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Classic Games (Games)

High School Dropout, Self-Taught Chip Designer 816

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the games-people-play dept.
circletimessquare writes "The QVC television shopping network has recently found a hit in its product the C64, which emulates the classic Commodore 64 in a small form factor, a joystick. But the story of the designer of the product is more interesting than the product. Meet Jeri Ellsworth [NYTimes. You know what that means], whose life story emulates the golden age of garage-based computer design. She is proof that the passion of the homebrew electronic hobbyist is still a viable force in an age when well-funded and well-staffed corporate design teams dominate chip design."
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High School Dropout, Self-Taught Chip Designer

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  • by TrollBridge (550878) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:33PM (#11139364) Homepage Journal
    "She is proof that the passion of the homebrew electronic hobbyist is still a viable force in an age when well-funded and well-staffed corporate design teams dominate chip design."

    You forgot well-lawyered, for when an uppity innovator dares challenge the corporate status quo. Sadly, all it would take is one lawsuit (ore even the threat thereof) to shut her down.

  • Re:Yes but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:33PM (#11139366)
    Yes.
  • eureka! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bLindmOnkey (744643) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:34PM (#11139369)
    It seems as though nostalgia always sells. I went to a local mall recently and there was a stand that was selling something similar to these-it was an N64 shaped controller with a decent collection of SNES games right in the controller. I know if I had money I'd buy it for a young relative to experience the joys of my own childhood. Wouldn't you?
  • Re:Yes but... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:34PM (#11139374)
    actually... yeah..
  • Re:Yes but... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:34PM (#11139377)
    Actually, looking at the picture included in the article, yes she's pretty darn cute IMHO.
  • NO way (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:35PM (#11139388)
    She is NOT a self-taught CHIP DESIGNER. She is a self-taught FPGA programmer. There is a world of difference, the former is impossible, the latter is trivial.
    The good thing from this story is that I hope employers will open their ears and eyes to the fact that university is USELESS to form engineers when the drive is not there, and that university is just a replacement for forced military service.
  • by suso (153703) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:37PM (#11139416) Homepage Journal
    I was just telling my wife about this last night.
    Even when you think that any industry is too hard to break into because there are big companies dominating it, one can still create something that is better or worthwhile to people. Even for the sake that some people want to shop somewhere else, or buy a different brand.

    I mean, think about it, for 50 years cars were being made and the corporations that made them became big 800lb gorillas. But then look, here comes Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Geo, Saturn, Lexus, Kia and now Scion.

    So there is room, just take a look at the history of open source software.
  • just think (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Bishop (4500) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:38PM (#11139428)
    Just think what Ms. Ellsworth could have achieved with a proper education. If anything this story shows how the education system fails for smart people.
  • Let us hope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by boodaman (791877) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:40PM (#11139450)
    Let us hope there are many more people just like her here in America. If there are, the future will be very interesting. If there aren't, we'll find ourselves a nation of passive consumers without any initiative.

  • Re:Yes but... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jericho4.0 (565125) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:41PM (#11139461)
    Considering she fit a C64 + games into a joystick, she could have an AOL account and still have geek cred.

    And since everyone's giving an opinion on this; I give her a 6.5.

  • by acomj (20611) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:44PM (#11139503) Homepage
    Cars are a bad metaphore. Mostly made by large comglomerates.

    Lexus and Scion are made by Toyota.
    Saturn made be General Motors,
    Geo, was GM rebrand of cars made by Toyota I beleive
    Subaru - Fuju Heavy Industries
    Kia is from Huyndi (large comglomerate.)

    But your right, software/computers are still places were an individual can make it with hard work and good design.

    Also she is working for a NJ toy manufacturer not out on her own.
  • by anethema (99553) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:48PM (#11139546) Homepage
    My god you people have low standards.

    She is a 4-5/10 at best, maybe a bonus point for knowing how to program a FPGA.
  • Re:Let us hope (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:49PM (#11139551)
    "...we'll find ourselves a nation of passive consumers without any initiative."

    Why do you say this as if it's in the future?
  • impossible? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by i41Overlord (829913) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:50PM (#11139565)
    "She is NOT a self-taught CHIP DESIGNER. She is a self-taught FPGA programmer. There is a world of difference, the former is impossible, the latter is trivial."

    Impossible? What about the guys who invented the first chips? Did they go to some class that taught how to build chips which will be invented in the future?

