You know how I don’t like to spend Saturday? Watching kids play with Lego bricks. Especially if I’m not allowed to play with them myself. So how I found myself driving three sixth grade Montessori boys (one of them my own spawn) and offering to spend the entire day in an auditorium watching nineteen teams of four build Lego robots, then watch them try to push three other Lego robots out of a taped circle again and again, is beyond me.
I was greeted this morning with a pretty significant change on my Facebook desktop. When I hovered my mouse over a post to “Like” it, I was given icons for numerous reactions.
As Gizmodo already broke this morning, on February 24th Facebook launched their “reactions” capability. So instead of merely “liking” a post, you can now be a little more specific to how you’re feeling about a post.
How do you “react”? It’s easy! On the desktop, simply hover your mouse over the “Like” area of a post and the icons will pop up. Select the icon that matches how you feel. If you click “Like” it will continue to act like the classic “Like” button. As of now, you can react to original posts, but I don’t see the capability for comments yet (you can still “like” comments). Just refresh the cache if you aren’t seeing this capability yet.
On the mobile versions, Facebook pushed out an update this week that includes the reactions. On my iOS version of Facebook, I was able to just press my finger on the “Like” button of the original post and the reaction icons pop up. If you don’t see them yet, make sure you close your existing version of Facebook and open the recently updated version.
If you have a well-reacted-to post, you can view the combined reactions too, as seen in the image below.
I am over-the-moon about this new feature. It was really getting to me last month when I wanted to share my feelings about David Bowie and Alan Rickman’s deaths. I didn’t want to “like” posts…but now Facebook users can be more specific to how they really feel (such as with the “sad” icon).
Note: I posted that status in the top photo this morning, thinking that the angry face was a “Dislike” button. It’s called “Angry”…and some media outlets (such as Gizmodo) are still complaining about “Dislike” not being an option.
Thank you Facebook for listening to your customers!
What do you think about Facebook’s new reactions? Let us know in the comments!
It started simple enough. I had my then three-year-old daughter at work with me. I needed to talk with a coworker and needed something for my daughter to do. All I had was my work computer.
In a hurry, I closed all the programs on my Windows machine and opened up Notepad. Maximizing the program, I figured it was unlikely she could harm my computer. I quickly showed her the keyboard and let her hit as many keys as she wanted. I then turned to my coworker, thankful for the distraction.
The distraction that launched my daughter’s reading, writing, and typing exploration.
For my generation, reading, writing and arithmetic provided a base skill set. It opened the way for any number of careers. For my daughter, it will not be enough.
She still needs these skills. However, they will not grant her admission as they did me. She needs more. She needs a computer science understanding to control the technology and devices around her.
It is a reality President Obama recognizes. He wants to facilitate the changes needed to address this new world.
It is a simple enough of a concept, educate our children for the realities of tomorrow, and we will build a strong tomorrow. Because of this, I commend President Obama for his Computer Science for All initiative. My question remains, will it provide the base he hopes it well? Or is it too one size fits all?
Can you shimmy? Can you shake?
Can you step-clap-twirl to the right then the left?
Can you do the Hokey Pokey and turn yourself around?
Because that’s what it’s all about.
Coding, that is. Behind the intimidating circuitry hidden inside the impersonal hardshell exterior known as computers is an elegant simplicity that can unlock countless possibilities limited only by your imagination. The beauty of it is that it is so fundamentally easy to understand, yet capable of doing so, so much. Much like dancing.
Continue reading If You Can Dance, You Can Code
Hour of Code has come and gone; the reviews are jumping all around the interwebs (my own is coming shortly). But was it enough for your kids? Did your spawnlings savour the taste of coding … and then ask for more? And is coding really enough for them to start their career in-game development?
When I approached my four-year old’s teacher about Hour of Code, she invited me into the classroom to do a half hour lesson. My little ballerina goes to a Montessori, so the classroom is computer free.
“How hard can it be,” I thought. “I will just grab something off the internet and teach from that.”
So I told the teacher that I would be happy to do this.
I discovered how hard it is to plan a lesson for four-year-olds, both when following a lesson plan and making a new one.
I also created a binary counter that you can download and use with your children.
After giving a successful lesson on counting in binary and the Divide and Conquer algorithm, I have a new found respect for preschool teachers.
The excitement in our household was barely containable. Anticipation, joy, and dreams of what could be all radiated from the two geeks who live with me.
What caused such enthusiasm, you ask? Was it Christmas? Someone’s birthday? An anniversary, perhaps? The new Star Wars movie?
No, my friends. It was the announcement that Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Make Magazine, was going to be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at every single store location in the U.S. Continue reading Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor
I am extremely grateful for the many, many years we have had of employer-provided healthcare. We decided to look at the Pennsylvania healthcare exchange and find a plan that works for our family of 6 should we need to purchase our own coverage.
But I found myself staring blankly at the screen, trying to figure out which plan would provide for us without bankrupting us. Continue reading A Healthcare Headache
Remember in my PAX Review how I mentioned that Disney Infinity was going to be even bigger—especially with anything Star Wars related? Well, this is it.
Disney is teaming up with Code.org for this year’s Hour of Code and it is going to be big: Coding. Gaming. And, best of all, sharing!!
One Saturday a month, dozens of kids from across the New York metro area, with parents in tow, attend free learn-to-code workshops run by CoderDojo NYC.
Kids as young as six years old are let loose to explore computer science with tech industry pros who volunteer as mentors.
I discovered CoderDojo NYC in 2013 during an otherwise fruitless search for coding classes for my tech-enthusiastic, (then) nine-year-old daughter. We made the trek into Manhattan for a November workshop, not knowing what to expect. After a few hours of playing with binary code, we were both hooked.
And I’m not alone. Despite the quiet and free wi-fi in designated “parent zones,” many adults opt to hang out on the workshop floor to help their kids embrace their inner geek and, in some cases, because they’re tech-curious, too. Continue reading Tech Support for Curious Kids (and Low-Tech Parents)
Furby horrifies me.
