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Stewart's Blog

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Turn a wet bank holiday into a fun science day

August 25th, 2014

We had a very wet public holiday today. Whilst there are some indoor days out we could have gone to we instead decided to have a science day at home. The two main things we did today were to make a cola can cable car and an erupting volcano.

Cola can cable car

The cable car comes in a kit form. It just requires an empty soft drink can (soda can) and a screwdriver to assemble it with. It involves a bit of assembly, but nothing too difficult.

Once built then a string is tied between to objects (chairs / bed etc.) and the cable car mounted on it. The cable car drives along the string changing direction at each end.

It doesn’t come with any batteries (2 x AAA required). I normally by good quality batteries as I find they last longer, but we had some cheap batteries which were bought for kids light toys. I tried with the cheap batteries, which appeared to work at first, but after less than a full cycle the batteries failed to turn the motor, so I then changed to more expensive alkaline batteries which worked well.

The second was a “Horrible Science” Violent Volcano. This kit consists of a plastic volcano container with a small bottle of vinegar and a bag of bicarbonate of soda. It also includes full instructions and a pair of toy goggles.

The instructions suggested using it outdoors due to the mess, but I instead cleared an area of the lounge and we did the experiment on a tray. Our first attempt was quite good. It used all the supplied vinegar, but there was plenty of bicarbonate for subsequent experiments. It provided quite a good flowing volcano.

We added our own vinegar for our second attempt which was similar to the first.

Finally we did one more experiment adding our own vinegar and food colouring. This time it didn’t work immediately, so we gave it a little shake and this time it followed it’s name of “Violent Volcano”. The volcano fired out so much that it hit the ceiling. It didn’t take much cleaning up, but it does explain why it suggested trying it outside.

Fun and educational science activities.

Camping at Morcambe – Morcambe Seaside Festival

August 14th, 2014

It’s been almost a year since we had our camping trip during the Morecambe Seaside Festival, but here’s a quick run through of what we did for anyone looking to do something similar this year.

We like to try and plan at least one family camping trip a year, we decided upon Morecambe as it’s close to the Lake District, but also to the seaside. As a seaside town Morecambe doesn’t have the big attraction since Frontierland closed down, but it still has a small funfair near the sea front and it’s close enough to drive to Blackpool or to the Lake District for the day. The area is being redeveloped and there are activities throughout the summer as a Seaside Festival. The highlight for us being an air display whilst we were there.

Venture caravan site Morecambe - Vango Woburn 400 tent

The Venture Caravan Park includes a children’s play area, a small pool and some evening entertainment which fitted in with what we were looking for. It does have one disadvantage which is that it’s directly next to the Morecambe FC football ground, which can be noisy on a match day. This didn’t have too much impact those, as whilst it was noisy whilst the game was on it finished at a reasonable time and the noise died down quickly afterwards. The site is walking distance from Morecambe sea front (a reasonably long walk) which meant that we didn’t need to worry about finding somewhere to park when we went to see the fireworks.

One tip I have is that if you need camping gas (Calor) then try and get it onsite rather than the local garage. Unfortunately it was too late for us to swap our gas for a refill in the evening so we went to the Texaco Regent Park Filling Station which was very expensive refill at £24.99 for the small 4.5kg cylinder (typical price elsewhere is around £16 or less). I thought that they’d made a mistake when they told me how much it was, but they confirmed that was how much they charged and I even wrote to them afterwards to see if they’d charged me for the wrong size refill, but they didn’t reply.

This was also the first time we used our new tent, a Woburn 400 and we took a detour on the way to get an awning extension for it. This is a big improvement over our old tent as it’s better made, more waterproof and the optional awning means we can pitch it as a small tent for shorter camping trip (or when I take the kids on my own) and a larger tent with awning when we go camping as a family. It’s also much easier to put up than our previous tent.

We mainly used the site as a base to explore and spent a day at Windermere in the Lake District, a day at Blackpool and then some time in Morecambe including watching the air display and fireworks at the sea front.

On our first day we visited Windermere and took a boat trip on the lake.

Boat trip on Lake Windermere in the Lake District

The following day we visited Blackpool. The pleasure beach is very expensive and had very long queues. Also we weren’t staying long enough to justify the cost so we went on some rides on the pier instead.


Although Morecambe does have a sea front the tide goes a long way out leaving dangerous mud banks. We therefore drove to Thornton-Cleveleys to spend some time on the beach. Returning to Morecambe in time for the evening fireworks.

Fireworks at Morecambe Seafront - Seaside Festival

With our final day spent watching the air display.


Whilst the loss of Frontierland several years ago resulted in a decline in Morecambe as a seaside resort the Seaside Festival provides activities throughout the summer that is worth visiting. It’s also a good place to explore some of the other nearby places.

Conkers – indoor and outdoor attraction

August 13th, 2014

Conkers is an attraction in the National Forest. It has outdoor play areas and activities and an indoor activity centre with an environment themed learning zone and play area.

The outdoor area covers a large area, with a modern light railway to get between two areas of the site.

Light railway at Conkers

As well as play areas there are various nature walks, a maze and a barefoot trail.
There’s also an adventure course designed for teenagers and adults – which I enjoyed.

