Fun Friday: AMD-Intel Battle Commences, Big Honking Space Guns, and our Good Friend, the Comb Jelly

The Changing Face of Intel (Economist, 2021)

Another slow Friday. Texas has frozen over. California is becoming ever-drier. The Polar Vortex has crept downwards over the decade to now reach Mexico. Summer will be burning. And the pandemic continues.

Everywhere climate change has come for us all. We are not ready for it. Not. At. All.

Pat Gelsinger has taken the reins at Intel, as the Economist notes (paid subscription). I do enjoy a piece that remembers Andy Grove, the iconoclastic Intel CEO who passed away in 2016 and made Intel a leader in microprocessors. 

I remember hearing rollicking stories of the semiconductor industry from Dick Williams, then retired Director of Research from Ford Aerospace / Loral, when we shared an office in the late 1990’s at InterProphet (he was on the Advisory Board).

Back in those days, he would recount, creating semiconductor processes was so difficult that people would talk about it from different firms over drinks after work, so everyone knew everyone. He also hired Bob Noyce into his first job.

Andy Grove and Bob Noyce were among the Traitorous Eight who founded Fairchild Semiconductor. When that got stuffy, Noyce left with Gordon Moore (of the famed “Moore’s Law”) to found Intel, and of course immediately pulled in Grove and dived into DRAM — and did well, until the DRAM Wars drove them out. That’s when the X86 series was born. 

By the time the 80386 was established in the late 1980’s, we were outlining a new open source Unix future with 386BSD and A Modest Proposal in 1989. When we were updating 386BSD in 1990, we were given access to their prototype 80486 processor at their headquarters here in Silicon Valley — just so 386BSD would run correctly.

I actually have a fondness for the early Intel. They were supportive of 386BSD and courteous, unlike AMD’s bland officiousness. Later on, when Intel abandoned 386BSD and went exclusively to Linux for what they thought were legal concerns, I was disappointed but not surprised. There was a lot of “fake news” back then about 386BSD and us, and there was no Snopes to counter it. 

Only years later was I told by one of my retired Intel executive contacts that they made a mistake in that decision, as none of the catastrophic claims ever came to pass. But it was water under the bridge at that point, and I had gone on to found InterProphet, a TCP low-latency fabless semiconductor company with William. It was just another of the many opportunities in Silicon Valley killed by malign neglect.

Now Pat Gelsinger, architect and technologist, is back at Intel, and he has quite a mess to clean up. Bad business decisions, delays in chip production, and an unimaginative product roadmap might still have not hampered Intel’s profitability. But unlike the Sanders era of AMD, the current CEO, Dr. Lisa Su, is a brilliant technologist and business leader who has led AMD to leadership in the industry.

So now a battle of equals commences. AMD and Intel. It should be interesting, to say the least.

But while we’re waiting, there’s always Big Honking Space Guns from Russia and the ever-amazing comb jelly to bemuse and bewitch you, as they have me. 

Have a Fun Friday, everyone!

Fun Friday: AI Technology Investments, Failed Startups, 386BSD and the Open Source Lifestyle and Other Oddities of 2020

First, William Jolitz and I did a comprehensive article entitled Moving Forward in 2020: Technology Investment in ML, AI, and Big Data for Cutter Business Journal (April 2020 – paid subscription). Given the pandemic and upheaval in global economies, this advice is even more pertinent today. 

Instead of moving from technology to key customers with an abstracted total addressable market (TAM), we must instead quantify artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) benefits where they specifically fit within business strategies across segment industries. By using axiomatic impacts, the fuzziness of how to incorporate AI, ML, and big data into an industry can be used as a check on traditional investment assumptions.

For additional information on this article, please see AI, ML, and Big Data: Functional Groups That Catch the Investor’s Eye (6 May 2020, Cutter Business Technology Advisor).

Techcrunch presented their loser brigade list of 2020 failed startups in December of 2020 – although a few more might have missed the list by days. Some of these investments were victims of “the right startup in the wrong time”. Others were “the wrong startup in the right time”. And some startups were just plain “the wrong startup – period”. 

We mourn the $2.45 billion dollars which vanished into the eager pockets of dreamers and fools (we’re looking at you, Quibi – the pig that swallowed $1.75B of investment and couldn’t get any customers) and feel deeply for the Limiteds who lost money in one of the biggest uptick years in the stock market.

