‘Voyagers:’ Join the Crew, Save the World

New York Times best-selling author Patrick Carman recently launched a six book series aimed at middle school kids.

The series is part sci-fi, part eco-mystery, and is filled with plenty of action adventure. The series also includes a companion website, VoyagersHQ.com, and app.

Below, you’ll have a chance to enter our giveaway for a $50 gift card, the Voyagers books, an app, and an iPhone Case.  Continue reading ‘Voyagers:’ Join the Crew, Save the World

Your Guide to Creating the Perfect Tree of Life Pendant

Recently, I found myself caught up in the tree of life phenomenon. Specifically, I took a real interest in wire-wrapped, handmade tree of life pendants. I had an opportunity to take a three-hour class, held by Wattle Tree Designs, at a local gift shop. Boy, was that a lot of fun! Women, beads, laughter, and the age-old art of passing down a craft from one person to another. I was hooked! Read on for inspiration and instructions on how to make your own tree of life pendants.

Continue reading Your Guide to Creating the Perfect Tree of Life Pendant

Take Lego Power Functions to the Next Level!

Lego Power Functions
Book covers. Images: No Starch Press

I’m like a little kid at Christmas when I receive a new Lego book to review, and the new Lego Power Functions books from No Starch Press that arrived this week are no exception! Author and Lego builder Yoshito Isogawa just released two new titles that are sure winners. The first is The Lego Power Functions Idea Book, Vol. 1: Machines and Mechanisms, and the second is The Lego Power Functions Idea Book, Vol. 2: Car and Contraptions.

Lego Power Functions
Lego Power Functions. Image: Lego

Lego Power Functions, or PF for short, are electronic Technic parts that are added to stationary Lego models, like an Excavator, to bring them to life with movement, lights, and even remote control functions.

I often write about the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot which employs a similar but slightly different set of electronic parts, and Mr. Isogowa also wrote The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book which I previously reviewed. The Technic bricks utilized are the same whether you use Power Functions or EV3 motors, and the concepts presented are universal to both Lego platforms.

Lego Power Functions Angled Gears
Angled gears example. Image: No Starch Press

Both the Machines and Mechanisms and Cars and Contraptions books use a highly visual presentation to convey their content. That is, there are very few words in the books. The instructions and concepts are explained entirely through pictures. Take this angled gear mechanism for example. There’s a parts list, and the mechanism is shown using multiple pictures taken at different angles so that you can see how the parts fit together without needing step-by-step instructions.

Lego Power Functions Camshaft Gears
Camshaft gear. Image: No Starch Press

I spent some time putting this camshaft gear together, and the visual method worked well for me. I only had 6 camshaft parts instead of the 8 that were used in the book diagrams, but I was able to modify the gear to work with the reduced number of parts. The books encourage you to use the parts you have and to experiment!

Lego Power Functions Camshaft Gear
Camshaft gears build. Photo: Maryann Goldman

It’s an amazing feeling when you take the pictures in the books and bring them to life. You know you have learned something! I can’t wait to share the moving camshaft gear with my FIRST Lego League kids!

If you have to pick one book over the other, and I hope you don’t, I would probably suggest the Machines and Mechanisms book. Most of the items in it have 20 or fewer parts. The items are smaller, and they actually make up some of the bigger items in the Cars and Contraptions book. The Machines and Mechanisms book contains the foundation blocks to understanding basic Technic movement concepts. Once you’ve mastered Machines and Mechanisms, then you’ll be ready to move onto Cars and Contraptions. But, by all means, if you have a ton of experience building with Technic Lego bricks already, or you love Lego wheels, then start out with Cars and Contraptions.

Lego Power Functions Differential Gears
Differential Gears. Image: No Starch Press

If you have Lego bricks at home but not necessarily Technic parts, you’ll need to pick up a kit so that you can get the full experience of building the examples shown in the books. Besides the excavator that I mentioned earlier, and the base Power Functions electronic parts, I would also recommend the Tracked Crane or the Mini Mobile Crane. I was able to pull my parts from my EV3 kit, and I’m pleased to report that I had just about every part used in both books. Each book includes a parts list at the back, so you can check what you have against what’s needed before you buy.

The Lego Power Functions Idea Book, Vol. 1: Machines and Mechanisms, and the The Lego Power Functions Idea Book, Vol 2.: Cars and Contraptions are both available for pre-order on Amazon for $18.06 in paperback format.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Amazon Echo: Did It Change My Life?

Amazon Echo Location
Amazon Echo in our home. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I’ve been an Amazon Prime member since December 25, 2011. I ordered my first Kindle that month, and the Amazon Prime membership tagged along with it. I’ve been very happy with Prime shipping ever since, and occasionally I use Prime Video or Prime Music. When the Amazon Echo was announced, I wanted to hop on the bandwagon right away and order one, but I waited a bit to see what others had to say about it. I also needed to consider the value-to-cost ratio. Would our family really use it?

On July 2, our Echo arrived, and our adventure began.

GeekDad Z recently reviewed the Echo and all the functions delivered with it, so I won’t repeat those. However, I’m pleased to report that I get an email about once a week announcing newly added features. For example, this week, Echo added support for three third-party developed skills: Crystal Ball, Math Puzzles, and StubHub. Crystal Ball is a fortune teller. You think of a yes/no question, and Echo will answer it for you. I wondered if the sky is really blue and when I tried it out, Echo said, “Maybe.” If you really want to know why the sky is blue, read GeekMom Patricia’s post. Math Puzzles gives you a list of numbers and asks you what the next number will be. I found this hard to do in my head, but fun if I got out a sheet of paper and wrote the number list down. You have to think fast before Echo times out. StubHub helps you find out what’s going on in your town this weekend or on a specific date. You have the option of going into the Skills category of the Echo app on your smartphone to decide whether to enable these new skills or not. Why not?

Now that I’ve been using Echo for 45 days, what do I think? I love to be in on new tech. The Echo certainly classifies, but is Echo really changing my life? Although I would order it again without hesitation, the answer, sadly, is, “No.”

The first few days, we were talking to Echo hourly, testing out her skills. She does a great job telling you the current weather, looking up interesting facts on Wikipedia, and setting alarms. However, you can do all of these things from your smartphone too. Eventually, the newness of talking to Echo instead of pressing a few buttons on my smartphone wore off. Instead of interacting with her multiple times a day, we were down to only one or two times a day, even missing days sometimes.

The kids love to ask Echo jokes. She has that feature built-in, and it can be a lot of fun. The developers even update her with new jokes on a regular basis. What happens though, is that my kids try to outdo each other and end up talking at the same time. Poor Echo is confused. It’s hard enough for the software to clearly understand one person talking in a normal voice. Imagine what happens when two or more excited kids start shouting multiple commands to the device at the same time. Of course, this is not a deficiency in just Echo. Any voice recognition device will have the same difficulty. You can train Echo to your voice, but I don’t think you can train her to multiple voices. And, there’s no good way to get her to isolate one voice out of many talking at the same time.

Primarily, we use Echo to set alarms. “Alexa, set an alarm for 5:15 p.m. today.” That’s a good reminder to go preheat the oven for dinner. If I think I might fall asleep before it’s time to pick up the kids from school, I can set an “end nap time” alarm. Alarms are a great way to manage my day. Echo will even allow you to set multiple alarms and timers. However, what happens is that sometimes the alarm goes off and you have no idea why. Seriously, one day it went off, and it took us 15 minutes to figure out why we had set the alarm hours ago. I have submitted a new function request to Amazon Echo Support asking them to allow a description to be added to the alarm. I would be tickled pink if the alarm went off and Echo said something like, “8:30 p.m. alarm—time for Joey and Johnny to get ready for bed.”

We were very hopeful that Echo would help us nag the kids with less involvement from us. We want Echo to tell them to go to bed, remind them to brush their teeth, wake them up in the morning, etc. Besides the alarms not providing a description, there’s also the problem of needing Echo in more than one location in the house. The current price for Amazon Echo is $179.99. It’s a serious investment to buy one of these devices, let alone two or more to give coverage all over your home. In our house, three would be about the minimum. We’d like one in our kitchen/family room area, the boys’ TV room, and the boys’ bedroom. The master bedroom would be nice too. We ended up putting the one we bought in our kitchen/family room area, where everyone in the house has good access to it. However, this prevents us from using it as an alarm clock or a kid-friendly reminder device.

Amazon Echo supports a wide range of home automation devices (lights and switches) including Philips Hue, Wink, and WeMo. You can turn your lights on and off with a voice command to Echo. This is a super cool feature, in my opinion. The only problem is that we invested in a SmartThings hub a couple of years ago, and Echo doesn’t support SmartThings (yet). We knew that when we bought Echo, and we still hope that SmartThings will get added. It’s either that or we’re going to have to buy a new hub with a price tag of $49 or more. For now, we use the SmartThings app on our smartphone to control our lights when desired. We use the switches to turn on/off outside fountains, Christmas lights, and to manage our primary entry door lock.

Then there’s the issue of music. Echo does a great job playing music and podcasts from Amazon Prime, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. When I’m in the mood, I’ll ask her to play something for me, and I enjoy it. The problem is that the music library I’ve been building for years is on iTunes. I think Amazon with Prime Music and Google with Play Music are nuts if they think I’m going to rebuild my library in their store. Not happening! Until I can play my iTunes music and playlists on Echo, which I realize will never happen, I’ll just keeping using the Bluetooth speakers we have in strategic locations around our house to play my usual music from my iPhone or iPad.

It’s great that we can engage Echo to help us whenever we want, but we’d also like her to engage us sometimes. For example, I have my Google calendar hooked up to her. I can ask her what’s on my calendar today, and she gives me an accurate response. What I really want is for her to remind me about certain calendar events a given amount of time before them. If I have a 9:00 a.m. dentist appointment, I want her to wake up at 8:00 a.m. and say something like, “Maryann, you have a dentist appointment with Dr. ABC at 9:00 a.m. in XYZ.” It doesn’t do me any good to get an email reminder on my phone; I may not see that in time. I don’t want the reminder to be reliant on my remembering to ask for my daily schedule. Right now, we use sticky notes on our primary entrance/exit door or our bathroom mirror to remind us of events that deviate from our normal routine. I’ve even put a sticky note on the steering wheel of my minivan, so that when I go to leave to take the kids to school in the morning I don’t forget to do something. Echo could remind me so much better!

As I said at the start of this review, if I had it to do over, I’d still buy Amazon Echo. I see huge potential in this device and others like it, and I love being on the bleeding edge of this new technology. Besides alarms with descriptions, I have submitted several other new function requests to Amazon Echo Support. I’ve asked them to let Echo act as a calculator. I want to say, “Alexa, what is 3 + 5?” or “Alexa, add $5.23 and $11.37.” I would love for Alexa to quiz multiplication facts to my 5th grader. I want Echo to ask, “What is 3 times 7?” and wait for a response. The new Math Puzzles skill is similar to this, so hopefully multiplication fact-quizzing is coming soon. We are just about out of that phase at our house, but we would still embrace that functionality. I’d also like Echo to manage multiple calendars in our household. It’s great that she’s hooked up to my Google calendar, but there are three other members of my home, and they all have Google calendars too. What about them? Is Echo an individual device or a family device? I need to be able to specify which Google calendar I want to check and to have a way in the Echo app to set up every calendar in our household.

For those who have trouble with the small keypad on a smartphone or TV remote, voice automation through Echo could be a real asset. For those who are really focused or for those who have trouble focusing, prompts and reminders from Echo could be very helpful. She truly could be a life assistant, as well as a home automator.

What’s your experience with Echo? What would make or break your decision to add an Echo to your home? Leave me a comment with your thoughts.

Create Your Own SumoBots Battle

Sumobot Teamwork
SumoBot teamwork. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

There was a lot of fanfare in our house earlier this summer when BattleBots returned to TV. In our home, watching the show turned into a family event, with friendly bets on which bots would continue on in the competition. If you walked by our house during an episode, I’m sure you would have wondered what all the shouting and commotion was about. If you missed out on the excitement, you can read weekly recaps on GeekDad. And if you want to create your own competition, read on to get the scoop on how you can use Lego Mindstorms robotics to create your own robot battles.

Last year, after our FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition season came to an end in November, our team wanted to move forward with more robotics fun and activities. Engaging in a SumoBot competition seemed like a great idea, and we set out to learn all things Sumo.

If you’re not familiar, the art of robot Sumo is modeled after the sport of Sumo. You put two robots, created following a given specification, into a round ring, and the robots try to push each other out. The first robot out loses. The robots can vary in size from fitting inside a 7-by-7-inch cube to much bigger. There may be weight restrictions along with the number of sensors and motors that may be used. The ring, or arena, can vary in size but is often 3- or 4-feet wide and either white with a black outer 2-inch ring or black with a white outer 2-inch ring. The robots will often have tools mounted on them to push or move the other robot out of the ring.

Our team consulted Phil Malone’s SuGo website for guidance and ended up participating in a contest following a set of rules outlined by Appalachian State at the NC Science Festival. Don’t get hung up on the rules; just make sure everyone participating is following the same ones.

