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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.

What Does it Take to be an Expert?

Posted April 05, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Experts are valued in the engineering and business world. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines expert as "having or showing special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience." A second definition includes the word 'training' instead of 'having been taught.' So the question is: how much training do you need to be considered an expert?

In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell talked about the "10,000-hour rule" in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. This rule claims that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. For years, that was held as the standard for expert level training and experience. But a new study looks at the truth of this rule.

A study countering this rule was published last May by psychologist David Zachary Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. The study, titled "Deliberate practice: is that all it takes to become an expert?", suggests that practice explains only about a third of success among musicians and chess masters. The article caused quite a stir and prompted many replies from other psychologists including, K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University in Tallahassee who is best known for the research touted in Gladwell's book. Image Credit

Hambrick and his team looked at case studies of master musicians and chess players as well as quizzing the players on the number of hours they spend in deliberate practice (as opposed to performances or play). The data concluded that practice accounted for only 30 percent of success in music and 34 percent in chess.

The variability in practice hours devalues the 10,000-hour rule. Chess grand masters had put in an average of 10,530 hours with practice times ranging from 832 to 24,284. Musicians' efforts ranged from 10,000 to 30,000 hours.

The battle between Ericsson and Hambrick continued when Ericsson replied to the report, commenting that this kind of critique inappropriately mixes data about less-skilled folks into the analysis. Hambrick's retort is that Ericsson relied on only a few supreme performers for his studies.

Regardless of the studies done, the 10,000-hour rule is haunted by the nature verses nurture argument. "Plenty of studies suggest that aside from practice hours, individual differences help explain success", Georgia Tech's Phillip Ackerman says in Intelligence. "Such differences range from socioeconomics to coaching to I.Q."

What do you think it takes to be an expert?


Are Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 Hours of Practice Really All You Need?

Scientists Debunk The Myth That 10,000 Hours of Practice Makes You an Expert

28 comments; last comment on 04/11/2014
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Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

Posted March 26, 2014 6:06 AM by HUSH

Last week one of the most meaningful hypotheses in regards to relativity and astrophysics was confirmed by researchers at Harvard University. For the first time, "ripples" in space time have been directly quantified by an instrument intended for just that purpose. If you're not already shaking with nervous energy, I don't know how else to excite you.

Of course I joke; not about this discovery's importance, but about its reception. This truly is staggering news. I refrained from writing about it last week because it hadn't been officially announced by the time of my composition. Yet I was just another example of this discovery's minimal and underserved media presence. Most news stories recited a few sentences of dialogue, had a local university professor say something along the lines of "Einstein was right!," and then cut to footage of drunk people wearing green since it was St. Patrick's Day.

It's honestly hard to explain the perceived antipathy. In the Age of Information, access to the information before it's official seems to be more prized than the information itself. Perhaps a gravitational wave feature-length film is what we need. Or maybe we need a Lady Gaga song about it.

According to the researchers themselves, they had a small team of analysts--about 20, who mutually agreed that they wouldn't tell anyone until the group had decided too. In fact, the result--the hard discovery of primordial B-modes--has been kicking around amongst the team for over a year. They regularly changed passwords, created new email lists, and relied on hard documents to limit the chance that their discovery would be leaked, that rival scientists could hijack their findings, or that their conclusions could be maligned by the news. So, in this regards they have been quite successful.

But part of the indifference to the discovery could be how the non-physicists of the world interpreted the results. Little was done to thoroughly explain the magnitude of what this discovery means. Perhaps now is the time to shed some light on the subject.

Since 2006, these researchers have been minding the results of BICEP, which stands for background imaging of cosmic extragalactic polarization. This instrument was meant to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is light energy that was released from the Big Bang and still exists in our universe, but is only identifiable with a radio telescope. When this light energy is measured the results are fairly uniform in any direction we observe, meaning that all of this light was at one point in very close existence. But when the age of the universe is calculated in a linear way, this light would be together at a point before where evidence suggests the universe began, which is before 13.7 billion years-give or take 40 million years or so, no big deal. Either we've been wrong about the age of the universe for a while, or the universe unexpectedly accelerated in expansion for a time between the Big Bang and present day.

The CMB exists as two types of polarization, E-modes and B-modes, and B-modes are produced by gravitational waves from cosmic inflation. Cosmic inflation is the hypothesis for this period where the universe expanded rapidly, before returning to a slower, more stable rate of growth. BICEP 2 (pictured right) began running its tests in 2010 and concluded in 2012. This instrument was able to detect temperature changes of particles to the 10 millionth of a degree. As the data was reviewed, the researchers began to try to debunk their own findings--evidence of B-modes existed from the beginning of BICEP 2--but \ the team thought it couldn't be this easy. After a year of internal deliberation, the team came forward.

Finding B-modes also tidies up two other physics problems. First, the flatness problem which questions the physical shape of our universe based on given parameters. (Turns out it's nearly flat.) Second would be the magnetic monopole problem, which concludes that if all matter was so dense during the universe's infancy, it would produce very stable particles called magnetic monopoles which would have only type of charge, positive or negative. They would also be so very abundant. Yet not a single monopole has ever been observed, and cosmic inflation would imply that they're out there, but so rare and far apart that they're insanely difficult to find.

In a sense, the major hole in the S.S. Relativity has been plugged with the discovery of B-modes, and in-turn gravitational waves. So for now, the Einstein's ship would remain afloat, but if it sprung a leak-information or composition-wise-it might get a lot more attention.


Harvard-Smithsonian - First Direct Evidence...

Wired - How the Biggest Science Secret...; That Signal From the...

Wikipedia - BICEP and Keck Array; Flatness problem; Magnetic monopole

19 comments; last comment on 04/14/2014
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How Crayola Crayons are Made

Posted March 22, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H
Pathfinder Tags: crayola crayons how it's made

Every child has their favorite toy. My favorite childhood activity was coloring with crayons…and they had to be Crayola. I think I just knew that they were high quality and timeless. Crayola crayons were introduced in 1903 by cousins Edwin Binney and Harold Smith. At the time crayons were limited to artists due to their fragile and toxic nature; Crayola crayons were the first crayons available for children. The name Crayola combines the French word "craie" (chalk) and "oléagineaux" (oily). The original box sold for 5¢ and included eight colors: blue, green, red, orange, yellow, violet, brown, and black. But by 1940 they were popular in both schools and homes and boxes included 64 colors.

The two basic ingredients in a crayon are pigment and paraffin wax. The mixture is heated until it melts into a liquid which is then poured into a preheated mold of 1,200 crayon-shaped holes. The mold is cooled with cold water, making a crayon in 3 to 9 minutes. Photo by Sir Fish

Hydraulic pressure is used to eject crayons from the mold and each crayon is manually inspected for quality. A non-toxic cornstarch and water mixture is used to hold the label on the Crayola crayon (in case any kids want to eat the crayon instead of color with it).

The label machine used by Crayola hasn't changed much since 1943! Bare crayons are fed from one hopper while labels are fed from a separate hopper. Glue is added to the glue pot and the label machine is started. The glue transfers to a slot in a drum that a crayon goes into. The label is then fed onto the drum where a roller presses the label against the glue; the label is then tucked and wrapped around the crayon twice.

Fun fact-Before 1943, crayons were hand-wrapped by farmers in the winter months to supplement their income.

Click the image below to watch a video of how crayons are made at the Crayola factory.

Crayons are packed in boxes of various sizes from 9-26 crayons per box and there are 120 crayon color possibilities.

Do you have a fond memories of your time with crayons?


Discovery Kids - Crayons

Art in Everyday: Crayola Crayons

6 comments; last comment on 04/09/2014
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6 Snow Day Tech Chores

Posted February 22, 2014 9:31 AM by Chelsey H

As a kid snow days were free days off, when you drank cocoa and played in the snow! As an adult these are great days to get those random chores done around the house.

Here is a list of 6 technology-related chores to keep you busy while you're cooped-up inside.

1. Backup! Snow days are a good time to check on your various backup systems and ensure that everything is running smoothly. Double-check that everything that should be backed up still is and that your regular backups are still scheduled. Backups are so important!

Image Credit

2. Photo organizing. This is such a pain to do but it's perfect for snow days while watching a movie. Take the time to better organize files and archive libraries that you no longer need to access regularly. This helps backups go more smoothly, frees up space for new files and helps you find exactly what you're looking for with ease.

3. Upload those smartphone photos. Related to photo organizing, this task means actually getting them off of your phone or camera to a more permanent location. There are auto programs, like Dropbox, that will help. Don't worry about sharing them with the world but maybe you want to have a few developed to brighten up your house (since you're spending extra time there anyway).

4. Upgrade your OS. Now that your backups are all done check out upgrading the operating system on your computer. This usually takes a while and renders your computer useless for an hour or two so it's a perfect snow day job!

5. Untangle cables. Do you have a jungle of cables behind your desk or TV? Today's the day to untangle and organize your cable storage. Here are some creative options to tame the jungle.

6. Buy printer ink. Price-shop online for ink and order so that you'll have it before you run out next time. Just do it.

What tasks do you use snow days to get done?

Original post found on Apartment Therapy

2 comments; last comment on 02/25/2014
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5 Famous Inventions That Were Actually Stolen

Posted February 15, 2014 1:00 PM by CR4 Guest Author

Creating new and better ways to work, play and learn is fundamental to the story of humanity. Invention, the ability to see problems in a new light and create something that solves those problems led us out of the darkness and sparked the rise of human civilization. As ideas and inventions traveled with people and others took them, refined them and made better tools and ideas.

Over time, influential individuals realized the power of ideas and inventions and worked hard to prevent others from stealing their secrets. And so it has gone, from the ancient world to our modern times. Closely kept secrets, inventions or ideas somehow get away from their creators and forever change our world.

Closely Guarded Secrets

In the modern world, inventions and ideas can be patented to protect them by force of law. Despite that protection, many of the important developments in science and technology associated with famous inventors may actually be the work of others. Controversy surrounds the development of the X-ray, telephone, cotton gin, incandescent lamp and other modern inventions. In ancient times, stolen inventions created empires and forever changed the shape of the world.

How Rome Stole the Sea

The ancient Romans exemplify the concept of taking the ideas of others and adapting them to their own needs. Indeed, their empire might never have dominated the world without borrowed and stolen ideas. For over a thousand years, the Phoenicians dominated trade and travel throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Over time, the Phoenician colony of Carthage grew into an unmatched maritime power. Carthage proved a barrier to Roman expansion and Rome's answer to the problem, war, went badly at first. When a Carthaginian ship ran aground, the Romans captured it, completely disassembled it and copied it board for board. Western civilization today might be very different if that one ship hadn't fallen into Roman hands.

The Telephone

Everyone associates the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell. The truth is, he didn't invent the first telephone at all. The first working telephone prototype was developed by Italian inventor Antonio Meucci. He filed for patent in 1872 but failed to renew it as required. As a result, Mr. Bell got the opportunity to patent his version of the telephone in 1876 and the rest is history. Mr. Bell might be speaking Italian if Mr. Meucci had taken steps to protect his invention.

The Cotton Gin

It is fairly common for one person to take advantage of another's ideas. This seems to be the case for Catherine Littlefield Greene. Without Mrs. Greene, the textile industry of today might be impossible. Everyone associates the cotton gin with Eli Whitney but Mrs. Greene provided the idea, design and the financing needed to develop and market the invention.

Eli Whitney, a tutor for Mrs. Greene's children, agreed to work with her to build and promote the device. Whitney didn't really steal her idea. The laws and mores of the time made it extremely difficult for a woman to do public work. Working with and through a man is the only way she could accomplish her aims without facing public indignation and scandal. Now history gives the credit to Eli Whitney but it was Catherine Greene who revolutionized textiles and help rebuild the economy of the Southern States as a result.

The Automobile

The motor car is an idea with a multitude of "inventors" but the first practical gas powered car is historically associated with Henry Ford and his model T. In fact, Ford was late to the starting line because Karl Benz received a patent for his automobile and began to sell them in 1888. This led to the later Mercedes Benz line of vehicles that dominated the market in Europe. Ford didn't develop a self-propelled motor car until 1896.


The development of radio could be considered an act of intellectual piracy today. Marconi, who received a patent for the idea in 1904, developed and built his radio using patented technology developed by Nikola Tesla. Marconi's work infringed on seventeen of Tesla's patented ideas and before 1904, Marconi was repeatedly refused patent due to conflict with previously patented inventions. When Marconi finally received a patent, Tesla lacked the resources to successfully defend his work. It was only after his death that Tesla finally received credit for the invention of wireless radio transmission.

There are several ways to protect your idea. Filing a provisional patent application protects your invention while you are trying to find companies to help with manufacturing and distribution. You may also consider a patent attorney to devise an intellectual property protection plan. Find out if your invention is patentable by visiting the United States Patent and Trademark Office. You'll find a wide range of helpful tools and information for protecting your ideas.

Editor's Note: Jon Silva works with Marsh Fischmann & Breyfogle LLP and enjoys the discussion and reporting of law. His interests include electrical engineering and renewable energy.

3 comments; last comment on 02/17/2014
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AM Broadcasting: A Rebirth?

Posted January 17, 2014 10:53 AM by Hannes

Picture this: you're an 8 year old on a Friday night in 1933, cross-legged on the floor next to your hulking, overheating Zenith console, impatiently waiting for Buck Rogers to come on the air. Fast forward to 1947, when as a young man the highlight of your week is tuning in to "watch" Jack Benny on your dial. A decade later, you're at your homebrew HF set in the basement of your suburban American home, anxiously trying to make contact with Philippine hams and dreaming about receiving that QSL card in the mail.

These very-20th-century moments depict the glory days of radio broadcasting, which has steadily declined since the advent of television, computers, and the World Wide Web. What's worse, analog enthusiasts are experiencing unbearable interference from these modern devices, making many AM or shortwave stations unlistenable. In the late-20th and early-21st centuries, however, digital broadcasting seems to have infused some life into this dying medium. In particular, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), a developing set of digital broadcasting technologies, has shown major promise and has been speedily adopted as a new standard since its inception.

Digital Radio Mondiale (mondiale is French/Italian for "worldwide") is also the name of the consortium which designed and is implementing the platform. Members include major international radio organizations such as Radio France Internationale, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, and Transradio (formerly Telefunken). The group's aim is to use digital audio broadcasting to efficiently improve AM transmissions without requiring a massive changeover of equipment and increased expenditures.

DRM's efforts appear to have been successful. The consortium realized that computer processing power is much cheaper and more freely available than bandwidth, so that the DRM system relies on using processing power to compress signals in order to make more efficient use of bandwidth. DRM standards give broadcasters the limited choice of three MPEG-4 codecs to encode source material for a maximum bit rate of almost 35 kbit/s on a 10 kHz channel. (For comparison, American HD Radio is capable of 20 kbit/s on the same channel width.) This results in a long-distance signal with audio quality comparable to local FM stations.

It's worth noting here that while AM broadcasting may seem hopelessly outmoded in many Western nations, it still occupies a significant hold on local and international media in less-developed countries. AM remains a go-to choice for reaching widely-dispersed populations due to the increased reach of longwave, medium wave, and shortwave transmissions. International broadcasting uses these same frequencies to export tourist information, propaganda, and patriotic rigmarole to foreign lands. Compared to modern telecommunications, shortwave requires minimal infrastructure: a couple transceivers, an antenna, a power source, and favorable atmospheric conditions are all you need to reach someone on the other side of the world. Some sources (albeit shortwave broadcasting stations) estimate that the number of active shortwave receivers tops 1.5 billion worldwide.

DRM's techniques are nothing new: Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) technology has been using compressed broadcasting in local European broadcasting for years, albeit with lower audio quality and little interoperability. Boons of DRM include the fact that the standard has been designed to make use of older equipment in existing stations; for example, no specialized antenna is needed to transmit the compressed signal. In addition to audio, DRM can simulcast multiple signals, including audio metadata, analog signals, and other data. Simulcasting digital and audio signals, which is impossible on most other digital broadcasting methods, is especially useful to conserve bandwidth because digital as well as analog receivers are able to pick up the same program on the same bandwidth without wasted space.

While DRM is pretty good about touting the benefits of their new technology, there have been drawbacks. Early DRM-compatible receivers (like the one at left) all required computers to operate, and while many European companies are now manufacturing dedicated DRM receivers, they remain relatively expensive (200 € and up). Very recently, there have been a string of commercially manufactured radios which provide DRM-compatible output ports. Considering the availability of open-source DRM software, this looks to be a much cheaper option.

The original DRM standard has been enthusiastically adopted by several international and regional standards bodies, including the IEC and ITU, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission adopted it as a digitally modulated emissions standard in late 2013. DRM's development continues to march on, and the group is busy testing DRM+, which applies similar principles to local FM broadcasting. Community Media Forum Europe recently advised the EC to adopt DRM+ as a replacement for Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) standards for local broadcasting in Europe.

This writer hopes that DRM-compatible equipment continues to drop in price as a prerequisite for more widespread adoption. While the Internet continues to shrink the scale of global communications, I still think it might be cool to switch on the radio and hear FM-quality underground Chinese broadcasts or soft rock from India.

Image credits: Neatorama | National Association of Broadcasters

1 comments; last comment on 01/18/2014
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