Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot – #diy #bookreview

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot
Michael Margolis
(O’Reilly – paperback, Kindle)

Technology now makes it relatively easy to build simple robots that can be controlled remotely or can control themselves autonomously using built-in sensors and software.

This engaging how-to guide focuses on how to build and program a small robot that can roam around, sense its environment, and perform a variety of tasks, using either type of control.

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot is an excellent book for teachers, hobbyists and experimenters who like working with software and hardware. The book’s simple robot moves about on a chassis that has two-wheel or four-wheel drive. And its heart is an Arduino Uno or Arduino Leonardo microcontroller running programs (“sketches”) provided in the book and available at a link for download.

Some basic assembly is required, including gathering parts and circuit boards and doing some soldering and mechanical assembly, following the book’s instructions. The robot can be built on small platforms from DFRobot or platforms of your own creation. And devices can be added, including distance sensors, infrared reflectance sensors, and remote control receivers.

The book is “not an introduction to programming,” however. If you have no experience with programming or programming Arduino microcontrollers, the author recommends two books: Getting Started with Arduino, 2nd Edition, and Arduino Cookbook, 2nd Edition.

Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot has 11 chapters and six appendices. The chapters are:

  1. Introduction to Robot Building
  2. Building the Electronics
  3. Building the Two-Wheeled Mobile Platform
  4. Building the Four-Wheeled Mobile Platform
  5. Tutorial: Getting Started with Arduino
  6. Testing the Robot’s Basic Functions
  7. Controlling Speed and Direction
  8. Tutorial: Introduction to Sensors
  9. Modifying the Robot to React to Edges and Lines
  10. Autonomous Movement
  11. Remote Control

The appendices are:

  • Appendix A: Enhancing Your Robot
  • Appendix B: Using Other Hardware with Your Robot
  • Appendix C: Debugging Your Robot
  • Appendix D: Power Sources
  • Appendix E: Programming Constructs
  • Appendix F: Arduino Pin and Timer Usage

Whether you love serious experimentation and invention or just tinkering for fun and mental challenge, Make an Arduino-Controlled Robot opens up many possibilities for individual, family, and classroom activities and learning.

Si Dunn

Think Python – A gentle and effective guide to learning Python programming – #programming #bookreview

Think Python
Allen B. Downey
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

First, a confession. My favorite book for learning Python is Head First Python by Paul Barry. It literally does throw you head-first into Python programming. By page 10, it has you working with nested lists. By page 30, you are creating a function that you will save and turn into a module just a few pages later. By the time you hit page 50, you have learned how to upload code to PyPi. And, as the book continues, you keep improving and expanding the functionality of one project that stays in development from chapter to chapter.

That said, I hereby declare that Think Python by Allen B. Downey is my new co-favorite book for learning Python.  I intend to keep it handy right alongside Head First Python.

Just about anyone studying or using Python can benefit from having Think Python on their bookshelf, in their computer, on their mobile device or, better yet, accessible in all these places. It is an excellent reference book, as well as a clear, concise and calm how-to guide for beginning programmers.

Think Python takes a gentle yet effective approach to introducing and exploring the language one step at a time. First you learn some basic programming concepts. Then, 13 pages in, you start easing into the language at the level of “Hello, World!”, plus variables, expressions, and statements.

The 277-page book has 19 chapters that carefully explain and illustrate each key point, without overkill. The author is a veteran instructor of computer languages, and he also is the author of a well-known book that has been around since 1999, in one form or another: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist.

Think Python is an outgrowth of the Python version that book. Downey has added materials on debugging and other topics, plus some exercises and case studies. And he has gotten plenty of proofreading help from more than 100 enthusiastic followers of his writings and teaching.

What I like most about Think Python are its short, concise, clear explanations of each new concept and its use of very short code examples. When I’m in the mood to spend just a few minutes reviewing or learning a new concept in Python, I can open Think Python and quickly find a refresher or a new area to try out. Head First Python, on the other hand, suits me best when I have an hour or two to stay focused on reading, keying in a lot more code and making the required changes to the ongoing project.

One minor caution: There are differences – sometimes significant and sometimes merely irritating – between Python 3 and Python 2. Head First Python focuses on Python 3 code and Think Python uses Python 2 code examples. But Think Python’s author has been careful to minimize the conflict and explains what to do when using Python 3.

The main thing to remember is that the print statement in Python 2 has become print(), a function, in Python 3. So if, for example, the book’s code says print ‘Hello, World!’ and you are using Python 3, you type print(‘Hello, World!’), instead.

It’s not hard. But the opportunity to print or print() something does come up a lot in the text.

Si Dunn

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments – Real CSI basics – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

Movies, TV shows and detective novels have elevated forensic science to a cultural fascination. And in real life, a clue uncovered with a microscope or a chemical test frequently is the one that provides the big break toward solving a crime.

You may daydream about what it might be like to work in a crime lab. And if you write crime novels, you likely will generate mental images of crime scene investigators or detectives trying to decipher puzzling clues. You might even picture a laboratory packed with sophisticated electronic analyzers that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Indeed, some labs do have that type of equipment. But this book’s authors note: “Here’s a startling fact: the vast majority of forensic work, even today, is done with low-tech procedures that would be familiar to a forensic scientist of 100 years ago.”

Indeed, they add: “You don’t need a multi-million dollar lab to do real, useful forensic investigations. All you need are some chemicals and basic equipment, much of which can be found around the home.”

You will also need “a decent microscope—the fundamental tool of the forensic scientist—but even an inexpensive student model will serve.”

The Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture is intended for “responsible” teenagers and adults who want “to learn about forensic science by doing real, hands-on laboratory work. DIY hobbyists and forensics enthusiasts can use this book to learn and master the essential practical skills and fundamental knowledge needed to pursue forensics as a lifelong hobby. Home school parents and public school teachers can use this book as the basis of a year-long, lab-based course in forensic science.”

The hefty, 425-page book offers more than 50 lab experiments, and each session represents actual procedures used each day by professional forensic analysts.

The labs are organized into 11 groups:

  1. Soil Analysis
  2. Hair and Fiber Analysis
  3. Glass and Plastic Analysis
  4. Revealing Latent Fingerprints
  5. Detecting Blood
  6. Impression Analysis
  7. Forensic Drug Testing
  8. Forensic Toxicology
  9. Gunshot and Explosive Residues Analysis
  10. Detecting Altered and Forged Documents
  11. Forensic Biology

Even though the book says it contains “no lectures,” each lab is introduced with a short background summary, plus lab safety cautions and warnings, lists of equipment and materials, and related how-to instructions. Also, each group of labs is introduced with a short overview of its category and its importance in forensic science. The book also contains comments from Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory.

This is not a book that young students should use without supervision. Even “responsible teens” will need close guidance. And adults, too, must be very careful to follow all safety instructions.

But this is a fascinating how-to guide for learning the basics of forensic science, whether you hope to do it as a career or hobby, gain a science credit, or merely describe some of the techniques in a mystery novel or screenplay.

Si Dunn

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra – Love, karate & mind-bending math in a helpful comic book – #bookreview #in

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra
Shin Takahashi, Iroha Inoue, and Trend-Pro Co., Ltd.
(No Starch Press,
paperback, list price $24.95)

Linear algebra is one of the reasons I fled engineering school and became a writer many years ago. Mathematical abstractions and my mind just do not seem to know how to mix.

I would like to say that reading The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra has caused a complete breakthrough in my stubborn resistance to any math beyond simple equations. But that would be a complete lie. Linear transformations, inverse matrices, and eigenvectors still do not compute well inside my head. Of course, the good news – for me – is that they really don’t have to. I’m an old guy now and not worried about becoming a scientist or mathematician. I’ll never have to know a diagonalizable matrix from a determinant to cash a Social Security check.

But many young people do need to know linear algebra. And The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra can be helpful for any serious student, from middle-school age through college, who is wrestling with linear algebra concepts. It’s a fun book that mixes karate and romance with real math in a now well-proven comic book style that facilitates learning.

You do have to get past the fact that even this book has trouble presenting an easily grasped definition of linear algebra. “That’s a tough question to answer properly,” young math whiz Reiji Yurino confesses to his new love interest, Misa Ichinose. But once you do slide past his mind-numbing response (“Broadly speaking, linear algebra is about translating something residing in an m-dimensional space into a corresponding shape in an n-dimensional space”), each key concept is presented and illustrated in clever and helpful ways amid an unfolding story of young love and having to learn self-defense.

Thanks to this book, I now know more about linear algebra than I learned in my doomed attempt to become an electrical engineer. And who knows? If I had had the book many decades ago, I might now be lecturing in a university classroom, stealing quotes from Reiji Yurino, and telling you with a chuckle: “You can generally never find more than n different eigenvalues and eigenvectors for any nxn matrix.”

Seriously, if you know someone who is facing linear algebra with dread (maybe it’s you) or struggling with it and now expressing frustration and resistance, this book likely can help.

Si Dunn

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments – Serious science for homeschoolers and biology hobbyists – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(Make:Books/O’Reilly Media, paperback, list price $34.99; Kindle edition, list price $27.99)

This is serious science in the form of a 359-page workbook devoted to 30+ lab experiments that can be performed at home, with the right equipment and materials.

The book is intended for adults who want to “explore the science of nature as a life-long hobby,” and it’s intended for homeschoolers who need and want challenging biology labs.

The book’s experiments are not cheesy and simple. Some example titles include “Simulated DNA Separation by Gel Electrophoresis”, “Investigating Bacterial Antibiotic Sensitivity”, “Soil and Water Pollution Testing,” and “Observing Specialized Eukaryotic Cells.” The review questions at the end of each lab also are challenging and require thoughtful, written answers rather than simple fill-in-a-blank responses.

Background material is provided before each experiment. But the authors recommend that their book be used in conjunction with a standard biology textbook, such as “the freely downloadable CK-12 Biology.” Meanwhile, the authors’ company, The Home Scientist, LLC, offers “inexpensive custom kits that provide specialized equipment and supplies you’ll need to complete the experiments.” You will also need a microscope and some “common household items” to use this book.

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments is well-written and well-illustrated. Before it introduces its experiments, it describes how to maintain a properly formatted laboratory notebook, how to set up a good home biology laboratory, how to use a microscope, and how to be careful with the necessary tools and materials. The workbook is part of the “DIY Science” series published by Make:Books, an imprint of Maker Media, which is a division of O’Reilly Media, Inc.

— Si Dunn

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