Happy Little Trees

I wanted to give my parents a drawing for Christmas, and while I pondered what subject to use, Mom happened to send an email with a request. She had a photo of the woods on their property, beautiful with Pennsylvania fall colors, and would I consider making a painting that looks like a Japanese print. I decided not to learn woodblock printing that week, but watercolor would probably fit the bill. Of course, that meant I needed to learn watercolor, but at least that didn't require sharp tools.

These photos span December 6 to January 20. Watercolor painting involves a lot of watercolor waiting to dry.

This is my workspace. I taped a big piece of watercolor paper to my craft table, taped down to minimize the amount of warping as I applied paint. (I could have pre-wetted and stretched the paper, but I didn't really have the setup to do that well.)

You can see my tablet computer with the photo for reference, off to my right. I've laid in the sky visible above the hill, and the shorn corn field at the base of the hill. To capture the mottled look of the field, I scattered table salt on the wet paint, making the paint pull away from the salt.

The yellow leaves that blanket the hillside and the green underbrush, plus the farthest-away layer of foliage. I worked back to front, imagining the scene sliced into layers and starting from the back. I also had to let each layer dry.

The farthest-away trees, due to atmospheric perspective, are less saturated in color. I used a very dilute ink wash of sepia ink for the faintest trunks, then added a little more ink to that wash for the darker ones.

The next layer of trees. Ink doesn't flow like paint, so I couldn't use the ink for the big trunks. I even struggled with it on the smaller trees from the previous layer. It got a little dicey, so I knew I'd need paint for these big, close trees. Creating brown is stressful when your color vision is hampered by tritanomaly; there's always a risk I'm making purple. This is why I work in charcoal.

The closest trunks need to be dark and opaque, so I used a "burnt umber" watercolor pencil to color them in. Watercolor pencils are labeled, so I could be confident that one was brown. Working from left to right, I've done about half of the trunks here. Also in the middle, I tried a small experiment with very saturated paint to see if I could add leaves on top of the trunks that would really pop.

I finished coloring in the trunks, and then activated the watercolor pencil by painting over it with water. It reminds me of those paint-with-water books I had as a kid.

Cast shadows give you information about the object casting the shadow (tree trunks) and the object onto which the shadow is cast (the undulating hillside). With the shadows, it's starting to finally look like something.







Hello, That Conference Scientists!

Did you join us for Circuits in Play Dough? I'm glad you're here!

Keep in touch: Let's use #thatCircuits to tie our posts together.

Post your pictures: Please share your pictures from the workshop! You can use the #thatCircuits hashtag on your photo-sharing service. Add a comment here with the link to your photo set.

Review what we did: Here are the Circuits in Play Dough hand-outs that we used. This whole endeavor was inspired by AnnMarie Thomas's TED talk, "Hands-on science with squishy circuits," and the Squishy Circuits project at St. Thomas University.

Keep learning: If you want to understand why electronics work, chemistry is the science you want to explore. I learned so much from The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things. Ask your grown-up lab assistant to help you try out the experiments in this book.

Do more: If you learned about Scratch from Katelyn, you can apply programming to your electronics projects with the Hummingbird and Arduino microcontrollers. Make robots!

Give thanks: Thanks to Amy and Lance Larsen for bringing the bowls and spoons I needed to mix up a bunch of play dough in a hotel room. Thanks to my mom for making fond memories of sculpting play dough while it was still warm, and for showing me that girls are good at programming. Thanks to the TSA for not balking at a bag containing LEDs, wire cutters, and 80 9-volt batteries.

A Life Less Encumbered

My latest performance art project is "Discard Three Things." (You may have appreciated my previous pieces, "Girl Makes Robot (with skitchy arms)" and "A Dop Ting Kittens.") Okay actually, it's a game I'm playing with myself, and you're welcome to join in.

On January 2nd I thought idly, "I wonder if I can get rid of three things each day. When would that start to feel like progress?" The answer was "pretty much immediately."

Here are the rules I set for myself:
  1. Every day—every day—choose three things and discard, donate, recycle, or give them away.
  2. Not consumable stuff like "the box my tv dinner came in," but stuff that has been Sitting Around Forever to the point where it has become scenery.
  3. Merely earmarking something for donation does not count. "Stuff to Donate" has been its own kind of clutter.
  4. I tweet about it, somewhat poetically, using the hashtag #d3t. This makes it a game, and it also makes me do it every day. I'd be letting people down (even if no real people would notice, that imagined commitment keeps me honest).
  5. Adjust the rules to suit your life and keep you motivated.

Amusingly, people are joining in! Friends on Twitter became intrigued and decided it would work for them, too. My Tweetdeck now has a #d3t column, and I'm getting a kick out the sense of liberation their tweets convey. Do you want to try it, too?

This is working for me because three things is nothing. It takes five minutes. It's not scary, in the way that "I'll clean out the garage today" is scary. Kinda fun. The unexpected thing is that it builds a good bit of momentum. I'm usually pitching more than three—but I don't have to. I'm just allowed to. Once I've cleaned some stuff out of the way, it's then satisfying to carry on and neaten up the remaining stuff. Getting rid of clutter makes room for being neat.

It is not lost on me that "too much stuff" is the epitome of a First World Problem. But hoarding it doesn't help anybody, either. What I'd really like is to build a habit of acquiring less.

Folks have asked me when I'll stop. I haven't defined an end condition for myself. I could imagine people choosing something like "for 30 days," "when the kid's room is packed," "when there's room for a pinball table." I expect there will come a point where it cuts too dear, where I have a purpose or a love for each thing in my home. (Or, given prior habits, I will have acquired more crap to discard, and it will never really end.) If I ever do feel finished, there's plenty of drywall to patch and remodeling to do. Keep an eye out for my next art piece, "Watch Me Fix This Thing."

You don't have to be an expert to be a teacher

Just in time for my session at That Conference, benefit from my recent discovery: Pin 13 Considered Harmful.

I've heard folks tell me they're not ready to present at conferences, because they're not experts yet. I look at it the opposite way: I barely know electronics, yet I built a robot. I built a robot, and you can, too! Take inspiration by what I've achieved despite my lack of expertise.

You don't have to be an expert to inspire passion. You don't have to be an expert to teach. You just have to care.

And you can fix things with a follow-up blog post. Eheh.

Arduino-Powered Clank

I've often said, incorporating an Arduino microcontroller into your costume can open up all new kinds of fun. For Halloween, I dressed as Agatha Clay, Girl Genius (seemed fitting). I just created a better video of my little clank:

Photos of the construction.

Source code that drives it.

Finding Faith in a Fish Sandwich

I just met C. J., the Silver Fox. He "flies a sign" under the Burnet/183 bridge.

I was waiting for an inspection sticker at Sticker Stop, sitting outside because it was too nice to be confined in a gray box with other sullen mammals. He walked up, and my otherness detector pinged. Well, for one thing, he was at the Sticker Stop without a car.

I blew a bug off the page of my book. He mimicked the gesture. "There was a bug," I shrugged. "At least you didn't kill the damn bug," he replied, and I had to agree. He set an unlit cigarette and a large beverage can on the picnic table and went inside. I considered my options: Go inside for the safety of crowds, or sit pat.

When he returned, he sat on the table and asked if he could tell me a joke. I could use a little mirth these days, so I said yes. It was a good joke, and he told it well. I laughed. "It was a pretty good joke, right?" he asked. "No swear words or nothing." I told him it was, and then we were talking.

He holds a cardboard sign that says "Wife and dog kidnapped by ninjas. Saving up for karate lessons. I really want the dog back!" That one, he says, works better on women than on men. He told me, "If there are two girls in the front seat, they see that sign and laugh, I'm getting paid." His other sign says "You may live in a $200,000 house. I live under a $2M bridge. Need money for repairs—the roof leaks."

He asked me if I knew God, and some questions are easier to just say yes to. God looks out for him, he said. God provides. C. J. is an alcoholic (He just said it, so matter-of-factly.), yet God helps him cross that street so many times a day, and sees him safely through the night when he's too drunk to remember how he ended up there. Then he asked me if he could tell me something, and here I expected the hard sell. But no, he just told me his story.

Twelve years ago, his wife was killed by a drunk driver. "That's what landed me under that bridge." After that, he became really angry at God. Then, about five years ago, he had a transformative experience. A minister, after serving a dinner that fed 300 homeless people, brought a bag of food to C. J. and said, "This is for you. This is from God, for you." C. J. didn't want it, didn't want anything from God, he was angry with God.

Two hours elapsed before he grew hungry enough to look in the bag. It contained a fish sandwich, topped with a double serving of tartar sauce, plus an orange soda. It contained just what his childhood self would have called his favorite meal. How could that minister have known? He couldn't. This was God. C. J. told me, "This was God saying, 'I still care about you. Even though you're mad at me, I am not mad at you.'"

He said a friend chided him, "You found God in a Happy Meal?" We laughed together, me and C. J., and I thought maybe God could look out for me a little, too.

Then he stood up, picked up his can and the cigarette which he'd never lit, and shook my hand. I thanked him for talking with me, and he thanked me for being willing to listen, since most people aren't.

Hello, Arduino. Let's get started.

Hi, CodeMash! Here are resources to get you started with the Arduino microcontroller, a prototyping platform to build crafty electronics projects (electronicky craft projects?).

My clank

You need the Arduino IDE, the editor in which you'll write your sketches.

You need the microcontroller board. There are many form factors to choose from. I have an Arduino Uno, and that's a great default choice. You might want one with additional capabilities, such as Ethernet or the extra processing power of the Mega, or you might enjoy the LilyPad, designed for being incorporated into costumes and wearables.

Note that a "shield" is a thing that plugs into an Arduino, so it doesn't have any brains on its own. Feel free to pick up some shields, they're a hoot, but be aware that you still also need an Arduino board.

Sources to buy from: AdaFruit Industries, Sparkfun Electronics, Maker Shed, RadioShack.

The slides from my talk are on SlideShare, and the sketch for the robot is on GitHub (along with a number of other sketches).

Pictures of building the robot, the video game, my ambient clock, and the thing under your bed.

What are you going to make? Leave a comment here or send me a note on Twitter (@scichelli). I can't wait to hear about it!

Showdown at Unobtanium—for SCIENCE!

Hello, my fellow mad scientists. If you attended my talk at Showdown at Unobtanium, thank you for being part of a fantastic audience—the enthusiasm you fed back to me was infectious and inspiring. Make things and tell me about it!

Please join us at Polyglot Programmers of Austin,  our co-working study group for learning a new programming language (including your first). Breadboards are as welcome as keyboards. Also, I'll be there, happy to answer your Arduino questions.

Some details about my small robot friend, to amuse you. My costume was an homage to Agatha Clay (and her clank) of the Girl Genius comic book. I posted some pictures of the clank's construction process. What makes it fidget is a servo motor on its back, driven by an Arduino in my purse, running an Arduino sketch I wrote (source code).

You might appreciate the Nerd Nite wrapup from the last time I spoke on this topic. There are useful links in there, pertinent to the presentation you saw at the Showdown, specifically the slide deck that contains links to resources for learning more.

Some of you talked to me about presenting to your students at your schools. Yes, please! Get in touch.

Thanks for being awesome. Make fantastic things.

Hello, Nerds. Hello, World. Hello, Arduino.

Thank you to Nerd Nite Austin for a fantastic venue, and my thanks to all of you who were there, creating a palpable enthusiasm for Making Stuff! What a hoot. Resources for ya...

The slidedeck: Hello, Arduino

Samples of my Arduino code are on GitHub, because I like to think out loud in code.

A description of the blinky-eyeball Halloween costume

That "hang out and code with other people learning to code" study group is Polyglot Programmers of Austin, our next meeting is tomorrow, and you should totally join us.

Lest you need some motivation for making nerd presentations of your own, check this out. Some months back, I presented at a Dorkbot meeting at the ATX Hackerspace. Afterwards, someone approached me with "I don't know if you remember me, but..." And kapow! Timewarp! Here was my friend from nerd camp, whom I hadn't seen in 20 years! Wow! We've had a blast catching each other up. Then, I'm presenting at Nerd Nite tonight, and after that, another friend from nerd camp comes up and says hello.

Dude, I'm telling you. Take your awesome hobbies, go to nerdy things and present your awesomeness, and fantastic nerdy friends whom you miss will discover you and reconnect with your life. What a delightful unexpected benefit.