The Impossible Assignment

Life | Clemson | Binary | - April 25, 2013 // Barry

I had the opportunity to visit the class of one of my legendary former professors yesterday and got to share a classic story about him...the time he gave us an impossible assignment.

Dr. Steve Stevenson at Clemson is one of my all time favorite professors for a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that he found creative ways to teach. He always focussed on giving us challenging problems to solve and letting us rack our brains about ideal solutions rather than the old "here is how a linked list works, here is how a binary tree works..." spiel.

One of those creative ways of teaching happened when he gave us an impossible assignment. The assignment was to cram the largest date and time, down to the second, into a single 32 bit integer. He told us that it was somewhere around 40,000 years and our project was to figure out how to make that happen.

None of us could figure it out. We tried everything we could think of. Bitmasking, special encoding, placing fixed data in certain digits, etc. Nobody could figure it out. The night before the assignment was due we had the entire class in one guy's dorm room at 3am still trying to figure it out...TERRIFIED that we were all going to fail. Nobody had managed to get farther than about 120 years.

The next morning we all showed up for the 9am class. None of us had slept. We were all exhausted. I remembered somebody asking as soon as he walked in the door, "How...HOW do you get to 40,000 years?"

With no hesitation at all he replied, "Oh you can't. That's impossible. But I bet you learned it inside and out didn't you?"

We were furious...he made us LEARN.

The class I just visited is going to be Dr. Stevenson's last. He's moving into a new role and moving away from teaching, but he definitely left his mark. Thanks doc.