Project-based learning, hackathons, and final projects for college courses are fulfilling a demand for hands-on technical learning that had previously fallen by the wayside during the internet/multi-media computer euphoria of the late 90’s. By getting back to building actual hardware yourself, Hackers are influencing the direction of education. In this post we will review some of this progress and seek your input for where we go next.
Sometimes it’s fun to take a step back from the normal electronics themes and feature a marvelous engineering project. This week’s Retrotechtacular looks at a pair of videos reporting on the progress of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Anyone who’s visited San Francisco will be familiar with the BART system of trains that serve the region. Let’s take a look at what went into building the system almost half a century ago.
We’re big fans of [Bill Hammack], aka the Engineer Guy. His series of engineering videos dredge up pleasant memories of watching Mr. Wizard but spin to the adult science enthusiast. The most resent season (he calls it series #4) scratches the surface of the topics covered in his book Eight Amazing Engineering Stories, which was written with fellow authors [Patrick Ryan] and [Nick Ziech]. They provided us with a complimentary digital copy of the book to use for this review.
The conversational style found in the videos translates perfectly to the book, but as with comparing a novel to a movie, the written word allows for much more depth. For instance, we loved learning about how Apple uses anodization to dye the aluminum used for iPod cases. The same presentation style makes the topic easily understandable for anyone who took some chemistry and math in High School. But primers a sidebars offer an optional trip through the looking-glass, explaining the history behind the process, how it compares to natural materials, and what trade-offs are made in choosing this process.
Some of the other topics included are how CCD camera sensors, lead-acid batteries, mems accelerometers, and atomic clocks work. As the book progresses through all eight topics general concepts the complexity of the items being explained advances quickly. By the seventh story — which covers the magentron in a microwave oven — we’d bet the concepts challenge most readers’ cognition. But we still enjoyed every page. The book would make a great pool-side read. It would make a great graduation gift (too bad we missed that time of year) but keep it in mind for any science minded friends or relatives. You can see [Bill’s] own description of the book and all its formats in the clip after the break.
TLDR: Buy it or give it as a gift
[Tiller Beauchamp] gave a presentation on applied reverse engineering in OS X at this year’s REcon, but he also attended many of the other talks and gives his take on the highlights of REcon 2008 in a guest post on the ZDNet blog, Zero Day.
One of the highlights for him was Neohapsis’s [Chris Smith] discussing virtual machines implementing code obfuscation. The method uses custom instructions and runtime interpreter, which can help make the task of reverse engineering markedly more difficult if implemented properly.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, [Beauchamp] noted [Gerardo Richarte]’s software reverse engineering tools that decompile and recompile software in iterative portions. This allows the recompiled software to be tested piece by piece. Be sure to read his post and see what you missed.
[Mahavir] sent in his group’s final project for the College of Engineering in Pune (it’s over here). They built an accelerometer based Bluetooth mouse. They ended up creating a mouse that maps rotational movements to x/y motion. From the video movement, it strikes us as responding the same way that touch pointer mice do. You can hit the demo video after the break or get more details from the project page. Even if you’re not into the mouse idea, you can probably learn something from their Bluetooth implementation.
As purveyors of a fine hacks, we often get pitched on what are generally considered very bad ideas. Luckily, most of these ideas die on the drawing board due to a lack of time and energy or maybe having a shred of moral accountability. There’s nothing that government funding can’t fix though. Popular Science has put together a gallery of The World’s Spookiest Weapons. It’s a who’s who of real and speculative engineering that could lead to our eventual destruction. Opening with the atomic bomb, it moves quickly into more bizarre territory, everything from heat rays, to rail guns, to gassing people with elephant tranquilizers. Our personal favorite is The Rods from God. Imagine getting smote by a precisely targeted metal power pole dropped from space that has accelerated to 36,000 feet per second thanks solely to gravity. What a wondrous world we live in.