The Harrow Technology Report

  http://www.TheHarrowGroup.com

Insight, analysis, and commentary on the 
innovations and trends of contemporary computing, 
and on its growing number of related technologies.

An ongoing journey towards understanding, 
and profiting from, a world of exponential 
technological growth!

Copyright © 2001-2005, Jeffrey R. Harrow.  All rights reserved.
Email: Jeff@TheHarrowGroup.com

 

We Are Living In Our Past!
Dec. 3, 2001

 

  • Quote of the Week.
                Through the eyes of history.

  • The Elephant Thing.
                Evolutionary and revolutionary advances in memory and computing.

  • XP Update.
                It "just works!"

  • From Out of the Ether...
                Cheaper than SnailMail; (sometimes) faster than Email!

  • 007 On I-95?
                How to win at Road Rage?

  • About "The Harrow Technology Report"
                Subscribing, unsubscribing, and more…


  • LISTEN To This Issue.

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    Quote of the Week.

     

    “I have always found the best remedy to future shock and the "oh wow" factor is to remember that we are living in our past. The highest tech of today will be the Stone Age tools of tomorrow.”

    Bradley Smart
    Australia

    Back to Table of Contents


    The Elephant Thing.

     

    Elephants are reputed to never forget.  If this fable were true, then perhaps, even though their brains are relatively small, the elephant must have found a way to pack lots of memory into its brain’s limited space.  Which is exactly what reader Sander Olson tells us that a Swedish company, ThinFilm (http://www.thinfilm.se/index2.htm), is doing.  Not increasing the packing density of pachyderm gray matter, but as in that famous line from The Graduate, ThinFilm sees immensely dense memory futures -- in “plastics.”

     

    Plastic Memory.

    Rather special plastic, of course, where a very thin sheet of the polymer is sandwiched between two tiny grids of electrodes.  At each intersection of the checkerboard of electrodes (one set on top of, and the other below the polymer sheet), they claim that a bistable memory cell pops into existence. 

    Image - ThinFilm Polymer memory schematic - http://www.thinfilm.se/index2.htm

    A voltage applied to a given cell can modify the organic nature of the polymer at that spot, changing it from one state to another.  And that state can be read at a later time.  Because this “state change” is to the chemical nature of the polymer at that location on the sheet, the state is non-volatile – this memory, unlike today’s typical RAM, won’t lose its mind when the power goes out.  Which would make it very “pocket device friendly.” 

    So – we have a “one” or a “zero.”  Binary storage.  Without, you’ll note, any silicon in the memory array!  In fact, ThinFilm believes that this technology can be produced using “roll to roll” manufacturing techniques, similar to how a newspaper is printed, which could lead to huge economies of scale and dirt cheap memory.

    But what’s particularly interesting about this idea, is its density.  Today, a typical S-RAM memory cell takes up between four and six square micrometers of area.  By comparison, ThinFilm says that their polymer cells would each occupy but one quarter of a square micrometer – quite a difference. 

    ThinFilm believes that they can shrink the memory to this extent because there are no active (transistor) elements within the memory matrix, as is the case with today’s memory – ThinFilm’s memory cells are defined only by the passive matrix of crisscrossed electrodes.  The active elements that are needed to address the memory cells and to perform the read and write operations can be located at the edge of the matrix or, alternatively, under or above the memory matrix.  Which also opens new packaging structures, where the memory could be placed on top of or below another chip.  This would result in far higher packing density than we’re used to:  consider that a gigabit of contemporary S-RAM requires from 1.5 to 6.5 billion transistors, while ThinFilm’s polymer memory would require only a half-million active elements!  And if that isn’t dense enough, these “memory sheets” can be stacked one atop the other, for 3D density. 

    What would such dense plastic memory mean to us?  According to ThinFilm, a single credit card-sized memory device built with this technology could store 60,000 DVD movies; or 126 YEARS of MP3 songs; or 400,000 CDs, or 250 million high definition digital pictures.  Now wouldn’t this change a lot of rules…

    Of course, claims such as these sound almost too good to be true, and they may be -- when it comes to bleeding-edge research, sound skepticism is a good idea.  But ThinFilm’s claims may have some extra credibility, considering that Opticom ASA owns 87% of ThinFilm, and Intel owns the rest.  One could well imagine that Intel would want to be involved in a technology that had the potential to take us beyond the age of silicon memory.  (And remember -- as entrenched as we are today in the world of silicon, a change to a radically different memory technology could well happen – in fact it’s already happened, as we moved from relay memory, to vacuum tube memory, to magnetic core memory, to silicon …)

     

    BioMolecules?

