On the Road From Ruby Journeyman to Ruby Master

Mind-blowingly awful are really the only words that come to mind to describe my first bunch of Ruby scripts.1 Sure, this is probably unfair and over-critical given that Ruby, algorithms, and the whole shebang were all new to me at the time, but damn. There are so many decisions I can't even begin to comprehend or defend today.

I imagine few Ruby devs still have their first scripts available to reflect on. This may be for the best, yet, as I looked over a few of my early scripts this past weekend, I began to ponder the value of occasionally revisiting old code samples to better gauge one's progress and get a periodic sense of perspective. Similarly, I also found myself contemplating the value of occasionally taking a step away from production code to draw a new line in the sand recording one's state as a developer in that moment; A coded testament of one's values, whether in terms of syntax, tradeoffs, or any number of other metrics; a mile marker somewhere along the road from Ruby journeyman to Ruby master.

To that end, in this article I'll be sharing and discussing one of those early scripts. From there, I'll also leave behind a new mile marker by taking a stab at how I might solve the same problem today. With any luck, we'll all learn something along the way, and if not, it seems like I'll be back to rant about the inferior quality of my past work in no time. For now though, onward!

When Danny met Ruby…

Back in 2009, at the encouragement of my stepfather who thought the future had great things in store for Ruby and Rails (boy, was he wrong!), I began to explore the Ruby programming language by trying to solve a few of the math heavy programming problems over at Project Euler. Up until this point, I'd only ever done any "programming" in Basic and Visual Basic, as these were the focus of the programming courses taught at my high school. I'd argue that I got pretty advanced in my usage of Visual Basic, going so far as to develop a reasonable grasp on the Win32 API, but given my present distaste for my early Ruby code, I can only imagine that my earlier VB code must have been transcendently awful. In VB, I'd only ever written small utilities and weak attempts at games, so using Ruby to efficiently solve what were essentially math problems was new territory for me.

For each problem that I attempted, I followed two rules. First, and obviously, the computed solution had to be correct. Second, the script had to run to completion in less than one minute. I don't remember if the second rule was stipulated from the beginning or if my naive tendency toward brute-force solutions prompted my stepfather to introduce the rule, but I definitely remember struggling to get my scripts to run in less than a minute at various times. For anyone getting started with this type of endeavor, it's definitely a great constraint to have in place. That said, the problem we're going to look at today isn't one of those long running problems, in fact, even my early attempts at solving the problem take less than a second to run. Let's have a look, shall we?

Problem 8: Largest Product in a Series

Though it's not the first problem I solved, Problem 8: Largest Product in a Series, seems like a problem of sufficient complexity to merit a bit of discussion. For your convenience here is the full text of the question:

The four adjacent digits in the 1000-digit number that have the greatest product are 9 × 9 × 8 × 9 = 5832.


Find the thirteen adjacent digits in the 1000-digit number that have the greatest product. What is the value of this product?

It's worth noting that the requirements of the problem were modified in 2014 to encourage more programmatic solutions to the exercise. More specifically, the question originally asked for the largest product of not 13 adjacent digits but of just 5 adjacent digits in the 1000-digit number. A minor difference, but one that will, at the very least, help better explain at least one of the decisions I made in my 2009 solution.

To that end, a modified version of my 2009 solution appears below. The solution has been modified from its original form in two ways. First, as necessitated by the change in the problem requirements, the solution has been extended, in a manner consistent with the original solution, to handle runs of 13 digits. Second, rather than repeat the 1000-digit number, we will assume it is stored in the constant NUMBER as a Bignum. I won't explain the solution, but hopefully my discussion of it should help fill in any gaps in understanding. Instead, I'll jump right into my thoughts on the shortcomings of this script.

2009 Edition

big = 0
for i in 1..(987)
  if su>big
puts big

Where's the whitespace?

The first thing that strikes me about this script, and many of the others I've reviewed from this period, is the omission of optional spaces. This is one of those situations where I can't even begin to understand what I was thinking. Given that I do add optional spaces in at least one place, we can rule out the possibility that my spacebar was broken. This being the case, I'm inclined to believe I simply wasn't thinking about it, but it seems so blatantly obvious to me now that I find this hard to believe.

