Role Of Algorithms
This is lobste.rs comment as an article, so expect even more abysmal editing than usual.
Let me expand on something I mentioned in the https://matklad.github.io/2023/08/06/fantastic-learning-resources.html post:
“Algorithms” are a useful skill not because you use it at work every day, but because they train you to be better at particular aspects of software engineering.
First, algorithms drill the skill of bug-free coding. Algorithms are hard and frustrating! Subtle off-by-one might not matter for simple tests, but breaks corner cases. But if you practice algorithms, you get better at this particular skill of writing correct small programs, and I think this probably generalizes.
To give an array of analogies:
People do cardio or strength exercises not because they need to lift heavy weights in real life. Quite the opposite — there’s too little physical exertion in our usual lives, so we need extra exercises for our bodies to gain generalized health (which is helpful in day-to-day life).
You don’t practice complex skill by mere repetition. You first break it down into atomic trainable sub skills, and drill each sub skill separately in unrealistic condition. Writing correct algorithmy code is a sub skill of software engineering.
When you optimize system, you don’t just repeatedly run end-to-end test until things go fast. You first identify the problematic area, then write a targeted micro benchmark to isolate this particular effect, and then you optimize that using much shorter event loop.
I still remember two specific lessons I learned when I started doing algorithms many years ago:
- Debugging complex code is hard, first simplify, then debug
Originally, when I was getting a failed test, I sort of tried to add more code to my program to make it pass. At some point I realized that this is going nowhere, and then I changed my workflow to first try to remove as much code as I can, and only then investigate the problematic test case (which with time morphed into a skill of not writing more code then necessary in the first place).
- Single source of truth is good
A lot of my early bugs was due to me duplicating the same piece of information in two places and then getting them out of sync. Internalizing that as a single source of truth fixed the issues.
Meta note: if you already know this, my lessons are useless. If you don’t yet know them, they are still useless and most likely will bounce off you. This is tacit knowledge — it’s very hard to convey it verbally, it is much more efficient to learn these things yourself by doing.
Somewhat related, I noticed a surprising correlation between programming skills in the small, and programming skills in the large. You can solve a problem in five lines of code, or, if you try hard, in ten lines of code. If you consistently come up with concise solutions in the small, chances are large scale design will be simple as well.
I don’t know how true is that, as I never tried to look at a proper study, but it looks very plausible from what I’ve seen. If this is true, the next interesting question is: “if you train programming-in-the-small skills, do they transfer to programming in the large?”. Again, I don’t know, but I’d take this Pascal’s wager.
Second, algorithms teach about properties and invariants. Some lucky people get those skills from a hard math background, but algorithms are a much more accessible way to learn them, as everything is very visual, immediately testable, and has very short and clear feedback loop.
And properties and invariants is what underlines most big and successful systems. Like 90% of the code is just fluff and glue, and if you have the skill to see the 10% that is architecturally salient properties, you could comprehend the system much faster.
Third, algorithms occasionally are useful at the job! Just last week on our design walk&talk we were brainstorming one particular problem, and I was like
We probably won’t go with that solution as that’s too complex algorithmically for what ultimately is a corner case, but it’s important that we understand problem space in detail before we pick a solution.
Note also how algorithms vocabulary helps me to think about the problem. In math (including algorithms), there’s just like a handful of ideas which are applied again and again under different guises. You need some amount of insight of course, but, for most simple problems, what you actually need is just an ability to recognize the structure you’ve seen somewhere already.
Fourth, connecting to the previous ones, the ideas really do form interconnected web which, on a deep level, underpins a whole lot of stuff. So, if you do have non-zero amount of pure curiosity when it comes to learning programming, algorithms cut pretty deep to the foundation. Let me repeat the list from the last post, but with explicit connections to other things:
- linear search
assoc lists in most old functional languages work that way
- binary search
It is literally everywhere. Also, binary search got a cute name, but actually it isn’t the primitive operation. The primitive operation is
partition_point, a predicate version of binary search. This is what you should add to your language’s stdlib as a primitive, and base everything else in terms of it. Also, it is one of the few cases where we know lower bound of complexity. If an algorithm does k binary comparisons, it can give at most 2k distinct answers. So, to find insertion point among n items, you need at least k questions such that 2k > n.
- quadratic sorting
We use it at work! Some collections are statically bound by a small constant, and quadratically sorting them just needs less machine code. We are also a bit paranoid that production sort algorithms are very complex and might have subtle bugs, esp in newer languages.
- merge sort
This is how you sort things on disk. This is also how LSM-trees, the most practically important data structure you haven’t learned about in school, works! And k-way merge also is occasionally useful (this is from work from three weeks ago).
- heap sort
Well, this one is only actually useful for the heap, but I think maybe the kernel uses it when it needs to sort something in place, without extra memory, and in guaranteed O(N log N)?
- binary heap
Binary heaps are everywhere! Notably, simple timers are a binary heap of things in the order of expiration. This is also a part of Dijkstra and k-way-merge.
- growable array
That’s the mostly widely used collection of them all! Did you know that grow factor 2 has a problem that the size after
nreallocations is larger then the sum total of all previous sizes, so the allocator can’t re-use the space? Anecdotally, growth factors less than two are preferable for this reason.
- doubly-linked list
At the heart of rust-analyzer is a two-dimensional doubly-linked list.
- binary search tree
Again, rust-analyzer green tree are binary search trees using offset as an implicit key. Monoid trees are also binary search trees.
- AVL tree
Ok, this one I actually don’t know a direct application of! But I remember two programming-in-the-small lessons AVL could have taught me, but didn’t. I struggled a lot implementing all of “small left rotation”, “small right rotation”, “big left rotation”, “big right rotation”. Some years later, I’ve learned that you don’t do
as that forces code duplication. Rather, you do
children: [Tree; 2]and then you could use
child_index ^ 1to abstract over left-right.
And then some years later still I read in wikipedia that big rotations are actually a composition of two small rotations.
Actually, I’ve lied that I don’t know connections here. You use the same rotations for the splay tree.
- Red Black Tree
red-black tree is a 2-3 tree is a B-tree. Also, you probably use jemalloc, and it has a red-black tree implemented as a C macro. Left-leaning red-black tree are an interesting variation, which is claimed to be simpler, but is also claimed to not actually be simpler, because it is not symmetric and neuters the
If you use Rust, you probably use B-tree. Also, if you use a database, it stores data either in LSM or in a B-tree. Both of these are because B-trees play nice with memory hierarchy.
- Splay Tree
Worth knowing just to have a laugh at https://www.link.cs.cmu.edu/splay/tree5.jpg.
Literally everywhere, both chaining and open-addressing versions are widely used.
- Depth First Search
This is something I have to code, explicitly or implicitly, fairly often. Every time where you have a DAG, when things depend on other things, you’d have a DFS somewhere. In rust-analyzer, there are at least a couple — one in borrow checker for something (have no idea what that does, just grepped for
fn dfs) and one in crate graph to detect cycles.
- Breadth First Search
Ditto, any kind of exploration problem is usually solved with bfs. Eg, rust-analyzer uses
bfsfor directory traversal.
Which is better,
dfs? Why not both?! Take a look at bdfs from rust-analyzer:
- Topological Sort
Again, comes up every time you deal with things which depend on each other. rust-analyzer has
- Strongly Connected Components
This is needed every time things depend on each other, but you also allow cyclic dependencies. I don’t think I’ve needed this one in real life. But, given that SCC is how you solve 2-SAT in polynomial time, seems important to know to understand the 3 in 3-SAT
- Minimal Spanning Tree
Ok, really drawing a blank here! Connects to sorting, disjoint set union (which is needed for unification in type-checkers), and binary heap. Seems practically important algorithm though! Ah, MST also gives an approximation for planar traveling salseman I think, another border between hard & easy problems.
Dijkstra is what I think about when I imagine a Platonic algorithm, though I don’t think I’ve used it in practice? Connects to heap.
Do you know why we use
kfor loop indices? Because
D ijk stra!
This one is cool! Everybody knows why any regular expression can be complied to an equivalent finite state machine. Few people know the reverse, why each automaton has an equivalent regex (many people know this fact, but few understand why). Well, because Floyd-Warshall! To convert an automaton to regex use the same algorithm you use to find pairwise distances in a graph.
Also, this is a final boss of dynamic programming. If you understand why this algorithm works, you understand dynamic programming. Despite being tricky to understand, it’s very easy to implement! I randomly stumbled into Floyd-Warshall, when I tried to implement a different, wrong approach, and made a bug which turned my broken algo into a correct Floyd-Warshall.
Again, not much practical applicaions here, but the theory is well connected. All shortest path algorithms are actually fixed-point iterations! But with Bellman-Ford and its explicit edge relaxation operator that’s most obvious. Next time you open static analysis textbook and learn about fixed point iteration, map that onto the problem of finding shortest paths!
- Quadratic Substring Search
This is what you language standard library does
An excellent application of hashes. The same idea,
hash(composite) = compbine(hash(component)*), is used in rust-analyzer to intern syntax trees.
This is beautiful and practical algorithm which probably handles the bulk of real-world searches (that is, it’s probably the hottest bit of
ripgrepas used by an average person). Delightfully, this algorithm is faster than theoretically possible — it doesn’t even look at every byte of input data!
Another “this is how you do string search in the real world” algorithm. It also is the platonic ideal of a finite state machine, and almost everything is an FSM. It also is Aho-Corasick.
This is the same as Knuth-Morris-Pratt, but also teaches you about tries. Again, super-useful for string searches. As it is an FSM, and a regex is an FSM, and there’s a general construct for building a product of two FSMs, you can use it to implement fuzzy search. “Workspace symbol” feature in rust-analyzer works like this. Here’s a part of implementation.
- Edit Distance
Everywhere in Bioinformatics (not the actual edit distance, but this problem shape). The first post on this blog is about this problem:
It’s not about algorithms though, its about CPU-level parallelism.