Recursion – Algorithm Study

Recursion is a technique by which a function calls itself until a condition is met.


Loops or repetitive execution based on certain conditions are inevitable in programs. Usual loops include if, while and for loops. Recursion is an entirely different way to deal with such situations, and in many cases, easier.

Recursion is a when a function calls itself in each iteration till a condition is met. Ideally, the data set in each iteration gets smaller until it reach the required condition, after which the recursive function exists.

A typical example of recursion is a factorial function.

How does Recursion work?

A recursive function ideally contains a Base case and a Recursive case.

Recursive case is when the function calls itself, until the Base case is met. Each level of iteration in the Recursive case moves the control to the next level.

Once a specific level finishes execution, the control is passed back to the previous level of execution. A Recursive function can go several layers deep until the Base condition is met. In short, a Recursive case is a loop in which the function calls itself.

The Base case is required so that the function doesn’t continue running in the Recursive loop forever. Once the Base case is met, the control moves out of the Recursive case, executes the conditions in the Base case (if any), and exits.

As mentioned in the Introduction, a factorial function can be seen as an example of recursion.


The Base case for a factorial function is when n == 1

Consider n!:

n! can be written as:

n x (n – 1) x (n – 2) x (n – 3) x …. x 1

n! can also be represented as:

 n!       = n * (n - 1)! ---> [Step 1]
(n - 1)! = (n - 1) * (n - 2)! ---> [Step 2]
(n - 2)! = (n - 2) * (n - 3)! ---> [Step 3]
(n - (n - 1)) = 1 ---> [Base case]

Each level/step is a product of a value and all the levels below it. Hence, Step 1 will end up moving to Step 2 to get the factorial of elements below it, then to Step 3 and so on.

ie.. the control of execution move as:

[Step 1] -> [Step 2] -> [Step 3] -> ….. [Step n]

In a much easier-to-grasp example, a 5! would be:

5! = 5 * 4! ---> [Step 1]
4! = 4 * 3! ---> [Step 2]
3! = 3 * 2! ---> [Step 3]
2! = 2 * 1! ---> [Step 4]
1! = 1      ---> [Step 5] / [Base case]

The order of execution will be :

[Step 1] -> [Step 2] -> [Step 3] -> [Step 4] -> [Step 5]

As we know, in Recursion, each layer pause itself and pass the control to the next level. Once it reach the end or the Base case, it returns the result back to the previous level one by one until it reaches where it started off.

In this example, once the control of execution reaches Step 5 / Base case ,  the control is returned back to its previous level Step 4 . This level returns the result back to Step 3 which completes its execution and returns to Step 2 , so on and so forth until it reach  Step 1 .

The return control flow would be as:

[Base case / Step 5] -> [Step 4] -> [Step 3] -> [Step 2] -> [Step 1] -> Result.

This can be summed up using an awesome pictorial representation, from the book Grokking Algorithms by Adit. Please check out the References section for the link for more information about this awesome book.


Figure 1: Recursion, Recursive case and Base case (Copyright Manning Publications, drawn by


Example 1:

  • A factorial function in a while loop
def fact(n):
factorial = 1
while n > 1:
factorial = factorial * n
n = n - 1
return factorial

print("Factorial of {0} is {1}".format(10, fact(10)))
print("Factorial of {0} is {1}".format(20, fact(20)))
  • The same function above, in a recursive loop
def factorial(n):
    if n == 0:
        return 1
        return n * factorial(n - 1)

print("Factorial of {0} is {1}".format(10, factorial(10)))
print("Factorial of {0} is {1}".format(20, factorial(20)))

Example 2:

  • A function to sum numbers in a normal for loop.
def my_sum(my_list):
    num = 0
    for i in my_list:
        num += i
    return num

print(my_sum([10, 23, 14, 12, 11, 94, 20]))
  • The same function to add numbers, in a recursive loop
def my_sum(my_list):
    if my_list == []:
        return 0
        return my_list[0] + my_sum(my_list[1:])

print(my_sum([10, 23, 14, 12, 11, 94, 20]))

Code explanation

Both Example 1 and Example 2 are represented as an iterative function as well as a recursive function.

The iterative function calls the next() function on the iterator sum.__iter__() magic method iterate over the entire data set. The recursive function calls itself to reach a base case and return the result.


While a recursive function does not necessarily give you an edge on performance, it is much easier to understand and the code is cleaner.

Recursion has a disadvantage though, for large data sets. Each loop is put on a call stack until it reaches a Base case. Once the Base case is met, the call stack is rewound back to reach where it started, executing each of the previous levels on the way. The examples above showed a sum function and a factorial function. In large data sets, this can lead to a large call stack which in turns take a lot of memory.


  1. Grokking Algorithms
  2. Data Structures and Algorithms in Python


Selection Sort – Algorithm Study

Selection Sort is a sorting algorithm used to sort a data set either in incremental or decremental order.

It goes through the entire elements one by one and hence it’s not a very efficient algorithm to work on large data sets.

How does Selection sort work?

Selection sort starts with an unsorted data set. With each iteration, it builds up a sub dataset with the sorted data.

By the end of the sorting process, the sub dataset contains the entire elements in a sorted order.

1. Iterate through the data set one element at a time.
2. Find the biggest element in the data set (Append it to another if needed)
3. Reduce the sample space by the biggest element just found. The new data set becomes `n – 1` compared to the previous iteration.
4. Start over the iteration again, on the reduced sample space.
5. Continue till we have a sorted data set, either incremental or decremental

How does the data sample change in each iteration?

Consider the data set [10, 4, 9, 3, 6, 19, 8]

[10, 4, 9, 3, 6, 19, 8]      – Data set
[10, 4, 9, 3, 6, 8] – [19] – After Iteration 1
[4, 9, 3, 6, 8] – [10, 19] – After Iteration 2
[4, 3, 6, 8] – [9, 10, 19] – After Iteration 3
[4, 3, 6] – [8, 9, 10, 19] – After Iteration 4
[4, 3] – [6, 8, 9, 10, 19] – After Iteration 5
[3] – [4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 19] – After Iteration 6
[3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 19]      – After Iteration 7 – Sorted data set

Let’s check what the Selection Sort algorithm has to go through in each iteration.

Dataset – [10, 4, 9, 3, 6, 19, 8]
Iter 1 – [10, 4, 9, 3, 6, 8]
Iter 2 – [4, 9, 3, 6, 8]
Iter 3 – [4, 3, 6, 8]
Iter 4 – [4, 3, 6]
Iter 5 – [4, 3]
Iter 6 – [3]

Sorted Dataset – [3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 19]

Performance / Time Complexity

Selection Sort has to go through all the elements in the data set, no matter what.

Hence, the Worst case, Best case and Average Time Complexity would be O(n^2).

Since `Selection Sort` takes in `n` elements while starting, and goes through the data set `n` times (each step reducing the data set size by 1 member), the iterations would be:

n + [ (n – 1) + (n – 2) + (n – 3) + (n – 4) + … + 2 + 1 ]

We are more interested in the worse-case scenario. In a very large data set, an `n – 1`, `n – 2` etc.. won’t make a difference.

Hence we can re-write the above iterations as:

n + [n + n + n + n ….. n]

Or also as:

n * n = (n^2)


def find_smallest(my_list):
    smallest = my_list[0]
    smallest_index = 0

for i in range(1, len(my_list)):
    if my_list[i] < smallest:
        smallest = my_list[i]
        smallest_index = i
return smallest_index

def selection_sort(my_list):
    new_list = []
    for i in range(len(my_list)):
        smallest = find_smallest(my_list)
return new_list


1.Selection Sort is an algorithm to sort a data set, but it is not particularly fast.
2. It takes `n` iterations in each step to find the biggest element in that iteration.
3. The next iteration has to run on a data set of `n – 1` elements compared to the previous iteration.
4. For `n` elements in a sample space, Selection Sort takes `n x n` iterations to sort the data set.




Binary Search – Algorithm Study


Binary Search is a search method used to find an object in a data set. This is much faster compared to the Linear Search algorithm we saw in a previous post.

This algorithm works on the Divide and Conquer principle. Binary Search gets its speed by essentially dividing the list/array in half in each iteration, thus reducing the dataset size for the next iteration.

Imagine searching for an element in a rather large dataset. Searching for an element one by one using Linear Search would take n iterations. In a worst case scenario, if the element being searched is not present in the dataset or is at the end of the dataset, the time taken to find the object/element would be proportional to the size of the dataset.

The element of interest is returned if it is present in the dataset, else a NULL/None value is.


  • Binary search will only work effectively on a Sorted collection.
  • The code implementation will need minor changes depending on how the dataset is sorted, ie.. either in an increasing order or in a decreasing order.


1. Worst-case performance: log(n)

As discussed in the post on, Linear Search a worst-case analysis is done with the upper bound of the running time of the algorithm. ie.. the case when the maximum number of operations are needed/executed to find/search the element of interest in the dataset.

Of course, the worst-case scenario for any search algorithms is when the element of interest is not present in the dataset. The maximum number of searches has to be done in such a case, and it still ends up with no fruitful result. A similar but less worse case is when the element is found in the final (or somewhere near the last) iteration.

Due to the divide-and-conquer method, the maximum number of iterations needed for a dataset of n elements is, log(n) where the log base is 2.

Hence, for a data set of 10240 elements, Binary Search takes a maximum of 13 iterations.

In [1]: import math

In [2]: math.log(10240, 2)
Out[2]: 13.321928094887364

For a data set of 50,000 elements, Binary Search takes 16 iterations in the worst case scenario while a Linear Search may take 50,000 iterations in a similar case.

In [1]: import math

In [2]: math.log(50000, 2)
Out[2]: 15.609640474436812

ie.. the Worst case for Binary search takes log(n) iterations to find the element.

2. Best-case performance: O(1)

The best case scenario is when the element of interest is found in the first iteration itself. Hence the best-case would be where the search finishes in one iteration.

ie.. The best-case scenario would be O(1).

How does Binary Search work?

Imagine a sorted dataset of 100 numbers and we’re searching for  98 is in the list. A simple search would start from index 0 , moves to the element at index 1, progresses element by element until the one in interest is found. Since we’re searching for 98, it’ll take n iterations depending on the number of elements between the first element in the dataset and 98.

Binary Search uses the following method, provided the dataset is sorted.

  1. Find the length of the data set.
  2. Find the lowest (index 0), highest (index n), and the middle index of the dataset.
  3. Find the subsequent elements residing in the first, last, and middle index.
  4. Check if the element of interest is the middle element.
  5. If not, check if the element-of-interest is higher or lower than the middle element.
  6. If it is higher, assuming the dataset is sorted in an increasing order, move the lower index to one above the middle index.
  7. if it is lower, move the highest index to one below the middle index.
  8. Check if the element of interest is the middle element in the new/shorter dataset.
  9. Continue till the element of interest is found.
Binary Search – Source: Wikipedia

The figure above shows how Binary Search works on a dataset of 16 elements, to find the element 7.

  • Index 0 , Index 16, and the middle index are noted.
  • Subsequent values/elements at these indices are found out as well.
  • Check if the element of interest 7 is equal to, lower, or higher than the middle element 14 at index 8.
  • Since it’s lower and the dataset is sorted in an increasing order, the search moves to the left of the middle index, ie.. from index 0 to index 7.
  • —-
  • The lower index is now 0, the higher index is now 7, and the middle index is now 3, the element in the middle index is 6.
  • Check if the element of interest 7 is lower or higher than the middle element 6 at index 3.
  • Since it’s higher and the dataset is sorted in an increasing order, the search moves to the right of the middle index, ie.. from index 4 to index 7.
  • —-
  • So on and so forth.. till we arrive at the element of interest, ie.. 7.

As noted earlier, the data set is divided into half in each iteration. A numeric representation on how Binary search progress can be seen as:

100 elements -> 50 elements -> 25 elements -> 12 elements -> 6 elements – 3 elements -> 1 element


Example 1 : (Data set sorted in Increasing order)

def binary_search(my_list, item):
    low_position = 0
    high_position = len(my_list) - 1

    while low_position = high_position:
        mid_position = (low_position + high_position) // 2
        mid_element = my_list[mid_position]

        if mid_element == item:
            print("\nYour search item {0} is at index {1}".format(
                  item, mid_position))
            return mid_element

        elif mid_element <= item:
            high_position = mid_position - 1

            low_position = mid_position + 1
    return None

if __name__ == "__main__":
    my_list = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
    binary_search(my_list, 3)

Example 2 : (Same as above, with statements on how the search progresses)

def binary_search(my_list, item):

    # Find and set the low and high positions of the data set
    # Note that these are not the values, but just positions.
    low_position = 0
    high_position = len(my_list) - 1

    # Calculate the Complexity
    import math
    complexity = math.ceil(math.log(len(my_list), 2))

    # Print some info on the dataset
    print("\nDataset size : {0} elements".format(len(my_list)))
    print("Element of interest : {0}".format(item))
    print("Maximum number of iterations to find {0} : {1}\n".format(
item, complexity))

    while low_position <= high_position:

        # Find the middle position from the low and high positions
        mid_position = (low_position + high_position) // 2

        # Find the element residing in the middle position of the data set.
        mid_element = my_list[mid_position]

        print("Element at min index : {0}".format(my_list[low_position]))
        print("Element at max index : {1}".format(high_position,
        print("Element at mid index {0} : {1}".format(mid_position,

        if mid_element == item:
            print("\nYour search item {0} is at index {1}".format(
                item, mid_position))
            return mid_element

        elif mid_element > item:
            high_position = mid_position - 1
            print("{0} in the left subset, omitting the right subset\n".format(item))

            low_position = mid_position + 1
            print("{0} in the right subset, omitting the left subset\n".format(item))

    print("Element of interest not in dataset\n")
    return None

if __name__ == "__main__":
my_list = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13]
binary_search(my_list, 13)


  1. Binary Search needs a Sorted dataset to work, either increasing or decreasing.
  2. It finds the element of interest in logarithmic time, hence is also known as, Logarithmic Search.
  3. Binary Search searches through a dataset of n elements in log(n) iterations, in the worst case scenario.


All the examples used in this blog are available at, with more detailed notes.



Linear Search – Algorithm Study


Linear Search is an way to search a data set for an element of interest. It is one of the many search algorithms available and is also the most direct and simple of the lot.

Linear search looks for the element of interest in a dataset starting from the first element and moves on to the consecutive elements till it finds the one we’re interested in. Due to this behaviour, it’s not the fastest search algorithm around.

In the worst case, when the element of interest is the last (or near-last) in the data set, linear-search has to sift through till the end. Hence, in a worst-case scenario, the larger the data set is, the more the iterations it take to find the element of interest. Hence, the performance of Linear search takes a toll as the data set grows.

Linear search works on sorted and unsorted data sets equally, since it has to go through the elements one by one and so doesn’t mind if the data is ordered or not.


1. Worst-case performance: O(n)

A worst-case analysis is done with the upper bound of the running time of the algorithm. ie.. the case when the maximum number of operations are executed.

The worst-case scenario for a linear search happens when the element-of-interest is not present in the dataset. A near worst-case scenario is when the element-of-interest is the last element of the dataset. In the first case, the search has to go through each element only to find that the element is not present in the dataset. In the second scenario, the search has to be done till the last element, which still takes n iterations.

In the worst-case, the performance is O(n), where  n  is the number of elements in the dataset.

2. Best-case performance: O(1)

In the best-case, where the element-of-interest is the first element in the dataset, only one search/lookup is needed. Hence the performance is denoted as O(1), for n elements.

3. Average performance: O(n/2)

On an average, the performance can be denoted as O(n/2).


  • Linear Search iterates through every element in the dataset until it finds the match.
  • In Linear Search, the number of iterations grows linearly if the data set grows in size.
  • This algorithm is called  Linear Search  due to this linear increase in the complexity depending on the dataset.
  • The best case scenario is when the first iteration finds the element.
  • The Worst case is when the element of interest is not present in the dataset.
  • A very near worse case is when the element of interest is the last one in the dataset.

How does Linear Search work?

Linear search progresses as following:

1. Takes in a dataset as well as an element of interest.
2. Checks if the first element is the element of interest.
3. If yes, returns the element.
4. If not, move to the next element in the dataset.
5. Iterate till the dataset is exhausted.
6. Return  None if the element of interest is not present in the dataset.


def linear_search(my_list, item):
    """Linear search"""

    low_position = 0
    high_position = len(my_list) - 1

    while low_position < high_position:

        if my_list[low_position] == item:
            print("Your search item {0} is at position {1}".format(
                item, low_position))
            return low_position
            low_position += 1

if __name__ == "__main__":
    my_list = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
    linear_search(my_list, 5)




Data Structures – Arrays

Arrays are a commonly used data structure, and is one of the first a DS student looks into.

