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Entries in diy (6)

Sunday
Jul152012

There's an app for that: how to make your own web-based summer reading app!

This time last year my little boy had just turned five. He was learning to swim and steadfastly refusing to learn to read. Rather than push the issue, I read to him as often as possible and figured he'd pick it up when he was ready. Only a few months later, and his kindergarten teacher had spearheaded a transformation. By the end of this school year, my pudgy-handed little five-year-old had become a tall, skinny rising first grader who, it seems, can't NOT read every billboard and street sign and cereal box he encounters.

Still, persuading him to read anything longer than a well-placed advertisement has been a challenge. He's added to his list of obsessions—pirates have had to make room for ninjas and Star Wars and...well...Angry Birds. Although we limit his screen time, I'm amazed at the ease with which he seems able to learn anything technological.

So I've tried to devise a way to keep him motivated to read. His school is doing a summer reading contest, but the end of the summer is as remote as the turn of the next century to a six-year-old. Still, I want to track his reading for the contest so he and his teacher will know how much he's accomplished over the summer. So I give him a point for every page he reads. He has to reach a certain number of points before he's allowed to spend his money on any kind of toy. Brilliant, right? Yeah, until you start trying to keep track of it. I mean, maybe you are more organized than I, but within the first few days of summer, I found myself trying to keep up with umpteen scraps of loose paper with scribbled titles and page numbers. 

So I turned to technology. I searched the Apple store for a summer reading app, but couldn't find anything that suited me. Everything was far more complicated than I wanted. I just wanted to be able to record the name of the book, how many pages (aka points) were in it, and a brief reflection from my son about what he liked about the book. Finally, I gave up looking and decided to make one for myself.

Using nothing but free services (Google Docs/Drive and DropBox, plus some freeware scripts and helpful tutorials), I was able to create a web "app"* that I can access from my iPhone, my iPad, or any device with access to the internet. My son just has to answer a few questions, and hit submit—every entry is automatically dropped into a Google spreadsheet that I can access from anywhere to track his reading progress and his points.

And you can do it, too!

Although I was once—so very long ago—a computer programmer (as in, I was one of those people who was feverishly re-coding mainframe computers to avert the Y2Kpocalypse), it didn't require any real coding skills, just a little careful cutting and pasting. 

First, I'd like to point you toward the helpful resoures I used to make my Reading List app:

How to Host Your Website on Dropbox

Customizing and Styling Google Forms

Now here's how to do it yourself, even if you don't have your own website!

Before we begin, if you haven't already, you'll need to sign for a free Dropbox account (unless you plan to host your web app from your own web site) and install the Dropbox app on your computer. You'll also need a free Google account. Which, surely, you already have, right? Finally, you'll need a text editor appropriate for making minor edits to an html page. I have been using "Text Wrangler" for Mac, which is free, but there are loads of free options for Mac and Windows.

Now, you'll need to download the two files linked below. Save these in your Dropbox folder in the subfolder named "Public." You can rename the form template to anything you like, but unless you are comfortable rooting around in HTML, don't rename the apple-touch-icon file.

Right-click (control-click on a Mac) to download and save:

reading_form_template.html

apple-touch-icon.png

Now, go to your Google Docs/Drive account, and create a new form:

Google automatically creates a form with two fields, by default. You can edit these, name your form, and add as many other fields as you need:

When you've finished creating your form, you'll notice, at the bottom of the page, a link to the "published form." It will look something like this:

Copy this link, and then click on the link to launch your form. Looks pretty good already, right? If you want to stop right here, you've already got a functional form that you can bookmark and use, easy peasy. But if, like me, you want to have an app icon on your iPhone or iPad that your kiddo can use to enter his own info, press on.

Your web browser should have an option to "View Source." Mine looks like this:

When you "View Source" you can see all the html and other code that instructs your web browser what your form should look like. Now, you need to go hunting. You're looking for a chunk of text that starts with "<form action" and ends with "</form>." Copy this entire chunk of code.

Now, using your text editing app, open the reading_form_template.html that you saved in your Public folder on Dropbox. Scroll down till you see this:

<!--Insert your form's custom code BELOW this line-->

Now put your cursor in the next empty line and paste the code you copied from the web form source code.

Next, you need to find the "public" address of your web app's icon file. Go to your Dropbox folder and click on the Public subfolder. Right click (or control-click on a Mac) on the file named "apple-touch-icon.png" and look for the Dropbox menu option. You want to select "Copy Public Link" from this menu:

Now, go back to your text editing app. There are two spots where you'll need to paste the "Public Link" you just copied. In both places, you're looking for this text: "REMOVE_THIS_TEXT_AND_REPLACE_WITH_ICON_PUBCLIC_LINK" Select all the text between the quotation marks, but LEAVE THE QUOTATION MARKS IN PLACE. Paste the "Public Link" in the place of the highlighted text.

Now, save all the changes to your reading list form.

Go back to your Dropbox folder and find the reading list form. Again, you want to copy the Public Link. Now you can paste this link into your web browser or an email. If you open the link on an iPad or iPhone, you can save the page to your home screen. Try it, and—violà!—you've made an app. (Sort of. At least that's what you can tell your kiddos.) I've shared my page with my mom, so whenever my son reads books over at her house, she can keep me updated. I just go back to my Google Drive from time to time to see the full reading list and tally up his pages. So cool!

I've tried to make this as simple as possible. There are tons of ways to make this even niftier, but I didn't want to overcomplicate it. Unfortunately, I'm pretty overscheduled, so I am unable to respond to requests for technical assistance. Feel free, though, to help each other out and to make suggestions for enhancements in the comments. I'll check in whenever I can.

Saturday
Dec192009

What Are We Doing Here*

© 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand IndustriesI don't usually post pictures of myself. But I think this one captures how I was feeling last week—hopeful and overwhelmed and trying to figure out how I could possibly get it all done. For me (and so many others), this time of year is one of great excitement...and great peril. It's all too easy for me to get sucked into the excitement of projects and decorating and gift-making and—SCREECH—suddenly the joy and good will is replaced with excess and irritability. In our house, this is compounded by the fact that we observe both Hanukkah and Christmas. When, as this year, Hanukkah comes relatively early, the whole month of December can easily become consumed with doing and making and...whew.

I am trying to take it easy. Well, easier. Trying. And it has been more fun this year because my son is old enough to really start absorbing the meaning of these traditions and to get in on the act of making the food and finery that are the hallmarks of the season. And with all that's been going on, we didn't get around to picking out a tree till yesterday. Downsides: there were about 10 trees left, and we just picked up the first Charlie Brown we saw. Upsides: The tree cost $13, and we spent at most 5 minutes out in the bitter cold. I've still gone a little overboard, but my sanity and sense of humor have remained largely in tact, so I'm calling this a victory. 

Without further ado, this is what the blur—I mean last two weeks—has looked like:

Latkes. Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand Industries Menorah. Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand IndustriesAs has become our tradition, on the first night of Hanukkah, we indulged in what I have dubbed (sacriligiously, yes) Latkepalooza. In years past I have made full meals to complement the latkes. But this year I got wise. Latkes. Arugula dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. That is all. And you know what? It was awesome. A tradition is re-born. Also? On the first night of Hannukah, I realized that I had no idea where the menorah was about 20 minutes before sundown. So I made a makeshift one using some pretty bud vases (okay, they're really shot glasses, but we don't exactly throw the kind of parties where fancy shot glasses get put to their best use) filled with rock salt. The candles nestled snugly in the salt, which sparkled nicely in the candlelight. Sweet.

Each year for the last 20 or so I have made ornaments—sometimes from silver wire, other times from beads, or paper, or clay. And most of them are given away by the end of the holidays. 

Snowflake © 2009 Cameron Blazer // Cottage IndustrialistBut I saved this one a few years ago. It's one of my favorites, and it always gets a special place on the tree. If you like it, It's dead easy to make, too. Just string clear seed beads and teardrop beads in a fringe pattern on fine beading wire (ex: four seed beads, one teardrop bead, seven seed beads, back through the teardrop bead and two of the seed beads, and so on) until you've created 8 points. Then draw them into a circle, wrap the joint, and create a loop. Voilà!

