November 5th, 2002

krazy kat

Keeping the Melodrama Alive

They say you can never go back. Back... where? "Home" is the canonical destination. But it exists purely for the sake of rhetoric. The point is that you can never go back. To anywhere. To anywhere that exists -- as all anywheres and anywhens do -- mostly in memory. To the place with glitter in the streets and fireworks in the sky... to the stars in your more youthful eyes. These places do not exist, and never really have. The human brain is a mysterious thing.

This is a precept I hold dearly; it has proven itself true time and time again. So I steel myself for the inevitable letdown every time I go back. Then, assured of disappointment, the reunion can only ever be better than expected.

Thus it was with no small amount of trepidation that I went back to Cairo.

This, after all, was THE city... the site of some of my fondest memories from years past. A place of such otherworldly enchantment; a place of such (interminable papyrus museum tours notwithstanding) exciting dynamism and... confluence of humanity, in all its best and worst forms. Not satisfied with merely resembling a storybook page, Cairo sucks the unwary visitor directly into the fantasy. Yet no such fantasy as has ever been told at some child's bedtime; more an anti-bedtime story of daily banalities gone grotesquely awry. And all under a thick layer of dust and grime.

Which I realize makes no sense. Unless, of course, you've ever been to Cairo.

So it was to this city of storybook perfection that I returned last Thursday, wondering how much part a child's imagination -- filtered through 11 years of memory -- had to play in said perfection.

And came to discover that there are times when fortune smiles on the cynical and provides them with an experience to not only meet, but surpass, the memory.

Cairo had hardly matured in the intervening years (as well one might expect, given the millennia-old history of the place). It still remains the same bustling, crowded, chaotic smorgasbord of corruption and insouciance that will delight the ever-loving hell out of any visitor that cares to open their eyes to it... imagine Mos Eisley with eighteen million people.

Imagine, also, the absolute epitome of organized chaos. Balanced precariously on some razor's edge, on either side of which lies the tumble into the abyss that is pure chaos. Yet on top of that razor's edge is perched this swarming, seething mass -- 18 million people, all completely self-absorbed and oblivious to their surroundings -- almost as chaotic as said abyss. And yet, it... somehow... manages... to function.

Somehow, by some unknown mechanism and in defiance of all reason, this contained disorganization manages to avoid its altogether deserved fate of disintegrating into its billions of constituent components and being re-swallowed up by the desert. There are few other facts on this God-blessed Earth that so amaze me.

But regardless -- I did not go back to Cairo for sightseeing. Although in truth I believe many of our delegation ultimately did. I was content to wander the couple dozen blocks in the vicinity of the hotel and the university where was held the contest. Playing in traffic -- why is it, I wonder, that I so love playing in traffic? Just like Montréal, Cairo is one of those cities where the norm is for pedestrians to just wander out into the street wherever and whenever they feel a desire to do so -- completely free of concern for whatever traffic may be barreling down upon them. And when in Cairo... well hey, do as the Cariennes do. I so get a kick out of wandering across a busy six-lane road, watching all the cars stop for me. (Traffic lights? What are those? Cairo needs traffic lights like a fish needs a... yet another of my biggest kicks comes from seeing traffic streaming through an intersection when presented with a red, while the cross-traffic patiently sits, facing a green light, and the three cops inevitably posted at the junction stand around chatting with each other, ignoring the whole situation.)

Err... again this is a digression. An admittedly bad habit of mine. Other than playing in traffic, I stayed in the hotel studying for the competition while my compatriots went to the Egyptian Museum. And then availed myself of the opportunity to sleep in when they went to the Pyramids, after the competition was over. I had more than my fill of Egyptian History in 1991, and from the reports made by my teammates on their return, I have few regrets.

Which pretty much exhausts any recounting of surrounding events and brings me to the competition itself. Well... I could go on, but it would be redundant.


The facts, I suppose, are simple. There were eight questions to answer in five hours with 32 competing teams. We solved four questions, the winning team solved six, and we ended up in a stellar sixth place.

