A Compiler in Plain Text Also Plays Music

As a layperson reading about some branches of mathematics, it often seems like mathematicians are just people who really like to create and solve puzzles. And, knowing that computer science shares a lot of its fundamentals with mathematics, we can assume that most computer scientists are also puzzle-solvers as well. This latest project from [tom7] shows off his puzzle creating and solving skills with a readable file which is also a paper, which is also a compiler for C programs, which can also play music.

[tom7] started off with the instruction set for the Intel 8086 processor. Of the instructions available, he wanted to use only instructions which are also readable in a text file. This limits him dramatically in what this file will be able to execute, but also sets up the puzzle. He walks through each of the hurdles he found by only using instructions that also code to text, including limited memory space, no obvious way of exiting the program once it was complete, not being able to jump backward in the program (i.e. looping), and a flurry of other issues that come up once the instruction set is limited in this way.

The result is a sort of C compiler which might not be the most efficient way of executing programs, but it sure is the most effective way of showing off [tom7]’s PhD in computer science. As a bonus, the file can also play an antiquated type of sound file due to one of the available instructions being a call for the processor to interact with I/O. If you want to learn a little bit more about compilers, you can check out a primer we have for investigating some of their features.

Thanks to [Greg] for the tip!

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It’s Time to Finally Figure Out How to Use KiCAD

KiCAD has been making leaps and bounds recently, especially since CERN is using it almost exclusively. However, while many things are the same, just enough of them are different from our regular CAD packages that it’s hard to get started in the new suite.

[Chris Gammell] runs Contextual Electronics, an online apprenticeship program which goes from concept to assembled electronics covering everything in between. To take the course you pay a nominal fee, but [Chris] posted a very excellent ten-part video series made during the last run of classes which you can watch without charge. The videos go through the basics of KiCAD while hitting the major points to consider when designing and manufacturing your electronics.

The project [Chris] chose is a simple circuit that blinks an LED with a 555. The first videos cover navigating KiCAD’s component schematic editor and library system. Next comes creating circuit schematics and component footprint creation. [Chris] covers PCB layout, the generation of Gerber files, and finally ordering the design from OSH Park — the purveyors of purple boards we’ve come to know and love. The series finishes up with simulating the circuit in LTSpice, ordering the parts, and finally soldering and debugging of the board. If all goes correctly you should now have a single blinking LED.

If the bright summer sun is burning your delicate skin, and you’d rather be locked inside with solder fumes, add this to your watch list now!

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Weird Processing Unit only has 4 instructions

[Tomáš], a.k.a. [Frooxius] is playing around with computational theory and processor architectures – a strange hobby in itself, we know – and has created the strangest CPU we’ve ever seen described.

The Weird Processing Unit, or WPU, isn’t designed like the Intel or ARM CPU in your laptop or phone. No, the WPU is a thought experiment in computer design that’s something between being weird for the sake of being weird and throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

The WPU only has four instructions, or attoinstructions, to change the state of one of the 64 pins on the computer – set to logical 1, set to logical 0, invert current state, and halt. These instructions are coded with two bits, and the operand (i.e. the wire connected to the computer) is encoded in another six bits.

These 64 wires are divided up into several busses – eight bit address and control busses make up the lowest 16 bits, a 32-bit data bus has a function akin to a register, and a 16-bit ‘Quick aJump bus’ provides the program counter and attocode memory. The highest bit on the WPU is a ‘jump bit’, implemented for unconditional jumps in code.

We’re not even sure the WPU can even be considered a computer. We realize, though, that’s probably not the point; [Tomáš] simply created the WPU to do something out of the ordinary. It’s not meant to be a real, or even useful, CPU; it’s simply a thought experiment to see what is possible by twiddling bits around.

Tip ‘o the hat to [Adam] for sending this one in.