Got to love it when a plan comes together

Got to love it when a plan comes together

On time and under budget to boot! Work tasked me with making five prize wheels. I estimated it’d cost $50 to do and got the go-ahead. Approximately it cost me:

  • $10 for the mdf to make the wheels
  • $6 for the dowel for the clicker
  • $10 for the hardware
  • $10 for the wood for the stands
  • Free! for the clicker (just a strip of plastic cut from a lettuce box)

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You may already know how to knit

You may already know how to knit

I was recently was bitten by the knitting bug, and I have just got it out of my system. I have knitted before, but I find the process too simple and repetitive and have a hard time relaxing (if something is too repetitive I get stressed out, I prefer a little variety/challenge to my simpler tasks). Plus, knitting with needles make my hands cramp easily. However, I taught myself how to knit hats with a loom, and I found it had just enough variety to its simple tasks that it became quite enjoyable.

The most striking thing I noticed, however, was how knitting with a loom was so similar to another activity, which may be familiar to parents of young children: Rainbow Loom! Read more

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 2

Building our first soap box derby racer – Part 2

My oldest son, occasionally daughter, and I had continued to work on the soap box racer last week.

We left off last time with just wheels on a flat body. Another week of work and we added a body of sorts, a seat, and some paint.

We used a seat from IKEA for the racer. It was the perfect size to fit inside the 18″ wide body, and it looked neat. We made the frame for the racer with 2×4’s and plywood Jonas and I cut with a handheld jig saw, and screwed it all together.

Isaac gets his first driving lesson. Here you can see the arched shape we were working towards for the old-timey racer feel.

I then bent, glued, and nailed a 1/8″ thick piece of MDF to the body. Both kids helped with a couple of nails at first, but grew weary of wearing the safety glasses, so they had to watch from a short distance away. Nailers are one of those tools I am extremely careful around. Safety glasses are a must if they’re connected to a pressurized source, I am always aware of where I am pointing the working end trying to always point it at my workpiece, and the safety is turned on as soon as I take my finger off the trigger. I was amazed at the number of nails it took to hold it all in place.

Kids are getting excited. At this point the driving lessons down our street began in earnest.

We took off all non-painted surfaces, and I then went to work spraying it a nice enamel red with a N95 mask on. I am still looking for a decent mask that has solvent filters available. Any recommendations would be appreciated. I think it turned out looking pretty sharp, simple and elegant.

Race day was this past Saturday (June 16, 2012). After we arrived, it didn’t take long before I realized that the racer couldn’t compete. Middlebury Drive in Waterloo is a pretty steep street, a lot steeper than the street we practiced on, and my son was barely strong enough to use the brake on our little street where we had practiced. It also didn’t help that every racer there, save ours, had some sort of rack and pinion steering and our rope steering could be barely operated by my son. I opted to keep him out of the race this year and just observe. Tears were shed, but it was for the best.

Almost forgot to mention, we watched two pretty big crashes during the trial runs, by kids much older than my son. One girl lost control of her steering and rolled on the asphalt; the other boy couldn’t stop in time, hit the wall of tires that was being used as a safety stop, flipped his car and flew out. Both kids didn’t end up competing after their respective crashes, and it kind of sealed the deal on my son not racing that day.

Although Jonas did get a tailgate breakfast out of it, so not all was lost.

A sad little boy in his racer. In some ways I feel I let him down, in others, well, we built a soap box racer together, he’s a lucky kid.

Next year he will compete. I am going to lower the racer to the ground and build two new braking systems, both of which were inspired by other cars in the race. We are also going to make a rack and pinion steering system so that he can steer with a wheel much easier than fighting to pull on the rope. The parents I met on race day were awesome and all had great advice for improving the racer. We has so many parents come up to us and mention that they were following the progress of our racer. We built it in our front yard, so the whole neighborhood developed an attachment to our progress. There will be racing next year.

Building robots with my (oldest) son

I have three kids now. Jonas (4.5), Grace (3), and Isaac (3 months). I had to add (oldest) to the title of the post now that there are two boys. Feels weird. Good weird, but weird nonetheless.

My son has expressed interest in a lot of topics lately. Robots, dinosaurs, planets, fish biology, you name it, typical boy stuff in many ways. We went to the ROM a couple months ago to see the dinosaurs. As an adult it was fun going back there and living the experience through my kids’ eyes. One of the first things Jonas noticed when we got there was the Pterodactyl fossils hanging from the ceiling, and my wife captured him, Grace and I all staring up in wonder.

Doing things with my kids not only gives them something to do, but it gives me something to do as well. There are so many activities I have done in the past 4.5 years I wouldn’t have bothered to do if I didn’t have kids. That, in many ways, is the best gift having children has given me; an excuse to be active and view the world with a 4 year-old’s sense of wonder again.

