Computation


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30/Mar/2014

Computation is a very human activity. It is typically about trying to represent the world with abstract concepts, values, often numbers, and then manipulate those concepts. This very powerful mental tool has been used through history, and more-or-less elaborate physical tools used to support it. In the early 21st century (21stC) computation tools have become so complex that many regard their functioning as 'magical'.

Origins

Originally humans did computation either purely on an unconscious basis, as a result of inherited or learned patterns of behaviour, or consciously, typically with considerable difficulty, using abstract concepts. Both of these were internal processes. Using convenient objects as tools to extend the computation capabilities of either the unconscious or conscious mind was a major advance. Adapting those tools, or constructing tools, 'from scratch', was a further advance.

Early Tools

Things like counting pebbles were used when methods like matching fingers with objects wasn't enough; a pile of pebbles, or twigs, might correspond to something like herd animals, or other valuables. The 'tally stick' and the 'counting board' were more constructed tools, themselves typically requiring tools to make or use. Early 'boards' were probably a cleared, reasonably flat, piece of ground.

Sophisticated Tools

Past a certain point significant training was combined with calculating tools, like the abacus. This allowed elaborate computation. More specialised tools, including things like "Napier's bones", or, later, the 'slide rule', moved some of the burden of calculation into the tool, at the cost of being more specialised.

Mechanical calculators allowed more-or-less sophisticated work, but were sufficiently complex that their operation could no longer be simply understood. The 'difference engine' was one of the most elaborate of these, and could do computation while unattended. However, the computations possible were still a fixed part of the tool.

Stored Programme Tools

A major advance was mechanical tools where the possible computation was not a fixed part of the tool. One of the earliest currently known of these was the 'Jacquard loom', and latter the general-purpose 'analytical engine', both of these using punched cards (paper tape was used elsewhere). Punched cards could hold both instructions describing the computation and data for the computation. More cards could be punched as the result of a computation, and these cards used in further computation. The loom produced cloth, and the analytical engine could draw or print on paper, or ring a bell.

Electronic computation tools, 'computers', enabled computation to be done using electrons, rather than mechanical parts. These removed the possibility of unaided human physical senses being able to understand the tool, particularly when the move was made from thermionic valves to solid-state semi-conductor parts, which could include many 'transistors'.

General Purpose Tools

The computation tools of the early 21stC are general purpose, and it is strongly desirable to use this capability to make them better fit their human users. This means that they must be capable of explaining to their users how they work, and how they might be used. Their users must be able to extend this explanation, both for personal and more general use.

Summary

Computation tools, computers, which cannot be understood without the use of tools, sometimes other computation tools, are a critical part of the early 21stC. The lack of understanding of these tools, and what they developed from, interferes with their effective use, and hence the ability to be a full and effective part of early 21stC society. This lack of understanding must be addressed, and one possible way of doing this is to arrange the computers so they can explain how they work.

References:

Calculation/Computation on Wikipedia
Tally Stick on Wikipedia
Counting Board on Wikipedia

Abacus on Wikipedia
Napier's Bones on Wikipedia
Slide Rule on Wikipedia

Mechanical Calculator on Wikipedia
Difference Engine on Wikipedia
Jacquard Loom on Wikipedia

Analytical Engine on Wikipedia
Punched Card on Wikipedia
Computer on Wikipedia

Transistor on Wikipedia

(c) ROMsys Ltd, March 2014, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes

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