Modular Arithmetic and Bit Manipulation

Make sure you're comfortable working with binary numbers (adding, subtracting, converting to decimal) before continuing.

Integer Types

This is an excerpt from the chart in Java Objects. Go there to review primitive types first!








3, (int)17




None - must cast from int




'a', '\n'




123, 0100 (octal), 0xff (hex)




123L, 0100L, 0xffL

Signed Numbers

A type is signed if it can be positive or negative. Unsigned types can only be positive.

In signed types, the first bit is reserved for determining the sign of the number (0 is positive, 1 is negative). This means that there is one fewer bit for the actual number. For example, ints only have 31 bits for the number.

Reading negative numbers

Let's say you are given a number like 10100and want to convert it to decimal. We know that the 1 in the front means it's a negative number! However, we can't just discard that 1 and read the rest like a positive number. Instead, we have to flip all the bits and then add one to the result. So, 10100 flipped will become 01011. Adding one will result in 01100, which is the correct answer (12).

Why do we have to do this? Read on to the next section to find out!

Two's Complement

Two's Complement is a a method of storing negative numbers in a way that supports proper arithmetic. Here's how it works:

  1. Start with a binary number we want to negate, like 0101, which is 5.

  2. Flip all the bits to make 1010.

  3. Add one to make 1011.

Although it makes negative numbers harder to read, the benefits are much more significant- it allows addition and subtraction to work between positive and negative numbers.

If you want to see firsthand why simply flipping the signed bit doesn't work, try out some problems in this worksheet (solutions).

Modular Arithmetic

Since primitive types have a fixed number of bits, it is possible to overflow them if we add numbers that are too large. For example, if we add 01000000(a byte) with itself, we'd need 9 bits to store the result!

This will cause lots of issues, so we use modular arithmetic to wrap around to the largest negative version and keep the number in bounds. For example, (byte)128 == (byte)(127+1) == (byte)(-128).

Bit Operations

Mask: &

  • A & B will only keep the bits that are 1 in A AND B

  • Example: 00101100 & 10100111 == 00100100

Set: |

  • A | B will keep the bits that are 1 in A OR B

  • Example: 00101100 | 10100111 == 10101111

Flip: ^

  • A ^ B will keep the bits that are 1 in A XOR B

  • In other words, 1 if bits are unequal in A and B, 0 otherwise

  • Example: 00101100 ^ 10100111 == 10001011

Flip all: ~

  • ~A will flip all the bits from 1 to 0 or 0 to 1 in A

  • Example: ~10100111 == 01011000

Shift Left: <<

  • A << n will shift all bits left n places

  • All newly introduced bits are 0

  • Example: 10101101 << 3 == 01001000

  • x << n is equal to x * 2^n

Arithmetic Right: >>

  • A >> n will shift all bits except for the signed bit right n times

  • Newly introduced bits are the same as the signed bit

  • Example: 10101101 >> 3 == 11110101

Logical Right: >>>

  • A >>> n will shift ALL bits right n times

  • Newly introduced bits are 0

  • Example: 10101101 >>> 3 == 00010101

  • Another example: (-1) >>> 29 == 7 because it leaves 3 1-bits- ints are 32 bits

Why is this useful?

Just looking at these obscure operations, it may be unclear as to why we need to use these at all.

Well, here's a massive list of bit twiddling hacks that should demonstrate plenty of ways to use these simple operations to do some things really efficiently.

These operations are also the building blocks for almost all operations done by a computer. You'll see firsthand how these are used to construct ALU's in 61C.

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