Aah randomness with its ability to surprise and delight. Not like that miscreant entropy hurtling the universe toward heat death. There are times when you simply need to inject a bit of the unexpected into your world (or at least your database). For this, FileMaker has created the Random function. When invoked, Random will deliver a pseudo-random number between zero and one.
Wait- pseudo random? You didn’t hand over pseudo money for PseudoMaker. Why should you have to put up with second-class pseudo-random numbers? This isn’t FileMaker’s fault. True randomness is at cross-purposes with the deterministic nature of computers. MIT Engineering has a nice short explanation of why. And if you feel you really must have a bona fide random number, try the services at random.org where they have an approach to marry analog randomness to web services. Anyway, distinguishing pseudo-random from true random is beyond the mental capacity of a human brain, so let’s just roll with it.
There’s an example of a random number from FileMaker. The only guarantee you’ll get is that it’s somewhere between zero and one. FileMaker will generate a number that is 20 digits long, but if one or more of the rightmost digits is a zero, they won’t be displayed. In practice, a 20 digit decimal is rarely what you want anyway. More likely, you’ll want to generate a positive whole number and a little extra math can bring that to bear.
This formula shows how to get a whole number in the range of 1 to n. The Int function (which showed up in last week’s post) takes any number and lops off its decimal values leaving you with just the integer. Inside that Int function is “n * Random“. This is where we’re multiplying any given number (represented by n) by a random number between zero and one. The result of that calculation will always return a value in the range of zero to n-1. Tacking a “+1” on the end ensures a positive result. So if you use, say, the number 10 in place of the n, you’ll get a random number between 1 and 10.
If you want to take your database user to a randomly selected record in your database, the following formula in a Go to Record script step will generate the record number for you.
Because you know I can’t resist extra credit. Everything above has been for a ranges between zero and one or between 1 and n. This calculation, making good use of our beloved Let function, lets you generate a random number between any two numbers.
The fact is that we rarely want a truly random number. Most of the time we want a randomly selected value within a certain range. The Random function alone can’t do that, but given a little know-how, Random can be combined with some other FileMaker functions to get you the results you’re seeking.