Thirty years have passed since we launched open source operating systems with 386BSD. Open source as a concept has been around for over 40 years, as demonstrated by the amazing GNU GCC compiler done by RMS. But until the mid-1990’s, most software was still held under proprietary license – especially the operating system itself. The release of 386BSD spurred the creation of other progeny open source OS systems and a plethora of open source tools, applications and languages that are standard today. However, the “business” of open source is still much misunderstood, as Wired notes in The Few, the Tired, the Open Source Coders”. Some of the more precious gems excerpted:

But open source success, Thornton quickly found, has a dark side. He felt inundated. Countless people wrote him and Otto every week with bug reports, demands for new features, questions, praise. Thornton would finish his day job and then spend four or five hours every night frantically working on Bootstrap—managing queries, writing new code. “I couldn’t grab dinner with someone after work,” he says, because he felt like he’d be letting users down: I shouldn’t be out enjoying myself. I should be working on Bootstrap!

“The feeling that I had was guilt,” he says. He kept at it, and nine years later he and Otto are still heading up Bootstrap, along with a small group of core contributors. But the stress has been bad enough that he often thought of bailing.”…

…Why didn’t the barn-raising model pan out? As Eghbal notes, it’s partly that the random folks who pitch in make only very small contributions, like fixing a bug. Making and remaking code requires a lot of high-level synthesis—which, as it turns out, is hard to break into little pieces. It lives best in the heads of a small number of people.

Yet those poor top-level coders still need to respond to the smaller contributions (to say nothing of requests for help or reams of abuse). Their burdens, Eghbal realized, felt like those of YouTubers or Instagram influencers who feel overwhelmed by their ardent fan bases—but without the huge, ad-based remuneration.

Been there. Done that.

Not many Linux-come-latelies know this, but Linux was actually the second open-source Unix-based operating system for personal computers to be distributed over the Internet. The first was 386BSD, which was put together by an extraordinary couple named Bill and Lynne Jolitz. In a 1993 interview with Meta magazine, Linus Torvalds himself name-checked their O.S. “If 386BSD had been available when I started on Linux,” he said, “Linux would probably never have happened.”

Linus was able to benefit from our two year article series in Dr. Dobbs Journal (the premiere coding magazine of the day, now defunct in an age of github), which along with the how-to details of “Porting Unix to the 386” we also included source code in each article. That, coupled with Lions Commentary on Unix (NB – the old encumbered Edition 6 version, and not Berkeley Unix) allowed Linus to cudgel together Linux. We had no such issues, as we had access to both Berkeley Unix and a source code license from AT&T for our prior company, Symmetric Computer Systems, and hence knew what was encumbered and what was not (Lions was entirely proprietary). Putting together an OS is a group effort to the max. Making an open source OS requires fortitude and knowledge above and beyond that.

Jalopnik, one of my favorite sites, found the ultimate absurd Figure 1 patents with this little gem of an article: Toyota’s Robocars Will Wash Themselves Because We Can’t Be Trusted. Wow, they really knocked themselves out doing their Figure 1, didn’t they? Womp Womp.

And finally, for a serious and detailed discussion of how the pandemic impacted the medical diagnostic side, I recommend this from UCSF: We Thought it was just a Respiratory Virus. We were Wrong (Summer 2020). Looking back, it was just the beginning of wisdom.

Stay safe, everyone!

Intel Ouroboros: Pat Gelsinger Returns to Build the Future

Classical Ouroboros. Wikipedia.

Pat Gelsinger is a technologist’ technologist. He worked on the X386 and X486 processors. We referenced the book he and Crawford wrote Programming the 80386 for our Porting Unix to the 386” series in Dr. Dobbs Journal in the early 1990’s and the development of 386BSD. It was a seminal processor and work that helped launched the open source operating system movement.

Yet Pat didn’t stay to retire with laurels at Intel. After many years battling for Intel’s future, he left to head EMC and, later, VMWare. Now he’s been brought back to Intel as CEO effective 15 February 2021. Why?

In a nutshell, while Gelsinger was off dabbling in storage technologies and cloud services, Intel was burning through every single technology advantage people like Gelsinger had built. Now, Intel is facing a reckoning, and needs to build a future again.

And that future depends on people with technical and domain skill, like Pat Gelsinger. 

This was a bitter pill for Intel’s Board of Directors and executive team to swallow. But, as Baron Mordo said, “The bill comes due”

The roots of this squandering of the future was based not in technology, but in contempt of technologists. Risk-takers in both strategic and startup investment in the 1990’s and 2000’s saw the proliferation of new approaches as “chaotic”. 

InterProphet SiliconTCP board. 1998.

I sat in an office of a top tier VC firm on Sand Hill Road in the late 1990’s and listened to the “smart money” partner complain about how their investments in ATM were being disrupted by InterProphet’s SiliconTCP low latency chip — as if I owned the burgeoning TCP/IP technology and was personally damaging their investments with a few prototype boards, a handful of working FPGAs and some Verilog.

TCP/IP was present in the mid-1980’s in Berkeley Unix, and used in datacenters throughout academia and government. As Vint Cerf himself noted, it was a good enough solution to get packets from one point to another.

TCP/IP as an “ad hoc” technology was good enough to take out OSI, ISDN and ATM. I thought it was wiser to surf the tsunami instead of railing against it. That just bred resentment.

I sat in corporate offices in the 1990’s and 2000’s and heard complaints about how open source was overtaking proprietary software stacks, and it was ruining their projections and their business.

Berkeley Unix was a feeder of innovation from the early 1980’s. True, it was not a viable competitor to proprietary OS stacks until we launched 386BSD in the early to mid-1990s. From that open source stack, backed by Dr. Dobbs Journal, sprang a whole host of proprietary software industry competitors, including Linux.

Open source kernels like 386BSD and its many progeny would not have made inroads if there had not been a wealth of innovation already present to mine out by these groups — innovation that was neglected, minimized or attacked by established proprietary players. 

But up to the point we released 386BSD publicly, everyone underestimated us. It couldn’t be done. It wouldn’t be done. But it was done. I knew it could be done.

I sat in a room in the early 2000’s as a VP at Microsoft complained about how open source was a threat and how, looking right at me, they had gathered information on everyone involved and their families. As if developing the open source OS created some kind of ominous fifth column of open source software subverting their eternal rights to OS glory. It was…unpleasant. It was also incredibly horribly damaging personally.

I listened in the mid-2000’s as a VC “sympathetically” told us that we’d never get funding again after InterProphet. Not because we’d done anything wrong. We met our commitments. We built things. But because they didn’t want innovation and the risks that came with it. And their way to kill the message was to kill the messenger.

“The bill comes due”.

The resentment in the 1990s and 2000s towards new ideas and the creation of new products was intense. All they could see was damage to their five year technology plans and prior investments. The idea of hedging your bets was anathema, because that implied they couldn’t control the industry.

And mind you, it was about control. Control of technology. Control of innovation. Control of monetization. Control of creativity. Control of thought.

So here we are, in 2021. Intel squandered their future, slicing and dicing their monetization game. Intel’s “safe and sane” business relationship with Apple is now in pieces. In 2018 Apple maneuvered Intel into taking out Qualcomm as a competitor. In 2019 Apple acquired Intel’s smartphone modem tech and developed their own. In 2020 Apple introduced the M1 as a competitor to the high end X86 line. And that’s just one customer. The vultures are circling. Intel lost control.

Now Pat Gelsinger has agreed to come back. How will he pick up the pieces of a damaged company? I assume he’d only return if he had broad latitude in restructuring, hiring and firing. He’ll investigate interesting acquisition targets that offer a path forward for Intel. And he’ll look closely at how rivals like AMD under Dr. Lisa Su have done so well while Intel foundered.

Intel ouroboros. Pat is back at the beginning. It remains to be seen how he creates a future for Intel once again.

Sedate Sunday: Battle of the Batteries

Tesla has been in the forefront of fully electric vehicles (EV) at a time when most of the major car manufacturers only fitfully dabbled with short-range plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). Now that Li-ion batteries Tesla builds into battery packs at their Gigafactory have become standard, the automotive industry has essentially abandoned the older BEV battery approaches and embraced Li-ion.

The pursuit of energy dense batteries to increase range may take a left turn, however, due to cost. You see, the batteries used by all the EV car manufacturers today use cobalt in the batteries (Tesla uses Li-NCA — most others use Li-NMC), and cobalt is costly. So Tesla is now considering a less energy dense LFP (lithium iron phosphate) battery manufactured by Contemporary Amperex Technology Company (CATC, Fujian Province, China) for their Chinese Tesla EVs that does not require cobalt. In addition, instead of the current module packaging strategy, the cells would be bundled tightly directly, which CATC claims will result in an energy-dense battery pack comparable to current module-based battery packs using cobalt. This will take the battle of the batteries to a whole new level.

Sedate Sunday: Cal is Quantum Blue, Slippery Ice, and Plasma Guns

Pantone, in it’s usual grandiose fashion, has decreed the new color of the year — classic blue — which looks just like a blue suitcase from the 1950s covered with a layer of dust. 

Quantum Blue was created by Greek artist Olga Alexopoulou in collaboration with UC Berkeley Lab chemists. (California Alumni Magazine, Winter 2019)

For those rightly unexcited by this dull selection, you need not fear. Berkeley has created a blue just for you: Quantum Blue, a “pure, radiant blue like one might see at dusk” using nanoparticles where “phosphor absorb UV light and convert it to a different wavelength (or fluoresce)”. The creation of this color was done as an attempt to capture the beauty of the natural world. Please enjoy it in like kind.

In a different mode, we now know why we slip on ice when it seemed fine to walk on. While the simple answer — a thin layer of water — might seem intuitively obvious, measuring the properties of the water layer is not. By literally “tuning” into the minute frictional forces of ice and the water layer using something akin to an old-fashioned tuning fork, researchers at Sorbonne and Ecole polytechnique were able to demonstrate that 1) friction does create a thin layer of water on ice, 2) it’s very thin (less than 200 nm to one micron), and 3) the water is viscous, a state between ice and liquid water. It’s definitely cool.

And for us folks who find plasma physics fascinating (and you know who you are), completion of the work assembling the Plasma Liner Experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory is expected in early 2020. Testing of the plasma guns as they are installed can be used to validate and tune simulations. It should be interesting to see the final results when all 36 plasma jets are operational.

Married Founders: The Times they are a-Changin’

I was reading this article on how married co-founders are getting acceptance — and investment — and it’s not a bad thing. And it provoked a memory.

UC Berkeley Physics Department image used in video production.

When I worked with the University of California at Berkeley Physics Department, my alma mater, to enhance their fundraising efforts, I developed and field tested with them an instant video production system for alumni. The idea was to not just ask for money, but to ask for experiences, like what was their favorite experiment in 111 Laboratory. These experiences in video were then emailed to a server array which instantly provided correction (sound, video, format, etc) and encased the video into a custom designed template with music and background reflecting the Cal Physics environment. The completed video was then emailed to the Director for approval. All she had to do was say yes, no, or maybe something else. If she liked it, it was automatically posted to a website dedicated to Berkeley Physics. It was cool. I even wrote a paper on the results for the ACM.

At the same time, the Haas Business School launched a business plan competition for Berkeley students, faculty and alumni. So I decided to enter it. This wasn’t my first BBQ, so to speak — I had gotten funding for InterProphet some years earlier, and that was a harder sell given how VCs gave up on hardware investments in the early 2000s and moved to Internet companies. But this *was* an Internet company — a fully developed video production system and mechanism where no one had to learn editing software to make a production-quality video.

Yes, folks said I was ahead of my time. Yes, investors quibbled over why was I doing this with software and not, say, with Chinese or Indian workers manually handling production — they had a massive obsession with using folks instead of using automation then. They questioned whether video would ever become popular on the Internet given latency issues (I was an expert on this BTW, since InterProphet was all about low-latency). This was before YouTube, so it was hard for old-style VCs to get their heads around video on the web.

But the most insulting response I received was not from VCs or angels, but from the Haas Business School at Berkeley. For a university known for progressive insight, the worst response to my business plan was not about TAM or competitive advantage or technology or experience — it was about how the anonymous reviewer would “NEVER” invest in a husband-wife company, as they had been burned once before. It was bigoted. It was unfair. It was vile. And he killed any prospects of working with Berkeley.

Relevant part of the review by the Haas Business School business plan competition of ExecProducer and my work with the UC Berkeley physics Department. Apparently, having “Relevant domain experience, industry experience, business track record, education, network, etc” was tainted by the stain of married co-founders. Yes folks, that killed it. (Photo: R Jolitz)

Needless to say, this was also offensive to the Berkeley physics Department as well. I was one of their alumni and they worked with me. It was a validated concept. But that Haas Business School reviewer poisoned the waters in the larger investment community, and the company I had labored to move from Zero to One was dead in the water. Silicon Valley is a small community — or at least was small back in 2004.

I’m pleased to see the times they are a-changin’. I hope my struggles paved the way for a new generation of young people to be considered for investment based on their ideas, creativity, perseverance, and character — instead of their gender or race or friendships or “comfort level” (a catch-all for “I don’t like you because your different”). Meritocracy is a lie when it demands you look exactly like the person who backs you. And the last thing we need right now is more lies.

2020 AMD and Intel: The Grass is Greener on the Other Side of the Chip Business

AMD or Intel? 2020 is the Processor Battleground

AMD, the long neglected stepsister to Intel, has done marvelously well in recent years, primarily due to Intel’s “meltdown” of trust in their flagship processor products and Intel’s delays in shipping new competitive 10nm chips. Coupled with ineffectual senior management and poor board control, Intel, the darling of the Wall Street set, sat wallowing in management paralysis and a moribund stock price until recently.

Dr. Lisa Su, AMD CEO

Meanwhile AMD’s CEO Dr. Lisa Su has been instrumental in moving AMD from its Eeyore approach to life to that of a first-rate competitor in the chip space with its Ryzen, Radeon and Epyc product lines. Dr. Su has not only changed AMD’s attitude – she’s also changed the entire competitive landscape with bold technology moves and strategic partnerships with companies such as Microsoft. Having dealt with the earlier AMD in the 1990’s, where no one would make a decision and the C-suite was filled with ineffectual do-nothings, it has been refreshing to see capable management drive good engineering and product management.

In the last few years, AMD and Intel have swapped places. AMD, the driver in specialist processors, has gone full-bore into the vacuum left by Intel’s strategic blunders and broadened into general processors . Intel, in contrast, has made an old Intel revenue-enhancement approach “new again”, by taking their general processors and specializing them for specific markets.

But believing the grass is greener on the other side of the chip business comes with its consequent perils. Continue reading 2020 AMD and Intel: The Grass is Greener on the Other Side of the Chip Business

Video@Scale: The New Demands are the Old Challenges – Power and Packet Drops

The challenge of creating seamless video experiences on demand has been a long-sought and long-fought dream. FaceBook video@scale brings specialists together to wrestle with the complexity of end-to-end technical tricks and user level satisfaction often at odds.

Lynne Jolitz at FaceBook Video at Scale. (L Jolitz).

The morning was a blitz of corner cases and tightly wound insights.  Minutia of transmission of video and complexity, issues of detection of dropped frames in various browser decode, up/down scaling of video quality on-the-fly, issues in CODEC switching, video stream sizing, I-frame synchronization between different video codecs, which codec to use, network versus browser issues (often appear the same), and getting around browser video correction.

But the two items I am going to focus on are the old hard chestnuts: power and packet drops.

Continue reading Video@Scale: The New Demands are the Old Challenges – Power and Packet Drops

Yes Virginia, Neutrinos Do Have a Bounded Mass (Thanks to Big Data)

Getty Images.

Many years ago, Jim Gray was conducting a talk at Stanford I attended, whereby he outlined the challenges in processing the huge datasets accumulated in scientific fields like astronomy, cosmology and medicine.

In those days, the greatest concerns were: 1) cleaning the data sets and 2) transporting the data sets. The processing of these data sets, surprisingly, was of little concern. Data manipulation was processor-limited and modeling tools were few. Hence, success was dependent on the skill of the researchers to delve through the results for meaning.

Jim lived in a world of specialized expensive hardware platforms for stylized processing, painstaking manual cleaning of data, and elaborate databases to manipulate and store information. As such, large academic projects were beholden to the generosity of a few large corporations. This, to say the least, meant that any research project requiring large resources would likely languish.

In the decades since Jim first broached the huge data set problem (and twelve years after his passing), the open source disruption that started with operating systems (of which I was a part) and new languages spawned in turn the creation of data tools, processing technologies and methods that Jim, a corporate enterprise technologist, could not have imagined. Beginning with open source projects like Hadoop and Spark (originally from UC Berkeley, just like 386BSD), on demand databases and tools can provide (relatively speaking) economical and efficient capabilities. And one of the biggest of big data projects ever recently demonstrated that success.

Continue reading Yes Virginia, Neutrinos Do Have a Bounded Mass (Thanks to Big Data)

Raytheon Wins the 10 Million US Patent Sweepstakes!

USPTO new patent cover

Today the US Patent and Trademark Office issued its ten millionth patent! The extraordinary Patent No. US 10,000,000 entitled “Coherent Ladar Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection” was assigned to Raytheon Company by inventor Joseph Marron of Manhattan Beach, California.

As the winner of this sweepstakes, Raytheon has been granted a lovely 20 year monopoly from the filing date (10 March 2015) for a new and unique invention that uses comparisons between a target and sample frequencies in a clocked processor to determine the phase difference for navigation. You can also, it notes, use it for holography assuming your target and you are both stationary, but that’s unlikely to happen unless you’re driving a Chevy Malibu.

As a token of esteem, Raytheon has been provided this lovely new patent cover page to swaddle their new baby patent Figures and Claims. We have no doubt Raytheon’s patent counsel shall commence to commit it to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead.

I congratulate Raytheon for winning the 10 Million US Patent Sweepstakes, beating out ever-industrious rivals IBM, Samsung, Canon, Qualcomm, Toshiba, Sony, LG, Intel, Microsoft and most particularly, Google, which has missed out on yet another self-driving navigation patent.

The next milestone sweepstakes, the 20 Million US Patent Sweepstakes, should be starting right about…now. Inventors: Start your engines.