Base Race

Grade 7 Class Photo
St. Benedict’s Seattle, Grade 7 Class Photo circa 1969 (I’m in the middle row, 4th from right.)

Looking back I think it was in 7th grade that I got my first clear indication of what my future career might become.

We were being taught about number bases. Because we have 10 fingers our numbering system uses ten digits, 0 through 9. This is refered to as “base 10”. There are, naturally, other possible systems that can use pretty much any number of digits. Bases of less than 10 simply use only the digits needed, and bases of greater than 10 would add alphabetic characters in addition to the numeric digits 0-9. Base 16, for example, uses 0-9 and A-F to indicate the 16 possible digits in a number.

Base 2, or binary, is where it gets interesting; at least for me.

Base 2 is special in that it has only two digits: 0 and 1. It’s the foundation for everything digital since anything a computer does it does by operating on base 2 data.

When we got to base 2 our teacher decided we should have a “base race”.

Much like a spelling bee, we would all get up in front of the class, and we’d take turns simply reciting the next number in binary. The first person might start of with “1”, the next “1, 0”, the next “1,1”, the next “1,0,0” (the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 in base 2, respectively) and so on. If you got your number wrong, back to your seat you went.

I didn’t win, but in what I now take as a sign of things to come, I came in second out of a class of roughly 30 students. I don’t recall the number that I lost it on, but I vaguely recall the winner and I going back and forth a bit before I stumbled. With that class size it’s likely that we got well past the 32’s (100000).

Like I said, it’s perhaps the earliest premonition and/or indicator of the direction my life might head one day. I can’t really say that there were any more obvious indicators of my eventual career path until years later. It wasn’t until attending the University of Washington that I would even encounter my first computer. Between sixth grade and then was simply the traditional grade school / high school path. The closest thing that might possibly related was that I became the editor of my high school year book, perhaps viewed as the first step to publications like Ask Leo! and such.

As a kind of sad postscript, last year my 8th grade class had a reunion. I didn’t make it, but I did see the class list and was very sad to see that the winner of our base race had passed away. Whatever age it had happened at, it was much too young.

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