By Tee Schneider
Somewhere back around 1991, I had to learn binary for one of many technical theatre classes we actors types were forced to take in university. You know, so we could be well rounded individuals and all. The theatre department was transitioning from analogue to digital at the time so we’d be learning digital in the classroom by day but cutting and splicing tape for the shows at night.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t get the whole digital thing. I’ll be honest, I may have been too hung over to get it. There were some shenanigans in my twenties. It wasn’t all lost. I walked away with the basic concept. You know, like, there are a bunch of ones and zeros and via some strange and unnatural force we can turn those ones and zeros into, (in my case at the time), sound. Whatever.
Sooo I may have underestimated the whole binary thing since it’s pretty much the foundation upon which rests…everything. I’ll admit that when I realized that I should probably address the ones and zeros situation in this blog I got a little depressed. All that math and…did I mention I went to theatre school? But as it turns out, it’s not so bad. And weirdly enough, that theatre education wasn’t a total loss either.
Let me preface by saying that this is not meant to be a definitive manifesto on binary. There are variables and complexities. But for those of us who aren’t engineers and just want to “get” it, I think this might help.
MATH ALERT! Breathe deeply. Don’t panic.
Electronic devices such as your computer and its processor are built using electrical circuits or transistors. The processor of your computer looks something like this:
You can think of each transistor as a switch which can be told to exist in one of two states.
OFF or ON
0 or 1
Usually they are grouped into strings of 8 like this:
(They can exist in any combination of zeros and ones or OFF and ON).
Each one of these digits is known as a bit and the the group of 8 is known as a byte. Each bit represents a number which you read from the right.
Again, the zeros and ones represent true/false or on/off like a light switch. 0=off and 1=on so if we use our first example:
And assign the binary values to it:
Then we can figure out the value of:
By adding the “on” switches:
So…in the common tongue…otherwise known as the decimal system:
01010101 = 85
So what is 85? That depends on where 85 is interpreted from. (This is the part that initially escaped me by the way). For instance:
If you opened a word processor, that 85 would represent a capital letter “U” (The characters associated with numbers were arbitrarily chosen, by the way, so don’t look for meaning there).
An image processor would probably need three bits, (one for each channel of RED/GREEN/BLUE), and would read three equal parts of 85 as a pixel this color of grey:
Your sound card would need more information to produce anything that you’d recognize but if you strung enough bytes together you’d eventually get music.
Let me say it another way:
It is the various hardware and associated software on your computer that interprets the zeros and ones and makes them consumable. In fact, a request is sent from your input via your RAM to your processor which calculates the request and sends it back via the RAM to the appropriate device and its corresponding software. In the case of music, your sound card would then converts digital audio, (the ones and zeros it gets back), to analogue and pumps it out your speaker. Alternatively, if the request is meant for your display, it might interprets the number as a colour pixel and so forth.
Now the theatre.
Imagine you’re the Director of a large scale production. Something massive like say the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. And let’s say you want to create one of those really cool moving pictures using human bodies.
Something like this perhaps 🙂Image Credit: Adam Rifkin Lisenced under: CC by 2.0
In the theatre, the first conversation is always about budget. Think of your computer’s processor as your production budget. Your processor has a set number of bits just like your production has a set number of dollars to create this awesome five ring spectacle. #fail
The bits determine how many actors and crew members you can have working on your production at a given time.
So, more bits in the processor equals more actors and technicians working on your show.
More often than not in the theatre, we’re not working with a lot of bits so we’d be doing this with the equivalent of 8 dudes, (think Commodore 64).
And this is where the math meets the art.
Let’s imagine that our 8 dudes each had a sign with a number 1 on one side and a 0 on the other. And let’s imagine that in order to create the rings they’d have to hold up the signs in a specific orders of zeros and ones and each time they did that it represented one byte. And let’s say for simplicity’s sake that one byte was equal to one Olympic ring. That would mean our 8 dudes would have to hold up their signs 5 times, (or 4.5 in Sochi math), and since there are only 8 of them the only way to create all of the rings would be to hold the signs up consecutively, in very fast succession, once for each ring. You get where I’m going. With a 64 bit processor or 64 dudes, each dude only has to hold his sign up once and the rings appear simultaneously. Faster, more efficient and a smoother visual.
In essence, more bits is equal to more information that is accessible at one time but it’s also equal to more possible combinations of numbers. Eight dudes holding up ones and zeros gives you 256 possible values but 64 dudes holding up ones and zeros has about 18 quintillion possible values. Really.
Notwithstanding some variable and complexities, (investigate signed vs. unsigned integers), that’s basically the long and short of it. Many hands make light work.
If it still seems a little nebulous to you, just remember:
- Your processor is made up of transistors,
- Transistors store information as ones and zeroes.
- The more available storage points the faster the processing.
- The more possible number combinations, the more information can be stored and accessed efficiently.
- Hardware and software interpret the stored ones and zeros and serve them back to you as something consumable.
That is all. Well…except for the number of cores your computer has but that’s another post for another day…or you could just Google it 😉
If you want to check out a few really cool videos on the subject these three really helped me fill in some gaps. They take a bit of time and may give you an occasional brain cramp but they are well worth the watch. REALLY. Watch them.
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