# Elixir, Programming Puzzles and Sorting Arrays

There are a number of programming puzzle sites that are worthwhile tools for learning a language, brushing up on your skills or just exploring how other people might solve problems differently than you. I think this is all good. I’ve found it especially helpful in learning a new language. One of the interesting things about trying to solve some of these puzzles with a language like Elixir is that you have to work through the problem in a different way then you would in a language like “C” or Java. Arrays and sorting are common problems where you’d index into an Array with those languages but you want to avoid that in Elixir since you’re dealing with Lists and iterating into a List gets expensive. Here’s an example of a problem where I solved it a different way.

Say you’re given the problem of determining if it’s possible to sort an array of integers by reversing one of the array’s contiguous subarrays. So, for example, if you are given the input: `[-1, 5, 4, 3, 2, 8]` you can reverse the subarray `[5, 4, 3, 2]` and the entire array would end up sorted. But, for the input `[-1, 5, 4, 3, 2, -5]` there is no subarray that can be reversed and end up with a sorted array. The output from your function should just be true (a subarray exists that can be reversed to provide sorted array) or false (no such subarray exists). Additional constraints are that if there are any duplicates in the input then the function should return false.

If you take a step back from the problem then you realize that in order for the function to return true the input has to consist of a subarray of 0..n ascending elements, then a subarray of 0..n descending elements (where the lowest number of the subarray is > then the highest number of the first subarray) and then a subarray of 0..n ascending elements again (where the lowest number of the last subarray is > the highest number in the descending subarray).

In the example, `[-1, 5, 4, 3, 2, 8]` the subarrays that need to be identified are `[-1]` and `[5, 4, 3, 2]` and ``. Since -1 is < 2 (the last - lowest - element in subarray2) and since 5 is < 8 (5 is the highest element in subarray 2) then the function should respond “true”.

Okay, its hopefully clear that those are the 3 subarrays for this input but what questions do we need to answer to figure out whether reversing that 2nd subarray will leave the array sorted? Starting from the first couple elements of the list [-1, 5] we know that 5 > -1 so 1) we know that we have an ascending subarray consisting of at least -1 and possibly 5. But whether 5 is part of the ascending subarray depends on the next element. Since the next element is 4 it means that 5 is the first element in our descending subarray. We’d keep traversing elements in the list after 4 until we find one that is greater than the element that proceeded it. That’s how we get to  as the last subarray.

Now, since the 2nd subarray was in descending order and since the 3rd subarray ascends (and stops in this case) with 8 and 8 is greater than our first element in the descending subarray we “know” that this array can be sorted by reversing that descending subarray.

The data that it appears that we need to proceed thru the list and make a determination is: 1) what’s the current status (:leading_ascending, :descending, :trailing_ascending); 2) what’s the maximum (last) number in subarray1 (this allows us to check for whether any number in the 2nd subarray is less than max_subarray1); 3) what’s the maximum (first) number in subarray2 (this allows us to check for whether the number that starts the 3rd ascending subarray is less than max_subarray2). Since we may or may not have an initial ascending section the value of max_subarray1 can be nil.

If we put all the logic into our state module then the driver to determine true/false becomes pretty simple:

``````defmodule ContiguousSubArray do
def reverse_to_sort([num | t]) do
reverse_to_sort(t, num, ReverseSortState.new(num))
end

def reverse_to_sort([num | t], prev, state) do
IO.puts("#{inspect(state)}")

false -> false
new_state -> reverse_to_sort(t, num, new_state)
end
end

def reverse_to_sort([], _, _state), do: true
end
``````

The ContiguousSubArray creates a new ReverseSortState and then calls into the function `reverse_to_sort/3`. In that function we call `ReverseSortState.advance/3` and pass the current state of our analysis of the input, the value in the array we’re currently on, and the previous value in the array. If the `advance` function returns a state then all is still good and we move forward one position by calling reverse_to_sort/3 recursively. If `advance’ returns false then the input didn’t meet our expectations and we return false to the caller. Our ReverseSortState is:

``````defmodule ReverseSortState do
defstruct [:max_subarray2, :max_subarray1, :status]

def new(num) do
%__MODULE__{
max_subarray2: num,
max_subarray1: nil,
}
end

def advance(%{status: status} = state, num, prev) when status == :leading_ascending do
cond do
num > prev ->
%{state | max_subarray2: num, max_subarray1: prev}

num == prev ->
false

num < prev and num_greater_than_max_subarray1?(state, num) ->
%{state | status: :descending}

true ->
false
end
end

def advance(%{status: status} = state, num, prev) when status == :descending do
cond do
num < prev and num < state.max_subarray2 and num_greater_than_max_subarray1?(state, num) ->
state

num == prev ->
false

num > prev and num_greater_than_max_subarray1?(state, num) and num > state.max_subarray2 ->
%{state | status: :trailing_ascending}

true ->
false
end
end

def advance(%{status: status} = state, num, prev) when status == :trailing_ascending do
case num > prev do
true -> state
false -> false
end
end

defp num_greater_than_max_subarray1?(state, num) do
is_nil(state.max_subarray1) or num > state.max_subarray1
end
end
``````

We can run this code thru some unit tests with:

``````defmodule ContiguousSubArrayTest do
@inputs [
{[-1, 5, 4, 3, 2, 8], true},
{[1, 3, 2, 5, 4, 6], false},
{[2, 3, 2, 4], false},
{[19, 32, 23], true},
{[5, 4, 3, 2, 1], true}
]

def test do
@inputs
|> Enum.map(fn {input, result} ->
ContiguousSubArray.reverse_to_sort(input) == result
end)
end
end
``````

On puzzles in general, there are a number of companies that use puzzles from these sites (or some developed internally) as filters for hiring. This is a bit frustrating if you are applying for a job working on what amounts to a CRUD app but are asked to solve puzzles that would never come up in the actual work for the job. But its not uncommon. If you know the company you’d like to work at will throw these type of puzzles at you then I’d recommend spending some time on one or more of the programming puzzle sites and work thru some puzzles. If you can find out which site the company uses then practice on that since each has their own UI and idiosyncrasies and you want to be familiar with it before you start working on puzzles as part of interview (ordinarily as a timed exercise).

Sites to check out that have Elixir support:

Written on December 31, 2019