Advent of code #16 solution: an algebra of bitstrings

I had fun this past December solving Advent of Code problems in Haskell. I was particularly proud of my solution to one particular problem involving generating and processing large bitstrings, which I’d like to share here. I think it really shows off the power of an algebraic, DSL-based approach to problem solving.

This post is literate Haskell—download it and play along!

> {-# LANGUAGE GADTs #-}
> import Control.Arrow   ((***))
> import Data.Bits       (xor)
> import Data.List       (unfoldr)
> import Data.List.Split (chunksOf)
> import Data.Maybe      (fromJust)

The problem

You can go read the problem description if you like, but it’s rather verbose—I’ll try to give a more concise description here, illustrated with Haskell code.

The problem is concerned with strings of bits:

> type BitString = [Bool]

We’ll start just by defining a few utility functions to view and input bitstrings conveniently.

> readbits :: String -> BitString
> readbits = map (=='1')
> showbits :: BitString -> String
> showbits = map (\b -> if b then '1' else '0')
> withbits :: (BitString -> BitString) -> String -> String
> withbits f = showbits . f . readbits

Now on to the problem proper. There is a central operation—which I’ll call the “dragon transform”—which makes a longer bitstring from a shorter one. Given a bitstring s, append a 0 to the end, and then append a reversed and inverted version of s (where “invert” means to flip all the bits). Like so:

> invert :: BitString -> BitString
> invert = map not
> dragon :: BitString -> BitString
> dragon s = s ++ [False] ++ invert (reverse s)

For example,

ghci> withbits dragon "1"

ghci> withbits dragon "1101111"

(Incidentally, this operation is called dragon since it is related to the classic dragon curve. Hint: interpret 0 as a left turn and 1 as a right turn.)

Given a starting bitstring, and a target length, we are supposed to iterate dragon until we have at least the number of target bits, and then truncate the string to the desired length:

> fill :: Int -> BitString -> BitString
> fill len = take len . head . dropWhile ((< len) . length) . iterate dragon

For example, if we start with 1, we have to iterate dragon three times to end up with at least ten bits.

ghci> map showbits . take 4 $ iterate dragon [True]

ghci> withbits (fill 10) "1"

Finally, after extending an initial bitstring to a given length, we perform a checksum operation:

  • If there are an odd number of bits, we are done.
  • Otherwise, take the bits two at a time and compute the negation of their exclusive or: that is, 1 if the bits are the same and 0 if they are different (otherwise known as (==)). This results in a bitstring half as long. Now repeat the process, continuing to halve the length until we have an odd number of bits remaining.

In code:

> checksum :: BitString -> BitString
> checksum a
>   | odd (length a) = a
>   | otherwise = checksum . map xnor . chunksOf 2 $ a
>   where
>     xnor [x,y] = x == y

The first task

So, we now have a simple reference implementation that directly follows the specification. We can use this to solve the first task, which just asks to start with a given short bitstring, extend it to length 272, and then compute the checksum. I think different logged-in users get different starting strings, but mine was 01000100010010111:

> input = "01000100010010111"
ghci> withbits (checksum . fill 272) input

Notice that 272 = 17 \cdot 2^4, so after expanding to that length and then repeatedly halving the length, we end up with a checksum of length 17.

The second task

That was easy. Bring on the second task! Well… of course, it is much bigger. It asks to use the same starting bitstring, but this time extend it to length 35651584 = 17 \cdot 2^{21} before computing the checksum (which will again end up having length 17). Using this naive, unoptimized implementation completely blows up: it turns out that generating a list of 35 million booleans is really not a good idea. Using actual lists with a cons cell for each bit incurs a whole lot of memory and allocation overhead; it just made my computer grind to a halt.

As you may realize, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit here: for example, we can use an unboxed Vector instead of a list, or even do some deforestation to avoid allocation (the former code is by Eric Mertens aka glguy, the latter by Daniel Wagner aka dmwit). Using techniques like that, it’s possible to get the runtime and memory requirements down to something reasonable. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Though more efficient, those solutions are still actually computing every single bit. It seemed to me we shouldn’t have to do that: the computation has a lot of nice structure, and seemingly a lot of opportunity for sharing intermediate results. I went off in search of a way to compute the correct checksum without actually generating the entire intermediate bitstring.

