Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The best use for a scroll-saw: cutting styrofoam

One of my favorite craft materials this decade is styrofoam. Not the beadboard used for packing material, but the blue or pink styrofoam that you can get from a home store in big sheets.

I started using it because it is used a lot in model railroading to make scenery -- people cut contours with it in layers and then carve it into shape; it's lightweight and strong. But since I acquired some and had it lying around, I often use it for quick projects.

But it was difficult to cut. You can use a hot-wire cutter for it, but that creates fumes. And anyway I don't have one of those. So one day I tried cutting it with my scroll saw. It works great. Granted, it creates a lot of fine dust (wear a mask and have a shopvac handy) but you can cut accurate contours with it.

I've made several crafts with this that turned out well. I'm kind of stuck on the idea of cutting shapes with the foam and then sticking things into it. I cut a big outline of the 48 continental states for a centerpiece for our recent Cub Scout banquet, and had all the scouts in our den make US flags, which they then stuck into the flat shape.

I did someting similar for centerpieces at an STC event a couple of years ago. I cut the shape of the state of Texas, and I made several copies of it, and then I pinned different shapes to them, including some bats to represent Austin in one case.

Foam, of course, provides a lot less resistance than wood, so it's really easy to control what you are doing, and it goes fast. You can quickly mock up shapes for something decorative with this method.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bounty Hunters' Picnic

Here we see a peaceful picnic on a verdant planet of the Galactic Empire, one far enough off the beaten track to employ bounty hunters. The Rodian bounty hunter Greedo has stopped for a casual meal with his wife, son, and a friend, while a servitor bot waits on them.
This silly little scene was a long time coming. I had the original idea in 2000....back when I was collecting figures much more heavily. I do like the various Star Wars bounty hunters, so I thought it would be fun to make a Father-Son picnic, with son figures for each bounty hunter. But the only one I got around to was a Greedo-son.

He was an easy figure custom to make: I had a Greedo figure variation with a small head, and I did a head swap on that with an Annakin figure, and then painted the hands to match. Not much to it.

When I found in 2005 that I had an extra piece of model railroad scenery, and Chloe gave me a doll blanket for some reason, and I realized I now had three different Rodians to make a husband/wife/child group, it all sort of came together in a minimum-effort kind of way. So there you go: a much simplified version of the project. I do get a kick, though, of having a whole family...most of the Star Wars characters don't have families that we see. Although there are those Sand People mother figures with their infants in papooses....maybe I can do a Mother's Group Meeting next.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Kid With Balls

So this past October I was in Taco Bell, eatin' cheap food. It was about 12:45 and there were a bunch of high school kids there. Two groups sat near me: there was one kid with short blond hair; a skinny guy, kinda geeky looking. He was at table by himself, next to my booth.

On the other side of me were six girls, all of them cute and dressed to show it. Clearly these two groups were in utterly separate classes the way things shake out in high school. I may not agree with it, but I would have assumed the girls thought they were out of his league, at any rate.

Now the guy seemed a little off. He asked the girls what time it was. Twice, in fewer than 10 minutes. Then he stood up and went around to their table and asked the girls if they were from Westwood High. Most said they weren't, and looked away; they were snubbing him. One said she was.

So he asked her who she voted for for homecoming. A couple of other things were said, then he left, saying goodbye.

The girls giggled as he left and one said they were mean. I spoke to them a bit. They kind of looked at me; they seemed a little self-conscious at being overheard; they could tell I had been listening. I said something like "The guy was your age, right? He comes up and talks to you. Seems pretty brave to me."

That was what had impressed me. This was a classic group of Mean Girls. Surely he knew they were going to talk about him as soon as he left. Then one of the girls said: "At least he had the balls to come over here."

I said something stupid like "That's what I'm talkin' about," to display how utterly hip I am. But I was glad to hear I wasn't the only one who appreciated the kid's chutzpah. As soon as he gets out of high school, that'll matter a lot more than some youthful awkwardness.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

How fast can you make potato soup?

Would you like some potato soup? Would you like it if you could make a bowl for one person in about 10 minutes?

You need: a small potato; celery; spices; salt. Possibly some broth or bouillon. Olive oil.

- Dice a small potato and toss into a microwave-safe bowl, something bigger than your average cereal bowl if possible.
- Add water to cover, then add a little more. If you have some beef or chicken broth handy, you can use that instead.
- Add about a teaspoon of olive oil.
- Stir to separate all the potato pieces & coat them with water. This will help keep them from sticking to each other.
- Add spices and salt to taste. I used a commercial Italian seasoning mix. You could use oregano and garlic powder. Or you could use a bouillion cube or broth seasoning packet.
- Cook for 3 minutes on high. Stir. Repeat.
- Taste a piece of potatoe to verify that they are soft and mostly cooked.
- Add chopped celery. If you have some cooked meat handy, you can add that at this point. For example, some ground beef or ground pork would be nice.
- Cook one more minute


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Baking soda rockets are worth it

I'm always on the lookout for fun little projects to do with the kids....with small investments of time/money/effort. One that paid off was making baking soda rockets.

