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push_swap, a 42 project

Because some smartass thought `sort()` was too easy...
from 09/01/2024, by xtrm β€” 10m read


πŸ“– prelude

⚠️ Disclaimer: This article is a big WIP & unfinished.

This is a project I did for my school 42 AngoulΓͺme.

The goal was to parse a list of integers given as program arguments, and then sort them using a limited set of instructions.

This would naturally involve some kind of sorting algorithm, although we would need to make it ourselves, or at least adapt a known one to the rules...
That may prove to be quite the challenge depending on which algorithm you thought of first :^)

(bogosort ftw)

table of contents

πŸ“ the rules

The rules are as follows:

  • You have two stacks, A and B.
  • At the start of the program, A is filled with a random set of integers, and B is empty.
    • The set is guaranteed to be unique, meaning no duplicates. The numbers can be negative, positive, or zero, as long as they fit in an int.
  • You must sort A in ascending order using the following instructions:
    • sa: swap the first two elements of A.
    • sb: swap the first two elements of B.
    • pa: move the first element of B to the beginning of A.
    • pb: move the first element of A to the beginning of B.
    • ra: rotate A: move A's first element to its end.
    • rb: rotate B: move B's first element to its end.
    • rra: reverse rotate A: move A's last element to its beginning.
    • rrb: reverse rotate B: move B's last element to its beginning.
    • ss: sa and sb at the same time.
    • rr: ra and rb at the same time.
    • rrr: rra and rrb at the same time.
  • You must display the instructions used to sort A, with a newline at the end.

πŸ”₯β¬‡οΈπŸ•³οΈ jumping in! 1

so... how do we do this? where do we start?

πŸ”¨ the struct

Well first we have to implement some sort of structure to hold our stack data; let's define it as t_stack:

typedef struct s_stack
  int     *values;
  size_t  size;
  size_t  capacity;
} t_stack;
reminder that I'm bound to write C according to the norm, which can prove quite painful sometimes...

So let's break this down:

  • values is a pointer to the first element of the stack, which is an array of ints.
  • size is the number of elements currently in the stack.
  • capacity is the maximum number of elements the stack can hold, basically how much we told malloc to give us.

The capacity of both our stacks (A and B) will always be the same n, since to consider all scenarios, A or B could be filled with n values at some point; this will ensure us that we can always store what we need.

πŸ–ŠοΈ the instructions..?

Now that we have our structure, we need to implement the instructions, maybe by making simple functions?

Let's start with swap:

void    swap(t_stack *stack)
  int   tmp;

  // if the stack has less than 2 elements, do nothing (as per the subject)
  if (stack->size < 2)
    return ;
  // otherwise, swap the first two elements
  tmp = stack->values[0];
  stack->values[0] = stack->values[1];
  stack->values[1] = tmp;

Pretty simple. Now we can just call swap on a stack whenever we need it... right?

Well, yeah, but one can do better.

See the thing we forgot is that our push_swap program needs to print the instructions used to sort the stack; how do we tackle that?
We could extend our code in two different ways:

  1. We could add a printf call each time we call our instruction methods
  2. We could let the instruction function (swap in that case) call printf for us.

The first option is pretty bad, since we'd have a lot of printf calls, and would require not forgetting any.
The second option could work, but we'd have to pass which stack we're working on to the instruction function, which is also annoying.

So what do we do now? It's not as if there's a better w-

πŸ–‹οΈ the better wayℒ️

We can use function pointers!


The first idea is definitely a no-go, but the second one is actually pretty good. Having the instruction execution also print the instruction itself would be pretty nice.

A way of doing that in a clean and extensible way would be to have an array, which would hold pointers to functions that execute the instructions. Sounds lovely doesn't it?

First, let's define an enum of all the instructions, so we can use them as indices for our array:

typedef enum e_insn
  NONE = 0,
} t_insn;

Then, I'll define a struct t_insn_info to hold the instruction name and the function pointer:

typedef struct s_insn_info
  t_insn  insn;
  void    (*f)(t_stack *, t_stack *);
}  t_insn_info;

Finally, let's define a function that will execute the instruction and print it.

