A view of the world from my own unique perspective

As part of my ongoing effort to practise mindfulness (formerly known as stopping to smell the proverbial roses), I often take time to look around and ponder the many advances in technology – not inter-generational transformations, but ones that have occurred during my own lifetime. Since change happens slowly and often imperceptibly, we may not always be aware of the dramatic advances that have occurred since our childhood.

I’m sure that most of your are familiar with Moore’s Law: In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years. As it turns out, Moore’s forecast has been fairly accurate since 1965, and has also been applied to digital storage capacity. Moore’s Law is often quoted in computer magazines when a columnist tries to predict what computers may be capable of in the not-too-distant future.

moores-law-1

256gb-usb-driveA few weeks ago, I was browsing through Amazon.com, and saw some USB thumb drives that had a┬ácapacity of 256GB. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this, since I’ve known about Moore’s Law since the 1980s, but I was still stunned by the exponential increases in digital storage capacity.

When I was in university during the mid-1980s, I volunteered at the campus radio station. During my first year I was a disc jockey, and I had my own two-hour, weekly show. Back then, they were still playing vinyl LPs and singles, since compact discs – which had just been released – were still prohibitively expensive.

The radio station’s record library was a sight to behold – it took up an entire (fairly large) room. The other, more senior disc jockeys told me that this library contained approximately 5,000 LPs, which was larger than the libraries at most commercial radio stations. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of it, but here is a similarly-sized record library:

record-library-2a

As a teenager, I felt as if I had died and gone to music heaven; everything I could think of was in that room. There were more albums than I could possibly listen to, and new music arrived almost weekly. Unfortunately, no one – not the disc jockeys or even the station management – was allowed to borrow any of the albums or remove them from the building. However, there was one exception: if we were supplying the music for a campus pub event, then the DJs would carry two or three milk cartons full of LPs to the pub and back.

At the time, it seemed like there was more music than I could possibly listen to in a lifetime, but how much music was in that record library? If I listened to one album per day, it would take me over 13.5 years to listen to those 5,000 albums.

Today, of course, most of us listen to our music as MP3 files, and the size of our music collection is often expressed in megabytes (or gigabytes), instead of the number of albums we own. This got me thinking… if I were able to digitize the campus radio station’s entire record library, how much disk space would I need?

In order to simplify the calculations, I’ll have to start with a couple of assumptions:

  • Songs vary greatly in length, so rather than use the average number of songs (10-12) on a typical LP, I decided that a more accurate measurement would be the actual playing time of an LP. According to this source, a typical LP contains between 18-21 minutes of music per side, or 36-42 minutes per disk.
  • I encode my MP3s at a variable bit rate, averaging 128-136 kbps, which works out to just under one megabyte per minute of music. So let’s round up and assume that each megabyte of an MP3 file contains exactly one minute of music.

Therefore, the size of a typical vinyl record will be between 36-42 megabytes. The average value in this range is 39 MB, but I want to be really conservative in my calculations so I’m going to assume that every LP in the station’s record library contained a full 42 minutes of music. Therefore, each album (digitized as a 128 kpbs MP3) will be 42 megabytes.

Multiply 42 MB by the 5,000 albums in the record library, and we get: 42 x 5,000 = 210,000 megabytes or 210 gigabytes.

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How Much is a Gigabyte?

This may seem like a ridiculously easy question: a gigabyte is one billion bytes, isn’t it? Well, yes and no… it depends on whom you ask. When you buy hard drives or USB drives, the manufacturers advertise 1 MB or 1 GB as exactly one million or 1 billion characters of storage, respectively. This seems logical, for those of us who grew up with the metric system, but to computer geeks, this isn’t quite accurate. In the computer world, the kilo or “k” prefix is actually 1,024 bytes (two to the tenth power), and not 1,000. This may not seem like much of a difference, but watch what happens when we start scaling upwards:

One megabyte is: 1024 x 1024 = 1,048,576 characters
One gigabtye is: 1024 x 1024 x 1024 = 1,073,741,824 characters
210 gigabytes is: 225,485,783,040 characters

Therefore, the radio station’s music library – that entire room full of vinyl albums – can easily fit onto one of those 256 GB USB drives… with room for an additional 704 albums!

Finally, if that isn’t enough to boggle your mind, consider this: thumb drives aren’t the only available format – there are now SD cards and MicroSD cards with the same 256GB capacity. Behold:

microsd-hand-comparison

Music that once filled every nook and cranny of an entire (fairly large) room now fits not only in your hand, but on the tip of your finger. This isn’t a comparison from an antiquated 1950s textbook; this colossal miniaturization happened during our lifetime, and is still continuing.

Financial planners try to impress us with what they call “the magic of compound interest” (which I don’t think is particularly magical at all – it’s just simple math). Now compare the annual growth of compound interest to the technological advances predicted by Moore’s Law, and after a couple of decades, you will also be astounded.

This is one example of mindfulness. Incredible things are happening all around us; it’s easy to be awed by your own existence by simply pausing and paying attention.

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