The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Those of us employed in the financial biz are familiar with the adage 'Past performance is no guarantee of future results'. All of us, even those not engaged in the credit crunch and global recession, would do well to remember that these are remarkably wise words, not only where money is concerned, but also in generally in life. Consider, in this regard, the poignant tale of Artificial Intelligence and its one hundred students at the Indian Institute of Science, oh, about 15 years ago.

During those engineering days of yore, our courses had been divided into three types: core - hard, soft - and elective. We were expected to pass all the hard-core subjects, we had a choice of doing a minimum number from among the soft-core ones, and a wide variety of electives rounded us all off. Naturally, every student, consummate optimisers of time and energy, would aim to choose the easiest among the soft-core topics, so as to leave more time available for the electives, which were the truly interesting subjects.

Cunning analysis and anecdotal evidence gathered from friendly seniors revealed several possible soft-cores that offered good grades for minimal effort. Professor V.V.S. Sarma's Artificial Intelligence course was top of the heap.

And why was that? Well, Prof. Sarma was a kindly individual. He didn't grade harshly. Routinely, everyone would get As and Bs. The course itself was not too harrowing. The prescribed text was interesting in some ways (we all liked the idea of Eliza), and monotonous in others. Prof. Sarma treated the students like adults, and didn't mind the occasional absence from class. All in all, his classes were a fine distraction from the terrors of compiler design and digital signal processing, both of which required considerable effort and much concentration.Even students of Metallurgy were keen to sign up for it.

The year I registered for AI, an unprecedented number of students piled onto it as well. More than a hundred of us crammed the lecture theatre. There was little space to breathe, let alone take notes. Prof Sarma conducted the operations as he always did, unhurried and smiling. The mid-term tests were not too hard, and there was not much by way of homework. People gloated at other students who had been too late to register for the course, and roared when those students struggled night after night in the computing lab, doing one massive programming project or the other. Life, we told each other, couldn't get better.

We should have had a premonition of doom when we saw the final exam paper. But carried away with the euphoria of the end of the semester, and comforted by the knowledge of impending good grades, we didn't worry over-much about the tougher than usual questions. Somehow we managed to answer a tolerable number of them to a more-or-less satisfactory standard, forgot everything about AI as soon as we were out of the door, and looked forward to a veritable torrent of high grades for all hundred of us.

A couple of weeks later, the first shrieks began to resound in the hostel block. We staggered out towards the CS department, fighting through the crush of ashen students who moaned and clutched at their heads. Champions from the IITs, one over-achiever after another, saw their dreams of Berkeley and Princeton collapse as they saw their grades. Within moments, the news had circled the campus, and broken carcasses of students dotted the landscape.

Prof. Sarma had awarded maybe three As and four Bs. Cs, there were forty. The bloodbath got worse. Ds? Over fifty of them. There were even a handful of Fails. The immensity of the rout staggered the imagination.

What had caused this great kick-in-the-balls? Conspiracy theories abounded. Some people suggested that the genial professor was avenging himself on innocent students because his own daughter had been given a bad grade by another teacher. Others speculated haggardly that the man had finally lost his senses after years of working in AI. All nonsense. I suspect the reason was far more prosaic: he got tired of being taken for granted by successive generations of students. Nobody had taken any effort in his class. It was time to shake things up.

As far as chutzpah went, this was of Napoleonic calibre.


Sesha said...

Thanks for opening old wounds and good way to end 2008. I thought at that time you were a vehement supporter of the "daughter" theory.

Fëanor said...

Nah, I only pretended: I was giving you guys moral support :-)

The Inquisitive Akka said...

Wow!That brings back memories. I remember there was this Prof in Organic chemistry who gave only As and Bs. My bad luck, my boss decided I had to do another course in polymer chemistry. Of course I got a D and my friends who were in this Profs class actually managed Bs. I guess they were luckier than you guys! :)

Chandy said...

Maybe the students wrongfully thought that their grades would be directly proportional to the amount of artificial intelligence they had! BTW you never revealed your grade??

Take care & Happy new year to you and family!

Subhankar said...


Why do you think he was blaming the daughter??

Happy New Year!!!


Fëanor said...

Chandy, Chou: Perhaps you are right. Although intelligence of any kind was rather lacking in the institute, eh? As for my grade, I would scarcely want to rub it into the faces of everyone, no?

Akka: How's it going? Looks like you've got memories of IISc as well - let's hear a few.

Mohan said...

I think it was the last nail in the poor prof's coffin when a saint decided that he was artifically intelligent enough to get a grade for free :-)

-Monty "not" the python

Govind said...

I am more interested in the fact that you are bald now. Post a picture.
You guys in CS had it easy dude.
I still remember Chandy rounding us all up to go and stand outside P S Naidu's office asking him to postpone the final exam.
Also, who the hell is akka?

V Ramesh said...

Now when I look back at those events, with 15 years of wisdom, I tend to agree with "...time for change..", I guess.

AI course, sure was an event I was part of, ended up with a fail grade, what a bummer? . I was also part of another event GATE @ IISc, results were colossaly different from what used to be trend.

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