It is always impressive when some vast catalog of information is referenced by a small set of numbers. The Dewey Decimal classification, for example. Or the U.S. phone system: 300 million people, twice that many mobile phones, and half the world’s businesses, each uniquely available by dialing just 10 digits.
Or U.S. ZIP codes: five digits (plus four optional). Brilliant.
U.S. Social Security numbers: just nine digits, good for a billion people. Eight would have been one too few.
Equally impressive, for a different reason, is the reverse of numerical efficiency: when something simple is done in a fantastically and unnecessarily complicated manner.
Here, Britain leads the world.
It is home to 60 million people, some dogs and a few charity/goodwill shops, yet my phone number has 11 digits, one of which is optional for some people. The system has changed several times that I can remember, and another change is apparently in the wind.
The British vehicle registration system is differently hopeless: A typical license plate might read WK06 XYZ, which produces 1.1 billion possibilities.
Bear with me now. There are 60 million Brits. Everyone in the country (including babies, prisoners and Russian oligarchs) might, I suppose, buy 19 cars apiece and the licensing system could accommodate them, but it’s unlikely, isn’t it?
The mother of all numbering systems must be the one used by the taxing authority in Britain, to whom I will soon dispatch my annual tax return. The form contains an “IR mark” number.
It is the single most ridiculous number in the history of numbers, including the hat size seven and one-eighth.
They’re so ridiculous, they should be called the Groucho Marks.
In case you might steal my identity and illegally pay my taxes, I’ll annotate the number in the X0 form, X standing for a letter and 0 for a number.
It is (deep breath) XXXXXXXX0XXX0XXXXXXXXX0XXXXX.
The first eight Xs alone produce 208 billion unique possibilities. I wouldn’t live long enough to calculate the total number of possibilities in the IR marks.
They’re so ridiculous, they should be called the Groucho Marks. (Sorry.)
Think what it means in real terms. Vast numbers of hapless secretaries typing the marks into computers, inevitably making myriad mistakes. Vast numbers of hapless clerks employed to correct those mistakes. Vast numbers of hapless managers supervising the clerks and the secretaries. Vaster numbers of hapless managers to manage the managers, and so on ad infinitum.
In short, the Vogons (from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). All of them paid for by my taxes.
My computer password has 11 digits that are impossible to remember, so that no one can send emails purportedly from me. My bank debit card, however, the key to my personal billions, requires just four digits.
That’s why there’s no bank fraud. Oh, wait …
Insurance companies are often victims of labyrinthine numbering systems. How many digits are in your company’s unique policy number? Anything more than, say, six (which would produce more than two billion possibilities) means one of two things: (a) management hopes to take on more than 10 percent of all the risks in the world (and therefore probably used to work at AIG), or (b) you’re using a 1972 database system and need a new IT manager.
Read more of the award-winning, irascible Mr. Crombie here.