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Why You Should Know the Principles Behind Computers & Software

By Miroslav B. Bonchev
In the past, computer users were computer administrators, software engineers, or workers who used specific software in their work. Thus, they generally either knew the principles of how computers and software worked very well, or they didn’t need to know them at all as they were very limited in what they did and used a computer for. Consequently, they worked in a very specialized manner which left little room for abuse or error.

Today, however, things have changed. The small size of the hardware, its low price and high performance, and the internet has changed this and most users generally know very little about the computers and software which they use. This is at best inefficient and at worst dangerous. For example, I recently saw a program with a price tag of $11.95, which was designed to allow the user to set three properties of a selected file. While I was a little agitated at first, comparing this software to Act On File, I remembered a story from about two years ago. My friend, who was graduating with a First Class law degree from a very reputable institution, exhibited extraordinary amazement when in a conversation I talked about just one of the aforementioned three properties, how helpful it is, and how easy to use. Then he actually went on to propose the creation of a program which would set the flag we were discussing, which is used to hide a file from view. Another example: I can also think of plenty of people who always ask me "Do I click the left or the right button?"

In this article I will explain a few things about files. First, a file is simply a record, i.e. information written byte-by-byte in a sequence with a beginning and an end. Files are always subject of interpretation. For example, if an image is opened with Notepad it would be interpreted by Notepad as a text and would look like gibberish, conversely if a text file is opened (interpreted) as a bitmap (picture) then it would look like noise. Thus data is always subject of interpretation. Folders are special kinds of files in that they only contain information about other files; in fact they are a collection of shortcuts stuck in a file. Every file, being an object, has attributes (also called properties). For example, a file which contains only links to other files has an attribute "folder" since it is a folder, while a file which contains some other data for example a picture has no attribute "folder". Being a mere record with a beginning and an end, a file has a size, so the size of the file is another of its properties. File systems maintain additional information for each file, e.g. when the file was created, last modified or last accessed. The latter are not related to the information contained in the file, yet these are properties of the file. "Hidden" is property which most file systems attach to all files and folders which indicates whether the file should be always listed; thus a file or folder with "hidden" attribute is not displayed unless "show all files" is requested or the "Hidden" flag is cleared. Some file systems support native data compression, thus a file on such a file system has an attribute "compressed". A file which has the "compressed" property set is stored compressed on the disk but is decompressed on the fly when the user wants to work with it. Some file systems are able to store files encrypted but decrypt them on the fly when the user or software uses the file. Such file systems add an "encrypted" flag to the files and folders they have. Thus if a file system supports compression or encryption, one only needs to set or clear the "compressed" or "encrypted" attribute to make the files compressed, or encrypted, or decompressed, or decrypted.

Some modifiable file attributes can be controlled using the property dialog of the file (right mouse click on the file, and then choose the properties entry from the context menu which appears). The program mentioned at the beginning of the article is a partial substitution to the system property dialog, and is designed to adjust just three particular attributes. To help users work with generic file attributes, we created the Attributor module as part from the Act On File all-in-one software suite which allows them to easily view all generic attributes and adjust all modifiable ones including the file times of multiple files and folders with one single action. The Attributor module has two functionalities View Attributes and Set Attributes which respectively display and adjust the attributes of the selected files, folders and shortcuts and their targets.

I hope that this article has inspired the reader to learn more about their computer. Knowledge is power and convenience. For example, I own four personal computers and have no anti-virus, yet they all are absolutely clean of any viruses, trojans, or other malware. I have two Windows 7 computers, one Windows Vista and one Windows XP. I really hate to have a fast PC which is almost irresponsive because all that it is doing is constantly cleaning itself. My PCs are fast and clean. I NEVER use anything that "CLEANS" or "OPTIMIZES" the registry or Windows, or bring me "IMPROVED" or "LATEST" drivers, etc. Perhaps I should write other articles on these issues in the future.
Miroslav B. Bonchev
23-rd July 2012
London, England
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