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The CPU usage. 1.00 = 100% of what your CPU can do. Anything over that means requests are stacking up and waiting for free cycles to run. It's like the boss coming in and dumping more work on your desk when you already have a full day.
The algorithm for computing load averages is quite trivial -- it's just an average of the number of processes in the CPU's run queue during the given period (1, 5, and 15 minutes) -- on SMP machines it's the sum of the number of processes in each run queue, again averaged. If you have a CPU load of over two, it means, on average, two processes were runable on the CPU during the given period. If you only have one processor, that obviously means that the CPU had to switch back and forth between multiple processes trying to run on it.
The average number of processes running in the last 1, 5 15 minutes may seem to be fairly useless info, but check into the batch command. Batch allows you to run a program(s) when that load average goes below .8 It can be set to a different number with the atrun command. It may come in handy for you some day. If you are running an X windows terminal, try this little perl script to watch the load average in the title bar of the terminal. Run it in the background.
my $host = `/bin/hostname`;
#open /proc/loadavg file
open(LOADAVG,"/proc/loadavg") || die "Cannot open /proc/loadavg: $!\n";