Saturday, January 25, 2014

Beware the WeevilEye: Soldering for 7-year olds

For Christmas, the granddaughter received a "WeevilEye" soldering kit we got her from SparkFun. Last week she soldered together an LED circuit she and Grandma made into a bracelet with moldable plastic, but this was a much more involved, detailed affair, and the first time she'd soldered onto a printed circuit board (PCB). So we had her practice first on a scrap board, soldering several wires and a resistor:


Once she had that process down, she started in on the WeevilEye.


Three resistors, a transistor, a light sensor, two LEDs, and a battery holder later, the finished project worked just as advertised: The eyes light up when it's dark and go off in the light.


The only real problem came when some solder bled across both slots on one of the LEDs, but that was fixed just by reheating it and wiping off the excess with a small sponge. Also, the coin cell battery holder leads were a bit small and difficult to access once all the other components were in, but she accomplished it just fine once she found the right angle. Here's what the finished product looked like, from the SparkFun site:
If I had one suggestion it would have been for the manufacturers to include an on-off switch on the battery holder. Because it uses a transistor, the device drains the battery even when the LEDs are off. But the battery pops out pretty easily and that's not a big problem. Quite a nice little introductory soldering kit for a seven-year old.

AND MORE (Feb. 12): Not a soldering project but I wanted to store these links somewhere: Last weekend we took the young'un to an event at Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin where they had the kids create small theremins on a breadboard. Excellent event; lots of kids and families there. Here's the link to the project page, the schematics, and in case they eventually take those down, here are several other sites they recommended for other noise projects:

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Beefing up my Arduino chops

Looking forward to taking a couple of classes over the next two weeks on programming and experimenting with Arduinos - small microcontrollers/computers that use sensors for inputs - at the TechShop in far North Austin. I've been fiddling with the tech in autodidact mode for a couple of months but am hoping formal classes will give me an opportunity to get over the hump and really begin doing stuff with them. Classes are a little pricey at $90 per, but I don't really know where else one would go to learn this stuff.

Kathy has lately been fiddling around with wearable technology. Most recently she stitched el wire into a hoodie for the granddaughter that lights up, flashes, etc.. Once my Arduino programming chops are up to snuff, we're hoping to combine the efforts using the Lilypad or FLORA platforms to do more interesting, programmable clothing projects that incorporate sensors, sound, light, and potentially motion. The idea is for all this to peak around Halloween.

These projects have been a really nice diversion from some of the heavier topics I deal with at work.

ALSO: Looking for more detailed instruction on these topics, I signed up to audit an online class out of UT-Austin on embedded electronic systems - one of their new MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. You can pay a little extra to get your work graded and end up with an "achievement certificate," but I'm in it for the knowledge, not the credential. Here's the syllabus and the course site. The class is based on this book. I'm quite looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fart noises for the treehouse doorbell: An inspiration

I've been on a DIY kick recently and today in the car I asked Ty, if you could have a button on your treehouse that you could press and it would do something (light a light, make a noise, move something, etc.), what should it do?

She thought about it for a moment then said she wanted a doorbell for her treehouse. A moment or two went by and she began to giggle, then announced that she wanted a doorbell that made "fart noises."

Looking around at the possibilities, if I'm not mistaken, I think I've figured out how to pull that off without breaking the bank. Looks like this little module and a 9 volt battery will do the trick for $12. Very cool.

UPDATE: This worked like a charm! Even better, we put it in a little case where the young'un could remove it and re-record whatever she wanted, and she changes out the message every couple of weeks. My only beef: I wish the "record" button were on the little green board and the "play" button was the one attached externally with wire (on the right in the photo) so you could better place the button you hit to make noises wherever you want. But we figured out how to make it work. It's been a big hit. Really cool module for the price.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ready for another vacation

Wish I were in Mexico City right now. This was Ty's dinner at Sanborn's across from the Palacios de Bellas Artes on our last night there two summers ago. The arms and legs are taquitos; the eyes are hot dog slices with green pea pupils:


Shadow dancing in the zocalo:


When you go to the zoo, do you like your camels with one hump ...


Or two?


