There are Eight Million Stories in the SubStack City. Let's Read Two Of Them.
It was another cold and lonely day in the unforgiving city. Lucky for me though, I wasn’t in the city. I was in my office. Jumping and dodging the barrels that only life’s Donkey Kongs can throw at you. A Dame walked into the joint. I recognized her instantly, because she was my wife. She said I left the twist-tie off the bread again. And it was stale, baby. Stale as the case I had been kicking around in my head for the past two weeks.
Octal was missing. He hadn’t been seen in years, and everyone was sure he was dead. Who had killed him? There was no corpse, no family looking for him, and no one was interested in taking a pointless case like that. Except me. Pointless was my thing.
I apologized to the lady and went and made myself a stale sandwich. I wanted to find my coffee to wash it down, but there wasn’t time. There were eight things running through my head. And all of them were Octal.
Case 1: Dial “O” for Octal
The trail had gone cold on this one. Octal had been gone for decades. So I did some digging. Way back, back to early-1900s times. I found out that before Octal was around and things got all electronic-like, this other guy Decimal was working all the computer clubs. Nice guy, and people naturally got along with him. He had all the numbers working for him, and his work was high quality. Ten out of ten.
Trouble started when these new electronic joints started opening up. They were all run by the big boss, Binary. And Binary was one tough cookie. You either fit in with him, or you didn’t. It was all black and white with Binary, and Decimal didn’t get along with him from the start. Decimal would ask Binary for four bits to do his whole BCD routine, but then not end up not using ‘em all. Binary would say you gotta use less, but then Decimal would complain about his upper digits getting squeezed.
It wasn’t working out, and so Decimal got zeroed. I’d like to know more, but that’s a case even too cold for me to track down.
Colder than the coffee I forgot on the piano while making my stale sandwich.
So then Octal shows up on the scene. Binary likes him better, because he only has 8 Digits. And log-base-two of 8 is a whole number of bits, baby.
Octal gets the nod to start doing shows at the computer clubs, but people had to get used to his act. It was kinda strange. Seven plus One is Ten, and cockamamie things like that. He had to do a lot of explaining about what happened to the likes of 8 and 9.
Octal was a quirky guy. But boy, could he pack in those bits.
Story goes that Binary and Octal had a falling-out, because every one of Octal’s digits used three bits, and three was not a characteristic Binary liked to see in one of his employees. The boys in the backroom may have complained that Octal’s three-bit ways were causing a few math headaches for Binary’s operations.
Some people say it’s why Octal went missing. But the three-bit theory didn’t square with me. Because that would be nine. And who needs nine bits?
So I went looking for the last place anyone saw Octal. All of the joints he used to play had closed down decades ago. PDP-8, UNIVAC-1100, ICT-1900 — all long gone. Then it hit me. I needed to talk to the dame who replaced him.
Hexadecimal was a busy lady, but easy to find. Every cheap four-bit field in town had seen Hex come through. She was flamboyant. Larger than life. Regular numbers weren’t good enough for old Hexy, so she invented a few of her own. She didn’t play by the rules, and she seemed like someone who knew things about what happened to Octal.
Hexadecimal was something to see, with a nice set of digits that started at 0 and went all the way up to F. When I asked her about Octal, she told me she hadn’t seen him. She said her first gig was working for a guy named Big Blue, at a popular club he ran called The 360. It seemed like just the kind of place Octal would have liked to play. But according to Hex, Octal never got that gig.
We shared a byte, and I asked her why not. She told me Octal’s act had played out, and Big Blue wanted him gone. Sure, Octal had the numbers thing down, but people wanted more. They wanted letters too, and not just those six sexy ones Hexy was packing. They wanted them all. People were looking for strings. She said that Octal got retired because he didn’t know that tune. But Hex sure seemed like she did.
Octal could do letters, I said. I’d seen it, back when I worked the bar at the PDP-8. Coupla Octal digits got you six bits, plenty enough for a few letters and numbers. She gave me that big
4C4F4C laugh of hers. It gets me every time.
Octal’s two digits got you only 64 characters, she said. Now I’d seen plenty of characters in my day, and 64 seemed like enough to me. But she said people were asking for more. They wanted upper and lower case letters. Numbers. Symbols.
For that, you needed more bits I realized. Seven or Eight, and those were not numbers of bits Octal got along with. She reminded me that back at the PDP-8, it was always a 12-bit show, and when Octal wanted to do a 7 or 8-bit character routine, there were always a bunch of bits lying around that didn’t get used. It wasn’t working out well. Too messy.
The manager at the PDP-8 was a nice guy named Ken, and he tried to help old Octal out by coming up with some crazy routines. Like packing three characters into two 12-bit words and stuff like that. That got the job done, but it wasn’t a hit. And besides, people just weren’t showing up at that club like they used to.
They were all going to the new joints, a syndicate operation called The PC, run by the big crime bosses in town. Hex worked all these clubs, and she said the star performer was a guy named ASCII, who really didn’t get along at all with Octal. She said maybe I should talk to him.
