Monday, 1 July 2013

ICPC St. Petersburg 2013: Day One

So, I'm in Russia right now. Crazy to think about, but true. Cyrillic characters are everywhere, and everyone you pass on the streets is speaking Russian. Crazy.

The reason that I'm here is to compete in the 2013 International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC). It's part of ACM (the international computer society) and is sponsored by IBM, who are paying all of the expenses for us over here. They've put us up in hotels, and they pay for all of our meals every day, and they're even paying for visiting some attractions, like the Hermitage and Saint Peter and Saint Paul's Fortress. The prize for this competition (aside from money) is a guaranteed job offer from IBM, for the top four teams. Pretty cool stuff.

The reason that I'm here is because back in September, the team that I'm on won our regional competition, which gives you a spot in the World Finals. Our region is small, with only about 60 teams in it. But there are just shy of 10,000 teams worldwide, of which only 120 get to come to the World Finals. Needless to say, I feel pretty privileged right now.

I've been working in Texas over the summer, but my other team members have been scattered to other parts of the country, so to get here, we had to take separate flights and meet up in airports  along the way (or at the final destination).

My travel started out on Friday night actually. My flight left from Austin at 7:19am, and I am living around 45 minutes away. With that early of a flight, I knew that I wouldn't be able to find a ride in the morning, so I looked into getting a hotel for Friday night. As it turns out, hotels are expensive; it would end up costing me $100ish to do that. Shortly after that, I happened to be reading Gizmodo, and they had an article about how much you can save by using something called Airbnb rather than getting a hotel. That sounded good to me, so I looked into it. Airbnb is a startup website that allows you to list your house and rent it out. I found a place really close to the airport for half the price of a hotel, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to rent a room in a random stranger's house for a night.

But I did it. I'll probably write up a more detailed post just on Airbnb later, so I'll spare you the details here. For now, all you need to know is that it worked out very well, and I had a very enjoyable experience. I woke up at 5:00 the next morning, got in the cab that I had booked online the previous night (at my host's suggestion), and headed to the airport. $12 later, I was there. He lives really close to the airport. It was pretty sweet.

My flight plan was to go from Austin to Washington-Dulles, Dulles to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to St. Petersburg. It was going to be 22.5 hours of travel time. Thankfully, it really was only 22.5 hours. I had no mishaps or delays the entire time. Kind of surprising, but I'll take it.

The flight to Dulles was uneventful, and when I got there, I met up with my coach. The other two members of the team weren't going to meet us until St. Petersburg, but we would be on the same flights (although sitting in different areas) for the rest of the way up. The layover was close to 4 hours long, so we killed time getting lunch and watching the planes land. Our plane arrived on time, and we boarded and took off for Germany. We were flying the German airline Lufthansa, so they did everything in German and English. The entertainment selection was none too exciting, but I watched  a German sitcom called Add a Friend as well as the pilot of Elementary. I also watched the movie Side Effects, but I wasn't too impressed with it. It was not the movie that I thought it was going to be. I thought it would be about the life of a woman as she is affected by the prescription drugs that she takes and her life falls apart, but that's only the first half. It has a shift in the middle into more of a thriller. It wasn't a bad movie, but I didn't enjoy it too much.

A cool view of the clouds above Russia as seen from the airplane windows.
The View from the Plane Window
In Frankfurt, we had another 4 hour layover. I'm just glad that it was a long one not a short one though. That airport is confusing! I could not figure out the layout of it at all. Different terminals are on different floors, and you have to go up to the train to take you from one terminal to the other, but they are in the same building; one's just directly above the other. I got really confused, but eventually we found the place, with several hours to spare. We watched airplanes again, but this time we saw some airplanes that we could recognize: an Airbus A380, several Boeing 747s, and even a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. If only we had flown in it as well...

While at our gate waiting for the flight, we saw a group of 4 guys. My coach decided that they were probably another team for the competition, and he went over to check. They were, and they were from Mexico. It was their first time to go the the World Finals as well, so they were pretty excited too. We had a good time visiting, but it was suddenly time to board, so we said goodbye and hopped on the plane. This was a short hop, but they still fed us a hot breakfast of potatoes and spinach. Which is more that I can say for any of my short flights in America. Now I'm lucky to get anything more than a single cup of juice!

We landed in St. Petersburg and headed through customs. Apparently if you don't have anything to declare, you don't have to fill out a form, which is pretty thoughtful of them. After the hassle of acquiring my visa, I was surprised by how easy is was to go through customs. I just handed the lady my passport with visa, and she asked me my name, stamped my passport, and handed it back. Zip zip zip. We decided to wait for the other two team members in the baggage claim area. Their flight came in about 2 hours later than ours, but they eventually showed up and we got on the bus to go to our hotel to check in.

The view of St. Isaac's Cathedral from the front door of our hotel.
St. Issac's Cathedral; From Our Hotel
After getting our rooms we went to the dinner social that IBM was hosting in the building next door. They had fancy food and standing tables, and we visited with some of the other contestants and regional directors and other people involved. Apparently there are 1300 people here for the competition, only 360 of which are contestants. That's a lot of support staff...

When we finished with dinner, it was 8:00pm, our allotted registration time, so we went and picked up our t-shirts, name tags, dropped our team reference document off, got our photo taken, and were interviewed on camera about the competition. Somehow I was elected the spokesperson for the team, so I was the one who had to come up with answers on the spot for all of her questions, but it turned out alright I think.

That was pretty much how the day ended. We went back to our hotel rooms and crashed pretty hard after that. Breakfast the next day was at 7:30, which is way too early for a jet-lagged person to handle well. The next day is when the real competition events would start, with the Opening Ceremonies.

Full Series

Day 1: Travel
Day 2Opening Ceremonies
Day 3Practice Competition
Day 4Competition Day

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