Dude. Whoa. Just, Like, Whoa.

Just for perspective, everything I’ve ever written and everything I am ever likely to write in my entire life will fit onto this thumb drive. Several times over.

On one hand, it’s weird to consider one’s life’s work compressed into a space smaller than one’s thumb. On the other hand, I really don’t have any excuse not to back up my work, now, do I. On the third hand, in 50 years it’s doubtful anyone will be able to access the data on this drive anyway, so it’s best I keep making printed books, just in case. On the fourth hand, I seem to have twice as many hands as I normally do, and this is a puzzlement.

Hmmm. I think someone may have spiked my Coke Zero. Let me get back to you.

59 Comments on “Dude. Whoa. Just, Like, Whoa.”

  1. LOL how big is that thumb drive??

    You could always keep a computer in storage so when people want to be able to access the data they can do it how we do it in 2010!!

    People still play tapes, vhs, and 8-tracks for crap sake I’m sure there will be some “geek” who will find a way to access your thumb stick in like 50 years.

    Have a good night Mr. Scalzi :)

  2. I’ve got one of those HP babies stickin’ out of one of my USB ports right now. 16GB!

    I assume yours is (cough, cough…hack, wretch) bigger than mine.

  3. One to meet the darkness, one to greet the dawn,
    One to hold you close to me and one for hanging on,
    Got to find the future ’cause the present’s all I see,
    And I won’t last without a past, I’m out here falling free.

    — Tom Smith on the subject of hands, inspired by Bujold

  4. I admin’ed a machine that ran a 70 store retail chain that had less storage than my iPod, and less RAM than my phone.

    Yeah, I’m old. You kids can be on the lawn – just mow it from time to time, will ya?

  5. I remember reading a late Heinlein (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls) and the protagonist is a writer. At one point he backs up all of his data onto wafers (SD cards, basically) and tosses a few of them in his cane (it was and interesting cane). I remember thinking “wow, all of that on a wafer the size of a fingernail? Well, maybe by then, but damn, that’s a lot of density…”

    In my defense, I was using a hardback sized 20 meg hard drive at the time. Yes, MEG, not gig.

  6. This simplifies things at posterity time. Your executor just e-mails the archive. Or if you’re the type who, in the past, would prefer your “papers” be burned, you say, “Honey, after I snuff it, go jam this in the crack of the back seat of the car.”

  7. Somewhere among all my stuff, I’ve still got a punchcard from my USAF tech school. Yes, we learned Hollerith code, at least as late as 1988 anyway. No, we never actually used the card in the shop. I also remember changing multi-disc platters and magnetics tapes on the IBM drive. I don’t remember the storage capacity of the platters, but the tapes could hold about 3M each.

  8. John, if you’d like your creative output to overwhelm your storage options, consider porn. I’m told by my sysadmin pals that it is a major driver for network bandwidth increases, and I imagine that’s true for storage media as well. You could probably outrun the curve until the curves start outrunning you.

  9. FWIW: an average length novel stored as raw text is around 700k. (assuming I am right that “Pride and Prejudice” is about average length for a novel.) Given this, that flash drive (8 GB?) would store 11,000 novels. Text compresses really well, though, so we could actually store more like 32,000 novels if we used gzip.

    this site claims there are around 100,000 English fiction works (novels or collections) published each year. This means that if you were to get two more of those, you could back up the entire year’s English language prose output.

    (In practice, file structures and other various cruft probably mean you’d need a fourth. Or you could just get two 16 GB sticks instead. Or better year, get this bad boy and have enough to store the entire English language prose output on one piece of electronics.)

    Or you could get a 1.5 TB drive for a couple hundred bucks and store 6 million works, probably enough to provide backup services for the whole planet.

    Text is small. Storage is huge.

  10. Now come on, you could end up doing graphic novels and the high resolution pictures could eat up the space left on that drive. You never know…

  11. On one hand, it’s weird to consider one’s life’s work compressed into a space smaller than one’s thumb.

    I think Athena won’t fit on that drive. Though as you’ve mentioned, she does fit in a salt mine, is that your storage plan for That’ lifes work? :)

    (just playing on a fathers love to make you feel a touch guilty.)

  12. In reference to a previous post.

    It can hold all of your written work? but can it hold all the variations and ammendments of the “healthcare” bill?


  13. Douglas @ 18: Actually, I heard somewhere that the human brain only contains about 300 MB of data. I don’t know if that’s the case, but if so, Athena would actually fit quite handily on that drive. :-)

  14. RickWhoIsNotThatRick, I just read that novel and was thinking about the same thing! They were specifically Sony-brand media.

    It’s very strange seeing such a specific speculation come true, especially since most SF brand names are either on the level of MotifThemeCorp or are former market leaders that are now extinct.

    No one is ever going to fly Pan Am to the Moon. U.S. Robotics makes modems, not mechanical men. And in the modern age of niche marketing and product differentiation, who really wants to purchase a good or service from something called General Products?

  15. Where have you been, mr. Scalzi? I thought you were down with the modern times. I have been keeping my writing on USB sticks for almost 10 years. I have an actual key-shaped USB-key on my keyring, so that I never have to part with my “masterpieces”, muahahaha… ahem…

    And if you keep your writing as text documents instead of big word files, you can fit even more writing on that little thumb drive there.

  16. On the fifth hand, in 50 years the Scalzi family will be getting perpetual royalties, because be then Disney will have dictated eternal copyrights on a cartoon mouse that should’ve been in the public domain back in 1955.

  17. I have a thumbdrive-style USB reader for my MicroSD card. (my current phone takes full-size SDs). I recently used it to install Ubuntu on my new computer (“Live CD” version).

  18. No worries. In 50 years there will be somebody who as a hobby has all the old storage retrieval methods up and running. There is always a hobbyist out there keeping old stuff going.

  19. To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.
    —William Blake

    So it’s a flash drive and not quite infinity. Yet.

  20. I still want to mod my usb drives to be flat squares in red and yellow, slightly smaller than a 5.5″ floppy. That way I can sit in the captain’s chair and rub them together like a futuristic Lt. Cmdr. Queeg while I contemplate tossing the Enterprise down the gullet of the outer-space Doomsday Cornucopia.

  21. @21. Rogue Trooper:

    I was thinking the exact same thing when I read the original post. Scalzi might need to hand in his SciFi geek card for not mentioning the Gripping Hand

  22. “Doomsday Cornucopia” That should be either an enviropocalypse novel, or maybe a band.

    Recently acquired my 1st thumb drive. I use it solely to sneaker-net scanned images from the non-networked “tower” in the basement to the upstairs. (Because the 14″ flatbed scanner has only a printer-port.) Backup? Whassa “backup?”

  23. Just a technical note: don’t use flash drives for archival storage. Even the high-end drive makers (Kingston, SanDisk, etc) say that expected storage lifetime on today’s flash technology is around 10 years.

    That doesn’t consider having the technology to read the drive in 10 year’s time. Somebody higher up mentioned punch cards. Their archival lifetime is well higher than 10 years, but good luck getting something to read them today.

  24. John Scalzi @ 6:

    Nah, it’s 8 gigs. It’s not the size of your flash drive, man. It’s the data you disseminate with it.

    Which, perhaps not so oddly, prompted me to look up this from the Human Genome site:

    If the DNA sequence of the human genome were compiled in books, the equivalent of 200 volumes the size of a Manhattan telephone book (at 1000 pages each) would be needed to hold it all.

    All of that information in something that can’t even be seen with an optical microscope, and the information in it can guide the physical growth of an entire human being.

    So, you know, let’s not get cocky.

  25. BTW, John, I liked the juxtaposition of the pile of books in the background of the photo. Was that intentional, or is it just difficult in your office to find a background that wouldn’t include a pile of books?

  26. One of the very few good reasons I can think of to use cloud computing is for archiving. Personal electronic storage technology changes too quickly, and there’s little incentive for manufacturers to keep supporting old systems. With a reputable cloud provider it’s reasonable to expect them to migrate your data onto new storage as they upgrade.

    I still don’t trust the cloud, though, because there are too many other things that can go wrong.

  27. Flash drives certainly are impressive for their data density, but they probably shouldn’t be considered very suitable as backup media. They are great for moving great gobs of data from here to there, but the impression I’ve gotten is that they have a much higher failure rate than hard drives (internal or external), and when they fail, it usually is without warning. Two common ways they fail are mechanical (a connection between components inside the device breaks) and electrostatic discharge (even discharges one does not notice can zap a drive). No doubt flash drives’ reliability will improve over time, but at the moment it is risky to depend on them for backup for anything more than short-term.

    As far as readability of any electronic media a few decades in the future, it is easy to avoid that issue. All the advice I have seen says that one need only copy to the current reliable backup technology every five years or so to avoid that problem. Using some sort of error-correcting format when backing up the data reduces the likelihood that data errors during storage or copying will compromise the data. Or just take the approach of keeping several copies rather than just one, which is a good idea for other reasons as well.

    Whether many people actually remember to do that is another question, of course. I think that people are likely to remember to do that for data that is important to them, but probably will forget to do it for data they don’t regard as important, but which a descendent or historian would be interested in. So readability of old media is of interest from that point of view.

    As for 50-year-old flash drives, you probably are right. They very likely will not be readable even if they’ve been tucked away somewhere and left untouched for that long. The charge that represents the bits slowly leaks out of the storage cells. I have not seen much written about how long you can rely on a flash device retaining its data. As far as I know, all the information about it is theoretical, derived from calculation from material properties and from accelerated aging tests. I have seen retention times listed ranging from 10 years to well over 100 years. I imagine the considerable variation is partly due to differences in details of the flash memory manufacture, and partly due to how optimistic the assumptions are when calculating the longevity. That makes me believe there is a lot of uncertainty in how long you can expect the data to be recoverable from a typical flash drive now available, which should make anyone nervous about using flash devices for long-term backup.

    So even if someone 50 years from now would build a device that implements the USB protocols, there seems to be a fairly high chance that there wouldn’t be any useful data left on the flash drive.

  28. As a photographer and video editor, I throw a 2 TB drive into my system and I feel like it’s full right away. But the nice thing is that there’s always space on the drive for my writing back up.

  29. In my defense, I was using a hardback sized 20 meg hard drive at the time. Yes, MEG, not gig.

    I noticed the other night that I had set my 16 GB flash drive down on an ancient 20 MB external hard drive from an Amiga that I use as a bookend.

    If memory serves, I paid almost $600 for that drive.

  30. Let me guess, the Gripping Hand is holding the Coke Zero.

    BTW if you want you works to survive long term, I suggest microfiche sealed in armored container filled with xenon gas. Preferably stored in a place safe from asteroid strikes

  31. #32 beat me to it, but I was going to use an allusion to Gene Wolfe’s passages on the archivist and also on the bird that eats memories.

  32. @26 Pworker

    Hobby? Have you read Android’s Dream? One of the characters works for a company that does that for the government for money. ;-)

  33. John@36: “The cloud” is a server with someone to run it. At least that’s what they’d like us to believe.

  34. I left my SanDisk mem stick in a pants pocket, which then went through the wash. Found it bouncing around in the dryer. Let it sit for a day, tested, and worked fine. No loss of data. Still working today. Impressive durability, i say.

  35. My boss recently bought a new car, and the stereo has a USB port on the front for a thumb drive. He was marveling at how he and his wife can fit all the music they’ve accumulated over their 50-some year lifespans, on a tiny thumb drive.

  36. Glad to see the “gripping hand” issue has been addressed. :)

    The xkcd about MicroSD cards reflects my feelings on this matter well. The first time I bought one of those, I was in complete and total awe. The transition from my first 5.25″ 2megabyte drive to a 16gig MicroSD the size of my pinky nail is something that amazes me every time I stop to think about it. Truly we are living in THE FUTURE.

