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Andrew Koenig

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Comparing an Integer with a Floating-Point Number, Part 2: Tactics

March 15, 2013

We continue last week's discussion by getting down to details. If you haven't read it, please do so now; I'll wait. Thanks!

We'll start by defining three important implementation-dependent types:

typedef long Int;
typedef long unsigned Unsigned;
typedef float Float;

We're using Int and Float to refer to the integer and floating-point types that we're comparing, and Unsigned to refer to the unsigned type that corresponds to Int. We intend to be able to use any integer and any floating-point type here, so long as Unsigned is the appropriate unsigned type.

Last week, we talked about a magic number B that is a power of 2 with the property that integers greater than B cannot always be represented exactly as floating-point numbers. We know that we're going to have to compute that number at some point, so let's define a function to do so.

This function computes B both as a floating-point value and as an unsigned integer. Depending on the machine, the integer value might overflow; we shall signal that case by an unsigned value of zero.

First we define a structure to hold the results:

struct B_t {
      Unsigned u;
      Float f;

Now we can write the actual function:

B_t compute_B()
    B_t result = { 1, 1.0 };
    while (true) {
         Float b = result.f + 1;
         if (b == result.f) {
             b = result.f – 1;
             assert (b != result.f);
             return result;
         result.f *= 2;
         result.u *= 2;

This function returns the smallest power of 2, f, with the property that f+1 cannot be distinguished from f, along with the unsigned version of the same value (or 0 if that unsigned value overflows). Because f is a power of 2, f-1 has one less significant bit than f, and therefore f and f-1 should be distinct. If they're not, the floating-point system is doing something beyond our capacity to accommodate; hence the assert.

We compare f with f+1 by putting f+1 in a separate variable. Otherwise, it is possible that the implementation will compute f+1 with more precision than a Float variable would have. If we are trying to do precise computations on floating-point numbers, we must watch out for well-intentioned but inappropriate optimizations from our compilers.

Now we can start defining the comparison function proper:

int compare(Float X, Int N)

We have made the arbitrary decision that the first operand is floating-point and the second is integer. Our function will return an integer that follows the strcmp convention: A negative value means that X < N, a positive value means that X > N, and zero means that X == N. If, for some reason, we want to compare the operands in the opposite order, we simply swap them and invert the sign of the result.

Our first job is to deal with the numbers' signs. We begin by handling the easy case in which they have opposite signs:

if (X < 0 && N >= 0)
    return -1;
if (X >= 0 && N < 0)
    return 1;

Now we know that both numbers have the same sign. If that sign is negative, we'll remember that fact and make both numbers positive. Either way, we will wind up with an unsigned version of |N| in U:

bool neg = X < 0;
Unsigned U;
if (neg) {
    X = -X;
    U = -(N + 1);
} else
    U = N;

The assignments to U are needed because it is possible — and, on most computers, likely — that the most negative integer has no signed positive integer that corresponds to it. Because an unsigned integer has one more bit than the corresponding signed integer, an unsigned integer can accommodate the absolute value of any corresponding signed integer — but it is necessary to compute that absolute value without directly computing a signed integer that might overflow.

In the case where N is negative, we solve this problem by first computing N + 1 — which has an absolute value of |N| - 1 — and putting the inverse of that value in U. When we then increment U, we get |N| without ever having had to compute |N| as a signed integer.

At this point, the positive versions of the two numbers that we are comparing are in X and U. If U is less than B, we can safely convert U to floating-point for comparison. In order to find out whether U is less than B, we must compute B if needed:

 static B_t B = compute_B();

By saying static in the definition of B, we ensure that we will execute compute_B only the first time compare is ever called. Now we can check whether U is less than B; if so, we can do the comparison in floating-point:

if (B.u == 0 || U < B.u) {
    int result = X > U? 1: X < U? -1: 0;
    return neg? –result: result;

At this point we have handled the case where U can be accurately converted to floating-point, so we know that U >= B. If X is less than the floating-point version of B, we know the result:

if (X < B.f)
    return neg? 1: -1;

The point is that because we already know that U >= B, we can avoid comparison entirely if X < B. If this return statement is not executed, then we know that X >= B. In this case, either X is greater than the largest possible value of type Unsigned, or we can safely convert X to Unsigned for the comparison. So:

if (X >= Too_big_for_Unsigned)
    	return neg? -1: 1;
Unsigned Uns_X = X;
int result = Uns_X > U? 1: Uns_X < U? -1: 0;
	return neg? –result: result;


There are still three tasks to accomplish in writing this function.

First is the definition of Too_big_for_Unsigned. It is easy enough to compute the largest possible value of type Unsigned by writing Unsigned(0)-1, but in order to ensure an accurate comparison in the floating-point domain, we would like that value as a floating-point number. Because this number is a power of two, it is not particularly hard to compute.

Once we have complete code that we can execute, we need to write test cases. Normally, I would say that we should write the test cases first; but in this example, we know that the most interesting test cases will be at or near values that depend on the program itself. In fact, I will argue that this is one of those odd programs that is almost impossible to test thoroughly without knowing how it works.

Finally, there are several places, notably involving the use of neg, in which the code can probably be made significantly shorter and perhaps even cleaner. We realized early in the coding that it would be useful to fold the possibility of negative values into the code; once we see how the whole thing works — but not before then — we can probably fold it slightly differently and streamline the code in doing so.

I am going to leave these last three tasks — defining that last variable; testing the code; and cleaning it up — as exercises.

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