Recommended Kit: Back to the Roots Oyster Mushroom Kit

My family gave me one of these Back to the Roots oyster mushroom kits for Father’s Day this year. I was not initially impressed: I babied the damn thing for a month, and got *nothing*; not a single damned filament of mycoprotein. Pissed off, I ditched it onto on my office desk down in the basement with the conviction to write a *very scathing* letter to the manufacturers. Then I got distracted for a month, and neglected both the kit and the letter writing. When I came home from the first day Maker Faire Detroit I discovered this:

Which, in just 24-hours, developed to this:

Which was *delicious* (as promised). So, I kept neglecting the kit. It’s three months later, and the kit just put out its *fourth* batch of mushrooms (i.e., twice as many as it’s supposed to). Yes, each batch is diminished in size from that first, but seeing as how I was only promised two, this strikes me as solid performance. I rate this a *Buy.*

UPDATE: About a week after this post went up I get an email out of the blue from one of the mushroom farmers at Back to the Roots, thanking me for my sticktoitiveness. Stand up folks all around, and clearly pretty responsive to customer concerns. I score this as another point in their favor.

Recommended Reading: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins

If you’ve enjoyed the “Electro-Skiffle Band” projects in SNIP, BURN, SOLDER, SHRED–or dug my Droid Voicebox talk at Maker Faire Detroit 2012–then you really, really need to check out Nic Collins’s Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. I give it multiple shout-outs in the book, but I’m being emphatic here: It’s impossible to overstate how inspiring and fun his book and projects are. I’m hugely indebted to Nic for having written it, and then revised it (the newest edition includes a DVD of audio and video examples, making it even awesomer than what my library had to offer when I first stumbled across this gem).

Also worth checking out is Nicolas Collins’s web site, which includes video tutorials and some great new circuits.

Recommended Buy: “Stop Motion Studio” for iPhone–Make Animated Films in Minutes with Your iThing!

Still hyped by a late coffee and this earlier post on iPhone stop-motion animation, I dropped 99-cents on Stop Motion Studio after dinner tonight. Elapsed time between downloading the app and uploading our finished video: *Literally* five minutes (including having to muck around with the App Store’s new “security questions” BS)–and that included poking around to figure out the controls, composing and shooting the frames, doing a little light editing to remove a totally botched shot, rendering, and adding the soundtrack (with foley work by my kid). The video and sound editing make this a total *steal*; it’s easily worth 10 times the current price, as it allows for a full end-to-end production all in one app (which is *great* if you need to work within a kindergarten attention span).
PRO TIP: Turn on both the “Grid” and “Overlay” options; they make lining up shots and maintaining frame continuity (i.e., the two most frustrating things about shooting stop-motion) a total breeze.
Seriously, *Buy This NOW*. You’ll make the investment back before bedtime.

Recommended Buy: LEGO Heroica Game

For the first time since having kids I had a solid Toys R’ Us win on Saturday, and it’s this:

BACKSTORY: My five-year-old and I go to the same dentist. Because I’m an adult man and skipped going to the dentist for about a half decade when I had no dental insurance, my visits to the dentist are persuasively unpleasant (i.e., Guess who had six cavities and a 1.5 hour deep clean after his first return-visit to the dentist? Guess who flosses daily–or more–now?) But, this is a cunning dentist who works his *ass* off to make sure that kids *love* going to the dentist. In addition to the cheap-plastic-from-China toy bin and a big ole goody bag of flossers and colorful cartoon toothbrushes and *krazy flavvvvorz-funtime adventure toothpaste!!!* and whatever, he also gives every cavity-free child a $10 gift card to Toys R’ Us–which represents a huge portion of my son’s annual income. Coupled with his $1 per week allowance (he feeds the pets) and occasional boons on birthdays and holidays, he periodically has a fair amount of buying power–provided he goes to Toys R’ Us (which itself is sort of a *grrrrrr* situation but, you know, I’m not gonna look a gift-card in the mouth).
After many delays (we’ve got a new baby), the boy and I finally made it out to the store on Saturday. He had long planned to purchase “Sensei Wu” from LEGO’s Ninjago line. I *hate* this line, because it is a totally rip-off: The Ninjago packages are basically a fighting-tops/Pokemon hybrid, cost $15-ish, and include one (1) specialized LEGO minifig that stands on one (1) weighted dreidel and can hold his many little specialized (and easily lost) swords. There’s nothing to build, and they aren’t fun to play with, but they have excellent marketing (including trade-style comic books my son reads over and over and over), and all the kids talk about them, and thus all the kids want them–so goes the world.
Fortunately, my local Toys R’ Us was out of Sensei Wu (suck it, Sensei Wu!) Our 5yo brave-faced it, but was clearly bummed as he wandered the aisles looking for a stray Wu tucked among the Technics sets and Space Police (or whatever they call that line). Then, while looking for breast-pump parts, I stumbled across an ill-situated end-cap of LEGO games marked down 30%.

