Tim Berners-Lee laments his creation. 07.02.18
He created the world-wide web with hopes of a digital utopia but had to watch as it devolved into the mess that we have today. He is still hopeful, though. He is working hard to devise a system to extract the open web from the clutches of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Maybe you would like to help him.
Little drummer girl. 07.02.18
We should all enjoy what we do as much as this kid enjoys drumming.
This is just too weird.
Trick shots. 07.01.18
Generally, I wouldn't waste time watching a bunch of bros wasting time, but I ran across this while eating breakfast, and then spent a half-day throwing frozen waffles at the toaster and pitching fruits and veggies at a knife. So much for a productive Sunday morning.
Huddle up. 07.01.18
Interesting time-lapse videos showing how penguins congregate in order to keep warm. Individually, penguins are comical, but their group dynamics are very intriguing. For those of you who have taken EE 432, think of the penguins as atoms on the surface of a wafer. With some surface mobility, the atoms can cluster together to make the grains that form a growing thin film. So it is with the penguins.
Mr. Money Mustache talks tiny houses. 06.30.18
If your student loan payments are weighing you down, maybe you can build your own little house and save some money.
Harlan Ellison has died. 06.30.18
He was a science fiction writer in the same league as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. He wrote the screenplay for what is often considered to be the best Star Trek episode ever.
National camera day. 06.29.18
Apparently, today is National Camera Day. Who would have known such a thing existed? And why? Whatever those answers may be, this is probably an appropriate time to look at the winners of National Geographic's Travel Photographer of the Year Contest. There are many great pix here. In addition to the winners, all of the various submissions are available, too.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around the photo titled "The Invasion", taken in Macau. The set of modern buildings arching over the old neighborhood look like something from the movie "Inception" and surely the image couldn't be real. But it is real — the funky building in the background is the Grand Lisboa casino and hotel. Invasion, indeed.
We're stupid, but not that stupid. 06.27.18
Jason Kottke has an entry on his blog covering the Dunning-Kruger effect — the idea that incompetent people can't even realize that they are incompetent. There is a short YouTube describing the effect. In addition there are links to two longish articles, a fairly recent one by Dunning himself and another older one by Errol Morris that was published in the NY Times talking about "unknown unknowns". If you have time, try to read these articles, too — they contain many interesting notions about competence and how to go about making yourself "smarter".
We all know people who suffer badly from the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Not to mention the most glaring example, laying bare his incompetence in a never-ending stream of tweets). But the truth is that we all exhibit the "D-K effect" to some degree, because each of us has a whole range of subjects where we inevitably underestimate our incompetence."
Interestingly, something similar happens for people who are extremely competent — they are often unable to realize how much better they are than everyone else. They think that because they have mastered some subject, then everyone must understand it pretty well, too. (I would imagine that many professors fall into one of the two extremes of the D-K effect.)
One saying that I've always liked is that we go to college is to learn about things we didn't even know that we didn't know. This is another way of referring to "unknown unknowns". Our goal with formal education and the ensuing need for life-long learning is to turn "unknown unknowns" into "known unknowns", where we can at least begin to ask the questions necessary to become knowledgeable. Eventually, with some effort, the "known unknowns" become "known knowns", and then maybe we are competent enough to use that knowledge to make a living. Certainly, as a naive kid coming off the farm, I had never heard of transistors or Fourier analysis or Maxwell's equations — those words were gibberish to the teenage version of me. But after a year or two at the university, it became clear that I had to learn as much as possible about these topics. After many years of study, I might even claim that I am moderately competent when I discuss MOSFETs or filter circuits or lasers. But uh-oh, that sounds like a classic Dunning-Kruger statement! Assessing one's own competence is definitely tricky business.
Printed circuit boards as art 06.27.18
A well-designed PCB can have a certain aesthetic quality in the symmetries of the arranged components and the intricate patterns of the interconnects. (Integrated circuits can be similarly beautiful, but no one other than the designers or manufacturers ever get to appreciate those, because the chips are buried inside a package.) I'm no PCB guru, but when I have to design one, after making sure that everything works properly, I spend a lot of time arranging the parts and the wiring trying to make the whole thing look "nice"". Maybe we should add an aesthetic aspect to the evaluation of the circuit projects in EE 333. Then, when the circuits fail, the students will at least have something that looks good. (Sorry, that was mean.)
I'm not the only weirdo who thinks that PCBs can be beautiful. Here are two links: one that shows off some album-cover art that was inspired by PCB patterns and another describing artisan jewelry made using old PCBs. (Click on the links in the second article to see more examples.)
(Side note: I really like the name "Circuit Breaker Labs" — we may have to rename Coover 2011 and 2014.)
How to be miserable. 06.24.18
I know a few people who are expert practitioners. If you are too miserable to read all these words, the inimitable CGP Grey has a video version.
I thought this was pretty funny. And maybe there is a possibility here — perhaps he could be convinced to give up his current job and become the next James Bond. It would be perfect for him — It is a fantasy world, he gets to be a dashing hero, he has a license to kill, and he always get the girl. Of course, he would destroy the Bond movie franchise, but the rest of us might be infinitely better off.
Now that astronomers are becoming adept at finding planets within the "habitable zone" of a star, the next consideration is whether the planet has the right tilt with respect to the orbital plane. The inclination of a planet's axis leads to seasons, and seasons may be essential for the right conditions for life to evolve. Our own solar system exhibits a wide range of tilts, including the extremes. Mercury has almost no tilt (0.03°) and Uranus (It's OK to chuckle.) is laying almost sideways (82.2°). Even if these planets happened to orbit within the "Goldilocks zone", it would probably be difficult for reasonable weather patterns to develop and for life to evolve in either case. This is an appropriate read for solstice time.
Space & astronomy day: 06.19.18
- McMoon. This is a fun story about how NASA photographed the surface of the moon prior to the moon landings. They needed high-resolution images of the surface so that they could avoid trying to land in a deep crater or a boulder field. In the mid-1960s, they sent a series of re-purposed spy satellites to orbit the moon and take photographs. The photos had stunning clarity — way better than a typical modern digital camera — and allowed the astronauts and mission planners to select safe places to land. When the photographs were released to the public, they had to be "de-resolutioned" to prevent revealing just how good those early spy satellites were. The original data was stored on magnetic tapes, and extracting the images from those old tapes was a major engineering effort in itself.
- The next telescopes. There is heated competition between groups of scientists to design, fund, and build the next generation of mega-telescopes. The new designs are so big and expensive that we — we being the people of planet Earth — can afford to build only two or three of these behemoths. The technology and engineering needed to build these things will be amazing. And, as I've said before, the things we will learn with these machines will be equally amazing.
- Peggy Whitson retires. Peggy Whitson grew up in Iowa and is the American record-holder for total time in space.
- Jeff Bezos has big plans for the moon. As always, Bezos is thinking long-term. He is making plans for a "Moon City", which will become the first step in transferring much of Earth's heavy industry to the moon. I'm guessing that there are plans for an Amazon fulfillment center, too.
- Space Force. There is new episode of the Trump Comedy Show. Now he wants to make another branch of the military, the Space Force, which will presumably consist of legions of starship troopers. No one seems to know quite what it all means. The Huffington Post has collected some tweets with speculation. I am beginning to think that President Trump might be a re-incarnation of some Greek playwrights, or possibly even Shakespeare. His ability to provide a daily mix comedy and tragedy is truly fascinating.
- Perihelic opposition. Mars is making its periodic (T ≈ 15 years.) closest approach to Earth soon, and it should make for cool views over the next couple of months. Mars will be "up all night" and will be brighter than Venus. With Mars so close, it might be an opportune time to launch an attack with our new Space Force.
- Lastly, summer solistice occurs early in the morning on June 21. Celebrate by gathering up some rocks to make a replica of Stonehenge. And then party like a pagan.
Drowning in plastic. 05.30.18
It is now a well-reported story — the world is awash in plastic trash. Since everyone is becoming more aware, it is time to start moving the needle and trying to reverse the trends before we are all up to our eyeballs in cast-away plastic cups and straws. The linked National Geographic article gives a good overview of the scale of the problem. (The cover photo from the print issue is iconic.)
Here are a couple of companion links: Fast facts about plastic pollution and where does it all come from? Here in the Midwest, there probably isn't too much we can do to cut down on trash in the oceans. But we can set a good example. Some people have taken trash reduction to new extremes.
Finally, we still have a ways to go. At the moment, it is becoming more difficult to recycle plastic in the U.S. Why is it, that in this country with such vast intellectual, technological, and economic resources, we can't find reasonable solutions to straight-forward problems?
Where disaster strikes — again and again. 05.29.18
Certain areas in the U.S. contribute disproportionately to the money doled out by taxpayers to clean up after disasters. The last line in the article hits it: "Only in the United States do relief programs and subsidized insurance make it attractive for people to move toward disaster-prone areas."
Reboot your WiFi. 05.29.18
Once again, our household appliances are being used against us.
Don't dew it. 05.29.18
2 billion. 04.05.18
Wow, everyday it gets worse. Now it seems like every single Facebook user has had their information sucked up by "malicious actors". Maybe, it's time to burn down the whole thing and try again. I know that there are people out there who are able to program computers while still managing to possess a sense of morality and decency. Surely, a reasonably useful and financially viable social network can be built where the terms "users" and "customers" are referring to the same group of people. Not every successful business has to be built on advertising and selling user information. Anyone care to give it a shot?
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968). 04.04.18
I remember clearly the night 50 years ago — sitting on the floor in the living room and watching TV with my parents when the news broke that Martin Luther King had been killed. It was shocking.
Ezra Klein. 04.03.18
I listen to a lot of podcasts, but there are few that I stick with over long periods of time. I usually get tired of the same hosts, who tend to tell the same stories, and rant about the same things. One that I have managed to stick with for a while is the podcast by Ezra Klein. He writes for the Vox network, and he makes a podcast every week in which he interviews a guest. He picks interesting interview subjects and asks good questions. I usually find it to be a worthwhile hour.
This week, Klein scored a coup when he got Mark Zuckerberg to sit for an interview. Many news outlets reported on some of Zuckerberg's quotes from the interview. Personally, I didn't find this particular session to be all that informative — Zuckerberg had a couple of good zingers, but mostly he was being his usual disingenuous self. I've had trouble deciding if Zuckerberg is really human, or if he might actually be a robot. This interview didn't help sway me one way or the other.
If you scan back through some of Klein's past podcasts, you can find some that are much more fun. Two in particular that I would recommend are the interviews with Steven Pinker, author of "Enlightenment Now" from Feb. 12 and Jaron Lanier from Jan. 15. You may have never heard of Lanier before, but he is a computer scientist who has done many offbeat things — he is certainly an order of magnitude more interesting that Zuckerberg. (And probably an order of magnitude smarter, too.)
Sylvan Esso. 03.27.18
The Philharmonic Turntable Orchestra. 03.26.18
Great fun. Maybe we should try this in Audio Club. (via kottke.org.)
12 things to understand about tech. 03.25.18
These really resonate – particularly items 5, 6, and 9. Definitely 9 — understanding how companies make their money tells you everything about why they behave the way they do.
More bad days for Uber. 03.24.18
Brad Templeton writes about some of what went wrong when an Uber self-driving vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. There are more to details be learned about this incident, but, as always with this company, we must wonder if Uber's generally aggressive approach led to poor engineering decisions. Lidar technology shows up prominently in the article. (And the discussion that follows.)
Texas Instruments TLV9061. 02.13.18
Here is a ridiculously tiny op amp chip from TI. The package is only 0.8 mm x 0.8 mm. As we say in EE 230, "SMALLER, faster, cheaper, lower power". We probably won't have any audio club projects with this amp — soldering would be a bit difficult. (I probably couldn't even see the thing, given my creaky old eyes.)
Another good Money Mustache post describing one of his latest projects. We should all be doing this, instead of trying to move backward in time to use "clean, clean coal". (Snort.) I'm slightly embarrassed because I haven't yet converted our house to use solar power. (Or perhaps I should take the advice of our fearless leader and consider putting in a coal-burning furnace, like the one my parents encountered when our family moved to a different farmhouse half a century ago. It is comical to think back about my dad having having to tromp to the basement every few hours to shovel coal into the furnace. Fortunately, we were living on a forward-moving timeline and that old relic of a heater was replaced pretty quickly with a "modern" gas furnace.)
Falcon Heavy launch. 02.13.18
Every engineering student should know all about this by now. But if you don't, take some time to read up a bit on the launch (there are tons of articles out there) and watch the video. It's amazing. In less than 10 minutes, the rocket launched, traveled 60 miles into space, kicked the Tesla off towards Mars, and returned two of the three boosters back for re-use. (Unfortunately, the third booster crashed into the ocean — it was a test flight, after all.) If Elon Musk and his co-horts and competitors continue to make progress, space technology and applications will become much bigger avenues for EE and CprE careers. That's good for all of you.
This article has links to a video about the launch (most of action is in the last 12 minutes or so) and live video from Starman as he cruises through space. It's fun to watch the roadster as it spins along with the sun and earth rotating in and out of view behind.
Facebook meltdown. 02.13.18
A (very long) article from Wired about Facebook's f**k-uppery in allowing itself to become a tool for disinformation and its struggle to re-gain credibility.
Buzzfeed interviews Aviv Ovadya, who (among others) is extremely pessimistic about the future impact of fake information on the internet.
Audio Club tonight: 8:00 p.m. in Coover 2011. 02.08.18
We are looking at the little GTDT amp that you can build.
Arduino Club tonight: 8:00 p.m. in Coover 2011. 02.01.18
Hey! Somebody made a web site. Check it out — it's quite lame. (New link in the list on the left.)
I have a new skill. 01.30.18
Even as you age and move into decrepitude, you can find new abilities. I learned tonight that apparently I am somewhat good at an activity called Flip Cup. (The web site has an actual video of me playing the game.) Perhaps I can find some way to monetize my newly discovered skill. Or perhaps I should never play it again, just in case my demonstration tonight was a fluke.
If you get up early (or stay up late), you can try checking out the lunar eclipse. The prime time to see the bloodiness is an hour or so before sunrise. The clouds might stay away and allow for a clear view.
Audio Club tonight: 8:00 p.m. in Coover 2011. 01.25.18
We will be talking about amplifier specs.
DIY bread-board power supplies. 01.15.18
These look fun. Perfect for an EE 333 project or maybe even something for Audio Club.
Chip start-ups are back in vogue. 01.15.18
The integrated circuit business has always been huge, but in recent years, little start-up money has gone to new IC companies because the vested players (Intel, Micron, Texas Instruments, etc.) are all too big and the start-up costs can be astronomical. (It costs several billion dollars to build a modern chip factory.) But there is a new market to be conquered — artificial intelligence encoded in hardware — and the venture-capital kids are back in the game.
52 places to go in 2018. 01.15.18
The NY Times' annual list of "places to visit". Some of them look pretty cool. (And I would say that a few are lame, but what do I know?) Save up your money, buy some tickets, and hit the road.
Note: The web page seems to be set up to work best on a phone. When I tried looking at it my computer, the navigation was very clunky. Not good design.
Happy Birthday, Hamilton. 01.11.18
Historical trivia: Today is the birthday of Alexander Hamilton. He would be 263 today if he hadn't been gunned down by Aaron Burr. Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis and as a young man emigrated to New York to embark on an eventful life that culminated in becoming one of the founding fathers of the United States, promoter of the Constitution, and first Secretary of the Treasury. (And, of course, star of Broadway plays.) Nevis is one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. It is now part of the nation known as the "Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis", and it would probably be included in the league of "shithole countries" as defined by our modern "stable genius". It's a good thing that Hamilton emigrated when he did — he might not make it now.
EE 432/532. 01.07.18
For anyone that might be interested and still have room in their schedule, there is still space available in EE 432/532. These classes cover semiconductor fabrication technology — how to build chips. This is a fun class for a couple of reasons: 1) You actually get to build something, in this case a silicon wafer with transistors and some simple circuits. 2) You combine all sorts of interesting topics in ways that you don't see in many other classes — things like semiconductor physics, transistors, chemistry, optics, vacuum systems, characterization, and simulations. There is also a hint of danger with the lab, as we use all kinds of nasty chemicals that would dissolve you into a puddle of goo like one of Heisenburg's enemies from Breaking Bad, furnaces that would fry you like a dragon victim from Game of Thrones, and every day there is a chance of an explosion, particularly if I happen to be your lab instructor. (Of course, I exaggerate — slightly.) More than a few students have parlayed this class into jobs with companies like Micron, Intel, and Texas Instruments.
The downsides are the pre-requisite of having completed or currently being enrolled in EE 332 and a fairly steep lab fee. (Although you probably get your money's worth — at the very least you get a lab coat, lab goggles, and your own hand-built silicon wafer. Making integrated circuits is not a cheap process.)
EE 432 and EE 532 are, by and large, the same class. They have the same lecture time and the labs are run in common. EE 532, of course, is intended for graduate students, and it requires some extra work (homework, projects, etc.) beyond EE 432.
I don't really need any more students this semester — there are already about 275 enrolled in my various classes — but 432/532 lecture was moved at the last minute, and it's possbile that some people were not able or willing to make the switch, leaving a few more open spots than normal.
2017 – the best year ever. 01.07.18
As he wrote a year ago, Nicholas Kristoff shows that the world, over-all, is getting better all the time — less poverty, less disease, longer life-spans, more education. In Americans' self-centered point-of-view, everything seems to be coming unglued as our government increases inequality and makes plans to ravage the environment, and two doofuses with really bad hair-dos argue over who has the bigger "button". But in many, many places in the world, where most of the people have never heard of — or care about — Donald Trump, things are demonstrably better. We should hang our hats on these hopeful observations, and grit our teeth in order to get through the next one or three years of domestic nonsense.
More places to visit. 01.04.18
Travel recommendations from National Geographic. A few are standard places, but many are off-beat and seem very interesting.
Australian dog sledding. 01.04.18
This is an awesome dog. Australian shepherds are smart and can be very OCD. Occasionally, we dog-sit for a friend's Aussie, and all he ever wants to do is play catch with his Frisbee.
Norway is leading the way. 01.04.18
In Norway last year, all-electric and hybrid cars outsold conventional fossil-fuel cars.
National Trivia Day. 01.04.18
Today is "National Trivia Day" — Who gets to decide this, anyway? — and MentalFloss provides 60 trivia facts that can used in preparation for your next trivia match. My favorites: The one about the Finnish cell phone throwing contest and the one about physicist Niels Bohr.
Side Note: Our McFly's trivia team has two first-place finishes in a row, including the much-coveted trifecta last time. We are heartened by the wins, because prior to the victories we had fallen into a many-weeks long string of second-place finishes. We had despaired of possibly becoming the trivia versions of the Minnesota Vikings or the Buffalo Bills. (Any good trivia player know what I'm referring to.) But, it looks like we may be getting our mojo back.
Bike Rage. 12.29.17
At various times while out on my bike, I've had thoughts similar to those of the bicyclist in the video. However, I wasn't carrying the same armaments, which was probably a good thing. I'm sure the whole thing in the video was staged, but it's still pretty funny. Somehow, it seems appropriate that all of the shouting is in Italian.
My senior design team for this year is working on a bike gizmo that might give riders a better chance to survive encounters with careless drivers. It is a LIDAR-based sytem to warn a biker when a car is approaching from behind. Maybe next year we will have to take a cue from the video and have an SD project that takes a more offensive-minded approach.
The top 10 stats of 2017. 12.28.17
An odd collection of statistical factoids. Via Robert Samuelson, an economics columnist at the Washington Post.
Cool Jobs. 12.26.17
I ran into former student Nick Juelsgaard (BSEE 2017) at a restaurant tonight. He had taken EE 201 (F2013) and EE 230 (S2014) with me and then specialized in control systems on his way to completing his degree. Next week, he is heading to Hawaii to begin working as a control systems engineer at the Keck Observatory at the top of Mauna Kea. (Basically, he will be working at the top of a volcano.) The two telescopes there are the biggest in the world (at least for now). Nick will be working on the systems that control the movement of the telescopes as they track the sky during observations. He will also work on the control systems for the adaptive optics of the multi-element mirrors in the telescopes. What a cool job! Congratulations to Nick on landing it.
I have always been interested in astronomy and seriously considered majoring in it when I first came to ISU. At that time, space science seemed to be in a bit of a lull — after the end the Apollo moon missions and before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope — and the job prospects were iffy, at best, so I opted for EE. Now astronomy is one of the most exciting things happening (IMHO). The change came in the early 1990s, with the initial confirmations of exoplanents. Now there are thousands of known planets outside our solar system. Finding exoplanents is a first step towards answering that most fundamental of questions: Is anyone else out there? Now that astronomers know better where to look, they can further develop their observational tools and techniques to try to determine if anything is "alive" on one of those alien worlds. The next couple of decades will be exciting times in the astronomy business. Finding life in another part of the universe would change everything about how humankind views itself. (Or at least it should. Probably one-third of Americans won't believe it, even if the evidence is irrefutable — they have been hornswoggled into thinking that all science is "fake news". Sigh — hopefully, someday things will be better.) Anyway, Nick will get to a play a role in this great search. Good luck to him!
EE Christmas. 12.26.17
My kids know what to buy me for Christmas.