NerdGuy Friday #26: Most Computers Are Wide, not Fast!

In my upcoming novel, Raider (releases on Tuesday), there is a background thread of just how fast computers are. The bad guys have one size machine, and the good guys…well, that’s part of the story. We’re talking about only a few dozen lines in the whole novel, but I thought I’d talk about what’s behind all that.



Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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In a funny way, computers are very slow. I know. I know. Computers certainly seem to be fast…

Dial-up 1975

That’s the year, I learned how to crash the Cornell mainframe computer from our high school dial-up 200 miles away. (They served a few hundred high schools on dial-up telephone lines with their insanely powerful IBM 360/165. You can read about it here:

It wasn’t intentional. I just asked a language capable of building a multi-dimensional numerical array [I still miss APL–short for A Programming Language] a question it didn’t know how to answer. Essentially, I asked, “What is a negative numerical space?” Not fractional, but logically negative.

The computer crashed…hard!

I hung up the phone connection:

Acoustic coupler (c) Wikimedia

The computer was gone for at least 4 hours (the school closed and we had to go home). Curious if I was the one who’d caused it (it seemed pretty unlikely), I tried it again the next day after school.

The computer crashed…hard!

I hung up the phone connection.

About three seconds later the phone rang. No one called into a computer’s phone. I answered with more curiosity than trepidation–until I heard the other guy’s tone, then the trepidation kicked in.

“What the hell did you just do to my machine?” They’d put a tracer in place for the next crash.

“Uh, I asked it to build me a negative dimensional array. Not a big one. Just -1 by -1 by -1.” I could have stopped at two dimensions, but if the computer could describe such a space, I wanted to be able to go there. Think of it as an extension of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s still brilliant 1884 classic Flatland.

“Hunh! That’s new.” The guy who could ban me from ever logging on again seemed somewhat mollified. “Don’t do it again for at least a day.”

“Okay.” I waited a week.

Illegal operation.

Man, was that a major letdown. This was the early days of computing when imagination still had a place all the way down at the systems level. Couldn’t the SysOp at least have inserted an error of “You can’t get there from here.” or “Entropy only travels in one direction.” (At least until the movie Tenet.)

It had still taken him hours and hours of work to reboot the computer after my second test.

1982 PC – Slow Boot to Nowhere

My first PC, a non-IBM-compatible NEC 8800, was an 8-bit machine for running CPM, but if I held down three keys for what seemed like forever, I could usually get it to bootstrap in a full 16-bit DOS machine on a $500 plug-in card. Then I was rocking and had amazing tools to play with like WordStar.

The full 16-bit boot took at least 4-5 extra minutes and had a 50-50 success rate for loading properly. If it failed, you waited another 5 minutes to be certain it failed, then you powered down, waited 30 seconds for energy dissipation out of the chips, and tried again.


Now, I tap my phone and it says, “Yeah? Wudda ya want, punk?” (My wife feels that it’s always lurking there, waiting for her, watching her–with attitude! It kind of creeps her out. I try not to tell her that she’s right. We don’t talk about Siri or Alexa in polite society.)

However, the computers you and I tinker with every day are NOT fast. Not even the banks of computer servers we so blithely tap into every single time we hit a website or check our e-mail. Slow as molasses (I’ll get to why I say that in a moment).

(Oh, here’s the moment.) All of those server-farm computers are “wide” not “fast.”

Huh? Yeah, I know. It means that they’re really good at moving great masses of information. Images are so small that they’re passe in the computing world, YouTube videos almost as much so. Now we can stream HD and 4k television without even thinking about it (Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney…). 5G will bring us the width to go virtual, moving great masses of digital stuff around quickly–while we’re anywhere. But again, that’s width, not computing speed.

Some Computers Are Fast!

Since 1993, there’s been a measurement called the TOP500. It lists the fastest 500 computers in the world and tracks their computing capacity.
Here’s the site (and the latest article is a good, geeky read):
As always, Wikipedia has a simplified listing, mostly lifted from the site above:

These are the machines to go to when speed really matters.

So, How fast is fast?

Computing speed is measured in FLOPS (Floating Point Operations Per Second). Think of it as a line of math with a variable decimal point and you get the idea.

Your average, high-end, multi-core desktop home computer can do a few hundred GFLOPS. That Giga-FLOPS or a hundred billion operations per second. (Of course, they’d probably melt if you did that in a sustained run.)

So, if you had a penny for every FLOP, you’d get about $2 billion dollars/second (just trying to show some scale here).

The 500th computer on November 2020’s TOP500 list belongs to Internet Company of China. It is capable of 29,920 TerraFLOPS (that’s a thousand GigaFLOPS, or 30-ish PetaFLOPS).

At a penny per FLOP, this kind of breaks down. The entire world’s 2019 Global GDP was just over $87 trillion USD. (
30 PetaFLOPS is $30 Quadrillion USD.

That’s the slowest of the TOP500.

The IBM Watson computer (perhaps the most famous one ever, it won Jeopardy), didn’t reach even half the speed of the TOP500 500th machine in 2013. (c) Wikipedia

The present #1 fastest computer in the world is named Fugaku and works in Japan. It has 7M processor cores and can sustain 442 PetaFLOPS and peak at 537. It’s about 25 million times faster than your high-end desktop home computer. So, again, $0.01 for every full computing second of your high-end home machine (running on the edge of meltdown) gets you richer than Elon Musk ($184B) in just 122 seconds, or two minutes. In just 25 minutes, you’d be richer than the world’s largest company, Apple ($2.3T).

Now that’s fast!

What is the Fast for?

Well, that’s a question for a different time, but here are a few:

  • Modeling weather patterns (one of the most difficult and complex systems ever encountered). Global climate change research? Oh yeah, supercomputers are all over that.
  • Modeling nuclear explosives (with the data gathered in the past, these incredibly complex atomic interactions continued to be studied and improved on supercomputers). Molecular interactions of many forms.
  • If my memory serves, two full minutes of supercomputer time were used to model the record-breaking design parameters of the Oracle catamaran raced in the 2010 America’s Cup (
  • This of course includes anything with complex aerodynamics (ie. moving through something like air, water, space, gravity…: cars, planes, rockets to Mars, etc. (It would be a waste of a supercomputer to do the flight, but to design the rocket and model the lander trying to slow down in Mars’ thin atmosphere? Absolutely.)
  • AI, real AI? Yeah, you need a supercomputer to gobble “wide” and process “fast.”
  • The imagination reels.



Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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About the Book

A cyberattack penetrates US military systems. The woman to solve it? Miranda Chase.

The US Army’s brand-new S-97 Raider reconnaissance helicopter goes down during final acceptance testing—hard. Cause: a failure, or the latest in a series of cyberattacks by Turkey?

Miranda Chase, the NTSB’s autistic air-crash genius, and her team of sleuths spring into action. They must find the flaw, save the Vice President, and stop the US being forced into the next war in the Middle East. And they have to do it now!

Other Books in "Miranda Chase novels"
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


NerdGuy Friday #26: The Fastest Helicopter in the World

(NOTE: You’ll need to scroll down past this post if you want to read: ICE SHELF RESCUE, this month’s free fiction story.)

Helicopter n.
1. Ten thousand parts rotating rapidly around an oil leak waiting for metal fatigue to set in. ( )

2. Ten thousand parts that just happen to be flying in the same direction. (That was the popular helo t-shirt when I was flying airplanes in the 1980s. I like this one a little better even though it appears to be out of fashion.)

One thing that helicopters aren’t is…FAST! (At least not until recently.)

Fast n.

1. Moving or able to move rapidly (per Merriam-Webster)

What is “Fast”?

Let’s look at a few examples from the flying world. (We’ll just look at “Cruise” speed. Cruise is the speed used during normal flight when going from here to there.)

  • Very Basic helicopter (Robinson R22) – 96 knots / 110 mph
  • Very Basic airplane (Cessna 172) – 122 knots / 140 mph (uh-oh, not looking good for the helos)
  • Fastest military helicopter in the world (CH-47 Chinook [which will be featured in Miranda Chase #6, Chinook in March 2021]) – 160 knots / 180mph (Max: 174 knots / 200 mph)
  • Fastest helicopter in the world [until 2019] (Westland Lynx) – 175 knots / 202 mph (Max: 216 knots / 249 mph [That’s specially configured for record setting])
  • Fast Basic Airplane – (The Mooney M20V is the fastest single engine propeller-driven, conventionally aspirated production plane) [what all that means is that it isn’t a jet turbine engine with a propeller stuck on the front–a turboprop, and that it isn’t a one-off. It’s just a plane with a normal engine that Mike flies throughout the Miranda Chase series.] – 242 knots / 278 mph (That’s beat all of the helos…until recently.)
  • Basic Jet (Miranda’s Citation M2 twin-jet [she gets it in Raider] – 404 knots / 465 mph
  • Most airliners and bizjets fit here
  • Miranda’s 1958 F-86 Sabrejet – Max: 597 knots / 687 mph (Mach 1)
  • Fighter jets and other supersonic craziness go here

The “New” Fast in Helicopters

Then along came the S-97 Raider.

  • Cruise Speed: 220 knots / 250 mph
  • Max Speed (called Vne – Velocity, never exceed–basically things start falling off…things you really need, like rotors): 240 knots / 280 mph! That’s fast for a bunch of parts rotating around an oil leak!

So, how did they do this?

Let’s start with the basics. Take a close look at the helo on the cover of my and Miranda’s next book.

an action-adventure technothriller
You can preorder this HERE, by the way. Just sayin’. (rel: Jan 26th)

There are two very strange things going on here.

First, the coaxial (stacked) rotors. There’s a lot of physics behind this, but the key point is that because there are two of them, the rotor blades are shorter for the same amount of lift. Why does this matter?

A lot of very strange things happen when you break the sound barrier. That’s why what Chuck Yeager did in the Bell X-1 was so amazing. However, he had it easy in comparison to a helicopter rotor–all of his ten thousand parts were moving at the same speed. Now imagine a rotor spinning fast enough that most of the blade is subsonic, but the tip is moving at supersonic speeds. That is when parts start falling off at inopportune moments as I mentioned above.

Then it gets even more exciting as the helicopter moves faster. The rotor on a Chinook helicopter is 60′ across and is spinning 4 times/second. The tip of the rotor blade is moving at 514 mph. No problem.

EXCEPT: The forward motion of the helicopter moving at 200 mph plus the tip speed of 514 mph = 714 mph. That is getting very close to the speed of sound (761 mph at sea level). But the speed of sound drops to 731 mph at 10,000′. At its service ceiling of 20,000′, the speed of sound is only 702 mph due to atmospheric thinning. Now things are getting very dicey out at the tip of the rotor.

HOWEVER: The retreating rotor blade is actually going backward at 514 mph tip speed – 200 mph speed of flight = 314 mph (400 mph slower than the advancing blade tip just 60′ away)… Like I said, it gets complicated.

So, the coaxial rotor helps (because of the possibility of using shorter blades for the same amount of lift), but it doesn’t solve everything. The Russian Mi-28 Havoc gunship helicopter is not some super-fast performer: (Cruise: 150 knots / 170 mph)

Russian Kamov KA-52 Alligator (wikipedia (c) Dmitriy Pichugin

Why the Raider is Really Fast?

Look at the picture again:

Notice the propeller stuck onto the tail. This 7′ diameter rear-facing propeller drives the Raider ahead. The shorter coaxial rotors mean that the tips of the blades are: a) not turning so quickly and b) aren’t plagued with retreating blade vs. advancing blade issues because each side had both a retreating and an advancing blade stacked, so it can go fast!

At least until it crashes, but for that, you’ll have to read the book!

Nothing Found

NerdGuy Fridays #25: Super-cool Private Jet

A Miranda Chase Christmas storyIn my recent Christmas story, Island Christmas, a character arrives on Miranda’s island flying a Cirrus Vision SF50. As you can see on the story’s cover, it’s quite cute.

I try to make a big deal of it…without making a big deal of it because it’s not the point of the story. So, hours and hours of deep-dive nerdiness became these few lines:

She really should have recognized the Cirrus Vision SF50. It was the only production single-engine jet—just having the one Franklin engine accounted for the peculiar sound.

The Vision was very surprising. Sixty years newer in design, it was smaller than her Sabrejet by two meters, yet could carry seven people including the pilot in luxury, instead of one in a cramped cockpit. Of course, it couldn’t break the speed of sound, or shoot its machine guns, or drop bombs as her Sabrejet once had, but it was a very pretty little machine with a very high-grade safety factor, including a built-in parachute system.

She would have liked more time to inspect it, but the storm was kicking harder with each passing minute.

But before I nerd out about why this was such a cool and rather unique jet, I’m first going to nerd out on small jets in general.

We may not think too much about the sizes of jets. One aisle versus two. Maybe even one deck versus two for the Boeing 747 and Airbus 380. We might also think about small jets for the local flights.

But private jets are in a whole other classification system of their own. Let’s break it down a bit.

Defining “Private Jet”

There is a surprisingly sharp dividing line between small commercial jets and private jets. It’s rare for the former to have under twenty-five seats, and its rare for the latter to have over fourteen. These “private” jets are used for charters, corporate planes, or folks who have millions to spend on a personal plane, sometimes many millions.

For the sake of this nerding, I’ll skip the commercial jets that are repurposed as personal ones.  Yes, there are plenty of people out their flying these things. With the end of production of the world’s two largest superjets (the 747 and A380 mentioned above) you may think their choices are hampered, but just check out this page for Boeing Business Jets (BBJs): Be prepared to waste some time there, these are very cool setups. It is very common for these customizations to double the price of the jet. Yes, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner costs $2-300M based on the model. It is not uncommon for a customization into a private or corporate jet to cost another $200M!

Private Jet Categories

In the 14-and-under passenger category, we still get four types of small jets. Different people define these differently, but this is a decent pass at it. (The passenger numbers include the pilot(s), different aircraft are rated differently.)

  • Light Jet – typically up to 6 passengers
  • Midsize Jet – typically up to 7 passengers
  • Super Midsize Jet – typically up to 8 passengers
  • Heavy Jet – typically up to 9 passengers, but can go as high as 14 (if you really pack in the seating)

It’s not that simple of course. It might look more like this (typical numbers–there are always exceptions):

  • Light: 6 passengers, 1,000 mile range, <450mph, <$5M
  • Midsize: 7 passengers, 1,500 mile range, <500mph, <$10M
  • Super Mid: 8 passengers, 3,000 mile range, <550mph, <$15M
  • Heavy: 14 passengers, 6,000 mile range, <600mph, <$25M

So it becomes a matter of how fast you need to move how many people how far. Luxuries go up as well: fully reclining seats, couches facing big screen TVs, small galleys, etc. (Also, a 14-seat plane can be configured to be a very comfortable 6-seat plane with lots of extras, like stewards and galleys. The level of luxury is optional. Just sayin’.)

Very Light Jet

The Light Jet category is often called the Very Light Jet group. Less than 12,5000 pounds MTOW (Maximum Take-Off Weight), it’s like the super-heavy SUVs that aren’t quite classified as trucks because they weigh just under the three-ton limit.  These aircraft are so small and light that they truly qualify for the category of “personal jet.”

I easily find only four jets in this category:

  • HondaJet Elite
  • Citation M2 (we’ll see more of this plane in upcoming Miranda Chase novels starting with Raider).
  • Phenom 100EV
  • Cirrus Vision SF50

The thing that’s so special about this last one? It became the first-ever single-engine jet certified for civilian use.

Cirrus Vision Jet SF50

This little 30-foot long plane can seat 4 comfortably. It can be configured to seat 7, but I suspect that the back 3 seats are like the back of my Dad’s 1964 VW beetle (you’d better be six years old to fit back there).  There are dozens of cool things about this airplane, but here are my two favorites.

General page about this plane:

It has a parachute!

Per Wikipedia, on their prop and passenger planes, parachutes have been successfully deployed 83 times, saving 170 lives and 19 of the planes. It gives them one of the best safety records in all of aviation.

There’s an utterly brilliant video of one of these deployments that was captured by a Navy ship that the pilot had reached while calling a MayDay over the Pacific Ocean:

Even Cooler? Autoland

The pilot falls over dead at the wheel (yes, that has happened). The passenger punches a button in the ceiling of the plane. The plane takes over! It locates the nearest safe airport, communicates with the tower, then lands and stops the plane.

You thought self-driving cars was an interesting challenge. How about a self-landing plane. Amazingly, nerd-worthy, cool things can come in splendidly small packages.

This plane won the Collier Trophy in 2018. That’s like the Nobel Prize of aircraft design. Other recipients include the men and the Bell X-1 for breaking the sound barrier, the design of the B-52, the Mercury 7 astronauts, the Apollo 11 crew… It’s an amazing achievement.

I want one!

NerdGuy #24: Air America

M. L. Buchman military romantic suspenseI thought I’d nerd out a bit about this month’s short story, Survive Until the Final Scene.

Here’s the opening for those who missed it or don’t remember:

Up until this very moment, Captain Kandace Eversmann had a soft spot for Air America. Even though she and the movie had been born in the same year, 1990, it was the first movie about airplanes she remembered.

Dad, a computer programmer, chose the Thursday night movies (a lot of espionage and thrillers) and Mom, a small-plane certified flight instructor, chose the Sunday night ones (a lot of flying). The best nights of her life were when the three of them curled up on the couch together with cookies or a slice of pie and watched a movie together.

Even now as a captain in the US Air Force, movie night served as her litmus test for boyfriends—a gauntlet very few survived.

Air America, a romp through the CIA’s illegal flight operations in Laos during the Vietnam War, was the identifiable starting point of the journey that had made her an Air Force pilot.

And at this very moment, she hated that movie.

The opening had followed a big silver Fairchild C-123K Provider, twin-engine cargo plane across the sky. It zoomed low over the credits, barely above the treetops, making parachute deliveries of pigs, rice, and weapons.

Then, on its return to base, the Provider overflew a Laotian farmer strolling through his fields. He shouldered his prehistoric single-shot shotgun and fired once at the passing silver beast now high above. As he looked away and resumed his walk, the plane spilled out a smoke trail—ultimately crashing at the airport in a lethal ball of fire.

She remembered smiling, intrigued at the offhand power of the farmer.

One tiny shot, one giant plane. No way. It was too bizarre.

The strange thing is, if it wasn’t for that more-than-a-little-crazed Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. romp, most folks wouldn’t even know about Air America. What even fewer people know is what it became…or the fact that it inspired one of my most successful book series.

Winding Back the Clock

It started as a relief support mission for 1946 war-ravaged China. It was soon pressed into supporting Chiang Kai-shek. By 1950, he’d lost and retreated to Taiwan, cutting off the airline’s only client.

The CIA bought out the troubled airline. By 1959, when it became Air America, it was deeply involved in CIA operations throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (the latter two being places that US forces “never were”).

By 1970, they had over 25 transports, 30 helos, and several large jets (727s & 747s). Additionally, they frequently borrowed aircraft from the Air Force and Army. In them, their 300 pilots transported: supplies, troops, Nixon during his 1969 trip to Vietnam, and also evacuating civilians at the end of the war. On the other side of the coin, Air America also transported: spies, guns and other weapons to anyone who would supposedly help, black ops troops, propaganda leaflet drops, assassination teams, and a massive amount of drugs to finance operations and appease local warlords.

And this is where the movie ends, but the story continues.

Pilots Disowned

Per Wikipedia, as you’d expect, the CIA pulled a Mission Impossible on their pilots and crews. Because they hadn’t been flying for the Air Force or Army, they deserved no pension, no death benefits, no medical coverage, not even recommendations (they weren’t allowed to admit where they’d been flying all those years because the US was never there).

Just one more reason that the CIA is a villain in so many of my tales from: a Delta Force mission aboard a cruise ship (DF #3 Wild Justice), to the current Miranda Chase series.


Unable to keep the post-war airline solvent in Thailand, the CIA sold the planes to an Oregon company named Evergreen International Airlines. (By the way, if you’re ever in McMinnville, Oregon, Evergreen is still one of the finest aviation museums in the world. Living nearby for most of a decade it was a real pleasure.)

The sale price of an estimated $20-25 million, doesn’t begin to cover the vast array of acquired aircraft. Why so low? Because the CIA still needed an air transport arm. In fact, there are many strange “almost facts” that floated around the airline during the next 40 years before its 2013 bankruptcy.

Here’s my favorite example:

Evergreen converted a 747 to be the largest ever wildfire firefighting plane. A lot of fire planes can carry a few hundred gallons of water or retardant. An Air Tractor AT-802 (one of the most common) carries eight hundred gallons. The big boys? Twenty-five hundred is major. This delivered 19,600 gallons per load!

Here’s where the story splits and gets fun:

  • only one was ever converted (there’s a lot of articles that mention this single aircraft)
  • for a brief time on their website, it said that 12 had been converted and were actively operational (I was following them closely at the time, and that notice went away pretty quickly. False information? Or too much information? So I began poking around to see if it might be the latter.)
  • A pilot in a position to know some things responded to my question by asking me to consider, “How many planes the CIA/Evergreen do you think might be flying over Colombian coca fields filed with RoundUp and other defoliants?” My thoughts on that just might have been used a few times in Delta Force #2 Heart Strike.
  • When Evergreen finally did go down, their 747s were parked in the one of those desert storages. There were a dozen of them there (I checked the satellite cameras, not one. Just sayin’.


Ever wonder how I came up with the idea for Mount Hood Aviation (MHA) in my Firehawks series?

buchman wildland firefighting

As a part of their acquisitions, Evergreen suddenly owned a great number of helicopters, and they put them (at least some of them) to very good use. For years, Evergreen Helicopters was considered one of the premier firefighting operations.

That’s when I asked myself, “How could the CIA use firefighters as a front for operations?” I didn’t like a lot of those answers. So, instead I asked, “How could our military use firefighters as a front for cooperative operations?”

I liked that answer much better, and the entire Firehawks world was born.

And in September’s Ides of Matt story, it was an excuse to revisit those “humble” origins even if MHA didn’t come into play.

Survive Until the Final Scene

Survive Until the Final Scene

Series: Short Stories 2021, Book 8
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Tag: Short Story

Combat Search and Rescue is the hardest job in the Army. Especially for the medics.

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