GeekDad Raising Geek Generation 2.0 Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:30:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ‘City of Zombies': You Need Brains to Survive Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:30:54 +0000 Hold off the zombies using mental arithmetic. 'City of Zombies' is a fun, intuitive game that teaches math along the way. Continue reading

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One of the best things to arrive in our house in the last few months is City of Zombies from THINKnoodle games. British designer Matthew Tidbury was inspired by his children to invent the game. His vision was to create something fun and intuitive to help children learn math. He realized that vision with this dice-based, Day of the Dead-channelling board game. 

City of Zombies is collaborative; together you defend the barricades protecting the city from an undead incursion. A plane will arrive to pluck you to safety, but only if you survive long enough for it to reach you. The secret to halting the zombie threat? Mental arithmetic. It’s time to use your brains or have them eaten. 

Play starts with the defenders (1-6 players) manning the barricade. The zombies start at the top of the board and after each round shuffle downwards towards their dinner. That’s if they haven’t first been mercilessly hacked down by a pair of threes.

A game round is broken into a turn for each player, who each roll 3D6. Every zombie card has a number on it. If players can make the numbers rolled on the dice equal the numbers on one or more zombie cards, those zombies are destroyed.

All the standard operations are allowed, so you add, subtract, multiply and divide as you attempt to hold back the horde. For example, if you rolled 2, 4, and 6 you could knock out zombies valued 2 & 10; 12 & 4; or even 2, 4, & 6. Dice can be combined any way you can think of, but you must use all three numbers rolled or you can’t kill any zombies that turn.  

After everybody has played, the round ends. If the players have killed all the zombies, i.e. the streets are empty, they are each dealt a survivor card, representing extra people they have saved. Survivor cards serve no purpose during the game but provide a method of scoring at the end; the more survivors you save the better you’ve done. If at the end of the round, there are zombies remaining they move forward. If they reach the barricades they start eating your survivors (or frightening them away, for those with a gentler disposition). Once all six barricade spaces are filled the defenses are overrun and the zombies win.

The zombies are in prime position to overrun the barricades

The zombies are in prime position to overrun the barricades. Photo: Robin Brooks

A new round begins with the plane moving forward one square and the arrival of another wave of zombies. Play continues until the plane arrives or the barricades are overrun. Game length can be set at 5, 10, or 15 turns, depending on how much time you have and/or the attention span of your players.

City of Zombies is intuitive, and is easy for children to pick up. There are quick rules on a 2-sided A4 sheet and the full rules only take up 6 pages. My boys were soon adding up the dice to destroy the zombies far quicker than if I’d said, “What’s 6 + 5 – 2?” There’s a special rule about powering up dice, i.e. squaring them, which gives defenders scope to make much bigger numbers. My six year-old now readily squares his numbers 1-6.

The beauty of City of Zombies is its scalability. There are four Zombie deck types A through D, with A & B having comparatively simple numbers, and C & D having more difficult ones like 29 and the dreaded 42. Once the players are comfortable with the basic game, there are optional advanced rules that are used to make play even harder. With all the advanced rules and the high-numbered zombies in play, the game is very challenging.

The back of the box

The back of the box

The special rules are denoted by recognizable icons on each card, making it easy to remember what their effects are. They can cause zombies to move faster, require that all the dice are used on only a single zombie, and even stop players using speech to confer (always fun). To allow my 6- & 9-year-olds to play equally alongside one another we make the special rules apply to the older one, but not for his younger brother. That way they can both contribute at their own level whilst maintaining game balance.

The icing on the cake, or perhaps the fluid on the brain, are the game’s production values. The zombie artwork is excellent. There are two types – cartoon and pen and ink. The type D cards, more generally used for older children, have more graphic depictions of zombies on them, but I don’t think they’ll give children nightmares. If you are unsure, there are lots of examples of the art work on the City of Zombies website. The card stock is good, the board is well made and the dice are high quality (making that satisfying clack when you shake them in your hand). It’s a great product to look at as well as play.

City of Zombies has just enough of the gruesome about it to switch on young minds, which you can then take advantage of by teaching them math without them noticing. It’s a perfect mix of challenge and education. Teacher pack versions are also available. I can’t comment on these directly as I haven’t tried them, but I can well believe they would be a valuable addition in the arsenal of any teacher wanting to teach mental arithmetic. The improvement in my children’s math has been marked.

This game has established itself as our family favorite in the three months we’ve owned it. It’s easy to play and great fun. I can’t think of a better conceived educational boardgame. It’s the perfect conjunction for geek parents and their offspring; math and zombie incursion. It’s preparing our little ones for life’s most important eventualities. And there’s more on the way. A Times Square Expansion Pack is on the horizon, and will include extra item cards, a D12 and zombies that go right up to 144! We can’t wait.

City of Zombies is available direct from the City of Zombies website. Games are posted from the UK but there is currently a whopping 46% discount on shipping to the US and Canada.

Zombies eat brains, not cookies. Photo: Robin Brooks

Zombies eat brains, not cookies. Photo: Robin Brooks

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Post-Apocalyptic Hilarity Ensues on ‘The Last Man on Earth’ Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:00:24 +0000 Step aside, 'Walking Dead,' there’s a new apocalypse on Sunday nights. 'The Last Man On Earth' is perhaps the funniest, most original comedy series currently on network television. Continue reading

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©2015 Fox Broadcastiing Co. Cr: Jordin Althaus/FOX

Step aside, Walking Dead, there’s a new apocalypse on Sunday nights. This past Sunday, Fox’s The Last Man On Earth premiered with two back-to-back episodes, bringing high concept, post-apocalyptic comedy to the single-camera format. The result is perhaps the funniest, most original comedy series currently on network television. Created by Will Forte (SNL) alongside Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the guys behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street (2012), The Last Man On Earth delivers just the right amount of satire, pop familiarity, and irony you’d expect from those responsible for “Everything Is Awesome” and MacGruber.

Forte stars as Phil Miller, the last man on earth after an unspecified plague has wiped out humanity. Instead of predictably fighting for survival, the first half of the pilot has Phil scouring the country in search of other survivors, amassing junk food, booze, and some of the most famous artwork and artifacts he finds along the way. When he arrives back in his hometown of Tucson, he moves into a McMansion he’s decorated with all manner of Americana he’s collected–from the actual Declaration of Independence, famous works of art, and the carpet from the Oval Office to game-worn Michael Jordan jerseys and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Months pass and he fills his spare time drinking heavily, blowing up cars, literally destroying things, and amassing grand and disgusting messes.


©2015 Fox Broadcastiing Co. Cr: Jordin Althaus/FOX

In the funniest sequence of the pilot, Phil watches the film Cast Away, condemning it for its inaccuracy in depicting solitude as something that would lead a man to befriend a volleyball. Later in the episode, he greets a bar full of friends who just happen to be a variety of balls with faces drawn on.

As he slips into lonely despair, ready to take his own life, Phil discovers he is in fact not alone. Kristen Schaal (30 Rock) plays Carol Pibasian, who is perhaps the last woman on earth. Two episodes in and the title of the show remains intact. Phil is indeed the last “man” on the planet, but he is certainly not alone.

The darkness of the post-apocalyptic genre, especially with last man scenarios like I Am Legend or The Omega Man, usually present the world as bleak and unrelenting. Where darkness usually prevails in the genre, The Last Man on Earth creates a world of excess, where scarcity gives way to the plentiful and the struggles of the last survivors feel fruitless and petty. This is where the series shines as great satire of the American way. In the end, alone, with nothing but the excess of the American dream of wealth and materialism, emptiness will inevitably prevail.


©2015 Fox Broadcastiing Co. Cr: Jordin Althaus/FOX

This sounds bleak, but the writers handle it with grace–light with a heavy side of knowing laughter as the irony slowly unravels. Once Schaal enters, the freewheeling survival of Phil gives way to a nagging sense of responsibility and expectations. Imagine being stuck on earth with someone who is essentially your complete opposite, someone you would never be drawn to under ordinary circumstances. That’s precisely where these two characters stand. While I would have liked to see the show go on a few more episodes before introducing Schaal, I think she and Forte play off each other perfectly, and look forward to seeing where their relationship leads.

