Fun Tech Learning Resources

Those who know me know that I’m not the World’s Biggest Fan of formal education. Too much pounding square pegs into round holes and whatnot. So, I’m always looking out for interesting ways to teach without the rote learning and boredom. Here are a couple of resources that might be of interest.

Twine

Those of us born in the pre-cell-phone days will recall the Choose Your Own Adventure (a trademark of Bantam) books — AKA CYOA or Gamebooks or Branching Plot Novels. I’ll use CYOA because everyone does.

The neat thing about these books is that you get to choose a path. Reading and interaction. Don’t like the one path? Go back to the decision point and try another. An interesting way to teach consequences to actions without being pedantic.

There are a number of tools out there that allow you to create your own — for consumption in a web browser. The best mix of free-and-easy is Twine. (www.twinery.org) You get a GUI with boxes. Each box holds text. You add decision points/links which ties the story together. The focus is on creating content, not programming — but it does — surreptitiously — teach some programming.

It’s very easy to use — a parent and young child can get the hang of it pretty quickly. Once you’re done, the result is an HTML page that can be viewed on any browser. There are plenty of Twine How-Tos, so I won’t recreate that wheel, just do some Google searches.

Personally, I prefer their “older” desktop version (1.4.2) versus their re-worked Web-Only version (2.0.4). If you accidentally refresh on the Web version, or your browser refreshes (like Android browsers love to do) then you lose work. Desktop version just seems safer to me.

One thing I’ve been searching for is a way to get Twine into an Amazon Kindle. Twine produces Javascript-heavy HTML, which is fine for browsers, but won’t work in MOBI formats. Haven’t had any luck yet, though. (There are other CYOA tools out there that say they can convert to MOBI, but they charge you $10 per conversion.) I’m thinking of either writing a conversion program, or my own version of Twine that natively outputs to HTML or MOBI-friendly. We’ll see if I have the time.

Scratch

Scratch is a programming language which should probably be CS 101 in all schools. Colorful user interface. Lots of programming without writing code, etc. Good for all ages, really. Check it out here: https://scratch.mit.edu/

Scratch has evolved from a desktop based tool that interacts with a “Scratch Board” (for Input/Output) to a pure web-based environment. I regret the demise of the Scratch Board, as it allowed you to have physical pushbuttons and whatnot, but the web tool can run on any browser (and works great on Chromebooks), so there’s something to be said there.

Squishy Circuits

Looking for a playful way to learn about electronics? A good start is Squishy Circuits. You need a handful of inexpensive components and make the circuits out of a home-made clay-like substance. It’s perfectly safe (just flour, water, salt, etc) and really helps you to visualize what’s going on.

Read more about making your own conductive dough, view a teaching presentation, and more at Squishy Circuits.

Phone Phun

So, we moved into a new house in late December. We’re on a bit of a hill, which is nice. The downside is that the cell phone towers are on the other side of the hill. So, my Tracfone works fine on the deck, but not so well in the office, where I need it. I have a Nexus 4 on T-Mobile, and that works, but the last thing I need are more phone bills.

Some background: About two years ago I got sick of paying monthly cell phone bills. I hate the phone and really only use it for business. So, I need a phone, but use very few minutes. That’s why I went with pre-paid. For about $150 a year I get all the minutes I need. (And since I just talk on my phone, I didn’t need any data.)

The problem with pre-paid, of course, is the ever-changing numbers. I didn’t want to port my number to a provider, then cancel, and have to re-port, etc.

So, I ported my primary (and quite old) phone number to Google Voice. The nice thing about Voice is that you can then set up auto-forwarding to any number/phone you want. Even better, you can have it forward to multiple phones at the same time. This worked fine. Until the new house and the flaky cell service (which is funny, given it runs on the AT&T “we’re supposed to be everywhere” network).

For the past month I’ve been making do with having Google Voice ring both of my phones. I just picked up whichever one I thought would work better. Fine, but a little annoying.

So I looked into VOIP — with the key factor being cheap. I ran across OBI, which is a device you hook into your network. Then you plug a regular phone into it. So, $40 for the OBI 100 box and $12 for a cordless phone — a cheap test, since my T-Mobile bill for the Nexus is $50 a month.

The beauty of the OBI is that it has Google Voice integration built in. So, I plug the box in, do the setup, and tell Voice to forward calls to my cells and to my Chat account. (You don’t really use Chat, that’s just how it hooks in.)

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And, amazingly, it works! My incoming work calls ring the office “land line” phone and my cells. So, if I’m out-and-about, I pick up on the cell. In the office, I pick up the office phone.

Another nice thing is that the incoming and outgoing calls, when run through Google Voice, are free. So, now 99% of my calls run on VOIP for nothing.

And if my cable service / internet goes down? No problem. Voice will just route/ring to my cell.

I’ve been using it just a short time and have been very happy with the call quality. Much clearer than any cell networks. And, I’m looking forward to getting another old school MaBell phone for the office. It’s always nice to slam down the receiver after an annoying call!

Update: One other thing I should add. You can make OBI to OBI calls directly, too, through their network. No need for Google Voice. Or, instead of Google Voice, you can choose a VOIP provider for your network. But, considering the Voice calls are free in the US, that’s the cheaper bet.

