Before venturing off on some quest, most people find it handy to know what they are looking for. Imagine King Arthur's knights off looking for the Holy Grail and returning with an old fishing net, a lipstick-stained Starbucks cup, an empty wine bottle, and so on—with each knight claiming he had found the one true holy relic from the Last Supper. Without guidance as to what a "grail" really is, each could easily justify his find and claim success in his quest. Certainly such a free-form search would have changed the face of literature, but anyone depending on the magical powers of the Grail would likely be disappointed.
Although you're more likely to succeed in a quest to learn about computers than Arthur's knights were in finding the Grail, knowing what you're after will truly help you know when you've got it.
The title of this book, taken in its most general sense, might imply that it's all about nuts and bolts, but we're going to deal with a more specific kind of hardware—the type that goes into computer systems and the devices that computer systems go into. Of course, we will talk about real nuts and bolts—both the ones you use to put computers together and the figurative kind. However, our aim here is understanding the digital hardware that defines our lives and the age in which we live.
The first step on our quest will be defining what a computer really is, what it does, and how it relates to us. Imagine King Arthur holding up a placard and pointing to it saying, "This is what the Grail you seek looks like." According to legend, he actually had it easier—the Grail appeared to all the knights of the Round Table in a vision, so they all got a peek at the real thing before they donned their armor. Odds are you own or have access to a computer already, so you're ahead of the knights. Not only have you already seen one, you've also likely touched one.
If you have a computer handy, try it. Touch your computer. Get a tingly feeling? If you did, there's probably something wrong with the grounding of your electrical supply. Otherwise, you probably feel like you've followed someone's guidance and have done something that, after thinking about it, is pretty stupid. You probably don't feel you know anything more about computers than you did before you made this touch. That's because, unlike the Grail, the humble computer isn't going to fill you with mystical knowledge. Therefore, you know right away that the computer is nothing mystical, nothing you have to hold in awe. More than that, you need never touch a computer and feel stupid again. You've already done that.
Let's begin our quest and peer inside to see what a computer really is…intelligently.