Bunnie Huang talks CPU speeds, open hardware, and heirloom laptops

Why the Best Days of Open Hardware are Yet to Come

Kind of technical, but an interesting read nonetheless. In a nutshell, Bunnie believes we may see a time (and soon) when CPUs simply can’t increase in speed anymore. As such, we’re going to see more open hardware and possibly even the “heirloomification” (my word) of computers. At this point, there will be no motivation to get a new device, since the guts won’t be any better. Instead, you’ll get a really nice tool with parts that you will replace as necessary.

On the one hand, this is so Sandbenders it hurts. On the other, it kinda freaks me out to think that computing might hit a wall. That’s borderline apocalyptic to nerdkind.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi project is really interesting. It’s an attempt to make a low-cost, (mostly) fully-featured ARM box in a format roughly the size of an Arduino. The computer itself has some impressive specs:

  • 700 MHz ARM processor
  • 128 MB RAM
  • SD card reader
  • 2 USB ports
  • HDMI out
All this for $25 (another $10 doubles the RAM and adds an Ethernet port)! Here’s a video of the Raspberry Pi playing Quake 3:

I could see a device similar to this being used as a “clean computer,” deployed in situations where security is important and there is a risk of existing computer systems being compromised (such as voting, or maybe for test-taking, or computer forensics?). In addition, I would absolutely love to take one of these around with me to use as a swiss army knife (server, router, streaming radio, office, etc.) once it’s got a nice case. Perhaps 3D-printed for a buck?

The other thing that interests me about these computers is their low power consumption. They use less than a watt of power, and while they’re currently limited to an AC adapter (included with the device, I believe), I’m sure that in no time people will make battery packs for them. Include a wireless USB dongle, a Twiddler (currently USB, hopefully soon a Bluetooth version will come out), and some kind of display, and you’re looking at a wearable computer that might actually be wearable.

I’m getting excited just thinking about it.

Notebook

Reminds me of the notebook from the Bridge Trilogy that Yamazaki always carried around:

Virtual Light

“The young woman behind the counter wore tattooed bracelets in the form of stylized indigo lizards. He asked for coffee. It arrived in thick heavy porcelain. No two cups here were alike. He took his notebook from his bag, flicked it on, and jotted down a brief description of the cup, of the minute pattern of cracks iii its glazed surface, like a white tile mosaic in miniature. Sipping his coffee, he scrolled hack to the previous day’s notes. The man Skinner’s mind was remarkably like the bridge. Things had accumulated there, around some armature of original purpose, until a point of crisis had been attained and a new program had emerged. But what was that program?

He had asked Skinner to explain the mode of accretion resulting in the current state of the secondary structure. What were the motivations of a given builder, an individual builder? His notebook had recorded the man’s rambling, oblique response, transcribing and translating it.”

“The notebook sometimes had trouble with Skinner’s idioms. In addition, he tended to slur. An expert system in Osaka had suggested he might have sustained a degree of neural damage, perhaps as the result of using street drugs, or of one or more minor strokes. But Yamazaki believed Skinner had simply been too long in proximity to whatever strange attractor had permitted the bridge to become what it had become. ‘Nobody,’ Skinner said, speaking slowly and deliberately at first, as if for emphasis, ‘was using this bridge for anything. After the Little Grande came through, understand?’

Yamazaki nodded, watching the characters of Skinner’s translated speech scroll down the notebook.”

Idoru

 “I’d appreciate it if you could explain to me what we’re doing here,” Laney said. He saw that Yamazaki was scribbling frantically on the screen of a small notebook, the lightpen flashing faintly in the dark. “Are you taking this down?” Laney asked.

“Sorry, no. Making note of waitress’ costume.”

“Why?” Laney asked.

“Sorry,” said Yamazaki, saving what he’d written and turning off the notebook. He tucked the pen carefully into a recess on the side. “I am a student of such things. It is my habit to record ephemera of popular culture. Her costume raises the question: does it merely reflect the theme of this club, or does it represent some deeper response to trauma of earthquake and subsequent reconstruction?”

