Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bad tea

Firstly, the TCCC final: it sucked. The "easy" problem took forever to get working, a stupid bug killed the medium, and all this left me without time to do the hard, so I ended up stone last. Oh well, at least I made the finals.

The more I go to the USA, the more I agree with Douglas Adams that tea is not part of American culture (the way it is in British culture) simply because they don't drink proper tea. I actually had some decent tea in New York with the Google Code Jam finals, but this time it was back to the rubbish. To start with, it seems that herbal stuff is now fashionable, instead of good old British-style Ceylon tea. Then, they don't know how to make it. To make a proper British cup of tea, the water has to be boiling when it hits the teabag. An insulated container with a tap, filled with water that was boiling half an hour ago, just doesn't cut it. Apparently there is also a nation-wide shortage of plastic spoons, because both at the hotel and on United Airlines, the only implement provided to stir the tea was a short, thin plastic straw. Think about this: the larger the cross-section, the better the stirrer. A thin plastic straw is almost completely useless. My finger would be more effective.

I had a wonderful cup of tea on SAA and a spoon with which to stir it, which just proves that it can be done right even in a low-pressure environment where water boils at a lower temperature.

Anyway, I'm posting this from back in South Africa, which means that this is the last I'm likely to post until either I go away again (nothing planned at the moment) or something annoys me enough to write about it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Enigma

No, not an enigma, the Enigma. As an advertising stunt, the NSA has borrowed a genuine working WWII German Enigma machine. These were used to encode a lot of German military signal traffic, and was broken by the Allies - quite possibly changing the course of history.

Here's me with the Enigma:

Curses, said the red coder

The curses are about the evils of jet-lag. Tuesday night I woke up a few times but managed to get to sleep again each time. Last night I woke up at about 2:30am and never really managed to get back to sleep.

Nevertheless, it seems that I haven't completely lost my touch, because I managed to pull off second place in my semi-final (despite making a mess of the medium problem, although it turned out not to matter). That puts me straight through to the finals, without having to compete in the wildcard room this afternoon.

For those of you with a decent internet connection, the final will be webcast tomorrow. It's at 1:30pm PST (11:30pm SAST - a bit late I know). Hopefully I can kick butt, especially since several of the top seeds have already been eliminated and some others must compete for the 2 slots from the wildcard round.

No photos yet, partially because I haven't been out to see any sights (I don't think there are many), and partly because I haven't had time to download them off my camera.

Gotta go - the NSA is giving a presentation. Should be... interesting.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

TCCC round 1

I'm now at the TopCoder event. The first algorithm semi-final took place this morning. They've got monitors spread around the room that mirror what is on the contestant's monitors, which makes it into more of a spectator sport that I would have expected. It's only really other programmers who are likely to find it that interesting though. The organisation is actually extremely slick: big screens at the front which show the standings, booths for the sponsors, the works. I'll post pictures when I get around to it. The first semifinal was quite interesting: the number 1 seed was knocked out completely. Hopefully the same thing doesn't happen to me tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tales from a confusing airport

I'm currently in LAX (that is, while writing this - it's unlikely to be the case when you read this). I think it is one of the worst signposted airports I've been through. I knew (but only because I'd previously read my itinerary and made a note of it) that I had to get to terminal 8. After walking out of customs there was ground transportation etc, but nothing to indicate how to get to any other terminal. After asking someone, I learned that I should go up an escalator, which deposits me at the curbside where people get dropped off, then walk in a particular direction. I was at terminal 6, after a short walk I was at terminal 7, then... that was the end of the building. I ended up walking inside and noticing I sign for a particular gate range which included the gate I'd noticed was the departure gate for my flight, so I followed that and ended up where I needed to be. Heaven help anyone who doesn't speak English or use the Latin symbols for numbers.

On the plus side, the WiFi is free :-)

Anyway, if you haven't been following, this trip is for the TopCoder Collegiate Challenge. Unlike the Google Code Jam, they've put me on the flight schedule from hell: Cape Town - London - Los Angeles - San Diego, and returning San Diego - San Francisco - Frankfurt - Cape Town, with about 7 hours of temporal homicide in Frankfurt and arriving in Cape Town at 6am. The
only good news is that my first round isn't until Thursday. I don't know what internet access will be like, so I'll post more if and when I can.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cattle run

My plan for Saturday was to wander around New York and see some of the sights. It rained most of the morning and so mostly what I saw was wet socks, thanks to my well-ventilated shoes. It cleared up in time for the Google-sponsored boat cruise to Liberty Island (where the statue is).

In the evening I finally got down to the Empire State building. I had the impression that I could walk in, buy a ticket and then wait for my turn on an elevator. Guess again - it is a giant machine for turning tourists into money, somewhat in the manner that a slaughterhouse turns cows into fillet steak. Apart from the basic ticket, there were hundreds extra options which you were pushed to buy with obnoxious advertising. Some examples: an audio tour; a view from the 102nd floor instead of the 86th; some VR tour; you could even pay an extra $24 to jump the queue! They funnel you along between ropes airport style (even with a metal-detector+X-ray check), and part of funnel takes you past a green screen where they take photos of everyone and later try to sell you pictures of yourself matted over various backgrounds for $20.

For all that, it's a reasonable view, but probably more worth doing in daytime because it's difficult to make things out at night (I also managed to put my camera onto a slow-exposure setting, so most of my photos are blurry). I took the audio tour, which consists of some former cab-driver telling you some interesting things about what buildings to look at and some history, filled with lots of waffle about how wonderful New York is, how wonderfully ethnically diverse it is, and what he did when he was a boy growing up in New York. He got annoying pretty quickly.

Sunday I spent with my cousin Eileen. We didn't do much of the tourist stuff, more shopping. We went to a computer store where I found a USB to PS/2 adaptor (so I can connect my PS/2 keyboard to my laptop), and to Barnes and Noble (a bookstore - in this case a five-storey one) where I found a number of interesting new books in hard-cover: a Forsyth (the Afghan), the next in the Saga of Seven Suns (which was already available several months ago, but apparently still isn't in paperback), and the first half of the finale of the Dune series (Hunters of Dune). I didn't buy any of them but it gives me some things to keep an eye out for in paperback.

Photos have also been updated. I'm now back in Cape Town, so this is probably the last you'll hear until the TopCoder Collegiate Challenge in mid-November.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Google Code Jam (not edible)

As promised, I'm posting again now that I'm gallivanting. The current gallivant is to New York, for a programming competition called the Google Code Jam. It's powered by TopCoder (a company that runs a whole bunch of contests). There are some scarily good people around.

Due to difficulty with internet access (over an hour on the phone with some surprisingly clued up tech support people - a nice change from SA), I'm only posting this now, after the contest is already over. I came 14th (our of 100 at the finals and about 20000 who signed up). If I hadn't done some silly things during the contest I could probably have made the top 10, but oh well.

Today and tomorrow are free time/sightseeing (there is an organised cruise at 3pm this afternoon). Tomorrow I'm meeting up with my cousin and just spending some time in New York. Not quite sure what I'll do today.

If the wireless connection I'm using holds up, I'll see if I can post some pictures a bit later (I found a wireless signal that requires signup for web, but allows other ports, so I'm tunneling out to UCT and back out via the proxy, and I have to tilt the laptop at exactly the right angle on my lap while sitting in just the right place for it to work).

Update: photos at

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Boston Tea Party

I'm now at Joburg airport on my way back to Cape Town, so this will probably be my last post until I next gallavant (or even go) somewhere else.

I have now established the true reason that Americans gathered in Boston and dumped huge quantities into the harbour. Don't be fooled by the history books. The real reason is that the tea in Boston is really awful. I had about four cups of tea while I was there (two in the hostel and two different brands in the convention centre), and not one of them measured up to the tea I got on SAA coming home. One of them I didn't even finish. When airline tea is a step up, you know you have a problem.

So I am now looking forward to getting home before I fall asleep and my face hits the keasdynboaerthsadw.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Free stuff

So, having complained about limited freebies in the last post, I'm now the proud owner of, not one, not two, but three OpenGL T-Shirts. This was as a result of trivia questions (about OpenGL) thrown in during the OpenGL meeting at SIGGRAPH. I've developed an OpenGL debugger, during which I've had to look through some of the more arcane and bizarre parts of OpenGL, and finally it was good for something!

I also gave my presentation this morning, which went fairly well. There isn't too much to say about that, but I guess no news is good news.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

It's not a bug, it's a feature!

Yes, that's right. Not only do both escalators go down only, but somebody has addressed the problem by setting up a honking big sign to tell you that yes, this is a known bug, and the workaround is to go over to the other side of the building, take an up escalator, then come back again on the upper floor.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Some drugs for that man

Right, I need to get either some sleep, or failing that, some caffiene and sugar. If you know me then you know that in South Africa I mainly subsist on apple juice, which is not known for it's caffiene content. The advantage is that I have not really developed an immunity, so I can actually wake myself up with coke. Unfortunately, the catering at the conference has several drawbacks:
  1. There is no coke, only pepsi, which doesn't seem to have the same sugar content.
  2. Nothing is free.
  3. It is in fact quite expensive - $2.75 for a small bottle of pepsi.
Yesterday I bought a similarly-sized bottle of coke at a convenience store for $1.29, but today I forgot.

