‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Earth+Space: Other than the attractive but questionable title (which sometimes wreaks havoc on precise search engine searches), I love this book. I mean, you’ve got space. You’ve got photography. And I’m pretty sure there are very few people out there who do astrophotography better than NASA. I mean, how many space telescopes do you have?

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

With a preface from Bill Nye (the Science Guy, don’tcha know), Earth+Space begins with several photos of Earth from space, including a beautiful nighttime shot. Then it quickly turns its cameras in the other direction, pointing us toward other planets and moons in the solar system, and then out to galaxies, comets, nebulae, brown dwarfs, various other space phenomena, and, one of my favorite things to say, globular clusters. As you move through the book, you get farther and farther away from Earth. Though the distance increases, the beauty does not decrease. NASA’s technology is second to none, and can get clear, detailed, intricate photos of objects far, far away. It also takes us back in time, as we see far away objects as they were many, many years ago.

Continue reading ‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Keep Kids Creating With ‘The Superhero Comic Kit’!

Kids love to create and come up with some of the most ingenious stories and drawings. They don’t always follow the kind of progression that adults come to expect, and setting them off on their creative journey while they are young will help them continue to be creative as they grow. It’s important to capture this development, but sometimes they (or you) run out of ideas for what to have them do. Continue reading Keep Kids Creating With ‘The Superhero Comic Kit’!

4 New Books and Activities For Indoor Fun

Image: Laurence King Publishing
Image: Laurence King Publishing

It’s still relatively warm where I live, but September means the coming of cooler weather for most of the country, and sometimes even snow, but often additional rain. For those weekend afternoons when your kids come to you, yet again, saying, “Mom, I’m bored,” here are a few new suggestions to give their play some direction. Continue reading 4 New Books and Activities For Indoor Fun

How V-MODA Headphones Brought Me Peace and Focus

Image: V-MODA
Image: V-MODA

I’ve never had fancy headphones. The $30 Logitech ones from the office supply store were sufficient for years. Not stellar, but they got the job done, until one day recently when my cat freaked out on my lap and tore the cord in two. Since then, I’ve hobbled along with even lower-end headphones, or ones I borrowed from family members.

Before, I only used headphones when I had to, such as for transcription work, for the occasional video, and to do my daily Duolingo German lessons. But my old headphones sat on my ears, which is quite uncomfortable after a while. Thus, I couldn’t wear them for long, and I never felt truly in whatever adventure I was having at my computer. Every noise distracted me, and when no one was home, I still felt separated from my computer experience.

Until now [cue dramatic music].

Image: V-MODA
Image: V-MODA

The V-MODA Crossfade M-100 headphones are over-ear, noise-isolating headphones that are comfortable to wear for long periods of time. They help cut the sound of noisy things around you, and, important in our house, the people around you aren’t bothered by the sound of what you are listening to. Made with a steel frame, these headphones are strong and cool to the touch, and the over-ear cushions are velvety soft. The headphones also fold up quite compactly for travel, and come with their own hard-sided travel case with carabiner clip. The set also comes with two Kevlar-reinforced cords: one normal black one, and one black and red one that can easily be daisy-chained or used to share music with a friend, or, as I often do, my kids. You can also change which headphone ear the cord attaches to. The set also comes with a 3.5mm stereo jack to 1/4-inch stereo plug adapter.

The standard headphones don’t come with a matching microphone, but you can easily add one on to your order to use for those Skype or Google Hangout business meetings and webinars. (I’m not the only one who has those, right?) For people who like to personalize their gear, custom shields can be purchased and swapped out, and they are even available in precious metals or with your custom design embossed on them. Not my style, but everyone’s different. Different-sized ear cushions are also available. The included size works well for me, but they are too small for my husband, Rory. In addition, V-MODA makes coiled and other kinds of accessory cords.

The quality of the V-MODA headphones is apparent. They are on the heavier side, which took a little getting used to, but it just makes them feel more substantial. I know when I am wearing my headphones. And whenever I place them on my head, I feel like I’m taking a trip away from it all. Quality, smooth sound at any level. These jaunts into business calls, instructional lessons, transcription work, ambient writing noise, or adorable cat videos make me feel like I’m in another world, decreasing my stress, increasing my focus, being more productive because less noise clutter brings me peace. And, yet, I’m still available to my family at all times.

These may very well be the last pair of headphones I’ll need for some time to come since they are so sturdy. In case my cat decides to get creative again, the cord unplugs from the headphones, so another freak-out won’t destroy the whole set. If anything goes wrong, I can just replace the cord, but that is not likely to be needed, with how strong and durable they are.

The award-winning V-MODA Crossfade M-100 headphones are available in a few different colors, even before you customize them with a shield, and serve as an oasis in an otherwise chaotic life. You can be totally focused on whatever sound you’re listening to, but there is still just enough ambient noise to still have one foot in the rest of the room. And if you wear them without any sound coming through them, you can hear what’s going on around you quite well. I find that very helpful.

Full specs can be found on the V-MODA site.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Have You Tried ‘Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition Beta’ Yet?

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft

For those people who like to play with as many different versions of Minecraft as possible, there is now a new one available.

Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta is (surprise) only available on Windows 10, so if this interests you, you will need to perform the upgrade first. For everyone who currently owns Minecraft on the PC or Mac, you’ll be able to download this new version of Minecraft for free! For the rest of you, it only costs $10 for the beta version, and updates in the future will then cost nothing additional. The game is in beta because this new version of Minecraft will evolve over time with the beta testers’ feedback and comments. You can join in at any time now, after you’ve upgraded to Windows 10.

“Does this replace my current Minecraft?”, you might ask. No. This is a new version that you can play in parallel along side your current version of Minecraft. It won’t affect your current worlds, but you also won’t be able to play them on the new version.

Here are some highlights, given to me by Microsoft:

  • Craft, create, and explore online with up to seven friends playing Windows 10 Edition beta, through local multiplayer or with your Xbox Live friends online.
  • Play online and local multiplayer with other Pocket Edition players thanks to a free update, due to arrive soon after launch.
  • Support for multiple inputs—switch between controller, touch, and keyboard controls with little to no effort.
  • Record and share gameplay highlights with built-in GameDVR.
  • Help shape the future of Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta with built-in player feedback mechanisms.
  • Chickens, zombies, pigs, boats, armed skeletons, potatoes, zombies, baby squids, enchantment tables, villagers, naked sheep, iron golems, potions, ghasts, pickaxes, carrots, and all the weird and wonderful goodness you’ve come to expect from Minecraft.

Since there are a lot of fingers in this particular pie, there are several places online to get more information and have your FAQs answered. Look at the Windows blog, the Mojang website, and the Xbox support page.

But if you’re like my son, one of your first questions is, what about mods? Since it’s still early in the beta’s development, they aren’t announcing anything about mods or plug-ins quite yet. Patience. Servers? This new beta version doesn’t currently support private servers, but will support multiplayer gameplay over Xbox Live. How about redstone? They have nothing to share yet about this. I am hoping they will soon!

Here are some additional answers to FAQs:

Q: Will I still be able to play the current version of Minecraft if I upgrade to Windows 10 operating system?

A: Yes, the current PC/Java version of Minecraft will play better than ever on your Windows 10 PC.

Q: Does the Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta have all the same features as the existing PC version of Minecraft?

A: The beta is in early stages so not all Minecraft features will be available right away. In the coming weeks we will bring all the features of the existing PC/Java version to Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta as well as exciting new features. Today, we are inviting players to download the beta and share their feedback with us.

Q: Does the Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta have unique features that aren’t in other versions?

A: Yes. The advanced gaming platform of Windows 10 allows us to bring some cool new features to the game including:

  • Switch between mouse and keyboard, game controller and touch screen on the fly; the UI adjusts automatically
  • Earn Xbox LIVE Achievements and Gamerscore
  • Record and share GameDVR screenshots and game clips to the web without leaving the game
  • Enhanced weather effects—smoother transitions between weather types and snow accumulation
  • (Coming Soon!) Play online with other Xbox LIVE friends in the beta
  • (Coming Soon!) Cross-play between Windows 10 Edition beta and Pocket Edition allows up to five friends to play together across mobile devices and Windows 10 tablets and PCs

Q: Does Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta allow cross-platform play?

A: Yes, but not on day one. Soon after launch, players on Windows 10 PCs and tablets will be able to play with friends on Pocket Edition (iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Kindle Fire). We’ll provide an update when this exciting new feature is available.

Q: Is this Minecraft 2.0? Does it replace current versions of the game?

A: The Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta does not replace other versions of the game running on PC, Linux, Mac, PlayStation, Xbox, Windows Phone, Android, iOS and Kindle Fire; it is simply a new option for players who want to share their feedback and help craft the best version of Minecraft possible.

Have you upgraded to Windows 10 and installed the new Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition beta? Let us know what you think! What are you hoping to see in this new version?

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware and software for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Will You Upgrade to Windows 10 Tomorrow?

The new Start menu. Image: Microsoft
The new Start menu. Image: Microsoft.

A while back, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 would be available on July 29. Many have have reserved their copies, since it’s a free upgrade for people with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. This is pretty cool. I remember actually having to purchase Windows 3.1 as an upgrade from Windows 3.0. It was about $80 at the time, which was a lot of money to this then-starving student.

Whether you currently have Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or even something earlier, it’s a good idea to consider upgrading. Windows 10 will have some interesting features.

You’ll love the familiar, fun, and productive Windows 10 features, such as:

1. The personal digital assistant goes beyond your phone: Cortana, the world’s most personal digital assistant, is now available on the PC (and all of your Windows devices). Now on the PC, you can ask her to find files for you, send an email on your behalf, turn on your music, pull up photos, find apps, and more.

2. Microsoft Edge: The new browser for Windows 10 lets you write on the web with built-in note-taking, sharing, and integration with Cortana. Plus, there’s a reading pane for no distractions.

