NEW VOICES: love bytes

NinjajenlucFor the last eight months or so, I've been encouraging various aspiring young science writers I encounter to submit the occasional guest post to Cocktail Party Physics. First, sometimes I just get tired of the sound of my own voice, or need a break. Second, I think it's critically important to encourage fresh new voices in the science writing sphere — because they will become the voices of "authority" tomorrow. Maybe they're not quite ready to take the plunge with their own blog, but I try to make this blog a place where it's okay to take the occasional creative risk, and receive helpful feedback from a (mostly) receptive audience so that they can keep refining their science writing skills.

Frankly, many of the aspiring science writers I've approached have been a bit intimidated about venturing into an admittedly rowdy (at times) public forum, but I'm finally optimistic that at least a few brave souls will be coming on-board for my little project over the next few months. So on this May Day, I inaugurate a new, occasional series called "New Voices." Today we welcome back Brian Frank, a student in KC Cole's science writing class at the University of Southern California, who guest blogged a couple of weeks ago about "Doomsday Physics." In this post, he shares the result of an in-class assignment on imagining a unique story-telling approach to a scientific topic — the workings behind a simple email — aimed at a very general target audience, for our consideration. Without further ado, we present "Love Bytes: A Fantasy of Networks and Bits." (Jen-Luc Piquant thinks we should all forward the post to any members of Congress — *cough* Ted Stevens *cough* — who remain mystified by how these Intertubes actually work.)

Johnny's sitting there, trying to decide how to sign his email to Liz. He taps out "– Johnny." He reconsiders, hits the Backspace key, and taps a few more keys. There it is: "Love, Johnny." He pauses. The cursor darts erratically around the screen as he wobbles the mouse. Then it hovers over the Send button. There's still time to change the signature line, but he's certain now. He clicks.

Normally, Johnny wouldn't think twice about what happens next to his message, but he's in a rather sentimental mood. With a modest background in computer science, he knows how that message will cross the nearly 3000 miles of networked wires from his apartment in Los Angeles to Liz's in New York. Through the filter of his romantic brooding, though, that electrical transmission seems as grand and romantic as some lone adventurer crossing the Sahara to reach his beloved. He imagines the L that started the one word that seemed to convey the whole of his message.

L is exactly one byte, but he isn't traveling alone. Each letter, each comma, each period of the message amounts to a byte. In Johnny's imagination, time is compressed, and L and all his compatriots are about to embark on an odyssey that in fact occurs countless times every second on the Internet. 

But first, they have to wait while the E-mail program gets them in proper order. This gargantuan application (from L's point of view) works like a factory, padding the message with extra information in the form of even more bytes. These extra bytes will travel at the head of the pack (in the header, no less), delivering special instructions on how to handle everything that comes after them. It's like sending a company representative ahead of a shipment to explain to the people on the receiving end how to unpack the freight trucks and reassemble the contents into a house.

With the header finished, the E-mail application prepares L and all the other bytes for travel. First, L is turned into something that can be easily read by computers. He gets crunched into bits — not smashed, really, but assigned "bits," the 0s and 1s that, in clusters of eight, make one byte. L translates to "01001100" in bits (which is binary, the universal language of computers). In a sense, that string of digits will act like L's identification tag.

Now properly identified, L gets crammed together with his neighbors into a long stream of digits. It's impossible to tell where one byte ends and another begins, really. All those letters and commas and periods blend together until they look like this: 01001100101011101010110100100101, and so on.

L and the other bytes are now ushered down to the network card, where they find their seats, as it were, on one of a caravan of buses — the packets that make it more efficient to send information across a network. These packets come in various sizes, but many hold up to 4000 passengers, which are bytes just like L. That seems like a lot of characters for one message, but actually a substantial portion of those bytes are part of the header that will tell the receiving computer what to do with all these 0s and 1s.

The packets line up in an orderly fashion and point to the cable that connects Johnny's computer to the Internet and ultimately to Liz's computer. But here's the beauty of it for L. The bytes are sent in groups, one packet at a time, but they don't actually have to travel at all. The computer just reads the information on the identification tags, and in a kind of Morse code, calls out the 0s and 1s across the network. Instead of using the blips of light or sound characteristic of traditional Morse code, the computer will send electromagnetic pulses. Each 1 is a pulse. Each 0 is a pause. With the perfect rhythm of a clock, the computer will either pulse or pause.

