Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's a miracle

So, I've passed all my courses. "What? That's the title 'miracle'? I thought you said you were a 'mostly-all-A' student; what's the big deal?" It seems pretty tame, I know, compared to the Resurrection of Lazarus or turning water into wine. All the same, I'm convinced God had a hand in this.

I try to keep the fact that I'm a very devoted Christian separate from my life online. I really do. Sometimes, it's hard; the words just escape me. People really don't like it when you randomly quote an appropriate passage from the bible or point something out as evidence of the existence of God. They pigeonhole you and put any possible resentment they have on any possible "bad" action the Church, as an institution, has done at any possible point in time during the past 2,000 years.

But still, given the situation I was in, I just had to write about it.


I don't know if I can recreate it for you with words alone, but it was roughly as follows:

The course

The course was initialy presented as being evaluated in four short projects, one long project, a quiz, and two exams. After the first week or so of class, the teacher announced he had to leave to attend a conference in Toronto, and would not leave us anything assigned in the meantime. By the time he returned, we had one class left before the first quiz, which meant there would be no first project. The points were transferred to the second project and its complexity was increased accordingly, but not the time available to do it. Now the quiz was not the problem, most people got full points on it, the problem was the project.

The instructions were published with a few days to go before the first exam; the due-date being some three weeks later (so much for it being a "short" project). The project was doable in two weeks (the first week didn't count; everyone was studying for their exams). My partner and I did it, and we were sure we had exceeded expectations.

Time marched on, and a second project was assigned; worth as much as the two remaining "short projects". But wait, we still didn't have the grade from the first project we'd handed in! (The first exam and the quiz had been graded, but that was it.) This project was the project that was due the day after the second exam, but was later postponed because its timing was impossible. Also due around this time-period was "the long project" (the one I mention in the above-linked post as one we had been working on since the first exam).

These last two projects consisted of a computer program (it's code properly documented), a presentation, and a written report. The "long" project also required some statistics from sample runs. We were unable to complete the "long" project in time (and hence, lacked the sample runs) but made a superb presentation that got the whole class interested and asking questions, an in-depth report with mathematical proofs and illustrations, and extensive documentation of the code.
In the "short" project, the time alloted for the presentation didn't allow for much, but the report definitely made up for it. There was also one case when the program gave an error which we couldn't identify, but we handed them in like this and hoped for the best.
"What do we do now?" my partner asked
"Pray," I said." All we can do is pray."

The situation

I don't know if you've noticed, but at this point we knew the grade of nothing, except the first exam and the quiz. Days passed, and the teacher announced he had finished correcting the first "short" project, "long" project, and the second exam. Me and my partner's result?
We had failed everything.
(Ok, I'll try not to play with vertical space anymore)

The first short project was basically a search algorithm. The test cases the teacher had provided for us to load onto our program while we were making it, were either the "goal" of the search (meaning no search occurred) or took over an hour searching. We therefore had no way of knowing that when our program did perform the search, it gave an error when trying to show the goal. The teacher had created an evaluation table where the program, its code, and its documentation were worth 10%; the other 90% were test cases requiring a search to be performed. We, of course, did not know how he was going to evaluate until then.

On the exam, the question worth the most points asked to write the n-queens problem in Conjunctive Normal Form (if this gives away what the subject was, please don't say anything). The n-queens problem states that, on an n chessboard, where do you place n queens so that none is attacking another? The most famous version is when n = 8 because, well, the variant everybody knows of chess is played on a 8×8 board. Now try placing 8 queens (use pawns to represent them if you can't find enough queens). Difficult, isn't it? Now, suppose you have to describe the program without using any numbers, referencing world outside your explanation, and you can only write in complete sentences of up to three words. Get the picture? Many people wrote things that correctly modeled the problem in Conjunctive Normal Form, but if the teacher deemed that model inefficient, that heavy-weighted question was flunked without another thought. Absolutely nobody got even half the points the question was worth.

On the final project, another unannounced arbitrary evaluation criterion: the statistics were given the most weight.

What "the situation" means

Now consider this: I'm on a scholarship which requires me to keep my GPA above a certain level. When I was offered the scholarship, my GPA was already quite close to that level, but I accepted it anyway because I thought I could raise my GPA, and because I needed the money. I crunched the numbers back then, and my GPA means I'm on a "three strikes, you're out" situation: fail three subjects –any three– and lose the scholarship. I've already failed one. If I failed this one, I'd only have one "strike" left.

"But surely you managed to raise your GPA since then, didn't you?" Not nearly enough. The "three strikes" rule still applies to me.

But there's more. This subject isn't offered all the time; I'll be able to take it again within a year. This means that, should I fail, I have to wait a full year to take it again, as well as the subject it is a prerequisite for. This would push my graduation away by a full year as well. Aside from the emotional aspect induced by practically everyone else I know having graduated already, this means I won't have a job by the time my little sister has to enter college, and she doesn't think she'll land a scholarship. Need I explain more?

The miracle

As I waited for the grades, bracing for the "the future falls apart" scenario, my words came back to haunt me: "all we can do is pray". And pray I did. I'd like to say I prayed like I'd never prayed before, but that was only because I used the Internet to get the text to prayers I didn't know. I started praying, and later that day I got the grades of first "short" project, the "long" project, and the second exam. When I was told the last project was still waiting to be graded, I continued praying every waking moment (though considering I didn't sleep at all over the weekend, these weren't as long)

The following day came the verdict: The teacher had "just" realized that he had given no files for us to load into our programs to test them, and that their format was quite unclear: did the titles go in all caps or in lowercase? Were line breaks really valid anywhere? Could there be spaces after opening parentheses? after opening quotation marks? Apparently everyone interpreted it differently.

So he did what I haven't seen anybody do yet: he gave everyone full points on the project. This last A+ balanced just enough with all the other failing grades to let me and about 12 others (of the course's 23 students) scrape a pass. My partner said the teacher was probably compensating for how insensibly he had corrected everything else,
but he actually said it before I could tell him what I was thinking:
it's a miracle.


  1. It was great to come across your blog last night. I was baptized last year around this time, so it gave me a little tinge of happiness to find out that your still a Christian.

    It really is wonderful to see how God can work in our lives, and open ways even when everything looks like impending doom.