Papers-wise, possible the most informative paper I've seen today was discussing the architecture of DirectX 10. While it isn't OpenGL, it will direct what graphics hardware will do and thus eventually what OpenGL will do. The big new thing is the Geometry Shader, which operates on primitives rather than vertices. It also allows you to do geometry amplification, such as tesselation, extrusion or shadow volume creation. Another cool feature is constant buffers, which make it easier to switch shader constants at various levels (true constant, frame, object, bone etc).

The exhibition has also started today. I was led to believe that it would be wall-to-wall freebies, but was quite disappointed. I was really hoping to get a free backpack, since the straps on the one I'm using are held on by a few threads. However, I learned some interesting things at the NVIDIA booth. In particular, the GPU performance counters will very soon be available from a library under Linux, which will mean that I can get performance information about my thesis app without trying to fix the fact that it crashes under Windows.

Right, I'm off to buy a copy of the proceedings, then head back and hope that the weight of the proceedings doesn't cause my bag to finish disintegrating.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Musings on Boston Cuisine and WMP

Judging from the restaurants I've seen around, Bostonians seem to eat (in this order):
  • Pizza
  • Eastern food (Indian, Thai, Japanese etc)
  • Typical American junk food (burgers)
So far I have seen 1 McDonalds, 1 Burger King and 1 Wendys, but right outside my hostel are two pizza places right next to each other.

This morning I did the speaker preparation bit and discovered just how truly useless Windows Media Player is. The catch is that they want you to upload your presentation to their servers, which push things out to machines installed in the conference rooms (rather than using your own laptop). I have a few video clips with my presentation, which at some points I wish to pause. However, even in "full-screen" mode, WMP shows some panels when it is paused (and also whenever it feels like it). The solution? Rename the AVI files to .mpg, then embed them in a Powerpoint presentation, losing all options for navigation beyond pause and restart (not that WMP had frame-by-frame anyway, which is what I really wanted).

Sunday, July 30, 2006

It's BEEG, very BEEG

So, I'm now at SIGGRAPH. It's just ridiculuously huge, especially compared to the large conference I went to (AFRIGRAPH - about 50 people). I stood in queues for about 2 hours to register. To add insult to injury, contributers have a special, shorter queue, which however takes about twice as long. There seem to be about 5 different things going on at any given time, all of them very cool. Today however it's just courses; I'm doing one on discrete differential geometry, which is making my head spin (particularly given that I never actually took a vector calculus course, and have picked it up as I went along).

The conference venue seems to follow the usual overkill approach to air-conditioning: it's boiling outside, so they make it freezing inside so that it is impossible to dress for both environments.

Erm, that seems to be the sum total of thoughts bouncing around my brain for now.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Look! Look! It's a blog!

Well, well, well, Bruce finally has a blog. Unlike some other people's blogs, this isn't going to be me telling you about random things that happen in my life. I'm mainly going to use it to write about any trips I do, where previously I would spam occasional updates to a lot of people (spam, spam, spam, wonderful spam). I may or may not post random ranting and raving too, but don't count on it.

So, you ask, what trip am I on at the moment? I'm in Boston for SIGGRAPH 2006, a top-level conference for computer graphics, where I'm presenting a technical sketch (one-page paper). It only starts tomorrow, so in the meantime I'll write some filler about the flights and stuff.

Flights: the schedule from hell: Cape Town, Johannesburg, New York JFK (refuelling in Dakar), bus to LaGuardia, Boston. LaGuardia sucked but the flights themselves were actually not too bad, and I managed to get through 500 pages of my book, watch a movie, and even get some sleep.

I then made the mistake of using the underground to get to the hostel where I'm staying. The `silver line' running from the airport is actually a bus. It's a bit weird: it initially runs on the streets, but once it gets into Boston it actually goes underground and runs in what looks like a subway tunnel. The screw-up is that it is just a regular bus, not a bus designed to transport people to and from the airport, i.e., people with large amounts of luggage. Another passenger described it as a cattle car.

Boston at this time of year is hot, but more importantly it is way above the legal humidity limit. It also seems that my room is even hotter and more humid than the outdoors. Fortunately, the conference is pretty intense, starting at 8am every day, so I shouldn't have to occupy it too much.

I've also bought a pay-as-you-go cell-phone package (if you want the number, just email me). This is when you realise that South Africa's pay-as-you-go packages are actually pretty polished: the US package I got has an initial cost of $40 for 60 minutes, and those 60 minutes include incoming calls too! It also costs to receive SMs or to check your voicemail, there is no GPRS, and I have to dial a 10-digit
number to do anything with airtime.

Well, I guess that's enough ranting for now. I'll try to post more once the conference is in progress.