I’m on record as being more than a little disappointed in the LEGO corporate trajectory–with its growing reliance on marketing tie-ins, uselessly hyper-specialized bricks, gendering, and violence-based problem solving–but I *love* the games they’ve been producing. As build kits they’re at least moderately entertaining, and the games themselves are balanced and playable by a *wide* age-range. A few weeks ago we’d been introduced to these LEGO games at my sister’s house, where my 10-year-old nephew, 5-year-old son, 66-year-old mother, and I all happily played MINOTAURUS–and were evenly matched. CREATIONARY is likewise a delight (and, thank Gott in Himmel, bounced the curs├ęd Candy Land from the mix).

Not only do these have the cachet of being for older kids, but my son has also recently gotten into D&D (in the form of DnDish–more on that in a future post), which made HEROICA: CAVERNS OF NATHUZ an especially easy sell. The HEROICA series (which includes four games, all under the same rule set, which can either be played independently or linked together into one epic campaign) is basically a boiled-down version of the movement/combat system from the old red-boxed Basic Dungeons & Dragons box from the 1980s.

The rules are simple enough that a precocious 5-year-old can grasp them (although the game is marketed for 7+), but complicated enough that it preserves that *lots can happen* and *many monkeywrenches* feel of dice-based RPGs. There isn’t really a narrative built-in–or mandated–but it’s easy to add a narrative layer (and, in our situation, kind of inevitable).
So, for the price of one goddamn Ninjago dude my kid got an entire game that he spent a happy hour *building*, and we then spent an enjoyable half-hour playing as a family (wife and new baby even enjoyed it, and neither of them are paper-and-pencil RPG people), and are already inventing new rules and scenarios for.
Plus Toys R’ Us actually had the breast-pump parts and organic diapers I needed. Critical hit!

Recommended Kit: MintyTime Binary Clock

My wife gave me a Wicked Devices MintyTime kit for Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday. It’s a great lil project, well within the reach of anyone with basic soldering skills and a steady hand. The instructions are clear (although, I swear to God, there’s no mention of placing resistor R17 on the board–I missed the damn thing on *two* separate builds of this kit [more on that follows]). Conclusion: A fun, geeky project with attractive result and a graceful design; recommended for anyone with basic soldering skills, or more advanced hobbyists who want a very tidily executed binary clock.
That said, what really pleased me was Wicked Device’s excellent customer service. After I built my first MintyTime, I discovered that it was keeping terrible time (loosing several minutes from every 24 hours) and burning through batteries like a lunatic. In fact, the behavior was *exactly* as bad as the extreme beta version they describe here (scroll down to point #4 on “Keeping Good Time”), back when they were trying to use the chip’s (crappy) onboard RC oscillator rather than a dedicated crystal oscillator.
I emailed Wicked Devices and got a reply that same morning. Evidently a chip with the old software had slipped in among the current batch. Vic was happy to reburn it for me. Unfortunately, I hadn’t socketed the chips when I built the kit (contrary to *my own damn advice!* Always socket your chips, kids!), and drove myself nuts trying to desolder a 16-lead DIP without destroying it (which is basically impossible with a standard soldering rig). I shared my grief with Vic, who suggested I mail the finished project to them, and they could reburn the chip onboard–which they did. Then the damn thing got lost by the USPS on the return leg, and so Wicked Devices sent me an entirely new kit *plus* the an extra little jumper board and jack so that you can run the clock off of a USB wall-wart instead of batteries.
The new clock runs *perfectly*: not a lost minute over the course of *weeks* of operation.
So, the final verdict: This is a good project from a great company; totally worthwhile purchase or gift.
[FYI: I’ve mounted the LEDs on the “wrong” side of the board here for my own aesthetic reasons.]