Four Creative Ways To Give Lego Gifts

Image credit: LEGO City Advent Calendar 2010 – Day 21/24 by Kenny Louie

Given that there are more than five million Lego bricks being made every hour (yes, really!), there’s a good chance there will be a box of them under your Christmas tree this year. But why just wrap them up in paper when you can get more creative with your Lego gifting? Here are four ideas to try:

Lego Advent calendar

Lego sells ready-to-go Advent calendars. Each day you open a panel and get a minifig or tiny set. They come in a variety of themes, including Star Wars, City, and Friends. This year there’s also a Minions-themed Mega Blocks calendar. But I’m more of a DIY-er.

There are two ways you could go to build one on your own. You could get small sets, like minifigs, Mixels, and the small polybag sets. It won’t be a cheap Advent calendar, but it’s an option! Or you could split up a set and dole out a few pieces each day. The most straightforward way would be with the Creative Supplement (which also comes in the bright Friends-set colors). It’s a box of 303 basic bricks. You could either put a dozen or so in the calendar each day, or you could use it as a countdown or count-up. With 303 bricks, you could give 1 on December 1, 2 on December 2, and so forth all the way to Christmas Eve (or vice-versa with 24 on December 1 counting down).

If you’d like to build anticipation a little more, you could do the same with an actual set. To reduce the torture, be sure to give out the pieces in the order it takes to build the set! A few sets with just about the right number of pieces for the countdown method are: Continue reading Four Creative Ways To Give Lego Gifts

‘Art of the Brick: DC Comics’ (plus Giveaway)

There are only a handful of themes which truly stand the test of time. The kind of things shared between generations; dancing across language barriers; appreciated by any child, anywhere, anytime. Lego is definitely one. DC characters are absolutely there. Art is certainly there.

And then whoa! You have someone like Nathan Sawaya combining all three?!? Welcome to the Art of the Brick: DC Comics. Prepare to be joyfully stunned.

Also below is our giveaway but one big caveat: it’s for Australia residents only.

Continue reading ‘Art of the Brick: DC Comics’ (plus Giveaway)

GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #4: Toys and Lego!

Now that we’re in the second half of November, I know I’m not the only one starting to really flesh out my holiday shopping lists. Toys are almost always on kids’ wish lists (and many adults’ lists, as well!), so here are some of our favorite toys that we (or our kids) are wanting this year.

Continue reading GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #4: Toys and Lego!

The Davis Instruments Weather Box Fills My Need for Data

While I wouldn’t call myself a “weather geek” per se, meteorology and weather have interested me since at least high school. I love looking at weather maps, learning about low and high pressures, knowing what the marks on wind direction maps mean, and parsing the extensive data tables that come out of weather records.

Seeing how weather changes over a year for a particular spot really helps me get a feel of a place. Is it a wet winter or a rainy summer? Does it get above freezing during the winter? Is there a monsoon season? How likely are there to be mosquitoes (see: rainfall, among other things)? I’ve especially enjoyed how much more accurate weather forecasting has gotten over my (42 year) lifetime.

Before I got to try out the Davis Instruments Weather Box recently, the closest I ever got to a weather station was an outdoor temperature probe that was connected to an indoor wall clock. I loved weather data but had never had my own data to play with. So when the Weather Box arrived in the mail, I was excited to set it up. My 14-year-old daughter, equally excited, made me wait until she was available before getting started. She’s the type of weather geek who keeps a cloud journal.

Continue reading The Davis Instruments Weather Box Fills My Need for Data

CharmCam: a Baby Monitor That Does So Much More

Image via the CharmCam Indiegogo campaign.

Modern baby monitors have come a long way since the sound-only models that used to pick up the neighbors’ wireless home phone conversations. These days, they’re wi-fi enabled, allow remote access and viewing from our smartphones, night vision, and more. They’re certainly good, but they still end up being simply a camera in your baby’s room, and leave you as the parent to play the role of security guard, trying to go to sleep or get other tasks done, and worrying every time there’s 10 seconds of silence.

It seems like, with newer camera technologies, especially in the areas of pattern recognition, as well as the many additional sensors available, there’s more baby monitors could be doing.

Enter the CharmCam (GeekMom’s sponsor today):

Currently looking for funding on Indiegogo, the CharmCam is the next generation of baby monitors. Sure it’ll send a 1080p video stream to your phone at better than 15fps, in normal or IR light, but it also monitors your baby’s temperature constantly, watches in case the baby’s face gets covered by something, senses the air quality, and will even play a lullaby and deliver a soothing light show.


Every time there’s something you might want to check—an elevated temperature, or a face covered for more than a few seconds—you can set the app to give you a notification. Parents can rest easy that everything is okay.

If you’re interested in helping get the next generation of baby monitors into production, and get your hands on some of the first ones out the door, take a stop by the Indiegogo campaign, where early-bird supporters can pick up a CharmCam with both a table mount and a clamp-style mount for just $149.

