Friday, 19 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 10-Stokely

Stokely could sell ice to Eskimos, talk himself out of impossible jams, turn people's words into ropes which bound their ankles without them realising it. Nothing was too outrageous for him. He thrived on the obscure and the outlandish. He had somehow commandeered a shopping cart and had brought it into the hospital with him. It proceeded him into the room, chased by the irate ward nurse. In it was a four foot stuffed gorilla with a bouquet of flowers in its hands sitting on top of some presents. Tess looked on in horror. Surely this was not appropriate for someone grieving the loss of his wife. I had to smile. This was Stokely at his most unorthodox, but I knew there was some method behind his madness. He stuck his tanned face inside the door. He had a sheepish grin. "I know what you're thinking. No respect for friends, present or absent." He came across the room. No cast was going to deter him. Somehow he managed a hug across the bed. "Hi, bud," he said. "You don't look so hot. How are you coping?" "I'm better, thanks," trying to sound convincing. "I figured I needed to do something to get you back on the road to recovery. I know it's been hard and its not going to get any easier, but you shouldn't have to do it alone. So...I brought you a friend here. His name is Terry, after Terry Chili." I laughed. Terry Chili was a particularly gangly basketball player our freshman year who managed somehow to miss the entire backboard on a free throw before an embarrassed home crowd. It was a name only Stokely and I could appreciate. He took the flowers out of the gorilla's hands and gave them to me. "These are for Lydia." He smiled a pained smile. "Thanks." I knew what he meant. He stood there awkwardly for a moment, and then turned to lift the gorilla out of the cart. He looked for a place to put it, and then in the same instant realised he had said nothing to his sister, who still looked on as if a leper had entered the room. "Hi, sweets," he said as he handed her the stuffed animal. "Could you?" "Stokely..." She didn't have to say any more. Thirty five years worth of words were stored up in her silence. He looked a little embarrassed, and then turned again to the cart. "I brought you a few things." He reached down and brought up three presents. The first two were small. He pointed to the smallest. "Open that first," he offered. I looked at Tess, whose eyes were still wide open. I opened the box. In it was a pear shaped polished black rock--an amulet. The bottom was carved to look like a pair of buttocks, or at least that is what it looked like to me. "What the hell is this, Stoke?" "A friend of mine gave it to me after my divorce, when I was starting up the company and I had lost just about everything and things were looking really bleak. He said this was some Mayan artifact, and said it represented rock bottom. I think you see why. He said that things could only go up for me...and they have. So...I figured you could use it right about now." "I'm afraid to go on," I said. He handed me the next present. It was stocking stuffed with sand with a bulbous nose which looked like Mr. Potato Head. This was definitely unorthodox. The crown was a different colour than the rest, and on closer inspection I saw it was grass seed. "Water it," Stokely said. "By the time you get out of here, you may learn something." He reached over and stroked my skull. It had always been a joke between the two of us which one was going to lose his hair first, and at this juncture I was way ahead. His touch was as affectionate as Stokely could be. He quickly moved to his last present. "Here." It was in a box, but weighed next to nothing. I opened it up. It was a very thin sheet of plastic or glass (I couldn't tell which) which looked like the face of a computer, only the the keyboard and screen were just shadowy images on the glass. "What? You can't do that, Stoke." He waved his hand, and touched the screen. The entire sheet came alive. "It's the newest technology. A nano-computer. Works just like a regular one, but runs off the energy in your fingers."
I figured with all the time you're going to have you might as well put it to good use. I've also loaded it with a lot of diversions. take your mind off ...things." People have different ways of coping with loss, with sadness, with difficult situations. Had Stokely come in dressed in black and a maudlin look, it wouldn't have been him. Instead, he made life seem almost normal again. "Uh, thanks. I appreciate it, Stoke. You didn't need to do any of this." "Don't mention it, bud." He sat on the side of the bed. He looked at Tess again, who was sitting down in the chair with Terry on her lap. "When did you come, Tesser?" "At nine this morning." They were still circling each other warily. Stokely caught sight of Tess's book on the bedstand. "Your newest?" She nodded. I knew that somewhere deep inside he was more than proud of his sister's success, but sibling envy was always somewhere near the surface. At least now Stokely seemed to doing better in his own life. After two and a half untroubled hours with Tess, when the room seemed sunny and free of any of the heaviness which had accompanied me alone, there suddenly seemed to be something in the air. We all noticed it, but Tess decided to do something, speaking up first. "Look, I know you two want to be by yourselves. I've got some things to do in town, so how about if I come back in a couple of hours. Is a late lunch okay Stokely? About two?" Stokely looked reprimanded. "Sure. Okay...Are you sure?" "Yeah. No problem." Tess stood up, handed the gorilla to Stokely, and this time ignoring the cast, gave me a long hug and a kiss on the cheek. Her skin smelled of Ivory soap, a scent which took me back to being given a bath at my grandmother's house as a child. The smell was clean and fresh. "Thanks, Tess." She blinked both eyes. "See you both later," she said turning to leave the room, and was gone. Stoke and I were left alone. Man to man. He spoke first. "Tough?" I nodded. "You seem to be holding up well." "Smoke and mirrors, Stoke. Inside I'm a rotting mess. I can't help wondering why it wasn't me instead. It just doesn't seem fair." "Well...I haven't seen anything on this planet which says life is fair. At least you had a happy marriage. Ten years?" "Eleven," I corrected him. "That's ten more than I had," he said ruefully. "You were lucky to have a woman like Lydia." I didn't want to fall into either reminiscing or recriminations. I tried to change the subject. "Hey Stoke. Thanks again for the presents." He looked embarrassed. "I hope you didn't mind all this stuff," he waved at the gorilla in the chair. "I just wanted to cheer you up." "You have," I said. "Are you sure about that computer?" "Oh yeah," he dismissed it casually. "It used to be that innovations took a generation, now something amazing is coming out every few months. It'll be obsolete soon. My company has lots of them and one less won't make any difference." "What does your company do, Stoke? I read about it in a magazine, but I only got a general idea." "We are working on parallel programming on a molecular level." This was a statement guaranteed to kill conversation, but I wanted to know. "Can you translate, please?" I looked at him. Stokely always seemed to be just around the corner ahead of me intellectually. The look on his face stopped short of condescension. "You know, you computer geeks always amaze me, “I sputtered. “I mean, I use computers every day, word processing and spreadsheets mostly, but I have no real idea how they work--what makes them tick." "It's like anything else," Stokely said. "It starts with a simple idea and everything follows from there." He looked at me strangely. "Do you seriously mean you have no idea how they work? Even at a most basic level?"" I shook my head. "You never were a technical genius were you, Evan?" he said, in the way only Stokely could, with an older brother look of gentle reproach. "It's ridiculous. You're smart. You just have a mental block against anything that smacks of science." I shrugged my shoulders and waggled an imaginary cigar Groucho Marx-style: "I'm an ah-tist," I offered. "Doesn't it bug you when you don't know how things work?" he asked. "Yeah...but's it's not a long as they work." He scoffed. "So as long as the engine kicks over when you turn the key, you don't really care about what's under the hood?" "Well..." I thought for a moment, and then replied. "A little knowledge doesn't go very far these days, does it, Stoke? Even if I knew a little bit about computers I wouldn't be able to fix one if it were broken, would I?" "Of course not, but I'm not talking about the hardware here. I'm talking about the logic behind it. Not the heart and lungs of the machine, and not the soggy mass in here." He tapped his skull. "Without the logic, it would just be a bunch of parts, and without logic it would just be mechanical. Don't you want to know?" With someone like Stokely, it didn't really matter whether you wanted to know or not. If he wanted you to know, he would teach you. The world is full of people who are along for the ride on the planet, and a very few who absolutely must be in the driver's seat. In a way people like him were lucky, and yet they were also burdened by their enthusiasm, by the frustration that others didn't share their concentrated energy. His brow was furrowed. "You know," he said, "I've spent so much of