Pittsburgh.

New Pittsburgh in 1898, a crucible of invention and intrigue, the hub of American industry at the height of its steam-driven power. Born from the ashes of devastating fire, flood, and earthquake, New Pittsburgh is ruled by the shadow government of The Oligarchy. In the abandoned mine tunnels beneath the city, supernatural creatures hide from the light, emerging to feed in the smoky city known as “hell with the lid off.”

Jake Desmet and Rick Brand, heirs to the Brand & Desmet Import Company, travel the world to secure treasures and unusual items for the collections of wealthy patrons, accompanied by Jake’s cousin, Veronique “Nicki” LeClercq. Smuggling a small package as a favor for a Polish witch should have been easy. But when hired killers come after Jake and a Ripper-style killer leaves the city awash in blood, Jake, Rick, and Nicki realize that dark magic, vampire power struggles, and industrial sabotage are just a prelude to a bigger plot that threatens New Pittsburgh and the world. Stopping that plot will require every ounce of Jake’s courage, every bit of Rick’s cunning, every scintilla of Nicki’s bravura, and all the steampowered innovation imaginable.

Geek Speaks…Fiction! Guest Author Django Wexler

Image: Melanie R. Meadors
Image: Melanie R. Meadors

Fantasy author Django Wexler has had a busy couple of years. He is the author of the Shadow Campaigns fantasy series for adults (The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, and the just released The Price of Valor), the Forbidden Library series for middle grade kids (The Forbidden Library and The Mad Apprentice), as well as the cyberpunkish fantasy John Golden: Freelance Debugger novellas. Despite this, he took some time to write us an article this week about something that makes him geek out. Please welcome Django Wexler!

Stranger Than Fiction

I am, I have to admit, a bit of a history geek. I love the little details and vignettes you find in a good history book, and a lot of that stuff comes in very handy when writing novels. The Shadow Campaigns is based, very loosely, on the Napoleonic Wars, and there’s all kinds of tiny bits and pieces from various histories that have found their way into the text.

Image: Penguin Random House
Image: Penguin Random House

That said, I can’t put in just anything. The problem with history is that it doesn’t need to have a sense of dramatic tension, or even of plausibility. The former is a little more intuitive than the latter—in real life, things don’t often work out in a way that satisfies our dramatic sensibilities. The hero gets killed in a random skirmish before the final battle, or the villain dies of a cold before the epic confrontation. Wars are often decided, not by heroic action, but by idiocy and incompetence. (There’s an old maxim that says the battle is won by the general who makes the second-to-last mistake.)

Fiction has to do better than that, obviously. It needs to be more than plausible—it needs to be a good story, which means that dramatic arcs are completed, characters change and grow over time, and generally the reader feels satisfied at the end of the book. It’s one reason I write vaguely historically-inspired fantasy, rather than historical fiction—in actual history, things often don’t work out the way you’d like!

It’s the second point, about plausibility, that seems weird. Obviously anything in history that actually happened has to be plausible, right? But it’s not true. The problem is that weird coincidences and strange behavior, while common in real life, feel wrong in a story. It feels like cheating, like the author taking sides. Again and again, I find myself coming across bits of history that would make me roll my eyes if I read them in a novel.

Here’s my current favorite example. In 1920, while Greece was at war with Turkey, the King of Greece was walking on his own estate when he was attacked and killed by a rogue monkey. The results, politically, were catastrophic—the pro-war party gained power, and Greece went on to lose the war disastrously.

Can you imagine putting that in a novel? If George R. R. Martin revealed that Tywin Lannister was randomly killed by a rogue monkey? Readers would cry foul! History is full of this stuff. In 1862, Union General George McClellan received a complete copy of General Robert E. Lee’s order of battle, because a Confederate aide had used the order as a wrapping for his cigars, which he had then absent-mindedly dropped. In 1940, a plane carrying a German officer and plans for the invasion of France crashed in Belgium; with their strategy revealed, the German’s switched to Erich von Manstein’s far more audacious, and ultimately successful, scheme.

Image: Penguin Random House
Image: Penguin Random House

On a slightly darker note, in The Price of Valor, one of the plotlines is concerned with the first all-female regiment of the Vordanai army, led by Winter Ihernglass. Some of the old aristocrats object to this arrangement, and one of them rants at Winter about it. To get a properly insane feel, I cribbed most of the rant from stuff I’d read online, in some of the less savory corners of the internet. When I sent the book out to the first readers, they all objected that this was unrealistic, cartoonish—nobody could be that transparently awful!

What I’ve learned is that the fact that something actually happened isn’t good enough. Fiction demands higher standards, and you can’t lean on “but it really happened that way!” as an excuse. I still take lots of interesting stuff from history, but nowadays I’m a little more careful with it. After all, reality can be very unrealistic!

Photo: Rachel Thompson
Photo: Rachel Thompson

Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

GeekMom’s 2014 Gift Guide of Books

Collage: Cathe Post.

Today’s gift guide is full of books: Historical books, storybooks, reference books, baby books, comic books, and more. There is something for everyone on this list!

Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo. Image: Abrams Books.

Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo. The ultimate gift for your favorite Adventure Time fan, this gorgeous full-color hardcover book will grace coffee tables with elegance. The Art of Ooo will put everything in perspective, presenting a behind-the-scenes look at the art and storyboards, the writers’ thoughts behind the characters, and interviews with those who voice the characters on the TV show. From concept art to the more sophisticated storylines, you will enjoy over 350 pages and 500 color images. $23.37

Basher science books. Image credit: Kingfisher
Basher science books. Image: Kingfisher.

Basher books. Author and illustrator Simon Basher has created a hit series of children’s books covering various subjects; it’s mostly science topics, but also history, math, English, and many more. They are absolutely fantastic! Each one is fun to read, educational, and cute. What more could you ask for? $7-$9

Cover copyright PotterCraft
Geek Mom: Projects, Tips, and Adventures for Moms and Their 21st-Century Families. Cover copyright PotterCraft.

Geek Mom: Projects, Tips, and Adventures for Moms and Their 21st-Century Families. Start the new year right, with plenty of project and activity ideas to do with your kids. Written by the founding editors of GeekMom, this book is also full of insightful essays on being a geek and a geeky parent, as well as as people and topics of interest to the geek world. $19.99

Image: Amazon.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art & Design. Image: Amazon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art & Design. Perfect for your favorite Tolkien-fan-geek! Look no further than your favorite bookstore for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art & Design by the Weta Workshop, the Wellington, New Zealand, special effects company behind the beauty of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Enjoy the behind-the-scenes journeys through Lonely Mountain, Lake-town, Long Lake, the Woodland Realm, and Mirkwood as you learn about Weta’s motivations in design. $27.41

Image: Chronicle Books
Kids Are Weird. Image: Chronicle Books.

Kids Are Weird. Yup. Kids are weird. Some might say geeklings are stranger than most (though mightily interesting!). This book by Jeffrey Brown shows us a few examples, in case we’ve forgotten just how weirdly awesome kids can be. $10.10

Letters of Note
Letters of Note. Image: Chronicle Books.

Letters of Note. Filled with personal letters and other correspondence from throughout history, Letters of Note is a wonderful, stunning book. Because each letter is its own short section, this book can be picked up and put down at your leisure, so you can reflect upon its meaning. The book is brimming with history and gives perspective to us in the modern day. $25.30

Marvel 75 Years of Cover Art. Image: DK Publishing.

