November 2, 2005

ACM controversy

November 2, 2005 - Categories: geek

For the most part, Ateneo handled their first ACM Intercollegiate
Programming Competition wonderfully. But there was one thing that
perhaps could have been handled better, and that was the
disqualification of 30-year-old Nix Garcia from iAcademy on the basis
of his age.

Oh, I _hate_ it when my friends are on both sides of an issue.
From one point of view, it’s iAcademy’s fault for not reading the fine print.
According to the official ACM ICPC rules, Nix Garcia’s coach should have
petitioned the ICPC eligibility committee at least three weeks before the regional contest.
From http://icpc.baylor.edu/icpc/Regionals/About.htm :

Basic Requirements

  • A student must be willing and able to compete in the World Finals.
  • A student must be enrolled in a degree program at the sponsoring institution with at least a half-time load. This rule is not to be construed as disqualifying co-op students, exchange students, or students serving internships.
  • A student may compete for only one institution during a contest year.
  • A student who has competed in two World Finals is NOT eligible to compete.
  • A student who has competed in five Regional Contests is NOT eligible to compete.

Period of Eligibility

  • A student who meets the Basic Requirements and FIRST began post-secondary studies in 2001 or later is eligible to compete.
  • A student who meets the Basic Requirements and was born in 1982 or later is eligible to compete. (emphasis mine)

Extending the Period of Eligibility

  • A coach may petition the ICPC Eligibility Committee to extend the Period of Eligibility for a student whose full-time studies have been interrupted or extended. This includes military or civilian service, illness, work/studies, or personal reasons.
  • The coach must demonstrate that such an extension would not provide an unfair advantage to the team.
  • A petition will be approved routinely if the student meets the Basic Requirements and has not completed more than the equivalent of eight semesters of full-time study as of the date of the regional contest.
  • To make such a request, the coach must petition the ICPC Eligibility Committee at least three weeks before the regional contest. The ICPC Eligibility Committee will render a decision within five business days.

I think Nix’s extension would’ve been granted. He had dropped out of
college to pursue writing for a while, and I don’t think he gained an
unfair advantage from that. But iAcademy didn’t apply for it, and so
Ateneo was right to disqualify them.

Ateneo officials probably noticed their oversight and corrected it,
perhaps when someone else complained. It was probably a very, very
tough call, and they must’ve thought, “Better late than never.”

Again, it’s probably too late _now_ (I _hate_ being on the
sidelines!), but I hope that the coach of the iAcademy team read this
part of the rules:

(Within 2 business day) The coach may file a complaint by
sending an email containing a text message with no enclosures to the
Regional Contest Director and copied to the Contest Manager.

The Appeals committee would probably not overturn the decision, but at
least they’ll know about it, and perhaps contests around the world
will be better at double-checking eligibility before the final run.
Coaches could be reminded about eligibility requirements, for example.

It wouldn’t be the first time contest results were changed after the
contest. During our first year of participating in the ACM, my team
moved from 13th place to 12th because one team had been disqualified
after the preliminary contest results were announced. A student on
that team had been to the World Finals one too many times. You’d
expect them to be very familiar with the fine print of these contests,
but in the rush and excitement leading up to a contest, who was checking?

Yes, coaches are responsible for making sure they know the rules. Yes,
iAcademy would’ve probably gotten the extension if they had appealed
for it, but they relied on the contest organizers to verify their
application—and contest organizers simply deal with too many teams to
do that. But it hurts when something is taken away from you after you
think you won it, even though the rules require disqualification. I
wish Ateneo had handled that part of the contest gracefully. Perhaps
they did. I know Dr. Rodrigo and the other Ateneans would’ve tried
their best to make sure their decisions were reasonable and
well-supported.

(Ateneo has been screwed by politicking at contests before, and I’d
like to think that we don’t scheme. We’ve hated it too when forces
beyond our control or understanding muck about with the contest
results. Anyone remember that Asia Students .NET contest? Doc
Sarmenta’s chagrin over winning a hastily-created “Most Creative”
prize was balanced by his delight that the organizers had found such a
wonderfully intricate solution to a delicate political situation. Or
at least that’s what we told ourselves… <laugh>)

ACM ICPC is a programming competition, yes, and so on the surface it’s
about finding the best programming team in the region and then in the
world. But it’s always been more than that for me. I think it’s a
fantastic opportunity to develop and maintain collegial respect for
people in other schools. The ACM ICPC is not about just competing in
that contest and then going home. I hope people realized the awesome
opportunities ACM ICPC gives them—look, here are the people each
school believes to be its best! The ACM ICPC should be more of a
social event, like the way our high school International Software
Competitions helped us get to know other people from different
countries. That way, people go home with far more than just numeric
results. They go home having met other _people._

I respect both Ateneo for the tough decisions it had to make and
iAcademy for the challenges it went through. They may be disqualified
according to the rules, but that in no way diminishes their
accomplishments. I do not think that their performance depended on Nix
Garcia’s experience. iAcademy is relatively new to the contest scene,
and I remember when they first competed and failed. They have gone
far and done well.

Our Atenean teams are far guiltier of taking advantage of our
experience. If you look at our performance in the past, we have never
been unknowns. We have never been dark horses coming late to the race.
Even the newcomers—and by newcomers we mean people who started
competing in college instead of high school, the laggards ;)—were
picked up early and trained along with people who had been competing
since their high school days. Our success is probably more due to a
constant stream of contest veterans than it’s due to the strengths of
our curriculum. I’ve been both a student and a teacher. I should know!
<wry grin>

Congratulations, Nix Garcia and the other people at iAcademy. You
might have been disqualified, but your performance is certainly not
something to be ashamed of. Take what you’ve learned from the contest
and help train the next generation. You’ll get better and better, and
I hope someday iAcademy will challenge Ateneo for the top spot. Until
then, remember: there’s more to contests than just the final results.
Prove your worth by teaching the next generation. I look forward to
next year’s contest!

More about teaching

November 2, 2005 - Categories: teaching

Teaching is the most humbling of experiences. There is nothing like
standing there in front of the students and finding yourself speaking,
finding yourself creating meaning. I taught only a little today, but I
taught it well; just enough to give people an idea, just enough to
tempt their interest.

Then it was time to talk to the department chair about leaving. The
department chair peered at me over his papers. “You were a special
admission,” he said. “I’ve never met you until today. I just looked at
your file and thought, ‘This is someone we want to have in our
department. This is someone we want in front of our classrooms.'”

Who am I that these people should take such interest in me? Who am I
that they should trust me with even the smallest responsibility in
marking projects and guiding students through laboratory experiments?
The reason why I hate teaching is that I love it too much to think
myself worthy.

There were some things he didn’t quite understand, or maybe I didn’t
understand them. He told me how teaching assistantships form an
essential part of the university’s funding and how leaving the course
at this point would essentially mean that I might never get a teaching
assistantship again. With the way recommendations work, it might even
mean I never teach in front of a classroom again. He didn’t quite
understand that I was willing to take that failure if that means that
students would get the education they needed—even if that means I
have to go home, master’s degree unfinished and plans awry.

Why do I care so much about a class most people will not even remember
next year? I don’t know. I just do. I’m not arrogant enough to think
that this one class will change their lives, but I can’t tell myself
that it doesn’t matter and that I shouldn’t care.

But I also recognize the trouble I caused the department. At this
point, there is no one who can take my place. Perhaps there has never
been. They knew about my concerns in the beginning, but they
encouraged me to take it. And now we must move, inexorably, toward the
end of the term.

Even now, I’m certain my hesitation has made them think twice. I’ve
caused them a problem. They expected, perhaps, a cooler and more
composed teacher. Someone with plenty of experience, someone who no
longer struggled with the imposter syndrome. I’m not that kind of
teaching assistant yet. I don’t just fit into the system.

I wanted to escape. I wanted someone else to take over so that the
students would be able to learn more than they could otherwise. I
wanted someone who knew the nuances of the field, who could tell
stories about how these things work in the real world.

The department chair reminded me that there are more resources that I
haven’t tapped. There are people I haven’t yet talked to, avenues I
haven’t yet explored. I need to plan better. I need to work better.
I’ll e-mail the previous teaching assistant and ask her to help me
brainstorm project ideas. Why didn’t I think about doing that before?
I guess my brain locked down.

Now that he’s told me about all these things I can do to help cope,
now that I’ve given a class about Weka and found curiosity instead of
the myriad of deep, technical questions I dreaded, now that I’ve
checked things with the students… the class seems more doable. More
workable. I may not know the specifics of Weka and Jess, but I know
enough about them to tell stories, to make them curious, to hint at
the possibilities.

Should I have kept quiet and not told Prof. Shepard about this crisis
of mine? I’ve not been professional. I’ve not handled it with the best
of grace. But I needed to hear that reassurance, and I needed to see
and face the challenge head-on. I accept the consequences of letting
the world know about my insecurities. <wry grin>

My evaluations with the class will suck, no doubt. I’ve called their
attention to my mistakes and my shortcomings. They know that I am not
the best they’ve had, nor even the best I could be.

Practice is hard. Growth hurts. But it’s worth it. I’m learning a
little bit more about dealing with difficult subjects, and I’m growing
much more than I would have teaching something well within my
capabilities.

I am thankful that this is a university so responsive to people’s
cries for help that even a teaching assistant’s panicked concern was
listened to and addressed a day after it was raised.