The Tale of Sammy Jo

In this latest installment in the Tales series, we’ll explore the peculiarities of human nature with the help of four aluminium sheep, a hacksaw and a girl named Sammy Jo.

I took a “Design and Technology” class at secondary school, which was a mixture of woodwork, metalwork and electrical engineering. On this particular occasion I had decided to create a mobile (the kind you’d hang over a baby’s crib; not the portable telephone) featuring four dangling aluminium sheep.

Somewhere towards the end of the session, I noticed Sammy Jo storming frantically around the workshop, wearing signs of distress very clearly upon her face. Eventually she reached my workbench and caught sight of my expertly-crafted sheep. She then handed me a sheet of aluminium and a drawing – and pleaded, “Can you help me make this? I’m really struggling.”

I was happy to oblige – so I took her sheet of aluminium, placed it in my vice and then began hacking around a rough outline of the desired shape. As I did this, I noticed the expression on her face gradually change from relief to confusion and eventually, disgust. She interjected, “Stop! Actually, I think I’ll find someone else to help me.” She then removed the aluminium from the vice and stormed off again.

I knew immediately what had happened. Despite the fact that the reason she came to me for help in the first place was because she had seen what I was capable of (i.e. my sheep), she must not have understood or agreed with my methods and instead opted to find help elsewhere. Again, this is despite the fact that the reason she came to me for help in the first place was because she had seen what I was capable of.

It’s a memory that spontaneously pops into my mind occasionally – and I giggle every time. Oh, my dear Sammy Jo. Humans are funny.

The Tale of Leopard Software

The story of this company randomly came to my mind whilst I was showering this morning. Based in the humble town of Knutsford, Leopard Software is the company responsible for the technology behind another, much larger Knutsford-based company: de Poel. To understand the relationship between these two companies – and the circumstances that eventually lead to the inception of Leopard Software to begin with – we must go back to pre-2014.

At one time, de Poel had its own in-house software development team. I interviewed there myself, but after a 5 (yes, 5) minute interview, I unsurprisingly (and thankfully) never heard from them. It was only a year later that I gained some insight into why I might have been so quickly rejected, when I was told the story of a programmer who worked for the company, who was given a disciplinary for wearing the wrong coloured tie with the wrong coloured shirt.

It seems the CEO was well known to be a bit “eccentric” (read: nuts) and insisted that all of his employees dress immaculately – including the software team. It then makes sense that when my interviewer saw me turn up with my long hair and dressed like a lumberjack, he knew I didn’t stand a chance. Apparently no one told this guy that software developers aren’t really in the economic position that they have to put up with this shit – and de Poel developed a terrible reputation amongst programmers in the area.

And that is where Leopard Software comes in. During a conversation with one particular headhunter who was trying to recruit me to work for them, I learned that, so bad was de Poel’s reputation and such was their struggle to employ new programmers that they had to create a new company with a new name and new leadership, just to stand any chance of employing new staff. I don’t know how well that strategy worked out for them, as just knowing they were even loosely associated with de Poel was enough for me to turn them down.

Copestake’s Law

The Turing test is a test … of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

So that the machine is judged only on its intelligence and not its ability to imitate human communication, an added stipulation is that the machine need only communicate via text i.e. it need not produce convincing human speech.

I believe that – using only today’s technology – it’s possible to create a very simple AI that would pass the Turing test 100% of the time, if only we were allowed to add one extra condition: The topic of conversation must be football.

Some background

Over the course of my 27 years of life, I’ve had the opportunity to overhear many conversations about football, whether at social gatherings or around the workplace. It was only as recently as 2014 that I began to notice a pattern.

I observed that conversations would begin with openers such as, “Did you see [team x]‘s game at the weekend?” To which the other party would reply, “I know, mate. Shocking.” At this point, one of the two will posit, “They need to start playing [player y].” The other party will now conclude the discussion by expressing some form of agreement.

And it’s here that we arrive at Copestake’s law:

Any one conversation about football is identical to any other conversation about football, with the exception of two variables.

Passing the Turing test

Copestake’s law allows for a beautifully simple algorithm capable of passing our hypothetical Turing test. Depending on whether the AI instigates the conversation or is the respondent, one out of two courses of action can be taken. Below is some illustrative pseudocode.

If (human initiates)
    read input;
    print "I know, mate. Shocking.";
    read input;
    print "I know, mate.";
    set x to (team name);
    print "Did you see " + x + "'s game at the weekend?";
    read input;
    set y to (player name);
    print "They need to start playing " + y + ".";
    read input;

Closing comments

I had to get some amusement out of this Euro 2016 bollocks – so this is it. Forgive me, world.

A quirky solution to HackerRank’s “Team Formation” problem

As a preface, I’d like to say that this article isn’t intended to help people cheat at the problem, but is posted for the intellectual exercise contained within. Hopefully the folks in and around the HackerRank community won’t mind.

Lately I’ve been having some fun with the challenges on HackerRank. By all accounts, the general (and consensual) solution/s to the Team Formation problem involve some combination of data structures, sorting algorithms and such.

That’s all well and good, but having hit my head many times as a child, something in the back of my mind was nagging away at me, insisting that there existed a more specialized solution. As is a recurring theme of this blog – and indeed my life – I could not resist its call. Fortunately, this one actually paid off.

The algorithm I subsequently developed does not (in theory) depend on any particular data structure nor require sorting; it satisfies the condition of being “greedy“; (potentially) has a time complexity of O(n), requiring only 1-2 loops; and for added lolz, can be made stable and even online if necessary.*

* While this is all possible, in some cases it’s not practical; in one particular implementation I did have to use std::sort. I’ll elaborate more on this at the end of the post.

