Drinking and Soldering

Yes, those are the secrets to happiness. 

(Well, at least the soldering part.)

I was fortunate and mildly terrified to explain all of this before a group of ridiculously smart people in November at the Newsgeist conference run by the Knight Foundation and Google at the Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.

(The "Institute of Higher Learning" mentioned here is the New School's Journalism + Design Program, where I'm lucky to be an instructor.)

Make, Map, Blink: A Cooking Class

Starting this week, I'm teaching Make, Map, Blink, a course at the New School university in Manhattan. It's an evening of cooking up data-driven projects -- both on the table and on the screen.

The course is a little quirky in a few ways, including that any New School student can attend: It's held in the cafeteria in the Eugene Lang building every Wednesday night at 7 p.m.

For those of you who can't attend (or aren't New School students), all of the course material, code and slides are posted in this Github repository. A link there also will sit on the left rail of this blog.

"Live Blogging" Daddy Robot Camp

Welcome robots! I'm leading my daughters and a friend through some summer fun building simple robots.

This is live prototyping at its finest (by all of us). I'm tweaking the hardware and software by night, and running "camp" at the kitchen table by day.

The main learning concept I'm aiming for: "If A is detected then B happens," like IFTTT does so well. It seems to be a good, base robot function. Also: Making robots is fun.

My hope is that the kids get to express hands-on creativity, and that I can get Arduino to help me bring their creations alive. As Liza Stark advised me, make sure they have their hands on the project more than I do. Let's see if that happens.

I'll keep posting here as we work through the week. The fun begins today!

The Plans

Given a set of "if" sensors (light, temperature, movement, distance, buttons) and a set of "then" actions (LEDs light, servos rotate), the girls each came up with a plan for a robot:

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Extinguishable LED Candles

We love Blinkies. Especially simple led throwies.

Lately, we've been playing with "candle flicker" LEDs, which contain a tiny chip that makes their warm light flicker like a flame.

Tape 'em to a battery and watch glow. They're great. But we wanted a version we could, essentially, blow out.

Enter the tilt switch.

This little component is a small cylinder, about the size of a bean, with a metal ball inside. When the cylinder is vertical, the ball rests on two metal leads at the bottom, completing a circuit. Tip it, and the ball rolls away, breaking the circuit.

So we combined tilt switches, flicker LEDs, coin batteries and some plastic battery holders to make 15 little candles.

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The Chartbeat LED Bar

We're always interested in how many folks are viewing our WNYC Data News projects at a given moment, and Chartbeat answers that question. But we don't always want to watch Chartbeat's dashboard for the latest info.

Enter the blinkies.

Using a string of colored LEDs, an Arduino and a little bit of code, we now have an ambient indicator that generally reflects our traffic and alerts us when thing get intense. A program running on my desktop computer checks Chartbeat for the latest number of simultaneous and passes that information across the room using Bluetooth, something I've wanted to play with for a while. 

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Making a Heartbeat Hoodie

I can wear my heartbeat on my sleeve.

Actually, I meant to put it on my sleeve, but turns out that sewing something inside of a sleeve is colossally frustrating. So it's along the front zipper.

The heartbeat hoodie is a blend of two things I wanted to play with: Soft circuits and consumer heartbeat monitors. I first made the basic LED hoodie, and later added on the heartbeat feature. And since the basic LED hoodie is easy and fun in its own right, I'll describe how I made that first, followed by the heartbeat addition.

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The Monthly Mood Cube

When Kristin is about to get her period, everyone in the house knows it.

A light on her nightstand tells us so.

What we now call the "Mood Cube" tracks my wife's cycles and has helped foster household harmony. It also makes Kristin smile every day.

It was easy to build. You can make one, too.

The backstory

The Mood Cube story really starts with Louise Ma, a great interaction designer and my colleague on the WNYC Data News Team. She knows her mood tracks closely with her menstrual cycle, so she put up a chart of different faces and hangs a rubber band on the face that matches her feelings. 

Stop by Louise's desk for a chat, and you immediately know where she's at. Talk about transparency!

Louise has made a hobby out of tracking her moods and cycles. Kristin had tried to track hers, too. She used several of the flowery iPhone apps designed to help, but didn't stick to them. She put the dates in Google calendar, but they never really lined up. 

And each month she was surprised by bouts of intense stress, frustration and agita -- always followed by her period just a day or two later. After a recent episode she texted me: "I want Louise's chart!"

I had another idea.

I wanted to make an ambient indicator -- something in Kristin's life that was subtle but clear. I wanted it to be peaceful, friendly and needinig no attention. And it shouldn't be harsh or shaming.

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LED Snowflake Ornament

Challenge to myself: Build an ornament for the Christmas tree in the few hours before Christmas Eve dinner.

I grabbed an Arduino the size of a coin I've been playing with called a "TinyDuino," from Tiny-Circuits, along with a little stash of LEDs I got from from Evil Mad Scientist.

Using the TinyDuino's prototyping board, I decided to solder the positive (long) ends of six LED's into the board so they radiated around it like this:

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