Monthly Archives: December 2016

Further discussion of the 2016 apparent plethora of celebrity death

A few days ago I posted this item asking if it was really true that more celebrities have died this year than usual. That post went viral, so of course, the famous Doug McIntyre (who is, by the way, originally from Minnetonka, Minnesota) asked me to join him on KABC, McIntyre in the Morning, an LA based drive time radio show, 790 on your dial.

We had an interesting conversation, along with Randy Wang, and here it is:

Makeblock mBot Add-on Pack-Six-legged Robot

The Makeblock mBot Add-on Pack-Six-legged Robot V1.1 is an add on for the Makeblock DIY mBot 1.1 Kit (Bluetooth Version) – STEM Education – Arduino – Scratch 2.0 – Programmable Robot Kit for Kids to Learn Coding & Robotics – Pink or any of its variants.

The makeblock robot is an arduino technology robot. It can be controlled with a supplied controller, or operated from any of several different kinds of computing devices (such as your cell phone) using an app. It can be programmed using the Arduino interface (from a Mac, Windows or Linux computer), but the robot comes with built in capabilities so you won’t need to do that to operate it. Note that the app-based controls provide more functionality than the hand held IR control.

But here we are talking about making that robot into a six legged insect with an add on package.

The add on package consists of the leggy parts of the photograph above. With this add on installed, the robot walks instead of rolls on wheels.

I love the Makeblock Robot and this is a great add on, but before you start investing in this system you need to know a couple of things.

Makeblock itself makes well designed and interesting robots and add ons, but they also produce several slightly different versions of everything they do. They all seem to work fine but there are many differences you will want to track. For instance, when buying a robot make sure you get one with bluetooth, because you will enjoy controlling the robot with your phone, where you will have more options than with the supplied IR controller. When choosing a leg upgrade, there are several options, though I think they all have the same basic parts. Each expansion pack allows you to make a six legged robot (the beetle robot) or a mantis robot, or a crazy frog robot. The kits I know of are:

  • Makeblock mBot Add-on Pack-Six-legged Robotby Makeblock
  • Makeblock Add-on Pack: Six-legged Robot Designed for mBot
  • Makeblock mBot STEM Six-Legged Robot Add-On Pack
  • Makeblock mBot Add-on Pack-Six-legged Robot Enjoyable Funny Tool Kids Adults Xmas Gift for Learning Programming Promote Creativity
  • Makeblock Flagship Store – Makeblock mBot Add-on Pack-Six-legged Robot by Makeblock
  • Makeblock mBot Add-on Pack-Six-legged Robot V1.1
  • I would go for the cheapest one, which at the moment, is this one. Whatever you do, don’t spend more than about 30 bucks.

    The basic idea is this: The main back wheels of the mBot robot serve as cams for a set of levers. To get a six legged robot, the first lever is attached off center to the wheel, and thus acts like a piston as the wheel rotates. This then drives all the other levers in a series of crude step like movements. The other variants use a similar principle.

    Tips and hints for building the mBot legged robot extensions:

    This is a DIY kit. Therefore, the manufacturers have less than the usual interest in keeping their product exactly the same for every iteration. This probably contributes to the plethora of seemingly similar but maybe slightly different versions. So, the first hint is to look at the pictures and descriptions closely to see if you can figure out exactly what you are getting, and then, don’t expect the instructions to necessarily exactly match the product. They usually do, but beware.

    If something doesn’t seem quite right, check the instructions to see if you screwed up. Whether or not you screwed up, remember: DIY project. Fish some additional bits out of your box of extra parts, figure it out.

    The biggest limitation of the robots, especially the six-legged version, is the surface on which they are walking. I have two suggestions that may allow them to be able to turn on a carpet and to keep traction on slipper tile. First, maybe add length to the legs so the thing rides up higher. Second, add feet. Feet that provided a bit more traction would help on tile. Perhaps a simple wrap of electric tape will do this. Feet that are flat attached to the bottom of the legs, like little snow shoes, should both increase traction and allow better turning on shag carpets. If you are going to have this robot chase around your cat, you are going to have to handle a variety of surfaces. We are playing around with some of these ideas.

    The kit comes with what are called “lock nuts.” But really, they are “hard to screw on nuts.” They are designed to not unwind themselves to fall off this highly energetic device. Two hints will make their use more effective.

    <li>use a socket from a socket wrench kit to hold the nuts when you are screwing in the bolt.  This will work better then the little wrench the kit supplies, or your fingers.</li>
    <li>there may be some places where the instructions don't tell you to use a lock nut, but you will want to anyway.  You will discover these when the nuts start falling off as you use the robot.</li>
    In the six legged build, shown at the top of the post, notice that the wheels do not have their tires.  Take the tires off. In our kit, the instructions did not say to do that. 

    Instructions for making the Mantis, and Crazy Frog configurations

    The six legged adapter kit allows you to make three configurations. The most complex one is the Beetle, which uses six legs. The other two, Crazy Frog and Mantis, are much simpler.

    Instructions are provided to make the Beetle. To make the other two, look at the back of the box and, well, DIY!

    If the pictures on the back of the box are not clear, the following images may help:

    Mantis configuration
    Mantis configuration

    Crazy frog configuration
    Crazy frog configuration

    Notice that with the Mantis, I think you keep the tires on the back wheels. With the crazy frog, you take the tire off.

    Have fun!

    Is 2016 really killing more celebrities than other years did?

    Before we address this question, let us recognize that years do not really kill people. That’s just a poetic way of putting it, in common use.

    I believe that every year starting around September or October, there is a random spate (spats are generally random, as are small droughts) of celebrity deaths, which lead to conjecture that more celebs are dying off than usual. This idea is then reinforced every time yet another celebrity dies for the remainder of the year, until we finally get to late December, and then everyone is trying to have that year arrested for mass murder. Strangely, people forget that this happened the year before.

    And, of course, it is happening again now.

