A Bits, Bytes and Binary Primer

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Information in the digital realm must be able to be measured, counted and understood by the human brain. It is said that the words data and information can be used interchangeably, however by further studying the fundamental mechanics of computers, we can begin to draw conclusions that data does not become information unless it has value to the user.

So what in the honkin’ hank does all that mean?

Before we dive into this more, I’m going to tell you that computers are dumb. There, I said it. They are dumb. Do you want to know how dumb? Think about our own decimal system. We have 10 fingers, so it’s natural that we came up with the 10-digit number system. For the sake of this argument, we will say that computers only have 2 fingers. The number system that computers use is 2 – also known as Binary.

And binary is often just a word us geeks use to make people stop talking to us when we feel annoyed. If you’re not annoyed by this post yet, then maybe you are a geek after all. Well, that’s cool. I feel less alone now.

In order for computers to process information, it must break it down into a very small unit of measurement known as a bit – or a binary digit. 

Great, now we have two b words. Thanks early namers of computer systems. Actually, the word bit comes from binary and digit. So, I guess they did alright.

Anyways, a bit can be represented by either a 1 or a 0. Think about it in terms of on or off. The best way I can explain this is to have you walk over to your light switch and turn it on and off again. There are only two choices for the light and by representing it with numbers, we will find that 0 = off and 1= on.

In the microscopic components of a computer there are millions of these on and off switches running through the CPU at an extremely rapid rate. If you have a panel with 2 light switches you can make different combinations of on and off.  Now think of all the combinations you could make with millions of ways to represent 1 and 0.

Yeah, it’s a crap-ton, but luckily computers can process this information really fast.

If we have 8 bits – or 8 on and off switches, we would call it a byte. A byte (28) will represent 256 different combinations. 

Damn, another b word. I hope there aren’t any more. If you’re having difficulty understanding, don’t worry, as you will have that “Ah ha” moment in the near future.

So, if the computer can only decipher 1’s and 0’s, how then can it be translated back into something humans can understand?

Let’s look at the way simple numbers are represented in binary:

0 = 0

1 = 1

2 = 10

3 = 11

4 = 100

5 = 101

6 = 110

7 = 111

8 = 1000

9 = 1001

10 = 1010

11 = 1011

12 = 1100

Sometimes (usually only for academic purposes) you will need to translate a binary number back to decimal.

How we do this is by multiplying digits by by powers based on where the digit is sitting.

For example, if given the code 1100, we multiply the first 1 by 2 to the power of 3. The first equation would look like this (1 * 2^3).

Then we do the same for the last three digits, so the entire equations ends up like this:

(1 * 2^3) + (1 * 2^2) + (0 * 2^1) + (0 * 2^0) = 8+4+0+0 = 12

1100 = 12 just like we have on the list above.

If you have a basic understand of how numbers are represented in binary, you can begin to conceptualize how other things like letters and colors might be represented as well.

Don’t fret if you are still confused by all of this. Take a break and come back to it later.

Just remember:

-Bits are Binary Digits that hold the value of 1 or 0
-Bytes are made up of 8 bits
-Binary works like our base ten decimal system, only with a base of 2

Author

Michael Chase

Michael Chase is a student at Penn State World Campus, enrolled at the College of Information Sciences & Technology. Through his studies and relentless digital pursuits, he strives to be the ultimate technologist with a passion for connecting people and things to our binary world. You can find him around the web as a VLogger, Social Media Warrior, Card Collector and Technology Advocate. Connect with Michael on Google+, Twitter, Instagram, tumblr and YouTube

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2 Comments

  1. Phil June 10, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Fortunately there are only 10 types people in this world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

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