The Last Man On Earth was originally pitched to cable and subscription companies. The show really feels more like a cable series. That bodes well for a network like Fox. With the bulk of original programming these days coming from everywhere but network television, it’s rare for a network like Fox to take a chance on such a high concept comedy. I’m glad they did, though I do wonder how the show would have played out in a less-restrained atmosphere like Netflix. Either way, it’s nice to be able to visit an end of the world that doesn’t feel like a soul-sucking, humanity-devolving nightmare and just have a few laughs.

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‘Council of Verona: Corruption’ Expansion Coming Soon Wed, 04 Mar 2015 14:30:18 +0000 Early review of 'Council of Verona: Corruption'; Coming soon to Kickstarter! Continue reading

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Image: Crash Games

Image: Crash Games

We are off again on another adventure to fair Verona. This time, Crash Games has provided a new layer to gameplay for Council of Verona with its expansion, Corruption. This 22-card addition was designed by Crash Games founder Patrick Nickell and Council of Verona designer Michael Eskue. Once per turn, the player can add a Corruption card to an already-played Character card. Any Corruption card can be played face down. At the end of the game, the face-down cards are turned right side up, and their effects are applied, unless they are not applicable. Cards with no useful effect are disregarded, allowing for you to use them to bluff. This allows for a whole new level of action and deception.

Image: Rory Bristol

Image: Rory Bristol

There are 21 actions/effects, and one bluff (blank) card. Players are dealt four cards each, and keep two. The rest are returned to the box, and are not used in the game. My favorite cards include:

  • Bribery: Add 1 extra influence spot with a +1 modifier.
  • Extortion: Add 2 extra influence spots with a -1 modifier.
  • Guard: This Character cannot be moved.
  • Develop: The value of all Influence Tokens on this card are increased by one point.
  • Humiliation: Any “5” value Influence Tokens are worth only 3 influence on this card.
  • Disregard: Score modifiers on this card are ignored (including anything added or affected by other Corruption cards).
  • Misdirection: Swap one card on the Council with one in Exile.

As you can see, not even playing a card such as Develop is guaranteed to succeed. Playing it face down could be countered by Disregard face up OR face down. Once played in any way, Corruption cards cannot be taken back. Face down cards cannot be turned over, and if a Character card is moved between Exile and Council, the Corruption cards are moved with the Character. There are no “reaction” abilities. Cards such as Guard must be played face up on the Character before a card such as Misdirection or any other “move” action takes place.

The Kickstarter for this expansion will be released in tandem with the second edition of the Council of Verona, and a number of other surprises from Crash Games.

Crash Games

Crash Games

Stay tuned for the official announcement of the Kickstarter!

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Play With Science in ‘LEGO Chain Reactions’ Wed, 04 Mar 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Think Rube Goldberg devices, but with LEGO. Continue reading

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Image: Klutz

Image: Klutz

LEGO Education has been around for a while, creating educational kits and curricula to teach programming, simple machines, robotics, pneumatics, engineering, and more. From my experiences with the WeDo set and the Simple Machines curriculum, they are definitely worth the time and money. But they aren’t cheap, and it takes a while to get through the material. Great for homeschooling, but not necessarily for every family’s situation.

Fortunately, Klutz has put out a couple of books that are better for a conventional educational LEGO gift for your kids. Several years ago, they came out with LEGO Crazy Action Contraptions, and now they have LEGO Chain Reactions by Pat Murphy. Think Rube Goldberg devices, but with LEGO.

Contraption Number One. Photo: Jenny Bristol

Contraption Number One. (The books are ours.) Photo: Jenny Bristol

My kids recently spent some quality time with the book while I watched and made “helpful” suggestions. (They did fine without me.) The first project, Machine No. 1–Quintopple, starts you out making a multi-part contraption using only pieces included in the book. Paper, string, a ball, and LEGO pieces create a contraption powered by gravity which, if it’s put together correctly, pops up a sign at the end of the track.

As you get into Machine No. 2–Dominoes, you need to provide some of your own LEGO bricks to make larger and larger domino-type structures, which you will then knock down. Later projects add more ramps, pulleys, many extra LEGO pieces, and a lot more steps. By the end of the book, kids can use what they know and invent their own contraptions, limited only by their LEGO collection.

Each of the ten projects in the book has clear, step-by-step directions to build the component parts, a procedure to follow for beginning the movement of the contraption, and a scientific explanation of what is happening and what is being learned in that chapter. The book also comes with the paper ramps, signs, and more, along with 20 specialized LEGO pieces that you aren’t likely to have all of in your collection. Several of the projects also require you to use basic items from your own house, such as a book, and basic LEGO pieces from your collection.

What did we think of this book? We liked it a lot. It teaches real science in a fun way, and kids can do it on their own if needed. The paper pieces included in the book are a bit flimsy, though, and likely won’t stand up to being used more than a few times, depending on how careful your kids are. These paper pieces are also hard to get out of the back of the book, since they’re held into the binding and enclosed in a plastic envelope. But it will provide hours of fun, and learning while you’re having fun is the best way to do it.

LEGO Chain Reactions costs less than $20 and is a great activity book for homeschooling, after school, spring break, summer break, or just a science lesson on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It’s not only full of important scientific lessons, but it will also inspire kids to design their own contraptions.

Note: I received this book for review purposes.

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Kickstarter Tabletop Alert: ‘Clairvoyance’ Wed, 04 Mar 2015 13:30:52 +0000 'Clairvoyance' is a fast-paced, psychic card game from Eye4Games studio, creators of 'AlakaSLAM.' Based around a unique mechanic of turning the die rather than rolling it, it's a humorous contest of furniture tossing with a lot of character. Continue reading

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clairvoyance-logoClairvoyance is a fast-paced, psychic card game from Eye4Games studio, creators of AlakaSLAM. Based around a unique mechanic of turning the die rather than rolling it, it’s a humorous contest of furniture tossing with a lot of character.

At a glance: Clairvoyance is a card game for 2-5 players ages 13 and up, and takes anywhere between 10-50 minutes to play (depending on number of players and how cutthroat they’re feeling that day).

clairvoyance-charactersThere are eight characters to choose from, each with their own once-per-game power. The play deck itself comprises 80 cards. They cover a wide variety of items to be thrown, from the heavy (dressers), to the pointy (katanas), to the mystical (pentagrams). Some of these items are straightforward: you correctly “predict” the die roll and toss the item at the character of your choosing. Other items offer skills that can help you if you add it to your pool of possessed items or harm other players if you force it into theirs. Scattered throughout the deck are Hexes that add some instant powers to your hand. The artwork is stylistic and well done, reflecting the humor of the concept. Likewise the flavor text for the cards is full of groan-worthy puns. The rulebook is straightforward and offers not-to-be-missed bios for the characters. Seriously. Ed’s necessitates a full spoken monologue at the beginning of each play session in my house.

The project launched on Kickstarter today. $25 will snag you a printed copy of the full game. There are also less-expensive print and play pledge levels if you’re so inclined. An expansion deck will be developed throughout the course of the campaign by backers.

New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.


  • 8 unique character cards
  • 80 item/hex cards (36 unique)
  • 5 reference cards
  • Detailed rule book
  • 8-sided die
  • 5 health tokens

The copy I played was a demo copy, but the components were very close to final. Upgraded health tokens are part of the stretch goals, along with other hidden goodies.

How to Play: If you’d like to give it a shot now, there’s a black and white Print and Play version on Gumroad.

clairvoyance-overviewEach player starts with a character card and a hand of five item/hex cards. Your goal is to KO the other players before they do the same to you. Each turn, you can choose two of the following actions: possessing items (for yourself or others), throwing items (from your hand or possession pool), and discarding two cards. Possessed items (a max of three) are placed in front of you, where you can use their abilities or keep them in reserve to toss without die-turning on on your next turn.

