Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2005-05-31
  What the internet can do
Besides being the #2 entry on Google for Technical Difficulties, there's a host of other more obscure topics for which I show up on the first page, like kayak xm600 case power. And why would anybody be doing that search? Well, perhaps one of your friends is playing a practical joke on you and has given you the motherboard to a hp kayak xm600 (but not the rest of the machine), and you want to put it in a regular case, but you don't know how to hook up the power and reset switches because unlike your garden variety Taiwanese motherboard manufacturer, HP doesn't want to help you hook up this motherboard to a case they didn't make, they want to sell you their latest high end $6,000 workstation. So you go through the Google results, with no good leads and finally in desperation you decide to email this guy who seems to be able to laugh at himself and who obviously has a HP Kayak, and see if he can help you.

Unlikely you say? Completely made up?

[yahoo mail]

Hi Derek
I wonder if you could help me. I have recently got my hands on a P2190-60001 dual S370 motherboard from a HP Kayak XM 600 series 2, but did not get the case and want to put the motherboard in a standard generic case. My problem is that I cannot find out how to switch it on. It has a front panel block which apparently connects to the front panel lights and switches through a ribbon cable, and the HP documentation is useless when you are talking about the generic power switch, reset, power led and hd led. From you recent article, I gather you have a Kayak and would appreciate it if you could have a quick look and tell me which pins are which function.

Thanks
Peter Thorn
Australia

Not a problem Peter, here you go:

The green/black pair is power and the blue/black is reset. The weird part is that that they use the same pin for ground (as seen in the plug picture). The yellow/black runs the disk activity and the green/red/black runs the dual-color power LED.

That's what makes the internet what it is. a sense of comraderie with complete strangers that means I'm willing to spend an hour pulling apart my computer, downloading the manual for my new digital camera and playing with its Macro features, all to help some poor guy in australia get a five year old motherboard running in a generic case.

 
2005-05-28
  Messing with strange materials
Besides making me look like a super programmer, this new screen is great for reading EE Times, and I've been zooming through my two year backlog at a stunning pace. Now, if I had received all these magazines in paper form (its a weekly trade rag), my wife would have brought in a dumpster and hauled them away long ago, but since they're only 10MB files taking up space in an obscure folder called "Read Me", I've been able to let them accumulate in my own local bit of cyberspace without the worry of them all coming crashing down on top of me in an earthquake.

Anyway, while some of the articles are a bit dated (like all the industry pundits trying to forecast when the recession will be over--surprise they were mostly all wrong), the technology articles are especially interesting, with the added bonus that any promising technology I read about I can pop over to Google and do a two year followup on.

[Forge]

The latest technology was not only interesting, but it seemed more like something a blacksmith would come up with than a EE. Chalcogenide RAM is actually one part heat treated metal, one part spot welder, and one part volt-meter; and if they ever get it to work, its going to be some pretty good stuff.

[periodic elements]

So you start with a mix of germanium, antimony, tellurium & tin; which bakes up into a kind of spongy layer. Then you start heat treating it like you'd do steel.

As any good blacksmith knows, iron and carbon mixed together (steel) can do some weird things depending on the temperature. You can end up with all kinds of different arrangements of the carbon and iron atoms, and the resulting structures can have different properties. You can have austenite, cementite, pearlite, martensite, bainite, and all kinds of various sizes of ferrite (the iron crystal). Most of the time you're trying to either work out stress cracks (annealing) to regain strength and the ability to absorb shocks, or trading endurance for strength and hardening tools (heat treating). Since you can't have both at one time, there's always some give and take when working the metal.

The chalcogenide family has always been interesting to material engineers, because as you temper it and anneal it, you get other interesting physical property changes. Rewritable CD-RW disks make use of cholcogenides that change how reflective they are depending on whether their internal structure is crystalline or amorphous. In the case of cholcogenide RAM, the scientists actually found an alloy that changes its resistance. In the case of tin doped Ge2Sb2Te5, the resistivity dropped from 50kohms to 4kohms, which is pretty easy to tell apart.

[spot welder]

The next challenge is building the on-chip spot welder. In the CD-RW disks you could use an external laser to melt the thing, but here the chip itself has to heat up a little bit of material to more than a thousand degrees and hopefully rather quick, as a memory with a write time measured in seconds (vs nano seconds) would not be that useful these days. Luckily the spot isn't very large, and material isn't very thick; but you're certainly not going to run the programming charge across aluminum, gold, or copper traces, as they'd probably melt as well. So here our old friend Tungsten arrives to save the day. Simply build the base pad out of Tungsten, and just for fun (since chip manufactures always love the challenge of dealing with strange new exotic alloys) make the top grid out of TiW (titanium tungsten, for those of you that don't have the periodic table memorized), and you're all set.

