Acomputer service tech came to upgrade the company's PCs last week. While he was uploading some new software, the service tech told me that the computers would now be able to do twice the work they had been doing. I immediately started planning all kinds of things to do in my free time.
When the service tech was finished, he asked me to log on to the network and check that everything was in proper working order. As we waited for the computer to boot-up, I wondered why, given that all the new software and the state-of-the-art electronics were so fast, it was taking so long. The technician quickly pointed out that the new software had more lines of code and provided so many more new features than the previous software that it just took longer for the computer to load the files off the network server. His point: Although the system was taking just as long as before to boot-up, it was actually loading a lot more software than before.
I heard his words. But I still didn't understand how any of it would make the system run any more efficiently or faster. In fact, everything I had seen so far indicated the system was going to run much slower.
After deciding to give the service tech the benefit of the doubt, I realized that his explanation still didn't address why my same old e-mail system was taking 90 seconds before asking for my password. To tell the truth, I think that the computer companies have reverted back to the electronic tube mentality. Remember when you had to wait for all the tubes in the radio to warm up before you could get it to work? By my calculations, if the high-tech electronics in my computer had been working at their published rate of 138,000,000 bits/nanosecond, the computer should have been able to duplicate the entire Apollo lunar landing in the time it took my e-mail software to load.
Conducting the next test of the new (and improved) software, we tried accessing and searching for some trivia on the Internet. Success! Based on estimates that there are over 80 trillion bits of information on the Internet, I calculated that the system was operating at an amazing 40,000,000 bits per nanosecond. This operating rate confirmed that the system was fully able to run faster than any computer or software I had ever seen before, but it still didn't explain why the initial PC boot-up and e-mail system were so slow.
WORK Ken's hitting the books on some basic computer programming. He's needs help calculating the following: What is the decimal equivalent of binary 10011110?
See answer below. Source: Adapted from The Fundamentals of Engineering Examination , Prentice Hall Press, 1986.
The service tech offered up this suggestion: "The system might be running a little slow today." On the surface this explanation seemed plausible, particularly given the fact that several IT people had said precisely the same thing over the past few months. But from a purely technical perspective, don't electrons always run at the speed of light? And haven't we all been taught that C, the speed of light, is a constant?
This lead us to another experiment, running two side-by-side PCs to time whether the new or the old software was faster (and therefore more efficient). We pushed the "on" buttons at the same time, then waited to see which machine would boot-up quickest. To our surprise, both PCs presented the same error message, "Access denied. User already logged on."
I guess we've finally discovered the practical limitations on the performance capability of electronic and software upgrades: It's user error!
This report is one of a series of occasional columns exploring the not-altogether serious side of engineering, by Ken Foote a mechanical engineer at GDLS. You can reach Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org†or e-mail your comments to us at email@example.com.
Headwork answer: A