The OBI to OBI is interesting because you could set up a device and phone at someones house (assuming they have broadband). Then they can make calls to you for nothing. (You just do **9 and the 9 digit OBI device number.) Great for avoiding land-line “long distance” / toll charges.

Add Four Cups of Chicken Broth

Ignore this post if you are a purist.

So many recipes call for Chicken or Beef broth. I’ve never had the energy (or the pocket-book) to make my own. I’ve tried it, but it just wasn’t worth it. Sorry.

For a long time, I bought Tetra packed broth. Good stuff, but expensive, and it was okay.

Until I discovered the time and cost saving method to broth: Better Than Bouillon.

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Get yourself a Chicken and a Beef jar. Once opened, store in the fridge. Gumbo calls for 4 cups of Chicken Broth? Add four cups of water (filtered is best, but no worries). Add 4 tsp of this magic mix, and there you go.

It lasts forever. It’s always on-hand. It’s cheaper and easier to keep. It allows you to COOK instead of running to the store.

Chicken Pot Pie, Soup, Beef Pot Pie, Beef Stew, broth for Stir Fries. Whatever. It works for all. And is great for the times when you Just Need To Cook. But don’t want it to suck.

Tin Can Chili

Want a bowl of chili, but don’t want to spend a lot of time? How about a vegan chili that tastes really good — like, you’ll never miss the meat?

I call it Tin Can Chili, because almost everything is a pantry item. It’s not award winning or hand crafted or simmered for a day. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. The only tricky part is blending part of the mixture — but that step is very important. It will turn what looks like just a big pot of beans into a chili.

You’ll need:

  • One onion, chopped fine. About a cup or two. Not picky.
  • 3 Tb chili powder.
  • 1 Tb minced canned Chipotle chili in adobe.
  • 2 tsp ground cumin.
  • 1 Tb minced garlic (optional). I keep pre-minced in the fridge.
  • 3 cans of Rotel (or similar — diced tomatoes & green chilies). Do not drain.
  • 1 large can (27 oz) of Red Kidney Beans, rinsed until water runs clear.
  • 1 large can (27 oz) of Black Beans, rinsed until water runs clear.
  • Pepper to taste.
  1. Heat about 1 Tb oil in Dutch oven or large (at least 3.5 Qt) pot, medium heat.
  2. When oil is hot, add onion and cook about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will soften slightly.
  3. Add chili powder, chipotle, cumin, and garlic (optional). Stir and let cook about 1 minute. You should smell the garlic and chili.
  4. Add Rotel (with juice) and beans. Stir and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Using a Pyrex measuring cup, put 2 cups of chili mixture in a blender. Blend until smooth, about 1 minute. (You can also do this with a 4 cup measure and an immersion blender, but be careful of splatters. The blender avoids this. I usually don’t use blenders, but they work best for this recipe.)
  7. Return blended mixture to pot and stir well. Taste for salt and pepper. You probably don’t need salt, as the Rotel and canned beans are already salted.
  8. Serve!

Topping ideas: cheddar cheese, toasted bread, tortilla chips, raw onion, etc. Whatever you like on your chili. It’s fantastic “plain”.

Chili, like many soups, stores well, so this is a good make-ahead meal. Though, if you have everything on hand, it only takes about 30 minutes or less (including cleanup).

Helpful Hints:

  • I’ve used genuine Rotel and cheaper imitations. The imitations work fine.
  • If you are cracking open a new can of Chipotle (find San Marcos brand in the “Mexican” section of your grocery), it’s super easy to store. Just put some dollops on a small sheet pan lined with waxed paper or parchment, freeze, and put frozen portions in a ziplock bag and keep in the freezer. I do this for Chipotle and Tomato Paste. You can always tell which is which by the smell (paste is sweet, chipotle smells smoky). Works great and saves time.
  • You can easily adjust the heat by adding more or less Chipotle. I usually end up using about 2 Tb.

Kayak Running Lights

With the Texas Summer in high gear, it’s been necessary for us to get out either really early or late in the day. While it’s still pretty darn hot, the evenings are nice because you can watch the sunset and the bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge.

The other night we found ourselves in complete darkness — without any running lights. While I wasn’t too worried about small boats — I did want the cruise boats to see us.

Having a bunch of LEDs on hand, and some PVC pipe — and not wanting to spend money of purchased lights — I came up with this:

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It’s made out of 1/2″ PVC pipe.  The uprights are thick-wall (high pressure) — so they don’t flex. The bottom gets screwed into a board (painted exterior white) using a cap. White LED at the top, red and green on the sides.

That little part you see sticking out (under the LEDs) is where the batteries and switch are located. I found that 3V Lithium batteries fit perfectly into 1/2″ thin-wall PVC (but not thick–you must use thin). I used some caps, screws, and a spring to make my own battery holder. The black thing on the other end is a rocker switch. Since most of the parts are just press-fit, removing the batteries is easy — just pull off the little pipe extension.

Normally you’d want the red and green up front, and the white at the back (so the length of the boat can be determined). But for Version One, I just kept it simple and all together. Better to have some light than none at all. My next version will probably have the tall white light assembly in the back, with a smaller setup up front. My key is to have to lights tall enough, since we run so low in the water.