Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Easy Valentine's Project: Personalized Bookmarks

For Christmas we gave each of our nephews a book.  Since the gift lacked a personal touch Nate came up with the idea of making bookmarks for each of them. This project was so simple and the results were so well received that we've decided to make them for Valentine's Day for Nate's classmates.  It solves two problems I hate about kids' Valentine's Day Parties:  all the cards that you look at once and then have to throw away and the abundance of candy.  Using these as a Valentine's Day greeting will make a card the kids can use again and is a gift that's not candy.

I was going to get the finished bookmarks laminated at the local office supply store, but ran out of time   I came up with the packing tape idea out of desperation, but it works beautifully.  Packing tape is way cheaper than getting something laminated or even laminating it on a home machine, and it is the perfect size for a bookmark. 

You will need:
  • Card stock or old cereal boxes for a kitschy (and free!) alternative.
  • Alphabet stickers to spell each child name, a program that can pint the names vertically or good handwriting and a nice pen.
  • White printer paper.
  • Stickers.  Make sure they are flat and don't have a texture.  You will "laminate" these and the clear layer won't stick well on puffy or glittery stickers.
  • Crystal Clear Packing Tape for laminating the book marks.
  • Scraps of yarn to make the tassel.
  1. Cut your cardboard/cardstock into your desired length and about 1/4th of an inch thinner than your packing tape.
  2. Cut your white paper about 1/4 inch smaller on each side than your cradstock.  You can play with sizes, and eyeball it.  This certainly doesn't have to be accurate.
  3. Add child's name to the white paper with stickers, a printer or a marker, attach the name plate to the cardstock with a glue stick or strategically placed stickers.
  4. Pull out a piece of the packing tape twice the length of the bookmark plus about 1/2 inch.  Lay the tape down with the sticky side up.  Place the bookmark face down on the tape about 1/4 inch from the bottom.
  5. Carefully fold the top half of the tape down so that it covers the back of the bookmark.  When folding the tape over leave a 1/4 inch gap where the tape will stick to itself to leave a nice border.
  6. Smooth out the tape and trim any edges that are hanging over with scissors,
  7. Punch a hole near the top of the book mark.  
  8. Fold your yarn in half and put the folded edge through the hole and pull it halfway through.
  9. Thread the open ends of the thread through the loop over the top of the bookmark and pull them through, 
  10. Knot the yarn at the top of the book mark. 
  11. Make another knot about 1 inch down from the ends of the yarn.
  12. Pull apart each end of the yearn, separate each strand to make the tassel and fluff it up.
There you go, a super easy craft that you can do with your kids.  These aren't just for Valentine's and Christmas, you could use these as party favors, place markers, or gift tags.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Duke Nuekem Forver...For Real This Time

There is finally a confirmed release date for Duke Nukem Forever: May 3, 2011.
Here's the trailer (Warning: definietly not kid-friendly):

After twelve years the graphics could be better, but that's not really the point now, is it?

For those not sure why this release is a big deal read the Wikipedia article.  This game, the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D (with platform Duke Nukem titles having been around since 1991) a relatively ground-breaking FPS (you played a character with a name, a face and a back story and the game prominently featured adult subject matter) has been in development hell since it was announced in 1997.  Screen shots for the highly-anticipated game started leaking in 1999 and at one point the developers said it would be released "When it was done".  

They are clearly playing on our sense of nostalgia here. I don't get the feeling from the trailer that we are going to see anything revolutionary as far as game play or graphics go. I do get the impression that we will see a lot of gratutitous boobs.

Don't get me wrong, I'm totally excited to get my hands on this, and play it after the kids are sound (like really, really sound) asleep.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Disney Princesses Need Not Apply

Disney Princesses need not apply.

I just found this ThinkGeek shirt via a picture posted over on Geek Dad on a post about stories featuring female characters.  I actually haven't read the post yet, as the picture of the shirt got me right over to ThinkGeek.  I think I may get this for Kitty for her upcoming birthday.  She's obsessed with princesses right now.  Thankfully much of her playacting involves swords (she was Princess Assassin yesterday at one point) and very few princes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Geeky Hostess Posts a WOW themed bathroom that will make you pee your pants.