It is certainly possible that I had no notion of (or concern for) readability. It's also possible that my mental parser was in a sufficiently unformed, immature, or plastic state that the omission of optional spaces felt as readable to me then as when optional spaces were included. This seems a bit unfathomable now, but that's really all I can come up with.

In the JavaScript world, you will sometimes see libraries that achieve some feat in less than 1KB or some other very minimal file size. In JavaScript, where libraries are typically transmitted over the wire to web browsers across the world, this type of optimization can be desirable to reduce the size of the payload being transmitted (though it really should be the job of a minifier). But in Ruby, where libraries typically live on the server, there is no benefit to this type of optimization as far as I'm aware. If there is a benefit to this approach that I am unaware of, I can assure you it's not what I was striving for at the time.

Hmm, seems like a loop might help…

Next on my list of grievances is the ginormous series of substring accesses of the form a[i+n, 1]. First, let's get it out of the way that the second argument to String#[] is totally useless here, being as it is that the default behavior is to return the 1-character substring located at the index given by the first argument. Normally, this might be an excusable offense, but given that this snippet could benefit from some serious DRYing, it's a little more intolerable because the extraneous argument would have to be removed in 13 different places.

Given that this seems like an obvious situation for a loop of some sort, why the no loop? In this particular case, I do have some recollection of my thinking, and I'm fairly certain that forgoing a loop was a conscious decision. If you'll recall, the problem at the time was concerned with 5 consecutive digits instead of 13 which made the repeated code a little more manageable and perhaps even tolerable.

At the time, I may have hoped to gain some performance by skipping the loop and retrieving each element directly, though this concept seems like it would have been too advanced for my thinking at the time. Instead, I'm inclined to believe that I may have chosen five direct accesses because it was easier for me at the time than setting up a loop, though I'm not sure. Though skipping the loop is a teensy bit faster, it's clearly not DRY and it also hardcodes an implicit over specification into the solution that makes it very difficult to change the length of the series of adjacent digits that should be tested. As such, to update the code to test a series of 13 digits, I had to more than double the number of element accesses, moving the code even further from the goals of DRY.

If it's not already clear, using a simple loop would have been a better choice. Though insignificantly slower, a simple loop would make the code much DRYer while also enabling the solution to be more generic. This would better prepare the solution to handle any number of adjacent digits while also making the code easier to read, follow, and understand. Generality definitely wasn't something that was on my mind in solving this problem as we'll see again in a moment.

Maybe one loop was a better choice…

Though we can hopefully agree that it seems like a loop would have been a better choice in the situation above, there are enough problems with that loop already used that it starts to seem like utilizing another loop might not have been a good idea. The loop already in use is a for loop operating over a range of Integers that allows for traversing the vector of digits. There are a number of things about this loop that are less than ideal, some more obvious than others.

One thing that may stick out to more experienced Rubyists is the choice of a for loop over other alternatives. Though not technically wrong, the for loop is not commonly seen in Ruby and typically more idiomatic loop primitives are used instead. Another thing that may stick out to more experienced Rubyists is the unnecessary use of parentheses around the terminal Integer or upper bound of the Range expression. Again, not wrong per se, but certainly an indicator of my noob status and perhaps an indicator that I didn't fully grok the Range expression and perhaps thought I was calling a dot method on the Integer class, like Integer#., that returned a Range instance when invoked with an Integer for an argument. Novel perhaps, but wrong.

Returning to the topic of generality, the loop also hardcodes two more over-specifications into the solution that make the solution more rigid and less reuseable. As if this weren't bad enough, the two over-specifications interact with each other in such a way that it's not obvious what's going on. In fact, they're both encapsulated in the seemingly random choice of 987 for the upper bound of the Range. Being as astute as you are, I imagine if you were paying attention to the problem description then you've already surmised that 987 is none other than, 1,000, the length of the input digit, minus 13, the length of the run of adjacent digits we're calculating the product of. This upper bound makes sure our product calculations don't overflow the length of the provided number. Duh, right?

