An interesting thing about learning new programming languages is that it takes much less time to learn how to read programs than it does to write them. While building non-trivial software in a language you are not familiar with can take weeks or months of dedicated practice, the same software could be read and understood in a fraction of that time.

Because programming languages are much more similar to the formal language of mathematics than they are to natural languages, people from diverse backgrounds can communicate complex ideas with a surprising lack of friction. Unfortunately, we often forget this point because we are overwhelmed by the memories of how hard it is to write elegant code in a new language. This tendency puts us at a tremendous disadvantage, because it causes us to artifically limit our access to valuable learning resources.

In this article, I will walk you through an example of how I was plagued by this very fear, how I overcame it, and how that lead me to learn a lot about Clojure in a very short period of time. My hope is that by following in my footsteps, you’ll be able to learn the technique I used and possibly apply it to your own studies.

How I finally learned about Ant Colony Optimization

For a few weeks before this article was published, I was busy researching swarm intelligence. I have always been fascinated by how nature-inspired algorithms can be used to solve surprisingly complex computing problems, and I decided that I wanted to try implementing some of them myself. I started off by implementing the Boids algorithm, and was surprised at how quickly I was able to get something vaguely resembling a flock of birds to appear on my screen. Motivated by that small win, I decided to try my hand at simulating an Ant Colony.

On the surface, ant behavior is deceptively simple, even intuitive. At least, that is what the description provided by Wikipedia would have you believe:

  1. An ant (called “blitz”) runs more or less at random around the colony;
  2. If it discovers a food source, it returns more or less directly to the nest, leaving in its path a trail of pheromone;
  3. These pheromones are attractive; nearby ants will be inclined to follow, more or less directly, the track;
  4. Returning to the colony, these ants will strengthen the route;
  5. If there are two routes to reach the same food source then, in a given amount of time, the shorter one will be traveled by more ants than the long route;
  6. The short route will be increasingly enhanced, and therefore become more attractive;
  7. The long route will eventually disappear because pheromones are volatile;
  8. Eventually, all the ants have determined and therefore “chosen” the shortest route.

Unfortunately, it is hard to find resources that precisely describe the rules that govern each of these behaviors, and those that do exist are highly abstract and mathematical. While I’m not one to shy away from theoretical papers, I usually like to approach them once I understand a concept fairly well in practice. For this particular problem, I was unable to find the materials that would get to that point, and it felt like I was hitting a brick wall.

Although I found tons of examples of applying a generalized form of ant colony optimization to the traveling salesman problem, I wanted to start with a more direct simulation of the natural behavior. After digging around for a bit, I found Rich Hickey’s ant simulator, which is implemented in Clojure. Check out the video below to see what it looks like in action:

I knew right away that this was exactly the kind of simulation I wanted to build, but it honestly didn’t even cross my mind to attempt to read the Clojure code and port it to Ruby. One quick glance at its source code reminded me just how much I wanted to learn a Lisp dialect some day, but it definitely wasn’t going to be today! I didn’t have time to go dust off the books on my shelf that I never read, or to watch the 2.5 hour long video of the talk that this code came from.

So instead of doing all that, I set off to build my own implementation from scratch by cobbling together the bits of information I had collected into something that sort of worked. Using the general description of ant behavior as my guide, I left it up to my imagination to fill in the details, and within an hour or so I had built something that had ants moving around the screen. Unfortunately, my little family of ants seemed to have come from a failed evolutionary branch, because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do! They’d wander around randomly, get stuck, choose the wrong food sources, and generally misbehave in all sorts of painful ways. Thinking that I needed a break, I stepped away from the project for a day so that I could come back to it with a fresh perspective.

The next day, I did end up getting something vaguely resembling an ant colony to appear on my screen. The behavior was not perfect, but it illustrated the main idea of the algorithm:

It was fairly easy to get to this point, but then it became extremely hard to improve upon the simulator. Ant colony optimization has a lot of variables to it (i.e. things like the size of the world, number of ants, number of food sources, pheremone decay rate, amount of pheremone dropped per iteration, etc). Changing any one of these things can influence the effectiveness of the others. When you combine this variability with an implementation where the actual behaviors were half-baked and possibly buggy, you end up with a big mess that is hard to debug, and even harder to understand. Knowing that my code was in really bad shape, I was ready to give up.

Although it took a lot of rumination to get me there, the lightbulb eventually turned on: maybe reading the Clojure implementation wasn’t such a bad idea after all! I had initially thought that learning the algorithm would be much easier than learning the semantics and syntax of a new language, but two days of hard work and mediocre results lead me to re-evaluate that assumption. At the very least, I could spend an afternoon with the Clojure code. Even if the ants still frightened and confused me in the end, I’d at least learn how to read some code from a language that I had always wanted to study anyway.

I think you can guess what happened next: within a couple of hours, I not only fully understood Rich Hickey’s implementation, but I had also learned dozens upon dozens of Clojure features, including a few that have no direct analogue in Ruby. While it may have been a result of frustration driven development, I was genuinely surprised at what a great way this was to learn a new language while also studying a programming problem that I was interested in.

Throughout the rest of this article, I will attempt to demonstrate that given the right example, even a few dozen lines of code can teach you a tremendous amount of useful things about a language that you’ve never worked with before. If you are new to Clojure programming, you’ll be able to follow along and experience the same benefits that I did; if you already know the language, you can use this as an exercise in developing a beginner’s mindset. In either case, I think you’ll be surprised at how much we can extract from such a small chunk of code.

To keep things simple, we won’t bother to read the complex bits of code that implements ant behavior. Instead, we’ll start from the bottom up and take a look at how this simulation models its world and the ants within it. Although this won’t help us understand how things get set into action, it will give us plenty of opportunities to learn some interesting Clojure features.

Modeling the world

The following code is responsible for creating a blank slate world with 80x80 dimensions:

(defstruct cell :food :pher) ;may also have :ant and :home

;dimensions of square world
(def dim 80)

;world is a 2d vector of refs to cells
(def world 
   (apply vector 
     (map (fn [_] 
            (apply vector (map (fn [_] (ref (struct cell 0 0))) 
                               (range dim)))) 
          (range dim))))

(defn place [[x y]]
  (-> world (nth x) (nth y)))

Even if this is the first time you’ve ever seen a Clojure program, you could take an educated guess at what is going on in at least a few of these lines of code:

(defstruct cell :food :pher)      ; this defines a Struct-like thing

(def dim 80)                      ; this defines a named value, setting dim=80

(defn place [[x y]]
  (-> world (nth x) (nth y)))     ; this looks like an accessor into a
                                  ; two-dimensional grid

The code in the world definition is much more complicated, but it has a helpful comment that describes what it is: a 2D vector of refs to cells. This hint gives us some useful keywords to search for in Clojure’s API docs. With a bit of effort, it is possible to use this code sample and Clojure’s documentation to learn all the following things about the language:

  1. The Map collection is Clojure’s equivalent to Ruby’s Hash object.
  2. The StructMap collection is a Map with some predefined keys that cannot be removed. They can be defined using defstruct, and are instantiated via struct.
  3. The (def ...) construct is a special form that defines global variables within a namespace, but it is considered bad style to treat these variables as if they were mutable.
  4. The (defn ...) construct is a macro which among other things provides syntactic sugar for defining functions with named parameters.
  5. The Vector collection has core functionality which is similar to Ruby’s Array object. Vectors can be instantiated using the vector function or via the [] literal syntax, and their elements are accessed using the nth function.
  6. All collections in Clojure implement a Sequence interface that is similar to Ruby’s Enumerable module. It provides various functions that Ruby programmers are already familiar with, such as map, reduce, sort But because most of these functions return lazy sequences, they behave slightly differently than their Ruby counterparts.
  7. The Ref construct is a transactional reference, which is one of Clojure’s concurrency primitives. In a nutshell, wrapping state in a Ref makes it so that state can only be modified from within a transaction, ensuring thread safety.
  8. Among other things, the range function provides behavior similar to the enumerator form of Ruby’s Integer#times method.
  9. The apply function provides functionality similar to Ruby’s splat operator (*), passing the elements of a sequence as arguments to a function.
  10. The -> macro provides syntactic sugar for function composition, which can make chaining function calls easier.

