Golfing for FizzBuzz in Clojure and Elixir

Written by Pete Corey on Jul 9, 2018.

I recently came across this riff on the FizzBuzz problem written in Clojure. While it’s admittedly not terribly obvious what’s going on, I thought it was a novel solution to the FizzBuzz problem.

How could we recreate this solution using Elixir? There are some obvious similarities between Clojure’s cycle and Elixir’s Stream.cycle/1. As someone who’s always been a fanboy of Lisp syntax, which solution would I prefer?

There’s only one way to find out…

But First, an Explanation

Before we dive into our Elixir solution, we should work out what exactly this Clojure solution is doing:

  (map vector
    (range 25)
    (cycle [:fizz :_ :_])
    (cycle [:buzz :_ :_ :_ :_])))

Clojure’s clojure.pprint/pprint obviously just prints whatever’s passed into it. In this case, we’re printing the result of this expression:

(map vector
  (range 25)
  (cycle [:fizz :_ :_])
  (cycle [:buzz :_ :_ :_ :_])))

But what exactly’s happening here? Clojure’s map function is interesting. It let’s you map a function over any number of collections. The result of the map expression is the result of applying the function to each of the first values of each collection, followed by the result of applying the mapped function to each of the second values, and so on.

In this case, we’re mapping the vector function over three collections: the range of numbers from zero to twenty four ((range 25)), the infinite cycle of :fizz, :_, and :_ ((cycle [:fizz :_ :_])), and the infinite cycle of :buzz, :_, :_, :_, :_ ((cycle [:buzz :_ :_ :_ :_])).

Mapping vector over each of these collections creates a vector for each index, and whether it should display Fizz, Buzz, or FizzBuzz for that particular index.

The result looks just like we’d expect:

([0 :fizz :buzz]
 [1 :_ :_]
 [2 :_ :_]
 [3 :fizz :_]
 [4 :_ :_]
 [5 :_ :buzz]
 [24 :fizz :_])

An Elixir Solution

So how would we implement this style of FizzBuzz solution using Elixir? As we mentioned earlier, Elixir’s Stream.cycle/1 function is almost identical to Clojure’s cycle. Let’s start there.

We’ll make two cycles of our Fizz and Buzz sequences:

Stream.cycle([:fizz, :_, :_])
Stream.cycle([:buzz, :_, :_, :_, :_])

On their own, these two cycles don’t do much.

Let’s use to effectively perform the same operation as Clojure’s map vector:[:fizz, :_, :_]), Stream.cycle([:buzz, :_, :_, :_, :_])) 

Now we can print the first twenty five pairs by piping our zipped streams into Enum.take/2 and printing the result with IO.inspect/1:[:fizz, :_, :_]), Stream.cycle([:buzz, :_, :_, :_, :_])) 
|> Enum.take(25)
|> IO.inspect

Our result looks similar:

  fizz: :buzz,
  _: :_,
  _: :_,
  fizz: :_,
  _: :_,
  _: :buzz,
  fizz: :_

While our solution works, I’m not completely happy with it.

Polishing Our Solution

For purely aesthetic reasons, let’s import the function’s we’re using from Stream, Enum and IO:

import Stream, only: [cycle: 1, zip: 2]
import Enum, only: [take: 2]
import IO, only: [inspect: 1]

This simplifies the visual complexity of our solution:

zip(cycle([:fizz, :_, :_]), cycle([:buzz, :_, :_, :_, :_]))
|> take(25)
|> inspect

But we can take it one step further.

Rather than using, which expects a left and right argument, let’s use, which expects to be passed an enumerable of streams:

  cycle([:fizz, :_, :_]),
  cycle([:buzz, :_, :_, :_, :_])
|> zip
|> take(25)
|> inspect

And that’s our final solution.

Final Thoughts

To be honest, I’ve been having troubles lately coming to terms with some of Elixir’s aesthetic choices. As someone who’s always admired the simplicity of Lisp syntax, I fully expected myself to prefer the Clojure solution over the Elixir solution.

That being said, I hugely prefer the Elixir solution we came up with!

The overall attack plan of the algorithm is much more apparent. It’s immediately clear that we start with two cycles of :fizz/:buzz and some number of empty atoms. From there, we zip together the streams and take the first twenty five results. Lastly, we inspect the result.

Which solution do you prefer?

Ping, Pong, and Unresponsive Bitcoin Nodes

Written by Pete Corey on Jul 9, 2018.

The last piece of low-hanging fruit required to finish up the connectivity of our in-progress, Elixir-powered Bitcoin node is to implement a system to detect unresponsive peer connections and prune them from our list of active peers.

Once an inactive peer is removed, our current system will automatically connect to a new peer to take its place.

