Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Evolution of Memory

I found an old floppy disc in a box of crap I'd been storing in the basement. I was digging around in search of some other item--isn't that how it always goes--and unearthed a small cardboard treasure chest of old forgotten lore. In it were former military crests, a Tarot deck entrusted to me, a collection of old letters from a friend, one special letter from someone I miss very much, a lot of random crap and this 3.5" disc.

When we had actual floppy discs, the 4.25" variety, these little jobbers were called hard discs because they were hard. They were renamed seemingly overnight with the invention of replaceable, upgradeable hard drives that were mounted inside your computer. Which strikes me odd, since those are now called hard drives and not hard discs, so what the hell is a hard disc anymore? Hard disc doesn't have a home anymore, and these hard discs are called floppies. This is pro-gress?

1. Anyway. It got me to musing about the state and condition of memory storage devices. So yeah, back in the day, we invested in hard plastic little folding cases that could hold a dozen 3.5" discs like a rack of vinyl LPs. (Oh man, am I so glad I'm not explaining this to a niece/nephew-in-law. Every other term would elicit a blank look, pushing me closer and closer to taking my own life, because there is no way I can be this old.) They held almost one and a half megabytes of memory and we were impressed. We saved DOC and TXT files on them, or even small graphics files: on this disc I found a PDF for filing taxes and a wallpaper image from the American version of the Japanese horror film The Ring, which came out in 2002. Okay, bad example, but I definitely bought my disc case when I was getting my AA degree at ARCC in 1991-93.

Actually, I recall getting into an argument once about these discs. I worked in the library at ARCC and we had a metal detector at our entrance because students would steal books, regular and reference material, without checking them out (and then throw them away, such is youth's respect for education) and at least we could detect the little bastards fleeing the scene. I personally caught a young woman who had torn a handful of pages out of Sports Illustrated and shoved them in her book bag. But I digress: this woman came in and complained that our metal detector transferred all the data on one set of her discs to another set of discs. Yes, seriously. All the data leaped between plastic cases, swapping positions in an unprecedented and irreproducible e-cakewalk, and no amount of technical explanation could convince her of the impossibility, the abject impossibility of her claim. This was the same woman who complained about being charged late fees on her books despite a two-week grace period (which she derided as ludicrously short) and being presented with no fewer than five signs/posters succinctly stating our policies, posted on and around the entrance and front desk ("Nobody reads signs!" she retorted).

2. And then came the Zip drive, with its astounding 100 megabyte discs! This may have been around the time disc was starting to be spelled disk because no one knew the difference, so why not push all senses and terms into one spelling? Why not, indeed. But yes, the Zip drive! My mind boggled to imagine how much porn I could store on one of those things! Delicious, life-giving porn safely sequestered off of any hard drive! "As you can see, officers, my computer is completely pristine, unblemished by prurient material of any stripe." Because, of course, the average computer user stood a high risk of getting their home raided by cops with a warrant to search their machines.

What's sad about this Zip drive is that I really, really saved up for one. I was working a sequence of low-paying temp jobs, doing data entry hither and yon, scavenging nice clothes from second-hand outlets or discount stores, subsisting off of corn mash, dehydrated milk, and jelly packets from restaurants. This is not an exaggeration. I earned enough for rent, I lived off of free and donated food, and I saved up for a Zip drive. And when I got it, I didn't know it but it was deprecated almost immediately: Iomega released their 250 MB disks promptly and it spun out of control from there. Now I have this dark blue trophy from the lean times that sits on the shelf, next to a small wire rack of heavy, solid disks of uselessness. One hundred megabytes... can you believe that was ever impressive?

3. For contrast, I'm including one of the crappy, crappy SD cards one of my cameras came with. That big "32" on the front means it stores 32 MB of memory on it (that's 21 3.5" floppies). Do you know what that means? That means eight really good photos. Eight photos and your memory card is full. Or, kick down the photo quality and resolution as far as it will go and you can wring out 269 photos you will hate looking at in the future. Here, here's two shots of my computer desk, can you tell the difference?

If you can't, then I think I just learned something.

4. I don't remember where I bought this little flash drive (a.k.a. thumb drive, jump drive). It comes with three colors of cases and a lanyard as well as a chain to attach to a key ring, say. Truly the size of the last digit of my thumb, it holds 250 MB of storage. This dinky little thing that can get lost in my jeans pocket can hold almost eight of those crappy SD cards on it. I've had this handy item for years and done a lot of work with it, transferring files and storing graphics between computers, oh, all sorts of computers. It's so handy when transferring files between my mainframe and my laptop. Somehow it's easier to trot from the sunroom to the office with this thing than using any of the hundreds of online file storage facilities--plus, there's no online digital trail.

5. And then one day I was shopping for something else at Office Depot and there was a little bin next to the cash register--you know, the bin where they're trying to unload something they couldn't sell at normal price, or maybe just a rinky-dink little promotional item. And in this bin was a load of these bright orange flash drives, each one holding twice the memory of my handy little flash drive, and each one selling for nine bucks. I know I paid far more than that for the little flash drive I'd been using.

6. And then one day my wife found a sale on flash drives and asked me if I wanted in. Target was selling eight gigabyte flash drives for $20. She got one for me and one for herself. It was as casual and nonchalant as that, but let me break this down for you. To start with, one 8 GB Transcend drive can hold all the data of 5,333 3.5" floppies. If nothing else, that represents a tremendous reduction in physical clutter: for six dollars you could buy a plastic case to hold 50 floppies. It would take 107 cases, totaling $642, 32 times the price of this flash drive (and that doesn't count the cost of 5,333 3.5" floppy disks).

On this 8 GB Transcend flash drive, I can store all of World of Warcraft and bring it with me to play on any computer. The first version, at least, maybe not the expansions. I could definitely store three or four of the free MMOs that China, Japan, and South Korea are producing.

If we set an average music file to be around 4.5 MB, my little grey flash drive could hold 55 songs (just under five CDs) and the Transcend flash drive can carry 1,778 songs, or almost 150 full albums. That is one hell of a record collection for a space smaller than a Chap Stick. The song file, however, would have to be broken up into chunks to fit onto three 3.5" discs.

As for photos, let's get silly. I just took an eight megapixel photo requiring 3.47 MB of space--let's say 3.5 for simplicity's sake. That crappy, crappy SD card can hold eight such photos. The Zip disk can hold 28 of these really nice photos, but the 3.5" floppy couldn't hold one. My little grey flash drive can store 73, the orange drive can store 146, and the Transcend 8 GB drive can comfortably hold 2,285 high-resolution image files. If there were an easy way to transfer data from an SD card to a thumb drive, I could fill up my camera 285 times, dumping it all onto the Transcend drive.

That is, of course, under ideal circumstances: availing myself of every last ounce of memory possible, a condition which is not possible in practical, real-world settings. I just filled up that crappy, crappy SD card with eight high-res photos, dumped them into a folder, and measured them: they only take up 26.5 MB of space. You never get the full capacity of any advertised amount of memory space. What this means is the awesomeness of these later developments in storage space is only slightly less awesome than I figured out with pure math, above, but the suckitude of the older storage devices is much suckier than represented.

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