PAX Australia 2015 (Part 3): Tabletop Review

If you are new to the PAX Phenomenon, you could easily mistake it for a big computer game nerd hub. But no matter how many flashy-lights and big badda-booms you saw, almost everybody there spent some time recharging with cards, miniatures, or boards.

And it was good.

Continue reading PAX Australia 2015 (Part 3): Tabletop Review

GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #2: Gadgets and Accessories

Gadgets make life easier, and often more fun. And living in the information age as we do, they are practically necessary for survival. We like products to be faster, more connected, and with more bells and whistles. Which gadgets have we GeekMoms deemed to be awesome enough to include in the gift guide? Keep reading! Continue reading GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #2: Gadgets and Accessories

Accio Literatia! Information Literacy and the Illustrated Harry Potter

Several years ago, I swooned with pride over a series of student blogs discussing the story ownership through the active process of reading compared to the passive process of movie watching.

My teacher’s heart swelled ten sizes as the group of first-year students debated the difference between reading Lord of the Rings and watching the movies because one student complained that comic book movies were never as good as the books.

Watching the group of engineering first-year students debate how imagining the written word leads to ownership of literature, I smugly sat back thinking that they had learned an important lesson.

Earlier this week, we started reading the new illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with our son.

I began questioning the viability of reading an illustrated book. Continue reading Accio Literatia! Information Literacy and the Illustrated Harry Potter

PAX Australia 2015 (Part 2): Indie Video Games Steal the Show

PAX – where Gamers go to Loot.

Walk the exhibition hall and the first thing thrown at you is every big name in the video game industry, and more. The hype is about new and upcoming games; the atmosphere is about promoting the most unreal gaming experience.

In between all the glitz and glory are the indie developers, stealing all the tweets. Part 2 of my PAX review is aimed squarely at the video games: the games planning to conquer the world… and the ones I predict will succeed.

Continue reading PAX Australia 2015 (Part 2): Indie Video Games Steal the Show

Creating the Perfect Tea Blend: Plum Republic

Hello, I’m Corrina, and I’m a tea addict. The booth that I frequent the most at various conventions? The tea booth. And I’m also lucky enough to have a great loose tea store where I live.

But I’m always looking for new flavors and my preference is black tea blends. When in the Northwest offered me a chance to try some of their custom blends, I jumped at the chance.

I tried three blends and was thrilled with all of them. That led me to ponder: Exactly how does one create great tea?

In an interview, Andy Hayes, founder and creator of, answered that question, plus talked about how he chooses his blend and how it is it to become addicted to tea.

Plum tea, photo by Corrina Lawson
One of Plum Deluxe’s blends, photo by Corrina Lawson (Uh, yes, I might have drunk it all before I remembered to take a photo. It was too good to resist!)

GeekMom: What goes into putting a blend together? How do you decide on the ingredients?

Hayes: I look at 3 perspectives:

Visual: Is the tea rich, beautiful to look at? (How many times have you heard the saying, “We eat with our eyes”?)

Scent: Great teas smell good! The majority of our taste receptors rely on smell to interpret flavor, so fresh ingredients that are fragrant are very important.

Taste: Last, but certainly not least! We usually go through at least 3, but sometimes in the teens or twenties, of recipe rounds before landing on a particular blend. Sometimes you get lucky. :-) Continue reading Creating the Perfect Tea Blend: Plum Republic

Target’s Toy Section: Gender Neutral in Word Only

Target needs to remember this saying:

“Actions speak louder than words.”

A few months ago, Target announced a change in the toy section. In response to customer feedback, they promised no more girl or boy sections, just one big gender-neutral section. Cheers and complaints immediately arose from the masses. A new day upon us, people either embraced or fought against the empowering move. Just one problem, Target played lip service but failed to make substantial changes of any kind.

Let me explain. Continue reading Target’s Toy Section: Gender Neutral in Word Only

‘Oddly Normal’: Not So Odd, Not So Normal, Just Perfect

In September 2014, a quirky, beautifully drawn, thoroughly enjoyable, all ages book, Oddly Normal, appeared as if by magic in our pull box.

Our local shop owner, knowing that I’m always seeking out things for my son, had popped it in the box. Thanking her, as I normally do, I skimmed the comic and nodded “Sure!” Since her taste is almost inevitably spot on for my style, I took it home smooshed in the middle of my large pile of comics.

Once I opened the book at home, I was enchanted. Oddly is every normal kid who feels a bit quirky and out of place. Half witch and half human, her adventures begin as, in the typical ten-year-old child way, she wishes her parents away. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that she was born with the magic to make that possible.

Her great-aunt whisks her away to Fignation, the birthplace of her mother, beginning a new life in a new middle school with new kids.

Continue reading ‘Oddly Normal’: Not So Odd, Not So Normal, Just Perfect

Let Your Pre-Readers Program Too

GeekMom Maryann has already reviewed Wonder Workshop’s Dash and Dot robots in detail a few months ago, but I’m back for more exciting news from this robotic duo. The company has now released a new app, appropriately and perhaps redundantly named Wonder, that makes it easier than ever for your pre-readers to program.

Moreover, Wonder Workshop is introducing a new Wonder League Robotics Competition! Teams of kids 6 to 11 years of age must be registered by November 1st to compete. The winners will receive a STEM field trip to California to visit Universal Studios, EA, Google, and more.

Continue reading Let Your Pre-Readers Program Too

Sit or Stand: With the Varidesk Pro Desk 54, It’s Up To You

I sit at a desk around 40+ hours per week at my office. My old desk was nothing more than a six-foot table that was not wide enough for me to stretch my long legs and not tall enough for me to sit ergonomically.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been using a Varidesk Pro Desk 54 and I love it.

The Varidesk Pro Desk 54 has the largest surface area of all the Varidesks at 54-inches wide and 32 inches deep and can accommodate multiple monitors and a laptop.

It shipped in two big and heavy boxes, but upon opening them, it only took a few screws, 20 minutes, and a second person to help me put it in place.

The Varidesk Pro Desk 54 in the wild (pardon the mess). \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
The Varidesk Pro Desk 54 in the wild (pardon the mess). \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

After I put all my geekery on my desk, I decided to take it for a sitting to standing position test run.

For the most part, it went smoothly. I realized some of my wires weren’t long enough and would need extensions, but other than that, nothing moved. It took a bit of force to go back to a sitting position, but after a few practice runs, I figured out my footing and it was smooth sailing.

My favorite feature is the ability to put the desk at virtually any height between its lowest point (28 inches) and highest point (42 inches). I use a drafting chair, so it sits a bit higher than a regular chair and the ability to adjust the desk to my chair height is a major plus.

Like most things these days, the desk has an app that reminds you when you’ve been sitting too long. You can adjust the default recommended times to suit your needs and while I don’t always do what the app says, I appreciate the reminder.

As an IT professional, this desk is a breath of fresh air for me when I need a break but can’t leave my workspace.

From a design standpoint, it’s very clean and easily fits in with the decor around my office.

Material-wise, the top part of the desk is made of wood with a synthetic overlay. It doesn’t feel cheap and easily holds up to the weight and pressure I put it under. Everything below the main surface is metal and, once in place, it takes two people to move it again.

The only downside I can see for this particular model are the holes in the side that allow you to move it up and down. I’ve had to cover them up when I’m sitting so I don’t accidentally put my drink or snacks through the hole and onto my floor.  Seeing as they are there to help you raise and lower the desk, I consider them a necessary evil.

The surface texture is a little bumpy when writing on it, but it’s not something I would call a deal breaker. I only notice the texture when I’m writing. I’ve cleaned my desk with alcohol, Lysol wipes, and water with no loss of color or long-standing smell/stickiness.

The Varidesk Pro Desk 54 is available through Varidesk and will run you $500 plus shipping and handling.

‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

I love cooperative games because the dynamics of the group shift from finding any possible way to beat the live humans hanging around with you to exploring all possibilities within a game system to triumph together.  I also appreciate educational games that keep the fun.

Is it possible to have all three in one?

Why, yes, and the game is called Covalence: A Molecule Building Game recently put out by Genius Games. This is the latest in their series of science-based table-top games.

How does it work?

Covalence uses deduction. Continue reading ‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

Microsoft Continues to Innovate Portable Computing

Microsoft recently announced the newest in their line of Microsoft-branded computers. They’ve updated the Surface Pro to model number 4, and they’ve come out with the Surface Book, which is a larger, beefier, more powerful machine that looks more like a laptop than the other Surface models.

It seems that most laptops these days have touch screens, and tablets are everywhere. But convertible machines where the screen detaches and can be used as its own thing with a sophisticated, pressure-sensitive stylus are not the norm. I’m very glad to be seeing Microsoft think outside the box. And for people solidly in the PC world, these new offerings expand their purchasing options.

Continue reading Microsoft Continues to Innovate Portable Computing

Smalltalk: Building a Network for Parents Like You

Image via
Image via

Ours is a world of social networks. There’s Facebook and Twitter, sure, but it also seems as though we’re moving more toward smaller, more specialized services. While there are a myriad of options for everything from cultivating business contacts to online dating, Smalltalk, GeekMom’s newest sponsor, seeks to create a special place just for parents.–a one-stop shop for families searching for housekeepers, tutors, and caregivers–created the Smalltalk mobile app to allow parents to communicate openly about pediatricians and childcare options, share recommendations for local businesses and events, and, ultimately, form their own personal parenting networks.

