Monday, 12 August 2013


Carcassone.  I play a lot of this at the moment.
This particular game has gained a wayward pig.
Games, competitions, challenges and races.  There are many reasons to take part in such activities, but "to win" (to outperform the other entrants) really isn't a good one.  That's not to say that winning an event is without its upsides -- I still smile when walking past a framed certificate at work that heralds a win at a team challenge day in 2004, the prize that day was my first IBM laptop -- but what happens when taking part, the people you meet, the experience you gain and the stories you can and will tell again and again are much more crucial.  Sure, I'll try my hardest to win at a friendly game of Carcassone, but I'll also enjoy the opportunity to catch up with my friends, and have a laugh at each of our fortunes with the little cardboard tiles.

Some challenges are bigger than others.  A game of Carcassone can last up to a few hours (sometimes as long as "gone midnight"), but recently I've found myself involved in a couple of much larger events, and having a lot of fun with them.

This artist's impression of sunrise over Jack & Jill,
as this artist's camera phone is rubbish in low light!
First up was the Oxfam TrailWalker a few weeks ago.  A friend decided to form a team ("Gimme Shelter"), and look for team-mates.  The idea of walking 100km in 30 hours really didn't appeal to me, but being part of the support crew sounded like a lot of fun.  Staying up all night, reading driving instructions to our driver, making hot chocolate and finding the one tube of Deep Heat lost down the back seat of the car for the walkers - count me in!

Here the point was absolutely not to win, it was a team effort and every checkpoint reached was an impressive feat.  Having said that, the the team did amazingly well (they completed it!).  Acting as support was of course a lot less challenging than walking  but I still got a lot out of the overnight experience.  If nothing else, it is very rare that I get to watch the sun set, stay up all night talking and drawing and pouring drinks, and then see the sun rise again.  I even got to have a nap on a sunny morning on the south downs.

Early morning at Jack & Jill

Mini jelly-babies make good, if not somewhat
temporary morale boosting team mates!
The second event is one that has become a bit of a ritual for me.  Days get booked off work for it, and preparatory shopping takes place to ensure I have enough pot noodles, breakfast bars, and Haribo to sustain me for 72 hours.  It is, of course, a programming competition.  The Programming Contest of The International Conference On Functional Programming.

The challenge problems set are always deeply interesting (this year's can be found at, and I find it really refreshing to fully engross myself in a problem for a fixed set of time, knowing that (for those days at least) the rest of the world can be on hold.

What's even better though is that at the end of the competition, I have something I can look back on.  My friends and I still discuss previous competitions, what we did, what we could have done differently, laughing about the horrible hacks and stupid tools we wrote in a frenzy to help increase our score.  We do try to do well (and usually don't completely embarrass ourselves), but we know we'll never win, and that's OK.  The clich├ęd taking part isn't what counts, but that you come away knowing more about yourself, with more experience to draw on, fun memories to keep, and hopefully interesting stories to tell.

One of my ICFP Competition traditions is to make some overblown complicated visualiser for the task.
Usually using some gratuitous and highly dubious technology choices.  This was the year of websockets!