How to Understand Your Computer – The New Yorker

via How to Understand Your Computer – The New Yorker.

Early on in the book, Chandra makes a very interesting claim: many programmers and I.T. professionals have no real idea how computers work, either. Because they don’t need to, essentially; they need to make them perform specific tasks, but they don’t need to understand how they perform them.

He quotes a plaintive post by a programmer named Rob P. on the Q. & A. site Rob begins by saying that he is almost embarrassed to reveal what he’s about to reveal, given that he has a degree in computer science and has worked full time as a developer for five years. “But I Don’t Know How Computers Work!” he says. “I know there are components … the power supply, the motherboard, ram, CPU, etc … and I get the ‘general idea’ of what they do. But I really don’t understand how you go from a line of code like Console.Readline() in .NET (or Java or C++) and have it actually do stuff.”

Chandra goes on to provide a fairly thorough explanation of how computers work—of the things that are physically caused to happen by these coded commands, the “mediating dialect between human and machine.” He devotes an entire chapter early in the book to the language of logic that is the native tongue of computer processors; this is the torrent of binary numbers, of ones and zeros, that constitutes the universal grammar of machines. Chandra even goes so far as to include diagrams, as well as photographs of functioning logic gates constructed from Legos.