Category Archives: Shopping guides and reviews

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!

The Official 2017 Cool Tech Gift Guide

Not to be confused with the Official 2017 Maker Tech Gift Guide!

I’ve mixed a wide range of techno-stuff in this guide, so there is stuff that flies, stuff that cooks, and stuff that makes noise. This is your prompt. It is up to you to match and expand on the ideas and integrate them with target gift recipients you know and love. Or, you can always put items on your personal wish list and see what happens!

Without further ado: Continue reading The Official 2017 Cool Tech Gift Guide

What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?

Part I: Liquids, edibles, slimy things. (The next part will tend towards the electronic and robotish.)

Focusing on elementary school, mainly around 2nd or 3rd grade, this is what I see on the market this year. A lot more water, day to day pragmatic science, and specialized kits that generally produce stuff you eat, throw out, or otherwise dispose of, which saves a lot of closet space in your home! Continue reading What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?

An Excellent Robot Kit: Tenergy Odev Tomo 2-in-1

Tenergy is a company that you know well even if you don’t know them. They make a lot of the replacement batteries for everything, external power supplies, other electronic items. But recently they’ve added a few items to their line of products that reach out in an entirely different direction.

Tenergy Odev Tomo 2-in-1 Transformable DIY STEM Education Programmable Robot Kit is a robot kit that can be configured as a tricycle with two large wheels, or as a two-wheeled “bicycle” which operates like a Segway. Which is pretty amazing.

So far Tomo is my favorite out of the box Robot Build, and I highly recommend it. It is also very reasonably priced (see note on that below).

Tomo the robot has the usual sensors that come with such a device, including a line tracker and a distance sensor that resembles a pair of eyes. The yellow color of the framework and the overall configuration give Tomo a sort of Wall-E look, which is cute.

Assembly: Instructions are clear. Assembly involves Continue reading An Excellent Robot Kit: Tenergy Odev Tomo 2-in-1

What computer mouse is best?

I did some research on mice, and I thought I’d pass it on. First, though, let me suggest that you get some of this stuff. Use it to paint a symbol on each of your wireless mice that matches a symbol on each of your mice dongles. It will help keep you sane. You’ll still find yourself constantly in possession of mice and dongles that do not match, but at least they will have these pretty little symbols you drew all over them.

There is some interesting and exciting stuff going on with mice.

Best but most expensive small mouse for general mobile use

The Logitech MX Anywhere 2 Wireless Mobile Mouse, Long Range Wireless Mouse is over fifty bucks, but it has some excellent features. It is small and portable and normative in shape and design. It works on any surface, is highly precise, nice to use, all that. It is a Laser tracking mouse. It has an internal rechargeable battery.

This mouse uses a small USB dongle or bluetgooth (Bluetooth Smart Ready). You can pair up to three different devices. It has hyper-speed scrolling.

The Most Magical of Mice: Flow technology

There are several mice in this category ranging across price. One of them is the Logitech MX Anywhere 2S Wireless Mouse with FLOW Cross-Computer Control and File Sharing for PC and Mac – 910-005132, which is close to 80 bucks, and is like the MX Anywhere 2, but has the additional magical capability of controlling multiple devices, including managing a cross-device clipboard. You pair the mouse up with each computer, then you tie it into the same local network both computers are on. Here’s a video from Logitech:

This supposedly works on Linux, Macs and Windows.

Super Ergonomic

I am suspicious of the whole ergonomic thing. Ergonomic, in mice and similar devices, seems to be “we fit your hand so well you will only move one or two muscles ever,” which seems a bad idea. I think a mouse should require more movement and adjustment by the hand in order to Not cause repetitive motion syndrome. Note that this is entirely my non-expert opinion and I may be quite wrong.

Anyway, one of the top rated and coolest Ergonomic mice is probably the Anker 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse which is extreme in its design and intended to minimize RSS. The same company makes a variety of products, and note, these are generally not expensive.

