Alberta and Waterloo bring home the hardware at ACM finals

SAN ANTONIO, Tex. — Canada brought home two bronze medals in this year’s ACM-International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals Wednesday night, placing them among the top three teams in North America with only Massachusetts Institute of Technology finishing ahead.

The University of Alberta team placed 11th out of 83 teams, solving four out of 10 problems in 479 minutes while the University of Waterloo placed 12th with the same number of problems solved in 636 minutes. U of A, which tied for 29th place with 17 other teams at last year’s ICPC in Shanghai, finished ahead of Queen’s University in 2004, which came in 12th place, but behind last year’s Waterloo team, which placed fourth overall. Both U of A and Waterloo also won a cash prize of US$1,050 — up 50 dollars from previous years because as ACM-ICPC executive director Bill Poucher put it, “$1,050 is divisible by three. $1,000 is not.”

The top 12 teams all win medals with each group of four receiving bronze, silver and gold respectively. Silver winners like MIT, which placed eighth with five problems solved in 831 minutes, are given a cash price of US$2,100. Gold winners, with the exception of the champions receive US$3,000. The top team, Saratov State University of Russia, which solved six problems in 917 minutes, receives US$10,060. Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which won the contest last year, placed fifth, one spot out of a gold medal. Other gold winners were Jagiellonian University — Krakow, Altai State Technical University and University of Twente.

When U of A was called to the stage to receive their award, team member Zachary Friggstad, a graduate student in computer science, said he was shocked they beat Waterloo.

“I was surprised we got such a high ranking,” said Friggstad. “I guess we solved a harder set of problems.” The awards were handed out on Wednesday evening following a grueling five-hour programming contest in which participants were given 10 problems to solve. Each team is permitted one Lenovo ThinkPad computer (IBM has been a sponsor of the event since 1997 and announced it would continue through 2012), pencils and paper, a calculator and 25 pages of notes.

Contestants are awarded points from a panel of 11 judges on the overall number of problems solved, and the amount of time they solve them in. When a team correctly solves a problem, they are given a balloon that corresponds with the colour associated with the problem. Teams are penalized an additional 20 minutes for every incorrect submission. Contestants were treated to a surprise celebration at an authentic Texas ranch outside of the city on Wednesday night following the ceremony.

U of A’s coach Piotr Rudnicki said MIT, which practiced online with U of A and other Canadian universities in preparation for this year’s contest, had a little help from his students. “MIT learned from us,” he said. MIT solved the first problem in 10 minutes, setting a record as the fastest time to do so in the 30 years since the contest has been running.

MIT was also on the mind of Waterloo team member David Pritchard, who was on the prestigious university’s team last year and is now a first-year PhD student in combinatorichs and optimization (CNO) at Waterloo. He said while he doesn’t pay attention to the other teams during the competition he was “trying to beat MIT.”

On the eve of the final contest, Friggstad’s teammate Sumudu Fernando, a fourth year engineering and physics student at U of A, said his goal was to solve six problems.

“Last year we solved four problems,” said Fernando. “We’re aiming for six this year. If each of us solves two problems, we can get into the top ten.”

U of A’s third team member is Andrew Neitsch, who is currently working on his graduate degree in mathematics. All team members will not be eligible to participate in next year’s contest, whose location has not yet been officially determined. Contestants are not permitted to enter ICPC if they have more than five years of education or have participated in two previous contests.

Waterloo’s Pritchard and his teammates, Kartikaya Gupta, a fourth year software engineering student, and Tor Myklebust, a fourth year pure math and CNO student, said they wasted an hour and a half on the bit compressor problem.

“At the start it’s useful to see who is doing what,” said Pritchard, explaining that a common strategy is to see what colour balloon other teams get first, which indicates what problem is the easiest to solve.

U of A’s Fernando said he had an idea of which problems were harder.

“The two that looked hard were C and H,” said Fernando. “We didn’t attempt those two.” Very few teams solved the former problem, which asked participants to write a program to determine whether their new art sculpture was static, while no one correctly solved the latter, which asked contestants to count the number of pockets in a flat folded square of paper.

Canada had five teams in this year’s competition, which was hosted by Baylor University (Baylor won the contest in 1982), with University of British Columbia placing 13th with four problems solved and Simon Fraser University and University of Toronto tied for 19th place with 20 other teams. SFU placed seventh in a pre-competition Java challenge and first overall in North America. Canadian universities have traditionally done very well in the worldwide competition with Waterloo garnering two number one spots in 1994 and, more recently, in 1999.

UBC coach Bartholomew Furrow, who was on the Queen’s team in 2004 and is now studying for his masters degree in physics, isn’t worried about his team’s future.

“You can tell when people have that spark,” he said. “We’ve got a ton of guys waiting in the wings.”

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