While the COVID-19 pandemic at least seems to be on a downward track, the dystopian aspects of the response to the disease appear to be on the rise. As if there weren’t enough busybodies and bluenoses shaming their neighbors for real or imagined quarantine violations on social media, now we have the rise of social-distancing enforcement drones. These have been in use in hot zones around the world, of course, but have only recently arrived in the US. From New Jersey to Florida, drones are buzzing about in search of people not cowering in fear in their homes and blaring messages about how they face fines and arrest for seeking a little fresh air and sunshine. We’re all in favor of minimizing contact with potentially infected people, but it seems like these methods might be taking things a bit too far.
Out of all the people on this planet, the three with the least chance of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 blasted off from Kazakhstan this week on Soyuz MS-16 to meet up with the ISS. The long-quarantined crew of Anatoly Ivanishin, Ivan Vagner, and Chris Cassidy swapped places with the Expedition 62 crew, who returned to Earth safely in the Soyuz MS-15 vehicle. It’s a strange new world they return to, and we wish them and their ISS colleagues all the best. What struck us most about this mission, though, was some apparently surreptitiously obtained footage of the launch from a remarkably dangerous position. We saw some analysis of the footage, and based on the sound delay the camera was perhaps as close as 150 meters to the launchpad. It’s hard to say if the astronauts or the camera operator was braver.
And finally, because neatness counts, we got this great tip on making your breadboard jumpers perfectly straight. There’s something satisfying about breadboard circuits where the jumpers are straight and exactly the length the need to be, and John Martin’s method is so simple you can’t help but use it. He just rolls the stripped jumpers between his bench and something flat; he uses a Post-it note pad but just about anything will do. The result is satisfyingly straight jumpers, ready to be bent and inserted. We bet this method could be modified to work with the stiffer wire normally used in circuit sculptures like those of Mohit Bhoite; he went into some depth about his methods during his Supercon talk last year, and it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet.
Gears are fairly straightforward way to couple rotational motion, and the physics topics required to understand them are encountered in an entry level physics classroom, not a university degree. But to really dig down to the root of how gears transfer motion may be somewhat more complex than it seems. [Bartosz Ciechanowski] put together an astonishingly good interactive teaching tool on gears, covering the fundamentals of motion up through multi-stage gear trains.
The post starts at the beginning – not “how to calculate a gear ratio” – but how does rotational motion work at all. The illustrations help give the reader an intuitive sense for how the rate of rotation is measured and what that measurement actually represents in the real world. From there [Bartosz] builds up to describing how two discs touching edge to edge transfer motion and the relationship of their size on that process. After explaining torque he has the fundamentals in place to describe why gears have teeth, and why they work at all.
Well written explanatory copy aside, the real joy in this post is the interactivity. Each concept is illustrated, and each illustration is interactive. Images are accompanied by a slider which lets you adjust what’s shown, either changing the speed of a rotating gear or advancing the motion of two teeth interlocking. We found that being able to move through time this way really helped form an intuitive understanding of the concepts being discussed. This feels like the dream of interactive multimedia textbooks come to life.
Who’s the better programmer? The guy that knows 10 different languages, or someone who knows just one? It depends. Programming is akin to math, or perhaps it is that we treat some topics differently than others which leads to misconceptions about what makes a good programmer, mathematician, or engineer. We submit that to be a great programmer is less about the languages you know and more about the algorithms and data structures you understand. If you know how to solve the problem, mapping it to a particular computer language should be almost an afterthought. While there are many places that you can learn those things, there is a lot more focus on how to write the languages, C++ or Java or Python or whatever. We were excited, then, to see [Jeff Erickson] is publishing his algorithms book distilled from teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for a number of years. The best part? You can read the preprint version online now and it will remain online even after the book goes to print.
When you were in school, you probably learned math in two ways: there was the mechanics (4×4=16) and then there were the word problems (Johnny has 10 candy bars and eats 4, how many are left?). Word problems are usually the bane of the student’s existence, yet they are much more realistic. Your boss has (probably) never come in your office and asked you what 147 divided by 12 is. If she did, you could hand her a calculator. The real value comes in being able to synthesize the right math for the right problem and — if you are lucky — gaining intuition about it (doubling the price will only increase profit by 10%). Software is pretty much the same, for example no one rushes into your cubicle and says “Quick! We need a for loop written!” You get a hazy set of requirements if you are lucky, and you then need to map that into something that computers can do. For that reason, we’ve always been more of a fan of learning about algorithms and data structures rather than specific language features.
We live in a time when you don’t have to know assembly language to successfully work with embedded computers. The typical processor these days has resources that would shame early PCs and some of the larger ones are getting close to what was a powerful desktop machine only a few years ago. Even so, there are some cases where you really want to use assembly language. Maybe you need more speed. Or maybe you need very precise control over timing. Maybe you just like the challenge. [Robert G. Plantz] from Sonoma State University has an excellent book online titled “Introduction to Computer Organization: ARM Assembly Langauge Using the Raspberry Pi.” If you are interested in serious ARM assembly language, you really need to check out this book.
If you are more interested in x86-64 assembly and Linux [Plantz] has you covered there, too. Both books are free to read on the Internet, and you can pick up a printed version of the Linux book for a small payment if you want.
Few people would deny that farming is hard work. It always has been, and it probably always will be no matter how fancy the equipment gets. In 1932, farming was especially grueling. There was widespread drought throughout the United States, which gave rise to dust bowl conditions. As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.
Even so, crop farming was still a viable and somewhat popular career path in 1932. After all, knowing how to grow food is always going to get you elected into your local post-apocalyptic council pretty quickly. As such, the John Deere Equipment Company released the 19th edition of their classic book, The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery. This book covers all of the various equipment a crop farmer needed to get from plough to bounty. The text gives equal consideration to horse-driven and tractor-driven farming implements, and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tractor engine maintenance.
According to its preface, this book was used as an agricultural text in schools and work-study programs. It offers a full course in maintaining the all the (John Deere) equipment needed to work the soil, plant crops, cultivate, harvest, and manure in all parts of the country. The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery was so well-received that John Deere kept the book in publication for over thirty years. The 28th edition and final edition came out in 1957. We wonder why they would have stopped putting it out after all that time. Maybe it wasn’t profitable enough, or the company decided to phase out the shade tree tractor mechanic.
So why should you delve into a sorely outdated textbook about farm equipment? Well, it’s straightforwardly written and easy to learn from, whether you’re trying or not. You should check it out if you’re even remotely curious about the basics of farming. If for no other reason, you should go for the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and stay for the interesting tables and charts in the back. Did you know that a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds?