The Reasonable Effectiveness of the Multiplicative Weights Update Algorithm


Christos Papadimitriou, who studies multiplicative weights in the context of biology.

Hard to believe

Sanjeev Arora and his coauthors consider it “a basic tool [that should be] taught to all algorithms students together with divide-and-conquer, dynamic programming, and random sampling.” Christos Papadimitriou calls it “so hard to believe that it has been discovered five times and forgotten.” It has formed the basis of algorithms in machine learning, optimization, game theory, economics, biology, and more.

What mystical algorithm has such broad applications? Now that computer scientists have studied it in generality, it’s known as the Multiplicative Weights Update Algorithm (MWUA). Procedurally, the algorithm is simple. I can even describe the core idea in six lines of pseudocode. You start with a collection of n objects, and each object has a weight.

Set all the object weights to be 1.
For some large number of rounds:
   Pick an object at random proportionally to the weights
   Some event happens
   Increase the weight of the chosen object if it does well in the event
   Otherwise decrease the weight

The name “multiplicative weights” comes from how we implement the last step: if the weight of the chosen object at step t is w_t before the event, and G represents how well the object did in the event, then we’ll update the weight according to the rule:

\displaystyle w_{t+1} = w_t (1 + G)

Think of this as increasing the weight by a small multiple of the object’s performance on a given round.

Here is a simple example of how it might be used. You have some money you want to invest, and you have a bunch of financial experts who are telling you what to invest in every day. So each day you pick an expert, and you follow their advice, and you either make a thousand dollars, or you lose a thousand dollars, or something in between. Then you repeat, and your goal is to figure out which expert is the most reliable.

This is how we use multiplicative weights: if we number the experts 1, \dots, N, we give each expert a weight w_i which starts at 1. Then, each day we pick an expert at random (where experts with larger weights are more likely to be picked) and at the end of the day we have some gain or loss G. Then we update the weight of the chosen expert by multiplying it by (1 + G / 1000). Sometimes you have enough information to update the weights of experts you didn’t choose, too. The theoretical guarantees of the algorithm say we’ll find the best expert quickly (“quickly” will be concrete later).

In fact, let’s play a game where you, dear reader, get to decide the rewards for each expert and each day. I programmed the multiplicative weights algorithm to react according to your choices. Click the image below to go to the demo.


This core mechanism of updating weights can be interpreted in many ways, and that’s part of the reason it has sprouted up all over mathematics and computer science. Just a few examples of where this has led:

  1. In game theory, weights are the “belief” of a player about the strategy of an opponent. The most famous algorithm to use this is called Fictitious Play, and others include EXP3 for minimizing regret in the so-called “adversarial bandit learning” problem.
  2. In machine learning, weights are the difficulty of a specific training example, so that higher weights mean the learning algorithm has to “try harder” to accommodate that example. The first result I’m aware of for this is the Perceptron (and similar Winnow) algorithm for learning hyperplane separators. The most famous is the AdaBoost algorithm.
  3. Analogously, in optimization, the weights are the difficulty of a specific constraint, and this technique can be used to approximately solve linear and semidefinite programs. The approximation is because MWUA only provides a solution with some error.
  4. In mathematical biology, the weights represent the fitness of individual alleles, and filtering reproductive success based on this and updating weights for successful organisms produces a mechanism very much like evolution. With modifications, it also provides a mechanism through which to understand sex in the context of evolutionary biology.
  5. The TCP protocol, which basically defined the internet, uses additive and multiplicative weight updates (which are very similar in the analysis) to manage congestion.
  6. You can get easy \log(n)-approximation algorithms for many NP-hard problems, such as set cover.

Additional, more technical examples can be found in this survey of Arora et al.

In the rest of this post, we’ll implement a generic Multiplicative Weights Update Algorithm, we’ll prove it’s main theoretical guarantees, and we’ll implement a linear program solver as an example of its applicability. As usual, all of the code used in the making of this post is available in a Github repository.

The generic MWUA algorithm

Let’s start by writing down pseudocode and an implementation for the MWUA algorithm in full generality.

In general we have some set X of objects and some set Y of “event outcomes” which can be completely independent. If these sets are finite, we can write down a table M whose rows are objects, whose columns are outcomes, and whose i,j entry M(i,j) is the reward produced by object x_i when the outcome is y_j. We will also write this as M(x, y) for object x and outcome y. The only assumption we’ll make on the rewards is that the values M(x, y) are bounded by some small constant B (by small I mean B should not require exponentially many bits to write down as compared to the size of X). In symbols, M(x,y) \in [0,B]. There are minor modifications you can make to the algorithm if you want negative rewards, but for simplicity we will leave that out. Note the table M just exists for analysis, and the algorithm does not know its values. Moreover, while the values in M are static, the choice of outcome y for a given round may be nondeterministic.

The MWUA algorithm randomly chooses an object x \in X in every round, observing the outcome y \in Y, and collecting the reward M(x,y) (or losing it as a penalty). The guarantee of the MWUA theorem is that the expected sum of rewards/penalties of MWUA is not much worse than if one had picked the best object (in hindsight) every single round.

Let’s describe the algorithm in notation first and build up pseudocode as we go. The input to the algorithm is the set of objects, a subroutine that observes an outcome, a black-box reward function, a learning rate parameter, and a number of rounds.

def MWUA(objects, observeOutcome, reward, learningRate, numRounds):

We define for object x a nonnegative number w_x we call a “weight.” The weights will change over time so we’ll also sub-script a weight with a round number t, i.e. w_{x,t} is the weight of object x in round t. Initially, all the weights are 1. Then MWUA continues in rounds. We start each round by drawing an example randomly with probability proportional to the weights. Then we observe the outcome for that round and the reward for that round.

# draw: [float] -> int
# pick an index from the given list of floats proportionally
# to the size of the entry (i.e. normalize to a probability
# distribution and draw according to the probabilities).
def draw(weights):
    choice = random.uniform(0, sum(weights))
    choiceIndex = 0

    for weight in weights:
        choice -= weight
        if choice <= 0:
            return choiceIndex

        choiceIndex += 1

# MWUA: the multiplicative weights update algorithm
def MWUA(objects, observeOutcome, reward, learningRate numRounds):
   weights = [1] * len(objects)
   for t in numRounds:
      chosenObjectIndex = draw(weights)
      chosenObject = objects[chosenObjectIndex]

      outcome = observeOutcome(t, weights, chosenObject)
      thisRoundReward = reward(chosenObject, outcome)


Sampling objects in this way is the same as associating a distribution D_t to each round, where if S_t = \sum_{x \in X} w_{x,t} then the probability of drawing x, which we denote D_t(x), is w_{x,t} / S_t. We don’t need to keep track of this distribution in the actual run of the algorithm, but it will help us with the mathematical analysis.

Next comes the weight update step. Let’s call our learning rate variable parameter \varepsilon. In round t say we have object x_t and outcome y_t, then the reward is M(x_t, y_t). We update the weight of the chosen object x_t according to the formula:

\displaystyle w_{x_t, t} = w_{x_t} (1 + \varepsilon M(x_t, y_t) / B)

In the more general event that you have rewards for all objects (if not, the reward-producing function can output zero), you would perform this weight update on all objects x \in X. This turns into the following Python snippet, where we hide the division by B into the choice of learning rate:

# MWUA: the multiplicative weights update algorithm
def MWUA(objects, observeOutcome, reward, learningRate, numRounds):
   weights = [1] * len(objects)
   for t in numRounds:
      chosenObjectIndex = draw(weights)
      chosenObject = objects[chosenObjectIndex]

      outcome = observeOutcome(t, weights, chosenObject)
      thisRoundReward = reward(chosenObject, outcome)

      for i in range(len(weights)):
         weights[i] *= (1 + learningRate * reward(objects[i], outcome))

One of the amazing things about this algorithm is that the outcomes and rewards could be chosen adaptively by an adversary who knows everything about the MWUA algorithm (except which random numbers the algorithm generates to make its choices). This means that the rewards in round t can depend on the weights in that same round! We will exploit this when we solve linear programs later in this post.

But even in such an oppressive, exploitative environment, MWUA persists and achieves its guarantee. And now we can state that guarantee.

Theorem (from Arora et al): The cumulative reward of the MWUA algorithm is, up to constant multiplicative factors, at least the cumulative reward of the best object minus \log(n), where n is the number of objects. (Exact formula at the end of the proof)

The core of the proof, which we’ll state as a lemma, uses one of the most elegant proof techniques in all of mathematics. It’s the idea of constructing a potential function, and tracking the change in that potential function over time. Such a proof usually has the mysterious script:

  1. Define potential function, in our case S_t.
  2. State what seems like trivial facts about the potential function to write S_{t+1} in terms of S_t, and hence get general information about S_T for some large T.
  3. Theorem is proved.
  4. Wait, what?

Clearly, coming up with a useful potential function is a difficult and prized skill.

In this proof our potential function is the sum of the weights of the objects in a given round, S_t = \sum_{x \in X} w_{x, t}. Now the lemma.

Lemma: Let B be the bound on the size of the rewards, and 0 < \varepsilon < 1/2 a learning parameter. Recall that D_t(x) is the probability that MWUA draws object x in round t. Write the expected reward for MWUA for round t as the following (using only the definition of expected value):

\displaystyle R_t = \sum_{x \in X} D_t(x) M(x, y_t)

 Then the claim of the lemma is:

\displaystyle S_{t+1} \leq S_t e^{\varepsilon R_t / B}

Proof. Expand S_{t+1} = \sum_{x \in X} w_{x, t+1} using the definition of the MWUA update:

\displaystyle \sum_{x \in X} w_{x, t+1} = \sum_{x \in X} w_{x, t}(1 + \varepsilon M(x, y_t) / B)

Now distribute w_{x, t} and split into two sums:

\displaystyle \dots = \sum_{x \in X} w_{x, t} + \frac{\varepsilon}{B} \sum_{x \in X} w_{x,t} M(x, y_t)

Using the fact that D_t(x) = \frac{w_{x,t}}{S_t}, we can replace w_{x,t} with D_t(x) S_t, which allows us to get R_t

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} \dots &= S_t + \frac{\varepsilon S_t}{B} \sum_{x \in X} D_t(x) M(x, y_t) \\ &= S_t \left ( 1 + \frac{\varepsilon R_t}{B} \right ) \end{aligned}

And then using the fact that (1 + x) \leq e^x (Taylor series), we can bound the last expression by S_te^{\varepsilon R_t / B}, as desired.


Now using the lemma, we can get a hold on S_T for a large T, namely that

\displaystyle S_T \leq S_1 e^{\varepsilon \sum_{t=1}^T R_t / B}

If |X| = n then S_1=n, simplifying the above. Moreover, the sum of the weights in round T is certainly greater than any single weight, so that for every fixed object x \in X,

\displaystyle S_T \geq w_{x,T} \leq  (1 + \varepsilon)^{\sum_t M(x, y_t) / B}

Squeezing S_t between these two inequalities and taking logarithms (to simplify the exponents) gives

\displaystyle \left ( \sum_t M(x, y_t) / B \right ) \log(1+\varepsilon) \leq \log n + \frac{\varepsilon}{B} \sum_t R_t

Multiply through by B, divide by \varepsilon, rearrange, and use the fact that when 0 < \varepsilon < 1/2 we have \log(1 + \varepsilon) \geq \varepsilon - \varepsilon^2 (Taylor series) to get

\displaystyle \sum_t R_t \geq \left [ \sum_t M(x, y_t) \right ] (1-\varepsilon) - \frac{B \log n}{\varepsilon}

The bracketed term is the payoff of object x, and MWUA’s payoff is at least a fraction of that minus the logarithmic term. The bound applies to any object x \in X, and hence to the best one. This proves the theorem.


Briefly discussing the bound itself, we see that the smaller the learning rate is, the closer you eventually get to the best object, but by contrast the more the subtracted quantity B \log(n) / \varepsilon hurts you. If your target is an absolute error bound against the best performing object on average, you can do more algebra to determine how many rounds you need in terms of a fixed \delta. The answer is roughly: let \varepsilon = O(\delta / B) and pick T = O(B^2 \log(n) / \delta^2). See this survey for more.

MWUA for linear programs

Now we’ll approximately solve a linear program using MWUA. Recall that a linear program is an optimization problem whose goal is to minimize (or maximize) a linear function of many variables. The objective to minimize is usually given as a dot product c \cdot x, where c is a fixed vector and x = (x_1, x_2, \dots, x_n) is a vector of non-negative variables the algorithm gets to choose. The choices for x are also constrained by a set of m linear inequalities, A_i \cdot x \geq b_i, where A_i is a fixed vector and b_i is a scalar for i = 1, \dots, m. This is usually summarized by putting all the A_i in a matrix, b_i in a vector, as

x_{\textup{OPT}} = \textup{argmin}_x \{ c \cdot x \mid Ax \geq b, x \geq 0 \}

We can further simplify the constraints by assuming we know the optimal value Z = c \cdot x_{\textup{OPT}} in advance, by doing a binary search (more on this later). So, if we ignore the hard constraint Ax \geq b, the “easy feasible region” of possible x‘s includes \{ x \mid x \geq 0, c \cdot x = Z \}.

In order to fit linear programming into the MWUA framework we have to define two things.

  1. The objects: the set of linear inequalities A_i \cdot x \geq b_i.
  2. The rewards: the error of a constraint for a special input vector x_t.

Number 2 is curious (why would we give a reward for error?) but it’s crucial and we’ll discuss it momentarily.

The special input x_t depends on the weights in round t (which is allowed, recall). Specifically, if the weights are w = (w_1, \dots, w_m), we ask for a vector x_t in our “easy feasible region” which satisfies

\displaystyle (A^T w) \cdot x_t \geq w \cdot b

For this post we call the implementation of procuring such a vector the “oracle,” since it can be seen as the black-box problem of, given a vector \alpha and a scalar \beta and a convex region R, finding a vector x \in R satisfying \alpha \cdot x \geq \beta. This allows one to solve more complex optimization problems with the same technique, swapping in a new oracle as needed. Our choice of inputs, \alpha = A^T w, \beta = w \cdot b, are particular to the linear programming formulation.

Two remarks on this choice of inputs. First, the vector A^T w is a weighted average of the constraints in A, and w \cdot b is a weighted average of the thresholds. So this this inequality is a “weighted average” inequality (specifically, a convex combination, since the weights are nonnegative). In particular, if no such x exists, then the original linear program has no solution. Indeed, given a solution x^* to the original linear program, each constraint, say A_1 x^*_1 \geq b_1, is unaffected by left-multiplication by w_1.

Second, and more important to the conceptual understanding of this algorithm, the choice of rewards and the multiplicative updates ensure that easier constraints show up less prominently in the inequality by having smaller weights. That is, if we end up overly satisfying a constraint, we penalize that object for future rounds so we don’t waste our effort on it. The byproduct of MWUA—the weights—identify the hardest constraints to satisfy, and so in each round we can put a proportionate amount of effort into solving (one of) the hard constraints. This is why it makes sense to reward error; the error is a signal for where to improve, and by over-representing the hard constraints, we force MWUA’s attention on them.

At the end, our final output is an average of the x_t produced in each round, i.e. x^* = \frac{1}{T}\sum_t x_t. This vector satisfies all the constraints to a roughly equal degree. We will skip the proof that this vector does what we want, but see these notes for a simple proof. We’ll spend the rest of this post implementing the scheme outlined above.

Implementing the oracle

Fix the convex region R = \{ c \cdot x = Z, x \geq 0 \} for a known optimal value Z. Define \textup{oracle}(\alpha, \beta) as the problem of finding an x \in R such that \alpha \cdot x \geq \beta.

For the case of this linear region R, we can simply find the index i which maximizes \alpha_i Z / c_i. If this value exceeds \beta, we can return the vector with that value in the i-th position and zeros elsewhere. Otherwise, the problem has no solution.

To prove the “no solution” part, say n=2 and you have x = (x_1, x_2) a solution to \alpha \cdot x \geq \beta. Then for whichever index makes \alpha_i Z / c_i bigger, say i=1, you can increase \alpha \cdot x without changing c \cdot x = Z by replacing x_1 with x_1 + (c_2/c_1)x_2 and x_2 with zero. I.e., we’re moving the solution x along the line c \cdot x = Z until it reaches a vertex of the region bounded by c \cdot x = Z and x \geq 0. This must happen when all entries but one are zero. This is the same reason why optimal solutions of (generic) linear programs occur at vertices of their feasible regions.

The code for this becomes quite simple. Note we use the numpy library in the entire codebase to make linear algebra operations fast and simple to read.

def makeOracle(c, optimalValue):
    n = len(c)

    def oracle(weightedVector, weightedThreshold):
        def quantity(i):
            return weightedVector[i] * optimalValue / c[i] if c[i] > 0 else -1

        biggest = max(range(n), key=quantity)
        if quantity(biggest) < weightedThreshold:
            raise InfeasibleException

        return numpy.array([optimalValue / c[i] if i == biggest else 0 for i in range(n)])

    return oracle

Implementing the core solver

The core solver implements the discussion from previously, given the optimal value of the linear program as input. To avoid too many single-letter variable names, we use linearObjective instead of c.

def solveGivenOptimalValue(A, b, linearObjective, optimalValue, learningRate=0.1):
    m, n = A.shape  # m equations, n variables
    oracle = makeOracle(linearObjective, optimalValue)

    def reward(i, specialVector):

    def observeOutcome(_, weights, __):

    numRounds = 1000
    weights, cumulativeReward, outcomes = MWUA(
        range(m), observeOutcome, reward, learningRate, numRounds
    averageVector = sum(outcomes) / numRounds

    return averageVector

First we make the oracle, then the reward and outcome-producing functions, then we invoke the MWUA subroutine. Here are those two functions; they are closures because they need access to A and b. Note that neither c nor the optimal value show up here.

    def reward(i, specialVector):
        constraint = A[i]
        threshold = b[i]
        return threshold -, specialVector)

    def observeOutcome(_, weights, __):
        weights = numpy.array(weights)
        weightedVector = A.transpose().dot(weights)
        weightedThreshold =
        return oracle(weightedVector, weightedThreshold)

Implementing the binary search, and an example

Finally, the top-level routine. Note that the binary search for the optimal value is sophisticated (though it could be more sophisticated). It takes a max range for the search, and invokes the optimization subroutine, moving the upper bound down if the linear program is feasible and moving the lower bound up otherwise.

def solve(A, b, linearObjective, maxRange=1000):
    optRange = [0, maxRange]

    while optRange[1] - optRange[0] > 1e-8:
        proposedOpt = sum(optRange) / 2
        print("Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=%G" % proposedOpt)

        # Because the binary search starts so high, it results in extreme
        # reward values that must be tempered by a slow learning rate. Exercise
        # to the reader: determine absolute bounds for the rewards, and set
        # this learning rate in a more principled fashion.
        learningRate = 1 / max(2 * proposedOpt * c for c in linearObjective)
        learningRate = min(learningRate, 0.1)

            result = solveGivenOptimalValue(A, b, linearObjective, proposedOpt, learningRate)
            optRange[1] = proposedOpt
        except InfeasibleException:
            optRange[0] = proposedOpt

    return result

Finally, a simple example:

A = numpy.array([[1, 2, 3], [0, 4, 2]])
b = numpy.array([5, 6])
c = numpy.array([1, 2, 1])

x = solve(A, b, c)
print( - b)

The output:

Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=500
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=250
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=125
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=62.5
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=31.25
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=15.625
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=7.8125
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.90625
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=1.95312
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.92969
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.41797
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.17383
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.05176
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.99072
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.02124
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.00598
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.99835
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.00217
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.00026
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.99931
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.99978
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.00002
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.9999
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.99996
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=2.99999
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3.00001
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3  # note %G rounds the printed values
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
Attempting to solve with proposedOpt=3
[ 0.     0.987  1.026]
[  5.20000072e-02   8.49831849e-09]

So there we have it. A fiendishly clever use of multiplicative weights for solving linear programs.


