Computers Introduction

From The Thinkulum
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Version 1.1, 5-1-05

I grew up on computers. My dad is an electrical engineer, so we’ve had at least one computer in the house since I was little. The first family computer we had was an Osborne 1. Yes, I know, you’ve never heard of it. To me it was the best thing since sliced bread, which I had only discovered a few years earlier. My dad taught me how to program in BASIC, and for a while that was my major pastime. My brother Michael is the one who really picked it up, however. He is one of my chief sources of computer information, so his name will probably make frequent appearances in this section.

I dropped programming in junior high for other things, and I regret it in some ways. The tech world is very interesting to me, and I have some friends in that sphere, but the learning curve for being conversant in computer science is pretty steep and I haven’t kept up with it, so I’m sort of at a disadvantage. But oh well, you can’t do everything. I keep up with programming and computer technology in my own small way, and it’s usually enough for me.

After not having programmed for about ten years, I started learning Perl at my brother’s recommendation. It is not an easy language to learn because it can be very cryptic. But I rediscovered what I love about programming. It boils down to two things: puzzles and power. Power because when you know how to program, you can get the computer to do what you want it to do. You’re not limited to what other people’s programs will allow you to do. And puzzles because programming is a process of problem solving, and it can be surprisingly engrossing. I can sit there for hours, totally absorbed in working out the right code to achieve my goal.

But I do have limits. I don’t naturally think like a computer, and contorting my mind into those patterns is taxing. So as with everything else but more so in this case, my attention to the subject comes and goes in phases.

There are many other things about the world of computers that interest me, from artificial intelligence to the open source movement to the OS wars. I am fascinated, too, by the philosophical and methodological insights that can be drawn from computer science and applied to other areas.

As for hardware, I bought a laptop in 1996, my freshman year of college. It was a Toshiba Satellite 205CDS, a P100 that had about 780M of hard drive space, an 11.5″ screen, and 24M of RAM. This was fine for a few years, but it took a noticeable dive in performance as the software I was trying to run began to surpass it. I also had to clear off hard drive space all the time to have room for my puttering. Eventually I’d had enough and started saving for a new laptop, this time one that would hopefully stay ahead of the software for a while longer. It took me two years to save for it, but finally I got a Sager 5690 at 3.2GHz with a 60GB hard drive, a gigabyte of RAM, and a 15″ screen. That’s a bit better than my old computer. In fact, so much better that it’s way more than I need, so I named it after my favorite overpowered starship Petey, the Tausennigan Thunderhead Superfortress from the webcomic Schlock Mercenary! I partitioned the hard drive down the middle so I could dual boot with Windows XP and Linux. So that is what I am currently operating off of, just to give you a frame of reference.

Now, about this math, science, and technology section. I’m following the pattern I started when I stuffed the rest of the social sciences into a corner of the psychology page. Basically these are side interests of mine that I needed a place to put, and the computer page seemed the most natural place.

My dad is an electrical engineer. I would never be an electrical engineer. But his interest in things technical extends into related fields like physics, math, and astronomy, and that is one thing I did pick up from him. In fact, in junior high I thought I might want to be a scientist when I grew up. Then one year I worked in a lab for a science fair project, and I was cured. But my interest remains. What I like about science is that it amazes me, and I like to be amazed. The natural world is a strange and incredible place. Mainly I’m into the astronomical-physical end of the science spectrum, since that’s what up with I grew.

And when you apply science to practical problems, you get technology. I like to be impressed by people’s engineering creativity and the power we can wield over the physical world. That’s one of the main reasons I like Star Trek. As Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, technology is like magic. So every once in a while I’ll point you to some new bit of technological wizardry I’ve been gaping at.

Math I flirt with occasionally, and I do mean occasionally. It was always my weakest subject in school, but it still intrigues me in some ways. It’s good training for logical thinking, and the philosophy of mathematics asks some interesting questions. So I’ll dip into math here every once in a while too.