Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Digital Big Bang?

Over breakfast this morning – slices of la baguette tradi that I had bought only an hour before, still warm, at Gerard Mulot, what was still left of the several cheeses that I had bought a few days before, and which, at least to my American sensitivities, were still good, a bowl of fromage blanc naturel, and a banana and a clementine,  all chased with what was left of the coffee that I had been drinking since I awakened, and a glass of jus de pamplemousse rose (there isn’t any é in the word “Rose” on the juice’s package, but then again the brand is Tropicana, so what can you expect?)  was reading, as I always read over breakfast, The Economist.

The article that I had chosen to read was about what things were like before the Big Bang.

The net of the article, based on work by a physicist from Oxford, was that just before the Big Bang everything had shrunk – from a previous big bang – into nothingness.  And something about that nothingness – I never was much at physics so I can’t really say what that something might have been, except that it was god damned small – caused it to become REALLY BIG in a very small ( minus power of 23 comes to mind) lapse of what we three dimensional, blooded, beings refer to as time.

I was surprised to find out that this was unacceptably unplowed intellectual ground.

In fact, it was heresy.

The physics world had, some time ago, apparently, aided and abetted by the warm and comforting wrapping of the apparently totally accepted Big Bang, gone to end game.  That end game, as I understood it from the article that I was reading, was that before the Big Bang there wasn’t anything; the Big Bang had changed that and we are now, post Big Bang, on – I had to surmise because I really didn’t understand some of what I was reading  – a never ending trajectory that had been initiated  by the Big Bang.

“But no” has said Doctor Penrose from Oxford. “ We are in an infinitely undulating construct (my translation of what I understood him to say) that goes up and it goes down.”

I wouldn’t even be boring the couple of you people who might read this post with this book report – “what I read in The Economist over breakfast this morning” if it weren’t for the fact that I had previously  thought – I have no idea from what source I may have obtained this conviction – that the whatever-it-is that-we-are-in (a universe perhaps) is in a constant state of contracting and expanding.  My conviction was conditioned by the further belief that the time frame of the contractions and expansions is of such magnitude that creatures like us will never notice, but, that, nonetheless the ups and downs do exist.

So it was a real surprise to me that, not only wasn’t that concept in any kind of favor with the great body of scientists who really care about such things, but that the concept wasn’t even in existence and wasn’t under any scrutiny as to its possible validity.  It was a concept, that until Doctor Penrose decided to propose it, and that fairly recently, just didn’t exist.

So where did I get it?  Who knows?

The additional oddity is that as the day advanced it became in its own way entwined, at least in my mind, with questions about another kind of potential big bang.

When I was a trainee in the early days of my career at IBM I was assigned to some accounts.  I was to work with  and be under the management of the qualified IBM salesmen and systems engineers who were responsible for those accounts to IBM.  The objective of those assignments was for me to learn the marketing and the technical ropes of IBM life from being actually involved in the doing of things marketing and things technical.

One of those accounts was the Army Corps of Engineers.  They were one of IBM’s biggest accounts at the time.  One of the things that they had installed was a full nine spindle array – eight usable, one for hot backup - of the IBM 2314, which was the high capacity IBM disk drive of that era.

The 2314 was an impressive machine from a number of standpoints: price/performance, storage capacity and relative reliability being among its leading features.

But from my viewpoint the single most impressive thing about the 2314 was its size.  The thing was huge.  At the Corps the device filled an entire wall of a rather large data center.  And it weighed 1950 KG – more than two tons.

Its storage capacity was, for the eight drives that could be in use at any one time, 240 MB.  That’s mega bytes; that’s not terabytes, that’s not even measly gigabytes; that’s mega bytes.

The IBM archives have provided me with a picture which I am including with this post.

The 2314 and its control unit are the hulking things behind the young woman apparently taking her lunch out of an office drawer.  That drawer is actually one of the disk drives and the young lady is either putting in or taking out one of the removable, eleven platter disk packs.  Each of those packs stored 30 megabytes.  Since they were removable, and could be put on shelves in numbers limited only by an IBM customer’s ability to pay for them, the claim to “infinite storage capacity” could often be heard floating around in sales presentations involving the 2314.

The reason that I have brought up all that history, and my personal intersection with a small component of it, is that it gives some very real perspective to the follow-on big-bang-like episode that occurred later in the day, after my having been started down that path over breakfast by The Economist.

I have been wanting to go to the Marmottan museum for a special Monet exhibition.  Since the weather today was marginal to the point of making me consider not going out at all, I had been trying to come up with an alternative to trying to walk and take pictures – my usual daily occupations – in rain and snow of a degree to make it hazardous for the camera and miserable for the photographer. 

What I settled on was to see if I was smart enough to take the RER to the RER stop that connects to La Muette, which is the Metro stop for Le Marmottan.  There are a bunch of arcane, and boring to anyone but me, reasons why the RER would have been a test of my mettle, and in fact why I was even taking the RER instead of just going on the Metro, but I am not going to mention them

Suffice it to say that that had just been my plan for the afternoon.  The idea was that maybe there wouldn’t be a crowd and I wouldn’t need the advantage of a previously bought ticket (the advantage of that previously bought ticket being that said ticket puts the ticket holder at the head of any line) and so I could go in and buy my ticket at the museum.  Alternatively, so went the plan, if there was a line I could decide whether to stand in it or catch the RER back to my part of town.  In either event, so went the plan, I would have enhanced my barely rudimentary RER skills.

But is was snowing lightly and the snow was wet snow and it was accumulating in soggy amounts of sufficient degree to make walking in anything but some kind of tread-bottomed boots somewhat hazardous, so after not much distance I decided to abandon the RER to the Marmottan project.

So I was heading back to the apartment.  And that was something I really didn’t want to be doing.  I have noticed early in this sojourn that my mental health appears to be directly proportional to the amount of time I spend on the streets of Paris, and inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend, during daylight hours, in the apartment.  And up to the point – today - of abandoning the RER project I have spent all possible time during daylight walking on various routes that interest me, taking pictures and, just generally, reveling in Paris.  That has required some adaptations to cope with some rain, and a little snow, but in general, if I  have assessed the weather correctly, and have configured myself correctly in response, full time access to the outdoors and the streets has been absolutely possible.

So I was not pleased with my apparently imminent first failure.

I was brooding about the situation to such a degree that I realized that I was well past the door to the apartment when the question of where was I occurred to me. 

So I just kept going.

I don’t know what it was about that moment – the weather certainly hadn’t improved – that made things seem different, but they did seem different.

So, since I was going in a certain direction, it seemed to me that I ought to figure out a destination, so I could know when I was half through my journey – destinations, at least for me usually being the half point of any journey – and I suddenly had a grand idea.

I could go down Rue des Rennes, which is a major enough street that foot traffic should have been taking care of the slush to a great extent, and go to FNAC where I could buy a ticket for the Monet exhibit.  Not only that, but FNAC is huge and I could walk around inside, out of the snow, and get some exercise.  And there was the additional advantage that with FNAC’s massive selection  of electronics and gadgets and notions and photgraphics I might find something that I hadn’t known that I really needed. 

That was a potentially beguiling bonus.

As it turned out, I just wandered around the camera department absolutely bedazzled by the depth of choice, savoring, but not buying, and then went down to the billeterie, bought my ticket, and then went up two floors for a final exposure to the possibility of the commercial equivalent of near occasion of sin in the computer department.  ( I have been harboring the thought that if I find an HP Photosmart  multi-function printer cheap enough, I might buy it, knowing that I would have to leave it behind when I depart France in February.)

As luck would have it, there was a Photosmart multi-function unit for 69 euros, which was arguably in the price range that I would consider to make the device expendable.  But it was USB attach only and there is no room for a printer in the area where my computer is lodged.  And, although it is talking via Wi-Fi G to the portable router that I bought just before leaving the US, the place where the CPU is is the only place where the CPU can be.

So I was able to rationalize my way out of buying that printer.

There was, however, for 99 euros, a Wi-Fi compatible HP Photosmart multi-function printer.

The way I got around that was to say “too much; wait and see if they bring the price down as we get closer to Christmas”.

So I was sort of at loose ends, and was wandering around with no real purpose other than not wanting to go back out into the snow, when my eyes focused on the shelf of merchandise that I had wandered aimlessly to and had stopped in front of for no apparent purpose.

I had focused on just one member of the community of the merchandise on the shelf.  It was a familiar green package from Western Digital.  “My Passport Essential” said the writing on the carton.  I recognized it immediately because I have a number of them – two with me in Paris, one 750 GB and one 1TB – and I was curious which of the tribe were on offer there on the FNAC shelf in Paris, and at what price.

It was a 500 GB.  It cost 89 euros.  “Not a bad price” I thought, “but a little high for only 500 GB.”

Then I widened my field of view.  What I was standing in front of was a multi shelf, very long display of My Passport Essentials.  I had never seen that many assembled in one place.  I looked to see if there were any of the 750 GB or 1 TB, but they all seemed to be 500 GB.  “That’s a nice round number” I thought to myself.

Then I did the next obvious – to me at least – thing.  I took a census.  They were all stacked along the shelf in neat rows of 12 packages each, so I counted down the shelf and when I had gotten to twenty times twelve I decided that I had better stop; I can’t multiply in my head beyond that.

But 240 and counting was a sound I heard in my reverie.  And there were several more rows of twelve of the Western Digitals yet to be included in the body count.  And beyond them stretched a similar extent of some other brand.  I was afraid to examine that array for its capacity.

I was afraid because, if I multiply 500 GB by 240, I get a number that exceeds all the storage capability in the world of just a few short years ago.  If I then consider the fact that that is only a small fraction of the display that I am looking at, and that what I am looking at is only the portable drives – the WD My Books and competitors are just next – and if I further consider that I am looking only at the displays in the FNAC store on Rue des Rennes in Paris (there are probably several others – I know of ten) and if I acknowledge that FNAC, in spite of my personal preference for it and my desire to make it “unique”, is, in fact one of some unknown, but very large, number of similarly configured retailers, to say nothing of the Costcos and the Wal-marts which, although different, still sell massive numbers of electronic products, I just don’t know what to think but that we are at the edge of a digital big bang.

And I don’t know what that means.

And that may not even matter, because, like the other big bang, it may happen in, and at a dimension that neither we, nor our computers, portable intelligences nor digital cameras will be capable of discerning.

But we may be imminently on the way to some form of impossible to unsort digital porridge which is but a way station to nothing again.

It seemed somehow significant to me that the length of the shelf with the My Passport Essential drives on it was about the same size as a 2314.  I had to wonder how many Essentials it would take to weigh 1950 KG.


  1. That is one intriguing chain of thoughts, Noel. So many connections from throughout your life coming together at that point. As for the revolving Big Bangs (or whatever I should call the Big to Nothing to Big again), you had a creative thought there, and the question from this person unschooled in physics is, "Why not?"

  2. just re-read again. Great thread.