    I briefly looked at the list of dead celebrities in Wikipedia for this year and last year, and found out two things: 1) About 300 celebrities die each year and b) the vast majority of “celebrities” listed in these Wikipedia entries are people I’ve never personally heard of, so it is unlikely that they are all really celebrities. I assume this is just another case of Wikipedia, which does an amazing and wonderful job at many things, running into something where there is a matter of definition. Such are things that Wikipedia generally handles poorly.

    UPDATE: Yes, it is true, that the mother of Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, has also died.

    See this homage to Carrie Fisher.

    As for Wikipedia, I think they simply list the individuals who has Wikipedia pages who died that year. That is probably not very meaningful in the context of the current conversation.

    So, I went back to Google and searched around for Celebrity Death Lists. I found one list of people who were expected to die in the upcoming year. That is a whole ‘nuther story. Eventually, I discovered the TV Guide list of dead stars. That, I figure, has got to be a useful source for this. If anybody knows who the stars are, it’s TV Guide. The list is published every year. Here is what TV guide says for the last few years:

    According to TV Guide, 2016 is not a very big year for celebrity deaths at all. 2013 was remarkably more deathy, and 2015, last year, was on the high end of average. If this is true, I wonder how much the extra deathosity in 2015 is spilling over onto 2016. There were a lot of deaths in December, 2015, so maybe that matters. Remember that last year included Leonard Nimoy, Maureen O’Hara, Oliver Sachs, and others whose names may have lingered in our minds to add to the perception of 2016 as a killer year.

    I checked some other sources to see if the TV Guide pattern held.


    Look first at the CNN data. I assume that the very low number for 2012, and the lack of a clear page on this topic in 2010, indicates that we should ignore those years and only look at 2012 onward. If we do that, it is confirmed that 2016 is nothing special, relatively low, or maybe average.

    I also looked at MSN’s pages, and there the numbers are reversed. 2016 is very high, and much higher than the earlier years.

    Excepting CNN in 2011, the CNN and TV Guide years seem to be of a believable (using my gut instincts only) range of variation, and as a matter of fact, the difference between the two data sets is believable, if we simply assume that CNN includes more people than TV guide because they are an international news agency with a broader focus. In this context, MSN makes no sense and I would argue that it should be ignored.

    Or, perhaps, MSN is the truth and everything else is a lie.

    Personally, I think there is something else going on. I think 2016 was not an exceptional year for celebrity deaths, in terms of numbers. The same number as usual died, this was not a record year.

    But, the particular celebrities that did die included a disproportionate number of people that those who inhabit Facebook and Twitter, or perhaps, who simply exist in the modern Western world, were attached to. (See the graphic I made for the top of the post for a sampling of iconic individuals who died in 2016.)

    I can think of ways to test that idea, but they all involve data collection, calibration, analysis, etc. at a masters level. I’ll leave it to a communications or marketing graduate student, or an anthropologist, to work that out!

    In homage to Carrie Fisher: Read a book

    You have already heard the sad news that Carrie Fisher had died, at a young age, after suffering one or more heart attacks.

    To honor her, you are probably going to go watch some old Star Wars movies. But I have a different suggestion. The woman was a prolific and accomplished author (and more) and there is a good chance that she’s written at least one book you’ve not read, if not several.

    That’s what I’m going to do. I’ll make a list of her books, pick one, and read it. But, since I’m a blogger, I figure, why not let you benefit from my efforts and see the list? If I’ve left anything off or made any sort of error, let me know in the comments.

    I’ve added commentary form the jacket/publisher/wherever to help identify the book.

    The Princess Diarist

    The Princess Diarist is Carrie Fisher’s intimate, hilarious and revealing recollection of what happened behind the scenes on one of the most famous film sets of all time, the first Star Wars movie. Named a PEOPLE Magazine Best Book of Fall 2016.

    Wishful Drinking

    Finally, after four hit novels, Carrie Fisher comes clean (well, sort of ) with the crazy truth that is her life in her first-ever memoir.

    In Wishful Drinking, adapted from her one-woman stage show, Fisher reveals what it was really like to grow up a product of “Hollywood in-breeding,” come of age on the set of a little movie called Star Wars, and become a cultural icon and bestselling action figure at the age of nineteen.

    Intimate, hilarious, and sobering, Wishful Drinking is Fisher, looking at her life as she best remembers it (what do you expect after electroshock therapy?). It’s an incredible tale: the child of Hollywood royalty…


    This memoir from the bestselling author of Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking gives you an intimate, gossip-filled look at what it’s like to be the daughter of Hollywood royalty.

    Told with the same intimate style, brutal honesty, and uproarious wisdom that locked Wishful Drinking on the New York Times bestseller list for months, Shockaholic is the juicy account of Carrie Fisher’s life. Covering a broad range of topics—from never-before-heard tales of Hollywood gossip to outrageous moments of celebrity desperation; from alcoholism to illegal drug use; from the familial relationships of Hollywood royalty to scandalous run-ins with noteworthy politicians; from shock therapy to talk therapy—Carrie Fisher gives an intimate portrait of herself, and she’s one of the most indelible and powerful forces in culture at large today. Just as she has said of playing Princess Leia…

    Postcards from the Edge

    This bestselling Hollywood novel by the witty author of Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic that was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

    When we first meet the extraordinary young actress Suzanne Vale, she’s feeling like “something on the bottom of someone’s shoe, and not even someone interesting.” Suzanne is in the harrowing and hilarious throes of drug rehabilitation, trying to understand what happened to her life and how she managed to land in a “drug hospital.”

    Just as Fisher’s first film role—the precocious teenager in Shampoo—echoed her own Beverly Hills …

    The Best Awful: A Novel

    This sequel to the bestselling Postcards from the Edge contains Carrie’s Fisher’s trademark intelligence and wit that brought Postcards to the Hollywood movie screen.

    When we left Suzanne Vale at the end of Carrie Fisher’s bestselling Postcards from the Edge, she had survived drug abuse, rehab, and Hollywood celebrity. The Best Awful takes Suzanne back to the edge with a new set of troubles—not the least of which is that her studio executive husband turned out to be gay and has left her for a man.

