Jul 7, 2012

Blurb for Young Adult Time Travel Series

Jill and Vera, two girls at an exclusive Earth prep school, discover that their friend Ella is not who she seems to be. When she drops her wallet in Chemistry class, the girls discover that Ella is a legendary astronomer and interstellar freedom fighter named Zoe Memphis. Her scientific discoveries and her military victories led to so many stars being named after her, that they nicknamed her Estrella, the star. But Ella isn’t that person yet; her parents got permission from the Holy Order of Time Travel to enroll her in an elite school founded a hundred years after the end of the war, to make sure she got the best education possible.

Ella is an extremely nervous 12th grader; she wonders constantly if she’ll be able to live up to her destiny, and worse yet, she’s failing Interstellar Calculus. With the past at stake, Ella’s friends enact a daring plan. On graduation day, they’ll follow Ella through the time portal to help Ella face her fears and save the galaxy. The only problem? The history books don’t mention Jill or Vera at all.

Will a terrible fate await the girls in the past? Will they cause the universe to unravel? Will they even end up in the right century?  Will the Order be super pissed?  Find out in book one of the three-book trilogy!

Jul 1, 2012

IT’S OVER 9000!

Twitter Knight Gains 50 XP, Still At Level One

Oh man, Twitter debacle last night. Basically, some random guy who happens to be an unpaid intern for gaming site Destructoid had just set up a Twitter account – apparently while drinking. He noticed that people in his feed were mentioning Felicia Day a lot – you know, as you do.

The guy says didn’t know that Day is the writer, director, and star of video gaming web series The Guild, regular guest on the TV series Eureka, Star of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and a voice artist for Dragon Age: Redemption. He’d never heard her talk at a convention so he had no idea how wickedly smart she is.

All he knew was that she was a woman, and that no one seemed to be pointing out that she didn’t belong; so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He wrote her a couple of sexist, harassing tweets demanding she justify her worth to him.
Because he was new to Twitter, he thought he was just sending them to her. He wasn’t, and some people noticed. Gaming has been going through the wringer lately about misogyny in our culture – and a couple of high profile people, including Wil Wheaton, Adam Baldwin, and Veronica Belmont, decided that this might be a teachable moment. They pointed him out to Destructoid, and after many other Twitter users complained, Destructoid let the guy go.

This is not an unusual firing story for a writer. In fact, it happens all the time. That’s not an artifact of the internet age, it’s just the way things are when you have a free press, and overall I think that’s a good thing – especially if it means that there are consequences for harassing people. Double especially if the only real penalty this guy experiences is the loss of a non-paying presitge position. That’s a really mild punishment for starting drunken fights with other people in the industry.

I learned some things about gamers reading the response to this; things I didn’t realize because I stay pretty far away from assholes as a matter of course.

The first thing is that even when naked sexism is right in front of them, some people still don’t get it. I’m slowly revising my opinion on these people. I used to think that they knew what sexism looked like, but just ignored it when it happened because they thought badly of the people who pointed it out, due to their own sexism. Now I think some of them are genuinely stupid, which is more excusable if less flattering.

The second thing I noticed is that apparently gaming has a slur for men who defend women when they’re being treated poorly. The term “white knight,” which I allude to in the title of this post, is an actual insult. I think it’s supposed to be tied to the idea of “reverse sexism”- like if you’re defending a woman because she’s a woman that somehow makes you even more sexist than if you said nothing? I think it’s a motive-questioning insult and basically in the same category as the stuff that the intern was saying to Felicia Day. But the bottom line is that if you see a woman being harassed and say something to support her or rebuff the harassers, gamers are standing by with an insult tailor made for you. This can’t say anything good about our culture.

The third thing I noticed is that somehow, people are still mushy on the role that a web series like The Guild – which is about gaming and gamers – has to play in gamer culture. Just so we’re on the same page, The Guild is playing the same role as Penny Arcade or Jonathan Coulton or Legend of Neil or any other piece of gamer media that isn’t directly about reviewing games. They broadcast and focus game fandom, they provide cultural commentary beyond textual criticism, and build communities. Without fan-created media, game fandom would be so much smaller and less fulfilling. I don’t know whether the main motivation here is sexism or stupidity, but considering gamers are calling Day a “talentless c*nt,” I’m guessing its both.

At the end of the day, I hope gamers can learn to react with the same supportive attitude when this happens to people who aren’t Felicia Day. This type of harassment – the kind where strangers come up to you and demand you earn the right to not be hated – is common enough that even I’ve gotten it, and I’m basically nobody! It happens pretty frequently to women in all kinds of male-dominated spaces, and the people who do it are rarely easily-dismissable interns with no clout. If we agree that this kind of behavior isn’t okay, it has to be not-okay for everyone.

