Lee Valley Water-Powered Weeder — Good, Not Gimmick

Good. Absolutely good, and when compared to all the money and time I’ve spent with other devices, at $50 it’s still good price.

http://www.leevalley.com/en/garden/page.aspx?p=10418&cat=2,2160,4070

Continue reading

Someone Doesn’t Want Me to Vote

This morning I received an automated phone call saying that my polling station had been moved.

They lied!!!

The polls at West End Rec Centre are still there. They have not been moved.

Elections Canada isn’t stupid. Most voters go from work to the polls. They wouldn’t get the message. The polls would be filled with frustrated voters.

The people who don’t want me to vote will be sadly disappointed.

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition, 1st Impressions

We took the plunge earlier this month. We bought Daddy the 4e Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Vault.

After our first play session, I like the system but think the early learning curve is steeper than other editions.

A list of acronyms is at the end.

Family History

Husband has played every edition so far, except 3.5. He played 1st and 2nd when they were current. In the late 80s he was in a group that played almost weekly for several years. That was when I met him. The group faded after graduation, despite their best efforts to accommodate irregular schedules and distant cities. Those of us who stayed in town tried 3e. That worked for several years playing monthly, until schedules changed again and Son was old enough to interfere. (Dice look yummy and character sheets make nice crumply noises.)

This summer Son memorized the 3e books and we played a short adventure. However, in the interest of playing with future groups (and at a loss for a birthday present) we decided to move to 4e.

Son has now memorized the 4e rules, but needs practice applying them.

Husband spent Saturday afternoon at the local game shop playing Living Forgotten Realms and came home ready to DM for us.

I chose a pre-built Half-Elf Cleric and Halfling Rogue from the Quick Start Guide. Later that night I recreated them from the PH to learn the system and better understand why I had +5 to my attack rolls. (Years ago when immobilized I had to recreate how much of my AC was due to Dex based bonuses. I don’t like having to do that on-the-fly.)

Character Creation

The first volume of the PH includes all you need to create and play a character. It omits some of the races and classes and adds new ones. If you want to play a Monk, it’s probably in a later volume. Later volumes also include new powers such as psionics.

Character creation is between 2e and 3e in time required. Every race and class requires choices; there is no simple character. They suggest two builds for each class — sets of skills and powers that work well together. I’ll use them until I’m more familiar with the entire system. The builds are very different, for example a healing cleric and a warrior cleric.

Fewer pages deal with alignment, and they left out some combinations. I miss the 3e descriptions of each combination, each one ending with, “This is the best alignment because…”

4e uses the same 6 stats and ability modifier system as 3e. These are used for skill checks and to modify attack and damage rolls.

The Combat Chapter should be Chapter 2, rather than Chapter 9. Most of the choices you make while creating a character affect combat, so you don’t really understand them until you’ve read that chapter. Also, the blank character sheet has spaces near the top for numbers that aren’t described until the Combat Chapter. I can see a new player wondering if he missed something.

I had to flip between the race and class chapters several times to catch all the “Pick an extra…from…”, but there wasn’t the agonizing assignment of 17 points across 30 skills from 3e. Nor was there the repetition. 3e copied, word-for-word, several paragraphs many times rather than cross-referencing. 4e organizes things so there’s less need for that, and it assumes you’ll remember that a choice you made three chapters ago affects the concept described in this chapter.

4e introduces the concept of Power. Each attack is a Power. (They even describe Basic Melee and Basic Range Attacks as Powers.) So is each spell. So is each spell that is also an attack.

Powers are described in detail in the chapter which gave you the power. Race powers are under your race. Class powers are under your class. This works well for simple race and class, but there are no simple races or classes. Most races allow a power or feat from another class.

A master index of all powers, cross-referenced by page number, race and class would help. It would allow you to quickly review your choices and, when a question comes up in play, find the description of the power if it’s not from your own class.

4e keeps the concept of Skill Checks and Difficulty Class. Several of the skills were combined. 17 rather than the entire page in 3e. Training is either yes (+5 bonus) or no (no bonus), rather than assigning points one-by-one. Faster to create and easier to use.

Combat

4e continues the trend started in 3e of positioning. In earlier editions we rarely needed a clear map. It’s worth getting a grid for the new system. A pad of 1″ graph-paper (the huge sheets used on easels) works. We saved the trip to the store by drawing a grid on bristol board and covering it with pexiglass we had lying around. It works well with dry erase markers. One of the players at the store apparently had a nice reusable roll-up grid, but we went cheap.

It also keeps the standard/move/minor/free action system. Our first combat was in a tavern, so movement was important. This slowed down the action.

In earlier editions, fighters were easy to play, but also boring. 4e complicates them with powers. Our fighter usually chose one of the at will powers rather than Basic Attack. I had to read the character sheets for my Rogue and Cleric every turn.

It takes time to add up all the modifiers. All attack rolls are modified by 1/2 your level, an ability (Dex or Str), and the Power you use. Plus any race or class bonus and feats. Plus weapon proficiency. Plus position (such as flanking or combat advantage). Plus environment (such as standing on a table, cover, range, and concealment). AC is modified by armour, sometimes Dex, environment, powers, and feats). Damage depends on the weapon, Dex or Str, and any powers.

For example, as a 1st Level Halfling Rogue, I often used Deft Strike which let me move an extra 2 squares before attacking, but I can only use it with some weapons. To attack I got +0 for my level, +1 for Rogue Weapon Talent (only for dagger), +4 for Dex. and +3 for proficiency with dagger, total attack bonus of +8. This did 1d4 for dagger, +4 for Dex, total damage of 1d4+4. Plus any bonuses for positioning or a friendly “increase accuracy” spell.

The same weapon used for Basic Attack would be +0 for level, +1 for Rogue Weapon Talent (only for dagger), +1 for Str, +3 for proficiency with dagger, total +5. Damage of 1d4 for dagger +1 for Str, total damage 1d4+1.

The pre-created sheet showed just the totals — useless if I dropped the dagger and picked up a heavy mace.

I could also choose Sly Flourish (distract), Positioning Strike (move opponent), or Trick Strike (more powerful version of Positioning Strike).

For defense, I had to remember that I gained +5 against attacks of opportunity but not against regular attacks.

Some attacks are against AC, others against Reflexes.

This will get easier the more we play. We’ll know which type of attack works most often and know the others well enough that we don’t have to read them each time. However, it makes it confusing for new players. At times, Husband just said, “Use this one.” It kept the game moving, but took control away from the player. I’ll also have more confidence in the totals for often-used powers and be more comfortable building other attacks.

Under the old system, we would have given our 9-year-old Daughter a fighter, but even they are complicated. She watched for a bit, then wandered away bored.

Role Playing

Critics of 4e say there’s not as much role playing. I don’t see that. Yes, you can’t fine-tune your thief to be better at picking locks than picking pockets, but that has little effect during the game.

The early chapters of the PH discuss characterization in details and even give questions to think about. Do you try to make friends with PCs or intimidate them? What do you do when cornered? Why are you adventuring? Each race has a personality and history (which you don’t have to follow — just because most dwarves like ale doesn’t mean you have to). They give different builds for each class, such as brawny rogue or trickster. There is a variety of gods.

Roll playing is about enjoying your character. In our group, the fighter could have chased the escaping mercenary into the woods or pressed the victim for an explanation, but Husband chose to have him sit back with his interrupted ale at the far side of the room. The half-elf cleric chose to give the victim space while asking for an explanation rather than press in and reassure him that we were good and would help him. Either choice would fit with the half-elf diplomacy feature.

A good strategy is to think of three different things your character might do before choosing. This breaks you out of stereotypes. Also consider what famous characters from fiction might do. Aragorn and Malcolm Reynolds are both Warlords. Or maybe Mal is a Thief, in which case compare him to Short-Round.

