Why Streaming Video Makes You Wait

January 28, 2016

Have you ever wondered why this spinning icon Throbber shows up whenever you try to play an online video or skip forward in it? This video explains what’s happening and why:


Heartbleed explained with metaphors

April 13, 2014

Heartbleed. To most of us, it’s that mysterious annoyance that has caused us to change passwords for many of our on-line accounts. But can Heartbleed be explained in a way it’s not seen as a fatal hole in the “magic” of the Internet?

While many sites have explained Heartbleed’s literal failures through code and even comic, I felt an explanation with some everyday analogies and metaphors was still lacking…. until I stumbled across Eric Limer’s article on Heartbleed over at Gizmodo. Not only has Eric saved me the time of crafting an explanation, he’s done an admirable job of making the magic of computer code and internet communication simple through his real-world examples.

First, Eric explains how Heartbleed derives it’s name — from “heartbeat,” a standard operation that two computers must use to make sure they’re talking to each other in sync. Since a personal computer and an Web server are disconnected until they have a reason to talk to each other (over the Internet), they must have some way to check to make sure they both stay connected to each other during their conversation. Like calling your bank via telephone, you don’t want to have your phone call disconnected until your business transaction is finished. This “heartbeat” operation is a way to ensure nothing has gone wrong at either end during the computers’ conversation. Eric uses a clever reference to old audio cassette tapes to illustrate this:

It’s like making sure that both spindles in a cassette tape are moving when you’re playing it. If one spindle stops and the other keeps going, something will break.

Heartbleed was named as such because the recently uncovered flaw is in this “heartbeat” operation, or more specifically, the coded instructions for the “heartbeat” procedure that the Web server follows. As I’ve explained in my book, computers don’t have common sense. They follow only the instructions provided (in the form of code), literally. Like a robot/zombie chef, they follow the recipe exactly as written. So the problem of Heartbleed is actually one of an oversight in the written recipe for the “heartbeat” function. And while a human might be able to recognize this type of sloppy instruction in a recipe and compensate, computers cannot.

So what’s the problem? Read the rest of this entry »

How the Internet Works (video)

June 11, 2012

I stumbled across this short and cleverly done video about how a Web page is transferred across the Internet. I applaud the use of the tourist analogy to explain how packets make their way from source to destination.

Explaining Bandwidth and File Size

January 24, 2012

What is bandwidth? Why does everything seem to slow down when viewing a large photograph or YouTube video on a PC?

Faced with explaining (to a non-technical audience) how internet connection speed and file size impact the user’s experience, I came up with a simple explanation using props: balloons. Here’s the 90-second version that should be adequate for most “normal users.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Explaining the Internet to newcomers

October 3, 2011

Bus with web address in the destination marque

“Explain the Internet” is not a simple question for the technology explainer to answer, but it’s a common query here at Explain Technology. The Internet has become a crucial element of everyday life, so I’m never surprised when newcomers seek an understanding of it. In fact, the lengthiest chapter in The Ultimate PC Primer is dedicated to providing a clear foundational explanation of the Internet and the most common benefits it can provide. (And I openly admit that single lesson is only an introduction.)  But in case you don’t have a copy of the book handy, here are some basics on how to explain the Internet.

First, let’s remember a question like “how does the Internet work” could be intended and interpreted different ways. Does the questioner want a description of the technology from an infrastructure perspective or help with the process for how to use it? In most cases, I find it’s a combination of both. Curious individuals want the infrastructure details abstracted away to easily-understood (and less technical) elements so that the application and process of using the Internet makes more natural sense. In short, people don’t care about the circuits and wires but also want a firm enough grasp to know it’s not magic. So here’s how I addressed both in The Ultimate PC Primer

I deal with the infrastructure portion first by explaining the following through analogies:

  1. How do computers connect to each other?
  2. How does my computer get in the mix?

The Internet is a group of interconnected computers, so how do they stay connected? Answer: they’re like teenage girls on limitless caffeine — they’re constantly on the phone gabbing with each other. In fact, they never hang up and they never sleep. How does your computer get in the mix? Answer: it needs to get on the party line, too (though it, and you, is allowed to sleep.)

Since the Internet has been often called the “information superhighway,” I willingly leverage the “highway” analogy to explain that every highway has an on-ramp. That’s where you can use your car to connect to the pavement that will take you where you want to go. The on-ramp for a personal computer is the connection point provided by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). (In the book, I also briefly explain different physical components involved with dial-up, DSL, Cable, and wireless.)

