Ascii and HTML Character Codes

Within a computer, data is stored as a series of tiny magnetic or electrical impulses called "bits". Bits store data by using a code, each different character being represented by a particular pattern of bits. There are various code systems, the most common being "ascii" (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which is used to represent character data in most types of computer files. To make bit patterns easy to understand, each particular code is assigned a number. For example, the ascii code number for the letter "W" is 87, while the number for a space is 32. (These numbers are not chosen at random. They make sense when the bit patterns are manipulated mathematically.) Within HTML (the system used to specify the design and content of Web pages), you can use special codes, based on ascii, to indicate various characters. The HTML codes are of the format &#, followed by a number, followed by ;. For example, the HTML code for the copyright symbol () is ©. The code for a long dash (what copy editors call an em-dash) is —. The number within an HTML code is simply its ascii number. For example, within the ascii code, the copyright symbol is number 169, and the em-dash is 151. From time to time, you may need to look up the various ascii or HTML codes, especially if you are designing Web pages. Here are some handy references.


Beta News

There is an old terminology, used when developing programs, in which a prototype is called an "alpha" version of the program; a working program that still needs significant testing is called the "beta" version; and the final program, ready to ship to customers, is called the "gamma" version. (Alpha, beta and gamma are the names of the first three letters of the Greek alphabet.) In the personal computer industry, it has become the custom for companies to release the beta versions -- or "betas" -- of programs. By definition, betas are not ready for customer use. However, by getting people to use the betas, software companies get to release their products early. Moreover, as people use betas, they discover bugs (problems), which are often reported to the company. Thus, by releasing the beta version of a program, a software company can beat its competitors to market and have its customers test the product for free. In general, it is best to avoid beta software unless you know what you are doing. However, if you do know what you are doing, this Web site will help you keep up on the news, status, fixes and other information so important to those who live in the beta world.


Bugs and Fixes

A bug is a problem in a computer program, often a mistake in the program itself. A fix is a way to cure the problem or, at least, to work around it. All computer programs have two types of bugs: the ones you know about and the ones you don't know about. (I guarantee that all the programs you are using right now have some bugs in them.)



Google Newsreader comp.bugs.misc

Computer Acronyms

Here's how you can be the most popular person you know. Every day, send each of your friends information about a different computer acronym. For example, say you have three friends, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Send email telling Huey that TAD means "Telephone Answering Device". Send Dewey mail telling him that PAL is "Programmable Array Logic" or "Phase Alternating Line". Send Louie a message that CAD means either "Computer Aided Drafting" or "Computer Aided Design". You will be so popular that it won't be long before you are asked to join the CDC (Cult of the Dead Cow).


Computer Books Online

Pearson Education (the largest computer book publisher in the industry) offers some of their books for free online. Just sign up and you can look at a large variety of technical books. What better way to spend a quiet Saturday night while you are waiting for a Star Trek rerun to start?


Computer Companies

Here are many, many links to the Web sites of hardware and software companies around the world. Just type in the name of the company you want, and -- click-click -- you're at their Web site. I have found these resources to be a great time saver. The next time you are looking for a computer company, start your search here.


Computer News

So much happens in the world of computers; it's difficult to stay current on the latest events. So why not let someone else keep track of it all for you? Here are some news sites that will give you the hot (and cool) scoops on the most important computer-related happenings in the world. Check here every few days and you'll be able to stay up to date with no problem.


Computer Product Reviews

Before you plunk down a wad of money for a computer or a computer-related product, read the reviews. Money is time, time is knowledge, and knowledge is power. So taking the time you need to save money will make you a powerful person indeed (at least around the house).


Computer Reseller Ratings

It's certainly convenient to order computer equipment on the Internet or over the phone. However, when you buy things at a distance, you have to be extra careful. This is especially true for computer products, where things that don't work are particularly infuriating and good tech support can be hard to find. So, before you buy something, check out the company, and see what other people think. This is important if you are dealing with a small company for the first time.


Computing Dictionaries

In the 1960s, a lot of people gave their children far out names, like Rainbow, Sunshine and Moon Unit. So what can you do in the twenty-first century? Use a computer dictionary to come up with all kinds of cool ideas. For example, anyone can name their kid Jennifer, Bobby or Stacy. But you know you're dealing with someone special when you meet Proxy Server Mandelbaum, Firewall Jackson, Gif Jeffries, or L. Spam Montgomery.


Computing Magazines and Journals

I am going to let you in on a secret. Everyone else in the world has no trouble staying current on everything that is happening in the world of computing. You are the only one who is having trouble keeping up. That is why I have put in this resource, just for you. Here you will find links to many different computer magazines and journals. Read long and prosper.


Filename Extensions

On most computer systems, filenames end with a dot (that is, a period) followed by a 1- to 4-letter extension. The extension is a code that indicates what type of data is contained within the file. For example, in the filename harley.html, the extension is html, which indicates that the file contains a Web page. (Web pages are created using HTML [hypertext markup language].) Another example: in the filename harley.txt, the extension (txt) shows that the file contains plain text. File extensions are used widely by programs and by operating systems such as Windows. There are literally hundreds of different extensions, although you probably only need to know about 5 or 10 of them. When you encounter a filename with an extension you don't recognize, here are some references to help you track down the information you need.


Hacker's Dictionary

The Hacker's Dictionary (also known as the "jargon file") is a venerable reference work that you simply must know about. It is a huge, comprehensive compendium of hacker slang, illuminating many aspects of hacker traditions, folklore and humor. I like the Hacker's Dictionary because it is written by smart people for smart people, and because it is authoritative, well-written and witty.


History of Computers

If you remember nothing else about the history of computers, there are three important dates you should know: 1946, 1964 and 1981.

Let me take you on a quick tour of computer history. Along the way, I'll explain what happened in 1946, 1964 and 1981, and I'll tell you some interesting facts that you may not otherwise encounter. Memorize just a few ideas from this essay and, without any previous training, you'll be able to be the life of any party you choose to attend.

For a very long time, there have been mechanical aids to calculation. For example, the oldest version of the abacus, a counting board, is at least as old as 300 B.C., having been used in ancient Babylon. More modern versions, consisting of a wooden rack with two horizontal wires holding counting beads, are still in use today in many parts of the Far East. However, the idea of a computer -- a machine that automatically performs operations on data -- is relatively new.

When I was in high school, small electronic calculators were still to be invented; instead we used slide rules. The first slide rule was built in England in 1632 and, in one form or another, slide rules were used by people well into the 1970s.

A basic slide rule had two ruler-like lengths of wood or plastic -- one fixed, one able to slide -- on which were printed logarithmic scales. By manipulating the sliding piece, it was possible to multiply or divide using what was essentially addition and subtraction. (The theory behind it is a bit complex but, basically, you can use logarithms to multiply two numbers by adding their exponents.)

Interesting fact #1: When I was in high school, there were computers, but they were large and expensive and not readily available for general use. Since there were no affordable electronic calculators, we used slide rules in our science classes. The interesting fact is that using a slide rule is a lot more fun than typing the numbers into a computer or calculator.

Interesting fact #2: When I was in my last year of high school, the chemistry teacher managed to get a hold of an actual electronic calculator. The year was 1970, and the machine was very, very special. It was so useful -- and so valuable -- that the teacher kept it locked in his personal workroom, away from the hundreds of grubby little fingers that would have liked nothing better than to experiment with the new electronic contraption. The calculator was the size of an old-fashioned adding machine and cost $800 ($2,900 in today's money). All it could do was add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Would you say that the abacuses, slide rules, and other such mechanical devices are computers? Not really. To be sure, they can be used to perform calculations. However, when we talk about computers, we usually mean electronic computers, and those date only to the mid-1940s.

Interesting fact #3: Before 1950, the word "computer" referred to a person, not to a machine. For example, I have a copy of The Oxford Universal Dictionary, first published in 1993. This old dictionary defines a computer as "One who computes; specifically, one employed to make calculations in an observatory, etc."

The very first electronic computer was announced on February 14, 1946. It was called ENIAC, an acronym for "Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator". (Notice that it was not called a computer because, in 1946, computers were still people.)

The ENIAC was built to perform calculations such as trajectory tables that were important during World War II. However, they were complex and very time-consuming to calculate by hand or with mechanical devices. The ENIAC used about 18,000 vacuum tubes. It took up 1,800 square feet of floor space and required 180,000 watts of power. However, it was a great success and was used from 1946 to 1955. (To put this in perspective, have you ever heard of anyone with a PC and Microsoft Windows, who was able to keep their computer running for nine years?)

Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, some wonderful computers were invented, mostly for mathematical calculations. However, there were relatively few of these machines, and virtually all businesses were still without computers.

This was to change on April 7, 1964, when IBM announced the IBM System/360. The 360 machines were the very first mainframe computers. They were large, expensive, difficult to use, and difficult to maintain. Still, they were so useful for data processing that, before long, they were used widely in business, government and education.

When I was in my second to last year of high school (1969), my school offered its very first computer class. The teacher was a math teacher who had taken a summer computer course.

In those days, the only computer we could use was a large mainframe that was housed downtown in the Board of Education building. To write our programs, we used what were called "mark sense cards". They were the same size as the old punch cards, but instead of punching holes, we used a special pencil to fill in small ovals. Once the cards were filled out, they were sent by messenger downtown, where they were read into the computer. The results were printed and brought back to the school the next day.

Thus, as we were developing a program, we were able to run it only once a day. Whenever there was a bug in the program, we would have to wait for the printout to come back, find the bug, fix it, and wait for the next day's delivery to see if the program worked.

Interesting fact #4: The first program I ever wrote in my life was written in a computer language called Fortran IV, using the mark sense cards I described above. The program, which ran on an IBM System 360 mainframe computer, printed a table of temperatures and wind speeds showing the wind chill factor for each combination.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo (Canada), the school had three, large IBM mainframe computers. In those days, everything was expensive. A single mainframe consisted of a set of large boxes, all of which were kept under lock and key in a special room, where the temperature and humidity were controlled. The floor of the room was made of large tiles, which were raised several feet above the foundation. Below the tiles were the many long cables connecting the various pieces of machinery. These special rooms were called "glass houses" because they had large glass windows, so people could walk by and look at the computer.

Interesting fact #5: In 1976, when I was an undergraduate, the largest of the three mainframes had a special box that provided extra memory to the computer. The box was the size of two refrigerators and it contained 1 megabyte of memory, which, at the time, was a huge amount. (In fact, this computer was the largest, fastest computer in all of Canada.) The box of memory cost $1 million, a dollar a byte. In today's money, that would be about $3.3 million.

Although various mid-sized and small computers were developed in the 1970s -- indeed, I used such machines in graduate school -- they did not begin to become ubiquitous until 1981. This was because, on August 12, 1981, IBM announced the 5150 Personal Computer, better known as the IBM PC. The IBM PC set the standard for virtually all the PCs to follow, even the ones we use today. Because the PC was so affordable, it became the catalyst that irrevocably changed the world.

The first time I ever used a PC was in the early 1980s. I was in medical school and, one weekend, I went to visit a friend from my undergraduate days, Ron Dragushan. Ron and his roommate were the first people I knew who actually had their own PC. Although I had seen a PC once before, I had never used it for programming.

That weekend I was bored, and I wanted to play a game called Mastermind that Ron happened to have. In Mastermind, one person arranges a set of colored pegs in a pattern without showing the other person. The second person asks questions of a certain type and, based on the answers, guesses at the pattern. I tried to get someone to play the game with me, but no one would. So, I decided to use Ron's computer to write a Mastermind program to play against me.

Interesting fact #6: I wrote the program using a computer language called BASIC, which was built-in to early PCs. There was no need for an operating system, such as Windows, DOS or Linux. All you did was turn on the computer, let it warm up, and BASIC was there, ready to use.

By today's standards, Ron's computer was primitive. Still, it was the ancestor of all the wonderful, powerful, incredibly complex computers we have today: the ones that maintain the Internet, entertain us, run our businesses, and give us access to information from around the world.

In fact, since the IBM PC was the last, very important milestone, let me stop here with a one-sentence summary of the entire history of computers -- the first computer was built in 1946; the first mainframe was built in 1964; and the first PC was built in 1981 -- and, if you want to win friends and influence people, that's all you need to know.


Macintosh-Windows Integration

Is it possible for PCs and Macintoshes to coexist and live in peace and harmony? It is if you know what you are doing and the computer gods have blessed your efforts. To stack the integration deck in your favor, start by visiting these Web sites where you'll find lots of information on Windows-Macintosh integration. In particular, you'll find out how to put Macs and PCs on the same network without having them fight and pout.


PDF (Portable Document Format)

PDF is a system, developed by the Adobe Company, that makes it easy to store pictures of paper documents as computer files. The stored documents must be read with a special program called the Acrobat Reader (which is free). A lot of organizations use PDF to make paper documents accessible via computer. For example, in the United States, the Internal Revenue Service uses PDF to distribute tax forms over the Internet. Actually, that gives me an idea. Next year, I think I am going to use PDF to send money to the IRS.



Google Newsreader comp.text.pdf


A smiley is a short sequence of characters that looks like a small smiley face when you look at it sideways. For example, here is the basic smiley: :-). (To see the smiling face, tilt your head sideways to the left.) People use smileys in email, within Usenet articles, and when talking on the Net. The purpose of a smiley is to show a sense of irony, as if you mean to say, "Just kidding." The idea of a smiley has been around for years. Although you only really need the one basic smiley, inventive people have created many different smileys just for fun. For example, here is a smiley with a mustache :-{. Wanna see more? Enjoy.


Tech Support and Online Help

We all wish that every computer product came with free technical support offered by knowledgeable people. Fat chance. If you have ever waited on the phone for a long time just to talk to a tech support person who knew less than you did, you will understand what I mean when I say that good tech support is hard to find. Except on the Net. Here are some resources you can use to look for answers on many different types of problems. My experience is that, whenever I can, it is a lot easier to find the answer myself than to ask someone else.



So you have a computer question. Well, chances are someone has already asked that question and, if so, there's a good chance you can find an answer here. This is a searchable database with information about anything and everything you could ever want to know about PCs and Macs. A cross between a dictionary and an encyclopedia, the Webopaedia has tons of information with lots and lots of links to explore.