English is a five bit-depth language

Posted by jerry on May 5th, 2004 — Posted in New media, Technology, Writing

I was recently reading Rudy Rucker’s excellent book: Mind Tools and was struck in particular by his lucid explanation of why we only need five bits of information to identify any letter of the alphabet. Computers use eight bits to the byte as a minimal identification of specific characters. But using binary logic, Rucker shows that the alphabet has only FIVE degrees of separation! I have often wondered if the same applies to Akkadian cuneiform text, but haven’t had it confirmed one way or the other.

Anyhow, how can English be described as having five bit depth when there are 26 letters to the alphabet? For Rucker, it works like this:

Lay out the alphabet in a row. I am looking for the first letter of my first name, Jerry. Now, with five questions, demanding a yes or no answer locate the specific letter.

First, is it between M and Z? No. That’s level one.

Is it between G and L? Yes. That’s level two

Is it between J and L? Yes. That’s level three

Is it L? No. That’s level four

Is it K? No. That’s level five. So the answer must be J

Check out the diagram to see how this works:

Five bit-depth alphabet


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