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MIT Students Finish Ninth at ACM Programming Contest

By Rita H. Lin
Staff Reporter

Earlier this month, a team of three MITstudents placed nineth in the Association for Computing Machinery Intercollegiate Programming Contest.

Justin S. Legakis G, Scott T. Smith '98, and Svetoslav D. Tzvetkov '99 represented MIT in the international competition, the largest programming contest for universities and colleges.

Harvey Mudd College finished first, followed by the University of Washington; University of Queensland, Australia; National Taiwan University; and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

MIT faced tough competition

The MITstudents competed in a final round that included 50 teams from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

In order to qualify for the final, the team first participated in an internal qualifying round at MIT. It then competed at a preliminary round held at Harvard University and subsequently advanced at the regional level.

The finalists were chosen from an initial pool of over 1,000 groups.

During the ACM contest finals, each three-member team was given eight problems to consider. The teams tried to solve as many problems as possible in five hours, but solutions were also examined for completeness and accuracy.

The judging was "harsh, even the slightest error is enough for the judges to return" a determination of "wrong" for a solution, Tzvetkov said.

The teams were first ranked by the number of problems solved correctly, and next by the time used. For each wrong submission, teams were assessed a 20-minute penalty.

There were several types of problems given to the teams. Some were tricky and required the development of a complicated algorithm before individuals could write any code, Tzvetkov said. "There are also problems that are straightforward, but require [a] significant amount of coding."

The topics covered by the problems varied. The problems were presented as real-life situations. The team had to figure out the mathematical models first before coding the solutions.

An archive of problems used in the contests are available at http://www.acm.org/contest/archive/finals_problems/.

Team members not pleased

The three members of the team said they were not satisfied with the ninth place finish. "I expected us to do much better, possibly even win," Legakis said.

"I expected to do better. The three of us are certainly competent, but we got off to a bad start. Part of the contest is luck. The best people aren't going to do the best all the time. I am sure there were 10 teams there capable of getting first place; we were one of those teams," Smith said.

"I believed that we could do better, even that we could win, but it wasn't our day," Tzvetkov said.

The MIT team was selected and trained by Professor of Mathematics F. Thomson Leighton PhD '81. The group also received guidance from Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering M. Frans Kaashoek and Amit Sahai G, who won last year's contest.

The team had practiced solving previous years' problems individually and as a team. "We did much better in our practices. There is some amount of luck involved," Legakis said.

Last year, Tzvetkov represented the University of Sofia and finished fourth individually, while Smith finished fifth representing MIT. Both Smith and Tzvetkov will not be able to participate next year because according to the rules of the contest, a student can only compete in the finals twice.

This year's competition was sponsored by Microsoft Corp. in collaboration with ACM.