Saturday Morning Post #83: Between Zero and One (Part 3)

In the third and final part of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem — but he’s finding the real world to be just as frustrating a place.

The cabbie, who was wearing a gigantic blue turban, didn’t speak much English and he really couldn’t drive that well, but Tyler didn’t care. At least he was getting somewhere, heading toward his target. The meter ticked away faster than they seemed to be moving, but whatever. It would be worth every penny once he was back home, back online, back in business.

It was three o’clock already, most of the day wasted. Naturally, the advertised air conditioning in this taxi wasn’t working, so it was very warm, and the back windows only went down halfway. It was hot and stuffy and Tyler dozed off — he’d been awake for at least twenty-four hours straight now. He woke up to a rapping on the window. The cabbie, opening the door, gibbering at him, a stream of incoherent words, then the absolutely intelligible “Twelve-fifty, you pay.”

“Right,” Tyler scraped the gunk from his eyes, got out of the cab and gave the driver twelve-fifty, starting away, then noticing the man staring at him with evil intent.

“What?” he asked. The driver glared at him, eyes narrowing. Tyler thought about it a moment, then remembered vaguely. Taxis were not exact change only and certain people expected a gratuity for doing the job they were getting paid for without screwing up too badly. “Oh, yeah,” he said, looking in his wallet. The smallest he had was a five, which was way too much, right? He tried to calculate fifteen per cent in his head, got as close as somewhere around two dollars. He handed the five to the cabbie, said, “Give me three back,” but the cabbie nodded and smiled, hopped in the car and drove away.

“Hey!” Tyler shouted, but it was no use. The little thief. And it really couldn’t have been a twelve dollar trip. He was only five miles away from home, tops.

Five miles from home, but half a block from his goal. That was good. Anyway, he could write this whole trip off, it was a business expense. He walked to the mall, in through one of the anchor stores, dodging his way through the endless racks of women’s clothes and around the perfume counters. Nothing to see here, nothing of interest, but it was like running a maze to get to the mall proper. How could people shop like this? It was chaos, dashing around, picking through shit, lugging it around, taking forever to check out. Having to repeat the process anew at each store. And why was it that ninety percent of most malls sold nothing but women’s clothing and shoes? Where were the guy stores? Damn few and far between and, even then, half of those only sold men’s clothing and shoes.

Tyler finally made it into the mall, which was eerily quiet and empty at this hour on a weekday. Encouraging Muzak tinkled through the air. It felt safe here. Serene, like a vision of some science fiction utopia from a bad seventies TV movie. Of course, it was a given that, in utopia, something always went wrong. Tyler should know. He’d been there, and now he wasn’t.

He walked down the wide, bright, tiled pathway, remembering a long unused route to the computer store. Halfway down, on the right, just past the Hotdog on a Stick place. And, sure enough, that strangest of food emporia was there, complete with some unfortunate teenage girl in the ridiculous multi-colored outfit, tank top and hot pants, steroidified gob hat rising high above her head, as she bounced up and down on a wooden oar, perpetually making lemonade.

He couldn’t help but stare for a moment. Whoever had come up with that outfit and that preparation method had pulled the perfect scam. “Let’s see. How can we get teenage girls to jiggle their titties around in public in a tight outfit? Aaaah, I know.”

The girl gave Tyler a dirty look, finished up with the oar and vanished into some hidden back room. Tyler let out a single snorted guffaw, then went on past the place, around the corner to where —

“Oh, shit,” he said out loud, getting a nasty look from a passing old woman. The computer store was gone, replaced by a goddamn Starbuck’s. He stood there for a long moment, then looked around. Now what? He wandered back to the center court, bumped into a mall map, an elaborate lit-from-behind thing on an angled pedestal. It looked like prop from Star Trek.

Tyler stood over it, looking for the “search” button, finally remembering he was only looking at dead, non-interactive Plexiglas. So he’d have to do this the old-fashioned way. He scanned the index, down an endless list of “Women’s Clothing” and “Shoes” and “Home Furnishings.” The damn thing wasn’t even alphabetical. “Gifts and Cards,” “Food,” “Entertainment.” Finally, “Specialty Shops,” all three of them — but one of them was called “Nerd Up!” He knew that name. High tech gadgets and gizmos, software, hardware. Perfect. He looked at the map, found the place — naturally, it was as far as possible from here — and started walking.

The dweeb behind the counter laughed at his request. “A modem? A modem… you mean like, the plug into the phone and wait forever at fifty-six modem, that?” he giggled. Tyler nodded. “Yeah, you know, my grandfather used to have one of those.”

“Stuff the ‘tude, it’s temporary,” Tyler answered. “My T-3 is down.”

“Ah. So you’re a victim of the great fiber-optic fuck up.”

“You heard about that?”

“Who hasn’t? The power company and the ISP have been all over the news, pointing at each other. The network is going to be down a month, at least.”

“Where can I get a modem?” Tyler practically begged.

“I don’t know, maybe I can pull one out of my ass,” the clerk shot back.

Tyler grabbed the kid by his lapels, got in his face. “Good, let’s try that,” he said.

“Hey, easy,” the kid answered, giving a weak smile. “We really don’t have anything that low tech here. Did you try Computer Avenue?”

“You mean the Starbucks?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Forgot.”

Tyler let the kid go. There had to be a modem in this store somewhere, but the kid wasn’t even going to go out of his way to look for it. “You’re sure there’s nothing in the back room?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the kid sneered. “Sorry. Have a nice day.”

