Chips from Wood, Really?

Sometimes I encounter an article that takes me completely by surprise. I’ve always had a strong interest in computer hardware articles because I started out as a hardware guy (many years ago). Of course, that interest has become stronger since writing Build Your Own PC on a Budget. However, even with the amount of reading I do, I didn’t expect the ComputerWorld article I read last week, Computer chips made of wood promise greener electronics.

Anyone who has read blog posts such as, More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t know that I have a real problem with technology that only makes you think it helps the environment when it actually creates more pollution. Unlike many green technology failures, making chips using a wood substrate could potentially fulfill it’s promise. No, it won’t eliminate pollution, but it will create less of it. The most important thing to understand about the ComputerWorld article is that chips made of this material will decompose over time and that they use 99.9 percent less semiconductor material. I find the whole idea really amazing.

According to the article, the new chips are a win for vendors as well because they cost less to manufacture. So, not only do you get a greener chip, but one that costs less as well. This is the sort of winning scenario that I’d love to see happen more often. The last time I had such good news to report was with my CFLs for Free post. However, the problem now is to get enough people to actually use this material to create chips to make it worthwhile. If only a few vendors decide to make chips from wood, then the effort is lost—we won’t see an actual reduction in pollution as the result of this innovation.

All this leads me to wonder what sorts of other materials could eventually make an appearance as chip material. I’d love to eventually build a PC that uses all biodegradable components. You could throw it away and be sure that nature would eventually turn it back into source material for new items. What a concept! Let me know your thoughts about biodegradable chips at


Defining the Need for Desktop Systems

I’ve been working on Build Your Own PC on a Budget for a while now and I’m nearing the end. A number of people have asked me precisely what market my book is for, especially now that smartphones and tablets are becoming the instruments of choice for consumer computing. In fact, someone recently sent me a ComputerWorld article entitled, Is your business ready for ‘stick’ PCs?. It’s important to understand that I really haven’t been living in a cave somewhere chanting a desktop PC mantra. The fact is that Build Your Own PC on a Budget is designed with the enthusiast in mind. This is the same person who would build a hot rod from scratch, even though they could probably get a nicer, more reliable, more fuel efficient car right off the lot.

The fact is that there are times when you want the flexibility that a desktop system can provide. If you want a system whose sole purpose is to check e-mail, do a little word processing, and possibly update your Facebook page, then you really don’t want a desktop system for the most part. The exception might be if you need a really large screen to see what you’re doing and many people simply plug their computers into the TV now in order to get the larger screen they need. For many people, a notebook, tablet, or smartphone really is all they need. When these stick PCs become popular, you can bet that a large number of people will use them for all their computing needs without any problem at all.

My book is designed around the needs of someone who needs a lot more than a simple computer. Of course, the gamer is the first person that comes to mind. When you read magazines like PC Gamer, you quickly find out that power says it all. These folks are constantly tweaking their systems to get out a little more power. Overclocking is something that these people talk about as casually as what they had for dinner last night.

However, I recently finished a book on data science and must admit that a tablet would never do the job. My desktop has power to spare and even it slowed down on some calculations (as in, I had time to get a cup of coffee while waiting for the processing to complete). A laptop would have a really hard time keeping up with even the minimal needs of the data scientist. In fact, many professional scientists and engineers really do need a super reliable, high power system. They can’t afford down time and they really don’t want to wait days for the results of a calculation. So, this is the second group for my book. They really aren’t looking for a stick PC.

The third group is experimenters. People who are interested in playing just to see what’s possible will love my book because I have all kinds of ideas in it for doing something interesting. Experimenters are those people who somehow manage to have these flashes of insight that result in major innovations. Many of the luxuries you enjoy now were the result of a mistake made by an experimenter. The mistake was turned into a profitable product only after someone looked at it from another angle.

A custom PC is also beneficial for specialized needs such as industrial automation or even for alarm systems. Special use PCs often require more ports than are available on something like a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. Just imagine trying to put enough cameras into the single USB port supplied with many smaller systems. So, I see a number of people who create special use systems buying this book as well.

Is the day of the desktop system as a commodity coming to an end? Yes, I definitely see consumers moving toward laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart watches, and even sticks in the future. If you don’t need the power a desktop can provide, there really isn’t a good reason to pay the price. Let me know your thoughts on the future of the desktop system at


A Question of Balancing Robot Technologies

The question of just how robots will affect us in the future consumes quite a bit of my time because I’m so interested in how they can be used for good. For example, robots are currently used to fight fires and to keep humans out of inhospitable environments. We also rely on robots to build some of the goods we enjoy and as a result, there are fewer assembly line accidents today than there were in the past (the quality of the output is also increasing). In the future, you can count on robot technology to help you remain independent, rather than ending up in a nursing home. There are even cars that rely on robots to drive them today and if things turn out as I expect, everyone will eventually use this sort of vehicle because robots will actually follow the traffic laws and reduce accidents as a result. In fact, it’s not too surprising to think that robots will appear in a lot of different situations that you don’t see them in today.