First panda I've seen, how 'bout you?

 
And unlike here, it's not too onerous to spend the day outdoors:


These days, a certain young'un is a bit more skilled at the monkey bars than two summers ago.


This was at the Children's Museum in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, which is also where the aforementioned zoo is located. At the time, Ty was a month shy of her 5th birthday: Our next vacation begins in a week. I'm ready for it to have started yesterday.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Future low-information voters

Yesterday, while picking up my six-year old granddaughter from a YMCA aftercare program, I walked in on a staffer from the Y quizzing the kids on their political knowledge. "Does anybody here know the name of Texas' governor," she asked them, and dozens of hands flew into the air. "Not the President," she said, "not Barack Obama, but who is the Governor of Texas?" Nearly every hand went down except for one, small child at the very back of the room. The staffer called on her and she confidently piped up, "Mitt Romney!" I couldn't help but laugh out loud and interject, "Wrong state, he used to be a governor, just not here."

When Ty and I got to the car, I taught her the names of Texas' Governor and Austin's Mayor on the way home until she could repeat them on demand. "It's important to know their names," I told her, "if only so you'll get the joke when people make fun of them, because almost everybody does."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wicked Witch of the East Photo Gallery

Since a certain six year old has been practicing her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, the remains of the Wicked Witch of the East have come to temporarily occupy my living room, with my grandmother's piano playing the role of Dorothy's house:


Y aqui:

Y más cercano:



Nobody will confuse us with prop makers, but we've gotten a lot of mileage out of this simple gag, both when she's practicing her role and as a running household joke. They never fail to garner a second look from visitors, either, but no one has to ask: Everybody knows the reference.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Twinkie is dead, long live the Twinkie

Hostess, the Irving-based maker of "Twinkies," is going out of business, reported AP. See more background on the company's demise. Though I ate their products as a kid, today I can't think of a thing these folks make that I'd miss if their products were taken off the shelves. From what I read, it sounds like company management pretty much brought this on themselves. I'm sorry for the 18,500 workers nationwide who might lose their jobs, and I don't think anytime soon that the word "Twinkie" will exit the American lexicon. But wouldn't be sorry to see Twinkies and their ilk exit the American diet.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

R.I.P. Darrell Royal 1924-2012

My father passed along this tribute. Though his three national championships came a decade prior, I'll always remember him paired with hometown hero Earl Campbell, as depicted here:


Last time I saw Earl, regrettably, he was nearly as decrepit as Coach Royal. Sad news.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Howdy, folks!

A depressing image for any Texan:

Via the Dallas Morning News
I won't mind seeing the old fellow get a modernizing makeover, but what a surreal event!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Badminton suspensions place wrongly blame players for incentives created by Olympic officials

There's a stench of hypocrisy surrounding the decision by the International Olympic Committee to suspend eight badminton players yesterday for tanking matches to manipulate who they would face in the seedings. (See Washington Post coverage.)

By contrast, the Japanexe soccer (football) team will rest four or five of their starting players in its game today against Honduras, I heard on NBC, because they're already won enough to be guaranteed a slot in the elimination rounds. NBC color announcer and former Olympian Cobi Jones predicted a Honduran upset as a result. Similarly, yesterday I watched an Australian boxer who had clearly dominated the first two rounds of a fight get on his bicycle and avoid significant punching exchanges with his opponent throughout Round Three.

How are these episodes any different from the athletes who tanked badminton matches? (And if you don't think badminton players are athletes, you haven't seen the game played at the highest levels.) IMO the blame lies not with the athletes, who're only responding to the incentives created by those who set up the event. If you want everyone to try hard every game, make them all elimination matches. But don't blame players for maximizing their chances to win a medal under the rules, which is all that happened here. Don't like it? Change the rules.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How long does it take to ...

