A frickin’ rotary with a frickin laser

Wankel Rotary Engine from Mazda RX 7 A frickin rotary with a frickin laser

Step 1: bash head on bathtub. Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit! (img by J.Lyon)

One of the great discoveries of biology is that the engines of life are molecular motors–tiny machines that create, transport and assemble all living things.

That’s triggered more than a little green-eyed jealousy from  physicists and engineers who would like to have molecular machines at their own beck and call. So there’s no small interest in developing molecular devices that can be easily harnessed to do the job.

Today, Jin Zhang at the University of California Los Angeles and a few pals say they’ve identified a machine that fits the bill.

A couple of year ago, chemists discovered that groups of 13 or 19 boron molecules form into concentric rings that can rotate independently, rather like the piston in a rotary Wankel engine. Because of this, they quickly picked up the moniker “molecular Wankel engines“. The only question was how to power them.

The first–and only– engine I ever rebuilt was a 1200cc Mazda Rotary (Wankel). This story just sort of tickled me in a “let’s explain mind bending physics by referencing an engineering operation that almost no one really understands and is terrified of,” kind of way.

Do, Know, Live » 2 Comments

Why Eric can’t code

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"Hello, World, why don't you play with me anymore?" (img by Bill Bradford)

I was about 8 years old at the dawn of affordable personal computing. My father bought an Apple IIc, and I spent days in the basement staring at a little black and white television we’d hooked up to it, trying to emulate Zork in BASIC because the machine didn’t do much on its own.

In college, I played Darkwind and coded a little LPC for a friend’s MUD. After college, I dicked around with Linux a lot thanks to information on the World Wide Web (remember when we called it that?). I got a freeshell account and wrote my own web pages (eventually with CSS!) and used Unix scripting tools to automate tasks at work and save hours.

Now I spend more time on computers than I ever did before, but the way I do it is completely different. Most of my work is simple office stuff. Email, web, documents, and work-specific stuff. This is me, doing what I do at work:

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This is how all the greatest apps get coded. (img by Justin Walcker)

Every few months, I’ll read an article like Why Johnny can’t code by David Brin and tell myself, “I should (re)learn to code.” I get some books and slog through a couple of online lessons. I get fascinated with the idea of some arcane computer language and research it and get more books. Then I end up staring at a REPL or interpreter or text file, ready to bash through a lesson on arrays or recursive functions or monads… and I promptly stop giving a fuck. Not because it’s hard, but because I just don’t care. It’s more fun to read about design patterns. I had the same problem with math in school.

Until tonight, reading a blog post about why Codeacademy sucks and the whole thread of replies and alternatives, I wasn’t clear on why I haven’t been able to to care long enough to learn to program or learn any math beyond basic algebra. My problem isn’t a lack of curiosity or intellectual equipment, it’s something else.

Now is the information age. I have a supercomputer in my pocket, and I’ve got access to loads of data beamed out all over the fucking place. People are making autonomous flying robots, distributed currency systems, anonymizing services, and peer to peer networks.

In this amazing time, I thought it would be easy to find a problem I want to solve and therefore have the impetus to learn to program. But I was wrong. There are lots of interesting problems out there, but there are also lots of cool solutions. If I want to keep an eye on the news for something specific, I take a minute to set up a Google Alert, not spend hours writing, testing, and debugging a script that crawls news sites for the term, formats the information, and beams it to my communication thingy of choice.

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"A" stands for "A shitload of money." (img by Rob Boudon)

Shit’s just easy now, and complacency is the mother of app store and marketing profits.

Codeacademy isn’t going to fix that. Nor is Learn Python the Hard Way. And punditry won’t help at all. I need to either artificially limit my own access to readily available premade solutions and/or find a project that has no solutions and is compelling enough to work on. The latter seems better, but I’ve got to unlearn some complacency and start dreaming of things for myself instead of letting Google dream them for me.

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Build a computer… in Minecraft

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Jacking into the lego Matrix. (img by *USB*)

Kids these days and their virtual Lego games. Why not just play with Lego? Now I know: because Minecraft bits won’t stab your bare feet and because you can do more than build an 80 foot golden cock and balls with the stuff you find in the game.

You can build a computer. Yep, in Minecraft, you can build a structure that performs computations, and can theoretically compile programs. Don’t believe me? This kid is well on his way:

I’m now going to go read the book and see if I can’t get my head around building a computer from first principles and the crap some local vagrant keeps leaving in my yard. Reading about how something works is one thing. Actually making a thing work is far cooler. Get your hands dirty (virtual or otherwise), and learn something while you’re at it.

Know, Make, Play » No Comments