Parents, Kids and the Stuff We Obsess About

Archive for the ‘Toys and Technology’ Category

Is He Really Typing? Ask Mavis Beacon

Touch-typing – or keyboarding, as it is more commonly called nowadays – involves using all the fingers in a standard pattern to hit the correct keys without looking at them. Back in the day, typing was taught sometime in high school. (I always say it was the only class I took that actually helped me earn a living.) But that was before lapware. Today kids are using keyboards before their hands are big enough to reach all the keys. That makes it difficult for them to learn the “right way” to type.

Educators disagree about the best age to teach touch typing. There is even disagreement about whether keyboarding should be formally taught at all, especially in elementary school. Once kids have started typing on their own, however, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to correct their “bad habits.” On the other hand, starting typing instruction before kids have developed the discipline or dexterity to learn it is an exercise in futility. One answer is typing instruction programs aimed at older elementary or middle school kids. Unlike typing teachers of old, these programs try to make learning to type fun by presenting it (like a lot of educational software) in the form of a game.


I recently tested two learn-to-type methods for kids. My subject, a young man of 13 who I will refer to as “X,” had been using a computer keyboard regularly since at least the age of 9, when he started writing a monthly movie review column for a local magazine. Virtually all his writing assignments for his teacher were done on the computer, and he IM’d friends on a daily basis. Although he had never had any formal typing instruction, he was fast and accurate using only his two index fingers. Unfortunately, he tended to hit the keys with such force that his family often complained. His mother was also concerned that he would develop the pointer finger equivalent of texter’s thumb. There was also interest in seeing whether a course in touch-typing could improve his speed and accuracy.

Method 1: Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing CD ROM

Mavis Beacon’s typing software has been around since 1987. Mavis is a friendly-looking professional woman of color who wears nicely-tailored business suits and a conservative bun. (I was disappointed to learn from Wikipedia that Ms Beacon is a corporate logo like Betty Crocker and not an actual person. ) We had a version dating back to 2001 that had been purchased at Staples for around $10. X’s older brother had learned to type on it – although after a bug in the program lost his place, he did not complete it. Nevertheless, his typing involves all the fingers and looks good. X declined to try Mavis Beacon, but later began using the games to practice what he learned using Method 2. Available for Windows and Mac.

Method 2: Dance Mat Typing

This site for kids is offered by the BBC, and is designed for ages 7 to 11. It features a cartoon Scottish goat in a disco suit who leads you through the keys in a heavy brogue. According to X, the program was childish and annoying. But he did agree to go through the 12 lessons for the sake of this study. At the end of the program, he was typing around 25 words a minute with 98 percent accuracy – not bad for a beginner. One problem I did notice is that X did not keep his hands on the home keys, and sometimes used the wrong fingers. However, even when typing on his own time, he continued to use all his fingers instead of reverting to the two-finger method. It’s possible that with continued practice and some reminders from adults that he will develop good typing habits that will improve efficiency and eliminate the chance of injury.

Findings: Can you teach a kid to type with a computer program? The answer seems to be yes. A teacher who is proficient in touch typing – and familiar with the kind of exercises that build good typing habits – is certainly a help. But programs like Mavis Beacon and Dance Mat Typing do produce halfway-decent results. For total mastery, though, it probably also helps to have a kid who wants to learn to touch type in the first place.

Lego and Star Wars Celebrate 10 Years Together!

lego-tie-fighterSome things go great together; like chocolate and peanut butter, fish and chips, ice cream and cake, and of course, LEGO and Star Wars. The couple will celebrate their ten year anniversary this May 3rd.

If you head over to the official LEGO online store, you will be able to find some pretty great deals on Star Wars sets right now and a hint at something special. At 12:01 am on May 3rd, LEGO will be making an official announcement on their website concerning the Star Wars line. LEGO officials are very tight lipped about the announcement so we will just have to find out together in a couple of days.

Here are some fun facts courtesy of PR Newswire:

  • From 1999 to the end of 2008, a total of 106,107,779 LEGO Star Wars products have been sold.
  • In 2008, nearly 15 million LEGO Star Wars sets were sold worldwide, equaling, on average: 40,402 boxes per day, 1,683 boxes per hour, 28 boxes per minute, every day, around the world.
  • A total of 182 LEGO Star Wars sets have been created in the last 10 years.
  • The best-selling LEGO Star Wars set is the original 7140 X-wing Fighter(TM) from 1999.
  • From 1999-2009, a total of 254 LEGO minifigures have been introduced to enhance the fun and encourage creative play and collectibility within the LEGO Star Wars franchise.
  • The largest LEGO Star Wars model ever created and sold is the Ultimate Collector’s Millennium Falcon, featuring 5,197 pieces, launched in October, 2007.
  • In 2006, LEGO Star Wars was recognized by the Toy Industry Association with a prestigious Toy of the Year (T.O.T.Y.) Award for Best Activity Toy.
  • LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game, released in 2005, sold 6.7 million units worldwide and ranked among the top 10 video games of the year in the U.S.  In 2006, LEGO Star Wars 2 sold 8.2 million units and received the BAFTA Award for Best Gameplay.  LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, released in 2007, sold 3.4 million units.

(Photo courtesy of

(This post by new GeekDad writer Tony Sims)

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Followup: Watch the 36-Foot Rocket Take Flight (Video)

On Saturday, Steve Eves did in fact enter the record books with the launch of the largest model rocket ever: a 1:10 scale model of a Saturn V.

I’d hoped to be there, as I mentioned in my original article, but events in my family life made that impossible. So I have to make do, as do most people, with some of the very good video many people who did make it there took. Of the many posted online, the one below is the best I’ve seen—keep watching after the initial viewing of the launch for a slow-motion replay. This is another good one, including up-close views of the recovered rocket from after the launch.

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Flamethrower Combat Robots… Oh Yes, You Heard Me Right

Robot combat has come a long, wonderful way since I used to watch the shows on basic cable so long ago. The advancements in the sport are a thing to make any geek shed a tear of delight. Our friends at Geeks Are Sexy have just published a wonderful new video featuring some awesome robots fighting to the death. We bid you watch, and smile.

You can also catch the video in HD here.

And the post here.

Mentos + Diet Coke + Zero G = Best. Experiment. Ever.

Robert Woodhead, self-described Mad Overlord and all-around geek, has posted an amazing amount of detail from his recent experiment in seeing how the Diet Coke & Mentos reaction works in microgravity. It’s a modification of the now-standard geyser-producing demonstration, but with a twist: performing the trick on a Zero G flight and recording it on a high-speed camera. The Youtube video is great, but the expanded description is even better:

…we wanted to create a reasonably sized ball of soda, and then put the mento into it. However, the nozzle we used to control the soda flow was too small, and we couldn’t control the exit velocity properly (and so we got all the squirts). On the second parabola (not in the video), we tried removing the nozzle, but we couldn’t get a bubble of soda to detach from the bottle, and everything got messy - a blob of soda impacted right on the camera window, obscuring a lot of the view.

He’s already planning for the next experiment using a "Mark II Menticulator":

I’ve spent a few hours thinking about an improved experimental apparatus, and I think I’ve come up with something that, with a little refinement, will do the trick.

The experiment will be housed in a transparent case constructed of acrylic or lexan panels locked together by t-slotted structural framing. Inside will be a rubber balloon of soda trapped between two spoonlike holders, one above, and one below. A hobby r/c servo will be mounted inside the box, with two arms extending from it, such that if it rotates in one direction, a sharp tip will puncture the balloon, hopefully releasing the soda which will remain between the spoons; then when it rotates in the other direction, a mento will be moved to the center of the bubble of soda.

That’s what I’m talking about. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! (Especially if it means taking another Zero G flight.)

[hat tip to Esther Dyson]

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Glenn Martin wants to beat the Bell Rocket Belt, which never achieved more than 30 seconds of controlled flight.  He’s spent 27 years trying to build a personal aircraft capable of sustained, controlled flight in backpack form.  He proved it can be done in Oshkosh, WI at this week’s AirVenture

Martinjetpack006 He strapped his 16 year old son, Harrison, into one of two protoype ‘jetpacks’, letting him fly a few feet above the ground with what appears to be minimal guidance for thirty seconds.  Harrison and his mother have been frequent test pilots in their Christchurch, New Zealand yard.

Martin Aircraft claims a theoretical top speed of 63 mph and a max range of 31.5 miles.  The jetpack is classified as an ultralight per US  FAA regulations and is limited to 5 gallons of gasoline onboard.

The jetpack is technically a set of ducted fans powered by a 200 hp engine and weighs 250 pounds.

Martin responds to criticism about the name ‘jetpack’

If you have a very narrow view of what a ‘true jetpack’ is (i.e. that it is a pure jet) then none have ever been built. The closest would have been the Bell jet belt, but again this was not a ‘true jet’, it was bypass ratio gas turbine powered. In fact I cannot think of any ‘true jets’ in the GA industry, most are Fanjets.

Still doubt that it can fly?  Watch more video of it untethered.

Want to play Rocketeer at home?  Contact Martin Aircraft to put your 10% deposit down on the expected $100,000 pricetag. 

Want to use your own family as test pilots?  Good Luck.

via popsci 

Read up on an earlier aviation pioneer named Glenn Martin

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NASA Glenn Open House 2008


The NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, will be having their annual Open House on May 17 & 18, 2008. The doors will be open from 11am to 7pm at the Lewis Field Campus and admission is free! The tour will include most of the major facilities, including the Main Hangar, the Super-Sonic Wind Tunnel, and the "Dome of Silence" Aero-Acoustic Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, visit the NASA Glenn website at


A Little Bit of NASA, a Little Bit of NASCAR

RrlIf you’re not busy in late July and early August this year, head to the EAA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Besides being "the world’s greatest aviation celebration," AirVenture will host the first ever Rocket Racing League exhibition race August 1st and 2nd.

The AirVenture races will pit two flying teams against each other in front of (and above) an estimated 700,000 spectators. Racers will pilot rocket-powered airplanes through a three-dimensional race course in the sky, combining speed and precision flying in a public display. Additional races are scheduled for later in the year in Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada, and Las Cruces, New Mexico. So far the Rocket Racing League has six registered teams, but anyone with the resources and desire to go really fast can form a team. Contact information for registering a team is at the RRL web site.

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A Space Museum in KANSAS?!?


The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson is a must visit for anyone in the Wichita area. The museum building may look small from the outside, but inside it is absolutely jam-packed with a huge collection of space artifacts and replicas. They claim to be second only to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in the number of U.S. space artifacts and to have the largest collection of Russian space artifacts outside of Moscow.

The main level contains all of the shows, including an IMAX Dome Theatre, the Justice Planetarium and Dr. Goddard’s Lab. Each show is ticketed separately or can all be viewed with an All-Day Mission pass. There is also a small restaurant on this level featuring pizza, burgers and the obligatory Space Dots Ice Cream. The gift show (there is ALWAYS a gift shop) contains the usual space tchotchkies, plus a decent assortment of signed photos and other memorabilia.

The museum exhibits are actually below the main level. They are laid out chronologically, beginning with the German Gallery. It contains an actual WWII era V-1 and V-2 rockets on display. From there, you enter the Cold War Gallery which contains a replica of Chuck Yeager’s sound barrier breaking X-1 spaceplane. The Early Spaceflight Gallery is the repository for the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule, which was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. The final gallery showcases the actual Apollo 13 capsule as well as full size replicas of a Lunar Module and Lunar Rover.


You know you are in for a treat when you enter the museum lobby and cross under an actual SR-71 Blackbird.

Geeklet’s Favorite: Dr. Goddard’s Lab where the presenter shows what happens when you soak a fuel source (grapefruit sized cotton ball) an in an oxidizer (liquid oxygen) and combine it with an ignition source. WHOOOOSH!

GeekDad Wayback Machine: The Patron Saint of DIY Drones

Hill Once year ago, you were reading this on GeekDad: The Patron Saint of DIY Drones

On August 9th, 2003, a team led by 77-year-old Maynard Hill achieved his life’s dream of flying "The Spirit of Butts Farm", an autopilot-equipped R/C plane, across the Atlantic. Four previous planes had failed, due to both software and hardware glitches, but the team had refused to give up. When the fifth model took off in Newfoundland and finally landed in Ireland "two sunsets later", on August 11, it had set world’s records for both duration (38.5 hours) and distance (3,030 km).

The team did amazing engineering on everything from the laminar flow of the airframe to the hypereffecient carburetor that let the four-stroke engine go six hours on 12 oz of fuel, an amount that would last a standard R/C plane just ten minutes. Most impressively, the team built a gryo-based autopilot with GPS navigation and a satellite uplink for telemetry, pretty much from scratch.

For those of us who struggle with the far better technology of 2007, the accomplishments of Hill and his team are still stunning.  You can read his story in his own words here (the good stuff about the last flight starts here). Maynard Hill, GeekDad salutes you!