Let A Robot Clean Up After Your Cat

Our favorite innovation for cats. (litter-robot.com)

Recently, I warned you that robot overlords will be taking over. First sign? They’re cute and useful. Soon, we won’t be able to bear living without them. Then, if my research holds true, we humans are well on our way to becoming fuel for angry, meat-eating, self-perpetuating machines.

I’m here to report that I am now a willing victim. Yes, I’m weak. When given the opportunity to review Litter-Robot, I seized the chance to observe the threat up close. Maybe knowing my enemy better could help me in some dystopian robot-controlled future. Besides, it’s not like I need the help. I barely do any chores around here because I’ve foisted them off on my super-responsible kids. Let me tell you, those kids were excited when the robot arrived.

First impression of the Litter-Robot? It reminded us of those early diving helmets, the ones that look so steampunk now.

See the similarity? (Images: public domain, litter-robot.com)

See the similarity? (Images: public domain, litter-robot.com)

The Litter-Robot is cleverly designed. This self-cleaning enclosure senses a cat’s weight, then automatically starts the cleaning process seven minutes later. It rotates slowly, using gravity to sift litter rather than using a raking method. There’s no clogging or jamming, and only the clumped litter goes into the receptacle. When a waste bag in the collection drawer is full, you simply replace it with another bag. There’s no need for expensive custom-fit bags, because it has clips to accommodate any garbage bag you choose. Cleaning takes only few seconds. No litter dust from scooping, no yucky cleaning, no spilled litter, no fuss at all. And we haven’t noticed an odor either, thanks to its enclosed design and carbon filters.

We carefully followed the instructions for introducing our cats to the unit. It’s important to take it slowly, so they adjust. They accommodated perfectly in about a week and a half. We’re really pleased with this product’s sturdy construction and the fact that it’s made in the U.S.A. The Litter-Robot has a 90-day, money-back guarantee and an 18-month warranty, plus a customer support line. The whole unit seems pricey as an initial investment, but there are big savings over time, because you use so much less litter. The company says customers save 50 percent or more on litter. Sparing yourself the kitty litter box chore is, of course, priceless.

We couldn’t just call it a robot. No, the humans here insisted it have a name. Proposals included Cheezburger, Nyan, Max, and Wilbur. Max won. Also, the little thing has become a “him.” I will try to pretend I still call Max “it” for the purposes of this review, but it’s harder than you might imagine.

I really appreciate Max, er, the Litter-Robot. Maybe a robot-run future won’t be all that bleak. And those large googly eyes we stuck on it make it seem downright personable.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Man vs. Machine: Disney Artists Take on Robots

From L to R, Disney Television Animation’s Craig McCracken, Sam Levine, Dan Povenmire, Lisa Salamone-Smith, Eric Coleman, Daron Nefcy, and President of Disney Channels Worldwide Gary Marsh. Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

From the outside, Disney’s Television Animation studio doesn’t look like much. There’s no giant wizard’s hat out front like the Feature Animation building or seven stone dwarves holding up the roof like the Team Disney building on the Burbank lot. Driving through the gate and into the parking lot of the nondescript brick building in an industrial part of Glendale, you’d never know that it’s currently the home of some of the company’s most creative and prolific talents. At least, not until you step inside.

The small lobby is filled with computer screens showing clips and promos from many of the shows in production: Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Sofia the First, Gravity Falls, and the phenomenally popular Phineas and Ferb. Up one flight, down the hall and just past the cereal bar there’s a unique space that serves as an in-house art gallery, where staff members are invited to show original pieces they’ve created in their spare time. The art is periodically rotated and usually centered around a theme. GeekMom was invited to the opening reception for the latest exhibition, titled “Man vs. Machine: The Robot Show,” where some of the biggest names in the world of television animation mingled and appreciated the work of their colleagues.

Kimberly Mooney, manager of development at Disney Television Animation, explained that the rotating gallery was always imagined as a part of the studio’s office space from the very beginning. “It goes all the way back to when this building was being renovated and built for us to be an animation studio,” she said. “We wanted a dedicated space where we could showcase the artists’ art, their personal artwork. It helps to establish that real sense of community we have here.”

Alex Rosenberg, an assistant at the studio, added that everyone is welcome to submit work to the shows, even if they’re not professional artists. “Eric Coleman, our SVP, actually put in a piece this time,” she said. “And we have work from people who are in tech and a coordinator on our current series side who did one. We have writers who submitted pieces. It’s a really nice way to showcase the talent that’s here at TVA and celebrate artists who are outside of what we normally define as artists.”

DAN POVENMIRE (CREATOR/CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "PHINEAS AND FERB")

Povenmire with his piece “Girl vs. Machine.” Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

Phineas and Ferb co-creator Dan Povenmire contributed “Girl vs. Machine,” a drawing of his two daughters taking on a massive wave of technology with a pair of slingshots. “The theme was ‘Man vs. Machine’ and I was thinking about it for a while and I was like, ‘Screw it, I should just do “Girl vs. Machine” and then I can put my daughters in it and then I’ll have a place to put it when I’m done with it,” Povenmire said. “And they love it. They’re like, ‘That’s us!’ And they like looking at all the little things in there and trying to figure out what they are. Like, ‘Oh, there’s our Zoomer dog. That’s our boom box!’ I put a lot of other stuff in there too. I was basically just doodling for a day.”

He enjoys the opportunity for self-expression the gallery offers and the chance to see what the other Disney artists are all about. “We’re all in the same building but everybody who is working on a show is really working on one piece of art that they’re all doing together,” he said. “It’s a big, collaborative piece of art. And nobody gets to see what these people actually think of themselves if you just say, ‘Hey, go off in a direction.’ I love seeing the kind of stuff that people do at home. It sort of gives you a different feel for them. And it’s gotten so I can tell different people’s art, though it’s nothing like what people do here.”

I also got to chat with Craig McCracken during the event. He’s currently the creator and executive producer of Disney Channel’s Wander Over Yonder, but you might also be familiar with his earlier creations The PowerPuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. His piece, “Taishi,” features a graphic, 70s-inspired profile of a humanoid robot with flowing yellow and orange locks.

CRAIG MCCRACKEN (CREATOR/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "WANDER OVER YONDER")

McCracken and his robot “Taishi.” Photo credit: Rick Rowell/Disney Channel.

I asked McCracken which piece in the show was his favorite. “I’m leaning toward Alex Kirwan’s,” he said. “He’s my art director on Wander and he built a model of a very obscure robot from a Donald Duck cartoon. It’s like so inside baseball because he’s in this one specific Donald Duck cartoon. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to make a sculpture of that.’ I’m like, ‘I think only you and like 10 people in this building are going to know who that character is and appreciate it.’ But if anyone would, it’s the people here.”

Seattle’s Innovators Assemble for LEGO’s Build for Good

LEGO Build for Good Competitors. All Photos: Kelly Knox

It’s amazing the number of ways our kids inspire us. From the little things like just saying a kind word to someone who needs it, to the incredible creations that are born from curiosity, kids can do marvelous things. Twelve-year-old Shubham Banjeree is one such kid.

