Monthly Archives: November 2008

Overheard: the girl talking with Grandma

Abigail was talking to my Mom tonight as Emily and I listened in on the conversation and grabbed these tidbits:

“Mom says I have the smooch”

“Dad thinks farting is cool…so does Isaac…I do not”

“Carly is a G-I-R-L, not a B-O-Y”

Now let me clear up a few points…

-Abigail has croup, but she is an affectionate child also.  I know she has croup…she may have the smooch as well.

-We are boys…what else can I say.  I do hate that my 5 year old daughter knows the word fart but various family members who shall remain nameless gave the kids some books about Walter the Farting DogActually, they are pretty funny and they have expanded the kids’ vocabulary!

-With current fashions and naming conventions, even in kindergarten, it is important to clarify!


The power went out at the office sometime last night apparently which killed our internet gateway.  The blog has been down until an hour ago when I went to check things out.  The battery backup that is supposed to maintain the system on power failure had croaked and was not letting any of the servers come back up…ARGGGGHHHHH!  Anyhow, I got it all turned back on and we should be back in business.  The power company is installing an expansion on the substation nearby and I am blaming the recent power goofiness on their endeavours though I may be completely wrong.  Anyhow, sorry for the downtime…I know you were dying to read the blog.  I can hardly tear myself away from it also!

Junk vibrobot

Junk vibrobot

There is a category of electric critters called vibrobots.  I hesitate to call them robots , but I guess they are autonomous moving things.  Anyhow, as usual, I have bits of junk laying around that tend to rear up and get in the way now and then.  I have an old motor I salvaged out of a vcr or something.  I also had wire insulation hangers from my crawlspace insulation project.  That’s about all you need to build a junk vibrobot.  I bent a paperclip in an L-shape and taped a screw to one end of it.  The screw attached off center of the motor shaft throws the balance of the motor off so it vibrates.  Since it is attached to rigid, skinny wire feet, the vibrations through those feet on a hard surface translate into motion…random motion!

Junk vibrobot

So, I zip-tied the end of the paperclip without the screw to the shaft of the motor.  I then bent the insulation hangers in an arc and zip-tied the 2 sets of legs around the motor.  I hooked a 9-volt battery to the motor contacts and away it went.   I tried putting little rubber feet on it but the bare wire on hardwood jittered the best.

Mo, our silly cat had to get in on the fun.  The kids had a blast running the v-bot around Mo.  They had it timed perfectly so he would jump in the air when it started spinning.  For a cheap toy, it was quite a bit of fun!  Just a word of warning though…if you do this on your dining room table, be sure the cat is not around.  Also, be sure your wife is not around as she will not be impressed with the cat on the table or with the little scratches the v-bot feet leave.  Of course, this is certainly not the first time I have scratched the dining room table…but that’s another story.

Click the image for a short video

Here are some other vibrobots that other people have made.  I have seen some that are solar powered, some that look just like bugs, and some that are made or worse junk than mine.

Itty bitty vibrobot
Minty vibrobot

Flu tracker

I like to divide people into groups with the best of them – There are blue staters and red staters.  There are people who like the toilet paper over the top as God intended it and there are people who like the toilet paper underneath.  There are also people who like to get flu shots and people who do not.  I do not want to have a debate about the merits or pitfalls of flu shots, but I think it is interesting to hear people discuss their reasoning either way.  Apparently Google has partenered with the CDC to track and predict the flu’s progression across the United States (Get right to the tracking map here).  They are able to track past years’ data as well as frequently updated information from the CDC’s flu tracking.  Apparently it used to take weeks to crunch the data from the CDC.  Anyhow, Google found that they could correlate web search terms with the data from the CDC.  I have read reports suggesting that Google can predict flu trends 1-2 weeks in advance based on their models/web search analysis.  Now, truth-be-told, if you know the flu is 1-2 weeks out, it’s too late for a flu shot to do any good.  However, I think this could be pretty useful to know when you should stay at home for a few weeks catching up on old episodes of the Dukes of Hazzard.

Chinese – making our fortune…cookies

making fortune cookies

I was reading the Y-2K Hippie blog last week and saw they had posted a recipe for fortune cookies.  I love Chinese food but am usually not brave enough to eat it at a Chinese restaurant.  That leaves us with typically not eating Chinese…but the homemade fortune cookies seemed like a really cool idea so we decided to make some and along with a Chinese entree.  I cut come strips of paper and asked the kids to write some fortunes.  Being young and inexperienced at it, they quickly ran out of wisdom to impart.

