Archive for April, 2012

A Three-Step Guide to Getting your Kids Watching Science Documentaries

April 27, 2012

Perhaps your children are different, but mine tend to prefer more straight-up entertainment when it comes to their TV watching.  The Amazing Race is about as close to a documentary as it comes.

If your kids are like mine, sometimes you need to connect the dots a bit in order to get them excited about more straight-up educational programming.  So here’s a little tip that might help out, courtesy of a couple of claymation features.  Here is my fool-proof three-step method:

Step 1: Take your kids to see The Pirates! Band of Misfits this weekend: The great team of animators at Aardman just released their latest.  Rotten Tomatoes is giving it a more-than-solid 87% fresh rating.  I hear it may not be their best, but it is still full of silly fun and wonderfully animated.  Seems like a great treat for children of all ages.

Step 2: Watch Wallace & Gromit at home: Let’s take for granted that your kids dig the movie.  Whenever that happens, my boys are always eager for more. Nick Park’s classic characters are still the cream of the crop for Aardman.  I would recommend the full-length feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit, an absolutely hysterical flick with the likes of Ralph Feinnes and Helena Bonham Carter joining the cast.  If you can’t find that movie, Netflix is streaming both the three original W&G short films, and the most recent, a half-hour feature called A Matter of Loaf and Death.  All are great fun and will likely hook your kids on both Aardman and the gang.

Step 3: Watch Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention: Assuming your children are clamoring for even more W&G, it just so happens that just released on Blu-ray is the six-episode series that originally aired on BBC.  I got mine at Best Buy for $14, so it’s not a major investment.  It is a classic frame series, as W&G host a news show that sends viewers to segments done by real people.  The man-dog duo have some sort of classic invention-related gag in each episode, like feeding a pet elephant brussel to bring electricity to the studio through “wind power.”

The actual stories themselves are very well produced and interesting (though make sure to explain the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit, as they don’t) .  I watched the one that looks at how people are taking designs from the natural world and shaping man-made inventions out of them.  From taking a page out of the manta ray for transportation to machines eating bugs for power, to a man who may have just figured out how to build Atlantis, it is a great way to see how nature, science, and engineering can work together to bring creative solutions.  And with an elephant fart joke built in, how can you go wrong?

So there you go.  I hope everyone has a great weekend, and if your child ends up becoming a great engineer due to my three-step program, remember I get dibs on the first flying car ride.

Start Hitting Your Brother? The Argument for Roughhousing

April 26, 2012

“Me and my brother had an…interesting…relationship.  He did teach me how to take a beating.”

–My brother Dan’s toast at my wedding

Yep, Mr. Peace, Love, and Understanding over here was a serial roughhouser.  My little brother’s friends regale me to this day with stories about how I used to pick them up and throw them around like rag dolls when they came over to play.

Now, when I was a kid, I was more uptight than I am now (which is saying something, let me tell you) and when my little brother, an expert at getting under my skin, would goad me, I would often return the favor in a manner perhaps a bit…beyond the realm of quid-pro-quo.

Flotation devices recommended for pool roughhousing

Now one might think now that I’m Mr. conflict resolution, I have forsaken roughhousing for hugging and long talks about our feelings.  But while the boys and I do plenty of the latter, roughhousing is an absolutely constant part of our relationship.  Whether it’s sitting on their lap and pretending that they are Santa, to being a third-generation belly-button eater (I prefer the blowing raspberries technique), the fellas and I are always going at it.  Indeed, when Gus has friends over, I’ll be downstairs writing and then he and his friends come downstairs and he says, “We’ve decided it’s time for you to come and get us now, Dad.”  One Mel Blanc-inspired Tasmanian Devil cry later, and I’m off to be whatever monster they’ve dreamed up that moment.

Given my proclivity toward nonviolence, however, roughhousing has always felt like a bit of a guilty pleasure.  It was a great way to connect with my boys and his friends, but, certainly, it didn’t seem to be helping to teach any particularly valuable conflict partnership skills.

Well, the good people over at 8 Bit Dad have reviewed a new book titled The Art of Roughhousing which, to this Dad, is something of a revelation.  Written by two doctor Dads, Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D., Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. the book shows how rough-and-tumble play can nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, boost confidence, and more.  Though it feels a bit counter-intuitive when thinking about it intellectually, there is something in my experience tossing my kids onto the bed or sofa that makes that conclusion feel right.

Other than the validation, the other interesting thing about this book is the fact that they put together a whole guide to roughhousing, giving examples and safety tips because, as the authors say, “roughhousing is great fun because it’s a little dangerous.”

I’m definitely going to buy the book as if for nothing else I’m curious about the social skills they feel their examples can help kids learn.  The review goes into more detail on how the book is laid out and gives a couple of specific examples as well.  Well worth checking out.

Now, where did I put that tickle monster puppet?

Read It Then See It Classic: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

April 25, 2012

ImageFor those who like my series reviewing books that will become movies, I just wanted to point you over to a post by Wired Geek Dad’s Jonathan Liu who does a great job reviewing the classic children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang The Magical Car, which was of course made into the classic film.  He also reviews the modern sequel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again approved by the Ian Flemming (yes, the Bond guy wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) estate that also sounds charming. 

Sounds like some great family reading, especially if you’re interested in bringing out the classic film out for the kids to see as well.  So go check out his writeup here.


Are Coaches Better Teachers Than Teachers?

April 25, 2012

A couple of days ago, I came out of a joint meeting between the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington County Public Schools that I serve on, and the Science Advisory Committee (SAC).  We came together because we recognized that in the County’s focus on bumping up student math and reading scores on state standardized tests, our two subjects were, more and more, being pushed to the side at the elementary school level.

Book improved, but I learned the key is HOW the material is taught

I had initiated the idea of the two committees getting together because I had heard the SAC’s presentation to the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) on which I also serve (Note: This makes me sound like an education expert—I am not.  I’m just a Dad who got involved in the PTA and got pissed that my son’s Social Studies book stunk).  During their presentation, I was struck by the fact that, despite the significant differences between the two subjects, there were core similarities in the way historians and scientists think. Ask a question (“Why is the sky blue?  Why did the Allies win World War II?), form a hypothesis based on a base-level understanding.  Research to confirm or refute hypothesis.  Present evidence and conclusion as argument.

Such a process not only applies to drawing conclusions, but thinking creatively.  Whether it is presenting ideas on how best to feed the most people with the least environmental impact, or arguing whether the world would have been better off had Weroance Opechancanough had driven the English invaders out of America in the 1600s, this process of thinking is essential to teaching children how to apply knowledge.  Time and time again, the business executives of today are clamoring for employees not with encyclopedic knowledge of a particular area, but the intellectual curiosity to learn, a capacity to work well in teams and think creatively in driving toward new solutions.  Indeed, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has coined the term “21st Century Thinking” to promote the importance of just this approach.

Loewen uses Virginia's standardized tests as example of how to do Social Studies wrong

And yet despite the obvious expertise and experience far beyond my own in the meeting, I could not help but feel frustrated that we spent most of our time talking about the standardized tests and how to help kids meet required levels for subject retention in elementary school.  While I understood the need to look at these tests to at a minimum ensure that Social Studies and Science are taught at all at the elementary school level, I found it frustrating that the base thinking skills that these two subjects can teach, and when taught together can reinforce, really played second fiddle to learning the content.

Frankly, that feels backwards to me, especially at an elementary school level.  While learning basic arithmetic and reading are fundamental building blocks for learning, those are no more important—and no more teachable—than the thinking skills that subjects like Science and Social Studies can instill in young minds.

So what does all this have to do with my rather provocative title, you might ask?  After the meeting, I ran into a fellow ACI rep and friend from back in my arms control lobbying days Natalie Goldring, who is now a professor at Georgetown University.  Natalie sits on the Gifted Services Advisory Committee.  Always a font of sound information and ideas, Natalie brought up a key issue that their committee is looking at, that of differentiation.  She noted that this was not simply a process to figure out who the gifted kids were, but to get a sense of the relative level of each child in order to ensure that they are deriving an educational benefit no matter what level they are on at the time.  Standardized tests and the “race to the middle” often robs advanced kids of the ability to explore beyond the norm, and makes struggling kids feel like they simply cannot learn.