But as always, things have to be tempered with context. The raw numbers rarely convey the full story. Sixth place, in and of itself, is not necessarily so abysmal as I make it out to be. Sixth place -- for example -- in the World Finals would have left me ecstatic. However I did feel, and still feel, that at this level of competition, we were capable of so much more. And therein lies the pity.

My hopes, coming into the competition, were that we could come in first place. My expectation, that we could place medal (1/2/3). Anything less would have left me disappointed, and indeed it has. It is not so much the placement that is problematic, but that I feel we did not perform to our full potential.

In the first two hours we solved our four questions. Indeed, at the two-hour mark we were in third place. Given our usual modus operandi of starting slow, then building steam and racing past everyone, I was pretty confident at this point. Yet it was precisely at this point that we stalled and were unable to complete any more questions. While to be sure, we made a large number of submissions (that we believed correct) of three of the four remaining problems, they were all returned with the pronouncement that they gave incorrect output. To this day, I still do not know what is wrong with the solutions, and this is a source of great frustration. We wrote programs to generate hundreds of thousands of test cases (three hours is a lot of idle time) and in each case our programs produced correct results. Yet the judges' data apparently did not. Again, frustration would be the pertinent mood. We have made a request to be able to see the judges' data, yet do not hold out much hope.

Yet there is, as necessary, good news to be taken from the experience. We placed better than last year. We placed better, as well, than any other non-Egyptian team. Indeed the winning team from AUC was, to my eye, a very competent and talented team, fully deserving of the win. While I do believe, at this point in time, that we could have done better, I do not believe we could have come first, and accordingly wish them all the best at the World Finals.

We were also able -- in the post-contest analysis -- to identify strategies that we could have employed and approaches we could have used to better our standing. A shame, perhaps, that we could not have anticipated these before the contest, yet nonetheless this remains a valuable learning experience and these approaches to problem-solving will stand us all in good stead in the future, whether specifically at ACM contests, or in general. These are all good things to take from the experience.

And finally, there is my team.

This is both the highlight and the most gut-wrenching part of the whole contest. We will need to hold one last meeting, next week perhaps, to dissolve the team, and I am unable to even contemplate this without getting teary-eyed.

Nevertheless, I must dissolve the team. This will probably have been my last ACM contest (at least at the collegiate level). It is looking ever more probable that I will return to Canada next summer (for various reasons) and I am loath to start something that I know I cannot finish. While I may participate once I return, I am getting old, and this has many implications, the upshot of which is that I will likely not participate.

So I will have to dissolve the team, and this will be difficult. Because they have been, hands down, the best part of... everything. I feel so honoured, so proud, so grateful, to have been part of such a talented and dedicated team. And I feel so downright awful that we were not able to take the partnership further.

I was just doing the math the other night. We have gone through nine weeks of practice for the regionals, five weeks for the nationals, six weeks for the local competition. Averaging five meetings a weeks during this time (plus extra meetings at various other times as well). Doing the multiplication yields that we have come together for over 100 practice sessions over the last nine-and-a-half months, and generally over three hours a session. Of these 100-plus sessions, we have cancelled... none. We have rescheduled... all of two (and those by only a couple of hours).

Each and every one of us has put more work into this team than into most of our courses, and received no credits for it. I have asked, and every single time they have been there and ready to go. And God knows I am not always the easiest person to work with and get along with.

Just trying to think of who else I could ask for that kind of commitment, knowing that they would always be there, no matter what, leaves me, well, with an empty list. The amount of dedication, the amount of commitment, the amount of perseverance and sacrifice shown by my teammates is nothing short of staggering.

When we first coalesced last January, I did not know them. I vaguely knew Deepa as a friend of Majed, and kinda recognized Anushka's name from some list posted by Dr. Kassem, and that's it. Yet over the last 9 1/2 months, they have proven again and again that they are THE best team that I could ever have asked for.

For that alone, I will always treasure this experience, and for the opportunity to be on that team, I would have given up any placement at any contest in the world.
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