I have a set S of size n whose members each have associated with them a number in the range 0.00 to 1.00 inclusive.

I want to select a subset T of size m with this property:

  • the average of the numbers associated with the members of T must fall within a specified range x to y (for example, 0.65 to 0.75). Expressed differently: the sum of the numbers associated with the members of T must fall within a specified range (for example, 0.65m to 0.75m)

Further, out of all the possible Ts for a given S, x, y, I want to choose one (uniformly) randomly.

My current method is to randomly select m members of S, and then check if the sum falls in the desired range. I repeat until I get a satisfactory result. Is there an algorithm (possibly dynamic programming?) to get the desired subset without using guess and check?


S is a set of n = 200 questions, each assigned a difficulty rating between 0 and 1 inclusive. I want to generate a test T with m = 50 questions where the average difficulty is between 0.65 and 0.75 inclusive. Furthermore I want to select a (uniformly) random T, out of all the possible T's that satisfy my conditions.

Another Example:

S = {0.1, 0.3, 0.5, 0.8, 1.0}
n = 5
m = 3
x = 0.5
y = 0.75

All possible T and their average value
{0.1, 0.3, 0.5} = 0.8 / 3 = 0.26
{0.1, 0.3, 0.8} = 1.2 / 3 = 0.40
{0.1, 0.3, 1.0} = 1.4 / 3 = 0.46
{0.1, 0.5, 0.8} = 1.4 / 3 = 0.46
{0.1, 0.5, 1.0} = 1.6 / 3 = 0.53
{0.1, 0.8, 1.0} = 1.9 / 3 = 0.63
{0.3, 0.5, 0.8} = 1.6 / 3 = 0.53
{0.3, 0.5, 1.0} = 1.8 / 3 = 0.60
{0.3, 0.8, 1.0} = 2.1 / 3 = 0.70
{0.5, 0.8, 1.0} = 2.3 / 3 = 0.76

Subsets of S with size m with average values between x and y
{0.1, 0.5, 1.0}
{0.1, 0.8, 1.0}
{0.3, 0.5, 0.8}
{0.3, 0.5, 1.0}
{0.3, 0.8, 1.0}

I am trying to come up with an algorithm to produce one of these 5 subsets at random, without first calculating every subset of S with size m. It seems that guess and check is the best method.

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subset_sum_problem sounds similar Sep 29, 2014 at 23:43
  • I'm wondering how you are defining the 'randomness' of the subset? Sep 30, 2014 at 1:30
  • 1
    A subset of which set? An arbitrary set of integers of size >= N? Only positive integers? A subset of the set of all positive integers? Please clarify!
    – Doc Brown
    Sep 30, 2014 at 6:32
  • 1
    With the given example, 200 questions of which 50 are to be chosen, finding all the subsets of 50 that meet the requirement and choosing one at random is an unachievable task. There are 200 choose 50, or about 454 quattuordecillion (454*10^45), possible subsets. Some will be acceptable, others not. Your computer doesn't have the capacity to find all the acceptable subsets. Even Google or the NSA doesn't have that much storage (it's not even close). Sep 30, 2014 at 15:37
  • 1
    Solutions to the knapsack problem inevitably use what you call "guess and check". Sep 30, 2014 at 15:47

1 Answer 1


I do not think it is possible to deterministically build such a random set in "one go", whatever it exactly means. However here is what I think is the closest alternative:

Start with N random numbers. As long as your average is not satisfying, randomly remove a number and replace it with a smaller/larger one. To quickly find the numbers to remove and their substitutes you could either split both your input and output sets in two (numbers below the wanted average versus numbers above the wanted average), or you could sort the input set and use binary searches.

An alternative yet similar idea is to start with an empty set and add "small" or "big" numbers depending on your current average. However you could find yourself with an invalid set in the end and you would then have to resort to method #1, so I think it is more elegant to only use #1.

Finally, regarding redundant values, I suggest to use a pre-processing step: sort your input set, then scan it to find redundant items and randomly pick one.

Rephrased to clarify things up.

  • I think both of these methods will create a bias for certain values. i.e. if you the final subset does not meet the criteria, you remove a "bad" value (an outlier) and replace it with a "good" value. This will result in "good" values being used more often and "bad" values being used less often.
    – Preston S
    Sep 30, 2014 at 15:06
  • @PrestonS - So what? This comment of yours suggests you have some addition requirements that you have not yet told us. Sep 30, 2014 at 15:19
  • @DavidHammen No, I specified random which means an even distribution across all possible values. Swapping out values in this way is definitely not random.
    – Preston S
    Sep 30, 2014 at 15:23
  • What does that even mean, Preston? You have not fully specified the problem. Sep 30, 2014 at 15:40
  • @DavidHammen It means I'm looking for an algorithm to produce one subset that fulfills my criteria. Then, if I ran the algorithm many times, it would eventually have returned all the possible subsets an equal amount of times.
    – Preston S
    Sep 30, 2014 at 15:50

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