Unique Identifiers – Part 3, Values

So far in this series, I’ve been describing a scheme for Unique ID’s. We’ve gone through the mental gyrations of what the parts of an ID should consist of, but haven’t come to a conclusion yet of the final format. As you’ve seen by now, the more characters we have available, the more comprehensive our ID format can be. With registration, we can also cut down the size to a short string.

Before we cut it down to it’s minimum, though, let’s look at values. I’d like to format to not only be able to store unique ID’s, but also values so that we can map relationships against a number. Once we find a minimal length for useful numbers, then we can determine how to wedge our ID scenario into that space.

Through the many years I’ve been crunching number, I’ve been bitten so many times by software, especially Microsoft Excel, using floating point values. For the unaware, when a program stores a value, it has a choice — it can either store it as an integer, or use much less space by storing an approximation. The software very seldom tells you this, and if you rely on your numbers, your computer lies to you. I just can’t describe how wrong that situation is. By the time you notice the tiny bit off you are, you’re already layers deep in hundreds of calculations. Good accounting programs store numbers as integers, and even in MS Access currency is normally stored as an integer with four decimal places.

Hey, I don’t mind if a computer program can’t store pi accurately, but I want it to tell me that what it displays is an approximation if I need to know that for my purposes. So if it’s an approximation, how was it done? Was it truncated, rounded up, rounded down, an exact half? If a computer makes a mess of things on my behalf, I want to know about it.

When computers give you a number, such as 5,000, there is no information as to how many significant digits there are in that number. If this represents 5 boxes of 1000 paper clips, you can be pretty sure that each box is almost exact, maybe have one or two extra clips in it. But I could have derived this from the number of feet I guessed was equal to one inch I measured on a map. If I make a mess of things, I want to be able to document it.

If I know that a value is wonky, I can, if needed, use techniques such as significance arithmetic to make known how much an end result is off. It makes a big difference if the basis of the number is measured or counted.

Now we can start to enumerate the relationship of a value to a stored number in a computer: the basis of how it was derived, the number of significant digits, the accuracy of the final digit, it’s sign, and exponent. Some of these can be encapsulated in the way most computers store a floating point number; sign, exponent, and fraction are encapsulated in 32 or 64 bits of binary data.

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