Raspberry Pi Robot Arm


I said that I would work on controlling my robotic arm with Python/Raspberry Pi, and after a few week’s planning and tinkering, I got it to work. Using a couple of L293 motor drivers (PDF), I hooked up four of the arm’s motors plus the LED and wrote some simple functions to control it all via GPIO. Introducing my Raspberry Pi Robot Arm!

I used this DC motor guide for help with the circuit and the programming. However, I found the batteries didn’t provide enough voltage, so I used a 5v cooling fan power source instead. From there, I pre-programmed a routine in which the arm picks up blocks and stacks them. Here, watch. The RPi Arm picks up the blocks, stacks them, then signals “HEY” in Morse code with the LED:

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The Eureka Moment


Whenever I’m looking for a new book to read, I find that Bill Gates’ blog isn’t a bad place to start. It was there I found his review of “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.”

The book is a thorough exploration of the invention of the steam engine beyond the technical details. More so, author William Rosen focuses on the environment of science and philosophy in 17th- and 18th-century England that made the steam engine all but inevitable. The greatest innovation of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Rosen argues, is not the steam engine, but the process of invention itself.

Gates provides a more intriguing summary book’s scope than I could, so I encourage you to read his write-up if you want to learn more (or just read the book!). However, my interest in cognition and the human brain led me to greatly appreciate one particular chapter of Rosen’s work – an exploration of the “eureka moment.”

As the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, James Watt was walking through a green space, thinking about how to build a better steam engine, when suddenly, “the whole thing was arranged in my mind” – meaning the idea hit him to create a separate condenser on his steam engine that exponentially increased the power produced and cut the fuel cost by more than half. Noticing this seemed to happen more often in the Industrial Revolution than any time in history, Rosen examines why we tend to have these eureka moments, or how he puts it, “solving problems without conscious effort, after effort has failed.”

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NCHC home advantage


Broncos gonna buck. 

Halfway through the NCHC season, nothing is settled, and most teams in the league are very much in the race for first-round conference tournament home ice. But does every team want to play on home ice? That’s the question that crossed my mind watching Western Michigan take five points from a superior Minnesota-Duluth team this weekend.

It seems like a dumb question. Obviously every team wants to play in front of a friendly crowd and avoid the hassle of travel. Sports psychologists have demonstrated that players get a boost from playing at home, and there is even evidence that refs are affected by the home crowd (PDF). But that doesn’t mean that every team is actually playing better at home. I took a look at home performance vs away performance in terms of shot-based stats (which I’m tracking here), and what they mean for the rest of the season.

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Confiscating Yellowstone


If you’re looking for a summer travel destination, I know it’s cliche, but see Yellowstone at least once in your life.

My wife and I traveled through on our road trip up to Glacier National Park in Montana. We were only in Yellowstone for a day, but it was possibly the most spectacular day of the trip. We entered the park after driving the Bear Tooth Highway, and coming down the mountains into the park we were almost immediately greeted by hundreds of bison and calves grazing in freshly green fields. We looped around the entire park in about 10 hours, seeing Tower Falls, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Springs, not to mention all kinds of birds, elk, coyotes, Canadians, and the backside of at least one black bear.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at a gift shop, and being a sucker for nonfiction, I picked up “Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone.” I wanted to learn more about the history of America’s first national park, and at 600-plus pages, “Empire of Shadows” taught me more than I could ever hope to remember.

What stuck with me most vividly was the history our high school teachers tend to gloss over – the unabashed and egregious taking of Native American land, liberty and lives. Not that this was a surprise to me – obviously the entirety of the United States was taken at one point or another in this fashion. The unsettling fact, as author George Black recounts, is that Yellowstone would not be a national park today without decades of undue violent conflict between Native Americans and white settlers.

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The Recursive Mind


Only the human mind could achieve something so majestic.

What makes us human? 98.8% percent of our DNA is identical to that of the chimpanzee. Heck, we share  75% of it with mice, and 50% with the banana. And yet, humans are the only species to able speak complex sentences, make tools with other tools, and leave the planet to explore other worlds. We homo sapiens beat out about 20 other species of apes and/or hominids, even, and we probably drove another – Neandertals – to extinction with superior communication, tool-making and social abilities.

In my last quarter of grad school, I took a seminar called “The Biological Origins of Political Cognition.” It was one of the most fascinating courses I ever took. The professor, Eric Oliver, was seeking a testable theory for the evolutionary origins of human political instincts – everything from cognitive science to evolutionary theory to social and clinical psychology were fair game. Along with a group of about a dozen grad students, he was hoping to gain some traction in developing a working model. I don’t know that he found what he was looking for – I think the concept was just too big and foreign for us – but nevertheless the class generated a ton of discussion at the event horizons of our brains. I always felt simultaneously smarter and dumber at the end of the week, and I always thought that if I ever had to do grad school over, I would have spent much more time on Eric’s questions.

Anyway, I’m sidetracked. One of the un-required readings for the course was Michael Corballis’ The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. I had kept it on my list for three years before finally getting around to it this fall. I’m glad I did – it took me back to that class, and that’s a good thing, because evolution of the human mind is fascinating and so poorly understood.

Currently, researchers seem to agree that complex language abilities separate us from the rest of the animal world. The author of this thesis, Corballis, doesn’t disagree. However, many other animals – from birds to apes to whales to bees – have complex systems of communication. Corballis believes it is more than merely the complexity of our language that makes us human – it is the neural capacity for this complexity.

Of all living species, Corballis says in The Recursive Mind, humans are the only animals capable of recursive thought – that is, the ability to nest ideas within ideas. For example, you can think about what you had planned to do today yesterday, or I can say that my brother thinks what my uncle said last year about his plans for next May are probably not going to happen. If you understood that sentence, congratulations! You are a human.

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