Successive Approximations

TAG: Quote

Gains in Computer Hardware

From Unix: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan

As an example of how computing hardware has become cheaper and more powerful over the years, a 1978 PWB paper by Ted Dolotta and Mashey described the development environment, which supported over a thousand users: "By most measures, it is the largest known Unix installation in the world." It ran on a network of 7 PDP-11's with a total of 3.3 megabytes of primary memory and 2 gigabytes of disk. That's about one thousandth of a typical laptop today. Would your laptop support a population of a million users?

This reminds me of an observation, I believe by John Carmack on Twitter although I can't dig up the link now, about how frustrating it is writing software for mobile phones today. They have orders of magnitude more raw power than the machines he was programming for in the Doom and Quake days, but in those days he was much closer to the bare metal. All the intermediary layers eat up all the performance gains in hardware and, paraphrasing, he found himself battling resources constraints as much as ever.

Don't get me wrong: modern languages with conveniences like garbage collection, and running inside a bytecode VM like Java have huge upsides. But raw performance is not one of them. We have made huge advances in raw computing power, but much of that benefit has accrued to the developer instead of the user, because they don't have to be as skilled or optimize their programs as much. This means development is a bigger tent than it once was. But it does explain why computers don't necessarily feel any faster than, say, 10 years ago.

Clifford Stoll on Keeping Good Notes

From The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll:

Someone at NSA had leaked word my research to the Department of Energy. In turn, they were pissed that they hadn't heard earlier--and more directly.

Roy Kerth stopped me in the hallway. "DOE is going to reprimand us for not telling them about this incident."

"But we did tell them," I objected. "More than two months ago."

"Prove it."


Josh Eppard on the Path of Mastery

Scrolling through Instagram Stories today, I caught a live, impromptu Q&A by the drummer from Coheed & Cambria, a band which I enjoy quite a lot. Most of the questions were regular fare, about life on the road and what songs they are playing on the tour.

As he was talking about how they will practice songs even when they are on the road and touring, and change up the set list when