Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lego now comes Netflix-style


I will be the first person to tell you that you can't ever have too many Legos. Mr. Entropy will second that. However, the unfortunate truth is, unless you have a money tree growing in the backyard, you can't ever have them all.

But thanks to Pley.com you can now have them all for a little while. We have not tried out this company (out of fear I would never see my middle child again outside his room), but the concept sounds intriguing.

Sing up for a monthly plan (the cheapest subscription starts at $15 per month), get a Lego set shipped, build it, play with it for as long as you like, ship it back and get the next set. Like Netflix for Lego! And if your children fall in love with the structures they have built, you can also buy and keep the set.

Author=[http://www.flickr.com/people/44532984@N00 Daniele Margaroli


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

10 geek-approved Series Books for Kids

I have spent ages researching good, interesting, funny and geeky books for children. But with 45 min reading time on the school bus every day, and another 30 if recess is rained out, I can hardly keep up with keeping enough reading material for the boys at hand. I treasure the extra-ordinary books that make the "Must Read" lists for children. But I also need series books where I can pre-order 5-8 at once at the library without having to review and think. Here the ones that got the thumbs up from the boys and/or me, roughly sorted by reading ability and age.
(The best series is listed last, so if you are not interested in books for smaller kids, at least scroll down and read #10!)

1) "Henry and Mudge" / "Annie and Snowball" by Cynthia Rylant
28 / 12 books
A series for beginning readers with heart-warming stories describing the joys of being alive and having a best friend, who happens to be a dog. Problems are solved in a logical manner, like finding a perfect pet for Annie (not too wet, not too big ... "Henry and Mudge and Annie's Perfect Pet") or figuring out how to attract hummingbirds ("Annie and Snowball and the Pink Surprise"). Some stories are clearly geeky, like making a pineapple couch or a sweet potato shoe for Mother's Day ("Henry and Mudge and the Funny Lunch"). A prequel series "Puppy Mudge" is written for entry-level readers.

Top row from left: "Henry and Mudge", the first "Calendar Mysteries" book; bottom row: "Choose your own adventure books with outline of possible story paths on the back


2) " Mr. Putter and Tabby" by Cynthia Rylant
21 books
I know, another series by Cynthia Rylant, but read them and you will understand why. This one is about the world seen through the eyes of a senior and his cat. As an adult, he goes on different adventures than children typically do in those type of books, and his age-related challenges are also not the usual fare. Especially when he employs MacGyver-style problem solving skills, like making a slingshot out of spare underwear ("Mr. Putter and Tabby pick the Pears"). A great series to increase awareness that some people have different needs or desires than a typical child, and that you are never too old to try something new.

3) "The Magic Treehouse" by Mary Pope Osborne
49 books
The two protagonists in this series travel across history in the Magic Treehouse, using the books they bring along and some quick wit to solve mysteries. I would recommend to read the books in order, since every 4 of them form a set in which a larger mystery is solved. Also, reading level and complexity increases book by book, and there is a small storyline overarching an even larger part of the series. At magictreehouse.com children can decorate their own tree house and earn passport stamps by answering reading comprehension questions for each book. Several books also come with a fact tracker companion book with more detail on the historic period.

4) A-Z Mysteries / The Calendar Mysteries / The Capital Mysteries by Ron Roy
26 / 10 (3 more releasing in fall 2014) / 14 books
Child detectives are solving cases by hypothesizing together and verifying through collecting clues. My son was elated every time he was able to guess who the criminal was before it was revealed in the book.

5) "Captain Underpants" / " Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot" by Dav Pilkey
10 (2 more planned) / 11 books
Comics, action, potty humor, hypnotized principal as superhero in underpants ... if these books don't get your children to read or laugh, then they must be Vulcan. Read here for more.

6) "My Weird School" by Dan Gutman
53 books
Situated at Ella Mentry School, these laugh out loud stories (unpractical when you snuck up your book to your room to read waaaay past bedtime, right Evel?), are told by a second grader. Apparently the only sane people in the school are the children, and together with his friends A.J. must devise plans to keep the teachers from going completely over the edge of reasons, or sometimes the roof of the school building. Each book is a rescue mission for a different teacher.

