25 March 2020

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  • Feeling: tired
  • Listening to: Postmodern Juke box
  • Watching: Sing it Loud virtual choir meeting on Zoom

I’m going to keep it short today, as I’m tired out after a series of early starts/late finishes.

It’s been a pretty good day overall. I started the day doing the Joe Wicks PE session with F – which left me exhausted!

Then a useful discussion about moving some training I do online, and generally I had a productive day work wise

Th kids have been happy, we had lunch in the garden again, and I finished the day with a virtual choir meeting via videoconference (Zoom) – it was lovely.

Unfortunately B has developed tummy problems this evening – we don’t think it’s anything he ate, and diarrhoea is another Covid-19 symptom (although only in some cases). He keeps pushing himself and I think we’ll be trying hard tomorrow to make him take it a bit easier.

On the plus side – D managed to get a supermarket delivery slot for tomorrow morning – so depending on what they actually end up having available when they deliver tomorrow, we should be stocked up with food (especially fruit which we are almost out of). I also started off some spelt flour bread – so hoping that will be ready for lunchtime tomorrow.

Now going to go to bed with a cup of Rooibos and get some much needed sleep.

Stay safe, stay strong, sleep well

24 March 2020

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I woke early again today, although I stayed in bed for a bit. D got up to do some work and I came down while the kids were still in bed (although B at least was awake and reading). I had almond milk porridge for breakfast and did an early work call (8am) with someone in Germany before kids got downstairs. F and D did the Cosmic Kids Yoga “Force Awakens” workout which covers the whole story of Force Awakens. The “death of Han Solo at the hands of Kylo Ren” is my favourite yoga move ever.

F has had hearing problems for a little while, caused by a build up of wax, so she watched some TV (Hook is her new favourite film) while I put olive oil in her ears to try to soften the wax.

After that D suggested that F should make herself a timetable for the week – which she happily got on with and came up with a really nice balance of work and breaks/treats. Although I’m guessing its easier to plan than to actually follow I think giving her as much control as we can is important.

Meanwhile B got on with school work (English, History) in his room. B has been stressing a little over his school work – despite us reminding him that he’s still not well, and that he doesn’t need to worry. I think he just doesn’t have a feel for how much he should be getting done, which means he ends up being worried he hasn’t done enough – but overall he seems happy just getting on with it.

It was a good morning. Several choir friends got in touch to check I was OK after they saw I’d been a bit down yesterday – lots of lovely messages of support – it was so nice. We also got our weekly fruit, veg, meat & fish delivered from Abel and Cole this morning which was great – even though the fruit & veg was quite limited (more kiwis!). The meat included hot dog sausages, and as we were almost out of bread but have plenty of flour (for the moment) I decided to make some “mostly white” rolls (75% white flour, 25% wholemeal) to try to make the white flour last as long as possible (although the kids prefer white bread of course).

The afternoon went pretty well. We all had lunch in the garden, and I took some time away from the computer later in the afternoon to keep F company (out in the garden again) and to try to improve the improvised setup I’ve made so that F can have kung fu training sessions on Zoom. I also tried to show F how to change a plug, but she was sceptical this was a useful skill for her to learn: “but how often have you actually had to change a plug?” – oh well!

Overall a much better day, although I’m tired now and going to go to bed early to get another early start for work. On the work agenda is planning how I can switch a training course I usually do face-to-face into an online version.

23 March 2020

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Today has been a little rough – partly I think down to us having such a great and productive weekend, while today was back to the challenge of juggling our work with the kids needs.

I woke early – I’d meant to get up at 6am to do some work before the rest of the family woke, but woke at 5am instead with thoughts of Covid-19 running through my head and my muscles aching from my exertions in the garden over the weekend

The morning went well, with F following the Joe Wicks PE session on YouTube first thing, then getting herself showered, and B reading in bed, then eventually getting up (we’re being a bit forgiving as he is still coughing although improving everyday). B had no interest in getting up to do PE!

F Ready for PE
F Ready for PE

I was on calls for a large part of the day which probably contributed to it being more challenging. During the morning it seemed to me that things went well but I wasn’t really paying attention I have to admit. D got lunch ready and we all ate … but after lunch things didn’t go so smoothly.

The kids first online art class straight after lunch was very welcome but somewhat stressful because of the limited space & materials and not helped by F refusing to mix and use pink (which made the blossoming tree picture a challenge!)

B and F having a virtual art lesson
B and F having a virtual art lesson

Things went downhill after that with both D and I getting stressed by the competing demands of work and children, and F being unhappy – stress and upset all round.

However there were positives – B, F & I had a short band practice (band name: Fantasy Land – B on keyboard, F on drums, and me on lead vocals and violin). We’ve made good progress with Viva la Vida and I think might be able to record a performance off the first half to share soon.

As well as online art there was chance to get outside again (although much colder than the weekend) and then a virtual Kung Fu session for F – so plenty of exercise for her today.

I tried to join the first session of Gareth Malone’s Great British Home Chorus at 5:30, but work, children and dinner all conspired against me. But one thing I’m realising is that there is suddenly so much going on online I have to be careful I don’t try and do everything – my own choir is running virtual rehearsals and other sessions – and it would make more sense to focus on these things that I can do with my friends and local community, rather than join a huge project for the sake of it.

The announcement this evening of a lockdown in the UK with more strict enforcement was as depressing as it was expected (and probably overdue), and I find myself trying to catch up with work this evening (although actually writing this instead!), trying to catchup a bit.

But tomorrow is another day and one on which I only have one scheduled call – so I’m hoping it will be easier for me to give the kids the attention & support they need and deserve (and I’ve signed up for Disney+ so that should raise some smiles in the house – not least with D!)

Stay safe, stay strong.

Brown chicken stock

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A few days ago we had some chicken legs (thighs and drumsticks), but had decided to take the meat off the bones to stir fry – so we were left with the bones and various scraps plus the skin. I’m trying to be a bit more conscientious about not wasting food, so decided I should make something with these scraps. I found a recipe for brown chicken stock in delicious magazine and decided I’d do a variation on that. To be honest I didn’t follow the recipe that closely – it more just inspired me …

We’d be blanching some broccoli and green beans to freeze, so I reserved the water from that to use to make the stock.

I put the chicken scraps in a roasting pan and cooked them on 180-200C for about half an hour.

Chicken scraps

While that was happening, I chopped some carrot and onion, and softened that in some oil for 20 minutes or so.

Once the vegetables were soft and the chicken brown I added the chicken to the veg, and deglazed the roasting pan with some sherry and put that in as well. I then added the broccoli cooking water and a little more cold water (probably about 2 litres altogether, but that’s a bit of a guess), a bay leaf and a little bit of rosemary that I had going dry and then brought it all up to a simmer and left it to reduce for several hours – at least 3, possibly 4 hours.

Stock reducing

It reduced by about two thirds it’s original volume – it produced around 600ml stock after I’d strained it.

I strained the stock through a sieve and then through the sieve with a little bit of muslin in the bottom (which I’d rescued from a supermarket bought bouquet garni which I’d used to make soup previously.)

The final result was a cloudy brown stock that doesn’t look that great but definitely has the right flavour. I’ll be using it to make something later in the week …

Finished stock

Kiwi and grapefruit (gin) jam

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We get a fruit and veg box delivered each week, and generally if there is an option that we don’t like or don’t use that much we can set a delivery preference to say we don’t want it. However, kiwi fruit is one of those things which I never take off the list of options because … well actually I’m not sure why – I suspect I feel that we *should* be eating it – but so often we end up putting soft kiwis in the compost bin.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided enough was enough – and I really should do something with the kiwis. One recipe I’ve used before is Jamie Oliver’s kiwi salsa (part of his fish taco recipe) which I recommend, but I was looking for something different – so I decided to try making kiwi jam.

I started with a recipe I found in the Guardian which is great because its so simple:

  • Kiwi fruits – as many as you want
  • 1 tbsp sugar per kiwi
  • 1 tsp lemon juice per kiwi

I used to be a real stickler for following recipes to the letter, but years of living with D and reading food writers like Nigel Slater, plus some confidence in my ability to cook, has meant I’m more ready to experiment and deviate from the recipe.

The recipe says to leave the skin on the kiwis, but I knew D wouldn’t like that, so I just scooped out the insides with a teaspoon instead. I’d mixed up the kiwi and sugar and was adding the lemon when I realised I was a little short on lemon – so I was wondering what I could add that was ‘citrusy’ and remembered a bottle of grapefruit gin I had in the cupboard (a Christmas present) – so I added a few splashes of that as well (it was total guess work – I was adding a bit more than I would have of lemon juice to try to get the flavour through – but still measured in teaspoons I’d say).

Grapefruit gin

Having mixed this all up, I put everything in a small pan (I only had 8 kiwis so I wasn’t making huge amounts) and cooked it until it went “jammy”. I thought I’d overdone it as it was quite thick and sticky even when hot – but I think it actually turned out pretty well.

I poured boiling water into a couple of jam jars, let them sit for a few minutes, then poured it out, and put the jam in. Making in small quantities meant I wasn’t really worried about the jars being completely sterile (which, to be honest, is the thing that I struggle with most when making jam!).

The end product was delicious – quite sweet, with the gooseberry qualities of the kiwi fruit coming through and the grapefruit gin just very faintly at the back of it.

I tried another batch this week but substituted the lemon juice with grapefruit juice (as we had a grapefruit in our delivery box) and left out the gin – the result was more “tart” than the original jam, and I missed the herbally/gin note that my first attempt had – so I think I’d definitely add the gin again next time – perhaps tweaking the amount of lemon.

If you haven’t tried kiwi jam I’d highly recommend – it’s really good!

Kiwi jam on homemade bread

Living in isolation: Week 1

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On Sunday 15th March 2020, B (12) developed a persistent cough. By Monday evening the UK government had advised that any household where one person had either a persistent cough or a temperature (symptoms of COVID-19 infection) should isolate for 14 days. It’s now the end of the first week of our isolation as a family and it struck me (as I’m sure it has struck many others) that I should record what it’s like for us living through this – an event with a more extreme impact on our daily lives than anything I can remember.

In the house are:

  • Owen (me), dad & husband
  • D, wife, mum and amazing
  • B (12), son
  • F (almost 9), daughter

F is probably the member of the family who has struggled the most with the situation. She says when we told her about this she realised that she probably couldn’t do anything she wanted:

  • going outside
  • going to school
  • seeing her friends
  • having her birthday party
  • going on a birthday theatre trip to see “Magic goes wrong”
  • family Easter holiday to Wales

That’s a lot of disappointment for a 9 year old to take in. She understands it’s for safety but it’s still really upsetting. Finding a routine for F has been challenging this week. She generally is happy to do some Maths and English in the morning, and is quite happy until about lunch, but then things start to get more difficult.

In many ways my life is the least affected out of the whole family – I already worked at home, and I spend a lot of time in virtual meetings already. Obviously having everyone else at home has made working harder and lots of people I work with are also impacted by the situation – so it hasn’t quite been “business as usual”. My main social activity is singing in a choir and of course all face-to-face rehearsals have been cancelled for the foreseeable future – so we’ve been trying online sessions (I’ll try to do a separate post on what we’ve been doing in case it’s useful to others) – and that’s meant I’ve spent more time online this week.

D misses the luxury of being able to do what we want, and I think has found the first week quite stressful.

B was the person who got ill, and has been ill all week – not seriously, but enough for him to be tired easily (although he keeps insisting he’s “feeling better today”). He’s very self-motivated and loves doing school work and study, and creating projects for himself – so apart from the illness he isn’t unhappy. If he was at home with just me I think we’d both just work happily all day, but with four of us in the house, especially with F around as well, this is more distracting and difficult for him. But he’s very adaptable and thoughtful – yesterday he created a worksheet for him and F to do about animals, and he has plans for more worksheets for next week, including one based around “Miraculous: Tales Of Ladybug & Cat Noir” a favourite TV series with them currently.

We’re lucky we’ve got enough computers in the house, and good broadband, so us all being online and working at the same time hasn’t been a huge problem (one of the computers is a bit crappy, but definitely usable).

To try and help with the feelings of frustration and to keep a routine I put up a whiteboard (which has been sitting unused and waiting for me to put it up for months!) and made space for a “wishlist” of things we all want to do while we are stuck at home, and a “daily timetable”. Realising that one of the things that had affected F most was the lack of control over things we suggested the kids create “I choose” cards that they can play each day which allows them to override whatever we are asking them to do at the time and lets them doing the thing they want. They get four “I choose” cards a day and they are things like “I choose to watch TV for 30 minutes”. I’m not sure these have been quite as successful as I hoped, but they have at least given some degree of choice to F.

“Had a band and we tried real hard”

Because we’ve been confined to the house & garden, we really haven’t been able to get out at all – so food has been a bit of a worry. Overall we have a freezer full of stuff and lots of non-perishable food in the pantry – but we’ve never been great at meal planning, and have often relied on the fact its easy to pop to the shop. Luckily we’ve got friends and relatives locally who have done some shopping for us – huge thanks to my cousin (J) and P & M at Warwick Books who have done shopping runs for us!

We already have a weekly delivery of fruit, veg, meat and fish from Abel and Cole and this week that came as usual – we are hoping this keeps going (although uncertainty about this is one of the stressful things – in terms of food planning – what can we count on for next week?). We were also lucky enough to be able to register with Milk & More so as long as they have stock we’ll have regular supplies of milk, yoghurt, juice and other basic perishables.

Door step delivery

One positive I’m taking from this situation is how much we already support small and local businesses – partly, sadly, because we are only too aware of what impact this situation is going to have on people we know locally. But there is more we can do – for example I now feel we should have signed up to Milk & More ages ago (what could be better than milk delivered to the door?) and we could have been doing more to shop locally – I’m determined that we’ll make more of an effort with this from now on.

The food situation has also made me much more aware of things we have been wasting (throwing out unused food) and start making sure we reduce our waste. I’ve been baking bread (although bread flour has been in short supply) – thanks to a course at Haddie and Trilby I’d just re-started baking bread so I was well prepared! I’ve started making jam with kiwi fruit we often get in our Abel and Cole box (and so many kiwi fruit have gone into our compost its embarrassing). Yesterday I even made brown chicken stock from left over bones & scraps (I’m planning to post recipes on this blog separately so won’t detail here). So overall we are eating well (perhaps better than usual in some respects).

Homemade bread with kiwi and grapefruit jam

Now the weekend is here I’ve had time to relax a bit (juggling work around everything else has been quite a challenge) and yesterday spent time in the garden doing some well overdue tasks (digging out the compost, mowing the lawn), and today I’m planning to do some more work (more mowing) and F has been putting together some ideas for setting up a “play area” in the garden (nothing too ambitious – chalk marks on the paving slabs for games etc.)

Where I’ve been able to make the space and time to do so, I’ve actually enjoyed being more of a ‘home maker’ – but one of the things I’ve realised this weekend is that we spend a lot of our weekend going out and maybe we should do more at home (F said “this would be a great weekend except we don’t have a choice about it”)

While there have been ups, there have also been downs – by Wednesday morning D and I were informed at high volume that we were “the worst people ever and I can’t believe I have to spend two weeks stuck here with you”. I find it hard not to just give in to demands to watch TV just so that I can get on with my work. Both D and I have tried getting up early to do work before kids are around – which sort of works, but then leaves me exhausted later in the day. So it can be tough – but I’m definitely staying positive at the moment and feel we are doing pretty well all things considered

Next week we’ll have more challenges no doubt – the kids will do their first online Art lesson from Jess at Art Group Studios and we are hoping that some online kung fu lessons can be set up for F. B is hoping to be well enough to get on with the work the school is starting to send home.

I’m hoping I’ll do some more regular updates in this diary rather than just once a week – but I know my good intentions often remain just that – we’ll see!

Cooking with sound

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This project was to enable us to play audio content (music/podcasts/radio) from our iPhones/iPad in the kitchen. It took me under an hour to complete…

Why?

