Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Barbie Brouhaha

This week's Internet Ragestorm is about a really ridiculous Barbie book about computer programming (article also appears on gizmodo if you encounter issues) that includes Barbie "only creating the design ideas, ha ha" and "needing to get Steven and Brian to do the heavy lifting of programming." And then accidentally cause she's an idiot infecting hers and another's computer with a virus carried on a USB drive (a cute heart-shaped one!)

Now, I don't want to join the Barbie hate because…back in my youth I *adored* Barbie. I remember getting the "Pretty in Pink" (not related to the movie) Barbie for maybe my 9th or 10th birthday and being in heaven. She had like three outfits that came with the doll, which was huge. I think that was the one that had the push button in her back that you could press and her arm would move, like she was applying makeup or perhaps giving a regal wave.

I loved that doll, and had a collection of other Barbies as well as a huge collection of clothes my grandmother made for my Barbie. I still have that box of clothes, even while I lament the wonky body image Barbie presents. There's something about the love and care my grandmother put into making teeny tiny little tops and skirts and coats for my dolls that transcends body image questions, that miniaturizes conversations about appearance and comes down to family and love and doing things for others. When I think about the hours my grandmother must have spent making tiny stitches, measuring against her own sample doll (I think a reject from me or one of my sisters. Maybe the one who had an unfortunate hair salon accident) and sewing in little strips of velcro or snaps for my small fingers to work, it takes my breath away. So, anyway, point is, no Barbie hate here. (Besides, I've recently defended Sparkle Science. I'm a fan of geeking out in whatever direction your geek muse takes you.)

However, I can hate the messages in the book, right? Because the idea that Barbie is "only a designer" makes my head burst into flames. I am/was "only a designer" and the work I did was just as relevant, just as essential, as the work of the programmers. In fact, my role on projects was often to tell the programmers what to do. I had to figure out what the program needed to do, how the user would interact with it, what ranges of inputs might come from the user, and then convey that in a sensible way to the programming team. As the programming team produced code to represent the designs that I and other designers gave them, I'd have to test the application to make sure it worked according to specs.  Every member of a team has a valuable contribution to make, but dismissing the designer's work as "only coming up with design ideas" is … unfair at best, slanderous at worst. Perhaps I'm more pissed about the slight toward technology designers than I am about the rest of it. Sometimes what makes you mad is more about you than the thing that made you mad, eh? ;)

At any rate, this particular rage storm seems to have had an impact on Barbie parent, Mattel, as they have reportedly pulled this book from Amazon and apologized. But it also got us all talking about technology and women in a unified way for once. That was fun. As was this really excellent refactoring of the Barbie I Can Be a Computer Engineer book, which should be required reading for any considering a career in tech. (Relevant timing note: This was written back in January of '14, predating the current anger-fest.) I particularly loved this line:
In fact, in technical professions, the designer / architect is the senior position on the project.  - See more at: http://blog.infoadvisors.com/index.php/2014/01/30/refactoring-computer-engineer-barbie/#sthash.Gm5fCQn0.dpuf
Damn skippy.

Being a solutions-oriented person rather than a complainer, I'll conclude the post with some great programming resources for kids and STRONGLY encourage you to look into these, introduce children in your lives to computer programming (early AND often) and to see about learning more about computer programming yourself. The week of code is coming up in early December, no better time than now!

Frozen-themed activity from code.org (direct link to the activity)
Article with links to three great programming games that teach programming while you play
Learn Python on codeacademy.com
Try out Code Combat, which was the reason my 13 year old son was late going to bed tonight
And be sure to check out hour of code during the week of December 8

Saturday, October 4, 2014

In Defense of Sparkle Science

I have an article up on the New York Times' The Motherlode section called In Defense of Sparkle Science.
Some of my daughter's lip gloss and lip scrub experiments

I'm thrilled with this piece as I've wanted to place something at The Motherlode for a while. If you are interested in the topic, please take the time to read through the Carnegie Science Center's response to the criticism about the image that went viral, as they address the fact that they used to offer a wider range of options for Girl Scouts but no one signed up. I agree it looks ridiculous to have only one thing out for girls with many options for boys who are Scouts, but I think Carnegie's response is appropriate and their offerings for girls and young women are wonderful.

Meanwhile, the thing missing from the public uproar is the fact that some kids are really into this sort of thing, Science with a Sparkle or what have you. Don't tell them they're not sciencing hard enough. It's like the who's a bigger geek debates -- nobody wins those debates. Just let people geek out about the things they are into, whether it meets your definition for geekiness or not.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Blog train contribution!

Joining a blog train courtesy of Melissa Duclos, one of my many and numerous online writing friends, who in this day and age are as real as any of my in-person writing friends.

The blog train's purpose is to get writers (and publications in some cases!) talking about what we're working on and our process for writing (or publishing.)

So without further ado, let me let you in a little bit on my process and what's on deck for me in what I hope is going to be a very productive summer.

What am I working on?
I write science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers, but I have also been working on my freelance portfolio lately. I've got a new piece up at BookTrib.com about how to not be a junk food vegetarian, and will likely have a few more articles in the coming months. I plan to pitch something to a few big publications, more on that after I succeed.

But in fiction, my main goals for the summer are to just *finish* several things that have been in-process for far too long. First up is my Middle Grade scifi adventure story ADRIFT, about what happens when a young teen and her two siblings find themselves alone on the family spaceship when pirates attack. Next will be the book I've been working on for an age that really needs a sequel, but first I need to release this one as it's been too long. It's called A STAR TO LEAD ME and of all the things I've written lately, it's the one I'm most excited by. It's a scifi novel for Middle Grade readers set on a colony ship where all people age 13 and above suddenly fall into a coma-like sleep, unable to be roused. The main character (a spunky 12 year old whose birthday is in a few days) has to figure out how to control the ship and the kids aboard lest the spaceship meet certain doom.

So you know, your average everyday space-faring fun and games. :D

How does my work/writing differ from others in the genre?
I'd say the biggest thing I'm doing that's different from other writers is using space as a setting for middle grade books without making them silly aliens-ate-my-homework kinds of things. Not that there's anything wrong with aliens eating my homework, just that it's not the only thing I like about science fiction. Honestly, my favorite books when I was a teen reader were Heinlein and Asimov space adventure tales. I am writing to fill a void I see in the genre/age range, as the dystopian trend has taken hold in YA and regular science fiction set in space in middle grade books is somewhat unusual.


Why do I write what I do?
Ah, I touched on this in the previous answer, but mainly I write these kinds of books because they're the kinds of books I want to read. I go into more details here.

How does my writing process work?
I am a burst writer. I've finally come to terms with that, even though it's taken years. Most writing advice you hear talks about setting a daily habit. I love daily habits, it's the only way I know where my keys are because I have a daily habit of storing them in the "key place" as soon as I walk in the door each day. But daily habits for writing work for me only in bursts, not ongoing. I kick myself about the lack of a daily habit at times like this. But here in the clutches of the last days of school for my 2 school-aged children it's surprising that I'm together enough to be wearing pants most days. The number of performances, concerts, end of year parties, recognition banquets, awards ceremonies, and other general hullabaloo is astonishing. A daily writing habit isn't practical nor is it an achievable goal for me at this time. Instead I'm focusing my energy on the upcoming summer with a looser-than-usual schedule and many goals.

In my burst phases, my writing process is generally to get my word count in as early in the day as possible, which is usually at or before noon. I'm not an early riser by any stretch of the imagination. I type blazingly fast, so I can usually knock out 2000 words in an hour or so, as long as I know what the story I'm writing is about. It's another thing I kick myself about, as I should be able to produce so much more than I do because I type so fast. I have a family, though, and that's first in every list I make, so I try to put that self-pressure aside. There will be time aplenty to write uninterrupted when the kids leave for college, which will be shockingly soon.


Now, on to my friends, who I am very interested to hear from about their works in progress and writing  methods.

First up is the lovely and talented Nina Niskanen, who  is a software engineer, writer and blogger from the beautiful Helsinki, Finland. She is way too excitable about science, space exploration, Disney, and mythology. Consequently she likes to write science fiction and fantasy in which women do awesome things, often in space or Finland. Nina's online evil lair of glitter is at ninaniskanen.com







Next is Trina Marie Phillips, who I know from the shared writing blog The Prosers that we both contribute to.

And last is TBD - I'm waiting to hear from a few folks I've asked to tag but didn't want to ambush with a blog train request!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Now available for purchase - SNOW WHITE AND THE ASSASSIN'S GUILD! (Kindle only)

Now available for purchase - my short story SNOW WHITE AND THE ASSASSIN'S GUILD!

I wrote this short story during a workshop I took with Mary Robinette Kowal called Writing on the Fast Track (I highly recommend the workshop! It was conducted via online google+ hangouts, small number of classmates, we did exercises and critiqued each other's work from week to week, and otherwise just had a ball. It helped me refine my ability to write short stories.)

The story blurb:
Snow White is frustrated in her role as an assassin in the king and queen's service. As the third princess, it is her duty to help clean up the messes in the kingdom, the Enchanted Forest in particular. But what Snow White really wants to do is sing! Can she remake herself while still remaining in service to the crown or will she have to leave to pursue her dreams?

And the unbelievably gorgeous cover:

Buy it now from Amazon for 99c! Kindle-only at this time, until I get the chance to make the .epub versions… ;)

If you do read it, please consider writing a review or at least giving it a rating, it helps us independent authors so much! Thanks. XOXO


Friday, March 21, 2014

COVER REVEAL! Snow White and the Assassin's Guild

Check out my beautiful cover for my upcoming short story, SNOW WHITE AND THE ASSASSIN'S GUILD


I'm so thrilled with the design, from Delilah Stephans Design. Absolutely beautiful. Thanks so much! Story goes on sale on Saturday, March 22, 2014.


Monday, March 17, 2014

High Tech Language Arts - 5th grade - Lesson summary

Taught a lesson about short-form storytelling in High Tech Language Arts class today for 5th graders. Included the inimitable John Wiswell's Alligators By Twitter story, which I became of fan of before it was even published, having been on the editing staff at Flash Fiction Online magazine since its inception. (caution: some curse words present. With John's permission I modified them for my lesson.) 


And then to finish blowing their minds, I told the 5th graders about 6 Word Stories. 


You could have heard a pin drop when I finished, "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." 


Each child is now working on their own short-form story using Sarah Prineas' The Magic Thief as inspiration. 


It is very difficult to tell who is enjoying this more, me or the students...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Girls invent the neatest things!

I am continually amazed at the wonderful content the A Mighty Girl team comes up with, curating from all over the web but also adding in links to resources and additional information. They've become one of my primary go-to sources for great stories about girls doing awesome things all over the globe.

This latest story of theirs is no exception. Girls from Zagreb, Croatia, have invented a teddy bear embedded with sensors that can be given to children in the hospital. When the children interact with the teddy bear, it records vital signs and sends them wirelessly to smartphones or computers nearby. A small task that for many children can be very scary or uncomfortable instantly becomes just a simple interaction with a toy. What a great way to harness technology AND innovation!

Be sure to head over to A Mighty Girl to read more about it, and to like their FB page, you won't be disappointed!



Friday, January 10, 2014

Dear World -- about kids and science

Dear World: I want you to know that the effort required to get children, in particular girls, interested in science is really rather basic. Engage with them. Talk to them like they are real people instead of very small idiots, and answer their questions. Even using humor is fine, as the Australians have done (those Aussies are good at humor.) Just engage. Please. Our future depends on this. Love, me.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

LEGO robotics and girls and awesomeness

This past fall I had the opportunity to coach a LEGO Robotics team through the FIRST LEGO League, aka FLL. In short, it was *awesome.*

I coached a team of 7 girls, all Girl Scouts with the Girls Scouts of Northern IL, all fourth grade students at Da Vinci Academy in Elgin, IL. The Girl Scouts of Northern IL had received a generous grant from the Motorola Solutions Foundation to sponsor this kind of STEM activity for girls (please tell me you know what STEM stands for. Please? Okay, I'll tell you *again* -- Science Technology Engineering Math. Sometimes you'll see it with an "A" for arts added, to make it STEAM. It's a shorthand way of referring to these kinds of sciency techy mathy things, particularly as it relates to kids.) The girls' school, Da Vinci Academy, provided us the space for meetings and opportunities for mentoring from the experienced FLL Coaches who coached two Da Vinci middle school teams this year.

FLL is a great organization - you should read about their mission and goals. A quick overview/summary that in no way does the organization justice is that they want to get kids (ages 9-14 in the US/Canada/Mexico. Ages 9-16 globally) excited about science and technology.

Hey wait a minute. *I* want to get kids excited about science and technology! That's why I write science fiction for kids. This is what we call a win-win. Wintastic. Wincredible. Windelicious.

At some point I'd love to delve into the details of this great team of fourth graders and their enthusiasm and excitement as we went through the process of learning what the competition required and how to program the robot.

For today, though, I'll share the really fun and really exciting part that happened after the dust had settled, after the competition had completed, after the girls had the opportunity to present their skit in front of a crowd of 400 or more at the regional competition. (!!!)


The exciting thing was when we were invited by Kim Moldovsky, The Maker Mom, to appear on WGN - TV (a local Chicago TV station with wide syndication to other markets. Where else would you find your reruns of The Jeffersons and Family Ties and broadcasts of the Cubs?) during National Robotics Week. Here is Kim's post after our shared appearance.

The studio was small, so we brought two of our seven girls. They did a fantastic job, though they also learned a bit about how fast time passes on television. And how sometimes you don't get a chance to say what you meant/wanted to/say anything at all. And about how the robot doesn't always do what you want it to (in fact, this plagued the girls during the competition, too. Learning to handle the frustration with grace is, to me, one of the better lessons the girls learned through their participation in FIRST LEGO League.) And a special bonus, the girls got to watch the news anchors do the newscast, and discovered that the cameras that shoot the news anchors at their desks are all ROBOTS!


So please enjoy this clip, and if you have any questions about robotics in general, the FLL in particular, girl scouts, awesome girls, coaching a group of kids on a science/tech kind of endeavor, or anything, ask in the comments! Thanks, and enjoy!



Monday, January 30, 2012

Media and Design Club for Kids Meeting 2

Media and Design Club for Kids
Meeting 2

Activity 1: Door Investigation
Activity Objective: Evaluate design choices by touring the school and counting the different types of door styles we encounter.

Discussion: This was a hands-on exercise where we walked around the whole school and noted and counted the different door designs we saw. I had the kids bring notepaper and pencils so they could keep track. Some drew the doors, some wrote down descriptions of key features. Before too long we had amassed a list of 30 different door types in our very small school!

This gave rise to the opportunity to talk about design features and constraints. For instance, most of the classroom doors have a hydraulic arm on the top, in addition to hinges. We talked about how at a school, one of the most important features of any design is going to need to be safety, so the hydraulics were used as a safety feature to keep doors from slamming. At home, where usage is much lower, we don't generally have these kinds of features.

We discussed design variations, too. We noted several classifications of doors - the "bathroom door" type, which has no window, and came in several varieties (with lever handle, push bar), the "classroom door" which has a skinny window and aforementioned hydraulics. The "School door" which is all glass. I began introducing the design concept of "affordances" - wherein certain styles of design afford certain uses. A pushbar on a door affords pushing, a pull handle affords pulling. This is a concept we'll come back to as we move into different styles of design, as it is particularly relevant in information design of computer systems and webpages.

Activity 2: Business Card Investigation
Activity Objective: Translate some of the concepts of design to the world of business cards.

Assignment: I handed out business card magnets (conveniently stolen from my own garage door where business card magnets go to retire and pass a quiet existence.) One by one I asked the kids to bring their magnet up to the whiteboard, place it with the others, and then talk about what kinds of information was on their business card and what they thought some of the reasons or rationale behind the design of the card were.

Discussion: I was absolutely astonished at how even the 3rd and 4th grade students could talk about things like the use of color on a business card and friendly graphics in an attempt to convey a warm, welcoming storefront, or the way a pizza place used a photograph of pizza with a checkered table cloth and raw materials in the background to show they used fresh ingredients. We also talked about other design concepts like boldface, larger fonts, and the use of whitespace to separate key areas of information on a card. The kids got a kick out of the fact that on some business cards, the "whitespace" wasn't white at all, but yellow or blue like the rest of the business card.

We will revisit this concept using some ideas from another blog about design that I found called Bluemoon web design. Using this as a resource and our business card exercise as a reference, I'll start introducing the general design vocabulary of things like Line, Form, Texture, Value, as well as big picture design concepts of balance, movement, repetition, etc. This is the exciting part, I love introducing this whole world to these kids, each time I tell them something new or give them a word to describe something they observed (e.g., "whitespace") their faces light up and I can practically watch the gears turning as they start asking questions about other examples, firing off comparisons and anti-examples too. Fabulous!

Activity 3: Draw your own business card
Activity Objective: Apply the ideas discussed to your own design, having to make tradeoffs in how you use space, what information you give priority to, etc.

Assignment: Using the ideas we discussed with existing business cards, make your own business card for any made up (or real) business. Dog walker, web designer, secret agent, whatever you like.

Discussion: We ran out of time so we will take a look at business card designs at the next session and discuss the tradeoffs people made.