Speaking of die-turning, this is what sets Clairvoyance apart from other card games. Your characters, being psychics, can see what the future die roll will be, and plan their moves accordingly. Instead of rolling, you turn the die face once (unless the cards tell you otherwise) to a number that matches one of the numbers on the item you want to throw or possess and, voila, you complete the action. It takes a few rounds to get the hang of it and start strategizing die turns. Thankfully, the included reference cards provide you with a cheat sheet of the potential die faces. You can also play instant abilities at any time, either from your hand or from items. Item powers are played from your possessed items and are either ongoing effects or one-time only. The ongoing item powers are rare and can either be extremely helpful or harmful as the game progresses. Instants also come in the form of Hex cards that either save your butt or deep-six your opponents’ strategies.

The Verdict

With a unique and well-executed theme, Clairvoyance is a lot of fun. It plays super-fast as well; I can easily see bringing this to game night and playing a few rounds while more-involved games got set up. Visit the Clairvoyance Kickstarter page for full details.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a demo prototype of this game for review.

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Meet a GeekDad: Jonathan Liu Wed, 04 Mar 2015 13:00:14 +0000 He's the guy who makes sure our "i"s are dotted, "t"s are crossed, and verbs and subjects agree. At least he tries to--it's a big job. Meet our Senior Editor, Jonathan Liu. Continue reading

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He’s the guy who makes sure our “i”s are dotted, “t”s are crossed, and verbs and subjects agree. At least he tries to–it’s a big job. Meet our Senior Editor, Jonathan Liu.

Tell us about your family.  

My wife is a family doctor and public health advocate–she pays the bills so I can be a stay-at-home dad, and I take care of the kids so she can pursue her passion for better health for both individuals and communities. I’ve got three daughters: one’s in middle school, one’s in elementary school, and one is still in diapers. The two older girls play roller derby, which is awesome, and I can tell the youngest can’t wait until she can zoom around on skates, too.

What makes you a geek? 

I’ve always loved reading and learning about lots of different things, but sometimes I feel that I have too many interests to dive as deeply into any given one. I learn pretty quickly and am always interested in finding ways to do things more efficiently and keep things organized if I can.

What do you do when you’re not writing and editing at GeekDad? 

GeekDad is my primary hobby, honestly–but of course writing for GeekDad incorporates playing games and reading books, so that works out pretty nicely. I also do the bulk of the household stuff: grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, shuttling kids to school and activities, and so forth. I play games any chance I get, and I watch snippets of TV shows while I’m folding laundry (so it takes me a week or so to watch an hour-long show).

How did you get involved in GeekDad? 

A few years back when Ken put out the call for new writers, I had just moved to Tribune, a tiny town in western Kansas. I was ready for a creative outlet and thought it would be fun to give it a shot. At the time, there weren’t any other writers who were stay-at-home dads, and not a lot of people writing about board games, so I thought I could contribute a bit in those areas. A while later, I got promoted to Senior Editor–mostly because I’m a grammar nerd and I kept finding things that needed to be fixed. As editor, I get to swoop in and enforce style guide rules and stamp out typos. I know, it’s an incredibly glamorous job.

Do you write anywhere else?

Not much. I did try writing for a couple of other blogs at times but most of what I write fits in the realm of GeekDad so I like it here.

Do you have a favorite geeky pursuit? 

Primarily board games and books. I started getting into the modern wave of tabletop games about ten years ago thanks to some friends (including fellow GeekDad Erik Wecks), and once I started down that rabbit hole I’ve never stopped falling. I’ll try just about any type of board game once, and I can–and often do–talk about board games for hours. I love reading, too. Our dining room is also our library (and my office), and I love being surrounded by books all the time. But I missed a lot of the geek touchstones in popular culture. There are plenty of fan favorite shows I’ve never seen, or video games I haven’t played, and I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to technology. I’m definitely more of an analog geek.

Desert Island list: Book. Movie. Comic. Television show. Video game. Tabletop game.

Oh, man. I’m terrible at picking favorites. I’m the guy who will spend a couple hours at the store, gift card in hand, and then walk out not having bought anything because I couldn’t decide yet. I think for tabletop game I could pick Carcassonne, but other than that I don’t know. I tend to try lots of different things once rather than the same thing over and over again.

If we see you at a convention, you’re most likely to be… 

Playing games and staying up way too late.

Star Wars or Star Trek?

Uh, Firefly? Honestly, I like both, but I’m not deeply into either. I’ve seen the Star Wars films, most of the Star Trek films, but haven’t watched as many of the Star Trek TV shows, whether TOS or Enterprise or any of the others, so I have a passing familiarity with both worlds but I wouldn’t call myself an expert on either.

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Hasbro Highlights From Toy Fair 2015 Wed, 04 Mar 2015 12:30:01 +0000 Here's a set of videos looking at the best bits from the Hasbro area at Toy Fair 2015. Continue reading

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Here’s a set of videos looking at the best bits from the Hasbro area at Toy Fair 2015.

If you value content from GeekDad, please support us via Patreon.

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‘AdVenture Capitalist': Teaching Kids a Tough Economics Lesson Wed, 04 Mar 2015 12:00:04 +0000 As an economist, I am always interested in games that purport to teach kids something about economics. 'AdVenture Capitalist' was released a week or so ago on the App Store. Continue reading

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AdVenture Capitalist

“What’s that you’re playing?”

AdVenture Capitalist.”

“Sounds like economics. Great.”

“Yep. It’s educational, you’ll like that.”

“What happens when I press this?”

“Dad, you just spent $1 billion of mine!!!”

“What did you get for it?”

“A hockey team.”

“That sounds about right.”

As an economist, I am always interested in games that purport to teach kids something about economics. In the olden days of mobile apps, I encouraged them to play Lemonade Stand–based on a computer game of my youth. There you had to carefully price and cost out a lemonade stand and make a few shekels in profit. It is a nice strong economic message and was a whole lot less costly to me than setting up a lemonade stand on the street and doing it the old-fashioned way.

AdVenture Capitalist was released a week or so ago on the App Store (and was featured by Apple). The game is simple. You start with a lemonade stand, tap to make some money and then earn enough to buy either more lemonade stands or a newspaper stand. Pretty soon you realize that it is worthwhile to spend some time hiring managers so you don’t have to tap (aka “work”) for your money. Then it gets pretty bourgeois and you spend your attention accumulating businesses, capital, and various upgrades. You also get to pay the piper, so to speak. You can double your profits for 4 hours by watching an ad–this is what puts the “Ad” in “AdVenture.” You can also spend real money, but there was no way that was happening.

So far so good. It is actually a pretty ordinary and somewhat uninspiring economics lesson at this point. The costs of businesses rise at a ridiculous rate, and so, while you might feel rich having a billion or a quadrillion (!) dollars, businesses cost an equivalent amount. There definitely is no free lunch here.

The true lesson in the game comes with regard to investors. As you accumulate more money, you accumulate the potential to get angel investors. Those angel investors are great–they each boost the profit you earn (off everything) by 2 percent per angel. What is important is that does not sound like much, but, thanks to compounding that arises as you spend those profits to accumulate capital, it adds up.

But here is the important bit: to use angels you have to sell all of your shares in all of your businesses and start again. This is a very hard thing to do even when the app itself tells you it is totally worth it. You have to raze all that you have done and start from scratch. At the beginning that was relatively hard work. How do you push that button for a do-over?

The economic calculation here is a no-brainer. When you have angels, things accumulate so quickly that, while you start from scratch, you are back with most of what you had at an increasingly fast rate. So if you were serious about “winning” this game, you could cash out quite often because angels don’t die following resets (unless you spend them along the way).

This is a big opportunity to teach kids about investing and compounding. My son started playing a day before me. However, I realized this issue and razed my businesses to the ground a couple of times more than him and now I am richer and pulling ahead very quickly. Even doing this just a small number of times at short intervals gave me that advantage. Once I explained what I had done, he had learned his lesson. Mathematics plus economics all in one.

AdVenture Capitalist is available for iOS, Google Play or online for free (with in app purchases), and there is also a Wiki with extra hints.

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A Simply Adorable Studio Ghibli Giveaway Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:30:14 +0000 An absolutely adorable Studio Ghibli giveaway from Gund! Totoro and Jiji! Check it out and enter to win! Continue reading

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(If you’re looking for more geeky giveaways, there’s still time left on the Ultimate Bill Watterson & Calvin & Hobbes Prize Pack Giveaway. Don’t miss out!)

I should probably wait for the collective “awww” to pass.

OK. We good? Then let me announce the latest GeekDad giveaway. I’m thrilled to say that we’ve partnered with Gund for this one, and they’ve made available an assortment of drop-dead adorable characters from their Studio Ghibli line.

Gund has had plush toys from My Neighbor Totoro for a while now, but they’ve just expanded their offerings and released two versions of Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service. For fans of either film, these are absolutely must-haves. Outside of Japan, it’s hard to find these guys that aren’t either cheap knockoffs or cruddy quality.

We’re huge fans of Kiki in our house, and we picked up a stuffed Jiji while in Japan a couple years ago. I gotta say, the Gund version is just as good in terms of quality and likeness. (And it’s much more affordable than a trip to Japan.) The same is true of their different Totoro offerings.

Just. So. Huggable!

Included in the giveaway (all shown above) are the following items:

If you need these in your life (and who could blame you?), enter to win by simply filling out the form below. Good luck! The winner will be chosen at random on Wednesday, March 11.

Gund Studio Ghibli Giveaway

Fields marked with an * are required

Winners will chosen at random. Only one entry person. Entrant must be 18 years of age or older. Contest only available to residents of the continental United States. I understand the restrictions and certify I meet the restrictions.

Data collected will be used for contacting winners only.

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Daily #DadJoke for March 04, 2015: Wed, 04 Mar 2015 11:00:08 +0000 For quite a while there, I was addicted to doing the Hokey Pokey... Continue reading

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Daily #DadJoke for March 04, 2015:

20150304For quite a while there, I was addicted to doing the Hokey Pokey.

Not to worry, though… I turned myself around.

(I wonder if that is what it’s all about?)

Have a great joke that you would like to see in print (complete with a “submitted by your name here” shout-out)? Send it in to GeekDadJokes!

Special thanks to Don Sarver for submitting today’s active pun!

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‘Big Nate Lives It Up': An Interview With Lincoln Peirce Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:30:46 +0000 Big Nate's biggest fan talks comic strips, horrible teachers, and middle school crushes with the books author, Lincoln Peirce. Continue reading

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Big Nate

To my son, Big Nate is a very big deal. He pre-orders every new book and, when it arrives, reads it cover to cover in one sitting. Then, for the next month, he’ll share with us stories, poems, and limericks he has memorized from the book, to the point that “One time, in my Big Nate…” has become a running joke in our house. The seventh book in the Big Nate series, Big Nate Lives It Up comes out March 10th. My GeekKid and I got a chance to talk with the author, Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”) about Big Nate, comic strips, and that one teacher everyone had in middle school. You know the one.

GeekDad: You’ve said before many of your ideas for Big Nate come from your own childhood. As your kids get older, are you discovering new material in their lives as well?

Peirce: My kids are just about grown up now — our son is 21, and our daughter will turn 18 in about a month — so the days of finding inspiration in their pre-adolescent adventures are long gone, I’m afraid. Even when they were middle schoolers, though, there were only a few events in their lives that found their way into the comic strip or the books. One part of Big Nate that has a real-life counterpart is Nate’s band, Enslave The Mollusk. That was the name of a band our son joined as a sixth grader. I believe the legendary rock ‘n roll career of the original Enslave The Mollusk lasted exactly one rehearsal. Another time (in the comic strip) Nate had a girlfriend named Kelly, and I made her look kind of like our daughter. But for the most part, I generate ideas by thinking about my own middle school experiences. For whatever reason, I have almost total recall of those years. I remember middle school much more vividly than I do high school — probably because middle school is such an eventful time in most kids’ lives. It’s when you leave that protective cocoon of elementary school, and you suddenly have much more responsibility — and consequently, much more stress — in your life. And stress leads to comedy, which is why I enjoy writing about school situations so much.

GeekKid: Is there a real life inspiration for the character Mrs. Godfrey in the Big Nate series?

Peirce: Sort of. I didn’t have an awful social studies teacher like Mrs. Godfrey in sixth grade. I had her in SEVENTH grade. She looked a bit like Mrs. Godfrey, and her name was similar to Mrs Godfrey’s. But really, that’s where the similarities end. My real-life teacher wasn’t my favorite by any means, but she was probably just an overworked, underpaid person who didn’t like children all that much. Mrs. Godfrey, on the other hand, is a caricature. She’s a monster. She’s the embodiment of everything a sixth grade boy like Nate objects to in a teacher. She’s loud, she’s erratic, and worst of all, she’s unfair. She clearly favors some students (like Gina) over others (like Nate). For a kid, that’s an unforgivable sin.

GeekDad: As someone who writes both a daily comic strip as well as illustrated novels, what’s the biggest difference between writing a strip that might have a three or four day story arc and a novel that has to span 150+ pages?

Peirce: There’s not as big a difference as you might think. They’re different kinds of writing, obviously, but they’re two sides of the same coin. Both the strip and the books are types of storytelling, and all good stories share the same traits. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have memorable characters. They have crisp dialogue. But obviously, the storytelling becomes more complex when the format is a couple hundred pages instead of just a few panels. In a book, there’s one major story arc, but there are also little subplots that go off on their own tangents and then loop back to the main narrative. Organizing those subplots, and making certain that everything comes to a satisfactory conclusion by the book’s end, can be a little nerve-wracking. But I enjoy the process.

GeekKid: What was the name of your first comic strip? What’s your favorite current strip?

Peirce: My first comic strip was actually more like a comic BOOK, and it was called Super Jimmy. I created it in 4th or 5th grade. Super Jimmy was a buck-toothed, dim-witted fellow who had somehow acquired a few random superpowers, and so naturally he made himself into a crime fighter. His costume was a purple sweatsuit that featured a yellow duck on his chest, and his cape was a terrycloth bath towel that he fastened around his neck with a safety pin. Super Jimmy was never published anywhere, obviously, because I was just a kid. But I consider it my first successful comic venture because I created multiple stories featuring the same character. I probably cranked out a few dozen Super Jimmy stories over about a 3-year span. And I showed them to my friends, who gave me a lot of positive feedback and encouragement.

As for my current favorite comic strip, that’s easy: a strip called Monty by my friend Jim Meddick. It’s hilarious.

GeekDad: With Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and Where the Wild Things Are all having varying degrees of success at the theater, any chance of seeing Big Nate on the big screen? Would you prefer live-action or animated?

Peirce: I’ve already turned down a couple of offers to do a live-action Big Nate movie. I’m not interested in that at all. Nate’s a cartoon character, and so any project along those lines would absolutely have to be animated. I’ve always thought Big Nate would be an ideal TV show for kids, and there are actually some discussions going on about that right now. But if nothing ends up happening, I’m completely fine with that. I’m telling the stories I want to tell in exactly the way I want to tell them. A TV show or a movie would be exciting, but I don’t necessarily see it as a natural next step.

GeekKid: Do you think that Nate will ever find romance with Jenny?