I was NEVER a fan, and my kids knew it. My daughter, the evil genius that she is, would place Furby in my dresser drawers. As I would put away laundry, Furby would wake up and start talking. Naturally I would start screaming when my undergarments voiced a yawn and cried about hunger pains.
Sometimes I wonder if my mom bought my daughter a Furby as retribution for all the horrible things I did in my childhood. So, when I discovered that my son took Furby apart to see the components that made it function, I wasn’t as mad as I should have been.
I didn’t know it at the time, but deconstructed Furby was the beginning of our journey to harness my son’s curiosity. Fortune favored me because I eventually stumbled upon a geeky dad with the answer to my problem.
Teaching kids coding is one of the current buzz topics in schools, and rightly so. Programming is a vital skill, so much so that the National Curriculum in the UK—the government’s official guidelines on what schools are required to teach—has recently been updated to include the subject from a very young age.
My six year old has already come home talking about debugging algorithms, words I never used in all my years of schooling. I wanted to be involved in this journey with him and this new post series will follow our adventures in learning more about robotics, programming and more.
This is a story about a girl name Dakster and her adventure into Apple Land.
Dakster loved Windows computers more than anything. They’re shiny. They’re easy to use. And if they break, her degree in Computer Engineering and day job as a Network Administrator gave her the skills to either fix it or turn it into a toaster.
She can take a computer apart, put it back together, and get it working again quicker than most people can take apart a pen and put it back in working condition. She’s tamed servers, copiers, laptops, and desktop PCs with her mad computer skills that she’s obtained over her 15 years of working with Windows computers. Continue reading A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro
Who else noticed Google’s new logo that appeared on September 1st? Cute, isn’t it?
Being the curious geek I am, I took some time this morning to Google [like what I did there?] why Google chose to update its logo. The Google Blog has a story that’s written in propaganda-ese regaling the new logo as a “sign of the times,” indicating that the new sans serif design will work better with mobile platforms and will transition to the “Ok Google” microphone feature and bouncing dot icons more easily. Continue reading Google Takes Over the World in 2 Minutes
GeekMom has joined Instagram as @GeekMomBlog! Follow us to see the products we’re loving right now, events we’re attending, great DIYs, and some old favorites from our archives.
We’ll be kicking things off with some back-to-school ideas and photos from PAX Prime this weekend. We’ll also be at DragonCon!
Tag your geeky photos #geekmomblog so we can see your geeky adventures, too.
There was a lot of fanfare in our house earlier this summer when BattleBots returned to TV. In our home, watching the show turned into a family event, with friendly bets on which bots would continue on in the competition. If you walked by our house during an episode, I’m sure you would have wondered what all the shouting and commotion was about. If you missed out on the excitement, you can read weekly recaps on GeekDad. And if you want to create your own competition, read on to get the scoop on how you can use Lego Mindstorms robotics to create your own robot battles.
Last year, after our FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition season came to an end in November, our team wanted to move forward with more robotics fun and activities. Engaging in a SumoBot competition seemed like a great idea, and we set out to learn all things Sumo.
If you’re not familiar, the art of robot Sumo is modeled after the sport of Sumo. You put two robots, created following a given specification, into a round ring, and the robots try to push each other out. The first robot out loses. The robots can vary in size from fitting inside a 7-by-7-inch cube to much bigger. There may be weight restrictions along with the number of sensors and motors that may be used. The ring, or arena, can vary in size but is often 3- or 4-feet wide and either white with a black outer 2-inch ring or black with a white outer 2-inch ring. The robots will often have tools mounted on them to push or move the other robot out of the ring.
Our team consulted Phil Malone’s SuGo website for guidance and ended up participating in a contest following a set of rules outlined by Appalachian State at the NC Science Festival. Don’t get hung up on the rules; just make sure everyone participating is following the same ones.
So what do you need to get started? Well, you need at least two kids or competitors, two robots, an arena, and some agreed-upon rules. Just make sure to nail down the rules and equipment you are going to use before proceeding.
You can either buy a SumoBot ring or make your own. I was crazy lucky and noticed a round piece of wood sitting on the side of the road. It had obviously fallen off a truck, and it was a little smashed, but it still looked usable and was small enough for me to get in my minivan on my own. My luck continued when I gave my guy the specifications for the ring, and a short time later, I had an awesome SumoBot arena. He trimmed the wood, sanded the platform, and painted it. You don’t have to have woodworking skills or lots of money to spend, though. The ring does not have to be raised off the ground. You could make a ring out of poster board or cardboard, some duct tape, and paint.
You need to come up with a design for your robot. Do you want your robot to be lightweight, small, and dash around the ring and the opponent quickly? Or, maybe you want your robot to be as large and heavy as possible and attempt to overpower the opponent. Perhaps something in the middle is appropriate. Our team started out with a simple SumoBot and then made modifications. You could use the same robot from your FLL competition. As long as it follows the weight, size, and sensor/motor rules, let your imagination and personal experience guide you. Some of the kids on our team really wanted to test a robot with tracks against a robot with wheels to see which would perform better. The kids followed the TRACK3r building instructions, made a few modifications such as mounting the ultrasonic sensor on the front, and then tested against our simple SumoBot. Our results showed that wheels work better than tracks. TRACK3r kept trying to climb his opponent instead of push him out of the ring.
Once you have a SumoBot to test out, you’ll need to write a program to run him. Phil Malone’s website has a wonderfully sophisticated program that you can review, dissect, and run to get started. I found it to be of immense help to me, although it was a little too complicated for my kids. I encouraged them to study Phil’s program and to then create their own program keeping in mind several factors:
- The robot has to stay moving at all times once the match starts.
- The robot has to stay inside the ring.
- The robot should try to find and push the opponent out of the ring.
Our program ended up being a stripped down version of Phil’s program. Move out of the starting box to the left or right, as indicated by the judge. We used two programs to accomplish this; one had a hard-coded left turn, and the other had a hard-coded right turn. The rest of the programs were identical. Start moving forward and stay moving forward until you see the arena boundary (a white line, in our case) or the opponent. If you encounter the white line, back up, turn, and resume moving forward. If you encounter the opponent, speed up and push forward, trying to knock your opponent out. You will also need to keep an eye out for the white line while pushing. It doesn’t sound terribly complicated, but it is. A loop along with an impressive switch (case) statement are required.
