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Perils and Parallels

by Robert Marcom

back before the dawn of time, in the early Nineteen Seventies, I bought my first computer. It was the only computer on the market at that time and it came in a kit.

The Altair 8800 used "top-hat transistors", integrated circuits, and was in pieces. Some assembly was required. It had 256 bits of memory. Not 256 kilobytes. Just bits. It operated at the blinding speed of 1.2 kilo-Hertz. I thought it was a technological miracle. I won't tell you how much I paid for it because I would like to cling to some shred of respect among my computing friends. Let's just say it was the most expensive computer I've ever purchased.

Just a little more about the 8800 then I will get to the point. When I finally managed to get it put together, I learned enough Binary Code to be able to "boot" the machine. This was accomplished by sitting in front of it, flipping toggle switches on the front panel in exactly the correct sequence. If I made a mistake, I started over. Then, when I got the friendly little green blinking "ready" message on my monitor (yes, I even bought the monitor, though it wasn't required) I proceeded to load my operating system, which thing was accomplished by feeding paper tape with holes through a paper tape reader. Then, if all went well, I could load a program via cassette tape. If the operating system failed, I got to start all over again.

Now, my point. I just spent a few hundred dollars (I'm sure you're sick of my whining about it already) on my current computer. I found out that the Intel 233 megahertz is discontinued, so if I wanted to upgrade, I must do it now, while the chips are still available. I have the fastest computer I've ever owned. It is not even close to being the fastest desktop available, which clocks in at 400 MHz. I'm told by reliable sources that the next generation will operate in the gigahertz range. You will notice that I use old fashioned annotation when concerning Mr. Hertz name. I do this in order to indicate how much like a dinosaur I feel, when I think about where the state of computer science was when I started messing with these things, and where it is now. I try not to think about where it is going to be in my lifetime.

Computers were magic for me in the early days. They were fun, and they were social. I could depend on a packed room, with friends oohing and ahhing at the marvel of electronics. I never lacked for competition when playing Space Invaders, which appeared on the screen as x, o, and /. No graphics, just text and lines forming a grid. All imagery was supplied by imagination. Something like the days of radio shows.

It is no longer possible to avoid computers. They are truly ubiquitous; cars have dozens of them, as do kitchen ranges, children's toys, fishing reels--etc. Computers are not for fun anymore. They are deadly serious. Life and death and supper ready on time now depend on them. Here is a frightening thought: at any given moment, a massive flare can erupt from the sun and eight minutes later every computer on the planet, not specifically shielded against such an occurrence can be put out of commission.

Aircraft and aircraft controllers would be disabled. Auto engines would simply stop running, leaving millions of people without motive power while hurtling along at 50-60-70+ miles per hour. It reminds me a great deal of the demise of the Babylonian Empire.

The Babylonians relied on their pet technology: intensive agriculture, using irrigation. They built up a huge population which required the use of irrigation in order to supply the amount of food they consumed. The thought they were being prudent enough in establishing huge storage granaries which would get them through the bad years when crops failed. They didn't predict the inexorable salting of the soil which irrigation engenders. When the salts in the soil built up to the root level of the crops, nothing would grow.

You may visit Babylon, if Saddam permits you. It sits in the middle of a desert, framed by two of the world's great rivers. Nothing grows there, even twenty-five hundred years later.

We sit on an even sharper razor's edge, with our reliance on computers. Our society can be shaken by such a thing, as our computers getting confused over what year it is: 1900 or 2000. Little programs called viruses cause nightmares among corporate staff officers. Imagine the problems which would be engendered by the piezoelectric pulse that would be generated by a moderate-sized meteor strike. The pulse would travel, via the "ground" side of circuitry, through every computer which is grounded to earth. Everywhere on the earth.

I don't advocate the avoidance of the use of computers, but I do advocate parallel systems. Non-digital means for accomplishing the important things necessary to our society should be maintained as a backup, in case of the failure of electronic systems. I get the virtual fantods, when I think of passenger aircraft that "fly by wire" exclusively. The Boeing 777 is case in point. A pilot with a general systems failure would be reduced to a helpless spectator, as his plane and several hundred passenger fell out of the sky. Without digital feedback to electric actuators, he would not be able to move a single control surface.

Of course I could be wrong, but I would not like to join the Babylonians for reason of not taking precautions against possibilities we can foresee. Even the Babylonians did that much.

Robert Marcom is currently the administrator of "The Writers' Room," an on-line writer's community.
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