I have got the flu for the past week or so, so that’s the reason I only write about this today. Last week (2-8 of August, 2015) the 21st edition of the InfoEducatie contest took place in the Galaciuc Youth camp, located 60 km away from the county seat of Vrancea, the city of Focsani.
This year was the fourth and last year I participated in the contest as a contender (i.e. not a judge or as a teacher, if I ever become one). I prepared nothing special as my project, as I didn’t have the time to do so this year (had a lot of stuff to deal with, mainly the Baccalaureate exam and the admission process at the university I have chosen, Imperial College London). So I coupled with a friend from the same year as me who qualified for the contest, and he accepted me to come along with him and help with the project at the contest.
In other words, I decided to voluntarily come at the contest, by any means I could, as I enjoyed so much the previous editions, mainly because of the quality and level of intelligence the people there had: Galaciuc usually reunites Romania’s greatest talents in computer science and engineering, both high school, but also from college or even workplaces (this year, Endava sent us a whole team in the camp, more on that bellow). Plus, it was the great atmosphere built around there, with great projects to look at, and great ideas to share.
Despite me not being part of the official team of my county, I decided to go along with them anyway and sort things out in the camp, eventually. After all, I didn’t mind paying the accommodation there, which I heard was something around Lei 350 for 6 nights, which is approximately Lei 60 per night, so we’re talking about £9,50/night. Our official team this year consisted of just three members, another worrying sign I will talk about bellow.
So, let me explain: the governing body of the contest, which finances and hosts the contest, is the Romanian Ministry of Education (this is a generic name, as it is renamed every year or so; this year it is officially called the “Ministry of Education and Scientific Research” – it also used to be called the “Ministry of National Education”, or the “Ministry of Education, Research, Youth, and Sports” – it changes depending on who’s governing the country, and they do this as a sign of reform over the old, always mistaken way of doing things – like people really believes them; anyway, that’s a chat for another time). The Ministry’s sole purpose is destroying everything smart in Romania, as smart citizens are harder to rule over compared to dumb citizens. Otherwise, I cannot explain why they’re constantly humiliating working people, and in this case, students, in our country. You see, on many participating projects, there is a team working on, usually composed of 2 members. Although in the past, both members could participate in the camp, only one of them stayed for free, as the Ministry paid for him/her. The other one, many times also stayed free, but it was not because of the Ministry, but because of the supportive sponsors of this competition. Furthermore, they continued this future destroying policy by awarding a degree at the end of the contest (i.e. first/second/third place, or a mention of honor) only to the member of the team for which they paid the accommodation for, even though both may have worked equally on the project. And it’s not like they awarded grand prizes, like thousands of Euros per contender, so they didn’t have the funds for it: usually, the prizes they offer range between 10 and 50 Euros, depending on the place obtained. Let me put it in perspective: for all the hard work a student has to do a whole year, as winning projects have usually been worked on for a year or even more than that (trust me, I have experience, I have been awarded two times the second place, and one time a mention of honor), the Ministry rewards them with money to pay for a maximum of 400 kWh of electrical energy for example, while my whole household eats 200 kWh a month. So yeah, this is self explanatory I guess…
This year, the official teams consisted of 5 members, not 4. That’s because almost no county (except mine, of course) respected the previous years’ rule of selecting participants per year of study, not per section (the contest is divided in 5 sections: utilitarian SW, educational SW, Web pages, robots, and multimedia). Yet, despite having a greater number of places for students, the quality of projects participating this year at my county selection was… weak, to say the least. And this is weird, as I have the sensation that with me finishing high school, so participating for the last time, with talented guys like Sabin Marcu (@sabinmarcu), or Marius Petcu (@dapetcu21) studying in college already, and talented guys, like Mihai Eparu finishing high school next year, I have the feeling that the county is not able to attract talented developers anymore for this contest – this year was the first time after at least four years we haven’t obtained any prize at the contest – and we’re the biggest county in Romania after all, with half the population of Bucharest, so there’s plenty of talent to choose from, yet I think the interest rates are becoming so low these days… Quick fact: I have a friend from my classroom who decided not come along…
