Story Time From Space: Astronauts Read Science-Based Kid’s Books!

In 2010, astronomer and author Jeffrey Bennett answered a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The voice on the other end told him that astronaut Alvin Drew wanted to read one of Bennett’s books from space — Drew needed a pdf.

“It took some convincing to make me believe it wasn’t a prank,” Bennett said last week when we met for coffee in Boulder, CO.

On the other end of the phone that day was Patricia Tribe. She’d been Director of Education at Space Center Houston and was working to design science curriculum that would appeal to school districts that had their noses to the grindstone of literacy. Bennett’s books hit two birds with one stone: the engaging stories of Bennett’s Rottweiler, Max, can be read as animal adventures in space or appreciated for the very real science content that frames Max’s adventures.

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Under the Seat (To the Tune “Under the Sea”)

Image of shucked Sebastian courtesy of Nat Tarbox via Flickr cc license

Image of shucked Sebastian courtesy of Nat Tarbox via Flickr cc license

Dads, listen to me. The driver’s seat, it’s a mess. But life under the seat is more terrifying than anything we’ve got up here.

[Cue marimba]

The mucor is always greenest, just after a three-week wait

You dream about pristine floor mats, but that is a big mistake

Just look at the world beneath you, right there in your kids’ back seat

Such wonderful things surround them. What’s this, oh it’s mystery meat!

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Calculating the MPG of an EV


Blatant hero shot

The other day I was piloting the after-activity transport shuttle and my 8-year-old, Leif, really, really had to pee. There wasn’t an easy pull-off and so I tried to explain that the irony of a boy named Leif peeing in the back seat of a car named Leaf would make the act of urinating in the back seat like crossing the streams in the movie Ghostbusters, which he has thus far been too frightened to watch and so maybe wasn’t the most effective analogy.

So I told him that if he pees in the backseat of an electric car, he will electrocute himself. We’ve been building with electricity lately, including 9v batteries that we lick to determine charge, and so he immediately understood the consequences. It worked. We made it home no problem. I even blocked the welcome-home attack of the labradors so the boy could make a beeline for the loo, but by that point he’d already peed in the yard so I guess the problem was solved.

The thing is, it was a bluff: I’m much too cheap and much too neurotic about my car’s battery life to waste electricity deep frying my son. I mean, how many joules would it take to electrocute a 54-pound 8-year-old? How many percentage points would this cost the battery of my beloved EV? How many of those damn Nissan Leaf animated dashboard trees would I forgo building? How much cost would be added to the monthly electric bill?

These are the difficult calculations we make as parents.

But the line of reasoning got me thinking about a more mundane but potentially even more useful question: how far would the money that I spend on electricity get me if I were spending the same amount on gas? Or, reframed, if I were paying for gas instead of electricity, how much would I be paying per gallon?

Here’s what I mean:

1. Our electric utility provider, Xcel Energy, charges at most $0.09 per kWh (tier II summer rate).

2. It takes about 24 kWh to charge the Leaf from 0 to 100 percent, meaning $2.16 for a full charge.

3. On this charge, with my driving habits and without spending electricity on little extras like air conditioning and corporal punishment, I get about 94 miles, meaning I pay about $0.022/mile for energy. (Just energy: influence of purchase price, repairs and depreciation not included in this post.)

4. Now compare this to our Subaru Forester, which, the way we drive, gets exactly 28.4 mpg.

5. This week we’re paying $3.39 for a gallon of gas at the King Soopers in Louisville, Colorado, meaning that it costs us $0.12/mile to power the Subaru.

6. Now we have a common unit between gas-powered and EV cars, namely the energy cost per mile! This is very exciting. And it means that my EV gets the cost equivalent of 155 miles per gallon (0.12/0.022*28.4). It also means that paying to charge my EV is the equivalent of paying $0.62 per gallon of gas. If you do the calculation with off-peak electricity rates or compare it to a car with lower gas mileage or a state with higher gas prices, the headline looks even rosier, pushing toward 300mpg and $0.30/gallon in equivalent energy costs.

