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Mon, 23 Jul 2018
Operations that are not quite associative
The paper “Verification of Identities” (1997) of Rajagopalan and Schulman discusses fast ways to test whether a binary operation on a finite set is associative. In general, there is no method that is faster than the naïve algorithm of simply checking whether $$a\ast(b\ast c) = (a\ast b)\ast c$$ for all triples !!\langle a, b, c\rangle!!. This is because:
(Page 3.) But R&S do not give an example. I now have a very nice example, and I think the process that led me to it is a good example of Lower Mathematics at work. Let's say that an operation !!\ast!! is “good” if it is associative except in exactly one case. We want to find a “good” operation. My first idea was that if we could find a primitive good operation on a set of 3 elements, we could probably extend it to give a good operation on a larger set. Say the set is !!\{a_0, a_1, a_2, b_0, b_1, \ldots, b_{n-4}\}!!. We just need to define the extended operation so that if either of the operands is !!b_i!!, it is associative, and if both operands are !!a_i!! then it is the same as the primitive good operation we already found. The former part is easy: just make it constant, say !!x\ast y = b_0!! except when !!x,y\in\{a_0, a_1, a_2\}!!. So now all we need to do is find a single good primitive operation, and I did not expend any thought on this at all. There are only !!3^9=19683!! binary operations, and we could quite easily write a program to check them all. In fact, we can do better: generate a binary operation at random and check it. If it's not the primitive good operation we want, just throw it away and try again. This could take longer to run than the exhaustive search, if there happen to be very few good operations and if the program is unlucky, but the program is easier to write, and the run time will be utterly insignificant either way. I wrote the program, which instantly produced: $$ \begin{array}{c|ccc} \ast & 0 & 1 & 2 \\ \hline 0 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 1 & 0 & 1 & 0 \\ 2 & 0 & 1 & 2 \end{array} $$ This is associative except for the case !!1\ast(2\ast 1) \ne (1\ast 2)\ast 1!!. This solves the problem. But confirming that this is a good operation requires manually checking 27 cases, or a perhaps not-immediately-obvious case analysis. But on a later run of the program, I got lucky and it found a simpler operation, which I can explain without a table:
Now we don't have to check 27 cases. The operation is simpler, so the proof is too: We know !!b\ast c\ne 1!!, so !!a\ast(b\ast c) !! must be !!0!!. And the only way !!(a \ast b)\ast c \ne 0!! can occur is when !!a\ast b=2!! and !!c=1!!, so !!a=2, b=1, c=1!!. Now we can even dispense with the construction that extended the operation from !!3!! to !!n!! elements, because the description of the extended operation is the same. We wanted to extend it to be constant whenever !!a!! or !!b!! was larger than !!2!!, and that's what the description already says! So that reduces the whole thing to about two sentences, which explain the example and why it works. But when reduced in that way, you see how the example works but not how you might go about finding it. I think the interesting part is to see how to get there, and quite a lot of mathematical education tends to over-emphasize analysis (“how can we show this is a good operation?”) at the expense of synthesis (“how can we find a good operation?”). The exhaustive search would probably have produced the simple operation early on in its run, so there is something to be said for that approach too. [Other articles in category /math] permanent link |