This is the world’s fastest computer. Really. Ok, not really. But it would have been the world’s fastest computer in 1989. Not pretty fast. Not world-class. The fastest. Faster than anything owned by any government in the world. I can’t think of any other technology that has ever followed a similar curve from gov’t-weapons-lab-restricted to nearly disposable consumer good in the span of 20 years.

The Numbers

Just so you know that I’m not engaging in hyperbole, according to Wikipedia, in 1989 the fastest computer in the world was the ETA10-G/8 at Florida State University, with a peak speed of 10.3 GFLOPS. The Mini pictured above is a 3,1 series with a 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo; Intel reports that the 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo has a peak FP performance of 16 GFLOPS. Now there’s more to performance than GFLOPS, but when one factors in this Mini’s 4GB of memory (and the SSD, of course) one can make a very strong argument that it really would have been the fastest box in the world in 1989.

So What?

I bring all this up not just because it’s a little weird, but also because I wonder about something. Computers, in the form of embedded systems, are in everything, and that means that almost every aspect of modern technology has been piggybacking on the headlong advance of this one narrow area of human ability. I wonder if this has allowed certain alarming declines in capability to go largely unnoticed, their effects masked by Moore’s law.


I realize that the suggestion of declining human ability might seem bizarre, so let me point out just three items:

  1. In 1972, man went to the Moon for (so far) the last time. He has not left low Earth orbit since. In fact, today we cannot send a man to the Moon. Sure, in principle we could re-develop the technology to do it, but, right now, we can’t.
  2. 1 and 2 World Trade were built between August ’68 and July ’71 … that’s 3 years. The rebuilt 1 WTC is expected to be completed in late 2013. That’s about 12 years.
  3. Does anyone seriously believe that we could build the Panama Canal today? If it wasn’t condemned as “imperialism”, then a gaggle of Berkeley hippies would sue to stop it under some novel interpretation of the Endangered Species Act.

I’m not necessarily committed to the declinist perspective, but I think it’s an interesting one, and the rapid advance and integration of computerization could reconcile the obvious proliferation of shiny and wonderful new toys with a broader retreat in capabilities.

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