Category Archives: How I Think Things Work

How Computers Work: Part 3

Part two of this series left off with the ancient computational tool known as the abacus. From there we fast forward through history to the nineteenth century. Sure, a lot of important things happened in that time frame, but none of it was really central to the advancement of the computer. Most of that time was spent fighting each other, fighting off the plague, and fighting over how much it should cost to paint the ceilings in prestigious religious establishments.

These events are part of what is known as the “Dark Ages.” Despite the fact that on average the amount of sunlight the planet received had not changed, the people on the planet were depressed, wore dark clothes and sunglasses all the time, and didn’t spend a lot of time learning the ways of the abacus. In more informal situations, many historians refer to the period of human development as the “pimply moody teenage years.” This situation did very little to stimulate the creative juices of the general population.

The next major advancement in the area of computational machinery came in the late 1800s in a rather unlikely form. No, I’m not talking about evil alien time traveling robot monkeys who ruthlessly scavenge the planet for shiny pieces of scrap metal. At the time of this writing the monkeys in question have only achieved limited success in building their time machine. The piece of equipment to which I’m referring relates to, of course, the textile industry.

At this point in time many nations of the world were busy building expansive factories and cutting down vast forest lands to keep the factories up and running. A few individuals focused their time and attention to making the world a better place to live. Despite the dark ages being over for the most part, being optimistic and proactive was not very fashionable at the time. Even so, some of these people voiced the opinion that cutting down the forests and building factories that polluted the air wasn’t very good for the planet. Oddly enough, these people tended to die in unfortunate industrial accidents such as falling into smoke stacks or having large trees fall on their house in the middle of the night.

A few slightly less radical individuals got together and decided the world might be a better place to live in if instead of producing endless quantities of drab colored fabric, the textile factories made blankets with images of cute little bunny rabbits woven into the cloth. After looking into the situation, they discovered it was quite simple to produce fabric made of a single color, and quite difficult to integrate mammals into the design.

To solve this problem, they designed a revolutionary new weaving loom that used a special series of cards with holes in various positions. The individual strings on the loom would be positioned based on whether there was a hole in the punch card at that location. A series of these cards allowed for intricate designs to be produced with little additional effort. The guy operating the machine does not need to know the exact details of why there are random looking holes in the punch cards. They just slide the “bunny rabbit” cards into the machine until enough fabric has been produced. Then they can quickly stop the machine and put in a different pattern, such as “evil monkey robots.”

For various reasons this device was never a wide spread commercial success. In addition to being bulky and expensive, whenever any of the two dozen delicate threads feeding into the machine broke, the blanket produced was totally solid with the exception of a message in the exact center that would read “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B” along with a special 1-800 number and web address to contact for further assistance. Since neither the telephone nor the Internet had been invented yet, the technical support department had quite a bit of free time to pursue other activities such as creating loom patterns that produced wildly inappropriate images of the high ranking political figures of their day.

While this may seem like a small technological advancement, this new design allowed for information to be stored on punch cards and used on different machines. The designers probably didn’t know it at the time, but a hundred years into the future this concept would be used as a fundamental component of modern day computers.

This completes another installment on how computers work. So tonight when you crawl into your bed with your special Mr. Honey Bunny blanket, you can sleep a little easier knowing how it came to be. And don’t worry too much about the evil alien robot monkeys. The odds of them suddenly materializing in your bedroom are rather slim. But on the off chance they do launch an offensive attack, don’t let them see that new sliver filling on your back molar.

How Computers Work: Part 2

Welcome back to part two of the continuing series that explains how computers work. Last time we covered fingers, toes, and piles of rocks. While the connection between these items and today’s computers may seem tenuous at best, the idea is to understand how these creatures evolved over time. I wasn’t all that long ago when computers were large, primitive, hairy animals who scurried about in the tropical climates of world feeding on native plants and sleeping eighteen hours of every day. Wait a minute, I was thinking of Marlon Brando.

The next important technological advance in the world involved numbers. One of the first numbering systems was invented by a fellow named Edgar Roman. The year was 999 and Edgar was busy preparing those miniature hot dogs for his Y1K party. While known to his friends as kind, generous, and generally agreeable to be around in social situations, Edgar was not blessed with an abundance of hand eye coordination. He managed to drop the whole box of toothpicks on to the floor while trying to get them out of the very top shelf of the kitchen cupboard.

Looking at all the toothpicks on the floor, Edgar realized that numbers can be represented as simple symbols such as I, V, X, M and so on. It would have been much, much easier to write “You are formally invited to Edgar’s house to ring in the ‘M’th year of our Lord” instead of having to count out exactly 1000 tiny tick marks on each and every invitation. After throwing the party, seeing if the apocalypse was really going to rip the known world in half, and dealing with a few issues relating to excessive alcohol consumption, Edgar sat down and created a formal definition of his numbering system. While originally named “Edgar’s Wacky Toothpick Numbers,” some of his more politically correct associates convinced him to change it to “Roman Numerals.”

There may be some confusion about why the Roman numeral for 1000 is the letter M, but the letter K is often times used to denote the same number. This deviation was created in the late 15th century when Samuel Gates Junior– a distant predecessor of William Gates– decided to create a completely new system of counting. After researching the legal ramifications of Roman numerals, he discovered that anyone could use the system without having to pay royalties to Edgar’s descendants. Seeing the potential for a proprietary counting system, an ever so slightly different system was developed and then licensed to companies interested in counting things. While the system was inferior to the original, it was used by enough of the population to create confusion for several centuries.

One important idea missing in Roman Numerals is the concept of zero. Many experts attribute this deficiency to the fact that it is quite difficult to bend toothpicks into a complete circle without breaking it. Another possibility is that the Romans were pragmatic about the whole situation and figured if there wasn’t anything there, why bother keeping track of it? For example, you can physically oppress the serfs until the aqueducts are completed, but if their pockets don’t contain any gold coins, then it’s all just wasted effort.

Many people think that the first personal digital assistants (PDAs) came into existence in the late 1990s. In reality, this technology has been around for many hundreds of years. The abacus was the first portable device that allowed the user to store and retrieve information. The basic design of the abacus originated in Asia and involved a series of rods with beads that could freely slide up and down the rod to keep track of numbers. While technically portable, these devices would malfunction if shaken or rotated too vigorously. When this happened, the device would turn completely blue and the message “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B” would magically appear. Ancient Chinese texts explain this mysterious event as a sign of the devil traveling to the earth with the intention of destroying the planet.

The invention of the abacus also marked the start of the playground bully. Some of the smarter and less physically skilled students would sit on the stairs of the steps of the school using the abacus they received for their birthday to try and answer the esoteric question, “how many roads must a boy travel down before he becomes a man?” The less intellectually inclined students feared that which they didn’t understand, and would often times start a game of kickball with the computing device. Which is really a shame, since the kick ball had already been invented.

Well, that wraps up another segments on computers. If you would like more information on the topics discussed today, please visit the nearest ancient Roman library and local abacus store.

How Computers Work: Part 1

A lot of people in the world are curious about how computers work and would like to know more about the evolution of these machines in our modern society. I have no idea if any of these people actually visit my web site, but I’ve never been one to worry about such issues. This is just another example of something I let the marketing department worry about. (Note to self: Check to see if I have created a marketing department yet).

I’ve decided to adopt a more traditional approach to the method of delivery for this information. While most everyone wants to jump right into the “fun” stuff like receiving AOL for free, getting the 250 dollar Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, and finding out how to get paid thousands of dollars a month for surfing the Internet, I am taking the approach of “starting from the beginning”. This will guarantee that any interest in the topic will be exhausted on largely irrelevant background information. This is the exact model used by my high school English department. I don’t really know why beginnings aren’t as exciting as the middle or the end, but I will do what I can to make the beginning as fun as the rest of the story.

Stay tuned for the EXCITING BEGINNING of the story!!!

The first computer ever used by mankind was small enough to fit inside a human nose. Surprisingly enough, this computer’s exterior dimensions are remarkably similar to the interior of the aforementioned orifice. I’m referring to, of course, one of the most common human appendages to be inserted in the nasal cavity-the finger. The twenty or so digits found on the hands and feet of an average person can be used for counting and keeping track of relatively small positive integers. Some notable exceptions include James Doohan (“Scotty” from the original Star Trek series) who can only go up to nineteen after losing a finger in World War II, and Marilyn Monroe who could, according to some sources, count up to twenty-one with the help of an extra toe on her left foot.

While not the most powerful of computers, fingers are still the most widely used computational machine in the world today. In addition to being quite user friendly and durable, fingers are located very conveniently at the ends of our hands and, if maintained properly, are pleasing to the eye and include a soft tactile sensation. Sure, you can’t very well set up a Linux e-mail server or load Microsoft office on your fingers, but fingers can’t be beat for elegance and simplicity.

It didn’t take long before people found a need to keep track of numbers bigger than twenty. The next logical step was to use small rocks to account for possessions. For example, if you were one of the first humans to domesticate livestock, you could have a pile of stones that represented how many live chickens you owned at the moment. When a new chick was born, you would add a stone to the pile. When a chicken was taken away, you would pick up a stone and throw it at your lousy neighbor who most likely stole it when you walked back to the cave for an afternoon nap.

One of the oldest examples of this technique can be found in the Middle East. After learning of this new system for counting things, an ancient Egyptian commanded a high ranking official to use this procedure to keep track of how many people lived in the Nile Valley. In an attempt to please the Pharaoh, the largest possible stones were cut into precise shapes and carefully piled on top of each other. After seeing the massive scale of the pyramid, the Pharaoh called the officer into a meeting at the royal chamber. The bulk of the meeting consisted of the Pharaoh pulling out his gold and blue striped question mark shaped stick and using it to attack the officer in a series of short but solid smacks to the head. The meeting ended with the Pharaoh deciding to use it as his final resting place to avoid ridicule from the rest of the known world.

While this information may not seem terribly useful, at this stage it is best to take a holistic view of the world. Everything in the universe has its place and is related to everything else is some way. While I like to ask questions such as “What do they put in Chicken McNuggets?” and “What happened to Marilyn Monroe’s extra toe?”, I am quite confident that eventually I’ll find the answers. The trick is realizing that all of the questions and answers aren’t all lined up all the time. Having said that, I hope everyone joins in next time when the revolutionary concept of the abacus explored in excessive and possibly historically inaccurate detail.