Water Pouring Problem in Clojure

November 28, 2017    —    19 minutes read

clojure REPL kotlin

Caption of the water puzzle scene in Die Hard with a Vengeance
Die Hard with a Vengeance — Water puzzle scene

This post is the first or a series where I explore Clojure features and start a discussion with my colleague Igor about Clojure and Kotlin.

This summer, Igor offered to make a live Kotlin demo of a nice problem he’s been working on that can serve as a fine exercise to discover and experiment a programming language: the Water pouring puzzle.

In this article I talk about the programming style I’ve used to find my solution: a data oriented, bottom-up approach, at the REPL.

Igor’s guideline offers a good starting point on how OO and/or static typing (including myself when I switch to Java for instance) would solve this problem: model the world.
Notice how, by following this recipe, you don’t get to handle or transform any data until point 15 of about 30.

Although I understand how this is more usual, familiar and maybe the most straightforward way to do things for a majority of developers, to me this is a major drawback. It means that half of the time you are spending laying out things, hoping the Lego blocks will fall into place, thinking about types and safety when all you should be thinking about should be (IMO) how do I solve this particular problem.

After a few years of REPL driven development I know that I have a good tool to functionally, expressively and incrementally solve a problem.

This post is basically a transcript of my thought process as I was writing a solver to the Water pouring puzzle at the REPL.
It was interesting to take the time to reflect and watch myself work as I was proceeding, it took more time but it was definitely an interesting experiment.

I setup the boilerplate first. (leiningen, dependencies, etc) and a namespace to work in:

(ns clojure-pouring.repl)

At the REPL, the fundamental principle is: exploratory programming.
I don’t know how to find the solution to this problem (yet!), all I have at this point is a namespace.

I must begin somewhere, so let’s start with some data: a glass has a total capacity and a current state (0 by default), I need a collection of those.

I start at the REPL by declaring inital-state:

(def initial-state [{:capacity 5 :current 0} {:capacity 3 :current 0} ]) initial-state

Then final-state to illustrate the target:

(def final-state [{:capacity 5 :current 4} {:capacity 3 :current 0} ]) final-state

Pretty easy: each glass is a map and I put two of those in a vector.
Just thinking about the amount of code I would have to write in Java or Kotlin just to get a short sample of data like this gives me goosebumps.

Kotlin might, at some point, have collection literals similar to those, or not.
There seems to be a debate inside the community whether this is a desired feature or not, despite the clear winner of the community survey.

Communicating intent is an important part of a language and Kotlin’s debate around collection literals seems to fall in the category of convenient syntax vs intent. Why?
Because Kotlin’s designers have made the choice to support both mutable and immutable collections as first class citizens. So how do you define what {} is or [] is? Is it mutable or immutable?
The debate also seem to include considerations such as ordered/unordered and the choice of syntax between lists and sets. Good luck figuring that out.

Clojure is based on first-class persistent data-structures so mutation is not and option, and its collection literals are easily identified:

  • () for lists (PersistentList)
  • [] for vectors (PersistentVector)
  • {} for a maps (PersistentHashMap)
  • #{} for sets (PersistentHashSet)

Want ordered/unordered variants? array-maps? queues? Sure, just use the appropriate constructor, the collections you will use the most are available as literals and it’s a burden not put on you, the developer.
View it as “only convenient” if you want to ditch the argument and discussion altogether, but with mutation out of the way a whole class of problems are gone once again, and the benefit of being able to just copy and paste around printed representations of data-structures (in REPL or in logs) and use them verbatim as code is priceless.

Alright, so the actions allowed to be performed on a glass are either to pour some quantity out of it, or to fill it with some quantity.

So I implement a pour function first:

(defn pour ([glass] (assoc glass :current 0)) ([glass quantity] (let [{:keys [current]} glass] (assoc glass :current (- current (min current quantity))))))

This is a multi-arity function:

  • The first implementation takes a glass as its only parameter and returns a new1 empty glass of the same capacity.
  • The second implementation takes a glass as its first parameter and a quantity as its second parameter and returns a new glass poured out of the given quantity or poured out empty if it contains less than the given quantity.
  • In the second arity, I destructure the first parameter (the glass) which is a map, in order to get its current key only, as I don’t care about its capacity.
  • assoc is (for short) a standard library function that returns a new map containing the new key/value mapping.

