Sunday, November 04, 2007

Free stuff

Despite having finished my PhD, I haven't graduated yet, which means I'm still required to hold to the post-graduate code: grab anything that's free. Today I'm grabbing the free wireless internet at Orlando International Airport. Very nice, since every other airport I've used in the US requires you to pay for it.

I've taken the opportunity to upload all my photos to There aren't that many, since one programming contest looks pretty much like another, and I didn't spend a lot of time in the parks.

That's probably all I'll be posting until my next jaunt overseas, which is probably when I move to Cambridge to start work.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

You win some, you lose some

And, today I lost. The round was just a disaster for me. The hard problem (normally 1000) was worth 900, which sucked me into thinking it would be an easy problem. In the end, my approach was not sophisticated enough, and I had to abandon it. That left me without enough time to work on the medium. I was a few minutes away from putting the finishing touches on by the end.

So, the TCCC07 is basically over for me. But as somebody pointed out, that also means I can relax and enjoy the rest of it instead of stressing.

So far I haven't felt motivated to take any pictures. When I've been outside there hasn't really been time, and the contest area looks basically the same as every other time.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

They put a man WHERE?

Well, I am now less than impressed with America. This is the nation that invented fast food and instant service. But on arriving in Washington, along with roughly 1000 other people, we find that the number of INS offices available is... 4. 3 of which are only serving US citizens. Fortunately, somebody there realised the situation, took decisive action, and increased the number to... 5 (2 for non-US). I was in that queue for an hour, and if it had been much longer I might even have missed my next flight.

Now I know why foreigners who wants to take a tour up to the ISS goes to Baikonur rather than on the shuttle. I can just picture the scene:
Tourist: My shuttle leaves in 15 minutes and I have to be on it! I paid $20 million and I have command duties.
INS: I'm sorry sir, you haven't completed item 16 on your INS form. You'll have to go to the back of the line. You'll be booked onto the next shuttle.

But, here I am in Disneyworld, and it's just as packaged and tinkly and glitzy and fake and horrible as I expected, except that driving through it, all you see is trees and grass and canals.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Going nowhere really ****ing fast

So, SAA did not, in fact, manage to take me to Washington yesterday. This is in spite of assurances that
  • the plane from Cape Town would leave at 3 (the TV screens), or at 3:15 (announcement), or at 3:30 (what another passenger was told when asked), it in fact left at 4:15.
  • the outgoing plane to Washington would be delayed and we'd have time to get on it.
So, I'm well cheesed off. I spent the night in Johannesburg, and to make things more fun, the flight to Washington was held just long enough for them to rush my luggage on board. So I'm wearing mostly the same clothes as yesterday and until whenever I succeed in meeting my luggage, while my luggage is going round and round a carousel in Washington, or possibly it's in the baggage enquires office, or possibly it's been blown up as unattended baggage (hopefully not). Of course, nobody tells me any of this when I go to the transfers desk. It's back and forth, out through passport control and customs, over to domestic, back to international, upstairs, downstairs, back into international baggage hall, find this out, then back through customs again.

Hopefully the next post will be a little more positive and from a little further away...

Monday, October 29, 2007

And for my next trip...

Actually, I missed blogging about my last trip: a quick hop over to Cambridge for a job interview with ARM. I'll post some photos at some stage, since Cambridge is a rather pretty and historical place. For those not in the loop, I've accepted the job and will be moving there indefinitely in January.

However, this trip is the next TopCoder tournament, the TCCC 2007 in Disneyworld. So far I'm still sitting in Cape Town, because my flight to Joburg has been delayed an hour. It should be an interesting time in Joburg because I'll have very little time to make the connection, and getting from domestic to international requires negotiating a maze where all the signposts are lies.

More to following, but probably not from Joburg...

