Monday, September 28, 2015


Working in engineering, as a programmer, then academic has a few narrowly defined benefits.

I just might be returning to all three of them with an ongoing project to design some meaningful kits for learning digital basics for CS students. Building boards licensed as "Open Hardware" would make sense, and better yet if combined with Creative Commons textbooks and other learning materials. I'm finding that the concepts are not as complex as the textbooks imply, and finding a way to demonstrate these clearly isn't simple.

But aside from LittleBits or Arduino, there aren't many attempts out there. LittleBits doesn't go down to the component level, and Arduino requires way too much wiring. Why not build a common interface between similar kinds of integrated circuits, and not bother with the learner wiring up power, ground, and trying to match the pin numbering scheme against the logical output coherently.

I don't quite get the difference between a latch and a flip-flop, other than a rough description. So I'm the first customer, I guess. At least not experienced enough to choose between them. That's just practice, preferably with a kit like the one I'm working on...

What it isn't.

I've changed schools and have apparently fallen off the tenure track wagon again.  That's 4 schools as an adjunct, now 3 of which as FT faculty of some sort. Which makes me either a drifter or an academic (which is essentially a drifter with a PhD and a couple of publications nobody will ever read.) So there's the experience of being a PT adjunct and FT student, being a FT adjunct and working on a dissertation, a FT faculty who adjuncts PT while working on a dissertation, being just FT faculty with no dissertation.  I've decided not to contemplate any remaining scenarios. I've reached a point in my career where I've taught college courses for as many years as I worked as a programmer. So, there's that.

There are the observations of both being an adjunct, being tenure-track, and being non-tenure track full time. In a field other than Computer Science or another STEM field, I wouldn't bother. Getting a single tenure track job is hard enough for some STEM, not to mention non-STEM fields. But its a matter of working in what is considered a highly employable field while colleges everywhere are on increasingly shaky ground. I just don't have the stomach for those kinds of risks these days.

That makes 3 different careers since undergraduate college, counting a couple of years doing technician work and printed circuit board design way back in the 90s living in Southern California. Common wisdom holds that it takes almost 10 years to become an "expert" in a field, after which there are some decisions to be made. I've subjectively verified the well-known observation that academia and industry really don't understand each other, nor really care to. Both sides have their own versions of anti-intellectualism that is frustrating to watch.

It's too early on a Monday to even begin the discussions about "computer science" versus "information technology" in either side of that debate. But the story of my experience is in justifying doing things "on the computer" to a reluctant or even hostile audience when it's cheaper/easier to just do the job once or twice "without the computer". For better or worse, I never believe it's "just this one time" and cost things out into the dozens or hundreds. Innately, I believe in buildings things once correctly and walking away, even though not always being able to deliver on that vision.

I don't like the way STEM subjects are often presented- mostly textual material written at a grade level far higher than the topics covered would otherwise require. But, writing PhD level works to be read by undergrads is hardly new, but it does explain a few things. They're full of these misunderstandings, once you get past the Grade 14+ reading levels. It's the obscurity of the discussions in these works that hides the underlying confusion about what is and what isn't CS. But, I just think of it more as engineering than "science", though it then leads to discussions about where the real "engineering" part is explicitly covered.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Adaptive Release

A feature in both Blackboard and Moodle LMS is "adaptive release". It appears to allow some content to open up only after something else is completed (like taking a quiz only after the assignment is turned in and graded). I've done a lot of reading on the topic-- the idea is fairly strightforward, but making it work on a real-world course is a bit more difficult. It would help if there were tools available to make it easier, aside from having to hand-code or generate XML files for it to work. I was an actual programmer for a while, and even that is too much effort when it's in the way of a more urgent task of setting up a course.

Basically, it's like the technology tree in Civilization, but not so clearly defined.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Blackboard revisited, 2015 edition

Despite some of my earlier complaints about Blackboard, most of my earlier gripes have been resolved sometime between 2007 and 2015. After 3 years of using Moodle, there are definite tradeoffs still, but far less important. The Content Creator tool seems to address the content management complaints I used to have, though I haven't quite got it working the way I'd want. It'll probably take more than a couple of days to learn what I need.

So far, not bad. I just wish it had a low bandwidth version so the interface wouldn't be just a little too slow. Congrats Blackboard for fixing what was broke... :)

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.