The numbers or an ode to power tools

Back in the late spring and all throughout the summer, there was a home improvement project.  It involved painting, some landscaping, and other things here and there.  My little house went from white to gray.  Shutters were removed so were the house numbers.

So I need house numbers.

Before the 2013-14 school year ended, I had the idea of making numbers from cans.  I got started on that project today.  Six months later (give or take).

Numbers and tools

Aluminum numbers and tools

I used the big red scissors to cut the cans.  I started in the mouth of the can and then cut vertically to the bottom.  I cut both the tops and bottoms of the cans, flattened said cans, and then used some templates to cut out the numbers.

House numbers

House numbers

I found some scrap wood in the scrap pile at Hack.RVA.  I debated about whether I should use the bandsaw unsupervised.

Should I use this?

Should I use this?

I used the bandsaw unsupervised.

I think everything went ok.


1.  I can’t cut straight lines.

2.  Is a bandsaw supposed to sound like 1,000 cats thrown in a bag?  I don’t know.

3.  Is the bandsaw the right tool for cutting a straight line?  Seems as good as any, so is there a wrong tool?

I got to thinking about power tools and an experience I had this week at Tomahawk Creek Middle School.  Members of the TCMS’s Tech Club participate in the E-nabling the Future project.  They modify files for prosthetic hands and arms, print the pieces, assemble the hands/arms, and then ship them off to the people who need the device.  Wednesday was an assembly day.  The gauntlet for one of the hands needed some sanding.  I gave a Dremel to a student who had been trained.  She took it, turned it on to the highest speed, and it got away from her, nicking the the library table.  She got it back, turned it off, and handed it to me.

“You turn it on,” she said and handed it back to me.

We compromised.  She held the Dremel, and I turned it on so that it gradually increased in speed.  By mid-morning, she found her footing, got the feel for the tool, and was sanding parts like she had been doing it for years.

Power tools are weird things.  Horribly intimidating to someone who’s never used them before and so, so intriguing at the same time.  I have no feel and no instinct for saws or drill presses.  I lack the intuition. What are they supposed to sound like when things are working well?  What do they sound like under stress?

I’ve owned my car since 2003, so I feel like an intuitionist when we’re on the road together.  I know how it’s supposed to sound and what it feels like to drive 35 mph or 65 mph.

I’m pretty excited about getting to know some of these tools just as well as I know that car.

As for the house numbers…  I’m waiting for paint to dry.

Waiting for paint to dry

Waiting for paint to dry

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

UPDATE:  Done-ish!!

The Numbers Project.  Kind of Done.  Done enough?

The Numbers Project. Kind of Done. Done enough?

I feel like I should put some kind of sealant on them, because these numbers will cut a b****  are sharp.


A thousand beautiful things or all the possibilities

I could crumble into a ball and cry at least a hundred times a day because of life’s unrelenting unfairness, inequalities, and general asshattery.

But then there are so many small, beautiful things that lift the heart and inspire and change one from the inside out.

1. A chance meeting with friends and a visit from existential pug

Existential Pug

Existential Pug

2. Getting to know one’s sewing machine

slippered foot from a sewing machine manual

Getting to know the sewing machine. Are bedroom slippers required footwear?

3. What happens when you leave Legos out in a public place

lego tower

When opportunity knocks

4. Playing cards and getting to know new people

Cards with friends

Cards with friends

5. Solving problems with the help of internet forums


Power tools at sun rise. Does a Dremel count as a power tool? Rotary tools at sun rise.

6. Working together

Sign explaining Enabling the Future

The Enabling the Future project

7.  Watching kids lead

Taking measurements

Taking measurements to model and print a 3D prosthetic arm

8. The friendly faces of power tools

The drill press

Hello, friend

9.  1,000 possibilities

Screws and stuff

Screws and stuff

The quick burn

I spent Friday sick at home.  It’s going to be a fall/winter full of chronic sore throats and sinus issues, I just know it.

I used my found time to work on a superhero cape for my son.  It was a lot easier than the knitted nautiloid I started back in May.

There are a bazillion tutorials for no-sew superhero capes.  I settled on this one from Parents Magazine.  I ended up sewing instead of using the fabric glue, because I didn’t have that on hand.  The stitches are sloppy, but Joe loves it, and that’s all that matters.

Superhero cape!

“Power Ranger Green!” is what’s typically exclaimed when the cape is green. I didn’t know Power Rangers were still a thing.

I also did some knitting.  I have it on good authority that cowl scarves are going to be all the rage this fall and winter thanks to some show called Outlander.

I started knitting a cowl scarf that was supposed to look like this:

Chunky cowl scarf

Chunky cowl scarf

Instead, it looks like this:

knitted cowl scarf

my knitted cowl scarf

more of the knitted cowl scarf

more of the knitted cowl scarf

It doesn’t really look like the scarf at at all, does it?  This may have something to do with the fact that I failed to follow the directions.  One is supposed to start knitting with two strands of yarn.  I just used one.  It’s ok.  I love it, and that’s all that matters.

Also, I have a skein of grey yarn left, which means more knitting, which means more binge watching of Gilmore Girls.

Gilmore Girls is on Netflix!  It no longer matters that my husband loaned my Gilmore Girls DVDs to a friend four years ago and never got them back.

All is right with the world.




Things I made. People I met: an end-of-summer summary

I started this post back in August.  That was a long time ago.  This post probably would’ve lingered in the drafts folder like so many posts before and after it.  However, at the gentle nudging of a friend, I’m going to get a post in.

It’s good to be held accountable.

Summer came.  Summer went.  The 2014-15 school year reared its chaotic, energized, and lovely head on the 26th of August.  I was greeted at the doors of the Academic Commons by exuberant student council members and given this swag (as the kids say).

First Day Swag

First Day Swag

I didn’t do a lot of open, digital reflecting over the summer, because life.  But there was some pretty cool and important things going on.  I’ll recap them here.

I had goals for the summer.  Some were met.  Some were derailed by other happenings.  Time was spent with e-textiles.  I enjoyed mashing up the circuits with things like embroidery and cross stitch.

In space, no one can hear you scream.

In space, no one can hear you scream.

The above project was going to be a space scene.  Planets.  Stars.  A rabbit in a rocket ship.  I dismantled it though, because the rabbit looks distressed.  I’ll give it another go eventually.  The cross stitch project is also unfinished, like many other projects around my house.  I’m discovering that I really enjoy the planning of the project and the more challenging aspects (like planning a circuit for the conductive thread and LEDs).  Sticking with the actual embroidery (or knitting of tentacles for a knitted nautiloid) is more difficult. It’s not that the work is tedious.  It’s just a slower burn, I think.

EL wire project

EL wire project

I finally got around to using the EL wire that I’ve had for about a year now.  It’s definitely inspired by the TRON bag project over at Adafruit.  I’d like to do another EL wire project soon that requires soldering.  I think that would make for a nice challenge.

When my son was in diapers, we used one of my messenger bags for diapers and such.  My son is long out of diapers, so I reclaimed the bag, sewed some EL wire on the front with nylon thread and called it a day.  The hardest part of the project was ripping open some seams in order to secure and EL inverter.

Ta da!  Flat line!

Ta da! Flat line!

This project only took a couple of hours (if that).  Immediate payoff!  Like!

Project Update:  The EL wire broke and my stitches are popping.  My sewing does not hold up to brutal, daily wear.  I’m pretty sure I can solder the EL wire back to the inverter.  I’ll make some stronger stitches too when I get back to this.

One goal for my summer of making things was to get out of my house and make as many connections as possible.  I worked with 7 other pretty amazing folks to organize the RVA MakerFest, which put me in touch with many makers and advocates of making in the community.

The most rewarding thing about the summer of making was spending more time at Hack.RVA.  I worked there a few mornings when I didn’t want to deal with my cats jumping on projects.  I went to a few Maker Camps organized by Catherine, Hack.RVA member and fearless leader of the RVA Maker Guild.  I adored the DIY music camp.  Some of us created music boxes out of Altoids tins and those awful, awful singing greeting cards.  You can find a tutorial for the Musical Altoids Tin here.

DIY music box made from an Altoids tin and other bits and pieces.

This plays “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Over and over and over and over again.

Some other folks experimented with the Little Bits Synth Kit, which was pretty awesome.  I need to get some of these for school.

Making music with the Little Bits Synth Kit

Making music with the Little Bits Synth Kit

Hack.RVA launched a crowdfunding campaign for a CNC router over the summer too.  I backed that, got trained, and need to get trained again since training was an eternity ago.  I really do need to make some house numbers.

It’s mid-October now.  Going to Hack.RVA is second nature now and no longer induces the awkward social anxiety it once did.  I attribute that to members’ willingness to include others.  Or maybe I’ve just found my people.  It’s nice to say something like, “I’m going to knit a Cthulhu mask for my uterus pillow.” and not have people look at you weird.

Don’t judge me.

So that’s it.  My summer of making in a sweeping blog post.  I’m into the fall of making now, and it involves band saws, scroll saws, and drill presses.

