Let’s Program A 3D Browser Game Part 1: You Can Do That?!

A while back we saw how recent improvements in HTML5 standards and modern browser technology make it possible to program classic 2D games using nothing but Javascript. But that’s not all that modern browsers can do!

They can do full 3D.

This is exciting because it used to be that the only way to share 3D content with your users was to ask them to download and run a a suspicious standalone exe file. But now you can share your 3D ideas directly through the browser they already trust.

Of course, there are limits. The browser may already know how to render 3D graphics but you still have to send the user a copy of all your models and texture and users aren’t going to wait around for hours while you send them ten gigs of data. So you’re unlikely to be hosting full triple A games on your blog.

But there’s still a lot of cool stuff you can do with a mere dozen megabytes of 3D data. Games, simulations, interactive presentations and so on. It’s not going to be replacing the fast and reliable text based Internet we know and love anytime soon (or ever) but it can certainly enhance an existing website.

Always Turn Right

So what shall we do to practice our browser based 3D skills?

Well, lately I’ve been playing an unreasonable amount of dungeon crawlers. There’s just something about exploring a labyrinth in first person that’s more exciting than doing it from a third person eagle eye view. Probably the suspense of not being able to see what’s around each corner combined with the sense of scale you get from actually being in the dungeon.

So let’s build ourselves a first person, grid based maze. Just a maze, mind you. No combat system or treasure chests or anything. Just the maze exploration system.

Now before we start talking about our code let’s go over what our project needs to actually do:

  • Draw textured squares to represent walls, floors and ceilings
  • Accept user movement input
  • Force the user to move in a grid pattern
  • Keep track of the shape of the maze
  • Prevent the user from walking through walls

Pretty easy and straightforward as long as you have a reliable way to draw 3D graphics. And thanks to the smart people in charge of browser design we do.

So next time we can start experimenting with actual graphics code.

Let’s Program A Compression Algorithm Part 8: Further Musings On Speeding Up Slow Code

Last time we drastically sped up our program by changing how we put lists together. This time we’re going to speed things up again by changing how we take them apart.

Speed Reading A List

The part of our code that creates compressed bit lists now runs super fast but our program as a whole is still very slow. That suggests we’ve got a problem in the part of the compression function that actually writes to output. If you look at the code you’ll notice that we write to output eight bits at a time by using a series of subsequence copies and assignments. This was nice because it perfectly matched the idea in our heads (read 8 bits from the front of the list and then throw them away).

The problem here is that subseq can get pretty expensive, especially when used to grab really big subsequences from really big lists. In particular the way that we delete used bits from our bitlist is pretty horrible since we aren’t actually deleting them; instead we basically ask subseq to make a brand new copy of everything in the list except the first eight items. We then replace our original list with this slightly shorter list. This obviously does work but all that copying is reaaaalllly slow. Is there any way we can get the same effect but avoid all that work?

Well, when you think about it as long as we only read each bit once it doesn’t really matter whether we delete them after we use them or if we just leave them alone but ignore them. Kind of like a book. You don’t rip out pages after you finish reading them, you just use a bookmark to keep track of which pages you have and haven’t read.

Is it possible that we can do the same thing with our data and write some code that reads through our list eight bits at a time without deleting any of the old stuff?

Of course we can! It’s not even terribly hard. The mighty Lisp loop macro can actually be configured to read multiple values at a time and then skip forward multiple values to get its next input.

(defun white-rabbit-compress-file (input-filename output-filename)
    (let ((bitlist (compress-terminate-and-pad-file input-filename))
            (out (open output-filename :direction :output :element-type '(unsigned-byte 8))))
            (when out
                (loop for (b1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7 b8) on bitlist 
                    by (lambda (x) (cddddr (cddddr x))) 
                    do (write-byte (8-bit-list-to-byte (list b1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7 b8)) out)))
            (close out)))

As you can see we’re asking the loop for eight variables at once instead of just one and we’re telling it to skip forward multiple spaces at once by using a local lambda function that uses some weird syntax to basically look for the fourth neighbor of the fourth neighbor of our current list item. So now we read eight bits from our list, jump forward eight spaces and then repeat till we’re done.

What does that do for our runtime?

[100]> (time (white-rabbit-compress-file “chapter1.txt” “bettertimedoutput3”))

Real time: 0.44549 sec.

Run time: 0.436 sec.

Space: 3931184 Bytes

GC: 3, GC time: 0.036 sec.


Look at that! Half a second processing time and only 4 megabytes of memory usage now that we aren’t wasting all our time and RAM making copies of copies of copies of subsequences of copies of our copied data copies.

In fact, at this speed we can finally achieve our goal of compressing the entirety of Alice in Wonderland!

[102]> (time (white-rabbit-compress-file “aliceASCII.txt” “tinyalice”))

Real time: 5.921212 sec.

Run time: 5.872 sec.

Space: 52589912 Bytes

GC: 16, GC time: 0.86 sec.


For anyone who cares we managed to shrink it from 147.8 kilobytes to 113.3, which is roughly 25% smaller just like we hoped for. Go us!

Making More Functions Fast

As long as we’re in our groove it might be nice to also speed up our decompression function, especially since I’m getting pretty tired of having to wait five minutes every time I want to test whether or not a change to compression logic actually worked.

Like compression our decompression is a two step process. The white-rabbit-decompress-file function starts by calling the file-to-bitlist function to get a compressed file full of bits and then it goes on to decompress those bits and write them to our output file.

These two functions have the same efficiency flaws that compression functions did. file-to-bitlist relies too much on append and white-rabbit-decompress-file abuses subsequences.

Cutting the appends out of file-to-bitlist isn’t any different than it was for our compression function. Replace the appends with pushes to efficiently create a backwards list and then flip it around.

(defun file-to-bitlist (filename)
    (let ((bitlist '())
            (in (open filename :element-type '(unsigned-byte 8))))
        (when in
            (loop for testbyte = (read-byte in nil)
                while testbyte do (let ((bits (byte-to-8-bit-list testbyte)))
                                                    (loop for i in bits do (push i bitlist))))
        (close in))
        (nreverse bitlist)))

Fixing up the way we write to output is going to be a little bit harder. Since we’re working with a compressed file we can no longer safely say that all of our letters are eight bits long. Some letters will actually only be four bits long and others will be nine bits long. So we can’t just write a loop that always jumps n items forward between writes. Instead we’re going to have to write our own looping logic that’s smart enough to decide when to jump forward four spaces and when to jump forward nine.

The basic idea is that we will start with a variable pointing at the start of our list. We will then use subseq to check whether the list starts with a 0 or 1 (a short subsequence at the start of a list is pretty cheap). Like usual we will use this information to decide how to decompress our data. We will then manually change our variable to point either four neighbors further or nine neighbors further as needed. This will make that new spot look like the start of the list and we can just loop until we hit the termination sequence.

(defun white-rabbit-decompress-file (input-filename output-filename)
    (let ((bitlist (file-to-bitlist input-filename))
            (decompressing 1)
            (out (open output-filename :direction :output :element-type '(unsigned-byte 8))))
            (when out
                (loop while decompressing do                                             
                        (if (= 0 (first bitlist))
                            (progn (write-byte (gethash (subseq bitlist 0 4) *list-to-byte-compression-hash*) out)
                                    (setf bitlist (cddddr bitlist)))
                            (if (equal (subseq bitlist 0 9) '(1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0))
                                    (setf decompressing nil)                                    
                                    (progn (write-byte (8-bit-list-to-byte (subseq bitlist 1 9)) out)
                                    (setf bitlist (cdr (cddddr (cddddr bitlist)))))))))
            (close out)))


Once again we use a chain of cdr and it’s subtypes to jump through our list. Since this is the second time we’ve used them we might as well explain them.

Remember how I said every item in a Lisp list is made of two halves? The first usually* holds a piece of data and the second usually holds a link to the next item in the list. Together these two halves make up a “cons cell” and you can individually access each half using the historically named car function to grab the first half and cdr to grab the second half. Since the second is usually a link to the next item in the list cdr

You can walk through lisp lists by chaining these together. If you want the data at the third spot of the list you need to cdr to get to the second item then cdr again to the third item and the car to get the data, or in other words (car (cdr (crd list-with-cool-data))).

On the other hand if you want a new sublist that starts at the third part of the list you would just use two cdrs to get the link to the third item without using car to then specifically grab only the data.

Nesting these calls can get annoying though so Lisp has several build in functions that condense several chains into single function such as caddr or cddr. Unfortunately these only go up to four calls in a row which is why in order to jump the start of our list forward nine spaces we still have to chain multiple calls together.

Now that you understand how the code works let’s see how well it works:

[2]> (time (white-rabbit-decompress-file “tinyalice” “fastexpandtest.txt”))

Real time: 5.585598 sec.

Run time: 5.268 sec.

Space: 51634168 Bytes

GC: 20, GC time: 0.608 sec.


We can now decompress files just as fast as we compress them. It’s not exactly a great program but for an educational toy I think it turned our pretty well. And hopefully you learned at least a little about Lisp’s inner guts and what to look for when things seem slow.


* Sometimes the first and the second halves of a cons cell will both hold links to other cons cells, allowing for nested lists and interesting tree data structures.

Let’s Program A Compression Algorithm Part 7: Considerations On Speeding Up Slow Code

Welcome fellow Lisp enthusiasts*! Now that our proof of concept code works it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room: Our code is really slow and considering that modern Lisp is supposed to be FAST that means we’re probably doing something dumb.

But exactly how dumb? Well let’s take a scientific approach and run a test:

[7]> (time (white-rabbit-compress-file “chapter1.txt” “timedoutput”))

Real time: 251.23251 sec.

Run time: 250.732 sec.

Space: 10816791720 Bytes

GC: 9324, GC time: 159.104 sec.


Looks like compressing a small text file on my (admittedly old) Linux laptop took over four minutes and, more surprisingly, consumed something like 10 gigabytes of memory. That’s a freakishly huge amount of memory for working with a file that’s only 11.4kB long. And using up so much memory was a real strain on the garbage collector, which spent over two minutes just cleaning up all the data our program threw away.

How Are We Going To Fix This?

Code optimization is the reason why it’s important to not only understand WHAT your programming language can do but also HOW it does it.

Sure, most programmers can easily spot the warning signs when they personally write inefficient code: Too many nested loops, recursive functions on complex data and so on.

But what about when you load up someone else’s library and call the doSomethingCool function they wrote? Is it fast? Slow? Does it loop? Without some research you have no way of telling.

Moral of the story: Do your research!

Doing Some Research!

For example, let’s take a look at Lisp’s handy append function. Its job is simple: take two lists, glue them together and then return the combined list. Our prototype uses this function everywhere. To build bit lists. To build compressed output files. To build decompressed output files. It is no exaggeration to say most of what our program does is appending lists to other lists.

So…. How does append append lists anyways?

For that matter, what is a Lisp list?

A list in Lisp is a pretty simple thing. Each individual item in the list contains two pieces of information: The data stored there and directions on where to find the next item in the list. The final item in the list has a blank in the “next” spot. That’s how you know it’s the end of the list.

Now the easiest and fastest way to connect two lists together is to take the empty “next” from the end of the first list and point it at the start of the second list.

But append comes with a bonus guarantee that complicates things: It is guaranteed to NOT change either of its inputs. That means changing the last item in the first list is a no go.

Instead append creates a complete copy of the first list and then links that new list to the second list. (This doesn’t change the second list because Lisp lists only move forward and don’t care if anyone links to them, just who they link to).

Did we find the problem?

So append makes a copy of its first argument. That sounds like it could be a bit slow. Maybe we should double check how we us it. Let’s start with a look at our file-to-compressed-bitlist function. You might notice this little gem:

(append bit-list (compress-byte testbyte))

That’s the line of our code where we say “Take our current bit list and add the next set of compressed bits to the end”. This happens inside of a loop that runs once for every byte in the input file. So our eleven kilobyte test file is going to trigger this line some 11,000** times. And every single time is going to involve making a complete copy of our compressed bit list so far.

That will add up fast. How fast? Hmmm….

Let’s assume that between our 4 bit short codes and our 9 bit long codes the average compressed-byte comes out at 6 bits (that matches the 25% compression rate we were aiming for). Working with that average our loop probably looks sort of like this.

Step one: Append first 6 bits to empty list. No copying.

Step two: Copy existing 6 bits and link to next 6 bits. Total of 6 bits copied.

Step three: Copy existing 12 bits and link to next 6 bits. Total of 18 bits copied.

Step three: Copy existing 18 bits and link to next 6 bits. Total of 36 bits copied.

Step four: Copy existing 24 bits and link to next 6 bits. Total of 60 bits copied.

Step five: Copy existing 30 bits and link to next 6 bits. Total of 90 bits copied.

Step six: Copy existing 36 bits and link to next 6 bits. Total of 126 bits copied.

So we’re only six bytes into our 11,000+ byte file and we’ve already had to make copies of 126 list items. And while I’ve been calling them bits remember that they’re we’re actually using full 32 bit (4 byte) integers to keep track of our 0s and 1s. So that means we’ve had to copy 126 * 4 = 504 bytes just to compress six letters of input.

And it only gets worse. By the time we make it to the end of our elven kilobyte file we will have made copies equal to several thousand times the size of our original input! The bigger the input gets the worse that multiplier becomes and suddenly it’s not so mysterious why our code takes multiple minutes to run and consumes gigabytes of memory.

Functional Programming: What that be?

Before we start talking about how to “fix” append I want to take a minute and talk about why it’s not actually “broken”. Sure, using append the way we do is horribly inefficient but that’s not because append was poorly designed. In fact, append was very carefully designed to be very safe. Because it copies its inputs instead of changing them you can use it anywhere you want without having to worry about accidentally mutilating some bit of data you might need to use again later.

This is the core of what’s known as “functional programming”.

Basically programmers noticed that a lot of their worst and hardest to solve bugs were caused when different bits of code accidentally changed each other’s variables. Example: If three functions all depend on the same global variable and something else changes that variable suddenly all three functions might break down. Or if you pass the same variable as input to multiple functions and it gets changed halfway through your later functions might not work like you expected.

The traditional solution to this problem is to just work really really hard to remember which functions share which global variables and how every function changes their input. The problem here is that the bigger your program gets the harder it is to keep track of all that stuff.

This lead some people to come up with a clever idea: What if we avoid writing code with shared variables and just don’t let functions change their inputs? That should get rid of all those weird bugs and accidental data corruption issues.

When you write your code according to these rules it’s “functional”, named after math functions. After all, the quadratic equation won’t ever break down just because you used the Pythagorean Theorem wrong and and four is always four no matter how many equations you pass it through.

The obvious cost here is that functional code tends to “waste” a lot of time and memory copying inputs so they can safely work with the copies and leave the original data alone. So it’s up to you as the programmer to decide what each part of your program needs most: Functional code that’s easy to maintain and experiment with or efficient code that’s harder to work with but runs much faster.

In our case since we’re dealing with the interior of a massive loop it’s probably time to say goodbye to our safe functional prototype code and focus on speed.

Appending Faster Than Append

So we need a list building loop that doesn’t waste time or memory space. Turns out one of the more popular ways to do this in Lisp is to actually build your list backwards and then reverse it. This takes advantage of the fact that adding something to the front of Lisp list is both fast and simple.

Interesting trivia: We actually already did this in our current byte-to-8-bit-list function.

Now let’s rewrite our file-to-compressed-bitlist to use the same technique.

Basically in our new version when we compress a byte we won’t append the compressed bit pattern directly to our output. Instead we will load the compressed bits into a temporary variable and then push them one by one onto the front of our bit list.

After all the bytes are read we’ll then load our termination sequence into a variable and push that one bit at time too. This will give us a complete mirror image of the bit list we actually want, so we finish off with a call to nreverse which reverses the list. The “n” indicates this is a “unsafe” function that works very fast but will destroy the original data. Since we won’t ever need that backwards list that’s fine.

(defun file-to-compressed-bitlist (filename)
    (let ((bit-list '())
            (in (open filename :element-type '(unsigned-byte 8))))
        (when in
            (loop for testbyte = (read-byte in nil)
                while testbyte do (let ((compressed-bits (compress-byte testbyte)))
                                                    (loop for i in compressed-bits do (push i bit-list))))
        (close in))
        (let ((termination-symbol '(1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0)))
            (loop for i in termination-symbol do (push i bit-list)))
        (nreverse bit-lists)))

Interestingly enough this function is actually fairly functional since it avoids global variables. The only data it changes or destroys is private data so as far as the rest of the world is concerned nothing important has been changed.

Now that we’ve tuned up on of our major functions let’s give things another whirl and see what happens:

[41]> (time (white-rabbit-compress-file “chapter1.txt” “bettertimedoutput”))

Real time: 120.46666 sec.

Run time: 120.376 sec.

Space: 4636093800 Bytes

GC: 2925, GC time: 47.0 sec.


Not bad. Twice as fast, used up only half as much memory and not nearly as hard on the garbage collector. But even after that sort of major improvement it’s still pretty slow and memory hungry so our works not done quite yet. We’ll see what remaining inefficiencies we can trim out next time.



* Reminder: I’m not particularly good at Lisp. I just like the language.

** Yes, yes, I know. A kilobyte is actually 1024 bytes not an even 1000 but multiplying by powers of ten in your head is so much easier than powers of two and is close enough for general discussion.

Let’s Program A Compression Algorithm Part 6: In Which We Consider How Professional Compression Algorithms Function

Now that we’ve got a working little ASCII compressor it’s time to talk about how “real” compression algorithms work.

Now honestly I should probably just drop a couple wiki links to Huffman_Coding and DEFLATE but presumably you’re here on my blog because you specifically want to hear me talk about computer science so here we go!

Let’s start by refreshing our memories on how we approached the problem of compression.

We started by discovering that normal ASCII text assigns a full 8-bits to every possible letter. We then did some research and found that some ASCII letters are much more common than others. That let us invent a new standard that squished common letters into 4-bits while expanding less common letters into 9-bits. This overall resulted in files that were 20-30% smaller than their plan ASCII equivalents.

So how would a professional approach the same problem?

Believe it or not they would do more or less the same thing. Professional tools achieve their impressive 80%+ compression standards using the same basic approach we did: Find unusually common data patterns and then replace them with much smaller compressed place holders. The professional tools are just much much smarter about how they find and compress these patterns than we were.

How much smarter? Let’s find out by comparing and contrasting what we did against what better compression tools do.


Our OK Idea: We designed our compression patterns based around our knowledge of average letter frequencies in the English language. While this worked OK there was the problem that not every text file follows the average English pattern. A report about zigzagging zebras is going to have a ton of z’s and g’s while a C++ code file is going to have lots of brackets and semi-colons. Our average English compression strategy won’t work very well on files like that.

Their Better Idea: Professional tools don’t use a single universal encoding scheme but instead create a unique encoding for every file based on their individual symbol frequency. So if a particular text file has a ton of “z”s or parenthesis or brackets it will get its own custom code that compresses those letters. This lack of a universal standard does mean that each compressed file has to start with a dictionary explaining the specific compression pattern used for that file but the space saved by using an optimized compression pattern for each file more than makes up for the space taken up by the dictionary.


Our OK Idea: We not only used the same compression codes for every single file, we used the same compression codes throughout every file. This was easy to program but could be sub-optimal on longer files. If a book starts out talking about zigzagging zebras but later focuses on electric eels then one half of the book might compress better than the other.

Their Better Idea: Many compressional algorithms split files into multiple segments and then compress them individually before gluing them together into an output file. This way each segment can have its own optimized compression pattern. So if one half of a file had a lot of “z”s but no “l”s it could get a compression pattern focused on “z”s. If the second half of the file switched things around and had lots of “l”s but almost no “z”s the algorithm could then switch to a new compression pattern that shrunk down the “l”s and did nothing with “z”s. Of course this means each compressed file has to have multiple dictionaries explaining the specific compression pattern and length of each file segment but once again the space you save in better compression outweighs the space you lose from the extra dictionaries.


Our OK Idea: Our compression code focused only on ASCII text files. This made it easy to design and test our project but also severely limits it’s utility.

Their Better Idea: Admittedly some professional tools also only focus on one file type. For example, PNG only compresses image files. But many other professional compression tools work by looking for repeated bit patterns of any sort and length. This lets them compress any file made of bits which is, well, all of them. Sure, not every file compresses particularly well but at least there are no files you plain can’t run the algorithm on.


Our OK Idea: Our compression code worked by replacing common 8-bit letter patterns with smaller 4-bit patterns. This means that even in a best case scenario (a file containing only our eight compressible common letters) we could only shrink a file down to 50%.

Their Better Idea: Professional tools don’t restrict themselves to only looking for common 8-bit patterns but can instead find repeated patterns of any length. This can lead to massive compression by finding things like commonly used 256-bit patterns that can be replaced with two or three bit placeholders for 99% compression. Of course not every file is going to have conveniently repeated large bit sequences but being able to recognize these opportunities when they do happen opens up a lot of possibilities.


So there you have it. The main difference between professional compression algorithms and our toy is that professional programs spend a lot more time upfront analyzing their target files in order to figure out an ideal compression strategy for that specific file. This obviously is going to lead to better results than our naive “one size fits all” approach.

But figuring out the ideal compression strategy for a specific file or type of file is often easier said than done! To go much deeper into that we’d have to start seriously digging into information theory and various bits of complex math and that’s way beyond the scope of this blog. But if this little project piqued your interest I’d definitely encourage you to take some time and study up on it a bit yourself.



Hopefully this article has given you a few ideas on how our little toy compressor could be improved. And while you probably don’t want to try anything as drastic as implementing a full Huffman style algorithm I think there are a lot of relatively simple improvements you could experiment with.

For example, what if you got rid the hard coded set of “English’s eight most common symbols” and instead had your algorithm begin compression by doing a simple ASCII letter count to figure out the eight most common symbols for your specific target file? You could then have your algorithm assign compression short codes to those eight symbols which should probably lead to results at least a few percentage points smaller than our one size fits all prototypes

Of course, in order to decompress these files you’ll have to start your file with a list of which short codes map to which letters. You could do this with some sort of pair syntax (ex: {0000:z,0001:l,0010:p}) or maybe just have the first eight bytes in a compressed file always be the eight symbols from your compression map.