Smalltalk has all the features you’ve come to expect from mobile sharing services. You can comment on existing posts or begin your own conversations with just a couple of taps, upload and share photos, and, while the app uses your current location to connect you with nearby users, you can easily shift the focus to a different geographic area via an intuitive map interface.

Post are limited to 222 characters to encourage brevity and keep conversations lively, and individual posts can be voted up or down–think Reddit, sans the relentless image macros–to make the most compelling, relevant conversations more visible. Users can keep current on the conversations in which they’re involved via the ever-present “My Topics” tab, and even report posts that break the service’s rules of etiquette by long-tapping the offending entry.

Contributions to Smalltalk conversations are attributed to users via first name and last initial, but a toggle system on the compose screen enables users to switch effortlessly to anonymous mode. This feature provides an additional layer of insulation to foster frank, open discussions, even about difficult topics.

With all the features you want in a simple, sleek interface, Smalltalk has everything the modern parent needs to connect, collaborate, and even occasionally commiserate. All that’s missing is you, so download the free app now!

Can the Amazon Dash Button Change Your Household Forever?

Earlier this month, I had the chance to pick up a couple of those Amazon Dash buttons that the shopping website had first announced around April Fool’s Day (which definitely confused a lot of us!). At first, I was snickering at this concept, but admittedly, it might work out pretty well in our house. Continue reading Can the Amazon Dash Button Change Your Household Forever?

Disney Infinity 3.0: Return of the Hoarder

The Disney Infinity pile up continues at our house with the addition of Star Wars and Inside Out worlds. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.
The Disney Infinity pile up continues at our house, with the addition of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Inside Out’ worlds. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

“We’re just going to look, okay?”

Ever utter these well-intended and ill-fated words to your children, before breaking down and displaying a disturbing lack of self-restraint?

This is the type of bad parenting Disney 2.0 did to us last year, as I talked about in my post “Confessions of a Disney Infinity Hoarder,” and Disney Infinity 3.0 is threatening to do this once again. When the first wave of 3.0 figures came out Aug. 29, our intentions were to purchase a starter set and a couple of figures for a surprise family Christmas gift.

That didn’t happen. Continue reading Disney Infinity 3.0: Return of the Hoarder

Dyson V6 Slim Cordless Vacuum is Perfect for Quick Clean-Ups

Image: Dyson

There are few things in life less glamorous than vacuuming. Cleaning the bathroom and ironing shirts are both up there, but vacuuming is definitely high on the list. That’s because it’s never-ending and tiresome. Hauling out a huge vacuum is a pain and when you have kids, there’s constantly stuff that needs to be cleaned. The Dyson V6 Slim is a cordless vacuum with all the power of the big ones in compact form.

Let me go on record saying I hate housework. I keep a very tidy home, which is why I hate housework so much. There’s always something in need of tidying. I no sooner vacuum the floor than the entire thing is a mess again. It’s like there’s an invisible version of Pig-Pen from Peanuts and he’s lurking in my house. It drives me crazy.

I have a very nice upright vacuum. It is a Kirby and it cost me a small fortune many years ago. It works, but it weighs a ton and I hate dragging it around the house. The Dyson V6 Slim takes care of that problem by being a lightweight 8.25 pounds. It’s easy to carry up and down stairs and even the kids can use this thing. That right there is enough to make it worth the price.

There’s a motor that spins at up to 110,000 rpm, which is three times faster than a conventional vacuum motor to generate plenty of suction. The main body is where the motor is housed, along with a clear bin that collects debris. There’s a long, hard tube that extends out from the motor and two different attachments.

You can opt for a bristle head attachment or a narrow nozzle that has a brush or hard end, depending on what you’re trying to clean. You can also lose the hard tube and connect the attachments directly to the motor. This makes it compact and perfect for cleaning up in the car.

Image: Dyson
Image: Dyson

The vacuum worked well and that bristle head picked up dirt better than my pricey Kirby. I vacuumed once with the Kirby and once with the Dyson V6 Slim and was amazed by how much dust it still sucked up.

Emptying the clear bin is easy. You just hold it over the trash and push a little red button. Since it’s clear, it’s easy to see when it’s full. No trying to figure out if a bag is full or if a hidden receptacle is about to overflow.

The Dyson V6 Slim cleaned my home beautifully. It is lightweight and easy to pull out for quick clean-ups, but there were a few drawbacks. It gets warm and you’ll feel the heat in the trigger after a few minutes. You also have to keep that trigger pressed the whole time. This helps conserve the battery, but it is tiresome. Lastly, it only runs for about 15 minutes per charge. It’s not for whole-house cleaning, but for quick clean-ups.

The vacuum comes with a charging unit that can be screwed directly into the wall. It holds the accessories and is an easy way to store your vacuum when not in use. I didn’t think I needed a vacuum like this, but now that I have one, I wonder how I managed without one for so long.

The Dyson V6 Slim is available for $259.99 through Walmart. It’s not a cheap vacuum, but it is worth the price for its convenience, versatility, and cleaning power.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

How V-MODA Headphones Brought Me Peace and Focus

Image: V-MODA
Image: V-MODA

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

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

Until now [cue dramatic music].

Image: V-MODA
Image: V-MODA

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

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

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

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

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

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

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Here Are All 7 New ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Lego Sets

Photo courtesy of Lego, used with permission.
Photo courtesy of Lego, used with permission.

It’s Force Friday, and that means brand new Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise is appearing all over the place. We’ve been waiting to see what Lego was going to roll out, and now the sets are here and they are EVERYTHING WE DREAMED OF. Continue reading Here Are All 7 New ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Lego Sets

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.

Why This GeekMom Loves Tinker Crate

Our drip irrigation system. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Our drip irrigation system. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

The Internet is filled with useful reviews, but sometimes you have to wonder, “Sure, they love their new product now, but how will they feel about it when the novelty wears off next week, next month, or next year?” It’s not as often you see feedback from a long-term user, so I decided it was time I put my feelings out there about my love for Tinker Crate, a subscription service for little tinkerers.

We’ve been happy Kiwi Crate customers for years, I think around three years now. They ship a monthly box to your house with everything you need to complete two craft projects aimed to kids ages 4-8. We love that we not only get two craft projects, but that the end products themselves aren’t useless once finished. For example, in the latest box, we’ve built a cash register that we can then use to run a pretend-store in our living room.

Our homemade motor. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Our homemade motor. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

So when Kiwi Crate announced a whole new suite of boxes aimed for different age groups, I was curious. One, the Koala Crate, was crafts aimed for the 3-4 years old crowd. Another, Doodle Crate, covered crafts for the 9-16+ age group. Finally, the one that caught my eye was Tinker Crate: “A laboratory for hands-on experiments” for kids 9-14+.

I’m a sucker for science, so of course I signed up promptly. For my then 4-year-old.

Well, believe it or not, it’s been a huge success with my preschooler for almost one year now! She does need help following the instructions and building the smaller bits that require a little more hand coordination (and patience), but regardless, it’s an activity that we both look forward to tremendously.

In the nine months that we’ve been subscribed, we have built: a motor, a trebuchet, a zoetrope, hydraulics with syringes, a drawing robot, slime, a biomechanical hand, a drip irrigation system, and rubber band gliders.

The Tinker Crate also comes with a Tinker Zine, a mini magazine with loads of information on the topic of the month. We really love these. For example, the Tinker Zine “Let’s Hand It to Hands” included in the biomechanical hand box explains how our hands work (bones, muscles, tendons, joints, etc.), covers a history of prosthetic arms, offers instructions for making jointed straw puppets, and tells the story of people around the world helped by 3D-printed prosthetic hands. They really know how to fill up a few pages without making it feel overloaded.

I’ll be the first to admit that, with some planning, a thrifty and creative parent could provide their child with a similar building experience for less money. I commend you if you can make that happen without help. Personally, we’re a two income family with very little time or energy for thinking of new projects or gathering the necessary materials at stores all over town, so yeah, we fork up the $19.95/month to have our boxed activity shipped to us.

My daughter is so proud of her cool machines that she always wants to bring her latest creation to her preschool class’s weekly show-and-tell. I call that a win. As far as we’re concerned, Tinker Crate has been worth every penny.

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.

Tabletop Game: ‘Harbour’

Image: Tasty Minstrel Games
Image: Tasty Minstrel Games

Harbour is a worker placement game focused on humor and economy. Players run their meeples through town, using the special abilities of the buildings to earn resources, buy buildings, and ship their goods. Buildings have varying amounts of victory points, and each has its own ability. Once a player buys their fourth building, each player gets one more turn, and the game ends. The player with the most points wins.

Opening the box for the first time was an adventure of exploring the decks, abilities, and high quality parts. Players start with a player board, a meeple, and three goods of their choice. The meeple is the “worker” and travels along the harbor gathering resources, buying buildings, or triggering special abilities. Notes from Dockmaster Schlibble accompany many of the cards. Check out his notes for some laughs, which I won’t spoil here!

The harbor always has six buildings available. Each turn, the player must move their meeple to a new location, and use its ability. If the building they visit has a “buy building” symbol on it, they may choose to buy one of the six buildings. To buy a building, they must ship goods valued highly enough to pay for the building. If, for any reason, they earn more than they spend, the player loses that money.

Image: Rory Bristol

The economy is dynamic, but easy enough to track. The Market board has four resources: fish, lumber, stone, and livestock. When someone ships a resource, its demand decreases, and is moved to a lower value. The more value the resource has, the cheaper it is after it ships. The Market board keeps everything organized for you. The upset comes when another player ships the goods you have been saving, making some of your inventory less valuable, and some more valuable. The inland traders are an optional feature, which allow you to sell just one of each good for $3, no matter their values.

The character cards grant a special ability only usable by their player. They also come with a building, which is usable by all players at a cost. Players who use your building pay you a good of their choice for the privilege. They may pay this fee before OR after the action is completed. Each character also has fun flavor text describing the character. On the reverse of the character cards are generic player cards, which can be used if you don’t want to play with special abilities. The generic player cards are identical. The player cards also host your warehouse, where you store your goods. A player may have between zero and six of any good, but never more than six, and never in the negative.

My favorite card
Image: Rory Bristol

Each building has its own ability, cost, victory point value, and symbol(s). Cards cost between $6 and $12, and have victory scores between 5 and 13. There are four symbols which may appear on the buildings. Coins reduce the cost of future purchases. Anchors are a cumulative markers, which are triggered by the abilities on the buildings. Top Hats allow you to avoid the fees when visiting other players’ buildings. The Warehouse symbols are cumulative, and allow you to keep one shipped good per Warehouse when shipping inventory. Some cards have more than one symbol, making them more desirable to players.

Some strategy tips:
• Players can go straight for points, cashing in big and buying the most expensive buildings available.
• Players can go for many Anchors, increasing the income of goods.
• Players can collect Coins, making each purchase cost progressively less.
• Players who try to collect multiple Warehouses may suffer from insufficient inventory/savings.
• Players should never buy more than one Top Hat, as the effects do not increase.
• Players who prefer to play in a cutthroat manner will diversify, and remain flexible, since all 36 buildings are different.
• Synergy can make or break a game. See below.

building synergy
Image: Rory Bristol

Optimize your collection to take advantage of synergy bonuses, making your income grow faster. Always have plenty of at least two resources, to maintain a viable place in the economy.

Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

For fun, TMG included the Harbour Master card! Take a selfie, and show the world who’s boss with @TastyMinstrel! Keep the Master card with you during the next game, so opponents know who to fear! Of course, Dockmaster Schlibble has something to say about this. Check out his note, attached to the card above.

Everything you need to play is included in the box, a big benefit in my book. There are 36 buildings in the deck, 14 characters, 4 quality wood meeples, and 20 resource counters. No outside scorekeeper is needed, as the points are printed plainly on the cards.

With a small, well-made box, it can sneak onto almost any gaming shelf, making it a low-impact investment. The cards are easy to shuffle and aren’t too thin. The character cards are pretty beefy, holding up to rough handling very well.

Image: Rory Bristol
Image: Rory Bristol

Harbour also has a single player mode, playing against the Training Dummy. The Training Dummy is actually a competitive opponent, follows easy rules, and players can build strategies built on his turn preferences. Play alone, or with up to three friends. Be prepared for economic chaos with four players. The game becomes a bit of a waiting game, waiting for other players to change the economy to your favor.

TMG suggests ages 10+, but there are a lot of features to track, as well as tracking the progress of opponents. Kids need to be prepared to lose track of the game, and everyone needs to be ready to wait it out when a player has to re-examine the tabletop. I’d suggest 14+ for the most fun play, unless you have young strategists who can keep up.

Harbour is $19.95 on Amazon. The high number of buildings and characters mean that every game is different from the last, providing value beyond the quality pieces and interesting mechanics.

Disclaimer: Tasty Minstrel Games provided a unit for review purposes.

Two Months With an Apple Watch

Glimpses of the Apple Watch life. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Glimpses of the Apple Watch life. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

I’ve had my Apple Watch for almost two months now and I’ve got to say that, overall, it’s been a really positive experience. Interested in getting one? Itching to read a post about an Apple product just so you can write a long-winded response about how Apple fans are idiots because Android had better products months before Apple’s new iThing for a fraction of the price?

Then this is the post for you!

Why I Wanted It
1 – Notifications. The Apple Watch doesn’t work without an iPhone, but they can communicate via Bluetooth (range of about 32 feet) or via a wireless network. At home, instead of having my phone on me at all times to keep up with the world, the idea is that I could leave my phone in a central location and have the Watch warn me of only the important stuff. I felt that could allow me to be more reachable in case of emergencies (work, health, or “I’m at the store, do you want me to get wine?” texts from my husband) while still spending overall less time on my gadgets in front of my kids.

Yes, I’m aware of how ironic it is—getting more gadgets to spend less time on gadgets.

2 – Health tracking. I had a Fitbit Zip (basically just a pedometer) that I was very happy with, in terms of counting steps and letting me compete with my friends as motivation. I found the idea of the Fitbit Charge very attractive (step counting, sleep tracking, heart rate monitoring) but I couldn’t get behind the limited style options. The Apple Watch is, well, shinier.

3 – Map directions. I had heard that the Watch could give you directions: It would tap one way to tell you to turn left, a different way to tell you to turn right. This seemed like a really cool idea to me.

4 – Yes, because it’s the latest iThing. I’m a sucker.

Why I Didn’t Not Get It
I hesitated a while before getting a Watch. My reasons for getting a Watch were good, but not oh-my-gosh-I-so-totally-need-this good. Meanwhile, I was really scared of getting stuck with a product I didn’t like. In the end, I realized two things:

1 – I don’t need it to be perfect. Reading the Apple Watch review from The Oatmeal helped me understand that a smartwatch won’t turn our lives around the way the smartphone did. The Apple Watch is, ultimately, more of an iPhone accessory than a new gadget of its own right. Somehow making it sound less useful removed some of the pressure in my needing it to be perfect. Weird, huh?

2 – I’m not committed to it. Unlike the iPhone, I have no contract forcing me to use this thing if I don’t like it. When I buy an iPhone under contract, I know I will need to use that phone whether I end up liking it or not. I need a phone and not using it isn’t really an option. But the Watch? I don’t need a Watch. Or a watch, for that matter. I can wear it all the time, some of the time, none of the time, sell it off to the highest bidder on Craigslist, etc… who cares!

So, with my fear of commitment appeased, I clicked the purchase button on the Apple Store online. It told me delivery would take 2-3 weeks, but to my surprise Apple delivered the package two days later with overnight delivery. I had my Watch three days from the date of purchase.

Life With My Apple Watch

Let’s see how it lived up to the reasons why I wanted it.

Your typical email notification on the Apple Watch. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Your typical email notification on the Apple Watch. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

1 – Notifications really did help me disconnect. I love my phone and it helps me stay sane. It has helped me stay connected to friends and family during the mind-numbing hours of rocking a baby to sleep, breastfeeding, or just when the kids are busy playing on their own and I can finally catch a five second break for myself.

On the other hand, I know I check my phone too often. I know that when I check my work emails, which I need to do, I will almost always mindlessly gravitate toward social networks apps shortly thereafter.

With the Watch, I receive notifications for emails, text messages, and phone calls. That’s it. You could set it up to do much more, or much less, but those are the only notifications I wanted. The Watch will vibrate when I get a notification and if I raise my hand to glance at the screen right away, the notification will display on the screen without touching a single button. If it’s an urgent email, I go find my phone or get on a computer to read the whole email body and respond. In the case of a text message, it prompts me with options to reply or dismiss the notification. If I click reply, I can dictate my response to Siri or use one of the default responses.

This process has helped me streamline everything I get during the day, and I love it. Love it.

Apple Watch tracking the number I've stood up at least once. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Apple Watch tracking the number I’ve stood up at least once. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

2 – Health tracking is “meh.” I have to admit, this one has been disappointing to me.

Yes, it’s tracking my steps just like the Fitbit Zip. Unfortunately, there’s really no social aspect to the Health app. I also don’t like the Health user interface; it looks pretty but it’s hard to filter the data if you’re looking for specific information. How many steps did I do yesterday? *Squints at the graph, between 6,000 and 8,000, maybe?* And seriously, what’s with the circles, Apple?

Yes, it tracks my heart rate, but as it turns out, I really have no use for this information. It was fun for about a minute (hey look, my heart rate is 68 right now!), but it quickly lost its novelty factor. Maybe this information is important to you if you’re training or have a heart condition, but it’s not for me.

In addition to the Health app on your iPhone, which gathers data from both your phone and your watch, there’s also the watch’s activity tracker native app that will show you three things: Move, Exercise, and Stand. Move tracks the number of calories I’ve spent moving, Exercise the number of minutes spent exercising (although I still don’t understand how it determines what counts as exercise), and Stand the number of hours during which you’ve stood. Don’t get that last one wrong, it’s not the cumulative number of minutes you’ve spent displayed in hour units. It’s the number of hours during which you’ve stood at all. That means you can sit from sunrise to sunset, but as long as you’ve stood up for a moment every hour, it’ll say you’ve stood up 12 hours. It’s kind of ridiculous. Health has pretty low expectations.

Overall, for my needs, the step counting works well, but all the other “health” tools have been mostly useless.

Apple Watch giving me directions. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Apple Watch giving me directions. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

3 – Directions surprised me with some awesome features. I’ve used the Watch to give me directions while driving a number of times now, and I’ve got some mixed feelings about it. The Watch will vibrate to tell me to turn left or right. Tap-tap-space-tap-tap-space-tap-tap for left and twelve consecutive taps for right, also known as “Why am I feeling a second heartbeat?” for left and “Why won’t this thing stop vibrating?” for right. Because it only vibrates when it’s time to turn without warning, and because the taps can be hard to distinguish while driving on a bumpy road, traveling by vibration is not as exciting and practical as I thought it would be. Unless you’re hearing-impaired, you’re better off using the Siri’s voice commands from your iPhone instead.

That being said, there is one unexpected feature I absolutely love: Your watch will display information about your next turn and how far ahead it is. This means if I miss what Siri said, I don’t have to wait for her to repeat it again later. I can just glance at my watch. Plus, if the instructions are to drive three miles on Sepulveda and I want to know how far along I’ve gotten so far, I can glance at my watch and it will show me. This is immensely practical when you’re in slow traffic and lose perspective of how far you’ve gotten.

I took a couple of day trips to L.A. with the Watch and I loved having that feature while I drove. I enjoyed it much better than trying to see the maps on my phone or the navigation system.

Yes, I do customize the face of the Watch every day to match my outfit. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.
Yes, I do customize the face of the Watch every day to match my outfit. Image credit: Ariane Coffin.

4 – It’s a shiny new gadget and people are very curious about it. I’ve only bumped into a very small number people who own a Watch, but I’ve received many, many questions. What does it do? (Hum…) How much did it cost? (It costs less than most people think it does.) Does the band come in black? (I don’t know, check the Apple Store.) How’s the battery life? (I wear it all day—from 5 am to 11 pm—and I’ve rarely gotten below 50% battery life. I charge it every night while I sleep.) Is the band comfortable? (It won’t make your skin sweat as much as the plastic bands from the 80s, but it’s not as comfortable as wearing nothing.) Do you like it? (It’s been worth it so far.)

I’ve had so many people asking me questions about my Apple Watch that now I’m answering every question assuming they’re asking about the Watch. It’s been the source of a few embarrassing moments. I’ve had people at work ask me vague questions like, “How do you get notifications?” and then I start blabbering about my Watch just to realize they were asking with respect to something else entirely, like my code or Outlook. Oops.

So in the end, people have said the Watch is just a notification center like it’s a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, yes, that’s mostly how I use it, but I love it for that. Some features, like health tracking, have left me ambivalent at best. Meanwhile, I find new and unexpected features every once in a while that make me glad I got the Watch. I’ll be interested to see where Apple goes from here.

Why People Are Upset About the New Disabled Lego Minifigure

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

I’ve written extensively about Lego bricks. I’ve met and interviewed several Lego Master Builders. I’ve been to several of their traveling expo shows. I’ve even spent an afternoon with the talented brick artist Nathan Sawaya.

And because I’m an amputee, you’d think I’d be thrilled about the fact that Lego has finally decided to make a minifig that has a disability. But I’m not. And I guess many parents of disabled children are as disappointed as I am.

What’s the problem? The problem is that in the new Duplo set, Duplo Community People, there is a wide range of people. Many races, many job types, many skin colors. The one disabled figure is an old man in a wheelchair. In the non-disabled world, this might seem like a petty thing to be upset about. But in my world, it means a lot.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

When I was doing my research before my elective amputation, I had trouble finding a prosthetist or physical therapist who would tell me what life would be like for me, once I had one leg. Most of their stories were grim. Most of their patients were elderly. Most were not interested in keeping up with young children and going on hikes on the weekends. I started to feel even more like I would be one of the only amputees in the country.

Then, I dug a bit further. I found some online communities. In the dozen years since my surgery, the media has done a great job of featuring young amputees, and young disabled folks, involved in active lifestyles. I quickly realized I was not the only one. It’s definitely been a huge leap in the right direction.

Then, we get the first-ever disabled Lego person, and it’s back to the elderly person who needs to be pushed around by the younger figure who comes with him.

The audience for Duplo is little kids. My kids switched over to their smaller Lego sets about the time they started school. I would think that Lego would understand their demographic. So why in the world would they proudly have the first disabled figure, when they had the chance to do so much with it, and instead chose the grandfather a preschooler might visit in a nursing home?

This was their big chance to show little people what a truly diverse world looks like. For a preschooler to play with a disabled figure that is a child puts all kinds of new ideas into their heads. Yeah, some kids look different from me. Some have darker or lighter skin. And some might use a wheelchair or crutches to get around. We’re all part of the same world. And we all can be as active as we want.

Photo: Born Just Right Used with Permission
Photo: Born Just Right, used with permission.

I’m not lobbying for an amputee minifigure, although that would be awesome. But come on, Lego folks. Give me a break. Would it have been so hard to make a disabled figure, your first ever, to represent the millions of KIDS who use adaptive equipment to live their lives? Go ahead and include the grandpa. And he can even be in his wheelchair, with his grandson pushing him around. But don’t count him as your big new idea. Those ideas were old news, even a dozen years ago.

If you’d like to have your voice heard, and feel even halfway as passionately about this issue as I do, think about popping over and signing the petition on this page. It’s got a great explanation of what we’d love to see in children’s toys.

Will You Upgrade to Windows 10 Tomorrow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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