General all round mouse

The affordable Logitech M720 Triathalon Multi-Device Wireless Mouse pairs with multiple devices, has fancy buttons, has hyper fast scrolling capability, and uses a single AA battery. It uses bluetooth.

Glows in the dark


I have a keyboard that glows in the dark. Maybe I need the ASUS ROG Gladius II Aura Sync USB Wired Optical Ergonomic Gaming Mouse with DPI target button. This $100 computer critter is a high end gaming mouse, and note that the interface is a wire. Proof that new technology (in this case, wireless interface to mouse) is sometimes inferior, and the old technology gets you more.

Other mice

The Logitech M330 Silent Plus Wireless Large Mouse is a large size mouse that makes no noise and is inexpensive (and wireless, but not bluetooth)
The super accruate, wired, Corsair Gaming M65 Pro RGB FPS Gaming Mouse, Backlit RGB LED, 12000 DPI, Optical is for gamers and has lots of buttons.

The mouse I need is probably the one I hope to find over at Goodwill; I need a plug in USB mouse to allow quick access to any computer any time without needing a dongle dangling off the back of something.

Best Father’s Day Gifts

… for the science literate or geek. It is hard to think up gifts at the last minute, so I’m passing on a few suggestions that have been mentioned lately in my presence.

Some Amazon Kindle e-readers are $20 off

A second monitor (or a third). I like this one.

A Darth Vader Pen Holder

Virtual Reality: Google Cardboad Kit, Magicoo 3D VR Video Glasses, VR Headset for Movies and Games, Compatible with All The 3.5″-6.0″ Smartphones (Black)

Dune for Kindle for 1.99

A stick made out of metal designed to poke at meat on the BBQ

Why Get A Pi? (Raspberry Pi)

There is really no better time to get a Raspberry Pi. The new Raspberry Pi 3 has features that make it much more useful and fun, including more speed, built in bluetooth, and built in wifi.

The Raspberry Pi is a small computer that, out of the box, lacks storage drive or device, a monitor, a screen, or a mouse, but is otherwise a fully functional computer that can run a normal operating system. It costs very little, so if you happen to have a TV or monitor that can use a component or HDMI hookup, a keyboard, a mouse, and an appropriate microSD card, then you have a computer for $39.99. If, on the other hand, you need to buy those parts and the cables and such, then you have a $200 computer (or more) that isn’t very fast but is still cool. Chances are, though, that you have at least some of these parts laying around.

I’ll make some suggestions below as to how to set yourself up (including the option of buying a kit) but first let me say a little more about why you might want to do this.

Why Pi reason one: A kid

Maybe you have a kid in the house who is old enough to start to play around with a computer, but not old enough to not gob all over it, drop it, or mistake it for a bath toy. With a Raspberry Pi, you are not taking a big risk. First, it is cheap and easily replaced, compared to, say, a laptop. Second, if it does end up in the bath, it is probably easier to dry out than a notebook or desktop computer.

When Huxley was about five, I set him up with a Raspberry Pi hooked to an old TV we had laying around. I bought a new keyboard and mouse for it, and that keyboard and mouse has done a lot of good work since. He learned the basics of turning a computer on, turning a computer off, using the mouse, running some basic apps (like Tux Paint), etc.

Over the next year he continued to use the Pi but also graduated to a laptop his grandfather had laying around. It was a Windows laptop, so I wiped it and installed Linux. Huxley is now able to install software using the command line, and he is about as good at word processing as any average person. He’s pretty good with graphics software as well. At school, he’s been learning a watered down version of the iMac, he can use Windows, and he knows more about the Android and iOS operating systems than most. He turned 7 last week. I owe much of his rapid development to the Raspberry Pi. Also, to Linux; If Linux is one of your first operating systems, you will understand more quickly the things you need to know to make computers bend to your will.

Why Pi reason two: impress your friends

So, here’s the scenario. A bunch of your friends get together now and then at a particular coffee shop, or the cafeteria, or perhaps your family gathers at the cabin, or at a favorite vacation spot. Pretty soon everyone pulls out a device. Most have phones, but here and there a laptop being used by someone who needs to get some real work done.

