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Amiga 30 and the Unkillable Machine

The story of the Amiga family of microcomputers is akin to that of a musical band that breaks up after one incandescent, groundbreaking album: the band may be forgotten by many, but the cognoscenti can discern its impact on work produced decades later.

So the Amiga 30 event held at Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum in late July was more than a commemoration of some interesting technology of the past. It was also a celebration of the Amiga’s persistent influence on personal computing.

The highlight of the event was the premiere of Viva Amiga, a crowdfunded documentary telling the Amiga story. Directed and produced by Zach Weddington, the documentary is an impressive achievement. Following the introduction and initial success of the original Amiga A1000 in 1985 by Commodore, the story could easily have become bogged down in the business machinations that eventually led to the almost complete loss of market share for Amiga computers. But Weddington manages to capture the essence of the story, and bring fresh light to several aspects of the Amiga rollercoaster.

For example, Jay Miner is often lauded for his role as the technical father of the Amiga. But Weddington gives Dave Morse a role equal to that of Miner. Morse was the businessman in the Amiga story, and he had, until Amiga 30, been somewhat overshadowed by Miner.

The movie also examined the forces that made Amiga computers—in particular the Amiga 500—considerably more successful outside North America than in its home territory. Especially in the United Kingdom, this success created a huge pool of enthusiasts entranced by its multitasking, graphics and audio capabilities, which no other similarly priced computer of the day could match. For example, Eben Upton—who attended Amiga 30—cites computers like the Amiga as an influence on his creation of the Raspberry Pi.

That pool of enthusiasts produced a grassroots movement of Amiga supporters that persists to this day. Weddington ends Viva Amiga on a high note, looking at this movement and how chiptune muscians and DJ’s still use Amiga computers, seeing them as instruments that have a life and sound of their own.

Amiga’s outsized impact on home computing is not just due to the devotions of enthusiastic users however. Games machines like the Atari Lynx and 3DO can all be traced back to Amiga engineering alumni, and even the Roku TV streaming media player has a little bit of Amiga DNA infused in it.

The original Amiga development team was selected by Miner and Morse. Miner, a former integrated circuit designer for Atari, was the lead engineer for the original Amiga Corporation, which was bought by Commodore in 1984. Employees at Amiga Corporation were selected for their passion as well as their technical abilities. Miner and Morse wanted hardware and software engineers who had no problem being different and who genuinely wanted to change the world.

Amongst this group were Carl Sassenrath, Dale Luck, Dave Needle, Joe Decuir, RJ Mical, and Ron Nicholson. Decuir and Nicholson were instrumental in the early designs of the Agnus, Denise, and Paula custom chips that gave the Amiga its advanced sound and graphics capabilities. Needle later joined and continued on with them up to production as part of the hardware. At the same time, Sassenrath, Luck and Mical became contemporaries on the software side of things. Sassenrath developed the kernel of the AmigaOS operating system, while Luck handled the graphics layer and Mical the GUI.

Needle and Mical went on to create notable gaming hardware like the Atari Lynx handheld games console and the 3DO home games console. Dave Morse also played a key role in both endeavours.

The Lynx was the first handheld games system to feature a color LCD screen and was the first to feature hardware support for zooming and distortion of sprites. Other impressive features included the Comlynx, which enabled 17 Lynx’s to be tethered together.  Homebrew gaming communities still produce games for the Lynx.

3DO started out as a prototype Needle and Mical developed which was ultimately licensed to Panasonic, Sanyo and Goldstar. This resulted in several variations of the console being released in the market. Though 3DO was not a commercial success, it was Time magazine’s “Product of the Year” in 1993.

By the time of Amiga 30, Luck and Sassenrath were working in software development for Roku. Dale works on graphics for the company while Carl puts his multitasking skillsets to good use. Much like Stan Sheppard, who worked on chip diagnostics at Amiga, Dale also worked on the 3DO—members of the original team have often worked on each others’ products since their Amiga days.

Decuir and Nicholson now play active roles in the IEEE. Amongst other things, Decuir is an IEEE fellow and board member for the Consumer Electronics Society. Decuir was a pioneer in Bluetooth technologies, and was heavily involved in Microsoft Windows modem, network and Fax support.

Nicholson went on to work on RISC based workstation development at Hewlett Packard and on the chipset for the Nintendo 64 at Silicon Graphics. Nicholson now works for himself as Hotpaw Productions, where he works on iOS applications.

