Do We Need a Stack Exchange Site for Competitive Programmers?

Area51

This week, another attempt is underway to create a competitive programming site on the Stack Exchange network.

It’s been tried before. In early 2013, a similar proposal was put forward. But a year later, the proposal still hadn’t met the minimum activity requirements defined by Area 51, the part of Stack Exchange where new sites are proposed and discussed. In keeping with Area 51 policy against keeping old proposals around, the 2013 proposal was deleted. It lives on as a snapshot at the Internet Archive, and as a Codeforces blog post.

Will things turn out differently this time around? It’s not clear that popular demand for a Competitive Programming Stack Exchange (CP.SE) site has increased in the last few years. And if a new site is going to make it past the Definition phase on Area 51, there will need to be demand. Stack Exchange rules require that a potential new community demonstrate that it can sustain question and answer activity. That’s to prevent underused sites from hanging around the network but not providing any value.

So we’ll see what happens as people start following the CP.SE proposal. In the meantime, it’s worth considering what other sites are out there to fulfill the need for competitive programming Q&A, and whether we need another option. That’s the topic for today.

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How Many Problems Do You Need to Solve?

HowManyProblems

Programmers get better at competitive programming mainly by solving competitive programming problems. It’s true that there are other activities that go along with problem-solving practice. Reading about algorithms, data structures, and problem-solving techniques is useful to avoid re-inventing the wheel. And it’s even more important to read solutions after you solve a problem, so you can learn from other practitioners and fix your mistakes. But the core of the learning process is solving problems. Without that core, reading textbooks and solutions won’t get you very far.

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Review: Awesome Competitive Programming by Jasmine Chen

Awesome

In January of this year, Jasmine Chen (lnishan) published a Codeforces blog post called An awesome list for competitive programming! Since then, she and a few collaborators have been editing and expanding the list on GitHub.

Awesome list in this context doesn’t just mean “a really great list.” It refers to a project started by Sindre Sorhus in which people create lists of links to useful and/or interesting resources, and publish them on GitHub. There is of course a list of these lists.

Here’s what the Awesome Competitive Programming list offers.

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How Long Should You Spend on a Problem?

Hourglass

To get better at programming or math, it’s not enough to read about a topic. You have to solve problems. And solving problems is a lot more beneficial if you have access to solutions, especially ones with detailed explanations. But as useful as solutions are, they also present another problem: when is the best time to look at them?

Solving a problem yourself improves your understanding of a concept more than reading someone else’s solution. If that wasn’t true, then it would be possible to learn a technical subject just by reading about it. That would be easier, but it doesn’t work. So you need to struggle with problems.

However, you can’t avoid looking at the solution forever. Problems in textbooks or online judges are intended to be solved in hours or days. They aren’t unsolved research problems that take months or years to solve. (Or if they are, they’re clearly marked as such — e.g., some of the problems in Knuth’s books).

So part of your job as a problem-solver is to settle on the best time to look at each solution.

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Why is Competitive Programming Hard?

Difficulty

When I came up with 12 Reasons to Study Competitive Programming, I picked the following for reason #3: Studying competitive programming gives you a way to practice solving hard problems.

(As I pointed out in the article, this is also a reason that some people give for not studying competitive programming. They claim that most software developers work only on trivial problems. So they don’t see any reason to practice solving hard problems. That has always seemed to me like a backwards argument).

What does it mean for a problem to be hard? To answer that, I’ll borrow part of the definition of deep work: a problem is hard if it requires specific training and experience to solve. While some ad-hoc competitive programming problems can be solved by any programmer willing to spend an hour or so thinking and coding, modern contests contain problems that only programmers who have spent considerable effort practicing can solve in a reasonable amount of time.

That’s the type of hard problem that I’m talking about. To be hard, a programming problem doesn’t have to involve an unsolved research question. But it does need to provide a challenge to people who spend a lot of time solving puzzles.

What makes competitive programming hard? Here are some factors.

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Questions About Competitive Programming

Topics

If you have a question about competitive programming, Quora is a good place to find the answer. Quora’s Competitive Programming topic attracts experienced competitive programmers, and they have written answers to a variety of common questions that beginning and intermediate programmers have about the subject.

It has been a few years now since the Quora topic was created, and most questions about the fundamentals of competitive programming have been asked and answered. While there are still new questions about specific problems, and about current events, it’s rare to see a new question about fundamentals.

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Three Ways to Solve UVa 108

Window Grid

UVa 108 is rated as a Level 1 (easy) problem by uHunt, but its solution nevertheless contains some interesting techniques. Here’s a summary of the problem statement:

Given an $N \times N$ array $A$ of positive and negative integers, print the sum of the nonempty subarray of $A$ that has the maximum sum. The sum of a subarray is defined as the sum of its elements.

uHunt lists this problem in the section called Max 2D Range Sum, a subcategory of Dynamic Programming. But before we get into the dynamic programming solution, let’s examine the Complete Search approach.

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