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How to read the %21x format, part 2

In my previous posting last week, I explained how computers store binary floating-point numbers, how Stata’s %21x display format displays with fidelity those binary floating-point numbers, how %21x can help you uncover bugs, and how %21x can help you understand behaviors that are not bugs even though they are surpising to us base-10 thinkers. The point is, it is sometimes useful to think in binary, and with %21x, thinking in binary is not difficult.

This week, I want to discuss double versus float precision.

Double (8-byte) precision provides 53 binary digits. Float (4-byte) precision provides 24. Let me show you what float precision looks like.

. display %21x sqrt(2) _newline %21x float(sqrt(2))

All those zeros in the floating-point result are not really there;
%21x merely padded them on. The display would be more honest if it were

+1.6a09e6       X+000

Of course, +1.6a09e60000000X+000 is a perfectly valid way of writing +1.6a09e6X+000 — just as 1.000 is a valid way of writing 1 — but you must remember that float has fewer digits than double.

Hexadecimal 1.6109e6 is a rounded version of 1.6a09e667f3bcd, and you can think of this in one of two ways:

     double     =  float   + extra precision
1.6a09e667f3bcd = 1.6a09e6 + 0.00000067f3bcd


  float   =      double     -  lost precision
1.6a09e6  = 1.6a09e667f3bcd - 0.00000067f3bcd

Note that more digits are lost than appear in the float result! The float result provides six hexadecimal digits (ignoring the 1), and seven digits appear under the heading lost precision. Double precision is more than twice float precision. To be accurate, double precision provides 53 binary digits, float provides 24, so double precision is really 53/24 = 2.208333 precision.

The double of double precision refers to the total number of binary digits used to store the mantissa and the exponent in z=a*2^b, which is 64 versus 32. Precision is 53 versus 24.

In this case, we obtained the floating-point from float(sqrt(2)), meaning that we rounded a more accurate double-precision result. One usually rounds when producing a less precise representation. One of the rounding rules is to round up if the digits being omitted (with a decimal point in front) exceed 1/2, meaning 0.5 in decimal. The equivalent rule in base-16 is to round up if the digits being omitted (with a hexadecimal point in front) exceed 1/2, meaning 0.8 (base-16). The lost digits were .67f3bcd, which are less than 0.8, and therefore, the last digit of the rounded result was not adjusted.

Actually, rounding to float precision is more difficult than I make out, and seeing that numbers are rounded correctly when displayed in %21x can be difficult. These difficulties have to do with the relationship between base-2 — the base in which the computer works — and base-16 — a base similar but not identical to base-2 that we humans find more readable. The fact is that %21x was designed for double precision, so it only does an adequate job of showing single precision. When %21x displays a float-precision number, it shows you the exactly equal double-precision number, and that turns out to matter.

We use base-16 because it is easier to read. But why do we use base-16 and not base-15 or base-17? We use base-16 because it is an integer power of 2, the base the computer uses. One advantage of bases being powers of each other is that base conversion can be done more easily. In fact, conversion can be done almost digit by digit. Doing base conversion is usually a tedious process. Try converting 2394 (base-10) to base-11. Well, you say, 11^3=1331, and 2*11331 = 2662 > 2394, so the first digit is 1 and the remainder is 2394-1331 = 1063. Now, repeating the process with 1063, I observe that 11^2 = 121 and that 1063 is bound by 8*121=969 and 9*121=1089, so the second digit is 9 and I have a remainder of …. And eventually you produce the answer 1887 (base-11).

Converting between bases when one is the power of another not only is easier but also is so easy you can do it in your head. To convert from base-2 to base-16, group the binary digits into groups of four (because 2^4=16) and then translate each group individually.

For instance, to convert 011110100010, proceed as follows:

0111 1010 0010
   7    a    2

I’ve performed this process often enough that I hardly have to think. But here is how you should think: Divide the binary number into four-digit groups. The four columns of the binary number stand for 8, 4, 2, and 1. When you look at 0111, say to yourself 4+2+1 = 7. When you look at 1010, say to yourself 8+2 = 10, and remember that the digit for 10 in base-16 is a.

Converting back is nearly as easy:

   7    a    2
0111 1010 0010

Look at 7 and remember the binary columns 8-4-2-1. Though 7 does not contain an 8, it does contain a 4 (leaving 3), and 3 contains a 2 and a 1.

I admit that converting base-16 to base-2 is more tedious than converting base-2 to base-16, but eventually, you’ll have the four-digit binary table memorized; there are only 16 lines. Say 7 to me, and 0111 just pops into my head. Well, I’ve been doing this a long time, and anyway, I’m a geek. I suspect I carry the as-yet-undiscovered binary gene, which means I came into this world with the base-2-to-base-16 conversion table hardwired:

base-2 base-16
0000 0
0001 1
0010 2
0011 3
0100 4
1001 9
1010 a
1111 f

Now that you can convert base-2 to base-16 — convert from binary to hexadecimal — and you can convert back again, let’s return to floating-point numbers.

Remember how floating-point numbers are stored:

z = a * 2^b, 1<=a<2 or a==0

For example,

    0.0 = 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^-big
    0.5 = 1.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^-1
    1.0 = 1.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^0
sqrt(2) = 1.0110101000001001111001100110011111110011101111001101 * 2^0
    1.5 = 1.1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^0
    2.0 = 1.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^0
    2.5 = 1.0100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^0
    3.0 = 1.1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 * 2^1
    _pi = 1.1001001000011111101101010100010001000010110100011000 * 2^1

In double precision, there are 53 binary digits of precision. One of the digits is written to the left of binary point, and the remaining 52 are written to the right. Next observe that the 52 binary digits to the right of the binary point can be written in 52/4=13 hexadecimal digits. That is exactly what %21x does:

    0.0 = +0.0000000000000X-3ff
    0.5 = +1.0000000000000X-001
    1.0 = +1.0000000000000X+000
sqrt(2) = +1.6a09e667f3bcdX+000
    1.0 = +1.0000000000000X+000
    1.5 = +1.8000000000000X+000
    2.0 = +1.0000000000000X+001
    2.5 = +1.4000000000000X+001
    3.0 = +1.8000000000000X+002
    _pi = +1.921fb54442d18X+001

You could perform the binary-to-hexadecimal translation for yourself. Consider _pi. The first group of four binary digits after the binary point are 1001, and 9 appears after the binary point in the %21x result. The second group of four are 0010, and 2 appears in the %21x result.
The %21x result is an exact representation of the underlying binary, and thus you are equally entitled to think in either base.

In single precision, the rule is the same:

z = a * 2^b, 1<=a<2 or a==0

But this time, only 24 binary digits are provided for a, and so we have

    0.0 = 0.00000000000000000000000 * 2^-big
    0.5 = 1.00000000000000000000000 * 2^-1
    1.0 = 1.00000000000000000000000 * 2^0
sqrt(2) = 1.01101010000010011110011 * 2^0
    1.5 = 1.10000000000000000000000 * 2^0
    2.0 = 1.00000000000000000000000 * 2^0 
    2.5 = 1.01000000000000000000000 * 2^0
    3.0 = 1.10000000000000000000000 * 2^1
    _pi = 1.10010010000111111011011 * 2^1

In single precision, there are 24-1=23 binary digits of precision to the right of the binary point, and 23 is not divisible by 4. If we tried to convert to base-16, we end up with

sqrt(2) = 1.0110 1010 0000 1001 1110 011   * 2^0
          1.   6    a    0    9    e    ?  * 2^0

To fill in the last digit, we could recognize that we can pad on an extra 0 because we are to the right of the binary point. For example, 1.101 == 1.1010. If we padded on the extra 0, we have

sqrt(2) = 1.0110 1010 0000 1001 1110 0110  * 2^0
          1.   6    a    0    9    e    6  * 2^0

That is precisely the result %21x shows us:

. display %21x float(sqrt(2))

although we might wish that %21x would omit the 0s that aren’t really there, and instead display this as +1.6a09e6X+000.