Peirce: No, I do not, and here’s why. My hero, Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame, was asked repeatedly during his career why he never allowed Charlie Brown to succeed. Why couldn’t he let Charlie Brown win a baseball game or kick the football just once? And his answer was always the same: because losing is funnier than winning. That’s sort of what I was getting at earlier when I said stress leads to comedy. Nobody wants to read about a kid who gets straight A’s, wins every game, and wins the heart of the prettiest girl in school. That’s why Nate has so many struggles, not only with Jenny but in all areas: because it’s more interesting (and funnier) to see people fail than to see them succeed. Having said that, I think it’s important to give Nate his share of victories, too — especially in the books. Kids don’t want to read a 216-page book only to see Nate fail in the end. So Nate definitely wins more than Charlie Brown — but it’s never easy.

GeekDad: Can you tell us a little bit about your workflow? Do you use pencil and paper, digital, or combination of the two? One of the joys of reading a comic over a span of several years is watching the style of the characters change. When an artist can quickly call up a library of all his characters and various poses, is there a risk of losing this character evolution?

Peirce: I’m old school all the way. I do all my drawing in ink on bristol board, and every drawing is entirely original; I don’t have a library of characters and poses. Nor do I have a digital alphabet to automate my lettering. I letter everything by hand in the comic strip and the books. Part of the reason for this approach is that I’m kind of a technophobe, and I really don’t enjoy trying to learn and master new programs, new software, and so on. But more importantly, I just like the way it looks when I do it the old-fashioned way. Conversely, I don’t enjoy looking at strips that rely heavily on the copy-and-paste method. They’re just boring from a visual standpoint. And you’re right about character evolution. I’m 51 years old, and I’m still improving as a cartoonist. I draw much better today than I did even a few years ago. I sort of cringe when I look at my work from the early and mid 90’s, because I couldn’t draw very well. But I kept plugging away, and eventually I arrived at a style that I think suits me. It’s more time-consuming to do it this way, but to me, it’s worth it. My only concessions to technology are: 1) I now color my Sunday pages in Photoshop instead of using Prismacolor pencils, and 2) I scan my strips and upload them to some sort of space-age FTP site instead of sending the originals to the syndicate via US Mail.

GeekKid: In the Big Nate series, Nate is also a cartoonist and you include many of his comics in the books. Are Nate’s comics ideas you have had that you never used, ideas you have used in the past, or ones you hope to write?

Peirce: Of all Nate’s comic creations, the only one I actually invented when I was Nate’s age is Doctor Cesspool. The idea of an inept doctor performing surgery with a chainsaw seemed funny to me as a sixth grader, and it’s still funny to me now. All the other comics are created specifically for whatever storyline is unfolding in either the strip or the books. My favorites are probably the ones that profile famous historical figures. In the strip, Nate’s written comics about Abe Lincoln, George Washington, the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, and so on. And of course, Nate’s comics about Ben Franklin were a major part of the second novel, BIG NATE STRIKES AGAIN. But here’s my confession: Nate’s comics are actually much better than the comics I drew as a sixth grader.

GeekDad: Anything you want to share with the readers about the new Big Nate book?

Peirce: BIG NATE LIVES IT UP began with a pretty simple idea: what if Nate is selected to be the “buddy” for a new student? And what if that new student and Nate share almost nothing in common? That’s the jumping-off point of the story, and I think readers will enjoy some of the other details. There’s a centennial celebration for P.S. 38, some 100 year-old comics, and an epic scavenger hunt that could change the school’s fortunes quite unexpectedly.

The seventh book in the Big Nate series, Big Nate Lives It Up comes out March 10th. Thanks to Lincoln Peirce for taking the time to talk with us.

Lincoln Peirce

Author Lincoln PeircePhoto courtesy

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Kickstarter Alert: ‘Scavengers’ is Looking for You Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:11:19 +0000 A quick, easy, humorous RPG about exploring derelict space ships and getting rich off the loot! Continue reading

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Our good friends (and sponsors) over at Metal Weave Games have a Kickstarter campaign running for their new, fast-paced RPG about the people who make a living off the detritus of space travel in the future. They are 2/3rds of the way through the campaign, and have already met their primary funding goal. From now until the end, they’re trying to hit a few stretch goals, produce some supplementary content, and just deliver an even better game. If you haven’t checked Scavengers out yet, now is the perfect time.

SC1Scavengers is a fast-paced, good-humored roleplaying game about space salvagers trying to get rich during the turmoil of galactic war.

  • Scavengers is a game of dangerous but rewarding space-looting.
  • It constantly challenges the players to balance risk and reward by keeping the focus of the game on looting.
  • Through randomly generating new shipwrecks, the GM can continually expose the salvaging crew to strange and dangerous locales.
  • The game’s unique setting not only places the player characters as salvagers, but also allows them to belong to a nascent faction of greedy entrepreneurs.
  • The game mechanics are simple and easy to learn, letting the players and Game Master fluidly tell the story of the characters’ salvaging missions.
  • SC2Character development goes beyond simple mechanics, allowing improvement through narrative, talents, and gear over the course of the game. Not only does improvement help the characters survive, but they can make more money as well — the things scavenger dreams are made of!
  • The system supports a light, humorous tone. Characters and situations lean toward caricature and exaggeration. Travis Hanson’s excellent cartoon-inspired art style makes Scavengers fun to both read and play.

The game system is simple. Using only D6s, the players have great liberty in running their characters. There are no standard actions and the players are free to pick their own approach when handling dangers. You want to fight the enemy, talk to them or hack their computers? The system handles it all effortlessly

SC3Instead of using health points or similar mechanics, in Scavengers you must be careful not to get too many Danger Points. The longer the scavengers work and the more problems they overcome, the bigger the chance for a fatal accident. How much danger you are willing to risk is an important part of conducting a salvaging run. More loot may be just a wreck away, but so may be the final Danger Point that kills you.

A character’s skills and talents, modified by detrimental conditions, determine how many dice you roll when faced with obstacles during salvaging. There are many situations in which a Game Master may call for dice rolls, but none more significant as when the characters are confronting threats. When resolving threats, the salvagers must work together and roll more successes than the threat difficulty to successfully overcome it. Failure may do nothing at first, but as more Danger Points accumulate, death may be just a misstep away.

For the Game Master, the game is easy to pick up and play, and allows a lot of improvisation. When the PCs enter a new ship, you generate it randomly from a handful of random tables. The number of rolls a GM makes will depend on the size of the ship, but is easily done in a couple of minutes. The information from these rolls yield enough to get the GM started with creating the environment the PCs will be looting. They can either create much of the interior of the ship right away, or use it fluidly, adapting as the characters progress. You are guaranteed to get a cool new environment every time. At that point, your imagination and the players’ decisions guide how much loot the salvagers manage to get away with.

Sound like fun? Check out their campaign now, and add your support!

[Metal Weave Designs is a GeekDad sponsor. For more information on how you can get your product featured on GeekDad, click here.]

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Doctor Who Rewind: “An Unearthly Child”/”100,000 BC” Tue, 03 Mar 2015 14:30:23 +0000 This week, myself and co-contributor Jamie Greene bring to you the first week in a series of Doctor Who Rewind reviews. We're going to be going chronologically, one serial each week, through the iconic classic series of 'Doctor Who.' Continue reading

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DoctorWhoThis week, myself and co-contributor Jamie Greene bring to you the first week in a series of Doctor Who Rewind reviews. We’re going to be going chronologically, one serial each week, through the iconic classic series of Doctor Who. While we will endeavor to make these reviews spoiler-light, so that the episodes will still be enjoyable to watch after reading the review, be warned that some spoilers are inherent in a 50-year-old show.

Jamie and I will be tackling this review from two angles: the classic Whovian (myself) and the post-2005 Whovian (Jamie), who will be experiencing most of these episodes for the first time. Both of us are coming at these classic episodes eagerly, with a respect for the history of the show, but with very different experiences regarding the classic series. Together, we will be walking though the show’s history, reviewing each serial based on its own merits, divorced from our expectations of the newer series. And this, on November 23rd, 1963, less than twenty-four hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is where it all begins.

