The occasion of our 25th-anniversary print issue put us in mind of some theoretical and historical questions in addition to the more practical ones we deal with all the time. Here are answers to some of those questions, which you may have been musing about, too.
When Will Moore's Law Run Out?
Transistors can get only so small. As Gordon Moore himself said in a 2005 Techworld interview, "It can't continue forever...We have another 10 to 20 years before We reach a fundamental limit."
But Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, is more optimistic. "Moore's Law is a law of human ingenuity, not of nature," he told me in an e-mail exchange. He agrees that, taken literally, Moore's Law (which asserts that the number of transistors packed into a given area increases exponentially) "will probably come to an end prior to 2020..." But he believes that, before that happens, researchers will find another paradigm for shrinking code and information.
How much longer can this go on? "Beyond four hundred years," Kurzweil says, "the laws of physics will have to be substantially altered for Moore's Law to continue."
That's a long way off. In the meantime, you can expect exponential improvements to continue "well into the 21st century," according to Kurzweil, "far past the point when computing technology can match and exceed the human brain."
Does Vista Have Any DOS 1.0 Code?
Tim Paterson wrote QDOS, the basis for MS-DOS 1.0, before it was sold to Microsoft. A Microsoft programmer told him in the mid-1990s that "we still have some of your code in there."
Today, a Microsoft spokesperson says DOS 1.0 content has gone the way of the giant ground sloth: "There hasn't been DOS code in Windows since before XP."
Then 'splain this: If you load Vista's Command Line environment and type the MEM command, the program reports "655360 bytes available to MS-DOS."
And it still runs such old DOS programs as the early spreadsheet Visicalc, a major application in pre-DOS days and one of the first ported to DOS. If you don't believe me, download the DOS version of Visicalc and see for yourself.
Why Is Internet Access Slower in the U.S. Than in Other Developed Nations?
Actually, that claim is a bit of an exaggeration. A 2007 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation rated the United States 16th out of 30 developed nations in throughput, with an average speed of 4.8 megabits per second (it finished 12th in an overall ranking that included penetration and price). Japan came in first at 61 mbps; the average speed for all 30 nations considered was 9 mbps.
Why the difference? According to ITIF president Robert D. Atkinson, "we've been going down in ranking since 2001...We've increased, but not as fast as other countries."
One disadvantage: The U.S. population isn't as concentrated as that of Japan or South Korea (number two in the rankings). "In Seoul," Atkinson says, "an awful lot of people live in multiunit high-rise buildings."
There are policy differences, too. "Other governments have had more-proactive broadband policies," Atkinson says. "Korea and Japan used fairly aggressive subsidies for fiber and broadband." And Canada (in 10th place) has made an effort to connect rural communities, experimenting with WiMAX and satellite.
What's Vista Doing With All That RAM?
Vista appears to use almost all of your RAM, even when no programs are running. But that's good, not bad.
I checked for free RAM on an XP machine carrying 1GB of memory, with no programs running. The result: 811MB of free RAM. On a Vista machine in the same situation, the figure for free RAM was a big goose egg.
So why is that good? Vista puts all of its unused RAM into a cache called SuperFetch. That's a better way to store the RAM than letting it sit idle, and should improve performance.
When a program needs more RAM, Vista takes it out of the cache and gives it to the program.
What's the Oldest Computer That Still Works?
There's no way to know for sure, but I've found two likely candidates, both of which were built in 1959.
I suspect that the FACOM 128B at the Ikeda Memorial Hall in Fujitsu's Numazu factory is the oldest. The 128B line was developed in 1958, and the surviving computer was built in 1959. The 128B occupies 700 square feet of floor space, was used to design Japan's first passenger airplane, and probably has less computing power than a good modern calculator. The company's goal is to keep it working until 2016, when it will have completed 60 years of operation.
The other candidate is the London Science Museum's Ferranti Pegasus computer. It went on line in 1960, so it probably ranks as second oldest. It has the equivalent of about 256 bytes of RAM (actually, nickel delay lines) and a 25KB hard drive (actually, a magnetic drum).