Hinds Hall, Syracuse University campus, 5:31 am ET November 11 - There comes a time with every long, drawn-out project where you begin bargaining with yourself. The best way for me to think about how to finish this next stage, you find yourself saying, is if I were something closer to horizontal than vertical. Something tells you your brain will work better if it were tipped 90 degrees for 30 minutes, in exchange for hard work for 60 minutes. It might be a false bargain, but there's only one way to find out. And you might not remember what happens after that.
There's sunlight beginning to peek through the damp, overcast skies on the Syracuse University campus. There are no showers in Hinds Hall, and one's nose comes to this realization. After 12 hours of hard work and about that much more still to go, about a dozen of the students in the MLB.com University Challenge have taken to the hallways, jogging up and down the staircases and through the halls to get blood and other fluids of necessity circulating again. Some venture outside, until the stormy, cold air descending on them from Lake Ontario meets the film of sweat beneath their layers of sweatshirts, and like the victims of practical jokes, they immediately head back inside.
The "Fab 5," at least for the moment, is the "Fab 2." Rachel has been perfecting the layout of her reimagined, single-screen MLB.TV masterwork, and Jordan has been creating a giant mockup in Photoshop, complete with original buttons, realistic scores, and a believable rendition of a video player.
I asked the remaining full-time team members what this process taught them about themselves that they didn't know 12 hours ago. "I really didn't know that I could see the picture as a whole, and then break the picture down into step-by-step processes," Rachel told me. "I didn't know systems like this were so intricate until we delved into it (yea, 'delved' is a word, isn't it?). You can really get an appreciation for the things that we're about to learn, being freshmen."
Jordan, a veteran of two years of courses in Photoshop, admitted he thought he'd never actually put those skills to use, but today changed his mind. "I think after twelve hours, I've established a pretty good base, maybe with a little more editing to go by 8 o'clock. And then I have class at 9:30, and I'll be back here, get into a suit, and present."
The boys of "Hashtag Swag" are working on a kind of loyalty points tracking system for regular viewers and ticket-holders of Major League Baseball games. In the social network they envision exclusively for baseball fanatics, the ones with the greatest level of influence, who drive the most discussions, and who provide the most insight during the games themselves, would be rewarded with higher rankings on a 100-point scale.
"I feel like how I imagine radioactivity feels," says Mike (left), a business information systems major. The others have started a kind of mock argument over the relative quality of Dunkin versus Starbucks coffees, which over a minute's time degenerates into a kind of existentialist exchange over whether "no" is truly a binary state, or whether by virtue of the existence of politics and relative degrees of donut frosting, "no" actually has several underappreciated layers.
The trio of ladies calling themselves the "Rockford Peaches" staked out prime territory at one of the school's "iLabs" from the very beginning, and their strategy is literally not to move from their chairs until they've reached a major milestone. Even as News Channel 9 interviewed them live on morning TV (admittedly, they're more photogenic than most of the guys at this point), they didn't rise from their chairs.
Courtney's vision is coming together, and starting to look like a professional layout. Rather than a social network of individuals, the Peaches have centered on a network of fan clubs. These clubs would perform tasks in the name of their favorite ball clubs - some of it publicity, other parts community service - with loyalty points to be dispensed by other fans to the extent that they're impressed by what they see.
When I asked "The Walkoffs" what was giving them the most trouble this early in the morning, Deven (in the middle, above) responded like a hungry crow in the desert, "Things with words!" He's keeping himself awake by saying aloud everything that he's doing. "Put the method on the end here, move the breakpoint to there, get rid of that old breakpoint, F5, the event didn't fire, I'm pulling my hair out..."
Chris, the veteran jQuery expert of the crowd, thinks he has an epiphany. "If debugging is the act of removing bugs," he says, "then programming must be the act of... creating them!" He takes a short bow, then realizes that was a mistake as his body would like to have gone the rest of the way.
Neil may have had the right idea from the beginning. His team runs the gamut of human physical activity, with Ross still bouncing from terminal to terminal like an ad for Rockstar Energy Drink (gallons of which were consumed tonight), and Neil... well, being here.
"The first thing that's really interesting was that there was a lot of turmoil within the group," Ross admits when I ask him what he's learned about himself that he didn't know 12 hours ago. "And it wasn't until we figured out how to effectively work together and communicate properly that our development picked up, because we were stagnant for a while until we figured out how to stop our infighting and just communicate. I learned how to communicate better with different team members and different personality types." Certainly Neil's easier to get along with now than he was a few hours ago.
The "Saltine Warriors" are showing the least signs of fatigue. They haven't seen much of the carnage outside their conference room, and ask me whether folks out there have started to nod off. "Started?" I respond.
It's still an upbeat mood, although one notices an empty crate where 24 Rockstar cans once stood. Terence, who's familiar with the Meetup API, makes the startling admission that for a moment, he calculated 4 plus 5 to be 11 and would have sworn he was accurate. Compared to his competitors, Terence is still adding. Meanwhile, Ariel remains cool and collected, having completed a full mockup of her Facebook-like mobile app well ahead of her own personal deadline. "It's nice to know you guys appreciate my skills in PowerPoint," she tells the group. "It's amazing what I've managed to accomplish in just a few short hours with a million, like, donuts and rectangles."
Ah, donuts, some of the other guys were obviously thinking. I know they're delicious... I think they're round... What was I thinking again?