So for those that called out this intern for harassing Felicia Day, but have never or rarely called out people for sexism directed at women with less than a million twitter followers, consider this a practice run. And keep practicing.

Because I’m busy writing ANOTHER blog post today, comments are off.  Feel free to tweet me at @toenolla.

Jun 25, 2012

An Experiment in Object Turnaround Photography

A spinning barware set, built from photos taken with a time lapse feature in CHDK. Click left and right to rotate.

Learn how to make a spinnable “object” like this one at Instructables.

Jun 9, 2012

Things I Want to Talk About At The Hackerspace:

  • Robots.
    Fuck yes!
  • An awesome thing some guy in Ukraine built that you saw on YouTube.
  • Lasers.
    Pyoo pyoo!
  • 3D printers.
    Hell. Fucking. Yes.
  • Tools of pretty much any sort, actually.
    Everything that makes is fascinating.
  • Your projects.
    That’s a sweet quadcopter you’ve got there. What’s your startup all about?
  • Ideas for stuff you want to make.
  • What you do (or did, or want to do) for a living.
    Actually, why didn’t this come up earlier?
  • Movies, books, TV, music, and websites you dig.
    I love Doctor Who too!  You saw that movie, huh; what’s it like?
  • Hackerspace business.
    Serious business.

Things I Do Not Want to Talk About at the Hackerspace:

  • Books, movies, TV, music and websites you don’t like.
    It’s not everyone else’s job to convince you to like Ursula LeGuin or whatever.  Wait for the conversation to come around to something you like, or find a way to politely interject with a new topic.  Feel free to be negative if someone asks your opinion, but realize that’s different; they asked.
  • Your stupid prejudices and why you think they’re ok to have.
    I’m not going to commiserate with your racist, sexist, anti-gay, or otherwise intolerant point of view, no matter what stupid justification you’ve come up with for it.  Really, this is not the place to seek that kind of acceptance; it’s a club for people who build stuff. 
  • Why your ex is a bitch / asshole.
    I barely know you!  Why should I have to help you deal with your breakup?  Negative bonus points if the breakup happened years ago.
  • Your politics.
    There are clubs you can join for that.  This is not one of them.
  • What you find attractive in a woman / man.
     Again, I barely know you, so I don’t care.  If this was an attempt to flirt with me, it has failed phenomenally.
  • Why you think I shouldn’t drink soda / watch The Office / drive a sedan / whatever trivial thing you want to sneer about.
    Yeah, well – fuck you too, I guess.  What else can I say to that?
  • An anecdote where you were mean to someone you don’t like.
    Is this supposed to impress me? Now I think you’re a bully.
  • Why we should keep talking about the thing I said I don’t want to talk about.
    I don’t want to have this conversation.  Please respect that.  I’m not saying you can’t talk about this; you just can’t talk about it with me.
Jun 3, 2012

This is not what I do.

My dad got this piece of mail a while back.  Name and address in typewriter font.  Cow stamp.  No return address.

Inside is a post it note from a friend who signed his note “J” – or maybe that’s just a squiggle.  From the fact that they use a typewriter, prefer Texana on their stamps and still send people newspaper clippings, we can guess that J is an older man or woman.

It’s stuck to a newspaper article from the Financial News section of the paper on Sunday, March 25, Page 3-B.  (The mailing was postmarked March 28, so this is timely.)

The article is about a book that purports to help people like my dad who are over 50 and facing a higher retirement age than they expected.  But of course….

It’s actually an ad.  But this isn’t even an advert placed in a paper that was later cut out; it’s a special printing made to look like it was taken from a newspaper.  This is a piece of junk mail, and it’s made to trick people into reading it instead of throwing it away.

This is not the same as a story artifact – or at least, not the kind I make.  The difference is the same as the difference between telling a story and lying.  This piece of media lies about who your interlocutor is.  It lies about the source of the information; it even lies about the main purpose of the ad copy.  I blurred out their 1-800 number in these pictures, and I would have blurred out the name of the author who wrote the “book,” but it turns out that information isn’t even in the article.  It’s on the cover in the picture, but the name is so tiny I can hardly make it out.  This isn’t even a book promotion; it’s a ploy to get you on the phone.

A real story artifact would name names.  There would be a newspaper title at the top of this page, a URL to the author’s website, and maybe even a bio or photo of the person who wrote it.  (This one is credited to “Steve Williams” who I like to imagine as a cooler cousin of Buck from the Left Behind books.)

The reason this isn’t what I do, why I wouldn’t lie in this way, is that this kind of lying doesn’t engender love or trust.  The point is to trick you long enough to get you to answer the call to action.  One person claiming to be J says that the mailings are a way to open dialogue with local financial planners, but would you feel comfortable starting any professional relationship this way?

…But if I Did….

But if I were to lie to people in this way, I’d have done a better job at it.  Let’s take a look at some details.

The interior edge of the page, the one that would contain copy from another article if this were real, is torn rather than cut, but it’s torn the way someone might tear it with a sharp edged ruler.  People either cut out articles with scissors, or tear them by hand.  The best way to finish this would probably be with a rough patterned tearing edge.

Blugh, this headline.  It’s got quote marks, all caps, AND underlining in it, and it ends in an ellipsis and it takes up four whole 3-column lines!  The AP stylebook would come to life and bludgeon me to death all on its own if I wrote a headline like this.  (We know it’s supposed to be a newspaper article and not a newspaper ad that looks like an article, because those kinds of ads are usually in a box with the word “advertisement” at the top.)

But really, the biggest giveaway here is the back of the page.  Those ugly artifacts are from scanning in a printed page and printing it back out.  It doesn’t match the printing style of the front of the page and it’s a pretty clear sign that its a fake.

You can see another version of this junk mail (and read from others who got this around the country), at Lisa and Michael‘s blog.


May 20, 2012

A Robot Made This! – a product prototype for Maya

UPDATE: Maya wore her necklace to school!  According to her mom, the other girls in her class were excited to hear about the jewelry-making robot.  She looks like a rock star.

I’ve been making stuff for a long time, and trying to master the art of telling stories with them.  This is the first time I’ve taken up the task of telling THIS story – the story of how technology can serve women just as readily as men.  It’s a vitally important story to tell, and a complicated story to convey to an adult.  To see that it’s stuck with Maya and her friends, at least for now, is so incredibly satisfying.

If you work in a creative field and have any kind of entrepreneurial streak, you know how tantalizing a new idea can be when you’re working on a big project – and how easily it can turn into a huge distraction. Two weeks ago, I had a good idea, but because I’ll never get anything done if I drop my other work for it, I’ve decided to go ahead and cut it off at the prototype phase and post it here.

The idea all started with Maya, the daughter of my good friend Andrea.

She’s in kindergarten, and is as clever and adventurous a child as you’ve ever seen. She loves dancing and princesses and rainbows and anything that is pink.

Maya has also always, always loved cars and robots, right along with those butterflies and flowers and hearts. But recently she’s been saying that she doesn’t like these things anymore.

“I don’t like cars,” she told me, “because I want people to like me.”

This breaks my heart. And I imagine it breaks your heart, too. Five years old, and she’s already figured out just exactly how this thing works.

Funnily enough, I use laser cutting to do some really girly stuff. I make jewelry, handbags, and beautiful spindly art pieces right alongside project boxes and monitor stands. I mean, they don’t call me the laser princess for nothing.

I was left wondering how I could show Maya that technology isn’t separate from the beauty of art or the flair of fashion – the stuff that girlishness is made of. And then I remembered I’d made this the week before.

It’s just a little pendant made from a design that never got used in the Alias ARG; but it was made with the help of a robot. A laser robot. Maya had to have one of these. Here’s the letter I sent her.

Hello Maya!
My name is Haley and I’m from Texas. I heard that some of the girls at your school think that cars and robots are for boys. I really hope they don’t think that, because cars and robots are awesome!

Cars are fast and beautiful and fun to ride in, and robots are smart and cool can do all kinds of things. Did you know robots can do girl stuff too? Me and one of the robots at my hackerspace got together and made this necklace for you.

(In case you didn’t know, a hackerspace is basically a clubhouse for girls and boys who like to play with robots. We have robots that fly and robots that run around like little spiders and robots that can sculpt like artists!)

I made your necklace with the robot that fires lasers. I gave it instructions, and the robot used really strong lasers to cut it out and make all the swirly patterns on it. It’s sparkly and pretty and totally made by a robot armed with lasers.

I make lots of cute jewelry with this robot, and people love it. So the next time someone tells you robots are for boys, just tell them a robot made THIS.