    As interesting as ThinFilm’s ideas may be, they’re not the only player in the organic memory game.  According to the Nov. 14 EE Times, brought to our attention by reader Kenneth LaCrosse (http://www.electronicstimes.com/story/OEG20011114S0030), a group of Italian researchers have altered the structure of a special protein, “Green Fluorescent Protein,” to create single molecules that each provide one bit of optical memory!  In effect, these individual molecules can be addressed by one of two specially tuned lasers; one laser forces the molecule into a “dark state,” while the other returns it to its “bright state.”  Since another laser can “read” which of these two non-volatile states the molecule is in, we have an optical biological molecular memory cell!  And it may be easy to construct large 3D arrays of these memory molecules, according to National Enterprise for NanoScience physicist Vittorio Pellegrini,

    “Since the active element of the device is a protein, it is possible to develop volumetric memory devices in which the proteins are forced to self-assemble…”

     

    It’s NOT Just Memory…

    Of course it isn’t only “memory” that’s on the verge of the Lilliputian.  As we’ve followed in recent issues, computing elements themselves are teasing us with revolutionary new ways of shrinking, even to the point of complete transistors composed of but a single molecule (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20011119/20011119.htm#_Toc530466221
    ),
    and of transistors made out of carbon nanotubes (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20010910/20010910.htm#_Toc524496065
    )
    .  Now, as readers Victor Panlilio, Peter Quodling, and others have pointed out, Ehud Shapiro of Israel’s Weizmann Institute has developed a specialized DNA computer so small, that a trillion of them fit into one test tube!

    Image - DNA - http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/1665000/images/_1668415_dna300.jpg

    At this point, these DNA computers, the first whose input, output, and software are all DNA molecules(!), are specifically designed to process other DNA molecules, such as for DNA sequencing.  But as described by the Nov. 21 BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/
    newsid_1668000/1668415.stm
    )
    , DNA computers have already been experimentally used to solve more traditional mathematical problems.  According to Shapiro (http://in.news.yahoo.com/011121/107/199x5.html),

    "The living cell contains incredible molecular machines that manipulate information-encoding molecules such as DNA and RNA (its chemical cousin) in ways that are fundamentally very similar to computation."

    Over and above DNA’s computing capabilities, it holds the potential for huge amounts of very tiny storage – densities 100,000 times greater than today’s hard disks!  Another way to look at this, as told in the Nov. 22 Reuters (http://in.news.yahoo.com/011121/107/199x5.html), is that one cubic centimeter of DNA can hold the information stored on one trillion CDs.  Think of the MP3 player you could have…

     

    Is It Soup Yet?

    Revolutionary -- I can’t yet judge the likelihood that ThinFilm’s technology, or fluorescent molecular memory, or DNA computing and storage, might actually make it into the marketplace.  And of course it may come to pass that none of these particular advances ever do.  But even if one or more of these ideas fail, they still represent good demonstrations of how brilliant scientists and engineers just insist on finding new technologies, and new techniques to explore.  Which is why I feel very confident that one (or more) of these or other revolutionary advances will indeed hit a jackpot.  After all – history is full of our doing exactly that!

    Evolutionary -- And then again, even if NONE of these revolutionary advances yield fruit, we have fascinating, merely “evolutionary” changes ahead, highlighted by Intel’s recent announcement of a “TeraHertz transistor” (brought to our attention by reader Sean Burke - http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20011126/tc/tech_intel_dc_2.html).  This tiny transistor can switch on and off one trillion times each second – far faster than the transistors in today’s Pentiums, and they consume far less power (and generate far less heat.)  Dan Hutchinson, president of VLSI Research, put it this way in the Nov. 26 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/26/technology/
    ebusiness/26CHIP.html?todaysheadlines
    )
    as he commented on Intel’s ability to build things on its chips, “one atomic layer at a time:”

    "They've solved some of the electrical problems that looked like brick walls."

    Which really shouldn’t surprise any of us.  That, after all, has been, and will remain, the name of the technology game!

    Intel expects this new type of transistor to make its way into microprocessors within four years, and they expect that by the end of this decade, this will lead to commodity chips with,

    “Twenty-five times more transistors in processors than in current ones, running at ten times the speed, yet with no increase in power.” 

