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FREE online courses on the Basics of a Computer - BASICS OF A COMPUTER




Computers are very much in the news nowadays. Be it in science fiction, or sensationally written news scoops or serious technical or managerial articles or seminars. Computers always seem to find a mention. However, the impression conveyed about them and their capabilities vary in each.


As a result of this hype, people have formed many and varied impressions about computers. Some feel that the computer poses as an all -powerful being, out to malevolently dominate and subjugate the human race. For some others, it is a friendly childlike robot, magical in its powers but subordinate like a pet dog. At times, it is thought of as an unfeeling contraption, or even as a mind-reading super being. Some see it as an aid, some as a partially useful tool, still others as a job grabber. A few actually feel it is too technical and sophisticated a machine to be put to any useful work at all!


To the modern-day executive, not really groomed for the use of computers, all this is somewhat confusing. He can see computers everywhere. At the sales counter of a large shop he finds the attendant confidently typing away at one and using something printed out by the computer as a bill. Returning home, he sees the electricity and phone bills waiting for him, printed on paper with perforations on both sides in the peculiar fashion now familiar to him as that of a computer. The morning papers are full of talk on super-computers or the Government's plan to computerize something or the other. Trying to get away from it all and reserving his ticket to Timbuktu, he is again confronted with a computer terminal in the booking office. The executive feels somewhat lost, curious and apprehensive. Sooner or later, he will have to decide whether he too needs to use a computer. His organization may be on the way to acquiring personal computers (commonly called PCs), or a minicomputer. He feels the need to know more about them.


Computers are known to be a tool for more effective management of resources, for their computing powers. What exactly are they capable of? What are the pitfalls of using them? What are they most suited for? And most important, how does someone not familiar with them go about evaluating them and using them effectively? How well does he need to know the internal structure of the computer People talk of bits and bytes and zeros and ones and chips and what not-how much has to be essentially learnt before touching a computer?


"A day in the life of …."


Let us take a day in an office and pick up a few functions, examining each one with respect to the way it is performed and see how a computer, if at all, can handle it.


The sales manager has instructed her assistant to compile a list of all salespersons whose shortfall from their individual target is more than 20 per cent. The list is required state-wise, today.


The assistant first locates all the relevant data, i.e. the state wise list of salespersons, their targets and achievements. He then calculates the percentage shortfall for the salespersons and marks out those with shortfall greater than 20 per cent. These are typed out separately to be given to the sales manager. If the manager remembers now that the had also wanted the list to salespersons who had exceeded the target by more than 20 per cent, the assistant will have to go over the entire list again and extract them.


The materials manager has to place orders for all materials whose stock has fallen below the predefined re-order level. For this, he has to draw up a list of all items where stock is less than the re-order level. He then has to check for each the vendor on whom the order has to be placed, and the price and the order quantity. The purchase orders can then be prepared.


The production manager has to plan the layout for cutting the sheet metal for the casing of the product they make. Her objective is to minimize the 'scrap', i.e. the odd leftover sheet metal pieces which can not be used. She may, if the problem is easy, sit down with a paper and pencil and arrive at it by trial and error, or she may use some algorithm of operations research for it.


The typist is typing out a long report. Inadvertently, a paragraph of the manuscript gets left out. A section of the report now has to be typed again.


In all these cases, a computer could be used to reduce the tedium of the work, speed it up, and even so, be more reliable in its output.


Taking the first case, what is assistant sales manager doing? He has, to begin with a set of data - the details of the salespersons, their targets and their achievements. To this he applies the procedure outlined below.


  1. Examine each salesperson's record.
  2. If achieved sales are less than target set, calculate

Short = (target-achieved)/target)* 100

  1. If shortfall is greater than 20 per cent, mark out that salesperson for getting typed later
  2. Keep doing steps 2 and 3 till salespersons are covered.
  3. Get the list typed for the sales manager.


If the salespersons' records are not arranged in state-wise order, an additional step of arranging the details in state-wise order will need to be undertaken before the typing step.


Any device capable of processing data in accordance to a laid out procedure can handle this work just as well, as long as the procedure is laid out clearly, exhaustively and unambiguously. This is precisely what a computer can do.


The magic box….


A computer is a device capable of receiving both data and instructions, executing the instructions on the data and giving the output accordingly. In the above case, given the steps for selection, and the relevant salespersons' details, the computer will give the list the sales manager requires.


Computers vary in their ability to cope with data and instructions, the volume of data they can process, the type of instructions they can execute efficiently, their speed and so on. They vary in their architecture (how they are made), their size and complexity-they could have just a single terminal such as a small office PC or a large number of terminals such as a railway booking office.


What do computers have? Computers have physical components and circuitry-called hardware which are capable of executing a set of instructions written in a particular format called programs which operate on data  which the computer can accept. A set of programs capable of solving a problem is called software.


Let us now see what are the advantages and disadvantages of a computer. We start with the disadvantages.


A Computer can do only what it is told to do: As we saw, there in noting really magical inside the computer. A computer is a device that does what it is instructed to do. If some instructions are missing, they cannot be followed. If they are wrong, the work done will be wrong. If the instructions are ambiguous then the working may seem erratic or inconsistent. The computer cannot use common sense-it has none? Some things may seem so obvious to the person instructing the computer that no instructions need be given for it-but nothing is obvious to the computer.


The computer cannot judge the veracity of the data : Again, the computer is a machine : It accept and process whatever data is given to it. If the program to process the data does not verify the correctness of the data, wrong data will remain undetected. And if the data is wrong, the results will be wrong, at times even absurd. Abnormally  high electricity and phone bills can be produced if the meter reading decimal point is omitted, and there is no check to highlight abnormally high readings. An acronym used to express this is GIGO-Garbage In, Garbage Out. If the data and/or the instructions are wrong, the output will also be wrong.


It is fairly obvious then that using computers is not an offhand exercise. It needs care and caution, the user needs to be systematic and properly. What, then, are the advantages of computers that make it worth the while?


Computer handles large chunks of data with ease: Being a machine has its advantages. The computer does not tire handling large chunks of data. It does not show signs of fatigue which a human being would if confronted with endless pages of computations to be performed. The computer is able to handle big amounts of data without tiring. Reliability of processing is constant. So, if your software-that is, your set of instructions to the computer-is foolproof and the data correct, your results will be correct regardless of the volume of data.


The computer is much, much faster than the human being: The computer is based on electronic components and the speed of the computer-that is, how fast it can compute-is measured in microseconds and nanoseconds - one millionth of a second. Compare it with a human being who would normally operate in minutes, and at best in seconds. Obviously then, the difference is very palpable. The increased speed means that work gets done much faster and things which seemed impossible manually can get done - calculating the payroll of thousands of employees in a day or so.


The range of activities a computer can handle is very high: Unlike the human being who can specialize at best in one or two activities, properly instructed computers can handle a much larger canvas. Of course, there is some degree of specialization even in computers and what they are best at handling, but for normal commercial applications, the range is more than sufficient.


It can function without human intervention : When the work to be done is voluminous, to be able to sell someone to do it and wald away for a relaxed weekend is a dream likely to remain unfulfilled if the work is being done by human beings. But a properly instructed computer can function continuously without human intervention for hours and even days.



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