Interlude: xnor

The first order of business was to work out an algebraic understanding of the xnor operation, which I will denote \overline{x \oplus y} (the circled plus operator \oplus denotes xor, and the overbar denotes logical negation). One fundamental fact is that

\displaystyle \overline{x \oplus y} = \overline{x} \oplus y = x \oplus \overline{y}

(checking whether x and y are equal is the same as first negating one and then checking whether they are unequal). From this, and the fact that \oplus is associative, we can prove associativity of xnor:

\displaystyle \overline{\overline{x \oplus y} \oplus z} = (\overline{x} \oplus y) \oplus \overline{z} = \overline{x} \oplus (y \oplus \overline{z}) = \overline{x \oplus \overline{y \oplus z}}

Associativity, along with the fact that 1 is an identity for the operation, means it forms a monoid. When we repeatedly take the xnor of adjacent bits, we are therefore basically doing an mconcat using a strictly balanced combining scheme. But associativity means we can be freer about the order in which we do the combining. If we start with a bitstring of length n \cdot 2^k, the checksumming operation iterates k times, and each consecutive sequence of 2^k bits gets folded down into a single bit via mconcat. In other words, the checksum operation can be reimplemented like this:

> checksum2 :: BitString -> BitString
> checksum2 a = map combine . chunksOf (powTwo (length a)) $ a
>   where
>     combine = foldr (==) True
>     -- Find the biggest power of two that divides n
>     powTwo n
>       | odd n     = 1
>       | otherwise = 2 * powTwo (n `div` 2)

Let’s check that this works:

ghci> withbits (checksum2 . fill 272) input

ghci> let bits = fill 272 (readbits input) in checksum bits == checksum2 bits

Now, this isn’t really any faster yet; but this idea will be important later!

There’s one more thing we can observe about xnor: if we fold an odd number of bits with xnor, it’s the same as taking the xor of all the bits; if we fold an even number of bits, it’s the same as taking the xor of all the bits and then negating the result. That is,

\displaystyle \begin{array}{rcl} \overline{x_1 \oplus x_2} &=& \overline{x_1 \oplus x_2} \\[0.5em] \overline{x_1 \oplus \overline{x_2 \oplus x_3}} &=& x_1 \oplus x_2 \oplus x_3 \\[0.5em] \overline{x \oplus \overline{x_2 \oplus \overline{x_3 \oplus x_4}}} &=& \overline{x_1 \oplus x_2 \oplus x_3 \oplus x_4} \\[0.5em] \overline{x \oplus \overline{x_2 \oplus \overline{x_3 \oplus \overline{x_4 \oplus x_5}}}} &=& x_1 \oplus x_2 \oplus x_3 \oplus x_4 \oplus x_5 \end{array}

and so on. The proof is a simple induction argument, making use of the relation \overline{x \oplus y} = \overline{x} \oplus y we noted before. So when folding xnor, as a simple optimization, we can avoid doing a lot of negations by just computing the xor and then negating appropriately based on the parity of the number of bits.

The algebra of bitstrings

With that under our belts, we can move on to the real meat of the solution. The central idea is that instead of representing bitstrings directly as lists (or vectors, or whatever) of bits, we represent them using a deep embedding of a little bitstring algebra (aka DSL). That is, we represent each bitstring operation as a constructor of an algebraic data type, which allows us to directly manipulate bitstring expressions. The point is that this algebra/DSL has a lot of nice structure that allows us to work at an abstract, algebraic level instead of working directly with bits.

There’s one more twist to note before actually seeing the data type definition. We know that we will need to talk about the length of bitstrings as well as their xnor/xor. Instead of having to recalculate these every time we need them, we can cache them at each node of a bitstring expression. We’ll see how these cached values come in handy later.

> data BitExpr where

So, what does our algebra of bitstrings need? First, it’s useful to have an explicit representation of the empty bitstring, as well as a singleton bit. We don’t need to cache length or xor values here, since they are obvious and can be computed in constant time.

>   Emp :: BitExpr
>   Bit :: Bool -> BitExpr

Next, we need to be able to append bitstrings. Notice the Bool, which represents the cached xor of the entire bitstring, as well as the Integer which represents the length.

>   App :: !Bool -> !Integer -> BitExpr -> BitExpr -> BitExpr

Finally, we need three unary operations on bitstrings: invert, reverse, and dragon. Each also carries a cached length and xor.

>   Inv :: !Bool -> !Integer -> BitExpr -> BitExpr
>   Rev :: !Bool -> !Integer -> BitExpr -> BitExpr
>   Drg :: !Bool -> !Integer -> BitExpr -> BitExpr
>   deriving Show

Note that Drg is redundant in some sense, since the dragon transform can be encoded in terms of append, inverse, and reverse. However, it’s critical that we include it explicitly: since the dragon transform uses the input bitstring twice, expanding an iterated application of Drg in terms of the other constructors would result in an exponential blowup in the size of the expression.

