Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pirates Online

Avast, me hearties! International Talk Like A Pirate Day, September 19, is a wonderful way to introduce your kids to some colorful figures from history. will be the sixth an event your family will love celebrating. Started by John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur and Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers as a private joke, TLAPD has been celebrated around the world since 2002, when humor writer Dave Barry brought the holiday to the world’s attention. But if you need a little pirate prep before you don the eyepatch and hook, sail over to some of these Web sites:

Baur and Summers’ International Talk Like A Pirate Day site is a treasure trove of piratical fun and information. Although some humor leans towards the risqué, there’s a special section for Junior Pirates which includes a links page, lists of children’s books and even ideas for Pirate Math, Pirate Geography and more. You’ll also uncover links to pirate songs, art, videos, games, festivals and expeditions. Learn to parlay like a pro with the English-to-Pirate translators, and or use one of the Pirate Name Generator to discover your alter ego. The questionnaire at is my favorite.

Mark Summers ("Cap'n Slappy") and Jo...Pirate Guys Baur and Summers
If the end of the Pirates of the Caribbean series left you clamoring for more of Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl, Disney has a free online “massively-multiplayer” game that lets you forge alliances, hunt for buried treasure, battle evil undead forces, and use cunning and strategy to outwit your foes. With the Sony online version of the Pirates Constructible Strategy Game (which sadly is no longer in stores). You can hear the roar of cannon fire and the crash of waves in 3-D and challenge privateers from across the globe as you amass wealth and fame.

Pirate history is fascinating, and the National Geographic Kids online high seas adventure is a game that also tells you about actual people and events. For more true tales, the New England Pirate Museum has educational articles on pirate lore such as the "Articles of Agreement" able-bodied prisoners signed to become pirates themselves. Rules were harsh: “If robbery took place between two crewmen, the guilty one had his nose and ears split and would be marooned.”
“Real Pirates” is the name of a traveling exhibit from the Expedition Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center in Provincetown. More than 100,000 artifacts have been recovered so far from the slave ship-turned-pirate vessel which sank off Wellfleet in 1717.

What to serve your hungry crew on Talk Like a Pirate Day? The Seattle Seafair Pirates’ recipe for Salmagundi (the traditional pirate stew) calls for corned beef, anchovies, goat, pickled vegetables, and dried mango and begins “Hack meat into gobbets.” I use what I have around, but it still comes out great. Yo ho ho and a bottle of ginger ale!

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Robots (January 2007)

UPDATE: Learn about miniature robots at the NISE nanoscience website.

With self-guided machines roving across Mars, exploring deep inside the Pyramids, serving as advance scouts for military operations, and vacuuming our floors, you could say the robot revolution has arrived. In the Jan 2007 issue of Scientific American on the “Dawn of the Age of Robots,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates pointed out parallels between the start of the personal computer boom and the robotics industry today, and predicted a future in which the devices will become as common and useful as laptops. Will robots improve life for humankind? Or will the artificial intelligences try to take over the world, as they do in so many books and movies? For now it’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: exploring the world of robots online is highly educational – and buckets of fun.
For all the robot websites out there, it’s hard to find one that sums up all the information to be had (and that keeps its links page up to date). But for junior roboticists, a good place to start is the NASA Robotics Alliance Project. It has news about robots in space and other settings, information on school competitions like FIRST, and even archives of online courses. Another site to try is, a news blog that is updated regularly with links to stories of interest to robot geeks. Robot Magazine has one of the better links pages, which can take you to the sites of companies like WowWee, maker of Robosapien, Roboraptor and that creepy chimp head and iRobot, whose Roomba and Scooba floor cleaning robots are beloved by hackers who reprogram them to dance and sing. (In 2007, the company came out with iRobot Create, a pre-assembled programmable robot base for students and "serious robot developers" to personalize.) And Robot Cafe is a directory of robot sites for the home robot builder.
The history of robots goes back at least to the Victorian era and Boilerplate, a mechanical man, the hit of the 1893 World’s Exposition. While the Czech playwright Karel Capek first used the word “robot” in 1921, the father of modern robots – both fictional and real life – is generally considered to be the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. His story collection I, Robot was the basis for the Will Smith action film (which until recently had a nifty website tie-in that let you “order” your own model in the colors of your choice). But you can still design your own robot on the website of the Museum of Science in Boston. The site of a traveling exhibit which made a stop there a few years back is Robots and Us, with fun activities that show how robots can move, analyze and even show emotion.
ASIMO, the little humanoid corporate ambassador for the Honda Motor Co., has concluded his tour of the US and settled into a new gig at Disneyland, where he demonstrates what the future of home robots may look like. ASIMO’s development over the past 20 years, including most recently released version, which can run at 4 mph, are detailed on the Honda website. But for many of us the first robots we probably ever saw were toys. Before Robosapiens, Aibo, and Furbys became household names, kids had to play with tin or plastic toy robots that didn’t really do anything – but they loved them anyway. The site Jeff’s Robots has a neat gallery of one (former) boy’s collection, robot art from comic books to sculpture, and info on famous robots from TV and movies.
Yes, robots are our friends, but even robotics experts can get paranoid sometimes. Daniel H. Wilson, Popular Mechanics’ online Resident Roboticist, is also author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, a guide to protecting the species from annihilation. (Among the useful tips for spotting a rebellious robot servant: “Run for your reinforced-steel panic room if your servant disobeys you, even if it does so in a very polite manner.”) But it’s important to know whether your robot is really hostile: “Your robo-vacuum may be bumping into your feet in a malevolent attempt to kill you – or just trying to snuggle.” In other words, Bill Gates is probably right ... but it never hurts to be prepared.

UPDATE: There are a lot of robot-related computer programming sites for kids. They include Logo, Robocode, and Guido van Robot.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Computer Programming for Kids

A selection of programming language textbooks ...Image via Wikipedia

At the request of Bonny Glen, here's a list I've compiled of links to help kids learn computer programming. She's looking for Mac-compatible, we're PC, but hopefully some are useful. Just FYI, my older son started with an enrichment class using a really old version of Logo, has taken a few robotics summer workshops, and is currently trying to teach himself computer gaming coding.

Teaching your kids how to write computer programs is an essay by Marshall Brain, creator of It includes a lot of links.

Scratch -- Free Kids Programming Language from MIT

Guido van Robot: Guido van Robot, or GvR for short, is a programming language and free software application designed to introduce beginners to the fundamentals of programming. GvR runs on Windows, Macintosh, and GNU/Linux, in a variety of languages! It's great in both the classroom and the home as a way of introducing people to the basic concepts of programming.

Alice: Free teaching tool designed to be a student's first exposure to object-oriented programming. It allows students to learn fundamental programming concepts in the context of creating animated movies and simple video games in 3-D.

How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python 2nd Edition: Open book project
by Jeffrey Elkner, Allen B. Downey, and Chris Meyers

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No New Posts, But I'm Still Updating

I have stopped writing Family Online columns (for the time being), but I am continuing to update posts as I find new websites. I will also try to add columns that are not online as time allows. Let me know if there's a topic you're interested in!

PS: Many of my posts for's GeekDad blog include useful links. Check it out!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Invented Instruments - Update

This story appeared on NPR today:
[Ranjit] Bhatnagar spent the month of February handcrafting a different musical instrument each day — 28 in all — as part of an online challenge called Thing-A-Day, which asks artists, inventors and anyone with a love of crafts to create something new every day for an entire month and document the process.
Visit Bhatnagar's website to see and hear his creations!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Making (Weird) Music -- Homemade Musical Instruments

Making (Weird) Music -- Homemade Musical Instruments

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is stumbling upon areas of creativity you didn’t even know existed. I was looking for some musical crafts for kids (more on that later) when I discovered a whole world of hobbyists and artists who invent amazing musical instruments. Of course, homemade instruments are as old as the hollow reed, the washtub bass, and the one-man band. But these folks have taken recycled art to a whole new level.

Consider balloon player Judy Dunaway. Since 1990, Dunaway, who has a Ph.D. in music composition, has written over forty works for what most of us consider a party toy. Some links to audio samples (you may want to preview first) show how much more you can do with this “instrument” than mere squeaks. And if you caught the exhibit of Ken Butler’s “hybrid instruments” a few years ago at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA (many of which can be glimpsed on his website), you know what results when you cross a telephone and a violin, or a checkerboard and a guitar. Perhaps the best-known instrument-inventors around are the members of the Blue Man Group. Their website includes details about such PVC-pipe creations as the “drumbone.” Then there’s Benjamin Franklin – statesmen, author, scientist, musical innovator. After hearing a concert played on wine glasses, Franklin came up with the “armonica,” a series of spinning glass bowls that allow the performer to create eerie chords. Dr. Mesmer used the armonica to induce hypnosis, and in the 1800s it was said to drive some listeners insane. Learn all about the armonica, try a virtual version, and listen to its sound, if you dare, at The Franklin Institute’s website.

If you’re looking for more, the website Oddmusic lives up to its name with a gallery of “unique, unusual, ethnic, or experimental” instruments, from the Stalacpipe Organ, to the Stroviols Ukulele, which looks like it’s got a tuba grafted onto it, to the Serpentine Bassoon, an electronic instrument made of red leather that resembles a Chinese dragon and sounds like an out-of-tune orchestra. One of my family’s favorite weird instruments, an early electronic device called the Theremin (think of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” or the soundtrack of the sci-fi classic, “Forbidden Planet”), has its own mini-section here. Another site, Experimental Musical Instruments, features on its gallery includes such wonders as the Video Octavox, an eight-armed device which sits on, and interacts with, a TV. (I couldn’t get the audio clips to play, but the images alone are worth a visit.)

Ready to build some instruments of your own? The kids’ section of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra website has make-at-home projects like a soda bottle Buzzing “Brass” Mouthpiece that demonstrate how the different members of the orchestra work. It’s a lively site with lots of pictures and audio samples of instruments, information on music theory and even games about composers, so be sure to look around while you’re there.

Then there’s John Bertles’s New York City-based group Bash the Trash, which teaches kids to make their own instruments from junk. Instructions are provided for both simple (shaker, horn, rubber-band guitar) and more complex (styrocello, thumb piano) instruments. More Bertles projects can also be found at the Instrument Lab section of the New York Philharmonic’s website for kids. Mudcat, a site about folk music and blues, has directions for a variety of blowers, including the garden hose trumpet and the drinking straw oboe, gourd rattles, drums, banjos and more. And Crafty Music Teacher has tips for building a PVC-pipe bass marimba for only $350 (hey, a real one costs 40 grand!), as well as ideas for house-key chimes, mallets made from superballs and car bushings, and other handy items.

If you’re a kid with a unique homemade instrument you want the world to see, you’re in luck. Teacher Elizabeth Rexford’s Virtual Museum of Music Inventions is a showcase for students who design, build, and write descriptions of their own instruments. There are stills and video clips of entries from past years, information for teachers, and helpful links. As Rexford says, using recycled material to create a new instrument is not just an art: it takes science and math to get it to sound just right. But most importantly, it’s fun -- and that’s music to any kid’s ears.