This interesting list of options popped up on Google when I began a search query with "How long does it take to ...":
  • boil an egg
  • get to the moon
  • get a passport
  • digest food
  • get pregnant
  • get to mars
  • walk a mile
  • bake a potato
  • hard boil an egg
  • buy a house
As it happens, none of those items coincided with my own query, but I thought it was a particularly odd list. Not what I would have expected.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Watching TV, movies from across the Pacific

Kathy and I lately have been watching quite a bit of subtitled Asian TV and movies on Netflix and ran across - arguably, in my opinion - perhaps the greatest (if a quirky and unusual) love story I've ever seen portrayed on film: Castaway on the Moon, written and directed by Hey-Jun Lee. A genius plot, quite well done. Not just every scene but nearly every shot was masterful, emotionally compelling with high impact. It won awards in Asia but I hadn't heard of it: Top-notch stuff. I understand John Waters may be making an American version, but I couldn't recommend the Korean one more highly. Hard to say if the concept will translate.

We also tapped into a recent Korean TV series based on an old Asian cartoon hero called City Hunter, which told the story of an over-the-top revenge plot fulfilled (often against his will) by the son of a man murdered by his government on a secret spy mission against North Korea. The show was fun and compelling as a fan, with each episode ending on 24-style cliffhangers without quite the hokiness of some American thrillers. And the plot was different from most everything on American TV, exciting, provocative, and unexpected, if at moments a bit too sentimental for US tastes.

After watching City Hunter, the missus looked up other stuff done by the same lead actor, which led to a goofy but fun show called Boys over Flowers, which was apparently quite popular in Korea and throughout Asia in 2009. This show is mainly about the pretty boys and their clothes at an elite school where billionaires' kids call the shots and, with the exception of the female lead, the role of female characters is to drool and fawn over the four (admittedly spectacularly pretty) male leads while engaging in catty (sometimes violent) attacks on the heroine. Kathy calls the show "eye candy." So far (we're just a half-dozen or so episodes in), it's barely maintaining my interest, though as a teen love story it's pretty tame by western standards, and a little sappy. Still, the over-the-top class-war laden high-school drama and the always spectacular visuals (it's really made me want to visit Korea) are worth enduring the sappy teenage angst and constant glamor shots. For both City Hunter and Boys Over Flowers, I definitely wish the translations were better.

I should also mention a Chinese movie, King of Masks, which featured the most brilliant performance by a child actress (Renying Zhou) I've ever witnessed: Like watching Jodi Foster's child performances, except arguably with even more nuance and emotional control. How this movie failed to compete for awards in the west is beyond me: It was brilliantly conceived, directed and acted. The ending was a tad sentimental, but for American audiences it would actually seem understated given the happy-ending goop sold to audiences here all the time.

We ran across King of Masks by identifying other movies including the actors from Farewell My Concubine, which received more favorable attention in the west than the other movies described here. Farewell My Concubine is a brilliant, epic film depicting the dark interior world of Chinese opera, particularly for children raised in that glorious but brutal tradition, not to mention the absolute awfulness of the Cultural Revolution and its treatment of artists. (The "concubine" in that movie plays a cross-dressing opera star in King of Masks.) Good stuff.

We've enjoyed two excellent Taiwanese movies during this stretch: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Eat Drink Man Woman. These are two very different movies but both focused on the personal lives of women in different eras. The former is set in the 19th century and tells the story of two women bound through decades of personal and political turmoil, while the latter depicts three sisters and their food-centered relationship with their father, an aging master chef. I enjoyed both of them tremendously.

Finally, we've watched two of three parts in the Japanese trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-'61), and are awaiting the third. Some critics have called The Human Condition the greatest movie ever made in any language; they're not far off, certainly for its era. The movie was perhaps the first time the Japanese people confronted in artistic form their nation's brutal totalitarian actions on mainland China during World War II and the implications for their society's ability to integrate into a modern world that respected instead of disregarded values of humanism. Netflix didn't have this one streaming but you can order each part separately through their mail service. So it takes a while to watch it but it's worth the wait.