Ethan and I did this a few years ago. He got the idea from watching the Zoom TV show. We fumbled around a bit because we tried to do it based solely on what he remembered from watching the show...things went a lot better after I downloaded some instructions. Ethan's verbal directions at age 4 were not too clear.

The main thing is finding some way to combine baking soda and vinegar in a bottle. It'll fizz up fast, and if you set things up right, you can shoot a cork out of your bottle.

We tried wrapping some baking soda up in a square of toilet paper, dropping the wad into the neck of a 2-liter bottle, then quickly corking the bottle.

In a few seconds there was a satisfying thunk and the cork shot 30 feet into the air. We laughed and did it again, and again, until we lost the cork in the tall grass.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Juggling festival in Austin

This past weekend saw the 13th annual Jugglefest run by the Texas Juggling Society. It was a blast. I spent a lot of time in the unicycle room because I don't usually get to see what you see there: props and ramps to ride a unicycle on, as well as a unicycle obstacle course, and a lot of different kinds of unicycles and unicycle variations to try.

One of the people there was a level 8 unicyclist, as defined by the Unicycle Society of America . I saw some tricks that I hadn't even imagined doing. It makes me want to spend a lot more time with my unicycle. Tricks like coasting to a stop by dragging one foot on the wheel, and other tricks involving taking one's feet off the pedals, just amazed me.

I saw a 12-year-old (I'm guessing) juggle 5 clubs. I saw people juggling square rings. Lots of fun stuff was going on all the time, and I never cease to be amazed by the friendly atmosphere. It's mostly just a big room where people bring a lot of props and drop them on the floor and let anyone who wants to, play with them.

I didn't get as involved in the festival as I might have...not wanting to take too much time away from the family this weekend. I did manage to take Chloe and Ethan to the festival, separately, on Saturday and Sunday. Most of what I did was hang around in the big festival room, just juggling with people. I even spent some time teaching some people who had shown up for a beginning juggling seminar. They didn't want to get in on the official seminar because they had small kids, so I just did some teaching on the spot.

And then I have a certain resistance to juggling with others. It was a long time before I ever considered juggling as a communal activity. I started juggling as a kid to have something to do by myself, and it always seemed to require so much intense solo practice, that it didn't occur to me to make it a shared activity.

In college, I met some other jugglers, and occasionally attended the Texas Juggling Society meetings. But I never quite felt like I fit in. I'd still bump into folks around town though, and last year the president of the club asked me to juggle in the club's public show at the annual Juggling Festival. I had never attended one of these before, so I came.

Well, I had a great time. And after that I started attending juggling club meetings more or less regularly. And I found folks in the club to be incredibly welcoming. I'm older, some of them are older, it all seems to work better. It's hard to make more than one or two meetings a month because they tend to conflict with cub scout activities.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

LED Throwies: They stole my idea!

The future will be just as we imagine it in science fiction, only with a strong patina of cheap slapped on top of it. Case in point: LED throwies.

These are an interesting idea...homemade battery-powered LED-lights combined with a powerful magnet gives you a little disposable light that you can throw onto a metal surface and leave there. They're cheap enough that you can make a lot of them, and batteries have gotten good enough that you can get up to two weeks of light out of them.

But I saw this and I said, HEY -- I predicted that. Because back in 2000 I painted a picture for some friends of something kind of similar...though my thought was of something smaller and with built-in radio control. But you can have LED throwies right now...if you're willing to make them. I don't really suggest that you throw them just anywhere though....why leave batteries lying around like that?

This is much more gritty and real than anything I've seen in fiction, right down to including environmental hazards. I love it. Still want ones with Bluetooth remote control built in, though.
--------------time warp to Aaron's journal 12/20/2002 -------

Okay, so here's a wacky idea i thought of in a lunchtime conversation here at Dell: spray-on christmas lights. This is sort of nanotech. Basically, you have a spray can full of tiny lights. Each light is an integrated unit with a timer or chip brain and a battery. No, better yet, they just receive a signal from a small base station. The signal turns them on or off and the base station has a built-in timer.

This wouldn't really have to be nanotech, and maybe that wouldn't even be good: how about STICKERS. Peel-and-stick, with all the electronics built in.

Best feature of all would be to have them biodegrade when their batteries run down or on command or something.

