Geek Your Father's Day

This Sunday, forget the BBQ and try constructing a balloon-powered sky-cam or folding some electronic origami. Ken Denmead, author of Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share, describes projects for science enthusiasts of all ages.

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(Soundbite of song, "No Quarter")

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, our Video Pick of the Week with Flora Lichtman joining us. Hi. Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: We've got a special, special special.

LICHTMAN: It's a holiday edition.

FLATOW: It's a holiday edition. Of course, the holiday is...

LICHTMAN: Father's Day. And that's news you can use. Everybody, write it down: Sunday...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's right.

LICHTMAN: ...is Father's Day.

FLATOW: Don't go running out to the, you know, supermarket or store or wherever you're getting to buy something because we have...

LICHTMAN: We have an alternative idea for maybe how you would spend Father's Day. We were thinking, you know, what could you do this Father's Day that wouldn't necessarily be the same old, same old, same old barbecue...

FLATOW: Just - yeah. Yeah, right.

LICHTMAN: ...but, you know, not that - I like barbecues.

FLATOW: Yeah - not that there's anything wrong with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Right. They're okay. But maybe there's another angle here. And so we scoured the literature and came up with this book called "Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share." And it's filled with all these cool projects. And so we decided for Video Pick of the Week that we would demonstrate one of the projects in the book.

FLATOW: So that you could do something with your dad and not just create something for that day but a lasting memory.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, create a memory.

FLATOW: That's the gift you can give. You can get - you can create this project in the book and create a lasting memory that, depending on which way it goes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...you may never forget.

LICHTMAN: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Right. So the project we did was an eye-in-the-sky camera. So basically, you take, you know, 25 or more helium balloons and attach a digital video camera to it, a little one.

FLATOW: Like a little flip phone or something like that.

LICHTMAN: Like a flip camera. But I think any still camera would probably work on the video setting.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And let it up on a kite string. And we did it from my roof in Brooklyn. And...

FLATOW: And that's your Video Pick of the Week is the documentary...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that's one way to put it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You actually - how many balloons did you get?

LICHTMAN: Well, actually, you know, it's funny - so Ken says to get something like 12, but...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...we ended up needing a few more than that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And...

FLATOW: And Ken Denmead is the author of the book.

LICHTMAN: Is the author of the book, right. And, you know, maybe we should bring him on to ask him...

FLATOW: Go ahead.

LICHTMAN: ...about it at this point. So Ken Denmead is the author of "Geek Dad." And he's also the editor of the blog GeekDad.com. Hey, Ken.

Mr. KEN DENMEAD (Author, "Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share"): Hey there. Great to be here.

FLATOW: Hello. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Did - are you a full-time book writer?

Mr. DENMEAD: I am not. I am a actually a civil engineer here in the San Francisco, San Jose, Bay Area.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: So, Ken, I wanted to ask you because when we did this project, we used a bunch of balloons and then we actually had to go back to Party City. I think maybe because I miscalculated the weight of the camera. I don't want to really pin this on you, but...

Mr. DENMEAD: You know, you should ask your previous guest. I think the buoyancy calculations are a tricky thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Ahh.

LICHTMAN: How far did you get your camera in the sky to go up?

Mr. DENMEAD: I got mine - unfortunately, when I did my major test, it was kind of a breezy day. I think I got about 150 feet up.

LICHTMAN: Wow.

Mr. DENMEAD: ...before it started to threaten going over a neighboring apartment buildings and getting lost in the trees. So I believe it's possible. I think, you know, it took me some very significant fine-tuning, you know. I actually took the camera. I took, you know, and put it on a scale, figured out how much that weighed. And the flip cameras are very, very lightweight. There may be a difference between those and using, you know, one of your little PowerShot-type of cameras that may have heavier battery system in them.

LICHTMAN: Mmm.

Mr. DENMEAD: And when we're talking ounces, we're talking ounces here and that can make a difference between 12, 16, 18 normal balloons. I have also had a great suggestion made to me. Our sort of mentor geek dad was Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine. And he is big into small blimps too. And he always suggests - he suggests using the Mylar balloons because...

FLATOW: Ah.

Mr. DENMEAD: ...they have - they're even lighter than the...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DENMEAD: ...plastic ones. So...

FLATOW: Without any kids crawling into them, of course. We wouldn't want to recreate that experiment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DENMEAD: Well, that didn't really happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So we made - and it's on our Video Pick of the Week. You can see Flora in Brooklyn with her balloons. And one thing I noticed from watching this up on our website at sciencefriday.com, you can see this, is that you have to have a favorable wind, I noticed, Ken on this thing. (Unintelligible)

Mr. DENMEAD: Wind is, once again, you know, buoyancy...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. DENMEAD: ...and wind and drag are all concepts that you might want to think about before. This project is really good for a very still day.

