Veit's Blog

Fixed Point Arithmetic


Update: I realized that my format actually makes sense and I intuitively implemented it correctly. This means the lower half is a bit wonky. Sorry about that.

I’ve always been fascinated by fixed point numbers. For the uninitiated, fixed point numbers are related to floating point numbers. Like their more common counterpart, they are numbers with a decimal point. Unlike floating points, the decimal point always stays at the same location within the number; this could lead to potentially wasted storage if either of the components could be described with fewer bits.

Fixed point numbers are less scary than floating point numbers insofar as I can grok how to do simple arithmetic on them, or so I thought. To prove that to myself, I wrote another toy library in C, akin to the one I wrote for binary-coded decimals, on a quiet Saturday on the Greyhound bus from New York City to Washington.

Of course I ran into way more problems than I anticipated, because I’m apparently not all that great with numbers. Addition and subtraction are reasonably straightforward, especially if you implement a few simplification rules, e.g. when subtracting a negative number from a number, call the addition procedure with the sign removed. Dragons already start blowing smoke at multiplication; I wanted to implement it using integers, not floating point numbers, and I had never thought about how that would work prior to writing this library. Once I realized what I had to do with the multiplication bits and where to watch out for overflows, it was actually doable. I’m not completely convinced I’ve got all of the corner cases covered, though, because I suck at writing tests. Oh well.

Division is a whole other beast. I actually wasn’t able to write a correct version of division on the bus; I simply lacked context. This is where I gave up and looked around for rules how to implement these and was comforted by the fact that I’m not the only person who isn’t able to solve this problem by themselves. I also realized that scholars would disapprove of my format, but I couldn’t be bothered to update it into something more appropriate. My datastructure looks like this:

typedef struct {
  unsigned sign :1;
  unsigned before :31;
  unsigned after :32;
} silly;
Fig. 1: A silly number.

I find this format too cute to pass up1. The part after the decimal point, however, is where I was a bit more naive than is appropriate. The general consensus seems to be not just to store the fractional part as binary that “behaves like an integer”. I did it anyway, and to my surprise got through multiplication, although it is a bit more complex than if I had used a well-studied format.

// means "two and half", and is encoded as
// '2'     'half'

// So don't be tempted to write
00000010.00000101 // <- INCORRECT!

Fig. 2: The dos and don’ts of fixed points, as found on the internet.

I suppose it’s good to document that I know I’m doing it wrong and should really care more.

Back to division: the problem that I encountered—and haven’t solved yet, because I couldn’t find a fix on the internet—is that when dividing two numbers I suffer from a loss of precision. In multiplication I solved that by multiplying the components individually and then shifting or masking the result, which degrades in the same way as an overflow would. With division, however, I need a double precision container type in which I could perform the calculation—a uint128_t would be great here. Alas, this type doesn’t exist, and it wasn’t immediately obvious how to emulate that behaviour; for now the “library” only supports integer precision division.2

This was a fun little exercise in computational mathematics and really foundational. In hindisght I’m a bit bummed I didn’t get to do things like these in university, because I think those exercises are simple and have a big return on investment. If I go back to university and work as a TA, my students might have to trudge through horrible exercises like these. Read this, according to personal taste, as an invitation either to pity or envy them.


1. If you don’t know what the trailing numbers in the struct definitions are: these are bitfields, and they are incredibly handy.

2. If anyone knows how to remedy this, please explain it to me! It sounds like this is a well-known problem, but I can’t figure it out for division.