Writing min function, part 2: Understanding Concepts

May 28, 2014

This is the second article of the series called “Writing min function”.

I want complete the min function and fix the mistakes mentioned in the previous post. But first, we have to understand Concepts, so let’s review the last version of the function with its requirements.

// Requires:
//  The type of a is equal to the type of b, and it is called T,
//  and T is TotallyOrdered
min(a, b) {
  if (a < b) return a
  return b

Here we specify that:

“A type models a concept, if the requirements expressed by the concept are satisfied for this type”

Now, let’s review the formal definition of the TotallyOrdered concept:

\[TotallyOrdered(\texttt{T}) \triangleq \qquad \qquad\quad\texttt{line1}\\ \qquad \texttt{Regular(T)} \qquad \qquad\qquad\texttt{ }\texttt{ line2}\\ \quad \land <\texttt{: T x T} \rightarrow \text{bool} \qquad \qquad\texttt{line3}\\ \quad \land total\_ordering(<) \qquad \qquad\texttt{ line4}\]

This reads as:
(line1) A type T models the TotallyOrdered concept if:

(Note: when we say Total Ordering we are referring to the ordering relation, the mathematical term mentioned in the previous article. When we say TotallyOrdered we are referring to the name of the Concept, like Employee is the name of a class or Sort is the name of a function. Here we can use any name we want. We will invoke this name later, in our algorithms)

So in line4 we are using Total Ordering, but remember, there are two kinds of Total Ordering.
Do we mean Reflexive or Strict Total Ordering? Because it would be one or the other.
Let’s review the difference with examples:

Exercise 1: Prove that
      a. \(\leq\) is a Transitive relation
      b. \(\leq\) is an Antisymmetric relation
      c. \(\leq\) is a Total relation
on \(\mathbb{N}\)

Exercise 2: Prove that
      a. \(<\) is a Transitive relation
      b. \(<\) obeys the Trichotomy law
on \(\mathbb{N}\)

So, we have four options with which the TotallyOrdered concept could be defined: \(<\), \(\leq\), \(>\), or, \(\geq\). Whatever we choose is a right decision, but we have to choose.

Exercise 3: Do you know why any of the four options is a right choice?

I’m lying, actually we will not choose anything, the TotallyOrdered concept is defined using \(<\), but here I will show the thinking behind the choice.

We have two choices to make:

As we know, for the first one, Alex has chosen Less…. (see line4 of TotallyOrdered concept) The rationale for his decision is simple: Counting!
\(<\) is the natural order of Natural numbers. Why? Usually we count in ascending order, it is the natural way of counting.

Now we have to chose between Reflexive (\(\leq\)) and Strict (\(<\)).
Alex has chosen Strict (\(<\)) and his reasoning is:
   “It is one character less”, (len(‘<’) < len(‘<=’))
But maybe you could think: “This is not a good reason”.
The Alex’s answer is: “We can choose either because they are equivalents!, then, you could use any decision procedure you want, such as, fewer typing”
Finally, another fundament: “Mathematicians consistently use < in their books as the primary ordering, when they talk about, for example, Totally Ordered Fields they write all the axioms in terms of <”

Summarizing, the choice is to use LessThan that is Strict, so we use \(<\).

Well, now we understand what the TotallyOrdered concept means (I hope), but this post is ended and we haven’t written any new code.
You must be thinking: “Anyone knows how to write the min function without having any knowledge about abstract algebra”. The Alex’s answer is: “Yes, they may know how to write it, but they implemented it incorrectly time and time again. How I know that? Because I was one of them.”

And this is mine: Remembering some mathematics doesn’t do any harm.

In the next post I will write some code. Be patient!

The Series

   Part 1: The rise of Concepts
   Part 2: Understanding Concepts
   Part 3: Weakening the ordering
   Part 4: Const-Correctness
   Part 5: Stabilizing the algorithm


[1] Regular is another concept, maybe the most important one, I will cover it later, but for the moment we will ignore it. If you want to see its definition, see http://www.elementsofprogramming.com/eop-concepts.pdf [page 1]