Blending computing with other fields

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that many creative people who are not professional computer scientists or information technology specialists are adapting computer science techniques to produce new things in their own fields of interest. A simple example in Bloomington was reported a few months ago in the local paper: the owner of a drive-through car wash wrote an app that his customers could download onto their phones that would allow them to make car wash choices and pay for washes from their phones when they drove up to his car wash. This bit of extra convenience for the customer might just give his car wash a little competitive edge, and the fact that he could figure out how to write his own app meant that he didn’t have to pay someone else to do it–someone who would be unfamiliar with the car wash controls.

OK, so maybe the car wash example doesn’t have a lot of flash to it, and you are yawning. How about this, for a totally different example: blending computing with the arts. The special effects in movies and concerts are easy examples — all are completely dependent on computers. How about music: I know a musically talented ISU alum who works as a software architect for State Farm Insurance company–his major was Accounting and he had only a minor in computing. He creates music in his off-time, and he has often worked on the computerized control work for Usher concerts set up.

Here’s another artsy example that I find really fascinating: an artist programming a computer, using the computer “language” called “C”,  to generate an artistic light show of gigantic proportions on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Check out the video here!

This is not something the artist could have simply hired out to some programmer — the art is created by the programming. Maybe he had help from a professional programmer — or maybe he took some computer programming courses. But for this artist, programming was the tool used to create the art project, much like a set of brushes might be used by a painter.

A few weeks ago I wrote about using machine learning to help premature babies in the hospital. That’s another example of blending computing with another field–in this case, medicine. That example involved a computer scientist, but that system could not have been developed without involving medical professionals who knew enough about computing to be able to contribute intelligently to the project. Many projects that blend computing with some other field are like that — they involve teams of people with different backgrounds and differing levels of computing knowledge, working together. My own first job in graduate school was like that–I was a member of a team working on computer translation of Russian into English. I was not then, nor am I now, a computer scientist. But I knew enough about computing and about linguistics to be a member of the team. Maybe this sort of thing will be an opportunity for you in your own future if you get at least a little background in computing. Not everyone wants to be or is cut out to be a professional, full-time computer programmer, but more and more there seem to be opportunities for non-professionals with some computer skills.

Comments? Maybe you know some other stories you want to tell in the comment section below.

Kenton Machina


October 10, 2013 at 1:18 am Leave a comment

On the path to Artificial Intelligence

When I think of the distant future, I think about robots and not of the ones from the movies that usually end badly for mankind. I like to be a tad bit more optimistic and think of a different sort that will help us achieve efficiency in ways we never could imagine. This may seem distant however we are much closer than you think. Many of the mechanics are currently at our disposal although the unfortunate part is we lack the one piece that puts all of our wonderful technological advances into motion. We need a BRAIN!


The human brain itself is a very powerful computer. It doesn’t use the same methods your laptop utilizes but it is achieving many of the same goals. It makes decisions based from inputs it receives. If you touch something that is hot, your brain forces your body to respond. If I double click my Google Chrome icon, the computer responds by opening the browser. This idea gave birth to the study of artificial intelligence (AI) although the idea of an intelligent machine has been around for a very long time. The problem is that there is a large leap from a simple instruction such as opening a program in which you are the one providing the decision’s result and what our brains can do with the great magnitude of inputs it can interpret.

Most AI researchers define AI as “the study and design of intelligent agents” where the intelligent agents are a system that can perceive its environment and act accordingly. This is something our computers can do on a much lower scale. One method is a simple concept called a decision tree. It starts by answering a simple general question and begins to narrow down actions by making further more descriptive decisions based on the previous choice. The problem is that even with our massive ability to compute information, we still find ourselves lacking. The possible outcomes a human can reach from just sitting on a couch make this tree expand rapidly and outside of our computational reach. Our machines simply are not fast enough to process this information in a efficient setting such as a home computer or the brain in a small robot.


Computer scientist are and have been working on many different methods to create an artificially intelligent machine and solve these computational problems. A more recent technology aims to solve one of the biggest difficulties our computers face. The best way to understand the problem is to think about when you were a small child and counted using your fingers. You could make it to 10 but a new problem presented itself at 11. You only have 10 fingers and anything additional required you to now remember how many you had used before. A computer only has two fingers represented as a 0 and 1. We can accomplish great task using these two fingers but there are limits. For this reason computer scientist and engineers are developing the concept of quantum computing. The computer still only has two fingers but now instead of just 0 or 1, it can be both 0 and 1. The details are somewhat tricky but the end result is that we have much faster computers to tackle this complex task.

Computer speed is not the only adversary of an intelligent machine but it is one of the major difficulties. Once we work out the problems with computing and achieve something very close to true AI, the world will be an incredibly different place. Robots have no need to sleep, have low probability of error, and require little maintenance. We could have machines to fight crime, put out fires, build buildings, and save lives with near perfect efficiency and no risk to ourselves. There is still much work to be done, and you could even be the one to find a new method that solves the problems behind possibly the greatest invention humanity has to offer.

October 6, 2013 at 11:55 pm 1 comment

We all know what YouTube is right, just a website with a bunch of videos.  Definitely not a school, or is it?  I’ve always considered “school” as a place where knowledge is at our fingertips and it comes in different forms: middle school, high school and even a school of fish.  In the end, it boils down to being a place where you can learn new things.

I’ve been watching YouTube videos since it hit the internet, so I’ve been to every corner that YouTube has to offer and more.  I’ve come to realize that YouTube is a great resource when it comes to looking things up; especially when you need more than just step-by-step instructions.  Even now, when you search tutorials, many have embedded videos with visual examples.

YouTube has so much more to offer than just people getting off anesthesia, random fox sounds and music videos.  It’s a great place to pick up new tips and tricks, while falling victim to a few tangents.  I actually learned how to build my computer from watching YouTube videos.  There are so many tutorials and videos that you can find from multiple people.  If you ever dislike a video, there is a high chance that you can find another video on the same topic but by a different person.


This past summer, I visited my relatives and my uncle built a patio….from watching YouTube videos.  This guy is a 40 year old man.  He was around when floppy disks were a thing, but that’s a story for another time.  My point is, is that YouTube is just as easy as using Google.

I’ve also started using YouTube to help me with my school problems.  I was in a Java Programming class and it was pretty confusing.  From my perspective, the instructor didn’t explain the material well enough, so I went to YouTube.  I found video explanations of the items we went over in class (NO READING!!)  The video was literally five minutes.  From then on, I would use YouTube whenever I got stuck.

Here is a sample of a video that I use.

October 3, 2013 at 12:22 am 1 comment

The Most Dangerous Wargame

Just about everyone reading this has probably heard of the game ‘capture the flag’ before. Most people have participated in this traditional run-and-tag field game, it’s simple and timeless; just about all of the rules you need to know are explained in its name. Given its simplicity and ubiquity, the game of capture the flag is easy to adapt for different situations, and has taken on many different forms over the years — of particular interest is the game’s interpretation by the network security community.


In network security, games of capture the flag are used as a form of recreation, training, and sometimes even recruitment. Games of capture the flag played in the security community, as you might expect, play a bit differently than their namesake would suggest. They also come in a few different varieties.


The less common variant of network security capture the flag also happens to be the more recognizable. This variant is referred to as ‘attack and defense’. An ‘attack and defense’ game pits two teams of players against each other on identical, pre-constructed computer networks, each with a string of characters referred to as the ‘flag’ hidden somewhere within one of the machines. The goal is to hack into the other team’s network and acquire the ‘flag’, while at the same time securing your own team’s network from invasion.


‘Jeopardy’ style variants are far more common, and can support thousands of teams of players simultaneously. In a ‘jeopardy’ style game, contest organizers design elaborate challenges that can only be solved by utilizing skills that are important for network security professionals to possess. These challenges are organized by category and difficulty, with more difficult challenges offering more points — much like a Jeopardy board. Unlimited amounts of teams can compete online to score the most points and secure their victory. Competitions like these are designed with different skill levels in mind, which makes them conducive to beginning players with little experience. A simple challenge would look like this:





After reading about string encoding methods and searching around for ways to decode such strings, you might try running that string through a base-64 decoder like this one which would reveal the flag.