Humans are afraid of change. So, I’m also not surprised to find reports online that range from robots stealing jobs to terminator type robots killing us all off in order to save us (as in I, Robot). The fact is that robots really are under our control and as long as we exercise even a modicum of judgement, things will remain that way. I’m not saying that we couldn’t create a terminator-style robot. Recent advances in chip technology make it quite possible that we could create such a robot, but it’s important to ask why we’d ever do such a thing. In order for a new robot to become successful, there has to be a commercial reason to develop it and no one is interested in creating a terminator to destroy the human race.

What I think is more likely to happen is that robots will become companions to humans—devices that are both willing and able to take the risk out of human existence. The reduction of risk is an essential element in the robot/human relationship. We’ll continue to increase our use of robots as long as we can see a significant benefit to our personal lives. For example, it would be nice if we could eliminate the use of nursing homes altogether—that people could continue to live in their homes using robotic assistance. And, because those robots would be dedicated to the humans they serve, the standard of caregiving would increase dramatically. Of course, we have to get used to the idea of talking to a mechanical contrivance. Wait, we already do that—just consider how people interact with applications like Apple’s Siri.

Of course, people are asking what humans will do in the future if robots take on all of the tasks we have them slated for. For better or worse, the human condition has been changing at an ever more rapid pace over the last several years. If you look at just one statistic, you’ll miss what I’m trying to say here. For example, humans now live to an average age of 80 in many areas of the world—the average age will only increase barring some major change. People have children later in life now and focus more on career during the early years. Schools focus on getting kids to college and the college courses are becoming more challenging. In short, the environment in which we live today will change significantly in the next 40 or 50 years—to the point that most people won’t recognize the future as being any part of the past.

The change that has grabbed my attention most though is how much technology is now incorporated into humans (and the pace is only increasing). Yes, most of the technology currently does things like help people walk—it meets accessibility requirements. However, it’s only a matter of time before the technology will be used to help extend life and potentially make humans better adapted at excelling at tasks that we can’t even imagine now. So the question isn’t one of robots stealing jobs or killing us off terminator style, it’s one of understanding that humans are changing is a significant way and we’ll actually need robots to excel in the future. Let me know your thoughts about robots and our future at


A History of Microprocessors

Every once in a while, someone will send me a truly interesting link. Having seen a few innovations myself and possessing a strong interest in history, I read the CPU DB: Recording Microprocessor History on the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) site with great interest. The post is a bit long, but essentially, the work by Andrew Danowitz, Kyle Kelley, James Mao, John P. Stevenson, and Mark Horowitz does something that no other site does, it provides you with a comprehensive view of 790 different microprocessors created since the introduction of Intel’s 4004 in November 1971. The CPU DB is available for anyone to use and should prove useful for scientist, developer, and hobbyist alike.

Unlike a lot of the work done on microprocessors, this one hasn’t been commissioned by a particular company. In fact, you’ll find processors from 17 different vendors. The work also spans a considerable number of disciplines. For example, you can discover how the physical scaling of devices has changed over the years and the effects of software on processor design and development.

A lot of the information available in this report is also available from the vendor or a third party in some form. The problem with vendor specification sheets and third party reports is that they vary in composition, depth, and content—making any sort of comparison extremely difficult and time consuming. This database makes it possible to compare the 790 processors directly and using the same criteria. A researcher can now easily see the differences between two microprocessors, making it considerably easier to draw conclusions about microprocessor design and implementation.

Not surprisingly, it has taken a while to collect this sort of information at the depth provided. According to the site, this database has been a work in progress for 30 years now. That’s a long time to research anything, especially something as esoteric as the voltage and frequency ranges of microprocessors. The authors stated their efforts were hampered in some cases by the age of the devices and the unavailability of samples for testing. I would imagine that trying to find a usable copy of a 4004 for testing would be nearly impossible.

You’ll have to read the report to get the full scoop of everything that CPU DB provides. The information is so detailed that the authors resorted to using tables and diagrams to explain it. Let’s just say that if you can’t find the statistic you need in CPU DB, it probably doesn’t exist. In order to provide a level playing field for all of the statistics, the researchers have used standardized testing. For example, they rely on the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) benchmarks to compare the processors. Tables 1 and 2 in the report provide an overview of the sorts information you’ll find in CPU DB.

This isn’t a resource I’ll use every day. However, it is a resource I plan to use when trying to make sense of performance particulars. Using the information from CPU DB should remove some of the ambiguity in trying to compare system designs and determine how they affect the software running on them. Let me know what you think of CPU DB at