So what do you need to get started? Well, you need at least two kids or competitors, two robots, an arena, and some agreed-upon rules. Just make sure to nail down the rules and equipment you are going to use before proceeding.

Sumobot Arena Construction
SumoBot arena construction. Photos: Maryann Goldman.

You can either buy a SumoBot ring or make your own. I was crazy lucky and noticed a round piece of wood sitting on the side of the road. It had obviously fallen off a truck, and it was a little smashed, but it still looked usable and was small enough for me to get in my minivan on my own. My luck continued when I gave my guy the specifications for the ring, and a short time later, I had an awesome SumoBot arena. He trimmed the wood, sanded the platform, and painted it. You don’t have to have woodworking skills or lots of money to spend, though. The ring does not have to be raised off the ground. You could make a ring out of poster board or cardboard, some duct tape, and paint.

Sumobot Designs
SumoBot designs. Photos: Maryann Goldman.

You need to come up with a design for your robot. Do you want your robot to be lightweight, small, and dash around the ring and the opponent quickly? Or, maybe you want your robot to be as large and heavy as possible and attempt to overpower the opponent. Perhaps something in the middle is appropriate. Our team started out with a simple SumoBot and then made modifications. You could use the same robot from your FLL competition. As long as it follows the weight, size, and sensor/motor rules, let your imagination and personal experience guide you. Some of the kids on our team really wanted to test a robot with tracks against a robot with wheels to see which would perform better. The kids followed the TRACK3r building instructions, made a few modifications such as mounting the ultrasonic sensor on the front, and then tested against our simple SumoBot. Our results showed that wheels work better than tracks. TRACK3r kept trying to climb his opponent instead of push him out of the ring.

Sumobots Under Construction
SumoBots under construction. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Once you have a SumoBot to test out, you’ll need to write a program to run him. Phil Malone’s website has a wonderfully sophisticated program that you can review, dissect, and run to get started. I found it to be of immense help to me, although it was a little too complicated for my kids. I encouraged them to study Phil’s program and to then create their own program keeping in mind several factors:

  1. The robot has to stay moving at all times once the match starts.
  2. The robot has to stay inside the ring.
  3. The robot should try to find and push the opponent out of the ring.
SumoBot Competition
SumoBot competition. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Our program ended up being a stripped down version of Phil’s program. Move out of the starting box to the left or right, as indicated by the judge. We used two programs to accomplish this; one had a hard-coded left turn, and the other had a hard-coded right turn. The rest of the programs were identical. Start moving forward and stay moving forward until you see the arena boundary (a white line, in our case) or the opponent. If you encounter the white line, back up, turn, and resume moving forward. If you encounter the opponent, speed up and push forward, trying to knock your opponent out. You will also need to keep an eye out for the white line while pushing. It doesn’t sound terribly complicated, but it is. A loop along with an impressive switch (case) statement are required.

SumoEyes from Mindsensors. Photo: Mindsensors.
SumoEyes from MindSensors. Photo: MindSensors.

Your program will need to use the infrared, ultrasonic, or SumoEyes sensor to detect the opponent. Although not genuine Lego, the SumoEyes sensor is a lot of fun to use. It will allow your robot to not only see the opponent when he’s directly in front of you, but also when he’s to the right or left. We were not able to compete with SumoEyes, but we sure did have a lot of fun playing around with the SumoEyes sensor from MindSensors within our own team.

Our FLL team found preparing and competing with SumoBots to be very exciting. The kids really got into the competition of trying to decide on the best SumoBot design. They loved cheering for their SumoBot to win. The whole experience was a pleasant break from the more vigorous FLL season.

Check out this video of our SumoBot in action at the competition this year! 1. 2. 3. Sumo!

Blu-Bot Moves and Grooves

Blu-Bot on GeekMom
Excited to try out Blu-Bot. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Recently, my son Joey and I had an opportunity to review the Blu-Bot robot toy from Silverlit. We are definitely a household of robot enthusiasts, toy and otherwise, so we were very excited to take Blu-Bot out of the box and see what he had to offer.

Blu-Bot on GeekMom
The Blu-Bot’s packaging. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Blu-Bot is shipped in an informative and eye-catching package. Open the Velcro cover to see Blu-Bot’s color (black or white) and to read some basic instructions. At a glance, you’ll be able to see all of the functions he performs with and without his companion app.

In manual mode, without the app, he dances, detects obstacles, acts as a guard, and is able to talk to other Blu-Bot robots. Using the control panel on the back of the robot, you can program his facial expressions and movements, up to 40 steps.

Blu-Bot on GeekMom
Blu-Bot’s control panel. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Blu-Bot also works with a free app on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Android devices. Look for the appropriate app for your device in the App Store or the Google Play Store. For our review, we used an iPhone 5.

With the app, you can drag and drop icons to create a program. Make him walk, turn his head, change his facial expression, and speak with up to 39 steps. You can choose from several pre-built dance sequences. Blu-Bot can even change your voice. Record a phrase and choose from six preset robot sounds. Blu-Bot will play back your phrase in a robot voice, and the distortion is pretty humorous. You can also use a gesture control feature to give Blu-Bot instant moves.

Blu-Bot on GeekMom
He lights up and has many facial expressions! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

We found Blu-Bot easy to use out of the box. He’s recommended for ages 5+, and I think that’s accurate. Even younger kids can use beginning programming skills to drag his movement icons around and build a quick program.

Blu-Bot can even be used as a Bluetooth speaker. Once you have him paired to your device, play a song, and listen on the Blu-Bot speaker. How cool is that?!? The sound was decent, and he’s functional even when your child isn’t playing with him.

Without a doubt, our favorite feature was the voice-changing option. It’s so easy to record a simple phrase, choose from six different pitch settings, and hear Blu-Bot repeat your phrase in a cute and funny robot voice. This feature is sure to make your child giggle loudly and smile ear-to-ear.

We have several other robot toys in the house including Dash and Dot from the Wonder Workshop, the Lego Mindstorms EV3, and Darkside Ollie by Sphero. Considering that Blu-Bot is under $50, he’s quite functional and a perfect beginning programming toy for a robot enthusiast.

You can find Blu-Bot and other Silverlit toys at your local discount store and at Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

10 Geeky Butterfly Facts to Share With Your Kids

Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Summer vacation provides a fantastic opportunity to spend some time with your kids learning about nature. I know it’s hot out there in August, and that it may take some extra motivation for you and your kids to leave the comfort of air conditioning and go outside, but I promise it will be worth it. Science is all around us, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to enjoy it with your kids.

I’m particularly interested in insects, and one of the creatures that fascinates me personally, as well as my kids, is butterflies. We see them in our yard. We see them at local parks. We see them at various museum butterfly houses. They are everywhere, and there’s something magical about watching a butterfly flutter past.

Sulpher butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Sulphur butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Without stopping and telling your kids that you’re going to flat out teach them something, I suggest that you casually interject a few interesting facts into your conversation. Seize the opportunity of your child starting to chase a butterfly across the yard. Take a moment to engage your child as they stop to watch a butterfly move from flower to flower.

Sometimes I stand out in the humid and hot North Carolina sun just to watch butterflies and take pictures. I’ve been known to snap 100 pictures in 15 minutes hoping to capture just the perfect one. You know. The one where the wings are all in focus. The one where the sun perfectly illuminates the wings. The one where the colors aren’t washed out. The one where the butterfly is perfectly perched on a beautiful flower. It’s an endless passion for me, and it’s one my kids are quick to pick up on. When your child sees you being passionate about something, they are bound to follow suit.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

So, what geeky butterfly facts can you share with your child? There are so many to choose from!

Fact 1 – Did you know that the straw-shaped tube that a butterfly uses to suck nectar from flowers is called a proboscis? There are a lot of interesting butterfly anatomy vocabulary words that you can introduce your child to.
Fact 2 – Is that butterfly really a butterfly, or is it a moth? There’s an easy method to tell a butterfly from a moth. Take a close-up look at the antennae. Butterfly antennae are long and slender with a bump on the end. Moth antennae are feathered and much wider.
Fact 3 – Do you know how long butterflies live? Some live as short as a week while Monarchs can live up to 9 months. The average lifespan is about a month.
Fact 4 – Why do you sometimes see butterflies down in the mud instead of on a pretty flower? They are looking for minerals and sodium. It’s a process called mud-puddling. Males are more likely to exhibit this behavior than females.
Fact 5 – The inevitable question…where do butterflies come from? It’s a great time to introduce the butterfly life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.
Fact 6 – Did you know that there are a lot of artists out there that take the wings of naturally expired butterflies and turn them into jewelry and other crafts? I own a pendant, bracelet, and pair of earrings, and they always make for great conversation pieces when I wear them. Butterflies also make for interesting photo art. Sometimes you can take an ordinary butterfly picture and make it extraordinary.

Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman

Fact 7 – How many types of butterflies are there? According to the North American Butterfly Association, “There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States, and with about 275 species occurring regularly in Canada. Roughly 2000 species are found in Mexico.” Each area of the country and part of the world has its own butterfly varieties. This is similar to the differences you would see in birds as you travel. So if you’re familiar with the butterfly species that live in your own backyard, when you travel, it can be fascinating to study the different varieties you see along the way.
Fact 8 – Did you know that if you see a butterfly with a broken wing that’s having trouble flying that you might be able to assist? Yep, some people will follow a set of instructions to repair a butterfly wing. I’ve never tried this, but now that I know, I might be tempted. Obviously, this is something kids shouldn’t attempt on their own, but if you happen upon a dead butterfly, I suggest encouraging your kids to treat it as a specimen and study it.
Fact 9 – Where do butterflies sleep at night? Well, they typically sleep under leaves. This protects them from rain that might fall at night as well as from becoming bird food in the early morning.
Fact 10 – Talking about butterflies is a great way to introduce the topics of conservation and migration. The 3-D movie Flight of the Butterflies talks about the plight of Monarchs and their migratory path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Not quite ready to get out in the heat to enjoy the butterflies? Look for a butterfly house near you! Conveniently, there is a website that lists butterfly houses by state. You might be surprised to find one closer than you expect. We often visit our favorite butterfly house, the Magic Wings Butterfly House at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. We’ve had many fascinating butterfly encounters there including having butterflies land on our outstretched finger. If you do plan a butterfly house visit, check to see if they have a butterfly release time. Kids love that!

Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I hope you enjoy this factual and visual tour of the butterflies in my yard and hometown. Happy butterfly watching!

Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Enjoy a Splash This Summer!

Fuquay-Varina Splash Pad
Splash! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I wanted to take a few minutes and write to you about a fantastic success story taking place in our town this summer. If you are so inspired, please take what you learn here back to your town.

About a year ago, the town of Fuquay-Varina, NC, sent out an email survey asking residents for input on how they’d like to spend money set aside for Parks and Recreation. One of the choices was to put in a splash pad. I remember taking that survey and responding that I thought a splash pad would be a great addition to the town’s parks. My boys and I have been to a splash pad in Greensboro, NC, several times in the past few years,  and we always had a fabulous time! According to Fuquay-Varina Mayor John Byrne, and as reported in WRAL’s GoAskMom, nearly 1/4 of the survey respondents felt the same way, and the town really wanted to listen to what moms want.

Fuquay-Varina Splash Pad
Strike a pose! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

If you aren’t aware, a splash pad (or spray park) is a play space in a public park for water play where no lifeguards are necessary because there is virtually no standing water. Typically, a splash pad has several dozen water nozzles in the ground that spray water up into the air and onto the splash pad. Often, there are other play features on the splash pad like a loops of rings, water shooters, and sometimes even a huge bucket to dump water on the kids. The water from the splash pad is typically fresh or recycled like water in a swimming pool. Splash pads also make use of textured concrete, so that kids don’t slip. Think of a splash pad as a subset of the water fun you would have at a larger water park.

Bucket Fuquay-Varina Splash Pad
Splash under the bucket! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

According to the News and Observer, “Fuquay-Varina’s pentagon-shaped pad is 6,000 square feet and has 35 nozzles, fountains, and other decorated spigots set up to spray water. It cost the town $335,000.” I live very close to the new splash pad, and I took frequent pictures of the daily construction work in-progress, which took less than 60 days to complete. Vortex Aquatic Structures International Inc. is the source of the equipment in Fuquay-Varina’s splash pad.

Fuquay-Varina Splash Pad
I see you! Photo: Johnny Goldman.

On Wednesday, July 15th, 2015, the town of Fuquay- Varina, NC, held the grand opening of their splash pad, and it was a huge success. Local media showed up in full force, along with 750+ kids and their parents. The town held a small ceremony to celebrate the political coordination that went into bringing the splash pad to fruition so quickly. The kids were immediately thrilled to cool off and play in the water spray.

Fuquay-Varina Splash Pad
Here it comes! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Every day since then, the splash pad has been busy with kids and their parents cooling off from the summer heat. As a photographer, I have enjoyed trying to capture the perfect picture of the splashing excitement and the thrill the kids experience under the huge water bucket as it spills refreshing water down on them.

