Proper Prior Preparations Prevent PPP*

Camp Quest Arizona is not until the end of June but it’s already on my mind and on my workbench. I had super response and success with last year’s program—The Beatle Bot. The program I select must have appeal to campers from the age of 8 through 17. Such programs are “electives.” Other electives include archery, fishing, survival skills, drama, and dancing. There may be others depending on the skills of the volunteer program camp counselors. I like hands-on activities. In the past, we build model airplanes, Pinewood Derby cars, and Tin Can Robots.

Pictured here is a prototype of one possible program for 2018. It was easy to build, can be completed by the campers in four 1-hour sessions and gives them something to take home with them. Unlike last year, the tiny line following robot comes in a complete kit. All that is necessary to complete the project is a soldering iron, solder, and a couple of hand tools. It went together quickly and worked immediately. The experience wasn’t perfect though. The instructions were not in English. My guess is Chinese since there were no recognizable words just pictures. I was able to find an “English” PDF file on the internet. It was rough. For example, here is the first line of the assembly instructions:

“Pay attention to the welder, welding according to the welding circuit is simple, the welding sequence component height from low to high principles, the first welding eight resistance welding must be used universal confirmation form resistance is correct, is welded with a polar components such as transistors, the green indicator light, electrolytic capacitor must points clear polarity as reference we picture element direction, welding capacitor short pin is the negative into the PCB screen printing on the shadow side of the green LED pin long is the cathode welding time not too long otherwise easy to weld, D4, D5 R13 and R14 can be temporarily not welding, integrated circuit chip can be in, the initial completion of welding, pleas be sure to carefully check, prevent careless.”

The purpose of preparing early is to work out the bugs and make sure that there is a high probability of that the robots will work. If I go with this kit for my summer project, I’ll obviously have to rewrite the assembly instructions!

Camp Quest is the Best! For more information on Camp Quest AZ, click HERE.

  • PPP = Piss Poor Performance
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Merry Christmas!

Yes. The Atheist said it, “Merry Christmas!” So, what? It’s Christmas Eve and it’s appropriate. I went to Walmart today to get an HDMI cable and exchanged the greeting with quite a few people today. On the 21st, we celebrated Winter Solstice at our house.

It was a great party. There were not one but two Christmas trees in the house. One was decorated with only red and gold ornaments and white warm LED lights. The other was rather eclectic with colored lights and a wide variety of colors and types of ornaments. Both are artificial and have been with us for over 10 years. But isn’t the holiday a bit artificial?

The annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ was placed on the calendar to displace the pagan celebrations that preceded the rise of Christianity. The first celebration of Christmas on December 25th was in 336 CE. There was no specified date in the Bible, so the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to put it on the 25th of December. It’s a wonderful time to celebrate especially in the Northern Hemisphere and the farther you get away from the Equator the more the celebrations are appreciated.

December 25th is roughly the time of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Roman midwinter celebrations were already happening during the Winter Solstice. Two notable celebrations are Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. The Winter Solstice is a solar event and represents the shortest day of the year, in the northern hemisphere of the Earth. In Tucson the shortest day of the year this year was on the 21st of December. It was 10 hours, 2 minutes, and thirty-one seconds between sunrise and sunset. On the 25th, the day was 10 hours, two minutes, and 42 seconds. The point here is that the length of the day changes very slowly around the Winter Solstice.

The literal meaning of solstice is “the Sun stops.” The Sun doesn’t stop, of course but if you were to observe the height of the Sun above the horizon at midday every day, you’d notice that during the Winter Solstice that the height would stop decreasing each day.

On Christmas day, we’ll hike, watch a movie, and eat at a Chinese buffet. Life doesn’t get much better than that in in the Southwest.

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65 in Three

In three months, I’ll be turning 65 years old. I’ve decided to start collecting my Social Security benefits. Decisions, decisions…While signing up for Medicare I decided to go ahead and start collecting my benefits The full retirement age is 66 and I’ll make a bit less per year but I’ll make it for 12 months more. There will be no difference in the total value of the payments if I live to my projected age. (They didn’t mention what that age is but I was assured that it was true.) I decided that since I was going down to deal with the Social Security bureaucracy to get the Medicare going I’ll go ahead and get the retirement payments. It might save me a trip in a year.