Tyler wanted to punch him. Instead, he stormed out of the store, sat on the nearest bench, tense, trying to figure out what to do. This whole process would have been so simple online. Of course, if he were still online…

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the ointment,” he remembered from somewhere. That was always the problem. Not the machines, not the technology, but the people behind it. They either designed it to be as fallible and stupid as they all were, or let it run afoul through negligence. It took a bad driver to make a car crash, a careless mechanic to let a plane fall out of the sky.

Human error. That was the bugaboo, the fly in the ointment, the serpent in Eden. Back home, online, everything was fine. Seek anything and ye shall find, and comparison shop and buy and never even have to put your pants on.

Humans are flawed and, though it had been years since he’d been to church, ever since his mother’s funeral mass, he couldn’t help but think of original sin. He’d believed all that hoo-hah once, sincerely. But the more he saw of this imperfect world, the more he doubted that there could be any intelligence behind it. The more he’d gone into his online world, the more he became convinced that everything that mattered was all just a series of zeroes and ones. On and off, good and bad, something and nothing. In this equation, the machines were the ones. The people were all just zeroes.

He noticed a sign in a clothing store window, hanging between two male mannequins, beckoning the gullible. It read “All two suit’s, $199.95.”

“Jesus,” he whispered. “All two?” And what the hell was up with apostrophes, anyway? Had everyone forgotten the difference between plural and possessive? He had bitched on that topic in chat once with a friend in London, who typed back, “You Americans love to stick them where they don’t belong, but over here, we have the nasty habit of leaving them out.”

Add, subtract. One and zero. Something and… nothing.

He stared at the sign and it made him angry. Stupidity and negligence. Laziness. Original sin.

The phrase “all two” is wrong, but the phrase “all three” is correct. Why? Because English has a word for “both.” And Tyler knew enough Spanish to remember the words “ambos,” which meant the same thing. It was probably true in dozens of languages, one of those hard-wired realities that couldn’t be avoided. But why? What was the big deal with two, anyway?

Monogamy, Tyler realized. That had to be it. Humans were monogamous, or tried very hard to be, and so the basic unit of happiness was two. Sure, add a baby and you got the happy family of three, but having a kid wouldn’t get you laid. Since humans loved to cater to their own most base instincts, that was the search that mattered. It wasn’t about fight or flight. It was all about feed or fuck.

And hence, a different word for two, because two really was another kind of one all by itself. So what was this whole religious obsession with three? It didn’t fit the basic design of things. Zero, one, both. No, maybe that was the problem. In trying to push threes, religion had moved out of sync with nature, and so split up to provide coherent views for separate societies. Gods are always the color of their people, after all.

And the religions of the Gods Who Do Not Fuck were the judgemental ones. Especially the big two (that number again) of pushy proselytizers, Christianity and Islam, one born of the other after the mother was stolen from a third religion. And it was Tyler’s mother’s religion that had the big “virgin” fetish.

But where did they find all the big virgins?

And zero and one lead inexorably to two, but you could only get both with a pair of ones, never with a zero involved. What had stuck him in this hellish place right now, thwarted and alone? People.

He stood and wandered the mall, finally reaching a far corner where, improbably, they had planted a carousel in a huge, round atrium. It revolved to a happy calliope tune, all white paint and gold gilt, pastel colored horses leaping up and down as it revolved. Mirrors around the central core made the whole thing seem vertiginously deeper than it was, and round white bulbs flickered on and off, chasing themselves along the edges and lines of the thing.

It was a beautiful, flawless machine. Tyler just stared at it, feeling the small rush of air as it turned past, watching the murals above the mirrors, which revolved with the canopy, their blurring motion giving them a strange sort of life-like hue that was not in the original painting.

The carousel was almost empty, a few kids scattered here and there on the great leaping beasts, animals frozen in time, painted shades of lavender and pink and yellow, manes gilded in gold trim, black-iron bridles in their mouths. A sign proclaimed that this Merry-Go-Round had originally been built in 1920. Imagine that. Back when people still cared, didn’t make stupid mistakes. And that was why this machine, so improbably anachronistic, had survived into another century.

The atrium stretched to a dome a good fifty feet up. Tyler went to the escalator, wound his way to the top, a fourth level food court with a big hole in the center, a vantage point to watch the carousel from above. The carousel was even more amazing from this point of view, a giant circle turning steadily counter-clockwise, white painted square-tube spokes radiating from the center, the secret rods that made the horses leap visible, all the pretty lights strung out, cheerful.

It was the simplest of machines, really. A wheel with a few fancy gewgaws. A gigantic zero, but in turning, it became something. It made people happy, however briefly.

Tyler watched it, hypnotized by the motion, leaning on the railing and staring down. Then he noticed the pentagon in the center, anchor-point for the light strands on top. That was an interesting choice. Then he realized that these lights were strung out to form a five-pointed star, inside a circle. That was kind of spooky. He was looking at a huge pentagram, hidden on top of this kiddie ride, turning to the left, alternately one point up and two points up, from white magic to black magic, good and evil, off and on. And five was just two plus three, both plus all, the collision of nature and belief, reality and illusion.

Tyler had been riding his own carousel, blithely thinking the horse would take him where he wanted to go, but he’d been spinning in the same circle for more than a year. Sure, it kept him fed, made the house payments, afforded him all kinds of toys. But he was the only one in that house, the only one enjoying it. He had friends all over the country, all over the world, but all of them were just words onscreen, maybe the occasional blurry, jerky video feed, reduced to binary bits and pieces, digital information, all just so many zeroes and ones.

It took losing that connection to make him realize he wasn’t even connected at all.

It was nice standing here, actually. And maybe that design on the carousel really wasn’t some sigil of evil. After all, it was a star, a guiding light, pointing the way. It was completely out of his control, but that was how Tyler had landed here in the first place, losing control of his world. Maybe he had to give it up completely to get it back.

He watched the thing turn, big wooden circle sweeping over a gray and white checkerboard floor. From here, he could see that the murals were pastoral, green and blue scenes of idyllic countrysides from never-never picture books. Each one was the size of one of the mirror frames, which made perfect sense. As above, so below. Symmetry, order, rational thought.

And this would be how he decided what to do next. Of course. It was staring him in the face. The wheel of fortune, the answer to his dilemma. When it stopped, if the murals lined up with the mirrors, he would live with his current problem, explain to his clients that he was taking time off, try to get the car started, go out and do… something. If they did not line up, he’d find that modem, somewhere, anywhere.

The carousel was so perfect, perfect because of its simplicity and its beauty, its having a place in the world and a function.

It was slowing down. Tyler watched, a little dizzy as he tried to follow the spokes. Yes, it was slowing down, ever so gradually, losing speed. He would have his answer soon.

He glanced at his watch, not out of urgency, but rather curiosity over how long this process would take. There didn’t seem to be any brakes on the thing. They were just letting it wind down at its own good pace, the master of its fate, uninfluenced by anybody, yet influenced by everything — the people on it, air resistance, gravity, probably the rotation of the earth itself. Everything in the universe was focused on that spot, on that wheel.

One minute. It was still turning.

It was going half the speed now, and slowing down less quickly. After another minute, it hadn’t seemed to have gotten much slower at all. Tyler leaned his elbows on the railing, looked straight down. He could see people on the ride going through the ready to get off motions. So it must have been slowing perceptibly. But it had been three minutes by now and it was still turning, the star still spinning.

Molasses time. At four minutes, the carousel looked like it was going to halt at any second, and yet it kept going, creeping, murals turning above mirrors, star ever-pointing in a different direction. Momentum and inertia. He thought of a roulette wheel, decision actually made long before it came to a standstill, and yet invisible until just before it stopped. It was like that now, the edges of the murals lining up with the mirrors and then moving out of sync, but oh-so-slowly, teasingly. Tyler held his breath, watching.

The murals aligned with the mirrors as the thing seemed to have exhausted all its energy, hesitated. Yes, of course, it was a big, perfect machine, everything had to line up, everything had to fit, his decision had to be escape to the real world. Tyler smiled, then his expression changed to blank disappointment as the murals crept ahead a few inches and the whole thing stopped, out of alignment, imperfect, flawed.

“Damn,” he said, smacking the railing with both hands. And obviously, somebody hadn’t done their job right at some point, something he realized as the railing pitched forward, broke free with his full weight on it, tumbling him over and headlong, great white motionless star below growing rapidly closer to his face.

He did notice on the way down, though, that those lights were so very pretty as they blinked, on and off, bright and dark, one and —


* * *

Saturday Morning Post #82: Between Zero and One (Part 2)

In Part 2 of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem. Well, low-tech for him at the time, but the only tech for most people otherwise.

“Piece of shit.”

Tyler banged the dashboard with both hands, then tried the keys again. The starter whirred and chuddered, but nothing happened. It was sounding a little upset itself now, warbling instead of surging. Tyler pulled the keys out of the ignition and sat there, thinking. The battery wasn’t dead, he knew there was gas in the tank, the car had started last time he’d driven it, which was… thirteen, fourteen months ago. He vaguely remembered his father telling him something once about having to start up idle cars every so often, but that had never made any sense. It was a machine, it wasn’t doing anything while it was sitting there, inert. No stress, no wear. You could let a computer sit for years and it would start up fine next time you plugged it in.

Tyler got out of the car, slammed the door and gave it a kick. Well, who needed a car, anyway? There was a bus stop a block away, and that bus went in the general direction he needed to go. All he had to do was go check the schedule…

“Fuck!” he stomped one foot on the porch as he remembered. Check schedule, online, not possible. Again, the phone book was useless. It had some elaborate map of the transit system, with colored lines and arrows and little number tags, but it was like trying to read a circuit diagram for a nuclear bomb. No, not that. Even a nuke must have the same basic set-up as any other bomb. Explosive shit, power source, two wires, a switch and a bang. This was more like trying to trace the intricate pathways through the heart of the world’s biggest supercomputer, and Tyler was the lone little electron who had to go from point A to point B down the shortest possible path.

Well, screw it. The colored line for the bus that ran by his house seemed to get close to where he wanted to go. How long could he possibly have to wait, anyway? He kicked the phone book aside, started for the door, stopped. He was forgetting something, but what?

Ah. Change. Riding a bus always did involve clunky pocketfuls of change, anxiously counted out and recounted and clutched in the hand when the rolling leviathan finally pulled into view and hissed to a stop. He thought about it a moment, then remembered the mayonnaise jar on top of the fridge. It was way in the back corner, dusty and grimy. He hadn’t needed to take anything out of it nor had anything to put into it for a long time. He grabbed the lid, tried to twist it and it wouldn’t budge. Great. Just fantastic. He could understand, maybe, a car being slow to start after a while, but this was a goddamn jar lid, the simplest machine of them all, the one invented by some ancient Greek guy. It was a screw, how the hell could it malfunction? Tyler tried a dish towel, tried to get a wrench around the thing. This was ridiculous. Nothing. What, did some evil change imp come by and krazy glue the thing shut in the night?

Tyler heaved the jar into the kitchen sink, where it shattered, spewing coins all over the porcelain, half of them chittering down into a sinkhole in the drain. At least the stopper was sitting there, but he’d deal with all that later. He picked through the metal bits, pulling out all the quarters he could easily see, avoiding the shards of glass, grabbing up some dimes and nickels for good measure. He counted it out in his hand. Five bucks, twenty-three cents. Good enough for a round trip. He dumped it all in his pocket, where it felt cold and heavy through the lining against his thigh, then headed out the door again into the blinding bright sunlight of this late summer afternoon.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later, he was still standing at the bus stop, anxiously stepping out into the street whenever traffic cleared to peer into the distance, looking for any sign of his impending ride. Every time he thought he saw it, he’d jump back, start counting out his change, not sure exactly how much he needed, only to see that he’d been fooled by a school bus or a big truck. Forty-five goddamn minutes, that couldn’t be right. What good was that kind of transit system? They should have had a bus going by here every ten minutes.

He glanced at the tiny Hispanic woman in the pale blue dress who was standing nearby, full shopping bags hanging from each hand, two young children flittering about her. She just stared at the ground, stoic and patient. Tyler popped out into the street again, looked. Nothing on the horizon.

Another ten minutes went by, another half-dozen traffic checks, and Tyler was fuming all over again. The Hispanic woman had finally glanced his way, noticed him looking, nodded her head and said, “Late, huh?”

“Damn right,” Tyler replied, peering up the street again. This all seemed to be designed to waste his time. Why did this world outside move so slowly? Almost an hour of doing nothing. Tyler debated going back home, trying the car again. Maybe he could get one of his friends to come over and… okay, no, bad idea, since his friends were all over the country, all over the world. Did he know anyone locally? Well, maybe, yeah, but… Tyler rolled his eyes, huffed, realizing he only had a long list of email addresses, no phone numbers. Wasn’t that just peachy‑keen?

Then he noticed the woman picking up her bags, gathering her children close. The bus was coming, halle-fucking-lujah. He dug a fistful of change out of his pocket, turned to the woman. “How much?” he asked.

“Yes,” she smiled and nodded back at him.

“No, I mean, how much is the bus?” he repeated, demonstrating with the change. Before she could answer, the bus steamed right past them. Tyler turned his head, saw that it was empty, a “Not in Service” sign winking at them on its flank.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed, turning like a sunflower to follow the departing traitor, change tumbling from his hand into the gutter. The woman pulled her children close, looking away as Tyler got down and started picking the stuff up. Naturally, it was now all wet and gunky. Oh joy.

Twenty minutes later, another bus finally arrived and pulled up to the stop. As Tyler waited for the woman and her kids to climb on, he looked up the street. There were two more buses on the way, right behind it, pulling toward the curb.

“People suck,” he said to himself as he climbed the stairs, asked the driver how much and counted the right amount out, dumping it into the fare box, then moving about two feet before realizing that this bus was SRO. But it was too late to change his mind. The doors shut and the bus lurched away.

Okay, so he’d have to stand here with all this sardinated humanity. At least he was on his way. Finally.

* * *

“End of the line, everybody off,” the driver announced. People started spewing out both doors, pushing past Tyler, who stood there, perplexed. They were at the subway station, a mile from where he’d gotten on, but that’s not what the map in the phonebook had said. He could have walked to where he wanted to go already, and halfway back home.

He turned to ask the driver how to get where he was going, but she was already gone, as were most of the passengers. He got off and found himself standing in some sort of home for wayward transit. There were eight buses parked in various spots around a semi-circle, people milling back and forth between them and the over-sized, overly festive entrance to the subway station. Now what? He knew the subway didn’t go where he wanted. What were they thinking when they built that damn thing? It was great if you wanted to go downtown, but who the hell ever wanted to go there? And a subway, in LA, which had taken decades to get off the ground and which was only a pale, lame replacement for the transit system the city had had decades ago. A subway in the land of sunshine and earthquakes. Brilliant.

He walked the semi-circle, looking at bus numbers, finally finding the familiar one. The driver was standing on the front bumper, washing the windows.

“Which way does this bus go?” he asked.

Without looking at him, the driver drawled, “East.”

“Thanks,” Tyler replied, heading for the steps.

“Not leaving for thirty minutes, though,” the driver continued, concentrating on some invisible flyspeck.

“What?” Tyler gawked, stepping back. “Is there an earlier bus?”

“That one,” the driver nodded as another bus pulled past them, lumbered for the driveway.

“Fuck!” Tyler shouted, running for the bus, pounding on the side. Amazingly, it stopped and he got on, had to count out the change all over again. At least this one was half-empty. He went to a seat in the back, flopped himself into it and it was a good half mile before he realized they were going the wrong way, back to where he’d started. He grabbed the bell cord, pulled it frantically, heaved himself to the center doors.

When the bus finally stopped, he was right back where he’d started, full circle. Just to add a proper twist to the finger the gods were giving him, another bus going the other way, destination sign announcing exactly where Tyler wanted to go, fumed past and vanished into the distance.

“Everything sucks,” Tyler said to himself as he stared at the bus, just wanting to cry.

* * *

Saturday Morning Post #81: Between Zero and One (Part 1)

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I flash back to my own life around the time I wrote this, in 2000 or 2001. This was pretty much the state of the internet at the time, and I was working from home as a graphic designer, little suspecting that I would be doing something very similar 20 years later but enjoying it a lot more. Like the lead character, I’m also very big on doing my own hardware and software upgrades, and get easily frustrated when tech fails.