And Amiga technology continues to live on in more direct forms. The Amiga brand and its associated intellectual property eventually got split into two. This occurred after Commodore went bankrupt in 1994. For a short period, both were owned by a German company called Escom and then came back to the US via Gateway 2000 in 1997. Eventually Gateway would sell the rights to the Amiga trademarks and copyrights to Bill McEwen of the somewhat mysterious Amiga Inc. Gateway retained the patents and they were later acquired by Acer; the intellectual property has continued to bounce around since.

During the Escom years, a PowerPC architecture and new OS was proposed for Amiga. But Escom went bankrupt as well, leaving the Amiga OS technologically stranded. The need to create a version of the OS that could run on modern personal computers led to the creation of AROS, an open source effort to recreate version 3.1 of AmigaOS. Code from AROS was later incorporated into two other modern incarnations of AmigaOS, MorphOS and AmigaOS 4. Recently, a website was created so that users of all flavors of AmigaOS can keep track of one another, called Amiga Maps. There is even new AmigaOne hardware being produced by companies like Acube Systems and A-EON Technologies.

As for the future, Friend Software Labs is a Norwegian company that credits the multitasking capabilities of the AmigaOS and its GUI as direct inspiration. Hogne Titlestad, chief architect of Friend, used an Amiga as his primary computer until 2001. His new operating system, FriendUP, exists in the cloud and is platform agnostic. This means it can used to bring the best of other operating systems like Windows, Mac OS or Linux together. Arne Peder Blix, Friend’s CEO, was quick to point out the importance of Amiga to his company: “While the Amiga OS made multitasking work elegantly on one hardware unit, FriendUP is making multiple multitasking environments work together as a single whole.” He went on to add: “Amiga OS showed us how the GUI should reflect the multitasking nature of the OS.”

The ultimate takeaway is this: Amiga 30 proved itself to be a celebration of not just a long technological heritage, but a living one. Roll on Amiga 40!

(The Amiga 30 event was made possible by a committee who rented out the Computer History Museum, as well as a host of sponsors and volunteers.)

Clarification and correction made 17 August.

Package Delivery by Drone

Take an electric delivery truck, add wireless charging on top, and a drone that can carry four and a half kilograms for 30 minutes, and you have the perfect package delivery system. At least that’s what the Workhorse Group thinks. Last week, the company filed paperwork with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration asking for permission to deliver packages by drone. This week, it demonstrated the drone part of its technology at UTM 2015, a three-day convention focused on Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management. The event is being held at the NASA Ames Research Center (see video, above).

The idea, explains Martin Rucidlo, company president, is for the operator of the delivery truck to make the normal rounds, but send the drone off to handle the less convenient deliveries. The drone gets most of the way to the delivery site by navigating autonomously after scanning a barcode for GPS coordinates, but when it gets ready to descend, it turns on cameras and alerts the operator, who monitors the descent, watching out for dogs, children, or other potential hazards, and stands ready to take control. The drone then returns itself to the truck, which has continued to travel along its delivery route. The drone lands itself automatically and precisely on the charging pad. That’s not easy to do, Rucidlo said. But he believes that the company has found a solution that will work even in windy conditions.

Drone Control: Here’s How Amazon Thinks Drones Should Fit Into U.S. Airspace

Create a drone zone—a dedicated piece of airspace for drones—and separate them within that space by speed and capabilities. That’s how Amazon thinks drones can best be integrated into our busy airspace, says Gur Kimchi, vice president and cofounder of Amazon Prime Air. Kimchi laid out this proposal today at UTM 2015, a three-day convention focused on Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management, being held at the NASA Ames Research Center this week.

Specifically, Amazon’s vision starts by blocking out airports and other areas that demand complete exclusion of drones, either permanently or temporarily. Everywhere else, Amazon is considering the airspace below 400 feet drone territory. Amazon sees 400 to 500 feet as a buffer zone, no drones or manned aircraft. The company would then like to see the FAA designate the airspace from 200 to 400 feet as a fast lane, reserved for the higher speed, longer distance drone travel, with below 200 feet for slower, more local traffic.

Amazon also thinks it makes sense to divide aircraft up according to their capabilities into four classes. At the bottom is the most basic hobbyist drone with no automatic capabilities, though the operator can receive via smart phone and act on general alerts about traffic and other hazards in the area. Operators of these drones will likely have to follow line of sight rules. Next come drones with “good” command and control capabilities—they communicate with a ground station and can act on information received from that ground station to self-separate from nearby objects. Even “better” are drones that communicate directly with the Internet and other vehicles in the sky and can automatically take evasive action. And the “best” drones can also dodge non-communicating flying objects.

“We’d like to equip every seagull in the San Francisco Bay Area (with vehicle to vehicle communications), but that isn’t going to work,” Kimchi said.

In Amazon’s vision of airspace (photo), the less well-equipped drones stay out of high risk and high speed situations; the greater the complexity of the environment, the better equipped a drone needs to be to fly there.

Making it all work, Kimchi says, will require more automation of general air traffic control, standards that make sure all drones can communicate with each other and the Internet, classes of equipment that clearly define what drones can fly where, and drones designed to be safe and secure. As all this is developed, he urged for the adoption of performance-based standards, not technology-based standards, in order to allow the technology to continue to develop unimpeded.

Will this proposal get off the ground? It just might, based on the reaction of a panel of experts including representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board, the insurance industry, and law enforcement, along with two lawyers specializing in aviation law. When asked an hour or so after Kimchi’s presentation if any members of the panel had a strong objection to the plan—none did.

Stanford Students Teach Robots to Play Ping-pong, Land a Drone

Students in Stanford’s Experimental Robotics class learn some basic concepts in robot control from Professor (and IEEE Fellow) Oussama Khatib. Khatib then divides the 25 or so students into small groups and gives them three and a half weeks and to program the robots to do something. Khatib’s preference is that they do something demonstrating a dynamic skill and making use of vision and force sensing. This spring, the latest group of students programmed their robots to play ping pong, land drones, do physical therapy, insert a plug into a slot, catch a ball, and play the classic cup-in-ball game. They unveiled their projects in June (see video, above).

The students had a few robots and robot arms to choose from—a Kuka LWR, a Kuka IIWA, a WAM, a Puma 500, and a Novint Falcon.

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Happy Birthday Amiga Computer!

The story of the Amiga computer is one of those classic Silicon Valley tales: a group of engineers sees a path open up to a technological future they are eager to explore, but the management at their current company isn’t interested in changing direction. So they go off on their own, passionate about their project. They may not always succeed commercially, but their technical achievements impress, and point the way for others.

The Amiga launched in July 1985 at Lincoln Center in New York City, with Andy Warhol demonstrating the machine’s capabilities by painting a digital picture of singer Debbie Harry. Its original developers, led by Jay Miner, came out of Atari. They wanted to advance home video game hardware by harnessing the power of the then-new Motorola MC68000 microprocessor, and Atari had said no. They started a company, initially called Hi-Toro and later renamed Amiga, to do it anyway. They built a powerful machine that produced amazing graphics and drew passionate fans.

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Getting Tech Women On Board (Boards of Directors, That Is)

The data has been in for years—companies with women board members are more successful by all sorts of objective measures. But Silicon Valley’s tech industry continues to be a boys’ club. According to the Choose Possibility Project, 70 to 75 percent of the thousands of privately funded tech companies in the United States today have all-male boards of directors.

Choose Possibility thinks it can help fix this by building a database of women leaders qualified to serve on the boards of private tech companies. The Choose Possibility effort started in May when 59 women in technology co-signed an open letter to the tech community urging tech leaders to do more to support and advance female entrepreneurs. The group launched its Boardlist earlier this month as a private beta with more than 600 women in the database. It’s since added another hundred or so. Choose Possibility founder Sukhinder Singh Cassidy put the list together by contacting CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other leaders in tech—men and women—and asked each to suggest between 10 and 30 women who would be great candidates for tech boards, Cassidy explained in a post published on Medium and other sites. Cassidy also asked some of the top investors in tech companies to identify companies in their portfolio that will be needing new independent board members. These will likely be the first companies to tap into the new database.

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A Smartphone Charger That Runs On Candlepower

Andrew Byrnes, sitting with me outside a Palo Alto cafe on Monday, lights a candle—in this case, a small Sterno-type can designed for warming food—and fills a tiny pot sitting on a rack above the flame with water. About 10 seconds later, a green light on an attached USB cable begins glowing, and Byrnes plugs in his iPhone. The phone immediately begins charging.

That is how you charge a phone with candlepower, something Byrnes’ San Francisco-based company, Stower, wants people to be able to do during their next power outage. And it’s pretty simple, especially for someone like me who grew up on old school emergency preparedness and still has a tendency to check the drawers for candles when a big storm is predicted.

Stower’s tiny charging system, the Candle Charger, launched on Kickstarter today for $65; it’ll be available late this year or early next at retail for $100. It produces a steady 2.5 watts of USB charging for the 6 hours that standard Sterno can burns, though any candle that can fit under the pot, even votive candles, will work. That’s enough to fully charge a typical smartphone in three hours, Byrnes says. (And you can use the water it heats to make a cup of tea to drink while waiting for your phone to charge.)

