Tales of Hubris

1 December 2022

These are a few tales of hubris and their amusing results from my time as an undergraduate student in Engineering Physics at IIT Bombay.

Read the fine? print

This is a tale about CS 101, a first-semester course. They were teaching us C++ and the fundamentals of software engineering. It was a good course, but if you knew a thing or two about computer programming, it was a boring course. Our professors were Padma Shri Prof. Deepak Phatak and Prof. Supratik Chakraborty. Prof. Phatak cared more about using Aakash tablets for the course. These claim, or claimed, to be India’s cheapest tablet, and he had worked with them. He has dedicated a good amount of his life to working towards education accessibility via technology. And that was him. Prof. Supratik was the agent responsible for giving the lectures, assignments and such.

Now, however mundane the core content of the course might’ve been, a meaty 30% of the final grade had to come from a project. As you will realise through the length of this blog, I love projects. Unlike assignments and exams, projects are pragmatic representations of your knowledge. Throughout my time at IITB, I have always given my best to all course projects. Typically, folks dedicate themselves to their semester research projects and look at course projects as another check box for the course. That’s not silly. After all, course projects are always far less attractive than researching at the boundary of human knowledge. But it’s…boring. Start with a strict policy to have fun, and you’ll find something creative to do even in ‘em course projects.

Okay, so what did we do for the project? No more swiping your ID cards like sweatshop workers! We simply re-implemented some popular facial recognition algorithms and wrapped them into a program that could be used for measuring attendance in a class.

The legendary part of the story has nothing to do with the project itself but with how it was graded, so let’s get on with that. At IIT Bombay, you can score an AP, which denotes the highest distinction. This counts the same as getting the highest grade (AA) towards your GPA, but it’s like a star on your palm that teachers draw in primary school. You can show it around to your mother and glee in glory. The specific scenario that can earn you this grade depends on the course and the professor taking the course. For this one, they came up with the idea that excluding the project and the end-semester examination, all students in the top bucket get to participate in a 3-hour or so coding competition. If you win, you get an AP.

I got to be part of the competition. I remember the problem statement to this date because it was effectively three independent ideas to implement in one:

  1. You needed to implement a big number class representing a number in an arbitrary base.
  2. The class needed to have the capability to represent arbitrarily large numbers.
  3. You had to have a parser to define the base, sum two numbers etc.

I did the parser and the arbitrary base part correctly, but there were bugs in my representation for arbitrarily large numbers. That was stressful, but it was fun. I wasn’t sad about the AP, nor am I now, for the record.

A couple weeks later, our project presentations were done, and our end-semester examinations were done. And I was declared one of the four “winners” of the AP contest, but I did not get an AP.

A complex set of rules and events led to this. First of all, there was a catch in terms of the AP contest. Only if you were eligible for an AA at the end of the course would you get promoted to an AP. I got an AB after adding up the project and end-semester scores. I may have missed one mark on the end-semester, and we scored 29 out of 30 on the project. How is it possible that I slip into an AB? Well, I had not done as neatly earlier in the course, and I was not that far away from the boundary between AB and AA. But I should have still made it. This was not obvious to me.

A day or so later, our entire mark sheets arrived. We had gotten a 27 on the project, and not 29. The two marks made all the difference for me. How did that happen? Well, there happen to be more ‘fun’ rules in this course. For our course presentation, we were asked to rate ourselves on our hard work and integrity. My three teammates and I decided to eliminate hubris and arrogance and grade ourselves 9 out of 10. How noble of us! The presentation was strange. The panel tried to convince us that at least one of us must have slacked and deserved much lower than 9, but we did not budge. They let us go with a 29. So that’s 20 on 20 for the project plus our holy nine. Later, I found out that some teams did rat out a teammate. I snort at the snitches.

Jokes apart, avoiding hubris can sometimes end up in irony and ignorance of a fool. Nobody in our team had read the rules correctly. Our score did not amount to 20+9. It amounted to 30 * 9. And that’s the end of our tale. To this date, I am mildly annoyed at the myriad procedures followed in this course. But boy, wasn’t that a crazy story! And let me give you some spoilers, my friends; this was the only time I came close to getting an AP throughout my undergraduate education.

Why aren’t we playing Minecraft?

