Saturday, November 29, 2014

Small Bytes: Some Press and Random Updates

A belated Thankgiving greeting, y'all!
I ate myself silly on Thursday. Did you?

Also, I shopped a bit and bought myself clothes that I would never waste time sewing.

And I sewed clothes that I would never frustrate myself buying.

And I watched The Giver. I will say two things:

  1. Jeff Bridges is wonderful.
  2. Just read the book. I read it about 20 years ago when it first came out. My friend, then working in Harper Collins, sent it to me. It blew my mind and I gave copies to my students just because. This was when dystopian/utopian novels weren't even on the radar, let alone fashionable. Was it the first? I don't even know. It's raw and truly evocative in a way the modern dsytopian page-turners aren't - ground-breaking then even as it is now.

Finally, here I am in a concise little feature on Terrysblinds, an interior design blog.

I don't feel interior designer as much as Random Toymaker and Occasional Costume Seamstress but what do I know, right? Maybe people have finally caught on that cardboard greengrocer shops are a furniture staple in every playroom. Or any cardboard, really. Hurrah!

That said, read about the other featured designers on the Designer Insights wall here. Thank you for the feature, Terrysblinds!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Falling Unexpectedly Into Usefulness

Today was Grandparent's Day for the second-graders in the girls' school.

Jenna and her paternal grandparents
Photo of Jenna (and her sisters) with her maternal grandparents on the school notice board.

The kids sang to them in a concert that was alternately a rib-tickler and tear-jerker.

The parents were invited to the preview the night before.
"Bring tissues." Emily reminded me, and then kept watching my eyes throughout the performance to catch me weeping.

Today, however, was the Actual Concert, presented to the Actual Grandparents. I volunteered in Jenna's classroom after, taking portraits of her classmates and their families who had been invited to visit. I am disastrous with indoor lighting but we made do. And while I was being busy, desperately composing and focusing and snapping, I stole glances at Jenna's teacher and watched her enjoy her students and their enraptured guests.

For once, I wasn't jealous of her teacherhood or missful of my own that I'd left behind when I married and had children. Maybe the intricacies of my own classroom experience is a selectively-repressed memory, or maybe teaching senior high is completely different from teaching elementary school, but teachers sure do A LOT these days. So much of it isn't actual classroom instruction - it's nurturing outside the curriculum, building relationships with families, celebrating the children for who they are and not only what they accomplish. And they do it day after day, year after year, greeting a fresh batch of kids each fall and sending them off the following spring. Those are a lot of hellos and goodbyes bookending a ridiculously short span of time filled with all manner of educational obligations. But they do it, and manage to also throw in stuff that personalizes that experience with each child, making them feel clever and capable and worthy and excited about their future.

One reason - apart from sheer indolence, I mean - for not returning to work now that my kids are "grown" is having the flexibility to pop into their classrooms, lunchrooms and playgrounds and learn the names of their classmates. I want to be part of their formal learning and early social adventures. I also want to support their teachers by helping with the busy stuff that isn't curriculum but may be just as necessary in their work.

And lately, that has been taking photos. At their teachers' requests, I've taken photos, both candids and portraits (and by "portraits" I mean "Hello, family! Stand against that wall and smile! Quick, before the kindergarteners walk past us again!"). It is hilarious because I feel horribly inadequate, seeing as I don't even know the manual settings on my camera well (or at all). But that is the curse of carrying around a hulking DSLR: people mistakenly think you know what you're doing.

Still, it helps the teachers, because if not for volunteer photographers, it would be they who'd be running around like chickens with their heads cut off, directing crafts and fielding questions and making small talk, while also trying to capture the essence of the day with their cameras (probably smeared with Elmer's glue). I like to think that because I - and other lens-toting parent helpers - are doing the memory-collecting instead, the teachers can visit with family guests and enjoy another side of their students as sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. When the event is over, they always thank me as if I've just presented them with a year's supply of Nutella. I resist the urge to mumble, "Er, wait till you actually see the photos- I think I got the exposure totally messed up" and instead hug them back, saying - quite honestly- that I was happy to be useful.

And that's nothing compared to you teaching and loving my children, making them look forward to getting on the school bus each morning, and helping them not fear how much they don't yet know, I want to add, if I could only find a way to make it not sound patronizing.

Way back when I was myself teaching Other People's Kids, if you'd told me that someday, I'd be wielding a camera to help other teachers do their job, I'd have snorted and said As If. Who takes photos for teachers? Or helps brand new itty bitty kindergarteners open their milk boxes? Or locates the right buses on field trips? How does that enable a teacher to cram more curriculum time into their school day? Or increase mean exam scores? Or up the national ranking of the school?

As If indeed. We were efficient in Singapore and focused to a fault, yes. But maybe we kinda missed the point, too.

So here I am - sitting in front of the computer, editing a batch of digital images of kids with proud faces, showing off their classroom, their teacher and their literacy to family deeply invested in their success. It isn't standardized scores or scholarship applications or spelling bee awards, but it's education at its most fundamental. And I helped by taking photos. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

While I Was Ignoring You

Dear Blog,

I apologize.
I didn't mean to ignore you over the last week-or-so.

I meant to put in a post or two on darts.
But I got distracted by actual sewing.

I meant to take photos.
But it snowed and acted all January and turned everything into a photographer's nightmare: not worth risking frostbite just for natural light and too dim to stay indoors while not dying.

I meant to gather our electronic kits and get on my soapbox about STEM and how I'm not completely on the Make Science Cool For Girls! bandwagon (I don't think it's necessary to mention girls at all).
But a wee one got sick and we stayed home and baked cupcakes.

I meant to make a new bag, five wool skirts, two sweater dresses, and one gunmetal pleather jacket with princess seams.
But I ended up helping a six-year-old cut out a bear face softie for a Secret Christmas Present.

I meant to create a fantastic Thanksgiving table centerpiece involving a fat yarn pompom and paper feathers with Sharpie feel-good-messages on them.
But I returned the yarn to Michaels when I realized it'd be a miracle if I got it made in time for Christmas, let alone next Thursday.

And - I swear - I wasn't even trying to procrastinate.

So, instead, let me share how I fed my soul this past fortnight:

This is what made me smile.

This is what made me proud.

This is what made me ache (one, because his voice slays me and two, because I know at least one friend who could claim this story as his).

This is what I've just finished reading that is beautiful.

This is what I'm still reading that is brilliantly bittersweet.

This is what I'm desperately coveting (and unaffording).

This is what I'm working on. Also that thing in the photo.

This is what gave me hope. After all, a person can only survive so long on two-thirds of a trilogy.

This is what I've just watched that utterly charmed me.

This is what made me laugh.

This -blast! - is what I'm battling. 

And I promise: I will get my act together and write some real stuff here soon.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Science Party: Fiber Optic Lamp

What's a Science Party without Physics, right?

To balance out all those other Chemistry experiments, Emily and I decided it would be fun to do a little electric circuitry. We also wanted to stage a fake dissection as a token Biology offering, but fabric frog innards were too time-consuming to sew, so we filed away that idea into the Maybe Another Party category of my brain. 

Before we settled on classic from-scratch circuitry, we considered the more trendy electric playthings now circulating the internet. Like electric playdough, for instance. We made it, it worked for us, but we couldn't see 16 kids "playing" with it and taking home something concrete at the end of the day to show for it. Also, the resistance of the playdough was so high that we'd need 9V batteries (instead of the usual 1.5V variety) and all kinds of safety and theory lesson bytes in order for the kids to fully get what was going on.  So those were - again - filed into the Maybe Another Party category, and I returned to basics. 

Just for info, electric circuitry is not the same is electronics. "Electric" is literally electricity flowing through a circuit and making light or sound or whatever. It can be low-current (e.g. batteries) or high-current (e.g the wiring of a house connected to the 110 V/220 V mains). Electronics involves logic and the circuit actually doing something clever (e.g. a robot vacuuming your floor when the dirt level gets high enough to set off a sensor, or turning on a sprinkler system at certain times of the day or when the humidity is low, or frying someone's head if they walk across a intruder-alert laser beam). The current involved in the actual  circuit is usually very small because it involves semiconductors which operate at the electron level, but electronic circuits can also be relayed to the mains to control regular high-current appliances. 

I like both, but I like electric circuitry more because I can see what's happening in the circuit. Electronics is cool and magic and high-tech and everything, but I can't see what the circuit is doing because it's all at the nano-level. Also, with IC boards and programmable gizmos like Arduinos and computers and whatnot, the circuit itself becomes a black box - we can use it without really knowing how exactly it works, only that it "does XYZ if you plug the green wire into the yellow socket". 

Over the summer, Emily, with all that sunshiney time on her hands, started to dabble in electronics and simple computer programming. (Someday I will write a post on our electronic toys [we love Makey-Makey and Little Bits!] and how we like them, and how to start your own electric/electronic stash for your kids to play with. But not today.) It was just toe-dipping, but she loved it, and while she was messing about in my tub of electric and electronic knick-knacks, we decided to make optic fiber lamps for her party. 

Lamps are electric circuits, but optic fiber lamps are more fun than regular light-bulb lamps, and we could pick colors and do light shows in the dark and all kinds of other cool things. 

Fancy on the outside but, at heart, a simple, basic electric circuit with a battery, wires and a thing that lights up. 

Some shopping had to be done first since, pack rat though I am, I don't usually keep enough stock at home for 16 optic fiber lamps. In summary, this is what we used for each lamp:

  • Power Source
  • Wires
  • Light device (we used LEDs)
  • Optic fiber bundle
  • Switch
  • Lamp shell (we used paper cups and cardboard)

Let's deconstruct each of those.

1 Power Source and Wires
First, we bought batteries. From Costco, which is Bulk Heaven. We needed a 3V (explanation later) power source, so we taped two batteries + to - as shown, with masking tape.

This is how to make a home-made battery pack. You'll need the taped batteries, a short, thick rubber band, two connecting wires and electrician's tape.

First, loop the end of one of the wires.

Lay it on one end of the battery pack, and tape it down with electrician's tape, stretching the tape to ensure a tight seal. Repeat with the other wire and the other end.

Loop the rubber band around the battery pack as shown. This compresses the batteries together and makes a tight connection.

Never, never connect the two free ends of the battery pack wires to EACH OTHER. This short circuits the batteries, which heat up and die. You can, however, now connect devices (we call them "loads" for the function they perform in a circuit) between the ends of those two wires, like this LED.

To prevent accidental touching during storage, we taped the ends with scotch tape until the party day. 

2 Light Device
You can use light bulbs like the kind found in traditional flashlights. We used LEDs because they were a lot brighter and also more colorful. I bought our LEDs from Radioshack, along with limiting resistors. 

Do not be frightened, people. It's quite layman. If you've worked with LEDs, you will have heard all the dire warnings to "always use a limiting resistor!!!!!" so as not to kill your sensitive LED. That is a good principle. Here's how LEDs work: they have something called a forward voltage. Different LEDs have different forward voltages. This means that if the potential difference (which is what a power source provides) is bigger than this forward voltage, the LED will turn on because a current flows through it. All you need is a combined battery voltage that is just a little bigger than the LED's forward voltage to work it.

The problem is that many LEDs have forward voltages that are either bigger than regular single 1.5 V Duracells but much smaller than 9V batteries. And there aren't any in-between battery values unless you are willing to buy battery holder packs or invest in lead-acid accumulators. And if you ignored the rules and put a huge 9V voltage across an LED with a forward voltage of, say, only 3.8V, you could fry the LED. I've done it - sometimes I don't save the packages my LEDs come in and I forget their forward voltage and I accidentally kill them when I next fiddle with them. So most people buy 9V batteries (because 1.5V batteries are too weak) and limiting resistors, which make the overall current smaller so it's still safe. See?

Or you could look for LEDs whose forward voltages are just about 3V, and use two 1.5V Duracells and be done with it.

Here's what I mean in pictures. Behold: the forward voltage on the packs - 3.0V. Most 1.5V batteries when brand new are about 1.6 V. Which means two batteries are 3.2V, which is more than the 3.0V forward voltage, which works. Hurrah!

This red one has a lower forward voltage (2.6V) , so I added a low-value resistor (that little brown peanut with stripes on it, taped to one of the legs of the LED) to it, to be safe. You can calculate resistor values on your own or you can google a resistor calculator like this and just plug the values in.

So, long story short: I wired up all the 16-different colored LEDs. Some required limiting resistors and some didn't. The LED leads (those pointy leg things) work perfectly left as is, but I needed to color-code them for easier connecting during the party, so I twisted their ends to connecting wires in blue and red, and taped them with electrician's tape. All will be made clear later.

3 Optic Fiber Bundle
The next stop was the optic fiber store. I've heard that you can, in a pinch, use fishing line, but it's not as good, and real optic fiber is not as expensive as you might think. I bought about 200 feet of .75 mm fiber for about $25, enough for about 20 lamps.

Then we made bundles of optic fibers - mine were about 7" long, and tied in bundles of about 20.

I used those infernal rainbow loom rubber bands that are littered all over our house - they are the perfect smallness for an optic fiber bundle. Also, I cut the end of the bundle (regular scissors work well) so they were flat.

And then I taped them to the top of an LED lens so they were in actual contact,

winding the tape all around to hold them together in place.

When you power it up, most of the light is transmitted to the tips of the fibers. Some light might "leak out" around the tape at the connection points, which is okay.

Here they all are, awaiting their transformation into lamps.

4 Switch
Switches are optional. But they are nice to have because they offer the option of turning the lamp off if you aren't using it. I've made a swing switch with a paperclip before, here, and today's touch-switch is just another variation. You'll need a strip of cardstock, a craft knife for making slits, and two brass paper fasteners.

Fold the strip into quarters, bent as shown, and insert the brass fasteners,

so that, when folded tight, you get a spring-loaded touch-switch. When you press the two halves together, the brass fastener heads will touch.

Open it out again and connect the ends of two free wires to each pair of fastener legs.

Like so, taped securely with electrician's tape.

We decorated our switches with washi tape, because white was boring.

Ta-da! Homemade switch.

Lots of home-made switches.

And finally, we have all the parts of a simple circuit - the switch, the battery pack and the optic fiber light. 

To make it easy to give instructions at the party, I color-coded the wires so that all I needed to say was, "Connect blue to blue, black-to-black and red-to-red", and with three twists, 

the entire circuit is connected, taking care of LED polarity (LEDs have a +/- direction, like batteries).

And this circuit lights the optic fibers when the switch is pressed closed. Easy! Even kindergarteners could do it.

However, this circuit does not make a lamp, and for that, we need a little cardboard help.

5 Lamp Body

First, we need a small paper cup with a radial-slit hole 

for the optic fiber bundle to poke through.

Next, we need a cardboard circle with a collar that is glued to its center.

The battery pack gets inserted into this, so it stands up.

Then we need a larger upside down paper cup, with a hole in its base for the other end of the battery pack, plus a slit for the wires to nest in. The cardboard circle with the collar is glued to the cup's opening - you can see the collar below the hole.

The battery pack is now slid into the top hole

and into the collared base (which is detached from the rim of the cup to show you the battery fitting into it). The battery pack is now held upright and in place by this collar and the top hole of the bigger paper cup.


To insulate the twisted-end connections and prevent them from accidentally touching each other (and shorting the circuit), we tape over them - either with electrician's tape or regular scotch tape.

Then we push the wires through that slit in the bigger paper cup, pop the smaller cup on top of the bigger, tape them together, and the lamp is finished.

Press the switch to turn it on, and release it to turn it off. 

This kind of switch turns the lamp on only as long as it is held closed. To leave the lamp on without holding the switch, either slide a rubber band around the paper cup, pressing the switch closed, or wedge the switch in the slit where the wires are nestled.

On the day itself, we provided stickers and markers for the kids to decorate their lamps after they'd made them.

Some shots of the instructional diagrams I drew to help explain the different steps of the circuit-assembly.

And with that, Emily's Science Party posts are finished! I'll update the main party post with links to the various individual activity posts. 

Next up is a return to drafting! See you soon!