Here we are in the week after the holidays. With Christmas on a Wednesday and New Years on a Thursday, for many of us it was a longer than usual break. Did you stay home or did you travel? For how long? And was it relaxing or stressful? Now as we get back to work and the kids get back to school, are you rested, recharged and reinvigorated as you roll into the winter? Or has your holiday high evaporated into sluggishness as you drag your thoroughly vacationed self back to the grind? A study in the journal Applied Research in the Quality of Life asks a similar question: does vacationing make you happy?
Not long after opening its doors in an unassuming industrial park building just off Bluff Street in downtown Boulder, Modular Robotics found itself in crisis: every Friday an employee had been running to the suspiciously close Boulder Beer for a pair of six-packs, but now the company had expanded and not only was there no room in the fridge, but, “the six-packs went incredibly fast,” says Christie Veitch, the company’s Education Director.
In the early life of a tech startup, desperate times call for decisive action and now, almost five years after their 2010 founding, a Kegerator sits in the corner. Just before the holidays it was nearly buried in cardboard boxes and tupperwares full of plastic pieces. Down a tight hallway where the Mod Robotics team had recently cut through the wall and into a vacated next-door space are the smashed-together bench style desks of the administrative and marketing team. After our meeting, Christie decided to avoid the hallway by going outside with me and then back into the building via another door.
But the real work of Mod Robotics is done the old-fashioned way: by elves working with screwdrivers and soldering irons. Here is Chip. He is a level VI elf. They’re no longer baking circuit boards in a fry pan, as did CEO Eric Schweikardt for his PhD project that became the company’s prototype. But after the boards are printed and the plastic pieces molded, the elves snap, screw and solder these pieces into Cubelets and MOSS robot building systems.
That’s the genius of Mod Robotics: the elves do the heavy building so that you don’t have to. Cublets are self-contained inputs and outputs that you and yours can magnet together into robots as big or small as your imagination. The black ones are sensors, the clear ones do things, and the colored ones think, or, you know, at least provide the backbone of logic.
The newer, MOSS system adds the structures of panels, wheels and various other connective bendy bits to Cubelet-like backbones, allowing you to make cars, creatures and other creations that look like real or imagined awesomeness. If you’re an educator or an education-minded parent, Mod Robotics also hosts free, downloadable lesson plans like 10 Cool Things to Do With Cubelets, 10 More Cool Things to Do With Cubelets, and the comprehensive MOSS Instroduction to Robotics Unit.
Christie says that in addition to demonstrating the basics of robotics – sensors, effectors, logic – Mod Robotics hopes to show the power of emergent behavior.
“Each one of these things is just a thing,” says Christie, eloquently, “but when you put them together, you can see how they create complex behaviors – a robot lighthouse that knows to come on in the dark or a steering robot that knows to slow down before it crashing into stuff.”
My experience of chucking my kids (8 and 6) into a pile of Cubelets is that offspring tend to be immediately engaged in a way that creates their own emergent understanding. At first my kids snapped stuff together randomly and semi-noticed what happened, and then their ideas got more goal-directed.
“I want to make a car,” said Leif, 8, and with some experimentation, he was eventually able to do just that.
“I want to make a robot dinosaur that breathes fire at daddy’s butt,” said Kestrel, 6, and now a couple weeks later she remains steadfastly undeterred.
If you want to play with Cubelets or Moss yourself, stop by the Mod Robotics booth at the Boulder Mini Maker Faire, January 31 – February 1, 2015 at the Boulder County Fairgrounds! For more on the Modular Robotics manifesto of simple pieces from whence arise complex behaviors, check out CEO Eric Schweikardt’s talk at TedX Front Range, here:
Look in the hills of the Front Range and you’ll find crystals like quartz and shiny minerals like laminated sheets of mica. Up the Big Thompson and St. Vrain, my kids and I know caves lined with them. Take quartz home and chuck it in the rock tumbler for a couple days and you’ve got a pearlescent stone perfect for school show and tell. But find a geode and you’ve got a dragon egg. There is nothing like cracking open a drab rock and seeing the insides shimmer. This activity from Connections Academy will help you make your own.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that without the addition of work, the entropy of a system will increase. In other words, left alone a system becomes more disordered: molecules disperse, heat homogenizes, and if you drop a Rubik’s Cube, it ain’t real likely to solve itself. Instead, random processes applied to this best selling toy of all time tend to increase its disorder. Of the 350 million Rubik’s Cubes sold to date, how many do you think are sitting at the bottom of the toy box or even on the kitchen counter, unsolved? According to this lovely 2nd Law, the correct answer is lots.
The Boulder startup Kitables is out to change that. Currently being Kickstarted is its snap-together kit that in conjunction with a little Arduino board allows you and yours to put a Rubik’s Cube in a slot and watch the automatic arm solve the puzzle for you. They call it “every nerd’s dream machine.” And I don’t know about you, but the idea will definitely keep us here at Maker Boulder up at night.
The company is the brainchild of Arieann DeFazio, research scientist at CU Boulder using x-ray crystallography to study Alzheimer’s disease.
“I always had it in my head to create the perfect job, somewhere I could have a business and do science too,” says Arieann, escapee from a biomedical sciences PhD program in Florida. “After five or six years of searching and not finding it, I finally decided to make it myself.”
Arieann was surfing Instructables.com when she realized, “Here are all these great ideas, but nobody’s got the parts!” When she looked deeper, Arieann says she found that most existing DIY kits were just electronics or just mechanics or just science kits, “Most of what you get from Radioshack, is you do like five steps and you have a robot,” she says.
Arieann’s goal was to combine mediums to create a fully integrated home science experience. Working at CU and with another Boulder startup, Arieann started formatting her kits on the side. Eventually she hopes to have Kitables kits across STEM fields.
For now, there’s the Rubik’s solver. God’s Algorithm already existed for the Cube — the optimal path of action from any given state to the solution state. Arieann brought a friend with mechanical engineering experience into the business to work the machine side. And they’re hoping that Kickstarter will help take care of the business side.
“We have two Kickstarter goals,” she says. “The first is to make sure people actually want this thing. And the second is to provide a little seed funding, or I guess it would be micro-seed funding.”
Here’s a little editorial: as awesome as the solver most certainly is, you gotta visit the Kickstarter for the video’s comedic genius, which taps into the place within us all that knows what it’s like to obsess over Rubik’s. Be warned: the soundtrack for the solver video will make you want to get your Kojak on.
Consider this: by pledging for Kitables you can do you part to fight entropy and bring just a little more order into the world. Let this forever be known as the day that entropy was beaten back from the gate!
You know those thoughts you have in the shower? No, not those thoughts…but the mind-wandering flashes of observation or brilliant insight that you can’t seem to get any other way? I was thinking last night about a trip we took last year to Knott’s Berry Farm, where Leif — then 48 1/4 inches tall — was just tall enough for the radical roller coasters. There were absolutely no lines and so Leif and I strolled through the gates and directly onto Ghostrider, where we seated ourselves in the last car of the train. With my continued assurances of a fairly mellow ride, we clicked toward the top of the first hill. And long before we crested, Leif and I were whipped over the top and down many hundreds of feet toward the cold, hard ground, pulled over by the gravity already working on the front seats. Now in hindsight and in the shower, I recognize a couple thoughts that went through my head at the time. Here they are in no particular order:
Want a real Halloween nightmare? Imagine filling your child’s too-small bucket in the first three houses and going home with only a small slice of your kid’s potential rake. But if you allow your little monster (or in my case, blue whale with pink and purple barnacles), to carry a big bag, you should be prepared to spend the hours and hours (and hours) needed to fill it. Bad news: there are nightmares on both ends of the bag guesstimation spectrum.
So instead of playing the equivalent of Russian roulette with your child’s Halloween bag size, use the equation below to calculate—with the power of absolute mathematical certainty (wink, wink)—the bag size that’s best for you and yours.
• T= Total time in hours you plan to spend trick-or-treating
• A= Trick-or-treater’s age. If over 20 (or below zero…), shame on you. You’re stealing my kid’s goodies.
• Hc= Hours spent on costume. If store-bought translate into hours at $20/hr.
• Pd= Population density in trick-or-treat neighborhood. Enter 1 for “rural”, 2 for “open suburban”, 3 for “tight suburban”, or 4 for “Apt or dorm”
• Ma= Estimated median age in neighborhood. For comparison, median age in the Gaza Strip is about 15 and in Japan about 41.
• X= Your child’s ineffable, illogical, but very real lust for candy. Enter 1-10 with 10 being “has strategized since last Halloween”
If Bckt is less than 1, your pockets are more than enough
If 1<7, use small-size, plastic jack-’o-lantern bucket
If 7<Bckt<15, use the standard trick-or-treating bucket
If 15<Bckt<25, use a grocery bag
If 25<Bckt, use a trash bag
Our former pet mouse, Snowflake, started out as snake food. He and two other mice had been purchased by our son’s friend to use as bait for snake traps in the field next to his house in Park City. When we returned to his house after a five day excursion to Yellowstone National Park, we found three mice in a colorful plastic cage, complete with a climbing tunnel, loft, and running wheel. My three boys fell in love immediately, and spent hours playing with the mice, who they named Snowflake, Brownie, and Ribbon.
When our son Jonah’s friend and his mother returned to the house two days later, the mice had become pets in the boys’ minds, so it was a shock to them when Tyler announced, “I’m going to use the mice in my snake traps now.”
What are the most important inventions of all time? Some people go for big, obvious things…like boats, the printing press, or gunpowder. Don’t get me wrong, those are all pretty great and everything. But the printing press is nowhere without paper and sans compass, boats were pretty much stuck paddling around in sight of land. This list rights the wrongs of history’s tunnel vision. Here are history’s 5 most underrated and overlooked inventions. Read more
Conventional wisdom holds you’re born with perfect pitch or you’re not. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Here’s how to train perfect pitch.
For my book Brain Trust, I interviewed Diana Deutsch, University of California San Diego professor and president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, and she said the trick is pairing pitch with meaning — early!
There are things that every Maker needs: a good hammer, a good workspace, a good joke…and of course one good card trick. You may not have the opportunity to demonstrate it often — all the better! But when you need it, you need it. Here, in case you don’t have it yet, is a truly awesome card trick.