Monday, 28 March 2022

What Is Printed Circuit Boards Fatal Flaw?

Have We Hit Peak PCB? 

This person thinks it's coming close to that point, and asked the question of what will happen next. If you're the slightest bit techie you'll already have some idea where this is going, you folks may as well skip the next few paragraphs.

What Are PCBs And Why Are They Inadequate?

Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) are those generally green or orange things inside devices that are studded all over with electronic components and gizmos, and they are one of the oldest pieces of technology in that picture. 

About a hundred and some years ago it was cool to just mount electronic and electrical parts (usually with some good stout bolts and pieces of varnished wood because those suckers were generally large and heavy parts) wherever and then string wire between connection points. (When a computer less powerful than a school calculator took up two rooms, you know that those components were huge, and the whole technology for mounting and connecting them in a space-saving way was still a ways off.)

A (sort of) timeline of printed circuit boards

If you've ever been fortunate enough to peer inside a really old 'parlor radio gramophone console' you'd have seen the next step - a sheetmetal chassis, with strips of insulating phenolic material with metal tags attached to them, and the components (that were by then several orders of magnitude smaller) would be soldered between tags, and then the wiring soldered from one tag to another to connect those parts to form the needed circuit. 

Then came the next thing, being able to affix thin copper sheet to insulating sheets and etch it to the shape the wiring would have to take, then soldering the components to the copper in their respective positions. In effect smushing all those metal tags and wires flat onto a piece of insulating material and so turning the old console into a smaller and much flatter sheet, with just a few wires going to speakers, lights, and controls. 

This was better (for the manufacturer) than the console because it did away with the cabinetry required, the sheet metal chassis that the tag strips were attached to, and reduced the size of the cabinet to a much smaller flat package that needed less wood and cabinetry craftsmanship, and the most important thing of all - 

* It was soooo much cheaper to print and populate that board than it would have been to assemble a hodgepodge of tagstrips and parts and metal cases and huge old wooden cabinets because you could mass produce the circuit boards by that stage, parts had become smaller and consumed less current, and technology hadn't stood still so there were ever more inexpensive PCBs, small components,  and cabinets. 

So that's a PCB and how it came about.

Now To That Inadequacy:

Parts became smaller and packed more circuitry inside them. That increased their current consumption again, but allowed the designer place more functionality closer together. To place them closer together, the copper traces ("tracks") had to be made thinner because there were physically just more tracks needing to be squeezed into each square centimetre to carry all the signals and power to those smaller parts, and thus they couldn't carry as much current, had signal bandwidth issues in some cases, and PCB designers began to need and use more and more layers

In re: layers. It's become an art form to place tiny little circuits on a PCB so that they occupy as little space as possible, (so the PCB will fit inside your fitbit or smart watch or mobile phone, for example,) and connect parts with best-path trace routing, and still be able to supply the needed current and signal clarity and still be useable. Some PCBs are now also flexible, meaning more design constraints and more demands made of the PCB technology.

Layer Proliferation

I and other hobbyists routinely use a software program that can create a design for a PCB that I can then either manufacture myself using quite old technology - or I can send it to a PCB manufacturer who can produce a small stack of boards for me for peanuts. 

But if I have a difficult design where a chip has fifty inputs, ten outputs, and needs two voltages, then I'm going to run out of board space pretty quickly and will need several traces to cross over each another - which is impossible on a single-layer board. Initially, the bridging was accomplished by ending the track just before it touched the conflicting track(s) and then resuming it on the other side, and bridging the two points with an insulated wire.

However, every extra bridging wire needed to be cut to size and involved two extra soldered joints to be made, and if you had more than ten of them it started to add up to a fair amount of operator time, and so there then arose a need to design in effect TWO boards that are perfectly aligned and place them on opposite sides of a single board so that the endpoints of traces where a trace needs to cross over aligned, then it can go partly on top and partly underneath and a single via connects the top and bottom traces at an overlap spot. 

A 'via' was just a hole drilled at the time the board was manufactured, and the hole copper-plated through during manufacture so that it joined the trace on one side with its continuation on the opposite side, thus skipping under the bridging point. When that wasn't enough commercial PCBs routinely had 3 - or more - many more -layers inside the board which is printed in a specialised process layer by layer, allowing a lot more wiring to pass by each other. Some computer boards can have more than ten layers sandwiched in them.

These issues - of having to make traces thinner and thinner to pack them in (both on each layer, and also because unless the alternating layers of a board are really thin then the board becomes a plank) and the parts needing more and more current necessitating thicker traces which is s direct conflict of requirements - have come together and resulted in PCBs rapidly becoming as unuseable as point-to-point wiring. THAT'S what that author was referring to, and it's about to become a real issue. 

