UChicago @ ACM ICPC 2010 World Finals

[This is one of those rare posts in English, since the main audience for this topic is English-speaking. — Este es uno de esos pocos posts en inglés, ya que está dirigido principalmente a gente de la universidad, y la mayoría no entiende español :-) ]

Like last year, the University of Chicago qualified for the World Finals of the ACM’s International Collegiate Programming Contest, which took place in Harbin (China) this year. The UChicago team, called “Works in Theory” after an infamous UChicago slogan (“That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?”), spent last week in Harbin to show off their programming prowess, and to soak in the sights of what turned out to be a wonderful (and freezing cold) city. The students in “Works in Theory”, pictured below from left to right, are Matthew Steffen (3rd year, majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics), Korei Klein (3rd year, majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics) and Louis Wasserman (2nd year, majoring in Mathematics):

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[Click on any of the photos to see a high-res version]

The World Finals took place on Friday, February 5th. For those of you unfamiliar with how ICPC works, here’s a quick primer: a team of three students is given five hours to solve between eight and eleven programming problems. Each team has only one computer, so they must divide their time wisely between coding and thinking about problems. Solutions are submitted electronically to judges who use automatic judging tools that will run insanely exhaustive test cases through the solution; if the solution passes all the tests, it is accepted as a valid solution. Teams are ranked first on number of problems solved and then on the time it took them to solve each problem (with a 20 minute penalty for each incorrect submission).

Here’s our team right at the start of the contest (the off-camera speaker is counting down in Chinese):

And a shot of the contest area, with all the teams deep in thought:

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Although we could watch the contest from a balcony, there was also live commentary which we could watch in an auditorium (and which was also broadcast over the Internet):

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Yes, there was live commentary. In fact, they even had a color commentator and a series of experts who would comment on the best algorithms to solve each problem. It’s nice to see computer programming elevated to the level of other sports :-)

In the end, our team ranked 86th (out of 103 teams), managing to solve one problem and attempting two others (out of eleven problems). In case you’re curious, you can take a look at this year’s problem set (our team solved problem D and attempted problems B and J). Even though solving one problem might not sound like much, it is a reflection of just how difficult the problems are in the World Finals: only 35 teams managed to solve more than four problems, no North American teams made it to the medals (the top 13 positions), only nine North American teams (out of 24) were amongst the top 60 teams, and the other two teams from our region (UIUC and UKentucky, in the Mid-Central region) solved two and no problems, respectively (check out the final rankings). The top positions are dominated by schools that train all year for this contest (in fact, many of these school treat ICPC as any other collegiate sport, with round-the-year training and coaching programs). Given that UChicago participated in (and trains for) ICPC mostly for fun, I personally couldn’t be happier with how we placed (just making it to the World Finals is already a great accomplishment by our team). In fact, here is our team in a post-contest celebratory mood:

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Since we didn’t manage to solve any problems last year, a fact that we lampooned in this photo, solving one problem technically means that we solved infinity times more problems than last year, which we poked fun at in this photo:

Celebrating infinite improvement over last year
[Photo by Marsha Woodbury]

However, we didn’t go to Harbin just for those five hours. The contest is the culmination of five days of events sponsored by IBM and hosted by Harbin Engineering University (HEU). The first major event is a formal Opening Ceremony, where they took our official portrait with Alain Chesnais, vice-president of the ACM, and Desen Yang, vice-president of HEU:

UChicago team at ACM/ICPC World Finals 2010 Opening Ceremony
[Photo by Jillian Murphy]

Last year, the organizers told the teams to dress in business or business-casual attire for the Opening Ceremony, so we just assumed the same applied this year, even though it was not explicitly mentioned in the schedule. As it turns out, practically all of the teams assumed there was no dress code and showed up with informal (and sometimes downright untidy and unkempt) clothes. We, on the other hand, totally rocked that stage, because that’s how UChicago rolls.

Another activity, which spans several days, is the “ICPC Idol” karaoke contest. Korei and Matthew dared each other to participate, and ended up being the first two contestant to sing during the first dinner (in front of a captive audience of 300+ persons). Here’s Korei singing “American Woman”:

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Sadly, neither Korei nor Matthew advanced to the “ICPC Idol” finals.

We also got to see quite a bit of Harbin, where the thermometer never went above 10F / -12C and sometimes dipped as low as -30F / -34C (probably more with wind chill). Living in Chicago is certainly a good preparation for this, but not good enough: the weather was definitely colder than Chicago, to the point that I really felt that I came close to getting frostbite some days. In fact, HEU gave every single participant (close to 500 persons) their own customized winter gear, including a winter coat, snow pants, gloves, hat, and neck warmer.

If you’re wondering why they’d schedule ICPC during the bleak midwinter (when last year’s finals took place in April, when the temperatures were pretty comfortable in Stockholm), the reason is Harbin’s spectacular ice and snow festivals, which take place in January and February. Here’s the team in front of one of the sculptures in the snow park:

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And Korei sitting under the giant snow Buddha:

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In fact, one of the activities that HEU organized was a snow carving contest. Huge blocks of packed snow were placed in front of the contest site, and a pair of teams was each responsible for carving a letter (the goal was to carve the text “ACM/ICPC World Finals 2010 Harbin Engineering University”). We were tasked with carving the letter H:

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You can see the final result on the left:

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However, as amazing as the snow sculptures were, they paled in comparison to Harbin’s ice sculptures. Right when we walked out of the airport, we were greeted by this ice palace:

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We pointed out to one of the HEU guides how amazing it was, and he replied “Oh, that’s one of the small ones”. We thought he was joking until we got to visit the ice festival, where we saw ice behemoths such as this: (for perspective, the team is standing at the bottom)

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The visit to the ice park was probably our favourite part of the trip. We really had a hard time containing our enthusiasm and spent most of the time running around shouting about how unbelievably awesome the sculptures were (specially since, every time we turned a corner, there was an even bigger sculpture to marvel at):

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Finally, we also got to walk a bit around Harbin on our own, where we encountered ice pacmans:

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Patriotic statues:

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The Songhua River, which was frozen solid. People could actually walk across the river to the other shore, and we even saw cars driving on the ice:

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A thermometer, reminding us how Chicago weather was balmy in comparison:

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The largest synagogue in the Far East:

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And the St. Sophia Cathedral:

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In conclusion, a great time was had by all. Next up, the 2011 World Finals in Cairo! (which we’ll try our very best to qualify for)

By the way, if you enjoyed these photos, check out my gallery for the 350+ photos I snapped during the trip. ICPC also hosts a photo and video repository.

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