Don’t worry about the prefix notation, it’s not difficult, it’s just different, you’re not familiar with it, and you’ll get used to it.

Test pour:

(println (pour {:capacity 5 :current 4})) (println (pour {:capacity 8 :current 4} 2)) (println (pour {:capacity 8 :current 4} 5))
  • Pouring out empty a glass of capacity 5 returns an empty glass of capacity 5.
  • Pouring out 2 from a glass of capacity 8 containing 4 returns a glass of capacity 8 containing 2.
  • And pouring out 5 from a glass of capacity 8 containing 4 just returns and empty glass, not -1.

Ignore the last nil in the results, it’s just the live code evaluation plugin that prints it out as the result of the last println call.
Go ahead and play with it a little, even change the implementation above if you will.

Now the fill function:

(defn fill ([glass] (assoc glass :current (:capacity glass))) ([glass quantity] (let [{:keys [capacity current]} glass] (assoc glass :current (+ current (min (- capacity current) quantity))))))

This is also a multi-arity function:

  • The first implementation fills a glass up to its maximum capacity.
  • The second implementation fills a glass up to its maximum capacity given a quantity to fill it with.
  • Both return a new glass of course (not a copy!!!), we’re in immutable land here.

Test fill:

(println (fill {:capacity 5 :current 0})) (println (fill {:capacity 8 :current 4} 1)) (println (fill {:capacity 8 :current 7} 2))
  • Filling an empty glass returns a glass full.
  • Filling 1 into a glass of capacity 8 that already contains 4 returns a glass of capacity 8 containing 5.
  • And filling 2 into a glass of capacity 8 that already contains 7 returns a glass of capacity 8 that is full, not 9.

Let’s take a break here.

One of the major benefits of a good REPL (and Clojure’s REPL is a good one), is the ability to explore: write one function at a time, execute it right away with a small amount of data, creating a really short feedback loop in order to explore multiple solutions.

In this blog post I use Klipse in order to present my iterative process and let you play with the code.
This is nice for you to get a feel and try different inputs to my functions, or write different implementations if you want to.

A good REPL is superior to TDD because it lets you write (or better: keep) tests that matter, get the result out of a function call and use it again as data that can populate your real tests.

But if you’ve tried other REPLs (ruby, python, node, etc.), you may be thinking that a REPL is not practical, because it forces you to copy/paste code all the time, go back and forth in you REPL’s history in order to retrieve past results and implementations just to change a few characters.

And this is where tooling is important.

Lots of Clojure developers use emacs (or cursive, an Intellij plugin) and benefit from its integration with the REPL.
I, personnally, have been enjoying Light Table since 2013, and this is a screenshot of my laptop while I’m working at the REPL:

Do you see the “blue” data? This is the result of evaluating a Clojure expression in the editor itself.
This alone has made it difficult for me to switch to another editor ever since.

At the REPL, I type in data, I pass it to functions and I get the result (which I use later as new input/expected output for other tests) in front of my eyes.
I define new functions and make extensive use of “variable shadowing” to modify the implementation of existing functions.

No classes, no types, no FactoryFactoryAbstractDelegateProxyPattern: just data and functions…
I can hear you, static typing addict: BUT IT IS NOT SAFE!
Yes, I know, I just don’t care at this point! I told you, I’m exploring. I want to go fast, iterate quickly, not model the whole universe and bang my head against the type checker.

I can just rely on my tests for now and use simple assertions or specifications later (or now, but right now I’m not, obviously) to refine.

I’ve never had a shortest feedback loop in any other language I’ve used, this is pure gold.

Let’s continue our problem solving.

I have a pouring and a filling function.
Now I’d need a function that takes a collection of glasses (state), apply an action (commonly called a ‘move’ in the current domain language) and return a new, updated collection of glasses (new state).

What characterizes a move? It’s either an empty, pour or fill action associated with glass indices:

  • empty from the nth glass
  • fill to the nth glass
  • pour from the mth glass to the nth glass

Expressivity matters, so maybe a move would be best represented by a map.
A map with a type that characterizes the move (empty, fill, pour) and subjects that indicate the source / target / both of the move (from, to):

(println "Empty glass 0:" {:type :empty :from 0}) (println "Fill glass 1:" {:type :fill :to 1}) (println "Pour glass 1 into glass 0:" {:type :pour :from 1 :to 0})

I’m beginning to think that a bit of Ad-hoc polymorphism would be great in order to dispatch on the type of move: let’s use multimethods.

(defmulti ->move "Apply a move to the given state and return the new state." (fn [state move] (:type move)))

The defmulti macro defines a new multimethod with the associated dispatch function.
Which means that the ->move function will take two parameters, and the dispatch function will choose the appropriate implementation.

In this case I dispatch based on the value associated to the :type key in the move parameter.
A :empty move will dispatch to the ->move :empty multimethod.
A :fill move will dispatch to the ->move :fill multimethod.
A :pour move will dispatch to the ->move :pour multimethod.

; Empty the glass at index from (defmethod ->move :empty [state {:keys [from]}] (update-in state [from] pour)) ; Fill the glass at index to (defmethod ->move :fill [state {:keys [to]}] (update-in state [to] fill)) ; Pour the glass at index from into the glass at index to (defmethod ->move :pour [state {:keys [from to]}] (let [quantity (min (get-in state [from :current]) (- (get-in state [to :capacity]) (get-in state [to :current])))] (-> state (update-in [from] pour quantity) (update-in [to] fill quantity))))

update-in is a standard library function that takes a data structure as a first parameter and “updates” (immutable, remember?) the value nested at the path given by the second parameter by applying to it the function supplied as the third parameter…
Don’t pretend you didn’t understand, just reread carefully.

Let’s take our ->move :empty multimethod as an example.
Since our move is an :empty, we destructure this parameter to get the value at the :from key: the index of the glass in state that we want to empty.
Once the glass has been fetched, update-in will evaluate the pour function with the glass as its sole parameter.
Since I’ve implemented the 1-arity of the pour function so that it just returns a new empty glass of same capacity, this result will replace the glass in the state.

Let’s test ->move to “manually” go from initial-state to final-state:

(-> initial-state (->move {:type :fill :to 1}) (->move {:type :pour :from 1 :to 0}) (->move {:type :fill :to 1}) (->move {:type :pour :from 1 :to 0}) (->move {:type :empty :from 0}) (->move {:type :pour :from 1 :to 0}) (->move {:type :fill :to 1}) (->move {:type :pour :from 1 :to 0}) )

It works!

I must now implement a function that, when given a collection of glasses, returns a collection of possible moves that can be applied to this state in order to produce a meaningful new collection of glasses.

Meaningful as in:

  • not emptying an empty glass,
  • not filling a glass that is full, and
  • not pouring into ‘itself’, which gets us nowhere
(defn glasses->index "Filter the glasses by the filter-fn function and return the index the filtered item had in the glasses collection." [glasses filter-fn] (->> glasses (map-indexed #(vector %1 %2)) (filter (fn [[idx value]] (filter-fn value))) (map first)))

I’m not going to explain everything, just look at the input and output in this test of glasses->index:

(println "Indices of non-empty glasses:" (glasses->index final-state (comp pos? :current))) (println "Indices of glasses of capacity 3:" (glasses->index final-state (comp #(= 3 %) :capacity)))

The “indexing” works, now the function for listing moves:

(defn available-moves "Return the list of valid moves from current state of glasses." [glasses] (let [non-empty (glasses->index glasses (comp pos? :current)) non-full (glasses->index glasses #(< (:current %) (:capacity %)))] (concat (map #(hash-map :type :empty :from %) non-empty) (map #(hash-map :type :fill :to %) non-full) ; I really like this one (for [from non-empty to non-full :when (not= from to)] {:type :pour :from from :to to}))))

Concatenate the list of moves able to empty the non-empty glasses, fill the non-full glasses and pour the non-empty glasses into the distinct non-full glasses.

Test available-moves:

(println (available-moves initial-state)) (println (available-moves final-state))

I can get the list of moves that are practicable, now let’s explore the next glasses available from the current glasses.

(defn explore [glasses moves] (map (partial ->move glasses) moves))

Test explore:

(explore initial-state (available-moves initial-state))

Given a list of glasses (a state), returns the list of glasses I could get to (next states) by applying the moves that are available from my current state.


Given a node containing glasses and the sequence of moves leading to them, return a list of successor nodes.

(defn expand [{:keys [glasses moves] :as node}] (let [next-moves (available-moves glasses)] (map #(hash-map :glasses (->move glasses %) :moves (conj moves %)) next-moves)))

I evaluate the moves available from the current node’s glasses and for each one of them I return a new node consisting of the next state of glasses and the augmented list of move leading to it.

Test expand:

(println (expand {:glasses [{:capacity 5 :current 5} {:capacity 3 :current 0}] :moves [{:type :fill :to 0}]}))

Nice, given glasses and the history of moves that led from an initial state to these glasses, I can get the list of next states that are possible, with their respective history of moves.

But at some point I might reach a state that I have already visited in the past… So it would be interesting to keep an index of the states that I have already visited in order to query it and avoid useless computation.

Let’s “backtract” the already visited nodes:

(defn backtrack "Returns true if a node has been visited." [visited {:keys [glasses]}] (not (contains? visited glasses)))

Test backtrack:

(backtrack #{[{:capacity 5 :current 0} {:capacity 3 :current 0}]} {:glasses [{:capacity 5 :current 5} {:capacity 3 :current 0}] :moves [{:type :fill :to 0}]})

The first parameter of backtrack is a set, so contains? is O(1), not O(n).

I’m almost there, right?
But I must stop searching at some point, so let’s identify a solution among a set of candidates:

(defn has-solution? [target successors] (some #(when (= target (:glasses %)) (:moves %)) successors))

some is a standard library function that returns the first logical true value of the predicate function result.
My predicate function returns the list of moves leading to the current node when the glasses of the node match the target glasses state, so if the successors collection contains the solution, the list of moves to get there is returned.

Test has-solution?:

(println "Does not have solution:" (has-solution? [{:capacity 5 :current 4} {:capacity 3 :current 0}] [])) (println "The solution (list of moves) is:" (has-solution? [{:capacity 5 :current 4} {:capacity 3 :current 0}] [{:glasses [{:capacity 5 :current 0}] :moves []} {:glasses [{:capacity 5 :current 4} {:capacity 3 :current 0}] :moves [:foo :bar]}]))

And now the final part: I must compose the functions I have written so far in order to implement a solver.

This is bottom-up. I know I have all the parts of my solver in place and I have tested most of them along the way.

Let’s loop over glasses nodes, keeping track of the already visited ones, searching for a solution leading to the target state:

(require '[clojure.set :as set]) (defn solver "Given a target state, returns a function that will solve the water pouring problem for an initial state" [target] (let [has-solution-fn? (partial has-solution? target)] (fn [glasses] ; Start with an empty set of visited states and an empty list of moves (loop [visited #{} nodes [{:glasses glasses :moves []}]] (if-let [solution (has-solution-fn? nodes)] solution (let [successors (mapcat #(expand %) nodes) valid-successors (filter (partial backtrack visited) successors) newly-visited (into #{} (map :glasses valid-successors))] (recur (clojure.set/union visited newly-visited) valid-successors)))))))

Test solver:

(def simple-solver (solver [{:capacity 5 :current 4} {:capacity 3 :current 0}])) (simple-solver [{:capacity 5 :current 0} {:capacity 3 :current 0}])

Test it again with a (seemingly) more complicated use case:

(def less-simple-solver (solver [{:capacity 8 :current 4} {:capacity 5 :current 0} {:capacity 3 :current 0}])) (less-simple-solver [{:capacity 8 :current 0} {:capacity 5 :current 0} {:capacity 3 :current 0}])

Functionally I could stop here because the problem is solved. But there are some points that bother me, some vars names that don’t reflect what piece of information they carry or some functions that could be broken into smaller ones.

Let’s refactor a little:

Refactor ->move to better reflect domain:

(defmulti ->move "Apply a move to the given state and return the new state." (fn [glasses move] (:type move))) (defmethod ->move :empty [glasses {:keys [from]}] (update-in glasses [from] pour)) (defmethod ->move :fill [glasses {:keys [to]}] (update-in glasses [to] fill)) (defmethod ->move :pour [glasses {:keys [from to]}] (let [quantity (min (get-in glasses [from :current]) (- (get-in glasses [to :capacity]) (get-in glasses [to :current])))] (-> glasses (update-in [from] pour quantity) (update-in [to] fill quantity))))

Refactor expand by extracting the node builder:

(defn make-node [glasses moves] {:glasses glasses :moves moves}) (defn expand-node [{:keys [glasses moves]}] (let [next-moves (available-moves glasses)] (->> next-moves (map #(make-node (->move glasses %) (conj moves %))))))

Refactor solver by decomposing functions:

Let’s create a make-glass utility function:

(defn make-glass ([capacity] (make-glass capacity 0)) ([capacity current] {:capacity capacity :current current}))

Test make-glass:

(make-glass 5)
(make-glass 8 3)

Now a initialize function to create a vector of glasses from capacities or capacities + quantities:

(defn initialize ([capacities] (vec (map make-glass capacities))) ([capacities quantities] (vec (map make-glass capacities quantities))))

Test initialize:

(initialize [8 5 3])
(initialize [8 5 3] [4 0 0])

Let’s extract the part of the solver that find the successors of a collection of nodes into find-successors:

(defn find-successors [nodes] (mapcat #(expand-node %) nodes))

Test find-successors:

(find-successors [{:glasses [{:capacity 5 :current 0} {:capacity 3 :current 0}] :moves []}])

Let’s extract the part of the solver that filters out the successors that have already been visited into filter-successors:

(defn filter-successors [successors visited] (filter (partial backtrack visited) successors))

Test filter-successors:

(filter-successors [{:moves [{:type :fill :to 0}] :glasses [{:capacity 5, :current 5} {:capacity 3, :current 0}]} {:moves [{:type :fill, :to 1}], :glasses [{:capacity 5, :current 0} {:capacity 3, :current 3}]}] #{[{:capacity 5, :current 5} {:capacity 3, :current 0}]})

We’re almost done. Let’s create a function to only keep a distinct set of successors from a collection of candidates with get-unique-glasses.

(defn distinct-glasses [successors] (into #{} (map :glasses successors)))

Test distinct-glasses:

(distinct-glasses [{:moves [{:type :fill :to 0}] :glasses [{:capacity 5, :current 5} {:capacity 3, :current 0}]} {:moves [{:type :fill, :to 1}], :glasses [{:capacity 5, :current 5} {:capacity 3, :current 0}]}])

And now we can rewrite solver with these new pieces.

(defn solver [capacities quantities] (let [initial (initialize capacities) target (initialize capacities quantities) has-solution-fn? (partial has-solution? target)] (fn [] (let [first-node (make-node initial [])] (loop [visited #{initial} nodes [first-node]] (if-let [solution (has-solution-fn? nodes)] solution (let [successors (find-successors nodes) valid-successors (filter-successors successors visited) unique-glasses (distinct-glasses valid-successors)] (recur (clojure.set/union visited unique-glasses) valid-successors))))))))

Test solver:

(def simple-solver (solver [5 3] [4 0])) (println (simple-solver))
(def less-simple-solver (solver [8 5 3] [4 0 0])) (println (less-simple-solver))

Implement -main:

(defn -main [& args] (assert (even? (count args))) (let [input (map #(Integer. (re-find #"\d+" %)) args) solver-fn (apply solver (split-at (/ (count input) 2) input))] (println (solver-fn))))

It’s been a pretty long article in the end. Together we’ve implemented a function to solve the water pouring problem for an arbitrary list of glasses of some quantity in Clojure.

You can find the file I’ve used to write this exploratory work here, and the final version of the solver without all the evaluations here.

The thing that is the most interesting to me here is not the number of lines, the safety or the provability of correctness.
What I want to stress out is the development at the REPL.

You can see in the repository that I didn’t even bother to write tests, because I don’t plan to share this work, publish it or maintain it. Nonetheless it has been tested.
I has been tested all the way from the beginning, at each function definition, with data. You see, I didn’t need to use TDD, and I didn’t have to write some temporary main function to pass inputs to the command line, and I didn’t need to wait until I’ve assembled all the code together to try it fingers crossed.

Through the use of immutability, pure functions and first-class data literals I feel like I can achieve more and iterate more quickly than with any other language I’ve used.
I also argue that the Lisp syntax, although different, is an asset, because there’s no cognitive load associated with it: no magical keywords, no mix of parents, braces or brackets for structure: just lists as functions and data.


1: This it is not exactly a new glass as in ‘a copy’ but a new pointer to a persistent data structure, a concept also know as structural sharing (go back)

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