Posts Tagged 'Projects'

Compressed Air Rocket Launcher Update

I just realized that Compressed Air Rocket Launcher can be shortened to CARL. I like that. I think I shall use this name from now on to refer to my launching platform.

Anyhow, we took CARL out again on Friday to test a few new rockets we had made since every one of them blew up last time. Since CARL had some sensitivity in the air tube leading into the main tank last time, I got some zip ties of my own to add a second tie. It seemed to make the seal a lot more secure up until about 85 psi, which is plenty of pressure for some awesome launches.

CARL’s battery box received just one more upgrade as well. If you recall from last time, the only thing I had left to do in the battery box was to secure the 9v battery clips to the inside so they wouldn’t rattle around.

We went to Target and got a cheap hot glue gun, which I thought would be good because the metal battery clips had several holes that the glue could rise above and spread out, securing the metal to the plastic base. Since the holes were right by where the battery sits inside the clip, I wrapped the 9v batteries in parchment paper to prevent the glue from sticking to them, then I applied glue to each of the holes from the bottom, and pressed them into position inside the box. After the glue hardened I removed the batteries, unwrapped the parchment paper, and replaced the batteries. It worked perfectly, and those clips are very secure.

During the operation one of the wires snapped. That’s where a nice wire stripper comes in handy. The wire was weakened when I used a knife to strip the wire and accidentally nicked the copper in the center. Anyhow, I just re-soldered a new wire into the clips (it was the wire connecting the two clips to combine the batteries into a single power source) and made sure I remembered the heat shrink this time.

In all, the battery clips ended up looking very nice, they are extremely secure in there, and the system still functions wonderfully. I only wish I had taken some photos of the process.

As for the rockets, we wanted to try a few different approaches this time. Here are the three models we came up with:

Starting from the right, my first attempt at a tougher body didn’t go very well. I went ahead and threw a couple of fins and a nose cone on it, but it was fatally flawed – I had wrapped it around the 1/2″ pipe a little too tightly. Even my attempts at removing some of the inner paper couldn’t remedy the situation.

My approach with this rocket was to use clear packing tape in such a way as to prevent air from escaping through the seams. I think the best approach was to cover the entire length in overlapping rings (overlapping by at least half the width of the tape), then start at the top and go down the entire length in a spiral pattern, again overlapping as much as possible. If the first spiral descended in a counter-clockwise spiral, I then did a second spiral clockwise. Then I reinforced each end of the spirals (top and bottom) with duct tape.

This rocket proved tough enough for the pressure, but because it was too tight I couldn’t get it all the way onto the pipe, causing poor performance (not much altitude, crooked flight path).

The middle rocket was built by my friend James. He showed up in the last post helping me with some of the soldering. You can see in the photo that his rocket is about 10% thicker than the other two. His technique for preventing a blowout was to put several thick layers on. Some of his layers were spiraled, some weren’t. I think he spend a full hour applying tape to his rocket’s body. Keeping with the thick build theme, he decided to use cardboard for the fins. For that we brought out the hot glue gun again.

Seeing how fun the hot glue behaved and how hard it hardened, he decided to “armor plate” his nose cone and the leading edges of his fins with the glue. Below you can see a video of all three rockets and their performance. Make sure you pay special attention to how the armored nose cone looked after the landing.

The final rocket, on the left, was my follow-up attempt after getting the other one too tight. To prevent myself from getting it too tight, I wrapped a whole sheet of paper around the length of the pipe before even starting my rocket. That way, when I finished the rocket and the body was on there real tight, I could pull it all off and remove the inner layer of paper. This resulted in a nice, loose fit on the pipe.

I ended up putting a tad too much tape on there, I think. At first I was only going to put packing tape on, so there are several layers of that, but then I decided to put duct tape on as well. I ended up putting about three or four layers of duct tape on (following the opposing spirals rule and finishing with a neat overlapping rings pattern).

Finally, I put three fins on it that had a slight angle to them that caused a really great spiraling motion after launch. The spin appeared to be just right to keep the rocket on a relatively straight flight path.

Check out the video of the launches below.

We finished up the weekend with a camping trip (CARL was not invited) which I will write about on our family blog in a couple of weeks.

Compressed Air Rocket Launcher

A while ago I read a neat article that detailed how to make a compressed air rocket launcher.  The thought of making rockets from scrap paper and launching them several hundred feet high with nothing but compressed air sounded pretty neat (and economical). So over the last several months we gathered materials and purchased a few necessary tools in preparation for building this great little device. Of course, I wasn’t satisfied with a few aspects of the original design, so I made some small modifications to the plans.

The Maker Shed sells a kit with all of the parts, precut and ready to go, for about $50 (but be prepared to spend upwards of $20 on shipping). I’m glad we got the kit because shortly after ordering it I found that I can’t make a straight, clean cut in PVC to save my life. Other than tools, the only thing you really need to get that doesn’t come in the kit is the PVC primer and cement. Notice my sloppy application of the purple primer in the photo below.

