The category of Final Jeopardy! for the last game of the All-Stars team tournament was “Constitutional Amendment Math”. I had a foreboding when I saw this, and it was right.

The clue asked the contestants to add the numbers of the Amendments banning state-sponsored religion, ending slavery and repealing Prohibition. The answer is 35, “cleverly” arranged so as to be a tribute to Jeopardy!’s 35-year run. (In its current incarnation, that is; the older Art Fleming version is typically “forgotten” by Trebek’s crew.)

Well, here’s why this set my teeth on edge. The numbers of the Amendments are not really quantities. We don’t do arithmetic with them, any more than we do with zip codes or phone numbers. They are just labels that happen to be numeric. If we’re making a spot for them in the memory of a program, or in a database, we should allocate text strings, not numbers.

This is a very important principle: I have seen a lot of applications errors that originated because labels were stored as numbers and then later, unintended consequences arose. For example, if we store all phone numbers as numbers, what happens if a future change causes them to be rounded? 9165551309 is not much more interesting or useful as a number than, say, 9.166 billion. But as a phone number, a label to a communication channel, its usefulness has been completely destroyed.

Deliberately doing arithmetic with these values just because all of them happen to be made up of digits? That is the kind of thing that screams out the sort of basic design error alluded to with phone numbers.