Conkers barefoot trail

The indoor zone was educational and had lots of opportunities for the children to play abd there were also some craft activities, where my children made a pipe cleaner insect.

If you are feeling more adventurous they offer various outdoor pursuits, but these have an additional charge and need to be booked in advance.

It’s hard to put Conkers into a category, but it’s a fun family day out that is educational, helps keep you fit and is great fun. books – a new way of reading

August 13th, 2014

I’ve written before about my dislike of DRM, especially on ebooks (The problem with DRM on ebooks). Another thing that is great is when you can get a book for free, but with the option to reward the author by giving a donation. This is what I’ve done with a series of books called The Afterlife Series by Mur Lafferty. The current books have already been funded through crowdfunding, but the author is now looking for donations to help support the writing of the next book in the series.

You can download the books, read them and then if you think the author deserves a thank you send them a donation to thank them for their current book and encourage them to write more.

One of the great things about this is that you can read books that you wouldn’t normally pick up if you had to pay. In the case of this book it didn’t really sound like a book I’d be interested in, but as it didn’t cost me anything I thought I’d give it a go. I started reading and really enjoyed it, so read the whole series. I then sent the author a thank you donation through

If I had to pay for the book up front then I don’t think I would have ever considered reading it, but now I have I was happy to pay for it.

Read the book yourself and see what you think:
Heaven – The Afterlife Series I by Mur Lafferty

It will be great to see other books follow that model, but there risks to the author that they won’t get sufficient donations to make it work their while creating new books. There are however two other ways that books can be unglued, including “Buy to Unglue” where you buy the ebook (still DRM free) and when they raise enough money the book is available for free and “Pledge to Unglue” where if the book gets enough advance pledges then they make the book available to all for free. I’ve already pledged against some of the unglued books from when first launched. It’s well worth taking a look at what campaigns are running or if there are any any existing unglued books that take your fancy.

New .UK domain name –

June 23rd, 2014

UK websites are now being found using the new .uk domain. This means that as well as the sites ending and etc. there will now be sites ending directly with .uk

Days Out Diary - fun days out in the UK

I have registered my first website which is This is in addition to the original site address at I think this is a great improvement in the name for my site. The Days Out Diary website is not run with corporate aims, it’s designed as a public information site. Then it’s not run as part of an organisation or charity as such so didn’t fit in with the domain either.

So now it’s shorter and has a more appropriate name to match it’s purpose.

You can now register .UK domains through your own hosting / DNS provider – or find out more at: Dot UK launch website.

Please visit Days Out Diary website for days out in the UK or holidays in the UK and abroad.

Raspberry Pi club – Programming the GPIO – Traffic Light LEDs

June 9th, 2014

One of the things I’ve been doing as a STEM Ambassador is to help support a Raspberry Pi club at a local high school. At first the club was led by the sixth form students, with the teachers and myself helping out as required. This was working well at first, but with many of the older students now on study leave the momentum has been slowing down.

I have therefore created a worksheet on how to program the GPIO ports on the Raspberry Pi to try and give them a bit of hands-on with a bit of physical computing. This is a basic first step (many of the students are still taking their first steps in Python programming). I hope that it helps to get them enthusiastic about what they can achieve by interfacing the Raspberry Pi to the real world.

Raspberry Pi traffic light LED on breadboard

I’ve made the materials available including a teachers guide, student worksheet and the Fritzing diagram available. It may be useful for other Raspberry Pi / STEM clubs or for teaching in schools.

Humble Bundle – DRM free games for Linux and Android and eBooks

June 2nd, 2014

I have bought many games and Ebooks through Humble Bundle. I don’t blog about them very often as the bundles are usually available for about a week and by the time I get around to writing the blog then that time is nearly over. I wanted to blog about this bundle though because it includes one of my favourite Android games (which I also know of a potential fix to get it running) and as a reminder about what Humble Bundle is all about.

What is Humble Bundle?

Humble Bundle is best known for it’s games bundles. Most games are available for Linux, OS X and Windows. Some bundles are also available for Android. When purchasing the games you are able to set your own price based upon how much the games are worth to you. You can also get to choose where the money goes distributed between the game creators, charities and a tip to Humble Bundle.

It is worth bearing in mind that some games (generally the better games) are only available when paying over a certain amount, based on either the average amount paid or a fixed amount. Although the buyer can still choose whatever percentage of that goes to charity.

There are also some eBook bundles which sell DRM free ebooks which can be read on any browser. Again you choose the amount to pay (with minimum payment for certain books) and the payments also support charity. It is in ebooks that I think that having the books available DRM free is more important. See: The problem with DRM restricted ebook formats

Fieldrunners 2

Field Runners 2 - Humble Bundle game for Linux and Android

One of my favourite Android games has been Fieldrunners HD, which I first bought as part of an earlier Humble Bundle. Field runners is a tower defence game. The current bundle “PC and Android Bundle 10″. Fieldrunners 2 has better graphics, more towers and new more complex levels. It does have one thing though – in app game purchases which I am not in favour of. It does appear that you can play the game without any additional purchases as long as you have a reasonable amount of patience.