Unable to locate host.

“Piece of shit.” Tyler banged his mouse against the desk in his usual litany of frustration, clicked reload. He waited two seconds, the limit of his patience, clicked reload again. Nothing, and then the error box of death popped up again with its annoying reminder noise. Unable to locate host.

“My ass,” Tyler shouted at his monitor. Still, he couldn’t help but always titter at that error message. It sounded like something an addled priest would say during Mass. Oops, I seem to have misplaced Jesus today… Of course, it had been a long, long time since Tyler had set foot in a church. Or anywhere, for that matter.

He let go of the mouse, went to the keyboard and hit control “R,” holding the keys down as the screen flickered. “Reload this,” he muttered, waiting.

Infinite seconds of nothing, annoying sound, error message the same again.

“Fuck.” Tyler spat. Okay, fine, maybe somebody had hacked the site — although he would hope that a major bank, his bank, was fairly hack-proof. No, it was some transitory problem, something stupid and mechanical, a broken switch or system traffic. Everything would be back up soon. Well, what the hell, in the meantime he could check out his favorite group look at some porn.

He went to his favorites, the folder named “Babes,” scrolled down to “Lusty Busty Beauties” and clicked. This was always good for a few minutes of amusement, any time of day.

Why was everything taking so long? He wasn’t connected by modem. That was so 1998. He was jacked in direct on a T-3 line, forty-five million bits a second. The first naked babe should have popped up on his screen instantly, if not faster.


Tyler stared at the screen, frustration mounting. What was going on here? The problem must be on his end. He exited his browser, checked to make sure the operating system didn’t still think it was running (he was going to have to email a nasty note to the browser people over that recurring problem) then ran the program again, waiting.

The error came back, hovering over the empty gray screen of an unconnected browser. “Oh, fuck you,” Tyler grunted. He exited the browser, then rebooted the system. Billions of dollars spent on developing and marketing software and operating systems every year, and they still couldn’t get them right.

While his computer died and came back to life, he padded out to the kitchen, stepping around knee-high stacks of magazines and personal papers, grabbed a cup of coffee from the pot, took a sip. He glanced at the clock. It was four-thirty. Good, so it was just past noon in England and only about ten‑thirty tomorrow night in Sydney. He felt like chatting with some of his friends, maybe he’d do that when he was done with the banking.

He wandered back to the second bedroom he used as an office, where his computer was just finishing up the ever so long process of restarting. He sat down, ready to go back online when another error message popped up. “Unable to establish connection.”

He let out a frustrated shriek, then reminded himself of rule number one in the computer business — check for low density, high impedance connections. To the non-geek world, that was better known as a pulled-out plug. Sure, that must be it, simplest thing in the world to fix. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head far under the desk and peered around the back of his computer case as best he could.

He banged his head on the desk when he started to emerge for the flashlight. What idiot had ever decided that all the connections should be on the back of the computer, anyway? Even with the radio linked keyboard, mouse, printer and webcam, there was still an octopus of cords back there. Tyler grabbed the flashlight and turned it on. Then, he stared at the thing, which refused to illuminate. He flung it across the room, then turned on the overhead light, got back down under the desk and moved the computer to the side, tilting it and squinting.

Everything was plugged in where it was supposed to be. The thick blue wire was firmly in its socket. He jiggled it just to make sure. Yep. Connected. He traced the wire to the wall, where, likewise, it was firmly connected. He unplugged it, put it back in place until it clicked, just to make sure.

This was disconcerting. He heaved himself back into his chair, stared at the screen, then started checking out the settings for his network card. Nothing had changed, everything was correct. He knew these settings by heart, and they were fine. He tried connecting again. Nothing.

If Tyler designed operating systems, these error messages would be the first thing to go, replaced by a graphic of a hand giving the finger. That’s all they were anyway, the computer’s way of saying, “I know there’s a problem, but I’m not going to tell you what, exactly, it is. Nyah, nyah, human.” Was it too much to ask a three thousand dollar piece of plastic and metal with a three hundred dollar operating system to be a little more forthcoming when it failed? Shit, doctors wouldn’t make very much money if they worked that way. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, you’re dying. We don’t know what of, and we can’t stop it, but you’re done for.”

“Motherfucker…” Tyler shouted, banging the desk. He sat there, nostrils flaring for a moment, then shut down the computer and grabbed the screwdriver. “Prep the patient,” he said to himself. “We’re going in.”

* * *

Several hours, five cups of coffee, many reboots and an assload of frustration later, Tyler threw down his screwdriver and fell into a kitchen chair, wanting to cry. He’d taken the network card in and out five times, trying it in different slots, playing with the switches on it, flipping back and forth through the manual, which was about as informative as those error messages. Nothing worked. Every time he tried, every time that he knew this would be the time, it was the same thing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The sun had come up and he could hear neighbor’s cars starting, people heading off for their day. The poor, deluded fools, hurrying off to the rat race which would always begin with some hellishly slow commute, racing the clock and always losing, to go sit in someone else’s place and do someone else’s business and give up every bit of freedom. Tyler had gotten out of that game a long time ago, discovering the joys of telecommuting and Internet consulting, and he didn’t miss any of it.

Except, right now, he could be working and he wasn’t, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. He put the computer back in place, turned it back on, knowing it would be no different this time, and sat there, fuming. He grabbed his Rolodex, flipped through it and found the card for his service provider. He’d listed their customer service hours from eight a.m. to five p.m..

Great, so he’d have to wait two and a half hours? He was about to start cursing all over again when he remembered that the company’s offices were in New Jersey. Maybe that meant eastern time. Maybe he was in luck…

He dialed and waited, listening to the Muzak and the “Someone will be with you shortly” message. He put the phone on speaker and popped up his graphics program, idly flipping through the many photos of women he’d collected, scantily clad and less so, a gallery of objects that were all his any time he wanted them.

He was staring at the unblemished, golden round ass of a girl identified as Tracy (although he’d also run across her as Donna, Eileen and Kitten) when a voice intruded on the speaker. Tyler snatched up the phone. “Yeah, something’s wrong with my connection…” he said, voice cracking and gravelly this early in the morning.

“Let me check that for you, sir,” the chipper voice on the other end said. Tyler hated being called sir on the phone. He was only twenty-six, although he always sounded older. After the usual interminable business of giving his information and proving who he was, the Muzak was back and he waited again. He looked at the girl on the screen, wondered if the girl on the phone looked anything like her. Probably not. But he could pretend.

It seemed like hours but was really only two songs later that someone came back on the phone, but it wasn’t the girl. It was a man, who identified himself as a supervisor. Tyler’s heart fell. Now what? He’d paid his bill. At least, his bank did, automatically, every month. Unless they’d fucked that up.

“Mr. Allen, sorry to inconvenience you, but we’ve had a problem in your area,” the supervisor explained, trying to sound jovial.

“What kind of problem?” Tyler demanded.

“A construction crew — the electric company, actually — well, they cut right through our main fiber-optic line with a backhoe. Our entire system is down on the west coast because of it, but we are taking steps to get it back up.”

“They backhoed your backbone?”

The man laughed. “You could put it that way.”

“So, it’s not my computer?”

“No, no. It’s us. I’m real sorry about this. We will be offering a free month’s service to all of our customers, once things are resolved.”

“How long’s it going to be out, then, a couple of hours?”

“Well, Mr. Allen, I’m afraid not. It’s going to take a little bit longer than — “

“How long?”

“At least until Friday,” the supervisor said quietly, his jovial tone gone.

“Friday!” Tyler screamed. “Fucking Friday?”

“At the earliest, yes.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do until then?”

There was a pause on the other end, then the supervisor went on. “We are doing everything we can to restore your service as quickly as possible, Mr. Allen. We did explain all of this as soon as we knew about it, we sent an email to all of our customers.”

“You sent an email?”

“Yes, it explains everything.”

“An email?”

“Yes, did you get it?”

Tyler wanted to bite the phone in half. As it was, his left hand was practically splintering the plastic. He stood, breathing heavily. “Of course I didn’t fucking get it, you goddamned asshole. How the fuck can I get a fucking email if your fucking system is blown all to fuck for fuck’s sake?”

“Mr. Allen, there’s really no need for such language.”

“Fuck… you!” he screamed, then he slammed the phone down. Friday. Friday at the earliest. No, that couldn’t be. It was a bad dream, that’s what it was. He had work to do, clients to satisfy, people to chat with, things to… look up. Friday may have been their answer, but Friday was no good. To hell with Friday, he needed to be connected right now.

He was about to go online to look up other service providers when he realized that was a stupid idea, then went all around the house looking for the phone book. He finally found it under the bed and, even though the “Use Until” date on the cover was over a year ago, he flipped through it, found Internet Service Providers and started calling… and then realized that, while it may have been well into that supervisor’s work day, things still hadn’t really started out here and this was the local phone book.

Jesus, was that an archaic idea. Just local numbers? When would the phone company figure out that business had gone global? If he could look it up online, he’d find a company on the east coast that was ready to deal in five minutes.

But if he could look it up online…

Tyler slammed the phone book, stared at the clock, then stomped out to the kitchen. He’d have to wait two or three hours. Two or three hours, or wait until Friday. At the earliest.

Life sucked.

* * *

“Sure, we can get you T-3 service, you say you have all the hardware set up?”

“Yes,” Tyler said hopefully.

“And I’ve checked your location, we do service that area.”

“Great, great,” Tyler said. “So, how soon can you do it?”

“Let me check…” the woman paused, consulting something. “I can have a technician out there in… three weeks.”

“But I don’t need a technician, everything is set up, just turn it on.”

“That would be our self-service option — “

“Yeah, yeah, self-service, whatever. How long does that take?”

“We can have your service activated by… a week from Thursday. And right now, we have a special promotion — ”

“A week from fucking Thursday?” Tyler said.

“Y-yes. And our promotion — ”

“No sooner?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

“All right. It’s a very good promotion  — ”

“Ram your fucking promotion up your ass, bitch.”

And he slammed down the phone for the seventh or eighth time that morning. He’d lost count. What was the problem with people? In theory, it would take all of five seconds to reroute his hook-up.

He had a DNS, his computer was a server, just send someone out to swap the wiring from the old company to the new one’s cables, change a little designation in a database somewhere, let it propagate, and bang, he’d be back in business.

The whole point of humans creating the internet in the first place was so that the entire system of military and university computers would stay connected, and no information would be lost in the case of all-out nuclear war.

Somebody had explained it once as the difference between good Christmas tree lights and shitting ones. If you bought shitty lights, where everything was wired in series, if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. But if you bought the good lights, where everything was wired in parallel, if one bulb burned out, none of the others would even notice.

