2019 posts

Boeing CEO fired. 12.23.19

Dennis Muilenberg, Boeing CEO (and ISU AeroE grad) hs been fired over the 737Max fiasco. Unfortunately, the move is probably long overdue — Boeing's problems have been festering for almost a year. Muilenberg's removal comes a day after a NY Times article describing some of the Boeing's mis-steps during the crises.

Boeing is a pre-eminent U.S. company that hires many ISU engineers, but they are not the same company that they were 25 years ago. For much of it's existence, Boeing's success was based on amazing engineering. But in the last couple of decades, it has become much more "finance-oriented". Last summer, Matt Stoller wrote a short essay describing how Boeing lost it's engineering mojo. It's the same disease that has infected many great engineering companies — IBM and Hewlett-Packard are two examples. Microsoft once had a bad case of it, but it seems to have shaken off the worst effects and is sailing high again. Hopefully, Boeing can pull off the same trick.

Professors help rip off students. 12.11.19

Where has this guy been? We've known this for years.

Hsung-Cheng Hsieh 1929-2019. 12.11.19

Prof. Hsieh was one of my favorite professors at ISU. I took the second course in electromagnetics with him. (Yes, there were two required EM classes back then.) I still remember his description of phasors whirling in the complex plane. I also took my first graduate class in semiconductor device physics with him — very memorable. I was also scheduled to have my first class in circuits with him, but changed sections after the first day. (The other section was at a time that didn't interfere with my lunch.) However, that was probably a big mistake — if I stayed with Prof. Hsieh I might have actually become good at circuits, because the guy I ended up with was a disaster. I had Prof. Nilsson the next term, and he helped clean up some of the mess, but the damage was probably already permanent.

Last full moon of the decade. 12.11.19

It happens at 11:12 p.m. here in the Midwest. In the Eastern Time Zone, the exact time of the full moon is 12:12 a.m on 12/12, which is kind of cool. The December full moon is known as the Cold Moon — definitely appropriate if you are heading out for a look.

Audio Club 12.02.19

Audio club meeting this afternoon at 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. in 3043 Coover.
We will talk about some of the basics of audio amplifiers.

Christmas lists. 12.01.19

While surfing, I noticed a couple of things that could be of interest to Arduino Club-ers as they prepare Christmas wish lists for Santa. AllElectronics has a relatively inexpensive Arduino kit that might fit a biggish Christmas stocking. It seems to have a pretty good collection of sensors and parts. (Of course, Amazon has a selection of kits, for those who are inclined to shop there.)

Also Marlin P. Jones has reduced the price on 2x16 LCD displays. (We include these displays in the EE 333 lab kits.) A handful of these will fit into any stocking.

Arduino Club. 11.18.19

Arduino club meeting this afternoon at 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. We are back to the original room — 3043 Coover. We are going to talk about how to build our own Arduinos.

Audio Club. 11.11.19

Audio Club meeting today: 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. in 2222 Coover. (Note: This is a different room than the previous couple of meetings.) We will be talking about speakers.

Arduino Club. 11.04.19

Arduino Club meeting today. Check the club website for topics and activities.

Audio and Arduino club are back. 10.28.19

Use the (now functional) link to the left to see a schedule of planned activities.

Fall foliage prediction map. 10.21.19

Here is a slick tool from smokymountains.com that shows the progression of tree color change in the fall. If you are looking for a road trip to see some fall colors, this can help steer you in the right direction. In Iowa, one of the best "leaf peeper" regions is the northeast corner along the Mississippi River near Pike's PeakState Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Moore's Law. 10.19.19

This is a nifty visualization of Moore's Law over 50 years. Watching the technological milestones pop up in a race against the "Moore's Law counter" illustrates nicely that the chip development was not a nice smooth progression as predicted by Moore. There was a long stretch n the 1990's when transistor count fell far behind the ML expectation. Then, there was a significant speedup in the 2000's that extended well into the 2010's, when transistor count was sometimes way ahead of the predicted pace.

That transition was probably due to two reasons. One — as EE 432 students learn — was the development of copper interconnect technology, which allowed for massively more transistors to be connected into circuits. The second probable reason was a change in competition. In the 1990's, Intel was totally dominant in the world of microprocessors. Keeping up with Moore's Law costs lots of money — why increase development costs when you have a lock on the market? Then, as ARM processors started to make headway in portable devices in the 2000's, the competitive landscape changed, and the chip race was on again. As with all things in engineering, progress is made up of combination of technical prowess and business opportunities.

Moore's Law is nearing it's inevitable end — we can't make transistor smaller than atoms, and we are being to nudge up against that fundamental limit. Ironically — and maybe fittingly in some poetic sense — Intel may also be nearing it's end. Hopefully, that's not the case and they will be able to right their ship, but they are currently having a very difficult time keeping up with their competition, let alone Moore's Law. The next few years will interesting for both the Law and Intel.

Stop leaving tracks. 10.18.19

Ten suggestions from David Pogue on how to be "tracked less" when using the internet. All of these are good advice.

Amazing races. 10.18.19

Eluid Kipchoge ran the first recorded marathon in under 2 hours. (Unfortunately, there is no recorded time for Pheidippides' original Marathon run, probably due to the fact there were no clocks then.) Kipchoge's accomplishment is amazing, and represents a true milestone in human performance. It has been compared to breaking the 4-minute mile, but I think is more akin to landing on the moon. Both endeavors were long-pursued goals backed by an extensive technological infrastructure set up specifically to achieve the goal. In some sense, it didn't matter which person crossed the finish line — a system had been put in place to reach the goal, and somebody was going to be first. If Neil Armstrong hadn't been first on the moon in July 1969, then Pete Conrad probably would have done it in November. If Kipchoge hadn't broken the 2-hour barrier last Saturday, it is almost certain that someone would have done it sometime soon.

Compare that to Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile. He was a total amateur in the traditional sense of the word — he was never paid for running and never had any corporate backing. His primary activity was studying to become a doctor. In the bleak years after World War 2, when food was still being rationed, it was hard to find decent nourishment at all, let alone having it delivered in route. He just wanted to run and have the opportunity to break the record. He quit running a few months later and started his medical career. The photo of Bannister at the finish line is an iconic image of the 20th century. Don't get me wrong, I think the two-hour marathon is significant accomplishment, but sometimes context is important.

This kid has a future in long-distance running. He will likely break some records someday.

What is your wealth number? 10.17.19

From Bloomberg: An engineering way of looking at how wealth is distributed among adults in the world. The scale is logarithmic and wealth is characterized by an integer between -2 and 11. As quoted in the article: "It’s a bit appalling that disparities in wealth have gotten so big that we need logarithms to describe them. But that’s the world we live in."

Ginny Anderson. 10.17.19

A nice tribute to Ginny Anderson, who passed away recently. She was an outstanding person — an unsung hero in our department.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year. 10.16.19

Many great photos from the annual contest sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London. (The navigation on a computer browser is a bit wonky, but if you scroll and click a bit you will find links to "adult" and "young" awards, and from there can access all of the winners. Accessing the photos on a phone is actually simpler.)

Code that changed everything. 10.15.19

This a fun list, and there are some legitimately important entries. But many items here describe either mistakes or viruses, neither of which necessarily "changed everything". (It can be argued that the "mistake" of using null-terminated strings in C gave a pretty serious boost to the livelihood of hackers and spawned the whole cyber-security industry.) A serious omission from the list (IMHO): the Fast Fourier Transform — certainly the single most important algorithm in the EE business.

Goodbye FR-4. 10.15.19

This is for EE 333 students. The headline is a bit click-bait-ish, though — FR-4 for printed circuit boards in not going away anytime soon. But definitely there are better substrates for advanced high-frequency applications or when flexibility is required.

The start of my Christmas wish list. 10.14.19

Who wouldn't want to see Han Solo frozen in carbonite when pulling a roast out of oven? Or to serve up a cobbler in an R2D2 cocotte? The prices are a bit steep, though.

2019 MacArthur Fellows 09.25.19

An eclectic group of people recognized for their inspiring work.

Carson King 09.24.19

Iowa State may have lost to the UofI in football a week ago, but this story shows that Cyclones are always the best. It was a funny bit that turned into a great act of generosity.

Fall equinox 09.23.19

Today is the equinox — now we slide into the sadder half of the year when tlight < tdark. Even without looking at the calendar, the time of the equinox is always quite evident. At dinnertime, we were driving west towards campustown to find something to eat. The sun looked like it was setting directly on Lincoln Way. It was quite spectacular, but driving straight into the setting sun is always a dicey proposition, visibility-wise. This happens twice a year on the equinoxes. Chicago has a similar situation, dubbed Chicagohenge — and they have skyscrapers to make the effect even better.

Here is an old video of some Harvard graduates — supposedly our best and brightest — trying to explain why there are seasons. They all got it wrong. (It probably doesn't matter — I expect that they all became lawyers.) To their credit, they at least knew that it had something to do with the earth revolving around the sun, as opposed to the hilarious explanation put forth by the flat-earth people. Of course, any decent electronics engineer knows that the seasons are due to having too little or too much flux.

Max Frost at the M-shop 09.07.19

Max Frost is performing at the Maintenance Shop in the Union tonight. It should be a good show and tickets are cheap. If you are looking for something to do on a Saturday night, live music is always a good option.

The Comet 09.07.19

Very cool video made using images of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67p) taken by the Rosetta spacecraft a couple of years ago. The short video looks like it could have been part of a current day science fiction movie, but it's not fiction. (via Kottke.)

Nobody understands quantum mechanics. 09.07.19

And apparently no one even wants to. The New York Times is not usually the place to go to read about quantum mechanics. This opinion piece from Sean Carroll (Cal Tech physicist) points out what most scientist acknowledge — no one really understands why quantum mechanics is the way it is. While it is OK that we may not really understand something so fundamental to our modern lives, Carroll laments the fact that so few scientists seem to want to get to the bottom of the mystery. In fact, the establishment actively pushes physicists away from making such inquiries. (It is bad for your career.)

I should probably teach the old EE 439 quantum class again sometime. Trying to teach quantum mechanics is way harder that teaching Kirchoff's Laws, but it is also way more fun!

Where are all the Bob Ross paintings? 07.12.19

Some of Bob Ross' paintings are finally going to be displayed at the Smithsonian. (He claimed it would never happen.) He made over 1000 paintings for his iconic PBS art show, but apparently none of them are for sale. Who would have guessed? This is a fun little video that reveals where are all the paintings are stored and gives a glimpse at some of the people who have been looking out for his legacy. (And apparently making a few bucks in the process.)

If you are too stressed out these days, watching a few Bob Ross videos as he paints some landscapes will definitely help mellow your mood. He is a good antidote to the hectic nonsense pounding on us in these Trump-addled days. It's too bad that B.R. is not still alive — he could run for president. He would be a second-tier TV star that we could all get behind. I'm sure that our lives would be much happier with him as supreme leader.

If you are in need of some chill time, all 400+ episodes of his PBS show "Joy of Painting with Bob Ross" are on a the Bob Ross YouTube channel. If you want some B.R. swag or art supplies, you can visit his store (linked above).

Smile for the cameras. 07.11.19

The surveillance state is coming on strong. Maybe it is already here.

Charlie Warzel talks about the K-12 surveillance state, where schools are employing 100% video coverage and other electronic methods to try to keep students safer. It's not clear that any of this actually works to improve safety, but the companies who sell the tech are pushing hard to deploy it. If nothing else, I suppose it will make our kids accustomed to being constantly observed.

As reported in the Washington Post and the NYTimes, the FBI and ICE are using millions of photos stored in state driver's license databases to employ wide-ranging facial recognition searches in all manner of investigations, including identifying perpetrators of petty crimes and tracking down undocumented people. No driver's licence applicant is told that their mug will being evaluated as part of these searches, no one has been asked to give their consent, and no law enforcement official has obtained a search warrant for this activity. Apparently, it "just happens" because there are no laws or policies constraining it. That may change. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed "displeasure" with this practice of data mining faces — now that they are actually aware of it.

Of course, if you are a totalitarian state, intruding into people's business and surveilling them need not be done clandestinely. Apparently, tourists entering western China are required to hand over their Android phones to authorities, who then install malware that vacuums up most of the data stored on the phone, searching for "subversive" materials. I guess that is one way to cut down on over-tourism.

70 is the new 35. 100 is the new 70. 07.10.19

Two articles about remarkable older people who are still kicking it.

The solar slog. 07.09.19

Solar energy in sunny Florida – it seems like a no-brainer. However, that state's power companies are fighting against the expansion of solar arrays. It's a story as old as time – entrenched interests protecting their positions by blocking new and better ideas. Right now, there is push-back against solar (and other sustainable energy sources) in many states, including Iowa where a bill proposed by Mid-American Energy would have imposed "grid-usage" fees for new solar installations. The bill was passed by the Iowa Senate but was never brought to a vote in the Iowa House. (It will probably be back next year.)

The long-term benefits of solar energy are so obvious that we should be rushing to install solar arrays everywhere possible. Each new house should come with a solar roof and a big battery in the basement. (California already has this requirement – they are always out front.) And there should be stronger incentives to add solar generation to all existing buildings. But instead of racing forward to do things in a better way, it's necessary to fight inch-by-inch against the entrenched powers-that-be.

In "The Sun Also Rises", (which is NOT about solar technology, by the way) Hemingway had a pithy way of describing the pace of change. When one of the story's characters was asked "How did you go bankrupt?", the answer was "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." This succinctly summarizes how many changes come about (not just bankruptcy). I think we will see the same thing with the transition to sustainable energy. Right now, we are moving gradually as technology develops and the old players cling to their old ways of doing things. Then something will happen – another climate-related catastrophe, or a major energy producer changing course and going all-in on solar, or maybe an election – and then change will happen suddenly.

Road Trip! 07.08.19

A century ago, a then-unknown army officer by the name of Dwight Eisenhower went on a road trip with some of his military buddies. They drove a motley collection of army vehicles along the Lincoln "Highway" from New York City to San Francisco. (Highway in quotes because the definition was a bit loose back then – the highway was essentially a random collection of concrete or asphalt or gravel or mud roads linked together on a map. It was decent along some areas and barely passable in others.) A cross-country road trip was a novel idea in 1919. The caravan made the trip in 62 days. Of course, it passed through the center of Iowa, including Ames and Boone, the original home of Dwight's wife, Mamie. The Lincoln Highway later became U.S. Highway 30. Eisenhower's experience on the road trip, (together with his observations of German autobahns during World War II), motivated his desire to improve the basic transportation infrastructure of the U.S. during his time as president. Hence, the interstate highway system. And the entrenchment of our fossil-fuel-powered car culture.

If you are bored this summer and needing something to read, you can try "The Big Roads" by Earl Swift. It's a fun telling of the people and events that brought the U.S. from horse-and-buggy days to the mass highway congestion that we have now. An ISU engineer – Thomas MacDonald, trained by Anston Marston himself – played a big part in the story.

Digital vs. Analog. 04.09.19

Except this time referring an analog lifestyle vs a digital (i.e. social media based) one. More anecdotal evidence about how social media screws us up and how getting rid of (at least some of) it is beneficial.

Op amps running off a single battery. 04.09.19

Interesting – and timely – article from Paul Rako in Electronic Design about op amps that will work off a single 1-V power supply, basically a single nearly-depleted alkaline battery. Whatever crazy low-power application you might have, there is probably an op amp that suits your needs.

A man with his cat on his back. 04.09.19

When going on an adventure, it is always best to travel with a friend.

Audio club meeting tonight. 03.28.19

8:00 p.m. in 1011 Coover. We are looking at the sub designed for the club by Nick Wilson. I've built a prototype, and we are going to check it out.

Mansionair is playing at the M-Shop on Sunday. 03.28.19

Mansionair is making a stop as they trek west towards Coachella. It seems that there are tickets still available. It's a chance to hear a great band in a very cozy setting.

Families switched from coal and oil jobs to renewable energy jobs. 03.28.19

“It’s not ideology. It’s just math.” Coal (and eventually oil) jobs are disappearing. People are making the simple economic decision to go where the jobs are. Increasingly, that means working for companies involved in sustainable energy.

Copenhagen heads toward sustainability. 03.25.19

The city plans to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Car ownership a thing of the past? 03.25.19

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

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

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

Rick Steves. 03.25.19

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

The light bulb revolution continues. 03.25.19

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

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

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

It's Spring! 03.20.19

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

Best city living. 03.20.19

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

Here is the complete list.

iPhone prototype board. 03.20.19

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

Questions for Facebook and YouTube. 03.19.19

Charlie Warzel in the NYTimes:

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

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

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

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

The New Canon. 03.19.19

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

140% acceptance rate. 03.18.19

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

Boeing CEO. 03.18.19

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

Breaking news: All hipsters really do look alike. 03.16.19

They can't even recognize themselves.

Does it matter where you go to school? 03.15.19

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

SLICE the Celestial Aerospace Engineer. 03.15.19

Hip-hop Aerospace lectures.

Happy π day! 03.14.19

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

52 Places to Go in 2019. 02.24.19

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

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

Two Brady Feigls. 02.24.19

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

Growing solar cells down on the farm. 02.24.19

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

Electric cars - not that new. 02.24.19

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

Vertex Software. 02.23.19

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

Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. 02.23.19

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

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

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

Young the Giant. 02.17.19

They were in concert in Des Moines on Saturday.

Sucking CO2 from the air. 02.12.19

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

Best state ‐ Iowa? 02.12.19

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

The five hottest years = the last five years 02.11.19

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

Beware the vortex 01.30.19

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

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

One trillion semiconductor devices sold in 2018 01.28.19

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

Ice disk treadmill. 01.16.19

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

Molasses tsunami. 01.15.19

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

Best Trump-speech-related tweet 01.08.19

From Stuart Stevens:

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

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

Random facts. 01.05.19

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

A setback for the garbage collector. 01.05.19

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

Ermergerd! Apple is doomed! 01.04.19

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

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

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

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

Chessboxing – WTF? 01.04.19

Is this an Onion article?

Keep laughing. 01.04.19

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

2018 photos. 01.03.19

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

Half the world is empty. 01.02.19

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

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

The PCB is a component itself. 01.02.19

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