Word of the Day: Heuristic

Generally speaking, a heuristic is a “rule of thumb,” or a good guide to follow when making decisions. In computer science, a heuristic has a similar meaning, but refers specifically to algorithms.

When programming software, computer programmers aim to create the most efficient algorithms to accomplish various tasks. These may include simple processes like sorting numbers or complex functions such as processing images or video clips. Since these functions often accept a wide range of input, one algorithm may perform well in certain cases, while not very well in others.

For example, the GIF image compression algorithm performs well on small images with few colors, but not as well as JPEG compression on large images with many colors. If you knew you were only going to be dealing with small images that didn’t have a wide range of colors, GIF compression would be all you need. You wouldn’t have to worry about large, colorful images, so there would be no point in optimizing the algorithm for those images. Similarly, computer programmers often use algorithms that work well for most situations, even though they may perform inefficiently for uncommon situations.

Therefore, a heuristic process may include running tests and getting results by trial and error. As more sample data is tested, it becomes easier to create an efficient algorithm to process similar types of data. As stated previously, these algorithms are not always perfect, but work well most of the time. The goal of heuristics is to develop a simple process that generates accurate results in an acceptable amount of time.

– definition from TechTerms

Word of the Day: Folder

A digital folder has the same purpose as a physical folder – to store documents. Computer folders can also store other types of files, such as applications, archives, scripts, and libraries. Folders can even store other folders, which may contain additional files and folders.

Folders are designed for organizing files. For example, you might store your digital photos in a “Pictures” folder, your audio files in a “Music” folder, and your word processing documents in a “Documents” folder. In Windows, software programs are installed by default in the “Program Files” folder, while in OS X they are stored in the “Applications” folder.

Folders are also called directories because of the way they organize data within the file system of a storage device. All folders are subfolders, or subdirectories of the root directory. For example, in Windows, C:\ is the root directory of the startup disk. The Internet Explorer application is installed in the C:\Program Files\Internet Explorer directory, which is also the directory path of the Internet Explorer folder.

While folders may contain several gigabytes of data, folders themselves do not take up any disk space. This is because folders are simply pointers that define the location of files within the file system. You can view how much data is stored in a folder by right-clicking it and selecting Properties in Windows or Get Info in OS X. To create a new folder, right-click on the desktop or an open window and select New → Folder(Windows) or New Folder (OS X).

– definition from TechTerms

Word of the Day: Tiger

Other than being the last name of the author of “Huckleberry Finn,” there are numerous other ideas concerning the origin of this term. Some believe it stands for “Toolkit Without An Informative Name,” while others argue it is “Technology Without An Interesting Name.” Still, there are some who believe that it came from the saying, “Ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Though the real story behind the name may never be known, the purpose of TWAIN is quite clear. It is a graphics and imaging standard that allows companies to make drivers for scanners and digital cameras. Nearly all scanners on the market today are TWAIN-compliant, meaning the way they interact with your computer is based on the TWAIN standard. If you feel the need to know more about TWAIN and its fascinating history, the TWAIN Group has a website that you can visit.

– definition from TechTerms

Word of the Day: Shell

Most people know of shells as small protective coverings for certain animals, such as clams, crabs, and mollusks. You may also find a shell on the outside of an egg, which I highly recommend you remove before eating. In the computer science world, however, a shell is a software program that interprets commands from the user so that the operating system can understand them and perform the appropriate functions.

The shell is a command-line interface, which means it is soley text-based. The user can type commands to perform functions such as run programs, open and browse directories, and view processes that are currently running. Since the shell is only one layer above the operating system, you can perform operations that are not always possible using the graphical user interface (GUI). Some examples include moving files within the system folder and deleting files that are typically locked. The catch is, you need to know the correct syntax when typing the commands and you may still be prompted for a password in order to perform administrative functions.

Shells are most commonly associated with Unix, as many Unix users like to interact with the operating system using the text-based interface. Two common Unix shells are the Bourne shell and the C Shell, which is used by BSD. Most Unix systems have both of these shells available to the user. Windows users may be more familiar with DOS, the shell that has long been included with the Windows operating system. Most computer users have no need to use the shell interface, but it can be a fun way to perform functions on your computer, as well as impress your friends.

– definition from TechTerms

Word of the Day: Samba

Most people know of samba as a type of rhythmic dance music from Brazil that uses a 2/4 time signature. In the computer world, samba has a different meaning but is no less exciting (if you are a computer nerd).

Samba is an open-source software implementation of the SMB networking protocol used by Windows computers. (If you look closely, you can see the correlation between the two names.) Samba allows other computer platforms, such as Mac OS X, Unix, Linux, IBM System 390, and OpenVMS to interact with Windows computers on the same network. This includes sharing files and using shared devices such as printers connected to other computers within the local network.

Because SMB was developed only for Windows, without Samba, other computer platforms would be isolated from Windows machines, even if they were part of the same network. Fortunately, Samba helps different types of computers work together as if they were all based on the same platform. This gives network administrators the freedom to choose multiple types of computers systems when setting up a network. Now that’s a reason to dance!

– definition from TechTerms

Word of the Day: Extensible

Extensible is an IT term used to describe something that can be extended or expanded from its initial state. It typically refers to software, such as a program or file format, though it can also be used to describe programming language itself.

An extensible software program, for example, might support add-ons or plug-ins that add extra functionality to the program. It may also allow you to add custom functions or macros that perform specialized tasks within the application. An extensible file format (like XML) can be customized with user-defined elements.

If a programming language is extensible, it may support custom syntax and operations. These custom elements can be defined in the source code and are recognized by the compiler along with the pre-defined elements. Examples of extensible programming languages include Ruby, Lua, and XL.

– definition from TechTerms

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