Fix for running Fieldrunners 2 on Nexus 4 with Android KitKat

When I first tried running Fieldrunners 2 on my Nexus 4 it didn’t get past the start splash screen before crashing. A search on the Internet showed that others were having the same problems, but didn’t have any sign of a fix. I then remembered that some time ago I’d enabled the new Art virtual machine on my Nexus. This is the first time I’ve had a problem with art which is why I’d forgotten I’d even made the change. I changed back to the Dalvik JIT virtual machine which fixed the problem. This has a performance impact on Android, but is worth it to be able to run Fieldrunners 2.

If you don’t understand this and you’re running KitKat then chances are you don’t need to worry about it. It may be a problem for future versions of Android when art becomes the default.

Buy Humble Bundle Games and Ebooks

Design and build a Raspberry Pi robot – draft document

March 24th, 2014

When I first showed my Raspberry Pi based “Ruby Robot” at the Raspberry Jam at Pycon UK, I promised a guide would be forthcoming. I’ve now finished the first draft of my guide to creating the robot.

Ruby Robot - Raspberry Pi powered robot vehicle based on Magician Robot

The guide does more than just take the reader through the steps to create a robot. It also covers the design process involved in creating the design and some of the decisions I went through in creating the robot.

eBook - Desgin and build a Raspberry Pi robot

The robot is just the starting point to create an initial working version. I have several ideas for new features and improvements to the robot, but the idea is for the reader to have their own ideas and turn it into a truly personal robot.

At the moment the guide is a draft pdf document. I intend to publish this as a free eBook in future (including putting it on the Raspberry Pi store). As this will be made available free of charge I don’t have a budget for technical reviewers or proof-readers, but would very much appreciate feedback on the guide if anyone finds any mistakes.

Download the draft document below:

or read more at: PenguinTutor – Guide to the Raspberry Pi based Ruby Robot

Young scientists – The Mentos fountain challenge

March 21st, 2014

This is Science and Engineering week – a celebration of science and engineering.

When we visited the Big Bang Fair at the NEC we watched the Kaboom! Show and on the way out we were given a leaflet about the Mentos Fountain Challenge. This looked like an ideal experiment to try with my children.

The basic idea is to put Mentos in a bottle of diet coke and watch the fountain that spurts out of the top of the bottle. By changing some different things (like temperature of the cola and chopping up the Mentos) then the size of the fountain can change. Here’s a video of what we did:

As you can see it was very messy and we had loads of fun. The original plan was that it was just going to be the children that did the experiment, but during the first attempts they were not able to get the mentos into the bottle fast enough. So I helped with the remaining ones.

Mentos fountain challenge for Science Week

Our fountains weren’t that impressive compared to some others, but we had lots of fun and learned that we should only change one variable at a time so that we know what causes the change in the fountain.

Day out at Beamish open air museum

March 17th, 2014

I visited the Beamish open air museum with my son during the February half-term holiday, there were also special World War 2 events during the week. It was a sunny day which made a nice change, but as a result it was very popular at the museum. After we parked up we had to join a long queue to get our tickets and there were also long queues for the trams and for the food and sweet shops.

The site covers a large area. Whilst everywhere is within walking distance the are trams and buses that can help get around the site. My son is a big fan of trams and trains so we spent quite a bit of time travelling around the site on the trams. For the half-term week the usual trams had been replaced with former Blackpool trams which were on loan to the museum.

Former Blackpool Tram at Beamish open air museum

After exploring the site by tram, we went to the pit village planning to visit the fish and chip shop. When we arrived at the fish and chip shop the queue went far outside the door and so bought lunch from the pitman’s pantry instead. There was still a long queue, but it wasn’t too long. There was not much choice for food as the hot pies were either gone or still cooking. I had a cold pork pie which was delicious, reminded me of some I used to have when I was young.

We didn’t go into the mine, but we did look around the rest of the colliery buildings. There is also a school where my son had a go with using a slate and chalk, and an inkwell and pen.

School at the Beamish Museum - writing with an inkwell and pen

Next we visited the town and railway station. Trains only run on certain days during the summer, but the station building was open. There are lots to visit in the town, including shops, houses and a bank including being able to see the safes under the bank. The sweet shop had another long queue and we didn’t wait in the queue on the first time we visited Beamish.

A good thing about Beamish is that each ticket is essentially a season ticket valid for a full year. This meant that the following day after visiting Locomotion railway museum at Shildon we had a few hours spare so visited Beamish again. There were less visitors when we visited on the second day which made it much easier to get around and see parts of the museum. We were able to go to a few more of the things we missed on the previous visit including the sweet shop and the home farm.

Tractor at Home Farm in Beamish Museum

With lots to see and do there should be something to please everyone at Beamish. My son enjoyed the trams most, but we also enjoyed visiting the rest of the site as well.

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UK days out, children and holiday information is also available on the Days Out Diary web site
Linux, LPI and the Quiz / Test Program posts are also available on the Penguin Tutor website
First Aid Information, first aid games and first aid practice test / quiz entries are also available on the First Aid Quiz Web site