Your program will need to use the infrared, ultrasonic, or SumoEyes sensor to detect the opponent. Although not genuine Lego, the SumoEyes sensor is a lot of fun to use. It will allow your robot to not only see the opponent when he’s directly in front of you, but also when he’s to the right or left. We were not able to compete with SumoEyes, but we sure did have a lot of fun playing around with the SumoEyes sensor from MindSensors within our own team.
Our FLL team found preparing and competing with SumoBots to be very exciting. The kids really got into the competition of trying to decide on the best SumoBot design. They loved cheering for their SumoBot to win. The whole experience was a pleasant break from the more vigorous FLL season.
Check out this video of our SumoBot in action at the competition this year! 1. 2. 3. Sumo!
When Google first announced their Google Cardboard VR (virtual reality) devices as an inexpensive means of obtaining the VR effect, my husband was thrilled at the prospect.
As a history and world geography teacher, he had been following the teaching potential—both at home and in the classroom—of Google’s free educational application, Google Expeditions. The program helps sends students on virtual field trips to from Paris, France to the surface of Mars.
The basic engineering of this item harkens back to the Victorian era stereoscopic (split screen) photograph viewers, on which today’s View-Master toys are based. The concept is to take two nearly identical photos side by side and, when viewed through lenses set a specific distance apart, it appears as one 3-D image.
Even today, most 3-D tech takes advantage of this simple idea, and tech behind Google Cardboard devices is no exception. There are several cardboard device designs available, as well as an easy template pattern to make one at home with upcycled cardboard. Most of the pre-made models range in price from $15 to $25, and we settled on the $19.99 I Am Cardboard version we purchased of Amazon. We even found images of viewers modifying vintage stereoscopes to use with the Google Expedition app. All of these are much more digestible prices for the home consumers, considering many high end VR devices will run well over $100, and sometimes into the thousands.
When we received our I AM Cardboard viewing kit, putting it together took less than ten minutes, even though it included just the bare minimum of instructions. We also had to learn how to properly use the device, which takes advantage of magnets on the side to help activate or control the features and interactive environments. The process is similar to clicking the little lever on the side of a View-Master, but not quite as easy. It takes a couple of tries sometimes to make it work.
By the end of the day, our entire family had gotten a chance to explore the surface of Mars, walk across London’s Tower Bridge (including the upper level walkway), swim in Great Barrier Reef, stroll through natural history, fine art, and air and space museums, do a barrel roll with pilots, and drive around the Top Gear test track with The Stig. Imagine how this type of experience could help excite students in a classroom situation.
Unlike traditional stereoscope images, the Google Expeditions options are 360 degree panoramic, and often explorable, scenes. The first scene I found was on the much-photographed grounds surrounding the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but through the Google Map street-view style application I was able to wander away from the tourist-heavy path, and by a secluded playground area in a nearby park, getting to see a slice of everyday life, as if I were there. That, I’ll admit, was really incredible.
Yes, there are plenty of 360 degree panoramic scenes people can explore with their smart phone and tablet devices, including photosphere camera apps to create your own scene, but looking at it via the I Am Cardboard device isolates viewers from the rest of the world, providing a little more feel of actual escape.
However, finding the escapes, especially those that can be crated in the stereoscope split screen suitable for Google Cardboard viewing, takes a some digging.
We found the biggest issue with this fun little gadget is gathering material suitable for use on the device.
The Google Cardboard application was at first introduced for Android devices, and although it is also available for iPhone and iPad, the viewing options are much slimmer. Android users have many more experiences from which to choose.
After exploring the limited albeit extremely cool options readily available, my husband spent a considerable amount of time that afternoon surfing for other options available to use. We found plenty of panoramic and photosphere environments, but not all ready for stereoscopic viewing.
However, we didn’t come up empty. Some of the apps and websites that work well with Google Cardboard include Air Pano, the Littlstar app (not Littlestar; it’s a kids’ music app), 360cities, and the Roundme App. All these can be viewed in stereoscopic VR images.
Also, cardboard being cardboard, we had to reinforce the viewer with some clear packing tape after just one day of wear-and-tear from one family. This means, be wary of just throwing it into the eager grabby hands of an entire school classroom without strict supervision on using it. I also recommend a back up for those wanting to use it regularly in class.
The idea of this item is excellent, but if you want to jump into having a large library of items straight away, especially for non-Android users, I would suggest waiting a while until more content is available.
If you don’t mind hunting a little, there is usable content out there, that, although might not be completely hi-def or interactive.
Even with these limits, I really loved this small, foldable product that requires only smart phone to bring an entire world of learning, virtual travel, and fun into the classroom… or home.
Gameband + Minecraft is something special for fans of Minecraft. It’s a wearable (yeah, I know we’re hearing a LOT about those these days), but it’s a wearable with a big difference. Gameband is a portable game of Minecraft you take with you on your wrist. It’s YOUR personal, portable game of Minecraft.
The basic idea is that users can play Minecraft from the Gameband on most any computer (Windows, Mac, and even Linux), as the game is pre-installed on Gameband (but the user needs to have purchased the game license separately). On top of that, Gameband comes with a bunch of pre-loaded contents including awesome maps created by community-favorites SethBling, Dragnoz, and Hypixel. What’s really special is that whatever you do in a given session using the Gameband is automatically backed up to the Gameband, and if you have Internet connectivity, it’ll be backed up to the cloud as well (via Gameband’s servers). You’ll never lose your world again, and you can take it anywhere you want to go!
[This post was sponsored by Gameband]
As you can see, the Gameband is much, much more than just a USB stick on a bracelet. It’s a whole world you can create, and carry on your wrist. It’s also a fun piece of geeky wearable art that you can program yourself. And it’s built to stand up to the kind of wear-and-tear that kids will put their accessories through.
And let’s not fail to notice that, as you might have noticed in the video, the folks at Mojang, who ARE Minecraft, are big fans of the Gameband.
Pay special note: right now, at Target stores, you can get a $15 Target gift card when you buy a Gamband!
Gas prices have left the stratospheric heights they reached a few years ago, which means people aren’t thinking about hybrids these days. The pain at the pump isn’t so bad and hybrids get a bum wrap for being blah, ho-hum cars that no one wants to drive. The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has been completely redone this year, giving you plenty of reasons to go green.
There are two models to choose from, so you can go traditional hybrid or opt for the new plug-in model. Both are surprisingly not hybrid-ish behind the wheel. You’re not driving a sports car, but you also won’t feel like you’re driving a glorified scooter. There’s even a chance for you to play with your drive experience by selecting one of three drive modes.
Eco is the most economical choice and it’s also the least exciting. I wouldn’t drive in Eco unless I found myself in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to eke out the best fuel economy possible.
There’s a huge difference when you switch to Normal and the Sonata Hybrid suddenly becomes a car you want to drive. Press on the gas and the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine proves that it is alive after all, with 193 net horsepower in the hybrid and 202 net horsepower in the plug-in. It’s all paired to a very smooth 6-speed automatic transmission.
Turn things up one more level to Sport and the steering and throttle response increase slightly. Again, not a sports car, but you’ll completely forget you’re in a hybrid, especially if you can find a nice winding road with tight corners. Opt for the plug-in and you unfortunately lose Sport mode, but stick with Normal and you’ll still be happy.
There’s a nifty energy indicator in the instrument cluster that lets you see how your driving style and choice of modes are affecting your fuel economy. It gamifies the driving experience by breaking things out to show how often you’re driving efficiently and how often you’re driving like Mario Andretti. It’s likely to make you ease up on the gas, if the numbers aren’t going in the right direction.
The plug-in will run in three different modes and you can choose which one. There’s electric, hybrid, and battery charge. It can run purely on electric for 24 miles, more than any other vehicle in its class. That does mean it has a larger charge time of about 3 hours on a 110 volt and nine hours on 240 volt. It also has a class-leading range of 605 miles.
On the outside, there are some changes from the gas version of the Hyundai Sonata. There’s a larger grille, modified front and rear bumpers, and new wheel designs. It’s like a stealth hybrid that doesn’t want to brag about being green.
Hyundai has also pushed a lot of the battery components beneath the floor mat in the trunk to make for a nice flat load surface. It has 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, so there’s plenty of room for groceries or a family’s luggage. They did eliminate a spare tire to free up some of that space, but there is a tire-mending kit instead.
While we’re talking about all that space provided by the lack of spare and relocated battery, let’s talk about the warranty. The car has a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-powertrain warranty, but the best part is the lifetime hybrid battery warranty. They’re the only ones with a lifetime warranty on their hybrid battery, giving them a huge advantage over the other guys.
The interior is spacious and, as is typical of today’s Hyundai, absolutely beautiful. They aren’t the cars they were a few years ago and this is a very good thing. The Sonata Hybrid has plenty of room for a family of four and if you need to put someone in the middle in the back, they won’t hate you for giving them that seat.
There are two big reasons people buy hybrids. The first is environmental responsibility and the second is fuel economy. Hyundai has the first one covered not just by producing a hybrid, but by being environmentally responsible at a corporate level.
Their recently remodeled headquarters uses recycled concrete from the old building to reduce waste and varying types of glass on the windows to make climate control more efficient. They even boxed up 73 pine trees and kept them safe during construction before replanting them at the new finished building.
They’ve got the second one covered with the numbers you’d expect from a hybrid. The estimated highway fuel economy on the Sonata Hybrid is 44 mpg, while the plug-in electric gets 93 mpge. You will happily be driving past the pump far more often than you have to stop.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid offer two great choices for those looking to go green with their next car purchase. A beautiful and comfortable interior, sporty styling, great fuel economy, and that lifetime hybrid battery warranty make this car a winner.
Hyundai covered my expenses to attend this drive event.
It’s funny that I’m writing a post such as this, since for years I’ve been a huge advocate of STEM in schools. Some of my Facebook friends might argue that I’ve been downright pushy about it. I am vocal not just about the need to further develop STEM topics in Common Core and No Child Left Behind, but also the critical thinking skills and scientific reasoning that emerges as a consequence.
Recently, since I’ve become more active in STEM outreach such as the Southern Colorado Girls’ STEM Initiative and the Girls in the Middle program, I’m finding myself tempering my near-militant rhetoric. I seriously used to say things such as:
“Of course you want to become a scientist when you grow up! Why wouldn’t you?”
“We don’t have enough women inspired to pursue STEM careers; what would change your mind?”
“America needs to return to that science and technology dominance we had during the Apollo program! Those great things were done by SCIENCE!”
I’ve come to two realizations in recent weeks about my personal treatment of the STEM movement. Others are already heading in this direction, as evidenced by programs such as the Maker Movement and a shift in nomenclature from “STEM” to “STEAM.” I want to join in with open arms. Many of you might think, “I knew that already!” but bear with me as I continue to find my place in making the world better than I found it.
STEM Isn’t Necessarily for Everyone, But the Scientific Method Is
STEM is well and good for those who clearly have a passion for it, but what about those who have a passion for American literature? For ancient history? For politics? Perhaps it’s the GeekMom in me, but it’s important to let one’s passions bloom, and if there’s someone who doesn’t want to pursue STEM as a career, let’s not push that too hard.
Starting this year, at the programs where I run physics, mathematics, and meteorology exploration programs for middle school students, I dig deeper into the students’ interests and open a dialogue about whether those interests—irrespective of whether the interests are STEMmy or not—could translate into careers. I help the students explore whatever they come up with, regardless of whether it’s STEM. If a student tells me, “I love reading, and my favorite book is The Giver. I want to be a writer just like Lois Lowry”, we can have a conversation about what it might be like to be a writer for a living [with the caveat that I don’t write for a living, but I write for fun and have an anecdotal understanding of the benefits and challenges of doing it for a living].
