FedEx versus the Internet

Question: When, if ever, will the bandwidth of the Internet surpass that of FedEx?

That’s the question that Randall Munroe tackles in his latest “what-if” blog post. His conclusion? 2040. That answer depends on this huge assumption: if Internet transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates on hard drives, SD cards, etc.:

Those thumbnail-sized flakes have a storage density of up to 160 terabytes per kilogram, which means a FedEx fleet loaded with MicroSD cards could transfer about 177 petabits per second, or two zettabytes per day—a thousand times the internet’s current traffic level. (The infrastructure would be interesting—Google would need to build huge warehouses to hold a massive card-processing operation.)

Cisco estimates internet traffic is growing at about 29% annually. At that rate, we’d hit the FedEx point in 2040. Of course, the amount of data we can fit on a drive will have gone up by then, too. The only way to actually reach the FedEx point is if transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates. In an intuitive sense, this seems unlikely, since storage and transfer are fundamentally linked—all that data is coming from somewhere and going somewhere—but there’s no way to  predict usage patterns for sure.

While FedEx is big enough to keep up with the next few decades of actual usage, there’s no technological reason we can’t build a connection that beats them on bandwidth. There are experimental fiber clusters that can handle over a petabit per second. A cluster of 200 of those would beat FedEx.

If you recruited the entire US freight industry to move SD cards for you, the throughput would be on the order of 500 exabits—half a zettabit—per second. To match that transfer rate digitally, you’d need take half a million of those petabit cables.

Fascinating.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing

In this Paris Review piece published at the end of 2012, Julian Tepper writes about some (uncharacteristically caustic) writing advice he received from Philip Roth:

I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.

This week, Elizabeth Gilbert countered with a brilliant post on Bookish.com, a site that was unveiled this week:

Because, seriously–is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally–but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or–for that matter–pretty much anything else that people do?

Not really, right?

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege. What’s more, you have no boss to speak of. You’re not exposed to any sexual abuse or toxic chemicals on the job site (unless you’re sexually abusing yourself, or eating Doritos while you type). You don’t have to wear a nametag, and–unless you are exceptionally clumsy–you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.

In fact, maybe that’s why established authors complain so loudly about their tormented existences–so nobody else will find out how great writing actually is, and take their jobs away. (Kind of like those people who come home from amazing holidays, and then lie to their neighbors about how terrible that remote Mexican beach was, just to make sure the place remains undiscovered and unruined forever.)

Or maybe it’s just vanity that makes authors gripe so much about their ordeal. Maybe writers have simply come to believe themselves to be so very special, and their work so very important, that they can’t imagine anybody else capable of doing it: You, little one, could never possibly create what I have created, or withstand all that I have withstood, so you’d best not try at all.

I recommend reading the whole response here.

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(via Explore)

Monopoly: Now with More Cats

I hope you like cats in your Monopoly. According to The Associated Press, the iron is out and the cat is in, after Hasbro put the stake of a new token up to a Facebook vote:

The results were announced after the shoe, wheelbarrow and iron were neck and neck for elimination in the final hours of voting that sparked passionate efforts by fans to save their favorite tokens, and by businesses eager to capitalize on publicity surrounding pieces that represent their products.

The vote on Facebook closed just before midnight on Tuesday, marking the first time that fans have had a say on which of the eight tokens to add and which one to toss. The pieces identify the players and have changed quite a lot since Parker Brothers bought the game from its original designer in 1935.

I thought this was a really interesting manifestation of the campaign:

The social-media buzz created by the Save Your Token Campaign attracted numerous companies that pushed to protect specific tokens that reflect their products.

That includes garden tool maker Ames True Temper Inc. of Camp Hill, Penn., that spoke out in favor of the wheelbarrow and created a series of online videos that support the tool and online shoe retailer Zappos which pushed to save the shoe.

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(via Consumerist)

On Hope and Numbers

We try to provide hope, but not false hope.

So we give ranges, starting with the best estimate of survival, because my patients have told me they shut down after they hear the worst estimate. We talk about setting goals, about maximizing quality of life, because we don’t have much leverage with quantity of life. We emphasize spending as much time as possible with family and friends, and as little time as possible with people wearing white coats. We tell them we’re not going to give up if they don’t give up.

But the truth is, we don’t know.

–Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, director of the leukemia program at the Cleveland Clinic, on hope and numbers in this New York Times post. Powerful.

Largest Prime Number Discovered

Back when I was in college, I participated in the great GIMPS Project, searching for what is known for a Mersenne prime number (Mersenne primes are of the form (2^X)-1, with the first primes being 3, 7, 31, and 127 corresponding to X = 2, 3, 5, and 7, respectively). My computer would use its extraneous resources to help in the search, and while nothing ever came of it, it’s pretty cool to know that I made a modest contribution to the project. So it was great to learn today that the GIMPS Project found the largest prime number ever as of January 2013. The largest (known) prime number now is 2^57,885,161-1, and its discovery is noted on this post:

The new prime number is a member of a special class of extremely rare prime numbers known as Mersenne primes. It is only the 48th known Mersenne prime ever discovered, each increasingly difficult to find. Mersenne primes were named for the French monk Marin Mersenne, who studied these numbers more than 350 years ago. GIMPS, founded in 1996, has discovered all 14 of the largest known Mersenne primes. Volunteers download a free program to search for these primes with a cash award offered to anyone lucky enough to compute a new prime. Chris Caldwell maintains an authoritative web site on the largest known primes as well as the history of Mersenne primes.

