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tooting my own horn // achivement - Lograh

Friday, 02.May.2008

16:58 - tooting my own horn // achivement

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Part of the difficulty in trying to understand new (to you) technology is in relating it to what you've known in the past. A good deal of people still call the monitor 'the computer' since they are familiar with television sets where the screen you look at was in the same box as the electrical components doing the work. A good deal of time during my job is spent trying to explain to a user what is going on, but in terms they can understand. This is one area where I think some of my fellow ITs fail miserably, unfortunately. Even more unfortunate, this is the area where the traditional stereotypical IT guy fails. Hence why all those jokes about IT folk who talk over the users and don't seem to care one bit that they are not being understood. I can see the humour in those jokes, but it still makes me cringe to know that there are enough IT peeps out there acting in this very manner to keep the stereotype alive.

I just hope my users don't feel that way about me. I'm always striving to find some way of describing tech in a non-tech manner. Something I can give to my users so they walk away feeling more confident with the tools and hopefully with a slightly better understanding of the system. I don't want them to treat computers with any sort of mystery, as though there is some black magic involved in the art of keeping the system running. And most importantly, I want them to understand the limits of the technology. A good chunk of the problems I have to deal with come about because someone didn't understand the very finite nature of the system and has overloaded it or mistreated it somehow, and now I get to clean up the mess.

I think I got through to someone today. Granted, he has never been a problem user. He has very well defined tasks he wants to use the system for and it is a good enough system to accomplish these tasks. He's not going to any web page he can find, downloading any shareware he can get his hands on (we have some users like that), so his system keeps running and I almost never hear from him. But today we were chatting while walking to investigate an issue he was having in a classroom, and I came upon the idea of relating a system's RAM and Hard Disk Drive as a scratch-pad and a bookshelf (he had asked, as an aside, what the RAM is in the system -- he had no clue). The HDD is the bookshelf, and the various programs you install are just really big books on the shelf. Hence when something/someone says you are running out of disk space it means you've put too many books on the shelf. Also, this is why having a program installed is not in itself a problem for a system. If you never run the program, it just sits on the bookshelf and collects dust. No problem.

The RAM would be like a scratch-pad. It's where the system keeps whatever numbers or images it is working on at the moment. Any calculations it is doing, they all take place on the scratch-pad. Obviously, the scratch-pad is a lot smaller than the bookshelf. Similarly, your hard disk can hold significantly more than your RAM. You can have lots of books on the shelf, but you can only have one or two down and open in front of you -- on your scratch-pad, if you will -- at a time. The more RAM you have, the larger your pad, the more you can do at once. If you try to do more than you have room for, the system will start to do what is called "paging". It will take a page from your pad, label it, put it somewhere on the bookshelf, and grab another blank page from somewhere else on the shelf. Then it keeps working on this new page. If it needs a result from the other page, it labels this page, puts it back on the shelf, and grabs the first one.

The analogy works pretty well, and he had one of those "I get it!" moments. His eyes lit up, and he was actually able to predict that this is probably why his computer was slowing down when he loaded up his large statistical datasets for analysis while trying to type up a document at the same time. Now, sure, there are some points where this model will break down, but for a basic understanding of what RAM is in the system, how it's different from an HDD, and why you might need more of one but not of the other, it seems to work well. And it certainly worked well enough for him to gain a little more understanding of the technology, and that just totally made my day. I may not have "Professor" in my title anywhere, but I still get to teach sometimes, and it is still just as rewarding when the "student" manages that last hurdle to comprehension.

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Date:18:37 03.May.2008 (UTC)
That's really awesome! Thank you for sharing. While I get the impress that I might have had a slightly (very slightly) better understanding of RAM than the guy you were talking to, it's still nice to hear it put in different terms.
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Date:18:51 03.May.2008 (UTC)
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