At the centre of the computer is the 8086 chip; this is very strong magic indeed. Silicon is very old, as it is the stuff that the earth itself is made of, and Intel use a very powerful spell to put a being into the silicon. Careful examination reveals that there is in fact a miniature troll inside the chip; trolls have a strong affinity for rock, and are extremely powerful. Intel also sell other chips – the 80286 is larger, because it has a larger troll in it. This troll is also hungrier, so the bytes are larger; 16 bits each compared with the 8-bit bytes of the 8088 troll.

But the troll needs help to channel its raw power into useful work, so Intel sell a variety of chips that act as a harness to the troll. For example, the Interrupt Controller (which has a lesser troll inside it) is used to interrupt the troll whenever he needs telling what to do. There is also a magic Crystal, that beats time for the troll, so that he can work at a steady pace. The Crystal works at a rate of 4.77 beats per twinkling, although more powerful magic Crystals have been developed that can do 8 or even 10 beats per twinkling.

The floppy disk drives are not directly controlled by the troll. The troll sends messages to the floppy disk controller (FDC) about what the disks should do; the FDC has a model of the disk drive, and controls the drive by sympathetic magic. The FDC also uses nominal magic on the 8088 troll; note the use of the word "troll" inside the name of the card. This makes it possible for the FDC troll to access memory directly, so making disk transfers very fast. The hard disk is controlled in a similar way, but uses a Kobold.

The other major hardware is the screen. This was developed by Motorola, and uses naiads. The naiad is a kind of water nymph, and she puts the letters on the screen to correspond to the messages that the troll leaves for her via the 6845, which is used as a kind of carrier pigeon up to the screen. Naiads are deft and nimble (unlike the slower but more powerful troll), and a good naiad can replace all the letters on the screen in about a thousand twinklings, although some programs make her fetch the letters one at a time, and so it takes her a lot longer to fill the screen. She keeps the letters in a box called the "Character ROM" – there are enough there to last a very long time, but when they are used up, the ROM will have to be replaced, obviously. To stave off the day on which she runs out, the naiad has an assistant whose job is to collect the letters that scroll off the top of the screen, and replace them in the box. Unfortunately, not all programs scroll; some just repaint the screen, and the assistant naiad is unable to run around fast enough to salvage all the letters.

One of the most powerful nominal magics is in the BIOS; the word IBM is embedded in the best ones, a name that is synonymous with computer power. Without this magic word, the BIOS is significantly less powerful, and many programs will refuse to run. The AT BIOS has IIBBMM embedded; this is obviously twice as powerful, but is the reason why the AT is not fully compatible with the PC and XT.

The keyboard is connected to the computer via a hollow tube. Inside the system box there is an elf; elves have very sharp ears, and the elf's job is to listen very carefully down the tube to hear which keys has been pressed. Some programs (such as Superkey) replace this elf with their own elf, but this can cause problems, as the original elf can get angry, and the two elves fight. While this is going on, there is no-one listening to the keyboard, and the troll waits in vain for further requests. Keybuk is the oldest elf-replacing program, and is therefore the most powerful. The Keybuk elf won't tolerate any newcomers.

You've probably wondered why there are so many problems with printers. Now that you understand how a computer works, the answer is obvious. The first problem is the cable, which is always black, as it works by black magic. Unless the spell on the cable is exactly right, the troll's shouts cannot be heard at the printer end. The other problem is that the leprechaun in the printer is too far away from the troll to be directly affected by his magic, and so has a considerable measure of independence. Leprechauns are mischievous creatures, and like nothing better than to pay a good trick on the troll. So they mix up the characters that the troll shouts down the cable, or print all kinds of crazy hieroglyphics. Leprechauns also have a thing about gold; that's why so many of them refuse to print pound signs.

Leprechauns are just having fun; they don't mean any harm. But the demon in the modem is genuinely evil. Modems are usually the most distant thing that is part of your computer; internal modems are made the same way as external ones, so suffer from the same problems. BT have tried to do something about the modem problem by putting a blessing on those that might behave properly. But the white BT magic soon wears off, and the dark side of the modem demon soon asserts itself. Modems, as you will have guessed by now, work by the blackest magic; the only part of the computer that uses the wicked art. Modems are made in special underground factories, protected against leaks by containment pentagrams. Only certified warlocks are allowed to supervise the creation process. None of the major computer manufacturers allow the taint of the modem to besmirch them, and no reputable dealer will sell you one.

To get a modem, you have to undergo a special ritual known as the RS232, so complex and arcane that its innermost secrets are known to only three men. You have to learn the modem magic words, like V22bis, and DTE. As a final precaution you are required to know how to cross a cable (should the demon escape, you will need a crossed cable to nullify him). Only then will you be admitted to the secret world of comms.

Getting a BT-blessed modem isn't the end of it, though. You now have to connect the modem to the telephone, and consult a book of magic words. These words come in three classes; number, identity and riddle-answer. The first one is an wish to BT to connect you to another computer. BT is run by fairies, and sometimes the fairy at your local exchange will grant the wish, although sometimes she won't. The wish might be refused because the lion is busy, or because you have asked for the wrong lion, or for many other reasons. But if you are lucky, the lion will be available, and the BT fairy will feed you into it.

Now you must do something incredibly dangerous; you must give your name to a demon that you haven't even met. The demon might simply sneer at your name, and refuse to acknowledge your existence – it might even change your name to something completely unintelligible. If this happens, drop the lion immediately, as if the influence of this nominal magic were to affect you, it could make you very ill. If the demon is in a good mood, though, it will let you talk to the troll on the remote computer. The troll will immediately ask a riddle before letting you in, but if you get it right within three guesses, he will let you ask him questions.

But while you are talking to the remote troll, the lion will probably start making noises, as the BT fairies don't feed it enough. This noise can be so bad that the remote troll can't hear you properly, and you'll have to start all over again.

This is why data communications are so uncertain; there are so many incompatible entities that need to co-operate to make the thing work. The two trolls can only talk to each other by way of the two evil demons, connected by the good fairies at BT with a noisy lion. We should have stuck to tin cans and string.

Alan Solomon, Copyright © S & S Enterprises 1986

Dr Alan Solomon is a member of British Mensa.
He is better known for his anti virus programs.
The mad scientist is drawn by Ulf Lundkvist.
Publicerad i Legatus Mensae 1/96

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