Thursday, August 28, 2008

IOI Day 5: Contest, Conference and VIP Dinner

As you will have seen from my previous posts the second round of competition took place on Wednesday. Well, actually it is all over now and I am back home in South Africa. Things just got too hectic and sleep became a higher priority than blogging. I'll be going back and blogging about what happened for the last few days.

Day 5 started with the second and final round of competition, which from seeing the problems the night before I considered easier than those from the first round. Our guys went into this round still standing a fair chance given the low scores from round one. I was not to see them until it was all over though as us team leaders were in quarantine.

The day started with an early breakfast. I had my presentation to give at the IOI Conference and I wasn't going to be late. I was scheduled for 10:30, the second slot. I arrived early to get my presentation onto the laptop they were using, however, after much waiting no laptop arrived. They wouldn't let us use the main PC that was there as it was connected to the network so we had to wait for a laptop to come, which took a while. During this time I was told that the first speaker was busy in a meeting and so I was to go first. As if the nerves couldn't get any worse they finally brought the laptop and the first person to copy his slides was having difficulties, but luckily I was able to step in and resolve them.

Finally my presentation was underway. The paper I presented, titled "Challenges Running a Computer Olympiad in South Africa" is available here and my slides here. It went well and timing was spot-on 20 minutes. The questions that followed were most interesting, although I must admit I have forgotten most of them. Wolfgang was interested in the decline in numbers for the second round upon introducing the new first round format. A couple people were interested in what we did with promising results from the first round if the student had no access to a computer.

After the presentation, however, is when the real fun started. Several people approached me to discuss some of the points I had made. There were those just stunned at the difficulties we face back home and our novel approaches at tackling them. The Dutch who know us so well were even themselves surprised at how difficult our task was! One of the unsurprising interests was our experience with Python which a few others were testing out. There was even some interest in our efforts to get juniors involved.

Once the presentation was done I was far more relaxed, although we still had the contestants hacking away at the problems. I enjoyed the rest of the presentations and there were some great ones given, although there were also those that went bad, mainly by non-native English speakers -- got to give them a hand for trying though. One that especially caught my interest was Ben's paper on alternative training methods. After all the presentations it was announced that the 3rd IOI Conference will be held during the next IOI in Bulgaria. I later caught up with Valentina who runs the conference and she told me they're planning on setting the topic on how countries have progressed over the years.

When we got back to the rooms lunch was not yet ready for us, but I had a couple more discussions about my paper leading me to almost forget entirely about lunch! The contestants seemed to be taking longer to come back this time, but I eventually found our guys just after lunch. The general atmosphere wasn't that great and everyone was keeping to themselves which meant we had to wait for the results to come out. Before they could be released they had already found the computers and started Counter Strike, which proved contagious as several others joined.

When the results finally arrived (they were slow to place them in the pigeon holes again!) I rushed to collect them. Unfortunately the team weren't as anxious to see them as I was, understandable after seeing them. Mark, who had done well on day one did poorly this round while Saadiq was the one to clinch our one hope of success with a full score on linear gardens. All-in-all the problems proved a serious challenge to our team and they weren't expecting such a toughie. Hopefully the two that can return will learn from this experience.

Saadiq ended up with an ear infection and our team leader took him to get medical treatment. Apparently they brought an ambulance sirens blurting yet never even checked his ears! Fortunately his father is a doctor so since returning he's gone for a proper check-up. The Counter Strike returned and continued for many hours. At its peak I counted 12 on the provided computers and many more on laptops. This made getting a computer for Internet usage very difficult.

After a long discussion with some of the guys I'd met earlier in the week, we had our VIP Dinner to go to. It's not often people like us get to go to such an event. The team leaders and deputy leaders were given special invitations the night before and most people dressed in suits, however, with the weather we didn't come prepared for this so I went in the smartest I had, a shirt. I tried dragging Mohamed Taha of the HSC along. He was resistant as he was extremely tired, but I managed to convince him. Unfortunately the buses were packed, but he found a ride with Osama of the ISC. On the road to the dinner I had a discussion with the Macedonian leader who was inspired by my presentation and we exchanged experiences and both gained new ideas from one another.

When we arrived we were greeted by a most wonderful venue full of people dressed in suits, as you can see below. They even laid out the "red" carpet for us. The drinks they served were absolutely stunning, I loved the strawberry and guava! Soon after arriving the main guests arrived. There was the Minister of IT and Communications and the Minister of Education. For the locals it was a great honour to be able to host people of such stature. Just before leaving for the dinner I also heard that many ambassadors were attending the dinner. It turns out all the country's ambassadors had been invited, but unfortunately our's did not show up (it seems roughly half did!).

I wandered around outside a bit with the Macedonian leader before finding Taha and chatting more with him.

Finally when they were ready for us to take our seats we discovered we had been preassigned seats by country. Unfortunately that meant we had to split up and I ended up at a table with Singapore and Serbia. The Serbian ambassador and his wife were also at our table and somehow the two of them ended up sitting between Peter and I, so the Serbian team never really spoke with their ambassador. I had a great time talking with him about his experiences in Cairo, especially as a foreigner who'd lived there for 2.5 years. Strangely he prefers living in Egypt to Serbia, something I wasn't expecting.

The dinner started with several speeches, quite possibly more than any other event. Frankly I've heard enough propaganda from such speeches that I mostly ignored what was being said. The meal that followed was easily the best we had had that week. One good thing about having the ambassador next to me is that he warned me what not to eat, especially the lettuce. During the dinner we had what could end up being quite an historic moment for us in that Nigeria confirmed that they would be hosting the first African Olympiad in Informatics in Max/June 2009. They were that quick in contacting their government and organising the funds!

Once the desert was over we were, as usual, quickly scurried out of the venue. I found it very annoying when they did this, but I suppose it's their culture so it's normal to them. When we got back the guys were still at CS. In fact they ended up pulling right through till breakfast and then skipped the tour the next day in favour of sleep! I had some fun with Ricardo from Spain, Mile from Macedonia and for some time one of the contestants from Azerbaijan (apparently they do absolutely no training for the IOI!). Mile was trying to get us to enter the BOI which they're hosting in October, but it's too far for us and costs too high.

After having enough with the indoors we took a walk outside, something I hadn't done all week so I saw a couple new places. Just before our walk we were asked by one of the guides if we wanted McDonald's. Given that we were in Egypt and that it was one in the morning, we kindly rejected the offer. When we returned from our walk we noticed he had started getting quite the list of orders together. I will never forget him on the phone in the cheesy accent ordering a "Chicken Friday hello hello". Apparently Chicken Friday really is the name of a burger, while "hello" or however you spell it is "nice" in Arabic. Well he ended up taking a lot longer than any of us could have expected. He finally put the order through at three in the morning, which by that time he had convinced us to order a Mc Arabic. Just look at the order he has on his lap:

When he told me the order was going to take two hours to deliver I took it as a cue to go sleep. With such a large order there was bound to be someone who would take my burger, which I had actually planned on sharing with Ricardo anyway. The next morning I found out the order arrived at 04:30 and came to 1,500 Egyptian Pounds ($300)!

The next day was the final GA meeting followed by Dream Park World for the contestants and the Egyptian Museum for the team leaders, ending off with the awards ceremony.

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