Monday, November 17, 2014

marketing custom silicon without aiding your competition

I have, on several occasions, remarked that it would be nice if certain, unnamed chip design houses (on at least one occasion I imprecisely used the word "vendors") would make their chips available to the startup/DIY/hobbyist/education market, in lot sizes appropriate to that market.

So what, you might ask, would prevent other companies from scooping up those chips and using them in competing products? There are two answers to that question.

First, you don't market your latest designs this way, particularly not when your own products are parts-supply constrained. Rather, as each design reaches the end of its life in your own product lineup, you let the fabrication line run for just a bit longer to produce a few extra parts (thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands), for use in repairing returned devices and for sale, at a significant mark-up, to alternative markets, as to the producers of small circuit boards like the Raspberry Pi, or even as single parts to supply houses like SparkFun.

That "significant markup" is the second reason why this would not aid the competition. While you may be able to cost parts included in your own products at a slim margin above the cost of production, there's no need to apply this practice to parts sold into the open market. You can charge several times, even ten times, the cost of production, and still be doing your customers a favor.

The only party who would stand to lose from this, so far as I can see, is Atmel, who has the lion's share of the market for processors used in boards sold to individuals and in small lots. However, since they already have the relationships for serving this market, as well as some potentially useful processor-design related IP, a great first step would be to buy Atmel.

In any case, as the size of this business grows, and it's sure to, it will become more reasonable to create custom designs better suited to it, combining cores honed for highly-competitive mass markets with more generic i/o circuitry. It will also become more reasonable to make one's software development tools available for use in programming devices into which one's chips have been incorporated.

Not saying who I'm talking about/to here, but, if the shoe fits, please try it on.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

politics as a team sport

Let's use an imaginary example, to avoid confusion with real team loyalties, beginning with an imaginary sport, SpaceBall, played in zero gravity (in orbit until it becomes possible to cancel out gravity over a small portion of the Earth's surface, at which point the popularity of the sport takes off). Players navigate about a polyhedron-shaped arena using arm-powered flaps (wings), rebounding off trampoline-like walls, and manipulating the ball with their legs, holding it between their knees as they fly, dribbling it with little nudges as they accelerate and repeatedly catch up with it, or shoving or kicking it to pass it to another player or move it nearer to their own goal or attempt a score. Because the wings afford little control at low speed, the usual practice is to take full advantage of the walls to build up speed, so players can be seen flying through the arena in all directions. To add just a bit to the excitement, players have the option of storing part of the effort they exert in the form of compressed air, which can be released as a jet, accelerating them 'upwards' meaning in the direction of their heads. Near collisions happen continuously, and actual collisions resulting in injuries are quite common. Also, although technically forbidden, except to knock the ball from the grasp of the player who has possession of it, players frequently make intentional contact with their opponents, kicking or slapping them with their arms. It being very difficult to distinguish between intentional and accidental contact, only the most obvious instances are penalized.

Because of the huge expense involved in building an arena, there are only a handful, essentially one per continent, and because of the huge investment required to build a competitive team, only the largest metropolises have their own, while most teams are franchises relying upon something other than specific geographical identity, such as a broader cultural identity, to build their fan bases. Monetizable fan bases are critical, so the investors who originally built or who later bought the teams can recoup their money and make a profit.

The appeal to broader cultural identity means that the teams become surrogates for actual inter-cultural tensions, with the outcome of specific contests frequently being portrayed in moral terms and the elation or dejection from a win or loss frequently spilling over into the streets.

Like the teams in this imaginary scenario, political parties have set themselves up as the champions of various cultural segments, usually multiple such segments, in the effort to patch together a plurality of voters. And, even though they may be put off by the others with whom they find themselves lumped together, and by some of the positions taken by their team's candidates, voters usually hold their noses and vote for the team with which they most strongly identify, with a lot of dark money going to insuring that any combinational irritations aren't felt strongly enough to keep them from doing so, and magnifying the irritations that would be experienced by those switching to a different team affiliation.

This nose-holding propensity is what makes it possible for the deep pockets, essentially investors, to bankroll one team or another, in the assurance that victory will result in a more favorable state of (financial) affairs for themselves.