    You can buy the same books that they have at schools. You can learn the same things on your own that you'd learn in schools. Some people (such as myself) are tinkerers, and we learn better by experimenting on our own than we do sitting in a classroom.

    I find it funny that I've also heard people saying you need to go to school to be a programmer or work in the computer industry. Most of us geeks know that's also false.
  • by mboverload (657893) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:54PM (#11139614) Journal
    I'm tiured of people saying to need to pass high school. I didn't and I am making 60k a year. Ok, mainly because I'm a fricken genius with this shit, but still.
  • Bills Gates, too. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by i41Overlord (829913) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:56PM (#11139633)
    "Just think what Ms. Ellsworth could have achieved with a proper education. "

    How do you know she doesn't have a proper education? Who says that learning on your own isn't proper?
    Maybe Bill Gates should have stayed in school and got a degree. He could have been rich, I tell you!
  • Re:Told you So (Score:2, Insightful)

    by creimer (824291) on Monday December 20, 2004 @02:57PM (#11139636) Homepage
    More schooling may or may not help her. Formal education is useful for learning the basic concepts, but it sometimes stiffles the creative impulse to do something brand new with those concepts that most people won't consider since it haven't been done before.

    She seems to have the classic "I don't have time for this sh*t since I got better things to do" attitude of so many of the big movers in the computer industry (i.e., Steve Wozinak, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and John Carmack). If she needs more education to help her solve a problem, she'll seek out on her own.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:01PM (#11139683)
    This is for all of you people who have said you need to be institutionalized in an education system with a forced curriculum of subjects that have nothing do to with what you want to do in life. This is proof that motivation, willpower, and talent are perfectly acceptable ingredients to successfully building your own education and career path.

    I'm only in college because I do not have the motivation to go out and learn all the stuff by myself. I enjoy having structured (but not overbearing) objectives to my learning path. I could probably be done a lot quicker if I did not have all these boring and uninteresting "liberal arts" program classes (you know, literature, humanities, etc.) that do not relate to my degree or build on skills useful for becoming at what I want to do.

    Remember, there is no one path to success. This person built her own success without listening to the majority of voices that say you have to follow a certain path to succeed.
  • Re:just think (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Spy der Mann (805235) <spydermann.slash ... m ['ail' in gap]> on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:01PM (#11139685) Homepage Journal
    Just think what Ms. Ellsworth could have achieved with a proper education.

    Maybe not as much... she might have ended up as the employee of some big computer company designing games or the like.

    Maybe it was the *lack* of education that put her in the difficult situations that made her give the best from herself. It was her efforts to go against the tides that made her outstand from the average geeks like us. Maybe that was the pressure needed to turn her into a full-fledged diamond.

    I wish i had her courage to go against the tides and established principles. *Sighs*
  • Re:Yeah But (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hrieke (126185) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:02PM (#11139687) Homepage
    Intel hired knitters for wiring the first set of chips back in the day.
    Cobol was designed by a Grace Murray Hopper.
    Frances Elizabeth Snyder Holberton was involved in Fortran's development.
    Ada Lovelace wrote first program to calculate Bernouli numbers.

    If you're going to troll, learn how to troll right.
  • Re:NO way (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Mongo222 (612547) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:04PM (#11139701)
    Well isn't that the pot calling the kettle black? The point the original poster was making is that setting up a FPGA is a lot more like coding, than it it ship designing. The skill set, methods and tools are nearly the same. In fact I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find that the joystick/C64 is heavily based on a number of the opensource C64 emulators that are around. Not that I think this subtracts from the coolness factor of what she came up with, but it's not like she layed out a 6502 gate by gate by hand.
  • Re:SHE? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ergo98 (9391) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:07PM (#11139747) Homepage Journal
    The fact that it's a "she", is irrelevant.

    It's not irrelevant whatsoever - society puts differing forces on males and females, and as the GP points out it is extraordinarily rare to find a woman excel outside of "the system" (you'll find a good number of examples of men who persevered against the odds, pursuing success in non-traditional ways, but almost no women doing the same). This says more about society than woman, and I think it's largely because society encourages women who don't academically excel to become homemakers and baby machines (no I am not saying that homemakers and parents didn't academically excel, just that it does end up being the "default" profession of many woman in that situation).
  • by jdjdac (703401) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:08PM (#11139757) Homepage
    Being a graduating electrical engineer, ham radio operator, and of the female persuasion....IT IS ABOUT FREAKING TIME I've had someone to truly look up to in terms of technical skill and passion. Her life story is very similar to how I grew up and how I experimented with electronics other 'boys toys.' I always felt like an outcast for enjoying tinkering, be it with trebuchets or radios.

    It really makes you question your role in society...especially when it seems that women are portrayed like idiots or dumb blondes in the media. Or that all I should care about is makeup, clothes, and hair (trust me I'm not that obsessed - just ask my husband). Sometimes even today I ask myself "what they hell am I doing?" "Why didn't I do elementary ed like every girl I know?" It is still something I struggle with even today.

    I always wished I could have had another woman to look up and admire for their technical achievements. I almost never thought it would happen in my lifetime. Congratulations to her on her long list of achievements, and hopefully she can encourage another generation of woman to get into tech....especially engineering!!

  • Re:Yes but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:16PM (#11139835) Homepage
    Even more remarkable than a hot girl designing microchips, is the fact that QVC is selling something I would actually buy.
  • by Zebano (626335) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:19PM (#11139875)
    "I never let my schooling interfere with my education"

    -Mark Twain
  • Re:impossible? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by prockcore (543967) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:20PM (#11139892)
    In order to program(not necessarily program well) all you need is a cheap computer and you can use Linux/gcc or Sun's jdk or mono or whatever to compile your programs.

    Sure now, but it wasn't too long ago that you had to spend a large amount of money on a compiler, and a very expensive harddrive, since your sourcecode would take up more space than the floppy your program would eventually live on.

    I remember spending $500 on the Merlin assembler so I could write Apple][ games.

    Plus, all you need to *design* chips is a piece of EE software. There is a difference between designing a CPU, and actually manufacturing one.

    We designed 8bit CPUs in college classes.
  • by seanadams.com (463190) * on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:23PM (#11139927) Homepage
    Just think what Ms. Ellsworth could have achieved with a proper education.

    MUCH LESS

    For the really creative problem solver types like her, school is a dangerous reconditioning of one's mind and social outlook. If you're not suited for it, excessive schooling/socialization can kill both your entrepreneurial spirit and your creative talent.

    It is NOT ironic in the slightest that so [woz.org] many [microsoft.com] great [prism-magazine.org] innovators [apple.com] were drop-outs.
  • Re:NO way (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Fizzl (209397) <<ten.lzzif> <ta> <lzzif>> on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:26PM (#11139962) Homepage Journal
    Umm... That might be your opinion.
    For you, FPGA programming might be trivial but you are lost when it goes down to hardware. However, not everyone in on the globe have the exactly skillset as you.

    I have education in electrical automation (mainly analogue processes, logics (CS21 et.al.), instrumentation and so forth. Lot of electronics and hardware thou...)
    I'm a self taught programmer in several languages and currently earning my salary at the software side on ARM9 processors.

    To me, both chip design and FPGA design seem quite plausible but too laborous to even try to pursue on my own. Jack of all arts you might say...

    Mathematics and physical phenomenons involved in electrical science are not too complicated anymore. Many before us have already figured much out, and much of that information is available to everyone.
  • Re:NO way (Score:3, Insightful)

    by taniwha (70410) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:29PM (#11140002) Homepage Journal
    I built hardware as a ham at school (back when micros were still becominbg available) - I did do a CS degree that inclued exactly 0 hardware/electronics (but I'd been programming for years before I hit college anyway). I worked doing OS stuff (porting unix) thru the 80s and hacking hardware (pals and the like) in my own time - from which I fell into doing architectural design of 2d graphics hardware (pulling apart people graphics libraries and figuring out how to make hardware to do the same things - specing datapaths and state machines for others to build and making C level models of how it should work - that chip grossed $120M) eventually it became easier for me to code in verilog rather than C and cut out the middle man, around the same time I started running Synopsis on my own designs and a while later driving a router and back end timing on them too and doing the occasional hand edit to polygons to fix timing problems.

    You get the idea - it is possible to be self taught - you just have to be smart and work hard - certainly coming in from the architecture side has really helped me - I understand stuff about the software side the hardware guys don't (and vice-versa) I get to sit on both sides of the fence - more recently I've made a deliberate decision to move back to the software side of the biz - for me at least there's more day to day creative work to do on the software side of the house (vlsi tends to be one month of creative design and 11 months of grind making it work - not as much fun as coding up something new every day)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:30PM (#11140013)
    The important question, is she single?

    Important how? Do you suppose she's attracted to horny, undersexed, drooling morons who post on slashdot?

  • Re:NO way (Score:4, Insightful)

    by metroid composite (710698) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:36PM (#11140096) Homepage Journal
    The good thing from this story is that I hope employers will open their ears and eyes to the fact that university is USELESS to form engineers when the drive is not there, and that university is just a replacement for forced military service.
    I'm not sure what University you attended, but the purpose of a university degree is to teach you how to think and research, and to give a broad view of of a field. It's easy enough to be a self-taught programmer without having touched object oriented programming, for instance. Engineering and Software Engineering teach building processes that tend to be robust and have a lot of checks along the way. Sure, if you're good you either come up with your own checks, or maybe you just read a programming style manual from cover to cover and get all the info anyway.

    Point is, University students shouldn't have holes in their knowledge, and should be forced to do creative thought (yeah, there's sucky universities out there, but that's an asside). There's obviously people who learn to think on their own, and people who can get all the info they need for one area of programming or FPGA or whatever, so it's not useful for everyone, just a lot of people. On the other hand, military service teaches a less relevant kind of knowledge (for programmers) and values obedience over independent thought. It's really not the same thing at all (though this may depend on the university I suppose).

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:40PM (#11140156)
    Not only that, but even with an engineering degree from a recognized school, you won't create anything worth having while you're slaving away at your mind-numbing cubicle drone job. You'll just attend meetings, work on some tiny part of a huge project that ultimately gets cancelled before it's ever released, and then finally get canned.

    Sorry, but a silly joystick running 20-year-old video games is a far greater achievement than most individual engineers will ever achieve working for large companies.
  • Re:impossible? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by harrkev (623093) <kfmsd.harrelsonfamily@org> on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:53PM (#11140317) Homepage
    The Xilinx Spartan family has some very nice FPGAs clocking in at well under $10 right now. So, for small low-speed things like this, they are perfect!

    And as far as the "all this girl had to do" line, no way. All she had to do was:

    1) Implement a 6502 processor. There is a free core or two floating around, which she likely used. Still not exactly trivial, though.

    2) Reverse-engineer and implement the DRAM circuitry. The design does not use DRAM, but you still need to emulate certain portions of the hardware for timing reasons. When DRAM refreshes, the processor has to snooze.

    3) Reverse-engineer and implement the SID sound chip. Fairly major headache.

    4) Reverse-engineer and implement the video circuitry. Major headache. This system even had hardware sprites.

    5) Reverse-engineer and implement the different hardware ports.

    6) Include a bridge that would allow a PC keyboard to emulate a C64 keyboard.

    7) Emulate a cassette drive and load it with warez.

    8) Implement the analog bits of the video and sound circuitry. Maybe somebody else did this.

    In short, I am impressed.

    I have been through an ASIC tape-out. It costs in the neighborhood of $100K. MUCH cheaper to go with a cheap FPGA and serial-EEPROM for stuff like this. Once you get well over 10,000 units shipped, it is time to start looking at an ASIC. Until then, a cheap FPGA is probably your best bet.
  • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:10PM (#11140494)
    Stephanie Kwolek is probably one of the better known female engineers, though she's materials not electrical. She is one of the two people directly responsible for the creation of Kevlar. Got on the order of 28 patents before retiring,a nd these are all real patents for innovative products, not software BS.

    While women are still fighting the stereotypes of the past, there are examples of women excelling in almost every field, even traditonal male only roles such as CEO (eg Carol Bartz, CEO and president of Autodesk).
  • Asshole. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:25PM (#11140649)
    You're a prick, gumbi. Nice to make fun of a girl on what's probably one the happiest moments of her life. Hopefully she won't read the comments from /.'s virgins and shut-ins.
  • by Lumpy (12016) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:36PM (#11140766) Homepage
    I found that college was more of an atmosphere and an enabler to follow studies. college is a way to make it easier for you to not have to work to feed and house yourself and focus on learning and discovering instead of focusing on survival.

    Some people are forced to do both, the full time student that also worked full time commands much more respect from everyone than the guy that daddy had enough money to pay for everything or the person that was lucky enough to receive a full ride.

    College enables you by providing resources that normally you would have to pay for... it's hard to study Chemistry on your own because the first step is to build a lab.

    Those are the ONLY advantages to college. you can learn EVERYTHING they teach in a college without ever setting foot in one or ever listening to a "professor".

    You do not receive a better education at a college, you receive a better opportunity to learn in an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
  • by mc6809e (214243) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:58PM (#11140994)
    I wish it were different.

