Dragon Box

I recently downloaded this game on the basis of an article I read in Wired. Intrigued, I purchased it and installed it onto a tablet my children use (when we’re feeling generous!) My eight year old son immediately sat down and ran through the first two banks of problems without hesitation. It was amazing.

The premise of the game is simple: it presents algebraic problems as a game. Given two sheets of paper (presented as left and right halves of the screen), a box (the value for which you are solving), and some cards (coefficients), remove all cards from the box side of the screen. It takes about two seconds for you to understand that this is how basic algebra would work: simplify equations and solve for ‘x’. The manner in which this app presents that is nothing short of genius.

You are given the usual start-up choices of “Play”, “Options”, “Web”, and “Quit”. Put aside “Options” (it does what you think, sound and music volumes) and “Web” (jumps to homepage), and press “Play”. The game immediately shows you everything you need to know, step-by-step, to play.  You think you’re in the tutorial, and you are, but you are also in the game.  It teaches you new techniques as you need them.  In effect, you end up finishing the first bank or level without even realizing it.

Here’s the next best part: instead of cartoon “cards”, the games starts replacing the cartoons with actual letters and numbers. I’m not even halfway through the game — it’s primarily for the boy — but I can already anticipate that by the end, he’ll be able to solve a polynomial without really knowing “polynomial” as a word. There are two options to buy. At six bucks I chose the “plus” version which has the 100 puzzles of the three bucks option, and an extra 100 quiz puzzles.

After a few weeks of trying out the app it remains amazing. I had a lady sitting next to me on the train, and on a whim I asked her if she liked math. She said something to the effect of “it’s okay” and then I asked her how her algebra was. She told me she failed it in high school. So, I launched Dragonbox on my tablet, handed it to her, and asked her to play the game.

The game has no help instructions; the first dozen levels teach you the game. She finished the level in record time, thoroughly impressed, writing down the app name. She then told me she was a teacher, and her current job was evaluating teaching materials! What luck!

I have a six and eight year old, and they both ran through it without many hitches. In fact, the same admonition for math — “check your work!” — is equally true with this, so it reinforces a basic discipline as well. This is the best educational game I have ever seen.

For six bucks I have my son learning algebra on his summer vacation. Try to beat that.

-- Christopher Wanko  

Dragon Box
iOS and Android

Available from iTunes Store and Google Play

Produced by WeWantToKnow

Thinking With a Pencil

Henning Nelms’ classic Thinking With a Pencil should be a textbook in elementary school. Kids could then use the quick visualization skills Nelms teaches for the rest of their lives to help communicate, sell, and envision new products, services, and worlds. I know I wish I had gotten my hands on this book well before my engineering school days. I’ve used these skills to wireframe websites, diagram manufacturing lines, and sell process improvement projects to prospective clients. There is something in here for everyone as Nelms emphasizes the use of drawing in all disciplines.

The book was first published in 1957, but was republished in 1986 by Ten Speed Press, and is available used today. I think I learned about the book from the Whole Earth Catalog, too.

-- James Hom  

Thinking With A Pencil
Henning Nelms
First Edition
1986, 347 pages

Available used from Abe Books

Available from Amazon

Workshop Math

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About five years ago I began to build my own house. It’s amazing just how much of a house is built on maths! I was never very good at maths at school and I would often have to dredge my deepest memories of that time trying to remember whether it was two Pi x R or Pi x R squared?

My wife was getting pretty fed up with me continually giving her bills of quantities and so on to work out, and bought me this book as a gift. I love it! It’s now the most dog eared book on my workshop shelf and even though the house is built and finished I still refer to it whenever I’ve got one of those “I’m sure there must be an easier way of working this out” problems.

It contains tons of useful stuff from calculating loads on beams over a given distance to calculating the thermal efficiency of a wood burner. It really does cover a lot of ground. Only problem I have found with it is that being from the UK, where we generally work in metric, a lot of the tables in the book are in imperial measurements.

However, Scharff usually gives the formulae as well as the tables so it was usually pretty easy just to do the workings in millimetres or kilogrammes or whatever. If they had used books like this when I was at school I reckon I would have seen the relevance and taken to it much more than I did. Anyway, I think it’s a must-have now and wish I had found it years ago.

-- George Graham  

[Though this book is currently out of print, there appear to be a significant number of used copies at Amazon and other used book sites. Additionally, the first portion of the book is available over at Google Books for those who want to take a closer look. -- OH]

Workshop Math
Robert Scharff
1989, 456 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

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Learning to program has been a goal of mine for years, but it’s one that all too often gets set aside. This is fairly normal given the challenges that accompany trying to learn something as foreign as a new language (with the added complexity of logic problems thrown in). Introductory texts are often stultifying, and I found the dilemma of deciding exactly which language to dive into to be anxiety-inducing.

Luckily, Codecademy has simplified the task of learning to code into a friendly and easy-to-use web interface driven by bite-sized lessons that slowly add up to functional working knowledge. Primarily oriented in Javascript, HTML, and CSS, Codecademy uses discrete tasks and challenges that can be performed in browser to drive learning. They succeed, in part, because they have eliminated the need for books or additional software. All you need is a browser, and a few minutes to practice.

With that being said, Codecademy is definitely not intended as a replacement for most programming texts. Instead, I think of Codecademy lessons as responsible for building a set of skills and familiarity that you can use as a foundation or framework for other languages.

In the past few months, Codecademy has been leading something they call Code Year which introduces a new lesson every week over the course of a year with the end goal being the ability to program an interactive Javascript-driven website. While I haven’t been as consistent in the weekly lessons as I’d like, I find that I’m still motivated to return to the site when I have the time.

Finally, this isn’t the only resource of it’s kind out there, and there are many others that deserve recognition (Udacity is another site that has garnered a lot of attention, but I haven’t had the time to check it out). If you know of any other resources that have helped, feel free to list them in the comments and I’ll add them to the review.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Sample Excerpts:

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This lesson details how to think about and use a “function” in Javascript.

Is This Thing On?

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I teach Basic Computer Skills in the local community college’s continuing education program. Last year I used the previous edition of this book, even though it was 3 years out of date, because of it’s use of simple language, humor and comprehensiveness. All my students enjoyed it and I found that it came in handy to keep me from using too much computer jargon.

This new edition includes social networking and does a nice job of updating the computer hardware and operating systems. It’s not just for seniors either. It’s for anyone interested in becoming computer literate. I have over 30 years experience and still learned a thing or two reviewing this book for my class.

-- Robert Byrd  

Is This Thing On? A Computer Handbook for Late Bloomers, Technophobes, and the Kicking & Screaming
Abby Stokes
2012, 448 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

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A mouse is basically a hand-operated device that controls the movement of a pointer that appears on your monitor’s screen. This pointer can appear in different shapes depending on what its function is at a given time. It can also be referred to as the arrow, mouse arrow, or cursor. (p. 12)

Discovering Statistics Using SPSS

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If you’re looking for an introduction or reference for statistical analysis, this is the one book I can recommend without reservation.

From how to quantify your research to reporting your results in various styles, this book covers it all with unmatched thoroughness, organization, and humor. Yes, humor.

I’ve owned a copy since the 3rd edition was released, and recently purchased a second so that I can have a clean copy to lend out. I believe that it’s especially helpful because it’s a statistics textbook that wasn’t written by a statistician. While it covers plenty of theory, the author originally wrote it as a reference for himself. Its intended audience is those who need to use statistics to conduct or understand research.

It also provides the best manual you can get for SPSS, the most popular statistical software for the social sciences. Andy Field doesn’t screw around when he explains how to conduct analyses in SPSS; he gets right to the point about what each function does, what each option means, and how its related to the work you need to do.

The book doesn’t just show me how to conduct analyses in SPSS, it provides an understanding of the theory involved that helps me decide whether or not a particular method is the right one to use. For methods with which I might not be familiar, Andy Field doesn’t hold your hand, but he does an excellent job getting me up to speed on the theory so that I can weigh the pros and cons of an analysis or an option myself.

It’s also extremely helpful as a quick reference if I need to remember how to properly report results or I forget what a certain type of output means for the validity of my study. It does what I believe a great textbook should do: it balances itself between being an accessible introduction to the topic and being a quick reference for those with some experience.

It’s also hilarious to read, especially if you love dirty jokes.

Note: The book comes with access to example files online that you can use to follow along with the introductory lessons for each method. I have not ever used these myself, but I have heard from an experienced stats instructor that they are the best she has seen.

-- Brandon LaRue  

Discovering Statistics Using SPSS
Andy Field, Third Edition
2009, 856 pages

Available from Amazon



GoodReader is a robust feature-rich PDF reader that is my killer application for the iPad. A PDF-reader sounds too simple to be a killer app until you realize that no one else has gotten it right.

I have tried reading PDFs on a PC, a Kindle, an iPhone, and, of course, printed out on paper, and every single format so far has failed miserably. The Kindle’s slow response time, small screen, and lack of effective zoom means that it can’t adapt to the various formats commonplace in PDFs (I haven’t tried the larger DX, but in talking to others the gripes remain the same). The iPhone, while adaptable in its small size, simply doesn’t have enough real estate to read PDFs effectively. Furthermore, scrolling through endless pages of PDFs on my laptops is clunky and poorly thought out, owing to the added bulk of a laptop or desktop, and the horizontal nature of the screen.

I am relieved that my struggle with reading PDFs has been solved by GoodReader. The iPad’s versatile vertical and horizontal format makes for easy reading, while the ability to flip through pages with touch eliminates any of the awkwardness of the Kindle or PC. GoodReader also uses tabs for quick switching between PDFs, a feature that I believe neither OSX Preview or Acrobat has really gotten right.

Outside of reading and reviewing, GoodReader takes advantage of the iPad’s touch input by allowing for easy highlighting, text input, and drawing. Marking up PDFs on an iPad, while not professional-caliber, far exceeds the day-to-day utility of something like Adobe Acrobat Professional, while matching all the benefits of good old pen-and-paper without the associated reams and reams of paper.

Another problem GoodReader resolves is the management of PDFs. Having a dedicated, easy to access management system means I don’t have to search through thousands of files on my laptop. The layout makes it easy to organize PDFs into folders, but the killer feature is the ability to sync GoodReader to DropBox or other servers. Now, when I edit or mark up a PDF I can easily save it and access that copy from anywhere without the hassle of email, or manual syncing.

It seems strange that a PDF-reader would become the killer application on the iPad, but it also makes sense. When it was first released, the iPad was a curiosity; a blank slate without a specific use. As it has matured, the flexibility and familiarity of touch-input plus paper sized high-res screen and long battery life has created an almost-perfect format for working with PDFs. And GoodReader is the application that has made it happen.

-- Oliver Hulland  


Available from iTunes

Grades App


When I went back to college, I found one of the hardest things to deal with was trying to figure out where my grade stood in any particular class. Did the professor do weighted grades? Point system? What score did I get on that last test? Did I calculate in that extra credit? Is the score written on my test and the one in the professor’s grade book the same?

Before I found Grades, I tried the two other student organizer apps on the Android Market. One was only really good at keeping track of my attendance and my overall GPA, the other ended up being useless to me because it could only handle weighted (each category is a percent of the grade) scoring. While the developer was nice enough, he/she didn’t understand that I needed it to be point based (earned / total points = % score).

In a last ditch effort, I did another search and found a new app was added to the Market called Grades: Student Organizer. That was almost 2 semesters and a summer intersession ago and I haven’t looked back!

Grades is able to calculate the student’s GPA, how many units have been taken, grade in each class, and can customize each class individually in either weighted or point-based grading systems.


Their customer service is wonderful, too. I’ve emailed them several times with problems and suggestions to add to the app and each time I’ve gotten a response usually within a day and even a few of my suggestions were included in the following release (though I suppose that’s more of a Great Minds Think Alike thing).

At the time, I had tried literally every other student gradebook application out there on the Android Market and this one did everything I needed and in the end had everything else the other applications offered. At only $0.99, it’s also the cheapest.

-- Nyx Goldstone  

Grades: Student Organizer
Android application

Available from Android Market Produced by Android Infinity

Three Great Anatomy Books


The Anatomical Chart Series by Peter Bachin and Ernest Beck is a flip-page guide that includes excellent anatomical charts. It appears to be out-of-print but you can find it used.


The Human Body by Ruth & Bertel Bruun is a great and colorful children’s anatomy book. You can find it used for around $3.


Of my maybe dozen books on anatomy (always fascinated by what Dr. Henry Bieler author of Food Is Your Best Medicine calls “the magnificent human body”), this is the masterpiece: Atlas of Human Anatomy by Frank Netter.


How any one human could do all these exquisite drawings in a lifetime is beyond me. The drawings of the hand are spectacular. There is no descriptive text, so I don’t know if this is the perfect text for helping with self-diagnosis, but this is a reference book anyone interested in the human body should have.

I have an older 4th edition, but they recently released the 5th.

My doctor was using a Grey’s Anatomy, and I sent him a copy of this and he was mightily pleased.

-- Lloyd Kahn  

[Note: You can find Netter's Anatomy in various forms including an iPhone and iPod touch application for those on the go.-- OH]

The Anatomical Chart Series
Peter Bachin and Ernest Beck
Classic Library Edition
$25 (used)
Available used at Amazon

The Human Body Ruth and Bertel Bruun
96 pages
Available used at Abe Books

Atlas of Human Anatomy, Fifth edition
Frank Netter
624 pages
Available from Amazon

Sage Maths


Sage Maths is free open source software for doing virtually every type of maths you can imagine. Not just numerical maths, but symbolic maths too – you can give Sage an equation and it will tell you what the equation of its integral or differential is, for example. And it will do numerical maths, plot graphs, analyze statistical information and solve equations or sets of equations. In fact, it will do virtually anything mathematical you can think of.

Sage was developed as an open source alternative to commercial systems like Mathematica and Matlab (it has most but not all of the functionality of both) because mathematicians and scientists need to be able to understand and review the algorithms their software uses – something not possible with a closed system.

Originally developed for graduate mathematicians, Sage is now at the stage where it is useful and interesting to professional and hobbyist mechanical and electronic engineers, amateur astronomers, business number crunchers, and people who just want to know more maths than they do. It runs on Linux, Windows and OS X, and lately people have managed to run it on both Apple iThings and Android smartphones.

-- Jonathan Coupe  

Sage Maths

Available from Sage