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Real Life Debugged » Education

Tag-Archive for ◊ Education ◊

Siftables - Toys that Think: I Want ‘Em!
Sunday, March 22nd, 2009 | Author: lisaksimone

Mixing paint with cans of blue and red

Mixing paint with "cans" of blue and red

Hi tech toys are pretty cool. Hi tech toys that think are beyond cool!  And what if they also secretly foster learning and problem-solving?  Sign me up!

When I originally started this post musing how we learn problem-solving skills as kids. Like neat toys that promote creativity. Or just wandering around in the woods. Tying Hot Wheel’s orange track sections to our shoes to go “skiing.”

But nahhh. Let’s jump straight to the chase. I found a toy I want for Christmas.

“Siftables” - One part of me instantly tries to dissect them in my head - little micros, a low power wireless links like Zigbee, oh the algorithms! Another part of me just wants to lay them all out on the table and muck around for hours.

Siftables - the Toys that Think - ” … cookie-sized, computerized tiles you can stack and shuffle in your hands. These future-toys can do math, play music, and talk to their friends, too. Is this the next thing in hands-on learning?”

Watch the movie and don’t miss the end! I want ‘em!

Subtitle: Another digression about talking with those silly customers

I had a discussion with a good friend the other day - we’d spent years fire-fighting embedded systems gone wrong. During many all-nighters and several 110-hour weeks, our deepening ire became sharply focused on the idiocy of using zillion-line industry standards as product requirements.

On that project, there was no “customer need” or requirements document. I’d never met a customer. That was 12 years ago. It hasn’t changed much, he admitted. Now, as it was then, buggy products are still late.

Then I was approached by a university to redo their senior design program. Cooool - I got to indoctrinate brand-new engineers to the entire industry-standard process: starting with customer needs and requirements. “Back away from the keyboard,” I told them. “TALK to the customer.” And you know what? They got it!

To my delight, my best teams delivered beyond the customers’ expectations, and one won a national design award for their work. (Their story is below)

If graduating engineers can do it, why can’t we?


The stereotypical learning style for engineers is that of visualization - we learn through seeing. Pictures and diagrams, watching facial expressions, doing practical projects. The other two learning styles are auditory (hearing) and kinesthetic (feeling). Since ~65% of the population are classified as visuals, proposed changes in education include adding more visual elements to improve learning.

And here it is in practice! While searching for a recipe online, I found Cooking for Engineers. Lemmee jump to the punch line - here’s the summary for Shrimp Scampi.


In the same issue of JackGanssle’s Embedded Muse newsletter where he reviewed my book, he let me rant on about the state of computer science/engineering education and its disconnect with industry needs.

He had mused in an earlier newsletter article when (and what type of) programming languages should be taught at the university level. He proposed banishing all such courses until Junior year so students can learn more about decision-making, methodologies and real design, rather than just cranking out code. His article struck a real nerve with me.

I blathered on for a bit, but apparently coherently enough that he decided to print my response.


Jack Ganssle’s Review of My Book
Friday, February 27th, 2009 | Author: lisaksimone

JackGanssle presented a book review of my book, If I Only Changed the Software, Why is the Phone on Fire? in his latest Embedded Muse Newsletter #174.

An except from Jack’s review:

Engineers are famous for being very bright but also for lacking basic writing skills. Yet writing is still our primary means of communication, so we buy heavy tomes created without the benefit of basic grammar and often bereft of a coherent structure. Storyline? Character development? Forget it.

Welcome to a very different kind of technical book. Lisa Simone’s work isn’t the usual dreary tome stuffed with arcane wisdom buried beneath paragraph-length sentences seemingly written by someone just learning English as a second language. This is certainly the first embedded book with characters. The first with action, and with interesting and cool stories.

Bad code that makes a phone burst into flames?

What fun!

And yes, at one point in my sordid technical past, I did have to debug a very hot phone.

After successfully (I hope!) hiding the problem from potential customers at an international trade show in Singapore. Thankfully, the phones were displayed on marble tables - very good for heat dissipation between hurried demonstrations!

Reminiscing: My Very First Computer - the Atari 800
Friday, February 20th, 2009 | Author: lisaksimone

I wrote my first program on an Atari 800 (yup, that dates me both as a fossil and as a neophyte within the ranks of true nerd-dom).

While surfing for someone completely unrelated, I tripped across a really cool place called the Obsolete Technology Website. What a fascinating view into computer technology from the 1970’s through about 1993.

DEADBEEF and Kids These Days
Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 | Author: lisaksimone

Someone should write an “Ode to 0xdeadbeef.”  For a couple years, I taught an embedded systems class at NJIT and used deadbeef to initialize memory and find memory leaks and the like.  My graduate students were initially confused that hex was useful for anything beyond binary conversions and writing ASCII characters to a display.

They tittered at cafebabe, feedf00d, and babe2bed.  Poor deprived children.

I always taught wandering through the room, and repeatedly tortured these unwitting victims with random demands, “What is 2ˆ16?  Why is it magic? What’s the hex value for ‘0′ and why is it a good one to memorize?”

From their initial stunned expressions, I could tell they secretly doubted the usefulness of such games, and wondered if Professor Simone was simply nuts.  To my joy and happiness, they caught the bug and starting bringing their fun words to class.

Denton Gentry wrote a fun “looking back in time” entry (aptly named “[0123456789abcdef]” ), reminiscing when discovering new words was a cool sign of superior nerdhood.  And nutty Professor Simone never thought of 0×0ddba11 or 0xf00f.  Ah, opportunities wasted.

This book also targets a very wide audience. Several types of folks will enjoy these mysteries. All kinds of engineers, students interested in science and technology as a career, technical and support staff who have to debug and understand embedded systems.

And maybe best of all - your FAMILY and FRIENDS! Never know what to buy for your favorite techies? How about a neat technical mystery book!


What’s in the “Phone on Fire” Mystery Book?
Sunday, October 26th, 2008 | Author: lisaksimone

What this book ISN’T

This book is not a hardcore textbook or a manufacturer-specific or toolset-specific “how to” book. It isn’t a book that becomes dated after a few years. It isn’t a book that guilt-trips you into reading it just because you bought it.

What this book IS

This book contains a series of technical mysteries for readers to solve. It’s fiction, and it’s nonfiction. “CSI for Embedded Systems” if you will. Machines crash, products catch fire - the engineers at Hudson Technologies race to fix the problems before it is too late!


Ever get stuck, not knowing how to fix a hand-held calculator or cell phone? Then check out a new book by Lisa Simone, PhD, of Bridgewater, an assistant professor, at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

If I Only Changed the Software, Why Is the Phone on Fire? (Elsevier, 2007) offers step-by-step, easy-to-understand information about how to debug small and large electronic products ranging from pocket calculators to cell phones.

“Debugging is the process of removing bugs and problems from software and devices,” said Simone. “It is a valuable skill for anyone working in a technical field like engineering. Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach debugging, and most people have to learn through experience, which can be time consuming and frustrating.”

The book introduces readers to real-world technical mysteries of progressive complexity, guiding them toward successful solutions. Simone hopes the audience will be for the general public as well as engineers. “I’ve created a fictional company with a cast of engineers. The engineers tackle real-life software and hardware technical problems while upper management and customers hover nervously.

The book shows engineers faced with technical mysteries and products behaving badly. In one instance, a new software engineer uses a newly-developed monitor to measure her own heart-rate. To her surprise, her heart-rate has mysteriously doubled. She and a senior colleague brainstorm to find the bug. Eventually, by eliminating hardware and software parts, they fix the monitor. The book’s final chapter offers a summary of smart debugging techniques introduced throughout the text.

Simone’s idea for the book grew from realizing while working in industry that students, developers, computer scientists and engineers often don’t know how to solve problems.

At NJIT, Simone is developing a portable low-cost glove for functional hand measures that can be worn by victims of stroke or traumatic brain injury. The National Institutes of Health is funding the research. The device will help researchers, physicians and therapists assess the degree of injury and methods that might help patients regain mobility. Other current projects also focus on using wearable embedded systems and technology to help rehabilitate people with physical disabilities. Simone’s research has been published in six peer-reviewed journals and she has presented at 13 prominent conferences. She received her PhD in biomedical engineering from Rutgers University.

The Press Release can be found here.