But odds are it would be difficult to build this with current tech without including environmentally toxic materials. Still, I wonder if you could invent a cheap battery operated sticker. Also organic LEDs are being worked on, based on ideas from fireflies. They're brighter, less toxic, and may be amenable to flexible displays.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Making new applications by removing features

Several recent online projects look, from my wiki-centric point of view, like someone took a wiki and pruned features out of it to make it simpler:

  • Backpack: put your to-do lists on line, and share access
  • Ta-da Lists: simpler than backpack, to-do lists
  • Writeboard ... shareable text-based documents, with password protection, hosted for free

But these are all good ideas given that it's pretty clear (if you try to get people interested in using a wiki) that there are lots of folks out there who find the wiki concept frightening or intimidating. I'm just trying to think, now, what stripped-down version of a wiki I can make to make my millions. ;)

I find the fear of wikis perplexing myself, although I came close to understanding it when a marketing guy told me he welcomed the idea of getting my documentation onto a wiki so that he could start editing it. So if you feel a lot of ownership in your writing, then I can see worrying about letting other people edit it. But the key concept is that with a decent wiki, you can see WHO edited something, and WHAT they did to it. With sufficient tracking and reversion features, you don't need security....if someone takes a topic awry, you just revert it.

That's what they do over at the grand old Wikipedia, of course. If you've never looked around Wikipedia, take a look now and tell me you aren't impressed with what a bunch of volunteers has been able to put together.

Yes, there's contention over Wikipedia information. Yes, any 12 year old with an internet connection can log on and change a page so that it's filled with profanity. But research, according to this New Atlantis article, shows that someone else fixes it, awfully fast.

But I'll bring up a wiki in a corporate setting and be amazed at how people worry about their coworkers getting access to information or being able to update it. They don't see the value, they see the downside. Maybe that's just human nature.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Snowflake Method for Novels...and short stories

I really like the ideas presented as the Snowflake Method for writing novels. I've been trying to apply them in my own short story writing over the last year. The chief thing I've learned is the importance of developing a very clear idea of what your story is about before setting out to write it...but it's a subtle point. I find I have to experiment a little and do a little writing first.

The best thing to take away from the Snowflake idea, I think, is the concept of interwoven character story lines. You start by creating a storyline for your main viewpoint character, giving that storyline a beginning, several problems/solutions, and a conclusion. Then you do the same thing for all your other major characters, and you look for ways to weave them together. You actively consider the story from the point of view of your antagonist, for example, and make sure that character's actions form a story from his perspective. This is the most valuable technique I've gleaned from the method.

Like a lot of techniques and methods, I'm not following the Snowflake slavishly. It takes novel design to an incredible level of detail. I hope to get there at some point.

I bumped into these ideas from commentary on the National Novel Writing Month website. I love the NaNoWriMo idea. I did it in 2004 and had a blast doing it; I was very proud of completing my 50,000 words of inchoherant prose.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Juggling in a Theremin's Field

Last year, in March, I was able to try out an idea I'd had for a while: to juggle in a Theremin's field. A Theremin is a musical instrument that produces sounds based on your body's interaction with a pair of electromagnetic fields. You wave your hands in the air. You get weird oscillating sounds that will be familiar to you if you have a background in old science fiction movies.

At some point, I decided that I ought to be able to find someone with a Theremin through various contacts. It was easier than I thought it would be: I put the word out on the Texas Juggling Society mailing list, and I got a response from someone who knew someone who played Theremin. The only trouble I had was that it took weeks for us to actually hook up with our varying schedules.

It was a little odd, because the fellow with the Theremin only referred to himself by his e-mail handle, Nobody. And he showed up to my house in an art van, handpainted all over in a brick pattern. But he was in the suburbs on my turf, so it was okay. It was nice of him to come out to my place for the experiment -- I was kind of stapled to the house by the kids; Tanya was out doing something.

"Nobody" was really nice about it. He set the Theremin up and we experimented with it.

The results were...not tremendously exciting. Luckily I wasn't expecting TOO much. I already knew that Theremin are quite difficult to play. The visit confirmed that, in spades.

The Theremin responds to movement of conductive things near its two antennae. That basically means your arms. It puts out a constant wave of sound, and you modulate it by moving your body within its field.

One antenna controls pitch, the other volume. By adjusting dials, you can control, to some extent, the size of the region where your movement affects the device.

Something I didn't know until the experiment was that by default, when the machine is on, you have to keep a hand near the volume antenna or else you get a loud wave. When your hand is low, near the antenna, the Theremin is silent; you raise it to get a note.

Juggling 3 balls cascade-style over the Theremin produced a rhythmic, repeated note. The circular shower pattern produced, naturally, a faster rhythm. Other ball trials resulted in a sine wave sound, when I moved nearer the pitch antenna.

