November 20, 2003

C.U. Wins Contest

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Big Red 1 breezed through the ACM Regional Collegiate Programming Contest, claiming a third straight victory for Cornell in the annual intellectual engagement of student programmers across the Greater New York area.

The regional contest, sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery and funded by IBM, serves as a preliminary round to the world finals, held in Prague in late March.

“It’s a really great experience,” said team member Bill Barksdale ’05, who has been on one of the two teams Cornell sends to the regional contest since his freshman year.

Fellow teammate Xin Qi grad agreed. “I really want to see more students participate in the local contest … this year, only about twenty students locally competed,” Qi said in reference to the local qualifying round held at Cornell by the Association of Computer Science Undergraduates.

“The most important thing is [the competitors] can improve themselves,” Qi continued. “It’s rewarding.”

The selection process for the team was almost as rigorous as the official contest. “We invited participants to come to practices,” said coach Martin Pal grad. In practice, those trying out worked previous years’ problems alone, and later compared results.

The actual qualifying rounds began after fall break, and consisted of hopeful candidates doing problems devised by Pal and culled from previous years.

The qualifying round then led to the formation of two teams, christened Big Red 1 and Big Red 2 in a display of typical engineering practicality. Big Red 1 consisted of Barksdale, Qi and Pet Chean Ang ’05. Big Red 2 fielded Alex Harn ’07, Donjae Lim ’05 and Bo Wang ’05.

After the formation of the teams, practice took place about twice a week, according to Barksdale. “We didn’t do a lot of team practice,” Qi said. “Just a lot of individual practice.”

However, the team was still confident going in, according to Pal. “Given that Cornell has won the last two years before, I felt we should be good enough to win,” he said.

This confidence was not misplaced, as results would show. “The problems themselves were not very hard,” Qi said. “We worked well together,” Barksdale added. “Towards the end, we were working together on one of the problems; [Xin] was typing, I was catching errors.”

The competition challenged each three-member team to finish as many of the programming problems — which ranged from an income-tax interpreter to a specialized chess analysis — as possible in the shortest amount of time.

The teams were each given access to two computers, and team members generally worked on either different problems or different parts of larger problems. “Most of the time it’s the most efficient way,” Xi commented on the method.

The contestants were allowed to program in C++, JAVA or ADA. Cornell chose C++ because all three team members were familiar with it.

Indeed, the team proved so adept that they took an early lead of a full problem early on, a lead the team maintained throughout the event.

The biggest challenge was what Barksdale admitted were “a few irregularities” on behalf of the judges. “We did have some difficulty with the contest,” Qi said. “Because of the carelessness of the judges … they made a lot of mistakes.”

One of Cornell’s solutions, previously ruled “wrong,” was later admitted as the correct solution. Pal conceded “small ambiguities” but felt overall the contest was no easier or harder then previous years, and the program was an overall success.

“We were leading most of the time,” Pal said. “So I was confident that if they kept up the good work they would win.” Big Red 1 did, solving seven of the nine problems, followed by Columbia which had six correct answers. Big Red 2 ranked twelfth, quite a respectable finish amidst the sixty competitors.

In late March, Cornell will compete against 71 other teams culled from over 1,300 universities and 68 countries. The team will start practicing again after winter break and continue until the competition. “It’s exciting to go,” Barksdale said. “It’s always a big challenge.”

“It’s really wonderful to win,” Qi added.

Archived article by Michael Morisy