Menagerie in Progress. Photo © 2009 David MandelThis year, my son and I made salt dough ornaments, inspired by these beauties. We used snowflake and animal cracker cookie cutters. Ours were by no means as lovely as their inspiration, but what they lacked in perfection we have since more than made up for in glitter. Here is what I have learned: crafting with kids can be tough on a type-A mom. While we obsess over color schemes and table scapes, our children just want to smoosh some clay and have a good time. But in glitter there is redemption and satisfaction for all. While my son enjoyed the sparkle and mess, by choosing glitter wisely, we have new ornaments that coordinate with our holiday décor. Shallow? Maybe, but we both had a good time, he's very proud of his glittery lions and elephants and giraffes, and they actually look quite cool.

Snowflake Chandelier. Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand Industries
As I have written previously, our dining room chandelier—this is an insult to the term chandelier, but you get the idea—was hung about a foot-and-a-half too high. And rather than rectifying this with what would probably be a $100 visit from an electrician, I choose instead to festoon it each year with ornaments that serve to bring it down a bit into better proportion with the room. The other 11 months of the year it just looks as though it's taking all precautions in case of flood.

The snowflakes are just chipboard cutouts that have been liberally doused in glitter. And I painted the bottoms of the silver balls with craft glue and sprinkled them with the same aquamarine glitter. Synergy!

(An aside: the reason for all of this color scheming—other than that I am an anal-retentive nutjob—is that our Christmas tree—and most of our other Christmas decorations—lives in our dining room. With the dining room rug. Which is one of my favorite things in our house, but which is also a mix of rusty orange, aquamarine, and moss green—not exactly a good combo with the traditional holiday red and green. But silver and gold and aquamarine still catch the wintry glow of the season quite nicely, I think.)

The other project that has consumed the better part of two weekends was preparing the gift baskets we made for my son's teachers. My son is only three, but he goes to a full day Montessori. It is really hard to send your baby off at 8:30 in the morning and pick him up again after 5. But it is a lot easier when you have wonderful teachers like the pair he lucked into this year. Last year this time, he was at a different school. And while nothing was wrong, it just wasn't right. We didn't realize just how out of whack things had gotten until we settled into his new school this summer, and we got our happy, well-adjusted child back. So, needless to say, we are very thankful for his teachers who have done so much to make that possible. We wanted to give a gift that would match their sweetness. Thus the candy making. And making. And making. And making. Here's what we ended up with:

Basket of Sweets © 2009 Cameron Blazer // Cottage IndustrialistWe made hot chocolate mix (which is really just finely hand-ground chocolate with a bit of vanilla), a box of candies (peppermint bark, spiced pecan brittle, chocolate truffles, and chocolate caramels), caramel popcorn, and, most importantly, marshmallows. My son's teachers often call him Marsh-mellow, so those were a must. A simple white basket and some coordinating tags, and that was that. I hope his teachers take a well-deserved break with their feet up, a steaming cup of hot chocolate warming their hands, and bonbons all around.

But you know, I don't believe in sharing only the successes. In every crafty project, there is a craftastrophe waiting to strike. With candymaking, especially, I was mostly afraid of burning myself. But in all, the only real misstep was that the chocolate caramels were a bit gooey-er than I'd planned (I stopped the cooking at about 245° rather than the suggested 255° because I didn't want them to crack people's teeth) so they had to be wrapped in paper and foil to keep their shape. We had a bunch of them leftover after the baskets were packed, so I experimented. I don't think you can fix a caramel that you overcook, but it turns out you absolutely can fix a caramel you undercook. I dumped them all in a pan, heated them to 255°, and now they're perfect! Craftastrophe averted!

There are still last-minute items on my list:

1. I need to replace last year's Christmas stocking. Speaking of failures, it was, um, pathetic. Stitched of leftover polar fleece at 2:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve, it looked terrible and performed its duties even less impressively. This year I have some beautiful wool felt. I think I'm going to do a reverse applique. But we'll see.

2. Fabric gift bags. I don't give a ton of presents. But for the ones I do give, I take the wrapping seriously. (You're shocked, I know.) This year, I am experimenting with several fabric wrapping techniques. One exists only in my head, but if it pans out, I'll be sure to share a tutorial soon.

3. Pajama pants. I've already made on pair for my son out of my winter animals fabric. But I'm planning more. Because there's little cuter on earth than my boy in jammies with rumply hair. Since he's off from school for two weeks (pity I don't get that same break!) I figure he'll have several mornings that stretch into afternoons in PJs.

