Doing your “bit”, or “don’t byte of more than you can chew”

In the US, the traditional “thank you” for a friend who helps you pack up your bits and move is payment through a bite of pizza.(1) When moving data in computer programs, we can pack our bits into bytes.(2)

In a recent post I wrote about minimizing the data used by your model. I want to expand on that concept by talking about data packing using masks. In this case it is a three way balance between minimizing data usage, efficiency of operations, and clarity of the data.(3)

Basic Bit

Masking a byte(4) is when a specific bit in the byte is associated with a Boolean value. For example:

if (voltError) {
errorFlags = errorFlags || VOLTERRORSTATUS;}

In this example the variable error flags is “or” together to add the volt error onto the generic error flags message.(5) Later, the status of the error can be unmasked to take action.

if (errorFlag && VOLTERRORSTATUS) || (errorFlag && CURRENTERRORSTATUS) {
  /* Power problems!  Do something */

The total number of status flags that can be set using this method is dependent on the word size; a 32 bit integer could store 32 status flags. The drawback is that errorFlag, on it’s own, requires decoding before you know what the issue is.


  1. Sadly, these are the moments when you learn your friends’ horrible taste in pizza toppings.
  2. Despite the stereotypes, programmers do not get paid in pizza, though they may use their pay for pizza.
  3. The image on the right is a perfect example of this sort of balance; each point has some resilience and movement in any direction affects the others. As a secondary note, to the best of my knowledge no child ever liked this playground item.
  4. The image search for “mask” has very different returns from a year ago. Please help protect yourself and others and wear a mask when you go out.
  5. In this example “VOLTERRORSTATUS” is a #define variable. This is again, to save on memory.

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