July 30, 2012

The Old, the New and the Data

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I have not ended the Hacking the NXT Series yet, I just thought I would take a break for a second!
Sitting in the tube on the way back from the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, where I did the light design and operation for a show my school put on there, Standing in the Light (more on that in a possible separate post), I was pondering over the idea of data.
Now, you might think that only a nerd would ponder something like that. I mean, data is kind of boring, right? Well, it depends on what you thought what I meant with data. Allow me to elaborate. If you were thinking about an Excel spreadsheet with numbers representing some businesses numbers, yes, that is boring, but if you were thinking of it on the larger scale of things, it becomes much, much more interesting.
Think about it. Have you uploaded a video to YouTube, posted a picture to Facebook or Tweeted a thought? You have created and moved data. Simple. One may also argue that every physical object, be it micro or macro, has data: it's position is 3 dimensional space as we observe it (unless it’s a quantum particle...), its age (time is actually another dimension), mass, weight, dimensions, interactions, temperature, density and anything else you can think of. So, in that sense, data is everywhere. 
The thought then came to me, having recently discussed the astounding YouTube statistic with a few friends, that 72 hour of video is uploaded every minute. This site puts it all in perspective. I then thought of my uncle’s really old Sony Vaio computer, with a 33MB hard drive with less than 50MB RAM. For those without basic hardware knowledge, that's like the Wright Brothers plane compared to a Boeing 737-800. 
Ok, that might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture. How a computer with those specs could run a decent operating system astounded me. After all, I am used to a 500GB (that's 512,000MB) solid state drive with 8GB RAM and a 2.23GHz i5 Intel processor. What caused this massive jump? Well, our computers got better. That's it. We figured out how to pack more bits and transistors into the same space, but thats processing power. What still interested me was why we needed larger capacity hard drives and solid state drives. It is at this point where I came up with (although I am not too sure if somebody else has already done so) the term "Data Inflation".

July 19, 2012

Hacking the Lego NXT - Part 2

This is the second part of a series of posts detailing my adventurous venture into the world of hardware hacking/tweaking, whatever you call it. Part 1 has a full introduction.

The Touch Sensor

The touch sensor
So, following my half-successful attempt at getting the stepper motors to work, I decided to focus on something simpler: the touch sensor. At first I thought that this sensor would be a complex series of variable resistors, giving an analog output in terms of how much pressure was being exerted or how far the pin had been pushed in, so I decided against plugging in stuff and seeing what came out for fear of ruining the component.

The teacher who set me this task of tweaking the sensors told me briefly, that the NXT platform was open source and that the schematics could be found online. Having remembered this useful fact, I scoured the Lego Mindstoms NXT website to find these. Buried deep within the “advanced users” section, I found the Hardware Development Kit, along with a whole bunch of other useful stuff, like the Bluetooth API and software development kits, both of which I would have absolutely no idea what to do with!

Looking through the schematics of the complex processor and other sensors, I felt that the touch sensor could not get any better! Then, after opening the schematics file for the touch sensor, I was greeted with this friendly image, lost in the white of the A3-sized document:

The Lego touch sensor schematic

July 13, 2012

Hacking the Lego NXT - Part 1

Before we start with this slightly tangential series of posts, let me give a word of advice to those who saw the word “hacking” in the title and immediately thought, “HE IS GOING TO HACK INTO SECRET FILES!”. Firstly, any democracy should not have secret files, but that’s for another post, and secondly, “hacking” is what I define as a skillset: the ability to alter the main function of something, be it hardware or software, to suit what you want to do with it. Henry Dyer (@Direthoughts) did a nice piece of hacking, for example, on those Apple Store iPads. It has been the media convincing people that hacking is bad, when in fact, only a small proportion hack with malicious intent. Taking open-source code and altering it is software hacking; building a buggy out of sheet aluminium and plastic is a form of hardware hacking, and what I am going to describe here is a mere alternate manifestation of that.

I am usually not a very adventurous person: I liked my electronic products simple and stupid, never opening them up to reveal the wonders inside. That was until I changed schools, where I was introduced into an environment of tweaking with things and where I encountered a whole new range of people. I urged myself to get involved, and having screwed up my first year by accidentally doing the exact opposite, sought to catch-up in my next year, the one I just finished. Just adding, I believe I have accomplished that!

My altered RJ12 socket
Aside from that, I also set myself the task of clearing out the dusty abyss beneath my bed, having accumulated 4 years worth of junk down there. I found a Lego Mindstorms NXT kit, the robotics kit Lego introduced a few years ago. It was, unfortunately, missing some main pieces, including the processing unit. A new kit cost £200 and the processor itself £99, so there was no way I was going to be able to use that thing again! I still had one out of the three stepper motors and a few sensors. With no clue what to do with these, I offered them to my technology teacher, who kindly denied, as he had no use for them, but recommended I try and hack them for use with an Arduino or PICAXE as a summer project. Maybe then the school could use them.

July 6, 2012

BYOD and Home IT

Hello there. It's a wonderful summers day at 30,000 feet and I, as stated by many friends, am now obliged to write an airplane post. Although I might be expected to write this by this stage, I assure you, I am still doing this on a solely voluntary basis, plus, I have nothing better to do! For those of you who were bored out of your minds with the previous series of posts, I apologise, but I felt that it might help the next years doing the competition on their torturous journey, and it was nice to reflect on a year gone by, but this post, I have decided, will not have been thought through very well beforehand and will adopt a very decentralised structure.

I shall be talking about BYOD, bring your own device, is the "phenomenon", as many IT departments like to call it, where the users of the network (at school/work/etc.) bring in their own devices from home and use them for work. In addition, I shall also be discussing my experiences with being the IT admin at home, and the annoyances that come with it. I plan to link them in some way I have not thought of yet: maybe a stroke of genius will occur or this whole post could fall flat on its face, that's the fun!

I would like to say that my school has an effective BYOD policy in place, and to be honest, I will. I am lucky enough to go to a school that allows the use of personal devices within school hours and even lessons, if the teacher allows it. I am able to, if I wanted, take notes on my iPad and later upload them to my Mac all within the lesson. It's great! Of course, no one abuses that policy to play games in the lesson, well, not me anyway: maybe the "lower third of the year"*. My sister, on the other hand, goes to a school with a, what I perceive to be, a militant ban on these devices, even during break. Both have their benefits and shortcomings.