Ant Farm Woes

Posted on 27th February 2008 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment - Tags: ,
Not My Ant Farm
Not My Ant Farm
Photo by jurvetson
(Who has a lot of cool Science Flickr Sets)

Last year I finally bought myself an Ant Farm, one of those new, hip gel ant farms, this one from Uncle Milton Industries. I’ve always procrastinated about buying one of these because I’m an instant-gratification kind of person, and don’t like the idea of having to mail off for the ants. Until I realized I was prolonging being denied a functioning ant farm by not owning one in the first place.

So I got the Ant Farm. Cool. A clear plastic aquarium filled with smelly green gel. I mailed off for the ants, and then I waited.

…and waited.

…and waited.

I assume the company was waiting for good weather to mail the ants, like the companies I buy plants from, but I don’t know for sure. There was no response from Uncle Milton to my e-mail inquiries that were titled, “Ants Order Status Inquiry” at first, and turned into “Where the #$%@ are my %$#@ing Ants you #@$%ers!?!?” later on.

About 2 1/2 months later, I get the ants. Excited, I refrigerated the little scamps to make them sluggish, dumped them into the farm, and put the whole thing in a closet for the weekend to get them tunneling.

They didn’t tunnel, not for lack of trying. See, in the 2.5 months of waiting for my ants, the gel had dried out to a consistency of solid rock. My solution to this was to carefully add water with an eyedropper to the gel over several days to alleviate the problem.

This opened me for an unexpected attack, as one of the ants climbed up the dropper and onto my hand, where it managed to sting my ring finger a dozen times before I was able to flick him back into the farm. I decided to name that one “Stingy,” but could never extract my revenge because he struck quickly and blended into the crowd like a good little assassin.

While the stings hardly registered right then, within minutes the area was on fire, and pain was shooting through my hand, up my arm, and even into my armpit, where I expect the lymph nodes located there were trying to process the toxin (I have just confirmed this suspicion through wikipedia. Great Cosmos I love the Internet!)

I was squirming with intense pain for half an hour, and the sting area remained very uncomfortable for an additional three hours, red, inflamed, and perpetually oozing clear fluid. Lesson learned: Handle Pogonomyrmex barbatus with care.

My ants never did much tunneling, preferring to try and climb around looking for a way out of the cage, and that was a big disappointment. They did occasionally kill one another, and I found the way they kept all their dead in one pile, which quickly grew over with fungus, fascinating. Unable to breed, the ants were all dead in a few months, which was another disappointment.

Once vacated, a new species moved into the ant farm, Drosophila melanogaster or the common fruit fly, thriving in the nutrient gel and covering the farm with poop flecks until I was driven to put it on the back porch where the cold hopefully killed them off. I’ve got a coupon for more ants, but isn’t that just opening myself up to more heartbreak?

Anyways, Ant Farms are sooooo 1950s, today there are more exotic ways to go, like the Ant Lion Farm and the Triassic Triops.

PS – I’d like to wish Science Punk better luck with his new antfarm. He’s all ready off to a good start by trying to catch his own ants. Maybe I’ll try the same.

Happy Kid Inventor Day!

Posted on 17th January 2008 by Ryan Somma in science holidays - Tags: ,
Benjamin Franklin age 12

Benjamin Franklin age 12
Courtesy NPS

Benjamin Franklin was 15 when he started writing notable letters to the Editor of his local paper. Thomas Edison was 15 when he began printing his own newspaper. Louis Braille was 15 when he invented the raised dots that served as a gateway to the blind reading on their own. Today is Kid Inventor Day a day to appreciate the innovative potential of young minds.

Some other ingenious innovators in our present day:

15-year-old Grayson Rosenberger invented a $10 prosthetic limb cover using bubble wrap and a heat gun, a vastly cheaper alternative to designed prosthetics, which can cost $3,000 each.

17-year-old Andrew Sutherland programmed the website Quizlet, which turns memorizing vocabulary, foreign languages, and, my personal favorite, taxonomy terms into a fun online game, perfect for cramming for the SATs or other exams.

10-year-old Taylor Hernandez invented the “Magic Sponge Blocks,” life-sized construction blocks held together with magnets that can be squished down to 20% their original size for storage.

You can find more young inventors here.

The OLPC XO-1, Shortcut to the Information Age

Posted on 16th January 2008 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: , ,

So I got my OLPC XO-1 in the mail about a month ago, and I’m still wrestling with my opinion of it. Personally I think it’s the bee’s knees. Everyone who comes into the comic shop fawns over it. I’m the envy of the local geek crowd.