7) "Choose your own adventure" books, several authors
over 200 books
These books, situated in locations like the Himalayan for a Yeti search or in the Deep Sea, have multiple possible story lines and endings. Every few pages when a decision has to be made, the reader can choose how the story should continue. Routed to different pages based on the path that was chosen, you might find the Yeti, go home unsuccessful, or freeze to death on the mountain. There are several sub-series for different age groups.

8) "Nathan Abercrombie, accidental Zombie" by David Lubar
5 books
A 5th grader turns Zombie, which isn't as exhilarating as one might think. For one there are lots of gross bodily changes when one is sort of dead. But of course there are also advantages like not needing sleep or being stronger than before. Only 5 books, but they are longer and more complex, so hopefully they last longer for reading, too.

9) The 39 Clues, several authors
21 books, more releasing fall 2014
Indiana Jones turns 21st century for fast paced action, requiring deep knowledge of history and state of the art cryptology skills to follow the clues to an ancient family riddle - read here for more.

10) The Discworld by Terry Pratchett
40 books
While the series started out as adults books, 5 of the later entries are specifically for young adults and have received several awards (The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight). They provide a gentle introduction to move into the adult fantasy genre and the rest of the Discworld novels - a world on four elephants on the back of a turtle resembling medieval society, where string theory connects all libraries in all universes, DEATH reads books to kill the time during near-death experiences that prevent him from fulfilling his purpose, where time can be stretched and bent by time monks, and computers are run by ants ... nothing is impossible here. These books are insanely funny, and you will never again look at footnotes quite the same way. They also impart witty analogies to history, current events and trends in society, and capture the true essence of ethical problems in a few, snarky sentences. True geek form! I highly recommend to read the young adult as well as the general novels in order. Even though each book is self-sufficient, having the back stories from the previous novels and following the character development is very enjoyable.


Monday, October 20, 2014

DIY "Star Trek: Enterprise" Costume: Lt. Malcolm Reed

Suffering the injustice of having the last installment of the Star Trek franchise cut short after 4 seasons is apparently not bad enough, turns out it is also impossible to buy NX-01 costumes for children. You'd think blue jumpsuits are easy to come by!

So rather out of desperation than eager anticipation to open the super glue, we ended up making our own "Star Trek: Enterprise" Halloween costume. Mr Entropy is fascinated by Lt. Malcolm Reed, the man with the power over the Red Alert button.

This is what Google and Amazon found for us:

1) WorkWear King navy Boilersuit (Ships from the UK. How fitting, seeing that Lt. Reed is British.)
2) Plain navy baseball hat
3) Red duct tape (and a really sharp new box cutter)
4) Enterprise iron on mission patch
5) NX-01 iron on logo
6) Two pieces of cardboard (cereal box) and silver paint to make your own rank pins (we could not find anything of the right size and shape in our local craft store)
7) Super glue and plastic wrap

DIY "Star Trek: Enterprise" Costume: Lt. Malcolm Reed


Assembly:

A) Ironing the NX-01 logo onto the baseball hat is hard, since the baseball hat does not flatten out enough. I ended up ironing on the middle part, and super-gluing all the edges. Make sure to cover the inside of the hat with plastic wrap while applying glue, otherwise it will stick to your fingers while pressing through the hat.

B) Cut long stripes of red duct tape. Have your child wear the jumpsuit and tape the shoulder markings. Be careful to watch for symmetry.

C) Iron on the mission patch (without the child in it ... just saying, this is the US after all ...)  Like with the NX-01 logo, I only ironed until it mostly stuck on its own, then used super glue (plastic wrap inside the sleeve!) to glue all edges. The logo is rather large and stiff compared to the arm of a small child. The iron on started to peel off when my son tried on the costume before I had applied the glue.