making fortune cookies

I said, “just write anything, draw a picture…just fill out all the papers.”  Well, they made up in ink what they lacked in content.  Isaac drew all sorts of epic battles on his half-inch wide sheets.  Abigail wrote things like, “dog, dog, cat, cat, Dad, Dad, Mom, Mom”.  Oh, the fortunes we’re great fun.  They were certainly cryptic which made them feel more fortune-like.  Anyhow, we mixed up the recipe :

making fortune cookies

Fortune Cookies
1 cup Margarine
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 1/4 cups of flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
I kneaded it some and then rolled it out thin (though not thin enough….it needs to be really thin).  We cut circles with our biscuit cutter, added the fortunes, then folded the circles in half, then in half again.  We baked at 425 for 10 min….and then 5 minutes more.

making fortune cookies

Ok, the most important part was done. We also stir-fried some beef and broccoli with a seasoning packet we bought at the store. Based on the fact that we had to add soy sauce and some other stuff, I am pretty sure we just bought a packet of corn starch with Chinese lettering. As we cooked, Mohinder our cat bravely wandered into the kitchen. He made a lot of racket and never realized the fate he could have met.

Chinese cooking

Anyhow, Emily and I stirred and tended the stuff with bamboo cookware (just to be authentic – plus, it is all we have) and bowed to each other a lot (apologies to all my Asian friends for all of the terrible cliches and inaccuracies).

Chinese cooking

It was a lot of fun! Anyhow, it cooked up great along with some delicious fried rice. We plowed through every bit of what we cooked as well as a plate full of cupcakes the kids and their Mommaw decorated. Our fortunes were interesting, but I am sure I found my real fortune in good food and good times!

Going Pink

Installing insulation

In an effort to make our house a bit more comfortable and to save on the energy bill, we have begun to add insulation to the crawlspace of our 70 year old house (which is otherwise uninsulated for the most part).  Our place is very odd in design.  We have a many levels in our house and all sorts of nooks and crannies.  Half of our basement is walk-in and finished while the other half is sub-surface and unfinished.  Even within our basement, there are two levels.  The crawlspace in question is under the formal living room and dining room and measures 33×13.  That’s lots of words for “it’s a pretty big space and pretty dang cold in the winter”.

Installing insulation

So, we headed to the home repair place to get insulation.  Abigail saw all of the pink and some of the blue foam insulation and insisted on getting pink (which was the appropriate type for our application luckily!)  So, I have been installing insulation in the crawlspace of the house.  In spots, I have 5 feet of headroom while in others I have 18 inches.

Cobwebs on my head

Of course, I don’t think anyone has dusted under there and spiders have enjoyed the landscape.  I came out several times to breathe, covered in cobwebs.  My bald head somewhat attracts them I guess, though I prefer bald to hairy in that situation.  I also discovered that one branch off of the main trunk from the furnace was unconnected and heating the crawlspace.  No wonder I have cold spots in the house!  Anyhow, I reconnected that and sealed it up so that it works as it should.  I have lots more to do but I have not yet worked up the courage to venture into spiderland again!  I expect the weekend will see me back fighting the arachnid army!

Ship in a lightbulb

Cutting a lightbulb

In addition to checking Woot every day, there is another site that I check pretty regularly called Instructables.  Last week I was browsing and found an instructable on how to build a ship in a lightbulb.  In an effort to postpone several of the projects that I really should be working on, I decided to build myself a ship in a lightbulb.

Erasers for ship in a lightbulb

A few things I learned:

1.  It’s never as easy as they say to get the base off of a lightbulb.

2.  Never try to get the base off of a lightbulb in shorts and barefeet.

3.  Never try to get the base off of a lighbulb over a couch or carpet.

4.  A shattering lightbulb will send glass many feet in all directions.

This is just stuff I heard about…don’t really know if any of it is true!

Ship in a lightbulb

OK, so I couldn’t get the base off like the article suggested.  Fortunately, I have tinkered with stained glass so I know how to cut glass.  Cutting the base off of a light bulb is not easy since the glass is incredibly thin.  Once that’s off, the rest is simple.  We’re not much for drinking wine (though cutting the bulb nearly drove me to drink!), so we didn’t have any corks laying around.  Of course, I rarely follow directions either so I was still in good shape as far as the instructable goes.

Ship in a lightbulb

Instead, I got some erasers and made my boat from them.  I painted it and made a mast.  Setting the mast up was pretty simple which was a surprise.  I was very excited when I got it done.  I showed the kids my creation and they were only slightly curious how I got the ship inside.  I tried to convince them of all sorts of trickery, but Isaac called my bluff.  He finally said, “Yeah, whatever Dad.”  Still, they sort of got a kick out of it and I had some fun too!  I put it on the top shelf of one of our bookcases where it can showcase our extensive dust collection!

Solar Furnace – thermostat

Old wire thermostat

Earlier this week, I posted about my solar furnace project.  I can’t take all the credit for the idea of a solar furnace as they have been around for a long time.  Most of them seem to be passive – relying on natural motion from the warm air rising through the system.  This sort of air flow is not typically very strong (though it can be), so cannot open a louver or check valve.  Just leaving the hot air pipe open is an option though physics will bite back at night or when it is not sunny outside.  Just as hot air rises, cool air sinks so at night, warm air will syphon from the house backwards through the system.  Some folks drape a piece of plastic over the warm air output so that the warm flow blows the plastic open a little.   Cool air cannot flow back through the plastic, supposedly.

Thermostat for solar furnace

All that sounds nice, but I cannot be satisfied with simplicity when I can further complicate things with technology.  Being interested in saving a buck and doing the right thing energy-wise, I replaced our old thermostat with a digital programmable one a couple of years ago.  I noticed that the old thermostat had a mercury switch so I didn’t want to just throw it in the trash – instead I kept it in my stash of junk…and lucky I did.  This project is prime for my sort of junk.  I stripped the mercury switch and the bi-metallic temperature wire from the thermostat and connected it to an old computer fan.  I am building a box that will contain the thermostat and the computer fan.  The fan will pull warm air from the furnace across the thermostat.  While the air is warm, the mercury switch will turn on the fan which will blow open the dryer vent (that will prevent cold-air backflow) and send warm air into my room.

Thermostat for solar furnace

Initially, I had planned to power all of this with a solar panel.  My fan is a 12 volt, 0.62 amp fan (though I ran it just fine with a 9-volt battery).  To drive the fan directly from the solar panel (at 9 volts), I would need a 5.58 watt panel (watts = volts * amps).  I may be able to get away with a little less but the cost of a 4-6 watt solar cell would still cost somewhere around $50.  I have various 9 volt wall-wart transformers from old gadgets that I no longer need.

Louver for solar furnace

For now, I will just drive this system from wall power.  At 9 volts, when the fan is on, it will draw around 4-5 watts – about the same as a nightlight.  I can live with that.

My plan is to get all of this hooked up and running this weekend.  I will post again with the final project.  It is supposed to be cool this weekend so I guess the timing will be right!

Spammers have been attacking this page so I have turned off comments.  If you would like to have a discussion, please post on one of the other solar furnace posts or send me an email message.  My contact info is in the “about/contact page”.  Sorry for the inconvenience.



At the starting line

Last weekend, the kids went with their Mommaw and Aunt to the corn maze a few towns over.  I don’t think they had ever been to such an event but everyone was gung-ho.  I have little doubt that Isaac, in particular, was full-throttle the entire time.

In the corn maze

The good thing is, the maze is huge and basically walled in with corn.  They nicknamed Isaac the streak at the maze, and not because he was garment-challenged.  Anyhow, I don’t know what sort of corn they planted but it was super tall and the kids were curious what would happen if they got lost.  I told them to shoot sparks from their wands just like Harry Potter.  I guess they didn’t buy it though.  Isaac had a plan how he would just run right through the corn if necessary.

In the corn maze

In a very serious tone, he informed me he was “ready to do what he needed to to get out.”  The maze is closed now for this year, but we will probably get back out to it next year (and we’ll remember our wands next time!)
In the corn maze

In the corn maze

In the corn maze

A salty bunch

Microscope work

We gathered a jug of salt water from the ocean 2 years ago on a trip to Tybee Island near Savannah, GA.  I had in mind when I collected it to do an experiment to show the kids how to separate the salt from the water, how crystals formed, how to research stuff, etc.  I finally got around to it last weekend.  We did several experiments which have had mixed success.  First, we looked at various things under the microscope including epsom salts, table salt, and sugar.  In our first experiment, we suspended a string in a cup full of ocean water.  No crystals formed on their own so we are waiting on evaporation to expose the salt.  We also mixed epsom salts and water to form crystals.  This was sort of cool but not as dramatic as I had hoped.

Making salt crystals

Next, we supersaturated water with table salt.  Crystals have definitely formed on a suspended string.  Crystals have also formed on the side of the jar in which we are doing our experiment.  We put a bunch of salt in that jar so the effect is pretty dramatic.  This was closer to the effect for which I was hoping.

Both of these experiments were pretty slow to show much effect for kids though.  Being anxious for my kids to ohh and ahh at my scientific knowledge and ability, I found a recipe for making crystals from salt, liquid bluing, and ammonia.  making salt crystals

As a base, we tried to use a piece of cardboard rolled up in a tube.  My expectation was that the cardboard would wick up the water and make a little crystal tree.  For some reason, the cardboard did not wick any moisture.

Mrs Stewart's crystals

I guess it was too dense (or maybe I was?) so the crystal tree turned into more of a crystal shrub.  Still, the effect started within a day or so.

Anyhow, here are some additional methods to make crystals.  The kids were in to it for awhile and had a good time checking on the progress.  I’d recommend it for your own edification as well!

making salt crystals