Archive for: May, 2012

Willfull Ignorance about Statistics in Government

May 21 2012 Published by under Bad Math, Bad Statistics, Politics

Quick but important one here.

I've repeatedly ranted here about ignorant twits. Ignorance is a plague on society, and it's at its worst when it's willful ignorance - that is, when you have a person who knows nothing about a subject, and who refuses to be bothered with something as trivial and useless about learning about it before they open their stupid mouths.

We've got an amazing, truly amazing, example of this in the US congress right now.
There's a "debate" going on about something called the American Community Survey, or the
ACS for short. The ACS is a regular survey performed by the Census administration, which
measures a wide range of statistics related to economics.

A group of Republicans are trying to eliminate the ACS. Why? well, let's put that question aside. And let's also leave aside, for the moment, whether the survey is important or not. You can, honestly, put together an argument that the ACS isn't worth doing, that it doesn't measure the right things, that the value of the information gathered doesn't measure up to the cost, that it's intrusive, that it violates the privacy of the survey targets. But let's not even bother with any of that.

Members of congress are arguing that the survey should be eliminated, and they're claiming that the reason why is because the survey is unscientific. According to Daniel Webster, a representative from the state of Florida:

We’re spending $70 per person to fill this out. That’s just not cost effective, especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.

Note well the emphasized point there. That's the important bit.

The survey isn't cost effective, the data gathered isn't genuinely useful according to Representative Webster, because it's not a scientific survey. Why isn't it a scientific survey? Because it's random.

This is what I mean by willful ignorance. Mr. Webster doesn't understand what a survey is, or how a survey works, or what it takes to make a valid survey. He's talking out his ass, trying to kill a statistical analysis for his own political reasons without making any attempt to actually understand what it is or how it works.

Surveys are, fundamentally, about statistical sampling. Given a large population, you can create estimates about the properties of the population by looking at a representative sample of the population. For example, if you're looking at the entire population of America, you're talking about hundreds of millions of people. You can't measure, say, the employment rate of the entire population every year - there are just too many people. It's too much information - it's pretty much impossible to gather it.

But: if you can select a group of, say, 10,000 people, whose distribution matches the distribution of the wider population, then the data you gather about them will closely resemble the data about the wider population.

That's the point of a survey: find a representative sample, and take measurements of that sample. Then, with a certain probability of correctness, you can infer the properties of the entire population from the properties of the sample.

Of course, there's a catch. The key to a survey is the sample. The sample must be representative - meaning that the sample must have the same properties as the wider population of which it's a part. But the point of survey is to discover those properties! If you choose your population to match what you believe the distribution to be, then you'll bias your data towards matching that distribution. Your sample will only be representative if your beliefs about the data are correct. But that defeats the whole purpose of doing the survey.

So the scientific method of doing a survey is to be random. You don't start with any preconceived idea of what the population is like. You just randomly select people in a way that makes sure that every member of the population is equally likely to be selected. If your selection is truly random, then there's a high probability (a measurably high probability, based on the size of the sample and the size of the sampled population) that the sample will be representative.

Scientific sampling is always random.

So Mr. Webster's statement could be rephrased more correctly as the following contradiction: "This is not a scientific survey, because this is a scientific survey". But Mr. Webster doesn't know that what he said is a stupid contradiction. Because he doesn't care.

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Introducing Algebraic Data Structures via Category Theory: Monoids

May 13 2012 Published by under Category Theory, Data Structures, Programming

Since joining foursquare, I've been spending almost all of my time writing functional programs. At foursquare, we do all of our server programming in Scala, and we have a very strong bias towards writing our scala code very functionally.

This has increased my interest in category theory in an interesting way. As a programming language geek, I'm obviously fascinated by data structures. Category theory provides a really interesting handle on a way of looking at a kind of generic data structures.

Historically (as much as that word can be used for anything in computer science), we've thought about data structures primarily in a algorithmic and structural ways.

For example, binary trees. A binary tree consists of a collection of linked nodes. We can define the structure recursively really easily: a binary tree is a node, which contains pointers to at most two other binary trees.

In the functional programming world, people have started to think about things in algebraic ways. So instead of just defining data structures in terms of structure, we also think about them in very algebraic ways. That is, we think about structures in terms of how they behave, instead of how they're built.

For example, there's a structure called a monoid. A monoid is a very simple idea: it's an algebraic structure with a set of values S, one binary operation *, and one value i in S which is an identity value for *. To be a monoid, these objects must satisfy some rules called the monad laws:

  1. \(forall s in S: s * i = s, i * s = s\)
  2. \(forall x, y, z in S: (x * y) * z = x * (y * z)\)

There are some really obvious examples of monoids - like the set of integers with addition and 0 or integers with multiplication and 1. But there are many, many others.

Lists with concatenation and the empty list are a monoid: for any list,
l ++ [] == l, [] + l == l, and concatenation is associative.

Why should we care if data structures like are monoids? Because we can write very general code in terms of the algebraic construction, and then use it over all of the different operations. Monoids provide the tools you need to build fold operations. Every kind of fold - that is, operations that collapse a sequence of other operations into a single value - can be defined in terms of monoids. So you can write a fold operation that works on lists, strings, numbers, optional values, maps, and god-only-knows what else. Any data structure which is a monoid is a data structure with a meaningful fold operation: monoids encapsulate the requirements of foldability.

And that's where category theory comes in. Category theory provides a generic method for talking about algebraic structures like monoids. After all, what category theory does is provide a way of describing structures in terms of how their operations can be composed: that's exactly what you want for talking about algebraic data structures.

The categorical construction of a monoid is, alas, pretty complicated. It's a simple idea - but defining it solely in terms of the composition behavior of function-like objects does take a bit of effort. But it's really worth it: when you see a monoidal category, it's obvious what the elements are in terms of programming. And when we get to even more complicated structures, like monads, pullbacks, etc., the advantage will be even clearer.

A monoidal category is a category with a functor, where the functor has the basic properties of a algebraic monoid. So it's a category C, paired with a bi-functor - that is a two-argument functor ⊗:C×C→C. This is the categorical form of the tensor operation from the algebraic monoid. To make it a monoidal category, we need to take the tensor operation, and define the properties that it needs to have. They're called its coherence conditions, and basically, they're the properties that are needed to make the diagrams that we're going to use commute.

So - the tensor functor is a bifunctor from C×C to C. There is also an object I∈C, which is called the unit object, which is basically the identity element of the monoid. As we would expect from the algebraic definition, the tensor functor has two basic properties: associativity, and identity.

Associativity is expressed categorically using a natural isomorphism, which we'll name α. For any three object X, Y, and Z, α includes a component αX,Y,Z (which I'll label α(X,Y,Z) in diagrams, because subscripts in diagrams are a pain!), which is a mapping from (X⊗Y)⊗Z to X⊗(Y⊗Z). The natural isomorphism says, in categorical terms, that the the two objects on either side of its mappings are equivalent.

The identity property is again expressed via natural isomorphism. The category must include an object I (called the unit), and two natural isomorphisms, called &lamba; and ρ. For any arrow X in C, &lamba; and ρ contain components λX and ρX such that λX maps from I⊗X→X, and ρX maps from X⊗I to X.

Now, all of the pieces that we need are on the table. All we need to do is explain how they all fit together - what kinds of properties these pieces need to have for this to - that is, for these definitions to give us a structure that looks like the algebraic notion of monoidal structures, but built in category theory. The properties are, more or less, exact correspondences with the associativity and identity requirements of the algebraic monoid. But with category theory, we can say it visually. The two diagrams below each describe one of the two properties.


The upper (pentagonal) diagram must commute for all A, B, C, and D. It describes the associativity property. Each arrow in the diagram is a component of the natural isomorphism over the category, and the diagram describes what it means for the natural isomorphism to define associativity.

Similarly, the bottom diagram defines identity. The arrows are all components of natural isomorphisms, and they describe the properties that the natural isomorphisms must have in order for them, together with the unit I to define identity.

Like I said, the definition is a lot more complicated. But look at the diagram: you can see folding in it, in the chains of arrows in the commutative diagram.

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