I knew ASCII from when he was a kid, back in the mainframe days. Everyone was speaking a different language back then and the big bosses decided to put that punky ASCII kid in charge as the enforcer to get everyone in line. Right around when Octal went missing.
I called up ASCII on my modem, got a carrier tone right away. At first he was only talking 9600 baud but we negotiated a while, and I got him up to a cool 56K. ASCII was an older guy now, but still had sway everywhere in the city. Just not as popular as he once was, so he was easy to reach.
When I asked about Octal going missing, he said he didn’t know a thing about it. He said he didn’t kill him, but Octal had plenty of enemies in town and probably got what was coming to him. Besides, he said, he might not even be dead.
Then he told me a crazy rumor about some guy hiring Octal for a quick nine-bit job a few weeks back. Sounded like madness to me. But who was I to say.
Case 2: Murder Above 6th Street
I washed down the stale crusts of my sandwich with my cold coffee. Then I closed the Octal file, even though it still seemed like ASCII had some hand in his death. I just couldn’t prove it. That ASCII guy was a shifty character. And I was pretty sure Octal wasn’t his only victim.
I got out my Selectric typewriter to type up my case notes, both upper and lower. But then I remembered people don’t use typewriters anymore. As I was putting it away one key struck me though. It was the Six. Who was the guy in the picture above that key? Why it was old Cents!
I hadn’t seen Cents for years, we used to hang out together at the grocery store back when we were kids. He was a good character, even if he was a bit of a cheapskate. But Cents too had gone missing, right around the time ASCII came on the scene. A guy named Caret was now renting the spot above the Six.
I went down to see Caret. He said he was living in a tent, but then ASCII came and told him he wanted him for an opening at his new table. He got the place above the Six just after that, and by then Cents was nowhere to be seen.
I thanked Caret, because his help to the case was exponential. It was time to call up ASCII again because I had a lot of new questions for him.
ASCII said he wasn’t going to talk any more about Octal. I told him forget it, I had questions for him now about Cents going missing. I told him the trail led right to his table, and how Caret took Cent’s spot right after the disappearance.
ASCII said it wasn’t him that did Cents in. He said it was inflation. No one wanted Cents around, he couldn’t pay the bills and his credit wasn’t good no more. And ASCII didn’t want the likes of a guy like that at his table. So he told Cents to pack up and 23 skidoo. He said he had no idea what happened to him after that.
Everything did cost a buck or more these days, it was true. But ASCII had let a lot of other shady characters sit at his table. Backtick. Pipe. And that Pound guy who later changed his name to “Hash”. None of those guys had honest jobs back in the typewriter days. Until ASCII rounded them up as his programming goons that is.
Nothing was making any cents, so I decided to pay a little visit to ASCII’s famous table myself. Plenty of familiar characters were there when I arrived. N, U. Crazy old 9. Dash, Slash, Backslash. Colon and his half-brother Semicolon. And all the bracket and brace twins.
I asked a lot of questions but everyone was tight-lipped about old Cents. I was about to give up and go home, but thought maybe I’d just snoop around a little in ASCII’s ALT-code cellar before I left.
It was like a freak show down there. Dagger and Double-Dagger, Latin Ligature, Form-Feed. There were dozens of outcasts in that basement. All of ‘em locked up in little ALT-table cells. Far from the light of any keyboard.
Then I heard a weak voice saying ‘¢…’, coming from entry 155. It was Cents! He was still alive, after all! ASCII had cooped him up down here, all these years. I tried to get him out but then I remembered, you can’t really open a standard that easy. So I had to leave him down there, with the likes of Masculine Ordinal and Vulgar Fraction.
I thought of calling the papers and telling them my two cents on this story, but I didn’t think they would run it. Just like Octal, no one really cared about Cents. It seems the problems of an obsolete radix and a washed-up currency sign didn’t amount to a hill of bits in this crazy town.
So I went home, and closed the files on Octal and Cents. I felt bad though that I didn’t get the goods on ASCII. I’m a detective, and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not a natural thing.
I put my coffee cup and sandwich plate in the dishwasher, like I’m supposed to. There was a cold rain washing things down. Coulda used it for that sandwich. I was tired, and ready to turn in for the night. But then I remembered I still had to go into the city. Even though it was a dark and unforgiving one, that knew how to keep its secrets.
I had a date with a Grocer. To buy a loaf of bread.
Next Time: Got projects you never finished that are bumming you out? Me too. But I’ve got some encouraging words for you. Assuming I get around to finishing the article, that is. Let’s all talk about The Value of Unfinished Projects next time on the Memo!
Still looking for the answers to life’s persistent computer questions? Why not sign up for the Mad Ned Memo? You’ll get the latest scoop delivered electronically to your inbox, no paperboy, signup fees, or spam included. It’s a free publication, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
PSA: iPhone Users, check out the Mad Ned Memo on the new SubStack App!
The Mad Ned Memo takes subscriber privacy seriously and does not share email or other personal information with third parties. For more information,