How Computers Work: Part 8

Anyone with an advanced degree in Electrical Engineering and decades of hands-on experience in the world of computer design knows that hardware alone is not enough to make a computer function. One theory on how computers work involves groups of small gnomes that run around inside the case using enchanted spells to obey the will of the users. Due to the largely unverifiable and mythical nature of this explanation, it is yet to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community. A less controversial hypothesis revolves around the concept of a software based operating system.

The need for operating systems first arose when the manufacturers of complex electrical devices realized their products were just too easy to operate. Equipment such as small pocket calculators, Commodore 64s, and Teddy Ruxpin dolls came equipped with a straight forward and easy-to-operate on/off switch. Users turned the machines on, performed the needed operations, and turned them off. The inherent problem with this situation was, of course, that the computer industry only received money from the customer for the initial purchase. Something had to be done to fix this grievous error.

Eventually the computer industry developed the concept of an operating system. Instead of just “being on,” computers would now have to load a software program in order to function correctly. In addition to costing the consumer extra money, this software was constantly being updated. Known problems were fixed, new problems were introduced, and the money kept rolling in.

One of the most popular and commercially successful operating systems is known as Microsoft Windows. Many people claim that the basic “window” concept was stolen from the Apple Macintosh. Of course Apple stole it from Xerox, who conveniently took it from basic Roman architecture. (Incidently, the “arch” style of operating system, while more elegant and able to support massive loads, proved too difficult to implement.) When asked how they felt about the whole situation, the Romans just shrugged their shoulders and mumbled something about having received poor legal advise from their copyright lawyer.

Choosing an operating system is an important decision for anyone who uses a computer on a regular basis. While no system is perfect, the following three options have evolved over the years to meet the various needs of the computer operating public:

Macintosh Operating System: Most people don’t know that the Apple Computer Corporation started out as little more than a garage band. After several noise complaints and a few visits from the local police department, they decided to change the focus from music and become a garage computer company. After releasing the commercially successful “Apple” line of computers, the focus of the company shifted to a new graphic-based operating system. The project, originally code-named “Granny Smith,” was eventually released to the public as the Apple Macintosh.

The simple yet elegant look of the operating system refined over the years has created a fierce loyalty to the Apple product line. (The only notable exception to this rule was the “Newton” hand-held digital personal assistant.) People who use this operating system are usually scared of electronic pointing devices with more than one button and often times can be heard making comments such as, “I can’t use this computer—its beige!”

Linux Operating System: This is the operating system of choice for hard-core computer geeks who like to build their own computers from scratch and anyone who wants to stick it to “the man.” While a relative newcomer in the world of operating systems, Linux was modeled after mainframe Unix systems. Due to an unexplained error in the accounting department, the source code for Linux is available at no charge. Despite being the most stable of all the operating systems for personal computers, many people figure that when something is free it must really suck. People who use Linux generally hope it will eliminate, with extreme prejudice, the competing operating systems in the near future.

Windows Operating System: As another computer company born in a garage, Microsoft has built a vast empire based on the Windows operating system. This operating system has won over countless users with functionality such as the “unscheduled coffee break while the computer reboots” and informative error messages such as “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B.” Having the largest market share, most people use Windows simply because everyone else is—and everyone can’t be wrong.

What can we expect to see in future versions of operating systems? Apple has just released “Macintosh X” (not to be confused with the recently released Friday the 13th movie, “Jason X.”) Microsoft’s Windows XP includes functionality to collect user’s DNA during the installation process. Rumor has it that the next version will be able to read user’s most personal thoughts. Finally, if everything goes according to plan, Teddy Ruxpin 2.0 will be in stores in time for the Christmas shopping season.

Divide and Conquer

I was planning on writing about the town of Divide, Colorado on my recent trip to eat dinner with Kristin and her mother, but that was before I discovered the size of the town. Located a bit west of Colorado Springs, Divide basically consists of a gas station, a stop light, and a two story mini-mall. Curious about why a town of this magnitude needs a stop light, I researched the matter at the Teller county library. It turns out the traffic control device was installed in the spring of 1921 as a way of getting people to stop and wander through the inevitably small selection at the local video store.

Most of the residents of Divide drive to the neighboring town of Woodland Park for their consumer needs. A few miles down the road from Divide, this town has its own unique character. The first thing I noticed driving through Woodland Park is the abundance of Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug convenience stores. I counted a total of four on my way through town. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed except for the fact I drove by two of them that were separated by a small unrelated building. In addition to the many, many occupations I’ve claimed to have no knowledge of in the past, I now must add to the list by saying that I’m not a top level executive at Conoco (or Loaf ‘n Jug for that matter). I just can’t see the logic of placing two of the exact same stores twenty-four feet apart in a small mountain town. I can only theorize this strategy was implemented to cater to the following situation:

A man driving a late model minivan approaches the first Conoco. His wife and two kids are quietly taking in the mountain scenery.

Husband: Well, we have plenty of gas. Honey, do you want to stop for anything at this safe and hygienic Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug establishment?

Wife: No thanks dear, I think we should just continue on our journey.

Husband: Bobby, Sally, are you two doing okay back there?

Kids: (In unison) Yes dad.

Husband: Great– I’m glad we can spend this quality time together.

And then, 0.0003 seconds later:

Bobby: Dad! Sally threw up on me.

Sally: Dad! I threw up on Bobby. And I have to pee. And I want some candy and soda.

Wife: Your kids need tending to, Jack. And why did you have to drive through that plague of locust? The windshield is a mess! And I need a cigarette. Make that a few.

Husband: Will everyone just SHUT UP for a second? I’m trying to think what to do here. We could turn around and go back to that last Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug. (Looks at the dashboard) OH CRAP! We are dangerously low on fuel—- we don’t have enough gasoline for a U-turn. We are all going to die!

Wife: (Looks up the road) It is a miracle Jack! There is ANOTHER Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug just past this building. We are saved!

Husband: Phew! When we get back home I’m going to find the Conoco executive who arranged these convenience stores and give him a big hug.

In addition to the convenience store curiosities, Woodland Park has it’s own unique history. For example, Kristin and I ate lunch at Quiznos. After we ordered our food and sat down to eat, she explained to me how this store front used to be occupied by the Christian Science Reading Room. Kristin just rolled her eyes at my suggestion to combine the two and name it “Sandwiches Good Enough For Jehovah.”

Despite being a quiet mountain town, Woodland Park has an impressive police presence. The ratio of law enforcement officers to civilians is similar to that of a Siberian prison colony. On our way back to Divide, we had the honor of receiving a police escort through town. Things got even more interesting when Kristin threw a cigarette butt out the window. We got pulled over and the officer started off the conversation by saying, “I’m pulling you over because you tossed a lit object from your car. Did you know that is illegal?” He then went on to explain the forest fire danger in the area. While I wanted to discuss the long term dangers of artificial fire suppression, I had a feeling this would not be the optimal time for such a debate.

Kristin, who has no love for the police, didn’t seem to enjoy the conversation very much. To help remember that night, Kristin was given an authentic document from the Teller county police department which gave her two options. She can either pay the thirty-eight dollar fine or be hunted down by attack dogs and officers wearing full riot gear in an ATF training exercise.

After all that, we managed to get back just in time for dinner– which I must say was quite lovely.

More Kinetics

Despite my recent move to Loveland, Colorado, last weekend I drove down to Boulder for my favorite annual event in town. And, no, I am not talking about the release of new slanderous allegations revolving around the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation. It would not be May in Boulder, Colorado without thousands of people converging on the reservoir for the yearly rite of passage known as Kinetics.

For those not familiar with the event, it involves me spending several hours in the sun looking at women prancing around in skimpy bikinis. Oh yeah, and there is also some sort of race.

While I try not to sound like a broken record, I have to readdress a serious concern about the Kinetics race. For the second year in a row I saw not a single article of women’s clothing constructed from fruit. Despite my detailed explanation of how to construct a watermelon bra on my web site last year, no one seems to have taken on the challenge of reviving this noble tradition. While I do not claim to be an expert in this matter, this could be taken as a sign that the end of the world is near.

Despite the watermelon bra drought, there was a flurry of activity the whole day which kept my eyes stimulated. Usually I get nervous when men I don’t know approach me wearing nothing but shiny boots, a blonde wig, and a tight gold thong which leaves very little to the imagination. (When it is someone I know I get down right uncomfortable.) At the Kinetics race, however, it just means that he is part of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” craft. Or at least I hope that is the case.

After checking out the rest of the Kinetic vehicles, Kristin and I sat down on the beach to watch the rest of the day’s entertainment as they walked around, applied suntan lotion to each other, and whipped their hair around in slow motion. Adding to the excitement of the event were several oversized beach balls that were constantly bouncing around in the more densely populated areas of the beach. The center of each inflatable sphere contained a small computer processor which coordinated data from real time global positioning satellites and miniature self-contained digital cameras. This information was processed in real time to develop trajectories that maximized smacking inattentive beer drinking people in the back of the head while they were starting the process of digesting their cool, tasty beverage.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a pillar of society, but as we were enjoying the afternoon, some of the people around us asked if we could watch their stuff for a while. Not that I’m against it, but the whole concept of asking someone you don’t know to guard belongings seems kind of odd. It bothers me for several reasons. First of all there is the possibility the person you ask is really some freaky kleptomaniac who has been mentally drooling over the half empty bottle of sun block and cut-off jeans—just waiting for the right moment to club you over the head before he steals your possessions. (I suppose the upside in this situation is that you are less likely to get clubbed in the head.)

The other problem is that you are announcing to the entire area that you are going to be away from your belongings for a fair amount of time with only a total stranger keeping an eye on the situation. Anyone can just walk up and take stuff under the pretense of, “Oh, they asked me to come get their stuff.” And unless the dealings with the original stranger involved a hologram of authenticity of some sort, you have no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who has a sick fetish for other people’s cut-off jeans.

Given that most people at the Kinetics race didn’t come to the event with the intention of theft, neither of these situations arose. However, a half an hour after we agreed to watch over our neighbors’ belongings, we wanted to leave. While I didn’t want any specific harm to come to the belongings, I had to accept the possibility they would never be coming back. Perhaps they walked over to the beer tent and became yet another victim of the “inflatable beach ball of death” on their way back. In the end we did decide to take off and leave their stuff unattended, but as we were leaving I made an announcement to the general area. “We are leaving now, so feel free to pillage and plunder these here belongings!”

The New Kid In Town

Now that I’ve lived in Loveland for a month, I feel a much stronger connection with the town. To be honest, when I first moved in, I knew little more than the two main streets in the area. Depending on my starting point, finding my way back home was at times quite a challenge. Thanks to my technique of randomly driving around town for little or no specific reason I have identified many, if not all, of the points of interest Loveland, Colorado has to offer.

One of the first things I did after moving in was to locate the nearest Walmart. Fortunately for me, it was only a few blocks away from the house. I drove over and stocked up on soda and other random items that seem to find their way into my shopping basket whenever I enter the store. Unfortunately for me, I drove to the exact same location a week later only to find it was gone. Well, the building didn’t go anywhere, but the essence of the company was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes of playing Columbo, I discovered a large note on the door, explaining that a new store had opened up on the other side of town.

But this wasn’t just any Walmart—- the new building housed a “Super” Walmart. Which means it is basically a traditional Walmart with a complete grocery store stuck on the side. And it stays open all the time. Given my well-documented erratic sleeping habits, this schedule was quite a welcomed change. To test things out, I drove over at midnight to examine the new structure. It literally has tons of stuff. I can’t say offhand exactly how many tons, but everywhere I looked I just saw more stuff. Having just moved all my stuff from Boulder, I was not really in the mood to acquire more stuff. But I did feel the need to buy something, just to be courteous to the Walmart establishment.

In order to make everyone happy, I bought a ninety-seven cent bottle of hair gel. While I’m still not sure if my hair needs the “ultra hold” or “maximum goo” style, the bottle I purchased does seem to be functioning within the expected parameters. And now I have one more item to add to my “ways to entertain myself at two in the morning” list. (Going to Walmart that is, not contemplating my hair gel needs.)

Now that Scott and I have cleared out all the unwanted vegetation from the yard, I have taken on the responsibility of mowing the lawn. For one thing, I haven’t had a lawn to mow since I was in high school. Secondly, the area covered by the lawn is so small it is not a big deal to fire up the lawn mower once a week. The lawn mower is one that mulches the grass instead of collecting it in a bag. In addition to being environmentally better for the planet, it keeps me in a much better mood since I don’t have to spend time hauling bags of dead grass all over the place.

One of my favorite aspects of living in Colorado are the two seasons. Winter and summer both make their presence felt throughout the year—- but not in any particular order. Sure, in December it is more likely to be winter and in June, odds favor the summer. I was mowing the lawn a few days ago when the sun was shining and all the other meteorological signs pointed to summer. By the time I had finished, the situation had completely reversed and it was quite clear that winter was stopping by for a visit. A few hours later it started snowing. If I had postponed mowing the lawn I might have had to shovel snow off it first. Fortunately, winter didn’t want to stay very long and things were back to summer status the next day.

After holding a brief funeral service to honor the premature demise of the raspberry bushes, Scott and I planted some new seeds in the garden. It turns out that world of genetic engineering hasn’t advanced to the point of being able to produce “seven-layer burrito” seeds. Given that limitation, I went back to the Super Walmart (which hadn’t been moved since my last visit to buy the hair gel) and bought various packages of seeds. According to the instructions, if planted correctly, the seeds will grow into various forms of vegetables. My specialty seems to be more in the area of killing vegetation, so I’m sure an attempt to grow a useful garden will be quite an adventure. (NOTE TO SELF: don’t run over the garden with the lawn mower.) But at least now I know where I can buy gardening equipment in the middle of the night.