How to move away from x86 and into the future

I recently read an interesting take on Why Intel can’t kill x86. Even video game console manufacturers are encountering the same issues. The solution I’m about to propose must have been proposed a hundred times over, but I think now is a good time to revisit it. Virtualization and emulation. Let me explain. Continue reading “How to move away from x86 and into the future”

Kickstarter, don't fail me now

I have only backed a few things on Kickstarter, so far. All of them geeky. Not only was one of them Ouya, but another upcoming gaming “console” has reached funding, this time in the form of the Gamestick.

Although their fundraising goals were not as ambitious, and they were not overfunded by 800%, Gamestick still shows promise. It is a device that plugs into your television via HDMI port, is powered by the HDMI port, and plays games via a wireless controller where the HDMI stick rests when not in use. While I don’t genuinely believe that either of these new consoles is going to disrupt the current marketplace, I am excited to see that they are ushering in a new era of gaming. Ultra portable, far more independent, and not tied to any old traditional methods.

Although we may not remember either Gamestick or Ouya in ten years (or perhaps they will surprise us all and come to dominate the market), I will be proud to have these first consoles of a new generation. I keep thinking that this should be tomorrow’s gaming post, but really I just want to talk about the future. I’m very excited that this is happening while I’m here to witness it. I don’t know if inexpensive consoles, with annual hardware refreshes is really the future. I also don’t know if indie development is really going to take off in a way that supplants and replaces the current need for high budget studios. But even if both of these consoles end up on the shelf next to my Virtual Boy, as a rare collectible in geek history, I’m going to be very proud to know that I was there, and an active supporter of something new.

Why not let Bitcoin cure cancer?

Bitcoin keeps making headlines as this mysterious currency that nobody understands. And from what I’ve seen, people swap BTC back and forth paying each other in their virtual currency, but there are very few ways to cash it in in the real world. But I don’t care about that. What I care about, is all of the wasted energy and processing power.

To earn “Bitcoins” you must mine them from software. And not in a cute, fun “Minecraft” video game sort of way – in a processor intensive and electricity hungry CPU crunching method. A small application sits, and runs, and tries to mine bitcoins. They say that the calculations being done are essential to the peer-to-peer backbone that makes up Bitcoin. Then comes a company like Butterfly labs, who puts out a small box that is designed for literally nothing more than mining Bitcoins. They’ve gone so far as to build a $30,000 server with a custom processor.

Meanwhile, what of Folding@home? Stanford University, for years, has used distributed computing to help simulate protein folding experiments that could someday be used to fight cancer, alzheimer’s, or other diseases. BOINC & Rosetta@Home has similar goals, looking in to HIV and Malaria research.

When the Sony PlayStation 3 launched a Folding@home app, I was excited to see idle CPU power being put to good use. But Bitcoin is making people with Powerhouse PC’s decide to focus solely on greed. Virtual greed, at that. Maybe I’ll be sorry I didn’t stay on the Bitcoin bandwagon someday, but right now, I just wish people were more aware of projects like these. I once took part in the SETI@Home project, processing thousands of hours of recorded space audio, hoping for a repeating signal or a hello from E.T. – but none ever came. I was still impressed with the idea that they could just pass the work out to millions of home computers and let them crunch the numbers.

I had heard of Folding@home after SETI, and decided to put my CPU cycles to a better use. For a while I worked with Rosetta@home, but found it more clunky, to me, than the Stanford project. I liked the idea that Rosetta@home was a registered not for profit, and I was all about seeing HIV eradicated. But more I have seen cancer attack people I love, and am now concentrating CPU cycles behind the Folding@home Cancer project. It even adds gamification features, like stat-tracking, and community driven leaderboard.

Please, do the world a favor, use distributed computing for the right reasons.

The cocktail party effect gets new research

I’ve always been fascinated by “the cocktail party effect.” It’s what lets you focus on what the person in front of you is saying, even when you’re in a busy room. Recent research indicates that a person with ADHD has a much harder time differentiating the speaker they want to pay attention to from the rest of the crowd. Further research in to this may help prove that these kids aren’t hyperactive, or amped up on too much sugar; they don’t need medication to slow them down, but their brains are wired wrong for selective hearing. Finding the proper treatment for that is going to do much more for kids than doping them up!

I’ve always been interested in the cocktail party effect because I remember as a little kid sitting in the back seat of my parents’ mini van while we were heading out of town. My grandparents were in the car… my dad and grandfather would talk, my mom and grandmother would talk, and I sat in the way back and played my Gameboy. But I was always fascinated that they could understand each other through all the noise. As I grew older, I realized that if you were paying attention to one person, you may not even realize the other people around you are even talking. Then I worked on another skill. Listening without watching.

The study shows that it is easier to focus on what a person is saying when you can look at them. To test this, they played a video of two people talking at the same time (a very short clip of this video can be seen on NPR’s website). The video allows you to focus on one of the two speakers, and then tell someone that person’s story. But if you try to focus on the male speaker, while listening to the female speaker, it is possible, but it’s much harder. You, essentially, must force yourself to be distracted by what someone is saying, rather than giving your undivided attention to someone who is speaking directly to you.

This is how we master the art of eavesdropping. There’s eavesdropping, and then there’s expertly hearing what is going on around you. I actually consider myself fairly well skilled in my ability to hear multiple conversations at one time. Multitasking is key, and I think researchers in the future will begin to see a pattern developing that generations who grew up with this constant need for stimulation are better at having their brains taxed with tasks like this. I was able to pick apart both conversations when I heard them together, and I do this every day in my job.

I’ve been called “Radar,” an homage to the M*A*S*H character who often knew what others would say before they said it and knew when medical choppers were incoming before anybody else. I’ve been asked if I have eyes in the back of my head, but really I just have a skill that I can’t turn off. It’s by no means flawless, but I’ve always been quite happy with this sense that I am plugged in to what’s going on around me, even as I walk through a crowded mall. Whenever new research comes out on the cocktail party effect, I love reading up on the latest things uncovered.