19 Suggestions for Bored Engineers

Occupy your mind and hands while keeping your distance

3 min read
IEEE Spectrum senior editor Stephen Cass at work on a home project.
Photo: Stephen Cass

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of us find ourselves working from home (including all of your editors here at IEEE Spectrum). To help stave off cabin fever, we looked through our recent archives for things that would best occupy your minds and hands, even if you don’t have much space. In the coming days we’ll be on the look out for more ideas—so if you have any tips or suggestions for your fellow readers, please send them to cass.s@ieee.org.

Kits

Animated gif of the cycle-accurate Altair 8800 replica built around the Arduino Due

Some of us have great home workshops, but others rely on makerspaces or workplaces for our benches and are cut off. But here are three great kits that we’ve tried out, currently available to buy online, and which need just a small amount of desk space, some solder, and a soldering iron:

  • Make some history: Take a break from the troubles of the modern world, and build the computer that launched the personal computer revolution, the Altair 8800. Or at least a cycle-accurate replica built around the Arduino Due. You can toggle in programs using the front switches, or connect a terminal via a serial port or Bluetooth. You can also download the CP/M operating system and play classic games such as Zork. Since we reviewed the kit, its creator Chris Davis has changed the design of the case slightly for an even more retro look, and now also offers a “pro” version with more input/output options, including an audio jack and a USB keyboard connector.
  • Make some music: Folks around the world have been taking to their balconies and social media to sing and play instruments for each other. You can join in the action with the Ardu-Touch mini synthesizer developed by the creator of the (in)famous TV-B-Gone, Mitch Altman. He’s crammed some sophisticated digital signal processing software into the same microprocessor chip that’s used by the Arduino, and you can program your own synthesizer sounds too.
  • Make some magic: If you’re looking for something that will impress kids stuck at home from school (as well as some adults), try an acoustic levitator from MakerFabs. By wiring a lot of ultrasonic transducers together and mounting them in the 3-D printed stand, you can make small objects float in mid-air. We got a kick out of this kit, but I should say that in the months since I built it, I discovered the plastic mount had warped a little bit over time, so I recommend you reinforce it with something more rigid.

Games

We’ve reviewed two sets of games we think will tickle your fancy. All are great, but if you’re really looking for something that will take your mind beyond the confines of your home, then the galactic scope of Elite: Dangerous is hard to beat.

  • Three Computer Games That Make Assembly Language Fun: Each of these games simulates fictional machines in some way, but many of the skills required are exactly those needed by real programmers working “down on the metal.”
  • Space games for engineers: Four games for the player looking for something a little more engaging than simply blasting away at space invaders. Elite: Dangerous lets you explore an enormous and realistic model of the galaxy, including the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. Kerbal Space Program and StarMade both let you try out your own spacecraft and space station designs, and Orbiter provides a realistic and very detailed simulation of spaceflight, including what it’s like to fly actual spacecraft such as a shuttle to the International Space Station. Note that since we published this review, Elite: Dangerous is no longer available for the MacOS operating system, due to graphics software compatibility problems, and Kerbal Space Program 2 is due out sometime this year.

Movies

If you don’t have the space or energy for building a kit or playing a computer game, we have a bunch of recommendations for binge watching on your TV or computer from the various streaming services. Of all of these, if you’re most in need of an inspirational pick-me-up, I recommend The Farthest, a chronicle of the Voyager missions through the outer solar system, and Science Fair, which follows the heart-warming journeys of several teenagers to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

  • Documentaries For Engineers: Mission Control, Denial, and Viva Amiga—these are stories about NASA’s Apollo heyday, rebuilding the grid from the point of view of a small utility, and a celebration of the beloved Amiga series of computers.
  • Three More Documentaries for Engineers: California Typewriter, AlphaGo, and The Farthest. A requiem for a technology almost, but not quite, murdered by computers, the story of how a machine finally beat the best human Go player, and a trip to distant planets and moons.
  • Another Three Documentaries for Engineers: Bombshell, Gamechangers, and Science Fair. Actress Hedy Lamarr’s invention of spread spectrum communications, inside the world of competitive video gaming, and the adventures of science and engineering students from around the world dreaming of winning the big time.
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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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