Your Mam’s Guide to Computers & the Internet

Computers are stupid, not you (well, maybe you are too, but not because you can't work the computer)

About Your Mam’s Guide to Computers & the Internet

Hi! This is Your Mam’s Guide to Computers & the Internet—for non-technically-inclined normal people.

Bear with me—we're just getting started here. There are lots of gaps, where things that need explaining will go unexplained for a little while.

Leave a comment if it looks like I'm not going to explain something that I really should.

Your Mam’s Guide to Computers & the Internet is written by Greg K Nicholson and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mooquackwooftweetmeow.

The picture of a computer comes from the Tango Desktop Project and is used under the CC-BY-SA 2.5 licence; my adaptations are released under CC-BY-SA version 3.0 or later.

27 April 2008

What is a document?

A document is a unit of your stuff: a photo, a letter, a story, a song, or anything like that.

So a document is the same thing as a file?

Not quite. A file is a unit of any sort of information stored by a computer. A document is a file, but there are also other files that aren't documents.

For example, there'll be lots of files on your computer that aren't even designed to be read by a human—software is made up of files designed to be interpreted by the computer.

How about folders? Is a folder a document?

Nope—a folder (or directory) is a logical grouping of files, used to keep those files organised.

Note that I wrote “files”: any sort of file can be organised into a folder, not just your documents.

There will (most likely) be a folder somewhere on your computer designed to hold all of your documents, typically called something like your “Home” folder, “My Documents”, or “Documents”.

So a document is anything I’d want to print out and keep?

Almost—you can't print music or video (for example), but they're still documents. But, you wouldn't really want to print anything that wasn't a document.

So: a file is a chunk of information stored by a computer, and a document is any file that represents your stuff.

06 April 2008

What is hardware? What is software?

Hardware is anything you can kick: all of the real, physical bits of a computer system. The screen's hardware, the keyboard is hardware, and all the bits inside the main box and the box itself—they're all hardware. Even if you have a furry mouse: it may be soft, but it's not software.

Software, on the other hand, is a lot more slippery. It comprises instructions followed by the computer—software is any bit of a computer system that only exists as data.

All programs are software, and all software is, in some sense, a program. Applications like text editors and web browsers are classic examples of software. But most of the workings of a mobile phone are software too; and so are video recorders' (infamously awkward) interfaces.

All of those esoteric things I wrote about before that are actually computers all run software; there are at least as many different types of software as there are kinds of computer.

So all of my documents are software, right?

Not really. Your documents are… well, documents—they just happen to be written in an electronic binary form that a computer can read and a human can't (without the help of a computer).

Let's say you have a document that reads something like:

A fox and a dog jumped about a bit together …or something—I wasn't really paying attention.

That's definitely a document: it's just a wodge of text. A program, however, would look more like:

PRINT "A fox and a dog jumped about a bit together …or something—I wasn't really paying attention."

See that PRINT? That's an instruction—and that makes it software, because it's telling the computer what to do.

Programs are like a list of verbs for the computer—things to do; whereas documents are just things—nouns.

If you show an idiot a car (a noun), they won't know what to do with it until you say “drive!” (a verb). Similarly, if you give a computer a document, it'll just stare at you blankly, maybe beep a bit, until you tell it what to do with the document.

That's what software does—it tells the computer what to do.

A quick update

Yeah, it's been a while. These Level 0 posts were never meant to take this long at all. I expected them to take a week or so, but then got side-tracked with other things, and dithered.

I've also been forgetting that I can, and—unusually—fully intend to, go back and fix and improve things; so if I write a rubbish entry it doesn't go on the permanent record.

With that in mind…

08 January 2008

What is the Internet? What is the Web?

They aren't the same thing: the Internet is a giant network connecting most of the computers in the world, and a set of methods for communicating among them.

The Web (the World Wide Web) is a giant collection of documents & applications—web pages—that are distributed using the Internet; these pages can talk about each other using hyperlinks.

So, what’s a network, then?

A network is simply a group of computers that are connected together so that they can talk to each other. The Internet is a massive one.

A hyperlink (usually called just a link) is a reference to another document. The reference is specific enough that the computer can automatically call up the referred-to document if the reader chooses to follow the link.

This concept of hyperlinks is the most fundamental idea behind the Web (and one which pre-dates it considerably).

Remind me of the difference between the Internet and the Web again

The Internet is the mass of wires, and the system used to send information through the wires; the Web is a corpus of pages.

You can send other things over the Internet besides web pages: emails, instant messages and streaming audio and video are good examples. The Internet came about in the 1960s; the Web in the 1990s (and it used the Internet to make all those pages available).

Questions? Comments? Plaudits? Microblog at me, @gregknicholson on, or with the tag #yourmam; or email me at