D) Cut two rectangular pieces of cardboard from an empty cereal box or similar. Paint with silver paint (we used acrylic metallic paint). Super glue to uniform (plastic wrap on the inside!).

Simply vary the number of rank pins or color of duct tape for all the other NX-01 uniforms.


Geek Factor: 5 out of 5


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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pass on the Torch - Alan Alda's Flame Challenge


When I grew up the dominant philosophy for teaching science to children was "if you can't understand the scientific explanation, then you are still too young for that topic". Explaining inheritable genetic traits or nuclear fusion to a 6-year old - crazy, right? So I thought as well, until my own 6-year old asked why his eyes don't have the same color as mine. I hate leaving questions like this with an "it's too complicated for you". And I discovered that the real challenge of passing down geekdom is not being stumped by a question I might not know the answer to (there is always Google), but how to take that answer, extract the most important mechanisms and fit them into the world of a 6-year old. I ended up waving piles of Lego instruction booklets - one for building, and a similar second one as a safety copy.

I realized that once your kids are beyond being fascinated by the fact that there are more than 4 colors, it is not that easy to come by content that explains complex scientific facts to children. There are only so many episodes of Bill Nye or the Magic School Bus, after all.

One entity that tries to fill the void is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. (Yes, THAT Alan Alda of M.A.S.H. fame!). The center's mission is a real challenge - helping scientists to communicate with the public (I was not aware we were allowed to do that ...).
 

As part of that mission it sets an annual "Flame Challenge", named after the first year's topic. The Flame Challenge picks a challenge question every year and asks scientist from around the world to submit written or graphic explanations that can be understood by an 11-year old. But now here is the best thing: children are involved in every part of the process. 10-12 year olds are invited to submit their own "burning questions". 5th and 6th graders from around the globe are then invited to vote on their favorite challenge question. And finally, students get to review, grade and vote on the submissions. What better way to get kids involved into science than taking their opinions seriously and letting them vote? 10 schools will even be so lucky to be picked for a world-wide video conference to discuss the entries. So email your kid's science teacher today and ask them to sign up their classroom!


And last but not least - the amazing winner of the 2012 Challenge, Ben Ames, explaining what a flame is (I dare you to resists singing along):








Friday, June 27, 2014

Free geeky summer reading for kids - light in style, solid content


School is finally out, and that means summer vacation and more downtime. There will be car travel and air plane rides or hanging out in the backyard until the friends come over. It would be a good habit to use those "I am bored" moments and fill them with some quick, light summer reading. And with light I mean in weight, not in content.

Evel and Mr Entropy have been reading "Ask" since last fall, a great magazine covering scientific topics for children age 6-9. Each issue follows a theme, "Stuck on you" in the latest. Good photography and cartoons explored the world of microbes, lichens and fungi. The articles are just the right length to keep a child's curiosity alive while imparting a good deal of scientific knowledge. And the best thing - for this summer "Ask" and all its siblings from publisher Cricket (10 different magazines) are free for download on iTunes or Google Play. Download them all and you hopefully won't run out of reading material.

Comics and infographics help illustrate scientific content

If what's keeping your kids from reading more in summer is the worry that they will misplace the library books at the vacation destination, or that water, sand and sun screen will damage the books or your tablet, readinga-z.com offers a great solution. Over 1,000 leveled reading books for elementary school children (grades K-5) are available as pdf downloads which you print at home. You won't have to worry about pizza sauce or ripped pages, and the books can double-function as coloring books. About half of the books are non-fiction covering science, technology or history, adjusted to the exact reading ability of your child. And with the free trial offered right now you can download 20 books per day for 14 days. 280 books - that should cover your summer and the individual interests of all your children!

Happy Reading!








Saturday, June 21, 2014

Donate yourself to Research - Scientific Method Part 4 - Data Collection

First published on Geekadelphia.com.

"People’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy".

Playing board games can raise a child's IQ.

At age 2, girls start to prefer the color pink, while boys start to avoid it.


