In the midst



A while back, I blogged about the TV series White Collar which had quickly become a favorite of mine.  One of the many things I liked about it was that it was a clean show.  Before I wrote that blog, I had seen an interview clip on the internet where the actors discussed how they enjoyed making television that was clean enough that their (older) children could watch with them.  Unfortunately, their enjoyment of making a clean show apparently did not outweigh the other pressures on them.  I am now sad to say that I hope you didn’t start watching this show based on my recommendation.  (Because I don’t have cable, I see it on Hulu several months after the shows initially air on the USA Network).  While I still like the show, and many of the episodes could be described as clean, others are clearly not.  I wish the producers would have left the steamy, unfastening of clothing scenes out or that the actors and actresses could have refused to participate.

We tried watching a British television show, Downton Abbey, on Netflix.  Disappointingly, it was the same story.  While I really liked the show in general, and I did see an episode with nothing bad in it, other episodes had material I simply didn’t care to see.   After 2 1/2 episodes, I knew that I couldn’t pretend that this show was virtuous lovely or of good report.  The other night we went to see the movie The King’s Speech (pg-13) at the theater.  I really enjoyed it; perhaps I will publish a separate review.  Anyway, before the feature started, we had to sit through the previews.  I know that I am prudish but I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of culture would view the sort of things spotlighted in the previews as entertainment.

All this reminded me of one of the scriptures that was in the lesson I prepared for today at Church from Philippians 2:

15That ye may be blameless and harmless, the asons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse bnation, among whom ye cshine as lights in the world;

I don’t always feel like a shining light, and I’m not always completely sure how to be one, but I can recognize the dark.  It is discouraging how much darkness is in our media.  It does make it feel as though one is “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”  It is a shame that it can get to the point where it feels like perhaps it would be best not to turn on the television or go to the movie theater or wait in the checkout line at the grocery store!  I hate turning my back on books, movies, and TV I otherwise enjoy, but if I don’t, am I taking poison with my cake?

Next year . . . Mincemeat!

I had a lovely Thanksgiving.  At the last minute, I was even able to track down some mincemeat pie at my parent’s little grocery store.  It’s the small things!  I was very thankful.  For me, it simply isn’t Thanksgiving without mincemeat pie and my grocery store didn’t carry it at all.  Frustration!  Groaning!  Perhaps even whimpering.  Clearly, if I want mincemeat pie for future Thanksgivings, I need to learn how to make it myself.  I hereby resolve that next year, there will be mincemeat made by my own hands. 

 I started my googling towards this end on Thanksgiving Day itself.  I was stunned to find a recipe for Green Tomato Mincemeat and then further stunned to have my mother confirm that the mincemeat she had had as a girl was always of the green tomato variety.  Green tomato mincemeat??!! It turns out that there are dozens of internet recipes for this!  To go back a little, the reason Thanksgiving = Mincemeat for me is because my wonderful great aunt Joy served it at her Thanksgiving dinners that I attended each year as a child.  Those dinners were the stuff that tradition is made of.  Although some things have fallen away–Joy no longer hosts hundreds and I no longer play with Barbies on Thanksgiving–I haven’t stopped passing up the pumpkin and looking for the Mince pie.  Aunt Joy is from my Dad’s side of the family so I have always associated mincemeat with them.  Now I learn that my mother grew up eating it too–made out of green tomatoes!  This is tragic, because just a few weeks ago I had a lovely supply of green tomatoes and I could have tried it.  Now I will have to wait an entire year! 

Too late for a green tomato harvest here

My googling also led me to the information that Mincemeat is traditionally considered a Christmas pie.  Surprise # 2!  Again, my mother confirmed: “Oh yes, I always thought it was funny that they served mince pies at Thanksgiving.  It’s a Christmas pie!”  Oh.  I wondered if this was a Canadian thing (My mother is Canadian).  Further googling revealed that Mincemeat is definitely an English thing and that Mincemeat pie was long associated with Catholicism.  In fact, the Puritans refused to eat it because for them Mincemeat was tied up with idolatry.  I’m glad I’m not Puritan!      

I can’t help being drawn to the recipes that call for suet.  Something about suet screams authenticity (I’m not sure that I’m brave enough to go as far as the recipes that call for venison though!)  MinceMEAT, yeehah!  Apparently, it’s possible to substitute vegetable oil, although that doesn’t seem like a good substitute.  Any ideas on where I could get real suet anyone?  Have any of you ever made mincemeat–with or without green tomatoes, with or without suet?  How did it turn out? 

Meanwhile this resolving to make mincemeat post has reminded me that last year I resolved to do Advent and today is December1st!  I’d better get cracking, or there will be no reason to hold out hope for this year’s mincemeat resolutions!

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.