Sunday, January 13, 2008

the importance of how stuff works

The best example of beneficial mechanistic knowledge I can think of from my skills, is computers. A better example is what walls are made of (paint, nails, clay-in-paperboard, wood sticks which once you have torn apart and build one alters your perception of all buildings you go in and reminds you how fragile it all is) but computers have been my hobby and job for years. Really, knowledge of computers is quite unnecessary, as they are just tools for the rich and vacuous, and have only been useful to consumers for 20 years. But for all the time we spend with them, it is frustrating to see people so ignorant of what they are doing. Computers just doing a lot of simple things really fast, and does so with parts that are very small. And the computer operates in moderately difficult arithmetic on its base level. On top of those layers of calculations and lists of logic statements (things like IF the key “F2” is pressed, launch help window, OTHERWISE, do nothing. IF “help window” launched, load “poorly_written_and_frustrating_help_file.hlp” into “help window”.) are a bunch of pictures, which the user things are controls, but are really just a bunch of pictures of things called buttons and links, put there to make the user think the computer looks easy. When something doesn’t work, or the user does not know how to do something, there is nothing about what they see that has given them any useful information about what is underneath that could be the solution.

Oh-Kaaaayy, I don’t want to talk about that any more, I’d really rather talk about how Reason and Rapture seem so hard to have work together, but instead lets look at grocery store reader boards. The ones that are huge and outside and make a ‘shrakkk’ sound each time the display changes. The way those work is that they are just a box with lights inside, and each dot on the sign is a flap. Each flap can be switched separately, black or orange. That grid of off or on flaps is controlled by a tiny computer. It has a file that contains a grid 1:off, 2:off, 3:on, just like that, and so the computer turns each flap to match the setting indicated in the file. That’s also how an LCD computer screen works, except instead of having mechanical motors and flaps; it has thin sheets of plastic and liquid mineral that change see-through or block-light when an electrical signal energizes that spot. The light behind the liquid is always on, the computer just signals which spots to switch, each pixel contains a red, blue and green spot, All activated makes white (see through all), no energy makes black (see through none), a mix gives you color.

So what use is knowing that? Not really much at all, if you where to confidently repeat it to a friend it would help to know more, like how you can see the pixels under a magnifying glass, or more specifics about how the computer signals the correct voltage to a pixel by a grid of conductive traces printed on the sheets of plastic. You might want to learn about conductive traces which is easy to do by dismantling a keyboard, and seeing how that works, and this desk is made of plastic sheeting glued to particle board which is basically large pieces of sawdust glued together, and the glue is probably petroleum based but synthesized (cooked and filtered) to be a particular stickiness, and stickiness is a relation of how the molecules of different kinds cling together, sometimes making different molecules, which is why when you remove stickers from some things, the finish is ruined. The glue either held on to it and ripped off whatever the finish is, or it changed the finish into something that comes off instead of staying on and looking nice.

None of this helps yesterdays statement that knowing physical reality helps improve your life, except hopefully you will be a little more open to looking up ‘why’ and remembering the answers. At least so you can tell others and sound smart! Learning about computers is lucrative, at least in being efficient at something else. The more you can manage to learn about computers the less likely you are to think they can think. So don’t be mad at your computer, realize it is a brainless bunch of readerboard images and poorly written display instructions that’s all based on 1980’s calculator chips. (Actually, there are some more advanced systems out there, but nobody seems interested in writing software for them.) So please don’t talk to your computer. It’s not sane.

As I think about it, there are many fields that can claim to improve you if you learn them. If I had applied my writing skills better when writing this, it would have made sense and been a real argument instead of a ramble. You should learn to be a professional writer too, along with being a scientist, philosopher, Bible scholar, and computer expert. Everything I’m interested in seems so vitally important. But it’s not really. What’s really important is to believe in Jesus and obey God. People can go around making up ideas, and building objects that are useful, but knowing God gives life a purpose that brings about true success. Plus God likes you - well, God likes everything - but you, as a unique entity that thinks, God has a standing offer to help and love you. No great knowledge or reasoning required, just believe, obey and talk to Him.

Grady Houger

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