Category Archives: Product Review

Two Wins for Women Today

First, the Lego “research institute” set is so awesome, it sold out in three days.  I’m glad I ordered mine the second they came out, because my daughter is completely enthralled.  We’re stretching it out and building one of the sets each night as a treat after dinner.  Toy manufacturers just got a very clear message that there is huge demand for better toys for girls.  I’ll bet the pink and purple “Lego Friends” sets made to sell on the “pink aisle” didn’t sell out in three days!

The set is marked “10 and up” but like most toys, it’s probably over-estimated to keep them safe from lawsuits.  I would say a much younger kid could build this alone.  There are a lot of the absurdly tiny Lego pieces in the set, so it’s actually a good activity for a parent and a four-year-old to build together.  I read the directions and act as coach/director, and she uses her better-sized little fingers to put the tiny pieces together.  

Second, if you didn’t see it in the news, a woman won the Fields Medal today for the first time in history.  The Fields Medal is awarded every four years, and only to mathematicians under 40.  Today it was announced that this year Stanford’s Maryam Mirzakhani won.  From what I understand, for mathematicians it’s sort of like winning the Nobel Prize and the Olympics rolled into one. 

So, yeah… it’s a great day, ladies!

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Lands End Science Shirts for Girls?

While I appreciate the efforts of Lands End and their responsiveness to the customer base in making their new line of science t-shirts for girls, I don’t quite understand why this is necessary.  I totally want more science stuff for girls; what baffles me is the need for separate ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sizing on t-shirts.  A t-shirt is a t-shirt.  And boys and girls are shaped roughly the same until puberty.

My daughter is skinny, but got my broad-shouldered build.  ‘Girl’ t-shirts usually end up too short and too tight in the shoulders long before she outgrows them anywhere else.  This is especially a pain with long-sleeved shirts – we have to go up a size to fit her shoulders, and then roll the sleeves up.  So given a choice, I just buy her ‘boy’ shirts anyway.  Plus, you know, there’s her Spiderman obsession, and I have yet to find a ‘girl cut’ Spiderman shirt.

So if you’re only looking for more ‘feminine’ styled shirts for your kids (i.e. slim-cut shirts with teeny shoulders that have cute little gathers in them), these Lands’ End t-shirts may be for you.  And if not, we can all continue to ignore the fashion industry’s desire to make more money off gendered clothes and just buy ‘general kids play clothes’ – which unfortunately seem to only be in the boys’ department still.

Do you only shop for your kids in the girls or boys department, or do you venture across the aisle once in a while?

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Legos – Soon to be Even More Awesome?

When I was a kid – you know, way back in the day – Legos weren’t considered a ‘boy’ toy.  They were just toys.  I remember spending hours on end building giant lego cities in the living room with my siblings (three girls, one boy in our family).  The generic yellow-faced mini-figs could be boys or girls, a distinction usually made by putting on a different hat or plastic wig.

I always thought of Legos as part of the ‘building toy’ category, about as gender-neutral as you could get.  I mentally lumped them in with wooden blocks, Tinker Toys, bristle blocks, Brio trains, Lincoln Logs, marble works, and the like.  These were toys for boys and girls, young and old, limited only by imagination and frequently used together (if you didn’t know, the small lego wheels work really well on wooden Brio and Thomas train tracks!).

Back when Legos didn’t have to be pink for girls to be allowed to play

This mental image of Legos being for everybody is part of why I was so horrified when I realized that, sometime between my youth and my daughter being born, Legos somehow became “boy” toys.  When and how, I have no idea.  But it happened.  And then we got “girl” Legos when someone complained that girls weren’t playing with Legos as much (probably because some jerk told them their whole lives that they couldn’t).

These “girl” Legos are a tragedy, in my book.  The series is called “Lego Friends” and they supposedly cater to how girls like to play – more story-oriented, and in mostly what I think of as Easter colors (pink, purple, pastels).  Some of the sets are named things like Dolphin Cruise, Juice Bar, Pet Salon, Downtown Bakery, Flower Stand, and there’s even a beauty parlor.  Because heaven forbid a girl should play with the truly awesome Star Wars legos or something.

Lego Beach House – because someone has to invite Malibu Barbie over to play?

There’s been a good bit of backlash against this weird division of Legos into “his and hers” categories.  There’s the viral story of the little girl who wrote the angry letter to Lego asking why there were no cool female mini figs  – you know, the kind who do stuff like work in STEM fields.

The good news is, Lego has started listening.  A contest to design new mini figs resulted in a winning entry for three new female legos: chemist, astronaut, and paleontologist.