Well, you need to get some real work done too, so you pull out a box of Altoids, plug it into the nearest TV, sign in via your iPad and, using the iPad’s virtual keyboard, get to work.

A Raspberry Pi can be cobbled together with a number of different bits and pieces, including some interesting options for the computer’s case, to make what is essentially a laptop or a funky desktop. It can work as a “headless” server, so you use a different device to access it.

My most elaborate setup involved a super fast USB stick to run the operating system. The microSD is the usual boot device, but I hacked it to hand the boot process over to the faster USB stick and run the computer from there. An HDMI output ran to a small TV. The Pi was hooked directly into the internet via a LAN cord (there is a plug on the Pi). A powered USB hub allowed multiple additional possibilities. A bluetooth dongle gave the device that capability, and allowed use of a mouse and keyboard. Oh, and I overclocked it. That was a Raspberry Pi 2.

The Pi 3 comes with built in wireless and bluetooth, and is faster and thus not so much in need of overclocking.

Why Pi reasons three through infinity: Projects

The Raspberry Pi is, as noted, a basic computer, but it has a number of pins that give the hardware access to outside thingies. These GPIO pins let you hook sensors or actuators directly to the Pi, so you can build things with a brain. In addition, there is the usual serial (USB) interface.

There are two commonly used machines on which a very large number of Do It Yourself (DIY) projects have been based. A home media center. A garage door opener. A weather station. A personal web server. A remote control camera for security or to watch birds or game. A system for turning on and off all your things, including lights. A customized alarm clock. A bitcoin server. Any one of a number of different robots.

One device is the Arduino Uno R3 Microcontroller, or a related card, the other is the Raspberry Pi. If you look around you will find dozens of other circuit boards that do these things, but none of them have the huge support network, gazillion lines of pre-written code, and myriad bits of hardware designed to be added on to make things happen.

The Arduino controller is, frankly, the better choice of machine for many uses. If you need a smartish machine to do one thing, and only one thing, and that thing isn’t too complicated, a Raspberry Pi is probably overkill and might have some downsides. A controller might even be better designed as hardware goes, as it is real time. Say you are building a model airplane and you want a smart device inside it controlling the various things that make it fly. You will be sending signals via radio to the plane. A controller can be set to cycle rapidly through the communications module to see if there are any instructions coming in, then to various sensor or actuator circuits to acquire information or to set the actuators to do things (change speed, etc.). You can be confident in advance that the controller will focus on nothing other than these jobs, and check each of these inputs and outputs several times (a known number of times) a second.

If, on the other hand, you use a computer — any typical computer — with a normal operating system like Linux, OSX, or Windows, then you can’t be as sure. There can be a software based timer set up in the computer that will theoretically go from sensor or actuator to sensor or actuator, checking the communication module for commands every cycle. But those cycles are virtual. If somewhere along the way a backup program was installed to make a copy of a directory and put it on a USB stick every hour, then suddenly your computer is busy doing something else. If updates are automatic on your setup, same problem. Yes, you can configure a system to not do anything you don’t want it to do, but you might not be perfect in you efforts. In other words, having a Raspberry Pi carry out time sensitive mission critical rapid fire acts is like hiring a potentially recidivistic but reformed fox to guard the henhouse. Yeah, it probably works, but if any chickens are missing …

The Raspberry Pi, running a normal operating system, can do pretty much anything any other computer can do, and might in fact, do any of a number of different things while still carrying out the program you wrote to operate the air plane. But the Arduino controller can only do a few things, and you can’t really accidentally have it programmed to send out bulk emails or get your fur coat cleaned while you are trying to control your expensive model airplane.

So, let’s say I want a device in my garage that has a sensor that tells me if the garage door is open or closed, turning on a light on a second device in my house (connected by radio signal) if the door is open, and allowing me to open or close the garage door by pushing a button on that interior device. That would be easy using two Arduino boards, some sort of sensor, a cheap pair of radio communication thingies, and some lights and resistors. (Plus the appropriate way to close/open the door, for which there are several options.)

Say I want to have a device in the garage that senses if the door is open, has a camera that can be used to check out the garage, communicates the status of the door via the internet, and allows me to remotely open or close the door or look at the camera’s image remotely form anywhere on my smart phone. You can totally do that with an Arduino controller, but that will involve adding a lot of parts and raising the cost, and you may be limited in other ways. A Raspberry Pi would be better for this application.

Say I want the device in the garage to have a movable pointable camera, a temperature sensor, a “door open” sensor, a door close/open actuator, and a way to turn on and off the main garage light. But, I want to control all of those functions from the Internet, and I want the same internet interface to also give me the temperature in my house and provide a view from a camera pointing out the front door. I also want the same system to give me access to my Google calendar.

For that, I’d want the Raspberry Pi running the web server, hard wired, perhaps, into my home LAN, and fitted with a Camera Module and a temperature sensor. I the Garage would be an Arduino with a movable camera and all that other stuff, controlled via the Pi that sits in my house.

And so on.

Very elaborate home automation systems have been built using a combination of various Arduino controllers and a Raspberry Pi at the center of it all.

The Raspberry Pi can run any software that normally runs on Linux, if that is the operating system you install (which is probably the case). Most projects that use the Pi as the central brain use Python, which is an all purpose programming language. The Arduino controller uses a form of C, but it is easy to use and for most functions, there is already code ready to use out of the box or with minor changes. The Pi can have huge programs and handle massive amounts of data, if you have a large enough USB stick or microSD card. The Arduino is very limited in space and memory, though it can be attached, with some extra work, to various mass storage devices.

I think you get the idea.

What kind of Pi do you want?

There are four kinds of Raspberry Pi. The Zero, the One, the Two, and the Three. If you are getting a new one, just get the three. It replaces the one and the two. (The Zero is a whole different thing, for advanced users.)

There is also the A vs. B model within these categories. None of that is important. Get the Pi 3 B. THIS ONE: Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Motherboard.

In order to make a Raspberry Pi work, you will need things like a power adapter, a keyboard, etc. You might want to put it in a case. You will need a microSD card with the operating system on it. Since the Pi is a DIY device, the basic unit comes with none of this and you have to figure it all out yourself.

Or, you can buy any one of dozens of available kits that have some combination of some of the basic parts needed. Kits don’t have a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. The Raspberry Pi comes with the rarely used component jack (the yellow round thing on the back of your TV may work with it) and an HDMI output, for video, and several USB sockets. The PI 3 has bluetooth built in, so you can use a bluetooth mouse and keyboard if you want. The kits tend to have the Pi, an SD card often with the OS preloaded, an HDMI cable, a power supply, and a case. Most kits these days come with heat sinks, which are pretty much unnecessary but cool, that you can glue on to the Pi if you want.

I recently got the Vilros Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit with Clear Case and 32GB SD Card, which came with the Pi 3 (with WiFi and Bluetooth, as mentioned), a power supply, a 32 GB Class 10 MicroSD card (you will want a class 10 card), a case, an HDMI cord, and two heat sinks. I think that normally lists for $90 but is perpetually on sale for much less.

For the more DIY oriented user, the CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Ultimate Starter Kit – 32 GB Edition comes with additional parts that will be helpful in building projects that exploit the Pi’s input/output pins, such as LED lights, hookup wires, and resistors, a breakout cable, and a breadboard. The way the Pi is set up, you will want a breakout system to allow you to mess with electronic components more easily and safely (safe for the Pi, that is, with its sensitive computer circuity). If I was going to give a kit to someone who I knew was going to mess around with the hardware, this is the kit I’d probably pick.

The Operating System, which you can download at the Raspberry Pi site and install on the microSD card, also allows for some options. And, it can be a little confusing.

There is a “system” called “noobs” (for Noobie, I assume) which is the easy way to install Raspbian. Or, you can get Rraspbian sans Noob, which is apparently the hard way to install Raspbian. I’ve done both, but I don’t remember if one is actually harder.

Raspbian is the basic OS for the Raspberry Pi, and it is a Linux distribution based on Debian (get it? Raspberry Pi Debian = Raspbian?)

The Raspbian distribution formerly used LXDE as the desktop, a lightweight, not very fancy, stable desktop. But, recently, the desktop was redesigned to be much sleeker and nicer (but still basic and efficient) and has been renamed Pixel. (Pixel as in Pi-something, but also, named in part after the author’s experiences as a young child playing peek-a-poke in Basic on his IBM clone.)

You can also install a version of Ubuntu Mate. I’ve done that. I don’t recommend it. The Pi is not meaty enough to pretend to be a normal desktop computer when saddled with the extra overhead. Pixel is the way to go. But it was fun to play around with. Another option is the OSMC, or Open Source Media Center, if you want to use the machine as a media center. There are others. I’ve no experience with them, so I can’t tell you much about them. But I can tell you this very cool thing: You put the OS on the microSD, and put the microSD in the Pi, and that is what determines what OS you are using. So, you can swap between operating systems but just swapping cards. How cool is that?

One especially advanced but seemingly widespread use of the Pi is to build a gaming device. You install some software. Then, you install the bios of one or more gaming systems. Then you install the games that go with that gaming system. Obviously, you will only install systems and games that you already own, and not find anyplace on the Internet to download them. Then, you have all those old console games on your Pi. You’d probably buy some game controllers to hook up to that device, and you’d probably run it on your TV.

All the information you need to make all of this work can be found either on the Raspberry Pi site, or at a destination linked to from that site.

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Raspberry Pi Cases

As noted, you can use the Raspberry pi as a regular, low power but usable, computer and at the same time make a cool case for it. This is a bit like having a laptop that you carry around, but instead of a laptop, it is a box of Altoids. Or some LEGOS.

Instructions to make the Altoids Pi case are here.

Ready-made LEGO cases are here and here.

Strange and wonderful devices

There are a gazillion projects on line that use the Raspberry Pi. Here, I’ll give you just a few examples. Most of the examples use Raspberry Pi 1 or 2 (probably, 2 is the most common) and in most cases you’ll want to use a 3. So, the best way to get good instructions for a project is to look at a few examples and hopefully among them will be one that uses the Pi 3.

Here is a somewhat slow but a good start on a PIrsonal Assistant. You can make this run faster if you tweak it (and use the Pi 3):

Do you know what Tor is? If not, maybe find out. Given the current political climate, it may become more important. Anyway, you can make a Tor Router.

There are many picture frame projects out there. Just search for Raspberry Pi Picture Frame.

Here is a system that controls your lights using voice commands.

If it was me, I’d skip the voice feedback. The detailed instructions are HERE.

At first I thought this Pi controlled espresso machine would be dumb, because really, what can a computer to do make an espresso machine work better. Then I looked more closely at it and realized this is a thing.

Stratux looks interesting. I remember my uncle, a Franciscan missionary who would stop by now and then on his way to this or that remote place, invented something like this back in the 60s. Stratus is a device you use to identify aircraft in your vicinity, using the plane’s ADS-B broadcasts.

I’m not going to point to a particular media streaming project. There are many, many such projects and it all depends on what you want to do. Just do a search for using the OSMC system on Pi. Or, just a simple music streaming machine.

Same with console gaming projects.

People make Minecraft servers. Generally, if there is anything you might like to dedicate a computer to, that is on all the time, the Pi may be the way to go. It is very low power demanding, and cheap enough that you can dedicate this card to that one purpose, leave it running, and give it just enough maintenance to keep it from being coopted by nefarious hackers.

A print server, a file server, a local web server for your own uses, a system that puts your google calendar or other stuff on a TV screen (or other screen) for your convenience. Each of these idea has 20 or 30 iterations out there.

I hear someone is working on an “Election Converter” that runs on a Raspberry Pi 3. I’d send you a link but the instructions are written in Cyrillic.