Here is a introduction to LFE, or Lisp-Flavored Erlang (lfe).¹

While trying to get up to speed on a new language, I’ve found it useful to try to program Monte-Carlo solutions to probability problems. Now learning programming using numerical computation is not very popular these days, but this is because calculating gcd’s, factorials, and Fibonacci numbers is not very motivating to folks. In contrast, Monte-Carlo simulations gamely manage to hold interest, because the solutions can be full of surprise and even charm, are either impossible or head-hurtingly difficult to find analytically, and of course the little gambler in everyone is eager to know or confirm a result. In one’s burning desire to get to the result, one quickly learns the rudiments of the language: basic arithmetic operations, conditionals, loops, procedures, scoping. For a collection of varied problems suitable for this venture, see 50cpp, idiots, dice.

As a first example, let us solve the very famous but still twitchily surprising Monty Hall problem (idiots, p. 192). A game-show host shows a player three closed doors, behind one of which is the prize, a car. The player picks a door, whereupon the host opens one of the remaining two doors, with no car behind it. The player is now given the option to stick with his choice or pick the other unopened door. If the car is behind his final chosen door, it is his. The question is: Should he stick with his initial choice, or should he switch?

The analytical solution says he has 2/3 probability of winning if he switches. If you are not convinced, a Monte-Carlo simulation should help: We run the scenario a lot of times, say N times, and calculate the number of times, m, that a switch would win the car. m/N then gives the frequency-based probability that a switch wins.

First, we define a thunk (0-ary procedure) `game`

representing each
scenario (or experiment, or game, in this context):

```
(defun game ()
```

(let ((actual-loc-of-car (random:uniform 3))

(loc-picked-by-player (random:uniform 3)))

(if (== actual-loc-of-car loc-picked-by-player)

0

1)))

This is pretty straightforward Lisp: `defun`

defines a
procedure, here named `game`

, with no arguments. `let`

introduces local variables, here: `actual-loc-of-car`

, for the
actual location of the car; and
`loc-picked-by-player`

, for the location initially chosen by
the player.
`(random:uniform N)`

returns a random integer uniformly
distributed between
`1`

and `N`

, inclusive: The procedure called is `uniform`

,
from the standard module `random`

.

When `game`

is called, it randomly
assigns values (from 1 through 3) to
`actual-loc-of-car`

and `loc-picked-by-player`

.
If these
match, clearly the player should not switch. If they don’t, the
door not opened by the host certainly does contain the car, and the player
should switch. We have `game`

return `1`

if a switch is
advisable, `0`

if not. Why we use numbers rather than booleans
should be obvious from the following.

We now define a thunk `run`

that runs `game`

a large number
of times, returning the average return value:

```
(defun run ()
```

(let ((num-trials 10000))

(fletrec ((loop (i acc)

(if (=< i num-trials)

(loop (+ i 1) (+ (game) acc))

(/ acc num-trials))))

(loop 1 0))))

Here `fletrec`

defines a local recursive procedure `loop`

,
which takes two arguments, `i`

and `acc`

. `loop`

is called with
1, the (ordinal) number of the first trial; and 0, the accumulated sum so
far. The `if`

inside the loop ensures that loop is called
(“looped”) exactly `num-trials = 10000`

times. Each loop
call but the last adds to `acc`

; the last call returns the
average value.

This is how one does loops or iteration in properly tail-recursive languages such LFE: there is no dedicated loop primitive and no need for it either.

We’ll put the definitions of `game`

and `run`

in a file
called `montyhall.lfe`

, and add the following header to it:

```
(defmodule montyhall
```

(export (run 0)))

The name of the module must match the basename of the file containing it. Compile the file as:

```
% lfec montyhall
```

where `%`

is your OS prompt. This produces the compiled file
`montyhall.beam`

.

Now start LFE:

```
% lfe
```

Erlang <version> ...

LFE Shell <version> (abort with ^G)

>

At the LFE prompt (`>`

), call the procedure `run`

:

```
> (montyhall:run)
```

`(montyhall:run)`

is how you call the `export`

ed
procedure `run`

in the module `montyhall`

.
The result should be close to 2/3.

¹ Those with a smattering of Scheme or Lisp should find a lot that is familiar. LFE is properly tail-recursive, like Scheme, but keeps the function-name space separate from the other variables, like Common Lisp. Furthermore, variables aren’t really “variable”, although it is possible to get the effect of assignment by using ETS (= Erlang Term Storage), whose usage is very roughly analogous to that of the property lists hanging off of symbols in Common Lisp. Of course, LFE has concurrency-related features that are usually not present in standard Scheme or Lisp.