tiny bits of logic in the allgone machine
Wednesday, April 18 2001
Yesterday and today have been warmer, and this has served to improve my mood. Things might be crashing down for others, say, in "the dotcom world," and in "the economy" and especially in "the stockmarket" (though not today). But for me everything seems to be reasonably okay. I might have a drinking habit, but at least I can afford it.
Housemate John's obsessions are entertaining if only for how extremely arbitrary and weird they can be. The other day he popped open the garage door opener remote controller (which is about the size of a pack of cigarettes) and showed me how much wasted space the thing contained. This wasted space was clearly eating at him. He wondered if perhaps there was a way to build a garage door opener remote in such a way that it used a fraction of the space, making it more convenient to carry or perhaps mount into a dashboard. I suggested he look up the integrated circuit (it contained only one, something manufactured by a company called Semefab) and then maybe we could build our own.
Well, he evidently did a whole bunch of research and determined that a company had already made a unit that performed the same function but fit inside a keychain fob. He'd gone and bought one of these small garage door opener transmitters at a nearby retailer for less than the price of a hit of ecstasy. Tonight, though, he pried that unit open and was showing me all the wasted space it contained. Clearly he wasn't going to be satisfied until its functionality could be stuffed into the head of a pin. I told him that it did indeed look as though the opener remote could be made smaller, that if only some Japanese engineer could get a hold of it and do what such engineers have done with CD players, laptop floppy disk drives and the like, then no one would be cursed with such obscene bulkiness ever again. Then I demonstrated to John that even the circuitry in that smaller garage door opener transmitter was primitive in comparison to, say, a hard disk drive controller from 1995. I went upstairs and fetched such a controller card, with its city of squat surface-mounted black semiconductor buildings fed by tiny copper streets threaded between pins so close together they nearly seemed to touch. In comparison, John's remote control transmitter was a dinosaur, based around an old-school 19 pin DIP chip whose pins actually passed all the way through the printed circuit board to widely-spaced copper tracings on the opposite side, far enough apart that I could easily modify it with an obsidian knife and a bronze poker.
John wanted to know what exactly happened inside those low black boxes on the hard drive controller board. So I gave him a crash course on how electrons behave in impure silicon matrices, describing how the extra electrons in silicon with arsenic impurities imparts an "N" quality to some silicon while the lack of electrons in silicon with gallium impurities imparts a "P" quality, and that the interface of a slab of P silicon juxtaposed with a slab of N silicon is what it takes to make simple rectifier, a diode, which allows electricity to pass in only one direction. Two diodes together (either P side to P side or N side to N side but never P side to N side) makes two different kinds of transistors, the NPN or the PNP. Transistors allow electricity applied on one wire to affect electricity flowing on the other two. Combining a couple transistors together, one can make a simple logic gate that can perform a logical OR, AND, NOR, NAND, NOT, or whatever. A couple of these gates can be put together to make a flip-flop or a simple one-bit memory unit. At this point John beamed with understanding. He'd taken all sorts of logic classes as part of his philosophy curriculum in college and he had no trouble thinking in terms of truth tables. When he realized that these black boxes were nothing but miniaturized assemblages of vast truth-table-obeying logical structures, all the mystery evaporated. He was astounded and delighted, partly because it simply wasn't magic anymore.
All this talk about superfluous volume and weight of pocket objects motivated us to examine various other objects one normally puts in one's pocket: a pack of cigarettes, a security swipe fob, and all the fucking keys on my keychain. For the love of God, what the hell was I doing with all those keys? So we both decided to strip off all the unnecessary keys from our keychains, including superfluous house keys. When I was all done, I'd removed numberless bicycle keys, keys from the Shaque, keys from the Dodge Dart, keys from the Punch Buggy Green, and even a key that fits The Club in Bathtubgirl's car. Now my keychain is so light and lean that I fear I won't even notice if I lose it.
In the evening John, Fernando and Farley, as well as this really tall guy named Andre whom they picked up when they drove to San Francisco, all went out to see a movie. Andre seemed to really think I was cool based only on my paintings and my CD collection. "I don't buy CDs anymore," I lamented. "It's all about Napster these days." Then later, while unsuccessfully trying to install Windows NT 4.0 on my main machine, I thought I nuked the drive that had my precious MP3 directory. Happily for me, though, it actually survived.
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