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Little Packages

Hello, my name is Bob and I am a little package addict.

It started in the mid 90s, I think it was around 1996.  Amazon was new to the world, it was an oddity.  Of course I checked it out but it didn’t do a lot for me at the time.  If I wanted a howling wolf t-shirt, Walmart was closer, easier and cheaper.  But this was also the time of ebay.  This was an entirely different beast.  There were cheap Chinese knockoffs, used stuff and things I would have never thought of looking for.  I could get my Donkey Kong Country for a fraction of what GameStop was charging.  This was a whole new form of digital hunting.littlepackage2

Then there was Newegg, buy.com, and tons of other “you can buy anything online.com” stores.  There was no going back.  Amazon became a wallet draining ninja with it’s secret weapon – reviews, and it’s not so secret weapon – Prime (AKA free shipping).  Ebay fell by the wayside, the novelty of bidding all the time lost it’s appeal.

By now my addiction to having things delivered to me with a wave of the mouse was in full swing.  Like the rest of my socioeconomic peers we justified it with “it saves me time, that’s all” or “I know lots of people who buy more than me . . .”  Midnight, 6 inches from of a monitor that was bigger than the family TV a few short years ago evaluating a sale on personalized sporks you feel it in your bones –     you      are      addicted.

It’s now 2016, malls are a wasteland and it has become socially acceptable to click – swipe and spend with impunity.  The addiction is OK like using your phone while driving or saying “just this once” for the 9th time this week to a waitress asking you about desert.  I could stop here, confess my weakness and melt into the unwashed masses – BUT NO!  I did not stop there.

I have cut out the middle man.  Like most things, fine Corinthian USB cables are now made in China.  Why pay some outfit in Seattle when you go direct?  Aliexpress is the consumer front end to Alibaba.  To give you a sense of scale, Amazon ships an average about 3 million packages a day, Alibaba ships around 12 million.  I do a lot of tinkering with electronics and building projects.  Maybe I need some LEDs.  I can get 100 shipped from Amazon for about $7 – not bad.  I can get 100 from Aliexpress for .86 cents – SHIPPED, for $7 I can get 1000 LEDs in a little yellow envelope from China.  The Amazon order could get he in as little as 2 days.  The Aliexpress order is likely to take 3 weeks.  So, what color LEDs should I get?  I’m not likely to get more than one bag from Amazon, but on Aliexpress?  Give me a bag of every color you got.  At .86 cents I can end up with 5, 6 or 7 little packages heading my way instead of 1 from Amazon.level

Turn away if you must.  At any given time I have 10-15 little packages making their way from the land of the Red Dragon to deep in the heart of Texas.  My LED cup runith over.  I have to build projects just to keep my inventory turns up.  I can’t keep this up, this is a cry for help.  Brother can you spare a little package?

Check out my ‘ible

I have just published my first “instructable”. If you are not familiar with Instructables, it is a website where people post how-to projects, everything from how to make a pet rock to building your own car. It really is  worth a look, lots of interesting stuff.

My ‘ible as the site veterans say, is closer to the pet rock side of the spectrum. It shows how to make a cable you can use with the little electronics projects I am always tinkering around with. I know most pretty much all of you are not likely to need this bit of hardware wizardry but I decided to force it on you anyway since you read my blog. Also, everyone can see my instructable’s project view counter and I can’t make it go over 1 by myself. I know there are at least 6-8 people who need this information but it just may take them some time to find it.

http://www.instructables.com/id/Build-a-Versatile-USB-Power-Cable-for-Your-Arduino/

“. . . so why did you do it?” I hear you mentally mumbling. Well I will tell you.  Every time I need to know something, every time I just wonder if there is such a thing, every time I run out of things to wonder about – I go to the internet and there it is. The answer. Not always the right answer but it’s a start. When you are desperate to know if ear wax is flammable (it is) of if you can cook a full meal with nothing but toothpicks (you can) who are you going to ask? Your friends? Your mom? Of course not, all you can do is hope that not only are you not the first person who needed to know these things but someone before you had the foresight and the decency to post about it. So why did I do it? To even the score a bit. I don’t know who is going to need to make a USB power cable but someone will and I have left them some digital bread crumbs.   I wouldn’t be here today If I didn’t have that fire extinguisher handy when I needed it. We all have to do our part.

instructable

2015 Wrap up

You wouldn’t know it from reading this blog but a fair amount has been going on around here.  Here is a little info to catch you up.

My small business christyinnovations works with schools and teachers to teach technology.  I have been doing it on a school by school basis the last couple of years.  This year I have a contract with our local school district to create and manage a coding club program for elementary schools.  I created the program, lesson plans, teacher training and a year end “Expo”.  We have 13 schools and over 40o kids in the program our first year which is pretty great.  I visit all the schools and help the teachers, observe the kids and try to improve the program.  This has kept me pretty busy since August.

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On a related note, I also got to work with 70 of the top teachers in the district across all grade levels in a technology workshop.  We did some coding, built some Super Bristle Bots and talked about how they could use these tools in their classrooms.

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We missed going to the beach at Ft. Morgan during November.  We would spend the month there working, hanging out on the beach and kayak fishing every year.  Because of the activities mentioned above we couldn’t swing it.  I am so glad we got to spend time in Vero Beach in June to help sustain us.

It hasn’t been all work and no play.  Every December we do something as a family usually earlier in the month.  This “tradition” stemmed from our son in law Greg having to be off shore during Christmas a few years back.  So Katie, Sam, Sarah, Greg, Linda and I would plan some long weekend kind of event that we could all do together.  We liked it so much we kept on doing it even if no one was going to be gone for Christmas.  This year we took a 4 night cruise to Cozumel out of Galveston.  I think everyone had a great time, I know I did.

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Turns out we will be down 2 family members this year.  Katie and Sam are are vacationing in Europe for the holidays.  They will spend Christmas in Paris and squeeze in a little Amsterdam and Brough.

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I hope your year was as good as ours and that you are looking forward to next year.  Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and best wishes in general from the Christy family.

The Joy of Tinkering

I have been spending a lot (dare I say inordinate amount) of time playing with little electronics.  Projects that when in component form will fit in my pocket.  I started with Raspberry Pi – a tiny general purpose computer and then got involved with an Arduino – an even smaller micro controller.  These projects are at the same time, insignificant and quite impressive.

They are insignificant because when 100% functional they might make a motor spin when I press a button or play a song AND light a light at the same time.  I forgot to mention I often need help with these herculean tasks so I go online and find some of the projects thousands of other people have already completed and copy some of their work.  Needless to say the Nobel committee has yet to be informed of my work.

I realize it’s a long way from what I just described to “impressive”.  The thing is, while doing these simple tasks I learned quite a bit about electricity, electric components, writing software, soldering, reading spec sheets and schematics, the list goes on and on.  I knew very little of these things when I started and although I am far from an expert I can honestly say I understand a surprising amount about these previously unknown topics.

Whenever you experience these kind of “aha moments” you want to share them with others.  In particular I have been trying to figure out ways to give similar experiences to kids.  Without trying to sound too dramatic, I think this sort of experience can be life changing especially if it happens at an early age.  The joy of discovery, the satisfaction of figuring things out and creating a “formula” for yourself to learn something new can be pretty powerful.

One idea I am trying out is creating project kits that contain all the components needed and making corresponding videos explaining how to assemble and program the project.  The hope is that these projects would give kids some of these aha moments, they would build confidence encourage them to seek out more.  Since I have a lack of 11 year olds I have forced my family to be my Guinea pigs.

The jury is still out on my project kit idea but based on where I started with my own project learning and my relative success of my current (get it?  electronics pun) set of projects there is hope.

Shared Experiences

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One of my kids and her husband went off to Singapore to do a little adventuring.  Turns out Singapore was celebrating their 50th birthday so they got to be part of the festivities.  They are going all over the island trying all kinds of new stuff and having a blast.

This picture is one that Sarah posted on her Instagram account with a little story.  Back when Singapore was only half as old as it is now, Sarah was about 2, and I went on a business trip that included Singapore.  My internal clock was all messed up and I was wondering the streets around midnight.  This restaurant set up tables out in the street in front of it’s indoor seating area, not the sidewalk, in the street.  Most of the tables had people sitting at them eating, drinking and having a good time.  As I walked by I noticed that pretty much everyone had the same thing, a bowl of (what turned out to be) spicy noodles and a Tiger beer – a BIG Tiger beer.  I am not sure if that was all they sold or that was what was best.

By the time I reached the end of the row of tables I had decided it all looked REALLY good and I should try some.  I turned around, found an empty table and ordered my noodles and beer.  The people watching was good and sipping my beer while I waited for the noodles I could feel some of the jet lag sliding off my back.  The noodles were spicy, the beer was cold and it was probably the best meal I had on my whole trip.  It was more than that.  I recalled that fond memory several occasions.  Surprisingly, someone was listening.

Yesterday Sarah and Greg were wandering the streets of Singapore and saw a street with tables setup and people eating spicy noodles and drinking beer.  I doubt that it will be one of the best meals of their trip but I know for at least two of us it will be a lifetime memory.

“ Tonight was a very full circle moment for me. When I was much younger my Dad used to travel for work. One of my favorite stories of his was how one night walking through the streets of Singapore he saw people sitting in the streets eating bowls of spicy noodles with giant beers and just stopped to enjoy. Today I got to experience the same thing. Thanks for the wanderlust dad. “

Travelogue – that’s a wrap

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

 

Our time here is winding down.  It’s time for a review, summary, recap, lessons learned, post mortem . . . did you ever notice how many words and phrases there are for looking back at something you already did?

This trip got an A for food.  Chinese, Thai, BBQ, Seafood, sticky buns, crepes, pizza, burgers and of course frozen custard and Italian ice, they were all yummy.  I don’t think we had a single dud meal on the trip.  We had some pretty good stuff at home but the stars of the trip were cooked by someone else.  If you should find yourself around Ft. Pierce on a Saturday morning, head over to the water behind city hall and visit their market.  They have a baker who does a wonderful assortment of breads, croissants and muffins.  I recommend the sticky buns.  A few yards away is a guy from Maryland who (according to Linda) makes some of the best crab cakes south of the Chesapeake.  It doesn’t matter that it’s for breakfast.

Kayak Fishing – B+  My fishing rod and I had a good run at the fish while we were here.  Only once was I skunked.  The weather was good.  We didn’t have any rain to speak of.  The wind came every day but there was always time to paddle the kayak before it got too strong.  It was a loss that I couldn’t launch in the neighborhood this year but since I had to drive to my launches I discovered several new launch sites and fishing holes.

The roads are less crowded in June than they are in February, but the water is much more crowded in June.  Do not attempt to launch your little plastic boat anywhere near a boat ramp on a weekend.  You will be taking your life in your hands, not to mention your ears being assaulted by some really bad “music”.  Nothing says fishing like gangster death rap.

Weekdays are great, very little traffic on the road and on the water and plenty of parking.  You really do have a ton of options.  The only caveat is you want to arrive at your park/launch/sandy spot on the side of the road before 11:00 am or after 1:00 pm.

Finally, we want to thank our friends who shared their house with us, it was top notch.  All went extremely smoothly this visit.  No appliances were harmed in the making of this vacation.  The internet was solid which makes life as we know it, possible.  We love spending time here for all the reasons listed above and more.  Now it’s time to return to Texas where people wave back and Mexican food nourishes your soul.

Travelogue – Lunch with Darryl (and his other brother Darryl)

kayak-sailFlorida has pretty predictable weather patterns, it’s mild and sunny in the morning, not too much wind.  It starts to cloud up between 12-1, the wind also gets stronger, then there is about a 30% chance of rain between 2-5.  This makes planning my kayak fishing easier.  The wind tends to come from the same direction (east) when it gets strong in the afternoon.  I try to be in a position NOT to fight that wind on my return paddle.

This means I often return between 12-1 – lunch time.  Since I can’t launch from the neighborhood like I have done in the past I spend a lot more time at parks, boat launches and sandy clearings by the water.  What I have discovered is; if you work for the city/county/state, or you are part of a yard maintenance crew, plummer, pool cleaner or even a cop, between 11:30 – 1:00 you seek out one of these parks or sandy patches by the side of the road to spend your lunch hour and a half.  Pretty much everyone who does their job in a vehicle does this.  All picnic tables are claimed, some lay in the grass, some never leave their truck.

I have to admit, I have mixed feelings on this.  If I was delivering phone books all day in my truck, I would want to spend my lunchtime in a shady park by the water too.  After all, if you are driving a dually with 6 guys inside and pulling a 30 ft trailer how many lunch options do you have?  On the other hand, a mom taking her kids to the park isn’t really comfortable sharing their picnic table with Chico and the man.  One time I came back to the kayak launch ramp and there was a truck parked on the ramp.  This is not cool.  So, in general, I think this is one of those things that is what it is and you just work with it.

It does make you think what they do everywhere else.  I would have to think we have as many electricians and yard guys running around the suburbs of Houston as they do in Vero Beach, where do they all go???  I know where our yard guys go, our front yard.  When it’s time for lunch they sit against a tree and eat and rest for a while.  Once one of them broke out a hibachi grill.  It’s OK with us, we have known them for many years and the place always looks better when they leave than it did when they got there.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

Travelogue – Steady State

All settled in, Linda’s office is setup, groceries have been stocked, we are ready to work and play with great efficiency.  Since we are in the eastern time zone, work starts later than usual and gives Linda time to go for a walk on the beach.  I pack up my kayak fishing equipment and make plans to outwit the local aquatic fauna.  Early afternoon I will return.  Linda will ask me how I did.  I will answer in code.  If I say “pretty well” that means I caught fish.  If I say “it was a great day to be on the water”, I didn’t catch anything and the follow up questions will be redirected accordingly.

When I was describing the house last time, I left out one important feature, the outdoor shower.  I can’t explain it but I love taking showers outside.  I pretty much take every shower out there morning or night, rain or shine.  There are no walls just a fence around the yard and a bunch of plants.  I am pretty sure none of the neighbors can see me although they can hear me.  Linda on the other hand, can look at the kitchen window and observe the entire process.  Most of the other houses where we stay have outside showers as well but this one is my favorite.

In the afternoons Linda will wind down her responsibilities and I will work a little on my projects.  Usually I will make dinner but there are a number of restaurants we like to frequent in the area.  Then we will settle in for the evenings entertainment.  We have a host of services like Netflix and all the needed electronics.  Our viewing routine often includes desert/snacks.  I try to insist on a slice of apple and some kale crisps but Linda will often force me to eat cake or ice cream.

Speaking of kale crisps, do you know what’s even better?  Rita’s Italian Ice.  We discovered this place in aritas previous stay in Vero Beach.  Turns out Rita’s is a chain that started in Philadelphia.  As the name states they sell Italian Ice but they also sell frozen custard.  Linda goes for the chocolate frozen custard and she forces me to have a Gelati which is frozen custard on the bottom, Italian ice in the middle and more frozen custard on top.  Everyone knows ice is very low calorie, since mine has ice in it, it’s almost good for me!

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Travelogue – Detours

We stay in the house of some good friends.  It’s a block from the beach and there is a park 2 blocks away.  A block in the other direction takes you to the bay where I go kayak fishing.  The house has plenty of room, is nicely decorated and even has a garage where I can store my kayak and fishing gear.  It’s a pretty sweet setup.

In the past I would pull my kayak on a cart down the dead end street where I would launch into the bay.  An older couple lives next to this spot and I asked if it was OK for me to launch here.  They said they owned it and it would be fine as long as I didn’t park a car there.

This year I went by to make sure it was still OK and there was something going on there.  A dock was being built where I used to launch.  Linda and I talked to the old couple and opened a can of worms.  Apparently they didn’t really own the property, they and their neighbors kind of divided it up and took care of it.  It was a super skinny strip of grass along the dead end road.  Well someone bought it from the city.  The neighbors are up in arms, that patch of grass allows cars to turn around, neighbors to get to the water and things like yard maintenance trucks to park to work on the yards.  Motions were filed, cops are coming by, people were going to court, fences and logs now block access.  It’s no bueno.  In the past I would launch from there 4-5 times a week, it looks like I will be loading up the truck instead of the cart.

One of the things we like to do in Vero is to go to Ft Pierce on Saturday mornings.  They have a market there where we buy bread, produce and usually breakfast.  It’s at a park right on the water,  there is live music, food and vendors selling all kinClear-Plastic-Storage-Bins-With-Lidds of stuff.  It’s a great place to spend the morning.  That’s how we started our stay.

We have done these trips a number of times and we have gotten pretty efficient at packing, unpacking and getting setup.  One of the keys to our success are the plastic tubs we use.  They have locking lids and come is several sizes.  By now we know what stuff goes in what tubs and where they get packed in the truck.  During our stay they may act as coffee table, night stand or cloths hamper.  Don’t leave home without them.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Travelogue – It’s all downhill from here

Just before we reach our destination for the night in the town of Midway west of Tallahassee we cross into the Eastern Standard Timezone and our 12.5 hours car trip quickly turns into 13.5 hours.  We won’t mind going to bed early but we won’t be our usual chipper selves when 6AM rolls around.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  First we shall have dinner and we are now in Sonny’s BBQ country.  When we are seated the waitress tries to hand us menus and we give her the “do we look like we are fooling around here?” look and she knows she is dealing with professionals.  There will be 1 turkey lunch special (yes you can order it for dinner) with Cole slaw, french fries, garlic bread and a giant sweet tea, AND 1 sliced pork lunch special with Cole slaw, french fries, garlic bread and water, oh, and a side of BBQ baked beans to share.  In less than 8 minuets the BBQ sauce was applied to the smoked goodness and it was having a medicinal effect.csuites

We had stayed at the Comfort Suites in Midway before but it was in February instead of July.  It was a nice  enough place, good location, reasonable price.  But, we will not be returning, at least not between the months of March and December.  This hotel like many Comfort Suites has a “feature” on their air conditioners called “e-save”.  It doesn’t matter what temperature you set the thermostat for, it will decide for you when you have had enough.  Yup, it just quits and there is no turning it back on.  After an hour or so maybe it will give you a little more – maybe –  if you’re nice.  This is especially handy in the middle of the night when you wake up sweating.  This is a major fail for Comfort Suits, it e-sucks.

The first few times we traveled like this, hauling half of what we own in the back of a open pickup truck, I was pretty nervous about people stealing my stuff while we were sleeping.  Most things were in tubs except some fishing gear, 12 packs of soda and of course my kayak but someone could just pop the lid off a tub and make off with my underwear or crunchy peanut butter.  Turned out there were fewer people than expected interested in my underwear and all those boy scout knots must make the kayak a less desirable target.  I still worry a bit and always check on it when I have to get up in the middle of the night to berate the air conditioner but I am no longer surprised when I find that everything is still there in the morning.yeehaw

We chose to go south on I-75 then to the turnpike instead of taking I-10 to I-95.  Florida has the SunPass for their toll roads.  In Texas we have EZ Tag.  In Florida we were able to buy a SunPass from a vending machine (right next to the cookies) for $5.40 at the Florida welcome center.   Then we activated over the internet with a credit card.  The only down side is that you have to go through the toll booths at 25mph.  The EZ Tag works at several times that speed.

So we took the turnpike to our exit, and I am not making this up, Yeehaw Junction.  Next we went due east 30 miles into Vero Beach.  Destination reached.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6