After getting “on the Internet,” the rest is largely about the process of navigation. The most crucial element of the Internet continues to be the World Wide Web, so much of the lesson in my book deals with explaining the principle of web pages/sites/services. I cover browser basics (common to all Web browsers) and again employ a real-world analogy — I compare the Web Browser to a bus, since a bus displays it’s destination on the marquee at the top of the vehicle just as the location always appears at the top of a browser.

I also cover e-mail basics the same way, explaining the concept through a real-world postal service scenario and continuing to generic e-mail software basics with corresponding illustrations.

If you’re interested in learning more, grab a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer: 15 Simple Lessons for Understanding Personal Computers (available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, from the publisher, or through many other booksellers) and check out Lesson 14.

How will you be served? A map of modern computing devices

August 17, 2011

My friend who got me into computing made a prediction almost 20 years ago. He was holding a calculator in his hand and said something to the effect of, “Our kids will walk around with something smaller than this that will be far more powerful than what’s on our desks today.” Now back then, powerful was a 486 or early Pentium class machine. But it wasn’t until the advent of the smartphone with the cell data network did his prediction come true. Smartphones are more computer than phone.

And yet, we still have desktop PCs. They’re tremendously more powerful and capable than smartphones (for now) — perhaps even more powerful than we should have imagined 20 years ago. So we find ourselves in a world with a variety of computing devices where no one “uber computing device” rules. I thought I’d perform a somewhat academic exercise and map these devices on a type of “infographic,” to help pinpoint where the gaps are as well as where each type of device excels. It’s a first draft, so feel free to comment. (Click below to get the full size version.)

A Comparison Map/Infographic of Modern Personal Computing Devices

A Comparison Map/Infographic of Modern Personal Computing Devices (Click to view full size image.)

(Note: I realize there certainly could be more spectra added to the map. For instance, I didn’t attempt to include Cost (both purchase price and on-going maintenance costs), User Skill Required for operation, options for Peripherals, etc. It’s not intended to be exhaustive.)

After completing the map, one thing stands out: there is no perfect device yet — no one personal computer option that is at the “best end” of all spectra nor one which falls solidly in the middle of all of them as a perfect balance. What do you think will fill the gap? How will you be served in the future?

Technology Mindedness Test

March 18, 2010

Immersed in technology consulting over the last year, I have encountered a number of situations in which my clients have demonstrated an awareness that increased technology knowledge (on their part) might be beneficial. In short, they realize they don’t think like “technology-minded people,” and they want to know how. While their intentions are good, their questions are misguided. Questions like, “What should I read,” “what should I study…” and even “who should I hire?”

These questions reveal a deeper issue: someone not technology-minded often won’t know what technology mindedness looks like. “Technology acuity” is perceived as something that can be acquired through “old school” means if one simply had a list of the “correct” means. While I certainly don’t discount the value of multiple methods of learning, trying to “learn technology” like a historical subject — without understanding the nature of technology itself — is folly. “Technology” is  (sorry to use a negative concept) like the cold virus. There isn’t just one. It can’t be memorized. The best in the field seek not to carve its traits in stone, but to understand its nature. The world we live in expects technology-knowledge to be increasing every day, so trying to “fake it” is self-defeating in the long-run. There’s a disparity in the two models of learning and understanding that can’t be reconciled.

I tried to think of a way to illustrate this for my clients, and I came up with a simple comparison test: two questions, asked of a set of technology-savvy individuals I know and then asked also of my clients. When compared, the differences in answers should stand out. Here’s the test: Read the rest of this entry »

Is our technology stable enough to use?

December 4, 2008

Oh, how many times I’ve asked myself that question while sitting in front of a crashed computer! PCs are known for their bugs, freezes, crashes, and “Blue Screens of Death.” I was chatting with a friend over lunch and learned that his digital camera had crashed with the BSOD! Personally, my cell phone has frozen, requiring me to remove the battery to “unfreeze” it.

Ah, yes…Technology! It is laden with errors and almost infamous these days for unreliability and frustration. Yet, we grow increasingly dependent, if not addicted, to it. It begs the question: is this stuff really stable enough for our world to depend on? Think about all the technology items we consume for the following: Read the rest of this entry »