I suspect you could do some neat things with site swaps, but I don't do much with those. I was a bit inhibited by not wanting to drop things on the guy's Theremin.

I quickly learned that for the Theremin, you want to exaggerate your body movements, and that ordinary juggling doesn't produce a lot of response from the machine.

However, it was clear that you could develop an interesting routine that incorporated a Theremin. It would be a fair amount of work, though.

Watching "Nobody" play the Theremin was pretty interesting. He used a technique that looked like he was playing the frets of a string insrument, or fingring a woodwind...seeking out specific notes in midair.

Waving my arms like a conductor over the thing produced some fun sounds, too.

The whole thing sounded much better after he wired in a digital delay. That made everything sound good.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Another free application for Getting Things Done

There's a version of the TiddlyWiki application aimed at implementing the David Allen Getting Things Done task management system. It's called GTDTiddlyWiki.

But I recently read about a similar application -- similar in that it uses AJAX methods to make a client-side application out of an HTML file -- that is simpler and perhaps closer to the spirit of the Getting Things Done method. It's called Next Action.

It's a system for managing one's current to-do list on a computer. Here is a live version that you can try out online:


Like TiddlyWiki, using it is as simple as saving a copy to your own hard drive.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Wherefore art thou, iPod?

So someone gave me an iPod. I was really not too interested in the MP3 revolution until I tried one out and Saw The Light. It's a fantastic product with a design that rewards fetishism. If an iPod propositioned me, I couldn't reject it out of hand.

But I was busy at the time. Kid and baby stuff and work stuff was too much on my mind, and the iPod was full of someone else's music, and I wanted to offload and preserve that stuff and figure out how to get my own stuff on it. So all that made it a Project, and it was never a high priority one.

Time wore on, I'd dig it out now and then and put it back after playing with it for a while, because of course it was mostly full of rap and country music, and there's only so much of that I want to listen to.

But the baby is sleeping now, and some projects are bubbling up, and now I'm read, nay, eager to work on the iPod. And I can't find it. I remember carefully putting it away somewhere clever before Christmas. But I have no idea where that was.

This always happens when I put something away somewhere clever. I know exactly how I think when this happens. I'll set something in some out-of-the way place, and I'll completely forget about it. Somehow I have to learn to avoid doing that.

But failing that in the iPod's case, I just have to clean the whole house.

UPDATE 2/9/06: Since an English major friend took me to task about "wherefore" actually meaning why, I feel obliged to point out that yes, I know that. And I used it to mean "where" anyway. That's just the kind of devil-may-care, devil-take-the-hindmost, spontaneous sort of person I am.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Chloe Can See to Wisconsin

On our annual road trip to Wisconsin for Christmas in 2003, Chloe starts telling us, from her post in the back seat, that she can see the relatives in Wisconsin. She has super-duper vision, she says; she can see them right now. She has extra power, she can do it.

She's really emphatic about it. When we stop at Denny's for a meal, I challenge her.

"What are they doing right now, then?"

She thinks for a minute, and looks north, accurately as far as I can tell -- she's four years old, I don't think she knows what north is. She says, "They're eating."

And I can't argue with her, because they probably are.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Improv Games

Here's a list of improvisational comedy games. The list describes most of the games in enough detail that you could play them at home:


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Amazing Giant Robot Costume

I love costumes, but this guy makes me look like a complete poser:


He's got some method of building with foam covered with latex that sounds neat, like it would be both lightweight and durable.

HMS iPod Makes Me Wish for a Press Gang

The Brits' royal navy have unveiled a fancy new ship, described here.
I like the following tidbit from the article:

HMS Daring's 230-strong crew should be happy too. She and her sisters will be the first "gender-neutral" warships to enter Royal Navy service, and the Hotel Facilities, as the living quarters are known, are the most opulent ever fitted in a British warship. Mess decks are replaced by individual cabins, each with their own I-pod charging points, CD player, internet access, five channel recreational audio and larger berths.

I shouldn't tease, though. I mean, it's gender-neutral. I guess that means the author shouldn't have referred to the ship as "she" above.


A couple of years ago I was performing in the UT Madrigal Dinner. One of the fellows who handled the lighting had put together this amazing buccaneer costume, with a greatcoat and a big Captain Hook hat with feather. So several of us were in the men's room getting ready for the show, and he's talking about his costume -- how it took him a long time to gather all the pieces and cost a lot of money. He's saying, "$300 for the hat, $70 for the boots, $200 for the coat..."

and I interjected "Getting laid like a pirate: priceless."

I thought it was funny. What? What are you lookin' at?