To be concrete, let’s write a straightforward interpreter which formally connects a bitstring expression with its intended semantics as a bitstring. This comes in handy for testing, but other than testing, the whole point is that we will not use this—we want to solve the problem at the level of bitstring expressions, without ever actually generating their corresponding bitstrings.

> toBits :: BitExpr -> BitString
> toBits Emp = []
> toBits (Bit b) = [b]
> toBits (App _ _ s1 s2) = toBits s1 ++ toBits s2
> toBits (Inv _ _ s) = invert  (toBits s)
> toBits (Rev _ _ s) = reverse (toBits s)
> toBits (Drg _ _ s) = dragon  (toBits s)

Next, let’s write some simple utility functions to extract the cached length or xor from the root of a bitstring expression:

> bsLen :: BitExpr -> Integer
> bsLen Emp           = 0
> bsLen (Bit _)       = 1
> bsLen (App _ l _ _) = l
> bsLen (Inv _ l _)   = l
> bsLen (Rev _ l _)   = l
> bsLen (Drg _ l _)   = l
> bsXor :: BitExpr -> Bool
> bsXor Emp           = False
> bsXor (Bit b)       = b
> bsXor (App b _ _ _) = b
> bsXor (Inv b _ _)   = b
> bsXor (Rev b _ _)   = b
> bsXor (Drg b _ _)   = b

Next, we’ll write some smart constructors which automatically take care of properly computing the cached length and xor.

> bit :: Bool -> BitExpr
> bit = Bit

Appending combines xor values with xor and adds lengths. app also does a bit of optimization when appending with the empty bitstring. For convenience, we can also use app to create a function bits to convert a literal bitstring into a BitExpr.

> app :: BitExpr -> BitExpr -> BitExpr
> app s1 Emp = s1
> app s1 s2 = App (bsXor s1 `xor` bsXor s2) (bsLen s1 + bsLen s2) s1 s2
> bits :: String -> BitExpr
> bits = foldr (app . bit . (=='1')) Emp

Inverting a bitstring preserves the xor when it has even length, and inverts the xor when it has odd length. Note how we make use of both the cached xor and length values to compute the new cached xor.

> inv :: BitExpr -> BitExpr
> inv s = Inv (if even (bsLen s) then bsXor s else not (bsXor s))
>             (bsLen s)
>             s

Reversing preserves xor and length.

> rev :: BitExpr -> BitExpr
> rev s = Rev (bsXor s) (bsLen s) s

Finally, the dragon operation: the xor of dragon s is the xor of s combined with the xor of inv s; the length is one more than twice the length of s.

> drg :: BitExpr -> BitExpr
> drg s = Drg (bsXor s `xor` bsXor (inv s)) (2*(bsLen s) + 1) s

We can test these:

ghci> let t = drg (bits "11" `app` inv (bits "10000"))
ghci> showbits . toBits $ t

ghci> bsLen t


Remember that our high-level goal is to take the expanded version of our bitstring, split it into blocks of length 2^k, and then separately reduce each block with xnor. It turns out that we have enough information to split a bitstring expression into two bitstring expressions which correspond to splitting off a block of a given size from the beginning of the corresponding bitstring. That is, we will write a function splitBits :: Integer -> BitExpr -> (BitExpr, BitExpr) which works like splitAt, but on bitstring expressions instead of bitstrings. In other words, it will satisfy the property

splitAt n . toBits == (toBits *** toBits) . splitBits n

We’ll go through the implementation case by case. You might like to try implementing splitBits yourself before peeking at mine; it makes for a nice exercise.

> splitBits :: Integer -> BitExpr -> (BitExpr, BitExpr)

In the base cases, to split zero bits off the front of a bitstring, or if we are asked to split off more bits than there are, just generate the empty bitstring expression.

> splitBits 0 s                = (Emp, s)
> splitBits n s | n >= bsLen s = (s, Emp)

To split an App node, compare the number of bits we want to split off with the length of the first bitstring, and recursively split in either the left or right side appropriately, remembering to subtract the length of the first bitstring from the number of bits to split if we recurse on the right side.

> splitBits n (App _ _ s1 s2)
>   | n < bsLen s1
>     = let (s1a, s1b) = splitBits n s1 in (s1a, s1b `app` s2)
>   | otherwise
>     = let (s2a, s2b) = splitBits (n - bsLen s1) s2 in (s1 `app` s2a, s2b)

Inverting commutes with splitting, so to split an Inv node, we can just split recursively and then rewrap the results with inv.