The problem with this solution is that it can be misleading because the last digit looks like it contains four binary digits when in fact it contains only three. To show how easily you can be misled, look at _pi in double and float precisions:

. display %21x _pi _newline %21x float(_pi)
  digit incorrectly rounded?

The computer rounded the last digit up from 5 to 6. The digits after the rounded-up digit in the full-precision result, however, are 0.4442d18, and are clearly less than 0.8 (1/2). Shouldn’t the rounded result be 1.921fb5X+001? The answer is that yes, 1.921fb5X+001 would be a better result if we had 6*4=24 binary digits to the right of the binary point. But we have only 23 digits; correctly rounding to 23 binary digits and then translating into base-16 results in 1.921fb6X+001. Because of the missing binary digit, the last base-16 digit can only take on the values 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, a, c, and e.

The computer performs the rounding in binary. Look at the relevant piece of this double-precision number in binary:

+1.921f   b    5    4    4    42d18X+001      number
       1011 0101 0100 0100 0100               expansion into binary
       1011 01?x xxxx xxxx xxxxxxxx           thinking about rounding
       1011 011x xxxx xxxx xxxxxxxx           performing rounding
+1.921f   b    6                   X+001      convert to base-16

The part I have converted to binary in the second line is around the part to be rounded. In the third line, I’ve put x’s under the part we will have to discard to round this double into a float. The x’d out part — 10100… — is clearly greater than 1/2, so the last digit (where I put a question mark) must be rounded up. Thus, _pi in float precision rounds to 1.921fb6+X001, just as the computer said.

Float precision does not play much of a role in Stata despite the fact that most users store their data as floats. Regardless of how data are stored, Stata makes all calculations in double precision, and float provides more than enough precision for most data applications. The U.S. deficit in 2011 is projected to be $1.5 trillion. One hopes that a grand total of $26,624 — the error that would be introduced by storing this projected deficit in float precision — would not be a significant factor in any lawmaker’s decision concerning the issue. People in the U.S. are said to work about 40 hours per week, or roughly 0.238 of the hours in a week. I doubt that number is accurate to 0.4 milliseconds, the error that float would introduce in recording the fraction. A cancer survivor might live 350.1 days after a treatment, but we would introduce an error of roughly 1/2 second if we record the number as a float. One might question whether the instant of death could even conceptually be determined that accurately. The moon is said to be 384.401 thousand kilometers from the Earth. Record in 1,000s of kilometers in float, and the error is almost 1 meter. At its closest and farthest, the moon is 356,400 and 406,700 kilometers away. Most fundamental constants of the universe are known only to a few parts in a million, which is to say, to less than float precision, although we do know the speed of light in a vacuum to one decimal digit beyond float accuracy; it’s 299,793.458 kilometers per second. Round that to float and you’ll be off by 0.01 km/s.

The largest integer that can be recorded without rounding in float precision is 16,777,215. The largest integer that can be recorded without rounding in double precision is 9,007,199,254,740,991.

People working with dollar-and-cent data in Stata usually find it best to use doubles both to avoid rounding issues and in case the total exceeds $167,772.15. Rounding issues of 0.01, 0.02, etc., are inherent when working with binary floating point, regardless of precision. To avoid all problems, these people should use doubles and record amounts in pennies. That will have no difficulty with sums up to $90,071,992,547,409.91, which is to say, about $90 trillion. That’s nine quadrillion pennies. In my childhood, I thought a quadrillion just meant a lot, but it has a formal definition.

All of which is a long way from where I started, but now you are an expert in understanding binary floating-point numbers the way a scientific programmer needs to understand them: z=a*2^b. You are nearly all the way to understanding the IEEE 754-2008 standard. That standard merely states how a and b are packed into 32 and 64 bits, and the entire point of %21x is to avoid those details because, packed together, the numbers are unreadable by humans.


Cox, N. J. 2006. Tip 33: Sweet sixteen: Hexadecimal formats and precision problems. Stata Journal 6: 282-283.

Gould, William. 2006. Mata matters: Precision. Stata Journal 6: 550-560.

Linhart, J. M. 2008. Mata matters: Overflow and IEEE floating-point format. Stata Journal 8: 255-268.

How to read the %21x format

%21x is a Stata display format, just as are %f, %g, %9.2f, %td, and so on. You could put %21x on any variable in your dataset, but that is not its purpose. Rather, %21x is for use with Stata’s display command for those wanting to better understand the accuracy of the calculations they make. We use %21x frequently in developing Stata.

%21x produces output that looks like this:

. display %21x 1

. display %21x 2

. display %21x 10

. display %21x sqrt(2)

All right, I admit that the result is pretty unreadable to the uninitiated. The purpose of %21x is to show floating-point numbers exactly as the computer stores them and thinks about them. In %21x’s defense, it is more readable than how the computer really records floating-point numbers, yet it loses none of the mathematical essence. Computers really record floating-point numbers like this:

      1 = 3ff0000000000000
      2 = 4000000000000000
     10 = 4024000000000000
sqrt(2) = 3ff6a09e667f3bcd

Or more correctly, they record floating-point numbers in binary, like this:

      1 = 0011111111110000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
      2 = 0100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
     10 = 0100000000100100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
sqrt(2) = 0011111111110110101000001001111001100110011111110011101111001101

By comparison, %21x is a model of clarity.

The above numbers are 8-byte floating point, also known as double precision, encoded in binary64 IEEE 754-2008 little endian format. Little endian means that the bytes are ordered, left to right, from least significant to most significant. Some computers store floating-point numbers in big endian format — bytes ordered from most significant to least significant — and then numbers look like this:

      1 = 000000000000f03f
      2 = 0000000000000040
     10 = 0000000000004024
sqrt(2) = cd3b7f669ea0f63f


      1 = 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001111000000111111
      2 = 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000100
     10 = 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000100000000100100
sqrt(2) = 1100110100111011011111110110011010011110000011111111011000111111

Regardless of that, %21x produces the same output:

. display %21x 1

. display %21x 2

. display %21x 10

. display %21x sqrt(2)

Binary computers store floating-point numbers as a number pair, (a, b); the desired number z is encoded

z = a * 2^b

For example,

 1 = 1.00 * 2^0
 2 = 1.00 * 2^1
10 = 1.25 * 2^3

The number pairs are encrypted in the bit patterns, such as 00111111…01, above.

I’ve written the components a and b in decimal, but for reasons that will become clear, we need to preserve the essential binaryness of the computer’s number. We could write the numbers in binary, but they will be more readable if we represent them in base-16:

base-10 base-16
floating point
1 = 1.00 * 2^0
2 = 1.00 * 2^1
10 = 1.40 * 2^3

“1.40?”, you ask, looking at the last row, which indicates 1.40*2^3 for decimal 10.

The period in 1.40 is not a decimal point; it is a hexadecimal point. The first digit after the hexadecimal point is the number for 1/16ths, the next is for 1/(16^2)=1/256ths, and so on. Thus, 1.40 hexadecimal equals 1 + 4*(1/16) + 0*(1/256) = 1.25 in decimal.

And that is how you read %21x values +1.0000000000000X+000, +1.0000000000000X+001, and +1.4000000000000X+003. To wit,

base-10 base-16
floating point
1 = 1.00 * 2^0 = +1.0000000000000X+000
2 = 1.00 * 2^1 = +1.0000000000000X+001
10 = 1.40 * 2^3 = +1.4000000000000X+003

The mantissa is shown to the left of the X, and, to the right of the X, the exponent for the 2. %21x is nothing more than a binary variation of the %e format with which we are all familiar, for example, 12 = 1.20000e+01 = 1.2*10^1. It’s such an obvious generalization that one would guess it has existed for a long time, so excuse me when I mention that we invented it at StataCorp. If I weren’t so humble, I would emphasize that this human-readable way of representing binary floating-point numbers preserves nearly every aspect of the IEEE floating-point number. Being humble, I will merely observe that 1.40x+003 is more readable than 4024000000000000.