After spotting a flyer at his house asking for donations for the visually impaired, Shubham wondered, “How do blind people read?” His search through Google to find the answer led him along a path where he was astonished to learn that Braille printers cost thousands of dollars. Inspired, Shubham turned to his LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit (along with a few pieces from Home Depot), and in just four weeks created a cost-effective Braille printer he dubbed Braigo.

Shubham Banerjee

LEGO, moved by the 7th grader who combined his love of LEGO with the genuine desire to do something good for people, issued the Build for Good Challenge to seven companies in Seattle. Each company was chosen as one of the most innovative Seattle has to offer: Amazon, Egencia, Expedia, HTC, Microsoft, Nordstrom, and Zulily. The teams were sent EV3 kits and asked to create a robot that “solves a human interest problem.” On Thursday, April 10, at the EMP Museum in the heart of Seattle, the teams gathered to show off their inventions.

Contestants responded with robots that picked up small toys, sorted luggage by color, worked on a model urban farm, and turned on the lights and watered plants in a miniature home. Teams from HTC and Microsoft considered the challenges facing mobility impaired young people, and invented a selfie-taking robot and 3-D version of Zoo Tycoon respectively.

Zoo Tycoon Robot

The Microsoft/XboxOne team gathered the most onlookers at the event, with a large team and fantastic, colorful setup that included three different robots and a custom Windows Phone app to play the game and control them. Team Xbox was motivated by the desire to help kids who are unable to hold or manipulate a game controller. Their entire project took 150 hours over three weeks of work with the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits.

NORD1

It was underdog Team Nordstrom that won the grand prize, however. NORD1, the team’s brainchild, was built with kids in mind to add a little bit of fun when it’s time to take their medication. Parents simply direct the robot to deliver the pill, and it finds their child and dispenses the medicine automatically. Once delivery is complete, the robot enters “party dance mode” set to the tune of El DeBarge’s “It’s Johnny.” This Short Circuit flashback was enough to win over everyone the audience over the age of 30, but when NORD1 belted out a good ol’ “EXTERMINATE,” I suddenly had a clear favorite.

Team Nordstrom was awarded five LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits to donate to the children’s charity of their choice. Among the judges were Shubham Banjeree, who still stole the show with Braigo, even among so many incredible inventors and their creations.

“We continue to be amazed by inventors of all ages who utilize the Mindstorms platform to express their creativity, building everything from robotic pets to robots that solve real life needs, like Shubham’s inventive Braille printer,” said Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for LEGO Systems. “In the spirit of these LEGO Mindstorms inventors and inspired by today’s competitors from Seattle’s elite companies, we encourage children around the world to put their ingenuity to work through play to creatively build a better world.”

Robot Burp Head Smartypants: Can You Burp A Bedtime Story?

brrrphead

Image: Robot Burp Head Smartypants, Candlewick (2014)

I think it’s safe to say we all agree everything is better with robots. Even the sort of robots you find chanting, “kill all humans,” add some spice to the day. But Annette Simon’s robot buddies are nowhere near that kind of evil. They’re more like your five-year-old in paper-cutout robot form, and they’re back at their game of one-upmanship in Robot Burp Head Smartypants.

We first met these two in Robot Zombie Frankenstein!, in which the two robot pals have an ever-escalating competition of cosplay, culminating in a shared pie. (This may sound more like your last con in paper-cutout robot form. Replace “pie” with “rum” as necessary.)

My favorite part of Robot Zombie Frankenstein! is that you can read it with a child or other parent, or let your kids read it together, each taking the role of one of the robots. You get to do that again in Robot Burp Head Smartypants…with a twist. It will help if your list of life skills includes the ability to burp the alphabet. And your third-grade teacher said that would never come in handy! Ha! Take that, Mrs. Walker! Ahem…

(You bet your can of robot oil that when my kids requested their grandfather read this one at bedtime, I made him wait until I could get the video app open on my phone.)

In the ultimate test of kid-book approval, Robot Burp Head Smartypants has been headlining our nightly book reading list for several weeks now. So guzzle up your oil (or other burp-producing beverage of choice) and start practicing. Eventually you, like the bot buddies, may be able to belch-count while juggling apples blindfolded and riding a skateboard.*

You can also still grab Simon’s activity kit that goes along with the first book, including build-your-own-robot pages.

* Do not try this at home. You’re too old for such shenanigans and are not, in fact, a paper robot.

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Cover, Robot Burp Head Smartypants, Candlewick (2014)

GeekMom received this book for review.

Duplo: The 2×2 Problem

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All Images: Sarah Pinault

For the second Christmas in a row, our family received a multipack of Duplo. This time we added farm animals and fencing to the mix, a few new people, and a new car base. The boys are loving the new additions, and an extra box of blocks is always a good bet with my boys. They have no problem playing with these bricks for long stretches of time, making all manner of things. I, however, have issues with symmetry, a need to join blocks in an architecturally sound way, and a 2×2 problem.

You know the 2×2 problem well, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. For me it is Duplo, for you it might be Lego. The accumulation of multiple sets inevitably leads to a block imbalance: So few 4x2s for construction, so many 2x2s.

The kids have no problem with the 2×2 blocks, but the parents, we’re a little more distracted by the impossible task of building with the smaller blocks. Whenever a construction project is complete, or even in progress, there is always a pile of blocks off to one side with which the parent is expected to produce the Empire State Building. This is always a big pile of 2x2s.

With the expansion of our building materials this year, I was hoping to redress the imbalance. Alas, more 2x2s. I have been trying to come up with some useful ways of using these smaller increments, ways that don’t fall apart instantly, and don’t offend my adult sensibilities!

1. The underwater camera. This is a more peculiar shape than the cameras we generally construct from Duplo, but given the constraints of the 2×2 we decided to go Jacques Cousteau, and design an underwater camera. It even works in the bath tub.

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2. The classic pyramid. While the 4×2 enables the construction of a more artistic pyramid, the 2×2 is a mainstay in Egyptian playtime.

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3. The 3-D pyramid. Yes, the pyramid is already three dimensional, but what we are looking for  here is depth. You can even go in from underneath and remove superfluous blocks, thus making tombs.

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4. The photo frame. Run around the house with this bad boy and take pictures, with an actual camera, of anything you would like to frame. That is, have your child run around the house looking for things they would like to frame, ahem!

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5. The robot. Not as sturdy as the multi-brick kind, but a decent robot can be made from simple 2x2s. These are great for robot wars, as they break up easily on impact. Robot wars: a game in which siblings knock each other’s robots together until one breaks. Kind of like the old British game of conkers, but not.

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6. Tetris. Okay, this one is not at all fun to play, but it looks kind of cool. It will fill those moments when you are being told not to play with your child’s construction project.

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7. The steps. Simple. Classic. Completely boring unless you are a four year old with farm animals that like to play Lemmings.

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8. The race track. The piece de resistance. Once constructed, this kept both of my boys occupied for longer than I thought possible. A simple track construction, using a three pronged width for long stretches, and a four pronged turn. Towers and turrets can be added at will. Be warned, siblings will attempt to block their opponent’s car by putting bricks behind their progress, a la turtle shells in Mario Kart.

Duplo Track

So that was a wonderful morning spent learning how to construct minimalist projects with my boys. Any suggestions to add to our repertoire?

