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ICFP Contest 2015: team "Replete With Abstract Joy" post-mortem (ranked 37th in qualifiers)

The team name is a slightly altered line from the song Death To The World by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which is, of course, a parody of the famous carol. See e.g.:

This contest sucked. I enjoyed it. In that sense, it was similar to the 2013 contest -- well, much better than that godawful disaster, but distinctly inferior to some of the seriously awesome past contests, such as those held in 2011 and 2014. The problem wasn't particularly interesting, as it boiled down to just solving Tetris on a board with hexagonal tiles (think honeycomb), with a few bells and whistles. Compared to 2013, there were live leaderboards, a story to surround the problem, and "quest" elements in that teams had to go looking for "phrases of power" essential for good standings.

The final qualifying scores can be found here:

I ended up at #37 in the qualifiers, which makes getting into the finals unlikely. My finest hour was at T-36, when I was ranked fifth (see my-finest-hour.png). Unfortunately, I didn't manage to submit anything for the lightning round. If only I had spent less time procrastinating and mulling over how much the problem sucked, how tired I was, and how I had no idea as to how to solve the goddamn problem, I feel I would've had a good chance to compete for the top 10 in the lightning. I also sunk a few hours early on into dealing with bugs in placement of spawning pieces, game over conditions and proper threading of the RNG state through the solver -- most easily preventable by Better Reading (or just Actual Reading) of the spec. Certainly shaving twelve hours off the time needed to get that #5 submission was far from impossible.

Being misled by the pre-contest hints into thinking that the contest would have something to do with Turing machines, program optimization, and, possibly, quantum computations, I spent quite some time preparing all sorts of potentially useful stuff in Idris. Once the problem statement was released, I realized that all of that was completely useless to me, and the requirement to submit a buildable solution to the organizers together with the need to do stuff like curl'ing and parsing the command line arguments made Idris a highly suspect choice. So I quickly decided to abandon the original plan and go with Python 2.7 and PyPy. That might have been a bad idea, as during the contest I often noticed that I was trying to write Haskell in Python -- longing for lazy evaluation, persistent data structures etc. Oh well, what's done is done.

One of the first stumbling blocks for me was the seriously insane coordinate system. I actually don't know what is the right way to handle that, but I discovered quickly enough that a small alteration (see would lead to a system that has much nicer properties, even though there are still some nasty details related to rotations. Consequently, I used that coordinate system internally for all the operations involving translations, rotations, finding the neighbors etc.

Anyway, I progressed through a bunch of different solvers, but all of those were based on the same basic DFS/BFS algo looking for a nice place to put a given piece on the board. All my solvers considered just the current piece, and ignored the global optimization. Phrases of power were treated as atomic moves, and despite the fact that I didn't have the proper scoring of phrases throughout the contest (couldn't be bothered), my solvers were quite good at generating those.

The big problem was how to score a final position of a given piece. Obviously, clearing a row is good, but most of the moves do not result in that. The key problem was getting the solver to recognize that leaving gaps in the overall structure was bad. The kicker was that the algo needed to be reasonably efficient. Arguably, my final solution really isn't, but some of the things I tried -- or considered -- were even worse in that respect, despite being more promising optimization-wise. I really wanted to tinker with something like partition refinement and relatives but found no way to achieve reasonable performance for evaluating a given position.

So I tried a variety of value functions, ranging from simply attempting to maximize the reachability of the board cells from the starting position (but reachability is a vague term, especially when we're considering more sophisticated multi-cell pieces) to various tricks intended to minimize the partitioning of the empty cells on the board into disconnected components, and eventually got to the point where I would simply consider:

  1. Placing pieces lower to be a good thing.
  2. Placing pieces connected to other pieces to be a good thing (essentially trying to maximize the filled neighbors of the given piece's cells).
  3. Placing pieces that do not increase row-wise partitioning to be a good thing (which has obvious deficiencies, but it is really quick to compute, and adds a dash of sanity to the solver).

This is pretty much what my final submission does.

All my attempts to incorporate phrases of power into scoring resulted in suboptimal outcomes, as the solver would start to try stuffing as many phrases as possible into the solution, with rather debilitating effects on the packing efficiency, so I just relied on BFS getting the phrases of power into solutions naturally.

Apart from the phrase listed in the original specification ("ei!") and the three phrases found in the initial positions of the provided problems ("ia! ia!", "r'lyeh", "yuggoth") I only managed to discover two other phrases related to the original Cthulhu Mythos -- "necronomicon" and "yogsothoth". I also realized that the 51-character phrase is the famous one about the dreaming Cthulhu (actually it seems that both the original version and the English "translation" counted as phrases of power), but with it being so long I never even bothered to try it, as I felt it would be largely useless and could degrade solver performance. The rest of the phrases seemed to be related to the Extended Mythos that I'm not familiar with (some guy named Stross and an obscure movie from the 80s, stuff like that). So even with the hints in the official twitter I felt I had little chance to discover those. Larger teams had a big advantage here, as they could dedicate the efforts of one or two of the team members to just discovering the phrases, and those played an important role in the qualifying round, if not in the final, as adding two phrases to my solver about mid-contest resulted in a significant improvement in my scores. Having more would have been even better.

I never bothered with a decent visualizer, settling for a very simple ASCII one similar to what I did in 2012. Worked well for me both times.

I spent much of the last few hours of the contest simply gathering stats on my submissions to evaluate the different algos and put together the best solutions for all the qualifying problems. Thankfully, the organizers' web service provided a complete list of submitted solutions, as I managed to misplace some of the early ones that actually turned out to be quite good, and thanks to my rather messy usage of git I would've had a hard time reproducing those from scratch. That was likely worth a bunch of points to me. I also spent some time on optimizations, involving stuff like string concatenation, better and faster tracking of nukable rows etc.

Unfortunately, my final submission is unable to monitor and control its own memory consumption, and cannot utilize multiple cores if available, but as I don't expect to get into the finals that doesn't really matter.

All in all, solid fun, okay performance -- I met my minimum goal of getting into the top 50 -- but could've been better. Oh well, till next time.


My submission for the 2015 ICFP Contest. Ranked 37th in main round qualifiers.




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