“A computer is like an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy”

Tuesday, December 1

2. The Magic Black Box: Perceptions & Reality

What makes your computer so special? Honestly, it's not the hardware. Your cell phone and iPod are at least as complex. Your car likely has many things in common with your computer as well, right down to liquid crystal displays (LCD's) and microprocessors. The difference between your computer and these items is all software. As a rule, you generally don't introduce random bits of code into your car's computer system. You do download items on your cell phone or iPod, but these are strictly controlled either by your cell phone company or by Apple. Conversely, if you're an Apple computer user, your computer is easier to maintain for the exact same reason. Apple is very aggressive about what code gets run on their systems. This is both a boon and a bane that we'll discuss a bit later.

When I think of the code running on a computer, I get a bit dizzy. There are literally millions of lines of code interacting on your computer. This stuff has to be written in such a way that it doesn't end up stepping all over itself. Each of those bits is a program competing for resources, written by different people at different times with different goals. The miracle of it isn't that software doesn't crash, but that it doesn't crash more.

You may think of your computer as a word processor, a device to interact with the Internet, a multimedia tool, a repository for your MP3's, or a cool box to play games on. The truth is, no matter how you use it, it's all of those things and more. That's the brilliancy behind computing. Sure, it's a tool, but it's a powerful, universal tool! Imagine if carpenters had hammers that could be used to screw in nails, tighten nuts, scrape paint, loosen pipes, and sand wood. That'd be a pretty cool tool, wouldn't it? Well, that's what you have at your disposal. Probably the single most adaptable tool mankind has ever devised. And that's freaking cool.

I'd talk about the history of computers and how we reached this level of awesome, but honestly who cares? There are huge volumes of information about any esoteric part of the history of the computer you want to read. We won't even begin to discuss it because we're here to talk about your computer and how you can use it and fix it when it needs it.