This comparison is from 2003 The content may no longer be accurate. I wrote more about it in 2006. I mainly code in Python now.

The Josephus Problem

What is the Josephus problem? To quote from Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming (a daunting title if ever there was one):

Flavius Josephus was a roman historian of Jewish origin. During the Jewish-Roman wars of the first century AD, he was in a cave with fellow soldiers, 40 men in all, surrounded by enemy Roman troops. They decided to commit suicide by standing in a ring and counting off each third man. Each man so designated was to commit suicide...Josephus, not wanting to die, managed to place himself in the position of the last survivor.

In the general version of the problem, there are n soldiers numbered from 1 to n and each k-th soldier will be eliminated. The count starts from the first soldier. What is the number of the last survivor?

I decided to model this situation using objects in three different scripting languages, Perl, Ruby, and Python. The solution in each of the languages is similar. A Person class is defined, which knows whether it is alive or dead, who the next person in the circle is, and what position number it is in. There are methods to pass along a kill signal, and to create a chain of people. Either of these could have been implemented using iteration, but I wanted to give recursion a whirl, since it's tougher on the languages. Here are my results.


package Person;
use overload q("") => \&to_s;

# Create a new, living Person with the given position
sub new {
    my $invocant = shift;
    my $class = ref($invocant) || $invocant;
    my $pos = shift;
    my $self = { "position" => $pos,
                 "alive" => 1,
                 "succ" => undef };
    return bless($self,$class);

# Getter/Setter for successor
sub succ : lvalue {
    my $self = shift;

# Create a chain of people
sub createChain {
    my $self = shift;
    my $n = shift;
    return $self unless $n;
    my $succ = Person->new($self->{position}+1);
    $self->succ = $succ;

# Pass on the killing message
sub circularKill {
    my $self = shift;
    my ($pos,$nth,$remaining)=@_;

    return $self->{succ}->circularKill($pos, $nth, $remaining)
        unless $self->{alive};
    return $self unless $remaining > 1;
    if ($pos == $nth) {
        $self->{alive} = 0;
        $pos = 0;
    $self->{succ}->circularKill($pos+1, $nth, $remaining)

# Print descriptive information
sub to_s{ 
    my $self = shift;
    "Person #".$self->{position}.", ".($self->{alive} ? "alive" : "dead")

# Circle of $n people, kill every one out of every $m
$m = 3;
$n = 40;

$first = new Person(1);
$last = $first->createChain($n-1);
$last->succ = $first;

$winner = $first->circularKill(1,$m,$n);
print "Winner: ", $winner, "\n";

What's good:

What's bad:

So, in conclusion, defining classes in Perl is decidedly inelegant, and unintuitive. If I were to do it often, I'd have to cut and paste that new routine wherever I went. That's a BIG stumbling block, and it would probably be enough to keep me from using OO in Perl. In fact, it has been for the past several years.

I wanted to do some OO however, so I checked out Python and Ruby. Here's the same problem coded using each of them.


class Person
    attr_reader :position, :succ, :alive
    attr_writer :position, :succ, :alive
    # Everyone is alive, initially
    def initialize(pos)
        @position = pos
        @alive = true
    # For creating a linked chain of people
    def createChain(n)
        return self unless n>0
        @succ = + 1)
    # Kill every nth person
    # Current position in the cycle is pos
    # there are remaining people remaining
    # Stop killing if we're the last one.
    def kill(pos,nth,remaining)
        return @succ.kill(pos,nth,remaining) if !@alive
        return self if (remaining == 1)
        if pos == nth
            @alive = false
            puts self
            pos = 0
    # Information about this person
    def to_s
        "Person \##@position, #{@alive ? 'alive' : 'dead'}"

# Set n to anything much higher (like 10, say)
# And the program hangs, or has an "Illegal Instruction"
n = 7

first =
last  = first.createChain(n-1)
last.succ = first

winner = first.kill(1,3,n)
# If I use puts "Winner: " + winner, I get an error:
#    in `+': failed to convert Person into String (TypeError)
#puts "Winner: " + winner
puts "Winner: ", winner

What's good:

What's bad:

So in conclusion, I really liked coding in Ruby, but the execution just wasn't there. If there are any Ruby fans out there who know how to fix the problems I mentioned, I'd be thrilled to hear from you.


class Person:
    def __init__(self,pos):
        self.pos = pos
        self.alive = 1
    def __str__(self):
        return "Person #%d, %s" % (self.pos, self.alive)
    # Creates a chain of linked people
    # Returns the last one in the chain
    def createChain(self,n):
        if n>0:
            self.succ = Person(self.pos+1)
            return self.succ.createChain(n-1)
            return self

    # Kills in a circle, getting every nth living person
    # When there is only one remaining, the lone survivor is returned
    def kill(self,pos,nth,remaining):
        if self.alive == 0: return self.succ.kill(pos,nth,remaining)
        if remaining == 1: return self
        if pos == nth:
            self.alive = 0
        return self.succ.kill(pos+1,nth,remaining)

# n people in a circle
# kill every mth person
n = 40
m = 3

first = Person(1)
last = first.createChain(n-1)
last.succ = first

print "In a circle of %d people, killing number %d" % (n,m)
winner = first.kill(1,m,n)
print "Winner: ", winner

What's good:

What's bad:

Python isn't quite as clean as Ruby, though it certainly trounces Perl. It would be hard not to trounce Perl. The performance was much better than in Ruby, however: Python ran the script for n=40 without any hitches. In the debugging department, syntax errors included helpful information, including where in the line the error occured.

Now for the comparison. First of all, I'll throw Perl right out. I love the language, but not for object-oriented programming. To write a purely procedural program I'd take it over both Ruby and Python any day of the week, but not for OO.

If I had my choice in the matter, I would use Ruby. It's syntax seems cleaner, and it's object orientation doesn't seem hackish in the least. It's performance, however, left a lot to be desired. Granted, deep recursion probably isn't the most widely used technique, but there's no reason it shouldn't work. For a different sort of problem, I'd likely choose Ruby, though I'm worried I might have to switch over to Python if I ran into similar problems.

And that brings us to the aforementioned beast. It seems to present the middle ground in this problem. It's syntax is fairly clean though, as I mentioned, I'd rather not have to type "self." all the time. But on the plus side, it could actually solve the problem without crashing.

So for this round, the winner is Python, though I really wish it had been Ruby. For most problems, I'll go with Ruby. It's more enjoyable to code in, and that's what I'm coding for--enjoyment.

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