Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Thanks, 2017

     Giving thanks for one’s blessings is a good idea. It promotes individual happiness and a sense of perspective that’s often difficult to attain while one is inundated in the national “news.” I do a lot of it, each and every day. Professor Jordan Peterson has made a version of it one of his twelve Rules for Life.

     The Thanksgiving Weekend makes an “event” out of gratitude. People ask one another “What are you grateful for this year?” They compose lists of their various blessings and post them on the Web. There’s a competitive flavor to it that distorts what would otherwise be a constructive undertaking, a reminder of the importance of gratitude to human health and happiness.

     But here we are, the day before America’s second-favorite holiday. It’s got me thinking about the blessings I’ve enjoyed that I often fail to appreciate. And I find myself remembering a less blessed time, back when I flipped bits for bucks alongside a few dozen other software weenies, and we all shared a single VAX 11-785 superminicomputer.

     You have to be a little older than the typical Web junkie to remember the era of superminis. They were impressive machines, to be sure – Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX line was my personal favorite, and its VMS operating system remains my candidate for the best OS ever produced – but they came with certain limitations.

     During the late Eighties and early Nineties, I did my salaried work on a VAX, as did all my colleagues. At first, the storage space on that machine consisted of a single disk pack: a stack of magnetic platters bound together that was manipulated by a washing-machine-size drive. The capacity of that pack, the sole storage available to some thirty software types, was a mind-blowing 32 MegaBytes.

     Yes, Gentle Reader, you read that right: 32,000,000 bytes of storage for thirty software engineers, all of whom were expected to keep everything of immediate interest on it. Needless to say, there was a lot of contention over who needed how much disk space.

     The system administrator – not your humble Curmudgeon, back then – didn’t want to get into the crossfire. He took an approach that seemed to keep him above it all: he assigned each of us a storage quota, enforced by the OS, that we could not exceed. That quota was roughly half a MegaByte each. He reserved the rest of the pack for administrative functions and paging.

     How long has it been since you last encountered a program that would fit in half a MegaByte?

     Our problem was complex, in that the compiler for the language we used – CMS-2M, a Navy proprietary language that’s no longer of importance – produced big intermediate files. It was practically impossible to compile a source module given the disk quota. So the SysAdmin had to make provisions for “temporary overflow:” i.e., an amount of extra storage available to each user, over and above his quota, that he could exploit while he was logged on. He couldn’t save anything in the overflow space, but he could use it to run compilations and linkages. The moment he logged off, anything in the overflow region would disappear.

     The Law of Unintended Consequences struck at once. After the temporary overflow provision was enacted, no one ever logged off. Pretty soon the disk was at 99.9% capacity. VMS ceased to function properly for lack of disk space.

     The SysAdmin realized that the overflow scheme had solved one problem but had evoked a worse one. He took it down...but that forced him to disable the quota mechanism as well, since under the quotas we’d been assigned we couldn’t even compile our programs. He announced the change in policy with an in-office email, reminded us of the overarching problem, and counseled us to “play nice.”

     “Playing nice” lasted about a day. The 32 MByte space was still inadequate for the group’s needs, and each member of the group exhibited the natural tendency to prioritize his immediate needs above the long-term interests of the group. What happened next was a case study in “the tragedy of the commons.”

     Each engineer strove to set space apart for his own use by creating “slack files:” large files of no importance except that:

  • They were the “property” of the creator and could only be deleted by him or the SysAdmin;
  • They were large enough that, if deleted, the space thus freed would be adequate for the engineer’s work.

     In effect, such a file “privatized” a portion of the common storage resource. But with thirty people concurrently trying to get useful work done, the tactic was vulnerable to a countermeasure. Smith would run a program that repeatedly requested a report on the free disk space available. The moment Jones deleted his slack file to run a compilation, Smith’s program would notice and would swiftly allocate the space to his use. Such programs proliferated through the group almost immediately...and once again, it became impossible to get any work done.

     There was no way out of the box. The SysAdmin had no untried approaches to the problem. No engineer was willing to trust the others to play nice. Management refused to spring for a disk drive with a higher capacity, insisting that “you have what you need.” (To be fair, the highest capacity disk available at that time probably wouldn’t have made much difference.) Relief from the torture came only when the Navy canceled our program.

     Iterations of this problem recurred regularly for a decade and more.

     I have before me at this moment a 64 GigaByte flash ROM thumb drive: 2000 times the space on that old disk pack. It’s so small that I frequently misplace it and have to search the entire house for it. It’s not the largest of its kind; there are now thumb drives of 512 GBytes. Hard disks of 4 TeraBytes are commonplace and quite inexpensive. The explosion in storage capacity has alleviated many of the problems of yore.

     Cyclops, my beloved (albeit occasionally irritating) Dell Optiplex 580, which I bought used and have owned for more than three years, has a 2 TeraByte hard disk drive of which less than 25% is in use. I don’t expect ever to challenge its capacity.

     If American corporate developers were still in the habit of using superminis, their disk capacities would be correspondingly huge. However, the typical company uses networked PCs with large drives of their own, tied to servers with even larger shared drives.

     But why did storage capacities explode? What provided the incentive for the electronics industry to bring us these things?

     The answer lies in the most trivial, utterly unproductive things we do with our computers:

  • Music and video files;
  • Computer games;
  • Porn.

     These are the influences that have led users to demand more storage space and has made them willing to pay for it. The market took care of the rest. Anomalous users (your humble Curmudgeon being one) who use their computers for “serious stuff” have benefited from the demands of the frivolous users.

     So today, the day before Thanksgiving 2017, I find myself giving thanks for the hordes of American computer owners and users whose frivolous pastimes have propelled the storage explosion. They waved fistfuls of cash at the disk drive developers, and the developers gave them what they wanted. I am their indirect beneficiary. Maybe you are too.

     Might that make you, Gentle Reader, a wee bit more tolerant when you next catch Junior playing a computer game or viewing cat videos instead of his book report that’s overdue?

     I’ll be taking tomorrow off from the blog. I expect to be back Friday. Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless and keep you all.


JWM said...

The TRUTH about Thanksgiving that no one dares utter: (ready?)
Roast turkey is no one's favorite meal. If it was, then there would be lots of roast turkey restaurants like there are steak, burger, or chicken restaurants. When was there ever a chain called "Roast Turkey House"? Here's when: never.
That's why we barbecue our birdmeat. Mesquite smoke, and fire on the thighs. Perfect for a So Cal day in the mid 80's.
All kidding aside, I stay mindful of the blessings in my life. That is the best defense against my own often morose, and angry disposition. It takes a conscious effort to avoid being swamped by the news feed. Every writer out there wants us to be angry about something, and we all read the ones with whom we most agree. It's a vicious circle, man. So there is a case to me made for cat videos, and "hold-my-beer" stunts on line. Sometimes you need a laugh break. Have a great and Blessed day.


ligneus said...

If the only prayer you say in your whole life is Thankyou, that will suffice.
Meister Eckhart.