More complicated challenges might see you recovering secret messages encoded in images, SQL injecting web applications, writing a buffer overflow for an executable file or any combination of various skills and techniques. If any of those sound foreign to you, another unspoken tradition of capture the flag competitions is for competitors to post detailed explanations online about how they solved challenges, after the competition is complete. This way, less experienced competitors can learn and advanced competitors can use such published material to attract potential employers.

In the end, the philosophy of these competitions is this: be a hacker. To think like a hacker is a positive and desirable trait. A ‘hacker’ mindset is a mindset of creative problem solving; an important skill not just in network security, but in almost any profession.

September 30, 2013 at 12:05 am Leave a comment

Tech Classes Can Help You In Nearly Any Job

When I graduated from ISU in 2010 and got a job with a large company, one of the first things I noticed when I got there was how much people use Excel; nearly everyone uses it in some capacity. The second thing I noticed was that the overwhelming majority of people have an extremely limited view of what the software can do, and how they can use it to make their jobs easier. Despite everyone having different responsibilities and educational backgrounds, we all need to use the same tools to do our jobs.

While many companies offer training opportunities to better learn these tools, few will be as comprehensive as a formal class. Furthermore, having an advanced knowledge of these tools before entering the work force puts you at an advantage right from the start. A portion of my job requires me to pull information from a computer-generated spreadsheet and convert the information in to a more easily readable format.  Usually there are a few hundred entries in the spreadsheet I am working on. Another part of this is that I have to go through a list and figure out which department is responsible for the items on that list.

If I hadn’t taken any tech classes during my time at ISU, that task would have taken me forever to do manually. Fortunately, in those classes we went over Excel, and there were units which worked out how to automate this sort of thing. Rather than have to go through each data field one at a time and format everything the way it needs to be, I can simply copy and paste the data in to a spreadsheet that is set up with a few formulas and scripts which allow the new spreadsheet to automatically interpret the data from the old one. The new spreadsheet will then pretty much fill itself out and be ready to go in just a few seconds. The beauty of Excel is that it can interpret information from databases. Because Excel is such a powerful tool for interpreting data, you’re able to tell each cell exactly what to do. One of the awesome time-saving ways I use this feature is that I have a list of tasks that need to be done, and I have a list of departments who have to do them. Some departments have 3 of the tasks, some have 50. Doing this manually is very tedious.

I set up my spreadsheet to look through the entire list of tasks, and output which department is responsible for the task in the list. Doing this required me to have over 100 nested If/Or statements in each cell of the output column. Setting up the spreadsheet the first time did take a bit of time, but now the process is super fast.

Having taken advantage of the opportunity to better learn how to use this software, I was able to save a lot of time doing this task and it gave me time to gain other responsibilities at work. Having a solid understanding of the tools you will need to use in most jobs will set you apart from your peers. I absolutely recommend taking a few tech classes during your time here at ISU. Even if you don’t end up in a tech related job, you’ll still be able to use what you learned in most other jobs, or even in your personal life for finances, etc.


September 26, 2013 at 7:34 am Leave a comment

Interpreting Information Technology

How would one define Information Technology? A formal definition would state that it is an application of computers to store, retrieve, transmit, and manipulate data. Most would not find this an exciting concept but taking a deeper look may prove otherwise. We as end users only see the finished products without thinking of the raw data or its implications. With a little help from you, the boring data tables and numbers can be far more than just numbers and tables.

What you may not know is how important information can be found almost anywhere. In this example I will take an otherwise boring set of data and show you how IT professionals turned it into something most would enjoy. Think about your personal fitness and the machines at the gym. While you are running on the treadmill, its tracking and displaying information like distance, time, and possible calories burnt. This is useful information but not in the most useful place. What if you could track all of this and more just from walking up three flights of stairs to your class or even taking a longer route to your car at the end of the day? One such example is a company called “Misfit Wearables”. They have aimed at creating a product that monitors this information from your daily routine and syncs to your smart phone to let you know how active you actually are.

Maybe this still doesn’t excite you. Maybe working out at the gym or jogging isn’t really your thing. This very same information can also pique interest by conveying it to you in a more entertaining atmosphere. Take my previous example and then imagine a game that places you inside of a zombie apocalypse but instead of a game pad for a controller, you are jogging away from zombies by actually jogging. This game does exist and you can find it by the name “Zombies, Run! 2” on the android store. It provides a similar purpose of tracking your activity and creates a fun and motivational way to manipulate that very same information.

These are just a couple of the many examples a data set can be utilized and turned into something entertaining. The exciting part of IT is not the information or even the technology by itself. It is the ideas you come up with to convey it. You can apply it in both your personal and professional lives whether it be in the form of a excel spreadsheet displaying graphical data for a meeting or a game that encourages you and your friends to become more active.

You may be thinking that this is great and all but I have no idea how to write programs or use Excel. Fortunately information technology has you covered. If you are interested, one of the best ways to start learning a topic in IT is to search tutorials on Google (YouTube is an excellent starting point). If you start finding yourself enjoying it then take a few IT classes or make it your major. I once knew a girl who after taking her first java class (with no prior IT experience), compiled her grandmother’s old cooking recipes into an app just as smartphones began to hit the market. Last I heard from her, she was making five figures a year (from her apps alone) while attending college for something entirely unrelated to IT.

The point is that IT is for everyone and you do not have to be a computer guru to get involved. It’s only a matter of conveying some information in a useful or entertaining way. While the formal and less fun definition of IT exist, it does little to show you what it can be capable of. So now it is up to you to think about what you could do with boring data tables or even possibly your grandmother’s old recipe cards you found in the attic.

September 22, 2013 at 11:59 pm Leave a comment

Watterson Elevators and Faster Internet Speeds

Full Elevator

Imagine yourself walking into Watterson and there is a large crowd in the lobby waiting to go into the elevator.  You think to yourself “What is going on?”, then someone tells you that there is only 1 working elevator and the stairs are just as full.  Now what goes through your mind? F*%^*@$&#T right?

After your first experience with those damn elevators, you’re probably going to race back and try to get in one before everyone else does.  No one likes to awkwardly wait for the next elevator to come.  There are just not enough elevators for all of us to get in that’s not awkward.  Maybe, someday, Watterson will finally receive the remodeling it deserves; then we won’t feel like rats in a labyrinth.

As I was reading articles trying to find an idea interesting enough to write about, I came across an article that would just do the job.  Nicolas Fontaine is an optical engineer at Bell Labs.  He has figured out a way to solve this Watterson elevator problem but through fiber optic wire instead.

Here is a picture of the inside of a fiber optic wire.

Here is a picture of the inside of a fiber optic wire.

Here is a quick crash course on what fiber wire is for those who are technologically challenged.  Fiber optic cable is a network cable that contains strands of glass fibers inside a casing.  Pretty much, it is like your basic cable wire but instead of copper, there is glass.  Fiber optic cable is fairly new and is used to transfer data faster and longer distances.  So every time you send a Facebook message, tweet, Snapchat through your computer, phone, tablet etc.  Also, since there is glass in fiber optic cables, it uses light to transfer all the information you send through the internet.

Now we get back to the article I was telling you about.  Nicolas Fontaine and his team developed a device that would send multiple devices into a single optical fiber.  This device would help avoid future bottlenecks in the information superhighway known as the internet.  This multiplexer is like having 5 times the regular Watterson elevators that are even bigger going a lot faster.  This means when you are attaching one of your many 20 page papers, instead of taking a minute, it’ll take probably a second or two.

If you would like to learn more about interesting topics such as this one and possibly major in something that involves it, you should check out the Computers Systems Technology program.  By taking an introduction class, you will see what you will be dealing with throughout your college career.

ISU MAT 120 students!  Don’t forget to take your quiz about this blog post on ReggieNet. That’s the only way you can show your interest in the blog and have your evaluation of it recorded.

Feel free to leave comments if you have anything to say.

David Nguyen

Illinois State University, Senior

Computer Systems Technology Major

Business Administration Minor

Here is the link to the article I read if you want to read it for yourself.

September 18, 2013 at 11:59 pm 1 comment

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