Fun_People Archive
18 Jan

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 96 19:43:05 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
To: Fun_People
Subject: OBLIQUE PERSPECTIVE - High-tech Garages

[I thought I had sent this out back when I first received it in 1991, but a  
thorough perusal of all my old mail (er, I mean archives) including the  
Fun_People Archives <> convinces  
me that I never sent it out at all.  In which case, it's way overdue...

BTW, Peter Honeyman <> found a copy at:


[UPDATE: The Fun_People archive moved in September 1998 to:
	<>  -psl]


<><><><><><><>  T h e   V O G O N   N e w s   S e r v i c e  <><><><><><><>

Edition : 2403            Monday  9-Sep-1991           Circulation :  8296 

VNS TECHNOLOGY WATCH:                     [Mike Taylor, VNS Correspondent]
=====================                     [Littleton, MA, USA            ]

{contributed by David A. Moon to Desperado #3052}


      	          By John Wharton

The story you are about to read is true. Identities have been concealed
to protect the enterprising. Those of us who design and build
microcomputers usually think we have a pretty good idea of our target
markets and who the potential users may be. We're usually wrong. If a
product succeeds in the marketplace, its eventual uses will extend far
beyond the horizon foreseen during product definition.

Consider the following bizarre tale. I was driving to a friend's wedding
in southern California one snowy Saturday morning, already running late,
when a cloud of greasy smoke erupted from my dashboard. I soon found
myself in Tehachapi, CA (population 4,126) desperately seeking a

The third garage I came to looked open, so l knocked on the door and 

went in. Just inside stood two coverall-clad mechanics who seemed to be
anxiously waiting for someone. They eyed my wedding garb suspiciously,
and I felt like I'd stumbled into a Miami Vice drug buy, but after a
while the older mechanic spoke up. "Did you bring the PROMs?" he asked.

A very strange question, coming from a car mechanic, but I was in a rush.
"No," I answered, "I'm afraid all I've got is a broken-down Toyota, and 

a desperate need to get going again as soon as possible." The mechanics
asked about the car's failure mode, maintenance history, anti-freeze
level, and so forth, to which my answers merely showed how poorly I
understood how cars work. I design computers for a living, but automobile
engines are black magic.

After realizing I'd be of no help at all, the mechanics began poking
under the hood, pressurizing the radiator, tracing the path of the
cooling-system hoses, unplugging connectors, and testing for leaks. I 

was struck by how his actions resembled a computer designer debugging a
giant, grease-encrusted breadboard. The Master Mechanic concluded I had
blown the heater oore in the dashboard, for which the quickest fix would
be to "short-circuit the core with a bypass hose, which would hold me
until the core could be replaced. The computer industry is not the only
one with garage-shop hackers, I thought.

                           ENTER THE COMPUTER

Now, Tehachapi is chiefly a bedroom community for test pilots from
Edwards Air Force Base, hardly a hotbed of computer system design, so the
Mechanic's earlier question about PROMs had come as a surpise. While his
partner hacked away at the heater I/O hoses (literally, with a knife), I
asked the Master Mechanic what (in his business) the word PROM meant.
"Oh, that," he replied. "PROMs are how microcomputers store programs.
We're rebuilding the engine computer in that Taurus over there." Great, I
thought. Here was a topic I could relate to! "I didn't know engine
computers could be fixed," I said. "I thought you had to replace the
whole assembly." "Used to, you did," the Mechanic replied. "Everything
was soldered down and potted in resin, but no more. If you can get the
box open, you can swap chips until it works. It's a lot cheaper than
junking the whole board. Everything's in Augat sockets now," he said,
showing me an open module. Augat sockets! It had been ages since I'd
heard hardware engineers sing the praises of Augat sockets, certainly not
what I'd expect here. The only engineering circles in which Tehachapi is
famous are of the railroad variety, thanks to the Tehachapi Loop, an
unusual switchback in the tracks through a local mountain pass. The
conversation had taken an unusual turn, but at least now I could show off
my computer expertise and soothe the battered ego I'd suffered from being
so helpless under the hood. "I actually design computers like that, up in
Silicon Valley," I began. "In fact, I developed Ford's very first engine
computer, back in the `70s." That should impress him, I thought. He
pondered briefly, then asked: "EEC-3 or -4?" Damn! This guy was good. "I
thought it was EEC-1," I began, trying to remember the "electronic engine
control" designators. "It was the first time a computer..." "Nah, EEC-1
and -2 used discrete parts," he interrupted. "EEC-3 was the first with a
microprocessor." "That was it, then. It had an off-the-shelf 8048." "You
mean you designed EEC-3?" the Master Mechanic asked incredulously. "Hey,
George!" he shouted to the guy working under the hood. "When you're done
fixing this guys car, push it out back and torch it! He designed EEC-3!"

So much for impressing the Mechanic, huh? I shot back defensively. "Did
EEC-3 have a problem?" "Reliability, mostly," he replied. "The 02-sensor
brackets could break, and the connectors corroded." I beat a hasty
retreat. "Those sound like hardware problems," I said. "All I did was the
sofflware." "EEC-4 was much better," the Mechanic continued,

Gazing wistfully into the distance, as though thinking back to his first
`57 Chevy. "Now there was an engine computer. Sixteen-bit CPU, fuel
injection, timing, spark advance... Boy, that EEC-4 could do anything!"
"I should hope so," I responded. "Intel designed its CPU just for engine
control. Later they repackaged it called it the 8096. Still sells pretty
well, too.", Common ground at last!

"Yeah, it was EEC-4 that really sold me on Intel," the Mechanic
continued. "Made me scrap my AT motherboard and put in a genuine Intel
386 version. Tried a turbo card first, but it just couldn't hack it."
(Note to Intel marketing strategists: you might as well scrap your
Business Week ads: the real grass-roots buyers read Road and Track. 

How about a promo with a monster truck crushing a row of Motorola 

processors, with the catch-line, "The Computer Inside"?)

                            TWENTY QUESTIONS

"Say, you know anything about the 387?" "Sure," I answered, confidently.
I'd written several articles and two manuals on 386-family products. 

Data formats, FPU instructions, I knew it all, I thought. "What's the
difference between a 387-2 and a 387-10? I had my system's hard disk
upgraded, and when it came back from the shop my spreadsheets wouldn't
run. I think the technician switched coprocessors on me. "Sorry," I said.
"I never studied the different steppings, or speeds, or binnings, or
whatever." "How about the BIOS?" he tried again. "Could new BIOS PROMs
make an application stop running?" "I've no idea," I replied, again
feeling unredeemed "but frankly, with DOS I wouldn't be surprised by
anything that broke if the BIOS was changed." "Well, can you at least
tell me where you buy DRAMs, and what's a good price?" Finally! A
question I knew I could answer! "I get mine at Fry's," I said. "They're
down to $49 for mega- byte-by-nine SIMMs." I started describing the Fry's
supermarket chain, a local curiosity that stocks the valley's best
assortment of software, microchips, and Freon alongside soft drinks,
potato chips, and deodor- ant, but the Master Mechanic wasn't amused.
"That's too small. My board's already stuffed with one-megs. I need
four-meg SIMMs now." Strike three. Now it was my turn to be incredulous.
"What do you do with your PC, anyway?" I asked. One-meg SIMMs had always
been enough for me. "Oh, PROM burning, data acquisition, DSP, that kinda
stuff. Just got a new 16-bit A/D and D/A add-in board for analog work.
Use it to check out connector voltages, to see if the engine electronics
is working. Hey! Wanna see my new HP oscilloscope?" he offered. "Four
traces, 100-MHz . I declined. I'd thought car mechan- ics only used
scopes to check ignition timing. "I'm thinking of getting a logic
analyzer," the Mechanic continued. "You build computers, you must now
something about logic analyzers. What kind should I get?" (I *swear* I'm
not making this up.) "Logic analyzers?" I said, counting the years since
I'd last touched a logic analyzer. "Yeah, sure, logic analyzers are

The conversation had crossed into the surreal. Suddenly it dawned on me
why these guys were working on a weekend. "You know," I said, "back when
I was working on EEC-3, my boss said I should keep a copy of the program
listings for my records. He predicted someday there'd be an aftermarket
for high-performance PROMs that could hop-up the engine by overriding the
standard emissions controls and fuel-efficiency algorithms. Do you think
that'll happen?" "Already has," the Master Mechanic replied with a wink.
"Sold through the mail, mostly. They'd be illegal, of course, if they
failed state emissions standards." Of course. And just imagine how
difficult it must be to reverse engineer an undocumented engine computer.
You'd need a PROM burner, a data-acquisition system, and a good scope,
for starters. And maybe a logic analyzer... But by then my car was ready,
and I had an already-in-progress wedding reception to join. I can only
guess the fate of the disassembled Taurus.

                       RUMINATIONS AND CONCLUSION

There's probably a slew of morals lurking in this story, about not
prejudging technical competence based on appearance, and the hazards of
trying to impress strangers. Pride doth goeth before a fall. But what
struck me most was how these computer-proficient grease monkeys seemed to
come straight from today's science-fiction. Cyberpunk novels like John
Brunner's Shock wave Rider and William Gibson's Neuromancer often pit
computer hackers against a repressive future establishment. Their mastery
of technical arcana lets them navigate the interstices of cyberspace,
hide from authority, and escape domination. I thought especially of Terry
Gilliam's bizarre film Brazil, in which a renegade plumber hacks sewage
systems and cooling ducts much the same way George used a bypass hose to
short-circuit my heater core. At first it seemed remarkably incongruous
to find self-taught computer engineers fixing cars in a smalltown garage,
but in a way it's inevitable. The basic skills needed to diagnose and
repair complex systems are the same, whether the underlying technology is
gasoline-engine or microprocessor-based. The same kind of personality
that souped-up MGs in the past might naturally enjoy souping-up PCs
today. As microelectronics pervades society, the range of engineers who
apply the technology will broaden too, as will the range of engineers who
adapt it into new, unintended areas. "Hacking" will expand beyond the
realm of slightly-disheveled stereotypical nerds to include a much
broader cross section of society.

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