15 Steps to Implement a Neural Net

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(Original image by Hljod.HuskonaCC BY-SA 2.0).

I used to hate neural nets. Mostly, I realise now, because I struggled to implement them correctly. Texts explaining the working of neural nets focus heavily on the mathematical mechanics, and this is good for theoretical understanding and correct usage. However, this approach is terrible for the poor implementer, neglecting many of the details that concern him or her.

This tutorial is an implementation guide. It is not an explanation of how or why neural nets work, or when they should or should not be used. This tutorial will tell you step by step how to implement a very basic neural network. It comes with a simple example problem, and I include several results that you can compare with those that you find.

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Generating Random Integers With Arbitrary Probabilities

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I finally laid my hands on Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming (what a wonderful set of books!), and found a neat algorithm for generating random integers 0, 1, 2, … , n – 1, with probabilities p_0, p_1, … , p_(n-1).

I have written about generating random numbers (floats) with arbitrary distributions for one dimension and higher dimensions, and indeed that method can be adapted for generating integers with specific probabilities. However, the method described below is much more concise, and efficient (I would guess) for this special case. Moreover, it is also easy to adapt it to generate floats for continuous distributions.

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Cellular Automata for Simulation in Games

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A cellular automata system is one of the best demonstrations of emergence. If you do not know what cellular automata (CA) is, then you should go download Conway’s Game of Life immediately:

Conway’s Game of Life

Essentially, CA is a collection of state machines, updated in discrete time intervals. The next state of one of these depends on the current state as well as the states of neighbours. Usually, the state machines correspond to cells in a grid, and the neighbours of a cell are the cells connected to that cell. For a more detailed explanation, see the Wikipedia article.

Even simple update rules can lead to interesting behaviour: patterns that cannot be predicted from the rules except by running them. With suitable rules, CA can simulate many systems:

  • Natural phenomena: weather, fire, plant growth, migration patterns, spread of disease.
  • Socio-economic phenomena: urbanisation, segregation, construction and property development, traffic, spread of news.

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A simple texture algorithm – faster code and more results

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Faster Code

A while back I wrote about a simple texture algorithm that I have been exploring. The Python implementation was very slow – so much, that I decided to implement it in C++ to see what performance gain I would get. Surprisingly, the C++ version is about 100 faster, if not more. I expected a decent increase, but what once took several hours can now be done in a minute!

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5 Tips for Prototyping Slow Algorithms

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(Photo by  Darren Hester)

Some algorithms take a long time to return their results. Whether it is because the algorithm has to operate on a huge data set, or because it has combinatorial complexity; every time you run it you have to wait minutes or even hours for the thing to finish, making errors very expensive.

This post gives some advice on how to prototype slow algorithms with as little frustration as possible. We assume that this algorithm is being implemented experimentally – that is, you will tweak it and change it often before it is finished (it is not the kind of algorithm you type in straight from a text book). For example, I used the ideas outlined here while playing with the texture generating algorithm of the previous post.

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