Hackaday Links: June 21, 2020

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When Lego introduced its Mindstorms line in 1998, in a lot of ways it was like a gateway drug into the world of STEM, even though that term wouldn’t be invented for another couple of years. Children and the obsolete children who begat them drooled over the possibility of combining the Lego building system with motors, sensors, and a real computer that was far and away beyond anything that was available at the time. Mindstorms became hugely influential in the early maker scene and was slowly but steadily updated over the decades, culminating with the recently released Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit. In the thirteen years since the last release, a lot has changed in the market, and we Hackaday scribes had a discussion this week about the continued relevancy of Mindstorms in a time when cheap servos, microcontrollers, and a bewildering array of sensors can be had for pennies. We wonder what the readers think: is a kit that burns a $360 hole in your pocket still worth it? Sound off below.

Are you looking for a way to productively fill some spare time? Plenty of people are these days, and Hackaday has quite a deal for them: Hackaday U! This series of online courses will get you up to speed on a wide range of topics, starting tomorrow with Matthew Alt’s course on reverse engineering with Ghidra. Classes meet online once a week for four weeks, with virtual office hours to help you master the topic. Beside reverse engineering, you can learn about KiCad and FreeCad, quantum computing, real-time processing of audio and sensor data, and later in the year, basic circuit theory. We’ve got other courses lined up to fill out the year, but don’t wait — sign up now! Oh, and the best part? It’s on a pay-as-you-wish basis, with all proceeds going to charity. Get smarter, help others while doing it — what’s not to love about that?

Speaking of virtual learning, the GNU Radio Conference will be moving online for its 10th anniversary year. And while it’s good news that this and other cons have been able to retool and continue their mission of educating and growing this community, it’s still a bummer that there won’t be a chance to network and participate in all the fun events such cons offer. Or perhaps there will — it seems like the Wireless Capture the Flag (CTF) event is still going to happen. Billed as “an immersive plot-driven … competition featuring the GNU Radio framework and many other open-source tools, satellite communications, cryptography, and surreal global landscapes,” it certainly sounds like fun. We’d love to find out exactly how this CTF competition will work.

Everyone needs a way to unwind, and sometimes the best way to do that is to throw yourself into a project of such intricacy and delicate work that you’re forced into an almost meditative state by it. We’ve seen beautiful examples of that with the wonderful circuit sculptures of Mohit Bhoite and Jiří Praus, but here’s something that almost defies belief: a painstakingly detailed diorama of a vintage IBM data center. Created by the aptly named [minatua], each piece of this sculpture is a work of art in its own right and represents the “big iron” of the 1400 series of computers from the early 1960s. The level of detail is phenomenal — the green and white striped fanfold paper coming out of the 1403 line printer has tiny characters printed on it, and on the 729 tape drives, the reels spin and the lights flash. It’s incredible, all the more so because there don’t appear to be any 3D-printed parts — everything is scratch built from raw materials. Check it out.

As you can imagine, the Hackaday tip line attracts a fair number of ideas of the scientifically marginal variety. Although we’re not too fond of spammers, we try to be kind to everyone who bothers to send us a tip, but with a skeptical eye when terms like “free energy” come across. Still, we found this video touting to Nikola Tesla’s free energy secrets worth passing on. It’s just how we roll.

And finally, aside from being the first full day of summer, today is Father’s Day. We just want to say Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, both those that inspired and guided us as we were growing up, and those who are currently passing the torch to the next generation. It’s not easy to do sometimes, but tackling a project with a kid is immensely important work, and hats off to all the dads who make the time for it.


19 thoughts on “Hackaday Links: June 21, 2020

  1. THe LEGO materials are still of great value. The only thing that ever came close was Fischer-Technik, and that was priced even higher. Which is why I would say that the LEGO is obsoleting (is that a word? English….) Individuals can’t really afford it, unless they are pretty far up the economic scale, and school budgets are shrinking, even without considering the present situation and it’s effect on tax revenue.

    I know that in many places it seems school spending is climbing, but in most of the US, even where the numbers grow, relative to most economic measures they fall. It is similar in many other prosperous parts of the world. (I currently reside in the northeast US, and over the last ten years, public ed budgets in my state have grown at roughly half the cost-of-living index, and teacher salaries have grown less than that. Makes it tough to attract good talent, when a masters degree is required in most cases, and the salary is in the bottom quartile for the region)

    I would say that hearing from some of the early developers would be nice. I was in grad school near Boston when early development was being done and had some exposure during the early Lego Logo days via Judah Schwartz and Fred Martin. I think both are still kicking around and I would like to hear their input.

  2. Regarding invention of the term STEM, I’ve found references in google books including the phrase science technology engineering and mathematics back to 1982. I’m too tired to see if the acronym dates back that far.

    If anyone can find the acronym back that far, please share!

  3. I’d say the Lego Mindstorm sets have always been far too expensive if the goal was ever education. It was far out of my price range when I was first getting into electronics many years ago. Instead I started off with Arduinos and imported sensors, motors, etc. To be honest, I’m rather glad I did. When I did finally get to touch some Lego Mindstorm kits at a school where I was working, I felt like it was a crappier version of everything that I had been playing with for years. They’re easy to assemble for sure, just push the blocks together and run some RJ-whatever wire. More or less what I had always been doing minus the added fun of soldering. The Scratch like programming also turned me off as it has always felt too restrictive and dumbed down for my liking. I can imagine that if I had ever gotten a Mindstorm set instead of starting with raw electronics, I might be further behind my current abilities, and might have gotten bored and stunted myself for many years to come. I’m not a fan.

  4. The advantage lego has over a cheap MCUs and sensors is that it is an integrated environment. The software, electronics and mechanics are all there an fit perfectly and reliably. This is valuable for kids, who have a short attention span, and for teachers, who are generally time poor. Also, since it is a standard platform it is easy to develop and share designs and lesson plans.
    I have always thought of lego as the heroine of Making, you get this fantastic rush, but it’s over quickly and now you need to buy an other.

  5. Lego aspires to the Apple like ecosystem. Once in the brother or sister hood, always in it. However hopefully many will begin with it, but break out later on. Counting the bits in schools to return the trays was an absolute pain. I hardly ever used it educationally, it was a too restrictive hardware area, I preferred my students to see eBay as one big Lego kit.

    My model of teaching programming was that it was a Lego kit of preformed instructions, but one never lost a “bit” and there were so many more fascinating “bits” to work with.

    Today’s kits have too many preformed parts, my grand daughters “Frozen” kits leaves me, an old rectangular blocks fan, agahst. They are doing girls a disservice really.

  6. My daughter had Mindstorms “available” in Junior High (sponsored by IBM), in the 5th Grade there was a simpler type of robotics kit (build a wheeled robot and play against another team in capturing the most balls). While she was an avid LEGO fan, something happened in the 5th Grade that turned her off to Mindstorms. When it was introduced in the 7th Grade, she had nothing to do with it.
    And yes, the price kept me from buying a set for “her”.

  7. I wonder how “invasive” are the Mindstorms apps.
    I’ve mentioned before on HaD that I bought a couple of robotic kits, only to find out I would have had to download apps from China to use them.

  8. While my son was in 6th grade, his had the opportunity to start competing in First Lego League (FLL). https://www.firstlegoleague.org
    I was their first coach and kept coaching the 6th grade teams for the next 5 years. I had fun coaching, but more importantly, I believe it had a major impact on at least three team members that became interested in engineering and went on to obtain degrees in engineering. That was just the first of my teams.
    (I love telling parents that, because of FLL, there are more future engineers in the classroom than pro athletes.)
    As expensive as this kit is, you may find it surprisingly easy to get companies to donate to this program.

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