But, I’m also seeing some other interactions happening on the splash pad that truly warm my heart and have nothing to do with water. People from all walks of life are hanging out and having fun together. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, which side of town you live on, what school you go to, or your age, the splash pad is a cool and safe haven in the summer sun. Kids that can barely walk are playing beside tweens.

My son Johnny seems to love hanging out with the smaller children, encouraging them to risk getting their feet wet in the lower spray nozzles. Parents are enjoying adult conversation as they watch their children, and often parents are getting in on the wet fun too. I was there one day in my street clothes, and decided to get soaked anyway! How could I resist?!? I’m sure I wasn’t the first, and I know I won’t be the last. There’s a true sense of community coming together for a common cause… getting relief from the summer sun. The splash pad is a win-win proposition, no matter how you look at it!

Splash! Fuquay-Varina Splash Pad
Splash! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Looking for a splash park near you? Check out the Splash Pad Parks website, which will help you find a splash park in your state. And don’t forget your waterproof camera. I used my iPhone, a conventional camera, and my waterproof Kodak EasyShare Sport C123 camera to capture all of the fun.

‘Robots 3D’ Takes You on a Tour of the Latest Advancements in Humanoid Robotics

RoboThespian from Robots 3D
RoboThespian is the face of narrator Simon Pegg. Photo: Robots 3D

Robots 3D is an exciting new movie from National Geographic Studios coming to a big screen theater near you this summer. The movie is narrated by Simon Pegg of Star Trek and Shaun of the Dead fame and directed by Mike Slee who is also known for the acclaimed documentary Flight of the Butterflies. Together they take you on a tour of the latest in robot technology, and the results will blow your mind.

I have loved robots since I was four years old watching Lost in Space and the B9 robot back in the ’70s. I have several models and figurines of The Robot around my house and the complete DVD boxed set which I have watched with my kids. A Trip Through the Robot is my favorite episode. Apparently director Mike Slee also has a soft spot for robots, and his enthusiasm and passion shines through in Robots 3D.

I recently had a chance to watch Robots 3D with my family, and we were amazed at some of the advancements robots have made in the past few years. For example, our ability to model robots after ourselves has advanced to the point where you may wonder who the human is and who the robot is. Which is which?

Who is the real person? Photo: Robots 3D
Who is the real person? Photo: Robots 3D

But even if robots still look like your traditional science fiction robot, they are moving more and more like us each day. Take for example, the fluid motions of ASIMO from Honda which are nothing short of amazing and totally impressive. He has more flexibility than some of us jumping high and running at speeds up to 5mph.

ASIMO from Robots 3D
ASIMO Photo: Robots 3D

There are also robots that focus on doing specific tasks, and they do them very well. For example, Justin can catch a ball with a 90% accuracy rate.

Justin from Robots 3D
Justin Photo: Robots 3D

My personal favorite robot from Robots 3D is iCUBa robot designed to look and learn just like a human child. Adorable and fascinating in one little package!

iCUB from Robots 3D
iCUB. Photo: Robots 3D

Your family will marvel at the strides in technology and the capabilities of the latest robots as Robots 3D takes them around the world to the most advanced robotics research labs. Director Mike Slee says, “If you’re interested in humanoid robotics and your age is somewhere between seven and 107, then you’re going to be interested in this film.”

Look at this list of theaters to find where Robots 3D is playing near you, and watch the trailer to get a peek at all the wonderful robots you’ll get to meet in the movie.

You can also download and print a set of fun robot trading cards from the movie. Enjoy!

A free screening of Robots 3D was provided to GeekMom.

The Perfect Jewelry for Cosplay and Everyday

EdithYorkinspired Jewelry on Etsy
Some favorite pieces. Photo: Martha Lewis.

Here at GeekMom, we frequently share DIY cosplay ideas. Those include everything from the costume itself to the best accessories. Maybe you’re looking for a steampunk gypsy hairpiece or tips for Big Hero 6-themed family cosplay. How about the perfect jewelry to go along with your costume? Last week, I had an opportunity to interview Martha Lewis, crafter and jewelry designer. She repurposes older, and sometimes incomplete or broken, pieces of jewelry into new works of art appropriate for cosplay and everyday.

GeekMom Maryann: Hi Martha Lewis! Welcome to GeekMom, and thanks taking the time to talk to us about your passion for jewelry making.

Martha Lewis: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my jewelry.

GMM: When did your interest in jewelry making start?

ML: After 33 years working for the Henrico County Police and Sheriff Departments in Virginia, I retired on January 1, 2011. A month later, I signed up for a beginners jewelry-making class offered through the county for $6. I went to my first class, and two hours later, I left with five pieces of jewelry that I had just made. The skills I learned in the class evolved into a love for creating and designing one-of-a-kind jewelry items. I found that I have a real knack for recycling loose beads, broken bracelets, and tangled necklaces and morphing them into new meaning for each unique piece.

EdithYorkinspired Jewelry on Etsy
A wonderful combination of treasure chest and lock. Ahoy mate! Photo: Martha Lewis.

GMM: Who was your inspiration?

ML: My grandmother, Edith, and her namesake, my mother. They both loved colorful and shiny jewels. With the passing of each, I was afforded the privilege to be the new owner of their trinkets. Since they both grew up and lived on the York River, as did I, EdithYorkinspired was chosen as the name for my jewelry line.

GMM: I understand that you have memories of a favorite childhood piece that belonged to your grandmother. Can you tell us a bit more about that piece and why it speaks to you?

ML: When I was a child, my grandmother gave me an opal ring surrounded with rhinestones. I loved wearing it, even though it turned my finger green! I still have the ring, and I will always cherish it.

EdithYorkinspired Jewelry on Etsy
An eclectic combination of brass elements combines for a beautiful necklace. Photo: Martha Lewis.

GMM: Can you tell us a bit more about where you find the pieces for your designs? Sometimes at local thrift stores, I see bags of broken pieces of jewelry. Do you snatch those up?

ML: I find a lot of vintage jewelry at estate sales and auctions. Typically, there will be a box or bag of broken and tangled jewelry up for sale. More often than not, I bid on the unknown. Once I get home and rummage through it, it’s always a surprise to see what I can actually use. I have gotten some pieces from thrift shops, but I find that most of their grab bags are costume jewelry.

GMM: How long does it take you to make your pieces?

ML: Since each piece is unique, that plays a big role in how long it takes to complete. If I finish a piece but am not pleased with it, I will break it down and start over.

EdithYorkinspired Jewelry on Etsy
Making use of old timepieces. Photo: Martha Lewis.

GMM: Can you tell us a bit about what goes into the creative process to take a bag of loose beads, pendants, etc. and form a vision for the new piece?

ML: Usually, I will decide on a pendant, or main focal point and go from there. Coordinating beads, chains, charms, and a clasp are all decided on before I begin crafting.

GMM: Are you aware that some of the pieces you create fit in nicely with cosplay and steampunk? I’ve seen clocks, keys, owls, and other wonderful vintage items in your jewelry.

ML: When I first started this hobby, probably 75 percent of what I was making was related to or referred to as steampunk. I still make that style along with beaded items. Since each piece is created from a vision, it pretty much depends on my thought pattern at that moment.

EdithYorkinspired Jewelry on Etsy
Tools of the trade and a wonderful assortment of pieces to work with. Photo: Martha Lewis.

GMM: I understand that you previously sold your jewelry at local consignment stores and through Bling of the Past. How can interested buyers view the current pieces you have for sale?

ML: In June 2015, I launched EdithYorkinspired on Etsy. I plan to add new items on a regular basis to hopefully capture repeat viewers and lots of sales.

GMM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to the GeekMom readers about your wonderfully unique jewelry items.

ML: It was my pleasure, and thank you for offering to spotlight EdithYorkinspired.

EdithYorkinspired Jewelry on Etsy
Beautiful green-themed owl. Photo: Martha Lewis.

Like what you see? Martha would love to have you visit her EdithYorkinspired Etsy store.

“Mom, My Headphones Are Broken!”

Headphone Choices Target
Headphones. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

“Mom, my headphones are broken!”

How many times have you heard that in the last year? If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard it, I’d be rich!

My boys, ages 10 and 12, hang out together while playing Minecraft, listening to YouTube videos, and skyping with their friends. This means that they often wear headphones, so that they can be polite to the other person and hear what’s happening on their computer instead of the other person’s computer. A set of headphones with a microphone is essential to them. They are also essential to me, so I don’t have to hear all the noise coming from their computers either.

Although I am somewhat interested in volume-limiting headphone capabilities, my main concern is that the headphones last longer than a couple of weeks to a couple of months.

Three months would be a record at our house.

I swear, I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried earbud-style headphones, over-the-ear headphones, and even old-school full-size headphones. We’ve tried ones made especially for kids. I’ve tried ordering $4 headphones from China through eBay. I’ve tried virtually every style and design they sell at Target and Walmart. I’ve even tried giving the kids the good Apple headphones that came with my iPhone 6. It feels like if I were to graph the cost versus the time that they last, they’re all about the same. While the Apple ones lasted a little bit longer, they also cost a lot more.

So, how do they break you ask? Well, on the cheaper ones, the microphones often just stop working. Sometimes they bring them to me and the plastic cover over top of the microphone has split in two and the wires are exposed. Frequently, the plastic coating the wires where the wire goes into the earbud is really not thick enough and the plastic ends up breaking and exposing the wires. Sometimes, one ear will just stop working. They’ll often use them in that state until both ears quit. I know some kids are rougher on their equipment than others, and that may be some of what’s happening here. However, I also feel like they are trying to be careful with them. After dealing with the wrath of mom on a few occasions and hearing a lecture on how much they cost and how small our budget is for replacing headphones, I’m sure they’re not intentionally breaking them. All it can take for them to break is forgetting to remove them from your ears and getting up with them still on one time. Boom! Broke!

I have seriously considered investing in wireless Bluetooth headphones. They also come in a variety of shapes and configurations. It’s not that I’m not willing to spend the $30 to $50 to get a decent pair. I’m sure there are some great options out there. But I feel using wireless headphones with kids will present a whole new series of problems. Can you hear them now? “Mom, I need to use my headphones and they aren’t charged!” Or worse yet, “Mom, I plugged my headphones into the charger, but they won’t charge.”  Seriously, they can barely remember to plug in their iPad and Nexus tablets so that they’re ready for use when we go on road trips. I know they won’t remember to keep their headphones charged either. Also, I’d be willing to bet that all of those headphones use a USB micro connector for the charging port. Have you had any devices at your house that have been ruined by kids fisting in the USB micro cable? I have. Even if they get help plugging them in or carefully plug them in themselves, I can see them using them while they’re charging. That puts a lot of wear and tear on the charging port too. I am not a USB micro charging fan. Plus, I’m not even sure if their older PCs support Bluetooth.

GeekMom has had the pleasure to review quite a few headphones. I’m sure these are great for niche groups (e.g., runners), have wonderful sound quality, and/or have volume-limiting controls that work well. If I was looking for a great pair of headphones for me, I’d buy one of those. What we need is a headphone product with a microphone that will hold up to kid wear and tear the way a phone can withstand trauma in an OtterBox.

I’ve had two other mothers contact me, stating that they are also spending too much money on headphones at their house. They asked me if I had a solution. Other than suggesting they consider Bluetooth, I really didn’t. I did feel somewhat vindicated knowing that I’m not the only mom with this dilemma.

With summer vacation upon us, what’s a mom to do?

For now, I have a spare supply of inexpensive earbuds lying around for those emergencies. I guess we’ll stick with that plan. Less time on the computer and more time at the pool or going on summer adventures sounds like a good idea too. Let me know if you’ve come up with a headphone solution at your house. I’m all ears!

Accessorize Your ‘Inside Out’ Movie Experience With Toys From Tomy!

Inside Out Plush Toys TOMY Joy Anger Sadness Disgust Feat
Inside Out talking plush toys from Tomy. Image: Tomy.

I had the chance to see an early showing of the new Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out last night, and I have to say that the movie immediately moved to the top of my favorite-animated-movies-of-all-time list. I laughed, cried, and laughed some more with my kids doing the same right alongside me.

Note: There might be minor spoilers as to a character in the movie below.

In addition, I had a real movie-to-self connection with the main character, a little girl named Riley. She moved from Minnesota to California as she started middle school, and I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina as I started middle school. I still vividly remember being devastated to leave my friends behind and how I stumbled trying to fit into my new school.

I wanted my families’ move to be joyful, but the whole experience left me sad and angry. Riley experiences many of the same feelings I did, and the other main characters of the movie, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, work together to manage her emotions in the central headquarters of her brain, as she navigates her new world.

Inside Out Movie Goers
Inside Out excited moviegoers. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Children of all ages are sure to want to reenact some of the scenes from the movie, and Tomy has a new line of toys to let them do just that. There are talking plush toys that represent each of the emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. They range in size from 9 to 14 inches and retail for $19.99 each. They come with 3-button cell batteries already installed and have a very well hidden Velcro pouch for battery replacement, if necessary. You’ll love hearing lines from the movie as you activate their sounds by pressing their right hands.