“The woman replied that her company produced short-run furniture and accessories, lamps in particular. The actual manufacturing took place at any number of different locations, mainly in Northern California. Cottage industry. One maker might contract to do two hundred granite bases, another to lacquer and distress two hundred steel tubes in a very specific shade of blue. She brought out a notebook and showed him animated sketches. All of the things had a thin, spiky look that made him think of African insects he’d seen on the Nature Channel.”

All Tomorrow’s Parties

About an hour later, two men in white Tyvek coveralls showed up in an unmarked, surgically clean white van and went to work. Rydell would’ve liked to watch them get the smart tag off, but there was a run of shoplifters that night and he didn’t get to see what they did to it. They didn’t use scrapers or solvents, he knew that. They used a notebook and a couple of adhesive probes. Basically, he guessed, they reprogrammed it, messed with its code, and after they left, the graffiti-eaters were back out there, slurping down the latest Chupacabra iconography.

He locked the door, put the CLOSED sign up, and went into the back room where he found the boy still seated, cross-legged, as he’d left him, his face hidden by the massive old eyephones cabled to the open notebook in his lap.

“Hey,” Fontaine said, “How’s fishin’? You been finding anything you think we should bid on?”

The boy continued to monotonously click a single key on the notebook, the eyephones bobbing slightly in time.

“Hey,” Fontaine said. “You gonna get netburn.”

He squatted beside the boy, wincing at the pain it brought to his knees. He rapped once on the gray cowl of the eyephones, then gently removed them. The boy’s eyes blinked furiously, swimming in the vanished light of the miniature video screens. His hand clicked the notebook a few times, then stopped.

“Let’s see what you found,” Fontaine said, taking the notebook from him. He absently touched a few keys, curious to see what the boy might have bookmarked.


			

Chorded keyboard – the Frogpad

I have one of these! I’m a righty, but I bought a left-handed bluetooth Frogpad for my phone. It works pretty well, I just wish there was more phone-related controls, like selecting menu options and such.

First foray into the chorded keyboard scene! It’s been pretty good, so far. Took me very little time to learn most of the key locations. I’m not breaking any speed records, but it’s really comfortable to type one-handed, and it’s pretty cool to not have to move my hand from the keyboard to the mouse. I can do both at once!

Once the Twiddler goes wireless, though – I’m there.

Thad Starner is one of the patron saints of the wearable computing movement. He uses a display that mounts onto his glasses and a Twiddler to operate a box running Linux. Check out the videos to see what he looks like from the outside, and what he’s seeing.

While I would personally prefer a solution slightly less intrusive (there’s got to be a better display available, and Mr. Starner carries a messenger bag full of batteries for his computer), I would love to see this sort of thing take off. I don’t see why a display embedded into my glasses couldn’t connect wirelessly to my smartphone, which is in turn connected to a Bluetooth Twiddler.

From the outside, it’s a guy playing with a small device. From the inside, it’s everything I need.

I want one of these.

Fossil, Sony, and even a few independent companies have been toying with the concept of the watch-as-second-screen. I love the idea of not even having to take my my phone out of my pocket. The watches are connected via bluetooth, and can display information from the phone, as well as functioning as a control surface.

Now if only we could make truly excellent bluetooth headsets, and put the cell phone IN the watch.

iPhone 4

The science fiction trope of the box into which you jack your brain directly (Neuromancer, Shadowrun, countless others) has taken shape in modern society in the form of smartphones. What’s awesome, though, is that Gibson kind of predicted these, too, in Idoru:

“Masahiko undid the top two buttons of his tunic and withdrew a six-inch square of something black and rigid, no thicker than a pane of glass. He brushed it purposefully with the fingers of his right hand, beaded lines of colored light appearing at his touch. Though these were fainter here, washed out by the train’s directionless fluorescents, Chia recognized the square as the control-face of the Computer she’d seen in his room.

He studied the display, stroked it again, and frowned at the result. ‘Someone pays attention to my address,’ he said, ‘and to Mitsuko’s.’

‘The restaurant?’

‘Our user addresses,’

‘What kind of attention?’

‘I do not know. We are not linked.’

-Except by me.”

Smartphones function as windows into the digital world in a way that desktop computers (or even laptops) simply can’t. They are portable, intentionally designed for communication. They interact with our environment through cameras and microphones and wireless modules – and they do this cheaply and effectively. The iPhone, in particular, has sort of create a platform/enclave out of its app store. Businesses now offer “iPhone apps.” Sometimes they’ll have an android app, sure. But for the most part, people are offering iPhone apps. It’s like having a URL, nowadays.

 

 

Sandbenders

“I like your computer,” she said. “It looks like it was made by Indians or something.”

Chia looked down at her sandbenders. Turned off the red switch. “Coral,” she said. “These are turquoise. The ones that look like ivory are the inside of a kind of nut. Renewable.”

“The rest is silver?”

“Aluminum,” Chia said. “They melt old cans they dig up on the beach cast it in sand molds. These panels are micarta. That’s linen with this resin in it.”

Mitsuko was getting her computer out. It was one of those soft, transparent Korean units, the kind that looked like a flat bag of clear white jelly with a bunch of colored jujubes inside. Chia unzipped her bag and pulled her Sandbenders out.

‘What is that?” Mitsuko asked.

“My computer.”

Mitsuko was clearly impressed. “It is by Harley-Davidson?”

“It was made by the Sandbenders,” Chia said, finding her goggles and gloves. “They’re a commune, down on the Oregon coast. They do these and they do software.”

“It is American?”

“Sure.”

“I had not known Americans made computers,” Mitsuko said.

Chia worked each silver thimble over the tips of her fingers and thumbs, fastened the wrist straps.

“She went out,” Masahiko said. “May I look at your computer?”

“Computer?” Chia stood, confused.

“It is Sandbenders, yes?”

She poured some of the tea, which was still steaming. “Sure. You want tea?”

“No,” Masahiko said. “I drink coffee only.” He squatted on the tatami, beside the low table, and ran an admiring fingertip along the edge of the Sandbenders’ cast aluminum.
“Beautiful. I have seen a small disk player by the same maker. It is a cult, yes?”

“A commune. Tribal people. In Oregon.”

“Tell me about Sandbenders,” Masahiko said, putting the control-face away and buttoning his tunic.

“It started with a woman who was an interface designer,” Chia said, glad to change the subject. “Her husband was a jeweler, and he’d died of that nerve-attenuation thing, before they saw how to fix it. But he’d been a big green, too, and he hated the way consumer electronics were made, a couple of little chips and boards inside these plastic shells. The shells were just point-of-purchase eye-candy, he said, made to wind up in the landfill if nobody recycled it, and usually nobody did. So, before he got sick, he used to tear up her hardware, the designer’s, and put the real parts into cases he’d make in his shop. Say he’d make a solid bronze case for a minidisk unit, ebony inlays, carve the control surfaces out of fossil ivory, turquoise, rock crystal. It weighed more, sure, but it turned out a lot of people liked that, like they had their music or their memory, whatever, in something that felt like it was there. . . . And people liked touching all that stuff: metal, a smooth stone. . . . And once you had the case, when the manufacturer brought out a new model, well, if the electronics were any better, you just pulled the old ones out and put the new ones in your case. So you still had the same object, just with better functions.”
Masahiko’s eyes were closed, and he seemed to be nodding slightly, though perhaps only with the motion of the train.

“And it turned out some people liked that, too, liked it a lot. He started getting commissions to make these things. One of the first was for a keyboard, and the keys were cut from the keys of an old piano, with the numbers and letters in silver. But then he got sick . .

Masahiko’s eyes opened, and she saw that not only had he been listening, but that he was impatient for more.

“So after he was dead, the software designer started thinking about all that, and how she wanted to do something that took what he’d been doing into something else. So she cashed out her stock in all the companies she’d worked for, and she bought some land on the coast, in Oregon-”

And the train pulled into Shinjuku, and everyone stood up, heading for the doors…

(the above from Idoru by William Gibson)