A

*group*is a mathematical concept. It's pretty simple. It consists of a set,

`G`

, and an operation, `*`

, which can be used to combine any two elements of `G`

. What the set contains is not that important. It is the `*`

operation we're interested in, and we can usually swap out `G`

for another set without causing too many problems other than having to change the type signature of `*`

. There are four axioms that `*`

must obey**Closure**—combining any two elements of`G`

using`*`

just gives you another element in`G`

.

Note that this means you can build an arbitrary binary tree of combinations:*e.g.*`(* (* a b) (* (* c d) e)))`

. These trees will always be like a tree of cons cells. In some sense, the closure axiom is equivalent to saying that all the elements of`G`

have the same type and that the`*`

operator operates on values of that type and produces values of that type. The closure axiom along with the binary operation means that we can reduce any tree of combinations to a single value.**Associativity**—`(* (* a b) c) = (* a (* b c))`

for any`a`

,`b`

, and`c`

. This implies that you can take any arbitrary tree of combinations:*e.g.*`(* (* a b) (* (* c d) e)))`

and simply flatten it into a list`(* a b c d e)`

, or given the flat sequence`(* a b c d e)`

we can add parenthesis anywhere we like:`(* a (* b c) d e)`

. If we stop here and only have the closure and associativity axiom, we have what is called a “semigroup”. You can use the`*`

operation to “fold” a semigroup down to single value, or to keep an*accumulator*and incrementally fold elements into the accumulator.**Identity element**—There has to be an identity element*id*such that`(*`

for all*id*x) = (* x*id*) = x`x`

. It will be unique. If you see the identity object in a combination`(* a b`

, you can simply remove it:*id*c d)`(* a b c d)`

. The identity element also comes in handy as an initial value when you are folding a sequence. If you have some concept that would be a group except it doesn't have an identity element, then you can often just make one up and add it to the set`G`

.**Inverse element**—For every element in`G`

there has to be another element, that when combined with the first, gives you the identity. So if`a`

is an element in`G`

, there has to be some other element, call it`b`

, such that`(* a b) = (* b a) =`

. The inverse element is usually notated with a little -1:*id*`a`

. If you have an element in a combination right next to it's inverse:^{-1}`(* a x x`

, you can combine the element and it's inverse to get the identity:^{-1}c)`(* a`

, and then remove the identity:*id*c)`(* a c)`

*monoid*. A monoid is very much like a group except that you can get “stuck” when manipulating it if you run into one of the non-invertible elements because there's no inverse to “undo” it. There are certain things about monoids that are true only “if the appropriate inverses exist”. You run into that qualifier a lot when dealing with monoids. You don't need that qualifier if you are dealing with a group because they do exist by axiom. Or we could say that calling something a group is simply shorthand for adding “if the appropriate inverses exist” everywhere.

What does this have to do with computers? Consider the set of all subroutines with the operation of concatenation. It is closed — concatenating two subroutines gives you a third subroutine. It is associative — you just concatenate them linearly. There is an identity element, usually called

`no-op`

. And many, but not all, subroutines have inverses. So we have a monoid.Consider the set of all strings with the operation of concatenation. It is closed, associative, the empty string is the identity element. It is a monoid.

Consider the set of functions whose input type is the same as the result type with the operation of composition. It is closed, associative, the identity function is the identity element. It is a monoid. If we consider only the subset of functions that also have inverses, we have a group. This particular monoid or group comes in especially handy because composition of functions is so useful.

Consider the set of invertible 2x2 matrices with integer components, a determinant of 1 or -1, and the operation of matrix multiply. It is closed, associative, there is an identity matrix, and I already said just consider the invertible ones. It forms a group. This group comes in handy for implementing arbitrary precision arithmetic. (Thanks to Bradley Lucier for the correction of the condition on the determinant. This makes the matrix continue to have integer components upon inversion, keeping things closed.)

The permutations of a list form a group. The integers under addition form a group.

