Pay Attention to Units

The title for this post was a common quote from a favorite teacher of mine in high school. Mr Holt taught chemistry and physics and it seemed like I spent most of my life in his classroom — and I guess I did because in four years of high school I took 3 years each of chemistry and physics. Being a small school in a small Missouri town with a small budget we spent a lot of time (especially in physics) working on what would today be called, “mathematical modelling”. Back then, we just called it, “figuring out what would likely happen if we did something that we can’t really try because there isn’t enough money available to actually run the experiment”.

It was in those classes that I began to develop an understanding of, and appreciation for, all the pieces of contextual information that surrounds numbers. For example, if you have the number 4 floating around in a computer the most basic thing you can define about that number is what that 4 is counting or quantifying. Is it the mass of something (4 pounds)? Is it the cost of something in England (also, interestingly, 4 pounds)? Or is it a measure of how much your college roommate could drink before passing out (4 beers)?

In my work today, where I sometimes still have budgetary constraints, the need to remember that I have to, “…pay attention to the units…” remains. The difference is that now I have a powerful ally in the form of the facility that LabVIEW provides for assigning units to floating point numbers.

LabVIEW Units Aren’t Smarter Than You Are

Before we get into the meat of the discussion, however, we need to deal.with a few concerns and consideration that developers — even some very senior developers — have about using units. While there are a few behaviors that are clearly bugs, there are many more that people think are bugs but really aren’t. We should, of course, not be surprised by this situation. Anything related to floating-point will exhibit similar issues. For example, there used to be claims that LabVIEW didn’t do math correctly because the results of some calculations were different from what you got from Excel. Such claims ignored the fact that at the time Excel did all math in single-precision, while LabVIEW has always used double-precision math.

Similarly, a lot of the upset over “bugs” in units handling comes from an incomplete understanding of the entire problem. The simple truth is that there are a lot of things we do unconsciously when handling values with units so when we try to automate those operations, things can get messy. For example, we realize that sometimes when we square a number with units we want to square the unit, so meters become meters2. But sometimes we just want to square the number. Does it after all really make sense to convert volts into volts2? In implementing the units functionality, NI had to deal with similar ambiguity in something approaching a systematic manner so they made some decisions and then documented those decisions. So we may disagree with those decisions, but disagreement is not the same thing as a bug.

Another complaint that you sometimes hear is that using units complicates simple math. People will say things like, “…all I want to do is increment a number and LabVIEW won’t let me.” Ok, let’s look at that problem. You say you want to add 1 to a value, but 1 what? Even assuming a given type of unit, like length, how is LabVIEW supposed to know what you want to do? Do you want to add 1 meter, 1 furlong, 1 light-year?

Finally, there can be issues caused by shortcuts we take in our everyday thinking and communications, that are (to put it kindly) imprecise. For example, there are two units that can be, and often are, referred to as “PSI”. However, one is a force and one is a pressure, so mathematically they are very different beasts. In the end, a good way of summarizing a lot of this discussion is that using explicit units requires us to be more precise and careful in our thinking — which is always a good thing any way.

How Units Work

The basic idea behind LabVIEW’s implementation of units is that it draws a sharp distinction between how a number is stored and how it is expressed. The first step in making this distinction is deciding what kind of unit the developer selected and then expressing the value they entered in the “base unit” for the type of unit being used. For example, lengths are converted meters, temperatures are converted to degrees Kelvin, and time is converted to seconds and it is this converted value that exists on the wire. Likewise, when this wire encounters an indicator, LabVIEW converts the value on the wire to the units specified in the indicator before display. It is this basic functionality that makes simple math on timestamps possible.

pi time

In this snippet, each data source (the constants) converts the number it contains into seconds using its associated time unit. For example, 3 hours is converted into 10,800 seconds (60 x 60 x 3), 14 minutes is converted into 840 seconds (14 x 60) and the last input is left as is because it is already in seconds. Because all the numbers are now expressed the same unit, we can simply add them together and then add the result to the timestamp — which is also expressed in seconds. By the way, this is one of my favorite places to use units because it does away with so many magic numbers like 86,400 (the number of seconds in a day).

In terms of selecting the units to use, we have already seen one technique. On a control or constant you can show the units label and then enter or select the unit you want. To select the units, right-click on the units label and select the Build Unit String… option from the popup menu. The resulting dialog allows you to browse the standard units that LabVIEW supports and select or build the desired units.

However, if you have an existing number to which you want to apply a unit, you need to use a Convert Unit node. It looks a lot like the Expression Node but instead of typing simple math expressions into it, you enter unit strings.

unit conversion nodes

This snippet is one that I sometimes use when specifying timeouts. Note that a Convert Unit node is used to both apply are remove units.

When applying units, the unit string tells LabVIEW how to interpret the unitless number. It does not, as some suppose, specify the specific unit that value will have. For example, you may tell LabVIEW to interpret a particular number as feet, but internally the value will still be stored (like all lengths) in meters. When removing units, the node’s unit string tells LabVIEW how to express the internal value. In the above snippet, time is always carried as a floating point number of seconds, so the node driving the output causes LabVIEW to express the number of seconds as milliseconds.

Dealing with Temperatures

Another place I like to use units is with temperatures, but let’s be honest things can seem to get a bit strange here — or it can seem strange until you understand what is going one. The root of this apparent strangeness lies in the fact that there are absolute temperatures (like the room is 72° Fahrenheit) and there are relative temperatures (like the temperature went up 5° Fahrenheit in the last hour). Moreover, as we think about and manipulate temperatures we unconsciously, and automatically, keep track of the difference between the two. Unfortunately, when using a computer nothing happens unconsciously or automatically. Things happen because we tell them to.

The first thing NI had to decide when implementing this functionality was what base unit to use for temperature, and they picked Kelvin because it is metric and 0° K is the coldest something can get. Being metric is important because it means that the magnitude of change in 1° K is the same as for 1° C. By the way, did you notice what your brain just did? It went from thinking about absolute temperatures to thinking about relative temperatures — without thinking about it. This is what computers can’t do. Computers need some sort of indication or hint to tell them how to think about things, and in the context of temperature, this hint needs to provide a means for drawing a distinction between the units used for absolute temperature and units for relative temperatures. To see this issue in action, let’s revisit the previous time example but recast it to use temperature unit:

bad temperature calculation

Here we are taking a temperature value 20° C and incrementing it by 5° C. Unfortunately, when you run this example, the result is 298.15° C. “But,” you protest, “I thought that converting everything to the same units allowed you to perform any math you wanted with impunity. Where did this wild result come from. Surely this is a bug!”

Actually, it’s not. The only “problem” is that LabVIEW did exactly what the programmer told it to do, and not what they wanted it to do. LabVIEW added together two absolute temperature values and came up with an answer they didn’t expect. While its true that adding absolute temperatures probably doesn’t make any logical sense — how is LabVIEW supposed to know that? The real error is with the way the developer framed the problem and not with LabVIEW or its handling of units. What the developer obviously intended was to add a relative temperature value to the absolute temperature. To do that, you have to change the units of the increment input.

The way that LabVIEW identifies a relative temperature is to change the unit label from degC or degF, to Cdeg or Fdeg. By the way, now that you have the unit definitions correct, you can freely mix and match temperature scales. For example, you can add a 5° F increment to a 23° C room temperature and LabVIEW will happily give you the right answer (25.7778° C).

good temperature calculation

More Calculations

Other math operations can sometimes be confusing as well. For example, we have already discussed why you can’t simply increment or decrement numbers with units, but multiply and divide operation do not have the same restriction. You can multiply or divide a number with units by one without units with no problems. This apparent inconsistency makes sense when you remember that these two math operations used in this way simply scale the value that is there, regardless of how it is stored internally. Also NI has decides that many operations only operate on the numeric value. For example, if you square 5 meters using the square function, you get 25 meters. If you want to operate on the unit, you have to use the multiply function which will generate any unit squared.

But moving beyond these issues, there are many operations that using units will simplify, and even prevent you from making some kinds of logical errors. For instance, dividing a distance by a time will automatically generate a velocity unit (meters/sec by default). In the same way dividing a velocity by time will calculate an acceleration. And these conversions work the other way too: multiply a velocity by time and you get a distance (by default, meters).

The only negative here is that some of the unit labels can look a bit odd at first glance — though they are mathematically correct. For example, meters per second is shown as s^-1 m. However, despite the strangeness of this representation, you can alter the unit displayed by changing either of the base units shown. If you wanted feet per second, the unit string would be s^-1 ft, or miles per hour would be h^-1 mi. By the way, if you want to hide these potentially confusing representations from your users, the units string is a writable property so you could create a popup menu on a control that shows prettier labels.

unit selector

Note that he enumeration making the selection from the array has three values: Miles per Hour, Kilometers per Hour and Meters per Second.

Carrying on further, the units understands Ohm’s Law. Divide a voltage by a resistance and you get amps. Multiplying ohms and amps returns volts, and the calculations even know that the reciprocal of a frequency is time. All and all, this is some very cool stuff here that can significantly improve your code — and perhaps prevent you from making some silly mistakes. But as with all things new, work into it slowly, and thoroughly double-check the results when you try something different.

The Big Tease

There seems to be rumor running around that I don’t like queues. Well that is not true. They have a couple features that make them uniquely qualified for certain kinds of operations. My next couple posts will demonstrate a really good place use a queue — a data processing engine for manipulating data that will dynamically resize itself on the fly to provide more or less processing bandwidth.

Until Next Time…


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