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.

Brief introduction to Scala and Breeze for statistical computing


In the previous post I outlined why I think Scala is a good language for statistical computing and data science. In this post I want to give a quick taste of Scala and the Breeze numerical library to whet the appetite of the uninitiated. This post certainly won’t provide enough material to get started using Scala in anger – but I’ll try and provide a few pointers along the way. It also won’t be very interesting to anyone who knows Scala – I’m not introducing any of the very cool Scala stuff here – I think that some of the most powerful and interesting Scala language features can be a bit frightening for new users.

To reproduce the examples, you need to install Scala and Breeze. This isn’t very tricky, but I don’t want to get bogged down with a detailed walk-through here – I want to concentrate on the Scala language and Breeze library. You just need to install a recent version of Java, then Scala, and then Breeze. You might also want SBT and/or the ScalaIDE, though neither of these are necessary. Then you need to run the Scala REPL with the Breeze library in the classpath. There are several ways one can do this. The most obvious is to just run scala with the path to Breeze manually specified (or specified in an environment variable). Alternatively, you could run a console from an sbt session with a Breeze dependency (which is what I actually did for this post), or you could use a Scala Worksheet from inside a ScalaIDE project with a Breeze dependency.

A Scala REPL session

A first glimpse of Scala

We’ll start with a few simple Scala concepts that are not dependent on Breeze. For further information, see the Scala documentation.

Welcome to Scala version 2.10.3 (OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM, Java 1.7.0_25).
Type in expressions to have them evaluated.
Type :help for more information.

scala> val a = 5
a: Int = 5

scala> a
res0: Int = 5

So far, so good. Using the Scala REPL is much like using the Python or R command line, so will be very familiar to anyone used to these or similar languages. The first thing to note is that labels need to be declared on first use. We have declared a to be a val. These are immutable values, which can not be just re-assigned, as the following code illustrates.

scala> a = 6
<console>:8: error: reassignment to val
       a = 6
scala> a
res1: Int = 5

Immutability seems to baffle people unfamiliar with functional programming. But fear not, as Scala allows declaration of mutable variables as well:

scala> var b = 7
b: Int = 7

scala> b
res2: Int = 7

scala> b = 8
b: Int = 8

scala> b
res3: Int = 8

The Zen of functional programming is to realise that immutability is generally a good thing, but that really isn’t the point of this post. Scala has excellent support for both mutable and immutable collections as part of the standard library. See the API docs for more details. For example, it has immutable lists.

scala> val c = List(3,4,5,6)
c: List[Int] = List(3, 4, 5, 6)

scala> c(1)
res4: Int = 4

scala> c.sum
res5: Int = 18

scala> c.length
res6: Int = 4

scala> c.product
res7: Int = 360

Again, this should be pretty familiar stuff for anyone familiar with Python. Note that the sum and product methods are special cases of reduce operations, which are well supported in Scala. For example, we could compute the sum reduction using

scala> c.foldLeft(0)((x,y) => x+y)
res8: Int = 18

or the slightly more condensed form given below, and similarly for the product reduction.

scala> c.foldLeft(0)(_+_)
res9: Int = 18

scala> c.foldLeft(1)(_*_)
res10: Int = 360

Scala also has a nice immutable Vector class, which offers a range of constant time operations (but note that this has nothing to do with the mutable Vector class that is part of the Breeze library).

scala> val d = Vector(2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
d: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

scala> d
res11: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

scala> d.slice(3,6)
res12: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Int] = Vector(5, 6, 7)

scala> val e = d.updated(3,0)
e: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 4, 0, 6, 7, 8, 9)

scala> d
res13: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

scala> e
res14: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 4, 0, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Note that when e is created as an updated version of d the whole of d is not copied – only the parts that have been updated. And we don’t have to worry that aspects of d and e point to the same information in memory, as they are both immutable… As should be clear by now, Scala has excellent support for functional programming techniques. In addition to the reduce operations mentioned already, maps and filters are also well covered.

scala> val f=(1 to 10).toList
f: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

scala> f
res15: List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

scala> => x*x)
res16: List[Int] = List(1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81, 100)

scala> f map {x => x*x}
res17: List[Int] = List(1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81, 100)

scala> f filter {_ > 4}
res18: List[Int] = List(5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Note how Scala allows methods with a single argument to be written as an infix operator, making for more readable code.

A first look at Breeze

The next part of the session requires the Breeze library – see the Breeze quickstart guide for further details. We begin by taking a quick look at everyone’s favourite topic of non-uniform random number generation. Let’s start by generating a couple of draws from a Poisson distribution with mean 3.

scala> import breeze.stats.distributions._
import breeze.stats.distributions._

scala> val poi = Poisson(3.0)
poi: breeze.stats.distributions.Poisson = Poisson(3.0)

scala> poi.draw
res19: Int = 2

scala> poi.draw
res20: Int = 3

If more than a single draw is required, an iid sample can be obtained.

scala> val x = poi.sample(10)
x: IndexedSeq[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 3, 4, 2, 2, 1, 2, 4, 2)

scala> x
res21: IndexedSeq[Int] = Vector(2, 3, 3, 4, 2, 2, 1, 2, 4, 2)

scala> x.sum
res22: Int = 25

scala> x.length
res23: Int = 10

scala> x.sum.toDouble/x.length
res24: Double = 2.5

Note that this Vector is mutable. The probability mass function (PMF) of the Poisson distribution is also available.

scala> poi.probabilityOf(2)
res25: Double = 0.22404180765538775

scala> x map {x => poi.probabilityOf(x)}
res26: IndexedSeq[Double] = Vector(0.22404180765538775, 0.22404180765538775, 0.22404180765538775, 0.16803135574154085, 0.22404180765538775, 0.22404180765538775, 0.14936120510359185, 0.22404180765538775, 0.16803135574154085, 0.22404180765538775)

scala> x map {poi.probabilityOf(_)}
res27: IndexedSeq[Double] = Vector(0.22404180765538775, 0.22404180765538775, 0.22404180765538775, 0.16803135574154085, 0.22404180765538775, 0.22404180765538775, 0.14936120510359185, 0.22404180765538775, 0.16803135574154085, 0.22404180765538775)

Obviously, Gaussian variables (and Gamma, and several others) are supported in a similar way.

scala> val gau=Gaussian(0.0,1.0)
gau: breeze.stats.distributions.Gaussian = Gaussian(0.0, 1.0)

scala> gau.draw
res28: Double = 1.606121255846881

scala> gau.draw
res29: Double = -0.1747896055492152

scala> val y=gau.sample(20)
y: IndexedSeq[Double] = Vector(-1.3758577012869702, -1.2148314970824652, -0.022501190144116855, 0.3244006323566883, 0.35978577573558407, 0.9651857500320781, -0.40834034207848985, 0.11583348205331555, -0.8797699986810634, -0.33609738668214695, 0.7043252811790879, -1.2045594639823656, 0.19442688045065826, -0.31442160076087067, 0.06313451540562891, -1.5304745838587115, -1.2372764884467027, 0.5875490994217284, -0.9385520597707431, -0.6647903243363228)

scala> y
res30: IndexedSeq[Double] = Vector(-1.3758577012869702, -1.2148314970824652, -0.022501190144116855, 0.3244006323566883, 0.35978577573558407, 0.9651857500320781, -0.40834034207848985, 0.11583348205331555, -0.8797699986810634, -0.33609738668214695, 0.7043252811790879, -1.2045594639823656, 0.19442688045065826, -0.31442160076087067, 0.06313451540562891, -1.5304745838587115, -1.2372764884467027, 0.5875490994217284, -0.9385520597707431, -0.6647903243363228)

scala> y.sum/y.length
res31: Double = -0.34064156102380994

scala> y map {gau.logPdf(_)}
res32: IndexedSeq[Double] = Vector(-1.8654307403000054, -1.6568463163564844, -0.9191916849836235, -0.9715564183413823, -0.9836614354155007, -1.3847302992371653, -1.0023094506890617, -0.9256472309869705, -1.3059361584943119, -0.975419259871957, -1.1669755840586733, -1.6444202843394145, -0.93783943912556, -0.9683690047171869, -0.9209315167224245, -2.090114759123421, -1.6843650876361744, -1.0915455053203147, -1.359378517654625, -1.1399116208702693)

scala> Gamma(2.0,3.0).sample(5)
res33: IndexedSeq[Double] = Vector(2.38436441278546, 2.125017198373521, 2.333118708811143, 5.880076392566909, 2.0901427084667503)

