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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.

Build a Better Fourth

Posted July 02, 2014 9:55 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: fireworks holiday July 4

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but the Fourth of July is awesome. It's an unusual holiday here in the U.S., as it's our only federal holiday in the summer, and law enforcement tends to be a little more lax (fireworks, open containers, and other frivolous violations). Also, it seems to be the only day of the year where everyone agrees to red, white, and blue everything. I realize that such a pompous display of national pride might seem weird to European readers, but realize we here have never had an up close and intimate view of righteous nationalism.

As such, I always do my best to give this day the celebration it deserves: fireworks, BBQ, baseball, and swimming. But it's not always easy to accomplish all these. Fireworks are either legal, illegal, or legally ambiguous depending on where you live. Anyone can grill burgers and dogs, but that's not BBQ. Baseball is great, but also admittedly boring. If you live in a city, finding a pool that isn't packed or gross is impossible.

So here are my pseudo-scientific tips on maximizing your Fourth, no matter your situation, and American or not.


The map at right illustrates the basic legal status of consumer fireworks for each state in the U.S. Many states are ambiguous or have loopholes; for example, in Pennsylvania, only out-of-state citizens can purchase fireworks and they must sign a waiver which promises to remove their purchase from the state within 24 hours. Really, despite what the map says, if there is a will, there is a way. Fortunately, police can only respond to so many fireworks calls, and you don't have to make a road trip to come up with the ingredients for bottle rockets.

Use this Instructables guide to create low-powered bottle rockets. Note: do this respectfully (in an open area away from people and homes), as CR4 has no liability if you act like a jerk with this information.


Grilling is not equal to barbeque. Even a native New Yorker can identify that. Simply put, BBQ requires some kind of wood smoke. I've been a smoking aficionado for about five years now. Here are some ribs on the grill from Memorial Day weekend prepared by yours truly. This weekend I'm going to smoke up some turkey legs.

There is no need for a commercial or homebuilt smoker, but these do tend to produce the best flavor. I use a second-hand Weber propane grill. The number one rule is patience: a good smoking process takes much longer than grilling. The rack temperature should be around 200° F, meaning one or two burners on low-medium. Wood chips from the local hardware store only run about $10. Soak them for about 30 minutes, and place them in a multi-layer foil packet. Poke some holes through the packet and place them directly over the grill baffles. Ideally, you should only turn your burgers, chicken, ribs, etc. once during cooking, and the fat side should start facing up. Use a meat thermometer to check temperatures.


I love baseball in a way that few others do. Many find it monotonous and sleepy. So instead of nodding off during the third inning, challenge your BBQ guests to a wiffle ball game. It's a low intensity game anyone can play, and a wiffle bat and ball are about $5. In 2011, New York State tried to establish government regulations regarding wiffle ball safety; sadly, they weren't joking.

Wiffle balls are called such because the construction of the ball allows pitchers extensive control of curveballs, producing "whiffs." The eight elliptical holes that perforate half of the ball determine how the ball acts when thrown. To produce the biggest curve possible, position your index and middle fingers on along the seam where the ball has been put together, with the holes pointing away from your body. Throw the pitch hard, and overhand like a baseball. A sweeping curve will decimate all opponents, as more airflow gets routed into the hollowness of the ball.


I'll admit I was very excited when I saw this photo of a clear lagoon floating in the Hudson River on PopMech. So, I was equally disappointed to learn it was a mock-up of what it would look like if Crystal Lagoons installed a floating lagoon in the harbor. These oversized pools are being installed in locations around the world, such as in Dubai, which also has too much garbage in the water for its population to swim. These lagoons can be towed to various venues and can also be turned into ice rinks in the winter. There is talk of making these an option for nuclear plants that use water to cool reactors and wreak havoc on local ecologies.

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The Internet of Things

Posted June 29, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Interesting stuff on the internet

Happy 4th of July! Image Credit: JD Hancock

Going away for the summer? Consider checking out the World's Largest Underground Cave Trampoline.

It's impossible to hide from the World Cup these days - At least you can enjoy these beautiful pictures of the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

You know I'm always talking about the importance of water. How about a bottle cap that reminds you to hydrate?

Abandon buildings are strangely fascinating: 12 Abandon Automobile Dealerships.

I'm heading to Arizona for 4th of July- This trick is going to be very handy.

Chocolate is also a favorite topic on CR4. NPR writes about How Chocolate Might Save the Planet.

For a better experience, keep your browser up to date.

Need a laugh? Watch these kids react to old computers

Bikers will love this - a bicycle frame handle for carrying your bike up stairs or when you're on a train.

Last but not least - Robots are creepy cool!

1 comments; last comment on 06/29/2014
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Virtual Reality and Facebook

Posted June 28, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Another garage breakthrough strikes again. Palmer Luckey designed his first working prototype of a head-mounted 3D display in his garage at the age of 16.

Now 21, Palmer is the founder of Oculus VR, a company that is on the verge of releasing the Rift, an affordable virtual-reality headset for playing ultra-immersive video games and mentioned in this CR4 Post.

Although Palmer has no form engineering training, years of amassing and tinkering with head-mounted displays inspired him to design his own prototype and it has garnered the attention of venture capitalists to the tune of $91 million. The device has also attracted a following, including game programmer John Carmack, who led the development of influential video games such as Doom, Quake, and Rage.

But Facebook stepped up, buying the company for $2 billion this spring. This purchase is a sign that virtual reality (VR) is now sharp and cheap enough to have a huge potential for more video games. And now virtual reality doesn't have to stay in the realm of video games. The technology also has applications in teleconferencing, online shopping, and more passive forms of entertainment like movies. VR technology has been used for several years in some industries, including medicine where surgeons routinely practice operations using VR simulation. But the Rift offers better resolution at a lower price than anything on the market today.

Image Credit: Technology Review

When you use the Rift, you feel as though you're inside the virtual world. The technology, adapted from parts of smart phones, follows the movement of your head in real time. This allows the user to lean in to take a better look at a virtual flower or look into the skies at a virtual cloud.

The retail version will launch later this year or early next year. The Rift will offer resolution higher than 1,920 by 1,080 pixels per eye.

My first concern when I read about this technology was if it was going to make me motion-sick. Oculus reported that while some testers have reported nausea, they have almost eliminated this problem in the latest version. The experience is helped by the many stimulating worlds that artists today are able to create.

Keep your eyes out for the Rift on the market! Learn more about it by watching the video here.

Would you be interested in buying a VR headset?

This article is brought from MIT 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014

2 comments; last comment on 06/29/2014
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LEGO to Create Female Scientists

Posted June 23, 2014 12:00 AM by SwissMiss

I've been a girl all my life, a LEGO fan nearly as long, and I'm so excited because LEGO will (finally) produce a set of very special female Minifigures called the "Research Institute." This new set will feature three Minifigures; a chemist, astronomer, and paleontologist. All three will be female, and all will be fully equipped with their respective tools of the trade; a chemistry lab, telescope, and dinosaur skeleton. It's due to come out this August.

In the past, female Mnifigures have been rare. I only had one very clearly female among hundreds of male or, at best, gender-ambiguous Minifigs. Ever since I got that one female in 1992, I used her head on other Minifig bodies so I could have a female racecar driver, a female pirate, or even a female astronaut. The fact that I had to use one head for a multitude of careers never bothered me, but it would have been nice to see more female faces in my childhood tub of LEGOs.

LEGO has definitely increased the production of female Minifigures since the 1990s, and the introduction of LEGO Friends in 2012, which is designed to appeal to girls, has been very successful. Some feel, however, that the LEGO Friends product line promotes gender stereotypes. I don't own any LEGO Friends sets, but after taking a look, I did feel that the products were a little Barbie-esque.

Image Credit: LEGO Ideas

The fact that LEGO is now intentionally putting females in traditionally male-dominated roles makes both childhood and present-day me very happy. LEGO, I love you to pieces!


Soon There Will Be Female Scientist LEGOs

4 comments; last comment on 06/24/2014
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Where Does the Internet Go From Here?

Posted June 18, 2014 3:12 PM by HUSH

There exists an evil in this world that is so ubiquitous, so accepted, that its maliciousness is no longer even recognized.

Cable companies.

They're taking over all our data streams, restricting how fast theygoes, charging us ridiculous prices, offering horrible customer service, and then turning all that information over to the feds without a warrant. South Park can help elaborate (strong language--it's South Park, after all).

Unfortunately I live in a county where only one cable company has been approved to supply cable, internet and landline phone service. (Landlines?) I made the decision years ago to cut the cord with my cable company, but I still rely on them for broadband internet. I pretty much have no choice since they're the only provider that can supply the significant bandwidth I need. Friends have tried to seduce me into satellite, but its only real advantage seems to be better customer service-an instance where something is better than nothing.

I've replaced my cable boxes with Rokus. My ESPN/TSN with Hockeystreams and MLB At Bat. My channel surfing with Netflix and Hulu overload. My HBO with…err, HBO Go. But you get my point: that alternatives exist to the traditional cable and subscriber relationship, even if I'm still a slave to the same company that I'm trying to protest.

I'm not alone, as the growing number of cord cutters led to industry giants, such as Comcast, to throttle the data transfer of Netflix, who at times accounts for 40% of all internet traffic. Netflix recently agreed to pay Comcast Cable a significant interconnection fee, but continues to speak out against a proposed Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger, which will become the cable-industry leader by a wide margin.

Netflix's argument is sound: if big data companies are able to selectively throttle data streams and force a large company like Netflix into paying premiums, then any content distributor is at the will of internet service providers. There is a huge potential for data to be tightly controlled and censored, except it's big corporations who will determine what can or cannot be distributed.

And this is the net neutrality debate in a nutshell. We've turned so much of our lives over to the digital era and the internet, so quickly, that we've never considered the motivations of the internet gatekeepers.

Not only could this make communication exponentially more difficult, but it has the potential to drastically alter our technology. Innovation and collaboration would take a backseat to big money deals. ISPs could restrict what you can access online so that maybe you can't research a new smart phone (so the ISP tries to sell you that landline). ISPs could alter your news access to the point where the daily newspaper makes a comeback. An ISP could take CR4 away, just because of this here blog entry.

Of course, these are only possibilities. And many people are lobbying their representatives and the FCC to pass laws that require ISPs to treat all internet traffic indiscriminately. But it's not up to them, as the FCC has no authority over internet access, and capitalism requires at least some degree of laissez-faire. Therefore, to create a truly open and neutral internet competition needs to be spurned, and two things need to happen.

  1. Better mobile networks: broadband companies insist that mobile Wi-Fi hotspots are a direct competitor, but there is really no comparison. The average home's broadband usage tops 100 GB a month, while even the largest wireless data plans cap usage at about 50 GB, and at about three times the expense. Mobile companies would need to develop universal, un-capped 4G coverage to become a viable alternative-a difficult but inevitable task here in the United States.
  2. Local right-of-ways: before an ISP can deliver service to a region, they must pay local governments for wire space on utility poles and in underground conduits. If governments are willing to relax these regulations and fees, more ISPs would be willing to bring their services, increasing competition is smaller markets. Until this, smaller providers are going to be stuck in larger markets

The future of net neutrality is still unknown, but it stands on the horizon of great change. The information superhighway is patrolled by the warped economic interests of ISPs, at least for right meow.

11 comments; last comment on 06/27/2014
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Gametopia or Gamepocalypse?

Posted June 09, 2014 12:00 AM by Hannes

I had a high school friend (and he was thaaat friend…) who seemed convinced that he lived in a role-playing video game. He rated bullies (Did I mention he was bullied? Do I even need to?) in terms of strength, speed, and intelligence attributes and weighed his own "attributes" against theirs to determine whether he could "beat" them. He spoke of "leveling up" when studying or improving certain skills. I didn't stick around town long enough to learn whether or not he grew out of this practice, but needless to say he made life a little more interesting until I was 18 or so.

Bryan's life was the first I knew to be gamified. Over a decade later, in this present day, "gamification" is a term tossed about rather freely when referring to gaming mechanics and thinking as applied to everyday life. It's a concept that's been hailed as a revolutionary tool for user engagement, as well as derided as a restrictive marketing fad. An exploration of gamification will hopefully help you decide for yourself.

Gamification exploits some natural, fundamentally human traits: competition, longing for achievement, seeking out closure. You have to admit, seeing that progress bar finally fill up on that 1 GB pirated film you just downloaded feels pretty darn satisfying. Gamification takes that status bar and ramps it up ten notches: on many gamified sites, performing better or faster than an online pal results in the granting of virtual currency, coupons, or reward points or badges. Marketers realized some time ago that this double-shot of dopamine might be key to engaging young customers and other users.

Take a look around the commercial landscape these days and you'll see more gamified sites and products than there are broken fourth walls in House of Cards. Apps like Fitocracy allow you to earn points and "level up" depending upon your fitness performance. For the youngins, Disney/Oral-B's Magic Timer app "watches" and times kids brushing their teeth (with an approved Oral-B toothbrush, of course) and unlocks images as they brush for longer periods of time. Microsoft's been in the game for a while, and even revived Clippy to participate in Ribbon Hero 2, a game designed to educate new Office 2007 and 2010 users on how to use a ribbon interface. As long as you're watching your favorite show anyway, why not pull out your phone and check-in to Fango to chat with fellow fans and give marketers a little prized demographic data?

Sounds like harmless fun, yes? Maybe, but some commentators like Jesse Schell (somewhat humorously) envision a gamified dystopian future, in which tilt sensors in cereal boxes let manufacturers know when you're pouring their product, and your toothbrush transmits data to your healthcare provider in order to shave some pennies off your dental premiums. Considering the growing attempts to popularize smart house technology and uberconnectivity, this world seems outlandish but not impossible.

Gamification has its share of serious detractors, too. Will Wright of SimCity fame compared current gamification techniques to monosodium glutamate, in that most companies are sure that sprinkling some game-like elements into their brand recipe can instantly make it more palatable. Hardcore game designers are offended by the term "gamification" because the practice doesn't take into account the fact that the best, most endearing games are structurally well-designed, not gimmicky like gamified apps and websites. Some imply that gamification is just a technologically enhanced iteration of a loyalty program and that "exploitationware" would be a more suitable name. Jane McGonigal, who was referred to as "the current public face of gamification" by The Guardian in 2011, resents the concept because it focuses on rewards outside of gameplay, a characteristic which is rare in well-designed "real" games which are valued for gameplay alone.

The fact of the matter is that gamification is here; whether or not it sticks around and develops further remains to be seen. Will our children, who have always been exposed to gamified learning to some degree, grow up advantaged? Will the populace at large suddenly wake up and realize they're wasting their lives for badges, medals, and useless points? Do you envision a real-life, gamified future?

And Bryan, wherever you are: if the Gamepocalypse does occur, you'll be way ahead of everyone else.

Image credits: Wesley Fenlon | Jesse Schell

2 comments; last comment on 06/10/2014
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