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optimization What is Big O notation Do you use it?


A final thing to consider is that there is often a direct trade off between the speed of an algorithm and the amount of space it uses. Pigeon hole sorting is a pretty good example of this. Going back to my points and polygons, lets say that all my polygons were simple and quick to draw, and I could draw them filled on screen, say in blue, in a fixed amount of time each. So if I draw my m polygons on a black screen it would take O(m) time. To check if any of my n points was in a polygon, I simply check whether the pixel at that point is green or black. So the check is O(n), and the total analysis is O(m + n). Downside of course is that I need near infinite storage if I'm dealing with real world coordinates to millimeter accuracy.... ...ho hum.

It is also worth noting that the actual number of iterations over the data is often dependent on the data. Quicksort is usually quick, but give it presorted data and it slows down. My points and polygons alogorithm ended up quite fast, close to O(n + (m log(m)), based on prior knowledge of how the data was likely to be organised and the relative sizes of n and m. It would fall down badly on randomly organised data of different relative sizes.

It may also be worth considering that the complexity of many algorithms is based on more than one variable, particularly in multi-dimensional problems. For example, I recently had to write an algorithm for the following. Given a set of n points, and m polygons, extract all the points that lie in any of the polygons. The complexity is based around two known variables, n and m, and the unknown of how many points are in each polygon. The big O notation here is quite a bit more involved than O(f(n)) or even O(f(n) + g(m)). Big O is good when you are dealing with large numbers of homogenous items, but don't expect this to always be the case.

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optimization What is Big O notation Do you use it?


'Big-O' notation is used to compare the growth rates of two functions of a variable (say n) as n gets very large. If function f grows much more quickly than function g we say that g = O(f) to imply that for large enough n, f will always be larger than g up to a scaling factor.

However, it does mean that big-O notation is less useful for small n, because the slower growing terms that we've forgotten about are still significant enough to affect the run-time.

It turns out that this is a very useful idea in computer science and particularly in the analysis of algorithms, because we are often precisely concerned with the growth rates of functions which represent, for example, the time taken by two different algorithms. Very coarsely, we can determine that an algorithm with run-time t1(n) is more efficient than an algorithm with run-time t2(n) if t1 = O(t2) for large enough n which is typically the 'size' of the problem - like the length of the array or number of nodes in the graph or whatever.

Oh, and do I use it? Yes, all the time - when I'm figuring out how efficient my code is it gives a great 'back-of-the-envelope- approximation to the cost.

This stipulation, that n gets large enough, allows us to pull a lot of useful tricks. Perhaps the most often used one is that you can simplify functions down to their fastest growing terms. For example n^2 + n = O(n^2) because as n gets large enough, the n^2 term gets so much larger than n that the n term is practically insignificant. So we can drop it from consideration.

What we now have is a tool for comparing the costs of two different algorithms, and a shorthand for saying that one is quicker or slower than the other. Big-O notation can be abused which is a shame as it is imprecise enough already! There are equivalent terms for saying that a function grows less quickly than another, and that two functions grow at the same rate.

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optimization What is Big O notation Do you use it?


A final thing to consider is that there is often a direct trade off between the speed of an algorithm and the amount of space it uses. Pigeon hole sorting is a pretty good example of this. Going back to my points and polygons, lets say that all my polygons were simple and quick to draw, and I could draw them filled on screen, say in blue, in a fixed amount of time each. So if I draw my m polygons on a black screen it would take O(m) time. To check if any of my n points was in a polygon, I simply check whether the pixel at that point is green or black. So the check is O(n), and the total analysis is O(m + n). Downside of course is that I need near infinite storage if I'm dealing with real world coordinates to millimeter accuracy.... ...ho hum.

It is also worth noting that the actual number of iterations over the data is often dependent on the data. Quicksort is usually quick, but give it presorted data and it slows down. My points and polygons alogorithm ended up quite fast, close to O(n + (m log(m)), based on prior knowledge of how the data was likely to be organised and the relative sizes of n and m. It would fall down badly on randomly organised data of different relative sizes.

It may also be worth considering that the complexity of many algorithms is based on more than one variable, particularly in multi-dimensional problems. For example, I recently had to write an algorithm for the following. Given a set of n points, and m polygons, extract all the points that lie in any of the polygons. The complexity is based around two known variables, n and m, and the unknown of how many points are in each polygon. The big O notation here is quite a bit more involved than O(f(n)) or even O(f(n) + g(m)). Big O is good when you are dealing with large numbers of homogenous items, but don't expect this to always be the case.

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optimization What is Big O notation Do you use it?


Big O notation is a method of expressing the relationship between many steps an algorithm will require related to the size of the input data. This is referred to as the algorithmic complexity. For example sorting a list of size N using Bubble Sort takes O(N^2) steps.

I do use Big O notation on occasion to convey algorithmic complexity to fellow programmers. I use the underlying theory (e.g. Big O analysis techniques) all of the time when I think about what algorithms to use.

I have used the theory of complexity analysis to create algorithms for efficient stack data structures which require no memory reallocation, and which support average time of O(N) for indexing. I have used Big O notation to explain the algorithm to other people. I have also used complexity analysis to understand when linear time sorting O(N) is possible.

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optimization What is Big O notation Do you use it?


1) It's an order of measurement of the efficiency of an algorithm when working on a data structure.

2) Actions like 'add' / 'sort' / 'remove' can take different amounts of time with different data structures (and algorithms), for example 'add' and 'find' are O(1) for a hashmap, but O(log n) for a binary tree. Sort is O(nlog n) for QuickSort, but O(n^2) for BubbleSort, when dealing with a plain array.

3) Calculations can be done by looking at the loop depth of your algorithm generally. No loops, O(1), loops iterating over all the set (even if they break out at some point) O(n). If the loop halves the search space on each iteration? O(log n). Take the highest O() for a sequence of loops, and multiply the O() when you nest loops.

Every programmer should be aware of what Big O notation is, how it applies for actions with common data structures and algorithms (and thus pick the correct DS and algorithm for the problem they are solving), and how to calculate it for their own algorithms.

Ok, what is it, how does it apply to common data structures, and how does one calculate it for their own algorithms?

Yeah, it's more complex than that. If you're really interested get a textbook.

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