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Re: inexactness vs. exactness

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Aubrey Jaffer wrote:
> But if we consider memory limitations for this system, then there are
> many mathematical numbers between any two representable inexacts whose
> storage requirements are too large to be represented on a particular
> physical computer.

This is true of exact rationals as well.  It is the programmer's
responsibility to limit the precision of the program's numbers
so the computer doesn't run out of memory.  One of the advantages
of floating point representations for inexact numbers is that
they do this automatically; one of the disadvantages of R5RS
inexact arithmetic is that it doesn't guarantee such limited

> So, does R5RS permit an inexact number which only one mathematical
> number rounds to?

Yes, certainly.  Below I will describe two implementations of
R5RS inexact arithmetic that have this property: the computable
reals, and the inexact rationals with exact i/o.

(Under the unfortunate influence of a flawed paper that was
presented at the 2004 Scheme Workshop, several Scheme programmers
have been incanting that it is not Scheme's inexact numbers that
are inexact, but certain arithmetic operations that are inexact.
There is a grain of truth in that slogan, but it seems to have led
some people to an incorrect conclusion: that they can identify the
inexact operations.  With R5RS arithmetic, *which* operations
are inexact is determined by the implementation, not by the R5RS
or by the programmers.  The computable reals are an important
example of this fact.)

                                * * *

The computable reals.

The R5RS permits an implementation to represent an inexact complex
number x as a specially tagged procedure that, given any positive
exact rational epsilon, returns an approximation to x that is
within epsilon of the true value.  With this representation, all
of the standard arithmetic operations are exact on inexact as well
as on exact complex numbers.  Indeed, this is one of the standard
ways in which operations on the real numbers are defined in

Division by zero is an error, of course---and this cannot be
strengthened to signal an error, on pain of non-computability.
Even so, the / procedure can be made to run in constant time,
even when its second argument is zero.

The STRING->NUMBER procedure is trivial with this representation,
and is perfectly exact.

The problems arise with the comparison predicates (which are
defined only on reals) and with the NUMBER->STRING procedure.
Part of the problem is that we have to know whether the
imaginary part of an inexact number is zero before we can tell
whether the number is real, and testing for zero is undecidable
in general.  One solution to that is to interpret "real" as
having an *exact* zero as the imaginary part, which Bradley Lucier
recommended to us way back in 1998.

To implement the comparison predicates, one might extend the
domain of the specially tagged procedures that represent inexact
reals to include a special flag, say an exact 0, that causes the
procedure to return +1 if the number it represents is positive,
-1 if the number it represents is negative, and to return 0 or
never return if the number it represents is zero.  It is then
the programmer's responsibility to avoid testing the sign of zero,
just as it is to avoid division by zero.

Another approach, which is probably more practical, is to make the
comparison predicates inexact: instead of always returning the
correct boolean value when they return, but sometimes failing to
return, they could compute an approximation and compare the
approximations.  This won't always return the correct answer, but
that flakiness is explicitly allowed by the following R5RS note:
"While it is not an error to compare inexact numbers using these
predicates, the results may be unreliable because a small inaccuracy
may affect the result; this is especially true of = and zero?.  When
in doubt, consult a numerical analyst."

This sort of thing has been implemented, e.g. by Hans Boehm, and
is considerably more efficient than you might think.

                                * * *

Inexact rationals with exact i/o.

The R5RS permits an implementation in which all inexact reals
are represented by specially tagged exact rationals.  Then the
string->number and number->string procedures can be exact.  The
rational arithmetic operations (+, -, *, /) could also be exact
on rational numbers, so only the irrational operations (sqrt etc)
would be inexact.

Another possibility is to make the rational arithmetic operations
inexact by limiting the precision of the result to the precision
of the most precise argument.  This makes the conversion operations
exact, but the arithmetic operations inexact.

                                * * *

I think the implementations described above are good ones to keep
in mind when discussing the semantics of R5RS arithmetic.