Have you ever wondered where those gems of insight into human learning and behavior come from? Well, or course, from scientific research, but where are these studies conducted and who are these children who's color preference had been tested, or who got to play board games? For a multi-year CDC study looking for risk factors for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities the answer is - my child and me. We donated ourselves to research.

When thinking about being a research test subject, most people probably think of clinical trials for new drugs, where you wager your health and maybe even life for a handsome payout. But not all research requires you to put yourself in harm's way in order to advance science. There are plenty of opportunities to be part of new research while only risking a paper cut from all the forms you need to fill out.


You do not have to part with body parts in order to participate in research.

We had a few reasons to participate. The first one is rather selfish. The CDC study collected genetic, health and developmental data on 10,000 children and their parents. The anonymized data set will be made available to other researchers as well to check for links or causes for diabetes, heart disease, asthma, allergies or other ailments. To have any hope that someone one day will figure out how to avoid some of the annoying health issues running in the family, we need to make sure our data is in that data set.

But it was also a great opportunity for my son to see science at work. A few months ago we designed our own experiment to find the best-tasting apple. I explained to him that this time the researchers designed the experiment - and we are the apples about which to collect data. Being a proper Golden Delicious he dressed in yellow, and was very excited to see that real scientists use the same type of clipboard he has at home. Finally some role models who are less controversial than Dr. Doofenshmirtz.

Mr Entropy completing a handwriting test for the SEED study.




If you are interested in supporting the advancement of science with a little bit of your own time, you can sign up with one of the volunteer databases listed below. If you know of other local programs looking for volunteers, please leave a link in the comments section.


In Philadelphia:

CDC SEED Study, conducted at CHoP
http://www.centerforautismresearch.com/research/

Online:
YourMorals.org: Joint project of the University of Virginia, the University of California (Irvine), and the University of Southern California, conducting studies on morals, emotions and believes
http://www.yourmorals.org/explore.php?PHPSESSID=352f117a2ba0e05a85d2c6b275c65e75

New England
Harvard University / Boston Children's Hospital, MA: http://apps.childrenshospital.org/connect/registrationform.cfm

Mid-Atlantic
Johns Hopkins University, MD: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/research/volunteers.html
University of Maryland, MD: http://ling.umd.edu/labs/infants//
Penn State University, PA: http://www.research.psu.edu/volunteer
Georgetown University, DC: http://psychology.georgetown.edu/participate/

South

Emory University, GA: http://www.psychology.emory.edu/childstudycenter/
Vanderbilt University, TN: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/psychological_sciences/research/studies.php

Mid-West
Northwestern University, IL: http://www.communication.northwestern.edu/departments/csd/research/sign_up.php

University of Chicago, IL: https://babylab.uchicago.edu/content/sign






Friday, June 13, 2014

"I love Science!" - The Song

Read this also on Geekadelphia.com.

For almost 4 years I have successfully claimed that the CD with "Wheels on the bus" won't play in my car. But they are on to me, so I am switching to Plan B: diversion. The Beatles, R.E.M and the entire Star Trek Universe soundtrack are so far holding their ground, and are now getting reinforcements from "Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers", in what might be a secret Geek Anthem - "I love Science" from their new album "Incongruent".



The album comes in two versions - clean to sing with the kids on the way to school, and uncensored for the way back. It fills a gaping hole of geeky content on our playlist that is becoming more and more apparent now that my oldest (7) has outgrown the toddler hits. There is no shortage of science songs for small children. Through song and rhymes they learn about the colors of the rainbow, the cycle of seasons and changing weather patterns, the letters of the alphabet, which way the wheels on a bus go (just not in my car), and practice counting with the ants. And then all of a sudden when they turn 8 or 9 they are listening to One Direction and Justin Bieber who sings about ... well, I am not certain. All electronic devices in our house are allergic to his music, so unfortunately (hopefully) we'll never find out what exactly he enriches the universe with. But it is a safe bet that he is not singing about photosynthesis or tectonic plate movements. The children who were excited to have music helping them understand and explore the world around them are suddenly limited to lyrics that (self-)center on human relationships of various sort. The last song I remember that was actually teaching something was "We didn't start the Fire", and that song is 25 years old now.