And with that we’re pretty much done talking about compression, but speaking of improvements reminds me that my Lisp code is still slow as cold tar. So if you have any interest in Lisp at all I’d like to encourage you to tune in again next week as we analyze and speed up our code and maybe even talk a little about that “functional programming”.

Let’s Program A Compression Algorithm Part 3: In Which A General Compression Algorithm Becomes Working Lisp Code

Last time we invented and tested a super-simple compression algorithm that revolves around replacing the eight most common symbols in the English language with tiny 4-bit codes instead of their normal 8-bit representations (at the cost of replacing everything else with bigger 9-bit versions). We even did some examples by hand.

But this is a coding blog, so it’s time to write some actual code. When it comes to language choice our only real requirement is that the language be capable or working directly with bits and bytes and files and since pretty much every language ever has no problem doing that we’re open to choose whatever we want.

I’m personally going to choose Lisp and be keeping all my code in a file named “wrc.lisp” for “White Rabbit Compression”. You, of course, can follow along in whatever language you want. In fact, that would probably be the most educational approach to this series.

Anyways, like we talked about in the design phase, this project will mostly focus on processing lists of bits in batches of 8, 4 and 9. That means we’re going to need a convenient data structure for holding these lists.

Fortunately Lisp is built entirely around list processing and has some very powerful built in tools for creating and managing lists of numbers, so I will be representing our binary fragments as a plain old list of integers which will just so happen to always be either a 0 or a 1.

For those of you not in Lisp I bet your language has it’s own list structures. Could be a vector, a queue, a linked list, whatever. Anything that lets you add new stuff to the end and pull old stuff off the front will be fine.

Now the efficiency buffs in the audience might have noticed that we’re wasting space by using entire integers to keep track of mere bits. Shouldn’t we be using something else, like a bit vector?

Probably! But this is just the proof of concept first pass so doing things the easy way is more important than doing things the best way. If it turns out the program is too slow or memory hungry then we’ll revisit this decision.

With that in mind our first attempt at letter bit lists is going to look something like this:

; An 8-bit ASCII letter
(list 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1)

;One of our 4 bit compressed letters
(list 0 0 1 1)

;One of our 9 bit labeled ASCII letters
(list 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1)

Next up let’s write some helper functions that can turn real 8-bit bytes into our custom bit lists or turn our bit lists back into bytes.

(defun 8-bit-list-to-byte (bitlist)
    (+     (* 128 (first bitlist))
        (* 64 (second bitlist))
        (* 32 (third bitlist))
        (* 16 (fourth bitlist))
        (* 8 (fifth bitlist))
        (* 4 (sixth bitlist))
        (* 2 (seventh bitlist))
        (* 1 (eighth bitlist))))
(defun byte-to-8-bit-list (byte)
    (let ((bitlist nil))
        (if (>= byte 128)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 128)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 64)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 64)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 32)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 32)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 16)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 16)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 8)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 8)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 4)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 4)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 2)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 2)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (if (>= byte 1)
                (push 1 bitlist)
                (setf byte (- byte 1)))
            (push 0 bitlist))
        (nreverse bitlist)))


The logic here is pretty simple although the Lisp syntax can be a bit weird. I think 8-bit-list-to-byte is self-explanatory but byte-to-8-bit-list might need some explaining. The basic idea is that every bit in a byte has a specific value: 128, 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2 or 1. Because of how binary works any number greater than 128 must have the first bit set, any number smaller than 128 but larger than 64 must have the second bit set and so on.

So we can turn a byte into a list by first checking if the number is bigger than 128. If not we put a 0 into our list and move on. But if it is we put a 1 into our list and then subtract 128 before working with the remainder of the number. Then the next if statement checks if the numbe ris bigger than 64 and so on. The only Lispy trick here is that Lisp if statements by default can only contain two lines of logic: the first for when the if is true and the second when the if is false. Since we want to run two lines of logic when things are true we wrap them in a progn, which just lumps multiple lines of code into one unit.

Clear as mud? Let’s move on then.

With those generic helpers out of the way let’s move on to writing the core of our compressor: A function that can accept a byte and then transform it into either a 4-bit short code or a 9-bit extended code.

The first thing we’ll want is a single place in the code where we can keep the “official” list of which letters translate to which short codes. It’s important we have only one copy of this list because later on we might find out we need to change it and updating one list is a lot easier than hunting through our code for half a dozen different lists.

(defparameter *compression-map*
   '((160 (0 0 0 0)) 
     (101 (0 0 0 1))
     (116 (0 0 1 0))
     (97  (0 0 1 1))
     (111 (0 1 0 0))
     (105 (0 1 0 1))
     (110 (0 1 1 0))
     (115 (0 1 1 1))))

Here I’m using the ‘ shortcut to create a list of lists since (list (list 160 (list 0 0 0 0))…) would get really tiring to type really fast. Syntax aside the first item in each of the eight items in our list is the ASCII code for the letter we want to compress and the second item is the bit list we want it to compress to.

Now that we’ve gor our compression map in whatever format you prefer all we need is an easy way to get the data we need out of that map. During compression we want to be able to take a byte and find out it’s short code and during decompression we want to take a short-code and find out which byte it used to be.

Off the top of my head there are a few ways to do this. One would be to just loop through the entire list every time we want to do a lookup, stopping when we find an item that starts with the byte we want or ends with the list we want (or returning false if we don’t find anything). The whole list is only eight items long so this isn’t as wasteful as it might sound.

An easier solution (depending on your language) might be to use our master list to create a pair of hash tables or dictionaries. As you probably know these are one way lookup structures that link “keys” to “values”. Give the hash a key and it will very efficiently tell you whether or not it has stored a value for it and what that value is; perfect for our needs. The only trick is that since they are only one way and we want to both compress and decompress our data we’ll actually need two hashes that mirror each other. One would use the bytes as keys and reference the bit-lists. The other would use the bit-lists as keys and reference the bytes.

I think I’ll go with the hash approach since they are a more universal language feature than Lisp’s particular approach to list parsing.

Hash tables seem pretty weird until you understand how they work internally.

To translate my universal compression mapping into a pair of usable hash tables I’m going to first create the hash tables as global variables and then I’m going to use a simple Lisp loop to step through every pair in the compression map. During each step of the loop we will insert the data from one pair into each hash.

(defparameter *byte-to-list-compression-hash* (make-hash-table))
(defparameter *list-to-byte-compression-hash* (make-hash-table :test 'equal))

    for compression-pair in *compression-map*
    do    (setf 
            (gethash (car compression-pair) *byte-to-list-compression-hash*) 
            (cadr compression-pair))
            (gethash (cadr compression-pair) *list-to-byte-compression-hash*) 
            (car compression-pair)))


A little Lisp trivia here for anybody following along in my language of choice:

1) The :test keyword lets you tell a hash how to compare keys. The default value works great with bytes but not so great with lists so I use :test ‘equal to give the *list-to-byte-compression-hash* a more list friendly compartor.

2) To pull data out of or put data into a hash you use the gethash function. The fist argument is a key value, the second argument is the hash you want to use. I tend to get this backwards a lot :-(

3) “car” and “cdr” and combinitions like “cadar” are all old fashioned keywords for grabbing different parts of lists. I could have just as easily used chains of “first” and “second” but what’s the fun in that?

Lisp aside, we now have an official compression map and two easy to search hashes for doing compression lookups and decompression reverse lookups. Let’s put them to good use by actually writing a compression function!

The compression function should take an ASCII byte and check if it’s in the compression map. If it is it will return the proper 4-bit short code. If it isn’t in the map it should transform it to an 8-bit list, glue on a leading 1 and then return the new 9-bit list.

(defun compress-byte (byte-to-compress)
    (let ((short-code (gethash byte-to-compress *byte-to-list-compression-hash*)))
        (if short-code 
            (append '(1) (byte-to-8-bit-list byte-to-compress)))))

Nothing all that clever here. We take the byte-to-compress and lookup whatever value it has in the *byte-to-list-compression-hash*. We then use let to store that result in a local short-code variable. We then us a simple if statment to see whether short-code has an actual value (meaning we found a compression) or if it is empty (meaning that byte doesn’t compress). If it has a compressed value we just return it. Otherwise we take the original byte-to-compress, turn it into a bit list, glue a 1 to the front and return it.

Let’s see it all in action:

[1]> (load “wrc.lisp”)

;; Loading file wrc.lisp …

;; Loaded file wrc.lisp


[2]> (compress-byte 111)

(0 1 0 0)

[3]> (compress-byte 82)

(1 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 0)

Cool. It successfully found 111 (“o”) in our compression map and shrunk it from eight bytes down to four. It also noticed that 82 (“R”) was not in our map and so returned the full 8-bits with a ninth “1” marker glued to the front.

Next time we’ll start looking into how to use this function to compress and save an actual file.

Let’s Program A Compression Algorithm Part 2: In Which A General Idea Becomes A Specific Algorithm

Last time we talked about Alice in Wonderland and the deep cruelty of stores that play the same handful of movie trailers on endless loop.

More importantly we also talked about how computers use compression to shrink files down for easier storage and faster transfer. Without good compression algorithms the Internet would crawl to a halt and half the electronics you use on a daily basis wouldn’t exist. For instance, without compression a 2 hour HD movie would be over 300 GB; good luck fitting that all on one disc!

To better understand this vital computer science breakthrough we’re going to be writing our own ASCII text compression program.

Disclaimer: It’s not going to be a very good compression program. Like all of my let’s programs the goal here is education and not the creation of usable code. We’re going to be skipping out on all the security and error checking issues a professional compressor would include and our end goal is a modest 20% reduction in file size compared to the 75%+ reduction well known tools like Zip can pull off.

Now that your expectations have been properly lowered let’s talk about the structure of text files. After all, we can’t compress them if we don’t know what they’re supposed to look like or how they work.

The ASCII text standard is a set of 256 symbols that includes all 26 letters of the English language in both upper and lower case as well as all standard punctuation, some useful computer symbols (like newline) and a bunch of random symbols and proto-emoticons that seem like they were included mostly to fill up space.

The fact that there are 256 symbols is very important because 256 is exactly how high you can count using a single 8-bit computer byte. That means you can store one letter in one byte by simply using binary counting to mark down where the letter is in the ASCII chart.

For example, the capital letter “A” is in spot 65 of the ASCII chart. 65 in binary is 01000001. So to store the letter “A” in our computer we would grab a byte worth of space on our hard drive and fill it with the electronic pattern 01000001.

An ASCII text file is just a bunch of these 8-bit character bytes all in a row. If you want to save a 120 character long text you need a 120-byte long ASCII file. If you want to save a 5,000 character short story you need a roughly 5 kilobyte ASCII file.

Ok, cool. Now we know what an ASCII file’s guts look like. Time to start looking for patterns we can use for compression.

Patterns… patterns… here’s one!

The ASCII files we’ll be working with are all based on the English alphabet, and in English not all letters are used evenly. Things like “s”, “e”, and “a” get used all the time while poor little letters like “x” and “z” hardly ever see the light of day. And don’t forget “ ”! You might not think of the blank space as a letter but just imagine tryingtowritewithoutit.

So some letters are much more common than others but ASCII stores them all in identical 8-bit bytes anyways. What if we were to change that? What if we stored the most common letters in smaller spaces, like 4-bit nibbles*?

The biggest challenge here is figuring out a way to let the computer know when it should expect a nibble instead of a byte. In normal ASCII every letter is eight bits long which makes it easy for the computer to figure out where one letter ends and the next begins.

But since we’re going to have letters of different lengths we need some way to point out to the computer what to expect. A sort of virtual name-tag to say “I’m a 4-bit letter” or “I’m a normal 8-bit letter”.

Here’s a simple idea: Our short 4-bit letters will always start with a 0, on the other hand our 8-bit ASCII letters will always start with a 1.

This solution does have some drawbacks. If the first bit of our 4-bit letters is always 0 that means we only have three bits left for encoding the actual letter. Three bits is only enough to count up to eight so that means we will only be able to compress eight letters.

A bigger problem comes from the 8-bit ASCII letters. They need their full 8-bits to work properly so the only way to mark them with a leading 1 is by gluing it to the front and turning them into 9-bit letters. So while our common letters had their size cut in half our uncommon letters are actually getting bigger. Hopefully we’ll still come out ahead but it might be close.

It’s amazing how many problems are caused by people trying to apply averages to things that ought not be averaged

Anyways, it sounds like we’re going to have eight different shortcut codes to work with. What letters should we use them for? Well, according to Wikipedia the eight most common letters in the English language are, in order: E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H. So that’s probably a good bet if we want as much compression as possible.

But Wikipedia doesn’t count the blank space as a letter. However because it’s so common in text it’s definitely something we want to compress. Let’s add it to the front of the list and drop “H”. That means the letters we will be compressing are “ ”, E, T, A, O, I, N, S.

Or more accurately “ ”, e, t, a, o , i, n, s. Remember that in ASCII upper and lower case letters are coded differently so we have to choose which we want. Since lowercase letters are more common than uppercase it makes sense to focus on them.

Now that we have our eight compression targets all we have to do is assign them one of our short codes, all of which are just the number 0 followed by some binary. Let’s go with this:

“ ” = 0000

“e” = 0001

“t” = 0010

“a” = 0011

“o” = 0100

“i” = 0101

“n” = 0110

“s” = 0111

Also remember that any letter not on this list will actually be expanded by putting a “1” in front of it’s binary representation.

One Makes You Smaller

Whew! That was a lot of abstract thinking but believe it or not we now have a complete compression algorithm. And just to prove it we’re going to do a compression by hand.

But what should we practice on? Well, our theme is “Wonderland” and I seem to recall that Alice was able to shrink herself by fooling around with a bottle labeled “drink me”. In ASCII that looks like this:

d r i n k m e
01100100 01110010 01101001 01101110 01101011 00100000 01101101 01100101

Eight bits times eight letter means 64 bits total. But if we replace the space, ‘i’, ‘e’, and ‘n’ with our 4-bit shortcuts while adding a 1 flag in front of the remaining 8-bit (soon to be 9-bit) letters we get

d r i n k m e
101100100 101110010 0101 0110 101101011 0000 101101101 0001

Which is 9*4 + 4*4 bits long for a total of only 52 bits. So we saved ourselves 12 bits, which is almost 20% less space than the original. Not bad.

One Makes You Grow Taller

Of course, taking text and compressing it is pretty useless unless we also know how to take compressed text and expand it back into normal readable ASCII. So please take a look at the following bit sequence and see if you can figure out what it used to say:


I don’t want anybody accidentally looking ahead so let’s push the answer down a page or so with some another random comic.

Information theory jokes are funny, right?

So the first thing to do here is to take that big messy data stream and split it into individual letters. Remember that according to our rules the length of each letter is determined by whether it starts with a 0 or a 1. The 0s are 4-bit letters and the 1s are 9-bit letters.

So here we go. 0001001111111010000001011011010001 starts with 0 so the first letter must be four bits long: 0001

After removing those four bits we’re left with 001111111010000001011011010001, which also starts with a 0 meaning our next letter is also four bits long: 0011

Removing those four letters leaves us with 11111010000001011011010001. Since that starts with a 1 that means our next letter is 9 bits long: 111110100

By doing this again and again we finally get these six letters:

0001 0011 111110100 0000 101101101 0001

Now that we have our individual letters it’s time to turn them into, well, letters. But the kind of letters people can read.

For the four bit letters we just reference the list of short codes we made up. Scroll up in the likely event that you neglected to commit them to long term memory.

0001 0011 111110100 0000 101101101 0001
e a ? ? e

For the nine bit letters we need to remove the leading 1 and then look up the remaining eight bit code in the official ASCII chart. For instance 111110100 becomes 11110100 which is the code for “t”.

0001 0011 111110100 0000 101101101 0001
e a t m e

And there we go, the compressed binary has successfully been turned back into human readable data.

I Don’t Like Pretending To Be A Compression Algorithm

Doing these examples by hand was a great way to prove our proposed compression algorithm actually works but I don’t think any of us want to to try and compress an entire book or even an entire email by hand. It would be much better to teach the computer how to do this all for us. Which is exactly what we’re going to start working on next time.

After all, this is a Let’s Program, not a Let’s Spend A Small Eternity Doing Mathematical Busywork.

* Yes, nibble is the actual official term for half a byte. Programmers are weird like that.

Let’s Program A Prisoners Dilemma 5: What Is A Decision Making Process?

The saint and devil prisoners were easy to write but, as we’ve seen, they’re not actually very good at playing the game. The always cooperating saints are wide open to exploitation and the devils will always defect even when cooperating would score them more points in the long run.

We clearly need a prisoner who can actually make choices instead of just doing the same thing again and again.

1d6 Points of SAN Loss

As any game designer can tell you, the easiest way to simulate decision making is with random numbers. Just give the computer a list of decisions and let it pick one at random.

So on that note I give you: The madman.

class MadMan < Prisoner
   def initialize(id)
      @strategy = "MadMan"

   def cooperate?(opponentID)
      choice = rand(2)
      if( choice == 1)
         return true
         return false

Ruby weirdness warning: In a lot of languages “0” is the same as false, so you might be tempted to have cooperate? just return the number generated by rand. Don’t do that. In Ruby only “false” and “null” are considered false. Everything else, including the number 0, are considered true. This is useful because it means the number 0 always acts like just a number. On the other hand it messes up a lot of other useful programming shortcuts so all in all it sort of break even.

Anyways, don’t forget to tell our create Prisoners method that there’s a new type of prisoner object for it to work with.

def createPrisoners(saintCount, devilCount, madmanCount)
   prisoners = Array.new
   playerCounter = 0
   saintCount.times{ prisoners.push(Saint.new(playerCounter += 1)) }
   devilCount.times{ prisoners.push(Devil.new(playerCounter += 1)) }
   madmanCount.times{ prisoners.push(MadMan.new(playerCounter += 1)) }
   return prisoners

Inmates Are Running The Asylum

Let’s be honest here: Making decisions at random is almost never a good idea. So how does our new class of insane prisoners perform in an actual game?

prisoners = createPrisoners(4, 4, 4)
playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, 1000)

Ten doesn’t divide evenly into thirds so this time we’ll have four of each type of prisoner. Please not that this changes the perfect score to -12,000.

The Group’s Overall Score was -17905 in 1000 rounds with 12 prisoners

ID: 6 Score: -876 Strategy: Devil

ID: 7 Score: -882 Strategy: Devil

ID: 8 Score: -892 Strategy: Devil

ID: 5 Score: -906 Strategy: Devil

ID: 12 Score: -1499 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 9 Score: -1504 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 10 Score: -1538 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 11 Score: -1564 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 2 Score: -2026 Strategy: Saint

ID: 1 Score: -2060 Strategy: Saint

ID: 4 Score: -2074 Strategy: Saint

ID: 3 Score: -2084 Strategy: Saint

Madmen randomly flip between acting like saints and acting like devils so it makes sense they would wind up scoring squarely in between the two. They don’t just let the devils betray them; sometimes they betray right back. And they alternate between cooperating with saints for small gains and betraying them for big gains.

So all in all it seems like mild insanity is actually a pretty well rounded fit for the cutthroat world of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Also, as promised, the fact that madmen can make actual decisions means that our overall group score now has some variation to it even when running multiple games with the same group.

The Group’s Overall Score was -17995 in 1000 rounds with 12 prisoners

The Group’s Overall Score was -18046 in 1000 rounds with 12 prisoners

The Group’s Overall Score was -17938 in 1000 rounds with 12 prisoners

The Lost And The Damned

So madmen seem to do pretty well in a mixed group… but maybe that’s just because they had some saints to act as backup. What happens when we pair up only devils and madmen?

The Group’s Overall Score was -17523 in 1000 rounds with 10 prisoners

ID: 4 Score: -1440 Strategy: Devil

ID: 1 Score: -1450 Strategy: Devil

ID: 2 Score: -1456 Strategy: Devil

ID: 3 Score: -1456 Strategy: Devil

ID: 5 Score: -1472 Strategy: Devil

ID: 9 Score: -2013 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 7 Score: -2014 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 8 Score: -2068 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 6 Score: -2072 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 10 Score: -2082 Strategy: MadMan

About the same thing as when there were saints, it turns out. The madmen’s habit of cooperating roughly half the time means they still can’t directly compete with the vicious defecting devils, but at least randomly defecting half of the time allows them to sort of defend themselves.

In fact, if you compare this to the time we evenly paired up devils and saints you’ll see that the madmen scored about the same as the saints. But the big difference is that the madmen did much more damage to the devils in the process.

Although it’s up in the air as to whether this is a good thing or not. Taking the devils down a notch is certainly a satisfying feeling but the madmen still lost and the group score is much much worse then when the saints had their match with the devil.

The More Randomness You Have The Less Random It Is

For our final experiment I just want to point out that while I call them “Madmen” the random decision prisoners actually managed to achieve some pretty reliable results, consistently scoring halfway between a saint and a devil.

This is of course because random numbers tend to average out over time. So “cooperates at random” eventually transforms into “consistently cooperates 50% of the time”.

To show this off I’m going to have a bunch of madmen play increasingly long games against each other.

prisoners = createPrisoners(0, 0, 10)
playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, 10)
playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, 100)
playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, 1000)
playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, 1000000)

The Group’s Overall Score was -141 in 10 rounds with 10 prisoners

ID: 10 Score: -7 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 1 Score: -10 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 6 Score: -12 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 8 Score: -13 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 9 Score: -14 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 5 Score: -15 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 2 Score: -16 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 3 Score: -17 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 7 Score: -18 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 4 Score: -19 Strategy: MadMan

The Group’s Overall Score was -1493 in 100 rounds with 10 prisoners

ID: 8 Score: -132 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 3 Score: -135 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 6 Score: -139 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 5 Score: -144 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 1 Score: -145 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 9 Score: -154 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 7 Score: -156 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 4 Score: -159 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 2 Score: -163 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 10 Score: -166 Strategy: MadMan

The Group’s Overall Score was -14976 in 1000 rounds with 10 prisoners

ID: 3 Score: -1437 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 8 Score: -1457 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 1 Score: -1482 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 4 Score: -1487 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 7 Score: -1491 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 10 Score: -1492 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 5 Score: -1503 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 6 Score: -1514 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 9 Score: -1537 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 2 Score: -1576 Strategy: MadMan

The Group’s Overall Score was -15001829 in 1000000 rounds with 10 prisoners

ID: 3 Score: -1498113 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 10 Score: -1499339 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 1 Score: -1499525 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 9 Score: -1500065 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 7 Score: -1500128 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 2 Score: -1500445 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 4 Score: -1500662 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 5 Score: -1500894 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 8 Score: -1501085 Strategy: MadMan

ID: 6 Score: -1501573 Strategy: MadMan

As you can see, the longer the game lasts the less difference there is in the scores.

