Quartus 9.1

In my "Digital Fundamentals" class, we've begun working with Altera's free Quartus program for programming FPGAs and more. The order in which we've been working with it, over just two weeks:

  1. Beginning tutorial on creating a "project" with logic symbols (.bsf) files
  2. Creating a timing waveform file (.vwf) to see how the logic you designed works
  3. Writing VHDL, either copying a .bsf file or wholly new, then creating a .vwf
  4. Using Quartus to display the simplified equivalent Boolean algebra equation (often using De Morgan's Theorem) for one designed another way

This stuff is neat. This coming Tuesday, we'll hook our machines up to FPGAs and program them. I'm looking forward to the hands-on application of what we're learning.

Crafted Wooden Pencil

Today my friend Carl Marko showed me done of the new pencil designs he's been working on. He carves various beautiful exotic woods, some of which are toxic if the fine sawdust is inhaled. I chose the heaviest one because of its weight, non-grooved end (I don't care for writing utensils cut to accommodate thumb and forefinger), and grain. He unscrewed and extracted its mechanical innards, which he exchanged with those of my Pentel. I didn't know that mechanical pen innards are identical, regardless of the graphite diameter; that is a function of tip width.

Anyway, here is my new mechanical pencil. You can buy a similar one from the links at the right.

20120928-225834.jpg

More on smartPhysics.com

Having finished the first test in mechanics, I'm moving into work and energy. The online content of smartPhysics.com is proving more useful. The animations of concepts and shifting through equations to reach useful versions are more helpful. Whether this is because the online content is improved, I am more accustomed to smartPhysics, I have a foundation on which to build, or the whim of the gods, I don't know.

Regardless, smartPhysics is coming into its own.

Reset iPod touch to Regain Car Audio System Functionality

I have an iPod touch, which has been an outstanding gadget. My Honda Fit, in its upper glove compartment, has a USB jack that ends in an Apple iPod/iPhone tip. When the iPod is connected, I can play its music (or NHK Japanese-language podcasts) through the Fit's sound system.

This works wonderfully until it doesn't. Connecting the iPod results in a delay, an "Incompatible Version" message, an "Unsupported Version" message, or something else. After a period of time that usually grows longer every day, from seconds to minutes, the device that had stolidly refused to connect will suddenly appear, its music files and playlists accessible at last.

When this happens, the thing to do is perform a hard reset of the iPod.

Test Week 1

This week is a hectic one. Tuesday saw the first exam in "Digital Fundamentals," which included wiring an AND with diodes on a breadboard.

Yesterday was the first physics test over six textbook units about kinematics, Newton's Laws, and friction. Despite much anxiety about the test, I do believe I did well.

Tomorrow will be the first C exam.

Chilluminati Radio

Increasingly I listen to Chilluminati Radio when studying. Its stream rarely drops or has buffer hangs, unlike some of the other electronic and techno net stations I have tried.

Never a fan of dancing, watching or doing, I enjoy the repetition and driving beat of trance and some types of techno. It pushes me in my studies without greatly distracting me.

The station is from the Midwest, as am I, hence another reason to promote Chilluminati.

Buckyballs' "Save Our Balls" Campaign

Buckyballs is a maker of buckyballs, makers of powerful rare earth magnets that they offer in various shapes. The company makes it clear on its packaging that its products are not for children, as they can be dangerous when swallowed. Sadly, some children have swallowed the magnets regardless, so the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 2010 approved the company's safety program; however, the CPSC now wants to shut Buckyballs down because the measures the CPSC approved two years ago it now finds inadequate.

Buckyballs has decided to fight the CPSC and launched a Save Our Balls campaign. Good for them!

If so inclined, let the CPSC hear your thoughts about their assault on Buckyballs.

smartPhysics.com

...isn't.

My physics course in mechanics requires a textbook and online site (smartPhysics.com) package that is reasonable. The textbook was about $50; the site access is bundled, which is not the case with chemistry.

Each unit of the book has an identical online lecture, which we are to watch before the course lecture. The online pre-lecture is word-for-word identical to the textbook content, although the online version includes some explanatory animations. Each unit's pre-lecture has a question or two to help clarify whether you understand the content.

Once the pre-lecture is finished, there are "checkpoint" questions that are scored by the instructor, despite the name that suggests an immediate check. If you're unsure of the checkpoint answers, which are often more difficult than yet more conceptually important than ten pre-lecture content, you must seek answers elsewhere. If you wait until the actual lecture to better learn the concepts, you will lose much time and have trouble with the homework.

The homework problems for each smartPhysics.com unit are reasonably good problems. They are relevant to the material of their unit. However, they often have little or no guidance in how to approach them. Had I not bought a large dated physics book as a supplement, I would normally be unable to solve the smartPhysics problems. The textbook is just too thin and wholly devoid of problem-solving approaches. Since I view problem-solving as the goal of physics, I am quite dissatisfied with the book and online lecture content.

Each online homework problem often has 5-6 component problems. For example, a problem about a jet taxiing on a runway might have liftoff and leveling questions that require x- and y-direction understanding. Good! Some of the component problems' answers can be seen, if you can input them; some cannot, because the instructor will grade them. Occasionally smartPhysics recognizes a wrong answer and provides possibly useful information, perhaps suggesting a sign change or exchanging masses in the calculations. However, you certainly cannot rely on it to guide you, with the exception of the rare interactive exercises. I have worked many problems where I input things that were close yet were neither correct nor prompted; there are a finite number of inputs, so the algorithms could be improved to catch more incorrect answers to provide guidance. I don't want the answers, but I do want to know whether I'm on the right track. But the biggest problem is that smartPhysics seems quite dumb when accepting answers. There is built-in tolerance for variation due to how calculations are done, but it's poorly executed. Sometimes problems require significant figure answers; sometimes significant figure answers that are correct are refused because more digits were requested! This flaw is especially maddening, because marking a correct answer wrong makes the user wonder whether his entire approach was wrong, thus undoing whatever confidence the user might have had. Our instructor encourages us to put whatever our final calculation is into the answer fields, since that is the most reliable.

SmartPhysics isn't bad, but it has some notable weaknesses. Our program administrators apparently want the course to be smartPhysics.com. I don't mind the online stuff, but I wish that material would be left to use so most class time could be spent solving problems instead of going through review of the book and online content.

This gets to my frustration with physics. My math classes have presented a topic then normally gone to problem solving; I go home and solve more problems in a similar manner. In physics, we get problems. There are few if any instructions on how to set them up; there are no odd-question answer keys to check your work or reverse-engineer. You can mess with the tools (equations) but, given the time constraints, there is no realistic way, other than knowing people who know the material, to find out whether you are doing things correctly. There is no reinforcement through problem-solving repetition if you can't start or confirm conclusion of another similar problem.