It is created as a collection of memory addresses which are contiguous in memory. These memory locations store data of a specific type depending on the array’s type.


  • Arrays are easier to create since the size and type is mentioned at the creation time.
  • Arrays have constant access/lookup time since the lookup is done by accessing the memory location as an offset from the base/first element. Hence the complexity will be O(1).
  • Arrays are contiguous in memory, ie.. a 10 cell array can start at perhaps 0x0001 and end at 0x0010.


  • The size of an array has to be defined at the time of its creation. This make the size static, and hence cannot be resized later.
  • An array can only accomodate a specific data type. The type of data an array can store has to be defined at creation time. Hence, if an array is set to store integers, it can only store integers in each memory location.
  • Since the size of an array is set at the time of creation, allocating an array may fail depending on the size of the array and the available memory on the machine.
  • Inserting an element into an array can be expensive depending on the location. To insert an element at a particular position, for example ‘n’, the element already has to be moved to ‘n + 1’, the element at ‘n + 1’ to ‘n + 2’ etc.. Hence, if the position to which the element is written to is at the starting of the array, the operation will be expensive. But if the position is at the starting, it won’t be.

What is the lookup time in an array?

The elements in an array are continuguous to each other. The address of an element is looked up as an `offset` of the primary or base element. Hence, the lookup of any element in the array is constant and can be denoted by O(1).

Arrays in Python

Python doesn’t have a direct implementation of an Array. The one that closely resembles an array in python is a `list`.

The major differences between an array and a list are:

  • The size of lists are not static. It can be grown or shrinked using the `append` and `remove` methods. Arrays are static in size.
  • lists can accomodate multiple data types, while arrays cannot.
In [1]: mylist = []

In [2]: type(mylist)
Out[2]: list

In [3]: mylist.append("string")

In [4]: mylist.append(1000)

In [5]: mylist
Out[5]: ['string', 1000]

Time complexity of Arrays

  • Indexing    – O(1)
  • Insertion/Deletion at beginning – O(n) (If the array has space to shift the elements)
  • Insertion/Deletion at the end – O(1) (If the array has space at the end)
  • Deletion at the end – O(1) (Since it doesn’t have to move any elements and reorder)
  • Insertion at the middle – O(n) (Since it requires to move the elements to the right and reorder)
  • Deletion at the middle – O(n) (Since it requires to delete the element and move the ones from the right to the left)

The ‘array’ module

Python comes with a module named ‘array’ which emulates the behavior of arrays.

In [24]: import array

In [25]: myarray = array.array('i', [1,2,3,4])

In [26]: myarray
Out[26]: array('i', [1, 2, 3, 4])






Code complexity – The Big O notation [O(n)]

Efficiency or Complexity is how well you’re using your resources to get your code run.

Efficiency can be calculated on the basis of how much time your code takes to run/execute.

Understanding the efficiency of your code can help to reduce the complexity, thus improving the runtime efficiency further. Getting the same job done in less time and less system resources is always good.

Once you find the efficiency of your program, you can start to find ways for:

  • Reducing the complexity (or increase the efficiency) which will reduce the program run time, and hence free the computer resources in a proportional rate.
  • Try to maintain a constant or reduced run time for a growing data set, which will help your program to fare well when the input size grows.

In Computer Science, the `Big O` notation is used to indicate the effieciency or complexity of a program. It is denoted by ‘O(n)’, where ‘n’ is a mathematical function to denote the input. This is

Some examples:

O(n log(n))
O(O(n) + 1) or O(1)

Efficiency can be measures on the best, average, and worst cases. For example, consider finding a specific alphabet from a list of all the alphabets jumbled up.

  • The worst case is your program running through all 26 iterations and finding the alphabet as the last value.
  • The best case is when your program finds it in the first iteration itself.
  • The average is when your program finds the alphabet somewhere around 12-15 iterations (ie.. half of the worst case scenario).

Study of Data structures and Algorithms aim to study program complexities, and to reduce it as much as possible.

Algorithms are a series of well-defined steps you follow to solve a problem, whereas Data Structures are specific structures by which how you layout your data. Application of well-known algorithms in a program can help in reducing the run time.

More on Time complexity and the Big O notation can be read at: