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.

Making Boulder Safe

I’ve always had a healthy respect for Kathleen– the woman living in the apartment directly above me. In most respects she is an ideal neighbor. While we aren’t exactly the closest of friends, when we do run into each other we usually have a pleasant conversation about what is new and exciting in our lives. She even accepted my invitation to watch the game at my last Super Bowl party. Always concerned about making too much noise, she even asked me once if running her dishwasher after 10 PM was going to be too loud for me. Despite all this, I can’t seem to shake the notion that Kathleen spends her free time raising marsupials.

Even though my knowledge of biology is limited to reading National Geographic stories while sitting in the dentist’s office waiting room, I am almost positive that kangaroos are not indigenous to the state of Colorado. Sometimes after Kathleen leaves for work in the morning I hear the unmistakable sound of rhythmic thumping from her apartment that could only be produced by small mammals hopping around. At first I just chalked it up to my overactive imagination. All that changed a few weeks ago on a warm summer night when I was sitting out on my patio waiting for a friend to come over. Kathleen’s patio door must have been open because I couldn’t help but to hear what she was saying. In a playful baby voice she kept saying, “Who is my favorite kangaroo? You are-yes you are!” The last trace of doubt was removed when she replaced her old regular license plates on her car with a customized set with the letters “LVN ROOS”.

While I like to think of myself as a fairly liberal individual who doesn’t like to poke my nose into other people’s business, I just can’t sleep well at night knowing what is going on in Kathleen’s apartment. What could I do if the kangaroo in question gets bigger and crashes through the floor into my living room when I’m sitting on my couch? My apartment is messy enough as it is without the ceiling caving in and kangaroos hopping about wildly out of control. And that doesn’t even address the issue of my damage deposit.

Fortunately, the city of Boulder passed an ordinance to protect not only myself, but the countless other individuals in the area who live their lives in constant fear of exotic animal related mishaps. The Boulder City Council recently passed legislation that will help get all of the kangaroos out of the city once and for all. In addition to the aforementioned marsupials, the law also forbids individuals from owning bears, skunks, weasels, otters, badgers, venomous reptiles, raccoons, elephants, seals, sea lions, hyenas, anteaters, sloths, armadillos, mongooses, hippopotami, rhinoceri, giraffes, camels, zebras, monkeys, chimpanzees, alligators, and crocodiles.

It’s about time that the City Council members climbed down from their ivory tower and created legislation that helps out the regular Janes and Joes of the world. Just the other day I was watching some children playing on the large bronze animals in the center of the Pearl Street Mall when a hungry pack of hyenas came along and… well, lets just say it was not a pleasant situation. The owner of the hyenas didn’t realize the animals had chewed through the six foot high electrified barb wired fence until after the damage was done. And you really can’t fault the hyenas- their instincts tell them to gather in packs and chase down the slowest mammals in the immediate area. The parents of the mauled children and most of the witnesses came to the conclusion that despite the extensive effort made to contain these animals, the owner of the hyenas was largely to blame. Without any exotic pet ordinance to back them up, the police officer at the scene could only give the owner a fifty dollar fine for violating the city leash law.

Exotic animal maulings frequently go unreported in city of Boulder. Newspapers only have so much space to report the news each day. While the reports regarding the JonBenet Ramsey murder have slowed to a trickle, the reports detailing the mistakes made during the investigation keep flowing into the papers. And of course the public needs to know about the reports of people who are upset about people who criticized anything involving the investigation. Given the need for perpetual coverage of this still unresolved situation, the true cost of exotic animal ownership may never be known.

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.

Ode to Mr. Squishy Ball

Being a comedy writer is not always easy. Being a comedy writer that nobody has ever heard of doesn’t make the situation any better. Or at least I suspect this is the case. I’m sure all writers have to deal with mental blocks that keep the words from being transferred from the brain to the keyboard from time to time. Sometimes it becomes necessary to “fall back” on countless readers who willingly send in funny local newspaper stories involving strange occurrences involving toilets, animals, and possibly explosions put together in some rather humorous combination. This method, however, can only be used if you are an established comedy writer with an internationally syndicated newspaper column where countless readers are aware of the fact that you write comedy for a living.

One of the most common approaches to humor is to make fun of a physical condition of a complete stranger. Try using the phrase “severe rectal itch” without it being funny. Not counting the last sentence. A typical example goes something like this: “My wife thought she had a SEVERE RECTAL ITCH, but it turns out she just wants to have kids.” This type of comedy is, in my humble opinion, not particularly suited to my style of writing. First of all, I don’t have a wife. And if I did, with my luck I would be the one with severe rectal itch. Readers would be scratching their heads wondering if our kids would have the ailment, and how that is supposed to be funny.

I think this style is better suited to standup comedians. While the aforementioned phrase used in the printed word does maintain some of its intended qualities, the heart of the joke lays in the physical interpretation of the medical condition. Just imagine a young man in a dark comedy club running around on stage pretending to be his pregnant wife who happens to be suffering from severe rectal itch. Now there is a five minute comedy routine that anyone would enjoy. Well, maybe not his wife.

So where does a guy like me turn to when the proverbial comedy well runs dry? Generally speaking, I go and play with my toys. On either side of my computer I have a lava lamp. When the words aren’t coming out, I’ll turn them on and start reminiscing about the 1970s. Of course I was no older than 5 years old during that decade, so I can’t say I understood too many of the political and sociological changes that shook our nation. Elvis died before I had a chance to sing “Heartbreak Hotel” in the shower. Saturday Night Live was making fun of Jimmy Carter’s career as a nuclear scientist before I was allowed to stay up that late. But I digress.

Lava lamps do their share to provide me with visual stimulation, but it’s kind of a one way process. Sure, they can be turned on and off. Although they get hot, it is also possible to shake them up to see what happens. But when all is said and done, the lava lamps are just made to be watched.

Interactivity is the key for a toy to hold my interest. That is why I love my squishy ball so. It fits wonderfully in the palm of my hand. Inside the green stretchy rubber exterior is some type of fluid with hundreds of little tiny purple and blue beads that float about at will. I sit on my couch and play with it when I need inspiration. I squish one side of the ball and lots of the beads go squirting off to the other side. One of my favorite things to do is to squish the ball in half and try and get all the beads on one side, and all the fluid on the other. It’s quite a difficult task. And the worst part is that the fluid inside is somewhat opaque, so I can never be one hundred percent sure I have achieved my goal. But that is totally beside the point. I can’t explain how, but it inspires me to write.

Many of my friends who have seen my squishy ball notice it has a definite resemblance to a breast implant. That is why I now keep it carefully hidden from casual observers in the back of my desk drawer. While I’m not opposed to breast implants in extreme cases such as mastectomies and severe rectal itch, I don’t want my squishy ball being surgically placed in the chest of a woman. Even if the recipient host were to somehow agree to quietly sit in my apartment and let me play with it whenever I wanted, I’m sure with my luck the “women-ness” would rub off on the squishy ball. It would only be a matter of time before the squishy ball would say to me, “Let’s just be friends, OK?”

A lot of people wonder how much of what I write is the truth. I include myself in this group. I’m not saying I always tell the truth, but I would never lie about my toys. That is why I felt it necessary to dedicate this story to severe rect… I mean Mr. Squishy Ball.