Based on this laundry list of concepts to learn, it is easy to see from this example alone that much like Ruby, Clojure is a very rich language that is capable of concisely expressing very complex ideas. With that in mind, it is helpful to use Clojure’s REPL to experiment while learning, much as we’d do with irb in Ruby. Once again using the code sample as a guide, an exploration such as the one that follows can go a long way towards verifying our understanding of what we learned from the documentation:

user=> (defstruct cell :food :pher)
; #'user/cell
user=> (struct cell 1 4)
; {:food 1, :pher 4}
user=> [ [ :a :b :c ] [ :d :e :f ] ]
; [[:a :b :c] [:d :e :f]]
user=> (def data [[:a :b :c] [:d :e :f]])
; #'user/data
user=> (nth (nth data 1) 2)
; :f
user=> (nth (nth data 2) 1)
; IndexOutOfBoundsException   clojure.lang.PersistentVector.arrayFor 
; (
user=> (nth (nth data 0) 1)
; :b
user=> (-> data (nth 1) (nth 2))
; :f
user=> (map (fn [x] (* x 2)) [1 2 3])
; (2 4 6)
user=> (vector (map (fn [x] (* x 2)) [1 2 3]))
; [(2 4 6)]
user=> (apply vector (map (fn [x] (* x 2)) [1 2 3]))
; [2 4 6]
user=> (range 5)
; (0 1 2 3 4)
user=> (apply vector (map (fn [x] (struct cell 0 0)) (range 5)))
; [{:food 0, :pher 0} {:food 0, :pher 0} {:food 0, :pher 0} 
; {:food 0, :pher 0} {:food 0, :pher 0}]

Knowing what we now know, it is possible to imagine a loose translation of the original Clojure code sample into Ruby, if we account for a few cavaets:

  1. Most Enumerable methods return Array objects, which are not lazily evaluated. Some support for lazy sequences exist in Ruby 2.0, but we’ll not bother with that in our translation because it’d only create more work for us.

  2. We don’t have a direct analogy to Clojure’s Ref construct, but we can pretend that we do for the purposes of this example.

  3. We don’t have anything baked into the language which implements a Hash with some required keys and some optional ones. But such behavior could be emulated by building a custom Cell object.

  4. We don’t have destructuring in the parameter lists for our functions, so we need to handle destructuring manually within the bodies of our methods rather than their signatures.

Keeping these points in mind, here’s a semi-literal translation of Clojure code to Ruby:

DIM    = 80                                          
WORLD  = do                                 # 1
  {, 0)) }      # 2,3

def place(pos)       
  x, y = pos                                              # 4

While the two languages cannot be categorically compared by such a coarse exercise in syntactic gymnastics, it does help the similarities and differences between the languages stand out a bit more. This allows us to reuse the knowledge we already have, and also exposes the gaps in our understanding that need to be filled in.

SIDE QUEST: The remaining two sections in this article will repeat this same basic process on two more small chunks of code from the ant simulator. If you have some free time and an interest in learning Clojure, you may want to start with the initial code samples in each section and try to figure them out on your own, and then come back to read my notes. If you decide to try this out, please share a comment with what you’ve learned.

Now that we’ve tackled one concrete feature from this program, it will be much easier to understand the rest. There’s a lot left to learn, so let’s keep moving!

Modeling an ant

The following code is responsible for initializing an ant at a given location within the world:

(defstruct ant :dir) ;may also have :food

(defn create-ant 
  "create an ant at the location, returning an ant agent on the location"
  [loc dir]
      (let [p (place loc)
            a (struct ant dir)]
        (alter p assoc :ant a)
        (agent loc))))

Because we already have a rudimentary understanding of how StructMap works, and how to define functions, we can skip over some of the boilerplate and get right to the good stuff:

(dosync                               ; 1
  (let [p (place loc)                 ; 2
        a (struct ant dir)]
    (alter p assoc :ant a)            ; 3
    (agent loc)))                     ; 4

Digging back into Clojure’s API docs, we can learn four new things from this code sample:

  1. The dosync macro starts a transaction, which among other things, makes it possible to modify Ref structures in a thread-safe way.

  2. The let macro allows you to make use of named values within a lexical scope. This construct appears to be roughly similar to the concept of block-local variables in Ruby.

  3. The alter function is used for modifying the contents of a Ref structure, and can only be called within a transaction.

  4. The Agent construct is another one of Clojure’s concurrency primitives. This structure provides an interesting state-centric alternative to the actor model of concurrency: rather than encapsulating behavior that acts upon external state, agents encapsulate state which is acted upon by external behaviors.

Of course, in order to verify that we understand what the documentation is telling us, nothing beats a bit of casual experimentation in the REPL:

user=> (let [x 10 y 20] (+ x y))
; 30
user=> (let [x 10] (let [y 20] (+ x y)))
; 30
user=> (let [x 10] (let [y 20]) y)
; CompilerException java.lang.RuntimeException: Unable to resolve 
; symbol: y in this context, compiling:(NO_SOURCE_PATH:3) 
user=> (def foo (ref { :x 1 :y 1}) )
; #'user/foo
user=> foo
; #<Ref@6762ba99: {:y 1, :x 1}>
user=> (assoc foo :z 2)
; ClassCastException clojure.lang.Ref cannot be cast to clojure.lang.Associative  
; clojure.lang.RT.assoc (
user=> (assoc @foo :z 2)
; {:z 2, :y 1, :x 1}
user=> @foo
; {:y 1, :x 1}
user=> (alter foo assoc :z 2)
; IllegalStateException No transaction running  
; clojure.lang.LockingTransaction.getEx (
user=> (dosync (alter foo assoc :z 2))
; {:z 2, :y 1, :x 1}
user=> (def bar (agent [1 2 3]))
; #'user/bar
user=> bar
; #<Agent@3445378f: [1 2 3]>
user=> @bar
; [1 2 3]
user=> (send bar reverse)
; #<Agent@3445378f: [1 2 3]>
user=> bar
; #<Agent@3445378f: (3 2 1)>
user=> @bar
; (3 2 1)
user=> (reverse @bar)
; (1 2 3)
user=> @bar
; (3 2 1)

The ant creation code sample consists mostly of features that don’t exist in Ruby, so a direct translation isn’t possible. However, it doesn’t hurt to imagine what the syntax for these features might look like in Ruby if we did have Clojure’s concurrency primitives:

  def create_ant(loc, dir)
    Ref.transaction do 
      p = place(loc)
      a =
      p.ant = a

Assuming that Clojure’s semantics were maintained, either all mutations that happen within the Ref.transaction block would be applied, or none of them would be. Furthermore, thread-safety would be handled for us ensuring state consistency for the duration of the block. Language-level transactions seem like seriously powerful stuff, and it will be interesting to see if Ruby ends up adopting them in the future.

Populating the world

The following code populates the initial state of the world with ants and food:

;number of ants = nants-sqrt^2
(def nants-sqrt 7)
;number of places with food
(def food-places 35)
;range of amount of food at a place
(def food-range 100)

(def home-off (/ dim 4))
(def home-range (range home-off (+ nants-sqrt home-off)))

(defn setup 
  "places initial food and ants, returns seq of ant agents"
    (dotimes [i food-places]
      (let [p (place [(rand-int dim) (rand-int dim)])]
        (alter p assoc :food (rand-int food-range))))
     (for [x home-range y home-range]
         (alter (place [x y]) 
                assoc :home true)
         (create-ant [x y] (rand-int 8)))))))

As in the ant initialization code, this snippet includes a mixture of new concepts and old ones. If we focus on the body of the setup definition, there are five new things for us to learn:

    (dotimes [i food-places]                             ;1
      (let [p (place [(rand-int dim) (rand-int dim)])]   ;2
        (alter p assoc :food (rand-int food-range))))
    (doall                                               ;3
     (for [x home-range y home-range]                    ;4
       (do                                               ;5
         (alter (place [x y]) 
                assoc :home true)
         (create-ant [x y] (rand-int 8))))))
  1. The dotimes macro is a simple iterator that is comparable to the block form of Integer#times in Ruby.

  2. The rand-int function returns a random integer between 0 and a given number, which is similar to calling Ruby’s Kernel#rand with an integer argument.

  3. The doall macro is used to force a lazy sequence to be fully evaluated.

  4. The for macro implements list comprehensions, which are a very powerful form of iterator that does not have a direct analogue in Ruby.

  5. The do special form executes a series of expressions in sequence and returns the result of the last expression. This is roughly equivalent to Ruby’s do...end block syntax.

One last trip back to the REPL is needed to confirm that once again, the documentation is not lying, and we have not misunderstood its explanations:

user=> (dotimes [i 5] (println i))
; 0
; 1
; 2
; 3
; 4
; nil
user=> (rand-int 10)
; 3
user=> (rand-int 10)
; 6
user=> (rand-int 10)
; 6
user=> (rand-int 10)
; 2
user=> (for [x (range 5) y (range 5)] [x y])
; ([0 0] [0 1] [0 2] [0 3] [0 4] [1 0] [1 1] [1 2] [1 3] [1 4] 
; [2 0] [2 1] [2 2] [2 3] [2 4] [3 0] [3 1] [3 2] [3 3] [3 4] 
; [4 0] [4 1] [4 2] [4 3] [4 4])
user=> (for [x (range 5) y (range 5)] (+ x y))
; (0 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 5 2 3 4 5 6 3 4 5 6 7 4 5 6 7 8)
user=> (do (print "hello world\n") (+ 1 1))
; hello world
; 2
user=> (realized? (for [x (range 5) y (range 5)] [x y])) 
; false
user=> (realized? (doall (for [x (range 5) y (range 5)] [x y])))
; true

Because many of the Clojure features used for populating the simulation’s world either already exist in Ruby or are irrelevant due to implementation differences, this code sample translates fairly well. Apart from the fact that the Ref construct in this example is imaginary, the only noticeable thing that is lost in translation is the conciseness of Clojure’s list comprehensions. But in this particular use case, Array#product gets us part of the way there:


HOME_OFF   = DIM / 4

def setup
  Ref.transaction do
    FOOD_PLACES.times do
      p      = place([rand(DIM), rand(DIM]) = rand(FOOD_RANGE)

    HOME_RANGE.to_a.product(HOME_RANGE.to_a).map do |x,y|
      place([x,y]).home = true
      create_ant([c, y], rand(8))

At this point, you should now completely understand the structure of the initial state of the world in Rich Hickey’s ant simulator, and if you’re new to Clojure, you probably know a lot more about the language than you did when you started reading. If you have enjoyed the journey so far, definitely consider reading the entire program; this article only covers tip of the iceberg!


XKCD sums up how I feel about this exercise much better than I could on my own:

That said, I’m sure that more than a few people would be happy to tell you that many of the pragmatic compromises that Clojure has made are blasphemic in some way. Truth be told, I don’t know nearly enough about functional languages to weigh in on any of those claims.

The real takeaway for me was that by stepping outside of my comfort zone for even a few hours, I was able to look back at Ruby with a fresh perspective. I was also able to gain an understanding of a programming problem that I couldn’t find a good Ruby example for. Both of these things were a huge win for me. I hope that you will find a way to try this exercise out on one of your own problems, and I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

Learning to read code in a language you are not familiar with takes practice, but it is easier than it seems. If you step outside the bubble from time to time, only good things will come of it.

NOTE: You may want to try out 4Clojure if you want to hone your Clojure skills at a more gradual pace than what we attempted in this article. It’s a quiz site similar to RubyKoans.