These things are everywhere. And it isn't a coincidence. The concepts of a group, monoid, and semigroup are meant to capture the essence of what it is to have a

*foldable sequence*of elements. (Can I complain about mathematicians here? They make up so much terminology and abstraction that it is virtually impossible to get at what they really mean. We're just talking about sequences of elements and trying to find some minimal axioms that you need to have to fold them, but try to find literature that actually says that's what we're doing is like trying to pull hen's teeth.)

So what good are groups, monoids, and semigroups? Aside from the obvious fact that foldable sequences are ubiquitous and really useful, that is. Not immediately apparent from the axioms is that in addition to folding a sequence, you can transform a sequence into a different, but equivalent one. If the appropriate inverses exist (there's that phrase), you can “unfold” some or all elements of a sequence. So by judicious folding and unfolding, you can transform a sequence.

Here's an unusual abstract example. Consider a pipeline which has a set of nodes and communicates values of the same type between the nodes. Values accumulate at the nodes until they are transmitted to the next node in the pipeline. We start with all the values in the initial node (on the right) and transmit them to the left:

(pipeline (node) (node) (node a b c))If the values we transmit are drawn from a group, we can replace each node with the group's;; transmit the a(pipeline (node) (node a) (node b c));; transmit the b(pipeline (node) (node a b) (node c));; transmit the a(pipeline (node a) (node b) (node c));; transmit the c(pipeline (node a) (node b c) (node));; transmit the b(pipeline (node a b) (node c) (node));; transmit the c(pipeline (node a b c) (node) (node));; done

`*`

operator:(* identity identity (* a b c))The astute reader will notice that all we're doing is making use of the associativity axiom and moving the parenthesis around so that the values seem to move between the different nodes. But we preserve the invariant that the “value” of the entire pipeline doesn't change as the values move. The;; transmit the a(* identity (* identity a) (* b c));; transmit the b(* identity (* a b) (* identity c));; transmit the a(* (* identity a) (* identity b) (* identity c));; transmit the c(* (* identity a) (* b c) identity);; transmit the b(* (* a b) (* identity c) identity);; transmit the c(* (* a b c) identity identity);; done

`*`

operator need not be `concatenate`

, which would give simple queuing behavior, but can be any operator satisfying the axioms giving us much more interesting pipelines. One implementation of arbitrary precision arithmetic transmits *Möbius transformations*along just such a pipeline to refine the upper and lower limits of a computed approximation. In this implementation, the

`*`

operator is the composition of Möbius transformations.Here's a more concrete example. If you have a series of nested functions:

`(f (g x))`

and both `f`

and `g`

take and return the same type, rewrite it as `((compose f g) x)`

and use a little group theory on it.(f (g x)) ((compose f g) x)If the appropriate inverses exist, then there will be another function;; or more explicitly((fold-left compose identity (list f g)) x)

`h`

such that `(compose f g)`

is equal to `(compose h f)`

essentially allowing you to “slide” `g`

to the left “through” `f`

. It is relatively easy to see that `h`

must be equivalent to `(compose f g f`^{-1})

. Mathematicians say that `h`

is *conjugate*to

`g`

. Conjugates always have a form like `aba`^{-1}

. By finding conjugates, you can take a sequence and slide the elements left and right through other elements. This also allows you to fold things out of order. (Or in the pipeline example, transmit items out of order.) If we were left folding into an accumulator, folding `h`

*before*

`f`

is equivalent to folding `g`

*after*

`f`

. Another way of looking at it is this. Suppose we're standing to the left of `f`

and looking through the “lens” of `f`

at `g`

. `h`

is what `g`

“looks like” when viewed through `f`

.If we want, we can define

`slide`

such that `(compose slide (compose f g))`

is equivalent to `(compose h f)`

. `slide`

is `(compose h f g`^{-1} f^{-1})

. (This isn't a generic `slide`

sequence, it only works on `(compose f g)`

. It ought to be an identity because `(compose f g)`

is equivalent to `(compose h f)`

.) I complained that mathematicians provided too few concrete examples, so here is a concrete example using list permutations:> (reverse (rotate-left '(a b c d))) (a d c b);; rewrite as explicitfold-leftofcompose > ((fold-left compose identity (list reverse rotate-left)) '(a b c d)) (a d c b);; slidingrotate-leftthroughreverseturns it intorotate-right > ((fold-left compose identity (list rotate-right reverse)) '(a b c d)) (a d c b);; A sequence that when composed with(list reverse rotate-left)turns it into ;;(rotate-right reverse) > (define slide (fold-left compose identity (list rotate-right reverse rotate-right reverse))) slide > ((fold-left compose identity (list slide reverse rotate-left)) '(a b c d)) (a d c b);; rewrite back to direct procedure calls> (rotate-right (reverse '(a b c d))) (a d c b);; andslideought to be an identity> ((fold-left compose identity (list slide)) '(a b c d)) (a b c d)

Or suppose you have

`(f (g x))`

, but for some reason you *want*

`(g (f x))`

(which would, in general, be a different value unless `f`

and `g`

happen to commute). Again, rewrite `(f (g x))`

as `((compose f g) x)`

and apply a little group theory. If the appropriate inverses exist, there will be a function `commute-fg`

such that `(compose commute-fg (compose f g))`

is equivalent to `(compose g f)`

. With a little thought, you can see that `commute-fg`

is equivalent to `(compose g f g`^{-1} f^{-1})

. (Again, this isn't a generic commute, it only causes this specific `f`

and `g`

to commute.) `commute-fg`

is called a *commutator*because it makes

`f`

and `g`

commute. Commutators always have the form `aba`^{-1}b^{-1}

. By finding commutators and inserting them in the right place, you can take a sequence and swap adjacent elements. Again, a concrete example with lists:;; an illustration of what swap-first two does> (swap-first-two '(a b c d)) (b a c d);; we're given> (reverse (swap-first-two '(a b c d))) (d c a b);; but we want, for some reason toreversefirst> (swap-first-two (reverse '(a b c d))) (c d b a);; rewrite asfold-leftofcompose > ((fold-left compose identity (list reverse swap-first-two)) '(a b c d)) (d c a b);; define our commutator;; note that swap-first-two and reverse are their own inverses> (define commute-fg (fold-left compose identity (list swap-first-two reverse swap-first-two reverse)));; makefandgcommute;; observe that it returns the desired result> ((fold-left compose identity (list commute-fg reverse swap-first-two)) '(a b c d)) (c d b a)

There's two interesting things here. First, notice that in both examples I convert

`(f (g x))`

to `((fold-left compose identity (list f g)) x)`

and then proceed to ignore `x`

and just consider `(fold-left compose identity (list f g))`

as if `x`

didn't exist. I've abstracted away the `x`

. (Of course I have to eventually supply the `x`

if I want an answer, but it only comes back at the last moment.) Second, notice that although `slide`

and `commute-fg`

are foldable sequences, I use them as if they were higher order functions operating on the foldable sequence `(compose f g)`

to transform it, first into `(compose h f)`

, second into `(compose g f)`

. This second thing is a neat trick. We're taking a function that operates on lists and treating it as if it were a higher-order function that operates on functions. This is called the “action” of `slide`

and `commute-fg`

because it appears as if elements of the set `G`

of our group can “act” directly on other elements.Every element in the underlying set

`G`

of a group has an action associated with it which operates directly on other elements in `G`

. This is an important concept in group theory. Now earlier I said that the actual elements of `G`

don't matter much, so the action must be more closely tied to the operator `*`

. And if we swap out `G`

for another set we'll still have the same actions, they'll just be associated with the elements of the new set (in an isomorphic way). The actions are pretty abstract.There's a lot more one could say about the actions. They are a rich source of interesting math. My brain is getting fatigued with all this abstraction, so I'll leave the topic be for now.

If group theory is about the essence of what it means to have a foldable sequence, then

*category theory*is about the essence of

*composition*. They offer two somewhat different approaches to similar material. What do you do with sequences but compose them? What comes from composition but a sequence? Many concepts in group theory carry over into category theory. Naturally a completely different set of terminology is used, but the concepts are there.

But that's enough group theory for today and category theory can wait until later posts.