Computers are not mythical machines, full of loose electricity, held together by magic. They are simple, and you can easily learn about their use and operation.
As a child, I always thought that my career would end up being “treasure hunter” after watching the Indiana Jones documentaries. In high school, after hearing the life-shattering news that Indiana Jones is a fictional character, I figured I would become a psychologist or an architect. I was wrong on all accounts except for Indiana Jones not being real, and it looks like I have become a teacher and a programmer. I suppose it came naturally, since I love pissing away my time in front of a computer, and feeling superior to others. It’s a lazy, narcissist’s dream combination!
Oftentimes people are amazed at my ability to fix their computer, when actually they should be amazed at my ability to use Google and read search results. I am always amazed at people’s lack of technical know-how, and disinterest in even attempting to learn anything new about how computers function. From numerous situations, I’ve have tried to come up with ways to explain computers to people in ways that can be rather easily understood. I’m pretty bored at the moment, so for posterity I’m going to put them into words, so that anyone can be linked to this page and get a heap’a hunk’a burnin’ learnin’.
A computer is only complex at a small scale. If you were to take a magnifying glass to a grain of sand, you would see infinite detail as you zoomed in closer and closer, but from a distance it is really quite simple. Computers are full of microchips, little people riding light bikes, and precision mechanics, but when working with computers you never need to worry about those things. Nobody is concerned about the molecular structure of the oil in their cars, because that level of detail is simply beyond our ability to easily change. We just worry about pouring new oil into our car. If we were to focus on the important parts of a computer, we really wouldn’t see too much.
A functional computer has some required items inside of it;
- A power supply
- A motherboard
- A video card (oftentimes part of the motherboard)
- A sound card (Nowadays, almost always part of the motherboard)
- A hard drive
- Some memory
- A CPU
- A power button(most always found on a case)
I’m certain that some neckbeards are going to call me out on a few of the items listed, because their greatest joys come from picking apart other people’s arguments. OK, you don’t need a sound card to play ASCII Nethack on your fucking Slackware box. OK, you don’t need a hard drive to run Puppy Linux, the operating system made for tinfoil-hat-wearing, UFO-believing wackadoos and childporn enthusiasts. Great, let’s get back on topic.
We are essentially looking at 8 items that make up a computer. Let’s glance over the very simple ones, and their purposes, first.
- A power supply – supplies power
Computers run on electricity. They need something to supply that electricity, or that “power”, if you will.
- A video card – Outputs video signal
This is where you plug in your monitor, TV, or projector. It sends a signal to that device and lets you see video.
- A sound card – Output audio signal
This is where you plug in your headphones, speakers, or amp. It sends a signal to that device and lets you hear audio.
- A power button – Supplies or cuts power
This is how you turn your computer on and off.
We’ve covered half of the components so far! Wow, you are sure smart! Just kidding. Calm down.
Next, we are going to look at the odder components that make up your computer that you purchased in 2003 and have yet to throw away.
- A motherboard – Links everything together and makes it all play nice.
Everything plugs into the motherboard, because alone, each component is useless. You cannot use a mouse if it doesn’t have power. The videocard can’t draw anything if there is no information supplied to it. A power button does nothing if it is not controlling a power source. A motherboard serves as a means of moving around all sorts of information and electricity.
Most motherboards include all sorts of sockets for your mouse, keyboard, LAN cable, and audio jacks. Most laptop motherboards and cheaper motherboards include video hookups.
- A hard drive – Saves information
A hard drive is a place to save your information. Even if there is no power to a computer, the information on a hard drive does not disappear, making it the most reliable way to keep your pictures of Justin Bieber safe. Think of the hard drive as a filing cabinet, in that it is safe, yet slow to access your information.
- A CPU – Processes information
These are the things that Intel is always advertising. CPU stands for Central Processing Unit, because although there is more than 1 processor in your computer, the CPU is the main one. Some would say that it is…central…to processing. Most books equate the CPU to the human brain, which is a decent example. The CPU does stuff with information supplied to it. If you were to move your mouse, the signal would go through some sort of controller on your motherboard, to the CPU which would look at the movement and output an updated position, and eventually to the videocard which would update your screen and reflect the new position of your cursor.
- Some memory – Allows quick access to information
Memory is similar to a hard drive in that your information is stored there, but that information disappears whenever you turn off your computer. Think of memory as a coffee table, as opposed to the filing cabinet that is your hard drive. You have your empty coffee table, and your full filing cabinet. You go to the filing cabinet and look for the information you want, and after finding it you go to your coffee table and place it on the table. You decide that you want some more information, whether that be from the internet in the form of a webpage, from a CD in the form of music, or from your hard drive, so you get that information and place it on your coffee table. That information can now be accessed very quickly, but your coffee table is getting full very quickly, and in order to place more information on it, you will need to remove some items first.
In a computer with very little memory, that “coffee table” is small and gets covered quickly, at which point your only option is to put that extra information in the filing cabinet. That filing cabinet is now known as “virtual memory”, and as you start to use that virtual memory over physical memory, the system gets really slow.
All of this is generally invisible to the user.
Now you know the basic components to a computer. We didn’t cover optical drives, external hard drives, cameras or derpa derp derp. They all function very similarly. Information flows to and from them, passing through the motherboard and interacting with other things.
Quick note: I have heard “my computer is slooooow!” more times than I can count, and I once counted up to 5,000,000. I am pretty sure that a higher number does not exist, but I will need to verify that after I finish writing. The components that are in your computer function similarly to how they did when you first purchased the machine, but there are some points that make your computer slower.
As computers improve, programmers develop programs that make more and more use of available resources. One reason may be that the programs are more demanding compared to when you bought it.
Spyware and Malware
You probably see a message that says “Your computer has a virus, click here to clean it!”, and then you click it. It asks for your personal information and CC# which you happily supply. Then your computer slows down and you have absolutely no idea how anything could have happened. Congratulations, you are the reason why your computer is slowing down.
If something is truly free on the internet, they have a very professional looking, or plain website.
Look at this -> httpd.apache.org
and this -> www.openoffice.org
and this -> www.videolan.org/vlc/
You are looking at the most popular web server software in the world, a free version of Microsoft Office put out by Oracle(Sun), and the best damn video player I have ever seen. These are free through donations and by selling technical support. Malicious software is free because it tracks what you do on the internet and pops up advertisements all over the place. Nearly all browser toolbars, new cursors, smiley packs, and assorted shit is the root cause of your computer slowing down.
- Fragmented or full hard drive
It’s strange, but I’ve heard that a hard drive should have about 10-15% free space on it at all times. This is probably related to virtual memory and fragmentation. As you write files to your fresh drive for the first time, it is like laying bricks on a wall; very orderly, with the bricks fitting right next to each other. As you delete files, it is removing those bricks, leaving gaps. Imagine you have a large brick to put into your wall, but it won’t fit into any of the gaps, and so you need to break it into pieces. If a file is broken into pieces and thrown all about the place, what do you suppose happen when it comes time to read from that file? You spend extra time tracking it down. This is called fragmentation, and Windows has some tool that defragments drives, which may give a performance boost, but never has from what I’ve seen.
Your computer has a virus? You probably put it there unless you are running an unpatched version of Windows 98. I’ve installed two viruses, and both were the results of me being greedy. One came from thinking I could play Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines off of a suspicious disk that was flagged by Norton and then getting a Spacefiller virus. The other was from installing a random-ass codec pack off of Limewire to watch some fucking Jet Li movie. Fuck Jet Li and fuck all of his identical movies. I regret nothing about playing Commandos.
- Something is broken
This is so incredibly unlikely, but possible. Hard drives can have bad sectors that make them freak out, yet ignore the bad areas. Memory is the same way, and both memory and hard drive problems generally create system crashes, freak-out messages, and other scary situations. The odds of hardware failure are lower than the other situations listed. If something is broken, your computer most likely crashes somewhere or beeps a bunch upon startup.
Alrighty. That was a fun tangent, wasn’t it? We’ve covered computer components, so now let’s take a look at some vocab. When speaking with people who don’t know about how computers function, you get treated to a word salad that hinders the communication process. Take a look at this sentence; “After I download the disk to the computer, will my memory be sufficient, or do I need to download more.” If your Asperger’s nerd heard this, they would go to town with each detail. “Well, firstly, downloading the physical medium is not possible, unless it were to be replicated in a Star Trek fashion, and we all know that the U.S. government would never allow that technology to propagate. I feel that it is pertinent to this situation to create a list of bullet points to correct your grammar….blah blah blah”. Simply using new vocabulary without a strong grasp of what it means doesn’t sound smart. It’s like a man walking into court and saying “Your honor, if it pleases the court, I would like to plead the next bailiff to the witness. Sir, do you promise to tell tell the whole truth, until death do you part?”
Software is intangible, and hardware tangible. You can physically touch hardware, but cannot physically touch software. When I think about you, I verify that I am tangible.
Downloading is the process of pulling information from a server, uploading is the process of putting information onto a server. You download files from websites, and upload them to websites. Unless your digital camera is running a website on it, you are not downloading or uploading files, but saving them. You can save files to and from a number of devices.
Space, or room, is area on a storage device that is not in use, ie “I cannot save any more porn because I don’t have any space on my hard drive, because it is full of porn”. Memory refers to the amount of available memory in your computer. My hard drive doesn’t have enough space, and my computer is running low on memory. Mixing these up is like saying “I eat New York and I work in a pizza.”
A bit is either a 1 or a 0. A byte is pretty much accepted as being 8 bits. Things get weird here, since a kilobyte is usually 1024 bytes, unless you are advertising, and in which case it becomes a thousand bytes. This is why your hard drive is always “smaller” than what was advertised, because they use douchebag math and clever punctuation to change the meanings. The next steps up are mega-, giga-, tera-, and peta. You will always always always have less memory than hard drive space. 500 gigs of memory is what you would find in about 70 modern computers. Processors are measured in Hertz.
Your computer’s processor is a few cores, each at a few Ghz. You have several gigs of memory. Your hard drive has hundreds of gigs.
Operating systems are what serve as an interface between everything on a computer, and everything else in the world. Many people compare Macs and PCs, and by “many people” I mean “fucking idiots who bought into Apple’s marketing”. PC stands for “personal computer”, something which Apple produces and brands as “a Mac”. Macs are PCs in the same way that iPhones are smartphones and Kleenex are tissues.
PCs run operating systems such as Mac OS, Linux or Windows. You have a computer, that computer has an operating system, and then there are programs and applications that work with those operating systems. Programs and applications generally have to be custom made for operating systems, therefore operating systems are rather different from each other in design, but not necessarily in function.
Moving on with more terminology that you will probably not require, an IP address is an internet protocol address. Internet protocol. A MAC address is associated with a physical device. MAC addresses aren’t meant to be changed, and the odds of you actually changing one is extremely rare, unless you are trying to break into wireless networks. IP addresses often change for home users, with your modem getting an IP address, and your router probably using DHCP to give all your computers and devices IP addresses.
I suddenly regret even broaching this subject as it has gone extremely complicated and unnecessary very quickly. Let’s forget this little section just like we forgot how our single mother talked us into putting on gold nail polish in kindergarten because “you can hardly see it”. Oh God, the repressed memory dam has been breached and millions of gallons of embarrassment are pouring out!
Just kidding, it was first grade, it was my own choice and I did it more than once for reasons unknown.
That’s too much information for one day. Let’s stop here. Hopefully you’ve learned a little something about computers thanks to the passive aggressive person who sent you to this aggressive aggressive page. The next time you are about to ask someone to “fix your internet” because they “know computers”, just do a Google search. You are capable of venturing out onto the internet and getting the information needed to fix things on your own.
If you have any questions, I will be happy to post a link to Google in the least insulting way possible.
Next week’s article: “Intro to Computing 2: No, I’m Not Going To Fix Your Computer For You”.