So I there I was, along with the official team, in the Galaciuc camp, ready for accommodation. Cool, until I found out that they couldn’t officially check me in. The reason? The Ministry does not accept participants outside the official team anymore. This means that team projects are a no-go in the future. Plus, what happened in the years before, when the interest in the contest was higher I believe, was that people who classified on the second place for example, in the county selection, came on their own in the camp, participated in the contest, and many times they also have been awarded prizes (although not by the Ministry, but by UPIR, the “alternative Ministry” as I like to call it, read more about it in a second bellow). That’s how tough the competition used to be in some counties. Anyway, this year, the practice officially became history, as the Ministry explicitly has forbidden it. Luckily for me, the organizers modified the list and put me on the official one, as I was participating alongside my colleague, and our county team was composed only of three members. Had this not happened, I wonder which was the last train for that day to Ploiesti…
Now, let’s talk a bit about UPIR, which stands for the Union of Computer Science teachers of Romania. It is composed of a considerable number of Computer Science and IT&C teachers from the Romanian high schools. Its purpose is to counter-attack the Ministry on its stupid, future destroying policies. They’re the ones who keep the contest alive, seek for sponsors, etc., and are represented by a bunch of working people who dedicate themselves to this, despite being awarded nada by the Ministry: Ovidiu Domsa, President of UPIR, and Emil Onea, also a member of the organization, among many others.
Fortunately, I was able to finally check-into the camp. This year, I stayed in an 8-bed (eventually became 9-bed) cabin called “Miorita” (a popular ballad in the Romanian literature – essentially, it is more or less about a sheep, reflecting one of Romanians’ oldest occupations: taking care of sheep). It was located way closer to the main campus than last year’s “Rachitasu” cabin (this one, I don’t know about the name, apparently it is just a village in the county of Vrancea), or than “Baba Vrancioaia” (an old women who is said to have helped Stephan The Great, leader of the former Principality of Moldavia, to fight the Turkish back after losing a battle, by offering her sons to take part in the fight). Although, to be fair, the best place I have stayed in at Galaciuc so far is the “Veselia” (meaning, literally, happiness) cabin, which was the closest to the main buildings. The cabins looked the same way they look since at least four years I visit Galaciuc regularly: old, untaken care of, and generally offering conditions less than 1-star. I mean, they barely have electricity: one lamp, and one AC plug. No bathroom, no TV, no Internet, no anything which may resemble the 21st century except electricity. But I told you, I don’t care so much about it, as I came for the people, the atmosphere, the contest, rather than for conditions. The camp is sub-financed for the past 25 years, and is now taken care of by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (which separated from the Ministry of Education more than a year ago), who says they mainly put it into “conservation”. The manager told me that 7 cabins are destroyed or cannot be lived into, due mainly to problems regarding the nature (i.e. it rains in them). The camp was built in the 1970s, when every commune of the Vrancea County built a cabin for it. The last cabins are made of wood and were built shortly after the Romanian Revolution. Since then, there have been little investments done there. Today, the camp operates at less than half its original capacity, with a staff less than a tenth of the original one. Despite all of this, they make a profit, which is all sent to the Vrancea Directorate of Camps, an institution directly subordinated to the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which then allocates back almost no money for further development or, at least, proper conservation of the camp. Did I tell you that the water is not only non-drinkable, but also has a brownish hue to it? And that all the participants have a single source of water, so cues constantly occur there? And that last year, half the participants became sick because the filter was not installed on that single water source? Oh, and I remember last year’s closing speech given jointly, by a secretary from the Ministry of Education and Scientific Research, and a secretary from the Ministry of Youth and Sports (or they were the ministries themselves, I don’t know, it’s not worth remembering unfortunately), where when asked about having a clean, drinkable water at Galaciuc, they passed the fault from one to another, assuring us that the situation will change this year. Maybe they count different years than we do, so they still have an excuse.
We talked about the conditions; let’s now talk about the actual contest itself. A bold requirement for this year, which generated a lot of heat among participants, was that they upload their projects, along with the source code, on Github, and that they cannot work on the projects anymore, beginning August the 1st. Many feared this meant open-sourcing the works. They also requested that this year, projects would be shown off from VMs installed on the participants’ computers, yet this did not work out at all. There were many games which couldn’t run in a VM, many Android apps, which again, couldn’t be run in a VM inside another VM, so generally, it was a bad idea. I don’t know why they haven’t kept from the beginning last year’s system, where the works were presented from workstations provided by organizers, except more demanding works, like games, which could be presented from their creator’s own workstation. They eventually reverted to this. Once again, many have faced the rigidity of the Ministry, which opposes creating separate sections for games and mobile apps, so Android titles compete with Unity games against Microsoft Word clones and the jury has to choose a winner. Yeah, cool. Now, regarding Github, there were many talks in the camp and many suggestions by various people from the jury, from sponsors etc., that participants open source their work. Personally, I won’t do and recommend this, as this is a contest, and you don’t want others to inspire themselves from your code. The examples given are hilarious: the Linux kernel is open source. So what? The Linux kernel doesn’t compete in the contest, for a diploma which can allow some students to enter university without an admission exam. Again, I am clearly against open sourcing at this level. At this level, open sourcing is like offering your thesis to your colleague during the Baccalaureate. Oh wait, there it isn’t called open sourcing, it’s called cheating. Out of all the voice advocating this, Intel was the loudest one, holding various presentations on this topic through the week.
Anyway, speaking of Intel, it was the main sponsor of this year’s edition. It was labeled a ‘Gold’ sponsor, alongside Google, which unfortunately disappointed me: they did not sent even a single engineer in the camp, nor a single gadget to be shown off to participants (in the last years, they sent things like the self driving car to the camp, for example). They had Emil Onea, which is not affiliated to them, speak about their great support for the contest. Yes, it may be great, regarding financing, but it wasn’t as great as in the other years, that’s for sure, due to the lack of actual presence of engineers in the camp. New in the camp this year was a guy working for Cloudbase Solutions, a company which deals in some way with the cloud, as far as I have understood. Plus Endava, an out-sourcing SW development company, which sent a whole crew in the camp on Thursday, to host a treasure hunting for us, and also teach us about the Pomodoro technique (it was well debated, as many didn’t agree with it). They had a pretty girl coordinating all the tasks, which made me decide taking part into their activities. It was fun, yet not flawless: my team had the advantage until the last step of the treasure hunting. We basically had to solve some quizzes and then find a member of their crew. We did this, yet this last member of their crew didn’t offer us the clue for the last step from her hide-out. She came all the way to the main table, enough for the whole camp to spot her and destroy all of our time advantage. After that, two teams were faster than mine, so we won experience and the third place. Anyway, it was fun. The winners were awarded some 2,200 mAh power banks if I recall correctly. My Xperia Z3 eats 3,000 mAh on a charge, so yeah…
Now speaking of sponsors, again, we had Cisco, which introduced us to their concept of fog, sitting next to the cloud (so expect fog to be copyrighted soon, so that we’ll have to pay a license for, I guess). Fog is tightly linked with their new hybrid routers-but-also-workstation things, which I don’t remember their name, but are basically a router which can also perform calculations, so they can offload the server from doing such tasks, so they perform less requests which is beneficial for remote areas, like Galaciuc, where proper high-speed broadband access is still a dream. Oh yeah, we had a bandwidth of 4 MB which was shared by 200 people, thanks to the ‘generous’ offer of Orange Romania. Also, Microsoft seemed to many like a sponsor, although it was not. Luckly for them, they found this guy, Julian Atanasoae, who’s a big fan of them and always introduces us to their newest technologies and offerings, for free. He held a great presentation I really enjoyed, better than his last attempt I remember of. Bitdefender did not sponsor this year’s contest anymore, so no antivirus licenses for the users. I guess they saw that almost no one installs their product, so why bother… Luckily for us, the guys which used to come representing Bitdefender still came in the camp, although one of them recently transferred to Cloudbase. They did not represent the company there anymore, yet they hosted some great presentations about security. Speaking of presentations, this year I watched all of them, so I am pretty proud of it. They were of great quality, and included some big names from the industry taking the stage to show us the future (plus, there was the always funny, yet well prepared Dr. Sabin Buraga, who returned after missing last