Tuesday, 20 September 2005

Computer magic

One of my colleagues often says that beginning CS students seem to think that computers work by magic. They sit in lectures and watch an experienced magician recite incantations, then go to the lab and type those incantations in for themselves. Understanding the incantations seems a bit optional. After all, this is magic -- who knows what could happen to the person that stares into the heart of it.

So, it is with some alarm that I'm observing my own use of the machines. My laptop is currently going bonkers and periodically refuses to boot. My incantation for solving this problem is to
maniacally move the mouse during bootup. This might seem insane (and possibly is) but the hang-on-boot always happens when the message "Starting system message bus" appears and every time I've been moving the mouse in my paranoid way, the machine struggles a bit but finally manages to boot. When I forget the magical incantation I find myself looking round to see that I missed the error message and the laptop needs a hard reset. I can't decide whether these experiences consitute anything remotely falsifiable or not. Perhaps if I move the mouse without feeling paranoid I'd get a different result? What if someone else moved the mouse? Would they have the special spidey-powers to make it work? Who knows.

James points out that this particular incantation is due to a set of experiences that many people our age have suffered: using Windows 3.1. That damn thing really would just spuriously hang and moving the mouse at least gave you a clue as to when a reset was needed. The upshot is that a whole generation of us that wiggle the mouse whenever a web page takes a while to load.

Tempting, then, to base the course notes we're currently writing on a sub-natural understanding of how machines work. We could trade in our LaTeX times for something far more archaic and ask the Uni printers to use parchment for a change. Perhaps we could, at last, entice the Harry Potter generation to Uni and end the current down-turn in CS majors.