Learning Puppetry tech…

caroll-spinneyOne of the problems I have when I’m puppeteering Rudy Monster is that I’m stuck underneath his huge furry body and it’s really difficult to see the monitors that Kay and Jen are using to watch their own performances. So I started thinking about how to give myself a small, portable monitor that I could use while I was under Rudy.

I’d read about Caroll Spinney’s “electronic bra” that he wears inside of Big Bird, but that has a fairly large CRT video monitor on it, and I was sure that modern technology could provide me with something much, much better.


The video glasses that wouldn’t work…

At first, I tried using a pair of Video Glasses.  I figured that I could just wear these on my face and I would be able to puppeteer with the best of them. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on two things, the first logistical, and the second technical. First, with these glasses on, I couldn’t see anything but what the camera was showing me. No script, no other puppeteers, no nothing. I was trapped inside the glasses until I took them off.

Second, and much more importantly, they only worked for ten minutes at a time, and then they conked out. If I let them rest for a half hour or so, they’d work again, but I couldn’t afford to only get 10-20 minutes of use out of every hour; I needed to be able to use these for long puppeteering sessions. So I scrapped the glasses and went back to puppeteering blind.

But, of course, that didn’t work very well, either. I constantly had to get coaching from my coworkers about Rudy’s eye focus, and I had to feel my way through everything. Not the way I like to puppeteer.

Finally, I decided to build my own rig to approximate what Caroll Spinney has.  Looking at the pictures of Caroll’s getup, I started figuring out how I could get the appropriate parts. Of course, trying to get a CRT video monitor these days is nigh-impossible, but I found links to LCD flat-screen monitors that have the same 16:9 aspect ratio (widescreen) that our camera has. These screens were being sold for retrofitting cars that didn’t have backup cameras with aftermarket cameras.

And then I saw a related link for a wireless transmitter that allowed you to transmit video from your camera at the back of your car to your monitor on your dashboard, without wires. This was what I needed.

So I got the following equipment:

First I tested the monitor and the battery. Both had all the connectors they needed, so I was able to take the Y-splitter lead that came with the battery and plug one end into the monitor’s power cable and the other into the power supply that came with the battery. I plugged in the video RCA out from our camera and… voilá! I was watching what the camera was recording on the tiny monitor. At the very least, my getup would work if it was hardwired.

Next, I wanted to get the wireless transmission working. The pieces of the wireless transmitter were meant to be hardwired into a car, so they had bare wires as power leads. I was prepared for this (remember, I bought the package of connectors), but then I had a sudden thought: this was DC power, and unlike AC power, with DC power, polarity matters. With my misadventures in LED wiring still fresh in my mind, I popped off to Google to make sure I had my polarity correct. Finding the Wiring Color Codes reference in the free electrical engineering textbook “Lessons in Electric Circuits“, I read the following (the last sentence was bolded by me):

US DC power: The US National Electrical Code (for both AC and DC) mandates that the grounded neutral conductor of a power system be white or grey. The protective ground must be bare, green or green-yellow striped. Hot (active) wires may be any other colors except these. However, common practice (per local electrical inspectors) is for the first hot (live or active) wire to be black and the second hot to be red. The recommendations in Table below are by Wiles. [JWi] He makes no recommendation for ungrounded power system colors. Usage of the ungrounded system is discouraged for safety. However, red (+) and black (-) follows the coloring of the grounded systems in the table.

Ok, so these red wires were positive, and the black wires were negative. And… oh, lovely! This wiring diagram for the product even states that! This is what I get for not reading the documentation before diving in…

Documentation? How quaint…

So I hooked up a female DC power connector to the transmitter’s power, making sure the red wire was going into the positive terminal (then screwing it down with a #0 phillips head) and the black wire was going into the negative terminal (screw, screw, screw). Then I plugged the male power plug from the extra power supply I got and saw the little indicator light on the transmitter light up.

So far, so good.

I did the same with a male CD power connector on the receiver’s power, and then plugged it into the the Y-splitter lead that came with the battery.


I picked the male power connector because the battery pack had a female power port, and the monitor had a female power plug.  This meant that the cable above would let me plug in a male plug and not have to wire up anything special.

And when I turned on the battery, the indicator light on the receiver lit up.  So, holding my breath, I plugged in our camera to the transmitter… and… success!

I was so excited, I put on the harness and took the screen upstairs to my wife.

“What’s that?” she asked, indicating the picture on the diminutive screen.

“That’s the sewing machine. Downstairs.”

I’ll post a picture of this rig in action after we film with it this coming Sunday, but I couldn’t wait to post about assembling this setup.  It felt good.

GNU Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the clacks are a series of semaphore towers loosely based on the concept of the telegraph. Invented by an artificer named Robert Dearheart, the towers could send messages “at the speed of light” using standardized codes. Three of these codes are of particular import:

  • G: send the message on
  • N: do not log the message
  • U: turn the message around at the end of the line and send it back again

When Dearheart’s son John died due to an accident while working on a clacks tower, Dearheart inserted John’s name into the overhead of the clacks with a “GNU” in front of it as a way to memorialize his son forever (or for at least as long as the clacks are standing.)

“A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.”
Going Postal, Chapter 4 prologue

Keeping the legacy of Sir Terry Pratchett alive forever.
For as long as his name is still passed along the Clacks[simple_tooltip style=’border-bottom: 1px dotted #00F’ content=’Nowadays called the Internet’]*[/simple_tooltip],
Death can’t have him.


Boosting the signal

WorldVentures Marketing, LLC
Phone: (972) 805-5100
Fax: (972) 767-3139
5360 Legacy Dr STE 300 Bldg 1, Plano, TX 75024-3135

WorldVentures describes itself as “the world’s largest direct seller of curated group travel, with more than 120,000 Independent Representatives in over 24 countries and we are still growing.”

But other people describe WorldVentures differently. Some press has been unflattering.  Bloggers and commentators openly call it a scam or a scheme. The Better Business Bureau gives it a B- (the Better Business Bureau site says in big bold letters “This Business is not BBB Accredited”).

Now they’re suing a blogger who, after encountering a WorldVentures marketeer, had the temerity to write a post in her blog entitled “WorldVentures: This Is NOT The Way To Travel The World”.

Now she’s being sued by WorldVentures. Read more about it here:
Popehat Signal: Help A Blogger Threatened By A Multi-Level Marketer WorldVentures

Will WorldVentures sue me, too, for linking to this story?  We’ll find out.

Once again, we’re trying to fill positions at my day job…

(We don’t have it posted with our corporate careers site yet, so I’m blogging it here.) We’re in NYC. If this looks interesting to you, drop Jennifer a line!
Continue reading

Just so folks know…

I’ve created an easy-to-remember URL for our YouTube Channel: http://playhouse.packay.com/.  It’s a lot easier to give out to people than “youtube dot com slash channels slash… um, capital U capital C lower-case r capital B lower-case r dash… um…”

I’m also linking here so Google will pick up on the link and increase the pagerank of the channel. Not that my little blog will do much, but every little bit counts.

Tiny fingers…


Tiny fingers require very fine stitching.

It’s a royal pain in the ass. 1.5 fingers down, 8.5 to go. *grumble*

Starting on my second puppet build!

Well, that’s not entirely true: I’ve helped Kay out with puppets for Shrek and Little Shop, so I’ve been building puppets since Kay and I made Rudy, but this is the second puppet I’m building for me.

It started back in May when we were shopping for material for the puppets for Shrek. Alfred’s Fabric Center in Albany, NY, was going out of business, and they were selling a lot of fabric at half-off.  I saw a bolt of bright green fur that didn’t have much left on it, so I brought it up front and told them I’d take all that was left of it.  If I recall correctly, it ran $16 and change.

For a few days I thought about what I wanted to make with the green fur, and I decided it was going to be another monster, a little girl this time. Kay and Jen both have little kid characters, and I’m stuck (geez, I’m stuck with a puppet!) playing the adult to everyone else’s little kid, so I wanted to make a younger character to get in on all the fun they’re having.

I decided that I’d name her Violet, because when she was born she had violet fur, but soon afterward the violet fur started falling out and coming in green. She goes by “Vi” now (“call me Violet and you die!”), and she’s just eight years old.

Anyway, over the weekend, Kay cut up some foam using the patterns she used to make Ket, adding some spacers to make the head a little wider.  Then she cut up the fur using the same patterns, reminded me how to do the Henson Stitch, and set me to work stitching fur while she crafted arms and a torso.

A partially stitched head, arms and a torso.

A partially stitched head, arms and a torso.

It will take at least another week or two for me to stitch up all the fur, especially because I can only do it at home in the evenings, but I’ve told Kay that I really want to do the stitching on Vi myself, mostly because she did so much work on Rudy(she finished up Rudy’s long seams on the sewing machine before she built the foam structure of his head and finished him off) and I want to feel like I did more work on Vi.

So, stay tuned. It may be a little while before I have another update on Vi, but it’ll be worth the wait.

Why you should never allow ssh into your root account…

Every so often, I walk into my office at home and glance at the console for my file server (the machine on my network that has port 22 forwarded to it) and I see new messages like this:

Minorly massaged so you’re not looking at a wall of text

Sep 13 05:56:34 gogo kernel: Sep 13 05:56:34 gogo sshd[49408]: error: PAM: authentication error for root from
Sep 13 05:56:34 gogo kernel: Sep 13 05:56:34 gogo sshd[49409]: error: PAM: authentication error for root from
Sep 13 05:**:** gogo kernel: Sep 13 05:**:** gogo last message repeated 147 times
Sep 13 05:59:41 gogo kernel: Sep 13 05:59:41 gogo sshd[49611]: error: PAM: authentication error for root from

This is the big reason why you should never allow people to ssh into the root account of a machine directly accessible via the internet: people will try to break in.

I also amuse myself by adding the IP address to my firewall’s block list, but then, I’m easily amused. I know getting a new IP address is trivial, but I want people who are trying to ssh into root on my file server to have to take that trivial step.

I’m not a hardware guy…

Ok, so as some of you already know, PacKay Productions is building puppets for the Glove Theater’s production of Shrek: The Musical (and my lovely wife will be performing the part of Dragon).  Part of Kay’s design for Dragon included eyes that light up, and Kay figured that she could accomplish this by putting a battery-operated LED closet light in each eye:


The problem, of course is that to turn those things on, you have to physically press the front on each of them.  That’s going to be awkward if you want to light up the eyes while you’re performing with the puppet.  “Hey,” I told Kay, “I can move the switch outside the case… heck, I can probably put it at the end of a long wire, so you can have the switches for both eyes next to each other.  And I could move the batteries to the end of a long wire, too, so you don’t have to have all that weight up in the eyes.”  Kay was skeptical, however, because she didn’t want me ruining the one pair of these lights that she had.  So I found another pair for $5 on sale at a hardware store and I took them apart.

The build seemed simple enough: there was a switch soldered to a circuit board that had the LEDs soldered on, and there were two leads from the circuit board to the battery housing, one of which had a resistor.  I could de-solder the switch and put it at the end of long wire, and I could do the same for the battery.  Easy-peasy.

So I set to work.  I grabbed about three feet from my spool of cat5 cable and split it open to reveal the four pairs of twisted wires.  I de-soldered the connection to the battery and wired it back in with one of the wire pairs from the cable.  I now was able to put the battery three feet away from the LEDs.  I then de-soldered the switch from the circuit board and soldered in one end of another pair of wires.  I then tried touching the bare ends of that wire together to close the circuit and make sure everything was working.

Nothing happened.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “I’m not going to be able to do this by the seat of my pants.”

See, I’m a geek, but I don’t really grok electricity the way most geeks do.  There are equations for things, and I mostly ignore them and just do things by the seat of my pants because, for the most part, I can get things to work that way.  I don’t bother sitting down and crunching numbers because… well, that’s work.  And I hate work.  That’s why I mostly write computer code–coding isn’t work, it’s fun.

So, I started asking around for help. As luck would have it, one of my former coworkers Don came by the office this past week for a visit, and I chatted him up about it.  He did some quick addition on my whiteboard, and he gave me one crucial piece of advice: buy a multimeter.

So, on Friday, I grabbed a $35 multimeter from RadioShack. On Saturday, I took apart the other LED light and started testing voltages.  I tested at the two terminals on the battery pack. The multimeter read 4.77V. I tested where the two leads connected to the circuit board with the LEDs and switch. 4.75V.  Ok, good, I’ve got numbers to compare with.  I then tested the circuit I had soldered together at the battery pack. 4.75V.  Ok, that’s good. Then I tested at the circuit board? -4.75V. … … wait. NEGATIVE 4.75V?

A little voice in my head said, “They don’t call them Light Emitting Diodes for nothing, Pack.”

So I de-soldered where I’d connected the wires to the circuit board and re-connected them with the proper polarity.  VOILA!  It worked!

Emboldened by my success (and spurred by the fact that my ham-handed soldering had damaged one of the switches so it was no longer a push-on, push-off switch but appeared to now only function as a momentary (push on, release off) switch), I trotted off to RadioShack and grabbed two larger switches and a little plastic project case to house them in.

Another hour in my in-laws basement, and I was done!

2013-06-15 21.30.16 2013-06-15 21.30.23
2013-06-15 21.30.29 2013-06-15 21.30.34

The switches are close enough together you can turn both lights on at the same time, but you can also choose to light up either light individually.  Now all we have to do is mount these in Dragon’s eyes and figure out where the best place to place the switches.

A teaser…

Back in mid-April, Kay, Jen and I headed into the city for a photo-shoot with one of Jen’s friends who was a photographer.  It was the most fun we’d had with the puppets yet.  We’re waiting to link to the full set of photos until Jen’s character makes her video debut, but I figured I could upload one of the shots of me and Rudy to tease folks…

Packy and Rudy!