Nothing goes smoothly. Filling out the application online was painless but the “What to do next” line in the instructions kept me busy most of the day. The Social Security Office wants to see an original copy of my birth certificate. I last saw my birth certificate 18 years ago and I remember it being in a manila folder. I had to have it for a security clearance when I started working for Raytheon. I found a manila folder but it was full of photocopies. I finally found the required paperwork but it wasn’t exactly where I remembered it being. During the time when I was my father’s conservator, I collected all of HIS important papers—DD214, marriage certificates, etc. and tucked in with his papers was my birth certificate—Eureka! The upside of never throwing everything away is that you are guaranteed to find it eventually. The downside, of course, is that it may take all day to do it.

October was a busy month and due to the fact that we finished Halloween then ran off to the Camp Quest Summit for the weekend in Phoenix, I’m not fully recovered. I still have the remnants of my display to clean up but I’m also bone tired. That’s the trouble with being retired, you don’t get any days off…

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So Long Halloween 2017

It’s over for another year and most of the decorations are packed away. It was a great year and we had a fair number of Trick-or-Treaters on Halloween considering that it was a school night. The 8th Annual Nightmare before Halloween Party was also well attended and as far as I could tell everyone enjoyed the food, refreshments, and activities.

The theme for this year’s party and yard display was Welcome to the CarnEvil. It included clowns and clowns are very scary to some people. At least one person messaged me to tell me that her Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) was preventing her from coming to the party. She wasn’t kidding either. I promised to have “clown free” areas and still she didn’t attend.

In the past our themes were: Pirates, Witches, and Zombies. I suspect that the main reason that most people that didn’t attend was that it was on a Monday, a school or work night. The original reason for the party back in 2010 was to show off a bit and test out all of the Halloween mechanical decorations. It had to be on the night before Halloween due to the fact that decorations in the neighborhood are at risk of being vandalized. However this year I had an alarm, a fence, and a video camera leading me to believe that I may be able to separate the party/dry run a couple of days from Halloween.

Every year I add a new prop. My last blog entry was on October 8th (Finishing—Building IT Part VII) describes the final chapter in building this year’s newest prop. The theme for last year was Zombies and the new prop was a Zombie pit in the front yard. I used it again this year but raised it up on its end and included a prisoner clown hanging from his wrists. When anyone walked by the clown would talk and kick his feet.

The Arduino controlled witch that appeared in 2015 also returned. 2015 was the year of computer control just as 2009 was the first time that I employed pneumatics.

Preparations this year were intense. I started spending time in the workshop when the Spirit popup stores started appearing in mid-August. Building and repairing continued throughout the time right up to the night of the party and during Halloween day. I lost almost 10 pounds and went to bed sore and tired every night. On the other hand, I had more fun this year than in previous years. Money was not a problem and I got started early enough to enjoy the build. At times I felt that there was an evil gremlin hanging out in the workshop. Things that shouldn’t fail failed. “Aha solutions” turned out not to be so spiffy and everything took longer than it should but I stayed with it and learned important lessons through the failures and bad ideas.

Ultimately the goal of having an impressive, scary, reliable Halloween display was achieved and now most of it is packed up.

I’m still a bit sore though…

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Finishing—Building IT Part VII

Yes! “It” is done. Please check out the video on YouTube. It was finished on October 3rd leaving plenty of time to work on the other props before the dry run and party on the 30th. The grand finale is between the hours of 6 PM and 9 PM on Halloween night. Primarily, I do this for the kids on Halloween but I have to admit that I love showing off my skills and to gain some recognition and perhaps admiration from my friends. (If I’m to be a nerd, at least I’m a high functioning one.)

The night before party is also a celebration that I look forward to every year and it has become a tradition. Unfortunately, the party often occurs on a “school night.” By tradition and by necessity, the party has to happen on the night BEFORE Halloween. There are vandals in the neighborhood and having the displays up a few days early is a bad idea. Life would be much better without the vandals. I could set up things over a week and have the party on a weekend day. The current situation makes it necessary for me to set up most everything on one day. Some things that are high up can be placed ahead of time because the vandals don’t usually travel with ladders. This year there will be a few things placed higher up not because of the vandals but because I’m running out of real estate. The old grave yard is getting quite crowded. This year will also require some reorganizing to get everything to fit. Last year’s “new thing” the Zombie Pit won’t be displayed. Instead the bars that covered the pit will be placed vertically and there will be a clown hanging from his wrists within the make-shift jail.

Here are some pictures from the final stages of the build:

Skinning the prop involved cutting repurposed political signs, attaching the pieces to the framework, and painting them black. The “culvert” is made out of silver colored insulation material laid over bent fiberglass rods. The fiberglass rods are perfect in all ways but one. They are light and easy to bend into a smooth pipe-like shape. What is less than ideal is the fact that they must be handled with gloves. Fiberglass splinters are sharp, painful, and difficult to find and remove.

I’ve only received one tongue-in-cheek negative comment, “Aren’t you just a creative guy. If only all that talent could have been used for the good of mankind.” To which I replied, “Well…it’s part of an effort to get people to my house to donate to EMERGE a group that stands against domestic abuse…does that count?” He admitted that it did.

Most people who have viewed the video so far ask the same question, “Did you build that?” They never ask the harder question, “Why?”

Why? The short answer is that I enjoy it. It’s a pleasurable challenge and a chance to do something new. When I’m in the workshop concentrating on the latest build, the outside world goes away—I’m in the “zone.”

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Sometimes You Don’t Plan on the Hardest Thing—Building IT Part VI

Greetings Halloween Geeks and Geeks adjacent! Here is a picture of the IT prop “in-the-bones.” In other words, there is no skin. When I last reported I had everything working on the bench—separately. Turns out that is an important distinction. Everything worked and when assembled, it didn’t. It’s like reverse synergism. I anticipated a problem with mating the store bought jumping spider with the homemade portion. I did encounter that problem and found a solution quickly (and elegantly). Elegantly in that the finished prop will no longer require a set of AA batteries be installed in the spider. The solution was to split power from the main supply, regulate it, and provide it to the spider only when required. It took a bit of fiddling but now works fine. However, I didn’t anticipate that the noisy auto antenna motor would interfere with the audio amplifier.

As I said, each element worked independently. The voice sounded great from the reclaimed PA speaker horn when it said “Beep beep Kiddie. They ALL float down here. When you’re down here with us, you’ll float too! They all float down here.” The clown descended creepily down into the toilet. The spider looked scary as it slid forward. After a very slight slide backwards, the spider jumps and makes noise that seems to fit the situation. Once the spider backs down, the tray moves the spider back and the clown rises once again from the toilet. Beautiful! Except, the voice only worked once and was silent in subsequent cycles. WTF?

What follows is some “deep geek” discussion.

I tried everything to isolate the problem. Remember that the only time there was a problem is when everything was connected together. I didn’t have a clue about how to fix the problem.

I replaced the 12V power supply with a deep cycle 12V marine battery—no improvement. I powered the FX and sound board with a separate power supply and that didn’t fix the problem. Frustration started to be the order of the day. Nothing I tried made any difference. The problem got worse with each cycle and that made the problem harder to troubleshoot.

Before I became an electrical engineer, I was an experienced technician. It knew it would take every skill I had to find what was causing this situation. Isolating the audio board power supply didn’t work. Isolating the triggering connection to the audio board also didn’t work. I reasoned that there must be radio frequency interference from the auto antenna actuators.

A quick Google query gave me website on “Dealing with Motor Noise.” I followed the instructions half believing that I was wasting my time. Fortunately, the problem went away—completely!

The next installment will include a video of the completed IT prop in action. Today is the 1st of October and I feel great that my 2017 new prop is nearing completion. There are dozens of small projects that must be completed before the end of the month and I may not get to everyone but at least the IT prop will be there for the kids on Halloween.

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What’s Next? Building IT Part V

I finished the last installment of “Building IT” with “what’s next?” What was next was to wire the circuit boards and test their functions. The picture here doesn’t look very different from yesterday but that’s the nature of projects. In the beginning, change is obvious. First there is nothing then there is something. In the middle of the project very little seems to change. It’s like the project absorbs work.

In spite of that apparent effect, I accomplished a lot today. Notice that the two boards are now joined and there are wires connecting all the components. The small board on the workbench is simply for testing. Lights on the board indicate what is happening. The lights will be replaced with other components such as linear actuators and a motion sensor. One of the wires will activate a store purchased jumping spider. I’m hoping that that will be easy but I’m not holding my breath.

Everything works and the next step is to place the circuitry in a weather proof container and mount it to the prop. Then the prop components can be connected to the terminal strip on the outside of the container. With the exception of one last remaining hard
thing to do, the rest of the build should be easy. The hard thing is mating the homemade portion of the prop with the store bought jumping spider. I expect challenges. The linear actuator motors sometimes interfere with the Chinese circuitry in Halloween decorations. I may have to apply power to the spider only when I want it to be active. I’m hoping that that won’t be necessary but I’m prepared to if needed.


  • Mount the circuit boards
  • Connect the actuators, lights, motion sensor, and spider
  • Decorate
  • Fine adjust and play

Stay tuned!

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