year in grand fanfare, as the president of the contest this year, and introduced us to some cool new Web [vieb] technologies). Many guys I know held a presentation this year, including Julian, Sabin Marcu, Alex Buicescu (about Android apps, actually a workshop), Vlad Temian (about Git), Alex Palcuie (again, a workshop actually, about Python), Razvan Deaconescu (about speed typing, mainly about how to get around a PC easily easily – and I guess he’s the single person in the country who uses the tools he showcased us, so anyway), and many others, I either don’t know their name (probably, I tend to call them guys when I don’t remember their names), or I simply haven’t remembered at the moment of writing this piece. There were also some other sponsors, like the Altex retailer, which offered the winners a 22-inch, if I remember well, computer monitor, and some other unremarkable ones, alongside traditionally unremarkable partners like the Ministry of Education. This year, discrimination continued among young programmers, as girls who won prizes were awarded more money, with the difference put up by an organization called “Girls who Code”, an apartment NGO who should have really existed 2 centuries ago, not today, when all a woman has to do to be employed at an IT company is a) be well-prepared for the job, and b) apply for the job. That’s it. There’s no discrimination. Many sponsors actually want more girls to participate, even though this means lowering the quality of the contest, as this is the reality, 4 years ago there were 5 girls in the camp because the others had projects which did not qualify fairly. These years, we leave good projects at home, and qualify weaker ones just because their team is composed of one girl. This is the sole purpose of Infoeducatie Online, a contest which awards the winner participation at Galaciuc. You can participate, but you have to be part of a team composed of at least one girl. Then, you can participate alongside a goat, a cow, a sheep, or… a guy, right. Many take this route, as it is relatively easier to win than the county selection. And I’m not lying when I tell you that the majority of projects involving a girl and a guy have the girl there just for compliance with the rules, with the guy doing all the hard work. And I’m not discriminative, I’m just telling reality. I want a society without any discrimination, not with an opposite form of discrimination, as an answer to a past discrimination which has existed. This is one of the factors which have constantly lowered the quality of the contest, with many members of the jury I know and I won’t name saying that, year after year, there’re less and less remarkable works participating. Now, ask me which thing I am upset about the most, the attitude of the Ministry or this whole girl-first thing, and I will tell you that the latter pisses me off more. I won’t forget that year when Google awarded the top three classified boys and girls a trip to their Zurich HQ. So, qualified guys were placed 1, 2 and 3, while qualified girls were placed 13, 43, and 69 (or so). This is not fair, IMO, this is not competition, and this is not fair rewarding. I think I’m going to start a movement, so we can see more male cashiers at super-markets, as guys are clearly discriminated in getting a job there. Or better yet, also include the strippers. (Sarcasm here, warn you)
Finally, we’re reaching the central theme I decided to write this article for: the constant lowering of the quality and of the atmosphere at Galaciuc. The first year I participated, there were some really mind blowing projects, which made me feel like so little when thinking about my project. For example, Ionut Budisteanu, who’s been awarded a five figure sum of dollars at an Intel competition in the US, participated. With 3 or 4 projects. Which were awesomely impressive. This year, not so much. (Although, I have to mention, maybe my expectation got higher since 4 years ago, to be honest) Instead, there were way more many girls. I guess the number rose by 700% or so compared to 2012. They introduced a new section, which has nothing in common with Computer Science or Engineering: Multimedia, where the jury is made up partly of students from acting schools, and most participants showcase a movie. Like a Cannes festival organized for the Romanian high school, at a Computer Science and Engineering contest… With most participating teams made up of girls. And also less knowledgeable guys. People there often know very little about programming, electronics, and generally computers. They instead know Sony Vegas and Adobe Photoshop. People at the other sections know how to write these tools, people at the multimedia section know how to use these tools. I hope you get the difference. Plus there’s the robots section, which I was given a pretty good inside look of it this year, as one of the great colleagues I lived in the same cabin for a week had a great talent in robots. Let me pause for a second: we stayed alongside participants from Dolj County, we formed a nine men team of fun, smart, and again, fun people, and enjoyed one of the most relaxing and interesting weeks of our lives. I have never ever had such great roommates as these ones, with every one of them having a talent in some IT thing, and together as a whole really well representing this branch. Maybe I’ll introduce you to them in a future feature. They thought me why AMD is better on the desktop, than Intel. I’ll call them and ask you to tell you why in a piece here too. Or at least, debate about it.
