Originally Published: Monday, 31 July 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Wrong End Of The Horse

One of the largest misconceptions in the PC world is that software defines a computer architecture ... the assumption is made that Windows/DOS/LINUX is the computer.

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I've Got My Philosophy

One thing I see lacking in today's computer culture is an understanding of computer hardware. More specifically, a true understanding of how a computer works. I don't mean just the average user ... there are armies of programmers who don't seem to grasp how a computer works. One of the largest misconceptions in the PC world is that software defines a computer architecture ... the assumption is made that Windows/DOS/LINUX is the computer.

Looking Up The Wrong End Of The Horse

Too many people learn an operating system environment first, then they learn how the computer really works. Certain schools of computer science don't teach hardware at all. Some CompSci professors literally tell students that midgets carry data back and forth in "bit buckets" (buckets in Alphas are bigger than buckets in 486s).

Can you imagine learning how to ride a horse by studying the saddle, but never taking a good look at the horse? You can't be ignorant of the equine yet be expected to guide it over a stadium jump or around a rodeo barrel. Yet thousands of "computer people" never get to see the horse.

Just for fun, take a look at the IDE kernel source code in LINUX. See how much of that code relies on PERL or object-oriented C++ for GTK. It's ugly bits of ANSI C and assembly written to control hardware ... the whole kernel looks like that.

The Anatomy of a Beige Box

Not too long ago I masqueraded as a college professor ... two years of grad school managing a hardware lab, and two semesters teaching part-time at Devry. I also teach PC hardware to volunteers at Freebytes, a computer recycler in Atlanta. I don't use any operating system when I teach hardware concepts. I teach the PC from the ground up ... five basic concepts that every computer from the Altair to the Aptiva use in daily operation. Input, Output, Processor, Memory, Storage ... there isn't a computer in history that doesn't somehow incorporate these five concepts. How many MSCE or A+ certified people actually understand this? What about web designers, or *NIX programmers?

The answer may surprise you.

Some students were shocked that I didn't start with Windows or DOS. Even my operating systems course started with a hardware review. But as I explained the basics to these pupils, I realized they had never seen this before. I also saw the dim light of recognition twinkle in their eyes, as a few synapses made some new biochemical connections.

Change Is The Only Constant

There is a lesson here ... since your information age attention span is stretched to its end, I will make my point quickly.

Learn the computer from the hardware up. The OS and its applications are the part of the PC everybody thinks of first. But the computer was the computer long before DOS, Windows and LINUX came along. And if the software market does a complete turn tomorrow, a lot of "programmers" won't have a leg to stand on. Besides, hardware designers get paid even if the software's free.

Brian Richardson's low level attitude got him a job as a BIOS engineer in Atlanta, Georgia. Brian believes in two levels of profanity ... RISC profanity and CISC profanity. All RISC profanity uses four character instructions, while CISC profanity uses variable length instructions. If you didn't get that joke, go back and study your computer books.

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