With that in mind you can hopefully understand my excitement about "Strange Charm: A song about Quarks", or a song explaining Fermi's Paradox, some of the earlier work of Hank Green:



Think about it, the 5 year old who remembers all 47 verses about the Fire Truck can easily turn into an 8 year old who sings along to "I love Science", and later into a full-grown geek memorizing the lyrics to "The Universe is weird" (also on the new CD). Because in days when it is becoming fashionable for everyone and their dog to proclaim geek status, the true geek needs to do one better, and an album named "Incongruent" sounds like just the right thing for that. I am no music expert, but the beats surely can compete with other rock music, they are a good company to the rest of my playlist.

And just imagine about how impressed your roommate/date/spouse will be when you help him/her cleaning up the breakfast table singing "This is how you load a Dishwasher" (also double functions as passive-aggressive reminder).

PS: Don't forget to check out the VlogBrother's YouTube channel for more songs by Hank Green.


Geek Factor: 5 out of 5
Fun Factor: 4 out of 5
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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Fun with Flags - Vá Brasil!

I apologize in advance that my writing will not be as fun, energetic and entertaining as the video episodes from the most hilarious PhD on television. There won't be any Star Trek actors stopping by either.

Can you name these four flags? Answers are in the bottom of this post.


For reasons I do not fully comprehend, it is very easy to fascinate little children about flags. I intend to make the best use of it while it lasts, because I have always considered it good manners to at least know the flags of your neighbors and allies. If only so you won't end up as a sound bite at a late night talk show for not recognizing the flag of Canada.

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and the Guanabara Bay
Nothing better than the upcoming Soccer World Cup to start learning about the big players as well as some exotic countries. A Google image search for "flags coloring pages" yields (luckily labeled) print out versions. Great for wait time at the restaurant or time to kill while traveling (it takes forever to color an entire 8x11 page with crayons ...). Flags.net has an easy to use alphabetical listing, or click here for a poster of "all flags of the world".

Or if flags on their own are not exciting enough, then cook and eat them.

Bon Appetit!


Geek Factor: 5 out of 5

Four Flags - from top left clockwise: Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Puerto Rico

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Phoenixville Blobfest tickets go on sale May 30, 10am

If you weren't one of the few lucky ones who were able to score a ticket for last year's showing of "The Blob", then this is your chance: the tickets for the 15th annual Blobfest in Phoenixville, PA go on sale this Friday at 10am. Get your trigger finger into shape because tickets sell out within minutes.

Wait - you never heard of the Blobfest before and wonder what all the fuss is about? Then read on (also on Geekadelphia.com).

The Blob - a 1958 version of scary. We have come a long way.



The Blobfest celebrates the filming of a 1958 horror movie classic with Steve McQueen in his debut leading role. The outdoor scenes were shot in Phoenixville, featuring Bridge Street and Phoenixville’s Colonial Theater. A key scene had town folks run out of the movie theater into the street.

The Blobfest (July 11-13 this year) kicks off with a viewing of "The Blob" (read here for a movie review) at that very same Colonial Theater, at the end of which the audience re-enacts the run out scene by, well, running out screaming.

On the weekend, instead of a run out, you get a double-feature treat by having "The Blob" paired up with other horror classics. This year the Saturday matinee feature will be the 1961 movie "Mothra", and in the evening "The Blob" will be followed by the 1962 "King Kong vs Godzilla". On Sunday the creep-factor will be turned up a notch with "The Giant Spider". Christopher R. Mihm, the
writer and director of "The Giant Spider", will be present for an audience Q&A after the movies.


As is tradition by now, the Blobfest also features an annual amateur trailer contest. The deadline to enter in Monday, June 23, 9am.

And even if you don't get tickets (or are just really not that eager to be scared in a family-friendly way) you can still enjoy a nice day out on Saturday, July 12 at the street fair in downtown Phoenixville, admission is free. If you are interested to participate as a vendor (must fit the spirit and theme of The Blobfest - Sci-Fi, horror, and 50’s-inspired arts & crafts), click here for a vendor application form
 
Once more, for tickets go to http://thecolonialtheatre.com/category/events/blobfest/



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There's 104 days of summer vacation ...


[You can also read and share this post on Geekadelphia.com]

There's 104 days of summer vacation ... and if you have as "many" vacation days as the average American, this means that for 99 of these days you will need child care. But as my 7-year old just informed me, spending the summer in his former preschool with his siblings is no longer sufficient. "Summers are not just for fun, you need to make time to learn something, too!" Before you marvel at the enthusiasm for learning that schools are able to instill nowadays, let me say that his one and only intention was to get signed up for 4 weeks of soccer camp. Out on a field from 9am-2pm in what with 96.7% likelihood will be 130 degree weather. Sorry buddy, but I don't think so.

However, I realized that there could be more to summer camp than someone supervising my child, so I set out to find some summer programs worthy of geek approval. Here is what I found, roughly sorted by geography. If you know of other hidden gems, please leave a link in the comments section!

Giant Heart at The Franklin Institute


Philadelphia

The Franklin Institute
website: https://www.fi.edu/summer-camp
Geek Credentials: It's The Franklin Institute!

Penn Museum
website: http://www.penn.museum/kids-and-family/anthropologists-in-the-making-summer-camp.html
Geek Credentials: Anthropology, behind-the-scenes museum visits, scavenger hunts

Geek Squad Summer Academy
website: http://www.summercamplive.com/geek-squad-summer-academy.html
Geek Credentials: PC Build and programming

Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University
website: http://www.ansp.org/get-involved/programs/family-programs/summer-camp/
Geek Credentials: Dinosaurs, Bigfoot, behind the scenes at the museum, live animals
Read a short review on Geekadephia.com

Drexel University:
website: http://www.digitalmediaacademy.org/locations/kids-teens-locations/drexel-university/?gclid=CMH6lYq0oL4CFaZlOgod1yUA9g
Geek Credentials: Robotics, film-making and special effects, programming, photography and graphic design and more

Western Philly suburbs

Villanova University
Location: Villanova
website: http://www.idtech.com/locations/pennsylvania-summer-camps/villanova/id-tech-villanova-university/
Geek Credentials: programming and video game design

Bricks4Kidz
Locations: Devon, Spring City, Phoenixville, Oaks, King of Prussia, Eagleville
website: www.bricks4kidz.com/kop
Geek Credentials: Lego camp with topics such as "Angry Birdies/Bad Piglets", "Animated movie-making" and "Robotics"

Valley Forge National Historic Park and Franklin Institute
Location: Valley Forge / King of Prussia
website: https://www.fi.edu/discovery-camp-valley-forge
Geek Credentials: the science behind historical battles, ecosystems and natural resources

Chesterbrook Academy
Locations: West Chester and Oaks
website: http://westchester.chesterbrookacademy.com/page.cfm?p=19646
Geek Credentials: Half day or full day Technology Camp with activities in mechanical engineering, video game design and animation work-shop

Great Valley Nature Center
Location: Devault, PA 19432
website: http://gvnc.org/Summer_Camps.html
Geek Credentials: Geocaching, compass reading, paintball and learning about the animals at the Nature Center

i2Camp
Location: Rosemont
website: http://i2camp.org/schedules/agnes-irwin-jr/
Geek Credentials: Genetics and DNA, Time & Space, Engineering


New Jersey

Katz JCC
Location: Cherry Hill, NJ
website: https://www.fi.edu/discovery-camp-katz-jcc
Geek Credentials: Anatomy or the heart and brain, science of movement



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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Geeky dads deserve a geeky gift


The good thing about Mother's Day being in May is that it posts a reminder about Father's Day being just around the corner, too. So here are a few ideas that might be just perfect for your geeky Dad.

1) The undisputed #1 Geek Dad - Darth Vader, superbly penned by Jeffrey Brown. Read my quick summary here: Darth Vader - the unappreciated Geek Dad



"Darth Vader and son" and "Vader's little princess" By Jeffrey Brown


2) Get dad the best chair in the house - one that hovers! You will need plywood, a lawn chair, a shower curtain and a leaf blower, and follow these assembly instructions for your very own hover chair. This is on my bucket list, and in a few year once I don't have to worry anymore that The Queen might staple her own foot to the floor, we will try this.



3) If your geeky Dad rather wants to do the constructing himself, but you don't have a Ferb creating blueprints for you, then here a book with plenty of ideas for all ages (of the little helpers). From electronic origami and building a binary calendar to making your own custom-molded ice cube tray there are plenty of ideas, including time and budget estimates.



"Geek Dad" by Chris Anderson


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Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Geeky Athlete - why playing Angry Birds makes you better at Baseball

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that geeks and athletes are like water and oil - mutually exclusive and not meant to mix. Just google "geeky athlete" or "athletic geek" (the latter one apparently a geek who plays Wii Fit ...) and you'll know what I mean. However, while natural talent is certainly needed to excel in sports, it seems to me that understanding the science behind it is just as important. Yet the coaching my kids have so far received for various sports is surprisingly (to me) void of diagrams and illustrations.



After watching Evel countless times outrun the defense but then miss the goal because he shot from a most unfortunate angle - and no coach ever mentioning it! - I took it on myself to explain the geometry of soccer to him. He thought that distance was what matters, but of course had no idea that angles play a role, too. So we started off with some drawings on paper, where I had him measure the width of the goal when shooting at different angles. Then we took this outside for an experiment and he tried 10 shots each from 3 different angles, from directly in front of the goal to from somewhere on the sidelines. We kept track on a score board. His eyes went wide with understanding. In the next games he'd make just a couple more step toward the center of the field before shooting. The results were dramatic. Math had saved the day.

Baseball is like Angry Birds: the Physics of fielding the Ball


Then this spring, I watched again in agony, this time baseball. Evel wants to be a catcher, but he could not cover the distance to the pitching mound, let alone first or third base. His balls flew slow and high, and plopped down half-way to the intended target with a pathetic thud. Despite his coaches practicing all the required body movements with him, there was not much improvement. Until I wondered if the problem is not his arm, but his head. Maybe he did not understand the physics of baseball? So another piece of recycling paper and a pencil stickman later, he had another epiphany. "Baseball is like Angry Birds!" Correct, angle and force determine where your ball will fly and how fast. Turns out he thought the higher he threw the ball, the further it would fly. He is only in first grade, so gravity, acceleration and force calculations are still a few years off, but the angry birds analogy made the concept of the 45 degree angle producing maximum distance crystal clear. And then he went out and threw a practice ball over the fence into the neighbors yard, about twice as far as he had ever before. Science is awesome!


Bottom line, even if you are a geek that grew up in a watershed world where you could only be a geek or an athlete, or if you have never (successfully) played any sports yourself, you can still coach your kids - with pencil, clipboard and protractor. And help your child to become a geeky athlete.


Geek Factor: 5 out of 5

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Captain Underpants

To foster a love of reading, kids need to be allowed to choose what to read, they say. Trust your child to choose what's good for them, they say. Let them read about a school principal running around in his underwear and disabling villains by shooting more underwear at them, they say. No, wait - nobody said that, but that is what happened after setting Evel Knievel loose in the library encouraging him to pick a book, any book.



He came back with Dav Pilkin's "Captain Underpants", a series about an unusual superhero in underpants (and a weird cape made of a red curtain). If the objective is to get boys to read more, these books surely win the prize. They were practically inhaled. Evel started to sneak a flashlight into bed and read under the covers (this apple did not fall far from the tree). The belly laughs at 9:30pm gave him away.

