Rage Against The Machine

At first I was apprehensive about writing a weekly blog, but as I write this last one I understand why Dr. Brown incorporated it into his course. I think it gives us all a way to communicate our feelings and reflect on what knowledge we’ve gained throughout each week.

We have covered a lot this past semester as I look over my past blogs. Things that stand out are the realization that computers just didn’t appear on store shelves one day. It was a lengthy process that began with devices that seem primitive today, and it was shaped by brilliant pioneers like Konrad Zuse and Alan Turing.

I really enjoyed Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” and the vision he had to bring virtual reality to the masses. My favorite video was the Digital Nation documentary we viewed on the last day of class. I chuckled as the MIT students were informed that their multitasking “skills” were not what they thought and possibly a detriment to their success.

Dr. Brown’s words to the class after we watched the documentary were stark and somewhat unsettling. What he said in those few minutes were his most profound declarations of the semester. The class was on the edge of their seats and hung on every word.  His concern that our lives and future careers could be negatively affected by the rise of artificial intelligence in a few short years is very apparent. I say we must learn to adapt and evolve to face whatever may come. I know that he has a desire to educate us on future challenges and explore new ways of teaching and I wish him luck.

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Reality versus virtual reality

Virtual reality, I must admit, is not something that I’ve explored much. The video games I played as a kid were very primitive by today’s standards, and I didn’t find them appealing. Since I’m not a gamer, I had a discussion with my 18 year old nephew to gain some VR knowledge and found that he’s not a gamer either! He’s more interested in sports, but he does have some friends who play World of Warcraft and some of them are quite addicted. I was shocked when Dr. Brown told our class that WoW gamers average 6 hours per day of play time which explains why some develop personal as well as financial problems.
I’m even more amazed at what a huge business video games have become. One thing that has always impressed me about the software industry is the ability to make a copy of your application on a disk that cost you $.10 and then sell it for $50! It’s almost as good as printing money. So, if you love gaming, your best bet is developing them and letting someone else play them.
Perhaps I’ll get into gaming someday, but I would encourage anyone into virtual reality to not forget about the reality of hang-gliding, white water rafting, and just sitting on a beach and watching the moon rise over the ocean.

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Robot M.D.

After working with the Mindstorm robots again this week, I was curious how their function compared with a robotic system that I have seen demonstrated. My brother is a local surgeon, and he uses the Da Vinci robotic surgery system almost daily to perform bariatric weight loss surgery. This is the same system that Dr. Brown showed in class on Youtube. This device is not some pie-in-the-sky idea that may have applications in the future; it is here today and is quite common. Although it’s a multi-million dollar piece of equipment, my brother has been to hospitals with as many as six robots!

What is so fascinating about these machines is what they can’t do. My brother explained that during a surgical procedure he gets no tactile feedback from the machine to mimic the sense of touch. The surgeon must rely on his/her knowledge of the human body and its varying densities when operating. He compared it to Helen Keller and how her loss of sight and hearing would accentuate her other senses. So I’m at a loss as to why this multi-million dollar machine can provide no sensory feedback but a Mindstorm robot costing a few hundred bucks does. Next time you’re flat on your back and a robot is about to drill through your skull, make sure you have a good surgeon!

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If Charles Babbage had a Mindstorm

Lego has come a long way since I assembled their blocks into truly ugly houses and buildings as a kid. At first glance I viewed the Mindstorm as a toy, but it’s much more than that. I encourage everyone to explore the examples that others have created by other to get your creative juices flowing. I think making it perform as a Segway was impressive. See it here. I suspect if Charles Babbage had a Mindstorm he would have skipped school and never left the house!

Once again Nikola Tesla’s name came up this week and his first use of radio remote control. I had read a little about Tesla before taking this course and was fascinated by some of his radical theories and the mystery surrounding him. I believe that of the pioneers we’ve studied, I find him the most interesting and with unparalleled brilliance. If he were alive today, Moore’s Law would need to be re-evaluated and the appearance of highly advanced robots would happen even sooner.

I suspect a few years from now on a quiet weekend at Dr. Brown’s house (and perhaps yours) he will have robots doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, washing the car, and fetching an ice-cold lemonade! I have seen that robotic mowers are available, so maybe he already has one!

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Insecure Security

The hackers that Dr. Brown introduced us to in this week’s lecture were truly some unusual characters. I think that many of their antics were harmless for the most part and they didn’t set out do cause any damage. They had personalities that craved the sense of power they got by sticking it to “The man.” Obviously hacking has evolved into something quite serious today, and it makes what Captain Crunch did look like child’s play. Security software has become a big business especially on the Windows platform, and I often wonder if some of the software companies create viruses and malware in order to spur the sales of their products. Just a thought.

I’ve had a personal experience with computer security that led to my identity being stolen three times by the same person. I owned a business and an employee intercepted an invitation from a credit card company to sign up for their card. He did just that using my information, and then he was successful at convincing the credit card company to change the mailing address to his home. This took years to resolve because other credit card companies began sending card invitations to his address as well, thus enabling him to keep committing fraud! I encourage everyone to keep an eye on your bills for suspicious activity because a determined criminal will do almost anything to get what they want.

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Randy’s undying dreams

I’m looking forward to working with Scratch; I only wish I had been introduced to it when I first became interested in programming. It would have made my path much easier. Obviously it’s a great tool for learning programming basics. The drag-and-drop interface makes it less intimidating for new programmers and makes learning fun. I installed Alice out of curiosity after watching Randy Pausch’s last lecture and found that he uses a similar drag-and-drop approach to creating virtual worlds. I encourage everyone to give it a try as well, and hopefully we will get some time to use it later this semester.

What more can anyone say about the inspirational yet tragic life of Randy Pausch. This remarkable man continued to do what he loved while staring death in the face, and he never flinched. There’s no doubt that he was the most popular instructor on campus with students clamoring for a seat in his class. Of course his family, friends, and colleagues continue to keep his dreams alive as well as the internet that will teach and inspire a wide audience forever.

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Spring Break – Interstates, Beer, and HTML

Creating my first web page and learning HTML has demonstrated how simple it is for anyone to begin designing on their own. This explains the tremendous growth of the web and why it touches our lives daily. I found that the endless number of learning resources on the web are a tremendous tool in getting started. A web designer friend recommended Google images for royalty free photos, and YouTube has some great hands-on demonstrations. So, check it out if you haven’t already.

Dr. Brown covered the basics of SQL, and it was a good refresher course for me. I taught myself SQL when working for family-owned business in the 90’s. I designed databases for a wholesale, vending, and a retail company. I have a friend in the city of Knoxville’s IT department and he constantly stresses their need for DBA’s and how it will grow in the future. A position with the city’s IT department always offers a way to erase you last traffic infraction, but hopefully that will not be necessary. Everyone have a good spring break!

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HTML boot camp

As I consider creating my first web page, I keep asking myself why I haven’t done this before. After all, HTML is fairly easy to grasp, and it gives you a sense of empowerment as a publisher. I’ve never really thought of myself as a gifted writer, but the ease of presenting thoughts and ideas through the web could unleash the creativity in some of us. Hand coding in a text editor is especially rewarding and makes it exciting watching your page come to life.

I have an acquaintance that is a somewhat famous blogger, and after following his blog for several years I’ve discovered that it’s the page content that’s the secret of his success, as well as keeping the content updated and relevant. You must target your visitors, give them useful information, and keep them salivating for more. I suspect he makes a better living as a blogger than at his “real job” teaching.

One subject I will cover on my page will be things to do in downtown Knoxville, since I am a resident and I’m always looking for new things to do in the city. I’m not sure what other subjects I will touch on, but my primary goal is to keep my visitors awake, interested, and perhaps open a few windows in their minds.

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The Mac is not dead yet

The Assembly Language Simulator exercise this week demonstrated what computer instructions look like at their lowest level. The “universal machine” that Charles Babbage envisioned still exists in our laptops, desktops, iPods, and iPads, but now it’s on steroids! I would surmise that many of you thought the ALS was quite boring when placed alongside WoW, but I think what Dr. Brown was trying to get across is the stark reality of the advances in only a few short decades and that we can expect them to accelerate exponentially as Moore’s Law states.

I was especially interested in Dr. Brown’s experience as an owner of the original Macintosh. I too was the owner of one of these “insanely great” little boxes, and although it was revolutionary it was frustrating as well. There were only two applications when the Mac was introduced, but PC users could brag that they had hundreds if not thousands of apps. Thus, the Mac vs. PC war began. It was an uphill battle for Mac users due to the lack of software and the inroads that Microsoft had made into the business world. Today, I believe that the Mac OS and Linux are superior to Windows, and I try to avoid Windows whenever I can (I wrote this post using Linux). Once upon a time Mac users had to endure the ridicule and snickers from the PC crowd, but I have a feeling that Steve Jobs is the one laughing today.

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Building a beast

I had never considered building my own computer, but this assignment opened my eyes as to the mediocrity of the computers offered by the major manufacturers. Shopping for parts to assemble your own personal box is a great learning experience and you get more bang for the buck. Everyone should consider build-your-own when in the market for a computer.

Assembly should be fairly easy. After grounding myself, I will install the processor and the RAM modules onto the motherboard. Next, I will install the motherboard into the case and secure it with included screws. Next, I would insert the video card into the motherboard and secure it with screws. Inserting the blu-ray, hard drive, and SSD drive in the bays that suit me best would be next. Secure them with screws. Next install and secure the power supply. All that’s left is to use the included cables to wire everything up. Lastly, install Ubuntu.

The Parts (All from Newegg.com):

MSI 890FXA-GD70 AM3 AMD 890FX SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX AMD Motherboard. $179.99

This MOBO features SuperSpeed USB 3.0 technology to deliver up to 5Gbps bandwidth which is 10x faster than USB 2.0. SATA Revision 3.0 compliant internal SATA ports to provide 6Gb/s data transfer rates, and the onboard audio chipset comes with a 24-bit/192KHz sample rate and 7.1 channels for theater-like sound.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16813130274

AMD Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition Thuban 3.2GHz 6 x 512KB L2 Cache 6MB L3 Cache Socket AM3 125W Six-Core Desktop Processor HDT90ZFBGRBOX, $199.99.

This highly rated 6 core processor has Powernow technology to run cool and conserve energy.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16819103849

Antec Nine Hundred Black Steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case, $99.99.

Besides being the coolest looking case on the market, the Antec offers multiple configuration options and great cooling as well as a side window so you can admire your machine’s guts. This mid-sized case is not too big, not too small.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16811129021

Antec TPQ-850 850W Continuous Power ATX12V / EPS12V SLI Certified CrossFire Ready 80 PLUS BRONZE Certified Modular Active PFC “compatible with Core i7/Core i5″ Power Supply. $159.99.

I stayed with Antec for my power supply knowing that it would fit my Antec case. I also like the 33% less power consumption than other PSU’s offering the same output.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16817371009

Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) Desktop Memory Model CT2KIT51264BA1339

I went with Crucial for my 8 GB of RAM because of past experience when I had to make an exchange with them and they were extremely helpful. $89.99.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16820148347

Crucial RealSSD C300 CTFDDAC128MAG-1G1 2.5″ 128GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD). $239.99.

I was sold on a solid state drive when I recently used a laptop with one. The read and write times are phenomenal and you don’t have to worry about a drive failure. The SSD drive will be my primary and I’ll use the Seagate (see below) for mass storage. This is the most expensive part of my system, but it’s worth it.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16820148348

Seagate Barracuda XT ST32000641AS 2TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s 3.5″ Internal Hard Drive -Bare Drive. $169.99.

This Seagate drive has data transfer speeds of up to 6Gb/s for bottleneck-free system performance. A computer repair shop owner told me he only uses Seagate drives because in his experience their fail rate is far below the competition.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16822148506

XFX HD-585X-ZAFC Radeon HD 5850 1GB 256-bit GDDR5 PCI Express 2.1 x16 HDCP Ready CrossFireX Support Video Card w/ Eyefinity. $219.99.

This 1GB video card has great performance and HDMI out at a great price. Runs cool with the built-in fan.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16814150477

LG WH10LS30 10X Blu-ray Burner – LightScribe Support – Bulk – OEM, $99.99.

The LG WH10LS30 Blu-ray burner has 10X BD-R & 16x DVD±R write speed and is capable of reading and writing Blu-Ray, DVD, and CD.

http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?item=N82E16827136181

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