Category Archives: Technology

Make Your Own Games using Scratch

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Scratch is a computer programming language that is designed for use by children to learn programming, but that is also serving as a paradigm for STEM programming more broadly, and I suspect, for IOT programming of the future. Programs are written in scratch by assembling shapes that represent programming structures or objects.

For example, look at the code block to the right. This is an object that is called when the user clicks on the green flag button on the user interface. That green flag is how one starts a program in Scratch. This is hooked, literally, to a “forever” lop. Within the forever loop, execution (of that object) is delayed for a fifth of a second, then an “If” statement is executed. If the object linked to this object (such as a sprite that might be able to move around on the screen) has come into contact with something green, a chomp sound is made.

The Scratch interface is normally accessed on a web page, and in that context, every single Scratch programmer (that uses the basic interface) has access to every bit of code developed and saved by every other programmer. Or, you can run it on your own computer.

You will see scratch like coding in Lego projects, in association with various robot kits, and I suspect over time, with Internet of Things objects. The coding is so straight forward that even Mikey can do it.

The book Make Your Own Scratch Games! by Anna Anthropy, produced by No Starch Press, brings an elementary school or middle school age kid, or an adult who just wants to screw around, through the process of developing three significant game projects and countless elements that users can use for a number, approaching infinity, of different games.

As is usual for No Starch books, the source code is available, but more importantly, among the on line resources are certain graphics and sound files and such used in the game making.

This is a great book for STEM oriented kids, and Scratch is a great Age of Covid activity.

Anna Anthropy is a video game creator and game historian, and author of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, a guide to game design that encourages aspiring developers from all backgrounds to create games and contribute their unique voice to the video game industry. Her most recent book, ZZT, explores a shareware game from the ’90s and its lasting impact on developers everywhere.

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Kids, Screen Time, and Covid

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I’m pointing you to a useful article on kids and screen time. The essential points direct us to recognize that not all screen time is the same, that we should exploit the screen time world to maintain some social skill building, and that we need to develop in-home constancy in how we manage this.

We’re totally great at the first two in our hose. We know there is a different between watching stupid teenager youtubers being stupid teenagers, and all the kids in the extended family getting together on Zoom for a book reading by Grandpa, for example. We are also doing some community ed zoom classes.

As for that third item … still working on it.

Anyway, go see: Here’s What Experts Are Saying About Schoolagers and Screens Right Now

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How to best use Zoom, Hangouts, Meet, Skype, and so on

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This is not a complete guide to how to use Zoom or similar face to face on line conferencing software. Rather, this is a list of pointers, many of which you would not get from the software’s manual (were there a manual). As far as I can tell, most people don’t know many of the things I cover here, but these are things that will make you a better Zoomer, Skyper, Meeter, Hangouter, or whateverer.

Give permission so you don’t need forgiveness later

When you start a meeting, you are often asked to give permission for the software to use your video and your audio. Some people get annoyed at this, but you need to know that this is feature, not a bug. You really do not want to grant permanent permission to any entity to have access to your video and audio.

Now that I think about it, you should probably be covering your camera with a Post-It Note between uses. But don’t forget to remove it when it is time to use it.

Massive muting avoids mutiny

The single biggest problem with multi-person on line conferencing is that people have no idea what sorts of noises they are making, and transmitting sometimes way too efficiently, over the microphone. Gentle tapping on the keyboard becomes pounding like the proverbial feet of the Russian Army. Moving something around on your desk can sound like the Concord take off. That one last time. And, most annoyingly, consider the times you turn your attention to the person in your room — your spouse, your kid, even your pet — and have a lengthy conversation with them about how you are out of toilet paper, or whether or not that last cookie is yours, or whatever. The entire group can hear you, mainly you, they stop, and they listen, and they wait and figuratively tap their feet. Because you forgot about the meeting and so you forgot to mute your mic.

A partial solution to this is to always have your mute on, until you need to speak (for more guidance see below). But then, remember to turn your mute back on when you do want to speak. Else, you’ll be yammering on and on and others will be interrupting you and acting like you are not even there and totally ignoring you! Then by the time you realize your mic was off the whole time, the conversation has moved on to the next inane thing. A YouTube video of that happening could be funny, though.

If you are running a meeting, pre-mute everyone, and remind them about their mic and what kinds of noises they make, unknowingly. Then, when someone joins the meeting late, take a moment to remind them as well (but see below for more information on that). Also, make sure to tell them how to unmute themselves. I had a recent meeting where one of the participants, a Zoom first timer, sent me an email asking to be unmuted near the end so he could add his two cents.

Consider getting an external microphone and using headphones. A good set of earbuds with a microphone, or if you like the DJ look, must go all the way and get a set of YouTuber headphones. Generally speaking, using headphones or earbuds will reduce the potential for feedback and other bad noises.*

You’re not going to like the way you look

I have a collection of screenshots of people Zooming that is totally hysterical but that I can’t show you our I’d lose friends and relatives. Just how many nose hairs does Aunt Betty have? I didn’t realize that Emanuel’s forehead was so interesting, but good thing it is because that is all I can see of him. My colleague Jane in Indiana is a demigod, I can tell because of the huge halo surround her body. Or is that just the giant window with the sun blaring through it in front of which she is sitting? I had no idea Ahmed’s face was so freaking big!

Lighting should be shining on you from your front, not from behind you. You want your camera positioned at your eye level or slightly above, pointing at your face, not some other thing in the room. Not just the top of your head. You don’t want the camera shooting up towards you with your head bent down looking at it. Just do that and look at yourself. See the quadruple chin? That is because your head has sunk into your neck because your laptop is on your lap, your screen pointing up at a steep angle so your built-in camera can get your face, but you are looking down your nose (nice nose hairs, by the way). Just stop that.

Sit in a chair. Have your laptop on a desk or table in front of you, probably on a book or two so that the camera is eye to eye with you. Make sure there is a gap between the top of your head and the top of the visible image of you in the software, and make sure your shoulders are visible, at least. Make sure the background is dark, foreground is light, and that what can be seen in the background is not something you don’t want people to see. Or maybe it is something funny or apropos, just not something that ruins either the image or your reputation.

Take a shower, comb your hear, wear a clean shirt. And, just in case you have to stand up for a moment, wear pants. Please.

Consider getting a separate free-standing camera (a web cam) that can be placed somewhere other than on the front of your laptop. You want a small tripod perhaps like this or similar. I suggest a Logitech Webcam, but DON’T BUY IT NOW. With everyone using Zoom all at once, webcams are the new toilet paper. They are sold out, but you can get a $50 one for $300 if you want. Just wait on that, but later consider it.

What did you say, Private? It wasn’t private!

In Zoom, and this may be true in other software, there is a chat function that includes a “private” chat that is person to person. The point of this feature is to allow you to have a side-bar conversation with someone else and not distract the larger group. The point of this feature is NOT to have an actual private chat. It turns out anyone can see this private chat of yours, and this is a feature, not a bug. If anyone clicks on “save” in the chat box, both the “To everyone” conversation and the private conversations are now saved, and visible in that saved document. This is great for keeping meeting minutes. Or, blackmailing your friends and co-workers.

You shouldn’t be saying anything privately that you can’t say publicly anyway, but especially using the Zoom “private” chat.

Be like a Boyscout, but in a good way

Before using any meeting software, be prepared. Have a pre-meeting, and try to get everyone to join in. Maybe two meetings. And don’t expect your first meeting to go well, or to give everyone a fair chance to participate.

I have an analogy. For the longest time, only a few people knew how to drive, or ever wanted or needed to drive. Then, one day, everybody had to drive, so everybody got a car and a learners permit more or less on the same day. Chaos. There are some of us who have been using on line conferencing software on a regular basis, for years. To the rest of you: Welcome to our world!

Get a wing-person, or be a wing-person

For larger, or more complex, or more important meetings I recommend a two-leader approach. One person (in your organization this can be the secretary or communications committee chief, perhaps, whoever takes minutes) initiates the Zoom meeting (meaning, does the invites, sets it up, and acts as “host”). A second person chairs the meeting. The host is in charge of making sure that participants’ names are showing (if someone calls in, that has to be fixed by replacing their phone number with their name), and that everyone is muted, and that people are reminded to unmute and remute. The host force-mutes or throws off the meeting any participate who, probably through no fault of their own, is disrupting the meeting. Yes, folks, if suddenly you are talking to your spouse about the day’s plans and can’t manage to mute yourself, you should be bounced off the meeting, get an email from the host telling you why and welcoming you back.

There is another thing I think the people running the meeting can do, but I’ve not done this, so I can’t advise in detail. In Zoom there is a lobby, or waiting room that you can force people to wait in before being allowed into the meeting. It is very common for people to show up at a meeting late. They should be forced to wait in the meeting room until they have been given the guidelines and norms for the meeting. Otherwise you’ll have 80% of the participants doing everything right, and a too-large number (which is 1 or more) of participants talking to their dog and writing their thesis on a loud keyboard as they pretend to be in the meeting. Or sending scurrilous private notes to others. Or whatever.

Norms and Guidelines

By now this should be obvious, but in case not: At the beginning of each meeting, take a minute to go over a few norms and guidelines. Like, how to get permission to speak, if that is necessary, the muting rules, etc. Ideally, a five or six bullet point text file can be on hand and transmitted along with the meeting invite, and then also put on the chat box. But you will have to tell people that the chat box exists and how to get it. And, much of this can be done in the waiting room.

I hope this helps you, and I hope you add in the comments your own tips and tricks.

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Automate The Boring Stuff with Python Coding

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If everyone in the world understood and had a working command of regular expressions, everything would run smoothly. Especially if all of our interfaces to text allowed for their use. This has been pointed out. And, Automate the Boring Stuff with Python, 2nd Edition: Practical Programming for Total Beginners has a whole chapter on this.

What is a regular expression? We can talk about that in detail some other time. Briefly, it is a string of symbols that is designed to match a specified set of symbols, or a range of a set of symbols, in a larger body or stream of text. For example, if you pass a stream of information (say, all your emails) through a filter with the regular expression:


then any part of that stream of information that looks like a phone number (not using parens), such as 636-555-3226, will be isolated.

Automate the Boring Stuff with Python is a book that teaches beginning Python computer Augean programming focusing on examples from day to day life, including but well beyond REs.

The new edition includes pattern matching with regular expressions, input validation, reading and writing files, organizing files, web scraping, manipulating Excel spreadsheets and Google Sheets, PDF and Word documents, CSV and JSON files, email, images, and automating your keyboard and mouse.

The great benefit of a book like this is that you learn Python (the first part of the book gives you all you need to know to program in Python) in the context of things you actually want to do with Python. If you are interested in learning Python, or coding in general, this can be your first book.

The book is well done, as all in this series are, and fun. There are strong on line resources including all the code, and that information is regularly updated. Generally, “No Starch” press books are great, and this is one of those!

I would like to have seen at least sidebars on manipulating things using Libreoffice software, but note that the book focuses on documents, and OpenSource software does work with normal Excel and Word documents, so it is there.

The second edition adds a new chapter on input validation. The Gmail and Google Sheets sections, and the information on CSV files is also new. I plan on using the software tips and tricks to develop my own highly specialized and targeted search software. I’m often looking for files that have specific extensions, and certain kinds of content, in certain locations. Just the ability to hard-wire where to search for files will save me a lot of time and trouble.

Author Al Sweigart is a professional software developer who teaches programming to kids and adults, and who is author of Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python, Cracking Codes with Python, and Coding with Minecraft, all of which are quite nice. We need a new edition of Coding with Minecraft, by the way, that looks at a wider range of coding options and keeps up with the major advances in that software environment! So, get to work, Al!

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NOAA Gets Cool New Computers

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NOAA will be adding two new Cray computers (one operational and one backup) to replace existing hardware used in weather forecasting. According to a press release, “the computers — each with a 12 petaflop capacity — will be operational and ready to implement model upgrades by early 2022 after a period of code migration and testing. They will replace the existing Cray and Dell systems, “Luna” and “Mars” in Reston, Virginia, and “Surge” and “Venus” in Orlando, Florida.”

When combined with other hardware that will remain in use, the total capacity will rise to 40 petaflops. (A petaflop is a measure of computing speed equal to one thousand million million (1015) floating-point operations per second.) Given upgrades in storage and connectivity, and this increasing computing power, there will be a noticeable increase in resolution and other features of NOAA’s modeling of earth systems.

There is a rumor that the Trump Whitehouse plans to sell off the hardware to some friends who live out near the airport in Queens, and replace it with lower grade equipment that Trump claims works just as well (see illustration).

Though the press release does not give details, a spokesperson for NOAA just informed me that these computers will run the Linux operating system. I had assumed so, but wanted to check. Linux is the standard operating system for super computers, because it is a super operating system. Nobody wants to see the Blue Screen of Death in the middle of their tornado warning.

Specifically, the computers will run the Cray Shasta Linux Environment. This is a high performance suit designed to run large and complex applications on more than a half a million cores, with docker container support, and the robust Cray system management support including staged upgrading capabilities and the low overhead Cray system snapshot analyze.

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Things To Do After Installing Xubuntu or XFCE

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One: set up Dropbox and, as it syncs your files from the cloud, go outside and mow your lawn or rake your leaves.

Two: Start using your computer.

Three: Cancel the order for the new laptop because your old laptop is faster now.

You may have been expecting one of those posts that tell you the “ten things to do after installing [Linux Distribution]” but this ain’t it. In fact, for the most part, those posts have become fairly useless. Consider these “things to do”: Continue reading Things To Do After Installing Xubuntu or XFCE

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Do Not Miss Rachel Maddow’s New Book: Blowout

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Rachel Maddow is the Charles Darwin of Cable News.

Darwin’s most important unsung contribution to science (even more important than his monograph on earthworms) was to figure out how to most effectively put together multiple sources into a single argument — combining description, explanation, and theory — of a complex phenomenon in nature. His first major work, on coral reefs, brought together historical and anecdotal information, prior observation and theory from earlier researchers, his own direct observations of many kinds of reefs, quasi experimental work in the field, and a good measure of deductive thinking. It took a while for this standard to emerge, but eventually it did, and this approach was to become the normal way to write a PhD thesis or major monograph in science.

Take any major modern news theme. Deutsche Bank. Trump-Nato-Putin. Election tampering. Go to the standard news sources and you’ll find Chuck Todd following the path of “both sides have a point.” Fox News will be mixing conspiracy theory and right wing talking points. The most respected mainstream news anchors, Lester Holt, Christiane Amanpour, or Brian Williams perhaps, will be giving a fair airing of the facts but moving quickly from story to story. Dig deeper, and find Chris Hayes with sharp analysis, Joy Reid contextualizing stories with social justice, and Lawrence O’Donnell applying his well earned in the trenches biker wisdom.

But if you really want to Darwin the news, and sink your natural teeth and claws into a story, go to Maddow. Continue reading Do Not Miss Rachel Maddow’s New Book: Blowout

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The Mysterious Russian Nuclear Disaster

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Are you following this story from Russia? The Russians lied about it numerous time, and I don’t think we can expect them to ever tell the truth. But it appears to have been a test of a highly improbably weapon (a nuclear powered missile) that resulted in either an explosion that shoved a lot of radioactive material into the atmosphere, or an actual but accidental nuclear explosion.

A village was ordered to be evacuated. Then they cancelled the evacuation.

There is evidence that the bodies of the slain scientists, and/or others injured at the site, who were blasted in the explosion, were so radioactive that the doctors that attended to them also need to be treated. It also may be the case that the nuclear device is in the sea and needs to be recovered.

This is a real mess.

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ALERT!! cPanel is ruining the Internet!

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cPanel is a widely used front end used on servers for people to operate things like their blog, email system, other web related functions, etc. It is a way to avoid using the command line. So, for instance, you might buy into a hosing package, and that may allow you to set up a WordPress site. Your host give you the info to log into your own cPanel. There, you press the “one click install” button and whoosh, you have a web site. Continue reading ALERT!! cPanel is ruining the Internet!

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How my father invaded Europe on D-Day

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My father told me exactly three things about his time in the war (aka World War II).

One. He had made a date with a nice English lady, they were to meet under Big Ben at noon on some day, but the Victory in Europe happened and he was hastily sent back the US where he was put on a train to San Francisco to help invade Japan, but then they dropped the bomb. As a result, there is to this day a nice lady in England waiting under Big Ben, and the Japanese Army waiting in Japan, and my dad ditched both of them.

Two. On one, two, or three occasions (I don’t remember) he was at a location in London (like a store or something) and then left, or was just about to arrive at some location London (a store or something) when a German missile blew the place up. Close call.

Three. His contribution to D-Day. He was in the Army Air Corps, though he may have spent more time on a horse (which he presumably knew how to ride before enlisting) than in a plane. He volunteered for the glider corps, willing to be a pilot or navigator, or anything. He cheated on the eye test (he was nearsighted even at that age). He had memorized the eye chart, so when asked to read the letters, he read them all off perfectly.

Unfortunately, he had memorized an older eye chart, and the new eye chart had a different order of letters except the big E on top. The guy giving the test, another Staff Sargent, was his friend, so he did not get in trouble for cheating, but he was not allowed into the glider corps.

Meanwhile, he was assigned to one of those numerous typically secret air bases where they were preparing for the big invasion. His job was to supervise the arrival of airplanes, which were unassembled, and to oversee the storage and transfer of the plane parts to buildings where technicians would assemble them and get them ready to invade Europe. Lots of planes were simply flown to England from the US, but these were built in the us, but sent as non-completed planes to England via large transport planes such as the C-47 Skytrain.

But here’s the thing. The process of delivering these airplanes was rough and rugged. The various partly assembled parts of the planes often came damaged. I believe he said that they were often literally dropped off, pushed out of a transport plane as it landed and taxied, only to take off seconds later. This meant that if five or six planes were delivered over a short period of time, the technicians would have to borrow one part from this plane, and another part from that plane, in order to make perhaps four whole planes, with some spare bits left over.

My father changed the way they managed this, sending a suggestion up the line back to the US, where the planes originated. “Just pack the plane parts in the transport the best way they fit, don’t worry about sending a whole but disassembled plane all together.” So they did that. A transport plane would come in with mostly tails, another with mostly engines, another with mostly whatever. My father set up a method of inventorying and keeping track of the parts, and of supplying to the technicians working, undamaged, sections as they needed to assemble working aircraft. The process of building planes at this airstrip sped up, and when it came time to teach Hitler what for, more planes were ready than otherwise possible.

In other words, my father, Staff Sargent Joseph F. Laden, invaded Normandy with his mind.

He got a medal each from the US Government and from the UK Government for this.

You may already know that a large percentage of the glider-borne soldiers who took part in the Normandy invasion were killed or wounded during the “landing” of the aircraft, or soon after being under heavy fire. The glider pilots suffered much higher casualty rates than the others. So, I’m thinking that my father contributed a more important thing to the war effort with his reorganization of the aircraft building process than he would have as a glider pilot or crew member, and he got to live.

But he never did get to meet that girl under Big Ben.

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Make Your Own Pixel Art

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First, what is “pixel art?”

Is that just art that is rendered in raster? Not exactly. Pixel art is the sort of art you draw for digital cartoons or similar things. The skills and tools of making pixel art would apply to designing icons or logos used in electronic products as well.

To demonstrate what pixel art is, I’m including a few examples from the newly published Make Your Own Pixel Art: Create Graphics for Games, Animations, and More! by Jennifer Dawe and Matthew Humphries.

This book will give you an introduction to the tricks of the trade of making technologically simply but artistically potent drawings, including ways to animate them.

The non-OpenSource (boo) software that is used throughout the book is not expensive and is easy to use, and yes, OpenSource alternatives are suggested and briefly discussed. The book relies on Aseprite and Pro Motion, with GraphcsGale (Windows only, boo) being a free alternative.

Techniques covered include shading, texture, proper use of color, motion and animation, and making things look sentient. Apparently, you can make money doing this sort of thing! This book is probably a good investment, at the very least to see if you have the talent and interest.

Author Jennifer Dawe is an animator and character designer who has been a professional pixel artist for the past 15 years. Author Matthew Humphries is Senior Editor at and a professional game designer.

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Update on Mechanical Keyboards

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All keyboards are “mechanical” in some sense, or at least most of them, in that something moves. But what we call a “mechanical keyboard” is one that has individual switches under each key cap, instead of some sort of silly squishy membrane. This gives the keys a different tactile sense, and often, a sound.

This post — Mechanical Keyboards What Are They And Which One Do You Want — is a little, but not too much, out of date. The basic information is correct. There are one or two more kinds of keys than described, and there are emerging manufacturers that may or may not be making good switches, and there are many more offerings of el-cheapo keyboards. And, still, the DasKeyboard is still one of the better (and more expensive) options.

My Avant Stellar keyboard finally broke in enough places (I’m tough on keyboards) to require major repair or replacement. I looked briefly at really old Northgates (20-30 years old?) on ebay, bid on a few, but was outbid and decided not to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a decades old untested machine. I also realized that I have two computers sitting next to each other, and when I change between them, it feels wrong, because they have two entirely different kinds of keyboards. But, I realized, if I get a new DasKeyboard for my Linux machine, since I have a Mac DasKeyboard on the Mac, then I would quickly become accustomed to switching back and forth and all would be well. So, I got the Das Keyboard Model S Professional Cherry MX Blue for the Linux to match the Das Keyboard Model S Pro for Mac, and now everything is good.

Except possibly one thing. You may recal that I had earlier complained about the font used on the key caps on the DasKeyboards. At the time, I used stick on labels to upgrade the DasKeyboard to how I like it. For some reason, as I sit here typing on the new DasKeyboard with the small typeface that I don’t like much, I’m not bothered by it, so I may not make that change. We’ll see.

So now all is well in keyboard land, and my pile of no longer in use keyboards available for spare parts grows.

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