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5 Simple Ways to Stretch Your Gaming

By Z. November 07, 2008 | 7:00:00 AMCategories: Culture, Games, How-To

Image by Simon Davison via FlickrBeing a geek is both

time-consuming and expensive, and being a gamer-geek even more so. Sadly, with our
economy in perpetual shambles, the latter seems to have become an even more difficult
issue than the former. So how’s a gamer supposed to afford new titles as well as
incidentals like, y’know, food?

Subscription-based rental services like GameFly can alleviate both the sting of current
generation game prices and the hassle of driving to your local retailer to stand in line with
the rest of the yahoos, but this comes at a cost. That cost, of course, is the lack of
personal ownership. The disc isn’t yours; it’s merely in your possession.

While renting is a fiscally responsible move, it goes against that innate nerdy urge to
procure, to collect. But for those of us who are unable to resist that damnable desire to
acquire there is a solution. To paraphrase Ash Williams, one merely needs to shop smart.

Continue reading "5 Simple Ways to Stretch Your Gaming Dollar" »

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Your Costume Automatically Loses

By Chris Radcliff October 31, 2008 | 6:30:00 AMCategories: Hacking the Holidays,
How-To, Star Wars

I'm not one to talk; if I make a costume at all this year, it's likely to be something that's
geek simple, like MC Frontalot. Still, I think everyone can agree that this AT-ST costume
by Cheston wins the geek costume contest hands, or at least articulated legs, down:
Design and construction are described in great detail on the MY350Z forums, so I expect
to see a whole platoon of these next year.
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Geeks Getting Off the Grid

By Bruce Stewart October 02, 2008 | 7:30:00 AMCategories: How-To

So you think it's hard being a parent in

today's society? Try having a newborn in a one-room house you built out of mud and
rocks! Actually, my brother-in-law Abe and his wife Josie, are doing just that, and he
tells me that little Leo fits quite nicely into their off-the-grid lifestyle. And they're happy
to share the details of how they're getting off the grid so others can benefit from their

While the topics they cover may not fit into the normal definition of "geeky"
technologies, learning how to harness your own energy from the sun and the wind,
building shelters out of compressed earth, and creating aquaponic systems (the practice of
growing vegetables and fish together in a man-made ecosystem) seem pretty darn cool
and geeky to me.

If this sort of thing intrigues you, Abe and Josie have just updated their Vela Creations
website with a ton of useful info and resources on things like wind-power, solar power,
water storage, grey water, composting and much, much more. They are truly "walking the
walk" when it comes to getting off the grid and trying to live their lives using sustainable
means, and they are documenting all of their projects and research in the hope that others
will be inspired to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. I know reading their site has inspired
me to get back to that water collection system project I've been talking about for too long
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Making a Pirate's Treasure Map

By Russ Neumeier September 19, 2008 | 4:55:00 PMCategories: How-To, Pirates

You've got the eye-patch. You've got the

peg-leg. You've got your sword. You've got a Jolly Roger ready for hoisting. Your voice
is hoarse from talking like a pirate all day yesterday, but you don't have a treasure
map...What do you do?

Make one. It's what we did on a rainy Saturday morning.

And you probably already have everything you need at home right now. It starts with a
paper grocery bag, and ends with a bit of playing with fire.

Just follow the Wired How-To Wiki article Make A Treasure Map From A Paper Bag.
Better yet, try it out and add details to the wiki page when you're done.

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How To Build a World: Working with

By Michael Harrison September 06, 2008 | 10:00:00 AMCategories: Games, How-To,
Projects, RPGs

In this third post in my series on world building (start at the beginning if you are so
inclined), I'm going to talk about process. Specifically, how you can build your new
world one article at a time using a wiki service.

A wiki is simply a type of web-based content management that employs multiple pages
and cross-referencing for knowledge management. In plain English, it's a way for you to
unload all your fancy ideas into a centralized bucket in an organized and easy fashion.
Better still, you can share access with friends and players.

There are a number of free wiki services available. I've used PBWiki and Google Sites to
moderate success, but the one that I've settled on for my weekly Dungeons and Dragons
game is a site called Obsidian Portal. A wiki provider and Web 2.0-style social
networking site all rolled into one, Obsidian Portal is designed specifically for RPG
campaigns and is perfect for world building.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, and video is just a whole bunch of pictures
strung together, I put together a screencast of my process for using Obsidian Portal for
my world building campaigns. Check it out:

World Building with Obsidian Portal from Michael Harrison on Vimeo.

See also:
How To Build a World, Part 1: The Basics
How To Build a World, Part 2: Questions to Ask
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How to Build a Paper Cup Waterwheel

By Kathy Ceceri September 05, 2008 | 7:30:00 AMCategories: Environment, How-To

I live in an area -- near the confluence of

the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers in upstate New York -- that was once booming with
water-driven industry. Today hydroelectricity is still an important source of energy. In
fact, in place of the old mills on the creek that lies on the other side of our street there's a
small hydroelectric generator.

The plastic cup waterwheel, right, is one of many designs I showed the students in the
Solar, Wind and Water Power class I taught last summer. I just added the directions to's How to Wiki. Using only masking tape, styrofoam plates and pencils, it's a
perfect project for little kids who aren't ready for hot glue guns or power tools.

I adapted the paper cup waterwheel from Wheels at Work: Building and Experimenting
with Models of Machines by Bernie Zubowski, illustrated by Roy Doty. (I used to love
Doty's "Wordless Workshop" home improvement comics when I was a kid.) The wooden
wheel is my version of this kit, and the small foam wheel in the center is based on
directions for a fully-functioning mini-hydroelectric generator. I tried making the turbine
but couldn't get it to work. If you have better luck, let me know!
Kathy Ceceri is the author of Around the
World Crafts: Great Activities for Kids who Like History, Math, Art, Science and More!

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Making Fireflies
By Dan Olson August 29, 2008 | 10:30:00 AMCategories: Electricity, Family, Fun,

In busy times, it takes a certain

combination of inspiration, spare time and a little cash to stop dreaming and start
making. I was inspired to make a cheap solar light back in June based on an Instructables
post involving deconstructing solar garden lights and reinstalling them in mason jars. My
inspiration held out long enough to search fruitlessly for some cheap solar lights but not
long enough to make anything.
Fortunately for me, Evil Mad Scientist attacked the concept again recently, further
reducing the time and money required to get something made. Inspired again, I picked
up 12 CR2032 3v batteries and a bag of 25 diffused 5mm yellow LEDs at my local
electronics store. A twenty-five cent roll of tape from the bargain bin completed my
purchases. Total cost was under $20. One firefly was about $1.50.

I made the first firefly at a stoplight on the way home. Unwrap the battery, slide one leg
(lead) of the LED onto each side of the battery and you have a firefly. A little tape
around the battery covering both leads keeps it lit. If it won't light up, flip the LED
around for a quick polarity lesson. The longer leg is the positive anode.

At my house, proper presentation is the key to early adoption. You can't be too excited
about a new project or they'll go back to the couch. Casually toss a lit firefly on the table
and instruct them to stay out of your bag and they'll have ten of them glowing before
dinner's ready.

True to their nature as little makers, they started testing multiple LEDs on the same
battery. Luck (and some bent LED leads) taught them about switching the power on and
off. We put one firefly in an empty widemouth drink bottle and made a garden lamp, no
glass jars required.

This project was painfully simple, requiring

absolutely no skill and little cash. It was fun to see the boys light up their fireflies and
run around in the dark. Inspiration, time and cash all came together.

LED's, Fireflies, Li-ion Battery

(Grab some multi-LED's and switch the polarity, they'll switch colors)
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GeekDad Rates 7 Methods for Learning

to Ride a Bike
By Dave Banks August 27, 2008 | 9:00:00 AMCategories: How-To, Outdoor

We've been trying to get our kids to ride their bikes for about a year and a half. It hasn't
been a constant battle -- we would try for a bit, then take a month off. Rinse. Repeat. It's
been tough, but that's what makes today so rewarding. Today, we have success. All three
kids riding: spinning around the driveway, hair waving in the wind, ear-to-ear smiles on
their faces. Life is good.

Last year, Geekdad Dan Olson took a look at how to encourage kids to ride bikes. Dan
made a lot of great points addressing the psychological aspects of motivating kids to ride.
Today, I'm going to evaluate a variety of physical methods for getting kids on two

Like many parents, we had our children riding tricycles at an early age. This gave them
two necessary skills that would carry over to bike riding: pedaling and steering. These
very early experiences paid off too. When the time came for a bike with training wheels,
they weren't afraid and understood what they were supposed to do.

In researching this post, I was amazed to find that quite a few people feel very strongly
that training wheels on a child's bike are an unadulterated evil on par with letting kids
play with loaded automatic weapons in the middle of a highway during rush hour.

We don't subscribe to this school of thought. Rather, we believe that just getting the child
on the bike is the most important thing. Our kids aren't going to be commuting to school
on bikes anytime soon. So bicycles - for them - are a tool for exercise and fun. And as
long as they were riding around outside instead of lounging around watching Spongebob,
we were happy.
When it came time to ditch the training wheels, I did some research on the best practices
for getting kids rolling on two wheels. I was surprised at the variety of methodologies
people had for getting kids to ride by themselves. Here are seven of the most popular
ways, plus a rating on how each works:

Continue reading "GeekDad Rates 7 Methods for Learning to Ride a Bike" »

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The Styrobot
By Kevin Kelly August 25, 2008 | 4:22:41 PMCategories: How-To, Projects

For years I've been saving the styrofoam packing that protects the new devices that arrive
in our American household. Computer gear especially is sheathed in custom-fit styrofoam
armor, and I hated to throw it out because it was beautiful stuff. I took the little bits to the
recycling center, but the large, intricate, weirdly organic pieces I stockpiled in my
basement. I was just looking for an idea of what to do with them.

A year ago I saw pictures of two styrofoam robots created by Michael Salter at a museum
in North Carolina (before he exhibited one in San Jose this past June). They were
stunning. Not only was it art from junk, but it looked easy to do. My son and I could
handle this. A recycled styrobot would be the perfect geek dad project.

I had five years' worth of foam accumulated. I had some space in my studio to assemble
it. I got my foam cutters handy. So we began designing. The bot had to fit in one story. I
also wanted it to disassemble easily so I could move it. I decided to make it in five parts:
a torso and four limbs. I would cut the foam when I needed to, but did not want to spend
much time sculpting it. I discovered the fastest way to glue the pieces was using silicon

The final Styrobot looks like this:

The Styrobot is made entirely of the foam packaging material that arrived at our house in
the last five years. I learned that a styrobot consumes a huge amount of this stuff so
several times I was tempted to grab pieces I'd see in other people's garbage. But the
monster was already getting too big. Once you started adding the detail work, you can go
through a lot of styrofoam. So I committed to depleting the pile I had, and to use every
bit somewhere on the bot.
We worked on it off an on for many many months. This delay was necessary because the
silicon glue needs one or two weeks to fully set. It took me a while to figure this out,
even though the sealant instructions (which of course I did not read at first) clearly spell
this out. I figured that like most glues it would set overnight, but it really does take
several weeks for the silicon glue to set if there is any stress or weight on the joint. We
used Lexel silicon sealant, which is very sticky, clear, and cheap. I think we went through
four tubes of it.
The second major tool needed for a Styrobot is a foam cutter. On Amazon I purchased a
Woodland 4-inch hobby version running off a low-volt transformer. The thin wire heats
up when the the switch in the handle is slid on. The hot wire slices through the foam
easily. It takes some practice to cut square and even, but even kids can get the hang soon
enough. There's always plenty of foam scraps to practice on. There was no replacement
wire included with the Woodland, which is a shame because you WILL break the wire
eventually. I replaced it with some nichrome wire I had on hand. Overall this tool is
handy. Heats up instantly, and for 95% of the time is all you need.

The drawback to the hobby cutter is that it can't handle foam wider than four inches in its
smallest dimension. Some big screen packing overwhelms that dimension, so I built a
really fast-and-dirty foam cutter from some steel piping, guitar strings and a model train

Any number of plans for large foam cutters can be found on Instructables and elsewhere
on the web. Main thing is to have a sturdy frame to stretch the wire, and connect the wire
to a low volt transformer. I thought a variable transformer such as used for model trains
would allow me to adjust the temperature to the proper degree, but I found that it didn't
matter for the set up I had. For the cutting wire I used cheap guitar strings. The thinner
strings make a nicer cut, but I found they tend to break quicker. The broader the cut the
more pressure you exert on the wire, which tends to weaken when hot.

My son and I had a lot of fun making it. Pick up a piece and glue. Cut and glue.
Styrofoam is pretty light, so the entire robot can't weigh more than 20 pounds. The two
legs of the robot are free standing. The torso sits by gravity up the two legs. The two arms
hang on the torso via a small styro shelf on the arms. I can move the whole body in pieces
in a few minutes. Maybe I should rent him out. Here the Sytrobot hangs out in my office.

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Summer Project: Brewing Root Beer

By Anton Olsen August 19, 2008 | 2:00:00 PMCategories: How-To
Nothing says summer better than Root Beer floats.
This weekend the kids and I started on the first half of that magical concoction.
Hopefully we can find an ice-cream maker to borrow for the second half next weekend.

We started out with a kit from (aka Mr. Root Beer). We might consider
graduating to other sodas and getting our ingredients from cheaper sources, but the price
of the Mr. Root Beer kit isn't much over $20 shipped. I have brewed a few batches of
their beer in the past so had the handy 2.5 gallon keg for mixing the root beer and a box
of empty bottles for bottling.

Continue reading "Summer Project: Brewing Root Beer" »

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How To Build a World: Questions to Ask

By Michael Harrison August 17, 2008 | 10:00:00 AMCategories: Games, How-To,
Projects, RPGs
Last week, I posted an introduction to
world building. In this second post of the series, I wanted to address the first step that any
worldsmith should take in their journey of creation.

Before you draw a map, before you write up a mythology, before you start naming plants
and mountains and seas, you need to think about what questions to ask.

This might seem a little backward. Shouldn't you be answering questions about your
world? Well, yes, of course. In time. I've found that it helps to first collect a series of
questions to ask about your new world. Making up an entire world from scratch isn't easy
work, and if you're like me, sometimes you don't even know where to begin.

There are a lot of great resources out on the web with questionnaires and checklists for
just this purpose:
• Novelist Eliza Wyatt, who opened the invitation for August as World Building
Month, posted a handy list of world building topics that can guide your own
• The Wikipedia entry on Worldbuilding has a section of Construction Steps that
provide fodder for the brain.
• James Wyatt, award-winning game designer and author of the 4th edition D&D
Dungeon Master Guide, has a column in the now-online Dungeon Magazine
called Dungeoncraft. Wyatt embraces the game's new default "points of light,
world of darkness" setting: the world is a vast expanse of wilderness with
flickering beacons of civilization. This gives every world builder the chance to fill
in their area with whatever strikes their fancy. Read every column if you can.

Once you've built up a list of questions to answer, you have a checklist for your world
building pursuits. Now you can start to answer those questions:

• Write out your answers by hand in a notebook. GameMastery makes a nifty pre-
fabricated Campaign Workbook that you can use for this purpose, but some paper
and pen work fine, too.
• Type everything out into Word, or even better, Google Docs. Then you can share
it with others.
• My personal favorite: create a wiki! I'll discuss this in more detail with the next
article, but nothing beats your own wiki for world building purposes. Get a free
account with PBWiki, Google Sites, or even better, Obsidian Portal, a wiki/social
site designed specifically for roleplaying campaigns and world building.

Next up: building your world with a wiki.

See also:
How To Build a World, Part 1: The Basics
How To Build a World, Part 3: Working with Wikis

Photo by Bill in Ash Vegas

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How To Build a World: The Basics

By Michael Harrison August 06, 2008 | 1:00:00 PMCategories: Games, How-To,
Projects, RPGs
Kids love to build their own worlds. They do it without
prompting as they "play pretend" with toys and with one another, but some excel and go
on to greatness. Everyone takes joy in a good story, but one that is set in a dynamic,
believable world really stands out.

When he was a young boy, C.S. Lewis and his brother created the world of Boxen,
inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. Lewis later went on to integrate many of his
childhood creations into his Narnia books. At age 8, Ed Greenwood wrote of the "stoic
swordsman Durnan, the blustering old rogue Mirt, and the all-wise, ancient wizard
Elminster." Today, those denizens of the Forgotten Realms are familiar to millions of
Dungeons and Dragons players worldwide. Both authors are well-known for their stories,
but they're even more renowned for the worlds that they created.

Since August is World Building Month and I've been hard at work on creating the setting
for my new D&D campaign, I'll be detailing the hobby, discussing some well-known
created worlds, and outlining some tools and tricks that modern worldbuilders can use to
craft their own imaginary universes. Read on for an introduction to the basics.

Continue reading "How To Build a World: The Basics" »

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Introducing Your Kids to the Web:

By Dan Olson July 25, 2008 | 9:00:00 AMCategories: How-To, Lego, Web
I wasn't paying much attention to how my boys were using their computer
time last week. The laptop hummed on the dining room table as they plotted together.
Over three daily sessions, they covered an oversized sheet of paper with Lego products,
quantities and prices copied from the website.

Their list was heavy with Bionicles and Indiana Jones sets. A recent birthday money
purchase got them into Mars Mission. They were still developing their distribution plan
for the wish list when the cleaning happened.

The list was an accidental casualty, consigned to the bin in the alley. They moaned about
the time lost on the list, but quickly sat back down and asked for more paper to start all
over again.

Then Dad stepped in and drew their attention to the glories of web based shopping sites.
"Guys, look at the buttons on the Lego site. You can create online wish lists and save
them. You could print them or even email them when you are done."

Point and Click is much more efficient

than handwriting. The list was recreated (and expanded) in one session on the web.

My nudge helped them explore the site, adjusting quantities and figuring out how to
remove items from the lists. Sometimes I forget that they don't always know instinctively
how to use the web.

I'll just have to remember not to leave my credit card laying around.
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How to Keep Your Geek Cred After

Seeing WALL-E
By Matt Blum July 07, 2008 | 11:00:00 AMCategories: How-To, Movies

As any proper geek, or anyone who's ever seen a

movie with one, knows, it is absolutely essential to nitpick every movie you see. The
amount of nitpicking should always be in inverse proportion to the quality of the movie,
because that way you avoid ruining really good movies and you make lousy movies more
fun by picking them into little, tiny pieces of nonsensical plot.

To fail to nitpick after seeing a movie is to lose a certain measure of geek cred,
particularly if you saw the movie with other geeks. To prevent this catastrophe from
befalling our readers who see WALL-E (which by the way is the best movie I've seen this
year and you should all go out and see it right now), we hereby provide a list of things
you can nitpick about after seeing it. Send it to your iPhone/Blackberry, or—if you must
—print it out for your hipster PDA and take it with you so you can sit back and enjoy the
film without having to find the little things you can find fault with later. This list does
not contain any spoilers for anyone who has seen a trailer for or read any review of the
• Robots falling in love? Please.
• Sound doesn't travel in space. Everyone knows that. The space scenes would be
kinda dull without the sound? Doesn't matter.
• EVE stands for "Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator," right? So how come she's
looking for plants on Earth? It should be "terrestrial," not "extraterrestrial!"
• Could the 2001: A Space Odyssey references have been any more obvious?
• The Axiom has been jettisoning its trash into space for 700 years? Where does it
get the raw material to fix the machines, feed the people, keep the engines going,
etc.? I know the movie's trying to make a point about excess, but a ship like that
just couldn't keep going that long without recycling!
• The waving? Seriously. It's cute and all, but it got a little out of hand. Pun
• Why does EVE have to have a "female" personality? Just because WALL-E has a
"male" one? It's OK for robots to fall in love, but homosexual robots are just
unacceptable, obviously!
• If WALL-E and EVE reproduced, would their offspring go off to other planets,
find plants, and then crush them into blocks?

Please understand that I hold the movie in the highest regard. That's why I could only
think of eight things to list. If you have more, feel free to mention them in the comments.

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Duct Tape Bullwhip Looks Cool, is Just

Dangerous Enough to be Fun
By Ken Denmead May 30, 2008 | 10:00:00 AMCategories: How-To
We got a cool nudge from Cindy Hopper, via our main man Chris, pointing to an
awesome DIY post on her website demonstrating how to make a great Indiana Jones-
style bullwhip at home from brown duct tape.

You will need:

• 1 roll of brown duck tape (we found this at Wal-Mart) cut into 3- 12 foot lengths
• 10″ piece of 3/8″ wooden dowel rod
• a foot or so of twine for the “popper” if desired

Begin by placing two chairs 12 feet apart. Place three strips of tape between the chairs.
Check out Cindy's blog for the rest of the instructions. And watch out, you could cause a
welt with that thing!

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RFID Tags: Invasion of Privacy or a New

Kind of Art?
By John Baichtal May 08, 2008 | 3:16:40 PMCategories: Art, Electricity, How-To
You've heard of them, Radio Frequency
Identification (RFID, pronounced arfid) tags, little transmitter chips that broadcast your
identity to airline check-in stations as well as to anyone who has a RFID snooper. The
phenomenon has all sorts of people up in arms over the possibility we'd be tracked
wherever we go, or that criminals could clone our identities from nearby.

Some people use the technology to make art.

This year, the Dana Centre's festival has asked us to run a 1 day RFID workshop on May
14th. Lead by Alex Zivanovic and Nick Weldin, this intensive 5 hour workshop will be
followed by an exhibition of the work produced.

Registration is free and open to at least 30 people. You will get to play with RFID
modules, antennas and tags and an RFID shield for Arduino. These components will be
sold on site.

To be able to get something out of it, we advise people to have a solid understanding of
Arduino already as 5 hours is very little time and Alex and Nick won't go over the basics.
If you're a newbie but desperate to get going, do email me and I'll make sure you're put in
a team with people who will help you get there faster.

"Technology and design consultancy" is offering the class in associated with the
TakeAway Festival. To learn more go to
(Note, the class is in London!)

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GeekDad Wayback Machine: Radios
That Work for Free
By Ken Denmead April 21, 2008 | 9:38:00 AMCategories: How-To, Physics, Science

One year ago, you were reading this on GeekDad, by Kevin Kelly:

Crystal Radios are an old standby of GeekDads. For the early mists of time GeekDads
have been showing kids how to pull radio stations from thin air with the barest snips from
the basement. Here are some very simple radios that you can have your kid make in a few
hours. They seem too simple to work. But unbelievably they can hear music or talk
programs coming out of this scraps of metal. How does it work?

Ken Reitz's cool crystal radio

Aha! Glad you asked. They use the ingredients of the first radios, solid state bits of matter
wired up in various circuits, including long antennas and coil tuners.

There are an amazing variety of crystal radio types, some of them very sophisticated, and
worthy of midnight engineers. The best source for instructions and books and a
newsletter and kits for crystal radios is the Xtal Set Society. They sell the classic book
Radios That Work For Free, and many other plans books. They also sell a bunch of very
cheap but effective starter kits, like this one, the XS500 Basic Crystal Radio Kit, selling
for $15.
Another great starter project for kids is the Quaker Oats box set broadcast AM crystal
radio. You use the cardboard cylinder of a Quaker Oats box for the wire coil. Download
the free PDF free plans. They even give some useful science fair hints for this project.
And for those who get into it big time they issue a paper newsletter with new circuits
every six months or so. There's hours and hours, if not years, of things to play around
with here. I've found that kids can at least get a weekend of curiosity from one of these.

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Hacker Collective Offers Nerd Classes

By John Baichtal April 10, 2008 | 3:56:00 PMCategories: How-To

Hacker hangout NYC Resistor is offering

a bunch of great classes for those who want to get into hardware hacking.
Saturday, 4/12 -- Game Boy Software Development 101

Tuesday, 4/15 and Wednesday, 4/16 -- Soldering 102 and Electronics 102

If you miss out on those sessions, check out their calendar for more. They also have
Soldering 101, Electronics 101, Rapid Prototyping and three Arduino classes.

Makes me wish I lived in NYC! Someone tell me there's something as cool as this in

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How-To Wiki: Kid-Proofing Your Home

By Brad Moon March 31, 2008 | 7:57:20 PMCategories: DadHacks, Furniture, How-
To, Television

It's not just a grilled cheese in the VCR to worry about these days... Advice from a
GeekDad who has gone through an awful lot of time, energy and three sets of speakers in
a quest to come up with a kid-resistant home theater set-up.

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Old Toothbrushes Never Die

By Dave Hinerman March 26, 2008 | 7:43:14 PMCategories: How-To

While it's good to dream, many of us realize it'll be a long time before we can build our
own Predator UAV. Or maybe we just want to start small. Thanks to YouTube and Evil
Mad Scientist Laboratories we can build our own micro robot for cheap:

Pager motors are available from a number of surplus electronic parts outlets such as BG
Micro, or you could salvage one from an old pager or cell phone. (You do have old
pagers and cell phones lying around, don't you?)

While this may seem like a simple toy to entertain the kids for a few minutes, it actually
demonstrates what may be up-and-coming medical technology. According to Gizmodo,
scientists are proposing to build nanobots that use a similar means of propulsion to travel
through a person's arteries, delivering medicine to clear blockages.

Hows that for fighting plaque?

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Discover the Earth's Magnetic

By Dave Hinerman March 09, 2008 | 4:08:08 PMCategories: Earth, How-To, Science
Experiments, Space

A gigantic spot, large enough to swallow

the Earth in one gulp, slides into view on the edge of the Sun's surface. It creeps over a
period of days across the Sun's visible disk, growing ominously. As it nears the Sun's
center a massive solar flare erupts from the spot, triggering a coronal mass ejection that
hurls billions of tons of hot plasma directly at our planet! Is this the end of life on Earth?
What can save us from being baked like cookies?

Actually, this scenario has played out countless times in the Earth's history. The reason
we're not all just crispy spots on the ground is that the Earth has a powerful magnetic
field that deflects the solar plasma toward the North and South Poles. The only visible
effect of this process is the aurora, which occurs when the energetic plasma strikes the
atmosphere. But it's possible, with a little know-how and some easy to find materials, to
see the effect solar plasma has on our protective magnetic field.

As part of its public education efforts NASA has developed a series of simple classroom
experiments that illustrate a number of principles from planetary and space science. This
article, A Soda Bottle Magnetometer, describes how to make a device to measure how
much the Earth's magnetic field flexes when it's struck by a coronal mass ejection. The
magnetometer is essentially a very sensitive magnetic compass, and it's quite easy to
build. It's also an easy project to "set it and forget it." You can set one up in a quiet corner
and look at it occasionally; if the kids notice some activity you can take them to the
NOAA Estimated 3-hour Planetary Kp-Index Web page to see if the professionals have
seen the same magnetic activity. Strong fluctuations in Earth's magnetic field can indicate
aurora activity, too. If you see a large change in the magnetic field in the evening, give a
look to the sky outside. You may be rewarded with some visible aurora.

Sunspot activity should pick up over the next five years or so, since a new 11-year
sunspot cycle has just begun. So keep this little project in mind to show the kids that it's
possible to see the invisible if you know how to look.

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Make a Tron light for your room

By Russ Neumeier February 25, 2008 | 7:01:00 AMCategories: How-To, Movies

Here's a fantastic Instructibles - a DIY light that looks like it came from the movie Tron.
The Instructibles post is here - How to Make a TRON Style Lamp. The instructions are
very detailed, and my first thought is a bit much for a Geekdad with his kids...but I'll
leave that up to you - after you've viewed each of the steps.

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Build Your Own Kaleidoscope

By Dave Banks February 15, 2008 | 10:42:00 AMCategories: How-To

I found this great video on making your own

kaleidoscope out of basic household items. The best part is that it's so easy to do, you can
experiment with different objects that you place in the business end of your kaleidoscope.
You could build several in an afternoon. There are a few steps that require adult
supervision, but this is a great hands-on project for kids!

The possibilities are wide open - any suggestions for items to place in the kaleidoscope?
Old LEDs ... Legos ... what do you think?

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Marshmallows: Not Just For Roasting

By Brad Moon February 14, 2008 | 11:37:00 AMCategories: Food, How-To, Models
My son, Adian’s, kindergarten class was learning about three dimensional shapes and
objects last week. His teacher opted to bypass the usual visualization tools (Tinkertoys,
LEGO, K’NEX, etc…) and used marshmallows and toothpicks instead. This actually
worked out pretty well. The toothpicks can be stuck in pretty much any which way and
the whole thing eventually hardens to a surprisingly strong finished product. Can’t really
beat the economics of the supplies either, although I’m not sure how she got little pointy
wooden sticks past the same school board that’s removing playground equipment because
of insurance liability issues. But I digress… Aidan brought home his creation and I
think it’s a pretty complex little model for a five year old.

I was curious about the possibilities inherent in this technique (what can I say, it’s been a
slow week), and had a look around the Internets. Turns out, there’s quite a community of
marshmallow builders out there. Not just primary school kids and their teachers, but
engineers and MBAs seem to be rather taken by the marshmallow challenge. Who

Here's a Toronto marshmallow and toothpick building contest, for example, or how about
marshmallow molecules?

Once I started digging into the hidden realm of marshmallow-related activities, it became
more and more difficult to ignore the cooler (I mean darker) side of the web. Of course, I
can only be referring to the Laser Guided Marshmallow Blaster and its ilk.

A link to instructions for building a variation on one of these devices was posted last year
by Geekdad’s Bruce Stewart. If you don’t feel handy with the PVC, there are even
companies that specialize in ready-built marshmallow armaments.

Apparently you can eat these things too, but that doesn't seem to be as much fun...

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Star Wars Crafts for Kids

By Bill Day February 13, 2008 | 10:21:00 AMCategories: Art, Culture, Family, Fun,
Geek Girls, How-To, Projects, Star Wars, Toys

The Craft Magazine blog recently posted a video of Bonnie Burton talking about how to
make Star Wars crafts. These ideas coud fuel a fun Dad+geeklet (or Mom+geeklet, or
whole geek family) craft day.

Click To Play

Read the Craft blog post and check out the Kids section for more.

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GeekDad Review: Eccentric Cubicle

By John Baichtal January 15, 2008 | 4:24:29 PMCategories: How-To
O'Reilly's Make series of
books has made a name for itself with how-to books that present all manner of crazy
projects that we are -- theoretically -- able to build ourselves. With Eccentric Cubicle,
they deliver once again. However, as it's written by Kaden Harris, you get a delightfully
eccentric slant as well. Harris is Canadian but doesn't use the Metric system. He worked
as a graphic designer, a sewage treament specialist, and as a scrap yard worker ("My
scrap fu is STRONG," he says on his web site.) Funny and extremely knowledgeable,
you find yourself drawn into Harris's narrative while being continually amused by his

The projects comprise the bulk of the book so I'll start off with them. Let me just preface
by saying that these projects are hard. While beginners will definitely enjoy reading the
book, actually building the projects might require a decent quantity of tools and
materials, not to mention considerable handiness about the workshop. Allegedly Harris
sent out the plans to a number of beta testers but I have the feeling that these daring
individuals were no slouches with the drill press.

Here were my three favorites:

Liquid Light Meets the Disko Skull: Think of those gadgets that project trippy light
effects, kinda like having a pan of colored oil and water on an overhead projector. Only
the projector is stuck inside a PVC segment and pointed at a rotating mirror skull!

Haze-o-Matic 3000: Basically a fog machine, but this one is steampunky and ornate with
bellows and tubes everywhere. Way cool.

Hammerhead Live Mechanical Drum Machine: Amazing-looking analog drum

machine that bangs on drums and cymbals with wee drumsticks.

The other projects in the book include Active Deskchop (a guillotine!), BallistaMail (a
desk-mounted crossbow that shoots mail tubes), Maple Mike (golf ball launcher),
DeskBeam Bass (turns your desk into a giant speaker), the Gysin Device (psychadelic
spinner that allegedly induces an alpha state in your brain) and iBlow USB Bubble
Machine (a quickie bubble maker). Densely packed with information, Eccentric Cubicle
supplements the amazing projects with a series of "nano projects" that read as small
tutorials. One covers home brewed wood finishes. Another helps you make a retractable
electrical cord. This sort of thing can only add value to an otherwise outstanding read.

One quibble: The book is called Eccentric Cubicle but I gotta say the connection to the
workplace is a little thin. However, these projects are plenty cool wherever you build
them. Anyway, as I've often said about DIY books, you can have tons of fun simply
reading the book. Harris is an engaging and downright funny writer who is constantly
including sassy asides, historical trivia, and jokes. For example, on the bubble machine
project, he included 6 large grapefruits and a volleyball net into the parts list, just for
yucks. A lot of DIY books are dry and to-the-point. Not this one.

Eccentric Cubicle is an educational and entertaining read, whether or not you want a
mail-flinging ballista on your desk.

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Toy Hacking Workshop

By John Baichtal January 01, 2008 | 11:26:30 AMCategories: Gadgets, How-To, Toys
I'm guessing at least a couple Robosapiens
are busted already. Or maybe last year's gifts are long forgotten and destined for the trash
bin. Well, what better to do with the junk than pop it open and play with its electronics?

For those who are too scared or success-oriented to DIY, there's a cool-sounding Toy
Hacking workshop being held in London this month.

Don’t know what to do with those spare toys lying around post-Christmas season? This
workshop just might be the thing for you. After a successful Pimp my Gadget workshop in
Budapest, we have the pleasure of having Adam Somlai Fisher and Massimo Banzi lead
his 2 day fun workshop during which you will be doing some wire bending, learn about
basic electronics and hack toys!

Put on by, a "technology and design consultancy" with offices in London, Milan
and Amsterdam, they also offer workshops on Processing and Arduinos. No electronic
knowledge is necessary but you do need to bring a laptop and a toy to hack. Tickets are
90 pounds or 75 for students.

What I wanna know is, why can't we get cool workshops like this around where I live?

(Note, the picture is of a similar event put on for students of the Willem de Kooning

Photo by Danja Vasiliev

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GeekDad Review: D.I.Y. Kids

By John Baichtal December 20, 2007 | 4:50:34 PMCategories: Art, Clothing, How-To

Observation #1: It's hard for male geeks to understand the

difference between he-geek and she-geek. Every fiber in my body wants my daughters to
like computers, electronics and gaming. What I have to accept is that girls have different
interests and aptitudes that are, in their own way, just as geeky.

Observation #2: Crafting is how girls connect to their inner geek.

Recently I read D.I.Y. Kids (Princeton Architectural Press) by Ellen and Julia Lupton,
identical twin sisters. One is a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt design museum, the other a
professor of English at UC-Irvine. Together they've created a really neat book that helps
young people with crafty, creative projects.

With sections focused on Graphics, Home, Toys, and Fashion, the book's 90+ projects
range from making your own stuffed animals to printing a zine or designing an alphabet.
Graffiti wristbands, decoupage purses, book plates! All of the projects described were
actually done by kids and the results displayed, giving the book a genuine feel. My
favorite involves helping kids create their own tiling computer wallpaper. Most kids are
content to download their wallpaper from the Internet, feeling like they can't create
anything cool on their own. With the a technical how-to and some creative
encouragement, whatever they create will be far more original and unique than anything
found on the internet. None of the activities in the book are too crazy or difficult for the
average kid.
I should note that, despite my weighty intro on girl geeks and craftiness, the fact is that
most of the projects in this book can appeal to pretty much any kid, and these sorts of
activities are a great precursor to more advanced geekiness. The most important skill to
learn, of course, is the confidence that you can "Do It Yourself" and you don't need to
buy something or limit yourself to a product's intended uses. D.I.Y. Kids inspires with its
genuineness and creativity. If you're looking for geeky activities for kids too small for the
"big stuff" or more interested in the crafty end of the spectrum, you could do worse than
this book.

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Review: The Best of MAKE

By John Baichtal December 16, 2007 | 5:32:34 PMCategories: Books, How-To,

"Void your warranty," MAKE Magazine

urges its readers. The best DIY magazine ever, MAKE has been engaging and inspiring
thousands of readers for the past two years. Now, in the The Best of MAKE they have
collected their coolest 75 articles thus far. Here are a measly ten that caught my eye:
Your Electronics Workbench: What you need to get started in hobby electronics by
Charles Platt. A lot of people interested in getting into electronics find themselves facing
the puzzle of what equipment they need. This article answers those questions, and it's
followed by a comprehensive list of various gadgets and where to get them,

Rumble Mouse, by Greg Lipscomb. Add a cell phone vibrator to your mouse to let you
feel those caps you bust!

Two BEAMbots: Trimet and Solarroller, by Gareth Branwyn. BEAM robots are, like,
a kajillion times cooler than those battling robots you see on ESPN 6. Among their many
unqiue attributes, BEAM bots are built without expensive microcontrollers, which, until
the development of cheap units like the Arduino, was a huge stumbling block to amateurs
trying to break into the hobby.

Hack a RoboSapien, by Dave Prochnow. As I mentioned in a previous review,

Wowwee's line of robots -- including the Robosapien -- were largely created by Mark
Tilden, a robotics guru who encourages the hacking of his creations.

Gun-Operated Alarm Clock, by Roger Ibars. Forget banging the top of your alarm
clock to turn it off, shoot it with a video game light gun.

VCR Cat Feeder, by James Larsson. Hack a VCR to dispense kitty food at a certain
time. Everyone over thirty just made a joke about flashing 12:00s.

Making Biodesel, by Bob Elam. Make diesel fuel out of french fry oil!

Rocket-Launched Camcorder, by John Maushammer. Anything rocket launched is cool.

Add a disposable drugstore camcorder to the mix and record your flight for all time.

Building an Ornithopter, by William Gurstelle. Author of such classics as Whoosh

Boom Splat: The Garage Warrior's Guide to Building Projectile Shooters, Gurstelle
describes how to build a model aircraft that flies by flapping its wings!

Microcontroller Programming, by Sparkle Labs. One of the most mindboggling

innovations of the past few years, and which has not gotten a lot of press, is the
development of dirt cheap microcontrollers. Granted, it's not the sort of story that can be
sandwiched between "puppy saving kid" stories on the 5:00 news, so I suppose it's not
surprising it hasn't sent weeping crowds into the streets. But trust me, it's big.

Plus 65 others! Whether it's inspiration or just enjoyable reading, this book is chock full
of cool stuff. Each story includes a description of equipment and supplies you need to do
the project, followed by step-by-steps. But my favorite parts are the writers' asides where
you get a flash of the DIY spirit that made these projects possible in the first place.
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GeekDad Review: The Unofficial LEGO

Builder's Guide
By John Baichtal November 28, 2007 | 12:51:38 PMCategories: How-To, Lego

A lot of LEGO builder books are intended

for power users. They employ obscure Technic parts in their projects and assume a level
of sophistication beyond the ability of most casual builders. The Unofficial LEGO
Builder's Guide (No Starch) is not one of them! ULBG is directed firmly at beginners,
but doesn't neglect aspiring power users.

Author Allan Bedford starts out with the basics. What's the correct terminology for the
flat pieces and the wedge-shaped bricks? (Plates and slopes!) What are the best ways to
connect bricks to maximize your model's stability? One section goes into detail about
brick storage. After a certain point, the whole "big tub" approach begins to be inefficient
because you spend a long time search for the right brick. Bedford offers tips on how to
organize your collection.
ULBG is extremely readable, and part of the reason is that Bedford intended his book for
two audiences: first, kids in the 7-10 range who had built LEGO products but needed a
gentle nudge to create their own designs. Secondly, he thought adults might like it. "I
knew that there were latent adult LEGO builders who just needed a bit of information and
encouragement in order to be able to begin working on their own models." To Bedford's
credit, he does not talk down to his younger readers. In true geek tradition, the book is
equally readable for both kids and adults.

Continue reading "GeekDad Review: The Unofficial LEGO Builder's Guide" »

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Fire in the Sky: Collecting Iron

By Dave Hinerman November 27, 2007 | 9:05:00 AMCategories: Astronomy, How-To,

Perhaps as a child you made a wish on a

falling star, and perhaps as a parent you've encouraged your young ones to do the same.
But wouldn't it be neat to have a falling star you could carry in your pocket, to make a
wish on whenever you wanted to?

Falling stars aren't stars at all but meteors - bits of rock or iron that have drifted through
space until they were caught by the Earth's gravity and pulled into the atmosphere. Most
meteors burn up as they hurtle through the upper atmosphere, making the familiar bright
streaks we call shooting or falling stars. Some meteors are large enough to survive the
trip and become meteorites - meteors that have reached Earth's surface.

Finding and collecting large meteorites is challenging, but micrometeorites can be

collected in your own back yard. Micrometeorites are tiny bits of meteoric material that
survived the trip through the atmosphere not because they're large, but because they're so
small they travel slowly through the air and don't get hot enough to burn up.

This article at Bizzarre Stuff tells how to collect iron micrometeorites anywhere using
distilled water, a magnet, a microscope, and a few household items:

This article, a lab assignment for a Physical Science class at California State University,
Fresno, gives a simpler method:

According to the Bizzarre Stuff article, the best times to catch micrometeorites is during a
major meteor shower. One of the best showers is the Geminid shower, which is
conveniently just a few weeks away. Also, a contributor to the article says that another
good way to find micrometeorites is to melt fresh snow. Snowflakes usually form around
dust particles, but in a pinch any tiny piece of rock or iron will do. Since winter is fast
approaching us northern geeks, we're coming up on prime micrometeorite hunting

So the next time you see a falling star, don't just make a wish - catch it!

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DIY Cardboard Castles

By John Baichtal November 21, 2007 | 6:55:38 AMCategories: How-To
A recent GeekDad post mentioned a UK company
that will send you a cardboard rocket for 30 pounds (around $US62) plus shipping. For
those of you who found that deal less than titillating, I have a better deal for you:

A company called Mr. McGroovy's Box Rivets sells kits for building cardboard castles,
pirate ships, and other designs. Basically you supply the cardboard and McGroovy's
supplies the instructions, patterns and rivets. The latter are the company's signature
product. They are plastic attachments that permit you to connect two pieces of cardboard
far more efficiently than tape or staples. In addition, they are easily removable (with a
special tool) and reusable.

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Homemade Speaker
By Don Shump November 09, 2007 | 1:31:08 PMCategories: How-To, Projects

Just in time for the weekend: a homebrew speaker using a plastic cup, business card,
Legos, wire and a magnet.

How it works?
The coil generates a magnetic field when electricity is applied to it. The magnet attracts
or repels the coil and makes it to move. The vibration generates the sound that we hear
thanks to the air.

Most of today speakers have a resistance of 8 ohms. This homemade speaker may have
less than 8 ohms and may not be able to make loud sounds but basically it shows exactly
how it works.

Using different materials, may cause the sound to change, even to make it louder.

I'm certain that you could replace some of the bits with what you have on hand. Let us
know what sort of hacks you come up with!

How To Make a Speaker (via BoingBoing)

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GeekDad Review: Making Things Talk

By John Baichtal November 08, 2007 | 8:40:04 AMCategories: Gadgets, Hacking kids,
How-To, Projects
About the
time home computers became commonplace, people got the bright idea that this
wondrous new gadget could interface with everything electrical in your house. Why
couldn't you control lights and temperature via a computer? Why can't your clock radio
talk to your toaster? Ultimately, while fascinating, the home automation phenomenon
never really took off. Part of the problem was that the microcontrollers needed for
interfacing between analog and digital worlds were prohibitively expensive.

No longer. A couple of years ago a half-dozen developers collaborated on a

microcontroller project that eventually came to be called the Arduino. Affordable, open
source, programmed by freeware and easy to use, the platform's popularity has grown
exponentially since its introduction. Already tinkerers have begun expanding Arduino's
horizons beyond anyone's expectations. For instance, Leah Buechley developed a
wearable Arduino and accompanying clothing-based power supply, actuators and sensors
(connected with conductive thread, how cool is that?) Clearly the idea has expanded far
beyond smart homes.

Enter Making Things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects. Written
by Tom Igoe, one of the original developers of the Arduino microcontroller, the book is a
guide to this exciting new platform. In some respects the technology can intimidate
because it such a huge idea: interfacing the analog with the digital, or as Igoe puts it,
making things talk to other things. And while the Arduino has made these once-
impossible tasks attainable, there is still a learning curve. Igoe pulls no punches; while
there is some introductory info, the book assumes you have a basic familiarity with
electronics, as well as experience programming microcontrollers. The Arduino platform
uses Processing, a free and open-source programming language designed for artists and
hobbyists, so the learning curve is relatively low compared to some other languages.
Igoe's book takes the reader step by step, beginning with tools you'll need, covering
various networking theories, programming tips and other techniques. Along the way he
outlines 26 projects that are the meat of the book; the first is a pink monkey that has been
hacked to serve as a computer mouse. Project 13 involves relaying solar cell data
wirelessly. Project 19 shows you how to determine a heading using a digital compass.
Some of the projects serve mainly to illustrate many of the different possibilities of the
technology rather than to be "cool" -- for instance, Project 8 shows how to make a 19,200
baud infared transmitter-receiver set but doesn't pair that tech with some neat gizmo.
Others are more of a complete project, like the cymbal monkey (Project 12) that bangs its
cymbals when it senses toxic chemicals in the air around it.

The cool thing and the scary thing about the Arduino phenomenon is the vastness of its
potential. Making Things Talk is a thick and very dense manual that does an admirable
job of covering as much terrain as possible.

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Build Your own Dobsonian Telescope

By John Baichtal November 06, 2007 | 4:37:56 PMCategories: Astronomy, How-To
Ah, November. Clear dark
nights, not too cold. A great month for stargazing -- to say nothing of the Leonid meteor
shower, which will swing by in a couple of weeks. For meteors, all you need is your eyes,
or else a good pair of binoculars. But if you want to look at planets, you'll need a
telescope. You have a couple of options: buy one or, less practically but far more geekily,
make a telescope! OK, let's get building!

While the idea of a DIY telescope sounds intimidating, it's far from impossible thanks to
a guy named John Dobson. A former Hindu monk who started building telescopes to
learn about the universe, he eventually left his order (which frowned on his explorations)
and began promoting astronomy as a hobby. He designed a simple and easy-to-build alt-
azimuth mount for a Newtonian telelescope, a combination which became known as a

So how do you build your own Dobsonian telescope? Not surprisingly, the answer lies on
the internet. There are a number of schematics available. Craig Jones built two telescopes
and kindly provides notes, photos and PDF diagrams on his site. The San Francisco
Sidewalk Astronomers and Ray Cash have similar resources on their site. Typically
materials cost around $300 and up, depending on the design. The mirror, finder and
eyepieces comprise the bulk of the expense, and some are cheaper than others.
Finally, if you'd like to build your own telescope but need more help than the schematics
provide, consider looking online for a kit. There are many, many suppliers out there;
expect it to cost a little more than a home-made Dobsonian and a lot more than a
"department store" telescope.

Photo by Craig Jones.

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DIY Jabba the Hutt

By Ken Denmead November 05, 2007 | 8:11:00 AMCategories: How-To

Found on Boing Boing this weekend, detailed,

step-by-step instructions on how to make your own, "life"-sized Jabba the Hutt. Dang,
wish I'd seen this before Halloween! Link.

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Forbidden LEGO: Do Try This at Home

By John Baichtal November 03, 2007 | 10:24:51 AMCategories: How-To, Lego
Forbidden LEGO, it conjures up memories of my mom
busting me for making guns with my LEGO bricks -- we had a no war toys house. But
the title actually refers to the fact that the models presented in the book would never, for a
variety of reasons, be produced as an official LEGO product. As the authors explain, the
company sensibly enforces very strict and specific rules that builders follow in creating
models. Of course, countless prototypes are created that violate these rules; some of them
these ended up in Forbidden LEGO.

So what are these rules that cannot be broken? The authors (former LEGO employees)
describe them thus: 1) No non-LEGO parts. 2) No modifications required of users, for
example, drilling a hole in a LEGO brick or clipping off part of it. 3) No shooting out a
projectile strong enough to tear through Seran wrap. 4) Never use glue when building. 5)
No tinkering with battery pack voltages.

With all the introductory and explanatory text, and with detailed CAD instructions, there
are actually only five projects in the book. I have no problem with this! There's a lot more
value to be gleaned from the book than just the models. The authors' funny anecdotes as
well as their insights on the LEGO corporate dynamic serve as a welcome
accompaniment to the projects. The first model is a paper airplane launcher. The second
project describes a catapult that uses a spoon to launch candy through the air. The third is
a cannon that shoots ping-pong balls. The third project is an ATV supercharged by two
MINDSTORMS battery packs. And the final project shows you how to build a LEGO
machine pistol that shoots out bricks at high speeds. Of course, keeping with the book's
theme, every model includes a list of LEGO rules violated.

In some respects this book embodies the true value of the LEGO toy -- it's not the official
models you buy in boxes, though those are great; we're having so much fun with Mars
Mission at home. But what's wonderful about LEGO is what you invent after you build
the model. You throw away the instructions and create something new and crazy.

Whether it's forbidden or not is up to you.

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Olafur Eliasson's Nerdy Art

By Kevin Kelly October 30, 2007 | 8:30:23 PMCategories: How-To, Outdoor
Activities, Toys

More than once, the nerdy Icelandic/Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has donated 3 tons of
white lego bricks to a community and had their kids construct cityscapes. The resulting
art is beautiful. I much prefer fantasy constructions with Lego, to any reproduction of an
existing thing, which most Lego building seems to be about. These community built
cities have all the glory of community built cities in real life.
Eliasson has attracted a following among technologically oriented folks in recent years.
His art is often conceptual, brainy, and frequently geometrical or even mathematical. He
is said to be one of the most represented modern artists on Flickr, because his stuff is so
photographic and technical, yet very approachable. Perfect Flickr fodder.

If you can catch a show of his at any museum don't miss it and don't forget to bring your
kids. For those in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art current has a
very nice installation of Eilasson art. Our 11 year old son loved it, and I can't say that's
true about most modern art. This show includes a wire frame car covered with ice in a 0-
degree room. You need a blanket to view it. Very exciting. And some cool wave making
machines, weird mathematical walk-in kaleidoscopes, and cool stain glass tunnels.

My favorite, though, was a room full of his models and experiments in shapes. You could
see the rough work, the illuminated aspects of prototypes, and the sheer genius arrived at
by trying and trying. It's a great show. We went directly from this show to the
Exploratorium without missing a beat.
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Halloween Panic Time

By John Baichtal October 30, 2007 | 2:18:09 PMCategories: How-To
A couple weeks ago I wrote about how it was high time to get ready for Halloween. Well,
guess what? With crunch time waaaaaaaaaayyy past, prepare for full-blown panic if your
costume isn't done or your party plans are incomplete. I know at my house, there will be
some tense moments with a hot glue gun before my mission is done. Here are a couple of
last minute resources you may have overlooked:

1) Candy companies love Halloween. For example, has tons of resources
like spooky treats, costume ideas, trick or treat bags, and pumpkin ideas.

2) Check out GeekDad fave Instructables' DIY Halloween 2007 photo gallery. Most of
the entries have instructions or at least an interesting story behind them so don't be shy
with the mouse.

3) If all else fails, rush to your nearest bookstore and pick up Make Magazine's
Halloween special edition. In addition to costume advice, the zine has tons of ideas for
haunted houses, ghostly parties and creepy canapés. Cylon Jack-o-Lantern! Home-made
fog machine! Edible heads!

Photo courtesy of Windell H. Oskay,

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The Snap-O-Lantern!
By Vincent Janoski October 26, 2007 | 7:23:37 PMCategories: How-To

Windell Oskay at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratory

shows us how to make a snap-o-lantern sure to scare the bajeezus out of trick-or-treaters.
A clever use for those mini-pumpkins that bounce around our house every year for sure!
Plus, it is a good excuse to delve into microcontrollers. There is still time folks, there is
still time. For me, alas, there is none, being in the final stages of making two costumes for
the geeklings this year that incorporate fleece, vinyl, motors, and liquid. But the snap-o-
lantern is giving me all kinds of ideas to work in moving parts for next year's pumpkin

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AOL CD Art Bike: the Koicycle!

By John Baichtal October 20, 2007 | 12:44:26 PMCategories: How-To

We all know the initially ingenious-seeming but ultimately annoying and doomed AOL
CD distribution program of the '90s and early '00s. As AOL lapses into well-deserved
obscurity, we are left with the fact that over ONE BILLION of the disks have been
distributed. While some found their way into collections the vast majority became
landfill. A tiny percentage were turned into art. The following is the Koicycle, a fish-
shaped art bike created by a guy named Matthew. The scales, of course, are AOL CDs.
Photo courtesy of Matthew.

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Maker Faire Austin This Weekend

By Bruce Stewart October 19, 2007 | 11:42:13 AMCategories: Art, Family, Field Trips,
Fun, Gadgets, How-To, Outdoor Activities
I'm here in Austin, Texas
getting ready for this weekend's Maker Faire at the Travis County Expo Center. If you're
anywhere in the vicinity of Austin and looking for some good, geeky family fun, I highly
recommend checking out this event. There's lots of posts on about the
preparations taking place, and a tangible air of excitement around town as geeks are
arriving with all kinds of interesting gear and gadgets. I don't know who is more pumped
up for this one, me or my boys (ages 5 and 12). "Can't the Maker Faire start today??" my
5-year-old just pleaded with me.

I'll have my camera in hand and will post some highlights from the Maker Faire here, but
I know already it will be a whirlwind weekend with not enough time to see and do all that
we want to. Heck, looking at the schedule for the Make booth, I feel like I could just stay
there all day!
Stay tuned for more posts from the Maker Faire, and if you're there look for me and say
"hi". I'll be the balding dad with two kids pulling me in opposite directions :-)

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Cooking Up Some Home-made Fun

By Ken Denmead October 11, 2007 | 7:50:00 AMCategories: How-To

I know I did this once or twice as a kid, but it's been decades since then, and I thought I'd
share the experience with the Geekdad community. Last night, as part of a project my
older son is working on for school, we made a batch of home made, dough-like play
substance (looks around to make sure no trademark attorneys are reading). I didn't
remember how easy a process it was!

3 cups flour
1.5 cups salt
3 cups water
3 tablespoons cooking oil
6 teaspoons cream of tartar

Mix in a large pot until smooth. Heat on medium low, stirring constantly. Dough will
begin to dry and become sticky. Continue heating and stirring until a ball forms in the
middle of the pos, and the dough is no longer sticky to the touch. When it gets there, take
it off the heat and let cool for a bit, then wrap it in plastic and cool. Add food colorings
to make different colors.

Pictures and more commentary after the break...

Continue reading "Cooking Up Some Home-made Fun" »

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Sunday Afternoon Project: Building a

Mouse Trap Car
By Dave Banks September 23, 2007 | 5:05:30 PMCategories: Cars, How-To, Projects,

After a horrible couple of months of high humidity and scorching heat, we have finally
had our first taste of fall weather and we decided to find something we could do outside,
for a change. After thinking about a few projects, we decided on a mouse trap car.

Many of you will recall making a mouse trap car - either as a project in physics class or
maybe in another after school group. Mouse trap cars teach elasticity, inertia and
automotive propulsion in its simplest form. There are as many ways to build this type of
car as you can imagine (here's one set of plans), with a variety of materials, but the only
general requirement is the use of a standard mouse trap as the sole source of propulsion.
Schools and clubs often use the mouse trap car as a source of competition, with awards
given for speed, distance and accuracy.

Our car cost less than $3 to make, not including some materials that we found around the
house (including those clear plastic blanks from a CD spool for wheels). It took just a
couple hours to build, including glue drying time. This one worked pretty well, but we'll
have to try some different wheels to see if we can get a straight drive.

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Fast Kites from Tyvek House Wrap
By Kevin Kelly September 21, 2007 | 4:06:12 PMCategories: How-To, Outdoor
Activities, Toys

It’s shocking how many different ways you can make a kite, and how many different
materials you can use to build it. It is also shocking how destructive a strong wind can be
to any form or material. Design is key for a kite’s success.

The other day I met with a group of friends to build some large experimental kites in one
day. The goal was to explore the virtues and challenges of building more with less
(material). Our host and kitemaster was Saul Griffith, who conducted the day from his
outpost at control tower of the old Alameda Naval base airport.
Saul shares his space with Squid Labs and the Instructable crew. They have a large room
chock full of supplies, tools, and attitude. You need a heavy duty sewing machine, a hot
fabric cutting knife, or some carbon fiber rod? They got it on hand.

Our assignment was to create five large kites very fast and fly them the next day at the
Family Day Kite Festival at the Marina in San Francisco. We had five groups of four
novices, and after an hour of kite history, we had chosen a rough design and started
There were two revelations for me. One was that almost any shape could be made into a
kite with the right modifications. The second was that out a long list of ideal materials,
Tyvek is a fantastic kite material. Tyvek is that half-paper/half-fabric material that
contractors use to wrap houses as a windbreak under the siding. It comes in long 8-foot
wide rolls which will quickly make a second skin over plywood. For kite making you can
also use narrower rolls of Tyvek HouseWrap - - 36 inches wide - - which are available at
Home Depot and will fit into your car. A $50 roll will contain 160 feet, which will make
many cheap, but durable kites of a thousand shapes.
You can make classic diamond kites using sticks and Tyvek. You can use Tyvek to make
parafoil kites. You can also use it to make balloon kites, which was my project. The
secret key for using Tyvek is Tyvek Tape. A $12 roll from Home Depot does the trick.
Tyvek Tape sticks to Tyvek like superglue. It beats sewing seams, or ties, or any other
kind of tape. With a roll of Tyvek and tape you can make almost any kind of kite.

Although you really need to think in terms of hurricanes. The next day our huge 15 by 24
foot balloon kite was rent apart by gusts of wind; a kite can’t be over engineered. Still it
was fantastic to see the creative designs other balloon kite makers had come up with (in
sail cloth fabric).

At the fair there was a kite-making booth for kids, but sadly they were using low-strength
paper. Next year: Tyvek and Tyvek tape.
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New Howtoons Site and Book!

By Bruce Stewart August 27, 2007 | 7:00:46 PMCategories: How-To

The popular Howtoons cartoon that is featured in

Make and Craft magazines now has a spiffy new web site. You'll find some cool projects
for kids there, illustrated in a fun and engaging fashion. The site is more than just a
reproduction of the project-based cartoon series, it also features a blog, a helpful glossary,
some interesting wikipedia entries, and of course rss feeds. And there's a Howtoons book
coming out soon.

Howtoons is dedicated to the DIY kids world of science, engineering, art and crafts. The
Howtoons universe was created by Saul Griffith, Nick Dragotta, and Joost Bonsen. They
started out creating DIY projects thru the language of comics. Their work can be seen in
Make and Craft magazine and the upcoming 114 page book published by HarperCollins.
The book contains 16 How-To projects such as marshmallow shooter, turkey-bastor
flutes, and soda bottle rockets. The book will be available in bookstores Nov. 07.

Now comes to the web with the help of Ryan McKinley and Phil Torrone.
The site aims to inspire kids to build and create thru single page webcomics with
downloadable PDF's, an exciting blog, a library referencing great stuff on the web, and a
legends section linked to wiki entries. You've been warned Howtoons is coming at ya!

My 11-year-old has been hooked on Howtoons from the first time he saw one. It's always
the first thing he flips to when Make shows up at our house.

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Make Your Own Chinese Finger Trap

By Brian Little August 21, 2007 | 6:58:25 PMCategories: How-To
Instructables contributor Sam Noyoun has posted up a nice how-to on constructing your
own homemade version of the famous Chinese finger cuffs gag. Every geeklet should be
subjected to the finger trap at least once in their young lives. As my Dad would say, it
builds character (though for my money some kids have more character than a comic
book, and giving them any more could have serious repercussions on the educational
front). Anyway, it's cool to be able to crank your own version out using tougher materials
than the usual thin, crackly bamboo.

(via MAKE)

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GeekKid Smackdown: That's not

Optimus Prime; that's Marge Simpson!
By Chris Anderson August 02, 2007 | 12:39:34 AMCategories: How-To

This is adorable. On Instructables, "Rosedale25" publishes a How-To on making an

Optimus Prime head out of Lego. There's only one problem, which the commentators
quickly zero in on:

Dude im sorry but that looks more like marge simpson!! have you actualy seen what
Optimus Prime looks like?

Much piling on ensues. Then comes this:

Hi everyone, thank you for your funny and interesting comments. My son posted these
instructions-- he's 8. I think it's such a hoot that he's blissfully and perfectly unaware that
his project is anything but wonderful. He's particularly inspired by the Transformers
made out of k'nex.
I'm going to let him read the comments and see if he can't improve on his first efforts.
Rosedale25's Mom!

Go Mom! Go 8-year-old GeekKid! Best Parenting Ever!

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How-To: Make a fighting quarterstaff

(that won't kill anyone)
By Chris Anderson July 24, 2007 | 1:16:14 AMCategories: How-To

[Guest blogger Kevin Karplus sent in the following. Like it? Ask for more in the
comments! -ca]
For the last two weeks, my son has been at a theater class, working on a production of
Robin Hood. He had the part of Friar Tuck and had to do a quarterstaff fight with Robin
Hood. They had originally planned to use broomsticks for the quarterstaves, which make
a nice sound but are a bit dangerous for kids to swing at each other. I volunteered to make
them safer quarterstaves and help them choreograph a more vigorous fight scene.

I made each quarterstaff from five feet of 1/2" PVC pipe and 5'6" of foam pipe insulation
from the hardware store. Since the foam insulation was really for 3/4" pipe, I had to wrap
the ends of the foam with electrical tape to keep the pipes from sliding around in the
foam tubes. I then spray-painted the foam with a plastic spray paint. The spray paint did
not last long, but the cracking paint did make the staves look a little more wooden from a

The play performances Friday and Saturday went well, and the quarterstaff fight
choreography that the boys worked out with me went off well.

One can make a similar staff with a more colorful look by using a $2 swimming-pool
"noodle" and sticking a 1/2" PVC pipe in the center. Using a little dish soap as a lubricant
can make it easier to slide in the pipe. Make sure that the last 3" of the foam do not have
any pipe in them, and don't hit people in the face with the staff.

There is a whole subculture devoted to "boffer" weapons made of foam.

For instructions on making weapons, check out:


For boffer combat opportunities and more information on making boffers, try:


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G.I. Joe Paratrooper Hang-Time Contest

By Russ Neumeier July 19, 2007 | 10:47:34 AMCategories: How-To, Outdoor
Activities, Toys
At the end of May, I suggested a contest to see how much hang-time a G.I. Joe
paratrooper action figure could get. We had several great suggestions in the comments –
ranging from water-balloon sling-shots, rockets, and water-rockets. Turns out the
Kentuckiana Joe Club has been working on this since last year after a similar discussion
in, and the results are very impressive.

On Friday - July 13th, the team brought out their new-and-improved water-rocket. This
one is designed specifically for launching G.I. Joe. At apogee, inertia causes the capsule
to separate and the parachutes to deploy allowing Joe to begin his descent.
Last October, the team had an early-stage version of their current water-rocket. They
took video [from the ground and from Joe's(!) perspective]:

There's another YouTube video of the radio-controlled, G.I. Joe-sized recovery vehicle
going after the famed paratrooper. It's not to be missed. Extra points awarded for
knowing the movie soundtrack used on this YouTube video...

So, a tip of the hat to the Kentuckiana Joe Club – so far, their Joe has the most hang-time.
(all images and video courtesy of the Kentuckiana Joe Club)

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Any Geek Would Love This House

By Brian Little June 29, 2007 | 1:53:55 PMCategories: How-To
I've never known a kid who, after reading The Hobbit, didn't spend days and weeks
dreaming of living in a hobbit hole. I've even known a few who made abortive attempts at
constructing their own (I apologize again for the big hole in the yard, Dad). But in Wales,
one man (well, one man and his family...apparently this kind of geekiness is genetic) has
gone above and beyond that childhood dream and actually built what more or less
amounts to a hobbit house.

Continue reading "Any Geek Would Love This House" »

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Tie Dye: Chemical and Folding Magic

By Kevin Kelly June 15, 2007 | 9:06:50 PMCategories: Chemistry, How-To, Outdoor

Here's a great summer geek project for kids: Tie Dye!

It's fun, colorful and chemistry in action. It's also perfect for groups of kids. We found
doing tie dye fits perfectly well with being in a bathing suit -- less worry about getting
clothes stained.
This was our staging area for one tie-dye-in at a family reunion.

Here's how it works. Get some clothes to dye. You can buy new white t-shirts, pants,
tablecloths, or white bathing suits! -- but you can also recycle free give-away t-shirts or
other light colored used clothes for a lot of fun. You soak the clothes in a mordant. This is
the chemistry part. We use washing soda (not baking soda!) from the grocery store -- that
is sodium carbonate. There are other optional chemical additives that will increase the
quality of the dye -- figuring out which ones you want to use is a good chemistry
experiment for advance projects.

Then you tie the cloth up with rubber bands. This is the origami folding part. You have to
think in 3D, and work backward from the final patter you want. (See the book
recommendation below). You also have to think in color inverse, starting with the light
colors first and working to the darks at the end. We recently visited some very
sophisticated tie dyers in Yunnan China. Here is an example of their incredibly complex
tie -- which almost looks like origami -- and the pattern it reveals as it is untied.
After tieing you dye. The key to successful tie dye (as in batik) is to use cold water
procion dyes. If you try to use your ordinary drug store hot-water dyes they won't work
without heat, and you can't "paint" with them like you can with cold water dyes. Procion
dyes are diluted into solutions which you squirt from a plastic bottle, like it was liquid
paint. These are light-fast dyes and will of course stain other fibers (carpets, clothes,
drapes) that you -- or kids -- may spill dye on.
You can find procion dyes in small quanities at a good craft or art store. For a great
selection of colors you can also order online. I've used Dharma Trading. They also sell
kits (including ones for groups) and other paraphernalia for dying crafts. For the thrifty,
all you need are 2 oz. each of four colors (lemon yellow, turquoise, fuchsia and black)
and four clean squeeze bottles, washing soda, gloves, plenty of water, and a space that
will tolerate indelible dyes (bathroom, patio, beach). Dharma also offers a page of tie dye
activities and instructions for group tie dye.

The best introductory how-to book on the subject of tieing (not so much on dyeing) is Tie
Dye!. It tells you how to tie up patterns that are simple enough for kids, and interesting
enough for adult beginners.

If you ever decide you want to produce tie dye at the fine art level, or for commercial
sale, these DVDs describe the process in great detail. Be prepared to set up a serious
chemistry lab. The guy makes some awesome patterns.
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Rainy-Day Rescue: Number-Grid Cipher

By Russ Neumeier June 13, 2007 | 7:16:59 AMCategories: How-To, Projects, Web

We recently had a rainy weekend interrupt our original plans to go geocaching. Instead, I
took inspiration from John Baichtel's recent posting - Codes For Kids - to introduce my
kids to ciphers. Specifically the Number-Grid (or Polybius Square) cipher.

The NSA's CryptoKids website is a great place to help introduce your kids to codes and
ciphers. The flash-enabled site sports cartoon-characters and step-by-step instructions on
how to encode (and decode) various codes and ciphers. I chose the Number-Grid cipher
as one that was appropriate to all my kids.

I started with some loose-leaf paper and a couple of crayons:

From there I wrote out a cipher for each of my kids and showed them how to start
decoding the cipher:

My oldest son got the hang of it and wrote a note back to me:

The end result – an hour or so spent at the kitchen table having fun together when we
should have been geocaching....if only the weather had cooperated.
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Coming soon: The Daring Book for Girls

By Asha Dornfest June 06, 2007 | 10:33:59 AMCategories: Books, How-To, Projects

I've just posted an interview with one of the authors of The Dangerous Book For Boys, in
which I asked: What about girls? His response didn't exactly answer the question, but
HarperCollins certainly has with this exciting announcement: The Daring Book For Girls
is being written as we speak, and will be out by December (and is available now for

Authors Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz are on the job, and I don't doubt they'll
come up with something magical. I can't wait.

Asha Dornfest is a guest GeekMom and the publisher of Parent Hacks.

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DIY Lego Ice Trays
By Brian Little June 04, 2007 | 8:19:17 PMCategories: How-To

First things first: Making

your own Lego ice cube trays is emphatically not cheaper than buying them straight out
from from Lego. It is probably more fun, and since I wanted to learn mold-making, it
gave me an excuse to buy a few materials and take a stab at it. Details after the jump.

Continue reading "DIY Lego Ice Trays" »

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Short Attention Span Carpentry

By Dan Olson June 04, 2007 | 2:21:00 PMCategories: How-To, Tools
My son (6) has a ton of great project ideas for me.
But, the next great idea often pushes the previous one out before the task is complete.
This tends to reduce my desire to start more projects with him, since I end up completing
them or they sit on the shelf.

I’ve come up with a way for Dads like me to keep kids involved and see the project
through. Lower your standards to build it faster. Dovetails and CAD plans will come

That’s right. The bird feeder we built as a gift for his Mom’s birthday may not win any
awards for design, craftsmanship or durability. We completed it together and it has a
nice, shiny roof to ‘let the squirrels slide off’. She will love it. He may have already
forgotten we built it.

More after the jump

Continue reading "Short Attention Span Carpentry" »

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No Snack Cup? No Problem.

By Jeremiah McNichols June 04, 2007 | 8:00:00 AMCategories: How-To

We tend to do a lot of afternoon shopping with our toddler daughter. Although we try to
bring snacks, sometimes we forget or run out, and then end up grabbing something at a
store we're in. Today it was trail mix, a big bag with tons of dried fruit at the top. I'm
loathe to give a two-year-old unfettered access to a one-pound bag of snacks, for reasons
hygenic (hey, I might want some too) as well as practical (I'd hate for her to drop it).
In grocery stores I am sometimes able to drum up a sample cup or bulk food bag to drop
an appropriate portion of goodies into, handing that off to the kid. Today we were in a
big-box store instead, one that happened to sell a few groceries, so I fell back on a trick I
developed in a similar situation a week or so ago: Making a cup out of a piece of paper.

Pretty simple once you think of it - who doesn't have a piece of paper kicking around?
The shopping list, a note from Mom's purse, a stray flyer, even an advertising circular
from the store itself will do. The simplest method is to fold the paper into a haphazard
cone shape, fold the top edge inward several times in various positions, and you have a
pretty shoddy-looking toddler snack cup. The trick for this cup type lies in making sure
the cone's outside seam has a sufficiently strong folded edge so that your cone doesn't
You can make a nicer cup if you're
willing to rip your paper to make it into a square. This may earn you some eye-rolls in the
grocery aisle, but so do tantrums, right? Making the cup at right takes six folds, and is
detailed on this German mathematics site (in English!), or you might be able to infer it
from their diagram at left.

Update: Matt Blum points out that tearing is not necessary: "What I do is take an 8.5x11
piece of paper, fold one corner across to the opposite side to mark off the square (and
make the first fold of the cup). Then I fold back (rather than tear) the leftover rectangle,
and proceed to make the cup as per the directions." Thanks, Matt!

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GeekKid Survival Tool: DIY Magstripe

By John Baichtal June 03, 2007 | 6:31:18 AMCategories: How-To

I bought a beer at the Twins game the other day and the
concession worker scanned my driver's license into her
computer to verify my age. But what else did she get? My
social security number? My street address?

No idea.

The sad fact of the matter is that our personal info is being
bandied about by all sorts of companies, and this is only
going to get worse as our geekkids grow up.
The best thing we can do to prepare them to guard their privacy is to show them how to
read what's on their cards. That means a magstripe reader... basically the same thing as
those little boxes that cashiers use to scan credit cards. But since we're geekdads, let's not
buy one, let's make one!

So, where to begin? Blogger Tim Matheson has step-by-step instructions on his site.
Refined from a 2600 Magazine article, Matheson details how to create a magstripe reader
from a cassette player head, a 3.5 mm mono phone plug and a soldering iron . Helping
your geekkids with this project will teach basic electronic theory as well as keep them
informed of what's going on in those mysterious black strips.

Note that there may be laws in your area restricting "tampering" with magstripes, so do
your research beforehand.

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G.I. Joe Paratrooper Hang-Time Contest

By Russ Neumeier May 31, 2007 | 7:27:58 AMCategories: How-To, Toys

I'm guessing many GeekDads grew up

with the G.I. Joe action figures...we may be at the edge of some of you not knowing that
the original G.I. Joes were 12" tall and had kung-fu grip (but I digress). The one thing I
remember when I was a kid was really, really wanting my paratrooper G.I. Joe to go as
high in the air as possible for as much parachute hang-time as possible.

I worked at throwing the action-figure as straight and high into the air as I could, standing
on a ladder and throwing, and wishing I was taller so I could get on the roof of my house
to throw...but it was never enough.

My boys have a few G.I. Joes - including one with a parachute, and the frustration of it
never quite getting enough parachute hang-time has moved to a new generation....
So, fellow GeekDads, your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to help come up
with the best means of getting as much hang-time out of G.I. Joe paratrooper action
figures as possible. The only rules are that the means of getting hang-time are:

1. Family-friendly -- it's got to be safe enough that your kids can do it.
2. No local ordinances are broken in the process (we don't want you getting arrested
or anything...)

Are you up for the challenge? If you are, send an email (and pictures!) detailing your
Above image courtesy of H. P. Holland, 2007

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GSHIW JSV OMHW (Codes for Kids)

By John Baichtal May 28, 2007 | 10:30:48 AMCategories: How-To, Languages,

Codes are fun. Kids love

thinking that they can
write something only
their friend will be able
to read. But more
importantly, at least from
a geekdad's perspective,
is that when your kid
learns about codes, he or
she also learns a ton
about math, language and

For instance, delving into

the Enigma story teaches
kids far more than simply
how the code worked. To
understand its story you have to know about World War II, and at least touch on the math
behind a continually changing substitution alphabet.

Learning about codes is easy. There are some excellent books out there. The Code Book:
The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography is one of the best,
and is a great read for both adults and older kids. Younger geekchildren might prefer Top
Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing .

There are plenty of Web sites as well. This UIC site has activities, Flash-based encoders
and even more advanced mathematical tools like a prime number checker. The NSA kids
site is almost disturbingly cheerful, with code-cracking animal characters giving young
visitors history lessons and tips on creating their own ciphers.

But the best lessons your geekkid will learn will be self-taught. My sister, when she was a
kid, created a rather brilliant hieroglyphic alphabet with every character being an animal
in a different pose. When written out it resembles a parade of prancing mythological
figures. It started off as a simple substitution cipher but she added dummy and alternate
characters to make it harder to defeat. (Although I surreptitiously cracked the simpler
version as a bratty little brother.) Sis claims to still be able to write in this code -- for
instance when she hired movers recently, she labeled boxes of valuables in code to
discourage thievery.

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Life-Size Cutouts and Super-Size Posters

By Martin Mander May 23, 2007 | 7:00:00 AMCategories: How-To, Photography,

Here's a great way to make

cardboard cutouts of pretty much any size from a regular digital image. The only real
limits are the amount of cardboard you have (I'm guessing plenty if you've bought a
stroller or flat-pack furniture lately) and how much paper & ink you want to use.
Not unlike Dave Banks' amazing "Large Format Printing as Wallpaper" post, this is a
way of taking an image and super-sizing it, this time using free software called The
Rasterbator. Despite sounding like something Regina Lynn would review in the Sex
Drive column, with a bit of rasterbation experimentation this delivers excellent results.

Either using the online or standalone version, The Rasterbator takes your image and
scales it to any dimensions you specify - literally! The finished image is made up of dots
in the same way as newsprint images, and is delivered as a multi-page .pdf document
with guide-lines for cutting out.

In the simple example above I used an 800x600 cellphone

image scaled up to the size of 4 sheets of standard inkjet paper, then pasted it onto
cardboard and cut it to shape. In retrospect I wish I'd made it twice the size and used a
better photo!

I've found this perfect for making large party banners and posters - there's a rasterbation
gallery on the website if you're seeking inspiration or just want to check out what other
people have made. The largest one so far is Rasterbation TG06, a magnificent 7.35 x
10.39 metres, constructed using 1225 sheets of paper.

Sounds like a challenge to me!

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Fun and Games on your Fridge

By Martin Mander May 18, 2007 | 5:07:00 AMCategories: Gadgets, Home
Improvement, How-To
Ah the fridge - custodian of beer, reminder of
doctors' appointments, precious real estate for kids' paintings, where would we be without
you? Here are some ideas for the unsung heroine in the corner of your kitchen.

The Lumi Pad

This gadget is a magnetic flashing message board - you write on the screen with a
'special' pen and when switched on the writing flashes insistently when anyone
approaches (it has a motion sensor). It's ideal for reminders, and I enjoy leaving messages
for the family when I'm leaving for work & they're still napping. You can guarantee it'll
be read as everyone visits the fridge at some point during the day!

Make your own fridge games

A while back I found some magnetic inkjet paper in a local craft store. Though a tad
pricey it has loads of potential for fun. We used it to send photo-magnets with our birth
announcement & thank you cards, and with imagination it's ideal for making your own
magnetic games / jigsaws / reward charts / fridge poetry / cow print.

Here's a tic-tac-toe (that's noughts and crosses if you're in the UK) game made from
photos in about 10 minutes - Kylie wins!

Bottle-Cap Magnets

This is a simple but oddly addictive tip I picked up from the Make: blog. Get hold of
some circular magnets (bulk bags are very cheap on ebay), some bottle caps from your
favourite beer or soda, add a few drops of hot-glue or sticky fixer pads and you're all set.

Lastly if you or the little inquisitors wonder how we kept stuff cool before fridges were
invented, I'd highly recommend reading The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman -
it gives an excellent and accessible history of refrigeration.

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Why Knots? The Retro GeekDad's Guide

to Ropework
By Dave Hinerman May 17, 2007 | 10:19:00 AMCategories: How-To
Rope technology is nearly as
old as civilization and is one of
those things we usually take
for granted. But without ropes,
cables, cords, yarns, threads,
and strings much of our
modern life would be very
different. Sure, you can
suspend a bridge with metal
rods and mend your torn
clothes with staples (if you
really want to), but would you
even have clothes to mend
without the strong, flexible
fibers from which their fabric
is woven? Admit it, fig leaves
went out of style millenia ago.

We start teaching our children

about practical rope work at a
tender age when we teach
them to tie their shoes. It's a
major developmental step;
tying knots requires a number
of manual and mental skills to
be applied in unison to be
successful. That's why kids'
early efforts at shoe tying lead
to tears of frustration. But we keep them at it because it's something they need to know.
Eventually they master it.

One of the biggest challenges in tying knots is visualization - seeing in our mind's eye
where this piece of rope is supposed to go, and what the final product should look like.
Knots in general are hard to visualize because the ropes that form them are all curves;
there are almost no corners or straight lines to provide visual reference points.
Furthermore, the process of tying a knot is dynamic, almost fluid. It doesn't lend itself to
being documented with a few photographs. Even in Scouting, where rope work has been
taught for decades, the manuals rely on photographs and a written description of each
knot. It takes a lot of knowledge of knots to learn a new one - and that's frustrating.

That's where Animated Knots by Grog comes in. This site shows dozens of knots in full
color photos using different colored cords where appropriate, explaining what each is
used for and how to tie it. The images are presented in a unique user interface that can be
played as an animation, stepped through frame-by-frame, or viewed as static images - all
by rolling your mouse over a row of buttons. It's not a video with fast-forward and rewind
buttons, it's more like a computerized flip-book.
Grog's knots are collected into broad application categories: boating, climbing, fishing,
Scouting, search and rescue, household, decorative, and another section on rope care.
Some knots are shown in several categories. For example, climbing and search and
rescue use the same knots because their activities are very similar. Grog's also lists a
number of knots that are more appropriate for modern synthetic ropes such as nylon and
polyethylene that are too slippery for the Boy Scouts' basic eight knots.

If you and your children plan to do any activities involving ropes - camping,
mountaineering, or just tying your luggage on top of the car for a trip to the lake - start
with a few minutes learning how to tie the proper knots. But once you do, sleep with one
eye open -- your kids may decide to practice their knots on you one night!

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Mother's Day pancakes

By Russ Neumeier May 16, 2007 | 11:58:40 AMCategories: How-To

Inspired by the Instructables posting on pancakes, the kids and I made them special for
Mother's Day. We mixed the batter with food coloring and had to hurry when GeekMom
came downstairs earlier than expected.

I love making pancakes with my kids. I've added food coloring in the batter to make eyes,
a nose, a mouth, and eyebrows so they would have a smiling clown face at the breakfast
table. Some weekends, if we had it in the house, I'd add a touch of whipped-cream for
hair or a mustache.

My younger two children (ages 8 and 5) still like making the clown faces. My oldest
daughter (14) and son (11) are more interested in eating breakfast rather than looking at
it – besides, they're typically sleeping when pancakes are being made... This weekend
was extra special with mixing red and blue food coloring for the purple we used to make
flowers, stars, planets, squiggles, and a space alien (I think) while following the
Instructables posting..
We were having fun and getting the hang of it when GeekMom popped into the kitchen
unannounced. We scrambled to cover the pancake-batter writing we were working on
with plain batter so she couldn't see and ruin the surprise.

Our creations didn't come out perfect (you know what I was trying to write with batter -
letters came out backwards and such), but it's just another reason to try this again some
Saturday morning in the future.

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GeekKid on the cover of Make

By Chris Anderson May 09, 2007 | 9:56:41 PMCategories: How-To

That's GeekDad Mark Frauenfelder (editor of Make) on next month's cover with his
daughter, Sarina. They are testing a simple robot that Mark writes about in the issue.
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The Dangerous Book for Boys

By Asha Dornfest May 07, 2007 | 6:20:29 PMCategories: Astronomy, Books,
Chemistry, Engineering, How-To, Outdoor Activities, Projects, Science Experiments

I just finished reviewing The Dangerous Book for Boys for Parent Hacks, and I'm
thoroughly entranced by its premise and promise: that there exists an essential package of
skills and knowledge each boy should master. In so doing, he unlocks the potential for a
life of exploration and adventure. (Here's a link to the full review, which includes the
question: what about girls?)

We might argue about what that package contains, but I think we can all agree that the
most essential ingredient is curiosity, something GeekParents have in abundance. They
(we!) also have a base level of optimism; the belief that all puzzles are solvable with
enough smarts and persistence.

Bravo, GeekDads. You're not just having fun with your kids. You're setting them up for a
lifetime of adventure.

Asha Dornfest is a guest GeekMom and the publisher of Parent Hacks.

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The Compost Bin: Power Tools and

Coffee Grounds
By David Hornik May 01, 2007 | 4:05:26 PMCategories: How-To, Outdoor Activities,

Here at GeekDads, we get bonus points for all projects that combine power tools and
small children. So despite the relative lack of technology involved in this weekend's
Compost Bin Project, I still get plus five points for letting my 5 year old drill with
reckless abandon.

The compost bin has been a long time in the coming here at the Hornik house. Despite
the kids' Uncle David's religious commitment to the compost bin, until this weekend if it
couldn't go down the garbage disposal, it got thrown out. But thanks to a few days at
nature camp and a school project, my kids were in a compost bin building mode this
weekend. One might think that the compost bin is just a pail into which one throws half
chewed carrots. Wrong. There is a fair amount of design and science that goes into
compost bin creation these days. First of all, to oversimplify, there are a couple of types
of compost bins one might opt for -- one with creepy crawly things in it and one without.
While the former would have been pretty darn fun to create, more reasonable heads
prevailed and we went with the wormless, maggotless version.

I certainly don't want to pretend that this post is a composting how-to, so here's a link to
some really simple instructions on how to create your own compost bin. They are
essentially the instructions we followed. First thing first, find yourself a big bin of some
sort -- a garbage can will do unless, of course, your wife says "that thing is so ugly,
there is no way that you're using that." It needs to be tall enough to house a pretty sizable
amount of compost since the compost is a bit like sourdough starter and helps decompose
the newly added matter. Once you've got yourself a tub, pull out the power drill and let
the kids drill a bunch of holes in the bottom and top of the bin. While you need a lid to
help maintain the moisture level in the bin, if it is air tight, a whole bunch of
counterproductive things will happen that deter decomposition.

With your newly drilled bin, throw in some shredded news paper at the bottom (hint:
don't throw in your mom's favorite sections of the Sunday Times or she will be somewhat
less supportive of the project). Then comes the sour dough starter -- find some good old
fashioned soil or, better yet, pre-composted material to fill the bin up to nearly the half
way point. If you get lucky, as we did, your neighbor may have a bin of the good stuff
right next door.

After filling up the bin with with a goodly amount of compost and shredded paper, it is
time to add some compostable material for good measure. Part of the fun here is the
discussion of what is, in fact, compostable. The basic rule is that if it came from the earth
it can return to the earth. But this basic rule can lead to some talmudic debates about
what is intended by the phrase "came from the earth." Why doesn't a hamburger come
from the earth but the coffee filter does? To try to settle the confusion, my eldest
attempted to give some guidance with this sign.

With the guidance of Julian's sign, the kids then proceeded to go out in search of
compostable material. This is definitely something worth thinking about. There is
nothing quite as unsatisfying as creating a compost bin and then having nothing to throw
into it. Warning: your kids will raid the fridge and if you have nothing ready to be
composed, they will make do with the next best thing, perfectly good fruits and
vegetables. My kids did manage to come up with some marginal materials -- slightly
aged artichokes, wilting roses and the tops of strawberries they promptly consumed -- and
took great pleasure in dropping them in the compost bin.

We'll see how long the kids maintain their love of composting all things compostable.
But for the time being, we're lowering our total amount of garbage and the kids had a
great time making the compost bin. That's a win-win. Highly recommended on all

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Timesaver Layout: Constructing the Box

By Scott Nagle May 01, 2007 | 3:01:33 AMCategories: How-To, Models, Projects,

Since my post "Model Train Puzzles" a few weeks back, we've

been slowly building an HO-scale version, beginning with a folding, suitcase-sized box
for easy storage and transport.

After an initial father-son shopping trip to the hobby store for track and rolling stock
(based upon the layout described by the Prince William County Model Railroad Club)
and to the hardware store for wood and paint (colors chosen by him), we set him up with
some of the track and rolling stock on his cedar chest while I used a power saw to cut the
plywood. All further construction was done using hand tools, which enabled him to
"help." He's been able to saw, hammer, glue, paint, hand-drill, and screw. Being able to
play with the cars and track, he has learned all about how switches, cars, and couplers

Next up, laying the track...

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Radios That Work For Free

By Kevin Kelly April 22, 2007 | 1:58:13 AMCategories: How-To, Physics, Science

Crystal Radios are an old standby of GeekDads. For the early mists of time Geekdads
have been showing kids how to pull radio stations from thin air with the barest snips from
the basement. Here are some very simple radios that you can have your kid make in a few
hours. They seem too simple to work. But unbelievably they can hear music or talk
programs coming out of this scraps of metal. How does it work?

Ken Reitz's cool crystal radio

Aha! Glad you asked. They use the ingredients of the first radios, solid state bits of matter
wired up in various circuits, including long antennas and coil tuners.

There are an amazing variety of crystal radio types, some of them very sophisticated, and
worthy of midnight engineers. The best source for instructions and books and a
newsletter and kits for crystal radios is the Xtal Set Society. They sell the classic book
Radios That Work For Free, and many other plans books. They also sell a bunch of very
cheap but effective starter kits, like this one, the XS500 Basic Crystal Radio Kit, selling
for $15.
Another great starter project for kids is the Quaker Oats box set broadcast AM crystal
radio. You use the cardboard cylinder of a Quaker Oats box for the wire coil. Download
the free PDF free plans. They even give some useful science fair hints for this project.
And for those who get into it big time they issue a paper newsletter with new circuits
every six months or so. There's hours and hours, if not years, of things to play around
with here. I've found that kids can at least get a weekend of curiosity from one of these.

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Build construction toys out of hardware

By Asha Dornfest April 19, 2007 | 1:27:17 PMCategories: How-To, Projects, Toys

My kids dread marathon trips to Home Depot as much as

I do, but an outing to the quirky, local hardware store is
an altogether different matter. I'm talking about the mom-
and-pop operation a few blocks away -- the one that, in
addition to the requisite nuts, bolts, and tools, sells
birdseed and penny candy at the front counter. My kids
can't get enough of the latch section (a five year-old's
tactile dream come true) and the plumbing parts.
Speaking of which, PVC piping makes ideal construction material. Think of the marble
run possibilities. Or the sheer sculptural potential. Or the summer water play. A few
bucks' worth of pipe and some connectors should set you and your kid up just fine. Dana
of Mombian detailed how she created a PVC construction set.

Mombian has an entire archive devoted to hardware store toys. Your kids may never look
at Home Depot the same way again.

Asha Dornfest is a guest GeekMom and the publisher of Parent Hacks.

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Geometricks (geo met tricks, get it?)

By Kevin Kelly April 19, 2007 | 12:01:13 PMCategories: How-To

I first met Bob Burnside at Burning Man, Every year he sets up a table in the center camp
tent and offers free instruction and materials for anyone to make his lovely geometric
sculptures, a variety which are shown below.
All the sculptures are made from the same stock, a thin wooden strip with a perfect
equilateral triangle cross-section. You weave the strips together in various arrangements
(all based on a 12-node). As you can see there is a huge range of structures which can be
made, depending on the lengths you cut the rods to, and their numbers in the array.
Kids love to try this. Burnside's table is always crowded with the few kids who make it to
Burning Man. While Burnside has a fabulous galley of possibilities on his website, there
is very little instruction there. That's because it is extremely hard to describe how to
assemble on these interlocking pieces. In fact the simplest unit of 12 pieces looks easy
but actually requires a teacher near by to unravel the inevitable disorientations -- unless
you are natural geometric genius. It would take some fiddling and puzzle solving to
simply accomplish this one basic unit without any outside help. Hint: Use several rubber
bands to hold the stack together as you keep adding rods.
The other challenge in this wonderful design system is that there is no commercial source
of the triangular rods that I know of (Please email if you have a source.) That means you
need to make the wooden strips yourself (as Burnside does), using a table saw and pine
shelving. Well, all I can say is that this is easier said than done. Getting a load of
perfectly triangular sticks at the 3/8 scale you want is very hard and requires some
patience. You don't have to use wood of course. I haven't found a source of alternative
triangular stock yet, but I am looking.

All in all this is a wonderful project to do with kids. It's challenging enough to require
parental assistant in the beginning and indeed will offer plenty of challenges to the
GeekDad himself.

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Paper Airplane Headquarters

By Kevin Kelly April 18, 2007 | 12:04:47 PMCategories: How-To

Your kids have been making paper airplanes since they were knee-high to a grasshopper,
but have they been getting any better? Can theirs stay aloft for 20 seconds? You can
make superior airplanes easily and the miracle of it all is that it doesn't require any
more/new/different material than what you are using right now!

If there was ever a lesson in the nature of how intelligence can invest value into raw
materials, then making better paper airplanes will deliver it to your kids.

The headquarters for the world's best paper airplane instructions, advice, plans, and books
is run by the four-time and current world record holder of longest duration paper airplane,
Ken Blackburn. Check out his site PaperPlane for simple ideas for a great Saturday
afternoon with a few sheets of paper.

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Bill Beaty's Digustoscope

By Kevin Kelly April 17, 2007 | 1:48:49 PMCategories: How-To

A must-have site for all GeekDad's is Bill Beaty's Science Hobbyist site. It has tons and
tons of really cool things to build with/for your kids and your own inner kid. Bill worked
at Boston's equivalent of the Exploratorium making science exhibits that appeal to kids,
and he continues his hands-on approach with informative and yet simple advice for
making such things as Van de Graaff generators, and so on. This is Bill here with one of
his static electricity makers.
For something really simple to make -- from scrap pieces of plastic mirror -- check out
this YouTube by Bill on how-to make a digustoscope.