Thursday, December 8, 2016

Links for "Let's Call it What it is: propaganda" - December 12, 2016

Links for Family Tech Column newspaper readers:

"Let's Call it What it is: propaganda" - December 9, 2016

This column will appear on this website December 10, 2016 at 9 AM.

There are no links for this week's column.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

"You might want to be a kid again when you see these toys" - December 2, 2016

Last time we talked about gifts for adults.  What about younger people fascinated with technology? What gifts can nurture an interest or spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM? 

Or best of all, show off the wonder of the world?

I’ll champion high tech gifts in a bit, but for showing off the wonders of the universe there is no better gift than a telescope. You can find entry-level telescopes starting at about $40.  I still recall my first view of the moon through a telescope as a life-shaping event. So much of what I had learned in school became much clearer.  Today, you can use a phone app to help point your telescope at planets and other celestial bodies.

Looking the other direction at the universe of life --in a drop of water-- is even easier today. There are microscopes that hook into a PC and let you manipulate them through software, as well as capture images.

Of course, links for these, and all the items we are going to talk about here are in this week’s Link Post at

For younger kids, there is the Code a Pillar, from Fisher-Price. It is a toy caterpillar. Kids build it by attaching its segments in different orders. For example, if the first segment is go forward, then the second is turn to the left, and the next is go forward, the caterpillar will move forward, turn and then move some more.  By playing, kids are learning the fundamentals of programming.

For the  Star Wars  fans, there is Sphero’s BB8 robot. Controlled from the phone, you can control your own piece of the Star Wars universe.

Doll houses have gone high tech with Barbi’s Hello Dream House. Children control it with over 100 voice commands to make the lights work, decorate for Christmas and even have the stairs turn into a slide.

The coolest technology gift I found this year is the Piper Computer Kit. It lets a person build a computer case and install a Raspberry Pi 3 computer along with sensors and peripherals.  When it is complete, they can play Minecraft on it. 

If you are the parent of an elementary or middle schooler, you are probably well acquainted with Minecraft, a kind of digital Legos. It is both a game and an environment where things can be built. There are additional instructions for builders to create a multitude of Minecraft-oriented projects.

There are also less expensive Raspberry Pi kits that let anyone build custom computers in various configurations.  This harkens to the late 1970s when experimenters built their own computers in the days before Apple, Atari and the TRS-80.

Once they have assembled their computer, they can program with various free tools.  There is even a Minecraft for Raspberry Pi and serious programming languages.

For Minecraft fans using regular PCs, there is an excellent entry-level programming language that makes use of the Minecraft environment.

A fun thing for aspiring filmmakers is the Stikbot Studio. Stikbots are little robotic-looking characters you can pose. The Studio includes a tripod for a smartphone and a greenscreen stage. Filmmakers can pose the characters in front of the greenscreen. A phone app lets them take an image and then after the kids change the Stikbot’s pose a bit, take another image. It combines the images into a movie, with the background green-screened in. Kids can do still-frame animation videos--the kind parents know from the old Gumby series on television.  I’ll put some sample videos in the link post.

Note: See some Stikbot videos in the post below this one.

And there is Google Cardboard. For just $15 and your smartphone, a child can get their first taste of virtual reality.

And if your child loves video games, you know how expensive that can get on the PC. Steam is an online service where kids can play some games for free, but also buy the latest games and download them to their PC. They frequently run sales. And you can buy Steam gift certificates to control their spending. There are no monthly fees.

And let's not forget the old-fashioned building sets like Legos, K’Nex, Fiddlesticks and Lincoln Logs — now again made of wood. 

There are still old-fashioned geology and chemistry sets, as well as magic sets, robot arms you can build, rocketry, drones and all sorts of activities to nurture new interests or build on existing ones.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Links for "You might want to be a kid again when you see these toys" - December 2, 2016

Links for Family Tech Column newspaper readers:

"You might want to be a kid again when you see these toys" - December 2, 2016

This column will appear on this website December 2, 2016 at 9 AM.

Sphero BB8 Robot

Code a Pillar

Stikbot Studio

Fun Kits

USB Microsope


Minecraft computer: Piper Computer Kit

Raspberry Pi

Microsoft Programming on Minecrraft


Barbi Hello Doll House

Google Cardboard

Stickbot Central - a Youtube Channel  of Sticbot videos

Professional Made Sticbot Video

I think this one was made by a younger person. Talented amateur at least.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gifts for geeks - November 25, 2016

The best kind of gift, someone once told me, is one someone wants and would never buy for themselves.

That theory works well in choosing gifts for the geeks on your holiday gift list.  I’m not using geek as a pejorative, but rather to refer to someone who enjoys technology, clever gadgets, superhero stories and science fiction.  When you look at how many people watch “Star Wars” and the movies with Marvel and DC heroes, you realize geeks are all around.

So how can you buy them gifts they will enjoy?

The good news is you can, and should, avoid the big ticket items. We geeks are extremely choosy about our phones and laptops.  We have to choose those ourselves.

And we will put more effort into that than we did into choosing a college.

The most expensive things I’d suggest would be an Amazon Echo or a Google Home. Both are small devices you place in your home. The device hears your commands when you call it by name, and you can ask it to do a variety of things: answer questions, set timers, tell you the weather, play music, etc. 

The Echo will let you order items directly from Amazon.  The Google device lets you add items to your Google Calendar and reads you your Gmails. Unfortunately it works with only one Google account. The Echo and Home cost $180 and $130, respectively.

These devices fall into the nice-to-have category and are not must-haves, so they fall squarely in the thesis of the gift giving I mentioned at the start.

In previous years, I have sung the virtues of Google’s Chromecast as a way to get streaming video to your television.  By now I hope most of you have something like Chromecast, such as Roku, Apple TV or the many alternatives.

Google recently came out with Chromecast Audio, which hooks to your speakers and lets you stream audio from your phone, PC or tablet. You may have the music coming to you from the music services available from Google, Apple, Spotify and many others.  Chromecast Audio is $30.

Fairfax based has always been a go-to place for geek gadgets, do-dads and clothing.  I personally love the Jedi Fleece Robe and the Chewbacca robe.  They both look quite warm and powerful.

Is your geek a little forgetful?  The Tile device is a small square you can attach to your keys or slide into your wallet, purse, backpack or laptop case.  If you misplace an item, your phone can help you track it if it is in Bluetooth range--basically inside the house.

If you lose your phone, push a button on any Tile, and your phone beeps.

If your Tile is outside your phone’s range, but within the range of another Tile user, you will be told where your device is. The other Tile user will not know your device is close by.

The Automatic Pro is a device that hooks into the diagnostic port on your car.  It reports data to your phone via the cellular network, telling you statistics about how efficient your car is, the location, how much gas is left.  It will even tell you speed statistics if you want to spy on your teen driver.  And it elaborates on the check engine light and tells you more about what is wrong. 

The Harmony remote system is a small box you place in the line of sight of your AV equipment. Then using one of its remotes, or an app on your phone, you can control the device even when you are not in the line of sight of the devices.  Conventional remotes communicate by infrared so the remote normally has to be where it can “see” the device. I might misplace a remote, but I generally know where my phone is.

And you do not have to remember what channel ESPN is on. Just push the ESPN button in the app, and your TV turns on and goes to the ESPN channel.

A geek loves little gadgets and tools.  Microcenter up in Fairfax has a long windy checkout area full of little tools, gadgets and inexpensive USB drives to delight a geek. is a great source for additional phone chargers and cables.

No matter where you shop, compare prices to Amazon. Especially if you have Amazon Prime and can often get two-day free shipping.  If your geek does not have Prime, that in itself is a great gift. For $99 a year they get free two-day shipping on many purchases as well as a lot of free movie streaming and even some free online storage for photos.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Links for Gifts for Geeks

Links for Family Tech Column newspaper readers:

"Gifts for Geeks"- November 25, 2016

This column will appear on this website November 26, 2016 at 9 AM.

Amazon Echo

Google Home

Apple TV



Chromecast Audio






Amazon Prime Benefits

Saturday, November 12, 2016

On a road trip to grandma’s, take up reading - November 11, 2016

“Over the river the and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.  The self-driving car knows the way to carry us through the white and drifted snow.”

OK, so self-driving cars are still a few years away, and their ability to work on snow has yet to be proven, but there are some tech tools to make long road trips a bit less painful for families this time of year.

Grandma may have once lived two farms over, but now she’s more likely to be in Florida. Costs for flying a family of any size that far pretty much means a road trip down Interstate-95.

On my family’s road trips as a kid, my mother was sure reading would cause car sickness so we were not allowed to read in the car.  As an adult, I found out I could tolerate it better than expected. I found a few tips on avoiding car sickness while reading.  

Reading in the car is a good way for kids to pass the time, and it promotes literacy too.  And parts of the trip that have sporadic cell coverage are a good time to promote reading.

The books can even be on their phones by using the Kindle app, and there are free e-books from the public library. If your child wants to read classics that are now in the public domain, they are totally free from the Gutenberg Project.

Watching movies in cars used to require a portable DVD viewer, and while they are still available even more affordably than ever, kids are also amazingly comfortable watching video on the tiny screens of the phone they might already have.

Streaming video from Youtube, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon might be a bit difficult on a road trip where cell coverage might be spotty.  Usually coverage along interstates is fairly good. Away from the interstate is where you might run into problems.

With videos from Youtube or Netflix, an interrupted movie is no big deal; you can watch it anytime when you get better connectivity.  With iTunes or Amazon, once you rent a movie, you have 30 days to watch it. Once you begin watching it, you can watch it as many times as you want in 24 hours. Google Play works the same, except with 48 hours to watch. Check your individual movies in case of exceptions.

It is more reliable to simply download the movie to your device, something you can always do if you purchase a film.

Movies rented from Google Play can be downloaded to Android or Apple IOS devices.

What happens if your kids have tablets for surfing the net at home?  Often those devices are Wi-Fi only and won’t work in the car.

Most cell carriers have the ability to let you Hotspot a cell phone. One cell phone in can act as a Wi-Fi source for three or more devices. The devices login  to the Wi-Fi on the phone, just as they might login to a Wi-Fi router at home. The phone takes a request from the tablet for say a web page, and fetches it over the cellular network.

It will be slower than Wi-Fi, and will cost an additional fee from your cell provider. Sprint at least lets us buy Hotspotting prorated so it is less than a dollar a day while we travel.  Contact your cell provider a few days before any trip to see what they offer, and make sure your phone supports hotspotting.

And Google Maps not only can navigate your way to Grandmas, but it can help you find gas, food and lodging on the way. It works hard to find spots that take you only a minimal distance off your route. It can even help find the cheapest gas.

A few past columns offer some useful information for trips.

A column from April considers how to consolidate the photos everyone in the family takes so they truly become family memories.  There is a link to the column and a how-to article I wrote in this week’s link post.

And while visiting family, you may be asked to help out with their technology.  I’ve written about that in the past and have links for those as well.