Car culture in the U.S. and Europe

Door mux op maandag 28 juli 2014 12:00 - Reacties (24)
Categorie: -, Views: 8.874

A video published yesterday of a car plowing through the San Diego Zombie Walk at ComicCon caused immense controversy on reddit and other social media sites. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that: this accident is a great example of American car culture. And of European car culture. Here we go.

Here's what happened. During the past weekend, San Diego was flooded with all the weird and wonderful people that like comics, animated series, cosplaying and such fun things. Central San Diego was pretty much on lockdown; roads near the event grounds were closed to accomodate the huge daily in- and efflux of convention attendees and most other roads were also pretty much clogged up with pedestrians. To add to the traffic, as per tradition every year a Zombie Walk was organized. People in zombie outfits walked (or Rascalled) a couple blocks through the city center to show their undeadness to the world.

Then came a deaf driver who probably hadn't seen this happen at all in his life. He needed to be somewhere, but in his way was this Zombie Walk. So first he stopped about a foot in front of the crosswalk, honked his horn to signify that he wanted to go through - but with this kind of mass of people that kind of fell on deaf ears. Punny.

So he inched his way through the mass of zombies, and people started to be a bit aggravated by his shenanigans. They started touching his car and eventually sitting on the bonnet. That's when the driver saw flashes of the coming zombie jesus apocalypse, hit the gas and ran over a couple of people to get to where he had to be. Understandable, right?
The controversy
To me, as a Dutch citizen and part of our culture, it's absolutely unimaginable to even start thinking that any aspect of what this car driver did is acceptable. Around here, it's engrained in law and culture that you never endanger weaker traffic participants. A great deal of our infrastructure is based on this implicit assumption that nobody in their right mind would even start running over a pedestrian or cyclist, even if that person really hates zombies and the pedestrian is dressed up like a zombie. Here's an example of such a construction for cyclists:
(funnily enough; this is actually a picture from Belgium) Cyclists at an intersection get positioned in front of all motorized traffic so that they get priority on the intersection and motorized traffic cannot intercept or surprise them in any way

If you ask anyone here, that driver at the Zombie Walk is 100% guilty of attempted murder with a deadly weapon or at least the highest degree of hit and run. He clearly had lots of room to back up and wait for the crowd to disperse and he clearly didn't have any reasonable opportunity to drive forward. The angry reaction of the pedestrians and their touching of the car was possibly threatening and not very nice, but expectable for somebody honking their horn and forcing their way through a crowd of squishy bags of meat with a 2-ton motorized lump of metal.

But then I look on reddit and see... Lots of people defending the driver! Comments range from (quotes from Reddit):
Maybe im fucked up, but this was justice for me. Just fuckin let the guy pass, it won't take up more than 10 seconds of your time. Then that fuck sitting on the front of the car ughhh. Fuck these people.
You don't drive your car into people. How is there any debate here?
Controversy all around, with almost a down-the-middle split of people who either (partially) condone or dismiss the driver's actions.
Why? It's a culture thing
This is a great example in my opinion of the difference between American and European car culture. First of all, let me be clear that this isn't some black and white thing. This isn't a wrong and right thing. It's just a big difference in how we view traffic.

I live in the Netherlands, we have an exceptionally pervasive pedestrian and cyclist culture and everybody who drives a car is probably also a cyclist and/or pedestrian at least a couple times a week. Everybody understands each other's movement patterns and grasps how we need to treat each other on the road. Not all of Europe has such a large cyclist and pedestrian movement necessarily. And we move a lot for being such a small country; we have a great big car culture as well. The Dutch travel on average about 15 000 km per year in a car - depending on which US state you live in that is actually more than American car use. And we own more cars per household than the U.S. And we have waaaay more car infrastructure per square kilometer. We also drive faster on average. The stereotype of Americans doing everything in their car and being absolutely car-mad isn't actually true; we trump you in most respects.

