Building a “Dice Tower”

Parts for a dice tower, printed in blue PLA plastic

I had not heard this descriptor before, but when my son suggested it as a project to help his game-focused young family, I did some investigation.  A dice tower is a mechanism to manage the throw of dice in a way that is fun and relevant to the game being played.  Often the games are similar to Dungeons and Dragons.  And so, the theme of a medieval tower, where dice are dropped from the top and randomized by tumbling down to the bottom is a natural match for the theme of the game.

There are other benefits as well.  For my son’s young family, throwing dice is a haphazard and unpredictable experience.  Haphazard is a desired feature of a dice throwing outcome, but when the dice bounce beyond the table into the next room and have to be located and assessed, it slows down the game.  A more constrained way of throwing dice becomes desirable.  A dice tower, with an easily accessed upper deck to launch the dice, and a containment vessel to receive them below is the perfect solution.  

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Texas Road Trip: Driving Adventures, Mistakes Made

Looking over the (dry) Rio Grande to Mexico. The white canvas arch covers the US Border Station where I would soon be detained.

I intended to visit Big Bend Park and found it on my Texas road atlas southeast of Marfa—except that it was labelled “Big Bend Ranch State Park”.  It had what appeared to be a major route through it, Casa Piedra Road, that I could take and see the terrain and park facilities, then continue through to the town of Presidio, where I could find lunch, and then take another major road back home.

So that was the plan.  But it turns out that Big Bend Ranch State Park is entirely different from Big Bend National Park. I was confused but it didn’t matter. I missed the turnoff for the road through the park and stayed on US 67 to Presidio.

And I continued to follow US 67, thinking it would show me how to get to Big Bend Park.  Eventually I found myself approaching a major checkpoint—the customs and border inspections.

I looked for a way to turn around before actually getting there, but I saw no convenient way to do this and suddenly found myself going through a covered channel with many many speed bumps—aggressive and alternating sides of the lane, then full width and strategically placed.  There was no place to exit; the lane continued on and I thought maybe there would still be a turnaround opportunity.  But there wasn’t, and I was now passing a long line of cars headed in the other direction, nearly all with Texas plates, stopped, waiting their turn to be inspected and pass into the U.S.

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Reverse Engineering

I had no schematic and my memories were vague, but I recalled that there had been three types of relays, all operating at different voltages, which made for a complicated arrangement of relay contacts and coil terminals. There was yet another voltage involved in lighting up the display. I wanted to figure out how I had managed all this complexity back when I barely understood power supplies, and then figure out how to renovate it, with the least amount of re-wiring.

As I went about tracing wires, confirming contacts with an ohm-meter, I gradually built up a re-understanding of how the relays were interconnected. Some of the wires had broken and so I could only guess their destinations. I eventually figured out how the three different relay types managed to propagate the time signal from one level to the next. As I worked on this, there were more than a few times when I wondered “how could this have ever worked?”

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0 Intro to Nightscape Odyssey

I’m about to start a series of posts that are a travelogue I worked on after a remarkable summer in 2001. I concatenated our traditional family summer camping trip with a personal journey aimed at photographing the night skies. Some of the descriptions will seem anachronistic today, with the subsequent advent of smart phones, ubiquitous GPS, and the demise of photographic film, but I hope the narrative of the adventure still holds up.

I intend to review my old writings (with the assistance of my skilled copy editor), filling in some of the gaps I left, and submit them to this forum. I invite you to enjoy them at your leisure, and if you have reactions, or if you find something unclear, let me know!


Jackie’s Last Moonrise

Jackie’s Last Moonrise.   A view from her home in Idaho Falls where the landscape is shared with her late husband’s ham radio towers.

I am sad to announce the passing of my mom, Jacquelyn (Jackie) Olson, who lived a full and active life until becoming limited by the gradual but inevitable decline of health from COPD.

I remember her most as the central figure of a busy family; her five children had diverse interests, and she encouraged all of them.  She was the family manager, in charge of feeding, clothing, coaching, logistics, cheerleading, and enforcing bedtimes.  She set the house budget and found many innovative ways to stay within it, becoming a do-it-yourself expert before DIY became a popular acronym.  She was fearless in tackling new skills as needed, providing an example for all of us:  that we could learn and become skilled at just about anything.

As kids, we knew that she was quite talented; she could play piano, operate a sewing machine, program a loom, make leatherwork, and ride horses.  I was surprised to find out that she even had a darkroom, and at a time when my interest was aimed in this direction, her equipment became my equipment, and I learned to develop film and make prints.

Perhaps the strongest example of her brave approach to learning was when she decided to go back to school and get a nursing degree.  She was a student again, and despite the twenty-year hiatus from her earlier coursework, she completed her first semester with an A in chemistry, and all her other classes.  My brother Eric and I were at the University at the same time, neither of us quite matching her GPA.  I recall meeting her for lunch sometimes at the student union, along with some of her classmates.  She was a generation older, but they all seemed quite pleased to be hanging out with her.

She became an RN and worked at Waconia Hospital where she was liked and respected, confirming and adding to her sense of independence.  She started applying her income to new hobbies:  ceramics and upholstery, and one of her favorite activities was attending estate and yard sales, to find antique or underappreciated furniture, which she then restored.

In contrast to my dad, who offered explicit advice, boiling down life lessons to memorable phrases, Mom taught by example.  And not just how to hang wallpaper, but how to be considerate to friends and respectful to non-friends, how to persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks, and how to speak up when someone is not doing the right thing.  From her I learned the skills of patience and persistence, and acquired the values for, if not the skills of, being kind and attentive to others.

In 1997, she decided that Minnesota winters were no longer to her liking.  The more arid climate of the West suited her better, and so she moved to Idaho Falls, acquiring Eric’s original house there as he built a new home for his growing family.  (My dad reluctantly followed, never completely pulling up his Minnesota roots).

She has been happy there for these last decades, gardening and landscaping and able to read as many novels as she wished, solve the daily crosswords and keep up with neighbors, friends and family.  In the last few years she has had to slow down on her interests as her disease gradually overtook her body and breath.  It has been an unpleasant time, and she has claimed that she has been ready to go for a while, but life is a strong force and doesn’t give up without a fight. 

The impact of her examples was not limited to her children.  She made friends all along the way, from lifelong childhood friends, through college and sorority sisters, to neighbors that had the fortune to move next door, and their children who are just now becoming young adults.  Many people will miss her. 

I will miss her.

With my mom Jackie, and her mom, Theodora Pankratz, on Theo’s 90th birthday (1994).


In an odd cosmic or spiritual coincidence, my mother took her last breath at 3:11, the time indicated by the stopped antique clock in her bedroom.  It was the exact complement of the old song about the grandfather clock that stopped short when the old man died.

The Blog Roll


Modern blog formats allow me to make posts of diverse topics as I work on them, yet organize them according to subjects/categories.  The “blog roll” is the reverse chronological sequence of my postings, which may seem semi-random or disorganized to some– select a category to find the coherent themes. If you find them of interest, I invite you to “subscribe” and get an email note when I make a post. Don’t worry, I am not very prolific in this art, so there is no danger of flooding your inbox.