Friday, 19 February 2010

The Hexadecimal Representation Of Color

One evening, I stood outside with my husband admiring the rapidly darkening sky. A thin sliver of moon hung low over the mountains, surrounded by a whole array of stars, sparkling and flashing like so many diamonds. I craned my neck back and asked, in a purely speculative way, "I wonder why it is that some stars shine so brightly...?"

My husband cleared his throat. "Because their cores contain massive fusion reactors which release tremendous amounts of energy. The gravitational friction of stars crumbling inwards makes their cores heat up, and that causes nuclear fusion. So hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms, and -- in a nutshell -- that releases an enormous amount of energy which pushes outward against the gravitational contraction of the star..." He went on like that for some time, too, and the amazing thing was that I understood him. Briefly.

My husband does things this all the time. If you ask him what the five kinds of life are, he'll tell you: monera, protist, fungi, animalae, and plantae. If you need to know the capital of Sierra Leone or what the Five Pillars of Islam are, he'll tell you. If you're struggling to make sense of simultaneous equations, he's your man. In a game of Trivial Pursuit, if you're not on his side you don't stand a fighting chance. He's not patronizing and he's not really a know-it-all. He's a teacher.

Teaching isn't a glamorous occupation like fire-fighting or being an astronaut; you'd be hard put to find groups of fashionable people breathlessly hanging onto a teacher's stories at dinner parties. It's not a particularly well-paid occupation either, and unless you've got tenure it isn't really a secure one. You're around grubby, noisy, unreasonable, squabbling people all day long, so teaching is generally an infuriating, demanding, exhausting, and only sometimes, exhilarating job. But there is one great perk of being a teacher: you tend to Know Stuff. There are real benefits to being a teacher -- and being married to one as well.

Last year, on a trip to a local castle, I found the English explanations on the tourist information plaques a little confusing, so I asked my husband if he knew when the castle was built. A guide was standing nearby and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him open his mouth to speak, but my husband launched into a long, detailed explanation of how the castle wall was built during the Byzantine period to defend the town against Arab raids, then further construction was done on it during the Luisignan and Venetian periods -- and I saw the look of amazement in the guide's eyes. We looked like every other middle-aged tourist couple around and in fact we were like every other middle-aged tourist couple around, except for the fact that my husband knows his local history inside-out, having taught it here. I love this because I love learning things.

Before we got married, my husband and I were colleagues, and he had the reputation for being a teacher who would do his level best to get through to the thickest student. I've had complete strangers walk up to me on the street and compliment me for having the good sense to marry a man who can explain things so well and so patiently. And I know I profit from being married to someone who likes to teach. Someone who, knowing full well that I have a hard time with math, will do his damnedest to talk me through an equation or a mathematical formula.

But every teacher has to meet his own special Waterloo, and my husband's has been trying to teach me math. I have a brain that is virtually impermeable to math and anything vaguely math-related.

Still, my husband's math teaching attempts have their uses. As a lifelong insomniac, I'm always on the lookout for things that will lull me to sleep and I prefer natural remedies. Whenever I'm particularly desperate, I just tap him on the shoulder. "How does it go again, the hexadecimal computer color representation thing?" I mumble, and if he's awake, he almost always obliges.

"Okay, hexadecimal -- or base 16 -- is a positional numeral system. Remember?" I nod happily.

"It uses sixteen symbols, generally the numbers 0–9, to represent values zero to nine, and A, B, C, D, E, F to represent values ten to fifteen -- got that?" I nod again, but my head is beginning to swim. Already it's starting to work!

"So, for example, the hexadecimal number 2AF3 would be equal, in decimal, to two times sixteen to the third power -- I haven't lost you, have I?"

I smile and shake my head. "No, I've got that." Which is a total lie.

And, obligingly, he goes on. And on. Something about binary, something else about only zero and one being used to represent on and off...And in no time at all, I'm fast asleep.

A guaranteed cure for insomnia. Just one more perk to being married to a teacher.


Bish Denham said...

LOL! One also has to have a most excellent memory. I sympathise with your math disfunctionality. I too am math-impaire. Luckily I had a father who was a math genius else I would have flunked all my required math corses.

Eryl Shields said...

This is so romantic: being lulled to sleep by your husband talking hexadecimal!

Bob is like your husband, I am beginning to realise, he loves learning and is shortly off to travel the world so he can learn more stuff. Then, he is considering going into teaching on his return. I envy the kids he will teach and the person he will eventually settle down with even more after reading this post.

TechnoBabe said...

This is sweet. You respect his patience and his knowledge and your humor shows through too. Nice way to have his calm voice help you get to sleep.

Blythe said...

Unforgettable. What a love story. You always take me on a journey.

Anonymous said...

*YAWN* That would work for me too :) Lovely post.

Kim Ayres said...

Maggie will drift off if I start explaining things in the evening too. She insists that what I have to say is interesting, it's just the warm tones of my voice are soothing and lull her off to sleep.

I'm never sure if she's making it up, or if she isn't whether that's a good thing or not...

Marcia said...

LOL. So sweet. But I love math, so I'd have to ask for a treatise on -- I dunno, maybe tort law.

Robin said...

I have to pinch myself to stay awake and write this comment. Apparently the hexadecimal representation would work for me, too! Do you think your husband would be kind enough to record a podcast?

I like how you nod happily, anticipating a nice upcoming sleep. This story is completely adorable!

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I had a mathematically inclined mother (and sisters) who were generally good at explaining math, but they couldn't do anything for me. My father is the one I inherited my math block from. I always grit my teeth when people claim my math block is gender related, though I know a fair number of women are like me! Don't you envy people who can do math? I certainly do...

Eryl -- When you're a starry-eyed teenager, you have a totally different idea of pillow talk, don't you? I never thought I'd be grateful for a man who could lull me to sleep explaining math, but it's pretty relaxing all the same, and -- in an odd way -- romantic.

Good for Bob! I don't think he'll regret becoming a teacher, especially once he's gotten the hang of it.

TechnoBabe -- Thank you. Lest I've made him sound too perfect, I don't ALWAYS have his calm voice in my ear (especially when he's the one in the passenger seat and I'm driving), but it's great when I do.

Blythe -- Aww, now I'm thinking I should write up one of our smoldering quarrels, just to provide a little contrast! But I love taking people on journeys.

Elizabeth -- Get your husband to study up on it. Guaranteed to send you right off unless you've been OD-ing on espresso.

Kim -- I'm certain it isn't a British thing, but there must be something gender-related here. They say babies are more relaxed by male voices, I believe. And don't knock being able to put a woman to sleep -- it's every bit as important as being able to get her all worked up, especially as a marriage 'matures'.

Marcia -- I envy you so much! My mother loved math too and was very good at it, and very few things bored her. Plus, she was an Olympic standard sleeper who could nod off standing up in Grand Central Station.

Tort law sounds VERY soporific!

Robin -- I'd love to package this up as a drug-free insomnia remedy, tailored to meet individual needs. For the math capable, a long lecture on the pre-Raphaelites, maybe. For mathophobes, binary theory. And so on. Wonder if I can get my husband to go in on this? I'll bet it would sell!

(God, thinking about this will keep me up all night...)

Zaedah said...

Nothing like seeing the glories of an open sky in the context of the peculiar mating habits of hydrogen and helium atoms : )

angryparsnip said...

awwwwww... what a sweet and lovely way to spend an evening being lulled to sleep by math equation I can't even pronounce ... you are so lucky.
Math is not one of my high point either.
I rely on any old book on tape volume on low and just drift off.

AnneB said...

I don't have the math gene either. I had trouble with long division all three times I went through it (first on my own, then with each of our sons!). Older Son got the math gene from somewhere—possibly my dad or my husband's grandfather—but Younger Son and I sweated through Honors Algebra and Geometry together, doing his homework in parallel and then comparing solutions. It worked. Talk about a bonding experience!

No wait. Bonding would be chemistry, wouldn't it?

Helen said...

So sweet Mary - I think I may have a bit of a crush on your husband! I know what you mean about listening to them natter to help you get to sleep - I sometimes ask Nev to explain to me about the weather (I don't know how he knows this stuff, but he does) and he starts patiently rambling about cloud formations etc. and I'm nodding before he can say Cumulous (or whatever). It's not so much what he says, but it's the calm, patient, loving tones he uses - He KNOWS by now I don't really care, I just want to go to sleep.
You gotta love him for that!!!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Zaedah -- Yes, it does take a little poetry out of it, doesn't it? -- the thought of all that hydrogen and helium coupling to make sparkly stars.

AP -- I can say 'hexadecimal' pretty well, I just can't stay awake long enough to understand what it means. And that's the beauty of the thing. Though in a pinch, maybe I'll check out random books on audiotape to see whether they work too.

AnneB -- struggled through HONORS algebra and geometry? My mother had to call the school and beg them to take me out of honors math, that's how bad I was. I could no more have coped with honors geometry than I could have flown to the moon in a ceiling fan.

The kids know better than to come to me with math questions. I deal with Japanese and English, with the occasional history tip thrown in. Thank GOD for a husband who can deal with math homework!