This serial, alternately called “An Unearthly Child” for the title of the pilot episode or “100,000 BC” for the title of the 3 episodes that follow in the serial, was aired between November 23rd and December 14, 1963. William Hartnell, the first Doctor, was a well-known character actor, commonly cast as villains and gruff heroes. The show, created by Sydney Newman and produced by Verity Lambert, was conceptualized as an educational children’s television show. The Doctor, using his TARDIS, would take two human teachers all over time and space, both entertaining and informing British children. At the time, nobody imagined that it would last one decade, let alone five. But here we are, fifty-one years later, reviewing the pilot serial of a show that beat all the odds.

If you haven’t seen this serial, we highly suggest it. This serial and the next two we’ll be discussing are available on the Doctor Who: The Beginning (An Unearthly Child / The Daleks / The Edge of Destruction) (Stories 1 – 3) DVD box set and is also one of the few classic Doctor Who episodes currently available on Netflix.

Mark’s (Classic Whovian) Review

My history with Doctor Who begins differently than most. Mine began in 1996, on Fox, with a Doctor that we wouldn’t see again on-screen for 18 years. I loved it, every aspect of it. The ’90s cheese, the science fiction, the humor, the quirkiness. I was enraptured. But then, it ended, and it didn’t come back. It was the genius of Fox’s marketing plan that no mention was made of the fact that this special feature was an extension of a show that had been cancelled 7 years earlier. Doctor Who wasn’t on my radar, so eventually this quirky time-traveller and his blue box got consigned to the same area of memory that all ’90s TV movies eventually end up in.

Fast-forward twelve years. A friend of mine, knowing I love science fiction and smart comedy, decides to introduce me to this British show that just came back on the air after 19 years away, well … except for one failed TV movie that “nobody watched,” a show called Doctor Who. It all came back to me, and I was hooked. I watched through all four seasons in a matter of weeks and then dove into the classic series. At first I only watched the episodes everyone agreed were good: “Genesis of the Daleks,” “Tombs of the Cybermen,” etc. Then I ran out of those and started watching everything I could get my hands on.

When I came back to college after winter break, I had a mission. I wanted to introduce as many Americans as possible to this then-obscure British show. I slowly converted people until there were enough to form a campus organization, and then we started meeting officially. Over the next four years the club (eventually named UNIT – United Nerdy Intertemporal Travelers … a name that was once blessed by the first Doctor I ever saw on television) grew and grew until, when I handed over the reins at the end of my senior year, we had a regular attendance the size of some classes.

One thing I always held to be true in my club was the equality of the classic and newer seasons. All those who came in singing only the gospels of Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith were soon baptized in the redeeming waters of Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker, McCoy, and our patron saint, McGann. So, doing this series of reviews, it feels like home. I know some of you will have been watching Doctor Who longer than I’ve been alive, while others may have started with the new series and never ventured into the 4:3 ratio, Technicolor, or black-and-white past. Either way, this is a journey that I’ve loved every time I’ve taken it, because it reminds me why I love the whole of the show, not just the portions that were produced since I’ve been alive.

Whenever I think about this serial as a complete unit, instead of just thinking about the pilot episode, the first thing I see is a criticism. This is unusual for me, the person in the Doctor Who argument who is least likely to complain about almost any episode. This serial, however, really feels like two. The pilot episode “An Unearthly Child” just feels like a completely different serial than “100,000 B.C.” So, in the interest of giving equal attention to both halves of this identity-crisis of a serial, I’ll be handling the pilot episode separately from the episodes that follow.

“An Unearthly Child”
This episode has a special place in my heart, if only because it reminds me that even an iconic institution of British television can have humble beginnings. It’s far from perfect, but I’m always impressed by how beautiful it really is. How futuristic, in 1960s terms, and how a surprising amount of that futuristic feel has survived today. To me, the original TARDIS console still looks like part of a space machine, even if it’s analog. It seems, in some ways, the strangeness of the TARDIS has helped preserve it.

This episode is not shy about the fact that it serves a single purpose, to introduce the viewers to the show and its characters, and it does so efficiently. My surprise, upon re-watching it with a more critical eye, is how natural it also seems. Susan Foreman is established as a mystery and her teachers, Ian and Barbara, are both curious and concerned about her. Within the first few minutes we’re introduced to Susan, Ian and Barbara, and in a series of short memories, the fact that Susan is suspicious in terms both what she knows and what she doesn’t know. All before any of the principal actors have left the school.

Further, the scene with the flashbacks is particularly impressive to me. In an age where flashbacks are so rarely used well, this scene just seemed to work. We’re shown Susan either answering questions that she had no way of knowing or giving answers that allude to her not being from England in 1963. Without saying a word, and in only a couple of minutes of television, the central drive of the show is introduced. Ian and Barbara, constrained as they are in the world of 1963 Britain, don’t see it, but the viewers do. Susan Foreman, whatever she is, is not originally from 1963. This is further reenforced, for those that who might have found themselves as confused as Ian and Barbara, by Susan’s last scene in the school. She picks up a textbook on the French Revolution, turns to a page, and with a look of confusion states, “that isn’t right at all.”

The second half of the episode takes a slightly slower pace, the main work of introductions now complete, as Ian and Barbara find a strange police box in a junkyard and meet an unusual old man. The Doctor here, in his first scene, is shown as aloof and mysterious, much like how Susan is shown. This is maintained for several serials, contributing to why Hartnell is rarely a viewer’s favorite Doctor. However, even here you can see some of the playful mischief that will come to become a major aspect of his Doctor’s later serials.

Aesthetically, our first view of the TARDIS is a huge moment for the episode. Up until now all of our shots have been either dark or close. For the first time we’re given a wide shot in a white room, accentuating the TARDIS being “bigger on the inside.” This transition also corresponds to a change in our characters. The Doctor’s aloofness takes on a suspicious tone while Ian and Barbara’s worried curiosity becomes protective. This becomes an “us versus them” moment with the revelation that the Doctor and Susan are aliens and time travelers, spawning perhaps the strangest transition in Doctor Who history, and that’s saying something.

While I love this episode, its ending is one area I take some issue with. The Doctor is arguing with Susan and her teachers, explaining that, if Ian and Barbara were allowed to leave, they (Susan and the Doctor) would have to go someplace else. Susan, being a typical fifteen-year-old girl, exclaims that she isn’t going to leave 20th century England and that the Doctor would have to leave her behind as well (incidentally, an interesting foreshadowing). This is where things get weird. Under the illusion of opening the doors to allow Susan to leave her with teachers, the Doctor takes the TARDIS into flight, sending them deep into the past.

This is the one moment when suspension-of-disbelief was broken, and has been every time I’ve viewed the episode. To me, it’s a clear moment of forcing the story to meet the needs of a greater narrative. They needed the TARDIS to be in the past for episode 2, so they made it happen. The transition, however, is, at best, troubling for the Doctor’s character so early on. Here he’s arguing with his granddaughter’s teachers and making veiled threats that they won’t be allowed to leave, and then he’s abducting them and taking them thousands of years into the past. While this isn’t the atmosphere that persists for the first TARDIS crew, it’s an inauspicious beginning and feels like a bit of a forced transition to an episode 2 that feels like an entirely different serial.

“100,000 B.C.”
These next three episodes feel like one complete serial, only tangentially connected to the first episode, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s a good serial. The plot of the episode is introduced immediately, with no immediate regard for the pressing issues left over from the previous episode. In fact, after some cursory annoyance, it’s “business as usual” in the TARDIS almost immediately. The focus of the early parts of the plot are more on whether or not the TARDIS has moved than why the Doctor kidnapped two school teachers. The TARDIS crew, and by extension the viewers, are thrown immediately into an alien landscape and expected to forget about the inconvenient conflicts left over from the pilot. It’s a testament to the strength of this initial story that, for the most part, it works. Before long I found myself engrossed in the story and forgetting that Ian and Barbara had reason to be WAY more distrusting of the Doctor than they were being.