The Candle Charger produces electricity using a thermoelectric generator. This device, based on a bismuth telluride semiconductor, takes advantage of the difference in temperature between the area close to the flame and the area near to the water in the pot, which stays cooler. Diffusion of electrons between the hot and cold sides of the semiconductor generates a voltage.

By carefully designing the way different materials are incorporated in the device, Byrnes says Stower’s products can keep generating power indefinitely, as long as there is a heat source underneath and water in the pot. He says the company also put a lot of design effort into conditioning the power output to directly charge smartphones, finally figuring out a reliable way to do so using low-cost analog circuitry. “Our magic is being able to charge phones reliably from a variable power source,” he says.

This isn’t Byrnes’ first foray into charging by fire. I first met him and Stower cofounder Adam Kell two years ago at a showcase for Stanford University’s Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES). They were demonstrating Flamestower, a gadget designed to turn any pot on any cooking fire into a charger. At the time, the two were graduate students studying materials science at Stanford. Before entering grad school, Kell had been working on silicon wafer technology at a clean tech startup, and Byrnes had been involved with utility scale wind and solar energy projects.  But Byrnes wanted to work on technologies with more of a direct connection to the consumer. The need for charging mobile devices during power outages was an obvious place to start for Byrnes, who was a Florida resident during Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.

Flamestower hit retail shelves last year, and is now available for $99 at Sportsman’s Warehouse and other outdoor equipment outlets in the United States and Canada. The company is working with Grupo EBIS to build the technology into its Eco-Stove clean-burning cookstoves being distributed in Central America, and with French telecom giant Orange to develop a version of the technology for use in Africa.

But Byrnes thinks the Candle Charger will have a much broader market than Flamestower, since it can be easily used indoors, and it fits compactly on a shelf or in an emergency kit until needed. Though people in developed countries have become more and more dependent on cellphones, power has become less reliable, he says: according to Department of Energy statistics power outages in the United States have been on the rise since 2000.

The company is guaranteeing that Candle Chargers ordered on Kickstarter will ship in December—a bit too late for this year’s hurricane season.

Exploratorium’s Iron Science Teacher Competition Explores Everyday Objects

Science enthusiasts crammed into the Exploratorium’s studio in San Francisco last week to watch the last Iron Science Teacher competition of the year. Mimicking the popular TV show, Iron Chef, four-science teachers battled it out to construct science experiments incorporating a specific ingredient found in everyday life.

Among the fans were Soo Han and her eight-year-old daughter, Isole, and five-year-old daughter, Lanah. “We loved it [last time], so we came back for the second one,” says Han, who arrived early to secure front row seats. “I think it’s important for them to learn about science.” At home, her daughters play with electricity and physics learning kits and visit the Exploratorium every week during the summer, she says.   

Each year, three episodes of Iron Science Teacher are showcased featuring staff scientists or teachers enrolled in the Summer Institute for Teachers, a three-week program that helps middle and high school instructors learn hands-on about teaching science and mathematics. The point of using everyday objects, such as light bulbs, magnets, and even lunch foods, is to show people that science is accessible—and fun. This season, one competitor demonstrated the physics of blinking lights by using Christmas lights, while another competitor draped a paper-bag skeleton over a volunteer to demonstrate how air passes through our lungs.  A winner was selected based on how loud the audience cheered.

“I was nervous” about entering the competition, said Becca Friedland, a contestant in last week’s season finale. “I thought I would push myself and try to go outside my comfort level.” Friedland was crowned victor after she climbed on top of a flat table stacked on top of an open table. As volunteers blew air into Ziploc bags wedged between both tables, she levitated through the air with each passing breath.

Beyond entertaining science enthusiasts, the Exploratorium hosts these yearly challenges to encourage interactive STEM education and to celebrate educators. “Teachers get to be cheered for teaching well, which does not happen at school very often, if at all,” says Julie Yu, director of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute and host of the competition.

If you missed this season of challenges or if you’re hunting for science experiments, you can catch all the action here

This Dictionary Will Get You Ready For “Talk Like Silicon Valley” Day

Remember “Talk Like a Pirate Day?” Yes, that ship sailed some time ago. And instead of talking like pirates lately, the denizens of Silicon Valley have been inventing their own language, one that is often as incomprehensible as pirate-speak outside of the Bay Area.

Early attempts to encode this emerging vocabulary were informal. There were a few videos that went slightly viral in 2012, including “$#!% Silicon Valley Says” and “$#!% Venture Capitalists Say”.