Following the plans to the letter, I assembled the compression chamber last week, but a friend of mine from work wanted to sit in on the electronics portion, so I held off on that until today. Tools required to get to this point were slip jaw pliers, Channellock Griplock pliers, a rubber mallet, and a few other things I didn’t have. I wished I had some kind of sand paper (something other than a metal file) to get the rest of the rubber off the tire valve (at the end of the hose in the photo). Since I couldn’t get it completely clean, the valve didn’t make a great seal with the tube. Also, the little metal ring that you crimp on there to seal it tight requires side cutters (or something similar) to make the crimp. I didn’t have tools to adequately crimp it. So the end of my tube leaked a lot on the first pressure test. I fixed it with some good, old-fashioned super glue and wrapped the mess in electrical tape pulled tight to add a little more seal.

Oh, and make sure you have or get some rubber gloves to use when working with the PVC primer and cement. You need to keep that stuff off your skin, but it will get all over your hands and everything else (no matter how careful you think you can be). I used leather and canvass work gloves and worked inside of a cardboard box, but I think some of it still leaked through to my hands a couple of times and a few drops somehow ended up staining my computer mouse. The warning on the cans said to wear rubber gloves, and I should have just bought some rubber gloves. Oh, and work in a VERY well ventilated area.

Another note: above 60 psi I noticed that the hose started leaking from the hose attachment closer to the chamber. Jiggling the zip tie fixed it, but this kit’s main problems all seem to be with the sealing methods used at each end of the hose. If I worked more with airtight, pressurized systems I might be able to fix those issues, but for now I’ll just keep jiggling things to keep them in line.

To pressurize the chamber you need a bicycle pump. We found a cheap one (under $20) with a pressure gauge built in (DO NOT surpass 90 psi) at Target, but we had been planning on getting the pump on Amazon before we found the one at Target.I can’t tell you how nice it is to have the pressure gauge built in. Knowing exactly how charged the chamber is can be essential, and taking the pump off to use a tire pressure gauge would be annoying.

As of this morning, that’s as far as I had gotten. All of that work (assembling the pressure chamber, testing it and cleaning up my mess) took about four hours. The rest of the work, which I did very slowly today to prevent errors, took about six hours. That’s about ten hours to fully complete my version of the project. Following the stock instructions and moving with more confidence would probably cut that time in half.

As for today’s work…

The pressure chamber will eventually fail, and when it does you don’t want a bunch of PVC shards flying at your face. So it is recommended that you wrap it up in a few layers of duct tape.

Once that was finished, the only structural element remaining was the stand (which looked easy enough, so I put it off because I couldn’t wait to get to the electrical portion). I didn’t want to install the stand until we had put a layer of colored duct tape on the chamber, which was my wife’s job since it had to be pretty (and I stink at that).

Since I would be doing some electrical work, and I wanted to solder the leads (much more secure than just taping them), I needed to get some supplies. So a week and a half ago I turned to my new favorite online electronics store and bought the following:

The electrical portion in the provided plans was simple. There is a small pipe with end fittings, you drill holes in the ends, stick a button in one hole and pull two twisted wires out the other end, wire a couple of nine volt batteries into the circuit, zip tie them to the launcher, and hook the valve motor up to the whole circuit. Push the button, and the valve releases the air (which is pumped in with the bicycle pump).

I didn’t like the weak look of the two little wires coming out of the launch button tube, and I didn’t want to zip tie the batteries to the launcher. So I came up with an alternate circuit design. I wanted something modular – I wanted to house the batteries in a box, I wanted to plug the launch button into the battery box, and have the motor plug in as well. That way you can unplug everything, wrap the cords up, and store everything without worrying about stuff tangling up too bad. Plus, if I used better wires, I figured it’d be tougher.

Then I got the idea to put a power indicator light on the battery box with a switch. Then I was browsing around a neat electronics parts store and found this missile switch cover and I knew that my project needed that part.

That’s when I got excited and ordered the following parts to make my vision for improving the device a reality.

From Sparkfun:

From RadioShack:

From Parts-Express:

From Amazon:

So one night I thought long and hard about how I could make this circuit work (especially since I already knew exactly what parts were going into it), and I came up with the following hybrid, nearly technical drawing of how it could work (after several hours of research).

The toggle switch, two jacks (RCA, not drawn well), batteries and little red power light are all pretty clear. That zig zag line is a mystery resistor.

Since the light I found was a 12v light, and the circuit was running off two 9v batteries (that 18 volts!), I knew that I would need a resistor to be in series with the light (which, incidentally, is in parallel with the push button and valve motor). Finding the proper values for that resistor took another few hours of research. I finally found the ratings for the lamp I chose, and using those I was able to calculate that I needed a 100 ohm resistor rated at around .5 Watts. So I added to my list of things to buy from RadioShack:

I also decided to get some cheap 9 volt batteries there.

All of that planning and researching was accomplished last week. Today all I did was wire it all together (thinking in reverse order to prevent myself from making mistakes), solder everything and put heat shrink over bare wire whenever I remembered, and stuff it all the the box. Amazingly, without any testing along the way, after everything was soldered and screwed inside the box, I flipped the switch and the power light went on. Even more amazingly, when I plugged the launch button and the motor into the battery box, I was able to activate the motor with the launch button! I was amazed that it all worked so perfectly right away. I guess all that research really paid off.

The great thing about the circuit is that it doesn’t matter which jack you plug which item into. The switch and motor are interchangeable. Also, if you are planning on attempting this and you’ve never done anything like it, keep in mind that the lamp and resistor can go in any order along their little parallel circuit. I actually reversed them from the drawing, but they would work either way. I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation of why or how, but that’s just the way DC works with those particular parts.

