Nov. 23, 2016

Are GPS apps messing with our brains?
Quit social media. Your career may depend on it.
Two more articles from the "Our smart technology is making us dumb" files.

Nov. 21, 2016

Probably everyone has seen a similar video of massed flights of starlings, but I still enjoy watching every time I find a new one. It is amazing to think about how a groups of birds, each flying according a simple set of rules (essentially "stay close, but don't collide"), can create such randomly intricate and beautiful patterns. I would like to see one of these flocks IRL someday.

Nov. 20, 2016

New vocabulary word for the week. I'm not sure that we need it just yet, but given the experiment in government on which we have just embarked, it's probably a good idea to make sure that our dictionaries are properly stocked in order to describe unfolding events. Appropriately enough, the word originates in Greece, a country that knows a few things (good and bad) about democracy.
More etymology.

Something potentially useful came out of a hackathon. (I always thought the primary hackathon results were sleep deprivation and B.O.) Students at the Princeton hackathon last week took a stab at solving Facebook's fake news problem. They wrote a Chrome browser extension that attempts to sort out "real" news from "fake" on Facebook. Young people can be so clever sometimes. They are making it open-source, so give it a try once it's finally available. (I won't try it myself, because I don't use Facebook - I get my fake news from other sources.)

I've never grokked the need for special software plug-ins to do things that we used handle on our own. For instance, I've always thought that any person who could assemble a handful of simultaneously functioning brain cells could probably identify obviously fake news. Even "marginally fake" news can either be confirmed or identified as "probably not true" with a few extra web browser clicks. But I suppose that I am just a dinosaur in trying to apply pre-internet notions to the current world. (When we were visiting Copenhagen last summer, I saw a prominent sign that said "I miss my pre-internet brain." That really resonated with me. Of course, for anybody under the age of about 25, there is no such thing as "pre-internet".)

The evolution of a fake news story
Continuing with the theme, here is a NY Times article that chronicles the rise and fall of one fake news story on Twitter. I guess it shouldn't be surprising that things like this will happen when mass quantities of knuckleheads are interconnected with no mechanisms to regulate the flow of nonsense. It almost makes one think that some training - and possibly a license - should be required to post on Twitter and Facebook. Of course, that would be un-American. One of our most cherished freedoms is the right to be totally stupid in public.

Nov. 16, 2016

-2000 lines of code. In EE 285 today, we were talking again about writing efficient code. The link is to the story of Bill Atkinson reporting his productivity in terms of how much code he removed from the Apple Lisa operating system when it was being developed. (Lisa was the precursor to the Macintosh.) The story is told by Andy Hertzfeld - also a famous Apple engineer - as part of his book "Revolution in the Valley".

Two Americas While it would not have seemed possible before-hand, the recent election has made the divisions between Americans even sharper. There are many fascinating ways to view the fracturing of the country. The NY Times has a new take on this theme, splitting the country in two according to how regions voted. The result is two countries having wildly different geographies. The Trump America consists of a vast and sparsely populated landscape, reminiscent of the steppes of central Asia. The Clinton America is an archipelago of small, densely populated islands in a vast ocean, looking a bit like the cluster of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. It's a very interesting view of our truly messed-up state-of-affairs.

Nov. 14, 2016

It's supermoon time - when the full moon coincides with lunar perigee (closest approach). The specific time for full moon occurred at 5:21 a.m. Monday morning, so Monday night is actually a bit past full moon. Even so, it should be spectacular - be sure to go outside and have look. The last time it was this close was 1948, and it won't be this close again until 2034. Here are some cool photos from various places from Sunday night.

Oct. 14, 2016

Switching classes: In EE 285, we have been discussing cellular automata (CA). (Wikipedia and a page from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). These are interesting mathematical exercises that can be used to study some aspects of computational theory, and they have some applications in modeling physical and biological systems. In 285, we are using CA to practice the use of two-dimensional arrays, and I made an example to illustrate the process of diffusion. (Diffusion pops up in in various places in semiconductor technology.) In 2002, Stephen Wolfram (Yes, that Wolfram), wrote a 1200-page book on cellular automata. Apparently, he thinks that the subject is important.

While there are are many different ways to implement the rules governing the evolution of a CA system, the classic example is the "Game of Life", introduced by John Conway. I came across this youTube interview with Conway, in which he talks about inventing the Game of Life. He comes off as a fairly odd duck, and I thought the interview was entertaining. Maybe you will, too.

Little known fact: I wrote a Game of Life program when I was learning Fortran (My God, Fortran...) as a freshman many decades ago. The class was an early version of Com Sci 207, and it is the only formal programming class that I've ever taken. The Game of Life program is the only thing I remember from the class.

Oct. 13, 2016

In EE 201, we have been discussing feedback, and the notion of more automation in airplanes generated some commentary. A while back, I read this interesting Vanity Fair article which discussed the crash of Air France 447 into the Atlantic ocean in 2009. It provides some insight into why more automation makes flying safer and what can happen when the pilots - both human and automatic - fail. The article is a bit long, but it's a good read.

Oct. 3, 2016

"Artisanal" cobalt mining in the Congo

Here is an eye-opening story about cobalt mining in Africa. Take a look at what some people endure in order for us to have the raw materials for our fancy pocket computers. It might be worth a bit of thought as you wander across campus looking at cat YouTubes on your mobile gadget.

Sep. 30, 2016

Black Moon

Today is the day of the foreboding Black Moon. Meaning simply that this is the second new moon of the month. Since the new moon is out when the sun is out, you will have to go out during the day to enjoy it. (Moonrise is at 6:43 a.m. and moonset is at 7:03 p.m.) While you are out to trying to see the moon somewhere in the sky near the sun, you pick up some vitamin D as a side benefit.

Old stuff