Why Candy Crush is so difficult – and popular?

【APP遊戲】Candy Crush Saga
Candy Crush Saga (Photo credit: Albert.hsieh)

If the evidence of my commute is any guide then Candy Crush Saga probably uses as much compute cycles as any other program in London – it is wildly popular.

And if you are player (I am not) then you shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if you actually struggle with it – because, in fact, there are no obvious “solutions” to the “problems” you face as a player.

Toby Walsh of the University of South Wales has published a paper than shows that the “problems” of Candy Crush are in the class of what is known as “NP”.

NP problems are those which we do not know in advance what the solution is, but for which we can relatively quickly check that the solution applied is correct. In fact NP problems are at the core of internet (and most serious) encryption – internet encryption is difficult to crack in an attack but decryption is easy if the keys  are known.

NP problems are in distinction from “P” problems for which we know, in advance, both a procedure to solve the problem and to check our answer is correct. The “P” here stands for “polynomial time” – meaning we can tell how long the problem will take to solve at the start because it is some multiple (a polynomial) of its initial complexity – long division by pen and paper is a good example from everyday life – we know how to do it and we can instinctively tell how long it will take just by looking at the length of the numbers we are dividing.

Some – but not many – mathematicians believe that NP problems are really just P problems in disguise – it is just that we have not just discovered the way to solve them. In fact it can be shown that if we could find a means of solving a special class of NP problems known as “NP complete” problems then we could solve all NP problems. But most mathematicians believe that NP problems are inherently not amenable to being solved by simple procedures in polynomial time, while yet others think that such a procedure might exist but that the polynomial will be so large that we might see little advantage in cracking the problem.

In the meantime a whole industry has arisen to offer software to solve – though heuristics (informed guesses) and approximations some of the most important NP problems – such as scheduling school or train timetables.

It’s probably not an unreasonable assumption that people like Candy Crush precisely because it is so difficult and because, it would appear, no one is ever going to come up with a way of quickly solving the problems. We can get better by playing more – so that our heuristic sense of what works increases, but no one is going to emerge as an invincible player – because that is inherently not possible. Probably.

(If you want to know more and are not afraid of some maths, then P, NP, and NP-Completeness: The Basics of Computational Complexity might be worth having a look at.)

Enhanced by Zemanta

More on P and NP

English: Euler diagram for P, NP, NP-Complete,...
English: Euler diagram for P, NP, NP-Complete, and NP-Hard set of problems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From Frank Vega:


I wanted to answer you one of your comments in your post “Even if P=NP we might see no benefit“, but I saw I can’t do it anymore in that page, maybe due to problem with my internet. I was the person who claim a possible demonstration of problem “P versus NP” in my paper “P versus UP” which is published in IEEE,


I’m working in that problem as a hobby since I graduated. I sent a preprint version in Arxiv with the intention of find some kind of collaboration. I also tried to find help in another blogs. But, finally I decided to sent to a journal of IEEE a new version which differs of the preprints in Arxiv that I withdrew because it had some errors. Then, I waited and after a revision in a IEEE journal I was published in 17th August 2012.

However, I wrote this paper in Spanish and I had the same version in English. So, I decided to sent again to Arxiv, but they denied me that possibility, therefore, I used a pseudonymous. I also uploaded other papers with that name which are not so serious but reflect the work that   I’m doing right now as a hobby too.

I love Computer Science and Math. I’m working right now in a project so important as P versus NP, but I do all this as a way of doing the things that I like most although my environment doesn’t allow me at all. I also tried to work with other scientists which have invited me to work with them since I published my paper in IEEE. Indeed, I don’t want to be annoying with my comments, I just searching the interchange with another people who have the capacity to understand my work, that’s all.

Good Luck

Frank’s website is here: http://the-point-of-view-of-frank.blogspot.com/

An NP-complete problem from the world of embedded computing

English: Euler diagram for P, NP, NP-Complete,...
English: Euler diagram for P, NP, NP-Complete, and NP-Hard set of problems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First of all – a quick explanation of P and NP. The class of problems known as ‘P’ – for polynomial (as in they can be solved in a time which is dependent on a polynomial of their complexity) – are those for which a known algorithm – a sequence of mathematical steps – to solve them exists. For instance, solving (i.e., finding the value of x where the formula evaluates to zero) x – 2 is a P class problem. NP (not P) problems are much more interesting – these are problems for which an algorithm exists but which is unknown at the time the problem is posed. In the worst case the only way of solving the problem may be to try all the potential algorithms until we find the one that solves the problem. That said, once a potential solution is found it can be verified ‘simply’ (i.e. in polynomial time). It is not known if, in fact NP problems (such as drawing up school timetables or cracking internet public key encryption) are really P type problems after all and we just have not found the solution or are permanently excluded from ‘simple’ (P) solutions. A class of NP problems called ‘NP complete‘ are those that, if shown to really be P class problems, would indicate P=NP. Most, but not all, mathematicians think, in fact P!=NP.

So, here’s the problem. It sounds simple, but as it is NP, it’s not! (I got this from Making Embedded Systems: Design Patterns for Great Software)

You have a micro controller with a timer of fixed 4MHz frequency and two 8 bit registers, a and b, such that (a) counts ticks and (b) is a match register that triggers an interrupt when the count register matches the tick count stored and a 16 bit prescaler (that allows the scaling of the ticks e.g. – if set to 2 then twice as many ticks are required to trigger the interrupt).

So how can you set the match and prescaler to work for an arbitrary frequency? Sounds like it should be easily algorithmically managed, but it’s not.

Reflections on the riots: part one

AddRoundKey operation for AES
Image via Wikipedia

This is a blog about computing (along with some maths and science) – and not about politics, and having disciplined myself to stick to that for the last nine months, I intend to keep it that way, even as I write about the biggest political event of the year.

But I will allow myself two short political observations: firstly, that disrespect for the law and contempt for order are not new things in London. If you read Albion’s Fatal Tree you will see that there have long been many in the capital who have made their at least part of their livelihoods from criminality and who celebrated their fellows. Pretending that recent events represent some terrible breakdown in ancient respect for authority is ahistorical.

And, before people start to say it is the fault of rap music or other “alien” influences, do they remember this? Perhaps the Fast Show is the real cause of the disorder?

So, that over, what is the science point? Well, it was consistently reported during last week’s disturbances that the looters were sharing their intelligence through BlackBerry smart phones, specifically through “BlackBerry Messenger” (BBM). Given that the UK has one of the most sophisticated signals intelligence set-ups in the world at GCHQ, the fact that the police were clearly left in the halfpenny seats by the looters suggests to me that nobody there has yet proved that P=NP or developed an algorithm to crack the one way functions used to  encrypt the BBMs.

According to Wikipedia Blackberry encrypt everything with “Advanced Encryption Standard” (AES). A brute force attack on this would, on average, require 2^{255} attempts (for the 256 bit encryption), so that is not a practical option (eg the universe is very roughly 4^{17} seconds old).

Now, it could be that the US government has cracked this thing and just refuses to tell even its closest ally (I dare say the name Kim Philby is still spat out in various places), but my guess is that AES is safe, for now.

As I have said before that is probably a pity: while a world where P=NP would be one where internet commerce was broken, it would also be one with many compensatory benefits.

“Basically, you would be able to compute anything you wanted”

The quote that forms the title here comes from Lance Fortnow, a computer scientist at Northwestern University, in an article (here – subscription required) in the current edition of the New Scientist on the P = NP question.

It’s an odd statement for a computer scientist to make – most numbers are transcendental numbers and so are fundamentally incomputable: for instance there are \aleph_{0} (aleph null – the smallest of Cantor’s hypothesised infinities) transcendental numbers between 0 and 1 (or between any range of integers).

But besides that oddity it is actually a very good article – calling the world where P = NP Algorithmica – “the computing nirvana”.

I have written before of how much I hope we do live in Algorithmica, though the consensus is we live in a world of NDAlgorithmica (ND for non-deterministic).

The article’s beauty is that it also examines the states between the two: what if, for instance, we discovered that the class of P problems were identical to the class of NP problems but that we could not find the P algorithm, or that the P algorithm was of such a degree of complexity it “would not amount to a hill of beans”?

Cardinality of strings … 2

Some NP-complete problems, indicating the redu...
Image via Wikipedia

I have to make a confession. When I wrote the post below I was genuinely puzzled by the issue and what seemed to be a mistake in P, NP, and NP-Completeness, but just as I was about to press “publish” I saw that several pages earlier Professor Goldreich had stated:

“We consider finite objects, each represented by a finite binary sequence called a string.”

Although 15 pages later writes of “the set of all strings” I am now assuming he means in the sense he first used…

But I did not have the heart to not post my message as I worked on it for a little bit.

Cardinality of the set of all strings

Oded Goldreich
Image via Wikipedia

I finished John Naughton‘s A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet – an interesting diversion, to be sure and a book worth reading (not only because it reminds you of how rapidly internet adoption has accelerated in the last decade.)

By now I should be on to proper revision, but I indulged myself last week and bought a copy of P, NP, and NP-Completeness: The Basics of Computational Complexity which I am now attempting to read between dozes in the garden (weather in London is fantastic). The book is written in a somewhat sparse style but even so is somewhat more approachable that many texts (the author, Professor Oded Goldreich, rules out using “non-deterministic Turing machines“, for instance, saying they cloud the explanation).

But in his discussion of (deterministic) Turing machines he states:


Is that right? (Serious question, please answer if you can).

Surely the set of all strings has the cardinality of the reals?

If we had a set of strings (0,1)^* like this:


and so on…

Then surely the standard diagonalisation argument applies? (i.e. take the diagonal 1111111.... and switch states of each member – 000000... and this string cannot be in the original set as it is guaranteed that for the i^{th} member of the set, the with elements \alpha_{1 ... \infty} , \alpha_{i} will be different. (See blog on diagonalisation.)

In Naughton’s book he makes (the very valid) point that students of the sciences are generally taught that when their results disagree with the paradigm, then their results are wrong and not the paradigm: so what have I got wrong here?

Sexy Maths…

Danica McKellar at a book signing
Image via Wikipedia

Paul A. Rubin – “apostate mathematician and Professor of Management Science at Michigan State University” – commented on the blog post below about P=NP and so naturally enough I had a look at his blog and the most recent item is something of a corker … “Math and Science Can Be Sexy“.

In it Professor Rubin lists three prominent actresses who are/were also scientists with serious achievements to their name and says that he already knew about one of them … Danica McKellar.

But even as I read it I realised that while I didn’t know about her, I did (vaguely) know about Hedy Lamarr – I think I may have read about her in Andrew Tannenbaum’s Computer Networks – which I read large chunks of earlier this academic year. As I recall her proposal on frequency-hopping was not taken seriously by the US Navy at the time (during the war), which proved to be a pretty big mistake. It’s now widely used in all sorts of wireless communications.

Anyway, I challenged Professor Rubin’s challenge to me about the potential brokenness of public key encryption if P = NP before I realised he was likely someone with the intellectual firepower to destroy me an instant – so I hope he will take this link back to his blog as a peace offering.

Plus, writing this is more interesting (what isn’t?) than constructing Unified Process use cases for my object orientated design and programming class…

P = NP once again

Image via Wikipedia

Been an interesting week here on the blog … as I said before getting on Slashdot is great as you get access to the intellect of a lot of people, and that taught me quite a bit.

It’s not relevant to my course but I went to the (Maths shelves of) the Birkbeck library and withdrew The Language of Machines – one of the few books on computability in the library.

But before I get down to reading much of that I think I need to reply to some of the harsher remarks that were made about this blog on Slashdot – in particular the piece I wrote at the end of December called “What if P=NP?

The opening line of that article is “I admit I now going slightly out of my depth” and it does contain a few errors, though nothing I think that justifies some of the really nasty things a couple of people wrote about it – but then again some people also insisted that proving P=NP would not break public key encryption so plainly there are people on /. whose ignorance is matched by the vehemence of their opinion, so maybe I shouldn’t let it get to me: especially as one of the critics insisted there were no algorithms to solve NP problems (so how are they solved? Fairy dust inside your computer?)

But I thought I’d try to rewrite my blog post in a better way….

I admit I now going slightly out of my depth, but I will try to explain what this is about and why it is interesting.

It is known that computers can solve some problems in what is called “polynomial time“: that is to say a finite time that is proportional to a polynomial of complexity of the input. The key thing is that these problems are computable using known mechanical steps (ie algorithms). Often that means they are solvable in a way that is (sometimes euphemistically) described as “quickly”.

These can be simple problems – like what is the sum of the first ten integers – or more complex ones, such as creating self-balancing trees, sorting database records alphabetically and so on.

These are the so-called “P” (for polynomial time class) problems. Here’s a definition:

A problem is assigned to the P (polynomial time) class if there exists at least one algorithm to solve that problem, such that the number of steps of the algorithm is bounded by a polynomial in n, where n is the length of the input.

Then there are another class of problems which seem fiendishly difficult to solve but which it is relatively simple to prove the correctness of any solution offered. These problems can also be solved (computed) in a finite time – and they can also be computed by a Turing machine (a simple model of a computer) and so an algorithmic solution exists. It is just that one cannot tell in advance what that algorithm is. In the worst case the only way – it is thought – that a solution can be found is through an exhaustive search of all algorithms – in other words a form of “brute force“. These are the NP (non deterministic polynomial time class) problems.

Now most mathematicians think that NP does not equal P – ie there are no “simple” solutions to the NP problems – and that may or may not be a good thing as much of our internet commerce relies on encryption which is thought to be an NP problem and effectively impervious (due to the time it would take to factor the very large prime numbers at the heart of the process) to brute force attacks if properly done.

(In Afghanistan in 2001 US cryptanalysts seemingly brute forced a Taliban Windows NT box but it used much weaker encryption than most electronic commerce.)

But what if it were the case that all seemingly NP problems were actually P problems? There are a lot of people studying this issue – but according to the New Scientist (their Christmas edition, the first in my subscription and delivered this morning, inspired me to write this) we should expect to wait at least until 2024 for an answer (by which point the problem – first formulated in 1971 – will have reached the age at which 50% of major mathematical problems will have been solved).

Some problems thought to be NP have already been shown to be P. But there was also a big fuss earlier in 2010 when a draft proof of P != NP was published (the proof was flawed).

This all matters: unlike, say, Fermat’s last theorem, proving P = NP is likely to have more or less immediate effects on the lives of many of us (how would you feel if you knew that it was possible, even if not likely, that someone had developed a way to quickly crack open all your internet credit card transactions?)

Of course, proving P = NP for all problems does not necessarily mean we will immediately have determined polynomial time based solutions for all the current NP problems out there. But we should not expect that to last for long, though it may be the case that the algorithms may be exceptionally complex rendering them very slow even on the fastest computing equipment, but if history teaches us anything it is that computers get faster (yes, I know there are bounds on that).

And, actually, I think the benefits to humanity would be enormous. The most likely immediate effects would be in improvements in computing/operating system efficiency. fast computers for less money and/or less energy consumption would be a huge benefit. From that alone many other benefits will flow in terms of information availability and universality.

But there could be many, many others in medicine and linguistics and even in getting the trains to run on time!

The slashdot experience

An SVG-ified version of Image:SlashdotEffectGr...
Image via Wikipedia

Last night I submitted a story on this blog – about P=NP – to Slashdot and today the submission was accepted and in a few hours I have had perhaps five times more visitors than in the previous two and a half months.

But, thanks to WordPress.com there was no “slashdotting” – instead the site has stayed up and running throughout.

Slashdot has a reputation for flame wars and ignorance, but actually the discussion has been great – I wish I could get a few more articles from the blog on to /. as then I would benefit from the clever people who hang out there: yes there is a lot of noise, but there’s also good signal.

The other thing it has reminded me of is the need to avoid imprecision in scientific writing. A few flames have been aimed at me and articles on the blog: one item being called horrible when, actually, what I think what was really wrong was a few corners cut in an effort to make the exposition a little less cluttered.