This first story explores the complexity of the Doctor’s character. He’s a scientist, not a medical doctor (he makes this clear), and he’s as capable as he is childish and stubborn. He’s a man accustomed to getting everything he wants, and he’s petulant when someone refuses to give him it. In some ways, he’s just an old man, stuck in his ways and unhappy whenever he’s asked to change. This doesn’t make him the most sympathetic to younger viewers, but it gives him a character arc to traverse. We’re assured, by the flashes of kindness and humor, that he’s capable of loosening up and being a nicer man. For a children’s show, it’s a surprising depth of character.

One thing I’m reminded of, in the re-watching of these episodes, is the infuriating lack of strength to the female characters. Sure, they’re thrown a bone every now and again as they take the lead in caring for someone or come up with the ingenious idea, but far more often they’re relegated to being the show’s alarm system. In these early episodes, the audience’s cue for danger was a ramping up of the ambient music, accompanied by Susan or Barbara’s scream. This is one trend I don’t miss, as the show eventually features strong female leads like Sarah Jane Smith, Romana, Leela, and Ace (to name a few).

One of the reasons these episodes are less commonly enjoyed by modern audiences is the long-form story. This episode, on the shorter end of average for First Doctor episodes, clocks in at nearly 2 hours. The next episode is nearly 3 and a half. For this generation of viewers, expecting to binge-watch an entire season in around 12 hours, this season’s 17 1/2 hours for 8 stories seems slow. As someone who enjoys the slower form of storytelling, I’m going to avoid the argument of “which is better?” Instead, I’ll point out that one benefit of having more screen-time per story is seen in the cinematography. At the beginning of “Forest of Fear,” the old woman pulls a sharpened stone. The camera sits on that stone for a while, perhaps 5 or 10 seconds (a long time for the camera to be sitting on an unmoving object without dialogue), while the music plays dark and spooky notes. The effect is powerful. In that moment we begin to dread, suspecting what that stone might be used for, and that dread is all the more powerful because we reached the conclusion rather than having it force-fed to us by a line of dialogue. These are things that rarely happen (with a few notable exceptions like the descent of the Daleks or the arrival of the Cybermen) in the new series, due to a shorter amount of screen time per episode.

Additionally, it seems that more time is spent on emotion. The characters don’t express an emotion, immediately pull themselves together, and then move on. There are scenes of despair, hopelessness, and fear. These scenes evoke emotion in the viewer, raising the stakes, and making it feel as if the danger is real. Ideally, for a moment, we forget that our heroes are unlikely to die. These moments are always powerful, and they’re the moments we remember from the new series: Rose against the wall at the end of season 2, on the beach at the end of season 4, the 10th Doctor in the goodbye moments before his regeneration, and the 11th Doctor’s goodbye with “Amy” in the TARDIS before his. These strong moments are woven in the very fabric of classic Who. The stories are slow, but that’s because they’re intended to resonate. When our heroes escape, the relief is palpable, even though we knew it was inevitable.

Finally, as the story draws toward the close, I’m drawn to the woven stories inherent in these older episodes. While the cavemen are an important part of the Doctor’s tale in this adventure, there’s an additional story here as well. These stories, Za/Cal’s and the Doctor’s, are woven together until they finally mesh and then resolve. This is a theme we see all throughout classic Who. Sometimes the woven stories are because the TARDIS crew, usually quite a bit larger than the modern Doctor-companion setup, is split into two parties, and each has a story of their own. However it’s done, it gives these episodes a less Doctor-centric feel. The world is bigger than the Doctor, and he’s just an actor within it. Sometimes I miss that.

Jamie’s (New-Series Whovian) Review

Growing up, I was always tangentially aware of Doctor Who. I knew of it, but it never factored into my fandom at all. I was a child of the ’80s. If it wasn’t Star Wars or He-Man, then it was battling an uphill battle to my heart. My mother was/is a Trekkie, so the age-old battle between Star Wars and Star Trek was a mainstay in my house.

I caught the occasional Doctor Who episode on TV (usually Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor), and I remember really liking The Five Doctors, even though I understood almost none of it. More than anything, though, I suppose that Doctor Who always felt very … old. I never thought it had much to say to me.

I admit that even after the relaunch in 2005, I still didn’t have much interest. Then David Tennant came on the scene, and I couldn’t help but hear the rave reviews from all corners. Once the show hit Netflix, I started in with the Ninth Doctor and then, like a good geek, binged my way through the show.

And now I’m going back to the beginning. All the way back. This is not a “re-watch” for me. I’m watching these shows fresh. For the first time. I’ll do my best to leave preconceptions at the door, but I have no baggage at all that pertains to pre-Eccleston Who.

Obviously, I’m leaving the history and convoluted canon in more capable hands (i.e., Mark’s). I’m simply here to correct one of my most flagrant Geeky Blind Spots. There’s only 26 seasons and 8 Doctors to catch up on. Easy peasy.

“Well, open the doors, Doctor Foreman.”
“Hm? Doctor who? What’s he talking about?”

Going back to 1963, I really had no idea what to expect. However, from the get-go, it was all very familiar. The theme music has changed remarkably little over the past 52 years.

The establishing shot then focuses on a very familiar police box. Along with the music, the TARDIS has also changed very little. A minute and a half in, and I already feel at home.

This show is very much a product of the ’60s. It’s also very much a product of a small budget. It’d be all too easy to critique its low production value or cheesy special effects. But that wouldn’t be fair. It’s simply not fair to judge The First Doctor by The Twelfth Doctor’s standard. So I won’t.

What I can do is judge The First Doctor by how he’s presented to us. This is where the character begins, and, well, The First Doctor is … different. He’s not charismatic or charming or funny … or even very much likable. He’s meant to be refined and sophisticated. We’re meant to view him as a weary and jaded time traveler who’s seen and experienced more than we can even conceive. I’m honestly not sure if we’re meant to like him.

Naturally, he’s completely self-absorbed (which is a defining characteristic of The Doctor in any incarnation), but it doesn’t play here as a fun eccentricity or personality quirk. Whereas the self-absorption displayed by the Ninth through Twelfth Doctors betrays a cavalier attitude that is ultimately charming, William Hartnell’s Doctor is much more arrogant–and malevolent–than those modern interpretations.

The primary challenge that The Doctor and his companions face in this first serial is their inability to make fire. They’re trapped in a power struggle among cavemen, and their lack of matches puts their lives at risk. (There’s no sonic screwdriver yet to save the day.) It’s far from the most compelling storyline, but it establishes our main characters and successfully shows the dynamic among them.

Susan (despite being set up as a genius child) very quickly becomes a panicky handicap to the group. Barbara freaks out and is all but totally useless. The Doctor spends a majority of the story absentminded and helpless. Ian turns out to be the only one who keeps a cool head and saves the day.

More than once, The Doctor all but gives up and proclaims, “It’s hopeless.” He has no compassion. He cares very little for his companions and even less for the cavemen. He repeatedly calls them “savages,” treats them with contempt, and even tries to kill them. In short, he’s almost the polar opposite of The Doctor I know.

Like I said, it’s unfair to judge this show by the weight of the following 50 years, but this first serial manages to pack a lot in: the TARDIS (we’re even told that Susan named it … and we get its full name), the attractive female companion, the incredulity that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, the signature engine noise, and stumbling headlong into trouble. All hallmarks of Doctor Who that will remain defining characteristics for decades to come.

It’s a rocky start, sure, but I’m in. This should be a fun ride.


To wrap it all up, there’s not much more to be said than “this is where it all begins.” It’s not perfect, but it’s good, worthy of the legacy that’s built upon these humble foundations. For all that’s different, or weird, or unexpected, there’s so much here that reminds us that this is absolutely the same show we’re still watching more than fifty years later. For everything else we see in our adventures with this eccentric time-traveler and his impossible box, it always does to remember that it began here. In a junkyard in 1963.

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Switchmate for the Super Simple Internet of Things Tue, 03 Mar 2015 14:00:20 +0000 Switchmate is a smart lighting solution that snaps magnetically onto a standard light switch, allowing the switch to be flipped remotely via smart device. Continue reading

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switchmate product shotDespite the obvious benefits to making homes and offices into “smart places,” adoption of the technology is astonishingly low. One potential reason for the slow acceptance is that most people do not own their own homes and can’t tear into the walls.

Providing a potential solution to this problem is Switchmate — the Architechnologist (that’s me!) was first introduced to the team of three young Johns Hopkins engineers who founded the company at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2015, where they managed to make themselves known in a room full of high-powered and well-funded companies in the field.

The Switchmate product is a smart lighting solution that requires no wiring or construction: it simply snaps magnetically onto the screws of a standard light switch, allowing users to flip the switch remotely via their mobile device (even if the switchplate is plastic). The Switchmate is battery-powered, running on 2 AA batteries for between 8 and 12 months before needing to be replaced.

The Switchmate is controlled via a companion application (available for Android and iOS), which allows multiple devices to be controlled remotely. The app can also flip switches on or off at scheduled times, so users can define their lighting around their lives. Each Switchmate uses Bluetooth Low-Energy (LE) to communicate with the application, giving the Switchmate a range of up to 200 feet.

During a recent visit to San Francisco, I met with one of the Switchmate founders, Daniel Peng, and we had some quality time with the Switchmate and got some real answers about how the device might tie into the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.

Smart products are supposed to make our lives simpler, but their set-up alone is often needlessly complicated. And for those of us who don’t own property, those installation processes aren’t just complicated, they’re impossible. Switchmate is accessible for everyone – renters, home-owners, students, nomads – anyone that wants the convenience of a connected home without the hassle of connecting it.
— Daniel Peng, Switchmate Founder

Daniel described how the Switchmate team looked to the public when developing the system, sometimes asking for opinions from random passers-by at the entrance to Home Depot stores (a location they were often ejected from).


Above and beyond the absurdly simple installation and operation, the insights the team gathered led to the development of a Switchmate for both standard toggle switches and a rocker (or “Decora”) switch. The ingenuity of the design also allows for installation of multiple Switchmate devices on multi-gang versions of these switches by simply pulling away part of the case.

Daniel was thrilled to tell us that the Switchmate is expected to begin shipping to customers in the fourth quarter of 2015, after raising funds through an Indiegogo campaign that went live today.

This post is cross-published on the Architechnologist, a site dedicated to exploring technologies that change the way we experience the world around us.

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The Dress and the Opportunity for the Scientific Method Tue, 03 Mar 2015 13:30:52 +0000 In a world where you might think there is nothing more to say about this topic I wanted to raise the important opportunity it represents and still represents to us parents: it is a unique event to teach the scientific method. Continue reading

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Late last week, that Dress took the Internet by storm. But, more importantly, it took the world by storm in the “real world.” Just in case you usually live in an alternative computer simulation to ours, the Dress I am talking about is this one:

screen-shot-2015-02-26-at-7-34-43-pmwhich is blue and black or white and gold depending on… well, we don’t quite know and we certainly didn’t have a good idea when we first saw it. Suffice it to say, it led to discussion, heated arguments, and hints of divorce (revealing just a little about trust and joking around). For the record, I saw it initially as white and gold before, immediately seeing it as blue then back again.

In a world where you might think there is nothing more to say about this topic I wanted to raise the important opportunity it represents and still represents to us parents: it is a unique event to teach the scientific method.

Here is how this went down in our household — as it turned out over breakfast. I showed my 10-year-old daughter the picture and she saw it as white and gold. I was seeing it as blue but she thought I was just having her on. Then her mother came down and was asked what color she saw: as it turned out, also blue. As she has more credibility than me, this immediately raised the issue for my daughter as a real one: we were seeing different things. She then turned her mind to the question of why.

She then came up with a theory — and she called it that: age is what caused people to see different colors. To test the theory, she called down her 14-year-old brother who, was at least closer to her age. But what did he see? He saw a blue dress. So did her 16-year-old sister. This distressed her immensely. “I don’t want to be the only one who’s different!”

That prompted a new theory. Maybe it was eyesight? She often wears glasses for reading but she wasn’t then. So she popped and up, got them and … still white and gold.

The puzzle went with her to school. As it turned out, her teacher was already onto this topic and showed the class the picture. Everyone saw it as white and gold which, if you think about it, is a pretty statistically unlikely event. That prompted her to return to her age theory but with a different cut off point — being younger than a teenager.

This is where we settled because that theory hasn’t yet, in her experience, been falsified. But a broader discussion occurred in our household and also in many workplaces on theories as to differences. Some hypothesized that it related to people’s type only to find about people like me who had seen both. Some thought it might relate to screen size, resolution or brightness, only to still have differences when replicating the experiment under unchanging conditions. Everyone was coming up with theories, devising tests and testing them. I cannot think of a greater victory for science in society.

As it turns out, science is getting close but not quite there on the Great Dress Experiment of 2015. But around dinner tables and schoolrooms across the world, a real life mystery capable of analysis without high-tech science has fallen in our laps. If you haven’t exploited it yet for some learning, don’t miss the opportunity.

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Robox Plug and Print for Home Tue, 03 Mar 2015 13:30:33 +0000 The Robox 3D printer is an attempt to reduce the finicky nature of the 3D printing process with a number of innovations. Some of these I've seen before, but Robox may be one of the first to compile them into one reasonably priced plug-and-print machine. Continue reading

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Robox Exterior - Above

As the owner of two home-built 3D printers, I can attest that they are quite finicky. Now that I have them calibrated I can get consistent prints with known filaments. Unfortunately each and every filament brand, and color, behaves differently. The ideal temperature and sometimes speed of the print head can vary greatly between colors and finish. More often than not the difference is only a few degrees, but those few degrees can mean the difference between a great or failed print job.


50 Micron PLA on Beta Robox

The Robox 3D printer is an attempt to reduce the finicky nature of the 3D printing process with a number of innovations. Some of these I’ve seen before, but Robox may be one of the first to compile them, and more, into one reasonably priced plug-and-print machine.

Probably the most interesting change for Robox is their print head. To speed up print jobs, the standard print head feeds two nozzles with one filament. One of the nozzles is smaller than the other to allow for detailed outer shells while using the larger one for infill. Robox claims that this alone can increase print speed by up to 300%. They have added needle valves to control the flow out of each nozzle. These valves can be used to virtually eliminate stringing, a common problem with 3D printers when the nozzle oozes a string of plastic when it shouldn’t.

The stepper motors that Robox chose for the printer are all oversized. I don’t think it’s critical for the x,y, or z axis, but it may come in handy if a heavier print head becomes available. The extra torque on the extruder though can definitely help push the filament through the nozzle at lower temperatures. This would make bridging gaps easier, as well as help control the stringing.

To take the guesswork out of the filament settings, Robox uses a coded spool and their own AutoMaker software. The printer detects the spool installed and automatically adjusts all of the settings accordingly. At first glance I thought the spools would be proprietary and closed, but it appears that Robox supports winding your own filament on their spools and reprogramming the eeprom with its settings. Robox branded filament, at about $40 USD for 600 grams, is about more than twice what I pay for PLA and ABS from Push Plastic. For anyone who doesn’t want to dial in the parameters of each new filament this may be a premium worth paying.

I haven’t taken a close look at their software, AutoMaker, but the screenshots I saw look like it is adequate.
In an attempt to make 3D printing more accessible for families, Robox is rethinking the design in an attempt to achieve something close to a plug and print design. I don’t think the open source slicing and control programs are terrible, but getting them to run on some systems can be a challenge. AutoMaker should solve that issue, and they do provide versions for Mac, Linux and PC.

Weighing in at about $1400-1500 in the US, the Robox isn’t the cheapest turnkey printer, but if their claims hold up it would be one of the easiest to setup and use. I’d be interested in taking one for a test drive, but for the price I think I’ll stick with my DIY models.

You can find out more about the Robox at their site, or read through their successful and delivered Kickstarter to see a glimpse into the design process. More information is also available on their forum.

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