Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Big and Little

A computer's memory design, at one of it's lowest level of abstraction, can be either Big-endian or Little-endian. The smallest chunk of addressable memory is usually a byte, and each byte in memory has a memory address. Big Endian computers store the most significant byte at the lower address, and the least significant byte at the higher address. Little Endian computers, on the other hand, store the least significant byte at the lower address, and the most significant byte at the higher address.

(Heuring & Jordan, 2004)

From the time I taught this to my class, I had known that the terms big-endian and little-endian came from Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. The big-endians are those who broke their eggs on the larger ends whereas the little-endians broke theirs on the smaller ends - and that was the cause of a war between them. Recently, after watching the last half hour of Gulliver's Travels (mini series) on TV, I got hold of an old copy of the book and started reading.

For a lot of people, Gulliver's Travels amounted to no more than a child's fairy-tale of a man who ventured into a land inhabited by diminutive people. There are actually four parts of the travels of Lemuel Gulliver: 1st, to Liliput where the people are about 6 inches tall; 2nd, to Brobdingnag where the people are about 60 feet tall; 3rd, to Laputa (a flying island!), Balnibarbi (which has an interesting Academy), Glubbdubdrib (which means 'The Island of Sorcerers'), Luggnagg (where some children are born immortal...) and Japan (unlike all the rest, Japan is real); and 4th, to the country of the Houyhnhnms, who are a race of very intelligent, talking horses.

The big- and little-endian tales are from Lilliput, where traditionally, the people ate their eggs by breaking the larger end. However, when the grandfather of the (then) current Emperor was a boy, he cut his finger once, breaking an egg according to tradition. His father, the emperor then, therefore ordered that thence, all eggs must be broken upon their smaller ends. Such then -

"The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown." (original text)

The people who insisted on breaking their eggs on the larger end (big-endians) were then exiled (some rather die than break their eggs on the smaller end). They published many books on the controversy, but their books were forbidden. A neighbouring kingdom, Blefuscu, accused Lilliput of a schism in religion and provided for the big-endian exiles, resulting in a war!

"Now the Big-Endian exiles have found so much credit in the Emperor of Blefuscu's court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war hath been carried on between the two empires for six and thirty moons with various success; during which time we have lost forty capital ships, and a much greater number of smaller vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best seamen and soldiers;" (original text)

By now, surely you'd have felt the pettiness of these little people. However, the author was actually referring to the real thing - read the first paragraph here.

Gulliver's Travels is no children's tale. It is a clever satire.

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