Star Trek: Discovery. (6.7.17)

The first trailer for the new Star Trek TV series came out a couple of weeks ago. It looks like it will be awesome. It's been 12 twelve years since the end of the last Star Trek TV show — far too long. The show will start sometime "this fall". It will give me an excuse to watch TV for change. I can't wait.

50 Best Podcasts. (6.7.17)

Here are some podcasts that are currently popular. I've listened to a few of these, and it seems that the list is probably good. What are podcasts, you ask? Someone once described them as "kind of like radio, but without the listeners". Originally, podcasts made it possible to listen to radio programs at times other than when they were broadcast. That way I could hear NPR programs, even if they were aired at the same time that I supposed to be giving an EE 201 lecture. (Like any good lefty, commie, pinko, libtard, academic type, I listen to a lot of stuff on NPR.) I've used podcasts for years, starting before most people knew what they were (using my original iPod). I continued using them as they became cool a decade or so ago and kept on when they became uncool a half-decade ago. Now podcasts are a hot thing once again and have morphed into a new form of media, with much higher production values and even advertisers. Everybody seems to be doing a podcast these days. The 50 listed here are representative of the thousands that are currently available. If you ever get tired of the intellectual over-stimulation of downloading cat videos, you might consider trying to a podcast or two. If you can't find on that you like, then you aren't trying very hard. Maybe I should start a podcast — it could be called "The MOSFET Chronicles". That's sure to be a winner — snort!

Better than SpiderMan. (6.5.17)

Wow — this guy is amazing. The first ever free solo (no ropes or safety gear) up the face of El Capitan. If you've never seen El Capitan in person, do a search for some photos to get an idea of how incredible — and frightening — it must be to make this climb.

The man and the tornado. (6.4.17)

I love this picture. Mainly because this guy is responding in exactly the same way that my dad would have. Except instead of mowing the lawn, my dad would have been driving his tractor out in the field.

Jean Sammet. (6.4.17)

Computer pioneer, Jean Sammet. I liked her comments about Grace Hopper and the creation of COBOL.

Donald Trump poisons the world. (6.2.17)

David Brooks discusses the Trumpian view of the world as a vast competitive arena, where for every winner there must be a loser. And you never want to be a loser. Below, I had noted how this view contrasts from the much more optimistic and altruistic world views of a half-century ago when JFK was president. I suppose that these things go in cycles, and hopefully we have reached the maximum swing towards the "doom-and-gloom" half of the cycle. We will see.

(I am also surprised at how many formerly conservative media pundits have become reliable critics of Trump and crew. In years past, Brooks could be counted on to stick up for conservative politicians and their ideas. Now, everything he writes is critical of Trump. The same with Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. Formerly a solid conservative, she now writes at least five articles a day lambasting Trump and his minions. I don't know how she manages to crank out so much stuff, but it is definitely entertaining.)

Another Facebook rant. (6.1.17)

From John Gruber, incited by a rant by Dave Winer.

Cool night-time sky stuff to see in June. (6.1.17)

This month, besides the solstice and a comet, Saturn will be at opposition on the 14th. This means that it is relatively close to Earth — only 840 million miles! — and will be visible all night. It may be time to get the telescope out of the basement and have a look at the rings.

Trump toilet paper. (5.31.17)

Now we are getting some products that make sense. Hopefully, this guy will market it in the U.S., too. I would even be willing to buying it through Amazon, if that were the only way to get it.

Listening for problems at the breaker box. (5.30.17)

An interesting application of machine learning. Everybody gets weak in the knees because Google/Apple/Microsoft are using ML to do things like search and sort our photo albums. But this type of application is much more interesting to me — putting sensors in places that are difficult or dangerous or just too boring for humans to be, using the sensors to conduct lots of measurements, using machine learning to determine "normal" behavior, and then continuing to monitor the processes (whatever they may be), watching for when things go wrong. These are the kinds of IoT things that will be most useful to us. (As opposed to putting buttons in the bathroom so that we can order toilet paper from Amazon at moment's notice. Bleh.) Of course, now it looks like engineers developing IoT systems will have to know machine learning, in addition to electronics hardware, microcontroller programming, and cyber-security. Embedded systems types had better get busy! (By the way: Thanks, but I can sort my own photo album.)

