Car combinatorics

Car combinatorics

I run a regular program at WPL called “Discover DIY” (formerly known as “Mini Makers”) for children aged 2-4. Each week I set up and run 1-2 new activities with the kids, interspersed with some story time.

Recently, I had an idea for a program for the kids where I could use up some scrap wood from my workshop. I would cut the wood up into regular-sized pieces, and give the kids instructions to make cars with them. I brought in some thin dowel to use as axles, some thick dowel pre-cut into thin strips and drilled with holes for wheels, and I brought in a power drill to make axle holes wherever the kids wanted with my help.

I was pleasantly surprised with the variety of the creations. These are kids aged 2-4, while they all have an idea of what a car is, it isn’t as cut-and-dry a definition as what an adult would have if you asked them to create a new car. Below is a sampling of the results of the kids’ work: Read more

How to build a simple electric motor

How to build a simple electric motor

Today, I am going to demonstrate how to make a simple electric motor. This is a great activity for kids and adults, on rainy days or for science fairs. I’ve done this one with kids aged 8-12 ish, but it is a good all-ages activity, depending upon the amount of preparation you can do in advance, as well as the amount of help you are able to give while running the activity. Read more

TEDxWaterloo 2012

Yesterday was the third annual grand old TEDxWaterloo hook-up. Staying true to its namesake, it was an awesome event. I thought I would ramble on and share my thoughts of the speakers and the overall event itself.


Read bios and see pictures of all the speakers on the TEDxWaterloo site

Izzeldin Abuelaish

Sometimes known as “the Gaza Doctor” this man has done more with his life and seen more hardship than most of us will ever experience. Despite the tragic loss of three of his daughters and one niece he has committed himself to not hate and started a charity in their honor here in Canada. Words cannot reflect the respect the audience had for this man, nor can they sum up how still and quiet the theater was when sitting there listening to him. We all can only hope to be a strong as he is.

Jean Béliveau

Spent 11 years walking around the world for peace. I loved his talk. And the graphic that he used to start his presentation was slick as hell. Aside from being a really cool animation, it really served to convey to the audience just how far he walked. Despite that English was obviously not his first language, his presentation still communicated a sense of simple charm and contentment from what he accomplished that made him endearing and engaging regardless.

Shannon Blake

Founder of The Bench Theatre Initiative, Shannon’s presentation, basically about using the Arts to bridge communities and give a voice and opportunity to those in need. She was one of the most polished speakers of the night, but would you expect anything else from someone who works in theatre?

Scott Chantler

Comic book artist, native to Waterloo, and really cool guy. I must admit I have a weakness for the graphic novel format, so I am incredibly biased. I loved his Scott McCloud references in his talk (at least 2) and the recognition he gave towards comics being more important and a bigger part of our culture than they are given credit for. At the end of the night, I also scored a signature from him in a copy of his “Two Generals” book that I purchased in the lobby.

Mathew Ho

He was probably my favorite speaker of the night. This is one of the two guys (I originally wrote kids but out of respect felt they should be promoted to adults) who put the lego man into space recently. Not only was he an excellent presenter, he seemed to be so full of energy, and I couldn’t help but be preoccupied with the idea that he will go far in life. This, in turn, became a feeling of overwhelming jealousy. Guys like him make me think “damn, I wish I thought of, and did that, first” and inspire me to do more with myself.

Roberta Hunt

Performer who played two songs. I must admit, I have a weakness for women who can sing, and she definitely could.

Taylor Jones

The originator of the “Dear Photograph” site and, now, book. His presentation was simple, and attempted to be humble, but sadly, it was obvious he wasn’t 100% comfortable on the stage. Still, his “Dear photograph” idea is amazing. The whole concept that we was able to take a simple, nostalgic idea and turn it into a hugely popular web site and book deal all within nine months is mind-boggling, it must have been (and probably still is) one hell of a roller coaster ride. “Dear Photograph” reminds me so much of the “Carousel” pitch scene from Mad Men

Peter Katz

Excellent singer. Definitely had an Elliott Smith vibe to him, another artist I would recommend listening to if you like Peter’s genre of music. I loved the fact he got the audience to sing during his last number, it was a very fun and humble way to end the evening.

