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Dec. 21, 2016

Winter Solstice! In Ames, the solstice occurred at 4:44 a.m., and our shortest day is 9 hours and 7 minutes. In Helsinki, Finland, it was only 5 hours and 49 minutes. Flipping to the southern hemisphere, the length of the day for the summer solstice in Christchurch, New Zealand (latitude of -43.8°) is 15 hours and 26 minutes. (There just aren't that many cities at high latitudes in the southern hemisphere.)

Dec. 16, 2016

I've completed another trip around the sun - that makes about 32.8 billion miles so far. I'm starting to get tired.

Today is also the last day of the Fall 2016 semester. The end of a semester is always bittersweet - ecstasy that the thing is finally over (particularly this semester) and a bit of sadness because people that I have known and worked with for a while will be heading off to exciting new places and challenges. Most likely, I will never see them again. Sniff. But such is life.

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

Murmuration
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

kakistrocracy
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.

FiB
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.

July 14, 2016

Apollo 11 software is available on GitHub

Of course, who cares about 50-year-old assembly language programs? Far more interesting is the fact that one of the lead programmers for the moon mission - arguably one of the most important technological achievements of the 20-th century - was a little kid. (Well, she looked like a little kid.) You should read about her - Wikepedia & an interview on the Medium web site.

She is smart and was well-prepared, and happened to be in the right place at the right time. These are the ingredients for having an impact in your career. How does a young person get into a position to have such an impact? There is no guaranteed formula, but you must always be on the lookout for what ideas and technologies are new and small now, but might someday become a big thing. You want to be there at the beginning. Of course, we often didn't know that something big was beginning until well after it is on its way. Sometimes a thing that looks like it should be a big deal ends up being a big dud. It's a bit of crap shoot. The important thing is to always keep learning and keep moving.

One thing that is almost certain: You won't have much opportunity to make a big impact if you are working as a little cog inside of a big company. (Insert name of popular job destinations: John Deere, Rockwell, Microsoft, Google, IBM, TI, etc, etc, etc.)

Final sidenote: Margaret Hamilton was also the name of the actress that played the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz". I guess it's a good name to have if you want some notoriety.

Getting hired at Google, Amazon, and Facebook

Speaking of getting a job as a small cog, Sarah Cooper offers some help in understanding why those interviews are the way they are. (Even funnier than her points is the fact that most of the commenters seemed to think that she was serious. The tech work world must be a sad and humorless place - I guess it's a good thing I don't have real tech job.) I also like her insights on "The Future of Work in 5 Charts", "2 Types of Travelers". and "Boomers vs. Millenials @ Work".

July 13, 2016

What it might take to build a carbon-nanotube computer.

For you semiconductor wannabes. This a very readable overview of carbon-nanotube transistor technology and discussion of possibilities for eventually replacing silicon.

June 19, 2016

Tomorrow is the Summer Solstice, with the most daylight of the year (in the northern hemisphere). In Ames, the sun will rise at 5:39 a.m. and set at 8:53 p.m. for a total of 15 hours and 14 minutes of sunshine. (If you happened to be in Stockholm, Sweden you would get 18 hours and 37 minutes of daylight, which would be awesome.) So get up early and plan to stay up late so that you can enjoy all the beautiful sunshine. Go do something pagan!

As an added benefit, tomorrow is also the June full moon (the strawberry moon). This is a rare coincidence - the last time the summer solstice and a full moon occurred on the same day was 70 years ago. So tomorrow you can party all day with the sun gods and all night with the moon gods.

Schedule for May 2 - May 6

It's finals week, so my availability changes. Here is where I think I will be during the week.

  • Monday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. - 335 Durham
  • Monday 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. - MRC
  • Monday 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. - EE 201 review
  • Tuesday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. - 335 Durham
  • Tuesday 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. - MRC
  • Wednesday 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. - 335 Durham
  • Wednesday 2:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. - 201 exam
  • Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. - 335 Durham
  • Friday 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. - EE 436 presentations
  • Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. - 335 Durham
The following week (May 9 - May 13) I will be out of town. (I'll be helping my daughter move to Colorado.)

Apr. 30, 2016

Today is the centennial of Claude Shannon's birth. If you are an EE/CprE and you don't know Claude Shannon, you should. Arguably, he is as important to our business as Maxwell, Edison, Tesla, Marconi, or Shockley. Anything having to do with manipulating or transmitting digital information stems from his original work in the 1940s. (For some of you, that means everything that you do.) Also, check out these articles from IEEE Spectrum magazine. ( 1 | 2 ). The first is a reprint of 1992 profile on Shannon. The second has links to several YouTubes about him. Read these, and then get out your EE 224 text and re-learn (or learn for the first time) the meaning of the Shannon-Nyquist limit.

Shannon had quirky hobbies (juggling and unicycle riding) and enjoyed building weird gadgets, including a juggling machine, a maze-solving mechanical mouse, and a calculator that computed in Roman numerals. My favorite is the Useless Machine (which Shannon called the Ultimate Machine). Here is a YouTube that shows a version of the machine. Take a look if you have six minutes to spend being useless. I particularly like the dueling Useless Machines. I think that any enterprising EE/CprE with access to a 3-D printer and an arduino could devote themselves to uselessness and build one of these.

Finally, I liked this Khan Academy video that explains the ideas behind perfect one-pad encryption.

Apr. 29, 2016

To all you multi-taskers out there: read this article. See if you can get through the whole thing without checking your email, taking a selfie, updating your facebook profile, sending a tweet, or checking your fitbit.

Apr. 15, 2016

Here is a nice YouTube from CGP Grey explaining internet security in a way that can be understood by anyone, including bone-headed government officials (possibly).

Happy π Day!

I haven't posted anything for a while. Below are some items of interest that have piled up on my desk over the last month:

  • I am always looking for ways to cut down on the amount of crap that I waste every year. Of course, most garbage is in the form of useless packaging of some sort. It looks like some grocery stores in Europe are beginning to cater to consumers interested in "pre-cycling" by converting their stocks to bulk items only. Hopefully this will catch on in the U.S. Here in Ames, Wheatsfield has a decent selection of bulk foods, but we can probably do much better.

  • Of course, I've been following the whole "FBI vs. Apple" soap opera closely. The eventual outcome for this stand-off will have huge implications for us nerds. I've read many, many good articles covering the details of the FBI's "request" and Apple's reasons for refusing. It's not possible to link to all of them but here a few recent items that were informative - or at least entertaining.

    Tech writer Steven Levy has an excellent overview of how we've gotten to where we are.

    John Oliver provided his usual spot-on and hilarious take on the whole ordeal.

    Apple isn't the only company in the FBI's cross-hairs. Now the Feds will be squaring off with Facebook regarding the end-to-end encryption of their WhatsApp messenging service. Eventually, the fight will spread to every tech company, and the FBI is doomed to fail.

  • While a Trump presidency is still a long shot, his odds keep looking better all the time. It is probably a good idea to make contingency plans. Here is a list of places where one might sit out the almost-certain debacle if a Trump administration came to pass. (I like the looks of 3, 5, and 9, myself.) If graduate school is in your future, you might consider this option, which would allow you to kill two birds with one stone.

  • Raymond Tomlinson, inventer of email passed away. Imgaine how different our world would be if he had chosen to use "#" instead of "@" in email addresses. We may never have had to put up with Twitter.

Feb. 2, 2016

More talk about how the Internet of Things will cause us pain. Having IoT devices on our home networks probably leads to hackers breaking in and the government spying on us. Good grief.

Feb. 1, 2016

A couple of engineers build a gadget that solves Rubik's Cube in one second. Maybe not the most socially redeeming activity, but it's fun to watch.

Jan. 30, 2016

Cringely waxes nostalgic about the passing of the PC.

Jan. 28, 2016

Space shuttle Challenger explodes - Jan. 28, 1986. ( Wiki | YouTube)
Like most Americans over the age of 40, I can remember exactly what I was doing when the shuttle blew up. We were living in California while I was going to graduate school. I was eating breakfast and watching the launch live on the morning news. (Having a teacher on board made the mission interesting enough to warrant live coverage.) It was shocking.

Jan. 26, 2016

Marvin Minsky has died. He was a legendary MIT computer science professor and pioneering researcher in artificial intelligence.

Jan. 24, 2016

Some trippy optical illusions. A couple of these may even make you woozy - no alcohol needed.

Jan. 23, 2016

Five little planets, all in a row. The five "naked-eye" planets will be lined up in the pre-dawn sky for next month. It is a cool celestial show that happens every now and then. Go outside and have a look if you are willing to get up a bit early. (Or if you are staying extra late.)

Jan. 22, 2016

Larry Page. An interesting profile of Google's (er - Alphabet's) head honcho.

Jan. 21, 2016

Encryption and privacy. We put significant trust in huge corporations to help us keep our personal information safe. Some do a better job than others. Here are two articles about companies that are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how they treat our private data: Apple and ATT. Unfortunately, most companies hew closer to the ATT approach.

Jan. 20, 2016

A possible ninth planet? At this point, the evidence is based on simulations, but they are looking for it with telescopes.

Jan. 19, 2016

Glenn Frey has died. (obit, wiki)
Wow, they are dropping like flies. The Eagles were far and away my favorite band as I was growing up. "One of these nights" is still one of my all-time favorite songs. I owned most of Eagles early albums - in vinyl no less. There will be more nostalgic listening today...

Jan. 18, 2016

"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jan. 16, 2016

More David Bowie.
I came across this twitterpic of Bowie. I was amused by the notion of Ziggy Stardust tromping around New York City in cargo pants and a ball cap (and a bit of an attitude). Apparently Bowie, the music icon, was able to lead a very under-the-radar life for his last 20 years.

Jan. 15, 2016

Robert X. Cringely predicts that the Internet of Things will become a security nightmare. Well, duh. That's hardly a prediction. If we attach 50 more gadgets to our home WiFi systems - and 48 of them will probably have really crappy software - it will be open season for hackers. Breaking into a system through an internet-connected doorbell will be child's play for a professional. The Internet of Things may already be dead.

Note: I have read Cringley for years. He has always been an entertaining source of information, analysis, and speculation about the high-tech industry. His recent disdain for IBM as a company is scathing. I still enjoy reading some of his columns from years past. Any budding entrepreneur would benefit from reading the chapter on high-tech startups from his book Accidental Empires, originally written 1991 and (somewhat) revised in 2013. Although the companies discussed in the book are now old, the description of how start-ups get off the ground and evolve is still relevant. Unfortunately, it seems like Cringely is slowing down a bit. His columns don't appear as frequently and aren't quite as sharp as they used to be. He is an older guy with young kids - maybe he is worn out.

Jan. 14, 2016

Course evaluations for fall semester came back this week. (Which is weird, because it used to take months to get these things back.) Anyway, it is always a hoot to read some of the comments - although it helps to have thick skin. (I have very thick skin.) My favorite comment regarding EE 230:

I would hate the class much more if i didn't have such a good teacher.

Hilarious! An excellent back-handed compliment. Essentially: "Tuttle's class sucks less".

Jan. 12, 2016

New vocabulary word for the day: uveitis (a.k.a. iritis). Here's a short definition: If you have it, your eye is really f**ked up.

Jan. 11, 2016

David Bowie has died. (obit, Wiki)
While working in the office today, I listened to a lot of his old music. It felt like I was 15 again. If only...

Jan. 1, 2016

In memoriam:
James W. Nilsson (1924 - 2015).
Longtime ISU EE professor and author of the best-selling text Electric Circuits. Also, he was my professor for EE 206 (a progenitor to EE 201). His explanations were crystal clear and his diagrams drawn on the blackboard were true works of art.

Worth reading:
Benedict Evans: 16 mobile theses .
Note in particular item 12, in which he talks about the coming ubiquity of "internet-of-things" devices.