Anyway, let’s talk about the robots section: a great idea, yet a spoiled execution if I may say so. The jury is entirely composed of teachers who have almost nothing in common with this field. There were actually two male teachers who know very well about this field, but the other ladies in the jury were… let’s say misplaced there. The absence of students in the jury made for a weak judging. IMO, students and people working in the IT zone are crucial to a jury, because they’re usually in contact with new technology, with the latest and greatest in the field. Unfortunately, many teachers from Romania have out-dated information, yet their participation is vital because they’re usually more well prepared in the theoretical side of things. If it was only the jury, it would still have been okay. Yet, there were many reports throughout the camp about participants in the open phase out-sourcing their projects (i.e. copying), even though they were not allowed to do so. Wait a minute, let’s talk about the open phase.
So, the open phase takes place after the projects participating in the competition were evaluated. The occupants of the first five places in each section qualify for the open phase, where the jury gives them a subject and asks them to solve it in 24hrs time. They can work alone, or in a team of maximum two members. Each team must contain a member of the team who presented the qualified project, but can include any other participant from the camp as the second member. Again, it usually lasts for 24hrs, except last year when it lasted 16hrs, because no one could actually continue, as they got sick because of the contaminated water. Kudos to the Ministry of Education.
So, many said that some participants in the open phase of the contest in the robots section cheated. I can confirm this, at least for a participant, whose participation awarded him a mention of honor. He paid Lei 200 to some guys in my cabin to do his work, as he simply didn’t know how to solve the task. Understandable, when you come at a national high school robotics competition with a project created using LEGO Mindstorms, and the jury cannot differentiate quality projects, because they lack expertise. And he was dumb, as he could easily obtained a prize if he let the guys he contacted test the robot in the dinner hall, where the open took place, which had a different type of floor, than the one in our rooms. During the demo, the robot slipped and hit the walls, so he lost points. BTW, they had to create a wall follower. And I heard many saying it is not the single cheating example. Maybe some readers can clarify in the comments bellow. Anyway, it is a bad sign. Maybe some reports will be filled about this, as this is the wrong way of doing things. And it’s not only this thing which badly happened regarding the open phase.
