Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seduced by Numbers

I freely admit my addiction as a technophile. I love watching, learning about, using, and owning machines, gadgets, technical and industrial processes, and other creations of the mechanical arts.1 Since most of these devices are rated quantitatively, with numbers, my affection would seem curious.

For the first thirty years or so of my life, I was basically “innumerant”—allergic to numbers. I did pretty well with simple arithmetic in grade school but started to slip when they introduced the method of extracting square and cube roots, which I could not easily distinguish from long division. I floundered in Algebra I and sank outright in Algebra II. I never could figure out what anyone might do with a phrase like “a2+2ab+b2” in quadratic equations.2 So my schooling gravitated away from math, physics, and the higher sciences toward English literature, languages, history, and similar qualitative studies. That was difficult for a science fiction writer, and I had make up a lot of ground when I became serious about technical writing and hard-science novels. But I digress.

The first time I felt the pull of the numbers related to a machine was when I became interested in motorcycles in my late twenties. My first bike was a two-stroke Yamaha, which came in the 250 cc and 350 cc versions. I instinctively plopped for the bigger engine. When I graduated to my dream machine, a BMW, I had the choice of 500 cc, 600 cc, and 750 cc engines and again went for the biggest. In my stupid, English-major head, I couldn’t tell the difference between optimum and maximum,3 although given my six-foot-six frame and corresponding weight, a big motorcycle was the right choice for me.4

My second brush with machine ratings was in purchasing my first computer, an Apple II, back in 1979. Up until that time, I knew computers only as massive and unobtainable things: the IBM 360 that was leased by my university and later my corporate employer; it lived in the basement, crunched all the organization’s numbers, and was attended by a priestly class who alone knew how to communicate with the beast. But here was a thing no bigger than a portable typewriter—although married to a television set—that claimed to be a computer. It took a while for the salesman in the store to convince me that this was a real, multi-purpose computer, able to perform any function with the right programming, and not just some single-function device like a calculator or a video game. I had no real use for a computer, of course, but the notion of a machine that responded to written instructions fascinated me.

And suddenly there was the question of numbers. Did I want 32 kilobytes of RAM or the full 48 kilobytes? I naturally plopped for the larger number, thinking that a machine with open-ended capability would benefit from more of whatever a kilobyte might be. Later computers—and I bought my fair share—offered even more numbers: gigahertz of speed, megabytes of disk capacity, baud rates of connection, pixels of screen resolution. It became possible to run wild in so many dimensions.

I discovered that even with that original Apple II, there was a hunger for completeness. The computer’s motherboard5 offered eight slot-like connectors across the back for electronic cards that would variously increase memory, add supplementary processors, and coordinate signaling for peripherals like disk drives, printers, and modems. When I had about half of the slots filled with devices for a workable system, the remaining empty slots began preying on my mind. They represented potential capacity that I was not using. I began looking for and buying additional peripherals just to fill in those gaps. A friend of mine, who had to deal with his own peripheral addiction, called this “slot fever.”

I’ve held off buying an Apple iPad, even though I own a Kindle, a Nook, and an iPhone, because I know that I will want—insist upon—the model with the highest possible amounts of memory, connectivity, speed, resolution, and whatever other measures are appropriate to what is, essentially, the electronic analog of a sheet of paper. Full-blown capacity can practically double the price of the basic machine.

When I began handling pistols,6 I started with a .357 magnum revolver that my brother owned. But unless you buy the high-power loads, which are much more expensive, you are still shooting the basic .38 cartridge. That’s fun, but the .45 cartridge is bigger, more impressive, and makes a louder noise. Guess which way I progressed?

I don’t think this seduction by the numbers is just my own personal fetish. All around us are people buying cars with the most horsepower, television sets with the largest diagonal dimensions, stereo amplifiers with the highest wattage, trucks with the greatest towing capacity. If some is good, a lot is better, and “Can you get that with the 402 engine?”

You can see the urge not just at a personal level, but organizationally as well. The military is especially susceptible: The next generation of jet fighter has to reach a higher Mach number, have a stealthier radar image, carry a bigger payload, turn quicker, and land on a shorter runway. The missiles get bigger, the payloads larger. Even business organizations, where some consideration of cost versus effect might be expected, can be lured into buying bigger computers and server farms, building larger headquarters and larger factories to achieve even more growth in larger markets.

Did people always react this way? I suspect not, until machines took physical work out of the equation. If a bow with a 65-pound draw weight is right for a person of your size, do you really want one with a 200-pound draw? If four horses can pull your loaded wagon, do you really want to hitch up and try to control a team of twelve or twenty horses?

The closest analogue I can think of from pre-industrial times is the collector. It doesn’t matter what is being collected: statues, stamps, coins, butterflies, German ceramic beer steins, or race horses. More is better, and there is always one more item that will fill out your category and complete the set.7 Slot fever.

In the past, only the wealthy, the idle, and those with lots of spare cupboard space could satisfy the passion for collecting. But with modern machinery, you can “complete the set” in one purchase by buying the most horsepower, the biggest screen, the highest wattage. Until, of course, next year’s model comes out with an even bigger engine, larger screen, more RAM, more buttons, more of … everything. And then you just have to trade up.

It’s how we end up deep in debt and still crying for the moon: seduced by the numbers.

1. You might say the interest was bred in my genes: My father was a mechanical engineer and his father a civil engineer. I think it broke my dad’s heart that neither of his sons wanted to follow him into engineering.

2. Not until forty years later, when I began seeing it in the calculations supporting a two-dimensional matrix that combined dominant and recessive genetic traits. I still can’t solve the damned thing.

3. For those of you who are similarly impaired, remember that optimum body temperature is 98.6°F, while maximum body temperature can kill you.

4. BMW now offers its touring machines with a six-cylinder, 1600 cc engine, and I have to speak sternly with myself to keep from rushing out and buying one.

5. Today you can use a computer and never look under the hood; you might not even know what the motherboard is or where to find it. But with the Apple II, you were part-user and part-hobbyist; you popped the top off and went inside for all sorts of user-serviceable conditions.

6. Why? Because I write fiction with occasional military action and people shooting guns. It seemed important to learn a thing or two about them. You can read all the books and articles you want, but half an hour shooting on the range and observing real life, competent gun handlers (rather than actors on television) provides a unique perspective.

7. I’ve always avoided the collecting bug myself. I could see that you start off with an attachment to some class of objects—Chinese porcelains, Amazonian beetles—because you can see them as novel, clever, beautiful, or similarly attractive in some other dimension. You start with an eye for beauty that anyone can appreciate. But soon you learn more about the topic, broaden your interest, and expand the scope of your collecting. Eventually, you are bidding and paying an exorbitant price for an indifferent-looking cup or a really ugly little beetle because you know it to be unique, rare, or otherwise special. That way lies madness.