Beginning as a Practice

[I recently presented this post as a 5-minute Ignite talk.]

On a morning flight some years back, the pilot's cheerful voice came over the speakers.

"I'm glad you're flying with us. This is the first time I've flown a Boeing 747,” the captain said with a pause. “Today."

We all laughed, of course. Who’d want to be on a pilot’s maiden flight?!

Not us. We want experts. Society counts on them. Companies pay them better. Spectators watch them play. Vacationers rely on their forecasts. We attend educational institutions and work long hours to become them — the qualified, the trusted, the best.

Nobody likes being a beginner.

Except that I do.

Make Every Week: Programs in Python

“Daddy, I want to learn Python,” announced my 12-year-old daughter a couple of weeks ago. Boys in her youth group know it, she said. She wanted to, too.

Say no more.

I’ve introduced my daughters to a variety of friendly programming platforms, including Kids Ruby, Hopscotch, Codea and Lua in Minecraft. They’ve sweetly tolerated my programatic prodding. This was the first direct request.

I quickly ordered two paper copies of “Learn Python the Hard Way,” by Zed A Shaw, and we’ve been walking through each lesson together — one every week.

Make Every Week: Distance Sensor Demo

I stumbled on a fun, visceral way to show how Arduinos can sense and respond.

In preparation for a presentation at the Online News Association Conference in Los Angeles, I grabbed a Ping distance sensor I had in a bin. The Ping works like a bat — it emits an inaudible, high-frequency sound, and listens for the sound to bounce off an object. The round-trip time between ping and reflection reveals the distance.

Monitoring the Monongahela

Yesterday the Streamlab class put do-it-yourself water monitors into Gatorade bottles and anchored them in the Monongahela River near Morgantown, West Virginia. They’re now texting their data readings live.

The link to the live chart is here, and the raw data is here.

We’re sensing conductivity, which is a good indicator of dissolved solids in the water, and temperature. The locations are: upstream of an industrial site, downstream of the same site and further downstream below the Morgantown lock and dam. 

Make Every Week: Message From a Bottle

A summer of tinkering has culminated with a conductivity and temperature sensor that texts its data from inside a Gatorade bottle.

The contraption consists of a Riffle, which is an Arduino-like board designed to fit through the mouth of a water bottle and a Fona cell-phone board. And a bottle.

The plan is to submerge several of these along a stretch of the Monongahela River as part of a sensor-journalism class at West Virginia University. It’s a work in progress, but you can [see how things are going]. My job was to build a working conductivity sensor that would report its findings live. Here are the components and how I made it go.

Update: We actually deployed some of these sensors in a river!