In theory. The weak link was the human link, as in it would take some poor lazy asshole to get up out of a chair and go do something, and that was what took all the time, all the waste, all the frustration. That was the real reason computers sucked when they failed. They were designed by humans. Machines should have been superior to their creators, but they were not.

Of course, if that was the case, the human condition really did not bode well for the creative abilities of god.

It was noon by the time he finished with the last company, heard the same refrain. The earliest anyone could hook him up was a week and a day. The real world operated at a snail’s pace. He hung up with a quiet, “No, thank you.” He’d long since used up all the good profanity he knew, getting pretty creative around the twentieth call, pretty resigned by the thirtieth.

Of course, there was always the annoying fallback of using a dial-up service, even if it did mean switching temporarily to a regular modem. He went to the linen closet, opened it and surveyed the graveyard of abandoned peripherals. There were CD‑ROMs, floppy drives, old keyboards, two printers, a trackball, half a dozen joysticks, an ancient black and white webcam, a newer but just as outdated color one, and a stack of cards with uses that Tyler had practically forgotten. He pulled down the cards, flipped through the stack looking for that familiar UART chip.

Nope, nope, not that one, no, no… none of them were modems. None of them. That was unbelievable. He’d been through a dozen modems in the last five years, he had to have one sitting around.

Then he remembered. The day he’d gotten his T-3, he’d burned all the modems, actually put them in a metal bucket, doused them with lighter fluid and gleefully torched them. Sure, it had set off the smoke alarm in the living room, but it had been worth it. Ancient history, consigned to the fate it deserved.

In retrospect, it had been a really bad idea. But it was the thought that counted, and Tyler knew what he had to do now. Go out, buy a modem, and deal with it until Friday. At the earliest.

He started for the door, then realized he was wearing his robe and pajamas. Oops. Change first, then go out. He went to the bedroom, dug through the mound of laundry, found some clothes that didn’t smell too bad and changed. Okay, that was done with, now… wallet and keys, that was it. Wallet and keys, where were they? He hunted around the house for a good fifteen minutes before he found them, dusty and forgotten under a stack of magazines.

He also found his watch, which was actually still working. He looked at the date on it. September 10th. That sounded familiar. It took him a minute to remember, then he realized it had been just over a year since he’d last gone out this door. He hadn’t had to. He did all his business online, got paid by his clients through direct deposit, ordered everything from the Internet, even his groceries, had it all delivered.

He never went out to the movies but consumed a steady stream of DVDs by mail rental, ordered his stamps, his books and his CDs, got his news of the world, had all his friends, online. He knew people all over the world, chatted with them incessantly. He had sex with a lot of them, in the safest way possible, sometimes with the webcam, sometimes just with words.

He’d probably gotten off a lot of middle-aged businessmen who pretended to be teenage girls that way, but as long as Tyler didn’t know, he didn’t care. And if that method failed, there was always Kitten or Donna or Eileen, or whoever they really were, just an assortment of glowing dots writhing all over his great, big twenty-one inch monitor, beckoning him in the dark.

It was like somebody had cut both his legs off with that random backhoe. He wondered if the company had been lying to him. Was it really the power company? Blaming the power company in California was like blaming Palestinians in the Knesset. Was his service provider lying to cover up an inevitable act of human negligence and laziness?

That still didn’t change the length of time he’d have to wait, and he couldn’t wait. He put on his watch, pocketed his wallet and keys, went to the front door and grabbed the knob. He took a deep breath, then pulled the door open and stepped outside.

* * *

Being a basic bit

Zeroes and Ones are the building blocks of what’s known as binary, and the juice that our digital world runs on. Another way to think of it is this. In our so-called Base 10 world, we deal with ten digits, and depending upon what you’re counting, you can either go from 0 to 9 (things) or 1 to (1)0 (dates, place order). Since 9 is the highest digit, when any column hits it, the 9 next rolls back to 0 and the digit to its left increments up, initially from 1.

So after the number 9, we get 10. After 19, we get 20, after 99, it’s 100, and so on. Also note that 100 happens to be 10 x 10, 1,000 is 10 x 100, 10,000 is 100 x 100, etc. This will be important in a moment.

In the binary world, things roll over faster. In fact, the only digits you have are 0 and 1, so counting works like this: start with 0, then 1. But 1 is as high as we can go, so after 1 comes 10, which, in binary, represents 2.

That might seem strange, but here’s the logic behind it, going back to decimal 10. What is 10, anyway? Well, it’s the number that comes after we’ve run out of digits. Since we’re used to base 10, it doesn’t require any explanation to see that 10 always comes after 9. At least in base 10. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first there’s a very important concept to introduce, and that’s called “powers.”

The powers that be

No, I’m not talking Austin Powers. Rather, raising a number to a power just means multiplying the number by itself that many times. In its basic form, you’ll often see Xn. That’s what this means. It’s just a more efficient way of writing things out:

            2 x 2 = 22 = 4

            3 x 3 x 3 = 33 = 3 x 9 = 27

            10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 105 = 100 x 100 x 10 = 10,000 x 10 = 100,000

Here’s an interesting thing about powers of 10, though. The end result will always have exactly as many zeros as the exponent, or power that you raised 10 to. 109. Simple: 1,000,000,000. If it’s 102, 100, and so on.

And the two fun sort of exceptions that aren’t exceptions to keep in mind:

            X x 0 x N = N, aka X0 = 1

            X x 1 = X1 = X.

101 is 10 with 1 zero, or 10; 100 is 10 with no zeroes, or 1.

In other words, any number to the power of zero equals 1, and any number to the power of 1 equals itself. And there you go, that’s all you need except for this: When it comes to determining what the power is, we count “backwards” from right to left. The last digit before the decimal takes the 0 power, next to the left is 1, next over from that is 2, and so on.

Everything in its place

Since places correspond to powers, in Base 10 we would call the digits, right to left, the ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten-thousands, hundred-thousands, and so on places. In binary, you’d have the ones, twos, fours, eights, sixteens, thirty-twos, etc.

Makes sense? Then let’s look at a four-digit number in binary: 1776.

But here’s an interesting trick: in computer logic, it often becomes much easier for the circuits to literally read in the digits backwards in order to do these steps upwards in the proper order. This saves the step of having to figure out how long a string is before assigning the proper power to the most significant digit, which is the last one on the left.

So, to calculate, we’ll count it from right to left, which will make it easier to follow what’s happening. Let’s go with 6771 for ease of use. The 6 is in the zero position, so it represents 6 x 100, in which case this is 6 x 1, meaning just plain old 6.

Next, a 7 times 101, which is just 10, so this spot is worth 70 and we’re up to 76.

Next, 7 times 102, which is 100 times 7. Add that to the rest, it’s now 776.

Finally, a 1 in the spot multiplied by 103, which is 10 x 10 x 10, which is 10 x 100, so… 1,000. Slap that on the rest, and there you go: 1776.

This works exactly the same way in any other base. So let’s look at a typical binary number: 1011 1110. As humans, we could deal with doing the whole thing backwards, but again, let’s make it easy for the machine, feed it in right to left, and watch the sequence in action:

Digit (D) 0    1    1    1    1    1    0    1
Power (p) 0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7
2^p       1    2    4    8    16   32   64   128
2^p x D   0    2    4    8    16   32   0    128
SUM       0    2    6    14   30   62   62   190

Or in base three or trinary, let’s look at 21221121, entered again in reverse:

Digit (D) 1    2    1    1    2    2    1    2
Power (p) 0    1    2    3    4    5    6    7
3^p       1    3    9    27   81   243  729  2187
3^p x D   1    6    9    27   162  486  729  4374
SUM       1    7    16   43   205  691  1420 5794

Now, let’s take a look at an interesting property in Base 10 and see if it translates over.

Dressed to the nines

In Base 10, any number divisible by nine also has all of its digits add up to nine. You can easily see this with the first few pairs of two-digit multiples of nine: 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, and so on. The tens digit goes up by one while the ones digit goes down by one, and that makes perfect sense. Why? Because when you add nine, what you’re really doing is the same as adding 10 and then taking away one.

It doesn’t matter how big the number is. If you can add the digits up to nine, then you can say it’s divisible by nine. To just pull a number out of thin air, I guarantee that 83,764,251 is evenly divisible by nine. I could also put any number of nines anywhere in that number and it would still be divisible, or put the digits in any order. And if you have a number that has all of the digits from 0 to 9 in any order, then it’s divisible by 9.

So does this property hold for other bases? What about Base 8? In that case, we should expect seven to be the magic number. I’ll spare you the torturing of Excel I did to run a  test, but the answer is: Yes. If a number is divisible by seven in Base 8, then its digits add up to seven. Here’s the list from the Base 8 equivalent of 1 to 99 (which is 1 to 77): 7, 16, 25, 34, 43, 52, 61, 70. Now none of those numbers in Base 10 is divisible by seven, but in Base 8 they are. Here’s how and why it works.

When you divide a number in Base 10 by 9, you start on the left, figure out how many times 9 goes into that whole number, carry the remainder to the next digit, and repeat the process. So to divide 27 by 9, you start by dividing 20 by 9. This gives you 2 times 9 = 18. Subtract 18 from 20, you get 2. Carry that over to the next place, which is 7, add 2 and 7, you get 9, which is divisible by 9. Add the 2 from the first result to 1, and your answer is 3.

Did you notice anything interesting there? It’s that you happened to wind up with the number in the Base digit twice. Two times 9, with the remainder of 2 adding to the other digit, and what was the other thing we noticed? That’s right. The sum of the digits is 9, so what’s left when you divide the ten’s digit by 9 has to add to the one’s digit to total 9.

This is true in any other base. Let’s look at our Base 8 example of 34. We can’t cheat by converting to Base 10, so the 3 tells us that 7 goes into the number three times. But since 3 times 7 is 3 less than 3 times 8, that’s our remainder. Add that to the 4 to get 7, and boom, done. In Base 8 34/7 = 3+1 = 4. Convert the Base 8 to Base 10 to get 28, and voila… 4 times 7 is 28. The answer is the same either way when you reduce it to a single digit.

A spot check bears this out with other bases, so it would seem to be a rule (though I’m not sure how to write the formula) that for any Base, B, and any number evenly divisible by B-1, the digits of that number will add up to B-1.

That’s the funny thing about whole numbers and integers. They have periodicity. What they do is predictable. Multiples of any integer will appear at regular intervals without jumping around no matter how far towards any particular ∞ you go. Irrational numbers and primes, not so much. But it’s good to know that the basis of digital computing is so reliable and regular. In fact, here’s a funny thing about binary: Every single number in binary is evenly divisible by 1 because all of the digits of every single number in it adds up to a number divisible by… 1. And a Base 1 numbering system is impossible, because the largest possible number in it is 0. It also breaks the whole Base rule above, because nothing can be divided by 0. Base 1 is the Black Hole of the numbering system. The rest should be pretty transparent.

%d bloggers like this: