The Lite Side

Computers for Dimwits

- 2001.09.24

This guide is intended as an introduction to computers for those of us who are, let us say, technologically challenged. It explains things in simple terms even a politician at a press conference could understand. It is written in a light, entertaining style similar to that used by humor columnist D.B., who is not a close personal friend of mine and doesn't know who I am or know that I am Seriously Ripping Him Off.

Chapter 01. The Hardware

A computer's hard-ware is not a piece of armor you use to cover up your flaccid and pale skin. No, hardware refers to the parts of the computer. The computer has four basic parts:

The Moving Picture Box is where the pictures are displayed (that's where your eyes are looking right now!). This is a confusing name because it is the picture that moves, and not the box itself. Some technical geek wizard types call this the monitor, but if you don't want to show that you read this guide, just call it the TV on the computer. For beginners, we'll stick with the Moving Picture Box.

The Letter Tray, which is a Tray much wider than it is long, similar to a box you would put letters in (hence the name) and covered in letters, each one assigned its own randomly positioned button. Sophisticated users call these boxes keyboards. In the field below, which does nothing useful, press the TAB button on your letter box, then type these words: WHEN I USE A COMPUTER I FEEL LIKE A DOLT. Remember, beginners do everything in ALL CAPS.

The Mover Box, which is sometimes confusingly referred to as a mouse, lets you point at things on the screen. No one really knows why it's called a mouse; it doesn't look like a mouse (except for the tail, and the small kind of roundish shape and size, and the two little clicking ears it has (sometimes one, and sometimes none - some kind of mutation thing going on there) and the fact that the bottom of it collects all kinds of (I just put this in to waste more parentheses) nastiness).

You know it's not really a mouse because your cat won't kill it and leave it on your dining room table, no matter how many times you ask. You could just use your finger (to point with), but then people would laugh at you and tell you about carpal tunnel syndrome and obsolete HP computers. Besides which, it isn't polite to point, so the computer will ignore your pointing anyway.

The Mover Box moves the little arrow on the screen. Move the arrow to the left. Good. Move the arrow to the right. Also good. Of course, you might not have actually moved the arrow, in which case I would feel like a real dimwit and would be embarrassed to the point where I couldn't continue this article.

(Editor's note: the remainder of the article was received the next day.)

Frequent breaks are essential in maintaining one's ability to work on a computer.

Finally, the Box Into Which You Put Things, which is attached to the Mover Box and the Letter Tray and the Moving Picture Box by an unimaginably complex set of cables. Now, if you have an iMac, the Moving Picture Box and the Box Into Which You Put Things are the same box, so there's less cables, which is a fairly advanced concept if you've always had separate Moving Picture Boxes and Boxes You Put Things In. You might need to get a salesman at CompUSA to explain it to you in some detail if this isn't totally clear to you. That's what I did, at least at first.

Things You Can Put In the Box Into Which You Put Things

Well, you could put nearly anything that will fit in the box, but in practice most of these things will make the computer do strange things like melt or burn or smell real bad. Typically, you should put in stuff like floppy disks, Zip disks, CD-ROMs, DVDs, Flash cards, SmartMedia cards, and avocados. Definitions of these terms appear below. Study the list carefully to determine what kinds of things go in the Box Into Which You Put Things. Then get some of these Things, and Put Them In.

Floppy disk: This disk is floppy like a rabbit's ears, but they put it in a little plastic box to keep from embarrassing you in public. However, if you pull back the little metal door (which is referred to by hackers as "giving the floppy a wedgie") you can see, with magnifying glasses, tiny little words written all over the disk, waiting to be read by the gnome in the Box Into Which You Put Things (more on this later, after the drugs wear off). Floppy disks are notoriously unreliable, especially if you plan to, you know, actually use one. They are used to keep your most vital information and are kept in a shoebox in your closet. When you need one you will become agitated because all the ones you can spare will not work and the one you find that works will require you to erase some important data you will need six months later just to get a blank one to give to your friend whose email doesn't work because they thought SirCam was a friend of theirs. Finally, anything really worth saving will not fit on a floppy.

Zip disk: This is a bigger and slightly less floppy version of the floppy disk. As we all know, more is better. How that old saying applies in this particular case I'm not exactly sure. The Zip disk has a zipper inside where you can't see it (take one apart and see). Just like real zippers, the Zip's zipper sometimes gets stuck, which causes your data to fail. This is known as "backing up," because you have to back up to where you were before and start over.

CD-ROM: This is like a phonograph album, except it's smaller. It uses microscopic pits to encode digital data in a confusing variety of formats which are marginally compatible with each other. Also, the quality is higher than on a phonograph, unless you want to listen to MP3s, which is sort of like a phonograph record in quality, and I've forgotten my point - oh yes, CD-ROMs are shiny on one side and have an advertisement from AOL on the other. This disk goes in the cup holder that sticks out from The Box Into Which You Put Things.

DVDs: These are CD-ROMs on crack cocaine. Oh wait, this is a family publication. DVDs are CD-ROMs on Mountain Dew. They're good for watching movies, too. No one you know has a DVD player except some guy down the street with a TV larger than your car. When they're about to become obsolete, we'll issue another edition of this guide and tell you how they used to work.

Flash cards: flash cardsThese are small cardboard cards with multiplication problems on them. One side has the question; the other side the answer.

SmartMedia cards: These are small, tiny cassette tapes (which is why your uncle calls them "tapes") that hold pictures taken by tiny cameras sold under glass at Walmart. They will only fit in these cameras and in computers you don't own or have access to. (Oops, I meant to say "or to which you have the access to." Gotta watch that grammar stuff if you're going to sell what your write.) These tapes record pictures by taking large, detailed images and squishing it into approximately 48 pixels (little light bulbs). The original pictures are unsquished (desquished?) in a process called "jay pegging," which could be described as drawing little annoying boxes around everything interesting in a picture and pretending it is just as good as the real thing (see streamin' media, Chapter 11).

Avocado: This is a green fruit that is grown to make guacamole, which is a substance (for those of you who aren't from around here) that looks a cross between what your cat ejects after eating grass and what your two-year old ejects after eating avocados. If you are from the Midwest USA, you ask for it on the side and carefully set it off your plate at the Mexican Restaurant Chain of Your Choice. If you're from California, you put it on your baloney sandwiches and drink it with hot tea of uncertain parentage. It has nothing to do with computers, but I thought it was funny, so I stuck it in here anyway. Also, an "avocado" is a British term meaning "lawyer." Those Brits sure talk funny. By the way, don't let two-year olds put an avocado in your computer. After a while, it smells bad. Real bad. And you can't sell the dang thing. I mean, even the Salvation Army will put that puppy on the curb with a "Free! Take Me!" sign in a hot minute.

You should keep reading this guide. If you read this much, you probably need the rest.

Next time we'll look at Chapter Two, Turning on Your Computer Without Electrocuting Yourself After Hooking Up The Boxes.

Jeff Adkins is a science teacher who isn't afraid to state his preferences in computing platforms. In his classroom he has everything from a Quadra 700 to a 500 MHz CD/R-CD/RW iMac, and they all work together nicely. He also writes Mac Lab Report for Low End Mac. and maintains a site for astronomy teachers at

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