Category Archives: programming

Solving Sudoku and the n-Queens problem

I’ve put together a solver for Sudoku , as well as one for the n-Queens problem. This was inspired and informed by some ideas and algorithms in the book Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach by Stuart Russel and Peter Norvig. The solvers were quite fun to write and surprisingly easy to put together, both done in an afternoon.

The approaches taken for these two problems are different, so I’ll highlight the key aspects and compare them at the end.

A typical sudoku puzzle
A typical sudoku puzzle (source: wikipedia)

The sudoku solver first uses the AC-3 algorithm to infer reductions in the domain (possible values) of variables before the search. If this reduces the domains to one value per cell, the puzzle is effectively solved. If some variable’s domain becomes the empty set (no value for a cell that can satisfy all constraints), the puzzle is unsolvable. Otherwise, a search is done to find a solution.

The search uses backtracking. It is a depth-first search (DFS), going deep down one path before checking others, with in-place modification of the puzzle board as it goes, and undoing the changes when it has gotten stuck and needs to backtrack. Order of solutions tried in the DFS matters, as some orders can prune large parts of the tree. The following heuristics are used to sort variables and values:

  • Minimum value remaining heuristic — prioritizes cells that have few legal values
  • Least constraining value heuristic — after choosing a cell, this prioritizes the value option that least inhibits other cells

Forward checking is used to maintain arc consistency for a variable after a value is chosen for it. This infers domain reductions in neighbouring variables. The the search proceeds until it finds a solution or fails (not solvable). If the puzzle is solvable, a solution is returned. Here is an example, using an “evil difficulty” puzzle found online:

import sudoku 

# Taken from
evil = [

solved =
if solved: sudoku.print_solution(solved)

8 3 7 | 2 4 5 | 6 9 1 
6 2 4 | 1 9 7 | 3 5 8 
5 1 9 | 3 8 6 | 7 4 2 
- - - - - - - - - - - 
2 4 6 | 9 1 3 | 5 8 7 
7 8 1 | 5 6 2 | 4 3 9 
3 9 5 | 4 7 8 | 2 1 6 
- - - - - - - - - - - 
1 5 8 | 7 2 4 | 9 6 3 
9 7 3 | 6 5 1 | 8 2 4 
4 6 2 | 8 3 9 | 1 7 5 

The algorithm used for solving sudoku is systematic and exhaustive. In contrast, different algorithms are best suited for the n-Queens problem, another well known puzzle. The challenge is to place n queens on an nxn board, such that no two queens attack each other.

My n-Queens solver uses the local beam search algorithm, an adaptation of another algorithm named beam search. It starts off with some randomly generated configurations and does greedy stochastic hill climbing search on each one. If one of them finds a solution, that’s returned. Otherwise, the k best results are used for the next search. This algorithm requires parallel searches, so the solver utilizes multiprocessing. The idea behind hill climbing algorithms is to follow the steepest path up locally. As the nearest hill may not be the highest hill, it is prone to get stuck in local minimums (dead ends). Randomization is the trick used to solve this, by restarting the search in different places. The randomization also ensures that a solution is eventually found if one exists.

The solution for an 8×8 board is instantaneous, but it took a few minutes on 4 cores to find a solution for 128×128. Supposedly, this algorithm has been used to solve the millions queens problem in under 2 seconds, but it was probably a more optimized solution, and written in a language like C++.

Can the backtracking algorithm used for the sudoku solver be used for the n-Queens problem? It can, but it turns out that it requires much more computation time. It was the approach taken before hill climbing blew it out of the water. When stochastic hill climbing with restarts (a similar algorithm that does not utilize parallelization) was found to work so quickly for the n-Queens problem (in the 1990s), it resurged interest in this algorithm for a host of other problems. For example, it is used by airlines for flight scheduling due to its efficiency and its online property of being able to incorporate new data easily.