Now there’s a Silicon Valley Dictionary, and it’s growing daily. It started as a weekend project in June, when three software engineers at Valley startups, Kilim Choi, Matt Hui, and Zeeshan Javed were watching HBO’s Silicon Valley, and thought the jargon in the show—vocabulary they’d heard frequently in their day jobs—needed its own dictionary.

During the last weekend of June they put together a “Silicon Valley Dictionary” website with ten words and definitions, and opened it up to contributions. In the less than two weeks since the vocabulary list has grown to some 300 words, and ten or so contributions arrive daily, Hui reports. The two delete entries that they consider insensitive or irrelevant, and they do some minor editing for grammar, but generally they leave the evolution of this phrasebook to the wisdom of the crowd.

Hui’s favorite submission to date is Waterloo: A mythical University in Canada where many good Engineers and Computer Scientists come from. [as in] Sam: "Where are all these Canadians from?"  Matthew: "We hired 10 interns and 20 full-times from Waterloo. They get $#&% done because if we don't hire them, they'll have to work for Blackberry. (Hui, by the way, is Canadian.)

Choi leans towards Soylent ProfitableA term that can be used interchangeably with ramen profitable [that is: when a startup makes enough money to pay its founders’ expenses]. With the increase in [soylent’s] popularity, its rich nutrition and affordability, more and more health-concerned entrepreneurs are changing their diet to soylent.

A few of my favorite examples, edited slightly for length. Most of these I’ve heard in the wild. (I just added that term: In the wild. Seeing a new technology out in the real world, not just at launches and demos. “Have you spotted the new Google car in the wild yet?”)

  • Apple Maps Bad: A phrase used to indicate the low quality of a product because Apple Maps is barely usable.
  • Brogrammer: When you mix your typical engineer with your typical frat boy. The official heuristic to identify a brogrammer in your organization is when you can't tell whether the suspect is part of your engineering team or your sales team.
  • Bus Factor: The number of people that need to be hit by a bus before their project is dead."Our engineers work in teams of 10 for the higher bus factor."
  • Button's Law: Inspired by Benjamin Button and Moore's Law, this is an observation that the average age of new engineers and entrepreneurs decreases by approximately 1year with every passing year. “Did you read about that 7 year old entrepreneur? He started his own car company to compete with Tesla and has already raised funding.”
  • Code Ninja: A euphemism that is used by Bay Area recruiters who don't actually know what in particular they want in a Software Engineer, just someone who can pretty much do everything and anything that's handed to them. “We're looking to recruit the best Code Ninjas possible for our startup of 4 currently employed non-technical founders. Free pizza will be provided on Wednesdays.”
  • CUICoding under the influence. “Last Tuesday, Jeremy decided to code from a bar near his house instead of going to work. His code was very sloppy so the PM on the team gave him a CUI warning.”
  • Dave Ratio: It's very difficult to achieve gender parity at a startup. The next best metric is to compare the number of men named Dave to the number of women. Alex: “It's hard finding a company that has a reasonable number of women.” Kourtney: “Have you tried working at a company with a 10:1 Dave ratio?”
  • Nomophobia: The irrational and all consuming fear of being out of cell phone contact.
  • Outside-In Engineer: An engineer who doesn't display fear, anger, happiness, sadness, or disgust—five key emotions popularized in Pixar's Inside Out.
  • Tech Drowning: How you feel after living in Silicon Valley for a while, because it seems like everyone you talk to is either working at a startup, trying to start something, or is a VC. It's normal to feel a little annoyed when you overhear your bus driver say he is preparing a Y-Combinator application.

New entries are being added every day. Add your own here and tell us about them below. And study up, it won’t be too long before someone declares a “Talk Like Silicon Valley Day.”

Update: While this article was being edited for publication, Business Insider extracted their favorites from the Silicon Valley Dictionary and my submission, “In the wild,” was their number one pick. Just sayin’.

Updated 17 July to add name of third founder.

Highlights From Wearable Computing’s History

“On You,” a traveling exhibition on the history of wearable computing, opened this week at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., where it will be on display until September 20, 2015. Curated by researchers at Georgia Tech, the display covers virtual reality, augmented reality, and health and fitness monitors.

Clint Zeagler, a research scientist at Georgia Tech and co-curator of the exhibit has a few personal favorites, like the 1999 Reebok Traxtar, the first shoes with built-in fitness sensors that predated the 2006 Nike+ (and were a lot more fun—meet certain goals and they played “Pomp and Circumstance”). He’s also fond of the Herbert 1, an audio-based wearable with a seven-button chording keyboard that could be easily used while walking—not so much because of what it did, but because it was designed to fit into a VHS cassette box, another piece of technology history younger exhibit visitors often don’t recognize.

I had a few favorites of my own:

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