NU student outwits computing experts, breaks record

    The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a documentary about Donkey Kong, taught us two things: first, that world records, of any kind, are not to be taken lightly, and second, that gamers are very competitive people.

    When Alexander Yee, a McCormick junior and self-professed “hardcore gamer” broke the world record for known digits of the Euler-Mascheroni constant, he learned, just as Steve Wiebe did when he beat Jimmy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong high score, that veterans don’t like to be challenged.

    Yee first broke the world record for number of known digits of Euler’s constant his freshman year at Northwestern with 116 million digits. Or so he thought.

    Shortly after announcing his triumph, Yee received two e-mails from Shigeru Kondo, a professor in Japan, and Steve Pagliarulo, a New York software programmer. Kondo and Pagliarulo rebuked Yee and claimed that they had already set the record with two billion digits, but hadn’t announced it yet. Both were known in the field of computation records. Pagliarulo authored Quick Pi, the fastest pi digit generator to date, and Shugo had access to very powerful computers at his university in Japan.

    “Then they started aggressively crushing all of the records,” Yee said. Since 2006, they set a new record each summer; two billion, then five billion, then ten billion.

    But then Yee changed the game with his discovery of a new algorithm.

    According to a Merriam-Webster definition, an algorithm is “a procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” In early 2008, Yee discovered a new algorithm that computed those finite instructions to produce digits much faster than all of the existing ones.

    “Like with most discover[ies], it’s just at the moment,” Yee said. “[It's a] lightbulb, and then figuring out if it’s true.” Yee worked on the algorithm until about April 2008, skeptical of its functionality because it was not published anywhere.

    But by summer, most of his doubts were assuaged; it seemed very probable that it would work on a computer, and he finally got excited.

    In September, Yee and his roommate, McCormick junior Raymond Chan, started building a computer that would nearly match the capabilities of the machine that Kondo and Pagliarulo used.

    “To build a computer this awesome,” Yee said,”was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

    By January 2009, the self-proclaimed computer enthusiasts finished their model with $9,000 worth of hardware. A comparable computer sells on Hewlett Packard’s website for 24,000 dollars.

    On Jan. 13, 2009, after just 96 hours of computation, Yee and Chan shattered the world record. With the old algorithm that Kondo and Pagliarulo used and the fastest Pi program in the world, it took them 58 days to calculate ten billion digits. With Yee’s new algorithm, which multiplied faster and used less computer resources, it only took 96 hours to compute 14.9 billion digits.

    “I had a new algorithm, matched them in hardware and owned them in software,” Yee said. He still had to verify the computations before officially announcing his record. On Jan. 18, after an agonizing five days of checking, Yee could finally send the e-mail to the world records website. And then he sent another e-mail, to Kondo and Pagliarulo.

    “It was a little payback for two years ago,” Yee said. “I sent another e-mail a few days later about [breaking the record for] Apery’s constant. It was like rubbing salt in the wound.”

    Using the same algorithm and computer, Yee and Chan now hold records for Euler’s constant, the log of 2 and Apery’s constant. They are now working on a fourth constant, which Yee may or may not notify Kondo and Pagliarulo of in another e-mail.

    Although Kondo and Pagliarulo have not responded to his e-mails, Yee knows they follow his achievements. Yee has tracked their visitation to his website and knows that Pagliarulo downloaded a version of the program that Yee posted. Kondo and Pagliarulo now hold the records for the golden ratio, e, the square root of two, and Catalan’s Constant G and Yee thinks are probably striving to return Euler to their mathematical mantelpiece.

    Like Steve Wiebe, Yee will continue to be a hardcore gamer, but will let the Billy Mitchells of the world be consumed by the record books. He says breaking world records will not become an obsession. “The records will be of low priority,” he said. “It will be a side hobby. Let the programs run and get on with my life.”


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