By midnight on December 1, 2015, when Eric Wastl first launched his annual Santa-themed puzzle-a-day programming challenge Advent of Code, 81 people had signed up. That pretty much matched his capacity planning for 70 participants. Wastl figured this amusement might be of interest to a few friends, friends of friends, and maybe some of their friends as well.

But Wastl, a software engineer who works as a senior architect for TCGPlayer, an online marketplace for trading card games, had failed to anticipate how social media’s recursive contagion might overwhelm these modest expectations. He jokes that the technical term for what happened next is: “OH NO!” Within 12 hours there were about 4,000 participants. The server nearly crashed. At 48 hours, there were 15,000 people, and by the end of the event, on December 25, the grand total was 52,000. The following year, he moved the operation to Amazon Web Services, and numbers have since continued to grow.

Last year, perhaps due to the pandemic, the event saw a 50% spike in traffic, with more than 180,000 participants worldwide.

And now again this year, thousands of coders from San Francisco to Slovenia—students and software engineers and competitive programmers alike—are counting down to Christmas with Advent of Code (AoC). While traditional advent calendars deliver daily gifts of chocolate or toys (and some alternative versions deliver dog treats, Jack Daniel’s, Lego figures, or even digital delights via apps), Advent of Coders unwrap playfully mathy problems and then write computer mini-programs that do the solving.

The fun of it, partly, is simply in the time-honored magic of a holiday ritual. But it’s also in submitting to pleasurable puzzlement. Peter Norvig, a research director at Google, finds it fun because he trusts the creator, Wastl, “to make it worth my time”—in a similar way, Norvig says, to how New York Times crossword puzzlers trust Will Shortz to do right by them. “There will be some tricks that make it interesting,” says Norvig, “but there are bounds on how tricky.” 

The joy of coding

At midnight US Eastern time (Wastl is based in Buffalo, New York), every night from December 1 to 25, a new puzzle lights up at adventofcode.com, embedded within a cleverly composed Christmas-caper narrative—one player described the story as “an Excuse Plot if there ever was such a thing.”

This year’s event got off to a fine start when Santa’s elves lost the keys to the sleigh. The first problem set the scene as follows: “You’re minding your own business on a ship at sea when the overboard alarm goes off! You rush to see if you can help. Apparently one of the Elves tripped and accidentally sent the sleigh keys flying into the ocean!”

Luckily, the Elves had a submarine handy for just such emergencies, and from there participants set off on a 25-day underwater quest. They try to solve two puzzles daily (the second adding a twist, or more difficulty), each worth a star and some praise: “That’s the right answer! You are one gold star closer to finding the sleigh keys.”

Every player earns a star for solving a problem, but if you’re the first to get a star, you receive 100 points; if you’re second, you receive 99 points; and so on, with the 10oth place earning one point.

“In order to save Christmas,” the puzzle master explains, “you’ll need to get all fifty stars by December 25th.”

MS TECH | ADVENT OF CODE

The object of Advent of Code is to solve the puzzles using your programming language of choice (Python is the most popular). Participants also use by-hook-or-by-crook strategies—such as “Excel madness,” as Wastl describes it, or reams of graph paper, and a surprising number solve the puzzles in Minecraft.

But the broader motivation varies from player to player. Some treat it as an annual tune-up for their programming skills; others see it as the perfect opportunity to learn to code or try a new language. José Valim, creator of the Elixir programming language, is live-streaming his AoC solutions on Twitch.

At the top of the global leaderboard, which ranks the 100 players with the highest total score, competitive programmers like Brian Chen (his handle is “betaveros”) and Andrew He (“ecnerwala”) are out for speed. A security software engineer working on end-to-end encryption at Zoom, Chen placed first last year (and the year before), while He came a close second.

“Going fast is fun,” Chen says, “just like optimizing anything where you can get fairly immediate feedback. There are lots of little knobs to tweak, and lots of little moments to be proud of where you made the right choice or prepared something that came in useful.”

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By: Siobhan Roberts
Title: This puzzle challenge brings joy to the world of code
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/12/17/1042483/puzzle-challenge-coding-christmas/
Published Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2021 10:00:00 +0000

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