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Copenhagen heads toward sustainability. 03.25.19

The city plans to be carbon neutral by 2025.


Car ownership a thing of the past? 03.25.19

Kara Swisher predicts that owning car will soon go the way of owning a land-line phone. I'm not convinced that a complete transition will happen as fast as she thinks, but for a certain segment of population, not owning a car is already a viable option.


An eight-year old chess prodigy.... 03.25.19

...and would-be U.S. citizen. Apparently, his family now has a home and is no longer is living in a shelter.


Rick Steves. 03.25.19

From the NYTimes Magazine, a nice article about Rick Steves, European travel meister, uber-dork, and inveterate ambassador for NORML.


The light bulb revolution continues. 03.25.19

From the article: "After climbing for decades, electricity use by American households has declined over the past eight years." That is a remarkable statistic – since the great recession, the economy and the population have expanded significantly, but electricity use has gone down. Certainly a part of the change is due to the adoption of more efficient light sources. A graph in the article shows that traditional incandescent bulbs now make up only 6% of the installed lighting and LEDs are 14%. (Honestly, I thought it would be more than that.) Compact fluorescent and hologens bulbs make up the bulk – both are more efficient than incandescents.

We get all hot and bothered about new tech like self-driving cars and machine learning, but oftentimes real and significant changes come in the form of mundane things, like light bulbs.

Paul Rako at Electronic Design tears apart an old LED bulb. (Old electronics engineers turned journalists like to rip things apart. Of course, it is an excellent way to learn how things work. Just don't do it to any of the lab equipment.) He was impressed with the quality of the circuitry and basic construction. Use this as an intro to Cree, one of the U.S. leaders in LED tech. They are located in North Carolina and seem to have lots of job openings.


It's Spring! 03.20.19

Today is the vernal equinox. It doesn't quite feel like spring here, but there are hints that it might be on the way. To add to the fun, there is a supermoon tonight, making this the "super worm equinox moon", which is a somewhat rare event. Hopefully, the clouds stay away, and we'll be able to go outside and have a look at it.


Best city living. 03.20.19

For what it's worth: A listing of cities ranked in terms of "quality of living". Not surprisingly, the top of the list is dominated by cities in central and northern Europe – Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Geneva, and Basel are all in the top 10. Top U.S. city – San Francisco at #34. (As usual, the details of these rankings must be taken with a huge grain of salt.)

Here is the complete list.


iPhone prototype board. 03.20.19

For EE 333 students (past and future): A prototype board used in the development of the original iPhone. Could this be an EE 333 project? Prolly not, but its fun to think about. Related question: How did this thing become public? It's hard to believe that someone just plucked it out of a bin of old prototypes and carried it home.


Questions for Facebook and YouTube. 03.19.19

Charlie Warzel in the NYTimes:

"Focusing only on moderation means that Facebook, YouTube and other platforms, such as Reddit, don’t have to answer for the ways in which their platforms are meticulously engineered to encourage the creation of incendiary content, rewarding it with eyeballs, likes and, in some cases, ad dollars. Or how that reward system creates a feedback loop that slowly pushes unsuspecting users further down a rabbit hole toward extremist ideas and communities."

The author has put his finger on the key point — the algorithms of Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and systems of similar ilk are engineered to bring out the worst in their users. This is not to say that these companies intend to have their platforms become accessories to mass murders. But when the algorithms reward posts that achieve the most "eyeballs", the inexorable result is to lead people toward their worst behaviors, including the desire to share mass murders on video.

Sadly, it appears that one of our most successful engineering achievements of recent years is the vastly improved ability to spread fundamentally immoral behavior. Maybe Immorality Engineering will become a new major soon.

Stopping this scourge may present as big a challenge to our society as the need to stave off the impending collapse of our eco-systems. There are tough times ahead.


The New Canon. 03.19.19

The Chronicle of Higher Education asks various academics to weigh in with the their opinons about the most influential scholarly books from the past two decades. Perhaps you have read some of these. If not, any of them would probably be well worth the book price and the time invested. Not surprisingly, there are no engineering books in the list, and most engineers would shy away from these subjects. But studying these topics might help make us better humans, and ultimately that will make us better engineers. (See the post above.)


140% acceptance rate. 03.18.19

From the Onion: An explanation of why enrollments are up so much at ISU.


Boeing CEO. 03.18.19

ISU grad and Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, is definitely on the hot seat while the 737Max controversy swirls. These sorts of corporate crises can ulimately lead to CEOs being fired. Muilenberg may face that fate, depending on what the investigations learn about the recent crashes and how Boeing plays the public relations game. It is part of life at the top of the corporate ladder.


Breaking news: All hipsters really do look alike. 03.16.19

They can't even recognize themselves.


Does it matter where you go to school? 03.15.19

In the aftermath of the college admission scandal, one has to wonder about why parents were willing to go to such lengths to get their less-than-brilliant kids into highly-ranked schools. Does it really matter? TLDR: the answer is "mostly no". The question is not "What can this school do for me?" The real question is "What can I do for myself while I am at school?" For some students the answer to that second question seems to be "Eh, not too much." And there are many, many examples of people who needed no school at all to become wildly successful.


SLICE the Celestial Aerospace Engineer. 03.15.19

Hip-hop Aerospace lectures.


Happy π day! 03.14.19

Apparently there is free pie (the edible kind) available in the atrium of Howe Hall starting at 1:59:27 p.m. You should probably get some.


52 Places to Go in 2019. 02.24.19

The NYTime's annual list of places of to visit – one per week if you have money and time. How do they choose these? It's a mystery – but they all look like great locales. At the very least, it's fun to think about traveling to these places – particularly now as we deal with a bleak winter that refuses to go away. With some luck, maybe I will be able to get to 2 or 3 of these places this year.

Here is a list of state parks that should be less crowded and more accessible than the more exotic destinations on the Time's list. I haven't heard of most of these parks, but they look like worthwhile sidetrips or stopovers during a spring break trip.


Two Brady Feigls. 02.24.19

I know that there are 8 billion people in the world and that large numbers mean that even highly improbable events will occur. But this coincidence seems too far-fetched.


Growing solar cells down on the farm. 02.24.19

A new crop for farmers – solar electricity, adding some diversity and sustainability to traditional farm operations. It will be a companion crop to all the windmills that have sprouted and grown in the Midwest.


Electric cars - not that new. 02.24.19

In fact practical electric cars pre-date gas-powered autos by a couple of decades.


Vertex Software. 02.23.19

Another software services company is expanding in Ames – more opportunities for people who like to type stuff into computers. The company was founded by Dan Murray, who was one of the founders of WebFilings (Workiva) and Engineering Animation before that. Serial entrepreneurs exist even here in central Iowa.


Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. 02.23.19

NASA has renamed one of its facilities after Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician who did calculations for many of the early U.S. space flights. She and her fellow female African-American space scientists had to persevere against a double set of barriers in order to do their very important work.

Johnson and her colleagues are the central characters in the movie "Hidden Figures". If you haven't seen it, you should watch it sometime. (Maybe this weekend, since it appears that we will frozen in once again.) It's a good movie and lays out the basic narrative in a compelling fashion. Be advised though: in the usual way of Hollywood stories, some of the details of the movie are "embellished". The characters played by Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons were not real people, but composites of a number of people. The "bathroom in a completely different building" business probably wasn't true, and the dramatic sign-smashing scene probably never happened. But movies tend to play a bit loose with the details, and that's probably OK, as long as we keep in mind that a movie is a very limited medium used to tell a complex story. One of my favorite details in the movie (but probably also not real) was the the blackboard that she used for her calculations. I would like to have a blackboard that required a ladder to operate. Lectures would be so much more interesting. Can the clumsy old professor actually climb the ladder? How long before he falls off?

If your brain can stay engaged for more than the two-hour length of a typical movie, you might consider reading the book. It probably tells a more historically correct version of the story.


Young the Giant. 02.17.19

They were in concert in Des Moines on Saturday.


Sucking CO2 from the air. 02.12.19

An interesting story about the prospects and difficulties that a small company in Switzerland faces in trying to build a business out of carbon dioxide collection.


Best state ‐ Iowa? 02.12.19

Who da thunk it? Of course, the order in any of these "best of" rankings — almost all totally useless in any case — depends critically on the specific items included in the measurement. Add just one category to the evaluation — weather — and the list would be completely jumbled.


The five hottest years = the last five years 02.11.19

More clear data confirming what we already know – it's getting damned hot.


Beware the vortex 01.30.19

Some nifty graphics from the NYTimes showing how these vortices form and descend upon us.

Also, Jason Kottke has an entry about how global warming changes our perceptions of normal. He manages to couple an excellent XKCD cartoon with the "Global Waming" tweet from our fearless leader. I concur with Kottke – I recall temperatures below –30° F several times when I was a kid in NE Iowa. Now it is considered a monumental, once-in-lifetime event.


One trillion semiconductor devices sold in 2018 01.28.19

According to a recent report, more than 1 trillion semiconductor "units" were sold in 2018. Granted, the term "units" lumps together everything – discrete transistors, sensors, optoelectronics (LEDs, etc), and integrated circuits – but a trillion is still a pretty impressive number.


Ice disk treadmill. 01.16.19

A perfectly circular ice disk is pirouetting endlessly in a river in Maine.


Molasses tsunami. 01.15.19

Paul Kafasis (CEO of Rogue Amoeba, makers of all manner of audio software) tells about the lethal molasses flood of 1919.


Best Trump-speech-related tweet 01.08.19

From Stuart Stevens:

"There are numerous examples of presidential addresses made to calm a frightened public. This will be the first to frighten a calm public."

Of course, many have pointed out that they were not at all calm before the speech. And this probably isn't the first time time that a U.S. leader has tried to whip up a little fear — consider James K. Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, and G.W. Bush, to name just a few.


Random facts. 01.05.19

Some factoids from Buzzfeed (#14 is an eye-brow raiser) and the NY Times (#17 and #44 are interesting observations, and I want to learn how to do #30.) I'm not sure — some of these seem like they might be "Trump facts".


A setback for the garbage collector. 01.05.19

Bummer. It looks like the beta test for the giant fun-noodle plastic garbage collector has failed. It's not containing trash like the inventor had hoped. And a section of it broke off. Fortunately, the designer is young and has lots of time for more failed iterations. Eventually, he will get it right. Clearing the ocean of all that crap is huge job and the sooner that that there are working solutions, the better. Of course, even more important is to stop putting plastic waste into the ocean. And a big part of that is to stop using so much plastic in the first place. (One of my goals for the year.)


Ermergerd! Apple is doomed! 01.04.19

Apple didn't sell quite as many iPhones as they had forecast, and Wall Street melts down. Armageddon is imminent. Is it really that bad? Of course not. But the event finally makes clear to everyone what has been evident for a while — the smartphone market is saturated and the days of ridiculously fast growth are gone. Some claim that the smartphone is the most successful product of all time — I wouldn't dipute that — and Apple rode that horse like a champ. But all rides come to an end, and this marks an important inflection point in the tech biz and leads to the question: What comes next? It will be interesting times for EEs and CprEs and the companies that employ them.

Here is some good punditry on the event from Jason Snell (one of the smartest commentators covering Apple) and Kara Swisher (one of the smartest commentators on tech, in general.)

Is Apple doomed? Probably not. It's not like they will never sell another phone — they will continue to crank out a couple hundred million phones every year and make huge piles of money for the foreseeable future. Investors may view them less favorably going ahead, and they may never again be the most valuable on Wall Street. But the whole Wall Street valuation thing is a pretty poor indicator of the health of a company. A company's stock price is a reflection of investors' efforts to predict the future — processes that involve voodoo and black magic and are fraught with herd mentality. Revenues and profits are probably better indicators, but even those do not necessarily give a complete picture of how a company is doing — or will do the in the future.

I found this list of the 2000 largest public companies from Forbe's. It's fun to play with the list to see how different companies stack up in comparison, and the results can be surprising. I don't understand initial ranking, and, of course, the Market Value is now out of date after the recent stock plunge (It looks like the data was collected in mid-2018), but the companies can be ranked by total sales and by profits. For example, ranking by total sales, Wal-Mart is far and away the biggest. Five of the top ten are oil companies, two are car companies, and one is Warren Buffett. Apple comes in at number 8. For comparison: Samsung is 11, Amazon is 16, Alphabet (Google) is 44, Microsoft is 55, and Facebook is not in the top 100. If profit is used for the ranking, then Apple is first, followed by a tobacco company (!!), with four banks, three tech companies (Samsung, Verizon, and AT&T), and Warren Buffett rounding out the top ten. Facebook is 18, Alphabet is 20, Microsoft is 21, and Amazon is nowhere to be seen. (Amazon famously plows all it's revenue back into the company and rarely shows a profit.) So which tech company is biggest? It depends on what you consider to be important. These are all gigantic companies, run by smart people (Well, maybe not Facebook.), and that will compete aggressively to suck money out of our pockets one way or another. They will all be around for a long time.


Chessboxing – WTF? 01.04.19

Is this an Onion article?


Keep laughing. 01.04.19

Timothy Egan is right on. I remember telling some students in Nov 2016 that the best thing that will come of the new presidency is a continuing source of over-the-top dark comedy. That's been true. (Just ask Colbert. He has used savage political humor to become the top-rated late night comedy show. His show was languishing before the election.) That's not to say that is all one big joke. There is real damage being done — to the environment, to young people, to people who have less money, to people with illnesses, to minorities, to immigrants, and to our good standing in the world. But for now, there is not much that we, as average citizens, can do. We have to bide our time until the next election to see who has the last laugh. (That eminent comedian Robert Mueller may pop up with a few jokes before then, but we can't count on that.) Until then, humor is the best weapon — keep on laughing.


2018 photos. 01.03.19

I enjoy looking at compilations of good pictures. The end of the year always brings out "Best of..." photography lists from many sources. Jason Kottke has kindly linked to a number of these, so that I don't have to. This is a good way to kill a couple of hours.


Half the world is empty. 01.02.19

This is also an old story that I saw a couple of years ago, and I just stumbled across it again. It gives a very interesting observation about how unequally human population is distributed around the earth. If you choose the right point on the earth (roughly somewhere in the south of France from the looks of the map) as a "pole", the hemisphere surrounding it contains 93% of all humans. The other 7% are floating around on the other side of the earth. Maybe someday I'll have to move to the "empty" half, just to get away from all the annoying people filling up this half.

Also, check out the little population growth video attached at the end of the article. (Turn down the volume to avoid the ominous "heartbeat" sound effect.) There's no new information here — we've known all this for a long time — but it is still interesting to see the growth presented in map form.


The PCB is a component itself. 01.02.19

This is an older story from EDN, but EE 333 students might like it. Even professional engineers sometimes don't know why their circuits work. And seemingly innocuous changes can cause previously working systems to fail.