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Solar Eclipse Special
Edition 3.1, June 2001

Greetings from PCB,

It's not often a full solar eclipse comes past: June 21st 2001 is the big day. For those heading up north to the path of totality, we wish you all the best and safe travelling. To celebrate back here, we bring you a bumper TechnoBeat, with lots of mid-winter news, views and reviews.

+ Stationery Clearance Sale

+ The ever shrinking world of electronics

+ Toner Cartridges - some other (less expensive) options

+ WiseNet email news

+ New Products

+ PCB Staff News

+ PCB Contact List

+ News from the MilkyWay

+ The Future ain't what it's supposed to be...

 

+++ Stationery Clearance Sale

We got a Stationery Clearance Sale going with less 25 % on a range of Ink Jet and Toner cartridges. Free delivery for orders over R100. Full details on our web site:

http://hal.pcb.co.zahttp://www.pcb.co.za/price_lists/stationeryspecials.htm

And we still have that Acer TravelMate 202T Notebook special going:

http://hal.pcb.co.zahttp://www.pcb.co.za/price_lists/laptopspecials.htm

 

+++ The ever shrinking world of electronics

Intel claims it has created the world's fastest silicon transistors. This is the most fundamental element of any computer and this new technology will allow this switching nearly 1,000 times more quickly than contemporary microprocessors. This technology now shrinks the devices to a width of about 80 atoms. Some call this nano-technology and perhaps when Intel reaches the atom switch (ancient Greek word for the most elementary element), we might get decent speed from Windows.

See here for more details:
http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/review/2001-06-11-transistor.htm

 

+++ Toner Cartridges - some other (less expensive) options

Many customers have complained about the high price of HP Toner cartridges. There are a few options for alternatives. One is toner cartridge refills. The problem here is that the toner cartridge contains some key elements which wear during use, and need to be replaced periodically. So by installing a new cartridge, you are replacing these vital components. That's the way the laser printer was designed to last. Refills do not cater for this since these parts are being reused, so generally we don't really recommend them.

The other option is the line of Verbatim Toner cartridges. They are about half the price of the HP products. We have given them a road test at PCB and found that whilst they have performed satisfactorily, the quality of print is not quite as good as the HP cartridges, the print being a bit fainter and less evenly spread on the one we tried. If you are pumping out long reports and documents and are not fussed over DTP-quality printing, perhaps the Verbatim Toner Cartridges are an option and we do offer them for sale. However, it's important to remember that the warranty on Hewlett Packard printers are voided by the use of non-HP cartridges or refills. However, outside the warranty period it's really up to you.

 

+++ WiseNet email news

Customers who make use of our WiseNet Internet email gateway services will be pleased to know that as from the 1st July, we are adding a Virus screening service at no extra cost. Most viruses permeate now as attachments to email messages, either embedded in executable .exe files or as program worms hidden in Word or other documents. Our WiseNet Virus firewall will be screening every email message coming in for the current viruses. Whilst we can't guarantee that this will eliminate all viruses, we are confident that this service will help reduce virus exposure at our customers' sites.

 

+++ New Products

Some new products we think are worth mentioning are:

The Hewlett Packard G85 All In One - Years ago we used to dream about the merging of printing, scanning and faxing technologies. Well, here it is. A full colour printer-scanner-faxer, with little or no compromises in any one department. It's a flat bed scanner, top-spec ink jet printer and a fully featured fax machine (with a built in internal fax modem). It retails from PCB for R5150, which is a bargain if you had to buy all of those units separately. Plus you get to save some desktop real-estate!

The Microsoft Optical Mouse - get tired of cleaning the gunge off the bottom of your mouse, or losing one dimension of movement due to a bunged-up roller? Well, here's the answer. The Microsoft Optical Mouse requires no special mouse pad and has no moving parts. It's got a few more bells & whistles in the form of some extra buttons, and some rather flashy lighting makes it look like an prop for Star Wars 4. Definitely worth the R405 retail price.

CD Writer technology is rapidly evolving: now there is a high-spec combo CD Writer / DVD Reader. The HP 9900CI CD Writer / DVD Combo is an Internal IDE Rewritable Drive , writes speed is up to 12 X , rewrites up to 10 X and normal CD read up to 32 X. Plus is can read DVD's up to 8x. The Reader includes Software Suite and will need a decoder on your graphics card for your PC to function as a DVD Player. It retails for R3275.

 

+++ PCB Staff News

Since we last spoke, we have had a few additions to the PCB Team:

Michelle Pillay has joined us on Technical Reception and is co-ordinating the repairs and stores. Great strides have been made in improving our service thanks to her.

