Trifle Lisp: Designing a Numeric System

What numeric data types should a programming language offer? How do they behave? How do they perform? Can users define their own?

As Trifle develops, these are questions we need good answers for. Trifle seeks to be expressive and ‘fast enough’. The primary goal of our numeric system is to be mathematically well-behaved.

There are several numerical gotchas that programmers just get used to. Many of these are simply implementation details that we shouldn’t have to care about when programming in a higher-level programming language. Here’s a Java example that breaks the mathematical principle that ‘if x and y are positive integers, then x times y is also positive’.

class Multiply {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        int x = 1;
        for (int i=0; i<40; i++) {
            x = x * 3;

Java’s integers are limited to 32-bit, so this innocent-looking program will print negative numbers. Trifle will protect users from this by using arbitrary-sized integers.

When we stop using integers, it’s even harder to write mathematically sound programs. Here’s a Python example:

>>> 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1

This is because 0.1 cannot be represented exactly in the base-2 floating-point representation that Python uses internally. Trifle again tries to protect the user, this time by using base-10 floating point numbers. These are much less surprising, since their string representation shown to the user matches the underlying representation. A lisp should have homoiconic numbers as well as programs!

Base-10 floating point numbers have other nice properties, such as displaying trailing zeroes according to high-school arithmetic. Another Python example:

>>> from decimal import *
>>> Decimal('1.10') * Decimal('1.10')

However, we should be nervous about using any form of inexact arithmetic. Rounding errors will occur, and they can be catastrophic. Some calculations can be dramatically incorrect when calculated with a computer. In Trifle, we try to encourage users to use exact arithmetic by also offering exact, arbitrary-sized fractions. This enables to the user to write many more programs, using all the operators from basic arithmetic (+ - * /), without risking bugs from rounding errors.

One disadvantage of fractions is that they’re harder to read. 15298283/146395 is not as friendly as 104.5.... To tackle this, we’re prototyping a shell that will also help users understand how big their numbers are.

>>> (/ 15298283 146395)
[Fraction, roughly 104.5]

Finally, some users will want more numeric types. Common examples include complex numbers, vectors and matrices. Users are free to do so in Trifle. + is a normal function and may be redefined to add support for new numeric types.

All these features come at a performance cost. Computers can calculate much more quickly, and consuming less memory, by using fixed-size integers and base-2 floating point arithmetic. For high performance code or for foreign functions, we may add these data types in future. In the meantime, we should have a language that’s a little less error-prone.

Note: Exact arithmetic has yet to land in Trifle builds, but it is being actively worked on.

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