The Computer: A Very Short Introduction by Darrel Ince (2011)

ComputerA computer contains one or more processors which operate on data.  The processors(s) are connected to data storage.  The intentions of a human operator are conveyed to the computer via a number of input devices.  The result of any computation carried out by the processor(s) will be shown on a number of display devices. 6

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An exploration—in broad, non-technical terms—of the components of computers, and how these components function to allow us to carry out operations or run software.  Also discussed are the ramifications of the shrinking cost and physical size of computers, their increasing ubiquity, and the opportunities and challenges presented by computer security in the age of global computing.

I was hoping to learn more about the construction and function of the very first computers (before the invention of the transistors and silicone-based technologies).  I was hoping to get a glimpse at how the physical parts of a computer pushed each other around and to better understand the details of how data is “passed” from the memory to the processor, and what is actually physically happening when data is “processed”.

Much of the book is a discussion of the social consequences that internet connectivity is having and may have moving forward.  These points are interesting, but were not new to me, as I’d listened to some podcasts and read books about internet security and privacy previously.

Ideas per Page:1 5/10 (Medium)

Related Books: The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee; You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier

Recommend to Others: No

Reread Personally: No


8 “The internet is a network of computers – strictly, it is a network that joins up a number of networks.”

8-9 “The web consists of a number of computers known as web servers and a very large number of computers known as clients (your home PC is a client).”

10-11 “ A computer program… instructs the computer to move data, carry out arithmetic operations such as adding a collection of numbers together ad transfer data from one computer to another (usually using the Internet).

25 “With binary numbers the base is 2; this means that we can interpret a binary number such as 11011 as:

1×2^4 + 1×2^3 + 0 x 2^2 + 1×2^1 + 1×2^0

and it will have the decimal value 27 (16 + 8 + 0 + 2 + 1)

27 “So, how does a computer work?  The best way to describe this is to outline what happens when I use a word processor.  When I click the MS Word icon on my desktop, the Windows operating system senses the click and then loads the MS Word word processor into the main memory of the computer.

The program then starts executing.  Each time I carry out some action the word-processor program senses it and part of its program code is executed.  The execution is carried out in what is known as the fetch-execute cycle.  Here the processor fetches each programming instruction and does what the instruction tells it to do.  For example, an instruction may tell the computer to store what I have typed in a file, it may insert some text into some part of the word processed document, or it may quit the word processor.

Whatever actions are taken by a program such as a word processor, the cycle is the same: an instruction is read into the processor, the processor decodes the instruction, acts on it, and then brings in the next instruction.”

35 “When a processor requires some data that is stored on a hard disk, say a word processor file, then it issues an instruction to find the file.  The operating system – the software that controls that computer – will know where the file starts and ends and will send a message to the hard disk to read the data.   The arm will move laterally until it is over the start position of the file and when the revolving disk passes under the arm the magnetic pattern that represents the data held in the file is read by it.”

53 “…genetic programming.  Here a set of candidate programs are generated to solve the problem and then run.  The top programs in terms of efficiency are then collected together as a new generation of programs and combined together to create a further generation of programs.”

111 “Arguably the best example of a wiki is Wikipedia.  This online encyclopaedia has been developed by thousands of volunteers; a controversial study carried out by the prestigious science journal Nature compared it with the equally prestigious Encyclopaedia Britannica and came to the conclusion that they were close in terms of accuracy.”

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.


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