Rashieda Mahomedy is PCB's latest addition to the Technical Support team. She comes to us with a lot of experience and we welcome her to our team.

 

+++ PCB Contact List

Sales & Quotes: Anusha Naicker (anusha@pcb.co.za)
Support, Training and Technical Service Requests: Tasneem Docrat (tasneem@pcb.co.za)
Repairs Follow-ups: Tasneem Docrat (tasneem@pcb.co.za)
Stores, Deliveries, Stationery Sales: Michelle Pillay (michelle@pcb.co.za)
Debtors accounts: Ronel Aziz (ronel@pcb.co.za)
Web Design & Internet Services: Vanessa Davies (vanessa@pcb.co.za)
Service complaints: Vanessa Davies (vanessa@pcb.co.za)

 

+++ News from the MilkyWay

The MilkyWay Internet Café is Africa's first Internet café and it's still going strong, thanks to PCB and the MilkyWay staff. There is a big demand from the local Yeoville community, and it's mainly for email services. Just recently we decommissioned our DOS workstations and many customers miss the unlimited-use GroupWise email system we used to offer. With the frustrating time-consuming wait for Hotmail (et al), we have come up with another solution for customer cyber-satisfaction - our own webmail service. This is thanks to Novell SA, who will be donating licenses for the Novell Internet Messaging Service, a powerful and fully featured web email system that uses NDS for management.

Recently we took a group of the Sunday kidz out to the Wondercaves in the 'Cradle of Humankind'. It was a treat for us all - we got the story & pictures up on:

http://www.milkyway.co.za/SundaysKool/WonderCavesDec2000/Index.htm

We also did a PC Music workshop, in conjunction with the PC Music crew:

http://www.spinout.org.za/events/KidzMusicWorkshop29April2001/index.htm

 

 

+++ The Future ain't what its supposed to be...

Perhaps you have seen Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A space odyssey" (1968). Besides its dramatic and legendary extra-terrestrial special effects, it's futurism extends to notions of a computer with the power of the human brain. The HAL 9000 is the control computer of the space ship Discovery, which is ferrying astronauts in cryonic hibernation to Venus. At some point on the journey HAL decides to take over the space ship to pursue its own agenda. It first rnds the lives of the hiberanting crew, then tries to terminate the lives of the astronauts who are on duty, but faking an extra-vehicular fault. However, by sheer human determination and ingenuity, Dave manages to re-enter the ship through an airlock, and then proceeds to unplug HAL's memory cards. HAL pleads for its 'life' - "I thought your were my friend Dave" the computer says as it tries to halt the shutdown. It then regresses into a 'childhood' of songs and fond memories, and it winds down with a deep pitched-down version of "Daisy", its panoptic power reduced to inert electronic circuits.

Other science fiction films have dealt dramatically with the notion of the computer 'brain' taking over and destroying human life for the purpose of its own domination, a theme the human species is not unfamiliar with. Perhaps the grandest of all was the Terminator series. At the peak of Cold War II, a space-based nuclear defence system is constructed, itself armed with nuclear weapons for deterrence. It is controlled by an 'intelligent' computer system, Skynet, which is given autonomy to dispatch its weapons in the name of world peace. However, it too loses the plot and aggressively launches its payload on the then USSR, which, thinking it has been attacked by the USA, retaliates by sending its entire nuclear arsenal to destroy the USA. Skynet then takes over the world, by sending down robot cyborgs to destroy the remnants of the human species. The story on both Terminator and Terminator II is an intriguing battle between warriors from both parties sent back in time to alter the course of history. Action-packed drama ensues for possession of the silicon chip 'brain' that started it all.

Perhaps these and the many other science fiction works dealing with similar themes were inspired by the early use of computer technology in defence systems. Vast military budgets have been expended on cybernetic military systems - both offensive and defensive. The SAGE system was built as an 'intelligent' system capable of protecting North America against nuclear bombers. They got to find a use for one of the first programmable computers built by MIT: the Whirlwind. A system was constructed that used outlying radar stations to detect enemy intrusions, and automatically dispatch and direct interceptor aircraft. Problem was they struggled to get it working and by the time it did, the ICBM made it an expensive white elephant.

Then of course, digital electronic technology has resulted in 'Smart Bombs', 'Fire and Forget' - basically choose a target and the computer does the rest. The annihilation of Baghdad by Western high-tech forces ten years ago is evidence of the success of this.

However, on more contemporary celestial considerations, humankind's silicon creations don't seem to be shaping up to predictions here in the 21st century. Although we like to see ourselves as creators of perfection, a few recent incidents with sapce computing technology indicate otherwise and highlight the impossibility of cybernetic perfection, let alone computers 'clever' enough to take over the world.

The International Space Station has hardly been grabbing mass media headlines save for the first space tourist and a pizza delivery. Over a decade in the making, and enormously expensive, it is being pieced together by Space Shuttle flights from the USA and Soyuz and Proton rockets from Russia. So far significant progress has been made, until the computer crashed that is. The station is controlled by a triple-redundant system of computers which, in a drive to make the station 'smart', controls almost everything. There are no light switches, knobs to turn the air con up, or a radio communication dial - it's all over to the Command & Control computers (C&C's). The architecture of the system is such that if a new component is added to the station, a software module is added which allows control of that device by the C&C. As one might build walls, windows and a roof of a house on the foundations, so software components are added to the base foundation system.

A recent Shuttle mission delivered a $600 million robotic arm built by Canada - the Canadarm II. All was going well on the mission - the arm floated out of the shuttle cargo bay and plugged into the Space Station, the software uploaded and then everyone went to bed. What followed was a near catastrophe,. All three C&C computers failed, leaving the station crew at the mercy of teams of sweating engineers and ground crew, who fretted for four days to try and figure what was going on and get the system up. Since the radio communication link was controlled by the C&C computer system, it was a close call. If it was not for the radio communications offered by the attached shuttle, they would have had serious problems. As backup though, the crew would only have been able to communicate with the mission control via the Russian section to Russian ground stations as it passed over their range using more traditional analog technology.

Somehow, one computer managed to reboot and reloaded itself with the basic system during crew sleep time, and limited functionality was regained. Slowly a second standby computer was brought up and on-line. This was after some frenetic hard disk swopping by the crew and numerous software uploads and reformatting commands from Earth. Meanwhile the rest of the crew played two-dimensional trampoline in a storage module with little else to do except gawk at the dangling inert robotic arm, which still had work to do on that mission. Engineers on the ground could not ascertain wether the problems were software or hardware related. They had no idea what the cause of the failures was, but suspect it was the arm software. With the limited functionality, the arm was commanded to complete its task before the return of the shuttle, one axis at a time so as not to strain the computers or their hard disks. The crises passed, and no further word has been forthcoming on the problems or their resolutions.

Perhaps this is because this crises have been overshadowed by a computer communications failure in the new Canadarm II. Whilst it was being exercised in preparation for the next Shuttle mission which is to deliver an Airlock, it stopped moving. And then the backup system failed. They have not been able to repeat the locking problem, but the backup system computer failure has been isolated to one unit. Currently, a resolution for this problem is still in the making. Meanwhile cost overruns accumulate with the next mission waiting on the ground.

Consideration of these failures leads to rather existential cybernetic pondering - how can this be possible? Given the enormous budgets, human skills, stringent quality controls, years of thorough testing on the ground and all the effort that goes into these creations - how and why did they go wrong? These computer systems are designed by leading universities and contractors, many of whom go back to Whirlwind days. They are built on known, working subsystems and exacting aerospace engineering standards. The answer is perhaps a simple one: given the many-layered complexity of these creations, there is bound to be a small glitch, or an unanticipated condition, or a seemingly insignificant oversight that brings these system to a rather embarrassing and expensive halt under certain (untested) conditions. These systems are generally synchronous and non-self healing. Since they are our designs, inherent in them is our own weaknesses, and certainly we are not infallible. Computers will never be any challenge for the human brain, simply because they are our constructions. And we are not God.

- Bruce Gilllespie

Further reading and references:

Paul Edwards, "The Closed World, Computers and the politics of discourse in Cold War America" (MIT Press, London, 1996)

Manuel De Landa "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines" (Swerve, New York, 1991)

Richard Dawkin, "The Selfish Gene" (Oxford University Press, 1989)

On the ISS computer problems (Spaceflightnow.com):

http://spaceflightnow.com/station/stage6a/010425fd7/

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Please note: All prices quoted include VAT but are subject to confirmation.

 

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TechnoBeat is the newsletter of PCB Technologies (Pty) Ltd and its divisions, including WiseNet Internet Services and The MilkyWay Internet Cafe. Opinions expressed by authors and contributors do not necessarily reflect PCB company policy.

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Copyright 2001 PCB Technologies (Pty) Ltd
est. 1985