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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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  • No Reg Required... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:31PM (#11139330)
    The soul-saver strikes again (Karma Free, for your pleasure):

    Reg Free Link [nytimes.com]
  • Yes but... (Score:4, Funny)

    by _PimpDaddy7_ (415866) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:31PM (#11139337)
    is she HOT?
  • text! (Score:2, Informative)

    by ack154 (591432) *
    Enjoy:

    YAMHILL, Ore. - There is a story behind every electronic gadget sold on the QVC shopping channel. This one leads to a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Oregon, which is the home and circuit design lab of Jeri Ellsworth, a 30-year-old high school dropout and self-taught computer chip designer.

    Ms. Ellsworth has squeezed the entire circuitry of a two-decade-old Commodore 64 home computer onto a single chip, which she has tucked neatly into a joystick that connects by a cable to a TV set. Called the Commodo
  • Maybe (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:33PM (#11139354)
    Maybe in 20 years she can design a P75. That will show those corparte giants who is boss.
  • by TrollBridge (550878) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:33PM (#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.

    • 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.
    • Beware the sig (Score:3, Informative)

      by Rufus88 (748752)
      Sadly, all it would take is one lawsuit (ore even the threat thereof) to shut her down.
      -- Just like it happened to this poor sap [tinyurl.com].


      Beware the sig in the parent post. The link is not work-safe, and the context makes it look like it's relevant to the discussion:
    • Bzzzt...wrong (Score:4, Informative)

      by WebCowboy (196209) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:34PM (#11140742)
      It appears that it's properly licensed [64.233.167.104].

      Commodore isn't exactly the big juggernaut it was 20 years ago...I'd venture to say that the owner of the brand is not exactly "well lawyered". Rather than aim to shut her down, I think they gladly paid her for the idea in hopes of finally making money off the brand for the first time in ages.

      Of all the big names of the past I'd say Commodore is the safest bet on the emulation scene. The other big players 20 years ago? Apple, Atari, IBM, perhaps you could include Tandy and TI in there as well. There are still big companies behind all those brands, and in some cases they have demonstrated a willingness to defend their rights to those brands even if they no longer support those old products.

      Jeri's a sharp cookie, she has gotten in on the leading edge of a craze. Those retro joysticks (a lot of them pirate NES knockoffs) are all over the malls this Christmas...it's quite possible they will be a real craze next year. Whether they'll remain popular in the long haul I'm not sure. In any case, the original NY Times article is right, Jeri has all the hallmarks of becoming another Woz or Burell or Dr. Roberts. I'd ventrue to say there'll be more neat stuff to come from here in the future.
  • eureka! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bLindmOnkey (744643) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:34PM (#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:eureka! (Score:3, Informative)

      by Gr33nNight (679837)
      Actually, there has been some Slashdot articles mentioning this exact same device. Its an illegal copy of Nintendos roms, usually at horrible quality.

      Buyer beware
  • by Triumph The Insult C (586706) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:34PM (#11139370) Homepage Journal
    keep your pants on boys ... she's kind of cute [c64upgra.de]
  • NO way (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    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.
    • She is a self-taught FPGA programmer. There is a world of difference, the former is impossible, the latter is trivial.

      I wouldn't call it trivial, but yeah... when I read "Self-Taught Chip Designer", I was surprised.

    • impossible? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by i41Overlord (829913) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:50PM (#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.
    • 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.
    • Re:NO way (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Fizzl (209397)
      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 FP
    • Re:NO way (Score:4, Insightful)

      by metroid composite (710698) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:36PM (#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 Hoi Polloi (522990) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:35PM (#11139391) Journal
    Start rolling out the "She is hot" and "I'd like her to play with my joystick" comments.

    One more thing, can Slashdot's editors please stop whining about NYT's registration? To read their news for free just for filling in some info seems like a generous trade.
    • One more thing, can Slashdot's editors please stop whining about NYT's registration? To read their news for free just for filling in some info seems like a generous trade.

      I don't think the editors care. However, people used to get up in arms about the registration back when slashdot didn't warn people about it. In fact, many people still complain about NYTimes links even with the warning. Your beef is with the complainers, not with the editors.
    • "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?
  • and see what all of the fuss was about.
  • When will someone create a 'joystick' with 30 different kinds of porn, instead of having to use that old 'internet' thing.
  • SHE? (Score:4, Informative)

    by nycsubway (79012) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:37PM (#11139408) Homepage
    She?? did this? That is great! I believe this is the first woman I've heard of who has dropped out of school and started a garage-computer company. I'm not being sexist, but it really is the first time I've heard of it.
  • by suso (153703) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:37PM (#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.
    • by acomj (20611) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:44PM (#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.
      • Not to mention that

        Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin are all owned by Ford;

        Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Oldsmobile, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab are all owned by General Motors; and

        Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, and CSmart are all owned by DaimlerChrysler.

        Also note that many cars are simply re-brands - i.e. the Saab 9-2 is a Subaru Impreza Wagon, the Mazda Tribute is a Ford Escape, etc... and did you know the Subaru Forestor is sold a Chevro

  • 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?

  • Let us hope (Score:5, Insightful)

    by boodaman (791877) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:40PM (#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.

  • 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
  • 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
  • I'd hit it! (Score:4, Funny)

    by beldraen (94534) <chad@montplaisir.gmail@com> on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:44PM (#11139504)
    Oh, wrong site.. Sorry.
  • 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.
    • "I never let my schooling interfere with my education"

      -Mark Twain
    • by Lumpy (12016) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:36PM (#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 acomj (20611) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:52PM (#11139589) Homepage
    What I found interesting about it was that the article hints that you could hook up a keyboard to the device and a drive and have a computer. They keep getting better and better games in these things. Pretty soon PS one in a gamepad.

    Slashdot covered the release of the device here.

    slashdot coverage of the device commodore game device [slashdot.org]
    I discovered..
    (when I submitted the story 12 hours ago .. cough..cough)
  • by michael path (94586) * on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:54PM (#11139615) Homepage Journal
    [NYTimes. You know what that means]

    That they're just making shit up?
  • by jdjdac (703401) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:08PM (#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!!

    • 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,
    • 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
      • by jd (1658)
        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 sh

    • was a woman

      ada lovelace [sdsc.edu]
  • 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]
  • by hal2814 (725639) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:30PM (#11140015)
    With all the girl-geek comments going around, has anyone checked to see if Stroker [lemon64.com] is on the C64 joystick?
  • 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.
    • Yes, schematics of the BOARD were available in the advanced programmer's reference guide.

      But the schematics just show how the board itself is wired up. Yup, this pin of this chip goes to that pin of that chip. You now have about 10% or less of the design. All of the magic happens IN the chips themselves. THAT was the hard part. There is a free core or two for the processor (assuming that it is accurate). However, the sound and video chips are an entirely different story. Those must have been a pain
  • by mc6809e (214243) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:58PM (#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.

  • Explain this (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Billly Gates (198444) on Monday December 20, 2004 @09:45PM (#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.

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