    Clever kids get bored out of their minds doing "busy-work", but that's what you're graded on.

    Welcome to socialized education.

  • by gordgekko (574109) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:16PM (#11141180) Homepage
    > You do realize that Bill was rich before he founded Microsoft, right? His father is a millionaire.

    No, that means his father was rich.
  • Re:NO way (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hazem (472289) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:17PM (#11141189) Journal
    This woman has something that so many engineers are lacking, and that's a focus on what she can accopmlish.

    So many engineers focus on what can't be done, how it's impossible, or how it can't be done with tools/budget available.

    I'd be much more inclined to hire her because she has shown that she has drive, motivation, and a can-do attitude. Those traits easily overcome years of education.

    I can give her education, but there's no way I can give her those other things.
  • Sexism (Score:5, Insightful)

    by believekevin (701120) <<driscollkevin> <at> <gmail.com>> on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:34PM (#11141333) Homepage

    I'm halfway through the responses and haven't yet encountered a single comment about the greatness of this project!

    /. disappoints once again.

  • by kn0tw0rk (773805) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:37PM (#11141356) Journal
    I think that this inllustrates the fact that schools are not for everyone, and also speaks volumes about the support her father gave her in raising and educating her and giving her the confidence to achieve her goals.
  • Re:Yes but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Zedrick (764028) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:47PM (#11141500)
    Aaaargh! It's like this in the C= community too. When discussing the Commodore One (basically a new improved C64 designed by Jeri), 50% of the posts in comp.sys.cbm and the mailinglists is about that computer itself, the rest is Jeri this and Jeri that...

    I can understand why there are so few females in the business, most of them probably gets overwhelmed by the attention they get because of their gender, and not their merits.

  • Re:SHE? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Tekoneiric (590239) on Monday December 20, 2004 @06:18PM (#11141767) Journal
    I totally agree, I'm also a ts and a lesbian. I'm in a long term relationship with one woman; she and I are at the beginning of a relationship with yet another woman. Why is it that some guys insist on belittling intelligent and assertive women? The main reason why there aren't as many woman in the computer and electronics field as men is because people in the education system do what they can to prevent women from choosing those fields. Thankfully things are changing but not fast enough.
  • Explain this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Billly Gates (198444) on Monday December 20, 2004 @08:45PM (#11142956) Journal
    How can she design chips without a frabrication plant?

    Sure you can fiddle around with autocad and many other cad electronic design tools but that does not make someone an electrical engineer or chip designer.

    It makes me wonder how she got started and how she got hired and who invested in her idea's and got her work to the fabrication plants that built her products.

  • Re:Yes but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by stevedekorte (214387) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @12:17AM (#11144517)
    ShawnDoc, even transexuals have adam's apples. where is it? [hobby.nl]

    Btw, I met her at the Vintage Computer Feastival in Mountain View last month. She's a very nice, intellegent (obviously) and beautifully woman (even more obviously).
  • Re:Yes but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jaelle (655155) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @12:52AM (#11144688) Homepage
    What really gets old is that none of the guys have the slightest interest in talking tech with us. All they're actually interested in is getting laid. A girl with geek cred adds points, evidently, but you guys really don't give a rats about her or her gadget.

    The reason girls don't do tech? Because there's no one to freakin' talk to, that's why! Millions of guys who do the same thing, and they'll all talk to each other endlessly about it. But not to girl techs. What *we* get is "do you like to..." fill in a whole bunch of blanks about sex.

    Frankly, about the 1000th time, it gets boring.

  • Re:NO way (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jaelle (655155) on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @01:20AM (#11144810) Homepage
    I suspect that university tends to lock people down creatively. Cripes, you *can't* force 'creative thought'!

    My son, who is now 25, has been designing circuits and programming microproprocessors for years now. He hasn't been in any school since 4th grade. He has never once questioned whether he could do something he wanted to do, he just did it. His latest invention is going to manufacturing now with the support of several VC's, who also have had no problem with the idea that he's 'uneducated'. The fact that he's designed and built working prototypes of a very novel and complex design is proof enough.

    Like Jeri--passion and interest--and knowing that you can--is all you need.
  • Re:impossible? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MilenCent (219397) <johnwh@gmailLION.com minus cat> on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @02:59AM (#11145161) Homepage
    You're involved with this project too? Sir, allow me to tip my hat to you and the rest of the team. This is just so cool.

    It's almost enough to make me want to watch QVC to see about picking one up.

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