Hack Your Brain: Bionic Reading — Panacea Or Placebo?

In the Star Trek episode Space Seed, [Khan] famously said, “Improve a mechanical device, and you may double productivity. But improve man, you gain a thousandfold.” Most of our hacks center on the mechanical or electromechanical kind, but we do have an interest in safely improving ourselves. The problem is that most of us don’t want to mess with our DNA or have surgery, so it sort of limits our options.

We are always interested in less invasive hacks, so we certainly took note of Bionic Reading. However, a recent paper claims to debunk the claims of benefits. The company promoting the technology claims a Swiss University study showed that while the results were not clear, “the majority had a positive effect.” They also claim, anecdotally, that the technique can help those with dyslexia. What’s the truth? We don’t know, but it is an interesting discussion to follow.

If you haven’t seen it before, Bionic Reading — which, by the way, may not be free to use — is a way of using a dark font to emphasize certain key parts of words. For example, you can read this article using Bionic Reading. [Daniel Doyon] analyzed reading by 2,074 testers and found that participants actually read slower when using the Bionic Reading technique.

Continue reading “Hack Your Brain: Bionic Reading — Panacea Or Placebo?”

Books You Should Read: Engineer To Win By Carroll Smith

One problem with engineering education today is a lack of experimental teaching. Oh sure you may have a project or two, but it’s not the focus of the program because it’s hard to standardize a test around. Typically sections of the field are taught in a highly focused theoretical course by a professor or graduate student with a specialization in that section. Because classes treat individual subject areas, it’s entirely possible to get a really good understanding of two pieces of the same puzzle, but never realize that they fit together to make a picture. It’s only when a freshly minted engineer gets out into the real world that they start to make the connections between seemingly disparate fields of knowledge.

This is why Carroll Smith’s book “Engineer to Win” is so good. He spent a lifetime as a practicing engineer in a field where a small failure could mean the death of a friend. So when he set out to write a book, he wrote a book that related everything needed to properly conceptualize and solve the mechanical engineering problems in his field.

One warning though; the book is not for the faint of heart. If you want to learn something difficult well, then this is book for you. Carroll skips the comforting analogies and gives the information exactly. It can get a little dense, but he makes the assumption that the reader is there to learn and, most importantly, understand. This takes work.

2016-08-01_02h06_34For example, you can’t really understand why a rolled bolt is stronger than a bolt cut on a screw machine until you understand how metal works on a crystalline level. The same goes for metal fatigue, brittle fractures, ductile failures, and all the maladies that metal can suffer. The difference between an engineer and a technician is this deep understanding. Otherwise the equations learned are just parts in a toolbox and not paint on an artist’s palette.

This is why the first half of the book is dominated by all things metallurgical. The book starts with the simple abstractions of the crystalline structures of metal. Unlike my materials class in university, it maintains a practical bend to the presentation of the information throughout the whole process. For example, it moves on to what all this practically means for metals undergoing stresses and failures before it launches into a (short) digression on how metals are made and their history.

However, if racecar plumbing is your thing his treastise, "Carroll Smith's Nuts, Bolts, Fasteners and Plumbing Handbook" is also fantastic.
However, if racecar plumbing and fasteners are kinda your thing, “Carroll Smith’s Nuts, Bolts, Fasteners and Plumbing Handbook” is also a fantastic read.

This first half of the book touches on non-ferrous metals and their proper use as well. After that comes some of the best explanations of metal fatigue, fasteners, and metal bonding I’ve ever read. When the failure of a joint causes a mechanism to fail in a toaster that’s one thing, but when it fails in a racecar people get hurt. Carroll is very exacting in what constitutes a forgivable oversight in engineering, and what does not.

Once the book has finished conveying a working understanding of metals and fasteners it seems to fracture into a pot-luck of different racecar-related topics. During my first reading of the book I resisted this strange turn of events. For example, I didn’t really want to read about racecar plumbing in the eighties, or what kind of springs and aerofoils Carroll likes. However, when I reread those sections in a more focused manner, I realized that many of them were teaching the practical application of the knowledge learned in the previous chapters. How does the metal make a good spring? Why is one kind of plumbing better than another?

Importantly, the anecdotes at the end of the book impart an understanding of the importance of professionalism in engineering. What is the true responsibility of an engineer? He teaches not to take the trust others place in your skills for granted. He teaches to trust in the skills of others. The book teaches humility as an engineer. He shows the kind of person one can become after a lifetime of earnest study in their craft.

Thanks to reader, [Dielectric], for recommending the book to me. Also, from the bit of research I’ve done, the older motorworks edition is generally considered to have better quality reproductions of the diagrams than the newer printings of the book.

Gutenberg Clock Keeps Time By Reading Books

Gutenberg clock displaying text from a book

We’ve seen a wide variety of hacks that keep time, but [ch00f]’s latest build takes a new spin on counting the seconds. The Gutenberg Clock keeps time by reading books on a scrolling LED screen.

The content for the clock is sourced from the Project Gutenberg, which releases books with expired copyright for free. The library on the clock consists of around twenty thousand such books. Read at eighty words per minute, the clock won’t repeat a passage for the next thirty-three years.

While the clock doesn’t display time itself, it is synchronized to time. Two identical clocks should display the same text at the same time. To get the time, [ch00f] first tried hacking apart a cheap radio clock, which is synchronized to NIST’s 60 kHz broadcast. After reverse engineering the protocol with great success, stray RF energy from the display turned out to cause too much interference.

With the cheap solution out the window, [ch00f] built a custom breakout for an Adafruit GPS module and used it to get the time. This was his first RF board, but it worked out fine.

Books are loaded onto a FAT filesystem on an SD card, and [ChaN]’s FatFS is used to interpret the filesystem. A microcontroller then sends the text out at a constant rate to a serial port on the display which he hacked his way into.

The project is a neat mix of art and electronics. Stick around for a video overview after the break.

Continue reading “Gutenberg Clock Keeps Time By Reading Books”

Robot That Runs On Rat Brain Cells

Scientists at the University of Reading have created a robot that runs not on microprocessors, but on brain cells extracted from a rat fetus. The robot is equipped with several sensors which stimulate the rat neurons whenever the robot approaches a wall; the response of the neurons then determines whether the robot avoids the wall or crashes into it. The truly fascinating bit is that the rat brain cells don’t automatically know how to respond to the stimuli from the sensors, but instead learn to respond appropriately through repeated stimuli.

No word yet on whether the scientists will teach the robot to sing “Despite all my rage / I am still just a brain in a vat”.