I totally want build with the Lego dinosaur bones

This is a big step in the right direction for Lego and for the ridiculously gender-separated toy industry in general.  I hope these get a tremendous amount of support and sales and continue to send the message to the industry that girls need and want something beyond the pink aisle.

What are your favorite Legos or memories of playing with Legos?  Would you ever have thought of them as ‘gendered’ toys?  What STEM field would you like to see a mini figure for?

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Ode to my Uber-Excessive Collection of Small Kitchen Appliances

Being both a geek and a foodie means I have a lot of kitchen gadgets.  I mean a lot a lot.  And I covet more.  If it were up to me, I’d have every multi-use and single-use kitchen doodad known to man – and about three times as many cupboards as I currently have to hold them all.

Many are the result of combining two households, some were received as wedding gifts, and some just seem to have appeared in the collection in between moves somewhere.  As in “Hey, did that mystery thing even come out of one of our boxes?”

So doing a quick inventory I came up with, in order of most-used to least-used: microwave, coffee maker (x2 – one lives at work), rice cooker, electric kettle, blender, toaster, slow cooker (x2), food processor, stand mixer, crepe maker, immersion blender, fondue pot, waffle iron, ice cream maker.  This doesn’t begin to tackle the list of thingamajigs I have that don’t plug in, by the way.  And I’m not even the chef in the family!

What don’t I have anymore that I collected over the years?  There are a few things that actually didn’t make the gadget-hoarding cut.  The donut maker never worked right, so it went to Goodwill a few weeks ago.  The electric skillet died in the last move.  The juicer was more trouble than it was worth to clean and was passed on to someone who might love it more than me.  Maybe I’ll try a different one someday (when I can afford it).

Then there are the gadgets I’ve loved to death.  I’ve killed the motor on several blenders and one immersion blender.  The blender/mini-food processor combo was handy and space-saving, but under-powered.  The George Foreman grill was highly overrated and generally just terrible at cooking things.  A popcorn air-popper that never really worked right.  In my just-after-college years I used to death a very cheap rice cooker that was upgraded to my current fuzzy-logic masterpiece.  And those infamous movers get credit for cracking the bowl of the old food processor.

What would I add to the collection if I could?  In order of would-love-to have: A Vitamix, a dehydrator, an induction burner, a deep fryer (which I actually won’t ever buy because I like fried food way too much to have that in my house) an electric griddle, and a raclette grill – just because I want to try it.  And of course the remaining KitchenAid accessories I don’t have: the meat grinder, the pasta maker, and the ice-cream maker attachment for whenever my current one dies.

If I had to whittle it down a bit, I could probably cut down, but… no, probably not.  I might use them all again in the next month or two!

The one that surprises me with its frequency of use is the Panasonic rice cooker.  This fuzzy-logic little marvel is multitalented.  I think we use it to steam things more than we use it to cook rice.  It has an awesome steaming tray and is perfect for vegetables or heating up those nice frozen pork buns.  Mmmm, Dim Sum.

This baby has settings for white rice, sticky rice, and brown rice.  It has a set-ahead timer so I can have fresh rice to make Misubi with in the morning, and it has a porridge setting so I can do overnight steel cut oats as well.  I haven’t ever tried it, but it even has a recipe for chocolate cake.  Yes, in the rice cooker.  So that, by far, wins first place in my book as the ultimate geek kitchen gadget.

My favorite kitchen appliance

The other gadget that *gasp* doesn’t plug in that I can’t live without is the apple peeler-corer.  For under $20 one of these little wonders will save you a lot of time with anything you need to mass-peel and slice.  It can be set up to just peel, just core, or both, meaning that when you have to feed 20 for Thanksgiving you can actually use it to peel potatoes for the mashed potatoes.

But most importantly to me it 1) makes “slinky apples” for my kid with its amazing spiral-slicing, and 2) makes things like homemade applesauce, apple butter, and apple pie a whole lot less painful.  I also get a surprising amount of use out of my salad spinner, because while I love the convenience of bagged salad, it usually disappoints.

What kitchen gadget(s) can’t you live without?


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Product Review: the LuminAid

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the brilliant young ladies who invented the LuminAid to help disaster victims as part of a grad school project after the Haiti earthquake.  It sparked my interest in their product, and happened to coincide with a time when I, like the good old paranoid person I am, was working on upgrading my own family’s disaster kits.

While I had already made a handy, affordable, and oh-so-easy batch of homemade jar candles (a post on making those later), I wanted to add something that would not require flame or batteries or hand cranking to produce light.  We have a little solar-powered lantern in our camping gear, but the LuminAid sounded even better.

