Outside Your Comfort Zone

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Recently, I had a class which required conversion between a few numeric systems such as binary (base2), decimal (the "normal" one we use, base10), and base16.

(It was actually a couple more, but for this blogpost only those three are relevant.)

A classmate of mine asked the professor if it was alright for him, in a conversion between binary and base16, to convert to decimal as a middle step. This initially seems as a good practice. Since decimal is a system that we've all used since we learned to count, it makes sense to want to use it as a middleground between two unknown systems.

In a situation where time and success are critical, it's natural to want to stick to what you already know.

The Problem with this Approach

In principle, I don't necessarily advise people to stray from their comfort zone when performing a critical task; when dealing with little margin for error, one should always exercise caution and stick to what works. However, in class, it's experimentation time.


For numerical systems that share a common base (base16 is, technically, base2^4), conversion is actually simpler than it would be using a different system with an incongruous base as a middleground. To prove this, let's do a little math...

The Smart, But "Uncomfortable" Way

For a base16 number, each of its figures can be represented as 4 figures in binary. Therefore, if the number were to be 52 in base16, then the 5 would be 0101 and the 2 would be 0010. Problem solved. Steps taken: 2. (3, if you wanna count writing 01010010 together as a step.)

The "Comfortable", But Convoluted Way

Whereas converting it to decimal would entail multiplying 5 by 16 and then adding 2 to that, and then dividing 84 (the result of the previous conversion) by 2 over and over again until the remainder is either 1 or 0, that's six divisions you have to carry out in order to convert a decimal number of two figures. Which then nets you 0101 0010, which is the exact same result we reached earlier. Steps: 7 (if you consider conversion from base16 to decimal a single step, and I know you don't.)


This was merely an example of the myriad of situations in which stretching your limits a bit can save you tons of time. If you've read my previous post, then you know that, even though learning to use it may seem difficult at first, it'll definitely save you lots of headaches later on.