Friday, October 21, 2011

Mac ARM'ed to the teeth?

Rumors of a Mac OS X migration to ARM processors are flowing from multiple reliable sources.  We hear from Jon Stokes' blog (now on Wired's Cloudline) of some evidence that Mac OS X was running on Intel hardware from the beginning, long before it was determined that Mac would switch to x86 (thereby removing most backward compatibility).  It is now believed that there is a similar port being maintained again, but this time for ARM processors.

That Cortex A15 review indicates that performance will be on par with a 2Ghz Core 2 Duo (3-issue superscalar 15-stage pipeline).  Although Intel achieved this performance over 5 years ago, the chip is admirably about half as fast as the very fastest processors at serial processing (typical of laptop processors) which comprise the vast majority of applications.  At 32nm the ARM processor could be expected to do so at around 5 watts per core at peak, opening the way for speculation of its debut in the Mac Book Air.

Charlie at SemiAccurate seems to think it a certainty, though betting on a successor to the A15 somewhere around 2015 (this was also speculated about a year ago as well).

The processor wars are heating up thanks to the increased importance of power efficiency.  If things continue to go the way they are, I wonder if the DoJ will end up allowing ARM to acquire AMD?

Friday, October 14, 2011

I-Opener resurrected

This post will include a lot of "I", and generally bad writing, because it is being written from an excited state.  Forgive ok?

I spent a good portion of the last week cleaning my office area.  I'm very happy with the results and felt like rewarding myself.. but how?  It's not an easy choice because I already had ice cream and pizza today, enjoyed the pool, and the budget doesn't allow for extravagance.

Oh I know, pry open the old I-Opener and see if we can get it running again.  I had spotted its various parts during the move to Palo Alto this summer, and clung to it with ferocity when my well meaning parents tried to help us clean up after the move and wanted to dump it.

There are many issues with the I-Opener, too many to list today, but the end result of rewarding myself with unrestricted hacking is that the I-Opener is playing Cocteau Twins as I speak, running Windows 98 SE.  The I-Opener hasn't made a peep in about 9 years, after I attempted to improve the sound but accidentally desoldered the sound chip (I thought it was a misc unused chip and needed the space for the other upgrades it holds within).  Enter the JLAB USB speaker, which needs no driver disks, just plugs in and starts making sound.

Can you say AWESOME!?

I also had to remove a nice 9mm 3GB laptop hard drive from within it and replace it with a 13mm 32GB I had loaded previously but had removed to use as a backup drive during the final days of my dissertation.  The 13mm doesn't quite fit as nicely - the additional pressure on the chassis is noticeable, which mattered back when I was being careful but now that the hack is just for lulz who cares?

Oh how I love my glorious I-Opener.  I believe it is uniquely configured and there is none like it in the world.  It has a 4x CD-Rom inserted inside the case, which I have not heard or seen in any other (pictures with working CD-Roms on the net have them dangling outside).  Many internal components had to be moved or removed in order to make the space.  The RAM is upgraded from 32MB to the maximal 128MB, and the slow slow 180mhz WinChip is upgraded to a 300mhz K6-2 (not an easy hack!), which benches about 3x faster.  The massive passive (band name?) heat sink had to be removed and replaced with a lasagna fan cooler, and a giant resistor that was inserted near the RAM had to be moved to be adjacent to the lasagna fan to prevent overheating and crashes.  The onboard storage is 32GB, upgraded from the 16MB flash chip.  The original keyboard was hacked to replace the joystick mouse with a real mouse that connects by wire to the keyboard, and uses the single keyboard plug to supply both mouse and keyboard PS2 connections.

I recall flashing the bios by hacking the original I-Opener software to dial into a Windows PC I had set up on a second phone line as a dial-up server.

It is amazing that a company could get funding to sell $300 - $400 worth of hardware for $99, arguing to make up the difference in dial-up fees.  With hacked I-Openers there were no dial-up fees, and Netpliance popped like so many bubbles :-(

Sad?  Yes.  Hell of a hack?  Damn straight.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Newegg starts "First from Asia" program

If you've ever looked to build something new from commodity parts you've discovered  Alibaba has a million different products but the prices are usually not listed, in fact you're lucky to get contact info for the asian  factories that create the products, and the minimum orders are usually thousands of units.

Enter newegg whose new First from Asia program means fast shipping products straight from Asia in single unit quantities.  Oh, and instead of taking a leap of faith, you get real honest to goodness user reviews to peruse.  Giving it a quick once over indicates that the usb banana is a hot item (edit: now sold out!).

I have previously looked into buying the parts for a mobile robot from Asia, and in fact made some purchases with good results in quality, price, and timeliness.  It will be interesting to see how newegg's inventory fills out, and whether its legendary service and speediness extend one continent to the left.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Good enough computing comes to SyFy

I started watching Warehouse 13 on Netflix this weekend and I must say I am impressed.  The special effects are not the best I've seen... nor are the actors and acting.  With regular levels of suspension of disbelief, however, the show is fun, interesting, and most of all has a conspiracy theorist vibe that is quirky and avoids taking itself too seriously (see the strange neutralizing "goo", that, when asked "what's it do?", it is responded "I don't know", heh).

If you've watched any of the too-many-to-count original SyFy movies you will see that they are so cheesy they are hard to watch without crackers (please point me to the exceptions and I will happily ammend this post to include them).  Usually there is some monster crocodile, dinosaur, or swamp monster that is killing people, usually beautiful, which humans have brought upon themselves through meddling with the environment, science, or other.  The stories are not intoxicating but I will admit they are fun to watch while intoxicated.

Through much trial and error, SyFy has discovered a few actors that are easy on the eyes and sufficiently believable.  SyFy has then spread these actors across multiple series, thereby scaling their value within the SyFy franchise.  For people that love a genre that is large-but-still-niche, greatness is not really expected (Firefly was an indulgent luxury, not a need, for SciFi lovers).  But it can't be a joke - i.e. laughter from wives or husbands that are not so in love with the genre still stings - Science Fiction junkies have absorbed enough ridicule to know how to avoid it.

The SyFy channel is now benefiting from the effect of "Good Enough Computing" - that is that regular amounts of computing resources make special effects that are "good enough" to be believed (under regular levels of suspension of disbelief :).  Netflix seems perfectly willing to pay to stream shows from SyFy, and if these shows are good enough to watch, then Netflix gets ever closer to having enough content that is good enough to disconnect cable (thereby creating a high value proposition through consumer savings).

It used to be that SyFy's low level of resources were only enough to create lame movies, but through acquisition of actors and the improvement of technology they are leaving the lameness behind.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Zet soft core running Windows 3.0

Sending a shout out to the Zet team.  Congrats on supporting DE0 and DE2 Altera FPGAs.  With the DE0 Nano the price of running a soft x86 system in FPGA is reduced to just $59!  That brings the cost of entry from the funded research realm well into the hobbyist and enthusiast user space.  Well done!

The capabilities of FPGAs are indeed just now beginning to overcome the threshold of x86 processor complexity.  Exciting things to come!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fare well Steve Jobs, 1955 - 2011

He stayed hungry, he stayed foolish.  From "Put on your Sunday clothes":

Out there
There's a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There's a slick town, Barnaby
Out there
Full of shine and full of sparkle
Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby
Listen, Barnaby...
Put on your Sunday clothes,
There's lots of world out there

This song was featured in the movie Wall-E, by Pixar, one of the multiple companies Steve founded that expanded the territory of imagination.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What are computers for?

When my father brought home our first computer, the Atari ST, my mind ran through myriad things I imagined it could do.  I understood that it was different from a game system, even though it could play games - it was supposed to be able to do things that a video game system couldn’t do.  The next question was “What is this for”?  I learned to program BASIC on it, drew dinosaurs with the mouse, and typed homework, but still felt I hadn’t figured it out.  What is supposed to be done on computers?
                The answer came later when my Dad installed America Online on a brand new Pentium 133mhz desktop computer.  I searched the web, wrote emails to my friend who was spending a semester abroad, and chatted in chat rooms.  The light switch went on and I realized that computers are for the Internet.  More accurately, computers are for communicating, whether over the Internet, cell phone networks, undersea sonar, or satellite radio.
                It is striking that the first instructions a computer runs on boot up are for installing the Basic Input Output System (BIOS), which enables the computer to communicate with the network, memory, disk, monitor, keyboard, etc.  No apps will run during this process, in fact the operating system won’t even start until the BIOS finishes loading.