Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


I’ve been working in VMware all week, and constantly swapping virtual memory, even though this computer has four gigs of RAM.  And it’s not like I configured my virtual machine to use four gigs of memory and then wondered why I can’t run that and iTunes and iPhoto and iEverythingElse at the same time.  So I broke down and ordered eight gigs of RAM and hoped it would get here Saturday, but of course it won’t get here today, and possibly later, because our FedEx guy doesn’t understand how our door phone works.

(And all of this is stupid – I later found out that my backup software was configured to run 24/7 when I’m idle or not, and that was eating a ton of memory.  I saw this rogue Java process running, and thought it was… I don’t know what I thought it was.  But I could still use the extra memory.)

Anyway, my last OWC memory upgrade I bought was three gigs for the last laptop, which cost $150.  And when I did that back in 2007, I told a version of the same story:  in 1993, I was building this Linux computer, the first “real” computer I built.  (Prior to that, I built an 8088 with a meg of memory, but building an 8088 in 1991-1992 is a lot like building a Pentium II system today, which would probably involve a lot of shopping for lots of obsolete computer pieces.)  So I got this 486 (DX, not SX!) and I went to CompuSource and bought four one-meg SIMMS for $160.  So in 17 years, I’ve gone from 4MB for $160 to 8 GB for $220 (minus the trade-in of ~$50.)

And looking at my activity monitor, VMware’s little icon it puts in the menu bar uses 4 MB of memory.  It’s amazing to think an entire OS, with X Windows and emacs and multiple users and multiple xterms would run in that same amount of memory a few years ago.  It feels very Andy Rooney to talk about it, because I know when I was sporting the four megs of RAM, there were people talking about the old times in the same way.  I took this C335 assembly language class in 1991 with a teacher that had been hacking hardware for a generation.  We had these Atari ST computers in the lab that I think had either 512K or a meg of memory, and he would talk about the first computer he built with 32K of memory that took up a whole room and cost more than a small house.

But here’s the thing: if you were working on a wire-wrapped board for an Altair to hold 4K of RAM for a thousand bucks, and then five or seven years later, went down to your local Key-Bee toy store and dropped a few hundred bucks for a Commodore-64 with 64K of memory, the whole experience would be markedly different.  I mean, you’d go from toggling switches to enter ones and zeroes to this thing that would do 320×200 graphics in 16 colors and output straight to a TV with no additional boards and hardware, and had a built-in BASIC and a kick-ass sound chip and a real keyboard (sort of).  But if you make the jump from a circa-1993 Linux machine to a circa-2010 Linux machine, the storage and memory grows orders of magnitude, but the basic paradigm is the same.  I mean, our computers would have to read minds and have working replicator technology to make a jump like that.  I sit down at a Windows 7 machine of today, and fire up a Windows 95 machine of 15 years ago, and the underpinnings are vastly more powerful, but you’re still doing the same basic crap in the same explorer window and dragging around crap and staring at the same hourglass.  Moore’s law might be boosting the hardware, but it seems like every time they bump up the horsepower, some idiot says “hey, let’s use all of this magical power to make an animated paperclip that tries to guess that you’re making a bulleted list” or “let’s run a daemon in the background that sends this user’s private information to the mothership every five seconds, and let’s ignore the fact that 4000 other companies are going to do the same exact thing, so when the person’s computer sits idle, almost all of its CPU is going to byzantine licensing and crapware server programs.”

One big minus to the otherwise sweet MacBook Pro is I’ve gotta crack open the case to put in the memory.  Which means, I need to go find my set of jeweler’s screwdrivers for the baby phillips-head…