Cover Your Glass: A Lesson in Design Trades

Penn and Teller once had a show about “What is the best?” Engineers know that’s not a complete question. Think about a car. What makes the “best” car? It depends on why you want a car. For a race car driver, it might be that speed is the most important factor. A mom might value safety. Someone who commutes four hours a day might like a car that’s comfortable. A teenager wants something affordable.

If you think about it, though, it is even more complicated than that. For example, just about everyone wants a car that is safe. Reliability is pretty important, too. So the reality is, most people want a car that has multiple attributes. Worse still, they sometimes conflict; making one better will make some other ones worse. Mom wants a safe car, but not one that takes half a day to drive to the corner market. Nor does she want to pay a half million dollars for a safe car.

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The Internet of Broken Things (or, Why am I so Cold?)

Although the Internet of Things (IoT) is a reasonably new term, the idea isn’t really all that new. Many engineers and hackers have created networked embedded systems for many years. So what’s different? Two things: the Internet is everywhere and the use of connected embedded systems in a consumer setting.

The Philips Hue light bulb
The Philips Hue light bulb

Like anything else, there’s a spectrum of usefulness to IoT. Watching The Expanse, the other day (which is not a bad show, by the way), I noticed that if you had the right IoT lights, you could run an app that would change your lighting to suit the show in real-time. I don’t have those lights, but I suppose when the action moves to a dark sub-basement, your lights dim and when you are in a space ship’s reactor room, they turn red, and so on. Fun, but hardly useful or life-changing.

On the other hand, there are some very practical IoT items like the Nest thermostat. It might seem lazy to want to monitor and control your thermostat from your tablet, but if you are frequently away from home, or you have multiple houses, it can be a real positive to be able to control things remotely. With the recent blizzard on the U.S. east coast, for example, it would be great to turn on the heat in your weekend cottage 150 miles away while you were still at work or home. However, the Nest recently had a hiccup during an upgrade and it has made many of their customers mad (and cold). I’ll get back to that, in a minute. First, I want to talk about the problems with deploying something that will be in many varied environments (like people’s homes) that controls something real.

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Devilishly Advocative: Microsoft Heats Ocean; Builds Skynet’s Safe Haven

Have you heard that Microsoft is testing underwater data centers? On the surface (well, actually on the ocean floor) it’s not a bad idea. Project Natick seals a node of servers in a steel pipe for an undersea adventure planned for at least 10 years. The primary reason is to utilize cold ocean temperatures to keep the machines cool as they crunch through your incessant Candy Crush Saga sessions.

microsoft-project-natick-squarePassive cooling is wonderful, and really drops the energy footprint of a data center, albeit a very small one which is being tested. Scaled up, I can think of another big impact: property taxes. Does anyone know what the law says about dropping a pod in the ocean? As far as I can tell, laying undersea cabling is expensive, but once installed there are no landlords holding out their hands for a monthly extraction. Rent aside, taking up space with windowless buildings sucking huge amounts of electricity isn’t going to win hearts and minds of the neighborhood. Undersea real estate make sense there too.

But it’s fun to play Devil’s Advocate, and this one immediately raised my eyebrow. I read as much Sci Fi as time allows, and am always interested to see which authors are registering the best technology predictions. This is the second time in short order that I turn to [William Hertling’s] work. Back in November, Google announced a project to add predictive responses to Gmail. This parallels the premise of [Hertling’s] Singularity Series which begins with Avogadro Corp. Another major point in that novel is the use of offshore data centers.

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The Price of Space

Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.

We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.

This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.

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Warbots: Is it Already Too Late?

In 1971, a non-profit formed that holds the World Economic Forum each year. The Forum claims it “Engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” This year, the Forum hosted a session: What If: Robots Go To War? Participants included a computer science professor, an electrical engineering professor, the chairman of BAE, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, and a Time magazine editor.

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Kids and Hacking: Electromagnetic Eggs

One of my favorite things to do is visit with school kids who are interested in engineering or science. However, realistically, there is a limit to what you can do in a single class that might last 30 to 90 minutes. I recently had the chance to work with a former colleague, a schoolteacher, and The Teaching Channel to create an engineering unit for classroom use that lasts two weeks.

This new unit focuses on an egg drop. That’s not an original idea, but we did add an interesting twist: the project develops a “space capsule” to protect the egg, but also an electromagnetic drop system to test the capsules. The drop system allows for a consistent test with the egg capsule releasing cleanly from a fixed height. So in addition to the classic egg drop capsule, the kids have to build an electromagnet, a safe switching circuit, and a test structure. Better still, teams of kids can do different parts and integrate them into a final product, closely mimicking how real engineering projects work.

There are a few reasons for the complexity. First, given ten class sessions, you can do a lot more than you can in a single day. Second, I always think it is good if you can find exercises that will appeal to lots of different interests. In the past, I’ve used robots and 3D printers for that reason. Some students will be interested in the electronics, others in the mechanics, and still others will be interested in the programming. Some kids will engage in 3D modeling (robot simulation or 3D objects). The point is there is something for everyone.

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Hacking Online Reviews

For this post, I want to return the word hacking to its nefarious definition. We prefer the kinder definition of a hacker as someone who creates or modifies things to fit some purpose or to improve its function. But a hacker can also be someone who breaks into computer systems or steals phone service or breaks encryption.

There are some “hacker battlefields” that are very visible. Protecting credit card numbers from hackers is a good example. But there are some subtle ones that many people don’t notice. For example, the battle for online reviews. You know, like on Amazon when you rate the soldering iron you bought and leave a note about how it works. That might seem like a strange place for hacking until you stop and think about why people do bad hacking.

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