You don't even have to worry about large programming voltages like the early days of flash memory (or for those old enough: 15V & 24V EEPROMs). While EEPROMs and Flash work by zapping a charge across a thin insulator (thus requiring large voltages), melting stuff actually works great with low voltages. In fact, if you take the basic formulas for voltage ( V = I * R ) and power ( P = I * V ) and combine stick them together, you get P = I * I * R which means for any given resistance, to blow the maximum amount of energy we just want to crank up the current. That's why a spot welder actually runs at about half a volt. By taking line power at 240V (or higher for big machines), and turning it into 0.5V you increase the current from 25A to 12,000A which will dump a lot of energy (which turns to heat) into steel even though steel is an ok conductor. Its that current squared term that just goes ballistic.

[patent]

So what's so great about chalcogenide memory? Its how the state is stored: by changing the crystal structure of the material, vs a electron charge or magnetic state. Basically its really hard to accidentally change the state. C-RAM would be immune to electric fields, alpha particles, magnetic fields or just about anything else that causes soft errors in modern storage devices. In fact an early use will probably be space applications that need immunity to all the high energy particles that hit equipment out beyond our protective atmosphere.

So what's happened in the last two years? There's been a few tidbits in the press since then, including one strategic report put out this last February by memory strategies showing at least seven groups working on it. (Two of them are even in my state: University of Arizona & Arizona State University. Too bad NAU didn't join in, I could just pop over after the holidays and see what's cooking.) Time will tell if C-RAM becomes the next big thing, or goes the way of bubble memory.

 
2005-05-24
  Industries at cross purposes
Besides putting fuel cells in cars, the next biggest idea for them is to put them in electronic devices like celll phones and laptops.

[laptop fuel cell]

They've been working on this for a long time. You'd think that if people were going to spend four or five years investigating this kind of technology that somebody might think about the practical aspects of this and possible pitfalls. Like what if you got this brand new fuel cell laptop and you couldn't take it anywhere.

While laptops are more popular these days in general because of their smaller size, someone using the laptop at a desk or carrying it back and forth to work doesn't necessarily care that much about the battery life. The big win is when you're travelling, which most of the time is by plane.

[airplane]

Oh, but besides banning everything from fingernail clippers to knitting needles, the airlines have decided to ban every possible type of incendery device they can think of, from zippo lighters to matches. (Although TSA recognizes that X-ray machines aren't good at detecting things like cardboard with a little bit of sulfur on the end, so that the rule on matches is kind of lax.)

So I wonder what they're going to think of fuel cells. My guess is they're not allowed. So at first you won't be able to take your laptop with you on a flight at all (since various fuels are not allowed in checked luggage either), though with enough lobbying they might relax the rule a little like they finally did for zippo and allow laptops without any fuel. How handy.

I think laptop fuel cells are in for an uphill climb.

 
2005-05-21
 
My sister has started teaching high school chemistry and physics (a scary thought since she never took physics in school), and she find the books less than inspiring (as did I when I was in school). The only reason I liked science was because I was good at it (and didn't have to study much until I started flunking special relativity in college), but there's actually a lot of interesting stuff about.

If some how I was stuck teaching high school science, the first thing I would do is throw out most of the textbook and start talking about cool things that you can learn from science:

Why clouds float (they don't really, they just fall really slowly)

tungsten

The importance of Tungsten.

aerogel

What Aerogels are, and why critical pressure is ahem, critical, to fabrication.

liquid nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen, and all the fun things you can do with it.

water rocket

Making and building water rockets, either for fun or competition. Impressively there's at least two national competitions, one of which was just this weekend.

 
2005-05-20
  Advise for new graduates, or heck--anybody.
Curt over at The Occupational Adventure asks for advise for new graduates.
It's getting to be the time of year for graduation. Time for another wave of young people to join the work world and start making decisions about where they want to go in life.

What advice would you give them?

...

I call the first ten years out of college the incubation period. The truth is, regardless of what they think they know, many college age people don't really know what they want (I certainly didn't).

Heck, I've been "working" for more than twenty years now (16 years since college) and I am still discovering things. Just the other day I discovered that analog electronics is cool, despite the fact that before that I thought it was yuckier than spinach (back in college, you couldn't get me to touch EE 14 with a ten foot pole).

So I'd extend Curt's advise like this:

Start out treating the first ten years as R&D, then when that's over, treat the next ten years as R&D, ... Never stop learning or exploring, life just gets boring when you do.
Actually I've always liked to try new things and take risks. It was another lesson that came out of battling in the trenches for the last twenty years that was so surprising:
My biggest lesson learned was that it wasn't about the companies, the products, the jobs or the technology. Its about the people. Pay attention to who you work with: who are the people with the energy, who are there just marking time, and who are the sinkholes. Cultivate relationships, these will make your best future possible.
The last ten years I've lived and worked from Flagstaff (a national mecca of nowhere'sville). This was only possible through the contacts and friends I'd known previous (or made online), as outsourcing your engineering to a small rural mountain location is not the first thing that goes through the mind of the VPE of a silicon valley startup (or of any company for that matter).

Taking your own path like that requires courage certainly, but also a significant support and resources. Linked-In is only going to get you so far, you have to cultivate those live connections and find true friends. That will help tip the balance towards a life well lived vs another depressing statistic.

 
2005-05-19
  Non linear effects
Most of the time I'm struggling with the technical difficulties of the mundane, but sometimes I get to enjoy the results of all my efforts (or just the results of some blind luck). On bit of luck was ordering a new digital camera so that it showed up the same day that Oscar was born. Another bit of luck was picking exactly the right camera.

My old Olympus was an improvement back when I got it, but it just isn't that good a camera compared with modern ones. It takes 4AA batteries, which don't last all that long, the flash takes forever to charge up, it uses compact flash cards (which I'm dumping), and it really doesn't do that well indoors. I have a lot of dark, noisy, blurred pictures of the kids doing various things (which can't really be identified by the picture).

Tim got a good deal on a Canon SD110, and I was pretty close to getting that (its cheaper and smaller), but the A520 just seemed like the right camera for a bunch of reasons that I couldn't put my finger on until I actually got it:

Net result? In the last two weeks, I've taken 2,600+ pictures (1GB cards are really handy, they store > 800 high quality images). Did all the pictures come out? Of course not. But I use the multi-shot almost all the time, and so out of six or seven images in a row, at least two are usually focused very sharp. It takes decent movies too, so we have the kids running around and doing various things in little vignettes.

The dim-light pictures are the most amazing. I've gotten good pictures in dark corners where my eye's weren't picking up that much light. Even badly lit doctor's offices can provide the setting for a wonderful picture.

The thing is, with truly great tools, your enthusiasm feeds your creativity and sometimes you can really connect the dots in interesting ways. Still I was surprised by the synergistic techno-solution that came up in the hospital. I had just taken another couple hundred pictures of the baby and mama, and was showing off some of the better ones to her. She of course thought they were all cute, but a few were especially good and she wanted me to send them to her parents. The problem is that 1) I'm not good at remembering things and 2) I hadn't yet even had the chance to go down to the computer room and do anything for two days; so I didn't think it was going to happen unless I came up with an original idea.

Then it hit me. Both the Canon and the Treo use SD cards, and the Treo has a digital camera so it knows all about the DCIM/ folder and JPEG files. So wha-lah, I popped the memory card out of the camera, popped it into the phone, pulled up the image (after that poor 312MHz cpu chugged with all its might to decode almost the entire folder with of images to display icons on the screen), and emailed it.


I'm still geeking out about that.

 
2005-05-16
  My oldest program in use
I've written a lot of programs over the years, some I'm proud of, and others I cringe at when I hear their name; but what's interesting is how useful a few of the really old programs are. For instance, I was sitting in my dorm room back in 1988, doing expenses and had run out of paper tape for my adding machine. I no longer had access to Pierce's mac, so I tracking things in excel anymore. Instead I was just making text files on the VAX 11/780, and trying process them with the various unix text tools.

While BSD 4.3 had several text based calculators, it didn't have anything that would just take a list of numbers and add them up. That's when I decided to use my budding C powers (pascal was the language of choice up until the year before), and write something to add numbers.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <strings.h>

main()
{
  double numb;
  char c, *p, ixline[128];
  int i;

  numb= 0.0, i= 0;
  while (fgets(ixline, 128, stdin)) {
    p= ixline ;
    while ((c= *p) && (' ' == c) || ('\t' == c)) p ++ ;
    numb+= atof(p), i++ ;
  }

  printf("summ [%d], %8.2f\n", i, numb);
  exit(0);
}
Pretty simple and pretty useful. I called it addl (for add line). Eats numbers up until EOL, and you can feed it from a unix pipe (like grep V ledg04 | cutu -f8- | addl) or just type right into the terminal. The handing thing about using it interactively, is that after you type a long list of numbers, you can go back and look at the list (like you would the paper tape) and spot mistakes pretty easy. Then you just restart addl and copy in the numbers that were fine and re-type the number that was wrong, and get the correct total.

