The Stephanies & First Book

I Support First BookTomorrow is your last chance to grab a copy of The Stephanies and support First Book. We’re sharing half our profits from the month of November with First Book, and with tomorrow being the last day of the month, it’s your last chance.

First Book is an organization that gives kids in need access to books. What’s so great about books? Aside from being awesome, literacy is the best predictor of a child’s future success. If they can read, they’re more likely to do better in life. The biggest barrier to literacy is not having access to books. It’s kind of a simple—if a kid can’t get easy access to a book, they’re not going to learn how to read.

So First Book is about giving kids that first book, giving them access to books so they can learn how to read so they can do better in life. It’s simple, but it’s awesome.

For $10 they can donate four new books, so hopefully we’ll be able to give a few books. It’s kind of cool to not only write a book, but to help others learn how to read books.

The idea of not having books is kind of unfathomable to me. We have literally thousands of books in our house. The kids both have at least a hundred books in their rooms. We like books. I hope in some small way we can pass on that love.

So if you haven’t done it yet, grab a copy of The Stephanies. We’ve got the original paperback, a “Color-Your-Own” version, and digital versions for the Kindle, iBook & Nook, and the standard PDF version. We’ll donate 50% of the profits to First Book.


Make Your Own Antenna

Antenna built from cardboard and tin foil
I built my own antenna!

This week we upgraded to the flat panel, digital age and got a new TV with some Christmas money (yes, our family celebrates multiple Christmases between Thanksgiving and New Year; one down, at least two to go). We finally replaced the old school 21″ TV we got as a wedding present and got a fancy LED HD 720 something or other.

As fancy as the new TV was, it didn’t get actual TV.

This wasn’t really a problem. When we rearranged, the TV was on the opposite wall as the cable outlet and we never  cared. That’s how little we watch regular TV.

But with a fancy new TV it seemed like we should be able to watch regular TV (without draping a cable across the room). Apparently you need an antenna to get regular TV, even with a fancy new TV. As I started researching antennas online I stumbled across some instructions for a DIY antenna. The site claims it works as good as the fancy ones you can buy in the store, so I figured why not.

A cardboard and tinfoil antenna? That sounds cool.

And it totally works. I bought the required $1.78 part this morning and slapped it together this afternoon. And we’ve got regular TV! Not just regular TV, but HDTV with all kinds of weird extra channels. Cool. It comes in great. I’d wager just as good as anything we bought at the store.

Gotta love the juxtaposition of the high tech TV and a piece of cardboard junk. Sometimes spending more money isn’t always better. Now I just need to find a place to hide the cardboard antenna so it doesn’t look as ridiculous as a cable strung across the room.

My last cardboard project worked pretty good, too (until somebody threw up on it). For my next cardboard project, I’m thinking of tackling this.

Teaching Technology

I love coming across examples of awesome, geeky things that do good. Here are two perfect examples:

With an engineering degree from Stanford, Debbie Sterling was tired of the boys’ club in her field. 89% of engineers are men. Debbie realized a lot of it has to do with the toys we grow up with. Toys that teach spatial relationships, geometry and building are largely targeted to boys. When they do target girls, it’s usually just by making everything pink. Debbie did some research and discovered that while boys like to build and gravitate toward the Legos, girls like to read.

So she created a toy that combines reading and building to encourage girls to develop those engineering skills. She came up with GoldieBlox, an innovative toy where girls build while reading along with a story.

She invested her life-savings developing the project and brought it to Kickstarter to find some backers. She found more than 5,000 willing partners and raised more than $285,000. GoldieBlox is going into production with an expected delivery date of April 2013.

While the Kickstarter project is over, you can still pre-order GoldieBlox.

If you’re not convinced, see what 5-year-old Riley has to say about GolideBlox. You may remember Riley as the girl who went on a rant in the toy aisle about all the pink princesses for girls, racking up more than 4 million views.

DJ Focus
Kelvin Doe is a 15-year-old engineering whiz from Sierra Leone. The kid builds his own FM transmitters and power generators out of garbage. Electricity isn’t reliable in Sierra Leone, so Kelvin built his own battery. He broadcasts the news and music as DJ Focus and makes his own mixers with cardboard and spare parts.

Kelvin became the youngest person ever invited to MIT’s Visiting Practitioner’s Program, and had the chance to visit the U.S. and expand his skills. All sorts of opportunities are opening for him now, though this trip was the first time he’d ever been more than 10 miles from home.

Learn more about Kelvin or just watch the video:

How Kids Can Create Their Own Books

Working on the StephaniesThis summer my 6-year-old daughter, Lexi, and I wrote a book: The Stephanies. It was a much-needed summer project and this fall we raised money through Kickstarter to publish it and released it on November 6. A lot of kind folks have applauded this daddy-daughter project, but anyone could do it.

First of all, writing stories is awesome. Kids should have that opportunity to create stories and tell wacky, funny, unique tales. Every kid has these stories and turning them into a published book is just a process.

Old School Publishing
I did this myself as a first grader with my epic masterpiece known as Mike, The Cat. In 1986 we didn’t have print-on-demand publishing technology, so they just handed us a blank book and told us to get to work. That means there’s only one print copy of Mike, The Cat, but it still has a cherished place on my shelf.

That’s one way of making a book. Another way is to simply get crafty, print out your story and create a construction paper cover. In fourth grade I “published” another epic story, Fred and I the Spies, using one of those three-tab folders. You can also go up a notch and take it to a copy place for one of those spiral plastic jobs.

Print-on-Demand Publishing
But today we have new technology that makes it even easier and cheaper to print (and sell!) your book. It’s called print-on-demand publishing and it basically means that they don’t print your book until someone orders a copy. It’s more expensive per copy, but it saves you from having a basement full of books you can’t sell (as awesome as your book is, 79% of books don’t sell more than 100 copies).

We used CreateSpace for The Stephanies, a service of Amazon that I’ve used before. They have reasonable royalty rates, you don’t have to pay up front (this is big; you shouldn’t have to pay to publish your book—you should only pay for the copies you buy) and best of all the book goes on Amazon, which is really the only place you need to be.

The process was pretty easy: Lexi drew the pictures and I scanned them, doing some basic resizing and very minor photo-retouching in Photoshop. Then I did the layout in Microsoft Word and created the cover in Photoshop. I uploaded both files to CreateSpace and that’s about it. They have an online proofing option and you can also order a proof copy (highly recommended). Keeping the design simple helped. The more complicated you get, the more things can go wrong.

Digital Publishing
So far The Stephanies has sold more digital copies than print copies. Creating a digital version is even easier.  I used Pages to create an epub file, uploaded that along with a cover to Amazon’s digital publishing site and it’s available on the Kindle. Digital is a little more complicated than print since the text size and screen size can vary wildly depending on the device. Basically it means you lose a lot of control for how the final product looks and that can be hard with a picture book. But it seems to work well enough.

An Easier Way?
If that all sounds a little complicated, don’t worry. You can also check out Scribble Press. It’s a fun way to create and publish your own books online or using an iPad (though you can’t sell them—you can just share them and order print copies). They also have fun templates and fill-in-the-blank stories if you need help getting started.

Do you have a book you want to publish?

African Girls Create a Piss-Powered Generator

Most of us just flush it down the toilet, but a group of four girls in Africa turned urine into electricity. 14-year-olds Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and 15-year-old Bello Eniola created the project for the recent Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria.

So how’s it work? Basically they use a few different chemical processes to extract and purify the hydrogen from the urine and then use the hydrogen to fuel a standard generator.

One liter of urine equals six hours of power. QED.

Here are some more pics of the project from the Maker Faire Africa blog.

Other cool projects at the Maker Faire Africa? Yes please: How about hydraulic toys created by a 15-year-old?

Reaction to The Stephanies

Earlier this week we officially released The Stephanies, the book my 6-year-old daughter and I wrote together. We’ve been having fun spreading the word, adding new options (you can now download PDF & ePub files) and seeing the reaction the book is getting.

Here’s a sample:

  • “The kids and I were walking around saying, ‘My name is Stephanie! No MY name is Stephanie! Grrr….’ the rest of the afternoon. It’s a really cute book—made me LOL more than once.” -Victoria VanZile
    Victoria reads The Stephanies to her kids.
  • Ariah Fine says this photo was taken 10 minutes after the book arrived: “They loved it and are inspired to write their own.”
    Ariah reads The Stephanies to his kids.
  • Video review by 5-year-old Aryn:
  • “Imagine my delighted surprise to find myself laughing out loud with sheer joy. Out loud. Laughing. Really!” –Meredith Gould
  • “Telling other children that ‘this book was written by a girl just like you’ can be empowering.” –
  • “Great reading for a great cause.” –Christa Banister

How to Make the Most of Kickstarter

I did a Kickstarter campaign last month to publish a book my daughter and I wrote together (now available!). I think platforms like Kickstarter are awesome, but only if you know how to use them. There are a lot of amazing stories about creative projects being, well, kickstarted with huge piles of funding thanks to Kickstarter. But you don’t hear the stories of all the failed projects that didn’t quite get there.

