Monday, February 15, 2010

Robots, Rockets, and Road Trips.

NOTE: This post is long and may ramble a bit. My primary reason for this post is because I need to put my thoughts down about my interests and hobbies, and the projects involving them. I believe this blog is as good a place as any to put my thoughts down, since I can readily access it to help stay focused. Also I am hoping that those who have similar interests or experiences will comment back and share their thoughts with me about the projects I now plan to work on. OK, so here I go.

Like many geeks, I have a lot of projects involving my interests, and hobbies that either never get started or are now stalled. Because of this I started thinking of creating a single project that will link all of my interests and hobbies, and I really haven't come up with anything aside from blogging about those interests and hobbies, and even then I will be posting on several different blogs. I can say though that after all my brainstorming I do have a short(er) list of projects that will help me stay focused on my goals and help me to continue to improve my skill sets.

Besides computers and networking technologies, embedded systems and robotics, I also have interests in sciences such as astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and geology. On top of all that I have to add my newfound sense of wanderlust and I have to throw in the occasional road trip. With all that to work with I just cannot see a single all encompassing project, but who knows, maybe some day something will click.

Now as I previously stated I have narrowed down my list of projects, and here are my thoughts so far:
  • Blogging and web sites: Not only will I be posting updates about my projects on various blogs of mine, but I will also be working to improve my HTML programming and other web related skills including content management to not only improve my skill set, but also improve my web sites which are in sorry shape at the moment. Once I improve my HTML skills I should be able to create web interfaces for some of my projects so I can display data from meteorological instruments or other networked sensor arrays. I also hope that my writing and editing skills will benefit from my blogging. I have even gone so far as to pick up a copy of English Grammar For Dummies because over the last 30 to 40 years my grammar skills have really slipped. Lastly I will continue to post photos on my blog and sites, and hopefully my photography skills will improve and my photos will be more interesting and less off-kilter.
  • Computers and networking: This is not a project, but a fact of life. If I am going to move forward with any of my projects I have to broaden my knowledge of computers and networking. Not only do I need to maintain and sharpen my Windows skills, I also need to ramp up my understanding and use of Linux and UNIX (BSD) because some solutions will require the use of those operating systems. As for networking I need to better understand how to design and manage networks to handle data from various projects, and this must include a better understanding of wireless technologies.
  • Embedded systems: I have two primary areas of interest here. One is networked sensor arrays, and the other is network appliances for managing data from those sensor arrays. The projects I am thinking of here will also involve my interests in meteorology, oceanography, and geology. I thought of ways to involve my interest in astronomy, and the only thing that came to mind would involve CCD imagery and that is just too expensive for me at this time. I do have some prior experience with sensors (accelerometers, and thermal switches) and that will be helpful in moving forward with my work with sensors. The first area of interest I want to design and build a sensor array for will be meteorology. Basically I plan to design and build my own weather station. Why a weather station? Well for starters there are plenty of resources available for me to start off relatively cheaply and with a minimal learning curve. Not only will the station be gathering meteorological data, but it will also present that information to the Internet. Yes, I know this has been done many times over, but to me this is a fun and interesting project, so that is why I am doing it. After the weather station is up and running I will then take what I learned and apply it to designing and building monitoring platforms for collecting oceanographic and geological data. These will be more long term projects though, so I am not outlining them here. Along the way I may end up working on a few side projects such as getting my Ethenut board up and running or modding a Linksys NSLU2. While the latter is only a mod, it's a cool mod that I have been wanting to do for some time. Finally I will need to improve my C programming experience to effectively develop the embedded systems I am planning, and for me that is definitely a good thing. Some may say that some of what I am doing here does not really qualify as embedded systems, but to my understanding these projects are embedded systems or at least involve embedded systems so that is why I am listing them here.
  • Robotics: I have been wanting to work (play) with robotics for some time now, an now that I have a LEGO NXT kit and I need to get cracking. There are plenty of resources and books for the NXT, so just like the weather station I should be able to get moving fast. Once I have a decent foundation in robotics with the NXT I can then move forward with other more complex robotics kits or even develop my own robot. Who knows, I may even incorporate the data gathered from the sensor arrays I develop in to my robotics projects or vice versa.
  • Astronomy: For over 40 years now I have had an interest in astronomy, but never really pursued it. I finally decided now is the time for me to get off my duff and actually follow through and start pursuing my interest in earnest. I created the Cloudymidnights site and blog to not only keep my interest in astronomy when I am climatically challenged (which happens a lot in the Seattle area), but also to convey information to others interested in astronomy including the visually impaired and disabled who may want to pursue an interest in astronomy. I also have my Colas For The Cosmos project where I trade in Coke Rewards points to get telescopes or binoculars to give to disadvantaged children. I have gotten in a few viewing sessions with other people's telescopes, and I am hoping that in the near future I can purchase a decent telescope to get in some viewing on my own time. I also want to explore some low end radio astronomy projects, but those are down the road a bit.
  • Road Trips: OK, I don't plan to go ripping around the countryside like Barry Newman did in Vanishing Point, but I do plan to get out and see the country more, and in the process go to places that are linked in some way or another to all of my interests. I may head off to museums such as the American Museum of Radio and Electricity in Bellingham, or the Museum of Flight or Pacific Science Center in Seattle, and other local and not so local museums or facility of interest to a geek like me. I can also visit local aquariums such as the Seattle Aquarium, and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, and maybe, just maybe drive down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in CA. And then there is the observatory road trip I have been planning for years, but never been able to to take. For practical reasons I may have to break the trip up in to smaller legs, but I do want to visit observatories such as the one at Goldendale, Washington, as well as the observatories at Mount Wilson, Palomar and Griffith Park in California. There's also the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson Arizona, and complex of observatories on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, though the latter really can't qualify as a road trip until I get to Hawaii and then make my way up the mountain. There are many other sites of interest that I can visit and have not listed, and those of you reading this post are welcome to make suggestions if you want. Needless to say there is a lot to see out there, and while I may not be able to see everything, I sure am going to try and have fun while doing so. And to add even more geekiness to the road trips I picked up a copy of Hacking Google Maps and Google Earth, and I plan to incorporate even more maps in to my blogs. The book requires that I be familiar with HTML, and Javascript, and that it would be beneficial to have experience with scripting languages such as Pearl, and SQL databases such as MySQL, and this all fits in perfectly with my other projects. Also I recently picked up a refurbished GPS unit, and I plan to list the exact coordinates of many of the remote places I visit, so others can find them too. Many of the locations I listed for photos on my previous road trips were best guesses, but now I will have exact coordinates to use for the locations.

OK, so there it is. It is more of an outline than an actual list of clearly defined projects, and it is definitely long and rambles a bit, but for me this post is helping me move towards some long term and cherished goals. Several things I will need to consider will be the cost of doing all this and time involved. I am going to have to do all of this on the cheap and in my free time, and while that does present limitations it will also present opportunities to improvise and work around those limitations. I may be starting late, but I am at least starting and moving forward.

Feel free to post a comment if you want.

Cheers ~ Jim

PS: One footnote to the Road Trips section: I am happily reading John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley - In Search of America", and I have to say it is a great read.

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