> splitBits n (Inv _ _ s) = (inv *** inv) $ splitBits n s

To split Rev and Drg nodes, we expand the expressions a bit to get rid of the top-level constructor before re-calling splitBits.

> splitBits n (Rev _ _ s) = splitBits n (pushRev s)
> splitBits n (Drg _ _ s) = splitBits n (expandDragon s)

In the case of Rev, we can “push the reverse through” one level, transforming it into an equivalent expression which no longer has a Rev node at the top. We make use of some nice algebraic properties governing the interaction of reverse with the other operations:

  • Reversing an empty or singleton bitstring does nothing.
  • reverse (s1 ++ s2) == reverse s2 ++ reverse s1
  • reverse . invert = invert . reverse
  • reverse . reverse = id
  • Finally, reverse . dragon = dragon . invert, which can be easily proved by expanding dragon in terms of the other operations and then applying the above algebraic laws.

Using these properties, we can implement pushRev as follows:

> pushRev :: BitExpr -> BitExpr
> pushRev Emp     = Emp
> pushRev (Bit b) = Bit b
> pushRev (App _ _ s1 s2) = rev s2 `app` rev s1
> pushRev (Inv _ _ s) = inv (rev s)
> pushRev (Rev _ _ s) = s
> pushRev (Drg _ _ s) = drg (inv s)

Finally, expandDragon just expands a dragon operation in terms of the other operations. Although this approximately doubles the size of the bitstring expression, we only do this lazily, when we are actually trying to split the result of a dragon transform. It’s only natural that splitting an expression results in somewhat larger expressions.

> expandDragon :: BitExpr -> BitExpr
> expandDragon s = s `app` (bit False `app` inv (rev s))

Filling and checksumming

We’re almost there! We can now implement the fill and checksum operations at the level of bitstring expressions.

fill is straightforward: keep applying the drg smart constructor until the cached length is sufficient, then use splitBits to create an expression corresponding to only the first n bits.

> fillE :: Integer -> String -> BitExpr
> fillE n str = fst . splitBits n $ go (bits str)
>   where
>     go s | bsLen s >= n = s
>          | otherwise    = go (drg s)

Finally, we can implement checksumE using the same pattern as checksum2, where we break up the string into chunks of size 2^k and then reduce each chunk. The only difference is that now we use splitBits to split, and the cached xor to compute the reduction. We know each of the blocks has an even length, so the xnor is just the negation of the cached xor.

> checksumE :: BitExpr -> BitString
> checksumE s = map (not . bsXor) . unfoldr doSplit $ s
>   where
>     doSplit Emp = Nothing
>     doSplit s   = Just (splitBits blockLen s)
>     blockLen = powTwo (bsLen s)
>     powTwo n
>       | odd n     = 1
>       | otherwise = 2 * powTwo (n `div` 2)

Let’s check that we get the same answer for the first task:

ghci> showbits $ checksumE (fillE 272 input)

ghci> withbits (checksum . fill 272) input

Great! And now for the second task:

ghci> showbits $ checksumE (fillE (17 * 2^21) input)

On my machine this finishes pretty much instantaneously, taking only 0.02 seconds. In order to generate enough bits, the dragon transform must be applied 21 times, but that just generates a small expression with 21 Drg constructors. Splitting into chunks of length 2^{21} certainly expands the size of the expressions a bit, but everything stays nice and logarithmic since many of the Drg constructors can remain unexpanded.

In fact, this can easily handle MUCH larger problem instances. For example:

ghci> showbits $ checksumE (fillE (17 * 2^80) input)

ghci> showbits $ checksumE (fillE (17 * 2^81) input)

Semantically, this corresponds to generating yottabytes worth of bits (I had to look up the proper prefix) and then checksumming them; operationally, though, these are still basically instantaneous. (Interestingly, I also tried 17 \cdot 2^{200}, and it instantaneously printed the first 11 bits of the answer and then segfaulted. Perhaps I have found a bug in GHC 8.0.2.)

Notice that the checksum for 17 \cdot 2^{81} is actually the same as that for 17 \cdot 2^{21}. After playing around with it a bit, the checksums for 17 \cdot 2^k seem to have a period of 12, but I’m not sure how to prove it!


About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in haskell and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Advent of code #16 solution: an algebra of bitstrings

  1. suprdewd says:

    I solved this harder variant of the problem after you posed it a month ago:
    The underlying solutions are basically the same, but your interpretation of this as a boolean algebra produced a very elegant implementation. Beautiful!

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