Saturday, 28 March 2015

That Post Where I Revist An Earlier Blog Post, Reflect On How Much I've Grown, And We All Get Sentimental

This is not a SLOG I looked forward to writing. Now, as my massive hoard of readers has probably noticed, I am not a socialite. I just don't like to talk about myself very much. If you skim through my many posts, you'll notice a reoccurring theme- they're mostly concerned with my comprehension of the concepts covered in the class, not so much on my experiences regarding them. And, if I can be even more blunt, I only interact with other SLOG's to get the participation marks. So, this post will, by and large, serve as a sort of way of remedying this.

Anyways, let's just cut to the chase. It should not come as a surprise that I've learned a lot since starting this course. As new concepts stack upon older ones, the big picture of the course keeps getting more and more clear. Sometimes, something I've written in the past seems as though I could've written it now. Other times, it just looks hopelessly outdated. Now, the goal of this blog post is to find just one example of this, and to present it to the world so that the TA's laugh at me behind my back for not getting it right the first time can experience that sentimental feeling a parent gets when they watch a child utter their first word, and than shed a tear in one eye. I love you all too.

Anyways, to be honest, I have a tendency to revisit past blog posts and make changes. Usually every time I write a new one. Sometimes it's just to correct spelling and grammar mistakes. Other times it's improve my style and prose. And sometimes, if I run into a sentence which is syntactically broken beyond repair, I'll just rewrite it from scratch. And of course, whenever I revisit these past blog posts, the temptation to update them with the stuff I know in the present becomes stronger and stronger. And in some cases, the finished product barely resembles the first draft.

So, long story short, I'm going to do something a little bit different. Rather than just recall a blog post from the past of which I agreed or disagreed with in the future, I'm going to do this will a whole series of blog posts. Mainly, my series on Abstract Data Types: which covers Trees, Linked Lists, and Binary Search Trees.

In all of these posts, I tried to provide a short and concise explanation of what these abstract data types are. I tried to remain as self-aware as possible to the subtle distinction between the implementation of them, versus the sort of abstract definition they all have. And, as I pointed out in a later post, the abstract definition of an ADT is often hard to pinpoint, since its focused more on the relationship between the parts of the structure than on any one part of it. However, in all of these posts on abstract data types, I feel as though I focused too much on the abstract part, and not enough on the specific details of implementation. In my defense, most of the SLOG's I read seemed to focus on the implementation of the ADT disproportionately, so it seemed appropriate for me to do something different. And whats wrong with a little differentiation?

However, my approach hasn't really afforded me the ability to discuss recursion, and the role it has played in this course. Now, as Many of my peers have noted, Recursion is a very central element of this course. It's an element of our theoretical toolbox which makes it possible to efficiently solve all sorts of problems we previously assumed were tedious at best. The competence shift I gained when I added this tool to my arsenal was analogous to the jump I made when I first learned how to use iteration in CSC108. Its a little embarrassing, but I remember feeling like I could solve any problem thrown at me. Like that there was nothing left to learn. It was wonderful.

Recursion can be thought of as being even more basic than iteration. Now, iteration can be thought of as sequentially traveling across an array from left to right, correct? Well, using that intuition, we can think of recursion as a way of traveling from any one thing to another. It can simply be the next element of an array, as is the case in a Linked List. There can be two next elements in the array, and a function determining which one you will travel to (as is the case with a binary search tree, if you'll pardon my loose use of the words "element" and "array"). Really, in this sense, there is no real direction- there's just the "current thing" of analysis and the "next thing".

Now, consider a program which relies on recursive processes, like a program which collapses a list of elements containing sub-lists which are arbitrarily deeply nested into a list of depth one. In this program, the method is simple: evaluate every element of the list. If that element itself is a list,  reapply this function to it, which will again cause it to iterate over every element of that list. If it's not a list, than just put the element into some new list which is passed along the function.

Now, although this isn't an instance of iteration over some array like a "for loop", it certainly shares some important similarities to one. We start off with an initial input, and than the function takes it and returns a call to the function itself, except this time, with a different input. You can think of this sequence of inputs and outputs which become new inputs as a sequence in which, if the recursive function is defined properly, will end at some point and return the desired ending output. So although it is not just mere iteration- it certainly is similar since it is a sequential process- which is extremely reminiscent to the sort of sequential processing computers are known and loved for.

So, now it's probably much easier to see what I mean when I say that the majority of the ADT's we work with are contingent on recursion and recursive sub processes. I'm just happy I finally had a chance to revisit those old posts in order to make this point. As many of my peers have pointed out, recursion does seem like a major theme of this course. And I'm happy I got a chance to express my thoughts on it.

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