Karen Morris

Her talk was excellent, engaging, and funny, although I did have a hard time following the narrative once in a while. I’ll spare you any spoilers, but there is a moment in her presentation that hits you like a punch to the gut.

Alicia Raimundo

A mental health advocate, and super-young at that. Another fantastic speaker, very much in the same vein as Mathew Ho; young, eager, and already very accomplished in life. Her talk was passionate and well worth listening to, and discussing after. She seeks to end the bias towards mental illness, so that it is something people are willing to discuss and address instead of ignore and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Krister Shalm

I see Krister wandering the halls of my building from time to time, so again, there is a bias here. His presentation was definitely the most fun, and the magic trick incorporated into it was very effective at simply communicating a really difficult concept in Quantum Computing. I loved the fact that they still were swing dancing during the after-party (and there was live music, too!)

Sarah Williams

She basically figured out a way to map out Foursquare and Facebook posts onto cities. It is a damn cool idea, and made for some really neat graphics, but the presentation left me wanting more and a little unsatisfied. Again, my bias this time is due to having a degree in the Social Sciences, but I felt she could have done so much more with the data which would have made the presentation more engaging. I think she could do some sort of Bayesian self-organizing analysis on the data to get broader and funnier results that would span a wider area on the maps.

Overall TEDxWaterloo feelings

I loved it, and still feel very privileged to have attended. I think my favorite part of the whole day was the walk back to my car. The city was dark yet still full of life, stars were shining yet there was still warmth in the air, and so many thoughts swirled through my head. Some thoughts were directly related to what I witnessed at TEDxWaterloo, some were totally unrelated but inspired by the day. The event is a wonderful gift for all who attended.


Can’t have a blog post about the TEDxWaterloo event without talking about the food. It was awesome. Although, it started off a little worrisome. During the first break, there were snacks, but the line was huge and long and by the time I got to the tables all that was left were some apples. No huge deal, but I really wanted to have a taste of some of the finer fare. During the second, “dinner” break, meals were well-planned, organized, and delicious. The “box lunch” idea was marvelous, and helped to keep lines short and quick. I, however, went for the buffet and thanks to how well organized dinner was, the wait was not long. The mini-burgers I think had schnitzel inside of them, and they tasted awesome. From an event-planning perspective, the food was my favorite part of the day.



2011 Staff Conference – My Experince

Suffice to say, I felt that my presentation at the 2011 Waterloo Staff Conference (#ohdconf and #uwaterloo hashtags for those who twitter) went well. Not that I had any doubt it wouldn’t go well; public speaking is usually one of my strengths. Links to the presentation and other random content discussed are available here.

Looking back, it is ironic I was over prepared for my presentation. I spoke highly about pulling a MacGyver, but I thought about my presentation way too much and had way too many demonstrations packed up that I never ended up using. But there is always next time.

I spoke for about 45 mins and did 30 minutes of activities, and if anything I should have flipped that; less talking and more action. I felt the audience got more out of the demonstrations rather than the talk (although I do feel the talk did generate a lot of interest and laughs). I am looking forward to getting more specific feedback once I have an opportunity to read the feedback forms.

One of the things that shocked me was how few people had heard of the term phreaking. I figured that being a university-based audience at a school known for its technical programs there would be a good chunk of people aware, if not openly involved with, this sort of activity. Only three hands went up when asked if they knew the term, out of a group of about 75. I have always known that I am a knowledgeable guy; I have destroyed many opponents in trivial pursuit, and I can get very aggressive during scrabble games, but I still find that I take it for granted other people spend as much time as me reading about… everything.

After introducing the audience to the world of hackers, I picked a volunteer who had never programmed before (April, thank-you again for braving the stage with me) and demonstrated just how super easy it was to program (and modify programs with) a micro controller. She even hooked up an LED to the board as well. Thank-you Arduino.

My next volunteer was Carmen, my co-op student, who helped me to put the Arduino to practical use, setting it up with a garden watering valve, and a pair of nails, in order to monitor soil moisture and automatically water the ground when its too dry.

With time running short, we quickly moved into making LED throwies with the entire audience, and fortunately a few were left in some interesting places around the new accounting wing on campus.

Urinal Throwie
Urinal Throwie

… and that was it for the presentation.

Like I mentioned, there was a lot we didn’t get to do. I had made a MIDI drum set (based upon the ardrumo project) and was going to show how it easy it was to duplicate that project. I really wanted to do that one because the new lecture rooms in the new accounting wing are awesome, with great speakers and acoustics. I was also going to show how easy it is to connect the arduino to the internet, and to make a roving robot with it. If I had 20 more minutes it would have all been possible. But again, there is always next time, and I am already prepared. Although, by the next time I do this sort of presentation again, I’ll probably have even cooler stuff to demonstrate.

I just want to say thank-you to the Office of Human Development at Waterloo for organizing an excellent staff conference this year, and for letting me present in it. I’d like to thank my audience for being awesome, and and extra big thank-you to April and Carmen for helping me out.

As for me, I think I’ll take a break from electronics for a couple of weeks. I’ve been meaning to learn how to crochet. Now feels like a great time to start. Anyone with any tips or suggestions give me a shout.

Something I want to study

I have many interests. I always have. Things fascinate me. Wikipedia is a great waste of time, although it always finds a way to make me eventually end up on some Second World War article.

One of many things I am interested in is the history of stuff. Go into a store. A big, scary box store like Walmart or Home Depot or Staples. Look around, loose focus, and notice all the stuff in the store. All the stuff hanging on little pegs, individually wrapped and priced. Thousands of items, different items in each store.

All those items were designed by someone to fill an unmet need, they were manufactured in a plant somewhere and shipped (probably) halfway around the world.  Raw materials were extracted from the earth, and refined to a point where a machine could take the material in and spit out a finished product. They were packaged, marketed, advertised, distributed to where they are now. Hundreds, if not thousands of hours were spent by many different people directly and indirectly, thinking about and being paid to work on 3/4″ stainless steel washers.

People spent the majority of their working lives creating washers. They lived and breathed washers from 9-5. They passed away, their major contribution to humanity being a cog in the machine that created 3/4″ stainless steel washers.

Not only that, washers didn’t start that way. They evolved through different iterations, each iteration taking thousands of hours and thousands of people to breathe life into them, so that today they are sold $0.05 each, engineered to perfection of performance. The majority of the history of them being long forgotten, its just accepted that things are they way they are for a reason. No one really cares about the first, second, or third iteration of the washer, they all want one they can buy today that will do the job they need it to do now.

Boggling. Words can not describe just how good we have it, even with the most ordinary of things. We live in a privileged age. And that’s just thinking about physical items in a store. What about literature, research, music, stock markets, and software.

The ones that really fascinate me, however, are the natural items we take for granted. Specifically, vegetables.

Natural things aren’t engineered; they evolved to that point. And unlike the animal kingdom, vegetables can’t get up and migrate. Not very quickly, at least. They tend to evolve in very distinct climates suitable for their growth. Human trade has migrated them to just about every other part of the planet where humans find a way to grow them there.

But they all started somewhere. There was some little niche in some long-forgotten corner of the world where they thrived on their own, then man came around, discovered their deliciousness, and figured out a way to agriculture them (yes, I just used agriculture as a verb). With a little help, they thrived in their new environments and we take them for granted today.

Carrots started (apparently) in Afghanistan.

I want to study the origin and migration of carrots. Next maybe bell peppers, followed by garlic.

I want to find the exact spot they were discovered. GPS coordinates and all.

I want to know the name of the person who thought they looked edible and decided to stick them in their mouth, and what they thought after the first bite.

I’m looking for a Master’s program in the Origin of Common Vegetables.