From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 27, 2004*: Me and Moore's Law

I don't remember just when we bought the home computer I'm presently working at, but it's something like two and a half years ago. At that time it was state of the art - a Pentium 4 processor, 128MB of RAM, 40GB on the hard drive. I suppose that back then I even entertained thoughts similar to those expressed by my brother about sixteen years ago when he brought me my first computer from the States. It was then, upon delivering that Macintosh SE with 4MB RAM and a 20MB hard drive, that he told me something along the lines of "I doubt you'll ever fill up this drive".

I'm not sure that I ran out of space on that hard drive (it crashed and was replaced by a 40MB drive). But even if I didn't, space, and of course speed, have been recurring concerns with each computer I've owned since then. Today, what once seemed to me to be unlimited RAM is simply insufficient. I often find myself shutting down one program before opening another, and it's hard to find space on some of the partitions of my hard drive for new materials - more time than is desirable gets devoted to moving rarely visited files to unused spots on the drive in order to make room for files I'm working on. If the boys want to install a new game, we often have to check if an old, and no longer used one, can be removed. Storage space on our computer simply doesn't seem to be as available as it should be.

This situation isn't specific to computers. A few years ago we purchased a new refrigerator. Until then, both our family size, and the eating habits of kibbutznikim, made our refrigerating needs rather limited, and we survived with a rather tiny refrigerator. It was clear, however, that those days were well behind us, and we bought a new model - what looked to us then to be immense, but was actually only mid-size. We were sure that we wouldn't need anything bigger than that, but of course today it seems to always be full and we need more space. There's probably some sort of universal law connected to this phenomenon.

Just how is it that someone whose professional work is predominantly devoted to words succeeds in filling up a 40GB hard drive? Even in Word, a program well known for consuming vast quantities of memory, a five or six page article doesn't take up more than 50 or 60K. That means than even someone like me, who keeps four or five drafts of an article on the drive (even well after the final version is finished) should still have immense amounts of space left. But space is there to be filled up, and perhaps a hard drive simply abhors a vacuum. For my part, at least, I do a good job of filling it up. There are, of course, a few Giga of music files, and perhaps a Giga of photos, and those already referred to numerous memory-intensive games that the boys haven't played in ages that still take up a great deal of space. In addition, I only rarely clean up the temporary files folders that seem to grow at geometric rates, and I haven't yet mentioned my mail which I seem to have an aversion toward throwing out. There are at least a few hundred MB of mail on my main drive which not only takes up space, but also, even more than the games, slows things down.

These musings (or complaints) aren't, of course, an exact formulation of Moore's Law. And to tell the truth, whether or not the amount of transistors on a chip doubles within a particular period of time doesn't really concern me. What does is the culturally accepted rendition of the law which suggests that computing power (and hard disk size) are constantly increasing, while their price seems to constantly be declining. It seems as though an unavoidable corollary to this law is that as soon as we get the added speed and storage space, which we hardly thought we'd ever need, we almost immediately discover that it's still not enough.

More space, and/or more computing power, certainly can't hurt. As I've already admitted, as things presently stand, I'm constantly keeping an eye on how many programs I've got running. If I want to use the scanner (which means, of course, that I'll also be using a graphics program) I'll shut down my word processor, and my web browser. More than four or five documents open at a time in my word processor or in my HTML editor can mean trouble. I've had too much experience with my computer freezing on me (inevitably before clicking on SAVE) and having to reboot. If a bit more computing power can help me avoid such a situation, I certainly won't complain.

But do I really need more power? With the end of this column swiftly approaching, experienced readers of the Boidem can probably already expect that such a question was on the way, along with a somewhat hedged "no" as an answer. But the truth is, yes, I really do need it. Partially it's simply an issue of pushing the envelope, of wanting to be able to do more than I can, of being able to leave five memory-intensive programs open at the same time and not have to worry about a crash. With only a few pangs of self-conscious embarrassment I'll admit that yes, there's an emotional aspect to the desire for more. I like to think that I grew out of it quite a few computers ago, but I'll still read the adds for new (and cheaper) machines that show up in the papers and, while my drool slowly drips onto the page, I'll think thoughts along the lines of "if only I could double my RAM and get an additional hard drive, I'd be happy". Although I'll admit that the impetus for this urge toward having all the new bells and whistles resides in more than just a miniscule element of status seeking, I still think that my desire to increase my memory and storage space stems primarily from legitimate computing needs. On the other hand, if Moore's law didn't exist, I'd be in no rush to have it created, and I'd quietly, perhaps even happily, make do with what I've got.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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