Computing from 1976

Peter Corlett abuse at
Sun Dec 31 07:01:14 CST 2017

On Sat, Dec 30, 2017 at 02:55:10PM -0800, Fred Cisin via cctalk wrote:
> OK, a little arithmetic exercise for you.
> (a 16C is nice for this, but hardly necessary)
> "Moore's Law", which was a prediction, not a "LAW", has often been mis-stated
> as predicting a doubling of speed/capacity every 18 months.

Newton's "laws" are also only an approximate prediction, but they got us to the
moon and back.

> 1) Figure out how many 18 month invtervals since then, and what 4k "should'
> have morphed into by now.

2017-1976 = 31; 41/1.5 = 82/3 = 27 + 1/3 doublings.

2**(27+1/3) = ~170M; 170M x 4K = ~645G of RAM.

My original guesstimate of that power calculation was 140M, but I don't trust
logarithms in my head and double-checked with a calculator. The calculation
error was at least less than the whole premise of the calculation :)

> 2) What did Gordon Moore actually say in 1965?

>From memory, it was that the *number of transistors* per die would double every
such-and-such period, which I think was initially two years. The Wiki Of A
Million Lies agrees.

> 3) How much is $500 of 1976 money worth now?

About $2,100, if you trust the US government's official statistics. I'd have
gone for $5k myself on the "add another zero every 40 years" rule of thumb that
applies to real-world goods rather than the fictional ones used by government

> 4) Consider how long it took to use a text editor to make a grocery shopping
> list in 1976.  How long does it take today?

Write it in Emacs and email it to my phone so I can consult it in the shop if
need be. No slower than it would have been in the 1970s, apart from that the
phone would have been bolted to my house, and how would one email to it anyway?

If I had to fight a modern printer to get a hardcopy to take, sod it, I'll just
write it out longhand instead. (This is what I usually do.)

> Does having the grocery list consist of pictures instead of words, with audio
> commentary, and maybe Smell-O-Vision (coming soon), improve the quality of
> life? How much does it help to be able to contact your refrigeratior and
> query its knowledge of its contents?

Let's take an arbitary example of taking a horrified look at the 2015 election
results, going "ugh" at Tory Britain, and upping sticks to another country
where one doesn't know the language. I can't think why that comes to mind...

That left me functionally illiterate until I picked up the rudiments of the
language, and pictures can be useful. My phone contains several apps which are
also helpful for learning Dutch, and doing OCR and machine-assisted translation
of the bits I've not learned yet.

I can text a message home and ask if there's something I need to buy as I'm
passing a supermarket. One doesn't need the fridge itself to be smart for the
communications technology to be useful. In the 1970s, I could have gone and
found a payphone, but a text message is less inconvenient for both parties than
a phone call.

Less useful, but still useful, is my phone's ability to give a local map and a
"you are here" pointer, and public transport times can be consulted. I say
less-useful, because these apps tend to be limited to providing a single (and
rarely optimal) solution to an immediate need and fail to provide an
understanding of the system in general. That's why I still prefer regular maps
and timetables, which are sadly becoming harder to get hold of.

But anyway, all of that computing power has definitely improved the quality of
life compared to trying to do the same thing in the 1970s.

> (Keep in mind, that although hardware expanded exponentially, according to
> Moore's Law, Software follows a corollary of Boyle's Law, and expands to
> fill the available space and use all of the available resources - how much
> can "modern" software do in 4K?, and how much is needed to boot the computer
> and run a "modern" text editor?)

On bare metal, you need 8K of page tables just to enable long mode on a modern
Intel CPU, so that's not going to fly.

The second question is a bit more difficult due to the vagaries of memory usage
on modern virtual memory operating systems. The VM I'm logged into to compose
this mail has 4GB of "RAM" (which itself is vulnerable to swapping at the whims
of the hypervisor) but the VM does a lot more than email, and reports it's
using about 1GB of the 4GB allocated to it.

My text editor has a nominal size (VSZ) of 144MB, but that number is misleading
as most of that is memory-mapped data which doesn't really count because I
don't use that functionality so it's never mapped in. VSZ hasn't been a
meaningful indicator of memory usage in decades, despite monitoring tools
continuing to display it. About 20MB *is* mapped in, and another 4MB is used as
heap, i.e. editor workspace. If the machine was *only* used for reading and
composing email, I could probably get away with 32-64MB.

OTOH, I'm paying €30/month to rent and host the bare metal hardware onto which
I've loaded several similar VMs, and the cost of the "wasted" memory is
basically pocket fluff. Or in boomers-whinging-about-milleninal terms, about
one avocado on toast per day.

The elephant in the room is web browsers, which are the poster child for modern
bloated software. My laptop has just decided to run hot at 100% CPU. It turns
out that a background Firefox got bored and decided to just burn CPU and RAM
for the hell of it. The applications runing atop browsers are even more
appalling. There are also the insidious applications that claim to be native,
but really just boot up a hidden web browser and display its output.

Command-line text-only programs are still fairly reasonable and have mercifully
not kept up with Moore's Law.

> 5) What percentage of computer users still build from kits, or from scratch?

I assemble desktops and servers myself because I don't care to pay the
Microsoft tax for a machine that's going to end up running some form of Unix,
and also don't want a machine full of lowest-bidder components that the likes
of Dell and HP use. Laptops, phones, tablets etc, I obviously have no option
but to buy pre-assembled.

The number of users who build bespoke machines from parts is probably in the
low single-digits percent. Those who use a soldering iron to assemble from
discrete components is going to be so small a percentage as to be negligible,
but not zero. Not all of them are nostalgic old farts either.

The *absolute* numbers of people building computers (at either level) is
probably still increasing year-on-year.

> 6) What has replaced magazines for keeping in touch with the current state of
> computers?

The Internet, of course.

Again, in percentage terms, almost all of it is utter garbage, but in absolute
terms, there's vastly more information available than there was in 1976.

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