After ten rounds the worst score (-19) was almost three times as bad as the best score (-7).

After one hundred rounds the worst score (-166) was only about 25% worse than the best score (-132).

After a thousand rounds there was only a 10% difference between best (-1437) and worst (-1576).

And after a million rounds there was less than a 1% difference between best and worst.

So in the long run cooperating at random is a viable way to take a middle path cooperation and defection.

We Can Be Smarter Than This

Random decision making lead to some interesting outcomes but it failed to come even close to beating the devils. Plus it’s an embarrassingly simple algorithm for AI enthusiasts like ourselves. Surely we can come up with a smarter prisoner. One that actually thinks instead of guessing.

But that’s going to have to wait for next time.

Let’s Program A Prisoner’s Dilemma Part 3: Fight In Cell Block D

Last time we programmed a couple prisoners and ran them through their paces. This time we’re going to write the code for the actual prisoner’s dilemma game.

We start by pseudo-coding our algorithm:

  • First: generate a bunch of prisoners objects.
  • Second: decide how many rounds the game should last.
  • During each round:
    •    Randomly pair up prisoners.
    •    Each prisoner is asked whether or not they want to cooperate with their partner
    •    Prisoners lose points based on the decision they and their partner made
    •    Move on to the next round by randomly sorting prisoners into new pairs
  • When all the rounds are done show the stats of every prisoners so we know who won (by losing the least points).
  • Also show the total sum of all the prisoners’ scores so we can compare different mixes of prisoners.

Breaking News: Prisons Filling Up At An Alarming Rate

Let’s start by figuring out how to set up a group of prisoners. We could just hard code an array of prisoner objects but that would leave us in the bad situation of having to rewrite actual code every time we wanted to try a new mix of prisoners. That sounds both boring and error prone so instead let’s come up with a function we can use to create a mix of prisoners on the fly.

def createPrisoners(saintCount, devilCount)
   prisoners = Array.new
   playerCounter = 0
   saintCount.times{ prisoners.push(Saint.new(playerCounter += 1)) }
   devilCount.times{ prisoners.push(Devil.new(playerCounter += 1)) }
   return prisoners

We just tell this function how many saints and devils we want and it gives us exactly what we asked for packaged inside a convenient array. It also keeps count of how many prisoners it has created so far and uses that count to make sure every prisoner has a unique ID.

This function also shows off a rather handy Ruby shortcut for writing a classic “for loop”. If you want a loop that runs a certain number of times just take that number, or a variable holding that number, and add .times{ your code here } to the end. Ex: 4.times{ puts “This will print four times” }

Exciting Next-gen Gameplay!

To actually play the prisoners dilemma we need a group of prisoners and an idea of how many rounds we want the game to last, which means our function definition probably needs to look a little like this:

def playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, rounds)

Then inside the function itself we want to set up a loop that runs once for every round in the game. During those rounds we want to randomly shuffle our prisoners, divide them up into pairs and then ask every prisoner whether they want to cooperate with their temporary partner or not.

At that point we subtract one point from any player who chose to cooperate and subtract two points from any player who was betrayed by their partner (Yes, a player can be hit by both penalties in the same round).

   pairs = prisoners.shuffle.each_slice(2)
   pairs.each{ |pair|
      firstPlayerCooperates = pair[0].cooperate?(pair[1].id)
      secondPlayerCooperates = pair[1].cooperate?(pair[0].id)

         pair[0].score -= 1
         pair[1].score -= 2

         pair[1].score -= 1
         pair[0].score -= 2

      pair[0].learnResults(pair[1].id, secondPlayerCooperates)
      pair[1].learnResults(pair[0].id, firstPlayerCooperates)

Once again we’re using handy Ruby shortcuts to save a bit of typing. We use rounds.times to set up a loop that will play the game the proper number of times. We then use prionser.shuffle to randomly mix up the prisoners and then chain it to each_slice(2) to divide the random mix into random pairs.

Important note: shuffle and slice don’t change the original array. They instead return a transformed copy that has to be assigned to a variable before you can use it. But for us this is actually a good thing because it means we can just shuffle and slice the same prisoners array at the start of each loop without having to worry about it somehow getting messed up between iterations.

Once we’ve got our random pair array we can use pairs.each to write some quick code we want to run once for each piece of data in our array. The each loop starts out by grabbing an item from the array and storing it inside whatever variable we’ve named with the | variable | syntax.

In our case the pairs array is full of tiny two item arrays, so we call our variable pair. From there it’s pretty simple to each half ot he pair whether or not it wants to cooperate with the other half and then we can assign points. Remember our scoring rules: A player who cooperates loses one point. A player who refuses to cooperate forces the other player to lose two points. We also call the learnResults function to let each prisoner know how the round played out.

After the rounds.times loop has finished playing the game all that’s left is to print out the final score.

#Show the stats for the group as a whole as well as for each individual prisoner
groupScore = 0
prisoners.each{ |prisoner| groupScore += prisoner.score }
puts "The Group's Overall Score was #{groupScore} in #{rounds} rounds with #{prisoners.length} prisoners"
prisoners.sort{ |x, y| y.score <=> x.score}.each{ |prisoner| prisoner.report }

Nothing complicated here. We use an each loop to tally up the scores from every player so we can print a group score. Then we sort the prisoners by score and use another each loop to print out the individual stats for every prisoner.

All Together Now

Gluing together all the bits of code we just wrote leaves us with this nice function:

def playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, rounds)
   if !prisoners.length.even?
      throw "Prisoners Dilemma requires an even number of participants"

   # Make sure each prisoner starts out with a clean slate
   prisoners.each{ |prisoner| prisoner.score = 0}
      pairs = prisoners.shuffle.each_slice(2)
      pairs.each{ |pair|
         firstPlayerCooperates = pair[0].cooperate?(pair[1].id)
         secondPlayerCooperates = pair[1].cooperate?(pair[0].id)

            pair[0].score -= 1
            pair[1].score -= 2

            pair[1].score -= 1
            pair[0].score -= 2

   #Show the stats for the group as a whole as well as for each individual prisoner
   groupScore = 0
   prisoners.each{ |prisoner| groupScore += prisoner.score }
   puts "The Group's Overall Score was #{groupScore} in #{rounds} rounds with #{prisoners.length} prisoners"
   prisoners.sort{ |x, y| y.score <=> x.score}.each{ |prisoner| prisoner.report }

And now we can test it by having a group of prisoners play the game. Let’s try it out with a group of two saints and two devils playing for a thousand rounds:

prisoners = createPrisoners(2, 2)
playPrisonersDilemma(prisoners, 1000)

This should give you output kind of like this:

The Group’s Overall Score was -6000 in 1000 rounds with 4 prisoners

ID: 4 Score: -650 Strategy: Devil

ID: 3 Score: -650 Strategy: Devil

ID: 2 Score: -2350 Strategy: Saint

ID: 1 Score: -2350 Strategy: Saint

Hmm… looks like the Devils had no trouble at all completely crushing the Saints. We’ll look at that match up in more detail next time.

Is Your Server A Survivor?

Heavy ice storms have knocked out power throughout most of Oklahoma and left me thinking about emergency preparedness. Not for humans, mind you, but for machines. After all, in the web business uptime is everything and a customer living in California isn’t going to care or even realize that the reason your online store is down is because of heavy flooding in a data center halfway across the country.

So… Quiz Time! How many natural disasters could your server survive before your customers could no longer access your website and/or services?

Most professional hosting services have backup generators and battery arrays that keep things humming along without so much as a hiccup during even the worst of blackouts. And in 99% of the case that’s all you need.

But what about the other 1% of the time?

For instance, generators need fuel. What happens if that fuel runs out and deep snows or heavy flooding prevents you from bringing in more fuel to start them back up? How many hours or days could you server go without supplies before finally falling silent? Do you even know? (I don’t. Such shame.)

And what about your server’s physical safety? A backup generator won’t do you any good if an earthquake drops a steel girder right on top of your hardware or if a tornado blows your whole data center off to Oz.

Now obviously there comes a point where it’s no longer worth spending a bunch of money just to make your server 0.0001% more robust. There’s nothing wrong with shrugging your shoulders and saying, “If a meteor crashes into my server I’ll build a new one from backup and my customers will just have to deal with the downtime. If anybody complains I’ll send them a picture of the crater.”

And that’s perfectly fine. Nobody has ever died because they had to wait an extra day to order a funny t-shirt they found online.

Of course… people HAVE died because they had to wait an extra day for military communication. And a thirty second outage of financial data can make all sorts of people wish they were dead. So there are some industries where downtime is never OK.

Which means there are people working in those industries who get paid to sit around talking about how they plan to recover from simultaneous lightning strikes in five different states during a zombie apocalypse.

I’m… feeling a little career envy here.

Let’s Program A Prisoner’s Dilemma Part 2: Crime And Punishment

Last time we learned about a game theory thought experiment called the “Iterated Group Prisoner’s Dilemma”. Basically players get randomly paired up and have to decide to either cooperate by accepting a small penalty for themselves or defect by shoving a big penalty onto the other player. The players then get shuffled around and repeat the game with a new partner. After a few hundred rounds (or more) the game comes to a stop and the winner is whoever has lost the fewest points.

This time we’re going to start programing a simulator for that game so we can watch how different strategies play out.

I will be writing this project in Ruby. It’s not really “better” for this program than any of the various other high level languages we could choose from, but I’ve been using it a lot as part of my game programming hobby and figured I might as well stick with it while it was in my head.

So if you want to follow along with my exact code open up a file named prisonerdilemma.rb in your favorite text editor and get ready for some Ruby. Of course, rewriting the project in your favorite language is always an option.

Introducing Prisoner 24601

The most important part of the prisoner’s dilemma is the prisoners. So let’s make a list of what our little digital prisoners need to be able to do in order for this simulation to work.

1) They need to have a unique ID so that other prisoners (and us humans) can recognize them.

2) They need to be able to decide whether to cooperate or defect with other prisoners based on ID.

3) They need to be able to see whether their opponent decided to cooperate or defect.

4) They need to be able to report what strategy they are using so we can keep track of how different strategies perform.

5) They need to be able to keep track of their score so we can calculate who is winning and losing.

Based on all this I’ve thrown together a very simple prisoner class for us to start working with. It can’t really do much except book keeping though. It has variables to keep track of it’s own ID, score and strategy and even exposes the score to outside code so we can update it during the game. It also has a convenient “report” function that will print out all that information in human friendly format.

As for actual game playing code… it does technically have a “cooperate?” function for deciding how to play the game along with a “learnResults” function for keeping track of its opponents. But at the moment both of these functions are empty because this is just skeleton code; it isn’t meant to actually do anything. In fact, if you try to call the “cooperate?” function it will throw an error!

class Prisoner
   attr_reader :id, :strategy, :score
   attr_writer :score

   def initialize(id)
      @id = id;
      @score = 0;
      @strategy = "Prisoner Parent Class"

   def cooperate?(opponentID)
      throw "Prisoner child class must implement a cooperate? method"

   def learnResults(opponentID,oponentCooperated)

   def report
      puts "ID: #{@id} Score: #{@score} Strategy: #{@strategy}"

Still, even with two incomplete functions we can still give this a test run. If you were to add some code like this to your project:

testprisoner = Prisoner.new(6)
testprisoner.score = -10

You would get some output like this:

ID: 6 Score: -10 Strategy: Prisoner Parent Class

Ye Not Guilty – The “Saint” Strategy

Now that we’ve got a nice generic class up and running we can move on to writing a prisoner with actual dilemma solving code!

For our first attempt we’re going to be writing the simplest possible of all prisoner algorithms: A player who always always chooses to cooperate. We’ll be calling this the “Saint” strategy.

Now the actual code for this will be virtually identical to the generic prisoner. It will just have a different name inside of the “strategy” variable and its “cooperate” function will return true instead of throwing an error.

But we all know that copy pasting code is horrible and hard to maintain, so we’ll be using the miracle of inheritance to avoid any copy pasting.

class Saint < Prisoner
   def initialize(id)
      @strategy = "Saint"

   def cooperate?(opponentID)
      return true

That “Saint < Prisoner” tells the compiler that Saint is a type of Prisoner and should get a free copy of all of its code. Then instead of writing an entire new class from scratch we only have to write the few bits that are different.

First up we write a new initialize function so we can set the strategy variable to “Saint” instead of the default from the Prisoner class. But we still want the Prisoner class to handle things like setting our ID and initializing our score so we start out by calling the generic Prisoner initialize function with a call to “super”.

The super call checks whether the parent has a function with the same name as the current function and then calls it. It’s really useful for when you want a child function to do everything the parent did and then a little extra. Just start with super to get the parent’s behavior and then add in the unique child logic afterwards.

Next we write a new cooperate? function, which for our super trusting saint just involves returning “true”. In this case we want to completely override the parent’s version of the function so we leave out the call to super and just write new code.

Father of Lies

That was pretty easy, so let’s keep going by programming a second type of prisoner that perfectly mirrors our first. This time we’ll create a player that always always chooses to defect. Let’s call this the “Devil” strategy.

class Devil < Prisoner
   def initialize(id)
      @strategy = "Devil"

   def cooperate?(opponentID)
      return false

Just like with the “Saint” we use inheritance to grab our basic Prionser code and then just add in our new strategy name and cooperate? Algorithm. Couldn’t be easier.

A Not So Epic Clash Between Good And Evil

And now here’s a little code snippet you can use for testing that both of our new classes work:

testSaint = Saint.new(1)
testDevil = Devil.new(2)
puts "Saint Cooperates?"
puts testSaint.cooperate?(testDevil.id)
puts "Devil Cooperates?"
puts testDevil.cooperate?(testSaint.id)

Which results in this output:

ID: 1 Score: 0 Strategy: Saint

ID: 2 Score: 0 Strategy: Devil

Saint Cooperates?


Devil Cooperates?


Let’s Get Ready To Rumble

Now that we have some players assembled our next task will be setting up an actual game for them to play in. But that will have to wait until the next post.