Category Archives: geeklife

losing internet is like amuptating a limb

We’re switching from 1.5 to 6, um, I’m not sure the unit, let’s call it internet-ness, and apparently this transformation requires a week of no internet at all.  I’m kind of terrified.  Tonight the old service goes off and the new service comes on in “seven to ten business days.”  In this modern era (aren’t we living in the future?) 7-10 business days seems positively absurd but apparently there is nothing to be done.  Shikataganai.  I have a fantasy that I will use the internet-free black hole period to try to finish my current novel—but actually, since the kids will also be internet free, I’ll probably find myself playing Cruise Director for the Good Ship Yurt.  I smell rousing games of Munchkin  in my near future.  Wish me luck.

Kurt Kinetic Road Machine 2.0 and review

Back in November when it got colder, I started riding my bike on an ancient trainer.  This was awesome because 1) the trainer was free and 2) did I mention the trainer was free?  But there was a downside:  NOISE.  That trainer was freaking loud.  For the 30 minutes I rode, conversations were shouted, tv volume had to be blasted, it was annoying.  Plus the tension adjuster thingy was broken, which wasn’t such a big deal because you can just change gears, but…it wasn’t ideal.  Except for the free part.

Enter Santa!  Because under the tree I found a shiny green Kurt Kinetic Road Machine 2.0.  WOOT.

kurt kinetic trainer

This trainer is QUIET.  People on the other side of the yurt (that’s ten to twenty feet away, on the other side of a standing bookshelf) don’t even know if I’m riding or not.  As in, it’s so quite, they can’t even tell that I’m riding, that I’m, in fact, blasting it over here, dripping sweat on my foam letters, unless, maybe I moan or something.  The trainer makes a little hiss and, being a fluid trainer, an occasional bubbly sound.  That’s it.  At 20 mph there is a hum, but folks ten feet away watching tv tell me they don’t feel like they have to turn it up.  At 30 mph, they have to turn it up, but I’m a wimp, I never ride it that fast.  At my normal <20mph speeds, the fan by the radiator next to me is way louder than the trainer.  I’M way louder than the trainer.  PERFECT.

The Kinetic is also super smooth, like riding on brand new asphalt, almost slippery.  Really nice.  Plus it’s rock solid.   No wibble wobble, even when standing up on the bike.

Super successful Christmas present!

BUT THEN… Part Two:  In the box was a coupon for a free month with something called

Hmm, what’s that?

Simple version: TrainerRoad is this nifty program that turns your bike into a game controller, with the game being  hit the target  (power, heart rate, etc), second-by-second, on a workout schematic ( intervals, climbs, etc, they have hundreds or you can make your own).   So it 1) tracks whatever sensors you’ve got (heart rate, cadence, speed, power), 2) projects a workout schematic, and then 3) plots what you’re doing along that schematic as you go.  No cheating because there is the data, instant feedback, did you hit the target or not?

This is so cool.  It’s like Sophie’s Piano Marvel program that does a similar thing with learning piano.

But wait, THAT’S NOT ALL.  In addition, TrainerRoad gives you virtual power meter data, which is awesome because who can afford a spendy power meter??  Not me.  That’s for those pro-athletes training in wind tunnels and shit.  I’m just on a trainer in my yurt, you know?  But no, I get to train with power, too.  Because it seems there is math for specific trainers (like mine!) that can determine what your power output is at different speeds.  Boom, training with watts for peasants!  Meaning, um, me.

PLUS you can do a test, a time trial, to let TrainerRoad grok your current ability, and then it will match your chosen workout schematics to your level.  Watching one’s level go up by an objective measure is SUPER MOTIVATING.

If all that wasn’t enough, it’s also set up so that I can drop in my beloved Sufferfest videos and TrainerRoad will not only play the vid with all my data across the bottom of the screen, but it will also match it’s workout schematic with what is going on in the Sufferfest video...when the vid climbs, TrainerRoad’s graph has me climbing, when the vid does intervals, Trainerroad gives me intervals.  IT’S MAGIC.

GAH.  I just love this thing.

And they only charge $10 bucks a month!!  Sorry, sorry, I know I’m sounding like a freaking commercial.

Thank you Santa for my lovely green trainer, and for the brilliant people at TrainerRoad for concocting such an awesome package and, wow, for making it affordable.  I’m really digging my cycling routine these days.


in which a mom & her two kids build a $600 gaming computer and it actually works!

We did it!  We built a freaking computer!  Let it be known that if a not-very-tech-savvy woman of modest intelligence, an eight year old, and a nearly ten year old can figure this out, ANYONE can do it.  On the other hand, maybe we have buckets of heretofore unaknowledged geek bad-assery that we drew upon to face this challenge.  Whatevs.  We did it.  See our build here at, a totally awesome site that anyone building a computer should make use of.  Other resources we used are at the bottom of this post.

But first, some pictures.

Because if you don’t blog it, it didn’t happen.

Here is the elaborate tool kit we needed for doing this epic task.

See, we decided to build a computer this morning (“why not? we’ve got all the parts and it’s raining today….”) and then at the last moment realized we had no idea where Paul keeps the good tools.  This was the only screwdriver we could find.  But it totally did the job.  You really don’t need much to put these babies together.

The other very important item necessary for for computer building?

Strawberry Pocky.  Food of the Gods.  Good thing we went to the Asian Market yesterday.

So that was it.  We were ready.  Time to unbox the motherboard.  And away we go!

This is me taking pictures of Luc, 8, who is taking pictures of the motherboard.  It’s all very meta.

Moving right along, here is Luc installing the RAM.

He was so nervous!

Henry, on the other hand, was totally relaxed.  He slept through the whole thing.

Here is Sophie, 9, installing the mobo into the case.  My first panicky run-to-google moment was when I didn’t know what the standoffs looked like.  Was it this tiny, black, screw-like thing?  Or this one?  Or this one?  We are newbs, all the way.  The blind leading the blind, baby!

Second tricky moment: the screw holes didn’t line up well with the standoffs.  You don’t want to use brute force when installing a motherboard!!!  But we did, a little bit. It was okay.

Sophie plugging in the front panel connectors….

Etc, etc.  When all the components were in, we broke for lunch.  It had taken about an hour and half to get that far…we went slowly and followed along with this excellent video (also in the resources section below).

After lunch came plugging in the power supply, mostly me at this point, although Sophie helped.  Several tricky moments there…what does this plug into?  I can’t get it to go in!  What the fuck is this cord for????  [pant pant pant]

But in the end, we had this:


Although, I feel like we could have done better with the cord management, and I’m not sure we’ve got enough cooling in there.  *chews nails*

But, of course, we were miles from done because, although everything was in, it still might  be just a giant, black, brick. If we pushed the power button, would it sit there, still and lifeless?  Where and how would we find the problem if it was broken?

Moment of truth.    No more stalling, it was time.

Sophie pressed the button.


We cheered!  Henry, startled, barked.  The BIOS screen came up, all blue and texty.  It was goddamn beautiful.

An hour later I had Windows installed and was putting in the drivers, which I had already downloaded onto a thumbdrive, thanks to the tip on the Newegg video below (the part 3 vid).  And here is the new computer, mid installation, my yellow tablet of notes from various sources, ready to be referred to, as needed, plus the Windows 7 magic key box….

It took about two hours to work through all the drivers and updates and virus software, yada yada.  This was the hardest part, especially for the kids who were bored and hot to play the new machine. I only had an upgrade Windows 7 disk, so I had to do some work-arounds to get it to give me a clean install, plus adding the virus software, 133 Windows updates, and Java (for the all important Minecraft!).  Thank the gods for google or none of this would have been possible.

And that’s it!  It’s up and running.  Luc is playing Minecraft LAG-FREE as we speak.  Here he is at the very first Minecraft moment, showing the screen to his bestest Miinecraft buddy through Facetime on his ipod.


Super exciting!  And dang if this machine isn’t crazy fast!  At least compared to our old rig.  And the visuals are super pretty, plus the rendering seems nearly instant.  A tremendous improvement over our six year old Gateway system.  Six years, that’s like a hundred in computer years.  That thing was practically wood-burning.


We spent time reading Building a PC in Easy Steps by Stuart Yarnold out-loud over breakfasts.  It really helped us understand the components inside a computer and the state of the computer world.  Books are pretty much outdated the minute they are published, but this one had just, just, come out, and I found it jibed with most of the bleeding-edge stuff I read on Tomshardware.  Lots of great pictures and a solid overview for the kids, especially.

I already mentioned which lets you put in your very own parts list, and it will tell you the cheapest price for each item (including current rebates, etc), as well as telling you if your list is compatible.  Amazing!  Plus a little graph for showing how that combo of components would have priced out over time.  I put in our build list (once we had come up with it) and then watched the prices, waiting for it to drop before I pulled the trigger.  You can also look at other people’s builds, and read a TON of reviews.  A great site.  Indispensable. and Newegg are two more great sites I read quite at bit at for reviews, both pro and user.  I bought most of the components at Newegg, a few at Amazon, depending on who was cheapest.

I used this page to do a clean install of Windows 7 from an upgrade disk.