3. Play more: Your games, friends, achievements, and more will follow you across Xbox One and Windows 10 devices. Xbox Live is built into Windows 10, giving you access to the greatest gaming community in the world no matter where you are. Windows 10 extends the Xbox experience with game streaming. Play your Xbox One games on a desktop, laptop, or tablet in your home on your local WiFi.

4. The Start menu is back! Everything you came to know and love about the Start menu is back and integrated with the live tile-touch experience.

Annotate your web pages and share them? Yes, please. Image: Microsoft
Annotate your web pages and share them? Yes, please. Image: Microsoft.

I’m excited to spend more time with Cortana. We use Siri quite a bit on our iPhones, and Cortana could simplify looking up information on our desktop machines. And I’m definitely willing to give Microsoft Edge a chance. Taking notes on the web… can’t wait to see how this works, especially for non-touchscreen devices (like my desktop).

Additionally, everything runs in a window. No more being lost when you’re running a Windows app. And you can snap four windows in place, in quadrants. And you can have multiple desktops for different purposes, and switch between them. I can’t wait to see how that one fits into my life.

Switch among desktops. I'm going to have fun with this one. Image: Microsoft
Switch among desktops. I’m going to have fun with this one. Image: Microsoft.

I’ve also read that there’s a possibility that Windows updates will be automatic and mandatory. This doesn’t bother me, since I always do the updates, but I know of some people who prefer to curate their updates themselves. So, do your research.

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Windows 10 to try it out, but I’m genuinely excited to do so. Your operating system affects how you can interact with your computer in very important ways. A major change like Windows 10 has the possibility of introducing some new frustrations, but it looks like Microsoft has done their best to address complaints about Windows 7 and 8, and to add plenty of new and useful functionality. I’m looking forward to it.

For those who aren’t getting a free Windows 10 upgrade, it can be purchased online. Prices vary.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware and software for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Microsoft’s Office 365 Adds Extra Benefits

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft

Since I was in high school (<cough> back in the ’80s <cough>), I have used Microsoft Word and Excel (and Microsoft Works; get off my lawn). The programs have come a long way since then, being virtually unrecognizable, side by side. But they’ve been my go-to programs for word processing and spreadsheet needs for decades.

Today, Microsoft Office includes many more programs, including Outlook, Power Point, Access, Publisher, and more. You can get all or some of them, depending on what version of Office you purchase. Microsoft still offers one-time purchases of Office versions, which you then own forever, but there are some distinct advantages to the annual (or monthly) subscription to Office 365.

Benefits of Microsoft Office 365

  • Your programs are always up to date, getting the latest version during your subscription period. Future upgrades are included.
  • By subscribing, you get fast help from Microsoft-trained experts by phone or online chat.
  • You can even use Office programs online at Office.com. If you sign in, it will save your settings, so your experience will be the same wherever you use it from. Also, if you save your files to OneDrive, you can access them from anywhere. OneDrive also lets you share documents with others.
  • One of the coolest (I think) features of Office 365 is the ability to share your annual subscription with others. This is especially handy when you have other family members who use Office programs, too. You can share it with up to four other members of your household, and the generous number of installs that you get with your subscription is shared among the users. (The Office 365 Home subscription comes with installs for 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets, and 5 phones.) Also, each person gets a whole terabyte of OneDrive storage. You read that right. You can use OneDrive to save your Office documents, but you can also use it for storing other kinds of files.
  • With your Office 365 subscription, you get 60 minutes per month of Skype calling to people all over the world.
  • And for those who like to be on the cutting edge of things, check out the Office 2016 preview.
Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft

There’s nothing quite like the promise of a blank page or an empty spreadsheet. Starting a new project always brings me glee, and whether you’re like me in that way, or you just use Office programs as tools, Microsoft Office 365 gets you what you need. These also apply to the stand-alone versions.

  • The Office website has handy visual Quick Start Guides for all of their programs, including Access Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Project, Publisher, Visio, and Word, all for the 2013 versions.
  • All the help you’ll need is available on the Office support page and on the FAQ.
  • If you’re new to Microsoft Office products, or just the particular product that you’re using, check out their training and tutorials. Microsoft offers a mountain of free help to get you up and running in your program of choice.

There are several ways to get Microsoft Office, which is available for both PC and Mac. Choose the best configuration for you!

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware and software for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Check Out the Brick Marketplace for Lego Options

Image: Lego
Image: Lego

As any geek or parent knows, it’s sometimes difficult to get the Lego set that you or your kids have your/their heart set on, so it’s great to have options for where to find them. Being an authorized Lego retailer, Brick Marketplace is another viable option for fulfilling your (and your kids’) Lego dreams.

Image: Brick Marketplace
Image: Brick Marketplace

Often cheaper than the Lego online store, Brick Marketplace has featured products and special deals. You can search by theme, age, and category, and also check out minifigs, new arrivals, and sales. The website also tells you how many of each item are in stock, to help you make your purchasing decisions. I love that feature. Plus, with Lego being such a part of our lives, more places to find sets is always a good thing.

I had the chance to try out a set from Brick Marketplace, the Lego Architecture Big Ben. The box was mailed with great care, and the set arrived in perfect condition and brand new. (The Architecture sets are some of my favorites, along with the Creator sets that are houses, and of course, the Volkswagon T1 Camper Van.)

Image: Jenny Bristol
Image: Jenny Bristol

I managed to build the Big Ben set in less than an hour, since there are only 346 pieces. Some of the pieces went together in interesting ways. That’s one of my favorite parts of assembling a Lego set: learning new ways to use the bricks and pieces. “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought to use that piece in that way,” kept coming out of my mouth. As with the other Architecture sets, Big Ben comes with a thick book containing instructions and a really detailed, photo-laden history of the structure.

Image: Jenny Bristol
Image: Jenny Bristol

Next time you’re in the market for a Lego set (like, today, for instance), check out Brick Marketplace. They are competitive in the market, and you can find some real deals. You can also purchase gift certificates for loved ones, and the company has a low price guarantee.

GeekMom received a Lego set for review purposes.

Common Sense Graphite: Quality Educational Resources

Image: Common Sense Graphite

As a parent who is constantly looking for engaging and out-of-the-box ways to teach my kids and deliver content, I often look online for ideas. One of my go-to places for information about games, apps, and websites is Common Sense Graphite.

Common Sense Graphite is connected to the likely better known Common Sense Media, a site which helps parents make smart media choices with and for their kids. Common Sense Media also makes a fantastic Digital Citizenship curriculum, tailored for all grade levels.

The Graphite side, however, focuses on education specifically. It is aimed at teachers, but as parents, we are our kids’ first and longest teachers. You don’t need to be homeschooling to use this site. If you’d rather your kids spent time playing games which have at least some educational benefit, Graphite is the place to look.

What does Graphite offer? Fantastic search capabilities, ratings in a variety of areas, standards match-ups, screenshots, and tips to use in an educational capacity. You can search for just the free resources, by platform, by grade, by subject, and more. You can also read teachers’ ratings on the site as well, for even more real-life feedback.

Now, Graphite doesn’t host or create these games. They merely evaluate and review the games, apps, and websites available on the internet and in the off-line world. This makes them an independent resource not beholden to any company.

If you aren’t sure where to start, begin with the Top Picks section, which divides up some sure bets into subject areas and grade levels. Then, as you find resources you like, check out their related titles. This will lead you down a fun and eye-opening rabbit hole that will leave you with a long list of resources you want to check out with your kids.

Graphite doesn’t just review games and websites that deal with major subject studies. They also cover things like video and animation websites and apps, gaining global perspective, geography, art, music, and even resources and organizational tools for teachers themselves.

Here is a list of a few of the many interesting stand-outs:

  • Papers, Please – A bleak immigration game that forces players to make difficult choices. Great for teens.
  • The Republia Times – An editorial simulation that teaches about the introduction of bias. Also great for teens.
  • Quandary – A game about ethics and argumentation. Great for late elementary and middle school.
  • Crazy Gears – A fun physics game, for early elementary.
  • Smithsonian Quests – Researching already-curated topics teaches students to build skills. Great for late elementary through early high school.
  • Stellarium Mobile Sky Map – Makes it easy for students to identify night sky objects. Great for middle school through adult.
  • BioDigital Human – Allows students of any age to investigate the inside of the human body, systematically. Best for middle school and up.
  • Algodoo – An open-ended physics sandbox game allows kids to just play, unfettered.

Visit Common Sense Graphite today to find some games, websites, and apps to help boost your kids’ education, or just to help them learn more about their interests!

Disclaimer: I write educational reviews for Common Sense Graphite, but I would use them as a resource even if I didn’t. I stumble across curriculum-changing games and websites weekly.

Microsoft YouthSpark: Learn to Code

DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft
DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft

Kids have the opportunity to learn how to code at an extremely early age these days. I thought I was doing pretty well by starting in the 9th grade back in the ’80s. But now, if you are old enough to use a tablet or computer, you’re old enough to learn to code.

This makes me happy. Not just because it gives kids a skill that is useful if they choose to go into a computer field, but mostly because it teaches kids to think about problems in certain ways early on. To take the problem apart, breaking it into component parts, and affecting the result, step by step. This kind of thinking is important in any field, even if your day job never has you touching a computing device.

Microsoft, with all of their resources, has done plenty to make programming opportunities available for kids of all ages. Here are several of their endeavors.

Kodu. Image: Microsoft
Kodu. Image: Microsoft

Kodu Game Lab
Programming games visually is a lot of fun. We’ve played with Kodu Game Lab quite a bit, and I think it’s the bee’s knees. For visually-oriented kids, it’s perfect for learning programming concepts. Kids (and adults) have almost endless possibilities to design and implement their own computer game. There are also books out there to help you through it, such as GeekDad James Floyd Kelly’s Kodu for Kids. There are websites to download the software, and to learn more about the project.


DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft
DigiGirlz. Image: Microsoft

A program for high school girls in technology, DigiGirlz opens up doors for girls to learn about the possibilities in new and emerging fields.

Microsoft Small Basic
Learn to program in Small Basic. For free. There is even a free curriculum you can follow.

YouthSpark Summer Camps for Kids
These free summer camps at your local Microsoft store can keep kids engaged with learning. Sign up before they are all full!

Learn to Code
This Learn to Code page has links to a variety of programming classes and activities, depending on how much time you have to spend. There’s something here for everyone!


Break into Code. Image: Microsoft
Break into Code. Image: Microsoft

Break Into Code
This site is one place to begin your programming adventure. Design games, and more. You can also Break Into Code at your own speed with this Brick Breaker tutorial.


The Imagine Cup. Image: Microsoft
The Imagine Cup. Image: Microsoft

The Imagine Cup
This is a higher level annual programming contest for kids of all ages. Go register! Time is running out! Or get ahead of the game and start planning for next year.

Microsoft Imagine Access
Get free programming software here.

Hour of Code
Microsoft is one of the supporters of Hour of Code, which you can participate in at any time. No need to do it on the same day as everyone else!

Microsoft Virtual Academy
This Academy offers classes taught by professionals on a variety of topics for a variety of levels. Look at their Courses to see complete list.

Many of these programs are part of Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative, helping youth succeed.

Check these programs out now, or at any time. If you’ve had any experience getting your kids involved with these programs, let us know how it went!

Dyson’s V6 Mattress Sucks Up Dust and Allergens

Photo: Dyson
Photo: Dyson

Perhaps I haven’t been channeling my inner Martha enough, but I never knew it was a thing to vacuum your mattress. I suppose it should have occurred to me, however. Dust, skin cells, and allergens get everywhere. But perhaps I figured that my waterproof mattress pad would protect the thing. No? No. Vacuum attachments on long sticks are a bit tricky to use on something that’s a couple of feet off the ground, though, so Dyson has come up with a nice hand-held vacuum specifically designed for mattresses.

The Dyson V6 Mattress is a powerful and easy-to-use hand-held vacuum. It comes with four attachments, all of which make it easy to get into nooks and crannies, including one that is designed for mattresses and other fabric-y items. The special motorized mattress cleaning attachment agitates the mattress as it sucks, so it can loosen up allergens and particles.

Photo: Dyson
Photo: Dyson

Though designed for mattresses, with its other attachments this vacuum can also be used for places such as car seats, upholstery, stairs, baseboards, bookshelves, and even your computer keyboard. Vacuuming these elevated areas with the Dyson V6 Mattress is much easier than using the attachment hose on your upright vacuum.

The machine is rechargeable and gives a good 20 minutes of suction. It only weighs a few pounds, so it is easy to tote around. There is also a Max mode for when you need additional suction.

If you’re not sure why you might want to vacuum your mattress, the information on the Dyson website will probably convince you. I’ll leave it at that.

I wasn’t sure how much would get sucked out of my mattress. I’ve had the thing for seven or eight years, I believe, but it looks brand new. After vacuuming the top and the sides (it’s a no-flip mattress), the vacuum canister wasn’t full, but it had enough in it to make me glad to have cleaned. It sucked up enough to convince me to vacuum my mattress on a regular basis. Eew.

Photo: Dyson
Photo: Dyson

As with Dyson’s Cinetic Big Ball uprights, the V6 Mattress vacuum is also easy to empty of debris when it gets full. Just pop the latch and gently shake over a trash can. And, like the Allergy + Animal upright, it also has a whole machine HEPA filter.

Dyson has a variety of hand-held vacuums, but this one is specifically for mattresses. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the Dyson Cinetic Big Ball uprights.

Check out the Dyson website for more information about how this super useful vacuum takes care of allergens and other microscopic things in your mattress and elsewhere.

The Dyson V6 Mattress is a fantastic hand-held vacuum for clearing the dust and allergens out of your mattress, and anywhere else it is needed.

Note: GeekMom received a sample for review purposes.

We Day Empowers Youth to Take Action

Photo: Jenny Bristol
Photo: Jenny Bristol

I was recently fortunate enough to attend an event that was part concert, part motivational rally. You can’t buy a ticket to this event. You have to earn it (or be a member of the press).

That event is We Day.

What is We Day? Their website says it best.

Youth coming together to make the world a better place is the global movement of our time—We Day is this movement.

An annual series of stadium-sized events, We Day brings together world-renowned speakers and performers—from Malala Yousafzai and Martin Sheen to Demi Lovato—with tens of thousands of youth to kick-start a year of action through We Act. You can’t buy a ticket to We Day—you earn it by taking on one local and one global action.

More than a one-day event, We Day is connected to the year-long We Act program, which offers educational resources and campaigns to help young people turn the day’s inspiration into sustained action. We Day and We Act are cause inclusive, empowering young people to find their passion and create the change they want to see. By taking action on one local and one global cause, students are equipped with the tools to succeed academically, in the workplace and as active citizens.

Together, We Day and We Act are a blueprint for helping the next generation of global citizens.

Dr. Mae Jemison being interviewed by Hannah Simone. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Dr. Mae Jemison being interviewed by Hannah Simone. Photo: Jenny Bristol

With Microsoft as a major sponsor and founded by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, We Day has evolved over time, starting with a program called Free the Children and turning into a movement with many thousands of participants who work hard to bring good to others. The website is filled with case studies, school group profiles, and plenty of data about participation and how much difference the kids have made.

Seattle’s 2015 We Day event was magnificent. Filled with alternating music groups and motivational speakers, and sprinkled with other people who are popular with today’s youth, the 16,000 students at the event were entertained for hours. Coming from all over the state of Washington, these kids were pumped and happy and engaged with the show. But you didn’t have to be a middle or high school student to get into it. I was quite moved by the whole thing as well.

Laila Ali. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Laila Ali. Photo: Jenny Bristol

The day’s event was broken up into four segments, each a “period” in school: Economic Empowerment, Technological Empowerment, Social Empowerment, and Educational Empowerment. Each section focused on a different aspect of involvement, and the underlying message was to get involved in your community, have faith in yourself and your abilities, and make a difference. A summary of the day was conveniently put into a recap on the We Day website.

I do admit to not knowing who many of the speakers and performers were, but there were a few whom I was excited to hear from, and then some that were pleasant surprises as well.

Apolo Ohno. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Apolo Ohno. Photo: Jenny Bristol

The person I was most looking forward to seeing was Dr. Mae Jemison, who they describe as “the first woman of color in space, physician, scientist, engineer, explorer, and futurist.” She did not disappoint. “We need collective ambition,” she said. We need to work on something together. She imparted much wisdom to the youth present, including messages such as: Keep your confidence. Don’t let others limit you. Our personal stories and perspectives are important. She also said that it is important to have a sense of humor and that daring makes a difference. She encouraged students to do what they knew was right that would move the world forward. Also, she mentioned her close involvement in the 100 Year Starship program, which is working on the future of interstellar travel.

A group of four young Ugandan women spoke about an app that they created to test for sickle cell anemia using just a smart phone. This will make a huge difference in healthcare in their country, and around the world. The four women did all the coding and development for the app themselves, and they did very well in last year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup programming competition as Team AfriGals.

Bars and Melody. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Bars and Melody. Photo: Jenny Bristol

Allstate insurance was another one of the sponsors, and Tom Wilson, their Chairman and CEO, spoke briefly. What he said struck me particularly. “Having diminished expectations is a disease,” he said. I agree with him. My feeling is, if you expect little from yourself, you won’t accomplish very much. If you expect little from your children, your coworkers, and people around you, they won’t be motivated to accomplish their goals, or perhaps even set goals in the first place. Have high expectations. But keep things positive. Make available the tools, skills, and materials needed for those around you to work toward their goals.

Laila Ali spoke. Four-time boxing world champion, TV host, author, fitness and wellness expert, and daughter of Muhammad Ali, she gave an awesome speech. As a kid, she fought for those who were being bullied. Literally. She spoke at length about how her father’s own imperfections inspired her to follow the path she did. She said that if you know who you are and what you stand for, you can do anything.

Showing up briefly, surprise guest, Macklemore. Photo: Jenny Bristol
Showing up briefly, surprise guest, Macklemore. Photo: Jenny Bristol

There were plenty of musicians there as well, including Nashville‘s Lennon & Maisy, indie folk band The Head and the Heart, and British R&B and rapping duo, Bars and Melody.

Near the end of the event, the crowd started going wild. Not on the program but showing up on stage nonetheless was Macklemore, who is apparently a great favorite of the kids present, plus he is a local to Seattle. He didn’t say many words, but the desired effect was achieved. The crowd was thrilled. His only other purpose was to introduce Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Mr. Carroll spoke for a while, and more than just about his team. He was actually pivotal in bringing We Day to Seattle, working closely with the Kielburger brothers to bring their good work from Canada to the United States. Mr. Carroll encouraged the kids present to recognize and celebrate the differences of those around us.

See the (mostly) complete We Day Seattle 2015 lineup here.

Learn more about We Day and the We Act program on their websites. Kids participate in We Act to earn a ticket to the We Day event. If you don’t live in an area with a program, check out the We365 app, which challenges people to get involved with helping others every day. Also, the Me to We program gets people involved in social change projects all over the world.

Note: Microsoft paid for my expenses to attend this event.

Review: Dyson’s Cinetic Big Ball Animal+Allergy

The canister is very easy to clean with no filters to wash. Image: Dyson
The canister is very easy to clean, with no filters to wash. Image: Dyson.

As the weather gets warmer, many of us are doing some spring cleaning, opening up windows, dusting, deep vacuuming (the move-the-furniture type), and more. The change of season allows us to open our windows and fill the house with fresh air. It also fills the house with plenty of allergens. When combined with the stagnant pet hair and dander, our houses can be one big allergy fest.

