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Work Edition: On Robots in the Mariana Trench, Old OS Reviews and Intel’s Second Biggest Pivot

This post was first sent to my newsletter on May 21st, 2021.
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Welcome to another edition of the work letter :)
Let’s just dive into it. Click the headers to wander off to the original articles.

OS X Reviewed

Sometime earlier this year, the operating system known as Mac OS X aka OS X aka macOS, stepped into its 21st year of existence, marking two decades of steady iterative movement.
That its underpinnings are older, by at least another decade, is story for some other time.
I put this in here, not for the OS itself but for the reviews of the OS, by John Siracusa. From it’s fledgling days, through the first ten releases upto 10.10, John covered it all.
In painstaking detail.
Other folks wrote reviews. John wrote introductory books to each new OS.
Every other line was linked someplace I could learn more.
It meant that everytime, I sat to read and learn from a John Siracusa review, I would have to set aside a couple of days to finish it.

From why spatial interfaces matter, to covering the rise of Webkit (which would soon be the bedrock of the modern web) to kernel changes to single handedly goading Apple into creating a new filesystem for their devices,1 John wrote about it all.

If you want to learn about operating systems and design and how stuff comes together, you owe it to yourself to read John’s chronicles of Apple’s desktop operating system.

And for the curious, yes I have been using Macs (and Mac OS) that long (longer in fact), only to have shifted to Linux in the last couple of years, because I don’t agree with or like the direction Apple seems to be taking it in. I used System 7 and Mac OS 8, then tried the OS X DP2 hotness, got horrified with how agonizingly slow it was and stuck with Mac OS 8 until 10.2 was released in 2002.

Researchers build a swimming robot that works in the Mariana Trench

From the Ars Technica post,

But that may not be entirely necessary, based on a report in today's Nature. In it, a team of Chinese researchers describe adapting hardware so that it could operate a soft-bodied robot in the deep ocean. The researchers then gave the robot a ride 10 kilometers down in the Mariana Trench and showed that it worked.

Mention robots, and for many people, the first thing that comes to mind are the collections of metal and cabling that make up things like the dancing Atlases from Boston Robotics. But over the last decade, plenty of researchers have demonstrated that all that rigid hardware isn't strictly necessary. Soft-bodied robots work, too, and can do interesting things like squeeze through tight spaces or incorporate living cells into their structure.

Intel’s x86 Designs No Longer Limited to Intel on Intel

Intel’s found itself in crises before, but as far as I remember, they’ve made such a daring, bet the company, shift only once before. In the era of the Intel trinity (the mid 80s), they moved from being a memory company, to one that focussed on making CPUs for the then burgeoning micro computer market. This move by one of their spiritual descendants, Pat Gelsinger, brings back to mind the same audacity. Will it yield similar results? Only time will tell.

For the last 20-25 years, Intel has been steadfast in keeping the crown jewels of its product design firmly inside its very protective walls […] limiting use/production for Intel-only use has enabled the company to improve that design with laser focus, manufacturing not-withstanding. Keeping the cores for internal use only means that neither customers nor competitors were able to see the raw design specifications, and for a long time this has enabled Intel to keep key features, such as its branch predictors, away from all but the most prying eyes.

In a twist to the norm, Intel is now set to dissolve those walls keeping its x86 cores it itself.

The key phrase here is ‘core of Intel’s compute offerings’. It could be interpreted in two ways: at the core of a CPU design is a CPU core, which would mean an x86 design unless Intel were to skew away from x86 (unlikely). The other alternative could be an IO chiplet, which is also a ‘core part’ of a compute offering. Paul Alcorn from Tom’s Hardware has confirmed from Intel that the key element here is ‘compute cores’, and although Intel hasn’t specifically said the ISA of those cores, we are set to believe that Intel does indeed mean x86.

This means that other foundries will have access to the floorplans of Intel’s x86 designs, which used to be a big no-no at Intel. […] the fact that Intel is even letting another foundry build x86 cores that is the highlight of this announcement.

All-in-all, Pat Gelsinger is enabling a roadmap that allows Intel to pivot, and pivot hard.

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  1. That filesystem bit might not be true, but to my mind, it absolutely just is. John willed it so, and therefore Apple made APFS :)