What’s on your “To Do” List?

This was my four-year-old’s “To Do” list. I think she gets it.

Unfortunately, investing in her life coaching sessions is not cheap*.

*Insert college tuition joke here.

In Partial Defense of the Prequels

The Star Wars prequels (Episodes I-III1) are not good films2. The debate is about which one is the worst film (the correct answer is Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones despite the Yoda lightsaber scene3). The prequels are, however, very useful in the overarching mythological narrative of the Star Wars universe4. I have come to think of them as integral to the story, but, like a terrible production of Hamlet, almost unwatchable (unlike the new Star Wars VII trailer).

Following the digital release of the first six Star Wars films, my kids have been preparing for the release of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens by watching the prequels. In the minds of my kids, Anakin Skywalker’s character is second in importance only to Ahsoka Tano. This makes Anakin’s transition from hero to villain – from good to evil – extremely dramatic to them.

It also means that Daddy has had been required to repeatedly explain the narrative arc of Darth Vader. A complete explanation of Vader’s narrative arc requires the prequels to be understood, which is why I am cautiously glad the prequels exist. What follows is the explanation of Anakin/Vader that I give my kids (WARNING: May contain pop-psychology). Continue reading “In Partial Defense of the Prequels”

Mammoth ain’t Mopey

I am very pleased to announce that the Mammoth is Mopey project of Jennie & David Orr passed its $104 funding goal on IndieGoGo last night. Personally, this means my kids will be getting a copy of this beautiful and inspiring book, one of our local libraries will be getting a copy of this beautiful and inspiring book, and that I will also be able to show my love for ankylosaurs on my messenger bag with a cool “Paleontology Fancier*” button.

Mammoth is Mopey by Jennie & David Orr (All Rights Reserved; Adapted with Permission)

It also means that you have one week left to pledge your support in the confidence that any pledge is actually a pre-order. You can get a print copy for only $15. My fellow parents know that $15 is actually a pretty good deal for an illustrated book that about which you are enthusiastic – and, if you are not enthusiastic about reading, art, and prehistoric animals, I really don’t know what you are doing here.

You can still take the “Which Mammoth is Mopey Character are You” quiz too. I got the artistic ankylosaur, which I think confirms the accuracy of the quiz beyond any shadow of doubt.

Ankylosaur is Artistic by Jennie & David Orr (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission)

*More like fanciest – am I right?

Be still my beating heart

Image courtesy of The Curated Tee

My four-year-old has a dresser drawer full of cute t-shirts with Valentine’s style hearts on them. What she needed was a shirt with an anatomically accurate drawing of a human heart on it. Thanks to artist Derrick Nau’s “Heartbeat Tee” and the folks at The Curated Tee*, she now has one. Actually, she has that one. Exactly that one – the one on the left.

The Curated Tee was founded by Vanessa (co-host of the Pop My Culture Podcast) and Mandy . They unnamedcollaborate with artists to produce one t-shirt per month (available by subscription or individually the following month).

To be honest, they won me and my money* over with the “Heartbeat Tee”. It is not just the beauty of Derrick Nau’s illustration, which is considerable. The mature choice to recognize this piece of science art as both aesthetic, educational, and appropriate for young children makes me willing to trust The Curated Tee as curators:

His image is intricate and beautiful and encourages children to stop and think about what’s inside their bodies and what makes them tick.

So often our science-inspired art exists in its own niche. The merchandise can become kitschy and primarily signal our membership in the tribe of nerds/geeks/etc. Here, Derrick Nau’s anatomical heart illustration stands next to a lovely image of friends riding bikes – freeing us to appreciate both its beauty and the information it contains. Science is treated as a normal part of a complete life.

The Curated Tee is also collaborative with artists, placing the artists front and center. That includes giving them a percentage of sales (no, not everyone does) and not requiring submission of t-shirt ideas (link to PDF) in order to start a collaboration. No one loses by eagerly acknowledging the creative contributions of all involved in putting that shirt on your kid. It is also a great way to be introduced to a new artist and their inspirations.

While I’m not thrilled to bits that The Curated Tee uses American Apparel as a supplier of the base shirts, I am sympathetic to the decision on business grounds.

My primary disappointment is that the shirts currently only go up to size 4T, which is why my family only has a three month subscription (and why I don’t have an anatomical heart t-shirt for myself). I have been assured by Vanessa and Mandy that they intend to expand the shirt sizes offered after they get through this “start-up” period.

There is more, beyond the science art shirt and artistic collaboration, that I like about The Curated Tee. First, it does what it says on the tin. The shirts are very soft and comfortable. The shirt printing looks just as good as the one on the website. The image above might as well be a picture of the shirt I pulled out of the bag. My daughter was fascinated and curious about the image. Second, the shirts are gender neutral. I’m tired of having to go shopping in the “boys” section to get me daughter the cool dinosaur shirt she needs.

If you are going to call yourself The Curated Tee, you better go a good job of curation. Based on these initial offerings, they are living up to their name.

*Yup, not an advertisement. I paid for my subscription out of my own pocket.

What I Don’t Know About Flyingfish

Steve N. G. Howell’s The Amazing World of Flyingfish plays with the concept that eveyone “knows” about flyingfish as a way to highlight the huge gaps in our knowledge about these iconic fish. Those areas of ignorance can have dramatic and direct impacts on conservation and sustainable fishing issues.

At its heart, The Amazing World of Flyingfish is a book of pictures – beautiful and hard-won pictures (photographing flyingfish in flight is apparently, but not surprisingly, challenging). The images are not just aesthetically pleasing. They serve Howell’s major theme, contrasting the known with the unknown.

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)
Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

On one hand, flyingfish are common and well-known. On the other hand, we do not necessarily know that much about their life history, development, or how many species their really are. Howell uses this contrast between the known and unknown to discuss different aproaches to research. The benefits of briefly viewing live animals behaving in their natural environment are compared to detailed laboratory analyses of preserved specimens in a way that shows the value of both approaches. The problems posed by limited knowledge of species identity for conservation and sustainable fishing are discussed with a thoughtful approach to the value of common usage versus scientific naming.

And, if those issues do not interest you, the book is filled with over 90 gorgeous photos of flyingfish in action, revealing aspects of these animals that were entirely new to me.

The dynamic of known versus unknown played out when my six-year-old joined me in looking over this book. The beauty of the images and the name “flyingfish” immediately captured our attention. Then we got curious.

As I am not an expert in flyingfish, fish, nor any set of multicellular organisms, that meant we were rapidly going to bump into the familiar territory of “things to which Daddy does not know the answer”.  This is fun territory, because we get to go on the journey from “not knowing” to “knowing” together.

We asked the question, “Do they really fly?” We learned that you cannot answer such questions with a simple “yes/no”. We first had to decide what we meant by “fly”. We were learning about the process of asking and answering questions.

When Howell discusses the difficulty of pairing juvenille specimens with adults in terms of species identity, we talked about physiological changes in appearance during development and the expectation that her own body would change as she grew.

One image, however, did not draw us in. The altered image of a human-sized, trophy-style flyingfish confused and distracted. Instead of discussing the fascinating biology of flyingfish, I had to explain that the huge fish was not real, the ethics (or lack thereof) of trophy fishing, and Photoshop. The worst effect was that it planted a seed of doubt about the veracity of the book’s other photos in my child’s mind.

Nothing, for us, could compate to the realization that some flyingfish have butterfly-like patterns on their transluscent wings/fins*. Howell connects this delightful discovery to the larger problem of species identification, which is vital to conservation efforts. Apparently, the patterns do not survive the preservation of specimens, leading to a divergence in what one sees in the wild and what is analyzed in the laboratory. For Howell, the species identification problem cascades into many unknowns regarding flyingfish life history, population sizes, distribution, and seasonal variation.

For us, the conversation started by those beautiful wing patterns touched on the importance of different people with different interests and experiences communicating with each other. We even talked about what we can do to build knowledge when no one know the information we need. In other words, we can draw a direct, curiosity driven line between that image of yellow and black spotted flyingfish wings/fins* that you can see above and reinforcement of the scientific method. Not bad for a book with only 45-pages in it.

*I was informed by my precocious offspring that I am not allowed to call them “fings”.

DISCLOSURE: Josh Witten was provided with a review copy of The Amazing World of Flyingfish by Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press had no input or influence over the decision to review this book or the content of this review.

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