Jennifer at the Hackathon

(or: the lengths to which I will go to write an article)


So, there is a reason why I’ve looked pretty sleep-deprived for most of the last week: I spent last weekend surviving on caffeine, ice cream, and pizza, at the University of Toronto Computer Science Student Union’s first annual thirty-six hour hackathon.


…. Wait, what?


First confession: I know practically nothing about computer science. Second confession: when the science editor of The Varsity drafted me to write about CSSU’s coding marathon, I was more than a little skeptical.


I mean, let’s be honest. I can handle math; I can handle physics; I can handle chemistry. I’ll happily answer questions on Riemannian manifolds and the Hamiltonian operator, and I’m not overly fond of biology, but if you hand me a textbook to memorize, I manage just fine. But programming??? The only programming languages I know anything about are HTML, CSS, and Python – and when I say I know “something” about Python, I mean I know how to get IDLE (= the shell you write stuff in) running, and how to make it print “Hello world” and do basic arithmetic. I’ve never taken a computer science course in my life, despite the fact that my mother has told me more times than I can count that it would be fun and I’d probably enjoy it. (Her reasoning went along the lines that she was good at math and consequently liked programming; I was good at math; therefore it was probable that I would like programming. Or something like that. The last time my mother programmed a computer was also back in the days when Cobol and punch cards were still a thing.)


Third confession: my mother was right, and computer science is actually really cool, even if it took  thirty-six hours of almost no sleep for me to realize this, and even if I still only know ever-so-slightly-more-than-nothing about it.


So, in no particular order, a few highlights from the weekend:


– Explaining to my aunt that a “hackathon” does not involve illegal hacking

– One hacker doing his level best to convince me that Linux was much better than Apple, complete with demonstrations – at 2:15 AM

– An introduction to Puppet (= tool for managing the configuration of certain types of systems), at 2:30 AM

– Perching on a bench on the second floor of the Engineering building at 2:15 AM the next day madly writing down notes, because the recorder on my cell phone had run out of space half way through the interview I’d just done

– Finally figuring out what “API” meant and what the difference between “frontend” and “backend” was

– All the projects designed to improve University of Toronto’s registration system, ROSI, which is apparently as notorious as the University of Ottawa’s Rabaska

– Every coder who nonchalantly mentioned that they had to learn a new programming language or two in the first two hours of the event in order to work on their project

– Hand to ASL: the app to recognize and interpret sign language

– Webkin: the project that used a Microsoft Kinect to let you make a webpage by simply standing in front of a voice and motion sensor, saying what you wanted on the page, and then pointing to where you wanted it

– The talk on legal aspects of creating a new start-up

– The raffles at 2 AM and 4:30 AM and other insane hours of the night, and the fact that almost everyone was still awake and attended these

– Unlimited free ice cream at 4 AM

– One of the organizers: “We got over 600 cans of Red Bull and there were none left this morning”

– The approximately seven hours of judging and final presentations

– All of the organizers who welcomed me, introduced me to people, and answered my (at times) rather clueless questions

– Every single participant who not only had a brilliantly creative idea, but was willing to take the time to explain it in a way that an English student could understand how it was designed and how it was going to work

– The moment the science editor assured me that no, I didn’t have to stick to the 500-word limit she had originally suggested



** There is a reason I got away with doing this – my research proposal for graduate school grant applications is in a state that I am moderately happy with, hence my ability to take the weekend off as a break from research.  Post on those applications is coming soon, I swear. **


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