It’s a beautiful morning on Thursday, March 24 2022 in Portland, Oregon. For the first time in a long time, I went out up the road to get fresh bread with the kids: the 5yo got to ride his bike, and I got to be very irresponsible and impulse buy some breakfast pastries. Half the people in the store weren’t wearing masks.
Things That Caught My Attention, Volume 1 is out now: you, my dear subscribers, can get a copy with 20% off.
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Odds and ends today, I think.
I learned about the Precursor1 via Cory Doctorow – here’s a photo on Flickr that might be easier to digest than the product page. Short version is that it a) looks like the hardware instantiation of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a.k.a Young Fiona’s e-Ink Kindle2) and b) those yellow accents in Cory’s copy complete with the P reversed out on a yellow background make it totally look like a Psion Organizer II3.
Those are just surface level observations, though. The reason why someone like Cory is interested in it is because it’s a free/libre, secure, hackable, general purpose mobile computing device that you can do whatever you want to and the even more cool bit is that the whole thing runs on an FPGA, which is a field-programmable grid array. There’s no CPU in the sense that there’s an Intel Core chip or AMD Ryzen/Threadripper or Apple Silicon M1 in there: it’s a bunch of arrays and software itself tells the chip what to be, and how to do it. FPGAs are like software chips, so super duper flexible. And also with that flexibility the tradeoff is speed – they’re not going to approach, for the kind of things you might want to do for personal computing, the kind of performance that an optimized regular CPU will deliver.
But such flexibility! The FPGA in this case lets the developers implement something called a RISC-V chip, which is open source. In that way it’s good in that anyone can hack at it (want to add some more stuff to your chip design? Go for it!) and in theory because more eyes make bugs shallow, which… eh. I mean, more shallow, sure. Possibly.
A digression: the ridiculously privileged laptop I used to use at college was an IBM ThinkPad with an mWave DSP – a digital signal processor. Those DSPs now are the kinds of things that power software-defined radios which in theory terrify the shit out of people who’re used to being in charge because really, you “just” need to be able to pick signals out of the air and then transmit them, and suddenly your computer (with an SDR peripheral that you can plug in over USB) can pretend (or, basically, is) to be an LTE mobile phone base station. Or pick up over the air digital TV. Or whatever, really. Fun!
Anyway, the digression: that mWave DSP in the ThinkPad was a super expensive, over-engineered, unreliable way of implementing a sound card in a laptop. Essentially, you’d load a driver / program to tell the DSP to act like a wavetable sound card (good!) and you could also load a driver / program to tell the DSP to act like a 56k modem. But you see the problem here is that you need a driver / program to tell the DSP to do that and if you’re reading this, you know that if there’s one thing that we think we’re brilliant at but often aren’t because it’s way more complicated than we think… it’s writing software that works. So actually, you ended up with a buggy sound card and a buggy modem. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Via FlowingData, at the consistently excellent pudding.cool, the Days Since Record High Temperature Map of the US is an “N DAYS SINCE LAST ACCIDENT”-style map of, well, the number of days since the last record high temperature across the US. It is for me in the sweet spot of smart, aesthetically pleasing, relevant and ha-ha-what-can-you-do-dystopic. Fun!
Another one from Cat Manning, a great continually-updated thread from 2020 (here’s the start, here’s the most recent one) showing how the combination of AI and human curation allows us to explore otherwise difficult or taboo concepts4. Which tripped my caught my attention flag for: super interesting, relevant, provocative, worth questioning, opens up a useful seam of creativity, gestures futilely at late-stage capitalism dystopia, highlights another method of how assistive AI/human collaboration does things like “highlight potential connections in vector space” which is “a bit of what I feel my ADHD superpower is”.
That was much closer to 15 minutes. There we go.
How are you doing?
👁️✍️ to the “a combination of AI and human curation allows us to explore otherwise difficult or taboo concepts” evidence list, Cat Manning, November 13, 2020 ↩