Algorithms for Visual Learners

Computer programming is a lot like chess. It is fairly simple to teach people the moves. But knowing how the pieces move isn’t the reason you can win. You have to understand how the pieces work together. It is easy to learn the mechanics of a for loop or a Java interface. But what makes programs work are algorithms. There are many books and classes dedicated to algorithms, but if you are a visual learner, you might be interested in a site that shows visualizations of algorithms called VisuAlgo.

The site is from [Dr. Steven Halim] and is meant for students at the National University of Singapore, but it is available “free of charge for Computer Science community on earth.” We suspect if any astronauts or cosmonauts wanted to use it in space, they’d be OK with that, too.

The animations and commentary take you through algorithms ranging from the common — sorting and linked lists — to the obscure — Steiner and Fenwick trees. Each animation frame has some commentary, so it isn’t just pretty pictures. The site is available in many languages, too.

Many of the animations allow you to set up problems and execute them using a C-like pseudo language. When it executes, you can watch the execution pointer and a box comments on the current operation. For example, in the linked list unit, you can create a random doubly linked list and then search it for a particular value. Not only can you see the code, but the graphical representation of the list will update as the code runs.

The site allows you to register for free to get additional features, but we didn’t and it was still a great read about many different data structures. Also, a few of the commentary slides require you to show you are actually a computer science professor — we assume there’s some copyright issue involved because it is only a few.

This site is a great example of how many free educational resources are out there on the web. It isn’t just computer science either. MITx — or more generally, edX — has some great hardware classes and many other topics

Mechanical Wooden Turing Machine

Alan Turing theorized a machine that could do infinite calculations from an infinite amount of data that computes based on a set of rules. It starts with an input, transforms the data and outputs an answer. Computation at its simplest. The Turing machine is considered a blueprint for modern computers and has also become a blueprint for builders to challenge themselves for decades.

Inspired by watching The Imitation Game, a historical drama loosely based on Alan Turing, [Richard J. Ridel] researched Alan Turing and decided to build a Turing machine of his own. During his research, he found most machines were created using electrical parts so he decided to challenge himself by building a purely mechanical Turing machine.

Unlike the machine Alan Turing hypothesized, [Richard J. Ridel] decided on building a machine that accommodated three data elements (0, 1, and “b” for blank) and three states. This was informed by research he did on the minimum amount of data elements and states a machine could have in order to perform any calculation along with his own experimentation and material constraints.

Read more about Richard’s trial and error build development, how his machine works, and possible improvements in the document he wrote linked to above. It’s a great document of process and begs you to learn from it and take on your own challenge of building a Turing machine.

For more inspiration on how to build a Turing machine check out how to build one using readily available electronic components.

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A Two Tapes Turing Machine

Though as with so many independent inventors the origins of computing can be said to have been arrived at through the work of many people, Alan Turing is certainly one of the foundational figures in computer science. His Turing machine was a thought-experiment computing device in which a program performs operations upon symbols printed on an infinite strip of tape, and can in theory calculate anything that any computer can.

In practice, we do not use Turing machines as our everyday computing platforms. A machine designed as an academic abstract exercise is not designed for efficiency. But that won’t stop Hackaday, and to prove that point [Olivier Bailleux] has done just that using readily available electronic components. His twin-tape Turing machine is presented on a large PCB, and is shown in the video below the break computing the first few numbers of the Fibonacci sequence.

The schematic is available as a PDF, and mostly comprises of 74-series logic chips with the tape contents being displayed as two rows of LEDs. The program is expressed as a pluggable diode matrix, but in a particularly neat manner he has used LEDs instead of traditional diodes, allowing us to see each instruction as it is accessed. The whole is a fascinating item for anyone wishing to learn about Turing machines, though we wish [Olivier] had given  us a little more information in his write-up.

That fascination with Turing machines has manifested itself in numerous builds here over the years. Just a small selection are one using 3D printing, another using Lego, and a third using ball bearings. And of course, if you’d like instant gratification, take a look at the one Google put in one of their doodles for Turing’s 100th anniversary.

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Hack Your Own Computer Science Degree

We ran across something interesting on GitHub of all places. The “Open Source Society University” has a list of resources to use if you want to teach yourself computer science for free. We found it interesting because there are so many resources available it can be hard to pick and choose. Of course, you can always pick a track from one school, but it was interesting to see what [Eric Douglas] and contributors thought would be a good foundation.

If you dig down, there are really a few potential benefits from going to college. One is you might learn something — although we’ve found that isn’t always a given, surprisingly. The second is you can get a piece of paper to frame that impresses most people, especially those that want to hire you but can’t determine if you know what you are talking about or not. Lastly, if you go to the right school you can meet people that might be useful to know in the future for different reasons.

The Internet has really changed all of those things, you can network pretty easily these days without a class ring, and there are lots of ways to earn accredited diplomas online. If you are interested in what we think is the most important part — the education — there are many options for that too.

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Open Hardware for Open Science – Interview with Charles Fracchia

Open Science has been a long-standing ideal for many researchers and practitioners around the world. It advocates the open sharing of scientific research, data, processes, and tools and encourages open collaboration. While not without challenges, this mode of scientific research has the potential to change the entire course of science, allowing for more rigorous peer-review and large-scale scientific projects, accelerating progress, and enabling otherwise unimaginable discoveries.

As with any great idea, there are a number of obstacles to such a thing going mainstream. The biggest one is certainly the existing incentive system that lies at the foundation of the academic world. A limited number of opportunities, relentless competition, and pressure to “publish or perish” usually end up incentivizing exactly the opposite – keeping results closed and doing everything to gain a competitive edge. Still, against all odds, a number of successful Open Science projects are out there in the wild, making profound impacts on their respective fields. HapMap Project, OpenWorm, Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Polymath Project are just a few to name. And the whole movement is just getting started.

While some of these challenges are universal, when it comes to Biology and Biomedical Engineering, the road to Open Science is paved with problems that will go beyond crafting proper incentives for researchers and academic institutions.

It will require building hardware.

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Hackaday Links: October 6, 2012

Upgrading a desktop with a diamond cutting wheel

[Michail] needed a new graphics card. The only problem was his motherboard didn’t have any free PCI-E x16 slots available. Unable to find a PCI-E x1 card, he did what any of us would do and broke out the Dremel. Yes, he got it working, but don’t do this unless you know what you’re doing.

It’s recycling!

[Steve] recently got a Galaxy S3 and was looking for something to do with his old phone. It’s got WiFi, it’s got a camera, and with a free app, [Steve] now has an IP Webcam. Neat way to recycle a phone.

This is now bookmarked

We’re not much for plugging other blogs, but Math ∩ Programming – that’s intersection, remember – is really cool. Apparently it has been around for a little more than a year and already there are quite a few really cool posts. How to use cellular automaton to generate caves in video games and facial recognition through Eigenvalues are amazingly in depth, and show the theory behind some really cool techniques. Very, very cool.

Troll Physics: now wireless!

Remember [Fredzislaw100], the guy who puzzled the Internet with impossible circuits? He’s back again, this time with wireless LEDs. We’re guessing something similar to an induction charging system in the battery clip, wirelessly coupled to something under the paper, and that is wirelessly coupled to the LEDs. Your guess will probably be better than ours, though.

Not shown: Captain Obvious, Major Major

Pv2 [Zachary Ricks] of the U.S. Army thought we would get a kick out of the last name of one of the guys in his company. Yes, it’s ‘Hackaday,’ and yes, it’s a real surname. Here’s the full pic [Zach] sent in. Apparently it’s a name along the lines of ‘Holiday.’ Honestly, we had no idea this was a real surname, but we’re thinking Private Hackaday could use a care package or two (dozen).

Anyone up for sending a few hacker friendly (for [Zach] and a few other guys) care packages? Even socks or books or Oreos would make for an awesome care package. Email me if you want the mailing address.