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Ionic Column      in exile

by David Parry

Englishman David Parry lived, worked and played in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. He was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990. The Ionic Column has been going since early 1992. It even won a prize and an honorable mention back in 1992. Currently based in Düsseldorf and working as a translator, David Parry returns to Japan electronically via the Internet.

This month the Ionic Column looks at the world of computers from a slightly different angle. To whit: what would happen in a world without computers?

The background to this column can be found at the following URL:

The E-bomb
I probably risk all kinds of legal unpleasantness if I reprint the article, which I am quite certain is not shareware, so I will not quote it directly. Anyway, it concerns the story of the E-bomb. The US military is, as usual, working on all kinds of weird and wonderful devices. Popular Mechanics is now available online and has highly readable articles about technology of all sorts. The E-bomb is nothing to do with the Internet, but it could certainly stop your system in its tracks, more effectively than a virus. The E-bomb is simply a form of electromagnetic energy, and it can cripple anything electrical.

Energy exists in various forms. Often more than one type occurs at the same time, which may or may not be desirable. For example, you get a certain amount of heat when generating light or sound. I've personally become aware of that fact from desk lamps that scorched my hand when I carelessly reached up to adjust the angle of the light and discovered the accompanying heat. I think this is known as "learning through experience". But light can be generated in other and more efficient ways that produce less heat, although the payoff for more efficiency from fluorescent lights is that you do not get a full spectrum of light, and what comes out is deficient in red, although this fact is disguised by the clever use of phosphors to produce white light. One reason that the new LED lights used in small torches and the like, or fluorescent lights for that matter, last so long is that little or no heat is generated. Conventional tungsten filament lamps have to be heated to glowing point. The amount of heat can be quite considerable, as anyone who has ever handled a projector bulb or a stage floodlight will know.

The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from light to radio waves. The radio part includes pulses or spikes generated by switched currents, or to be more precise, interrupted currents. Electric motors work on the principle of switching the power in one way or another, especially in the case of DC motors. The voltage spikes produced by the motor itself or by a controller can be noticeable if you have radio equipment of any type, or sensitive measuring equipment. At a domestic level, you can "hear" the voltage spikes from your radio when the relatively large motor for a refrigerator or an air conditioner switches on or off. Electromagnetic spikes can be irritating enough at the relatively small levels generated by unsuppressed motors, but you get the E-bomb by taking that principle to a higher level by applying more power.

The Compton Effect
Since this column was not finished before I left on holiday and Internet access here is s-l-o-w, I have to rely on what I remember of the article. But take a look for yourself, as it makes fascinating reading. The E-bomb is based on something called the Compton Effect, which was discovered in the 1920's and was regarded as a scientific curiosity until its more interesting possibilities were realized. This came about partly as a result of nuclear weapons. A side-effect of a nuclear blast is that electrical energy is released along with heat, light and radiation. The electrical energy and the radiation ionize the atmosphere and do strange things even at great distances. One harmless example is the aurora borealis, which I saw once from an airplane when flying from Alaska some years ago. A less harmless example is that the massive flood of radiation from an atomic bomb would fry everything electrical. The military has for obvious reasons been aware of this and has done what it can to protect useful bits of equipment such as radar. But there is a limit to the amount of protection that can be provided. The problem now is that the same intense blast of energy can be produced without a nuclear explosion.

The $400 bomb and time machine
The Compton Effect involves the production of an intense pulse of energy as the result of short- circuiting a charged field. The article states it better, so take a look anyway (and I don't get commission if you visit the site). One way of producing this rapid pulse of energy is to use a small explosion to create a very fast and short-lived short circuit. The E-bomb is a small bomb with a battery, a set of electrically charged coils, and a central section that that short-circuits the coils in the explosion. It is neither complex nor expensive. We can be propelled back to the 18th century in a matter of minutes by a device costing perhaps $400. How would it do this?

