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Floating Point Visually Explained (2017) (fabiensanglard.net)
423 points by bmease on May 5, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 96 comments

Fabien Sargland is the same guy who wrote 2 books on a deep dive into 2 game engines: Wofenstein 3D and Doom which are great reading and I really recommend them to the HN crowd (can be downloaded for free):



He also recently had a series of articles about the various ports of Out of this World/Another World to various systems which are well worth reading if you're into this sort of thing

this looks really interesting! thanks for sharing :)

For another visual explanation in words, floating point numbers (ignoring subnormal) are just a linear approximation of 2^x [1] where there is one piece for each integer (x = 4 to x = 5, etc). As an example, draw a straight line between 2^4 (16) and 2^5 (32). The floating point numbers in that range are evenly spaced on that line.

Another explanation using the window + offset terminology used in the post is that the offset is a percentage of the way through the window. So, for a window of 2^x, the difference between an offset of y and y + 1 is 2^(x-23) or 1/2^(-23) of 2^x. Put another way, floating point numbers do not have absolute error like integers (each number is within 1 of a representable value), but % error (each number is within 1/2^(-23) of a representable value). Essentially, floating point numbers use % error bars instead of absolute error bars.

Using this model you can even see how to create your own floating point numbers. Just pick a % precision you want, for single FP that is 1/2^(-23) and double FP 1/2^(-52), that defines the range of your mantissa (offset). Then pick a range of x values you want to represent, that is the range of your exponent (window).

As an aside, subnormal numbers do not respect this principle. They extend the expressible range for very small numbers by sacrificing % error for those numbers. In the very worst case of the smallest subnormal number you can get 25% error (it might actually be 50%). As might be imagined, this plays havoc on error propagation since if you ever multiply by a number that just so happens to be the smallest subnormal, all your multiplies might suddenly be off by a factor of 25% instead of the normal 100 * 2^(-23)% which is 2,000,000 times the % error which is quite a bit harder to compensate for. This is why many people consider subnormals to be a blemish.

[1] The approximation is actually offset in the x direction for the bias. If you want to be more accurate, you are actually graphing 2^(x - 127).

On the other hand, if you don't have subnormals, then you have the funny property that subtracting two inequal numbers would yield 0. This never happens with subnormals because they allow representing numbers closer to zero, below the smallest representable exponent. The numerical stability of some algorithms crucially relies on subnormals.

I do not understand your statement. I can come up with two possible interpretations, but neither seem true to me. Can you provide an example of what you mean?

I am also interested in your statement that certain algorithms depend on subnormals as defined in the floating point spec. Can you provide an example of such an algorithm? I can intuit how it might be desirable to have a single "too small/epsilon" value, but I do not see offhand how you can leverage the full range of subnormals in any reasonably generic way that is not extremely dependent on the specific problem and scale (i.e. multiply all numbers by 2^30 and increase the maximum exponent by 30, do you get the same output multiplied by 2^30), so I would like to see how it is done.

In terms of my two possible interpretations, the first is that subtracting two unequal floating point numbers yield 0. I am pretty sure this is not the case. It may yield no change, but I am pretty sure it can not yield 0. The other is that subtracting two unequal arbitrary precision numbers represented as floating point numbers yield 0. This is true, but is a known limitation of emulating arbitrary precision arithmetic using limited precision and must always be accounted for. If this is what you meant, then we can just choose numbers too small to be expressed by subnormals to cause the problem to occur again, so all it does is allow handling of a few more cases at the cost of complexity and non-uniformity. If you did not mean either of these two interpretations, can you explain what you meant, preferably with a concrete example?

If x and y are finite floats (not NaN or ±Infinity), with x != y, then x - y != 0. This is true for any pair of floats only because of denormal numbers. If there were no denormals (or denormals were flushed to zero), then if |x - y| < 2^-127 then x - y would become zero.

Wow, that's a much easier way to convert from decimal to floating point than I had ever seen. He doesn't mention why biased notation is used (i.e. why the exponent is stored as 127+E): it's used so that if you sort positive numbers as if they were integers, they'll still end up in the right order.

>"He doesn't mention why biased notation is used (i.e. why the exponent is stored as 127+E): it's used so that if you sort positive numbers as if they were integers, they'll still end up in the right order."

Could you elaborate on this? Maybe an example? This sounds interesting but I'm failing to grasp it.


“IEEE 754 […] Has the interesting and useful property that two's complement comparisons of the underlying bit pattern of any two IEEE 754 numbers will have the same result as comparing the numbers that are represented”

That means that, if you interpret the bits of a float/double as an int32/int64, increase that integer by one, and then interpret the bits of the result as a float/double, you get the smallest float/double that’s larger than what you started with (with exceptions for NaN, infinities, +/- zero, and, possibly, some categories I forget)

That can be useful if you want to iterate over all floats between 0.0 and 1.0, for example, but may not be that efficient on some modern hardware, where moving data from the “float side” of the CPU to the “integer side” is expensive)

This has more to do with the mantissa than the biased exponent.

No, it has to do with bothequally.

Changing a 0 bit to a 1 in an integer increases its value, and by the rule I gave, should also increase the value of the floating point number with the same bit pattern. It doesn’t matter whether that flipped bit is in the mantissa or the exponent.

That requires the use of the biased number in the exponent. In particular, the “all zeroes” bit pattern for the exponent must be the representation for the lowest possible exponent, and the “all ones” one that for the highest. It cannot be the ‘normal’ two’s complement representation of -1.

This is a different claim than the one above, which was about incrementing the least significant bit.

But it trivially follows from it. If operation foo (increasing x by one) makes something larger, repeated operation of foo (increasing x by 2^n) makes it larger, too.

The first thing to notice is that a (not subnormal) floating point number can be compared as such: you look at the exponent bits, and pick the one that has the greater exponent. If they are equal, then look at the mantissa, which is always between 1 and 2, and pick whichever one is larger. Since the exponent comes before the mantissa bits in the bit representation of a floating point number, it has "higher significance" when interpreted in fixed point. If we used two's complement to represent the exponent negative exponents would "look larger" than positive ones, despite them being smaller. But if we used a biased representation, where we shift the range so that there can only be a positive number in that field, and the smaller negative exponents can actually be small and the positive exponents are be larger than those so we can compare them directly.

Thanks these explanations were all really helpful. Cheers.

The exponent is 8 bits. That translates to 0 through 255. This means your "window" begins from [1,2], [2,4], etc.

That sucks. It means I cannot represent any number between 0 and 1.

Ideally, we want the exponent to be somewhat symmetric, which in this case means going from -127 to 127. To translate 0 to 255 to that interval, you subtract 127. You are simply shifting your exponent so that the allowed values for your exponent is symmetric about 0.

Now your window starts with [2^-127, 2^-126] and so on.

(I may have an off by one error here).

Sure, I had to wrestle with this a bit myself: to make it easier, imagine a 16-bit floating point format (P&H call this the "Nvidia format", but I can't find that documented anywhere but there): 1-bit sign, 5-bit (biased) exponent, 10-bit mantissa. One thing that TFA leaves out about floating point mantissas is that there's an implicit leading 1, so a 10-bit mantissa of 1111100000 would be interpreted as (binary) 1.1111100000 or 1 + 2^-1 + 2^-2 + 2^-3 + 2^-4 + 2^-5 = 1.96875. So, take the mantissa, convert it to a fraction, add 1, and then raise it to the power of the (biased) exponent.

So now, take the 16-bit pattern (0000 0011 1110 0000); you get a 0 sign bit, an exponent of 0, and a mantissa of 1.96875. So, with a bias of -15, that's 1.96875 * 2 ^ 0-15 = 0.00006008148193359375.

As you creep up to the "next" exponent, you see that the boundaries are respected. The last 2^-15 number is 0000 0011 1111 1111 (0x3ff) and the first 2^-14 number is 0000 0100 0000 0000 (0x400); now the exponent has changed from 0 to 1, but the floating point converts to 1.999023 * 2 ^ -15 = 0.0000610053539276123046875 and 1.000000 * 2 ^ -14 = 0.00006103515625: a bit-by-bit comparison has 0x3ff < 0x400. (This would be true regardless of bias).

Now imagine that IEEE 754 stored exponents in two's-complement format instead; the exponent 01111 would be interpreted as +31, but the "next" exponent, bit-wise, would be 10000 = -32. This means that you'd end up with 0011111111111111 = 1.999023 * 2 ^ 31 = 4292869204.475904, but the next binary number, 0100000000000000 would be 1.0 * 2 -32 = 0.00000000023283.

> imagine a 16-bit floating point format (P&H call this the "Nvidia format", but I can't find that documented anywhere but there): 1-bit sign, 5-bit (biased) exponent, 10-bit mantissa

According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-precision_floating-point_...), this is the IEEE 754 standard binary16 format.

Sort of - I skipped over subnormal numbers.

Well, really the reason for the bias is so that you can get a negative exponent. If E = 10, then the exponent will be 2^-117. You might still need a negative exponent with a positive sign. The offset is used rather than two's complement maybe because of that sorting thing but also because of the math itself, when doing operations on two FP numbers.

IOW the "windows" are just labeled in order from left to right, starting with 0 for the leftmost window.

This right here is the only way I pretty much figured out just now a more precise understanding of the weird patterns going on in my head. I crave precision and this explained more than a whole year covering Basic C. Thank you so much! My head doesn’t have to hurt over that anymore. I never understood floats either but this representation truly helps clear some fog!!

Another visualization that blew my mind; I learnt this from a presentation that was about doing floats with FPGAs:

Think 32-bit floats as a 256-bit buffer interpreted as a fixed precision number, with the decimal point straight in the middle, but with the limitation that you can set only a continuous 24-bit window on that buffer to non-zeros.

Then, the 8 bits of the exponent determine where in the bit buffer that window points to, and the 23 (+1) bits are the contents of the window.

Related, https://float.exposed/ is a great resource: both when trying to see how floating point is laid out, as well as when having to convert between the bit representation and the number for "actual work" ;)

That is great. Also helps remind you that for very large numbers, the precision is in the hundreds-of-thousands.

Didn't everyone learn scientific notation in high school? It's pretty much exactly that, and you could put the coefficient/exponent into whatever bit pattern you'd like.

It is scientific notation with a twist. The twist is the implicit 1. in the mantissa.

There is no easy way to make it work in decimal. So you need to learn how fractional parts work in binary, then move up to scientific notation in binary. Then you probably noticed that all numbers start with 1, so you can knock it off to save space. Oh, and add a special case for zero, because it is the only number that doesn't start with 1, and if you are feeling adventurous, there are subnormal numbers.

That's why I find the explanation in the article absolutely brilliant. By treating the exponent as a window, not only you don't need to bother with scientific notation in binary, but zero and subnormal numbers fit very nicely.

In fact, I've been working for years with floating point numbers and feel stupid for not realizing it works just as described in the article. And feeling stupid after reading something is usually a very good sign. I clicked, expected an article I could dismiss in a typical Hacker News fashion, but no, not this time.

It's an implicit 1 or 0 (because it's binary floating point). The implicit 0 is for subnormal numbers. That's the part people usually don't explain when they're first introducing it. It's literally {1,0}.xxxxxx where x is also a 1 or 0. I.e. a binary floating point number in scientific notation. I've seen a lot of explanations that kind of gloss over that part of it (not saying you don't understand it, just that even the article doesn't make that clear enough IMO).

In practice, subnormal are very rarely used. Most compiler disable subnormals when compiling with anything other than -O0. It takes over a hundred cycle to complete an operation.

Demo: #include <stdio.h>

    main ()
        volatile float v;
        float acc = 0;
        float den = 1.40129846432e-45;
        for (size_t i; i < (1ul<<33); i++) {
            acc += den;
        v = acc;
        return 0;
With -01: $ gcc float.c -o float -O1 && time ./float ./float 8.93s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 8.933 total

With -O0: $ gcc float.c -o float -O1 && time ./float ./float 20.60s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 20.610 total

I fixed your example a bit and here is what I get

  /tmp>cat t.c
  #include <stdio.h>
  int main() {
      float acc = 0;
      float den = 1.40129846432e-45;
      for (size_t i = 0; i < (1ul<<33); i++) acc += den;
      printf("%g\n", acc);
      return 0;
  /tmp>gcc -O3 t.c && time ./a.out
  ./a.out  5.94s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 5.944 total
  /tmp>gcc -O3 -ffast-math t.c && time ./a.out
  ./a.out  1.50s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 1.502 total
So subnormal numbers are supported in -O3 unless you specify -ffast-math. And it definitely makes a difference (gcc 9.3, Debian 11, Ryzen 7 3700X).

EDIT That one is interesting too

  /tmp>clang -O3 t.c && time ./a.out
  ./a.out  6.04s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 6.044 total
  /tmp>clang -O3 -ffast-math t.c && time ./a.out
  ./a.out  0.10s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 0.101 total
clang (9.0.1) performs about the same without -ffast-math; but with it, it managed to optimize the loop away.

I looked at the asm generate from my original example and they generate very different codes, gcc applies other optimization when compiled with -O1.

I've been fighting the compiler to generate a minimal working example of the subnormals, but didn't have any success.

Some things take need to be taken in account (from the top of my head):

- Rounding. You don't want to get stuck in the same number. - The FPU have some accumulator register that are larger than the floating point register. - Using more register than the architecture has it not trivial because the register renaming and code reordering. The CPU might optimize in a way that the data never leaves those register.

Trying to make a mwe, I found this code:

    #include <stdio.h>
    main ()
        double x = 5e-324;
        double acc = x;
        for (size_t i; i < (1ul<<46); i++) {
                acc += x;
        printf ("%e\n", acc);
        return 0;

Runs is fraction of seconds with -O0:

    gcc double.c -o double -O0
But takes forever (killed after 5 minutes) with -O1:

    gcc double.c -o double -O1
I'm using gcc (Arch Linux 9.3.0-1) 9.3.0 on i7-8700

I also manage to create a code that sometimes run in 1s, but in others would take 30s. Didn't matter if I recompiled.

Floating point is hard.

Shouldn't i be initialized?

lol, how the compiler didn't warn about uninitialized variable

Compiler warnings are not straightforward and depend on many things; compiler version, optimization settings, warning settings.

  $ gcc-9 -Wuninitialized -O0 float.c  # NO WARNINGS!!!

  $ gcc-9 -O1 float.c  # NO WARNINGS!!!
  $ gcc-9 -Wuninitialized -O1 float.c
  float.c: In function 'main':
  float.c:9:5: warning: 'i' is used uninitialized in this function [-Wuninitialized]
      9 |     for (size_t i; i < (1ul << 33); i++) {
        |     ^~~

Weirdly, those two codes behaves differently:

    $ gcc hn.c -O0 -o hn

    for (size_t i; i < (1ul<<46); i++) {
        printf ("%zd\n",i);
        acc += x;
Without break:

    $ gcc hn.c -O0 -o hn

    for (size_t i; i < (1ul<<46); i++) {
        printf ("%zd\n",i);
        acc += x;

Shouldn't i be initialized?

It's not exactly scientific notation because a leading bit is assumed for normalized numbers.

The window and offset explanation naturally accounts for the leading bit, whereas the scientific notation explanation needs further explanation to explain how the leading bit works.

In short, 10^2 * .001 is not allowed in floating point. You can't have a mantissa that starts with 0. The leading bit means all mantissas must be greater than 1.

Without this understanding you won't have an intuitive understanding of the range and precision of floating point, which is why I think the window+offset explanation is much more natural.

I think this is worth saying about the leading bit (why 0.001 is not a valid mantissa):

In binary, we always know the first non-zero digit of any number - so there's no need to write it down. We know it's 1 because, well, binary.

So we don't waste space, and only write down all the other digits, and then use the exponent to put the 'point' into the right place.

We save a bit of space doing this.

Thats not the right way of thinking about it. Sure, the first non-zero digit of any binary number is 1, but who is to say that the number has a bit that isn't 0? Couldn't the number be zero?

The mantissa can only be a value from [1,2).

i.e. in scientific notation: exponent * mantissa, the mantissa cannot be less than 1, or >= 2 in floating point.

So given that the mantissa can go from 000000 to 111111, what should the values represnet? Obviously it should represent the values from [1,2). Calling it a leading bit is more confusing than it needs to be. Its better to just call it an assumed minimum value.

> Thats not the right way of thinking about it. Sure, the first non-zero digit of any binary number is 1, but who is to say that the number has a bit that isn't 0? Couldn't the number be zero?

When I was taught scientific notation in middle school, high school, and at college, it was always explicitly stated that:

1. You can have only one digit before the decimal point.

2. That digit cannot be 0 (unless your number is 0, of course). So 0.3 * 10^5 is not scientific notation.

This is no different. The "twist" is that there is only one possible non-zero bit, whereas in decimal it could be [1-9].

I think this explanation is neat. However, the "usual" formulation is just scientific notation, with the optimization that one bit is redundant.

Personally, I prefer the alternative notation: M * 2^(exponent-precision+1), with M being a p-bit integer. It's easier to work with when you know that M is always an integer, and you don't need to deal with fractions in base 2. In fact, FP made a lot more sense when I took this formulation in decimal, and worked with that.

I think most people do learn scientific notation, but the correspondence with floating point representation is probably not learned. It is not necessarily an obvious connection for a person who uses floats as "decimal numbers", which is the mental model I assume many programmers have. This post is enlightening because it shows how obvious the connection is.

You just repeated the "how everybody hates floating point to be explained to them" section of this article.

It'd be nice to also mention about ulp [0], the unit of least precision. The floating point is an approximation as concept, and ulp is one of the properties of an implementation of floating point representation in binary form.

0: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/43965347/ulp-unit-of-lea...

That's why when I did numerical simulation of electron Dynamics in semiconductors during my phD we never used straight SI units (m, s, kg, etc), but instead expressed all physical natural constants in nm, fs, eV, etc. That way all relevant constants had numerical values between 1 and 10 which stabilized the simulations a lot.

Expressing all quantities as small multiples of suitable reference quantities is quite common. The resulting equations after simplifications are often referred to as dimensionless (because the reference quantity has absorbed the units and only a small dimensionless number remains).

There is two upsides to this: 1.) All quantities are order one, safely away from underflow and infinity. 2.) The equations are generally simpler, which was important when the many limitation in simulation codes was flops, not memory bandwidth.

There are also important downsides: 1.) You have to manipulate the equations before you start coding. Porting features from a code that used another normalization is quite error-prone. 2.) All quantities are order one, which makes it hard to detect if you accidentally use and electric field instead of a magnetic field. All you see is a number of roughly the correct magnitude. 3.) Comparison between codes is more difficult, in particular if the use different normalization, because you have to convert from "code units" to actual SI units.

File formats for georeferenced data also regularly store coordinates as 32 bit ints, with a scaling argument that can be used to convert the integer into a double precision number with a specific unit. E.g. your scene unit is meters and you want to store with a precision of millimeters? Multiply double precision coordinates by 1000, convert the result to an int32, save it to file. When you load the coordinate afterwards, divide it by 1000 and you you get back your double precision coordinate.

I had never heard of this idea before. Do you have any references to this technique? Also, depending on what equations you're using, aren't you constrained to using a consistent system of units?

Never anything official. It was just how it was done in the group and wider scientific community. Some googling pulled that up if it helps


And yes you have to be consistent and stay in that unit system. The other remaining two we used plain Kelvin for temperature and for the charge Coulomb was measures in electron charge. That's it.

That shouldn't matter for the factors you're describing. The number of floats between 1 and 2 is the same as the number of floats between 2^-30 and 2^-31. Until you hit denormal numbers and start overflowing or underflowing your exponent, it doesn't have any effect on precision.

If you have a process that converts floats into other formats with more restricted exponents, like human readable strings, it might matter.

Is all of that really easier to understand than exponential notation? It's a great tool to visualize floating point precision, but it's lot more circuitious to get to an understanding of what a floating point number actually means IMO

The equation fleshes out the detail that the visualization misses. I do best when I have both.

I always found the wikipedia examples for 16bit floating point helpful since the numbers are smaller. You can really see how the exponent and fraction affect each other in a very simple way.


BFloat16[1] is an interesting tweak to the original, but built with more modern requirements for ML in mind.

Particularly because it is easier to think of 32 bit IEEE-754 to BFloat16, but with fewer bits of think about (& possibly you can enumerate the entire range in a laptop to test something like "will this function work for all values?").

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bfloat16_floating-point_format...

The 8-bit floating point is even easier to understand, since you can list them all in a single page, and even visualize the entire addition and multiplication tables.

Also a great format to count how many representation are wasted with redundant representation (ZeroS, NaN, +inf, -inf).

What is redundant about that? It "wastes" a completely negligible part of the representation space, and the consistency gains are enormous.

When talking about tiny 8-bit floats, it does waste a lot: if your exponent is only 3 bits, you've "wasted" 1/8 of all 256 possible values, which is a lot. With normal-sized floats, it's much less of an issue: 1/256 of the billions of possible 32-bit values, and 1/2048 of all possible 64-bit values.

(Also, the real "waste" is only on the multiple NaN values, since the zeros always "waste" only a single value for the "negative zero", and the infinities always "waste" only two values; AFAIK, both negative zero and the infinities are necessary for stability of some calculations.)

Excellent article! Just one thing surprised me:

> While I was writing a book about Wolfenstein 3D[1], I wanted to vividly demonstrate how much of a handicap it was to work without floating point

I would've expected fixed point to work fine for games, because that's a domain where you know the data, and in particular the dynamic range, in advance, so the 'automatically adjust to whatever dynamic range happens to be in the data' feature of floating point isn't needed. What am I missing? (If the answer is 'it would take too long to explain here, but he does actually explain it in the book', I'm prepared to accept that.)

"(−1)S∗1.M∗2(E−127) How everybody hates floating point to be explained to them."

Now I know I'm weird, as that formula makes sense to me.

The formula makes sense, but it doesn't give you the full picture of floating points. The formula doesn't explain NaN, positive infinity, negative infinity or even the bias. I think seeing the layout of a floating point number and their constituent parts in memory is more instructive than a formula.

Floating points, like two's complement, are hardware derived/limited creations. You have to understand the underlying hardware and binary limitations to understand why they exist and why they were created in that manner. The same thing applies to ascii. Zero is 48, A is 65 and a is 97. The mapping seems arbitrary unless you see the bit pattern and you realize how clever the design is and the reason why some of the symbols got their mappings in ascii.

Whenever I read something about how computers _really_ work (as in not just a nice easy to comprehend programming language) I realise just how much smarter some people in the world are than me.

With every thing like that that you read, you get closer to them!

Here's how I like to think of it.

Floating point numbers are just fractions but with one extra condition: the denominator is a power of two.

The normal rules of fractions apply. If you want to add them, you have to make sure the denominators match, which would involve scaling the numerators too.

Just like fractions, there are multiple ways of writing the same value. 3/2 is the same as 6/4.

You can't write 1/3 exactly because, hey look at your denominator, it's 3. Which isn't a power of 2, is it? So that can't be a floating point value.

> Just like fractions, there are multiple ways of writing the same value. 3/2 is the same as 6/4.

This is not correct. In binary you only have 2 choices {0,1} for the numerator, so 3/2 is represented 1.1 and 6/4 can only be represented as 1.1 (feel free to add the completing 0s)

The numerator is a binary integer, not a bit (and not the part of the number before the "decimal" point).

3 in binary is 11. 6 in binary is 110.

3/2 (decimal) is 11/10 (binary) and 6/4 (decimal) is 110/100 (binary).

Of course the denominators always have trailing zeros, so can be (and are) represented more compactly.

I believe that this "window and offset" intuition, while indeed true and useful in the radix-2 ("binary") case, does not cleanly extend to the general case where no hidden bit is used even for non-"subnormal" numbers, and some numbers may thus have multiple representations. This shows up perhaps most clearly in the case of decimal floating point, but ISTR that a non-2 radix was also used in some mainframes.

Subnormal numbers are a blemish on the otherwise beautiful IEEE 754 specification :(

I saw a very simple visualisation of floating point by simply plotting points along the number line and zooming out. That gets the idea across very quickly!

Yes, I came across something like that in my numerical computation course. This was for me the most compelling visualization of what a floating point number was.

The floating number line is actually an (unevenly spaced in reals, uniformly spaced in binary) discrete number line that was used to approximate continuous infinite real numbers, in finite precision e.g.


0 __________________________________________________ 1


0 .. .... .. ... .. ... ... ... .. ... ... ... .. .... ... ... ... . ... .... ... .. . ... 1

A more accurate representation might be

  0.... . . . .  .  .  .  .    .    .    .    1
(Hacker News eats consecutive spaces, it seems like :/)

Correct about spacing. More accurate reproduction here:


This is a bit odd:

"Trivia: People who really wanted a hardware floating point unit in 1991 could buy one. The only people who could possibly want one back then would have been scientists (as per Intel understanding of the market). They were marketed as "Math CoProcessor". "

The 486DX (1989) was already common in 91/92 and came with a floating point unit. I had a 50mhz 486DX, and I was not by any means wealthy. FP unit was certainly used by lots of software, especially things like Excel, but C compilers certainly produced code for it if you had one.

Likewise, the 68040 (1990) had onboard FP. Macintosh Quadra, Amiga 4000, and various NeXT models had it.

Yes if you bought a 386 you often had to get a floating point co-processor as upgrade, but it wasn't _that_ uncommon. Same on the 68k series; I knew people with Atari MegaSTes (68000) that bought an FP co-processor. They weren't astronomers :-)

This feels like recent history, am I really that old?

I remember wanting a math co-processor so I could use autocad at home as a kid.

And now you could probably buy an expensive Tesla V workstation dedicated to that but you don't have time anymore. Wait. No. That is me :P !

Interesting, because I think about it the other way: the offset tells you between which power of two you're in:

* [2^-127, 2^-126] * ... * [1, 2] * [2, 2^2] * [2^2, 2^3] * ... * [2^128, 2^129]

and the window tells you where you are in this "window". You have 8 bits to figure out where you are in there, so it's obvious that you have much more precision if you are in the window [1, 2] than in the window [2^128, 2^129]

I wonder why the significand is represented as a > 1 number. It complicates representing zero (making it a special case not covered by the article of defining exponent=0, mantissa=0 to mean zero). Is it for the purpose of simplifying arithmetic operations or is it to minimize the number of redundant representations of zero?

The leading 1. prefix can be omitted from the binary representation thus saving a bit in the process.

That doesn't answer my question, though. I'm asking why the significand is in the range 1-2 instead of 0-1.

A thread from 2019: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19084773

Discussed at the time: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15359574

(Reposts are ok after a year or so.)

I remember wondering at first how you know this won't have multiple representations and cover every number - it's because the mantissa can't reach 2, and if it was 2 it would be the same as adding to the exponent, so you get the full range between any two exponents.


The IEEE-754 has a lot of redundant representation. Not where you would expect though.

Caveat: Those features are invaluable for some niche applications, but not for the average joe.

To start. Every IEEE-754 float has two zero representation: one for positive zero and another negative negative zero (sic).

The special numbers are another source of redundancy. The the double format, have about 9,007,199,254,740,992 different combination to encode three different states that a production ready software shouldn't reach: NaN, +inf and -inf.

Other than the redundancy, the double have many rarely used combination. For instance, the subnormals representation. Unless you are compiling your program with -O0 or with some exotic compiler, they are disabled by default. One subnormal operation can take over a hundread of cycles to complete. Therefore, more 9,007,199,254,740,992 wasted combination.

If that wasn't bad enough, since the magnitude of the numbers follows a normal distribution (someone whose name I forgot's law), the most significant bits of the exponent field are very rarely used. The IEEE-754 encoding is suboptimal.

The posit floating point address all those issues. It uses an tapered encoding for the exponent field.

I'm mixed on Gustafson's posit stuff. For me, the only thing I'd change for fp would be:

1. -0 now encodes NAN.

2. +inf/-inf are all Fs with sign: 0x7FFFFFFF, 0xFFFFFFFF.

3. 0 is the only denorm.

Which does four good things:

1. Gets rid of the utter insanity which is -0.

2. Gets rid of all the redundant NANs.

3. Makes INF "look like" INF.

4. Gets rid of "hard" mixed denorm/norm math.

And one seriously bad thing:

1. Lose a bunch of underflow values in the denorm range.

However, as to the latter: who the fuck cares! Getting down to that range using anything other than divide-by-two completely trashes the error rate anyways, so why bother?

The rest of Gustafson's stuff always sounds like crazy-people talk, to me.

He also propose the use of an opaque register to accumulate (quire), in contrast to the transparent float register (its a mess, each compiler does what it think is best).

When working with numbers that exceed the posit representation you use the quire to accumulate. At the end of the computation you convert again to posit to store in memory, or store the quire in memory.

In C, it would look like something like:

    posit32_r a, b;
    quire_t q;
    q = a; // load posit into quire
    q = q + b; // accumulate in quire
    a = q; // load quire into posit

> The rest of Gustafson's stuff always sounds like crazy-people talk, to me.

I've read all his papers on posit and agree. But I do believe the idea of encoding exponent with golomb-rice is actually very good and suit most users. The normalization hardware (used in the subtraction operation) can be easily repurposed to decode the exponent and shift the exponent.

But the quire logic (fixed point arithmetic) might use more area than a larger float-point. But maybe in power usage it pays of.

I come from GPU-land, and a quire always brings a chuckle from the fp HW folk. They like the rest of Gustafson’s stuff, though.

Yeah. Gustafons is like, memory is cheap, just use a few hundreds of kb to store the quire. To be fair, he is not HW guy.

Interesting. One issue is treatment of 1 / -inf. This would be -0 in traditional IEEE 754 but would now be +0 IIUC.

This would imply that 1 / (1 / -inf) would now be +inf instead of -inf.

0 is unsigned. I would reject 1/inf — it would be NAN. If the user wants to play silly games with derivatives, computer algebra systems are that way: —>.

NaN is NaR (not a real) in posit notation.

> If that wasn't bad enough, since the magnitude of the numbers follows a normal distribution (someone whose name I forgot's law), the most significant bits of the exponent field are very rarely used. The IEEE-754 encoding is suboptimal.

But isn't that accounted for by the fact the floating point number distribution is non-uniform? Half of all floating point numbers are between -1 and 1.

Hm. I don't know.

My reasoning is about how much information can be encoded in the format.

The IEEE-754 double format have 11 bits to encode the exponent and 52 bits to encode the fraction.

Therefore, the multiplying factor from double is in the range: 2^1023 to 2^-1022. To give an idea how large this is, the scientist estimate there are about 10^80 atoms in universe, in base 2 this is "little" less than 2^266.

Most application only don't work with numbers on this magnitude. And the ones that does, don't care so much about precision.

Let me know if there is something wrong with my logic.

I don't think I see a problem.

The set of floating point values is intentionally biased towards smaller numbers. So yes, while few people have a need to deal with such large numbers, there are also far fewer such large numbers.

I think your flaw is that you are looking at the total set of all possible floating point numbers, and seeing a chunk that few people will use. Don't do that. Look at the 63 bits, and point out which ones you would like to remove/compress/etc. Yes, the combination of having an exponent of all 1's is rare, but none of those bits individually is "rare". The MSB in the exponent is used to represent all the numbers from 1 to 2, for example.

I don't doubt one can come up with a clever scheme that provides a different, encoding which is even more heavily biased towards more "reasonable" numbers, but it's not clear what the gain would be. You'd have to come up with novel algorithms for all the floating point operations (addition, division, etc) - and would they be as fast as the current ones?

I've yet to find real world problems for which the current encoding is pretty poor. Contrived ones, sure - but real problems? Rare.

This guy's Quake 1/2/3 source code deep dives are well worth checking out as well.

Awesome. Maybe now I can finally understand the fast inverse square root hack.


This is beautifully written. Bravo to the author.

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