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

It was then that a light bulb went off in my head.  As a baseball coach, I am all about differentiation.  In teaching the kids an appreciation for the game, I can plainly see how much kids know about the game itself (how many outs in an inning, where is your play with runners on first and third, etc.) and their relative skill level (fielding, throwing, hitting).  My goals have always been constant.  Teach them to understand and love the game, improve to the best of their abilities, and learn to think and act like a team even in this, perhaps the most individual of team sports.

But, of course, I do not have to test my kids…or do I?  Games are actually the ultimate tests—they put our practice into demonstrable effect.  But what defines success for one player (catching a fly ball) may be different for another (allowing the ball to drop, but keeping it from getting past).  Failure isn’t permanent, but transient, as other opportunities are always in the offing.  Supporting your teammates, talking to each other about defensive positioning, backing them up in case of overthrows are all crucially important.  And counter-intuitive thinking (swinging harder actually slows your bat down, pitching slowly can actually be more effective than pitching fast) are crucial to understanding and improvement.

In other words, one can make the argument my coaching approach teaches my five-to-eleven-year-olds more of the 21st Century Learning Skills better than the conventional education system does.  Not only that, but kids at all skill levels derive benefit without being subjected to the often damning law of averages.

Of course, I’m hardly the first or only person to have this revelation, and as I noted I’m no education expert.  So I will practice what I preach and provide evidence to support this hypothesis.  In the education section of the book Abundance (Yay, finally working it into a post!), authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler cite a number of provocative examples of both the problem with the current educational methods, and the potential solutions of shifting to a more coaching-oriented method.  Here are some of the most notable ones:

The Grandmother Method…: Indian physicist Sugata Mitra tested children at a slum nearby to his office by putting a computer out for public use.  He found that without instruction, they were learning how to use the computer and find information off the web by working together well enough to score 30 percent on a subject test—amazing evidence of the power of team-based self-motivated learning.  But when he added on another layer he coined as the “grandmother method,” in this case a slightly older girl who had no knowledge of the subject, but encouraged the kids with positive feedback like “Wow, that’s cool, that’s fantastic, show me something else!” the test scores jumped to a 50 percent, which as the same average as high-school kids studying the same subject at the best schools in New Delhi.

… Becomes The Granny Cloud: Bringing that same method to England, Mitra created a Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLES) method where four children always share one computer at school.  In areas where there are a lack of qualified teachers, he created a “Granny Cloud”—a corps of grandmothers from all over the UK that agree to tutor the kids for an hour a week on Skype.  Test scores on average increased 25 percent for students being urged on by coach grandma.

Focus on Retention=Less Retention: Our current educational emphasis on fact retention is not actually ending up with students retaining knowledge.  Two fifths of all high school students need remedial courses upon entering college.  In Michigan alone, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy estimates that remediation costs college and businesses about $600 million a year.

Gaming Makes Learning, Testing Fun: Dr. James Gee, a linguist at Arizona State was stunned to find out while playing the video game Pajama Sam with his six-year-old the surprising complexity and difficulty of the game, and the fact that despite failure and frustration, it somehow held his child’s attention.  He concluded through study that a game-style system where learning is integrated in an interactive, problem-solving environment, and grades are cumulative based on your progress (like a video game), rather than a zero-sum game penalizing both a lack of knowledge (an F) or putting an upper boundary on what can be achieved (and A), kids were entirely more motivated to learn at their level, and integrated creative thinking and problem-solving into their work than in more traditional environments.  Schools like Quest2Learn in New York are integrating this philosophy into a curriculum where activities include creating graphic novels based on ancient poems, and playing strategic board games such as Settlers of Catan.

Technology Frees Teachers to Coach Rather than Lecture: Salman Khan, a successful hedge fund analyst in Boston decided to help out his younger cousins in New Orleans by creating some short YouTube videos teaching basic math and science facts using a digital chalkboard.  He soon discovered that his cousins actually preferred the video version of Khan to the real one (at least for learning) because they could pause and rewind where they didn’t understand, skip ahead when they already got the point, not feel embarrassed if they didn’t get something the first time, and, if they really had an issue, would only then ask for personal help.

Sorry, just couldn't resist.