4. It's a secret!

5. I am still at work on my 2010 printable calendar. I love it, but it is taking FOREVER. I'm thinking of releasing it in 3-month increments to take some of the pressure off to finish by Christmas—what do you think? (If you look over here, I'll give you a sneak peek!)

6. It's a secret!

What's left on your making and doing list? Got any triumphs or superfails to share? Any crafty New Year's resolutions? Do tell (and link to your blog posts) in the comments!

*This title is courtesy of, and with apologies to, the late Bruce Chatwin. Have you read his books? If you haven't, I suggest first reading his obituary (no, really!) by Salman Rushdie (collected in this anthology). If you can resist reading his books after that, they were not, I think, meant for you.

Sunday
Nov012009

Fire Drill

Photo © 2009 David Mandel // Ampersand IndustriesSo my brilliant plan last year to craft a Halloween costume that would get two years of wear was dashed this year when it became clear that the kiddo was determined to be a fireman for halloween. Grr.

My new job, coupled with a startling and uncharacteristic flash of clarity on the subject, meant there was no way I would be sewing a fireman costume from scratch this year. But. (There is always a "but.")

First, I caught a lucky break back in September when Target had fireman rain boots on sale for $10. This was a total score because he needed rain boots anyway. Or so I rationalized.

Then while my husband and I were on our first vacation in, like, EVER, the kiddo's grandparents took him to the local fire museum (who knew?) where they GAVE him a fire hat. Come. On.

So now I had to do something about the jacket, right? But, I will admit, I just wasn't inspired. I perused some web sites with handmade costumes, though, and got some ideas. And then I looked up and it was Friday. October 30th. And I had done nothing. Well, not nothing. I had shopped for a black sweatshirt and for yellow duct tape. I couldn't find the duct tape so I bought yellow vinyl used for walls (Wall Pops, I think they're called). But they'd lain totally ignored for days, and now the big day was nearly upon us.

Once again, I caught a lucky break, and got off a little early from work on Friday. I cut off the cuffs and hem of the sweatshirt and up the center of it. I added a yellow felt collar, and then I cut out strips of the vinyl to seal the edges and make stripes around the arms and jacket. It was a little dodgy to do because the vinyl is repositionable (nifty!), and so I was a little concerned about the jacket holding up through a full day of Halloween, but I thought it looked pretty good. When my son got home, he thought it looked pretty good. He was TOTALLY satisfied. And yet.

Yesterday morning we went out for coffee with my mom and a friend, and I let him wear his fireman jacket and hat, even though Halloween (which I am pretty sure he was convinced was a mythical place I was cruelly preventing him from visiting until dark) was hours away for all practical purposes.* Everyone said it was cute, and it held up surprisingly well during my son's constant squirming and wiggling at the coffee shop. It even survived his blueberry muffin. And yet.

It just needed something. While the kiddo napped, I ran out to the fabric store. Which is to say, I drove half-an-hour, because I live in the boonies. I wanted to pick up some cool fasteners and a patch or two. For which I was willing to spend an hour in the car (I drove the hybrid, I swear!). Now, my distaste for the Hancock Fabrics in Charleston, SC, is legendary (legendary distate? Believe it), but I gotta say that on this day, the Hancock was treating me right. I found these super-nifty metal fasteners for $2, and they had a very nice American flag patch. And then there, in the back of a poorly lit aisle, at the very bottom of the rack, nestled between the replacement bra hooks and the snap tape, I found the Halloween Fireman jackpot: yellow and black reflective ribbon, iron-on variety. You know, the kind that runners and bikers use to make their clothing reflective for when they run and ride at night? Yeah, me either. I have been known to run, but in the dark? Oh no no no. This stuff was a revelation to me.

Anyhoo, at this point, if you are a reasonable, rational being, you are thinking, "well, but you already have cool stripes for the jacket. Why spend another $6 for additional stripes?" Lucky for me, I am not encumbered by reason, though I am powerfully in command of the skill of rationalization. Did I mention that it is now 3PM? And I have a half-hour drive home? Yes. Well. I rationalized that I needed to get the reflective tape to ensure the kiddo's safety. Plus, I'd have thirty minutes in the car to figure out how to make it work.

When I got home, le kid was, amazingly, still quiet. I grabbed his fireman jacket and boldly started ripping off the vinyl hems and stripes. I had bought a package of black tape and another of yellow. I had not paid ANY attention to, you know, the critical detail of just how long this piece of ribbon was. As it turns out, each color came in one-yard lengths in three widths. And as it turns out, I am one lucky girl, because the circumference of a Hanes Youth Medium sweatshirt is almost exactly 36 inches. There was much quickening of breath before I realized that I had not just destroyed my son's costume with less than 2 hours till the parade we'd promised him he could attend. Oy. At any rate, this reflective tape is wonderful--it feels pretty stiff when you take it out of the package, but once you hit it with the iron, it softens right up, while still adding some body and heft to the sweatshirt. By the time I'd gotten all the hems re-sealed and stripes re-applied, it was time to head out to the parade. For once, the fact that we live 40 minutes from my mother's neighborhood (where the parade was being held) turned out to be a good thing: my husband drove while I sewed on the nifty fasteners. I finished up with about 5 minutes to spare, and the boy was on the job with no time to spare. The best part is that thanks to the iron-on tape he now has a nice, sturdy jacket to play in. I think it was worth the extra $6.

*Can I just say? I think that Saturday Halloween is a cruel joke on parents. I mean, your kid wakes up at 7:00 ready for Halloween. Because you told him that Halloween is today: so let's get this Halloween party started, mommy! Far better that real child professionals be on hand to deal with overcharged three-year-olds; Halloween was clearly meant to be on a school day, no?

Friday
Sep252009

It's a stitch! binding tutorial

Calendar © 2009 Cameron Blazer / Cottage IndustrialistWhen I posted the school-year calendar pages at the end of August, I said I'd post a binding tutorial later that week. Yes, well. Real life sort of inserted itself, and it's taken me until today to take photos and write it up. The good news is that this binding works for more than just calendars, so if you've already printed yours out and put it together, you can still try this out.

The premise is quite simple: when you sew paper together, it puts little holes in the paper. So, as you sew, you create perforations. This is perfect for a calendar, no? Well, for the tutorial I'm demonstrating it on a little notepad.*

Materials
Paper
Sewing Machine
Heavy-duty thread
Glue stick (or Xyron)

  1. Line up your pages (I've done as many as 16 pieces of text-weight paper with no problem) and use a binder clip or two to hold them in place. If you are using scrap paper, turn all the already-used pages in the same direction first. And if you have odd-sized pages, don't worry. Just line up one straight edge. If you want a sturdier notebook, use a piece of card stock for the last page.

  2. Using your binder clips to hold things in place, trim your pages to whatever size you want your notebook to be. If you have a rotary cutter with snazzy blades, you could trim the bottom edge with a deckle or scallop blade for a little extra pizazz.

  3. See? These are scraps from my patternmaking obsession. I am happy to finally be putting them to use. But you could use any kind of spent or plain paper, really, so long as it didn't have weird personal data on it.


  4. Now, with the binder clip still holding the pages together, you're ready to sew! My best results have been with a ver sharp needle and heavy-duty upholstery thread. You want to make sure that you start the sewing as close to the edge of your notebook as possible—this makes the perforation part work better. And until you know how your sewing maching will handle the pages, it's probably easiest to use your wheel to manually move the needle. There's no need to backstitch at the beginning or end--you're going to take care of that later. I used a 1/2" seam allowance, but you could do a larger one—whatever floats your boat.

  5. The bound notebook ready for embellishing.

  6. Now, trim a piece of pretty paper to the width of your notebook. It doesn't really matter how long it is unless you want to get all perfection-y. You just need it to be long enough to wrap from the edge of the seam over the top of the notebook over the seam on the back.

    I used my Xyron machine to put a thin layer of adhesive all over the back of my piece of paper, but you could do this with a glue stick or sticky dots, too.

  7. Here, I have already pasted the paper to the front of my notebook.

    Before folding the paper over to the back, gather the loose ends of your threads with one hand and hold them in place as you smooth the paper over them—see, no loose ends!

