2018 posts

Merry Christmas! 12.25.18

John Lennon's This is Christmas. The song inspires us. The images in the video — most of which are decades old, but seemingly could have been shot yesterday — remind us of how far we have to go.

The Good Earth. 12.25.18

More links and other good stuff regarding Apollo 8.

Apollo 8 and Earthrise. 12.23.18

50 years ago this week, Apollo 8 carried the first humans into orbit around the moon. It could be argued that this spaceflight was more important than Apollo 11, which was still 7 months away. It was the first trip to take astronauts outside of earth orbit and firmly established that a moon landing was possible. Among the many "firsts" accomplished on the flight was the first photograph of Earth taken by astronauts from the vicinity of the moon. (Unmanned moon satellites had taken earlier pictures.) The Earthrise photo is one of the most famous ever taken. It had a profound – and uplifting – effect on millions of people. Some credit the publication of the photo with the beginning of the environmental movement.

The Wikipedia entry of Apollo 8 is extensive and well-written, if you would like to learn more. Also, there is a more recent –and even more spectacular – Earth-rise photo taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2015.

1968 was a tumultuous and contentious year, with worldwide political unrest and social upheaval. Kind of like 2018. The success of Apollo 8 ended 1968 on an upbeat note, and gave everyone a bit of hope that maybe – just maybe – we weren't going to tear ourselves apart and that more good things might be possible in the new year. Sadly, it looks like there will no Apollo-8-like event to lift our spirits this year. We will have to stumble into 2019 with the same worry and uncertainty that have plagued us all through 2018.

59 Good things that happened in 2018. 12.23.18

It isn't all bad news – there were some good things that happened. Maybe we can focus on these and try ignore the other nonsense.

Fog waves. 12.22.18

Beautiful photos of fog waves in the San Francisco Bay area.

Beware the house thieves. 12.22.18

A whole new spin on home burglary.

What is glitter? 12.21.18

Speaking of glitter, here is a story about the secret and high-tech process for making glitter, which could be one of the most useless substances ever created. Actually, there is nothing all the profound about it. Potato-chip bags and polymer capacitors are made using the same basic process – depositing a thin layer of metal on a plastic film. And anyone who has taken EE 432 knows exactly how the various colors are produced.

Glitter-bomb revenge. 12.18.18

Now this would have been an absolutely awesome EE 333 project. Note the custom PCB, the Atmega processor, and the Arduino program interface.

Donald Knuth. 12.17.18

A nice NY Times profile of Donald Knuth, programmer extraordinaire and author of The Art of Computer Programming, considered to be the "Bible" of computer algorithms. (Like the Bible, some readers find it to be quite impenetrable.) He has been working on it for 50 years and counting.

Knuth also invented the TeX typesetting system, which I use nearly every day to create equations for class notes. In the manner typical of geniuses, Knuth developed TeX because he wasn't happy with the typesetting technology in the 1970's and couldn't find a solution that met his standards.

Flying with migrating geese. 12.10.18

This guy rescues orphaned birds and then helps them migrate using his ultra-light. This video taken while flying with the birds is very cool. Even more so with the old monastery of Mont Saint-Michel in the background.

A crab shell economy. 12.09.18

Mind boggling. How can "dumb" animals be so clever and humans – supposedly the pinnacle of evolution – be so stupid?

Grain silo mural. 12.08.18

This looks amazing. It's probably worth a drive to Fort Dodge to check it out.

Man-made global warming – just a sequel to an earlier disaster story. 12.07.18

A NY Times article describing how at least one earlier "extinction event" was essentially the result of global warming. Of course, we are on the same path but with a different cause. A year or so ago, I read a similar article from Ars Technica that also suggested a possible grim outcome. Is anyone up for some solar energy to replace the burning of "clean, clean coal"?

Inky for President, 2020! 12.05.18

Octupuses are some of the smartest creatures in the ocean. Definitely the smartest non-vertebrates. In fact, they are probably smarter than many land-based mammals of the "politician" species. This article reminded me of Inky, who formulated and carried out a bold escape from an aquarium in New Zealand. I have an idea – I think we should find Inky (assuming that he hasn't been eaten) and convince him to run for president. He is likely smarter, certainly would have a more interesting personality, and I think that many people would contend that he is better looking. I would definitely contribute to his super-PAC.