The result is the Khan Academy (which just released its current library of 2,200 videos in App form) and a whole new style of teaching.  Partnering with the Khan Academy, the Los Altos School District in Northern California are assigned to watch Khan Academy videos as homework, and the class time is spent solving problems provided by Khan.  Correct answers earn points that are in turn traded in for merit badges.  As Diamandis and Kotler say, “This lets teachers personalize education, trading their sage-on-a-stage role for that of a coach.”(emphasis added)  In the first twelve weeks of the project, students doubled their scores on exams.

Yes, in a number of cases I am ironically using the example of traditional test scores— something I railed on earlier—as an example of the success of a coach-style, process-over-content approach to learning.  Yet in conflict resolution, one of the steps is to find the “win-win” scenarios.  In an environment where standardized tests on all subjects are likely be a major part of the educational landscape for some time to some, using the proof that a different approach to teaching not only helps create the kind of more adaptable and employable thinkers that today’s employers desire, but actually better satisfies the baseline educational tests seems to me the definition of a “win-win” solution.

Of course many teachers are already doing many of the things that I am talking about, including several that my sons have had at their school.  But until the 21st Century Learning Skills have been elevated right along the “Three Rs” in the way we teach our kids, we will not institutionalize the kind of education that is most valuable, empowering, and, just as importantly, just plain fun for our kids.

The Recommendation: Co.EXIST

April 17, 2012

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I have been reading the book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think.  It is ridiculously packed with information and data, so much so that I’ve had trouble getting my head around how to begin posting about it.  I think I’ll start with their section on education, which is fascinating, so stay tuned for that.

Brain, brain! What is brain?!?

But the crux of the book is that despite our “lizard brain’s” predisposition to believing that things in the world are bad and getting worse, the data shows quite the opposite.  Instead, the exponential growth of technological advances promises, with some work, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision of a world without poverty, disease, and war.  Very compelling and provocative stuff.

But if the prospect of wading through the 400 stat-packed pages isn’t getting you all that excited, there’s a fantastic starting point to give you an antidote to the “If it bleeds it leads” news cycle.

Fast Company magazine has a dedicated site they call Co.EXIST, chock full of incredible articles about the scientists, companies, and plain ole’ people around the world that are working on—and solving—the world’s most pressing problems.  I find the website a little hard to navigate, but breezing through the articles on Flipboard is a refreshing antidote to most of the news that simply focuses on problems rather than solutions.

From my recent flipping, here’s a taste of some of the great materials Co.EXIST has to offer.

Transforming Children’s Media:  This article features a new multi-million dollar effort to wrestle with and provide genuine data for parents on the educational value of children’s entertainment from TV shows to movies to apps.  Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that already has thousands of basic ratings on kids’ media, has created a new system that will delve into the harder-to-judge values like social and emotional intelligence and promoting creativity.

I’ve added Common Sense Media’s new ratings system to my blogroll links for as it exists now it’s a great resource, but I’m very excited about their whole “Teamwork and Making Friends” category.  Herotopia, a massive multiplayer online game designed for ages 7 and up to power up and combat a global bullying gang, sounds like a great concept.  I’m going to try it out with the boys this weekend and give you my feedback on it.  It’s not a comprehensive list just yet, but it is a very good starting point to combine with sites like A Matter of App to find electronic entertainment that actually integrates learning in a fashion that doesn’t seem simply layered on.

Getting Beyond Antibiotic Resistance: I’m not sure about you, but whenever the kids get a scratch, I apply about 8 layers of disinfectant because of all the stories about the rising tide of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This fascinating article doesn’t have me putting down the Purell just yet, but it is a fascinating look at a new way of tackling an old problem.

A little creative photoshopping for Murray's body here, methinks.

IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology discovered a new kind of polymer that can seek out and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria and diseases. Rather than working like traditional antibiotics which causes a chemical reaction in infected cells which can eventually lead to resistance, these nanites work more like our own bodies do when fighting infection.  They seek out the infected cells, destabilize them, and make them explode.  It seems like Osmosis Jones actually come to life, though unfortunately William Shatner does not seem to be involved with the project.  The cool thing about this is that it could attack other baddies that are non-bacterial like fungi.

I like the fact that the article noted that this lab DOES do animal testing, but does not value judge it, allowing me to decide whether I think such advances are worth the morally gray area that is using animals to develop potentially life-saving treatments.  One thing is for certain—it’s nice to know that our diminishing supply of effective antibiotics may not be the only way to solve this problem.

EU Takes on Fake Meat: Much like my post on the best-tasting fake meat products I’ve had, it seems the European Union is taking on the need to provide protein to a growing population and our preference for meat as that delivery system vs. the fact that meat is a highly inefficient and highly polluting way to provide that protein to the world.

Like it? I LOVE it!

The EU’s Like Meat Project is made up of a number of university-based scientists along with so-far 11 corporations, a number of which have never processed anything but meat before.  Much like Ethan Brown over at Savage River Farms, it seems that Like Meat have been able to make considerable progress on the texture, but taste remains an issue.  But if they can come up with non-meat alternatives that are in the same ballpark as today’s Quorn and Morningstar Farms products, but with fewer unpronounceable ingredients and a price tag that drops below meat, that could be a game-changer without even having to replicate a t-bone.

Can Robots Cry? Any old-school Science Fiction fan can quickly rattle off Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics.  While that knowledge will come in handy if Roland Emmerich pulls off the seminal Foundation series, the amazing thing is that we are having this very conversation today as automated equipment such as drone attack aircraft are given more and more power (and capacity) to actually make their own decisions.

Required nerd reading.

And this isn’t just about killer robots.  As nations like ours begin to deal with the cost challenges of caring for a graying population, we will likely become more-and-more dependent on non-human care to make the economics of our own longevity line up.  This fascinating article starts to posit ideas as to how to make that work when dealing with the many conditions and many vagaries of the human condition.

What I found most interesting was the concept of giving robots “guilt.”  Essentially a series of “no-nos” that would build up within the computer system, causing the offending automaton to cease actions if a threshold is met.  Given guilt is such a part of the Jewish condition, I found it fascinating, and disturbing to hear it being broken down in this fashion—because it sounds very much like how we humans apply guilt upon each other.

That’s just a small sample of what Co.EXIST has to offer.  So if the latest in political punditry has you blue, go get yourself a different and empowering perspective about the world we live in.

Read It Then See It: Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King

April 12, 2012

I’m really happy that I read this just coming off of my experience with the Oz books.  For while this book is approximately the same length as Dorothy of Oz, it is a wildly different experience.  UPDATE 4/23/13: Here are my reviews of the next two books,  E. Aster Bunnymund and Toothiana, as well as my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

The Book
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King, By William Joyce and Laura Geringer.  Originally published in 2011.  First in The Guardians of Childhood series.

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks. Release Date, November 21

Fantasy (unless you still believe Santa is real)

Age Appropriate
5 and up.  The language may be a little complex for early readers even to comprehend, but the wonderful illustrations help to compensate for that a bit.  A great “read-to” book through the 2nd grade reading level, then a fantastic “read with” after that.  There are some moments that might, during the reading, scare young children (some major characters seem to die), and the concept of a villain that feeds off of scaring children could be a little dark.  But the telling of the story really does mitigate some of those feelings, especially the notion that this happened long ago.  There is a considerable amount of battle, but the violence is not described in any graphic nature (save a scene with St. North and a bear, which is not graphic, but more realistic)

Good for Grown-Ups?
For children of all ages. A rich and dream-like tale written with astounding imagination.  This story of the Santa we never knew about, and the origins of childhood heroes is worth reading whether you have children or not.

Book Availability
Not available in electronic format.  Widely available in print.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
A long time ago, a moonbeam, dancing to earth with its mission to illuminate the good feelings of the world’s children, stumbles accidentally on a dark secret long hidden.  Its luminescence suddenly trapped inside a magical dagger, a shadowy boy wrenches free from a larger, darker figure.  Pitch, the ruler of the fiendish Fearlings and Nightmare Men has been awakened, and his quest to bathe the cosmos in terror has awakened with him.

With hair like that, he must be evil

Only one man on earth seems to sense something is wrong.  In the distant Russian land of Santoff Claussen, a great wizard named Ombric has created a world of joy, wonder, and discovery for its denizens, most particularly his adopted daughter Katherine.  In a world where science and magic, technology and alchemy are celebrated with equal fervor, the sorcerer has protected the town from the dark and greedy eyes of the outside world with the power of cosmic rays, spirits, and a bear the size of your average motor home.

But when Pitch infiltrates Santoff Clausen, reinforcements are needed—and a very unlikely hero is chosen.  Nicholas St. North, prince of thieves, is brought to the town and, lone among his band chooses bravery over riches.  In that choice comes a battle that saves Santoff Clausen, and begins the metamorphosis of this rouge brigand into the jolly red-suited fellow that my ten-year-old son still believes in (more or less—given he just outed the Tooth Fairy).

When technology and magic collide

What ensues is an adventure where Ombric, St. North, and Katherine work with such forces as the Man on the Moon, Abominable Snow Men, and even a Night Light to find the magical items that will force Pitch Back into the shadows.  A sleigh, a robot, and reindeer feature prominently as Katherine is forced on a desperate rescue mission when St. North and Ombric are enslaved by Pitch.  But even with victory, there seems no way to do more than delay Pitch’s evil plan to darken the dreams of all children and feed on the power of their nightmares.

Quickie Review
I’m a sucker for a good origin story, and this book is about eight origin stories tied into one amazing bundle.  The whole initial concept of a battle for the dreams of children is inventive enough as it is.  Now add a surprising layer of science fiction (hint, the moon isn’t what you think it is) atop the magical battle against the shadowy forces of fear, and you have yourself a classic.

St. North himself is a wonderful character, a rogue, bad but not evil, and truly a lost soul.  His relationship with Ombric, but especially Katherine is just a heartwarming tale of people who complete each other.  Indeed, the whole book feels like pieces of a puzzle that you can only see as they come together.  As more mystical characters of our youth are introduced, they fee like they just seamlessly fit into the fabric of this story, and our own dreams.

Unlike the Oz books, I feel Joyce and Geringer paint an amazingly vivid picture of their magical world in such a short amount of space (I could take a lesson or two).  The story really clicks by and the short chapters help to hold interest and allow for location changes that keep the story from dragging.


And I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful illustrations that Joyce has done.  The ethereal quality of the pictures are simply magical, but his clever use of reverse coloring some sequences, turning the pages black with white illustrations, helps to underline the particular mood and the dream-like quality.

Despite it being a rather short story, I never felt cheated.  And while I would have loved more dialogue between the major characters, I did not feel that they were slighted or that their decisions in the story were forced.  It is a real tour-de-force of children’s literature…or just literature for that matter.

Yeah, I liked it okay.

Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Well, there’s certainly “How awesome was that story?!?”  But Nicholas St. North definitely has even more than that.  Here are a few tidbits that I picked out.


All he wanted for Christmas..or Chanukkah

Is Santa Real? Does it Matter? As I briefly mentioned, my 10-year-old revealed after his latest lost tooth that he deduced that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real (he found his old teeth in Mom’s desk).  So when Mom/TF was busted, she told Gus that she’d simply give him the money.  He wanted none of it.  Even though he knew there was no tooth fairy, he wanted us to plant the cash under his pillow anyway.  The tooth fairy was no longer a person, it had evolved into something even more important.  It was now a tradition.

Not everyone has as wise a soul as my boy to explain why, perhaps, we make too much of a deal out of the reality of our childhood fables.  Nicholas St. North and, I am betting, the whole Guardians of Childhood series allows children to explore these treasured icons and gives you room to discuss them with your kids at a level they are prepared for.  It’s a great vehicle whether you want to enrich the fantasy or reality of our own cultural traditions.

Science, Magic, and Insatiable Curiosity: Our adult world is so jaded that much of  our modern discussion is about “this vs. that.”  Most notably, I see the pitched battle between the religious and the secular as rendering opposing and often bloody world views.  Abortion, evolution, climate change—all these subjects and so many others prisoner to a “reason vs. faith” paradigm.

This book eloquently brushes away that very premise with a magic (or scientifically sound, if you prefer) wand.  Ombric’s world is where science and magic coexist.  Mechanical contraptions are powered by supernatural forces.  Scientists and alchemists come together for one purpose—the pursuit of knowledge.  What is prized more than anything is not what is ancient, nor what is new.  Instead it is what you can learn, and what you can do to help make your world a better one.

Well worth a read

I think this book does far more with the subject of Magic vs. Technology than does the most famous magical tale of the age, Harry Potter.  One of the great flaws in the Potterverse was the magical world’s dismissal of technology.  I found it both unlikely, and hard to fathom that these world were simply separate—it seemed artificial.  Piers Anthony in his Incarnations of Immortality series created an interesting world where magic and technology actually competed with each other.  But Joyce and Geringer choose to have the worlds live synergistically, which is one of the few times I’ve ever seen it done.

What a wonderful way of validating freedom of thought and expression.  What an incredible insight to focus not on where something or somewhere comes from, but what it can do to make things better.  Frankly, I think that grown-ups should be reading this book more than kids, because I think children have less to learn from this than we do.  It comes back to that wonderful quote from the mother of the child who learns Superman isn’t real.  With curiosity, imagination, and an intent to make the world better, today’s sorcery is tomorrow’s technology.

The Power of Empathy: The story of St. North and Katherine’s (perhaps the future Mrs. Claus?) relationship is a fantastic example of truly feeling empathy, as the two orphans help to fill gaps in each other’s life.  “Think of how you’d feel if…” is a great way to help children understand what others might be going through.  This relationship is a great portal to discussing, or introducing the concept of empathy to a child.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
As you can see by the preview, it looks like the movie will be an amalgam of the Guardians tales (though only the first two are out so far).  The animation looks absolutely lovely, and as with most things DreamWorks, the voice talent seems fantastic with the likes of Alec Baldwin as St. North and Jude Law as Pitch.  It looks to me like some of the fantastic secondary characters in the first book may be lost, and I could see much of the back-story being sacrificed for quick character introductions and a focus on the conflict with Pitch.

Perhaps it’s the Fearlings talking, but I worry that they are seeing this as something that needs to be contained to a single movie in case it’s not successful, and in doing so will lose the parts that I thought were most amazing, such as the world of Santoff Clausen, Ombric, and St. North’s and Katherine’s relationship.  Perhaps some of that will be told in flashback.  But I enjoyed this story so much that I’d love to see it told in its entirety on screen.

Next in this series: The adventure continues as adventure awaits with nasty, pointy teeth.

The Recommendation: Castle Panic

April 11, 2012

Hey there everyone.  Just back from Spring Break and me and the boys had an opportunity to try out the board game Castle Panic with the fellas.  As I noted in my recent post on family games, Castle Panic is an entry in the relatively new genre of cooperative board games for kids.

First, the basics:

The Game
Castle Panic, Fireside Games

Suggested is $35.00 and that’s how much I paid for it, but I’ve seen it for as little as $23 online (though only with free shipping for $100 or more in purchases).  There’s also an expansion pack called The Wizard’s Tower that costs between $20-25.

Number of Players

Age Range
Six and up.  The box says 10 and up but I think that’s more because of the topic of the game (slaying monsters) rather than the difficulty of game play.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  While not as complex as similarly-themed Role Playing Games like Dungeons & Dragons, it’s an interesting and fun strategy game that stretches your brain a bit as you play.

Time of Play
Allow 60-90 minutes for a full game.  Can go as long as two hours depending on how the cookies end up crumbling.

Fun Factor
High.  Figuring out how to combine forces, facing threats known and unknown, and making life-or-death decisions as the barbarian hordes knock on the gates is a great way to spend a couple of hours.  Can get a little too easy, but there are easy variations to the basic rules that can make it more challenging.

What Kids Can Learn

If they get into the walls, the panic part is no joke

Cooperation can be fun. How to pool resources and ideas to create a single, most effective strategy.  Thinking ahead on potential problems rather than the ones right in front of you.  Deciding when to the group is more important, or the individual (and it’s not always the group).  Basic counting skills.  Trolls, Goblins, and especially evil wizards with healing powers suck.

SHYB Rating
Four out of five stars.  Great game—looking forward to getting the expansion pack as even with the random elements, it will be nice to get a little more variety on the board.