    Even more aggressively, the Nov. 26 ZDNet News suggests that billion-transistor chips could be a reality as early as 2007!  (http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/news/
    0,4586,5099908,00.html?chkpt=zdnnh112601
    )

    That’s over a billion transistors in a commodity CPU chip (compared to today’s 42 million), running at perhaps 20 gigahertz (compared to today’s 1 to 2 gigahertz).  Within six years.  And from merely “evolutionary” advances. 

    Now -- factor in the “revolutionary” possibilities…

    Don’t blink!

     

    Back to Table of Contents


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    Back to Table of Contents


    XP Update.

     

    My recent comments about bringing Windows XP up on my home-office network (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20011119/20011119.htm#_Toc530466223
    )
    generated a lot of interest and questions from you, so this week I’ll begin an occasional discussion of my “XPerience.”



    The Notebook.

    I began this adventure by installing XP-Home onto an older notebook (which met XP’s hardware requirements), since a disaster here would not affect my day-to-day activities.  Although I attempted to install XP over the existing Win98 system (having first removed several applications and utilities that the XP Upgrade Advisor (http://www.microsoft.com/WINDOWSXP/
    home/howtobuy/upgrading/advisor.asp
    )
    , complained about), this tack never succeeded for me – the installation failed each time, although I do hear that this works well for many people. 

    Not to be deterred, I reformatted the disk with the NTFS file system (this newer on-disk structure is more robust than the previous FAT file systems, and it enables several new features), and I did a clean install, which executed flawlessly.

    I did then have to go to the sound and video chip set vendors’ Web sites to collect the latest drivers (XP came up using drivers that worked quite well, but they didn’t provide all the bells and whistles these chip sets are capable of.)  I had expected XP’s new online driver acquisition process to make this unnecessary, but overall it was a painless process.

    As we discussed last issue, I did run into several peripherals whose manufacturers don’t yet offer XP drivers, but I’ve found that some of them now offer cumbersome but effective workarounds to let me to use their existing Windows 2000 drivers on XP, until their true XP drivers become available.  But finding these took some hunting, and sometimes required the assistance of people “in the know.” (Thanks!, to those of you who helped.)

    Bottom line:  XP works.  In fact, like the Energizer Bunny before it, XP just keeps on working.  It hasn’t crashed yet in two weeks!  And it shuts down completely when I ask it to (rather than hanging during the process, as was my norm with Win98.)  And XP’s power management features now work correctly with the hardware.  And I can now run any number of programs at one time, without exhausting one of Win9x’s Achilles’ heels -- its very limited pool of User/System/GDI resources, which often caused my systems to hang or crash! 

    (Now to be fair, not everyone has experienced such a checkered past with Win9x.  Some readers, such as Paul Witheridge, report a far more positive experience:

    “I must strongly disagree!  I wouldn't put myself through the agony of XP for all the tea in China when my Win98SE has been running over three weeks with nary a hiccup, re-boot or slightest instability.  And this is just the current run.  I don't normally keep a log of time between reboots but I hardly ever re-boot except when an installation requires it.”)

    I must admit that I shouldn’t HAVE to be this ecstatic about an operating system simply doing what it’s supposed to do (I’ll get to some of XP’s newer features in future columns).  But the reality is that the evolution of Win9x and the extensive backwards compatibility that it maintained (no easy feat), just didn’t deliver “stability” as job-one. 

    Now though, with XP, I now have a notebook that – simply works.  So far, I give it very high marks.  


    The Desktop.


    Having put some XPerience under my belt, and having worked through the various driver issues, it seemed time to take the next plunge and upgrade my main desktop system to XP.  In this case I chose to upgrade to XP-Pro so that I could experiment with (and benefit from) several of its additional features, such as:  file encryption; finer control of local and network access permissions for files and resources; the ability to allow a client (such as a notebook out on the road) to “take over” the desktop and actually “become” the user, remotely (something I’ve always called Virtual Visit); the ability to host “remote help” sessions, where similar technology can be used to assist a remote user having problems; and more.

    Since I really wanted to have an “easy out” if I ran into Xtreme problems with the XP-Pro installation, this seemed like a good time to pick up a new disk drive ($179 for 60 gigabytes spinning at 7200 RPM – three-tenths of a penny per megabyte, compared to $60/megabyte 27 years ago.) 

    I installed the new disk so that it would be the first to boot, even if my original Win98 disk was online (although for safety’s sake, I left the original disk disconnected during the installation), and I performed a clean installation, adding the latest drivers for the sound and video cards.  Again, it Just Worked!  And it’s kept on working, with (so far) not a single crash or instability!  (By the way, just to be clear, as is always the case in The Harrow Technology Report, these are my opinions exclusively; Microsoft was not involved with this review in any way.)

    I then installed all of the applications that I normally use (I’ve learned to keep my current application CDs all in one place), and I then reconnected the old Win98 disk, which mounted as a random drive letter (not C:, which is now the XP disk).  It was then easy to transfer all my old data files to the new drive. 

    Soon, once I’ve become convinced that I’ll never have to go back to the Win98 system (I sincerely hope not!), I’ll be freeing up that drive to experiment with XP’s “mirroring” (which maintains two identical copies of the main disk, allowing the system to automatically and seamlessly switch to the “mirrored” disk if the primary disk fails); with the ability to dynamically “grow” a disk, such as C:, simply by extending it onto another physical disk; and other interesting new capabilities.

    Yes, on one hand I do feel conflicted in waxing so enthusiastic about XP since this IS how things should have worked all along.  And we should remember that there are other contemporary operating systems out there that work very well indeed such as Linux and its UNIX brethren, and the Mac’s OS-X.  But as Windows does retain the lion’s share of applications that most people choose to use, I’m going to focus in this direction for the time being.  And -- because Windows does (now / finally / so far) work so well! 

    I don’t yet have Office XP, so I can’t describe the total integration that Microsoft is touting, but from my so far very limited XPerience, I am impressed.  And I am very glad that I took the XP-plunge and didn’t wait, as had been my plan.

    May your XPeriences be as positive!

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    From Out of the Ether...

     

    Changing Economics, FAX-Style -- Commenting on our recent discussion about Email as an alternative (if not necessarily a robust one) to physical mail (http://www.theharrowgroup.com/articles/
    20011105/20011105.htm#_Toc529341785
    )
    , reader Martin Wilcocks, in light of today's decreasing long distance costs and increasing postal rates, does this rather telling version of "new math:"

    "I think that you overlooked another electronic method to bypass the US mail service - the fax!  When I occasionally have to bill outside customers, I use my faxmodem to do it. 

    With AT&T phone charges at 7c/min, I have to fax 5 pages to reach the cost of a US postage stamp, and if I mail 5 pages I already have to add a second ounce stamp anyway, unless I print double-sided.  It’s faster than Express Mail, FedEx and the like, it’s targeted at the intended recipient only, and it sometimes beats e-mail for delivery speed!"

    The figures are obvious in retrospect, but I'd never stopped to think that a multi-page fax can be less expensive than a stamp.  Not to mention the additional costs of the envelope (another penny), plus the 2-3 cents per sheet to print the material.  Thanks Martin!

     

    Back to Table of Contents


    007 On I-95?

     

    Finally, if someone told you about a car that could spray an oil slick, send out pepper spray, toss tacks on the road, lay down a smoke screen, see in the dark, or shock an unwelcome someone trying to open the door, you'd probably come to the conclusion that the car belonged to the fictional James Bond.  But it seems, according to the June 1 TechWeb (http://www.techweb.com/wire/story/TWB20010601S0003), that a heavily modified Ford F-350 truck can do all these things and more, as a U.S. Army prototype called “SmarTruck.”

    In a poignant example of fiction, er, driving reality, the spokesperson for the Army's National Automotive Center, Germane Fuller, confirms that, "the truck's design team drew inspiration from 007 movies."

    Of course it's probably not going to show up as the next Yuppie vehicle of choice – you see, it doesn't come with latte holders...

     


    About "The Harrow Technology Report"

    "The Harrow Technology Report" explores the innovations and trends of many contemporary and emerging technologies, and then draws some less than obvious connections between them, to help us each survive and prosper in the Knowledge Age. 

    "The Harrow Technology Report" is brought to you by Jeffrey R. Harrow, Principal of The Harrow Group. http://www.TheHarrowGroup.com .

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    Copyright (c) 2001-2005, Jeffrey R. Harrow. All rights reserved.

    Jeffrey R. Harrow maintains that all reasonable care and skill has been used in the compilation of this publication.  However, he shall not be under any liability for loss or damage (including consequential loss) whatsoever or howsoever arising as a result of the use of this publication by the reader, his/her/its servants, agents or any third party.

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