Tomy also has the Console from Headquarters, which features a Joy figure that lights up when she’s at the Console. What a wonderful glow it has, embracing the warmth from the movie! The Console is for kids 4+ and retails for $19.99. You can also purchase additional figures with memory spheres for more glowing Console fun.

Inside Out Console Toy TOMY
Inside Out Console toy by Tomy. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

In addition to the Console, there is also a Headquarters playset where you can use the projector to bring Riley’s memories to life with the three included memory spheres. Better yet, add the Console to the Headquarters playset to recreate even more scenes from the movie. The Headquarters playset is for kids 4+ and retails for $39.99.

Inside Out Headquarts Toy TOMY
Inside Out Headquarters toy from Tomy. Image: Tomy.

There’s one more important character from the movie to talk about. That’s Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from her early childhood. For the cuddler in your house, there’s a Bing Bong plush toy from Tomy, too. You’ll also find the other emotion characters in a plush non-talking format.

Bing Bong Inside Out Plush Toy TOMY
Inside Out Bing Bong plush toy from Tomy. Image: Tomy.

If the movie brings a smile to your child’s face, the toys are sure to keep the smile and great memories going. They would also make great gifts for summer birthday parties. Why not share the fun?

Inside Out Toys TOMY
Inside Out toys by Tomy. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Take Your EV3 Experience to the Next Level With ‘The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming’

The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming Book Cover
The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Progrmming book cover. Image: No Starch Press

As I embark on my second year as a FIRST Lego League coach, I am reviewing the materials that made my first year successful as well as deciding what tools to use in the upcoming year. There are several books that I used extensively during my first year, and I plan to use all of them in my second year as well.

Classroom Activities for the Busy Teacher: EV3

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming

I wanted to take a few minutes to share what I loved in particular about The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming book. If you are new to Lego Mindstorms robotics and the EV3, this book starts from the beginning introducing you to the EV3 hardware and software. You won’t feel left behind. Each concept that is introduced builds on the prior one while preparing you for the next. As the author, Terry Griffin, states, “This book is for anyone who wants to learn how to create programs to control their EV3 robot, whether you’re a young robotics enthusiast; an adult teaching children about robotics; a parent; a FIRST Lego League coach; or a teacher using the EV3 in a classroom.”

You can use The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming with the retail EV3 set or the education EV3 set. There are some minor differences in the programs, and those differences are explained in the examples so that you can use the information relevant to the set you have.

If you already have experience programming the EV3, The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming will stretch your skills. A lot of EV3 programmers write simple programs without utilizing variables, data wires, or My Blocks, let alone attempting the use of arrays, writing/reading a file, or multitasking. If you work through all the chapters and projects in this book, you will gain a full understanding of the power of the EV3 software as well as an in-depth programming experience that makes use of all those programming constructs.

Each page of The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming contains just the right amount of text and supplemental diagrams. The reader will be able to easily create the sample programs in the EV3 software as they follow along with the programming diagrams. The use of full-color along with the detailed explanations makes it easy to transfer the programs from the page to the actual software. If you run into trouble, however, you can download the sample programs from the No Starch Press website.

Sample Page
Sample page. Image: No Starch Press

Instructions for building the TriBot robot are also included. The TriBot is simple to build, provides just the right amount of flexibility for the sample programs, and gives the reader the ability to bring their programs to life. While reading about the sensors and programming constructs in the book, the reader can create the sample programs in the software and run them to test their success at learning the concept.

EV3 TriBot
TriBot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

In my FIRST Lego League class, I used The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming to teach my kids the concept of line following with a twist. Chapter 7 the WallFollower program: navigating a maze extends on simple line following techniques by having the TriBot follow the walls of a maze. I love how the book explained the right-hand rule to traversing a maze along with breaking down the individual tasks the robot would need to handle. The TriBot needs to use the ultrasonic, or infrared, sensor to follow the wall. It must also handle running into the wall in front of it as well as dealing with an opening to the right side. The kids on my team tackled each task one at a time until they were ready to string them together and traverse the maze. It was fantastic to see how serious they were about getting  it right along with how proud they were of their success.

Maze Right-Hand Rule Algorithm
Maze right-hand rule algorithm. Image: No Starch Press

Check out this video of our robot in action as it works its way through our maze.

The Art of Lego Mindstorms EV3 Programming currently sells on Amazon for $25.84 (hardback) or $15.37 (Kindle).

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

The ‘Lego Education Mindstorms EV3 Programming’ App is Now Available!

EV3 Tablet Loggy
EV3 tablet lobby. Screenshot: Maryann Goldman.

Today, I was excited to discover that the Lego Education Mindstorms EV3 Programming app is now available from the App Store for iPads with iOS 8.0 or later.

Previously, if you wanted to program the EV3 robot, you had to use a PC or Mac. That can be somewhat limiting, if you are running a class and don’t have enough PCs or Macs to go around or if your child is already used to programming with other iPad apps and enjoys the ease and flexibility of that environment. These days, it is somewhat expected that there’s an app for everything, so I’m pleased to report that the EV3 software environment has come of age.

While the Lego Education Mindstorms EV3 Programming app is available to download for free, you will be prompted for a password, which you can only get if you have purchased the Lego Education EV3 Software. If you’re like me, and you purchased the software awhile back, you can call Lego tech support at 866-349-5346 for assistance with the password. Make sure to have your order number ready.

I know it may seem expensive to buy the Lego Education EV3 Software for $99 when you can get the Lego Retail EV3 Software for free, but there are a lot of additional capabilities in the education version that I think are worth it. The software includes a Robot Educator that contains 48 step-by-step tutorials. It also provides model building instructions and programs for fascinating robots not found in the retail software. Some of the building instructions can be found in other places, but only the software has the programs. Please note that the retail EV3 31313 set, the Lego Education EV3 45544 Core Set, and the Lego Education EV3 Expansion Set contain some different Lego Technic bricks, so make sure you have the right parts to build the desired robot models. If you need more help understanding the part differences, Robot Square has a great rundown.

So, how easy was the app to install and use? Well, I had to clear some space on my iPad 2 and upgrade it to iOS 8.3, and that took me some extra time. Once the app was installed, though, I had the Bluetooth between the iPad and the EV3 Intelligent Brick talking in just a couple of minutes. The app included basic instructions on enabling Bluetooth and iPad use on the brick.

I was immediately impressed that the app screens looked very similar to the Content Editor screens of the software. Programmers that are used to programming the EV3 on the PC or Mac won’t miss a beat. I had a sample program to light up the brick LEDs orange for 5 seconds coded and running right away.

EV3 Tablet Program
EV3 tablet program. Screenshot: Maryann Goldman.

I soon noted, though, that the app did not support all the programming blocks and tabs as the full software. The action and flow control tabs and most of their programming blocks are available, but the sensor, data operations, and advanced blocks are not. You’ll be able to move the robot, make sounds, light up the LEDs, do loops, and switch logic, but you won’t be able to check sensor values, work with variables, or create my blocks… at least not yet. It’s a good start, but if you are a sophisticated EV3 programmer, you won’t be able to utilize all the programming options available in the regular EV3 software.

The app does have some extra features that some users will find helpful. For instance, it currently incorporates some of the Robot Educator tutorials. You can learn how to program the robot to follow a line or stop at an object. You’ll also find Teacher Support including tips and tricks on how to teach EV3 and an Introduction to Robotics Lesson Plan. Great stuff!

Another issue that bothers me is that I don’t see a way to share my program. I can download it to the attached brick, but I can’t send it to another user. In my FIRST Lego League class, we write programs on several computers, and we’re used to saving and sharing the programs, .ev3 files, on Google Drive. If another user wants to take my program and modify it on another iPad or a PC/Mac, how are they going to do that? There is an option in the PC/Mac software for doing an Import Brick Program, but it’s only for importing programs written on the brick itself. I tried to import the program I downloaded to the brick from my iPad with no luck.

As I said, I’m thrilled that the there’s an app for EV3 programming now. It only took me a few minutes to set up, and since I had already purchased the Lego Education EV3 Software, I didn’t have to invest any additional money. I am sure that we will use the Lego Education Mindstorms EV3 Programming app in our upcoming FIRST Lego League season. It’s a great start to programming the EV3 on a tablet. However, if you only have the Lego Retail EV3 Software, you’ll have to decide if the tablet app is worth the additional investment of buying the Education Software. Or, if you need to code sophisticated EV3 programs, the app may not be robust enough for your needs. Hopefully Lego will continue to invest in updating the app and making it as powerful as the regular software.

‘Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City’ is Filled With Humor and Life Lessons

Big Nate Cover
Big Nate cover. Image: Lincoln Peirce.

My boys, ages 10 and 12, wait with eager anticipation for the release of each new Big Nate book. Then, when they get their hands on it, they usually finish it as quickly as a glass of cold, refreshing iced tea on a hot summer’s day. Fast! And, they are just as satisfied too. Plus, I get to hear all the funny excerpts and reenactments of Nate’s latest adventures. I might even pick up the book to enjoy for myself. Reading Big Nate is definitely a family affair in our home.

Big Nate started as a syndicated comic strip in 1991 and has grown to include a whole series of illustrated novels and activity books. Author Lincoln Peirce is very skilled at telling stories so that you laugh while pondering some of life’s most difficult growing-up experiences.

Big Nate Collection
Big Nate collection. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Recently, we were given the opportunity to review Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, and Big Nate’s latest adventures are funnier and more meaningful than ever! One of our favorite comic strips from the book was set at Halloween and had us rolling with laughter. Nate’s dad, Marty, decides he should hand out a healthy alternative to the typical Halloween candy, but what seems like a good idea, turns into a disaster. Yuck! My Halloween will never be the same.

Big Nate sample
Big Nate sample. Image: Lincoln Peirce.

About the time we stopped laughing over everyone’s reaction to healthy Halloween treats, Marty decides Nate won’t miss a few pieces of Halloween candy from his huge stash. Wrong! Nate has rigged a motion sensor to detect anyone who dares to mess with his candy. “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, INTRUDER! INTRUDER!” “All I wanted was a box of Milk Duds,” Marty says.

We own similar Spy Gear at our house, and it’s a real riot when the alarms sound and darts fly. I have to cover my ears, but the boys can take turns for hours setting up traps for mom, each other, and Kitty. You know the cat loves that!

Big Nate candy alarm
Big Nate candy alarm. Image: Lincoln Peirce

My son Joey says he relates to Big Nate because so many of the situations Nate finds himself in have actually happened to him. “A lot of things in this book series makes you want to reflect on yourself,” he says. “We have all protested against things like homework and cooties. Nate is really an ordinary kid just like me.”

While Big Nate books are certainly filled with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and great illustrations, there’s always an important underlying growing-up theme too. In Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, Nate works to get into Marcus’ Posse, but once in, he realizes that he’d rather hang out with his true friends than be one of the cool kids. Good for Nate! I am sure many of us can relate to the hurt of being left out of the in-crowd or getting in and then realizing it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Additional Details

If you live in the Los Angeles area, Lincoln Peirce is going to be a part of the Drawn Together event on June 20. For more details, check out Randy Slavey’s post over on GeekDad. I wish we weren’t so far away in North Carolina, or we would absolutely be there.

Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City also includes a full-color pull-out poster of the book cover. Your kids are sure to love hanging it in their room.

Also, Big Nate has a fantastic website. You can read about the latest books, play games, share your doodles, sign up for the Big Nate newsletter, and read the latest comic strip over on GoComics. Did you know you can download the GoComics app on your iOS or Android device and read your favorite comics, like Big Nate, each day for free? We’ve installed it on our devices and are really enjoying keeping up with the daily Big Nate comic strip.

Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City is available on Amazon for $9.18.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Tinybop’s ‘Simple Machines’ App Will Stretch Your Imagination!

Simple Machines Icon by Tinybop
Simple Machines icon. Photo: Tinybop.

Tinybop just released their new app, Simple Machines, and you should check it out! Simple Machines is the fourth app in Tinybop’s Explorer’s Library, and the second Tinybop app that I’ve had the opportunity to review. In April, I wrote about The Robot Factory.

Simple Machines is an educational app that does exactly what you would expect: It teaches kids about simple machines. As my son Johnny described, “I think it’s educational even though some kids will just think it’s a game and won’t realize they are learning.”

Johnny also said he loved how interactive Simple Machines is and how many different games within a game there are. “Kids (will be able to) manipulate inclined planes, levers, screws, wheels and axles, pulleys, and wedges to make music, destroy a castle, lift fish tanks, bike over obstacles, send airplanes into the sky, and break up an iceberg.” Wow! There’s no shortage of changing environments and moving objects to hold your child’s attention.

James Gilleard created the fascinating artwork for Simple Machines. He said the artist Mary Blair, who worked for The Walt Disney Company, was an inspiration. What a bonus to have such interesting artwork combined with an educational and fun app! His love of cars, robots, birds, dinosaurs, and “other rubbish” come to life in his artwork.

Simple Machines app screens
Simple Machines app screens. Photos: Tinybop.

I am also very impressed that Tinybop provides a parent handbook to go along with the app. The Simple Machines Handbook explains the simple machines so that you can support your child’s learning. It is available in seven languages and is 23 pages of comprehensive explanation, descriptive pictures, and activities. I learned quite a few things, and I bet you will too!

Simple Machines is supported on iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch and is available for $2.99 in the App Store. Or better yet, the Tinybop Explorers 1-4 set is available for $9.99.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

5 Reasons You Should Volunteer for FIRST

FIRST organization logo. Image: FIRST
FIRST organization logo. Image: FIRST

I just finished my rookie year as a FIRST Lego League coach, and I think it’s time I shared some of the things I learned over the last year. About 18 months ago, I started looking for a FIRST Lego League team for my son, Johnny, to join. He received a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot for Christmas 2013 and was very excited to program with it. His elementary school didn’t have a team, and I wasn’t able to find a team with an opening nearby. Before I knew it, I was organizing a team at his school and volunteering to coach it. I recently left my career as a software engineer due to several major life events, and I decided that it was time to put my computer skills back to good use working with kids.

Did I know what I was getting myself into? Not really. Am I sorry I signed up? Absolutely not!

Secretly, I don’t think I got to play with Lego bricks enough when I was a kid, and I’ve always had my eyes on that super cool robot I would see at local museums. I wanted to play too, and coaching would let me do both!

Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot
Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

FIRST Definition

What specifically is FIRST? From the FIRST website:

“Dean Kamen is an inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology. His passion and determination to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology are the cornerstones of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.”

FIRST Programs

First offers the following programs for kids from kindergarten through high school:

• FIRST Robotics competition (FRC) for Grades 9-12

• FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for Grades 7-12

• FIRST  Lego  League (FLL) for Grades 4-8

• Junior FIRST Lego League (JFLL) for Grades K-3


But why should you volunteer? Consider these 5 reasons:

  1. The kids need you! Without volunteers, there is no FIRST. Last year, it took 180,000 volunteers to run all the programs and events worldwide, in 80 countries, supporting 400,000 kids learning and competing. That’s coaches, assistant coaches, referees, judges, mentors, set-up crews, clean-up crews, check-in staff, and of course parents just to name a few of the many volunteer roles. As a coach, you are a facilitator. The kids do the work; you provide the environment. You don’t have to be an expert programmer. Maybe you aren’t up to coaching, but could you spare a few hours one afternoon to train and one Saturday a year to judge at a FIRST regional event? I bet you could.
  2. Your child needs you! If you have a child that’s interested in math and robotics, of course you want to nourish that passion. One of the best ways to do that is by getting involved yourself. There are many ways you can help your child’s team. You can raise funds for additional equipment; I don’t know a team that wouldn’t like more EV3 bricks or sensors. You can chaperon at a local or regional event; the coaches can always use extra help keeping up with the kids at big events. You could make a team banner for event parades or buttons for the kids to exchange with other team in the event pit areas. If you have carpentry skills, your team may need help building a competition table. There’s no shortage of things FIRST teams could use help with.
  3. Keep your skills sharp! Being a FIRST Lego League coach really kept my skills sharp. I had to create slides to sell the idea of having a team to the PTA and to advertise team accomplishments. I created spreadsheets with student names and contact information. I taught myself about the EV3 robot by reading and reading some more. I had a crash course in classroom management skills. I developed a real appreciation for what it takes to be a teacher—the lesson plans, the time management, the discipline. Your involvement with FIRST could be a bright spot on a future resume.
  4. Imagine the opportunities! There’s room for growth in all our lives. Whether it’s skills you pick up, people you meet, or challenges you fulfill, there are a lot of opportunities if you volunteer for FIRST programs. I made new friends, strengthened my negotiating skills, and refreshed my programming abilities.
  5. You can make a difference! If even one child on your team or at your event is inspired to achieve more in life than they would have been without your involvement, wouldn’t that be worth it? I have fantasies about all the kids on my FIRST Lego League team going on to a STEM-related field. I know that’s not realistic, but I bet when they get to their first programming class in high school or college, they remember their time on my team. The first time they have to present in front of their peers, they’ll remember all the times they had to explain what they were doing to FIRST judges and referees. They’ll take with them pride in a job well done, and they’ll know what it takes to work well together with other people on a team. Those are all incredibly valuable skills for their future employer.

Need more motivation to volunteer? Watch this video from our successful FIRST Lego League year.

I’ll admit it, there were a few low spots in our year. I cried the day I tried to demo robot line following to the kids and nothing worked right. I was frustrated the day the kids just couldn’t behave, and we didn’t make any progress toward our goals. Sometimes I struggled to guide all the kids in a way meaningful to them. There were days I was sick, days I ran out of prep time, and days when nothing seemed to go right. However, at the end of the day and year, I’d do it all over again! And as a matter of fact, I did volunteer to do it all over again next year.

Amiibo-geddon Is Here!

If you thought the Nintendo Wii U was unpopular or that Disney Infinity and Skylanders characters ruled the cute little video game figures market… wrong! Nintendo released Wave 4 of their amiibo figures today, and people were waiting in line to get them. I was at the Toys”R”Us in Cary, North Carolina, and there were at least 40 people in line. I got in line at 9:15 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. opening, but some people had been waiting in line for hours!

Wave 4 amiibo line at Toys" R"Us
Waiting in line for Wave 4 amiibos at Toys”R”Us. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

My experience was very orderly. Toys”R”Us handed out purchase tickets for the desired figures. This store had 38 Greninja figures, and I got ticket 33. Woohoo! I was doing that estimate-how-many-people-are-in-front-of-me thing and was worried.

Toys"R"Us Wave 4 amiibo purchase ticket. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Toys”R”Us Wave 4 amiibo purchase ticket. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

As we stood in line, we discussed which figures we wanted, what our game plan was for hitting all the stores with exclusives, and the heat. Although the shopping experience was similar to Black Friday, it felt more like Red Friday as we melted in the heat and worried about getting sunburned.

One mother even had a special sheet that her son prepared for her to make sure she went to the right stores in the right order and secured the correct amiibos. Wow!

amiibo wish list
Amiibo wish list prepared by child. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Let’s be clear: My 12-year-old son, Joey, is the reason I was in line. He started talking my head off about the Wave 4 amiibo release a week ago and asked me to, “Please, please, please go get them.” I did my best.

So what did I get?

At Toys”R”Us, I got Silver Mario and Greninja.

Toys"R"Us amiibo figures
Amiibo figures from Toys”R”Us. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

At Best Buy, I got Inkling Girl, Inkling Boy, and Charizard.

Best Buy amiibo figures
Amiibo figures from Best Buy. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

And at Target, I got Jigglypuff.

Target amiibo figure
Amiibo figure from Target. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Joey will be pleased, although he is still hoping for Meta Knight and Rosalina/Luma, which came out in Wave 3 back in February. They are going for $50 or more now on Amazon and eBay. Gulp!

If you missed out on the amiibos you wanted today at your local store, you can try Amazon, but make sure to follow their ordering instructions and time intervals. Also, I previously ordered a Japanese marked Pac-Man from Amazon, and I can report that it works just fine with our United States Wii U.

Fund This! LightUp Faraday Electronics Kit

LightUp Logo Photo: LightUp
LightUp Logo Photo: LightUp

In May 2013, GeekDad Brian McLaughlin wrote a Kickstarter Alert about LightUp, an innovative way for kids to learn about electronics. Since then, LightUp has been busy. They successfully brought to market two kits, Edison and Tesla, and currently have a Kickstarter for a new kit called Faraday.

Edison Kit

Let’s take a brief tour of the Edison Kit. My son, Johnny, and I had a chance to check it out earlier this week, and we were very impressed. The Edison Kit comes in a super nifty box. Your child will be able to easily remove the LightUp blocks from the box when they want to play and return them when they are done. LightUp blocks included are a rechargeable battery, a red LED, a buzzer, a light sensor, a momentary switch, a 50k variable resistor, 4 wire blocks, and a Micro USB cable. The LightUp blocks snap together using magnets, so your child will quickly be able to build electronic circuits. Instruction is provided using the free interactive LightUp app on your iOS 7.0 or later iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.

LightUp Edison Kit
Johnny using the LightUp Edison Kit. Photo: Maryann Goldman

What makes the LightUp app so special is the Augmented Reality (AR) capability. Your child follows along with the instructions in the app. When they believe they have correctly built the circuit, they use the device camera, or LightUp Lens, to verify it. If it’s correct, they are congratulated and can move on. If something isn’t right, they get a hint on how to fix it and then can re-check it. I was reminded of the Nintendo 3DS AR Cards.

LightUp Circuit Check
iPhone camera LightUp circuit check. Photo: Maryann Goldman
LightUp Circuit Correct
iPhone camera LightUp circuit correct. Photo: Maryann Goldman

The LightUp app comes with quite a few projects and more on the way. Johnny is excited and ready for more. Check out his enthusiasm in this video. I think it’s great when kids can retell what they’ve learned; it lets you know they really got something out of their experience.


The Faraday Kit takes another big step forward for LightUp by introducing LightUp Code. Now your child can learn to code along with learning electronics. All the coding is done wirelessly from your device using a drag-and-drop format similar to Blockly or Scratch. There are no wires to trip over or syntax errors to fight.

From the Kickstarter site:

“As educators, we know that ‘mistakes’ aren’t bad at all, but should actually be encouraged.”

“Our adaptive AI technology recognizes patterns of code that need some polishing up and displays a little tip giving a push in the right direction.”

The Faraday Kit contains similar LightUp blocks as the Edison kit but also contains a microcontroller. The microcontroller will use Bluetooth 4.0 technology to talk to the LightUp app on your device.

I love these extra geeky details too!

“Under the hood, our microcontroller block is powered by the RFduino, a cutting-edge Bluetooth Smart module with ARM Cortex M0. It’s Arduino-compatible, over-the-air programmable, and just plain awesome. After graduating from our drag-and-drop coding, you can basically run any Sketch you want using the Arduino IDE or through our app.”

Faraday Kit from LightUp
Faraday Kit. Photo: LightUp

Like what you see? Check out the Kickstarter backer Rewards. For $89, you can get a LightUp Faraday kit, or for $119, you can get the LightUp Faraday Kit plus an expansion pack (motor pack, sensor pack, DIY pack). The kits are expected to ship in November 2015 just in time for holiday gift giving. The Kickstarter ends on June 11, 2015.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

‘Cleen’ App: Clean Up Your Photos & Create a Photo Book

Cleen App Icon
Cleen App Icon Photo: AtomKnows LLC

Cleen is a new iOS app by AtomKnows LLC designed to make managing your photos and creating photo books an easy and enjoyable experience. I had an opportunity to try out the app, and I was very pleased with the results. Continue reading for details on my experience and a photo book discount code just for GeekMom readers.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone 6 from an iPhone 5. Why you ask? Well mostly because I was constantly running out of storage due to the somewhat insane number of pictures and videos that I took on my phone. At one point, I know I had over 3,500 pictures. How did that happen? Besides completely understandable reasons like loving to take photos and being unable to part with photos of my kids, I had pictures where I took 10 shots trying to get the best one but never went back and deleted the extras to keep only the best shot. Then there were the times I would keep the camera app up and walk around accidentally hitting the take a picture button. Or, how about the time I was a little slow on the take a picture button and ended up with a burst of 15 pictures. Oops! Oh, and don’t forget the kids grabbing my phone to take pics of who knows what. I ended up with quite a mess!

Even though I now have a whopping 128GB on my iPhone, unless I change my ways, I’ll eventually use up all my storage and run into the same problem again. This is where the Cleen app comes into play. Cleen allows you to easily move photos to zones titled Trash, Favorite, or Later with a swipe. Photos you swipe up become a Favorite. Photos you swipe down go to the Trash. Photos you swipe to the left are saved in a Later category. Later is where most of your non-favorite but still want to keep photos will reside. If I take a few minutes each week or month to use Cleen, I am able to remove unwanted, bad, or redundant pictures thus saving precious space on my iPhone (and iCloud) for even more photos, data, and music.

Cleen Swiping Diagram
Cleen Swiping Diagram Photo: AtomKnows LLC

But that’s not all Cleen does. Some photos are more special or important than others. You know the ones–a first birthday party, a high school graduation, a trip to the beach, a yearly family outing, and your favorite holidays to name a few. Cleen also gives you a super easy way to turn your favorite photos into a Cleen Book. Our family makes a yearly trip to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens each spring to enjoy the tulips and take family photos, so I chose photos from that outing for my first Cleen Book. The beautiful flowers and smiling faces were the perfect candidates.

Cleen Book Shipping and Front Cover
Cleen Book Shipping and Front Cover. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Maybe you have created photo books before. There are a lot of browser based options available, but the Cleen Book is different. The 8″ x 8″ Cleen Book lies totally flat. You can enjoy pictures that span the left and right side of the book without having to bend the book at its spine or hold it open.

Cleen Photo Book Page
Cleen Book Page Photo: Maryann Goldman

Each Cleen Book may contain up to 40 photos, and when you start the book creation process from selected favorite photos, Cleen will auto-fill the book pages with the photos you chose. Then, you can rearrange the photos and change the page layouts with a swipe. There are 9 layout variations for each flat page of the book. It’s easy to swipe between them, watch the photos rearrange, and pick your preference. I was quite impressed with how well Cleen was able to take photos of varying orientations and subjects and arrange them in a pleasing and meaningful manner.