Getting to Know Romo The iPhone Robot

Romo-ball

Romo is a personal robot that uses an iPhone or iPod touch as its brain. Image: Romotive.

The robot revolution is upon us. Whether you want an R2-D2, Dalek,or a Bender is up to your own discretion. However, Romo is an easy, family-friendly way to introduce some of the wee ones to the wonderful world of robots.

Romo is a smartphone-controlled personal robot, which can be found at Brookstone and Amazon. He can’t clean the floors or make fries. Romo is more like a family pet, with none of the mess. He’s also a nifty learning experience, both for the robot and its user.

On the surface, Romo seems a lot like your basic smartphone-based toy. However, as you play with Romo, he’s actually learning. In other words, while it may seem like you’re just playing a few simple games, you’re actually programming. This is called the “training” phase. Romo also has telepresense features. This means you can talk to family members through Romo, whether you’re on the other side of the house or the other side of the world.

Romo

Romo. Image: Romotive.

The actual Romo product is just the robot’s base. No batteries are necessary, as it charges up via an included USB cable. However, to make magic with Romo, you’ll have to supply an iPhone or iPod touch. Currently, there are two versions of the Romo: one is compatible with the fourth-gen iPod touch, the iPhone 4 and 4s, while the other works with the fifth-gen iPod touch and the iPhone 5/5C/5S. For testing purposes, I used my trusty iPhone 4.

If you don’t want Romo to suck up all of your iPhone’s battery life, you’ll want to charge it via the aforementioned USB cable. As the base charges, a light will flash on the front. It can take about six hours to get Romo fully charged. Once it’s ready to roam, that light will turn solid and you can expect about 2.5 hours of playtime. While you’re waiting for the device to power up, download and install the free Romo app via the iTunes App Store.

Once everything is ready, secure your iPhone into Romo’s docking station and launch the app. After a little introductory “movie,” you’ll be asked to help Romo train for “his time here on Earth.” This is where the playing/programming comes in, as well as where Romo will start to adapt to all of your surroundings.

Parent company Romotive has said that one of the goals with Romo is to help get kids excited about computer science and software development. Well, mission accomplished. As Romo learned and unlocked features, my 7-year-old son fell in love even more with the little guy he named “Rover.”

At present, Romo has about 12 different “missions,” which can unlock new abilities. These missions vary from getting Romo to react to being picked up to getting the robot to chase a ball. There are options for sound, motion, and even “expressions.” Although the number of missions seems low, each one can take time—which my son certainly didn’t seem to mind one bit!

Of course, Romo isn’t all fun, games, and wacky faces. He can also be used as a security device, which is pretty darn cool. If you’re willing to leave your iDevice docked in Romo while away, you can view your home using the iPhone’s camera. Of course, this does require another iOS device or a computer for the viewing. However, you can also use that second device to control Romo remotely. So not only can you see whether or not the dog is sitting on the couch, you can actually follow Fido around the house to make sure he isn’t eating any shoes or Lego bricks.

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Romo is designed to get kids interested in computer programming, software, and robots. Image: Romotive.

As mentioned, you’re going to need two devices to use those features, which may not be doable for a lot of families. And if you think you finally have a use for that old iPhone, think again. See, Romo is sort of fussy about who he plays with. That’s a nice way of me saying that he’s not going to work with your next smartphone, unless you like getting the same old operating system. There’s an iPhone 4/4s Romo and one for the iPhone 5 and the two don’t play nicely with each other. If you want to keep Romo in your rotation, you can expect to spend $149.99 for the upgrade.

It’s also important to note that the telepresence doesn’t work with the iPhone 4. This kept me from checking out those features during my review. It’s something I didn’t notice in the fine print before I agreed to take Romo into my home, so it may be something you’ll miss.

That slight difference could definitely sway your decision. See, Romo is sort of expensive. For $150, I want something to clean my floors. Well, at the very least, I want it to work with my next iPhone. However, Romotive is working on fixes, upgrades, and additional features for the New Year.

When you factor in the security features, Romo is absolutely worth the money. A basic Dropcam video camera has the same MSRP and doesn’t move around the house or teach the kids about the basics of robots and programming. If you’re still clinging to the iPhone 4, the price tag may be a bit more difficult to accept. Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that Romo was insanely popular in this house. My son always lit up at the mere mention of hanging out with “Rover” for the day. His reactions were even better than the ones we programmed into our Romo.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

GeekMom 2013 Holiday Gift Guide: TOYS!

Toys that push, toys that inspire art, toys that look like famous geeky characters, and more! Toys aren’t just for kids, and this bunch promises fun for geek kids and geek parents alike.

ArtSeeStudio - Photo courtesy of Wowwee

ArtSeeStudio. Image: Wowwee

ArtSee Studio Wowwee’s drawing kit for iPads has some fantastic features to really make your child’s screen time interactive. Stamps, customizable activities, and even animation and sound tools, make this a big-deal toy for 2013. The ArtSee app is free to download and can be used with or without the Studio kit. Recommended age is 3+, but younger children can still go to town drawing and coloring; the Studio tools will grow with them and provide years of activities. $39.99

Battroborg - Photo courtesy of TOMY, used with permission

Battroborg. Image: TOMY, used with permission

Battroborg Tomy’s Battroborg is like a cool update of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. The robots are R/C motion-controlled, and you can buy new robots separately (but they are pricey). There’s a bit of a learning curve to get the robots moving the way you want, but with some practice it’s pretty satisfying. Recommended for kids ages 6+, or you can get a set for the grownup robot fan in your life. It’s a pretty great office toy. $79.99

Crayola Create 2 Destroy Fortress Invasion. Image: Amazon.com

Crayola Create 2 Destroy Fortress Invasion. Image: Crayola

Crayola Create 2 Destroy Fortress Invasion Ultimate Destruction Playset For the child who likes to build and destroy, check out the Crayola Create 2 Destroy sets. Set your family loose with the no mess materials and let them have fun creating and destroying each others creations. $18.95

DocMcStuffinsCheckupCenter_JustPlay - Photo courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Doc McStuffins CheckupCenter. Image: Courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Doc McStuffins Checkup Center Just Play’s Doc McStuffins playset has made pretty much every single top toy list for 2013, including the coveted Most Wanted List from TimetoPlayMag.com. We are just as wild about it here at GeekMom and so excited to see something other than a play kitchen out there. It’s ages 3+, but at least one GeekMom has it stashed away for her almost-two-year-old to enjoy this December. $79.99

BatmanFlyingHero_TheBridgeDirect - Photo courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Batman Flying Hero. Image: Courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Flying Heroes Bridge Direct’s Flying Hero is the kind of stocking-stuffer/small toy that could outshine all the expensive stuff this holiday season. The quick-pull launcher is so satisfying, and your favorite superheroes will soar nice and high. You can choose Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman, but we believe that when given a choice you should always be Batman. Ages 4+. $14.99

Hape Wonder Walker. Image: Amazon.com

Hape Wonder Walker. Image: Hape

Hape Wonder Walker Sturdy wooden push cart helps babies walk and also fosters creative toddler play. Onboard activities include knobs and gears. Rubber trimmed wheels protect floors. Ages 12 months to 3 years. $75.97

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Hexbug Aquabot. Image: Hexbug

HexBug Aquabot Bath time is about to get way more interesting, because Hexbugs have learned how to swim! $13

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Max Steel Interactive Steel with Turbo Sword. Image: Mattel

Max Steel Interactive Sword The Max Steel Interactive Sword is the kind of thing that will draw huge gasps when it comes out of the box, and knock down the Christmas tree a minute later! It talks, it makes noises similar to a lightsaber, and it goes perfectly in the dress up box for a superhero, ninja, pirate, or fairy princess. No sharp edges on this fake sword, and it holds up well to extensive play time. $22-30

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Melissa & Doug Shopping Cart. Image: Melissa & Doug

Melissa and Doug Shopping Cart Durable child-sized shopping cart looks just like those in real stores. Sturdy metal construction includes pivoting front wheels and a folding doll seat. Ages 36 months to 7 years.  $49.95

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Metal Earth 3D Laser Cut Model. Image: Metal Earth

Metal Earth Models You know how teens are hard to shop for? How they’re too old, really, for toys, but would still like to unwrap something fun? Meant for kids age 14 and up, Metal Earth models come in a flat package—perfect for slipping into a holiday card. Punch out the sturdy metal pieces to build model airplanes, a Ferris wheel, trains, ships, the Eiffel Tower, and more. These are the perfect gift to bridge that wide gap between child and adult. $5-10

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Minecraft Fan Bundle. Image: Thinkgeek.com

Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek For the ultimate MineCraft fan, pick up the Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek. The bundle includes a foam sword and pickax, torch, and light-up redstone ore. $80

MonsterFactoryKyle - Photo courtesy Monster Factory

Monster Factory Kyle. Image: Courtesy Monster Factory

Monster Factory Mini Monsters Why get a teddy bear when you could have a monster? Canadian collectible toy company Monster Factory is moving their business into the States and into stores with a collection of twelve mini dolls. Showcased at this year’s New York Comic Con, each doll has a distinct and hilarious personality. The dolls are so well made and just adorable. $12.95

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Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Bow. Image: Nerf

Nerf Rebelle Series The Nerf Rebelle series, designed for ages 8-years-old and up, is full of awesome for boys and girls, with two different styles to choose from including a cross bow style. If your child is not a pink kid, pick up some spray paint and give it a personalized paint job to make it their own. Word of advice, make sure your child wears long sleeves while playing to protect their arms from the string snapping back. $29.95

The Nerf Zombie Strike line of dart blasters. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Nerf Zombie Strike line of dart blasters. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Nerf Zombie Strike Foam Dart Blaster Series The Sledgefire and Hammershot are fun Nerf blasters that are painted in a zombie apocalypse motif and can take special fluorescent green darts. Of the 10+ Nerf blasters we own, the smaller Hammershot is the farthest-firing one I’ve ever seen. These Zombie Strike series blasters are a Target exclusive this holiday season and will hit the market nationwide in 2014. $14.99 & $27.99

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Puff, The Magic Dragon: Jack in the Box. Image: Kids Preferred

Puff, The Magic Dragon: Jack in the Box Non-threatening, adorable jack-in-the-box that plays the first few bars of the famous song. Ages 6 months to 3 years. $24.49

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Pygmy Puff. Image: universalorlando.com

Pygmy Puffs Plush Pygmy Puffs ala the Harry Potter series. I love that you can order directly from the theme park to get something not offered elsewhere. Comes in pink and purple and both my little Potter-heads should love these stocking stuffers. (Got myself one, too.)  $14.95

My oldest son looks just like a bowler with how he throws his disc. Even though the disc looks airborne in this picture, he was truly trying to roll it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

My oldest son looks just like a bowler with how he throws his disc. Even though the disc looks airborne in this picture, he was truly trying to roll it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Rollors Lawn Game Combining the outdoor fun of bocce, bowling, and horseshoes, Rollors is a unique game invented by a deployed Air Force officer who enjoyed classic lawn games and discovered a way to combine all his favorites. The game includes all the playing pieces you need, instructions, and a nylon carrying case. It makes a great gift for kids ages 4 and up. $39.99

SkyViperQuadCopter_SkyrocketToys - Photo courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Sky Viper QuadCopter. Image: Courtesy Ren Beanie PR

Sky Viper QuadCoptor Any R/C fan in your family will love this substantial quadcoptor from Skyrocket Toys. It has different fittings for indoor and outdoor use, and you can amp up the level of difficulty with three different modes. The Sky Viper can do flips and barrels, and it’s refreshingly sturdy. And so much fun. Ages 12+. $79.99

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Splinter TMNT Figure. Image: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures If your kids love to play with action figures and love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the latest batch of figures will appeal to them. High quality construction and a lot of included accessories means that their play time will feel as realistic as possible. Great for any TMNT fan on your shopping list. $8-10

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser RC Vehicle. Image: Nickelodeon

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser RC Vehicle Have some kick butt fun with the newest TMNT mobile arsenal, the RC Shellraiser Vehicle. Even though the remote control is a little awkward, the handling is great and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of its movements. Pets on the floor should beware of the remote firing sewer cover canon that shoots 10 disks continuously with the push of a button. An added bonus is the ability for the standard size TMNT action figures to ride along on the inside of the Shellraiser or they can hang off the sides! $59.99

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Thomas the Train: All Around Sodor. Image: Fisher-Price

Thomas the Train: All Around Sodor The All Around Sodor set is just fantastic. Now the youngest Thomas fans (18 months and up) can have their own train set with features like a talking Thomas and location buttons that will make him go straight to that spot on track. He even works off the track, because you know toddlers are all about doing things outside the lines. We have seen young children mesmerized by this set. $39.99

ThomasUpDownCoaster - Photo copyright The Step2 Company

Thomas The Train Up and Down Coaster Ride On. Image: Step2 Company

Thomas the Train Up and Down Coaster Ride On The Step2 Company has made a very cool addition to Thomas the Train merchandise. An actual indoor/outdoor train with more than nine feet up sloping track for kids to ride. We saw this at a holiday preview a while back, and kids could not get enough of it. Ages 2+, maximum weight 50 lbs. $169.99

Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Image httpwww.artifactpuzzles.com

Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle. Image: artifactpuzzles.com

Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Beautifully detailed steampunk art on laser-cut 423 piece wooden puzzle, made in the USA. Get back to family time spend making puzzles together with this pass-down-to-next-generation item. Ages 7 and up. $100

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Tool Belt with Accessories. Image: forsmallhands.com

Tool Belt with Accessories For Small Hands offers hard-to-find, child-size tools so they build confidence and independence. Yard, kitchen, sewing, kitchen, and other useful implements. This is a great resource. We particularly like their tool belt with hammer and safety glasses for kids 3 to 8. $30.95

ToolboxBox

Toolbox Jewelry. Image: Klutz

Toolbox Jewelry One of the best Klutz kits we’ve seen, Toolbox Jewelry not only gives you everything you need to make some beautiful jewelry, but it teaches you skills that you can apply to any hardware you find around the house. Great for girls who have the Maker spirit. $21.99

Rescue Bots. Image: Hasbro.com

Rescue Bots. Image: Hasbro.com

Transformers Rescue Bots Though they are not a new product this year, Rescue Bots are a very popular toy in the Post house. These toys use one fluid motion to transform from robot to vehicle. This well designed sturdy toy series are a great addition to any house that longs for the toys from their youth for their kids, without the frustration of complicated instructions and pieces falling off. $9 and up

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VW Camper Van Child’s Pop up Play Tent. Image: The Monster Factory

VW Bus Pop Up Kids Tent Adorable pop up tent for kids, that looks just like a VW Camper Bus. $60

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Zoetrope Animation Toy. Image: American Science & Surplus

Zoetrope Animation Toy An old fashioned toy made new. An optical illusion toy $12.99

Extrageektacular Activities: Rolling Robots

extraGEEKtacular activities - Rolling Robots

image by: justjenn

Extrageektacular Activities are geeky field trips that encourage your child’s creativity and are a fun time for the whole family!