On the other hand, while it would also work for sudoku, the solution for sudoku appears to be solved with much less computation when using backtracking search. In the n-Queens problem, the solutions are densely distributed in the search space, whereas for sudoku, they are not. The answer to the question, “which algorithm should I use for this problem?” is not an easy one, and according to the no free lunch theorem, there is no one algorithm that is best for all problems.

You can check out the solvers at n-queens-solver and sudoku-solver.

Preserving Color in Style Transfer

Image style transfer is extremely fun and I had to just return to it one more time. I noticed that some people have started adding color transfer, as a recent paper came out on Preserving Color in Neural Artistic Style Transfer .

Throughout this post I’m modifying the following photo I took back in 2011 in Ireland.

A street in Ireland (2011 vacation)

Take this Starry Night Van Gogh rendition.

It is… blue.

But by preserving color, the result is much nicer. The color is transferred from the content image to the style image before the stylized version is generated. The mean and covariance across the RGB channels is updated in the style image to match the content image.

The other method mentioned in the paper is by luminance transfer. I will probably implement that as well and add it here — the math is very similar, and simpler in fact, as covariance matrix is not needed as there is only one channel being changed.

Sometimes color transfer isn’t needed, but when it is, it’s pretty handy. It’s remarkable that this can be done by simply changing some statistics in the image.

Here are a couple of cool ones from today — they did not require/use color transfer but I had to include them because they are pretty cool!


The code for this implementation is on github.

As part of the Deep Learning For Coders part 2 course, we implemented the original GAN and DCGAN. The original GAN implementation uses a simple multi-layer perceptrons for the generator and discriminator, and it does not work very well. DCGAN uses a convolutional architecture and does better. However, the result in the course notebook did not look impressive despite many thousands of epochs of training. It’s possible to get it to a better state as I have succeeded in doing here. There is room for more improvement still. I suspect the instructor did not try too hard to show that though, because the newer WGAN, introduced a bit later, is better and easier to train. However, this post is about implementing the DCGAN.

It took me a while to get it to work well. Despite trying many things, what seemed to finally do it was switching from Adam optimizer to RMSPROP, and weight clipping. These things, together with Dropout and Batch Normalization, stabilized training. I did not do comprehensive experiments, but 5×5 convolutions seemed to perform better on this particular dataset.

Here you can see how the GAN learns to generate increasingly better novel handwritten digits.

output over epochs

The outputs look realistic, but they can be improved. Future improvements and code are on github.

Generating Art with Computers

In the world of deep learning, there’s never a dull moment. The breadth of interesting applications seems unbounded. It’s been applied to reach super-human performance in many areas like game playing and object recognition, and integral to exciting new technologies like self driving cars. Increasingly we find that the knowledge embodied in a trained neural network can be transferred to seemingly unrelated areas. Take for example the combination of two disparate ideas: object recognition and Picasso paintings. A net built for the sole purpose of recognizing objects in a photo has been found to be useful, completely unaltered, for the task of rendering an image in the style of any painting. This is the technology behind the scenes of apps like Prisma, but it is not hard to do yourself, and I have to say that implementing this was a lot of fun.

original image

These images were created, as described in Gatys et. al, by passing a random noise image through the VGG-16 convolutional network (with imagenet weights and top layers removed) and updating the pixels of the input image directly with gradient descent. An error function is devised, which quantifies how poorly the initial seed (random noise at first) balances between appearing like the original image, and at the same time in the style of the chosen painting. The derivative of the loss with respect to the RGB values of the noise image is calculated. The pixels are adjusted in their respective directions, and the process repeats. Amazingly, this works – the image looks more and more like a stylized version of the original image with each iteration of this optimization. This is due to the unreasonable effectiveness of gradient descent, convolutional neural networks, and well designed loss functions.

The error function combines content loss E_c and style loss E_s. This balances between preserving high level features of the original image, and with the textures of the painting. The errors compare the values of chosen convolutional layers when the input is the original image, generated image, or painting.