We already use the Apple Airplay facility to play audio content in our living room using iOS devices + an AppleTV connected to a sound system. We wanted to get a similar setup in our kitchen at a low cost.

Time needed

The initial work took my under an hour, but then the subsequent troubleshooting (see Issues below) took another couple of hours at least.

Kit

  • Raspberry Pi Model B
  • Wifi Dongle
  • Logitech mm50 (or similar)

This set of kit was chosen for no better reason than I had it lying around not really doing anything (my son uses the Raspberry Pi sometimes but generally uses an old laptop rather than the Pi now).

The Logitech mm50 (http://www.macworld.com/article/1046722/logitechmm50.html) is an old iPod doc with an audio line in for a 3.5mm audio jack. As far as I can see the Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 is the same basic product (http://support.logitech.com/en_us/product/pure-fi-anywhere2). You can pick either of these models up second hand on eBay for under £30 (quite possibly much less).

Software

  • Raspbian Wheezy
  • Shairport-sync (https://github.com/mikebrady/shairport-sync)

This is open source software which enables streaming of audio (not video) content using Apple’s airplay protocol. It is a fork of the original Shairport software (which is no longer in development) but has added extra functions and seems to be under active development.

The Build

(ok, calling this a ‘build’ is over selling it a bit …)

All the software side of this project was based on the instructions at http://www.redsilico.com/multiroom-audio-raspberry-pi. For my purposes I didn’t need a DAAP/iTunes server because we only wanted to play audio directly from our iOS devices, which all support AirPlay already. I also already had the Raspberry Pi setup with the Wifi dongle so I basically started from the section headed “Install AirPlay software” using the instructions for shairport-sync.

I also checked and read through the instructions for shairport-sync on the shairport-sync github page to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Having installed the software and got it running, I attached the Logitech speakers to the Pi and successfully played music from my phone to the Pi – the tech part was done.

The Logitech mm50 (and the Logitech Pure-Fi Anywhere series) have two little metal feet that swing out at the back to stand up the speakers. I drilled a couple of small holes in each of these, then using these holes screwed the device upside down to the underside of a kitchen cabinet (and near a power socket but away from anything that might cause problems like steam from the kettle).

Then I used a large drill bit to drill a large enough hole to fit through the wires/connectors (the power cable for the Pi and the audio cable to join the Pi to the mm50). Finally, I put the Pi in the cupboard, pushe through the power and audio connectors, plugged everything in, and that was it – all done!

 

IMG_3184

Issues

I immediately tested the setup and it worked perfectly – I was able to stream music, BBC radio iPlayer content, Podcast content from my phone to the Pi.

However when I came back the next day and tried to use it again, my phone didn’t display the Pi as an Airplay option. I found that various things seemed to make the Pi display as an Airplay option again, but it always went away when it wasn’t in use and I had to somehow ‘trigger’ it again (one odd thing was that the Pi continued to display as an Airplay source in iTunes on my Mac, even when it didn’t appear on my phone). I reported this as an issue on the shairport-sync Github site and the developer (Mike Brady – who is very responsive and helpful) responded with some hints. After doing quite a bit of Googling, digging into how so called ‘zero-conf’ works, and looking at documentation around Airplay, I finally found the issue was not with shairport-sync or any of these things, but actually the Wifi dongle I was using going into some low power mode which meant it needed a prompt to ‘wake up’ and work.

I found this issue documented with a solution at https://www.raspberrypi.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=61665).

In brief, the solution is:

In the directory /etc/modprobe.d/ make a file called 8192cu.conf
Add the following lines to the file and save it:

# Disable power management
options 8192cu rtw_power_mgnt=0 rtw_enusbss=0

Once I’d done this a rebooted, the system worked without a problem.

IMG_3187

Snow in April

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It came out of a dirty grey sky,

But was a surprise nonetheless.

I walked with my coat unbuttoned,

And let flakes fall on my jumper

Revelling in the feeling of the unexpected.

Fragments caught in my hair and melted,

Leaving icy tracks across my cheeks.

I looked up and caught a glimpse of infinity,

Before I was blinded by the falling flakes.

It didn’t last long,

It was snow in April

Sound the Octo-alert!

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Both our children are currently big Octonauts fans – if you haven’t come across the Octonauts, they are a team of underwater explorers who featured in a series of books by a Canadian duo jointly known as Meomi. The books have been made into an incredibly popular TV cartoon shown in the UK on the CBeebies channel (the BBC channel aimed at younger children).

 Octoalert illustration

Whenever there is an emergency, Captain Barnacle will order “Sound the Octo-alert!” – the big button with the distinctive Octopus logo will be pressed, and alarms sounds, and the Octonauts report for duty. As I said, both our children are big fans, and Freya does a mean Octo-alert imitation, so when I was looking for a new Arduino project to do with Bryn, I thought building a working Octo-alert would be great fun.

While you can get an extension (called a shield) for an Arduino to record and play sound (e.g. http://www.ladyada.net/make/waveshield/) I hadn’t got one of these, and I thought a simpler (and in some ways more satisfying) approach would be to have the Arduino joined up to the computer and have a button on the Arduino trigger a sound/video file on the computer. A quick search found the Octoalert website – with a clickable Octo-alert image which then plays an mp3 of the Octo-alert sound. Given this was already there and worked, my idea morphed into triggering the alert from this website by simulating a ‘click’ on the image.

However, before we got to this point we needed to build an appropriate Arduino circuit and craft a button and console. The Arduino circuit is a very simple one – just a single button wired up to an LED and of course a pin on the Arduino. Once I’d put the circuit diagram on, Bryn was able to get going on the wiring. Some of the components are still a bit fiddly for Bryn to put into the breadboard by himself, but for the wires he can follow the diagram and put the wires in himself. I helped with the bits he couldn’t manage, and generally supervised him – but he could do a lot of this himself.

To create the button we cut in half a small plastic ball, Damyanti drew the logo, and Bryn set to work glueing on orange tissue paper

octoalert1

 

A simple ‘button press’ program for the Arduino is available from http://www.oomlout.com/oom.php/products/ardx/circ-07 and I adapted this slightly so that the LED flashed several times on a single button press, and so the button also controlled the output to the serial port – which allows the Arduino to send data back to the computer it is joined to. The Arduino code looked like this:

// set pin numbers:
const int buttonPin = 3;     // the number of the pushbutton pin
const int ledPin =  9;      // the number of the LED pin

// variables will change:
int buttonState = 0;         // variable for reading the pushbutton status

void setup() {
  // initialize the LED pin as an output:
  pinMode(ledPin, OUTPUT);      
  // initialize the pushbutton pin as an input:
  pinMode(buttonPin, INPUT);
  // initialize serial port
  Serial.begin(9600);  
}

int interval_time = 500;

void loop(){
  // read the state of the pushbutton value:
  buttonState = digitalRead(buttonPin);

  // check if the pushbutton is pressed.
  // if it is, the buttonState is HIGH:
  if (buttonState == HIGH) {     
    // LED off:    
    digitalWrite(ledPin, LOW);
    Serial.println("0");
    delay(interval_time);
  } else {
    // turn LED on:
    Serial.println("1");
    for (int i=0;i < 10;i++) { 
      digitalWrite(ledPin, HIGH); 
      delay(500);
      digitalWrite(ledPin, LOW);
      delay(500);
    }
    delay(interval_time);
  }
}

On the computer side I needed a mechanism to read the output on the serial port – I found a hint on how to do this here http://playground.arduino.cc/Interfacing/Ruby. I also needed a way of accessing the Octoalert website – I knew there was a Ruby Gem to control a browser called Watir, so I got this installed, and after a few false starts (the task was complicated by the fact that clicking the button on the website actually runs some javascript) I got some code working that could read the input from the Arduino and trigger the necessary javascript on the website:

#!/usr/bin/ruby
require 'rubygems'	
require 'watir-webdriver'
require 'serialport'

#params for serial port  
 port_str = "/dev/tty.usbmodem1411"
 baud_rate = 9600  
 data_bits = 8  
 stop_bits = 1  
 parity = SerialPort::NONE  

 sp = SerialPort.new(port_str, baud_rate, data_bits, stop_bits, parity) 
 browser = Watir::Browser.new

 #just read forever  
 while true do
   while (i = sp.gets) do
   	puts i
    if i.to_i > 0
    	browser.goto "http://octoalert.com"
		browser.link(:id,"playLink").fire_event "onclick"
		sleep(7)
		browser.goto "http://brynpatelstephens.com"
   	else
		puts "No Octoalert"
	end
   end 
 end

With this code running on the computer, and the Arduino program loaded to the board we had a working button – we now needed to put the whole thing together.

A bit of improvisation with some cardboard and we mounted the Octo-alert button in such a way it could sit over the Arduino and pushing down on it pushed the actual button on the Arduino. I cut a hole in a cardboard box for the button to be mounted in, and Bryn decorated it in the style of the Octonauts instrument panel.

octoalert2

This was a nice project, in that it mixed some nice crafting (glueing the tissue paper, making the control panel) with a very simple circuit – all of which Bryn could either do by himself, or with a small amount of help. The programming was slightly more tricky, and I just got on this with while Bryn did other stuff – but I explained a bit about how the Arduino was able to ‘talk’ to the computer which I think he got. He also was quite concerned that by using the sound/graphic from the website that we were ‘stealing’ another’s work – which meant an opportunity to talk about the web and how it worked – although I’m not entirely sure he understood my explanation of using the website versus copying the files – and to be honest I’m not sure I quite understand it either – after all in both cases you end up with a copy of the file on your computer!

And it wasn’t just fun for me and Bryn – Freya got to join in too as you can see in this video – yes, it’s time to sound the Octo-alert 🙂

Arduino powered dinosaur

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Bryn’s recent 5th birthday brought with it an extremely cool Dinosaur toy (available from Maplins in the UK). It consisted of a set of cleverly engineered cardboard cutouts which you fold and join to make a T-Rex, coupled with a motor, cogs, wires, battery box, switch and plastic stick, which all join together to make the cardboard T-Rex move and gnash it’s teeth when you’ve put it all together.

Bryn and I built it (although to be honest the cardboard folding/joining was pretty fiddly, and while he pushed the motor, battery box etc. in the base confidently, I had to do most of the construction of the cardboard model. The result was much much better than I really expected. The dinosaur moved (on the spot) and it’s teeth gnashed pretty effectively – enough for Bryn to play a game of putting his finger near it’s mouth and getting ‘bitten’.

The next day, I had an idea that if the dinosaur’s motor could be driven off our arduino, we could wire the dinosaur up. I asked Bryn, if he’d like to do this as a project and he was keen, so the next day we sat down to do this.

The most recent project we’d done with the arduino had been using a light sensitive resistor to detect light levels and switch an LED on/off, so making the dinosaur light activated seemed an obvious way to go. I got the basic motor circuit design out (details at http://www.oomlout.com/oom.php/products/ardx/circ-03) and started to try to work out how wire the photo-resistor.

While I was doing this, I was pretty impressed that Bryn just got on and wired up the motor circuit from the diagram pinned to the breadboard. While I had to put the more fiddly components in, all the wires Bryn did without prompting or help.

I was able to wire up the photo-resistor separately on the same breadboard (using http://www.oomlout.com/oom.php/products/ardx/circ-09) – including (at Bryn’s request) an LED also to be controlled by light levels. I have to admit it took me a little while to work out the wiring, and this led me to just write the code to run the circuit without really getting Bryn to help – which I was sorry about afterwards.

I’d got some concerns about whether the arduino board would drive the motor OK, as I hadn’t been able to establish what voltage/current was required for the motor. The circuit above uses a transistor to enable the arduino to drive a small toy motor, but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough for the dinosaurs motor (which usually runs off two AA batteries).

We covered the photo-resistor – and success. The dinosaur leapt (if slightly lethargically as the motor clearly not quite getting the power it really needed) to life. A dinosaur that comes to life when you switch the lights off!

I guess the next step would be to get some LEDs on wires to push through the cardboard as eyes, and some sound effects …