Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I’ve just ordered a new Computer. Nothing fancy, it sits just a tiny little bit off the bottom of the range that Dell offer. And yet, it has a hard disc capacity of 1 Terrabyte.

I lose track of Noughts quite easily, but that means that I can store 1,000,000,000,000 bytey “things”. I hadn’t really given that sort of issue much thought until today, but I’ve suddenly realised just how big a number that really is.

If I started to count them all, at 1 every Second, I’d take 31,709 years or so to get to the end. It’s enough to store one complete Text Message for every person on the planet – not that I’ve got 6,250,000,000 different text messages in my mind to send to anyone. But you get my drift.

My mind wanders back 25 years to a night at work in around 1980. I used to be the Accounting Manager for a car company called Rover, or was it British Leyland, or even BL Cars, or conceivably Austin Morris? Anyway, there was a payroll of something around 27,000 people on the site, which I had to look after, so it was, at the time, a large and complex company.

At that time, many of the financial calculations we had to do to support the business were all done on piles and piles of pages of A3 Analysis paper, all printed with 13 columns for the information – 12 for each month and a thirteenth for a column to let you put the total in for a year. When we built up the Annual budget for the company we used to have a heap of around 50 of these pages all held together with a very High Tech Bulldog Clip. We used to write down on these enormous sheets of paper, very laboriously, all the vehicle sales volumes (by country, by model derivative etc etc), the sales revenues per vehicle (by country, by model derivative etc etc), the other costs, the overheads, the profit (or was it a loss? – I can’t remember), and then multiply all of them together in a frenzy of (hopefully) controlled number crunching. Remember, we’d only just got our first hand-held calculator, so it all had to be done by hand.

It took some 3 days for some poor sod (I did it once just to show I could) to go through all the numbers to work out the results. At which point someone took it to The Boss, who usually informed the messenger that someone in Higher Management, wherever that might have been, had reviewed the volumes or pricing or something, and they’d changed a few of the numbers, and it all needed to be done again. How character building was that? To this day, I’m surprised that a murder was never committed.

Back to that night in 1980. A guy came to see me after work, and brought with him a buff coloured typewriter sized box which he plonked on my desk. It had “Apple” written on it, and you thought “How cute.”. He put a small TV screen with a ghostly green flashing cursor, and pressed a few buttons on the keyboard. The screen lit up with something that looked like the child’s game Battleships. I wanted to get home, and wanted the guy to go away, like NOW, but something kept me interested.

He went down to a little square called A1, and typed a 2 into it, then moved the cursor (not that the word meant anything to me then) into the square below (A2) and typed a 3 into it. He then moved it all down into A3 and typed something like “=A1+A2” into the square and the number 5 popped into the box. I probably told him that I already knew that 3+2 equalled 5, and that if I checked it all on my new fangled calculator, that would indeed confirm it for him.

I was somewhat underwhelmed.

Then he put his cursor back in A1 and overtyped a 7 and the number in the A3 square changed immediately to a 10. “Oooh-er!”

“How the bloody hell did you do that?” I smelt smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand, and possibly witchcraft. Maybe all three, seeing we were in Birmingham.

He had just started to show me a little programme called “Visicalc”, a piece of utter computing genius developed by two guys called Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. I realised in that couple of seconds that the way my working life was going to operate from that point onwards had just changed - totally.


I had to have one.So I did.

But, as usual, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. The programme was fabulous – so, so clever. The technology, however, which supported it was way, way behind the idea which it was there to support. The floppy discs which contained the information could hold 312,000 bytey things. The memory in the machine was, I think, 16 kilobytes. And I don’t think it even had a hard disc. So, on the one hand, the Good Lord gaveth, and on the other hand, he immediately tooketh it away again - at least, until the hardware manufacturers got their act together.

But it was still a piece of genius. We laboured frantically to jam what we wanted to do onto a series of these discs, and somehow managed to make it work. The spectre of the manager wandering in and changing the data on the Budget fell into the background as a non-event, and I still recall his disbelief, bordering on suspicion of a confidence trick, when we turned round a complete change to the numbers in an hour or so, rather than the days it took before. Magic.

But look at the numbers. 16k of memory, and we ran the Management Accounting systems for the UK’s largest car manufacturer on that. Today, my new machine, which I will use at home to play on, will have 3,072,000,000 bytes – some 190,000 times as much. My new hard disc could contain 3 million floppy discs. The mind boggles. I know about Moore’s law, but I’m still amazed.

And yet, what do we use all this capacity for?

Keeping pictures, by the thousand, that we’ll probably never look at again. We probably never glance at 95% of the images we take. And then, if all we do with the 5% that we do look at, is to send them to people across the internet, we immediately throw away another 99% of that 5%. It only gets used if we set to and print a decently sized image off it. So, for most people, almost all of the volume of the information we keep on a computer is redundant and utterly unnecessary.

Compare the size of a decent written file on a computer with a decent picture size. I do not find it difficult to press my camera’s shutter and generate 25 megabytes of data in a few milliseconds. Just to make it worse, it’s probably a rubbish picture, that I won’t give a second glance to, but it’s still 25 megabytes.

If I bothered to work out how much space is taken up with a long article in Microsoft Word, I’d be very hard pressed to generate a file of more than 100,000 bytes. Typing away for an evening leaves me with a file of about 25,000 bytes, around 0.1% of the size of the rubbish picture I’m just about to ignore. But it’s taken me a couple of hard worked hours to put it on the machine. And which am I more proud of? Which is the more meaningful demonstration of my intellect? You choose, but the writing has at least had 2 hours of attention from my brain.

So, back to my new computer. I suppose we buy these things, not because we NEED them, but because they’re available, and we can get our hands on them. Bragging rites as to the “Mine’s Bigger than Yours” size of a hard Disc is probably in there somewhere, but if we actually thought about it all, most of us could probably still manage with an Apple with a couple of 312kbyte discs and 16kb of memory.

Apollo 11 did, but then it nearly crashed while landing on the Moon, so perhaps I’d better think of a better example.

So, have I just cancelled my order with Dell?

Have I hell.

1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

It's amazing when you think about it, isn't it?