This is as easy a course as it comes. The thing with ordinary differential equations is that there aren’t many of them. And this is a half-semester introductory course. They ask you to solve a few of them and talk about the properties of the solutions in various domains. This story is not as complex as the previous one, but an amusing break before we go into the next one. I simply got the date for this exam wrong, and a classmate told me about it half an hour before the exam. She simply sought to wake me up because I had fallen asleep while watching TV in the common room.

The funny thing is I invited my friends to play Minecraft a few hours ago, and everyone said they had to study. I felt smug at that. After all, you only needed a few hours to study for this. What were these chumps doing studying a day in advance? Well, well, well, hubris strikes again. Thankfully, as I had described, it was not a particularly challenging, so I did land the top grade, but I’ll always be arrogant that I did it with style.

The greatest invention in modern mathematics

This was my first elective. This was a mandatory course for electrical engineering students, but two of my friends thought this would be fun, and I could not decide on an elective. Hence, I just followed them like a good sheep. I regret that. This was taken by Prof. Preeti Rao. I do not know much about her, but as far as her lectures for this course were concerned, they were a dictation of the textbook. This was a drag. I stopped going to the lectures after a week.

My bunking led to two things. First, I passed with a CD equivalent to a 5 on 10. Anything below 4 is a fail, so that wasn’t far. Second, towards the end of the course, a few students and I were summoned by her to explain our low attendance. She had every right to disqualify us from the course at that point. Folks had their reasons. Most of them had been sick throughout the semester and, unfortunately, had not gone to the hospital to have appropriate medical slips to show for it. When it came to me, I was bold enough to mention that since this course is an elective for me, I just study for it on my own and come for the exams. The poor soul of a professor took a moment and a clarification to realise that taking this course as an elective is possible. But after we were rid of the denial, she indicated that if this course is truly an elective for me, then I need not show up for the end-semester exam either, and we can all be happier. That was an unfavourable outcome for me. Perhaps I should’ve been sick too. Anyway, I went back and wrote her an apology email, which she never explicitly accepted, but I showed up for the exam, and no one cared about it, so I’ll say that’s really kind of her to accept my apology.

The hubris here is that I am quite glad I even passed the course because I know nothing about signals and systems. The only thing I did in all the examinations was calculated a Fourier transform where required. There were a few questions where you had to do Laplace transform. I did a Fourier there as well because there are situations where they’re the same, and I squeezed some non-zero marks out of that. And well, I knew how to do Fourier transforms since school, but it also helped that there were two other courses in the same semester where they taught us that. So, I had good practice as well.

I know a thing or two about spherical geometry, and I get high on gambling

Nobody understood why this was a required course for an Engineering Physics curriculum. And everyone knew that the professor, whose name I do not remember and do not want to find out, had a thing against us. We would take this course jointly with the energy department, and I think his dislike for us was born out of the same reason as ours for him. He did not truly understand why we were in the class. And our disinterest led to frustration. If I break it down like this, I am sympathetic towards him.

Well, what came next might snatch the sympathy away. When the time came to deliver our mid-semester exam results, the professor announced a bet in the class. You got a chance to guess how much you scored out of 30, and if you are correct within 3 points of your actual score, you get bonus points depending on how far you are. For example, if you scored 28 and guessed 27, your score is now 30. If you had guessed 26, then your score would be 29. But if you had guessed 24, then your score would now become 27. Sounds fun, right? The only problem is that this is a classroom for a renewable energy technology course and not a course on probability and statistics with a specialisation in gambling. Regardless, he gave everyone a choice to opt out, so it’s no harm except a colossal waste of time. I shouldn’t say that. I have a fond memory of the whole experience, after all.

Most of the curriculum for the first half of the semester involved spherical geometry. This is concerning solar and wind power. And I happen to have a background in astronomy. Also, we had the answer key, which he used for grading. This would be a pretty informed bet assuming he has not messed up the grading. I went for 30. By his rules, I am now entitled to 33 on 30. A friend who also eventually scored 30 went for 27. That’s what you call a sucker. Friends, I got out that day with 33 on 30. And this guy did not honour this agreement at the end of the semester, but I did not forget to bring it up to him, and he added a 3 to my final score indeed. Look, go big or go home.

Moral of the story

What can I say? I learn from my mistakes, but some can be like a hangover. You tell yourself in the morning that you’re not going to end up in this situation again, but deep down, you enjoyed the ride, and what you like to call bad decisions are just patterns you will repeat.