The problem (briefly)

The objective of the Team Formation challenge is to accept a list of integers representing skill values for members of a team – and to organise those members such that a) for any one member with skill x, either that member is the lowest skilled member of the team or there exists another member of the team with the skill x-1 – and b) the members are organised into as few teams as possible, with members being spread as evenly as possible across every team. To pass the test, one must output the size (number of members) of the smallest team.

For example, given the set \{ 4, 5, 2, 3, -4, -3, -5 \}, the two teams that can be formed are \{ -5, -4, -3 \} and \{ 2, 3, 4, 5\}. The smallest team is \{ -5, -4, -3 \} and so the correct output for this test case is 3. (Note that it would be erroneous to organise this input into the teams \{ -5 \}\{ -4, -3 \} and \{ 2, 3, 4, 5\}, for example.)


Imagine a grid. If you’re struggling, below is a visual to help you along:


A graph, similar in style to those pioneered by William Playfair in the late 1700s.

For an example input of \{ 51, 47, 45, 46, 46, 47, 48, 47, 50, 47, 47, 49, 51 \}, the correct team formation can be visualised as:


If another value 48 were to be added, it would travel down the x axis towards 0 to the next free slot, resulting in:


This works because there is a “free” 47 at coordinates (3, 47). If this were not the case, the new value 48 would be placed at the end of the row – at (5, 48). Below is another example, using an additional value of 50.

You get the idea by now.

You get the idea by now.

Following a set of rules for how to handle various local conditions when a new member is added, it’s possible to organise and – if implemented properly – effortlessly reorganise the members into their most appropriate structure. You can even track the size of each team on the fly.

The implementation

For the same reason that I’ve not gone into the algorithm in much depth (i.e. not wanting to help out the dirty cheaters too much), I won’t post any code here. However, I did write an implementation which passed the HackerRank test cases.

Following that, I decided to grab a few of the other top scoring solutions along with some of the larger test cases and benchmark them locally against my algorithm using Very Sleepy. The numbers are listed below (lower is better):

User Average time
surwdkgo 0.494
visanr 0.275
Kostroma 0.182
Meeeeee! 0.166

As you can see, I outperformed the competition – which was a reassuring conclusion to this little experiment, having spent far more time and energy than was warranted.

Some notes about implementation

This algorithm doesn’t require use of any particular data structure or sorting algorithm; you can just use the integer value of the skill level x and perform local operations on x-1 and x+1 and such.

Under certain conditions (e.g. access to large memory or some assurance that x will be within a certain range) this means you can perform all necessary operations using a regular unsorted integer array. However, as the conditions of the challenge state that x may be as large as 10^9 – which is far too big for the test scenario – that leaves two options: use another lookup method (e.g. hash tables) or sort the array.

In my first attempt I did use an unordered_map, but lookups created a bottleneck so I tried out the sorting approach, which significantly improved performance.

Even after all of this, there’s still a voice in my head telling me that an even better algorithm exists, but… I must move on. I’ve satisfied my curiosity (mostly). And I have things to draw.

Fuck it

For a while now (and by “while” I mean 5+ years) I’ve been wanting to create a web comic. By some miracle I have taken the first step towards that goal and set up a Tumblr blog to host said strips.

For those who are interested, the URL is I’ll probably also be pestering my Twitter followers with updates – so there’s the option of following me there

My intention is that the cartoons will feature a number of topics, from gaming to world events. This is all assuming I actually post anything further in the future (I will try, I promise).


Programming as art?

Not too long ago, admiring the craftsmanship of the Kritonios Crown got me thinking about the various ways in which people have taken a particular skill – such as painting, sculpting, smithy, writing, etc – and turned it into art.

While plenty has been said about computer programming having artistic undertones, I began to wonder whether it would be possible to create a work of art in the truest sense of the word, through the medium of code.

First, I had to define some parameters for what counts as art. The essence of “what is art” has forever been elusive and is hotly debated. However, I settled on a condensed criteria that I believe the majority of people would be happy to accept. They are:

1. Expression; purpose and meaning.
2. Evocation; provoking an emotional response.
3. Imagination; creativity and innovation.

With this, I began thinking about a way that I could turn code into art.

Expression and evocation

I knew immediately that I wanted to pay homage to the miracle of existence, life and the universe. I hoped originally to inspire in the viewer’s mind the same emotions of reverence and confusion that I feel when I look out to space or consider the intricacies of nature – and I feared that some (or indeed many) may feel nothing at all when they look at my piece. If that were the case, for those people, the art would be a failure.

But then I considered that some people do feel nothing but apathy and indifference when they look at nature (presumably in between watching reality TV shows and listening to Beyonce, but that’s just stereotyping). In its own way then, even indifference towards my art could be taken as another accurate portrayal of my chosen subject.

Ultimately, I decided to drop the expectation of provoking any one particular thought or emotion, as long as one or the other occurred at all. I embraced the subjectivity of my art, just as the meaning of existence is itself subjective.


Having settled on what I wanted to say and how I wanted people to feel, I needed to plan the execution. I decided that I wanted to write some code which would mystify even my fellow programmers, but at the same time, I felt like obfuscation would be a cheap copout.

Even the choice of language was assigned meaning. Spoiler alert: I chose PHP because the history of PHP itself is a tale of haphazard guesswork and random mutations that may or may not be beneficial, much like biological evolution. (Not language bashing; just some innocent humour.)

The result

The end result can be seen in this Gist.

I title this piece, “Microcosm.” Recall that this code is not merely a script that has been fed through a code obfuscator; the code stands as-is – and, like the universe it hopes to represent, has mechanics and implications.

Thank you and good night. Much love.