    Lonely for a man herself, Suzanne decides that her medication is cramping her style, and she goes …

    Delusions Of Grandma

    Pregnant screenwriter Cora has taken to writing lengthy letters to her unborn child, and it’s small wonder why.

    For that age-old script family values is looking like it needs a complete rewrite.

    Surrender the Pink

    The author of Postcards from the Edge turns to the subject of modern romance in this hilarious saga of one woman’s sexual awakening. 2 cassettes.

    California’s Amazing Geology

    California’s Amazing Geology by Don Prothero is an amazing book about — wait for it — California’s geology!

    California is one of the most geologically interesting and complex geopolitical units in the world. But so is Minnesota, and Minnesota is boring, geologically, for most people. Why? Because Minnesota is all eroded down and flattened out and covered with glacial till, so most of the interesting geology is buried, while California is actively engaged in its own geology in a spectacular and visually appealing way!

    Lots of places have volcanoes. California has volcanoes that blow up, or that have erupted recently enough (geologically speaking) that you can still see the stuff laying all over the place they spewed out. Lots of places have rifting. Hell, one of the most interesting and important rifts in global geological history is right here in Minnesota. But, do people go to Duluth to see that rift, or to see Bob Dylan’s house? The latter, I think. In Califonria, there are three or four different kinds of major tectonic activity, including lots of plate tectonic movement, some spreading, and a big chunk of the amazing Basin and Range extension phenomenon. (That was where what is roughly Nevada and big sections of Utah and California stretched out to several times its original size. In the old days, Reno and Salt Lake Cities wold have been in the same Congressional District!)

    California doesn’t’ just have mountains. It has several different kinds of mountains, most of which are currently actively forming right before our very eyes, or so recently formed they still have the tags hanging off them.

    California’s Amazing Geology begins with several chapters on basic geology. If you know basic geology you can skip quickly through this and refer back later when you forget something. Then there are several sections each dealing with a different geological region. Then, there is a chapter that literally puts it all together (“Assembling California”). Following this is a compendium of information on California’s main geological resources (gold, oil, water, etc., including fossils!)

    There are three things you need to know about this book. First, it covers everything pretty completely, considering the vastness of California and the fact that the book is 480 pages long. Second, it is very up to date. There aren’t any up to date books about California Geology. Third, it is written by Don Prothero, which means that complicated and nuanced scientific topics are explained in a way that a reasonably educated non expert can totally understand. Books like this all too commonly fall into jargonistic language either because the author has no clue it is happening, or because they are written for a highly specialized audience (and maybe the author is even a bit insecure). Don Prothero does not do that. He simply gives you the information in a respectfully, clear, understandable, but not watered down manner. A lot of people will tell you that is not possible. They are wrong, and Prothero does it all the time.

    The illustrations, many by Don’s son, are excellent and numerous.

    By the way, if you want to know more about how one goes about writing books like this, and how Don’s approach works, check out this interview with the man himself.

    This is a bit of a specialized book unless you frequently visit or live in California. It is suitable as a textbook in college, but also, in just the right California science elective class. If you you are a modern student of natural history and California is in your catchment, this is a must-have book.

    I am a little confused about its availability. The publication date is 2017, I got a pre-publication review copy, but it looks like you can actually buy it on Amazon now. But, I’m not sure what happens if you click through, maybe they tell you it will be delivered in January.

    Here is the TOC:


    The Golden State

    Building Blocks: Minerals and Rocks

    Dating California: Stratigraphy and Geochronology

    The Big Picture: Tectonics and Structural Geology

    Earthquakes and Seismology


    Young Volcanoes: The Cascades and Modoc Plateau

    The Broken Land: The Basin and Range Province

    Gold, Glaciers, and Granitics: The Sierra Nevada Mountains

    Mantle Rocks and Exotic Terranes: The Klamath Mountains

    Oil and Agriculture: The Great Valley

    The San Andreas Fault Zone

    Melanges, Granitics, and Ophiolites: The Coast Ranges

    Compression, Rotation, Uplift: The Transverse Ranges and Adjacent Basins

    Granitics, Gems, and Geothermal Springs: The Peninsular Ranges and Salton Trough

    Assembling California: A Four-Dimensional Jigsaw Puzzle


    California Gold

    California Oil

    California Water

    California’s Coasts

    California’s Fossil Resources

    How do you get a sex chromosome? A little bird told me this…

    What is sex?

    Musings at 10,000 Birds:

    This is a simple question with a complicated answer. Part of the answer is this: The biological identity of an individual that guides its choice of mate. So, in a simple version of the world of a bird, there are two sexes, male and female, and males chose females and females chose males as mates.

    Assume for a moment that there is choice, and that the choice is based on a discernible feature. So, for example, males and females prefer to mate with a member of the opposite sex who has a blue and white pattern on its breast. So far so good, and so far simple. A bluer blue together with a whiter white on a female or male will be extra attractive to the member of the opposite sex.

    But what if there emerged a genetically novel version of the males who lacked the white, but would only mate with females that lacked the blue. And, the obverse occurred as well. Suddenly you would have multiple sexes, beyond the usual two. There would be two kinds of males and two kinds of females.

    Let’s ask the question again, what is sex? In a world in which the final adult outcome with respect to sex can be highly variable, one might look more deeply to find a simple binary observation to tell you if an individual is a male or a female. At the deepest level are presumably some genes, or maybe one gene, that matters, but there may be other equally important things that are not directly genetic as well. For example, in rats (as in “lab rat”) if the mother of a nominally (genetically) male offspring does not repeatedly lick the anogenital region of the pup, the usual cascade of hormones and hormone induced changes, involving androgens, will not occur in that individual and the final outcome will not be a rat that will mount and mate with a female.

