I was recently blissing out at a toy store that sells an impressive selection of science toys and kits (side note: I am going to be the world's coolest aunt when my little nephew gets a little older--I have my eye on a kit that lets you raise live praying mantises from mail-order eggs. I'm sure my sister and brother-in-law will love it!), when I saw a series of toy kits for making little motorized vehicles out of gears and wires and stuff. You know the type. What was interesting about these toys is that they weren't just cars and trucks, but things like chariots pulled by unicorns, with a princess doll in the kit, or a horse that would flap its motorized wings. Yep, these were...robots for girls.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A quick internet search for "robots for girls" offers a couple different examples of electronic toys marketed at girls, like Fijit Friends and Penbo. It's pretty clear that these are intended for girls: they're fuzzy, they're pink and purple, they have wide, adorable eyes, and in Penbo's case the toy is actually a mama with a cute fluffy baby penguin inside its tummy.
So what's to be made of the whole "robots for girls" thing? My reaction there in the toy store aisle was basically, "Aw, sweet, a robot unicorn with gears inside and stuff!" Kids are pretty sensitive to the kinds of toys that they're supposed to like, especially along gender lines (and there's some research indicating that gendered toy preference might be biological in origin). A techy version of an acceptably feminine toy, like a flying horse, gives girls the same casual access to technology that toys like Capsela have given boys.
On the other hand, I can't quite turn off the piece of my brain that's irritated by the implication that girls' soft little brains can't handle "real" tech toys, and that robots have to be covered in pink fur and cutesy eyes for girls to use them. Still, I guess that even fuzzy pastel tech for girls is better than no tech for girls, and my ultimate verdict is to give robots for girls the thumbs-up. What say you, oh Science Buzz community?
Postscript: This program, called Cricket Craft Clubs, is aimed at girls ages nine to twelve and came out of the observation that students in an MIT robotics competition, mostly men, and an analogous robotic design class at the all-female Wellesley College, approached robotics differently but in equally sophisticated ways. What I most like about this idea is that there's nothing particularly gendered about the raw parts, so girls (and boys) using them aren't automatically steered toward any particular end product. (The Cricket parts are available as a kit here. I'm pretty sure my little nephew is going to need one of these someday. And when I say "my little nephew" here, I actually mean, um...me.)
Trying to know what actually is and is not nano these days is a tricky, tricky business. Even more so when toy manufacturers are tossing nano around in their product names willy-nilly. That’s right, I said willy-nilly. And I meant it.
Let’s start with the dictionary definition of nano, as provided by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Copyright 2000 and updated in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company:
1. often nanno- Extremely small: nannoplankton.
2. One billionth (10-9): nanosecond.
[Greek n nos, nannos, little old man, dwarf, from nann s, uncle.]
Definition #1 seems to be the umbrella under which toy companies are dancing with carefree, obtuse, spelling-oblivious, product-naming delight. Definition #2 is far more specific a term, and one that the fine folks over at NISE Net are trying to help the public understand – as it has far-reaching consequences (both positive and negative).
And so, in the spirit of playfulness, we offer a tiny sampling of toys labeled nano (sans second ‘n’) that are not, at least under definition #2 above, nano:
Hexbug Nano – Micro Robotic Creatures
“Putting the ‘micro’ in Micro Robotic Creatures”
It’s nano! It’s micro! It’s, it’s, it’s....technically neither. Just small.
Zing AquaGlider Nano
“micro size & mega fun”
Described as nano and micro and mini. I wish they also found a place for the word “wee” on their packaging. “Wee” is both highly underutilized and adorable.
Courtesy Nano Magnetics
Again, couldn’t find anything technically nano about this particular product, although Nano Magnetics did create a bucky-ball-resembling structure in their video.
And last but not least,
Nanoblock “micro-sized building blocks” / “magnetic micro constructors”
Is it nano? Is it micro? Doesn’t matter, because they have the Kinkakuji Temple!
They’ve also been kind enough to provide a truly baffling video to help illustrate that they’re not all that interested in message – they just want you to build stuff:
Keep your eyes peeled, kids, for more nano that isn’t nano. We can bring this back as a regular feature, or even play the “is it really nano?” game – who needs labeling laws when guessing can be this much fun?!