One of the nice aspects of MWUA is it’s completely transparent. If you want to know why a decision was made, you can simply look at the weights and look at the history of rewards of the objects. There’s also a clear interpretation of what is being optimized, as the potential function used in the proof is a measure of both quality and adaptability to change. The latter is why MWUA succeeds even in adversarial settings, and why it makes sense to think about MWUA in the context of evolutionary biology.

This even makes one imagine new problems that traditional algorithms cannot solve, but which MWUA handles with grace. For example, imagine trying to solve an “online” linear program in which over time a constraint can change. MWUA can adapt to maintain its approximate solution.

The linear programming technique is known in the literature as the Plotkin-Shmoys-Tardos framework for covering and packing problems. The same ideas extend to other convex optimization problems, including semidefinite programming.

If you’ve been reading this entire post screaming “This is just gradient descent!” Then you’re right and wrong. It bears a striking resemblance to gradient descent (see this document for details about how special cases of MWUA are gradient descent by another name), but the adaptivity for the rewards makes MWUA different.

Even though so many people have been advocating for MWUA over the past decade, it’s surprising that it doesn’t show up in the general math/CS discourse on the internet or even in many algorithms courses. The Arora survey I referenced is from 2005 and the linear programming technique I demoed is originally from 1991! I took algorithms classes wherever I could, starting undergraduate in 2007, and I didn’t even hear a whisper of this technique until midway through my PhD in theoretical CS (I did, however, study fictitious play in a game theory class). I don’t have an explanation for why this is the case, except maybe that it takes more than 20 years for techniques to make it to the classroom. At the very least, this is one good reason to go to graduate school. You learn the things (and where to look for the things) which haven’t made it to classrooms yet.

Until next time!


A Spectral Analysis of Moore Graphs

For fixed integers r > 0, and odd g, a Moore graph is an r-regular graph of girth g which has the minimum number of vertices n among all such graphs with the same regularity and girth.

(Recall, A the girth of a graph is the length of its shortest cycle, and it’s regular if all its vertices have the same degree)

Problem (Hoffman-Singleton): Find a useful constraint on the relationship between n and r for Moore graphs of girth 5 and degree r.

Note: Excluding trivial Moore graphs with girth g=3 and degree r=2, there are only two known Moore graphs: (a) the Petersen graph and (b) this crazy graph:


The solution to the problem shows that there are only a few cases left to check.

Solution: It is easy to show that the minimum number of vertices of a Moore graph of girth 5 and degree r is 1 + r + r(r-1) = r^2 + 1. Just consider the tree:


This is the tree example for r = 3, but the argument should be clear for any r from the branching pattern of the tree: 1 + r + r(r-1)

Provided n = r^2 + 1, we will prove that r must be either 3, 7, or 57. The technique will be to analyze the eigenvalues of a special matrix derived from the Moore graph.

Let A be the adjacency matrix of the supposed Moore graph with these properties. Let B = A^2 = (b_{i,j}). Using the girth and regularity we know:

  • b_{i,i} = r since each vertex has degree r.
  • b_{i,j} = 0 if (i,j) is an edge of G, since any walk of length 2 from i to j would be able to use such an edge and create a cycle of length 3 which is less than the girth.
  • b_{i,j} = 1 if (i,j) is not an edge, because (using the tree idea above), every two vertices non-adjacent vertices have a unique neighbor in common.

Let J_n be the n \times n matrix of all 1’s and I_n the identity matrix. Then

\displaystyle B = rI_n + J_n - I_n - A.

We use this matrix equation to generate two equations whose solutions will restrict r. Since A is a real symmetric matrix is has an orthonormal basis of eigenvectors v_1, \dots, v_n with eigenvalues \lambda_1 , \dots, \lambda_n. Moreover, by regularity we know one of these vectors is the all 1’s vector, with eigenvalue r. Call this v_1 = (1, \dots, 1), \lambda_1 = r. By orthogonality of v_1 with the other v_i, we know that J_nv_i = 0. We also know that, since A is an adjacency matrix with zeros on the diagonal, the trace of A is \sum_i \lambda_i = 0.

Multiply the matrices in the equation above by any v_i, i > 1 to get

\displaystyle \begin{aligned}A^2v_i &= rv_i - v_i - Av_i \\ \lambda_i^2v_i &= rv_i - v_i - \lambda_i v_i \end{aligned}

Rearranging and factoring out v_i gives \lambda_i^2 - \lambda_i - (r+1) = 0. Let z = 4r - 3, then the non-r eigenvalues must be one of the two roots: \mu_1 = (-1 + \sqrt{z}) / 2 or \mu_2 = (-1 - \sqrt{z})/2.

Say that \mu_1 occurs a times and \mu_2 occurs b times, then n = a + b + 1. So we have the following equations.

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} a + b + 1 &= n \\ r + a \mu_1 + b\mu_2 &= 0 \end{aligned}

From this equation you can easily derive that \sqrt{z} is an integer, and as a consequence r = (m^2 + 3) / 4 for some integer m. With a tiny bit of extra algebra, this gives

\displaystyle m(m^3 - 2m - 16(a-b)) = 15

Implying that m divides 15, meaning m \in \{ 1, 3, 5, 15\}, and as a consequence r \in \{ 1, 3, 7, 57\}.


Discussion: This is a strikingly clever use of spectral graph theory to answer a question about combinatorics. Spectral graph theory is precisely that, the study of what linear algebra can tell us about graphs. For an deeper dive into spectral graph theory, see the guest post I wrote on With High Probability.

If you allow for even girth, there are a few extra (infinite families of) Moore graphs, see Wikipedia for a list.

With additional techniques, one can also disprove the existence of any Moore graphs that are not among the known ones, with the exception of a possible Moore graph of girth 5 and degree 57 on n = 3250 vertices. It is unknown whether such a graph exists, but if it does, it is known that

You should go out and find it or prove it doesn’t exist.

Hungry for more applications of linear algebra to combinatorics and computer science? The book Thirty-Three Miniatures is a fantastically entertaining book of linear algebra gems (it’s where I found the proof in this post). The exposition is lucid, and the chapters are short enough to read on my daily train commute.

Singular Value Decomposition Part 2: Theorem, Proof, Algorithm

I’m just going to jump right into the definitions and rigor, so if you haven’t read the previous post motivating the singular value decomposition, go back and do that first. This post will be theorem, proof, algorithm, data. The data set we test on is a thousand-story CNN news data set. All of the data, code, and examples used in this post is in a github repository, as usual.

We start with the best-approximating k-dimensional linear subspace.

Definition: Let X = \{ x_1, \dots, x_m \} be a set of m points in \mathbb{R}^n. The best approximating k-dimensional linear subspace of X is the k-dimensional linear subspace V \subset \mathbb{R}^n which minimizes the sum of the squared distances from the points in X to V.

Let me clarify what I mean by minimizing the sum of squared distances. First we’ll start with the simple case: we have a vector x \in X, and a candidate line L (a 1-dimensional subspace) that is the span of a unit vector v. The squared distance from x to the line spanned by v is the squared length of x minus the squared length of the projection of x onto v. Here’s a picture.


I’m saying that the pink vector z in the picture is the difference of the black and green vectors x-y, and that the “distance” from x to v is the length of the pink vector. The reason is just the Pythagorean theorem: the vector x is the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose other two sides are the projected vector y and the difference vector z.

Let’s throw down some notation. I’ll call \textup{proj}_v: \mathbb{R}^n \to \mathbb{R}^n the linear map that takes as input a vector x and produces as output the projection of x onto v. In fact we have a brief formula for this when v is a unit vector. If we call x \cdot v the usual dot product, then \textup{proj}_v(x) = (x \cdot v)v. That’s v scaled by the inner product of x and v. In the picture above, since the line L is the span of the vector v, that means that y = \textup{proj}_v(x) and z = x -\textup{proj}_v(x) = x-y.

The dot-product formula is useful for us because it allows us to compute the squared length of the projection by taking a dot product |x \cdot v|^2. So then a formula for the distance of x from the line spanned by the unit vector v is

\displaystyle (\textup{dist}_v(x))^2 = \left ( \sum_{i=1}^n x_i^2 \right ) - |x \cdot v|^2

This formula is just a restatement of the Pythagorean theorem for perpendicular vectors.

\displaystyle \sum_{i} x_i^2 = (\textup{proj}_v(x))^2 + (\textup{dist}_v(x))^2

In particular, the difference vector we originally called z has squared length \textup{dist}_v(x)^2. The vector y, which is perpendicular to z and is also the projection of x onto L, it’s squared length is (\textup{proj}_v(x))^2. And the Pythagorean theorem tells us that summing those two squared lengths gives you the squared length of the hypotenuse x.

If we were trying to find the best approximating 1-dimensional subspace for a set of data points X, then we’d want to minimize the sum of the squared distances for every point x \in X. Namely, we want the v that solves \min_{|v|=1} \sum_{x \in X} (\textup{dist}_v(x))^2.

With some slight algebra we can make our life easier. The short version: minimizing the sum of squared distances is the same thing as maximizing the sum of squared lengths of the projections. The longer version: let’s go back to a single point x and the line spanned by v. The Pythagorean theorem told us that

\displaystyle \sum_{i} x_i^2 = (\textup{proj}_v(x))^2 + (\textup{dist}_v(x))^2

The squared length of x is constant. It’s an input to the algorithm and it doesn’t change through a run of the algorithm. So we get the squared distance by subtracting (\textup{proj}_v(x))^2 from a constant number,

\displaystyle \sum_{i} x_i^2 - (\textup{proj}_v(x))^2 = (\textup{dist}_v(x))^2

which means if we want to minimize the squared distance, we can instead maximize the squared projection. Maximizing the subtracted thing minimizes the whole expression.

It works the same way if you’re summing over all the data points in X. In fact, we can say it much more compactly this way. If the rows of A are your data points, then Av contains as each entry the (signed) dot products x_i \cdot v. And the squared norm of this vector, |Av|^2, is exactly the sum of the squared lengths of the projections of the data onto the line spanned by v. The last thing is that maximizing a square is the same as maximizing its square root, so we can switch freely between saying our objective is to find the unit vector v that maximizes |Av| and that which maximizes |Av|^2.

At this point you should be thinking,

Great, we have written down an optimization problem: \max_{v : |v|=1} |Av|. If we could solve this, we’d have the best 1-dimensional linear approximation to the data contained in the rows of A. But (1) how do we solve that problem? And (2) you promised a k-dimensional approximating subspace. I feel betrayed! Swindled! Bamboozled!

Here’s the fantastic thing. We can solve the 1-dimensional optimization problem efficiently (we’ll do it later in this post), and (2) is answered by the following theorem.

The SVD Theorem: Computing the best k-dimensional subspace reduces to k applications of the one-dimensional problem.

We will prove this after we introduce the terms “singular value” and “singular vector.”

Singular values and vectors

As I just said, we can get the best k-dimensional approximating linear subspace by solving the one-dimensional maximization problem k times. The singular vectors of A are defined recursively as the solutions to these sub-problems. That is, I’ll call v_1 the first singular vector of A, and it is:

\displaystyle v_1 = \arg \max_{v, |v|=1} |Av|

And the corresponding first singular value, denoted \sigma_1(A), is the maximal value of the optimization objective, i.e. |Av_1|. (I will use this term frequently, that |Av| is the “objective” of the optimization problem.) Informally speaking, (\sigma_1(A))^2 represents how much of the data was captured by the first singular vector. Meaning, how close the vectors are to lying on the line spanned by v_1. Larger values imply the approximation is better. In fact, if all the data points lie on a line, then (\sigma_1(A))^2 is the sum of the squared norms of the rows of A.

Now here is where we see the reduction from the k-dimensional case to the 1-dimensional case. To find the best 2-dimensional subspace, you first find the best one-dimensional subspace (spanned by v_1), and then find the best 1-dimensional subspace, but only considering those subspaces that are the spans of unit vectors perpendicular to v_1. The notation for “vectors v perpendicular to v_1” is v \perp v_1. Restating, the second singular vector v _2 is defined as

\displaystyle v_2 = \arg \max_{v \perp v_1, |v| = 1} |Av|

And the SVD theorem implies the subspace spanned by \{ v_1, v_2 \} is the best 2-dimensional linear approximation to the data. Likewise \sigma_2(A) = |Av_2| is the second singular value. Its squared magnitude tells us how much of the data that was not “captured” by v_1 is captured by v_2. Again, if the data lies in a 2-dimensional subspace, then the span of \{ v_1, v_2 \} will be that subspace.

We can continue this process. Recursively define v_k, the k-th singular vector, to be the vector which maximizes |Av|, when v is considered only among the unit vectors which are perpendicular to \textup{span} \{ v_1, \dots, v_{k-1} \}. The corresponding singular value \sigma_k(A) is the value of the optimization problem.

As a side note, because of the way we defined the singular values as the objective values of “nested” optimization problems, the singular values are decreasing, \sigma_1(A) \geq \sigma_2(A) \geq \dots \geq \sigma_n(A) \geq 0. This is obvious: you only pick v_2 in the second optimization problem because you already picked v_1 which gave a bigger singular value, so v_2‘s objective can’t be bigger.

If you keep doing this, one of two things happen. Either you reach v_n and since the domain is n-dimensional there are no remaining vectors to choose from, the v_i are an orthonormal basis of \mathbb{R}^n. This means that the data in A contains a full-rank submatrix. The data does not lie in any smaller-dimensional subspace. This is what you’d expect from real data.

Alternatively, you could get to a stage v_k with k < n and when you try to solve the optimization problem you find that every perpendicular v has Av = 0. In this case, the data actually does lie in a k-dimensional subspace, and the first-through-k-th singular vectors you computed span this subspace.

Let’s do a quick sanity check: how do we know that the singular vectors v_i form a basis? Well formally they only span a basis of the row space of A, i.e. a basis of the subspace spanned by the data contained in the rows of A. But either way the point is that each v_{i+1} spans a new dimension from the previous v_1, \dots, v_i because we’re choosing v_{i+1} to be orthogonal to all the previous v_i. So the answer to our sanity check is “by construction.”

Back to the singular vectors, the discussion from the last post tells us intuitively that the data is probably never in a small subspace.  You never expect the process of finding singular vectors to stop before step n, and if it does you take a step back and ask if something deeper is going on. Instead, in real life you specify how much of the data you want to capture, and you keep computing singular vectors until you’ve passed the threshold. Alternatively, you specify the amount of computing resources you’d like to spend by fixing the number of singular vectors you’ll compute ahead of time, and settle for however good the k-dimensional approximation is.

Before we get into any code or solve the 1-dimensional optimization problem, let’s prove the SVD theorem.

Proof of SVD theorem.

Recall we’re trying to prove that the first k singular vectors provide a linear subspace W which maximizes the squared-sum of the projections of the data onto W. For k=1 this is trivial, because we defined v_1 to be the solution to that optimization problem. The case of k=2 contains all the important features of the general inductive step. Let W be any best-approximating 2-dimensional linear subspace for the rows of A. We’ll show that the subspace spanned by the two singular vectors v_1, v_2 is at least as good (and hence equally good).

Let w_1, w_2 be any orthonormal basis for W and let |Aw_1|^2 + |Aw_2|^2 be the quantity that we’re trying to maximize (and which W maximizes by assumption). Moreover, we can pick the basis vector w_2 to be perpendicular to v_1. To prove this we consider two cases: either v_1 is already perpendicular to W in which case it’s trivial, or else v_1 isn’t perpendicular to W and you can choose w_1 to be \textup{proj}_W(v_1) and choose w_2 to be any unit vector perpendicular to w_1.

Now since v_1 maximizes |Av|, we have |Av_1|^2 \geq |Aw_1|^2. Moreover, since w_2 is perpendicular to v_1, the way we chose v_2 also makes |Av_2|^2 \geq |Aw_2|^2. Hence the objective |Av_1|^2 + |Av_2|^2 \geq |Aw_1|^2 + |Aw_2|^2, as desired.

For the general case of k, the inductive hypothesis tells us that the first k terms of the objective for k+1 singular vectors is maximized, and we just have to pick any vector w_{k+1} that is perpendicular to all v_1, v_2, \dots, v_k, and the rest of the proof is just like the 2-dimensional case.


Now remember that in the last post we started with the definition of the SVD as a decomposition of a matrix A = U\Sigma V^T? And then we said that this is a certain kind of change of basis? Well the singular vectors v_i together form the columns of the matrix V (the rows of V^T), and the corresponding singular values \sigma_i(A) are the diagonal entries of \Sigma. When A is understood we’ll abbreviate the singular value as \sigma_i.

To reiterate with the thoughts from last post, the process of applying A is exactly recovered by the process of first projecting onto the (full-rank space of) singular vectors v_1, \dots, v_k, scaling each coordinate of that projection according to the corresponding singular values, and then applying this U thing we haven’t talked about yet.

So let’s determine what U has to be. The way we picked v_i to make A diagonal gives us an immediate suggestion: use the Av_i as the columns of U. Indeed, define u_i = Av_i, the images of the singular vectors under A. We can swiftly show the u_i form a basis of the image of A. The reason is because if v = \sum_i c_i v_i (using all n of the singular vectors v_i), then by linearity Av = \sum_{i} c_i Av_i = \sum_i c_i u_i. It is also easy to see why the u_i are orthogonal (prove it as an exercise). Let’s further make sure the u_i are unit vectors and redefine them as u_i = \frac{1}{\sigma_i}Av_i

If you put these thoughts together, you can say exactly what A does to any given vector x. Since the v_i form an orthonormal basis, x = \sum_i (x \cdot v_i) v_i, and then applying A gives

\displaystyle \begin{aligned}Ax &= A \left ( \sum_i (x \cdot v_i) v_i \right ) \\  &= \sum_i (x \cdot v_i) A_i v_i \\ &= \sum_i (x \cdot v_i) \sigma_i u_i \end{aligned}

If you’ve been closely reading this blog in the last few months, you’ll recognize a very nice way to write the last line of the above equation. It’s an outer product. So depending on your favorite symbols, you’d write this as either A = \sum_{i} \sigma_i u_i \otimes v_i or A = \sum_i \sigma_i u_i v_i^T. Or, if you like expressing things as matrix factorizations, as A = U\Sigma V^T. All three are describing the same object.

Let’s move on to some code.

A black box example

Before we implement SVD from scratch (an urge that commands me from the depths of my soul!), let’s see a black-box example that uses existing tools. For this we’ll use the numpy library.

Recall our movie-rating matrix from the last post:


The code to compute the svd of this matrix is as simple as it gets:

from numpy.linalg import svd

movieRatings = [
    [2, 5, 3],
    [1, 2, 1],
    [4, 1, 1],
    [3, 5, 2],
    [5, 3, 1],
    [4, 5, 5],
    [2, 4, 2],
    [2, 2, 5],

U, singularValues, V = svd(movieRatings)

Printing these values out gives

[[-0.39458526  0.23923575 -0.35445911 -0.38062172 -0.29836818 -0.49464816 -0.30703202 -0.29763321]
 [-0.15830232  0.03054913 -0.15299759 -0.45334816  0.31122898  0.23892035 -0.37313346  0.67223457]
 [-0.22155201 -0.52086121  0.39334917 -0.14974792 -0.65963979  0.00488292 -0.00783684  0.25934607]
 [-0.39692635 -0.08649009 -0.41052882  0.74387448 -0.10629499  0.01372565 -0.17959298  0.26333462]
 [-0.34630257 -0.64128825  0.07382859 -0.04494155  0.58000668 -0.25806239  0.00211823 -0.24154726]
 [-0.53347449  0.19168874  0.19949342 -0.03942604  0.00424495  0.68715732 -0.06957561 -0.40033035]
 [-0.31660464  0.06109826 -0.30599517 -0.19611823 -0.01334272  0.01446975  0.85185852  0.19463493]
 [-0.32840223  0.45970413  0.62354764  0.1783041   0.17631186 -0.39879476  0.06065902  0.25771578]]
[ 15.09626916   4.30056855   3.40701739]
[[-0.54184808 -0.67070995 -0.50650649]
 [-0.75152295  0.11680911  0.64928336]
 [ 0.37631623 -0.73246419  0.56734672]]

Now this is a bit weird, because the matrices U, V are the wrong shape! Remember, there are only supposed to be three vectors since the input matrix has rank three. So what gives? This is a distinction that goes by the name “full” versus “reduced” SVD. The idea goes back to our original statement that U \Sigma V^T is a decomposition with U, V^T both orthogonal and square matrices. But in the derivation we did in the last section, the U and V were not square. The singular vectors v_i could potentially stop before even becoming full rank.

In order to get to square matrices, what people sometimes do is take the two bases v_1, \dots, v_k and u_1, \dots, u_k and arbitrarily choose ways to complete them to a full orthonormal basis of their respective vector spaces. In other words, they just make the matrix square by filling it with data for no reason other than that it’s sometimes nice to have a complete basis. We don’t care about this. To be honest, I think the only place this comes in useful is in the desire to be particularly tidy in a mathematical formulation of something.

We can still work with it programmatically. By fudging around a bit with numpy’s shapes to get a diagonal matrix, we can reconstruct the input rating matrix from the factors.

Sigma = np.vstack([
    np.zeros((5, 3)),

print(np.round(movieRatings -,, V)), decimals=10))

And the output is, as one expects, a matrix of all zeros. Meaning that we decomposed the movie rating matrix, and built it back up from the factors.

We can actually get the SVD as we defined it (with rectangular matrices) by passing a special flag to numpy’s svd.

U, singularValues, V = svd(movieRatings, full_matrices=False)

Sigma = np.diag(singularValues)
print(np.round(movieRatings -,, V)), decimals=10))

And the result

[[-0.39458526  0.23923575 -0.35445911]
 [-0.15830232  0.03054913 -0.15299759]
 [-0.22155201 -0.52086121  0.39334917]
 [-0.39692635 -0.08649009 -0.41052882]
 [-0.34630257 -0.64128825  0.07382859]
 [-0.53347449  0.19168874  0.19949342]
 [-0.31660464  0.06109826 -0.30599517]
 [-0.32840223  0.45970413  0.62354764]]
[ 15.09626916   4.30056855   3.40701739]
[[-0.54184808 -0.67070995 -0.50650649]
 [-0.75152295  0.11680911  0.64928336]
 [ 0.37631623 -0.73246419  0.56734672]]
[[-0. -0. -0.]
 [-0. -0.  0.]
 [ 0. -0.  0.]
 [-0. -0. -0.]
 [-0. -0. -0.]
 [-0. -0. -0.]
 [-0. -0. -0.]
 [ 0. -0. -0.]]

This makes the reconstruction less messy, since we can just multiply everything without having to add extra rows of zeros to \Sigma.

What do the singular vectors and values tell us about the movie rating matrix? (Besides nothing, since it’s a contrived example) You’ll notice that the first singular vector \sigma_1 > 15 while the other two singular values are around 4. This tells us that the first singular vector covers a large part of the structure of the matrix. I.e., a rank-1 matrix would be a pretty good approximation to the whole thing. As an exercise to the reader, write a program that evaluates this claim (how good is “good”?).

The greedy optimization routine

Now we’re going to write SVD from scratch. We’ll first implement the greedy algorithm for the 1-d optimization problem, and then we’ll perform the inductive step to get a full algorithm. Then we’ll run it on the CNN data set.

The method we’ll use to solve the 1-dimensional problem isn’t necessarily industry strength (see this document for a hint of what industry strength looks like), but it is simple conceptually. It’s called the power method. Now that we have our decomposition of theorem, understanding how the power method works is quite easy.

Let’s work in the language of a matrix decomposition A = U \Sigma V^T, more for practice with that language than anything else (using outer products would give us the same result with slightly different computations). Then let’s observe A^T A, wherein we’ll use the fact that U is orthonormal and so U^TU is the identity matrix:

\displaystyle A^TA = (U \Sigma V^T)^T(U \Sigma V^T) = V \Sigma U^TU \Sigma V^T = V \Sigma^2 V^T

So we can completely eliminate U from the discussion, and look at just V \Sigma^2 V^T. And what’s nice about this matrix is that we can compute its eigenvectors, and eigenvectors turn out to be exactly the singular vectors. The corresponding eigenvalues are the squared singular values. This should be clear from the above derivation. If you apply (V \Sigma^2 V^T) to any v_i, the only parts of the product that aren’t zero are the ones involving v_i with itself, and the scalar \sigma_i^2 factors in smoothly. It’s dead simple to check.

Theorem: Let x be a random unit vector and let B = A^TA = V \Sigma^2 V^T. Then with high probability, \lim_{s \to \infty} B^s x is in the span of the first singular vector v_1. If we normalize B^s x to a unit vector at each s, then furthermore the limit is v_1.

Proof. Start with a random unit vector x, and write it in terms of the singular vectors x = \sum_i c_i v_i. That means Bx = \sum_i c_i \sigma_i^2 v_i. If you recursively apply this logic, you get B^s x = \sum_i c_i \sigma_i^{2s} v_i. In particular, the dot product of (B^s x) with any v_j is c_i \sigma_j^{2s}.

What this means is that so long as the first singular value \sigma_1 is sufficiently larger than the second one \sigma_2, and in turn all the other singular values, the part of B^s x  corresponding to v_1 will be much larger than the rest. Recall that if you expand a vector in terms of an orthonormal basis, in this case B^s x expanded in the v_i, the coefficient of B^s x on v_j is exactly the dot product. So to say that B^sx converges to being in the span of v_1 is the same as saying that the ratio of these coefficients, |(B^s x \cdot v_1)| / |(B^s x \cdot v_j)| \to \infty for any j. In other words, the coefficient corresponding to the first singular vector dominates all of the others. And so if we normalize, the coefficient of B^s x corresponding to v_1 tends to 1, while the rest tend to zero.

Indeed, this ratio is just (\sigma_1 / \sigma_j)^{2s} and the base of this exponential is bigger than 1.


If you want to be a little more precise and find bounds on the number of iterations required to converge, you can. The worry is that your random starting vector is “too close” to one of the smaller singular vectors v_j, so that if the ratio of \sigma_1 / \sigma_j is small, then the “pull” of v_1 won’t outweigh the pull of v_j fast enough. Choosing a random unit vector allows you to ensure with high probability that this doesn’t happen. And conditioned on it not happening (or measuring “how far the event is from happening” precisely), you can compute a precise number of iterations required to converge. The last two pages of these lecture notes have all the details.

We won’t compute a precise number of iterations. Instead we’ll just compute until the angle between B^{s+1}x and B^s x is very small. Here’s the algorithm

import numpy as np
from numpy.linalg import norm

from random import normalvariate
from math import sqrt

def randomUnitVector(n):
    unnormalized = [normalvariate(0, 1) for _ in range(n)]
    theNorm = sqrt(sum(x * x for x in unnormalized))
    return [x / theNorm for x in unnormalized]

def svd_1d(A, epsilon=1e-10):
    ''' The one-dimensional SVD '''

    n, m = A.shape
    x = randomUnitVector(m)
    lastV = None
    currentV = x
    B =, A)

    iterations = 0
    while True:
        iterations += 1
        lastV = currentV
        currentV =, lastV)
        currentV = currentV / norm(currentV)

        if abs(, lastV)) > 1 - epsilon:
            print("converged in {} iterations!".format(iterations))
            return currentV

We start with a random unit vector x, and then loop computing x_{t+1} = Bx_t, renormalizing at each step. The condition for stopping is that the magnitude of the dot product between x_t and x_{t+1} (since they’re unit vectors, this is the cosine of the angle between them) is very close to 1.

And using it on our movie ratings example:

if __name__ == "__main__":
    movieRatings = np.array([
        [2, 5, 3],
        [1, 2, 1],
        [4, 1, 1],
        [3, 5, 2],
        [5, 3, 1],
        [4, 5, 5],
        [2, 4, 2],
        [2, 2, 5],
    ], dtype='float64')


With the result

converged in 6 iterations!
[-0.54184805 -0.67070993 -0.50650655]

Note that the sign of the vector may be different from numpy’s output because we start with a random vector to begin with.

The recursive step, getting from v_1 to the entire SVD, is equally straightforward. Say you start with the matrix A and you compute v_1. You can use v_1 to compute u_1 and \sigma_1(A). Then you want to ensure you’re ignoring all vectors in the span of v_1 for your next greedy optimization, and to do this you can simply subtract the rank 1 component of A corresponding to v_1. I.e., set A' = A - \sigma_1(A) u_1 v_1^T. Then it’s easy to see that \sigma_1(A') = \sigma_2(A) and basically all the singular vectors shift indices by 1 when going from A to A'. Then you repeat.

If that’s not clear enough, here’s the code.

def svd(A, epsilon=1e-10):
    n, m = A.shape
    svdSoFar = []

    for i in range(m):
        matrixFor1D = A.copy()

        for singularValue, u, v in svdSoFar[:i]:
            matrixFor1D -= singularValue * np.outer(u, v)

        v = svd_1d(matrixFor1D, epsilon=epsilon)  # next singular vector
        u_unnormalized =, v)
        sigma = norm(u_unnormalized)  # next singular value
        u = u_unnormalized / sigma

        svdSoFar.append((sigma, u, v))

    # transform it into matrices of the right shape
    singularValues, us, vs = [np.array(x) for x in zip(*svdSoFar)]

    return singularValues, us.T, vs

And we can run this on our movie rating matrix to get the following

>>> theSVD = svd(movieRatings)
>>> theSVD[0]
array([ 15.09626916,   4.30056855,   3.40701739])
>>> theSVD[1]
array([[ 0.39458528, -0.23923093,  0.35446407],
       [ 0.15830233, -0.03054705,  0.15299815],
       [ 0.221552  ,  0.52085578, -0.39336072],
       [ 0.39692636,  0.08649568,  0.41052666],
       [ 0.34630257,  0.64128719, -0.07384286],
       [ 0.53347448, -0.19169154, -0.19948959],
       [ 0.31660465, -0.0610941 ,  0.30599629],
       [ 0.32840221, -0.45971273, -0.62353781]])
>>> theSVD[2]
array([[ 0.54184805,  0.67071006,  0.50650638],
       [ 0.75151641, -0.11679644, -0.64929321],
       [-0.37632934,  0.73246611, -0.56733554]])

Checking this against our numpy output shows it’s within a reasonable level of precision (considering the power method took on the order of ten iterations!)

>>> np.round(np.abs(npSVD[0]) - np.abs(theSVD[1]), decimals=5)
array([[ -0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00,   0.00000000e+00],
       [  0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00,   0.00000000e+00],
       [  0.00000000e+00,  -1.00000000e-05,   1.00000000e-05],
       [  0.00000000e+00,   0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00],
       [  0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00,   1.00000000e-05],
       [ -0.00000000e+00,   0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00],
       [  0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00,   0.00000000e+00],
       [ -0.00000000e+00,   1.00000000e-05,  -1.00000000e-05]])
>>> np.round(np.abs(npSVD[2]) - np.abs(theSVD[2]), decimals=5)
array([[  0.00000000e+00,   0.00000000e+00,  -0.00000000e+00],
       [ -1.00000000e-05,  -1.00000000e-05,   1.00000000e-05],
       [  1.00000000e-05,   0.00000000e+00,  -1.00000000e-05]])
>>> np.round(np.abs(npSVD[1]) - np.abs(theSVD[0]), decimals=5)
array([ 0.,  0., -0.])

So there we have it. We added an extra little bit to the svd function, an argument k which stops computing the svd after it reaches rank k.

CNN stories

One interesting use of the SVD is in topic modeling. Topic modeling is the process of taking a bunch of documents (news stories, or emails, or movie scripts, whatever) and grouping them by topic, where the algorithm gets to choose what counts as a “topic.” Topic modeling is just the name that natural language processing folks use instead of clustering.

The SVD can help one model topics as follows. First you construct a matrix A called a document-term matrix whose rows correspond to words in some fixed dictionary and whose columns correspond to documents. The (i,j) entry of A contains the number of times word i shows up in document j. Or, more precisely, some quantity derived from that count, like a normalized count. See this table on wikipedia for a list of options related to that. We’ll just pick one arbitrarily for use in this post.

The point isn’t how we normalize the data, but what the SVD of A = U \Sigma V^T means in this context. Recall that the domain of A, as a linear map, is a vector space whose dimension is the number of stories. We think of the vectors in this space as documents, or rather as an “embedding” of the abstract concept of a document using the counts of how often each word shows up in a document as a proxy for the semantic meaning of the document. Likewise, the codomain is the space of all words, and each word is embedded by which documents it occurs in. If we compare this to the movie rating example, it’s the same thing: a movie is the vector of ratings it receives from people, and a person is the vector of ratings of various movies.

Say you take a rank 3 approximation to A. Then you get three singular vectors v_1, v_2, v_3 which form a basis for a subspace of words, i.e., the “idealized” words. These idealized words are your topics, and you can compute where a “new word” falls by looking at which documents it appears in (writing it as a vector in the domain) and saying its “topic” is the closest of the v_1, v_2, v_3. The same process applies to new documents. You can use this to cluster existing documents as well.

The dataset we’ll use for this post is a relatively small corpus of a thousand CNN stories picked from 2012. Here’s an excerpt from one of them

$ cat data/cnn-stories/story479.txt
3 things to watch on Super Tuesday
Here are three things to watch for: Romney's big day. He's been the off-and-on frontrunner throughout the race, but a big Super Tuesday could begin an end game toward a sometimes hesitant base coalescing behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney should win his home state of Massachusetts, neighboring Vermont and Virginia, ...

So let’s first build this document-term matrix, with the normalized values, and then we’ll compute it’s SVD and see what the topics look like.

Step 1 is cleaning the data. We used a bunch of routines from the nltk library that boils down to this loop:

    for filename, documentText in documentDict.items():
        tokens = tokenize(documentText)
        tagged_tokens = pos_tag(tokens)
        wnl = WordNetLemmatizer()
        stemmedTokens = [wnl.lemmatize(word, wordnetPos(tag)).lower()
                         for word, tag in tagged_tokens]

This turns the Super Tuesday story into a list of words (with repetition):

["thing", "watch", "three", "thing", "watch", "big", ... ]

If you’ll notice the name Romney doesn’t show up in the list of words. I’m only keeping the words that show up in the top 100,000 most common English words, and then lemmatizing all of the words to their roots. It’s not a perfect data cleaning job, but it’s simple and good enough for our purposes.

Now we can create the document term matrix.

def makeDocumentTermMatrix(data):
    words = allWords(data)  # get the set of all unique words

    wordToIndex = dict((word, i) for i, word in enumerate(words))
    indexToWord = dict(enumerate(words))
    indexToDocument = dict(enumerate(data))

    matrix = np.zeros((len(words), len(data)))
    for docID, document in enumerate(data):
        docWords = Counter(document['words'])
        for word, count in docWords.items():
            matrix[wordToIndex[word], docID] = count

    return matrix, (indexToWord, indexToDocument)

This creates a matrix with the raw integer counts. But what we need is a normalized count. The idea is that a common word like “thing” shows up disproportionately more often than “election,” and we don’t want raw magnitude of a word count to outweigh its semantic contribution to the classification. This is the applied math part of the algorithm design. So what we’ll do (and this technique together with SVD is called latent semantic indexing) is normalize each entry so that it measures both the frequency of a term in a document and the relative frequency of a term compared to the global frequency of that term. There are many ways to do this, and we’ll just pick one. See the github repository if you’re interested.

So now lets compute a rank 10 decomposition and see how to cluster the results.

    data = load()
    matrix, (indexToWord, indexToDocument) = makeDocumentTermMatrix(data)
    matrix = normalize(matrix)
    sigma, U, V = svd(matrix, k=10)

This uses our svd, not numpy’s. Though numpy’s routine is much faster, it’s fun to see things work with code written from scratch. The result is too large to display here, but I can report the singular values.

>>> sigma
array([ 42.85249098,  21.85641975,  19.15989197,  16.2403354 ,
        15.40456779,  14.3172779 ,  13.47860033,  13.23795002,
        12.98866537,  12.51307445])

Now we take our original inputs and project them onto the subspace spanned by the singular vectors. This is the part that represents each word (resp., document) in terms of the idealized words (resp., documents), the singular vectors. Then we can apply a simple k-means clustering algorithm to the result, and observe the resulting clusters as documents.

    projectedDocuments =, U)
    projectedWords =, V.T)

    documentCenters, documentClustering = cluster(projectedDocuments)
    wordCenters, wordClustering = cluster(projectedWords)

    wordClusters = [
        [indexToWord[i] for (i, x) in enumerate(wordClustering) if x == j]
        for j in range(len(set(wordClustering)))

    documentClusters = [
         for (i, x) in enumerate(documentClustering) if x == j]
        for j in range(len(set(documentClustering)))

And now we can inspect individual clusters. Right off the bat we can tell the clusters aren’t quite right simply by looking at the sizes of each cluster.

>>> Counter(wordClustering)
Counter({1: 9689, 2: 1051, 8: 680, 5: 557, 3: 321, 7: 225, 4: 174, 6: 124, 9: 123})
>>> Counter(documentClustering)
Counter({7: 407, 6: 109, 0: 102, 5: 87, 9: 85, 2: 65, 8: 55, 4: 47, 3: 23, 1: 15})

What looks wrong to me is the size of the largest word cluster. If we could group words by topic, then this is saying there’s a topic with over nine thousand words associated with it! Inspecting it even closer, it includes words like “vegan,” “skunk,” and “pope.” On the other hand, some word clusters are spot on. Examine, for example, the fifth cluster which includes words very clearly associated with crime stories.

>>> wordClusters[4]
['account', 'accuse', 'act', 'affiliate', 'allegation', 'allege', 'altercation', 'anything', 'apartment', 'arrest', 'arrive', 'assault', 'attorney', 'authority', 'bag', 'black', 'blood', 'boy', 'brother', 'bullet', 'candy', 'car', 'carry', 'case', 'charge', 'chief', 'child', 'claim', 'client', 'commit', 'community', 'contact', 'convenience', 'court', 'crime', 'criminal', 'cry', 'dead', 'deadly', 'death', 'defense', 'department', 'describe', 'detail', 'determine', 'dispatcher', 'district', 'document', 'enforcement', 'evidence', 'extremely', 'family', 'father', 'fear', 'fiancee', 'file', 'five', 'foot', 'friend', 'front', 'gate', 'girl', 'girlfriend', 'grand', 'ground', 'guilty', 'gun', 'gunman', 'gunshot', 'hand', 'happen', 'harm', 'head', 'hear', 'heard', 'hoodie', 'hour', 'house', 'identify', 'immediately', 'incident', 'information', 'injury', 'investigate', 'investigation', 'investigator', 'involve', 'judge', 'jury', 'justice', 'kid', 'killing', 'lawyer', 'legal', 'letter', 'life', 'local', 'man', 'men', 'mile', 'morning', 'mother', 'murder', 'near', 'nearby', 'neighbor', 'newspaper', 'night', 'nothing', 'office', 'officer', 'online', 'outside', 'parent', 'person', 'phone', 'police', 'post', 'prison', 'profile', 'prosecute', 'prosecution', 'prosecutor', 'pull', 'racial', 'racist', 'release', 'responsible', 'return', 'review', 'role', 'saw', 'scene', 'school', 'scream', 'search', 'sentence', 'serve', 'several', 'shoot', 'shooter', 'shooting', 'shot', 'slur', 'someone', 'son', 'sound', 'spark', 'speak', 'staff', 'stand', 'store', 'story', 'student', 'surveillance', 'suspect', 'suspicious', 'tape', 'teacher', 'teen', 'teenager', 'told', 'tragedy', 'trial', 'vehicle', 'victim', 'video', 'walk', 'watch', 'wear', 'whether', 'white', 'witness', 'young']

As sad as it makes me to see that ‘black’ and ‘slur’ and ‘racial’ appear in this category, it’s a reminder that naively using the output of a machine learning algorithm can perpetuate racism.

Here’s another interesting cluster corresponding to economic words:

>>> wordClusters[6]
['agreement', 'aide', 'analyst', 'approval', 'approve', 'austerity', 'average', 'bailout', 'beneficiary', 'benefit', 'bill', 'billion', 'break', 'broadband', 'budget', 'class', 'combine', 'committee', 'compromise', 'conference', 'congressional', 'contribution', 'core', 'cost', 'currently', 'cut', 'deal', 'debt', 'defender', 'deficit', 'doc', 'drop', 'economic', 'economy', 'employee', 'employer', 'erode', 'eurozone', 'expire', 'extend', 'extension', 'fee', 'finance', 'fiscal', 'fix', 'fully', 'fund', 'funding', 'game', 'generally', 'gleefully', 'growth', 'hamper', 'highlight', 'hike', 'hire', 'holiday', 'increase', 'indifferent', 'insistence', 'insurance', 'job', 'juncture', 'latter', 'legislation', 'loser', 'low', 'lower', 'majority', 'maximum', 'measure', 'middle', 'negotiation', 'offset', 'oppose', 'package', 'pass', 'patient', 'pay', 'payment', 'payroll', 'pension', 'plight', 'portray', 'priority', 'proposal', 'provision', 'rate', 'recession', 'recovery', 'reduce', 'reduction', 'reluctance', 'repercussion', 'rest', 'revenue', 'rich', 'roughly', 'sale', 'saving', 'scientist', 'separate', 'sharp', 'showdown', 'sign', 'specialist', 'spectrum', 'spending', 'strength', 'tax', 'tea', 'tentative', 'term', 'test', 'top', 'trillion', 'turnaround', 'unemployed', 'unemployment', 'union', 'wage', 'welfare', 'worker', 'worth']

One can also inspect the stories, though the clusters are harder to print out here. Interestingly the first cluster of documents are stories exclusively about Trayvon Martin. The second cluster is mostly international military conflicts. The third cluster also appears to be about international conflict, but what distinguishes it from the first cluster is that every story in the second cluster discusses Syria.

>>> len([x for x in documentClusters[1] if 'Syria' in x]) / len(documentClusters[1])
>>> len([x for x in documentClusters[2] if 'Syria' in x]) / len(documentClusters[2])

Anyway, you can explore the data more at your leisure (and tinker with the parameters to improve it!).

Issues with the power method

Though I mentioned that the power method isn’t an industry strength algorithm I didn’t say why. Let’s revisit that before we finish. The problem is that the convergence rate of even the 1-dimensional problem depends on the ratio of the first and second singular values, \sigma_1 / \sigma_2. If that ratio is very close to 1, then the convergence will take a long time and need many many matrix-vector multiplications.

One way to alleviate that is to do the trick where, to compute a large power of a matrix, you iteratively square B. But that requires computing a matrix square (instead of a bunch of matrix-vector products), and that requires a lot of time and memory if the matrix isn’t sparse. When the matrix is sparse, you can actually do the power method quite quickly, from what I’ve heard and read.

But nevertheless, the industry standard methods involve computing a particular matrix decomposition that is not only faster than the power method, but also numerically stable. That means that the algorithm’s runtime and accuracy doesn’t depend on slight changes in the entries of the input matrix. Indeed, you can have two matrices where \sigma_1 / \sigma_2 is very close to 1, but changing a single entry will make that ratio much larger. The power method depends on this, so it’s not numerically stable. But the industry standard technique is not. This technique involves something called Householder reflections. So while the power method was great for a proof of concept, there’s much more work to do if you want true SVD power.

Until next time!

Singular Value Decomposition Part 1: Perspectives on Linear Algebra

The singular value decomposition (SVD) of a matrix is a fundamental tool in computer science, data analysis, and statistics. It’s used for all kinds of applications from regression to prediction, to finding approximate solutions to optimization problems. In this series of two posts we’ll motivate, define, compute, and use the singular value decomposition to analyze some data. (Jump to the second post)

I want to spend the first post entirely on motivation and background. As part of this, I think we need a little reminder about how linear algebra equivocates linear subspaces and matrices. I say “I think” because what I’m going to say seems rarely spelled out in detail. Indeed, I was confused myself when I first started to read about linear algebra applied to algorithms, machine learning, and data science, despite having a solid understanding of linear algebra from a mathematical perspective. The concern is the connection between matrices as transformations and matrices as a “convenient” way to organize data.

Data vs. maps

Linear algebra aficionados like to express deep facts via statements about matrix factorization. That is, they’ll say something opaque like (and this is the complete statement for SVD we’ll get to in the post):

The SVD of an m \times n matrix A with real values is a factorization of A as U\Sigma V^T, where U is an m \times m orthogonal matrix, V is an n \times n orthogonal matrix, and \Sigma is a diagonal matrix with nonnegative real entries on the diagonal.

Okay, I can understand the words individually, but what does it mean in terms of the big picture? There are two seemingly conflicting interpretations of matrices that muddle our vision.

The first is that A is a linear map from some n-dimensional vector space to an m-dimensional one. Let’s work with real numbers and call the domain vector space \mathbb{R}^n and the codomain \mathbb{R}^m. In this interpretation the factorization expresses a change of basis in the domain and codomain. Specifically, V expresses a change of basis from the usual basis of \mathbb{R}^n to some other basis, and U does the same for the co-domain \mathbb{R}^m.

That’s fine and dandy, so long as the data that makes up A is the description of some linear map we’d like to learn more about. Years ago on this blog we did exactly this analysis of a linear map modeling a random walk through the internet, and we ended up with Google’s PageRank algorithm. However, in most linear algebra applications A actually contains data in its rows or columns. That’s the second interpretation. That is, each row of A is a data point in \mathbb{R}^n, and there are m total data points, and they represent observations of some process happening in the world. The data points are like people rating movies or weather sensors measuring wind and temperature. If you’re not indoctrinated with the linear algebra world view, you might not naturally think of this as a mapping of vectors from one vector space to another.

Most of the time when people talk about linear algebra (even mathematicians), they’ll stick entirely to the linear map perspective or the data perspective, which is kind of frustrating when you’re learning it for the first time. It seems like the data perspective is just a tidy convenience, that it just “makes sense” to put some data in a table. In my experience the singular value decomposition is the first time that the two perspectives collide, and (at least in my case) it comes with cognitive dissonance.

The way these two ideas combine is that the data is thought of as the image of the basis vectors of \mathbb{R}^n under the linear map specified by A. Here is an example to make this concrete. Let’s say I want to express people rating movies. Each row will correspond to the ratings of a movie, and each column will correspond to a person, and the i,j entry of the matrix A is the rating person j gives to movie i.


In reality they’re rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars, but to keep things simple we’ll just say that the ratings can be any real numbers (they just happened to pick integers). So this matrix represents a linear map. The domain is \mathbb{R}^3, and the basis vectors are called people, and the codomain is \mathbb{R}^8, whose basis vectors are movies.


Now the data set is represented by A(\vec e_{\textup{Aisha}}),A(\vec e_{\textup{Bob}}),A(\vec e_{\textup{Chandrika}}), and by the definition of how a matrix represents a linear map, the entires of these vectors are exactly the columns of A. If the codomain is really big, then the image of A is a small-dimensional linear subspace of the codomain. This is an important step, that we’ve increased our view from just the individual data points to all of their linear combinations as a subspace.

Why is this helpful at all? This is where we start to see the modeling assumptions of linear algebra show through. If we’re trying to use this matrix to say something about how people rate movies (maybe we want to predict how a new person will rate these movies), we would need to be able to represent that person as a linear combination of Aisha, Bob, and Chandrika. Likewise, if we had a new movie and we wanted to use this matrix to say anything about it, we’d have to represent the movie as a linear combination of the existing movies.

Of course, I don’t literally mean that a movie (as in, the bits comprising a file containing a movie) can be represented as a linear combination of other movies. I mean that we can represent a movie formally as a linear combination in some abstract vector space for the task at hand. In other words, we’re representing those features of the movie that influence its rating abstractly as a vector. We don’t have a legitimate mathematical way to understand that, so the vector is a proxy.

It’s totally unclear what this means in terms of real life, except that you can hope (or hypothesize, or verify), that if the rating process of movies is “linear” in nature then this formal representation will accurately reflect the real world. It’s like how physicists all secretly know that mathematics doesn’t literally dictate the laws of nature, because humans made up math in their heads and if you poke nature too hard the math breaks down, but it’s so damn convenient to describe hypotheses (and so damn accurate), that we can’t avoid using it to design airplanes. And we haven’t found anything better than math for this purpose.

Likewise, movie ratings aren’t literally a linear map, but if we pretend they are we can make algorithms that predict how people rate movies with pretty good accuracy. So if you know that Skyfall gets ratings 1,2, and 1 from Aisha, Bob, and Chandrika, respectively, then a new person would rate Skyfall based on a linear combination of how well they align with these three people. In other words, up to a linear combination, in this example Aisha, Bob, and Chandrika epitomize the process of rating movies.

And now we get to the key: factoring the matrix via SVD provides an alternative and more useful way to represent the process of people rating movies. By changing the basis of one or both vector spaces involved, we isolate the different (orthogonal) characteristics of the process. In the context of our movie example, “factorization” means the following:

  1. Come up with a special list of vectors v_1, v_2, \dots, v_8 so that every movie can be written as a linear combination of the v_i.
  2. Do the analogous thing for people to get p_1, p_2, p_3.
  3. Do (1) and (2) in such a way that the map A is diagonal with respect to both new bases simultaneously.

One might think of the v_i as “idealized movies” and the p_j as “idealized critics.” If you want to use this data to say things about the world, you’d be making the assumption that any person can be written as a linear combination of the p_j and any movie can be written as a linear combination of the v_i. These are the rows/columns of U, V from the factorization. To reiterate, these linear combinations are only with respect to the task of rating movies. And they’re “special” because they make the matrix diagonal.

If the world was logical (and I’m not saying it is) then maybe v_1 would correspond to some idealized notion of “action movie,” and p_1 would correspond to some idealized notion of “action movie lover.” Then it makes sense why the mapping would be diagonal in this basis: an action movie lover only loves action movies, so p_1 gives a rating of zero to everything except v_1. A movie is represented by how it decomposes (linearly) into “idealized” movies. To make up some arbitrary numbers, maybe Skyfall is 2/3 action movie, 1/5 dystopian sci-fi, and -6/7 comedic romance. Likewise a person would be represented by how they decompose (via linear combination) into a action movie lover, rom-com lover, etc.

To be completely clear, the singular value decomposition does not find the ideal sci-fi movie. The “ideal”ness of the singular value decomposition is with respect to the inherent geometric structure of the data coupled with the assumptions of linearity. Whether this has anything at all to do with how humans classify movies is a separate question, and the answer is almost certainly no.

With this perspective we’re almost ready to talk about the singular value decomposition. I just want to take a moment to write down a list of the assumptions that we’d need if we want to ensure that, given a data set of movie ratings, we can use linear algebra to make exact claims about world.

  1. All people rate movies via the same linear map.
  2. Every person can be expressed (for the sole purpose of movie ratings) as linear combinations of “ideal” people. Likewise for movies.
  3. The “idealized” movies and people can be expressed as linear combinations of the movies/people in our particular data set.
  4. There are no errors in the ratings.

One could have a deep and interesting discussion about the philosophical (or ethical, or cultural) aspects of these assumptions. But since the internet prefers to watch respectful discourse burn, we’ll turn to algorithms instead.

Approximating subspaces

In our present context, the singular value decomposition (SVD) isn’t meant to be a complete description of a mapping in a new basis, as we said above. Rather, we want to use it to approximate the mapping A by low-dimensional linear things. When I say “low-dimensional linear things” I mean that given A, we’d want to find another matrix B which is measurably similar to A in some way, and has low rank compared to A.

How do we know that A isn’t already low rank? The reasons is that data with even the tiniest bit of noise is full rank with overwhelming probability. A concrete way to say this is that the space of low-rank matrices has small dimension (in the sense of a manifold) inside the space of all matrices. So perturbing even a single entry by an infinitesimally small amount would increase the rank.

We don’t need to understand manifolds to understand the SVD, though. For our example of people rating movies the full-rank property should be obvious. The noise and randomness and arbitrariness in human preferences certainly destroys any “perfect” linear structure we could hope to find, and in particular that means the data set itself, i.e. the image of A, is a large-dimensional subspace of the codomain.

Finding a low-rank approximation can be thought of as “smoothing” the noise out of the data. And this works particularly well when the underlying process is close to a linear map. That is, when the data is close to being contained entirely in a single subspace of relatively low-dimension. One way to think of why this might be the case is that if the process you’re observing is truly linear, but the data you get is corrupted by small amounts of noise. Then A will be close to low rank in a measurable sense (to be defined mathematically in the sequel post) and the low-rank approximation B will be a more efficient, accurate, and generalizable surrogate for A.

In terms of our earlier list of assumptions about when you can linear algebra to solve problems, for the SVD we can add “approximately” to the first three assumptions, and “not too many errors” to the fourth. If those assumptions hold, SVD will give us a matrix B which accurately represents the process being measured. Conversely, if SVD does well, then you have some evidence that the process is linear-esque.

To be more specific with notation, if A is a matrix representing some dataset via the image of A and you provide a small integer k, then the singular value decomposition computes the rank k matrix B_k which best approximates A. And since now we’re comfortable identifying a data matrix with the subspace defined by its image, this is the same thing as finding the k-dimensional subspace of the image of A which is the best approximation of the data (i.e., the image of B_k). We’ll quantify what we mean by “best approximation” in the next post.

That’s it, as far as intuitively understanding what the SVD is. I should add that the SVD doesn’t only allow one to compute a rank k approximation, it actually allows you to set k=n and get an exact representation of A. We just won’t use it for that purpose in this series.

The second bit of intuition is the following. It’s only slightly closer to rigor, but somehow this little insight really made SVD click for me personally:

The SVD is what you get when you iteratively solve the greedy optimization problem of fitting data to a line.

By that I mean, you can compute the SVD by doing the following:

  1. What’s the best line fitting my data?
  2. Okay, ignoring that first line, what’s the next best line?
  3. Okay, ignoring all the lines in the span of those first two lines, what’s the next best line?
  4. Ignoring all the lines in the span of the first three lines, what’s the next best line?
  5. (repeat)

It should be shocking that this works. For most problems, in math and in life, the greedy algorithm is far from optimal. When it happens, once every blue moon, that the greedy algorithm is the best solution to a natural problem (and not obviously so, or just approximately so), it’s our intellectual duty to stop what we’re doing, sit up straight, and really understand and appreciate it. These wonders transcend political squabbles and sports scores. And we’ll start the next post immediately by diving into this greedy optimization problem.

The geometric perspective

There are two other perspectives I want to discuss here, though it may be more appropriate for a reader who is not familiar with the SVD to wait to read this after the sequel to this post. I’m just going to relate my understanding (in terms of the greedy algorithm and data approximations) to the geometric and statistical perspectives on the SVD.

Michael Nielsen wrote a long and detailed article presenting some ideas about a “new medium” in which to think about mathematics. He demonstrates is framework by looking at the singular value decomposition for 2×2 matrices. His explanation for the intuition behind the SVD is that you can take any matrix (linear map) and break it up into three pieces: a rotation about the origin, a rescaling of each coordinate, followed by another rotation about the origin. While I have the utmost respect for Nielsen (his book on quantum mechanics is the best text in the field), this explanation never quite made SVD click for me personally. It seems like a restatement of the opaque SVD definition (as a matrix factorization) into geometric terms. Indeed, an orthogonal matrix is a rotation, and a diagonal matrix is a rescaling of each coordinate.

To me, the key that’s missing from this explanation is the emphasis on the approximation. What makes the SVD so magical isn’t that the factorization exists in the first place, but rather that the SVD has these layers of increasingly good approximation. Though the terminology will come in the next post, these layers are the (ordered) singular vectors and singular values. And moreover, that the algorithmic process of constructing these layers necessarily goes in order from strongest approximation to weakest.

Another geometric perspective that highlights this is that the rank-k approximation provided by the SVD is a geometric projection of a matrix onto the space of rank at-most-k matrices with respect to the “spectral norm” on matrices (the spectral norm of A is the largest eigenvalue of A^TA). The change of basis described above makes this projection very easy: given a singular value decomposition you just take the top k singular vectors. Indeed, the Eckart-Young theorem formalizes this with the statement that the rank-k SVD B_k minimizes the distance (w.r.t. the spectral norm) between the original matrix A and any rank k matrix. So you can prove that SVD gives you the best rank k approximation of A by some reasonable measure.

Next time: algorithms

Next time we’ll connect all this to the formal definitions and rigor. We’ll study the greedy algorithm approach, and then we’ll implement the SVD and test it on some data.

Until then!