Monthly Archives: March 2014

Altered Schedule

Since it’s official that I’m getting wrist surgery sometime in the next month and work is extra crazy, I’m going to shift to twice a week posts (Sat and Wed) for a while, instead of daily.  See you in a few days!

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Earthquake Swarm!

Just got back from a work trip to San Diego.  Last night in my hotel room I found out that a 5.2 earthquake is a lot more noticeable from the 9th floor.  It was enough to shake the bed, make the whole building sway, set the shower doors rattling, and slosh the water in the toilet bowl.  I felt several of the aftershocks, too.  The local news reported it as a ‘swarm’ of earthquakes.

That term sounded a little weird, so I did some digging and found out that yes, that is the accepted term for a group of earthquakes in the same area.  There is some argument over how close together in time they have to be to constitute a swarm, but mostly it caught my attention because “swarm of earthquakes” struck me as strange.  The mental image I get is of a bunch of tectonic plates buzzing around each other like angry wasps.

So today I’m recovering from an exhausting week, complete with earthquakes and travel irritations and very long days.  To tide you over until I have time to do more real writing again, here’s a cool video on how earthquakes work.  There’s no sound, but the animations are good and it’s by far the best of the videos I found – not too cheesy, and not too dumbed-down.

 

 

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Traveling

Out and about for work this week with no laptop. Be back on Saturday!

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Product Review: Ice Sabers Star Wars Cookbook

I have way too many cookbooks and kitchen gadgets, but when I saw this item in the clearance section at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist.  Who doesn’t want to eat a lightsaber popsicle?

The problem is, you don’t get much for the money here.  The mold makes four very tiny popsicles – all four of them together might add up to one regular-sized popsicle.  It’s also a tall, skinny mold so you have to prop it up somewhere in the freezer to keep it from tipping.  And then… there’s the challenge of getting them out.  Long, skinny, small popsicles with too short of a stick in a little plastic mold means that no matter what I did, the end of the lightsaber would break off and stay stuck in the mold.

download (2)

I tried the warm water to loosen them thing, tried it some more, tried being extra gentle, tried the molds with different recipes.  Always ended up with sadly broken-off lightsabers and using a chopstick to fish the other end of it out of the mold.  When my daughter tried to eat one off the stick, the remaining portion would fall off very easily as well, really upping the mess factor.

I was surprised to see this had a 3.6-star average on Amazon.  The general idea of their 20 reviews was about the same, though.  Cool idea, poor execution.

The cookbook that comes with the molds could easily have just been a little booklet.  There are few recipes for the main lightsaber colors (I started with red and then green) that are pretty basic and involve food coloring.  The rest are just everyday average popsicle recipes.  All of this you could find for free with a quick Google search and save the shelf space.

Overall, I can’t recommend these.  I’ll stick with our rocket pop molds, which work better and cost me I think two or three dollars.  I really wanted them to work, but after six batches of disappointment I threw in the towel and evicted them from my kitchen collection along with that stupid donut maker that never worked right.

Have you had better luck with these?  Any cool geeky popsicle or candy molds you can recommend?

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Filed under Geek crafts, Product Review

Movie Review: The Lego Movie

Lots of people warned me about the song, so I sort of knew what I was getting into with The Lego Movie.  I was not prepared, though, for multiple kids to be shouting, “Everything is awesome!” at the tops of their little lungs in the parking lot as we all walked back to our cars, and their horrified parents tried to shush them.   It’s really that much of an earworm.  And yes, it is certainly still running through my head as I write this.

Crazy addictive song aside, it was a good movie.  I think I enjoyed it more than my daughter did, because most of the fun one-liners and cultural references sailed right over her head.  As usual, the things in the movie that scared her dumbfounded me.  She sat through a solid ten minutes of heroes-being-chased-by-bad-guys-with-lots-of-shooting with no problem, but freaked out when they discovered a tracking device on the hero, wailing “What’s wrong with him?”

I love that the 1980s space lego guy got to be an important character.  I love anything voiced by Morgan Freeman.  And I love Legos.  So this movie was something I went into expecting to like, at least a little.  The ‘life lessons’ and ‘good triumphing over evil’ portions that are obligatory in an PG-or-less rated movie were presented with a little too much saccharine for my taste, but it definitely could have been worse.   The love story subplot was particularly sickly sweet, but at least had the comic relief of Batman.

This is a very visually stimulating movie, something that always gets bonus points in my book.  The various Lego worlds and the things the master builders put together are, to quote the song, awesome.  The voice actors are great, and you will hear many familiar voices.  The Star Wars actors actually voicing their Star Wars characters (Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Anthony Daniels as C3PO) was an especially nice touch.  The standout by far was Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop.  Such a great character and really well voiced.

The plot was fairly predictable, but with enough little twists and comedic asides to make it stiff fun to watch.  For the parents who grew up loving and playing with Legos, the movie has a lot of nice nostalgia moments.  This is also a movie I could certainly watch again, which is a lot more than I can say about the last two movies we saw together (The Nut Job and Walking With Dinosaurs).  Overall, PG movies don’t get much better than this.

But seriously, you will never, ever, ever get that song out of your head.  Don’t say no one warned you.

What did you think of it?

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The Dangers of Being a Single-Planet Species

The NASA-funded study released this week talking about the end of civilization (that they are now distancing themselves from) reminded me of one of my favorite soapboxes, which I have somehow been remiss in discussing on this blog to date: the fact that we are a single-planet species.  All our eggs are in one basket.  If anything major happens on Earth that makes us humans go the way of the dinosaurs, well… we go the way of the dinosaurs.

We’re pretty smart creatures.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  If we put some resources into traveling to other planets and establishing colonies in places that might survive certain planet-killing events – such as Mars, the moon, or even perhaps the bottom of the ocean – a few humans might survive catastrophe.  But we have to have the will to put our smarts and our money into something like that.  It would be a huge challenge to overcome, especially if we want to get those colonies to a place where they could, should something awful happen to our home planet, be self-sufficient.

The human race is one super-volcano, major asteroid/asteroid/comet strike, huge tectonic event, nuclear war, or super-plague away from extinction.  This isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi.  We’ve had the asteroid thing happen before, and the others have probabilities high enough above zero to make me uncomfortable.  Our planet and its ecosystem are delicate little things in a big, scary universe.  I may not always be much of a people person, but I certainly don’t want all people to disappear forever.  So the thought of something ending the human race shakes me up a bit, to say the least.

Whole lot more where these came from – and a lot of them could eventually head our way!  Artist’s rendering from NASA/JPL-Caltech at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/spitzer/spitzer-20061010-full.jpg

Knowing all these awful things that can happen, the next thing to figure out is: what can we do about it?  We can do the same thing we always do to mitigate risk – we build in controls and redundancy.  Backup systems, if you will.  Only in this case, we need backup locations.  We need to get enough people off the planet and in other places that no matter what happens back home on Earth, humans will go on exploring and creating and procreating.  A lunar colony, a massive space station, huge colony ships, a Mars colony.  Frankly, I think we need all of the above.  Just to make sure we’re covered.  We need to spread out, to explore, and to keep on moving.

Other good backup plans would be to actually develop technologies that can prevent some of these events at home – ways to deflect inbound asteroids, better methods for reacting quickly to new diseases, maybe even a way to predict and safely ‘defuse’ a volcano about to have a massive eruption.  The more planet-killing events we can prevent or mitigate, the better.

But what can you do about all this?  Support good research, instill the importance of STEM education in your kids, write to your congressman, senator, president, and whoever else you can think of about better funding for research in these areas.  Insist on resuming a robust manned space program.  Hug a scientist.  Do whatever you can to remind people that life and our planet are fragile, and we need to be not only good stewards of what we already have, but also to focus more on the future instead of always kicking the can down the road.

What planet-killing event scares you the most?  Would you support an off-Earth colony?  Would you want to go yourself?

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Vernal Equinox – how we know it’s the first day of Spring

Lots of folks in the U.S. are celebrating the fact that today is officially the first day of spring.  After a very rough winter, a good portion of the country is hoping for no more ice, snow, nasty storms, or sub-zero temps.  Another chunk of the country is desperate for rain and anxiously anticipating a rough fire season.  Either way, we’re all ready for a change of pace, and so with spring comes great hopes for some improved weather.  So how do we know it’s now spring?

Our seasons are marked by our orbit around the sun.  Winter and summer are marked by the solstices, and spring and fall are marked by the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, respectively.  The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the equinoxes are those in-between points where the day and night are the same length (the root words help you remember this one – equi/equal, nox/night).  Equinoxes happen when the plane of the earth passes through the plane of the sun, which happens twice per orbit (year).

Remember that our planet isn’t perfectly upright in our orbital plane – we’re tilted.  As the planet travels around the sun, for half of the orbit our pole will be tilted away from the sun, and for the other half it will be tilted towards the sun.  This is also what makes the seasons opposite in the two hemispheres.  When we are tilted towards the sun (summer), Australia is tilted away from the sun (winter), and vice versa.  Spring begins at the vernal equinox, when the sun shines right on our equator.  From here until the summer solstice in June, our days will just keep getting longer!

And now I’m going to shut up and just let this National Geographic video explain it better than I can with just typing words and trying to do hand gestures you can’t even see…

 

Also, look at today’s Google doodle if you haven’t already.  It’s pretty!

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Filed under Geek parenting resources, Geeking out

To App or not to App?

It seems like everywhere I look on the internet lately, I am bombarded with articles talking about studies that too much screen time is rotting our kids’ brains.  Or really good for them.  Or making them unhappy.  Or only good in certain increments, or only if you actually are sitting with your kid while you use them.  Or the best apps to make your kids smarter.  Who is right?  Is this kind of like the “eggs are good, eggs are bad, no only egg yolks are bad, no all eggs are bad, wait, eggs are ok in moderation” thing again?  I think at this point only time will tell.

So until some more long-term, definitive, large-group studies come out, I think I’m going to have to take all this screen-time advice with a grain of salt, and exercise my usual mantra of “everything in moderation.”  Also, I should note that I don’t think our family would ever, ever survive a long trip together without the iPad.  I’m pretty sure the iPad saved both lives and our sanity during long airport delays last Christmas, and on our last cross-country drive.  This means I’m already pretty biased towards the ‘pro’-screen camp.  I’m also a little biased because my kid had zero interest in working on her letters until the “Learn to Write with Mister Pencil” app turned her into a little letter-writing fiend overnight.  But I’m always willing to admit I’m wrong when faced with overwhelming scientific evidence!  It’s just not anywhere near overwhelming in either direction yet.

What are your policies on kids and screen time?  Are you a big fan of educational apps?  Relieved to find time to make dinner when your kid is absorbed in an episode of Caillou?  Or worried about them becoming too absorbed in electronics and missing the wonderful world around them?

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Filed under Geek parenting resources, Opinion pieces

Young Inventors FTW! Helping Shed Light in Disaster Zones.

Special thanks to my sister for pointing out these creative ladies and their amazing invention for today’s blog post (my 50th post already!).  They were featured on one of my favorite websites, A Might Girl, and made national news and several ‘recommended gear’ lists with their extraordinary device.  LuminAID was developed to assist rescuers and victims in the wake of disasters and has since found even more good uses.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the most elegant and useful.  That’s particularly true of the LuminAID.  One of the biggest challenges in a disaster zone is being able to see in the dark – rescuers need light to find those who need help, and people without electricity despair in the dark.  Batteries are expensive, and hand-crank lights are cumbersome.  The LuminAID is one of those wonderful inventions that make us go, “Now why didn’t I think of that?!” when some brilliant soul solves a difficult problem with a solution that is realistic, effective and – rarest of all – affordable.

Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta were assigned a class project while in grad school to develop something that would help in a disaster zone, shortly after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  They carefully listened to what aid workers said were some of the most pressing and overlooked needs, and decided to develop a reliable, portable, lightweight light source to fulfill a critical need.  The result was the LuminAID:

Just a couple smart, driven people really can make a huge difference in the world.  Through their Give Light, Get Light initiative, thousands of these lights have been sent to areas and individuals in need all over the planet.  Imagine what else a young person in your life could accomplish in the future with a little STEM education under her belt…

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Filed under Inventors and Inventions, Role Models

So what exactly are the numbers for women in STEM?

I’ve always known that women were outnumbered in STEM fields in this country, but hadn’t really checked on what the stats are.  I know that in my particular job, which is a very tiny sub-field, we’re at about 9% and, thankfully, climbing (it was 7% just a few years ago).  So I found this info from the National Girls Collaborative Project very interesting.  It’s from June 2013 but probably pretty close to today’s numbers.

A couple other interesting stats, first from an ESA blog post from 2011 title STEM: where are the women?

Stats from the Economics & Statistics Administration from 2009

And this more recent one showing breakdown by generation, Economic Briefing April 24, 2012: STEM Across the “Gen(d)erations.”  The overall percentage of college graduates and of women in STEM fields is increasing.

ESA stats from 2010

The ESA stats go on to show that the bulk of women in STEM fields are in life sciences and physical sciences, and the tiniest portion in math.

The one that makes me really angry is the one showing the wage gap for women in STEM fields.  Even in specialized fields requiring degrees, and fields supposedly governed by things like logic and performance, this gap is maddeningly huge:

And finally there’s this graphic, which shows the fields where we have not made much progress in the last several decades, and in many cases have regressed, such as in computer sciences.

What do you think is holding women back from entering and competing in so many of these fields?  Why do so many more women go into life sciences fields (biology, medicine, etc.) than the computer sciences and engineering?

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