*&%# got real!



LEDs, storytelling, and what to do if you can’t draw

One of the good things about closing in on 40 is the self-awareness that comes with experience.  One of the bad things is the worsening eye sight that makes it incredibly frustrating to play with teeny tiny LEDs or solder.  But that’s a story for another time.

I don’t draw well.  I’m ok with that.  I could’ve let that non-skill keep me from paper circuits.  I didn’t.

Instead, I borrowed and remixed the intellectual property of others.  Thanks, Creative Commons!

Richmond is home to many wonderful people, places, and things including the C.F. Sauer Company.  Perhaps you use some of their spices in your Jamaican Jerk Salmon or Sweet Potato casserole.  The Sauer sign is a Richmond landmark and a sight to behold once the sun sets.

Sauer's sign a twilight

Sauer’s sign a twilight

I found Matt Carman’s image of the sign on Photo Pin and decided to have a little LED fun.

First, I placed my Sauer’s picture over the notebook paper and poked tiny holes where I wanted to place my LEDs.  Next, using copper tape, a battery, and a couple of white LEDs, I built this circuit for the Sauer’s sign.

Circuit for the Sauer project

Circuit for the Sauer project

I then placed the Sauer’s sign picture over the circuit, lining up the LEDs with the small holes.

Sauer's sign -- lit

Sauer’s sign — lit

There’s an LED in the upper left hand corner (obviously) and one over the “i” in “Vanilla.”  A red LED would’ve bee nice there, but I didn’t have one on hand.

Also, I’m a terrible smart phone photographer, so the majority of my photos with LEDs are blown out around the light, but you get the picture, right?

After experimenting with the Sauer sign, I decided to try my hand at a bastardized version of 5 Card Flickr.  Rather than relying on random Flickr images (which could be fun), I just went out and found three that somehow related to the apocalypse in my mind.

A photo by Timm Suess

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc

Timm Suess photo

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc


photo credit: ( kurtz ) via photopin cc

I made a few changes in PhotoShop, printed the images, cut them out, and started on my mini, two-page story.

Page one sets the scene.  A apocalyptic wasteland so fashionable in today’s literature.

Here’s the circuit for the first part of the setting: abandoned apartments with a bleak landscape behind.

Wasteland circuit pt. 1

Wasteland circuit pt. 1

And with the image over the circuit.  There’s a light on in the window.

circuit 2I wanted to add a second picture to set the scene.  The old bumper cars.  I worked out a circuit for the two images and two LEDs.

circuit for two LEDs

circuit for two LEDs

And here are the lights (sorry about the bad photo):

Two LEDs in the wasteland

Two LEDs in the wasteland

On page two, I introduce the characters.

Sword circuit

Sword circuit

With a light:

Sword lights up

Sword lights up

And the two-page spread:

Unlit, because I can't hold the paper down and take a pic at the same time.

Unlit, because I can’t hold the paper down and take a pic at the same time.

The text, by the way, is mainly from John Roderick.  The conversation about being good at something can be found in Roderick on the Line, episode 114, “The Gentleman’s B Party.”  Somewhere around the 15 minute mark, I think.

Other thoughts:

The LEDs were often finicky.  I’d like to try soldering them.  I ended up using a knitting needle to really press the tape down around the LED leads.  Illuminate Your Thinking documentation suggests bending the tape rather than cutting it since cutting and placing tape on top of copper tape can sometimes cause a bad connection.

I also used the knitting needle as a bone folder to smooth out the copper tape.  That seemed to help.

I understand that there’s no real narrative in the story above.  I didn’t dedicate that much time to thinking about the story I wanted to tell.  Don’t judge the “story” too harshly.

I want to sit down and look at more of Jie Qi’s work.  Her popables are especially artful and whimsical.  And not at all clunky.

Work by Jie Qi.

That’s what I have for now.  I’m moving back to the Finch and Snap!  I hope to dedicate some time to Python as well.

Game Jams with Scratch

Tonight was the night.  The inaugural middle school Game Jam that brought together 12 fierce, fun-loving 5th and 6th graders for four hours of game creation using Scratch.  The event kicked off at 3:00.  However, a few Game Jam participants settled down in front of a computer shortly after the school day ended at 2:35.

Game Jam schedule

Game Jam schedule

The Game Jam didn’t have much structure to it.  Participants could work in groups if they wanted.  They were just as welcome to work alone.  However, I’ve noticed that working with Scratch one rarely ever works alone.  Calls of, “I don’t know how to do X.” are answered with, “Here, let me show you.”  There wasn’t a theme to follow.  We (as in the adults in the room) were even receptive to participants working with other game design software, though everyone ended up sticking with Scratch.

The school’s resident Scratch experts were unable to attend the Game Jam because of prior commitments.  The three adults in the room (including me) could only answer the most basic questions.  Our ignorance, however, did not discourage the students when they hit a stumbling block.

Carolyn is not ignorant.  This smart cookie helps out two Game Jam participants.

Carolyn is not ignorant. This smart cookie helps out three Game Jam participants.

One reason the evening flowed so smoothly is due to the presence of a 7th grade assistant who was very familiar with Scratch.  He spent his evening bouncing from table helping students troubleshoot their creations.

I’m currently in the middle of a four-week online course through ALA called Engaging Teens with Digital Media: Creating Stories and Games.  I’m trying to process the resources and readings (which I’m starting to compile here).  I am intrigued by the intersection of game design, inquiry and research, and the iterative process.  Oh!  And let’s not forget those digital/information literacy skills that come into play.

Carolyn, the middle school librarian, and I were awarded a summer grant to explore e-textiles, Makey Makeys, the Hummingbird robotics kit, WeDos, and more.  It’s basically a super small, local Constructing Modern Knowledge (an extremely powerful experience).  We’re not just spending our summer playing with toys though.  We’re also spending time at Hack.RVA, offering school faculty and staff the opportunity to make things, and tapping into the genius of Bruce Davies, who runs the Chesterfield County Public Library’s makerspace.

I’m going to add Scratch to my list of things to master.  It should’ve been done long ago, but better late than never.

A student's Scratch game

A student’s Scratch game

I cannot wait until these kids get to the upper school.



Remapping Makey Makey Keys (or what it’s like to think about learning)

Here’s where I would write about how long it’s been since I’ve posted anything.  But who has time for apologies?  Not me.

The reboot of my DIY/Maker senior seminar started back in January.  After a conversation with Christina Jenkins back in November, I decided to give the class a little more structure focus.  I think it’s helped.

Right now there are four groups of 4-5 students who are rotating through Makey Makey, Arduino, 3D modeling/printing, and e-textile stations.  We’re spending about eight days at each station.  Each rotation is followed by debriefing/project show-and-tell and reflections, which you can read here.

Today, a student asked how she could remap the keys on her Makey Makey so she could more notes on this virtual keyboard.

Virtual KeyboardMy internal monologue went something like, “I did this back in December with a sound effects machine.  I’ve totally got this.”

Only I didn’t.  AND I was being observed by another teacher.  Enter flop sweat and mumbling and lots of, “Uhhhhh….”

Now that I’m in the comfort of my own home and all performance pressure is removed, I do totally have this.

And I’m going to write it down, so I don’t forget.

SparkFun has amazing tutorials.  This Makey Makey Advanced Guide tutorial seemed to be just what was needed.

I downloaded the Makey Makey source code and opened it up in the Arduino IDE.  I remapped the inputs to play a range of keys.

remapped keysHere’s what I forgot to do:  change the board to Leonardo in the Arduino IDE and change the serial port.  When I verified the code, I kept getting all kinds of error messages.  Growing frustrated and confused, I decided to step back and actually read the SparkFun tutorial carefully.

DirectionsFor whatever reason, I don’t have the Makey Makey add-on (probably need to fix that), but one of the error messages in the Arduino IDE mentioned only working with a Leonardo board, so I selected Leonardo from the list of options.

So first steps:  Select the correct board….

Boards… and make sure you’ve selected the correct port:

PortsOnce that was done, I remapped the D5-D0 pins and the up, down, left, and right arrows so that the virtual Makey Makey keyboard has 10 playable notes.

It’s not particularly revolutionary stuff here people, but that’s ok.  I’m writing it down so I don’t forget, and so I can make a little more sense in class tomorrow.

I guess some of the more interesting stuff is what I learned.  Here’s what I know:

  • It’s hard not knowing when you and others think that you should know.
  • It’s disorienting jumping into another person’s project.
  • I’m surprised by how much of a visual learner I am.  The fact that two blue alligator clips were used was equally disorienting when I don’t think it should’ve been.
  • I also like to write out my remapping plan on paper before actually doing it.

Again, not revolutionary, but the semester is still young.  The night, however, is not.

We made things

The first “Make Something” workshop was held in the Saunders Family Library Wednesday night from 7-9 p.m.  The workshop featured Phil Barbato, a Richmond artist who specializes in pretty amazing plush creatures, which you can see (and buy) here.

Workshop supplies

Workshop supplies

10 kids pre-registered after an assembly announcement last week.  Two more students begged to come the day of the workshop.  Two younger children of an English teacher were eager to attend too.  The more the merrier, I say!

The gang's all here.... almost

The gang’s all here…. almost

Phil lead a beautifully chaotic workshop.  We started by designing our creatures on 8 1/2 x 11 paper.  Those patterns were then cut out and traced on to 9 x 12 sheets of felt.

Tracing patterns

Tracing patterns

Cutting, sewing, and stuffing came next, followed by the proud display of finished creatures.



Studious rabbit

Studious rabbit

Bearded unicorn

Bearded unicorn

Few participants had any sewing skills, but they were all quick learners.

Here’s my reflection in tidy, bulleted points:

  • I was surprised by how hung up the students were on perfection.  Many of the kids constantly commented that they weren’t good at crafts or they wanted perfection even though they had never sewn before.  I really shouldn’t be surprised by this, since I feel the same way when I jump into something new.  Trying something new is hard, frustrating, and intimidating.
  • One of the kids who attended the workshop has been back in the library TWICE since Wednesday (I’m writing this on Friday) to make repairs to his backpack with needle and thread.  That’s pretty awesome.  This is the same student who had his friend cut out the pattern he drew, because he was afraid of messing up.
  • A couple of girls were talking about how much fun they were having making their creatures.  I told them that all of the supplies for the workshop lived in the library’s makerspace and they could use the space and the materials any time.  The response: “Are you serious!?”  I hope they come back.
  • One student suggested that sewing should be incorporated into the mindfulness class.  “I dread sewing, but once you get started, it’s really meditative,” she said.

Allen, the head librarian, and I are hoping to do a few more evening workshops throughout the year.  Some shorter pop-up “Make Something” workshops during the school day are also possibilities.

I’m looking forward to them.  They offer up a much needed respite from the routine.

Audio essays, ampli-ties, and quadcopters (oh my!)

The creative non-fiction class is working on audio essays based on the Kitchen Sisters’ “Making Of…” series.

Their assignment is to find someone on campus who makes something and interview that person (or people), and then–of course–craft an audio essay.  I got the chance to talk to the students about the maker movement, makers, hackers, motivations for making things, and theories that may or may not explain why the “maker movement” exists.  It was exciting to watch them start to think about the makers in their lives.  After a few minutes of thinking, there was, “My mother’s friend is a doctor, and although she’s busy, she finds the time to make and sell really beautiful pottery.”  And “My friend paints shoes and sells them.”  There was even some, “I think Mr. Rider probably makes something.  Let’s go talk to him.”  I loved that the students wanted to reconnect with an old middle school teacher through making.

The visit inspired me to get going on the Flora LED Ampli-Tie that I’ve been wanting to make since summer.

I pulled out the supplies this afternoon, ordered a few parts I was missing, and started in on the instructions.  I’m looking forward to having two of these ties ready to go for the theater manager and the performing arts director in the next week or two.

I was thinking about the Ampli-Tie project this morning, and it occurred to me that I haven’t pulled the supplies out of the storage bin, because there was so much else to do.  There was a ton of “real work.”  Working on the ties seemed like a waste of time.  Definitely something that could be moved to the bottom of the to-do list.  That’s silly thinking.  The makerspace has been too quiet.  There’s no reason not to get in there a few times a week even if it’s to work on something small and/or quick.

Luckily not everyone thinks like I do.  A junior is about two weeks into research for a drone project.  After quickly reaching the limits of a Parrot quadcopter, this student is planning to build a quadcopter inspired by the creations of Justin in Victoria, Australia.  Film Club and some teachers in the science department are already coming up with ways they can use the quadcopter.  I’m looking forward to watching this project evolve.

Where is Hatchet Jack?: a project incomplete (animated GIF challenge #5)

Where are you Hatchet Jack?

Where are you Hatchet Jack?

It’s likely that Hatchet Jack isn’t missing at all.  Maybe he’s been around.  Or maybe not.  Maybe he’s still sitting along atop the freezing cold peaks of the Rocky Mountains.  Who knows.  I miss a lot of tweets and internet conversations because of other commitments and distractions.  Despite that, it seems like he’s been radio silent.

Here’s my GIF.  I want to add it to a missing persons poster, but I haven’t had time to figure that part out yet.  In my head it’s something like Sean Placchetti’s “dancing Jim all over the world,” but with a missing persons poster…  and Hatchet Jack.

Oh.  I should also say that the Hatchet Jack face is from a photo found on the Google Images.  The frames of the body and hatchet are from the brilliant “Shia LaBeouf Actual Cannibal.”