Getting a grip

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Yesterday’s post, Blurred Numbers, made the point it’s near impossible to visualize the high speeds and tiny spaces we take for granted in audio.

We think nothing of slicing sound into 192,000 individual sections each second. We think even less of what happens to each of those 192,000 sections—themselves broken into 2,147,483,647 additional steps (for 32 bits).

Is it even possible to visualize the scale at which we reproduce music?

Reader Skip Volkmann, the editor of HP’s Developer’s Portal, sent me this note I reprint here.

“Here’s one of the best visualizations for big numbers I have ever heard. A woman named Grace Hopper was a math whiz and college professor in the 1950s. She got involved in designing the first computers at Harvard. Later she joined the Navy and rose to the rank of Admiral based on her knowledge of computers and how to apply them. In her later years, she taught computer classes to military officers who had little understanding of computer technology.

How Long Is A Nanosecond?
Grace Hopper was frustrated that the time scale that was used to measure computer performance – microseconds and nanoseconds – was so abstract. She wanted to make a nanosecond – a billionth of a second – tangible. So she went to the machine shop and she cut a length of wire 11.4 inches long. That distance – less than a foot – is how far electricity (moving at essentially the speed of light) can travel in a nanosecond. At the start of her classes, she would give everyone their very own “nanosecond” to remind them of the fantastic speed that computers work at. (A microsecond, by the way, is more than 900 feet. She cut only one of those!)”

Thanks, Skip. A further note on Grace Hopper. It is Hopper we have to thank for the fact we can understand machines. She pioneered the idea of converting machine language, math, to English (or any other language of choice).

We can also thank Grace for the term “computer Bug”. It was from the notebook of this fabulous woman that we gained the term when technicians pulled a moth from the Mark II computer she was in charge of in 1947. Here’s a picture of the first “bug” and the page from her notebook.