The content error is just the squared euclidian distance between corresponding filter activations under the stylized and original images.
\displaystyle E_c^l=\frac{1}{2}\sum _{i,j} {\left\|F_{i_j}^l-P_{i_j}^l\right\|^2} where F_{ij}^l is the activation of the i^{th} filter at position j in layer l.

The novelty that makes all this work is the style error. It can be done with a statistic on the channels of the convolutions in the higher layers of the network. This was originally designed to capture texture information in a texture synthesis algorithm. The style error of a layer is the mean squared error between the gramians, \displaystyle E_s^l=\frac{1}{4 N^2 M^2} \sum _{ij} {\left(G_{i_j}^l-A_{i_j}^l\right)^2} , where G_{ij}=\langle v_i,v_j \rangle is the inner product of the vectorized feature maps i and j in filter layer l of the style image, and A is the corresponding gramian when the input is noise. The inner product (gramian) shows the correlation between each pair of channels, and this captures texture information. The same thing in Keras code:

def gram_matrix(v):
    # In tensorflow, dim order is x,y,channel
    # Make each row a channel
    chans = K.permute_dimensions(x, (2, 0, 1))
    # vectorize the feature maps
    features = K.batch_flatten(chans)
    # gramian is just an inner product
    return, K.transpose(features)) 
             / x.get_shape().num_elements()
def style_loss(vi, vj):
    # mean squared error
    return mse(gram_matrix(vi), gram_matrix(vj))

The total error is \alpha E_c + \beta E_s with the weights on each error as hyperparameters. The results are quite astounding. Playing with weights \alpha and \beta, and with the weights on the contribution of each layer l towards the style loss allows for a large range of interesting results. This picture was created by decreasing the weight of the content loss.

One major drawback of this method can be seen in the creation above. The style loss must be tempered, or else it obstructs features of the image, like the face. The third set of images, in the style of “Woman in a Hat with Pompoms and a Printed Shirt” is another example. So portraits in general are not the best target. However, landscapes and the like come out amazing. The reason for this is that the style loss function does not take into account anything about the style image except the texture of the image. There are alternative statistics that have been tried. One successful result that I have not yet tried comes from the study of Markov Random Fields, used classically for image synthesis. The idea is to calculate the loss between patches of the filters, rather than the whole filter at once, where the loss of each patch of the generated image is calculated against the most similar patch (by cross correlation) for the painting.

Another drawback is that each generated image/painting combo must be calculated separately. This has been addressed by Johnson et. al and others by training a neural network which can turn an input image into a representation which, when passed through a loss network (such as VGG-16 as above), generates a stylized image of a particular style. The benefit is the speed – once trained, generating a stylized version of an input image is hundreds of orders of magnitude faster. The drawback is that the transformation network takes much longer to train and is only able to output images of the specific style it was trained on. However, this is the type of solution that can scale, for example to video. I have replicated exactly the network architecture as described in Johnson et. al. Here’s an example result:

I had trouble getting rid of artifacts showing up in some input images, like the blotch of white on the right of the stylized image. However, I did not train the network for very long, primarily to avoid large AWS GPU server bills, so the results are not that great. I’ll probably come back to this soon, as I am building my own GPU server! There are so many ideas to explore with this.

My own chess engine

I’ve written a chess engine named Slonik. It implements the Universal Chess Interface (UCI), so you can download any popular chess interface, like Scid vs Pc. or Chessbase, to analyze with or play against Slonik.

I’ve written this engine from scratch, and chose to write it in Python, so that I can iterate quickly. That makes the engine slower, but maybe one day I will port it to C++. However, I am happy with it’s playing strength, all considering. The details of the engine are on the github page, but to summarize:

  • Alpha-beta minimax, quiescence search
  • Bitboard piece/board representation
  • Various search heuristics, such as the history heuristic, extensions, reductions, etc.
  • Hand-coded evaluation function
  • Transposition hash table

I plan to return to working on this engine’s AI — specifically to use deep learning and reinforcement learning techniques rather than the current hand-coded evaluation function.

WordPress backup script

In my previous post I showed my WordPress update script. However, it’s not safe to update without first backing everything up in case something goes wrong. This is a script that I adapted from this post. It backs up both files and the database.


echo "In $0"

if [ $# -gt 0 ]; then
    NOW=$(date +"%Y-%m-%d-%H%M")



# WWW_TRANSFORM='s,^home/public/blog,www,'
# DB_TRANSFORM='s,^home/private/backups,database,'

# tar -cvf $BACKUP_DIR/$FILE --transform $WWW_TRANSFORM $WWW_DIR

mysqldump --host=$DB_HOST -u$DB_USER -p$DB_PASS $DB_NAME > $BACKUP_DIR/$DB_FILE

# tar --append --file=$BACKUP_DIR/$FILE --transform $DB_TRANSFORM $BACKUP_DIR/$DB_FILE

You may have noticed that there is a commented out version of the tar transform variable and command. My host has a version of tar (bsdtar 2.8.5) that doesn’t have the --transform option, but does have an alternative -s option that does more or less the same thing. The idea is that the backup will have directory stucture backup/file.php rather than /home/public/blog/file.php for example.

mysqldump has many options you can pass it, which you may want to look into. However, the option --opt is a default, and does what I want. It is probably good enough for most sites. The problem with --opt is that it requires locking the table during the export, which also has implications on permissions required for your backup user. What backup user? Well, since you are storing the DB user and password in plain text in your script, you should not use your administrator user. It’s best to create a backup user with minimal permissions necessary to do the backup. Ideally that would be just SELECT privileges, but with the mentioned --opt option, LOCK TABLES privileges are required too. Here’s how you’d set that user up:

MySQL> CREATE USER backup IDENTIFIED BY 'randompassword';

I call the above script from a cron job on my local computer:


# Exit if any command fails
set -e 
# Don't allow use of unintialized variables
set -u 

# Set up some variables
NOW=$(date +"%Y-%m-%d-%H%M")

# Redirect standard output and error output to a log file.
exec > >(tee -a "${LOG_DIR}/${LOG_FILE}")
exec 2> >(tee -a "${LOG_DIR}/${LOG_FILE}" >&2)

mkdir -p $LOG_DIR

# The cool part: Run my local on the remote web server.
ssh maksle 'bash -s' < ~/bin/ $NOW

# Sync the remote server backup logs with the backups directory on my local machine. After all, what good are backups if your webserver is down and you can't access them?
rsync -havz --stats maksle:/home/private/backups/ $BACKUP_DIR

Of course, the remote server can get filled up with backups, so I have another script that removes any backups more than 5 days old. I continue to have as many as far back as I want on my local machine.


set -e
set -u

# Error out if a command in a pipe fails
set -o pipefail

# Usage example:
# /home/private/backups 5


# This would be 5 if called as in the Usage example 
declare -i allow=$2
# This gets the number of files in the directory, which we assume are all backup tgz files
declare -i num=$(ls | wc -l)

if [ $num -gt $allow ]; then
    # Remove all but latest files
    (ls -t | head -n $allow; ls) | sort | uniq -u | sed -e 's,.*,"&",g' | xargs rm -f

The above command works by first printing the latest 5 files, and then all the files. This way the latest 5 files get printed twice. This allows uniq -u to filter out the latest 5, and the rest of the files get sent to their slaughter. The intermediate sed -e 's,.*,"&",g' makes it work when there are spaces in the filenames by wrapping the filenames in quotes (avoid spaces in filenames).

Of course, I call this script via a local cron job as well.



exec > >(tee -a "${LOG_DIR}/${LOG_FILE}")
exec 2> >(tee -a "${LOG_DIR}/${LOG_FILE}" >&2)

ssh maksle 'bash -s' < ~/bin/ "/home/private/backups" 5

I hope that will help someone out!

