101 experiments

If you have little people you need to get a book of science experiments. This one is pretty good. We just spent a great weekend making volcanos, destroying things in the garage, soldering, stripping wires, diminishing the larder, and tackling goldilocks problems.


When was the last time you mixed home made iron filings with golden syrup?


codethecity five

A couple of weekends ago we held Codethecity five at the University of Aberdeen. Another cluster of lovely volunteers, another batch of interesting projects, and our first 3D corporation bus.

You can watch the videos, read the updates, and admire the sandwiches over on the codethecity #ctc5 tag.

Den building – part 2

So I mentioned the den a couple of months ago when we started the build. It’s pretty much complete now. It even has shutters.

the den

A few pointers if you fancy making one yourself:

  • be flexible, it can be 10x easier to make it a bit wider or narrower than you’d like. Try to just go with the flow.
  • those double length pallettes are amazingly handy, as you get nice long strips of timber. I used them for the left hand uprights. They often have insulation sheets on them.
  • let your little people help out as much as possible – finger loss is unlikely, and a few splinters are character building. Favourite jobs – sanding important parts, anything involving a power tool, measuring stuff, collecting biscuits from the kitchen to keep the workers fuelled.
  • let your little people make some decisions. Favourites – where the windows go, orientation of slats, height of shelves.
  • plasterboard / drywall screws are fine (and they are cheap and come in massive bags)
  • include fun stuff like hinged window flaps, shutters for bigger windows, and sliding ‘nerf hole’ panels. The ‘snack please’ signs are fun.
  • take the time to floor it properly -those wee gaps between pallette boards can be a killer if you get a toe / ankle trapped
  • getting a pallette to come apart can be hard work. You’ll want to get them nice and dry, and have a chisel that you don’t mind destroying, then just split the nails – don’t try and pry them, you’ll most likely split the boards
  • I used PVC from B&Q for the roof so that it would be nice and bright inside. I should have gone for the polycarbonate stuff – about 3 times the cost – but indestructable. The PVC is already a bit bashed by the tree.
  • apart from some screws the only other bought parts were the timbers to hold up the roof – I think the spend was about £50 all in.

the den

Only once we’d finished making these did I realise why the boys wanted big handles on the back of the shutters. Shields. Like a knight. Let the warring begin!

the den

Monkeyboy checking the plans. Failed certification apparently.

the den

And yes, that is an Angry Nerds pirate flag on the roof and an old keyboard ‘command station’ on the floor.


So a couple of months back I started reading again – a bit. Train time and all that. A few others on the list. (obviously, this post isn;t for you, dear reader, it’s for me in a few years time to remind me what I should go back and finish reading).

This month it’s been a couple of books that leave you in no doubt that civilisation isn’t all that civilised.


Debt – the first 5,000 years

This is massive. I’ve almost finished it – a really interesting read. Now, I say I’ve almost finished it. I haven’t, because I haven’t read the footnotes – which make up about a fifth of the book. I’m a huge fan of footnotes. I love it when they take up large chunks of page. That Stewart Lee book tearing apart his shows, the Discworld books, and ‘proper’ books about chemistry had the best bits in the footnotes.

This book tucks them all away in the back of the book (100 pages of them) – rather than on the page. Grrr. Makes reading it a real pain, jumping back and fore. So after chapter one I just accepted that for the first run through I was going to skip the footnotes. Is that cheating? Probably.

My favourite thing about this book is that the first 220 pages are basically defining terms of reference before the actual historical run through starts.


Establishment – and how they get away with it

Debt is a really political book, because the subject matter matters. Establishment is a really political book, but the subject matter is led by the politics. The politics are a bit more to the fore, and opinions are presented rather than formed through the text. It’s easier to argue with this one, or agree with it – depending on your world view.

The two made an interesting combo. I kind of feel I need a third book in this mix for balance – a sort of Thatcherite version of the Establishment. “The Establishment – and how they know best” perhaps?

Learning web design vs learning web development

So I came back from the Turning Festival in Edinburgh with a bit of a renewed interest in search patterns. I’ve never been a huge fan of seo first design – prefering a more natural, honest, straightforward approach and trusting Google to do the right thing.

So for the most part, I don’t spend vast amount of time staring into the abyss that is target keyword lists, Google Trends reports, and link opportunity megareports.

It can be quite good fun from time to time though.

Playing around with Google Trends to see what a few search terms looked like I came across this chart while looking at terms I would expect constraints cards to list for.


“Learn web design” has been in steady decline for years, even as the web has grown and the awareness of web design as a career must have grown significantly. Conversely, “learn web development” is growing. These aren’t blips. These are long term trends.

Learn web development is about to overtake learn web design – certainly as far as Google searches are concerned.

Of course – this only looks significant in isolation. Here is the same chart – with “learn app development” overlaid. It’s away to overtake both terms from a standing start a couple of years ago.

comparing learning web design, web development and app development

And for those wondering, learn app design is way behind app development.

