OCTOBER 2006 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Uses for a Faster Computer

After clock speeds passed 1 gigahertz or so, it became harder and harder to find reasons why you needed a faster computer. At 10 megahertz, computers were fast enough to keep up with your typing, even with the strangest typefaces; at 100 megahertz, the computer could scale photographs while displaying them without slowing to a crawl; and at 1 gigahertz, it can go from one page to the next in a document faster than you can. A faster computer now won’t help you type faster, look at more pictures, or read more pages of text. So why would you want a computer to go faster?

Other things being equal, a faster computer is preferable, but we have finally reached a point where a faster computer is not a priority for everyone. If you carry a computer with you, you want it to be small and light, and you want the it to use power slower so the battery can last all day — just the opposite of what you get when you make a computer go as fast as it possibly can. For many people whose computer work is about e-mail, web pages, text documents, and business data, any fast computer is fast enough. With that thought in mind, businesses have slowed their pace of replacing office computers. At one time, computers in offices were typically replaced about once every two years. Now, even with the price of computers falling, the computer replacement cycle has slowed to once every four years, and it shows signs of slowing further.

On the other hand, there are still classes of users for whom the value of a faster computer remains painfully obvious. If you edit video, adjust colors on hundreds of photographs, or record and mix music, you are always waiting for your computer to do something, and with a faster computer, you wouldn’t have to wait as long. Faster computers let video games move faster and look clearer and more lifelike. And if you are predicting the weather or searching for extraterrestrial life, processing speed is still the heart of the matter.

Even if there is nothing specialized or grandiose about the things you do with computers, there is still, eventually, something to be gained from the increase in computing power. New technology always leads to new ways of doing things that don’t seem important until after they become a habit.

A recent example of this is sending photos by e-mail. Five years ago, most of us were asking why you would want to do such a thing. Now we know. Among other advantages, sending a photo is quicker and sometimes better than writing a letter, and it’s an environmentally friendly alternative to sending a greeting card.

This depends, of course, on having a computer fast enough that it doesn’t get bogged down in handling a photo. What new ways of doing things might we discover with next year’s faster computers?

Pattern Recognition

Two applications that I think may be ready to break out are speech recognition and handwriting recognition. In other words, why can’t your computer understand what you’re saying and read what you’re writing? These are special cases of a software problem called pattern recognition. Pattern recognition has come a long way in the last few years though improved fuzzy logic techniques — and fuzzy logic can be more accurate if you give it more processing cycles. It makes sense, then, that a faster computer might be fast enough to read your handwriting or transcribe your rambling thoughts with pretty good accuracy.

If so, this will make it easier to connect your computer to the rest of your life. Could a computer write down your telephone messages for you? Someday it could, and that would make it easier for you to save those communications together with any other notes you have about what’s going on around you.

Electronic Filing

The next application to break through because of increasing computer power could be something as mundane as filing. Using a computer to file documents is not a new idea, of course. It’s the metaphor behind the Mac OS file system and Finder, which were introduced 22 years ago. In the 1990s, various kinds of businesses started to use digital asset management systems, content management systems, document repositories, and similar initiatives to keep track of complex sets of high-value documents that in the past would have been stored in cabinets and on shelves. In recent years, Apple has introduced new applications designed to keep your songs, photos, and movies on your computer.

Could you take most of the documents you save in drawers and shoe boxes and put them in your computer? Yes, you could. It’s possible to scan bills, receipts, and letters and save them in computer folders instead of shoe boxes. Similarly, you can digitize a room full of LPs and video tapes and reduce them to a stack of computer disks you can hold in your hand. But imagine how long this would take! And that, of course, is where the faster computer comes in.

As soon as you have a computer that can handle your scanned documents in a flash, you can scan every receipt, every invitation, every document you might have a reason to save. Then in many cases, you can keep the digital document and discard the original paper document.

Already it makes sense to save documents in digital form when you can them in digital form to begin with. For me, this now includes all my tax documents. The instructional booklets were available for download years ago, and by last year, it became possible for me to fill in every tax form on my computer (with one exception). The rare paper documents I get in connection with taxes are easier to keep track of if I can scan them and keep them on my computer together with all the other tax documents I save.

I’ve also found that most bills are now available in a “paperless” form on the supplier’s web site. I’ve had to go to some trouble to register with each supplier in order to receive bills online, but having done so, it is easier to receive each bill, nothing gets lost in the mail, and I can often make the payments online too. Online payments are not yet as easy as writing checks, but they are considerably more secure and reliable than putting a check or credit card number in the mail. Just as important, making an online payment eliminates a few minutes of the minimum-wage sweatshop labor, much of it done overnight, of the workers who open payment envelopes and connect the checks them to the right accounts. If you could see how this work is done you might develop the same reluctance I feel about sending one of my checks into that unhappy process.

Owner’s manuals and other product documentation is now readily available online, at least for many recent product models. It makes more sense to have reference material in digital form if you use it only in bits and pieces every now and then. Unfortunately, many publishers still charge hundreds of dollars extra to supply dictionaries and directories in electronic form, but that is starting to change.

Smooth Scannning

Any ordinary paper document can be converted to an electronic document by scanning it. For most of us, this involves placing a page on the scanner surface, starting the scanner, then providing a name for the resulting file. It’s not much work, but we have so many paper documents that we want it to go quickly and smoothly, and that’s how it ought to go with next year’s faster computers.

For many people, a smooth scanning process will mean being able to take away the file cabinet. Larger businesses have been gradually reducing the number of file cabinets for 20 years as accountants weigh the costs and benefits of keeping various levels of files. Smaller businesses usually pay less in rent for file space and have fewer financial controls, but here too, files are getting smaller, if only to save work for the people who use the file cabinets. In a home, it might be a single file drawer, but perhaps this too could be reduced or eliminated.

I gave away my file cabinet earlier this year and moved my files to four cardboard boxes, temporarily I thought. At some point I realized I would not want to get a new file drawer. I had already reduced my files by scanning several hundred pages of archival documents. Next year, with a faster computer, I expect to scan the bulk of my remaining paper files. What I have left will fit in a single file box. Eventually, I will have so few paper files that I can keep them in a magazine box on a shelf.

It is impressive how little space digital documents occupy. A five-drawer file drawer might contain 25,000 document pages. You can store that many scanned pages on one DVD. But the effort in scanning files is also substantial, so you shouldn’t use digitizing as an alternative to discarding files that have no value. Throw away anything that has outlived its usefulness. If you’re ready to start scanning your files, here are some other suggestions:

Losing Weight

The last time I moved, I groaned as I carried my collections of music LPs and photo prints up and down the stairs. They were so heavy that I want to be sure to digitize both collections before the next time I move.

For photos, you can get better results by having a photo service scan the original negatives on a slide scanner. Not all slide scanners are equivalent, so start with a few of your more recent negatives first and check for accurate colors in the computer files you get. If the colors look muddy, reddish, streaky, or blotchy, or if the images are excessively grainy, try a difference service to see if they do better. After you get the computer files, go through them and throw the bad pictures away, the same way you would if you had a digital camera and had just taken the pictures.

Converting LPs to digital is real work if you want to do it well. You need a good photo preamp, a good computer audio interface, and a good record cleaning brush. You’ll also need an editing program if you want to divide the music into tracks. Turn off any fluorescent lights in the house if you don’t want to hear that buzz in your music. Record an entire album side into the computer, then split it into tracks so that each song is in a separate file. The good news here is that the editing process that divides audio into tracks is easy to do when you have a fast computer. In a sense, you could say digitizing LPs doesn’t take any extra time because you were going to listen to the music anyway. In some cases, it’s easier to buy audio files online than to digitize an LP. But there are also LPs that were never released on CD or in any digital medium.

Books are heavy too, but unfortunately, it’s not so easy to get or use books in digital form. Scanning a book on a flatbed scanner takes forever, and book scanners, which turn the pages of a book as they scan each page, are prohibitively expensive for most of us. Meanwhile, book publishers have so far been reluctant to release books in a digital form because of the ease of digital copying. The e-books that are available don’t count as a replacement for a physical book because of the copy protection schemes; you get no assurance that you will be able to read any particular e-book in the future. At the same time, it’s not as much fun to read a book on the computer screen, so you probably wouldn’t want an electronic version of a novel or a book you are reading from beginning to end. However, for many reference books, you might actually prefer to have them in digital form. And after you’ve read any book, you might prefer to save it in digital form than to save the original paper copy on the shelf.

One alternative is a process that cuts the spine off the book, then scans all the pages as separate sheets. This destroys the book, but you end up with a digital copy. Book publishers do this when they want to reprint a book and no one remembers how the book was printed last time.

I am confident that the barriers to electronic books will also give way within a few years, and then it will be practical to keep books in digital form too. Some of this is sure to happen before the next time I move, and that means I will not have quite so many heavy boxes to carry.

Faster and Cheaper

Scanning and digitizing are not, by themselves, much of a reason to buy a faster computer, but combine them with other applications, and I am sure that millions of people will be persuaded to replace their computers with faster computers over the next three years. Part of the reason this will happen is that the price of computers continues to fall. It is not that easy to sell people things they already have, but as long as people can’t believe how much faster the new computers are and how little they cost compared to their old computers, it’s a fair guess that they’ll keep buying.


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