Fostering Knowledge Through Hacking

It is amazing to think about how many great innovations, businesses, millions of dollars, and learning has come out of tinkering, testing, trying, tweaking, and messing-about.  The obvious examples are the tech giants, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who changed our lives forever, but most people don’t realize their friends, family, and neighbors who are doing all kinds of creating and intellectual playing. From amateur musicians strumming a guitar in the evening or the mash-up artists posting on YouTube to the inventors creating the next kitchen widget or technology for the green energy movement. Just this weekend, I was talking with my neighbor about his grandfather’s project to create a process for making pellets from corn stalks for home furnaces and how most of the testing will be done in a shed next to our house.

During Gates and Jobs’ years they had the DIY computers (e.g. Commadore 64) and lately the DIY community has hardware like the Arduino and BeagleBoard. The Arduino was a cheap and simple way for people to do some quick and dirty electronics without much knowledge of programming or electronics.  The BeagleBoard is a full-fledged computer for those with a bit deeper pockets who want some more processing power.  A device in the middle has, recently, come to the market with a device known as the Raspberry Pi.  The Raspberry Pi has the power of the BeagleBoard but priced right for all ages, like the Arduino, at $25 for the base model and $35 the model with ethernet.  It does not have as much of the basic electronics connections but has all the features expected from a full-fledged computer: ARM processor, full 1080p HDMI, audio out, USB, Linux OS, etc. The Cambridge University professors who formed the non-profit organization saw deficit in undergraduate students’ lack of general computer knowledge and looked to provide the platform for experimentation and learning.

Video overview of the features

Although it is not available for purchase I already have grand plans for a HDTV recorder (‘TiVo’) and media server for our new HDTV.  It will be low-power, have full-HD output, controllable over the network (home or away), low-cost, and a central place for computer back-ups.  I have computers that I could use as a tv-recorder and back-up server and use my laptop for HD-output but the Raspberry Pi is all-in-one and I feel like I am supporting something important.

It is always refreshing to see people who are so interesting in helping other people learn and make it available at such a low-cost.  I won’t be trying to get every ounce of processing power out of it or doing major software development, but it will keep me tinkering with Linux and will always be available if I want to try out some multimedia or server software.  When I started playing with Ubuntu (popular Linux Distribution) five-or-so years ago I wasn’t thinking about what I might get out of it, I was just interested in learning about Linux.  My, rather basic, knowledge led to another bullet on my resume for graduate studies in computational research and, eventually, becoming system admin for our research group’s computer cluster.
Happy Tinkering!

Gizmag (original source)


Business Model: Give Wings to Crazy Ideas


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Ever since the first time I tasted Red Bull back in high school (~8 years) before a football game, I haven’t really understood its appeal.  It tasted pretty bad and I don’t remember playing football much better (not that they promised I would…).  But the company’s persistent and creative marketing has done them well.  It seems everytime I see a clip from an extreme sports event Red Bull is advertising somewhere in the background and many of the athletes have, the now iconic, Red Bull checkered helmets.  However, I was really surprised to see Red Bull sponsoring a traditionally elite sport of Formula 1 racing:

F1 compared with extreme sports always seemed like the horse racing yang to the dirt track auto racing ying in the US.  The video Red Bull produced above shows they haven’t lost their hill-billy roots when they came to the highfaluten F1 with lots of dirt flying every where and plenty of tire smoke.  Even if I cringe when all the rocks are hitting the pretty body of the F1 car I get goose bumps from the trumpets of the engine everytime I watch the video.

Additionally, Red Bull has found lots of other creative marketing through the usual cheap tricks, but, more creatively, they have created there own World Series of (alternative-) Sports.  Also, Red Bull has the Flugtag, paper airplane competition, and Red Bull Records.  Surprisingly, Red Bull Records is an indie label who offers there recording studio for free to artists.  This appeals to my open-source heart.

There are obviously other beverage company’s like Red Bull with big advertising campaigns but none that have been so creative while hanging with the big dogs of F1. Maybe the only thing this says is I don’t have a good sense for a company’s potential success until after they are successful, but then again I am probably not Red Bull’s target audience.  After admiring all Red Bull has done I went to Yahoo Finance to see if they were public, unfortunately they aren’t… yet.  Being a public company may tame there wild marketing soul and that would be a shame because they are adding to our culture by sponsoring things like paper airplane competitions (usually only cool to the geekiest among us) and downhill ice hockey racing (in Minnesota).

Shout out to Ace @ for originally posting the F1 video.

Over-Simplifying via Over-Engineering

Occasionally I get a comment to the affect of “you should like this really complicate and intricate [thing] because you are an engineer,” and my usual thought is “someone forgot the KISS principle†.”  Feats of engineering are a point of pride for any engineer but so are simple, elegant solutions.  Most engineers, and general people, appreciate the precision design and engineering of a high-end sports car, like a Ferrari, or a fighter jet, like the SR-71 Blackbird.  However, I have found myself guilty of working on something only to realize I am over-complicating and over-engineering my solution to a problem when a simpler solution will do and refining a working solution is better than trying to it from the start.

Recently while looking (/dreaming) at (ultralight) Challenger airplanes I grew up flying with my father.‡  The Challenger is a simple, bare-bones partially home-built airplane made of basically four things: aluminum, fabric, two-stroke engine, and instruments.  While dreaming I came upon a playboy’s version of the airplanes I grew up with, the ICON A5 Airplane. The ICON A5 is very slick looking and has a Ferrari-feel to it, but I worry that the over-engineering to make it simple will give an over-simplified appearance.

Jet skis, sports cars, boats, and motorcycles are all dangerous in their own right but airplanes add a lot more variables by going into the third dimension.  One of the major problems, besides the added complexity of maneuvering, is you cannot just pull-over if something goes wrong.  When something fails, panic can even consume the most seasoned pilot.  Additionally, with every device/feature/doodad added to an engineering system adds to the potential for failure of the device/feature/doodad or potentially the entire system.

The A5 is a beautiful machine and it adds appeal to something I am very passionate about, but I like to think my engineering mind is always cautiously optimistic about an “engineer masterpiece.”


† KISS = Keep It Simple Stupid
Quad City (manufacturer of Challenger), great site about Challengers

The keyboard is dead, the keyboard isn’t dead!

Like many people, the computer has become an extension of me, for better or for worse.  The first thing people use when they start with computers is the keyboard.  I started with typing lessons in middle school.  Like scales in music, it is the foundation of utilizing the power of computers.  The keyboard has lots of buttons and is what creates what most of what is online and much of what is created for offline.  Your ergonomic, multi-function laser mouse cannot create great literary works or code for solving complex biological systems.

A couple programs I have been using lately in my personal/academic life are aimed at utilizing the potential of the keyboard over the slowness and crudeness of a mouse: vim text editor for code, vimperator for web browsing (vim for the browser), and screen for command line stuff.  While using my new 23″ widescreen monitor to browse the internet I was thinking about how I wished I could have a “screen” style experience in Firefox to utilize the real estate of my new monitor.   The “screen” program allows the user to split-up a single terminal window into multiple terminals (think Windows 7 feature to split documents side-by-side but within the same program) and have other terminals not always shown but runnning (think tabs in a web browser).  Most web pages have become fixed width and thus have lots of white space on each side of the main body.  Two separate browser windows could be set next to each other but there is a fluidness about using screen to quickly switch between terminal instances.

The browser may not be well suited for this type of environment but I could see it fitting well within the behavior of tabs and Firefox’s Panorama feature.  The thing I am hoping to illustrate is the power of the keyboard for browsing and utilizing the computer has seen a decline and we need to think about more ways to reincorporate it to benefit us. At the very least, all of our keyboarding teachers would appreciate us trying to re-hone our typing skills.  I told my wife the other day “I should send a thank you to my typing teachers because typing skills are so central to my education and livelihood and at the same time an apology for my poor form.”

Mrs. Barta: “Pick up those wrists!”

Bridge in Motion


Usually when I think of “bridges in motion” it usually means something bad.

However, I like this new idea of helping to make an object most people think of as static, boring, and industrial come alive and flash its colors:

Project Website

I hope it goes through and I get to visit when its all done.

Interesting fact: total cost for two years is $7 million but only $11k is for electricity

PDF Tricks


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This blog will function to help me remember things I learn so I can find them easily.


I have been trying to scan my notes and homework from classes, interesting material from books, and anything I can have digital to reduce clutter.  Today I copied some materials and made a pdf but the file size was unnecessarily too large.


I used xsane to scan my documents.  It works great with lots of scanners and is very customizable.

Modifying PDFs:

I hit up the internet and found a command for Linux to decrease file size/quality:

gs -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dCompatibilityLevel=1.4 -dPDFSETTINGS=/screen -dNOPAUSE -dQUIET -dBATCH -sOutputFile=output.pdf input.pdf

The option PDFSETTINGS is what I played with to get the smallest file with reasonable quality.  The lowest is “/screen”, next better is “/ebook”, and highest are “/printer” and “/prepass”.  (Source)


The program I use for splitting and merging pdfs is pdftk.  It is a great program for lots of simple and complex tasks for pdfs. Great list of examples:

PDFTK Examples

Why, I think, I’m clever



To start things off I will explain how I decided on the blog title and my username.  This may seem mundane or silly to care but I wanted to start off on the right foot and I like being a bit clever/witty. Both are a nod to aviation, a true passion in my life (even if lack of time makes it difficult).

Leonardo da Vinci

For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.

This quote is by Leonardo da Vinci, a guy who has never actually flown!!  I have flown many times, ultralights and jumbo-jets, and I get how amazing flight is, but it has always struck me to think about someone of that time period imagining what flight is like.

While I was waiting to meet with a professor, during my hunt for graduate schools and funding, his secretary said the test to determine if you should be an Aerospace engineer is if you instinctively look up when an airplane or helicopter flies over.  Well I do (eyes skyward).  It doesn’t matter what I am doing or who I am with, I will always try to at least sneak a glance to try to identify it.

Analogously, I feel like I am always looking forward and up in various aspects of my life: getting a PhD, dreaming up my next DIY project, what I can learn next in a book or through experience, or my next fitness goal.  This can get in the way of the now but I like dreaming, its fun! 🙂


As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire I had a job helping people with various computer programs (MS Office, image and video editing), and I had the fortune of helping a local aerobatic pilot edit some videos from his shows.  I learned about many of the different maneuvers, one being the Lemcevak.  The word ‘lemocevak’ is Russian for hangover and was originally done by Slovak aerobatic pilots.  It may sound crude but it is a well-orchestrated maneuver that gives the allusion of the pilot being out of control.  I feel like this is my life, a daily struggle to control something that feels out of control, each day I (hopefully) get a better feel for the controls and how I react to variations in wind conditions, motor performance, and airspeed.