Pretty impressive to have written a program 18 years ago that's still useful. (ok, so I'm easily impressed)

 
2005-05-13
  Sometimes simpler is better
My wife often wonders what all this metal equipment and shop time is good for. Besides building the world's most over-designed training wheels, I figured I'd better come up with something else with some utility to have in my defense. Since I don't have a lot of time these days for constructing some gigantic project, I looked around for something simple. Really simple. Like the broken BBQ.

The BBQ has a wooden frame and two side platforms, and there was the occasion that I was using one of those platforms as a support for hammering something, when the quarter inch of redwood in the back which was holding things together, decided to come apart. Thus it has remained for several years as I haven't gotten around to jimmying something together to fix it. But no longer.

I had in mind a simple bracket which would provide new support for the back rail, and thus bring everything back into place. A quick trip to the shop to do some cutting, bending and drilling, and I had my piece. almost Actually fitting the piece into place revealed some not-so-ideal clearances, so a quick pass in the bench shears (which managed to bite a corner off the 16 gauge steel just fine), and I think I'm good to go.

Just have to get out there with the drill and put this thing together. Not the highest thing on my list right now, but sometime this summer for sure.

 
2005-05-12
  Thank goodness for waffles
waffles Waffles, unlike their cousin the pancake, can be eaten with fingers. This is especially handy as I am no good with using a fork in my left hand and my right hand is busy supporting the baby at the moment. So if it weren't for waffles, I'd be facing the decision: wake the baby or starve.

Instead, the baby is asleep, my tummy has something in it (yes, you're allowed to use the word tummy when raising toddlers), and everything is good although there's now a little syrup on my keyboard. Thanks to Pam (our neighbor) for making the waffles and bringing them over.

I wonder what I can come up with for lunch.

 
2005-05-08
  A new addition
Things have been quiet online, only because things have been a little busy offline.

Never one to keep a schedule, little oscar showed up two weeks early. One minute I was downstairs, doing my usual midnight hacking, and the next minute the intercom buzzes and we're off to the hospital. Such is the excitement of life. Easy to remember his birthday though: 5-5-5

Anyways, everyone is back home now; mama and Oscar are doing fine; I've already taken 900+ pictures in the last three days with my new canon A520; and my computer had to go without me for three whole days. (Thank goodness for my Treo so I could check email and chat while in the hospital.)

 
2005-05-02
  Using my brain for something besides a paperweight

For valentines day my wife got me a large bar of chocolate. Not one of those ones you see on the grocery store shelf, but a five pound slab. Besides taking up a rather large space on my desk, it was also upwards of half an inch thick, which made breaking it into smaller pieces a little troublesome.

Around here in February (which is when valentines day is–remember that guys) its very cold. Outside is cold, inside is cold, and down in the basement where I work (and where the chocolate bar ended up), its is cold. It gets a little warmer in the summer (like 66°F instead of 58°) but by in large no matter what time of the year it is, its basically cold down here.

Unfortunately, Chocolate has about the same consistency as sheetrock at these temperatures, so I was producing a large mess in my attempts to break up the giant bar. One effect this had was to slow down my consumption of said candy, to the point that there was still at least two pounds left this week when I finally had a breakthrough.

I hadn't really been trying to come up with a solution to the problem, except that recently I had been trying to limit my intake of carbonation and so I was looking for alternative sources of caffeine. And chocolate is a great source of caffeine. So I was staring at the thing, and enjoying a small updraft of warm air from my portable oil-filled radiator, when my brain connected the dots and wah-lah.

I guess all those times of putting chocolate in my pockets as a kid finally paid off, as my brain realized that if I set the bar on top of the radiator, it would get warm and soft. Of course if you leave it on a hot radiator too long, you'll have a goopy mess, but as I was sitting right next to my experiment, I could keep an eye on it. After about two hours, it looked ready, so I took out my knife and sliced it up into little bits as easy as cake.

Mission accomplished. Now I just have to avoid eating it all in one sitting.

 
Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

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Blogroll
Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
SnowDeal
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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