Engineering The Less Boring Way

We have to admire a YouTube channel with the name [Less Boring Lectures]. After all, he isn’t promising they won’t be boring, just less boring. Actually though, we found quite a few of the videos pretty interesting and not boring at all. The channel features videos about mechanical engineering and related subjects like statics and math. While your typical electronics project doesn’t always need that kind of knowledge, some of them do and the mental exercise is good for you regardless. A case in point: spend seven minutes and learn about 2D and 3D vectors in two short videos (see below). Or spend 11 minutes and do the whole vector video in one gulp.

These reminded us of Kahn Academy videos, although the topics are pretty hardcore. For example, if you want to know about axial loading, shear strain, or free body diagrams, this is a good place to look.

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Hackaday Links: January 31, 2021

There are an awful lot of machines on the market these days that fall under the broad category of “cheap Chinese laser cutters”. You know the type — the K40s, the no-name benchtop CO2 cutters, the bigger floor-mount units. If you’ve recently purchased one of these machines from one of the usual vendors, or even if you’re just thinking about doing so, you’ll likely have some questions. In which case, this “Chinese Laser Cutters 101” online class might be right up your alley. We got wind of this though its organizer, Jonathan Schwartz of American Laser Cutter in Los Angeles, who says he’s been installing, repairing, and using laser cutters for a decade now. The free class will be on February 8 at 5:00 PM PST, and while it’s open to all, it does require registration.

We got an interesting tip the other day that had to do with Benford’s Law. We’d never heard of this one, so we assumed was a “joke law” like Murphy’s Law or Betteridge’s Rule of Headlines. But it turns out that Benford’s Law describes the distribution of leading digits in large sets of numbers. Specifically, it says that the leading digit in any given number is more likely to be one of the smaller numbers. Measurements show that rather than each of the nine base 10 digits showing up about 11% of the time, a 1 will appear in the leading digit 30% of the time, while a 9 will appear about 5% of the time. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and the tip we got pointed to an article that attempted to apply Benford’s Law to image files. This technique was used in a TV show to prove an image had been tampered with, but as it turns out, Hollywood doesn’t always get technical material right. Shocking, we know, but the technique was still interesting and the code developed to Benford-ize image files might be useful in other ways.

Everyone knew it was coming, and for a long time in advance, but it still seems that the once-and-for-all, we’re not kidding this time, it’s for realsies shutdown of Adobe Flash has had some real world consequences. To wit, a railroad system in the northern Chinese city of Dalian ground to a halt earlier this month thanks to Flash going away. No, they weren’t using Flash to control the railroad, but rather it was buried deep inside software used to schedule and route trains. It threw the system into chaos for a while, but never fear — they got back up and running by installing a pirated version of Flash. Here’s hoping that they’re working on a more permanent solution to the problem.

First it was toilet paper and hand sanitizer, now it’s…STM32 chips? Maybe, if the chatter on Twitter and other channels is to be believed. Seems like people are having a hard time sourcing the microcontroller lately. It’s all anecdotal so far, of course, but the prevailing theory is that COVID-19 and worker strikes have lead to a pinch in production. Plus, you know, the whole 2020 thing. We’re wondering if our readers have noticed anything on this — if so, let us know in the comments below.

And finally, just because it’s cool, here’s a video of what rockets would look like if they were transparent. Well, obviously, they’d look like twisted heaps of burning wreckage on the ground is they were really made with clear plastic panels and fuel tanks, but you get the idea. The video launches a virtual fleet — a Saturn V, a Space Shuttle, a Falcon Heavy, and the hypothetical SLS rocket — and flies them in tight formation while we get to watch their consumables be consumed. If the burn rates are accurate, it’s surprising how little fuel and oxidizer the Shuttle used compared to the Saturn. We were also surprised how long the SLS holds onto its escape tower, and were pleased by the Falcon Heavy payload reveal.

Hackaday Links: November 8, 2020

Saturday, November 7, 2020 – NOT PASADENA. Remoticon, the virtual version of the annual Hackaday Superconference forced upon us by 2020, the year that keeps on giving, is in full swing. As I write this, Kipp Bradford is giving one of the two keynote addresses, and last night was the Bring a Hack virtual session, which I was unable to attend but seems to have been very popular, at least from the response to it. In about an hour, I’m going to participate in the SMD Soldering Challenge on the Hackaday writing crew team, and later on, I’ll be emceeing a couple of workshops. And I’ll be doing all of it while sitting in my workshop/office here in North Idaho.

Would I rather be in Pasadena? Yeah, probably — last year, Supercon was a great experience, and it would have been fun to get together again and see everyone. But here we are, and I think we’ve all got to tip our hacker hats to the Remoticon organizers, for figuring out how to translate the in-person conference experience to the virtual space as well as they have.

The impact of going to a museum and standing in the presence of a piece of art or a historic artifact is hard to overstate. I once went to an exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii, and was absolutely floored to gaze upon a 2,000-year-old loaf of bread that was preserved by the volcanic eruption of 79 AD. But not everyone can get to see such treasures, which is why Scan the World was started. The project aims to collect 3D scans of all kinds of art and artifacts so that people can potentially print them for study. Their collection is huge and seems to concentrate on classic sculptures — Michelangelo’s David is there, as are the Venus de Milo, the Pieta, and Rodin’s Thinker. But there are examples from architecture, anatomy, and history. The collection seems worth browsing through and worth contributing to if you’re so inclined.

For all the turmoil COVID-19 has caused, it has opened up some interesting educational opportunities that probably wouldn’t ever have been available in the Before Time. One such opportunity is an undergraduate-level course in radio communications being offered on the SDRPlay YouTube channel. The content was created in partnership with the Sapienza University of Rome. It’s not entirely clear who this course is open to, but the course was originally designed for third-year undergrads, and the SDRPlay Educators Program is open to anyone in academia, so we’d imagine you’d need some kind of academic affiliation to qualify. The best bet might be to check out the intro video on the SDRPlay Educator channel and plan to attend the webinar scheduled for November 19 at 1300 UTC. You could also plan to drop into the Learning SDR and DSP Hack Chat on Wednesday at noon Pacific, too — that’s open to everyone, just like every Hack Chat is.

And finally, as if bald men didn’t suffer enough disrespect already, now artificial intelligence is having a go at them. At a recent soccer match in Scotland, an AI-powered automatic camera system consistently interpreted an official’s glabrous pate as the soccer ball. The system is supposed to keep the camera trained on the action by recognizing the ball as it’s being moved around the field. Sadly, the linesman in this game drew the attention of the system quite frequently, causing viewers to miss some of the real action. Not that what officials do during sporting events isn’t important, of course, but it’s generally not what viewers want to see. The company, an outfit called Pixellot, knows about the problem and is working on a solution. Here’s hoping the same problem doesn’t crop up on American football.

Hacker U.

If you go to the University of South Florida, you can take the “Makecourse.” The 15-week program promises to teach CAD software, 3D printing, Arduino-based control systems, and C++. Don’t go to the University of South Florida? No worries. Professor [Rudy Schlaf] and [Eric Tridas] have made the entire course available online. You can see several videos below, but there are many more. The student project videos are great, too, like [Catlin Ryan’s] phase of the moon project (see below) or [Dustin Germain’s] rover (seen above).

In addition to a lesson plan and projects, there’s a complete set of videos (you can see a few below). If you are a regular Hackaday reader, you probably won’t care much about the basic Arduino stuff and the basic electronics–although a good review never hurts anyone. However, the more advanced topics about interrupts, SDCards, pin change interrupts might be just the thing. If you ever wanted to learn Autodesk Inventor, there are videos for that, too.

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Veni, Vidi, ViciLogic Teaches You Digital Logic Interactively

This is about the time of the year you realize you aren’t going to keep all of those new year’s resolutions you made. However, if one of them was to learn VHDL and FPGAs, you might be in luck. Vicilogic has a free course in Fundamentals of Digital Systems. You do have to register, but it didn’t even verify our e-mail address, so it shouldn’t be too onerous to sign up.

Associated with the National University of Ireland Galway, the training is high quality and offers animated demos in your browser of the digital circuitry. You can even control the demos yourself. You’d think the work was occurring in some browser script, but according to the site, the demos are tied to real FPGA boards. You can supposedly look in on them as you use them with a video stream, but we never saw that working so your mileage may vary. If you want a preview of what it looks like, check out the video below. There’s guided exercises and also quizzes where you have to interact with the demos.

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Practical Deep Learning

Deep Learning — the use of neural networks with modern techniques to tackle problems ranging from computer vision to speech recognition and synthesis — is certainly a current buzzword. However, at the core is a set of powerful methods for organizing self-learning systems. Multi-layer neural networks aren’t new, but there is a resurgence of interest primarily due to the availability of massively parallel computation platforms disguised as video cards.

The problem is getting started in something like this. There are plenty of scholarly papers that can be hard to wade through. Or you can grab some code from GitHub and try to puzzle it out.

A better idea would be to take a free class entitled: Practical Deep Learning for Coders, Part 1. The course is free unless you count your investment in time. They warn you to expect to commit about ten hours a week for seven weeks to complete the course. You can see the first installment in the video, below. Continue reading “Practical Deep Learning”

Workshops For Timid Solderers

As a hackspace member, it’s easy to fall into the belief that your own everyday skills are universal. Soldering for example. You’ve handled an iron since you were a youngster, the solder bends to your will as a matter of course, and since you see your fellow makers doing the same thing you might imagine that it’s a universal hackspace skill. Everyone can do it, can’t they?

Of course, they can’t. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a parent who tolerated your occasional propensity for acquiring burns on your fingers then you probably won’t have that innate experience with an iron. This extends to people you might expect to have those skills, indeed as an electronic engineering student a couple of decades ago your scribe was surprised to find that the ability to solder was her hotly tradeable skill, amazingly even a lot of EE students couldn’t solder.

So the ability to solder is not as universal as we might expect, and your hackspace will attract plenty of people for whom it is an as-yet-unknown art. What do you do about it? If you are Vancouver Hackspace, you run a workshop whose participants are introduced to soldering through building a simple AM radio. The kit itself is not too special, it looks like one of the Elenco educational kits, but it is what the workshop represents that is important. A hackspace lives or dies by how it shares its skills, and Vancouver’s workshop is a fantastic piece of community engagement. We’d like to see more spaces doing this kind of thing.

So, perhaps it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. How difficult would it be to run a hackspace soldering workshop for the uninitiated? Assuming your space is used to the mechanics of running events, the challenge is to find for each participant a soldering iron, some solder, and a radio or other kit without breaking the bank. An ideal budget from where this is being written in the UK would be £20 (about $29), into which a Chinese kit from AliBaba or similar and a cheap iron kit could be fitted. Some work to decipher the Chinese instructions with the help of an overseas student member and to write an English manual, and we’d be ready to go. If this comes together we’ll report back on whether the non-solderers of our hackspace successfully learned the craft.

We recently featured a similar educational initiative, a course at Swansea Hackspace teaching robotics through an Arduino robot. We would like to encourage this kind of thing, what is your hackspace doing in this line?