Packing Decimal Numbers Easily

While desktop computers have tons of computing power and storage, some small CPUs don’t have a lot of space to store things. What’s more is some CPUs don’t do multiplication and division very well. Same can be said for FPGAs. So suppose we are going to grab a bunch of three-digit decimal numbers from, say, a serial port. We want to store as many as we can, and we don’t want to do a lot of math because we can’t, it is slow, or perhaps it keeps our processor awake longer and we want to sleep to conserve power. We want a way to pack the numbers as close to the theoretical maximum as we can but with little or no math.

The simple approach is to store the numbers as ASCII. Great for processing since they are probably in ASCII already. If they aren’t, you just add 30 hex to each digit and you are done. That’s awful for storage space, though, since we can store 999 in 10 bits if it were binary and now we are using 24 bits! Storing in binary isn’t a good option, if you play by our rules, by the way. You need to multiply by 10 and 100 (or 10 twice) to get the encoding. Granted, you can change that to two shifts and an add (8x+2x=10x) but there’s no easy way to do the division you’ll have to do for the decode.

Of course, there’s no reason we can’t just store decimal digits. That’s call binary coded decimal or BCD and that has some advantages, too. It is pretty easy to do math on BCD numbers and you don’t get rounding problems. Some CPUs even have specific instructions for BCD manipulation. However, three digits will require 12 bits. That’s better than 24, we agree. But it isn’t as good as that theoretical maximum. After all, if you think about it, you could store 16 distinct codes in 4 bits, and we are storing only 10, so that 6 positions lost. Multiply that by 3 and you are wasting 18 codes.

But there is a way to hit that ten-bit target without doing any math. Its called DPD or densely packed decimal. You can convert three decimal digits into ten bits and then back again with no real math at all. You could implement it with a small lookup table or just do some very simple multiplexer-style logic which means it is cheap and easy to implement in software or onboard an FPGA.

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Nim Writes C Code — And More — For You

When we first heard Nim, we thought about the game. In this case, though, nim is a programming language. Sure, we need another programming language, right? But Nim is a bit different. It is not only cross-platform, but instead of targeting assembly language or machine code, it targets other languages. So a Nim program can wind up compiled by C or interpreted by JavaScript or even compiled by Objective C. On top of that, it generates very efficient code with — at least potentially — low overhead. Check out [Steve Kellock’s] quick introduction to the language.

The fact that it can target different compiler backends means it can support your PC or your Mac or your Raspberry Pi. Thanks to the JavaScript option, it can even target your browser. If you read [Steve’s] post he shows how a simple Hello World program can wind up at under 50K. Of course, that’s nothing the C compiler can’t do which makes sense because the C compiler is actually generating the finished executable, It is a bit harder though to strip out all the overhead yourself.

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Demystifying The ESP8266 With A Series Of Tutorials

If your interest has been piqued by the inexpensive wireless-enabled goodness of the ESP8266 microcontroller, but you have been intimidated by the slightly Wild-West nature of the ecosystem that surrounds it, help is at hand. [Alexander] is creating a series of ESP8266 tutorials designed to demystify the component and lead even the most timid would-be developer to a successful first piece of code.

If you cast your mind back to 2014 when the ESP8266 first emerged, it caused great excitement but had almost no information surrounding it. You could buy it on a selection of modules, but there were no English instructions and no tools to speak of. A community of software and hardware hackers set to work, resulting in a variety of routes into development including the required add-ons to use the ever-popular Arduino framework. Four years later we have a mature and reliable platform, with a selection of higher-quality and well supported boards to choose from alongside that original selection.

The tutorials cover the Arduino and the ESP, as well as Lua and the official SDK. They are written for a complete newcomer, but the style is accessible enough that anyone requiring a quick intro to each platform should be able to gain something.

Our community never ceases to amaze us with the quality of the work that emerges from it. We’ve seen plenty of very high quality projects over the years, and it’s especially pleasing to see someone such as [Alexander] giving something back in this way. We look forward to future installments in this series, and you should keep an eye out for them.

A Real Time Data Compression Technique

With more and more embedded systems being connected, sending state information from one machine to another has become more common. However, sending large packets of data around on the network can be bad both for bandwidth consumption and for power usage. Sure, if you are talking between two PCs connected with a gigabit LAN and powered from the wall, just shoot that 100 Kbyte packet across the network 10 times a second. But if you want to be more efficient, you may find this trick useful.

As a thought experiment, I’m going to posit a system that has a database of state information that has 1,000 items in it. It looks like an array of RECORDs:

typedef struct
{
  short topic;
  int data;
} RECORD;

It doesn’t really matter what the topics and the data are. It doesn’t really matter if your state information looks like this at all, really. This is just an example. Given that it is state information, we are going to make an important assumption, though. Most of the data doesn’t change frequently. What most and frequently mean could be debated, of course. But the idea is that if I’m sending data every half second or whatever, that a large amount isn’t going to change between one send and the next.

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Arduino and Pidgin C++

What do you program the Arduino in? C? Actually, the Arduino’s byzantine build processes uses C++. All the features you get from the normal libraries are actually C++ classes. The problem is many people write C and ignore the C++ features other than using object already made for them. Just like traders often used pidgin English as a simplified language to talk to non-English speakers, many Arduino coders use pidgin C++ to effectively code C in a C++ environment. [Bert Hubert] has a two-part post that isn’t about the Arduino in particular, but is about moving from C to a more modern C++.

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Someone Set us Up the Compiler Bomb

Despite the general public’s hijacking of the word “hacker,” we don’t advocate doing disruptive things. However, studying code exploits can often be useful both as an academic exercise and to understand what kind of things your systems might experience in the wild. [Code Explainer] takes apart a compiler bomb in a recent blog post.

If you haven’t heard of a compiler bomb, perhaps you’ve heard of a zip bomb. This is a small zip file that “explodes” into a very large file. A compiler bomb is a small piece of C code that will blow up a compiler — in this case, specifically, gcc. [Code Explainer] didn’t create the bomb though, that credit goes to [Digital Trauma].

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Forth System-On-Chip Takes Us Back to the 80s

For anyone who has dealt with the programming language Forth, odds are good that you picked it up back in the 80s. Since the language is still in use for many applications, though, you might not have this sort of nostalgic feeling for the language that some might have. For that, though, you might want to try out [Richard]’s implementation which simulates the microcomputers of the 80s using this unique language.

The system has an FPGA-based CPU written in Verilog. It runs on a Nexys-3 board and features PS/2 Keyboard input, a VGA output with a VHDL VT100 terminal emulation module, access to the Flash and onboard SRAM, and a UART. With all of that put together it’s virtually a Forth-based time machine. It’s also extremely well documented even if you’re just curious how it works and aren’t planning on building your own.

The project also includes a CPU simulator written in C which can model the entire computer if you don’t have the hardware for building the actual computer. [Richard] also released everything that you’d need to roll out your own Forth computer on the GitHub page. There are other ways of heading way back to the 1980s, though, like using the quirky Parralax Propeller.