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A tragedy of errors

The final was quite disappointing, at least partially because I came 7th out of 8 and lost over 100 rating points. In the end, everybody solved the easy problem and nobody solved anything else, so the winner (Jan Kuipers) was simply whoever saw the solution to this problem the fastest. The tragedy is that tomek and I both solved the medium and darnley solved the hard, but all of us had teeny tiny errors: tomek thought that a certain case wasn't worth worrying about so he disabled a check for it (enabling it makes it right), I got a second root from an equation and thought it wouldn't matter if I just tried both (a one-character change disables the bogus root and fixes it), and darnley had some tiny error too.

The closing reception was a dinner at the next-door hotel/casino, Treasure Island. It turned out to be outside by the pool, which was rather warmer than I was hoping for, but at the end of the evening we went inside to the Ben & Jerry's (ice-cream shop). On returning to the hotel to go to bed I had a surreal if somewhat typically Vegas experience: two men and a woman get into the elevator with me, looking a bit drunk; one of the guys then starts telling me how they have hookers in their room and wants me to come and watch.

Today I plan to try to see a few things (there's supposed to be tigers on show near a side entrance to the casino, and if I have the energy I'll go to the Bellagio to see the fountains this evening), but mostly catching up on email and blogging and work and reading and so on. Also I'll be trying to figure out how to use the iPod shuffle that I apparently won in the Verisign trivia competition. Unfortunately all the music on my laptop is in Ogg, which the Shuffle won't play, so I'm converting it all to AAC.

Friday, June 29, 2007

I see blue people

First up: the wildcard round. tomek failed 2 of the 3 problems, but was fast enough on the remaining one (the medium) to take second place and advance to the final. That is going to significantly increase the level of competition.

The Blue Man Group was more or less as I expected, i.e., a heck of a lot better than the Tournament of Kings. Some amazing visual comedy and mime (not something I'd usually see, but which I really enjoyed), some music, mainly drumming (looked skilled but didn't excite me), and some just plain weird stuff (some of it pretty amusing). At one point they had TV screens suspended from the roof in front of each guy's face, with the face on the TV screen. There was amazing synchronisation: one guy would squirt some shaving cream onto another's face (with the cream appearing on his TV-screen face). Then he changed the third TV to an advert for the razor, plucked the razor out of the add (with the hand on the TV screen perfectly synched with his real arm), and proceeded to shave the second guy. Oh, and actually only two of them were on stage at this point - the third guy was just the head on the TV. Sorry, no photos allowed, but I do have some other random pictures I'll post later.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


This post is written by the #2 ranked TopCoder in the world, until at least 5:40pm. I won my semi-final room, so I'm advancing straight to the finals, and a minimum of $1000, along with darnley. As a result, it also boosted my rating to 3366, just ahead of tomek (and still way behind the #1 Petr with 3753).

The final is tomorrow, at 1:30pm PDT. There will be a live web-cast on (sorry South Africans, you may well not have enough bandwidth), and if you're already a TopCoder, you can watch the action in the arena applet. Not much more to say at this point; more info after the wildcard round.

Between our quests we sequin vests and impersonate Clark Gable

Firstly, the second semifinal: tomek, the highest-ranked coder in the contest, came third, and will therefore have to compete in the wildcard round for a place in the final. He was unlucky in having a silly bug in his easy problem and also failing the hard problem (along with everybody else) - he only made the wildcard because there were a lot of failures, and only one person got even two problems right.

Now, for the non-geeks reading my blog: last night we went to see "Tournament of Kings" at Excaliber, which is, wait for it... a casino! Not only is it a casino, but it's done up in a very fake garish Disney-esque castle with garish colours that probably didn't exist in the middle ages, or indeed before 1960. The actual show featured a bunch of "knights" (who were at the same time kings of assorted countries) doing jousting and sword-fighting and stuff, along with some plot involving some evil lord with demonic laughter, all of which played very loose with history, culture and mythology (it was supposedly King Arthur in charge of it all, and for some reason the kings from these other countries were the Knights of the Round Table, hence the title). The whole thing was excessively loud and seemed aimed at 10-year olds. There was also a bit tacked on the end with a bunch of acrobats, who climbed on top of each other a lot, although not in any depraved way.

The plus side of the whole adventure is that I actually got to see a genuine Vegas casino wedding chappel. Folks, this is not a mythical stereotype, it really exists. You can see it directly behind me, next to the Pizza Hut.
Tonight is The Blue Man Group, which I suspect will be a bit arty for my taste, but will hopefully have a degree of intellectual engagement more appropriate to the generally intelligent people at the TCO. Also, I compete in my semifinal in just over 3 hours. Since I still have jet-lag, it's currently 6:40am and I'm drafting this entry to kill time, and also sitting in the dark so as not to disturb my roommate.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Upset in first semi

Most of the readers probably don't know the structure of the algorithm contest at the final. The 48 contestants are split into 3 semifinals with 16 competitors each. The top 2 from each semi advance to the final. There is also a wildcard round, with positions 3-6 from each of the semis, and the top 2 from there also advance to the final.

The first semi was this morning. ACRush, the top seed remaining in the tournament (after Petr, who is miles ahead of everybody else, made a mistake in the last online round), has been knocked out completely. That leaves tomek as the most likely favourite; he will be competing this afternoon. I'm on tomorrow, so fortunately I don't have to go up against him, although there are plenty of scary people in my semifinal. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wear sunscreen

This morning I walked for a couple of kilometres into Vegas, partly to see the place and stretch my legs, and mostly to go to Barnes and Noble to look for books that are either expensive or unobtainable in South Africa. If I'd known
  1. How far it was
  2. How hot it was outside (it's apparently 40 degrees right now)
  3. How small the B&N was, especially the SF section
I don't think I would have bothered. In the end I didn't buy any books, although I did buy a DVI cable from the Best Buy next door. But I do have some photos, which I'll paste in here just as soon as I figure out how MacOS works, which I'm using because the WiFi driver seems to handle weak signals better than the Linux one. Actually iPhoto looks pretty nice.

Ok, here's the lobby. It has this amazing mini-rainforest in a dome, and then on the left you can see bits of the casino, which completely ruins the effect.

And here's the hotel from the outside:
There was also an amusing moment at the Subway yesterday, apart from it being in a casino. I order a small drink and start trying to put Pepsi in it, but only fizzy water comes out. The guy says to use the other dispenser machine, and also gives me a new cup that isn't half-full of fizzy water. But since he's already feeling bad for accidentally putting mayo on my sub, he replaces my normal-sized cup with a bucket, or at least that's what it looked like. So, I've got a nice, fresh, healthy low-fat sub (apart from the unwanted mayo)... and a bucket-full of sugary crap. And people wonder why America has an obesity problem.

Monday, June 25, 2007

On second thoughts, let us not go there. It is a silly place.

And Vegas is just as silly as all the TV and stereotypes led you to believe. The hotel part of the Mirage is build as three wings on top of the casino, which meet at a bank of elevators. But the elevators are nowhere near the lobby. They actually make you walk past hundreds of slot machines to get to the elevators. The lobby is actually really tasteful and impressive though (maybe some pictures tomorrow), it's a pity to spoil it with the tacky, garish, noisy casino nonsense.

That I was kind of expecting. The surprise came when I went to Subway to eat dinner. I'd already found one from Google Maps that was about 500 metres from the hotel, on the Strip. What it turned out to be in practice is a casino with a Subway stuffed into one corner - if I hadn't spotted the signature subway decor I would have thought I'd walked into the wrong place.

Anyway, now I must try to convince my body clock that it is 7pm, which is in fact too early to go to bed. If I get really desperate I could always work on my thesis, but in the meantime I have the remaining half, or about 600 pages, of Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction - when he writes a space opera, he doesn't muck about. If you're into space operas it's not half bad (in spite of his somewhat disturbing obsession with sex), although so far not as good as Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained,

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The horror, the horror

Well, not a good start to the trip. I start off in Jhb trying to find the VAT office to register my new laptop and camera for re-importation. I made the mistake of asking the first warm body I found, who cheerfully told me that it was after security. So I go through security, don't have to wait for too long at passport control despite the strike, and find... a VAT refund office for tourists, who cheerfully inform me that the place I wanted was before security. At this point I have insufficient time to fight my way back through security twice and stand in a queue to have my goods inspected, so I guess I'll just have to hope that the customs officials on my return are either friendly or on strike.

Next I arrive in Frankfurt, my least favourite airport. The only free places to sit are full of stale cigarette smoke, but that part only comes later. I arrived in a terminal full of signs to places like A19-26 but nothing actually helpful and couldn't find a Condor Airlines checkin in the international area, so I went through passport control to navigate the maze to find a Condor checkin. "This isn't an eticket," they say, "you need to collect a paper ticket". So I get directed off the Condor ticket desk, who say they don't have it, but since it was booked through Lufthansa, they might know. So I tootle over to Lufthansa, in a different part of the airport, who tap some keys and tell me that the ticket was issued to the travel agent, and the only thing they can do is treat it as a lost ticket, for which privilege I may pay E100. Wishing to get on the flight, I have now done so. Two passport controls (thank goodness for an EU passport!), three counters and a security check later (and by the looks of things, possibly a second security check???), I'm slightly cheesed off, and am getting on to the coffee and biscuits.

Oh, and the internet isn't free either. I'm sure I somehow got on free last time I was in Frankfurt, but apparently it is not to be.

How the other half live

I'm posting on my blog, which means it must be time for me to go gallivanting again. This time it is time for the TopCoder Open 2007, to be held in Las Vegas, Nevada. Not only do TopCoder fly everyone out, they are also putting us up and holding the contest in the Mirage! If you're going to follow the contest, I'm in Semifinal room 3 (on Thursday), and the final is on Friday.

This time I have new perks. I've now done so much flying with SAA and partners that I've been upgraded to Silver class, which gets me into the business class lounge even though I'm flying economy. I'm sitting in the lounge in Cape Town now. I think I'll go and get myself a cup of tea, while I can still get it made right (see my previous posts for rants about how Americans can't make a cup of tea to save their lives).

Friday, May 04, 2007

The wonderful world of corporate sponsorship

Yes, I'm travelling again, this time to Johannesburg, where the weather is nice but incredibly dry. The event is the Standard Bank IT Challenge, a programming contest which Standard Bank throws insane amounts of money at. They put us in the Park Hyatt (where a room for the night is more than my rent), flew judges out from England business class, and handed out MacBook Pros as prizes.

The regional (to determine which team advances from each university) was on Saturday, and was actually the tougher part. UCT fielded some very impressive competition, and we (myself, Carl Hultquist, Chris de Kadt and James Gray) only just won in the last ten minutes. If the results from all the regionals were merged, UCT took the top 5 places. Us and one other UCT team solved 4, the next other university was Stellenbosch with 2.

With that out of the way, the finals felt almost like taking candy from babies. We solved all 6 questions with about an hour to spare (much to the annoyance of the judges, who thought they'd upped the difficulty to challenge us) and we somehow did it without a single wrong submission; Stellenbosch came in second with only 3. So, the moral of the story is that UCT rocks at programming, and us old dogs can still show the young guys a thing or two. Also, MacOS X is shiny, but I don't think it will be too long before I'm installing Gentoo as well (about the first thing I did was download Firefox for Mac so that I could actually have TABS).

So, as may be inferred, I'm now sitting in the hotel playing with my shiny new MacBook Pro, killing time until it's time to go to the airport. After that the hard work starts, since we're going straight from this to coach at an olympiad training camp.