Note: Since global variables are forbidden for this project, we'll just be a little tricky and use a static variable inside our function to hold the array:

void  ps_insn_exec(t_insn insn, t_stack *a, t_stack *b)
  size_t              i;
  // Array of t_insn_info, with the last element being {0, NULL}
  static t_insn_info  insn_info_map[] = {
  {PA, ps_insn_pa}, {PB, ps_insn_pb},
  {SA, ps_insn_sa}, {SB, ps_insn_sb}, {SS, ps_insn_ss},
  {RA, ps_insn_ra}, {RB, ps_insn_rb}, {RR, ps_insn_rr},
  {RRA, ps_insn_rra},  {RRB, ps_insn_rrb},  {RRR, ps_insn_rrr},
  {0, NULL}

  i = 0;
  // Loop through the array until we find the instruction we want
  while (insn_info_map[i].f)
    if (insn_info_map[i].insn == insn)
      // Execute the instruction and print it!
      insn_info_map[i].f(a, b);
      ft_printf("%s\n", ps_get_name(insn));
      return ;

Now we can just call ps_insn_exec with the instruction we want to execute, and it'll do it for us!

I find that solution more elegant than the other two, and it's also more flexible, since we can easily add more instructions without having to change a lot.

⚠️ special interlude

Not so fast my friend.

We currently have implemented the stack instructions properly (I hope), and we could start the algorithm right now... but. but. hear me out:

This project also has a bonus part, which is to recreate the checker binary: basically another program that, taking the same arguments as push_swap, as well as your push_swap output, will check if your outputted instructions are valid and do indeed sort the list.

I'm not gonna go over the bonus in this post but, if you're not running low on time, I hightly recommend that you do it.

This simple exercice will allow you to build up even more your understanding of the project, as well as firmly test the code you just wrote; because yes, everything we just did can be β€” and should be β€” reused for the checker program.

All of this aside, we can finally start writing our sorting algorithm!

🚬 we recap

alright. recap time.

So far we've made:

  • a stack system
  • multiple operations/instructions
  • a extensible instruction execution system
  • maybe a checker program

What possibly could be left hahaha- oh fuck.

πŸ”’ the algorithm

In terms of algorithms, a lot could go into the descision-making here:

  • how much are you willing to commit to understanding your solution (you should master it completely)
  • what floats your neurons best
  • your knowledge in sorting algorithms

You've probably already seen your standard insertion / selection sort in CS classes, maybe even went as far as merge / quicksort.

Divide and conquer is always a good sorting strategy, and is sure to give you the best results.
That being said, is it really necessary here?

Let's take another approach.

πŸ¦‹ butterfly sort 2

Let us make a living creature, more precisely and intrestingly a butterfly. This name is based on the shape that happens halfway through your sorting process:

A half-sorted B stack's visualization

woah so pretty, see how more interested your brain becomes when it sees funny picture?

This shape is basically what allows us to keep our instruction count so low.

*Let's break it down.

πŸ”¨ the construction

First, we need to aquire this beautiful structure of a stack.

We'll try and push groups of values that fit in "boxes", for instance, 0-10 is the first box, 11-20 the second, etc.

TODO: bla bla bla - add more to this section

At the end of it, we should have something that resembles this kind of pattern:

πŸ“š putting it all together

TODO: this section is missing too

πŸ’‘ further optimizations

TODO: max-1, up-to-max

πŸ”– conclusion

We did it! We made a useless program!! yay us (you)!!!

TODO: ramble about the project's grading

🐈 meta talk

This is my first time writing a writeup, so I'm not sure how it'll turn out, but hopefully someone understands this garbled mess of a brain dump.

I tried to keep this article as close as possible to my thought process when making this project, but I've left out some details or changes I made in my code to keep it as concise as possible, while still keeping a good amount of information.

Things left out may include:

  • writing instructions to a t_list of char * instead of printing directly to allow running multiple algorithms and picking the shortest list of instructions
  • some finer butterfly sort optimizations
  • the generic optimizer that is the most boring thing in existence

🏷️ footnotes

  1. gd reference hehehe ↩

  2. butterfly sort is the name i gave it because that's how it looks, idk if it's a real sorting algorithm truely used elsewhere lol ↩

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