Scratch is a popular visual programming language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT. Tickle is a Kickstarter project for brining Scratch to the iPad. Although the Kickstarter campaign will likely be over by the time you read this post, you’ll want to follow along with the Tickle progress because they plan to release the app for free on the iTunes store once it’s complete!
Everyone should learn to code!
And that includes your kids!
If you’re looking for a way to sneakily teach programming to even your young kids, you need to pick up a copy of Robot Turtles! Robot Turtles is the most successful board game on Kickstarter and is designed to teach kids age 3+ how to program. And it’s fun!
I backed the original project on Kickstarter, so if you happen upon the 1st Edition of the game, look for our kids’ names in the credits! Our kids were 3 and 5 when they first started playing it and both ages were able to play along and have fun. The rules are designed to start easy for the younger kids and increase the difficulty level for older children that need more challenge. The game is now available on Amazon at a fraction of the original cost, so it’s a no brainer to pick one up for your family! (And maybe one for their school?)
This post is Colton approved!
David Resseguie is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com
Looking for a fun and effective way to learn electronics and inspire STEM education through hands-on “Learning by Discovery”? I highly recommend the Make: Electronics books and component sets. These are the exact resources I used when I wanted to teach myself more about electricity and how electronics work. I learned so much while having lots of fun. I had tried other books and websites but it just never clicked. With this set, I finally had my “aha moment” when everything started to make sense. This book literally starts with licking a battery to teach resistance and builds from there with fun activities that really help you understand how everything works.
Understanding electronics and knowing how to solder are valuable skills to have. It’s amazing how many otherwise discardable items I’ve been able to fix using what I learned here. And it opens up so many doors to creative Making.
“Burn things out, mess things up — that’s how you learn.”
In the future, I’ll be recommending resources to learn programming, robotics, etc. But I think it’s helpful to understand the fundamentals of electronics as well. That’s why I chose to start here.
You can buy the book by itself, but it’s much better to go ahead and get the component sets so you can follow along without having to worry about sourcing all the parts and pieces you need. You can buy the whole lot from the Maker Shed. Sometimes you can find the component sets on Amazon for cheaper. Also included below is a link to the relatively new “Make: More Electronics” follow-up book.
If you don’t already have them, you’ll also need some basic tools such as a soldering iron and helping hand. The Weller WES51 is the soldering iron that I use and like. You can find cheaper ones (like the Elenco below) if you want to give it a try before investing too much in the required tools. The Maker Shed also has a pretty nice little kit.
Now go learn a new skill! It will serve you well.
David Resseguie is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com
“RobotsConf 2013 – Arrive a Developer, Leave a Maker”
RobotsConf 2013 has come and gone–and it was awesome. A big shoutout is due to Chris Williams (@voodootikigod) for putting the conference together. It went amazingly smooth for a first-time conference. I’ve heard nothing but great feedback from everyone involved.
There were about 150 attendees at RobotsConf but enough hardware to entertain a small army. We were required to bring our laptop but they supplied everything else we needed: electronics, arduinos, soldering irons, 3D printers, laser cutters, drones, and more! They even included all inclusive breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And particularly exciting was the RobotsConf swag, which included an Arduino Uno, Spark Core and Leap Motion controller!
The organization of the event was well thought out. The event was focused on developers that had little or no experience with hardware, so everything was geared towards getting you up to speed fast and then turning you loose to learn with hands-on time. Though focused on robots, it also covered sensors and home automation topics as well. There was a kick-off event the night before at a local sports bar and all the attendees were given a littleBits component as they entered. We were encouraged to mingle with other attendees to combine our bits to see what we could build. They were fun to play with and it was a great icebreaker activity. The first morning of the conference began with a series of keynotes by Whurley and Sylvia (of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show and Water Color Bot fame). It was great to see Sylvia’s Water Color Bot in person after reading about it online. The keynotes were followed by a series of brief workshop surveys that covered the basics of electronics, 3D printing, drones, etc. to help get everyone oriented and introduce us to the experts that would be available all weekend to help in those specific areas.
After that, it was off the the races. Attendees teamed up and entered the huge hacker space to start experimenting and building. The open hack time lasted through the evening and early morning hours (with some fun breaks throughout the night for food, drinks, and 80s robot movies on the lawn). After open hack time completed on the second day, there was a sumo robot competition and a “science fair” show-and-tell time where all the teams showed off their creations. You can find information and code behind my team’s creation on github. The conference finished up with some fantastic closing speakers that included thoughts on inspiring the next generation of Makers.
I can’t say enough great things about RobotsConf. The organizers were fantastic and it was a great group of attendees. Everyone worked together to build, create, teach, and inspire. I only wished it could have lasted a little longer! I recommend that you do a quick Twitter search on #robotsconf to see more pictures and videos of all that went on. Then make a note to join us next year!
Continuing on the the concept of creativity, I ran across a blog post by Matthew Schuler titled “Why Creative People Sometimes Make No Sense“. He discusses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People” and highlights the following quote from Dr. Csikszentmihalyi about creativity and complexity:
“I have devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.”
Schuler goes on to discuss the 9 seemingly contradictory traits found in many creative people. I recognize a number of these traits in my own life and it’s good to see someone putting these ideas into words. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to explain these concepts at times, like the ability to move between imagination and a rooted sense of reality, or the strange mix of introverted and extroverted qualities. This mix of traits is also seen in the many examples given by Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson as previously discussed. It is exactly this complexity that is needed for meeting the challenges of today: in business, in education, in politics, and in our personal lives.
Don’t be frustrated if your personality traits don’t fit neatly in a box. That just might be your creative self shining through.
By now you’ve likely seen the news reports featuring Ethan Young, a senior at Farragut High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, making one of the best arguments against the new Common Core education “higher standards” being pushed on our local school systems. If you haven’t seen his speech, I recommend taking five minutes and giving it a listen. (For transcribed highlights, you might check out this article.) While talking about why the education system is is designed the way it is, Young answers:
“I’m gonna answer that question: Bureaucratic convenience. It works with nuclear reactors, it works with business models, why can’t it work with students? I mean how convenient, calculating exactly who knows what and who needs what. I mean, why don’t we just manufacture robots instead of students? They last longer and they always do what they’re told.”
Philosophical and political differences regarding Common Core aside, the idea that we should treat all students the same is complete ridiculousness. And I’m not just referring to high vs low achieving students either. Those are simply labels that get applied depending on how a particular child matches up to the “common” idea of how we should measure intelligence. The problem is, there is a great diversity of intelligence and the Common Core focuses on only one or two aspects to the exclusion of others. It is generally agreed that there are actually nine forms of intelligence: musical, visual, verbal, logical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential/spiritual. We are doing a great disservice to those children who’s natural capabilities and passions fall outside of the traditional verbal and logical areas of intelligence.
In fact, the Common Core push may be doing a disservice to much more than just the individual child. In his book “A Whole New Mind,” author Daniel Pink argues that the age of “left-brain” dominance is gone and “the future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind.” We need to be properly equipping these “right-brainers” to ensure continued success in a changing economy.
If you find yourself interested in this topic, and especially if you are currently raising children, I’m going to recommend the following resources. First, if you haven’t already seen it, you should watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk: “How schools kill creativity“.
If his arguments draw you in, as they did me, you should definitely read his book “The Element: How finding your passion changes everything.” It is one of my all-time favorite books. You should also pick up a copy of Daniel Pinks “A Whole New Mind” that I mentioned earlier. Both are fairly easy reads with lots of interesting stories and examples. For the really interested, I also recommend Sir Ken Robinson’s “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.” It goes much deeper into what it means to be creative and how we should be properly educating our children.
Finally, if you’re having trouble moving from the traditional view of intelligence and seeing the power and intelligence in other media, such as music, I would recommend the following TED talk by Benjamin Zander: “The Transformative Power of Classical Music” to stir your thinking.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I was listening to a past episode of the leadership podcast by Andy Stanley this morning titled “Better Before Bigger” and several ideas really stood out to me. I wanted to share a couple of them here and encourage you to listen to the whole episode. I also recommend subscribing to his leadership podcast because I’ve gotten some great nuggets of wisdom from each month’s episode.
Better Before Bigger
In this podcast, Andy relates a story about Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy that I hadn’t heard before. In a meeting where Chick-fil-A management was discussing how they could grow bigger in the face of a new competitor, Cathy reportedly pounded the table and said:
“I am sick and tired of listening to you talk about how we can get bigger. If we get better, our customers will demand we get bigger.”
That statement really hit home with me. In businesses, organizations, and churches we often get hung up on the concept of growth. We study strategies for raising financing, improving our marketing, and increasing our numbers. But how often do we focus on offering the best product or service and allowing growth to be a natural outcome? I think there is a special word there for tech startup companies too. The startup world is especially focused on growth, often to the exclusion of common sense. Zach Holman hints at this in his recent presentation about GitHub now that it has moved beyond small, start-up company status. Let’s make sure we’re focusing on being the best in whatever business we’re in.
“When [what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be best in the world at and what drives your economic engine] come together, not only does your work move toward greatness, but so does your life. For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquility that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution. Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered.”
Sometimes success is the worst enemy of making anything better.
To get better, we obviously need to evaluate what we’re doing. Andy raised another point on this topic that really stuck with me. We are often quick to evaluate what went wrong in a particular situation so we can fix what’s broken. But how often do we evaluate what worked well so we can continue doing it and improve on the process? We all know we should learn from our failures, but learning from our success is equally as important.
“When we are confronted with failure, it is natural to ask why disaster struck. Unfortunately success doesn’t trigger such soul searching. Success is commonly interpreted as evidence not only that your existing strategy and practices work, but also that you have all the knowledge and information you need. So sometimes success is the worst enemy of making anything better. If I want to make it better, I have to evaluate success as well as failure.”
―Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success, Harvard Business Review
How can you and I be better today?
As foster parents, we recently got our first NAS (Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome) baby placement. You may have read in the news recently about record numbers of drug-addicted babies in Tennessee. We are learning lots of things about caring for these special little ones, but one thing kept coming up from multiple sources: that we should get “one of those rocket ship swing things” that Children’s Hospital uses. We’ve learned that the “UFO” is actually a Mamaroo. Unlike a normal vibrating infant swing, the Mamaroo is designed to mimic how a parent soothes a child with multiple motion patterns that bounce and sway naturally. It turns out these are particularly well suited for NAS babies that have a tendency to be extra fussy and have difficulty soothing themselves.
When we first got the call for an NAS placement, we began researching where to purchase a Mamaroo and realized how expensive they are (~$200). Before we made the purchase, however, we were blessed by a friend (and experienced foster parent) who is allowing us to borrow their Mamaroo for our little guy. Now our friend has decided to collect donations so she can purchase 2 (or more!) Mamaroos that can also be shared around the Knox County foster system to be blessings to other families and their little ones. They will be used by foster parents that get a drug-addicted baby and will be passed on to the next family after they have finished using it.
Would you consider making a donation to help her meet her goal and be a blessing to these families? A few donations of $10-20 would meet the goal very quickly. Or maybe you decide you’d like to donate the full amount ($200) for one of the Mamaroos. If you’re interested, please send me an email (<firstname>@resseguie.com) and I’ll get you in touch with her.
When we moved about a year ago, we made the decision to not sign up for cable television at our new address. We signed up for a bundle through Comcast that only includes high speed internet and landline phone (required as a foster parent). We often get asked about our experience, what products/services we use to stream online content, and what we miss about cable. Honestly, we “cut the cord” and never really looked back. Now, it’s important to note at this point that we never were big television watchers anyway. We have young children that like to watch Disney cartoons and the like, but there were very few cable primetime shows we really got into. If something was on in the evening, we’d occasionally watch it. But we certainly didn’t schedule our lives around a TV. If you’re someone that really enjoys watching all the latest cable shows and absolutely has to watch it the first night it comes out, this post isn’t for you. If, however, you keep looking at that expensive cable bill every month and wonder if you could do without it–read on! It may be time for your to “cut the cord” too.
Free Over the Air
Many people don’t realize (or have forgotten) that the major broadcast networks can be received over the air (OTA) for free using a simple antenna. The broadcast networks are now all digital (don’t worry, most modern TVs have a digital tuner built in, or you can buy a simple convertor) and most are in high definition. That means you can get HD shows and sports from ABC, CBS, and NBC for free. In fact, there are more than just those three main networks available over the air, though availability and your ability to receive a signal will depend on where you live and the terrain around your house. We get about a dozen or more stations OTA. For a quick listing of potential free stations you could get, you might want to check out the TV For Free app from Mohu. As noted by Mark Buff, co-founder and president of Mohu, “Twenty-two of the top 25 most popular television programs in the United States are broadcast over-the-air for free.” We use an RCA Antenna, but your mileage may vary. Choosing the right antenna seems to be a bit more of an art than science. Basically all the ones we borrowed and tried worked fine at our house, but I’ve heard others that had to get a particular kind to get good reception. You can also get outdoor antennas that may do better depending on your location.
Online Streaming Content
To supplement the free OTA networks, we subscribe to a couple of online services to stream movies and TV shows. The two main services we use are Amazon Prime and Netflix. Amazon Prime, of course, is primarily a membership to get free two-day shipping on (most) orders from Amazon.com. We’ve been members since the program launched and love it. But in addition to free shipping, Amazon also offers additional benefits. One of those is a selection of free TV and movies on Amazon Prime Instant Video. In addition to movies and TV shows available for purchase, Amazon Prime members can stream a wide variety of content for free. Available shows include past seasons of Mythbusters, Sons of Anarchy, Downton Abbey, Duck Dynasty, and many other popular shows. Amazon Prime is $79/year and you can sign up for a free preview to give it a try. (The following link, like all others to Amazon on my blog, is an affiliate link and for anything you purchase, a small percentage goes directly to our adoption fund!)
Another popular streaming option is Netflix. Netflix offers a wide variety of content and is continually growing. They announced recently that they have more paying subscribers than HBO. Netflix is a good deal at $7.99 a month and they also offer a free trial. Of interest for parents, Netflix offers kid profiles that can limit the options for children to pick from when selecting movies and shows. If kids’ content is key for you, definitely pick up Netflix. They have Jake, OSO, Dinosaur Train, Caillou, Barney, Veggie Tales, etc. They’ve got a good selection of movies for mom and dad, too. If you’re much more interested in current TV shows, Hulu seems to be the best choice. We don’t subscribe to the service, but you can check out the content they offer at hulu.com. You can watch it on your computer or pay $7.99/mo to stream it to your TV and/or mobile device. If there are only one or two shows you care about, you might also look into the option to just purchase episodes a la carte from Amazon Instant Video or iTunes. You can buy seasons or individual shows. I actually like waiting to watch previous seasons so that I can watch the whole series together rather than being forced to wait week-to-week on cliffhangers. Since all these services offer free trials, I suggest signing up and trying them out before you actually cut the cord so you can give it a test run and see how it works for you.
Also recommended for those more technically inclined and really looking to take their streaming to a new level is Plex. Plex allows you to run a server on your computer and stream your own media (video, music, photos, etc) to your TV. It’s not entirely obvious from their website what all you can do with the software, so you might also want to look at their wikipedia entry fore more descriptions of its capabilities. PlayOn is another option you might look into. At one point it was disallowed by Roku, but it looks like maybe it’s back.
Another side benefit worth mentioning: No Commercials! When watching old episodes via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, you can actually watch the whole episode without interruption. Our kids don’t even understand the concept of commercials now and get frustrated any time we happen to be watching something at someone else’s house and they can’t just “skip to the show” when ads come on.
How do I get it to my TV?
Once you decide which content you’re going to subscribe to, how do you get it to your TV? There are several options. Many modern TVs are “internet ready” and can connect directly to many of these services. But even if it is, you might want to consider one or more of the following options: Roku, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. All of these options are one-time purchases of hardware and do not require a monthly subscription. They are basically all designed to easily make online content available and searchable on your TV. Even though my TV has Netflix and Amazon Instant Video capability built in, I use a Roku because I prefer its interface and the additional online channels it offers. I also have a Chromecast because it’s cheap and adds a few capabilities you can’t get with the Roku. Each of these options has pros and cons, but if you can’t decide, you could always buy one of each–and still come out ahead of paying that expensive monthly cable bill!
