Category Archives: family

That’s no Moon! How my son and I built our own ‘Death Star,’ and had a ton of fun doing it

The “Death Star” Imperial battle station my son Jack and I built over the holidays. It’s refashioned from an old fire house play set and includes bristling cannons and LED lights. (Tony Lystra)

In 1982, the best toy you could get for Christmas was Kenner’s Death Star play set. It was big, rising seemingly to your waist, and included three floors upon which you could reenact some of the coolest scenes from the very first Star Wars move, “A New Hope,” which was released in 1977.

Kenner released the Death Star play set in 1978. It cost $19.99. Today you can find the original online for $600.

You could swing Luke and Leia across a gaping cavern to escape from a Storm Trooper ambush. You could plummet Han, Chewie and the rest into the trash compactor, where they took refuge from a blaze of Imperial blaster fire. And you could fire a cannon against oncoming X-Wings or pit Obi Wan Kenobi against Darth Vader in a fated light saber duel.

But the great thing about the Death Star was that you could do anything with it.

I remember a cousin and I reimagining the battle station as a skyscraper, the centerpiece of a sprawling space-port city, which we built for our Star Wars figures out of oddly shaped styrofoam packing materials, plastic bowls and cardboard boxes.

Like its menacing tractor beam, the Death Star pulled you into the world of Star Wars. It helped bring to life all the things your little grade-schooler mind dreamed during the morning walk to school — fighting your way through a throng of Imperial troops or spiraling the Millennium Falcon through a swarm of TIE Fighters. (These fantasies were best accompanied by a hummed soundtrack of the “Imperial March.”)

Darth Vader, Obi-Wan and R2-D2 illuminated by our LED lights. That giant gun in the background used to be a bunk bed. (Tony Lystra Photo)

The Death Star cost $20 in those days, which is just more than $60 in today’s dollars, and you were darn lucky if you found its sizable box wrapped and tucked behind your Christmas tree.

It was the kind of box that was so big it was obvious what was in it. That meant parents brought the Death Star out for a big, surprise reveal. It was just that good.

They don’t make the Death Star anymore. (I found an original for $600 on Ebay. An empty Death Star box can sell for $75.)

In fact, despite Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars films, they still don’t make anything like it. (Lego’s $460 Death Star kit is certainly cool, but you can’t play with it like you can the old one.) Maybe it’s because kids these days are foregoing action figures for Pokemon cards and console games like the Star Wars shooter Battlefront.

I’m not one to dis the next generation — the kids are alright. Despite all these screens, and in many cases because of them, our little guys are going to be just fine. But I do think there’s something to be said for getting lost in play, gone to the boring real world and off on some snowy planet or cavernous space station.

Jack rigs the LED lights. (Tony Lystra Photo)

This Christmas, my 8-year-old son, Jack, and I decided to find a way to get lost on our own. We set out to build our own Death Star — or whatever we want it to be depending on our whim: a Rebel hideout or Imperial outpost. We went all out. And we are, in fact, having a riot. The wise men may have had their Christmas Star. This Christmas we have a… Death Star.

Jack and I started with an old, wooden fire station play set my wife and I got for his fifth birthday. (We thought we were the best parents ever at the time — he played with it… once.) Then Jack and I headed to Home Depot and roamed the aisles, snatching up a bunch of PVC piping, plumbing joints and electrical parts. We have no idea what this stuff is for in real life, but it’s perfect for bringing our Star Wars world to life.

We started with this fire house play set.

We spray-painted it all in the grays and blacks of the Empire. Then Jack began arranging the pieces to create gun turrets, computers and control stations, vents and machinery.

We’re drawing our inspiration from the Star Wars films (Jack and I agree “Rogue One” should be considered a Christmas movie) but we’re letting our own imaginations carry us away, too. The old fire house’s bunk bed and some PVC pipe became a brutally powerful cannon. Another gun, at the battle station’s pinnacle, became the Death Star’s planet-killing laser. It’s powered by what used to be the firehouse’s pole, now a Kyber-crystal-fueled green beam that flashes through a tunnel each time the Death Star fires. (I’ve always thought the two guys who work in that tunnel have the worst job in the Empire.) 

The coup de gras: I ordered a few packages of small LED lights, and we’ve been splicing them together with nine-volt battery connectors.

I have very little idea what I’m doing when it comes to electricity, but I was reassured by an Amazon review from a teacher who said she used these lights and battery packs during her sixth-graders’ science experiments. If those kids made it, I figured Jack and I would survive, too.

An Imperial walker pilot holding one of our simple LED lights. (Tony Lystra Photo)

Now in my 40s, I’m suddenly faced with the possibility of building the Death Star I always wanted as a kid. That means our project has been an exercise in letting go, getting out of the way and letting the kid have at it, even if he messes up a little. After some trepidation, Jack quickly took to wiring our lights together. He stuck with it even after he got a little zap. (“Red to red, black to black, kiddo.”) And he’s particularly adept at drilling the little holes for the lights throughout our Imperial battle station.

This is Jack’s show now. He decided to paint the copious glue gun remnants on the main cannon green. He called it “leaking” Kyber fuel. Darth Vader and his Imperial officers would never stand for such sloppiness, I thought to myself. (And, yes, I’m poking a great deal of fun at myself here.) The results of Jack’s ideas look great.

We drew plenty of inspiration for our “Death Star” from the movies.

There are no limits to the realism and detail you can bring to a project like this. Prefabricated Death Star wall panels are available from a website called the Galactic Trading Post; a “starter set” of nine panels costs a seizure-inducing $110. Tutorials on how to add the perfect blaster scorch burns to your Star Wars models abound.

We aren’t model builders, Jack and I.

In fact, we’ve never taken on anything like this before. Yet, we keep coming up with cool ideas for what we can do.

We’re both infatuated with the textures of our Death Star, an obsession we’ve been cultivating for years as we’ve watched the movies and read books at bedtime.

When I was a kid, the Star Wars movies weren’t just great stories — they were canvases where my imagination played. I obsessed over seemingly every detail — the little gray boxes, bumps, exhaust ports and lights on, say, a Star Destroyer.

What, I wondered, are those things for, exactly? What do they do?

Since Jack was little, we’ve been curling up together at bedtime and reading about Star Wars space ships in Jack’s beautifully illustrated books, which show each part of an X-Wing Fighter or, yes, the Death Star. (A favorite is DK’s Star Wars: Complete Vehicles.) A few years ago, Jack assigned himself the job of spotting the “hyper drive” on each page and learned to read those words early.

Jack glue-guns electrical parts to fashion the “Death Star’s” equipment and machinery. (Tony Lystra Photo)

I admit it’s hard to tell who’s the bigger kid here. And all of this begs a question parents everywhere have to ask themselves: “Am I pushing my childhood stuff off on my kid?”

My family has put up with a fair amount of Dad’s Star Wars geekery. During a recent car ride, I passed the time by sharing the intricacies of the “Han Shot First” movement. (He did!) My wife nodded along patiently; the kids reached for their headphones. Our two oldest, Sydney, 16, and Cole, 14, have declared themselves too cool for all of this and have launched a rebellion of their own, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

Jack’s passions these days are Fortnite, Pokemon and Call of Duty, and there’s little question he sees the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, the First Order and the Resistance as a chance to bond with his dad. But there’s a place in his own heart for Star Wars, too.

On a recent night when I had trouble drifting off and Jack had abandoned his own bed and crawled in between us, I quietly fired up Rogue One on my phone and plugged in some headphones. Sometimes it’s nice to fall asleep to the TV you know best and love most. (My wife calls this “warm milk” TV.)

It wasn’t long before Jack quietly popped up over my back, groggy but quickly coming to at 2 a.m., and startled me with one word: “Cool!” I had to switch it off so he’d go back to sleep.

Saturday night, as we were wiring in our Death Star’s lights, Jack declared, “This thing is a masterpiece!” Later, he called out, “This is so rad!”

He was still gushing when I tucked him into his bed, well past his bed time and with glue and paint stuck to his fingers.

“All of this from our imaginations!” he said.

When I’m older and grayer and look back, that probably won’t make the top five of my proudest parenting moments, but it’s got to be up there, right?

Consumer advocacy groups call on FTC to investigate kids’ apps on Google Play

A coalition of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate and sanction Google for how its Google Play Store markets apps to children. The complaint states that Google features apps designed for very young children in its Play Store’s “Family” section, many of which are violating federal children’s privacy law, exposing kids to inappropriate content and disregarding Google’s own policies by luring kids into making in-app purchases and watching ads.

Google Play ‘Family’ section

Google first introduced its “Designed for Families” program back in 2015, which gives developers of kid-friendly apps meeting certain guidelines additional visibility in the Play Store. This includes a placement in the Family section, where apps are organized by age appropriateness.

To qualify, “Family” apps must abide by specific content policies, Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement and the Designed for Families DDA Addendum. The apps also must meet the Designed for Families program requirements. Legal compliance with federal privacy laws, including COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule), are among the requirements.

COPPA is designed to protect children under the age of 13 by giving parents control over what information sites and apps can collect from their kids.

Above: Google Play store showcases children’s content in its own dedicated sections

COPPA violations

But the new FTC complaint claims that Google is not verifying COPPA compliance when it accepts these apps and, as a result, many are in continual violation of the law.

“Our research revealed a surprising number of privacy violations on Android apps for children, including sharing geolocation with third parties,” said Serge Egelman, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement shared by the group. “Given Google’s assertion that Designed for Families apps must be COPPA compliant, it’s disappointing these violations still abound, even after Google was alerted to the scale of the problem,” he added.

TechCrunch asked the coalition if it had some idea about how many apps were in violation of COPPA, and were told the groups don’t know an exact number.

“From our survey — and more comprehensive analyses like the PET Study — it seems fairly prevalent,” Lindsey Barrett, Staff Attorney at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, told us.

“The PET Study found that 73 percent of the kids apps in the Play store transmitted sensitive data over the internet, and we saw apps sending geolocation without notice and verifiable parental consent, and sending personal information unencrypted,” Barrett said. “Further, under COPPA, children’s PII cannot be used for behavioral advertising. Yet, many of the children’s apps we looked at were sending information to ad networks which say their services should not be used with children’s apps,” she added.

Other harms

The apps also engage in other bad behaviors, like regularly showing ads that are difficult to exit or showing those that require viewing in order to continue the current game, according to the complaint. Some apps pressure kids into making in-app purchases — in one example, the game characters were crying if the kids didn’t buy the locked items, it notes. Others show ads for alcohol and gambling, despite those being barred by Google’s Ad Policy.

Above: disturbing images from TabTale apps

The coalition additionally called out some apps for containing “graphic, sexualized images” like TutoTOONS “Sweet Baby Girl Daycare 4 – Babysitting Fun,” which has more than 10 million downloads. (The game has a part where kids change a baby’s diaper, wipe their diaper area, then rub powder all over the baby’s body.) Others model harmful behavior, like TabTale’s “Crazy Eye Clinic,” which teaches children to clean their eyes with a sharp instrument, and has more than one million downloads. (The game is currently not available on Google Play and its webpage is down.)

The complaint also broadly takes issue with apps that use common SDKs like those from Unity or Flurry (disclosure: Flurry and TechCrunch share a corporate parent) to collect device identifiers from the children’s apps.

“Nearly three-quarters of the apps in the Family section transmit device identifiers to third parties,” reads the complaint. “There is no way for us to know for sure what the device identifiers are used for. Since many of the apps send device identifiers to third parties that specialize in monetizing apps and/or engaging in interest-based (behavioral) advertising, it seems unlikely that this information is being used solely to support internal operations,” it says.

Above: Strawberry Shortcake Puppy Palace was called out for aggressive monetization efforts. Strawberry tells kids to buy things to keep the puppy happy — the implication is if you don’t pay, you’re making puppies sad.

The groups say that Google has been aware of all these problems for some time, but hasn’t taken adequate steps to enforce its criteria for developers. As a result, the consumer advocacy groups are urging the FTC to investigate the Play Store’s practices.

The coalition had previously asked the FTC to investigate developers of children’s apps aimed at preschoolers who were using manipulative advertising. But today’s complaint is focused on Google.

“Google (Alphabet, Inc.) has long engaged in unethical and harmful business practices, especially when it comes to children,” explained Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “And the Federal Trade Commission has for too long ignored this problem, placing both children and their parents at risk over their loss of privacy, and exposing them to a powerful and manipulative marketing apparatus. As one of the world’s leading providers of content for kids online, Google continues to put the enormous profits they make from kids ahead of any concern for their welfare,” Chester said.

Apple was not similarly called out because a similar analysis has not yet been done on its app marketplace, Josh Golin, executive director at CCFC told us. In Google’s case, he explained, two major studies found widespread issues with the Play Store apps for kids. One from Berkeley researchers found widespread COPPA non-compliance; the other, by University of Michigan researchers, found children’s play experience was often completely interrupted and undermined by aggressive marketing tactics.

The complaint comes at a time where there is increased scrutiny as to how tech companies are misusing and abusing consumer data and violating privacy. Kids game have already been the subject of some concern. And this morning, an NYT investigation into Facebook revealed it had shared more of users’ personal data than disclosed with major tech companies, following a year of data scandals.

The issue of data privacy is an industry-wide problem. Tech companies’ failures on this front will likely lead to increased regulation going forward.

Not all the named developers were immediately available to comment this morning. We’ll update if comments are provided. (Update: TutoToons says they removed the inappropriate content from the app after becoming aware of the complaint. They urged parents and child advocacy groups to reach out to them directly in the future.)

Google says it’s taking the complaint seriously. It has removed thousands of apps from its Designed for Families program this year, and rejects a third of applications.

“Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them. Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find,” a Google spokesperson says. “We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform,” they added.

The full complaint is below.

Google’s Family Link software now recommends ‘teacher-approved’ apps

Google today is expanding the capabilities of its Android parental control software, Family Link, to go beyond helping parents better manage their child’s device and app usage. Now, the Family Link app will also help parents learn about what apps they may want to install for their kids, as well. In a new discovery section, Family Link will feature a list of educational apps for children ages six through nine that parents can install with a tap.

The apps are “recommended by teachers,” the section proclaims.

Google explains that it worked with teachers from across the U.S. to come up with this curated list of apps with educational value. The teachers were recruited to rate content based on their expertise in learning and child development, and had a diverse background in terms of things like years of experience, demographics, and locations in the U.S.

The apps must also meet Google’s Designed for Families (DFF) program requirements. 

At launch, the recommended apps come from publishers like MarcoPolo Learning Inc., BrainPOP, Edoki Academy and others, and include those that teach kids about facts and figures, interesting places around the world, and, of course – it’s Google! – the basics of coding, among other things.

There are currently a few dozen recommended apps, but they won’t appear all at once. Instead, Google tells us, the list will refresh on a weekly basis so as not to overwhelm either the parent or child.

Over time, Google plans to add more apps to the feature, including those for other age ranges.

Currently, all the apps are free, but Google may choose to highlight paid apps in the future, a spokesperson says.

Parents can tap on the apps to visit their page on Google Play, and add them directly to their child’s device with a tap on the “Install” button.

The feature is available in the Family Link mobile app for parents in the U.S. for the time being. Google says it will be available in other markets over time.

The recommendations of “nutritious” apps, as Google refers to them in an announcement, comes at a time when major tech companies are paying increased attention to the time spent on devices, and a growing concern among consumers – parents and otherwise – that it’s not time well spent.

At Google’s developer conference in May, the company detailed new Android-based tools for managing and monitoring screen time to promote healthier app and device usage. This includes ways to prevent the phone from distracting or stimulating users, as well as time limits for apps.

These sorts of controls are things parents want for their children, too, which is what Family Link, launched publicly in fall 2017, has provided.

But when even “screen time” itself is being seen as a concern, it makes sense that Google would want to showcase some of the apps that provide something of value.

The feature is launching today on Family Link for Android with iOS support to follow.

Holiday Music at Pioneer

Pioneer Elementary does an annual performance for parents around the (unidentified, non-denominational) holidays. Here are two truly stunning performances by the second grade class that I’m sure you’ll treasure…. especially the star in the middle of the back row.

The Penguin Polka

Here is the same piece in a different format:



Frosty the Snowman

Alternate format: FrostyTheSnowman


Former Ferry


As someone who rode out 2 hurricanes, one with a 10 ft tidal surge, on a 33 ft. former ferry boat where the engine had to be kept at half throttle in forward just to keep the mooring from dragging, some “duds” are devoutly to be wished for.    

Love   Dad

The Spindrift was the former Bustin’s Island ferry before Dad bought it, removed about a third of the sitting area and built a flying bridge and forward cabin. This harrowing exploit took place in the Royal River just off of Alec Twombly’s boat yard.  It wasn’t called a marina in those days.  Joe and I alternated duty. The river was running so swiftly that we had to use an outhaul arrangement to get back and forth to the Spindrift.  Fortunately Dad had filled the fuel tank (must have been 50 or more gallons) before the storm. Good thing as the gas pumps on shore were flooded over.  I ought to see what Joe remembers of this. It was in the fall of 1956 I think because Jamie was in the Marine Corps.  

 Love   Dad

Comin’ on to blow

We’re expecting some weather out here in the NW this weekend, and I thought I’d post a “we’re ok” message now.

Media reports were forecasting 30-40 mph winds last night but we didn’t see them in Olympia. We’ve got power and the boat is fine. They are forecasting 60 mph winds for Saturday evening – remnants of a pacific cyclone. We’ll see what develops.

If you’re curious, here is the weather station at our marina – the one I’ll be watching off and on tomorrow:

I love open data – it’s the antidote to hype.

Here’s the station closest to our house – it’s about 15 blocks away

And here’s one near Katy & John’s place in Seattle