If I Close My Eyes, Will It Go Away? or What the Heck are Bits, Anyway?


Quick! What does a software error have to do with an orgasm?

If you’re scratching your head, consider this: for an author of erotica, the former can prevent the latter. Maybe your word processing program is more reliable than mine, but I’ve certainly experienced coitus interruptus when my computer couldn’t quite keep it up.

We erotica writers struggle to overcome many obstacles, internal and external: writer’s block, recalcitrant characters, families who don’t understand that writing is working, plagiarism and piracy, unscrupulous or stingy publishers, prudes and ideologues who believe we’re responsible for the decline of society, and so on. These days, though, not a few of the barriers to success are technological.

If you don’t care whether you’re published, you can perhaps choose to ignore computers. You can write your grand opus longhand on legal pads, the way I wrote my dissertation. You can transcribe your poems in parchment notebooks in turquoise and purple ink, as I did in my youth, and share manually-produced chapbooks with your small coterie of admirers.

If you want a wider circle of readers, however, you can’t afford to be a complete Luddite. You need adequate word processing competence to prepare your manuscript with the margins, fonts, and formatting required by the publisher to whom you plan to submit it. You have to have a website, a blog, or both, and update them regularly, to do even the minimum level of marketing. Email signature lines; Yahoo or Google groups; cover images; buy links; book trailers; Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and all the other social media; you’ve got to be at least somewhat tech-savvy just to survive.

I know many authors, though, who are technophobic. When faced with a problem involving computers or software, they feel terrified and totally inadequate, not to mention annoyed. Why should an author have to worry about mysterious, incomprehensible stuff like anchors and style sheets, image resolution and blog feeds? they think. Can’t I just write?

Alas, not anymore. Hence this column. Each month, I’m going to make it my business to explain some area of computer technology relevant to authors. My goal is to demystify some of the topics you might find puzzling or obscure, to teach you enough that you will feel competent performing the technical tasks all modern writers need to undertake.

Don’t expect in-depth discussions of the fine points of HTML or Blogger. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can find out more on your own, if you’re so inclined. I’m trying to get you over the hump, so to speak, to gently introduce you to technologies you currently find impenetrable and hopefully to demonstrate that they really make some sense after all.

And what qualifies me to write this column? I have to agree I don’t look like a geek!

Well, I’m not necessarily the most computer-savvy author out there. I don’t Tweet and I’m rarely on Facebook. I don’t own a smart phone. In fact, I’m pretty skeptical about technology – partially because I work with it on a daily basis. For more decades than I want to admit, I’ve been involved designing and writing software. I also have nearly ten years experience teaching these topics to various audiences.

Finally, I’ve been publishing my erotica since the beginning of the Internet age, long before Google, YouTube, blogs and social networks existed. I edited the galleys for my first novel on paper! I’ve had a website and domain since 1999 – a website which I now update by hand-coding all my own pages. I’ve seen the gradual evolution – and digitalisation – of publishing, and managed, at least to some extent, to adapt.

Now I want to help you do the same. Over the next year, I’ll be talking about HTML (the language of the web) and other aspects of web interaction such as images and animation. I’ll also tackle questions like backing up your work and keeping your identity secure, and I’ll try to explain why the Web sometimes seems so screwed up. I have a rough outline of topics, but if there’s some aspect of writing- or publishing-related technology that you’d like me to address, please email me with your questions or suggestions. You’ll find my email at the end of this article.

By the way, I’m not going to talk about computer issues related to self-publishing at all, since my friend and colleague William Gaius is already doing an admirable job in this arena in his series “Kill Electrons Not Trees”. (Also, I don’t have nearly as much experience in that realm as he does.)

So – let’s get started. I said that I wanted to teach you the basics. We’ll begin with the most fundamental computer concept of all: a bit. Just what is a bit – naughty or otherwise?

The word “bit” is short for “binary digit”. “Binary” is a fancy word for “two”. Basically, a binary digit is a number that can have only one of two values: 0 or 1. Ultimately, everything in a computer and everything on the web is just a collection of bits – ones and zeros.

With one bit, we can represent two different alternatives. True or false. Heads or tails. Male or female. Gay or straight. Cunnilingus or fellatio. The person using the bit defines the alternatives. A bit by itself has no meaning – the person writing the software or creating the data assigns the meaning. This is a critical point. All a bit provides is a way of signaling one of two different states. Those states could be pretty much anything at all.

If we have more than two alternatives, we need more than one bit. For instance, to represent “Straight”, “Gay”, or “Bisexual”, we’d need two bits.

00 = Straight
01 = Gay
10 = Bisexual

Note that we can also treat these patterns of bits as numbers:

00 = 0
01 = 1
10 = 2
11 = 3

Note also that we have room for one more sexual orientation, which we could map to the pattern 11, if anyone wants to propose one!

With two bits we can represent up to four alternatives. With three bits, there are eight possible combinations. With four bits, there are sixteen. And so on. Each time we add a bit, we double the number of possible meanings we can assign to a bit string of that length.

Eight is a particularly useful number of bits. With eight bits we can represent 256 alternatives. Lots of things in the world fall into that range, enough that groups of eight bits have a special name: a byte. In particular, one byte gives us enough possibilities to assign one pattern of bits to each letter (character) in the Latin alphabet, upper and lower case, plus punctuation and a range of special symbols (like the all important copyright symbol!). There are standards that map each character to a number between 0 and 255 (that is, to patterns of bits).

For example, according a widely used standard mapping called ASCII, the bit pattern 0100 0001 (65) corresponds to a capital A. The pattern 0111 1010 (122) corresponds to a lower case z. The pattern 0001 0000 (32) corresponds to a space. And so on.

So if I were to look at the bits used to represent this article, I might be able to recognize the individual letters of each word and sentence. I say “might” because this number-to-character mapping is only one way to represent text.

And don’t forget that those eight bits could be used to mean something completely different – for example, all the different epublishers that have opened their virtual doors in the past five years, or the number of rejection letters the typical author receives over the course of her career.

The core concept here is that everything is a computer – the data and the software that manipulates that data – is composed of strings of bits. Your latest work-in-progress, your head shot, your book trailer, your word processing program – all are composed of bits.

And it’s we humans who give those bits meaning. I’ve demonstrated above that the same pattern of bits can have different meanings. You can also have the same meaning, represented by different patterns of bits. For example, your story has the same meaning whether it is stored in Microsoft Word format or Adobe PDF format, but the underlying bit patterns will be completely different.

A corollary is that software that works with some data (some collection of bits) needs to “know” how to interpret those bits. If the software makes incorrect assumptions, nonsense (or worse!) will result. Just try taking a PDF file of your latest story, renaming it to .DOC and then opening it in MicrosoftWord, to see what I’m talking about.

The digital world is composed of a bewildering array of different standards for arranging bits. When these standards related to how the bits are stored on a hard disk or other persistent medium, they are often called file formats. Don’t allow yourself to become confused or discouraged by this variety. After all, it’s the meaning that’s important.

You may find computer technology mysterious. The real mystery, to me, is how an author can build living, breathing characters and a plausible world out of nothing but his or her imagination. We create meaning and evoke emotion. We challenge and change our readers, leading them to new places and perhaps new understanding. And all of that begins in our minds.

I find that far more marvelous than any silly combination of bits.

Lisabet Sarai
February 2012

“Naughty Bits: The Erotogeek’s Guide for the Technologically Challenged Author” © 2012 Lisabet Sarai. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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