Nine to Noon: 17 February 2011

March 2, 2011 – 12:55 pm

This post is about my 17 February appearance on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand. Listen to the show in MP3 and OGG. My notes below were made during research for the show, but we often depart from the script.

NOTE: An alert reader wrote to RNZ after the show and pointed out that Moore’s Law is only “eerily accurate” if you ignore the fact that it is restated and revised whenever facts contradict the current predictions. He pointed me to this mythbusting.


Space shuttle computer, Moore’s Law, Exponential growth, The MOST Important Problem You’ll Ever See.
Instapaper; Long

Moore’s Law and Mobile

I just bought my wife a new mobile phone, and I had to take a moment to boggle. At first it was just at the price, but then it was at what she was getting for that price. The computers we carry around in our mobile phones are more powerful than the one on the Shuttle. My mobile phone has 1000 times the memory and runs 250 times as fast.

There’s a rule of computing, Moore’s Law, about how computers have gotten faster. It’s named after Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel whose chips grace most personal computers today. Moore observed in 1965 that computers were getting faster every year, drew a graph, and declared that speeds double every 18 months.

The amazing thing is that he’s been right. Chip companies have been doubling the speed of their chips every year and a half … for 45 years. That’s astonishing. Some people suggest it’s been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: everyone believes in it, so they all think they’d better develop and release these faster chips before everyone else does.

That kind of doubling isn’t something we humans are good at picturing. We’re good at picturing constant growth: if we grow an inch every year for 45 years, we’ll be 45 inches taller. But if we double in height every eighteen months for 45 years, which means we double 30 times, how tall do you think we’d be?

Let’s figure it out. After one doubling, we’re twice our height. After the next doubling, we’re four times. After the next doubling, we’re eight times. Then it’s 16. Then it’s 32. Then it’s 64. Then it’s 128. So we’re over a hundred times our original height and we’re still only ten and a half years into our forty years of doubling. By year 15 we’re a thousand times our original size. In thirty years we’re a billion.

See what I mean? You were probably nodding and nodding and then went “no wait, what?” It sneaks up on you, this kind of growth. It defeats our intuitions.

When were computers half as fast as they were now? Moore’s Law tells us: eighteen months ago. In mid-2009, the computers you could buy were only half the speed of the computers we’re buying today.

This kind of growth is called “exponential” in the world of mathematics, and it’s mind-buggering, and it’s everywhere. If you look at money growing in a bank, or bacteria growing on a sandwich, you’re looking at exponential growth.

Take bacteria that double every minute and half. You start with one bacterium, 90 seconds later you’ve got two. In another ninety seconds you’ve got four. Each bacterium makes more bacterium, and continues to do even as the new ones make more bacteria, and it just keeps growing.

Let’s say that, at midnight, you’ve finally got a full bottle. At what time was the bottle half-full? It doesn’t matter how big the bottle was, it was half-full a minute and half before it was full. So it was half-full at 11.58 and 30s.

Imagine you were in that bottle, trying to decide when to do something about the bacteria. Would you wait until it was half-full? You’ve only got 90s to solve the problem. A quarter full? Ok, now you’ve got just three minutes to solve it. Exponential growth happens faster than our linear minds can react.

I learned this from a great video I’ve linked to in today’s links, available on the website, called “the MOST important video you’ll ever see”. He says “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand” this kind of exponential growth. He blew my mind multiple times.

Chips aren’t bacteria, they don’t speed up because they breed. Chips speed up when they get smaller, and that’s something people have to work on. A chip is made up of transistors which act as gates, moving electrons around. Theese gates combine to form the basic operations of the chip: making decisions, adding and subtracting, that sort of thing. When someone designs a chip, they’re designing the combination of the gates (because this decides what the chip will do) and then the layout of the gates (which decides its speed). The closer the gates to each other, the faster the chip.

Electricity is just moving electrons. Electrons move at a fixed speed, and the bigger the distance between gates, the longer it takes the electrons to move from one gate to another. The smaller the gap between the gates and the smaller the gates themselves, the more gates you can cram into the same space and so you can do many more operations in the time it takes your electrons to pass through the gates, so you’ve got a faster computer.

Think of a chip like a tub of icecream. You want to put in chocolate chunks: the more, the better. You want them as dense as possible in the icecream. Moore noticed that constant new breakthroughs in science and engineering meant that every eighteen months they were able to put in twice as much chocolate as they could before. Good news if you like ice cream, good news if you like chips. (Chocolate or computer)

Moore’s observation was paralleled by others: the size of disk drives, the power consumption of computers, the amount of information you can transfer over a network, the cost of displays … all these were growing such that things got twice as good every eighteen months.

The amazing thing about Moore’s Law is that it held for so long: he noted it in 1965, and it’s only recently that we’ve stopped getting faster chips in consumer devices. We’ve reached some fundamental limits in the spacing of these things such that any closer together and the pieces interfere with each other–we’re engineering at the scale where the width of atoms matter. There are new technologies that might help (changing how we make the gates), but for now computers like my Mac are getting faster because more chips are being put inside them. I can buy “quad CPU” machines which have four chips instead of one chip that’s four times as fast.

So all this went through my mind as I beheld Jenine’s mighty new phone. Mobile phones exist because of Moore’s Law. It’s only because the ingredients like memory, chips, storage, and displays have dropped in size and price that we can put them together to form a phone. Remember the bricks that stock brokers held to their ears in the late 80s, those early mobile phones were barely mobile, they were so huge. They were also slow: no web browser, no Facebook updates, no games on those phones. All those breakthroughs in what our phones can do are because we’ve gotten faster and smaller computers. All thanks to Moore’s Law.


From the small to the more useful. Let me tell you about something that will make your life easier. There always seems to be more stuff online than I really want. I mean, I can read short things as I find them, but most long things I have to put off for later when I do have time. This happened to so many people that it got its own acronym, “TL;DR” short for “too long; didn’t read”.

I used to solve the problem by keeping tabs or pages open in my web browser, one per thing to read. I’d have zillions of the buggers, and it was hard to keep track of them and then when the browser crashed I’d have lost all the good stuff. And, of course, if I was away from the computer–nothing to read.

The nifty web site Instapaper solves this problem.

With Instapaper, you get a button in your browser that says ‘Read Later’. You hit it, and the page is saved to the Instapaper site. Later, from your web browser or iPad or phone, you can visit the Instapaper site, log in as you, and see all the pages you’ve saved for later.

And, as if that wasn’t convenient enough, the Instapaper site does its best to strip off the advertising and navigation clutter on the page–all those menus to other bits of the site and whatnot. So you get a pure and beautiful article, when you want it.

I read heaps more interesting things now, just because I have something to read on the bus, or the train, or the dunny, or in queue, or …. It’s wonderful. In fact, I’ve begun to seek out good long-form journalism. Instapaper has helped a revival of the form online, and sites like now exist to help you find good long things to read.


The creator of Instapaper, Marco Arment, is in town for the Webstock conference. As am I. He’s speaking, of course. I’m here to soak up the atmosphere, excitement, and wisdom from the speakers.

It’s an annual conference, and it’s *the* web conference in NZ. Beautifully produced, high values, and they always get amazing speakers who aren’t focused so much on the programming but on the people. Web sites are used by people, and the better a web site fits a person the more it’ll be used. There’s some code talk of CSS and HTML and all those acronyms, but I always find the most exciting speakers are those who talk about people.

My highlights this year:

* Marco, because he’s started a few popular things and Instapaper has changed the way I read the web. This has only happened twice, maybe three times, since the web was invented.

* Tom Coates, who is a friend of mine and a brilliant brilliant man. The British … I don’t know, they seem more thoughtful and philosophical about what they do. Tom’s into architecture, social history, philosophy, and he did his degree in Ancient Roman and Greek literature. I learn every time Tom speaks.

* Scott McCloud, whose book Understanding Comics shows you how comics work. He’s a maestro of communication. Given that I am incompetent at drawing, I have a lot to learn …

* Amanda Palmer, a musician who has been using the web to have direct contact with her fans. She fired her label and has gone it alone, making money in imaginative ways. She’s so experimental with the way a musician relates to her fans, it’s absolutely a glimpse in to the future. And she does a wicked cover of Billy Jean.

I’m sure it’ll be the people I *don’t* know about, though, that I’ll learn the most from. Last year they had a performance poet who was absolutely amazing. What did I learn from him? Well, mainly that my wife finds buff 40ish performance poets waaaaay too hot. I gave him crap reviews in the speaker evaluation just for that.

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