4e gives the same scope for role-playing as 3e, but balances it between play and character creation better. It asks more questions and gives more ideas than 1e and 2e, but doesn’t lock you to early decisions the way 3e does.

Do You Need the Dungeon Masters Guide?

You don’t need it at all for the official modules.

You can create a basic adventure without it, if you limit yourself to opponents created from the PH. Make frequent use of the standard DC table and base the AC of inanimate objects like doors to be broken on suits of armour. You will need it to assign experience points and treasure and to balance encounters with monster opponents.

We have the Dungeon Masters Vault, which includes a paperback DMs book as well as tokens and maps and an adventure. We were told this was the full DMG just bound differently, but the different title concerns me. Still, it looks like it has what we need. We’re going to work through the Keep on the Shadowfell campaign, so won’t know for a while.

Some Differences from Earlier Editions

Wizards and Clerics are more involved in combat. Wizards can use Magic Missile every turn. Clerics can hit and heal at the same time.

Multiclass is reduced. I only read it quickly, but it looks to be much harder for the characters. I’m still getting used to playing a single class low-level character with the new rules, so won’t look at this for quite a while.

There is no easy-to-play class. Sometimes it’s nice to ease a new player in gently. Every turn they swing and roll with the same bonuses. Once they get into the rhythm and watch others play, they become more comfortable with more choices.

Missing

I mentioned earlier that I’d like a list of all the powers, cross-referenced by race, class and page number. Looking up details of powers from the pre-built character was sometimes frustrating. (The sheet had totals, but those would change if I changed weapons.) Even a more-detailed index in the back of the book would help.

There are two Rules Compendiums. One is a book published in September, the other is an online reference that’s part of a subscription to the online group. That would make the list unnecessary.

The combat chapter should be moved earlier. As it is, when you create your character you choose powers that affect your AC, but don’t know how AC works.

I’d like to see a training story for Level 0 characters that shows sample rolls.

Lesson 0 – General descriptions. Overview of races and classes.
Lesson 1 – Basic ranged and melee attacks, armour class. Include wizard and warlock basic attack powers.
Lesson 2 – Basic healing. Healing surges. Resting.
Lesson 3 – Positioning during combat, including movement and flanking.
Lesson 4 – Powers, including attack, defense and advanced healing.
Lesson 5 – Skills and non-combat encounters.
Lesson 6 – Miscellaneous. How to break down a door. Money and gems. Magic items.
Study Hall – Review the above and create a character.
Graduation – You are now a 1st level character.

Products

We have the PH, DMs Kit and Monster Vault.

The best deal is the 3 book set: PH, DMG, MM for $105. Our store didn’t have that, sigh.

The Starter Set is good if you and your friends have never played before. At $20 for all you need to start, it’s a good deal. It has dice, pre-generated characters and very short manuals. There is a solo adventure and a group one, with maps and tokens. It’s a good investment if your group is starting from scratch but otherwise skip it. It does not replace the Players Handbook.

You will need the Players Handbook if you want to go past 2nd level or try other equipment or create your own characters.

The next two boxes are in series. The adventure in the DMs Kit has hooks from the one in the Starter Set, and the adventure in the Monster Vault has hooks from the one in the DMs Kit. The character levels also go up as you work through the boxes.

(Grumble. Many of the boxes and even the adventure books don’t show the level on the cover. I had to go in a few pages to confirm this.)

The boxes include adventures, tokens and maps (no maps in the Monster Vault). The DMs kit has a shield with useful tables.

I’m not sure if the books in the boxes are the same as the core books.

The book in the DMs Kit is 256 pages compared to the DMG’s 224 and the cover says Dungeon Masters Book. The store said they were the same when I asked, and a quick look doesn’t show any obvious omissions. As we’re happy with Shadowfell and the adventures in the kit, we won’t test the DMBook very soon.

The book in the Monster Vault is titled Monster Vault Book and is 256 pages compared to the Monster Manual’s 288

At this stage, we’re more than happy with the boxes we have. I’d like to compare the books to the core rule books, but it’s not urgent.

We also downloaded the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, both the 14-page hook and the 72-page adventure. It looks like the adventure is the same as the one sold as a formal module, but you can’t download the large-scale maps and tokens. Not a big problem. We started with the 14-page hook and sketched the combat map onto grid paper.

I expect we’ll continue with the current adventure till we’re 2nd level, then decide whether to do Shadowfell or move to the series in the boxes. DM’s choice. It’s not like we can’t do the other later.

Online Subscription

For about $6 / month, you can subscribe to the online tools. This includes a character generator and searchable rules compendium.

It’s tempting. When running multiple characters, looking up power details by race or class is a pain. I usually type most of them onto the last page of my character sheet, but looking them up would be nice. (I want a tablet computer!)

I’m not a fan of character generator programs. I like to know where all the bits and pieces of my totals come from. Son liked the free one that was available until last month. I hear it’s better than the program that came with 3e.

They’re still adding tools to this, such as a monster generator.

Acronyms

3e: Third Edition.
4e: Fourth Edition.
PH: Players Handbook
Dex: Dexterity
Ref: Reflex
AC: Armour Class
DM: Dungeon Master
DC: Difficulty Check
thac0: To Hit Armour Class Zero

The Babysitting Course

Today I dropped my son off at The Babysitting Course.

The Canadian Red Cross runs a good course. They cover everything a young babysitter needs to know. Many local kids who aren’t the babysitting type take it, since much of it is about what to do when there are no adults, whether you have kids with you or not. Son is not the babysitting type.

I walked around the room before registration and recognized the infant CPR dummies (those are new), cards with situations on them (ranging from kid won’t go to bed to you smell gas or hear noises outside), a box of bandages and diapers, tests, forms for employers to fill out, the official handbook, certificates and wallet cards.

Wednesday he listened to the message on the machine and wrote the list. Last night he assembled the bag. This morning he peeled carrots for a snack while I was trying to remember what liquid I need to start my brain.

Daughter loaned him one of her dolls. It was okay that he put it in the bag upside down, but he’s not to let other kids use it. It’s a good sign. She trusts him.

When we arrived, Son sat down and set himself a long division problem. When the leader sat at the registration table, he was the first in line. He gave his name clearly and spelled it without being asked. (We have one of those names.) After registration he read his handbook.

I think it’s a big deal for him, too. The materials and tests won’t change just because the class finds them too challenging. It’s about being able to do a job, not being as good as an average grade six. It’s at the local country club, with adult-sized chairs, white cloths on the tables, and glasses with stems at the snack table.

We spent the last 12 years preparing him for this moment.

Now to prepare me.

Watching him hold the doll, I remember him at three, holding his newborn sister, staring at her and then grinning at the camera. Oma says we should edit her arm out of the picture. I say it’s part of the story. Then I remember him as a newborn and how nervous I felt when Husband went back to work and I was alone with him.

I’m proud of my son. He judges new situations accurately and isn’t afraid just because it’s new.

He doesn’t hang on my apron strings. He doesn’t wait for me to tell him to do things (except for chores). He asks for help if he needs it. He asks me to be around, just in case, before doing something that might go bad fast. He asks for advice or help with his plan if he’s worried. He knows I’ll be on the sidelines if he needs me, but usually all he wants is for someone who knows him to return his nervous grin.

All the important things he’s learned have been like that. I provide the breast, he learns to nurse. I provide the mobile, he learns to kick his legs to make it bounce. I provide the floor, he learns to walk. I provide the books, he learns to turn pages and look at the pictures. I take him to school, he learns to stretch his brain. I drive him to the course, he learns how to look after himself and others.

He is the young teenager we hoped to raise. His adult framework is there. This course is just filling in some details.

Husband and I are already discussing our first “date”. It’s been a while. Our last few babysitters didn’t last. The ones we had for years insisted on moving off to school. The next swore at his mother when he arrived home (too much sugar and TV while here). The last was incredibly good, but also incredibly busy. My MIL lives too far away for regular babysitting.

We’ll probably go to a restaurant and maybe grocery shopping, with the cell phone on. We did that ten years ago, when we left Son, then a toddler, with a nervous 14-year-old who then came every two weeks for years. She planned to be a veterinarian; she may be one by now.

We’ve prepared the kids. Dtr is to listen. Son isn’t to be bossy. Son’s rules don’t have to be our rules, just like with the other babysitters. (Yes, my kids are smart enough to pull that trick, but we’re smarter.) We’ll pay Dtr a token amount, so she’s looking after herself with Son’s help. That might work better than her making Son earn his pay.

Dtr is already thinking to her turn. She told me how she’d handle a torado when babysitting.

So I’m mixed. Freedom! Proud moment. My baby is no longer a baby.

My Kingdom (Sanity?) for a Stop Watch

More features is not necessarily better. Sometimes simple is best.

Last month the storytellers’ stopwatch died. I volunteered to get a new one, for tonight’s performance. Easy, right?

I bought one the next day. Cheap. Oops. But in the end it made little difference. That was Tempo brand.

The buttons had very little movement to them. You couldn’t tell by feel whether you’d pressed one. Arthritic hands and poor eyes, anyone? That describes several tellers, and many of the rest are valiantly fighting the day it will apply to them.

At first I ignored the manual. It will get lost in the bottom of the gig bag and the other readers won’t read it. As long as I didn’t touch the Mode button, things were good. It worked much like Dad’s old stopwatch and my Timex wristwatch. If I did touch it, things went wonky till I pressed it several more times.

Three days ago I read the manual. From left-to-right, the buttons were labeled C,B,A. The rest of the manual had maybe 100 words, and no way to tell, based on the current screen, where in a sequence of steps you were. After much trial and error, I set the time. Except I hadn’t, so I set it again. 8:30.

Last night at 8:30 I heard a soft beeping and tracked it down to the stopwatch. I was alert enough to realize, “I must have somehow set the alarm.” I poked at the buttons, then opened the manual. Nowhere in the 100 words were written, “If the screen looks like this, do that to get back to neutral mode.” It did say that, in at least one mode, pressing C and B together would turn off the alarm. Or it would turn on the hourly chime.

Canadian Tire accepted the return. I was willing to just tell them to send word up to their buyers, if they could, that this product shouldn’t be rebought, but they refunded my money. It helped that the buttons were so clearly flakey and the light button broken. (For all they know, we wanted a free stopwatch for the month.)

The only other stopwatch there was a fancier model of the same brand. Three rows of numbers.

The Source (formerly Radio Shack) was helpful. They’re used to dealing with seniors. After opening two different brands we found the same chips were used as the Tempo model. Three buttons, B and C to turn chimes on and off. Buttons didn’t say “set” or “move to next field” (or something to that effect). The manuals were written by the same person (buttons labeled B,C,A), but at least they described what the screen should look like at each step in the process. I suspect it was the same words, but with added pictures. The brands were Nextar and Walk&Run.

But, turning off the alarm or getting out of “set time/alarm/date” mode was still going to be a matter of luck rather than planning. Desparate, I bought the cheapest with a decent feel.

The only sports store on the route home also had nothing that fit the bill. (I started the conversation by saying I wanted just a timer, no alarm to go off and confuse the issue. They knew right away they had nothing.)

My Timex wristwatch, on the other hand, has four buttons and is easy to use. The buttons have three labels — one for each mode. If you get stuck in the wrong mode, just press Mode to get out of it. The manual goes through each mode. The screen tells you which mode you’re in. Maybe it’s easy because I got my first Timex back when my brain worked properly, but I never have a problem with it, and my second Timex, with more features, was equally easy to use. So’s my son’s, and it has even more features.

Today I can’t say, “If I can’t figure it out…” since I’m decidedly not at my best. I didn’t take the time to make a flowchart of the procedure or to put it through all its paces.

But I shouldn’t have to.

Stopwatches aren’t the only things that have almost random procedures. Some computer OS’s. Many cell phones. My MIL got a new oven for the cottage. I’m a Professional Engineer and still need to review the instructions every summer. My MIL no longer bakes while at the cottage.