  37. It sounds as though your Coke Zero was spiked with some really good mushrooms, man . . .

    As for the comment about porn, that reminds me of something I saw last month. It was the site of a gentleman who deals in, shall we say, vintage adult erotica — as e-books. He was offering a special for Christmas: His entire current listing of e-books — which was 6000+ books — burned on to a single CD. For $1000.

    I’m guessing that you could take every book that you’ve written to date, as well as every shorter piece of fiction, every Whatever entry (along with comments), every review, every column, and anything else that you have written professionally, and it would probably take less space on a CD than that collection of e-books.

  38. Johnny Carruthers @51: The short answer is “I don’t know.”

    My guess is, assuming no other form of damage occurred, just loss of data via the charge leaking out, that the flash memory chips themselves would function properly, but the device, as a whole, would not. I say that because I believe that for proper functioning of the device (wear-leveling, especially), some control information about the device’s state is stored in non-user-accessible parts of the flash memory, and that would have decayed, also.

    If the device has a command to do some sort of “factory reset” that would initialize the control information to the state it was when the device was manufactured, then my guess is that such a 50-year-old device would be reusable after it were reset. But I don’t know whether such commands are built into current devices.

    I’m no hardware expert, so there might be some other forms of deterioration that would prevent a 50-year-old device from functioning again. I doubt they contain any electrolytic capacitors, but if they did, the sort of aging that they are subject to could make the circuits other than the flash memory fail to work properly. I cannot immediately think of other components that might be in a flash drive that would fail just due to sitting around for 50 years, but there might be some.

  39. Hey – I had a ZX81 – with 1k ram (expandable to 16k.)
    It’s easily enough to store my unfinished novel on it…

  40. In my experience those HP thumb drives have a pretty high failure rate. I have known 8 people who bought them and 2 of them failed.

    Just thought I would let you know.

  41. From 1986 to about 1996 I used a Mac Plus, and I kept all of my documents on floppy disks. I wrote papers and stories, I did graphic design things for a couple of organizations, and did some programming. I downloaded things from BBSes and got onto the internet around 1990 and started archiving email and so on and so forth.

    A couple of years ago I took all those floppy disks and converted them to disk images on a modern computer. (I figured it wouldn’t be too long before floppy drives were impossible to find…) I can now use them to boot an emulator and use MS Word 4.0 (or something) for System 6 if I really want.

    All of those floppy disks, 10 years worth of my emergence into adulthood and my introduction to computers documented in bits, including the software to read those files and the operating systems to run that software (multiple versions of the OS, too! I had no hard drive, so I had customized floppy disks for different tasks, and I took images of all of them) are now contained in a single 45 megabyte zip file.

  42. I thought our life’s work was passing on our DNA to our offspring. . . That’s an even smaller package (at least to start with).

  43. Not likely. I just backed up JT’s entire documents folder to thumb drives, but the total was over 8 gig. Novels would occupy a pretty pricey thumb drive, if they could fit on one at all. Bet you will fill several, even if storage keeps getting better.

  44. Yep, I was just marveling the other day that I can now carry more data on a key chain than I could on the first computer I bought for myself or any computer I used before.

    My first comp I bought was a P3, I think with a 500MHZ processor and an 8GB! hard drive. That was the shit when first comp I ever used was a TRS80 with 64K of RAM and no HD, just a 5 1/4 floppy. And the first “cool” comp I ever used was something my Dad bought around ’89 or ’90 that had a 33MHZ processor and 64MB! of RAM. The phones we carry in our pockets are more powerful than what I had on a desk as a teen. Just amazing.

  45. in 50 years it’s doubtful anyone will be able to access the data on this drive anyway, so it’s best I keep making printed books, just in case.

    well, just because they can no longer read thumbdrives doesn’t mean they can still read books >;)

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