Wordupress update script

WordPress offers the one-click update, but the file permissions required for that convenience are a security risk. For it to work, it essentially requires setting all files to the server group (usually web or apache or nobody user) and giving all those files group write permissions. Doing so trades security for convenience. Eventually there will be a security vector in the WordPress code, and with writeable PHP files everywhere, hackers will make short work of it.

WordPress provides manual updating instructions, and even gives a few code snippets here and there, but there’s really nothing there that should require human intervention. This little script updates WordPress to the latest version. The location of this script should be in a location on the web server not accessible to the web, which is /home/private/update-wp in my case.


set -u
set -e

# Cleanup from a previous call
rm -f latest.tar.gz
rm -rf wordpress
rm -rf backuptemp

# Get the latest, unzip it, and untar it
tar -xzvf latest.tar.gz

# The location of your wordpress install

# Copy these just in case
mkdir backuptemp
cp $blog/wp-config.php $blog/.htaccess backuptemp

# These are the files to be deleted as mentioned in the WordPress Manual Update link
rm $blog/wp*.php
rm $blog/license.txt $blog/readme.html $blog/xmlrpc.php
rm -rf $blog/wp-admin $blog/wp-includes

# Copy the files to overwrite what we have
# It will leave files alone that are in $blog/wp-content but not in the latest bundle which is what we want
rsync -avz wordpress/ "${blog}/"
cp backuptemp/wp-config.php backuptemp/.htaccess $blog

echo "DONE"

If something goes wrong you have your daily backups to save you (because you are backing things up, aren’t you?). I will write another post shortly showing my WordPress files and database backup script.

First Pull Request

I have just made my first pull request on github.

My contribution was to Magnar Sveen’s awesome expand-region project. The fix was for nxml-mode. Expand region inside an xml attribute was including the outer quotes first before first expanding to just the inner quotes. It was also not properly expanding to the attribute when there are namespaces in the attribute. This fix amends that.

Magnar messaged me that expand-region is headed for the emacs core. Awesome! All contributors need to sign the Free Software Foundation copyright papers. See for reasons. I went ahead and emailed and signed away my copyright on this piece of code.

I’m pretty excited to see this go through, because not everyone’s first pull request ever incidentally also makes it into a major FSF project, let alone into EMACS core!


Just a few days ago I wrote my first EMACS minor-mode, called etags-update-mode. It updates your TAGS file on save. It’s heavily inspired by another package/minor mode with the same name by Matt Keller.

In order to update the tags for a file on save, Matt’s etags-update-mode calls a perl file to delete any previous tags for a specific file in a TAGS file before it appends the new definitions in the file. Also, with that package the minor mode is defined as a global minor mode.

I wanted the functionality that the package provided, but I didn’t want it to be a global minor mode (the only global minor mode that I’ve used that I’m aware of and that I like having everywhere is YaSnippet). I also didn’t see why there should be a reliance on perl. I wanted to do it all in elisp.

So I wrote a much simpler version of etags-update-mode that is a regular minor mode and does all it’s work in EMACS. I’ll be updating it as I continue to use it.

EMACS etags

EMACS has an etags.el package that supports use of etags, the EMACS version of ctags. It tags your source code so you can jump directly to the source for a function, variable, or other symbol. I’ve been using it heavily with C++ and C# (though for C++, I’ve supplanted it with GNU Global, and there is an EMACS package for that too, ggtags).

I wanted the same functionality for xslt, which I use heavily at work. Luckily exuberant-ctags and etags both provide support for extending support to other languages, by supplying regular expressions.

I put the following regular expressions in ~/.ctags:

--regex-xslt=/<xsl:template name="([^"]*)"/1/
--regex-xslt=/<xsl:template match="[^"]*"[ \t\n]+mode="([^"]*)"/1/
--regex-xslt=/<xsl:variable name="([^"]+)"/1/

… and generate the TAGS file

ctags -e -o TAGS *.xsl

I can now jump to the definition of any variable or template in my xsl files!