A chronicle of our weekend trip to Avila University in Kansas City for CCSC, a computer science symposium with a programming contest!
4:00 am, Friday
Wake up. Shower. Grab all my stuff and head to the lobby to meet the other two guys I’m going with. Who are late. Way to go, guys!
Walk out to my car, a ten-or-fifteen minute walk through a couple dark spots, and get on the road south, where we’re picking up our professor at his house before we head down to Kansas City.
Reach his house after a couple confusing round-the-block turns (seriously, who puts one-way streets in a residential area?) and transfer to his car, with junk in the back and a heater that either doesn’t work or he hasn’t turned on. It’s a little chilly. Everyone does a little bit of napping in between listening to public radio. All I remember is that they’re trying to make $67000 in two days for some drive they’re doing. What a load.
We finally arrive, just a few minutes late for the first presentation of the day. It’s a three-hour tutorial workshop presentation on developing for Android phones and tablets using Eclipse. We didn’t end up missing much in the way of talking, but having not already installed the Android SDK (which was apparently a two-hour-long download), there was no way to keep up with the coding. What I got out of the talk that developing for Android is a pain in the ass: every platform is really different except for four buttons, everything works slowly, testing is hard regardless of what devices you have in front of you, and there’s a lot of cruft and auto-magically generated things that you’re not supposed to touch but can still see. Oh, and a nap, when I accidentally fell asleep again.
Lunch in the student cafeteria on campus. It’s only about six bucks, cheaper than the dining halls back at UNL for non-students. I don’t eat much—had too many donuts at the Android workshop, whoops!—but there’s good food to be had. Chase goes through the line and gets asked, “Whatchoo want, white boy?” by the tall black man working behind the counter. I guess that’s Missouri-style talk for, “Hi, you’re not from here.”
An hour-long talk from a Rachel Hack (hah), the community liaison for Google on the Google Fiber project. This was fascinating. Google Fiber in a nutshell is gigabit-transmission speeds for internet. Upload and download. That’s thousands of times faster than current broadband rates. And it’s here, in select neighborhoods in Kansas City, expanding all the while. Their next target is Dallas, I believe, and I think this is possibly the biggest shift in how we consider the internet in years. Everything’s already in the cloud, but we could have so much more.
A quick hour-or-so long talk in a classroom about word games, with a focus on programming and specifically programming in Python. It was clearly aimed at teachers for lower-level classes, as some of the basic ideas were built around “CS 1” and “CS 2” ideas. It’s interesting and interactive, certainly, but perhaps a bit below (or above) our heads.
Another talk about the support for parallel programming in C++. This is the most interesting thing all day. The first half is a talk about simple threading code in C++, which he was nice enough to hand out the code for on a flash drive. For simple C++ code, creating and running threads is nice and moderately easy: everything’s a process and the syntax is always nearly the same. Something that’s always seriously put me off about C++ is the lack of standardization in several parts: with the advent of C++11, a two-year-old update to a language, there are multiple compilers and they all have different behaviors in some situations. The guy is a fantastic speaker, though: he talks fast and clearly and confidently and is super knowledgeable about this topic, even engaging people during the break about memory allocation and other topics.
Dinner time. We had a fantastic fancy dinner, with separated salad and dinner and dessert forks and everything. Mashed potatoes, rolls, steak, and cheesecake. Then a Ken Scribner, Vice President of some damn thing at Cerner. He was very real, down-to-earth, and had a heck of a lot to say on the transition in the business model from “client buys the software, buys the license, tries to maintain the database by itself, does the work, etc” to “client pays for our webservice and we do all the heavy lifting.” He fielded questions from the audience and talked a lot of numbers in storage, a lot about security, a lot about the past and a lot about where students and professors should be moving in the field. The answer is still forward. Learn to learn. Computer science is so volatile that having a narrow skillset screws you sideways. He was great to hear.
Checked into the hotel. Our professor got his own room and the three of us took the other. We drew cards for the two beds and I ended up by myself, hooray luck of the draw. Also, there’s a wireless network somewhere near the hotel with the tag AsLan, which I thought was the funniest thing ever.
6:30 am, Saturday
Wake up early again, though not quite as early this time. Shower and rustle the other guys awake. Tom ended up sleeping on the floor and didn’t seem to mind, so everyone won. Head down to breakfast, which was free and pretty decent for hotel food, though I didn’t partake in the donuts. I know better now. We get our stuff packed up and leave for campus.
With nothing much better to do, the three of us wander into a talk on the virtues of the Kinect, which instead of being particularly inspiring or exciting is just a series of tech demos with the Kinect box. I’m more interested in how Kinect augments a typical workflow, i.e. can you use gesture recognition to make mundane computing tasks faster and more efficient? He doesn’t have any good answers and we leave.
…Nothing. We wander around campus for a bit and find one of the student lounges, where Tom and I promptly fall asleep on a couch while Chase works on homework. Eventually we wake up, play a couple games of pool, surf the internet more, and head back to the main building to meet up with everyone else.
Lunch time. I’m hungry. We head back to the cafeteria and I discover what’s been giving me an upset stomach the last day or so: the cafeteria pizza. It’s nasty. Seriously. On the surface it’s tasty but that only masks the hellfire that spawns in your stomach.
Everyone gets their team login information and instructions on where to go for the competition, which is going to be starting late (go figure). One problem. We didn’t get any information! A couple of questions reveal that our coach didn’t look in the tiniest part of the website and shoot off an email to the correct person to signify that there was a team competing. Not that we’d all registered as student participants in the programming contest, or anything. Oh wait. We did. This eventually gets squared away, though, and we get our own cool spot in the database. Then the contest!
As the final seconds of the competition tick away, we’re only a couple lines from solving a couple of the problems. We’ve correctly submitted two of the five given, one more has an algorithm that is mysteriously wrong, and the one I’m on gives completely correct output…but for only one test case at a time. After some rushed time spent with the debugger, it turns out it was a misnamed variable in only one spot that was causing the error. We fix the error, quickly test it, and go to submit it, only to find out that time had just run out. With literally 30 seconds more, we were likely to have had one more correct problem. How frustrating. I threw my pen. And kicked a chair.
The awards “banquet” with hot fresh Papa John’s pizza. Great, more pizza! I avoid it like the plague, have a breadstick and some soda. We ended up getting eighth, the top of the teams that had solved two problems. Had we solved three, we potentially would have shot up to fourth or fifth, depending on the timing. Everyone claps for the winners and we get back in the car to drive home.
Somewhere along the ride back, everyone kind of gets the same hankering for some shakes. We find a McDonald’s (specifically a Rock and Roll McDonald’s) and ask for shakes, only to find out that the only broken thing in the whole restaurant is the shake machine. Cool. So ice cream and a little food goes around, and we ride the rest of the way back to our professor’s house. Quick bathroom break and we drive back home, through a thunderstorm (which was cool) and get home around 12:30.
What a ride. The presentations varied between vaguely interesting and downright fascinating, and we did pretty well at the contest despite some managerial problems.