LICHTMAN: Right. We had some downdraft issues. Like, the camera got sort of sucked into the backyard of my neighbors a few times. It was a little bit scary, but the footage was really cool. I mean, I thought it would seem...

FLATOW: It was great.

LICHTMAN: ...definitely worth it.

FLATOW: No, that was great. And, you know, in fact, I always wanted to do this since I was a kid. When I was a kid, you know, Scientific American had all these amateur scientist projects and other - Popular Mechanics. And one thing they had was putting a camera in a little rocket. I don't know if you're old enough, Ken, to remember those days. But to put it in a little homemade rocket and you shoot it up. It goes 150 feet and then it comes down on a parachute. This is a much better idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DENMEAD: This one's a little bit safer, if you want to get that camera back. Yeah, and honestly, I was inspired by all these stories we hear of the college teams sending up weather balloons into near space, and I was just - I'm in awe of those, but I was trying to come up with something that's a little less ambitious.

FLATOW: And your book is "Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share." Now, Flora, you and I were talking about geek is overused, right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think we're in post-geek - I think geek has gotten a little chic, I would say.

Mr. DENMEAD: We may be rounding the corner on it.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

Mr. DENMEAD: I will freely admit.

LICHTMAN: It's a little bit...

FLATOW: What else can we call it? I mean...

LICHTMAN: We were thinking of, you know, maybe there's another word. Maybe...

FLATOW: A better post-geek word.

LICHTMAN: A post-geek word. Right. So we came up with a couple - just sitting around. What do you think about egghead?

FLATOW: No.

LICHTMAN: No. No?

FLATOW: No.

LICHTMAN: No what?

FLATOW: It's an old word. We need a new word. No one had said...

LICHTMAN: It's sort of classic.

FLATOW: Yeah, you like a classic?

LICHTMAN: What about poindexter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: I think the problem with geek is that it's been co-opted by people who didn't have to go through the sort of awkward phase. They didn't earn the term. What do you think, Ken?

Mr. DENMEAD: Right. I totally agree. I think to a certain extent the hipsters have co-opted some of the geek culture. And so we're seeing a dilution of the purity of those of us who suffered through taunting and teasing when we were, you know, playing Dungeons and Dragons at recess rather than kickball, or when we're playing kickball we were actually getting hit with the ball.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. People are jumping on the bandwagon. It doesn't seem right...

FLATOW: Maybe we should ask our listeners...

LICHTMAN: That's a good idea.

FLATOW: ...for some advice. If you have an idea of a post-geek era name, we're going to retire the geek idea. I mean, we're all geeks here. What should we...

Mr. DENMEAD: I don't know. It's going to cost me a lot of rebranding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, you could just have another edition of your book come...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What would be a good - 1-800-989-8255. Maybe right here. If you have a good idea for a geek name, a word, or if you have an idea for how you might have bonded with your father...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: And what kind of, you know, projects you made, give us a call - or an idea for - because you do have to do this just on Father's Day, these projects.

LICHTMAN: No. It seems like a good time to think about, you know, the types of things that - Father's Day seems like a good excuse to think about the types of projects you did with your dad, maybe backyard science or something...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Actually, Ira, do you have any....

FLATOW: My bonding with my dad...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Well, okay. I'm going to reveal a secret I have never said before. And it's not what you're thinking. My father and I - my father was a great, how should I put this? Fixer of toilets. You know, I have seen and fixed as many toilets - you know how the mechanisms inside toilets, they go bad. You pull up the lid. You've got to replace all that stuff. My father was an expert at doing this. And I have - I sort of cloned that talent from him.

And even today there's not a hotel that I don't go into that there's not a leaky toilet in the room that I can't get into and fix it. And I wind up fixing a lot of people's...

LICHTMAN: It's a very useful skills.

FLATOW: But it was something my father - I bonded with my father with. Because he'd go in and he's say, We don't have the part for this, let's epoxy it or something. He'd fix it with little he had in the basement. You know, stuff...

Mr. DENMEAD: You learned to hack your toilet.

FLATOW: Exactly. I hacked my toilet.

LICHTMAN: What about you, Ken? Do you - is your daddy inspiration for "Geek Dad," the book?

Mr. DENMEAD: There's a lot of that there. My dad is an engineer as well and the big projects we would end up doing was - he was a lover, or he is a lover of old English automobiles, sports cars and the like. And we worked on various different MGs and Morris Minor and Triumphs over the years. So there was -everything I know about the inside of car I know from my dad.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. So you need to put that in your geek book next. Some sort of geeky project. Let's see if we got - we have a caller here. Let's go to Russell in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Russell.

RUSSELL (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

RUSSELL: I think I probably qualify as America's oldest geeky dad because having built the first programmable computer in America at the National Bureau of Standards in 1950, by 1957 I made the world's first digital image, which was my son when he was born. And that image I made out of square pixels which, of course, has survived to this day until just recently I decided we could improve on that. And so my son had to wait 53 years for his father to fix his pixels.

And in the current issue of the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, there are pictures of my son today with these variable shape pixels, which are much better. And as a result, he now has the opportunity in his capacity as the communications person at Intel Corporation to be able to make photographs much better than any one that his father or anybody else has made in the past half century by using this knew notion of variable shape pixels.

FLATOW: Russell, I feel like I'm playing "What's My Line" here. You have to tell us who you are so our whole audience knows of your infamy.

RUSSELL: Well, I was one of the designers of the SEAC computer at the National Bureau of Standards in 1950, which enabled us to do things that nobody else could do because we have the only computer that was workable in America. And of course, starting the field of digital imaging was one of things that we did in 1957. And so to this day, my son has been living with these lousy square pixels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUSSELL: And he just recently had the opportunity to improve on that at the age of 53.

FLATOW: There you go.

RUSSELL: So there's an opportunity for geeky dads to help their sons do better.

FLATOW: All right. We'll put you down as America's oldest geek dad thing.

RUSSELL: Very good.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot and have a good Father's Day.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Take care. 1-800-989-8255.

LICHTMAN: Ken, there's so many, so many good projects in this book, and they all seem sort of pretty accessible. What's your top pick of the projects?

Mr. DENMEAD: Well, the combination you know, it's like they're your kids, so it's hard to pick them out. One that we've had great success - we've done a few sort of convention-type things and tried this out with the kids, and it's really easy and fun to do, and they get a blast of it - I call it LEGO demolition derby. And you take those inexpensive remote control cars that you can get at any store. If you're going to do two of them, you've got to make sure they're on different frequencies...

LICHTMAN: Right.

Mr. DENMEAD: ...so you're not, you know, not controlling one of them with - or both of them with one remote. But - so you take flat LEGO plates, you know, the flat - not the bricks, but the flat pieces that you usually build stuff off of. And you maybe hot glue them or two-sided tape them to the sides and the front and the back of the car. And then each kid gets one car. Maybe you build yourself some kind of arena.

I like to duct tape pool noodles to the floor in a big circle, you know, the foam pool noodles. And each kid gets 30 LEGO bricks of an individual cover -color for each one of them. And then they get - they put them all on their car, you know, and you make them into, I don't know, big hammers or you make them into armor or - whatever they want on the front and the sides of the car, and then you put them in the arena of doom and they have a demolition derby.

LICHTMAN: Maybe play some thrash, some hardcore music, rock in the background, make some nachos...

Mr. DENMEAD: Absolutely.

FLATOW: We're talking about geeky projects for Father's Day this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman and with Ken Denmead, author of "Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share." 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we have time for a phone call to - is it Lee(ph), in Palo Alto?

LEE (Caller): Yeah. Hi, the name is Lee in Palo Alto. I've enjoyed listening to the show. And wanted to say a great geeky dad-kid thing to do is ham radio. I did it with my dad, now I do it with my kids.

FLATOW: It's still around...

LEE: It's still around - it's actually growing. And there's all sorts of fun things to do from digital keyboarding to satellites to bouncing signals off the moon to building your own stuff. It fits great with the DIY movement, and I think it's experienced a resurgence.

LICHTMAN: Ken - I wanted to ask you that, you know, this is called "Geek Dad," but what about those moms out there...

FLATOW: Hmm.

LICHTMAN: What about the geek mom?

Mr. DENMEAD: Well, you know, I will admit that having, you know, come into the blog and then to the book, I'm a little bit cursed by that branding to an extent, because you know what, what we really see all throughout the geek culture is that it, you know, it's not just guys - there are so many women geeks, and there are geek moms out there. In fact, we've got moms writing for geek dad right now and helping to represent that voice.

And it, you know, there's always been this sort of dichotomy of people thinking that, you know, girls don't like math or science, but it's so not true. And there are lots of them and they need to have that voice too. And yeah, you know what, maybe someday there will be a "Geek Mom."

FLATOW: Well, you know, maybe we can change that when we change the name of the word geek. We can bring women into it. So if you have - I mentioned this before, you have an idea to upgrade the word from geek to something else, go to our Web page at sciencefriday.com and leave your suggestions there. We're going to try to collect all these suggestions. You can tweet us, you know, or you can send us an email about what would be better than geek and then we can bring in women and men as...

LICHTMAN: Poindextress. I can't let it go.

Mr. DENMEAD: If you come up with a really good answer, let me know first so I can get the URL, all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. We have - well, this is good, you know, because now we have some homework for the weekend, and it's a great holiday weekend so we can say goodbye. And thank you for taking time to be with us today, Ken.

Mr. DENMEAD: Oh, thank you. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: And have a great holiday weekend to you.

LICHTMAN: Happy Father's Day, Ken.

Mr. DENMEAD: Thank you. Happy Father's Day to everyone.

FLATOW: Ken Denmead is the author of "Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share." He's also the editor of the blog GeekDad.com.

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