Mom’s Alarm Clock

It was 1980 …

Palo Verde High School in Tucson, Arizona had an excellent Industrial Arts program. Years before, in the early sixties, the Tucson Independent School District had the foresight to offer training in many industrial trades, building our school with an external set of buildings for shop classes. We had auto, wood, welding, sheet metal, machine, and electronics shops. They didn’t call it a “magnet” school back then, they just started building them that way.

At registration, in the onset of my freshman year, I rushed across the cafeteria to trade computer punch cards with a teacher and enroll in the rotating program of courses that in my case started with electronics.

Yearbook picture of the Electronics Club

The semester began with lots of training on basic circuits followed by experiments at the school’s Lab-Volt benches. Near the end of the quarter, with all the basic stuff accomplished, it was time to construct our final project: An LED digital clock. Our teacher, Mr. Reynolds, explained that after our parents ponied up the cash, he’d order a clock module kit for each student from Digi-Key. Mom agreed to fund my endeavor, and I agreed to build her a digital clock!

I knew about Digi-Key already. Back then, the electronics magazines like Popular Electronics had mail-in cards inserted in them where you’d circle a few numbers, send them back to the publisher, and the corresponding companies would send you their catalog or information on. Free stuff in the mail! Yes, I was already getting the Digi-Key catalogs, but this would be the first of many components I’d actually receive from them.

A 1979 Digi-Key ad for the clock modules and kits

The kits themselves were pretty basic. You’d get a National Semiconductor MA1023 clock module, a transformer, and four pushbutton switches. What you did from there was up to you. Assembly involved soldering and wiring the switches and transformer to the module and then wiring the transformer to an AC cord. My personal customization was to add a speaker and volume pot to make it an alarm clock.

Mr Reynolds required that we make or modify some kind of enclosure for the project. I think most students used the standard plastic enclosures with metal lids that they drilled, cut, and filed to suit.

For my enclosure, I chose to bend some yellow sheet plastic into a three sided C-shape. First I drilled the holes and made the cutout for the display bezel. Then I used a plastic bender/folder fabricated by our sheet metal and drafting teacher, Mr. Mentzer. That was made from a refrigerator defroster heating element and some heat retardant panels. At home, I hand crafted the pine sides using a jigsaw, router, and belt sander.

The clock module in back, speaker and switches up top, the volume pot to the left and the AC transformer to the right
The switch on the volume knob enabled the alarm.
You can see the MA1023 model number stamped in white on the PCB.
I made this vented back from uncoated masonite and covered the speaker with some printed fabric from Mom’s sewing notions. An underwriters knot was used as an internal strain relief for the the power cord

I was pretty proud of the work I did on that early project. Mom used it for years, and it still works great today.

Austin Historic Aerials

Austin Aerials from 1940 in Property Profile.
The path of the old Jollyville Road is shown
from MoPac to Spicewood Springs / McNeil Rd.

I’d previously mentioned finding online sets of historic aerial photographs of Austin, Texas and it’s surrounds. Those were found by following the link at the bottom of the Austin History Center‘s page for Aerial Photographs. Here is the direct link to that box repository.

Yesterday, I found out that the City of Austin has provided access to some of the the photo sets in a more user friendly format. They’re provided in a map form like you’d find in the satellite view of Google Maps. Wow!

Let’s go look around

  1. Go to the Austin GIS Property Profile website.
  2. Click that button that looks like a less than sign to hide the Welcome pane.
  3. Start with the full map, or navigate to your point of interest.
  4. Click the Historic Layers button
  5. Expand the Aerials drill-down list
  6. Check the box for the year you want. 1958 is awesome!
  7. Hit OK and imagine a time machine noise.

If your map goes/stays blank, your time machine landed off the map. There probably isn’t any aerial data for that year. Zoom out to see where the year’s data is.

If you want to fade the aerial photo layer to see the original base map underneath:

  1. Click the Change visible map layers button
  2. Look under Layer Catalog/Aerials/(your year selection).
  3. Slide the slider to the left.

You can also add other layers like the red centerlines of today’s streets as shown above.

  1. Click the Change visible map layers button
  2. In the left pane click the checkbox under Property/AddressInformation/Street Centerline

The street centerlines only show up at higher zoom levels

What did you find?

I absolutely can not wait to find out what others discover or would like to share about Austin’s past. Do feel free to share something here. Also, consider sharing it in your own blog post or in this great Facebook group.

