Let’s Make something at Hacker Lab!

Earlier this month I became one of the Facilitators at Hacker Lab in Sacramento. As such, I’ll be working in the Maker Space once or twice a week, helping users with the plethora of tools and equipment they have available.

One of the first tasks assigned to new Facilitators is writing up a short bio. So of course I headed straight for my blog and put up my Facilitator page. ;)

Currently I’m working every Wednesday evening, after I finish my day job. I also plan to work a shift every 2-3 weekends starting next month. Come on out to Midtown (I Street at 17th), and let’s Make something at Hacker Lab!

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iOS7, battery killer!

I finally upgraded my iPhone 4S to iOS7 the other day, plugged in my charger that night, and started the day with a shiny new OS. But in less than an hour, my battery was dead. WTH?!? Continue reading

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Cranberry-satsuma relish

The 2012 Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appétit had a cranberry-orange-mint relish recipe that looked pretty good, except that my wife can’t stand mint. So I left out the mint, substituted satsumas for the oranges, and used star thistle honey instead of sugar. I like to let this sit in the refrigerator overnight to allow all the flavors to meld. It makes a refreshingly tart complement to many meals, not just Thanksgiving.

Cranberry-satsuma relish

Continue reading

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blog software updates

Wow, I had really let this blog fall by the wayside! :(

When I started the 30-day challenge earlier this month, I knew one of the urgent things that needed to be done was a full update of the blog software, theme, and plug-ins. I finally got it done! WordPress is up-to-date, along with the twentyten theme and all my active plug-ins. I also took this opportunity to delete old themes and plug-ins that are obsolete, stale, or unlikely to be used.

When I updated the twentyten theme, I was expecting to see a widget for images in my admin panel. After all, the Zero-to-Hero post links to an image widget page which makes it seem like that’s a regular feature. Or maybe it’s only applicable to a wordpress.com hosted site? Anyway, I wanted to add a zero-to-hero badge/widget, and since there doesn’t seem to be one built in I’m trying out Image-widget and Simple-image-widget.

Some other plug-ins/features that I’d like to add are:

I’ve uploaded all of those, but I still have to activate and test them, including making sure they don’t interfere with each other!

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Tiny Arduinos

I’ve been playing with Arduino boards for the past year or two. These were designed as micro controllers for the masses — easy to program and simple to wire up. You need only the most rudimentary computer and electronics skills to get started playing with these excellent boards. They’re also relatively inexpensive. You can get an Arduino Uno board, (the most commonly mentioned Arduino in 2013), for about US$30.

But if you decide to start using these for real, i.e. deploying a prototype permanently or long-term, suddenly “relatively cheap” may not be quite as inexpensive as you’d like. Thirty bucks is reasonable for something that sits on your workbench, but that’s kind of expensive if you want to use a handful of them to monitor the temperature throughout your house: $30 x 5 is $150, which suddenly isn’t looking inexpensive at all.

There are cheaper alternatives, especially if all you need is a few I/O pins. The two that I’ve been playing with lately are Digistump’s Digispark and Adafruit’s Trinket. Both of these are priced under US$10 and use the ATtiny85 micro controller chip, the diminutive little brother of the chip in a regular Arduino.

Main differences between these two boards:

  • Trinket is a bit cheaper (about $1) than Digispark.
  • Digispark exposes all 6 GPIO pins, whereas Trinket has 5.
  • Trinket has a RESET switch. (You “reset” the Digispark via power cycling.)
  • Digispark supports “shields” (add-on boards) and currently offers ~20 shields.
  • Trinket is available in both 3.3V and 5V, Digistump is 5V only.
  • Digispark is smaller, but Trinket has mounting holes.

In general, I prefer the Trinket unless I need all 6 GPIO’s or the slightly smaller form factor of the Digispark. The Digispark shields can also be handy, but I only use those on workbench prototypes.

The Trinket tutorial has a wealth of information. Below are some of the things that I’m always looking up there.

  • GPIO output is 20 mA max, same as a regular Arduino.
  • I2C pins are GPIO #0 (I2C data) and GPIO #2 (I2C clock).
  • USB communication uses pins #3 and #4. Hardware on these pins can interfere with the USB interface, e.g. reprogramming the Trinket. So it’s a good idea to provide some sort of disconnect ability if you use either of these two pins.
  • PWM output available on pins #0, #1, and #4.
  • ADC (analog input) pins are GPIO #2, #3, and #4. Keep in mind that the GPIO/digital pin numbers are ”’not”’ the same as the analog inputs! The printed labels on the Trinket are the ”digital” pin numbers.
    • GPIO/digital #2 is analog (ADC channel) 1
    • GPIO/digital #3 is analog (ADC channel) 3
    • GPIO/digital #4 is analog (ADC channel) 2 — Yes, the analog numbers are out of order
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Green commuting

One of my resolutions for 2014 is to make at least half of my commutes “green”, i.e. bicycling or mass transit. I live in Sacramento and work in Davis, about 40 km (25 miles) away. Amtrak offers an excellent heavy rail connection between Davis and Sacramento via the Capitol Corridor train, with trips scheduled about every 40 minutes during peak commute times. The minor problem with Amtrak (for me) is that I live about 15 km/10 miles from the Sacramento train station. I have several options to get there:

  1. Ride my motorcycle. The City of Sacramento offers free motorcycle parking at the train station, so that’s attractive. But in the time it takes me to motorcycle to the station, park, and walk out to the platform, I can ride my motorcycle all the way to Davis, (where I can also park my motorcycle for free). Riding straight to Davis is also cheaper than taking the train. But on the downside, there is some serious road rage on “The Causeway” (the stretch of freeway between Davis and Sacramento). It’s usually not too bad in the morning, but the evening commute can get pretty scary. And finally, while I get pretty decent mileage on my motorcycle, it’s not really what I’d consider a “green” commute, even if I take it to the train station. (What color do you get when you mix green and brown? Would this be an “olive drab” commute? “semi-green”?)

  2. Drive. This has nearly all the same problems as riding my motorcycle, except that it’s a bit safer. I would also have to pay for parking at the train station (or in Davis). And I get about half the fuel efficiency using my truck compared to the motorcycle. It’s also a lot more expensive, and not green at all! I’ll call this the “brown” commute.

  3. SacRT (Sacramento Regional Transit’s) bus route 29 runs practically from my doorstep to the train station, except that SacRT doesn’t coordinate either of these two scheduled buses with Amtrak’s train schedule. I need to leave home at 06:30 in order to catch the 07:40 Capitol Corridor train. Seventy minutes to cover 15 km?!? But at least it’s a green commute.

  4. Bicycle. When I’m out of shape (as is currently the case), I can make this ride in about 50 minutes, and I’ve worked out a route that lets me avoid most of the worst vehicular traffic. And I can bring my bike onto the train, so I have transportation in Davis as well. It’s about as cheap and green as you can possibly get, and still be physically present for work.

So I’ve got two green options (bicycle/bus+train), two brown options (driving or motorcycling to Davis), and one in between (motorcycle+train). I’d like to set up some kind of scoreboard for my commute, so I can track how I’m doing on my resolution. But I don’t want to do a blog post every workday and update the tally. Tedious as can be, for readers as well as me. I was thinking it might be possible to set up some sort of Twitter “listener” that could scan my tweets for these tags:


Then, as long as I tweet my commute mode every time I got to work, the tally would be updated. And really, how many Twitter users mind all these inane messages? ;)

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Garden expansion

The Accidental Farmer has an eye-opening post on how much to plant for one year’s worth of vegetables. The numbers are daunting, but I think they’re accurate. We already grow most of our own tomatoes and peppers, and our numbers are pretty close to these.

We definitely couldn’t do all of this ourselves. For starters, the climate and building codes here in California’s central valley aren’t conducive to root cellars, and we just don’t eat everything on this list. (Rhubarb, lima beans, I’m looking at you!) But the general idea of increasing self-sufficiency appeals to me.

I think if my wife and I try this, it would be limited to a few additional planting beds per season. Partly to save my back, since I’m the one who does the digging. But it’d also give us a chance to learn how to preserve everything, how the plants do in our climate, how much we really eat, etc.

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Day 4 of 30

Challenge #4 was pretty straightforward: Follow five new topics in the Reader, and begin finding blogs (and bloggers) you love. So I tried a few of my hobbies and found that these 5 gave some interesting results:

I’ll browse these topics for a few days to see which blogs are consistently getting my attention.

There were also a few failures while I was searching. I was surprised that “Maker” and “Make” returned a lot of posts which were of no interest to me. And “Sacramento” gave a grand total of 3 posts, none of which really said much about Sacramento.

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Challenge #3

Challenge #3 of 30 Days to a Better Blog: write the post that was on your mind when you decided to start a blog. Frankly, I don’t remember exactly what I had in mind when I started this. I went back to my very first post (from June 2005) to refresh my memory, but the only thing I found there were the features I was after: pingback and trackback, so that I could get automatic backlinks to referring articles (from my own posts as well as others’). My goal was to be part of a cross-linked multi-blog environment somewhat like a wiki.

One thing that I do clearly remember wanting to write about was a different approach to secondary education, (high school and possibly junior high/middle school, i.e. children aged 12- or 14-18). That would almost certainly end up being a whole series of articles. Although I have no qualifications to write policy on this topic, I’m encouraged by You (Almost) Never Have Nothing to Write About.

So… Challenge #3 isn’t complete, at least to my way of thinking. But I have a topic, and I’ve started a draft. I’m just not anywhere close to clicking the Publish button!

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Day #2 of “30 Days to a Better Blog”

The assignment for day #2 of 30 Days to a Better Blog was to edit your title and tagline, and flesh them out more in a widget. I actually found this much more difficult than yesterday’s assignment. When I first started this blog, I had only the most nebulous idea of what I wanted to do with it. In all candor, I’m not a very creative person, which was clearly evident in the old title: SonicChicken blog. The tagline was a little more informative: Information, opinions, ideas and rants from my family and friends in Sacramento, California, US. But that was still too generic to be helpful.

Finally, working on the “About” widget got me to rearrange my sidebar. Still the same stuff (plus the new widget), but hopefully the arrangement is a little more useful to visitors.

Although this was a somewhat difficult assignment, it was also rewarding. I feel more focused and energized about my old blog now. So kudos to the folks at WordPress for coming up with this challenge!

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