This will blow your mind.  I've always thought that bathrooms were the perfect room to really go all out with themes.  As a kid my bathroom showed my mother's affinity for vintage Mickey Mouse, replete with a giant "Steamboat Willie" shower curtain.  When I went to college my apartment bathroom was covered in pin-up girls and Super-Dad and I rocked a Spiderman bathroom for awhile before switching to our current "We are grownups....really" flowery decor.  Bathrooms are generally small and no one takes them seriously, so I figure you can really go to town without making people raise their eyebrows.

The Geeky Hostess is currently featuring a bathroom that will put all other themed baths to shame: a World of Warcraft/Horde themed powder room that will blow your mind.  Here's a sneak peak, visit The Geeky Hostess for more:

This is way cooler than my "Flowers and Half Empty Bottles of Facewash" themed bathroom.

Happy 30th Birthday, Buffy!

That's right, everyone's favorite sassy vampire slayer celebrates her 30th birthday today.  Not coincidentally today is also the release of the last issue of Dark horse's  Buffy Season Eight Comic. 

I am going to celebrate by picking up my copy at my local comic shop; the fabulous Arcane Comics and More in Seattle, and having a cupcake (because Buffy would want me to). 

Dark Horse is hosting "official" birthday parties at locations around the country.  Visit Dark Horses' website here to find one near you.

Are you planning on attending a Buffy Birthday party?  Take some pictures and share your experience in the comments.

On a related note, Kit loves Buffy and when asked what party theme she wanted for her fourth birthday coming up she asked for a Buffy party.  I veteod this in favor of her second choice, the slightly more child friendly Curious George.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What. The. Hell. Pic from the Upcoming X-Men First Class has me Scratching My Head

Well, this leaked today...

Left to right: Michael Fassbinder as Magneto, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost, Jason Flemyng as Azazel, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Lucas Till as Havoc, Zoe Kravitz as Angel Salvadore, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and James MacAvoy as Charles Xavier.

In what world can this be considered the First Class?  I thought we'd be seeing a young Cyclops, Angel, Marvel Girl, Beast and Ice Man, I thought at worst they'd try and throw Jubilee in the mix.  They are all over the map here. I think they may have randomly taken some issues of The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe and picked whichever paged they opened to.

Why is Emma Frost in there (disclosure: I hate Emma Frost. I am glad that they didn't try and give her a real costume here since all she wears in the books is underwear.)?  And I love Angel from New X-Men but she seems like an odd choice here. How can you have Havoc and not Cyclops? I'm so confused.

Someone please enlighten me: who is Azazel?  I don't feel bad not knowing that, as my dear friend Scott who happens to own my local comic shop was also clueless, though he offered "Maybe he's somehow related to Gozer the Gozerian".  I'd Google it but I'm feeling lazy and I'm sure one of you has to know.

Merit Badges for Nerds

Remember when you were in Boy/Girl Scouts and you got Merit Badges for completing some requirements?  Why shouldn't we get that now? The crap I do as a Geeky Parent is hard, I want some recognition, dammit!

The Homonyms badge. Oh, I see what you did there.
The guys over at Nerd Merit Badges think that we should get that recognition. They are doing their part to recognize the talent and accomplishments of nerds everywhere.   Right now they feature different eight different badges that you can purchase* upon completing the requirements.  They even sell a sash for your laptop!!!  You can earn badges for attaining the elusive empty e-mail inbox, or for providing tech-support to your family members (make your parents/kids/Aunt Sally buy that one for you).

 They are super cool and I want them all.

*One of the badges can only be earned by participating in a weight loss challenge on their sister site Loseitloseit.com.  This site also looks awesome, and I am thinking about giving it a go.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Seattle Kids: Children's Film Festival

From January 28th - February 6th the Northwest Film Forum is hosting the Children's Film Festival Seattle.  From their website:
Northwest Film Forum is getting ready to roll out the red carpet for Children's Film Festival Seattle -- the largest international festival of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. This year's 10-day extravaganza will include more than 125 films from 29 countries -- a mind-blowing blend of live performances, animation, features, shorts, historical films and fantastic hands-on workshops, all crafted with care to appeal to the next generation of movie lovers.

I'm pretty excited about this. They are hosting some special events including an opening kick-off party with Parenting Geekly favorite, Caspar Babypants, a viewing of the silent-era Mary Pickford film "The Little Princess" with a live score, a screening of animation from China and a Pancake/short film smorgasboard.

For more information please visit the festival's website here.

kids.woot : Awesome Deal on Swaddlers

You'll have to visit kids.woot.com to get the caption
All Geeky Parents who are expecting or have a newborn should check out kids.woot.com's deal today.  $7.99 for Halo brand baby swaddlers!

When Kitty was a baby she was totally miserable unless she was swaddled.  Because my geometry/origami/burrito-wrapping skills are terrible we bought a bunch of swaddlers.  Halo were definitely the highest quality, but at $25 a pop were out of our price range.  Instead we opted for the Kiddopotamus SwaddleMe, which were cheaper, but fell apart after awhile. I would have bought as many of these as they would let me, and then asked all of my friends to buy them, too. 

I'm not getting any kind of kick back on this, I just think it's an amazing deal on a high-quality product and wanted to share it with you, because I'm awesome like that.

Why I Let my Kid Play Assassin's Creed

Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile knows that I am pretty liberal about what I let my kids play, watch and read.  That being said we are fairly discriminating about things that are rated for an age group older than our kids.  Video games that glorify violence for violence's sake (like GTA and Saint's Row) are big no-nos in our house.  Once in awhile, though, a rated M game comes out that we feel is okay for Nate to play as long as we talk about it and supervise his playing.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
Being an Assassin isn't all rainbows and ponies.
One such example is the Assassin's Creed franchise from Ubisoft.  Yes, you are an assassin. There is a certain amount of implied violence that comes along with that.  You spend a lot of time in the game skulking around in the shadows and attacking people, and there is pleny of blood.  As a redeeming point, you are an assassin to fight the bad guys. Your motto being "we work in the dark to serve the light".

The premise is that you are Desmond Miles, a barteneder in the year 2012.  (Okay it gets a little ridiculous here, bear with me).  You are a descedant of Altaïr ibn La-Ahad, a medieval assassin during the Third Crusade and  Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young nobleman from 1476 in Florence. Using technology that involves DNA sequencing Desmond is able to relive his descendants' lives.  The whole point of this ridiculousness is to get information that will lead you to an artifact that is lost in the game's present and to find it before the bad guys- Templars, of course - do.

There are a couple of things that make this game appealing to me as a parent.  For one, you have to make good desicions.  Killing innocents will cost you life and make you restart the mission.  Yes, you're killing people, but you're killing only the bad guys and learning consequences.

Second, the developers at Ubisoft have gone above and beyond when it came to researching the game for historical accuracy. (There is a really long blog article here from Penn State that goes talks about some of the minute details in the first installment of the game that show just how much thought was put into it).  At every point of historical significance  in the game you are presented with an opportunity to read your "database". The database is essentially an accurate history article about whatever your looking at, providing hundreds of teachable moments during game play. At one point, after finishing the mission part of Assassin's Creed II Super-Dad decided to become an in-game art collector.  He would send Ezio on missions to make money and then buy art so that he could read the descriptions.  It was pretty cool to learn about famous renaissance paintings while playing a video game.

In Assasssin's Creed II and in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Leonardo DiVinci is featured heavily playing Q to Desmod/Ezio's James Bond.  Intrigued by all of the contraptions that DiVinci provides Ezio, Nate checked out a DiVinci bigoraphy from the library.  He's spent the past three days telling me about DiVinci's crazy inventions.  You may disagree with me about the appropriateness of these games, but MarioKart has never inspired my son to do further investigating at the library.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Official Picture of Chris Evans as Captain America

This is a scan from Entertainment Weekly that Ain't it Cool News posted a couple of days ago.  I haven't seen a higher resolution version posted anywhere yet, so here ya go...
Click to view larger.

It looks like it has fake abs, but other than that I like it. What do you think?

Apple to Give $10,000 to 10 Billionth Downloader

Apple's App Store is about to reach it's ten billionth download.  Be the lucky downloader and you can win a $10,000 iTunes gift card. 

Apple did a similar promotion when iTunes hit it's ten billionth download, which took eight years. The App Store has been open for three.

As of this morning the counter is just under 9.8 billion. I don't personally own any Apple products (I'm a fan of Android phones and other Open Source platforms) so I'm out of the running, are you going to give it a shot?

Friday, January 14, 2011

2010's Great Books for Children

Mary Bannister is the librarian at Nate's school.  I went to a presentation that she gave at PTA meeting earlier this year and I was blown away by her passion for getting kids to read. It's reassuring to know that my kid is in the hands of a real book geek.  This is Mrs. Bannister's first year at Whittier, and Nate's third.  I don't think it's coincidence that this year he has become a voracious reader. 

In this week's newsletter from school Mrs. Bannister did a great write-up on this year's ALA winners.  She has graciously allowed me to share this with you.  Hopefully you are inspired to go out and pick up one of these noteworthy books to share with your kids. For ease of purchase I have linked all the titles to their respective Amazon.com pages (Disclosure: Parenting Geekly recieves a very small percentage of  these sales which go to site maintenance). I actually encourage you to check these out from your local library or buy them from your local independent bookseller.

New Book Awards from ALA
Moon Over ManifestIt was thrilling January 11th to see the list of the new book awards from ALA this year, especially as I was introduced to many of these titles, authors and illustrators at the DC ALA Conference in June 2010.

The most well known awards are the Caldecott and Newbery, however the Newbery title (best written) took many by surprise. Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is the 2011 Newbery Medal winner. The book wasn't available in several local bookstores. Hopefully Amazon will come through for me. I had the order placed within 5 minutes of the awards list being posted!

Babymouse author, Jennifer Holm, took a Newbery Honor for Turtle in Paradise. Other Newbery Honors went to Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. This book also won the Coretta Scott King author award. (The book was highlighted at my Readers Workshop class this summer, where we were predicting it was a strong contender for awards!) These books are being provided to the library by a WITS grant.

The Caldecott medal for best picture book went to A Sick Day for Amos McGee illustrated by Erin E. Stead. A copy is already in our library thanks to a quick call to Mockingbird Books. We were able to get this title and the three Geisel award winners with book sales profits!

A Caldecott Honor and Corretta Scott King Illustrators award went to Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Laban Carrick Hill. At the ALA conference in DC this summer I was able to get a signed copy by the author and illustrator as well as a poster which is up already in the library!

Another Caldecott Honor went to Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein and is certain to be a kids favorite!

I hope to acquire a copy of this year's Pura Belpré Author Award The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, a favorite author of ours! In DC I picked up a personal copy signed by the illustrator of the Pura Belpre illustrator honor award Me Frieda. The award went to Grandma's Gift illustrated and written by Eric Velasquez, and the other honor books were Fiesta Babies illustrated by Amy Córdova, and Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin by Duncan Tonatiuh. All of these Pura Belpre titles would be excellent additions to the Whittier Library!

A favorite award of mine is the Geisel award in honor of Dr. Seuss for the most distinguished beginning reader book. This award started 5 years ago, which was my first year as a school librarian, so it is no wonder it has a soft spot in my heart. The winner was from an author that usually writes for older children, Kate DiCamillo in partnership with Alison McGhee for their title Bink and Gollie. The Geisel Honor Books were Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! by Grace Lin, a favorite author of picture and chapter books. The list wouldn't be complete without an appearance of a Mo Willem's title...this year's honor went to We Are in a Book! All three of these books are already in our library waiting for read-alouds to our youngest students!


Check out Mrs. B's Library Blog here.

Star Wars: The Complete Saga to be Released on BluRay

Star Wars fans everywhere will be able to geek out to the films in all their BluRay glory come September.  Last week at CES Twentieth Century Fox announced that it will release three separate sets of BluRay Discs (The Complete Saga, The Prequel Trilogy and The Original Trilogy).

According to the press release at StarWars.com:
Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray will feature all six live-action Star Wars feature films utilizing the highest possible picture and audio presentation, along with three additional discs and more than 30 hours of extensive special features including never-before-seen deleted and alternate scenes, an exploration of the exclusive Star Wars archives, and much more.
Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray will be available for $139.99 US/$179.99 CAN and the Star Wars: Trilogy Sets for $69.99 US/89.99 CAN. Pricing for each set will vary by international territory.
"With all six episodes available for the first time in one collection, this is a great way for families and home audiences to experience the complete Saga from start to finish," said Doug Yates, Vice President of Marketing, Online, Distribution, Lucasfilm Ltd. "And with the quality of high-definition, Blu-ray provides the most immersive home experience possible."
You can see a preview here, read the whole press-release here and pre-order  your copy from Amazon here.

So will this be the version where Han shoots first or the version that was re-released with the "improvements"?  Are you going to shell out the $90 (Amazon's pre-order price) for this?

Cool Interactive You Tube Video from Sesame Street

I've never seen anything like this before!  The folks over at Sesame Workshop have made an awesome interactive YouTube video.  By embedding links to other videos in the first video they have essentially created a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style experience.   This one features Cookie Monster and his friend Emma learning about buoyancy and introduces kids to the concepts of the scientific method.

Sesame Workshop has really done something cool and innovative here, and as is their style, it's done with high production value and many teachable moments (Kitty wanted to know what a hypothesis was after watching the clip).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seeking Guest Bloggers/ Interviewees

Are you a Geeky Parent?  Are you in a geeky profession and want to share your point of view? Do you have a topic that you just love to write about? Looking to increase exposure to your blog, or expand your writing portfolio? Well, good news, Parenting Geekly accepts submissions from guest bloggers! Submit a one paragraph pitch to: submissions@parentinggeekly.com. All guest bloggers will get a link to their blog/webpage in the blog post, as well as a mention on the Parenting Geekly Facebook and Twitter Feeds and exposure via Networked Blogs syndication.

I'm also looking for parents in geeky professions or those who have geeky hobbies to feature. I'd especially love to feature those who work in the comic book industry, in video games, the media,or academia, though I'm certainly open to other ideas.   If you think that's you and want to share your story without having to write for the blog email me at: sharon@parentinggeekly.com

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Seattle Area Kids: SciFi Writing Contest for EMP/SFM

The folks over at the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum want to involve kids in their upcoming Science Fiction Festival, taking place from February 7th - February 11th.

Here is the summary:
Short Story Details
Science-fiction themed short stories will be selected in the following age groups:
  • Grades 3 - 5
  • Grades 6 - 8
  • Grades 9 - 12
Submissions must be typed, double spaced and up to 3,000 words. Text only as well as illustrated stories will be accepted. All submissions will be read by a team including: science fiction comic book writer, Brandon Jerwa; author and EMP curator Brooks Peck; and EMP’s Education Director, Patricia Costa Kim.
1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners in each age group will be awarded prizes valued at $100, $75, and $50.
Prize winners will be invited to read their short stories on February 11 at 12pm in EMP's JBL Theater. All entries must be submitted to education@empsfm.org by January 17, 2011. All submissions must include the student's name, age, grade, and school.
More information can be found HERE. Hurry, the submission deadline in January 17th!

Playoff Football: Made Better Only by Super Mario Bros.

I am a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, but I live in Seattle.  My philosophy on cheering for the Seahawks is that I will cheer for Seattle until it impedes my ability to cheer for Philly. So, like everyone in Seattle, I was jumping up and down* with excitement as I watched Marshawn Lynch dodge half a dozen tackles to make 67 yard game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks.

So on Sunday evening as I was moping about  I found a little ray of sunshine in the form of a You Tube which shows the Lynch touchdown in the only way it makes sense:

*Really, there was a small measurable earthquake near Qwest Field that coincided exactly with the touchdown.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What the Hell *is* a Mandelbrot Set Anyway?

Yes, that's a real broccoli.  It's also an example of  fractals in nature.
 If my post "Nerdy Dance Party" totally had you scratching your head, you're in luck!  Nova: Hunting the Hidden Dimension, a very interesting documentary about the life and work of Benoit Mandelbrot and Fractals is on Netflix Streaming right now.   If you don't have Netflix Streaming (you should totally have Netflix Streaming, it's awesome) you can read about Fractals on wikipedia at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractal and the Mandelbrot Set here: http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Mandelbrot_set.

 Pretty cool, huh?

Edit:  Super-Dad just informed me that we were watching this episode of Nova on Hulu and that it also available (sans-commercials) on PBS.org.  Upon investigation it *is* available on Netflix, but on DVD only (maybe if I find the copy of  East Bound and Down Volume 1 that Kit lost sometime about four months ago I can get Netflix DVDs again...)

Oh, How I Hate those Uncomfortable Questions.

My mother blamed television. She was convinced that all of the mature subjects I broached were because I had seen or heard something on TV.  I believed her for awhile, because most of Nate's questions came after hearing something on television.

About six months ago we cut our cable. We are not anti-TV, I love watching television shows when I have time, and I think that it can even be a valuable parenting tool.  If you are discriminating about what you let your kids watch they can learn, and you can get the dishes done at the same time.  We cut the cable because it was too expensive and with Hulu and Netflix we just weren't watching live TV  that often.

But I digress...the point is that we got rid of live television and we were fairly picky about what we let the kids watch. Let me tell you, the questions didn't stop.

My philosophy on these questions is to answer them in a truthful but basic and age-appropriate way.  For example, the first time Nate asked what sex was the answer was "How babies are made", he said "Oh" and that was that.  He was four and didn't need an in-depth discussion about the mechanics involved, the most simple answer was the best.

Yesterday Nate asked what a condom was.  I was totally taken aback and answered with words that could have been coming straight out of my own mother's mouth "I'll tell you when you're older".  (Mom, if you're reading this I'm still waiting to learn what a prostitute is...) I immediately realized that this wasn't the right way to respond and told him "It's something that can be used to prevent disease".  He then asked if it "Was a sex thing", I answered yes and that was that.


Uncomfortable questions aren't just on the subject of sex either.  Kit recently asked why I was fat, and Nate wanted to know about the recent shooting in Arizona and why they took the N-word out of a recent printing of Huckleberry Finn.   I try to apply the same "Simple but truthful answers" philosophy regardless of the question.  I told Kit I was fat because I needed to be more active.  Nate was told that the shooter in Arizona was an angry man who was probably dealing with mental illness, and that the N-word was taken out because it is offensive.  He had more questions about that and it lead to a discussion about historical context and whether it should be sanitized for modern readers.  We also talked about how, even though the N-word was included, Huckleberry Finn was one of the first works to have a black character that was shown to be a good, loving person and not just a commodity.

What are some of the uncomfortable questions you have dealt with lately?  How did you answer?  Do you find that television makes it worse or opens up the door for communication?  Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: Leapfrog's Tag Reading System

As I've written before, Kitty is really interested in learning to read.  We're working on getting her there, but she's three and obviously it's going to take some time. This means that for now we are still reading her any book she's interested in.  We read to her A LOT, and while it's really hard to say "no" to a kid handing you a book, sometimes it's just not practical to take the time to read (like when I'm cooking, going to the bathroom, or I've just read her five books and she's begging for number six).  So when it was time to start thinking about Christmas presents for this year, Leapfrog's Tag Reading System was appealing because it would read the books to her.

LeapFrog TAG Reading System - Green
Note: product does not stand on its own.

Leapfrog offers a Tag Junior which is suggested for ages 2-4, and the Tag Reading System is suggested for ages 4-8.  With Kit being three months away from her fourth birthday we opted for the more advanced version. The Tag Junior books seemed like they'd be more interesting to Kitty, and they are board books, which would have been more durable, but we decided the bigger age-range of the Tag Reader ultimately made it the better option. We found a purple version of the reader on closeout for $20 (Score!  They system usually retails for about $30).  It came with The Cat in the Hat and we purchased additional books featuring The Little Mermaid, Tinkerbell and Scooby-Doo.  Aunt Karen knew about the purchase and picked up Tangled to round out her collection.

The Reader looks like a chunky pen, and connects to a PC with a USB cable.  Leapster's Connect software has to be installed on your system, and the content for each book has to be downloaded onto the pen.  The pen can hold up to ten titles at a time, though inactive titles are stored on your system and can be quickly swapped out.   This was the only clunky part of the process, but we had to load five books at once and Kitty was pretty excited about getting started.  The reader also uses to PC to access the "Learning Path" which allows the parent to track their child's progress.  The pen also occasionally asks the child to have a parent connect to the software to access online "rewards" thay they earn from working through the books and their games.

To quote Arthur C. Clarke "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and the Tag is a pretty good example of that. The books look and read just like a normal book, with the exception of a few small symbols in the bottom right hand corner of each page.  Touching these symbols allow the child to have the page read to them or to play short games which are available on most pages. Super-Dad and I were amazed at this tiny thing's ability to know exactly what point you were on in any given book without any additional hardware. The pen has an optical sensor and each page on the book has an almost invisible dot-matrix that the sensor uses to find its place. It will read the story, read the page, or read each word.  Each picture has sound effects or dialogue.  It's pretty slick. The speaker has good volume for its size, and Leapfrog has also included a headphone jack, which I am immensely grateful for. 

Unlike its predecessor, the bulky Leap Pad, (which required a large pad, a book, a cartridge and still needed the child to push a specific spot on each page to "activate" it) the Tag needs nothing but the pen and the books. It will also read any title you own aloud without the book, a really smart feature that we've used at bedtime and when the books were forgotten at home on a long car ride.

Leapfrog Tag Kid Classic Storybook Walter The Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise
Is Walter the Farting Dog a classic? That's for you to decide.
The production quality of the books we've tried has been phenomenal. The voice acting is great, as far as I can tell they use the same voice actors as the movies the books are based on.  The books are nice to look at and are long enough to be entertaining.  The MSRP on the books is about $14, but they are frequently on sale.  If you avoid character products the selection may leave you disspointed.  I think every book I've seen in stores is a licensed product, though there are several children's "classics" like Olivia , Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and The Little Engine that Could available. The Leapfrog website and Amazon (and occasionally stores) also carry learn to read kits with phonics based readers.  The website also offers a few interactive maps, some activity-only books and some game boards.

My only real complaint is that clicking on any picture plays an accompanying sound clip, which totally distracts Kitty from the actual story.  She will spend a good amount of time dinking around with the pictures and totally ignore the "read the page" icon.  That really is a small complaint, though.  Kitty finds the entire experience very entertaining.  We were worried that because she was on the low end of the suggested age group that the system would be too complicated for her (we remembered it taking Nate a few months to get into the swing of using the Leap Pad when it came out).  I am happy to report that she has absolutely no problem using the system.   Even Nathan enjoys it, and I have found them snuggled in bed "reading" together several times since Christmas.

The verdict?  The Tag Reading System is totally worth the $30 price tag.  It's portable, streamlined design makes it HUGE step up from Leap Frog's previous attempts and it manages to be both fun and educational. It's easy to use with features that make it both child and parent friendly.  Most importantly, it buys me 15 minutes of uninterrupted shower time.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nerdy Dance Party

We love Nerdcore singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton in our house, and this particular song has been stuck in my head for about a week now. He does drop the F Bomb in here, but it's in such a nerdy and charming way that it's totally forgivable.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review of the Kinect, Dance Central and Kinectimals

When the Kinect peripheral for the Xbox 360 came out in  November, we were intrigued.  We briefly considered buying one until we learned of it's $150 price tag. After all, that was only slightly less than we paid for our entire Wii system, and that thing and its terrible graphics sits dusty on the entertainment unit.  Still, it was getting pretty amazing reviews, so when Nate and Kitty's Grandma asked if we would be interested in it as a Christmas gift, we got very excited.

This year we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning at the Grandparents', so opening the Kinect was a bit of a non-event as we didn't have the Xbox with us to set it up. We got back to our place at 8 PM on Christmas and after fifteen minutes of begging Super-Dad, he reluctantly set it up.  Was it a hit?  The kids stayed up playing until after midnight and then Super-Dad and I continued to play for an hour after they went to bed.

The Kinect comes with "Kinect Adventures".  The game isn't spectacular - the graphics aren't great and we would later discover that other games make even better use of the Kinect sensor - but it was fun. It definitely did its job of showing "yeah, this thing actually works".  Most importantly, it instantly proved that Microsoft had succeeded at doing what Nintendo tried so desperately to do with Wii but failed, making video gaming a physical activity.  After about 30 minutes of playing Kinect Adventures our heart rates were up and the grown-ups were starting to break a sweat.
After three days of showing off Kinect Adventures to everyone who came into our house, we decided to take some of our Christmas money and invest in a few additional titles.  There were seventeen games available at the Kinect's launch in November, and over forty by the time we got ours.  According to reviews only a few of those titles really lived up to the potential of the technology.  We narrowed it down to three:  Kinectimals, a virtual pet game geared to kids, Kinect Sports and Dance Central.  We found  a coupon at our local mega-mart for a discount on two games, so we had some decisions to make.

The reviews I read lead me to choose Dance Central.  The game, from the creators of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, had already started showing up on Best of 2010 lists for games in general and was clearly the darling of the Kinect titles.  I didn't really think of us as a group of dancers, but the reviews were just sooooo positive, that I figured it would at least be a cool way to show off our new technology.

Dance Central
Dance your ass off.
I *still* don't consider us a group of dancers, we kind of suck, but it has been a blast trying to improve. Dance Central is amazing.  The interface is dynamic, with the "drag and swipe" menu beating the pants off the languid feeling "select and hold" method every other game seems to have.  It's a great workout, after 10 minutes of playing my heart rate was up and I was sweating, but I didn't want to stop.  Recognizing its aerobic potential Harmonix included a "Workout Mode" which tracks the calories you've burned.  The music is dance music, so if you like that kind of thing, good for you.  I personally was so sick of "Poker Face" after beating it on hard, that I never want to hear it again (okay, I never wanted to hear it in the first place, but whatever.)  There are a couple of gems in there from a purely nostalgic stance; Dancing to "Whoomp There it is" and "Posion" by Bell  Biv DeVoe made me smile and "Funkytown" is super fun.  Look, I'm not saying the music is good, but it's a dance game and as much as I enjoy Death Cab for Cutie, it just wasn't going to work out.  As for the lyrical content of the songs: Nate's ten-year-old sesibilites were totally freaked out by "Hey Mami" by Fannypack in which a voice that sounds like a child sings "Hey Mami/You sexy".  So...yeah.

It's not an easy game.  After you nail the "Easy" level the sensor starts getting really picky about how you move.  There's no "kinda" doing a move and getting away with it, you'd better nail that Jazz Square from head to toe, or you're going to lose points. The game gives you plenty of chances to "Break it Down" and learn the moves, though the ambiguous instructions from the off-screen choreographer ("dig left, dig right") don't always help.  I do appreciate his positive encouragement, though.  Unlike Rock Band you don't get booed at, and even after Kitty missed every move in a routine he told her not to worry.  Nate felt embarrassed just attempting the moves and got very discouraged when he couldn't nail them.  Coordination is key here and it's something some kids (and apparently some adults like me) are just not developmentally able to do.

I wouldn't recommend buying this game *just* for the kids, but if you have adults who are going to play the kids will enjoy giving it a go, joining in during the "Freestyle" portions and watching the hilarious time-lapsed, sped up montage at the end of each song.  Once you get over the initial shock of watching yourself look like an idiot this is pretty funny. However, if this feature is just too much embarrassment for you to handle you can turn it off.

So sweet your teeth will hurt.
"You will listen to me!"
Kinectimals will have you saying "Oooooh how cute!" about a zillion times.  Seriously, if you don't think that this game (and watching your child play it) is the cutest thing ever, you have a heart of stone and shouldn't have procreated.  Kinectimals has a loose story line involving a cat-loving sea captain who mysteriously vanished, but all that comes is in far behind the adorableness that is playing with your virtual cat.  Kitty picked a panther, named it Casey and treats it better than our real cat.  Even at three and a half she was able to play this game with minimal assistance. The on-screen cat/fairy hybrid  guide animal voiced by Invader Zim (really, it's same voice actor. Try not hearing it now that I've told you) helps the little ones with this. Getting started was a little tricky, but after you are signed in and have selected your cat, even small children can navigate this game.  They throw in some mini-games involving teaching your cat tricks, playing fetch, driving RC cars and knocking over targets, but the star here is the interactions with your cat.  This game is probably the most perfect game for kids ever made with both Kitty and Nate enjoying it immensely.  While it has some playability for adults, I got bored pretty fast. The kids fought over whose turn it was and played until I had to pry them away from the screen. If you have the Kinect and you have kids, this game is a must have.

Kinect Sports
For the next time I have an extra $40 bucks lying around.
Kinect Sports was developed by Rare, known for the Viva Pinata and Banjo Kazooie games, both of which my kids love.  It seemed to be the more family friendly option with games like soccer and boxing that would appeal to the kids, to adults who may or may not have been imbibing and to those looking for a workout.  It didn't make the cut this round, but this is still one of the better reviewed games, made by a company that has made some fantastic family friendly games, and will be the next title we purchase.

So is the Kinect worth it?  I'd say that if you already have an Xbox 360, then absolutely yes.  The technology is truly a game changer (see what I did there? Game changer?! Ha!). The Kinect is going to keep your Xbox experience fresh and may actually give the console the ten year life cycle Microsoft is hoping for.  The kids seem to enjoy it as much as the adults, and unlike the Wii its better graphics and innovative interface make this more appealing to hardcore gamers.  If you were already considering purchasing an Xbox, spend the extra and get the Kinect bundle, which ranges in price from $269 to $400 depending on the hard drive size you get.  If  this whole Kinect thing has made you think of buying a system for the first time, it's probably not for you. Though if you get a lot of play out of your Wii you may consider upgrading.

Did you get a Kinect for the holidays?  What do you think?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the system and games you've tried.
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