Bitwise checking (bit-testing) in C

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Useful for checking the status of individual bits.

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  1. The Bitwise Complement
  2. The bitwise complement operator, the tilde, ~, flips every bit. A useful way to remember this is that the tilde is sometimes called a twiddle, and the bitwise complement twiddles every bit: if you have a 1, it's a 0, and if you have a 0, it's a 1.
  4. This turns out to be a great way of finding the largest possible value for an unsigned number:
  6. unsigned int max = ~0;
  8. 0, of course, is all 0s: 00000000 00000000. Once we twiddle 0, we get all 1s: 11111111 11111111. Since max is an unsigned int, we don't have to worry about sign bits or twos complement. We know that all 1s is the largest possible number.
  10. Note that ~ and ! cannot be used interchangeably. When you take the logical NOT of a non-zero number, you get 0 (FALSE). However, when you twiddle a non-zero number, the only time you'll get 0 is when every bit is turned on. (This non-equivalence principle holds true for bitwise AND too, unless you know that you are using strictly the numbers 1 and 0. For bitwise OR, to be certain that it would be equivalent, you'd need to make sure that the underlying representation of 0 is all zeros to use it interchangeably. But don't do that! It'll make your code harder to understand.)
  12. Now that we have a way of flipping bits, we can start thinking about how to turn off a single bit. We know that we want to leave other bits unaffected, but that if we have a 1 in the given position, we want it to be a 0. Take some time to think about how to do this before reading further.
  14. We need to come up with a sequence of operations that leaves 1s and 0s in the non-target position unaffected; before, we used a bitwise OR, but we can also use a bitwise AND. 1 AND 1 is 1, and 0 AND 1 is 0. Now, to turn off a bit, we just need to AND it with 0: 1 AND 0 is 0. So if we want to indicate that car 2 is no longer in use, we want to take the bitwise AND of XXXXX1XX with 11111011.
  16. How can we get that number? This is where the ability to take the complement of a number comes in handy: we already know how to turn a single bit on. If we turn one bit on and take the complement of the number, we get every bit on except that bit:
  18. ~(1<<position)
  20. Now that we have this, we can just take the bitwise AND of this with the current field of cars, and the only bit we'll change is the one of the car_num we're interested in.
  22. int set_unused(int car_num)
  23. {
  24. in_use = in_use & ~(1<<position);
  25. }
  27. You might be thinking to yourself, but this is kind of clunky. We actually need to know whether a car is in use or not (if the bit is on or off) before we can know which function to call. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it means that we do need to know a little bit about what's going on. There is an easier way, but first we need the last bitwise operator: exclusive-or.


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