MCMC as a Stream


This weekend I’ve been preparing some material for my upcoming Scala for statistical computing short course. As part of the course, I thought it would be useful to walk through how to think about and structure MCMC codes, and in particular, how to think about MCMC algorithms as infinite streams of state. This material is reasonably stand-alone, so it seems suitable for a blog post. Complete runnable code for the examples in this post are available from my blog repo.

A simple MH sampler

For this post I will just consider a trivial toy Metropolis algorithm using a Uniform random walk proposal to target a standard normal distribution. I’ve considered this problem before on my blog, so if you aren’t very familiar with Metropolis-Hastings algorithms, you might want to quickly review my post on Metropolis-Hastings MCMC algorithms in R before continuing. At the end of that post, I gave the following R code for the Metropolis sampler:

        vec=vector("numeric", n)
        for (i in 2:n) {
                if (log(runif(1)) < loga) { 

I will begin this post with a fairly direct translation of this algorithm into Scala:

def metrop1(n: Int = 1000, eps: Double = 0.5): DenseVector[Double] = {
    val vec = DenseVector.fill(n)(0.0)
    var x = 0.0
    var oldll = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(x)
    vec(0) = x
    (1 until n).foreach { i =>
      val can = x + Uniform(-eps, eps).draw
      val loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
      val loga = loglik - oldll
      if (math.log(Uniform(0.0, 1.0).draw) < loga) {
        x = can
        oldll = loglik
      vec(i) = x

This code works, and is reasonably fast and efficient, but there are several issues with it from a functional programmers perspective. One issue is that we have committed to storing all MCMC output in RAM in a DenseVector. This probably isn’t an issue here, but for some big problems we might prefer to not store the full set of states, but to just print the states to (say) the console, for possible re-direction to a file. It is easy enough to modify the code to do this:

def metrop2(n: Int = 1000, eps: Double = 0.5): Unit = {
    var x = 0.0
    var oldll = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(x)
    (1 to n).foreach { i =>
      val can = x + Uniform(-eps, eps).draw
      val loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
      val loga = loglik - oldll
      if (math.log(Uniform(0.0, 1.0).draw) < loga) {
        x = can
        oldll = loglik

But now we have two version of the algorithm. One for storing results locally, and one for streaming results to the console. This is clearly unsatisfactory, but we shall return to this issue shortly. Another issue that will jump out at functional programmers is the reliance on mutable variables for storing the state and old likelihood. Let’s fix that now by re-writing the algorithm as a tail-recursion.

def metrop3(n: Int = 1000, eps: Double = 0.5, x: Double = 0.0, oldll: Double = Double.MinValue): Unit = {
    if (n > 0) {
      val can = x + Uniform(-eps, eps).draw
      val loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
      val loga = loglik - oldll
      if (math.log(Uniform(0.0, 1.0).draw) < loga)
        metrop3(n - 1, eps, can, loglik)
        metrop3(n - 1, eps, x, oldll)

This has eliminated the vars, and is just as fast and efficient as the previous version of the code. Note that the @tailrec annotation is optional – it just signals to the compiler that we want it to throw an error if for some reason it cannot eliminate the tail call. However, this is for the print-to-console version of the code. What if we actually want to keep the iterations in RAM for subsequent analysis? We can keep the values in an accumulator, as follows.

def metrop4(n: Int = 1000, eps: Double = 0.5, x: Double = 0.0, oldll: Double = Double.MinValue, acc: List[Double] = Nil): DenseVector[Double] = {
    if (n == 0)
    else {
      val can = x + Uniform(-eps, eps).draw
      val loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
      val loga = loglik - oldll
      if (math.log(Uniform(0.0, 1.0).draw) < loga)
        metrop4(n - 1, eps, can, loglik, can :: acc)
        metrop4(n - 1, eps, x, oldll, x :: acc)

Factoring out the updating logic

This is all fine, but we haven’t yet addressed the issue of having different versions of the code depending on what we want to do with the output. The problem is that we have tied up the logic of advancing the Markov chain with what to do with the output. What we need to do is separate out the code for advancing the state. We can do this by defining a new function.

def newState(x: Double, oldll: Double, eps: Double): (Double, Double) = {
    val can = x + Uniform(-eps, eps).draw
    val loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
    val loga = loglik - oldll
    if (math.log(Uniform(0.0, 1.0).draw) < loga) (can, loglik) else (x, oldll)

This function takes as input a current state and associated log likelihood and returns a new state and log likelihood following the execution of one step of a MH algorithm. This separates the concern of state updating from the rest of the code. So now if we want to write code that prints the state, we can write it as

  def metrop5(n: Int = 1000, eps: Double = 0.5, x: Double = 0.0, oldll: Double = Double.MinValue): Unit = {
    if (n > 0) {
      val ns = newState(x, oldll, eps)
      metrop5(n - 1, eps, ns._1, ns._2)

and if we want to accumulate the set of states visited, we can write that as

  def metrop6(n: Int = 1000, eps: Double = 0.5, x: Double = 0.0, oldll: Double = Double.MinValue, acc: List[Double] = Nil): DenseVector[Double] = {
    if (n == 0) DenseVector(acc.reverse.toArray) else {
      val ns = newState(x, oldll, eps)
      metrop6(n - 1, eps, ns._1, ns._2, ns._1 :: acc)

Both of these functions call newState to do the real work, and concentrate on what to do with the sequence of states. However, both of these functions repeat the logic of how to iterate over the sequence of states.

MCMC as a stream

Ideally we would like to abstract out the details of how to do state iteration from the code as well. Most functional languages have some concept of a Stream, which represents a (potentially infinite) sequence of states. The Stream can embody the logic of how to perform state iteration, allowing us to abstract that away from our code, as well.

To do this, we will restructure our code slightly so that it more clearly maps old state to new state.

def nextState(eps: Double)(state: (Double, Double)): (Double, Double) = {
    val x = state._1
    val oldll = state._2
    val can = x + Uniform(-eps, eps).draw
    val loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
    val loga = loglik - oldll
    if (math.log(Uniform(0.0, 1.0).draw) < loga) (can, loglik) else (x, oldll)

The "real" state of the chain is just x, but if we want to avoid recalculation of the old likelihood, then we need to make this part of the chain’s state. We can use this nextState function in order to construct a Stream.

  def metrop7(eps: Double = 0.5, x: Double = 0.0, oldll: Double = Double.MinValue): Stream[Double] =
    Stream.iterate((x, oldll))(nextState(eps)) map (_._1)

The result of calling this is an infinite stream of states. Obviously it isn’t computed – that would require infinite computation, but it captures the logic of iteration and computation in a Stream, that can be thought of as a lazy List. We can get values out by converting the Stream to a regular collection, being careful to truncate the Stream to one of finite length beforehand! eg. metrop7().drop(1000).take(10000).toArray will do a burn-in of 1,000 iterations followed by a main monitoring run of length 10,000, capturing the results in an Array. Note that metrop7().drop(1000).take(10000) is a Stream, and so nothing is actually computed until the toArray is encountered. Conversely, if printing to console is required, just replace the .toArray with .foreach(println).

The above stream-based approach to MCMC iteration is clean and elegant, and deals nicely with issues like burn-in and thinning (which can be handled similarly). This is how I typically write MCMC codes these days. However, functional programming purists would still have issues with this approach, as it isn’t quite pure functional. The problem is that the code isn’t pure – it has a side-effect, which is to mutate the state of the under-pinning pseudo-random number generator. If the code was pure, calling nextState with the same inputs would always give the same result. Clearly this isn’t the case here, as we have specifically designed the function to be stochastic, returning a randomly sampled value from the desired probability distribution. So nextState represents a function for randomly sampling from a conditional probability distribution.

A pure functional approach

Now, ultimately all code has side-effects, or there would be no point in running it! But in functional programming the desire is to make as much of the code as possible pure, and to push side-effects to the very edges of the code. So it’s fine to have side-effects in your main method, but not buried deep in your code. Here the side-effect is at the very heart of the code, which is why it is potentially an issue.

To keep things as simple as possible, at this point we will stop worrying about carrying forward the old likelihood, and hard-code a value of eps. Generalisation is straightforward. We can make our code pure by instead defining a function which represents the conditional probability distribution itself. For this we use a probability monad, which in Breeze is called Rand. We can couple together such functions using monadic binds (flatMap in Scala), expressed most neatly using for-comprehensions. So we can write our transition kernel as

def kernel(x: Double): Rand[Double] = for {
    innov <- Uniform(-0.5, 0.5)
    can = x + innov
    oldll = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(x)
    loglik = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(can)
    loga = loglik - oldll
    u <- Uniform(0.0, 1.0)
} yield if (math.log(u) < loga) can else x

This is now pure – the same input x will always return the same probability distribution – the conditional distribution of the next state given the current state. We can draw random samples from this distribution if we must, but it’s probably better to work as long as possible with pure functions. So next we need to encapsulate the iteration logic. Breeze has a MarkovChain object which can take kernels of this form and return a stochastic Process object representing the iteration logic, as follows.


The steps method contains the logic of how to advance the state of the chain. But again note that no computation actually takes place until the foreach method is encountered – this is when the sampling occurs and the side-effects happen.

Metropolis-Hastings is a common use-case for Markov chains, so Breeze actually has a helper method built-in that will construct a MH sampler directly from an initial state, a proposal kernel, and a (log) target.

  metropolisHastings(0.0, (x: Double) =>
  Uniform(x - 0.5, x + 0.5))(x =>
  Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).logPdf(x)).

Note that if you are using the MH functionality in Breeze, it is important to make sure that you are using version 0.13 (or later), as I fixed a few issues with the MH code shortly prior to the 0.13 release.


Viewing MCMC algorithms as infinite streams of state is useful for writing elegant, generic, flexible code. Streams occur everywhere in programming, and so there are lots of libraries for working with them. In this post I used the simple Stream from the Scala standard library, but there are much more powerful and flexible stream libraries for Scala, including fs2 and Akka-streams. But whatever libraries you are using, the fundamental concepts are the same. The most straightforward approach to implementation is to define impure stochastic streams to consume. However, a pure functional approach is also possible, and the Breeze library defines some useful functions to facilitate this approach. I’m still a little bit ambivalent about whether the pure approach is worth the additional cognitive overhead, but it’s certainly very interesting and worth playing with and thinking about the pros and cons.

Complete runnable code for the examples in this post are available from my blog repo.

A quick introduction to Apache Spark for statisticians


Apache Spark is a Scala library for analysing "big data". It can be used for analysing huge (internet-scale) datasets distributed across large clusters of machines. The analysis can be anything from the computation of simple descriptive statistics associated with the datasets, through to rather sophisticated machine learning pipelines involving data pre-processing, transformation, nonlinear model fitting and regularisation parameter tuning (via methods such as cross-validation). A relatively impartial overview can be found in the Apache Spark Wikipedia page.

Although Spark is really aimed at data that can’t easily be analysed on a laptop, it is actually very easy to install and use (in standalone mode) on a laptop, and a good laptop with a fast multicore processor and plenty of RAM is fine for datasets up to a few gigabytes in size. This post will walk through getting started with Spark, installing it locally (not requiring admin/root access) doing some simple descriptive analysis, and moving on to fit a simple linear regression model to some simulated data. After this walk-through it should be relatively easy to take things further by reading the Spark documentation, which is generally pretty good.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about setting up and using Spark clusters may want to have a quick look over on my personal blog (mainly concerned with the Raspberry Pi), where I have previously considered installing Spark on a Raspberry Pi 2, setting up a small Spark cluster, and setting up a larger Spark cluster. Although these posts are based around the Raspberry Pi, most of the material there is quite generic, since the Raspberry Pi is just a small (Debian-based) Linux server.

Getting started – installing Spark

The only pre-requisite for installing Spark is a recent Java installation. On Debian-based Linux systems (such as Ubuntu), Java can be installed with:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install openjdk-8-jdk

For other systems you should Google for the best way to install Java. If you aren’t sure whether you have Java or not, type java -version into a terminal window. If you get a version number of the form 1.7.x or 1.8.x you should be fine.

Once you have Java installed, you can download and install Spark in any appropriate place in your file-system. If you are running Linux, or a Unix-alike, just cd to an appropriate place and enter the following commands:

tar xvfz spark-2.1.0-bin-hadoop2.7.tgz 
cd spark-2.1.0-bin-hadoop2.7
bin/run-example SparkPi 10

If all goes well, the last command should run an example. Don’t worry if there are lots of INFO and WARN messages – we will sort that out shortly. On other systems it should simply be a matter of downloading and unpacking Spark somewhere appropriate, then running the example from the top-level Spark directory. Get Spark from the downloads page. You should get version 2.1.0 built for Hadoop 2.7. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have Hadoop installed – it is not required for single-machine use.

The INFO messages are useful for debugging cluster installations, but are too verbose for general use. On a Linux system you can turn down the verbosity with:

sed 's/rootCategory=INFO/rootCategory=WARN/g' < conf/ > conf/

On other systems, copy the file in the conf sub-directory to and edit the file, replacing INFO with WARN on the relevant line. Check it has worked by re-running the SparkPi example – it should be much less verbose this time. You can also try some other examples:

bin/run-example SparkLR
ls examples/src/main/scala/org/apache/spark/examples/

There are several different ways to use Spark. For this walk-through we are just going to use it interactively from the "Spark shell". We can pop up a shell with:

bin/spark-shell --master local[4]

The "4" refers to the number of worker threads to use. Four is probably fine for most decent laptops. Ctrl-D or :quit will exit the Spark shell and take you back to your OS shell. It is more convenient to have the Spark bin directory in your path. If you are using bash or a similar OS shell, you can temporarily add the Spark bin to your path with the OS shell command:

export PATH=$PATH:`pwd`/bin

You can make this permanent by adding a line like this (but with the full path hard-coded) to your .profile or similar start-up dot-file. I prefer not to do this, as I typically have several different Spark versions on my laptop and want to be able to select exactly the version I need. If you are not running bash, Google how to add a directory to your path. Check the path update has worked by starting up a shell with:

spark-shell --master local[4]

Note that if you want to run a script containing Spark commands to be run in "batch mode", you could do it with a command like:

spark-shell --driver-memory 25g --master local[4] < spark-script.scala | tee script-out.txt

There are much better ways to develop and submit batch jobs to Spark clusters, but I won’t discuss those in this post. Note that while Spark is running, diagnostic information about the "cluster" can be obtained by pointing a web browser at port 4040 on the master, which here is just http://localhost:4040/ – this is extremely useful for debugging purposes.

First Spark shell commands

Counting lines in a file

We are now ready to start using Spark. From a Spark shell in the top-level directory, enter:


If all goes well, you should get a count of the number of lines in the file The value sc is the "Spark context", containing information about the Spark cluster (here it is just a laptop, but in general it could be a large cluster of machines, each with many processors and each processor with many cores). The textFile method loads up the file into an RDD (Resilient Distributed Dataset). The RDD is the fundamental abstraction provided by Spark. It is a lazy distributed parallel monadic collection. After loading a text file like this, each element of the collection represents one line of the file. I’ve talked about monadic collections in previous posts, so if this isn’t a familiar concept, it might be worth having a quick skim through at least the post on first steps with monads in Scala. The point is that although RDDs are potentially huge and distributed over a large cluster, using them is very similar to using any other monadic collection in Scala. We can unpack the previous command slightly as follows:

val rdd1 = sc.textFile("")

Note that RDDs are "lazy", and this is important for optimising complex pipelines. So here, after assigning the value rdd1, no data is actually loaded into memory. All of the actual computation is deferred until an "action" is called – count is an example of such an action, and therefore triggers the loading of data into memory and the counting of elements.

Counting words in a file

We can now look at a very slightly more complex pipeline – counting the number of words in a text file rather than the number of lines. This can be done as follows:

  flatMap(_.split(' ')).

Note that map and flatMap are both lazy ("transformations" in Spark terminology), and so no computation is triggered until the final action, count is called. The call to map will just trim any redundant white-space from the line ends. So after the call to map the RDD will still have one element for each line of the file. However, the call to flatMap splits each line on white-space, so after this call each element of the RDD will correspond to a word, and not a line. So, the final count will again count the number of elements in the RDD, but here this corresponds to the number of words in the file.

Counting character frequencies in a file

A final example before moving on to look at quantitative data analysis: counting the frequency with which each character occurs in a file. This can be done as follows:


The first call to map converts upper case characters to lower case, as we don’t want separate counts for upper and lower case characters. The call to flatMap then makes each element of the RDD correspond to a single character in the file. The second call to map transforms each element of the RDD to a key-value pair, where the key is the character and the value is the integer 1. RDDs have special methods for key-value pairs in this form – the method reduceByKey is one such – it applies the reduction operation (here just "+") to all values corresponding to a particular value of the key. Since each character has the value 1, the sum of the values will be a character count. Note that the reduction will be done in parallel, and for this to work it is vital that the reduction operation is associative. Simple addition of integers is clearly associative, so here we are fine. Note that reduceByKey is a (lazy) transformation, and so the computation needs to be triggered by a call to the action collect.

On most Unix-like systems there is a file called words that is used for spell-checking. The example below applies the character count to this file. Note the calls to filter, which filter out any elements of the RDD not matching the predicate. Here it is used to filter out special characters.

  filter(_ > '/').
  filter(_ < '}').

Analysis of quantitative data

Descriptive statistics

We first need some quantitative data, so let’s simulate some. Breeze is the standard Scala library for scientific and statistical computing. I’ve given a quick introduction to Breeze in a previous post. Spark has a dependence on Breeze, and therefore can be used from inside the Spark shell – this is very useful. So, we start by using Breeze to simulate a vector of normal random quantities:

import breeze.stats.distributions._
val x = Gaussian(1.0,2.0).sample(10000)

Note, though, that x is just a regular Breeze Vector, a simple serial collection all stored in RAM on the master thread. To use it as a Spark RDD, we must convert it to one, using the parallelize function:

val xRdd = sc.parallelize(x)

Now xRdd is an RDD, and so we can do Spark transformations and actions on it. There are some special methods for RDDs containing numeric values:


Each summary statistic is computed with a single pass through the data, but if several summary statistics are required, it is inefficient to make a separate pass through the data for each summary, so the stats method makes a single pass through the data returning a StatsCounter object that can be used to compute various summary statistics.

val xStats = xRdd.stats

The StatsCounter methods are: count, mean, sum, max, min, variance, sampleVariance, stdev, sampleStdev.

Linear regression

Moving beyond very simple descriptive statistics, we will look at a simple linear regression model, which will also allow us to introduce Spark DataFrames – a high level abstraction layered on top of RDDs which makes working with tabular data much more convenient, especially in the context of statistical modelling.

We start with some standard (non-Spark) Scala Breeze code to simulate some data from a simple linear regression model. We use the x already simulated as our first covariate. Then we simulate a second covariate, x2. Then, using some residual noise, eps, we simulate a regression model scenario, where we know that the "true" intercept is 1.5 and the "true" covariate regression coefficients are 2.0 and 1.0.

val x2 = Gaussian(0.0,1.0).sample(10000)
val xx = x zip x2
val lp = xx map {p => 2.0*p._1 + 1.0*p._2 + 1.5}
val eps = Gaussian(0.0,1.0).sample(10000)
val y = (lp zip eps) map (p => p._1 + p._2)
val yx = (y zip xx) map (p => (p._1,p._2._1,p._2._2))

val rddLR = sc.parallelize(yx)

Note that the last line converts the regular Scala Breeze collection into a Spark RDD using parallelize. We could, in principle, do regression modelling using raw RDDs, and early versions of Spark required this. However, statisticians used to statistical languages such as R know that data frames are useful for working with tabular data. I gave a brief overview of Scala data frame libraries in a previous post. We can convert an RDD of tuples to a Spark DataFrame as follows:

val dfLR = rddLR.toDF("y","x1","x2")

Note that show shows the first few rows of a DataFrame, and giving it a numeric argument specifies the number to show. This is very useful for quick sanity-checking of DataFrame contents.

Note that there are other ways of getting data into a Spark DataFrame. One of the simplest ways to get data into Spark from other systems is via a CSV file. A properly formatted CSV file with a header row can be read into Spark with a command like:

// Don't run unless you have an appropriate CSV file...
val df =

This requires two passes over the data – one to infer the schema and one to actually read the data. For very large datasets it is better to declare the schema and not use automatic schema inference. However, for very large datasets, CSV probably isn’t a great choice of format anyway. Spark supports many more efficient data storage formats. Note that Spark also has functions for querying SQL (and other) databases, and reading query results directly into DataFrame objects. For people familiar with databases, this is often the most convenient way of ingesting data into Spark. See the Spark DataFrames guide and the API docs for DataFrameReader for further information.

Spark has an extensive library of tools for the development of sophisticated machine learning pipelines. Included in this are functions for fitting linear regression models, regularised regression models (Lasso, ridge, elastic net), generalised linear models, including logistic regression models, etc., and tools for optimising regularisation parameters, for example, using cross-validation. For this post I’m just going to show how to fit a simple OLS linear regression model: see the ML pipeline documentation for further information, especially the docs on classification and regression.

We start by creating an object for fitting linear regression models:


val lm = new LinearRegression

Note that there are many parameters associated with the fitting algorithm, including regularisation parameters. These are set to defaults corresponding to no regularisation (simple OLS). Note, however, that the algorithm defaults to standardising covariates to be mean zero variance one. We can turn that off before fitting the model if desired.

Also note that the model fitting algorithm assumes that the DataFrame to be fit has (at least) two columns, one called label containing the response variable, and one called features, where each element is actually a Vectors of covariates. So we first need to transform our DataFrame into the required format.

// Transform data frame to required format
val dflr = (dfLR map {row => (row.getDouble(0), 

Now we have the data in the correct format, it is simple to fit the model and look at the estimated parameters.

// Fit model
val fit =

You should see that the estimated parameters are close to the "true" parameters that were used to simulate from the model. More detailed diagnostics can be obtained from the fitted summary object.

val summ = fit.summary

So, that’s how to fit a simple OLS linear regression model. Fitting GLMs (including logistic regression) is very similar, and setting up routines to tune regularisation parameters via cross-validation is not much more difficult.

Further reading

As previously mentioned, once you are up and running with a Spark shell, the official Spark documentation is reasonably good. First go through the quick start guide, then the programming guide, then the ML guide, and finally, consult the API docs. I discussed books on scala for data science in the previous post – many of these cover Spark to a greater or lesser extent.

I recently gave a talk on some of the general principles behind the use of functional programming for scalable statistical computing, and how concepts from category theory, such as monads, can help. The PDF slides are available. I’m not sure how comprehensible they will be without my explanations and white-board diagrams, but come to think of it, I’m not sure how comprehensible they were with my explanations and white-board diagrams… Also note that I occasionally run a three-day short-course on Scala for statistical computing, and much of the final day is concerned with using Apache Spark.

Books on Scala for statistical computing and data science


People regularly ask me about books and other resources for getting started with Scala for statistical computing and data science. This post will focus on books, but it’s worth briefly noting that there are a number of other resources available, on-line and otherwise, that are also worth considering. I particularly like the Coursera course Functional Programming Principles in Scala – I still think this is probably the best way to get started with Scala and functional programming for most people. In fact, there is an entire Functional Programming in Scala Specialization that is worth considering – I’ll probably discuss that more in another post. I’ve got a draft page of Scala links which has a bias towards scientific and statistical computing, and I’m currently putting together a short course in that area, which I’ll also discuss further in future posts. But this post will concentrate on books.

Reading list

Getting started with Scala

Before one can dive into statistical computing and data science using Scala, it’s a good idea to understand a bit about the language and about functional programming. There are by now many books on Scala, and I haven’t carefully reviewed all of them, but I’ve looked at enough to have an idea about good ways of getting started.

  • Programming in Scala: Third edition, Odersky et al, Artima.
    • This is the Scala book, often referred to on-line as PinS. It is a weighty tome, and works through the Scala language in detail, starting from the basics. Every serious Scala programmer should own this book. However, it isn’t the easiest introduction to the language.
  • Scala for the Impatient, Horstmann, Addison-Wesley.
    • As the name suggests, this is a much quicker and easier introduction to Scala than PinS, but assumes reasonable familiarity with programming in general, and sort-of assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of Java and the JVM ecosystem. That said, it does not assume that the reader is a Java expert. My feeling is that for someone who has a reasonable programming background and a passing familiarity with Java, then this book is probably the best introduction to the language. Note that there is a second edition in the works.
  • Functional Programming in Scala Chiusano and Bjarnason, Manning.
    • It is possible to write Scala code in the style of "Java-without-the-semi-colons", but really the whole point of Scala is to move beyond that kind of Object-Oriented programming style. How much you venture down the path towards pure Functional Programming is very much a matter of taste, but many of the best Scala programmers are pretty hard-core FP, and there’s probably a reason for that. But many people coming to Scala don’t have a strong FP background, and getting up to speed with strongly-typed FP isn’t easy for people who only know an imperative (Object-Oriented) style of programming. This is the book that will help you to make the jump to FP. Sometimes referred to online as FPiS, or more often even just as the red book, this is also a book that every serious Scala programmer should own (and read!). Note that is isn’t really a book about Scala – it is a book about strongly typed FP that just "happens" to use Scala for illustrating the ideas. Consequently, you will probably want to augment this book with a book that really is about Scala, such as one of the books above. Since this is the first book on the list published by Manning, I should also mention how much I like computing books from this publisher. They are typically well-produced, and their paper books (pBooks) come with complimentary access to well-produced DRM-free eBook versions, however you purchase them.
  • Functional and Reactive Domain Modeling, Ghosh, Manning.
    • This is another book that isn’t really about Scala, but about software engineering using a strongly typed FP language. But again, it uses Scala to illustrate the ideas, and is an excellent read. You can think of it as a more practical "hands-on" follow-up to the red book, which shows how the ideas from the red book translate into effective solutions to real-world problems.
  • Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, second edition Abelson et al, MIT Press.
    • This is not a Scala book! This is the only book in this list which doesn’t use Scala at all. I’ve included it on the list because it is one of the best books on programming that I’ve read, and is the book that I wish someone had told me about 20 years ago! In fact the book uses Scheme (a Lisp derivative) as the language to illustrate the ideas. There are obviously important differences between Scala and Scheme – eg. Scala is strongly statically typed and compiled, whereas Scheme is dynamically typed and interpreted. However, there are also similarities – eg. both languages support and encourage a functional style of programming but are not pure FP languages. Referred to on-line as SICP this book is a classic. Note that there is no need to buy a paper copy if you like eBooks, since electronic versions are available free on-line.

Scala for statistical computing and data science

  • Scala for Data Science, Bugnion, Packt.
    • Not to be confused with the (terrible) book, Scala for machine learning by the same publisher. Scala for Data Science is my top recommendation for getting started with statistical computing and data science applications using Scala. I have reviewed this book in another post, so I won’t say more about it here (but I like it).
  • Scala Data Analysis Cookbook, Manivannan, Packt.
    • I’m not a huge fan of the cookbook format, but this book is really mis-named, as it isn’t really a cookbook and isn’t really about data analysis in Scala! It is really a book about Apache Spark, and proceeds fairly sequentially in the form of a tutorial introduction to Spark. Spark is an impressive piece of technology, and it is obviously one of the factors driving interest in Scala, but it’s important to understand that Spark isn’t Scala, and that many typical data science applications will be better tackled using Scala without Spark. I’ve not read this book cover-to-cover as it offers little over Scala for Data Science, but its coverage of Spark is a bit more up-to-date than the Spark books I mention below, so it could be of interest to those who are mainly interested in Scala for Spark.
  • Scala High Performance Programming, Theron and Diamant, Packt.
    • This is an interesting book, fundamentally about developing high performance streaming data processing algorithm pipelines in Scala. It makes no reference to Spark. The running application is an on-line financial trading system. It takes a deep dive into understanding performance in Scala and on the JVM, and looks at how to benchmark and profile performance, diagnose bottlenecks and optimise code. This is likely to be of more interest to those interested in developing efficient algorithms for scientific and statistical computing rather than applied data scientists, but it covers some interesting material not covered by any of the other books in this list.
  • Learning Spark, Karau et al, O’Reilly.
    • This book provides an introduction to Apache Spark, written by some of the people who developed it. Spark is a big data analytics framework built on top of Scala. It is arguably the best available framework for big data analytics on computing clusters in the cloud, and hence there is a lot of interest in it. The book is a perfectly good introduction to Spark, and shows most examples implemented using the Java and Python APIs in addition to the canonical Scala (Spark Shell) implementation. This is useful for people working with multiple languages, but can be mildly irritating to anyone who is only interested in Scala. However, the big problem with this (and every other) book on Spark is that Spark is evolving very quickly, and so by the time any book on Spark is written and published it is inevitably very out of date. It’s not clear that it is worth buying a book specifically about Spark at this stage, or whether it would be better to go for a book like Scala for Data Science, which has a couple of chapters of introduction to Spark, which can then provide a starting point for engaging with Spark’s on-line documentation (which is reasonably good).
  • Advanced Analytics with Spark, Ryza et al, O’Reilly.
    • This book has a bit of a "cookbook" feel to it, which some people like and some don’t. It’s really more like an "edited volume" with different chapters authored by different people. Unlike Learning Spark it focuses exclusively on the Scala API. The book basically covers the development of a bunch of different machine learning pipelines for a variety of applications. My main problem with this book is that it has aged particularly badly, as all of the pipelines are developed with raw RDDs, which isn’t how ML pipelines in Spark are constructed any more. So again, it’s difficult for me to recommend. The message here is that if you are thinking of buying a book about Spark, check very carefully when it was published and what version of Spark it covers and whether that is sufficiently recent to be of relevance to you.


There are lots of books to get started with Scala for statistical computing and data science applications. My "bare minimum" recommendation would be some generic Scala book (doesn’t really matter which one), the red book, and Scala for data science. After reading those, you will be very well placed to top-up your knowledge as required with on-line resources.

Scala for Data Science [book review]

This post will review the book:

Disclaimer: This book review has not been solicited by the publisher (or anyone else) in any way. I purchased the review copy of this book myself. I have not received any benefit from the writing of this review.


On this blog I previously reviewed the (terrible) book, Scala for machine learning by the same publisher. I was therefore rather wary of buying this book. But the topic coverage looked good, so I decided to buy it, and wasn’t disappointed. Scala for Data Science is my top recommendation for getting started with statistical computing and data science applications using Scala.


The book assumes a basic familiarity with programming in Scala, at around the level of someone who has completed the Functional Programming Principles in Scala Coursera course. That is, it (quite sensibly) doesn’t attempt to teach the reader how to program in Scala, but rather how to approach the development of data science applications using Scala. It introduces more advanced Scala idioms gradually (eg. typeclasses don’t appear until Chapter 5), so it is relatively approachable for those who aren’t yet Scala experts. The book does cover Apache Spark, but Spark isn’t introduced until Chapter 10, so it isn’t “just another Spark book”. Most of the book is about developing data science applications in Scala, completely independently of Spark. That said, it also provides one of the better introductions to Spark, so doubles up as a pretty good introductory Spark book, in addition to being a good introduction to the development of data science applications with Scala. It should probably be emphasised that the book is very much focused on data science, rather than statistical computing, but there is plenty of material of relevance to those who are more interested in statistical computing than applied data science.

Chapter by chapter

  1. Scala and Data Science – motivation for using Scala in preference to certain other languages I could mention…
  2. Manipulating data with BreezeBreeze is the standard Scala library for scientific and statistical computing. It’s pretty good, but documentation is rather lacking. This Chapter provides a good tutorial introduction to Breeze, which should be enough to get people going sufficiently to be able to make some sense of the available on-line documentation.
  3. Plotting with breeze-viz – Breeze has some support for plotting and visualisation of data. It’s somewhat limited when compared to what is available in R, but is fine for interactive exploratory analysis. However, the available on-line documentation for breeze-viz is almost non-existent. This Chapter is the best introduction to breeze-viz that I have seen.
  4. Parallel collections and futures – the Scala standard library has built-in support for parallel and concurrent programming based on functional programming concepts such as parallel (monadic) collections and Futures. Again, this Chapter provides an excellent introduction to these powerful concepts, allowing the reader to start developing parallel algorithms for multi-core hardware with minimal fuss.
  5. Scala and SQL through JDBC – this Chapter looks at connecting to databases using standard JVM mechanisms such as JDBC. However, it gradually introduces more functional ways of interfacing with databases using typeclasses, motivating:
  6. Slick – a functional interface for SQL – an introduction to the Slick library for a more Scala-esque way of database interfacing.
  7. Web APIs – the practicalities of talking to web APIs. eg. authenticated HTTP requests and parsing of JSON responses.
  8. Scala and MongoDB – working with a NoSQL database from Scala
  9. Concurrency with Akka – Akka is the canonical implementation of the actor model in Scala, for building large concurrent applications. It is the foundation on which Spark is built.
  10. Distributed batch processing with Spark – a tutorial introduction to Apache Spark. Spark is a big data analytics framework built on top of Scala and Akka. It is arguably the best available framework for big data analytics on computing clusters in the cloud, and hence there is a lot of interest in it. Indeed, Spark is driving some of the interest in Scala.
  11. Spark SQL and DataFrames – interfacing with databases using Spark, and more importantly, an introduction to Spark’s DataFrame abstraction, which is now fundamental to developing machine learning pipelines in Spark.
  12. Distributed machine learning with MLLib – MLLib is the machine learning library for Spark. It is worth emphasising that unlike many early books on Spark, this chapter covers the newer DataFrame-based pipeline API, in addition to the original RDD-based API. Together, Chapters 10, 11 and 12 provide a pretty good tutorial introduction to Spark. After working through these, it should be easy to engage with the official on-line Spark documentation.
  13. Web APIs with Play – is concerned with developing a web API at the end of a data science pipeline.
  14. Visualisation with D3 and the Play framework – is concerned with integrating visualisation into a data science web application.


This book provides a good tutorial introduction to a large number of topics relevant to statisticians and data scientists interested in developing data science applications using Scala. After working through this book, readers should be well-placed to augment their knowledge with readily searchable on-line documentation.

In a follow-up post I will give a quick overview of some other books relevant to getting started with Scala for statistical computing and data science.

Working with SBML using Scala


The Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML) is an XML-based format for representation and exchange of biochemical network models. SBML is supported by most systems biology modelling tools, allowing the export of a model in SBML from one tool and then reading in another tool. Because it offers a standard way of representing biochemical networks in an unambiguous way, it can also be used as the standard way of representing models in databases of biochemical network models, such as BioModels. I haven’t talked about SBML much in this blog, so far, but I discuss it in detail in my book, Stochastic modelling for systems biology. SBML is a “good thing”, and everyone who works with (deterministic or stochastic) biochemical network models should know a bit about it.

The SBML format is fairly complex to parse and generate correctly, so it’s preferable to use a software library to take care of the details. libSBML is the community standard library developed for this purpose. It is a C++ library, but has interfaces for other languages, such as Python and Java. However, whilst it’s perfectly possible to use native libraries on the JVM, they aren’t so convenient to work with, especially in conjunction with modern automatic build and deployment tools. So when working on the JVM, a pure JVM library for working with SBML would be a lot more convenient. JSBML is exactly that – a pure Java library for working with SBML on the JVM. As of version 1.2, it is also available from Maven Central, making it super-convenient to use with modern build tools such as Maven and sbt. In this post I’ll walk through getting started with using Scala and sbt to build and run a trivial JSBML example, and highlight a couple of gotchas and provide pointers for further reading.

Using JSBML from Scala sbt projects

Dependencies in sbt

Since JSBML is now on Maven Central, adding a dependency on it should just be a matter of adding the line

libraryDependencies += "org.sbml.jsbml" % "jsbml" % "1.2"

to your sbt build.sbt file. However, for slightly mysterious reasons this doesn’t quite work. It works fine for compilation, but at runtime some dependencies are missing. I suspect this is a slight problem with the current JSBML build, but it could also be a bug/feature in sbt. Either way, the problem can be solved by explicitly including log4j dependencies in the build. So just adding:

libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
		"org.sbml.jsbml" % "jsbml" % "1.2",
		"org.apache.logging.log4j" % "log4j-1.2-api" % "2.3",
		"org.apache.logging.log4j" % "log4j-api" % "2.3",
		"org.apache.logging.log4j" % "log4j-core" % "2.3"

to the build file is sufficient to make everything work properly.

Example Scala program

Below is a complete Scala program to read an SBML file from disk and print to console some very basic information about the model.

object JsbmlApp {
  import org.sbml.jsbml.SBMLReader
  import scala.collection.JavaConversions._

  def main(args: Array[String]): Unit = {
    val filename = if (args.length == 0)
      "ch07-mm-stoch.xml" else args(0)
    val reader = new SBMLReader
    val document = reader.readSBML(filename)
    val model = document.getModel
    println(model.getId + "\n" + model.getName)
    val listOfSpecies = model.getListOfSpecies
    val ns = model.getNumSpecies
    println(s"$ns Species:")
    listOfSpecies.iterator.foreach(species => {
      println("  " +
        species.getId + "\t" +
        species.getName + "\t" +
        species.getCompartment + "\t" +
    val nr = model.getNumReactions
    println(s"$nr Reactions.")


There are just a few things worth noting about this simple example. The first gotcha is to try and resist the temptation to import all SBML classes into the namespace (with import org.sbml.jsbml._). This is poor programming practice at the best of times, but here it is especially problematic. Scala programmers will be aware that Unit is a very important type in the Scala language, which has nothing to do with the JSBML class Unit, which represents a physical unit of measurement. The clash can be avoided by using the fully qualified name, org.sbml.jsbml.Unit wherever the JSBML Unit class is intended, but that is rather cumbersome, so the typical Scala mechanism for dealing with this is to rename the class on import, using, for example:

import org.sbml.jsbml.{ Unit => JsbmlUnit }

Then in code it is clear that Unit refers to the Scala type and JsbmlUnit refers to the JSBML class.

Also note that JavaConversions has been imported. This provides an implicit conversion from a Java to a Scala iterator, and this simplifies iterating over SBML listOfs. Here it is used it to implicitly convert the listOfSpecies Java iterator into a Scala iterator so that I can call foreach on it.

Further reading

This complete runnable example is available in my blog repo on github. This example will run on any system with a recent JVM installed. It does not require Scala, or libSBML, or JSBML, or any other dependency (sbt will take care of dependency resolution).

Once you are up and running with a simple example like this, the JSBML Documentation is fine. Start by reading the User guide and then use the API Documentation.


Working with SBML in Scala is quite convenient using JSBML. It is easy to include a dependence on JSBML in Scala sbt projects. JSBML has a typical Java Object-Oriented API that is somewhat unnatural in Scala, but isn’t too bad using a few tricks, such as implicit iterator conversion. It wouldn’t be very difficult to layer a more functional API on top of JSBML, but I don’t have the energy to do that. See my blog repo for the full runnable example.

A scalable particle filter in Scala


Many modern algorithms in computational Bayesian statistics have at their heart a particle filter or some other sequential Monte Carlo (SMC) procedure. In this blog I’ve discussed particle MCMC algorithms which use a particle filter in the inner-loop in order to compute a (noisy, unbiased) estimate of the marginal likelihood of the data. These algorithms are often very computationally intensive, either because the forward model used to propagate the particles is expensive, or because the likelihood associated with each particle/observation is expensive (or both). In this case it is desirable to parallelise the particle filter to run on all available cores of a machine, or in some cases, it would even be desirable to distribute the the particle filter computation across a cluster of machines.

Parallelisation is difficult when using the conventional imperative programming languages typically used in scientific and statistical computing, but is much easier using modern functional languages such as Scala. In fact, in languages such as Scala it is possible to describe algorithms at a higher level of abstraction, so that exactly the same algorithm can run in serial, run in parallel across all available cores on a single machine, or run in parallel across a cluster of machines, all without changing any code. Doing so renders parallelisation a non-issue. In this post I’ll talk through how to do this for a simple bootstrap particle filter, but the same principle applies for a large range of statistical computing algorithms.

Typeclasses and monadic collections

In the previous post I gave a quick introduction to the monad concept, and to monadic collections in particular. Many computational tasks in statistics can be accomplished using a sequence of operations on monadic collections. We would like to write code that is independent of any particular implementation of a monadic collection, so that we can switch to a different implementation without changing the code of our algorithm (for example, switching from a serial to a parallel collection). But in strongly typed languages we need to know at compile time that the collection we use has the methods that we require. Typeclasses provide a nice solution to this problem. I don’t want to get bogged down in a big discussion about Scala typeclasses here, but suffice to say that they describe a family of types conforming to a particular interface in an ad hoc loosely coupled way (they are said to provide ad hoc polymorphism). They are not the same as classes in traditional O-O languages, but they do solve a similar problem to the adaptor design pattern, in a much cleaner way. We can describe a simple typeclass for our monadic collection as follows:

trait GenericColl[C[_]] {
  def map[A, B](ca: C[A])(f: A => B): C[B]
  def reduce[A](ca: C[A])(f: (A, A) => A): A
  def flatMap[A, B, D[B] <: GenTraversable[B]](ca: C[A])(f: A => D[B]): C[B]
  def zip[A, B](ca: C[A])(cb: C[B]): C[(A, B)]
  def length[A](ca: C[A]): Int

In the typeclass we just list the methods that we expect our generic collection to provide, but do not say anything about how they are implemented. For example, we know that operations such as map and reduce can be executed in parallel, but this is a separate concern. We can now write code that can be used for any collection conforming to the requirements of this typeclass. The full code for this example is provided in the associated github repo for this blog, and includes the obvious syntax for this typeclass, and typeclass instances for the Scala collections Vector and ParVector, that we will exploit later in the example.

SIR step for a bootstrap filter

We can now write some code for a single observation update of a bootstrap particle filter.

def update[S: State, O: Observation, C[_]: GenericColl](
  dataLik: (S, O) => LogLik, stepFun: S => S
)(x: C[S], o: O): (LogLik, C[S]) = {
  val xp = x map (stepFun(_))
  val lw = xp map (dataLik(_, o))
  val max = lw reduce (math.max(_, _))
  val rw = lw map (lwi => math.exp(lwi - max))
  val srw = rw reduce (_ + _)
  val l = rw.length
  val z = rw zip xp
  val rx = z flatMap (p => Vector.fill(Poisson(p._1 * l / srw).draw)(p._2))
  (max + math.log(srw / l), rx)

This is a very simple bootstrap filter, using Poisson resampling for simplicity and data locality, but does include use of the log-sum-exp trick to prevent over/underflow of raw weight calculations, and tracks the marginal (log-)likelihood of the observation. With this function we can now pass in a “prior” particle distribution in any collection conforming to our typeclass, together with a propagator function, an observation (log-)likelihood, and an observation, and it will return back a new collection of particles of exactly the same type that was provided for input. Note that all of the operations we require can be accomplished with the standard monadic collection operations declared in our typeclass.

Filtering as a functional fold

Once we have a function for executing one step of a particle filter, we can produce a function for particle filtering as a functional fold over a sequence of observations:

def pFilter[S: State, O: Observation, C[_]: GenericColl, D[O] <: GenTraversable[O]](
  x0: C[S], data: D[O], dataLik: (S, O) => LogLik, stepFun: S => S
): (LogLik, C[S]) = {
  val updater = update[S, O, C](dataLik, stepFun) _
  data.foldLeft((0.0, x0))((prev, o) => {
    val next = updater(prev._2, o)
    (prev._1 + next._1, next._2)

Folding data structures is a fundamental concept in functional programming, and is exactly what is required for any kind of filtering problem. Note that Brian Beckman has recently written a series of articles on Kalman filtering as a functional fold.

Marginal likelihoods and parameter estimation

So far we haven’t said anything about parameters or parameter estimation, but this is appropriate, since parametrisation is a separate concern from filtering. However, once we have a function for particle filtering, we can produce a function concerned with evaluating marginal likelihoods trivially:

def pfMll[S: State, P: Parameter, O: Observation, 
            C[_]: GenericColl, D[O] <: GenTraversable[O]](
  simX0: P => C[S], stepFun: P => S => S, 
  dataLik: P => (S, O) => LogLik, data: D[O]
): (P => LogLik) = (th: P) => 
       pFilter(simX0(th), data, dataLik(th), stepFun(th))._1

Note that this higher-order function does not return a value, but instead a function which will accept a parameter as input and return a (log-)likelihood as output. This can then be used for parameter estimation purposes, perhaps being used in a PMMH pMCMC algorithm, or something else. Again, this is a separate concern.


Here I’ll just give a completely trivial toy example, purely to show how the functions work. For avoidance of doubt, I know that there are many better/simpler/easier ways to tackle this problem! Here we will just look at inferring the auto-regression parameter of a linear Gaussian AR(1)-plus-noise model using the functions we have developed.

First we can simulate some synthetic data from this model, using a value of 0.8 for the auto-regression parameter:

val inNoise = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0).sample(99)
val state = DenseVector(inNoise.scanLeft(0.0)((s, i) => 0.8 * s + i).toArray)
val noise = DenseVector(Gaussian(0.0, 2.0).sample(100).toArray)
val data = (state + noise).toArray.toList

Now assuming that we don’t know the auto-regression parameter, we can construct a function to evaluate the likelihood of different parameter values as follows:

val mll = pfMll(
  (th: Double) => Gaussian(0.0, 10.0).sample(10000).toVector.par,
  (th: Double) => (s: Double) => Gaussian(th * s, 1.0).draw,
  (th: Double) => (s: Double, o: Double) => Gaussian(s, 2.0).logPdf(o),

Note that the 4 characters “.par” at the end of line 2 are the only difference between running this code serially or in parallel! Now we can run this code by calling the returned function with different values. So, hopefully mll(0.8) will return a larger log-likelihood than (say) mll(0.6) or mll(0.9). The example code in the github repo plots the results of calling mll() for a range of values (note that if that was the genuine use-case, then it would be much better to parallellise the parameter range than the particle filter, due to providing better parallelisation granularity, but many other examples require parallelisation of the particle filter itself). In this particular example, both the forward model and the likelihood are very cheap operations, so there is little to be gained from parallelisation. Nevertheless, I still get a speedup of more than a factor of two using the parallel version on my laptop.


In this post we have shown how typeclasses can be used in Scala to write code that is parallelisation-agnostic. Code written in this way can be run on one or many cores as desired. We’ve illustrated the concept with a scalable particle filter, but nothing about the approach is specific to that application. It would be easy to build up a library of statistical routines this way, all of which can effectively exploit available parallel hardware. Further, although we haven’t demonstrated it here, it is trivial to extend this idea to allow code to be distribution over a cluster of parallel machines if necessary. For example, if an Apache Spark cluster is available, it is easy to make a Spark RDD instance for our generic collection typeclass, that will then allow us to run our (unmodified) particle filter code over a Spark cluster. This emphasises the fact that Spark can be useful for distributing computation as well as just processing “big data”. I’ll say more about Spark in subsequent posts.

First steps with monads in Scala


In the previous post I gave a quick introduction to some important concepts in functional programming, such as HOFs, closures, currying and partial application, and hopefully gave some insight into why these concepts might be useful in the context of scientific computing. Another concept that is very important in modern functional programming is that of the monad. Monads are one of those concepts that turns out to be very simple and intuitive once you “get it”, but completely impenetrable until you do! Now, there zillions of monad tutorials out there, and I don’t think that I have anything particularly insightful to add to the discussion. That said, most of the tutorials focus on problems and examples that are some way removed from the interests of statisticians and scientific programmers. So in this post I want to try and give a very informal and intuitive introduction to the monad concept in a way that I hope will resonate with people from a more scientific computing background.

The term “monad” is borrowed from that of the corresponding concept in category theory. The connection between functional programming and category theory is strong and deep. I intend to expore this more in future posts, but for this post the connection is not important and no knowledge of category theory is assumed (or imparted!).

Functors and Monads

Maps and Functors

All of the code used in this post in contained in the first-monads directory of my blog repo. The best way to follow this post is to copy-and-paste commands one-at-a-time from this post to a Scala REPL or sbt console. Note that only the numerical linear algebra examples later in this post require any non-standard dependencies.

The map method is one of the first concepts one meets when beginning functional programming. It is a higher order method on many (immutable) collection and other container types. Let’s start by looking at how map operates on Lists.

val x = (0 to 4).toList
// x: List[Int] = List(0, 1, 2, 3, 4)
val x2 = x map { x => x * 3 }
// x2: List[Int] = List(0, 3, 6, 9, 12)
val x3 = x map { _ * 3 }
// x3: List[Int] = List(0, 3, 6, 9, 12)
val x4 = x map { _ * 0.1 }
// x4: List[Double] = List(0.0, 0.1, 0.2, 0.30000000000000004, 0.4)

The last example shows that a List[T] can be converted to a List[S] if map is passed a function of type T => S. Of course there’s nothing particularly special about List here. It works with other collection types in the same way, as the following example with (immutable) Vector illustrates:

val xv = x.toVector
// xv: Vector[Int] = Vector(0, 1, 2, 3, 4)
val xv2 = xv map { _ * 0.2 }
// xv2: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Double] = Vector(0.0, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6000000000000001, 0.8)
val xv3 = for (xi <- xv) yield (xi * 0.2)
// xv3: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Double] = Vector(0.0, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6000000000000001, 0.8)

Note here that the for comprehension generating xv3 is exactly equivalent to the map call generating xv2 – the for-comprehension is just syntactic sugar for the map call. The benefit of this syntax will become apparent in the more complex examples we consider later.

Many collection and other container types have a map method that behaves this way. Any parametrised type that does have a map method like this is known as a Functor. Again, the name is due to category theory, but that doesn’t matter for this post. From a Scala-programmer perspective, a functor can be thought of as a trait, in pseudo-code as

trait F[T] {
  def map(f: T => S): F[S]

with F representing the functor. In fact it turns out to be better to think of a functor as a type class, but that is yet another topic for a future post… Also note that to be a functor in the strict sense (from a category theory perspective), the map method must behave sensibly – that is, it must satisfy the functor laws. But again, I’m keeping things informal and intuitive for this post – there are plenty of other monad tutorials which emphasise the category theory connections.

FlatMap and Monads

Once we can map functions over elements of containers, we soon start mapping functions which themselves return values of the container type. eg. we can map a function returning a List over the elements of a List, as illustrated below.

val x5 = x map { x => List(x - 0.1, x + 0.1) }
// x5: List[List[Double]] = List(List(-0.1, 0.1), List(0.9, 1.1), List(1.9, 2.1), List(2.9, 3.1), List(3.9, 4.1))

Clearly this returns a list-of-lists. Sometimes this is what we want, but very often we actually want to flatten down to a single list so that, for example, we can subsequently map over all of the elements of the base type with a single map. We could take the list-of-lists and then flatten it, but this pattern is so common that the act of mapping and then flattening is often considered to be a basic operation, often known in Scala as flatMap. So for our toy example, we could carry out the flatMap as follows.

val x6 = x flatMap { x => List(x - 0.1, x + 0.1) }
// x6: List[Double] = List(-0.1, 0.1, 0.9, 1.1, 1.9, 2.1, 2.9, 3.1, 3.9, 4.1)

The ubiquity of this pattern becomes more apparent when we start thinking about iterating over multiple collections. For example, suppose now that we have two lists, x and y, and that we want to iterate over all pairs of elements consisting of one element from each list.

val y = (0 to 12 by 2).toList
// y: List[Int] = List(0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12)
val xy = x flatMap { xi => y map { yi => xi * yi } }
// xy: List[Int] = List(0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 0, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 0, 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48)

This pattern of having one or more nested flatMaps followed by a final map in order to iterate over multiple collections is very common. It is exactly this pattern that the for-comprehension is syntactic sugar for. So we can re-write the above using a for-comprehension

val xy2 = for {
  xi <- x
  yi <- y
} yield (xi * yi)
// xy2: List[Int] = List(0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 0, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 0, 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48)

This for-comprehension (usually called a for-expression in Scala) has an intuitive syntax reminiscent of the kind of thing one might write in an imperative language. But it is important to remember that <- is not actually an imperative assignment. The for-comprehension really does expand to the pure-functional nested flatMap and map call given above.

Recalling that a functor is a parameterised type with a map method, we can now say that a monad is just a functor which also has a flatMap method. We can write this in pseudo-code as

trait M[T] {
  def map(f: T => S): M[S]
  def flatMap(f: T => M[S]): M[S]

Not all functors can have a flattening operation, so not all functors are monads, but all monads are functors. Monads are therefore more powerful than functors. Of course, more power is not always good. The principle of least power is one of the main principles of functional programming, but monads are useful for sequencing dependent computations, as illustrated by for-comprehensions. In fact, since for-comprehensions de-sugar to calls to map and flatMap, monads are precisely what are required in order to be usable in for-comprehensions. Collections supporting map and flatMap are referred to as monadic. Most Scala collections are monadic, and operating on them using map and flatMap operations, or using for-comprehensions is referred to as monadic-style. People will often refer to the monadic nature of a collection (or other container) using the word monad, eg. the “List monad”.

So far the functors and monads we have been working with have been collections, but not all monads are collections, and in fact collections are in some ways atypical examples of monads. Many monads are containers or wrappers, so it will be useful to see examples of monads which are not collections.

Option monad

One of the first monads that many people encounter is the Option monad (referred to as the Maybe monad in Haskell, and Optional in Java 8). You can think of it as being a strange kind of “collection” that can contain at most one element. So it will either contain an element or it won’t, and so can be used to wrap the result of a computation which might fail. If the computation succeeds, the value computed can be wrapped in the Option (using the type Some), and if it fails, it will not contain a value of the required type, but simply be the value None. It provides a referentially transparent and type-safe alternative to raising exceptions or returning NULL references. We can transform Options using map.

val three = Option(3)
// three: Option[Int] = Some(3)
val twelve = three map (_ * 4)
// twelve: Option[Int] = Some(12)

But when we start combining the results of multiple computations that could fail, we run into exactly the same issues as before.

val four = Option(4)
// four: Option[Int] = Some(4)
val twelveB = three map (i => four map (i * _))
// twelveB: Option[Option[Int]] = Some(Some(12))

Here we have ended up with an Option wrapped in another Option, which is not what we want. But we now know the solution, which is to replace the first map with flatMap, or better still, use a for-comprehension.

val twelveC = three flatMap (i => four map (i * _))
// twelveC: Option[Int] = Some(12)
val twelveD = for {
  i <- three
  j <- four
} yield (i * j)
// twelveD: Option[Int] = Some(12)

Again, the for-comprehension is a little bit easier to understand than the chaining of calls to flatMap and map. Note that in the for-comprehension we don’t worry about whether or not the Options actually contain values – we just concentrate on the “happy path”, where they both do, safe in the knowledge that the Option monad will take care of the failure cases for us. Two of the possible failure cases are illustrated below.

val oops: Option[Int] = None
// oops: Option[Int] = None
val oopsB = for {
  i <- three
  j <- oops
} yield (i * j)
// oopsB: Option[Int] = None
val oopsC = for {
  i <- oops
  j <- four
} yield (i * j)
// oopsC: Option[Int] = None

This is a typical benefit of code written in a monadic style. We chain together multiple computations thinking only about the canonical case and trusting the monad to take care of any additional computational context for us.

IEEE floating point and NaN

Those with a background in scientific computing are probably already familiar with the NaN value in IEEE floating point. In many regards, this value and the rules around its behaviour mean that Float and Double types in IEEE compliant languages behave as an Option monad with NaN as the None value. This is simply illustrated below.

val nan = Double.NaN
3.0 * 4.0
// res0: Double = 12.0
3.0 * nan
// res1: Double = NaN
nan * 4.0
// res2: Double = NaN

The NaN value arises naturally when computations fail. eg.

val nanB = 0.0 / 0.0
// nanB: Double = NaN

This Option-like behaviour of Float and Double means that it is quite rare to see examples of Option[Float] or Option[Double] in Scala code. But there are some disadvantages of the IEEE approach, as discussed elsewhere. Also note that this only works for Floats and Doubles, and not for other types, including, say, Int.

val nanC=0/0
// This raises a runtime exception!

Option for matrix computations

Good practical examples of scientific computations which can fail crop up frequently in numerical linear algebra, so it’s useful to see how Option can simplify code in that context. Note that the code in this section requires the Breeze library, so should be run from an sbt console using the sbt build file associated with this post.

In statistical applications, one often needs to compute the Cholesky factorisation of a square symmetric matrix. This operation is built into Breeze as the function cholesky. However the factorisation will fail if the matrix provided is not positive semi-definite, and in this case the cholesky function will throw a runtime exception. We will use the built in cholesky function to create our own function, safeChol (using a monad called Try which is closely related to the Option monad) returning an Option of a matrix rather than a matrix. This function will not throw an exception, but instead return None in the case of failure, as illustrated below.

import breeze.linalg._
def safeChol(m: DenseMatrix[Double]): Option[DenseMatrix[Double]] = scala.util.Try(cholesky(m)).toOption
val m = DenseMatrix((2.0, 1.0), (1.0, 3.0))
val c = safeChol(m)
// c: Option[breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double]] =
// Some(1.4142135623730951  0.0
// 0.7071067811865475  1.5811388300841898  )

val m2 = DenseMatrix((1.0, 2.0), (2.0, 3.0))
val c2 = safeChol(m2)
// c2: Option[breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double]] = None

A Cholesky factorisation is often followed by a forward or backward solve. This operation may also fail, independently of whether the Cholesky factorisation fails. There doesn’t seem to be a forward solve function directly exposed in the Breeze API, but we can easily define one, which I call dangerousForwardSolve, as it will throw an exception if it fails, just like the cholesky function. But just as for the cholesky function, we can wrap up the dangerous function into a safe one that returns an Option.

import com.github.fommil.netlib.BLAS.{getInstance => blas}
def dangerousForwardSolve(A: DenseMatrix[Double], y: DenseVector[Double]): DenseVector[Double] = {
  val yc = y.copy
  blas.dtrsv("L", "N", "N", A.cols, A.toArray, A.rows,, 1)
def safeForwardSolve(A: DenseMatrix[Double], y: DenseVector[Double]): Option[DenseVector[Double]] = scala.util.Try(dangerousForwardSolve(A, y)).toOption

Now we can write a very simple function which chains these two operations together, as follows.

def safeStd(A: DenseMatrix[Double], y: DenseVector[Double]): Option[DenseVector[Double]] = for {
  L <- safeChol(A)
  z <- safeForwardSolve(L, y)
} yield z

// res15: Option[breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double]] = Some(DenseVector(0.7071067811865475, 0.9486832980505138))

Note how clean and simple this function is, concentrating purely on the “happy path” where both operations succeed and letting the Option monad worry about the three different cases where at least one of the operations fails.

The Future monad

Let’s finish with a monad for parallel and asynchronous computation, the Future monad. The Future monad is used for wrapping up slow computations and dispatching them to another thread for completion. The call to Future returns immediately, allowing the calling thread to continue while the additional thread processes the slow work. So at that stage, the Future will not have completed, and will not contain a value, but at some (unpredictable) time in the future it (hopefully) will (hence the name). In the following code snippet I construct two Futures that will each take at least 10 seconds to complete. On the main thread I then use a for-comprehension to chain the two computations together. Again, this will return immediately returning another Future that at some point in the future will contain the result of the derived computation. Then, purely for illustration, I force the main thread to stop and wait for that third future (f3) to complete, printing the result to the console.

import scala.concurrent.duration._
import scala.concurrent.{Future,ExecutionContext,Await}
val f1=Future{
  1 }
val f2=Future{
  2 }
val f3=for {
  v1 <- f1
  v2 <- f2
  } yield (v1+v2)

When you paste this into your console you should observe that you get the result in 10 seconds, as f1 and f2 execute in parallel on separate threads. So the Future monad is one (of many) ways to get started with parallel and async programming in Scala.


In this post I’ve tried to give a quick informal introduction to the monad concept, and tried to use examples that will make sense to those interested in scientific and statistical computing. There’s loads more to say about monads, and there are many more commonly encountered useful monads that haven’t been covered in this post. I’ve skipped over lots of details, especially those relating to the formal definitions of functors and monads, including the laws that map and flatMap must satisfy and why. But those kinds of details can be easily picked up from other monad tutorials. Anyone interested in pursuing the formal connections may be interested in a page of links I’m collating on category theory for FP. In particular, I quite like the series of blog posts on category theory for programmers. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I also really like the book Functional Programming in Scala, which I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to improve their Scala code. In a subsequent post I’ll explain how monadic style is relevant to issues relating to the statistical analysis of big data, as exemplified in Apache Spark. It’s probably also worth mentioning that there is another kind of functor that turns out to be exceptionally useful in functional programming: the applicative functor. This is more powerful than a basic functor, but less powerful than a monad. It turns out to be useful for computations which need to be sequenced but are not sequentially dependent (context-free rather than context-sensitive), and is a little bit more general and flexible than a monad in cases where it is appropriate.