This is all good stuff for those of us who like to do Markov chain Monte Carlo. There are not masses of statistical data analysis routines built into Breeze, but a few basic tools are provided, including some basic summary statistics.

scala> import breeze.stats.DescriptiveStats._
import breeze.stats.DescriptiveStats._

scala> mean(y)
res34: Double = -0.34064156102380994

scala> variance(y)
res35: Double = 0.574257149387757

scala> meanAndVariance(y)
res36: (Double, Double) = (-0.34064156102380994,0.574257149387757)

Support for linear algebra is an important part of any scientific library. Here the Breeze developers have made the wise decision to provide a nice Scala interface to netlib-java. This in turn calls out to any native optimised BLAS or LAPACK libraries installed on the system, but will fall back to Java code if no optimised libraries are available. This means that linear algebra code using Scala and Breeze should run as fast as code written in any other language, including C, C++ and Fortran, provided that optimised libraries are installed on the system. For further details see the Breeze linear algebra guide. Let’s start by creating and messing with a dense vector.

scala> import breeze.linalg._
import breeze.linalg._

scala> val v=DenseVector(y.toArray)
v: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(-1.3758577012869702, -1.2148314970824652, -0.022501190144116855, 0.3244006323566883, 0.35978577573558407, 0.9651857500320781, -0.40834034207848985, 0.11583348205331555, -0.8797699986810634, -0.33609738668214695, 0.7043252811790879, -1.2045594639823656, 0.19442688045065826, -0.31442160076087067, 0.06313451540562891, -1.5304745838587115, -1.2372764884467027, 0.5875490994217284, -0.9385520597707431, -0.6647903243363228)

scala> v(1) = 0

scala> v
res38: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(-1.3758577012869702, 0.0, -0.022501190144116855, 0.3244006323566883, 0.35978577573558407, 0.9651857500320781, -0.40834034207848985, 0.11583348205331555, -0.8797699986810634, -0.33609738668214695, 0.7043252811790879, -1.2045594639823656, 0.19442688045065826, -0.31442160076087067, 0.06313451540562891, -1.5304745838587115, -1.2372764884467027, 0.5875490994217284, -0.9385520597707431, -0.6647903243363228)

scala> v(1 to 3) := 1.0
res39: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(1.0, 1.0, 1.0)

scala> v
res40: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(-1.3758577012869702, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 0.35978577573558407, 0.9651857500320781, -0.40834034207848985, 0.11583348205331555, -0.8797699986810634, -0.33609738668214695, 0.7043252811790879, -1.2045594639823656, 0.19442688045065826, -0.31442160076087067, 0.06313451540562891, -1.5304745838587115, -1.2372764884467027, 0.5875490994217284, -0.9385520597707431, -0.6647903243363228)

scala> v(1 to 3) := DenseVector(1.0,1.5,2.0)
res41: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(1.0, 1.5, 2.0)

scala> v
res42: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(-1.3758577012869702, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 0.35978577573558407, 0.9651857500320781, -0.40834034207848985, 0.11583348205331555, -0.8797699986810634, -0.33609738668214695, 0.7043252811790879, -1.2045594639823656, 0.19442688045065826, -0.31442160076087067, 0.06313451540562891, -1.5304745838587115, -1.2372764884467027, 0.5875490994217284, -0.9385520597707431, -0.6647903243363228)

scala> v :> 0.0
res43: breeze.linalg.BitVector = BitVector(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 17)

scala> (v :> 0.0).toArray
res44: Array[Boolean] = Array(false, true, true, true, true, true, false, true, false, false, true, false, true, false, true, false, false, true, false, false)

