[Beowulf] Re: Interesting

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Fri Oct 29 10:36:31 PDT 2010

On Fri, 29 Oct 2010, Lux, Jim (337C) wrote:

> Or, how about something like the UNICON aka "terabit memory" (TBM) from
> Illiac IV days. It's a stable polyester base with a thin film of rhodium
> that was ablated by a laser making 3 micron holes to write the bits.  $3.5M
> to store a terabit in 1975.

Burned RO laser disks should in principle be as stable, if the medium
used is thick enough.  The problem is that CDs tend to be mass produced
with very thin media, cheap plastic, and are even susceptible to
corrosion through the plastic over time.  If one made a CD with tempered
glass and a moderately thick slice of e.g. stainless steel or

But then your problem is the reader.  CD readers give way to DVD and are
still backwards compatible, sort of.  But what about the 2020
equivalent?  Will there even be one?  Nobody will buy actual CDs any
more.  Nobody will buy movies on DVDs any more (seriously, I doubt that
they will).  Will there BE a laser drive that is backwards compatible to
CD, or will it go the way of reel to reel tapes, 8 track tapes, cassette
tapes, QIC tapes, floppy drives of all flavors (including high capacity
drives like the ones I have carefully saved at home in case I ever need
one), magnetic core memories, large mountable disk packs, exabyte tape
drives, DA tapes, and so on?  I rather think it will be gone.  It isn't
even clear if hard disk drives will still be available (not that any
computer around would be able to interface with the 5 or 10 MB drives of
my youth anyway).

This is the problem with electronics.  You have to have BOTH long time
scale stability AND an interface for the ages.  And the latter is highly
incompatible with e.g. Moore's Law -- not even the humble serial port
has made it through thirty years unscathed.  Is the Universal Serial Bus
really Universal?  I doubt it.  And yet, that is likely to be the only
interface available AT ALL (except for perhaps some sort of wireless
network that isn't even VISIBLE to old peripherals) on the vast bulk of
the machines sold in a mere five years.

A frightening trend in computing these days is that we may be peaking in
the era where one's computer (properly equipped with a sensible
operating system) is symmetrically capable of functioning as a client
and a server.  Desktop computers were clients, servers, or both as one
wished, from the days of Sun workstations through to the present, with
any sort of Unixoid operating system and adequate resources.  From the
mid 90's on, with Linux, pure commodity systems were both at the whim of
the system owner -- anybody could add more memory, more disks, a backup
device, and the same chassis was whatever you needed it to be.

Now, however, this general purpose desktop is all but dead, supplanted
by laptops that are just as powerful, but that lack the expandability
and repurposeability.  And laptops are themselves an endangered species
all of a sudden -- in five years a "laptop" could very well be a single
"pad" (touchscreen) of whatever size with or without an external
keyboard, all wireless, smooth as a baby's bottom as far as actual plugs
are concerned (or maybe, just maybe, with a single USB charger/data port
or a couple of slots for SD-of-the-day or USB peripherals).  Actual data
storage may well migrate into servers that are completely different
beasts, far away, accessible only over a wireless network, and
controlled by others.

An enormous step backwards, in other words.  A risk to our political
freedom.  And yet so seductive, so economical, so convenient, that we
may willingly dance down a primrose path to an information catastrophe
that is more or less impossible still with the vast decentralization of
stored knowledge.


Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu

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