I was floundering around on Friday night with some verses on floating-point operations per second, as you do. Flops is such a fun word to play with…

Floating-point operations? My speed / Is in billions per second! My creed: / When the gigaflops stop, / Then I'm shutting up shop. / I can flaunt a fair few flops indeed.

I'm the flopsiest supercomputer, / Flipping facts in a flash to your router. / My processing chops / Can hack trillions of flops: / I'm a floating-point numbers sharp-shooter.

Well-behaving - like Flopsy and Mopsy - / Computers are growing like Topsy. / A quintillion is better flops / Than giga- or petaflops: / Not long till they're all exaflops-y.

This Flops Trilogy let me use every bit of flippin’ wordplay I came up with around flops (apart from flaps—can’t have ’em all).

Who’s the flopsiest in the land? As of May 2022, the fastest supercomputer can handle over a quintillion (1018) flops—to be exact, 1,102,000,000 gigaflops or 1.102 exaflops.

The numbers involved in computing have scaled enormously in my lifetime: a kilobyte, approximately 1000 bytes, used to be the standard unit of computer storage in the 1980s, then a megabyte (around a million bytes) in the 1990s, then a gigabyte (109 bytes) in the 2000s, and now external disk drives come in terabytes (1012 bytes). Along the way we stopped thinking of kilo-, mega-, giga- and tera- in terms of binary, i.e. 210, 220, 230 and 240, but in more familiar decimal figures, i.e. 103, 106, 109 and 1012. In the late 1990s the binary prefixes were amended to kibi-, mebi-, gibi- and tebi- (and, scaling further accordingly, pebi-, exbi-, zebi- and yobi-, parallel to peta-, exa-, zetta- and yotta-). So much for my 1980s computer science degree.

The word 'mega', when I was a teen, / Was our slang for 'immense' on the scene. / Now that numbers got bigger, / Do kids all say 'giga'? / Or 'tera'? Not scary, I mean.

(I’m actually a little older than the narrator here. As far as I know, 2020s kids don’t call awesome things giga or tera. Stay mega, Nineties kids.)

When looking up all of these prefixes on Wikipedia yesterday I noticed some above yotta-, for 1027 (ronna-) and 1030 (quetta-), and thought huh, I hadn’t heard of those. It turns out they were officially adopted on Friday, with immediate effect (there are no binary prefix equivalents yet).

When I was a kid, my Commonwealth country was still teaching us long-scale numbers for billions and trillions; the short-scale ones were seen as American. Until my teens, I thought of a billion as a million million (1012) and a trillion as a billion billion (in long-scale billions, i.e. 1012 x 1012 = 1024).

That all changed when computers took off in the 1980s and economic reporting started regularly using figures in the (U.S.) billions and trillions. The U.K. officially switched in 1974, but it took a few years for the short scale to filter down to my level: some federal departments in Australia were still mixing and matching until the late 1990s, and many countries still use the long scale.

In long scale, 1 exaflops would be a million billion flops, rather than the million trillion flops of the short scale. It’ll all be so much easier when computers reach 1 googolflops.

A million is 10 raised to 6 / (The sixth power); numerical tricks / Are essential to show / Such large numbers, as so: / A googol is 10000000... ah nuts.

20 November 2022 · Infotech