Training Camp Diary

Day 1 (Wed) Arrival Day

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter or fan:

Everyone arrived in Wisconsin on time and was greeted by sunshine -- something we haven’t seen lately.

It was a perfect day to begin our 12th USACO training camp.

 For dinner tonight we featured a “Wisconsin picnic.” That’s a brats (a sausage often used at Packer tailgate parties), hamburgers, corn-on-the-cob, vegetable salad, fruit salad, soft drinks and cookies. They had no problem going back for seconds.

 Head coach Rob Kolstad did the introductions, as only Rob can do, followed by an overview of the week. We viewed some slides of Athens, Greece from a recent trip I took in March to inspect the facilities for IOI 2004. The IOI will be help in the International Press Village of the Olympics.

 After dinner they enjoyed a couple hours of recreation -- billiards, ping-pong, shuffle board, bowling, risk, and chess. Soon they will get their hands on a computer, but first we want them to feel comfortable with each other.

 They are now all sitting (very comfortably of course) in front of a computer working on an “opening night” programming challenge. The prize is something they certainly, will not, we hope, have at home – a cow stapler.

 The finalists all have phones and free phone cards in their rooms. So if they don’t call home, well, we tried. I’ll always keep you informed just in case these boys are normal . :)


USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

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Day 2 (Thur) Picture Day

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter, or fan:

All the campers were reminded today to wear their Trojan Cow polo shirt for the group and individual pictures. I think you will like what you see. They certainly look like happy campers. All it takes is a few well timed jokes to get those beautiful smiles.

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After the pictures were done, it was back to the lab for a three-problem, three-hour competition. We do a competition every day. Some are shorter ( 3 hours) and two are longer (5 hours). Lucky for us, we have an automated grading system, developed by Rob, which is resting safely on his server back in Colorado Springs. When a contestant submits his program for grading, it goes flying over the Internet to Colorado, is compiled, run, graded essentially instantly, and the results come back to Wisconsin again over the Internet. This takes a second or two. You can see why we love it.

The hard part of programming competitions is making up problems, solving them, and creating the test data to test the solutions. That is what our staff spent many long hours doing before coming to camp.

After lunch, the finalists got an introduction to the art of test data writing. They were then asked to create test data to try to stump the programs they had just written. Like the game of tennis,  you test your opponent with different strokes to see which ones he/she may have a problem with, so you can exploit their weakness. That is the same objective here.

For a little break in the afternoon, we took the happy campers to the university pool for a little swim and a game Rob calls  "keep away." Two teams are formed and they try to keep a little fluffy ball away from each other. It quickly degenerates into organized dunking. We had the pool and two very serious life guards to ourselves, keeping everything legal.

After dinner, we loaded up the vans for a short trip to the Congo River mini golf course to play 18 holes. Our group of 22 pretty much took over the course, and it turned out to be more challenging than I expected. I thought mini-golf was only something you did on a date in high school for lack of anything better to do.

We ended the evening with ice cream and a lecture by Hal Burch called "Strategy and Complexity."

I can report that all campers are healthy and appear to be enjoying themselves.


USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

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Day 3 (Fri) Disc Golf

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter, or fan:

It’s Friday, but it doesn’t feel like it for the campers and the staff. Around campus, people have left for the holidays and everything is quiet except for 16 clicking keyboards in the computer lab. They’re doing a short three-hour competition before the first Challenge Round tomorrow.

Lunches are more relaxed now as everyone has gotten better acquainted. We’re taking the whole hour.

Hal led the review of the previous contest problems. He called on three campers, Alex, Eric, and Brian to share their ideas and solutions.  This was followed by coach Percy’s analysis of a problem set.

Then it was out to the campus 18-hole disc golf course for a demonstration and practice round. Our returning finalists had noticeably improved their drive and putting strokes. This was a warm up for the championship disc golf tournament coming up next week, provided we don’t get rained out. There is a good chance of that, given the weather patterns we see each day on

After dinner, the campers got a chance to hear a lecture from Brian Dean, MIT’s outstanding teacher of the year, on his specialty “Geometric graph algorithms.”

Rob finished off the evening with a perennial favorite -- the Business Simulation Game. To win this simulation game, “greed is good.”