I understand that even though STEM may not be for everyone, America is still working hard, from the White House to grass-roots organizations, to bring back the problem solving and scientific method practices that seemed to fall by the wayside as American public schools overhauled its curricula due to No Child Left Behind. These skills are necessary to return the science and mathematics “higher ground” that we held during the Cold War. Scientific method concepts should be taught to all students, whether they ultimately pursue STEM careers or not. Embedded in the scientific method are tasks that will help our students become better readers, better problem solvers, and better citizens. For example, establishing a hypothesis inspires learners to think through a problem from start-to-finish before rushing into a solution. In addition, the skills developed when analyzing data helps students question everything, a trait that I think will instill success not just in science and tech fields, but also art, management, finance, sports, and history.
STEM and the Humanities Work Hand-in-Hand
My inspiration to write this post came from a Washington Post Op-Ed from last March that was shared by a Facebook friend of mine who happens to be a history professor. His meme-inspired comment with the post, “STEM will help you clone a T-Rex. Humanities will help explain why it’s a bad idea,” caught my attention and put a smile on my face.
The author of the Op-Ed, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, recently published a book titled In Defense of a Liberal Education, and much of the material in the Washington Post piece is drawn from the book. His opinion is worth checking out, as I discussed in this month’s “Between the Bookends“.
Granted, I think using the word “dangerous” in the Op-Ed title is on the dramatic side, but as I read the article, I found myself nodding my head in agreement more than I thought I would. Zakaria presents a historical context to why American public education was revolutionary, even in the 19th century, for breaking away from the European apprenticeship-model of educating only in the skills required for a trade. American public schools are more well-rounded, allowing graduates to head in one of several directions, regardless of his or her upbringing, gender, race, or economic status.
Zakaria hypothesizes that the emphasis on producing skilled STEM labor at the expense of liberal arts graduates, is a step in the wrong direction as a nation. I agree with Zakaria, but I would go a step further to say that producing skilled STEM labor at the expense of someone to wants to be a liberal arts graduate is a disservice to the American dream. If someone wants to be a liberal arts scholar, certainly don’t discourage it. America needs such scholars.
The skills students learn by studying the humanities and social sciences has inspired true visionaries in America, from Elon Musk to Steve Jobs. In fact, Jobs has told the story of how a calligraphy class served as an inspiration for the work he put into accurate type-facing on the first Macintosh computers.
What Can We Do as Role Models?
If you’re a geeky parent reading this, you probably already received the memo: inspire your children to delve into their dreams, with passion, always performing their best. As your children get older, perhaps a goal-setting exercise is in order. We’ve done things like that with our own children… even if their passions change direction along the way, we will help them redirect to meet their new goals. If you have the chance to serve as a role model to other youth, such as as a schoolteacher or sports coach, never discourage a child’s dream. Don’t get me wrong, if a child’s dream is to be the “king of the world”, perhaps a slight nudge is in order, but never be discouraging. Most of you know that already…I doubt our audience thinks otherwise.
The other thing I’d like to suggest is that you encourage your mentorees to consider the applicability and practicality of their career choices. If your children are choosing more-obscure fields that may not have well-paying jobs upon graduation, do they have a plan for making a living? For paying back student loans? For giving back to the community? These are also lessons that need to be embedded in our conversations about whether or not our country’s youth should be flocking toward STEM careers. Are we about to flood the market for chemical engineers, nurses, and spectroscopists? Will there come a time when an engineering graduate will not be able to find a job…because there are none? Will there be an outright void in America’s humanities talent pool?
Obviously we don’t have those answers yet. Just the same, think about how to strike that balance between letting America’s youth pursue their dreams (whether literate or numerate), filling a need for STEM jobs, and reestablishing the wholesale critical thinking attitudes that brought us STEM and non-STEM greatness in our country, such as the Apollo space program, the Human Genome Project, or the designs of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and the iPhone.
Want to know which flash drive or SSD gives you the most GB for the dollar? Or trying to find your options for a laptop with a touchscreen, 10 GB of RAM, and a 17″ screen? If you haven’t seen www.productchart.com, it does all those things, comparing smartphones, laptops, tablets, flash drives, and solid state drives in a convenient chart form. And as of Thursday, the site lets you compare 3D printers as well.
Yesterday something happened with “net neutrality”—or “Title II,” if you have particularly savvy Facebook friends cheering about the decision. You’re not entirely sure what that means or if you should care? This primer is for you.
What is net neutrality?
It means the Internet that you know. The one you’re using right now. A free and open Internet where anyone can access anything equally because all traffic coming and going is treated the same.
The opposite is an Internet where your ISP can change that. For example, a company could pay the ISP to speed up traffic to their site.
Think of the other two major content carriers in your house: your phone and your cable TV. Your phone doesn’t care much about who you’re calling. It will connect you to your credit card company exactly the same as it will connect you to grandma. Your cable, however, is quite different. Ever lost a channel because the cable company couldn’t come to an agreement with them about their contract? Imagine that applied to your Internet access. Your ISP could make your access to Netflix unusably slow (or block it) because Netflix wouldn’t pay them enough. If you’d like to imagine what shopping for Internet in that world looks like, visit jointhefastlane.com, created to show you what an Internet without net neutrality might look like.
And it’s not just important for you as a consumer. It’s important to the freedom of commerce online. Imagine you’d like to start a new video service, but Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube all have big budgets to pay to have their content delivered more quickly and clearly than you and your new company do. Is anybody going to watch your videos instead?
OK, so what changed this week?
Nothing changed and everything changed—and that’s what’s so exciting.
Nothing changed because the Internet is going to remain neutral, as it is now. Well, to be more accurate, the new FCC rules won’t be ready for a few months, and there will no doubt be court challenges. But I like to believe in optimism.
Everything changed because now we don’t have to worry about that changing. The FCC included broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act. That’s the “common carrier” section. “Common carrier” is a term that applies to things like telephone lines, things that must be provided to everyone equally.
Until yesterday, there wasn’t much really stopping companies from violating neutrality. And they did. For example, back in 2007, it was proven that Comcast was throttling or blocking BitTorrent.
Yesterday, in its announcement, the FCC reiterated the three main rules of the open Internet:
No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.”
This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.
This is all only about what they call the “last mile,” meaning just that last bit of access before it gets to your house. Netflix recently paid Verizon to boost the speed of its content. This sort of “peering” agreement is still allowed.
If you’d like to read the details of what’s covered, read the FCC news release.
Isn’t this old news? I feel like we’ve been hearing about “net neutrality” since before Luke sipped his first blue milk.
You’re right—this debate has been going on for quite some time. And that’s because since the dollar signs first appeared in some ISP executive’s eyes somewhere, defenders of the Internet have stepped up to speak about the importance of net neutrality. People like Tim Berners-Lee, who created this fantastic “World Wide Web” that we all love. (Boy, it’s been a long time since I typed those three words!) More recently, four millioin people wrote to the FCC to support net neutrality.
In 2010, the FCC passed the Open Internet Order, but parts of it were overturned in 2014. In that case, Verizon Communications Inc. v. Federal Communications Commision, the DC Circuit Court said the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce net neutrality. Reclassifying broadband under Title II changes that.
Last fall, President Obama asked the FCC to declare consumer broadband a utility. And that’s roughly what happened yesterday.
What does everybody think about this?
In a continuing effort to make sure my 10-year-old son Johnny has access to educational programming tools, Santa brought him Dash and Dot from the Wonder Workshop for Christmas. Johnny loves all things robot, so I felt sure that Dash and Dot would be a hit with him. Johnny already had Scratch experience as well as LEGO Mindstorms EV3 programming skills, so I knew he’d be successful with Dash and Dot, too.
I became aware of Dash and Dot last April after seeing their crowdfunding campaign, and I quickly ordered them with promised delivery for Christmas. (I’m pleased to say that they were delivered a few days before that.) I even received regular updates on my order, which kept me up-to-date on the progress towards production and fulfillment, and I felt well informed.
Co-founder and CEO Vikas Gupta, Co-founder and CTO Saurabh Gupta, and Co-founder and VP of Product Development Mikal Greaves founded Play-i in 2012. Then, in September of 2014, Play-i was renamed to Wonder Workshop. The robots originally known as Bo and Yana would become Dash and Dot. The goal of bringing coding curriculum to elementary school students was coming alive for all kids.
As Johnny and I unveiled Dash and Dot on Christmas Day, I quickly realized the power these robots have along with how well thought-out they are. They come in super packaging, or homes as Johnny called them. I certainly don’t expect the robots to spend much time in their boxes, but the boxes are certainly sturdy enough for storage, travel, and even passing on to another child. One of the first things Johnny programmed Dash to do was drive back into his box; it was quite cute.
The robots have built-in rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which can deliver 3 to 5 hours of play. I love that Dash and Dot won’t be eating costly batteries. There’s plenty of play time for a fun-filled outing before a recharge is needed. For charging, you can connect the included micro USB to a computer or power system, both of which are standard and worked fine. However, I am not a fan of micro USB, because I had the charging port on a tablet ruined by a child trying to force-plug it in the wrong way. Do provide some supervision and training with plugging Dash and Dot in.
Dash and Dot use Bluetooth Low Energy (aka Bluetooth 4.0), so check the tech specs to make sure you have a compatible device. I ended up buying a new iPad Mini 3 because our older iPad 2 does not support Bluetooth 4.0. I guess it was time we got an iOS device that supports the latest Bluetooth technology, but it was an expense I hadn’t counted on when Johnny received Dash and Dot.
There are four iOS apps available for Dash and Dot:
1. Path (ages 5 and up). Use your finger to draw a path and watch Dash take off.
2. Go (ages 5 and up). Control all the sensors on Dash and Dot.
3. Xylo (ages 5 and up). Create music with Dash and his xylophone (sold separately).
4. Blockly (ages 8 and up). Program Dash and Dot using Blockly, which is a puzzle piece style programming tool.
They make it very easy to connect Dash and Dot to the Bluetooth. After struggling to connect Bluetooth speakers to my iPhone for years, I am amazed at how simple it is to connect Dash and Dot and start programming!
And when they say ages 5 and up, they mean it. The apps are very intuitive and allow even smaller children to make Dash move and both Dash and Dot make sounds, flash lights, etc., all with easy finger controls. I would say that they are well designed to allow the smallest child to have success programming the robots, while also testing the creativity and advanced skills of older children.
Kids will love the colorful screens and consistent look and feel of the apps. There are virtually no words of instruction on any of the screens, yet your child and you will understand at a glance what to do.
Here’s a sample of Johnny’s first Blockly program. You can see why this is called puzzle piece programming. Kids connect the programming instructions together as pieces of code that have a specific function. It’s impressive to see all of the things that kids can make Dash and Dot do.
The Blockly app ships several program examples and also allows kids to save their programs/projects as they go.
Don’t miss the super-cool eye and lights, too.
Overall, Johnny and I have had a very positive experience with Dash and Dot. They are durable, the rechargeable batteries work great, and the robots are simple enough for Johnny to play with on his own, while being challenging and entertaining enough that he keeps coming back. If you have a young child and want to give a head start on programming, I think Dash and Dot are great.
If you like what you see, you can order Dash and/or Dot from Wonder Workshop. Dash retails for $199 or you can get Dash and Dot together for $259 or $349, depending on accessories. I just ordered Dash’s xylophone separately and can’t wait for Johnny to give it a try.
I’m including three videos below, showing Johnny using Dash and Dot with the Path, Go, and Blockly apps, so you can see them in action. Enjoy!
3Doodler 2.0 has about two weeks left in its Kickstarter campaign. After quickly passing its $30,000 goal, the popular art tool has a whopping $413,000+ and climbing. This cements the 3Doodler in a position of high popularity in the growing world of 3D art.
