Archive for the ‘Geekdom’ Category


The Signs of Science

May 8, 2017

One of the best parts of the March for Science Sarah and I attended on April 22, 2017, in Washington, D.C., was the nearly endless creativity the marchers put into their signs. Not too many were repeated, and few would have been considered offensive. The preview image here is my sign, cribbed from “Stand back! I’m going to try science!” of XKCD origin.

All the signs we photographed:

Signs of Science
Science! Education. Health. Curiosity. Policy. Discovery. Imagination. Technology. Innovation. (The other side of Dr. Jean Cook's sign.)
Science! Education. Health. Curiosity. Policy. Discovery. Imagination. Technology. Innovation. (The other side of Dr. Jean Cook's sign.)
Science! Education. Health. Curiosity. Policy. Discovery. Imagination. Technology. Innovation. (The other side of Dr. Jean Cook's sign.)
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TramBot (Originally published in 1998 or 1999)

March 6, 2017

The TramBot—When my nephew Dave Matheson (a veterinary grad student at Prince Edward Island) stopped in for a day-long visit, we constructed a TramBot that ran on a string stretched across an upstairs room with a light-activated set of “grabs”—perfect for bombing runs. This was inspired by the “Bomber Fly” seen in assorted Lego media.

Yes, I Always Over-Design

If you’ve seen the Bomber Fly in the Lego publications, then you will immediately notice that my creation is much bigger, and probably heavier. I developed a fear of minimalism after my very first RIS creation quite literally shook itself to pieces in under 10 seconds.

Features and Innovation Details

  • The forward-reverse pulleys are driven by a belt drive, although a geared drive would have been fine in this case.
  • There are bumpers connected to touch sensors on each end that reverse the drive pulley motor when triggered. Because the string is at about a 45º angle to the wall, we added the tires to keep the bumper rods from slipping. (Before this was done, the bumpers would sometimes just glance off the wall without triggering the touch sensors, as the robot tried to keep moving.)
  • We solved the problem of timing on the “grabs” (the name alludes to Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation Thunderbirds program—see by using a belt drive, and setting the motor run time to one second longer than the absolute maximum necessary. This allowed the grabs to automatically re-synchronize, be movable by hand, and grip objects of various sizes.
  • The grabs are light-triggered. We used the Lego light sensor, and programmed it so that a flashlight beamed on it would trigger the grabs’ open or close sequence. This allowed for precise payload delivery.


My sons Isaac and John, my Nephew Dave, and I perform some final adjustments and testing.

To Boldly Go …


3-Year-Old Builds Lego MindStorms Robot

March 6, 2017

Isaac’s First Robot—The “Punching Robot”

(Original date, approximately 1998.)

Hey, He Was Only 3

At three years old, my son Isaac might have been the youngest person ever to construct a Lego MindStorms project. Although he calls it a robot, it is more of a contraption than a real robot … but I cannot help but be impressed.

Isaac built this entirely without help—he even connected the RCX to the motor properly on his own. The design is entirely his; I never built anything similar.

Isaac grins as he contemplates his world conquest.

This contraption, which he calls a “punching robot,” uses an assortment of Lego axles that rest within a 40t gear, that is directly mounted on the motor. Attached to several of the outer axles are the shock absorber pieces. These shock absorber pieces extend outward from the central gear when the motor is activated, and will repeatedly punch whatever the robot is placed near.

A close-up of the punching mechanism.


Weasley Clock Code

December 4, 2016

Back at Veracode’s last Hackathon, I published the video below. People have started discovering this and asking questions about it, so here is the code for it:

  Weasley Clock

  Created by Doug "LegoDoug" Wilcox for Veracode Hackathon IX.

  Video of the completed project is at

  "Share and enjoy."


// Arduino SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) library -
#include <SPI.h>             
// Arduino Ethernet library -
#include <Ethernet.h>        
// Arduino Stepper library -
#include <Stepper.h>         
// Adafruit REST IO library -
// See also
#include "Adafruit_IO_Client.h"    

// assign a MAC address for the ethernet controller.
byte mac[] = {
  0x8C, 0xDC, 0xD4, 0x4A, 0xC9, 0xC2

// initialize the library instance:
EthernetClient client;

// last time the Arduino connected to the server, in milliseconds
unsigned long lastConnectionTime = 0;        
// delay between retrieving updates, in milliseconds
const unsigned long requestInterval = 5000L; 

// Configure Adafruit IO access. You will need to create your own 
// Adafruit IO account (free), and set up a feed, and provide your
// feed and AIO key in the code below.
#define AIO_FEED   "weasleyclockstatus"

// Create an Adafruit IO Client instance.  Notice that this needs to take a
// WiFiClient object as the first parameter, and as the second parameter a
// default Adafruit IO key to use when accessing feeds (however each feed can
// override this default key value if required, see further below).
Adafruit_IO_Client aio = Adafruit_IO_Client(client, AIO_KEY);

// Alternatively to access a feed with a specific key:
Adafruit_IO_Feed clockFeed = aio.getFeed(AIO_FEED, AIO_KEY);

// States - These are the codes that correspond to specific clock positions.
const String LD_HOME         = "ld_na";
const String LD_TRAVELING    = "ld_tr";
const String LD_VERACODE     = "ld_of";
const String LD_CHURCH       = "ld_ch";
const String LD_MORTAL_PERIL = "ld_mp";
const String LD_GLOUCESTER   = "ld_gl";

// Steps - How many steps the motor needs to move to point to a specific position 
// on the clock.
const int STEPS_HOME         = 0;
const int STEPS_TRAVELING    = 750;
const int STEPS_VERACODE     = 1600;
const int STEPS_CHURCH       = 2450;
const int STEPS_MORTAL_PERIL = 3350;
const int STEPS_GLOUCESTER   = 4350;

// Someday, I will determine what this actually does. (I don't think, functionally, 
// it has any affect.)
const int stepsPerRevolution = 200;  

long motorPosition = 0L;         // Number of steps the motor has taken.
String fValue = "";              // Feed value.

Stepper clockStepper(stepsPerRevolution, 7, 6, 5, 4, 8);

void setup() {
  // start serial port:
  while (!Serial) {
    ; // wait for serial port to connect. Needed for native 
      // USB port only, on certain Arduino models.

  // give the ethernet module time to boot up:
  // start the Ethernet connection using a fixed IP address and DNS server:
  //Ethernet.begin(mac, ip, myDns);
  // Or, just start it with dynamic DNS by giving it a MAC address.
  // print the Ethernet board/shield's IP address:
  Serial.print("My IP address: ");


void loop() {

  // Wait for a bit and read the current feed value.
  Serial.println(F("Waiting ..."));
  // To read the latest feed value call the receive function on the feed.
  // The returned object will be a FeedData instance and you can check if it's
  // valid (i.e. was successfully read) by calling isValid(), and then get the
  // value either as a text value, or converted to an int, float, etc.
  FeedData latest = clockFeed.receive();
  if (latest.isValid()) {
    Serial.print(F("Received value from feed: ")); Serial.println(latest);
    // By default the received feed data item has a string value, however you
    // can use the following functions to attempt to convert it to a numeric
    // value like an int or float.  Each function returns a boolean that indicates
    // if the conversion succeeded, and takes as a parameter by reference the
    // output value.

    // Want some fun? Learning about "conversion from 'FeedData' to non-scalar 
    // type 'String' requested" the hard way.
    // If I remember correctly, it was a casting error caused by trying to use 
    // the 'latest' variable as a String, directly.
    // The following line casts 'latest' to a string and lets us use it as 'fValue'.
    fValue = latest;
    if(fValue == LD_HOME) {
    if(fValue == LD_TRAVELING) {

    if(fValue == LD_VERACODE) {
    if(fValue == LD_CHURCH) {
    if(fValue == LD_MORTAL_PERIL) {
      Serial.println("Mortal Peril!");
    if(fValue == LD_GLOUCESTER) {
  } else {
    Serial.print(F("Failed to receive the latest feed value!"));


void stepBySteps(int newPosition) {
  if(motorPosition == newPosition) {
    Serial.println("No movement required.");

  long steps = newPosition - motorPosition;
  motorPosition = newPosition;
  Serial.print("position should now be:" );


Crazy to Get to Space

June 21, 2016

Remember Scotty’s remark about his nephew in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? (No, of course you don’t.) Scotty explains to Kirk, after an inappropriately emotional response by Midshipman Preston: “My sister’s youngest, Admiral. Crazy to get to space.”

“Come on, R2, we’re going.”

Although I never pursued a career as an astronaut, I certainly remain, “Crazy to get to space,” and the description from Khan still resonates with me. I may yet get there, in my lifetime, especially with companies like SpaceX competing to make the cost of getting to orbit as low as possible.

For now, I’m going to have to settle for a proxy. Eliszabeth* MacDougal, one of the human family members I inherited when I married Sarah Latimer, has a friend, Cian Branco, who offered her the chance to send something small up on the Terrior Improved Orion rocket as part of the RockSat-C program. Eliszabeth realized this would be thrilling to me, and passed along her opportunity.

I ordered a new Lego R2-D2 minifigure, and a few parts to complete another mini-me as an astronaut, and shipped them off to Eliszabeth. They will be going up on Thursday, June 23, 2016, somewhere between 6:00 and 10:00 am, from the NASA facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. (My son, David, and I stood on our roof in the cold in October, 2014, to watch a night launch from Wallops.)

Geeking out!

Thank you, Eliszabeth!

New: I have just learned that my minifigs will have company on this voyage: Benny, from The Lego Movie will also be on this flight.


*Yes, this is the correct spelling.


Update: (June 23, 2016)

:: sigh :: Postponed until tomorrow.



Update: (June 24, 2016) I got up early to watch the launch today! In my mind, I was thinking, Saturn V. Long, slow acceleration. This is, uh, quite a bit smaller, and it zoomed upward so quickly I missed the rocket itself in the launch video screen capture. (The video will be posted soon by NASA/Wallops, anyway.) The crew was worried about missing the launch window due to weather, and debated skipping the camera alignment step. In addition to the pad camera, there was a UAV (drone) flying around, as some of the pictures below show.