The campers are now off to bed resting up for Challenge Round Number 1 tomorrow. One finalist, however, will not have such a peaceful evening. At 3 pm Brian Jacokes hopped on a plane back to Washington DC to run a 2 mile race for his high school track team. It was a very important regional track meet, something Brian had been working towards for the last 4 years.  My wife, Linda will pick him up tomorrow morning at 7:30 am and rush him down here in time for the 5-hour Challenge Round I.  That’s what you call track team loyalty.


USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

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Day 4 (Sat) Challenge Round I

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter, or fan:

Everyone was up early, (or so we thought) , had breakfast, and  was ready to begin the first Challenge Round at 8 am sharp. We noticed that two campers were not at their terminals. Oh well, they know the rules and will have to suffer the consequences -- lost programming time. But when a few minutes stretched into 30, Rob went to investigate and, sure enough, both were sound asleep. They moved quickly for sleepy boys, got to the contest room, and had 4 hours and 15 minutes left on a 5 hour contest.

A power glitch in Colorado Springs caused an electrical failure on the grading server, which could have been a serious problem had  it not been completely backed up on another computer. Rob quickly ( within a few minutes) had everything back online. It took a phone call to a neighbor who went to his house to correct the problem.

When the round was all over, the grading program instantly printed out a score sheet for each contestant showing the results on every test case of every problem they attempted. This gave the boys lots to talk about over lunch.

After lunch, Hal reviewed the solution algorithms for each problem, and the campers were then free to work further on their programs or have free time.

After a long day of programming, we packed  into the vans and headed out for Tinseltown USA to see Shrek 2. It was a big hit and we gave it 23 thumbs up. The extra thumb was Christophe Elek's from IBM, who joined our camp for a couple days.

Rob stops at all Cold Stone ice cream stores, so we all enjoyed another dish of  ice cream with assorted yummy  toppings. Oh well, it's only four more days and life returns to normal.


USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

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Day 5 (Sun) Code Ruler

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter, or fan:

Sunday is normally a day of rest in the outside world, but at the USACO training camp it was a marathon coding day from 9 am to 9 pm, with meal breaks. It began in the morning with a 3-hour contest and six problems. No one could possibly do that many problems in this time frame, which was the point of the contest – to learn how to pick out the easiest ones and do them first.

 After lunch, Christophe Elek from IBM introduced Eclipse and the Java programming challenge, “Code Ruler.” Java is not one of the languages we use at our training camp, because it is not used at the International Olympiad.  However, what participants needed to know for this game was minimal and quickly learned. We split the group into pairs (one former camper with a “newbie”) and issued the challenge: March your knights into the kingdom, capture castles, hold land, and maximize your total points. 

 After dinner, the teams gathered in front of a large projection screen to watch their knights defend the home castle, capture the opponent’s, and avoid getting knocked off. Battles were waged to the approval or dismay of their creators’, culminating in a final points ranking. The winning team: “Joe and Eric P.” – the most creative coders (with the most unimaginative team name). They beat out Farmer John (second) and King Harold (third). The staff team: Mrs. Nice Cow (Russ and Percy) wasn’t nice in battle and dominated the field -- but they don’t count.

This same Java programming challenge was used at the ACM World finals this year, which pitted the best college teams in the world against each other. Just for fun, Chris took the three top ACM teams and played them against our top three. The results were surprising and impressive. Our randomly paired USACO teams matched the college world champs.

After 12 hours of coding, it was time for a rest and The Quiz Show, starring our own “Alex Trebek replacement,” Rob Kolstad.  As you will see in the daily photos, he’s funnier. After five rounds, Brian Jacokes, who has had more than his share of wins at camp, walked off with the coveted top prize – a bovine notepad holder.

Our longest day at camp ended at 11 pm, and the campers were given the option of sleeping in on Memorial Day. Nothing is on the schedule until 1 pm – except breakfast and lunch. Disc golf is optional.


USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

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Day 6 (Mon-Memorial Day) Rest Day

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter, or fan:

It was time to recharge the batteries. The campers were allowed to sleep until noon, and many did.  The coaches looked after the finalists while I stayed home and mowed the lawn, among other things.  Disc golf practice was optional.

In the afternoon, another short programming contest was help where the problems and test data were created by the finalists. They got to bed relatively early for the all important Challenge Round II tomorrow. I even gave the camera a rest so no photos today.

USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

Day 7 (Tue) Challenge Round II, Disc Golf Final, Awards Dinner

Dear USACO parent, sponsor, reporter, or fan:

This morning, everyone was up, had breakfast, and ready for Challenge Round II. All the marbles were on the line. A slip today could make the difference between making the USA Team and a trip to Greece, and not. We do not share the ranking of the finalists at any point in the competition. But they are free to share their scores after any contest. So they probably have figured out a couple of the highest ranking competitors sure to make the team. But the other two are not clear and today's results are still unknown.

After five hours, the competition ended and the finalists received their scores. Our secret ranking was updated and the results were decisive. There was no question about it, the top four were tops is all categories. A call was placed to Trophy Boy in Kenosha, with the four USA Team names. They would be engraved on the trophies and ready for the awards ceremony in four hours.

The awards banquet was held at the Chancery in downtown Racine overlooking Lake Michigan. We have our won private room. Curious customers come by our table to guess what group this is. Soccer maybe? Everyone picks what they like from the menu.

After dessert, we began the awards ceremony. The Disc Golf champions were Brian Jacokes for the finalists and Brian Dean for the coaches. The coaches were denied the ultimate victory (beating me) once again as I held par on the last hole to win a one stroke victory. But I have an advantage -- I'm more than twice their age.

The four team members to IOI were introduced one at time to keep everyone in suspense. Anders Kaseorg, Eric Price, Alex Schwendner, and Brian Dean.  No, no, of course Brian Dean is going to Athens as a coach,  it's Brian Jacokes who will be on the team. The coaches couldn't resist pulling a little joke on Brain. He had won the mini-golf round , the disc golf championship, and the quiz show, they felt compelled to make him sweat. Trophies were awarded to the 2004 USA Team to IOI.

All of the finalists received a certificate of achievement, a group and individual picture, and a wonderfully useful sports bag from IBM filled with all kinds of goodies. But the show was not over. Rob presented each camper with a special certificate emphasizing some unique characteristic observed by the coaches during the week. It's the highlight of the evening and always funny -- as least for us.

I presented  the coaches with the camp photo and Rob with a unique piece of art -- a paper mache Trojan Cow. The Trojan Cow was chosen this year since the IOI2004 is will be held in Greece.

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USACO 2004 is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM and IBM

NEWS RELEASE: June 2, 2004


            KENOSHA, Wis.-High school students from Charlotte, N.C., Austin, Texas, and two from Alexandria, Va., will represent the United States during the International Olympiad in Informatics at Athens, Greece, this summer. The four-person team was selected during the USA Computing Olympiad (USACO) training camp held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

            The team includes returning members Anders Kaseorg, a home school senior from Charlotte; Alex Schwendner, a home schooled junior from Austin; and two students from Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Alexandria: senior Brian Jacokes and junior Eric Price. The four were selected from a field of 16 young computer programmers invited to the UW-Parkside campus in Kenosha. Invitations to the training camp were made on the strength of the students' scores during six Internet programming competitions.

            The US team will challenge teams from more than 75 countries during the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). This year’s competition in Athens begins two weeks after the end of the Summer Olympics with contestants being housed in the Olympic Press Village.    

            More information about the USACO training camp and this year’s team members is available at the USACO web site. The USA Computer Olympiad is sponsored by USENIX, SANS, ACM, and IBM.


Day 8 (Wed) Great America

The final day of camp is traditionally a trip to Great America theme park in Gurnee, IL a short 30 minute drive from campus. I dropped them off with the coaches at 9:30 am and came back at 6:00 pm to pick them up. Everyone showed up at the main gate on time and we left for Pizza Hut and our last meal together.

The evening ended with a group discussion of the 2004 USACO training camp. The next morning there were four van runs to the Milwaukee airport and by 11:00 am it would be all over for another year.

After 12 training camps, it looks easy -- but it is a lot of work.

Our small staff, of four former USA Team members, Rob, and me volunteer our time to run the entire USACO program. It begins with 6 Internet competitions and ends with the training camp and a trip to IOI. Our sponsors pay for the travel and training camp bills. Rob leaves his day job to be at camp because he loves it. The coaches leave behind their graduate work at MIT and Carnegie Mellon because they love it. Essential six people and four sponsors is all that is behind the curtain that puts on the show for the United States. In most countries, this is a task for a department in the Ministry of Education with a full time staff.

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Don Piele
Director, USACO

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