The Forrest Conjecture

(I originally wrote this in 2003, and posted it to the comp.arch USENET group then. It generated a fair number of insightful comments which I’ve attempted to incorporate into this new version).

You might not know it, but the programs that run on your computer are actually divided into 2 pieces. One piece is where the instructions that your computer executes are stored. These instructions are things like “ADD” or “JUMP”. This is called the “text space”. The other piece is where the data that the program accesses is stored. This is called the “data space”.

32-bit processors in PCs started to appear in about 1985. A 32-bit processor can address a 4GB text and a 4GB data space. At the time, a 32-bit processor was a huge improvement over the 16-bit processors that came before, which could only address 64KB, at least not without painful tricks. 32-bit processors made it possible to run much larger programs that could process much more data than before. All was well until applications started appearing that needed to access more than 4GB of data. To solve this, AMD, and then Intel, released 64-bit processors. (Because of the way processors are designed, the next increment from 32-bits is 64-bits).

Today, 64-bit processors are ubiquitous, and everyone has enough address space to do what they need. However, I claim that 64-bit processors are being pushed in one way that’s completely unnecessary. This is that although it’s crystal clear that a 64-bit data space is critical, there’s no need at all for a 64-bit text space. A 32-bit text space would be fine even today, roughly 30 years after 32-bit processors first appeared. The reason for this is simple – it’s simply too complicated for a human, or a group of humans, to write a program that comes close to filling up a 32-bit text space. Unless humans get much smarter, this isn’t likely to change.

To prove this, I measured the total text size of every single executable and library on a large Ubuntu 16.10 server system. This size was slightly under 2GB. This means if every program and library on this system were somehow combined into one giant program, it would still fit in a 32-bit text space.

Notice that I’m talking about a program written by a human. Obviously you could write a program that itself generates a program of any size. I’m told that Computer Aided Design programs generate huge amounts of text space. I’m also talking about one program running on one computer. I suppose it’s possible to design a processor in which different parts of the text space are actually running on remote processors, but I haven’t seen one. I’m also not talking about programs run by an interpreter. A classical interpreter treats programs as consisting entirely of data, and, as I mention above, the need for a 64-bit data space is clear.

To be clear, I’m not seriously suggesting that somebody make a processor with a 64-bit data space and a 32-bit text space. After all, a 64-bit text space might be unnecessary but it doesn’t do any harm.

Does anybody know of any programs that have require than 32-bits of text?

The First Bangles Fan?

I went to college at UC Santa Barbara in the 70s. In the late 70s I had a girlfriend named Pam. She told me she had a couple of sisters who were in a garage band back in Los Angeles. I’m from Los Angeles too, so I knew that this was nothing unusual. The fact that her sisters were still in high school was interesting but again, this was nothing terribly surprising since everybody in Los Angeles was in a band or trying to get into show business.

One weekend Pam and I drove down to L.A. in her VW bug to meet her family. While I was there I did meet her sisters. If I remember right, I heard them play a little bit but I didn’t think they were anything special. Some time after this, maybe 6 months later, Pam was graduating from UCSB and her parents threw her a big party. Her sisters’ band played at the party. They were better than when I heard them the first time, but they were still nothing special, or so I thought.

You can guess where this is going. Pam’s last name was Peterson, and her sisters were Vicki and Debbie Peterson. So, I saw the Bangles long before they actually became the Bangles. It’s been great fun watching their success.

Today I learned that Pam died last March. This was very shocking. I hadn’t had any contact with her in years until 2010, when I posted a message to a Bangles board that the Bangles read. I asked for them to pass my email address on to Pam, which they did. I got an email message from her on 6/28/2010. She remembered me and asked me to drop her a line, which I did. Sadly, I never heard back from her in spite of my making several attempts. I don’t know when she got sick, but maybe this is why she never responded.

Anyway, when I read about people’s memories of the Bangles in the old days I always think back to that graduation party and think “I saw them first”.

The Forrest Curve

[Note: I originally wrote this in the early 1990s so some of the references are dated. Nevertheless, the point I’m trying to make is more true now than ever.]

The Forrest Curve
Jon Forrest

There is a phenomenon sweeping the computer industry that is having a profound but largely unrecognized effect. I claim that companies ignoring this phenomenon will suffer a slow and painful death. What’s more, there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to escape it. In this article I first describe this phenomenon and then spend some time trying to figure out what it means.

Simply and briefly stated, my hypothesis is that fewer and fewer computer users think their computer is too slow. I’ve invented what I call the Forrest Curve to illustrate this.

Here’s the Forrest Curve:

                   | \
                   |  \
    "slow"         |   \ /\
    factor         |    v  \
                   |        \ /\
                   |         v  \
                   |             \   /\
                   |               v   \
                   |                    \

                   -- time --

This is a curve with a general downward slope, having occasional upward blips. The curve approaches but never hits 0. Neither axis is drawn to any scale nor can be used to derive any specific numeric values.

The “slow” factor is the number of people who think their computer is too slow. I admit that this isn’t a very objective measurement but you can get a feel for it by the amount of grumbling about computer speed that takes place in your office.

I’m also not being very specific about exactly what constitutes a “computer”. I claim it really doesn’t matter. Taken as a whole, the whole pile of stuff sitting on someone’s desk (or lap), is what I consider to be a computer. A more detailed examination wouldn’t change the Forrest Curve.

Note that I’m including the entire population of computer users in this graph, many of whom know very little, if anything, about what their computer is really doing or how it works. But, even if I were to confine this graph to “software professionals” the graph would merely have a higher origin point. The general shape wouldn’t change.

I also recognize that there is a class of users that can and will always be able to consume any amount of computer resources. These guys are why the Forrest Curve never goes to zero. In spite of their needs they can’t reshape the Forrest Curve because they don’t have enough money to spend anymore.

Every so often something comes along that causes a temporary perturbation in the Forrest Curve. Some examples might be relational databases, X-windows, Windows NT, multimedia, handwriting and speech recognition, and so on. This is natural. There will always be such cases and they admittedly can cause high blips in the Forrest Curve. Sometimes these blips are partially flattened by special purpose hardware but the problem is that special purpose hardware usually has a short lifespan and is doomed to financial failure due to lack of economy of scale. The rest of the time general purpose hardware will catch up. The one exception I can see here is that the hardware necessary to handle digital video is special purpose now but will soon be a commodity, once consumer television goes digital.

Another implication of the Forrest Curve that we’re already seeing is the shrinking, if not outright elimination, of the distinction between a workstation and a PC. A while ago you could think of a workstation as a kind of special hardware gizmo that was only bought for a select few. The rest of us got PCs. But now, with 450Mhz Pentium IIs, the PCI bus, fibre channel disks, and all the rest, it’s gotten to point where the main difference between a workstation and a PC is the size of the monitor, the lack of IRQs in workstations, and maybe the amount of memory you can stick in a PC.

The Forrest Curve implies that the folk myth claiming that people’s requirements for computing power expands to consume all available computer cycles is no longer true. I’m not convinced that it ever was true, although I have more faith in its corollary about disk space. Meanwhile, although Moore’s Law, which states that the power of microprocessors doubles every 18 months, seemingly operates independently, the Forrest Curve does predict that Moore’s Law will start to spread out as the cost of producing ever faster microprocessors rises.

Another factor I recognize is that having an infinitely fast computer on your desk doesn’t do you any good unless it runs the applications you need to run. I’m choosing to ignore this issue.

Let’s assume you accept the Forrest Curve. What does it mean?

It means that computer vendors are going to have a tougher and tougher time selling computers. This is because people above the curve only need a new computer when something breaks. This happens less and less often. Even most disk drives, which are about the most mechanical part of a computer system, come with at least a 3 year warranty.

It means that computer purchasing decisions are no longer made based on price/performance or just performance, like in the dark ages. Now, when somebody decides to buy a new computer it will be price alone, or maybe price and service, that determines which computer to buy. The service aspect should not be ignored. Some people consider it very important to know that they can call somebody to come to their home or office to fix stuff and are willing to pay a fair amount for this. Other people feel that it’s important to buy name brands no matter what the quality of the name brand is. For those of us who are more enlightened, if our application requires 25 MIPs to run, and we’re trying to decide whether to buy the 30 MIP machine or the 50 MIP machine to run it, the number of people who’d pay much extra for the 50 MIP machine is very small. Let’s face it, nobody is going to turn down a faster computer but the people making the purchasing decisions will have a harder and harder time justifying the extra cost of a faster system for most people. This is especially true in environments where large numbers of computers are bought for non-technical people.

In earlier versions of this document I had the following sentence right here: “It means that companies like DEC and SGI that are trying to produce the fastest computer are slowly committing suicide because there will be fewer and fewer people who need to buy computers this fast.” Two points for me. As of this writing, DEC is gone and SGI is fighting for its life. On the other hand, companies like Sun, and virtually all PC companies, are doing the right thing by concentrating on staying just below the Forrest Curve by selling computers that are fast enough at the lowest price. Although Sun’s approach might have been an accident it has kept them profitable during some extremely hard times in the industry. Ironically, it may turn out that Sun will start to suffer too unless it can sell Sparcstations at PC prices or increase their performance to rise above the Forrest Curve for a little while.

So, except for breakage, to be successful the computer industry is going to have to concentrate on selling to people who don’t currently have a computer. How many people is that in modern society? Maybe the laptop industry will thrive because it isn’t affected by the fact that so many people already have computers since most people who buy laptops already have at least one computer.

Maybe computer vendors can postpone hitting the Forrest Curve by concentrating their marketing and sales efforts into the Second and Third World but I bet the Forrest Curve still applies there, but with a lower origin point. Plus, I wonder how much money there is to be earned there, given hard currency and other non-technical problems. But, even if these places are exploited, the Forrest Curve is merely spread out a little. There’s simply no way of escaping it.

Another way to explain the Forrest Curve is as just the commodization of computer technology. Assuming your application runs on a certain computer architecture, there’s little any vendor can do to add enough value to get you to buy their system instead of somebody else’s. For all intents and purposes, the different brands of computers are all the same, just like different brands of flour and sugar, and buying a computer will be similar to buying baskets in Tijuana. The only way for computer vendors to survive is to remember this, and to remember that price and service will be what makes or breaks them. Caveat Vendor!

Copyright 1999 Jon Forrest.
All rights reserved.
This document may be published in any forum for any reason provided the document is not modified in any way.
Last updated (1/27/99).

Big Musical Fun

I have to wonder if the reason why so many of those pop music stars self-destruct is simply because they’re not having any fun. In my travels through YouTube I’ve come across a bunch of music being played with what looks and sounds like big fun. The musical quality is all over the place, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s all very real, and honest.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

Virtually anything this guy and his friends do is worth watching.

This isn’t an easy song to do, for anyone.

This must have been so much fun! That tenor sax player is good enough to join the real band.

This is more of an acquired taste, but just imagine playing this.

These guys are all pros who’ve done it 1,000,000 times but, for some reason, it looks like they’re really having fun this time.

I can’t imagine how he put all this together.

You can’t dance to this, but they did a fantastic job.

The True Story Behind Nobozos

Yes, the rumors are true. I invented the (in)famous Nobozos image you see above. Over the years, people have asked me for the story behind how this all came about. As an exercise in blogging, I thought I’d write it all down here, once and for all.

If you were around in the 1960s, you might have heard (of) the Firesign Theater. They were a group of performers who recorded several albums of stream of consciousness-like ramblings and rants. One of their sayings was “We’re all Bozos on this bus”. Very funny. For some reason, this saying stuck in my mind.

In the 1970s, I made several trips to Europe. One of the first things I noticed was the preponderance of signs  containing an image surrounded by a circle with a line through it. The idea was that such things were trying to explain that whatever the image was, it wasn’t allowed. Cars, cigarettes, and swimsuit tops often appeared in these images. For some reason, these images also stuck in my head. At some point, I connected the “Bozos” saying with the image style I had seen in Europe, and the Nobozos image was born. Unfortunately, since I can’t draw, it was held prisoner in my brain.

In fact, it was still in my brain in the early 1980s when a fortuitous sequence of events happened. I had a friend, Ed, who worked at a place where a graphics person, Kristi,  also worked. One day I mentioned the Nobozos idea to Ed, who thought it was pretty darn clever. He, in turn, mentioned it to Kristi, who also recognized its brilliance. Unlike me, Kristi was a good artist – so good that she was able to quickly draw the world’s first Nobozos image. Then, another person where Ed worked, Howard, saw the Nobozos image and instantly recognized its tremendous commercial potential. Howard was the kind of guy who liked to put together companies and promote them so he contacted me and proposed that we try to make some money from the image. How could I say no?

The main obstacle was in getting clearance from the holder of the “Bozo” clown image, who was Larry Harmon.  Howard did all the negotiating and managed to work something out. As I remember, Larry Harmon got more out of the deal than Howard, Kristi, and I did put together. Howard and Kristi found a printing company to produce a Nobozos sticker in several sizes and shapes. I’ll always remember when I got my first box of stickers. I was at UC Santa Barbara at the time and I did a good job handing them out. There was even a Nobozos Hall in one of the dormitories on campus. (I had nothing to do with creating it and I was very surprised when I saw it).

As a good promoter, Howard was able to generate lots of publicity for Nobozos. There was a time when I was interviewed regularly by radio stations and newspapers. It seemed like each one asked the same question, which was “What’s a Bozo?”. The highlight was a big mention in Playboy Magazine.

Again, I don’t remember all the details, but the stickers sold fairly well. Being young, lazy, and naive, I didn’t want to wait very long to start seeing my share of the money. So, I made Howard and Kristie a deal – in exchange for an amount of money I no longer recall, I’d give up my share in the partnership. They agreed and paid me a lump sum. I used this money to buy a hot tub. I was planning on getting the Nobozos image silk screened in the hot tub but I never did. I should have.

That’s most of the story. After a while the Nobozos image lost its popularity. Maybe this was because a whole bunch of other emblems with similar designs started appearing. I don’t know. I do know that Nobozos had a resurgence when Eddie Van Halen and Steve Wozniak were photographed wearing Nobozos tee shirts.

As far as I know, any Nobozos products you see now are bootlegs. I’ve seen stickers for sale in various places but they aren’t the official ones. (There’s an easy way to recognize them but I’m going to keep that a secret for now). I don’t really mind seeing them. In fact, in makes me feel good. About 10 years after starting the company with Howard and Kristi, I contacted Howard to see if he had any interest in re-releasing them but he was onto bigger and better things. I haven’t talked to either of them in probably 30 years. Plus, now that Larry Harmon is dead, I don’t know what would be required to do it again.

Every now and then somebody asks me about the story behind Nobozos. Now you know.

How To Speak Internet

I don’t like to listen to people talking about the Internet, but not for the usual reasons. What bothers me is that it all starts to sound the same. “blog”, “www”,  … over and over again, like a big echo chamber. So, I’ve chosen not to pronounce these words like everybody else. For me, “blog” is “b log”, “www” is “wa wa wa”, and so on. You get the idea. I’m sure there are other, maybe better, examples.  So, like they say in Rap concerts, “let’s make some noise out there” but let’s do it a little differently.