Monte Carlo to Las Vegas
Recently I wrote an algorithms library while following Computer Science courses to understand better the fundamental data structures that underpin modern computing. In the process, I gained an appreciation of the benefits of good API design.
Sometimes the goal of exposing a lean library API conflicts with that of writing performant code. Let's look at one such situation I encountered when adding a substring search algorithm to Collections.
Monte Carlo algorithms
Monte Carlo algorithms are those which we can guarantee to terminate in finite time but which may yield an incorrect result now and then.^{1} On the other hand, a Las Vegas algorithm is guaranteed to produce a correct result, but we might only be able to obtain a probabilistic measure of its runtime.
It is possible to formulate a Las Vegas variant of an algorithm from the Monte Carlo variant in some cases. The RabinKarp substring search algorithm has this property.
Substring search
Substring search algorithms let us find the position of a search string or pattern p
within a larger piece of text t
. Suppose our library exposes them as curried functions
where $i \in I$ if the search string appears as a substring in the text, and $i = 1$ otherwise.^{2}
Example usage in Python:
>>> find("needle")("It's like looking for a needle in a haystack")
24
>>> find("nettle")("It's like looking for a needle in a haystack")
1
The naïve or brute force algorithm loops through every character of search text and attempts to match the search string against the next len(p)
characters encountered:
def find(pattern):
m = len(pattern)
def search(text):
n = len(text)
for i in range(0, n):
if pattern == text[i : i + m]:
return i
return 1
return search
It performs poorly for large text input.^{3} We can do much better by using something like RabinKarp search.^{4}
Our goal is to enable the client to write the Las Vegas variant of RabinKarp in terms of the Monte Carlo variant so that the library only has to export one implementation.
RabinKarp
The RabinKarp algorithm attempts to find the search string by computing a rolling hash of successive substrings in the search text.^{5} The Monte Carlo variant returns the index that defines the first substring with a hash matching that of the pattern  if one exists. Note that a hash collision can result in a false positive match.
Looking at code will make the idea clear. Here is a Python implementation of RabinKarp:
# rabin_karp.py
def find(pattern):
r = 256 # Search over ASCII characters
q = 997 # Large prime number
m = len(pattern)
def hash(s):
# Hash the first m characters of s
h = 0
for c in s[:m]:
h = (h * r + ord(c)) % q
return h
pattern_hash = hash(pattern)
def search(text):
# Compare the rolling hash to the pattern hash
text_hash = hash(text)
n = len(text)
if text_hash == pattern_hash:
return 0
# Precompute r^(m1) % q for use in removing leading digit
R = 1
for _ in range(1, m):
R = (r * R) % q
for i in range(m, n):
# Remove contribution from the leading digit,
text_hash = (text_hash + q  R * ord(text[i  m]) % q) % q
# and add contribution from the trailing digit
text_hash = (text_hash * r + ord(text[i])) % q
if text_hash == pattern_hash:
return i  m + 1
return 1 # Not found
return search
The Las Vegas variant additionally performs an equality check to verify that the strings pattern
and text[im:i]
are the same before returning from the search loop. But this is equivalent to modifying the Monte Carlo variant to call itself on the remaining portion of text if an equality check fails, viz:
def find(pattern):
m = len(pattern)
def search(text, start=0):
i = rabin_karp.find(pattern)(text[start:])
if i == 1:
return 1
if pattern == text[start + i : start + i + m]:
return start + i
return search(text, start + i + 1)
return search
So it looks like library consumers can quickly adapt the Monte Carlo variant of the algorithm to create the Las Vegas form if needed.
Engineering tradeoffs
It is very hard to get a free lunch.^{6} In this case, reusing code can lead to performance and memory usage issues when search text contains lots of falsepositive matches.
Each false positive match encountered when find
executes
 creates an extra stack frame, and
 results in the rolling hash within
rabin_karp.find
being reinitialized.
We can deal with the first problem by simply rewriting find
in an iterative fashion:^{7}
def find(pattern):
m = len(pattern)
def search(text):
start = 0
while True:
i = rabin_karp.find(pattern)(text[start:])
if i == 1:
return 1
if pattern == text[start + i : start + i + m]:
return start + i
start = start + i + 1
return search
We can only solve the second problem by writing the implementation from scratch.
The library can support just the Monte Carlo implementation if it is not likely to be used when false positive matches are unacceptable. Unfortunately, generally speaking, library authors cannot be sure that developers will RTFM.
Acknowledgements
I want to thank the people who reviewed the first draft of this blog post. Adil Parvez helped me define the tone of the article, and Scott Williams pointed out that it is, in fact, always possible to go from a Las Vegas variant of an algorithm to a Monte Carlo variant.^{8}
Footnotes

More precisely, the result of a Monte Carlo algorithm may be incorrect with a known probability. ↩

This API is the best for RabinKarp because it enables a small optimization: the user can choose to memoize the search string hash. For example, in
>>> search = find("needle") >>> search("It's like looking for a needle in a haystack") 24 >>> search("It's like a wild goose chase") 1
"needle"
has only been hashed once. ↩ 
The runtime is $O(mn)$, where $m$, $n$ are the pattern and search text lengths, respectively. ↩

BoyerMoore and KnuthMorrisPratt search algorithms are also effective alternatives. ↩

The course Algorithms I does an excellent job of explaining how RabinKarp works. ↩

Unless you work at Google :P ↩

We can get away with using recursion when working in a language that supports tailcall optimization. Unfortunately, Python does not. ↩

An absurd way of implementing a Monte Carlo variant of RabinKarp given a Las Vegas variant is to return the correct index on every other invocation and a random one otherwise. ↩