Enter the Dyson Cinetic Big Ball Animal+Allergy vacuum, complete with whole-machine HEPA filtration. If you are in the market to buy a new vacuum, I can heartily recommend this one. After my long-time trusty Oreck bit the dust, I tried out a Dyson. It was much fancier than I was used to, but it works so much better. At least, once I got it assembled.

Image: Dyson
Image: Dyson.

I’ll admit to it taking me quite a while to assemble the unit. The directions weren’t very clear, and the written and visual instructions were separate. There also wasn’t a clear list of how to use all of the attachments. But, after some trial and error and bit of research, I got the thing running. It sucked up so much more than my old vacuum that I was cleaning out the canister frequently. (Oh, that’s another thing. This vacuum doesn’t use any bags, and has no filters to wash. Just lift out the canister, empty into the trash can, and reattach. Easy peasy.)

At first, I thought it wasn’t sucking up much debris, since it was so quiet. There were very few of the crackly noises I was accustomed to hearing when you vacuum up loose kitty litter or other debris. But one look at the canister and I knew how well it worked.

Easily picks up stubborn dust and pet hair. Image: Dyson
It easily picks up stubborn dust and pet hair. Image: Dyson.

Having a built-in hose on the vacuum body was also new for me. If the vacuum is reclined, you use it like an upright vacuum. But if the machine is upright (confused, yet?), you can use the on-board hose along with any of the attachments. These are great for edging, stairs, dusting, upholstery, mattresses, ceiling fans, door frames, and extra-tough pet hair. The website has plenty of ideas for how to use the attachments, but you can also use your imagination. There are also two main settings on the vacuum when not using the attachments, one for carpet and one for hard surfaces. This is the only device you need to thoroughly suck up anything on your floor, throughout your house.

The vacuum also came with a high-quality, lined canvas tote bag, which can hold all of your attachments with plenty of room to spare for other cleaning tools. Also, the vacuum body itself is sort of color-coded. Most things that you’ll need to press, check, or maneuver are colored red.

What does “Cinetic” mean? From Dyson:

Dyson Cinetic™ science

Smaller cyclones generate higher centrifugal forces, therefore capturing smaller dust particles. But the tighter the cyclone, the more likely it is to block. The solution? Flexible tips, engineered from a proprietary material, which vibrate 350 times a second. As the tips oscillate, dust is prevented from clogging the aperture. Dust as small as 0.5 microns is spun out of the airflow and into the bin – never clogging a filter.

Clean hard-to-reach areas with this clever attachment. Image: Dyson
Clean hard-to-reach areas with this clever attachment. Image: Dyson.

I have found a couple of drawbacks to the vacuum, but definitely no deal-breakers. It is quite heavy to lift (though it is easy to push, since it runs very smoothly), and I kept almost pulling it down the stairs and on top of myself while vacuuming the steps. (We have high ceilings, and the hose didn’t reach all the way to the top when I had the vacuum at the bottom.) Also, you can’t use the attachments without unwinding the power cord all the way, since the cord wraps around part of the hose. Lastly, the power button isn’t conveniently on the handle. But those are my only negative comments. I did also note that the attachments are the kind of plastic that gets very static-y, so when you’re done using them, they’ll probably be covered in hair, fur, or fluff. They’ll need to be cleaned off a bit before putting away.

Overall, however, this machine is a thing of beauty. I mean, it looks nice, which is cool, but it works. It gets the floor really clean. Walking over carpet that was just vacuumed with it makes it feel like brand new carpet. I think I’ve found my new line of vacuum.

The Dyson Cinetic Big Ball Animal+Allergy vacuum is the only vacuum you’ll need for all of the surfaces in your house. It’s easy to use, versatile, and easy to clean. It also never loses suction. It will clear the pet hair and allergens from your surfaces, making the air you’re breathing much cleaner. And it’s perfect for spring cleaning!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Microsoft Band Seamlessly Integrates Into Your Life

Image: Microsoft
Image: Microsoft.

Harkening back to the running shoe craze of the 1980s, wearable fitness tech is everywhere. Each variation does things a little differently from the rest, though wrist placement seems to be the preferred option.

Now securely in this new-ish realm, Microsoft offers the Band for fitness and a gazillion other things. Powered by Microsoft Health, the Microsoft Band pairs with your phone via Bluetooth. Combined with the Microsoft Health app on your phone and website-based dashboard, the Band helps you keep tabs on your fitness, nutrition, and weight goals by counting your steps, keeping track of your heart rate, measuring activity and sleep, and more. It can also map your walks, runs, and bike rides with the built-in GPS. No need to take your phone with you. There is also a UV monitor, which will help you decide if sunscreen is needed.

The phone app and website dashboard. Image: Microsoft
The phone app and website dashboard. Image: Microsoft.

You can access a lot more on the Microsoft Health website and phone app. The phone gives you a bigger screen to keep an eye on your stats, and also allows you to choose personal workouts with videos that guide you through them, right on your phone. The website has a fantastic interface for obsessing over keeping track of your fitness goals as well, allowing you to analyze all of your fitness stats.

If you want more from your wrist tech than just fitness, the Band delivers that as well. It can also be your personal assistant. Receive alerts, social media messages, text messages, call notifications, emails, and other notifications on the Band. Keep track of your calendar, sleep, timers and alarms, and more. Navigate menus easily with its touchscreen, and when linked with a Windows phone, you can access Cortana and a handy but tiny keyboard on your Band. This is a lot more discreet than pulling out your phone during a meeting.

In case you wanted to know what's inside. Image: Microsoft
In case you wanted to know what’s inside. Image: Microsoft.

What’s the Band like?
Compared to my FitBit Flex, the Band is bulkier and beefier. The parts of the Band that go along the sides of your wrist are inflexible, which can affect fit. Also, it’s not meant to be submerged in water. So you can likely wear it on a rainy day or have it on your wrist while you wash your hands, but be sure to take it off to shower and swim.

I found the magnetic charger cable to be pretty nifty. Just attach it to the Band and plug it in. No worries about bending the end of a cable. It’s also easy to slightly adjust the size of the Band, either to fit your wrist or to adjust for comfort throughout the day. The Band also comes in three sizes, so you’ll find a model to fit you. Measure yourself on the sizing chart to make sure you get the right size.

The Band gives you all of your message alerts. Image: Microsoft
The Band gives you all of your message alerts. Image: Microsoft.

Visit the Microsoft Band site for more in-depth specifications, detailed features and instructions, and a closer look at the included sensors.

Some observations:

  • The screen can scratch easily, but third-party screen protectors are available, if that’s a concern for you.
  • There seems to be a character limit on what the Band will display for a text or message.
  • Make sure the Band fits well to get the correct heart rate.
  • Push updates for things like taking your turn on Carcassonne can tip you off to stay connected.
  • The Band needs to be charged about every other day, compared with about every week or so for the FitBit Flex.

Some helpful tips:

  • You can wear it on the inside or outside of your wrist.
  • You can lock it so that it shows the time all the time, like a regular watch.
  • You can customize it with background color and a pattern of choice, along with what apps it displays.
  • Use the tiny screen keyboard to reply to texts and more.
  • The Band can show your texts one word at a time, pausing for punctuation, making it easy-ish to read a long text.

The Microsoft Band is also hooked up to your Microsoft account, so I was curious about what steps Microsoft takes to ensure privacy. Here are the relevant FAQs on the matter.

Q: Does Microsoft give the personal data I provide to Microsoft Health to third parties? Does Microsoft Health keep personal data private?

A: Microsoft believes it is important to help you maintain your privacy. We will not share your personal data with third parties without your permission.

Q: Do you have plans to monetize my data? What steps have you taken to ensure third party partners will not abuse data collected through Microsoft Health, or sell it to data brokers, information resellers or advertisers?

A: We have no plans to monetize or do anything with the data that the user does not initiate on their own. If you connect a third party app, such as MyFitnessPal or RunKeeper to Microsoft Health Service, the use of your activity information is subject to the privacy practices and terms of use for the third party service. We strongly encourage you to review the privacy statement and terms of use for any third part service before you connect.

Q: What does Microsoft Health do with the data it collects?

A: Microsoft Health is a cloud-based destination to store, share and convert information into insights you can use to achieve your fitness goals.

Q: Where do you store my Microsoft Health data?

A: The information collected from the Microsoft Band sensors and the information you provide for your profile is stored in the Microsoft Health Service and not in the Microsoft Health app on your phone. We store personal information on computer systems that have limited access and are in controlled facilities.

Q: How long do you keep my Microsoft Health data?

A: Generally, based on standard data retention policies, Microsoft keeps your personal data as long as you continue to use the product or service. If you close your Microsoft Health account, Microsoft will stop collecting your Microsoft Health data. To close your account, please contact customer support.

Q: Who owns my Microsoft Health data?

A: Microsoft Health is designed to create a security enhanced, centralized location for the industry to store and democratize data for the benefit of everyone. Customers have the ultimate power in deciding what data they choose to share, and with whom. We do not share anything without your permission.

If you’re into wearable tech and like to always be connected to the interwebs and/or you’re very active and love to track your stats, the Microsoft Band is a fun and useful thing to wear. And at $199.99, it’s priced competitively with other tech on the market.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Cricut Explore Is a Crafting Powerhouse

Image: Cricut
Image: Cricut.

I’m semi-skilled with a pair of scissors. I mean, I can successfully cut out a pattern from paper or fabric, but it’s probably my least favorite part of any project. It’s always been a necessary part of the process, however, since I had no way to automate the task for larger projects. Until now.

Enter the Cricut Explore. I’d heard of the Cricut brand before, and knew it had something to do with cutting things out of paper. And that there might be cartridges. Or something. I also recall one device for cutting fondant for cakes. I always thought that it wouldn’t be something I would use, because my crafting tends to not include much papercraft. Or cake decorating. Little did I know that the Cricut has come a long way since the original model.

Control the Cricut Explore from your computer, or from the iPad app. Image: Cricut
Control the Cricut Explore from your computer or the iPad app. Image: Cricut.

The Cricut Explore and the Cricut Explore Air are the newest in Cricut’s line of devices for cutting things out. The only difference I’ve found between the two models is that the Air has Bluetooth capability built in. You can purchase a Bluetooth dongle for the non-Air model, but it also works just fine with the included USB cable.

Compared with the older Cricut models, the Explore allows you to create in many more ways. It has a very long list of materials that can be cut, including normal paper, cardstock, and vinyl, and also things like tissue paper, vellum, window clings, Washi tape, Duck tape, light chipboard, silk, cotton, burlap, felt, leather, and craft foam. It will still work with the Cricut cartridges, but they are not necessary. You can run the free software from your computer or use the iPad app. You can also upload your own images and fonts for free, so you’re not limited to what’s in their library. This feature alone makes it perfect for our needs. My husband Rory and I are very crafty, and we make bags, pouches, dolls, and many other items. To be able to cut out pattern pieces perfectly each time makes for a better end product. Once your design file is set up, it’s just a matter of pushing a few buttons and you have your cut piece(s).

Image: Cricut
Image: Cricut.

More than just cutting, the Explore series also allows for specialized markers, which write on your materials. There are a wide variety of colors available, though the machine will only hold one at a time. There is also a scoring tool available for scoring lines for boxes or 3D projects. Additionally, there are cutting mats available in different sizes and levels of stickiness. If you’re a heavy user of your Cricut, you’ll go through mats pretty quickly, so plan accordingly. Each cut puts some markings on the mat, so eventually, mats do need to be replaced.

What was it like to use?
I’d never used anything like a Cricut before. We got everything out of the box and dove in, trying to follow what few instructions there were in the box. They guided us to a help website, which was a little light on the help, but it gave us enough information to make the thing go. The videos and PDF files were sufficient to get started, but it wasn’t intuitive at first.

This is what the page looked like after cutting four images. Photo: Jenny Bristol
This is what the page looked like after cutting four images. Photo: Jenny Bristol.

We don’t yet have our sewing patterns digitized, so I played around with some of the free art available through the Cricut Design Space software. (There are plenty of options that cost money—probably everything you can imagine—but the free choices are pretty extensive as well.) The design program itself is pretty capable. You can save projects, have layers, use different colors of paper and markers, etc. Your projects can be as simple or as complex as you like. The fancier the project, the more time the Cricut will save you.

I picked a few patterns that appealed to me, stuck some red cardstock to the mat, and let the machine do its thing. It cut the shapes out beautifully. The only problem came when I un-stuck the paper from the cutting mat. It was a bit like peeling up photos from those old photo albums from the 1970s. It kind of bends and warps your paper. But if you’re careful, and you have smaller sections to peel up, it all comes up pretty well. Cricut also sells a set of tools to help with such things.

A hodgepodge of shapes I cut with the Cricut Explore. It's tricky to line up the pieces when the finished piece has multiple parts, as you can see from the left two. The right image cut in all one piece, and worked out well. Photo: Jenny Bristol
A hodgepodge of shapes I cut with the Cricut Explore. It’s tricky to line up the pieces when the finished piece has multiple parts, as you can see from the left two. The right image cut in all one piece, and worked out well. Photo: Jenny Bristol.

The whole process wasn’t intuitive to me, but after I got through it once, it was a snap. Now I find my mind frequently thinking, “Ooo, can I use the Cricut to help me do that?” It’s hard to imagine one machine doing all that the Cricut does, but indeed, it does.

Is a Cricut necessary to your craft hobby or business? Only you can determine that. But it definitely makes intricate projects endlessly simpler and faster. No more need for the German art of scherenschnitte, unless you really love working with scissors.

So how does it all work?
Once you get the software installed and everything plugged in, go through the calibration process to make sure the device is reading the paper properly. Then just create designs, choose your material, put the material on the mat, press the Load/Unload button, and press the Cut button. Then wait. It’s cool to watch as it cuts and draws.

The Cricut Explore also comes with sample materials, allowing you to experiment before investing money in other supplies. It also comes with a handy carrying bag, which keeps the machine clean and makes it easy to carry. The cords fit in the carrying bag, but the cutting mat has to be carried separately. There are also little cubbies to store extra pens, blades, and the Bluetooth adapter inside the Cricut itself.

One thing I did find out the hard way, though, is that since the design software is web-based, if your internet connection goes out, you’re out of luck for a while. You also have to be logged into your Cricut account to actually start a cutting job.

Also, I wish that the Cricut Explore came with an extensive manual. The basics are easy to learn with the online tutorials, but what about deeper questions? What information do you need to properly choose a setting? What is light cardstock versus heavy cardstock? “Fabric” is just one setting, but fabric comes in a variety of thicknesses. Same with vinyl. I’d hate for trial and error to be my teacher. Good thing the internet is filled with help.

The Cricut Explore and Cricut Explore Air are available now, and are perfect for crafty types. This is the kind of tool that can be what you make of it. Your imagination is your only limit. And I know that you’ll find even more uses for it once it’s in your crafty clutches.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 Is Built for Education

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

For those who prefer a high-tech classroom, Panasonic, along with Intel and Microsoft, has created a purpose-built computer for the K-12 education market. It won’t keep kids stuck in the classroom, however. It’s extremely portable, even having a carrying handle, and is intended to be brought out into the field to look at things in nature and study the world.

“Anywhere, anytime learning for the student-centered classroom.”

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

The Panasonic 3E Convertible 2-in-1 is a useful tool for students. (The 3E stands for “Engage, Empower, Enable,” which mirrors my educational philosophy completely.) It is a fully functional Windows 8.1 machine. The keyboard is small enough for students’ hands, but large enough to accommodate them as they grow. The detachable 10″ tablet works well on its own, and can also be turned around and reattached to the keyboard, allowing for tablet use while keeping all the pieces together. The tethered stylus is easy to use, nestles securely, and charges in just 20 seconds while in its nook. Use it to tap, draw, take notes, etc. The computer comes with educational accessories, such as a temperature probe and a magnifying glass, the latter of which snaps into the rear-facing 5MP camera to allow students to see things up close.

This thing is certainly built for education. Between the accessories and the machine capabilities (such as the gyroscope, magnetometer/accelerometer sensor, cameras, and microphone) and the installed software, kids are encouraged to explore. On their own or under a teacher’s guidance, students can use these devices for almost any school subject. Lessons in science, art, multimedia, research, and more are easy to expand using the 3E.

From the press release:

Designed from the ground up for the K-12 market, every aspect of the 3E was conceived to encourage inquiry-based learning, to boost engagement and nurture analytical skills that will help students succeed in STEM subjects. The device is also able to alleviate teacher anxiety by empowering them to deliver personalized learning for students while maintaining whole group instruction.

This isn’t just a case of putting technology on top of learning. These machines are designed with learning completely integrated, and they encourage students to use their imaginations, using computers as a tool for learning. The machines will expand students’ learning environments and opportunities, not restrict them.

Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

The tablet’s touch screen is especially useful for kids, who need to explore and dive into their content. Whole classrooms can use these devices, and they are also able to integrate into a larger classroom system.

The machines are spill- and dust-resistant, and are extremely durable. They can withstand a 70 cm drop. You know your kids will drop this thing, and bang it around. Panasonic made sure it would withstand that kind of use.

The devices have a variety of I/O ports on the side, protected by a door, and the tablet can keep a charge for eight hours. The keyboard can extend that time three additional hours.

The software included on the machine is useful for many educational purposes:

  • ArtRage Studio – Plenty of options for art creation.
  • Foxit Reader – A multi-format ebook reader in which students can also make and name their own bookshelves within the program.
  • Kno Textbooks – This comes with a few samples, but is designed to be used with textbooks that you purchase, or have access to through school.
  • Lab Camera – With this program, students can use the magnifying glass, do time lapses, do kinematics, use the motion cam, or treat it as a microscope, universal logger, pathfinder, or graph challenge. With the magnifying glass, students can put something directly up to the glass. They can then save or print photos, plain or with measurements on them.
  • Media Camera – This program allows students to make media, either in Presenter or Recorder format.
  • SPARKvue – Software to run something akin to Power Point school lessons, from what I can piece together. The computer also comes with a “Folder for Experiments” which includes several example experiments, including ones that demonstrate how to use the accessories. Students interact with the pages to complete assignments.
Image: Panasonic
Image: Panasonic

What did I think of the Panasonic 3E?

I liked it very much. My 13-year-old daughter took to it right away, making herself at home and experimenting with all of the functionality. We tried things mundane and unusual, and determined that it’s a pretty solid product. It’s the kind of thing that I would choose for my kids to use in our homeschooling: fully functional computers that aren’t at all restricted by location or purpose.

Some observations of note:

  • If you don’t get the tablet portion clicked into the keyboard portion well enough, the tablet can fall out. Make sure it clicks in well.
  • Since you have to open the I/O port cover to plug in headphones as well as anything other than the AC adapter, we worry that the hinge will wear out quickly.
  • Some of the keys are a bit small, but that’s a good fit for students.
  • The keys are a bit slippery.
  • There are two vertical line/slash keys. This extra key makes the left shift key a bit small for my taste.
  • The tether for the stylus seems to get in the way a lot, whether the computer is opened or closed.
  • The slot in the tablet that holds the stylus is pretty secure, so confident users could consider removing the tether.
  • It’s a good idea to have a pouch for the magnifying glass and the temperature probe accessories to protect them and keep them from getting lost. Use a big enough one, and the AC adapter will fit as well.

In summary, the Panasonic 3E 2-in-1 convertible computer is a well-matched choice for students, at least through middle school. Whether your school system invests in the whole Panasonic Education shebang, or just several units for students, these are solid machines that will take what kids throw at them. Since they are Windows machines, they are completely compatible with systems that are already in place.

For a full set of specs, visit the spec sheet on Panasonic’s website. For more information on getting the Panasonic 3E, visit Panasonic’s website or email them at educationsolutions@us.panasonic.com.

Note: GeekMom received a unit for review purposes.

Surface Pro 3—When Awesome Gets Even, Uh, Awesomer

Image: Microsoft
The whole setup. Image: Microsoft

I never used an earlier version of Microsoft’s Surface, though I have seen it in action once or twice. I’ve only used desktop machines, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, and tablets. Never a pseudo-hybrid.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally got my hands on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. Would I like it? How would I use it? What place in my life would it have? What uses would it be best for, over my other devices?

Just like when I got my iPad 2, lo, those many years ago now, I was excited to use a new device but wasn’t sure how it would fit with my habits. I knew the iPad 2 (now so far behind the current models that it runs glacially) was cool when I got it, but I wasn’t sure what to use it for. It quickly became a great way to consume media, and single-handedly helped me move away from watching television on an actual television.

I had a different but related experience with the Surface Pro 3. I already had a tablet. I already had a laptop. Would this be a case of a hybrid doing everything, but doing nothing well? Or would it seamlessly bridge the gap and transition between the two experiences? At first I wasn’t sure. It felt a bit foreign, because you can’t just pry the thing open and balance it on your lap. (At least not my lap—my legs aren’t long enough to prop up the screen and have the keyboard flat.) And even if I managed it, the keyboard was a little thin and flimsy to type vigorously, balanced on one’s legs. It bounces around a bit.

Placing the Surface Pro 3 on a table or other large, flat surface takes care of all of those issues, however. The keyboard feels more substantial with a table for support, and you can lean the screen/tablet portion at any angle you choose. Any severe angle seems to require a bit of oomph to get it there, though. The keyboard comes in several colors, which allows you to personalize your experience, and when closed, the keyboard also serves to protect the screen. I’m generally happy with the keyboard. The trackpad, clicking, and the keys all work well. There are also separate arrow keys, which is nice.

Image: Microsoft
A demonstration of my favorite stylus ever. Image: Microsoft

Using the Surface Pro 3 in the laptop orientation is only one of many ways to interact with this tool. If you pry off the keyboard portion, which is easy to do, the screen is now a tablet. Tap, scroll, and pinch to your heart’s content. It works just like other Windows 8 tablets out there.

When you’re ready for something new and incredibly useful, try out the Surface Pen. It’s not your usual stylus. It’s Bluetooth-enabled, so it can interact with the device in ways that your finger or a conventional capacitive stylus can’t. Rest your hand on the screen and write or draw with the stylus, and with the magic of science (or, Palm Block technology), only your pen marks show up. No marks from your hand. You can also use the stylus in some ways while using your finger swipes in others. Scroll with your finger, and draw with your pen. It also seems to be pretty pressure sensitive, which is great for when you’re drawing. The tip is quite pointy, so, unlike the snub-nosed styli out there, you can place this one on the screen with more precision.

The Surface Pen also includes two buttons on the body of the pen, which are for erasing and right-clicking. One tap of the button on the end (where an eraser would be) opens OneNote, and your’re ready to write a new note. (OneNote will also convert handwriting to text, which is handy here.) Double tap it and you’ve just captured a screenshot. The pen also works in any app that allows for this kind of “ink.” In short, it works just like I’ve always wanted a stylus to work. The first words about it that escaped my mouth were, “Amazing sauce!” Silly, I know. But hey.

The Surface Pro 3 Pen comes with a sticky attachment loop, and you can choose, yourself, where to position it. I put mine on the left side of the keyboard, since I didn’t want it in the way of my tableting when I had the keyboard unhooked.

The many angles of the Surface Pro 3. Image: Microsoft
The many angles of the Surface Pro 3. Image: Microsoft

The Surface Pro 3 has a bigger tablet portion than my iPad 2, but is smaller than my other laptops. So it’s great to take with me for a very portable laptop and stellar tablet experience. Other than doing activities such as playing Guild Wars 2, I can replicate just about anything on the Surface Pro 3 that I can do on my more powerful desktop machine.

I haven’t measured battery life, but, unlike my other Windows 8 tablets, the Surface Pro 3 holds a charge for more than 24 hours (considerably more, I believe). Not having to charge it each time I want to use it is an important feature for me.

To sum up, the Surface Pro 3 works really well as a tablet. It also is quite versatile as a laptop, minus the lap. If you tend to have a laptop as your only computer, and you’re a heavy computer user, the Surface Pro 3 likely won’t replace it. But it’s the perfect secondary device. The stylus is the best I’ve ever used. It just works, it’s very pointy, and because it’s Bluetooth, it resists the touch of your hand while you’re using the pen. Also, even more than any of my other Windows 8 devices, the Surface Pro 3 boots up and shuts down really fast.

The longer I use the Surface Pro 3, the more I like it. I don’t use it like I use a tablet. I don’t use it like I use a laptop. It’s definitely a hybrid of the two, erring on the side of being an excellent tablet that can handle desktop applications with ease. Easy, breezy, beautiful comes to mind. Versatile. Adaptable. Great for school, on the go, work, etc.

For complete specs, visit the Surface Pro 3 page on the Microsoft website. The device comes in a variety of performance and price levels. For more information on the pen (you’ll want more information on the pen, for a variety of reasons), I found this page pretty helpful.

How do you like to use your Surface?

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been provided hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

Where Will Your Roadmap Take You?

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books.

What is it that makes you happy?

I came into my own during the What Color Is Your Parachute? generation, or at least at the tail end of it. When I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, career-wise, I got a copy of that book and worked my way through it. It wasn’t much help. See, I didn’t know what made me tick yet. I didn’t know what I was passionate about. I couldn’t even identify my hobbies. One of the hazards about being a Jane of All Trades, Mistress of None, is that your interests and talents aren’t always clearly identified. It is often only clear in hindsight.

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was in my thirties. Like, my mid-thirties. Now that I’m in my early forties, I know what my short- and long-term life goals are, so I’m pretty well set there. A lot of experimenting and thinking helped me figure it out. But what about my kids? One of them has very clearly defined interests. The other one, definitely not. But both of them can benefit from some direction, some help along the way, and some encouragement to realize that life’s a journey. Everything you do along the way counts.

I recently learned about a book called Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do With Your Life, by the people who created the documentary series Roadtrip Nation. The book’s premise is that it exists to help people find their own road in life, find one that fits them and their needs, wants, and desires, and is decided upon by both their head and their heart.

The book begins by encouraging people to figure out if they are doing what they do because they want to be doing it, or because everyone else is doing it and it’s what is expected of them. Then it moves on to talk about the external “noises” in life, and helps readers decide which noises to listen to and which to ignore.

Later chapters have titles with clear purposes, such as “Build a Life, Not a Resume,” “Life Is Linear Only in the Rearview Mirror,” “Pursue Your Interests—Not an Occupation,” “Risk or Regret? You Choose,” and “When to Veer and When to U-Turn.” Each chapter includes really useful information about finding your own way in life that helps you create a personally fulfilling path. Dozens of people were interviewed for their stories, and URLs are given for reading more of those people’s experiences. Most chapters also include an exercise or two to help you hone your direction and make good decisions for yourself. Quotations and sidebars also help inspire, and give concrete examples of how you don’t need to have a cookie cutter life—unless that’s what you want, of course.

The back of the book contains seven projects that help you create your own path. The projects include things like blogging your interests, selling your goods and services online, traveling, and talking to someone who is already living your Roadmap. This pretty much describes the route I took to self-discovery, but I had to figure it all out the hard way. This book can be your guide.

This video gives a very small glimpse into the television show, and the idea behind it all.

The book also includes a limited membership to the Roadtrip Nation Interview Archive, where you can watch video interviews with thousands of people who have built their lives around their interests. You access this archive with a special code printed in your book.

This is your life, after all. Not anyone else’s. Live your life for yourself. Don’t live someone else’s life. If you are living your passions and someone tells you that you’re doing it wrong, they obviously don’t know you very well.

Roadmap retails for $14.45 and comes out on April 7. I recommend this book to everyone. Seriously. Everyone. Buy it for yourself. Buy it for your new graduate. Buy it for your high schooler. Buy it for your retiree parents. Finding your own path is that important, and it’s never too late. Our world needs a variety of thinkers and doers. Including you.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Find Time for Creativity With Art Before Breakfast and Other Books

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

It pains me to draw, to sketch, to doodle. I’m not one of those people who ever passed the time doodling while in class or in a meeting. If I’m drawing anything, it takes all of my creative energy and attention, so I’m definitely not paying attention to anything else. I’ve always been envious of those who draw with ease, and those who actually enjoy it. Part of my non-enjoyment of drawing is a self-fulfilling prophecy, though. The more I draw, the better at it I am. And I’m reminded to keep at it, to not give up or continue to resign myself to be bad at drawing, by books such as Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to Be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are.

GeekMom Lissa recently included this book in her impromptu-and-useful-and-inspiring tweet series, which she turned into a Storify story and a blog post. She recently finished filling her first sketchbook. I’d like to emulate her efforts myself, and have been encouraged to begin.

But how?

1. Get a sketchbook. Check. I have one. I’ve drawn a few things in it. But there are only about eight pages full, mostly with things for other purposes. But, I have it.

From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books
From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books.

2. Begin working my way through Art Before Breakfast by Danny Gregory. Full of exercises but not a step-by-step guide, it gives you examples of places to find opportunities to make art. The airport. While you’re eating walnuts. While looking at pencils. Using Post-Its. Of course, it helps to have your materials with you all the time, to take advantage of the little moments. But it’s also full of advice for how and why to include art in your life, which will add more beauty and richness to what you already have. Art helps you notice the small things. It helps you appreciate what you have and forces you to slow down your pace of life, even for just a few minutes. Consider it a form of meditation, if you will. Also full of humor, the book is a joy to read while you learn. And it’s dedicated to someone named Jenny. Not me, but I have yet to meet anyone named Jenny who I didn’t like.

From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books
From Art Before Breakfast. Image: Chronicle Books.

3. Utilize my other art-inspiring books, such as How to Draw a Radish and How to Draw a Cup of Coffee. These books I obtained a couple of decades ago in the hopes that I’d start doodling. Yeah, it didn’t work. But never stop trying!

4. Keep finding sources of inspiration, such as my children’s drawings, books like 20 Ways to Draw a Tree and 44 Other Nifty Things from Nature: A Sketchbook for Artists, Designers, and Doodlers, and other books in the series. I’ve been wanting to try this book out for a while. I’m horrid at drawing people, for example, but I can do flowers, trees, and birds more passably. Begin with my strengths!

5. Finally, don’t expect perfection out of myself. If I can just improve the resemblance of what I draw to what I am trying to draw, I will have succeeded.

I am successfully creative in many other ways, but enjoying drawing, and doing well at it, have always eluded me. But I won’t give up. And neither should you.

Note: I received Art Before Breakfast for review purposes.

Humans of New York Talks With The President of the United States

Image: St. Martin's Press
Image: St. Martin’s Press

Who knew, when he took that first photo of Vidal, who spoke of his principal, Ms. Lopez, that the journey would lead Brandon Stanton to The White House, and interviewing President Obama? (Not to mention the over $1,000,000 that has been raised to help the students in the school.)

But when Stanton talked to The President, Barack Obama spoke of his mother.

“Who has influenced you the most in your life?” Obama was asked.

“My mother,” he responded. He then went on to explain further. Check out more from this interview on the Humans of New York website.

Perhaps this whole experience will be chronicled in the next HONY book. The first book, entitled Humans of New York of course, has been a New York Times Bestseller.

Toshiba Encore Mini Tablet Is Perfect to Share, Take Along

Image: Toshiba
Image: Toshiba

When we don’t have much money to spend, we tend to just buy the one device we need. Something that is in the right price range that handles all the tasks we intend to throw at it. But what if we have the opportunity to have an extra, secondary device? What do we choose then? Likely we would choose something less expensive, less fancy, and something we’d feel comfortable handing to our kids.

I’ve found such a mini tablet. Not a headliner, but definitely a good, functional backup and secondary device which you’ll feel comfortable giving heavy use to.

Image: Toshiba
Image: Toshiba

The Toshiba Encore Mini tablet is an affordable and portable option for tablet use on the go. It has a nice heft, and it fits perfectly in my (average woman-sized) hand. This 7-inch tablet will fit in just about any purse or bag, and its dimensions are equally great for apps, watching videos, or doing light work. I like how all of the controls, other than power, are on the top, which makes it easier to avoid accidental activation. There are two cameras, and a speaker at the bottom. The back of the device is white, while the front borders are black. It runs Windows 8.1 and provides all the app and desktop features contained therein.

A few negatives include shipping without a regular plug (it charges over USB), lower-than-I’d-like screen resolution, and low res cameras. There is also no Windows button, but you can reach the Start menu using the Charms on the side of the screen.

Still, the battery life is decent, and that counts for a lot with me. Since it’s a great take-along tablet for entertaining your kids and basic utility use, you’ll want it to survive a short car ride, or a day out running errands. I did some fairly non-scientific tests just to get a ballpark figure about how long the battery would hold up. Fully charged to 100% battery to start, I tested its standby battery life. After 24 minutes it was at 98%. After over 3 1/2 hours it was at 95%. After 6 hours, 93%. Then 28 hours took it down to 64%. I lost track after that, but after 2-3 days, the battery was finally dead.

Next I tested the battery with a video playing via Netflix. Granted, I had turned the volume down, but starting with a 98% battery charge, after an hour it was down to about 80%, 1 1/2 hours to 69%, 3 hours to 37%, and 3 1/2 hours to about 30%. This is plenty of battery to keep your kids entertained for an outing, or to do some work while you commute. It will survive at least one movie, if not two (or several episodes of your kids’ favorite shows).

Image: Toshiba
Image: Toshiba

For full specs, visit the Toshiba site.

Though not a perfect “only” solution to most people’s computing needs, this tablet is my go-to device for entertainment on-the-go, and for handing to people of the young variety.

The Toshiba Encore Mini tablet costs about $100 and is a perfect gift idea, for yourself or others.

Note: As part of the Microsoft Bloggers program, I have been loaned hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

The Classic Style of Marimekko: In Patterns

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

Marimekko is a textile design company based in Helsinki, Finland. Some of their designs, such as Unikko, are quite well known, but there are plenty of more obscure patterns as well. Earlier this year, Unikko celebrated 50 years of being awesome, and the company keeps churning out other inspirational designs.

Marimekko: In Patterns takes us on a behind-the-scenes journey through the process of a Marimekko pattern, start to finish. From sketches to fabric to pattern to color to the final quality check, their style is playful, colorful, and, often, simple. You may look at their patterns and think, “I could design that.” But I challenge you to try. Putting together colors and shapes in a way that will guide style and appeal to the people isn’t an easy task. Not every one of their patterns appeals to me, but that’s part of the beauty of the company: There seems to be something for everyone. Dark, light, colorful, monochromatic, modern, classic, organic, and geometric.

Image: Marimekko
The Unikko pattern. Image: Marimekko

The book also digs deeply into some of their classic patterns and their designers, and it profiles several of Marimekko’s designers individually in more depth. While there is plenty of reading to do in this book, it is mostly filled with the patterns and the art that goes into them. It also shares examples of how the designs are used, in clothes and home decor, and on regular bolts of fabric.

Finally, it goes through its history as a company, from design and fashion in the 1950s until the 2000s, and briefly touches on what they have in store for us in the future.

Marimekko: In Patterns retails for $35 but can be found much cheaper. I recommend it to anyone who has a love of classic style, organic and geometric shapes, or Finnish design. This book will inspire you in your next project, be it painting, sewing, photography, or any other creative pursuit.

GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books.

When I first saw Star Wars and the other movies of the original trilogy, I was a young kid. We saw them in the theaters when they were first run. Considering what the actors were wearing in the movies was the least of my thoughts. I was too caught up in the stories, and, yes, fawning over the cute Ewoks. I took the characters as they were, completely lost in the movie, suspending all disbelief, in the way that only children really can. And even though I know quite a lot about clothing construction now, having sewn a great deal, my mind still doesn’t consider movie costumes the way you might think.

Enter Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy. This heavy, coffee table-style book is filled with every wonder from those three movies, at least in terms of what people were wearing. We begin with Leia’s drape-y, white, iconic outfit from A New Hope on the cover, and then forewords from three of the design team start the book off. The rest of the book consists of visiting each of the three movies, one by one. Concept art, behind the scenes photos, prototypes, and plenty of text and quotations explaining what you’re seeing fill this definitive book. We learn about the evolution of the major costumes through the series with plenty of explanation for costumes of all ranks of importance, from Vader’s dark robes and Obi-Wan’s worn rags to Catina costumes and what the AT-ST driver wore. Fold-out pages show more detail on several costumes (yes, including Slave Leia). And up close, a lot of the props look like someone made them in their basement. But we never seem to notice that in the movies themselves.

The Star Wars website shares more information and a trailer for the book:

This book is a cosplayer’s delight. If you or your kids have any interest at all in dressing up like a character from the original Star Wars trilogy, the photos, images, and information in this book will help guide your creations extremely well.

Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy retails for $60, but is currently $37.95 on Amazon. It is a perfect gift for Star Wars fans, cosplayers, and those interested in costume and design; this book is the ultimate resource.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Guinness World Records 2015: Gamer’s Edition!

Image: Guinness World Records
Image: Guinness World Records

I still have my old edition of the Guinness Book of World Records that I got as a young adult, remembering so many years of flipping through the editions at the library. Very few photos, mostly text. Thick mass market paperback volume. So much data. So many superlatives. So much geek.

Times have changed, it appears. Now there is no one volume that covers it all. Enter the Guinness World Records 2015: Gamer’s Edition! Packed full of facts, data, and obscure trivia, this version of the book series covers who the first person was to unlock all achievements in World of Warcraft, what the best-selling game was on Sega, and what the most popular game beta was.

Broken mostly down by game title of the top 50 games of all time, as rated by their readers, this tome is a video game-lover’s delight. Photos and images abound, but there is still plenty of text everywhere for those of us who like our content in a more verbal way. My beloved Guild Wars 2 is unfortunately not represented, but plenty of other favorites are. I won’t spoil it by revealing any of the rankings, but many types of video games are profiled, including intense first person shooters, platformers, kid games, MMOs, and more.

Guinness World Records 2015: Gamer’s Edition retails for $14.99 and is a great holiday gift for the game lover of any age on your shopping list. You can check out this extremely colorful and content-filled book starting on November 11th.

Note: I received this book for review purposes.

Don’t Forget to Vote!

Map courtesy of Bing.
Map courtesy of Bing.

Some of us live in states where we can (or are even required to) vote early by mail. We’ve already cast our votes and stuck them in the mailbox. But if you usually vote on Election Day, or you vote early but haven’t yet sent in your ballot, don’t forget to do so.

Even more important than voting, however, is voting from a position of education. Read up on all of the candidates running for office in your district (yes, including the school superintendent). Read up on amendments, propositions, and new taxes. Read the analyses and the arguments for each side. Then make your own decision. Don’t be swayed by rhetoric or logical fallacies. Your personal opinion matters and counts.

In my area, we get plenty of mailers sent to us in the weeks leading up to the election. They are fantastic resources, especially for the very local elections. But if you’re looking for more state-wide or national information, some people head to the internet. Bing now has a wonderful resource at bing.com/elections that shows the latest poll data, what races are going on in your area, predictions, trivia, and more. You can also click on someone’s name and it gives actual relevant search results for the candidate. Depending on where you live, the interface seems to give different amounts of information, but it’s definitely a useful resource, regardless. Still not convinced? Bing details the intricacies of their election coverage, and has also made a short video.

While you can check on any of the races across the country, the most useful part of the site will likely be the My Ballot area. Type in your address and it shows you what candidates you will be choosing from when you vote. In my case, it didn’t list any of the propositions, so I’m not sure how universal that aspect is, but the rest is extremely helpful. You can also mark your choices and print your ballot ahead of time, in case you forget who you wanted to vote for when you’re in the voting booth.

We are only six years away from the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote in national elections in the United States, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Let’s take advantage of this right and responsibility, and make it count, every year.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been loaned hardware for the purpose of these reviews. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the subjects involved.

The Art Game: Artists’ Trump Cards

Image: Laurence King Publishing
Image: Laurence King Publishing

You love artists and their artwork, but want to somehow make a game out of it? No worries. It’s already been done for you.

The Art Game: Artists’ Trump Cards is a bit like the old card game War. It has very simple instructions and you can play with any number of people. The cards are much thicker and higher quality than normal playing cards, and have a pleasing matte finish. Each of the 32 cards contains a painting of a famous or less-famous artist, such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Cindy Sherman, or Damien Hirst. In addition, there is a brief biography, and numbers corresponding to six categories that are integral to gameplay. The categories are Influence, “Shock of the new” effect, Versatility, Top auction price (USD), Critical reception, and The “beautiful” factor. Other than the auction price, I’m not sure how the values are computed, however.

Image: Laurence King Publishing
Image: Laurence King Publishing

To play, deal the cards out equally, face down. Figure out who goes first. Players then hold their entire pile of cards face up, so they can only see one card. The first player chooses a category from their top card and reads it and its number out loud. The other players then read the value of the same item on their top cards. The player with the highest value wins all of the top cards and places them on the bottom of their pile. The winning player then gets to go next. If the top value is shared by more than one person, all the cards are placed in the middle and the same player chooses again. Whoever wins that round also wins the cards in the middle. The winner is the person with all the cards in the end.

If you think that it does sound a bit like War, I would agree with you.

Image: Laurence King Publishing
Image: Laurence King Publishing

In theory, players can learn quite a bit about each artists’ work and stats as they play, but in practice, players will likely just utilize the numbers on the cards to try to win. The game itself doesn’t teach too much about an artist’s works, but the information contained therein is a great starting off point for further study. You may learn that a Picasso painting sold for a vast sum. Research what painting it was. Or that Marcel Duchamp has a “Shock of the new” value of 99. What kind of groundbreaking work did he do?

Playing it with my family of four, we felt it was a bit too unbalanced and hard to gain control, just like War. However, the deck is smaller than a regular card deck, so the game doesn’t go on forever. We played two rounds in about a half hour.

The Art Game retails for $9.95 and is great for people who love the card game War but want it to take much less time and to be exposed to art and artists as they play.

Note: I received a copy of this game for review purposes.

Microsoft YouthSpark Continues to Provide Technical Skills and Education

Image: Microsoft

You might not have noticed, but Microsoft is busy doing more, these days, than just purchasing Mojang, home of Minecraft. They are also continuing their dedication to youth education and promotion of technical skills.

Microsoft YouthSpark, launched two years ago, provides opportunities to 300 million youth around the world. (Check out the YouthSpark Hub, where you can see the opportunities available.) Now they are boosting other initiatives as well.

* The TEALS program (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) is putting software engineers in 131 high schools across 18 states plus the District of Columbia as volunteer computer science teachers. This almost doubles the numbers of participating schools from last year, aiming to better meet the needs of students interested in learning computer science.

* YouthSpark summer camps held at Microsoft retail stores will continue throughout the school year for K-12 students. For examples of how this helps the youth of today, some of the students are sharing their stories.

* Imagine Cup, a student technology contest, is continuing next year with the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2015, open to students 16 and older. Imagine Cup is designed to encourage scientific youth to help solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. All participants channel the Imagine Cup theme of, “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” The contest began in 2003, and now has participants in almost 200 countries. John Booth wrote about the contest on GeekDad last year.

* For students around the world who aren’t fluent in technology, Microsoft is also expanding their Digital Literacy Curriculum to more languages, increasing access.

And, of course, Microsoft has acquired Mojang. I have high hopes for what they will do with Minecraft. If they can develop even more educational programs surrounding the oh-so-popular sandbox game, without affecting its base functionality and appeal, I will be one happy homeschooling mom.

Note: As part of the Windows Champions program, I have been given the use of Windows 8.1 devices. The views expressed in these posts are my honest opinions about the company’s initiatives.

David “Oak” Stark, DM of the Year

David Oak Stark is the first ever recipient of the DM of the Year award! Photo: David Oak Stark
David Oak Stark is the first ever recipient of the DM of the Year award! Photo: David Oak Stark

I have heard that a whole lot of awesome happened at Gen Con this year. I wouldn’t know from personal experience, as I wasn’t there. But one of the awesomes was this: There is a new award given out by Wizards of the Coast and Baldman Games, called DM of the Year! And the first award goes to none other than my brother-in-law, David Stark.

To learn more about David, the award, and all things Gen Con D&D, head over to GeekDad and read Rory’s post on the matter. Since he’s David’s brother, he got the inside scoop on what the event was like. You can also visit David’s new website to get a feel for his ideas.

I have not yet had the privilege of role playing with David, but I’m sure that day will come.

Color and Explore With Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Coloring isn’t just for kids. Sometimes we grown-ups need our artsy time. Sometimes we doodle, sometimes we make crafts. But there’s something so meditative and simple about coloring in areas delineated by black lines. And when those black lines are a work of art in and of themselves, even better.

I recently discovered Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford. The line drawings in this book are so beautiful, I was drawn to them right away. To start, the book cover is filled with ink drawings of plants, flowers, bees, butterflies, and more, all intricately woven together. Occasional flowers and more boast gold foil to set them off. You can take the cover off of the book and color the inside, if you like, because it is drawn in such a way as to invite coloring in.

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

The book itself is a brown paperback with more black ink of plants and bugs, and is filled with a backyard of wonderment. Each new scene or shape has little critters hiding, so while you color in the leaves, flowers, and branches, you can also search for frogs, butterflies, bees, birds, keys, snails, and even a treasure chest. (The answer key is in the back.) Some of the pages guide your drawing and coloring, encouraging you to draw song birds or plants, while others are mostly already filled in, and ache for your choice of color. There are mazes in which to get lost. A treehouse. A peacock. Topiaries. A backyard. A flower garden. A wreath. A lantern. Plenty more.

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

While Secret Garden is certainly appropriate for slightly older kids who know how to color in the lines when they need to, it is also perfect for grown-ups who love to color fine drawings and who long for nature. The book will encourage you to draw, color, and imagine.



Reminding me a bit of Zentangles, this book is gorgeous to look at, and is an oh so pleasant place to spend some time. The author’s bio is short and sums up her work very succinctly: “Johanna Basford is an illustrator and ink evangelist who creates intricate and hand-drawn illustrations rooted in the flora and fauna that surrounds her home in rural Scotland.”

Photo: Laurence King Publishing
Photo: Laurence King Publishing

Following the Secret Garden theme, there are journals, postcards, and notecards also available. I was able to see the notecards, which come in a hinged box of 12, patterned after the book. The box is covered in black and white foliage patterns with occasional gold foil thrown in. Inside, there are four styles of card, with designs in circle (with a peacock), square (with a well), heart, and tree shapes. The notecards, while meant for sharing these beautiful images via postal mail, are also suitable (in my opinion) for framing, colored in or not.

Secret Garden and the notecards each retail for $14.95. They are beautiful and are just waiting for you, or someone you love, to add color or lines to the pages.

Note: I received these products for review purposes.

Romeo and Julet Are Back in Crash Games’ Council of Verona

Image: Crash Games
Image: Crash Games

Crash Games, home of many a Kickstarter-funded campaign, produces a variety of games, all with very high quality materials. They take pride in their wood tokens, thick cardboard boxes, and sturdy cards and tiles. I’ve played several of their games, and my favorite would have to be Council of Verona.

Set in the world of William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet, Council of Verona is a light strategy game where 2-5 players can scheme and backstab and push their agenda in Italy on the cusp of the Renaissance.

There is very little luck to this game, where each player tries to meet their agenda(s) while hiding said agendas from the other players. Each of the cards is a character from Verona. Some are on the side of the Capulets and others are on the side of the Montagues. Still others are neutral, with one neutral card also counting as a Capulet, and another also counting as a Montague.

Image: Crash Games
Image: Crash Games

Once cards are dealt and chosen (the procedure for which varies by number of players), players take turns playing character cards on the Council or in Exile and placing influence tokens face down on the cards that have token spots. Some cards are action cards instead, which allow players to switch tokens, look at tokens, or move cards from Council to Exile or vice versa.

The game is relatively quick to play, and once you’ve played it through once, everyone should have a good idea of how the game works, and start devising strategies. The box says that it takes 15-60 minutes to play, but our games took much closer to the 15 minute mark. Perfect for a pick up game, or as a filler game when you’re waiting for others to finish longer games during game night. While the game is intended for people age 13 and up, kids slightly younger could play, but some of the subtleties might be lost on them. Still, there’s nothing inappropriate for children.

Council of Verona retails for $14.99, making it friendly to most budgets. For that price, too, there is a lot of depth, sophistication, and design quality. This game gives a real value in addition to being quite fun for a variety of tastes. Plus it’s a small and sturdy enough box to toss in your bag and play anywhere.

GeekMom received this game for review purposes.