SpaceX is kicking ass. 12.04.18

SpaceX is posting some record-setting numbers:

Google's dream team. 12.03.18

Interesting (and long)New Yorker article about Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, two of Google's early star programmers, who represent a prime example of the success that can be achieved using "pair programming", which essentially boils down to "two heads are better than one".

Tech advice from Farhad Manjoo. 12.03.18

Farhad Manjoo has been a tech columnist for the NY Times for few years, but apparently he is switching over to becoming an opinion columnist. In his final tech column, he offers some advice on how to prevent becoming overwhelmed with all the tech nonsense that is making us miserable. I think it is good advice – it is similar to my approach to maintaining "tech-sanity".

How not to hang glide. 12.02.18

iPad Pro review. 12.02.18

I need to replace my old iPad, and I've ordered one of the new-fangled versions that just came out. While I am waiting for it to show up, I've been looking at reviews. This one caught my eye. It shows off a nifty backside drawing capability that I wasn't aware of, although I don't expect that I will use it that much.

Geroge H.W. Bush's note to Bill Clinton. 12.01.18

In a far distant time, the hand-off in leadership from one party to the other (i.e. from losers to winners) used to be handled with some amount of grace and dignity. Losers knew how to lose and winners knew how to win. Such quaint notions don't exist anymore. When DJT is finally asked to vacate the premises, can you imagine the letter that he will leave for his successor? First of all, it won't be a private letter, it will be a tweet. And it will not offer advice and and good wishes – it will be filled with insults and bombast. Such are the times we live in.

Deaths in the ECpE family. 12.01.18

We recently lost two retired EE professors.

Audio Club special meeting 11.05.18

Tue, Nov 6 at 8:00 p.m. in 3043 Coover.

Tim Lindquist will be presenting the project that he completed for his M.S. degree.He will discuss various audio synthesis techniques and then describe and demo the hybrid synthesizer that he built from scratch.It will be awesome – you should try to attend!

Not voting doubles the value of someone else's vote. 11.05.18

David Foster Wallace, in 2000:

"If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting forthe entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and whoare keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to giveyou every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day.By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there isno such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doublingthe value of some Diehard’s vote."

So go vote on Tuesday.

De-construct rather than demolish. 11.04.18

always wondered why we can't more of this – when a building is no longer needed or serviceable, it could taken apart piece-by-piece and the useful bits recyled. The usual approach is to flatten the whole thing and haul the wreckage to the landfill. I realize that it is currently cheaper and faster to crunch up an old house and toss the remnants in a hole. But maybe it is time to re-think the economics of simply junking everything. That may include making it more expensive to pile our trash into giant holes, but it would probably also involve changing building practices so that buidings are easier to take apart with their lifespan is over.

The process of demolishing a house is pretty standard these days. I see it frequently around town – most recently the old house on 6th street that was razed to make may for a new downtown Fareway store. First a fence goes up around the doomed house. Then maybe a few windows are pulled out of it and tossed into a dumpster. Then one evening a huge backhoe is parked ominously next to building. The next day, if you happen to pass by, the backhoe will be turning the house into splinters and loading the refuse into trucks that make the trip to the dump on the east end of town. If you miss the action during the day, and only pass by the next evening, then everything wiil be gone – the house, the basement, the backhoe, and the trucks. One day a house, the next day an empty lot – it's rather amazing and a little sad.

World's longest bridge opens. 11.03.18

new bridge is 55 km long and connects Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China.

Harry Potter homecoming dance. 11.03.18

All the Harry Potter fans should like this. It's pretty good for a bunch of high-school punks.

People who remember every second of their lives. 11.02.18

find this absolutely fascinating.

We are running out of quantum computer researchers. 11.02.18

Maybe we need to revive EE 439. We didn't teach quantum computing in that class, but we did teach quantum mechanics, which would seem to be a necessary first step on the way to becoming a Q.C. researcher. On top of that, quantum mechanics is great fun.

Stolen colon 11.01.18

p>What kind an ass would steal a colon? And more curiously, why would anyone make such a thing in the first place?

(Thankfully, the giant poop chute has been recovered.)

Awww. Sesame Street's Big Bird has retired. 11.01.18

So has Oscar the grouch.

iPhones poisoned by helium 10.31.18

Here's a mystery – a number of recent-vintage iPhones simultaneously quit working at an MRI facility. No other phones, just iPhones and only newer ones. What gives?

The working theory is that they were disabled by helium gas. How could this be!? Here is a sequence of relevant facts that point to the conclusion.

  1. MRI machines use large amounts of liquid helium. During operation of the machine, some of the liquid evaporates. If the generated He gas is not vented properly, it is possible that the local concentration of He in the air may be increased significantly. The normal concentration of helium in air is about 5 parts per million. Even if the concentration were increased a hundred or a thousand times, our bodies would not notice. But some of our devices might.
  2. All electronic gadgets that use microcontrollers or microprocessors need system clocks to operate, and the clocks require control elements to set the frequency. Traditionally, quartz crystals have been used for this purpose. Quartz oscillator chips are used in the vast majority of digital systems that need precise clock frequencies.
  3. Sometime in the last few years, Apple began using MEMS frequency control elements in their phones and watches. MEMS (MicroElectroMechanical Systems) are ultra-small mechanical devices made from silicon. The feature sizes of the mechanical structures are in the micron range, and they are built with the same fabrication methods as used for silicon integrated circuits. (Past EE 432 students might be nodding their heads in recognition.) Basically, the MEMS devices are tiny little tuning forks vibrating at very specific frequencies. They can be used in place of traditional quartz chips to set clock frequencies. A MEMS oscillator is probably smaller than a corresponding quartz oscillator and more easily integrated with the associated clock circuitry. In the constant drive to make electronics smaller and more efficient, it makes sense that system designers would be switching over to MEMS oscillators.
  4. The MEMS oscillators are placed into tiny vacuum-sealed packages to keep air molecules away from the vibrating slivers of silicon. Bumping into O2 or N2 molecules would damp the vibration of the miniature tuning forks, causing the frequency to change. An unstable clock would probably cause the entire digital system to crash. The vacuum seals in MEMS oscillator packages are certainly very effective at keeping air out, otherwise they would never work.
  5. However, He atoms are much smaller than O2 or N2 molecules – so small that they probably pass right through the materials that are used to seal out the air. Anyone who has worked with vacuum systems (that would include me) knows about the difficulty of dealing with helium and hydrogen.
  6. In the presence of elevated He concentrations, it is possible that enough He leaked through the seals of the MEMS oscillator packages that the clocks failed and the system subsequently crashed.
  7. The crashed phones are not necessarily ruined. If removed from the presence of the excess helium, the atoms inside the MEMS oscillator package would eventually leak back out, and the phone or watch would probably start working again. (But it might take several days.)

At first glance, iPhone helium poisoning seems like a far-fetched notion. But in fact, Apple acknowledges the possibility of exactly that in iPhone user guide, warning that "Exposing iPhone to environments having high concentrations of industrial chemicals, including near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium, may damage or impair iPhone functionality." Although not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in this particular case, it does seem likely that a few rogue He atoms brought down all of those expensive phones at the medical facility. So there you have it – if you use an iPhone (or any other device that uses MEMS oscillator parts), watch out for helium!

2018 MacArthur Fellows 10.04.18

Every year 25 people who are doing amazing things receive MacArther grants.

The Big Hack 10.04.18

Bloomberg has published an incredible story that, if true, describes one of the biggest hardware security hacks of all time. The gist of the story is that computer server motherboards, sold by U.S. company SuperMicro and assembled in China, had rouge chips installed at the direction of Chinese intelligence authorities. Supposedly, these "spy chips" would allow outside agents to observe, and possibly control, the data flowing through the servers.

Although much harder to implement than software hacks, hardware infiltrations are much more desirable for hackers, because they are infinitely more difficult to detect. Even when a hardware-based infiltration is discovered, there is no easy patch that can be applied like there is with software. Basically, the hardware has to be thrown out. Turning server hardware into spy equipment has been done for a long time (including by the U.S., as described by Edward Snowden), but this breach would be way bigger than anything known before. The infected servers were used widely, including by giant companies (Apple & Amazon), the U.S. military, and the CIA.

Apple, Amazon, and other server users who may have been compromised have strongly denied the story from Bloomberg — it is possible that the reporters got it wrong. There will certainly be more about this story, and it is definitely worth watching as it unfolds.

Oddly Satisfying 10.02.18

These computer animations and illustrations by Andreas Wannerstedt are fascinating. They are like an elegant combination of M.C. Escher and Rube Goldberg.

Arduino club tonight. 10.02.18

Topic: Introduction to embedded systems and Arduino.
Where: 3043 Coover Addition (3rd floor conference room)
When: Tues, Oct. 2, 2018 at 8:00 p.m.

Dear young people: Don't vote. 10.01.18

Self-solving Rubik's Cube. 10.01.18

This would be a great EE 333 project.

Beluga whales adopt a narwhal. 10.01.18

It appears that whales are not particularly tribal — maybe we can learn something from them.

Fiber optic pioneer Charles Kao has died. 10.01.18

He was brilliant and persistant. (And self-effacing.)

Pint-sized music prodigies. 10.01.18

A ukelele player and a singer.

Audio / Arduino Clubs. 09.18.18

The first meeting of the 2018/2019 Audio and Arduino clubs will be tonight (Sep 18) in Room 3043 of the Coover addition at 8:00 p.m. Tonight's meeting will be mostly introductory in nature, but we can discuss projects for the upcoming year.

My Fall semester schedule. 09.03.18

I've finally posted a schedule for Fall semester. For 201 and 333 students, note that it reflects a change in my office hours from what I had stated on the first day of class. Basically, the Friday afternoon office hours have been deleted and new hours have been added on Tuesdays. Generally, I will be in 335 Durham during the listed office hours, although occasionally something else important comes up, and I may have to vacate. Stop in with questions about class or projects. You can also drop by just to say "hi" and discuss life in general. Perhaps you would like to hear a bad pun. Or maybe you just want to come punch me in the face. Anyway, I'll be around.

The Northern Lights vs. a raging wildfire. 09.02.18

A time-lapse video from Canada of the shimmering northern lights together with flames of a major forst fire (one of many burning in the western parts of North America). It is simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying.

The Ocean Cleanup. 09.02.18

At least someone is trying to do something postive. The Ocean Cleanup is deploying the beta version of their giant swimming pool fun noodle into the great Pacific garbage patch. Their approach is to use natural forces — currents, wind, and waves — to steer this contraption into corralling a bunch of the plastic floating out there. Occasionally, a boat will come by to haul away the collected trash. Over the next few months, they will be testing the efficacy of their design. (This ambitious endeavor has a bit of an Elon Musk feel to it, although if he were in charge he would surely equip the noodle with a rocket or at least some electric motors.) Of course, the ultimate solution is for us to stop dumping our waste into the ocean, but it feels good that somebody is starting to fight the problem. I hope that their gizmo works as planned and that they have great success with it.

So long, Facebook. 09.02.18

Well known tech blogger and venture capitalist Om Malik puts Facebook in his rearview mirror.

The Carina Nebula. 09.02.18

A very cool infra-red colorized photo of the Carina Nebula, one of the birthing rooms for new stars in our galaxy. The author estimates more than 1 million stars packed into this one picture from one small slice of the sky.

The president orders pants. 09.02.18

A ridiculous White House tape of a goofy president ordering pants. (No, it's not who you think.) I first heard this a couple of years ago and thought it was hilarious. I stumbled onto it again a couple of days ago, and thought I should share. No matter how bizarre and off-the-wall the current White House occupant may be, most of the others had their whacky moments, too. (It is hard to imagine Obama placing a call like this, though.)

FIRE yourself. 09.02.18

Another article on the concept of FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). It's a goal for many who are fed up by working for "The Man" and are willing to try to opt out of the drudgery. Mentioned are two of my favorite sources of financial advice and philosophy: Mr. Money Mustache and Your Money or Your Life, which I first read more than 20 years ago. Learning to manage your money, and, more importantly, changing your relationship with money can be two of the most important things you do on entering the world of work.

However, if you are someday lucky enough to consider retiring early, make sure that you have worthwhile way to spend all that extra time. I was bothered by the comment from one of the early retirees about "sitting and watching the ceiling fan spin". It would be a travesty if this guy had something worthwhile to offer his fellow human beings, but the best he can do is to sit idly and watch the world turn. That may well be better than going to a crappy job, but early retirement is about improving your life and the life of those around you. If you have nothing better to do, you might as well stay in the job.

Of course, life is backwards. When we are young and have the strength and energy to have children, travel to interesting places, and undertake all sorts of high-value activities, we don't have any money. When we finally accumulate enough money, we are too old, broken down, and decrepit to do any of it. One of my junior-high teachers (Mr. Ripley) proposed a solution. He said that when you are done with school at 18 or 22, you should be given a big chunk of money, enough to live for 20 or 25 years while having a family, traveling, doing all of the stuff that you can most enjoy when you are young. Then, at age 45, you should start working with the intent of spending the rest of your life paying back the loan. Mr. Ripley said that you should then hope for an early death. Even as as stupid junior-high punk, this seemed perfectly sensible to me.

A reality showproposal. 08.23.18

Gail Collins of the (sad!, failing!) NY Times considers a proposal for a reality television show about the antics of a president and his minions. The basic story and the details are probably too off-the-wall to be accepted by the average American TV viewer.

Severe weather alert. 08.22.18

Boom! and boom! Watch out! — category 5 tweet storms are imminent.

Generally, I don't comment too much about specific day-to-day politcal news, but this is different. The events from yesterday — particularly the Cohen thing — probably mark the beginning of the end of the current presidency. There are many parallels to 1974, when Richard Nixon ultimately had to resign as president. We don't know yet how this story will end, but it's pretty clear that it will end badly for someone.

Space station photos of California fires. 08.20.18

Amazing (and frightening) photos of the recent massive fires, taken by astronauts onboard the ISS.

A country called "Nipple". 08.20.18

After reading this, my brain hurt so much that I had to lay my head on my desk for a few hours. With stuff like this going on, The Onion will soon be out of business — there is no way that their writers can come up with jokes that are more ridiculous than real life.

I found that watching this hummingbird video over and over helped me regain my composure.

Australian teenager hacks Apple. 08.20.18

Apple should probably pay this kid's fines and court fees and then hire him.

Global warming — just more fake news. 08.20.18

It's definitely a relief knowing that there is no evidence, either scientific or experiential, that the world is getting warmer.We can keep on burning that "clean, clean" coal.

How to get the most out of college. 08.20.18

This advice is spot on. Every college student — current and prospective — should read this. The single best thing you can do to have a rewarding, possibly life-changing, college experience is to find a good mentor.

I'll confess that when I was an undergrad, I never once went to visit a professor during office hours — not one time. (I could claim that I didn't need to, but that would certainly be an exaggeration.) Even with that oversight, I did connect with a mentor in my senior year. That relationship lead to me going to graduate school, where I met two more amazing mentors in succession. Those experiences shaped my entire professional life.

Mentors must be chosen with some care — not every professor is cut out to be a good mentor. Of course, every professor will gladly dispense "advice", but sometimes it is self-serving — they simply want you to do exactly what they did. A good mentor will help you understand "who you are", help you figure out "who you want to be" and then help make the transition. It doesn't even need to be a professor. But, in any case, you must choose wisely.

Who should not be mentors? Probably not your parents. Chances are they are more worried about future salaries, health insurance, 401K plans, and stock options. That's understandable — they don't want you to suffer financially, and they definitely don't want you living in their basement forever, so they push you towards more financially lucrative majors rather than helping you find your own passions and develop your own innate skills. Occasionally, parents as mentors works out — the whole concept of DNA suggests that a parent could be well suited to serve as a mentor. However, DNA is a fickle thing, and usually the parent as mentor idea is a disaster. The other people that you should never turn to for mentorship are your college friends. They are as clueless as you are — why would you ever take their advice?

The Perseid meteor shower. 08.12.18

Tonight and tomorrow night are the peak times for the Perseid meteor. This is usually the best show of the year — usually lots of meteors and the weather is warm enough so that it is pleasant to be outside. And, since we are near the new moon,it will be particularly dark. making it easier to see the shooting stars. Find a dark place away from the city lights and look up for a couple of hours — you might be pleasantly entertained.

A list of all the major meteor showers throughout the year.

Why meteors have so many varied colors.

If you are interested in photography, here's how to photograph a meteor shower.

An argument for not overplanning your trips. 08.12.18

Seth Kugel, a former frugal travel writer for the NY Times, suggests that a bit more spontaneity — and a little less planningwith TripAdvisor (and the internet in general) — can lead to more memorable travel experiences. I think I concur with that.Although many of the people writing in the comments disagree strongly.

An ode to the venerable 555 timer. 08.10.18

Awesome drone photographs. 08.09.18

I need to get a drone. Taking pictures like this would be great fun.

West Virginia wants to implement a voting app. 08.08.18

This seems like a really bad idea. As usual XKCD nails it.

TED talk on thought leadership . 08.08.18

Watch this one TED talk and you will never have to watch another. Or perhaps this is the quintessential TED talk.

Fire in Cardboard City . 08.02.18

A very fun disaster "movie". It's a clever take on all of the usual disaster movie cliches.

2016 election maps. 08.01.18

The (failing, lying, fake) NY Times has published a very detailed map of the 2016 presidential election. It goes down to the precinct level and gives a fine-grained view of how various regions voted. It is interesting to note how some very red regions abut very blue regions. Also, no state is uniformly red or blue — perhaps surprising to some, there are red regions of Massachusetts and California and blue regions in Nebraska and Georgia. However, even though this type of map is quite common, the view distorts that truth. When one zooms out to look at the whole US, it seems that Trump should have won the poplular vote by about 90%. Of course, we know that he actually got 46%, which wasn't even the highest total. The failure of the map is that it presents the results by area, which would be fine if our voting mantra was "one acre one vote" rather than "one person one vote".

There are other ways to present the election data that give a truer impression of the closeness of the electorate, as described in this Wired article. Approaches like the "dasymetric dot density" and the "value-by-alpha" maps show more clearly the "purplish" nature of the voters taken as a whole. The "chloropleth highlights" map shows how close the election was and how just a few regions determined the outcome. You can follow the links to see many more insightful ways of presenting the election data. (The NY Times map is known as a "chloropleth diverging hue" map, if you like using technical jargon.)

This plethora of maps is one example of the fascinating subject of data visualization. Part science and part art, data visualization is a key aspect of how we deal with the vast amounts of information that are being collected in our inter-connected. You might consider taking a "data viz" class someday.

Rhino poachers eaten by lions. 08.01.18


Last rider in the Tour de France. 07.31.18

Sometimes you can win by finishing last.

More on the "Too Much Tourism" front. 07.31.18

We just returned from visiting some of the places mentioned in the article. I can certainly sympathize with how the residents of these overwhelmed places might feel. And from the traveler's perspective, being swept up in the tsunami of tourist groups that flood the most popular sights is definitely no fun. It's a double-edged sword and another example of "too much of a good thing is bad". We will probably change our travel habits a bit by avoiding peak tourists seasons and seeking more "out of the way" spots to visit. Fortunately, humans have not yet trashed every square meter of the earth, and there are still many interesting and worthwhile places to visit.

TED talk by Jaron Lanier. 07.30.18

Jaron Lanier discusses where the internet went wrong and possible ways to make it right. This is a worthwhile 15 minutes. A key line: "We cannot have a society in which, if two people want to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it's financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them."

Also, he has a book out: "Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now." I haven't read it yet, but if you are interested, you can check it out at his web site.

And he was featured again on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein podcast. It is an interesting discussion.

Joywave. 07.28.18

Guster. 07.27.18

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.

Long-lost sisters move next door to each other. 07.01.18

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.

And a cool video of the continuing eruption in Hawaii. (Mick Kalber posts a fly-over video every day. This one was a good representative example.)

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 patternsof 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 theevaluation 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 somealbum-cover art that was inspired by PCB patternsand 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.

Goldenhair. 06.24.18

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

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

he 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.)

Mr. Money Mustache describes his home solar project. 02.13.18

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.

Info-pocalypse. 02.13.18

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.

It's the super-blue-blood moon tonight. 01.30.18

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 byAaron Burr. Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis and as a young man emigrated to New York to embark on an eventful life thatculminated in becoming one of the founding fathers of the United States, promoter of the Constitution, and first Secretaryof the Treasury. (And, of course, star of Broadway plays.) Nevis isone of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. It is now part of the nation known as the "Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis", and itwould probably be included in the league of "shithole countries" as defined by our modern "stable genius". It's a goodthing 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.