Ask Hackaday: What Can Only A Computer Do?

It is easy to apply computers to improve things we already understand. For example, instead of a piano today, you might buy a synthesizer. It looks and works — sometimes — as a piano. But it can also do lots of other things like play horns, or accompany you with a rhythm track or record and playback your music. There’s plenty of examples of this: word processors instead of typewriters, MP3 players instead of tape decks, and PDF files instead of printed material. But what about something totally new? I was thinking of this while looking at Sonic Pi, a musical instrument you play by coding.

But back to the keyboard, the word processor, and the MP3 player. Those things aren’t so much revolutionary as they are evolutionary. Even something like digital photography isn’t all that revolutionary. Sure, most of us couldn’t do all the magic you can do in PhotoShop in a dark room, but some wizards could. Most of us couldn’t lay out a camera-ready brochure either, but people did it every day without the benefit of computers. So what are the things that we are using computers for that are totally new? What can you do with the help of a computer that you absolutely couldn’t without?

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Growing Up With Computers

My son is growing up with computers. He’s in first grade, and had to list all of the things that he knows how to do with them. The list included things like mousing around, drawing ghosts with the paint program, and — sign of the times — muting and unmuting the microphone when he’s in teleconferences. Oh yeah, and typing emojis. He loves emojis.

When I was just about his age, I was also getting into computers. But home computers back then were in their early years as well. And if I look back, I’ve been getting more sophisticated about computers at just about the same pace that they’ve been getting more sophisticated themselves. I was grade school during the prime of the BASIC computers — the age of the Apple II and the C64. I was in high school for the dawn of the first Macs and the Amiga. By college, the Pentiums’ insane computational abilities just started to match my needs for them to solve numerical differential equations. And in grad school, the rise of the overclockable multi-cores and GPUs powered me right on through a simulation-heavy dissertation.

We were both so much younger then.

When I was a kid, they were playthings, and as a grownup, they’re powerful tools. Because of this, computers have never been intimidating. I grew up with computers.

But back to my son. I don’t know if it’s desirable, or even possible, to pretend that computers aren’t immensely complex for the sake of a first grader — he’d see right through the lie anyway. But when is the right age to teach kids about voice recognition and artificial neural networks? It’s a given that we’ll have to teach him some kind of “social media competence” but that’s not really about computers any more than learning how to use Word was about computers back in my day. Consuming versus creating, tweeting versus hacking. Y’know?

Of course every generation has its own path. Hackers older than me were already in high-school or college when it became possible to build your own computer, and they did. Younger hackers grew up with the Internet, which obviously has its advantages. Those older than me made the computers, and those younger have always lived in a world where the computer is mature and taken for granted. But folks about my age, we grew up with computers.

Lego Gaming Computer Case

Lego isn’t the first material that springs to mind when you think about building a new gaming computer case, but it does make sense when you think about it. It is easy to work with, can be easily reconfigured, and it’s pretty cheap. That’s the idea behind this very cool (no pun intended) gaming computer case build by [Mike Schropp]. Built around a Skylake i7 CPU and an NVidia 980 Ti graphics card, his build has an unusual X-shaped design that allows for plenty of airflow. The sides of the X hold the CPU cooler, the power supply, the hard drives and the graphics card cooler, so each of them has its own separate flow of cool air from the outside. That avoids the common problem of hot air from one component being passed over another, so it doesn’t get cooled properly. Critically for a gaming system, this design keeps all of the components much cooler than a more traditional case, which makes for more overclocking potential.

At the moment, [Mike] says he is struggling to keep up with the demand for people who want to buy custom versions of his build, but he is planning to release the details soon. “Initially that will probably be in the form of a DIY kit, where you can buy the plans with all the Lego bricks needed for the build, in a kit form” he told us. “Then you can add your own computer components to complete your build. At some point I’ll probably also just offer the plans themselves and allow the end-user to acquire the Lego bricks needed.”

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My Payphone Runs Linux

For the 20th anniversary of the Movie “Hackers” [Jamie Zawinski], owner of DNA Lounge in San Francisco, threw an epic party – screening the movie, setting up skating ramps and all that jazz. One of the props he put up was an old payphone, but he didn’t have time to bring it alive. The one thing he didn’t want this phone to do was to be able to make calls. A couple of weeks later, he threw another party, this time screening “Tank Girl” instead. For this gathering he had enough time to put a Linux computer inside the old payphone. When the handset is picked up, it “dials” a number which brings up a voice mail system that announces the schedule of events and other interactive stuff. As usual, this project looked simple enough to start with, but turned out way more complicated than he anticipated. Thankfully for us, he broke down his build in to bite sized chunks to make it easy for us to follow what he did.

This build is a thing of beauty, so let’s drill down into what the project involved:

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UTF-8 – “The Most Elegant Hack”

While it may not look like much, the image above is a piece of the original email where [Ken Thompson] described what would become the implementation of UTF-8. At the dawn of the computer age in America, when we were still using teletype machines, encoding the English language was all we worried about. Programmers standardized on the ASCII character set, but there was no room for all of the characters used in other languages. To enable real-time worldwide communication, we needed something better. There were many proposals, but the one submitted by [Ken Thompson] and [Rob ‘Commander’ Pike] was the one accepted, quite possibly because of what a beautiful hack it is.

[Tom Scott] did an excellent job of describing the UTF-8. Why he chose to explain it in the middle of a busy cafe is beyond us, but his enthusiasm was definitely up to the task. In the video (which is embedded after the break) he quickly shows the simplicity and genius of ASCII. He then explains the challenge of supporting so many character sets, and why UTF-8 made so much sense.

We considered making this a Retrotechtacular, but the consensus is that understanding how UTF-8 came about is useful for modern hackers and coders. If you’re interested in learning more, there are tons of links in this Reddit post, including a link to the original email.

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[Bob] Shows Us How To Make DIY Calendars For Vintage Computer Geeks

nixie-tubes

[Bob Alexander] wrote in to share a hobby of his that we thought was pretty timely considering the new year is quickly approaching. For several years now he has put together a custom calendar for himself, including both dates he finds important along with sweet pictures of vintage computer equipment. Friends and family found his calendars so intriguing that they asked him to make some for them as well.

Each year his stack of calendar requests grew, and he found that no outlet – online or otherwise could produce exactly what he wanted. Instead of settling, he wrote a small application that lets him customize and print calendars to his heart’s content.

We think this is much cooler than buying one at your local bookstore, and we’re guessing that our readers likely agree. If you were creating your own custom calendar, what cool vintage computer hardware would you choose to display? What if you were designing a Hack-a-Day calendar? Let us know in the comments – we’re itching to find something interesting to look at while we count down to New Year’s Eve!

Welcome To The Petacentre

[Cory Doctorow] obtained access to a few data centers that deal in petabyte storage. The demand for data storage and processing doesn’t show any sign of stopping. It’s especially relevant when people need the resources to manage not only things like Google searches, but also email, customer transactions, and in the case of CERN, physics calculations. [Doctorow] drew an interesting conclusion from his experiences with the data centers; any innovation that the petabyte centers work on will eventually drift on down to the ordinary user, in laptop or desktop innovation. The petabyte center is easily duplicated with materials that are available for purchase to the average computer user; the only obstacles are price and space.

[via Boing Boing]