The Roku is a small hardware box that connects up to your internet service and plugs in via an HDMI cable to your TV. You can select “channels” to display on the home screen, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, and many other niche offerings. Many large churches also stream their services via Roku channels. Roku offers several version of their product ranging from $50-$100. If you want HD, skip the lowest Roku LT version and choose one of the others. The Roku 1 ($59) is probably sufficient for most people. If your main TV and internet router are co-located, you might consider the Roku 3 to take advantage of hard-wired ethernet port (to avoid any potential streaming issues) and motion controller that lets you play games (Angry Birds!) on your TV. Roku provides a simple chart to compare models. We have two Roku boxes: a Roku 3 (previous model, actually) for the main TV and Roku 1 for a second TV on the other end of the house.
If you’re an Apple family and like to purchase content from iTunes, you might consider the Apple TV instead. It’s $99 and is similar to the Roku, though it doesn’t offer an Amazon Instant Video channel which was important to us.
The Google Chromecast is a bit of a different beast. It looks like a USB flashdrive and plugs directly into your TV via an HDMI slot. (Note, it also requires a USB port on the TV for power or you’ll have to use a power adapter to plug it in.) With Chromecast, you can stream content from your computer browser (via a plugin) and several supported apps on your mobile device (such as Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu). If you like the idea of using your phone or tablet as your remote, the Chromecast may be just what you’re looking for. It also allows you to stream YouTube videos to the TV easily. I haven’t found the Chromecast to be as intuitive as the Roku with a remote, but at just $35, it’s almost an impulse buy and I’m glad I picked one up for the extra functionality it offers.
I should also mention that some gaming consoles also have built-in interfaces for streaming internet content (Ex: Xbox, Playstation, and Wii). You may already have one one these, which would allow you to test the cable-free lifestyle with no additional investment. There are also some new offerings from other companies that may be worth researching for new buyers: Hisense Pulse, Netgear TV Prime, Western Digital WD TV Play, and Panasonic DMP-MST60.
What will I miss when I cut the cord?
Honestly, we’ve not missed much since cutting the cord and kicking the cable habit. If you absolutely have to watch the latest shows immediately so you can talk about them the next day at work, you’ll probably want to keep your gold-plated cable package. Live sports is another issue to consider. For us, that’s UT football games. However, with the relatively new SEC network and CBS choosing to broadcast many of the games, there have only been a few we couldn’t get for free OTA with the antenna. If they’re only on ESPN, there’s currently not an option to stream them without a valid cable provider subscription. (There are some legally questionable streaming sites where you can get games, but I’ll leave that up to you to explore.) So that’s an obvious down side to dumping cable. But let’s do a little math. We’re saving about $100/mo by not getting cable. So over the course of the year, is it worth $1,200 to be able to watch those ~3 football games I care about instead of just going to a friend’s house or restaurant to watch it? Nope, not to me. I could go buy actual tickets to the game for that amount… But remember, like TV, I’m not as big of a sports fan as you, perhaps, so you’ll have to make that call. However, I get the feeling that this may be a moot point before too long. There are rumors of ESPN being in talks with some of the online streaming content providers about making their content independently available. Roku and Apple TV also offer NBA, MLB and NHL channels that you can subscribe to as well.
Please share your experiences and tips! If you’ve already cut the cord or decide to give it a try, please let me know about you’re experience. I’d love to hear tips and tricks, too, that make the process easier. The system isn’t perfect, but it works for us. Paying for cable provides a more seamless and richer viewing experience, but I just can’t justify the cost. Did I mention we’re saving a lot of money? $1,200+ a year adds up…
So it turns out that the second blog post isn’t any easier than the first. But thankfully there’s something about Fall that stirs my creative juices. Stay tuned–the ideas are swirling around in my head!
I thought I should give you a little heads up on what to expect here. Just because I’ve got a computer science and math degree, don’t expect the whole blog to be techno-babble! With an art teacher as a mom, I have a creative streak that comes out regularly. In fact, my real passion seems to live at the intersection of art and technology. You can expect posts on a number of areas that span this space: robots, information visualization and interface design, sensors, maker/DIY electronics, Powerpoint presentation design, and the design of everyday objects.
I hope I share some things you find interesting and inspiring! Thanks for listening in.