So, to get started putting it all together, I cut the RCA cable into three parts: I measured off a few feet from one end and made a cut, then I measured about 20 feet from the other end and made a cut. That left a bunch of spare cable that I didn’t need (but could use for another project in the future). The longer cable is for the launcher button, and the shorter one is for the motor. Since I didn’t have a nice cable stripper, I had to use my Leatherman blade to prepare it for attachment to the components. If you’ve never done this, practice on the extra cable – you need to make sure you don’t cut the little tiny wires under the surface of the black jacket. These wires cut really easily. After removing the jacket I grabbed them all up and twisted them tightly into a single wire bunch. Then I stripped the cladding from the center wire. Again, don’t nick that center wire too badly or it will break later.

Note: I ended up stripping the rest of the white cladding off on both of these cables. I originally thought I might want it on there, but I didn’t need it.

Afterward I drilled holes in the end caps for the launch button handle and threaded everything onto the longer cable.

Finding just the right spot to put that knot was impossible before soldering the wire onto the button. Put the knot in anyhow right away and you can move it later. Also, on top of that knot don’t forget to thread on the nut and washer for the button that goes in the other cap. Then thread the cable through the top cap’s hole and solder the button on there.

Perhaps one of the hardest things was figuring out how to screw the nut onto the bottom of the button after it was inserted into the cap since I used a thicker cable than was recommended by the project designers. I don’t have a picture of my solution, but in the above photo you can see some of the black jacket from the coaxial cable. I cut about a half an inch off of that and slipped it over the end of a small (but NOT a precision) flat head screwdriver. This created a tiny finger with a little more grip against the metal nut than I had with the screwdriver alone. After a few minutes of jiggling, wiggling and maneuvering, I was able to get it screwed together pretty securely in there.

After drilling all the holes in my project case I began wiring it all together. This part was simple. I just followed my diagram, thought in reverse (what do I need to thread through where to make sure it ends up in the right place after everything is attached?), and went very, very slowly. The one part of the project that isn’t yet complete is anchoring down those battery holders inside the enclosure. I’m still debating on whether I want to hot glue them in, super glue them in, or use some other fancy bonding technique or chemical.

Here are some pictures of everything after it was completed:

The finished battery box and launcher button handle.

The valve motor and it’s cable with an RCA plug on the end.

The back of the battery box with its RCA plugs. You can plug either the launcher or the motor into either jack.

Here’s everything completed. Notice the new coloring on the pressure chamber. Another few layers of duct tape certainly can’t hurt.

That’s pretty much the whole build process. In all, making the silly little paper rockets was probably the most difficult thing. Those nose cones and fins are nearly impossible to mount properly. Also, put several more layers of tape around the body of the rocket than you believe necessary unless you are going to launch at low psi (below 40, we think). At 80 psi none of our rockets survived and none of them flew very high with gaping gashes in their sides (one of them split in two across the middle). When we get the rocket building process right, I’ll let you know.

A silly note though: If you shop at Costco and you buy their Kirkland Spring Water in bulk, the normal 16.9 OZ bottles fit perfectly over the launch tube and fly off spectacularly in an explosion of mist. It’s pretty cool, but they aren’t aerodynamic enough to go very high (even with fins and a nosecone). Oh, and dropping Nerf darts (the screamers work well) into the launch tube is a riot. A Nerf dart shot out at 80 psi will completely disappear, but if it’s a screamer you can hear it squealing as it leaves the atmosphere and enters orbit around the Earth.

To see more of the family aspect of this project, head over to our family album and YouTube channel to see pictures and video. If you have any questions or comments, or if you use any of my ideas when you build your project, please share in the comments below. Thanks for reading.


We resolved many of the issues we had here. I think the tube is more secure now, I’ve attached the 9v battery clips to the inside of the battery box, and we finally built rockets that don’t rupture when launched. Oh, and the launcher is now named CARL. For details on all of these improvements, see the follow-up article.

New Computer? – Start Here


If you’re just looking for a list of free software to install on your computer, I’ve created a Springpad notebook full of links to my favorites. If I find anything else to add, I’ll put it there.

I want to start out by saying that I am just a guy. I wasn’t paid to write any of this, I don’t work for any of the companies mentioned, and these are all just my opinions. If any of the mentioned companies wanted to pay me because I wrote all these nice things about them, I’d be willing to talk to them about an arrangement. 😉

Having said that, here are the chronicles of my recent adventure procuring and setting up my new laptop. I’m going to break this down into three separate categories: Hardware, Pre-installed Software you Don’t Need, and Free Software you Might Need. Lucky for you, I’m all about free, open-source and simplicity; so the only part that I spent money on was the hardware.

I’ve designed this as a sort of guide to assist YOU in purchasing and setting up a new computer. People are always looking at my glasses. After they get a good look at my glasses, they say, “Hey, I need a new computer. What kind should I get?” People with new computers are always asking me, “Is it better to just use Internet Explorer, or should I get one of those new browsers?” Also, it has been my own experience that just using all of the default software (that ships with the system) for document editing, virus handling, and many other tasks is a bad idea. So, here are all of my answers and tips in one place. This may not be the definitive guide to getting a new computer, but it is MY definitive guide for those who need it.

So, without further chit-chat, let’s look at your hardware options.


This one’s easier than you might be inclined to believe. Sure there are a lot of choices, but it all comes down to what you want to use the computer for.

The computer I wanted this time around was a laptop I could actually take places. Last time I got a laptop (over five years ago) it weighed ten pounds, it was more of a desktop replacement and cost me over two thousand dollars. Now I’ve got a desktop, and I wanted an inexpensive computer that could go places with me AND do stuff. I’ve got an Asus eee PC (a netbook), but that thing can’t really do stuff. I mean, it can do some stuff (I use it for NaNoWriMo every year), but it’s a little wimpy when it comes to multitasking and other processor/RAM intensive activities.

The Argument for Desktops

First, if you’ve got the space for it and you don’t need to move it, get a desktop. Laptops have really gone down in price lately, but an equivalent (as far as hardware and capabilities) desktop will always cost less than its laptop counterpart (as of this writing).

Desktops have the greatest range in options as well. You can get a cheap-o system that is really only good for running your web browser and a word processor for under a hundred dollars, or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for systems that can perform at speeds rivaling supercomputers. No matter what you’ll be using the desktop for, you can always find a system that perfectly meets your needs without spending more than you have to. Always.

The first step in selecting a desktop is to imagine yourself using that computer for the next two years. What will you use it for? Do you play many games? You might need to spend more for a system that will be compatible with future game releases. Will you be hooking it up to your TV to watch shows and movies? There are a lot of media center pc options. If you’re a Mac person (which, I might be if I had more money), you might want an Apple TV rather than a new computer.

Just decide what you’ll need the computer to be able to do, and consider these simple guidelines (which, unless you’re a “power user,” will more than cover the basics). I don’t need to say it, but if you know enough about computers to know that these guidelines aren’t comprehensive, then these guidelines weren’t written for you.

  • RAM – For most users, this is arguably the most important decision. More RAM means faster, smoother, more powerful computing. You want to open and use every program installed on your computer at the same time? You need lots of RAM. Will you only do one thing at a time for the rest of the time you own the computer? You can get by with 2 Gigs or less (depending on that one program you’ll be running!).
  • Operating System Bits – Related to RAM, but separate, is the operating system you’ll be using. Right away I have to mention that a 32 bit operating system cannot handle a full 4 Gigabytes of RAM, and certainly not more. If you will want 4 Gigs or more of RAM, you’ll need a 64 bit OS. Otherwise, 32 vs 64 bits will not have much of an impact on you.
  • Operating System Flavor – Which OS you choose will depend on many factors, but at the risk of bringing on hoards of criticism, I’m going to go ahead and simplify things this way: If you’re lost when it comes to choosing your operating system, just get Windows 7. Sure, Macs are simple, but getting software for them can be a hassle. Windows may have a poor track-record when it comes to stability and ease of use, but I’m putting a lot of faith in Windows 7, and I think it’s a safe choice for YOU. If you know you want a Mac though, please get it!
  • Processor – When it comes to desktops, you’re really only going to concern yourself with how many cores and processors you want. Adding processors and cores means better ability to process multiple instructions at a time (translating to blazing speed and excellent multitasking), while a single core on a single processor will more than meet the needs of most users. Don’t get the fancy processor set-up unless you know you need it. For most modern operating systems and software, though, I recommend at least a single processor with dual cores. More than that and you’d better be doing some serious video editing or 3D graphics (like games).
  • Hard Drive – If you’re doing video editing or if you’re archiving your DVD collection on the hard drive, get something huge. If you’re just surfing the Internet and writing papers in Word, you don’t need much hard drive space. Even the smallest hard drives shipping these days are more than ample for the average user. Note that media center systems should have more hard drive space to store videos or recorded television.

Sure, there are more factors than just these to consider, but if you’re not a power user who already knows about the other factors, then you don’t need to worry about them. What you don’t know can’t hurt you here.

The only other thing I would caution is to avoid brands you’re not familiar with and be wary of prices that are significantly lower than competing systems with similar capabilities. Your desktop shouldn’t be too expensive, but don’t be a cheapskate once you know what you want. Just pay what the trusted manufacturers are charging.

I currently use a first generation HP TouchSmart for my desktop, and it’s held up very well in the two years we’ve owned it. Both of my laptops are Toshibas, and we love them. Namebrand systems are always a good bet.

Where Desktops Fail

The only problem with a desktop is that it is not very portable. Sure, some of the newer CPU box form-factors (especially in the case of media center computers) are very small and lightweight. However, the screen and input devices are not built in, thus to use the system it must be hooked up to these things, and to move it you have to unplug everything. Convenient? No.

So what if you really need something you can take to class with you? You need either a laptop or a netbook. Can’t decide which one? Consider this:

I thought I could get a netbook and do the same things with it as I do with my laptop. I was wrong. Even with a full size keyboard attached and an external mouse, the netbook screens are too small to be practical in a number of applications. For a true, natural computing experience, you’ll still want a larger system. They make laptops that are much closer in size (and price) to netbooks, but they are much more convenient. If you’re not sure about getting a netbook, don’t. Just go for a smaller laptop. I promise you’ll be happy with it.

If you know you want a netbook, get it. If you’re not sure, don’t. You’ve got to be committed to liking your netbook, or you’re going to hate it.

Other than the netbook vs laptop decision, there isn’t a whole lot more to think about. How portable do you want it? There are a range of sizes from 13 inches to over 18 inches for screens. Some are less than an inch thin, and others have huge 12 cell batteries that lift them about three inches off your table top. Some run hot from having their hardware crammed in to a small space, while others have minimal hardware configurations and are quiet and cool. Again, the considerations for desktops will all hold true for laptops, but you might want to consider the following IN ADDITION to the desktop suggestions:

  • Overall Size – You’re getting a laptop because a desktop isn’t portable enough for you, but how portable do you need your laptop to be? If you are still just going to leave it set up in one place for long periods of time, you might consider a larger desktop replacement laptop. These systems offer the same performance as a desktop, at often competitive prices, but at the end of the day the screen folds up and you can pack it away in a bag. Expect these to weigh close to ten pounds though! Then there are the ultra portables that weigh in at under five pounds (mine weighs like three pounds!). Keep in mind that a netbook can weigh close to one pound, but you’ve already decided you want a laptop, right?
  • Battery Size/Usage – Some laptops these days are being designed as marathon machines. They can squeeze almost a full day of usage out of a single charge, but that efficiency comes at a price (both in dollars and performance). Most laptops are designed to fully contain a six cell battery, but by doubling the number of cells to twelve (and subsequently, increasing the size of the battery pack itself, causing it to protrude out the back or bottom of the computer), you can double the life of the battery. Also, Intel and AMD make processors specifically designed to use less power. They usually run at far less than 2 Gigahertz, and they cannot handle too many big tasks like gaming and video editing as well. You could try, but if that’s what you need the system for (primarily) you’ll just have to charge the system more often.
  • USB Ports – If you use a lot of devices at once, you’ll need at least three USB ports. I always recommend using an external keyboard and mouse with a laptop whenever possible simply because they can be replaced much easier than the built-in devices. The less you use them, the less likely they are to break. So, with a keyboard and mouse plugged in, you will want to have at least one more USB port for external hard drives, thumb drives, cameras or whatever else tickles your fancy. A few laptops only have two ports (one on each side), most have three, and a few have up to five USB ports. Get as many as you can without spending too much just for that feature. Also keep in mind that some USB devices have a special “Y” shaped cable that plugs into two USB ports. If you might need one of these devices, you’ll want a laptop with two USB ports that are close together, not one on each side.

In my most recent purchase, I wanted something far more portable than my old laptop but more capable than a netbook. I went with a Toshiba Satellite, ultra thin system. This particular system (like most ultra thin, lightweight systems) does not have an optical drive (no DVD or CD drive). That wasn’t an issue for me because I knew that all of the software I could ever need I was going to download for free once I got it connected to the Internet. If you install a lot of software from disks but still want a system like mine, there are some great external drives that will meet your needs. I may end up getting one too so I can watch movies on my laptop, but for now I’m fine without an optical drive.


The final hardware consideration is, what else do you need? Some people need lots of storage but end up choosing a laptop with a smaller hard drive. In that case, just get an external hard drive. Do you transfer a lot of files between systems? Get a thumb drive. Actually, I recommend that people get thumb drives even if they don’t need them for transferring files. They make a great place to keep backups of your most important files.


The only thing I know you’ll need if you got a laptop is a mouse and keyboard. There’s no getting around it – using the laptop keyboard puts wear on it that could eventually require maintenance. If you use an external keyboard, and it breaks, you can just unplug it and get another one. My favorite typing keyboard ever (that I’ve used anyhow) is the Logitech Classic Keyboard 200. It currently sells for $13.99 on, it is comfortable, and I’ve never had any problems with it. I love it.


I do recommend spending a little more for your external mouse though. Touch pads are great for basic navigation and occasional clicking, but nothing beats a scroll wheel on the Internet, and when doing graphics work or gaming you just can’t live without a mouse. My current favorite is the Microsoft Explorer series. Specifically, my wife and I love our Explorer Mini mice. sells them for about $40, they retail for about $60, and there is currently a vendor on Amazon that is selling them for under $20 (with $4 shipping). The great thing about the Explorer mice is that they will track on literally anything but glass and mirrors (although in some tests these mice have actually tracked on glass and mirrors!). We can use them on shag carpet, glossy surfaces, pitted surfaces, hair, clothing, anything at all, and more. If you want a great mouse, Microsoft actually has a great product.


All computers come with what is lovingly called “bloat-ware.” This is software that people pay the manufacturer to include pre-installed from the factory. In some ways I guess it’s good because I’d like to think that the money they earn from that endeavor goes toward keeping costs lower for me, but I rather doubt it.

Anyhow, the first program I highly suggest you uninstall (if it’s installed) is Norton Anti-Virus. Many computers come with it pre-installed along with an offer for a whole year or month or day of free updates. It’s not worth it. Microsoft has a free program you can download right away that does the same thing (well, roughly the same thing).

To get rid of Norton (or any program, for that matter), just go to the control panel and look for “Add/Remove Programs” or something like that. Find the offender, click “uninstall,” and follow the directions. Most virus protection software will require that you restart after removing it. That’s OK.

Now, I don’t recommend you leave your computer virus-protection-free for long. It is a dangerous thing. So once you’ve finished uninstalling the crud you don’t need, make sure you immediately download the “essential” software I have listed below, in the order I’ve listed them.

First though, look for any programs that say “offer” or “setup” next to them and get rid of them (still in the Add/Remove Software tool). Also, some systems (most Toshibas and HPs) come with some kind of game portal that you should get rid of.

Many people will tell you to get rid of a lot more than this, but it’s not always necessary. After you’ve been using the computer for a month or so, go back to the Add/Remove Software tool and look over the list. If you recognize the program and you know you use it a lot, don’t get rid of it. If you recognize it and you know you don’t use it a lot, get rid of it (just make sure you know what it does first!). Everything else is probably OK to leave installed.


Some of these are more essential than others. I’ll categorize them to simplify this. In some cases it won’t matter what program you get as long as you get something that does the job. So, if you’re ready to get started, open Internet Explorer (unless your system came with another browser pre-installed, in which case you should DEFINITELY use the other one!).

Note: This list is designed for Windows users ONLY. Many of these programs are cross platform, but I’m not going to say which ones because I’m not making this list for Mac users. Sorry guys. Maybe another time.

Essential Software

These are programs that you will need to get – almost everyone needs these programs. Right away, before downloading anything, you need virus protection!

  • Virus Protection – Search for “Microsoft Security Essentials,” or go to Click on the big “Download Now” button, save the executable and run it. Make sure you have already removed any virus protection that shipped with your computer, then close your web browser while the program installs. Once it installs make sure it runs OK, then let it scan your system. Depending on the size of your hard drive, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Since this is the first thing you’re doing on your new system, everything should be clean. After it scans your system, you may proceed with this list.
  • New Browser – DO NOT USE INTERNET EXPLORER. Sure, there are a lot of sites that require it, but I can show you how to get around that later. For now, just download one or both of the following browsers and try them out. You won’t miss Internet Explorer after a few days. I promise. My favorite is Google Chrome, but I was once a die-hard Firefox fan (I even have an embroidered FireFox shirt). They are both worlds better than IE, more secure, faster, and prettier. While I might catch some heat for this, I am going to recommend that you just get Google Chrome. It’s better. Once you’ve downloaded and selected a new browser, close Internet Explorer and never open it again (unless you really have to).
  • Free Office Software – While there are a few options for this, my favorite (and arguably the most user friendly and robust) is Just go to their website in your new, shiny browser, and download. It’s that easy. The installation is easy and the program operates a lot like Microsoft Office. There are some differences, but can do just about anything Microsoft Office can do, and in some cases it does it better. If you ever find that just isn’t meeting your needs, feel free to go back to the Microsoft version, but I don’t think most people will ever need to.
  • Media Player – Windows Media Player is pretty good, but there are a lot of things it can’t handle. For everything else, there’s VLC. VLC can’t do everything, but I’ve never found a video it couldn’t play.
  • Photo Organizer – Since most people maintain some kind of image collection (from digital cameras, web graphics, etc.), you’ll probably want a good program to organize and lightly edit those photos. Google Picasa is a great product that is completely free and I recommend it to everyone.

Everything Else

Those, to me, represent the bare-bones necessities for a new computer. If you get nothing else, make sure you get those things. The remainder of my list is specific to my needs and wants, based on what I want to use the computer for. If you know of other great free programs that aren’t listed here, please add them in the comments.

  • Dropbox – This is a really cool file program. It creates a special folder that automatically backs itself up online any time you add or change files in the folder. If you install Dropbox on other computers and link them with your account, Dropbox will synchronize all of the folders across all of the computers and devices you have Dropbox installed on. I love it.
  • Notepad ++ – If you do any web development or coding the old fashioned way (in notepad) you might want to try Notepad ++. I found this little gem several years ago and have installed it on all of my computers ever since.
  • Skype – For video calls and VoIP, my favorite is still Skype. We’ve been using it for quite a while now and we love it.
  • Google Talk – Actually, I didn’t download the Talk program, I installed the Video and Voice plug-in. While most of our video chats are handled over Skype, we have more friends with Google accounts than Skype accounts. With this plug-in, I can have a video call with any Google Talk contact who is also using the plug-in or the desktop client. I’ve only done it once, and it was a long time ago, but this is a valuable thing to have on standby.
  • Google Earth – There’s nothing cooler than exploring your planet in 3D with a nearly infinitely scalable, detailed and textured model with Google Maps plastered all over it. This is as fun as it is useful.
  • Google SketchUp – I am a bit of a 3D hobbyist, and SketchUp is a great way to rapidly visualize a model. It’s a wildly different experience from most of the 3D software I’ve used, but once I got the hang of it I realize it was easier and more intuitive than anything else I’ve ever tried. Plus, it’s free!
  • Blender – On the subject of 3D, how does a free 3D program with advanced features sound? SketchUp may be easy and fast, but it’s not anywhere near Blender’s level. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Blender is extremely un-intuitive to learn. However, I’ve seen what it can do, and I’m impressed enough to trudge over the learning curve and figure it out.
  • Paint.NET – If I’m going to make awesome 3D images in Blender, I’ll need software like Photoshop to make textures, composites, do touch-ups, and more. Windows Paint won’t do any of that. In fact, Paint is nearly useless. Luckily, there’s a better Paint. This program can do layers, adjustments, transparency and even some cool effects. Sure, there’s a lot that it can’t do, but it’s free. If it does what you need it to then you’ve lost nothing, right? I even made the cover for my new book entirely in Paint.NET.
  • Inkscape – Paint.NET can handle most of my 2D needs, but it is primarily for raster images (bitmaps). For vector images, I love Inkscape. It’s relatively easy to learn, and it can handle almost anything you can dream up.
  • GIMP – Many people believe GIMP capable of anything Photoshop can do. I don’t agree, but I do think GIMP is better than Paint.NET for more advanced jobs. A lot like Blender, I find GIMP hard to learn, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I want to learn it so I can see how long I can live without Photoshop. Someday I’ll be rich and it won’t matter. Until then, I’ll be struggling with GIMP.
  • WavePad – I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a free audio editing tool that I hope will allow me to make simple audio tracks for animations or an audio book. We shall see. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll write a review (and link to it from here).
  • VideoPad – Like WavePad, I downloaded this to see if it would be suitable for creating simple promotional or family videos. I just want to be able to cut scenes together, edit things out and add simple effects. If this program is a winner, I’ll write a review.


I hope this helped. As I use my system and learn more about what programs are meeting my needs and which ones I don’t have that could help, I may modify this list.

I’m 100% sure of all of the hardware tips though, as well as the “essential software” bit. The important thing to remember is that there are hundreds of thousands of free programs out there that you can find that will do the same things that more expensive software can do. Look to the free stuff first, and if it doesn’t work out, pay for what you need.

Good luck and happy computing!

Author Page at Amazon

It’s official! I have an author page at When people search for me or any of my books, a link to my page shows up. Anything I’ve written is listed, I’ve got a cute little biography there, and you can even see posts to this blog from there!

For now there’s not a whole lot else there. In the future I can list events like book signings or readings there, and if I ever do a video showing off my book, I’ll post it there. Discussion forums can be set up where I can respond to reader questions too. I hope some of you who are reading my book right now (or in the near future) will start discussions there on what you’re reading.

If this is your first time seeing my blog, I just wanted to provide you with a few links to some past articles you might enjoy.

Don’t forget to enter my book giveaway contest, and I look forward to interacting with readers through!


Official Book Giveaway 1

Facebook Drives Me Nuts

This contest has ended. Thank you to all who participated. The Official Book Giveaway 2 is now live.

For those who are interested (namely, the people in the list below), here were the rules for round one. I tried to make them as entertaining to read as possible, so I recommend reading them through to the end.

Facebook Drives Me Nuts

Book Giveaway Sweepstakes

Official Rules

1. Eligibility

This drawing is open to a specific list of individuals. To see if you are eligible, please look for your Facebook name on this list:

  • Amber Napoleon
  • Annie H
  • Autumn Flynn
  • Basia Opalska
  • Becky Fletcher
  • Chalyn Elking
  • Christopher Johnson
  • Jacob Haddad
  • Jennifer Bernarducci
  • Jessica Johnson
  • Jocelyn Udall
  • Jon N Hannah Moses
  • Katie Hill Anderson
  • Kelsey Hunter
  • Keturah Wojtanowski
  • Luke Haddad
  • Melodie Brooke Hammett
  • Pascale Koys
  • Rachel Jones
  • Rob Shively
  • Rudolph Oosthuizen
  • Russell Roberts
  • Spencer Bawden
  • Tony Leonhardt
  • Victoria Scott

If you did not find your name, never fear. A future drawing is being planned that will be open to anyone who sees the contest rules. Be patient and watch my Facebook notes and for future contest announcements.

2. Prizes

There are a total of three (3) copies of Facebook Drives Me Nuts that will be signed by the author, defaced inside with a page full of doodles and mailed to three lucky winners. If more than ten enthusiastic entries are received, the number of winners may increase, at the discretion of Brian Haddad, to a maximum of five (5). The prize is valued at over one million dollars ($1,000,000), but the actual monetary value of the prize is none of your business. The book retails for $12.99 in case you are interested.

The losers will be notified that they lost by way of a personal email or message from Brian Haddad, along with a consolation prize consisting of a group of seemingly random characters that serve as a discount code that can be used at when checking out to receive almost a full $3.50 off the price of the book.

3. How to Enter

For this contest, send Brian Haddad a Facebook message with your mailing address somewhere in the body. People posting their mailing addresses on Brian’s wall or as comments on this note or Brian’s status will not be entered into the contest. They will, in stead, be ridiculed, laughed at, and possibly sent junk mail after making their addresses publicly viewable.

While this is a random drawing, there is also an element of competition. Those who apply first and those who express the greatest interest in winning will be preferred. After entering, writing love notes to Brian, posting enthusiastic comments about how great the book must be and how excited you are to read it, and generally sucking up to Brian Haddad will increase your odds of winning.

4. Deadline

Brian Haddad will stop taking entries after Saturday, February 6th, but those wishing to improve their odds may continue sucking up to him until the shipment of books arrives (expected to be sometime around the middle of February, but could be much sooner).

In the event that the shipment of books arrives early, if Brian Haddad has already decided who he will pick as the winners, he will stop taking entries, even if February 6th has not arrived.

5. Winning

The winner will be chosen at random from among the entries. OK, that’s a lie. The winner will be chosen from among the entries, but Brian Haddad will essentially decide who to send the prizes to based on the sincerity of their interest in the book, the enthusiasm with which they have engaged in showing him that they want to read his book, and how well he thinks they will be able to entice others to read the book. More than three individual entries may meet this criteria, in which case Brian will select the winners randomly.

6. Other Details

Brian Haddad and his spouse are not eligible to enter the drawing. Neither are their children or pets.

To ensure fair consideration, those entries that do not adhere to the rules and submission standards will be disqualified.

Brian reserves the right to use a winner’s partial name, quote, likeness or descriptive essence for publicity and promotional purposes. In fact, after you’ve read his book, he would appreciate if you wrote some kind of review or testimonial that he can use to promote the book. Rating and reviewing the book on would be rewarded with one thousand (1,000) rainbow unicorn kisses.

The drawing is void where prohibited. Late or incomplete entries will not be accepted. Brian Haddad is not responsible for lost, stolen, late or misdirected entries.

Winning or losing does not in any way imply that you are a good or bad friend. Losing does not imply that you are loved less than the winners. Anyone suggesting or attempting to imply that their status as a winner or loser in this contest is indicative of the strength of their relationship to Brian Haddad will be banned from future contests and may lose their Facebook Friend status with Brian Haddad.

A Couple of Great Films

I had, in the last week, the delightful opportunity to see two wonderful, awe-inspiring movies. I’m sure you’ve heard of them.

First, I saw Avatar with my wife and brothers.

Avatar Movie Poster


This movie was nothing short of magnificent. I did see the film in 3D, and aside from a few small gripes I have with today’s 3D film showing technology, the 3D added more than just another dimension to the movie.

What made this movie outstanding for me can be illustrated in just two solid points.

First, I went in to the movie knowing full well that the plot was essentially ripped off from Pocahontas (though I don’t believe Cameron did it on purpose), and still James Cameron’s storytelling kept me engaged and entertained to the end. If you can go into a movie knowing how it ends and what will happen around every turn, and still enjoy it thoroughly, then it is a good movie.

Second, as someone who loves movie special effects, I am familiar with a tendency in Hollywood to allow the special effects to steal the show. Many a good movie has been nearly or entirely ruined because the effects were too good for the viewer to allow them to fade into the background of the story. In Avatar, the effects perfectly faded into their rightful place as a storytelling mechanism. They were nearly perfect in every way (and where they did not excel, they receded even further into the back of the viewer’s mind).

I had no problem believing that the world of Pandora was a very real place to the characters I saw on screen, and at no time did I feel like I was experiencing another Jar-Jar-esque CGI character while watching the Na’vi. For some, the world was not only real and beautiful, but it was so much better and alluring than Earth, that they are dying to visit.

After such an epic movie (and “epic” is my favorite word to describe Avatar), I was hesitant to watch anything else for a while.

Later the same week, though, my wife and I went on a date to see Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes Movie Poster

Sherlock Holmes

This Sherlock Holmes installment was the most beautifully rendered of any I have ever seen. As a huge fan of the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I have always been looking for a suitable film adaptation of his original characters. Unfortunately, most of the previous Holmes films I had seen had failed miserably.

Shortly after watching this new Sherlock Holmes movie, I was in a rental store and saw the cover of a Sherlock Holmes movie I had never heard of: Murder By Decree.

Murder By Decree Poster

Murder By Decree

On the cover you can see that someone once considered it the “Best Sherlock Holmes Movie Ever Made.” That statement is attributed to Rex Reed, of the New York Daily News. The movie was released early in 1979, just over thirty years prior to the newest movie staring the master sleuth. The cover certainly makes the movie look quite appealing, and it currently resides at the top of my Netflix queue. I will then report on if that film remains the “best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made.”

As for my current belief, Robert Downey Jr. played Sherlock Holmes better than any man before him, and Jude Law made a singularly perfect Dr. Watson companion to him. The two played very nicely together, and the depiction of their characters was precisely as I had envisioned it during my reading of the stories. For me, Sherlock Holmes staring Robert Downey Jr. will always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes movie.

Finally, before I let you go, I have to apologize for getting ahead of myself earlier. I rushed to offer my new book (Facebook Drives Me Nuts) for sale before it was ready. So, the first edition, which nobody bought, is immediately discontinued, and the second edition, which is currently undergoing review, will be offered for sale before the end of the month (if all goes well). I am thinking of sending out a few signed copies to my closest friends and family, in hopes that they will read the book and spread the word. Of course, if they don’t like the book, such an act could backfire on me most horrendously. I shall have to proceed with caution.

Watch for an announcement here followed by copious amounts of self promotion through all of my available channels once the book is approved for sale.

I Won (again)!

I’ve got a new page where you can view everything I’ve written that has been published. Please visit the My Published Books/Works page and check them out!

My NaNoWriMo story is done this year (as of yesterday). I broke the 50,000 words mark by just over 200 additional words, uploaded my document for an official word count, and I’ve won. Sometime next week they’ll post the code for the free proof copy from Amazon’s CreateSpace. My book from last year has been published (though in its unedited, raw form) mostly just for fun. This year I’m going to heavily edit and revise my book before submitting it for publishing because I actually like this one better. Here’s a preview of the rough cover I made for it:

Facebook Drives Me Nuts

Facebook Drives Me Nuts

You can view my author bio and novel info at the NaNoWriMo site here.

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