The packet in front of L's moves forward and all its bytes have their identification tags read and relayed down the line. L's packet has to wait briefly before it follows, because if all the packets went in a row, the line would be tied up too long, preventing other computers from sending other heartfelt messages.

Finally, L's packet has its turn. Each byte in front of his has its 0s and 1s transmitted. Then L's ID is read: "01001100." The computer measures out the beats like this: wait, pulse, wait, wait, pulse, pulse, wait, wait.

The pulses and pauses travel in their packets for hundreds of miles at a time — Los Angeles to Houston, Houston to Denver, Denver to Detroit, and so on until they reach New York. At each hub, a computer receives the signal and records it as bytes in a packet. It signals the next hub and so on down the line. When a line is temporarily busy, the computer hub holds the packet for a short layover. And they don't all have to travel together. Part of the job of that header was to tell the receiver, "Hey, there are 100 packages en route, so don't try reassembling all this stuff until you have all of them."

Eventually all the packets arrive in New York, in Liz's computer, in fact. The computer watches for pulses and pauses, keeping the same rhythm as the sender. For each pause it records a 0, and for each pulse a 1. Gradually it has a long string to work with. It snips every eighth bit and reads the subsequent string as a byte. All those bytes are sent up to Liz's E-mail application, where the factory transforms the digits back into characters. At some point, the application comes across the by-now-familiar byte "01001100," and shoots an L onto her screen. And at last, the journey is complete.

Of course, all this happens in a matter of seconds. Johnny and Liz have already traded numerous email messages today. This time, Liz sees the "Love, Johnny," panics, and sends a quick reply. Her message takes the same fantastic route, all the characters changing to bits and then pulsing across the Web to Johnny's computer. Unfortunately for Johnny, preceding Liz's name is not the "01001100" that would start the L word. Instead, he message reads, "I think we're better off as friends. — Liz."

8 thoughts on “NEW VOICES: love bytes”

  1. Great story, I was really rooting for the letter L. He made a mistake by going directly from “–” to “love”; his next step should have been to send XOXO and if he gets XOXOX back, he can move on to the matter of <3.

  2. I enjoyed that! One little correction: In the closing sentence, “Instead, he message reads,” presumably you meant ‘the’ instead of ‘he’. Tiny oops moment, otherwise it’s all good.

  3. First off, I’ve been enjoying your work (Jennifer) for a while now.
    One nit on the above article, however. If you (Brian) are going to appropriate one of xkcd’s famous comics, ( ), you should provide a link/reference to where it is from. That’s required by the ‘Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License’ (ie, free to copy and reuse non-commercially, but you need tell people where it’s from).
    Besides, this is a target-rich environment for finding people who’d enjoy xkcd’s humor.

  4. Writing from the perspective of your target audience, this was an excelent explanation. Thanks.

  5. Just a little nit-pick, technically, the binary value “0” is not necessarily a pause, but a voltage of below a certain threshold. In a 5v system, anything below 0.8v is considered “0” and anything above 2.7v is considered “1”.
    Loved the story though, with a great ending.

  6. Thanks for the correction, Harry. I actually rewrote this piece later (was a bit premature sending it to Jennifer), and instead of pulse/pause I used on/off, which I realized was simply more accurate, even though, as you say, a small amount of juice still registers as a 0.
    It’s a much-improved version of this blog post, I think. KC Cole recommended that I send it off to Wired or a similar publication. We’ll see what happens.
    Also, partly on the merit of this post, I was just offered a science writing internship at JPL in Pasadena. Jennifer has been very gracious to allow a student writer to post content on her blog, which is, after all, the one place she gets to write whatever she wants. Thank you, Jennifer.

  7. Congrats on the internship, Brian! That’s terrific news, and I look forward to seeing your output in the next few years. although I think KC deserves most of the credit for your new gig — she actually taught the class. 🙂

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