Make: Paper Inventions – A fun how-to book for kids and their adults

 

 

 

Make: Paper Inventions

Kathy Ceceri

Maker Media, Inc. – paperback

Don’t just hand this book to your kids, say “Have fun,” and then go off to play with your computer. Get out the glue, scissors and paper and join in.

You might enjoy seeing what happens  when you (1) cut all the way around a Möbius strip or (2) fold a single strip of paper into a versatile and surprising trihexaflexagon, or (3) try your hand at quilling. That, the author writes, is “the art of creating 2-D and 3-D designs out of thin paper spirals and curls.”

Make: Paper Inventions opens with a nice, succinct overview of the history of paper and the fact that it was not made from the hard interior of trees until the mid-19th century. Before then, paper was made from many other materials, such as linen, cotton, the inside of certain tree barks, and the flattened stalks of papyrus plants.

The first project in the book is the messiest, and you may not want to use your favorite blender. But it will provide good teaching moments for kids (and their adults). The text and photographs show how to make new paper from several sheets of recycled copy paper. You will not want to run the homemade paper through your laser printer, but it can be used for art projects.

Kids can handle some of the paper projects in this book by themselves. However, the more complicated ones, such as building a large geodesic dome from newspaper pages, definitely will need adult guidance and encouragement. And certain materials may need to be ordered.

Meanwhile, the final chapters of this fine book offer projects that mostly involve folding pieces of paper. And they provide some focus on mathematics, such as how to fold paper in such a way that just one diagonal cut will result in a five-pointed star.

Make: Paper Inventions can help put more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) into the lives of your kids–and into your life, as well.

Si Dunn

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Will “Smart” Device Dependence Make You Increasingly Dumb?

I strolled into my favorite Austin Starbucks recently and noticed a startling sight. Every person standing in line or sitting at tables simultaneously had their head down as if in group prayer. All at the same moment were staring at their smartphones.

I pulled out my own phone, dramatically flipped it open, held it aloft, and waved it in silent protest. No one got the joke, because no one noticed.

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We’ve all seen people become panic-stricken and helpless when they realize they have lost or forgotten their “smart” device, or had it stolen. “Everything—my whole life—is on there!” one friend wailed recently. “All my pictures, my personal information, my contacts. And—oh, god–work emails! I don’t know what to do!” She kept frantically digging through her big purse, which also contained “everything,” including papers from work, so she could keep working at home after she got off work. When I called her phone from my phone, we found her “smart” phone buried deep beneath makeup containers and assorted other purse rubble.

Many people now use their smartphones for “everything,” from paying a restaurant check (after using the calculator function to split it and calculate the tip) to hailing an Uber ride and remotely controlling their home air conditioning. And, anytime a question is raised in a group, several people will circumvent natural debate or brainstorming by immediately going to Google and reading off some article titles and paragraphs.

Meanwhile, a few unrelated videos also will pop up and be shared:  Cat attacks python! Man sets shoes on fire by standing on hot coals! Ha-ha-ha!

The smartphone video distractions are only going to get worse. As AT&T’s CEO, Randall Stephenson recently told Fortune magazine: “…mobile video…is the real deal,” adding: “Half our mobile network traffic is video now, and it’s really growing fast.”

So, recent statutes banning talking or texting on a digital device while driving are now far behind the curve of progress. (“Sorry, officer, I was not breaking the law. I was watching Game of Thrones while paying no attention to the traffic and scenery around me.”)

Perhaps it is time to ask yourself two serious questions. Are you losing touch with the real world as you become increasingly distracted by your smartphone? And will your growing dependence on its “smart”-ness make you correspondingly “dumb” over time?

Si Dunn

Jump Start Node.js – A well-written guide for learning Node.js quickly – #programming #bookreview

 Jump Start Node.js
Don Nguyen
(SitePoint – paperback, Kindle)

Don Nguyen’s well-written Node.js book has been in print for a few months and is an excellent text for learning how to put Node.js to work in fast, scalable real-time web applications.

You should have some experience with JavaScript before tackling Node.js. But Nguyen says a “server-side engineer who uses another language such as PHP, Python, Ruby, Java, or .NET” can pick up enough JavaScript from his book to get a good feel for its syntax and idiosyncratic features.

What I like most about the book is how it  jumps right into developing a dynamic working Node.js application that you deploy to a production server. The project is a real-time stock market trading engine that streams live prices into a web browser. Along the way, you learn how to set up and use a NoSQL database (with MongoDB), you learn some functional programming techniques, and you work with Ajax, Express, Mocha, Socket.io, Backbone.js, Twitter Bootstrap, GitHub and Heroku.

The author covers a lot of ground, with clear code examples and good explanations, in just 154 pages. “The main goal of this book,” he notes, “is to transfer the skill set rather than the actual project into the real world. There is a narrow domain of ‘hard’ real-time applications such as a stock exchange where specialized software and hardware are required because microseconds count. However, there is a much larger number of ‘soft’ real-time applications such as Facebook, Twitter, and eBay where microseconds are of small consequence. This is Node.js’s speciality, and you’ll understand how to build these types of applications by the end of this book.”

Note: If you are a Windows user, you will have to install Cygwin before you can start using the Mocha testing framework on page 23. If you use Mac OS X, you will need to have the Xcode Command Line Tools installed. More information related to the book can be found at this SitePoint forum.

Si Dunn

Introducing Erlang – A gentle, effective guide to a challenging programming language – #bookreview

Introducing Erlang
Simon St. Laurent
(O’Reilly – paperback, Kindle)

Erlang has come a long way since it began its odd life in the 1980s as a programming language for telephone switching systems, specifically Swedish-made, Ericsson telephone switching systems.

Today, the language and its Open Telecom Platform libraries are gaining new converts among serious practitioners of functional programming. Many of them likewise are drawn to the built-in support for concurrency, distribution and fault tolerance.

“The broad shift from single computers to networked and distributed systems of multiprocessor-based computing gives the Erlang environment a tremendous advantage over practically every other environment out there,” author Simon St. Laurent contends. “More and more of the computing world is starting to face exactly the challenges that Erlang was built to address.” Yet, as he concedes in his preface, “Erlang has long been a mysterious dark corner of the programming universe, visited mostly by developers who need extreme reliability or scalability and people who want to stretch their brains.”

Brain-stretching indeed is one reason why Erlang has stayed in that dark corner for more than two decades.

The language’s learning curve, St. Laurent notes, “starts gently for a while, then it gets much steeper as you realize the discipline involved, and then goes nearly vertical for a little while as you try to figure out how that discipline affects getting work done—and then it’s suddenly calm and peaceful with a gentle grade for a long time as you reapply what you’ve learned in different contexts.”

In a world where everything seemingly must be done in a hurry, you won’t learn Erlang in a hurry. But the payoff for learning it can be rewarding. Erlang, it seems, now is on a roll and experiencing growing demand. The language has been showing up in many different places, from Facebook to CouchDB to the Costa Rican Institute of Technology, to name just a few. Numerous package managers, such as Debian, MacPorts, and Ubuntu, also include a version of Erlang in their default installation.

I run Windows machines, and getting Erlang onto them has proved pleasingly easy. Indeed, Windows users apparently have some of the easiest times getting started with Erlang. Just go to http://erlang.org/download.html and click on the correct link – 32-bit or 64-bit – for your PC.

The book’s code samples can be downloaded from a link provided in the book. And it’s easy to work with the Erlang shell, its command-line interface. The newest version now provides numbered lines.

But, if you’ve worked with other programming languages, Erlang’s syntax likely will seem awkward and strange for a while.

“Punctuation is different and capitalization matters,” the author emphasizes. “Periods even get used as conclusions rather than connectors!”

To display the current working directory in the shell, for instance, you type pwd(). And do not forget to include the period.

To move up a directory, you type cd(“..”). And do not forget to include both the quotation marks and the concluding period.

Indeed, almost everything you enter in Erlang seemingly must end with a period.

Also: “Forget classes, forget variables that change values—even forget the conventions of variable assignment,” the author cautions. “Instead, you’re going to have to think about pattern matching, message passing, and establishing pathways for data rather than telling it where to go.”

Introducing Erlang takes a slow and gentle but effective approach to learning this powerful and difficult language. Simon St. Laurent spends a lot of time trying to help readers “get comfortable in the sunny meadows at the bottom of the learning curve.” Still, his well-written book effectively and efficiently meets its stated goal of helping you “learn to write simple Erlang programs.” It likewise shows and explains how to get started working with the OTP, the Open Telecom Platform’s libraries.

The book and its numerous code examples offer a solid grounding in the basics that you can then use to “understand why Erlang makes it easier to build resilient programs that can scale up or down with ease.” And, if you decide to continue learning, Simon St. Laurent’s new book can make it easier for you to move on to the really brain-stretching, and shadowy, inner workings of Erlang.

Si Dunn

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot – #diy #bookreview

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot
Michael Margolis
(O’Reilly – paperback, Kindle)

Technology now makes it relatively easy to build simple robots that can be controlled remotely or can control themselves autonomously using built-in sensors and software.

This engaging how-to guide focuses on how to build and program a small robot that can roam around, sense its environment, and perform a variety of tasks, using either type of control.

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot is an excellent book for teachers, hobbyists and experimenters who like working with software and hardware. The book’s simple robot moves about on a chassis that has two-wheel or four-wheel drive. And its heart is an Arduino Uno or Arduino Leonardo microcontroller running programs (“sketches”) provided in the book and available at a link for download.

Some basic assembly is required, including gathering parts and circuit boards and doing some soldering and mechanical assembly, following the book’s instructions. The robot can be built on small platforms from DFRobot or platforms of your own creation. And devices can be added, including distance sensors, infrared reflectance sensors, and remote control receivers.

The book is “not an introduction to programming,” however. If you have no experience with programming or programming Arduino microcontrollers, the author recommends two books: Getting Started with Arduino, 2nd Edition, and Arduino Cookbook, 2nd Edition.

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot has 11 chapters and six appendices. The chapters are:

  1. Introduction to Robot Building
  2. Building the Electronics
  3. Building the Two-Wheeled Mobile Platform
  4. Building the Four-Wheeled Mobile Platform
  5. Tutorial: Getting Started with Arduino
  6. Testing the Robot’s Basic Functions
  7. Controlling Speed and Direction
  8. Tutorial: Introduction to Sensors
  9. Modifying the Robot to React to Edges and Lines
  10. Autonomous Movement
  11. Remote Control

The appendices are:

  • Appendix A: Enhancing Your Robot
  • Appendix B: Using Other Hardware with Your Robot
  • Appendix C: Debugging Your Robot
  • Appendix D: Power Sources
  • Appendix E: Programming Constructs
  • Appendix F: Arduino Pin and Timer Usage

Whether you love serious experimentation and invention or just tinkering for fun and mental challenge, Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot opens up many possibilities for individual, family, and classroom activities and learning.

Si Dunn

Make: Volume 32 – Zany and practical projects and articles for DIY builders – #bookreview

Make: Volume 32
(O’Reilly, paperback)

Make: is a science, technology, and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects magazine published quarterly in paperback book format. Volume 32 not only has intriguing articles about private rocketeers, flying motorcycles, and human-size replicas of videogame costumes and weapons. It also has about two dozen “complete plans” for a wide array of useful and zany projects.

One of the projects in Volume 32 is “The Awesome Button,” a big red desktop button that you can hit when you can’t think of a synonym for the totally overused word “awesome” while you’re composing email or a letter or a manuscript. The project uses a $16 Teensy USB Development Board made by PJRC, plus some downloaded code. When your fist hammers down on the big red button, the board generates random synonyms for “awesome” and sends them to your computer so you can quickly accept or reject them in your document.

Another project is a catapult launcher that will send a tiny balsa wood glider zooming 150 feet into the air. Beats the heck out of a rubber band looped around a Popsicle stick.

And another DIY article focuses on the joys of salvaging perfectly good electronic and mechanical parts from discarded laser printers, so you can use the parts in other projects.

Make: Volume 33 is due to appear in January. In the meantime, Volume 32 is full of fun reading and intriguing projects, such as how to transform data files into synthesized music.

Si Dunn

Practical Computer Vision with SimpleCV – ‘Seeing’ with Python – #programming #bookreview

Practical Computer Vision with SimpleCV
Kurt Demaagd, Anthony Oliver, Nathan Oostendorp, and Katherine Scott
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

SimpleCV, or Simple Computer Vision, is “an easy-to-use Python framework that bundles together open source computer vision libraries and algorithms for solving problems,” according to the authors of this useful and informative how-to book.

The subtitle is “Making Computers See in Python,” and the codes examples require Python 2.7.

Why learn computer vision? “As cameras are becoming standard PC hardware and a required feature of mobile devices, computer vision is moving from a niche tool to an increasingly common tool for a diverse range of applications,” the authors note.

Indeed, cameras and computer vision now are being used in everything from facial recognition systems and video games to automobile safety, industrial automation, medicine, planetary exploration, and even agriculture.

“The SimpleCV framework has compiled installers for Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu Linux, but it can be used on any system on which Python and OpenCV can be built,” the authors state.

Practical Computer Vision with SimpleCV shows how to use the framework and simple application examples to get started toward building your own computer vision applications. The 240-page book has 10 chapters:

  • Introduction
  • Getting to Know the SimpleCV Framework
  • Image Sources
  • Pixels and Images
  • The Impact of Light
  • Image Arithmetic
  • Drawing on Images
  • Basic Feature Detection
  • FeatureSet Manipulation
  • Advanced Features (focuses on optical flow)

The book also has three appendices: Advanced Shell Tips, Cameras and Lenses; and Advanced Features (deals with advanced segmentation and feature extraction tools).

Practical Computer Vision with SimpleCV provides a good overview of computer vision basics and shows, using simple but effective examples, how you can put them to work.

Si Dunn