Darkness in Hawaii
The energy released by the ionization can travel long distances and do strange things a long way away from the original explosion. One of the nuclear tests at Bikini atoll in the 1950's blew out street lamps in Hawaii a little later. I assume that this means that the atmospheric conditions affect whether or not the energy travels a long distance, otherwise each nuclear shot would have done the same thing. The problem apparently also is that the intense energy can travel long distances through the electricity transmission system. Like the worst diseases, it does not destroy immediately but allows its power to be passed on. In the past, it was assumed that this sort of thing would require a nuclear explosion, but now a device of this sort could easily be produced and used by terrorists. Not a reassuring thought in the wake of the 9/11 disaster.

A Frankenstein film set
I have translated a number of documents that broadly relate to this issue; the carmakers all test their vehicles in big halls with massive equipment that looks like something from a set for a Frankenstein film to simulate lightning and EM pulses. This is not just a matter of ensuring that the radio works properly. Cars have a complex electrical situation, what with power-carrying cables in a sheet metal body. Modern engines achieve their high power and low fuel consumption through the use of computers. The very latest BMWs are chock full of electronics, which can be regarded as a sales point or a mechanic's nightmare as you will. At any rate, opinions are mixed about the new BMW 7-series with the integrated electronic system with one control to set just about everything from the ventilation to the angle of the steering wheel. With the next big thing being "the Internet in the car", it is clear that cars and electronics are very close indeed. So if somebody does let off an E-bomb, most cars on the road now would be unusable. The shielding of the electronics would be unable to withstand the intense pulse of an E-bomb. Even if the engine ran, there are other electrical systems in the car that might also be affected, such as lighting and signaling.

Back to the diesel
The article stated that only a diesel engine would be able to run; I don't know offhand if older petrol engines with an old-fashioned distributor with the whirling metal rotor would work. The article also did not state what would happen to backup generators, which I believe are usually diesel for the likes of data centers and hospitals.

A romantic candle-lit dining experience
So, no transport. And no light, since the pulse would burn out the power transmission system. No electric heating, no electric cookers. Lifts would stop. Many central heating systems have electrical timers and igniters, so it would soon get cold. Gas would work as long as the pressure was maintained, which involves electrically-driven compressors. Water would be available for as long as there was some in the water tank at the top of your building. Sewage would back up in the absence of pumps to carry it away in the sewers. Living with battery-powered torches, limited water, Camping Gaz for cooking, and minimal sanitation is all well and good for a camping holiday, but is definitely not a fun lifestyle in the long term, let alone in the big city. I experienced some of that in Nepal, mainly in the mountains, but also in Kathmandhu after the power cuts that turned almost every evening dinner into a romantic candle-lit dining experience. And at least Kathmandhu has electricity, flush toilets and running water, or approximations thereof; these were luxuries compared to the rest of the trip out in the mountains. Can you imagine living in a farm shed for three weeks? That was life in most of rural Nepal.

The good life
Simplicity is OK in small doses, in the style of Marie Antoinette and her short visits to a sort of model farm at the Petit Trianon, where she could stroke immaculately barbered animals. Incidentally, I believe that similar establishments exist in Japan for the benefit of townies, where young tots can actually touch an animal. However, most urbanites prefer the country life in very small and controlled doses. The aftermath of an E-bomb would last for several weeks, depending on how much got fried. Like it or not, it would be the simple life for at least a week.

No more time
What other practical problems would there be? The article stated that just about any electrical device would be vulnerable. In that case, what would happen to clocks, watches, radios, CD players, telephones? I have an old mechanical alarm clock at home, but it has been years since I had a watch that required daily winding. These days, it seems that the only mechanical watches available are very expensive Swiss ones like the Rolex, or Soviet Army retro-style clunkers that came back into fashion for a while. They just remind me of the happy days of my youth, when nothing else was available, and I was so happy to have a timepiece that did not need to be wound at least once a day and was accurate to about five minutes a week at best.

No money
An immediate problem would be money. The banks would be stopped cold, since the ATMs would not work, and the warmware tellers would not give out cash because they would be unable to check and update the customer accounts. The cash registers in supermarkets are just the tip of the iceberg, although they too would be smoldering inside after a power surge. These days the bigger shops use networked POS (point of sale) systems that are often linked in to databases for inventory control and ordering systems. They give precise and rapid sales information, but only as long as the power is on.