All of these problems would be easy to fix if the designers bothered.

1) A button that sets it back to “default”, no matter what mode you managed to create.

2) No “within three seconds” or “press two buttons at once”. The only exception to this is “expert” mode. Even then, if anyone other than the repair person is to use it, label it on the device.

Karma would be for those designers to have to deal with their designs when they are tired and grumpy. Reality will be they’ve made their millions and hire a teenager.

Game: Cranium: Family Edition

Daughter (8) opened a box last week — the game Cranium: Family Edition. I bought it months ago during a “we should play games as a family” phase. You know, the type of good idea that becomes unpopular just as you think it’s working well enough to invest more money?

She and Son (11) played for about an hour while I worked on the computer.

We normally watch a back-episode of MythBusters during bedtime snack. Routines are extremely important for us. The kids know what to expect. We start the show at the same time each night. If you don’t put down your book or turn off the game machine or put your homework in your bag for tomorrow in time, you miss the first bit of the show. If you don’t finish your snack by the time it’s over, too bad. Mommy might remind you just before the final experiment, but when it’s over, it’s toothbrush time. It’s as reliable as a clock, but more fun.

(And, yes, Son times his morning routine so he gets everything done before Pokemon starts, and puts his shoes on the instant it’s over. It works.)

Last night she chose Cranium instead. With no school the next day, bedtime wasn’t as critical, so we went for it.

My friend whose family plays games together every Friday night was right. It’s a fun game.

At first glance, it’s a typical race-around-the-board game with challenge cards, but there are only two pieces — therefore two teams. The kids both wanted Daddy. Last night was Daughter’s turn to have him.

On your turn, the other team draws a card and reads you the challenge. The box they draw from depends on the colour your piece is on. If the square you were on is purple, you get to choose which box. If your team passes the challenge before the enclosed timer runs out, you get to roll and move, otherwise not. If the square you started on has a star you move double what you rolled. That’s all you need to know to play.

(Errata: Son timed the timer after the game. It’s exactly one minute.)

There are four boxes of cards: Creative Cat (art), Word Worm, Data Head and Star Performer. Once you play for a bit, you start to recognize the challenges. Charades with either drawing or play clay (provided), answer trivia question, words in a category that start with the same letter, mini-word-search, that sort of thing. It encourages co-operation between team members.

We helped Daughter a bit by giving clues or not starting the timer until she said the first word in the category. Daddy often let her go first, rather than using up the easy words himself. Once we changed the category. It depended on the challenge (and whether we messed up when reading it). This flexibility is a strength of the game.

We didn’t look at the clock, but it felt like an hour or so to play.

The box says ages eight to adult. Eight is the lower end. She was able to read most of the clues, although she struggled with some of the big words. She knew most of the vocabulary, just wasn’t used to reading it. Because it’s a team game, she could give the card to Daddy for help.

Son enjoyed the challenges as written. His ego isn’t tied to how well he does. He’s proud when he does well, but if it’s only a game he laughs when he doesn’t. When he needed something in the kitchen starting with E, and I told him to look near the microwave, where there’s a bottle labeled “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, he stared right at it without seeing. When we pointed it out, he laughed.

When the two kids played it, Son was good about keeping it fun. He didn’t try to keep score or keep her strictly to the timer. He’s good about that when he plays with her. He splits his mind into two tracks: She thinks they’re both having fun based on the game, but I can see him re-reading the clues and re-trying the challenges while she moves the pieces. It took him a few years to understand this. If Little Sister is playing, it needs to be fun for her, and we will slowly move her towards using the official rules. If she’s not playing, we use the official rules. (He now realizes we did the same thing for him when he was younger. There was a time when we needed to know three sets of rules: Daughter, Son, and Adult. Even now, if a new game has simplified rules we often start with them to get used to flow, but usually shift to the full set by the second or third time.)

It wouldn’t have worked if Big Brother were more competitive, or if all the players were under ten.

