April 4, 2012

1 Times Daily: Day 2 - What's your number?

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This post is part of a series I hope to publish regularly called "1 Times Daily." The idea is simple: that almost anyone can learn about computer science. I'm going to try to boil CS down to its core and present that in a way that nearly everyone can understand. I'll do my best to write from a "general audience" perspective, and we'll see if anyone bothers to read!

Day 2: Computers deal in numbers.

There are only 3 colors, 10 digits, and 7 notes; it's what we do with them that's important.
-Jim Rohn

Computers deal in numbers. Perhaps it's this point that begins to scare people away from computers. But in my mind, this isn't anything out of the ordinary. Any time we want to deal systematically with someone or something, we apply some kind of scheme. In CS, numbers provide us with schemes capable of representing nearly anything.

Let's introduce some vocabulary. We call a piece of information data (just like many other non-technical disciplines). We encode data by converting it from an analog (real-world) form to a digital (computer-world) form. This conversion process has revolutionized many industries over the years (see music and telephones as two major examples).

First, consider a non-computer example. When you go to the doctor with some pain, you might be asked "On a scale of one to ten, how bad does it hurt?" One of my favorites is the mucus color question ... "When you cough, is it clear or green?" All of these questions aid your doctor in making a systematic, objective decision. We have to afford computers the same luxury. Think of your doctor assigning a number to the answer of every question,  even if that number seems arbitrary. You know, like an automated phone system ... "For green mucus, press ONE now!" "I didn't get that ..."

In computing, we've developed many schemes for encoding different types of data. For every possible character on the keyboard, we can assign a number (see ASCII and Unicode). For every color in a range of millions, we can assign a number (see RGB encoding). For every possible position of your mouse, for every dot your printer can produce ... a number is behind everything you can do on the computer.

But remember, we use schemes every day to make sense of information. Just because computers use numbers instead of gold/red/green stars shouldn't scare you away. Rest assured that computers need numbers for a reason, which we'll begin to pursue in our next post!

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