Monday, June 18, 2012

Celebrate Technical Diversity Especially the Lego Space

Like many people who build with Lego, I see and 
Celebrate Open Standards and Diversity
understand the purists within the community. The general purist thought process wants to accomplish a task with a single system. A building system is like a set of rules, and we know that rules always have situations they cover very well and situations they don't. From a rules point of view, it takes successively more and more rules to close loopholes(things the rules don't do well). From a mechanical standpoint, we could imagine the Lego building system as a set of rules. These rules are great at some things and not as good at others. It is almost a game to try to get Lego to do amazingly awesome things and still be Lego. It is a sport, but it is the spirit of creation and creativity?
A symbol of purity

I always felt that the spirit of Lego is to embrace creativity and creation. As a young builder back in the day, It was always about making new things in cool ways. You made this using this part? How cool! I see what you did here with this new piece. Awesome!

But what about when we get older? What happens? The Lego community has what they call the "dark ages" where teens usually drop out of the Lego scene. This is common due to things like the opposite gender. As a note, I never experienced the dark ages, but I was never very successful with women in my teen years either.

Does there have to be a dark ages or is there something else going on? I think most people agree that the dark ages is caused by a misconception about Lego only being for kids. As it turns out, there are many..many...MANY adult fans of Lego (AFOL) who love to play with Lego in many different capacities. Part of Lego's positioning in the toy market is to market to kids. As kids age into men and women, they want something that is "meant" for them and not for their "old" child self's. Lego does a great job of many things, but one area they don't focus as much on is growing with their users. There are exceptions to this, the most notable being Mindstorms Robotics Line. Moreover, Mindstorms will always carry some degree of kid only positioning in the mind of the general public because Lego itself is primarily meant to appeal to kids...and Mindstorms is a Lego product. The marketing just bleeds over, and there is no good way to avoid that.

Can Lego grow with us? Even through the dark ages? Absolutely! There is no reason why Lego cannot be part of our robotics and other construction related hobbies regardless of age, but there are some caveats. As we grow older, we want the complexity of what we build to grow. There comes a point where you just need something more than what Lego can provide. Instead of thinking that Lego is its own walled garden, we should be thinking of Lego as one tool to accomplish our goals of building different things. Once you accept this point of view, whole worlds open up to your beckoning. No longer are you limited to a single building system targeted at the youth. This allows you to take the best advantages of the Lego platform - simplicity, consistency, ease of use, and plenty aftermarket additions - with the capability of the more advanced options. There are tons of products in the Lego platform space. Some examples are BecreoMindsensors, Dexter Industries, and HiTechnic. There are even Arduino Shields! Let us not forget aftermarket software such as NXC, RobotC, ICON, LeJOS, and pbLua. No list would be complete without the Enhanced Firmware as well. There are whole competitions based around the Lego platform. One notable competition that encourages use of Lego with aftermarket parts the FIRST Tech Challenge. As a youngster, you can start in the First Lego League using all Lego robots and then move to the FIRST Tech Challenge! These are all examples of how Lego can grow with us.

With all of these products and options, the Lego platform can grow with our needs. Weather you want to explore mechanical design, electronics, or software, there is a path for substantial growth and learning. There is so much more capability waiting to be explored!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why I Love Manual Transmissions

Is it ethical to drive stick?
6 speed manual
The biggest advantage of a manual is that you have the control. The opportunity is on you to decide if you want to drive for sport, efficiency, towing, hills, and launching. A manual's interface is actually pretty simple. You have a clutch and a stick. You put the clutch in, select the gear you want, and let the clutch out. Petal-Stick-Petal. You do not have buttons, modes, or computers making poor authoritarian decisions for you. You get the joy of deciding how to drive your car. I can change my driving style instantly to any driving situation. For example if I am towing, I can choose to stay in an appropriate gear. If I am on hilly terrain I can choose to use the engine to slow the car down via engine breaking or scramble up the hill in a lower gear to maintain torque. Another big advantage is that you can make gear decisions based on the future. In contrast, the automatic selects its gears solely on your sole. This gives the manual an advantage as you can shift into the next gear before you might need it. As the driver, this lets you use your sight of the terrain to your advantage to know what is coming up.

I love manual transmissions. I love having the control and finesse to truly operate my vehicle which gives me a rush and pride. I drive a 6 speed all day and I love it. While many cars now have a sport shift option that allows the driver to choose the selected gear, They miss the tactile feel that operating the mechanics of the vehicle itself provide. All they are really doing is telling the car's computer to stay in a selected gear. Since the vast majority of automatic transmissions use torque converters, you still get that slushy and sluggish feel instead of the crisp and sharp feeling that your engine is begging to provide.

Manual transmissions usually provide better gas mileage. This is because there is a solid connection between the crankshaft of the engine and the wheels. There is no torque converter, which is basically a centrifugal pump, which ends up wasting power. Better automatic transmissions are secretly computer controlled manual transmissions. There are some expensive automatics now which can do better than a manual in some circumstances. Notably, dual clutch automatic transmissions do very well. However in general, your average car will get better mileage as a manual than an automatic. Another thing to think about is that you can cost much better than an automatic can.

Driving stick is not hard. After some practice, driving stick becomes completely automatic. The car becomes an extension of your intention. While driving, you don't think about what you need to do, you just do it. It is like any other activity in that the more you do it, the better you get at it. One good measure of a stick driver is if they can immediately go from driving their own stick vehicle to another and still be smooth. Once you have achieved that, you know you truly drive by the feel of the car. Your friends with sticks will thank you as well. If you feel that you are not competent enough to learn some basic car mechanics and petals, you probably shouldn't be driving. Men and women, young and old, all knew how to do this before automatics were common place. 

Manual Transmissions are very reliable. Manual transmissions are usually built to last. If you treat your manual right, you should be able to reach 150,000-175,000 miles with only regular scheduled maintenance.

Manual Transmissions are safer than automatics. This is because a manual transmission involves you in the operation of the car; you are much less likely to dose off while you are shifting. Automatics encourage distraction by leaving you alone for too long. I also feel more comfortable in a manual during adverse weather because I can do a better job of controlling the car's actions. Manuals are also safer to park. I bet you never thought of that! You can leave a manual in a very low gear such as first or reverse which will lock the wheels to a very stationary engine and use a parking break. It is good to develop a habit of putting your hand on the stick and moving it to the neutral position every time you start your car. This will let you get your car out of any gear it was left in. Even if you don't park the car with it in gear, you should still check every time for when someone else does it to your car or you drive someone else's car.

You can multitask in a manual just as in an automatic if you need to. Between shifts, there is plenty of time to bite that burger, answer that call, change that radio station, or do something else. However, for talking on the phone, I do recommend using a Bluetooth headset for convenience and safety in any vehicle.

Manual transmissions usually cost less than a competing automatic since they are much simpler and do not require computers to run. In addition, manual transmissions will work if you experience some sort of a power failure since the operation is mechanically controlled by the driver directly. Due to their simplicity, they are usually cheaper to maintain easier to upgrade.

And finally, having the skill and executing it well commands a certain degree of respect and awesomeness. 

In summary, Manuals have many advantages over automatics. I encourage you to at least learn how to drive one so you can be an educated human being. The driving experience is very different and satisfying. 

Everytime you buy a car with an automatic transmission god kills a kitten

Friday, June 8, 2012

An Audio Amplifier filled with Tube Things from Physics

Vacuum Tubes From Wikipedia

I am been wanting to pick up the electric guitar for a while now. Part of getting a good setup is getting a good amp. Since I like to take things over the top, I really want to build my own tube amp. If you would like some info on tubes, you can find it here in this Wikipedia article. Tubes are known to produce some awesome sound and they have a nice old school aesthetic that I like. I don't care about power consumption nor do I need to shatter the neighbors windows; I care about the sound quality and simplicity. From what I have learned in electronics class, I think I need a class A amplifier. Class A amps can only be 50% at best which is not bad considering the inefficiencies of other devices we use on a daily bases. Your regular internal combustion engine is around 15-25% efficient. Most heat engines never exceed 50% efficient. Lasers are around 5% efficient. 
From the Internet

This is going to be an exercise not only in electronics but also in making something look good. I want the amp to be a long flat base with the tubes clearly visibly protruding from the top of the amp. One of the things I want is to have the tubes in a cage. Imagine something like this but with a vacuum tube in it. It would not only help to protect the tubes, but it would also give the design a more industrial old school feel.

A Nixie Tube from Wikipedia
Another feature I want is to show the volume using a series of nixie tubes. Nixie tubes are basically incandescent light bulb filaments that have been set into the shapes of numbers within one tube. Wikipedia has a great article about it here. By connecting power to different inputs, the tube will display different numbers. I have two thoughts in mind for this. One thought is to have a discrete volume knob which controls the amplification in steps and connects the right number in the nixie tube. Also, I want this knob to have 12 positions: 11 of amplification, and one for off. Have you ever seen the movie Spinal Tap? The second option is to have 11 nixie tubes which span across the amplifier. Each tube would be set to only display one unique consecutive number across the span of tubes. As you turn the volume up, you could discretely turn on each nixie tube for each knob position. Another idea would be to turn the tubes on gradually. This would mean that the earlier nixie tubes would be on brightly, but the later tubes would be dim.

HeNe Laser
HeNe Laser From Wikipedia
But why stop there? Since everything good in life is a tube (think about it) why not add more ridiculousness with TUBE THINGS FROM PHYSICS? There is one thing I know is a tube that is ridiculous: a small helium neon laser. Wikipedia article here. They operate at a very narrow band at 632.8 manometers which is red. It would be really neato to have these glowing on either side of the main amp. The red would complement the orange glow of the nixie tubes well. I am not sure if I would have them laying on their sides or vertical if I were to have them. 

In any case, all of these things would make a pretty cool looking amp when it is done.