Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Speed Freaks

Intel ups the processor ante

By James Hanback Jr.

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  More than 51 years ago, a young World War II fighter pilot from West Virginia climbed into the cockpit of an X-1 fighter named the Glorious Glennis and, for the first time in human history, traveled faster than the speed of sound.

When he broke Mach 1, Chuck Yeager was suffering from two broken ribs. He had been told by several "experts" that the sound barrier was unbreakable and that he would destroy his plane. Undaunted, he went ahead, achieving an important goal in the history of aircraft and travel.

Nowadays, airplanes break the sound barrier on a daily basis, and some jet-propelled land craft have also reached Mach 1. The human race can get where it's going faster than ever before.

In the computer industry, numerous records have been broken and then broken again. Devices that started out big enough to fill a room now sit comfortably on a desktop or in the palm of your hand. Storage media that were once 8 inches wide and stored about 4 kilobytes of information are now half as big and store much more.

But it's only in recent years that the public has paid attention to processor speeds, as people hunger for more rapidity and greater flexibility in personal computing. The processor is the brain of the computer. It's where all the mathematical computations take place, and where our somewhat plain-English input is translated to ones and zeroes so that the computer can understand it. The faster your computer can think, the faster you get your work done.

Last week, Intel Corp., the largest manufacturer of personal-computer processors, announced that it has not only improved upon its low-cost processor, the Celeron; it has also improved speed performance on its Pentium II to 450mhz. The company plans a 500mhz Pentium II by the middle of next year. (A hertz is equal to one cycle, or action, per second. Processor speeds are measured in megahertz because they perform millions of cycles per second.)

Only last year, Intel processor speeds stretched over the 300mhz mark. And four years ago, the top speed on almost any computer you could buy was just 66mhz. The industry has come a long way in a very short while--although in the world of computers, six months seems like a long time.

The new Celeron processors are geared toward the sub-$1,000 PC market; they feature a built-in 128K cache, which is the internal-memory space that the processor uses to speed its work. The original Celeron processors had no cache at all. (Intel's Pentium II processors have always had a 512K cache, though in a different area of the processor.)

According to Internet reports, Intel's improvements on the Celeron are an attempt to grab hold of the less-than-$1,000 PC market, which has been dominated mainly by companies like Cyrix. Intel's stronghold has traditionally been in the high-end PC market, which consists of computers ranging from $1,300 to $2,000 and more.

Meanwhile, the PC's biggest competitor, the Macintosh, boasts a 333-mhz top-speed processor. Apple Computer Inc. plans to achieve greater speeds by early next year.

Intel has reportedly discussed a processor speed as high as 700mhz by the end of 1999. For the year 2000, the company promises the Merced, a processor that uses 64-bit processing rather than the 32-bit Pentium II and Celeron chips. A bit is the smallest unit of measurement of computer information; the more bits a computer can read and write at a time, the faster it processes data. Start looking for 64-bit operating systems soon after the Merced chips are released.

As processor speeds climb and computer prices fall, the battles for domination of the software market will continue. Indeed, the day may finally come when a certain computer-company CEO finally reaches his goal of having a copy of his software at every work station and on every home computer.


"Hot" passwords

According to recent Internet reports, Hotmail, Microsoft's free Web-based e-mail service, has a security flaw that could allow JavaScript programming-language hackers to steal user passwords. Hotmail says that programmers are working "feverishly" to correct the bug.

The security flaw can be exploited by JavaScript code sent to a Hotmail user in an e-mail message. The code, first demonstrated by Specialty Installations in Canada, generates a false Hotmail "time-out error" and asks the user to reenter his password. Once the password is entered, the user is returned to his regular Hotmail page, but in the process his password is e-mailed to the hacker.

Hotmail can fix the problem by filtering out e-mail messages that contain JavaScript. Some other free Web-based e-mailers (like Yahoo! Mail) are already set up to do that.

Resistance is futile...

Prof. Kevin Warwick, head of the University of Reading's cybernetics department, became the first individual to have a microchip surgically implanted in his body, according to a report at http://www.abcnews.com. Warwick had a 23-by-3 millimeter capsule implanted in his arm last week.

The capsule contains an electromagnetic coil and a silicon chip that activated an e-mail message when Warwick walked through his classroom door for a demonstration. "Good morning, Professor Warwick. You have five new e-mails," said a disembodied computer voice. According to the report, Warwick's doctor advised him to have the capsule removed from his arm within 10 days. The professor has been taking antibiotics to fight off infection.

Warwick announced that the mingling of humans and computers could greatly enhance the way we communicate with our machines. However, it could also severely limit our freedom. Examples Warwick cited were alarms that keep unwanted or dangerous people out of schools, and chips that allow employers to track a worker's productivity.

Certainly, ethics must be established before or soon after such inventions are put into wide use. No one likes the idea of having someone watch their every move. If it all sounds a bit too Orwellian, remember that no one is talking about requiring certain individuals to have chips implanted. Not yet, at least.

Is the fax machine dead?

Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard announced recently that Windows NT 5.0 will support the Internet Printing Protocol (IPP), which will allow people to print directly from their computers to any printer with an Internet URL. The innovation means that instead of having documents e-mailed to them, recipients may simply be able to print the documents on their printers. The quality will be better than on documents sent through fax machines--and, depending on the printer, in color.

Microsoft and HP hope to make IPP a standard protocol. If that happens, the fax machine may eventually go the way of the Betamax and the 8-track tape. Windows NT 5.0 is currently being tested for bugs.


According to reports from Microsoft, a bogus announcement about an Internet Explorer upgrade is circulating via e-mail on the Internet. The e-mail claims that an attached file contains an upgrade for Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0, and even provides instructions on how to install it. Microsoft officials say that downloading and launching the attachment could allow someone to gather information from your hard drive and download it to some other computer.

In such situations, here's a good rule of thumb: If someone sends you an e-mail with a file attachment and 1. you don't know the source, and 2. you didn't request the attachment, do not download the file. Instead, immediately delete the message and the file attachment from your computer.

The bogus Microsoft message is printed below exactly as it appears in the original e-mail:

Dear User:

As a Microsoft Internet Explorer customer, Microsoft Corporation provides to you the latest patch for your Microsoft Internet Explorer. To install the upgrade, please save attached file to any folder and start it. (You can do this with Windows Explorer with double-clicking the IE1744.EXE file in the folder you stored this file.)

The hacker responsible for the above should return to English class before he attempts another dupe like this. At the very least, he should hire an editor. This prank would have been much more convincing if it sounded less like a second-grade essay, or like a non-English-speaking individual struggling with the language.

Microsoft, as a general rule, does not distribute e-mail file attachments as a means of allowing users to upgrade their Microsoft products. Instead, upgrades can be downloaded from the company's Web site at http://www.microsoft.com.

James Hanback Jr. is systems administrator for the Scene. E-mail him at james@nashscene.com.

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