The rocket got to its apogee of 119.08 km (74.0 miles) almost immediately. The payload detached successfully, and hit splashdown in the Atlantic, where it would be recovered, only 8 or 9 minutes later.

Very exciting! I reiterate my gratitude.

Here’s the official NASA post: NASA Successfully Launches Suborbital Rocket from Wallops.

kdiff3 6242016 60716 AMs

kdiff3 6242016 60327 AMs

kdiff3 6242016 60614 AMs

kdiff3 6242016 60617 AMs


Update: (June 24, 2016, 16:05) Just got the official word from Cian: “Hey Doug, will send pics a bit later, currently wrecked. Your minis all went up and returned fine. I have pics of reintegration. Cheers!”


Here's the recovered payload module, showing where my guys were attached in their Crew Module.

Here’s the recovered payload module, showing where my guys were attached in their “Crew Module.”

The Crew Module was carefully sealed with electrical tape.

The Crew Module was carefully sealed with electrical tape.

 Another view of the Crew Module.

Another view of the Crew Module.

Here's how the minifigures actually traveled.

Here’s how the minifigures actually traveled.

 And here they are, reassembled, along with Benny, who was glued into another part of the payload module

And here they are, reassembled, along with Benny, who was glued into another part of the payload module.

Video of the Launch:

Video from an observer to whom I am grateful.

Here is the launch from the NASA/Wallops feed!


Veracode Hackathon 9: The Weasley Clock

May 6, 2016


Dear QuickBooks:

February 29, 2016

Dear Intuit/QuickBooks:

When importing an IIF (Intuit Interchange Format) file, you might report “The NAME field in this file is too long” as something other than “Error on line X – You can’t change the type of a name or a add a duplicate name.” (You may recall, this is the same problem that remains unfixed from QuickBooks ’99.)

—A Customer

P.S.: Thank you for removing my online banking support, unless I choose to upgrade for several hundred dollars.



R2 Really Gets Around

October 16, 2015

That’s right! Look who seems to be part of Lost’s Dharma Initiative.



Android v. iPhone

May 5, 2015

Spock, from Star Trek, looking incedulous, with a caption that reads, 'When an iPhone user sees you drop a fresh battery into your ’droid.'


The Scale of the Solar System (or, the Solar System to Scale)

October 11, 2014

“Space,” [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen …

Inspired by this NASA Web page, and Miss Sarah’s work-related interest in space science (too bad she spent all those years not reading science fiction), we decided to lay out our solar system in a manageable scale, complete with to-scale outlines of each planet.

Naomi plants herself just outside the orbit of Mars.
(Naomi plants herself just outside the orbit of Mars.)

Here are the scale sizes and distances, along with the real distances.

Body Diameter (mm) Avg. Distance
Distance (in) Avg. Distance
in AUs
km miles
Sun 17.00 0.0 0.0 0.0 0 0
Mercury 0.06 0.8 28.8 0.4 58,000,000 35,000,000
Venus 0.15 1.4 50.4 0.7 108,000,000 67,000,000
Earth 0.16 2.0 72.0 1.0 150,000,000 93,000,000
Mars 0.08 3.0 108.0 1.5 228,000,000 142,000,000
(Asteroids) 0.00 4.0 to 8.0 144.0 to 288.0 2.0 to 4.0 450,000,000 279,000,000
Jupiter 1.75 10.5 378.0 5.2 778,000,000 484,000,000
Saturn 1.47 19.0 684.0 9.5 1,427,000,000 887,000,000
Uranus 0.62 38.0 1,368.0 19.0 2,871,000,000 1,784,000,000
Neptune 0.60 60.0 2,160.0 30.0 4,498,000,000 2,795,000,000
Pluto (avg) 0.03 79.0 2,844.0 39.5 5,906,000,000 3,670,000,000
Voyager 1* See 138.4 20,707,634,708 12,867,127,667
Voyager 2* for current locations of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. 114.2 17,089,103,421 10,618,676,567

*Distances of Voyager 1 and 2 are as of May 2, 2017.

Isaac and Naomi lay out the inner planets.
Isaac and Naomi lay out the inner planets.

I’ve made a Google Sheets spreadsheet with this data publicly available, here.

You can also grab and print this Acrobat/PDF file which has the sun and planets to the same scale as the planetary distances: planets_to_scale.pdf. At this scale, the sun is only 17 mm in diameter, Jupiter is tiny, and the inner planets are nearly invisible.


(“It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere, I’m all alone, more or less …”)

Now, are you ready to have your mind blown?

Our nearest neighboring star is a binary star, Alpha Centauri. It would be, if we could see it from the northern hemisphere. It’s about 4.3 light years (271,930.8 AUs; 25,277,549,200,000 miles; 40,680,272,100,000 km) away.

At the scales we’re dealing with, how far away do you think Alpha Centauri would be?

Think carefully. When you’re sure, follow this link for the answer.

Space … is … big.