Keeping It All Together

Today I was thinking back to those first days at home after my latest downsizing, I remember a feeling of exhilaration at the possibilities of moving forward on my back-burner projects. I knew I’d have to balance job search activities with getting to the backlog of things that had been building while I’d been employed. The tempest of ideas swirling upstairs was nearly overwhelming. I needed a plan. I sat down with a sheet of paper and started listing my ideas.

At last, the mess of ideas was there: Documented, saved, I wouldn’t forget those things. The next step was organizing and ordering. I knew I’d need to bounce between different tasks and not try to concentrate on doing each thing one at a time. The idea was to incrementally move along on several fronts. I came up with a few top level categories to bounce between:

  • Job Search Activities
  • New Skill Training
  • Tech Projects
  • Home Chores / Maintenance
  • Yard Chores / Maintenance
  • Computer Tasks
  • Car Maintenance
  • Shopping
  • Errands
  • Appointments
  • Creative Projects
  • Scouts
  • Fun
  • Books/Music/Movies to check out

Then I started prioritizing the sub-tasks. At that point I realized I’d benefit from some kind of organizational productivity software.

I’d previously used Excel for this kind of list, but that seemed cumbersome. Especially with prioritization. I was concerned with losing tasks during cut/paste or blendering columns during sorts. I wanted to be able to check off the list items on my cell phone while shopping, or look at the list while away from home. Google documents was a possibility in that sense, but still cumbersome.

I eventually found out about Todoist. I’m using their free version to keep and organize my lists. I like the Google cloud storage for the lists, the easy way to check off what’s been completed, and the intuitive reordering.

[5/26/19 Edit: I’ve now heard of Trello (through the comments below) and have started using it. It’s a little more complicated, but seems to handle teamwork a little better.]

Composition Book

I still use a good old composition notebook for working out my daily list of tasks and priorities, but Todoist holds the master list. The notebook also gives me a place to quickly work out some ideas before they get put into Todoist.

Today, I’m getting ready to start a new job adventure. Checking to see if I have anything to finish before I start next week. I’m also working out how to re-organize our family day and meal plans. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed at having not finished everything I carefully jotted down in those early days of the “break”, but I’m also realizing that through that organization, I’ve accomplished a lot along the way.

Have you found any super-useful list management software? Please share it with us.

Five Blog Names That Didn’t Make It

During my ponderings on naming this fledgling WordPress site, I went through a few ideas that were skipped for various reasons. I liked the idea of having a funny and memorable title, but ditched the following for various reasons. A few might still be useful ideas for you. Feel free to grab or modify.

5. Steve’s Evil Plan

I happened on this idea while setting up my learning plan on Esri’s training portal: Esri Academy. I believe I was prompted to name the plan and … Bwhahaha! I still smile every time I return to keep working on it. I decided that calling this site a plan, meant I might actually need to put a plan out there. You know, I’m not entirely sure what the plan for the site is. I do know it involves sharing insight and experience on things that I’m interested in. Not so evil I guess. Maybe “Steve’s Not-So-Evil Plan?”

4. The Cheatsheet

I like making cheat sheets for myself. Hints, something to remind my later self how I did something. Sharing a bunch of these could be useful for someone else, were I to flesh them out some and keep them up to date. For me, this name seems to limit your expectations of what you’d find here, so I skipped over it.

3. <RANT ON>

Initially I liked the idea for this one. an HTML style section header for a collection of ranting posts about stuff. Each post could end with </RANT>, <RANT OFF>, or the terse </>. I suppose it’s a fun idea at first, but not really the way I like to start conversations. Too shouty or confrontational I guess. It’s out. I suppose it could be modified to be more positive: <COOL STUFF>here</>.

2. The Toolshed

If you’ve got a blog with a bunch of how-tos on computer tools, this might be a good metaphor. You might extend idea that with other site areas: garage, kitchen, living room, playroom, bookshelf, work bench, junk drawer, etc. Obviously, there are other connotations that suggest I should probably avoid this particular name.

1. Unintentionally Retired

That’s a sort-of-funny way at poking fun at the very real stigma of being downsized. Unfortunately, it sounds permanent which is not what I want at all. I still want to continue making money working at what I do including moving forward with new skills. I’ve got a family to feed and one more kid to put through college. That company’s miscalculation is not going to be the end my life’s work. It didn’t – I’m employed again.

And now …

Here’s my post describing The Front Burner.

Have you run across any good ones?

Please share with us!

Hardware … and Software

Yep, I go both ways. My penchant for hardware was fostered in the 3rd grade. My uncle got me a “crystal” radio kit for my birthday.

Science Fair Crystal Radio Kit

I also spent many after school hours at a friend’s house working on the Radio Shack electronic X-in-one kits. The first being his 100-in-1.