Courtesy thewhitestdogaliveI do. That is, I keep robots in my bathroom. I have a modified Teddy Ruxpin with a webcam erupting from its mouth perched on the edge of my sink, pointed toward the toilet. That might sound a little weird, but it makes sense if you think about it. See, if I’m ever wondering whether or not I am currently using the toilet, I can log onto the internet, and check out that webcam. If I don’t appear to be on the toilet, I must be at work, or some other place with a computer, like a public library. But if I’m wondering if I am currently using the toilet, and discover that I am unable to access my webcam via the internet, I must actually be using the toilet, where there is no computer.
Easy! It’s a simple way of keeping on top of what’s happening in my life.
Buuuuut… It turns out that the many wireless, web-enabled devices you surely have in your homes can turn against you with the help of hackers. This includes your TiVo, your parents’ fancy security system, your child’s robot, and my Ruxpin toilet-watcher. Scary, right? Your little robo-helpers periodically send out packets of information to your wireless network, and if someone were in the neighborhood looking for that sort of thing, they could find out what sort of device was sending signals, and take control of it.
A group of researchers at the University of Washington actually tested out several fairly common wireless gadgets, and found that it wasn’t so difficult to take them over. The damage they were able to do was limited by the fact that most wireless devices don’t really do all that much. Having the TiVo go crazy isn’t so bad, but someone else using your nanny-cam is a little disturbing. Toy robots like this little dude, which can be controlled wirelessly to roll around and take live video and audio are potentially troublesome. (On the other hand, that little robot can also play digital music, so friendlier hackers could use it to follow you around and regale you with song.) And there’s no telling who might know when I’m using my bathroom.
The solutions are, of course:
-Take the cameras out of your bathroom (Not going to happen)
-Don’t buy any wireless toys that are stronger than you are (We’ll see)
-Don’t buy any wireless toys (Well, sure, like a toaster. But I want more than that)
-Buy wireless things with fancier security (I don’t even know how that would work. I just thought I should put it on the list)
-Try turning that junk off some time (Fine. Whatever.)
Courtesy Mark RyanBoy, times must be getting tough if NASA’s latest endeavor is any indication. Researchers from the space agency recently dropped a whole slew of rubber ducks into openings in Greenland's Jakobshaven Glacier in hopes of understanding how and where melt waters from the ice sheet ends up in Baffin Bay. They’re also trying to understand why glaciers increase their speed during the summer months. The Jakobshaven Glacier, which is suspected of calving the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912, is Greenland’s fastest moving glacier. The current thinking is that melt water forming on top of the ice flow during the summer months travels down narrow tubes called moulins to the glaciers base where it acts as a lubricant thus speeding up the ice sheet's movement. This isn’t exactly rocket science, is it? Anyway, each little ducky carries a label with the words "science experiment" and "reward" printed on it in three languages, along with an email address. The researchers hope that those who come across the toy quackers will contact them with information about when and where they found them. So far no one has gotten back to NASA but agency officials are confidant when they do it will add to our understanding of glaciers and their role in rising sea levels. So why has NASA has resorted to using such a low-tech approach? One source claims it's because a previous test using a metallic probe failed to return any data. Another source claims the probe is being used in conjunction with the rubber bath toys. Whatever the case it looks duck hunting season has opened.
SOURCES and LINKS
The British government is encouraging schools to allow young boys to play with toy guns. Their studies have shown that such play helps boys’ development, by allowing them to experiment with risk-taking behavior in a safe environment. This in turn helps their intellectual development.
Lately it seems like no newscast is complete without a story about a recall of toys that could be lead-poisoning risks to kids. We get the details of what toys are impacted, but we rarely get the details on how they’re dangerous. Do you know the threats lead-tainted toys pose to kids’ health?
Is lead really a big problem?
The CDC estimates that 890,000 US children between the ages of one and five have high levels of lead in their blood. Small children put toys, fingers, and other objects in their mouths—and expose themselves to lead paint and dust if there’s any present. Lead is invisible and has no smell. And most children with elevated blood lead levels have no symptoms. The only way to tell if a child has been exposed is to have his or her blood tested. Small amounts of lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth, or hearing problems. Larger amounts can cause kidney damage, coma, or even death.
Caregivers should be especially careful of toys made in other countries and imported into the US, and antique toys and collectibles passed down through generations.
What can you do?