Advice Needed: Televisions

I would like to get a television for Pdad for Christmas.  Currently, we only have a computer monitor and he needs something bigger for playing Kinect.  (We are still really, really liking Kinect).  Could you shower me with your collective television buying wisdom? 

Do you have advice on LCD vs. LED vs. Plasma?   Edge lit?   1080 vs. 720p?   Who do you think does the most reliable reviews of TVs?   What is the best way to research this?   Consumer Reports?   CNET?   Somebody else?   Where do you think is a good place to buy a television?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

P.S., Amelia heard I was going to get Pdad a television for Christmas and said, “can’t we just use our computer monitor?”  Ah, the pain of deviating from our tv-free ideal of ourselves.  Alas!

Pdad’s Glowing Review of Kinect and Kinect Adventures

Pdad reviews the KinectGuest post by Pdad 

Last year I borrowed my brother’s Wii for our family vacation and had a blast.  Late for that bandwagon, when I heard about Microsoft’s plan to take game technology a step beyond the Wii I jumped on. Last Thursday our Kinect finally arrived.  Since then our family has spent as much time as possible having a wonderful time with our new toy. My glowing review of Kinect and Kinect Adventures follows:

What is Kinect?

In case you haven’t  seen any of Microsoft’s 500 million dollar advertising campaign, here’s the short of it. Kinect adds a comprehensive motion control system to the Xbox.  New games have been written specifically for Kinect.  Your body is the controller for these games.  This means that Kinect is a very active experience.  You are never sitting, watching.  You are always doing.  The Dance Central game does a great job of showing off what is possible when a system tracks your body (as Kinect does) rather than tracking a motion detector in your hand (as with the Wii). Even if you could strap a motion controller on each limb, you still wouldn’t pick up all the body movements Dance Central scores you on. All that said, there are still improvements Kinect should make.

                What matters more though than whether the technology works (it does) is whether you actually want to play it. So on to the game review itself:

Playing Kinect

Kinect Adventures

Kinect Adventures shows off the wow factor of Kinect. The five different games within this game each have a fun theme. My favorite at first was Reflex Ridge.  Here you are on a conveyor belt and have to jump and dodge obstacles that come toward you. As you move to harder levels, the game requires a lot of effort ducking, dodging and jumping. This game was my favorite because it requires so much attention and effort that the resulting experience is the most immersive of all the five mini-games. Warning: if you don’t want a workout, you may not like this game for long. I put on my heart rate monitor to see how this compares to other exercise I do. When playing Reflex Ridge at the intermediate level my heart rate was the same as it is when I jog at a comfortable speed (about 150 bpm or 85% of my max HR).  After playing this one and then catching your breath on the couch, you may want to go for something on the opposite end of the exhausting vs easy-going scale: 20,000 Leaks.

In 20,000 Leaks you are in an underwater glass room surrounded by mean fish who keep breaking holes in your glass compartment. Your job is to cover up the leaks. The result is a fun twister-like experience (though you don’t end up with your arms entangled in your companion’s—good or bad depending on who you are playing with). 

The rafting game is my current favorite. Careening down an impossibly crazy river gives the game a great theme. The many different routes and obstacles makes the game playable over and over without getting boring. And what I think is this game’s best feature is how two players can work together to make the game so much better. Amelia had a friend over and they played this game almost exclusively. I didn’t realize how far the raft could jump until I watched Amelia and her friend play together with perfectly synchronized jumps.

The last two games are a lot of fun as well. In one you are popping bubbles in outer space. This game is closer to 20,000 Leaks on the relaxing vs exhausting scale. The last, Rally Ball, I haven’t spent as much time with but it looks like it will be a lot of fun too.   

Sum up

                There’s lots to love about Kinect. Wow. Though the wow-effect will surely wear off soon, the technology really is neat. Fun. The games are really enjoyable to play. Exercise & coordination. For our family, having a reason to exercise and practice coordination is great. Together. The highlight of Kinect for me was watching my 11 year old daughter and her friend work together to do better together than either of them could have done on her own.

                This over-the-top-positive review of Kinect reflects how I feel right now. I also wrote a post about Kinect’s shortcomings.

Everything to hate about Kinect

This is the first of what might become a series of  posts about Kinect by Pdad.  His object in this post is to convince you he has some objectivity about Kinect.  Don’t be fooled.  He loves it. 

Pdad reviews the Kinect It’s no fun when someone tells you how great a movie is and you get excited to see it and then it turns out to be good, but not excellent. You walk out of the movie disappointed when you could have spent the same money, the same time, seeing the same movie and enjoying it—if only you hadn’t gone into it with such high expectations. Am I the only one that this happens to? With that in mind, have you read my over-the-top positive review of Kinect? If you haven’t, go read it because that review reflects how I feel about Kinect. It’s great! But I don’t want to be to blamed for creating unreasonably high expectations. So with that in mind here’s every reason I can think of NOT TO LIKE IT.

Kinect doesn’t detect motion nearly as well as a person can.

We take it for granted of course, but it is amazing how well humans can interpret the movements other people make. Though Kinect’s motion detection amazes me because I’ve never seen anything like it, Kinect can misread your movements in ways that a friend never would.

Example: During the setup phase Kinect interpreted children who were standing as if they were kneeling. This happened once to Amelia and once to Duncan. (Could this be related to the fact that they have such long torsos?)  This misinterpretation didn’t cause any problems but it did show that the system isn’t perfect.

Another example: if I put my arms above my head and cross them, I can fool Kinect into thinking that my arms are not crossed but that both arms are straight up.

The examples above don’t bother me. Kinect’s motion detection has worked extremely well for us in the games we have. The one detection issue I do find frustrating is the difficulty with helping a young child learn the system. If I help my child by putting her hand in the correct spot, more often than not, Kinect becomes confused. Instead of seeing two people, one helping the other, it sees a strange multi-armed creature and loses track of the hand that was doing the pointing. That’s a big negative because it interferes with your ability to help your child in the most natural way. As you can guess this is a bigger issue for smaller children. Standing on the sidelines saying “move your hand up a little” to a 3 year old doesn’t work particularly well.

Kinect requires a lot of space to play

We have Kinect set up in our family room which is 22 feet long and 14 feet wide. Our Kinect setup for that room has the place you play starting about 7 feet back from the screen and Kinect. The play space extends 5 feet back from that point and is 7 feet wide. The result is a very nice play space for 2 people to play Kinect Adventures together.  A lot of people have their TV in a room that isn’t that large, or have it arranged in a way that makes devoting that much space inconvenient. According to the instructions, it is possible to play in a smaller space. My guess is that that won’t work as well. 

Kinect requires a large screen

Our Kinect screen is borrowed from our computer. It is a 24 inch diagonal HDMI monitor and works great with the computer. I am using that monitor now and I just measured how far I keep it from my face: about 2 feet. At 2 feet away, it is a wonderful monitor. When I’m seven feet back, that nice large monitor seems pretty small. We certainly can see well enough to play, but the screen size makes you want to move closer to the screen. Especially as you get into an intensive game, the kids move closer and closer to the screen until the Kinect can’t detect them any longer.  To deal with the problem of the kids moving out of the Kinect’s detection range, we placed the 5  foot wide rug we already had in the room so as to match the Kinect’s play area.  This makes it easier for the kids to stay in the right place. Still, a larger screen would be nice. According to this online viewing distance calculator, we need a 50 inch screen for viewing 7 feet away. I see a new screen in our future.

The Xbox with Kinect is still not controller free

If you want a true controller-free game experience, Kinect delivers. You wouldn’t want a controller in your hand to play a dancing game and you don’t need one. But your family will enjoy those games best if Kinect can recognize you, and in order to do that you need to each have a profile, and in order to create a profile you need to use a controller.

