A second article in less than a week! This one's about the revolutionary yet forgotten computer from Apple, the Lisa, which was announced today, forty years ago.
With this second article, I had the strange feeling of being bumped off the front page of Ars Technica by... myself. My editor called it "Reimer week". It's been fun!
The third and final article in my History of the ARM chip series is now live on Ars Technica!
This article focuses on how ARM changed the world, from the iPhone to the Game Boy Advance to smartphones and Apple's new computers based on the M1 chips. It ends with a look at how ARM managed to succeed when so many other technology companies failed.
I hope you enjoy it! Please share it with your friends!
This morning I was happy to find that Part 2 of my History of ARM article is now live on Ars Technica. You can read it here:
The first part was mostly a technical story of talented engineers who created something amazing. The second part is the story of how the ARM company was able to bring this technology to the world. It's a reminder that it takes both technical prowess and a focused business approach in order to succeed.
Part Three is coming next month!
The original game, running on my Heathkit H-89
A while back, I wrote about the most obscure video game ever made, called Balablox, which I wrote when I was 15 years old in 1987. At the end of the article, I teased the possibility of a modern rewrite.
I’ve been working on that project, on and off, for about half a year now. My goal is to get it finished this year, for the 35th anniversary of the game. It’s been a ton of fun. To celebrate, I decided to write a series of articles about how I made the game, and what I’ve learned through the experience.
Everyone agrees that developing games is hard, but why is that? Don’t we have much better tools and languages now than we did back then? How hard could it be to make a simple game in 2022? Read on to find out!
Sorry, Mark, nobody wants to join you here.
In a previous post called Why the Metaverse will never happen, I dissected the idea of the Metaverse as an impossible and ill-defined dream. Basically, the Metaverse has to be universal (like the Internet itself) or it isn’t a Metaverse at all, but just another Second Life clone. But tech companies will never agree to adopt a common framework that they don’t own and can’t fully monetize.
The other, more serious problem with a Metaverse is that nobody can actually define what it is. Mark Zuckerberg, in his ebullient announcement last year, said it would be a world “as detailed and convincing as this one” and that inside, “you’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine.”
This last sentence is a huge giveaway that Facebook’s Metaverse will fail. This is the same phrase spoken by dozens of naive and inexperienced wannabe game developers, who go on Kickstarter and announce an amazing new Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game where “you’ll be able to do anything.” Every single one of these Kickstarters, even the ones that reach their funding goals, end up failing spectacularly. The latest fiasco, DreamWorld, is a perfect example.
“Doing anything” is another way of saying “I have no idea what this game will be.” Games are fun because of constraints and rules. Take golf, for example. If you could just pick up the ball and drop it directly in the hole, nobody would bother playing it. But when you add the constraint of hitting the ball with a club, and add a scoring system, suddenly it’s interesting.
Not everything has to be a game, of course. Second Life, released in 2003, was the first successful attempt to make a virtual world that had no real objectives, other than building a world and exploring it with other people. But Second Life peaked in 2009 when it hit 88,000 concurrent online users. It’s still around, but these days nobody expects it to become the future of anything.
More recently, Minecraft was a much larger hit, capturing the imaginations of a huge portion of kids and teenagers. But Minecraft is definitely a game — it has very specific rules for breaking down blocks, finding resources, and using these resources to craft different types of blocks. There are even enemies to fight. It knows exactly what it wants to be and it does it very well. Countless Minecraft clones have been attempted, but they have all failed because “Minecraft, but better” isn’t a design document.
Getting back to Facebook’s Metaverse, it’s clear that Zuckerberg is serious about his effort. He’s spent $10 billion and hired 10,000 engineers. Surely, with this massive amount of resources, his company would have delivered something great, right? Right?
Well, as it turns out, what they’ve produced (which they call Horizon Worlds) is ill-defined, boring, buggy, and nobody wants to play it. According to leaked memos, the “aggregate weight of papercuts, stability issues, and bugs is making it too hard for our community to experience the magic of Horizon. Simply put, for an experience to become delightful and retentive, it must first be usable and well crafted.”
This is another giveaway that the folks building Horizon have no idea what they are actually trying to build. If a game is great, people will play it, even with crazy bugs. Skyrim shipped with tons of bugs, but the game was awesome from day one.
Horizon clearly isn't awesome. Second Life, and more recently, VR Chat, gained popularity because they offered a way for people to express unusual sexual desires in a safe place. But Mark Zuckerberg doesn't want any sex in his city. When people started harassing women in Horizon by trying to grope them between the legs, Facebook's answer wasn't to figure out how to deal with harassment. It was to permanently remove everybody's legs.
You can do anything you want. Except have legs, apparently.
Even Facebook employees don’t want to play Horizon. “For many of us, we don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly,” another memo read. “Why is that? Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”
How indeed. The truth is simple: if the product was any good, people would play it. When Origin Systems was making the original Wing Commander, the entire company couldn’t stop playing the game. That’s how they knew it was going to be a hit. When Blizzard was building World of Warcraft, the company could barely get any work done because so many employees wanted to play it.
Facebook’s management, on the other hand, has decided that the way to fix their boring game is to force their employees to play it. “Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds,” a recent memo read. “You can’t do that without using it. Get in there.”
The end result of all this will be a ton of wasted money and a product that may end up getting forced on people in order for senior management to report rosy numbers. But when the dust has settled, no amount of promotion and bundling will get people to keep playing something they don’t want to play.
UPDATE: Since this article was published, Facebook has triumphantly announced that Legs are coming soon. Are you excited? The message went over about as well as could be expected.
I'm excited to announce that Ars Technica has published the first part of my three-part series on the history of the ARM chip.
You can read it here: https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2022/09/a-history-of-arm-part-1-building-the-first-chip/
If you've ever wondered how your smartphone became so smart, it's because in 1983, a tiny computer company in England decided they would do something impossible.
I had a great time writing this article. I kept asking questions about CPUs, which I've always understood only at the highest levels. For example, I knew what RISC meant, it was "Reduced Instruction Set Computing". Okay, but HOW reduced? And what does an instruction set actually do?
Diving down the rabbit hole, I ended up learning how CPUs work from first principles. I've tried to share some of that knowledge in the article. I hope you enjoy it!
John Cleese playing Monty Python’s Dennis Moore, in a sketch where he discovers that the redistribution of wealth is harder than he thought.
The concept of digital money isn’t new. In fact, we all use digital money every day. The reason we can rely on numbers in a computer to safely represent our wealth is because we have laws that safeguard its handling, and centralized banks that must obey those laws.
This wasn’t always the case. In the mid-1800s, the US had no national banking system, and the metal coins issued by the government were awkward to use for large transactions. So wildcat banks appeared that made their own paper money, which they claimed was backed by real coinage. They were called “wildcat” because they built their branches far out in the wilderness, where cougars would prowl, to discourage people from visiting them to cash out. They lied about being backed by US silver coins, and printed as much fake money as they thought they could get away with. Eventually, the US government shut them down by issuing its own national paper currency, making the wildcat bank notes worthless.
An example of a wildcat bank note. Other wildcat banks included the Bank of Granite and the Bank of Singapore (the latter of which was based out of Michigan).
Cryptocurrency, which was invented back in 2008 following the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, was an attempt to separate digital money from banks. Lots of folks in the early 2000s had the idea to make “digital bucks” or “eCoins” of some kind. But the problem was this: if you weren’t attached to a real bank, how could you prevent someone from just “copy/pasting” their eCoins over and over again, gaining infinite wealth? If you didn’t want to trust a central authority and a central government, how could you make this work?
The solution was called Bitcoin. It worked like this: all transactions would be added to a public “digital ledger” that anyone could read, but that could never be changed. After all, if you could edit your transaction after the fact, you could easily “copy/paste” coins to yourself by refunding your own purchase. The Bitcoin algorithm reserved all the coins that would ever exist, then required “miners” to compete to solve ever-more challenging math problems. The first person or group to solve them would be awarded one Bitcoin, and then everyone on the network would have to verify that the solution was correct. In a similar way, every movement of Bitcoins from one digital “wallet” to another had to be approved and added to the ever-growing ledger, which was called a “blockchain”.
This trust-free solution was ridiculously inefficient, but it didn’t matter at first, because so few people bothered to use it. In the early days, it was relatively easy to mine new Bitcoins. But there wasn’t much you could do with them, because there was no connection with banks or with real money. In 2010, one of the first “purchases” made with Bitcoin involved one user transferring 10,000 Bitcoins to another user. Then the person who received them went and ordered pizza for the first person. This infamous 10K Bitcoin pizza is used as a cautionary tale to warn people to hold on to their Bitcoins, because the low price per Bitcoin back then has since skyrocketed, reaching a maximum value of $70,000. Haha, it’s the world’s most expensive pizza!
These were the actual pizzas bought for 10,000 Bitcoins in 2010. Today, if you had 10,000 Bitcoins, you’d have a hard time finding enough people with enough money to sell them to for the dollar value they claim to represent.
Except it wasn’t, really. Bitcoin was just a plaything for nerds back then, which is why the “price” per coin was so low. To cash out your Bitcoins, you had to send them to someone first, then hope they would pay you back in real dollars at an agreed-upon price. This was awkward and involved a lot of trust, the very same trust that crypto was supposed be avoiding in the first place.
To get around this problem, crypto fans invented “exchanges”. The idea was that people would log on to the exchange and the website would automatically connect buyers and sellers, similar to stock trading websites.
Agreeing on a price, however, was still difficult. As larger organizations started to buy and sell big piles of Bitcoin, the price would fluctuate wildly. By the time the transaction completed (which took a while, because of the inefficient nature of cryptocurrency itself) the price might be completely different.
The solution to this was called the “stablecoin”. To obtain one, you gave a real US dollar to one of the exchanges (every exchange had their own coin, for reasons we’ll see later). They gave you back a digital token that everyone agreed would always be worth exactly one dollar. You could easily exchange this stablecoin for Bitcoin or any of thousands of other copycat crypto coins. Then, if the price of your coins went down, you’d just hold on to them. If the price went up, you could convert them back to stablecoins, and then in theory, the exchange could swap them again for the same amount of real money. In theory. After all, the exchanges would always have a big pile of real dollars that people gave them for the stablecoins in the first place, right? Right?
Unfortunately, none of this was regulated, so there was nothing stopping the exchanges from printing as many new stablecoins as they could get away with, backed by exactly nothing, while claiming that they were fully backed.
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
These “exchanges” had now become 21st century digital wildcat banks, who could create their own fake currency out of nothing, charge people real money to buy it, and then make it really really hard to swap it back. They could then "buy" Bitcoins with these fake stablecoins, which would drive up the price of Bitcoin.
Some of these wildcat banks, like Celsius and Voyager, took the idea even further. They realized that most people never managed to cash out their crypto coins, but just held on to them forever. With the promise of Ponzi-level interest rates as high as 18 percent, they lured new customers in. To get these high rates of return, these crypto banks would first take ownership of the user’s coins, then lend them out to other crypto banks who were doing the same thing. The highest interest rates (up to 20 percent!) were offered by an organization that had its own “algorithmic” stablecoin called “Terra”, that didn’t even pretend to be backed by real money at all. It was backed only by another crypto coin called “Luna”.
The founder of Celsius, who liked to wear a shirt that said “Banks are not your friends” while running a crypto-based bank that stole everyone’s money.
None of this made any sense mathematically, and when the price of Luna suddenly dropped to zero, the entire house of cards fell over. Three Arrows Capital, which had a big investment in Terra/Luna, declared bankruptcy and the owners fled to Dubai. Celsius and Voyager, which had big investments in Three Arrows Capital, then declared bankruptcy a month later.
Most of the money lost was from small investors, some of whom had put their life savings into Celsius, Voyager, or similar companies. Many of these people were poor, and many were living in poor countries. Crypto was sold to these people as a way for them to beat the system, to make real wealth when there were no other opportunities.
The collapse of the digital wildcat banks wasn’t the only loss for small investors, however. The peak of crypto advertising happened in late 2021, with a barrage of celebrity endorsements, Super Bowl ads, and even renaming of sports stadiums.
This push was deliberate, and calculated. Millions of people who knew nothing about crypto were convinced that this was the “next big thing” and that they should get in while the getting was good. Bitcoin’s price peaked at $70,000 during this time. The trading was mostly one-way: groups of rich investors selling their Bitcoins in little pieces to poor individuals who were about to become much poorer. The price of Bitcoin then collapsed to around $20,000, where it remains today.
Yes, Matt Damon, fortune can favor the brave. But it usually favors rich men who know how to convince poor people to give them money.
Let’s be clear: there were definitely people who made money with crypto. These people were rich bankers who paid themselves millions of dollars to run the exchanges, and sold as many of their own tokens (that they created out of thin air for free) as they could get away with, while they manipulated the market in their favor. And because of the irreversible nature of the blockchain, these transactions can never be rolled back. Thieves and hackers have also used this "feature" of crypto to their advantage.
Some of these folks are now on the run from the law, but most aren’t. They claim to have just been running a business, and take no responsibility for their actions. Some have bought mansions worth over a hundred million dollars. The Three Arrows Capital guys put a fifty million dollar downpayment on a yacht just before they fled the country.
As we enter what the industry is calling a “crypto winter”, these companies are laying off workers, cancelling big projects, or just going bankrupt. But their leaders all insist that crypto currencies are still inevitable and are still the future, even though they can’t quite articulate how. They assume that the price of crypto coins will eventually go back up, that the celebrities and Super Bowl ads will return, and they will once again be free to steal from the poor and give to the rich.
And they might, unless the public decides that enough is enough.
My new article made the front page of Ars Technica this week! It's about the forgotten orphan of Apple gadgets, the Newton!
This is my first article on Ars since 2018, so I'm happy to see it's getting a good reception.
Check it out!
Remembering Apple's Newton, 30 years on
In 1980, Douglas Adams wrote The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In this excerpt, Ford and Arthur have time-traveled back to prehistoric Earth, which has just been invaded by a colony ship comprised entirely of people with useless jobs.
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn't grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut."
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.
“So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and. . .er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
Last week, a crypto coin called Luna collapsed, from a high of $110 per coin to $0 today. Actually it was two crypto coins--the other one was called Terra--and the two were linked together to try and make Terra a “stablecoin” that would have its value constantly pegged to exactly one US dollar. Terra collapsed at the same time, and this made the price of Luna go down even more, starting a death spiral. Billions of dollars vanished in the space of a couple of days. There are many stories of small investors losing their entire life savings.
Crypto currencies have no inherent use, as you can’t typically pay for things with them, and you can’t pay your taxes with them. However, people have valued useless things many times in the past. From Dutch tulip bulbs to Beanie Babies to NFTs, people can get always hyped up about investing in things with no purpose, as long as they think the thing will increase in value.
In the case of Luna and Terra, the main reason people started to value them was because the company that created both was offering a 20% income return for anyone who stored Terra on their servers. Ostensibly, this was so the company could “loan” the coin to others.
Charles Ponzi offered investors a 50% return in the early 1920s, and his scheme lasted a couple of years before it all fell apart. Terra and Luna didn’t quite make it that long.
Before it collapsed, Luna and Terra were considered darlings of the cryptocurrency industry, creating a new “platform” for the “future of finance”. Now, they are dismissed as merely a scam, even by cryptocurrency enthusiasts. But if one “stablecoin” was always a house of cards, why not the others?
The poor folks holding Luna today have been wiped out, and they are struggling to come to terms with it. Many still believe that there is something that can be done to restore Luna’s valuation. And in a discussion thread about what should be done next, I found this tweet:
Just burn it all down. That will create value. Just like it did with the forests.
This is a little something I whipped up on paper and then made real with a great little program called Affinity Designer.
I started with a stylized representation of an old 1970s all-in-one computer, something like a TRS-80 Model III, or my own Heathkit H-89.
Then I replaced the floppy disk drive on the right with a stylized book, to indicate the "history" portion of the site. Micro, History? Get it?
The orange color is just a color I liked and decided to theme the site around. No personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s were orange, but maybe that's the point. I tried the logo in more boring colors like grey and beige, but it just wasn't as cool.
And cool was what I was going for.
I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I am the writer for the upcoming documentary series Arcade Dreams.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.