Rather than go on, providing real-world examples, I'm going to cut to the chase, which is that if you would like to help shrink the influence of big money on politics, one way to do it is to participate in MAYDAY.US, the crowd-funded effort to elect "a Congress committed to fundamental reform by 2016."

Friday, November 07, 2014

thinking about vertical farming and aquaponics

I don't talk much about this, but I do think vertical farming will be an increasingly important contributor to food production in the future, and that it will be highly mechanized almost from the outset. My concern is with the land that continues to be subject to the need for production and the desire for landscaping, pressures that vertical farming won't relieve soon. So long as we continue to manage land for our own purposes, we need to do a far better, far less destructive job of it!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

debt and voting as a blunt instrument

Sometimes you'd like to vote for a ballot issue, but it contains some fatal flaw, such as the use of debt to pay for something that ought to be funded out of current revenues, even if it means being patient, yet voting against it seems like sending the wrong message, because it's the use of debt that you're voting against, not the basic proposal itself.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

No-till study illuminates part of the problem space

An extensive review article published on Nature's website, and described on the UC Davis news website, concludes that no-till farming only results in yield increases in dryland areas, and then only when combined with crop rotation and residue retention, and that it results in a yield reduction in moist climates.

While I have no reason to doubt the conclusions of the co-authors, as far as they go, I do have some concerns as to the scope of the comparisons they've made. However, not having read the full article, I can only pose questions and suggest considerations which may offset or even outweigh the modest yield reductions in moist climates, which they've noted.

It's hard to know where to start; this is such a complex subject. As practiced in western countries, no-till usually also means weed suppression by use of herbicides. It may or may not include residue retention, but if the residue is retained it is likely to be in rough form rather than finely chopped, or retained as the dung of the animals that grazed on it after harvest, never as well-distributed as the residue was in the first place. It may or may not include crop rotation, but almost certainly does not include polyculture (also called intercropping), which has become an all too rare practice.

Allow me to back up a bit, and consider an assumption, as expressed by one of the co-authors: "The big challenge for agriculture is that we need to further increase yields but greatly reduce our environmental impacts." Certainly we need to vastly reduce the environmental damage being done by modern agriculture, but just how much do we really need to increase yields. Population growth estimates not taking into account the predictable reduction in fecundity that accompanies prosperity will result in alarmism, but the reality is that what benefits the global economy has to offer the poorest are slowly finding their way to every corner of the planet, and it's reasonable to think that the world population will plateau, if not at ten billion, then perhaps at eleven or twelve billion. Of course, there is hunger now, even starvation, much of it happening in the dryland areas surrounding the Sahara. Yield increases in this region would be particularly helpful, but are complicated by competing uses, as fuel and as animal feed, for the residues which should be left in the fields. Realistically, the bottom line comes down to this: Can we afford to sacrifice long-term fertility for short-term gains in yield?

That question begs another, does the article published in Nature include any long-term studies, by which I mean at least twenty years, preferably longer? Not only does tillage gradually burn through (literally oxidize) soil organic matter, eventually effecting water absorption and retention and nutrient availability, and increasing the energy required for ongoing tillage as the soil becomes denser, but also it takes time for an ecosystem of animals and microbes to develop that can efficiently incorporate crop residues into the soil, particularly in fields that have a long history of routine tillage.

Were any options other than simply leaving residue in the field or grazing considered? Are there any cases of fine-chopping residue during harvest? What about initially removing everything but the stubble and returning it after processing it through animals (as feed), through anaerobic digestion (producing methane gas for fuel), and/or through composting?

Were the costs of production considered? No-till generally involves the cost of herbicide and its application, but tillage is an energy-intensive operation, and over the long term diesel will only become more expensive. If the fuel must be grown, shouldn't the percentage of the overall crop area required to grow it be deducted from the net yields? How does no-till look after performing that calculation?

Nor have we yet seen the full benefits of no-till, because we have yet to develop equipment appropriate to it. Western civilization is so accustomed to tillage that we tend to be blind to assumptions made stemming from a fundamental assumption that tillage is the foundation of agriculture. We see equipment built to perform tillage at work and don't think twice about it. There have been some adaptations – spraying equipment that is only as heavy at it needs to be for that purpose, and oversized tires for heavier equipment – but nearly all of the equipment in use, even in no-till operations, still deals with land as a bulk commodity, measured in acres per hour, rather than at the level of detail required to, for example, selectively harvest one crop while leaving several others, intermingled with it, undisturbed.

Until recently, this could only be accomplished by hand labor, but with the advent of computing using integrated circuits, and its combination with sensory hardware, sophisticated mechanisms, and software to match the problem space (together comprising the field of robotics), the question of whether such work can be mechanized has been transformed into one of how soon. A significant obstacle to this development is cultural, in that we've all but forgotten how to tend land in this manner, and may have to reinvent the practice in order to program the machines. Certainly many in our agricultural colleges and universities will require remedial education.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

James Gosling of Liquid Robotics at CMU

James Gosling, famed software developer who has spent his last several years working at Liquid Robotics, was recently the featured speaker at a CMU Robotics Institute seminar. My purpose here is not to discuss that talk as a whole, but to focus in on particular issues he discussed which are more generally applicable.

At 52:10, he begins the discussion of fault management, describing, among other things, how LR relies heavily upon features of Java that support continuous operation in the face of problems that would cause software to stop abruptly in other environments.

At 54:30, he discusses communication modes and data prioritization, which is an issue for LR because real-time transmission can cost them as much as $1/kilobyte, for a data rate of ~50 baud.

At 57:46, he briefly discusses security issues, which he says he could have talked about at much greater length.

At 58:43, he mentions Java's write once run anywhere advantage, and how LR makes good use of it in writing and debugging their software.

At 1:05:17, he responds to a comment from the audience regarding inclusion of a basic feature, camera panning, the consequences of various approaches to crafting hardware to support it, and how LR has worked around the problem.

At 1:07:59 he launches into the topic of parts availability, or lack thereof, noting that chips LR would like to acquire are only available as part of circuit boards, or in large lots, which constrains their choices in hardware design.

This last item, the lack of availability of what are, in a volume context, standard parts, is my main motivation for going to the trouble of posting this. It holds back not only the development of robotics, but electronics startups of all sorts, and, to a lesser extent, hobbyists (because in most cases those complete boards are what they need).

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

a Christian parallel for the Islamic State

While casting about for some way of putting the phenomenon of the Islamic State in context, it occurred to me that the history of Christianity provides a rough parallel – the Inquisition.

Sure, the Inquisition was organized more like a court than a military operation, and no one was guaranteed a place in Heaven for participating in it, but the idea of harsh punishment for heresy or apostasy was as much a part of it as it is today a part of the Islamic State.

On huge difference is that the Islamic State is, of necessity, also a civil authority, and that among its ambitions are the elimination of foreign influences from the territories is considers to be its domain, and in that it is more like the war of reconquest (La Reconquista), which achieved ultimate success in 1492 and paved the way for the Inquisition.

Perhaps the Islamic State is like La Reconquista and the Inquisition rolled into one.

Friday, August 01, 2014

serial communication

SparkFun Electronics has an excellent tutorial on serial communication on their website.

Wikipedia also has a fairly extensive article on UARTs, the electronic components found at both ends of most serial connections and responsible for encapsulating the complexities of making them work reliably, presenting simplified interfaces to the processors to which they are connected.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

why interconnect technologies?

As just about anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm into robots. But what I'm into is way beyond anything I could build myself, given current resources.

Once you get beyond a minimal level of robotic complexity, you start seeing advantages to breaking out parts of the computational load, keeping them relatively local to the sensors and effectors they manage. This means distributed processors, which is fine, until you start trying to get them to talk to each other, at which point you'll discover that you've just become a pioneer, exploring poorly-charted territory.

It's not that there hasn't been any groundwork at all done, but there's nothing close to being a single, standard approach to solving this relatively straightforward problem.

Nor is that so surprising, because until recently there hasn't been much need to solve it, since most devices had only a single CPU, or, if more than one, then they were tightly integrated on the same circuit board, connected via address and data buses, and most of the exceptions have been enterprise servers, with multiple processor boards all plugged into a single backplane.

But the time is coming when, for many devices, the only convenient way to connect distributed computing resources together will be via flexible cables, because they will be mounted on surfaces that move, relative to each other, and separated by anywhere from a few centimeters to tens of meters. But they'll still need fast connection, both low latency and high data rates.

From what I've seen so far, RapidIO is the leading contender for this space.