Reverse Engineering the Steve Jobs Biographies: Part 1

the Cold War was super fun for left wing types in the USA. lemme show you

meet the humble Compaq Contura 3/25 and its only circuitboard

Powered by a chip almost entirely unknown and undocumented today, the 8292sx, the Compaq Contura 3/20 (or 3/25) was powered by Intel’s first 80×86 based System-on-a-Chip, encompassing video + I/O + etc.

Released around a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was an engineering marvel for its time in terms of the level of sophistication it provided in consumer hardware, let alone budget-level consumer hardware. The much more advanced fabrication process & timing hardware necessary to run essentially every major peripheral out of just a 44-pin package were the key innovations, which no other hardware manufacturer in the USA was given access to.

Imagine you’re a low or mid-level electrical engineer or programmer in the Soviet Union: would you find this disheartening?

That was probably the point. I almost wonder if it wasn’t named the way it was because Leonid Brezhnev died in ’82 and top brass expected the Soviet Union to collapse by ’92.

Here’s the weird thing: this processor, nor any other like it, was used after ’93 or so. No need to, I guess, plus it was probably expensive to manufacture and the needs of color displays rendered it totally obsolete. They don’t seem to have ever updated it with color VGA circuitry, either.

Intel was run by a die-hard anti-Communist who escaped Hungary, and Compaq was run by a bunch of dorky Texans in suits with pocket protectors

Apple was run by a lunatic who would have passed a security clearance right around the time hell froze over and who liked to do hallucinogens and bare his soul to foreign gurus

So the insides of Steve’s laptops from the same period looked like this, they used 2x as much power, weighed about 1.5x as much, and cost WAY more:

Would you be constantly stressed, angry, and mercurial if the government and practically everyone in your entire supply chain were doing this stuff to you in order to destroy and/or marginalize your company?

If you think the playing field is even for any business in the USA, think again.

WHERE DID THE MODEM GO: A Pictorial History of 56k Modems

c’mere babe, check out my ten inch…modem

an US Robotics 56k modem circa 1995, to my knowledge the first available in the USA consumer market

 What does all this shit do?

  • Codec: man oh man, gotta translate all those annoying scratchy buzzy noises into zeroes and ones, gotta have a chip that can identify and create those noises & stuff
  • DSP: gotta take data from a PC and turn it into instructions for the codec to turn it into an annoying noise and vice versa
  • Flash memory: gotta have a place for the chips to remember what scratchy buzzy noise means what thing and how the chips have to talk to each other and stuff
  • SRAM: gotta have a place for the scratchy buzzy noise data to sit while the other chips sit around and figure out what they mean
  • CPU: Intel 80186, probable great-great-great-great-grandpa to the processor in the computer you’re using now, cuz you gotta have a chip to crack the whip on dem bitchez & organize the whole racket
  • Chipset: somebody gotta send and receive this shit through a serial port

by 1998, US Robotics had concluded it was less about the size and more about how you use it

So they put the CPU & chipset on the Same Freakin Chip & put it in, you know, a White Package

in 2000, US Robotics decided modems should be allowed to…get inside…computers…and…plug in

This joke has gone way too far, but in essence, access to the fast PCI bus inside the computer eliminated the need for a bunch of hardware that sets the timing for what data gets sent around when and allowed the modem to communicate with the rest of the computer more directly

2000 was a great year. Computers were getting more powerful and people started using D.S.L. and other…faster…ways of getting…online. Modems were unloved and sad and people found ways to make them cheaper, mainly by offloading processing tasks to the main CPU using software drivers

around the mid-2000s Agere & others decided it would be cool to offload the…tasks…to the main processor and basically just lie there, moving…data…occasionally

Was that another dick joke?

Then, processors with dedicated multimedia processing instruction sets, or motherboard chipsets with similar capabilities, meant that formal modem hardware to decode and encode audio really wasn’t necessary at all – just a riser card with a phone jack and some power hardware to take the voltage down to something that could be fed more or less directly into the I/O bus.


What did that mean in an historical context?

It meant that if you were a processor and/or chipset manufacturer, you could build an audio transceiver-based backdoor into hardware and allow security services to use it to screw governments and individuals you didn’t like. Go read my acoustic coupler post now and get into a Lotus position and meditate and pretend you’re one of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s nuclear engineers circa 2009 for awhile.

On Acoustic Couplers: A Kids’ Multiple Choice Mad-Lib

for Barron Trump, who apparently “can do anything with computers” -POTUS

This is an acoustic coupler, circa 1978.

Acoustic couplers were used to

  • communicate telepathically with rodents
  • let modems communicate over telephone lines using a regular phone handset
  • gradually make your toaster into a sentient being

Let’s get creative! Today, if you were an electrical engineering or computer security student and you wanted to make a proof of concept of a contemporary acoustic coupler, what might you easily do that with?

  • a banana and an angle grinder
  • a case of motor oil and a baseball
  • a new, noise-canceling cellular phone and a piezoelectric diode on a laptop motherboard

What do you think that would be able to achieve in terms of data rate?

  • pony express envelope speeds
  • can and string speeds
  • 56k modem speeds or even a bit higher

Now, think about this technology. What if it already existed dormantly in most consumer-level phones and computers?

  • pigs would fly
  • Subway sandwiches would no longer contain chemicals found in yoga mats
  • security services in Western countries might have the balance of power set quite a bit in their favor

What if it was time to sunset this technology, though, because it’s been replaced by something superior, and use its retirement for political gain? Would you:

  • choose a foreign manufacturer that is a major OEM for other brands anyway and won’t care, out their consumer-class hardware as containing unspecified “bloatware”, leave the feature on all the time and threaten lives/jobs/etc of anyone who figures it out,  so that smart-ish people can think they’re making a better choice buying a domestic brand even though this tech exists in basically all devices now, and so that IT people better understand that the major part of their job is shutting the hell up and that acoustic couplers are obsolete anyway
  • forget about it, grab a beer, and catch a Sunday Night Football game
  • both (choose very carefully here)

What else might you do, as one of the security services of a Western country?