Marvel 75 Years of Cover Art. Glorious Marvel Comics cover art collected in a slip-cased edition. $50

Image: Scholastic.

Spirit Animals Series. This series of kids’ books, much in the same spirit as The Golden Compass and Narnia, weaves fantasy and creatures into an addictive storyline. This one is probably for older grade-schoolers. $7.50 and up

Tinkerlab. Image credit: Roost Books
TinkerLab. Image: Roost Books.

TinkerLab. In addition to being mom to two little kids, author Rachelle Doorley has a master’s degree in arts education from Harvard and works as an art and museum educator. Doorley’s extensive background as an artist, docent, and educator shine through her children’s activity blog, TinkerLab, and her book of the same name. $21.95

Image: IDW Publishing.

Wonder Woman: The Complete Newspaper Comics. This coffee table book features the origin of the world’s first and most kick-ass female superhero. It has 196 pages, with all of the black-and-white comics that ran in newspapers from May 1, 1943, until December 1, 1944. These haven’t been printed since the series’ original run, making it even more of a must-have. There are tons of characters and stories to comb through, which includes appearances by Steve Trevor, Etta Candy, Cheetah, the Lasso of Truth, the Invisible Plane, the bracelets, and so much more. Speaking of which, the opening essay also has promotional materials, original sketches, and other tidbits. This is the gift for your favorite Wonder Woman fan. $35.25 

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

You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes. Chris Hadfield is an astronaut, but his claim to fame with the population at large is probably through the countless viral photographs and videos he’s shared from his multiple trips to the International Space Station. Now Hadfield has a brand-new photography book out, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes. $23.40

The Elements. Image credit: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
The Elements. Image credit: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. If your child has graduated from “why?” to “what is {…} made of?” then this is the book you need. While it’s not a children’s book per se, the stunning photographs and high contrast graphics are sure to capture their attention long enough to learn a thing or two about what our world is made of. The science-loving geeks on your list will surely appreciate the author’s mad geek cred—an element collection! Note that the author also has another book, Molecules, which just came out last month, as well as a matching Molecules app. $11.27

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing.

Secret Garden Coloring Book. Adults and kids alike can color their way into peace and/or fun. This beautiful coloring book by Johanna Basford will have you searching for butterflies, tinting flowers, and planning your own secret garden in which to hide from the world. $9.54

Image: Clarkson Potter.

Shake: A New Perspective on Cocktails. The entrepreneurs who created The Mason Shaker, a now-iconic invention that transformed a Mason jar into a cocktail shaker, have authored this lavishly illustrated book of recipes for cocktail crafting at home. It’s a gift with tasty promise! $19.08

cool tools

Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. This is a giant book that shares user-generated reviews of gadgets, hardware, materials, videos, podcasts, books, maps, and other goodies out there identified as the best, the cheapest, or the only gizmos available to do the job. These reviews are curated from the last decade of content from the Cool Tools website, which is itself an online where-did-the-time-go vacuum. The book’s 1,500+ mini-reviews are accompanied by QR codes for everything from the best baby bib to the best satellite phone. It’s a sure bet for the hard-to-please guy. $25.29

playful path

A Playful Path. This is a 304-page book jam-packed with awesomeness. It’s made up of tools and ideas to inspire the possibility-building, wide-open glory of playfulness. Written in short one-to-two-page segments, it’s perfect to read on an as-needed basis, sort of an antidote to all the not-fun that drags us down. A Playful Path is an entertaining book. It’s also wise, true, and entirely useful. It’s the perfect gift for the most fun-loving friend as well as the family curmudgeon. $21.95

amazing baby
Image: Kids Preferred.

Amazing Baby Feel and Learn. This soft book is based on research into early development. The wipe-off pages offer textures and crinkle sounds, plus there’s an attached teething toy. $12.99

let's count
Image: Kids Preferred.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Let’s Count. This clip-on book is inspired by Eric Carle’s classic book. It offers bold pages illustrating numbers, plus crinkle textures, a squeaker, a teether, and a clip for the car seat or stroller. It’s perfect for very young babies up to toddlers. $5.59

Image: Chronicle Books.

PANTONE: 35 Inspirational Color Palettes. If you’re a huge fan of color and design or a bit challenged when picking out paint chips or color schemes, this book will be an invaluable help. Filled with almost three dozen quite varied color combinations, there will be something to please everyone. $13.45

Image: Triangle Square.

A Young People’s History of the United States. Learn about American history from the point of view of someone other than the victors. This magnificent book by Howard Zinn adapted for younger readers and listeners will get kids analyzing what they think they already know. $14.36

Image: The Smithsonian.

Civil War in 3D. Look at the American Civil War through the eyes of a soldier. See the images of battlefields, life in camp, and scenery—all in 3D stereoscopic delight. Read the included detailed book telling of soldier life, about their uniforms, food, fear, camps, and letters home. $23.89

Image: Scholastic.

Minecraft: The Complete Handbook Collection. Do you have a Minecraft fan in your house? Maybe someone who wants some ideas on how to fight monsters, how to use red dust, or how to make more pixelated-awesomeness? This set is for them! $19.18

Image: Amazon.

Hello Kitty Crochet: Supercute Amigurumi Patterns for Sanrio Friends. Hello Kitty crochet is not for the faint of heart. The patterns inside make for some really cute animals, but we would suggest getting this for someone with a background in crochet and not a beginner. $14.95

Pride and Prejudice Manga
Image: Amazon.

Manga Classics Pride and Prejudice. Of all the versions of Pride and Prejudice, this is a GeekMom favorite. Marvel’s variation is okay, but this version does the original story far more justice. $15

Image: Ava’s Demon.

Ava’s Demon. This dark yet beautiful collection puts the online story of Ava’s Demon into print form.  $5.99 for the digital

ms marvel #1
Image: Marvel Comics.

Ms. Marvel: No Normal (Volume 1). Featuring the first female Muslim superhero, Ms. Marvel has been getting rave reviews since its debut earlier this year. This first collection showcases the title’s rare ability to speak to every reader regardless of their age, gender, background, or beliefs, thanks to writer G. Willow Wilson’s portrayal of Kamala as relatable and full of personality. $15.99

© DC Comics
© DC Comics.

Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell. This is a fun, easy read that any fan of either character should immediately add to their library. For anyone who might be a jaded reader of the New 52, this is just the book to remind them that comic books can still be fun. $22.99

Smallville Season 11 © DC Comics
Smallville Season 11 © DC Comics.

Smallville Season 11 Vol. 5: Olympus. Wonder Woman arrives in the Smallville universe in this phenomenal collection of the Smallville digital comics. Gorgeous art and a fast-paced story make this the perfect present for any fan of Smallville or Wonder Woman. $14.99

Image: Little Pickle Press.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. This is a cute picture book for young elementary-aged children. It teaches them how their brain is a muscle, how to exercise it, and other fun facts. $12.45

download (1)
Image: Amazon.

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. Join Rush Revere and his time-traveling horse Liberty on historical adventures. This historical science-fiction series also includes a book on the American Revolution and the first patriots. It’s great historical fun for older grade-school readers who need a little science fiction in their historical reading. $12.98

Image: Que Publishing.

Build and Program Your Own Lego Mindstorms EV3 Robots. Do you know a Lego brick advanced builder? This book will be out just in time for Christmas by our very own Marziah Karch. Plus, you know, robots and Lego programing. $21.77

Image: Random House Books.

