Category Archives: Technology

Winner of the Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award, 2018

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The winner, hands down, of the GLB Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award for 2018 is The LEGO BOOST Activity Book by Daniele Benedettelli, and published by No Starch Press. This is the book that makes last year’s coolest STEM toy ever, the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , come to life in a way that will truly advance a child’s learning and enjoyment of robotics.

In my household, we have certain carefully designed rules. The rules are invariant, but the implementation is collaborative and open. For example, Huxley must always be engaged in some sort of out-of-school and out-of-home learning activity. The most obvious way to do this is a class somewhere (which can, actually, be in school as an ECA). The decision of what that activity should be, however, is his. During part of the summer he typically chooses etiquette class or an art class. During the rest of the year, he takes a STEM class at our local Stem Builders Learning Center. Stem Builders does all sorts of things, like computer coding, cloud computing, robotics, etc. and Huxley mainly engages in engineering and robotics classes. Over the last two years I’ve observed what is taught in intro and mid level robotics, and how it is taught. I’ve also seen how two other programs that teach robotics, both in our school system, work. So I have a good idea of what a good robotics course looks like.

The robotic raw material used in most of these classes is LEGO based, similar to (but not the same as) the material provided with the recently invented and marketed LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , which is basically a big fancy LEGO kit that is also a robot, and a few other things. The programming learning associated with these classes is absent, however, from that project. LEGO offers some additional computer programming information, but very limited, on its web site. Earlier in the year, I reviewed another No Starch Press book, The LEGO BOOST Idea Book: 95 Simple Robots and Hints for Making More! by Yoshihito Isogawa, which is a great book that allows you to take the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox to the next level with a plethora of projects you can build using only parts that come in that kit. The objective of Isogawa’s book is to provide a diverse array of suggestions for robotic LEGO builds.

But again, the home version of STEM learning that combines the pragmatic goal of learning to build (and thus, in the future, fight, I assume) robots, and the other pragmatic goal of learning to program stuff, is not the goal of that book.

The LEGO BOOST Activity Book does fill this need. It is the book that should have come with the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox. The toolbox does not have a programming manual, and there is nothing that comes with it, or that is available in parallel that I know of from LEGO, that hints at the power and potential of the programming interface.

The LEGO BOOST Activity Book starts out with instructions to build a basic robotic car called “Mario,” that looks enough like a Kart from Mario Kart to suggest a lawsuit. Mario is then used, again and again, in project after project, as the platform to explore dozens of robotic techniques, including diverse approaches to programming, the use of sensors, and various other moving parts.

That sequence, which takes up the majority of the book, looks a lot like a full semester class in robotics, spanning introductory to intermediate and early advanced techniques.

Following that there is a chapter on building BrickPecker, which is a robotic bird that sorts LEGO bricks by color. Unfortunately, it only sorts certain size and shape bricks and it will not rifle through your closet finding all the LEGO bricks and putting them in different containers.

Don’t believe the BrickPecker can be real? It has been captured of film:

After BrickPecker, there is a final chapter on CYBOT, a bipedal robot with the ability to talk, move its arms and fingers (all four of them on two hands), and fire a weapon. Once you’ve got the robot that can do those things, well, it is all over.

There is a massive section within the guts of the book that puts in one place the building techniques and principles needed to make things that do not fall apart easily, that move properly, and so on.

It is hard to believe there is so much stuff in this one book, but there is. One way that happens is the subtle but measurable increase in format for this volume compared to other coding and STEM books by this and other publishers.

This book came to me just in time to fill our holiday vacation. Huxley is going to return to his Stem Builder’s class in advanced mode in two weeks!

Even though the The LEGO BOOST Activity Book uses only bricks that are to be found in the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , there is a parts list Supp_LegoBoost_PartList in case you’d rather get the parts that way. However, this list does NOT contain the and seemingly unavailable as separate parts motor and brain elements in the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox . This list will probably be of greatest use to identify and then order parts that went down the heating vent or up the vacuum cleaner tube, or if you want to get extra creative and expand on the ideas in The LEGO BOOST Activity Book.

Daniele Benedettelli is known worldwide for his original LEGO robots, including his Rubik’s Cube solvers and his humanoid robots. As a LEGO MINDSTORMS Community Partner (MCP), he helps to test and develop new MINDSTORMS products. He gives educational presentations and workshops on Information and Communications Technology around the world and teaches robotics at the high school level. Benedettelli holds a master’s degree in Robotics and Automation from the University of Siena in Italy.


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Scratch 3.0 is coming

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Scratch is a seminal object oriented programming language that has had a great deal of influence on other languages. It is an entry level system designed for kids and adults new to programming. If you have a kid doing any kind of robotics or STEM programming in elementary school, they are using a programming langauge that derives from Scratch.

It comes out of MIT, and is usually used on their server, using a web interface.

That web interface is closing at 7 AM on January 2nd. Later that afternoon, it will be back up, but with Scratch 3.0!

Here’s a video. Continue reading Scratch 3.0 is coming


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How do I tell what version of everything I’m running (Linux)

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Linux has a kernel, there is a desktop manager, a desktop environment, a distribution, and a whole bunch of other stuff. All these things and other things have version numbers and similar information associated with them. If you are a casual user, you probably don’t know the exact version of any or all of these things you are running at any one moment in time. Then, suddenly, you find out that “Version this-or-that of this thing-or-another is out, have you tried it?” or “The whatchamacalit version of the thingimijob is broken, if you have that upgrade or you will all die!!!” or similar. So then, you want to know what version you are running.

Here are a few ways to find out that information. Continue reading How do I tell what version of everything I’m running (Linux)


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This year’s biggest ripoff is also this year’s best gift idea

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Here’s an idea. You have an old beat up computer running, say, Windows. You want to make it faster, crisper, more secure, and generally, better.

What can you do short of buying a new computer? Well, install Linux. Linux is so much more efficient as an operating system, your computer will simply run better. Guaranteed. Continue reading This year’s biggest ripoff is also this year’s best gift idea


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A really good computer setup

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I’ve reached a very nice resting point in the ongoing effort to develop a very useful, powerful, stable, and cool computer setup.

This started a while back when I built a computer. In particular, this computer. There are several advantages to building a computer. You can save money or get more bang for your buck even if you don’t pay less. On the saving money side, maybe you have components on hand that you don’t have to buy. I did, mainly mass storage. The case I had, thinking I’d save money there, ended up not working out. You get more bang for the buck because the parts you buy will be better than the ones in the equivilant off the line but cheaper computer, and you’ll have more control over what happens in future upgrades. Continue reading A really good computer setup


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STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids

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Tis the season to give robots and slime.

The two big news items for STEM holiday shopping this year are a) Robots have leveled off in complexity and price and b) slime has come of age. Continue reading STEM Holiday Gifts for Kids


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A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits

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Some time ago I reviewed Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by √ėyvind 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! Continue reading A Beginner’s Guide to Circuits


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How many satellites are there, and will there be?

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The number of satellite circling the Earth right now is approaching 5,000. The number that are not broken, and are being actually used, is just over 1,000. However, Space X, Elon Musk’s megacompany, is approved to launch well over 10,000 satellites over the next several years, to serve a single purpose: Give broadband internet to every human on Earth no matter where they are. Continue reading How many satellites are there, and will there be?


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From Atari to XBox: the inner and outer workings of every game console ever

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OK, let’s start with a quiz. How many game consoles can you name? I already gave you two, Atari and Xbox. Can you name ten more? Fifteen? How many were there ever, in total?

Continue reading From Atari to XBox: the inner and outer workings of every game console ever


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Interesting LED assisted make project kickstarter coming up.

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You know all those projects where you wire up some electronic circuitry and then hook it all to a bunch of LEDs, then you have fancy or fun lighting? Like a Halloween costume, or a Griswald house, or some nice mood lighting in your home?

It is harder than it looks, though doable if you have a soldering iron and some basic electronic knowledge. The RocketLife project, which is starting a kickstarter any day now, claims to make this much easier.

From the press release: Continue reading Interesting LED assisted make project kickstarter coming up.


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Extending The LEGO Boost Robot Kit With A Book

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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. Continue reading Extending The LEGO Boost Robot Kit With A Book


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