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

Thursday, December 3

4: How Computers Think

Your computer has a brain that we call its processor. This is an abbreviation of “micro-processor”. Basically the processor is a chip with something like a gazillion transistor-type thing-ies on it that allow it to perform complex calculations based on certain conditions. This little do-dad, usually the size of a large stamp, is the pinnacle of modern engineering in my book. We're talking about generating a series of electrical switches that are measured in nano-meters.

While this device allows your computer to “think”, the processor contains little to no memory of its own. The computer has two devices to handle memory. The analogue to human short-term memory is called RAM (Random Access Memory). RAM holds the information that's waiting to be used at that moment. If you're computer loses power while something is sitting in RAM, when you turn it back on, it's gone (and that is where your presentation went).

When the computer needs to remember things for longer periods of time, it puts them on the Hard Drive. The hard drive is a series of cool metallic disks in stacks inside a box. Inside this box with those disks is something that looks and acts remarkably like an arm on a record player. It is the read-head and picks up the information off the disks. Information is written to these metal disks by using magnetism. Basically, if a part of the disk has a slight magnetic charge, the computer will read that as a “1”. If it has no charge, it's a “0”. This is important because computer are binary, meaning they only understand 1's and 0's. Which is why computers don't think in terms of grey, everything is black and white to them, 1 or 0.

There are a few other odds-and-ends concerning what passes for thinking in a computer, but they're inconsequential to our discussion. Now you've got the general idea. Data comes from the hard drive to the RAM and then goes to the processor. The results are passed back and forth, depending on what's needed, and then the output goes where directed. Usually your screen or a piece of paper or a file on the hard drive. That's it. No more mystery.