Next let’s create and mess around with some dense matrices.

scala> val m = new DenseMatrix(5,4,linspace(1.0,20.0,20).toArray)
m: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
1.0  6.0   11.0  16.0  
2.0  7.0   12.0  17.0  
3.0  8.0   13.0  18.0  
4.0  9.0   14.0  19.0  
5.0  10.0  15.0  20.0  

scala> m
res45: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
1.0  6.0   11.0  16.0  
2.0  7.0   12.0  17.0  
3.0  8.0   13.0  18.0  
4.0  9.0   14.0  19.0  
5.0  10.0  15.0  20.0  

scala> m.rows
res46: Int = 5

scala> m.cols
res47: Int = 4

scala> m(::,1)
res48: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(6.0, 7.0, 8.0, 9.0, 10.0)

scala> m(1,::)
res49: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 2.0  7.0  12.0  17.0  

scala> m(1,::) := linspace(1.0,2.0,4)
res50: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 1.0  1.3333333333333333  1.6666666666666665  2.0  

scala> m
res51: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
1.0  6.0                 11.0                16.0  
1.0  1.3333333333333333  1.6666666666666665  2.0   
3.0  8.0                 13.0                18.0  
4.0  9.0                 14.0                19.0  
5.0  10.0                15.0                20.0  


scala> val n = m.t
n: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
1.0   1.0                 3.0   4.0   5.0   
6.0   1.3333333333333333  8.0   9.0   10.0  
11.0  1.6666666666666665  13.0  14.0  15.0  
16.0  2.0                 18.0  19.0  20.0  

scala> n
res52: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
1.0   1.0                 3.0   4.0   5.0   
6.0   1.3333333333333333  8.0   9.0   10.0  
11.0  1.6666666666666665  13.0  14.0  15.0  
16.0  2.0                 18.0  19.0  20.0  

scala> val o = m*n
o: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
414.0              59.33333333333333  482.0              516.0              550.0              
59.33333333333333  9.555555555555555  71.33333333333333  77.33333333333333  83.33333333333333  
482.0              71.33333333333333  566.0              608.0              650.0              
516.0              77.33333333333333  608.0              654.0              700.0              
550.0              83.33333333333333  650.0              700.0              750.0              

scala> o
res53: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
414.0              59.33333333333333  482.0              516.0              550.0              
59.33333333333333  9.555555555555555  71.33333333333333  77.33333333333333  83.33333333333333  
482.0              71.33333333333333  566.0              608.0              650.0              
516.0              77.33333333333333  608.0              654.0              700.0              
550.0              83.33333333333333  650.0              700.0              750.0              

scala> val p = n*m
p: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
52.0                117.33333333333333  182.66666666666666  248.0              
117.33333333333333  282.77777777777777  448.22222222222223  613.6666666666667  
182.66666666666666  448.22222222222223  713.7777777777778   979.3333333333334  
248.0               613.6666666666667   979.3333333333334   1345.0             

scala> p
res54: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
52.0                117.33333333333333  182.66666666666666  248.0              
117.33333333333333  282.77777777777777  448.22222222222223  613.6666666666667  
182.66666666666666  448.22222222222223  713.7777777777778   979.3333333333334  
248.0               613.6666666666667   979.3333333333334   1345.0             

So, messing around with vectors and matrices is more-or-less as convenient as in well-known dynamic and math languages. To conclude this section, let us see how to simulate some data from a regression model and then solve the least squares problem to obtain the estimated regression coefficients. We will simulate 1,000 observations from a model with 5 covariates.

scala> val X = new DenseMatrix(1000,5,gau.sample(5000).toArray)
X: breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double] = 
-0.40186606934180685  0.9847148198711287    ... (5 total)
-0.4760404521336951   -0.833737041320742    ...
-0.3315199616926892   -0.19460446824586297  ...
-0.14764615494496836  -0.17947658245206904  ...
-0.8357372755800905   -2.456222113596015    ...
-0.44458309216683184  1.848007773944826     ...
0.060314034896221065  0.5254462055311016    ...
0.8637867740789016    -0.9712570453363925   ...
0.11620167261655819   -1.2231380938032232   ...
-0.3335514290842617   -0.7487303696662753   ...
-0.5598937433421866   0.11083382409013512   ...
-1.7213395389510568   1.1717491221846357    ...
-1.078873342208984    0.9386859686451607    ...
-0.7793854546738327   -0.9829373863442161   ...
-1.054275201631216    0.10100826507456745   ...
-0.6947188686537832   1.215...
scala> val b0 = linspace(1.0,2.0,5)
b0: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(1.0, 1.25, 1.5, 1.75, 2.0)

scala> val y0 = X * b0
y0: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(0.08200546839589107, -0.5992571365601228, -5.646398002309553, -7.346136663325798, -8.486423788193362, 1.451119214541837, -0.25792385841948406, 2.324936340609002, -1.2285599639827862, -4.030261316643863, -4.1732627416377674, -0.5077151099958077, -0.2087263741903591, 0.46678616461409383, 2.0244342278575975, 1.775756468177401, -4.799821190728213, -1.8518388060564481, 1.5892306875621767, -1.6528539564387008, 1.4064864330994125, -0.8734630221484178, -7.75470002781836, -0.2893619536998493, -5.972958583649336, -4.952666733286302, 0.5431255990489059, -2.477076684976403, -0.6473617571867107, -0.509338416957489, -1.5415350935719594, -0.47068802465681125, 2.546118380362026, -7.940401988804477, -1.037049442788122, -1.564016663370888, -3.3147087994...
scala> val y = y0 + DenseVector(gau.sample(1000).toArray)
y: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(-0.572127338358624, -0.16481167194161406, -4.213873268823003, -10.142015065601388, -7.893898543052863, 1.7881055848475076, -0.26987820512025357, 3.3289433195054148, -2.514141419925489, -4.643625974157769, -3.8061000214061886, 0.6462624993109218, 0.23603338389134149, 1.0211137806779267, 2.0061727641393317, 0.022624943149799348, -5.429601401989341, -1.836181225242386, 1.0265599173053048, -0.1673732536615371, 0.8418249443853956, -1.1547110533101967, -8.392100167478764, -1.1586377992526877, -6.400362975646245, -5.487018086963841, 0.3038055584347069, -1.2247410435868684, -0.06476921390724344, -1.5039074374120407, -1.0189111630970076, 1.307339668865724, 2.048320821568789, -8.769328824477714, -0.9104251029228555, -1.3533910178496698, -2.178788...
scala> val b = X \ y  // defaults to a QR-solve of the least squares problem
b: breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double] = DenseVector(0.9952708232116663, 1.2344546192238952, 1.5543512339052412, 1.744091673457169, 1.9874158953720507)

So all of the most important building blocks for statistical computing are included in the Breeze library.

At this point it is really worth reminding yourself that Scala is actually a statically typed language, despite the fact that in this session we have not explicitly declared the type of anything at all! This is because Scala has type inference, which makes type declarations optional when it is straightforward for the compiler to figure out what the types must be. For example, for our very first expression, val a = 5, because the RHS is an Int, it is clear that the LHS must also be an Int, and so the compiler infers that the type of a must be an Int, and treats the code as if the type had been declared as val a: Int = 5. This type inference makes Scala feel very much like a dynamic language in general use. Typically, we carefully specify the types of function arguments (and often the return type of the function, too), but then for the main body of each function, just let the compiler figure out all of the types and write code as if the language were dynamic. To me, this seems like the best of all worlds. The convenience of dynamic languages with the safety of static typing.

Declaring the types of function arguments is not usually a big deal, as the following simple example demonstrates.

scala> def mean(arr: Array[Int]): Double = {
     |   arr.sum.toDouble/arr.length
     | }
mean: (arr: Array[Int])Double

scala> mean(Array(3,1,4,5))
res55: Double = 3.25

A complete Scala program

For completeness, I will finish this post with a very simple but complete Scala/Breeze program. In a previous post I discussed a simple Gibbs sampler in Scala, but in that post I used the Java COLT library for random number generation. Below is a version using Breeze instead.

object BreezeGibbs {

  import breeze.stats.distributions._
  import scala.math.sqrt

  class State(val x: Double, val y: Double)

  def nextIter(s: State): State = {
    val newX = Gamma(3.0, 1.0 / ((s.y) * (s.y) + 4.0)).draw()
    new State(newX, Gaussian(1.0 / (newX + 1), 1.0 / sqrt(2 * newX + 2)).draw())

  def nextThinnedIter(s: State, left: Int): State = {
    if (left == 0) s
    else nextThinnedIter(nextIter(s), left - 1)

  def genIters(s: State, current: Int, stop: Int, thin: Int): State = {
    if (!(current > stop)) {
      println(current + " " + s.x + " " + s.y)
      genIters(nextThinnedIter(s, thin), current + 1, stop, thin)
    } else s

  def main(args: Array[String]) {
    println("Iter x y")
    genIters(new State(0.0, 0.0), 1, 50000, 1000)



In this post I’ve tried to give a quick taste of the Scala language and the Breeze library for those used to dynamic languages for statistical computing. Hopefully I’ve illustrated that the basics don’t look too different, so there is no reason to fear Scala. It is perfectly possible to start using Scala as a better and faster Python or R. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can then start exploring the full power of the language. There’s loads of introductory Scala material to be found on-line. It probably makes sense to start with the links I’ve highlighted above. After that, just start searching – there’s an interesting set of tutorials I noticed just the other day. A very time-efficient way to learn Scala quickly is to do the FP with Scala course on Coursera, but whether this makes sense will depend on when it is next running. For those who prefer real books, the book Programming in Scala is the standard reference, and I’ve also found Functional programming in Scala to be useful (free text of the first edition of the former and a draft of the latter can be found on-line).

REPL Script

Below is a copy of the complete REPL script, for reference.

// start with non-Breeze stuff

val a = 5
a = 6

var b = 7
b = 8

val c = List(3,4,5,6)
c.foldLeft(0)((x,y) => x+y)

val d = Vector(2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)
val e = d.updated(3,0)

val f=(1 to 10).toList
f => x*x)
f map {x => x*x}
f filter {_ > 4}

// introduce breeze through random distributions

import breeze.stats.distributions._
val poi = Poisson(3.0)
val x = poi.sample(10)
x map {x => poi.probabilityOf(x)}
x map {poi.probabilityOf(_)}

val gau=Gaussian(0.0,1.0)
val y=gau.sample(20)
y map {gau.logPdf(_)}


import breeze.stats.DescriptiveStats._

// move on to linear algebra

import breeze.linalg._
val v=DenseVector(y.toArray)
v(1) = 0
v(1 to 3) := 1.0
v(1 to 3) := DenseVector(1.0,1.5,2.0)
v :> 0.0
(v :> 0.0).toArray

val m = new DenseMatrix(5,4,linspace(1.0,20.0,20).toArray)
m(1,::) := linspace(1.0,2.0,4)

val n = m.t
val o = m*n
val p = n*m

// regression and QR solution

val X = new DenseMatrix(1000,5,gau.sample(5000).toArray)
val b0 = linspace(1.0,2.0,5)
val y0 = X * b0
val y = y0 + DenseVector(gau.sample(1000).toArray)
val b = X \ y  // defaults to a QR-solve of the least squares problem

// a simple function example

def mean(arr: Array[Int]): Double = {


Multivariate data analysis (using R)

I’ve been very quiet on-line in the last few months, due mainly to the fact that I’ve been writing a new undergraduate course on multivariate data analysis. Although there are many books and on-line notes on the general topic of multivariate statistics, I wanted to do something a little bit different from any text I have yet discovered. First, I wanted to have a strong emphasis on using techniques in practice on example data sets of reasonable size. For this, I found Hastie et al (2009) to be very useful, as it covered some interesting example data sets which have been bundled in the CRAN R package, ElemStatLearn. I used several of the data sets from this package as running examples throughout the course. In fact my initial plan was to use Hastie et al as the main course text, but it turned out that this text was in some places overly technical and in many places far too terse to be good as an undergraduate text. I would still recommend the book for researchers who want a good overview of the interface between statistics and machine learning, but with hindsight I’m not convinced it is ideal for typical statistics undergraduate students.

I also wanted to have a strong emphasis on numerical linear algebra as the basis for multivariate statistical computation. Again, this is a bit different from “old school” multivariate statistics (which reminds me, John Marden has produced a great text available freely on-line on old school multivariate analysis, which isn’t quite as “old school” as the title might suggest). I wanted to spend some time talking about linear systems and matrix factorisations, explaining, for example how the LU decomposition, the Cholesky factorisation and the QR factorisations are related, and why the latter two are both fundamental to multivariate data analysis, and how the singular value decomposition (SVD) is related to the spectral decomposition, and why it is generally better to construct principal components from the SVD of the centred data matrix than the eigen-decomposition of the sample variance matrix, etc. These sorts of topics are not often covered in undergraduate statistics courses, but they are crucial to understanding how to analyse large multivariate data sets in a numerically stable way.

I also wanted to downplay distribution theory as much as possible, as multivariate distribution theory is quite difficult, and not necessary for understanding most of the essential concepts in multivariate data analysis. Also, it is not obviously very useful. Essentially all introductory courses are based around the multivariate normal distribution, but I have yet to see a real non-trivial multivariate data set for which an assumption of multivariate normality is appropriate. Consequently I delayed the introduction of the multivariate normal until well into the course, and didn’t bother with the Wishart distribution, or testing for multivariate normality. Like much frequentist testing, it is really just a matter of seeing if you have yet collected a large enough sample to reject the null hypothesis – I just don’t see the point (null)!

Finally, I wanted to use R to illustrate all of the methods in practice as they were introduced. We use R throughout our undergraduate statistics programme, and I think it is a good language for learning about statistical methods, algorithms and concepts. In most cases I begin by showing how to carry out analyses using “elementary” operations (such as matrix manipulations), and then go on to show how to accomplish the same task more simply using higher-level R functions and packages. Again, I think it really helps understanding to first see the mathematical description directly translated into computer code before jumping to high-level data analysis functions.

There are several aspects of the course that I would like to distil out into self-contained blog posts, but I have a busy summer schedule, and a couple of other things I want to write about before I’ll have a chance to get around to it, so in the mean time, anyone interested is welcome to download a copy of the course notes (PDF, with hyperlinks). This is the student version, containing gaps, but the gaps mainly correspond to bits of standard theory and examples designed to be worked through by hand. All of the essential theory and context and all of the R examples are present in this version of the notes. There are seven chapters: Introduction to multivariate data; PCA and matrix factorisations; Inference, the MVN and multivariate regression; Cluster analysis and unsupervised learning; Discrimination and classification; Graphical modelling; Variable selection and multiple testing.

Java math libraries and Monte Carlo simulation codes

Java libraries for (non-uniform) random number simulation

Anyone writing serious Monte Carlo (and MCMC) codes relies on having a very good and fast (uniform) random number generator and associated functions for generation of non-uniform random quantities, such as Gaussian, Poisson, Gamma, etc. In a previous post I showed how to write a simple Gibbs sampler in four different languages. In C (and C++) random number generation is easy for most scientists, as the (excellent) GNU Scientific Library (GSL) provides exactly what most people need. But it wasn’t always that way… I remember the days before the GSL, when it was necessary to hunt around on the net for bits of C code to implement different algorithms. Worse, it was often necessary to hunt around for a bit of free FORTRAN code, and compile that with an F77 compiler and figure out how to call it from C. Even in the early Alpha days of the GSL, coverage was patchy, and the API changed often. Bad old days… But those days are long gone, and C programmers no longer have to worry about the problem of random variate generation – they can safely concentrate on developing their interesting new algorithm, and leave the rest to the GSL. Unfortunately for Java programmers, there isn’t yet anything quite comparable to the GSL in Java world.

I pretty much ignored Java until Java 5. Before then, the language was too limited, and the compilers and JVMs were too primitive to really take seriously for numerical work. But since the launch of Java 5 I’ve been starting to pay more interest. The language is now a perfectly reasonable O-O language, and the compilers and JVMs are pretty good. On a lot of benchmarks, Java is really quite comparable to C/C++, and Java is nicer to code, and has a lot of impressive associated technology. So if there was a math library comparable to the GSL, I’d be quite tempted to jump ship to the Java world and start writing all of my Monte Carlo codes in Java. But there isn’t. At least not yet.

When I first started to take Java seriously, the only good math library with good support for non-uniform random number generation was COLT. COLT was, and still is, pretty good. The code is generally well-written, and fast, and the documentation for it is reasonable. However, the structure of the library is very idiosyncratic, the coverage is a bit patchy, and there doesn’t ever seem to have been a proper development community behind it. It seems very much to have been a one-man project, which has long since stagnated. Unsurprisingly then, COLT has been forked. There is now a Parallel COLT project. This project is continuing the development of COLT, adding new features that were missing from COLT, and, as the name suggests, adding concurrency support. Parallel COLT is also good, and is the main library I currently use for random number generation in Java. However, it has obviously inherited all of the idiosyncrasies that COLT had, and still doesn’t seem to have a large and active development community associated with it. There is no doubt that it is an incredibly useful software library, but it still doesn’t really compare to the GSL.

I have watched the emergence of the Apache Commons Math project with great interest (not to be confused with Uncommons Math – another one-man project). I think this project probably has the greatest potential for providing the Java community with their own GSL equivalent. The Commons project has a lot of momentum, the Commons Math project seems to have an active development community, and the structure of the library is more intuitive than that of (Parallel) COLT. However, it is early days, and the library still has patchy coverage and is a bit rough around the edges. It reminds me a lot of the GSL back in its Alpha days. I’d not bothered to even download it until recently, as the random number generation component didn’t include the generation of gamma random quantities – an absolutely essential requirement for me. However, I noticed recently that the latest release (2.2) did include gamma generation, so I decided to download it and try it out. It works, but the generation of gamma random quantities is very slow (around 50 times slower than Parallel COLT). This isn’t a fundamental design flaw of the whole library – generating Gaussian random quantities is quite comparable with other libraries. It’s just that an inversion method has been used for gamma generation. All efficient gamma generators use a neat rejection scheme. In case anyone would like to investigate for themselves, here is a complete program for gamma generation designed to be linked against Parallel COLT:

import java.util.*;
import cern.jet.random.tdouble.*;
import cern.jet.random.tdouble.engine.*;

class GammaPC

    public static void main(String[] arg)
	DoubleRandomEngine rngEngine=new DoubleMersenneTwister();
	Gamma rngG=new Gamma(1.0,1.0,rngEngine);
	long N=10000;
	double x=0.0;
	for (int i=0;i<N;i++) {
	    for (int j=0;j<1000;j++) {

and here is a complete program designed to be linked against Commons Math:

import java.util.*;
import org.apache.commons.math.*;
import org.apache.commons.math.random.*;

class GammaACM

    public static void main(String[] arg) throws MathException
	RandomDataImpl rng=new RandomDataImpl();
	long N=10000;
	double x=0.0;
	for (int i=0;i<N;i++) {
	    for (int j=0;j<1000;j++) {

The two codes do the same thing (note that they parameterise the gamma distribution differently). Both programs work (they generate variates from the same, correct, distribution), and the Commons Math interface is slightly nicer, but the code is much slower to execute. I’m still optimistic that Commons Math will one day be Java’s GSL, but I’m not giving up on Parallel COLT (or C, for that matter!) just yet…