Because Then Came The Limits

Even with all the design improvements of the PCB, limits are being reached, small complex parts with a lot more signal leads (a CPU chip in your PC or laptop can have 200 pins underneath it)  mean it's getting harder to get by even with twenty layers, and some tiny boards (think the battery charging circuit in your mobile phone) need to carry several amps of current on a PCB that's thin and compact enough to fit inside a device that has to fit inside your pocket. . . 

Making equipment point-to-point started off being sufficient but as components got more complex, this technique hit a wall where the wiring took too much space, too much time, and as parts got smaller, led to difficulties fixing parts in place against the wiring weight. It just got plain unwieldy.

Using sheetmetal chassis and tagstrips worked for simple circuits up the a certain number of components and also hit the wall. You can pack so many parts between tagstrips but then at some point it becomes impossible to add another part without colliding / shorting out / ridiculously long lead lengths.

Single layer PCBs were the undisputed king of the heap for a decade or two before they were replaced by 2 layer, and then multilayer - and nowadays also flexible foldable multilayer - circuits. And now that technology too is hitting the limits of what can be done.

My "What If" Moment:

About the late 1990s, the industry was just seeing the rise of FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) which were a logic chip that wasn't specifically set up to solve a particular problem but instead consisted of a chip that could be field-programmed to have certain logical parameters and which meant that you could in effect customise the chip to a task.

More recent versions offer a way to create specialised configurations that are less power-hungry for performing some specialised tasks faster than anything except a custom-manufactured chip. (And this is why FPGAs are so useful, having a custom chip manufactured was generally a long and expensive process.)

But in the late 1990s, another term was also trending - nanotechnology. Nanotechnology was promising to develop little machines and materials and revolutionise industries and our lives. Sci-fi authors had already foreseen them coming and posited the famous 'grey goo' idea and of course, I was hooked

Between those things an idea came to me, and while I like to think outside the box, I'm not the only one in the world that does this, and I've generally found that if I have an idea, several other people around the world have already had it or are about to. 

This is a technology which might well see the next step up in technology from the PCB. Nanobots are becoming ever more possible and they could in theory perform the internal programming functions of a FPGA only to a much greater depth.

I was envisaging a CPU all inside a single epoxy or ceramic block with only a handful of connections needed - power, inputs, outputs, and arteries. 

Whoa. Back up there - 'arteries?'

Yep. Imagine a device very similar to a FPGA but with added flexibility - it can actually remove sections of itself and replace them as required with different sections. The chip can grow itself both in the flat plane and in the vertical thanks to some light silicone oil inside it, and this 'blood' would carry a stream of nanobots from a materials area to the active area. 

The materials area would have a collection of circuit modules that perform logical functions, nanomaterials for connecting and affixing them physically, nanobots, and two areas that are isolated, one for inbound new materials and one for outlet of nonfunctional or outdated components, nanomaterials, and nonfunctional nanobots.  

In effect, the chip would be upgradeable just by injecting new modules and bots and clean silicon oil, and allowing all the wastes to drain out. In this way it would become like a living system, able to take in 'nutrients' and 'excreting wastes' and consuming energy to do so. Unlike any living system though, it would be able to alter itself to the 'environment' it found itself in. 

Put it in an aircraft and it could add Inertial Movement Units to become aware of 3D motion it undergoes, a series of input channels so that it could take signals from the aircraft's existing guidance systems, and outputs to operate that aircraft. It could download the Operation Manual for the aircraft and all relevant regulations and geospatial data for airports, and you'd have a plane that could fly itself. Add redundancy by using dual systems (and adding several redundant dual systems on hot standby) and theoretically you'd never have an operator-induced aircraft incident ever again.

Put such a system into a spacecraft with sufficient "sustenance" suspended in silicone oil and a supply of energy from solar panels and you could send this spacecraft to the next solar system to explore or become our ambassador. Put it into your home automation system and it will specialise itself for your house and your habits and your needs.

Exactly how it was going to do that was just a kind of 'black box' in my theory at the time, because while AI (artificial intelligence) was a sci-fi staple, the smartest thing around was a really stupid chat-bot whose name I can't even remember. Back then, this step of micromanaging the internals of the chip was the big stumbling block.

Possible? Maybe Not Back Then...

