Asymptotics I Study Guide
Author: Josh Hug


Runtime Minimization. One of the most important properties of a program is the time it takes to execute. One goal as a programmer is to minimize the time (in seconds) that a program takes to complete.

Runtime Measurement. Some natural techniques:

Algorithm Scaling. While we ultimately care about the runtime of an algorithm in seconds, we’ll often say that one algorithm is better than another simply because of how it scales. By scaling, we mean how the runtime of a piece of code grows as a function of its input size. For example, inserting at the beginning of ArrayList on an old computer might take $R(N) = 0.0001N$ seconds, where $N$ is the size of the list.

For example, if the runtime of two algorithms is $R_1(N) = N^2$, and $R_2(N) = 5000 + N$, we’d say algorithm 2 is better, even though R1 is much faster for small N.

A rough justification for this argument is that performance critical situations are exactly those for which N is “large”, though this is not an obvious fact. In almost all cases we’d prefer the linear algorithm. In some limited real-world situations like matrix multiplication, one might select one algorithm for small N, and another algorithm for large N. We won’t do this in 61B.

Simplfying Algebraic Runtime. We utilize four simplifications to make runtime analysis simpler.

As an example, if we have an algorithm that performs between $N$ and $2N + 1$ increment operations and between $N$ and $4N^2 + 2N + 6$ compares, our intuitive simplifications will lead us to say that this algorithm has a runtime proportional to $N^2$.

The cost model is simply an operation that we’re picking to represent the entire piece of code. Make sure to pick an appropriate cost model! If we had chosen the number of increment operations as our cost model, we’d mistakenly determine that the runtime was proportional to $N$. This is incorrect since for large N, the comparisons will vastly outnumber the increments.

Order of Growth. The result of applying our last 3 simplifications gives us the order of growth of a function. So for example, suppose $R(N) = 4N^2 + 3N + 6$, we’d say that the order of growth of $R(N)$ is $N^2$.

The terms “constant”, “linear”, and “quadratic” are often used for algorithms with order of growth $1$, $N$, and $N^2$, respectively. For example, we might say that an algorithm with runtime $4N^2 + 3N + 6$ is quadratic.

Simplified Analysis. We can apply our simplifications in advance. Rather than computing the number of operations for ALL operations, we can pick a specific operation as our cost model and count only that operation.

Once we’ve chosen a cost model, we can either:

This latter approach is generally preferable, but requires a lot of practice. One common intuitive/inspection-based approach is use geometric intuition. For example, if we have nested for loops where i goes from 0 to N, and j goes from i + 1 to N, we observe that the runtime is effectively given by a right triangle of side length N. Since the area of a such a triangle grows quadratically, the order of growth of the runtime is quadratic.

Big Theta. To formalize our intuitive simplifications, we introduce Big-Theta notation. We say that a function $R(N) \in \Theta(f(N))$ if there exists positive constants $k_1$ and $k_2$ such that $k_1 f_1(N) \leq R(N) \leq k_2f_2(N)$.

Many authors write $R(N) = \Theta(f(N))$ instead of $R(N) \in \Theta(f(N))$. You may use either notation as you please. I will use them interchangeably.

An alternate non-standard definition is that $R(N) \in \Theta(f(N))$ iff the $\lim_{N\to\infty} \frac{R(N)}{f(N)} = k$, where $k$ is some positive constant. We will not use this calculus based definition in class. I haven’t thought carefully about this alternate definition, so it might be slightly incorrect due to some calculus subtleties.

When using $\Theta$ to capture a function’s asymptotic scaling, we avoid unnecessary terms in our $\Theta$ expression. For example, while $4N^2 + 3N + 6 \in \Theta(4N^2 + 3N)$, we will usually make the simpler claim that is $4N^2 + 3N + 6 \in \Theta(N^2)$.

Big Theta is exactly equivalent to order of growth. That is, if a function $R(N)$ has order of growth $N^2$, then we also have that $R(N) \in \Theta(f(N))$.

For more code analysis problems, See lec18 and lec19 guides instead.

B level

  1. Suppose we have a function bleepBlorp, and its runtime $R(N)$ has order of growth $\Theta(N^2)$. Which of the following can we say?
    • $R(N) \in \Theta(N^2)$ true, this is what order of growth means!
    • $R(N) \in \Theta(N^2)$ for any inputs true, this statement is exactly the same as the one above
    • $R(N) \in \Theta(N^2)$ for worst case inputs true, since also true for ANY input
    • For large N, if we run bleepBlorp on an input of size $N$, and an input of size $10N$, we will have to wait roughly 100 times as long for the larger input. true, this is the nature of quadratics
    • If we run bleepBlorp on an input of size 1000, and an input of size 10000, we will have to wait roughly 100 times as long for the larger input. false, 1000 may not be a large enough N to exhibit quadratic behavior