Condemning the offspring of Boolean logic, byte by byte

I remember the day I got a fax machine. School board members were provided one so we could communicate more efficiently. (Is efficient communication an oxymoron?)  The fax machine enabled me to go from a couple of phone calls and one meeting a week to a daily bombardment of questions, opinions and comments, all of which seemed to require responses. I eventually gave the fax machine back. 

They wanted to give me a pager. That way, they explained, no matter where I might go they could always reach me. Are they crazy?! I don’t know if pagers work where I told them to go.

We no longer need pagers, though, because we have cellphones. I had a cellphone once. The tyranny of the telephone is now absolute, and “they” can always reach you no matter where you go. I discovered that the cellphone does work in that place I told them to go because the definition of the place I told them to go is the place where they can always reach me no matter where I go. 

Cellphones are the hybrid offspring of telephones and computers, made possible by the discovery of electricity and Boolean logic. Interestingly, the scientist who discovered electricity, or Boolean logic, never fully understood the evil that discovery would unleash. This is frequently the case in science, where human hubris often blinds us to reality.

Boolean logic was invented by George Boole, which is why it is called Boolean logic. I think the term logic is a little pretentious since the idea is pretty simple.  (Maybe I only understand the simple part, so it might actually be very complex.) 

The simple part of Boolean logic is that it makes use of only two numbers: ones and zeros. This is called a binary system. If you’re like me, you like it already.  No more keeping track of decimal places or the number of zeros in the national debt. 

These ones and zeros actually just stand for on and off. It’s like having two switches for the family room light on opposite ends of the room.  Both switches can be down, or both up, or one can be up and the other down, or vice versa. With two people operating the switches, one person will always turn off what the other has turned on. (This is known as McCallister’s Law and is essentially unknown in the computer field, or even the cow pasture.)   

Each number represents a single binary digit, which we usefully abbreviate as a “bit”. Get it? B from binary and IT from digit. If we group eight bits together we call it a “byte.” I think we call it a byte for the same reason we call 12 eggs a dozen. Somebody just said it was so. 

Anyway, by arranging a group of eight switches, we can vary which switches are on or off. Imagine a family room with eight switches. It is probably mostly dark. It’s a little more complicated than this because some of the switches can be turned on but send an off signal. I think this is where Boole got a little carried away. You don’t need to worry about that right now, though, because I’m almost out of my allotted bytes for this week. 

By grouping ones and zeros into little packets of eight, we can code almost anything we want. So when you type a capital A on the keyboard, it is translated into 01000001. The letter B in Boolean is 01000010. There are similar codes for numbers, symbols, or anything else you want to code for. I suppose Shakespeare could be translated into Boolean. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”

Anyway, Boole is dead. He can no longer be held accountable for the enormous, hideous leeches attached to our ears sucking our brains out. He meant well, I suppose.  I wonder where Boole is now on his road of good intentions.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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