Once upon a time, someone posted to alt.folklore.computers lists of reasons why computers might be considered to be male or female. Someone else claimed that the behavior of computers is cat-like. But one cannot expect to understand their behavior without a grasp of the underlying mechanisms, as explained by Bruce Linley:

How Computers Really Work

A Treatise on Science and Magic by Bruce Linley

No. No. You're missing the fundamental reasons for why devices operate the way they do.

You see, contrary to the various GUTs proposed by physicists, there are only two forces in nature. These are Science and Magic. As an example, look into your kitchen and compare the oven and the microwave. The oven works on Science. The pilot light starts a burner that produces regular, steady, uniform heat until the bi-metallic thermostat strip bends enough to trip the gas flow to the burner and shut it off. As the temperature now drops, the strip bends the other way until it opens the valve and starts the burner again. Thus a controlled narrow temperature range is maintained. Good solid Science.

A microwave oven, on the other hand, works on Magic. When you press the start button, a horde of miniature invisible demons are released into the microwave chamber. The demons cast spells and use their various enchanted tridents and other implements to cause your food to heat up. it is because there are conscious minds at work here that your food gets heated but not the bowl, the glass tray, nor the walls of the microwave oven. The demons know what they're supposed to do, and usually only focus on that task. However, as Spock once said, "No one can predict the actions of another." And this certainly applies to the demons as well. The demons are subject to moods and emotions every now and then. They may get angry or playful. They may deliberately leave a portion of your food totally uncooked as a practical joke. They laugh as you bite into that big chunk of ice in your otherwise scalding lasagne. If the demons get too excited, they may, on occasion, actually explode. This explains why you will occasionally discover splatters and stains on the microwave oven's walls and door even when you remember always having microwaved your food inside a container or vessel of some kind. An exploded demon can no longer maintain its invisibility and so shows up as a visible residue. As a result of all this, microwave ovens are not completely reliable and should only be used to supplement other cooking devices in your kitchen.

Now let's get back to the original question regarding the behavior of computers. It should be quite apparent by now if you've read this far, that computers operate on Magic and not Science. In a system composed of hundreds or thousands of little demons created by sorcerers (programmers) whose spells (programs) bring the demons into being, any sort of prediction as to the overall behavior of the system becomes as impossible as predicting the weather or predicting the headlines in the October 18, 2002 newspaper or predicting with absolute certainty all of the people who will visit your local mall next week. Once we accept the reality of demons and of the force of Magic, we can still use it to make reasonably reliable computers. Distributed computing clusters take advantage of the fact that most demons will do what they were created to do, so that a few errant demons do not interfere with the operation of the system as a whole. Very large numbers of relatively weak demons are more reliable than small numbers of very powerful demons. Interaction between the demons should also be strictly controlled and regulated with demons operating in relative isolation most of the time. An errant or exploding demon in rigid confinement causes less damage than one blows up as it travels freely through the system. This is the difference between Linux and Windows and is the reason why Linux is so much more stable. Of course, this philosophy can only give us computers that are highly reliable, but still not infallable. Nothing is perfect. It is possible that demons can simultaneously revolt in massive numbers and cause world chaos [1], just as quantum theory says that it is possible for all of the particles that make up Cindy Crawford's swimsuit to simultaneously jump three meters to the left. Highly unlikely, but not absolutely impossible nor prohibited by quantum mechanics [2], really! Ask your physics professor.

A question that arises then is, "If Magic is so inherently unreliable, then why use it to build computers (and microwave ovens, etc.) at all?" The reason is very simple. Magic wields much more power per unit of force than does Science. As an example, no oven can heat your food in 30 seconds without scortching it. Also, early computing devices that worked wholly on Science such as adding machines and vacuum tube computers consumed enormous amounts of power and physical space and were slow in speed and had to be virtually rewired for each specific task. The use of Magic enables much more powerful machines to be built that consume far less power and space and operate orders of magnitude faster than their Science based counterparts. However, the use of Magic introduces an element of chaos into the system which must be properly dealt with if reliability is to be maintained.

What is also interesting is that while all computer software operates on Magic, the underlying hardware operates on Science. This makes the programmable computer one of the first mixed force devices built. Notice that virtually all instances of computers crashing or locking up is a result of software failing than of hardware. This is not to say that hardware cannot fail, but hardware's failures can be predicted by Science. Static burns out microscpoic components, spindles wear out on hard drives, connector pins rust, oxides build up on drive/tape heads, Inadequate heat dissipation or voltage surges melts vital components. With good design, proper maintenance and care, hardware crashes can be avoided. On the other hand, there's nothing you can do to Windows to make it more reliable except to restart/reinstall it often to return all the straying, randomly interacting demons to a known state.


[1] What is referred to as the year 2000 bug, may be a sign of such a mass revolt by the demon world.

[2] The uncertainty principle may be a clue that what we call Science is actually nothing more than a different manifestation of the force of Magic. Science as a separate force may not exist at all. The particles and charges and magnetic and electric properties that make up the basis of what we call Science might actually be composed of tight little balls of large numbers of demons all rolled up together to perform a specific task. This particle as a whole, due to the large number of demons which compose the particle or force, appears to behave in a predictable way. As physicists endlessly dissect particles and forces in search of a single particle from which all others derive, they run into a problem Heisenberg called the uncertainty principle. It basically says the act of observing something affects its state such that it changes what you're trying to observe. More specificaly, the harder you try to identify a particle's position, the less you know about its direction and velocity and vice-versa. Obviously, smaller particles are composed of fewer demons which allows for increasing chaotic behavior. This leads to the conclusion that everything is chaotic at the lowest levels, thus magic may be the One True Force that makes up the Universe.

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Last updated December 28, 1998

Treatise copyright 1998 Bruce Linley
Web page copyright 1998 Eric Smith

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