Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

09.10.2020 Technology has limitations - Tech Talk Column 219

I don’t sing. I am not against songs or music but I believe it is important you know your limitations. Holding a tune is not a talent I have so I don’t wish to subject people around me to listening to terribly out of tune singing.

Similarly with technology. It is important to know limitations. No matter how advanced the technology, there are always limits. They may be high limits or limits we never dream of reaching, but there are limits nonetheless.

It was many years ago that some people considered 640KB of RAM would be enough for a personal computer. When 32-bit operating systems were the norm, the addressable memory was 4GiB which was considered a huge amount of memory. Now, with 64-bit operating systems commonplace, the addressable memory space is four billion times larger at 18EiB which seems way larger than we would ever need…but it is a limitation nonetheless.

Once upon a time, people as clever as Aristotle believed that light was instantaneous. When the Dutch scientist, Isaac Beeckman tried to measure the speed of light in 1629, he used gunpowder and mirrors but the distances were too small. Danish astronomer, Olaus Roemer, finally measured the speed of light with some accuracy in 1676 using the moons of Jupiter as a reference point. We now know the finite speed of light as 300,000 kilometres per second - which brings us to another limitation. We think of our communication network – voice and Internet and broadcast services – as instantaneous and, for the limitation of humans they typically are but…if you introduce geostationary satellites in to the mix, the latency can be noticed by humans. At 35,786 kilometres above the earth, using a satellite for Internet access gives a 477-millisecond inherent delay with every action.

Mostly we know and understand these limitations and work within them but when we don’t know our limits, much like if I was to sing in front of an audience, the results can be disastrous.

It is well known that the National Health Service (NHS) in England lost a significant number of records of COVID-19 impacted residents. The cause of the loss has now been revealed. The lack of understanding of the limits of Microsoft Excel. More specifically the limits of the old data format.

Excel was first launched in 1985 with the Windows version launched in 1987 which had the file format of .XLS. The total size of one spreadsheet was limited to 65,536 rows by 256 columns. A major upgrade occurred in 2007 which increased these limits to 1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns. The new file format was .XLSX.

Unfortunately, someone at the NHS wasn’t aware of the significance of that last X in the file format and used a pre-2007 spreadsheet to collate the data logged from COVID-19 tracing. The initial logs were collected and the data was fed in to an Excel template. Once the information reached the row limit, the additional cases were simply truncated.

Using the new file format would have increased the number of cases by a factor of sixteen before cases started dropping off which indicates that Excel – no matter the version – may not be the best product to use for contact tracing. A SQL database, for example, has a limit of 524,272TiB per database with the number of rows only limited by the size of the total database. That calculates out to…a big number. In technology, much like in the rest of the world, knowing the correct tool for the job is critical.

Let me know when a technology limitation has impacted your life at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson