Monday, December 18, 2017

O, zero and eight

When my parents bought us our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, in my early teens, I learned that to distinguish capital O with the digit zero, a diagonal line is put through the digit zero (also known as a slashed zero). This is due to the relatively low resolution computer fonts used in those days, where O is easily confused with 0 (but its use actually predates computers). On the other hand, some Scandinavian languages has something similar to a slashed zero in their alphabet, and the slashed zero can cause more problems than it solves. The use of the slashed zero is also useful when writing computer code using pen and paper, an activity that is becoming rare. Recently, I have not seen the use of slashed zero in word processing since given the number of pixels they have at their disposal, many fonts do not use it to represent the digit 0. In some fonts such as DejaVu Sans Mono and the font used in the Windows command prompt, a dotted zero is used to represent 0. Incidentally, for the Default font used in this blog, zero (0) looks almost identical to the lowercase letter "o".

The empty set (the set with zero elements) is denoted as {}, and is sometimes also denoted with a symbol similar to a slashed zero, but with the slash extending beyond the boundary of "0". This notation makes sense since in Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory the natural numbers are defined as sets with 0 being the empty set and the number n+1 defined as $n \cup \{n\}$, i.e. n+1 is the set obtained by augmenting the set n with a single element: the set consisting of the set n. In other words, 0 = {}, 1 = {{}}, 2 = {{},{{}}}, etc.

The use of a slashed zero is a good idea, but recently I found that it is causing problems for me. There is one place where I consistently see the use of a slashed zero and that is on credit card receipts. With advancing age and the onset of farsightedness, I have a hard time separating the slashed zero from the digit 8. When we go out to eat at a restaurant, the lighting is typically dim which exacerbates the problem and sometimes I have a hard time determining how much tip to leave and add it up correctly on the bill. I wish the receipt printer would not use the slash zero in their font (I don't think the dotted zero is much better either in this case).

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