If dogs are man’s best friend then surely robots are a close second. Hm, what about robot dogs? The possibilities are endless with robotics. If your child has a love for technology, they don’t have to go all of the way to the Toshi Station to pick up power converters…they can simply head over to Rolling Robots!

Rolling Robotos Technology Workshop

Rolling Robotos Technology Workshop

Rolling Robots was started by George Kirkman (who was recently a competitor on Robot Combat League) and Bin Jiang, both former aerospace engineers who are also parents. Having children of their own, they saw the need to tap into kids’ spirit of wonder and unlock future potential through robotics.

Set up like a workshop environment, kids use creative thinking to solve design-build problems. Working in groups with peers their own age allows kids to feel comfortable in tackling challenges and find success as a team.

Robotics programming

image by: justjenn

The Kid’s Technology Workshops allow kids to progress from basic skills to robotics competition. Once they’ve completed a level, they move on to the next one. Rolling Robots offers classes for every level; circuits, basic programming, even Minecraft hacks, all with hands on learning which reinforces the idea of being comfortable and having fun.

Students with no previous robotics experience can go from learning basic keyboard skills all the way up to Java programming. They are guided every step of the way by knowledgeable staff and can learn from older kids in higher levels. From after-school classes to home schooling lessons, there is even a 3D printing class where kids can experiment and see their designs come to life.

Rolling Robots is a fantastic place for parties because your guests get the unique experience of battling bots in the Robot Battle Arena. They get a lesson in design build as well, where every party guest gets to build and take home a real motorized robot! Best party favors ever!

Rolling Robots takes kids’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and gives them the freedom to grow that passion through creative thinking and building. It’s a unique place where kids can find the support they need to nurture their interests in technology and have fun!

Rolling Robots – Glendale
1800 South Brand Blvd. #101
Glendale, CA 91204
(818) 241-2308

Rolling Robots – Palos Verdes
700 Silver Spur Drive, #101
Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274

(424) 206-9466

Maker Faire New York: The Next Generation

As I walked through Maker Faire New York, I noticed table after table swarming with pint-sized makers—even more than years past—suggesting that Maker Faire is better than ever for kids. This year’s Maker Faire included the marvelous Zone E, a spacious area where parents could relax as their kids had room to make and play. Of course, kids’ stuff was peppered throughout Maker Faire, inviting them in at every turn.

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The Austin Bike Zoo carousel. Photo: Amy Kraft

Families were welcomed into Zone E by the Austin Bike Zoo, with their stunning butterfly bicycles and their horse/bike hybrid carousel. My kids loved the carousel. The 8-year-old pedaled feverishly while the 3-year-old chilled out in the little kid holding area in the center.

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Once in Zone E, we saw some familiar faces. I know Brian Yanish, creator of ScrapKins, because we’ve got a ScrapKins book in the works for Speakaboos, the story app I’m working on. In the ScrapKins booth, the kids got a lesson in upcycling, making masted boats from milk cartons and straws. Then there was a recycled river to race them down into the ScrapKins lagoon. My 3-year-old could have done that all day. What a great way to build and test a vehicle.

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Boats successfully launched into the ScrapKins lagoon. Photo: Amy Kraft

More upcycling (and familiar faces) came in the Skraptacular booth. Skraptacular is run by a mom in my neighborhood, and thanks to her booth, we now know about plarn. Plarn is like plastic yarn that you make from plastic shopping bags. They used it for weaving through fencing, with some interesting results.

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One of the plarn weavings from Skraptacular. Photo: Amy Kraft

We’re very lucky in New York City to have a bunch of places to take our kids for science play and learning. Storefront Science opened in my neighborhood, and it’s a real treat to have this resource in upper Manhattan. They came to Maker Faire with a creative exercise using batteries, LED lights, and pipe cleaners, letting kids build whatever they wanted. My daughter made a fuzzy creature flashlight.

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Storefront Science booth

Robofun and the Brooklyn Robot Foundry are other science resources we have in the city. My daughter loved a robot-building class she took a few months ago at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, but Maker Faire is a great reminder to work these maker activities into our weekends more often.

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The best upcycling of stuffed animals I’ve seen. Photo: Amy Kraft

We managed to miss this activity completely, but when I saw these creatures sewn together from various animal parts, I finally knew what to do with those two bags of stuffed animals taking up room in the closet. I proposed to my daughter that she take parts from all of her favorites and combine them into one giant Frankenanimal. She’s all for it!

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Making a survival bracelet. Photo: Amy Kraft

Even though she had one on her wrist from last year, my daughter was excited to make another survival bracelet. Made from one long length of durable cord, these bracelets are easy to make and provide you with a long length of durable cord in an emergency. It’s fun imagining the MacGyver-like scenarios where one would rip open their survival bracelet because a rope was needed. And now we have two of them. Double the survival!

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LittleBits used during the Maker Faire workshop. Photo: Amy Kraft

We spent the most time at the LittleBits booth. I love these intuitive circuit pieces. They’re so well designed that I saw several kids plunk down in a chair and get a circuit going within a couple minutes. My ambivalence about them comes with their price and purchasing options, but more on that in a moment.

The task in the LittleBit workshop we attended was to make a Halloween costume; a nice, concrete task to get the creative juices flowing. My daughter already has a costume. She’s going to be Hermione. I suggested that she make something to go with her costume, and she came up with the idea of making Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks. She made the cat out of cardboard, then wired it up with a sound sensor and vibration motor so that when you said “Crookshanks!” the bell around her neck would ring. Like magic! You can see it working in the video above.

We were super excited about it until we started to walk away from the booth and we were told that she needed to unmake it to give all of the LittleBits back. There was no way for me to buy the parts that she used, unless I wanted to purchase the kits that they had for sale, but even that would have required remaking it. We will probably order the pieces individually online (for about $40), but I can’t help but wish they had structured the workshop more in the spirit of Maker Faire. Either charge a workshop fee, or require a kit purchase to be in a workshop, or be clear with kids that they’re just experimenting. Or let the kids keep the parts and chalk it up as a marketing expense. Just don’t make kids unmake at Maker Faire.

Of course, even I as talk about “the spirit of Maker Faire,” that spirit seems to be changing. It’s amazing to have so much inspiration and activity for kids in one place. I loved taking the kids to watch them try new and challenging things.