Cleen Photo Book Page
Cleen Book Page Photo: Maryann Goldman
Cleen Photo Book with Assistant Kitty
Cleen Book with Assistant Kitty who insists on helping me with my GeekMom reviews! Photo: Maryann Goldman

The finished Cleen Book is both sturdy with its hardcover yet, elegant in its simplicity.

Cleen Photo Book Last Page
Cleen Book Last Page Photo: Maryann Goldman

The Cleen app is available from the App Store at no cost. Inspired to create a Cleen Book? GeekMom readers will receive 40% off their book with code “geekmom”  which expires 6/21/15.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

The BB-8 Toy Coming to a Store Near You Soon!

BB-8 Interpretation
BB-8 Interpretation. Drawing By: Johnny Goldman

I have a new obsession, and it’s BB-8.  I watched the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer at least 10 times, and my biggest take-away was the new, super cute, and wonderfully round droid, BB-8. Watch out R2-D2, you’ve got some competition!

This week, I’ve been on a quest to seek out all things BB-8 from understanding the technology behind him to who’s got the best t-shirt design. New products seem to be popping up by the minute. How exciting!

Sphero Photo: Sphero

I learned that conceptually BB-8 maneuvers similarly to Sphero—“The app-enabled ball that does it all.” That’s right, there’s already a cute, round robot toy on the market complete with apps to move him around, change his colors, and for gaming fun. He’s quite versatile!

What I was even more excited to find out, though, is that Sphero is designing a BB-8 look-alike toy. If you’re as interested as I am, and already anticipating the biggest item on your child’s holiday wish list, then you’ll want to sign-up for e-mail updates on product availability.  “This is the droid you’re looking for.”

Currently, you can pick up a Sphero 2.0 for $112.99 on Amazon.

Release Your Inner Robot With ‘The Robot Factory’

The Robot Factory Icon
The Robot Factory Icon. Photo: Tinybop

There’s a new must-have app for the robot enthusiast in your house! Tinybop, Inc. just launched The Robot Factory in the App Store. Designed for kids 4+, it’s the first app in Tinybop’s new educational series Digital Toys. The app provides 50+ parts to spark your child’s robot building imagination, and thousands of robot creations are possible. The app also allows your child to manage their inventory and play with their robots in a fantastical world.

I asked my son Johnny, age 10, to check out the app because he’s my robot enthusiast and First Lego League participant. I knew he would be excited for an opportunity to build robots on his iPad. As soon as I turned him loose with the app, I started hearing a lot of positive chatter from him. “This game really is cool. I like it!” “I think this is a game to express how creative you are.” “Look, Mom, I made him fly. They can fly!” In a short amount of time, he taught himself to use the app and created quite the robot collection.

The Robot Factory Johnny's Robots
Johnny’s Robots. Photo: Maryann Goldman

As you create robots, they are stored in your inventory. You can add new robots to your inventory, take turns playing with different robots, and modify your previously-built robots.

The Robot Factory Robot Inventory
Johnny’s Robot Inventory. Photo: Johnny Goldman

You can test drive your robots too. How do they handle the terrain?

The Robot Factory World
The Robot Factory World. Photo: Johnny Goldman

You know how siblings can be. If one is doing something, the other wants to do it too. I set up my older son Joey, age 12, with The Robot Factory app on his iPhone, and he was determined to outdo his brother with his robot building creativity. The most exciting element for him was the color palettes. He was totally engaged by the color choices and excited to create a butterfly robot for his mom who loves butterflies.

The Robot Factory Joey's Robots
Joey’s Robots. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Actually, the app inspired some teamwork and sharing between my boys as they exchanged robot building tips and excitement over their latest creations.

The Robot Factory Competitive Building
Johnny and Joey competitive building with The Robot Factory. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I even got in on the act by creating my own Girl Power robot.

The Robot Factory Girl Power Robot
Girl Power Robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

The Robot Factory gets a big thumbs up from everyone in our family and is priced at $2.99. There are no in-app purchases or advertisements to deal with either.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Let Crypton Defend the Mess at Your House!

Crypton Placemat Challenge
Double-sided Crypton placemat. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I admit it, I’m a placemat addict. I have a placemat for every holiday, season, month, and occasion that you can think of. I love changing out my kitchen table accents frequently, and the next tablescape is always on my mind! I’m always looking for new, exciting placemats at local thrift stores or department stores.

Placemat Collection
Placemat collection. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Array of Placemats
Array of placemats. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

What I don’t enjoy about my placemats is actually letting my family use them. Seriously! I cringe as my family eats barbecue chicken. I wait for someone to miss their mouth, knock over their milk glass, or set their dirty silverware down to the side of their plate. Not messing up Mom’s placemats has turned pretty serious, as family members resort to various techniques to protect them. Some turn their placemats upside down (at least the stain will be on the back) or grab a hand towel to put on top of them. What good is a placemat that you can’t even see?!?

My luck at washing stains off placemats isn’t so good, either. Oftentimes, the oily mess won’t come off even though I pretreat. Other times, the placemat fabrics aren’t as washable as I’d like, and the placemats wrinkle or shrink. There’s just no winning, and having a table that stays looking as nice as the day I set it up eludes me.

When the people at Crypton gave me the opportunity to sample their placemats, I became an eager tester along with my family. Their motto, “Live Beautifully. Live Clean®,” was exactly what I was looking for!

Crypton Placemat Challenge
Stylish Crypton placemat. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I already had my St. Patrick’s Day tablescape set up, and I quickly swapped out my green striped placemats for their ultra nice green suede ones. What a perfect match! All the Crypton placemats are reversible, and there’s a beautiful blue color on the other side of mine.

Crypton Placemat Challenge BBQ Sauce
Oops, I dropped it! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I was challenged (#LifeOnCrypton) to mess up the placemats and test how easy they were to clean. I had an eager volunteer tester who was only too happy to make a mess with his barbecue sauce! The only thing better than dropping that chicken drumstick the first time was all the retakes.

The easy part was making the mess, but how did the clean up go? Great! Crypton offers several options for cleaning their fabric. Busy moms can spot-clean their Crypton placemats using a spray bottle containing water and a small amount of liquid fabric detergent. Spray on the cleaner and rub gently with a soft brush. For bigger messes, throw them in the washing machine!

I found that a small squirt of Dawn Platinum Erasing Dish Foam on a soft toothbrush worked well for me. After brushing in the detergent, I simply put that part of the placemat under the kitchen faucet and watched the stain and foam wash away. Pat dry with a clean towel.

Crypton Fabrics aren’t just for your table, either. They also make fabrics for furniture and bedding. Even your dog can have a Crypton bed!

Like what you see? Want to give them a try? Crypton is offering 10 percent off their placemats through May 1, 2015, if you use “Placemat” as the promo code when checking out.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Surprise Your Kids With Leprechaun Magic

Byrne the leprechaun with mischief and gold coins
Byrne the leprechaun arrives. Photo: Maryann Goldman

My boys and I are having a lot of fun with Byrne the leprechaun. He showed up on March 1st, to kick off the month of all things green, and has been making mischief ever since. Our family can certainly claim some Irish ancestry on my mother’s side, and like many American households, we enjoy the festivities associated with St. Patrick’s Day regardless. Byrne is definitely bringing out our holiday spirit!

Although we also enjoy the Elf on the Shelf tradition at Christmas, and have quite the collection of elves, I find that we’re too busy at that time of year to really enjoy it. Here’s why you should consider establishing a different elf tradition and why you don’t need to follow the Elf on the Shelf rules.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the words “elf” and “he” to keep things simple, but your character can take on any shape or name that works for your family. While leprechauns work great for St. Patrick’s Day fun, you might use a heart man for Valentine’s Day, a pixie to celebrate spring, Uncle Sam for July, a leaf man for harvest, or a witch for October. Remember, you’re making the rules this go around.

Byrne the leprechaun takes a bath in the crock pot
Byrne the leprechaun takes a bath! Photo: Maryann Goldman

I find that the most important quality for having fun with your elf is that it’s posable. The Elf on the Shelf is actually pretty floppy although there are instructions out there on how to give him added flexibility. I have an affinity for Annalee elves, and that’s where our Byrne the leprechaun came from. The Annalee elves stand on their own, have both legs and arms that bend, and are hangable upside down or right side up! Dolls with bendable parts or homemade creatures made using felt and pipe cleaners will work well too. The more positions your elf can get into, the more fun you can have.

Byrne the leprechaun green toilet and elf feet
Byrne the leprechaun had to go! Photo: Maryann Goldman

What child wouldn’t want to wake up, or come home from school, to find that elf mischief has taken place in his house. I find the joy on my child’s face totally makes the whole experience worth it for me. Don’t pin yourself down so that the mischief has to take place at night. If you’re like me, by the time you get the kids in bed, all you want to do is veg out with a good TV show or book. Elves can work magic while the kids are at school, at a ballgame, or taking a nap just as well as overnight. We usually limit elf antics to once a day, but if I’m feeling energetic, the elf might be extra active too.

Byrne the leprechaun loves trains and sorting by color.
Byrne the leprechaun is a train lover and color sorter! Photo: Maryann Goldman

Elf pranks don’t have to be expensive. For example, elves can make use of the toys already in your house. Lego bricks, trains, cars, and all sorts of blocks can be used to either make a mess or create an interesting pattern.

Byrne the leprechaun shamrock Post-It Note art
Byrne the leprechaun is artistic with Post-It Notes. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Elves can also be very artistic. This Post-It note shamrock cost less than $1 and was completed in under 30 minutes. I did a Google search on pixel shamrock, but you might also look at Perler bead patterns. I envision a heart for Valentine’s Day, a flag for July, and a pumpkin for Halloween. I bet your elf can even handle multiple color designs!

Byrne the leprechaun in his Chinese paper lantern hot air balloon
Byrne the leprechaun wants to fly! Photo: Maryann Goldman

Elves should have magical powers to defy gravity and fly like Superman. A little fishing line goes a long way! Zip lines, rock climbing walls, gymnastic moves, and astronaut adventures are all fair game for your elf.

Byrne the leprechaun bowls plastic cups
Byrne the leprechaun wants to bowl! Photo: Maryann Goldman

We maintain the kids don’t touch elves rule at our house, and you’ll need few elf rules of your own. Elves shouldn’t get wet, become dog toys, be bent in ways they weren’t intended, etc. If your child needs to clean up an elf mess or interact with an elf prank, mom or dad should move the elf out of the way first.

Byrne the leprechaun and his Minecraft Creeper head
Byrne the leprechaun wants to play! Photo: Maryann Goldman

Although your elf has his own personality, sometimes your elf will want to take on an alter ego. Folded character heads are a simple and easy way to do that!

Byrne the leprechaun and balloons
Byrne the leprechaun and balloons. Photo: Maryann Goldman

My boys love to name their elves. For Byrne, we did a Google search on Irish boy names and picked one from the list. Our elves also write lots of notes. Sometimes they start up a dialog with the kids which encourages the kids to write back.

If you weren’t too keen on the whole elf idea, maybe you’ll give it some more thought now. We have an incredible amount of fun with our elves, and I feel like we’re making memories and traditions to last a lifetime. There are lots of other ideas on the web for stunts your elf can do, and I would love to see what you come up with! It’s not too late for St. Patrick’s Day either. Your elf could arrive on the 17th and stay until the end of the month. Annalee is even having a contest to design a leprechaun trap which could mark your elf’s arrival. Whatever you decide, have fun!

Share the Joy of Reading with Read Across America

Scholastic Book Fair
Scholastic Book Fair. Photo: Maryann Goldman

NEA’s Read Across America was Monday, March 2nd, and schools across the country have scheduled activities all week long to celebrate. Does your child’s school have something planned?

My son’s elementary school planned their first annual Moonlight Reading event yesterday to coincide with Read Across America and the Scholastic Book Fair. Students were encouraged to wear a costume depicting their favorite book character to school for the day and then to return in the evening with their parents for additional activities. Teachers were stationed in grade level groups in classrooms throughout the school, and students and parents used a map to navigate to the reading sessions and teachers they wanted to visit. Each of the three reading sessions lasted 15 minutes, and five minutes was scheduled to move between sessions. At the end, everyone went to the cafeteria for milk and cookies, and a special guest speaker read a book to the entire group. Of course the book fair was open during the entire event, and book sales seemed to be doing well. The event appeared to be a huge success, and I suspect it will be the first of many.

Besides being educational, the event gave students, teachers, and even parents a chance to do some fun book character cosplay.  Students were highly encouraged not to dress as movie characters but instead to be creative and choose characters whose roots are firmly planted in books. That was hard for some to do, but others seemed to excel with creative book character costumes.

I went with The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss because I already had the costume. I’ve worn it to school activities before, and it’s always a hit. Apparently a lot of other folks had the same idea; at times it seemed like a Cat in the Hat convention!

Cat in the Hat
Cat in the Hat meets Cat in the Hat. Photo: Maryann Goldman

One of my favorite costumes depicted the The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. Fish scales were cut out of felt and fastened to an apron. What a great effect!

Rainbow Fish
Costume representing the Rainbow Fish books. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Another costume that I thought was super cool depicted the book A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon. I was blown away by how well the make-up and shirt really showed off the character’s stripes!

A Bad Case of Stripes
Costume representing the book A Bad Case of Stripes Photo: Maryann Goldman

Truly inspiring was this costume depicting the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault. This costume was created using bathtub style foam alphabet letters. Simple and perfect!

Chika Chika Boom Boom
Costume representing the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Photo: Maryann Goldman

If you’re hungry for reading, you might even go with a costume inspired by If You Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Numeroff. Ingenious!

Give a Pig a Pancake
Costume representing the book Give a Pig a Pancake. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I saw children dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, Harry Potter, Merlin the Wizard, The Tin Man, Thing 1 and Thing 2, and a host of other fun characters too!

Next year I want to be Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus series. A dark blue dress with some felt alphabet letters and solar system cut-outs sewn on should work nicely!

Not Your Typical Frosty: How to Geek-ify Your Snowman!

leprechaun snowmen
Leprechaun snowmen. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Every winter, the kids and I eagerly await a snowstorm big enough to build a snowman or two or three. We live in central North Carolina, and sometimes we are quite disappointed as storms miss us to the north or south or just plain fizzle out on approach. When that right storm finally hits… you know the one! …we can’t wait to get out there and play in the snow. We’re a full-immersion family doing everything from sledding, hiking, and birdwatching to, of course, building a snowman. But they aren’t always your typical snowmen. Here’s a visual tour of some of the typical and not so typical things you can do to build your own snowman.

Even before there were kids, I was out every snowstorm building at least a basic snowman. I know the neighbors thought I was crazy out there in the cold by myself, but my inner child just would not be denied. Lifting that third snowball on top is a heavy job and takes a bit of determination, but it’s worth it.

Bringing out my inner child, 2000. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

After the kids came along, I had help, and snowman building took on a whole new purpose…delighting the kids and passing down the joys of seeing a snowman come to life. I’ll never forget making my son’s first snowman. There was barely enough snow, and I had to work extra hard to pack it together. The snowman ended up dirty with leaves mixed in, but the smile on my son’s face was worth the effort. Tip: When you can’t find a hat, try an oil funnel.

first snowman
Joey’s first snowman, 2005. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Johnny’s first snowman, 2009. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Like mother, like sons. There’s nothing quite like the pride of building your own snowman and then posing for a picture with your creation.

Typical snowman, 2014. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

But why build a typical snowman when you can geek it up a bit?!? We started raiding the Halloween costume bin for snowman dress-up ideas. There were pirates. Ahoy, matey!

Pirate snowman. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Pirate snowman, 2014. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

And there were clowns. Color rules in the winter landscape.

clown snowman
Clown snowman, 2014. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

There were even leprechauns.

leprechaun snowman
Leprechaun snowman, 2015. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

And the “This one looks like me, Mom” snowman. “See the pine straw hair? Really!”

Does it look like me? Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Don’t forget the M&M guy. Snow makes a great filler!

M&M snowman
M&M snowman. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

GeekMom Sophie shared this snowman, complete with Jayne hat. Did you know a snowman might enjoy cosplay, too?

Snowman with Jayne hat. Photo: GeekMom Sophie
Snowman with Jayne hat. Photo: GeekMom Sophie.

Snow too dry to pack? No worries! Use your mop bucket, 5-gallon bucket, rope bucket, or even a trash can. You might need a little help filling and packing, though!

Fill that bucket! Photo: Maryann Goldman
Fill that bucket! Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Packing assistance. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Packing assistance. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Remember the R2-D2 trash can Halloween costume? Well, you can make your own astromech droid snowmen with your trash can and some colored electrical tape.

trash can snowman builder
Trash can to build astromech droids. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Astromech droid family. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Astromech droid family. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

For some extra flare, you can even add glow sticks. Getting the tape to stay on your creation can be a bit tricky. I used toothpicks.

glow stick astromech snowman
Glow stick astromech droids. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Inspired to go build your own snowman? Still need more ideas? Raid your costume and dress-up bins. Scrounge around your house for unique-shaped containers that can be packed with snow to create something more than your typical 3-high snowman. Keep an eye out at your local thrift store for extra scarves, hats, vests, and mittens. Dig in your craft closet for buttons, pins, and beads. Your imagination is the only limit.

I have several ideas on my future snowmen list. I’d like to build Uncle Sam, try Wilton cake pans as molds, use plastic food storage containers to make bricks, and experiment with food color water spray.

As Frosty sang, “Don’t you cry. I’ll be back again some day.

snowman gone
Snowman gone. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Boost Your Kid’s Programming Skills With Adventures in Minecraft

 Adventures in Minecraft
Adventures in Minecraft Cover. Photo: Wiley

I have a passion to share my love of coding with kids whether it be through Lego Mindstorms robotics, The Hour of Code, or Minecraft. “Wait, did you say Minecraft?”  Yep, you read that right. Minecraft! I stumbled upon the Adventures in Minecraft book and and was very excited when I realized that I could insert teachable moments into my boys’ Minecraft gaming experience.

Before I proceed with my review, I have a tiny, little confession to make. I had never played Minecraft before. Sure, I saw the Minecraft screen on my boys’ computers. I knew some of the Minecraft lingo like “spawning” and “Creeper,” but I had never actually logged into Minecraft and tried to play the game in Creative, let alone Survival, mode. So, I ordered the book and bought myself a copy of Minecraft. The things we GeekMoms do for our kids!

Adventures in Minecraft is designed for kids 11-15. Programming is done in Python using the IDLE editor. Students create a local Minecraft programming environment using a Bukkit server to test their programs on. The book walks the student through all the necessary set-up on either the PC, Mac, or Raspberry Pi and starts with programming basics so that even kids without prior programming experience can follow along with the exercises. It is helpful if the student is familiar with Minecraft, but I am proof that you can be successful with this book even if you are new to Minecraft. There are some great beginner tutorial videos out there if you need them. The book also brings some real world results into the exercises through the use of LEDs, push buttons, and a 7-segment LED display. Your program will interact with an electronic circuit! There is also a website that supplements the materials in the book. For example, if you get stuck with a syntax error that you can’t figure out, you can consult the official program listing online.

I decided to work through the chapters in the book slightly ahead of my boys so that I would be available to help them work through any issues they ran into. We started meeting once a week, on weekends, to have a family coding session. The chapters in the book have lots of subsections, and it is easy to find a good place in the book to conclude each session.  We code for about 90 minutes each time we get together. I’m honestly not sure who is enjoying these sessions more, me or my boys.

Family Programming Time
Family programming time. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Hello World

As with most programming languages, one of the first things you do is write a “hello world” program. We all had a great sense of accomplishment seeing the first results of our set-up and programming come alive on the screen. One of us apparently had Star Trek and Lost in Space on the brain too. Why code “hello world” when you can be much more creative!

Writing to the Minecraft chat. Photo: Joey Goldman
Writing to the Minecraft chat. Photo: Joey Goldman

Player Position

In Chapter 2, a lot of time is spent figuring out your player’s position in the game. That is, where is the player on the x, y, and z coordinate system? It might be useful to refresh your memory on Cartesian coordinates before proceeding.

Minecraft Wooden Fence
Minecraft wooden fence. Photo: Maryann Goldman

And, do make sure to graph out the coordinates of your fence to make sure you understand what coordinates to plug into your program. If your x or z coordinate happens to be a negative number, it will simplify the exercise if you move to a position where all the coordinates are positive, and redo your fence.

Minecraft fence coordinate map
Johnny’s fence coordinate map. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Challenge Sections

I just love the challenge sections in the book too. In Chapter 3, after we learned how to set blocks, it was suggested that we try setting some blocks to SAND or WATER, so I went up in the sky and set one of the AIR blocks to WATER and proceeded to flood my world. I had to call in reinforcements to use buckets to stop it!

Minecraft Water Block
Water, water, everywhere. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Then there was the dice face challenge. I had the hardest time trying to figure out how to add my blocks to the correct position. I just refused to quit, both wanting to set a good example to the boys and also just wanting very much to succeed. I finally did it…in the rain. I know, I  know, it’s a rectangle and not a cube, but I still felt pretty good about it!

Minecraft Dice Structure
Minecraft dice structure. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Minecraft dice program
Dice Python program snippet. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Useful Commands

I found that my Minecraft world was always getting dark or raining, and it impeded my ability to test my code, so I consulted my boys on how to get around that. The command:

/time set day

works great to get back to daytime, and the command:

/weather clear

works great to get rain to stop. You’ll want to keep these in your arsenal of commands as you work through the book.

Houses and More Houses

My boys were sold very quickly on the merits of learning to program in their Minecraft world. When they saw that they could built a huge house in the blink of an eye through a simple program, they were blown away and highly motivated to learn more.

Minecraft Houses
Street of houses in Minecraft. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Electronic Interaction

One of the concepts that really differentiates this book from other kids’ programming books is that it includes some electronic interaction with the programming starting in Chapter 5. I ran into a little trouble with the set-up, but it was my own fault for ordering the wrong part. If you are working on the PC or Mac, make sure to order your Arduino Pro Micro board from the correct place.

Soon, I was able to write programs so that when my player landed on a certain type of block in the Minecraft world, various color LEDs on my bread board would light up. How cool is that?!? You do need to consider the additional investment required for the electronic parts which is about $50 depending on whether or not you have some of the parts already on hand, but I think it’s totally worth it!

Minecraft electronic interaction
Electronic interaction. Photo: Maryann Goldman


Continuing Adventures

I’m halfway through Chapter 5, and my boys are halfway through Chapter 3. We are excited to have our next family programming session and to see what is in store for us next. There are nine adventures in the book plus a bonus adventure on the website. If you get stuck, have a cool tip to share, or want to check out the latest changes, like how the new Raspberry Pi 2 will work with Minecraft, you can also go to the Stuff About Code forum.

Interview With Author David Whale

I had a chance to interview one of the authors of Adventures in Minecraft, David Whale. He was kind enough to assist me through a set-up issue I had with my Arduino Pro Micro and then engage me in some additional conversation. I asked him if he had any quotes that he would like to share about why he feels teaching programming to kids is so important and why Minecraft is a great choice to accelerate their learning. He had several which I’ll share with you:

• Programming is important, because it allows you to influence and enhance what the computer does for you, and to break outside the bounds of what the designers of the programs expect you to do. Instead of being a consumer, you can be a creator, and make the computer do what you want it to do, not what the manufacturers decided to let you do with it.
• Even if you don’t want to be a computer programmer, the thought processes that you go through when coding really do exercise your brain and your logical thinking ability, and these are skills that can be used in any walk of life. When faced with any problem, using the skills you pick up from programming a computer, you can learn how to think a bit more abstractly about a problem, how to break it down into logical parts, how to split a big (complex) problem into many smaller (simpler) problems, and even how to split tasks up to run them in parallel effectively (e.g., delegating parts of a big task to a team of people).
• Minecraft is such a great way to learn programming—not only can you extend and enhance your favorite game and make it do things that you want it to do, you have a great excuse to play your favorite game while learning a new skill. Things that take a long time manually (e.g., building a 100x100x100 cube) take a fraction of a second with a small program, and you can be more expressive and creative as a result. Your Minecraft world will be different from any other world, and you can even program your own intelligence into it and write your own mini-games. It’s much more exciting than printing names and ages on a boring text screen (as many courses in programming will have you do).
• You will learn programming quicker using Minecraft, because you have a real purpose, a goal that you want to achieve, rather than working on some task that is only designed to test your understanding of a particular concept. When learning is fun, you want to do it, and you remember it much more if you are learning to build a huge ice cube that melts into an underwater pipe system, compared to printing names and addresses on the screen in alphabetical order.
• I’ve been writing computer software for over 30 years now, and I *still* get excited the first time I flash an LED on a new bit of hardware—it feels like I have “breathed life” into this lifeless object, and given it a piece of my soul that will live on forever.
I can’t say enough positive things about this book. I think it can add an additional level of learning to the time your child normally spends playing Minecraft. The book is written in such a way that it inspires the coder to push their limits and innovate beyond the suggested basic program. The electronic interaction adds an extra level of excitement to the learning process. Who wouldn’t be excited to see actions in Minecraft lighting LEDs!

Adventures in Minecraft currently retails on Amazon for $19.07 for the printed book or $13.99 for the Kindle version.

Hoots up There? Building a Barred Owl Box

Barred Owl box hung with porch. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Finished! Barred Owl box hung with the porch. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I’m a real bird-watching fan, and I participate in Project Feederwatch. I’m also an advanced amateur photographer. I love taking pictures of birds at my feeder and in the spring, I’ve been known to spend hours watching and photographing the activity at our Bluebird box. We even put up a new Brown Nuthatch box this past spring. So it came as no surprise to my guy, Don, that I wanted a Barred Owl box. We often hear them at night out in the yard, so I figured we may get lucky and have them nest in a box where we could enjoy watching them come and go. I did some research and found a great site and nest box plan. After spending some time reviewing the project, we purchased the necessary parts (see Parts List below) and got busy.

