Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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July 2003, Week 3 -- Thumbing a Ride

 Disk on Key




   I have seen the future, and it's all thumbs.

   Thumbs is a shorthand term for the new "thumb drives," so-called because they are the size of an average person's thumb. They're also sometimes called flash drives or pen drives.

   These drives will replace floppy drives in the very near future, and a little way down the road they'll replace hard disk drives, then CD drives, and who knows, may be the only kind of digital storage we'll see except for deep archives.

   Because the key thing about a thumb drive -- other than the fact you can carry it on your "key" chain -- is that it contains no moving parts. Unlike other rewritable memory devices, there is nothing to break down with age or continuous use. They use flash memory chips, similar to those used by most digital cameras, and storage capacities are rising fast.


   Doing a search of the web we quickly found 16 manufacturers of thumb, flash and pen drives. The smallest capacity we could find was 8MB (megabytes) and the lowest price was $19. Just to put this in some kind of historical perspective, the first hard disk drive I ever bought stored 2MB (yes, that's right: two megabytes) and cost $1,000. And I thought it was great.


   One of the biggest advantages of a thumb drive is you can carry it around in your pocket and plug it into the USB port on almost any new computer. But not all thumb drives are created equal. Some work only with certain computer systems. Some require the installation of special drivers in each computer you plug into. And some require no help, at all. For instance ...


   We recently received a review unit for M-Systems 256MB "DiskOnKey." That's enough storage for about 50 million words, enough to carry the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica with room left over. In fact you could add all the Harry Potter books and a large photo album. This size thumb drive is becoming pretty standard and costs around $125-$250 depending on the maker. You can also buy thumb drives that hold a gigabyte and cost less than $500.


   M-Systems is one of the original thumb drive makers and has set many of the standards, including built-in security. It costs slightly more than other thumb drives but has the endorsement of IBM, Hewlett Packard and other major companies. Its DiskOnKey design contains its own processor and read/write circuitry, allowing it to be recognized by most computers without having to load any driver. It can be plugged directly into the USB ports on Windows XP, Me, 2000, and Mac OS9 and Linux 2.4x systems. Earlier operating systems need a driver. The DiskOnKey drive can also exchange data without using the computer's own processor.


   Thumb drives can hold text, pictures, speech and music, just like hard disk drives. Places to go for discounted pricing are,,  and all of the standard stops, like amazon, cdw , and . The web site for M-Systems is




   "Internuts" was a word coined by us several years ago to use for selected sites like those below. They come from a slim volume, as they say, called "Weird and Wonderful Words," by Erin McKean, a senior editor at Oxford University Press.

--  Melanie and Mike discuss the origins of many weird words and let the readers bring in their own examples.

--  The web site for the Oxford English Dictionary, the gold standard for English. Has "word of the day," "ask the experts" for tough definition questions, and "crosswords cryptic and quick to tease you at tea time."


--  The home page shows nothing but a place to sign up. Go ahead, sign up; there's no charge. Once you do you can select from a dozen or more interesting sites to be funneled daily to your inbox. Try the "Daily Darwin" for news of the world's dumbest people.


--  Home site for the Merriam Webster Dictionary. There are several fun word games you can play here, plus word of the day, a word for the wise, and puns and jokes.


--  Articles on words and their origins by Martha Barnette, a regular contributor to the New York Times.




   As long as we're on the subject of words, there should be some interest in "MasterWriter," $289 for Windows or Macintosh.

   This is a set of rhyming, phrasing and pop culture dictionaries that some people have billed as an automatic way to write song lyrics. That's stretching it a bit since most song lyrics don't rhyme, but it's still entertaining to browse the possibilities.

   The most unusual features of MasterWriter are a dictionary of cliches and phrases and another of alliterations. "Good Golly, Miss Molly," is an example of alliteration in the rock and roll song of the same name by Little Richard. Phrase rhyming offers opportunities like "fits like a glove" or "all you ever dreamed of" to rhyme with "love."


   MasterWriter has a hefty price tag but you can download a 30-day free trial from the maker's web site




   "Break Into the Game Industry; how to get a job making video games," by Ernest Adams; $25, Osborne/McGraw-Hill

   Let me dispel the notion that the video game industry is some kind of fringe business, reserved and occupied by computer geeks and various other self-selected anti-social types. Time for a reality check. Video games now take in more money than the movies, and since some movies are actually based on video games, I guess they could be counted in as well.


NOTE: Readers can search past columns on our web site: You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at  or