I used to build robots. Lots of robots. It was a hobby habit. I built my first at 8, soldered it myself and everything. Used two motors from some broken toys, cut the base out of plywood with a jig saw, the whole nine. I had built many others over the years, all the way through high school, then I stopped once I entered University. I stopped doing a lot of things once I entered University. I “had” to, I was an adult and paying for my education now. I only really worked on that stuff if I was paid to, which I did when I worked for ESQ, and I won a national award for it. Otherwise, I had to no time to focus on fun, for I had to study and make my investment worth it. Unfortunately this new habit of not investing myself in my other interests stuck a little too well, and it had been years since I last picked up a soldering iron. Until I had kids.

When my son came home from school with a science fair sign-up sheet, I laughed maniacally. I had visions of harvesting Thorium from old camping lanterns and making a breeder reactor, but I decided that I’ll save that idea until he is 10. Besides, Uranium isn’t too healthy for a 4 year-old. So, I asked him if he wanted to participate, and if so, what did he want to do. It was advertized as a science fair and invention convention, which was good for me, because explaining the scientific method to a four year-old seemed like an effort in futility. Don’t get me wrong, kids can be extraordinarily smart, but the whole cause-and-effect thing is something I have always known takes a while to actually sink in. Even then, there are adults out there who still haven’t learned that lesson.

He wanted to build a robot, and build a robot we did, multiple robots, in fact.

Our first robot was from Sparkfun. I picked up two of the Magician Chassis when I was buying a few other things from their site. They looked like really useful, inexpensive robot chassis that’s be perfect for quick and dirty experiments and tests of motors and sensors. I had plans to build both and figure out a way to get them to communicate with one another, much like how bees can communicate the location of flowers. But that is an experiment and blog post for another time. Back to the robots. I love them. They are easy to assemble, easy enough Jonas assembled one and Grace assembled the other. We used it as a test for the larger robot Jonas wanted to build. I hadn’t used the L293 as a motor driver yet, so I wanted something quick and easy to set up to test the motor driver. I also used a Sharp IR sensor for object avoidance.

This robot was super-quick to assemble, worked well enough, and gave me some code to use as a starting point for the main robot we were going to build.

The next robot, Jonas’ robot for the science fair, needed to be bigger. Jonas had a list of desired features, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get him to implement them all in time for the science fair, so I stuck with the plan of building a bigger version of the Magician Chassis. We went with a DFRobot Pirate-4WD Mobile Platform model. We spent a lot of time looking at robot frames online together. I know, we should have built the frame ourselves from scrap, but the benefit of buying something easy to assemble was that Jonas could do it himself. He wanted something that could “climb over stuff”, and this robot chassis has 4 wheel drive. The other features he wants (and we are currently working on) is for the robot to have two claws, and to repeatedly say “I am a robot”.

Having my son assemble things turned out not to be that difficult. His small, nimble fingers could easily do things my big, fat adult-hands could not. Programming the Arduino, however, I had to do myself. He’s barely started reading and writing, I am not going to try to teach him a programming language for another year or two at least. The Science Fair event itself was a bit of a let-down. After all the hard work, he was more interested in socializing with the other kids that his display remained unmanned most of the evening, but playing is what kids are supposed to do. His sister, however, was very engaged with all the other projects she got to see and play with that evening. I have to start planning for her project, I only have two years.

Hardest part of making anything

Hardest part of making anything is definitely not the actual making part. No, putting something together is where all the fun happens. The mistakes, learning, and growing from doing it is the most fun. Hardest part of making anything is sourcing. Finding supplies. Happens all the time. There are two routes when you are a maker: scavenging and saving stuff for potential future uses, or scavenging and buying for desired current use.

Saving things for the future is obviously the most cost-effective route, but it can take up a lot of space depending upon what exactly you are trying to do. I have a bunch of old, wooden windows I want to make into either a cold frame or a greenhouse if I can find more. I’ve had them for five years now. I even moved them with me when I moved back to Waterloo. Seems silly to keep them for so long, but I tell myself “We’ll, if you’ve kept them this long…”. Following this route, you have to be comfortable being a bit of a pack rat. Some projects are easier to be a pack rat with than others. Electronics, due to the small size of components, is an easy area to be a pack rat in. They can fit in such a small space, it really isn’t that big a deal whether you save something or not. Building your own greenhouse requires more room and a more tolerant wife.

The other route, buying things, is not cost effective, but it does have immediate benefits. Less room is used storing components, and there is a quicker turnaround time creating new things. At the same time, it seems to go against what I feel to be a key ethos of being a maker; recycling. Finding new purposes for old things is better than finding new purposes for new things. Keeping things out of landfill and breathing new life into them is something that inspires pride in your work. Just going out and buying components makes you another consumer. The other side, having a quick turnaround time, is sometimes key to getting something done. Some projects will never get done unless you strike while the iron is hot. My wife and I were looking for a desk for my son, but nothing out there met our needs or came close to my standards, so I made one for him. From the moment we decided that I would make it, I worked on it six nights in a row until it was completed. If I hadn’t we probably would have kept looking at desks in stores and in used ads online until we found something we would settle on.

I realize there are exceptions to both philosophies, but I have to admit, it is a hard balance to strike. Being a pack rat, you have to learn when to let go of something. Being a consumer, you need to be able to realize when there is a reasonable free alternative. Just don’t ask me to get rid of my windows just yet…

Making meth… or soap… or another internet… whatever

All the legislation and effort that governments around the world are putting into censoring or tracking everyone and everything “undesirable” on the internet are just so… futile. As though it is possible to suppress an idea or hide knowledge. Thing is, this sort of censorship always has been going on. As soon as one person does something bad with a service or product there are all these knee-jerk, reactionary laws put into place that make what was legal the day before illegal, as if creating a new law will magically make undesirable behavior stop. New laws don’t solve problems, they just create more criminals, and send undesirable behavior further underground.

My grandfather once told me that when he was a young man, it was possible to buy TNT in the hardware store. Today, no one could imagine being able to buy TNT so easily, but in reality, if you really wanted to, making TNT isn’t that hard, it’d just take you five minutes on the internet, a friend with a background in chemistry, or a copy of Fight Club to figure out how.

My point is although legislators who made it difficult to purchase TNT went home feeling like they accomplished something, they really didn’t. It’s still ridiculously easy to manufacture TNT on your own, yet we don’t see widespread use and criminal activity with it. Most of the time people are reasonable with their freedoms, and the occasional nutjob will slip through the cracks, but marginalizing everyone because of the actions of one will get you nowhere other than giving yourself a false sense of accomplishment and security. And a disenfranchised public. Your time/money/effort would be better spent helping the “nutjobs” to be healthy, productive members of society instead of marginalizing them.

As much as all the internet censorship makes my blood boil, I know that even if the worst scenario came to pass, people would rise to the challenge, and create a new internet. A decentralized wireless darknet with no central tracking and no way to eliminate or cut off information will rise up, and hopefully on its own and soon. I’ve heard stories that darknets have sprouted up en masse in Syria due to government crackdowns.

Personally, I’ve ran into this sort of reactionary law recently. I want to make soap. I found a really simple recipe to try it out. Basically fat and lye and water. In this case I am going to use coconut oil for the fat. In a well-ventilated area, while wearing gloves, goggles, and long sleeves, mix the lye in water, and it heats up really hot (the solution is very dangerous, and vents off lots of bad-for-you gases). Wait for the solution to cool to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. While the lye solution is cooling heat the fat to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and once both liquids are at the same temperature, mix them together, and blend until a haze forms in the new mixture with an old, no-longer-used-for-food, blender. Then pour into a mold and leave it alone for a month for the saponification process to complete. Presto, you have soap.

So I’ve started collecting the materials to make soap. Hard part was finding lye. Turns out, there have been significant efforts made recently to eliminate all lye sales, to to replace raw lye products with some sort of chemically-similar-but-not-lye products. The reason being that lye is necessary in one of the simplest processes to make meth. Notice I said “one of the simplest processes”. There are still other methods to make meth without lye. So while legislators feel as though controlling and outright banning sales of lye is helping the problem, they, once again, are just disenfranchising the public.

My other point: I had no interest in learning how to make meth before, but thanks to the roadblocks put in place to my finding lye, in my research I stumbled across multiple recipes for it (many of which are on Youtube). By making something illegal they only served to disseminate the information quicker; where I had no interest in the knowledge previously, secondary curiosity has brought it into my focus now. While trying to collect the materials to make soap I couldn’t find lye, and out of frustration I naively asked Google ‘Why is it so hard to find lye?”.

Problem is, for a soap-maker, you need lye, no substitutes. And there are still 100’s of valid uses for pure lye out there.

The solution for my lye needs? Easiest would have been to order it through the internet. You can still get anything through the internet, and everything is tracked electronically so some government agency can track you and put you into a database and do analysis of your behavior. That wasn’t good enough for me, it would take too long and shipping can be expensive. My solution to finding lye was to drive out of town. Ten minutes, to be exact. Most of those 100’s of valid uses for lye reside on farms, so just go to a hardware store in a farming community. During the momentary banter with the clerk as my debit transaction was being processed I was complaining how hard it was to find lye, he said to me “now don’t go making meth with this stuff”.

I won’t, but thanks for the tip anyways.