My son is a reader–Thank you Warriors!

Yesterday after Duncan got home from school he was quiet for a long, long time. Long periods of quiet from Duncan are unusual and also disturbing (messy and involved craft projects are a possible cause). I went looking and quickly found him. This is what I saw:

image

He didn’t move or change expression at all when I photographed him. He was engrossed. Until yesterday, he has been reading mainly Seuss and beginning reader type stuff (and we considered that highly exciting) so this was a stunning development. He read to himself for at least 90 minutes until he had finished the book. May I say I am thankful? I am SO thankful! It has been a long road to reading for this boy. He is only 7, but we are a reading-centric household and although he has loved to be read to since he was tiny, until this year his progress towards reading to himself seemed plodding. Judging from his handwriting, I think the letters may be backwards in his mind–many of them certainly are on his papers!

His school teacher has worked wonders this year. Thank you Melinda!

A lot of credit must also go to the Warriors Series by Erin Hunter. We have spent countless hours reading the Warriors books to him. The one he is reading in the picture is #4. We were halfway through reading it aloud to him before a) our need to work on the tax return and b) his need to know what happened next, coincided to produce the above result. Warriors is about four clans of warrior cats who live in the forest and interact amidst clan warfare, villainy, and environmental disaster. When my mother-in-law gave Amelia the first book in the series many years ago, I was deeply skeptical. It didn’t look good; it didn’t sound good. It sat on the shelf in our house for a long time. But readers always run out of material, so we eventually had to give it a try. I love these books as much as Amelia and Duncan–we all love them. (Though as Pdad says, by book #4, the series becomes predictable). Highly recommended!

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.

Logan’s Mandarin Garden

I visited Cache Valley last weekend.  The #1 best reason to visit Cache Valley is to see my parents.  However, if you have different parents, the #1 best reason to visit Cache Valley is Tiny Spicy Chicken.  This is a review of the Mandarin Garden restaurant in Logan, but I can only comment on one dish: Tiny Spicy Chicken.  I never order anything else.  I read on Urbanspoon that they might have recently changed recipes (!), but it wasn’t true–I enjoyed the same chicken tiny spicy fans have adored for years.  The Mandarin Garden’s menu describes tiny spicy chicken as “deep fried chicken sauteed w/our FAMOUS spicy tangy hot sauce.”  I never thought of it as deep fried until I read that description just now.  Too bad.  Blot that part from your memory.  Don’t think about your health at a time like this!  Unless you live in Logan, you will only be able to indulge a few times a year anyway, so you are safe. 

I am a failure as a blogger because I was unable to get a picture of the Tiny Spicy Chicken for you.  Suffering from technical difficulties, I was eating with people who are unaccustomed to photographing every dish before they touch it, so I had to give up in order to be polite.  But here’s what I want you to imagine: Beautiful, beautiful food.  Food that makes you happy just to look at it.  How can boring bland pale old chicken be beautiful?  How can it be a feast for the eyes as well as the lips and tummy?  I don’t know, but the Mandarin Garden has figured it out.  The problem is, they aren’t telling.  Tiny spicy chicken, with its deep red color, its  just right hint of spiciness (I wouldn’t call it hot), its teasing, tantalizing zing, its perfect texture, can only be had in Logan.  They aren’t giving out the recipe, so you will have to make the drive. 

The best time to eat Tiny Spicy is a weekday lunch–the Mandarin Garden is well-known for its cheap lunch specials.  However, Tiny Spicy for dinner will only set you back $8.50, so don’t skip it just because it isn’t lunch time.  Do skip the dinner combo though, unless you have to have egg drop soup; the lo mein is not inspiring.     

Mandarin Garden

432 N. Main, Logan, UT
(435) 753-5789
Open every day but Sunday

Hours: 11-9:30 p.m (10:30 on Friday and Saturday

Mandarin Garden Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Chocolate: Slipping?

Photo of The Chocolate Caramel by Jonathan Canlas, from The Chocolate's blog

When I first visited The Chocolate, I loved it.  During recent visits though, a few things have bothered me: dirty carpets, a dirty drinking glass, and good, rather than fantastic, desserts.  (But the chocolate cupcakes with caramel frosting are an exception.  They are fantastic!  I sure wish I could figure out how to copy that frosting!)  On the other hand: I still love, love, love the concept.  Some reviewers complain that The Chocolate is expensive.  Hogwash, I say.  It may be expensive if you are buying dozens of cupcakes or a whole cake to go.  But that’s not why I like the Chocolate.  The Chocolate is a destination.  Compare taking a friend, child, or date to The Chocolate vs. a restaurant.  The Chocolate is cheap!  It is wonderful to have a place to go that feels a little bit elegant for a special treat that costs very little.  As I said, The Chocolate  is a great idea.  I love the building they put it in and I love the beautiful colors.  I love the music they play.  Some reviewers have said that the service is not good.  While I have occasionally experienced slow service or have had to stand in line, I have no complaints.  The workers have never been rude, and I go to The Chocolate when I want to relax.  I’m not in a hurry, so waiting a few minutes is not a big deal.   

I will continue to give The Chocolate second chances because I like the concept so much.  I really want them to get it right.  The Chocolate: I beg you: if you haven’t already, please wash or replace your carpets!  Never allow anything but the most scrupulously clean glass to leave your kitchen. I want to adore you. Please make it easy!

The Chocolate, a Dessert Cafe on Urbanspoon

White Collar

Thanks to Hulu and Netflix I have discovered a TV show I really like.  The premise is that con man Neal Caffrey persuades the FBI agent who captures him (Peter Burke) to allow him to stay out of prison.  Caffrey dons a tracking anklet with a two mile radius and becomes a special consultant, helping Burke and the FBI to crack their toughest white collar cases.   

Suspension of disbelief is crucial to enjoying the show.  Caffrey’s expertise in the world of white collar crime is Macgyver-like in its perfection.  Caffrey and Burke always succeed and they make it look effortless every time.  Once you manage to suspend your disbelief, however, watching them bring down the bad guys is 40 minutes’ leisure’s great pleasure.  

One thing I appreciate about this show is how clean it is.  Because of its white collar crime focus, the violence, gore and disturbing subject matter that characterize so many crime shows is left behind.  Women will love this show.  Neal Caffrey is undeniably pleasant to watch, but also the women in the show are smart, beautiful, and important.  Agent Burke’s marriage receives a surprising amount of screentime.  Peter loves his wife Elizabeth.  He goes to her for advice and a listening ear, and is always seeking new ways to please her.  They have a stable, loving, long-term marriage–far too rare on television.  Neal is not a different story on this front.  Although he is a huge flirt, the overarching plot in seasons 1 and 2 is driven by his devotion to Kate and his desire to get her back.

White Collar will resume its first-run episodes on the USA network next January, but until then, there’s always Hulu and Netflix!

Mimi’s

After a couple of bad previous experiences at Mimi’s Cafe (University Parkway, Orem), I had rated Mimi’s on Urbanspoon as “I don’t like it.”  But I have a sister who is in love with their bacon macaroni dish and when our brother came to town he asked to try the place out. 

I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  We had good service and we were all pleased with our food. The out of towners enjoyed the decor.   The prices were reasonable–right around ten dollars.  The big hit of the night was the chicken pot pie which had everyone raving.  It was a thing of beauty!  The Breakfast Ciabatta got a big thumbs up as well, and I enjoyed the turkey dinner (although prepare yourself for some salty stuffing!)  The mashed potatoes were fantastic–creamy and so flavorful.  My sister had the Cordon Bleu and she said that while it was good, she would go back to her other favorites on the menu in the future. 

The entree portions were well-sized–I took half of my turkey dinner home and still felt like I had eaten too much.  However, another in our party said that he expected a larger portion of french fries based on previous visits.  I think the truth is that Mimi’s is inconsistent.  Some of the food is really good, some is not, often you can good service, other times you don’t.    

When I have liked Mimi’s in the past, it always started with their bread.  They know how to do bread!  Remember that if you visit at lunch and would like bread, you must ask for it, they won’t offer.  The bread is really, really good so don’t forget to ask.  We were disappointed that  the amount of bread brought was very stingy for the number of people in our party–barely one piece each.  We had to break the favorite bread–carrot raisin–into pieces so that everyone could get a little taste.  I hope they are offering more bread at dinner, because the carrot raisin bread is really the highlight of Mimi’s for me, but not if I only get one bite! 

All in all, I was pleased to find that Mimi’s was a place I thought I could visit again–especially if I stick to the tried and true on the menu.

Mimi's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Patricia Polacco

One of the greatest pleasures I have found in motherhood is in sharing good books with my children.  I love to read books with these small people and to discover that they take the same joy in them that I do.  Let me recommend one source of this joy to you in case you haven’t discovered her already, author Patricia Polacco. 

Polacco’s books are wonderful for reading with elementary school children and on one’s own.  Polacco is prolific and both writes and illustrates her books.  She is one of the rare authors who are able to do both extremely well.  Her stories (many based on her own childhood) are oh-so-human, so engaging, so interesting, so ready to transport you to a different place and time.  As for her illustrations–well, facial expressions have never been so well captured.  (Intriguingly, Polacco earned a PhD in art history and is an expert on Russian iconography–but her pictures are earthy and achingly real, her texts down to earth and accessible).  Some of my favorite titles are Thank you, Mr. Falker,  Just Plain Fancy , Chicken Sunday, and The Keeping Quilt

Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare--Patricia Polacco

After forgetting about Polacco for a while, just last week my love of her work was renewed by a title I’d never seen before: Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare, a partly (mostly?) true story of a conflict with her brother and how it all ended happily ever after.  Since sibling contention is an ongoing issue in our home, and I’m always hoping and looking forward to the day that my children can write their own happily ever after endings, I just adored this book.  Check it out!

P.S., Already familiar with Polacco?  What are your favorite titles?

Crayola Window Crayons

Crayola Window Crayons* are great!  They are cheap, they are fun, and they work.  I use them to write on our car windows when Amelia has a swim meet.  She is not a swimmer that wins races, so we look for other sources of motivation.  The window crayons allow me to let her know how much I love her, how much I am rooting for her, and how excited I am that she is swimming in a race.  I use the window crayons to tell the world that I have an athlete and that I am very proud of her hard, hard work and her stick-to-it-iveness.  I love seeing her face when she first spies the minivan covered with “Go, Amelia, go!” type slogans.  It doesn’t matter that I have no artistic skills.  It just matters that I try. 

Crayola window crayons on minivan window

You can buy a 5 crayon pack from  ToysRus for $3. Don’t confuse these with the window markers also by Crayola.  Surprisingly, they aren’t nearly as good!  The caps don’t fit the markers very well.  Then the marker dries out and your money is wasted.  Also, the marker colors are pale and harder to see, while the window crayon colors pop!  The slightly tinted windows on our van are the perfect background.  The crayons go on really smoothly and the colors are bright–messages can be read from many yards away.  Cleaning the crayon off the windows isn’t hard–it just takes a moist paper towel.   

Crayola Window Crayons

*I bought the crayons with my own money.  No one encouraged me to write this review, and I haven’t received any compensation for it financial or otherwise.   

P.S. Amelia achieved two personal best times at her meet this past weekend.  Hip, hip hooray!  Yea for personal bests!  Go, Amelia, go!

Books for Girls and their Moms

I haven’t blogged because I’ve been busy planning a mother-daughter book club.  I was hung up on the guest list–not wanting to exclude anyone who wanted to be included, but worrying that it would get too big, worrying about different girls’ different reading levels, little sisters, etc.  My new plan: I’ve simply invited every girl (and her mom) from Amelia’s fifth grade class and not any others.  This way, they are all the same age, they all read on an advanced level, and no one is included or excluded on the basis of popularity.  

I've been feeling like the library's best customer recently . . .

I've been feeling like the library's best customer recently . . .

I assume that not all 12 girls and their mothers will want to participate, but a group with 12 mother-daughter pairs would be too large anyway.  I think just 4 mother daughter pairs would be enough to make it a success, so I hope we will get that many. 

If we were a well-established book group, I think it would be best to have the girls help choose the books.  But since this group is just meeting for the summer at this point, and we need a jumpstart, I decided to just pick the six books (we will meet twice a month this summer) and let the girls and moms sign up if they were interested in reading those books.   

I was surprised how difficult it was to pick the books! Each book needed:

1) to be relatively short, because we are meeting every two weeks

2) to provide good material for discussion

3) to be interesting and well-written

4) to be in print and available at both our local library and as a cheap paperback at Amazon

5) to include only material that was appropriate for 11 year olds to read and discuss. 

(A further stumbling block was that my 11 yr old didn’t want me to plan any books she had already read–and she has read a lot.  I ended up planning to read The Giver despite her wishes for new material).

The mix of books I came up with is heavily weighted toward realistic fiction; I struggled to find fantasy and science fiction books that met all of my criteria.  These books have some challenging (yet appropriate) topics, but they won’t be a challenge in terms of reading skill.  I figure it is better to err on the side of too easy rather than too difficult.  These books are also a little on the heavy side–you can’t escape the “life is full of adversity” message in these books–I’m not sure if that comes along with the “good material for discussion” criterion or if the list turned out that way by chance.  

Anyway, drumroll please!  Here are the books I selected:

Listening for Lions                    Gloria Whelan (National Book Award winner), 2005

Rachel has lived in British East Africa her entire life, but when the flu epidemic of 1919 leaves her an orphan, she is forced to leave the only home she knows.  Scheming neighbors coerce her into  pretending to be their deceased daughter and send her to England.  Can she undo their web of lies without hurting others?  Will she ever be able to return to Africa?  Will the mission hospital her parents worked so hard to build ever reopen?

 

Cousins                                              Virginia Hamilton (Newbery Medal winner), 1990

Cammy loves her  brother,  mom and  grandma—but has a father she doesn’t know and a cousin who is an enemy rather than a friend.  She makes a terrible wish that she doesn’t intend to come true, but when it does, her family must help her learn how to heal. 

 

The Breadwinner                            Deborah Ellis, 2000

Parvana lives under the harsh restrictions of Taliban rule with her family in AfghanistanWhen her father disappears, Parvana is the only one able to get food for the family, but she must transform herself into a boy and risk her own safety to do it.     

 

The Bomb                                          Theodore Taylor (author of The Cay) , 1995

Sorry Rinamu lives on Bikini Atoll at the end of World War II.  The Americans liberate Bikini from the Japanese, and life is good until the Americans select Bikini as the best place to conduct atomic tests.  Sorry and his fellow Islanders are asked to relocate.  Will they? Can the tests be stopped?

 

Out of the Dust                                  (1998 Newbery Medal                       Karen Hesse, 1997

This novel is written in free verse.  Billie Jo lives in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great DepressionHer father’s crops fail again and again, dust seeps into their food, their truck, and their piano, and it seems like things can’t get any worse.  But then an accident takes her mother and baby brother and Billie Jo’s hands are left burnt and useless.  How will she and her father find hope when life seems hopeless?

 

The Giver                                           (1994 Newbery Medal)                            Lois Lowry, 1993

In a world with no poverty, no crime, no sickness and no unemployment, and where every family is happy, 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the community’s Receiver of Memories. Under the tutelage of the Elders and an old man known as the Giver, he discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world. (Summary from Amazon.com)