I’ll overview our project in this article, but you should also refer to the nest box plan, as I don’t want to duplicate all of the original work and instructions here.

We broke the project up into several steps. One the first project day, we cut out the wood. We were using a piece of treated plywood that we already had, and it was a bit wet, so we needed to let it dry out well.

On the second project day, we stained the outside of all of the wood box pieces. Our wood was nice and weathered and easily absorbed the stain. We waited a couple of hours between coats per product instructions and then applied a second coat. Note that we did use a belt sander before staining, to sand just the opening edges and the porch edges.

Staining the box parts before assembly. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Staining the box parts before assembly. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

On the third project day, we assembled the box. We used a large number of good quality 2-inch deck screws. There is no way this box is coming apart!

Assembling the box. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Assembling the box. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

We held off attaching the porch until the box was in the tree, so that it wouldn’t be in the way. I was super impressed at how the project was coming along so far and so quickly, too. But this was the easy part; we knew the hard part was yet to come! We didn’t weigh the box, but it must have weighed 80 pounds.

Assembled box. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Assembled box. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

We spent a few minutes walking our yard and deciding for sure which tree to mount the box on. Note that the box only needs to be mounted 15 to 20 feet high, but that the tree needs to be substantial enough to hold the weight.

On the fourth project day, it was time to hang the box. We decided to add some shingles since we had some on hand. We drilled the vent holes in the bottom and tree side of the box. We drilled two small holes for the wire rope on the top tree side of the box. We also collected some pine straw from the yard and put it into the bottom of the box.

The box with shingles. Photo: Maryann Goldman
The box with shingles. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

It was handy that we had a hand truck to move the box to the tree. A wheel barrow, lawn cart, or a couple of guys could have moved it too.

Preparing to hoist the box into the tree. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

We used a tree pruning pole that extends to 15 feet to lift the rope up over that really high tree branch. We also had to use the pole to pull on the end of the rope to bring it back down. The rope had a clamp on the end of it to give it some weight and to provide a surface big enough to grab onto.

Putting the ropes in place. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Putting the ropes in place. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

We were going to hoist the box up just by pulling on the rope, but why do that when you have a tractor-mounted winch you can use? Don was able to use a rope to keep the box a few inches away from the tree trunk, as the winch easily pulled the box up the side of the tree.

The winch! Photo: Maryann Goldman
The winch! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

We used vinyl coated wire, wire clamps, and a lag screw to mount the box to the tree. We had a small branch near the mount spot, but I felt more secure adding the lag screw. This system should still allow the tree to grow without the wire cutting into the tree.

Fastening the box to the tree. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Fastening the box to the tree. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Once the box was secure, we mounted the porch, and I took the final project picture.

Barred Owl box hung with porch. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Barred Owl box hung with the porch. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

A few words on safety. Building the box is one thing, but mounting it is something else. As I said, the box is very heavy. You have to be strong, and you have to climb high on a ladder. Make sure you have the necessary equipment to safely mount the box, or you really should hire someone to do it.

In just under a week, the box went from wish list to installed. I couldn’t be more pleased! Yes I could; when there are owls in the box and I get my first picture. For now, I’ll live on past glory.

Barred Owl. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Barred Owl. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Parts List
• 1 4’x8′ sheet of 3/4″ exterior-grade, pressure-treated plywood (buy half a sheet, if you have that option)
• 1 quart of deck stain (project used 3/4 of the quart with 2 coats)
1lb. box of 2″ deck screws (project requires about 1/2 a pound)
8′ of 3/16 vinyl coated wire rope (depends on diameter of tree trunk; try to buy by the foot)
4 3/16″ wire rope thimbles and clamps
2 6″ L brackets
• silicone caulk (seal top to sides)
1 4″ lag bolt (if there is no convenient branch to loop the cable over)

 Tools List
• circular saw
• framing square
• tape measure
• stain brush
• belt sander (to smooth the edges of opening and porch)
• rechargeable drill
• caulk gun
• 1/8″ drill bit to make start holes for deck screws
• 1″ drill bit for vent holes
• 1/4″ drill bit for wire rope holes
• ropes, straps, clamps, and pulley for lifting the box
• ladder

Our out-of-pocket project cost was about $45, but that’s because we already had the plywood and vinyl coated wire. I estimate $90, if you have to buy all of the parts.

Barred Owls live year-round in the eastern half of the United States. Learn what owls are in your area, and seek out nest box plans and mounting instructions for them. For example, Screech Owls have a similar range, but require a much smaller and lighter box. Barn Owls live in most of the continental United States and require a box similar to the Barred Owl box.

So Your Kids Want Their Own Minecraft Server

Creeper Costume. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Creeper Costume. Photo: Maryann Goldman

At our house, Minecraft is the most popular video game with my boys who are ages 10 and 12. Sure, they like Disney Infinity on the xBox 360 and various apps on the iPad, but Minecraft leads the pack. Dinner conversations often focus on “Minecraft this” and “Minecraft that.” I’m always trying to change the subject to something else. Although I admit that I’ve never played Minecraft, I am well versed on what a “Creeper” is and what “spawning” means. I even helped build a Creeper head as a Halloween costume. The game seems rather harmless if not graphically inferior; didn’t we do bitmaps back in the 70s? Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to survive my child’s Minecraft addiction.

It all seemed so innocent when my boys asked to buy Minecraft on the PC several years ago. I paid, and we downloaded, and then the work began.

“Mom, I need help installing a mod.”

“Everything you need to know is in this YouTube.”

Sure, installing some of those mods required every bit of computer programming skill I have. I was so frustrated. Then came the Minecraft Launcher along with the boys getting a bit older, and now they are more self sufficient installing mods and updates. I love that Launcher!

Over Christmas I got the latest request. I was innocently reading my book half paying attention to the football game that was on when they hit me. “Mom, can we have our own Minecraft servers?” Huh? They had asked me this before, and we even tried to configure our own server—another hair pulling intensive computer skill fiasco. I had tried to explain that servers were a lot of work and that their computers probably weren’t powerful enough to support a server with multiple users playing the game. I thought we had put the whole server issue to bed. Apparently not!

Introduce GForce Servers. The boys explained that you can now buy a server running on someone else’s computer but still manage it yourself. One of their Minecraft friends already had one running and configured, and he was volunteering to get them started. It sounded to good to be true.

GForce offers several Minecraft server options, and we chose the Iron option at $5 a month which comes with 1GB of memory, a dedicated IP, and all the options any Minecraft enthusiast could want. They used their allowance, I paid, and I hoped I wouldn’t regret it. Of course they each wanted their own server, and I couldn’t see a reason why not as I hoped this would be a good computer programming learning opportunity.

The boys have been up on their new servers for a couple of weeks now, and everything is running smoothly. They each have a log-on to a GForce control panel, the Force Panel, which allows them to manage and configure their servers.

GForce Servers. Photo: Maryann Goldman
GForce Servers. Photo: Maryann Goldman

They can manage mods and plugins for their server.

GForce Server Control Panel. Photo: Maryann Goldman
GForce Server Control Panel. Photo: Maryann Goldman

They can set-up their Minecraft world just how they like it.

GForce Server Minecraft Settings. Photo: Maryann Goldman

They can even get the thrill of entering console style commands.

GForce Server Command Console. Photo: Maryann Goldman
GForce Server Command Dialogue. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I haven’t heard one complaint, and I haven’t been roped in to help. Happy kids and a happy mom.

I’d like to point out that one benefit of having a personal server is that you can control who your kids play with. With a dedicated IP, only kids that they share the IP with will be able to log onto their server. So, if you want to have more control over who your kid plays Minecraft with, this might be the right solution for you.

GForce has game servers for several other games including Grand Theft Auto and Garry’s Mod. They also offer a free trial.

There are other hosted Minecraft server options too. Do a Google search on hosted Minecraft server and review the links.

Introducing Dash and Dot from the Wonder Workshop!

Johnny, the proud Dash and Dot owner. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

In a continuing effort to make sure my 10-year-old son Johnny has access to educational programming tools, Santa brought him Dash and Dot from the Wonder Workshop for Christmas. Johnny loves all things robot, so I felt sure that Dash and Dot would be a hit with him. Johnny already had Scratch experience as well as LEGO Mindstorms EV3 programming skills, so I knew he’d be successful with Dash and Dot, too.

I became aware of Dash and Dot last April after seeing their crowdfunding campaign, and I quickly ordered them with promised delivery for Christmas. (I’m pleased to say that they were delivered a few days before that.) I even received regular updates on my order, which kept me up-to-date on the progress towards production and fulfillment, and I felt well informed.

Co-founder and CEO Vikas Gupta, Co-founder and CTO Saurabh Gupta, and Co-founder and VP of Product Development Mikal Greaves founded Play-i in 2012. Then, in September of 2014, Play-i was renamed to Wonder Workshop. The robots originally known as Bo and Yana would become Dash and Dot. The goal of bringing coding curriculum to elementary school students was coming alive for all kids.

Dash and his packaging materials. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

As Johnny and I unveiled Dash and Dot on Christmas Day, I quickly realized the power these robots have along with how well thought-out they are.  They come in super packaging, or homes as Johnny called them. I certainly don’t expect the robots to spend much time in their boxes, but the boxes are certainly sturdy enough for storage, travel, and even passing on to another child. One of the first things Johnny programmed Dash to do was drive back into his box; it was quite cute.

Dash and Dot with their boxes. Please note: Each robot comes with its own documentation and micro USB cable, even though only one set is shown here. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

The robots have built-in rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which can deliver 3 to 5 hours of play. I love that Dash and Dot won’t be eating costly batteries. There’s plenty of play time for a fun-filled outing before a recharge is needed. For charging, you can connect the included micro USB to a computer or power system, both of which are standard and worked fine. However, I am not a fan of micro USB, because I had the charging port on a tablet ruined by a child trying to force-plug it in the wrong way. Do provide some supervision and training with plugging Dash and Dot in.

Dash and Dot use Bluetooth Low Energy (aka Bluetooth 4.0), so check the tech specs to make sure you have a compatible device. I ended up buying a new iPad Mini 3 because our older iPad 2 does not support Bluetooth 4.0. I guess it was time we got an iOS device that supports the latest Bluetooth technology, but it was an expense I hadn’t counted on when Johnny received Dash and Dot.

The Dash and Dot folder on Johnny's iPad Mini 3 showing the 4 apps available on iOS for Dash and Dot. Photo: Maryann Goldman
The Dash and Dot folder on Johnny’s iPad Mini 3, showing the four iOS apps available. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

There are four iOS apps available for Dash and Dot:

1. Path (ages 5 and up). Use your finger to draw a path and watch Dash take off.

2. Go (ages 5 and up). Control all the sensors on Dash and Dot.

3. Xylo (ages 5 and up). Create music with Dash and his xylophone (sold separately).

4. Blockly (ages 8 and up). Program Dash and Dot using Blockly, which is a puzzle piece style programming tool.

They make it very easy to connect Dash and Dot to the Bluetooth. After struggling to connect Bluetooth speakers to my iPhone for years, I am amazed at how simple it is to connect Dash and Dot and start programming!

Connect Dash and Dot to your device. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Connect Dash and Dot to your device. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

And when they say ages 5 and up, they mean it. The apps are very intuitive and allow even smaller children to make Dash move and both Dash and Dot make sounds, flash lights, etc., all with easy finger controls. I would say that they are well designed to allow the smallest child to have success programming the robots, while also testing the creativity and advanced skills of older children.

Kids will love the colorful screens and consistent look and feel of the apps. There are virtually no words of instruction on any of the screens, yet your child and you will understand at a glance what to do.

Sample Go screen where you can control what LEDs are on in the the eyes, etc.
Sample Go screen, where you can control what LEDs are on in the eyes. Don’t you love those bright colors?!? Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Here’s a sample of Johnny’s first Blockly program. You can see why this is called puzzle piece programming. Kids connect the programming instructions together as pieces of code that have a specific function. It’s impressive to see all of the things that kids can make Dash and Dot do.

Here's a sample of Johnny's first Blockly program. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Here’s a sample of Johnny’s first Blockly program. Photo: Maryann Goldman

The Blockly app ships several program examples and also allows kids to save their programs/projects as they go.

Create a new project using Blockly. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Create a new project using Blockly. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Don’t miss the super-cool eye and lights, too.

Love the eye! Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Overall, Johnny and I have had a very positive experience with Dash and Dot. They are durable, the rechargeable batteries work great, and the robots are simple enough for Johnny to play with on his own, while being challenging and entertaining enough that he keeps coming back. If you have a young child and want to give a head start on programming, I think Dash and Dot are great.

If you like what you see, you can order Dash and/or Dot from Wonder Workshop. Dash retails for $199 or you can get Dash and Dot together for $259 or $349, depending on accessories. I just ordered Dash’s xylophone separately and can’t wait for Johnny to give it a try.

I’m including three videos below, showing Johnny using Dash and Dot with the Path, Go, and Blockly apps, so you can see them in action. Enjoy!