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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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  • Sighted ahoy... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by nickleeson (688936) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:33PM (#11139359)
    the open chip design movement....
  • All the flame... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Thunderstruck (210399) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:38PM (#11139437)
    Is starting to have an effect! From the article:

    Her efforts in reverse-engineering old computers and giving them new life inside modern custom chips has already earned her a cult following among small groups of "retro" personal computer enthusiasts, as well as broad respect among the insular world of the original computer hackers who created the first personal computers three decades ago. (The term "hacker" first referred to people who liked to design and create machines, and only later began to be applied to people who broke into them.)

    This column actually notes the distinction between hackers and crackers, well, sort-of... Anyway it sure is refreshing!

    Now if only we could come up with different words for good lawyers and bad lawyers. How about Clawyers?

  • Told you So (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dshaw858 (828072) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:41PM (#11139463) Homepage Journal
    Yes, I know it's a tiny bit off topic, but I wanted to reinforce something that seemed to be overlooked. In a previous Slashdot article, everyone was wondering how to get kids into tech, and how important it is to push extra (and internal) curricular activities at school. I said that that wasn't necessary [slashdot.org], and this story goes to prove it. I gotta say, this is a really interesting read... what I wonder is how much more she could have done if she had gone to college and been an electrical engineering major...

    - dshaw
  • by creimer (824291) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:42PM (#11139468) Homepage
    The C64 was based on the 6502 processor. So was the Apple ][. Maybe someone will come out with an Apple ][ in a joystick. If Apple was really smart, they would put an Apple ][ inside an IPod.

    The problem with the IPod, you can't claim that your joystick is bigger than anyone else's joystick. :P
  • by narcolept (741693) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:43PM (#11139489)
    Actually, you are right if you are discussing the same device I linked to. If you're talking about the Commodore 64 emulator that this thread is about, I don't know about the legalities involved with C64 roms, due to them being atleast 20 years old or so. It would be interesting if someone could shed some light on legal issues that Miss Ellsworth could possibly face regarding this, if any?
  • by jellomizer (103300) * on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:48PM (#11139544)
    School is only a method of pointing you in the right direction to become educated and if you learned enough they give you a piece of paper that says you have learned stuff. If it weren't for regulations in such areas almost every job could possibly be done by a person who never graduated from high school or college. A person who is motivated enough will learn without the need of school. They can go the the library them self and learn information. They can read stories about how other people did things, they can educate themselves without the need for school.

    I would like to think school is more a Map to show you were you can go for success. But just like driving on the road you don't always need a Map common since and some exploring will help you get to your location as well, sometimes (usually) a little longer then normal but sometimes a lot quicker. As well with schooling like driving with a Map if you don't know where you are or where you are going the Map is useless.

    That said dropping out of school is still often a bad idea, because while you may get there by chance if you had a better education it will give you at least basic directions to start out on, training people with good research skills and the ability to learn for themselves.
  • Re:NO way (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mekkab (133181) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:58PM (#11139645) Homepage Journal
    There is a world of difference, the former is impossible, the latter is trivial.

    How is it impossible to be a self-taught chip designer? There are these books like "Principles of CMOS VLSI Design" (Weste, Eshrahian) that are used to TEACH people how do design these chips! Cedra and Smith is another good one for learnin' about transistors and semiconductors.

    I'm not saying you can set up a chip-fab in your closet but you can learn all this stuff.
  • by Desert Raven (52125) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:02PM (#11139694)
    Actually, the one thing that's keeping her from raking in the really big bucks is also what's protecting her.

    She's doing the design as a contractor.

    It's the companies who are making and selling them that will have to take the big risk of lawsuit. By legal standards, she's just a hired gun.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:04PM (#11139707)
    Laser made an Apple II based handheld 14 or 15 years ago. I can't be certain but I think it was called a PC4. No floppy drive, but it did have some basic word processing / spreadsheet apps and a basic editor. Ran forever on 2 AAs.

    For some reason I think it had a phone tone emulator too.
  • Re:text! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by iocat (572367) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:09PM (#11139766) Homepage Journal
    Jerri rules. All you have to do is see her at Classic Gaming Expo [cgexpo.com], or Vintage Computer Festival [vintage.org], to know she's got more passion than just about anyone there.

    At CGE this year she practically bowled over a kid on her way to see Al Alcorn [wikipedia.org], who I guess she hadn't met yet. It was awesome.

  • C-One (Score:4, Interesting)

    by FiSHNuTZ (213853) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:12PM (#11139807)
    I really think that it's worth mentioning Jeri's other much more interesting and complicated project, the C-One. If you think the C64 joystick/computer is amazing, take a look at the C-One and you should be substantially more impressed:

    http://c64upgra.de/c-one/ [c64upgra.de]
  • Re:just think (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bedouin (248624) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:26PM (#11139959)
    Just think what Ms. Ellsworth could have achieved with a proper education.

