Monday, November 17, 2014

Win Tickets to See ANNIE Before it Hits Theaters (Seattle) and a Gift Pack (US)

On Saturday night, Nate was hanging out at a friend's house, and we were looking for something to do.  We saw that the original Annie was on Netflix, so Super-Dad, Kitty, and I  cuddled up on the couch and watched.  Kitty LOVED it.  She maybe didn't love the vocal accompaniment that SD and I provided (I thought we were pretty good), but she is *so* into Annie.
I'm glad she got a chance to see it before the remake of ANNIE hits theaters on December 19th.  Totally coincidentally, two days after we watched the original Annie, the folks over at Columbia pictures asked if I'd like to offer my Seattle readers VIP tickets for an advance screening of ANNIE on December 13th at 10:30 AM at Pacific Place.  There will be three winners!  Two of you will win passes for four, and one runner up will win passes for two.  Your passes will enable you to enter the theater and choose your seats before the rest of the line.  To enter, use the first rafflecopter form below.

Don't live in Seattle, but still a fan of ANNIE?  Don't fret!  Columbia Pictures has a gift pack filled with collectible ANNIE items that anyone in the U.S. can enter to win.  The pack includes: an ANNIE T-Shirt, fuzzy socks, a poster and a plush Sandy.  To enter to win this pack, use the second rafflecopter form below.



Enter to win either a 4 pack (2 winners) or a two-pack (1 winner) of VIP Tickets to the preview screening of ANNIE on December 13th at 10:30 AM at Pacific Place in Downtown Seattle (Seattle and vicinity only)
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Enter to win a Promotional Gift Pack of ANNIE Merchandise (open to all residents of the US)
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Amazon Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition Review

Kitty teaching her cousin about the states at a local Red Robin.  Making dinner time education time!
With the holidays coming up we were starting to toss around the idea of getting Kitty her own tablet. Her desire to use my laptop and my tablet was beginning to take a toll on both my productivity and my hardware.

Super-Dad and I made a list of the features we would want if we were to buy her her own device. She is reading now, so a tablet with a good e-reader was a must. She loves to watch PBS shows on Netflix, so the ability to install common apps was also high on the list . After a bit of going over what it was we wanted, we actually decided against getting her a device. We don’t generally buy things made specifically for kids since A) Our kids are pretty savvy (as I am sure many of my readers’ kids are) and B)They inevitability outgrow them and then you have an expensive paperweight. Anything that would meet our expectations would be too expensive and fragile to risk her breaking it - and one of Kitty’s nicknames is “The Destroyer of Things”.

Then came the Amazon Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition. It launched last month and kinda flew under my radar. Frankly, even if I had seen it, I would have assumed all it promised was too good to be true. Well, two weeks ago Amazon gave me a Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition, and it has lived up to all of its promises and more. While it’s no longer an option for our holiday giving to Kit, it should definitely be on your gift list.

If you are going to buy your kids a tablet this holiday season, I strongly recommend the Amazon Fire Kindle HD Kids Edition. Here's why:


  • It’s Kitty Proof - Even The Destroyer of Things can’t hurt this sucker. Made of super tough Gorilla Glass and wrapped in a “Kid-Proof Case” it’s not going to be easy for her to break. The case is a lightweight rubbery/foamy material that surrounds the whole device like a bumper. It also has adds a surface for small hands to grip.
  • Two year No Questions Asked Warranty - Even if she does somehow break it, it is covered under a two year no questions asked guarantee. I asked if that for sure covered user-caused damaged. Ya know, like if it accidentally fell into a toilet? To which the awesome folks at Amazon replied “No questions asked, if it stops working within the two years, we will replace it”. That is UNHEARD of, and I’m sure will be very welcome in most households with “spirited” children like mine.
  • Sooo many apps - The Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition comes with one year of Amazon Freetime, a hand-curated subscription of over 5,000 kid-friendly books, movies, TV shows, educational apps, and games. After the one year period is up the Freetime App is still a huge value at $2.99/month for Amazon Prime Members and $4.99/month for everyone else. This is AMAZING you guys. There are books and videos featuring Disney characters, Nickelodeon shows, PBS Kids content and so much more. There are tons of leveled readers, lots of great educational apps and a selection of entertainment videos and games. Kitty has been using this thing practically non-stop for two weeks and has yet to say that she is bored with the content.
  • The parental controls were clearly designed by parents - besides having the ability to control exactly which of the Freetime content you want your kids to have access to, you can control when they can have it. The Freetime parental controls contain Wake up and Bed Time settings and kids are locked out of the device outside of that time frame. What we really, really love though, is that we can lock Kit out of any of the “entertainment” content until she has met certain educational goals. Kitty gets a total of two hours of screen time a day( not counting reading time, which is unlimited), but before she can access iCarly or the Hair Salon game, she has to read in the reading app for 30 minutes on school nights and 45min on weekends, use any of the educational apps for 30 minutes(right now Stack the States is the favorite, and has given her the ability to put all 50 states on the map! She’s seven! I can’t even do that! ) and watch an educational video (Wild Kratts and BrainPOP are the current winners in that category) and only then can she watch or play what Freetime has marked as entertainment. She has always been a reluctant reader, and this has helped immensely. I like, want to find the person who came up with this idea and buy them a coffee. It has the reward built right in. We don’t have to nag or police her. If she wants the tablet to do something other than read, she’s gotta read. You can fine tune these settings at any time, so if we take a road trip, or she’s stuck in bed sick, we can give her more time. If she’s having a hard week listening, we can give her less.
  • It’s a real tablet - This thing has real tablet specs. It’s the Kindle Fire HD with the Kids stuff on top. When she is done for the night, I log onto my profile and watch a show in bed before I fall asleep. I have access to any app in Amazon’s app store. I watch Netflix on the HD display, the quad-core processor means everything runs smoothly and looks great, and it has a 2MP camera for photos and 1080p HD video. You can skype and it looks pretty good.
  • It may be a real tablet, but it was designed for kids - Amazon told me that they started from the ground up when developing a tablet for children. It boots directly into kids mode (no “Mommy, wake up, I need you to put in the password!”) and is intuitive for even the youngest non-readers to use. The lack of physical home and back buttons takes a little getting used to, but as with many tech related “issues” Kitty got used to that before the adults did.


The only real detractor here is the $2.99/$4.99 monthly price tag for the Freetime after your first year is up. It is an added expense, and the parental controls go away with it, but I think that it is such a good value for all the content that you get that I can’t even complain about that too much. When the time comes, I will happily pay it. Practically unlimited books alone is worth that tiny price tag.

I was given an Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition to facilitate this review, but my love for it is all my own. If a tablet for a kid is on your shopping list this holiday season, this is a good bet.

The Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition starts at $149 and includes a case, a two year Worry Free Guarantee and one year of Amazon Freetime. ( if you buy from that link I get some pennies [literally a few cents] to help with blog maintenance.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Big Hero 6 Fun Facts

If you read my review you know that I *loved* Big Hero 6, as did the rest of my family.  It's  rare to find a family-friendly film that is truly entertaining for our whole family (a fidgety 7 year old, a jaded teen, and two cynical parents), but Disney once again did the job.  Apparently everyone everywhere agrees, because Big Hero 6 was the #1 movie this week.

Disney sent me some very cool fun facts to share with you.  No spoilers here, so if you're still planning on going you can use these facts to enhance your experience!  I especially love the geeky facts about how Denzien, Disney's proprietary crowd-creating system, helped the animators make tons of unique characters to fill San Fransokyo, and the fact that several cast members are real-life robotics enthusiasts!



CHARACTERS

SLAM DUNK – Baymax is 6 feet tall and 75 pounds—until Hiro mechs him out. Baymax, in
his super suit, is more than 7 feet tall and can lift 1000 pounds. “He’s all air,” says head of animation Zach Parrish.
 
GO AHEAD – Artists looked at actors like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper and other cowboys to study cool, emotionally reserved traits while developing GoGo Tomago’s look and personality.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BLINK – Baymax sports a standard nine-frame-blink, says head of animation Zach Parrish. “We play with the speed of his blink throughout the film, but for the most part, it’s a standard blink. It’s the amount of time we give the audience to think before he blinks that says a lot—the longer it is, the more time he’s processing. A double blink shows confusion. We used that a few times in the film. That could be an acting choice for a human character, too.”

NEED FOR SPEED – Artists looked at speed skaters to inform the body type and movement for GoGo Tomago, a passionate student of speed.

DUUUUUUDE – Artists studied snowboarders, skateboarders and surfers to develop movement and posture for Fred.

CHILL OUT – Wasabi, at one time, was a very Zen character with very Zen dreadlocks. When filmmakers tweaked his personality, they initially decided the neatnik wouldn’t be a fan of the not-oft-shampooed-do and gave him a haircut. The look didn’t last. It turns out, everyone was just too attached to his cool locks.


LOOSE TOOTH – To ensure Hiro’s charming gap-toothed grin stayed intact from any angle, controls were added to his teeth so animators could make adjustments as needed.

TALENT
ROBOT LOVE – Ryan Potter, who voices Hiro in “Big Hero 6,” was obsessed with building robots as a kid. “I was 9 or 10 when I got a robotics kit,” he says. “I absolutely love science.”

MORE ROBOT LOVE – Genesis Rodriguez, who lends her voice to Honey Lemon in “Big Hero 6,” was on her school’s robotics team. “I was a welder,” she says. “So I made sure my weldings were just perfect and very aesthetically pleasing as well. People didn't expect us to be so good. That was the beauty of it. We were just this bright group of girls who had an idea, executed it and beat the guys.”

SMART GUY – James Cromwell, who lends his voice to Professor Robert Callaghan,
studied at Carnegie Mellon University (then called Carnegie Tech). “Big Hero 6” filmmakers spent time at the school, learning all about the innovative field of soft robotics, which ultimately inspired Baymax, a huggable vinyl robot that takes care of people.

FULL CIRCLE – As a child, Damon Wayans Jr., who provides the voice of Wasabi, wanted to be an animator when he grew up. He even studied animation after graduating high school before he decided to pursue acting.

FILMMAKING

LET IT GROW – The “Big Hero 6” animation team topped 100 members (103, to be exact). That’s about 15 more animators than 2013’s feature film “Frozen.”


MARTIAL ARTISTS – Filmmakers selected karate to broaden Baymax’s skillset—but animators had to adjust some of the movements to work for the voluminous character’s build. A few members of the team visited a nearby martial arts studio to get a feel for the practice. Pros were asked to attempt some of the moves while on their knees to simulate Baymax’s signature proportions.

I CAN FLY – Filmmakers consulted with flight specialist Jason McKinley, who worked on both “Disney’s Planes” and “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” to choreograph and execute the flight sequences with Baymax and Hiro.

670’S A CROWD – Walt Disney Animation Studios’ proprietary system Denizen allowed filmmakers to create bigger, more believable crowds for “Big Hero 6.” created around 670 unique characters, compared to 270 in “Frozen,” 185 in “Wreck-It Ralph” and 80 in “Tangled.”
  • Each of the 670 characters has up to 32 different clothing look combinations, plus 32 different hair and skin tones. That means, filmmakers could invite 686,080 unique characters to the San Fransokyo party before there were any exact repeats. 
  • Denizen was made available to everyone at Walt Disney Animation Studios and employees were encouraged to model themselves in the system to join the crowd. More than 200 characters were created, and employees will see themselves up on the big screen—walking among the “Big Hero 6.”

COUNT ON IT -- The "Port of San Fransokyo" scene has over 6000 people in it
  • 23 districts were built in 3D.
  • 83,149 lots of the 150,000 in all of San Francisco were built.
  • 18.8 million building parts.
  • 215,000 streetlights.
  • 260,000 trees.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Device that Saved Drive Time

The City of Seattle is doing a "Neighborhood Revitalization Project" in my neighborhood.  This is fancy talk for "fixing the streets".  They are totally gutting the roads, putting in new drainage pipes, making them bigger, repaving with more durable materials.  It is a crazy ambitious project that by the time it's done in the beginning of next year, will have lasted two years. And it's all happening right outside my front door.  I live on a major thoroughfare and this project, which will eventually be a major improvement, is currently a major pain in my rear.

We moved into this little townhouse one month before the project started.  We were already wary of moving out of our former beloved (and currently way too trendy/expensive) neighborhood, because we lived two blocks from school.  Moving into our current house meant a 12 minute commute in the car.  Once the construction started it added 5 minutes onto our morning commute and a whopping 20 minutes and two miles onto our afternoon ride back to the house.

As I've written about before, it can be very difficult for us to get out of the house.  On many mornings I have resorted to bribery rewards. With the construction making our commute painful, one of the best "rewards" I can offer Kitty is the ability to watch a show in the car.  Problem is, with my current Data Plan (not through AT&T), my data is throttled after I reach 5 GB.  I don't frequently use that much data, even if we do watch a few shows, but letting Kitty stream Netflix, or a show from her Kindle Fire Kids Edition does use a bit of data, and I never want to be stranded somewhere, unable to use the data on my phone because Kitty was too engrossed in Wild Kratts.

Enter the AT&T Unite for GoPhone.  This thing has been amazing.  Netgear hooked me up with this rad device and 1.5 GB of data, so that I could let you know what I think about it.  It has really been amazing.  So far we've used it for a trip to school, a trip home from school and in a restaurant.  That 1.5 GB still has some data left, and the best part is that since it's a prepaid style device, Kit can EARN refills.  I love putting that responsibility in her hands.  Want to watch a show in the car?  Better do some extra chores and reading!




Besides the convenience of pre-paid, I love that the device was so easy to set up.  Even a wi-fi novice could get it going with its default settings in a matter of minutes.  I dinked around a little more so that I could change the hot spot's name to match the naming conventions we have for the rest of our devices, and even that was super easy.  I had the whole thing loaded up with a new pre-paid card and configured within 10 minutes.

It has good battery life.  The documentation claims 10 hours, and I found it to be a bit over eight, but that's still really good.  You can take a nice long road trip with that before you need to recharge.  I have a feeling this has to do with the number of devices and what they are streaming.  It can connect to up to 10 devices.  We had up to three connected, with two of them streaming low quality video.

I also like the ability to set a temporary guest wi-fi password.  I had a meeting the other day, and was the only source of wi-fi thanks to the Unite.  I felt safe knowing that I was giving my co-workers a temporary password that would no longer work after the meeting.

 Mobile data is still one of those products that costs more than it seems it should and this is no exception. The data plans are not super cheap, with $25 getting you 1.5 GB or a month, which ever comes first.  It won't be a big issue for us, as we will continue to use in places like the care where other wi-fi isn't available, but this tech isn't cheap enough yet to be your sole source of the internet.

I was given an AT&T Unite and 1.5 GB of  data to facilitate this review.  I have to say it, but you already know that all opinions are mine.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Can I take my 5 year old to Big Hero 6?

Last night the whole family went to a screening of Big Hero 6, the newest offering from Disney Animation Studios.  The film was delightful.



The movie centers around 14 year old robotics prodigy Hiro.  Hiro's brother Tadashi, a robotics genius in his own right, tries to motivate his under-achieving brother by taking him on a tour of Tadashi's workplace, a robotics research lab.  After a terrible tragedy changes their lives, Hiro goes on a mission to defeat a mysterious Kabuki mask wearing super-villian.  He creates a team consisting of other university employees and Baymax, the medical assistant robot Tadashi designed.

It's a little curious to me that Disney decided to release this under the Disney Animation Studios banner, as opposed to Marvel Studios. It's very loosely based on an obscure Marvel comic series from the 90's.  Super-Dad and I speculate that they didn't want to tie this film into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so they left the Marvel Studios branding off.   But this could TOTALLY be a Marvel film.  Marvel's Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada consulted on the production, there was the Marvel de facto after credits scene and the obligatory (and cleverly done) Stan Lee cameo.

The story, based in the fictional mash-up city of San Fransokyo is beautifully animated. The script feels heartfelt, the character development is laudable, and the voice acting is top-notch.  There were many big laughs, as well as several somber, emotional moments.  This is definitely a must-see for the geeky family.


Parent's Guide:

There is no offensive language in this movie, not even a "crap".   There is some intense action, though no one is seriously injured in any of the fight (though it's not for lack of trying).  There are a few tense scenes, and the off-screen deaths of two characters.

I was actually really surprised by the level of emotion that I felt during the film, I expected a kids action comedy, and instead got a touching story about loss, determination, and applying your talent. Hiro experiences some pretty traumatic losses during the film and a big theme of the movie is how he processes his grief.  In the screening we were in a little girl (probably around age 5 or 6) got pretty upset and was crying.  I cried a few times during the movie, but at one point was actually fighting off sobs.  I am a crybaby and so it's no surprise that I would be affected in such a way, but 14 year old Nathan whispered to me for a tissue as well.  Kitty was convinced that there would be a happy ending, so she was able to hold herself together.  Apparently her grasp of fictional narrative kept her eyes dry.  I would expect that smaller children may have some questions about death and loss after viewing this one, but anyone aged 8 and up should be fine. Bring the tissues.

Target, Spiderman and Gender Roles

If you follow me on Twitter (@ParentingGeekly), you may have seen this tweet this evening.

This is the second time we've seen that same sign at Target.  Here it is from April, when a store manager told me "the signs just come that way from corporate".
Some may think this is an overly sensitive complaint, that it's just a sign at a store.  But Kitty decided that she didn't want those DC Super Friends Little People (she was in the market for some new bath toys) because they were "for boys".  C'mon Target! It's already hard enough when most of the super hero clothes are in the boy's clothing section, and when the kids at school tease her about her "boy's" backpack.  Can't we just leave the action figures out of it?  Why couldn't that sign just have left the word "Boys'" off?  They're just toys. There is no reason to tie anyone's gender identity into them, they are just TOYS.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Vote!

When I was a kid my mother was fiercely private about her vote . She always told us it was rude to ask people who they were voting for. 

It must be a generational thing, I have no problem talking with my kids about what we are voting for, who we are voting for and why. We have a 14 year old son and I feel that it's really important to get him involved in the civil process before he has to do it all on his own.

Whatever your beliefs, whatever your political leanings, it is so vitally important that you go out and vote today (or make sure your ballot is mailed in.) In a democracy we have the ability to let our government know what it is we want, what it is we stand for. When people don't vote that system doesn't serve us the way it should, and those who don't vote have no right to complain about it.

So go out there and stand up for what you believe in. Even if you don't talk to your kids about it in detail, even if they're too young to understand, you're setting the example of how to be a responsible citizen.

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