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Apr 092014


by Laura Davis, managing editor

It’s April once again, and book fans from all over are getting ready for their weekend of glory: the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (LATFOB), the nation’s largest consumer book festival. LATFOB is held on the beautiful campus of USC, in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, and attracts about 150,000 visitors each year. It’s little wonder, with more than 450 authors in attendance, over 100 discussion panels, and at least 300 exhibitors, ranging from artisans to indie authors, publishers big and small, and bookstores who bring a mini-store to the event for the weekend. Oh, and it’s not all books, either; there are musicians, filmmakers, and photographers, too!

If you’ve never been before, it all sounds like it might be a little dry, but honestly, it’s a fun and vibrant weekend for people of all ages and interests. The USC marching band is on hand to keep the atmosphere lively, and there are cooking demonstrations and two entire stage areas dedicated to activities for kids. There’s a poetry stage, a couple of music stages, a young adult stage, the Hoy stage which features mariachi music and Spanish-language programming for all ages, and, if you want to take a break in air-conditioned comfort, you can head over to the School of Cinematic Arts’ Broccoli Theater for a screening of Frankenweenie or Looper. Check out the full schedule of events here.

John Scalzi, LATFOB 2013

John Scalzi, LATFOB 2013

Of particular interest to our geeky following are John Scalzi’s Redshirts: From Page to Screen panel on Saturday; a young adult sci-fi panel featuring Leigh Bardugo, Cecil Castellucci, Sarah J. Maas, and Marissa Meyer on Sunday; and Veronica Roth discussing Divergent, also on Sunday.  There’s also the Dinosaur Encounters, presented by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and the DC Super Friends in a couple of different presentations, like “Skyscraper Showdown” and “Joker’s Joyride,” which repeat throughout the weekend on the children’s stage. We’ll be covering all of this for you, so if you can’t make it to the festival, stay tuned!

If you’re going to the festival, there are some things you’ll want to know! If you have a smartphone, be sure to download the festival’s app. It has maps for parking and the festival (and it lets you plant flags on the map … where you left your car or where you agreed to meet your friends for lunch, for example). Get the app before you go and you can actually use it to plan out the things you want to see, and it’ll send you reminders. It makes a nifty little personalized calendar of the festival for you, and it will also help you find food; it lists all the food at the festival, as well as nearby eateries.

Speaking of food, the festival features food trucks (including my beloved Grilled Cheese Truck), and has increased the number of trucks and space allotted to them each year, to accommodate the huge number of hungry festival goers. You can also buy food from the campus store or eat at one of the campus eateries (which are quite good, but finding a place to sit can be a challenge). Still, if you have an early afternoon event to get to, you’ll want to get in line for food by about 11:30, or you’ll probably be late. Lines are at their worst from around 11:30 to 1:30, so if you can eat early or late, you’ll spend a lot less time standing around, and more time having fun. Some food trucks only accept cash.

Getting there is another point worthy of mention. If you have access to the Metro, the Expo Line train will drop you off about 30 feet from one end of the festival, and showing your Metro ticket will get you a 10% discount on official festival merchandise. If you drive, be aware that parking costs $10, and depending upon when you arrive, you may have to walk some distance from the parking lot to the festival. The parking lots are supposed to take credit and debit cards, but sometimes they break (this happened to me last year), so it’s good to have cash on hand just in case. During the festival, some streets in the area are closed off, and there may be delays, so put your “patient hat” on before you go.

Children's Stage, LATFOB 2013

Children’s Stage, LATFOB 2013

And speaking of walking, it’s important to know that the event is mostly outdoors, partly on grass, and is fairly spread out. I attend a lot of panels when I go, and I walk 5-6 miles a day there (burns off the grilled cheese). If you are just wandering through enjoying the booths and stages, you’ll probably walk more like 2-3 miles. You will probably be glad to have comfy shoes and a hat. The campus has a lot of lovely shade trees, but you’re still going to spend a good deal of time in the sun if you’re walking through the booths. Water. Sunscreen. Yes, please.

How to see the panels (they are calling them “conversations” these days) you want? If the panel is held in one of the indoor venues, you will need a ticket. The tickets are free, but if you want to get yours in advance (some of the panels are already sold out), there is a $1 per ticket service charge. They also have a ticket booth on site, where you don’t have to pay the service fee, but if you want to go that route, get there early. They over “sell” the tickets (to compensate for likely no-shows), so even if you have a ticket, go to the venue early to be sure you actually get in. How early depends on the popularity of the panel. For Veronica Roth or John Scalzi, I’d go a minimum of an hour ahead (I waited in line for a bit more than two hours to see Ray Bradbury talk). For less-wildly-popular panels, 30-45 minutes ahead is probably plenty. The outdoor venues don’t require tickets, but you may want to arrive early to get a better seat and/or shade.

The Los Angeles Time Festival of Books runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday April 12, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 13, 2014. For additional information, and to learn about the Book Prize Awards Friday, April 11, and Festival After Dark event on Saturday night, please visit the event website.

Apr 072014

Nasa logoby Nur Hussein, contributing writer

A recent press release by NASA has us excited; the space exploration agency is dropping a mountain of code to the public. The software that the agency has developed over the years cover things like image processing, robotics, data processing, and design tools amongst other things. The press release state it’s going to be “over 1000 codes,” and we assume that means over a thousand pieces of software. We haven’t got a comprehensive list to look at yet, but we’ll find out on Thursday. We can access the NASA technology transfer portal for things that NASA has already released.

The press release states that the code has been evaluated for access restrictions, and that some code may have some restrictions for use only by federal agencies, or by US citizens. This implies there will be a variety of software licenses at play here, some of them don’t sound truly Open Source as defined by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). A cursory look at NASA’s current open software list sees code licensed under a variety of OSI-approved licenses, so it’ll be interesting how this release will play out with regard to licensing.

Regardless, this is a great move by NASA, and any open government initiatives should be lauded. After all, development of this software was done with taxpayer dollars. We’ll see this Thursday what we fun stuff we get to play with from NASA.


Apr 072014

kittyoIf there’s one thing we geeks are serious about (besides our geeky endeavors), it’s our pets. We pamper them and have conversations with them, cuddle and play with them, and wait on them paw and tail. Despite all the jokes we make about cats being imperious and aloof, though, it’s not an entirely one-sided equation: they purr us to sleep when we’re stressed and sleep on our heads to keep us warm through the night. They are endless sources of entertainment; they seem to know just when we most need them, and let’s face it, we miss them terribly when they’re not around.

Kittyo inventor, Lee Miller, explains how a tiny white kitten inspired his invention. “I was cat-sitting my friend’s cat, Pasha, when he was just a kitten. We were having a blast playing with the laser pointer. At the same time, his mom was texting me constantly, asking for pictures and videos and updates. That’s when it occurred to me: there had to be a way for pet parents to play with their cats when they weren’t at home. Everybody I told about the idea loved it and I knew I was on to something.”

What’s a Kittyo, you ask? It’s a small robotic device that works with a smart phone app (Android or iOS) to allow you to play laser pointer with your cat remotely, speak to your cat, record video during your play sessions, and dispense treats. And before anyone decides to nerd-correct me on the use of the term “robotic,” I’d like to remind that not all robots are Asimo. “Robot, noun, a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, esp. one programmable by a computer.”

So, with the idea of Kittyo in mind, Miller started looking for the right design firm to bring his idea into the world. “I didn’t have relationships with any designers at that time. I ended up meeting with over a dozen firms around New York, visiting their offices and getting a feel for how it all works.”

In the end, Miller chose ION Design for the project. You probably don’t know their name, but you likely have some products they designed in your home. They’ve done everything from the flip-top can that French’s Fried Onions come in, to several Altec Lansing speaker models. They also designed the Zero Water pitcher and a bunch of those really cool OXO kitchen tools, along with a host of medical and commercial devices. Some of those devices used a smartphone interface similar to what Miller wanted for Kittyo.

Steven Bellofatto, co-founder of ION Design, and product development lead said, “When I first heard about Kittyo, I was really excited about it and I knew it would be a product that pet owners would love.”

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Anyone who’s ever owned a cat knows how quickly and easily they become conditioned to react to certain sounds. “The laser pointer I was using to play with Pasha was on a keychain, and pretty soon, he’d hear the sound of that keychain and come running from two rooms away.” Miller explains. “We wanted to bring out their little lion or tiger.” Activate the Kittyo sound cue to let your cat know it’s time to come and play, and let the fun begin!

Kittyo’s overall design is sleek and modern, and its smartphone app is clean and simple. All of the primary controls are on a single screen with no annoying menus to fumble through. The initial set-up is also designed to be quick and painless. You use your finger on your smartphone screen to move the laser pointer around, and you can speak to your cat, record video, or dispense a treat with a tap of the finger. The treat dispenser has seven compartments, each of which will hold a few kitty treats, so you can give treats more than once a day, or daily for up to a week.

Bellofatto adds, “We even came up with a shelf mount, so if you’re a curious cat, you wouldn’t knock it over inadvertently.”

Picture it: little Tribble has been getting into trouble while you’re away at work. Now, you can check in with her during the day, lets her hear your voice and helps keep her entertained, so she’ll stop shredding your magazines out of boredom. Or maybe the vet says Chewbacca’s getting a little too chubby? Kittyo lets you give him little exercise sessions throughout the day, no matter where you are. You’re off to KickAssCon for the weekend. Sure, you’ve got someone stopping in to feed Schrodinger and hang with him for a little while each day, but you miss him. Kittyo not only allows you to peek inside the box any time you want, but you can also give him a treat and grab a new video to share with friends. We’re not sure who’s going to have more fun with this thing: the cats, or their humans!

On April 21, 2014, Kittyo will launch its Kickstarter campaign, offering discounted pricing for customers who pre-order through Kickstarter. The units will ship in the Fall, so you’ll have Pixel’s holiday gift covered … if you can wait that long to open it!

The fine folks behind Kittyo have given us the ability to share this awesomeness with our readers and listeners! One of you will win your very own Kittyo! Our giveaway runs from April 7, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. PDT through 9:00 p.m. PDT on April 13, 2014. Pounce on the entry widget below for your chance to win!


Mar 302014

Raniby Nur Hussein, contributing writer

Kate O’Mara sadly passed away today at the age of 74. She was famous for her role in the TV series Dynasty, but to sci-fi fans she’s forever known as the only actress (so far) to play an iconic villain on Doctor Who: the Rani. Unlike the power-hungry villain archtype of the Master, the Rani was a ruthless evil scientist who wasn’t interested in ruling the universe as so much as she wanted to understand it, no matter the cost. She was a Time Lady with a TARDIS of her own, and her amoral pursuit of science was an interesting foil for the Doctor. It was a role Kate O’Mara played delightfully over-the-top, and she remains memorable to this day.

Kate O’Mara appeared in two serials: “The Mark of the Rani” (1985) and “Time and the Rani” (1987), opposite the sixth and seventh Doctors respectively. She also appeared in the charity special Dimensions in Time (which is of dubious canonicity). Apart from Doctor Who, she has appeared in several genre films and tv shows, such as a guest role in the British TV series The Avengers, as well as 70s gothic horror B-movies such as Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein (both from 1970).

Kate O’Mara had a long and fruitful career in film and television, and she will be missed.