I’ve done both, a failed project about Como Park and a successful campaign for The Stephanies. Here’s what I learned about Kickstarter:

What’s the Project?
You need to have a clear, simple description of the project you’re going to do. Give us details: Who are you, why are you the person to create this, why is it worth doing, why do you need Kickstarter, etc. I’m shocked at how many people just throw up an idea and expect money to pour in. Doesn’t work that way. Show me what you’re going to do and how you’re going to get there. You should put enough sweat into the project before Kickstarter that I can see it coming to life. I’m investing in an idea. I’m not investing in you coming up with an idea.

Keep your goal realistic. If you don’t hit your goal you get nothing. But you can always go over your goal. What’s the bare minimum you’d do this project for? That’s your goal. Don’t put in lots of extra cushion room. Keep that goal attainable. The goal for The Stephanies was $300 in 30 days. Easy. Also, keep that time frame short. 30 days should be the max. We hit our goal for The Stephanies in three days.

Rewards are huge, but easy to do wrong. Keep the rewards simple and don’t offer too many. Don’t make me choose rewards because one has the format I want and one doesn’t. Also, make sure they’re packed with value—these are your early supporters, willing to back you when no one else will. So treat them like insiders, not donors to milk. It kills me when I see Kickstarter projects I’d love to back but they’re asking $25 for an ebook. Seriously? I promised my backers they were getting the cheapest possible price. Be sure to offer something awesome for $1. My most popular reward was the digital copy for $1. It brought in the least amount of money but the most people (build your audience!). It builds a buzz and lowers the cost of entry. Also offer some cool high-end prizes. Well over half our income came from the $50 and up rewards. This is a way to reward your uber-fans with some cool stuff.

Your video is important. Everybody talks about this, but I think it’s over-rated. Do a good job with the video, make it professional and tell your story. But if that’s you sitting in front of the camera, don’t sweat it.

Kickstarter is awesome. If you do it right. Do you have a project needing a kickstart?

2012 Election Reflection

Obama family at 2012 election night acceptance speech

Presidential election night is such a nervous, glorious mishmash of emotions. I can think of no other event when something so big is decided so quickly. Sure, the election drags on forever, but despite the polls you never know for sure who’s going to win. Then everybody votes, we tally ’em up while some talking heads blather on, and it’s decided (usually: thank goodness for not repeating 2000). Done. The next four years are in place. History is written.

It’s big.

I have a hard time getting anything done on election day (that’s why I turned to a distraction). Even today I’ll need to process for a while (and I’m doing that here… get ready for a long post). Continue reading 2012 Election Reflection

The Stephanies is Available

The StephaniesAll the wild frenzy of the U.S. presidential election comes down to today. I’ve been blogging about it almost non-stop lately, but today it’s time to shut up and go vote. And then spend the rest of the day in a state of unnerved distraction, trying not to reload your favorite news site every 10 minutes (oh wait, is that just me?).

So today I’m launching an election distraction: The Stephanies is now available. You can go buy the print version, the digital version or the “color-your-own” version where you (or your kid) can be the illustrator.

The Story
The Stephanies is a short, goofy little story about two girls who are both named Stephanie. Sharing a name causes all kinds of problems and the two girls continually square off:

“My name is Stephanie!”

“No, my name is Stephanie!”

“Grr…” both girls grumbled.

It’s great fun. If you’re into children’s books, think more Robert Munsch than Margaret Wise Brown. This is the book my 6-year-old daughter and I wrote together and then published through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Good Cause
Proceeds from the original Kickstarter campaign went to Lexi’s college fund, but for the month of November we’re going to share. Half the profits from The Stephanies will go to First Book, an organization that gives kids in need access to books.

Watch Lexi Read
We also put together a fun video of Lexi reading The Stephanies:

Thanks & Please Review
I’d be remiss if I didn’t send out a big thank you to everyone who backed our Kickstarter campaign and made this project possible. Thank you!

I hope you’ll check out the book, give it a review on Amazon and tell your friends. Thanks!