Science Fair 100-IN-1

Many others followed: My own 10-in-1, then a 150-in-1, and so on.

At the time, software was not a thing for kids my age. My interest in electronic circuits did get me looking at Popular Electronics magazine at the city and Jr. high school libraries. Eventually, I convinced my mom to get me a subscription for myself. I’d read those monthly issues in great detail, and I’d pick up old issues at bargain book sales.

Popular Electronics

Next came the subscription to Radio-Electronics.


My freshman year in high school finally provided me access to a TRS-80 Model I after school. The data processing classroom had two, and certain respectful students were allowed to learn on them until the janitor came to clean the room and lock the door at the end of his shift. I went out and plunked down $5.95 plus tax to get this manual so that I could start learning BASIC.

BASIC Computer Language – Instruction Book

I learned BASIC at home, with the computer, but then came into the classroom to try my programs. I also tried some programs out at Radio Shack, but would usually get shooed away by the sales team before I got very far.

It wasn’t too long before I started hearing about the ZX80, and then the big price drop happened at the introduction of the ZX81. I ordered an assembled unit and 16K memory expansion for about $150. I had my first computer.

ZX81 Kit Advertisement

From there, I got into the computer magazines: Compute! and Byte.


At that point, I was of both worlds: Hardware … and Software.

I still tend to work right there, right at the bare metal interface of the two worlds. That duality always comes up in my job interviews. When I saw the following video for the first time, I realized that I’d forever remember it in every interview going forward.

The Origin of Job Interviews

May the 4th be with you

… et cum spiritu tuo.

Ah, May 4th. Star Wars day. This morning, I used Facebook’s memories feature to look up a few things I’d posted in years past. One post was simply the previous heading that translates to “… and with your spirit.” That’s the Latin form of the automatic Catholic response to “May the Lord be with you.”

My first post showing I knew date’s significance was from 5/4/2012:

May the 4th be with you!

The next year (2013), it was simply the cryptic:

Lots of kids were curious as to why I had these today.

Bringing those light sabers to the soccer game did let me take some fun pictures.

… an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
You’re not playing fair!
Ahh, lightsabers. They kind of get you right … there.

There are hundreds of how-tos on adding the lightsaber effect in Photoshop. Here’s one. I like this style with the colored outside glow on the white beam made from multiple, slightly separated line segments, forming a point.

In 2014, we’d been to the Austin Mini Maker Faire on the day before, so:

May the 4th be with you!

And today’s post (2019, at the top) starts with a mod from my 2016 post:

May the 4th be with you!

The halftone and edge enhancement from the top image was probably done in the ToonPAINT app I have on my iPod.

School Maker Faire

My exhibit table

My good friend Joey Ramirez was heading up the School Maker Faire® at the elementary school and he asked if I’d like to present my Star Display as an exhibitor. I’m definitely a Maker Faire kind of guy, so I jumped right on board.

The two-hour after-school event was put on by Joey and the PTA, with the help of the Thinkery and the local robotics teams. Sponsors included: Pawsitively Healing Veterinary HouseCalls, Steiner Cleaners, and RG Orthodontics.

Our family’s been immersed in the local STEM and robotics groups for years, so there were lots of friendly, familiar faces. I was glad to show what I’d been working on recently, and I was impressed by what they had accomplished since we were here.

A few of the other exhibits and activities


The robotics team hosted a nice interactive LEGO® robotics “play” area on their FIRST® FLL competition arenas. They also brought along two 3D printers that demonstrated the new equipment and skills they are using.

Student exhibits

Numerous school students presented their own tech and craft skills:

  • a giant rocket model made from PVC pipe
  • a plethora of Nintendo Labo projects
  • some excellent and arty craft glue projects
  • a flying Captain America shield made from cardboard and duct tape

The Thinkery

These exhibits were top notch and really got the kids involved in making:

  • Marble run chutes / sculptures on pegboard walls
  • Drawing with buzzy, wobbly, scribble bots
  • Building electric circuits that lit up and spun corks around like tops.

It’s a Major Award!

I was rather surprised that they handed out awards for the adult run exhibits, but it was a nice gesture on the part of the PTA. It made me feel like I’d won the science fair.

Wait… Doesn’t “coolest” override “coolest use”?

Well, it wasn’t a science fair, and maybe I didn’t really “win” after all, but I sure did enjoy it. I’m sure to be seen wearing my “winner” ribbon around town for at least 1.21 months. Thanks for the invite Mr. Ramirez, and thanks for bringing us all together to show our “maker” sides!