Now, I like to think that I’m moderately concerned about the environment. And I like to think that I’m willing to gamble on an EV to provide a market that pushes the technology forward. But really I am a skinflint. I tailgate moving vans in the right lane of the highway to decrease wind resistance. I imagine the sound of a penny dropping into a piggy bank as my battery’s charge ticks upward a percentage point while coasting downhill. Sometimes I stop by the Nissan dealer to poach their monstrously fast charging station. And knowing my EV’s mpg makes it seem as if I can justify stopping for Thai food on the way home. Just, you know, as long as a child doesn’t have to pee.


If you want to share your stories of EV-related neuroticism, just generally want to engage with the EV community, or want a chance to win $250 that you can further lower your energy cost per gallon (or buy Thai food), check out the EV Selfie Contest run by The Electric Generation. Snap a selfie with your EV and post it to FB or Twitter, tagged #EVSelfie. That’s it. You’re entered. Sit back and watch the EV benefits accrue.

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Zombies, Douchebags & Cutting-Edge Content Marketing: Q&A With Estately’s Ryan Nickum

Zombie.mapMaybe you’ve seen this viral map of the states most and least prepared for the zombie apocalypse. Or maybe you’ve run across postings and repostings of this map detailing the best states for douchebags based on the percentage of males listing Facebook interests like Nicklelback, Monster Energy and Bluetooth. These maps and more including overlays of kale preference, Crossfit, and livability for hippies are the brain child of one man, Ryan Nickum, blogging for the real estate site Estately.

Data? Zombies? Nickelback d-bags? We like. And so I called up Ryan Nickum, who happens to be an old high school friend of mine, to chat about how on earth a legit real estate site that competes with Zillow and Trulia could possibly let him write, most recently, a post detailing states’ most Googled terms that include “Unicorn tattoo” (WA), “Canadian men” (MA), and “Do I have herpes?” (TX).

Me: Seriously, the geography of Justin Bieber fever?

Ryan Nickum: In high school, Mr. Miller gave me a D and tried to get me kicked out of geography senior year. Now I kind of like being known for the map thing. I tried to declare myself the Nate Silver of mapland on Twitter, but I don’t see it sticking.

Me: So you turned to real estate.

Nickum: Estately contacted me about doing some stuff for them and I said I don’t have any understanding of real estate, I don’t like real estate, I don’t have enough money to own real estate, but if you want humor — want me to write something quirky, then that’s cool, that’s my thing. There are enough out of work real estate agents writing about real estate already.

Me: So the real estate site hired you to write about not real estate?

Nickum: You look at Trulia and Zillow and they’ve got a team of writers and big money behind them. But they can’t really take a risk on a post like top cities for douchebags. I write a post and it flops or gets flamed or it’s got a typo, that’s no big deal. But if Zillow does the same thing, it’s like they can take down the whole brand. You can’t do this stuff halfway — you can’t write a toned-down version of a map of state anagrams like Ho Aid (Idaho), and Cows In Sin (Wisconsin). We’ll have a successful article and then one of our competitors will turn around and post a toned-down version of the same thing and then expect the same results. If you try to tone it down, it fails.

Me: I see the traffic. I mean, you’re making awesome, sharable infographics. But do memes make sales?

Nickum: Maybe once we have the exposure we’ll try to bring it back to real estate a bit more and monetize it. But it’s amazing after the zombies article how often somebody tweets the link with, like, “You know, the reason we should move to Utah, is zombie preparedness!” Obviously it’s kind of silly – but maybe 5 percent of our readers are looking to buy a house somewhere. Those 5 percent are at Estately because we’ve got the zombies, but then they go look around, look at homes.

Me: Why maps?

Nickum: I started out doing quirky lists. You can get shares and get passed around that way, but the Wall Street Journal‘s not gonna write about it without some data. If you’re going to tell people in Montana their state is #6 best for hippies, you gotta have some numbers to back it up.

Me: I’ve gotta ask, how do you get your data?

Nickum: It’s a secret. Okay, maybe it’s not that big of a secret. On Facebook, you go to promote a post or write and ad and then you narrow who you want to expose your post to by geography or interest — based on people’s likes and where they live. So you see there are 24 million Facbook users in Alabama and narrow by zombies and you get the percentage. I’ve had people point out that not everybody’s on Facebook, but not everybody picks up the phone when you call to poll them either. It’s measurable — not highly scientific, but it’s a way to measure things. It’s the same kind of thing with Google Trends.

Me: Is it tempting to manipulate the stats?

Nickum: You make one of these maps and you know California or New York isn’t going to pay any attention unless they’re #1, but, like, if Rhode Island is in the top 10 they’re going to talk about it… still, I have my journalistic integrity.

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Brilliant, Funny, Deeply Moving: Return to Zero Premieres Saturday, May 17 on Lifetime (8/7c)

RETURN TO ZERO – Official Trailer from Sean Hanish on Vimeo.

In 2005, filmmaker Sean Hanish and his wife Kiley lost their son, Norbert, at 37 weeks into Kiley’s pregnancy. On Saturday, May 17 the movie Return To Zero starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein tells their story of stillbirth and recovery (Lifetime 8/7c). The thing is, as awful as the topic certainly is, the movie is wonderfully written, beautifully filmed, and astoundingly acted (if Minnie doesn’t get an Emmy nod for her role, I don’t know what does). It’s even, dare I say, funny as hell in parts.

Outside what you’ll see on the screen, the story of the film itself is a fascinating case study in passion filmmaking and an example of how indie movies get made in the age of new and social media. See, at the time Sean and Kiley lost their son, Sean was making ads for Cindy Crawford’s furniture line. He’d written and directed a couple well-received shorts and a critically acclaimed play, but was effectively at cruising altitude and climbing with a lucrative ad career, a beautiful wife, and his soon-to-be son.

Things were good. Very good. And just like that, they weren’t.

Eventually Sean wrote his way out of an emotional gutter that I won’t spoil by describing in depth – but you can see Sean’s personal transformation in the raw, heartfelt specifics of the film. Take note: you can’t invent the scene in which Minnie Driver’s character tries to return a baby shower gift to a snooty department store salesperson. Hanish didn’t try. Sean just wrote the truth.

“The medical scenes, when my wife was told by the doctor that our baby had no heartbeat, being asked if we wanted a cremation or burial for our son when he was still in the womb, the actual stillbirth itself – those scenes are 100% accurate often down to the dialog,” Hanish says. Other parts, he says, are adapted from real life, adding characters or combining two people into one, but always against the backdrop of Kiley and his experience in the aftermath of their loss.

The quality of the screenplay alone landed him A-list stars Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, and also Hollywood veteran Alfred Molina (“Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip!”). But today a cast plus a screenplay doesn’t necessarily equal funding. For that, Sean first turned out his pockets. Then he turned to Kickstarter. GeekDad covered his campaign that ended in February 2013 with 451 backers pledging a total of $71,200 – enough to cross the finish line of music and editing.

But then even a great film doesn’t necessarily equal a wide release, especially when the topic is a bit more subdued than, say, the next Transformers movie. So Sean built an empire. See, nobody has ever told the story of stillbirth on screen, but in the U.S. alone there are more than 26,000 stillbirths every year. When you include babies who don’t make it 28 days, the number climbs to 45,000, or nearly 1-in-6 pregnancies.

These families tend to suffer quietly. Sean and Kiley decided to break the silence.

Through social media, they recruited over 2,500 local leaders from over 50 countries to organize screenings and discussion groups. 130,000 people pledged to watch the film. Finally, the numbers made Lifetime take notice and when the telepic premiers this Saturday, it will be the first at the network to get a simultaneous international rollout, including showings in Canada, the U.K., Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong among others.

Sean and Kiley now find themselves with not only a movie but a movement. For example, after posting followers’ stories of stillbirth at the Return to Zero website, the publisher She Writes Press helped Sean collect these personal voices into an anthology titled Three Minus One. And Sean now speaks to audiences around the country about his experience of stillbirth and the emotional aftermath. Consider connecting with Sean and Kiley at the vibrant community they manage on Facebook.

But most of all watch the film. What did you do last Saturday night? I bet you can’t remember. Next week you most definitely will.

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A Fundamental Question About Kids, Survival and the Zombie Apocalypse


Image: Flickr/David Williss cc license

I was at a party this weekend, a phrase that used to mean one thing and now means something else entirely. While my 7-year-old boy stared blissfully into the light breeze having his face painted by a classmate and his 5-year-old sister tried to catch his terrified friends and kill them with a badminton racket, I found myself chatting with a circle of dads. Of course, the topic turned to the zombie apocalypse.

The question was this: When the apocalypse comes, would you want you and your children to survive, only your children to survive, only you to survive, or everyone to go as quickly as possible in the first wave?

Greg was sure a quick death for all was the best possible end. He should know: his popular self-published book on how to retrofit a Sprinter van as an RV puts him in contact with a population of steampunk tinkerers who have looked the awful possibility of the apocalypse in the eye.

Scott recommended all or nothing – you and the kids both live or both die – citing the idea that if the kids survive, you’d want to be around to take care of them. But then again, Scott tends sponges for a living. Okay, he’s a Berkeley-trained PhD cellular biologist, but can you really trust the reasoning of a man who grows sponges?

Chris is a toymaker. He gave my offspring blowguns for their two-years-but-one-day-apart birthdays. He said that he would choose to live after the apocalypse but wished a quick end for his kids. His reasoning is that the post-apocalypse world would suck, but that as an adult he was equipped to handle it emotionally and physically in a way that would destroy the souls of children. Then again, he gave my kids blowguns, for frick’s sake. And now my dogs are nervous.

My knee-jerk answer was for the kids to survive but for me to sacrifice my own tragically limited grey matter by taking a dive off the highest, nearest cliff to Boulder, CO as soon as the zombie horde passed critical mass. It was knee-jerk because: can you imagine wishing for the death of your kids in any circumstance? But on second thought, maybe leaving them the responsibility of continuing the human race amid certain awfulness is selfish?

I imagine there are existential, metaphysical, technical, and moral implications beyond my grasp. Can we please come to a reasoned conclusion on this important issue?

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The Science of Why I Largely Disregard Parenting Science

Who could possibly throw pine cones at these sweet children?

Who could possibly throw pine cones at these sweet children?

I was at the park the other day throwing pinecones at my kids when a horrified mother asked, “How can you hit your kids with pinecones!” I said it was pretty easy: you just don’t lead them as much. First, this is important because my brain is almost completely incapable of accessing the proper pop-culture comeback (in this case, Full Metal Jacket) until the middle of the night after it was needed. Second, it’s not entirely true: my 5-year-old still tends to take a vector, but my 7-year-old has learned to zig and zag in a way that makes him really hard to hit. (Note: for proper aerodynamics it’s essential to use pinecones in which the seed scales remain closed. You’ll thank me later.)

Of course, I imagine there may be studies in the fields of education or child development that recommend against pelting your offspring with small, swiftly-thrown projectiles. But gosh is it fun! And I just ran across this One Study to Rule Them All, which implies that as long as you love your kids and they love you, it takes a real, concerted effort to mess them up too badly.

The study, by the Sutton Trust, is about attachment. Now attachment is a hot topic, fraught with intrigue and argument in circles that care to intrigue and argue about this kind of thing. But basically, secure attachment describes a situation in which, “a child can safely express negative emotion, and seek proximity to the caregiver, and can expect to feel better,” the authors write.

On the flip side are two major styles of insecure attachment: avoidant in which distressed kids learn to avoid the parent, and disorganized in which the child tries desperately to break through a parent’s wall of indifference or anger with “big” and sometimes irrational emotions.

A host of studies show the benefits of secure attachment, ranging from higher cognitive and social skills, to higher incomes and lower rates of divorce and mental illness. Apparently, the benefits of secure attachment remain even across tiger parents and helicopter parents and free-play parents and parents who over-praise or under-wash or happen to have a particular fondness for watching children run in glorious mock horror as they try to make it to safe zone before being pummeled by coniferous reproductive structures.

Here’s the kicker: the study finds that a full 40 percent of children are insecurely attached. Twenty-five percent of kids avoid their parents when the kids are upset. And 15 percent “learn to resist the parent, because the parent often amplifies their distress or responds unpredictably,” they write.

Sadly, attachment tends to be a generational, trickle-down thing – the largest risk factor for having a child with insecure attachment is a parent’s own attachment. Were you or are you still in this 40 percent? If so, it’s going to take some conscious creation of a new way of relating in order to break the cycle.

Now, I don’t know nearly enough to draw the line between what is responsiveness and what is over-indulgence. But what I do know is this: after we get back from the park, my kids are going to want to snuggle in bed and look at pictures of macaroni penguins on the iPad.

I figure: love the hell out of your kids and let the rest sort itself out.


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What Calvin’s Dad Knows About Explaining Science to Kids

Calvin.HobbesGary Larson tapped into the universal absurd. Charles Schulz helped us identify with the underdog in us all. And Bill Watterson accurately represented a father’s profound and boundless knowledge of the universe, as in Calvin’s dad’s explanation that ice floats because, “It’s cold. Ice wants to get warm, so it goes to the top of liquids in order to be nearer the sun.” Or his explanation of relativity: “It’s because you keep changing time zones. See, if you fly to California you gain three hours on a five-hour flight, right?”

Again, and in the words of another cartoon sage, “It’s funny because it’s true.” How true? Well, THIS shows that preschool-aged children blindly accept adults’ explanations of things without considering how the claims match real-world evidence. So Calvin’s dad is scientifically copacetic: as we see in the comic, six-year-old Calvin is just starting to tentatively doubt his dad’s explanations that, for example, a bridge’s weight limit is determined by, “Driving bigger and bigger trucks over the bridge until it breaks. Then they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.

So will kids younger than Calvins believe anything we tell them? When we wag our parental mouthparts in a preschooler’s general direction, does the content matter? A study on early view at the journal Child Development says yes, and the implications for how kids use parents as guides through the purgatory of questionable information goes far beyond cartoons.

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New Kind of Reward Leads to Intrinsic Motivation (Or “How to Trick a Child Into Playing the Violin”)

Here he is with a guinea pig in a front carrier. Sheesh.

Yes, it’s a guinea pig in a front carrier.

I would like for my son, Leif, to play the violin. I’m a serious ex music geek and so in addition to pegging me as an abhorrent tiger parent intent on thrusting my offspring into the one-percent where they can be hedge fund managers and own things like furniture coasters, I also happen to think that music is an enriching skill that adds depth to a life well lived.

That’s beside the point.

The real point is this: in this age of Candy Crush and YouTube fail compilations, how can I encourage my 7yo to stick with his violin teacher’s insistence on months spent perfecting the perfect hand and bow position? I know one thing: the second I add my own insistence to the teacher’s the jig is up. Leif has to want to play or he simply won’t. My second instinct is to incentivize practice with Candy Crush and (be still his pop-culture-deprived little beating heart!) maybe even a pre-screened YouTube fail compilation that happens to be without swearing skateboarders and bikini-clad college girls falling off rope swings.

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Personality and Brain Structure Work Together to Grow Creativity

PhrenologyWhat does creative thought look like in the brain? With the willing brains of creative people and tools like fMRI that can look inside these brains in real-time, you’d think it would an easy question to answer. The problem is, creative people don’t always think creatively – when you stick a creative person in an fMRI tube and prod them to have creative thoughts, the result is a little like throwing electric spaghetti into the air: it’s all over the place and nearly impossible to discover which strands in which areas of the brain are responsible for the “novel, useful thought” we commonly call creativity. This has led to overall non-finding, findings like, “the anatomical correlates of creativity is not limited to one lobe of the brain, nor to one hemisphere, nor to the ‘more is better’ notion.”

Gosh, all that study of all those brains and the headline is that science knows that creative thought might be anywhere!

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