Letter home from Portugal
September 11, 1998
How time flies when you're having fun in Portugal. Here it is the next to last day of the 10th IOI in Setúbal, about an hour's drive south of Lisbon. We just got back from the awards ceremony at the town theatre, where 22 gold, 40 silver and 59 bronze medals were awarded to approximately half of the 248 participants representing 65 countries. Our veteran, Matt Craighead, from St. Paul Academy in Minnesota, received a silver medal in his final appearance as a USA team member. In the two previous IOI's he received a bronze and a gold medal making him our most decorated team member from the US. Even though he is only 16 and normally would have three more years of eligibility, he just entered MIT as a freshman, which automatically ends his career in this world class computing competition for pre-college students. We will miss Matt a lot. We have had the pleasure of watching a boy literally grow before our eyes into a fine young man who we'll hear from again. In fact, we'll be calling on him in the year 2003, as well as on other former USA team members, to help us bring the 15th IOI to the United States.
Adrian Sox, 18 from Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, brought home a gold medal in his first try at IOI. Adrian had been our top ranked competitor all year, winning one of the three Internet competitions, ranking number one in the USA National Competition, and placing first in the week-long summer training program held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in July. It was reassuring to know that compared to the best computer problem solvers from all over the world, many of them with years of IOI experience, Adrian ranks with the very best. This was Adrian's final year, because he entered Carnegie Mellon University at a freshman in the fall. We not only lost our top competitor, but a very tough ultimate Frisbee player. Expect a call from us in 2003, Adrian.
Alex Wissner-Gross, a Junior at Great Neck South High School in Great Neck, NY and Chuong Do, a Sophomore at Garland High School, in Garland Texas, completed our team of four members. Both missed the cut-off score to medal this year, but both have a chance, since they are still in high school, to come back and try again. Just getting to the IOI is a reward in itself - an all expense paid trip to a new part of the world for an exciting and stimulating week of fun and competition. But now, with a bit of experience under their belts, they have become veterans who know what it takes to crack into the medal range at IOI. We're expecting great things from them in 1999.
I'm sure you are wondering is an IOI all work and no play? Let me tell you a bit about its recreational side. Two days were set aside for excursions. One of the reasons that Portugal hosted the IOI in 1998 was the presence of the 1998 World Exposition. So, naturally, one of the excursions was to Expo 98. Another excursion was to the Palmela castle, which the first king of Portugal took from the Moors in 1147 and later offered to the nuns of Saint James. Today the castle, restored by the state, is a national monument hotel.
Running an IOI with 250 students is not something a country gets much experience doing. After all, this is a once in a lifetime undertaking. As a result, it is not unusual to have a few bugs creep into the operation. True to form a bug hit at the conclusion of the first day's five-hour competition. The program being used by the judges to grade all 248 students failed. As a result, the grading was delayed approximately eight hours while the bugs were fixed. This caused exhaustion both for the team members who had been up since 5:00 am in the morning, and the judges charged with grading all the programs. We made the decision to send our team to bed after 11 pm in the evening. The United States team, which comes near the end of the alphabet, was not graded until 2 am in the morning. I stayed around to witness the process and just made it for the last ferry ride back to Troia at 3 am.
One might think that grading computer programs would be easy. A data set of numbers is input to each program, and the output is checked with a known solution. If the output matches the known solution and it is produced within a given time limit, you get full credit for the data set. A total of five different data sets were tested with each program, and the total score was then computed. A perfect score meant all five data sets produced the expected answer within the time period allotted. What could be easier?
Automated grading systems are wonderful, if they work as expected. They are completely objective and do all the laborious checking of answers. However, if they have a mind of their own or have been instructed to only accept answers of a particular form, then a correct program which produces all the right output can be given a zero mark. This is not just a hypothetical situation, it happened on the first problem of the first day's competition. Students who produced a correct answer -- let's say 123, but output their solution as 123_ where _ is a space, received zero points for a problem worth 100 points. Correcting this problem required a meeting of the general assembly, which debated the rules and overwhelmingly voted that this problem should be regraded since the IOI is basically an algorithm contest and not a tricky output competition. Unfortunately, the problems that plagued the first round overwhelmed the judges and they were never able recover the time to do the regrading. So the results stood and approximately 20 students lost 100 points each which had the affect of dropping them down one medal level. Matt was one of those affected. But it didn't bother him as much as it did the rest of us. He knew he had the correct answer, and that's all that mattered. In all fairness to the Portuguese judges, they worked very hard under difficult and stressful conditions. We applaud them for their valiant efforts.
What was my most memorable event? The VIP dinner at Quinta das Torres for all the team leaders. This is the annual evening dinner party after all the medal ranking are determined. It is a night of great food, drinks, music and dancing. Towards the end of the evening the beat of music grew faster and those who remembered their Latin steps and those who didn't were out on the floor huffing and puffing determined to remain standing until the end.
Tomorrow the team and team leaders and I are headed home. I took lots of digital photos that I will put up shortly on our web site at http://usaco.uwp.edu. Here is one that I like of our team all dressed up in their snappy USA team shirts. By the way, Slovakia had the most successful team at this year's IOI and the only one with four gold medals. You don't need to be a big country to have top-flight computer programmers.
1998 USA Team
Matt Craighead, Adrian Sox, Chuong Do, and Alex Wissner-Gross
Team leaders, Rob Kolstad, and Greg Galperin all send their best wishes. Oh yes, I can't forget to mention our wonderful sponsor USENIX, which puts up the money each year in support of the USA Computing Olympiad. What would we do without them?
USA Team Leader