But what makes American car culture so unique, is that it is absolutely car-centric. A pedestrian or cyclist is viewed as fundamentally less of a traffic participant. They should always make way for cars. Infrastructure is made with cars and only cars in mind; with pedestrian crossings used sparingly and with cyclists being forced into the fringes almost everywhere. And this is really what the comments on Reddit and other social media sites exemplify; a completely different way of thinking about traffic.

And this really stems from the fact that Americans are often almost exclusively car drivers and nothing else. Bikes are used by enviro-nutters (and cycling is very dangerous), walking is for going next door and nothing else. There's much less of an opportunity for empathy if you don't regularly experience the mechanics of other forms of transportation.
I'd like to conclude with the remark that this isn't all I necessarily have to say on the matter. This is just one aspect of this incident that I thought was interesting to highlight. The rest of the incident is just another news story; mildly interesting now, but will be readily forgotten once the next thing comes along.

There's still one more issue, and that is driver ed(ucation). It's well known that the U.S. standards for driver's exams are pretty low, especially compared to the Netherlands or even more extremely Denmark or Finland. Some comments highlight this, saying that the driver maybe isn't aware that pedestrians always have the right of way even if they are jaywalking (which is also true around here - I always like to say that all of the traffic infrastructure is a legal place for pedestrians). Also, the driver was honking his horn, which should only ever be done to signify immediate and significant danger. Clearly, the driver was not in danger. It's also very strange that he would think (presumably) that it would be faster to drive through the crowd than to let it pass and THEN drive on, because after the incident he had to talk to police and wait around for many hours before he got to go. The Zombie Walk only took about 15 minutes to pass.

But again, this isn't particularly interesting to me. I just wanted to talk about culture and how it fundamentally shapes our thoughts. It makes the difference between having the opinion that something should be charged as manslaughter with a big jail sentence or a civil offense with a small fine.

ASRock Q87TM-ITX and B85TM-ITX 'review'

Door mux op vrijdag 11 juli 2014 19:46 - Reacties (9)
Categorie: -, Views: 18.689

Now this is thoroughly interesting. I have a motherboard that has been announced but isn't in stores yet, with the UEFI of a motherboard that hasn't even been announced yet. I have no idea why the dear Hardware Gods have given me this crystal ball view into the future, but I am here to share all the details with you.

So this is something totally different for once. I usually do electronic design engineering; I design things like VRMs and consumer electronics. I have even dabbled in computer hardware design since my previous blogs were so successful. But I never got early hardware - from anyone, really. Even hardware OEMs that ask me to do engineering for them never give me any preproduction hardware; they are extremely protective of everything they do. I realize that I am probably going to be phoned or e-mailed by ASRock today, because I am going to spoil their marketing somewhat. I have something they haven't announced yet. But who in their right mind wouldn't jump on this opportunity?

How this happened

Earlier this week one of my earlier builds - Fikki3 - started acting up. Well, it has been acting up for a while; it's now a pretty old Core i3 530 and it is struggling with modern video codecs (Youtube/Twitch playback) and has essentially zero graphical power. It's aging and needs to be replaced. Having much less time nowadays to do mods, I decided to make a stock system based on the ASRock B85M-ITX which I have tested about four months ago to be one of the most power efficient motherboards out there.

I was to combine this motherboard with a Haswell Pentium and Maxwell (Geforce 750/750Ti) graphics card to create a sub-15W (idle) gaming machine with muscle to spare.

So I looked around in the second hand market to see if I could score one of these boards for cheap; I succeeded. I found an advertisement with a B85M-ITX for €30+postage. That's a steal for such a nice board.

When I got the board in today I noticed the package was remarkably thin. Part of this was because it was quite badly packaged, but it was mostly down to the board not actually being a B85M-ITX. It was a B85TM-ITX. Note the extra 'T' in the name.

The TM-ITX is for Thin Mini-ITX, a motherboard specification for small, extra thin motherboards that fit inside one of those all-in-one chassis. I have a long-standing love for these boards. I was very excited.

But wait, I discussed about this board around about the writing of my Best Buy Guide (BBG) 4 months ago, and back then it was only just announced at CeBIT. Usually these boards don't come out until at least half a year later; it took the B85 non-thin ITX board more than half a year to arrive from the moment it was announced. So I did a quick Google search and yes, it isn't actually available yet. This motherboard does not exist. So what is it like?

Around the B85TM-ITX

I'm sorry for the slightly crooked photos. This is the board. It's very interesting. Not because of the particular components on it, or anything else immediately obvious. No, there's something more subtle going on. Look at the text on the board that says 'B85TM-ITX', just under the SODIMM slots. Doesn't that look.. off to you? The color is different. Is that a sticker?

Why yes it is. This is actually an H81TM-ITX PCB. And now that I look at them side by side - that doesn't seem far off. The H81TM-ITX is basically identical; the only differences are that:
  • The DC/DC converter under the mPCIe slot is populated
  • The USB 3.0 internal header is populated
  • Slightly different MOSFET component choice (although this can just as well be a board revision change
I've had a play around with the H81TM-ITX before, and it was a pretty nice board, although not at all power efficient. I'm amazed they use one of their least power efficient designs for the thin ITX market. In my tests the H81TM-ITX in idle used a bit over 15W DC (or about 19W AC with a decent power adapter) and the B85TM-ITX is absolutely no different. It's a power hog as far as low-power boards go. To give you some insight into the actual state of art: a decent mini-ITX Haswell board shouldn't go over 6 or 7W DC nowadays - or about 10-12W AC with a PicoPSU and decent power adapter. Needless to say; this is just accounting for the bare minimum setup: the board, a processor+HSF, some memory and an SSD.

Anyway, looking around the board I can't really spot any differences with the basic H81TM-ITX. It still sports the same ALC892 audio codec for sound, with it seems slightly lower quality coupling caps, although again this can be a revision change:

The network connection has an Intel i218-LM Gigabit Ethernet controller/PHY instead of the i217V on the H81TM-ITX. Wait, why? Why an LM chipset? Those are literally only used if you want vPro, otherwise the -V chips are way cheaper... Hm, this is a weird board:

HDMI/DVI is driven by the ASMedia ASM1442, which is the first chip I saw with a datecode: 1332, or the 32nd week of 2013. This indeed confirms that this is not a new design and they did just put a sticker over the H81TM-ITX and called it a day:

And the 'Super' I/O - jeez, these things are almost completely redundant now - is filled in by our good friend Nuvoton with their NTC5573D:

The CPU VRM is a Richtek RT8889A, which is a budget VR12.2 3-phase controller - kind of surprising for a low power board, but this is probably also why it's not actually power efficient at all:

On the bottom side, there's really not that much to see. Just a Chronotel LVDS driver (and an ST RS232 driver):

And a Realtek ALC109 headphone amp:

So... this is kind of a letdown. It's just a H81TM-ITX with extremely minor changes. Well, I was a bit disappointed until I took off the heatsink from the chipset and...

Around the B85TM-ITXQ87TM-ITX

So... ? Well, if you look up the S-spec on this chip - SR173 - you will find that this is a Q87 chipset. On a board with a B85 sticker over an H81 silkscreen. This just keeps getting juicier. Because whereas the B85TM-ITX was already announced, the Q87TM-ITX hasn't yet.

And now things start to fall in place. That i218-LM vPro ethernet controller doesn't belong on the B85 chipset. B85 doesn't support vPro, but Q87 does. This is actually a Q87TM-ITX board. Or maybe some weird Frankenstein board where they took a production H81TM-ITX and slapped on a Q87 chipset and i218LM - I don't know.

But what really stands out to me is the fact that the date codes on this board are all roughly the summer of 2013. Almost a year old. Why would they wait a whole year, wasting most of Haswell's release cycle, before releasing a board that apparently is so incredibly easy to make? So many questions!

Anyway, conclusions are for later. Now let's fire the board up and look at the BIOS. Yep, there it is. This is a Q87TM-ITX:

With UEFI version 0.0.1L, that's very beta. Interestingly though, it works pretty well. Like the H81TM-ITX, the board has fucked up ACPI tables that cause the CPU never to enter package C3/C6/C7, but this is a fairly widespread phenomenon with many motherboard vendors. I've had the same issues with a Biostar Hi-Fi B85N 3D; a friend of mine even tried to report the issue with them but this never really led to a BIOS update. Anyway, I'm rambling.

The only other slightly interesting thing I came across was a mention of wireless functionality; I assume this has to do with the miniPCIe slot and some UEFI-level support for wireless network functionality. No other remarkable things to be honest.


I must say, I'm confused and intrigued. This is most of the reason why I am writing this blog post. I actually e-mailed the second hand seller of this motherboard to ask where it is from. He/she replied and said to have gotten it at an inventory auction following ASRock Netherlands B.V.'s pending move from Wijchen to... somewhere else. By the way, ASRock's Dutch office is moving (not sure if this is news, but I can't find it anywhere else).

One of the possibilities is that this board has been sent out a bit early to system integrators, much like the DH61AG was available more than two months in advance for system builders. That way, feedback on the particulars of these boards (especially driver support and electrical interfaces to the LVDS connector, as well as other power-related things) can be figured out before launch.

The board design itself shouldn't really be a surprise. All motherboard manufacturers basically make one PCB and then selectively populate it to create different skews. I am a bit surprised, though, that apparently they don't utilize any Q87 feature on this board other than vPro. No extra SATA ports, no TPM, no second gigabit. Kind of a missed opportunity.

This does, however, enable us to do some educated guesses on pricing. H81TM-ITX differs by the chipset (H81: $26, Q87: $47), ethernet (i217-v: $1.72, i218-LM: $1.92) , a USB 3.0 header (<$0.10) and a licensing cost for vPro. With the street price of H81TM-ITX at €65 currently or €54 without tax, and with about 40% gross margin on these kinds of products, I would expect the Q87TM-ITX to run about (54 + ((47-26)+(1.92-1.72)+0.1)x1.4->EUR) + tax = €92. Possibly a bit more because of the relatively low volume (and subsequent higher margins) on this skew and additional licensing costs. Awesome. I'd love a true DQ77KB-successor!

Waar blijven de x86-zakcomputers?

Door mux op zondag 6 juli 2014 12:00 - Reacties (27)
Categorie: -, Views: 7.041

Het is alweer een tijd geleden dat ik géén techblog heb gemaakt, maar vandaag begin ik met het afwerken van een hele lijst van onderwerpen die ik over de afgelopen anderhalf jaar heb verzameld en waar ik het eens zonder al teveel technisch detail over wil hebben. Eerste onderwerp: waar blijven PC-compatible x86-telefoons?

Stap één: PDAs en de Libretto

Vroeger, ver vóór de smartphonerevolutie, hadden we twee soorten apparaten die in je broekzak pasten waar je redelijkerwijs nuttige taken mee kon doen: iPAQs en Libretto's. Ik zeg hier met opzet iPAQ en niet PDA, en met opzet Libretto en niet zakcomputer, want dit waren in feite de enige serieus succesvolle apparaten in hun genre. Een PDA was min of meer de formfactor die een smartphone vandaag was, maar dan met een resistief touchscreen, vaak een apart toetsenbord en een non-x86-processor. Hierop liep Windows Embedded, later CE, nog later Windows Mobile. Het waren geen echte productiviteitsmachines; ze werden vooral gebruikt zoals 10 jaar daarvoor de Palm Pilots werden gebruikt: voor notities, tekeningen en afspraken. Na verloop van tijd werd ook ondersteuning voor een breed scala aan mobiele radios toegevoegd en kwamen alles-in-één-apparaten zoals de Qtek 9x00 op de markt. Daarmee kon je dan bellen, vaak via snelle interfaces zoals EDGE of 3g internetten en je andere productiviteitstaken doen.

Iedereen was het er wel over eens dat die apparaten vernuftig waren, maar niet veel mensen aanspraken. De interface vereiste continu een pennetje, zelfs wanneer er maar weinig klikbare elementen in beeld waren. Met de vinger was het scherm niet responsief. Zelfs de beste schermen van de tijd waren nauwelijks beter dan het originele iPhone-scherm, behoorlijk kut dus. Ook was het moeilijk om extra functionaliteit toe te voegen, zeker als je dat onderweg wilde doen. Geen centrale applicatiewinkels, sterker nog, het distributiemodel was wat het nu op computers nog steeds is: je moet programma's kopen en downloaden vanaf de website van de producent zelf. En de prijzen waren vaak belachelijk hoog. Office - een hele beperkte versie bestond voor Windows Mobile - kostte je ruim 100 euro (vergelijk dat met Kingsoft Office nu...) en games, hoewel vaak erg goed geport en veel leuker om te spelen dan moderne timewasters (denk aan Worms World Party, SimCity 2000, Red Alert), kostten evenveel als op mobiele gameplatforms zoals de DS en PSP. Er was dan ook een levendige illegale PDA-games-beweging.

Op PDAs was de keuze aan software dus erg beperkt en het draaide bovendien niet al te geweldig. De andere oplossing was dus een laptop ter grootte van wat tegenwoordig ongeveer een 7" tablet is: de Toshiba Libretto's. Dit waren kleine zakcomputers met idioot hogeresolutie-schermen voor de tijd, een batterij die lang meeging (voor die tijd) en teruggeklokte pentium IIs onder de motorkap. Microdrives en onvervangbaar geheugen waren hierin ook de norm, wat betekende dat je in de winkel al meteen goed moest kiezen welk model je wilde. Waar een highend PDA ongeveer 600-900 euro kostte, was een Libretto helemaal gestoord duur: het laatste Pentium 2-model wat ik in de MediaMarkt zag kostte ruim 4000 gulden! Dat was ongetwijfeld het meest highend-model, maar alsnog was dat een goede factor 2 boven een highend desktopcomputer van de tijd, voor aanzienlijk slechtere specificaties. Hoe dan was de Libretto, ook in zijn geüpdatete vorm in 2005, het prototype voor kleine netbooks en ultrabooks.

Ik heb beide apparaten in bezit gehad en droomde al in 2005-6 van wat er tien jaar later wel niet mogelijk zou moeten zijn. Productiviteit én ultramobiliteit in één. De techniek was er *bijna*, dit moet toch mogelijk zijn? Ik had de hoop dat ik net als met mijn PDA op een toekomstig apparaat mijn bluetooth toetsenbord kon pakken en mijn hele scriptie in LaTeX kon schrijven tijdens een treinreis. En ongetwijfeld ook m'n simulaties kon draaien.
Stap 2: Android
En toen kwam Android. Met het vuur onder de kont van Apple kwam het in mijn ogen ideale platform voor telefoons ter wereld. Ja natuurlijk, het was een besturingssysteem gericht op telefoons en de mainstream, maar het was linux! En Linux is linux, toch? Right?

Nou, niet helemaal. In het begin was het nog daadwerkelijk een Linux-kernel met zo goed als open drivers (of iig blobs die op de laatste kernels pasten) en kon je er dus prima Linux + Wine op draaien. En dat werd ook uitgebreid gedaan op XDA - alle telefoons en PDAs met Android die ik in 2007-2009 kende hadden binnen enkele dagen na release al een Ubuntu-download beschikbaar. Het leek dus de goede kant op te gaan. Nog even wachten en ik kon mijn ultieme zakcomputer hebben.
Stap 3: ???
Wat hierna is gebeurd weet ik niet, maar het beste wat ik in de tussentijd heb gezien is een virtualisatiemachine - buiten de officiele app store - die extreem traag Windows kan draaien. Of andere brakheden zoals Firefox OS. Om de een of andere reden gaat iedereen er vanuit dat de enige weg voorwaarts een dumbing-down van de interface is. Features worden weggehaald in plaats van toegevoegd, de interface wordt compleet onbruikbaar gemaakt voor het tonen van informatie. Kijk naar een moderne telefoon: ondanks dat ik een Wacom-digitizer en een extreem precies pennetje op mijn HD beeldscherm heb, zijn alle iconen en klikbare gebieden op mijn scherm vele honderden pixels breed en wordt met zogenaamd 'responsive design' ervoor gezorgd dat elk laatste beetje functionaliteit gestript wordt van content.

Zelfs Tweakers heeft nu een nutteloze interface voor telefoons, waarop je alleen een paar iconen (zonder tekst! wtf!) bovenin beeld en daaronder over de volle breedte van de telefoon artikelteksten krijgt. Hallo, ik heb 2 miljoen pixels op mijn scherm en 15/20 zicht en dat wil ik graag gebruiken. Geef me content! Geef me functionaliteit!
De doelgroep
Natuurlijk zijn er weinig mensen die willen wat ik wil. Het is niet verwonderlijk dat er geen LaTeX-compiler in de play store staat. Ik begrijp prima dat het pittig is om Matlab te porten naar Dalvik. En ik begrijp dat een telefoon in eerste plaats een telefoon is en geen PC. But I don't fucking care! Ik wil een zakcomputer!

Onder Android 1.5 was het kinderspel om nieuwe toepassingen te maken of om het OS aan te passen voor werkelijk elke soort hardware. Er zijn mensen die Android hebben geport naar 16/32-bit microcontrollers om zo gemakkelijk snel mooie interfaces te maken op obscure devboards. Destijds waren er mensen die Windows Mobile op hun televisie zetten (zolang er een compatibele processor in zat) en op die manier een bijzonder effectieve interface hadden voor file management en zelfs video en audio konden afspelen vanaf hun NAS zonder tussenkomst van PVR.

Waar ik naartoe wil is dat dit veel moeilijker is geworden nu dat AOSP en Google Android zich zó sterk focussen op telefoons en tablets. Er is een lijn uitgezet richting een toekomst zonder productiviteitsmachines, dus het wordt steeds moeilijker en moeilijker om iets te kunnen met je telefoon. En juist de niche-toepassingen zijn waar inventiviteit tiert en hele nieuwe paradigma's of zelfs hele nieuwe klassen apparaten worden uitgevonden. Geef mensen een sandbox en ze doen binnen de kortste keren dingen die niemand had verwacht.

Doordat er met zulke tunnelvisie wordt gedacht aan alleen telefoons en tablets hebben we het voor elkaar gekregen om na ruim 7 jaar smartphonerevolutie nog steeds 99% van de productiviteitssoftware te missen op mobiele platforms. Zelfs als ik zou willen kan ik maar met grote moeite iets nuttigs doen op mijn telefoon. En vergeet niet; de telefoon is meer dan capabel. Ik heb een inmiddels 2 1/2 jaar oude telefoon, maar desondanks is hij al sneller dan iedere computer die ik vóór 2006 had en kan hij alle software die ik zou willen draaien, met gemak draaien als het ervoor beschikbaar was. Het is geen technisch probleem.
Wat wil ik nou?
Telefoons en tablets - en toekomstige wearable en portable devices - zullen voorlopig gewoon doorgaan in het draaien van content-consumptiesoftware en games, dat lijkt me duidelijk. Ze zullen het steeds langer doen op de batterij en steeds sneller worden, mobiele interfaces zullen beter worden, maar dat is ongeveer hoe ver de creativiteit van de huidige marktpartijen lijkt te gaan.

Ik zie dan ook maar één oplossing voor het fiksen van mijn on-the-road-productiviteitsprobleem: x86. Echte x86 met EFI en Windows-compatible drivers. Windows en x86 is de rode draad door de geschiedenis van productiviteitssoftware, dus wanneer ik een telefoon heb met zulke hardware kan ik alles draaien wat in de afgelopen 30 jaar is gemaakt. En waar compatibiliteitslagen van Android/iOS naar Windows momenteel nog superbrak zijn, is het kinderspel om Android- en iOS-applicaties onder Windows te draaien via goed onderhouden emulatoren. Ik kan alles doen wat ik wil zonder overgeleverd te zijn aan de telefoonfabrikanten, OS-onderhouders of app-programmeurs.

Dit. Einde.