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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Cursive vs. Manuscript

Posted October 20, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Do you write in cursive or manuscript? Do you write in a mixture of the two?

Whether or not to teach cursive in elementary schools has been a debate in the recent news with strong opinions on both sides.

Cursive emerged from Renaissance Italy, perhaps partly because lifting a delicate quill off and on the paper was apt to damage it and spatter ink. By the 19th century, cursive handwriting was considered a mark of a good education. In many countries today, including the U.S. and Canada, children are generally taught to write both cursive and manuscript. In France, children are taught to write cursive in kindergarten but in Mexico, only manuscript is taught. Image Credit

Interestingly, research consistently failed to find any real advantage of cursive over other forms of handwriting. It’s admittedly difficult to study because it’s hard to find children whose educational situation differs only in the style of handwriting.

Many will argue that cursive is faster than manuscript, helps with spelling, and helps with dyslexia. Another very popular argument is that without learning to write in cursive, student will not be able to read it and therefore won’t be able to read historical documents. But many students struggle with the fine motor skills of writing cursive and making the connection between reading and writing since books are written in script.

An article in Nautilus, “Cursive Handwriting and Other Education Myths”, breaks down numerous studies that disprove the merits of cursive handwriting. The author argues for students to be able to develop their own handwriting style which will encourage writing speed as well as increase legibility.

What do you think? Are there merits to students learning cursive? Should teachers not waste the time and just teach manuscript?

27 comments; last comment on 10/21/2016
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Genius or Just Plain Lazy? The Internet Coke Machine

Posted October 13, 2016 8:00 AM by BestInShow

Yesterday a discussion in a meeting reminded me of Carnegie Mellon University’s Internet Coke Machine. Histories of the Internet of Things (IOT) point to this machine as the first example of a networked, remotely-controllable device. These days we’re comfortable with the idea that we can, and do, turn house lights off and on via smart phone while we’re vacationing in Bermuda. Mr. Best in Show can control quite a lot of the stuff in our house this way. For us this technology is a convenience, not a necessity, but remote control capability does contribute to a homeowner’s peace of mind. And there are plenty of examples where remote monitoring and control is more critical.

But a Coke machine? Who would care? I was working at Carnegie Mellon in 1982, when Internet Coke Machine made its debut. When I heard the story of the reason behind its development, my first reaction was, essentially, how lazy can you get? Not
how cool is it that graduate students figured out the technology to make it work. I’m sure a lot of inventions are prompted by the inventor’s desire to do a job more efficiently, or with less manual labor. But then sometimes a bunch of smart people, by solving a problem that might seem trivial, produce an invention with an impact far beyond its intended application.

Those of you who aren’t familiar with the story of Internet Coke Machine might be wondering what laziness has to do with genius, or vice versa. Here’s a synopsis. A group of computer science graduate students got tired of walking one floor down from their offices to the nearest soft drink vending machine, only to find that their favorite soda was sold out or not yet chilled enough to drink. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if we could find out before we make that onerous journey that we’d be disappointed? Remember, this is 1982, the infancy of the internet. As I recall, Carnegie Mellon’s campus network was for some reason linked to the one at Columbia University. Remote access was via 1200 baud modem, using a dumb Z-19 terminal, and the campus network ran on linked DEC-20s. I know; I’m showing my age here, but I digress.

A group of four graduate students (Mike Kazar, Ivor Durham, John Zsarnay, and David Nichols) took on the challenge of figuring out how to avoid fruitless trips to the vending machine. Each of the four undertook different parts of the project. Zsarnay installed microsensors, each hooked up to one of the local Ethernet networks, to detect how many bottles of soft drinks were in each of the six columns. The rest of the team wrote the software that gathered information about the status of the machine’s contents. They were able not only to tell if a column was empty; they could also tell how many bottles were in a column and infer how cold the bottles in a column might be.

To check Internet Coke Machine’s status, all one had to do was to “finger” the user named “coke.” (Finger is a network command used to determine whether a user is logged in or not.) Ivor Durham is credited with modifying the finger protocol to make it deliver coke machine status information. A serious programming book, Expert Programming: Deep C Secrets, has a section on Internet Coke Machine.

The picture above is not the Coke machine. To see a picture, use this link.

This invention spurred the development of a number of other wired soft drink machines around the world. In 1991 Cambridge University’s computer laboratory staff set up what might be considered a technological improvement: a coffee pot with its own webcam, so caffeine addicts could monitor coffee levels. Sadly, this camera is offline. The lab auctioned off the last of the physical coffee pots, a Krups, to Spiegel Online for 3,350 pounds; it’s now in the German Museum of Technology. The whereabouts of the original Internet Coke Machine are unknown.

Out of curiosity I searched to see where the original four graduate students ended up.

  • Mike Kazar is the co-creator of the Andrew File system, among other achievements. He received the 2013 IEEE Reynold B. Johnson Information Storage Systems award.
  • Ivor Durham joined Adobe Systems in 1986 as Director of Engineering and went on to work with two other companies with similar businesses.
  • David Nichols was working at Xerox PARC in 1990.
  • John Zsarnay was with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in 1990.

Are there other CR4 members who were at Carnegie Mellon in the era of Internet Coke Machine? Or did you attend or work at another location with one of these early IoT contraptions? Let us hear from you!


Image credit:

Wikimedia Commons

13 comments; last comment on 10/15/2016
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Rio Olympians Sport High-Tech Sports Apparel

Posted August 11, 2016 12:45 PM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: high-tech uniforms olympics

Without the legions of scientists and engineers who develop new athletic gear, the quadrennial crop of Olympic athletes might not turn in breathtaking, record-setting
performances. New gear also addresses safety and comfort requirements, aiming to protect athletes from injuries and Rio’s less-than-hygienic watery venues. This year’s class of elite athletes benefits from improved equipment and training methods, as I described in my earlier post. Today I’m reporting on some of the latest advances in athletic attire. In case you’re wondering, everything described here has passed the IOC’s muster – not always the easiest feat to accomplish.

Fitting like a second skin

A former Olympic rower, John Strotbeck, described his 1984-era competition shorts as “[made of] cotton and nylon and about as formfitting as a trash bag.” In most
sports, competition garb in 2016 is more likely to be a second skin. Strotbeck now manufactures custom seamless knitted outfits for the US rowers that incorporate water repellency and anti-microbial properties, as well as extreme comfort and lack of seams to chafe. A faculty member at Philadelphia University (formerly the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science) developed the technology that produces these garments. The anti-microbial feature should help protect rowers from the questionable quality of the Rio waters.

Swimwear, cyclists’ unitards, and gymnastics leotards aren’t seamless, but, like the rowers’ garb, are sized individually for each athlete. Advances in 3D imaging make it easier for pattern-cutters to achieve a flawless fit. Within the same sport, different athletes have different builds. Accommodating each athlete’s body type and preferences while keeping the design consistent across wearers is easier using custom-fit software. This also reduces the number of prototypes fitters have to produce to arrive at a finished garment.

3D printers for track and field

Both Nike and New Balance have put 3D printing technology to use in designs for track and field athletes. New Balance customized a track shoe fit for US sprinter Trayvon Bromell, using iterative versions to achieve the fit and performance the athlete required. This application of 3D printing sounds pretty ho-hum compared to Nike’s AeroBlades technology. Nike manufactures AeroBlades from adhesive tape with silicon-based spikes that runners will wear on various parts of their bodies to help cut wind resistance. The 3D printer builds the spikes in different shapes and densities depending on the body location where a specific tape gets stuck (see pictures here). Nike used wind tunnels for extensive prototype testing. Nike introduced this technology for sprinters in the 2012 London games. This year AeroBlades makes its debut in longer races.

Keeping their cool

Given the rigors of Rio’s sultry climate, protecting athletes from heat buildup is a critical safety factor. The latest wicking fabric from Nike, used in basketball, track and field, and soccer, are much more breathable than prior editions. UnderArmor is using technology borrowed from the space program to fashion uniforms for the Canadian rugby and Swiss beach volleyball teams. The skin-facing side of the fabric has crystal-pattern sheets to help absorb body heat.

Another Nike advance is a breathable, adhesive race bib. Ever since athletes started wearing numbers in competitions, they’ve had to pin on their numbers. This is not an optimal aerodynamic situation. As one athlete described it, “We spent all this time developing aerodynamic elements to a uniform, and then we would pin our bibs on with safety pins that were invented in 1849."

At bottom

Athletes depend on footwear for safety and for improved performance. One problem with which most of us can identify is the discomfort of blisters. For an Olympian, a
blister is more than an annoyance, though. Brooks manufactures running shoes with fabric that eliminates seams. The shoes also have rubber rings on the soles, which provide traction and also help return energy to the runner.

A particularly fascinating Nike innovation is the HyperAdapt shoe, which is self-lacing and self-fitting. This shoe has a sensor in the heel that, when it detects that the athlete has donned the shoe, triggers the shoelaces to tighten. A system of cables driven by a tiny motor makes this happen. I wonder if the advantage of a custom fit justifies the weight of the motor and cables?

And then there’s the bling

Much has been made of the increased number of crystals on women’s gymnastics competition costumes. (See this slide show in the New York Times for an enlightening history of gymnastic
costumes .) In 2012, the US gold-medal winner Gabby Douglas wore 1,188 Swarovski crystals; this year, some of the US team’s competition leotards have nearly 5,000. The designers say that the weight of these crystals doesn’t weigh down the competitors … but just in case, Swarovski is developing a new crystal that’s 50 percent lighter than the current product. Just in case the weight of crystals does make a difference on the balance beam.


Image credits

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The Hottest Technology in Olympic Cycling

Posted August 09, 2016 8:00 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: cycling olympics

First, a disclaimer: I’m not a bicycle expert. On the far-too-rare occasions when I
saddle up, I wipe the cobwebs off my 20-plus-year-old hybrid and hope the tires aren’t flat. Watching the Olympic cycling road races over the weekend made my
quads hurt. That said, some of the technological innovations for world-class bicycle racing intrigued me enough to do a bit of investigation. While I was doing some research, I uncovered a completely unexpected innovation. Read on.

Olympic Torch Paint

During the women’s road race on Sunday, one of the NBC commentators mentioned that the frame of one of the competitor’s cycles reacts to temperature by changing colors. Specialized is rolling out its Torch-painted frames and helmets. The paint starts out red and transitions to yellow as the ambient temperature rises to 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Why 71 degrees? That’s Rio de Janeiro’s August mean temperature. This means that bike frames and helmets with Torch paint won’t be red or orange for long; the average low is only 66 degrees F. Check out the video here to watch the chameleon-like transformation.

Switching Sides in the Velodrome

Bicycle drivetrains are always on the right-hand side … except for a new model from Felt Bicycles. Felt’s new bike, the TA FRD designed for team pursuit races, has its drivetrain on the left. Why the switch? According to the manufacturer, “Over a 4km team pursuit track race, riders will encounter 64 left turns on the oval velodrome, and the right side of their bikes will be traveling ever-so-slightly farther and slightly faster than the left side of their bikes.” A small tweak, but in a sport where split seconds can separate winners and losers, small tweaks can pay off.

In addition to the drivetrain switch, this bike is asymmetrical and has tubes designed to yield maximum speed. The company assigned two full-time engineers to the project and started work in late 2012. The design reflects a breakthrough in the understanding of the way riders in a velodrome experience wind resistance. With their new understanding that wind hits riders at an angle and not head-on, designers devised this unconventional machine.

Will it work? Check it out for yourself. The US women’s pursuit team will ride their Felt model TA FRDs in qualifying rounds on August 11 and the finals on August 13.

Big Blue’s Big Data

This is the new technology that I didn’t expect to find. The USA Cycling Women’s Team Pursuit has another technological edge – one based on advanced data analytics
powered by IBM Analytics and related hardware and software. Connected devices – the Internet of Things (IoT) for elite cycling – collect data from each cycle’s power meter and each rider’s heart rate monitor and muscle oxygen sensors. The data travel via cell phones to IBM’s data cloud, to the analysis platform, IBM’s Apache Spark.

The big advantage this automated system has over previous data collection and analysis methods is that coaches get immediate feedback, so they can in turn provide riders with immediate feedback. Information for each cyclist is available via a data dashboard immediately after a training session or a race. These data help coaches and riders fine-tune their approach to a race. Since team pursuit riders expend differing amounts of energy based on their position in the foursome, understanding the rate of energy use can help inform the timing of lead shifts. The oxygenation data reveal when an athlete is sufficiently recovered to start another training ride.

All of This Just for Sport?

As with the US space program, breakthroughs in technology in competitive cycling can have a trickledown effect for leisure riders. For example, IBM is counting on insights gained from applying IoT and data analytics to power more business- and industry-related product offerings. Even though most casual riders will never own a $12,000 carbon-fiber bike, we can still benefit from design changes and even a bit of bling from color-changing paint.

Image credits:

Wikimedia Commons

Les Desses de la Route


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Three Ways Lightning Has Left Its Mark

Posted July 19, 2016 1:19 PM by Chelsey H

With summer time comes thunderstorms. And while I don’t like being woken up in the middle of the night – I do enjoy watching the storm roll in from my front porch.

Lightning has shaped Earth, and life on Earth, for billions of years. Here are three ways lightning has left its mark on our home planet.

  1. Origin of life – Electricity is able to rearrange simple gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor and water into more intricate forms. A series of experiments shows that organics produced by lightning on our new planet most likely included amino acids and other fundamental components of living things and therefor served as the pool of ingredients from which life came.
  2. Early Microbes – All living things need nitrogen gas to make essential molecules like proteins and DNA. Nitrogen is extremely stable and lightening can break the bonded atoms and weld them onto nearby oxygen atoms. These oxides were usable by early microbes ensuring they had a renewable supply of nitrogen with which to continue reproducing. As microbes spread across the planet and increased in number, supplies of lightening-derived nitrogen oxides declined. This spurred the evolution of microbes to develop an internal way to convert nitrogen gas to workable ammonia.
  3. Forest Life – As soon as trees appeared, lightning began killing them. They are the principal natural means by which wildfires are ignited. And wildfires are important for forests. They provide homes and food for many animals and fungi. Other organisms reproduce as a direct results of burnt soil and charred wood. Production of fire-lined fungi is triggered when trees are damaged by fire and the dead leaves covering the forest floor, from which the mushrooms sprout, are burned away. Heat and smoke are also responsible for bringing about the germination of plant seeds which are impermeable to water until exposed to high heat.

Electrical currents have been linked to the creation and evolution of life on Earth. But it can also have devastating consequences – killing many of the quarter of a million people hit by lightning a year.

So maybe enjoy the thunderstorms from the safety of your front porch.

11 comments; last comment on 07/20/2016
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