    Somewhere in between the gene and the anogenetical licking (or gender policing or incubation temperature or whatever else matters) is the sex chromosome. A sex chromosome may be a section of DNA (as a chromosome is) …. Read the rest here

    The End Of America The Free, America The Brave

    Putin probably owns Trump. In the past, Trump has spent enough high profile time traveling in and out of Russia, that any smart intelligence agency would have long ago gotten the goods on such a sloppy self absorbed person. Assume there are movies. Young girls. Whatever. Putin probably owns Trump. The ex KGB officer probably owns a lot of people, a lot of foreign rich or influential individuals. That’s how these things work.

    Trump is a man that relies on the image of great personal wealth. But, if he has great personal wealth it is a mere couple of billion or so. Alternatively, he may have mostly debt and a few hundred million handy. Nobody knows, and he’s not releasing that information. The point is, he views himself as righteously rich, but he may not be as rich as he considered his right. There are a lot of hungry people in this world, and he is not one of them. But he probably thinks he is.

    Putin is the richest person on the planet now or ever. He beats second place Bill Gates by several billion. Putin has gotten this rich by exploiting his position as the permanent leader of Russia (despite a democracy there).

    Did I mention that Putin probably owns Trump?

    Trump is going to separate his business interests from his activities as president using the following procedure:

    1) Put the offspring in charge of the business.

    2) Place the offspring in the room at all important presidential meetings.

    3) Claim that he is keeping his business holdings and his job as president separate.

    Did I mention that Putin probably owns Trump? And that Trump wants to garner great wealth?

    Dots, connect thyselves:

    Trump is driven to become more wealthy than he is. This is his personality, and it may even be financially necessary for him. Putin has owned Trump for a long time. One question we have now is this: How long ago did Putin approach Trump with the idea that, with Russian help, Trump could become president, piles of money could flow into the Trump coffers, and all Trump had to do is to allow Putin carry out certain geopolitical acts that, after all, might even be good for business?

    Do American intelligence agencies have a record of Trump-Putin communication, direct or indirect, over a long period of time? Have they been talking? For how long? About what?

    It would make sense to Trump to help Putin carry out one of Russia’s greatest long term goals, a goal held since the 17th century, assuming Trump comes out of the deal rich, not in debt. Russia has always had a landlocked problem. Sure, Russia has vast coastal regions but they are mostly in the Arctic or nearly so. Russia has always lusted for a route to the Indian Ocean, a route to the Mediterranean, and a better route to the Atlantic. And, breadbaskets and buffer zones and mining resources and all of that. What has kept Russia from doing this?

    Well, initially, not much, and that is why the Soviet Union was so big. But the expansion of the Soviet Union was hampered by the Americans who, for example, carried out a proxy war with the USSR in Afghanistan. NATO has kept Russia from re-expanding its direct influence across Europe. Various coalitions have kept Russia from invading West Asian territories such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The United States is a, if not the, prime mover behind all of that.

    And where I say “is” I think we will soon be saying “was.” Why?

    Did I mention that Putin probably owns Trump?

    With Trump in Putin’s pocket, Russia will take territory in the Middle East and Europe. Russia and the United States together, under Putin and Trump, will try to destabilize the sleeping dragon, China. We may be looking at new places to have proxy wars, but the proxy wars will not be between the US and Russia. They will be between Russia and NATO or others, with the US interfering on Russia’s behalf, maybe pulling out of Nato, and maybe even joining Russian troops in places like the Middle East or Africa. Perhaps they will be between the US as a Russian proxy and China in Africa where China has been exerting influence for a long time now, or Russia and various European forces in West Asia, or between Russia and some combination of powerful South Asian countries in Afghanistan.

    (Note to Trump: Do pull out of Afghanistan as soon as possible so Vlad can get in there. Thanks.)

    In January the United States is going to be taken over by a coalition of two oligarchs: Putin and Trump (but Putin probably owns Trump).

    So, that’s the America the Free part gone. What about the America the Brave part?

    Starting in a few days, we will be led by a coalition of cowards and morons. They are known collectively as the Republicans.

    The Republican Party has spent the last few decades training itself to be the most ignorant group of know nothings that ever held power anywhere, beyond the level that could be parodied by the most extreme Monty Python script.

    The American GOP will be the ironic hobgoblin of the Russian Patriarch, after decades of consolidating power as the “national security” party. The Party of Reagan will be the Party of Putin. We are already seeing Putin love among Republicans in polls. Republicans like Putin more than they like members of the Democratic Party.

    This will be achieved mainly because the core of that party consists of angry anti-intellectual anti-liberal anti-environment hippie punchers, and as long as hippies are being punched, and gays bashed, and people of color intimidated through regular state sponsored or allowed executions, they’re fine with this.

    America the Brave is now America the Spiteful Idiot.

    Monday, the Electors meet. Is it possible that every single one of the Trump Republican Electors is a blind Trump supporter? No. Many electors were actually elevated to that position earlier in the process, and were supporters of other Republican candidates. It it the case that every single Republican is a Putin Pushing no know-nothing? No, not all of them. Just a large majority of them. Among the Electors there must be some who are not. There must be some Republicans among the electors who understand that Russia is a nice country and all, and that we love the Russian people and all, but that the Putin government is not our friend.

    Today, Friday, the Obama administration will do what it should have done months ago, but elected not to for what seemed like good reasons at the time. The President will, essentially, give that CIA briefing that some people got on Friday, to the rest of the country, about Putin’s involvement in the US election.

    There will be people who become outraged, a lot of them. Some of them may be influential Republicans. A friend of mine pointed out the ideal scenario: One or more members of the presumed Trump cadre of Cabinet appointees walks off the job, forsakes the Trump administration, in outrage. Imagine Marine General James Mattis publicly noting that he has sworn an oath to protect the United States from all enemies domestic and foreign. Indeed, General Mattis has to do this. He is known to be a very smart guy, one of the more intellectual generals. At the same time, he is known to be fiercely patriotic. He must have figured this out by now. He must have figured out by now that he will be dumping his career of patriotic service to America right into the crapper if he serves in the Trump administration. I assume that he initially figured he should be in there doing what needs to be done with competence. But hopefully he will now, and maybe others proposed for the cabinet as well, realize that this day, this weekend, is the only opportunity to ask the electors to not vote for Trump, to do anything but vote for Trump, in order to stop a Russian takeover of the United States.

    Only about 10% of the electors have to do this.

    If Trump is not elected, and if the highly unlikely event of the electors simply electing Clinton does not happen, then the US House has a shot at deciding who will be President of the United States. They must choose among the top vote getting three names that the Electors consider. Thusly, the Electors can hand the US house a list of three people, including Clinton, Trump, and one other person, probably a Republicans, for them to chose among.

    If that third name is a reasonable individual (for a Republican) or, at least, an established Republican, then perhaps the House will have the bravery, and the love of freedom, to chose that person as the next president.

    Half this country is ready to go to the mat to keep Trump, and thus the Russians and who knows who or what else, in power. The other half of this country is willing to go to the mat to stop Trump from doing all that he has promised to do for months. The third half seems to have no interest in any of this. No matter what happens, there is going to be a fight.

    People in the middle and on the left are brave, and ready to take on whatever happens. People on the Right are Putin loving Russia-symps who just want to punch some hippies and piss in the lake. And now, we get to find out which of those themes best represents our country. Now, this weekend, Monday.

    Holy crap America, what have you done?

    Why Get A Pi? (Raspberry Pi)

    There is really no better time to get a Raspberry Pi. The new Raspberry Pi 3 has features that make it much more useful and fun, including more speed, built in bluetooth, and built in wifi.

    The Raspberry Pi is a small computer that, out of the box, lacks storage drive or device, a monitor, a screen, or a mouse, but is otherwise a fully functional computer that can run a normal operating system. It costs very little, so if you happen to have a TV or monitor that can use a component or HDMI hookup, a keyboard, a mouse, and an appropriate microSD card, then you have a computer for $39.99. If, on the other hand, you need to buy those parts and the cables and such, then you have a $200 computer (or more) that isn’t very fast but is still cool. Chances are, though, that you have at least some of these parts laying around.

    I’ll make some suggestions below as to how to set yourself up (including the option of buying a kit) but first let me say a little more about why you might want to do this.

    Why Pi reason one: A kid

    Maybe you have a kid in the house who is old enough to start to play around with a computer, but not old enough to not gob all over it, drop it, or mistake it for a bath toy. With a Raspberry Pi, you are not taking a big risk. First, it is cheap and easily replaced, compared to, say, a laptop. Second, if it does end up in the bath, it is probably easier to dry out than a notebook or desktop computer.

    When Huxley was about five, I set him up with a Raspberry Pi hooked to an old TV we had laying around. I bought a new keyboard and mouse for it, and that keyboard and mouse has done a lot of good work since. He learned the basics of turning a computer on, turning a computer off, using the mouse, running some basic apps (like Tux Paint), etc.

    Over the next year he continued to use the Pi but also graduated to a laptop his grandfather had laying around. It was a Windows laptop, so I wiped it and installed Linux. Huxley is now able to install software using the command line, and he is about as good at word processing as any average person. He’s pretty good with graphics software as well. At school, he’s been learning a watered down version of the iMac, he can use Windows, and he knows more about the Android and iOS operating systems than most. He turned 7 last week. I owe much of his rapid development to the Raspberry Pi. Also, to Linux; If Linux is one of your first operating systems, you will understand more quickly the things you need to know to make computers bend to your will.

    Why Pi reason two: impress your friends

    So, here’s the scenario. A bunch of your friends get together now and then at a particular coffee shop, or the cafeteria, or perhaps your family gathers at the cabin, or at a favorite vacation spot. Pretty soon everyone pulls out a device. Most have phones, but here and there a laptop being used by someone who needs to get some real work done.

    Well, you need to get some real work done too, so you pull out a box of Altoids, plug it into the nearest TV, sign in via your iPad and, using the iPad’s virtual keyboard, get to work.

    A Raspberry Pi can be cobbled together with a number of different bits and pieces, including some interesting options for the computer’s case, to make what is essentially a laptop or a funky desktop. It can work as a “headless” server, so you use a different device to access it.

    My most elaborate setup involved a super fast USB stick to run the operating system. The microSD is the usual boot device, but I hacked it to hand the boot process over to the faster USB stick and run the computer from there. An HDMI output ran to a small TV. The Pi was hooked directly into the internet via a LAN cord (there is a plug on the Pi). A powered USB hub allowed multiple additional possibilities. A bluetooth dongle gave the device that capability, and allowed use of a mouse and keyboard. Oh, and I overclocked it. That was a Raspberry Pi 2.

    The Pi 3 comes with built in wireless and bluetooth, and is faster and thus not so much in need of overclocking.

    Why Pi reasons three through infinity: Projects

    The Raspberry Pi is, as noted, a basic computer, but it has a number of pins that give the hardware access to outside thingies. These GPIO pins let you hook sensors or actuators directly to the Pi, so you can build things with a brain. In addition, there is the usual serial (USB) interface.

    There are two commonly used machines on which a very large number of Do It Yourself (DIY) projects have been based. A home media center. A garage door opener. A weather station. A personal web server. A remote control camera for security or to watch birds or game. A system for turning on and off all your things, including lights. A customized alarm clock. A bitcoin server. Any one of a number of different robots.

    One device is the Arduino Uno R3 Microcontroller, or a related card, the other is the Raspberry Pi. If you look around you will find dozens of other circuit boards that do these things, but none of them have the huge support network, gazillion lines of pre-written code, and myriad bits of hardware designed to be added on to make things happen.

    The Arduino controller is, frankly, the better choice of machine for many uses. If you need a smartish machine to do one thing, and only one thing, and that thing isn’t too complicated, a Raspberry Pi is probably overkill and might have some downsides. A controller might even be better designed as hardware goes, as it is real time. Say you are building a model airplane and you want a smart device inside it controlling the various things that make it fly. You will be sending signals via radio to the plane. A controller can be set to cycle rapidly through the communications module to see if there are any instructions coming in, then to various sensor or actuator circuits to acquire information or to set the actuators to do things (change speed, etc.). You can be confident in advance that the controller will focus on nothing other than these jobs, and check each of these inputs and outputs several times (a known number of times) a second.

    If, on the other hand, you use a computer — any typical computer — with a normal operating system like Linux, OSX, or Windows, then you can’t be as sure. There can be a software based timer set up in the computer that will theoretically go from sensor or actuator to sensor or actuator, checking the communication module for commands every cycle. But those cycles are virtual. If somewhere along the way a backup program was installed to make a copy of a directory and put it on a USB stick every hour, then suddenly your computer is busy doing something else. If updates are automatic on your setup, same problem. Yes, you can configure a system to not do anything you don’t want it to do, but you might not be perfect in you efforts. In other words, having a Raspberry Pi carry out time sensitive mission critical rapid fire acts is like hiring a potentially recidivistic but reformed fox to guard the henhouse. Yeah, it probably works, but if any chickens are missing …

    The Raspberry Pi, running a normal operating system, can do pretty much anything any other computer can do, and might in fact, do any of a number of different things while still carrying out the program you wrote to operate the air plane. But the Arduino controller can only do a few things, and you can’t really accidentally have it programmed to send out bulk emails or get your fur coat cleaned while you are trying to control your expensive model airplane.

    So, let’s say I want a device in my garage that has a sensor that tells me if the garage door is open or closed, turning on a light on a second device in my house (connected by radio signal) if the door is open, and allowing me to open or close the garage door by pushing a button on that interior device. That would be easy using two Arduino boards, some sort of sensor, a cheap pair of radio communication thingies, and some lights and resistors. (Plus the appropriate way to close/open the door, for which there are several options.)

    Say I want to have a device in the garage that senses if the door is open, has a camera that can be used to check out the garage, communicates the status of the door via the internet, and allows me to remotely open or close the door or look at the camera’s image remotely form anywhere on my smart phone. You can totally do that with an Arduino controller, but that will involve adding a lot of parts and raising the cost, and you may be limited in other ways. A Raspberry Pi would be better for this application.

    Say I want the device in the garage to have a movable pointable camera, a temperature sensor, a “door open” sensor, a door close/open actuator, and a way to turn on and off the main garage light. But, I want to control all of those functions from the Internet, and I want the same internet interface to also give me the temperature in my house and provide a view from a camera pointing out the front door. I also want the same system to give me access to my Google calendar.

    For that, I’d want the Raspberry Pi running the web server, hard wired, perhaps, into my home LAN, and fitted with a Camera Module and a temperature sensor. I the Garage would be an Arduino with a movable camera and all that other stuff, controlled via the Pi that sits in my house.

    And so on.

    Very elaborate home automation systems have been built using a combination of various Arduino controllers and a Raspberry Pi at the center of it all.

    The Raspberry Pi can run any software that normally runs on Linux, if that is the operating system you install (which is probably the case). Most projects that use the Pi as the central brain use Python, which is an all purpose programming language. The Arduino controller uses a form of C, but it is easy to use and for most functions, there is already code ready to use out of the box or with minor changes. The Pi can have huge programs and handle massive amounts of data, if you have a large enough USB stick or microSD card. The Arduino is very limited in space and memory, though it can be attached, with some extra work, to various mass storage devices.

    I think you get the idea.

    What kind of Pi do you want?

    There are four kinds of Raspberry Pi. The Zero, the One, the Two, and the Three. If you are getting a new one, just get the three. It replaces the one and the two. (The Zero is a whole different thing, for advanced users.)

    There is also the A vs. B model within these categories. None of that is important. Get the Pi 3 B. THIS ONE: Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Motherboard.

    In order to make a Raspberry Pi work, you will need things like a power adapter, a keyboard, etc. You might want to put it in a case. You will need a microSD card with the operating system on it. Since the Pi is a DIY device, the basic unit comes with none of this and you have to figure it all out yourself.

    Or, you can buy any one of dozens of available kits that have some combination of some of the basic parts needed. Kits don’t have a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. The Raspberry Pi comes with the rarely used component jack (the yellow round thing on the back of your TV may work with it) and an HDMI output, for video, and several USB sockets. The PI 3 has bluetooth built in, so you can use a bluetooth mouse and keyboard if you want. The kits tend to have the Pi, an SD card often with the OS preloaded, an HDMI cable, a power supply, and a case. Most kits these days come with heat sinks, which are pretty much unnecessary but cool, that you can glue on to the Pi if you want.

    I recently got the Vilros Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit with Clear Case and 32GB SD Card, which came with the Pi 3 (with WiFi and Bluetooth, as mentioned), a power supply, a 32 GB Class 10 MicroSD card (you will want a class 10 card), a case, an HDMI cord, and two heat sinks. I think that normally lists for $90 but is perpetually on sale for much less.

    For the more DIY oriented user, the CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Ultimate Starter Kit – 32 GB Edition comes with additional parts that will be helpful in building projects that exploit the Pi’s input/output pins, such as LED lights, hookup wires, and resistors, a breakout cable, and a breadboard. The way the Pi is set up, you will want a breakout system to allow you to mess with electronic components more easily and safely (safe for the Pi, that is, with its sensitive computer circuity). If I was going to give a kit to someone who I knew was going to mess around with the hardware, this is the kit I’d probably pick.

    The Operating System, which you can download at the Raspberry Pi site and install on the microSD card, also allows for some options. And, it can be a little confusing.

    There is a “system” called “noobs” (for Noobie, I assume) which is the easy way to install Raspbian. Or, you can get Rraspbian sans Noob, which is apparently the hard way to install Raspbian. I’ve done both, but I don’t remember if one is actually harder.

    Raspbian is the basic OS for the Raspberry Pi, and it is a Linux distribution based on Debian (get it? Raspberry Pi Debian = Raspbian?)

    The Raspbian distribution formerly used LXDE as the desktop, a lightweight, not very fancy, stable desktop. But, recently, the desktop was redesigned to be much sleeker and nicer (but still basic and efficient) and has been renamed Pixel. (Pixel as in Pi-something, but also, named in part after the author’s experiences as a young child playing peek-a-poke in Basic on his IBM clone.)

    You can also install a version of Ubuntu Mate. I’ve done that. I don’t recommend it. The Pi is not meaty enough to pretend to be a normal desktop computer when saddled with the extra overhead. Pixel is the way to go. But it was fun to play around with. Another option is the OSMC, or Open Source Media Center, if you want to use the machine as a media center. There are others. I’ve no experience with them, so I can’t tell you much about them. But I can tell you this very cool thing: You put the OS on the microSD, and put the microSD in the Pi, and that is what determines what OS you are using. So, you can swap between operating systems but just swapping cards. How cool is that?

    One especially advanced but seemingly widespread use of the Pi is to build a gaming device. You install some software. Then, you install the bios of one or more gaming systems. Then you install the games that go with that gaming system. Obviously, you will only install systems and games that you already own, and not find anyplace on the Internet to download them. Then, you have all those old console games on your Pi. You’d probably buy some game controllers to hook up to that device, and you’d probably run it on your TV.

    All the information you need to make all of this work can be found either on the Raspberry Pi site, or at a destination linked to from that site.


    Raspberry Pi Cases

    As noted, you can use the Raspberry pi as a regular, low power but usable, computer and at the same time make a cool case for it. This is a bit like having a laptop that you carry around, but instead of a laptop, it is a box of Altoids. Or some LEGOS.

    Instructions to make the Altoids Pi case are here.

    Ready-made LEGO cases are here and here.

    Strange and wonderful devices

    There are a gazillion projects on line that use the Raspberry Pi. Here, I’ll give you just a few examples. Most of the examples use Raspberry Pi 1 or 2 (probably, 2 is the most common) and in most cases you’ll want to use a 3. So, the best way to get good instructions for a project is to look at a few examples and hopefully among them will be one that uses the Pi 3.

    Here is a somewhat slow but a good start on a PIrsonal Assistant. You can make this run faster if you tweak it (and use the Pi 3):

    Do you know what Tor is? If not, maybe find out. Given the current political climate, it may become more important. Anyway, you can make a Tor Router.

    There are many picture frame projects out there. Just search for Raspberry Pi Picture Frame.

    Here is a system that controls your lights using voice commands.

    If it was me, I’d skip the voice feedback. The detailed instructions are HERE.

    At first I thought this Pi controlled espresso machine would be dumb, because really, what can a computer to do make an espresso machine work better. Then I looked more closely at it and realized this is a thing.

    Stratux looks interesting. I remember my uncle, a Franciscan missionary who would stop by now and then on his way to this or that remote place, invented something like this back in the 60s. Stratus is a device you use to identify aircraft in your vicinity, using the plane’s ADS-B broadcasts.

    I’m not going to point to a particular media streaming project. There are many, many such projects and it all depends on what you want to do. Just do a search for using the OSMC system on Pi. Or, just a simple music streaming machine.

    Same with console gaming projects.

    People make Minecraft servers. Generally, if there is anything you might like to dedicate a computer to, that is on all the time, the Pi may be the way to go. It is very low power demanding, and cheap enough that you can dedicate this card to that one purpose, leave it running, and give it just enough maintenance to keep it from being coopted by nefarious hackers.

    A print server, a file server, a local web server for your own uses, a system that puts your google calendar or other stuff on a TV screen (or other screen) for your convenience. Each of these idea has 20 or 30 iterations out there.

    I hear someone is working on an “Election Converter” that runs on a Raspberry Pi 3. I’d send you a link but the instructions are written in Cyrillic.

    Is Turkey Hacking Trump?

    Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald (author of Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story, Serpent on the Rock, and a few other books) is reporting an interesting story this morning.

    Here is the short version, as I understand it.

    Turkey had a coup. The Turkish government, in particular, President Erdogan, blames naturalized US citizen Fethullah Gülen for that coup, and wants him extradited. The US won’t do that.

    President Erdogan and Presumed President Elect Trump had a conversation soon after the election, in which Trump mentioned a key player in the development of the Turkish version of Trump Towers. We may presume this was an effort to get that project special treatment in Turkey.

    Trump’s efforts to sidle up to Erdogan backfired, and something different happened. The Erdogan government arrested a key individual related to the Trump project, accusing him of being linked to the Coup.

    So, now, we have this situation. President Trump (assuming he becomes president) is under pressure to release Imam Gülen to the Turks else his business dealings with respect to the Turkish Trump Tower project be threatened.

    Inauguration day hasn’t even happened yet and we are already seeing Trump’s business empire involved in seemingly nefarious dealings and intrigue. He can’t run a country like this.

    Trump was planning to give a news conference on Thursday to describe his plans for separating his businesses from his presidency. That would be appropriate, because the Electors would have a chance to review his plans to see if he is qualified to be president. But yesterday, Trump said he’d hold that news conference in January instead. There is speculation that Trump is essentially hiding out, avoiding talking about Friday’s allegations that the Russians are significantly responsible, according to the CIA, for Trump winning the election. In any event, Trump will not be providing the information necessary for Electors to determine his qualifications, which is their Constitutional responsibility.

    Over night, Trump did tweet something about his business plans. According to his over night tweets, he is sticking with the original plans. No blind trust, no divestment, his kids will handle the businesses.

    In typical Trump slo mo, he said, “Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my busineses before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the……”

    Then, six minutes later, finished the sentence with “Presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.”

    Nine minutes later he finished the thought and elaborated: “I will hold a press conference in the near future to discuss the business, Cabinet picks and all other topics of interest. Busy times!”

    The Newsweek story covers a lot more than the Turkish situation. It is here and you should read it. The Trump-Philippines-Holocaust-TrumpTower connection is especially chilling.

    Rachel Maddow covered the story last night as well:

    Trump Is Compiling Science Enemy Lists UPDATE: “NO,” DOE

    UPDATE: The Department of Energy has reportedly refused Donald Trump’s request for names of DOE employees and contractors who have been engaged in climate change research. That does not mean that Tump will never get those names. Once he is President, he can get the names. But for now, he’ll have to sit it out.

    The Donald Trump transition team circulated an eight page questionnaire to the US Department of Energy. Such questionnaires are not normal. This particular questionnaire is deeply disturbing.

    There are seventy-four questions. They provide insight into likely Trump administration energy policy, and there is not much of a surprise there. Most disturbing are the questions that elicit the sort of information one would gather at the outset of a purge or harassment campaign against a class of individuals, in this case, climate scientists and related personnel.

    Here I provide text of a handful of the questions, brief descriptions of others, and a link to a copy of the original document, which was originally “obtained” by Bloomberg.

    At the bottom of the post, I also provide a link to a letter from a leading member of Trump’s DOE transition team, possibly leaked (but maybe intentionally distributed, I’m not sure).

    (Please check out this interview with science policy and politics expert Shawn Otto about Trump and Science.)

    11. Which Assistant Secretary positions are rooted in statute and which exist at the discretion and delegation of the Secretary?

    In other words, which senior people at DOE can we get rid of and which are we stuck with. Question 33 more or less asks the same question again, but slightly differently.

    12. What is the statutory charge to the Department with respect to efficiency standards? Which products are subject to statutory requirements and which are discretionary to the department?

    In other words, can we roll back efficiency standards, because … because Exxon-Mobile wants to sell more oil? … because we want to increase the rate of climate change because we know the 1% will do better than anyone else? … because we want to punch some hippies?

    13. Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended an Interagency Working Group of the Social Cost of Carbon meetings? Can you provide a list of when those meetings were and any materials distributed at those meetings, emails associated with those meetings, or materials created by Department employees or contractors i anticipation of or as a result of those meetings?

    In other words, we would like to compile a list of administrators and scientists who are working in the climate change area, assess their position on climate change, and and then begin a campaign of bullying, harassing, and general ruining the lives of, those individuals and their colleagues and families?

    14. Did DOE or any of its contractors run the integrated assessment models (IAMs)? Did DOE pick the discount rates to be used with the IAMs? What was DOE’s opinion on the proper discount rates used with the IAMs? What was DOE’s opinion on the proper equilibrium climate sensitivity?

    What’s that all about? The IAMs are related to the more familiar to you (I’m guessing) RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways). Simply put, these are complicated models that try to take into account everything from energy policy and use to how changes in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere change climate. There are two main known unknowns here. First, is how much CO2 and other greenhouse gasses we put into the environment (but that is an oversimplification) and the other is climate sensitivity, which is how much will global surface temperatures rise with a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere (again, an oversimplification).

    Climate sensitivity is a dog whistle. If you are a science denier, you say “climate sensitivity is 1.2” but if you understand and accept the basic science, you say “Nobody knows for sure, but somewhere between 2.0 and 6.0, most likely very close to about 3.0 or 3.5.”

    15. What is the Department’s role with respect to JCPOA? Which office has the lead for the Department?

    This is not related to climate change, but I thought I’d throw it in there anyway. The JCPOA is the Iran Deal.

    16. What statutory authority has been given to the Department with respect to cybersecurity?

    Again, not related to climate change, but given the recent revelations that Russia has been effectively manipulating US elections, and it is hard to imagine how The Donald got elected President of the United States, and given Trump’s Russian associations, it makes sense that the Trump transition team would want to keep track of this sort of thing.

    Probably, he could just ask the Russians instead of the DOE, but, well, whatever.

    17. Can you provide a list of all Schedule C appointees, all non-career SES employees, and all Presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation? Can you include their current position and how long they have served in the Department?

    These seem like reasonable things to know, if you are taking over the government and are responsible for staffing. But keep in mind that a) no one has ever done a questionnaire like this before; b) there is a transition process that is normally used that presumably addresses these issues; and c) we are talking about links between a part of the government that handles energy and climate and the outside world. If you were trying to build a list of Climate Enemies, this is where you would start. We have to assume, for the purposes of safety and security from what looks like it is going to be a tyrannical government, that this is what Trump is doing.

    18. Can you offer more information about the EV Everywhere Grand Challenge?

    The EV Everywhere Grand Challenge is “the umbrella effort of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to increase the adoption and use of plug-in electric vehicles…”

    19. Can you provide a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any of the Conference of the Parties (under the UNFCCC) in the last five years?

    This, of course, is asking for a list of DOE employees and beyond who are involved in climate change research. The UNFCCC is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change.

    30. Which programs with DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan?

    The incoming Trump administration has indicated that it will reverse whatever it can among Obama’s accomplishments. We must assume that here, the incoming Trump administration is asking for a ready-made short list of things to eliminate in their apparent effort to move our civilization ever closer to apocalyptic doom.

    There are several questions about the DOE’s Energy Information Agency, which is where you go to find out about how much energy we use, of what kind, where it comes from and goes, etc. In other words, the EIA provides an important set of baselines from which one might analyze, track, plan, and generally work on an energy transition. These questions seem to indicate an interest in moving away from renewables, or more precisely, towards changing assessment of energy policy to make renewables look less viable and fossil fuels look more necessary for a longer period of time. This seems to also indicate, unsurprisingly, a pro-fracking stance.

    There are several vague questions about the DOE’s Environmental Management and the Handford nuclear waste site.

    There are several questions that indicate an intention to expand Nuclear power, re-open Yucca Mountain, and privatize research. There is a question that indicates that the incoming Trump administration intends to cut the DOE budget by 10%

    Finally, the last several questions ask about the DOE’s labs, focusing on the personnel. Who are they, what are they up to, what projects are they working on? That sort of thing.

    The entire questionnaire is here: [trump-transition-questionaire-to-dept-energy] as a PDF file. Please look through it and let me know what you think.

    There appear to be two different questionnaires. The other one is here: [document_gw_06]. I’ve not done a point by point comparison but they seem to be similar in overall content and meaning.

    Here is the link to the Trump DOE Transition Team mentioned above: [pyle-what-to-expect-from-the-trump-administration_letter]