For the fourth year in a row, at least, you could participate in the educational SW open phase with a home-made project. I’ll tell you how; maybe you take advantage of this next year. The subject this year was simply “Biodiversity at Galaciuc”. Last year, it was “Internet of Things” (which is also a central theme for many of the presentations BTW, especially those held by Cisco, for two years now or so). Two years ago, it was, “Gastrocomic Recepies” (a play on the words “gastronomical”, and “comical”). And lastly, three years ago, it was “Water Sources at Galaciuc”. Simply, and you have to develop an educational solution based upon that. I tell you what to do: simply develop an encyclopedia, a learning environment to be more precise, with an interface for learning and an interface for testing the knowledge the user has gained from reading the materials. That’s it. After qualifying in the open phase, all you have to do is populate it with information, at least partly relevant to the subject given, as academic content, aka things you “out-sourced” from sites like Wikipedia, account more when the project is evaluated, than originality, which is awarded a mere half the number of points. And you can create an awesome, unique interface, and still be awarded some originality points for example, even though the idea of a learning environment has been presented so many times before. Again, that’s it. The open phase should consist, of something the student has to think and code in the contest, not from home, but from my experience, at educational SW section, you can easily come with a pre-coded project from home. Oh, and make sure you save multiple copies of it when you develop it, as starting this year, they want you to commit to Github every now and then when new modifications are made to the project. The lack of imagination and quality the jury invests into this section is mind blowing for me. I hoped, year after year, that something will change, but unfortunately, it is too easy for someone to come with a great, yet out-sourced educational project at Galaciuc, and then successfully pass the open phase with another out-sourced project and be awarded a diploma which can enter a student into university without an exam. An exam which is so hard at some universities, like university Politehnica of Bucharest, where the admission mark was substantially risen this year, compared to previous years. Again, this is a topic for another feature, commenting about the admission and generally, about the University Politehinica. And also, maybe I’ll also talk about Bucharest University of Economics (ASE), as I have some words for it too. Maybe after my first year at Imperial, so I can draw a comparison. We’ll see.
Educational SW is a traditional section in the contest, one of the most important ones. For one thing, it is the section the Ministry shows the most love towards, as it copes very well with the original theme of the contest (InfoEducatie, meaning InfoEducation, aka educational computer works).
The subject at utilitarian SW on the other hand was brilliant: basically, they gave you a list of web sites, and wanted you to sort them by some categories, you choose them. You had to sort them and then explain how they were sorted. Cool thing, kudos to the jury (and to the member of the jury who developed a solution in 2 hrs – you see, that’s why I like Galaciuc).
So, there you have it, that’s why I believe things degrade constantly in Romania, year after year. That’s why all the talented people leave the country and never come back. It’s because, as it seemed to me, InfoEducatie is doomed: there’s a high interest of getting rid of it from various parties, and its traditional spirit of a fair and tight competition is replaced by something else. That’s what this piece is all about. I hope I haven’t bored you.
Actually, there’s one more thing I would like to briefly talk about which may be even more important than this, and which I have witnessed in my one week long living in the Galaciuc camp. Our forests are dying at an incredible high rate. 80% of the cars I have seen while leaving and driving there (a colleague of us came by his own personal car, so we could go and buy things we needed like proper food from the villages of Tulnici and Lepsa, situated closely to the camp), so 80% of the cars there were fully packed with timber, freshly cut timber from the beautiful forests located there. There wasn’t a single day some truck would not come in the camp, drive up the mountain road which crosses right throughout it, and come back from the mountains at dusk fully stuffed with fresh timber. I think this is way more alarming, as I hate that we, Romanians, destroy the young and promising talents we have, and make them leave. But after all, by this, we just destroy our species, our own civilization, and at this point I feel nothing more than what Ilie Moromete felt. But by cutting those trees, at such a high alarming rate, I find so miserable and I hate so fucking much, because we destroy an entire eco-system. Sometimes, I wonder how God hasn’t yet sent a storm or a tornado over this country and wiped it off the face of Earth for all the bad things it does to the environment, and to the world as a whole. The few talents and good people we have cannot compensate for the bad things many people (of whom I mention members of the Parliament, members of the Government, members of the Law Enforcement, members of the Law System etc) do to this country. InfoEducatie was still great despite all this flaws, an awesome experience I would like to repeat (that’s why I’m looking to becoming a part of the jury next year), an experience I would like to improve by my own means and the way I am able to do so (I don’t have the one million euro necessary for the camp to be fully restored to life – the figure was offered to me by the manager of the camp). I am glad I have been part of InfoEducatie for this awesome four years.
Thanks for reading, your opinion starts from this point down.