Monday, August 10, 2015

Making math

With a summer nearly over and a new semester at a new school in sight, some reflection on the academic year past is in order. It was my 20th semester teaching.

So very little programming but a brand new challenge of learning electronics and learning how to teach it seemed in order. It was a welcome departure from over two years of rearranging deck chairs, bailing out when it became oppressively clear where things were heading. 

I assumed that attempting to learn or relearn a complex and difficult topic would clarify the difficulties students faced in the semesters ahead. Or so the idea went. The catch is that I'd already done some work in the field in the 90s, so it seemed impossible to pretend to start with s clean slate. But there are plenty of potential problems and errors in the field to level the field a bit, so not such a head start after all.

The initial goals were something like a weather sensor, quadcopter, wheeled robot, something. But the theory was more interesting than following some kit instructions. The problems with educational "learning kits" struck me as too many steps, too many chances of errors, and learning outcomes that were very vague. Wiring from a list of connections isn't very educational. But it has the saving grace of being interactive, and sometimes relatable. Kits generally suck at teaching fundamentals.

After a bit digging through electronics documentation and accumulating piles of integrated circuits, I think I could work through basic arithmetic with integers implemented in logic chips. Add, subtract, multiply and divide. Almost all of that understanding is finally finding the right example circuits and articles to extract  and reassemble.

But there's still some time left this summer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mouse hacking fun

Just a little fun on tearing apart an old computer mouse. What's  recoverable? Switches and infrared LED sender with receiver. Am going to guess they're photosensitive transistors, mostly because I see 3 pins from it. Which is good, because I keep burning them out, or did before understanding how/why to use a resistor with them.

A couple of old mice

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Scattered Notes and Making Things

The adventure of playing with Arduino-class devices continues. I've gradually compiled a few questions and observations, but the most pointed is the income and education levels assumed in these projects. It's either look at the picture to see where the parts and wires go (depending on camera angle, lighting, and color depth) and trying to replicate it, or else deal with volumes of text-heavy explanations that would seem to require a strong technical background and a collegiate reading level.

The community seems to be a bit insular- if you can't read an electrical schematic or follow the dense textual discussions, you can't play in the clubhouse. In other words, if you're not like us, you can't join our club. I've lived in academia teaching full time for almost 8 years and part time teaching for 3 years earlier, and worked in industry for a decade before PhD life and academia. They're parallel universes in many respects.

Really, this isn't working well.  This seems to be geared to people who pretty much have the skillsets needed, and just needed a cookbook of sorts to assemble the ingredients. Where there are shelves of books on various programming languages, there are a handful of volumes on electronics design, mostly at a post-secondary level. Either it's too hard to learn for the average person, or it's currently too hard to teach to the average person. In the latter case, it's an issue of building on a shaky foundation of other skills. Or programming is just so much easier relative to the skill sets than electronics or other engineering.

Given that the programmers on the internet seem to be the best at explaining programming, cooking, and photographing food, kittens, and artisanal toast, it's quite possible that the mechanism of the internet self-selects who makes most of the content, and it appears that it's not the engineers. Let's face it, maker stuff isn't really science so much as an active PayPal account, quality time with a screwdriver, and some code. The STEAM side is more like TEA.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Transistor fun

So to take a break in lecture I tossed out a quick question about transistors. One meekly advanced comment was "they're like switches sort of?". Well, yeah. most students could graduate from college with a Comp Sci degree without ever seeing one. Well, sure. They make up Boolean logic, the ANDs, ORs, but probably not buts that one encounters in the Information Technology field.

One image was an AND gate, another of an OR gate from 2N2222 transistors, the model that's practically free. I got 50 for $1, ebay by way of China. Great deals if you don't mind waiting a month, and by the time they arrive, I've forgotten I've ordered them.  The most expensive parts are the pushbuttons to represent inbound signals. You know, the one thing we still make in this country.

I don't have the time or energy right now to write this up into a coherent lab. I'll just bring a handful of 2N2222 transistors, wires, and 10K resistors just in case that changes in the morning or they're sufficiently determined to play with wires instead of me talking about the history of programming.

Also, I put together a 3-component IR detector: photo transistor, LED, and resistor to keep the LED from burning out. And a battery pack. It's way too much fun to point a remote control at it and push buttons to make the LED flash from across the room.

I definitely need more sleep and less coffee.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Spring Broke

I just noticed that my Spring Break officially ends tomorrow. I also just noticed it started 4 days ago. (I'm not going to count weekends, since I'm convinced weekends are just an urban myth).

One day, you realize the running count of dollars per day until the next payday is painfully low, then the next, you get your tax refund much earlier than expected, with the means to buy some more stability and cushioning against the next emergencies. And maybe better planning around periodic difficulties before they turn into emergencies.

One day, you start to think life has settled down just a little. The next day, you're standing in a foot of snow in the woods at sundown, frantically following footprints in the snow and unsure if they lead to your child in crisis, or whether your child stayed on the road you were following, and is back safe. When there are two paths in the road, I'm both willing and condemned to follow the less traveled one.

In a moment, life changes, and suddenly you realize that somewhere back, you took a wrong turn. Google Maps on my phone does a great job of putting me back on track. Not so easy for offline life.

There's the moment when you realize that the bad in your life does far more to harm those around you than the good in your life does to help others.  Sorry, life is asymmetrical and badly skewed, and hoping that the good you do will somehow outweigh the bad looks more and more to be just a poor excuse to avoid hard truths.

Sometimes I wonder if following the proverbial well-trodden path is safety or stagnation.  I guess it's how downside risk is evaluated and awareness of a life without crises and emergencies. Life is what we make of it, I'm reminded.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Content and Pandoc Fun

I noticed in my sporadic postings here that one topic has not been followed up, dealing with content and authoring. I've settled on using Geany and Pandoc for a lot of content, and Fossil for version control, to-do items (using Bug Tracker) and their Wiki.  It means having to slowly learn some syntax, but this system is somewhat intuitive for a programmer since many of the same tools can be reused.  Of course, Pandoc is mostly command-line driven with no current end user application in sight. Sure you can learn/use Emacs, but falling down that rabbit hole is not on the immediate agenda. Let's get one workflow going before implementing a far more complex one...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

End of break is nigh

What they call "winter break" is rapidly ending with the traditional end-of-break cold.  But a good time to catch up on reading, or at least some bad TV.  Diving into some electronics projects, CAD, and 3D printing has been refreshing, since it's been a while since starting something different from the usual.

When the day started with trying to unclog the dishwasher, this isn't so bad. Or at least watching Netflix documentaries is preferable to bailing out 3 gallons of cold filthy water from the bottom of the dishwasher. The syllabi revisions can wait until tomorrow.