Ever have one of those *boggle* moments? Scott and I were talking about processors and DSPs, and the days of yore when there was actually a clearly-defined difference between the two. General conclusion was, there doesn’t need to be a difference anymore; technology has advanced to a point where we can have every chip do everything. Every so often, the mind just boggles* at how far we’ve come without really going anywhere.

Some months back I found myself standing with No* in front of the Harvard Mark I, an 1940s small-room-sized computer, mechanically clocked, that could do about 3 additions per second. Right in front of it I was holding up a bit of hardware I’d just built, a nightlight of sorts with a string of LEDs that used a pulse modulation scheme to fade through and produce interesting color patterns. Each tri-color LED is controlled by its own tiny PIC10 microcontroller, which can be bought off the shelf for under 50 cents each. This runs at 1 million instructions per second, or could perform about 300,000 additions per second (not three).


It wasn’t just the fact that I was holding a dozen Mark Is in a 50-cent package the size of a grain of rice…it was the fact that with what was, in the context of the hulking electromechanical beast contained safely behind glass as though it might otherwise lurch out into the hallway and start taking peoples’ derivatives, such an comparatively unimaginable wealth of computing power in my possession, it was being used for no greater purpose than to blink lights on and off**.

Not to mention the fact that this is nowadays accepted as a perfectly legitimate (or even slightly advanced) way to spend your 1 MIPS. (Certainly, almost limitless gobs of CPU power are burned in far more frivolous ways every day***.)

* what does boggling actually look like? Dunno who came up with this. I’d imagine a mind in the act of boggling looks the way it would look if you blew up a really big firecracker inside of an unbreakable balloon.

** but if it’s any consolation, they blink on and off really quickly.

*** I shouldn’t talk; I’ve engaged in plenty of “Questionable Use of Academic Komputing Equipment” myself ;-)


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