Book Review: Exploring Arduino by Jeremy Blum

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Review of “Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry” by Jeremy Blum. Reviewed on August 24th, 2015.

Exploring Arduino, by Jeremy Blum. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2013.I’m coming to review this book rather late. It was published in late 2013, I believe, but I’ve only recently purchased it and wanted to pipe up with my two cents’ worth. As many people can probably say,  I originally encountered the works of Jeremy Blum on YouTube. I bought my first Arduino board in late 2013. Being a busy professional and father, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to play around with it, although I truly did want to play. But I can’t really learn new things in a vacuum, so I quickly developed a project to use my first board on: a timing track for my son’s Boxwood Derby car. (He had a brief interest in the Cub Scouts, which has long since waned.) So searching the Intertubes for training materials on the Arduino was natural. I looked at many of them, but by far the best at least in my opinion, were the short videos produced on the topic by Jeremy Blum with the support of the electronics supply company Element 14. (Note: I have no association with the author or any of the companies mentioned here.)

Jeremy Blum is the host of a series of 15 tutorials for working with Arduinos, sponsored by Element 14I used those Arduino Tutorial videos to bring myself up to speed quickly. I actually managed to get a timing circuit built in time for my son to enter his car in an elementary school science fair. True, we only re-proved what Galileo figured out in 1638, but still, it’s always nice to see that the laws of physics haven’t changed. I was very grateful to Mr. Blum for his guidance. At the time, I remember being astonished that such clear, cleanly explained training films existed for the Arduino and that they had been created by an undergraduate engineering student! When he announced that he was writing a book, I sort of felt like I owed it to him to buy and read it. (Plus, he had helped to get me hooked on this whole open-source hardware maker movement, so I was naturally curious to learn more.)

To summarize my perspective on the book, I’m a working IT professional who had introductory practical electronics courses as a Physics student nearly 30 years ago, so many of the concepts here aren’t new to me. I’ve played around with small circuits on my own for many years, but I was never really a hobbyist, more of a dabbler. But with the arrival of the Arduino and the Raspbery Pi, I finally had the opportunity to try out working with microcontrollers. I had always been a bit too busy and perhaps slightly intimidated to take that particular plunge. I think maybe that’s Jeremy’s best trait, he makes you unafraid to try out new things. The other thing I should mention here is that I've worked as a technical writer for many years, so I'm aware of the technical aspects of putting together this kind of hardware/software instructional book. It's a unique kind of challenge to write about both technical hardware and software in a combined work.

So, the book . . . I bought the paperback on Amazon during a month in which Mr. Blum turned out to be donating his profits to young, women engineers. I can certainly get behind that cause and I’m glad it worked out that way. The book, printed by Wiley is nicely printed. I like the texture and design of the cover. The pages are fairly standard for technology/programming books, black and white on a medium-light weight, matte stock. The layout of chapters are clean and crisp; the typography clear and legible and the illustrations printed well in greyscale. The illustrations are basically an even mixture of screen grabs of the Arduino IDE interface, what looks to be Mac OS X operating system windows and elements, circuit diagrams done in Fritzing, a few photos likely taken by the author, and a few black and white diagrams of key concepts.

The structure follows the YouTube tutorial videos pretty closely, introducing elementary engineering principles first and then moving on to the basics of how a microcontroller works, the practical capabilities of an Arduino, and then simple and more complex projects created with one. Usually, the author sticks with the Arduino Uno, but he does acknowledge and occasionally even suggest projects for the other models. He starts each chapter calling out the digital resources available related to the material in the chapter, which is nice. He naturally links back to his tutorial videos, but he isn’t shy pointing to other valuable online resources. All of the sketches, diagrams and schematic files he uses are available on a custom website supporting the book. (www.exploringarduino.com)

Pulling out Armoire project in Roswell Shop #2

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I pulled out the jewelry armoire project last night in an effort to get moving on my two big unfinished projects. I found the cabinet, as completed so far. That's about the biggest accomplishment. The problem is that I've lost the folder of plans for this in the move. It's around in a box somewhere, but god knows where. This means I don't have the hand-annotated cut list and the latest updates to the measured drawings. This is a problem. And on top of that, I have several key parts that I cannot seem to locate anywhere in the shop. This is a bigger problem. Still, while I get my workbench finished, I've pulled all of the parts of this out and stacked them to one side so I can dive in after the bench is done. Crazy as it sounds, I'm kind of optimistic this time. 


This is a salvage effort at this point. These are the parts and the few design drawings I can find.

ID'd the stretchers, Reclaimed this project

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OK, I'm finally going to try to finish this thing. I almost gave it up as lost last October when, while trying to square up my bench legs, I ended up doing more damage than good with my table saw. The problem, I didn't have most of my tools, jigs and assorted materials located after our move from Roswell house #1. I've spent the last 10 months slowly (s l oooooooo  w l   y) getting my shop and house back in order enough to do some at least moderately skillful woodworking again.

All of the parts needed to complete the workbench laid out on my outfeed tableThe first, critical step now is to identify the rough lumber that will function as the stretchers on this thing. Unfortunately, I don't have thick enough lumber for one piece stretchers, so once again I'm going to need to patch together two pieces for each of the four stretchers. Finding pieces of silver maple from my dwindling stash of lumber from the farm tree was a sketchy proposition. I didn't think I even had enough left. There are more pieces in storage in Ohio, but I have no way to get it back to Georgia easily any time soon. So it was a major victory last night that I did manage to find  enough pieces for the entire undercarriage of the bench. A major victory was that I actually located my folder of bench plans. (I still can't find my folder for the jewelry armoire project, which is why it's still on the back burner right now.) But with the bench plans in hand, I could finally see my original dimension calculations and knew enough to identify rough lumber. 

Nearest the table saw is the long front-piece for the benchtop. This had long been my intended piece in which to carve a message. I was the only fairly clean long-enough, wide-enough piece I had. Beyond that at the far end of the outfeed table you can see my two big and two smaller legs. The larger legs will be on the front of the bench. And then on top of the legs are the four longer pieces that will serve as the front and rear stretchers. The inner parts are only going to be 3 ½" wide, rather than my original plan of 4", because I simply don't have any long pieces that are straight and wide enough.  Near the orange square (Hey, it's cheap, works well, and most importantly, AMERICAN MADE!) and orange ruler (ditto) are the four pieces to make up the left and right stretchers. On the floor behind the outfeed table I have the end cap of the top. The front and tail vice hardware are stored on the lower shelf of the outfeed table.

Benchtop slab standing, leaning up against the wall among all of my remaining long lumber pieces. (sigh) I really need to get some of this wood *out* of my shop.As you can see, my outfeed table is once again, effectively, the only work surface I have. That's the reason I desperately need to finish this bench project. The benchtop is sitting propped up against the far wall. Here, here's a better picture of it. 

So, I have all of the parts, FINALLY, and I can get to work on squaring up the stretchers and cutting the tenons for the legs. After I run the lumber though the planer and jointer, I'm going to attack this with hand tools as much as possible, particularly the joinery. The incident with the table saw and table leg tenons last year has made me very leary of using power tools for any of the fine joinery attempts.

Shit! I just realized that I don't in fact have all of the parts needed. I still need to source the wood for the front vice chop and lower support. Well, I knew that was the case all along, but I had forgotten. I know I don't have anything large enough for that one. I'm going to need to go find those parts eventually. But for right now, the goal is to get the basic bench put together quickly. I can't screw around with this much longer.


ALL of the parts needed to finish my workbench are finally identified, sitting here on my outfeed table

Cabinet up in the new shop

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I managed to put the hanging wall cabinet up in my Roswell shop #2 last winter, but I've not had much opportunity to use it this year. Still, I've managed to slowly put it back together with the tools and started, finally, working on some more tool holders. In particular, I've got a new Lie Nielson carcase backsaw that needs a home, along with my old Veritas black powder spine dovetail saw. 

I had to do much of the heavy lifting of the move myself, and getting this thing up on the wall without help was quite a challenge. I think I dinged up the bottom of the case a bit moving it around from the garage down to the lower basement. Structurally, it's still fine, although the doors are sagging a bit after several years of life. Those piano wire hinges are quite strong, but even without all of the tools planned hung in the doors, the doors are quite heavy, particularly when closed. I think I'm going to mount a support block with a low-friction slide plate on top just under the top of the doors, mounted on the inside of the case. This should help support the doors while closed and help the latch magnets engage and hold them closed.

I had ordered some brass drawer label holders last year and they came. They're around the shop somewhere. As with any move, the challenge has been to find everything again. Getting the cabinet up and in order is actually part of my process of finally getting my woodworking back in business. I hope to have updates on this in the near future.


Tool cabinet up and being used in Roswell shop #2

How to Stumble into Geocaching

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I've recently taken up the hobby/game/interest/waste-of-time/pursuit(?) of geocaching. So how did this happen? Yet another thing to occupy my already endangered spare time? In hindsight, it seems only natural. It involves technology, being out in the woods, conservationism, exploration, and a childlike sense of wonder. What's truly a wonder is that I didn't stumble into this sooner.  But in my case, it took a nudge from my son and a conversation with my wife to get me off my duff to try it. My son got a treasure map from one of his friend. His father had given him a treasure map a couple of years ago, which led him to a treasure box on their property that was just chock full of gems and doubloons. Liam and his cousin were bouncing off the walls one Saturday about this map, because, you see, the map was BIGGER than just his friend's yard. It also showed areas all the way down to Florida . . and there were other treasures on it! We just about had to tackle them as they were headed out to hitchhike to the Sunshine State. (Not really, they're nine. But I wouldn't have put it past them if they had gotten any more worked up about that map.)

Just about to go down a slippery slope

My wife and I were talking about how fun it was to see Liam and Aidan so excited. I said something about how there's nothing better in the world than that sense of wonder you have as a child. And then my wife said those fateful words, "You know, we could take them geocaching or something, so they can at least find something."  One of our former neighbors had been into this hippy-thing called 'geocaching' and was always going on and on about it. That came to mind, so I looked into it. And a giant, bemusing, out-of-control slippery slope opened up under me and down I went . . . like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in 'Romancing the Stone'.

What is geocaching? Basically, it's a glorified global scavenger hunt, using any GPS-enabled device to guide you. It was started about fifteen years ago by a couple of people in Oregon (naturally) who were into GPS and exploring the natural world. It has now evolved into a global passion followed by millions of people in search of more than 2.6 million individual secret stashes of stuff. Mostly the stuff doesn't matter, it's the hunt that matters. The game is to log into one of the two or three cache tracking websites, find one in the area where you will be travelling, use your iPhone or Garmen to track it down, FIND IT (not always a simple taask), open it, trade stuff for stuff, sign the logbook, put it back where you found it (hopefully hidden even better than when you found it), and finally log your find online. To get the most out of it, you have to pick one of the geocaching communities. There is an Open Caching site and movement, mostly pushed by the GPS maker Garmin, which is sort of like the wild west of geocaching. But 99% of all geocachers use the ones that started it all: Geocaching.com, which is run out of Portland, Oregon by several of the originators of the activity, with their company Groundspeak, Inc. But all of the things you need are at Geocaching.com.

This is the Geocaching.com logo. The symbol often shows up on the side of a cache . . . if you can ever find the damned thingI'm just a baby at this. My score is only 6. That means I've located 6 geocaches, all in my local area, all within the last two weeks. There seem to be thousands in the Atlanta area alone. Heck, I found one less than 1000 feet from our house, and another less than 500 feet from my office. The fun of it is that once you get within about 50 feet of a cache, GPS isn't going to help you much. It isn't that precise . . . and frankly, lots of the people who create these caches are just evil. They go out of their way to make it hard to find them. (Don't get me wrong, most of them aren't that hard. Many of them are obvious once you get nearby. It depends on what the cacher is going for . . . a tricky, clever hide, or just to get you to a beautiful spot out in nature.)

Our two and their three cousins locating their first geocacheLast Sunday, I conned all five boys, our two plus their three cousins, to walk down our street and across Riverside Drive where there is a big wooded 'park'. It's sort of attached to the Roswell Community park system, but not really. It's just a low lying area near the Chattahoochie River. They looked like the cast of Stand By Me. And we went hunting for three geocaches I found on the Geocaching iPhone app. We found two, couldn't find the other. The last one was truly out in the woods, and it was getting kind of late, and the boys were freaking out because . . .well, there's lots of spiders in the woods in Georgia. hee hee hee.

But finding them, especially when their hiding spot is tricky or clever, is just a joy to experience. It's especially fun to see kids come upon a location and run around looking for the cache. And then when you open the cache, you get to see them pour over the contents. Usually, as long as it hasn't been muggled, there a logbook, a pen that probably doesn't work (take your own at all times, that seems to be the rule), some swag, maybe a couple of geotagged items, and very rarely, some real treasure.

It's NOT 'AT'!!

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I asked my wife this morning, "Do you think I'm a Sheldon? Sometimes, I worry that I'm a Sheldon."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Well, it's just  . . . the stuff I worry about. It's crazy. Why do I care about this stuff?!"

"No, you're not a Sheldon. But what kind of stuff?"

Here's the thing. Something linguistic has been bugging the HELL out of me for about 10 years now, and I'm just about reaching a breaking point with this one. It's about the '@' symbol. You know . . . the one in all of your email addresses. The one that starts off all of your Twitter handles?  Yeah, that thing. It is NOT, I repeat, FREAKING NOT . ."the AT symbol"! It is, quite obviously and quite emphatically, an 'EACH AT symbol! It's a rate, not a location, dammit! How do I know this? Because I saw it when I was a boy. If you went into a grocery store or a farmer's market, anything priced by the piece, such as fruit or cans or canteloupes, they were all priced for 'each'. The normal abbreviation on signs was 'ea.'  So, apples were 10¢ ea.  Watermelons would be 20¢ ea.

And the '@' symbol didn't exist on most old typewriters of the time. It started out as an accounting symbol . . . and let's be clear: 14 white wall tires @ $25 means something quite different if @ means 'at' rather than 'each at'. If it's the former, you only have to pay $25 and you get 14 tires. That's quite a deal! However, if you actually know what you're talking about, and you know that it's actually the latter, you realize that you must pay $350 to get those 14 tires. And I guarantee, back in 1972, NOBODY thought it meant 'AT'. . . except, evidently, the computer nerds who were busily inventing network protocols such as email and TCP/IP.

You saw the symbol mostly on hand-lettered signs, so the lack of a typewriter key didn't matter, and the shortening of 'each at' by placing the 'a' inside the giant 'e' was a great shorthand. Of course '@' means 'each at'! What are you all thinking?!

But now, it's sort of a lost cause. To quote one of my favorite philosophers, 'When the avalanche has started, it's too late for the pebbles to vote.'  So now that every email is joe.schmoe AT blahblahblah DOT com, and there's a show on television actually called '@Midnight', I just shake my head in astonishment. And you send messages to your Twitter mates by sending it '@JoeSchmoe', which frankly sounds kind of rude and boorish. Wouldn't you want to send it 'TO' Joe Schmoe? But I guess we're just wingin' those messages AT each other's faces now. So I guess AT is what you do these days. It's just . . . I do not think that word means what you think it means. But you're all so certain of it. You silly gits.


New Shop Cam

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Live picture of my home woodshopI've finally publicly posted the page for my three home cameras. I put them out here mostly for my own amusement, and also as a way to share what I'm working on and what the weather is in my parts with members of my extended family. I've currently got three cameras:

  • a shop camera
  • a camera pointed out the back window of my shop at the woods behind our house
  • a camera aimed out our front window at our sidewalk and yard

Honestly,  this is mostly an excuse to play around with webcams, home security software, and the ins-and-outs of my home wifi network.  It's been an education . . . to which I will soon subject my boys.  (evil laugh)

I'm sorry, but learning routing, IP networking standards, and how to deal with wifi devices is just going to be a right-of-passage for children of this coming generation . . . just like when kids had to learn how to milk a cow by hand and fix an internal combustion engine back in the hazy days of the mid-20th century. 

My shop cam page can be found here.


Pixar's Film History - One Subjective Assessment

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Cars is severely underrated, no matter what your criteriaI don't write much here about movies. I'm not really sure why. I've been a devout fan of cinema for a long time, up to and including running the movie theater at my college while I was an undergrad. I took quite a few classes on film, including several with the respected film theorist and historian Louis Giannetti. I guess it's been because everyone and his brother has become an 'internet film reviewer' in the last two decades. So I usually stay out of it. But I'm still passionate about watching movies. And as my wife often somewhat bemusedly notes, while completly lacking any interest in this particular genre, I am a complete sucker for an animated film.

Chronological list of the Pixar films released over the past 20 years

Something's been picking at my brain recently. As I said, I love animation. Always have. From early Disney, through experimental shorts in the 70s and 80s, all the way up to the latest computer generated stuff. And I feel a bit out of sync with the world when it comes to the flicks of the greatest of all animation houses . . .Pixar.

I mean, yes, I agree that their films are, in general, among the best ever made in animation. They've released 15 feature films in 20 years. And their consistent level of quality has been astonishing. But when people talk about Pixar movies, they never seem to quite think the same ones that I do are truly the greats. It's disconcerting at times. I mean, why wouldn't everyone agree with my opinion. I'm just so . . . correct. Sigh. You are all very clearly confused.


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