Going Door-to-Door for Politicians: Interview with a Door Knocker

Janice Mekula Golding and Barack Obama

In the midst of the political season I find myself wavering between complete fascination with the political process and utter dread that it will never be over. Facebook usually only encourages the latter, but earlier this year I noticed something interesting. I recently found my long lost high school writing teacher, Janice Mekula Golding, on Facebook. When she wasn’t posting about glorious retirement in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, she was talking about going door-to-door and canvassing for the election.

A political door knocker? Yikes. I hate it when those people come to my door.

But then I started wondering: Why does she do it? Does it actually work? How many people actually listen and how many slam the door? Seemed like an opportunity to learn a bit about the world of volunteer political campaigning. I found it fascinating and encouraging. Maybe next time I’ll actually listen to the political campaigner who knocks on my door.

OK, let’s start with the basics: Who are you going door to door for? How often have you done it?

Janice Mekula Golding: I’m currently going door-to-door for the Democratic candidate for Michigan House in Grand Traverse County, a peripatetic little Energizer Bunny named Betsy Coffia. I got my training in 2007-2008 as a full-time volunteer for Barack Obama in 13 states, where I probably knocked 200 to 400 doors per day, 10-15 times per month. My current campaign has held a canvass at least every other week since June, with a different purpose each time.

Why? Why door knocking as a political strategy?

Janice: Door-knocking is as old as campaigning itself, based on the principle that one smile is worth a thousand brochures or a hundred phone calls. The benefit of the personal testimonial is well known in advertising. If your neighbor raves about her new dentist, you’ll be more likely to go there than if you read about it on the Internet.

What does it look when you’re going door to door? What do you say to people? What are you hoping to get them to do?

Janice: The experience of going door-to-door varies from day to day, depending on the neighborhood and the campaign objective. A new candidate will need to gauge and/or establish name recognition: “Hi, I’m Jan from over in the Old Mission neighborhood. Have you heard of that awesome new woman who’s challenging Wayne Schmidt for State Rep in our district?” We record the answers on a check sheet to be entered into our computer database for analysis and appropriate strategizing. Another canvassing session may concentrate on determining which issues are most important to voters, and clarifying our candidate’s position on those issues, even offering to research the topic and report back or have the candidate give the voter a call (in a small, local race). Later in a campaign, the goal is ensuring that our friendlies are registered and know where and when to vote. In training, we emphasize to our volunteers that door-knocking is merely sharing our enthusiasm and personal stories with neighbors (or fellow concerned citizens, if we’re out of our own locality). Often, the most effective political strategy is simply to listen. Believe it or not, most people are receptive or at least polite. Especially when it’s raining.

Is this actually effective? Are you changing people’s minds?

Janice: This technique can be highly effective, if organized correctly. Preparation and training are key. If the campaign has access to a database of voter information, certain demographics can be targeted in advance (registered Democrats or Independents, age range, those who voted in recent primaries, those who pledged to vote for us, etc.). Volunteers must be familiarized with the candidate’s background and positions, the objective of the particular canvass, and principles of safety. Often, a canvasser’s job is not to change minds, but to disseminate and collect information.

[Check out Janice’s training video for the Coffia campaign.]

What was your worst door knocking experience?

Warning: If you can read this--you are in range.Janice: Door-knocking horror stories abound, from unleashed dobermans to unleashed racists. One of my colleagues was tackled to the turf by a 6-foot tumbleweed in Butte, Mont.! My personal favorite was the home sporting a poster of gun sight cross hairs reading, “If you can read this—you are in range.” Needless to say, I backed off that porch. Slowly. With my hands up.

What was your best door knocking experience?

Janice: Best experiences? I couldn’t pick just one! From the Massachusetts voter who left me with a bag of Granny Smith apples and a home-baked pie, to the disabled man who told me tearfully that no candidate had ever sent a canvasser deep into his wooded cabin to ask his opinion about handicap access problems in Keene, N.H., to the Texas senior citizen with an oxygen tank at her side, a lit cigarette dangling from her lips, and a hyper-kinetic poodle who liked his dog biscuits pre-chewed, door-knocking is one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my life. (And yes, I did pre-chew. Hey, she was busy filling out her absentee ballot for Barack Obama.)

What has all that door knocking accomplished?

Janice: What have all of our blisters accomplished? Well, Betsy Coffia went from a social worker with a 4.5 percent name recognition to the landslide winner of the Democratic primary, over a candidate backed by the county Democratic Party. And oh yeah—there’s that guy in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue…