The Binaryen optimizer compiles wasm to better (smaller, faster) wasm. A lot of the optimizations it has are very specific to WebAssembly, which is maybe not surprising since wasm is an ‘odd’ compiler target in many ways. So many of the optimization tricks are also odd!

Here’s a tiny recent example: wasm encodes constant integers using signed LEB32. As a result, negative numbers are slightly favored, sometimes taking one less bit. For example,

x + 64

takes one more byte than

x - (-64)

However, the same is not true for 65 or 63 or most other numbers - this only happens on very specific powers of 2! The reason is because of how signed LEBs and two’s complement work. As you can see on that Wikipedia page’s examples, in 3-bit integers, 2 is 010 and -2 is 110. For 2, we must emit 3 bits in signed LEB format, since we must emit a sign bit, but for -2 we just need 2 bits. So signed values have an advantage on powers of two, and this actually matters when the extra bit for the positive integer causes an extra LEB byte to be emitted (each byte contains 7 bits of payload, so which powers matter can be computed from that).

To keep things simple, maybe we can ignore the specific values where this matters and just always encode negative integers? That is, for any positive integer c,

x + c  =>  x - (-c)
x - c  =>  x + (-c)

But this has a downside: on typical code, addition is much more common than subtraction, and positive integers are much more common than negative ones. So if we did this, we’d be shrinking c by replacing it with -c but we’d risk making the code less compressible by replacing a lot of additions with subtractions (note that we aren’t replacing all the additions, since many are not on a constant).

To avoid that problem, Binaryen only does this on constants where it actually matters. Most of those have an addition before them that we replace by a subtraction, so there is still a downside to compression, but on real-world code saving a byte matters more. For example, here are size diffs, in bytes, on tanks.wasm:

Which integers to optimize uncompressed diff compressed diff
All of them -2552 +11347 :(
Just ones where it matters -2552 -544

Doing this on all integers increases compressed size by a lot more than it decreases uncompressed size! But doing it only on the integers where it matters lets us decrease both, which is what we want.