Archive for Cool Stuff

June 2, 2009

Book I Edited Won an Award

How very cool! I spent most of last summer editing a book, Campus Calm University, by Maria Pascucci, who self-published it in the fall. About a week ago, Maria learned that the book won a Gold Gold Medal in 13th Annual Independent Publisher Book Awards!

If you have a child in college or know someone who has a child in college, I highly recommend Maria’s book. Not only is it superbly edited (heh, heh), but the subject is one near and dear to my heart. Maria wrote the book (and started her company, Campus Calm) to help students relax and live emotionally healthier lives while in college so that they set themselves on a lifelong path of fulfillment and success (which each person defines for herself). The book includes chapters on learning again how to love learning, being creative, focusing inward, thinking big, and just plain having fun. Pascucci doesn’t advocate being irresponsible and/or partying for four years; she advocates embracing the college experience by slowing down enough to figure out what you really love to learn and to do and then pursuing those things.

As you might imagine, the book’s stop-and-smell-the-roses theme resonated with me. Many of the things Maria writes about, from anxiety-ridden, over-scheduled students, to kids who take courses only to check off graduation requirements, to students who care only about their GPA and not what they’re learning, reflect perfectly what Mr. Enigma and I hope our children can avoid by being homeschoolers. They have the time to follow their interests and the environment in which to truly know themselves. We don’t ever want to hear them ask, literally or figuratively, “Will this be on the test?”

Seriously, I know I’m biased, but Campus Calm University is a great book and a great read for anyone — even us old folks out in the so-called real world — who has found him- or herself caught in the rat race and who feels stressed out and stuck. If you need some calm, on campus or off, check out Campus Calm University.

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May 2, 2008

Free Comic Book Day 2008

Tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day! If you loves you some comic books, stop by your local comic book store and see if they’re participating. Or better yet, search for participating stores in your area before venturing out.

Just by showing up at a participating store, you’ll get at least one free comic book. Some stores give out two or three. It’s up to each store to decide. We learned about this event last year and found out that yes, stores really do give away comic books on this one day per year. You’ll probably have to choose from a limited selection and you won’t be able leave with arms full of free stuff, but that’s how it should be. If one free comic book isn’t enough for you, then you’re really kind of greedy, aren’t you?

Comic books are having something of a renaissance in America right now. In fact, they — along with their more lengthy and haughtily named cousin, the graphic novel — are downright acceptable in schools these days, to the point that some are being written and published for the school and library markets. Unfortunately, once they’re deemed “educational,” they get saddled with vocabulary lists and glossaries and comprehension questions in the back of the book. Talk about a buzz kill.

So skip the library this time and support your local businesses. Go get yourself a non-school-market, free comic book, buy one or two more at the regular price, and corrupt your children’s minds and morals the old fashioned way.

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February 18, 2008 Free Programming Tool for Kids

My family spent Saturday afternoon at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Family Day in Boston, where we saw all kinds of great stuff. I’ll post more about the expo a little later, but I want to tell you first about one particularly outstanding product we learned about while there: a free programming interface for kids called Alice.

I’m excited about this program because my 9-year-old has said she wants to learn how to make her own computer games, and we’ve been looking for a child-friendly application to help her learn how to do that. We couldn’t find anything that looked like a 9-year-old programming novice would be able to learn quickly and easily. Half the battle with helping young kids maintain their excitement is to enable them to complete a project in a short period of time (like two hours on the first try). Everything we looked at either had a huge learning curve or would have probably been too difficult for our daughter right now.

And then, Saturday, we just stumbled upon Alice by accident.

Carnegie Mellon developed Alice, a drag-and-drop programming interface that allows you to create 3D worlds in a Java-like language. Sometime this year, a new version (3.0) of Alice will be released which will enable actual Java programming, not Java-like programming.

In the meantime, two versions are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, standard Alice, designed for high school and college-aged “kids” and Storytelling Alice, for middle school-aged kids. I think even some younger kids will be able to use Storytelling Alice, given that my 7-year-old son sat on my lap this morning and explained to me how he thought it worked. After watching me for a few minutes, he definitely understood the basic idea behind how to build a world and make the characters in it do what we wanted them to do.

Both versions of Alice come with a library of scenes and characters; each character has a handful (or more) of ready-to-use methods (actions), so that if you want your character to walk, run, talk, turn, smile, cry, think, etc., you can just drag that method from a list and drop it into your program. You can also create new methods.

I took the 30-minute tutorial for Storytelling Alice and then spent another 30 minutes playing with the software. In that hour, I learned how to create a new world, add characters to it, and program those characters to do what I wanted them to do. I also learned some programming terminology, like what a method is. I finished a brief movie in about 30 minutes. Not too shabby!

The website also offers free instructional materials, a user forum, additional characters and scenes, and other helpful information. When I have time to play with the tool more, I’ll learn how to do programming loops, “while” statements, and other standard programming thingies (pardon my technical language) that will allow my characters to interact more naturally. Eventually, I suppose I’ll let my daughter have a turn. It was her idea to learn how to program, wasn’t it?

And did I mention that Alice is free?

My only disappointment thus far is with the publishing capability. The “publish as movie” function doesn’t work yet (at least not in Storytelling Alice). And if you publish as an HTML page, anyone who wants to view the page has to have Java, Java 3D, and Java Media Console installed on his/her computer.

Otherwise, Alice rocks. Check it out at

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