Wrapped up there in one little number are three flavors of weak. First, the hardcoded reference to 1,000 means we won't be able to reliably use this solution on a similar problem that features a number that is anything other than exactly 1,000 digits. Second, the hardcoded reference to 13 means yet another place an update will be required in order to mutate the solution to handle runs of lengths other than 13. Finally, both of these facts are obscured by the use of the precalculated value of 987 for the upper bound of the range. Instead of hardcoding the value, calculating the upper bound by taking the difference of the length of NUMBER and the desired length of adjacent digits would be better. Having no reliance on knowing the length of NUMBER would be even better, if possible.

One final point about the loop before we move on: it's wrong! Given the magnitude of the wrongness, you may prefer to think of it as a bug, but at the end of the day, it's just plain old wrong. The problem is that the Range starts at 1, which translates to index 1 of the stringified NUMBER. Starting with index 1 means that the digit at index 0 is totally ignored, which means that if, by some chance, the 13 consecutive digits with the largest product were the first 13 digits, this solution would fail to find the correct product. Whether you call this a bug or broken, it's bad news. So yeah, maybe one loop was the way to go.

A final look back at 2009

Before we look at how I might solve this problem today, I want to make two final points about my 2009 solution. First, the variable names suck. The only variable name that comes close to being tolerable is big, and even that isn't great. Finally, a compliment. Despite all of its problems, my 2009 solution does excel as example of the lowest of low Ruby newbie code. Certainly, that's a back-handed compliment, but I really could not have written an example like this today if I wanted to: it simply would have felt far too contrived.

With the past firmly behind us, let's take a look at how I might solve this problem today.

Solution 2015

# Project Euler #8 - Largest product in a series
# https://projecteuler.net/problem=8
# Find the thirteen adjacent digits in the 1000-digit number that have the
# greatest product. What is the value of this product?

def largest_product_in_series(number, adjacency_length = 13)
  series = number.to_s
  zero_ord = '0'.ord
  factors = []
  largest_product = 0
  current_product = 1
  series.each_char do |new_factor|
    # This String-to-Integer conversion assumes we can trust our input will only
    # contain digits. If we can safely assume this, calling String#ord and then
    # subtracting the ordinal of the String '0' will work faster than
    # String#to_i.
    new_factor = new_factor.ord - zero_ord

    # If our new_factor is zero, we know that the product of anything
    # currently in our collection of factors will be zero. so, rather than
    # work through that, just drop the current set of factors, drop the
    # zero, reset our current product, and move on to the next iteration.
    if new_factor.zero?
      current_product = 1

    factors << new_factor
    current_product *= new_factor
    next if factors.length < adjacency_length

    largest_product = current_product if current_product > largest_product
    current_product /= factors.shift

puts largest_product_in_series(NUMBER)

I think I'm still too close to this solution to offer much objective criticism, so though I'll touch on a few concerns later, for the most part, we'll leave criticism to future-Danny to worry about. So, let's start by seeing how the updated solution fairs in regard to some specific points that were brought up while dissecting my 2009 solution. After that, we'll look at some new goodness it brings to the table. Like the 2009 solution, I won't explain exactly what's going on, but hopefully the discussion below and included comments will suffice to convey the intention of the code.

Lessons learned

Here's a brief rundown of a few of the concerns I raised about the 2009 solution and how those concerns have faired in the 2015 solution:

  • Spacing is kind of funny in that you might not think about it if it's there, but if it's missing you'll definitely notice. Whether you noticed the additional white space or not, hopefully you'll agree that the use of consistent white space makes this solution much more readable than its counterpart.

  • Variable names, like white space, can be a little funny too given how personal and subjective they tend to be. Whether you think the variable names used in the updated solution are great, too short, too long, or just a little off, hopefully we can all agree they are a significant improvement over the variable names of the 2009 solution.

  • In terms of rigidity and over-specificity, the 2015 solution is much more flexible and generic. It has no dependency on the length of the number given, meaning the provided number could be 1,000 digits long or 10,000 digits long. Though it still needs to know how long a run of digits should be tested, it is not hardcoded to a certain length. A default length of 13 is used, but this can easily be overridden by invoking the largest_product_in_series method with a specific value for adjacency_length. This means that we could answer both the original 5-digit version of the question and the updated 13-digit version of the question with one algorithm.

  • Because the solutions are so different, any discussion in terms of the number of loops is somewhat moot, however the loop used in the 2015 solution does have one characteristic that I'd previously suggested could be desirable: it does not depend upon knowing the length of NUMBER. Instead, it iterates over every character in the String derived from NUMBER, series, using String#each_char. In this case, we still know series comes from the full NUMBER so, we're not a lot closer to a solution that would work for true streams of numbers, but the length agnostic nature of the loop is a step in the right direction.

  • One other big improvement included in the updated solution that we didn't mention in terms of the 2009 solution is the addition of comments. There are two flavors of comments in the updated solution that help provide clarity to the solution. First, the problem description is included as a comment at the head of the solution. This is really handy for someone else looking at the code or for coming back to the code six years later. Second, comments explaining some of the solution's logic have been added making it easier for a reader to understand what is going on and why those decisions were made.

An alternate approach

Beyond the better coding practices exhibited by the 2015 solution, the solution also leverages a better approach to solving the problem. Better can be somewhat subjective, so I should be clear that in this case I think the 2015 solution is superior because the algorithm is more efficient and offers a performance improvement of about an order of magnitude while still using about the same amount of memory. The concept for the alternate approach emerged from two seemingly unrelated notions, each of which I thought could be useful independently to squeeze some extra performance out of the algorithm. As it turns out, they weren't completely independent notions and one is actually much easier to implement when built on top of the other.

The first idea for optimization revolved around a means to more efficiently calculate the new product each iteration. While the 2009 solution calculated the new product each iteration by performing 12 multiplications, I reasoned that since we're really only changing two numbers each iteration (the digit going out of focus and the digit coming in to focus), it should be possible to calculate the new product with only two operations (divide out the digit going out of focus, and multiply in the digit coming into focus). The only situation where this would be complicated is when a zero was encountered because a zero would effectively destroy our partial product when it got multiplied in, not to mention trying to divide by zero later would also be a fatal error. A better means of handling zeros would be required to calculate products in this manner and that's just what the second idea offered.

The second notion I had for optimizing the algorithm stemmed from removing the extraneous work that was being performed the iteration in which a zero was encountered and the 12 subsequent iterations after. Because zero multiplied by any other number is always going to be zero, there were effectively 13 iterations for every zero where the algorithm would do all the work despite the fact that the answer was guaranteed to be zero. It seemed to me that there had to be a way to avoid this extraneous effort and actually use zeros as a way to speed up the calculation. As it turns out, handling zeros is pretty easy because all that needs to be done when a zero is encountered is reset the partial product to its initial value, 1, and move on.

With zeros taken care of, the more efficient means of calculating the product is simplified to keeping a queue of the factors of the partial product. Then, each iteration the digit going out of focus is removed from the queue and divided out of the partial product and the number coming into focus is added to the queue and multiplied into the partial product. One final bit of house keeping that is required is that when a zero is encountered, the queue of factors must be reset as well.

A faster Char#to_i

One final bit of hackery (of debatable merit) is the means by which the updated solution turns the String form of a digit into its Integer form. Though String#to_i, is the obvious candidate for this conversion, I wondered if there might be a faster way since this problem has little need for error checking or converting large strings of digits. If Ruby had a Char class for single characters, Char#to_i would likely have a different performance character than String#to_s, and a Char#to_s style approach was more what I was looking for.

One way I had seen this done for individual numbers in other languages was to take the ordinal, or character code, of an ASCII number and subtract from it the ordinal for the character "0" to get the Integer equivalent of the character. This is exactly what the updated solution does using String#ord. In each of my trials, I found the String#ord trick to be 25-30% faster than String#to_i. Whether using this trick is a good idea or not (given that this method makes no checks to verify that the provided character is a number) is a whole other blog post. In this particular case, I thought the approach novel and performant enough to utilize it.

Still a Ruby journeyman: A few concerns

Before concluding this post, I want to mention a few concerns that have come to mind as I've spent some time analyzing the updated solution. Most stem from tradeoffs or implementation details. I can't help but wonder if a few of these concerns are going to be the reasons future-Danny gives for this solution being mind-blowingly awful in its own way.

  • Did I put way too much effort into the updated solution? 2009 for all of it's shortcomings was much more pragmatic in that it was all about getting the correct solution and moving on. The goals of the 2009 solution and the 2015 solution are clearly different, so maybe I put exactly the right amount of time into the updated solution. I suspect it's something only future-Danny will be able to make a ruling on.

  • Should the solution include more/any error handling? The use of the String#ord trick certainly opens up opportunities for misuse. But even that hack aside, what happens when the number provided is shorter than the adjacency length? Currently it does a correct thing and returns zero, but should that raise an error instead? Is additional error handling worth the time?

  • Why the focus on performance? Is performance really critical for this problem or is the focus on performance more to provide some concrete metric of how the efficiency of my programming has improved over the last 6 years? The String#ord trick is nice, but is it really worth the extra complexity, confusion, and possible bugs? What benefit might a simpler, less efficient solution offer?

  • Should the String#ord trick be extracted into a method to make it easier to substitute a different means of converting a digit character into its Integer form?

  • Why convert NUMBER to a String? For all the focus on performance, this is likely not the most efficient option. If NUMBER can remain a Bignum and each of the digits could be extracted from it in Integer form, would that be a more performant solution? Would it be a simpler solution?

  • Why the long method format? Sandi Metz would likely argue for smaller methods, as would Martin Fowler. The long method was partly due to performance concerns and partly because Replace Method With Method Object seemed excessive by the time it made sense. That said, should this method be broken up into smaller methods encapsulated in a class of some sort?

Happily ever after?

Though my exploration of Ruby, and the many other concepts secretly embodied by the set of problems at Project Euler, didn't pay off in an obvious way at the time I was focusing on them, I'm happy to have begun my career with Ruby struggling to write efficient algorithms. Though a friend of mine, a Gopher through and through, would argue that all Ruby is struggling to write efficient algorithms, this is a sentiment I've never shared. Perhaps, our disagreement on the subject stems from my beginnings with Ruby where any algorithmic inefficiencies were almost always my own and not some fault of the language. Though there is certainly an argument to be made for using the right tool for the job, at least in the part of the stack I tend to work in, I have yet to come across a situation where Ruby was clearly inappropriate. But maybe that's just me defending an old friend.

In the end, I'm glad I've held on to my old Project Euler solutions because though I wouldn't land my first Rails job until late 2011 and I'd spend two more years on the Microsoft stack dabbling in C# and relational concepts in MSSQL, and though, for a time, Ruby and I would talk less often, given our history together, it's nice to be able to look all the way back to the beginning of my time with Ruby. It helps me to understand that, frankly, I hope to always be writing code that is four years away from being mind-blowingly awful. If this stops being the case then I've stopped learning or I've stopped caring and either way, that'd be pretty sad.

  1. I would never talk about another person's code in these terms, especially if that person was as junior as I was when I wrote these scripts. In the words of the Ten Commandments of Egoless Programming, "Treat people who know less than you with respect, deference, and patience." I hope you too will follow this advice and save harsher criticisms for your own work. 

Danny Guinther

Danny Guinther

Danny is a senior software engineer at Datto in Boston, MA where he leads the platform team against the ever looming threat of technical debt and decay. With more than 5 years of experience with Ruby, Rails, and related technologies, Danny has a passion for the web and open source software. A self-proclaimed Ruby champion and developer advocate, when Danny's not coding, he can be found scheming of ways he could be coding or trying to convince himself that other hobbies are a good idea.

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