Now that you know how to read %21x, let me show you how you might use it. %21x is particularly useful for examining precision issues.

For instance, the cube root of 8 is 2; 2*2*2 = 8. And yet, in Stata, 8^(1/3) is not equal to 2:

. display 8^(1/3)2

. assert 8^(1/3) == 2
assertion is false
r(9) ; 

. display %20.0g 8^(1/3)

I blogged about that previously; see How Stata calculates powers. The error is not much:

. display 8^(1/3)-2-2.220e-16

In %21x format, however, we can see that the error is only one bit:

. display %21x 8^(1/3)

. display %21x 2    

I wish the answer for 8^(1/3) had been +1.0000000000001X+000, because then the one-bit error would have been obvious to you. Instead, rather than being a bit too large, the actual answer is a bit too small — one bit too small to be exact — so we end up with +1.fffffffffffffX+000.

One bit off means being off by 2^(-52), which is 2.220e-16, and which is the number we saw when we displayed in base-10 8^(1/3)-2. So %21x did not reveal anything we could not have figured out in other ways. The nature of the error, however, is more obvious in %21x format than it is in a base-10 format.

On Statalist, the point often comes up that 0.1, 0.2, …, 0.4, 0.6, …, 0.9, 0.11, 0.12, … have no exact representation in the binary base that computers use. That becomes obvious with %21x format:

. display %21x 0.1
+1.999999999999aX-004 . display %21x 0.2 +1.999999999999aX-003. ...

0.5 does have an exact representation, of course, as do all the negative powers of 2:

. display %21x 0.5           //  1/2

. display %21x 0.25          //  1/4

. display %21x 0.125         //  1/8

. display %21x 0.0625        // 1/16

. ...

Integers have exact representations, too:

. display %21x 1

. display %21x 2

. display %21x 3

. ...

. display %21x 10

. ...

. display %21x 10786204

. ...

%21x is a great way of becoming familiar with base-16 (equivalently, base-2), which is worth doing if you program base-16 (equivalently, base-2) computers.

Let me show you something useful that can be done with %21x.

A programmer at StataCorp has implemented a new statistical command. In four examples, the program produces the following results:


Without any additional information, I can tell you that the program has a bug, and that StataCorp will not be publishing the code until the bug is fixed!

How can I know that this program has a bug without even knowing what is being calculated? Let me show you the above results in %21x format:


Do you see what I see? It’s all those zeros. In randomly drawn problems, it would be unlikely that there would be all zeros at the end of each result. What is likely is that the results were somehow rounded, and indeed they were. The rounding in this case was due to using float (4-byte) precision inadvertently. The programmer forgot to include a double in the ado-file.

And that’s one way %21x is used.

I am continually harping on programmers at StataCorp that if they are going to program binary computers, they need to think in binary. I go ballistic when I see a comparison that’s coded as “if (abs(x-y)<1e-8) …” in an attempt to deal with numerical inaccuracy. What kind of number is 1e-8? Well, it’s this kind of number:

. display %21x 1e-8

Why put the computer to all that work, and exactly how many digits are you, the programmer, trying to ignore? Rather than 1e-8, why not use the “nice” numbers 7.451e-09 or 3.725e-09, which is to say, 1.0x-1b or 1.0x-1c? If you do that, then I can see exactly how many digits you are ignoring. If you code 1.0x-1b, I can see you are ignoring 1b=27 binary digits. If you code 1.0x-1c, I can see you are ignoring 1c=28 binary digits. Now, how many digits do you need to ignore? How imprecise do you really think your calculation is? By the way, Stata understands numbers such as 1.0x-1b and 1.0x-1c as input, so you can type the precise number you want.

As another example of thinking in binary, a StataCorp programmer once described a calculation he was making. At one point, the programmer needed to normalize a number in a particular way, and so calculated x/10^trunc(log10(x)), and held onto the 10^trunc(log10(x)) for denormalization later. Dividing by 10, 100, etc., may be easy for us humans, but it’s not easy in binary, and it can result in very small amounts of dreaded round-off error. And why even bother to calculate the log, which is an expensive operation? “Remember,” I said, “how floating-point numbers are recorded on a computer: z = a*2^b, where 0 < = |a| < 2. Writing in C, it’s easy to extract components. In fact, isn’t a number normalized to be between 0 and 2 even better for your purposes?” Yes, it turned out it was.

Even I sometimes forget to think in binary. Just last week I was working on a problem and Alan Riley suggested a solution. I thought a while. “Very clever,” I said. “Recasting the problem in powers of 2 will get rid of that divide that caused half the problem. Even so, there’s still the pesky subtraction.” Alan looked at me, imitating a look I so often give others. “In binary,” Alan patiently explained to me, “the difference you need is the last 19 bits of the original number. Just mask out the other digits.”

At this point, many of you may want to stop reading and go off and play with %21x. If you play with %21x long enough, you’ll eventually examine the relationship between numbers recorded as Stata floats and as Stata doubles, and you may discover something you think to be an error. I will discuss that next week in my next blog posting.

Using Stata’s random-number generators, part 1

I want to start a series on using Stata’s random-number function. Stata in fact has ten random-number functions:

  1. runiform() generates rectangularly (uniformly) distributed random number over [0,1).
  2. rbeta(a, b) generates beta-distribution beta(a, b) random numbers.
  3. rbinomial(n, p) generates binomial(n, p) random numbers, where n is the number of trials and p the probability of a success.
  4. rchi2(df) generates χ2 with df degrees of freedom random numbers.
  5. rgamma(a, b) generates Γ(a, b) random numbers, where a is the shape parameter and b, the scale parameter.
  6. rhypergeometric(N, K, n) generates hypergeometric random numbers, where N is the population size, K is the number of in the population having the attribute of interest, and n is the sample size.
  7. rnbinomial(n, p) generates negative binomial — the number of failures before the nth success — random numbers, where p is the probability of a success. (n can also be noninteger.)
  8. rnormal(μ, σ) generates Gaussian normal random numbers.
  9. rpoisson(m) generates Poisson(m) random numbers.
  10. rt(df) generates Student’s t(df) random numbers.

You already know that these random-number generators do not really produce random numbers; they produce pseudo-random numbers. This series is not about that, so we’ll be relaxed about calling them random-number generators.

You should already know that you can set the random-number seed before using the generators. That is not required but it is recommended. You set the seed not to obtain better random numbers, but to obtain reproducible random numbers. In fact, setting the seed too often can actually reduce the quality of the random numbers! If you don’t know that, then read help set seed in Stata. I should probably pull out the part about setting the seed too often, expand it, and turn it into a blog entry. Anyway, this series is not about that either.

This series is about the use of random-number generators to solve problems, just as most users usually use them. The series will provide practical advice. I’ll stay away from describing how they work internally, although long-time readers know that I won’t keep the promise. At least I’ll try to make sure that any technical details are things you really need to know. As a result, I probably won’t even get to write once that if this is the kind of thing that interests you, StataCorp would be delighted to have you join our development staff.


runiform(), generating uniformly distributed random numbers

Mostly I’m going to write about runiform() because runiform() can solve such a variety of problems. runiform() can be used to solve,

  • shuffling data (putting observations in random order),
  • drawing random samples without replacement (there’s a minor detail we’ll have to discuss because runiform() itself produces values drawn with replacement),
  • drawing random samples with replacement (which is easier to do than most people realize),
  • drawing stratified random samples (with or without replacement),
  • manufacturing fictional data (something teachers, textbook authors, manual writers, and blog writers often need to do).

runiform() generates uniformly, a.k.a. rectangularly distributed, random numbers over the interval, I quote from the manual, “0 to nearly 1”.

Nearly 1? “Why not all the way to 1?” you should be asking. “And what exactly do you mean by nearly 1?”

The answer is that the generator is more useful if it omits 1 from the interval, and so we shaved just a little off. runiform() produces random numbers over [0, 0.999999999767169356].

Here are two useful formulas you should commit to memory.

  1. If you want to generate continuous random numbers between a and b, use

    generate double u = (ba)*runiform() + a

    The random numbers will not actually be between a and b, they will be between a and nearly b, but the top will be so close to b, namely 0.999999999767169356*b, that it will not matter.

    Remember to store continuous random values as doubles.

  2. If you want to generate integer random numbers between a and b, use

    generate ui = floor((ba+1)*runiform() + a)

    In particular, do not even consider using the formula for continuous values but rounded to integers, which is to say, round(u) = round((ba)*runiform() + a). If you use that formula, and if ba>1, then a and b will be under represented by 50% each in the samples you generate!

    I stored ui as a default float, so I am assuming that -16,777,216 ≤ a < b ≤ 16,777,216. If you have integers outside of that range, however, store as a long or double.

I’m going to spend the rest of this blog entry explaining the above.

First, I want to show you how I got the two formulas and why you must use the second formula for generating integer uniform deviates.

Then I want explain why we shaved a little from the top of runiform(), namely (1) while it wouldn’t matter for formula 1, it made formula 2 a little easier, (2) the code would run more quickly, (3) we could more easily prove that we had implemented the random-number generator correctly, and (4) anyone digging deeper into our random numbers would not be misled into thinking they had more than 32 bits of resolution. That last point will be important in a future blog entry.


Continuous uniforms over [a, b)

runiform() produces random numbers over [0, 1). It therefore obviously follows that (ba)*runiform()+a produces number over [a, b). Substitute 0 for runiform() and the lower limit is obtained. Substitute 1 for runiform() and the upper limit is obtained.

I can tell you that in fact, runiform() produces random numbers over [0, (232-1)/232].

Thus (ba)*runiform()+a produces random numbers over [a, ((232-1)/232)*b].

(232-1)/232) approximately equals 0.999999999767169356 and exactly equals 1.fffffffeX-01 if you will allow me to use %21x format, which Stata understands and which you can understand if you see my previous blog posting on precision.

Thus, if you are concerned about results being in the interval [a, b) rather than [a, b], you can use the formula

generate double u = ((ba)*runiform() + a) / 1.fffffffeX-01

There are seven f’s followed by e in the hexadecimal constant. Alternatively, you could type

generate double u = ((ba)*runiform() + a) * ((2^32-1)/2^32)

but multiplying by 1.fffffffeX-01 is less typing so I’d type that. Actually I wouldn’t type either one; the small difference between values lying in [a, b) or [a, b] is unimportant.


Integer uniforms over [a, b]

Whether we produce real, continuous random numbers over [a, b) or [a, b] may be unimportant, but if we want to draw random integers, the distinction is important.

runiform() produces continuous results over [0, 1).

(ba)*runiform()+a produces continuous results over [a, b).

To produce integer results, we might round continuous results over segments of the number line:

           a    a+.5  a+1  a+1.5  a+2  a+2.5       b-1.5  b-1  b-.5    b
real line  +-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----------+-----+-----+-----+
int  line  |<-a->|<---a+1--->|<---a+2--->|           |<---b-1--->|<-b->|

In the diagram above, think of the numbers being produced by the continuous formula u=(ba)*runiform()+a as being arrayed along the real line. Then imagine rounding those values, say by using Stata’s round(u) function. If you rounded in that way, then

  • Values of u between a and a+0.5 will be rounded to a.
  • Values of u between a+0.5 and a+1.5 will be rounded to a+1.
  • Values of u between a+1.5 and a+2.5 will be rounded to a+2.
  • Values of u between b-1.5 and b-0.5 will be rounded to b-1.
  • Values of u between b-0.5 and b-1 will be rounded to b.

Note that the width of the first and last intervals is half that of the other intervals. Given that u follows the rectangular distribution, we thus expect half as many values rounded to a and to b as to a+1 or a+2 or … or b-1.

And indeed, that is exactly what we would see:

. set obs 100000
obs was 0, now 100000

. gen double u = (5-1)*runiform() + 1

. gen i = round(u)

. summarize u i 

    Variable |       Obs        Mean    Std. Dev.       Min        Max
           u |    100000    3.005933    1.156486   1.000012   4.999983
           i |    100000     3.00489    1.225757          1          5

. tabulate i

          i |      Freq.     Percent        Cum.
          1 |     12,525       12.53       12.53
          2 |     24,785       24.79       37.31
          3 |     24,886       24.89       62.20
          4 |     25,284       25.28       87.48
          5 |     12,520       12.52      100.00
      Total |    100,000      100.00

To avoid the problem we need to make the widths of all the intervals equal, and that is what the formula floor((ba+1)*runiform() + a) does.

           a          a+1         a+2                     b-1          b          b+1
real line  +-----+-----+-----+-----+-----------------------+-----+-----+-----+-----+
int  line  |<--- a --->|<-- a+1 -->|                       |<-- b-1 -->|<--- b --->)

Our intervals are of equal width and thus we expect to see roughly the same number of observations in each:

. gen better = floor((5-1+1)*runiform() + 1)

. tabulate better

     better |      Freq.     Percent        Cum.
          1 |     19,808       19.81       19.81
          2 |     20,025       20.02       39.83
          3 |     19,963       19.96       59.80
          4 |     20,051       20.05       79.85
          5 |     20,153       20.15      100.00
      Total |    100,000      100.00

So now you know why we shaved a little off the top when we implemented runiform(); it made the formula

floor((ba+1)*runiform() + a):

easier. Our integer [a, b] formula did not have to concern itself that runiform() would sometimes — rarely — return 1. If runiform() did return the occasional 1, the simple formula above would produce the (correspondingly occasional) b+1.


How Stata calculates continuous random numbers

I’ve said that we shaved a little off the top, but the fact was that it was easier for us to do the shaving than not.

runiform() is based on the KISS random number generator. KISS produces 32-bit integers, meaning integers the range [0, 232-1], or [0, 4,294,967,295]. You might wonder how we converted that range to being continuous over [0, 1).

Start by thinking of the number KISS produces in its binary form:


The corresponding integer is b31*231 + b31*230 + … + b0*20. All we did was insert a binary point out front:

. b31b30b29b28b27b26b25b24b23b22b21b20b19b18b17b16b15b14b13b12b11b10b9b8b7b6b5b4b3b2b1b0

making the real value b31*2-1 + b30*2-2 + … + b0*2-32. Doing that is equivalent to dividing by 2-32, except insertion of the binary point is faster. Nonetheless, if we had wanted runiform() to produce numbers over [0, 1], we could have divided by 232-1.

Anyway, if the KISS random number generator produced 3190625931, which in binary is


we converted that to


which equals 0.74287549 in base 10.

The largest number the KISS random number generator can produce is, of course,


and 0.11111111111111111111111111111111 equals 0.999999999767169356 in base 10. Thus, the runiform() implementation of KISS generates random numbers in the range [0, 0.999999999767169356].

I could have presented all of this mathematically in base 10: KISS produces integers in the range [0, 232-1], and in runiform() we divide by 232 to thus produce continuous numbers over the range [0, (232-1)/232]. I could have said that, but it loses the flavor and intuition of my longer explanation, and it would gloss over the fact that we just inserted the binary point. If I asked you, a base-10 user, to divide 232 by 10, you wouldn’t actually divide in the same way that they would divide by, say 9. Dividing by 9 is work. Dividing by 10 merely requires shifting the decimal point. 232 divided by 10 is obviously 23.2. You may not have realized that modern digital computers, when programmed by “advanced” programmers, follow similar procedures.

Oh gosh, I do get to say it! If this sort of thing interests you, consider a career at StataCorp. We’d love to have you.


Is it important that runiform() values be stored as doubles?

Sometimes it is important. It’s obviously not important when you are generating random integers using floor((ba+1)*runiform() + a) and -16,777,216 ≤ a < b ≤ 16,777,216. Integers in that range fit into a float without rounding.

When creating continuous values, remember that runiform() produces 32 bits. floats store 23 bits and doubles store 52, so if you store the result of runiform() as a float, it will be rounded. Sometimes the rounding matters, and sometimes it does not. Next time, we will discuss drawing random samples without replacement. In that case, the rounding matters. In most other cases, including drawing random samples with replacement — something else for later — the rounding
does not matter. Rather than thinking hard about the issue, I store all my non-integer
random values as doubles.


Tune in for the next episode

Yes, please do tune in for the next episode of everything you need to know about using random-number generators. As I already mentioned, we’ll discuss drawing random samples without replacement. In the third installment, I’m pretty sure we’ll discuss random samples with replacement. After that, I’m a little unsure about the ordering, but I want to discuss oversampling of some groups relative to others and, separately, discuss the manufacturing of fictional data.

Am I forgetting something?

The Penultimate Guide to Precision

There have recently been occasional questions on precision and storage types on Statalist despite all that I have written on the subject, much of it posted in this blog. I take that as evidence that I have yet to produce a useful, readable piece that addresses all the questions researchers have.

So I want to try again. This time I’ll try to write the ultimate piece on the subject, making it as short and snappy as possible, and addressing every popular question of which I am aware — including some I haven’t addressed before — and doing all that without making you wade with me into all the messy details, which I know I have a tendency to do.

I am hopeful that from now on, every question that appears on Statalist that even remotely touches on the subject will be answered with a link back to this page. If I succeed, I will place this in the Stata manuals and get it indexed online in Stata so that users can find it the instant they have questions.

What follows is intended to provide everything scientific researchers need to know to judge the effect of storage precision on their work, to know what can go wrong, and to prevent that. I don’t want to raise expectations too much, however, so I will entitle it …


  1. Contents

     1. Numeric types
    2. Floating-point types
    3. Integer types
    4. Integer precision
    5. Floating-point precision
    6. Advice concerning 0.1, 0.2, …
    7. Advice concerning exact data, such as currency data
    8. Advice for programmers
    9. How to interpret %21x format (if you care)
    10. Also see

  2. Numeric types

    1.1 Stata provides five numeric types for storing variables, three of them integer types and two of them floating point.

    1.2 The floating-point types are float and double.

    1.3 The integer types are byte, int, and long.

    1.4 Stata uses these five types for the storage of data.

    1.5 Stata makes all calculations in double precision (and sometimes quad precision) regardless of the type used to store the data.

  3. Floating-point types

    2.1 Stata provides two IEEE 754-2008 floating-point types: float and double.

    2.2 float variables are stored in 4 bytes.

    2.3 double variables are stored in 8 bytes.

    2.4 The ranges of float and double variables are

         type             minimum                maximum
         float     -3.40282346639e+ 38      1.70141173319e+ 38
         double    -1.79769313486e+308      8.98846567431e+307
         In addition, float and double can record missing values 
         ., .a, .b, ..., .z.

    The above values are approximations. For those familiar with %21x floating-point hexadecimal format, the exact values are

         type                   minimum                maximum
         float   -1.fffffe0000000X+07f     +1.fffffe0000000X+07e 
         double  -1.fffffffffffffX+3ff     +1.fffffffffffffX+3fe

    Said differently, and less precisely, float values are in the open interval (-2128, 2127), and double values are in the open interval (-21024, 21023). This is less precise because the intervals shown in the tables are closed intervals.

  4. Integer types

    3.1 Stata provides three integer storage formats: byte, int, and long. They are 1 byte, 2 bytes, and 4 bytes, respectively.

    3.2 Integers may also be stored in Stata’s IEEE 754-2008 floating-point storage formats float and double.

    3.3 Integer values may be stored precisely over the ranges

         type                   minimum                 maximum
         byte                      -127                     100
         int                    -32,767                  32,740
         long            -2,147,483,647           2,147,483,620
         float              -16,777,216              16,777,216
         double  -9,007,199,254,740,992   9,007,199,254,740,992
         In addition, all storage types can record missing values
         ., .a, .b, ..., .z.

    The overall ranges of float and double were shown in (2.4) and are wider than the ranges for them shown here. The ranges shown here are the subsets of the overall ranges over which no rounding of integer values occurs.

  5. Integer precision

    4.1 (Automatic promotion.) For the integer storage types — for byte, int, and long — numbers outside the ranges listed in (3.3) would be stored as missing (.) except that storage types are promoted automatically. As necessary, Stata promotes bytes to ints, ints to longs, and longs to doubles. Even if a variable is a byte, the effective range is still [-9,007,199,254,740,992, 9,007,199,254,740,992] in the sense that you could change a value of a byte variable to a large value and that value would be stored correctly; the variable that was a byte would, as if by magic, change its type to int, long, or double if that were necessary.

    4.2 (Data input.) Automatic promotion (4.1) applies after the data are input/read/imported/copied into Stata. When first reading, importing, copying, or creating data, it is your responsibility to choose appropriate storage types. Be aware that Stata’s default storage type is float, so if you have large integers, it is usually necessary to specify explicitly the types you wish to use.

    If you are unsure of the type to specify for your integer variables, specify double. After reading the data, you can use compress to demote storage types. compress never results in a loss of precision.

    4.3 Note that you can use the floating-point types float and double to store integer data.

    4.3.1 Integers outside the range [-2,147,483,647, 2,147,483,620] must be stored as doubles if they are to be precisely recorded.

    4.3.2 Integers can be stored as float, but avoid doing that unless you are certain they will be inside the range [-16,777,216, 16,777,216] not just when you initially read, import, or copy them into Stata, but subsequently as you make transformations.

    4.3.3 If you read your integer data as floats, and assuming they are within the allowed range, we recommend that you change them to an integer type. You can do that simply by typing compress. We make that recommendation so that your integer variables will benefit from the automatic promotion described in (4.1).

    4.4 Let us show what can go wrong if you do not follow our advice in (4.3). For the floating-point types — for float and double — integer values outside the ranges listed in (3.3) are rounded.

    Consider a float variable, and remember that the integer range for floats is [-16,777,216, 16,777,216]. If you tried to store a value outside the range in the variable — say, 16,777,221 — and if you checked afterward, you would discover that actually stored was 16,777,220! Here are some other examples of rounding:

         desired value                            stored (rounded)
         to store            true value             float value 
         maximum             16,777,216              16,777,216 
         maximum+1           16,777,217              16,777,216
         maximum+2           16,777,218              16,777,218
         maximum+3           16,777,219              16,777,220
         maximum+4           16,777,220              16,777,220
         maximum+5           16,777,221              16,777,220
         maximum+6           16,777,222              16,777,222
         maximum+7           16,777,223              16,777,224
         maximum+8           16,777,224              16,777,224
         maximum+9           16,777,225              16,777,224
         maximum+10          16,777,226              16,777,226

    When you store large integers in float variables, values will be rounded and no mention will be made of that fact.

    And that is why we say that if you have integer data that must be recorded precisely and if the values might be large — outside the range ±16,777,216 — do not use float. Use long or use double; or just use the compress command and let automatic promotion handle the problem for you.

    4.5 Unlike byte, int, and long, float and double variables are not promoted to preserve integer precision.

    Float values are not promoted because, well, they are not. Actually, there is a deep reason, but it has to do with the use of float variables for their real purpose, which is to store non-integer values.

    Double values are not promoted because there is nothing to promote them to. Double is Stata’s most precise storage type. The largest integer value Stata can store precisely is 9,007,199,254,740,992 and the smallest is -9,007,199,254,740,992.

    Integer values outside the range for doubles round in the same way that float values round, except at absolutely larger values.

  6. Floating-point precision

    5.1 The smallest, nonzero value that can be stored in float and double is

         type      value          value in %21x         value in base 10
         float     ±2^-127    ±1.0000000000000X-07f   ±5.877471754111e-039
         double    ±2^-1022   ±1.0000000000000X-3fe   ±2.225073858507e-308

    We include the value shown in the third column, the value in %21x, for those who know how to read it. It is described in (9), but it is unimportant. We are merely emphasizing that these are the smallest values for properly normalized numbers.

    5.2 The smallest value of epsilon such that 1+epsilon ≠ 1 is

         type      epsilon       epsilon in %21x        epsilon in base 10
         float      ±2^-23     ±1.0000000000000X-017    ±1.19209289551e-07
         double     ±2^-52     ±1.0000000000000X-034    ±2.22044604925e-16

    Epsilon is the distance from 1 to the next number on the floating-point number line. The corresponding unit roundoff error is u = ±epsilon/2. The unit roundoff error is the maximum relative roundoff error that is introduced by the floating-point number storage scheme.

    The smallest value of epsilon such that x+epsilon ≠ x is approximately |x|*epsilon, and the corresponding unit roundoff error is ±|x|*epsilon/2.

    5.3 The precision of the floating-point types is, depending on how you want to measure it,

         Measurement                           float              double
         # of binary digits                       23                  52
         # of base 10 digits (approximate)         7                  16 
         Relative precision                   ±2^-24              ±2^-53
         ... in base 10 (approximate)      ±5.96e-08           ±1.11e-16

    Relative precision is defined as

                           |x - x_as_stored|
                  ± max   ------------------    
                     x            x

    performed using infinite precision arithmetic, x chosen from the subset of reals between the minimum and maximum values that can be stored. It is worth appreciating that relative precision is a worst-case relative error over all possible numbers that can be stored. Relative precision is identical to roundoff error, but perhaps this definition is easier to appreciate.

    5.4 Stata never makes calculations in float precision, even if the data are stored as float.

    Stata makes double-precision calculations regardless of how the numeric data are stored. In some cases, Stata internally uses quad precision, which provides approximately 32 decimal digits of precision. If the result of the calculation is being stored back into a variable in the dataset, then the double (or quad) result is rounded as necessary to be stored.

    5.5 (False precision.) Double precision is 536,870,912 times more accurate than float precision. You may worry that float precision is inadequate to accurately record your data.

    Little in this world is measured to a relative accuracy of ±2-24, the accuracy provided by float precision.

    Ms. Smith, it is reported, made $112,293 this year. Do you believe that is recorded to an accuracy of ±2-24*112,293, or approximately ±0.7 cents?

    David was born on 21jan1952, so on 27mar2012 he was 21,981 days old, or 60.18 years old. Recorded in float precision, the precision is ±60.18*2-24, or roughly ±1.89 minutes.

    Joe reported that he drives 12,234 miles per year. Do you believe that Joe’s report is accurate to ±12,234*2-24, equivalent to ±3.85 feet?

    A sample of 102,400 people reported that they drove, in total, 1,252,761,600 miles last year. Is that accurate to ±74.7 miles (float precision)? If it is, each of them is reporting with an accuracy of roughly ±3.85 feet.

    The distance from the Earth to the moon is often reported as 384,401 kilometers. Recorded as a float, the precision is ±384,401*2-24, or ±23 meters, or ±0.023 kilometers. Because the number was not reported as 384,401.000, one would assume float precision would be accurate to record that result. In fact, float precision is more than sufficiently accurate to record the distance because the distance from the Earth to the moon varies from 356,400 to 406,700 kilometers, some 50,300 kilometers. The distance would have been better reported as 384,401 ±25,150 kilometers. At best, the measurement 384,401 has relative accuracy of ±0.033 (it is accurate to roughly two digits).

    Nonetheless, a few things have been measured with more than float accuracy, and they stand out as crowning accomplishments of mankind. Use double as required.

  7. Advice concerning 0.1, 0.2, …

    6.1 Stata uses base 2, binary. Popular numbers such as 0.1, 0.2, 100.21, and so on, have no exact binary representation in a finite number of binary digits. There are a few exceptions, such as 0.5 and 0.25, but not many.

    6.2 If you create a float variable containing 1.1 and list it, it will list as 1.1 but that is only because Stata’s default display format is %9.0g. If you changed that format to %16.0g, the result would appear as 1.1000000238419.

    This scares some users. If this scares you, go back and read (5.5) False Precision. The relative error is still a modest ±2-24. The number 1.1000000238419 is likely a perfectly acceptable approximation to 1.1 because the 1.1 was never measured to an accuracy of less than ±2-24 anyway.

    6.3 One reason perfectly acceptable approximations to 1.1 such as 1.1000000238419 may bother you is that you cannot select observations containing 1.1 by typing if x==1.1 if x is a float variable. You cannot because the 1.1 on the right is interpreted as double precision 1.1. To select the observations, you have to type if x==float(1.1).

    6.4 If this bothers you, record the data as doubles. It is best to do this at the point when you read the original data or when you make the original calculation. The number will then appear to be 1.1. It will not really be 1.1, but it will have less relative error, namely, ±2-53.

    6.5 If you originally read the data and stored them as floats, it is still sometimes possible to recover the double-precision accuracy just as if you had originally read the data into doubles. You can do this if you know how many decimal digits were recorded after the decimal point and if the values are within a certain range.

    If there was one digit after the decimal point and if the data are in the range [-1,048,576, 1,048,576], which means the values could be -1,048,576, -1,048,575.9, …, -1, 0, 1, …, 1,048,575.9, 1,048,576, then typing

    . gen double y = round(x*10)/10

    will recover the full double-precision result. Stored in y will be the number in double precision just as if you had originally read it that way.

    It is not possible, however, to recover the original result if x is outside the range ±1,048,576 because the float variable contains too little information.

    You can do something similar when there are two, three, or more decimal digits:

         # digits to
         right of 
         decimal pt.   range     command
             1      ±1,048,576   gen double y = round(x*10)/10
             2      ±  131,072   gen double y = round(x*100)/100
             3      ±   16,384   gen double y = round(x*1000)/1000
             4      ±    1,024   gen double y = round(x*10000)/10000
             5      ±      128   gen double y = round(x*100000)/100000
             6      ±       16   gen double y = round(x*1000000)/1000000
             7      ±        1   gen double y = round(x*10000000)/10000000

    Range is the range of x over which command will produce correct results. For instance, range = ±16 in the next-to-the-last line means that the values recorded in x must be -16 ≤ x ≤ 16.

  8. Advice concerning exact data, such as currency data

    7.1 Yes, there are exact data in this world. Such data are usually counts of something or are currency data, which you can think of as counts of pennies ($0.01) or the smallest unit in whatever currency you are using.

    7.2 Just because the data are exact does not mean you need exact answers. It may still be that calculated answers are adequate if the data are recorded to a relative accuracy of ±2-24 (float). For most analyses — even of currency data — this is often adequate. The U.S. deficit in 2011 was $1.5 trillion. Stored as a float, this amount has a (maximum) error of ±2-24*1.5e+12 = ±$89,406.97. It would be difficult to imagine that ±$89,406.97 would affect any government decision maker dealing with the full $1.5 trillion.

    7.3 That said, you sometimes do need to make exact calculations. Banks tracking their accounts need exact amounts. It is not enough to say to account holders that we have your money within a few pennies, dollars, or hundreds of dollars.

    In that case, the currency data should be converted to integers (pennies) and stored as integers, and then processed as described in (4). Assuming the dollar-and-cent amounts were read into doubles, you can convert them into pennies by typing

    . replace x = x*100

    7.4 If you mistakenly read the currency data as a float, you do not have to re-read the data if the dollar amounts are between ±$131,072. You can type

    . gen double x_in_pennies = round(x*100)

    This works only if x is between ±131,072.

  9. Advice for programmers

    8.1 Stata does all calculations in double (and sometimes quad) precision.

    Float precision may be adequate for recording most data, but float precision is inadequate for performing calculations. That is why Stata does all calculations in double precision. Float precision is also inadequate for storing the results of intermediate calculations.

    There is only one situation in which you need to exercise caution — if you create variables in the data containing intermediate results. Be sure to create all such variables as doubles.

    8.2 The same quad-precision routines StataCorp uses are available to you in Mata; see the manual entries [M-5] mean, [M-5] sum, [M-5] runningsum, and [M-5] quadcross. Use them as you judge necessary.

  10. How to interpret %21x format (if you care)

    9.1 Stata has a display format that will display IEEE 754-2008 floating-point numbers in their full binary glory but in a readable way. You probably do not care; if so, skip this section.

    9.2 IEEE 754-2008 floating-point numbers are stored as a pair of numbers (a, b) that are given the interpretation

    z = a * 2b

    where -2 < a < 2. In double precision, a is recorded with 52 binary digits. In float precision, a is recorded with 23 binary digits. For example, the number 2 is recorded in double precision as

    a = +1.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
    b = +1

    The value of pi is recorded as

    a = +1.1001001000011111101101010100010001000010110100011000
    b = +1

    9.3 %21x presents a and b in base 16. The double-precision value of 2 is shown in %21x format as


    and the value of pi is shown as


    In the case of pi, the interpretation is

    a = +1.921fb54442d18 (base 16)
    b = +001             (base 16)

    Reading this requires practice. It helps to remember that one-half corresponds to 0.8 (base 16). Thus, we can see that a is slightly larger than 1.5 (base 10) and b = 1 (base 10), so _pi is something over 1.5*21 = 3.

    The number 100,000 in %21x is


    which is to say

    a = +1.86a0000000000 (base 16)
    b = +010             (base 16)

    We see that a is slightly over 1.5 (base 10), and b is 16 (base 10), so 100,000 is something over 1.5*216 = 98,304.

    9.4 %21x faithfully presents how the computer thinks of the number. For instance, we can easily see that the nice number 1.1 (base 10) is, in binary, a number with many digits to the right of the binary point:

    . display %21x 1.1

    We can also see why 1.1 stored as a float is different from 1.1 stored as a double:

    . display %21x float(1.1)

    Float precision assigns fewer digits to the mantissa than does double precision, and 1.1 (base 10) in base 16 is a repeating hexadecimal.

    9.5 %21x can be used as an input format as well as an output format. For instance, Stata understands

    . gen x = 1.86ax+10

    Stored in x will be 100,000 (base 10).

    9.6 StataCorp has seen too many competent scientific programmers who, needing a perturbance for later use in their program, code something like

    epsilon = 1e-8

    It is worth examining that number:

    . display %21x 1e-8

    That is an ugly number that can only lead to the introduction of roundoff error in their program. A far better number would be

    epsilon = 1.0x-1b

    Stata and Mata understand the above statement because %21x may be used as input as well as output. Naturally, 1.0x-1b looks just like what it is,

    . display %21x 1.0x-1b

    and all those pretty zeros will reduce numerical roundoff error.

    In base 10, the pretty 1.0x-1b looks like

    . display %20.0g 1.0x-1b

    and that number may not look pretty to you, but you are not a base-2 digital computer.

    Perhaps the programmer feels that epsilon really needs to be closer to 1e-8. In %21x, we see that 1e-8 is +1.5798ee2308c3aX-01b, so if we want to get closer, perhaps we use

    epsilon = 1.6x-1b

    9.7 %21x was invented by StataCorp.

  11. Also see

    If you wish to learn more, see

    How to read the %21x format

    How to read the %21x format, part 2

    Precision (yet again), Part I

    Precision (yet again), Part II

Merging data, part 1: Merges gone bad

Merging concerns combining datasets on the same observations to produce a result with more variables. We will call the datasets one.dta and two.dta.

When it comes to combining datasets, the alternative to merging is appending, which is combining datasets on the same variables to produce a result with more observations. Appending datasets is not the subject for today. But just to fix ideas, appending looks like this:

              | var1  var2  var3  |      one.dta
           1. | one.dta           |
           2. |                   |
            . |                   |
            . |                   |


              | var1  var2  var3  |      two.dta
           1. | two.dta           |
           2. |                   |
            . |                   |


              | var1  var2  var3  |
           1. |                   |    one.dta
           2. |                   |
            . |                   |
            . |                   |
              +                   +      +
        N1+1. |                   |    two.dta   appended
        N2+2. |                   |
            . |                   |

Merging looks like this:

      +-------------------+           +-----------+
      | var1  var2  var3  |           | var4 var5 |
      +-------------------+           +-----------+
   1. |                   |        1. |           |
   2. |                   |    +   2. |           |     =
    . |                   |         . |           |
    . |                   |         . |           |
      +-------------------+           +-----------+
        one.dta                         two.dta

                        | var1  var2  var3    var4 var5 |
                     1. |                               |
                     2. |                               |
                      . |                               |
                      . |                               |
                          one.dta           + two.dta    merged

The matching of the two datasets — deciding which observations in one.dta are combined with which observations in two.dta — could be done simply on the observation numbers: Match one.dta observation 1 with two.dta observation 1, match one.dta observation 2 with two.dta observation 2, and so on. In Stata, you could obtain that result by typing

. use one, clear

. merge 1:1 using two

Never do this because it is too dangerous. You are merely assuming that observation 1 matches with observation 1, observation 2 matches with observation 2, and so on. What if you are wrong? If observation 2 in one.dta is Bob and observation 2 in two.dta is Mary, you will mistakenly combine the observations for Bob and Mary and, perhaps, never notice the mistake.

The better solution is to match the observations on equal values of an identification variable. This way, the observation with id=”Mary” is matched with the observation with id=”Mary”, id=”Bob” with id=”Bob”, id=”United States” with id=”United States”, and id=4934934193 with id=4934934193. In Stata, you do this by typing

. use one, clear

. merge 1:1 id using two

Things can still go wrong. For instance, id=”Bob” will not match id=”Bob ” (with the trailing blank), but if you expected all the observations to match, you will ultimately notice the mistake. Mistakenly unmatched observations tend to get noticed because of all the missing values they cause in subsequent calculations.

It is the mistakenly combined observations that can go unnoticed.

And that is the topic for today, mistakenly matched observations, or merges gone bad.

Observations are mistakenly combined more often than many researchers realize. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it happen, be discovered later, and necessitate withdrawn results. You seriously need to consider the possibility that this could happen to you. Only three things are certain in this world: death, taxes, and merges gone bad.

I am going to assume that you are familiar with merging datasets both conceptually and practically; that you already know what 1:1, m:1, 1:m, and m:n mean; and that you know the role played by “key” variables such as ID. I am going to assume you are familiar with Stata’s merge command. If any of this is untrue, read [D] merge. Type help merge in Stata and click on [D] merge at the top to take you to the full PDF manuals. We are going to pick up where the discussion in [D] merge leaves off.

Detecting when merges go bad

As I said, the topic for today is merges gone bad, by which I mean producing a merged result with the wrong records combined. It is difficult to imagine that typing

. use one, clear

. merge 1:1 id using two

could produce such a result because, to be matched, the observations had to have equal values of the ID. Bob matched with Bob, Mary matched with Mary, and so on.

Right you are. There is no problem assuming the values in the id variable are correct and consistent between datasets. But what if id==4713 means Bob in one dataset and Mary in the other? That can happen if the id variable is simply wrong from the outset or if the id variable became corrupted in prior processing.

1. Use theory to check IDs if they are numeric

One way the id variable can become corrupted is if it is not stored properly or if it is read improperly. This can happen to both string and numeric variables, but right now, we are going to emphasize the numeric case.

Say the identification variable is Social Security number, an example of which is 888-88-8888. Social Security numbers are invariably stored in computers as 888888888, which is to say that they are run together and look a lot like the number 888,888,888. Sometimes they are even stored numerically. Say you have a raw data file containing perfectly valid Social Security numbers recorded in just this manner. Say you read the number as a float. Then 888888888 becomes 888888896, and so does every Social Security number between 888888865 and 888888927, some 63 in total. If Bob has Social Security number 888888869 and Mary has 888888921, and Bob appears in dataset one and Mary in dataset two, then Bob and Mary will be combined because they share the same rounded Social Security number.

Always be suspicious of numeric ID variables stored numerically, not just those stored as floats.

When I read raw data and store the ID variables as numeric, I worry whether I have specified a storage type sufficient to avoid rounding. When I obtain data from other sources that contain numeric ID variables, I assume that the other source improperly stored the values until proven otherwise.

Perhaps you remember that 16,775,215 is the largest integer that can be stored precisely as a float and 9,007,199,254,740,991 is the largest that can be stored precisely as a double. I never do.

Instead, I ask Stata to show me the largest theoretical ID number in hexadecimal. For Social Security numbers, the largest is 999-99-9999, so I type

. inbase 16 999999999

Stata’s inbase command converts decimal numbers to different bases. I learn that 999999999 base-10 is 3b9ac9ff base-16, but I don’t care about the details; I just want to know the number of base-16 digits required. 3b9ac9ff has 8 digits. It takes 8 base-16 digits to record 999999999. As you learned in How to read the %21x format, part 2, I do remember that doubles can record 13 base-16 digits and floats can record 5.75 digits (the 0.75 part being because the last digit must be even). If I didn’t remember those numbers, I would just display a number in %21x format and count the digits to the right of the binary point. Anyway, Social Security numbers can be stored in doubles because 8<13, the number of digits double provides, but not in floats because 8 is not < 5.75, the number of digits float provides.

If Social Security numbers contained 12 digits rather than 9, the largest would be

. inbase 16 999999999999

which has 10 base-16 digits, and because 10<13, it would still fit into a double.

Anyway, if I discover that the storage type is insufficient to store the ID number, I know the ID numbers must be rounded.

2. Check uniqueness of IDs

I said that when I obtain data from other sources, I assume that the other source improperly stored the ID variables until proven otherwise. I should have said, until evidence accumulates to the contrary. Even if the storage type used is sufficient, I do not know what happened in previous processing of the data.

Here’s one way using datasets one.dta and two.dta to accumulate some of that evidence:

. use one, clear              // test 1
. sort id
. by id: assert _N==1

. use two, clear              // test 2
. sort id . by id: assert _N==1 

In these tests, I am verifying that the IDs really are unique in the two datasets that I have. Tests 1 and 2 are unnecessary when I plan later to merge 1:1 because the 1:1 part will cause Stata itself to check that the IDs are unique. Nevertheless, I run the tests. I do this because the datasets I merge are often subsets of the original data, and I want to use all the evidence I have to invalidate the claim that the ID variables really are unique.Sometimes I receive datasets where it takes two variables to make sure I am calling a unique ID. Perhaps I receive data on persons over time, along with the claim that the ID variable is name. The documentation also notes that variable date records when the observation was made. Thus, to uniquely identify each of the observations requires both name and date, and I type

. sort name date
. by name date: assert _N==1

I am not suspicious of only datasets I receive. I run this same test on datasets I create.

3. Merge on all common variables

At this point, I know the ID variable(s) are unique in each dataset. Now I consider the idea that the ID variables are inconsistent across datasets, which is to say that Bob in one dataset, however he is identified, means Mary in the other. Detecting such problems is always problematic, but not nearly as problematic as you might guess.

It is rare that the datasets I need to merge have no variables in common except the ID variable. If the datasets are on persons, perhaps both datasets contain each person’s sex. In that case, I could merge the two datasets and verify that the sex is the same in both. Actually, I can do something easier than that: I can add variable sex to the key variables of the merge:

. use one, clear
. merge 1:1 id sex using two

Assume I have a valid ID variable. Then adding variable sex does not affect the outcome of the merge because sex is constant within id. I obtain the same results as typing merge 1:1 id using two.

Now assume the id variable is invalid. Compared with the results of merge 1:1 id using two, Bob will no longer match with Mary even if they have the same ID. Instead I will obtain separate, unmatched observations for Bob and Mary in the merged data. Thus to complete the test that there are no such mismatches, I must verify that the id variable is unique in the merged result. The complete code reads

. use one, clear
. merge 1:1 id sex using two
. sort id
. by id: assert _N==1

And now you know why in test 2 I checked the uniqueness of ID within dataset by hand rather than depending on merge 1:1. The 1:1 merge I just performed is on id and sex, and thus merge does not check the uniqueness of ID in each dataset. I checked by hand the uniqueness of ID in each dataset and then checked the uniqueness of the result by hand, too.

Passing the above test does not prove that that the ID variable is consistent and thus the merge is correct, but if the assertion is false, I know with certainty either that I have an invalid ID variable or that sex is miscoded in one of the datasets. If my data has roughly equal number of males and females, then the test has a 50 percent chance of detecting a mismatched pair of observations, such as Bob and Mary. If I have just 10 mismatched observations, I have a 1-0.910 = 0.9990 probability of detecting the problem.

I should warn you that if you want to keep just the matched observations, do not perform the merge by coding merge 1:1 id sex using two, keep(matched). You must keep the unmatched observations to perform the final part of the test, namely, that the ID numbers are unique. Then you can drop the unmatched observations.

. use one, clear
. merge 1:1 id sex using two
. sort id
. by id: assert _N==1
. keep if _merge==3

There may be more than one variable that you expect to be the same in combined observations. A convenient feature of this test is that you can add as many expected-to-be-constant variables to merge‘s keylist as you wish:

. use one, clear
. merge 1:1 id sex hiredate groupnumber using two
. sort id
. by id: assert _N==1
. keep if _merge==3

It is rare that there is not at least one variable other than the ID variable that is expected to be equal, but it does happen. Even if you have expected-to-be-constant variables, they may not work as well in detecting problems as variable sex in the example above. The distribution of the variable matters. If your data are of people known to be alive in 1980 and the known-to-be-constant variable is whether born after 1900, even mismatched observations would be likely to have the same value of the variable because most people alive in 1980 were born after 1900.

4. Look at a random sample

This test is weak, but you should do it anyway, if only because it’s so easy. List some of the combined observations and look at them.

. list in 1/5

Do the combined results look like they go together?

By the way, the right way to do this is

. gen u = uniform()
. sort u
. list in 1/5
. drop u

You do not want to look at the first observations because, having small values of ID, they are probably not representative. However IDs are assigned, the process is unlikely to be randomized. Persons with low values of ID will be younger, or older; or healthier, or sicker; or ….

5. Look at a nonrandom sample

You just merged two datasets, so obviously you did that because you needed the variables and those variables are somehow related to the existing variables. Perhaps your data is on persons, and you combined the 2009 data with the 2010 data. Perhaps your data is on countries, and you added export data to your import data. Whatever you just added, it is not random. If it were, you could have saved yourself time by simply generating the new variables containing random numbers.

So generate an index that measures a new variable in terms of an old one, such as

. gen diff = income2010 - income2009


. gen diff = exports - imports

Then sort on the variable and look at the observations containing the most outlandish values of your index:

. sort diff
. list in  1/5
. list in -5/l

These are the observations most likely to be mistakenly combined. Do you believe those observations were combined correctly?


I admit I am not suspicious of every merge I perform. I have built up trust over time in datasets that I have worked with previously. Even so, my ability to make errors is equal to yours, and even with trustworthy datasets, I can introduce problems long before I get to the merge. You need to carefully consider the consequences of a mistake. I do not know anyone who performs merges who has not performed a merge gone bad. The question is whether he or she detected it. I hope so.

Categories: Data Management Tags: ,