Love and cute convertibles,
Haley Moore

When I went to cut out Maya’s pendant, the laser was down for some minor repairs, so I had some time to sit around and toy with the idea of packaging the necklace too. I wanted to say in the package everything that I’d put in the letter, so that at a glance you’d know:

  1. Robots make things that girls want, for girls.
  2. A robot made this particular thing.
  3. This is something to remember whenever you feel like technology isn’t girly enough.

I came up with a package design with a robot reaching over the top of a regular jewelry card, with its manipulators around the attachment points for the necklace, as if the robot had just finished making it and was now handing it to the girl. It includes mechanical design elements, holographic paper, pink, swirly text and lace.

The robot is vaguely feminine but not super feminine – it’s just a machine, not a Fembot or Rosie from the Jetsons.  The declaration “A Robot Made This!” is written in a mix of typefaces that convey femininity and ties to technology.  The holographic paper tells you the product has a science element, and the lace tooling tells you that this isn’t just something for boys that’s been colored pink.

At this point, I wanted to jump down the rabbit hole and make an entire line of CNC produced pieces of jewelry for girls – design store displays, write all sorts of educational copy, start looking for retail targets – but I have to keep my focus. For the moment, this is just a nice thing I did for one kid, and hopefully it was helpful.

This necklace, along with three other designs, is for sale in my Etsy store. If you’d like yours to come on a card like the one I sent Maya, send me a note and I’ll package it that way for free.


May 8, 2012

Kitty Roll

My three-footed kitty lays in the middle of the kitchen all morning and does this every time someone walks by.

Apr 24, 2012

Sweet Swag vs. Crap: Addendum

Reading over my post from last night, I realize it sounds like I’m advocating you DIY everything.  What I didn’t mention is that in this project, my handmade items come in elaborate storytelling packages, and those packages have mass produced parts.

I’ve found the best way to get optimal value out of a plan is to focus on doing work that only you can do.

Once you’ve put together a spreadsheet or just run the numbers yourself, you can see that not everything is efficient to do by hand.  Printing projects, for example, are much cheaper to farm out to a custom printing place than to do at FedEx Office.

Another factor to consider is whether you plan to use the leftovers. If they’re exclusive to the Kickstarter, making them yourself may make more sense.  In my case, most of the mass produced parts will be used to maintain my stock of product, so it’s reasonable to use the Kickstarter campaign to pay for the first run of them. Run your numbers, and make the call.

Crowdfunding: Sweet Swag vs Crap

So, I’m working on a “little” tangible narrative project to fund on Kickstarter – little in that, it’s half couture accesssory line launch, half collection of short stories. A lot of thought has gone into planning the rewards for it, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts, and walk you through some of my logic.

My campaign is a mixed bag of mass produced stuff, handmade stuff, and services. In my spreadsheet, each reward has an efficiency score.

Unit Price x (1 – (Sales Tax % + Kickstarter % + Amazon %)) – (Material Cost + Shipping Cost)

Unit Price

Efficiency =

This is basically like a profit margin that leaves out certain costs. The score shows how much of the revenue actually goes toward paying the project’s fixed costs, and (maybe! even!) making a profit.

Mass-Produced Stuff

(Average Efficiency: 61%)

This includes t-shirts, posters, hats, stickers, magnets, copies of a book – basically anything you take out of a box from a supplier and put into a box going to your backer. The upside to these is that they’re easy; but they also come with their own pitfalls.

There’s nothing wrong with mass-produced stuff, but it’s worth it to think through how that stuff is going to relate to the project as a whole. Copies of your book are highly relevant; t-shirts featuring the logotype for your horror movie aren’t, even if it’s a very pretty logo. Which I’m sure it is.

In my experience, things with logos printed on them are for giving away at events, not for making money. I’ve taken breaks from planning my rewards several times; when I come back to them, anything that doesn’t “fit” with the project jumps out at me right away and I can nix it.

Batch size is also a critical consideration, and you should budget things differently depending on how many of them you need to buy. It’s not wise to count the cost of anything you’ll be buying in the hundreds or thousands as costing you “$1 per unit” if it costs $100 whether you sell one or 100. The best way to stay safe on your budget is to pick a likely number of orders and roll the cost of covering them into your fixed costs.

Finally, anything mass produced has a market value. No matter how awesome it is, a t-shirt is basically worth somewhere between $10 and $30 to a consumer, which means that charging $100 or $1,000 for it won’t seem fair. In the end, that means you are only creating a small amount of the value on that item, which means you’ll only get a small amount of the money.

Handmade Stuff

(Average Efficiency: 73%)

This is the central model of my project; people pay me money to buy supplies, turn those supplies into finished goods, and mail those to them. Handmade items require a lot of your time, but they also net you more money because you’re creating the bulk of their value.

I highly recommend counting time as part of your unit cost when you go to determine your reward prices. Put a reasonable dollar amount on your time, and estimate how much of it you’re using to make your rewards.

This is important to do because all the time you spend on reward fulfillment is time you could be spending on larger project goals. It’s easy to discount the time commitment when you think about making one or two reward items, only to find yourself overwhelmed when you have to make hundreds.

I keep my labor and materials costs separate, and assume that all or most of the labor costs until I fund are going into paying off the project’s fixed costs. The other advantage to assigning a budget for time spent, is that if your project overfunds, you have the budget to hire skilled collaborators. For money. That’s very helpful if your kickstarter ends up being a runaway success, as it should be.

Remember, signing posters and writing thank you cards takes time, too.

I find it’s easier to keep handmade things relevant because of the time commitment; I want my time spent to overlap with the main goal of the project as much as possible.

Also, unless you plan to close up shop and never offer these products again after the Kickstarter, you should also plan to stock yourself for retail or online out of your Kickstarter funds. Raise the money to make more product than you’ll sell in the campaign.


(Average Efficiency: 74%)

These are the things that usually live below the fold on any Kickstarter page; they’re usually reserved for backers who pledge a lot of cash. In fact, I could overfund my campaign just by selling one of each of my services! Wait, is that right? *Doublechecks the spreadsheet.* Wowza!

I may differ from others on my philosophy for high end rewards; I’m looking to sell high end work, rather than get a large grant from a generous donor. I want my high end offerings to sell, and sell well. Someone out there would actually be giving my the listed amount, so I want to offer something that’s worth that much to them.

Determining their value is kind of a fuzzy proposition, but generally the following things increase the value of a service: luxury, personal attention, exclusivity, collaboration, credit, and relevance to the project.

The classic example of a good upper level reward is inserting your backer as a character in your book/movie/game/comic. That’s exclusive, requires personal attention, gives credit in a spectacular fashion, and is deeply relevant.

You may notice that their efficiency is only marginally higher than handmade items. I tweaked my services a lot to keep them close to the median efficiency, even though that has meant offering more stuff. If the efficiency is much higher, it means I’m offering too little and won’t likely attract a buyer; and if it’s much lower, it means I’m spending too much time or cutting too deeply into my funds.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to services on the high end of the reward spectrum.  Make sure all of your services have concrete limits and deliverables. The more specific the service is, the better you can set a price for it.

Crunching Some Numbers

So, to figure out all of this, I built a set of spreadsheets. I won’t go into ALL of the details, because it’s pretty detailed. Here are the sheets I built:

Costs – The costs of all common materials, including labor, printing, time on CNC machines, paper, boxes, bubble mailers, etc. It calculates the total for each. This sheet takes also tallies the fixed costs for the project.

Each item in the sheet has a package price, and units per package. The average number of backers for a project of my size is about 250, so for anything that comes in boxes of more than 250, the costs sheet calculates the unit cost as the package price divided by 250, to keep costs from getting “hidden” in large package sizes.

Services – On this sheet, I enter the time it takes to perform each service offered, and it calculates the total cost.

Parts – I enter the materials used and labor time needed to make each part, and it calculates the material and labor costs for each.

Packaging – Each type of packaging has fields for the cost of its base unit (such as a box), parts that need to be printed and cut, shipping, and assembly time. It calculates the materials and labor total for each. This includes both retail packaging and shipping methods.

Kit Builder – In this sheet, I mark off which parts, services and packaging I need for each reward, and assign it a price. It calculates a whole host of different things about each reward, including profit margins, net pay, and how many I’d need to sell to fund the project with just that reward.

This sheet also averages the calculations for all of the “active” rewards, so I can see the average profit margin and average amount needed to pay for the fixed costs.

Campaign Modeler – This works much like the Kit Builder; you can set numbers of sales for each reward and see how you’d do in different scenarios. For each scenario, it tells whether I’ve funded, and whether I’ve met my net goal and overfunding goals.

This may be more complicated than you want to get into, but I’ve found it extremely helpful in eliminating areas of doubt in my funding plan.

So, that’s essentially how I’ve gone about developing this.  Of course, everyone’s projects are going to reflect their needs, strategy and philosophy.  And after all, I’m describing a project that hasn’t even launched yet.  I’d love to hear your advice for me, too!

UPDATE: I felt this needed an addendum, so I wrote one.