How bi­na­ry float­ing points can let us down

If you've played Mo­nop­oly, you'll know abuot the Bank Er­ror in Your Fa­vor card in the Com­mu­ni­ty Chest. Re­mem­ber this?

A bank er­ror in your fa­vor? Sweet! But what if the bank makes an er­ror in its fa­vor? Sure­ly that's just as pos­si­ble, right?

I'm here to tell you that if you're do­ing every­day fi­nan­cial cal­cu­la­tions—noth­ing fan­cy, but in­volv­ing mon­ey that you care about—then you might need to know that us­ing bi­na­ry float­ing point num­bers, then some­thing might be go­ing wrong. Let's see how bi­na­ry float­ing-point num­bers might yield bank er­rors in your fa­vor—or the bank's.

In a won­der­ful pa­per on dec­i­mal float­ing-point num­bers, Mike Col­ishaw gives an ex­am­ple.

Here's how you can re­pro­duce that in JavaScript:

(1.05 * 0.7).toPrecision(2);
# 0.73

Some pro­gram­mers might not be aware of this, but many are. By point­ing this out I'm not try­ing to be a smar­ty­pants who knows some­thing you don't. For me, this ex­am­ple il­lus­trates just how com­mon this sort of er­ror might be.

For pro­gram­mers who are aware of the is­sue, one typ­i­cal ap­proache to deal­ing with it is this: Nev­er work with sub-units of a cur­ren­cy. (Some cur­ren­cies don't have this is­sue. If that's you and your prob­lem do­main, you can kick back and be glad that you don't need to en­gage in the fol­low­ing sorts of headaches.) For in­stance, when work­ing with US dol­lars of eu­ros, this ap­proach man­dates that one nev­er works with eu­ros and cents, but only with cents. In this set­ting, dol­lars ex­ist only as an ab­strac­tion on top of cents. As far as pos­si­ble, cal­cu­la­tions nev­er use floats. But if a float­ing-point num­ber threat­ens to come up, some form of round­ing is used.

An­oth­er aproach for a pro­gram­mer is to del­e­gate fi­nan­cial cal­cu­la­tions to an ex­ter­nal sys­tem, such as a re­la­tion­al data­base, that na­tive­ly sup­ports prop­er dec­i­mal cal­cu­la­tions. One dif­fi­cul­ty is that even if one del­e­gates these cal­cu­la­tions to an ex­ter­nal sys­tem, if one lets a float­ing-point val­ue flow int your pro­gram, even a val­ue that can be trust­ed, it may be­come taint­ed just by be­ing im­port­ed into a lan­guage that doesn't prop­er­ly sup­port dec­i­mals. If, for in­stance, the re­sult of a cal­cu­la­tion done in, say, Post­gres, is ex­act­ly 0.1, and that flows into your JavaScript pro­gram as a num­ber, it's pos­si­ble that you'll be deal­ing with a con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed val­ue. For in­stance:

# 0.1000000000000000055511151

This ex­am­ple, ad­mit­ted­ly, re­quires quite a lot of dec­i­mals (19!) be­fore the ugly re­al­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion rears its head. The re­al­i­ty is that 0.1 does not, and can­not, have an ex­act rep­re­sen­ta­tion in bi­na­ry. The ear­li­er ex­am­ple with the cost of a phone call is there to raise your aware­ness of the pos­si­bil­i­ty that one doesn't need to go 19 dec­i­mal places be­fore one starts to see some weird­ness show­ing up.

There are all sorts of ex­am­ples of this. It's ex­ceed­ing­ly rare for a dec­i­mal num­ber to have an ex­act rep­re­sen­ta­tion in bi­na­ry. Of the num­bers 0.1, 0.2, …, 0.9, only 0.5 can be ex­act­ly rep­re­sent­ed in bi­na­ry.

Next time you look at a bank state­ment, or a bill where some tax is cal­cu­lat­ed, I in­vite you to ask how that was cal­cu­lat­ed. Are they us­ing dec­i­mals, or floats? Is it cor­rect?

I'm work­ing on the dec­i­mal pro­pos­al for TC39 to try to work what it might be like to add prop­er dec­i­mal num­bers to JavaScript. There are a few very in­ter­est­ing de­grees of free­dom in the de­sign space (such as the pre­cise datatype to be used to rep­re­sent these kinds of num­ber), but I'm op­ti­mistic that a rea­son­able path for­ward ex­ists, that con­sen­sus be­tween JS pro­gram­mers and JS en­gine im­ple­men­tors can be found, and even­tu­al­ly im­ple­ment­ed. If you're in­ter­est­ed in these is­sues, check out the README in the pro­pos­al and get in touch!