What happens when you keep on incrementing an integer past its maximum? Most competent developers would answer 'It would go to something negative'. Some would even be able to explain why and detail the way two's complement works. But what happens when you get a double and keep on dividing by two past its precision limit? Most would answer 'Er... I don't know. I have to try it' or 'Hey, let's play online pong'.
Floating point representation in binary can be a pita to grasp. Not because it's more complex than the simple two's complement but it's because it's something you don't really care about since it just works. . You would rather watch cat clips than spend time reading about it. The problem is that we work with floats all the time, from them representing money to asteroid speeds. I've seen so many simple coding bugs because a lot of developers don't get the basics of floating point representation. So here's a quick refresher which hopefully is more interesting than watching cats on YouTube:
Floats and doubles in Java (and most other languages) use the IEEE754 standard which stores things as:
C x B^E => example 2.625 x 10^2
where C = 2.625, B=10, E=2.
C is called the coefficient, B is the base and E is the exponent. But who cares what they're called, right?
Now the IEEE standard is pretty complex and specifies various formats but in summary 'Singles' (java floats) use 1 bit for the sign, 23 bits for the coefficient and 8 bits for the exponent. Doubles use 52 bits for the coefficient and 11 for the exponent.
The standard specifies two values you can use as base, 2 and 10. Languages such as C, Java C# and many others use the base 2 representation for the float and double primitive types.
So let's pick the example 2.625 again and see how to represent it. This can be expressed as 2.125 x 10^2 with:
C = 2.625
B = 10
E = 2
Next step is to convert to base two. Converting the coefficient is done by using something like:
0 0 1 0 . 1 0 1 0
C = 10.101
B = 2
E = 10
Does this sound like thermo nuclear dynamics? Not really... So you might ask... why do so many of my website users report problems with their balance? Why is this guy’s balance showing as 2000.0000000003176?!
Here's a quick test (yes it's scala) that shows the main problem of base 2 floats
scala> (0 until 10).foldLeft(0.0)( (x,_) => x+0.2)
res13: Double = 1.9999999999999998
What is going on here? It's simply adding 0.2 ten times. Why is it losing precision even on such a simple operation? Does this look familiar to you? Probably. I see this type of problem over and over again and it confuses a lot of programmers. Often this confusion results in 'creative' hacks. Most common thing to do is to round to some precision after each addition or using BigDecimal. BUT THIS IS THE WRONG WAY!
'I know I've hurt you, and I've not been true ... But I know I can turn it around'
Ok... Keeping drum and bass artists out of this, let's understand what's happening here. The explanation is pretty simple. How would you represent 1/5 in binary? You can't... You can only estimate it. Try it using the above conversion process. You'll end up with something like:
However, 1/5 can be represented in decimal accurately as 0.2. What about for example 2/3? In decimal you can only estimate it (0.666667). Basically the base you decide to use dictates what rational numbers you can represent accurately or not. 1/3 can be accurately represented if you're using base 3 or 12 but not in base 2 or 10. We would probably be a more advanced race if we had 12 fingers... (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duodecimal#Advocacy_and_.22dozenalism.22)
So what do you do about it? NOTHING! So what if humans speak base 10 and computers base 2? We shouldn't force machines to use base 10 (such as using BigDecimal) or hack around and 'round' floats everywhere. We simply need to convert estimated base 2 floats to proper base 10 when presented to users. For example if a user's balance is $150.20 it's fine to store this in memory/DB as 150.1999999999999999 using the full float/double precision without any rounding. But when you're displaying the balance to the user you just show it by rounding it to $150.20. The rule here is to never round and store. The only rounding happens for presentation and it's never stored.
Wouldn't my application start leaking cents/pennies? Yes... but you shouldn't lose sleep over it. Let’s look at an example. Say you're using double to sum up every transaction that happens in your shop. Say you sell 500 things a second, 24x7 and every single operation is a double which can't be represented precisely in base 2 (very unlikely). In this scenario you'll end up losing something like 2c a year. While this inaccuracy might be crucial if say you're sending monkeys to the moon, it's unlikely to bankrupt your online business selling cat grooming products.
James Cutajar is a software developer, with interests in high performance computing, algorithms design and distributed data structures.