I am trying to solve an interactive problem from atcoder's practice contest. The abridged problem statement is as follows:

```
Given the value of N where N ranges from [1,26] and Q where Q is the maximum number of queries that one can make, sort a list of distinct uppercase alphabets in ascending order. N indicates that there are N characters starting from 'A'. Hence, N = 5 means that our final list must contain 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D' and 'E'.
A single query is defined as printing out a string "? x y" where x and y represent the characters we want to check the relation between (e.g. "? A B"). The problem restricts the number of such queries to Q. Hence, we must determine the final order of the characters using at most Q queries.
For each query, we get a binary answer '<' or '>' from stdin. '<' indicates that x comes before y in the final list. '>' means otherwise.
```

Problem link: here (Do note that atcoder account is needed to view the task)

My attempt:

I tried using merge sort to solve the problem — I changed the comparison at the merging step to get the ordering of characters using the console. I managed to solve constraints for N=26, Q=100. However, the strictest task requires a solution that fulfils the constraints N=5, Q=7.

After some research, I found that merge sort's worst case number of comparisons is n * ceil(logn) — 2^(ceil(logn)) + 1 which gives 8 in this case. I couldn't find a better sorting algorithm that would solve the problem — I even tried STL sort which proved to be worse than merge sort.

Could anyone please advise me on how I could solve this problem?

**U.D.** I just revisited this problem today. I solved it by using a single comparison to detect if there were exactly 5 elements with at most 7-comparisons. If this were true, I hard-coded a separate comparison-efficient function to handle this. Otherwise, just use merge-sort.

AC code here.

Stack Overflow to the rescue. http://stackoverflow.com/questions/1534748/design-an-efficient-algorithm-to-sort-5-distinct-keys-in-fewer-than-8-comparison

Thank you! Thank was indeed an eye-opener. I read that one can solve this problem by using Ford-Johnson's algorithm. However, there is lack of information about this algorithm's implementation details (one has to read knuth's book to understand it). Is there an easier way to solve this problem than to implement the lengthy algorithm?

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