Full Review
The reason why cooperative board games for kids is not widely prevalent was presented to me immediately as my big guy was immediately skeptical about a game where the goal was to beat the game, not each other.  This brings me to my first recommendation for this game, the fact that it presents a competition within the cooperation as the player who ends up taking out the most creatures gets pronounced “The Master Slayer” at the end.  I noted to Gus that this was the same as in Lord of the Rings, where Gimli and Legolas work together to defeat the armies of Sauron, but keep score on how many creatures they take down.  My little elf was immediately hooked.

I'm all for friendly rivalries

The game play is relatively simple.  Castle in the middle fortified by walls.  goblins, trolls, and other nefarious creatures coming at you from all sides (placed in one of six different sectors based on a die roll).  You are given cards with different types of defenders (archers, knights, swordsmen) and defenses (tar to slow down enemies, brick and mortar to rebuild walls, etc.).  The goal is to keep your castle from being destroyed by the time you run out of monster tokens.  The different monsters have different hit point values (from 1-3) and there are also other nasty tokens to be uncovered, from plagues that take out all the defenders of a particular type, to giant boulders that squash anything in its way, from baddies to your walls.

One different thing in this game that presents itself immediately is that all your defense cards are played in the open, so from the very beginning you’re not hiding or bluffing, so the cooperative feel is set from the start.  I played this first alone with my seven-year-old Gunnar and he took to the cooperative element immediately.  He loved working with me to see how we could combine attacks, trade cards to fortify our defenses, or simply decide which threat could wait until the next round.  The randomness of the monster tokens really help add to the mystery, as once you’ve played you know what’s in there, so you really start to plan your defenses not only on what’s on the board, but what could come on the board.  It’s a great skill-builder for kids on how to think ahead and not simply be about the moment at hand.

The needs of the many...

Interestingly, Gunnar had a harder time with the competitive aspect.  It was at first hard for him to think ahead not only for defensive purposes, but also to keep track of my cards and decide whether a threat was light enough to allow to pass in order to prevent me from being able to take out a monster and collect the token for my tally.  We had a great conversation about what was more important, winning the Master Slayer award or making sure the castle was defended. Most of the time, we both chose the team win over individual glory—so that’s a fantastic lesson in itself that few other games of its ilk teach.

Indeed, Gunnar, who is of the competitive side of the gaming spectrum, had a few tears when he played with his big brother and grandmother, as when another player took out a monster unexpectedly, he got a little cranky.  Now, you can play this game without the Master Slayer part.  So you may want to learn a bit from my example and decide whether the full cooperative version may be a better place to start for younger kids or those who take the competitive aspects a bit too seriously.

The one issue we had with the game is that once we got the hang of it, we rarely felt threatened.  Some of that has to do with the luck of the draw, but given the last three times we were left with a full castle and all our walls, the “Oh, crap, we’re going to die!” factor was missing.

Fire makes it good!

Luckily, the game is extremely flexible if you want more excitement.  You can simply have players draw fewer defense cards, or make all non-soldier cards one-time only uses.  Avid gamer Thomas Melinsky also came up with a “Midnight Madness” version where you play with the monster tokens face down, so you don’t know what you are attacking until you play your card.  He’s come up with a full set of rules for this version, though you can certainly just play a simple version where you just play the card as stated when it’s hit and flipped.  Fireside Games has also created an expansion pack called The Wizard’s Tower introducing new baddies and defenses.

So if your kids have any interest whatever in fantasy or strategy games, this is a great way to direct that interest in a way that reinforces teamwork and cooperation without sacrificing the fun of competition.  Happy hunting.

How to Explain “Reality” to Kids

April 4, 2012

Hey all, I’m off on vacation and have been diddling around with some thoughts inbetween cocktails, and reading an incredible book called Nicholas St. North with the boys that I can’t wait to talk about more. But I wanted to call out my friends over at Wired Geek Dad as this post called Tag Team Parenting: Raising Superheroes may be one of the very best explanations to children I have ever seen to a child finding out that their childhood dreams are not real…yet.

What an incredible way to refuse to bring a child into our reality, but inspire her or him to go out and create a reality of their own, but not in that “you can do anything that you want to do, sweetie” sort of way, but using history as a guide.  I just found this so inspiring, especially reading the book Abundance, which is all about how many of the very things we thought impossible in making a better world are not only possible, but in process.

Go, read, be inspired, and have a wonderful Spring Break.