JFK's 100th birthday (5.29.17)

When a person dies young, it is impossible to imagine them as ever being old. So it is with JFK. With all the gloom and doom that hangs over the current presidency, it is difficult to fathom just how hopeful and optimistic the country was in the early 1960's. Of course, there were problems back then, too, but there was a general belief that the problems could be solved and that the vigorous — one of JFK's favorite adjectives — young president was the person to lead the way. Jeff Greenfield speculates about what might have happened if JFK had not been assassinated in 1963.

The Trump Documents (5.28.17)

A deep look at some "documents" coming from the Trump White House.

Bill Wurtz explains the entire history of the universe. (5.27.17)

A YouTube history of the everything — in only 20 minutes. Perfect for watching while you eat lunch.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band released 50 years ago. (5.26.17)

One of the earliest "concept albums". I listened again today for old time's sake. Many claim it is the best album of all time. It probably is. There is a really nice recent re-mix of the album available on the streaming sites, with interesting alternative versions of most of the songs.

Aw. Roger Moore died. (5.24.17)

Obituaries from the NY Times and the BBC. He was my favorite James Bond, but I liked him best as The Saint, which I used to watch when I was a kid. There is a nice story about Moore making the rounds on the intertubes — he seemed to be a decent guy, for a movie star.

Water from air. (5.23.17)

Another example of a technology that could have huge impacts. A new concept for extracting potable water directly from the air. This is nifty stuff. It is still in the research / development phase, — we will see if it lives up to the hype. We need more young people doing stuff like this.

A blood glucose monitor for the AppleWatch. (5.22.17)

If true, this could be big. And it would convert the AppleWatch from being a interesting doo-dad to essential tech for millions of people with diabetes. It is nice to see big companies trying things like this. Google is always talking about projects that are socially redeeming, but they never seem to deliver. We will see if Apple can pull this off — maybe they will talk about it at their upcoming WWDC.

Maybe this guy could be president. (5.20.17)

He certainly seems to be smart enough — at least by recent standards.

The MP3 is dead. Long live the MP3! (5.19.17)

The patents on the MP3 audio compression format have recently expired. The patent holder, Fraunhofer IIS, announced that they were no longer licensing the format and suggested that developers begin use the "much better" AAC format, which is still under patent and that they would more than happy to license. Their announcement is a bit disingenuous, though. The fact that Fraunhofer is no longer licensing MP3 technology does not mean that they format is dead. In fact, it is quite the opposite — MP3 tech is now totally free for anyone to use. This is good news, and the format may see a resurgance now that anyone, anywhere can use it. Fraunhofer's clever word play faked out many news sites, who dutifully reported the imminent demise of the technology. Marco Arment, who writes podcasting software, (Podcasts are almost universally encoded as MP3s.) tells the story correctly. His blog post — linked above — has many relevant links.

Amazing dinosaur fossil. (5.18.17)

A completely petrified "nodosaur" — way better than just bones.

Hardware hacking. (5.18.17)

It isn't just software that is targeted by hackers. Hardware is vulnerable, too, in all kinds of unique ways. For example, consider the recent incident where the Dallas tornado sirens were all set off simultaneously. Obviously a software hack, right? Not at all, it was done with radio signals. Now-a-days, every engineer building new systms has to consider how their designs might be infiltrated. Regrettable, but necessary.

38 million pieces of trash. (5.17.17)

This is mind-boggling. Human beings are pigs. (No offense to actual pigs, who are really rather clean. Apparently cleaner than humans, anyway — I've never heard of pigs trashing up an uninhabited island.)

Amazon went public twenty years ago. (5.16.17)

Love him or hate him, Jeff Bezos has certainly changed the way that we shop. (Or at least for most of us.)

We are being led by a child. (5.16.17)

David Brooks makes the case that Pres. Trump is childish, even infantile. Many others are saying similar things this week. (Of course, some people have been pointing this out for a couple of years.) I think the claim is unfair to children, in general. Many children are curious about the world and how people interact, are eager to learn new things, are willing to share and get along with their friends, and desire to please the adults in their lives. Donald Trump has none of these qualities and never will. We might be better off if we were being led by an actual child — like maybe one of these brothers. I'm pretty sure that either one of them at age 5 would be smarter and more mature than The Donald at age 70. (I love that the older brother is doing quantum mechanics in the video.)

However, there are two quotes in Brooks' column that I liked:

"He (Trump) is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence." We probably all know Dunning-Kruger sufferers, and it is a sad thing to see. It is tragic when, through our own collective incompetence, we make such a person our leader.


"We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar." That sounds about right.

Bill Gates tweets a graduation speech. (5.15.17)

A clever way to share a message to graduates. And the book he recommends — The Better Angles of our Nature — is a great read. It provides a somewhat more positive view of our modern world in a time when everything seems to be coming unglued.

Humans smell good. (5.12.17)

It turns out that human noses are actually better than we give them credit for.

Laptops may be banned on flights to U.S. from Europe. (5.11.17)

Son.Of.A.Bitch. Apparently, Homeland Security thinks that airline travel is too enjoyable these days. A laptop ban might reduce the chance of an explosion by some small percentage, but it will increase the chances of passenger riots a hundred-fold. Also, what keeps the laptop from exploding when it is in the cargo hold as opposed to when it is in the cabin? Furthermore, even without terrorist assistance, laptop batteries have been known to start on fire all by themselves. Is it really a good idea to store a hundred or more possibly incendiary devices in the cargo hold, where no one is monitoring them? I am all for improved security, but I'm not convinced that this is the way to do it. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to use better screening on the ground to keep laptop-bombs off the planes in the first place.

Can you live without tech's frightful five? (5.10.17)

An interesting thought experiment: Could you live without products and services provided by the current "Frightful Five" — Alphabet (i.e. Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft? Read the article and try the thought experiment for yourself. In a rare exception to most articles on the internet, the reader comments are actually interesting and insightful.

My list. If you care.

Thanks!! (5.9.17)

To whoever left the very nice bag filled with teas outside my office — Thank you! I wish you had left a note so that I could express my appreciation properly. If you happen to read this, please get in touch with me and let me know that the gift was from you. We will definitely be making good use of it.

The call-out culture on campus. (5.9.17)

More effects of social media.

Random advice for graduates. (5.8.17)

Probably too late for some of you.

If you can. (5.8.17)

My annual advice to graduates who are heading for fancy jobs with fancy salaries. Read this and try to follow the advice. If you can, you may be able to someday retire comfortably — maybe sooner than you think. Bernstein — who is a medical doctor, by the way — has written a number of investing and history books. I've read several of them, and he has many interesting things to share. Check him out here.

Mr. Money Mustache. (5.8.17)

If you want to go hard-core with the notion of stashing away money and possibly retiring early someday, take a look at this guy. He is a bit over the top with some of his presentation, but I agree with many of his basic ideas.

America's "Miracle Machine" is trouble. (5.5.17)

So says Eric Lander and Eric Schmidt (Google pooh-bah).

Some photos from the MRC picnic. (5.5.17)

The weather was perfect.

Annual TGID picnic (5.4.17)

Thank God, it's done. Once again, it's time to celebrate the end of it all — EE 432, EE 436, spring semester, ISU, or whatever it is that you're ending. We are having a celebratory picnic on the front lawn at the MRC, 1925 Scholl Road. It starts at noon on Friday, May 5. We will be grilling burgers, brats, and chicken breasts and eating all sorts of other summertime goodies. Everyone is welcome. Sign up using the Doodle poll. Bring $5 to pay for the food (or $7 if you want two sandwiches). Bring your friends. There will lots of people there talking about semiconductors and circuits. NOT. No technical talk allowed.

Books made out of atoms hold their own. (5.3.17)

Five years ago, it seemed certain that ebooks would make traditional books obsolete. That forecast appears to have been a bit hasty. I still like ebooks for their compactness — it's hard to carry a thousand real books in your backpack — but I agree that is much more satisfying to hold a real book in your hand.

Net Neutrality B.S. (5.2.17)

The FCC and ISPs are working hard to kill basic internet consumer protections.

The State Department issues a travel alert for Europe (5.2.17)

Typical. The day that we book our tickets for summer vacation, the gov issues a travel alert. Too late to cancel, so wish us luck...

Richard Cohen thinks that Trump is a lot like a former German dictator. (5.2.17)

Nope — it's not who you think. This is an interesting historical analogy. Reading this reminded me of an earlier article noting an ominous similarity between today's events and the time leading up to WWI.

The importance of wasting time. (5.1.17)

Maybe you can start after finals week is over.

Prioritize (5.1.17)

Have flesh-and-blood friends: cut down on the smart phone; search for meaning, not happiness. Sounds simple enough.

Apr. 28, 2017

EE 432/532 students: I hinted to you that this was a possibility.

Apr. 27, 2017

  • Around the world in 80 days ... on a bike. Now this is a serious bike ride. The goal this guy has set for himself seems incredible — 18,000 miles in about 75 days of riding, which is an average of 240 miles per day. Compare that to the Tour de France, where the best bicycle racers in the world ride around 100 miles per day for about 20 days. Of course, the Tour de France bikers are racing at 25 mph or more, and the circumnavigator will be taking a more "leisurely" pace but the numbers still seem incredible. It will be interesting to see if he can pull it off. He plans to start July 2.
  • Bezier curves. If you have ever used a drawing program that could generate Bezier curves, you may have wondered how those crazy things worked. Take one look at these animations, and you will easily discern the algorithm for generating the curves.

Apr. 26, 2017

More Tuck Buckford. If you have visited my office, you probably know that I have — on occasion — eaten a cup of Chobani yogurt, although I haven't yet tried the Crime and Tuberculosis flavor. And you probably wouldn't be surprised to know that I have a link to an article about the Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani. He is an interesting character, totally in contrast the whacked-out nut job known as Alex Jones.

Apr. 25, 2017

Introverts tend to be better CEOs. Not surprising to me.

Apr. 24, 2017

  • Protest sine. A few of the good signs seen at the recent March for Science protests.

  • Finally, we might be getting closer to the flying car. The 21st century was supposed be all about flying cars. I don't want to ride in a boring autonomous car, I want to fly my own personal aero-gadget. (And yes, I know that I'll probably end up dying in the process.)

Apr. 23, 2017

Travis Kalanick, CEP (Chief Executive Pig) at Uber. It is not surprising that an innovative, but morally bankrupt person would start and lead an innovative but morally bankrupt company.

Here are a few more articles that I've bookmarked, to fill in some of the background about the ridiculous behavior of this company:

Apr. 22, 2017

Happy Earth Day!

  • Enjoy it while you can. We've had about three months to watch the Trump operation. For the most part, he and his minions have come across as clutzky knuckleheads who can't seem to get anything right. (Probably a good thing.) But one area where they have been operating like skilled surgeons is in the evisceration of the environmental protections that have been put in place over the past half century or so. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker has the same observation. If Trump keeps it up, we may not need to worry about impeaching him. Instead, we may just impeach ourselves...from the Earth.

  • To brighten the mood slightly, here is a recent time-lapse taken from the ISS. There are tons more of these on the YouTubes — watching these can be a bit soothing after banging your head on your desk because of all the stupid things that are going on around us.

Apr. 21, 2017

These are the funniest things that I've seen lately: 1, 2, and 3. Here is a bit of background reading if you don't know what the Colbert skits are all about. Maybe over-the-top send-ups of alt-right blowhards aren't your thing, but I laughed until my sides hurt.

Apr. 20, 2017

Tidbits from the animal kingdom:

Apr. 19, 2017

Canada tries to cash in on AI. Many of the early, seminal concepts about machine learning and other aspects of artificial intelligence were introduced by researchers at Canadian universities. Yet, you don't see large groups of high-tech companies springing up to form a "silicon tundra" in the northland. (Hmmm. There might be a clue as to why within that sentence.) Anyway, Canadian officials are trying to make better use of their home-grown ideas.

Apr. 18, 2017

Agreed. Job interviews are totally useless.

Apr. 17, 2017

You don't see this everyday in the opinion section of the NY Times — a piece about the beauty of math equations. It seems that the brains of people who are inclined towards mathematics respond to beautiful equations the same way that they respond to beautiful art or music. The most beautiful equation? Euler's identity, which relates e, π, i (which we EE/CprEs usually call j) and 1 and 0 (for the digital halves of our lives). That seems about right.

Apr. 14, 2017

Robert Taylor has died. He was instrumental in the early development of the internet — way more than even Al Gore. And he wasn't an engineer or a programmer — he was a psychologist, of all things. Here is what Cringely has to say about Taylor and his contributions.

Apr. 13, 2017

Darwin was a slacker. Maybe you should be, too. This is a long-ish article — set aside some leisure time in the afternoon for reading it.

Apr. 12, 2017

Here's an IEEE Spectrum article discussing Google's Tensor Processing Units which are to machine learning what GPUs are to computer graphics. Essentially, TPUs are specialized hardware inserts that are meant to facilitate the computation of neural-network codes. Google has used these for a while in their data centers, and I expect that we will see more gadgets like these in the future. This is the (very detailed) technical paper from Google.

Apr. 11, 2017

This is an interesting listicle of DIY inventions that turned into great businesses. You certainly have heard of many of these companies, and maybe even have used some of the products. All started as small ideas to solve a particular problem — a classic engineering start-up story. All of these companies still exist, and some are even still owned by the inventors (or their families). A notable local example is the Kreg Jig, started by Craig Sommerfeld, who lives a couple of miles of south of Ames. Even your smallest idea can turn into a big thing, if it offers an effective solution to a common problem.

Apr. 10, 2017

In its latest iOS update, Apple switched to a completely new, modern filing system. The old file system was decades old. The fact that they were able to pull this off, completely under the radar, is mind-boggling. If you wanted to switch to a new file system "in the old days", you would approach the project with much trepidation. You certainly wouldn't proceed without making at least three complete, bootable back-ups of your computer. Then, when it came time to begin the process, you would hold your trembling finger over the start button with a pounding heart and sweat beading on your forehead. Changing something as fundamental as the file system was akin to a partial brain transplant and carried a high probability of catastrophic failure. Usually, you wouldn't even attempt to upgrade a working system — you would just wait until you bought a new computer with the new file system already installed. Now-a-days, system providers can pull off a complete re-vamping of all of the memory stored on a device, with the vast majority of their millions of users totally oblivious to the machinations underway — they just keep downloading cat videos, completely unaware of what just happened to their gadgets. Modern software development can be amazing.

As usual, Jean-Louis Gassee has some relevant commentary.

Apr. 6, 2017

  • Historical trivia: Today is the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entering World War I. While WWI is relatively obscure today, the effects still echo in our current events. It started with a terrorist act, but could have been completely avoided with a small effort at diplomacy and reasonableness. Instead, almost all of the countries of Europe proudly marched off to war, and millions of people died over the next four years. And many of the worst aspects of the remainder of the 20th century stem directly from WWI, including WWII, the rise of totalitarian communism, and a haphazard re-arrangement of the the politics of the Middle East.

    If you don't know much about WWI (And really, who does?) but would like to learn, you can try out the series of WWI history podcasts by Dan Carlin. Episodes 50 - 55 cover "The Great War". (These podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify, I think.) Warning: Dan Carlin can talk ad infinitum. The six podcasts probably total about 24 hours of lecturing — essentially a two-credit college course. The podcasts are a good distraction when you are working out, riding the bus to class, or digging in the garden. (Or possibly while trying avoid having to listen to an EE 432 lecturer droning on and on about plasmas.)

  • Here's an interesting idea of using robotically maintained kelp farms as a source of carbon-based fuels. I'm not sure if it is practical, but it offers some intriguing notions.

Apr. 5, 2017

More travel stuff: Time "magazine" purports to know the cheapest places to travel for each month of the year. (There is is one U.S. location and one international for each month.) I don't know if they are right about the prices, but it seems to me that these would all be good places to go, regardless of the cost.

Apr. 4, 2017

Tim Berners-Lee wins the Turing Award. However, he is worried about the future of his invention.

Even though the web is only about 25 years old, it is difficult to remember what life was like before. To get information, you had wait for it to come to your house in the form of a newspaper or magazine, or wait to watch it on the evening news. If you wanted to buy something to be delivered to your house, you had order it by placing a call on a land-line phone. (Usually, you just went to a brick-and-mortar store, because that was easier.) If you wanted to socialize with someone, you had talk to them face-to-face! It was barbaric! It is impossible to imagine going back. The internet definitely has serious problems that must be fixed. (And, as Berners-Lee points out, there are probably no technological fixes for some of the problems.) But, on the whole, the internet and the world-wide-web have probably made our lives better, and Berners-Lee is quite deserving of the prestigious award.

Apr. 3, 2017

Today is a profoundly sad day — EE alumnus and good friend John O'Brien has died.

In my long time at ISU (measurable in decades now) I have met many, many students — several thousand, to be sure. Some of them — i.e. some of you — have became my friends as we shared classes together. While graduation is a natural separating point — the students leave and I remain — I have managed to stay in touch with some of those friends over the years. John O'Brien was one of the first of my "student friends" and one of the best.

John was a student in the first set of classes that I taught when I first came back to Iowa State — EE 434 (which later morphed into EE 330) and EE 435. John was a senior that year and was taking all of the hard EE tech electives. He was the top student in those classes, and he was always coming by to ask questions. He was drawn to the small part of the EE Venn diagram where semiconductors, electromagnetics, nanotechnology, and quantum physics overlapped. Since I also lived in that corner of the EE realm, it was natural that we would have lots of discussions about our shared interests. I wrote letters for him when he applied to graduate schools and cheered him on when he left ISU for Cal Tech, where he would work with the great Amnon Yariv (CIT web site, Wikipedia). We kept in touch during his graduate school years — he would stop in when he was back in Iowa seeing his parents and I visited him a couple times when I happened to be traveling in southern California. Then he finished his Ph.D. and started on a fast-rising career at USC. For a while, we became friendly competitors, since we were involved in similar kinds of research. After a decade or so of top-notch research work, he moved into academic administration. (It appears that he was probably in line to be the next engineering dean at USC.) At about the same time, I began to de-emphasize research to focus more on teaching. As our careers evolved, there was less opportunity to get together, and I hadn't spoken to John for a while. Then comes the news that he is gone...

Today, I am feeling very, very old and cranky. And I am a little pissed at the capriciousness of Mother Nature — it's not fair that John didn't have more time. But we can celebrate the fact that he made the most of the time that he did have — in a relatively short life, he put together a sparkling engineering career. We old codgers can sit around and bemoan what has been lost, but John's life has some lessons for those of you have just started on your careers (or who have yet to start). First of all, don't dawdle. If you have things you want to do — become an accomplished engineer, create a company, start a family, travel the world, or whatever your biggest dreams are — get started sooner rather than later. You don't know how long you will have. Secondly, keep your friends close — they may be gone sooner that you think.

RIP, John O'Brien.

Old stuff