Tuesday, 2 July 2013

ICPC St. Petersburg 2013: Day Two

This is Day 2 in a series. You might want to check out the previous day to start at the beginning.

The day started off in a fairly ordinary way (although I had to wake up earlier than I would have liked to for 7:30 breakfast). The hotel has a restaurant on the first floor, and we were given hot breakfast with all sorts of foods. There were pancakes, cheese pancakes (I didn't really like them very much), bacon, sausage, various pastries, cottage cheese, yogurt (with flavours such as prune), watermelon (which is yellow, not red), and a whole bunch of other stuff. It looks similar to an American selection, but there was just some stuff that was slightly different that would make you realize that you weren't in Kansas anymore. Not that I was in Kansas (my other teammates were though), but that's not the point.

When we finished with breakfast, it was time to head over to the Manége for the IBM TechTrek (a series of talks). The Manége is the building that used to be the stables for the King-Czar-Emperor-Ruler guy, but it has since been converted into an event center. The TechTrek presentations were given by two big names from IBM: Bjarne Stroustrup (who you may know as the inventor of the C++ programming language), and Jeff Jones, the man who wrote security programs for banks, voter registration, and casinos (who you may know as the man who wrote the software that caught the MIT card counters in the true story that the movie 21 was based off of). Suffice it to say, it was a fascinating morning.

Probably the thing that surprised me the most about the talks was that Bjarne's talk had nothing to do with programming. Instead of giving a heavy technical talk, he talked about the importance of interpersonal skills in the life of a programmer; a very important lesson. He lauded some men for not only being good programmers, but also being able to explain these concepts to people in a very clear and concise way. One thing that he said that stuck with me was "if you need a Ph.D to understand and use a new concept, then it is never going to catch on." He also talked about how cool it was to visit places and meet people, and how important it was to talk to the people that are using your product, so that you can learn how to make it better. Most of his time he has spent just talking to people to learn how he can improve what he has already made.

Bjarne was a good speaker, but Jeff Jones was amazing. He was very high energy in an infectious sort of way, and it was very obvious that he loved his job. He talked about "big data," which is basically just billions of entries in a table with hundreds of millions of columns. There is a lot of information, and somehow, you have to find the useful bits. His point was to use context and relationships between pieces of data, so that "data finds data." The example that he kept coming back to was a jigsaw puzzle. A pile of pieces doesn't really mean anything, but once you start putting them in their right context, you can begin to see the big picture.

In fact, puzzles inspired him so much that he did several studies of how people solve puzzles to understand how best to tackle the problem of big data mining. He took 4 puzzles and mixed their pieces together. But not all of their pieces. He put 90% of one puzzle in, 50% of another, 50% of a third, and %10 of duplicates from the first. Then he had a party at his house and got his nieces and nephews to work on it without telling them what he did. He learned some very interesting things: to get a good idea of the big picture, you need less than half of the information; sometimes, you make a wrong assumption at the beginning and you have to go back and change it later when you find new information; the last few pieces are placed almost as quickly as the first few pieces. There was a lot more that he pointed out, and it was all amazing how it related so well to computers.

One of the other things that they talked about was the movie that they had made at IBM. Specifically, the world's smallest movie: A Boy and His Atom. The entire movie was made frame by frame by manipulating and placing individual atoms, and then taking an image of what the area looked like. You can see it here on YouTube. It's super amazing. The whole thing had do be done at 4 degrees Kelvin or so.

Bjarne Stroustrup, Jeff Jones, and two others in a panel answering audience questions.
Left to Right: IBM Representative, Bjarne, Jeff,
Former World Finalist now working for IBM
The talks ended with a panel session, but by then people were getting restless, and it was getting really hot in the building. Thankfully, it ended before everyone melted, and we were put on the buses to go for lunch before the opening ceremonies. It was an appetizers sort of meal with these weired sticks that looked like baked noodles, acted like chicken, and turned out to be smoked cheese. We mingled with the other teams for a while (I met a team from Brazil, and from Buenos Aires, and several Canadian teams), until it was time to head over to the ceremonies.

Oh boy, were they ever something. We were in an old Russian theater hall, sitting in the back rows on the floor. Some of the other teams were in the balconies (there wer like ten levels of them), and the regional directors and press were in the front of the floor seating. They started out by having the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra on stage playing songs while people found their seats. They were very good, and I was enjoying them quite a bit until they played the the Super Mario theme. I absolutely loved them after that. The conductor was very energetic and expressive, making him so much fun to watch. After the preshow, the orchestra played the live soundtrack to the welcome video that had been created, and then they played the ICPC Fanfare. That's right, the ICPC has it's own song, just like the Olympics.

The St. Petersburg Symphonic Orchestra performing during the pre-ceremony.
The St. Petersburg Symphonic Orchestra
To briefly summarize the rest of the opening ceremonies, the predominant part of it was speeches. The head of the ICPC came and welcomed us, the former head of the ACM came and welcomed us, the Deputy Minister for Media and Communications (or something like that) of Russia came and welcomed us, the Governor of St. Petersburg came and welcomed us, the ICPC Liaison for IBM came and welcomed us... it just goes on and on. There were some awards presented, and every team was introduced briefly, and all of this was punctuated by the occasional musical performance. For example, there was a traditional Russian band with instruments that played and there was a Russian ballet section (an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty). The ballerina was really impressive! She was on one toe, with the other leg up, being spun around by four different guys for a really long time! She must have been so sore!

Anyway, eventually the speeches wound down and the competition was officially declared open. By the way, the Honorary Chairman of this competition is Dimitri Medvedev, the Prime Minister of Russia. He wasn't there, but he did write a note to us. After the ceremony was over, we went back to the Manége for dinner. From there, we got tickets and hopped on the buses to go 2 blocks over to the Hermitage.

The courtyard outside the Hermitage with its massive column and lack of cars.
The Square Outside the Hermitage
The Hermitage, if you don't know, is a really fancy museum/art gallery. I believe that it used to be the winter palace for the ruler, but now it holds an impressive collection of famous paintings. It's a series of several buildings, and we got to go on a tour of it for free. I imagine that it was free because it was the speed tour version. We powered through the whole museum in record time, sped along by our tour guide. When we tried to slow down and go back, one of the tour guides behind us got angry and told us that we weren't allowed to be by ourselves because the museum was closed (which it was. We had the whole place to ourselves.) But I got to see some Rembrandt and De Vinci paintings among many others. Plus the throne room was intense.

A chandelier in front of golden pillars inside the Hermitage.

An incredible ceiling painting above the grand staircase inside the Hermitage.
Some Interior Shots of the Hermitage
That was pretty much the whole day when we got back from that. We  got some desserts from the Manége (where IBM had their "Chill Zone" with giant chess, musical jamming, and The Avengers playing), and then headed back. I finally managed to get internet access, so after almost fainting at the 70ish unread emails, I read them all and went to bed. The next day was even earlier, and it would include the dress rehearsal for the finals. It was time to catch up on sleep.

Full Series

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

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