No goods
Logistics would be knocked haywire. Everybody from the post office to FedEX to the shipping companies rely on computers, to plan the routes, track the shipments, and schedule the jobs. Warehouses are generally automated these days, as I well know from a large number of translations, so an E-bomb brings inventory management to a halt. In the industrial world, orders are generally placed and paid for by e- mail. As I well recall from the manuals for a large and famous German carmaker, there may be backup plans to use fax or snail-mail, but they will not work too well in the absence of telephones, or fax machines for that matter, and the post office itself might only be mobile at the bicycle level for a while.

And one last thought; how many people nowadays have experience of office work at the pencil and paper level? Computers make things much easier, but only if they work.

Lightning strikes again
So much for daily life. What about computers? Many of my readers may have lost a modem to lightning, and the SCSI hard disk of my last PC in Japan, a Polywell 386 (my older readers may also recall the days when Intel produced chips with numbers, not names) died a few weeks after a thunderstorm that stopped my PC in its tracks with an ominous smell of burning. An E-bomb would kill your PC and roast your data. The article implied that hard disks would be rendered useless, despite the shielding of their cases, and diskettes would also be affected.

Lost data
So what about your data? That would only survive on paper or CD. Only optical storage would reliably retain your data, and the only medium widely used outside of computer centers is the CD. In theory, you could protect your diskettes by putting them in a metal container, and I assume it has to be fully enclosed to be effective, with no gaps. At least the master disks for programs nearly all come on optical media these days, so it would be a little easier to get everything set up again once you had replacement equipment. The article left it unclear for me as to whether all electrical equipment would be affected, or only that that was plugged into the mains. From what I recall of previous civil defense- type information on electromagnetic surges, any electrical equipment with transistors and integrated circuits would be toast.

This conjures up a slightly bizarre vision of the post-E-bomb world, with the only music available for a while coming from live groups still using a stack of Marshall valve amplifiers.

Count the motors
Twenty years or so ago there was much speculation as to how computers would be used in the future. One comparison, and a very valid one, was that computers would shrink and be distributed, in the same as electric motors did. The first ones were large and cumbersome things, and it required elaborate drive systems with belts and shafts to get the power where it was needed. This is still true in an industrial context, as I well know from numerous translations of manuals for industrial machinery, but nowadays motors are everywhere. Take a look around your house and take an inventory of the number of motors you have, starting with the fan in your PC. You may not recognize all the motors, since linear motors might turn up somewhere in the home, but just consider what happens if they all stop working.

It is truly surprising how much our world depends on computers these days. But we depend on electricity even more. The 9/11 disaster showed what can happen if you have a very "dense" and high value target, and how the ramifications spread further and further like ripples in a pond. To give one example of an unexpected bonus effect, to put it one way, the piledriver impact of the collapsing buildings brought down two further buildings in the immediate vicinity and has produced structural damage to other buildings and even the subway system within a radius of about a kilometer.

In early October German TV happened to screen one of the 1990 vintage Godzilla films, which ended in typical fashion with the mighty monster trampling down buildings in Japanese cities. We now know that the problems we are confronted with once buildings have collapsed are much greater than one might at first think; just for a start, the Godzilla films omit the subsequent fire that is almost inevitable from all the live cables and burnables of all kinds. The damage from even a small disaster can be quite extensive; I recall an incident in Tokyo about ten years ago, when many of the banks in Tokyo had problems after a fire in a large cable duct in Aoyama.

To summarize; we rely very heavily on computers these days, and you could easily say that it is unthinkable that we could do without them. But we might have to consider the unthinkable.

Last but not least, I have commented to the best of my ability. If there are any factual errors in this month's Ionic, I would be glad to include a correction in next month's column.

Comments or feedback or more information? A burning desire to be quoted in print?
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© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

January, 2002

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN