Five-Dollar Words for Programmers, Part One: Idempotence

Programmers, particularly those with a mathematical background, often use words from mathematics when describing their systems. Unfortunately, they also often do so without consideration of the non-mathematical background of their colleagues. I thought I might talk today a bit about the word “idempotent”. This is a very easy concept but lots of people don’t know that there is a word for it.

There are two closely related mathematical definitions for “idempotent. First, a value is “idempotent under function foo” if the result of doing foo to the value results in the value right back again. Another common way to say this is that the value is a fixpoint of foo.

Second, a function is “idempotent” if the result of doing it twice — where we are feeding the output of the first call into the second call — is exactly the same as the result of doing it once. Or, in other words, every output of the function is idempotent under it. Or in even more other words, every output of an idempotent function is a fixpoint of the function.

The most trivial mathematical example of the second kind is the constant function. If f(x) = c, then clearly f(x) = f(f(x)) = f(f(f(x))) … so f is idempotent (and the constant is idempotent under it).

The identity function f(x) = x is also idempotent; I’m sure you see why.

The function that takes a finite set of numbers and returns a set containing only its largest element is idempotent (and every one-element set is idempotent under it). I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of idempotent functions.

To get a handle on the other sense, pick an operation — say, doubling. The only value which is idempotent under that operation is zero. The operation “subtracting any non-zero value” has no idempotent values. Squaring has two idempotent values, zero and one.

The way programmers use “idempotent” is slightly different, but this concept comes up all the time in practical programming, particularly around caching logic. Usually when used in the computer science sense we don’t mean that the effect of the function is invariant under composition of the function with itself, but rather that it is invariant over any number of calls greater than one. For example, I don’t know how many times I’ve written:

HRESULT GetTypeLibCreator(ICreateTypeLib2 ** ppctl) 
  if (this->m_pctl == NULL) 
    HRESULT hr; 
    hr = CreateTypeLib2(SYS_WIN32, pszName, &this->m_pctl);
    if (FAILED(hr)) 
      return hr;
  *ppctl = this->m_pctl;
  return S_OK;

A nice little idempotent function — calling it two, three, or any other number of times with the same arguments has exactly the same result as calling it once.

The place you see the other characterization of idempotence all the time is in C++ header files. Include a needed header zero times and you’ll get “not defined” errors. Accidentally include it twice and you’ll get “redefinition” errors. It’s a major pain to make sure that every header file is included exactly once. Therefore, most headers use some trick to make them idempotent under the inclusion operation:


// headers here


or in more modern systems, the “#pragma once” directive makes headers idempotent under inclusion.

Floating Point Arithmetic, Part One

A month ago I was discussing some of the issues in integer arithmetic, and I said that issues in floating point arithmetic were a good subject for another day. Over the weekend I got some questions from a reader about floating point arithmetic, so this seems like as good a time as any to address them.

Before I talk about some of the things that can go terribly wrong with floating point arithmetic, it’s helpful (and character building) to understand how exactly a floating point number is represented internally.

To distinguish between decimal and binary numbers, I’m going to do all binary numbers in fixed-width.

Here’s how floating point numbers work. A float is 64 bits. Of that, one bit represents the sign: 0 is positive, 1 is negative.

Eleven bits represent the exponent. To determine the exponent value, treat the exponent field as an eleven-bit unsigned integer, then subtract 1023. However, note that the exponent fields 00000000000 and 11111111111 have special meaning, which we’ll come to later.

The remaining 52 bits represent the mantissa.

To compute the value of a float, here’s what you do.

  • Write out all 52 bits of the mantissa.
  • Stick a 1. onto the left hand side.
  • Compute that value as a 53 bit fraction with 52 fractional places.
  • Multiply that by two to the power of the given exponent value.
  • Sign it appropriately.

So for example, the number -5.5 is represented like this: (sign, exponent, mantissa)

(1, 10000000001, 0110000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000)

The sign is 1, so it is a negative number.

The exponent is 1025 – 1023 = 2.

Put a 1. on the top of the mantissa and you get


which in decimal is 1.375 and sure enough, -1.375 x 22 = -5.5

This system is nice because it means that every number in the range of a float has a unique representation, and therefore doesn’t waste bits on duplicates.

However, you might be wondering how zero is represented, since every bit pattern has 1. plunked onto the left side. That’s where the special values for the exponent come in.

If the exponent is 00000000000, then the float is considered a “denormal”. It gets 0. plunked onto the left side, not 1., and the exponent is assumed to be -1022.

This has the nice property that if all bits in the float are zero, it is representing zero.

Note that this lets you represent smaller numbers than you would be able to otherwise, as we’ll see, though you pay the price of lower precision. Essentially, denormals exist so that the chip can do “graceful underflow” — represent tiny values without having to go straight to zero.

If the exponent is 11111111111 and the mantissa is all zeros, that’s Infinity.

If the exponent is 11111111111 and the mantissa is not all zeros, that’s considered to be Not A Number — this is a bit pattern reserved for errors.

So the biggest positive normalized float is

(0, 11111111110, 1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111)

which is

1.1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111 x 21023.

The smallest positive normalized float is

(0, 00000000001, 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000)

which is

1.000 x 2-1022

The biggest positive denormalized float is:

(0, 00000000000, 1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111)

which is

0.1111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111 x 2-1022

The smallest positive denormalized float is

(0, 00000000000, 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001)

which is

0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 x 2-1022 = 2-1074


Next time on FAIC: floating point math is nothing like real number math.