Technically correct: floating point calculations in bc

Whenever someone asks how to do floating point math in a shell script, the answer is typically bc:

$  echo "scale=9; 22/7" | bc

However, this is technically wrong: bc does not support floating point at all! What you see above is arbitrary precision FIXED point arithmetic.

The user’s intention is obviously to do math with fractional numbers, regardless of the low level implementation, so the above is a good and pragmatic answer. However, technically correct is the best kind of correct, so let’s stop being helpful and start pedantically splitting hairs instead!

Fixed vs floating point

There are many important things that every programmer should know about floating point, but in one sentence, the larger they get, the less precise they are.

In fixed point you have a certain number of digits, and a decimal point fixed in place like on a tax form: 001234.56. No matter how small or large the number, you can always write down increments of 0.01, whether it’s 000000.01 or 999999.99.

Floating point, meanwhile, is basically scientific notation. If you have 1.23e-4 (0.000123), you can increment by a millionth to get 1.24e-4. However, if you have 1.23e4 (12300), you can’t add less than 100 unless you reserve more space for more digits.

We can see this effect in practice in any language that supports floating point, such as Haskell:

> truncate (16777216 - 1 :: Float)
> truncate (16777216 + 1 :: Float)

Subtracting 1 gives us the decremented number, but adding 1 had no effect with floating point math! bc, with its arbitrary precision fixed points, would instead correctly give us 16777217! This is clearly unacceptable!

Floating point in bc

The problem with the bc solution is, in other words, that the math is too correct. Floating point math always introduces and accumulates rounding errors in ways that are hard to predict. Fixed point doesn’t, and therefore we need to find a way to artificially introduce the same type of inaccuracies! We can do this by rounding a number to a N significant bits, where N = 24 for float and 52 for double. Here is some bc code for that:


define trunc(x) {
  auto old, tmp
  old=scale; scale=0; tmp=x/1; scale=old
  return tmp
define fp(bits, x) {
  auto i
  if (x < 0) return -fp(bits, -x);
  if (x == 0) return 0;
  while (x < 1) { x*=2; i+=1; }
  while (x >= 2) { x/=2; i-=1; }
  return trunc(x * 2^bits + 0.5) / 2^(i)

define float(x) { return fp(24, x); }
define double(x) { return fp(52, x); }
define test(x) {
  print "Float:  ", float(x), "\n"
  print "Double: ", double(x), "\n"

With this file named fp, we can try it out:

$ bc -ql fp <<< "22/7"

$ bc -ql fp <<< "float(22/7)"

The first number is correct to 30 decimals. Yuck! However, with our floating point simulator applied, we get the desired floating point style errors after ~7 decimals!

Let's write a similar program for doing the same thing but with actual floating point, printing them out up to 30 decimals as well:

{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes #-}
import Control.Monad
import Data.Number.CReal
import System.Environment

main = do
    input <- liftM head getArgs
    putStrLn . ("Float:  " ++) $ showNumber (read input :: Float)
    putStrLn . ("Double: " ++) $ showNumber (read input :: Double)
    showNumber :: forall a. Real a => a -> String
    showNumber = showCReal 30 . realToFrac

Here's a comparison of the two:

$ bc -ql fp <<< "x=test(1000000001.3)"
Float:  1000000000.000000000000000000000000000000
Double: 1000000001.299999952316284179687500000000

$ ./fptest 1000000001.3
Float:  1000000000.0
Double: 1000000001.2999999523162841796875

Due to differences in rounding and/or off-by-one bugs, they're not always identical like here, but the error bars are similar.

Now we can finally start doing floating point math in bc!

Technically correct: Inversed regex

How do I write a regex that matches lines that do not contain hi?

That’s a frequently asked question if I ever saw one.

Of course, the proper answer is: you don’t. You write a regex that does match hi and then invert the matching logic, ostensibly with grep -v. But where’s the fun in that?

One interesting theorem that pops up in any book or class on formal grammars is that regular languages are closed under complement: the inverse of a regular expression is also a regular expression. This means that writing inverted regular expressions is theoretically possible, though it turns out to be quite tricky

Just try writing a regex that matches strings that does not contain “hi”, and test it against “hi”, “hhi” and “ih”, “iih” and such variations. Some solutions are coming up.

A way to cheat is using PCRE negative lookahead: ^(?!.*foo) matches all strings not containing the substring “foo”. However, lookahead assertions require a stack, and thus can’t be modelled as a finite state machine. In other words, they don’t fit the mathematical definition of a regular expression, and therefore disqualify.

There are simple, well-known algorithms for turning regular expressions into non-deterministic finite automata, and from there to deterministic FA. Less commonly used and known are algorithms for inverting a DFA and for generating familiar textual regex from it.

You can find these described in various lecture notes and slides, so I won’t recite them.

What I had a harder time finding was software that actually did this. So here is a Haskell program. It’s highly suboptimal but it does the job. When executed, it will ask for a regex and will then output a grep command that matches everything the regex does not (without -v, obviously).

The expressions it produces are quite horrific; it’s computer generated code, after all.

A regular expression for matching strings that do not match .*hi.* could be grep -E '^([^h]|h+$|h+[^hi])*$'.

This app, however, suggests grep -E '^([^h]([^h]|)*||([^h][^h]*h|h)|([^h][^h]*(h(hh*[^hi]|[^hi]))|(h(hh*[^hi]|[^hi])))((hh*[^hi]|[^h])|)*|([^h][^h]*(h([^hi][^h]*h|h))|(h([^hi][^h]*h|h)))(([^hi][^h]*h|h)|)*)$'

It still works exactly as stated though!

The app just supports a small subset of regex, just enough to convince someone that it works, and as a party trick lets you answer the original question exactly as stated.

Technically correct is the best kind of correct.