October 25, 2012

Horse 1389 - FF Is The Best Number

I was fiddling with the modem last night because we again had a line dropout, and I found myself in that magical land of nostalgia when it started doing self-checks and counting in Hex.
For those of us who still remember the days of reel to reel and tape drives on computers, hex code is one of those little windows into the past and the hidden and scary world of the machine's brain.

Everyone by now knows that a computer uses binary, which is a fancy way of saying that it is made of switches that can either be on or off, 0 or 1. However even in a four switch machine (four bit) the length of numbers gets very long; very quickly.
0000 is 0, 0001 is 1, 0010 is 2 etc. but if were to write 10 we get 1010, 13 is 1101 and 15 is 1111. When we get to 16 we need another digit.
In hex though 10 becomes A, 13 is D and 15 is F. In hex, a single digit can discreetly refer to a group of four binary digits and that is incredibly useful.
Take for example the IP address It is three groups of numbers all with 256 positions. In hex it becomes B0.A8.00.01 which instantly tells you the binary string in short hand.
1100 0000,1010 0100, 0000 0000, 0000 0001
That is a string of digits which is 32 characters long, and it sort of shows why a decimal broken into packets is still not as useful as the values in hex. If you were to compound the problem with ever increasing binary strings such as the switch from 8 bit to 16, 32, 64 bit computing and beyond, decimal becomes increasingly useless if you want to look at discreet packets or binary strings.

The modem was busy counting to itself with a hex counter which I imagine was 32 characters long (I didn't bother to count the actual number) and I could see it work its way up the line ticking off numbers and then A-F before ticking over the next digit.
I used to see this all the time on my old Vic-20 had an amazing 18KB expansion box which aided loading times no end but I've generated text files bigger than that and I suspect that the modem itself probably has computing power many orders of magnitude greater than it but it was still sort of like returning to an old country house which has been long forgotten.

We just don't see hex codes much any more. GUIs mean that stuff sits deep behind shiny sliding things and as we progressively become less curious, shiny sliding things will hide more and more stuff from us. Don't believe me? Check out Windows 8. Better yet, imagine the future through looking at television and film. Both Captain Kirk and Dave Bowman spoke to their respective computers.
We still do occasionally meet hex codes though, when picking colours on a computer. The value #000000 says to me that there are three sets of paired four digit binary bits and all of them are off. #FFFFFF is pure white which makes sense since it is the addition of red, green and blue colours, with all binary bits in the on position. Incidentally.the regular decimal number for that is 16,777,215 which apart from being a big number, bears no real relationship to what it represents, whereas every F is 1111, and there are six sets of those.

Looking back in all seriousness, my actual favourite number when playing with computers was 255 or to be more precise FF. Tape drive computers would sometimes have a little counter to tell you how far along they were in loading a program. FF in hex is 1111 1111 and an 8 bit counter can not hold a number bigger than that. After FF came along and showed its face in the screen after maybe ten minutes, came the fun of throwing newspapers at old ladies in Paper Boy; watching Godzilla, King Kong and Mothra smash buildings and eating people in Rampage; or best of all, trying to beat Brazol with Engled or Germiny* in Super Soccer.

I guess that the closest people mostly get to the joy of FF in computing now, is a percentage bar which fills up when installing or downloading things. That seems more to me like being at a party and someone is offering champagne - "Would you care for a champagne?" "Yes, I can't think why not" - and then the computer goes away and does its little update dance; meanwhile you continue to have a jolly time.**
It certainly isn't like installing Windows or Office where the estimated time to finish bounces around more than a rabbit going up and down inside a beach ball on a jumping castle in an elevator.*** I'm sure that those numbers bear no resemblance to reality.

*According to the game Super Soccer  the capital of Engled was Londen, Germiny was Bon and next to Germiny was Bad Germiny.
**I imagine that this is what happens at these parties. Until someone yells "There's been a murder" and we all blame the gruff gentleman who always turns out not to have done it.
*** If anyone wants to perform this experiment, then feel free. I'm sure that it would be worth at least a million hits on YouTube.

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