15 Apr 2006

ThinkQuest Live 2005

I was in San Francisco from September 18 to 22, as part of ThinkQuest Live, my reward for winning ThinkQuest October 2004 competition. Here is my journal of the event.

So here we go, Day ONE:

Landed at SFO (San Francisco Airport) at 2.20 p.m. sharp, Singapore Airlines safely carrying me and my dad half way across the world. The flight jouney itself was comfortable. (after all it is SQ, what else do you expect?) Watched a couple of movies but had a hard time trying to sleep. I had a thick stack of revision notes under my seat, just in case I had the mood to study (which I sort of knew is never going to come, but I wanted to at least stay guilt-free). After a five hour journey to Korea (transition), it was another eleven more hours in the clouds to SF.

The weather is perhaps one of the best I have experienced. It is aircon temperature, so it is cool, but not cold. You barely perspire and don’t feel that tired when you walk around in the sun.

By the time I checked into the SF Mariott Hotel (five star, by the way), I was simply exhausted. But I wanted to get used to the local time quickly so kept myself away from the bed. Instead, I went out with my Dad to get my first glimpse of the city. We were sort of staying in the city area, so lots of sky scrapers and high tech structures all around.

But the poor we will always have. In stark contrast to the highly urbanised first-world looking buildings, there were so many beggars on the streets asking people for money. Most of them (in fact I think all of them) were African Americans.

Anyway, there were more shocks waiting for me. If there is one thing that I probably learnt that day (the hard way), it was that unless it is very urgent, avoid walking in unknown streets late in night in a foreign country. San Francisco is a scary place at night time. Most shops close quite early and all sorts of wierdos hang out on the streets at night time. SF is not Singapore.

Amongst other things, I saw shattered window panes and blood splattered all around on the pavement (fresh blood mind you, and in the darkness, I almost stepped on some of it, urgh…). To be frank, I was quite scared. Maybe because I was the only Asian on the street?

Later I leant from a cop (whom I approached to ask directions for some place) that street is quite a dangerous place and he asked me to be careful while I was near that place. From other people later, I also learnt that while compared to other cities in the States like New York, SF is not really the place to “hang around” in the night.

I gladly returned to the comforts of my hotel room, and was asleep the moment I laid on the bed.

Day TWO

Surprisingly, I woke up fresh on Day TWO, after roughly ten hours of sleep. All of us (the team, Mr. Gi and the chaperones) met at the hotel lobby at 8.00 am and went out for breakfast. The event is yet to officially begin, so we had to manage our own meals. We returned slowly at around 11.45 am for the start of the registration for ThinkQuest Live 2005.

The registration was held in the (huge) ballroom (I hope that was what it was called) of SF Mariott. This was my first exposure to the Orcacle Education Foundation’s employees. The whole registration process was quick and clean. I recieved a bag with some mixture of materials (e.g. file with info about the event and teams, a complimentary T-shirt, a pullover, a giftcard of US$25, a phonecard to call back home, a (blue) ThinkQuest mascot robot toy, a San Francisco city guide, etc.)

After that we went for a lunch break and returned for the “Welcome meeting”. It was by Jim Ballard, vice-president of ThinkQuest Development and Operations. We were introduced to the staff in-charge of putting together this great event (and most of them held remarkable designations like Global Partners Manager, Head of Asia-Pac, etc.). All of them were really down-to-earth and introduced themselves politely to the 250+ people consisting of students, chaperones and coaches.

I also finally got to meet Dr. Das, our coach. The team has so far corresponded with Dr. Das only via email, and I was pleased to meet him.

Then we had our group photo taking during which the various winning teams were assigned to specific staff by the formation of groups (purple, orange, blue, etc.). I can’t remember how many groups there were, but Cybercrime’s group was purple. Two other teams (Young DMGs and Coffee All Ground Up) were also part of the group. After the photo taking I had quite a long chat with Mr. Ballard, as I was interested to find out how he (as in Oracle) runs this competition.

He basically said that the staff we met earlier were working from various parts of US, UK and elsewhere. They collaborated wholly using the computers and the Internet. Nothing really new there, but still I expected all of them to be based in/around SF. He also explained the work that they had to do during the life span of a competition and how they had to analyse the laws of the various countries to form some of the rules of the competition. Naturally I couldn’t resist asking him about MOE’s stance against ThinkQuest (which forbids government school teachers from being primary coaches, as it puts MOE in a position to be liable for legal damages). I explained to him the difficulty we faced in obtaining a primary coach and he assured me that they are trying to resolve the conflict.

ThinkQuest is now a yearly competition (previously it was held twice a year). Mr. Ballard said that this move was taken because there was just too much administrative work needed to run the competition twice an year.

I took some photos with him, got his business card and then after a short break, we were escorted to the Moscone centre to attend the keynote address by Safra Catz (the President of Oracle corporation) for Oracle OpenWorld, where, she complimented the winners of the competion. We were there for a short while and then boarded a bus to be brought to Hard Rock Cafe for dinner.

I ate some pasta (though I didn’t like it very much) but had a more fullfilling time at the hotel, trying out the various types of ice-cream kept as dessert for “Ice-cream social”. This was the time when the various winning teams came up to do a short presentation of their sites. Ours was the last, and Dr. Das, our coach did the presentation on our behalf. This was what he said, it was quite funny: Each of the four students did 25% of the work and the coaches (Mr. Gi and Dr. Das) did the rest.

But we knew this wasn’t true. I felt without Mr. Gi’s and Dr. Das’s guidance we eventually wouldn’t have been as good as we were.

End of day two. Went back, called my mother and spoke to her for a while and then slept.

Agenda for Day Three:

1. Workshops in the morning
2. City tour in the evening

1. Workshops

The students had two workshops in the morning, with a small break in the middle. The first one covered the essentials about Macromedia Dreamweaver, while the second one was about Macromedia Flash.

Each lasted roughly an hour and a half. I knew mostly what they covered as I had to use these tools to design our site. But many of the content writers of the various teams learnt / tried to learn the software applications. Personally I felt that it was a tough task for someone who has never tried the applications before. Flash especially has a very steep learning curve, and I was not sure how many people actually gained something useful from the two workshops. At least I thought it was a good starting point for them.

2. City tour

The bus took us to various parts of San Francisco. There was an official tour guide on the bus who filled us in with various facts about the city. I learnt that earthquakes played a very critical role in San Francisco’s past. The guide told us that all the rows of houses in SF were separated by two inches, for preventing the spread of fires in case of earthquakes. Took a drive past Chinatown and travelled in the most crooked street in the world.

The first real stop of the day was at the Golden Gate Bridge. Luckily for us, the weather was superb and not too much fog was around. Superb breathtaking view. We had our group photos taken and I took several snapshots of the skyline.

After that, we visited the Twin Peaks, which once again offered us a view of the entire city. More photo taking.

That was it for the day. Returned to the hotel at about 6.30 pm.

Agenda for Day Four:

1. More workshops
2. Award ceremony

1. Workshops

Once again there were two workshops today, separated by a small break. But I should say that these two sessions turned out to be extremely interesting and informative sharing sessions.

In the first session, a guy from DreamWorks SKG came down to share with us some of the work they do and how they deliver such richly animated movies such as Shrek and more recently Madagascar.

He explained to us how the 3D characters are designed and rendered and given life. It was quite a mouthful but let me just summarise by saying that they have their own inhouse 3D modelling and animation software and they create clay prototypes of characters before they move on to the actual computer work. Seems there are two team working on every project. One is obviously the design team which uses the inhouse software to create the movies, while there is another team of dedicated programmers maintaining the software up-to-date and handling the bugs and requests for new features requested by the design team.

Mr. Martin Sixkiller (he told us a story about his name. The name Sixkiller was given to his great-grandfather or something when he killed six prisoners who escaped from captivity.) told us that the processing power of computers are increasing at a stupendous rate, but the expectations of the designers are also raising as they aspire to create new, more complicated effects.

The second session was attended by five people. A guy called Raja from Google, a student from University of Pennsylvania (a previous ThinkQuest winner), the web manager of Oracle and couple of other people whose names have slipped my mind. They shared with us their job spectra and the challenges they face with their work. The guy from Pennsylvania talked about University applications and choosing the right course, etc.

The details are quite hazy because there were just too much information being exchanged. But what basically I learnt was that they urged the students to follow their heart and do what they are interested in.

2. Awards Ceremony

The awards ceremony was a grand event in the evening, held at the SF Design centre. The teams sat in round tables, and had their dinner before the actual start of the ceremony. During the dinner, there was more interaction between the students and the Oracle staff. I had a highly engaging conversation with Jose Mata, Technical Manager of ThinkQuest and Think.com. We talked about Mac, Linux, Windows, Firefox, IE and a host of technical stuff. I was very interested in what he did at work, because his profile matched more or less what I want to do in the not-too-distant future. He talked about some of the challenges he faces from unscrupulous computer criminals.

Before I knew, the awards ceremony started and it was a long list of awards to be given out to the winners of both the April 04 and October 04 competitions. We received our awards from Safra Catz (president of Oracle corporation). We were all overwhelmed!

Day FIVE

I am already starting to feel sad (the trip is going to end) and terrified (the rest of my prelim papers are nearing)...

Anyway, the last day was perhaps the most relaxed day. In the morning, we visited the exploratorium. It is something like the Singapore Science Centre, only a bit better. It had so many wierd exhibits! It is a huge place, two storeys, and it took me more than two hours to go through most of the exhibits. There were many stations that exhibited wierd phenomenons of science.

After that, we were off to Alcatraz. Alcatraz is an island that is situated about 1 km from the SF bay. It is really a cold place, and it was once used to hold convicts. We had to take a ferry there, and once again it was a beautiful view from the top of the ferry.

Inside Alcatraz, we were given an audio tour of the prison. I did not like the place too much and rightly so. The audio tour gave gruesome descriptions of some of the “events” that took place in the prison and how the prisoners were treated there. Many prisoners tried to escape the prisons. All failed, and some died. And of course, there is the story about how three prisoners successfully evaded all the guards to escape the island with a “prisonmade” boat. None of them was ever found, and nobody knows whether they reached land safely or perished in the choppy waters around the sea. The prison was closed in 1963, as it was deemed to be lacking in proper facilities compared to the other prisons around the country. For more information on Alcatraz, check out this page

We returned from Alcatraz for the farewell dinner. I made some more friends, my last opportunity, as I would be leaving the next day, in the morning. By now, some participants have already left, though majority were present for the farewell dinner. There was a surprise for us: All the winners received a Dell X50 pocket pc. I was happy, but of course for me I would still have been happy even if I had not received anything. The chance to be present at the event itself is a great experience. At this point I would like to thank VJC for allowing the four of us to postpone some of our preliminary exams.

ThinkQuest Live has been a real eye-opener for me. I made quite a few friends, learnt useful things, and got to know the real nice people from Oracle. Above all, I had great fun…

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