To prove there were no errors in the prime discovery process, the new prime was independently verified using different programs running on different hardware. Serge Batalov ran Ernst Mayer’s MLucas software on a 32-core server in 6 days (resource donated by Novartis[2] IT group) to verify the new prime. Jerry Hallett verified the prime using the CUDALucas software running on a NVidia GPU in 3.6 days. Finally, Dr. Jeff Gilchrist verified the find using the GIMPS software on an Intel i7 CPU in 4.5 days and the CUDALucas program on a NVidia GTX 560 Ti in 7.7 days.

This largest prime number contains 17,425,170 digits. If you have a fast Internet connection, you can see how huge this number is (with all of its digits written out one by one) by clicking here. Pretty cool.

The Great Norwegian Diaper Arbitrage

Matthew O’Brien reports on an interesting scheme going on in Europe: people from certain European countries are driving to Norway and emptying store shelves of diapers. Why? Because they can resell these diapers in their home countries for double the price.

There are lots of ways supermarkets can get customers in the door, and away from the competition. But in parts of Norway, cut-rate diapers have become the preferred lure. It’s set off something of a price war, which would be great news for Norwegian parents if they could actually find diapers in stock. They can’t. As Reuters reports, prices are so enticingly low that foreigners, mostly Poles and Lithuanians, have started trekking to Norway for the sole purpose of buying up every last diaper they can find. 
Here’s how the arbitrage math adds up. The ferry costs approximately $275 round trip, and gas is about $8 a gallon in Sweden, which, if we assume our car gets around 30 miles per gallon, gives us $435 in expenses. Throw in food, lodging, and other miscellaneous costs, and the total should come in around $600 or so. Remember, diapers costs more than twice as much in Lithuania as they do in Norway, so we only need to buy that much to break even. In other words, if we buy just $600 worth, which we can resell in Lithuania for double, we can cover our basic costs — and we can make enough profit to make the whole trip worth our while if we buy another couple hundred dollars worth. Of course, $1,000 worth isn’t very much when it comes to diaper arbitrage; Norwegian customs officials have seen people pack their cars with as much as $9,000 worth — good for more than $8,000 of profit. Not too shabby.
I don’t see how these prices can remain at such low levels in Norway for the foreseeable future…
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Thierry Cohen’s Stunning Series on Darkened Cities

What would New York City, San Francisco, or Shanghai look like with a full sky of brilliant stars? Thierry Cohen, a French photographer, thinks he can show us by blending city scenes — shot and altered to eliminate lights and other pollution— and the night skies from less populated locations that fall on the same latitude on Earth. The result is what city dwellers might envision in the absence of any light pollution.

According to the NYT:

Paris gets the stars of northern Montana, New York those of the Nevada desert. As Cohen, whose work will be exhibited at the Danziger Gallery in New York in March, sees it, the loss of the starry skies, accelerated by worldwide population growth in cities, has created an urbanite who “forgets and no longer understands nature.” He adds, “To show him stars is to help him dream again.”

Below, a sample of these stunning photographs:

Shanghai without smog and light pollution.

Shanghai without smog and light pollution.

San Francisco.

San Francisco.

Starry New York City.

Starry New York City.

Los Angeles without the light pollution.

Los Angeles without the light pollution.

Hong Kong by night.

Hong Kong by night.

 

See the entire series on Thierry Cohen’s website.

Duke Students on a Portfolio That Pays

Over the past year, I’ve been reading up on all kinds of investments and trying to determine where I can find some yield. So I enjoyed this New York Times story on Duke students who’ve come up with a “portfolio that pays.” The winning portfolio:

They were bullish on United States stocks, especially those of large companies, based on their predictions of a continuing recovery in housing, rising consumer confidence, strong retail sales and the continuing impact of the Fed’s quantitative easing program. They were also optimistic that Congress would avoid the so-called fiscal cliff and other threatened political calamities. But they were pessimistic about Europe and emerging markets, given the euro zone crisis and what they saw as slowing growth in countries like China and Brazil.

The team’s contest entry called for allocating 43 percent to United States stocks — 30.3 percent to a Russell 2000 index fund and 12.7 percent to a Russell 2000 fund that invests in midsize companies. They made no allocation to international stocks. Like more traditional models, they maintained a large allocation to fixed income, but weighted it heavily toward Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS, whose yields rise with inflation. They allocated 32.1 percent to TIPS and 24.9 percent to an aggregate bond fund.

The result was a 9.7 percent projected annual return, with less volatility than the model funds they examined.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake they’re neglecting the international sector (especially emerging markets). I am also not as bullish on TIPS as these students. I do like the allocation to a more diversified Russell 2000 index than the broader S&P 500 index. Anyway, food for thought.

What Should You Do If Your Car is Stolen?

From an email to Tyler Cowen comes this excellent advice on what you should do if your car is ever stolen, which I had never even considered:

If your car is ever stolen, your first calls should be to every cab company in the city. You offer a $50 reward to the driver who finds it AND a $50 reward to the dispatcher on duty when the car is found. The latter is to encourage dispatchers on shift to continually remind drivers of your stolen car. Of course you should call the police too but first things first. There are a lot more cabs than cops so cabbies will find it first -and they’re more frequently going in places cops typically don’t go, like apartment and motel complex parking lots, back alleys etc. Lastly, once the car is found, a swarm of cabs will descend and surround it because cabbies, like anyone else, love excitement and want to catch bad guys. Cabbies know a lot of stuff*. I found a traveling shoplifting ring in Phoenix once. Professional shoplifters always take cabs. So do strippers going to work but that’s another story.

Another tip here.

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From Seth Godin’s brief take on why businesses fail:

What marketing mistake do most small businesses make? 

They believe in the mass market instead of obsessing about a micro market. They seek the mass market because it feels harder to fail–there’s always one more stranger left to bother. It’s the small, the weird, and the eager that will make or break you.

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(via @swissmiss)