Episode 58 — Miscellany

gaugesIn a completely off-the-cuff discussion, Adam, Brian, Carmen and Jeff wander through subjects including finite state machines, power circuit wiring, and the economic implications of technological advances.

  • Jeff is busy preparing to teach a Software Carpentry course, as well as revising the Mechatronics course he taught the past two years.
  • Although there are certain conceptual advantages to having students automate their devices using an FPGA (field-programmable gate array) rather than an Arduino board, one downside is the need to teach a hardware description language (HDL), such as Verilog or VHDL.
  • On a past episode of The Amp Hour, Dave Vandenbout of XESS Corporation talked about MyHDL, a software package for programming FPGA devices using the Python language.
  • One should apparently avoid schematic capture as a means for programming FPGA devices.
  • A finite state machine (FSM) can be a handy mathematical abstraction when programming physical devices that have distinct operating modes.
  • A quote about finite state machines that Jeff refers to, but never states:

    “The formal, mathematical definition of an FSM is such brain numbing, eye popping mumbo jumbo I feel certain that 9 out of 10 electronic engineering and IT students switch off in the first 5 minutes of the FSM lecture series, never to ever benefit from the power of FSMs in their work. This is not difficult stuff, it’s just made to look difficult by the academics!” — David Stonier-Gibson

  • Adam is working on a brewery control system, using Android and Bluetooth.
  • To bring water up to a boil, Adam uses a 2000 watt immersion heater running off a 120 VAC power outlet.
  • For his birthday, Carmen has asked for the Arduino starter kit from Adafruit.
  • Brian mentions an Arduino + LabVIEW bundle that is available from Sparkfun.
  • Carmen references an episode of The Amp Hour that describes how companies buy up old equipment to make out-of-production IC chips.
  • At one time, NASA was buying up out-of-stock Intel 8086 CPUs from eBay to maintain their supply of spare parts.
  • Entire CPUs can be programmed into FPGAs these days.
  • Adam describes the slow advancement in traffic signal controller technology over the past several decades.
  • Brian asks Jeff if autonomous vehicles are robots.
  • Without using the “singularity” term, Jeff hints at the coming intermingling of humans and machines.
  • Brian ponders future robots declaring that certain problems “do not compute.”
  • The group gets into an extended discussion about the economic effects of technology, especially with regard to the number of jobs being automated each year.
  • Marc Andreessen has famously declared that “software will eat the world.”
  • Jeff recounts the central plot to Fredrick Pohl’s short story from 1954, “The Midas Plague,” in which the rich consume less, while the poor are forced to consume the glut of goods and services produced by robots.
  • Rodney Brooks has started a company, Rethink Robotics, which is selling an adaptable robot for less than $25,000.
  • In a discussion about people resisting change, Jeff recalls the story of John Henry, a “steel-driving man” who raced a steam-powered hammer in tunneling through a mountain.
  • Jeff asks the group to consider the economic effect of Chris Gammell‘s hypothetical “chip printing machine.”
  • A relatively small firm in England, ARM Holdings, designs the instruction set architecture used in the popular ARM processors.
  • Carmen points out that small companies and advanced hobbyists can fabricate their own chip designs using the MOSIS foundry service, which is operated by the University of Southern California.
  • Brian notes the recent interest in solar-powered roadways, although not everybody thinks it is a good idea.

Thanks to Steve Snodgrass for the photograph titled “UH-1N Cockpit.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.