Only . . .  We now do have tiny prototype nanomachines that can be 'programmed' to do a particular task, we do have nanomaterials that make nanowires and building blocks possible, we can build chips in sections or in one assembly, and AI has taken some huge leaps forward and is now diagnosing patients better than a human, identifying faces better than a human can, and taking control over sensitive and finicky industrial processes far more accurately than a human. 

An AI can be programmed to run millions of combinations of molecules and look for potential drug cures for many ailments, they're performing better than humans at working on COVID vaccination variants and detecting COVID and cancers in xrays and predicting stock market fluctuations and predicting weather and . . .  

You get the idea - for a limited narrow process, AI performs extremely well these days. We could let an AI evolve this chip idea in a simulation, evolve the guidance AI that this chip would need, the processes for making the building blocks, and every other facet of producing such a chip. 

The easy part would be to get an AI to design a 'living chip' such as I've envisaged, and designing an AI to inhabit that chip. The hard part, to me, would be to answer the question "Should we?"

Sunday, 20 March 2022

New Strange World


Like it or not we're in "Interesting Times" indeed. . . The loosely-connected hacker activist collective known as Anonymous have been attacking Russian cyber properties wherever they can. Russian government Twitter accounts have been astroturfing fake news and propaganda items about the Ukraine. People who maintain 'open source' software modules and software suites have planted logic bombs in their software

Unfortunately sometimes this hacktivism has created problems for non-combatant computer systems, but I'm going out on a limb and say that there will always be collateral damage of some sort, and some companies really bitched but look - even I can see that there are going to be hacks and some of them might have unintended consequences and therefore I've got things as backed up as a private individual on a shoestring budget can attain. 

But I'll always back hacktivism because it's a popular vote rather than anything on Party lines, and besides, you need to be sure you're secure from ANY attack when your work involves data as sensitive and important as that supposedly was. 

The Guy Fawkes mask these days signifies Anonymous but they
took it as a symbol from the movie "V For Vendetta"
- which was about bringing down a Fascist regime.
Talk about relevant.

Also - and relevantly - since the attacks on Ukraine, it turns out that a lot of software has had updates hacked to damage Russian and Belarusian computer infrastructure. There purports to be a spreadsheet out there that details 20-something pieces of software that have had hacks introduced via the normal updates and that target Russian infrastructure. 

Back and Future

There are a lot more articles out there which undoubtedly bear on this post of mine - people using AI software to develop better weapons, others developing better and better deep fakes to propagandise one side or the other, and hackers outside the Anonymous collective are taking sides and are really fierce about their support of each side. 

There are definitely going to be collateral damages in that war. You or I or our neighbour may be affected by some hacktivism or similar, directly or as a result of that attack on another system we depend on. The best thing you can do is tinplate your arse. Make backups of anything important right now, any way you can and keep that backup safe. 

That complaint about the software developer before - it runs a bit like this: "... person ... work for a US-based organization ... server in Belarus, 'resulted in executing ... code and wiping over 30,000 messages and files detailing war crimes committed in Ukraine ...' " and again - it's not effing rocket science that there WILL be hacks and therefore you need to keep your ass tinplated and this "US-based organisation" needs to re-evaluate their attitude to security.

You'd think we had plenty of intimations that hackers could do some damage for the last twenty-five years from movies like Wargames, Hackers, and the whole hacker movie genre. 

Now we have exactly such situations with individuals, groups, collectives, and State groups all busily hacking the shit out of everything and anything - think about Stuxnet that was repurposed to attack centrifuges in Iran's nuclear program. And that was now twelve years ago that it was discovered and probably fifteen years since it's predecessor was programmed.

Will we ever just LEARN from stuff in the past instead of having to re-learn it to our chagrin? 

I write a lot of these sorts of articles and don't get paid for them. If you enjoyed this article and it got you energised and activated and wanting to do something, do anything to bring the world back from the craziness and disaster after disaster then please - share this article, go to my News Stand and subscribe for a newsletter, and if you'd prefer to be in charge of your own news, I've also written an article that can get you into the wonderful world of newsreaders and leave your inbox newsletter-free.


Monday, 14 March 2022

Why The Wealthy Stay Wealthy

It's down to us, consumers!

I've noticed one sentence cropped up in half a dozen news items tonight: ". . . leaving the consumer to foot the cost . . ."

  • The inflationary shock on SPC baked beans.
  • The Great Nickel Short That Failed.
  • Transport Fuel cost inflation.
  • Fuel costs for consumers.
  • Elon Musk about Tesla and Space X's inflationary shock.

In every one of those, it was NOT a consumer that initiated the events that caused those stuff-ups. 

For example in one case the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of the guy behind Tsingshan Holding Group Co, a Chinese rich guy Xiang Guangda made a bet and lost. By all rights he should have paid that shit out of his own pocket but the London Metal Exchange cancelled that day's trading which pretty much bailed his arse out but of course now they'll be ". . . leaving the consumer to foot the cost . . ."

To be rich, you have to be rich.

Seems like everyone can screw up hugely and not really face much of a setback from it. Because you can ". . . leave the consumer to foot the cost . . ."

How good is letting everyone else bear the brunt of your failures but not share in your successes? 

Capitalism's fucked, the idea of a fiat economy ditto, and we are soooooooo ditto ditto...

Cheers, fellow cash cows. Hi ho hi ho hi ho. . . 

Saturday, 12 March 2022

Someone Done Something Bad.

 You know you've done bad things when Meta (aka Facebook aka Zucktopia, the place where nipples are considered a cardinal sin) says people can say nasty things about killing you,  and even Switzerland adopts sanctions against you.

I couldn't believe that the military could be doing the things they're doing without fairly specific exonerating orders so I have to presume that they've been ordered to push boundaries and commit atrocities. And if those orders do exist and did come from the highest, there'll always be a few conscientious objectors among the ranks that are not happy about what they're being asked to do - and I do suspect that 'frontline leaks' may have contributed to Ukraine scoring a few high-value targets.

There's also been unusually fast worldwide intelligence direct to public which has given us all a front-row seat in the Russian military's war room and it seems that they are really desperate for an excuse to just take Ukraine and feel justified in committing the atrocities to date. No matter how these things are committed, the blame falls up the chain of command, and VVP can't fail to be aware of that.

Just now, "Ukraine has established an "international" legion for people from abroad and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has publicly urged foreigners to "fight side-by-side with Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals" to show support for his country." -- ABC News Australia 

It seems that while the major powers are hanging back, the rest of the world, the mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, war-hardened medics, and those who feel the need to go and bust heads, are pouring into Lviv to help.

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

Grumpy Old Postal Whinge

I 'fess up - I multiblog. (The three audients I have all go "Well duh Ted!") I also write on Grumpy Old Guy among others and put this on that blog yesterday: Australia Post Cracks A Funny and now I'd LOVE to expound and expand on that. Because while I know everyone has a whinge with their postal and courier / delivery services, how many have had this many in ten years? 

Australia Post did deliver on the weekends but that was over a year ago when the pandemic had them more on the ropes than normal mail has apparently always had them. But they stopped doing it that time they announced that they were so busy that they'd made a record profit but rather than hiring more staff to cope they'd just stop picking up local packages for three days while they had a jolly good cry and a Bex powder. 

Since then they've been backlogged, have - seemingly, from the results I've seen - NOT made any progress in improving and growing to meet the challenge of a post-pandemic country with a LOT more people using online ordering and delivery, and weekends haven't been done for around a year.

So when I got a text message on Saturday morning telling "you parcel from Xyzzy Co will be delivered today" I was wondering what had changed. 

The text message sort of gave me hope that they might have finally got the message that we would really like to see those record profits to be returned to us in the form of better faster service, at last. Hmmm yeah well, colour me naive . . .

But surprise surprise, the item from Xyzzy Co didn't arrive Saturday, nor even Sunday, despite the Australia Post text message quite specifically stating that the parcel was to be delivered that same day. 

But a second, different, unannounced parcel arrived - it's just that it arrived on Monday. I received it, checked the consignment number and realised that it still wasn't the parcel referred to. But that's about par for the course with such a shambolic mess of a company, so it didn't worry me untowardly. 

Then the parcel from Xyzzy Co arrived later that afternoon.  

And then later that evening I read that article about AP's "improvements" to their system so that they'd have far more accurate delivery time messages. . . It seems they can talk the talk, but the walk's still just a series of jerks and spasms and a lot of thrashing about.

Back to the roast.

When we moved house a few years ago, our redirection was - hit and miss . . . - to say the least. From that time to the present they've attempted to deliver parcels for us to a similar looking address - but in another suburb we've never lived in - and then returning the parcel to sender because they read the street name and number - but the postcode and correct suburb name I N   L A R G E   C A P I T A L   L E T T E R S apparently are just a suggestion. 


They've claimed to be unable to find a safe place to deliver a parcel when we have a delivery point and it's in the delivery instructions we attach to posted items and so we've had to pick it up at the PO anyway.


There was a letter that had mistakenly been sent here I clearly wrote NATA (Not At This Address) on - and which promptly arrived again. Three times before I took it into the local PO and said if I had to take it out of our letterbox again I'd be sending them a bill for my delivery services. 