I'm not sure how much of a market there is in the US for subtitled TV, but the quality of these offerings have been high. I've enjoyed our brief foray into Asian TV and cinema.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Mystery of the Lost Library of Congress

This is simply bad-ass, and the Law Librarian blog is right that the story is ripe for inclusion in Nicholas Cage's National Treasure franchise: The Library of Congress' blog has a post on the mysterious disappearance of the contents of the first Library of Congress, most of which was supposedly evacuated prior to the British occupation of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. At the time, the Library of Congress was a collection of around 3,000 books but more importantly a collection of priceless historical papers dating to the founding of the republic. The official telling focuses on the books, which were replaced with Thomas Jefferson's private collection, according to the official Librarians of Congress blog:
Less than a month after the fire, Thomas Jefferson came forward and proposed that the United States purchase his collection of 6,487 books to replace the library that was lost. Congress eventually agreed to the purchase, although not without controversy; and in 1815 Jefferson’s library became the foundation of the modern collection of the Library of Congress.
The papers, though, were the bigger loss, and it appears they (and most of the books) were not burned in the fire in Washington but removed before the British invasion and stashed nine miles away, according to a later report to Congress. Here's how the Library of Congress blog retells the tale:
What is rarely remembered, however, is that in the immediate aftermath of the fire, there were conflicting reports about the extent of the damage that was inflicted on the original collection. Writing in 1905, Library of Congress historian William Dawson Johnston cited documents preserved in the Annals of Congress that indicate that much of the first library had in fact been preserved.

The Annals of Congress for September 22, 1814, for example, contains a letter written by the staff members of the Library who were assigned the task of removing the collection to safety in the days before the invasion of Washington: S. Burch (who was furloughed from his post in the militia on August 22 – two days before the fire – so that he might resume his duties at the Library) and the Under-Librarian of Congress, J.T. Frost (who was too old for militia duty). These were the only staff members involved in the evacuation of the Library. The letter was their report to the Librarian of Congress, Patrick Magruder, about the events at the Library leading up to the fire. They write:
“[On Monday, August 22] We immediately went to packing up, and Mr. Burch went out in search of wagons or other carriages, for the transportation of the books and papers; every wagon, and almost every cart, belonging to the city, had been previously impressed into the service of the United States, for the transportation of the baggage of the army; the few he was able to find were loaded with the private effects of individuals, who were moving without the city; those he attempted to hire, but not succeeding, he claimed a right to impress them; but, having no legal authority, or military force to aid him, he, of course, did not succeed. He sent off three messengers into the country, one of whom obtained from Mr. John Wilson, whose residence is six miles from the city, the use of a cart and four oxen; it did not arrive at the office, until after dark on Monday night, when it was immediately laden with the most valuable records and papers, which were taken, on the same night, nine miles, to a safe and secret place in the country. We continued to remove as many of the most valuable books and papers, having removed the manuscript records, as we were able to do with our one cart, until the morning of the day of the battle of Bladensburg, after which we were unable to take away anything further.”

Thus far: two oxcarts were taken away to safety – one full of records and papers, and another containing books and papers. The records and papers appear (in another passage) to have been destroyed in a later fire, one that took place in the safe house; but as for the printed books, Burch and Frost state later in the letter, “a number of the printed books were consumed [in the Capitol fire], but they were all duplicates of those which have been preserved.”  In other words, the better part of the Library had been removed to safety before the fire, including the most valuable books. Frost mentions the successful rescue of the print book collection again in another letter on December 17, 1814, which he wrote in response to public statements made by the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. The Committee had claimed that the collection was completely destroyed because no preparatory measures had  been taken to expedite its removal. Frost writes, “The several loads [of books] that were saved, were taken from the shelves on which they were placed and deposited in the carts by which they were taken away; they have suffered no injury…”
That account, however, was denied in whole by Brigadier General Duncan McArthur as well as an official "statement of the committee on the Library headed by Joseph Pearson." Could the denials have been a coverup, and if so what might be a possible motive? Could the two men charged with moving the materials decided to act opportunistically? Might there have been a political backstory? (The Law Librarian blog mischeviously suggests as a possible movie-motive that "Jefferson is cash poor and sells his books to Congress because he needs money.") Regrettably, since even the account of the spiriting away of the records says the papers were destroyed in a separate fire at the safe house, one doubts some National-Treasure style adventure might one day lead to their discovery, anymore than I suspect some 21st century Indiana Jones will discover the lost library of Alexandria. But that was all definitely history I didn't know.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gila National Forest burning

One of my favorite camping spots in New Mexico, the Gila National Forest, is presently burning out of control, though thankfully prevailing winds have kept the flames away from populated areas so far. The biggest of the fires has burned more than 170,000 acres and is New Mexico's largest wildfire ever. (After last summer's fires in Central Texas, it's easy to empathize.) From the Gila Forest's Flickr stream:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Backyard Naturalist Report, May 12

Any Backyard Naturalist worth their salt must frequently collect samples for further study. These are samples collected recently of several varieties of flowers found in Grandma's backyard garden, along with the collector:




Here's a dragonfly perched over a small pond in the front yard:


And examples of some of the flora:


Yes, that is a television turned into a planter. These are in a windowbox:


And finally, the tomato crop is beginning to come in:



This concludes your Backyard Naturalist report for the day.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

'Let Yankees adopt such low callings': Reflections on the making of a southern lawyer

Tracy Crawford presents award to my Dad (right)
I appreciated all the kind words readers had to say about my father, Tom Henson, who was honored Friday in Tyler with the "Justinian Award" by the Smith County Bar Foundation, so I thought I'd point those interested to a blog post from my brother - a minister in Shreveport - giving a brief account of the event.  I should add that, though I've always been proud of my father, the hagiography offered up by his law partner and (for me) life-long family friend Tracy Crawford during the introduction left me downright tearful and beaming with pride. (I said to my Dad afterward that normally people don't say things like that about you until they're throwing dirt on you!) Your correspondent was blessed to be raised by good Christian parents of high character and it was wonderful to see my Dad justly honored for his life's work.

BTW, a line from my father's acceptance speech recorded in John's post will give you a flavor of both my Dad's humor and a taste of the cultural background that led your correspondent to choose the perhaps unlikely nom de plume, "Grits for Breakfast." At one point my Dad rattled off a series of quotes about the law from a variety of learned figures from Einstein to Clarence Darrow to St. Thomas Aquinas, but he finished off the litany with a line from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: "The south produced statesmen and soldiers, planters and doctors and lawyers and poets, but certainly no engineers and mechanics. Let Yankees adopt such low callings!"

Tracy Crawford mentioned, as my brother recorded, that my great grandfather, Archibald "Arch" Sneed, my grandmother's father, was a huge formative influence for my Dad, and he could have added for me as well. (My brother was a little too young to remember him very much.) He died when I was six and was the first person I loved to pass away, which itself was a formative experience. But this family patriarch's life and legacy was as emblematic of Texas for me as Longhorns or spring bluebonnets.

Sneed's family came to Texas after Sherman's soldiers destroyed their family farm in eastern Mississippi near the end of the Civil War. According to family lore, the women and children hid in a root cellar, terrified, silent and cowering while union troops burned out their farm. They listened to the soldiers pillaging their home while their animals screamed and died in a burning barn just a few feet away from them. Afterward, they abandoned the smoldering rubble to head westward to Texas, part of a mass migration of ex-Confederates that rapidly populated much of the state.

Via the XIT Museum
Arch Sneed was born a Texan and grew up in Lampassass. As Tracy mentioned, he was inspired to see the cattle drives plowing northward toward the markets in Kansas and Chicago. As a young man  he moved north hoping to work as a cowboy on the famed XIT Ranch, which covered large chunks of ten Texas counties in the northwestern section of the Panhandle. He was turned down when he first applied, though. They only wanted men age 21 and over who could vote in order to maximize their power in local elections. If you're unaware of the XIT it's an interesting tidbit of Texas history that was incredibly important to that region of the state. A Chicago-based syndicate, if I recall, had traded the state for the massive expanse of property along the New Mexico border - three million acres famously surrounded by six thousand miles of fence - in exchange for construction of the Texas capitol. The granite building - the one still in use today - had to be built to spec: Slightly taller than the capitol in Washington D.C. and facing south, with its back to the Yankee oppressors.

Anyway, before my great-grandfather was old enough to land his dream job at the XIT, Teddy Roosevelt came through town recruiting men to join his Rough Riders, who would eventually join him in his famed ride up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. He was traveling through cowboy country recruiting men as he headed southward where they would train in San Antonio before heading to Cuba. Young Arch met the future president, was sorely impressed with him, and desperately wanted to join the Rough Riders, he recounted to me more than once many decades later. But because he was 17, the Army required his mother's permission and she said "no." Her reason: He would be required to wear a blue (read: Yankee) uniform. The wounds were still too fresh. So that was that. He would remain a cowboy instead of becoming a soldier, signing on at the XIT the moment they would have him. If Arch Sneed could be said to have had any life regrets, the missed opportunity to ride with Teddy Roosevelt would certainly be it.

TR recruited Panhandle cowboys
When the XIT Ranch folded before WWI, my great-grandfather became a railroad engineer and worked 30 years based out of Dalhart piloting trains across America for the now-defunct Rock Island Line, retiring with a traditional company watch when he was done that's one of my father's prized possessions. Less discussed in family lore was his participation in massive railworker strike in 1946 busted by Harry Truman. He was a Freemason of some fairly high degree. On a darker note, he very briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, say my older relatives, leaving once he "found out what they were about." I hope that's true. His favorite book was Ivanhoe, which he read more than a dozen times. (When books were more scarce, you read the same ones over and over.) He could recite poetry nearly endlessly on command, much of it memorized from a set of small blue books anthologizing "classic" poetry he'd purchased somewhere on his railroad travels. (My father later taught me to recite verse as a child from those very same texts.) He raised two daughters, including my grandmother, and sent both of them to college at Texas Tech.

Through all of that, though, he continued to self-identify as a cowboy. It was who Arch Sneed was at his core. Dalhart continues to hold an annual XIT Rodeo along with the world's largest outdoor barbecue. But the annual event in August used to be the XIT Rodeo and Reunion, where, before they all passed, former XIT cowboys would be feted and honored, even driven down the street in a full-blown parade with floats and marching bands. By the time I attended, as we did nearly annually as a kid, the increasingly few elderly former XIT cowboys would ride along in horse drawn carriages, followed by one horse with a poignantly empty saddle to honor the cowboys no longer with them. The XIT Ranch was celebrated in Dalhart when I was a kid more vigorously than the Fourth of July!

Tracy Crawford couldn't be more right that to understand Tom Henson one must understand Arch Sneed. It's probably true for me as well. The man's life helped define our family's values and priorities long after he was dead and buried, and my own identity as a Texan is certainly rooted in his legacy. My father's parents lived just a few blocks away from his maternal grandparents during his childhood and he spent nearly as much time at their place as at his own home. His father was Dallam County Judge and a rather stern man, while Arch Sneed, his grandfather, was a jovial, joking character with a wry sense of humor who liberally handed out nicknames and was full of stories from his cowboy and railroad days, always sprinkled with healthy dose of almost classic Texan exaggeration and bombast, but also the down-to-earth self-deprecation of a man who'd helped transform the Old West into the modern era, along with many others like him, not through oil money or hustling real estate but by the sweat of his brow working other men's cattle and land.

As my father likes to point out, Arch Sneed's life coincided with a wave of technological and social change that's nearly impossible to fathom. As a boy he established his life's ambition watching Texas cattle drives marching northward and before he died he watched on television as a man walked on the moon. What a mind blowing transformation he witnessed! He would have been proud of last week's homage to my father, and I was pleased his memory was recognized on Friday along with my Dad.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Backyard Naturalist Report (for a 5-Year Old)

The missus is taking the granddaughter to school today and the young'un asked for an update on the flora and fauna watched most closely by the child in our seemingly ever-interesting (when you're 5) backyard.

First, and most importantly, I can report that there are no fewer than nine spiders - big and small but all the same species - who have created huge webs across 2/3 of the pond:




I was also instructed to check on the plant hanging from her treehouse and am pleased to report that it's covered in bright purple flowers:



Finally, the squash plant she planted in a cup in her pre-K class, which was replanted into a pot on our deck, is now about eight feet long, has grown off a metal table that it will soon completely consume, and this morning sported two, bright orange five-pointed flowers, with two more about to open. Here's an example:


That concludes your Backyard Naturalist Report for May 3.