The game and pieces are sturdy. It’s playable Christmas morning, and will survive years of use. The pad of paper will last several sessions. The full-length pencil was pre-sharpened. The play clay survived the store shelf. I’m not sure how long the clay will last now that we’ve opened it, but it’s easy enough to make or buy more. The cubes with letters are nicely weighted, as is the movement die.

Overall, as long as you can balance your teams and are willing to be flexible, it’s a great game.

A Proper Electronics Kit for Kids

My parents have this thing about science. They’re suckers for kits that promise to teach kids about science.

Not that my parents can’t do just fine on their own. Dad’s a professional engineer — a classic engineer, rather than what I learned. He fixed the car until the winters got too cold. He does load calculations for the cottage extension. He’s been an engineer-in-residence at local schools for years, spending hours making working locks and dams (desk-top size, which the kids put together), pinhole cameras, logic gates with switches and lightbulbs, winches, and a host of other projects. He’s the Robert Thomas of the Westport Outdoor Classroom.

However, when it comes to their grandkids, they got caught up with “kits”. You know the ones: Ten dollars and your kid can learn the mysteries of electricity and build an electronic motor boat, or an alarm system, or weave.

The electronic motor boat involved wrapping a fine (breakable) copper wire 50 times around each of three cores, then some trouble-shooting and soldering. Yep, every 10-year-old kid has a soldering iron lying around.

The alarm system was a black box (okay, yellow, but the technical description is “black box”), which you could connect in six different ways to shriek when a circuit broke.

The loom required a few hours with the milling machine in the basement, and more hours of sandpaper, because the grooves on the heddle weren’t deep enough, and the rough wood caught at the wool. I think it was the heddle; it moved the warp (long) threads. Really neat, actually. About 2 cm square. Each warp thread fed along a groove cut across one side, and around a corner. The grooves alternated — evens were deeper on one side, odds were deeper on the other. Rock it back and forth, and first one set lifted, then the other. Wikipedia doesn’t show anything like it.

But I digress.

The point of all this was that the kids learned that science required a kit designed by someone else, and often didn’t work. Even if you asked, “Why didn’t it work?” (as all great scientists do) you still learned next to nothing.

Until I remembered the 75-in-1 electronics kit I had as a kid. Mine was from what was then Radio Shack. Different lengths of wire, colour-coded by length. Various electronic bits on a board, connected underneath to terminals. Five or ten resistors, all lined up with the silver bands on the left (so you read the coloured bands left-to-right). Same with the capacitors. The board had the standard schematic symbols.

The manual started with a simple flashlight. You could follow the wiring instructions, and use a blue wire to connect terminals 32 and 20, or you could look at the schematic, and connect one end of the resistor to the positive side of the battery. Then it suggested enhancements, like adding a switch, or changing resistor size, or replacing the resistor with the variable resistor.

The great news is, we found a modern version by Maxitronix. Unfortunately, the manufacturer doesn’t seem to have a website — at least not according to Google.

Here’s the kit described by a store. It’s the perfect level for my 11-year-old son. My 8-year-old daughter, who can follow a cookie recipe, could follow it if she were interested. It wouldn’t be out of place in a first electronics class for 15-year-olds.

Google found several other Maxitronix kits. Some remind me of the old Heathkit kits, which are more about building and soldering than learning, but still fun. (I made an intercom set when I was 11.) The kits I checked include schematics.

My son’s doing this kit pretty much by himself. I try very hard to stay out of it, and let him discover things for himself. I’m not good at that. I usually suggest things to try, or explain things, and generally get in the way of him learning things for himself. So this kit is his!

Meanwhile, my parents have remembered something else: Kids don’t need science kits to learn to love science. Go for a walk and look at the animals. See if the berries in the shade ripened sooner than the ones in the sun. Design and build a shelf for the phone, so the phonebook can sit under it. Clean the lint trap from the washing machine. Make pinhole cameras from cereal boxes. In general — open your eyes and do things!

%d bloggers like this: