Bitwise arithmetic

CS 301 Lecture, Dr. Lawlor, 2005/09/12

Last class, we looked at C's bitwise operators.  I should point out that you can use all these operators in perfectly ordinary C/C++/Java/C# code:
	int A=0x6789, B=0xF;
int C=A&~B; /* Now C==0x6780 */
This works fine everywhere.  You can also work examples in Windows using the Calculator accessory, or on a UNIX machine using the "bc" command line tool (set input and output to binary using "obase=2; ibase=2;" to hex using "obase=16; ibase=16;").

Arithmetic In Binary

We can do arithmetic in binary or hex by hand just like we do in decimal.  To add, line up the digits, add corresponding digits, and if the per-digit sum is greater than the base, carry to the next digit.  Easy, right?  To subtract, do the exact same thing, but "borrow" from the next digit if the per-digit difference is less than 0.

For example, in binary 01+01=10 because the first digit overflows, and the extra "1" is carried to the next digit.  Similarly, 1111+1=10000 because all the digits overflow in sequence.  In general, adding a "1" will cause carries to ripple up through ones, flipping them to zeros, until it finally reaches a zero, which it will flip to a one.

Addition in hex is exactly the same--it's a bit tricker to add the larger digits involved, but carries work exactly the same.  So  0x8+0x8=0x10, and 0xffff+0x1=0x10000.

Subtraction in binary seems really bizarre until you remember than 10-1=1 in binary--that is, "1" is the one-less-than-zero digit in binary like "9" is the corresponding digit in decimal.  So when you have to borrow, you just flip the zeros to ones until you hit a one. 

Subtraction actually shows you how to represent negative numbers in binary.  Consider -1==0-1: you just keep on flipping zeros to ones forever, "borrowing" against the future that never comes.  So -1 is represented (in principle) by an infinite number of ones, just like +1 is represented (in principle) by an infinite number of zeros followed by a one.  In practice, we only store a finite number (usually 32 or 64) of bits, so on a 32-bit machine we define 32 ones as -1.  The highest bit, then, can be thought of as a "sign bit"--negative numbers have that bit set, positive numbers have that bit clear.  Suprisingly, it make sense to think of the sign bit in digit n as having value -2n, instead of value 2n for unsigned numbers.  What's weirder is that addition and subtraction are exactly the same for signed or unsigned numbers--try it!  (All other operations are different, though: comparison, multiplication, division, etc.)

This is clearer if you draw it out for a 3-bit machine:
Bit Pattern
Unsigned Value
Signed Value

Note that everything but Java supports "signed" as well as "unsigned" integers explicitly.  In C/C++/C#, typecasting to an unsigned value does nothing to the bits, and is hence a zero-clock operation.  One way to speed up a "zero to n" bounds test on a signed value is to turn it into an unsigned value and just compare against n--that is, "if ((x>=0)&&(x<n)) ..." is the same as "if (((unsigned int)x)<n) ..." do exactly the same thing, because negative signed x's will turn into really huge unsigned x's!

Arithmetic Version of Bitwise Operations

Think about what "A<<1" does to the bits of an integer: what was in the 1's place is now in the 2's place, 2's are shifted to 4's place, 4 is shifted to 8's place, etc.  That is, all the bits are now in places worth twice as much as before, so the overall integer is worth twice as much as before: "(A<<1) == (A*2)".  In general, left-shifting by n bits is a fast way to multiply by 2n.

Correspondingly, "A>>1" pushes everything into lower-valued places, and drops the lowest digit.  This means it's equivalent to division: "(A>>1) == (A/2)".  In general, right-shifting by n bits is a fast way to divide by 2n (and ignore the remainder).

You might think right shifting a negative number would bring in zeros, hence flipping it into a positive number, but in C/C++/C# the ">>" operator actually does the correct thing--it brings in zeros for unsigned values, and brings in the sign bit for signed values.  Java doesn't have an "unsigned" data type, but it does have an arithmetic right-shift called ">>>" that brings in zeros; ">>" assumes signed by default.

Finally, "A&0x1" drops all digits higher than the 1's place, so the result is either 0 or 1 corresponding to whether A was even or odd; that is, it's the modulo-2 operation (remainder after dividing by 2), so "(A&0x1)==(A%2)".  Similarly, "A&0x3" gives a result from 0-3, corresponding to the version of A where we've dropped corresponding the higher binary digits, so "(A&0x3)==A%4".   So masking is a fast way to do modulus operation.

All three of these can be used to speed up arithmetic: multiplying is pretty fast on modern machines, but it's not (quite) as fast as bit shifting.  Division and modulus operations are really quite slow on most machines, so replacing them by bitshifts can often give a 20x speedup!  Keep in mind, though, that the compiler also knows about these tricks--so if you write "A/4" somewhere, the compiler will almost always use the bit shift instead of the divide.  The only place the compiler won't help you is when it doesn't know what you're dividing by--so if you write "A/B", even if B always turns out to be a power of two, the compiler will use the slow divide instruction instead of a fast bit shift.   This means you may have to keep track of the corresponding bit shift (log-base-2 of B) or bit mask (for B a power of two, it's just B-1) manually, which is a pain, but sometimes speed hurts!

Once place where bit-style arithmetic operations really shine is with packed fields.  Let's say you've got two packed ARGB colors A and B (i.e., four 8-bit fields) that you want to average--blend together at 50% intensity.  The usual way to do this would be to extract the alpha, red, green, and blue fields (using masking and bit shifts), blend them by adding them together and dividing by two, and reassemble them using more bit shifts and OR operations--a total of like 4*(2+2+2)=24 operations, including four divides.  But it's way faster to do this:
	int blend=((A>>1)&0x7f7f7f7f)+((B>>1)&0x7f7f7f7f);
That is, we divide all the fields of both inputs by 2 using a bit shift, mask off space for the (overflow or carry) in the high bit, and add.  This gives you a four-color blend operation for the cost of 5 cheap single-clock bit operations!  Michael Herf has a great page on a similar trick for weighted blending.