And the videos.  The first by TechReport was the one we watched as we did the build.  It did a great job of walking us through each step, and used AMD parts as well as Intel, plus several cooling options, so we could watch the bits that applied specifically to our build and fast-forward the rest.  Thanks TechReport!

This Newegg series was terrific. Here is part 2, on the building. I used part 3 for the Windows and drivers installation. Super helpful.

This is a great vid from EasyPCBuilder, excellent for brevity, clarity, and just giving us another view of the process.

Finally, this video, over at PCpartpicker, was the first one we watched and made it all seem doable. Luc and I watched this one together and decided that, yes, we could do it, and from there it all got started.

But wait, no, it was Polykow who inspired me to even try all of this when she told of building a computer with her son. Her unschooling enthusiasm is infectious.

And a huge thanks to Grandma for helping to fund our project! It would have taken a lot, lot, longer to get here without you. xoxoxox

the graveyard of abandoned ipods

Get this: the kids are building a freaking computer. Like the total badass geeks we are. Well, I mean, we’re watching a load of videos on Youtube—the place where the early 21st century thinking person goes to learn anything these days—and are soaking in the geeky goodness therein. After months of research, we have (1) selected our build and (2) purchased the parts (shout of thanks to Grandma for helping fund our little project!). We are very nearly ready to go.  Can you believe us?  I can’t.  But you should hear my eight year old talking about DDR3 RAM and whether we should get an aftermarket cooler.  Should be an adventure.

What’s with the breasts on that video card box???

But whoa, slow down—because before we can build a new computer, we have to have a place to put it. No small task in a 700 sq ft yurt. So today, in preparation for the upcoming build-party we are cleaning out the old filing cabinets, yeah, the ones we brought over from the pre-yurt farmhouse we lived in pre-babies, that’s over eight years ago, FULL of crap….and also long forgotten treasures.

Like these….

The evolution of the ipod!  Sophie took this—the last two are the current crop, Luc’s 4th gen and my 5th gen iTouch.  Ipods and pre-ipods (hard to even remember those days, it’s so novel to look at an actual walkman now), audio devices forgotten and lost, left on the roadside of life, stashed in the back of the filing cabinets and still full of whatever I was listening to the last time I booted them up. There are actually a few devices missing, like that old Rio mp3 player that used in its early pre-ipod beginning. I was a total early adopter.  I wonder what I did with that little Rio?

Man, these cabinets are full of tons of crazy stuff, cords from things we cant identify, old photos, my husband’s long braid from he he was a hippy and had hair down to his waist. (I miss his hair!  Sob!)  Then there are the paper files on our various interests back from the days pre-internet when you couldn;t just look up whatever the fuck you wanted. Plus the usual mountains of receipts and taxes from a decade or two ago. Into the burn pule with all of it!

The kids think it is all bizarre and hilarious, like excavating ancient history, artifacts from before they were born, from before the world was as it is.  Hell, I found dream journals from when I was in high school.  (I’m keeping those.  I don’t know why.  Nostalgic purposes.)

I can’t believe this shite has been clogging up our tiny house for all this time.  It’s damn fun to let it all go. I feel like a whole new person!  Makes me want to tackle other parts of the house like…the bookshelves.

(No!  Run!  The horror!)

Stay tuned for our Thanksgiving Computer Building adventure.

Hopefully it will not be a report of how we burnt half the yurt down.

lumoback review: posture improvment through technology…a little bit, anyway

As a person with long-time back issues, I was instantly interested when I heard about the Lumoback, a posture-sensing wearable device that promises to buzz you when you slump.

Backstory: lordosis (too much curve in the lower back), kephosis (too much curve in the upper back), mild scoliosis (sideways curves)—I’ve got it all, as documented by several full body x-rays taken over time when I was a teen-ager.  Lucky me!   I always knew I was twisted.  I don’t look like a hunchback (yet), and I never wore a brace or anything, but I do have terrible posture, always have.  And to go with it, I’ve got back pain.

Thus, the yoga.

Seriously, Ashtanga yoga has cured my back pain 95%. No shit. I highly recommend it.

So that rocks.

But while yoga has definitely improved my pain levels as well as my spinal range of motion, it hasn’t made a dent in my day-to-day posture.  I slump.  I have a sway back.  And no amount of “stand up straight!” from my well-meaning female relatives has done any good.  Sigh.

/end backstory

With all that in mind, you can see why the Lumoback got my attention.   So I decided to try it out.

Short version: I’m conflicted.  For specific applications, I think the Lumoback is brilliant.  I’m just not sure it’s there yet.  Or that its for me.

Now for the long version.

Okay, so I strap on this stretchy elastic band around my hips and an accelerometer tracks my body posture, buzzing me (gently)(and discreetly) when I move out of the target zone.

The band is super comfortable by the way.  No problem there.

An iphone app displays a cute little stick person who moves in synch with me, slumping when I slump, walking when I walk, sitting when I sit.  That’s pretty fun for a couple of minutes.

More importantly, the little guy helps with calibration, showing in real time what the sensor thinks my body is doing (which isn’t necessarily what it’s really doing).

Turns out, calibration, and recalibrating, is very important.  It’s not something you do once and you’re done—it’s more something you do each time you put on the device, maybe more than once, showing the Lumo specifically what you want buzzed today.  It isn’t a big deal, it just takes a second, but it definitely makes wearing the Lumo an active process, not a put-it-on-and-forget-it thing.  Which brings me to….

Lumo as an activity tracker

As a side-dish to the posture-buzzing, the Lumo folks have packaged their sensor as a general activity tracker, including steps, sleep, sitting/standing/walking time, and number of stand ups.  Didn’t you hear, sitting is the new smoking?  Lumo wants to help counter certain death by sitting with all this data.  Cool!  I was all kinds of on-board with that.  But…it didn’t work out for me.  Here’s how it shook down.


The Lumo doesn’t actually track your sleep, it tracks your body position while you sleep (like most activity trackers), which is highly correlated with various kinds of sleep—when you are in deep sleep, for example, you don’t move.  Unlike most activity trackers, the Lumo offers information about what position you sleep in, which could be cool if, say, it helped you discover the reason why your left shoulder hurt all the time (because you sleep six hours a night on it).

But 1) the Lumo said I spent a great deal of time sleeping on my front, which I know isn’t true because that is a super painful position for me.  I never sleep on my front.  So I couldn’t do much with the “sleep position” information.

Plus, the way they graph the sleep data just makes no sense to me.  Instead of a time line, there are these bars color coded to show what position I was in, but I can’t tell from that how much deep sleep or how many wakings…I don’t know, maybe I’m stupid.  I’m just not getting the way they presented their data.

PLUS, I like to read in bed, so the Lumo tracks all my “reading in bed” time as “sleeping” because I’m lying down.  Which makes “total sleep time” pretty useless.

Which is to say, the Sleep Tracking function did zip for me.

Time spent sitting 

Well, I guess it was interesting to know how much time I was sitting (less than I thought).  Although the Lumo didn’t recognize when I was driving (more on that in a moment), so it lumped driving and sitting together, which I guess is technically correct, but was less than satisfying, especially since my driving was tracked as “sitting and slumping”.  Humph.  I’ll call this one a tie.

Stand ups

My primary job, being a homeschool parent, requires getting up and down a million times a day.  So this number didn’t really do much for me.  I can see how it would be more valuable to someone who works at a desk all day and really needs to get up more.


The Lumo seems extremely accurate for counting steps.  If you’re a step counter and into the whole 10,000 steps a day thing (I used to be, the kids and I had some great experiments with a pedometer a few years ago) then the Lumo will serve you well.  It didn’t really do much for me, I have to admit.  Not the Lumos fault, it just wasn’t a metric I cared about.  I could take it or leave it.

All of which added up to me not really being interested in any of those components after the first 24 hour novelty period wore off.

Okay.  So, Lumo is not an activity tracker for me.  Moving on to the main event.


My take is that the Lumo is at its best in tracking posture while the wearer is sitting at a desk in a fairly static situation.  In other words, if you work at a computer all day, the Lumo could totally help you.  It might also help you get up more, with it’s general tracking info.

For me, however, it…hasn’t been going so well.

1) I only occasionally sit at a desk.  My big computer-use time (writing and surfing) is spent on the sofa with my legs crossed and my laptop in my lap, a position the Lumo can only track as SLUMPED.  So I have to turn it off for that.

It did help me sit up straight when at a desk, no question.

However, because of where it is worn, the sensor is much better at tracking pelvis position than shoulder slumping.  For the times I WAS at a desk or in an upright chair, I did find that my body unconsciously kept the buzzer from going off by holding my pelvis in the “safe zone”…which was straighter than usual, while continuing to slump my shoulders.  Hmm. It certainly kept sitting up straight more in my awareness than usual, resulting in more slump-free time.

But, on the whole, using it while sitting was only partially successful for me.

2) I was not very good at getting the Lumo to buzz me when I slumped when standing.  I tried calibrating it this way and that way, wearing the strap higher and lower, adjusting the sensitivity levels, all with limited success.  I could pull off a pretty good collapsed chest and swayed lower back and not trigger the sensor.  If it got really spectacular, it would buzz me.  But middle of the road slumping/hunching, nope.

On the positive, it did buzz me sometimes, which got me improving my posture more than I would have without the Lumo.  So that was good.  It just wasn’t as often as I WANTED it buzz me.

3) On the flip side of that, the Lumo buzzed me ALL THE TIME for things that I didn’t want to be buzzed for.

For example, driving.  As I mentioned, it wouldn’t recognize “driving” so it saw me as “sitting and slumping” and would buzz me non-stop every time I got in and out of the car (doing errands requires a lot of this).  In addition, although it would stop buzzing when the car was in motion, it would buzz me continuously whenever the car was still, that is buzz buzz buzz at every stop light.  Obviously, I needed to turn off the buzz before I drove anywhere, but that had me turning it on and off constantly when I was out and about—or just not using it except when I was at home.

Second example, bending over to pick stuff up.  Something I do a million times a day.  Buzz!  Buzz!

After a few days of this, I was ready to throw the damn thing away.

Time to start experimenting!

Because the Lumo WAS getting me to stand up straight more than anything else I’ve ever tried. Just… not as well as I had hoped it would.

So I tried strapping it to my chest.  Don’t try this if you are uber-endowed. Under the bazooms, nothing, no buzz, not even on the most sensitive calibration and severe shoulder slump.  But above the breast, with the sensor in front, now I could get some serious posture feedback.  I could calibrate the Lumo to buzz me when I rounded my shoulders and collapsed my chest (although now, of course, it couldn’t give feedback on the lower back sway).  Still, very useful!

Also super conspicuous—the buzzing on your chest, not to mention the lump of the sensor, is VERY noticeable here.  Definitely not a wear-all-the-time solution.

But that was okay, because once I get away from the “activity tracker” idea (which involves wearing it all the time so it can track your data) I was starting to see the Lumo as more of a training device.  As in, wear it for an hour and work on posture for a bit, then take it the fuck off and get on with my day.

This seems to work.  An hour or two of getting buzzed has an effect on the rest of the day.  My unconscious self tends to try to keep my body in the “safe zone” (safe from being buzzed) even if I’m not wearing the Lumo.  This effect wears off, but with regular training sessions, it might eventually stick.  I’m not sure.

This might be where the Lumo can be brilliant.  As a training device.  I actually think to do it right I would need two of them, one for the shoulders and one for the pelvis—would I need two iphones?  I don’t know how that would work.  As it is, I’ve been wearing my single unit for a bit in the morning on my chest and a bit in the afternoon on my hips.  Don’t look at me like that, I’m not a freak!  It’s fun to experiment, you know? I also drink a serum at night that transforms me into a monster, but hey, who else am I going to experiment on? The kids. No. They’re too young.

Anyway, I’m definitely seeing results.  What I don’t know is how lasting they will be.  Maybe periodic zapping will be required to keep the unconscious mind trained?  I also don’t know how long I want to keep this up.  It’s not…pleasant.  Although standing up straight looks fantastic, and feels good (until the out of balanced muscles start aching, that is).  Want to magically appear ten years younger and twenty pounds lighter?  Stand up straight.  Not to mention the reduced wear and tear on your joints and the aforementioned back pain.  Will the benefits outweigh the effort and discomfort?  We shall see.


1) Unless you’re going to turn off the buzz for long periods during the day, you’re not going to want to wear this thing all day for the activity tracking stats.  It’s too aggravating.  I think the wear-all-the-time idea with the Lumo is just a no-go.

2) If you use it for periodic training sessions —and by this I mean, go about doing whatever you’re doing, only with this added buzzing thing going on— the Lumo is powerful.  A little goes a long way.  (And it is a huge relief to take the thing off.)  But my posture, and my daily awareness of my posture, has definitely improved.  Which is not something I can say about anything else I’ve tried, even enlisting my friends to tell me when I’m slumping.  Long term results, however, are not clear.  I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing it and I don’t know how long the effect will last.

3) If you sit at a desk a lot you might be able to wear it for longer periods and get more effect.  Indeed, the Lumo seems optimized for desk-sitting.  However, it’s exhausting to use your muscles in a new way!  You will need breaks.

What I think would really work: some kind of body suit with sensors in several places that could track a more complicated postural picture and therefore buzz a couple of different variables: shoulders slumping, pelvis arching, etc.  Not a device you would wear all the time, but for short training periods, maybe 30-60 minutes a day.  I would totally try something like that, after this experience.

Changing posture is really hard.  Anything that makes a difference is good.  Even if it is super annoying.  But super annoying is not something you want to do a lot of.  I’m still playing with it.  We’ll see.

back on-line, all systems go, plus the newest novel is coming along, all while something breaks every single goddamn day

July: the month in which EVERY DAY SOMETHING BREAKS.

After the tv died, then the Playstation died, then the internet went out.   Then the phone went dead for two days.  Next I got up to find one of the windows in the car busted out for no apparent reason (maybe a small branch fell and hit it just right?) ($200).  Then a bill that we paid (I have the canceled check to prove it!) came up as unpaid causing a frenzy of phone calls (once we got the phone back) and threats.  THEN the car started making an ominous rattling noise ($$?).  Then today we realized we have to take down a rotten-at-the-base tree near our house immdiately, tree dude shook his head with a worried look and said he would be here first thing in the morning with his cherry picker.  ($500.)

I am terrified of what will be next.

But hey, we finally got the internet back!  At least there is that.  It’s like the arrival of the holy spirit, or the procession of divas or something. We all cheered when that light turned green, let me tell you.  No the problem was not fixed by the new modem, nor by power cycling said new modem twenty-thousand times.  Not even the second coming of The Technician  could fix it—it was the final phone tech dude who had the magic knowledge.  He actually got At&t on the phone as I sat on hold, and made them switch a setting.  This got our internet going in ten minutes.  It took a week to figure that out apparently.

Thank you Last Phone Tech Dude for your superior understanding of networking intricacies!

We took to the webs with a frenzy.  It was goddamn beautiful.

Truly, it is shocking how integrated the constant free flow of information via the internet has become to my very way of life.

Anyway….normal blogging should now resume!  Any minute now!  Posts with actual content!

In other news, I’m drafting the next novel, have 4000 words so far.  Research has included listening repetitively to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin played by many and various soloists, listening over and over.  And over.  While eating chocolate.

My family is very patient with me.

still no internet

My internet is still out.  They made us wait four days for them to send a new modem, and of course, it wasn’t the modem.  Duh, since I had two modems here and they were both not working in exactly the same way! Next they are “sending a technician” and I am “not to worry.”
It’s a first world problem.
But still…maddening!

i am trapped in tech support hell

the tv, our fancy new flat screen, died. after two months of calling (how many hours of my life?) they sent us a new tv, not the one we had but a “newer, better” model, a so called Smart TV. HOURS more of my time getting the thing set up, and no, it is NOT smart, it’s like some lumbering simpleton that can only do one thing at a time. Anyway. it works.

Sooo. The next day, the playstation, through which we get tv (netflix), died. this happened after a “required update.” I went into the gaming store to describe my problem and the little band of gamer guys all rolled their eyes knowingly and said, “oh, you got hit with the bug.” Craaap. An hour on the phone with Sony (who denied there was any “bug”, odd that.) and it was working again.

And then the internet died.

I mean, WTF?!

i am posting this from my ipad, using the wifi at our grocery store after HOURS on the phone with India about my lack of internet connection. (Thus the many typos and crap capitalization in this post, sorry.) Finally, after an exhaustive search, India through their collective hands up the air and said they would send me a new modem, my modem is fried. Honestly, I find this hard to believe since I have TWO modems and both of them are behaving the same way, which is to say, they aren’t working. “They have both gone bad.” Seriously? What are the chances?

At any rate, no internet means no blog posts for the duration. Except when I start getting the shakes from internet withdrawal and come park by the grocery store to use their wifi.

In Other news, between talking to various tech support people ( who have all been very nice) I have started drafting the next novel, the restaurant one. I have written the first 1000 words. woot! Meanwhile, the dream novel, currently going by Dream Creatures, is out with the last round of beta readers. [insert image of me chewing my nails here]

updates to come.

education by minecraft

The other day Luc, 7, asked me, “is booties spelled with a ‘ys’ or an ‘ies’ ?”  This level of spelling awareness blew me away because, maybe only a month or two ago Luc could spell six words: Luc, Sophie, Paul, Maya, love, and poop.  In other words, Luc had had zero interest and near zero ability in writing things down—and then BOOM.   Suddenly he’s writing all kinds of things.

What changed?


In case you’ve been living in a gameless hole, Minecraft is an open-ended, goal-free video game that involves building things out of blocks.  Okay, that doesn’t even begin to cover it.  If you play on survival mode then you collect materials from the environment with which to build and, well, survive (for example, you have to eat, so growing crops or hunting, or you go mining for stone or iron to build weapons or tools, etc) plus you have to stay safe from the monsters (cute zombies, creepers, and assorted others) that come out at night.  Alternatively, if you play on creative mode you have unlimited resources from the get-go, plus you can fly. S0, you know, basically you’re a god and you can build anything you can imagine.  Minecraft is often called a sandbox game because it’s like playing in a big virtual sandbox.  You make up the game, the rules (if there are any) and it can be a challenge, pure creativity, a story with a goal, simple building stuff, blowing stuff up, whatever you want.

