A tetralog in three parts

seeking to answer that age-old question:

What is Unicode?

A programmer friend of mine and I were talking about Unicode, as we often do when we're feeling sociable. Of course, this alienates many of our other friends, but usually we do not care, unless they happen to be buying the beer.

On this particular occasion two other friends happened to be in the room, and one of them happened to be buying the beer.

  • One of them, the beer buyer, is a mathematician with some computer experience.
  • The other, a linguist, has good word-processing skills (but is usually unable to get his documents to print, and as a result, lives in perpetual fear of his computer).

They had been listening patiently to our jargon exchange, when the mathematician interrupted us, perhaps in knowledge of the power he held over us.

Mathematician: [provocatively speaking]
“What is Unicode, anyway?”
Programmer: [without hesitation]
“Do you know what ASCII is?”
Mathematician: [characteristically terse]
Programmer: [again without the slightest hesitation]
“Well, Unicode is like ASCII, but bigger.”
Three of us: [smiling and grinning]
... chuckles ...
Linguist: [agonized facial expression, thinking of
the last time Word froze his iMac]
“I don't know what ASCII is.”
Programmer: [who never hesitates]
“Do you know what a bit is?”
Linguist: [knowing this is the wrong answer]
“Um, something tiny.”
Mathematician: [compassionately]
“A bit is a one or a zero.”
Programmer: [like clockwork]
“Yes. And ASCII is quite a bit like
a bit, but a little bit bigger.”
Linguist: [beatific facial expression, thinking of
conceptual metaphor, and smiling]
“So, Unicode is like a bit, but biggest...”
Epilogue: Miraculously, and not to imply a causal connection here, but from that day forth, the linguist not only became a more confident word processor, but his documents began to print flawlessly. Sadly however, Word continues to crash his iMacto this day.
Disclaimers: While based in part on real-world events, the roles of the characters in this exchange have been changed to protect the innocent. Any resemblance to actual persons in actual roles can only be a by-product of your associative powers, as the author’s imperfect memory, inventive power, and misinterpetation have skewed things beyond all recognition.
Acknowledgements: This web page was made possible in part by the grace of the MIR space-station, which mercifully did not fall on my house in Oakland last night.
Bit Safe: Zero bits were harmed in the making of this web page. (It was sad to harm those zero bits, but what can you do?!)

More? Please see my What is Unicode? web page.
Comments? Please email Richard Cook

Created: Friday, March 23, 2001.
Last modified: 20100125 (converted to xhtml)