Some people may find this bothersome. I don’t. If over time Xbox makes it easy to create a profile without a controller, great. But I’m not pining for that feature. In fact, see the next section, if I want to navigate the gazillion options to try to make an avatar with some resemblance to the person, the controller is likely faster and easier.

Xbox, allow me to use the controller if I want to.

Microsoft’s slogan  for Kinect is “You are the controller.” In fact though, when you do use your body to do controller-like activities, Kinect is at its weakest. I’m not talking about playing the games. There you are moving your body in ways that wouldn’t work if you tried to reduce it to a simple left, right, up, down, button A, button B type input. Microsoft is right to keep that experience entirely controller free. But for navigating menus, you don’t gain much by using your hand (except it’s cool). When selecting options in game, I’m glad you can do so without the controller. Not requiring a controller means you don’t have to walk over to get the controller every time a game ends and you need to tell Kinect whether to play again, go to the next level or go to a different activity all together. But sometimes you are doing a lot of in-game navigation and a controller would make more sense. It would have been simple enough to program the game to allow you to use the controller in these navigation/option screens and Microsoft should have/should still enable this.

Kinect, don’t make me break a sweat

After having played Kinect for a while I sympathize with this criticism. Even the simplest games make you stand up. And sometimes you don’t want to work for it. You are in … let’s call it … a Bejeweled mood. So there you have it all Bejeweled players, you are forewarned. For the members of our family, having people get up and do some active, coordination-improving tasks is good. I don’t see us buying any traditional Xbox games.

Hey kids, don’t have the energy to stand up and move around anymore? Go read a book.

Regulation Aggravation!


Simulated aggravation only.

Warning: this is a rant.  If rants bother you, please skip.

Kate attends a special district-sponsored speech preschool once a week.  Since it is a public school thing, she needs proof of immunizations which I dutifully collected last spring.  Recently, I was annoyed to get a notice stating that she would soon be excluded from school if she didn’t provide proof that her immunizations were current.  I called her pediatrician’s office and they reassured me that she is up to date and won’t need more shots until she enters kindergarten.  I tried to contact the nurse to learn if there was some mistake–but this proved to be difficult–she is only there once a week!  By the time you forget once, and remember after 3 p.m. once, well, it’s about time for them to start excluding your student from school.  Thankfully, today I finally reached her.  She explained that Kate’s records were unacceptable because she had a record of receiving only 3 of the Hib vaccine and Kate now needed a fourth.  I begged her to stay on hold while I called the pediatrician’s office.  (I can’t believe how easy it is to make a conference call on my new cellphone.  Very cool!)  With a surprisingly short delay, I soon got a nurse on the line who confirmed again that she was current on her immunizations and had had all 4 Hib vaccinations at this point.

Then the sticky part: the school nurse needed the date of that 4th immunization.  The nurse refused.  Because of HIPAA, she could not disclose the date of that immunization.  Her explanation was ludicrous: someone could steal Kate’s identity with that information.  Um, no.  Look, I don’t want you to tell me her birth date or her social security number, all I want is one piece of information: What was the date of her 4th Hib shot?  No way.  The nurse was adamant.  I could make a copy of my photo ID, download a form from their website, and fax it to them, or I could come in person to their germy office with my photo ID and fill out a form and pick up their printout.  I said thank you, far too curtly, and ended that part of the call.  [Pmom: Please remember  it is not right to take regulation aggravation out on the messenger.  Her explanation of the reason for the Hipaa rule was ridiculous, but  it is probably true that legally she was not allowed to release the information you sought.]

The school nurse and I were then alone on the line and I continued to have the blaming the messenger problem: Pmom (aggravated voice) “So, let me see if I’ve got this straight, despite the fact that I just did this 6 months ago,  what you want me to do is drive to the pediatrician’s office, haul my children inside with the germs, and pick up the form that confirms what we already know?”  The  nurse was nicer to me than I deserved.  She said that since she had heard that Kate’s immunizations were complete, I could wait and pick up the record the next time that I was at the pediatrician’s office.  That was a good common sense solution to this mess.  (I wonder though, if I hadn’t been using my aggravated voice–as let me be clear, I should not have been–would she have offered this solution?  I also wonder why the pediatrician’s records that I collected just six months ago were not sufficient.  Was some part of the paperwork lost or did Kate get shots during the summer that I forgot about?).

Anyway, given the public’s interest in knowing that school children have been properly vaccinated, it is ludicrous that vaccination records are protected with the same security that we rightly accord to pregnancy and AIDS tests.  Vaccinations have become so secret that it’s tough to make sure your child has been properly vaccinated.*  The school already has my daughter’s birthday and social security number; let them have access to a big national database where they can check her immunization records directly.

(*Of course, under the same regulations, there are better and worse ways of doing things.  I miss Kaiser Permanente–they automatically give you a printout of your children’s immunization status at every visit.  Every doctor should do that.  Let’s make prevention easy).


Not feeling very interested in Kate’s privacy today,

but yep, Kate isn’t her actual name (is that odd?),

grumpy, but feeling better after blogging about it,


P.S. In honor of November and the intent of this blog: I  am thankful that the greatest hurdle to my daughter being properly immunized is my own memory.  I am blessed with good insurance and excellent access to medical care so I have much to be thankful for.  I am also grateful to people who are nicer to me than I deserve.  I need to try harder to be nicer to other people than they deserve.

Nevermore! Or how to age paper

aged paper old paper milk

For the 6th grade Halloween class party this year, I decided that reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven would be fun. I thought a nice take-home item would be a copy of the poem printed in an interesting font on paper aged to look old and fragile. I was wrong.  It did not go well.
Edgar Allan Poe The Raven
But dear reader, despite my croak of nevermore! after this disappointing episode, I still love the idea of aged paper. I should have been a forger. A copy of The Raven on neat-looking old paper would have been a great Halloween gift to me.  In case you share this predilection:

A tutorial on how to make paper appear old:

Necessary: whole milk, an oven, a baking sheet 

1. Heat the  oven to 400 degrees.
2. Fill a 9×13 baking pan with whole milk. (2% milk might work, especially if you would like the paper to brown but not get too splotchy. Skim and 1% don’t work well.)
3. Immerse your paper* in the pan with the milk. You don’t need to be very gentle. The paper is stronger than you think and a tear here or there will only enhance the final effect. You may have to weight the paper with a spoon to keep it from floating up.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment. If you don’t, you will be very sorry.

Burnt stuck paper

What sorry you forgot the parchment paper looks like

5. After about ten minutes (no need to be precise) lift the paper out of the milk. Hold it above the pan for several seconds to let the excess milk drip away.
6. Arrange the milky paper on the parchment paper on the baking sheet. If there is a wrinkle here or there, that will probably just enhance the look you’re going for (to do two pages at once on one baking sheet you will have to wrinkle them a little to make them both fit).
7. Cook the paper on the lowest rack for about 4 minutes. Remove it from the oven and carefully turn it the other side. (This helps to distribute the darker spots more evenly and makes the final result more legible.)  It is fragile at this point.   This step is only necessary if you’re fussy. 
8. Cook for about 6 more minutes. 
9. If flatness is important, immediately put a heavy book on the aged paper while it is still hot from the oven.

*Paper: If you want something written on the paper, write it before aging it. Black ink handwriting will look best. Test a small sample to make sure your ink isn’t water-soluble.  Computer printing is also an option.  I was surprised and relieved to discover that my inkjet printer ink didn’t run–it turned the milk pinkish, but it didn’t smear.

Lastly: If you are hoping for a specific look, repetition may be key. The paper never turns out exactly the same twice. Allowing more milk to pool on the paper in the cookie sheet will lead to more splotches as will higher fat (cream makes dark globs). As you would guess, longer cooking time will lead to darker and harder to read results, shorter will lead to lighter results.

Have fun!
Old paper colored by time

Paper aged with milk