my life with my brain inside one of those machines that I have forgotten what the world must have been like without them. They're not so complicated, you know. They're nothing to be afraid of...once you know the trick." "Okay," I relented. "What's the trick?" "That everything gets turned into a number. That reality becomes a number, and everything becomes a process that follows calculations. These boxes are nothing but switches, millions of them. And once you know how these switches turn numbers into thoughts, then you know the trick." My interest was piqued, and anyway I had nowhere else to go. I was stuck in a hospital bed, an unwilling student of an unlikely professor. "Okay, Stoke. I'm listening. Shoot." Stokely loved to explain. "Okay," he began. "You know binary code. 1s and 0s. In computer language, the ones represent electricity and the zeroes no electricity. Little pulses of electricity are sent down the lines and go through logic gates. The electricity which goes in causes the logic gates to do calculations and output more 1s and 0s which represent something." "What do you mean by logic gates?" I asked, already confused. "Logic gates..." he paused. "Okay...let's say we wanted to add five and four together. In binary, five is 1 0 1 and four is 1 0 0. How does the machine understand and do this simple calculation?" This was a rhetorical question, as he answered himself by asking another question. "Have you ever heard of Boolean logic?" I shook my head. "Boole was an English mathemetician who thought up a logical system for binary math. All computers use it. There are basically three logical conditions: AND, OR or NOT. A logic gate is a switch which reacts to something being input into it and outputs an answer. AND gates and OR gates both have two inputs and one output and NOT gates have one input and one output." He could tell by my eyes that though I was following I was lagging behind. "Here," he said, "I'll explain by adding five and four together." He took a piece of paper and drew on it. Pointing to the ones and zeros, he explained that each digit was called a bit. 1 0 0 4 1 0 1 5 _______ _ 1 0 0 1 9 "The first thing we have to do is add each column, just like in normal math. There are only four rules in binary math, 1 + 0 or 0 + 1 are equal to 1, 0 + 0 is equal to 0, and 1 + 1 is equal to 0, carry 1. Old Boole's logic system allows a machine to do this using gates." He checked my eyes again. I nodded. So far. So good. "So let's take the first column. 0 + 1. First I'll explain the logic gates. I'll start with an AND gate. An AND gate takes these two bits. If both of them are 1s, it outputs a 1. Otherwise it outputs a 0." "Now an OR gate. If either of them is a 1, it outputs a 1, otherwise a 0." "Then a NOT gate. There is only one input, and the not gate outputs the opposite of whatever goes in. 1 becomes 0, and 0 becomes 1." "All of these gates are just little switches which do these jobs with whatever gets inputted through them." "So to add the first column. 0 and 1. First both of these go through an AND gate and an OR gate." He drew on his paper, tracing the flows of the two input bits through a series of gates. Following them with my fingers, I imagined myself as a mute machine, feeling little pulses of electricity tickling my innards to make me involuntarily spew out an answer. After doing it a few times, it made sense. I tried it using 1+1 and 0+0, and began in a very small way to understand the simplest of computer circuits. His finished drawing looked like this.
Stokely continued explaining. "Using a combination of two AND gates, one OR gate, and on NOT gate, the computer can add. That little combination of gates is called a half-adder. A cascade of these little mothers allows the computer to add more than two digits. If computers could only add five and four, they would be four-bit calculators, since they can add four digits. He paused for a moment. "You remember my great-grandfather's census tabulating machine? Old Helmut's machine followed this same logic, only mechanically. It was ahead of its time, but it was pretty cumbersome, and of course couldn't store any of the answers it came up with except on cards. During World War II people started using electricity to flip the switches, and built calculating machines the size of large rooms with vacuum tubes. Then the transistor was invented, and the little pipes grew smaller and smaller and less and less electricity was needed to flip the switches. Today's chips are a continuation of the same process. They think now that one electron will be enough to flip a switch." He pointed at the computer. "In that plastic, which is really plastic, by the way, there's a chip with 25 million switches on it doing millions of calculations per second, turning everything into a number which represents something. You can't even see it because it is too small. He pointed over to a corner of the glass, where I could barely discern a shadow." He had a satisfied look on his face. "And that's the trick." I looked at his drawing of a half-adder, finding it difficult to take the leap from it to the little box in front of me which did everything but tapdance. "So where does it all end, Stoke?" I said. "End?" he looked on uncomprehendingly. He had just begun. "Yeah. What's the punchline?" "The punchline, my friend, is that we are at a point where the speed and the power of these millions of adders furiously outputting little bits is completely changing our world." He looked around. "Look at this hospital room." He picked up the clipboard at the end of the bed. It was a computer printout of all the drugs I had taken, my last temperature reading, my blood pressure, and the current account balance. "One stop shopping," he said. "These little adders do calculations in every sphere of human activity. We all know it's a digital world. TV, telephone, music, medicine, finance...everything that has to do with language, logic, image, sound, and soon even touch can be converted into bits, transported, and then reconverted into an exact replica." "Think of a piano. It only has eighty-eight keys. If you run your fingers up it quickly you would mix and match the sounds, creating half tones and quarter tones, the whole spectrum of sound. Converting it digitally you can take a million samples, a piano with a million keys, each of them separate bits of information which represent a certain tone." "This is what they talk about when they talk about the information highway, these politicians. Flows of data along fiber optic cable or microwave or infrared, all of which can be recreated into forms we can understand, appreciate, or use." His eyes were blazing. The world he was talking about was all around me. The proof was in the TV set, the phone, the infrared remote control which allowed me to call the nurse, adjust the bed, or turn up the heat...all without moving one inch. "Where we're heading is to try to recreate the greatest logic network there is--the human body, with over three billion connecting switches. The problem is that there is no rhyme or reason in how it works. The connections are chaotic to say the least." "How so?" I asked. "I thought it worked fairly logically." "Well, the mechanical part does work logically. The behind the scenes stuff. The engine room. What is not so logical is how people think. Let me give you an example. Say I'm at a party, talking to a woman, having a nice conversation about whatever. All of a sudden I reach over and smack the woman across the face for no apparent reason. Now..what goes through this person's mind?" "The same thing that's going through my mind...that you're a complete lunatic." He looked surprised, derailed for a moment. Then he continued. "Maybe. But first her engine room is registering pain and shock. Her blood rushes immediately to the spot to have a look around. Then suddenly her mind starts to analyse. Who knows what direction this might take? It depends on her character. She may say to herself: This man has had too much to drink. He is on drugs. It is something I said. All males are aggressive. We should never have reduced funding for lunatic asylums. I'll donate next time to the battered wives' hospice. Here's a chance to use the self defense skills I've learned in karate. This wine bottle would make a good weapon. Maybe I should scream. What a strange sense of humour this guy has. I love assertive men. I'm outta here. The possibilities are endless." "Now. How do you program a machine to decide what course to follow? It's way too complex. And the machine would be too big. That’s what I do for a living." “What?” I said. “What do you mean what?” “What you do for a living. I still don’t understand.” We had come full circle and the conversation was leading nowhere. Turning a machine which could cold-bloodedly make calculations using bits and adders into the unpredictable chaos of human emotions was and still would remain a mystery. Stokely's attempt at deciphering this mystery was interrupted luckily by Tess, who had returned to pick him up for lunch. "What have you two been discussing?" she asked as she came through the door and saw the computer on the bed. "Stokely has been giving me the benefit of two hundred years of human achievement crammed into a two hour lecture." She scolded him. "Stokely..." she said. Again she left her thoughts unfinished, but the message got through. "Evan needs to rest, more than anything else." She grabbed him by the arm and began dragging him out of the room. "We'll be back for tea," she said. Stokely shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, bud. I hope I didn't get too carried away." I shook my head. "I'll see you later," I said as they left the room. As they left I thought of their family. Families after all are living organisms like the individual humans which compose them. In Stokely's family he was the mind and she was the heart. He was behind the controls of the engine room, the engineer who kept it running. She was what gave it a reason to endure, the spark of emotion which was the key link in the human chain which ran through their family's unique and twisting history. The difference in their two visits was striking. Tess had reached outwards with her actions and feelings. Her sole purpose was to comfort me. Stokely had remained wrapped within himself, his crazy gifts and extended lecture an attempt to go against his self-contained nature in the only way he knew how. By such contrasts is life made interesting. Caught up in the wake of Stokely's explanation, I had never asked him if he would come to Valhalla with Tess and me. I resolved I would do it later when they returned.

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