July 19, 1999
A Curmudgeon's Look at Business and Technology,
Featuring the Stuff You Really Need To Know
Get the whole enchilada: Online readers, please note: what you're reading isn't the complete KGB Report. This week you're missing a claim by Gartner Group that some companies may lose up to $1 billion due to "trap doors" installed by unscrupulous Y2K consultants as well as a number of other equally entertaining items. Those who subscribe to the printed version get much more stuff as well as access to a complete online version. For a free one-month trial subscription, email mailto:email@example.com.
Technology Marches On: The 30th anniversary of the first moon landing provides a great opportunity to compare the primitive computer technology of the 60s with today's state of the art developments. The computer on board the lunar lander was about the size of a shoe box, and had a storage capacity of only 36,864 15-bit words for its main program. (Modern PCs need a minimum of 8 million bytes in order to run Windows; much more to do anything useful.) It also had a miniscule 2,048 15-bit word erasable area in which to store variables and other temporary data. (A blank Microsoft Word document requires 19,000 bytes of storage space.) The lunar module computer was about as fast as a modern pocket calculator: 43,000 cycles per second. (The first IBM PC ran at 4.77 million cycles per second. Current home systems run at 300 million cycles or better.) The computer's operating system, called LUMINARY, was real-time and priority-driven. If a higher-priority task required access, the system would just throw away what it had been working on, issue an alarm, and begin work on the higher priority item. If you listen to a recording of the first lunar landing, you'll hear references to 1201 and 1202 alarms during the descent. Due to an error in the landing checklist, the spacecraft's rendezvous radar was turned on and started overloading the small computer with spurious data as the Eagle descended to the lunar surface. Despite the unexpected flood of faulty information, the computer -and the lunar module- didn't crash. The system repeatedly rebooted, restarted the important tasks like steering the craft's descent engine and displaying critical information, and ignored the erroneously-scheduled rendezvous radar jobs. Although the problem prevented the computer from issuing a full minute's worth of guidance commands during the 11-minute descent phase, the machine nonetheless kept the lunar module under control. While writing this article and switching back and forth between this document and the NASA web page describing the landing, the Windows98 task manager crashed and my machine locked up, requiring me to hit the reset button to reboot the computer. It took three minutes and 35 seconds for the system to completely restart and required me to answer seven prompts. When I reopened the document, the last two paragraphs I typed were gone. But I did have an animated paper clip asking me if I needed assistance. See how far we've advanced? For more info on the Apollo 11 landing, visit http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11.landing.html.
ET Phone Bad: If cellular telephones continue to proliferate, you can forget about Project SETI, the Berkeley-based group using data collected from radio telescopes to search for intelligent extra-terrestrial life. The electromagnetic pollution from cell phones here on earth is making it extremely difficult to search for signals coming from outer space. Professor Derek McNally of the University of London notes that if you took a single standard cellular telephone and placed it on the moon, it would be among the top three sources of radio astronomy signals. KGB recommends relocating all cell phones and their users to the moon. The loss of radio astronomy is a small price to pay for peace in the earth's restaurants and movie theaters.
Quotes of the Week:
"A new gadget that lasts only five minutes is worth more than an immortal work that bores everyone."-Francis Picabia
"You can't outrun a Motorola."-Elwood Blues
"Specialization is for insects."-Robert Heinlein
"PCMCIA stands for either Personal Computer Memory Card International Association or People Can't Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms. I can't remember."-Unknown
"Programming is like sex. One mistake, a lifetime of support."-Unknown
Trivia: The Outer Limits was the television show ABC aired opposite CBS' My Favorite Martian and the first half of The Ed Sullivan Show. This week's question: what is the significance of the following quote: "ACA out of detent. Mode control, both auto."
Useless Web Sites of the Week: If you don't buy into this lunar landing bunk and think the whole thing was a government hoax, look at http://www.neosoft.com/~cshramek/nasafake.htm. On a positive space-related note, Quaker Oats is selling the "Quazy Energy Cereal" Quisp (http://www.quisp.com/) in a couple test markets. Originally introduced in 1965, the cereal virtually disappeared in the 70s during the health food craze. The website claims the lack of the cereal led to a "depressing grunge rock proliferation" in 1990. Reintroduced in western New York in 1996, Quisp is also available in Chicago and Milwaukee. Downloadable letters are available at the site for petitioning supermarket managers to stock the sugar-packed, saucer-shaped breakfast treat. If you can't wait, you can order a box for a mere $14 (shipping included) from http://www.flake.com/, aka "Flake World", a site highlighting all sorts of cereal-related collectibles.
To Hell With Y2K...What About Today?? Major computer outages and failures occur on a daily basis, and life goes on. At least Y2K is a known problem. Some recent incidents that blindsided the computer dependent:
The number you have reached: An explosion and fire at a Bell Canada facility in Toronto last Friday knocked out over 100,000 phone lines, Internet service, credit card servers and ATM links throughout the city and affected some locations as far away as Vancouver. The problem began about four hours after the actual explosion, when the backup battery systems failed. The Associated Press reported that emergency generators that would have normally kicked in were rendered inoperative by the sprinkler system that doused water on the fire. The problem began when a worker dropped a tool in an electrical room, sparking the initial blast.
Do as we say, not as we do: Type in a nonexistent URL at a Microsoft Network site, and odds are you'll get an error message generated by a Unix machine running the free Apache web server. Hey, Microsoft: glad to see you have so much faith in NT.
Email bill to Bill: The Y2K legal reform bill passed by Congress was sent to President Clinton by email last week, the first piece of legislation to be transmitted electronically. The law still requires a handwritten signature on paper, so a traditional parchment copy was also delivered by hand.
Thank God it wasn't a belch: Web giant amazon.com was down for 36 minutes last Thursday due to a "hiccup", according to a company spokesperson.
Digital delay: Don't be surprised if the television broadcast industry doesn't meet the government-mandated 2006 deadline for conversion to the new digital television standard. Industry studies reveal that a third of the population isn't even aware that digital TV exists, and only 25,000 receivers have been sold so far. There's dissension among broadcasters, too. Sinclair Broadcast Group is challenging the technical standard officially adopted for digital TV in the US, claiming the signal multipath problem that exists in cities which causes "ghosts" on standard sets, causes digital TVs to shut down.
Panic in the skies: The AVweb AVflash newsletter reports a British Airways 747 with 400 passengers nearly collided with a Korean Air 747 freighter on June 28. The two jets came within 600 feet of each other 31,000 over the English countryside before the BA pilot took evasive action. AVflash says it's possibly the closest near-miss on record. In an unrelated incident, they also reported Air Force Two carrying VP Al Gore was ordered to take evasive action by air traffic controllers after a mysterious blip suddenly appeared on their radar screens. The event occurred on July 9 near Chicago. The radar target inexplicably disappeared about a minute after it appeared. The FAA called the unknown blip "an electronic anomaly."
What, Us Worry? Not everyone is worried about Y2K. A poll conducted by the CBS News program Sunday Morning revealed 56% of the population is not planning on doing anything to prepare for possible disruptions due to Y2K problems. A mere 18% is planning on stocking up on food, water and cash.
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Thanks, Mike: Reader Mike McDonald prompted us to fix two problems with our online site of which we had been unaware. The text of the report no longer runs into the left side blue border and the hypertext links mentioned in the report now work and will take you to the referenced URLs.