Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Thing Explainer" - Big Ideas in Small Words

My children like reading reference books and encyclopedias (knowing lots of random and seemingly useless facts is a bona fide geek skill, after all). So I was thrilled to find a new kind of book just in time for the holidays.

Randall Munroe, author of "What if?" and the xkcd comics, took up the challenge to explain complicated concepts by only using the 1,000 most common English words. Sounds easy? Well, you try explaining baseball without the use of the words pitcher, catcher, bat, or strike then.

Going along with the fantastically simple explanations, "Thing Explainer" (a sample here) also contains wonderful blueprint-style drawings and diagrams for items such as the International Space Station, submarines, dishwashers and sports. So besides being a great reference book children can read themselves, it is also great for parents who struggle to explain technology or scientific concepts to smaller children, who still lack most of the vocabulary used in these fields.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Goldieblox goes Zip-Lining

Goldieblox, the toy company that combines my two favorite topics - reading and construction - has released several new toys since I first wrote about them.

A parade float and a dunk tank were sets 2 and 3 to be released. The dunk tank was a bit hard to put and keep together because the rods kept slipping a bit further into the cubes than they should. But it seems the engineers at Corporate are just as quick as the ones in my living room. Based on customer feedback they have already redesigned the blocks to have stoppers and sent us replacements free of charge. This works great now!

If you want to see the parade float in action, check out video's from the last two years' Macy's Thanksgiving Parades - Goldie was there with her own float!

Don't you dare call her a Doll. Goldie is a bona fide Action Figure!

But the biggest hit under last year's Christmas tree was the Goldieblox action figure. Just to show you how much Goldie sets herself apart from Barbie: this girl does not come with a change of clothes (what's more practical that overalls anyway?), but with a change of transportation - her very own zip line! At 11 feet long we had plenty of opportunities to build rides for her around the house.

This year, we are looking forward to the The Builder's Survival Kit, which will include over 190 additional parts and ideas to build bigger structures by combining all previous sets (something I had hoped for ever since set 2 came out).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Space Dogs - A mission for Captain Archer's Beagle

If you google "Space Dogs" you will find plenty of Disney books and movies that are mind-numbing rather than valuable contributions to Science Fiction for children. But when I accidentally stumbled across a new book with the same title at the library, it turned into the most hilarious bedtime reading we had in a while.

Remember Leika, the first dog in space? According to Wikipedia Leika died in space. But according to Justin Bell and Evan Croker, a SiFi writer duo from Down Under I hope to read more from in the future, Leika ended up flying through a wormhole and landed on the planet of Gersbach, populated by intelligent beings similar to humans, just a lot tinier. When the planet's structural integrity is threatened by a Disturbance of Gravity (D.o.G) originating from Earth, Gersbach Space command sends a space craft to Earth to establish contact and save their civilization.

Unfortunately, there are several flaws in the plan. For one, Gersbachians assumed that Leika was a representative of the dominant species on Earth, so they shaped the space craft like a dog. As a result, First Contact with Earth's life forms would have made Captain Archer's Beagle proud, but left the Gersbachian crew rather embarrassed. Looking like an adorable pet, they are soon adopted (against their will) by 6th grader Lucy, and are thrown into the struggles of daily family life. And second, a renegade former colonel stole a proto-type dog-craft with the objective to collect the D.o.G. and blackmail Gersbach.

What made the book such a good read for all of my kids was the alternating view points of the Gersbachian crew versus Lucy and her sister Amy. The crew's story reads like a Star Trek episode with technical commands, 23rd century technology integrated into dog anatomy in hilarious ways, and lots of action sequences with an evil adversary. The story of Lucy and Amy, on the other hand, tells of the anxiety to fit in at a new school, complicated family life after the father can't work anymore due to injury, and Amy's crush on the coolest boy in school.

The only thing this book left us wishing for was the movie-adaptation. Laser nose. Need I say more?

Did you like what you read? Sign up for email feeds on the top right hand of this page, like me on Facebook ("Geeks 2.0"), or share this post with your friends. Thank you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Top 10 Gifts for little Geeks

In case you wonder why there are no books on this list - books are so important, they will get their own list.

1) Kiva Gift Card (ages 6+)

Available in denominations of $25, this is a multipurpose gift for a true Nerdfighter. Did you ever wish to be able to help a widow with 2 children in Senegal directly by lending her $300 for a sewing machine? is a microlending site that helps connect lenders that can spare a few dollars for a few months to borrowers that do not have access to bank loans due to where they live or being extremely poor. After the loan is repaid (and 98% of the millions of dollars lent out through Kiva are paid back), your gift card recipient can withdraw the money - or loan it out again. If you are interested in learning more and connecting with others, join John Green's Nerdfighter team in decreasing world suck, or one of the many other teams dedicated to specific countries or topics like colorful fabrics or education.

Use this link to sign up:

2) Goldieblox

Combining storytelling with construction and engineering projects is making girls more interested in STEM projects. Goldieblox - winner of a Parents' Choice Gold Award - combines these two elements. A colorful story book featuring a female engineer tells a story, and the construction materials are used to build a machine alongside that story. The first set, available at Amazon, and select retailers, featured a "spinning machine". In later sets Goldie and her friend Ruby build a parade float or a movie machine. But don't fall into the gender trap and think this is only for girls, little boys enjoy it just as much.

3) Calafant

The only thing better than getting a toy castle is building and decorating your own. Calafant makes cardboard houses, castles, ships and fortresses that are easy to assemble and can then be decorated and personalized. The size ranges from small individual toys to a crawl-in play-house and the 3 1/2 feet tall Calabot robot, big enough to be pimped out with some old mp3 players and speakers. Which geek wouldn't want a 3 feet tall robot!

