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More than a Number

August 23, 2010

When I scan a list of numbers, and I see the number, 1040, I think I know what it means. Then I see the number 0a5c, and I know I was wrong by a factor of about four, since 1040 in hexadecimal is 4160 in decimal. In this case, I made a mistake in my assumption of the units that were being used. I assumed base-10, but the reality was base-16. There are egregious examples of what misinterpretation of units can do, the most famous of these is the loss of the $300 million Mars Climate Orbiter. Thrust data was communicated in pounds-force, a unit that's common in the aerospace industry. The spacecraft software, however, was expecting the metric units of force, newtons. There's quite a bit of difference between these, since a pound-force is 4.4482216 newtons.[1]

Allen Razdow, the author of the popular analysis program, Mathcad, has founded a new company, True Engineering (Cambridge, MA), that markets a solution to this units problem.[2] Using the company's truenumber technology, spreadsheets and other documents will not contain just bare numbers, but numbers with hyperlinks to their units. In a corporate environment, these links would point to a database record on an internal server so a company can take charge of its own units. In the end, this system would facilitate the long-distance collaboration that's running rampant at large corporations.

Photograph of a sliderule

Sliderule photograph by Beao.

True Engineering has Razdow as its only full-time employee, and he's built truenumber using XML, a common data format. Truenumber and numberspace are trademarks of True Engineering, and Razdow filed two provisional patent applications that have been rolled up into a utility patent application[3] with the following abstract and first claim.
Abstract. A computer-implemented system and method creates and stores measurement statement objects representing complete statements of measurement. Each measurement statement object represents a measurement, such as "the left wing of the F-16 aircraft has a span of 36 m," and contains a value object, an aspect object, and an entity object. The value object represents a value of the measurement (such as 36 meters) and the aspect object represents an aspect of the measurement (such as span). The value is a value of the aspect of the measurement. The entity object represents an entity (such as the left wing of an F-16 aircraft) measured by the measurement. The aspect of the measurement is an aspect of the entity measured by the measurement Mn. Measurement statement objects may be created by parsing text describing measurements. Operations including computations, validation, searching, and reporting may be performed on measurement statement objects.
Claim 1. A data structure tangibly embodied on a computer readable storage medium, the data structure comprising: a plurality of measurement statement objects S representing a plurality of measurements M, wherein each of the plurality of measurement statement objects Sn corresponds to a particular one of the plurality of measurements Mn and comprises: a value object representing a value; an aspect object representing an aspect of the measurement Mn, wherein the value is a value of the aspect of the measurement Mn; and an entity object representing a physical entity measured by the measurement Mn, wherein the aspect of the measurement Mn is a measurable aspect of the physical entity measured by the measurement Mn.

The idea of linking numbers with their units seems worthwhile, but will it catch on? The problem is in its uniform implementation. I'm reminded of the half-hearted attempts at metrication in the US. I envision this scenario. Some corporate manager will be convinced of its benefits, and he will force it on his employees. The employees will be annoyed, since they have been happily working in whatever system of units that suits them, keeping track of conversions whenever needed. They aren't novices, and they know what to do. Worse yet, the large corporations will waste money by hiring a "Vice President of Units," who will waste more money by hiring consultants to develop an employee training program. In the end, more money will be wasted in lost manhours while the employees are in training and not doing their jobs. Then there's the money lost in the many errors that will be generated trying to do things within the new system. Within two years, the vice president will be gone, and this corporate initiative will be dead. If you're the one who's responsible for a $300 million spacecraft, you'll hope for a different outcome.


  1. Via Online conversion, a very handy web site
  2. Wade Roush, "Mathcad Inventor Reveals New Startup’s True Ambition—Numbers That Mean More and Don’t Make Mistakes," Xconomy.com/Boston, July 29. 2009.
  3. Allen M. Razdow, "Statement-Based Computing System," US Patent Applicaton No. 20090171625 (July 2, 2009).

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Linked Keywords: hexadecimal; Mars Climate Orbiter; pounds-force; newtons; Mathcad; True Engineering; Cambridge, MA; hyperlinks; sliderule; metrication; Vice President of Units.