  8. Voilà! Admire your finished notebook.
  9. Write yourself a little note, tear it off, and go!

Seriously, putting one of these together takes all of 10 minutes. And there is something soooo satisfying about perforation, n'est-ce pas? And if you take a stab at these, how's about join the new cottage industrialist flickr group, and upload some pictures?! Yes? Swell.

*As an insomniac, I lie awake night after night making mental lists of all the things I need to do, but I'm thinking that if I can jot them on a little scrap of paper, and tear it off in the morning to take with me, it might help me chill out.

Sunday
May172009

Coral Necklace Tutorial

Of all my many craft loves, my love of jewelry making is my oldest and most enduring. I've been making jewelry for nearly 20 years (and, yes, that does make me feel old). From the first package of headpins and carefully chosen beads I brought home, I was hooked. As with all of my favorite craft forms, I love the idea that things we all too often take for granted as being manufactured in some far-off place by a machine or a nameless worker can be made athom with a little skills, a few supplies, and two willing hands.

This necklace, based on the one I wore to my sister's wedding last month, takes that idea a step further. As you are probably aware, the world's coral reefs are threatened by ocean warming and other man-made perils. So, while I love the color and movement of natural coral, I avoid it in my work. Instead, a simple technique, combined with beautifully colored beads, makes it possible to capture the spirit of that nature-made wonder with more eco-friendly materials.

If you've never made jewelry before, you may need to review some fabrication basics before starting. If you have questions, leave them in the comments section, and I'll try to answer them for everyone. This is a very simple technique--don't be afraid to change it up and make it your own--use different colors (opaque white coral? very chic!), make short branches of coral and connect them together using lengths of chain, make a multi-strand bracelet, or dangle a branch or two from earwires for a real statement.

1) MATERIALS. You will need the following:

  • chain-nose pliers
  • crimping pliers (optional -- you can use the chain-nose pliers to flatten the crimp beads, but the effect will not be as polished as if you use the crimping pliers)
  • flush wire cutter
  • 2 crimp beads
  • multi-strand beading wire (I used a high-quality product that is plated in 24K gold--you can also get this wire in silver-plate, stainless steel, and sterling silver varieties. Usually, the higher the number of the beading wire, the higher the quality)
  • clasp
  • jump ring or chain with large (1/8" or larger) links
  • Czech fire-polish beads (I used a color called "persimmon")
  • coral and/or red briolettes (I used two sizes for variety, but this is not necessary--any size briolette will work so long as you like it--see below for some suggested online sources)

2) Start by cutting a length of beading wire 4 inches longer than you want your necklace to be. Some of this length will be lost to the kinking caused by the briolettes, and the rest will be needed to pull the necklace taut. Thread a crimp bead onto your wire. Then pass the same end of the wire through your jump ring (or chain--if you want an adjustable necklace, pre-made chain works like a charm). Thread the wire back through your crimp bead, creating a loop around the jump ring. Push the crimp bead flush with the jump ring, and pull the beading wire taut, leaving about a 1.25" tail. Flatten the crimp bead in place with your crimping pliers.

3) Begin threading your fire-polish beads onto the wire, making sure to pass the first 3 beads over the tail you created in step 2.

4) Add a briolette. Then add three more beads. You will alternate three round beads, followed by a briolette for the entire necklace. Leave the remaining 1/2" or so of the tail exposed as you continue to bead.

5) Continue the pattern of three round beads, followed by one briolette, stopping occasionally to push the beads tightly against one another. This tension is necessary to create the kink that gives this necklace its organic feel.

6) When you have about 1.5-2" of beading wire remaining, thread your wire with a crimp bead, followed by your clasp. Loop the wire back through the crimp bead loosely, and then pass it through 3-5 more beads. Grasping the end of your wire with your chain nose pliers, pull the wire very taut. Flatten the crimp bead in place with your crimping pliers. Trim the exposed wires with your flush cutters, et voilà!

[SOURCES: I must confess I have not been able to find online briolettes identical to the ones I used here. But looking around on Etsy, I did find several that should do the trick just right: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. My finished necklace is about 22" long and required 37 briolettes. Unlike the briolettes, fire-polish beads are plentiful online and in most bead shops, though the persimmon color I used does not seem all that popular. It's always fun to go to a show or a shop and see the beads you're going to use close-up, but if that's not possible, I'd say any opaque red or orange faceted round should work just fine.]