4) The Settlers of Catan

A must have board game for every family. Sometime hailed as the "next monopoly", it actually does not have anything in common with monopoly at all. Instead of round after round watching the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and playing for hours until the obvious end, Catan requires a lot of communication and trading with the other players. It teaches basic market principles such as demand and supply setting the price, the value of cooperation, and the social implications of being too greedy (watch the family gang up against you if you hurt the most vulnerable player on purpose). Chance with the dice can level the playing field very quickly, and there is a lot of room for a surprise winner. The game board is arranged from scratch for every game, which ensures that the game dynamics are different each time you play. It never gets boring. And the absolute best thing? It also comes in a Star Trek edition. Got your dilithium drill ready?

5) A Magazine or Comic book Subscription

A magazine is a great way to spend reading in depth on a topic, and to encourage regular reading. Articles are often short enough to bridge the time of a car ride or before dinner. Magazines my kids enjoyed are National Geographic Kids, Ask, Dig, and Sports Illustrated Kids.

6) Snap circuits

Similar appeal as Lego, but with the added thrill of creating something that lights up, rings or moves. Physics class meets woodshop. Our personal experience will have to wait until December 26 (don't tell my kids).

7) Try The World

This food subscription service delivers a box with traditional foods from a new country every 2 months. The included culture guide helps plan a dinner and find a starting point to learn about music, history, and culture. My children look forward to every new box and carefully plan additional activities for virtual travel. The smallest subscription is for a single box, so this can fit small or large budgets.

Contents of our "Try the World" Japan box.

8) A Science Museum Family Membership

I am not kidding. An trip to a museum with three kids on tow can easily approach a three digit number in some museums. With a membership, it is worth to just stop by for an hour before closing, or three times in a row on a rainy weekend. Think of it as access to the coolest playground in town. Many museums also belong to lager networks and offer free or reduced entrance at other museums. For instance a membership to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia also gets us free entrance to major museums in NYC, like the Transit Museum, the Children's Museum and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space museum. There is a weekend trip where we only need to pay for gas.

Franklin Institute Special exhibit

9) Ticket to Ride 

Board game and geography lesson all in one, there are several different versions available with local maps and variations. If you want your kids to know where Luanda and Durban are, this is the game for you. For a detailed review read here.

10) Lego

You can't ever have enough Lego. Enough said. But if you really don't want to own any additional ones, rent them from

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How to watch Star Wars (can we skip "The Phantom Menace"?)

Best. Parenting Advice. Ever.

With Episode VII soon to be released in movie theaters, it is now urgent to decide if and how to show the first 6 movies to the young ones. 

The best news first: Yes you can (skip "The Phantom Menace"). If for no other reason that your child may decide it is the best movie of them all, giving you serious concerns that he was switched at birth.

For the best order and reasoning for it I have to refer to Geek Dad's article in Wired. So go read that, while I research who the birth mother of this Jar-Jar-Binks-loving alien in my house is.

Did you like what you read? Sign up for email feeds on the top right hand of this page, like me on Facebook ("Geeks 2.0"), or share this post with your friends. Thank you!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Try The World

Before we had children, my husband and me traveled as often as we could. Now with less income, more expenses - and oh yes - 3 more airline tickets to pay for, traveling abroad won't happen for a while.

A box every 2 months gives a glimpse into another culture.

A German saying goes "love goes through the stomach", and with that in mind we recently signed up for the Try The World food subscription service. Food seems the perfect setting to encourage our kids to fall in love with a world they will hopefully get to travel one day. Every 2 months we receive a box with 6-7 foods from a new country. But we don't just use the recipes and tips on the Try The World website to plan a 3-course meal with a couple of new foods. Rather, we invite some friends and their kids, and each person contributes to an evening exploring the culture, stories and customs of the land from our box.

Our Japan box contained ingredients and recipes for a three course dinner.

Here some activities to enhance your virtual traveling:

Go to the library: To get everyone excited about our new country, we first get a couple of books from the library. Country guides, history books, or local folk tales are a good start. My kids were never interested in such books before, but with a country to focus on they really get into it. We have a few lay out during dinner to look at pictures and read out stories.

Color the flag: The Queen's favorite activity, since she cannot read on her own yet. But she likes learning what each part of the flag means.

Color traditional clothing: Another activity for pre-readers. An easy way to learn about gauchos, geishas or toreros.

Look up endemic animals: Flying squirrels, capybara, snow monkey ... Mr. Entropy likes animal non-fiction books (his words, not mine), so he looks up unusual (or just lesser known) animals in his encyclopedia or on Wikipedia.

Make a slide show of landmarks and historic sites: Wiki Commons can help you pretend you are showing our own vacation pictures.

Look up YouTube videos: Carnevale in Rio, a Sumo wrestler's diet, Run of the Bulls, La Tomatina - mini-documentaries with enough fun factor to keep the kids entertained and excited between courses.

Write a history timeline: Did you know that 100 years ago Argentina used to be the 7th richest economy in the world? That Southern Spain used to be ruled by Arab tribes? What's the difference between a ninja and a samurai? Time to find out!

Find weird facts: Weird for us anyway. In the Southern hemisphere it is perfectly normal to start your school year in February and your summer vacation in December.

Listen to the music: Try The World provides a Spotify playlist with traditional and contemporary music. Add the national anthem for extra flair.
No tables for Japanese-style dining.
Rearrange the dining room: Traditional Japanese housing does not include tables. So we ate on a picnic blanket on the floor and hung paper lanterns all around us.

Watch the movies: The Try The World cultural guide comes with a list of notable local movies. With some luck, Netflix has them in stock as DVD.