Thursday, May 02, 2013

The two problems I had to solve in my Oxford interview

Back in the 1980s I went to Oxford University and studied Mathematics and Computation (this was almost the entire Mathematics course plus Computer Science added on; the degrees offered today are a little different).  Having sat the mathematics entrance exam and gone through all the mathematics interviews I had interviews in the Programming Research Group (now the Department of Computer Science). During those interviews two specific programming/algorithm design questions were posed. Here they are (I made up names for them).

The Z Machine

A computer is constructed with a simple memory layout. It has an unlimited amount of memory and each memory location is numbered so that a program can refer to it. Each memory location can store a single number or be uninitialized. In the following diagram memory locations that are blank are uninitialized some other memory locations have numbers in them.

The computer's CPU only has three instructions Z, I and J as follows:

Z. This instruction zeroes a memory location. For example, Z2 sets memory location 2 to 0, Z42 sets memory location 42 to 0.

I. This instruction adds one to the contents of a memory location. For example, I3 adds 1 to whatever is currently stored in location 3.

J. This instruction examines the contents of two memory locations and branches if the contents are different. For example J18,19 would compare the contents of memory locations 18 and 19, if they are the same the program continues with the next instruction, if different it branches. The branch destination is just specified by drawing an arrow to the instruction you want to go to.

When there are no more instructions the program stops.

For example, here's a loop that keeps adding one to memory location 4 until it equals memory location 20.
1. The operator of the machine places two numbers (one each) in memory locations 0 and 1. Here, for example, the operator has put 3 in location 0 and 4 in location 1. Write a program using the Z, I and J instructions to add those (arbitrary) numbers together and put the result in memory location 2.

2. Under what circumstances does this program fail?

The One-eyed Robot

(If you've studied computer science you may recognize this problem)

On the ground along Keble Road there are a line of n buckets, in each bucket is a single ball. The balls are red, green and blue. A robot is to be programming to sort the balls so that there's one ball in each bucket still but the colours are now in the order red, green, blue. So, working from left to right an observer will see all the red balls in buckets, then all the green balls in buckets, and finally all the blue balls.
The robot is only allowed to examine one ball at a time by peering into its bucket and is only allowed to examine each ball once. When it looks at a ball it must decide what to do with it. The robot has two arms and the only ball manipulation it can do is swap the balls in two buckets.

1. Program the robot to sort the balls.

2. Write out a proof that the proposed algorithm works.


Of course, a whole load of other questions were asked about program running time, correctness and what I later realized was the lambda calculus. But these were the two main 'programming' tasks.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.


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