But it’s hard not to feel a little cynical as bigger corporate sponsors roll in and more and more of the booths are there so you’ll purchase their products. I understand the need for money to help Maker Faire (and its vendors) succeed, but it’s less of a showcase of weird and wild creations and inventions than it used to be.

If you went to Maker Faire this year, especially with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Lego Mindstorm EV3 Available September 1

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Lego Mindstorms EV3 picture by Marziah Karch

Lego announced their next generation Mindstorm robotics product back in January at CES, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview. This updated version is super cool. Expensive, but super cool. It has a new Linux-based operating system (which Lego is totally cool with letting you hack), and Lego will provide instructions for up to 12 different models right out of the box. There’s a better processor with an actual SD card slot, and there’s much better on-brick programming. You can chain up to four Mindstorms together, and there’s a new infrared sensor as well as significant improvements to existing sensors.

Although Lego was elusive about the exact release date in January, most guesses were initially for early spring, mid-summer. We finally, finally have a date. The retail version of the EV3 will ship on September 1 for a price of $349, but if you shop around online, you may be able to pre-order sometime this month. You could also pre-order a book on the EV3. Ahem.

The Lego Education edition (pictured above) ships today. Most people should go ahead and wait for the retail version rather than getting the education version. The education version is intended for classrooms and leaves out some of the parts (including the new infrared sensor) in exchange for a better storage case.  That’s a trade-off that makes sense if you need to store your system in a classroom, but not if you’re a home user that wants to build that really cool infrared cobra bot I saw them demo at CES.

BookExpo 2013: Great Books for GeekKids

Coming Soon: Pokemon Visual Companion. Photo: Amy Kraft

DK Publishing’s Lego Chima awesomeness. Photo: Amy Kraft

BookExpo America took place earlier this month in New York City, and it’s always one of my favorite events. I always need to leave myself a few days to see the show because I’m constantly stopping to read in the booths and waiting in autograph lines. This year my autograph lines included many of my kidlit favorites, including Jon Scieszka, Oliver Jeffers, Bob Shea, Betsy Lewin, and Peter Reynolds, all of whom have new books out.

I fell in love with a ton of picture books, especially Bob Shea’s Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great, and saw Star Wars books aplenty. There were no shortage of books for your GeekKids. Here are some more to get excited about.

I was recently talking to a mom who was telling me how much time her son spends with the Lego encyclopedias from DK Publishing. Now, for kids who love Pokemon, there’s the Pokemon Visual Companion.

BEA-AngryBirds

Angry Birds, now with more learning! Photo: Amy Kraft

Kids who love Angry Birds can convince their parents that the games are educational with the new National Geographic books that use Angry Birds to teach about physics and space.

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Bob Der, Director of Time for Kids with the latest book collection. Photo: Amy Kraft

I had a lovely chat with Bob Der, Director of Time for Kids, about getting kids excited about reading (especially nonfiction) and how Time for Kids is finding a home in the classroom. Their books are about topics kids get excited about, like dinosaurs and sports and crazy, weird facts and information. They also have digital versions of many books to have a presence on interactive whiteboards in the classroom, “high-impact versions” made better with video. When I think about all the nonfiction requirements in the Common Core Standards, I’m glad for things like Time for Kids.

BEA-CozyClassics

The classics made cozier. Photo: Amy Kraft

Cozy Classics are an adorable line of board books that attempt to tell classic tales like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick through a handful of photographs of felted characters paired with single words. It helps to have read the original to be able to fill in some detail for your tot. I can imagine giving two copies of Pride and Prejudice to a new mom—the grownup one for her and the Cozy Classic version for baby.

BEA-Ripleys

An interactive experience from Ripley’s. Photo: Amy Kraft

As a kid I was a fan of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not segments that appeared in my Sunday comics, and I’ve stayed intrigued all these years. Ripley’s had a great presence at BookExpo this year, including the gigantic Dare to Look! book. Scan pages with your smart phone to see more videos and images.

BEA-Robot

One of the many great finds in the Chronicle booth. Photo: Amy Kraft

There was much to salivate over in the Chronicle book, including Carnivores, a hilarious book by Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat, a bunch of new Taro Gomi books, and this cool Make Your Own Robot kit that looks like a ready-made birthday gift. 

BEA-MonsterBook

Watch your fingers! Photo: Amy Kraft

I wish I could tell you this was a real Monster Book of Monsters, but alas it was just a box. What a great place to store your treasures, though. People would think twice before opening.

Other books that came home with me to fill my summer with reading are Octavia Spencer’s debut novel, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective:The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit; the latest in Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series, “When Did You See Her Last?”; the new Guys Read anthology Other Worlds; and Gordon Korman’s Hypnotize Me, book 1 of The Hypnotists. I’ve got a reading-filled summer ahead of me.

Silly Dragon, Robots Are for Toddlers

Some of our new robot friends: Skylee, Hexbug Spider, Wappy Dog, and Mechatar

I noticed the trend starting at Toy Fair last year: robots for kids. Booth after booth featured our future overlords, and I thought my six-year-old daughter would love most of them when she got her hands on them.

About six months passed, and then the robots found their way to our house for us to review. Most followed the same pattern of use. My daughter would open the box with a “coooooooooolllll!” Then there’d be frantic button pressing to entertain her for about five minutes before her interest waned. Wappy Dog held her interest the longest, but that’s because it came bundled with a DS game. First she played the DS game with the robot reacting nearby, but she soon discovered travel mode and abandoned the robot completely.

Enter my 20-month-old. While I was playing with Wappy trying to figure out if she could do anything more than bark at the commands coming from the DS, my son comes over and presses her nose a bunch of times until she started barking a song. Who knew? He clapped and danced along. Clearly he’d heard that one before.

Ozzie figures out the remote for the Hexbug Spider. Photo: Amy Kraft

He’s fascinated by the Hexbugs in the house. He likes holding the Nanos against his little cheeks and then letting them loose under the sofa. Lately he’s grown quite interested in the Hexbug Spider and has figured out how to work the remote control for it, setting it off on a path of destruction.

I had the highest hopes that my daughter would love Skylee, the dragon robot that comes with a little Bebe (dragon baby) that she can recognize and respond to. There’s a sequence of button presses that you can do to get Skylee to play games, but we can never remember what they are. Mostly she’ll tell you that she loves you and that her wings are tired from flying – boring for the six-year-old but positively enchanting for the one-year-old.

My son’s Skylee-love ropes in my daughter, too. Photo: Amy Kraft

Skylee has become one of his favorite toys. He won’t go to bed unless he’s waved goodnight to Skylee, and finding her in the morning is one of the first things he does. As with Wappy, only he knows the secret trick to making her sing her song and do a little dance for him. His interest in her occassionally drums up interest from my daughter, too, and they’ll play with Skylee together. It’s awfully cute.

These toys are all expensive for toddler toys (Skylee, for example, retails for $59.99), not to mention that robots with voices all seem to be crazy loud with no volume control, but I’m glad these toys have made their way into our home. Could me my son’s started on a path to future robotics engineer. Or dragon-trainer. Or dancer. Thanks, robots.

Muse of Nerds: College Physics, Innovative Robotics, Homeschooling — Dr. McColgan Can Do It All!

For my Muse of Nerds this month, I’ll formally introduce you to someone I have talked about in the past: Dr. Michele McColgan of Siena College. I met her through our homeschooling group (she has two elementary-aged children) and she has introduced my kids to science, math, robots, computer programming, alternative energy, a Lego Robotics Team…and more than I remember. I first mentioned Michele in this post about soccerbots. And then again about a year-long project our four children worked on with RPGs and robotics.

At the moment, she teaches the general physics sequence to science and math majors, and electronics and optics for physics majors at Siena College, homeschools her two children, runs the Saturday Scholars program for inner-city youth, organizes summer camps in Physics, Alternative Energy, and Robotics, uploads regular YouTube tutorials, mentors Siena’s physics teams to participate in Siena’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, supervises summer research projects for physics undergraduate students, and prepares pre-service physics teachers.

She’s also really nice.

Michele agreed to answer a few questions for GeekMom.

You use robotics to teach physics concepts. How did you come up with this idea?

Before he passed away, I often met with Les Rubenfeld, the founder of RPI’s CIPCE program (Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education.) He was a math professor and was passionate about teaching math with robotics. We would meet at Bruegger’s near Siena and discuss potential ways to collaborate to bring robotics to more students. He suggested that there was more to robotics than just programming the robots to take sensor input and program the robot to respond. He suggested that there was more science to teach. That inspired me to find the physics in robotics. So far, I’ve created robotics activities to teach physics topics including: kinematics (displacement, velocity, and acceleration); measurements to calculate gravity; force of friction; gear ratios for speed and power; impulse; angular velocity and linear velocity; and identification with light sensor data.


What aspect of your work inspires you? (and what are you currently fired up about?)

– Learning new things. I hate being bored. I’m always finding new problems to solve.
– I really enjoy the variety of things that I do. Change is really important for creativity. Revisiting past projects is important, too. Being a physics professor offers opportunities for both.
– Creating fun activities that naturally include science (like duct tape circuits.)
– Creating online resources to allow kids to complete projects at their own pace and allows me to grow my resources.
– Finding ways to show kids that science and math are interesting and fun when you’re solving real problems — not fake problems that someone makes up because you ” should” learn certain things.

Obviously you are a creative person in designing your programs. How can you pass along this creativity to your science and technology students?

I believe in modeling! I like to lead by example. I like to meet students wherever they are. I hate the phrase “you should know that”. I think it’s so important to meet students where they are. Shaming students shuts them down. Encouraging them, whatever their background, allows them to move forward and embrace learning about physics and math.

I think it’s so important for students to take control of their learning. I arrange my classroom and choose activities that require active engagement, not passive learning.

When students show an interest in any of my projects, I do everything I can to support their interests. I give out supplies and let students borrow equipment. I’m interested in their questions and problems and I believe they can do it. I also suggest that learning physics is a journey that takes time and effort. Even if you don’t completely master the material in my classes, that’s okay. Mastery takes time and effort and offers wonderful rewards. I believe that anyone can learn physics – it’s not a field reserved only for rocket scientists. Physics is so rich and covers such a broad range of topics, everyone can find something that’s relevant to them.

Thanks, Michele! And if you want to see even more of what she does, here’s some cool links:

Ray Bradbury: More Afraid of People Than Robots

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451

For those of you who wouldn’t know, the Guardian Reading Group began with Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, by readers’ choice.

That’s a great, revolutionary choice (so they said), that will especially appeal to us geek people in love with classical sci-fi, and to us parents looking for books to discuss with our children. Utopian and dystopian fiction is a fascinating subject, or so I think. I often study it with my sixteen and seventeen years old students.

If you never read it, “the novel presents a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start fires to burn books.” (Wikipedia)

You may, of course, read or reread the book, and discuss it part by part on the Guardian website, or follow the Guardian’s Reading group on Twitter. You may also read some companion posts on Guardian Books. They promised one on the novel’s historical context, Cold War and McCarthyism. They also provide a list of “further readings” to offer some background to Bradbury’s life and books.

Among these suggestions were two really delightful pieces for any geek.

One is a letter by Ray Bradbury himself, written in 1974 and transcripted on the lovely Letters of note website. Asked about “the danger of robots taking over our human world”, Bradbury writes a truly wonderful answer:

Can’t resist commenting on your fears of the Disney robots. Why aren’t you afraid of books, then? The fact is, of course, that people have been afraid of books, down through history. They are extensions of people, not people themselves. Any machine, any robot, is the sum total of the ways we use it. Why not knock down all robot camera devices and the means for reproducing the stuff that goes into such devices, things called projectors in theatres? A motion picture projector is a non-humanoid robot which repeats truths which we inject into it. Is it inhuman? Yes. Does it project human truths to humanize us more often than not? Yes.

The excuse could be made that we should burn all books because some books are dreadful.

We should mash all cars because some cars get in accidents because of the people driving them.

We should burn down all the theatres in the world because some films are trash, drivel.

So it is finally with the robots you say you fear. Why fear something? Why not create with it? Why not build robot teachers to help out in schools where teaching certain subjects is a bore for EVERYONE? Why not have Plato sitting in your Greek Class answering jolly questions about his Republic? I would love to experiment with that. I am not afraid of robots. I am afraid of people, people, people. I want them to remain human. I can help keep them human with the wise and lovely use of books, films, robots, and my own mind, hands, and heart.

I am afraid of Catholics killing Protestants and vice versa.

I am afraid of whites killing blacks and vice versa.

I am afraid of English killing Irish and vice versa.

I am afraid of young killing old and vice versa.

I am afraid of Communists killing Capitalists and vice versa.

But…robots? God, I love them. I will use them humanely to teach all of the above. My voice will speak out of them, and it will be a damned nice voice.

The second is a video tribute, written for the author’s 90th birthday by comedian Rachel Bloom. Be careful, it’s definitely not suitable for children under 18, as YouTube confirms! But the video is hilarious, and comforting in a strange way, thinking that old sci-fi writers can be strongly desirable in our time and place.

“Does the idea of book burning still resonate?” wonder The Guardian and its readers. It certainly does, as Banned Books Week will confirm in a few days.

Transformers 3: Why It’s the Best Movie I’ve Seen This Summer

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon

I did what any red-blooded American did over our holiday weekend. That’s right, I went to see a movie. This was after consuming roughly my own body weight in hamburgers and hot dogs while hanging out with friends all afternoon. I almost didn’t go to see Transformers 3 because it was getting a love it/hate it response from people and I was desperately afraid I’d fall into the hate it camp. There’s nothing as disappointing as walking in to a movie thinking it will be fantastic, but wandering out a few hours later wishing you could get a refund.

We didn’t leave terribly early for this one so when we arrived I was just hoping we’d get seats that weren’t in the very first row. No problem. Ten minutes before it was due to start there were only four other people in the theater. Four. This may have increased my anxiety just a tad since a big movie and an empty theater is generally not a good sign. By the time the movie started there were maybe two dozen of us, clutching our sodas and turning off our phones as the previews started.

Despite all my anxiety, all my worries that I would be terribly disappointed, this is officially the best movie I’ve seen this summer.

Now, now, now before you get all bent out of shape and call me crazy, let me explain. I wanted action. Unrealistic, completely over-the-top, not possible, unsurvivable by mere mortals action. I wanted fighting robots. I wanted fun one-liners and corny comic relief. Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon had all of these things.

I’ve heard complaints that Shia LaBeouf was mopey and didn’t do much for the first half of the movie. Okay, I’ll agree he was a bit mopey but it made sense for his character and there was so much happening around him, so much crazy, that I could forgive the mopey. Also, there is a fantastic car chase where our hero is about to die and Bumblebee morphs from car to bot to car again all while Shia flies through the air letting out a scream worthy of a twelve year old girl. I love him for pulling that off perfectly and making me and everyone else in the theater laugh and will forgive the mopey for that scene alone.

There are also complaints that the action is too drawn out and completely unrealistic. Really? So when you went in for a movie about alien robots that transform into cars and help save our world from destruction, were you really expecting a film firmly rooted in reality? That there’s your problem. This is, at its heart, a Transformers movie. Half the fun of seeing this is watching stuff you know would never work, not even a little, and seeing it, well, work. Sure, the chances you’d survive sliding through the shattered glass of a giant skyscraper without being sliced to bits are very small. It doesn’t matter. They survived and it was awesome.

I’m critical of movies that don’t live up to my expectations, especially when they advertise themselves as one thing but turn out to be something else. That makes me walkaway angry. But Transformers was exactly what it was billed…action, explosions, robots, action and action. My expectations were firmly met and I just held on for the ride. It wasn’t a serious, hard-hitting commentary on the world and the human condition. It was the Transformers doing what they do best. Oh, and one last thing. The voice of Sentinel Prime is Leonard Nimoy. If you happen to be a Star Trek fan, pay close attention to this little fact. LLAP, enjoy the movie, and let me know what you thought of this actionfest.

Don’t Miss This Great Robot Christmas Book! The Twelve Bots of Christmas (And A Funny Interview with Nathan Hale)

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Image courtesy publisher

If you don’t know the name Nathan Hale, I’d like to be the one to introduce him to you. He’s a GeekMom treasure who needs to be discovered. No, he’s no relation to the historical figure (who was a spy for the Continental Army and was best remembered for saying, “”I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”). I’m sure Nathan Hale, the author, is very patriotic, but just for the record, he had nothing to do with the Revolutionary War.

The author Nathan Hale has a great new book, a Christmas classic for any geek kid, or geek parent who reads to a geek kid. It’s called The Twelve Bots of Christmas, and is just the thing for the mechanically minded who might have grown weary with the same old holiday songs and books.

As you can guess, this clever book is a takeoff on the Twelve Days of Christmas song, and it’s robots and gears all the way. The first stanza, along with its bright, humorous illustrations, is enough to make you crave more.

“On the first day of Christmas, Robo-Santa gave to me … a Cartridge in a Gear Tree!”

Fast forward a few pages and you’ll find the hilarious ‘Three Wrench Hens’.

The book is full of  bright illustrations that will delight your holiday loving geek kid. If you’ve never seen Santa as a robot before, you’re in for a treat, as you share this entertaining book with the child you love.

Then, when you’re all done with all things holiday related, sit back and explore Mr. Hale’s website. His blog is updated often, with fun cartoons and activities like dragon naming contests. Older kids might just want to bookmark this page.

One of his best books is a graphic novel he illustrated, called Rapunzel’s Revenge by Dean Hale and Shannon Hale. If you follow a link on his web page, you’ll find really cool looking paper dolls of this tougher, capable version of Rapunzel.

I was able to catch up with Mr. Hale this week and pin him down long enough for him to answer some questions about his blog and his newest book. I should have known his answers to my questions would be as entertaining as the books he produces. Here’s a bit more from one of my newest favorite author/illustrators.

Where did you get the idea for Twelve Bots?

I’ve always liked the Twelve Days of Christmas song, but I’ve always thought the gifts were super lame. Who would want to get birds for Christmas? The gold rings are really the only cool gift, the rest are birds and people. I assume the people leave after the initial dancing/milking/leaping event, but you are still stuck with a bunch of birds to take care of. In any case, I’ve always enjoyed getting hi-tech electronics for Christmas, and what is more hi-tech than a robot?

Did anyone help you come up with the unique ideas for each robot?

I originally did the bots as a twelve day Christmas post on my blog (www.spacestationnathan.com) An editor I’d worked with before saw the posts and immediately wanted to make them into a book. Some of the names were tweaked to make the book a little better. Readers of the original blog will remember that instead of the line, “A cartridge in a Gear Tree” I had used “A Mecha-Partridge in a Cyber-Tree.” Yeah, “Cartridge” definitely fits the rhyme better.

Did you get stuck on any of them, as you were trying to ‘match’ the traditional song?

I worked really hard to avoid using multiples of the same robo-prefix. The word “Bot” for example, was tempting to use over and over again (drum-bot, dance-bot, bird-bot, etc.) Luckily, there are a LOT of robo-prefixes out there. Mecha-, Robo-, Cyber- etc. I’m sure there are even some that I missed.

 

Which was the hardest one to come up with?

The two that were the most trouble were the “Droids-a-dancing” and the “Beat-Bots Thumping.” My editor and I went back and forth of how to work those ones out just right. The funny thing is, those two were also the illustrations that needed the most revising and changing. On the other hand, the two easiest were the “Turbo-Doves” and the “Wrench Hens.” And, strangely, those illustrations are virtually unchanged since I originally posted them.

Will your family Christmas card be robot- related this year?

Oh no! I haven’t done ANYTHING about my Christmas card yet. Aaagh!

Your website is very interactive and kid oriented. What’s your main goal with your blog?

I’ve run my blog for about a year and a half now, I post every weekday, five times a week. I don’t have a specific goal, really. I have a lot of ideas, some better than others, and it is nice to test them with an audience on the blog. Some of my stories and projects are things that just wouldn’t make sense to publish as a book. Last September, for example, I ran a thirty page story called “Sgt. Snookums: Patrol Cat, ” which was a spooky story about a cat going undercover to break up a high-grade catnip smuggling ring. It’s a great story, but not something I think a publisher would want to try to sell.

Do you ever have trouble coming up with new material for the blog?

Never. I’ve got a lot of stories and ideas that I’ll never get to. I was afraid I’d run out of ideas, but the more I blog, the more ideas I get. Writers out there, if you are short on story ideas, fire up a blog and make yourself post daily on it. Trust me, you’ll get ideas.

What fun things do you have planned for this holiday season, to promote the Twelve Bots book?

This year I’m re-doing the Twelve Bots, but in LEGO form! I’ve been working on it for weeks! Here’s a preview:

(Side note: GeekMom will be posting pictures of Mr. Hale’s Lego Bots for the twelve days leading up to Christmas. Stay tuned!)

Is there anything else you ‘d  like to share with our readers?

Have a Merry Robo-Christmas! And never, EVER give someone a BIRD or a PERSON as a gift. Rings are okay, but robots are best.

If, like me, you’re convinced that this book belongs in your personal holiday collection, pick up a copy (or two) for the robot loving kids in your life. Then get ready to read it over and over again. (And keep the Geekmom.com website bookmarked so you don’t miss the posting of Mr. Hale’s Lego Bot creations!)