everything wrong with free software
"obedience breeds foolishness"
other pages: [[owning-your-computer]] | computing-fundamentals | [[beyond-computerphobia]] | [[treating-computerphobia]] | [[computerphobia]] | [[letters-to-a-computer-student]] | *originally posted:* jan 2021
there are several good reasons for putting a cover over a computer chassis, or the inner workings of a car. nonetheless when you want to better understand whats happening with the car, one of the first steps you take could be to open the bonnet. if i do this, despite knowing very little about cars, there are at least two features i will probably be able to locate-- the battery, (which has large metal connectors and wires attached to it) and the tank that contains windshield washer fluid. at least i think thats the tank that contains windshield washer fluid. i know the tank is made of some kind of translucent plastic and has a removable cap.
if people wanted me to know more about cars, they could build a simplified model of one with colour-coded parts, they could paint each component in a real car a different colour-- or, i could just pick up a book about cars and actually bother to read some of it. all of these things would likely increase my knowledge of the subject.
but now we are looking for ways to make this sort of thing as easy as possible, and since i know more about computing than i do about cars, i can try to help you the same way you might try to help me make more sense of whats under the bonnet.
lets start with a look at a typical computer-- you have a box of some sort, whether its tall and heavy and metal, or short and flat and plastic. you probably have at least one cable going to it for power, though it might not be connected right now. theres likely a power button, a built-in or external keyboard, most likely some kind of pointing device (touchpad or mouse, thats the most common) and maybe you have some other connections like a monitor or network cable.
you are probably already familiar with the outside of your computer, but looking at the outside like this gives us an idea of what a computer is capable of doing. the keyboard lets you enter text and control things by pressing keys-- so *we can make the computer get information* from the keyboard. the mouse tracks movement (usually 2-dimensional movement) so *we can get coordinate-type data* as well as clicks from the mouse. (a touchscreen is practically the same idea). we have a power cable, which doesnt make everybody think of a software feature, but for the past 20 years or so power supplies are designed to be shutdown by software-- you only use the power button to start the computer or (if the software locks up) force a powerdown.
if you have a printer, this is (almost) a special exception because although some computer setups (especially in retail) are still designed to get information to a printer a line at a time, its more common now to create a file and hand that over to whatever handles print jobs on the operating system. thus unless youre working on a point-of-sale machine or writing general-purpose printing software, you probably wont work directly with the printer at all-- youll work with files instead. if you may find a purpose for sending per-line information to one, but this is more likely with a continuous feed (roll or connected-sheet) printer.
the speakers on your system let you know that *you can produce sound* and assuming you have a screen connected, you can also *display text and graphics*. if you have an ethernet cable, (technically this works over wifi as well, but i always recommend people avoid the hassle of wifi whenever possible and just use wired-- in a cafe of course its not typically possible) you can *connect different machines together* in the same location, access the internet or other networks over long distances, or even setup one machine to be accessed and controlled by another.
what will you find then if you open the computer? the funny thing about cables is that (except for wireless connections obviously) the things you can find on the outside of the computer tend to betray the design of the computer on the inside as well. sure there are some extra features, but mostly if you see a power cable going into the machine, you know where the power supply unit (psu) is on the inside-- its in the same location where the cable goes. if you see a dvd reader[lit]/[lit] on the outside, then you know exactly where you will find the device on the inside. the same goes for the power button, network cable, video hardware or usb ports.
however if you did get one of those single-board computers, then you know that the default and most common setup is to simply have those connectors right on the board itself. its possible if you open the computer, you will only find a single board along with other devices like a dvd drive connected by a cable. on most computers the power supply unit actually has its own metal enclosure (and you definitely want to leave that box alone, but the *outside* of the power supply is connected to the computer case itself and generally safe-- if you cant touch the computer case itself then something is very, very wrong) though ive seen exactly one (desktop) that was so low power, it actually used a funny little dc power connector like you might plug in to charge a very old phone or cordless appliance. or an sbc.
if you have nice enough graphics, the video hardware will be on its own board-- connected to the larger board. your network is probably on the same board, unless it was upgraded to something higher (than typical) speed for some reason, or if (for some reason) you needed more than one network connection (if you wanted to use the machine as a router or firewall).
what else is in there? fans, for cooling. the hard drive (fun fact, even today you can use a computer without one) where all your programs (and the os) and files are typically stored. and unless you are using an sbc, you probably have little modules that stick up (perpendicular to the largest board, usually) and those are the ram. if you upgrade your ram, you will typically replace the ones there or add others next to them. then your computer can do more things without "swapping" ram to the hard drive.
you may also find a lot of dust, which can be blown out with a smaller blower made for the purpose, or some people will literally take a leaf blower to the machine at a slight distance. either way, youre not better off doing it indoors. you can actually install filters to keep most dust from getting into your computer-- dust sits on the circuitry, making it more difficult to cool and thus less efficient. when the circuits are warmer, the computer slows down so they dont overheat. if you want a lot of hassle, you can replace your fans with a liquid cooling system instead of just putting in larger fans.
i have found that being familiar with the computer on this level is useful, but if it sounds like paying this much attention to the physical hardware is tedious or too messy for your taste, *i have good news*: there are basically two types of computer people; those who love hardware, and "software people". i dont bother much with or care much about hardware, and to be honest *you can do nearly anything you want from working with just the software*.
its still very useful to know *these are two separate things*. because of marketing, and just a little bit of evil, people think of a computer as a combination of hardware and software-- like a "pc" or a "mac", or an "android" phone. there is at least some truth to that-- if you buy an android phone for example, youre *probably* never going to run anything on it other than android software, or some kind of emulator.
but a lot of that is nonsense, because you can run a mac without macos, you can run most "windows" machines without windows, and until youve done so youve never really owned your computer-- only apple or microsoft (or google) did.
in the tech world, the true concept of ownership is not based on what you purchase, but what you manage. if you run windows, macos or (generally speaking) android, your device is absolutely controlled by the makers of that software. you dont own your computer, then-- they do, while youve (essentially) leased it. you can take it and chuck it off a bridge (except for the environmental laws youd be flouting) but what you are able to do with your own property is more up to them than it is to you, so they effectively "own" it. unless that is, you remove the means that give them control-- or if you prefer, "influence" over your computer.
for the most part, vendors maintain control through your software. they may eventually have or gain additional control through "firmware" stored on chips, but a great deal of the control these companies maintain over your computing is through your operating system. fortunately, you can change that-- and its easier than it sounds.