Den building – part 1

Today was one of the good days. Sketching in the morning to see if we could come up with some ideas for a den in the garden produced this blueprint:


By the end of the day we’d turned a few pallets (and some extra bits and pieces from homebase) into a pretty decent approximation of a half built den.

Also, no one lost any fingers.


More photos when it’s finished and has a roof.


I’ve picked up some books again. For easily a year I’ve been reading to a purpose, rather than just … reading.

I think there are two reasons for this. I now tend to work on the train, which is where I used to do a lot of my reading. I also think it’s partly because the boys are more likely to read to themselves than they used to. I used to easily read to them three, four books a day. Tiny books. Oliver Jeffers or Octonauts rather than a Roald Dahl, but it was all reading.

My brain was used to reading. So it was natural to pick something up to read myself.

Without that same amount of reading with the boys, down to maybe just a bedtime story, I just stopped reading for myself – unless I had to.

Then a few weeks ago we started reading longer form stuff at bedtime.

I decided they needed some Pratchett, so started reading Truckers with the boys. Truckers is great. Getting all excited and confused and intrigued by The Thing. Pondering the big questions about The Outside, perceptions of reality, the nonsense of religion. What fun.

The wee lad declared it “a bit Roahl Dahl-ey – but funnier”. Nothing wrong with that!


With summer coming up I did my usual ‘head to amazon and grab some pop-sci / pop-biz’ material on the false assumption that I’ll have some free time with which to read while on holiday. I’ve switched to reading on the train for a week – so I’m actually reading books again.

It’s ages since I wrote which books I was reading. So…

Misfit Economy

This is an odd one. I’m about three quarters through, and while it’s full of interesting bits and pieces, the writing is dull. Really dull. Almost as dull as this blog post. The stuff about pirates is fun, but could have fitted in a fraction of the words. I’ll finish it because the examples are interesting, I just wish it was more coherent. Quite annoying – as I think it’s a properly interesting idea.

How Not to be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life

This one is more like it. Fun to read, reasonably challenging early on. Makes you think, rather than telling you what you should think. It even has doodly graphs. I love a doodly graph. I can tell it’s a good book already, because I keep putting it down to write notes about something else that came to mind.

I was okay at maths at school, but hit a pretty vertical wall at Uni when we started working with matrix stuff. So it’s satisfying to revisit some of that territory and feel better equipped to think problems through.

Thanks in large part, I’m sure, to Numberphile:

Constraints Gumroad

Since the launch kickstarter ended I’ve used Shopify to sell Constraints cards. Last weekend I closed the Shopify and added some simple Gumroad products directly to the constraints site.

A.B.E. – Always Be Experimenting.

There was nothing wrong with the shopify store, I just didn’t need anything that complicated to sell a handful of decks of cards a month. I wanted to experiment with a few things, but it’s not the quickest system to play around with so I always put it off.

I looked at other options, and Gumroad seemed to be well used, especially in the web learning community.

I only had an hour or so, but setup was quick and easy. Testing was easy, and the first sale through the new system landed pretty quickly. We’ll see if there are any unexpected consequences.

I haven’t started experimenting yet, but shortening the journey from the website to completing the purchase should hopefully at least make life easier for people who want a deck.

new shop buttons


Over the past few months I’ve been spending a fair amount of time enthusing about the fun that can be had with cheap electronic components off ebay. Primarily with enthusiastic fire starter Ian Isted .

A couple of Arduino boards, some basic jumpers and resistors, and a few simple components can be used to create a huge number of great wee projects. We started chatting about creating a subscription service, so a trickle of cool components would arrive throughout the year without having to individually order them. Like a beerbods for shift registers and IR detectors.

Some of our favourite things on the internet are youtube videos by that aussie bloke or Julian simply opening their mail and looking at the electronics they received.

This might make us nerds, I don’t know.

Either way – postduino was born.

postduino artwork

We’re still working on the details, but we’re hoping to launch on kickstarter sometime in May.

A lot of retailers sell components for $10 that you can find on ebay for $1.50. The exact same component. For the cost of one of those components we can send enough goodies to complete a half dozen projects.

We’re hoping to fill a lot of peoples bits boxes really cheaply, share some great projects, and introduce a lot of new people to the fun of electronic tinkering by demystifying it. We also hope to remove a lot of the risk for people, as letting the magic smoke escape will only cost them a dollar or so, rather than $20 a time.

As an example I tried to tally up the cost of the car below.

postduino project

Yes, that’s a wireless joystick in a business card box. The chassis was the most expensive part, which I think cost £20 including the wheels and motors. The rest cost no more than £10 if you use clone arduino boards.

Wheels and motors could have been £5 – and a home made chassis would have been more fun anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s cheaper than most people would expect. Oh – and no soldering was needed.