Lately, while wearing my Homeschool Administrator Hat, I’ve been quietly observing the shit-ton of stuff the kids have been learning while they play.

For example: MATH.  Like figuring out how many blocks of various resources will have to be mined/collected for any given project.  Or figuring out, if you want a wall to be x high, how many blocks will you need mine to finish it?  Or if a pyramid is going to be x across, how many total blocks will be needed for the ground floor, and how many tiers will that give you?  Or how about plotting a point on an x, y axis?  Because the location of objects in Minecraft is given by an “address” using an x,y coordinates with 0,0 being the point where you originally spawned.  So if you want to find something, you’ve got to grasp the whole x, -x, y, -y concept….

And the kids now do. Because they are seriously motivated, plus these problems have context and meaning to them.  Math is not done in a vacume in Minecraft.  There are observable stakes that matter.

But moving on.  LANGUAGE:  The kids started Minecraft on the ipads, but recently we rented a server to host an on-line version of the game so the kids could play Minecraft with their friends.  SO MUCH FUN!  I can’t even begin to tell you how cool it is for them to play together with their buds, having adventures, setting up things for each other, building stuff, killing monsters, creating elaborate plans, creative solutions, problem solving, all while safe at home, and all while chatting via short text messages on the screen.

Suddenly their motivation to write is HUGE.  Because you’ve got to be able to chat with your crew!  Sophie is well on her way to literacy but Luc, as I mentioned, has just started, but man, his brain must just have been Ready To Go because it’s like the writing/reading section has just powered ON.  He is writing all kids of things…thus the “booty” question.  It’s all super cool to watch.

But it’s not just text chatting.  There is also sign making (“No Nose picking!” “No Griefing, Ever, I am always watching you” and the ubiquitous, “Sophie is poop,” always a favorite) and naming things (“Infinity Blade of Doom” and “George the Pig” for example).  Plus there are also enchanted books that can be written, filled with, say crafting recipes, or possibly knock knock jokes.  Whatever.  It’s writing.  And Luc is doing it.


I really think so many kid are pushed to read too soon.  They end up feeling stupid if they aren’t ready, comparing themselves to other kids, getting judged and graded and harassed and pressured.  When does that get fun?  One of the great things about not going to school is being free to learn on one’s own, inner schedule.  No reading-instruction-related wounding!  Because here’s the thing:  I really think that, in an environment loaded with cool written-word-material (books magazines manga subtitles games web etc), when a kid’s brain is ready to read, he or she just will.  They’ll just figure it out.  It isn’t that hard.  Look, we have done zero reading instruction around here beyond spelling out any word on demand and reading anything asked for, and Sophie, 9, now reads books for her own pleasure, while Luc, 7, is texting his friends and googling Minecraft videos.   All this literacy  just happened.  Effortlessly.  Reading instruction was not necessary.

/end sidebar

Back to Minecraft.

CIVICS.  Oh man, the in-depth discussions we have ended up having about types of government, the history of governments (such as the Revolutionary War, the creation of the Constitution, the French Revolution, etc), the utility of laws, punishments to enforce laws, taxes, economics, so many more things…all because of Minecraft.

Because a Minecraft server is a community built out of the people who play there.  There is a sign now in the village that says, “No TNT in the Village!” because it was discovered that uncontrolled TNT might blow up a neighbor’s house…and so the agreement/rule/law was put into place by the kids that there was no TNT to be used in the village…and then someone broke the rule.  What to do?  Was Luc the King of the village (because he built it) or was it a cooperatively-run consensus situation?  Who would enforce the law and how would they do it?  What happens when we break the agreements of the community we live in?  ETC.

I am just scratching the surface here.  Geography, geology, chemistry, art history, all have come up repeatedly in the context of Minecraft.

Seriously, Minecraft is the bomb.

Along these lines, it blows me away when I hear so many moms talking about how they struggle with their kids over Minecraft, fighting over the arbitrary time-limits they set on their kid’s play, and also strange rules I can’t figure out like only playing in creative mode and not survival, or only playing with the monsters turned off, or not identifying with their game character…I mean how much to people need to control their kids, anyway???  No no no.  Don’t struggle with your kid about something they love.  Don’t be a roadblock your kid has to get around to get to what they love.  Embrace and support.  Bring snacks.  Set them up servers.  Spell words for them, over and over (and over and over).  Read articles to learn more.  Find them videos.  Learn to install texture packs.  HELP THEM do what they love.  Do it with them.

That’s what I think, anyway.  The crazy cool learning happens when humans are free to go nuts with the things they love.  Including Minecraft.

