Common Lisp the Language, 2nd Edition

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12.9. Random Numbers

The Common Lisp facility for generating pseudo-random numbers has been carefully defined to make its use reasonably portable. While two implementations may produce different series of pseudo-random numbers, the distribution of values should be relatively independent of such machine-dependent aspects as word size.

random number &optional state

(random n) accepts a positive number n and returns a number of the same kind between zero (inclusive) and n (exclusive). The number n may be an integer or a floating-point number. An approximately uniform choice distribution is used. If n is an integer, each of the possible results occurs with (approximate) probability
1/n. (The qualifier ``approximate'' is used because of implementation considerations; in practice, the deviation from uniformity should be quite small.)

The argument state must be an object of type random-state; it defaults to the value of the variable *random-state*. This object is used to maintain the state of the pseudo-random-number generator and is altered as a side effect of the random operation.

Compatibility note: random of zero arguments as defined in MacLisp has been omitted because its value is too implementation-dependent (limited by fixnum range).
Implementation note: In general, even if random of zero arguments were defined as in MacLisp, it is not adequate to define (random n) for integral n to be simply (mod (random) n); this fails to be uniformly distributed if n is larger than the largest number produced by random, or even if n merely approaches this number. This is another reason for omitting random of zero arguments in Common Lisp. Assuming that the underlying mechanism produces ``random bits'' (possibly in chunks such as fixnums), the best approach is to produce enough random bits to construct an integer k some number d of bits larger than (integer-length n) (see integer-length), and then compute (mod k n). The quantity d should be at least 7, and preferably 10 or more.

To produce random floating-point numbers in the half-open range [A, B), accepted practice (as determined by a look through the Collected Algorithms from the ACM, particularly algorithms 133, 266, 294, and 370) is to compute
X * (B - A) + A, where X is a floating-point number uniformly distributed over [0.0, 1.0) and computed by calculating a random integer N in the range [0, M) (typically by a multiplicative-congruential or linear-congruential method mod M) and then setting X = N/M. See also [27]. If one takes , where f is the length of the significand of a floating-point number (and it is in fact common to choose M to be a power of 2), then this method is equivalent to the following assembly-language-level procedure. Assume the representation has no hidden bit. Take a floating-point 0.5, and clobber its entire significand with random bits. Normalize the result if necessary.

For example, on the DEC PDP-10, assume that accumulator T is completely random (all 36 bits are random). Then the code sequence

LSH T,-9                 ;Clear high 9 bits; low 27 are random 
FSC T,128.               ;Install exponent and normalize

will produce in T a random floating-point number uniformly distributed over [0.0, 1.0). (Instead of the LSH instruction, one could do

TLZ T,777000             ;That's 777000 octal

but if the 36 random bits came from a congruential random-number generator, the high-order bits tend to be ``more random'' than the low-order ones, and so the LSH would be better for uniform distribution. Ideally all the bits would be the result of high-quality randomness.)

With a hidden-bit representation, normalization is not a problem, but dealing with the hidden bit is. The method can be adapted as follows. Take a floating-point 1.0 and clobber the explicit significand bits with random bits; this produces a random floating-point number in the range [1.0, 2.0). Then simply subtract 1.0. In effect, we let the hidden bit creep in and then subtract it away again.

For example, on the DEC VAX, assume that register T is completely random (but a little less random than on the PDP-10, as it has only 32 random bits). Then the code sequence

INSV #^X81,#7,#9,T     ;Install correct sign bit and exponent 
SUBF #^F1.0,T          ;Subtract 1.0

will produce in T a random floating-point number uniformly distributed over [0.0, 1.0). Again, if the low-order bits are not random enough, then the instruction


should be performed first.

Implementors may wish to consult reference [41] for a discussion of some efficient methods of generating pseudo-random numbers.


This variable holds a data structure, an object of type random-state, that encodes the internal state of the random-number generator that random uses by default. The nature of this data structure is implementation-dependent. It may be printed out and successfully read back in, but may or may not function correctly as a random-number state object in another implementation. A call to random will perform a side effect on this data structure. Lambda-binding this variable to a different random-number state object will correctly save and restore the old state object.

make-random-state &optional state

This function returns a new object of type random-state, suitable for use as the value of the variable *random-state*. If state is nil or omitted, make-random-state returns a copy of the current random-number state object (the value of the variable *random-state*). If state is a state object, a copy of that state object is returned. If state is t, then a new state object is returned that has been ``randomly'' initialized by some means (such as by a time-of-day clock).

Rationale: Common Lisp purposely provides no way to initialize a random-state object from a user-specified ``seed.'' The reason for this is that the number of bits of state information in a random-state object may vary widely from one implementation to another, and there is no simple way to guarantee that any user-specified seed value will be ``random enough.'' Instead, the initialization of random-state objects is left to the implementor in the case where the argument t is given to make-random-state.

To handle the common situation of executing the same program many times in a reproducible manner, where that program uses random, the following procedure may be used:

  1. Evaluate (make-random-state t) to create a random-state object.

  2. Write that object to a file, using print, for later use.

  3. Whenever the program is to be run, first use read to create a copy of the random-state object from the printed representation in the file. Then use the random-state object newly created by the read operation to initialize the random-number generator for the program.
It is for the sake of this procedure for reproducible execution that implementations are required to provide a read/print syntax for objects of type random-state.

It is also possible to make copies of a random-state object directly without going through the print/read process, simply by using the make-random-state function to copy the object; this allows the same sequence of random numbers to be generated many times within a single program.

Implementation note: A recommended way to implement the type random-state is effectively to use the machinery for defstruct. The usual structure syntax may then be used for printing random-state objects; one might look something like
#S(RANDOM-STATE DATA #(14 49 98436589 786345 8734658324 ...))
where the components are of course completely implementation-dependent.

random-state-p object

random-state-p is true if its argument is a random-state object, and otherwise is false.

(random-state-p x) == (typep x 'random-state)

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