Two Random Selections

December 10, 2010

In today’s exercise, we look at two programs that make random selections.

The first program picks an item from a list whose size is not known in advance, making a single pass through the list. The algorithm selects the first item in the list with probability 1/1, then replaces that item with the second item in the list with probability 1/2, then replaces whichever item is currently selected with the third item in the list with probability 1/3, and so on; when the end of the list is reached, each item will be selected with probability 1/n, where n is the number of items in the list. This algorithm is used in the unix fortune program, which randomly selects a line from a file of pithy sayings, and appears in the Standard Prelude under the name fortune.

The second program is used by auditors, pollsters, and others who need to randomly select m items from a population of n items. The program outputs a list of m numbers in the range 1 to n, in order; the user then selects the sampled items from a numbered list of the items in the population. The algorithm runs through the integers from 1 to n and selects each item with probability m/n, where at each step m is the number remaining to be selected and n is the number remaining in the population.

Your task is to write the two programs described above. When you are finished, you are welcome to read or run a suggested solution, or to post your own solution or discuss the exercise in the comments below.

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