    A four to six year delay (depending on if she wanted to pursue a MA/MS) in doing what she really wanted to do, only to work as a code monkey in a cubicle? $100k in debt? If she went to school this likely wouldn't have happened for her.

    She's done something pretty practical, that exemplifies she has some skills most people don't. That's worth way more than some printed scraps of paper with her name on it. This is coming from an overeducated bastard, by the way.
  • by NullProg (70833) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:37PM (#11140123) Homepage Journal
    I always wished I could have had another woman to look up and admire for their technical achievements.

    You mean to say you've never heard of Grace Hopper? Hell I'm male and she's one of my favorite inspirations:

    Grace Hopper [sdsc.edu]

    Enjoy,
  • by inkswamp (233692) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:46PM (#11140224)
    well-funded and well-staffed corporate design teams dominate chip design

    One only need to have been part of one of these mythical "well-funded and well-staffed" corporate teams (or to know someone who has been part of one) to know that the garage-based tech hobbyist is nowhere near extinction. High-power staffing and funds are nothing--NOTHING--next to the power of a real vision. A single person with a great idea and a little know-how can lay waste to any corporate team. Don't get so caught up with the corporate facade that you start to doubt it. Watch how many little companies with great ideas that corporations buy up. They do it so regularly that it hardly makes the news anymore. The real ideas aren't coming out of boardroom discussions.

    And remember that IBM was once the indomitable corporate force and Apple and Microsoft were the little start-ups. That's why people who talk about how Linux won't change anything make me laugh. I don't even use Linux, not even a big fan of it, and I know it has yet to make its biggest impact. That's how this stuff works. Give it time. History repeats itself.

  • by BigZaphod (12942) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:53PM (#11140310) Homepage
    I love this story, but I have to wonder something here... Didn't the C64 come with schematics? I don't remember for sure, but I know that computers of that era commonly came with them or had them available. If that is the case, did she really reverse engineer it or was it most of a... "hmm.. I have schematics, I can understand them, how about I just translate them to an FPGA and see if I can make it go?"

    Even if that was the case, she still deserves props for thinking of doing it in the first place and then making it happen. I don't mean to make light of her accomplishments or anything.

    Consults Google... Yep, there were schematics available. here [ibiblio.org] is one place to see them.
  • by 3Suns (250606) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:59PM (#11140371) Homepage
    I think what the parent post was trying to say was that the "proper education" would be one besides our current system, that provides extra resources to smart and inventive people who want to experiment and learn on their own.

    Yeah, you might be able to argue that struggling to make it on her own drove her (and people like her) to excel, but there are definitely many untested and experimental methods of education geared toward the very talented in hopes of boosting their potential.

    Unfortunately, our current educational systems (public and most private schools included) are focused almost entirely on raising the lower bound of aptitude, rather than pay any attention on the best and brightest.
  • by Guppy06 (410832) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:30PM (#11140697)
    "To read their news for free just for filling in some info seems like a generous trade."

    So they turn off the ads after you register?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:55PM (#11140960)
    There were no "schematics" for the chips inside the computer, which, after all, are the real brains of the system.

    The fact that she reverse engineered the 6510, the 6567 (VIC-II) video chip, the 6581 SID chip, the 6526 CIA chips, and the the C64's PLA chip is nothing short of amazing. If she had done nothing else at all, she would deserve our wonder and praise.

    - Bo Zimmerman
    (Moderator, C1 Mailing List)
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/commodoreone
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @06:23PM (#11141237)
    Exactly, Look at the Altiar 8800. Developed by a small company called MITS and look how big that turned out to be.

    There was nothing quite like it at the time.
    It still was a starting point for the garage engineer. It changed how people viewed technology(from being evil and bureaucratic) and showed people that home computing COULD be done, you no longer needed acces to a university with a DEC/IBM $100,000+ machine.

    The community that was built on the altiar(mainly homebrew computer club) upheld the hacker ethic like nothing else. If it wasn't for these guys, I don't think home computing or open source would have quite turned out the same, I don't think it would have strived as it has.

    ~MR (not cool enough to have a /. account)
  • Re:Bills Gates, too. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by telemonster (605238) on Monday December 20, 2004 @07:15PM (#11141738) Homepage
    It is rumored Bill's parents had connections with IBM, which led to the contract for MS-DOS. It's all in who you know.

  • Re:impossible? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @07:26PM (#11141838)
    > ... if you think that designing things in VHDL is as simple as programming in C you need a clue.

    Just what I was thinking. If you read a book on VHDL, then you may well get the impression that chip design with VHDL is easy, but what most VHDL books neglect to mention is that most of VHDL's high-level features are only meant for simulation and test-benches, and that such features aren't supported by the tools that actually program the chips. After personally having this painful revelation about a year ago, and having had to throw away my nice simple VHDL code, which worked fine in simulation, but couldn't be programmed into firmware, I personally ended up ditching VHDL, and now concentrate on schematic entry instead (ie. drawing logic circuit diagrams).

    Note that synchronous logic design requires a completely diferent way of thinking about things than traditional computer programing. In computer programming, even with threads, you have at most a few linear sequences of operations, with each step of the sequence of instructions starting the moment that the last one finishes. In logic design, on the other hand, one usually has thousands or millions of gates all simultaneously doing something on every single clock tick. These operations are all synchronized to the clock, not to the moment when a previous gate finishes doing its thing. In normal computer programming, the code does exactly what you tell it to, due to the skill of the CPU designers. In logic design, unanticipated delays or unintentional asynchronous design can make a seemingly simple and well behaved circuit behave completely non-deterministically.

    I am personally in awe of somebody who can build the system described in the article, and have it work reliably.
  • by jd (1658) <imipak&yahoo,com> on Monday December 20, 2004 @08:34PM (#11142431) Homepage Journal
    Women have been geeks, nerds and even corporate bosses, for all of recorded history and probably far earlier than that.


    Here is a moderately comprehensive index of women scientists [ua.edu] throughout history. Some names are linked to biographies.


    The woman who commands most of my respect, geek-wise, was Mary Annings. She discovered her first new species of dinosaur at age 12, and a second at age 20. She made a living collecting
    (and extracting as necessary) fossils, which she sorted and indexed. It is said that she inspired the tounge-twister "she sells sea-shells by the sea shore". Anyone who can run their own business at age 12, AND make enough to feed herself and her siblings, AND have enough time to recognise a new discovery, is deserving of enormous respect.


    There are two women in history I respect as leaders. Margret Thatcher, although I despised her policies, has few equals when it comes to getting things done.


    However, Britain has had one female ruler who was stonger still. Bodicca (also known as Queen Bodaccea) was betrayed, abused, molested and torured and her father (the King at the time) was savagely murdered in front of her. The tribe she belonged to (the Icini) were scattered and - if caught - butchered. She managed to gather the survivors up, get herself accepted as ruler, turn them into a near-invincible fighting force, and kicked the Imperial Roman army very nearly out of Britain entirely. Most British currancy today bears the figure of a woman in iron-age battle-dress. This figure is derived from the historical Bodicca. Even the legend of "Robin Hood" hasn't had that kind of a grasp on society.


    To me, it seems obvious that women have been significant in many disciplines, throughout history. It begs the question of how much further along society could have been if more had been encouraged. Given the sheer number of names on the list, it also begs the question of why feminists are NOT pointing to such an established, proven history to push for greater equality. The future isn't known, but the past is.

  • Interesting link (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @08:54PM (#11142569)
  • by multipartmixed (163409) on Monday December 20, 2004 @10:59PM (#11143586) Homepage
    Obviously, I don't know squat about the desgin of THIS unit, but I *am* familiar with the C64's design!

    Why in God's name would you emulate the tape drive as a means to load software?

    It would be one hell of a lot easier to just have the program loader (you know, the piece that lets you pick what game in the joystick you want to play) swap in the right bank of ROM (for a cartridge game), or RAM image, point the virtual 6502's program pointer at the right place (or just twiddle the magic address up there in page $FF and "hit" the "reset" line) and boom! Software running, no extra crap in the way. And you can use the tape buffer. :)

    The "live image" for disk-based, copy-protected games could be scooped easily from a running C64, using.. oh what the hell was it called.. there was some cartridge, possibly by Epyx, where you hit the reset button and BOOM! It dumped RAM to disk, including the position of the program counter, so you could restore saved games in games which didn't save.

    Damn, why can't I remember the name of that cart?

    Anyhow. You'd think it would be more worthwhile making save-to-disk games work (whoever heard of save to tape??!) by backing up data to RAM... you could probably get away with just writing some custom code and point the kernel jump table at it.. I'd be willing to bet that most games (even heavily copy-protected ones) didn't bother doing anything fancy when *writing* to disk. The "proper" kernel API for disk I/O would be trivial to emulate.
  • Re:Explain this (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 21, 2004 @12:05AM (#11144073)
    She was designing boards and FPGAs and getting some press. So somebody approached her about making a cheap toy version of her stuff.

    It happens. For example the guy below was making a 2600 FPGA and was bought out:

    http://protectedfromreality.com/2600OnAChip/

    In my experience an ASIC designer doesn't get anywhere near the fabs unless they request to get a tour.

    Typical ASIC designers don't ever get access the physical database for the chips they are working on, this is done by "back-end" people. For example many people go to Faraday when the are planning to fab chips at UMC. There are companies that perform FPGA to gate array conversions. (BTW, if you see the words "Structured ASIC" think gate array.)

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