The Fourteenth Goldfish. For older elementary-school fans who need more challenge than Jennifer L. Holm’s Baby Mouse series, Holms now has a chapter book out. A girl goes on an adventure to help her grandfather who has figured out a way to reverse aging (and is now younger than his granddaughter). This is a far more serious story than Baby Mouse, but a great read! $10.74

Image: Marvel Comics.

Rocket Raccoon. Previously mentioned by GeekMom Kelly, the new comic book adventures of Rocket Raccoon are a hilariously drawn series well worth the subscription. $9.99

Pulp Fiction in Pearl’s Peril

Image: Wooga media

I’ll admit that I’m a casual gamer. Kingdom Rush and Plants vs. Zombies on my phone have gotten considerably more play than any game on my PC, and at the moment I don’t even own a gaming console. However, I’ve never been tempted by the Facebook games that bug your friends to join you and send you things. There’s one game that’s overcome that barrier, however, and I’ll argue that it has succeeded due to its exuberantly pulp fiction plotting. Pearl’s Peril is a Facebook hidden object game (that I play on my iPad) that has held my attention for much longer than any comparable game ever has.

Pearl’s Peril has a straightforward structure: in each scene, you find the hidden objects on the list. The faster you do it, the more points you get. It gets a little complicated with game progression: the more points, the faster you progress. But to unlock new scenes you need to build buildings and decorations on your own personal island. There’s a limit to how fast you can advance, and you can speed that up considerably if you spend money. This is the only game I have sunk more than $5 into in the last several years, and I’ve been playing it for over a year now.

Image: Karen Burnham

For one thing, decorating your island is actually fun in and of itself. You unlock new buildings and decorations as you progress, and they often offer seasonal decorations for limited times. I took advantage of a Halloween special to build a mausoleum with a fiery fountain of doom in front. I’ve also got a research quad (with an observatory, aviary, library, and greenhouse) and a forest going.

But really, the thing that keeps me playing is Pearl, the heroine, and her adventures. Pearl Wallace is the daughter of privilege. In 1929 she is living in America, flying her own plane, when she gets news that her estranged father has died. They say he committed suicide after the stock market crash, but while they weren’t on good terms she’s pretty sure he was murdered. She and her journalist friend Iris fly home to her family’s island (the one you’re decorating) to investigate. Thus begin her adventures that take her all over the world and from the depths of the seas to the peaks of the Himalayas.

There’s a lot to love here: for one, Pearl is fully competent and always clothed. That seems like it shouldn’t need stating, but a while ago I was jonesing for a new hidden object game, so I downloaded a highly rated one for the iPad. In the first scene you’ve just survived a plane crash on a creepy deserted island, so of course the first thing you see is a barely clad buxom flight attendant throwing vampy looks your way. Delete. Pearl always wears her flight jacket and is ready for adventures. One scene is from her private room in the zeppelin, and even her intimate space isn’t titillating: it’s got her dressing gown, but also her diary, college graduation picture, pictures of exotic locales she’s visited—no lingerie for her! And while she does have the occasional romantic interest, they never distract her from the plot.

And what a crazy, pulp adventure plot it is! In each scene you start with some dialog between a few characters to advance the plot. Then you can find three clues. After five scenes each chapter ends with an adventure scene where Pearl has to solve some puzzle, enabling the dramatic climax that leads to the next chapter. In over a year of playing she’s been to New York, Paris, Africa, Atlantis, Russia, the Himalayas, Oklahoma, been on a submarine, cruise ships, and a zeppelin, attacked by a kraken, forged an aegis, found a pirate cove, etc, etc. Just like the old pulp serials, it can go on forever! Some clues immediately pan out and others wait in the background to resurface many chapters down the road. And amazingly, it stays true to history: every time I’ve googled some plot element that they mention, it’s turned out to be historically accurate: from the Graf Zeppelin’s record breaking flights in 1929 to the mystery of Kolchak’s gold in Russia after the Soviet Revolution.

And through it all, Pearl is a focused, competent heroine. Usually the dramatic chapter-concluding puzzles involve her doing some engineering to get something to work: smelting gold, fixing the sabotaged control system of a zeppelin, disabling some guards to steal a submarine, that sort of thing. Very MacGyver-y. Although violence happens around her, she rarely resorts to it herself. It’s amazing how much plot you can get through using just the few lines of dialog and notes on the clues she finds. And just like the pulps, each character has a very limited range of facial expressions/emotional states: I think Pearl herself only has four expressions: cheerfully competent, winsomely affectionate, frustrated/disgusted, and surprised. But you can go a long way with that in an adventure story; this is the casual gaming equivalent of a magazine serial page-turner.

There is a social aspect to the game, although I don’t really take advantage of it. The game often urges you to send energy to your friends on Facebook, even those who don’t play. These prompts are pretty easy to ignore. There’s also a “Captain’s Challenge” section where you do a timed scene and compete against friends to get a high score. I enjoy these, competing against my husband who just picked up the game recently. Everyone plays the same scene during the challenge period, so it’s fun to compare. And you can send each other resources, increasing the amount you can play. So if anyone wants to start playing, send me something in the game and I’ll happily reciprocate!

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Now With More Quizzes

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

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

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

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Summer Science Fun: The Moon

Orange Moon Phases –

The moon, it is always there in the sky watching us. It’s no wonder that stories have been weaved through our history that tell of the mystical powers of the moon. One of the oldest depictions of the of the moon is located in Knowth County, Meath, Ireland. The central chamber of the burial mound located there holds a nearly 5,000-year-old map of the moon’s surface. The ancient maps pits and mountains represent the craters and mountains we can see on the moon with the naked eye. The rest of the burial mound is decorated with circular and spiral patterns, all believed to be various depictions of the moon.

The truth is, however, that the moon is no more mystical then any rock in the forest. The moon isn’t like all of the twinkling stars in the sky, it doesn’t shine bright, in fact it doesn’t shine at all. I’m not trying to say that the moon isn’t important to our everyday lives, it is responsible for the ocean tides, changing day lengths, and the magnificent eclipses that make us stop in our tracks.

You might wonder how the moon was created, of course no one knows for sure. There are theories that it was created at the same time as the Earth as just extra material that was spun out of Earth’s gravitational field. However, the most widely accepted theory is that there was a massive impact from an object the size of Mars while the Earth was still forming. This impact threw debris into space, and as the Earth reformed the remaining material collected into what we know as the moon.

Did you know that we always see the same side of the moon? The moon’s rotational period, or lunar day, is exactly the same as the lunar orbital period, or the time it takes to go around the Earth once. The Moon is in a geosynchronous orbit meaning it is locked in the same orientation with the Earth.

The moon is the brightest object in the sky, second only to the sun, however if it weren’t for the sun we wouldn’t be able to see it at all. The surface of the moon is actually very dark and it doesn’t produce any of its own light. The dust on the moon’s surface is very similar in color to coal. However, even this dark dust can reflect a small amount of light, the amount that is reflected back is called albedo. The moon reflects most of its light directly back towards the sun. This reflection towards the sun is what causes phases of the moon. As the moon orbits around the Earth, the angle of the sun to the moon to the Earth changes. In the diagram below you can see all the phases of the moon.

By Orion 8 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two types of eclipses: solar and lunar. Lunar eclipses happen when the Earth’s shadow blocks the light from the sun during its full moon phase. Since the shadow of the Earth is larger than the viewing disk of the moon, the whole moon goes dark. A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes into the path of the suns light to the Earth during the new moon phase. The moon’s shadow is much smaller then light coming from the sun, so thats why a solar eclipse has a specific viewing area across the Earth’s surface.

The last lunar eclipse was on April 15, 2014 and the next is expected on October 8, 2014, so there is always time to plan a lunar eclipse viewing party.

Want to create your own eclipse?


tennis ball, ping pong ball, flashlight, and a table


  1. Place the tennis ball about two feet away from the flashlight, and the ping pong ball in-between at about the one-foot point. 
  2. Make the room dark.
  3. Turn the flashlight on  and make sure it’s pointed at the tennis ball.
  4. Move the ping pong ball around and observe where the shadow falls.
  5. The tennis ball represents Earth, the ping pong ball represents the moon, and the flashlight is the Sun.
  6. What happens when you place the moon on the other side of the Earth?
  7. If you would like to observe the phases of the moon for yourself, slowly move the ping pong ball in a circle around the tennis ball and observe how the light from the flashlight looks on it.
Tom Ruen, May 2004 from Wikimedia Commons


Post adapted from Lady Astrid’s Laboratory.

BrainBox: Educational Family Fun

BrainBox © The Green Board Game Co.
BrainBox © The Green Board Game Co.

Memorization is one of the fundamentals of education. Whether you’re learning your letters or complex chemical formulae, the ability to store and recollect information is vital to every step through life. BrainBox is a game with editions aimed at every age group and interest combining memory skills with other subjects in a fun game.

The game itself is very simple. You look at a picture printed onto a 8.5cm square card for ten seconds then roll a dice. Another player then asks you the corresponding question which will be related to the picture you just saw; answer correctly and you keep the card, answer wrong and it goes back in the box. The rules state that whoever has the most cards after ten minutes is the winner but that figure could easily be adjusted to compensate for different ages and attention levels.

BrainBox ABC © The Green Board Game Co.
BrainBox ABC © The Green Board Game Co.

Boxes start for aged three and up with subjects including ABC and My First Maths, and become progressively harder. Those aimed at older children include ranges from Horrible Histories and a new Roald Dahl edition alongside others focusing on inventions, the world, dinosaurs, art, and fairies. There’s even a Senior Moments box (recommended age 55+) featuring “scenes that most of us past a certain age will recognize, from pirate radio to the first Moon landing to memorable hairstyles!” Alongside this range is a smaller selection of BrainBox “On The Go” travel editions. These are quite Euro-centric and include Paris, Prague, and Devon.

My four-year-old son and I played with the ABC box. He immediately took to the game, understood the rules and wanted to play often. The questions were at just the right level for him allowing him to get most answers correct but not breeze through without even trying.He was also able to recognize most objects on the card, although he needed my help with a few more abstract items such as a “twist” or a question mark.

For a boy just learning his letters and starting to ask how words are spelled, this box was the perfect fit for our family, if a little easy for the many adults he dragged in to playing with him.

We really enjoyed playing BrainBox ABC as a family and I can certainly see myself buying more boxes once my son starts school and begins studying subjects in depth for a bit of extra stealth learning at home.

I’m quite keen on the Reminisce 1990 – 2010 edition for myself, too, so I can see how well I remember my childhood and teenage years!

If you like the sound of the game then you can have a go by playing online on the BrainBox website from a choice of 12 different boxes including the USA, English history, and Art.

GeekMom received this product for review purposes.

Buying Used Educational Products Can Be a Great Thing

Image: eBay Listing by bksfoursail
Image: eBay Listing by bksfoursail

My eBay Collections were curated as part of my collaboration with eBay. #followitfindit

Homeschooling, or just teaching your kids things at home, can get really expensive when you’re trying to give them authentic experiences. Some of the best products are quite pricey, but sometimes inexpensive options aren’t available. What’s an autodidactic family to do?

Fortunately, people selling their often-gently used things abound on the internet. So if you can’t (or won’t) afford full price for math text books, science kits, or primary source history document sets, for example, your patience and perseverance while searching for what you need will eventually pay off.

Image: eBay listing from user costumehub.
Image: eBay Listing by costumehub.

My first (and usually last) stop for things like this is eBay. Since homeschooling can be expensive, most parents sell their materials when they are done with them, to raise money for the next set of purchases. Of course, they sell them cheaper than the products would be new, so you can benefit from these discounts. Sometimes the materials are in new or almost-new condition as well. Another advantage of buying previously used materials is that you get a much wider variety of materials from which to choose. Some things are out of print, and aren’t available brand new.

One of my favorite discoveries for homeschooling history is Jackdaw publications. The Jackdaw company takes a topic, such as the Great Depression, Westward Expansion, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or the War of 1812, and accumulates primary sources from that time. Letters, photos, court documents, maps, timelines, and advertisements are rounded up, printed on high quality paper, and put together in a portfolio. They are obviously aimed at educational settings, which is great for homeschooling, or if your family wants to delve deeply into a topic.

eBay is a great secondary market for items such as these, which I’ve highlighted in the History Education Kits collection, and I’ve done the same for science topics in the Science Kits! collection. Like the best garage sale in the world, you can find just about anything on eBay. Sometimes you have to wait, but eventually what you’re looking for will be sold by someone. It helps to plan ahead.


William Shakespeare’s Star Wars—May the Verse Be With You

Alas, poor C3P0, I knew ye not \ Image: Gordon Tarpley
Alas, poor C-3PO, I knew ye not \ Image: Gordon Tarpley

Editor’s note: After a successful inaugural year with over 1200 events across North America, Star Wars Reads Day strikes back again today. GeekMom is getting into the celebration with a focus on Star Wars books.

When I heard that Ian Doescher was converting Star Wars: A New Hope (aka Star Wars Episode IV) into a Shakespearean play, I had some doubts about how good it was going to be. My fears were put to rest when I learned that Ian is both a fan of Shakespeare and Star Wars, and I was no longer afraid that this would be just another parody. After I got my hands on a copy of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, though, I was surprised at how much actual Shakespearean history Ian was able to add to Lucas’ original screenplay.

To start, let me tell you that I didn’t pick this up to critique Ian’s use of language or his inclusion of things like asides and exits. I picked it up because it looked fun to read and I was curious to see how true Ian could stay to the original screenplay. Personally, I think that Ian did a nice job of staying true to Lucas’ original story arc, while simultaneously adding in references to Shakespeare’s original works. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t catch every Bard-based allusion on the first go-round, but there were plenty that were obvious even to my ears.

For instance, do you hear a little Hamlet in this line from Obi-Wan?

“Seems young one? Nay, thou didst! Think thou not seems.”

Or, perhaps, some Mark Anthony in this opening exhortation from Luke?

“Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears.”

Ian did more than just add in subtle references to Shakespearean plays, however, he also used some of Shakespeare’s favored literary devices, including fables. A long time ago in a galaxy far away, Shakespeare apparently used fables to help shed light on various events at hand. Ian did a nice job including a few of these without making the reader feel as if he were abusing the Star Wars canon—his additions actually belonged in the Star Wars universe and made sense in the scenes they were in.

Of all the scenes in Star Wars: A New Hope, the ones I was most interested in reading were the battle scenes. By using a chorus during these complicated moments in the story, much the same as Shakespeare employed in Henry V, the story flowed nicely, with words and rhythm ably complementing the action at hand.

Something I personally found to be tremendously helpful in reading and understanding William Shakespeare’s Star Wars was the 19-page Educator’s Guide I discovered on the Quirk Books website. The Educator’s Guide gives a very nice overview of all the references to Shakespeare’s plays, as well as tips on how to interpret and understand the language.

One tip I found to be particularly helpful was to read the play out loud with a group of friends. Not only was reading the story more entertaining this way, understanding the language and the motivations of the characters became easier too.

Another great comprehension-aid for me was the wonderful art by Nicolas Delort. It was amusing to read through and see various scenes re-enacted in a Shakespearean manner with the characters costuming straddling a line between Elizabethan and Lucasian. My favorite image in the story was of Luke, holding up a stormtrooper helmet a la Hamlet and Yorick, as he acts out that most famous soliloquy:

Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too?
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.

When all was said and done, I had a newfound respect for the complexity of Shakespeare’s plays, along with a desire to go to my local library and check out some of his original works. If you are looking for a neat way to get acquainted with Shakespeare or you are a teacher whose students are having a rough time accessing the genius of the Bard of Avon, I highly recommend you give William Shakespeare’s Star Wars  a try!

Check out these great pics of my friends doing their best Star Wars Shakespeare poses. To join in the fun and send us a picture on twitter @GeekMomBlog of you #Shakespearing!

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Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review copy.

History Geek: Comics and Games from the 1930s

Image By Lilianna Maxwell
Image By Lilianna Maxwell

Superman and Monopoly. Can you imagine the world without them? Oh, you can? Do you know how much Superman has influenced ALL comic books, which in turn influenced radio shows, TV shows, and movies? And Monopoly? Besides chess, it is the most popular board game of all time. Both began in the 1930s.

Superman’s legacy is incredible. In comics, he is still going strong. I think every generation will get their own movie version. Before Superman, the popular comics were about normal humans in extraordinary situations. Superman was an extraordinary alien on normal Earth. This set the stage for all the superheroes to follow.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is an entertaining and eye-opening look at Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I had to explain to my campers that being a geek at that time, heck during MY teens, was not cool at all. These two geeky guys escaped into their imaginations and pulled out the icon of Superman.

Monopoly, ah, the bane of my gaming existence. I never played a full game until adulthood in an epic battle that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. (I talked about that game in a previous post.) When I first met my husband, I couldn’t believe it when he told me he and his sisters would play MORE THAN ONE game of monopoly in a day?! How is that possible? As parents we’ve played Monopoly Junior many times with our kids, even creating a family song, “Loop de Loop! Loop de Loop!” about one of the spaces. I’m sure you have your own stories of this American pastime staple.

But there were other games and comics from that era that we know and enjoy today: Sorry (hate it!), Scrabble (love it!). There was more to comics than just Superman (“just” Superman, ha…). The 1930s are called The Golden Age of Comic Books. In fact, the style of the comic book (small, thin paper booklet) started at this point in comic history. Look at some of the comic book characters that debuted in the 30s: Wonder Woman, Captain America, The Flash, the Green Lantern, Batman and Robin, Captain Marvel, and more. (Seriously, there are more; it’s stunning how many started during this time.)

Beyond superheroes, comic strips featuring stars like Dick Tracy, Popeye, and Little Orphan Annie were incredibly popular. Annie is dear to my heart since I wanted to be her after the movie from my childhood. Like Superman, this character continues on.

So what was in the air in America during the Great Depression that gave us such long-lasting pop culture? Maybe when times are tough, and life is slow, the imagination is the best place to be.

History Geek: 1930s Week

Image By Lilianna Maxwell
Image By Lilianna Maxwell

Swing dancing! The creation of Superman! Adagio for Strings! Radio Plays! Migrant Mother photojournalism! Heath bars! The Wizard of Oz! Monopoly!

The last few weeks I’ve been preparing for and directing a History Through the Creative Arts Camp about America during The Great Depression. Originally history was written down by conquerors who took political power. This legacy continues in history textbooks that think that war and politics are the most important parts of history to study. I disagree. I think history is the whole human experience during a time period. Of course, this makes it tough to design a children’s summer camp that only lasts five days. So I turn to passion.

Rebecca explaining something with lots of hand movements…. Image By Lilianna Maxwell
Tasting historic recipes each day. Image By Rebecca Angel

Passion makes for great teaching. I’m passionate about the creative arts, culture, and social justice. So that’s my focus on history. And when students learn why certain songs were written, when the photographs were taken, how the plays were created, they learn about the power struggles during that time and place. I run the week by having the campers sing, dance, write, eat, sew, and create their way through the time period.

A student talking about their own research. Image By Lilianna Maxwell

I also asked for help. During the week of camp there were other adults bringing their expertise (geeky excitement) to the campers. Plus, the kids themselves taught each other. My daughter ran the camp newspaper, “Typewriter Talk,” with the campers taking turns being reporters for the day. Another student of mine asked if I was covering Europe during the ’30s. I wasn’t getting into the details of the start of World War II with this camp. She asked if she could do a five minute presentation each day because she thought it was really important for everyone to know this stuff. Sure!

Campers taking their parents on a tour of camp. Image By Rebecca Angel

What I wasn’t covering in active learning, I put out on display. In the space I use for camp is a huge wall for push-pins. The other counselors and I fill this wall with all the things we found out, but couldn’t squeeze into the time allotted. Scientific achievements, slang terms, maps about the Dust Bowl (then and what’s happening now!), details on the stock market, the 1936 Olympics, weird advertisements, and lots more. My daughter created a display on photojournalism. My son did one on the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP—he pointed out it sounded like a sound effect). There were puzzles and written activities available during downtime where the answers could be found on The Wall. Whoever completed a sheet got a tiny harmonica (so they could sound like hobos around a campfire…) or candy created during the 1930s.

In the spirit of the '30s, I asked the kids to wear the same clothes everyday (washing was encouraged) and they worked on making outfits for Friday's party. Image By Lilianna Maxwell
Sewing clothes for Friday’s party. Image By Lilianna Maxwell

I’ve run many history camps over the years, but this was the toughest to research; so many aspects made me cry. A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness—and a Trove of Letters—Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression is one example of trying to get to the heart of The Great Depression. I read some of it to the campers. I focused on the positive things of sharing and kindness, but the fact that people were so grateful for so little during this time—is enough to make the tears flow. (I kept myself in check during camp.)

Family history as decorations. Image By Rebecca Angel

I’ll write a few more posts about aspects of camp I think you might enjoy: games, comics, movies, and radio plays. If anything, I encourage everyone to do one of the projects during camp: Research your own family history. The campers presented how their families got through the hard times of the 1930s, and there were some great stories. My own grandfather was a newsboy in the lower East side of NYC.

I could write so much more because everything was so cool! I hope I inspire you to get geeked about history! Here’s a video of the swing dancing each day:

Father’s Day Gift Guide–Bookworm Edition

These dads are pretty cool! Images Courtesy of 501st Legion Troopers
These dads are pretty cool! Images Courtesy of (top left to bottom right) Scott Will, Savanna Kiefer, Gary Collins, and Bryan Sithari.

Welcome to the Father’s Day Gift Guide for bookworm dads. Here you will find our favorite books for our dads. We hope you will consider them for yours.

Avengers vs. X-Men Companion: For the Marvel dad, check out the Avengers vs. X-Men Companion. This hardbound, limited edition combines all the tie-ins to the Avengers vs. X-Men event. Complete with a digital copy, this is a must have for any Marvel dad. $58.00

Grimm Fairy Tale Omnibus: The Grimm Fairy Tale Omnibus collects the first 50 issues of Zenescope’s acclaimed Grimm Fairy Tales series. Coming in at 8 lbs, this is a heavy but enjoyable comic book for any dad. $40.00

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero: The ultimate history book for Superman fans is here and just recently released in a softcover format. $13.00 and up

For the Star Wars dad, check out Star Wars: Legacy Volume 1–Broken: Broken v. 1, Heirs of the force: Young Jedi Knights #1 and Heir to the Empire: Star Wars (The Thrawn Trilogy): Star Wars, Volume I all come highly recommended by 501st Legion troopers and fans alike. Various prices

Saga Vol. 1 and Vol. 2: Saga is one of the hottest comic books currently on comic book shelves. Help dad get caught up in the story by picking him up Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 from the bookstore. $10.00 and up

DC Comics Trades: For the DC Comics Dad, Animal Man and Swamp Thing both come highly recommended. I’ve read the first few issues of Swamp Thing and Scott Snyder (Batman) has me hooked! $15.00 and up

Superman: Birthright: It’s rumored that The Man of Steel was partially based off of Superman: Birthright. What better way to prepare dad for the movie than to pick it up for him? I’ve read this title myself and absolutely loved it! $16.00

Backyard Ballistics: This title, by William Gurstelle, is revised with new and expanded projects to make using inexpensive household or hardware store materials. Match-powered rockets, dry cleaning bag balloon, tennis ball mortar, and more for a total of 16 ballistic devices. $20.00

Handy Dad: This title, by Todd Davis, has instructions for 25 projects, some that take only five minutes and others that will take a weekend. We’re talking zip lines, rope swing, climbing wall, stunt dummy, bike ramp, and all sorts of great ideas. $20.00

Craft Cocktails at Home: This book, by Kevin K. Liu, assembles innovative ideas from taste scientists, engineers, and top bartenders. Lean how to make delicious, one-of-a-kind cocktails. $9.00

Cooking for Geeks: This cookbook, by Jeff Potter, has the why and how behind everything culinary. With nearly 400 pages, this science-as-cookbook is jammed with excellent obscurities and useful tips. $22.00

Great Maps of the Civil War: For the Civil War history buff, this is a fun read that is educational for the whole family. $28.00

Lectures on the Theory of Games: For the gamer dad, check this book out and dad will learn about the “modern mathematical discipline known as the Theory of Games.” Sounds fun, right? $28.00

Survival Wisdom & Know How: For the outdoors-man, check out Survival Wisdom and Know How to make sure they know what they’re doing while out exploring mother nature. $15.00

Need more ideas for Father’s Day? Check out our Father’s Day Gift Guide for more geeky gift ideas!

Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism During Starving Time

Archaeological dig at Jamestown via Flickr user sarahstierch under CC:2.0
Archaeological dig at Jamestown via Flickr user sarahstierch under CC:2.0

In researching my book, Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself, I discovered some surprising facts. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, loved to take what he called “air baths.” That’s right, he sat around in the buff. A more gruesome bit of information related to the Jamestown settlers who suffered through the winter of 1609, also known as “the starving time.” Drought, hostile relations with the Native Americans, and a lost supply ship created a dire situation as the colonists were forced to feed upon their animals, vermin, shoe leather, and–word had it–each other.

In 2012, says, archaeologists at the Jamestown site uncovered the remains of an English girl, roughly 14 years in age, showing the first physical evidence of cannibalismContinue reading Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism During Starving Time

Does More Tragedy Happen In April?

Over the weekend, the thought crossed my mind, Well, it’s almost mid-April. Time for something terrible to happen. And I’m not a pessimist by nature. It’s just started to feel the last few years like mid-April is circled on the calendar with “Tragedy!” written across it in big red letters. But surely it’s not really that way–it just feels like it. Right?

That means it’s time to count. To compare how April events stack up next to the rest of the year. The hard part is criteria. History is vast. For my sanity, with some other GeekMoms’ help, I narrowed it down to this. Events must:

  • Have happened between the 15th and the 20th of the month.
  • Caused fatalities.
  • Be in the US.

Continue reading Does More Tragedy Happen In April?

Fairy Tales from Philip Pullman

Cover image courtesy the Penguin Group.

A new book of fairy tales by Philip Pullman? Yes, please. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is an amazing book, but in surprising ways. If you expected a book of fairy tales from the author of His Dark Materials to be full of new yarns or clever, twisted retellings of traditional Brothers Grimm stories, you’re going to be disappointed. Pullman actually gives fairly direct renditions of stories like “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” (not the Disney versions — there are blinded princes and mutilated feet in these stories). He also includes many stories that have fallen out of popularity, like “The Donkey Cabbage” and “The Girl with No Hands.” But overall, this is a wonderful book of fairy tales for adults who love to read.

Now, Pullman insists that this isn’t intended to be canonical text. It can’t be. The stories come from traditional folk tales and oral traditions, and it’s translated into English, so that adds a further layer of interpretation. He further borrows from other sources, so this isn’t a strict interpretation, even though it feels very much like one. The tone seemed just about right for the stories, however. A neutral storyteller telling the deeds, both good and evil — and the consequences. If you want to read the stories to each other or to your children, you can do so. (I’d suggest pre-reading.) Better yet, read the story and then retell it orally and without reference, the way folk stories were intended to be told. The poor mouse may not always have to be eaten by the cat.

The book provides wonderful context for each story, which is probably the biggest reason I love it. After each story, Pullman has extensive commentary, including historical context for interpreting the story, similar stories, and notes about common variations. A lot of tales have changed over time, and how we view them can be very different from how contemporaries did. “Rapunzel,” for instance, was changed from the original story, where parsley was the sought-after herb. The significance is that parsley was believed at the time to induce abortions. That certainly puts a new twist on why Rapunzel’s parents would agree to exchange a baby to a witch in exchange for something from the garden.

Overall, this book is crack for library nerds, historians, and fairy tale fans. You’ll devour it. It’s a wonderful way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the original publication by The Brothers Grimm. I recommend buying it on e-book and reading it from a tablet, because that’s technology that still has a touch of magic.

Full disclosure: a review (printed) copy of this book was provided.

Muse of Nerds: Joy Hakim, Storyteller Extraordinaire

I received lots of kudos for getting to interview Joy Hakim. Maybe this is because most of my friends are geeks of some sort, most homeschool their kids, and we all have read Joy’s books, amazed at how she draws us into learning so easily with her gift of storytelling. I hope you enjoy this interview:

You have written A History of US, and The Story of Science, as a way of teaching through stories; characters and their world lead the reader on a journey of learning with a focus on American history, or Physics. What was the inspiration behind these projects?
Well, there was the day a son brought home a new middle school history. I knew that textbooks are rarely page-turners (although they should be), but this book was beyond dull. The writing was barely literate, the page layouts dreary. I was so enraged by it that I actually called his history teacher.

“I hate the book too,” he told me. I shook my head. How could a book so obviously flawed make it into schools? (I would find out.) Anyway, being a journalist, and caring about words and ideas, I decided to see what I could do.

As for storytelling, that’s the classic way civilizations have always passed on their ideas and information. That we have turned away from it in teaching our children has been a tragedy.

How long did it take to write each series? What kept you going through the writing process?
I’m not sure, because I always seem to be doing several things at once. About seven years for each is a guess. I worked on a PBS special, called Freedom: A History of US, while writing the science books. And I did other things too.

What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two books on evolutionary biology. I hope your readers will give that subject a chance. Earth and the life upon it change. There are no dinosaurs walking about. I’m fascinated with the subject. In one of the books I begin with a letter Galileo wrote to an Italian prince telling him of the wonders he has seen through his occhialino (microscope) where “one can contemplate infinitely the grandeur of nature, and how subtly she works. . . “

Within my homeschooling community, you are a superstar. Pretty much every family I know has used one or both of these series. When you first started writing, what were your hopes for the project?
Like most writers, I just hoped to get published. Actually, given the quality of history texts, and the widespread call for better school books, I assumed that if I wrote well the publishing world would fall at my feet. I was naive. Every publisher I sent the manuscript to rejected it. One actually said, “It doesn’t sound textbooky.” How A History of US finally got published is a long story. It wouldn’t have happened without my friend/agent Byron Hollinshead, a former president of Oxford University Press.

At the moment, I read aloud a chapter a week of The Story of Science to a few kids at a local coffee shop, and then we have a lively chat. What do you hope every reader takes from your stories?
What do I hope my readers will take from the books? I hope they’ll learn to think. To do that they’ll need to read beyond my books. In this Information Age, being able to find information, process it, and then make use of it, is an essential skill (and it’s fun too).

You are certainly a history geek (that’s a compliment.) What are your other passions in life?
My family comes first. I have three children and five grandchildren and they are all perfect. (Can you hear them laughing in the background?)
I’m awed by the homeschoolers I meet. They are all great. I really mean that. Maybe it’s because those who take the time to come to a conference or a book-signing are special. I don’t meet those who stay home.

For more information on A History of US or The Story of Science, check out Joy Hakim’s website.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us on GeekMom. Best of luck on your new series, Joy!

British POW Uses Morse Code to Stitch Hidden Message During WWII

Major Casdagli's Hidden Message © David Fearn
Major Casdagli’s Hidden Message © David Fearn

Many of us geek love codes, cyphers and other types of hidden messages, and there are few more famous codes than Morse Code. Developed in the 1800s, Morse Code is simple and easy to learn, it’s also easy to write down once you know the correct sequence of dots and dashes that represent each letter. It was this ease of writing down and reading the code without the need of any special equipment that allowed a British prisoner of war to use it to create a subversive piece of art during his time in a Nazi prison camp.

Comparison of Historic & Current Morse Code © SpinningSpark via Wikimedia
Comparison of Historic & Current Morse Code © SpinningSpark via Wikimedia

Major Alexis Casdagli was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1941 and sent to a series of prison camps where he whiled away the long hours by sewing. A piece he created in December 1941 looks innocent enough, indeed it looked so innocent that guards allowed him to hang it on the walls at all the camps he stayed in. However the piece contains two subversive messages coded into the borders, messages that if they had been discovered by guards would have put his life at risk. The outer border spells out “God Save the King” and the inner border, the decidedly more risky “F**k Hitler”. To create the piece, Casdagli used threads taken from a disintegrating pullover that belonged to a fellow prisoner, a Cretan general.

For the four years the piece hung on the walls of the prison camps until his release, the Germans never spotted the secret message of defiance hanging in front of them. In fact the Germans were so impressed with the officer’s skills that they had him give classes to other prisoners. Major Casdagli’s defiant stitching has even recently been on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The major continued stitching until his death in 1990 and his son, a retired Royal Navy officer, continues the habit today.

Geeked About the Greeks

Every summer I run a History through the Creative Arts camp for homeschoolers in my area. It started as a way to do history with my own children that was based on something other than war and politics. I find it easier to relate periods of history to what the classical composers were doing at the time, and figured maybe my children were the same way.

To make my children more excited, I invited their friends to join us for a week exploring a period in history listening to music, eating food, making clothing, looking at art, etc. I like to get historic materials for crafts and realized I needed to ask the parents for supply money. Over the years, this became tuition, and eventually I started a business on learning through the creative arts.

Although I started it for my kids, it also gives me the fun of exploring a time period. I like research and getting into a subject, but it’s hard to dedicate my time to something unless it’s related to my main job: homeschooling my kids. That’s why these camps are so much fun for me. I decide the time period a year ahead of time and get to research for months on a topic. I can become obsessed and nerdy, and blame it on my kids!

This year I chose Ancient Greece as the time period, and holy crap! It’s really interesting! Sooooooo much of our language and culture comes from that civilization. I’ve taken out dozens of books from the library and purchased my favorites, including this one. I wanted to make pan pipes, but finding bamboo of the correct diameter proved too difficult. I will have the kids make cool Greek-looking sandals and an abacus (I hand-made all the beads out of clay around my house, trying to use up all the leftover colors no one wanted anymore…lots of brown.) My fellow history geek/mom/librarian friend, Amy, will be taking over the food and home life portion of camp. I wonder if she can make me gluten-free baklava. I watched some good non-fiction videos on Greeks, and gave up on fictional ones. My husband and I sat down to watch “300” and ended up only viewing the Special Features (which were very informative!) So far this is my favorite adult non-fiction book. For the past few months I keep popping out with “Did you know…?” tidbits of random facts.

For example:

  • The Greek theaters had stone tickets for people to find their correct seat. Ancient organization!
  • Spartans thought archery was for cowards. Manly Spartans needed to crush their enemies skull with THEIR BARE HANDS! RAWR!!! (or a spear…or sword.)
  • Trial by jury comes from the Greeks, along with, you know…democracy.
  • The Pandora myth (a woman brings evil into the world) may actual be from an earlier myth that a foolish man let all the good stuff escape from the world. Both end with ‘hope’ is all that is left.
  • The music of Greece is completely lost, but from what we can gather (images and writing), it sounded more like Middle Eastern and Asian melodic music, rather than the Western Europe harmony based stuff.
  • Women were pretty much slaves in Athens, but had some political power in Sparta, and were expected to be able to fight and defend the homeland while the men were away at war.
  • Greek mathematicians were able to do some pretty amazing things despite the fact that they had to use Greek numbers…no fun.
  • Athenians had no problem with nudity, but when they painted pottery for other, more demure places, they would put clothes on the figures.

And the language! The father from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was right! There are so many words that come from Greek! Here’s a game to test your knowledge:

This week is The Big Prep. My kids actually have off from homeschooling so I can get ready for camp. Yesterday I made a canvas labyrinth to put on the floor of where camp will be held. The Minotaur and the Labyrinth is a cool story, based on a true palace. Excavations show how winding and crazy the layout was- a visitor might have easily been lost. And the throne room was this windowless place in the center. Very cool. Here’s a video of how I made it:

My kids are getting geeked up as well. My daughter’s picture above is of Pandora’s Box (with a very cute Hope at the bottom.) And here is my son’s comic about Icarus.

Icarus Page One

Icarus Page Two


CABIN FEVER: How to Play “Spot the Geek” (Classic Movie Edition)

Film images L to R: 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, Liberty Films, Cineguild. Mashup: Kate Miller

Recently my family endured a week of cabin fever brought on by snow, weblessness, and our general proximity to one another. We survived by watching movies together each night after dinner, but were limited to our rental cabin’s movie collection. This included only dusty classics that every adult Homo Sapien has seen at least fourteen times. The movies were on “videotapes,” which we played in a big machine called a “VCR.”