I was pondering all of this and then I ran across Mike Rugnetta on PBS’s The Idea Channel talking about Minecraft as a great educational tool.  Apparently I’m not the only one noticing the Minecraft Learning Effect.  I don’t really support using Minecraft to teach an externally created agenda—I prefer to see the learning that happens on its own when the kids are totally engaged and loving what they are doing.  Not that anyone is asking me what I support, haha, but hey, this is my blog right?  But still, some cool stuff in this video, well worth a gander!  I’ll leave you with Mike….


Crafters Unite!

dragonbox algebra app review

I am the absolute last person to look at something or purchase something or recommend something for the kids because it is supposed to be “educational.” This might seem ironic, given that we are homeschoolers. But come on, 90% of anything I’ve ever been exposed to that was “educational” was BORING. And I really don’t think learning happens when we are bored.

I’m not saying everything that is touted as “educational” is bunk—National Geographic is fantastic mag/site/channel that often is called “educational” and I love it…it’s not that I have a superstition about the word. But I think it is used as a marketing gimmick to assuage parental fears and to get them to buy shit they’re kids don’t want because it will “be good for them.” But I say screw that. Life is too short. We learn all the time, we don’t need boring, pre-packaged “educational” crap to learn.

Anyway, having read all that, you might be surprised to hear me recommend an iPad math app! I’m tricky like that! Let me back up. We don’t “do math,” we don’t use curriculum here at the yurt, we don’t do worksheets of any kind around here. But a mom I know who is as anti-curriculum, anti-anything- boring as I am told me about this ipad app named Dragonbox that her kid had been grooving on recently that secretly teaches algebra. How the heck does one secretly teach algebra? I wondered. Curious, I had to take a look.

And I discovered that Dragonbox is super fun. Luc , best spy apps for iphone free 7, and I fought over who’s turn it was to play while Sophie did her aikido class yesterday. After aikido, even though we weren’t gps spy chip killing time waiting, we kept playing until we finished the game (too soon!).

My seven year old now knows basic algebra. No kidding.

Not that I care if he knows algebra at this stage in the game, not that it is a race, not that math is some holy grail of learning that we have now achieved, just. WOW. THIS is how math should have been taught when I was in school. Because math classes were absurdly boring. Right? You know I’m right. And Dragonbox isn’t.

This is kind of a DUH because algebra is the ultimate puzzler, right? Solve a puzzle using a complicated magic system…sounds like fun, right? Isn’t that what algebra is though?

Here’s a screenshot from early in the rio spy para android game.

In the beginning, you’ve got something like this and you want to get the box (that red square with a sparkly box on it) alone on one side or the other of that central bar. The box has a dragon in it, who wants to eat the other boxs. The dragon grows as you progress through the levels. You help the baby dragon out by doing various transformations on the other little monster characters in order to achieve this box-alone-on-one-side-goal. For example, “night” and “day” versions of a monster cancel each other out (corresponding to positive and negative numbers). Or you can put monsters on top of each other and that makes them disappear (when the numerator and the denominator are the same, the result is “1”). The catch, any transformation you make to one side of the screen has to made to the other side. Get the box alone…solve for x. Sound familiar? That’s because it is, you know…algebra.

You get more powers (more ways to transmute monsters) as you go. Soon the screen looks like this:

And a little later it looks like this:

More and more letters sneak in until you are doing this:

Yep, it’s algebra all right.

Luc, who has no math-class-trauma, approached all of this as a gamer would, not as a math student. Puzzles to solve using the rules of the game–he knows all about that and set to figuring out how this particular game system (algebra!) worked. He loved it, sat in absorption from beginning to end. Sophie, who is less of a gamer, played for a while and then drifted off to draw. But I noticed she was playing again this morning. I even sat and played for a bit while I waited for my haircut yesterday. It’s just…fun. Algebra is fun! The shock of it all, right?

So many people I know have math trauma. They think they “can’t do math,” or their brain freezes up in anxiety when they have to figure out the 15% tip, or they think they “hate math.” In Adventure Time, one of our favorite shows, they acknowledge this general mathphobia by actually using “math” as a swear word as in, “Math that, let’s get out of here!” I attribute all of this to the way math is taught in schools.

Along those lines and going into much more intelligent detail, here is a wonderful talk given by seasoned unschooler, Pam Sarooshian. She is an economics teacher who has 3 now-adult children, all unschooled, all college graduates, all lovely people that I met at a conference several years ago. She speaks here about about learning math without anxiety—it’s well worth a listen whether you are a homeschooler, an unschooler, or have math phobia of your own.

For more like that, here is a great page, a collection of links and writings by many unschoolers, including Pam, on math. Some great stuff on that page.

But back to Dragonbox. I definitely recommend it! Real math is cool. Dragonbox exemplifies that.