My husband and I were just talking about the 3Doodler a week or so ago. At the time I was not aware there was a new model on Kickstarter, so when I checked out the reviews on Amazon I was a little shocked to find many design complaints about the original product. After reading several reviews, I wrote off the tool as something that would be too difficult for anyone in the family other than mom and dad to use (probably just dad because I’m not much for the free-hand art stuff).
— Cathé Post (@MomPlaysGamez) January 7, 2015
Fast-forward a few days to a trip to our local science museum, OMSI, which had an original 3Doodler type item in the engineering lab. I quickly tweeted at my husband a picture of a teenager making a model of the Eiffel Tower. When it was my turn, I made a stylized cube. It wasn’t equal on all sides (actually, some of the sides were kind of wavy). I could tell that drawing in the air would take some practice, so I stuck to doing 2D designs instead.
I can definitely see why some of the design suggestions were made in the Amazon reviews of the 3Doodler, and other similar products, I had read a few days prior. The pen is bulky. It is hot. It takes a lot of electricity to run.
Enter me learning about the new version of the 3Doodler. I was super excited to read that the three major design issues from the first pen have been improved. The new pen is much sleeker, lighter, and takes less than half of the energy to run than its predecessor. Plus, now there are all sorts of gizmos and gadgets to be used with the pen, and new features.
The feature that piqued my attention is being able to double click the button to endlessly feed the plastic instead of having to hold the button down. The new gadget I think will be the most useful is the pedal because the user won’t have to worry about how they are holding the pen if the filament is being fed by foot action instead of hand.
Are you excited about this new and improved, fun, tool?! If you are $99 excited, you can back the 2.0 on Kickstarter through January 24.
OnStar has been around for 15 years now and in that time has grown to become what many people think of as an essential service in their cars. Available exclusively on General Motors vehicles, it can provide directions at the touch of a button and, even more importantly, help during an emergency. Now they are expanding the service to include three new features that will make your life easier and maybe even help save you a little cash.
It’s one thing to have a warning light for low oil, low washer fluid, or that dreaded check engine light, but now OnStar can help you know about a problem before it actually causes an issue. There is new predictive technology that uses OnStar’s 4G LTE connectivity to provide data streams from sensors monitoring different systems within your car. If it senses something is not as it should be, then it can send you a notification in plenty of time for you to address the problem.
You don’t have to wait for an email or a phone call either. It can just send a message directly to your car so you’ll get the notification while you’re driving. This is pretty fascinating tech as it uses fancy algorithms to constantly monitor your car’s performance and see into the future. I would like this on every gadget I own.
The new service will also expand your ability to monitor things like tire pressure and oil levels. Rather than just the monthly summary available now, these things will be able to be monitored around the clock. These features will all roll out starting with the 2016 Chevrolet Equinox, Tahoe, Suburban, Corvette, Silverado, and Silverado HD in select models.
Another new OnStar feature that will be available on all 2016 and even some 2015 and earlier model years will be Driver Feedback which will let you take advantage of possible insurance discounts through Progressive Insurance. With your consent, OnStar will compile a report with driving metrics that evaluate your driving style over the course of 90 days.
They will then share this with Progressive which may be able to offer driving discounts based on safe driving habits. You don’t even have to share it with Progressive if you don’t like the results. The choice is yours, so you’re in control of how your data is shared and if it will ever be seen by Progressive.
Lastly is OnStar AtYourService which provides a host of features that includes the ability for OnStar agents to assist with finding hotels and even booking your reservation. A partnership with Priceline will not only find a nearby hotel, but also help get a better rate than you might find on your own.
Additional partnerships with RetailMeNot and Entertainment Book will give you digital coupons for retailers in your area. They’ll even help you find a place to park with Parkopedia and provide something to pass the time on road trips with Audiobooks.com. These are just the first partnerships in a service they expect to grow over time to help you find what you need, when you need it. This service will roll out throughout the year.
Cars have all sorts of fancy infotainment systems, but the big complaint is making everything easy to use, intuitive, and actually helpful to drivers and passengers. OnStar is doing an increasingly great job of bridging the gap between what we want tech to do, and what it actually does in practice.
Right now, you may think of OnStar as your emergency backup plan or your instant source of directions, but these new services aim to make OnStar your source for anything and everything when you’re on the road.
~It’s hubbub free. No personal dramas. No time-draining conversations. Pinterest has such a peaceful vibe it’s like moseying through a quiet gallery where the pictures wait to tell you more with a click.~It’s built entirely out of widely varied enthusiasms. Your own pins can help you find the article you saved about gut microbiome, the DIY chandelier you want to make, and the song that teaches your kids about the periodic table. Going through other pinners’ boards is like flipping through magazines made of each person’s delights.~It’s a way of sharing who we are while at the same time, by organizing what appeals to us, we make it easier for other people to find interesting ideas and images.
That is, until now.
Pinterest is opening its boards to advertisement from major consumer brands, specifically from companies that can cough up commitments in the range of one million to two million. It’s not entirely clear if sponsored pins will appear on users’ curated boards. During very successful beta testing, ads only appeared in search results and category feed, not on individual boards. Yet according to a recent New York Times article, these ads will appear on relevant boards.
For example, a Promoted Pin from Kraft Foods, one of Pinterest’s early partners, could show up on a Pinterest board of chili recipes collected and browsed by someone who is on a mobile phone while grocery shopping.
I’m not thrilled to think that my board robots made of junk might soon include an ad for Rust-Oleum, my board of gardening hints might include a promotional pin for Round-Up, or my collection of articles on learning might be spattered with ads for educational apps. It remains to be seen if advertising will change the Pinterest experience. But I find it heartening to see how responsive Pinterest is to their pinners. They’re even soliciting feedback from pinners. Tell them what you think!
If your kids are anything like mine, you’ve got a kid who’s in love–nay, pretty much obsessed–with sim games. Whether it’s through games like Minecraft or Puzzle Craft or any other amalgamation, my son is absolutely besotted with games that allow him to grow plants into crops and arrange the world around him. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to suggest next for him, but thankfully our sponsor Maxmium Games has the answer.
Our son is also a seasoned fan of Forza, and is particularly intrigued by sims that bring a little more reality to the situation. He’s super detail-oriented, and there’s no fooling him when it comes to games that cut corners in that way.
Which is why Farming Simulator 15 is such a great option. While there are other sim type games out there which may be, shall we say, slightly on the more questionable side when it comes to content, that’s not something you have to worry about with Farming Simulator 15. As the number after the name indicates, it’s been around a while. And if you’re kid is as into agricultural fun as mine, they’re guaranteed to have a blast.
One of our son’s favorite parts of the game is the fact that the tractors represent actual companies you’d find emblazoned on the side of a tractor in real life–like New Holland, Case-IH, Ponsse, Lamborghini, Horsch, and Kuhn. Didn’t know that Lamborghini made tractors? Well, like me you’re now enlightened.
Additionally, Farming Simulator 15 allows kids to play online with up to 15 others. There they can share mods, swap tips, and show each other around their own creations. For the Minecraft generation, this is a must. Plus, there’s other new features like logging and learning woodcrafting, definitely a fun new craft for kids who are looking to make their mark in the virtual world! Granted, my son’s favorite part is the new chainsaws, harvesters, chippers, and trailers. But that’s his thing. Thankfully there are games like this out there!
And that’s not to mention all the other fun activities you–and your kids–will find yourselves rather wrapped up in. Not everyone has close access to a farm, but I love that games like this teach about the growth and cultivation of food and animal husbandry. It’s so important that kids learn where their food comes from and get an appreciation for what farmers do. It’ll certainly make the next hayride you take more interesting! Who knows, it could foster a lifelong love of farming–you never know.
Want to get in on the fun action? We’re giving away a “farmtastic” Farming Simulator prize package. One random winner will get a fabulous prize package including the PC game, a “Rosie” the cow USB drive, a bumper sticker, a mug, and more!
Interested in learning more: Visit and Like @MaximumGames on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/1u7pDh7
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This post is brought to you by our sponsor, Maximum Games.
The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book: 181 Simple Machines and Clever Contraptions is due out on November 20th. I’m a First Lego League (FLL) coach at my youngest son’s elementary school, so I’m always excited to check out a new Lego Mindstorms book. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book is the latest in a series of new Lego Mindstorms-themed books released by No Starch Press. If you like, you can also check out my review of the Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book to read about another one of their Lego Mindstorms book offerings. Or, you can read GeekMom Marziah’s review of the EV3.
The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book is a fresh approach to Lego Mindstorms building. For starters, it comes with a flexi binding which is both sturdy and flexible. You get the feel of a hardback and a paperback simultaneously. At 223 pages, the book is packed with content too. The material is also conveniently ordered into 6 parts: 1. Basic Mechanisms, 2. Vehicles, 3. Moving Without Tires, 4. Arms, Wings, and Other Movements, 5. Sensors, and 6. Something Extra. Plus, every page is full of multiple full-color photos. As a matter of fact, there is virtually no text in this book after the introduction. Unlike other Lego building books with step-by-step pictures and instructions, the author of the Idea Book, Yoshihito Isogawa, intends to convey the ideas and building steps through picture parts lists and several multi-angled pictures of the finished part.
For example, the images on page 207 for idea #165 are meant to convey a method for triggering the touch sensor through a secondary touch. That is, you usually trigger the Lego Mindstorms EV3 Touch Sensor by directly bumping it into something. On the EV3, that means that you have to have it mounted near the “edge” of the robot. However, that might not be convenient. With this interesting device, you can mount the touch sensor farther back on the robot, and the touch sensor will be triggered by the arm sticking out from it. I found this idea to be quite clever.
My First Lego Team has struggled with repeatability and reliability of our robot mission runs for this year’s challenge. If the team runs the same mission 3 times in a row, the robot does not perform exactly the same way each time even though the program and starting position have not changed. It seems like the robot does not go in a straight line as well as we’d like because the wheels are a bit wobbly. I was intrigued by the extra wheel support shown on page 89 of the Idea Book. I definitely think the team should give this design a thorough evaluation and trial at the start of our next season.
I’m planning some activities for my First Lego League team to do after we compete at regionals on November 8th. Up until now, the team has focused on solving mission challenges. However, I’d like to have the kids build some fun contraptions that also serve as a learning tool for engineering and mechanical concepts. I just love the scissor gear and lift shown on page 155 of the Idea Book. I think the team will be very excited to build this device and try it out!
Another idea that I found very interesting is using a device to press the Lego Mindstorms EV3 brick buttons during a program based on robot movement. Check out the pictures on page 214 in idea #172. Depending on the spin of the motor, either the right or left brick button will be pushed. Ingenious!
If you have a specific problem you’re trying to solve (e.g., you need a universal joint), this would be a great reference book to review for ideas. You could start out with the basic structures shown in the Idea Book, around page 74, and then modify them to suit your particular building needs.
You can put names to parts you’re already using in your contraptions. For example, our First Lego League robot makes use of a gear that changes the angle of rotation, but I’d never given it a name before. Now I know how to reference it! I also learned about cam gears, worm drives, and how to calculate gear ratios. I hope to make good use of these concepts in future First Lego League endeavors.
This year’s First Lego League Challenge has an interesting Sports mission where the robot needs to shoot a large rubber ball. Although our team has come up with one solution to this mission, they went through quite the process of designing ball launching mechanisms.The Idea Book dedicates an entire section to “Shooting things” starting on page 158. The team will definitely take those ideas into consideration for future designs!
Seriously, I could go on and on about all the inspiring designs in The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book, but I want to leave something for you to check out on your own. Pick up a copy and enjoy! The Idea Book retails on Amazon for $18.56, and you can pre-order your copy now.
GeekMom received this item for review purposes.
I created a basic jack-o-lantern with a purple face using the template. Then, I found a pumpkin which simulated the Khan Academy tree and hand logo, and I used it to create a Happy Thanksgiving turkey-themed pumpkin. I changed the leaves in the logo to multi-colored turkey feathers, and I added a head and face. Thanksgiving will be here before you know it! I’ll have to check back and see if anyone does a spin-off of my turkey to make it even better.