Saturday, September 01, 2007

the hare and the tortoise

just about everyone has read the story "the hare and the tortoise" sometime in their childhood. it was one of those stories that could probably be written in 3 lines in 9 point arial, but still was entertaining to read for a little kid. and it had a moral: "slow and steady wins the race"

i accepted the moral of that story the same way as i accepted the morals of all the other stories i had read as a kid. however, the moral of that story was quite different from the others i read. most of the stories had a rather intuitive moral at the end: one swallow doesn't make the summer, a bird in hand is worth two in the get the drift. not this one though. slow and steady wins the race. what kind of moral is that!!!

fast wins the race. maybe not too fast cos you'll get breathless and dizzy and pass out on the roadside, but definitely fast :D. slow doesn't quite make sense. if i walked in a race when everyone else ran i'll definitely finish last. that was pretty obvious to me, even back then when i was 4 years old :P

as time passed and the years made me older, somewhat wiser and definitely more street smart, i found my own winning strategy: run, but don't push myself to the limit. probably more like jogging than running. save my energy for the end, and finally when the end is in sight, give it everything i've got, and hopefully finish at or near the top. as the years wore on and i got more tuned to my limits, i managed to pace myself so that my jogging was effortless to the point of me feeling i wasn't even in the race...and come finish, i suddenly shoot off and take everyone (including myself :P) by surprise. i also found the amount of time i need to run to win the race (which is amazingly short, by the way :)

i've lost a couple of times, but those were errors of judgment, not strategy. thankfully, i accepted everything i heard when i was a kid, even though "slow and steady" didn't quite fit in with "fast but not too fast". unfortunately, "fast but not too fast" worked very well for me. so well, in fact, that i pretty much forgot about "slow and steady". until 20 years later, i.e. yesterday.

here's the story: programming assignment. simple problem. instructor says he could do it in 15 minutes. we are given two and a half hours. elegance and optimization weren't the criteria - "it should work" was. it was a problem i've solved before, and not just once. in fact, it was a problem that i've handed out to my own students when i used to teach in a computer institute many years ago. it wasn't quite a race, since everyone who finished won. there were quite a few tortoises who were placing bets on whether i would finish in 15 minutes or 20. i guess they lost their money, and i lost the race.

so much for "fast but not too fast". of course, i could also argue that "one swallow doesn't make the summer", and that i shouldn't make undue haste to throw away my tried and tested strategy in favour of being the tortoise. to be fair, i wasn't just running the race, i was also doing back flips (read "interspersing my code with funny comments" ;)) and picking up tortoises who wandered off the track and putting them back on their way. still, that's no excuse for losing the race. i think i should rethink my strategy. it's very sad, losing a race like that. i can imagine how that hare felt. i feel pretty rotten about my own race too.

i'm probably gonna have to answer some pretty uncomfortable questions on monday morning. i just hope my instructors don't remember "the hare and the tortoise" all too well :D

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