I've heard lots of people say that it's best to use a floating point number only when you really need to. During my MSc we learnt about how floating point numbers are encoded and did little pencil-and-paper exercises to demonstrate how decimal fractions are converted into surprisingly odd floating point representations. I've read about computer arithmetic errors causing the failure of a patriot missile. But the following little problem that I've just bumped into seems to be a very clean, concrete way to demonstrate that floating point numbers are to be handled with care. Here's the example... if I subtract 0.8 from 1, the remainder is 0.2, right? So let's try asking Matlab or C++. Try evalating the following:
(1 - 0.8) == 0.2
This expression will return a boolean. It's simply subtracting 0.8 from 1 and then asking if the answer is equal to 0.2. Rather surprisingly, it returns false. Why? Because 0.2 cannot be precisely represented in binary floating point; the significand is 1100 recurring. 0.2 decimal = 3E4CCCCD in 32-bit floating point (hex representation). Now if we convert from binary floating point back to decimal, we get: 3E4CCCCD = 2.0000000298023223876953125E-1 (You can learn more about floating point arithmetic on WikiPedia and to tinker with this nifty floating point converter applet.) The bottom line is: if the quantity you're trying to represent can easily be represented using integers, then it's probably best to do so. e.g. if you're trying to represent monetary values in C++, and you know you'll only be interested in values of a specific precision (like 0.1 pence) then you could build a simple Money class which internally represents money as integers.
There's lots of good discussion (and links) of the limitations of floating point here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floating_point#Accuracy_problems
I've just learnt that Python can cope with decimal numbers if you
>>> 1 - 0.8
>>> import decimal