One delivery was declined because apparently we had a "large unfriendly dog." At the time we had two cats that had a secluded cat yard out the back, the gate wide open, and not a dog to be seen for miles around. 


Then going back a few more years there was a letter from a place less than a kilometre from our house in town and that person phoned me angrily and asked why I hadn't confirmed my appointment nor shown up for it, after all it was a week ago they sent me the forms. The letter reached me the following day, meaning it had averaged 105m a day on its journey across town. 

And Now, one of their best SNAFUs

In one of those events that should happen once in a lifetime or less, I ordered some electronic hobby parts, some in late November ("shipment A") and then some more in early December ("shipment B") and . . . 

Waited. And waited. . .  

Then in mid March I asked the company, and they agreed, to resend the same order again ("shipment C") as it had obviously been lost in transit. 

In April, Shipment C arrived. Still no shipment B, mind you. But I decided to be patient for a week or two longer.

And then just as I was about to ask the company for a resend of Shipment B, it too arrived - after a mere 18 or so weeks in transit. But hey - I had all the parts for the project after almost five months so I could finally get cracking.

Then in late May, Shipment A showed up. . . 

I'd kept the wrappings with the tracking numbers on them because I wanted to keep the sender details and order numbers etc, and so I decided I'd phone Australia Post's service people. The representative I spoke to seemed to be Australian (okay, a grudging point awarded to AP for that) but very detached from reality. I asked if they kept a history of tracking numbers and he said they did, so I asked him about Shipment A. 

"Oh yes," he said, "that shipment got on an [airline Xyzzy] flight in China and then seems to have vanished." Oh boy. It "got on a plane in China" and then just - poofed. Vanished. Bloody cosmic rays. . . This guy wasn't backing down. I pointed out that if the thing got scanned ONTO a plane in China, no-one could have just thrown it out in flight, yes? 

He agreed, and I said ". . . and our airline cargo staff aren't all incompetent, are they?" and again got a "m'yup" out of him. 

"So where do you reckon it might have been lost then?" 

"Look, I told you it got on the plane in China and didn't arrive in Australia "

I gave up and asked him about Shipment B and he was right back on the ball:

"Tracking number . . . um . . . flibbetty-number-umpteen  . . . got from China to Australia and then - oh wow - it's no longer on the tracking system, perhaps it wasn't a conformant tracking number or something and got returned."

When I mentioned that I was reading those tracking numbers off of parcels that I was currently holding in my hand because they'd arrived, he spluttered a bit and said something long the lines of "Well I don't know how they could have gotten to you, they're not on any of our records" and when I told him that the Australia Post Postie had handed them to me out of his Australia Post post bag, he just muttered something and - hung up.

He couldn't deal with it and instead of doing the right thing and escalating it, he hung up. Such an ignorant prick I've never had to deal with before nor since. 

The best bit? I could see where Shipment A had been, it was received in Australia and then there was a postmark of someplace like the Seychelles a few weeks later, and finally another postmark when it was sent back to Australia in late April. The lovely folks at AP, hammered as the poor dears must have been at Christmas, kindly sent my parcel on an overseas holiday, perhaps to give themselves time, or were incompetent, or both and more. 


I ended up paying for two lots of Shipment A because I'm honest and I told the company the earlier order had arrived, they said maybe I should just keep it but I suggested they raise a second invoice or let me order it again and immediately mark it received, I've honeslty never heard anyone more surprised than the company rep I was speaking to. I still have Platinum customer status (or equivalent, I'm not going to give away which company this is) with them despite being thousands of dollars worth of trade short per year. 

Prior (dis)Engagements

From that episode back to 2011, I can remember vaguely that there were quite a few other incidents, the best of which was when we moved to a road not services by AP posties. We decided we'd like a PO box at the next major PO, they claimed they were out of PO boxes so we could get a free PO box at a little franchise outpost nearer to our street.

The franchise office turned out to be even worse than the official AP organisation and it caused 90% of the incidents including returning several items of redirected mail because they didn't have a clue and the address on the mail was "for some other place, how were we sposed to know?" - and they only got worse from there. At least a dozen, possibly up to twenty, incidents and failures, and we were only at that address for 14 months... I don't have time to list all that lot, but none of them have made it into this post because that one franchise PO alone would fill a post - and one day it might... 

Australia Post are an example of what happens when you don't appoint competent management - you end up like the LNP Coalition, and your company ends up as screwed as Australia currently is. . . .