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Gallery Connection April ’09 – Geoffrey Chaucer Explains The Computer

As I begin to write this April Gallery Connection Article, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales come to my mind. It is pure wordplay, not at all informative, but fun nonetheless: The producers of the e-news have tasked me with providing some useful computer knowledge to you. I couldn’t resist inserting something beautiful into an article that will surely test the limits of your endurance for things technical. Continue to bear with me please, as this computer info is part one of two; the second will bring the embroidery software lingua franca under scrutiny, and this monograph will prepare you for that undertaking.

When that April with his showers fragrant

The dryness of March has pierced to the root,

And bathed every vein in such liquid

By which power engendered is the flower,

When Zephyrus also with his sweet breath

Inspired has in every woodland and heath

The tender crops, and the young sun

Hath in the Ram has his half course run

That’s a brilliant description of spring, and it has withstood the test of time. And he works in April and RAM: Like I said pure wordplay. This work was originally written in Middle English, which requires translation for modern readers. That is our task today, our subject of computer terms and knowledge is wanting for interpretation. So let me get started.

The Heart is the Brain

A computer’s brain, called the ‘processor’ is like a heavily-stippled quilt, where a basic jigsaw pattern is simply repeated over and over and over. In the case of a computer processor, the engineers began with essentially a light switch; it has two ‘states’ those being on and off. If we say that if any particular switch is on or off, we have a ‘bit’ of information. Now if we take that little ‘bit’ and stipple a whole quilt with bits, then we’ve made something complex out of what is essentially a simple thing. Today we even have computers that can affordably be purchased with two or more processor ‘cores’. So that’s two or more brains. This is nice to have because when one software program (your quilting pattern that guides you) ties up one entire brain, you still have another brain to call on for help or do something else. It’s as if your computer has an assistant.

The processors in your computer do not think; They only follow instructions. And they are very literal at that. This is what computer programs are; just a simple set of instructions, like when you tell your spouse, “On your way home, pick up some milk and the dry cleaning.” Now why is that so complicated? Well it turns out that (he) gets the wrong milk and doesn’t know which dry cleaner you are using these days. He’s confused and you’re mad because it’s so simple. But you weren’t specific enough. That’s what happens to your computer. It was told something, maybe right or wrong, but it can’t interpret the request in an attempt to get you what you really want.

If you buy a computer today, just make sure you get one with more than one ‘core’.

Now, what was the next thing I wanted to write about? Oh, yes. Memory. Memory comes in two forms; short-term memory, like what am I writing about, and long-term memory such as what did I write about last month. And just like a person’s brain, they are stored (If we’re lucky) in different areas.

RAM may call to mind an astrological sign, but it is an acronym for Random Access Memory. This is your short-term memory. It works while the computer is on, or even sleeping (we’ll talk about that later), but if you turn it off, the RAM doesn’t have anything in it. So RAM dictates how much information your processor can hold at any one time. If you have to do the laundry, take out the trash, make a phone call, answer a question and plan dinner all at the same time, you better have a good short-term memory, right. That’s why you want a lot of RAM. It is also the thing today that makes your computer appear to run faster. RAM today is cheap, so get as much of it as you can. Windows XP and Vista max out 3 Gigabytes. Vista 64 will take 4 or more. Now what’s a gigabyte, and why do we always use 32 and 64?

Somewhere in the world the Metric Police came along and started changing our language. (Without my permission, I might add.) So a prefix to words describing things in thousands is ‘kilo-‘. A ‘kb’ is a kilobyte. A thousand kilo-s is a ‘mega’. A thousand megas is a ‘giga-’. In terms of the national debt, a ‘kilo’ is a thousand dollars, and ‘mega’ is a million, and a ‘giga’ is a billion. Yes there is also a ‘terra‘ which is a trillion. It keeps going on from there, but let’s not talk about that.

These days there is no minimum amount of RAM that is required for your embroidery programs. Honestly. Don’t worry about it. More is better. But there is no bottom number. Why? Ask Mr. Gates and company. The program that makes the computer run is waaayyy more complex than the little programs we write for embroidery, so if it can turn on and run at all, it’s got enough for us.

On to long-term memory: For you S.A.D.D. members (Seriously Addicted to Downloading Designs) this is where you put all of those. We computer people call this a ‘Hard Drive’, which is a term that really evolved from ‘Fixed Disk’, which really just was a differentiation from ‘Removable Disk’, and a disk was like a record. Huh? Well, you see somebody thought the record player was a cool invention. So they made a record player (really, picture it in your mind) with a stylus and everything, except that the thing could record as well as play and it uses an electromagnet. Inside your hard drive, there is still to this day a spinning disk. Now it stands to reason that if you make the grooves in the record a little closer together, why then you could get more information on the record, right? And that’s exactly what scientists and engineers have been doing for decades: Giving you hard drives with more and more ‘capacity’. Now the drive that holds the most is usually in a box inside your computer. You normally don’t take it in and out. That’s a ‘fixed disk’ or ‘hard drive’. They hold a lot of stuff these days, and it really is like RAM; You always want more, but there isn’t anything made today that is too small. Except for you long-term S.A.F.E. people. (Seriously Addicted to Free Embroidery) You may have need for something larger, but then you already know who you are.

Ok, so there’s a disk permanently in my computer. But there are also disks that go in and out of the computer. What are those? We’ll take a tour in a moment, but let’s first address something. The ‘drives’ that hold the disks have names. The shorthand for those names is just a letter and a colon, for example “C:” Over the years some common names came into being: “A:” is your floppy disk, and “C:” is your hard drive. I could tell you what happened to “B:” but do you really want to know?

Now let’s get some size information. A typical PES embroidery design, which is a set of instructions for a Babylock embroidery machine, is around 100kb. From our discussion earlier that is 100 thousand bytes. A Megabyte is a 1000kb. So that’s ten designs per megabyte. And a gigabyte is a thousand times that, so 10 thousand designs per gigabyte. Now it is hard to buy a drive smaller than, say, 60 gigabytes these days. In fact I see Terrabyte drives all around. That’s 1000 gigs, which is equal to 10 million designs. (Quit drooling S.A.F.E. and S.A.D.D. I don’t think there ARE that many designs in the world!)

Now I mentioned other disks. Let’s see. CD. Stands for ‘Compact Disc’. You know, engineers really are bad spellers. It was a great invention because they use little dots in the metal in the disc to indicate a ‘on’ or ‘off’ and read them with a laser. The dots are hard to make so if you want to write information to a CD you use a special drive and software to ‘burn’ the disc. A DVD is just more of the same. (Well, that is really being rude to the engineers, but you get the idea.) It’s like comparing a wall hanging to a King Quilt.

And then somebody made USB. Actually a lot of some-bodies did it. They made a standard interface for things that need to talk to each other at high speed. That’s all USB is: Children playing Telephone with cups and string. But it’s really GOOD string which means the connection is clear and fast.

And that enabled communication with a new kind of memory, Flash. Honestly, that’s its name. I think the Acronym Police were asleep on that one. Flash memory stores long-term information like a disk but has no moving parts. And it fits in that little stick which can go on your keychain. The end of that USB stick goes into the USB port of your computer or your embroidery machine. And that’s the easy way to transfer an embroidery design from the computer to the machine.

So what do you need/want today? Here’s a suggestion for a typical sewing room. No mean emails from gamer nerds in their parents’ basements, please: This just covers the basics of email, web surfing and embroidery, ok?

Get a computer with 2 or more ‘cores’, 2 or more Gigabytes of RAM, 80 or more Gigabytes of hard disk. Don’t worry about speed. Make sure the display is as clear as it can be, with and without your reading glasses. Now, I use Windows XP Professional, which Microsoft claims is ‘so yesterday’. They want you to love Vista, and there are many reasons you could. I’m not going to steer you away from it. The current Designer’s Gallery programs are now all compatible with Vista 32 and 64, so we’re not a problem. But you might have to go down the list of all your programs just to make sure.

What’s the difference between 32 and 64? While there are no short explanations for this, a limitation in your computer exists; how much RAM you can have. A 32-bit operating system can only address 3 Gigabytes of RAM. Now computer makers have the RAM so cheap that they want to sell you more of it. And if you want a computer with 4 ‘Gigs’ of RAM, you’re going to get sold a 64 bit system. The problem with 64 bits is that some programs (and especially some hardware such as printers etc.) are not compatible. This is a real caveat emptor situation. Do you need it? No, probably not. Will the World eventually go that way? Yes.

If you’ve made it this far, you are a real trooper.

Thanks and Happy Stitching!


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Posted in Brian's Articles and News 8 years, 7 months ago at 7:05 pm.

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