Smart people think of computers as tools

I’ve recently encountered several situations in which the idea of computers being tools has come forefront to my mind. Now, of course, computers are always tools and they’re always seen as a tool by their users, but very few people actually know how to use them very well. It’s like using a screwdriver. Everyone knows that a screwdriver is a tool, but there actually is a certain amount of skill required to use it properly. If you don’t have that skill, you’ll just end up stripping the screw and making it useless—or worse, actually damaging something.

Despite what most people think, computers are the same exact way. “But, computers are so much more complex than screwdrivers,” most people are probably saying. Well, yes, that’s true. Computers are a very different kind of tool that operates on a very different kind of thing. But it’s still a tool and ultimately, it’s principles are exactly the same as turn left to loosen, turn right to tighten.

A great example of this sort of thinking happened today, when my friend asked me if there’s any software he could buy or otherwise obtain that would log people’s IP addresses. Setting aside my curiosity as to why he would want to do this, I told him about the built-in firewall logging that every modern operating system has these days, and I showed him how to enable it on his Windows XP system. (For those interested, to enable firewall logging in Windows XP SP2, go to Control Panels → Windows Firewall → Advanced → Security Logging Settings → Log dropped packets, Log successful connections.)

Next, he asked me if there’s any way to block his computer from ever making a connection with specific addresses. Now I was really curious, but nevertheless told him how to utilize the hosts file to maintain a list of IP addresses to block (by assigning the entries to localhost or 127.0.0.1). Perfect, my friend told me, he now had the solution he needed. (You can check out your hosts file, too. Wikipedia keeps a list of default locations of this file for most operating systems.)

What the heck was he doing, anyway? Turns out he was playing a peer-to-peer online multiplayer game and he wanted to ensure that certain unfriendly players would never be able to interact with him in-game. By collecting their IP addresses by logging them with his built-in firewall and then blocking them with his hosts file, he could ensure he never played with these people.

What’s impressive to me about this situation is that my friend was thinking about his computer as a tool. He asked the perfect questions to get the result he wanted and he understood that the computer could manipulated. This is the kind of creative thinking that differentiates people. This is how you get ahead. This is also how you get better.