Helen -- Oh, cloud formations would be perfect! All those big words and the talk about pressure and stratospheres and what not. I'll give that a go sometime myself. Though my husband will be thrilled to know that there are women who think he's crush-worthy.

Angela said...

Ha, math makes me go zzzzzzz, too. :-)

laura said...

OMG, are you married to my Hans??? Is he leading a duplicative life? Because you just described him to a T, and it's scary! From the solar system, to history (every date imaginable), to chemical suffixes, he knows it all (but in a nice way). I once asked him how the hell he knows all this stuff. He shrugged his shoulders and told me that once he hears something he just remembers it. Now you can see why I rejoice in beating him at Scrabble! BTW, I need a calculator to balance my checkbook.

Falak said...

Beautiful post:)

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- It's not just the math, it's trying to understand the math!

Laura -- I think we're safe: these guys live thousands of miles apart or I'd really be suspicious.

Has Hans ever considered a career in teaching? It might be a good thing for him to do on the side!

如此的 --  それは猫にこばんだ。 馬の耳に念仏。

Falak -- Aww, thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a great, hilarious post.

I'm pretty bad at math, too. To help me fall asleep sometimes, I've done simple addition and subtraction exercises in German. A way to get some extra German-learning time in...and it definitely helped me fall asleep!

Pat said...

I love your human sedative - much more healthy than drugs.
I too have my own live-in Google but there are times when the lengthy explanations cause nodding off when I should be alert.

meredith said...

My husband isn't a teacher, but he is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. He still remembers the poems they force you to memorize in French grade school. I barely remember grade school.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My father-in-law, Mel, is an intense teacher as well, he can tell you the most excruciatingly detailed story about plant physiology... and I emphasize "excruciatingly" to the third power!
The family members have all leaned never to ask Mel a question if they are on their way to the bathroom.

Mary Witzl said...

Gypsy -- I play word games with myself to try and cure insomnia, but it backfires sometimes: I can't get to sleep until I've cracked some of the puzzles. Doing math in a foreign language sounds very promising, though, and for me, far less compelling than words.

Pat -- I know what you mean! My husband has his own automatic pilot "Yes, dear, mmm hmm" mode for when I'm talking, so I never fail to use mine for those rare occasions when he's droning on and on.

Meredith -- I remember poems too, for some reason. My parents both liked poetry and encouraged us to commit our favorites to memory. Wish I had the same ability to remember people's names.

Robert -- Oh boy, your father-in-law and my father! His thing was plant propagation and the simplest question generated such long-winded responses you quickly learned not to query anything. There must be something about botany!

Travis Erwin said...

I admire anyone with the patience to teach as it is a quality I sorely lack.

Marian said...

I did the same thing when I was involved with a guy who was majoring in philosophy. I'd ask him to explain Utilitarianism. Instant zzz.

We had great discussions about religion and Ayn Rand and so on, just not specific kinds of philosophy.

Anne Spollen said...

My hubster tutored calculus - the only time I can do math well is when there's a 20% or 25% sale on something I want to buy.

But your story makes math romantic -

Lily Cate said...

Oh no. Math? No.
I am not mathematically inclined in any way. I mean, I know enough to handle the household finances, and that's about it. The theories facinate me, and I actually like reading books written my mathematicians and physicists, but the actual calculating part....

Listening to your husband would probably never put me to sleep- I love listening to someone very knowlegable discussing favorite subjects.

Mary Witzl said...

Travis -- You may not have the patience to TEACH, but I know you've got patience: you're a writer. Writers tend to be made of stellar stuff when it comes to patience.

Marian -- Philosophy would absolutely work, and utilitarianism sounds very promising. Just typing it out now is making me want to yawn. Linguistics -- that's another yawn-inducing subject. Somewhere, I've got a book about phonotactics (don't ask unless you're having trouble falling asleep). It works when my husband can't oblige with hexadecimals.

Anne -- Yes, you're right -- I've done this too. I'm the best one in the family when it comes to figuring out tips: I still remember working as a waitress, looking at a bill for $45 and thinking, "hmm, 10% of 45 is $4.50 x 2 = $9. Yep, nine bucks for sure -- I was quick with the tea, plus I bought them their cigarettes and showed them where the toilets were..." Embarrassing, but true.

Lily -- You read books by physicists and mathematicians? I would only do this if they had written riveting memoirs about their times during the war, or their interesting experiences growing up. And the awful truth is that my husband handles the finances. I can deal with grocery bills and being a cheapskate, I'm tough to cheat. I guess I should be thankful for small favors.

I love listening to my husband telling me about astronomy or history, say, but once he trots out the hexadecimals my brain is Out to Lunch.

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