How Binary Works
May 7, 2014 | CATEGORY: Teachable Tuesday
It’s Teachable Tuesday once again here at Amplify Media!

Every Tuesday the least technologically-inclined person in our office will attempt to explain complicated tech concepts using everyday language.

Today we’re going to be looking at binary code, the strings of 0s and 1s that somehow tell your computer how to act, what to display on the screen, and what sounds to pump out the speakers.

These 0s and 1s are indicated by signals of differing voltages, low voltage for 0 and higher voltage for 1. The CPU (central processing unit) in your computer, tablet, or smart phone interprets these signals into collections of 8 bits. Each bit is a 1 or a 0, and a collection of 8 bits makes up a byte. The byte indicates a letter, number, pixel, sound frequency, etc.

Looking at a simple example, 01000001 is the code that represents the letter A. Your CPU would receive a series of low and higher voltage signals, interpret these as the 0s and 1s representing the letter A, and display an A on the screen. Interpreting binary code as picture, video, or sound works in largely the same way. For visual elements, your CPU’s display adaptor interprets a series of three 8-bit sequences as an indication of the intensity of red, blue and green to display on screen as a single pixel. Consider how many pixels display on a screen for a single image, let alone an entire film, and you’ll start to see how complex binary code can get.

Even more complex is the translation of binary code into audio signals. The simplest explanation is that computer speakers can only produce so many sounds, and each of these sounds can be indicated through binary code just like the individual pixels of a picture or video. Since our resident layman couldn’t make heads or tails out of it even after two cups of coffee, we’ll leave the detailed explanation of how digital audio works for another day. For now, if anyone asks, just tell them it’s magic. Or, if you really want to make friends, tell them it’s too complicated for their liberal arts education to have prepared them to understand. That always goes over swimmingly in our office.

Got a tech question you’d like to see our own liberal arts major struggle to explain? Ask it in the comments! We’ll respond on a future Teachable Tuesday.
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