Category Archives: Shopping guides and reviews

A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits

Some time ago I reviewed Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by Øyvind Nydal Dahl, which is a very good introduction to electricity and how to hvae fun with it. There is now a new book that is a somewhat simplified version by the same author, A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits: Nine Simple Projects with Lights, Sounds, and More!.

This new book is smaller, has fewer projects, requires the purchase of fewer components, is an accordingly less expensive book, and perhaps most important for some people, requires no solder!

The projects consist of a steady-hand game, a touch enabled light, an alarm you can put on your cookie jar or similar container, a night light that detects when it is dark, various sorts of blinking or party lights, a musical instrument, and of course, an LED Marquee. You need just over 20 components to build all the projects, which mainly use breadboards. The book suggests which parts to buy from Jameco, and many of the parts come in one or a couple of Jameco kits. (Jameco company sells individual electronic parts, like the old Radio Shack, and also, kits you can use to make cool stuff like an Infrared Escape Robot or a Dual-Output Adjustable Linear Regulated Power Supply.)

All the instructions are clear, the illustrations are excellent, and the projects are fun, if a bit basic. This is well within the range of a seven to ten year old kid with adult supervision, and without the adults for ten and up. Depends on the kid, of course.

What I like about this book is that there are traditional circuit diagrams accompanied with descriptions of how the electronics work at a basic level. For many of the projects, you are expected to use the breadboard to assemble the parts using the traditional diagram. This is a much better way to learn the way circuits work than many other guides or books, which hold your hand through assembly at the cost of holding your hands through understanding. In many cases, there are photographs of the assembled project with sufficient detail and clarity to get you past any ambiguity. But, the key is this: The circuits are both interesting and simple, so nothing can go wrong.

There are also sections for many of the projects that help you past when something goes wrong.

There are many places these projects can go, on modification, and there is plenty of inspiration in here to lead to interesting results. I highly recommend A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits: Nine Simple Projects with Lights, Sounds, and More!, perhaps as a holiday gift for a young one.

The Solar System from The Smithsonian

Smithsonian Exploration Station: Solar System by Jon Richards is similar to the previously reviewed Exploration Station: The Human Body. This is part of a new series of STEM learning toys from the Smithsonian, and they are just now available for purchase.

As is the case with the other kits, the Solar System includes a book, a large format big flat thing to which one might attach stickers, stickers, and a unique on-topic object, in this case, those cool stars you can attach to your ceiling or walls, and they glow in the dark.

Also, there are figurines including an two astronauts and a few rocket related items. The rocket items include a Saturn V launcher, a Gemini capsule, and a space shuttle (not to scale). I think one of the astronauts is Gemini/Mercury era and the other is post space-walk probably Apollo era.

Like this:

The book is a good reading level for kids between 6 (better readers) and 12 or so. The science is solid. The price is fair. The materials are good quality. The box is nice. All systems go, a holiday gift for some kid you know.

You might consider some Glow in The Dark Planets too.

Build Miniature Cities with LEGO

LEGO Micro Cities: Build Your Own Mini Metropolis! is a LEGO building idea book that provides a macro number of examples of building buildings, or other structures using a very small number of bricks. It is like the N-guage of LEGO. This is sort of the opposite of the LEGO idea book I recently reviewed, The LEGO Architecture Idea Book, because the latter is for large scale, and the former for very tiny scale.

Author Jeff Friesen is a famous LEGO builder, and a photographer, who tweets at @jeff_works.

You get an idea of how to build skyscraper, bridges, public transit elements, and tightly packed downtown zones. There are suggestions for how to build the geology that underlies the buildings and other infrastructure. And the subways.

The author suggests where to buy bricks, including used bricks that work just fine. But you can also use the bricks you have, and modify the design. Or, really, use the gestalt to become a better creator of your own entirely novel things, which I think is the real purpose of all this sort of book. Theory.

This is a fun book, and great holiday gift to accompany a LEGO building set.

Extending The LEGO Boost Robot Kit With A Book

The LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox is a humanoid robot that is also a guitar, a dogbot, and an industrial fabrication machine. Which of these things it is depends on which set of instructions you follow. A scratch-like programming language lets you control the boost from a phone or tablet, via blue tooth. It is not cheap, but it is an amazing and excellent toy.

It does take absolutely forever to build any of these projects, but there are stages along the way where you can stop and play with what you’ve got so far.

And, if you are clever, you can combine the Lego Boost parts that come with the kit with other Lego objects and make more different things. For example, if you happen to have the LEGO City Arctic Scout Truck (60194) , which is in and of itself a fun LEGO kit, you can combine some of the Boost parts with this kit to make something special. Like this:

But, the problem with that project, and several like it, is that even on the LEGO boost site, there is relatively little information on how to do it. Not that you necessarily want step by step instructions. You really want to learn how to hack the LEGOs with the Boost and have fun creating. But I think it is helpful to get a bit more guidance, to get farther with the first few stages of this sort of project.

And that is why Yoshihito Isogawa wrote The LEGO BOOST Idea Book: 95 Simple Robots and Hints for Making More!. This excellent book has, as it says in the name, 95 specific ideas that come in the form of typical LEGO non-verbal visual instructions (but nicer looking than actual LEGO instructions) to do very specific things, like how to make a sliding door, how to launch rockets, that sort of thing. Each project comes with the code blocks specified to make it work.

In a way, deploying many of the ideas in this book, and using them as part of an overall LEGO build you’ve otherwise got going, may be more fun than the Robot itself, especially after you’ve messed around with the robot for a few weeks.

For example, we have a large and complex LEGO Angry Birds Kit, which includes an angry bird launcher that uses basic finger power like a lever. Not any more! We are going to build an actual rocket launcher that launches the angry birds, you betcha!

Now, I want to be clear about something. All of the parts that the The LEGO BOOST Idea Book uses in its descriptions are part of the LEGO Boost kit itself (#17101). But the principles laid out and the design ideas could easily use other bricks from your general collection. This give you the best of both worlds: Total functionality using the book itself as an add on to your Boost, adding significant value to that expensive kit for only a few bucks more AND a way to leverage all those other books, because you can extend the projects pretty easily with your own imagination.

I guess I would say that if you get a LEGO Boost Kit, you really should get this book along with it. Great gift for a kid this holiday season. Best ready to build robot on the market (possibly) with a truly meaningful extension.

A Classic STEM toy: Rock Tumbler

National Geographic Hobby Rock Tumbler Kit is truly a gift that keeps on giving. We got one last year at Christmas time, and it has been running ever since, except in the coldest months of the year. It is noisy, so you will need to have a place where the sound is not a problem. We run it in the garage (thus the moratorium during the deep cold Minnesota Winter).

There are other rock tumblers out there, and if you want to get serious, you’ll want to shop around and maybe even look at the Vibratory Tumblers, a related technology.

Warning: Figure out a way of disposing of the sludge that does NOT involve putting it down a drain. It will ruin your drains. Dig a hole in the back yard, or make an evaporation system (that’s what we do) so you can throw the dried sludge in the trash.

Expect to buy more rocks, as well as more raw materials. Here are a few examples of what we invested in:

Polly Plastics Rock Tumbler Tumbling Media Grit Kit & Plastic Filler in Heavy Duty Resealable Bags

Crystal Allies Materials: 1lb Bulk Rough Pink Rose Quartz Crystals from Brazil – Large 1″

Crystal Allies Materials: 3 Pounds Bulk Rough 10-Stone Assorted Brazilian Mix – Large 1″

Educational Kids Gift: The Human Body by Smithsonian

There is a new series of educational kits called Exploration Station, coming out in a few day. You can pre-order them. I’ll post about three of them, starting with Exploration Station: The Human Body.

Nicely packaged, the box itself will be useful even after the stuff inside is long gone.

The kids are designed for learning by kids six years and above, but I think they are ideal for third or fourth graders. All the kids follow a similar theme. There is one item that will end up on a bedroom shelf along with other toys like items. In this case, a make it yourself human skeleton one foot tall. There is a book on the subject, in this case, the human body. There is a large sheet of heavy duty laminated material and a set of stickers to stick on to it. In this case, it is a 13 by 18 inch poster with a depiction of the human body. In addition, this kit includes a set of flash cards about various aspects of the human body or physiology.

The back of the box. Note that this is for kids 6 and older. Eight or nine is an ideal age.

The science is good, the book is engaging, lots of words but also lots of pictures. The manipulable materials are fun and educational.

Comes with a great book at about 3rd or 4th grade reading level.

I think the kits were originally designated to be about $22, but the pre-order price is closer to $15 . I think they are worth the larger price, but the lower price is very nice.

Includes flash cards, a set of stickers, and a large body picture (not shown) to put the stickers on, and a small skeleton you can build yourself.

This is an ideal holiday gift for a kid in the right age range. It is not going to fill your space with a pile of useless crap, and it is not going to make a mess, or any noise. The educational value is high, and the quality is right in the range for an item of this price range. The only down side is that it is a little hard to wrap round things, but you’ll mange.

I recommend the Exploration Station: The Human Body for the kid in your life.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

I’m about to trash skepticism (as a cult) but before I do, I want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

I no longer call myself a skeptic. Well, actually, I probably never really did, but now I’m more explicit about that. Why? Two reasons. 1) Global warming and other science deniers call themselves skeptics, and I don’t want any confusion. 2) The actual “skeptics movement” is described as…

…a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).[1] The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[2] The process followed is sometimes referred to[by whom?] as skeptical inquiry.

[source]

That’s all nice and all, but I discovered that the actual skeptics movement is made out of people not quite so cleanly guided by a philosophy, roughly one third of whom are not really skeptics (such as Penn Jilette and James Randi, who allowed their libertarian philosophy to drive “skepticism” of anthropocentric global warming long after the scientific consensus was established), “mens rights activists” (MRAs) who vigorously attacked anyone speaking out in favor of women’s rights, against rape, etc., and #MeToo movement poster boys, who have for years used skeptical conferences as their own private meat markets.

Besides, I’m an actual scientist, so I can be a fan of science without having to be a fanboy, which makes it easier for me.

I started writing publicly, blogging, partly to be an on-line skeptic, to take on politically charged topics, especially as related to evolutionary biology, but other areas of science as well (and more recently, climate change), addressing falsehoods and misconceptions. But I very quickly discovered that there multiple and distinct kinds of “skepticism” make up the larger conversation.

There is a lot of very low level, knee jerk skepticism that is little more than uninformed reactionism, based on, at best, received knowledge. That is about as unskeptical as it gets. The Amazing Randy says Global Warming is nothing other than natural variation. Therefore, I will believe that. Uncritically. Some of this is what I long ago labeled as “hyperskepticism.” This is where potentially valid skepticism about a claim is melded with hyperbole. “There is not a single peer reviewed study that shows the bla bla bla bladiby bla” coming from the mouth of a person who has never once even looked for a peer reviewed study about any thing. They hyperskeptic may create entire categories of things that include claims worthy of debunking, and put all of the thing into the debunked category even if they are not.

A fairly benign example of this relates to CAM medicine. “CAM” refers to “complementary and alternative medicine” like acupuncture, rolfing, and the like. These are mostly forms of treatment that have no basis in science, and probably don’t do anything useful even if they sometimes cost real money. Hypersketpics put all CAM into the same category and light a match to it. But, there is a subset of CAM that is legit … the very fact that I wrote that sentence just there will disqualify me, and my entire post, and everything I ever say — there will be comments below that say “I stopped reading when you said “there is a subset of CAM that is legit”. OK, hold on a second, count to four. One two thee four. Now that all the hyperskeptics have gone off in a huff I can continue … and I can give you an example. There are people who undergo regular, uncomfortable, sometimes painful or sick-making treatments as part of their normal medical routine. Chemotherapy, dialysis, that sort of thing. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable. This is why dentists put ferns and pictures of the ocean in their waiting rooms. There is evidence to suggest that surroundings should be considered in design of treatment rooms, waiting room, etc. (See for example, Brown and Gallant, 2006, “Impating Patient Outcomes Through Design: Acuity Adaptable Care/Universal Rom Design. “Critical Care Nursing Quarterly. 29:4(326-341) and Ulrich, Zimring, and Zhu, 2008, “A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. HERD 1(3). They hyperskeptic wants divide the world into evidence based double blind study proven and everything else, with everything else being always wrong in all ways. (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but only for the irony.) This concept, of considering room and environmental design, now standard, did exist before CAM (those dentists and their ferns) but the study an implementation of stress reducing design as we now know of it comes from the CAM movement. What is needed is not closing down CAM, but making it accountable. It would probably get much smaller if that happened, but what is left of it would be useful.

Having said all that, the skeptical world includes a number of excellent and widely respected actual self-identified skeptics who have science or medical backgrounds, and who occasionally write books that everyone should read. One such individual is Steven Novella, who wrote some time ago a skeptics guide to the universe. Well, that book is out of date (universes evolve) and there is now anew edition: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

Four others contributed to this volume, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

I do not agree with everything in this book. For example, although the discussion of placebo effect is excellent, I have a different take on it. I like to divide the effect up into different categories than I do, and I want to make a more explicit connection between the phenomenon called placebo effect and the role and meaning of a control. But for the most part, every single one of the more than 50 topics covered in this book is well treated, informative, and enjoyable to read. (See what I did there? I was a little skeptical of the book, so now, you know it must be good!)

Do get and read this book, get one for a friend for a holiday gift, and enjoy. But right now, before you even do that, to tho the Amazon page and find the negative reviews. There are only two now (the book just came out) but they are a hoot.

How to be a better LEGO architect in 1001 easy lessons

Some of the earliest LEGO sets were for buildings or some sort of structure, and to this day architecture forms a core part of the LEGO panoply. If you build an architecture project from a kit, you’ll see that they are highly engineered. In order to make a LEGO project look like something other than a concoction of random bricks made by some kids having fun (which is, of course, just fine), serious planning has to have happened.

Most of the LEGO books I’ve seen are pure idea books. If you wanted to build a project based on what you see in the books, you have to either have a huge collection of LEGO parts very well organized, or you have to be prepared to order several specific bricks that are called for in the books.

But that is the wrong way to play with LEGOs. The books demonstrate concepts, give you ideas, guide you to become a better LEGOer.

Very few LEGO books that I’ve seen are clearly this, clearly about methods and techniques, as The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More by Alice Finch.

How does this work? Let me give you an example. Say you want to build a building with nice columns. There are many different kinds of columns out there in architecture land, and you can imagine that there are different ways to build each one, and which method you use depends, in turn, on the scale you are working on. Say you want to build columns that would go with a building that would work well with the assumption that the building will be used by minifigs (the small LEGO people that come with many kits). Finch gives you sixteen pages of ideas for columns, starting out with these two:

Or maybe you are in need of some curved walls:

Or stained glass:

Or towers:

You get the point.

LEGOs are bricks, and bricks are used to build buildings, and The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More is a really helpful guide to developing the methods and techniques for doing that.

The wizzard behind the book, Alice Finch, is one of the top LEGO builders in the world, famous for her extensive renditions of Harry Potter’s world and other major projects (see below). This is a great book for the aspiring LEGO builder, and an excellent choice as a holiday gift for your LEGO-loving offspring.

Amazing Book On Amazing Arachnids

I am strongly recommending Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles.

This book is in line to win the Greg Laden’s Blog Science Book of the Year.

Sample text, to give a taste of the science
It looks like a high quality, almost coffee table like, book on the arachnids, things like mites and spiders and such. But that is only what it appears to be on the surface. Just below the surface, it is a compendium of evolutionary amazingness, a detailed description of the photogenic history, behavioral biology, and co-evolution of plants and animals, with almost all the protagonists in the numerous loosely connected stories being one sort or another of amazing arachnid.

Geographically, the book focuses on the arid American Southwest. This allows the author to be quasi-comprehensive in coverage of species (about 300 from among 11 orders). It also allows the author to tell the story of these critters as a story, with interconnected features of evolution and ecology. This is literary hard core science, with great illustrations (about 750 color photos, and other illustrations).

Because of the US SW focus, it might be a better purchase for people living in just that area. But as is the case with a handful of other nature-oriented books, like the The New Neotropical Companion, the science content and overall interest of the book transcends geography. You’re not really going to want to get that close to these arachnids anyway….

This is a very good book. You will learn things, even if you already know a lot about arachnids.

The author is a clinical microbiologists and photographer.

A New Robot For Littler Kids

The typical robot these days (such as the Makeblock DIY mBot and the Tomo) hooks up to an android or iOS device, via blue tooth, and allows for programming using a scratch-like programming language.

The smaller of the two kits, normally about $60 but under $50 last time I looked.
For somewhat younger kids, and for kids who do not happen to have a tablet they are allowed to use because they drool on it and stuff, there is an alternative that is on one hand a little harder to code but on the other hand more intuitive and very creative. I speak of the Botley Coding Robot, which comes in two styles: 1) Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot Activity Set, 77 Pieces and Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot, 45 Pieces. (I tested the latter, but they are the same in the parts that matter). Continue reading A New Robot For Littler Kids

Making Sense of Weather and Climate

Read Making Sense of Weather and Climate: The Science Behind the Forecasts, by Mark Denny if you want to … well, do what the title of the book says.

I know a lot of you are interested in global warming/climate change, so you need to know that this book is not mainly about that (but it is covered). Rather, this book is the Rosetta Stone that allows you to connect a general understanding of the planet (it is round, it spins, it has an atmosphere that includes water vapor, and tends to reside between -50 and +50 degrees C, etc.) and the person on the TV talking about air masses going up and down and what is going to happen during “the overnight” and “the overday” and such. Continue reading Making Sense of Weather and Climate

The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!

From Hypatia of Alexandria to Katherine Hayhoe, women have made and continue to make important contributions to the physical sciences. Now, you can get the “Notable Women in the Physical Sciences” deck of cards to celebrate them!

Here’s the deal. Continue reading The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!