Explain computers to me like I'm five.
September 20, 2014 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Say someone is completely technologically inept; I mean, they can find their way around the Internet and Microsoft Office and the most very basic HTML but otherwise they are clueless. Say this person has a lot of free *ahem*unemployed*ahem* time on their hands and would like to brush up on their knowledge, and bring themselves up-to-date on the 21st century. What resources, ideally free, are out there for this?

I've just started messing around with Codeacademyand Khan Academy's computer science section but other sites, blogs, tools, forums or articles that cover general Things of Technological Nature would be much appreciated. Doesn't have to be programming - general stuff about how the computer works, how the Internet works, etc are all useful. Thanks!
posted by celtalitha to Technology (9 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I really like Joel Spolsky's computer-related articles / blog posts. They're extremely well written. They're mostly geared toward programmers, but they're interesting even if you're not a programmer. To get started, check out the "Top Ten" list toward the right side of Spolsky's home page.
posted by alex1965 at 5:39 PM on September 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I seem to recall TRON (the original) felt like a solid grounding in "So What Is A Computer Anyway" ...
posted by philip-random at 5:43 PM on September 20, 2014

Ah, here go: Well, you also have the lynda.com tutorials that start from the beginning such as, Computer Literacy for Mac and Windows. I just checked Coursera and some of the other free university MOOCs but nothing for a beginning level. Quite frankly, it is a weak point of the MOOC-verse.

Once the basics are grounded then I suggest learning how to research skills being developed. Fortunately for you, Google has an excellent video series on how to become a serious power searcher here. I have students take that course as soon as possible in their university career, in addition, to an information studies course.

Good luck. If you need more specific material, memail me.
posted by jadepearl at 6:26 PM on September 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I like David Malan's computer science lectures - look for the OpenCourseWare links on that page for audio and video recordings, notes, and other course materials available online without registering. I started by downloading the MP3s from Computer Science E-1 (Understanding Computers and the Internet) and listening to them while walking on the treadmill.
posted by hsieu at 6:28 PM on September 20, 2014

In addition to your playing around with Codeacademy/Khan Academy, can I recommend Learn Python the Hard Way? The style is a little off-putting, I think because it is supposed to be accessible to ESL speakers and also the author is very particular. But if you work through it not only will you know Python, which is arguably a more "typical" language than Javascript, you'll also have a lot of the skills you need to teach yourself any other language. Appendix A will also teach you command line basics, which is essential for programming and just generally fun and empowering.

In the Beginning Was The Command Line is a longish essay by Neal Stephenson. It's somewhat dated but still interesting and relevant, and the parts describing Unix aren't dated at all. (It could be fun to see the connections between what Stephenson writes and what you learn.)

Gödel, Escher, Bach is a huge but very approachable tome. It covers a wide range of ideas from a very idiosyncratic perspective, but the core of it is an explanation of Gödel's incompleteness theorem, a mathematical result from the early 20th century that basically says you can't prove every mathematical truth, and if you could you would end up "proving" some things that contradict each other.

The reason I recommend it is that a lot of the book is a very good introduction to theoretical computer science: not how specific computer systems work but how any computer you could possibly build using any materials would have to work. It's not a dry book at all, the whole thing is full of jokes and every chapter starts with a "dialogue" where various talking animals act out the mind-blowing concepts you're about to read about. It's meant to be read through, by ordinary people, not studied like a textbook for people in the field. (I would recommend skimming parts you think are boring or overly clever, and also about 2/3 of the way through he finally explains the theorem, and if you get bored after that just quit.)
posted by vogon_poet at 7:13 PM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The best way to learn computers is to pick some challenging-but-doable computer-related project that you really want to accomplish -- and then teach yourself everything you need to know in order to accomplish it. For example, I wanted to do some analysis of a large dataset. I started doing it in Excel, but Excel turned out to be inefficient and ill-suited to the task. So, I taught myself R instead, and R turned out to be much, much better than Excel (at least for my purposes). Is there some problem in your life that can be solved with computer technology?

In general, I think I would find it hard to motivate myself to learn a new field, unless I had some specific goal in mind. But if you can do it, more power to you.
posted by alex1965 at 8:26 PM on September 20, 2014

What are your goals? Do you want to become a savvy "power user"? Build basic websites? Build "real" software / apps / web apps? Write scripts to customize and automate your computing? Better understand the technology you use? Understand the fundamentals of computer science? Are there any specific technologies that are interesting to you?
posted by domnit at 8:27 PM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I would like to be a better user, as well as potentially be able to build a website/troubleshoot minor issues that I currently always have to ask a friend about. I'd like to have a general idea what people (like my programmer boyfriend) are talking about when they bring up computer-chat. Right now my goals are pretty generic, since I'm essentially starting from zero.

Thank you for all the suggestions so far, they seem to be pretty much along the lines of what I'm looking for - feel free to add any others!
posted by celtalitha at 10:07 AM on September 21, 2014

For troubleshoot problems, it is probably worth picking up a Dummies or similar book for whatever software you are using. At some point you'll be able to Google specific problems, but a book will get you up to speed faster, and will teach you the language to ask better questions.

If you are interested in creating stuff:

Rudimentary HTML is a good step for building websites, since static web pages don't require very fancy HTML. CSS is the language that gives websites their visual styling - fonts, colors, layouts, even some animations. CSS basics are pretty simple and straightforward, but advanced designs can be very complex. There is much online literature on CSS techniques, but again, a book would be a good starting point. With just HTML and CSS, you can make your own theme on sites like Tumblr and Wordpress.

If you want to go deeper and learn about programming, I recommend Eloquent JavaScript, a free online book with a paper version in the works. It gives a pretty good introduction to programming and computers in general, and teaches a modern, widely used language. (JavaScript is used to make websites interactive.)

alex1965 is absolutely right that a project will motivate you, will guide your learning, and will teach you much more effectively than just reading.
posted by domnit at 12:51 AM on September 22, 2014

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