So I ordered two – one for the emergency kit in each of our cars.  I figure if a disaster hits at home, we have two dozen flashlights… somewhere… around the house.  Geez, I know there’s at least one in every room, if only I could find them.  They’re there, really!  Plus I think I have at least three dozen scented candles at any given time.  So yeah, wanted the LuminAids for the cars and possibly for use on camping trips as tent lights.

This week they finally arrived, and now I get to play with the new toys.  First impression, these really are nice and small.  First pictures shows the LuminAid in the package, with a standard black pen for size reference.

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First strike was the packaging.  It’s that godawful cardboard-sandwiched-around-plastic-with-too-much-glue thing.  Basically you end up having to destroy the thick cardboard part to get the darn thing out – peeling was not gonna happen.

Second strike was the overwhelming plastic chemical spill when I took it out.  Think of the worst cheap plastic inflatable toy you’ve ever taken out of a dollar store package.  That smell.  The plastic feels fairly thin/flimsy, but only time will tell how that will hold up, and the small size/weight wouldn’t be possible without the plastic being so thin.

photo 4

Once I let it outgas for a few, though, things drastically improved.  Reading the packaging (from the one I didn’t destroy opening it), I followed the directions for charging and inflating.  It’s super easy to inflate – took me two deep breaths to get it filled all the way up.  It’s extremely lightweight (just a few ounces) and you can hang it somewhere by the handle to free up your hands.  It also has a little loop you could use to clip it up with a carabiner or something similar.

photo 3

I charged it for the full seven hours in sunlight, and then went to put to the test their assertion that it will run on that charge for up to 16 hours on the low setting.  Unfortunately, I forgot to tell my husband to leave it on.  So I turned it on after dinner last night, and he turned it off first thing this morning.  So we know it will go for at least 12 hours but didn’t find the limit.  I’ll post an update when I get to try round #2 of that experiment!  I will also be testing out the 8 hour max at the high setting.

The low/high settings are 15 and 30 lumens respectively.  To give some reference, my mini maglite LED flashlight is 84 lumens.  So the LuminAid’s not terribly bright, but would be sufficient in a tent, shelter, or other small space – and remember it’s fairly diffuse light.  You’re probably not going to do your homework or sew or perform surgery by this light, but it’s fine for most routine tasks.

The 'high' setting in our bathroom (the easiest place to make dark during the day)

The ‘high’ setting in our bathroom (the easiest place to make dark during the day)

I’m not going to actually test the waterproof assertion this week (I’ve always had back luck breaking my new toys when trying to verify that one), so whenever my kid manages to submerge it or spill something on it, which she inevitably will at some point, I’ll post an update on that result, too.

It also deflates fairly easily – have to do a little extra rolling/folding to get all the air out, but overall not too bad.  Then it folds up and snaps shut with a little strap, to a little bigger than your average smartphone.

Overall, it’s awfully neat, but only time will tell how well it holds up.  More to follow on that whenever a member of my family manages to break it!

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Product Review: Ice Sabers Star Wars Cookbook

I have way too many cookbooks and kitchen gadgets, but when I saw this item in the clearance section at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist.  Who doesn’t want to eat a lightsaber popsicle?

The problem is, you don’t get much for the money here.  The mold makes four very tiny popsicles – all four of them together might add up to one regular-sized popsicle.  It’s also a tall, skinny mold so you have to prop it up somewhere in the freezer to keep it from tipping.  And then… there’s the challenge of getting them out.  Long, skinny, small popsicles with too short of a stick in a little plastic mold means that no matter what I did, the end of the lightsaber would break off and stay stuck in the mold.

download (2)

I tried the warm water to loosen them thing, tried it some more, tried being extra gentle, tried the molds with different recipes.  Always ended up with sadly broken-off lightsabers and using a chopstick to fish the other end of it out of the mold.  When my daughter tried to eat one off the stick, the remaining portion would fall off very easily as well, really upping the mess factor.

I was surprised to see this had a 3.6-star average on Amazon.  The general idea of their 20 reviews was about the same, though.  Cool idea, poor execution.

The cookbook that comes with the molds could easily have just been a little booklet.  There are few recipes for the main lightsaber colors (I started with red and then green) that are pretty basic and involve food coloring.  The rest are just everyday average popsicle recipes.  All of this you could find for free with a quick Google search and save the shelf space.

Overall, I can’t recommend these.  I’ll stick with our rocket pop molds, which work better and cost me I think two or three dollars.  I really wanted them to work, but after six batches of disappointment I threw in the towel and evicted them from my kitchen collection along with that stupid donut maker that never worked right.

Have you had better luck with these?  Any cool geeky popsicle or candy molds you can recommend?

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