There are several potential solutions for building out this kind of timeout system, and I’ve been weighing their pros and cons in the back of my mind for several weeks. I think I’ve come to a relatively simple and elegant solution that tackles the problem with minimal technical and mental overhead.

Let’s dive in!

Who Cares About Unresponsive Nodes?

In its current state, our Bitcoin node will connect to up to one hundred twenty five peer nodes. We assume that each of these nodes is a fully functioning and active part of the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network. If we don’t receive any messages from them, or if messages dwindle over time, we just assume that the network doesn’t have much to tell us.

This assumption can lead to trouble. If we continue to persist our connections to unresponsive nodes, it’s conceivable that eventually every node we’re connected to will become unresponsive for some reason or another.

At that point, our Bitcoin node is dead in the water. It’s unable to send or receive any information, and it’s unable to fetch any additional peers to reestablish its place in the peer-to-peer network. At this point our only course of action would be to restart the node and try again.

And that’s not a very robust solution…

Detecting Slow Connections

Instead, we should be proactive about pruning unresponsive nodes from our set of peers. The first piece of low hanging fruit was can go after is adding a timeout to our :gen_tcp.connect/2 call:

  Application.get_env(:bitcoin_network, :timeout)

If a node takes too long to respond to our initial connection request (in this case, :timeout is set to thirty seconds), we’ll retry the connection a few times and then ultimately remove the node from our set of peers.

Detecting Unresponsive Nodes

The next step in aggressively pruning our peer list is to watch for unresponsive nodes. We’ll do this by setting up a timeout between every message we receive from our peer. If we don’t receive another message before a certain cutoff time, we deem the peer unresponsive and break our connection.

We’ll start by adding a call to a new refresh_timeout/1 helper function in our :tcp info handler:

def handle_info({:tcp, _port, data}, state) do
  state = refresh_timeout(state)

The first time refresh_timeout/1 is called, it schedules a :timeout message to be sent to the current process after a certain amount of time. A reference to that timer is stored in the process’ current state:

defp refresh_timeout(state) do
  timer = Process.send_after(self(), :timeout, Application.get_env(:bitcoin_network, :timeout))
  Map.put_new(state, :timer, timer)

Subsequent calls to refresh_timeout/1 cancel the existing timer, and create a new one:

defp refresh_timeout(state = %{timer: timer}) do
  refresh_timeout(Map.delete(state, :timer))

Now we need to add a callback to handle the scheduled :timeout message:

def handle_info(:timeout, state) do
  {:disconnect, :timeout, state}

Whenever we receive a :timeout message, we simply kill the current process, effectively disconnecting the associated peer.

Ensuring A Constant Stream of Messages

So now we’re disconnecting peers if we don’t receive a message from them within a certain period of time (thirty seconds in my case), but we have no way of guaranteeing that we should receive messages this frequently. What if there are no new blocks or transactions on the network?

To guarantee what we receive regular periodic messages, we need to set up a ping/pong loop.

Every so often we’ll send our peer node a “ping” message. If they’re still responsive, they’ll immediately respond with a “pong”. The peer will ensure our responsiveness by sending their own “pings”, which we’re already responding to.

According to the woefully under-documented Bitcoin protocol, we can’t send our first “ping” until we send back our “verack” message. Any messages sent prior to our “verack” will mark our node as “misbehaving” and risk a disconnection.

defp handle_payload(%Version{}, state) do
  with :ok <- Message.serialize("verack") |> send_message(state.socket),
       :ok <- Message.serialize("getaddr") |> send_message(state.socket),
       :ok <-
         Message.serialize("ping", %Ping{
           nonce: :crypto.strong_rand_bytes(8)
         |> send_message(state.socket) do
    {:ok, state}
    {:error, reason} -> {:error, reason, state}

Now that we’ve sent our “ping”, we can expect to receive a “pong” in reply. When we receive the peer’s “pong” response, we want to schedule another “ping” to be sent a short time in the future. We do this by scheduling a :send_ping message to be sent to the current process after a short interval:

defp handle_payload(%Pong{}, state) do
  Process.send_after(self(), :send_ping, Application.get_env(:bitcoin_network, :ping_time))
  {:ok, state}

Our :send_ping handler sends another “ping” message, completing the ping/pong cycle:

def handle_info(:send_ping, state) do
  with :ok <-
         Message.serialize("ping", %Ping{
           nonce: :crypto.strong_rand_bytes(8)
         |> send_message(state.socket) do
    {:noreply, state}
    {:error, reason} -> {:error, reason, state}

And that’s all there is to it!

As long as :ping_time is reasonably less than our :timeout, we should always have a constant stream of “ping” messages to keep our timeout timer from firing. If one of our peers ever fails to send their “pong”, we kill their corresponding Node process.

Final Thoughts

As far as I’m concerned, that wraps up the networking portion of our in-progress Elixir-based Bitcoin node project. In the future we’ll turn our attention to the actual guts of a Bitcoin node: processing blocks and transactions.

At some point we might also slap a fancy user interface on top of our node. Everything’s better with a great UI.

Stay tuned!

Making Noise with J

Written by Pete Corey on Jul 2, 2018.

I’ve always been fascinated by live-coded music. Frameworks like Chuck, Supercollider, Overtone, Extempore, and Sonic PI, along with popular performers and musicians like Sam Aaron and Andrew Sorensen have never ceased to amaze and inspire me.

That said, whenever I’ve tried to use one of those tools or frameworks to create my own music, I’ve always quickly given up. Maybe it’s because I’m just lazy and learning new things is hard, but I’ve always told myself that it’s because the tools I was using just didn’t fit with how I felt programming music should be. Syntactically, ergonomically, and conceptually, the tools just didn’t jive.

And then I stumbled across J.

J and the entire family of APL languages have a beautiful terseness and closeness to the data being operated on. They’re also fundamentally designed to operate on arrays, a data structure ripe for musical interpretation. I’ve convinced myself that if I can learn J, I’ll be able to build the live coding environment of my dreams!

That’s a big goal, but I’m taking baby steps to get there. Today, I’ll show you how I managed to make noise with J.

Making Noise Without J

My plan for making noise with J doesn’t actually involve my J software producing any noise directly. Instead, it’ll act as a controller that instructs other software on my machine to make noise on its behalf.

The software making the noise will be SimpleSynth, which is a small, easy to use MIDI synthesizer. If you’re following along, feel free to use any other MIDI synth you’d like, or a full audio workstation like Ableton or even GarageBand.


When we fire up SimpleSynth, it’ll ask which MIDI source it should use. MIDI is a protocol that lets us pass around musical information, like when and how loud certain notes should be played, between different devices. SimpleSynth is asking which stream of notes it should listen to and play.

Setting up our J virtual device in MIDI Studio.

I used MacOS’ built-in MIDI Studio to create a virtual MIDI channel called “J”, with a MIDI port called “Bus 1.” After making sure the virtual device was online, I selected it in SimpleSynth.

Selecting our J virtual device in SimpleSynth.

The last piece of the puzzle is finding some way of programmatically sending MIDI messages through my “J Bus 1” to be played by SimpleSynth. Geert Bevin’s SendMIDI command line tool did just the trick.

Once installed, we can use SendMIDI to send MIDI notes to SimpleSynth from our command line:

sendmidi dev "J Bus 1" on 60 100

Turning on note 60, with a velocity of 100 effectively plays a middle C at full volume.

Now we’re making music!

Talking to SendMIDI with J

The next challenge lies in getting J to execute sendmidi commands.

After much searching and head scratching, I learned that J exposes a wide range of miscellaneous functionality under the “foreigns” (!:) verb. Calling 2!:1 y lets you spawn a new process, running whatever command you pass in through y.

Let’s try invoking our spawn verb with our sendmidi command:

   2!:1 'sendmidi dev "J Bus 1" on 60 100'
|interface error
|       2!:1'sendmidi dev "J Bus 1" on 60 100'

After even more searching and head scratching, I realized that I needed to use the fully-qualified sendmidi path when making the call:

   2!:1 '/usr/local/bin/sendmidi dev "J Bus 1" on 60 100'

I hear sound! Success!

Making Music with J

While this is great, it’s not much better just running our sendmidi command directly from the command line. What would make things even better is if we could build ourselves a play verb that plays any notes passed to it.

For example, if I were to run:

   play 60 64 67

I’d expect J to construct and execute our sendmidi command, which should play a C major chord:

sendmidi dev "J Bus 1" on 60 100 on 64 100 on 67 100

After a few brain-expanding weekends of playing around in J, I came up with this version of the play verb:

   on =: ('on ',5|.' 100 ',":)"0
   play =: [:2!:1'/usr/local/bin/sendmidi dev "J Bus 1" ',[:,/on

The on verb turns an integer note into an “on string” of the format, 'on <note> 100 ', and the play verb spawns the result of appending '/usr/local/bin/sendmidi ...' to append mapped over on applied to y.

Put simply, it constructs our sendmidi command and executes it.

We can play a C major chord:

   play 60 64 67

Or any other chord we want:

   play 60 63 54 70 73

Final Thoughts

Please keep in mind that I’m very new to J, and even newer to tacit programming. If you see anything that can be improved, clarified, or corrected, please let me know.

I still feel very clunky and slow when it comes to using J. Building this two line program took hours of my time. That said, I feel like there is potential here. As I grow more used to the tacit paradigm and play with other ways of interacting to DAWs and other audio producers, I feel like J might turn into my ideal music creation environment.

Time will tell.