The films we saw were made long before high-tech gadgetry, Dungeons & Dragons, or the rise of nerdy-cool. The word “geek” had not even arrived to brighten our world. Yet as I watched each movie, a proto-geeky character emerged, someone who embodied a certain early, nascent geekness.

(For all you definition hawks out there: I take a geek to be a smart person with an intense interest in something — as opposed to a nerd, who may have more trouble with social interaction. Here, this Venn diagram explains the whole thing. Come on back when you’re done.)

So without further ado, I present you with the four great classic films that we watched, along with my votes for their ur-geeky characters.

The Sound of Music, 1965

This one’s easy: Max Detweiler is the geek. He’s that friend of Herr von Trapp and the Countess, always ready with a bon mot and an impeccable suit. He’s also the one obsessed with his music festival and on the lookout for new acts. If he existed today, he’d be a gigantic Gleek.

Through most of the film Max cares more about putting on a fabulous show than about the recent Nazi occupation of Austria. Now that’s some impressively geeky singlemindedness. But in the end of course, he wields said fabulous show to thwart the Nazis, proving that geekiness can be a great tool for any underground resistance.

(My husband interjects that Max is also the prototype of the Swishy Gay Friend. Food for thought.)

Great Expectations, 1946 (David Lean version)

If geekiness is part obsessional interest, then Miss Havisham is our 19th century gal. Perhaps you remember this nutty old bat. Jilted at the alter as a young woman, she avoids her pain by freezing time. She stops the clocks, boards up the windows, and remains in her wedding dress, sitting beside the still-set wedding dinner table for, oh, about fifty years. At the start of the movie she’s absolutely ancient, surrounded by ancient cobwebs and ancient cobwebby servants.

“That’s not geeky,” I hear you cry, “that’s downright insane. She’s several cards short of a Pokemon deck.” OK, good point.

But hear me out. Think of how singlemindedly Miss Havisham focuses on that one day! She’s had no visitors, no news from the outside, for decades. If anyone wanted to get accurate historical information about that day –What were people wearing? What were the headlines? – she’d be the undisputed go-to geek. She is to her own wedding day what a Civil War geek is to the battle of Antietam. I rest my case.

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962

You may be thinking that the geek here is Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor of Scout, the little girl who narrates. But friends, do not be fooled!

The geek is none other than Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, played by Gregory Peck. Oh, Atticus makes me swoon. Really, if that guy stepped out of the movie and proposed to me, I would have to disappoint my husband brutally. (Sorry, honey. The truth hurts.)

Atticus is smart and tall, and has the geekiest glasses possible for the Depression-era deep South. But what really clinches his status is his obsessional interest in justice. He is – dare I say – a justice geek. He puts himself and his kids at risk of life and limb to pursue his fight against intolerance, which he wages with his quiet, firm, intelligent, decent ways. Oh my. I’m getting all worked up again.

It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

This one is verrrrry tricky.

Could the geek be protagonist George Bailey, who is second in my heart only to Atticus Finch? (Sorry again, honey.) George certainly has his interest — traveling the world — but isn’t too obsessive about it, distracted as he is by little things like love, marriage and fatherhood. No, not so geeky.

I sifted through the movie’s truckload of characters: Mary Bailey, Uncle Billy, Mr. Potter, little Zuzu, and all the others with whom director Frank Capra viciously manipulates us into feeling a deep love for humanity. None of them are geeky. Could it be that Wonderful Life is geek-free?

Then it hit me. I’m the geek. I’m the one absentmindedly reciting each line along with the movie, down to the syllable. I’m the one who in high school painstakingly transcribed all of George’s speeches from the VCR (“The moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair…”) and affixed them to my bedroom wall. I’m the one who still – still! – sobs uncontrollably at the end. Every. Damn. Time.

And I’m not alone. There are thousands of us Wonderful Life Kool-Aid chuggers, and I submit that each time one of us watches the movie again… well … we’re the geek.

Playing “Spot the Geek” is like discovering fossils of ancient creatures that turn out to be our ancestors. “Aha,” we geeks say, “so that’s where we came from.” The whole process is enriching, enlightening, and of course an exquisite waste of time.

Perhaps you’ve played this game with other classic films. What’s your vote? Citizen Kane, anyone? All about Eve, Gone with the Wind, Philadelphia Story?

Happy National Weatherman’s Day!

John Jeffries, The Father of American Weather Observing. By J. Russel, Caroline Watson (1760-1814) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today is National Weatherman’s Day!

I’m sure that now the gears in your head are turning. Perhaps the date choice has even prompted a question or two. Such as “Why not February 2nd, when weather folks already get all kinds of attention because they relinquish their scientific skills to a rodent?”

It’s not known when this started as an obscure holiday, nor who started it, but at least we can offer why it’s on February 5th. Here is a fascinating history lesson: National Weatherman’s Day is celebrated on the birthday of John Jeffries, the Father of American weather observing. He was born on this day in 1745.

John Jeffries is regarded by some as the first American to fly. Although some argue how American he actually was. Even though he was born in Boston (and died in Boston) he spent much of his life in Europe. He was a self-proclaimed Loyalist. Dr. Jeffries served as a surgeon for the British Military during the American Revolution, and was apparently the defense’s key witness during the Boston Massacre trial. It’s believed he originally thought to use the balloon as a weather observing instrument in 1783. He was on the first balloon to cross the English Channel in 1785, and he convinced the chief pilot to load the balloon with weather instruments, dangerously weighing it down. Jeffries and the pilot, John Pierre Blanchard, had to shed much of their clothing (in January!) to keep the balloon aloft over the channel!  This link provides a nice summary of his life.

If you want to learn more, particularly about his non-meteorological attributes, this is a much more thorough account of his full life courtesy of J.L. Bell, an American Revolution historian (you have to scroll through Parts 1-7 to read his entire biography, the cool weather parts start at Part 3).

Boomerang: Audio the Whole Family Will Love


Ostensibly I subscribed to Boomerang for my kids, but truth be told there were times when I’d pop a cassette* (a cassette!) into my car’s player and listen, even if the kids weren’t with me. Covering topics like the first amendment, the building of the great pyramids, globalization, and nanotechnology, each hour-long episode presents some really big ideas. Science, current events, history, economics, geography, and politics are all fair game. Voiced by youth as well as creator Dave Strohm, Boomerang presents some really big ideas in a kid-friendly fashion without dumbing down the content.

Dave is quick to point out that using the fine art of storytelling is a great way to capture kids’ attention. And so, tell stories he does. Tiananmen Square, Nikola Tesla, Mohandas Gandhi, and the stock market? Yep, he’s covered those.

In an interview segment, one of the Boomerang kids goes back in time to interview an important historical or political figure (portrayed by an actor).  Listening to words that someone like Ada Lovelace or Emily Dickinson might have said is a compelling way to learn about what was going on in the world at a certain time.

There are fun and silly topics, too, as well as my personal favorite, reflections from Dave Schmave (aka Boomerang creator Dave Strohm). His dispatches are sometimes funny, sometimes ironic, and always touching. Plus? I absolutely adore his voice. You can listen to Dave talk about storytelling on the Boomerang site. Go ahead. See if you don’t love his voice as much as I do.

While Boomerang is intended for an audience aged 6-12, I can assure you that the whole family will love it.

*Today, the audio program for kids is downloadable right from your computer. Downloads, $8.95 per episode; CDs, $10.95 per episode. Or, order a bundle of nine episodes for $49.95.