"Captain Underpants" is an interesting cross of comic book-style diary and semi-animated superhero saga of two elementary school boys with deft potty humor. Fans of smelly armpits, talking toilets and evil scientific genius may rejoice. You are warned, they are not for the faint of heart.

Besides topping best-seller lists (and being translated into numerous languages), "Captain Underpants" is also one of the most banned books in the US. So there you have it, little boys like potty humor and ridiculous robot fights. What else is new. Looking at the company the book has on that list, I am inclined to interpreted this as an endorsement ... both Goodreads and Amazon customers seem to have a sense of humor and give it high ratings.

I am still undecided if the books intend to humor the adults potentially reading with their kids ("George and Harold were usually responsible kids. Whenever anything bad happened, George and Harold were usually responsible."), or to mock them ("WARNING: The following chapter contains graphic scenes showing two boys beating the tar out of a couple of robots. If you have high blood pressure, or if you faint at the sight of motor oil, we strongly urge you to take better care of yourself and stop being such a baby."). Probably both.

It seems a movie version is in the works too, and I am relieved to see that it looks like it will be an animated movie. Watching a flesh and blood human in a Captain Underpants costume is not really something I would be looking forward to. Some things are really better left to books and imagination. The things you do to raise a bookworm ...

Geek Factor: 4 out of 5
Fun Factor: 5 out of 5

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Settlers of Catan

Today I want to write about my favorite board game - The Settlers of Catan. Ever since it was released 19 years ago it has been a staple with my family and friends. It was a big hit in Germany, but took a bit longer to catch on in the US. But once it did, it was soon heralded as the "Monopoly of the 21st century" by The Washington Post. It even created a controversy between The Atlantic and Wired, with an in-depth review, a differing opinion and a rebuttal.

So what is that board game that gets established magazines so riled up all about?

As an easy summary, it is a game depicting a market economy, where resources have to be acquired, your economy has to be grown by building assets, and trades must be made to collect the right combination of materials. Or for a more literal description: the game board is a layout of resource tiles, along which the players build roads, villages and cities. The dice decides which resource tile pays new resources to the players living on it (like a harvest of straw or wool). Since it is often impossible to be represented at all resources at the beginning, players need to trade.

This is a great family game since all players are eligible to trade in each round, so nobody is ever excluded. There are no rules for trades, so anything goes. I remember trading having to do the dishes with my sister in exchange for that one elusive beam of wood ... you can gang up against the player in the lead, or you can give a preferential trade to the one in dead last place. You can form alliances boys versus girls, or parents versus kids. It is a game that is not played quietly, and engages everyone.


The Junior Board is small with a fixed setting. The game pieces are Pirate ships and Castles.

My kids are still playing the Junior board, where the resource tiles are fixed and each player has a designated starting position with the same resources. Players are staying close with their progress, and winning is often a very close call between 2 or 3 lead players. These games are quick, about half an hour, but still complex in execution when the kids have to decide what resources to collect for their next move, or weigh if or if not they should trade with someone.

The adult game board however, is where the true genius of the game becomes apparent. The resource tiles are not fixed and are laid out in a new configuration before each game. In addition, the designation for each resource tile that decides at which dice roll it pays out is also flexible and gets randomly distributed before each game. That means no two games are alike, and strategies that worked in one game won't work in the next. Sometimes games are balanced in resources and are dominated by busy building. In others you will fall over unwanted sheep with every dice roll, and you have to find different ways to score points than building. Infinite diversity and infinite combinations :-).


But I must confess, what cemented The Settlers' status as my favorite board game is that it comes in a Star Trek edition. Oh yes, little NCC-1701s, star bases, a Klingon battle cruiser as the "robber", and instead of sheep and wool you explore planets for dilithium and tritanium. Who can say no to that? The only thing to make the game more perfect will be fleets of Romulan, Cardassian and Ferengi ships we plan to add as soon as 3D printers become affordable for household use.

Star Trek Edition game board

A Klingon battle cruiser steals resources and interrupts trading.

Geek Factor: 4 out of 5
Fun Factor: 5 out of 5