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Best techies not all Americans

In response to the Perspectives column written by Charles Cooper, "Can the U.S. still compete?":

I have been involved with the ACM Programming Contest since its inception in the late 1970s, and I feel compelled to write you a brief note on your comments related to our poor showing at the recent ICPC in Shanghai.

I think you presented a fairly reasonable commentary, but I think you also need to address the fact that the best scientific minds from our high schools in the U.S. have the option to attend any of the top 50 or so computer science programs in America (with a population of about 280 million). Compare this to China, where the top prospects have the option to only attend the top five computer science programs in China (with a population of 1.3 billion).

A similar picture is true for Russia, India, or even South Korea and Canada, where the best scientific minds attend the top two to 10 computer science programs. In fact, if you happen to be the "brightest" scientific student in most of these countries, your only option is to attend the best school, since almost your entire education will be completely free. Thus, one of their schools can easily field a team of three CS students that will be "all superior" in terms of their mental abilities.

On the other hand, several of our U.S. teams are likely to end up with one superior computer science student per team, and I do not have any doubt that this one student is of equal mental ability to the best computer science student in the world. But that leaves two others in a team who are most likely of lesser abilities. The ICPC is a team competition. All three team members must be of the highest level, mentally, in order to field a winning team.

Given my brief commentary above, it is not really likely that an American university can really come up with the best three computer science prospects for a programming team at the ICPC. China, Russia and other countries can obviously field much better teams of three programmers than any of our top schools in the U.S., given the fact that, in these countries, there is a much higher chance that there will be a concentration of the best minds in one or two institutions.

I guess that I am making an excuse, but this is really what is happening in the ICPC. I do not see any U.S. schools at the top of the ICPC for the near future, unless we do this like the Olympics--field teams by country only.

Orlando Madrigal
Chairman, computer science
California State University at Chico