Birthday Problem

posted 7 years ago

I started reading The Drunkard's Walk and it struck me like lightning -- I maybe shouldn't generate short ids randomly.

Random Short Ids

The idea is to generate a reasonably short unique alphanumeric string before creating each new record. It's much easier to reason about than whole mongo ids like

The psuedocode was as follows.

id = generate_new_id()
while id_already_exists(id)
  id = generate_new_id()

There are 26 + 26 + 10 alphanumeric characters, or about 60. With only 2 characters we could accomodate over 3600 records and worry about it later. Right?

(All of the following code is in Julia.)

Birthday Problem

The Birthday Problem is well-known and the premise is: How many people need enter a room until two people share the same birthday? Assume date of birth is random and ignore leap years. There are 365 days, so obviously if there are 366 people, two must share the same birthday. 100% probability. Beyond that we need probability theory.

The first person is first, so there's a (0 / 365) chance she has the same birthday as another. The second person has a (1 / 365) chance of having the same birthday as the first person. The third a (2 / 365) chance of sharing with either the first or second person. We add the probabilities because any would be a winning condition.

sum(map(x -> x / 365.0, 1:365))  # 183.0%

Well fuck we're over 100% for the last person. Something went wrong! The problem is that this violates the principle of the sample space. Every possibility must be considered. The first person's exact birthday is counter-intuitively important.

For example, if the first birthday is Jan 1, the probability of the second birthday also being Jan 1 is (1 / 365) * (1 / 365) = (1 / 365^2). The problem is that the probability of the first birthday being Jan 1 and the second being Jan 2 is also (1 / 365^2). Now, the probability of the first being Jan 1, the second being Jan 2, and the third being Jan 1 is (1 / 365^3). However that's only one winning combination considering person 3. It gets complicated.

npermutations(x) = permutations(365, x) |> it -> size(collect(it), 1)
probability(n) = ((365 ^ n) - npermutations(n)) / (365 ^ n)

probability(2)     # ~0.3%
probability(3)     # ~0.8%
probability(365)   # ~100.0%

Now the 365th person has a 100% probability. Much better. If you try some of the middle terms tho you might break your computer.

Birthday Solution

A better way to solve the problem is to calculate the probability there isn't a special birthday pair. The first person enters the room with a (365 / 365) chance there are no matches. The second person has a (364 / 365) chance there remain no matches. The third person walks in with a (363 / 365) chance.

probability(n) = map(x -> (365 - x) / 365, 1:(n - 1)) |> xs -> reduce(*, xs)

1 - probability(2)    # ~0.3%
1 - probability(3)    # ~0.8%
1 - probability(365)  # ~100.0%

Simple enough. Double-check with experimental data? Why not.

Graph Experiment

Install Gadfly, the Julia charting library.

$ julia -e 'Pkg.add("Gadfly")'

To simulate the birthday problem we add a random number from 1 to 365 representing one day to a set. If the number's already in the set, two people share the same birthday and we return the count.

using Gadfly

const days = 365
const runs = 1000

function runsim()
  birthdays = Set()
  while true
    birthday = rand(1:days)
    if birthday in birthdays
      return length(birthdays) + 1
    push!(birthdays, birthday)

function runresults()
  results = Dict()
  for i = 1:runs
    result = runsim()
    results[result] = get(results, result, 0) + 1

results = runresults()
xs = sort(collect(keys(results)))
ys = map(x -> results[x], xs)
p = plot(x=xs, y=ys, Guide.xlabel("People"), Guide.ylabel("Frequency"))
draw(SVG("birthdays.svg", 1000px, 500px), p)

Next we can compare the simulated distribution with the theoretical distribution.

# change runs
const runs = 100000

function prob(n)
  pct = map(x -> (365 - x) / 365, 1:(n - 1)) |> xs -> reduce(*, xs)
  int(floor((1 - pct) * runs))

function probresults()
  results = Dict()
  results[1] = 0
  for i = 2:days
    results[i] = prob(i)

  # no double counting
  for i = days:-1:2
    results[i] -= results[i - 1]

sims = runresults()
xs = sort(collect(keys(sims)))
ys = map(x -> sims[x], xs)
actual = layer(x=xs, y=ys, Geom.point)

probs = probresults()
ys = map(x -> probs[x], xs)
theory = layer(x=xs, y=ys, Geom.line)

graph = plot(actual, theory, Guide.xlabel("People"), Guide.ylabel("Frequency"))
draw(SVG("graph.svg", 1000px, 500px), graph)

Not bad at all.

The Lesson

It doesn't take very many random walks to get a collision. The numbers for alphanumerics are pretty startling. With only 40 records the probability of a collision among the records is over 99%.

So now you're probably thinking the algorithm in psuedocode at the beginning is flawed. Nope. There's nothing wrong with it. The Birthday Problem isn't a proper isomorphism.

On the server, we don't care about all permutations. If the first token is xF then that token is taken. There is no alternate reality where the first token is 5j. So there's a (0 / 3844) chance for the first token, and a (1 / 3844) chance for the second token, etc. An anology would be how many people does it take to find someone in a room with your birthday. About half. That said, it's always better to use a deterministic algorithm like the wonderful hashids project.

Tweet @aj0strow if I messed up somewhere.