Ever hear about the chessboard and the rice grains?

Yeah, things start to add up quickly.

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It’s the dawn of the PC era, and management of this electronics design department decides it would be a good idea to computerize the component purchasing process. They’ve been using a hand-written, cardboard card cataloging system housed in several tub-top cabinets. But the edict is met with objections: Those new-fangled computers are notorious for dropped data bits in the memory and hard drive storage systems. So manager comes up with a workaround: We’ll add a checksum digit to all our parts numbers. A failed checksum calculation at any point in the process will flag a bad parts number that’s due to computer error. OK, boss, but will our data wranglers be able to make these checksum calculations? No problem, says Mr. Workaround; we’ll produce a lookup book of all possible parts numbers, with the checksum digit precalculated, and we’ll make that available to everyone who needs a parts number and its associated checksum.

With those marching orders, pilot fish and several other people set to work. It’s a big job. All possible parts numbers run to 10 digits, with an 11th digit as the checksum. And printing all of this out for the data wranglers is an even bigger job, but fortunately the company makes high-speed commercial printers that can be commandeered for this print job.

This all progresses quietly and out of sight, until the day that the manager finds his office door blocked by a 700-pound roll of paper, 42 inches in diameter. An attached note says this is the first installment of the printed parts numbers and checksum digits, and more rolls will be delivered daily for several weeks.

And that was the end of the checksum project.

Fortunately, parity bits were soon invented for detecting memory and disk data errors, negating the need for checksums to be a part of component parts numbers.

Email, don’t print, your true tales of IT life to me at sharky@computerworld.com. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter and read some great old tales in the Sharkives.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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