Monday, September 08, 2014

Not all typing is Computer Science

Monday morning, confronted with the reality over the weekend that an excessive number of my waking hours have been work-related. I guess I could retort to the last batch of comments about "summers off" with "weekends off?" but it's hardly the point. While working on STEM-related recruitment, I'm running into more confusion about what it is we do, over in Computer Science.

It's not all robots and games, though they have their place. Having said that, I'm trying to figure out how to hack some motors and wheels to the bottom of an Arduino board I have at home and interact with one of the languages I teach. All in the name of making the class more interactive. Which is just as much for my benefit as the class- or perhaps more so, since keeping up to date with hardware and Internet of Things stuff is key for this field right now.

So there are a couple of projects that just might fit in, though I have not evaluated them yet. One is a Java runtime for Lego robots, the other, a Java framework for Arduino. Either way, it's some testing to make sure they actually work, and then figuring out how to incorporate it into class- especially when there are 10+ students and I've got 2 of these things at home.

"Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." - attributed to Dijkstra

At some point, it's necessary to build things. The theory has to be built in, or else it's just a bunch of fumbling around and trial and error. We don't need any more of that.

The fascinating thing is that computing is a tool that can build other tools to help us work more productively. Not everybody who wants to live indoors should be an architect, or even a carpenter. Specialized skills are just more efficient. Widespread computing literacy is a lot more important than everybody learning how to "code". Whatever we agree literacy to mean, it's going to be very domain specific- can you use information tools to process information more efficiently for your tasks at hand. Maybe learning how to use these tools will help you learn to do things better. They're intended to be extensions to our intelligence, best case. Though it's easy to forget that while trying to find out why fonts keep changing in your word processing program, much less the thing helping you organize writing more efficiently or even help generate ideas...

Friday, September 05, 2014

Nothing but the rain

With the second week of classes drawing to a close today, the waning days of summer have been nearly forgotten. The cliche of riding a bike comes to mind- it just becomes automatic to a point. The routinization of much of any job is essential to performing the rest of it effectively- the trick I suspect is finding the balance between the mechanics of a job and the performance of one.

I do not miss the endless comments about "summers off" while working 1/2 to 3/4 FTE during the expanse of unpaid time. Essentially your 9 or 10 month paycheck is spread out over 12 in Higher Ed. In the days of yore, I suppose those extra 2-3 months were free to use for running the farm and harvesting crops, but now it's all but mandatory to spend it in course preparation, research, and the sundry administrative tasks scattered between May and August.  But with a cold summer of scattered rain showers, it proved a bit more productive than expected.

College STEM teaching is a bit more involved than clicking Powerpoint and knowing which end of the whiteboard marker is the writey part- courses need extensive revision even from year to year. But in an era when opinion has become synonymous with fact and Cut and Paste off of Google searches is conflated with learning, that reality is going to be a tougher sell. Oddly, I remember an old interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger, where he states that ego is one thing, the cold reality of facing weights on a bench press is another. There's something to be said with seeing a problem, determining some requirements, and sitting down to a blank screen to solve the problem. And some problems are only seen when you know how to identify them. How to teach an easier path through hard-fought experience remains an ongoing problem, but not one that the stereotypes about my occupation will solve.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why Making Things is Difficult

Taking apart old electronics after a while gives you some appreciation of how complex these systems are. If you don't have the right tools, disassembling these things is a little more permanent than you might wish. But things like CD ROM readers from the 90s aren't exactly an investment to preserve, so why not. And a little curiosity makes it far more interesting.

CD ROMs are largely plastic enclosures that embed gears as well as fixtures for holding wires, motors, and other parts. At the heart, there's a laser, an optical sensor, and a weird motor that is difficult to control but extremely efficient. I found the most useful information about these from an Australian RC Plane hobby board. They have detailed plans how to disassemble some of these motors and rewire them, to make them easier to control for a remote control toy plane. The electronics discussions are a little sketchy, to the point where I've started wondering if there are electrical engineers on the Web anymore.

Having some of the skills makes these projects seem easier. If you count it out, the range of skills is much wider than you'd expect, and depth in each varies quite a bit. Here's a short list that comes to mind-
  • programming in a C-based language (if you have an embedded controller like an Arduino)
  • Some electronics
  • Some mechanics
  • Some CAD for printing a circuit board (for finished projects) or just a well though out design for creating the circuit more permanently.
  • Some CAD for designing the 3D printer files to make the shell out of plastic, or the ability to machine this stuff from your material of choice.
  • The problem domain you're working in. If it's a quad copter it's some aerodynamics. If it's a plotter of sorts, it's also going to involve a lot of gear sets and geometry.
It's hard (I think) when you have some of the needed skills, but don't even know what other skills are needed to make these projects work. So how to work in this kind of environment? Some ideas, though I'd like to find out about alternatives-
  1. go to an outstanding STEM school
  2. Be around people who are good at this stuff
  3. Access to tools and materials for hands-on work with this stuff, some of which is fairly expensive
  4. Have a place to experiment with this stuff
Others? So what happens when you don't have a good STEM program, and don't have personal contact with people proficient in these areas, and don't have some expensive equipment and materials around to help learn this?  At the moment, you're out of luck. Something tells me this is a terrible situation that can be readily fixed, if there is some money and care for solving the problem of unequal access to these critical skills across cultural and economic lines. Money that would be a fairly cheap fix compared to the alternatives of persisting and even expanding these divides.

After years of addressing the "Digital Divide" by sending computers to schools, I think we missed the real point. I don't have a solution, but just a growing awareness of what doesn't seem to work no matter how many resources are misdirected at solving the wrong problem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Making things

After getting an Arduino and doing relatively little with it over the past couple of years, I've spent a bit more time trying to figure out what to do with it.

I've eased into a few Maker type projects of late, especially after graduation. Some has involved salvaging parts from old computer drives, motherboards and the like. Aside from blinking lights and controlling speeds on old CD ROM motors, no robots have been created.

Building things out of wood pallets has been more  constructive, even if the projects are workbenches and wood racks for taking apart more pallets.

At some point, building a work area for salvaging parts should be used to actually build things. But the electromechanics of CD drives in particular has been interesting, and it may take time to figure out what to do with them.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Trying out the Mobile app

Given the long lapses in this blog, it seemed like a good idea to try the Android app for Blogger. Blogger is starting to feel like the hotmail of dear diary providers, but somehow I don't have the supply of animated GIFs that a Tumblr account needs for respectability.

So far it seems to work as well as the Android onscreen keyboard and swipe interface allows.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I graduated.

I graduated, finally, almost ten years after starting the PhD program. Ten Years.

The life thing got in the way, or perhaps the other way around. Looking back at a post from 5 years ago, I'd have never guessed how things would have turned out. Well, most people can't, so it's a bit trivial to dwell on. I'm not going to field advice about how to graduate from a PhD program quickly, being better suited these days to be a cautionary tale for others.

But it's over, grading for the semester is just about done, and I have 10 weeks ahead with fewer overarching demands on me. Just the task of recovering, repairing, and moving forward. And I have a stack of articles to go through for some research topics I've had on the back burner for a couple of years.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Reclaimed things

One of my stress relievers of the past few months has been in woodworking. Given that Wood Shop was possibly my least favorite part of Middle School, it has suddenly begun to serve a purpose in my life. Owning an old house affords many opportunities to dabble in carpentry, but all of it has always seemed like a chore. Even some earlier building projects, making shelves, seemed a bit pointless in that the materials needed seemed to cost nearly as much as a low-end bookshelf of equivalent quality, given my limited number of mostly hand tools. 

I had little in terms of power tools, save for a cordless drill, cordless screwdriver and an old jigsaw I inherited. These are no longer the days when power tools are stamped out of sheet metal, far more likely to catch on fire than to ever break under anything short of a steamroller.  

Materials also proved to be expensive given the number of mistakes made with limited experience and limited tools. I'm certain my old shop teacher could have made fine furniture with my hand saw and power drill, but these tools serve to merely magnify my lack of skill. So I jumped on the hipster / Maker bandwagon and started using wooden shipping pallets for raw materials. After all, throwing away a growing pile of cutting mistakes is a lot less annoying when the wood was free.

Finding pallets is easy. Finding pallets that are not disgusting is not so easy. If you ask manufacturing companies if you can take the clean pallets that expensive equipment is shipped with, that they would otherwise have to dispose of by the pound, they're often more than happy to get rid of them. 

Taking them apart is either frustrating and irritating, or a pretty good way to blow off some stress. I've found that a combination of crowbar, rubber mallet, and reciprocating saw work pretty well. Especially on those special days when there are few other socially acceptable outlets for men to express certain feelings, a rubber mallet works wonders. 

Post-divorce doesn't exactly result in a lot of cash lying around, so free fits the budget pretty well. Cashing out some old junk around the house and freeing the bad juju of the old wedding rings resulted in a reciprocating saw and a miter saw. Once these are reunited with my table saw that I loaned out and never used, there will be some real projects to play with.

So, the result so far from playing with pallets has been three work benches, a table, a bench, and some retaining walls for the garden we're planting this year. I'm likely to tear apart and rebuild the workbenches. The little pallet table has been a learning experience, which I'm not likel.y to bother rebuilding. It's become a workbench for small electronics at work, a place to tear apart old electronics and salvage components of interest before sending the rest to recycling. 

Parts of old hard drives, CD ROM readers, remote control cars, helicopters, cables, and other electrical components spread over the pallet table in my office.  A few VHS Cassette cases serve as organizers for the collection of parts yielded, and there are enough to start working again on the Arduino stuff, to run motors, lights, and read switches and buttons. On the drawing board are some projects, maybe a little car or even a crude drone this summer. But with the dissertation behind me, it feels like life itself has been reclaimed on some level.