Clojure’s growing popular mind share

Popular interest in Clojure has rapidly increased over the last few years since 2008, almost to the level of Java (the language) today, which has dropped off significantly. (At least according to Google web trends.)
In contrast, popular interest in Common Lisp seems to have dropped off steadily since 2004.

Clojure vs. Java vs. Common Lisp

I used “java language” instead of “java” because it is ambiguous enough to mean the language, framework, JVM, the island or the coffee.

My earlier outlook on Clojure’s prospects circa 2009.

O-notation considered harmful (use Analytic Combinatorics instead)

From Robert Sedgwick's lecture "Analytic Combinatorics, Part I - A Scientific Approach".

From Robert Sedgewick’s lecture “Analytic Combinatorics, Part I – A Scientific Approach”.

For so long I’ve been skeptical about the classic approach of the “Theory of Algorithms” and its misuse and misunderstanding by many software engineers and programmers. Big O notation, the Big Theta Θ and Big Omega Ω notations are often not useful for comparing the performance of algorithms in practice. They are often not even useful for classifying algorithms. They are useful for determining theoretical limits of an algorithms’ performance. In other words, their theoretical lower bound, upper bound or both.
I’ve had to painfully and carefully argue this point a few times as an interviewee and many times as part of a team of engineers. In the first case it can mean the difference between impressing the interviewer or missing out on a great career opportunity due simply to ignorance and/or incorrigibility of the person interviewing you. In the latter it could mean wasted months or even years in implementation effort and/or a financial failure in the worst case.

In practice the O-notation approach to algorithmic analysis can often be quite misleading. Quick Sort vs. Merge Sort is a great example. Quick Sort is classified as time quadratic O(n²) and Merge Sort as time log-linear O(n log n) according to O-notation. In practice however, Quick Sort often performs twice as fast as Merge Sort and is also far more space efficient. As many folks know this has to do with the typical inputs of these algorithms in practice. Most engineers I know would still argue that Merge Sort is a better solution and apparently Robert has had the same argumentative response even though he is an expert in the field. In the lecture he kindly says the following : “… Such people usually don’t program much and shouldn’t be recommending what practitioners do”.

There are many more numerous examples of where practical application does not align with the use of O-notation. Also, detailed analysis of algorithmic performance just takes too long to be useful in practice most of the time. So what other options do we have ?

There is a better way. An emerging science called “Analytic Combinatorics” pioneered by Robert Sedgewick and the late Philippe Flajolet over the past 30 years with the first (and only) text appearing in 2009 called Analytic Combinatorics. This approach is based on the scientific method and provides an accurate and more efficient way to determine the performance of algorithms(and classify them correctly). It even makes it possible to reason about an algorithms’ performance based on real-world input. It also allows for the generation of random data for a particular structure or structures, among other benefits.

For an introduction by the same authors there is An Introduction to the Analysis of Algorithms(or the free PDF version)and Sedgewick’s video course. Just to make it clear how important this new approach is going to be to computer science (and other sciences), here’s what another CS pioneer has to say :

“[Sedgewick and Flajolet] are not only worldwide leaders of the field, they also are masters of exposition. I am sure that every serious computer scientist will find this book rewarding in many ways.” —From the Foreword by Donald E. Knuth


Purely Functional Data Structures & Algorithms : Selection Sort

*Updated @ 2012-08-31 02:08:58 due to internet pedantry*

Previously, previously.

According to Wikipedia :

In computer science, a Selection sort is a sorting algorithm, specifically an in-place comparison sort. It has O(n2) time complexity, making it inefficient on large lists, and generally performs worse than the similar insertion sort. Selection sort is noted for its simplicity, and also has performance advantages over more complicated algorithms in certain situations, particularly where auxiliary memory is limited.

(A functional implementation of selection sort is however, not an in-place sort.)
Behold the abomination which is the imperative implementation (from the Wikipedia link) :

int i,j;
int iMin;

for (j = 0; j < n-1; j++) {
    iMin = j;
    for ( i = j+1; i < n; i++) {
        if (a[i] < a[iMin]) {
            iMin = i;

    if ( iMin != j ) {
        swap(a[j], a[iMin]);

Now, the functional equivalent in Haskell :

selectionSort :: [Int] -> [Int] -> [Int]
selectionSort sorted [] = reverse sorted
selectionSort sorted unsorted = selectionSort (min:sorted) (delete min unsorted)
                     where min = minimum unsorted

Or in Shen :

(define selection-sort-aux
  { (list number) --> (list number) --> (list number) }
  Sorted []       -> (reverse Sorted)
  Sorted Unsorted -> (let Min (minimum Unsorted)
        (selection-sort-aux (cons Min Sorted) (remove-first Min Unsorted))))

Yes. These functional snippets use their respective implementations of the list type (which is not an efficient persistent data type in either Haskell or Shen for accesses or updates). Replacing the List type with Data.Sequence(a persistent data type with efficient constant access and update) for the Haskell snippet is trivial. I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. Shen is too new to support these efficient persistent types at the moment but implementations will appear in the future and changing the snippet would also be trivial. A Clojure implementation using it’s already built in efficient persistent types would also be trivial.

The complete code can be found here.

Purely Functional Data Structures & Algorithms : Union-Find (Haskell)

*Updated 08-23-2012 01:04:38*
Replaced the use of Data.Vector with the persistent Data.Sequence which has O(logN) worst case time complexity on updates.

A Haskell version of the previous code using the more efficient(access and update) persistent Data.Sequence type so that the desired time complexity is maintained for the union operation.

-- Disjoint set data type (weighted and using path compression).
-- O((M+N)lg*N + 2MlogN) worst-case union time (practically O(1))
-- For M union operations on a set of N elements.
-- O((M+N)lg*N) worst-case find time (practically O(1))
-- For M connected(find) operations on a set of N elements.
data DisjointSet = DisjointSet
     { count :: Int, ids :: (Seq Int), sizes :: (Seq Int) }
     deriving (Read,  Show)

-- Return id of root object
findRoot :: DisjointSet -> Int -> Int
findRoot set p | p == parent = p
               | otherwise   = findRoot set parent
                parent = index (ids set) (p - 1)

-- Are objects P and Q connected ?
connected :: DisjointSet -> Int -> Int -> Bool
connected set p q = (findRoot set p) == (findRoot set q)

-- Replace sets containing P and Q with their union
quickUnion :: DisjointSet -> Int -> Int -> DisjointSet
quickUnion set p q | i == j = set
                   | otherwise = DisjointSet cnt rids rsizes
                        (i, j)   = (findRoot set p, findRoot set q)
                        (i1, j1) = (index (sizes set) (i - 1), index (sizes set) (j - 1))
                        (cnt, psmaller, size) = (count set - 1, i1 < j1, i1 + j1)
                        -- Always make smaller root point to the larger one
                        (rids, rsizes) = if psmaller
                                         then (update (i - 1) j (ids set), update (j - 1) size (sizes set))
                                         else (update (j - 1) i (ids set), update (i - 1) size (sizes set))

Tested …

jgrant@aristotle:~/jngmisc/haskell$ ghc quick_union.hs ; time ./quick_union 10

creating union find with 10 objects ...DONE
DisjointSet {count = 10, ids = fromList [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10], sizes = fromList [1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1]}
All objects are disconnected.
1 and 9 connected ? False
4 and 6 connected ? False
3 and 1 connected ? False
7 and 8 connected ? False

creating unions ...DONE
DisjointSet {count = 1, ids = fromList [4,8,7,7,8,8,8,8,8,8], sizes = fromList [1,1,1,2,1,1,4,10,1,1]}
All objects are connected (only 1 group).
1 and 9 connected ? True
4 and 6 connected ? True
3 and 1 connected ? True
7 and 8 connected ? True

real	0m0.002s
user	0m0.000s
sys	0m0.000s

Complete code

Purely Functional Data Structures & Algorithms : Union-Find

It’s been a while since I last posted in this series. Today we look at the disjoint-set data structure, specifically disjoint-set forests and the complementary algorithm : union-find.

In computing, a disjoint-set data structure is a data structure that keeps track of a set of elements partitioned into a number of disjoint (nonoverlapping) subsets. A union-find algorithm is an algorithm that performs two useful operations on such a data structure:

  • Find: Determine which subset a particular element is in. This can be used for determining if two elements are in the same subset.
  • Union: Join two subsets into a single subset.
My inspiration comes from Sedgewick and Wayne’s class over at Coursera : Algorithms, Part I. So check the class out if you are unfamiliar with this and interested in the details.
I’m always curious how data structures and algorithms translate from their imperative counterparts(usually in Java) which are the norm for most classes on the subject and in most textbooks.
I think that this is a very unexplored part of the field of study in comparison with the usual approach to algorithms and data structures. So here we go with another example.
As before, we are using Shen as our implementation language.
First we define our disjoint-set type.
\* Disjoint set data type (weighted and using path compression) demonstrating  *\
\* 5(m + n) worst-case find time *\
(datatype disjoint-set
 Count : number ; Ids : (vector number) ; Sizes : (vector number);
 [Count Ids Sizes] : disjoint-set;)
Then we add a few utilities for creating new instances, retrieving the disjoint subsets count and finding the root of an object.
\* Create a new disjoint-set type *\
(define new
 { number --> disjoint-set }
 N -> [N (range 1 N) (vector-init 1 N)])
\* Return the number of disjoint sets *\
(define count
 { disjoint-set --> number }
 [Count Ids Sizes] -> Count)
\* Return id of root object *\
(define find-root
 { disjoint-set --> number --> number }
 [Count Ids Sizes] P -> (let Parent 
                         \* Path Compression *\
                         (<-vector Ids (<-vector Ids P))
                         (if (= P Parent)
                             (find-root [Count Ids Sizes] Parent)))
Next we define functions to check if two objects are connected along with the quick-union function that will actually connect two objects.
\* Are objects P and Q in the set ? *\
(define connected
 { disjoint-set --> number --> number --> boolean }
 UF P Q -> (= (find-root UF P) (find-root UF Q)))
\* Replace sets containing P and Q with their union *\
(define quick-union
 { disjoint-set --> number --> number --> disjoint-set }
 [Count Ids Sizes] P Q 
 -> (let UF [Count Ids Sizes]
         I (find-root UF P)
         J (find-root UF Q)
         SizeI (<-vector Sizes I)
         SizeJ (<-vector Sizes J)
         SizeSum (+ SizeI SizeJ)
         CIds (vector-copy Ids)
         CSizes (vector-copy Sizes)
      (if (= I J)
          [Count CIds CSizes]
          \* Always make smaller root point to larger one *\
          (do (if (< SizeI SizeJ)
                  (do (vector-> CIds I J) (vector-> CSizes J SizeSum))
                  (do (vector-> CIds J I) (vector-> CSizes I SizeSum)))
              [(- Count 1) CIds CSizes]))))
After running our test we get the following output.
(50+) (test 10)
creating union find with 10 objects ...
[10 <1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10> <1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1>]
All objects are disconnected :
1 and 9 connected ? false
4 and 6 connected ? false
3 and 1 connected ? false
7 and 8 connected ? false
... creating unions ... 
[1 <4 8 7 7 8 8 8 8 8 8> <1 1 1 2 1 1 4 10 1 1>]
All objects should be connected as there is only 1 group :
1 and 9 connected ? true
4 and 6 connected ? true
3 and 1 connected ? true
7 and 8 connected ? true

run time: 0.0 secs
1 : number
All the code can be found here.

Codebreaker – A new film about the life of Alan Turing

CODEBREAKER tells the story of one of the most important people of the 20th century.  Alan Turing set in motion the computer age and his World War II codebreaking helped save two million lives.  Yet few people have heard his name, know his tragic story, or understand his legacy.  In 1954, Turing committed suicide at age 41 after being forced to undergo hormone therapy to “fix” his sexual orientation.  He  left behind a lasting legacy and lingering questions about what else he might have accomplished if society had embraced his unique genius instead of rejecting it.  100 years after his birth, an international production team takes viewers on a journey to rediscover the man and the mystery.

Previously, previously and previously.

Bayes’s Theorem is more powerful than Jesus

Richard Carrier puts forward a fantastic approach to verifying history in his latest book :

Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

“… historian Richard C. Carrier proposes Bayes’s theorem as a solution to the problem of establishing reliable historical criteria. He demonstrates that valid historical methods—not only in the study of Christian origins but in any historical study—can be described by, and reduced to, the logic of Bayes’s theorem. Conversely, he argues that any method that cannot be reduced to Bayes’s theorem is invalid and should be abandoned.”

And in case you’re wondering, yes it’s Bayes’s Theorem and not Bayes’ Theorem.

Alan Kay on Programming today (and a few other things)

From a recent Dr. Dobbs interview :

On adults -

Binstock: So you called them on the lying.

Kay: Yeah. But the thing that traumatized me occurred a couple years later, when I found an old copy of Life magazine that had the Margaret Bourke-White photos from Buchenwald. This was in the 1940s — no TV, living on a farm. That’s when I realized that adults were dangerous. Like, really dangerous.

On Computing as Pop Culture -

The lack of interest, the disdain for history is what makes computing not-quite-a-field.

I think the same is true of most people who write code for money. They have no idea where [their culture came from] — and the Internet was done so well that most people think of it as a natural resource like the Pacific Ocean, rather than something that was man-made. When was the last time a technology with a scale like that was so error-free? The Web, in comparison, is a joke. The Web was done by amateurs.

On Programming -

The most disastrous thing about programming — to pick one of the 10 most disastrous things about programming — there’s a very popular movement based on pattern languages. When Christopher Alexander first did that in architecture, he was looking at 2,000 years of ways that humans have made themselves comfortable. So there was actually something to it, because he was dealing with a genome that hasn’t changed that much. I think he got a few hundred valuable patterns out of it. But the bug in trying to do that in computing is the assumption that we know anything at all about programming. So extracting patterns from today’s programming practices ennobles them in a way they don’t deserve. It actually gives them more cachet.

The best teacher I had in graduate school spent the whole semester destroying any beliefs we had about computing. He was a real iconoclast. He happened to be a genius, so we took it. At the end of the course, we were free because we didn’t believe in anything. We had to learn everything, but then he destroyed it. He wanted us to understand what had been done, but he didn’t want us to believe in it.