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Mon, 22 Jun 2015

My week at Recurse Center

In late April I served a residency at Recurse Center, formerly known as Hacker School. I want to write up what I did before I forget.

Recurse Center bills itself as being like a writer's retreat, but for programming. Recursers get better at programming four days a week for three months. There are some full-time instructors there to help, and periodically a resident, usually someone notable, shows up for a week. It's free to students: RC partners with companies that then pay it a fee if they hire a Recurser.

I got onto the RC chat system and BBS a few weeks ahead and immediately realized that it was going to be great. I am really wary about belonging to groups, but I felt like I fit right in at RC, in a way that I hadn't felt since I went off to math camp at age 14. Recurse Center isn't that different from math camp now that I think about it.

The only prescribed duty of a resident is to give a half-hour talk on Monday night, preferably on a technical topic. I gave mine on the history and internals of lightweight hash structures in programming languages like Python and Perl. (You can read all about that if you want to.)

Here's what else I did:

  1. I gave a bunch of other talks: two on Git, one on calculating with continued fractions, one on how the Haskell type inferencer works, one on the topology of data types, one on the Unix process model, one on Alien Horrors from the Dawn of Unix. This was too many talks. I didn't have enough energy and time to prepare all of them properly. On the other hand, a lot of people were very complimentary about the talks and said they were very glad that I gave so many. Also, giving talks is a great way to get people familiar with you so that they won't be shy about talking to you or asking you to work with them. But I think I'll cut it down to one per day next time.

  2. Alex Taipale was inspired by my hash talk to implement hashes synthetically in Python, and I paired with her on that for the first part and reviewed her code a couple of times after. It was really fun to see how she went about it.

  3. Libby Horacek showed me around the text adventure game she wrote in Haskell. I had the first of several strokes of luck here. Libby had defined an input format to specify the room layout and the objects, and I observed that it was very similar to Asherah, a project that another Recurser, Michelle Steigerwalt, had done a couple of years before. I found this out because I read everyone's self-posted bio ahead of time and browsed the interesting-sounding links.

  4. Aditya Mukerjee was implementing Git in Go. He wanted help deciphering the delta format. Later I paired with Aditya again and we debugged his implementation of the code that expanded the deltas back into complete files. I hadn't known any Go but it's easy to pick up.

  5. Geoffrey Gilmore had read my ancient article on how to write a regex matcher. He had written his own implementation in Scala and wanted to show it to me. I didn't know any Scala but the code was very clear. Geoffrey had worked out a clever way to visualize the resulting finite automaton: his automaton object had a method that would dump out its graph in the "dot" language, and he could feed that to Graphviz to get it to draw the graph.

  6. I had a conference with Ahmed Abdalla and Joel Burget about SML. The main question they wanted me to answer: Why might they want to look at SML instead of Haskell? This was a stroke of luck: I was unusually well-prepared to answer this question, having written many thousands of lines of SML since about 1993. My answer was unequivocally that there was no reason, SML was obsolete, because it had big problems which had never been solved, and Haskell had been introduced in part to solve, avoid, or finesse these problems.

    For example, nobody knows how to incorporate references into a Hindley-Milner type system. SML has tried at least three methods for doing this over the years. They all suck, and none of them work right. Haskell avoids the whole issue: no references. If you want something like references, you can build a monad that simulates it locally.

    I could probably write a whole blog article about this, so maybe another time.

  7. Libby wanted to pair with me again. She offered me a choice: she was building an e-reader, controlled by a Raspberry Pi, and mounted inside an antique book that she had hollowed out. I would have been willing to try this, although I didn't know anything about Raspberry Pi. But my other choice was very attractive: she was reviving KiSS, an ancient Windows paper-doll app that had been current in the 1990s. people had designed hundreds or thousands of dolls and costumes, which were all languishing because nobody wanted to run the app any more. She wanted to reimplement the dress-up program in Javascript, and port the doll and clothing cels to PNG files. Here I had another stroke of luck. I was already familiar with the program, and I think I have even been into its source code at some point.

    Libby had found that Gimp could load a KiSS cel, so we looked at the Gimp source code to figure out the file format. She had been planning to use libpng to turn the cel into a PNG, but I showed her a better way: convert it into a PPM file and feed to to ppmtopng. This saved a lot of trouble! (I have written a little bit about this approach in the past.) Libby hacked in the Gimp code, grafting her PPM file writing code into the Gimp cel reading code in place of Gimp's internal pixmap operations. It worked!

  8. I talked to Chris Ball about his GitTorrent project. Chris wants to make a decentralized github that doesn't depend on the GitHub company or on their technical infrastructure. He spent a long time trying to make me understand why he wanted to do the project at all and what it was for. I think I eventually got it. It also transpired that Chris knows way more about BitTorrent than I do. I don't think I was much help to Chris.

  9. Jesse Chen paired with me to fix the layout problems that have been troubling my blog for years. We redid the ancient table-based layout that I had inherited from Blosxom ten years ago, converting it mostly to CSS, and fixed a bunch of scrolling problems. We also fixed it to be legible on a phone display, which it previously wasn't. Thanks Jesse!

  10. I had a discussion with Michelle Steigerwalt about big-O notation and how you figure out what an algorithm's big-O-ness is, either from counting lines in the source code or the pseudocode, or from running the algorithm on different-size inputs and timing it. It's fun that you can do the static analysis and then run the program and see it produce the results you predicted.

There was a lot of other stuff. I met or at least spoke with around 90% of the seventy or so Recursers who were there with me. I attended the daily stand-up status meetings with a different group each time. I ate lunch and dinner with many people and had many conversations. I went out drinking with Recursers at least once. The RC principals kindly rescheduled the usual Thursday lightning talks to Monday so I could attend. I met Erik Osheim for lunch one day. And I baked cookies for our cookie-decorating party!

It was a great time, definitely a high point in my life. A thousand thanks to RC, to Rachel Vincent and Dave Albert for essential support while I was there, and to the facilitators, principals, and especially to the other Recursers.


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Thu, 18 Jun 2015

Math.SE report 2015-05

A lot of the stuff I've written in the past couple of years has been on math.StackExchange. Some of it is pretty mundane, but some is interesting. My summary of April's interesting posts was well-received, so here are the noteworthy posts I made in May 2015.

  • What matrix transforms !!(1,0)!! into !!(2,6)!! and tranforms !!(0,1)!! into !!(4,8)!!? was a little funny because the answer is $$\begin{pmatrix}2 & 4 \\ 6 & 8 \end{pmatrix}$$ and yeah, it works exactly like it appears to, there's no trick. But if I just told the guy that, he might feel unnecessarily foolish. I gave him a method for solving the problem and figured that when he saw what answer he came up with, he might learn the thing that the exercise was designed to teach him.

  • Is a “network topology'” a topological space? is interesting because several people showed up right away to say no, it is an abuse of terminology, and that network topology really has nothing to do with mathematical topology. Most of those comments have since been deleted. My answer was essentially: it is topological, because just as in mathematical topology you care about which computers are connected to which, and not about where any of the computers actually are.

    Nobody constructing a token ring network thinks that it has to be a geometrically circular ring. No, it only has to be a topologically circular ring. A square is fine; so is a triangle; topologically they are equivalent, both in networking and in mathematics. The wires can cross, as long as they don't connect at the crossings. But if you use something that isn't topologically a ring, like say a line or a star or a tree, the network doesn't work.

    The term “topological” is a little funny. “Topos” means “place” (like in “topography” or “toponym”) but in topology you don't care about places.

  • Is there a standard term for this generalization of the Euler totient function? was asked by me. I don't include all my answers in these posts, but I think maybe I should have a policy of including all my questions. This one concerned a simple concept from number theory which I was surprised had no name: I wanted !!\phi_k(n)!! to be the number of integers !!m!! that are no larger than !!n!! for which !!\gcd(m,n) = k!!. For !!k=1!! this is the famous Euler totient function, written !!\varphi(n)!!.

    But then I realized that the reason it has no name is that it's simply !!\phi_k(n) = \varphi\left(\frac n k\right)!! so there's no need for a name or a special notation.

    As often happens, I found the answer myself shortly after I asked the question. I wonder if the reason for this is that my time to come up with the answer is Poisson-distributed. Then if I set a time threshold for how long I'll work on the problem before asking about it, I am likely to find the answer to almost any question that exceeds the threshold shortly after I exceed the threshold. But if I set the threshold higher, this would still be true, so there is no way to win this particular game. Good feature of this theory: I am off the hook for asking questions I could have answered myself. Bad feature: no real empirical support.

  • how many ways can you divide 24 people into groups of two? displays a few oddities, and I think I didn't understand what was going on at that time. OP has calculated the first few special cases:

    1:1 2:1 3:3 4:3 5:12 6:15

    which I think means that there is one way to divide 2 people into groups of 2, 3 ways to divide 4 people, and 15 ways to divide 6 people. This is all correct! But what could the 1:1, 3:3, 5:12 terms mean? You simply can't divide 5 people into groups of 2. Well, maybe OP was counting the extra odd person left over as a sort of group on their own? Then odd values would be correct; I didn't appreciate this at the time.

    But having calculated 6 special cases correctly, why can't OP calculate the seventh? Perhaps they were using brute force: the next value is 48, hard to brute-force correctly if you don't have a enough experience with combinatorics.

    I tried to suggest a general strategy: look at special cases, and not by brute force, but try to analyze them so that you can come up with a method for solving them. The method is unnecessary for the small cases, where brute force enumeration suffices, but you can use the brute force enumeration to check that the method is working. And then for the larger cases, where brute force is impractical, you use your method.

    It seems that OP couldn't understand my method, and when they tried to apply it, got wrong answers. Oh well, you can lead a horse to water, etc.

    The other pathology here is:

    I think I did what you said and I got 1.585times 10 to the 21

    for the !!n=24!! case. The correct answer is $$23\cdot21\cdot19\cdot17\cdot15\cdot13\cdot11\cdot9\cdot7\cdot5\cdot3\cdot1 = 316234143225 \approx 3.16\cdot 10^{11}.$$ OP didn't explain how they got !!1.585\cdot10^{21}!! so there's not much hope of correcting their weird error.

    This is someone who probably could have been helped in person, but on the Internet it's hopeless. Their problems are Internet communication problems.

  • Lambda calculus typing isn't especially noteworthy, but I wrote a fairly detailed explanation of the algorithm that Haskell or SML uses to find the type of an expression, and that might be interesting to someone.

  • I think Special representation of a number is the standout post of the month. OP speculates that, among numbers of the form !!pq+rs!! (where !!p,q,r,s!! are prime), the choice of !!p,q,r,s!! is unique. That is, the mapping !!\langle p,q,r,s\rangle \to pq+rs!! is reversible.

    I was able to guess that this was not the case within a couple of minutes, replied pretty much immediately:

    I would bet money against this representation being unique.

    I was sure that a simple computer search would find counterexamples. In fact, the smallest is !!11\cdot13 + 19\cdot 29 = 11\cdot 43 + 13\cdot 17 = 694!! which is small enough that you could find it without the computer if you are patient.

    The obvious lesson to learn from this is that many elementary conjectures of this type can be easily disproved by a trivial computer search, and I frequently wonder why more amateur mathematicians don't learn enough computer programming to investigate this sort of thing. (I wrote recently on the topic of An ounce of theory is worth a pound of search , and this is an interesting counterpoint to that.)

    But the most interesting thing here is how I was able to instantly guess the answer. I explained in some detail in the post. But the basic line of reasoning goes like this.

    Additive properties of the primes are always distributed more or less at random unless there is some obvious reason why they can't be. For example, let !!p!! be prime and consider !!2p+1!!. This must have exactly one of the three forms !!3n-1, 3n,!! or !!3n+1!! for some integer !!n!!. It obviously has the form !!3n+1!! almost never (the only exception is !!p=3!!). But of the other two forms there is no obvious reason to prefer one over the other, and indeed of the primes up to 10,000, 611 are of the type !!3n!! and and 616 are of the type !!3n-1!!.

    So we should expect the value !!pq+rs!! to be distributed more or less randomly over the set of outputs, because there's no obvious reason why it couldn't be, except for simple stuff, like that it's obviously almost always even.

    So we are throwing a bunch of balls at random into bins, and the claim is that no bin should contain more than one ball. For that to happen, there must be vastly more bins than balls. But the bins are numbers, and primes are not at all uncommon among numbers, so the number of bins isn't vastly larger, and there ought to be at least some collisions.

    In fact, a more careful analysis, which I wrote up on the site, shows that the number of balls is vastly larger—to have them be roughly the same, you would need primes to be roughly as common as perfect squares, but they are far more abundant than that—so as you take larger and larger primes, the number of collisions increases enormously and it's easy to find twenty or more quadruples of primes that all map to the same result. But I was able to predict this after a couple of minutes of thought, from completely elementary considerations, so I think it's a good example of Lower Mathematics at work.

    This is an example of a fairly common pathology of math.se questions: OP makes a conjecture that !!X!! never occurs or that there are no examples with property !!X!!, when actually !!X!! almost always occurs or every example has property !!X!!.

    I don't know what causes this. Rik Signes speculates that it's just wishful thinking: OP is doing some project where it would be useful to have !!pq+rs!! be unique, so posts in hope that someone will tell them that it is. But there was nothing more to it than baseless hope. Rik might be right.

[ Addendum 20150619: A previous version of this article included the delightful typo “mathemativicians”. ]


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Sun, 14 Jun 2015

Math.SE report 2015-06

[ This page originally held the report for April 2015, which has moved. It now contains the report for June 2015. ]

  • Is “smarter than” a transitive relationship? concerns a hypothetical "is smarter than" relation with the following paradoxical-seeming property:

    most X's are smarter than most Y's, but most Y's are such that it is not the case that most X's are smarter than it.

    That is, if !!\mathsf Mx.\Phi(x)!! means that most !!x!! have property !!\Phi!!, then we want both $$\mathsf Mx.\mathsf My.S(x, y)$$ and also $$\mathsf My.\mathsf Mx.\lnot S(x, y).$$

    “Most” is a little funny here: what does it mean? But we can pin it down by supposing that there are an infinite number of !!x!!es and !!y!!s, and agreeing that most !!x!! have property !!P!! if there are only a finite number of exceptions. For example, everyone should agree that most positive integers are larger than 7 and that most prime numbers are odd. The jargon word here is that we are saying that a subset contains “most of” the elements of a larger set if it is cofinite.

    There is a model of this property, and OP reports that they asked the prof if this was because the "smarter than" relation !!S(x,y)!! could be antitransitive, so that one might have !!S(x,y), S(y,z)!! but also !!S(z,x)!!. The prof said no, it's not because of that, but the OP want so argue that it's that anyway. But no, it's not because of that; there is a model that uses a perfectly simple transitive relation, and the nontransitive thing nothing but a distraction. (The model maps the !!x!!es and !!y!!s onto numbers, and says !!x!! is smarter than !!y!! if its number is bigger.) Despite this OP couldn't give up the idea that the model exists because of intransitive relations. It's funny how sometimes people get stuck on one idea and can't let go of it.

  • How to generate a random number between 1 and 10 with a six-sided die? was a lot of fun and attracted several very good answers. Top-scoring is Jack D'Aurizio's, which proposes a completely straightforward method: roll once to generate a bit that selects !!N=0!! or !!N=5!!, and then roll again until you get !!M\ne 6!!, and the result is !!N+M!!.

    But several other answers were suggested, including two by me, one explaining the general technique of arithmetic coding, which I'll probably refer back to in the future when people ask similar questions. Don't miss NovaDenizen's clever simplification of arithmetic coding, which I want to think about more, or D'Aurizio's suggestion that if you threw the die into a V-shaped trough, it would land with one edge pointing up and thus select a random number from 1 to 12 in a single throw.

    Interesting question: Is there an easy-to-remember mapping from edges to numbers from 1–12? Each edge is naturally identified by a pair of distinct integers from 1–6 that do not add to 7.

  • The oddly-phrased Category theory with objects as logical expressions over !!{\vee,\wedge,\neg}!! and morphisms as? asks if there is a standard way to turn logical expressions into a category, which there is: you put an arrow from !!A\to B!! for each proof that !!A!! implies !!B!!; composition of arrows is concatenation of proofs, and identity arrows are empty proofs. The categorial product, coproduct, and exponential then correspond to !!\land, \lor, !! and !!\to!!.

    This got me thinking though. Proofs are properly not lists, they are trees, so it's not entirely clear what the concatenation operation is. For example, suppose proof !!X!! concludes !!A!! at its root and proof !!Y!! assumes !!A!! in more than one leaf. When you concatenate !!X!! and !!Y!! do you join all the !!A!!'s, or what? I really need to study this more. Maybe the Lambek and Scott book talks about it, or maybe the Goldblatt Topoi book, which I actually own. I somehow skipped most of the Cartesian closed category stuff, which is an oversight I ought to correct.

  • In Why is the Ramsey`s theorem a generalization of the Pigeonhole principle I gave what I thought was a terrific answer, showing how Ramsey's graph theorem and the pigeonhole principle are both special cases of Ramsey's hypergraph theorem. This might be my favorite answer of the month. It got several upvotes, but OP preferred a different answer, with fewer details.

    There was a thread a while back about theorems which are generalizations of other theorems in non-obvious ways. I pointed out the Yoneda lemma was a generalization of Cayley's theorem from group theory. I see that nobody mentioned the Ramsey hypergraph theorem being a generalization of the pigeonhole principle, but it's closed now, so it's too late to add it.

  • In Why does the Deduction Theorem use Union? I explained that the English word and actually has multiple meanings. I know I've seen this discussed in elementary logic texts but I don't remember where.

  • Finally, Which is the largest power of natural number that can be evaluated by computers? asks if it's possible for a computer to calculate !!7^{120000000000}!!. The answer is yes, but it's nontrivial and you need to use some tricks. You have to use the multiplying-by-squaring trick, and for the squarings you probably want to do the multiplication with DFT. OP was dissatistifed with the answer, and seemed to have some axe to grind, but I couldn't figure out what it was.


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