I love it when people ask me, “What’s that?” and I get to extol the virtues of Nick Negroponte’s beautiful vision of supplying underprivileged children all over the world with their own laptops to learn art, reading, mathematics, programming, science, and connect them with the entire world as their classroom. Just like so many people here in America have done through the Internet.

“Huh. But don’t those poor kids have more pressing concerns, like survival, that need to come first?” they always reply in some form or another, and the heart-bubbles floating around my head all pop and I wake up, blinking dumbly.

Which brings me to my conflict. While I dig the OLPC XO-1, will it serve its purpose of enlightening young minds all over the world? Even I laughed at Newt Gingrich when he suggested we provide the homeless with laptops, but now I’m not so sure.

People get stuck in this idea that other nations need to repeat every step of America’s history to achieve America’s quality of life. China can either work through America’s entire history of building a middle class that will demand its own fair workplace standards, or Americans can exert economic pressure on China to do away with its sweatshops. Similarly, third-world countries can step through fossil-fuel power plants, or they can skip straight to renewable energy.

Why reinvent the wheel? The OLPC is a shortcut for lesser-developed nations. Why not help them skip being a second-world country and go straight to the Information Age, with all its collaborative memetic innovation? I say get them into the Global Village ASAP. The sooner they start using LEDs, solar panels, and well-water pumps, the sooner they’ll start contributing their own inventions, software, art, and literature to the world.

OLPC as an E-Book

OLPC as an E-Book
Image Courtesy OLPC Foundation

On the downside. This laptop is hand-me-down softwares and technologies. The hand-me-down 433mhz processors with hand-me-down 256k RAM. Hardware-wise, this brand new laptop is my brand new PC from 1993. Software-wise the hand-me-down Sim City is the same one that ran on my Apple IIe in Junior High, but I’ve got a better opinion of the rest of the software suite further down.

So is the $200 price tag justified? The software’s open-source, so there’s $0 of the total. A refurnished Thinkpad runs $200-$300, but this is brand new. Former OLPC CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen, is now working on a $75 laptop. How they intend to accomplish this when they couldn’t accomplish it with the OLPC is anybody’s guess, but the competition among charities will definitely spurn more innovation. The $200 price tag is very prohibitive to the OLPC’s ultimate success.

On the plus-side, the hardware has features that are uniquely perfect for the OLPC’s intended recipients. Practically speaking. This is a rugged little #$%@ of a machine. A fully charged battery runs for hours (three hours for one of my sessions). The twin wifi antenna are rubberized and folded in to serve as a locking mechanism for the laptop when closed. With flash memory storage, I don’t have to worry about bouncing it around and wrecking the hardrive, and stuffing all the main components behind the screen means it doesn’t make your sperm-count decline uncomfortably when it sits in your lap.

The keyboard is a rubber mat, which is awesomely spill-proof and would feel great if it wasn’t so tiny. I read one hacker’s first mod to his XO-1 was to convert it to a Dvorak keyboard layout. What’s the point? I’m reduced to hunt-and-peck mode using my forefingers when I type on it, but that’s okay because the keyboard isn’t meant for my adult hands, and when my friend’s five-year-old daughter got her hands on the laptop, she looked like a pro typing utter gibberish into it’s Journaling Software.

The monitor flips completely around and folds flat on the laptop, turning it into an e-book reader. This is a really nice feature, and one that makes this laptop a real keeper for me. If nothing else, I’ve now got a screen bigger than my cellphone to read all the free books I download from Project Gutenberg, and a laptop with the battery life to survive a long flight.

OLPC Network Neighborhood

OLPC Network Neighborhood
Image Courtesy OLPC Foundation

So this is a sweetly innovative, however overpriced, bit of technology. Which brings me to the second most common objection I get to the OLPC, “Are kids in third-world countries even going to be able to use that thing?”

The assumption here is that this learning toy is beyond the technological grasp of children living in villages without electricity. That somehow people deprived of Best Buy, Cinema Multiplexes, and the mind-numbing inanity of American Idol lack the cognitive foundation for Computing 101. Whenever a Baby Boomer raises this objection, I just remind myself that they are from the same generation that couldn’t program a VCR.

The reality is that the OLPC’s linux user interface sorta takes me back to my Commodore 64 days, when computing was just the basics. Only my Commodore’s interface was a command line, (LOAD *,8,1 anyone?), whereas the OLPC is cartoony and graphical. Kids will get into this thing and make it sing in ways the developers never anticipated. Just like kids run technological circles around their elders in modern America.

The OLPC provides plenty of pre-loaded software that will educate in a well-rounded fashion. The Video, Picture, and Sound Capture capabilities using the built in video and microphone introduce students to multimedia. The journal provides a creative writing outlet, while the Paint and TamTamJam softwares allow for art and music creative outlets.

Etoys and Turtle Art introduce kids to programming logic, while Pippy introduces kids to the joys of Python Programming, the easiest, most advanced programming language out there. Through these, kids are introduced to mathematics, building their own software toys, and logical constructs.

Most of all, the web browser introduces them to the world’s knowledge. The chat introduces them to world’s people.

They’re doing all this on an open-source operating system, where they can eventually incorporate what they learn into publishing their own improvements and innovations to the World Wide Web, where the rest of us will enjoy them.

That’s dream worth supporting, not to mention a huge return on our investment.

Science Gift Ideas: Lego Digital Designer

Posted on 21st December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: ,
My Legoland Avatar

My Legoland Avatar

This free software is available for download, and is a great way to introduce your child to 3-D Modeling software. It’s also free and didn’t cause my computer to explode, so you’ve got nothing to lose by trying it out.

A huge selection of Lego parts are available in the application, which also allows for zooms and 360-degree rotations. In fact, this software is so much like other 3-D design tools I have used, that I started calling it “Lego Cad.”

Once your child has built a model they want to have in real life, they can order the exact parts they need online, and the software will walk the child through the process of assembling their model in real life. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to order any parts through this software, Lego is an established brand, and I don’t have any doubts that they are a safe company to buy from online.

This is software is a really neat toy in and of itself. I had very few problems learning my way around the program, and am confident that most children will fall right into the Lego virtual world, and, like most computer-related things, become better at it than their parents possibly could.

I mentioned it’s free and you don’t have to brave the consumer feeding frenzy at the stores for this last minute gift right?

Lego is also a big-time exercise in imagination too…

Lego Imagination Ad

Lego Imagination Ad

If you like the above Lego ad, also check out these other creative Lego ads.

Comments Off on Science Gift Ideas: Lego Digital Designer

Science Gift Ideas: Rubik’s Cube

Posted on 20th December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: , ,

When I was in elementary school, there was a huge Rubik’s Cube fad. In addition to the Rubik’s Cube, there was the Jacob’s ladder-like Rubik’s Magic, Barrel, Diamond, and many more. My favorite was the Pyraminx because it was the most complex puzzle I could actually solve on my own.

I am happy to see today that the Rubik’s Cube has made a serious comeback. Speedcubing events are taking place all over the world, and new records are being set regularly. Even so, the Rubik’s Cube as a gift will often be quickly forgotten for most children.

The problem with the Rubik’s cube comes with it’s unsolvability. 99.9% of us are never going to figure it out on our own, and that’s why it’s important to go online and learn how to solve one.

It’s a surprisingly easy thing to do. You only need to memorize six simple Algorithms to Solve a Rubik’s cube. “Algorithm” is a scary word, but it shouldn’t be. An algorithm is simply a set of steps to perform some task. For instance, the directions on a Betty Crocker box are an algorithm for making a cake. You can learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube in about an hour. That’s pretty amazing when you consider there are forty-three quintillion possible permutations to a Rubik’s Cube.

A Rubik’s Cube is best solved in three layers. The first is super-easy to master, the second involves memorizing two algorithms that are mirrors of one another, and the third is where things get a bit more complex.

The following are pictures of my Rubik’s Cube in various states of completion, solving layers one, two, and three. Just ignore the numbers on the cube, I wrote those on there in permanent ink so I could play sodoku, which prompted a friend to ask me, “Are you that hurting for things to do???”

Rubik's Cube Scrambled
Rubik’s Cube Scrambled
Rubik's Cube Layer One
Rubik’s Cube Layer One
Rubik's Cube Layer TWo
Rubik’s Cube Layer Two
Rubik's Cube Layer Three
Rubik’s Cube Layer Three
Add a Twist
Add a Twist

The following two videos by Dan Brown are the best instructionals I’ve found for learning how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. You’ll need to watch them several times, pausing and rewinding, and write down the algorithms on a cheat sheet for practicing while your waiting in line at the grocery store, on a plane, or ignoring your significant other.

How to solve a Rubik’s Cube (Part One)

How to solve a Rubik’s Cube (Part Two)

Dan Brown has also got other great videos online, like how to lubricate your Rubik’s Cube using petroleum jelly for speed cubing and other nifty tips.

Rubik’s Cubes are a great way to teach spatial relations. Learning how to solve a Rubik’s Cube only gave me a better appreciation for the puzzle and a better understanding of how the parts worked.

Adding a Sodoku Layer is great way to teach math, but be sure to give the cube a few days for the ink to set, or find a better way to paint the numbers on. Mine keep rubbing off.

If you’ve got a free weekend on your hands, you might want to try making a Rubik’s Cube out of Dice too.

Happy Cubing!

Science Gift Ideas: Kill-A-Watt

Posted on 19th December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: , ,


Awhile back I blogged on, a black-background version of that purported to save energy by reducing the amount of light monitors needed to emit to display their page. Researchers confirmed this was true of old, obsolete CRT monitors, but flat screens used more energy to suppress white than display it.

Well, my Kill-A-Watt ($25) arrived in the mail awhile back, and it’s now official. My computer system, running dual flat-screen monitors uses 254 to 255 Kilowatt Hours of electricity to display Google on both screens, and 255 to 256 kilowatt hours to display Blackle on both screens. With both monitors turned off, my computer uses 142 kwh.

You know what else I found? My computer consumes 14 kHz when it’s turned off. After some troubleshooting, I found this was because I leave my speakers on, turning them off reduced my power consumption at this wall socket to zero when not in use.

The Kill-A-Watt is a handy device, and one I’ve returned to regularly in the last couple of months out of curiosity to see how changes to my computer affect its power consumption. It provides several different ways to measure consumption, including a clock that tracks total energy used.

The Kill-A-Watt has also made me a bit more energy conscious, and that’s why I’m recommending it as a gift. It’s a scientific tool that gives me a clearer understanding of how my actions affect the burden I place on the Earth, and the burden I place on my pocketbook when the power bill arrives.

Comments Off on Science Gift Ideas: Kill-A-Watt

Science Gift Ideas: Zome Tool

Posted on 17th December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: , ,
ZomeTool’s connector balls are small rhombicosidodecahedrons

ZomeTool’s connector balls are
small rhombicosidodecahedrons

I started playing with Zome Tool after watching the college lecture series Joy of Thinking: The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas on DVD, which required no mathematical background and I highly recommend for anyone interested in learning about why Math totally rocks from a humanistic perspective. I wanted to try out some of the geometrical concepts the lecture series talked about and needed a construction set that would suit this need.

Zome Tool is like an errector set, only incredibly geometrically well thought-out. The vertices, connector balls, for the Zome Tool are small rhombicosidodecahedrons, one of the 13 types of Archmedean Solids (this link has 3-D examples that you can rotate). This means that there are three types of connections for the edges, a pentagon, rectangle, and equilateral triangle; and for this reason, the edge pieces come in three different color-coded types.

The length of these edge pieces are related to one another along the Golden Mean, a proportion found throughout nature, art, and architecture, and one that allowed me to build three interlaced golden rectangles inside an icosahedron.

Icosahedron with Three Interlaced Golden Rectangles

Icosahedron with Three Interlaced Golden Rectangles

I later added another layer to this, by putting the icosahedron inside the dodecahedron with it’s verticies touching the middle of each of the dodecahedron’s faces.

Also on a Holiday note, check out a Zome Christmas Tree

Science Gift Ideas: RoboRally

Posted on 13th December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: ,

Allow me to introduce you to one of the coolest board games you’ve never heard of. In RoboRally, players steer robots around a factory filled with lasers, pits, and conveyor belts in a race to reach the finish line. Each round, players are dealt a random set of instruction cards, with which they must program their robot with the five moves that will best get them closer to the finish.

I’ve set up a little demonstration of how a typical round plays out. Here are Spinbot (red) and Twonky (purple), racing for the first goal post (green).

Twonky VS Spinbot
Twonky VS Spinbot

Players controlling the robots Spinbot and Twonky are dealt seven random cards, and each pick out five to lay face down in the sequence they think will best serve their goals.

Twonky Spinbot
1. Move 1 1. Move 1
2. Move 2 2. Rotate Left
3. Move 1 3. Move 1
4. Rotate Right 4. Rotate Left
5. Back Up 5. Move 1
Spinbot's Program
Spinbot’s Program

So Spinbot is programmed to move one onto the conveyor belt (1), which will then move it downscreen one square. Spinbot will then turn right (2) and the cog wheel will rotate it another right turn. Spinbot moves forward one, conveyor belt moves one. Spinbot turns left (4), conveyor belt pulls it to the left, forward one (5) and goal!

Twonky's Program
Twonky’s Program

Twonky’s going to move one (1), get pulled downscreen one, move two (2), get turned right, move one (3), get pulled left one, turn right (4), get pulled left one, back up one (5) and goal!

So what happens when these programs execute simultaneously?

Programs Execute
Programs Execute

How this actually plays Out is Spinbot and Twonky move, they both get pulled downscreen one, Twonky is facing Spinbot, so it shoots Spinbot for a point of damage (the more damage a robot takes, the less programmable it becomes), then Twonky moves forward two, pushing Spinbot into the pit, gets turned right, and is free to carry out the rest of its programming code to reach the goal. Twonky wins.

Now consider this scenario with four factory layouts (in the core set), eight goals, and eight robots running around shooting and pushing each other, with factory layouts confusing the mix and players mis-programming their robots (I am a master at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with a mis-programmed move into a pit right in front of the finish line). It’s easy to see why this game becomes an exercise in out-thinking chaos.

There are also plenty of free resources online too, as fans have made their own boards that people can print out and add to their collection. So not only is the game a great learning experience in spatial problem-solving, computer programming, and forward-thinking, but it has a strong DIY aspect as well.

So enjoy some “computer-driven chaos!”

Science Gift Ideas: Howtoons, The Possibilities are Endless

Posted on 12th December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism - Tags: , , , Cloud of Legends Cloud of Legends

I was all about Do It Yourself (DIY) as a kid. I built a crossbow out of tree branches that shot bamboo arrows, a boat out of an innertube and piece of plywood, and was forever tricking my dirt bike out. Inventors Dr. Saul Griffith and Dr. Joost Bonsen and comic artist Nick Dragotta’s new comic book Howtoon’s, The Possibilities are Endless totally takes me back to those good old days.

If you’d like your kids to know the nine different types of saws, six different types of pliers, how to make PVC marshmellow shooters, two-liter bottle rockets, electric motors out of a ordinary office supplies, count to 1023 on their fingers using binary, knot tying, terrariums, turkey-baster flutes, on and on, the possibilities truly are endless in this great big comic, which inspires kids to pursue their own DIY adventures.

But it doesn’t stop there, the the Howtoons website is a veritable perpetual engine of DIY ideas including Mechanical Toys, Wedgie-proof underwear, Virtual Cannon Balls, and Circus Science. These are just some of the topics covered at

Science Gift Ideas: Snap Circuits

Posted on 11th December 2007 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out - Tags: , ,
Snap Circuits Junior Set

Snap Circuits Junior Set

I picked up a Snap Circuits Junior kit online, and it is undeniably fun. This is like an erector set for electronics.

There are 101 experiments listed in the instruction manual, and I managed to run through most of the experiments over two nights of playing with it. I did come up with a few additional experiments of my own, and so will your child.

Project #6: Lamp & Fan in Parallel

Project #6: Lamp & Fan in Parallel

Children aren’t limited to what’s in the kit, and the instruction manual encourages using glasses of water, paperclips, and even your own body in experiments conducting electricity. So an inquisitive young mind will certainly try connecting other foreign parts into their designs.

I did experience on problem with the kit, as the “space war” component only worked erratically, and after much troubleshooting with the kids at Earth 383, we finally concluded that it was a dud. Luckily, individual parts may be ordered from the Elenco Website. I will first try to get a free replacement.

Project #92: Water Space War

Project #92: Water Space War

Although I nicknamed the toy “Baby’s First Breadboard,” this educational toy is for children “8 and Up.” At the same time, the Junior kit is too simple for anyone over the age of 12, and will only leave your teenager hungry for more components.

So if you can afford it, and you think your teenager would really take an shining to the possibilities Electrical Engineering holds in store for the inquisitive mind, I would recommend the Snap circuits Extreme for $85, which includes a solar panel, the ability to build a digital voice recorder, and computer interface applications.

Project #51: Reflection Detector

Project #51: Reflection Detector

I did enjoy the Junior model enough that I plan to purchase an Extreme kit as a stepping stone to eventually building my own breadboarding hobby kit.

Parents take note: If I had this toy when I was a kid, I would’ve had a much happier childhood.

A Word of Warning! The kit is not idiot proof. Your can wire the battery pack right back into itself, creating a short circuit, and quickly burn out some parts (but no fire hazard). Just like I’ve run a copper wire right back into a battery a have it heat up.

Comments Off on Science Gift Ideas: Snap Circuits