RMM 2017 – UK Team Blog

This is the customary and slightly frivolous account of a trip to Bucharest for the ninth edition of the Romanian Master of Mathematics, an annual competition for school students, widely recognised as the hardest of its kind.

I discuss the problems in two previous posts (here and here), and there is also a pdf with fewer pictures, which includes both the discussion and this diary, as well as some more formal comments about the competition itself, the results, and thanks.

Wednesday 22 February

Did you know that trains in Moldova use different width tracks to trains in Romania? Well, I didn’t know either, but I found out at 1am today, as my wagon lit from Chisinau was painstakingly jacked up to allow the transfer from ex-Soviet gauge to Western gauge. Outside, a man in a smart uniform and epaulettes shouted loudly and continuously at a group of men in smart uniforms without epaulattes. When their task was done, four sets of border and custom checks remained before the opportunity for another visit to the samovar, and finally a chance to sleep.

All of which is to say that I have arrived at maths competitions in better mental shape than 6am today at Gara de Nord. The UK students have a more conventional itinerary, but their flight from Luton doesn’t arrive until mid-afternoon. After my first Haifa ‘winter’, I’m craving pork and snow, and find both in the mountain town of Sinaia, an hour away by train in Transylvania. I also find a bear. The bear seems very scared.

I return in time to meet the UK students as well as James and MT. Some of our contestants are now into their fourth year of attending international competitions, and the labour of finding them fresh material resembles Hercules against the hydra, but some problems on combinatorial geometry with convexity seem to have kept everyone entertained on the flight. Dinner is at the Moxa campus of the University of Economics, and features chicken with one of two possible carbohydrates, as in fact do the next six meals. However, today is Thomas’s 18th birthday, and so his parents have arranged a delicious cake, which elicits considerably more enthusiasm. On the short walk back to our meeting, we notice it is possible both to buy fireworks and get a tattoo among other options, so Thomas is spoiled for choice about how to take advantage of his majority.

The team’s activities remain a mystery to James and me though, as we have to join the other leaders for the first meeting, to receive the proposed problems. We spend some time thinking about them separately then together, and our initial impression is that it’s a very suitable paper, that hopefully our team will enjoy.

Thursday 23 February

The leaders meet to finalise the choice and statement of the problems. With a bit more time this morning, I’ve solved Q1, Q2, Q5, and proved Q3 once I’d looked up the correct bound. James eats conics for breakfast and shows me a glorious range of interpretations of Q4. We feel happy that our students will have a chance at all of these, while Q6 may prove more restricting. Either way, it’s clearly an appropriate set for this competition, and is approved quickly. So it’s time to finalise the English version of the paper, or finalize the American version. Many alternatives to the word sieve are proposed. Andrea from Italy is clearly already craving home comforts, but his suggestion of cheese grater is not taken up. This time I’m sorting the LaTeX, so get to settle the commas, but also take the blame for inconsistently spacing the rubric between the two papers. I’m sure everyone noticed.

While all this has been happening, the students have been at a lecture by Sergiu Moroianu at the Institute of Mathematics. Joe Benton gives an account of what they learned in the longer pdf version of this report.

For all the charms of Chipping Norton, I sense MT is enjoying the grittier nature of Bucharest Sector 1, and has been shepherding the students round various sites in between attempts at practice problems. I join them for a brief visit to a geology museum. I am very cynical, but it slightly exceeds my expectations, and is infinitely better than the nearby Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which currently ties with the Hanoi Ethnology Museum as my least favourite olympiad excursion of all time.

The opening ceremony is held in the grand hall of the university, and includes several welcoming and thoughtful speeches from the Mayor of Bucharest and the headteacher of Tudor Vianu, the school which hosts this competition every year. Each team briefly presents themselves on stage. Joe and Neel have accumulated a large collection of UK flags from previous competitions, and should hereby consider themselves publicly shamed for forgetting their promise to bring them. It is over soon, and while the students enjoy a quiet evening and an early night, the leaders have to finalise markschemes for all the problems. The walk back takes us through Victory Square, and past the protesters whose fires and slogans have been on front pages around the world in the past months. It’s an interesting time, and the atmosphere of this city feels very different from my first visit, for the inaugural edition of this competition in 2008.

Friday 24 February

The first day of the contest starts at 9am. The British students seem fairly relaxed, and hopefully are aiming high. Contestants may ask questions of clarification during the first 30 minutes. Rosie does this, and I send my reply to her two queries back via the courier. Five minutes later it is returned to me with the explanation that the student does not understand the answer. Even under competition pressure this seems unlikely, given that my answers are, respectively ‘yes’, and putting a ring around one of three options she has listed. It turns out that actually the student courier did not understand what to do with the answer, and the situation is quickly corrected.

We approve more markschemes. The US deputy leader Po-Shen and I share our views on the challenge of correctly finding the bound in Q3, and our suggestion that this instead be worth 2 points is upheld. Various further discussions fill the morning, and we return just in time to meet the students at the end of the exam. Harvey claims all three problems with a relaxed grin, while Joe claims all three problems with the haunted look of a man whose twelfth espresso of the day has just worn off. Alexander and Thomas say that they spent most of the time making sure their solutions to Q1 were totally watertight, which, given the intricacy of the arguments, was clearly a very sensible strategy.

To provide a distraction, if not actually a break from time-pressured problem-solving, I’ve booked a pair of escape rooms for the UK students later in the afternoon. Bucharest is the home of these games, where the aim is to solve themed puzzles as part of a story in time to escape a locked room. I join one of the rooms, where there are some theatrical reveals involving wrenches, and clues hidden in combination-locked cabinets, where ability to add three-digit numbers proves useful. Someone’s carrying voice means we get to enjoy some of the drama and twists of the other room too. Anyway, this proved an ideal way to avoid useless post-mortems, and I highly recommend Vlad and his pair of rooms.

Later, James and I get to look at the students’ work from this morning. Their assessments are pretty accurate. Harvey’s solutions to everything are beautiful, while Neel’s bounding argument in Q2 is certainly the most vulgar (and, in fact, unnecessary) calculation of the year so far. Joe’s solution to Q3 bears such obvious resemblence to an official solution that his uncharacteristic abundance of small errors probably won’t matter, including the memorable set A_i\backslash\{i\}, where the two is mean different things. Some of the team might reflect that a moment of casualness in checking the n=2 case on Q2 is a frustrating way to lose a potential mark, but when I compare notes with James, it sounds like the slow and steady approach to Q1 has indeed paid off for everyone, so hopefully it will not be too painful to agree the scores tomorrow.

Saturday 25 February

It’s the second day of the competition, and the UK team look bright-eyed and positive at breakfast. They aren’t the only ones under pressure this morning, as James and I must settle the scores from yesterday’s questions with local markers, known as coordinators. It’s hard to guess in how much detail one will have to explain your contestants’ scripts, so it is safer to prepare almost line-by-line. On this occasion though, perhaps we have over-prepared, as every meeting ends quickly with offers of 7/7 exactly where we were hoping, and indeed in a couple of places where we were not hoping. The markschemes are very clear about certain omissions which carry a point deduction, so to ensure fairness and consistency, we insist that two scores are moved down. I’m confident that any British student would prefer an honourable 41/42 than an accidental 42/42.

No-one’s going to be scoring 41 nor 42 unless they solve the extremely challenging geometry Q6, and as we meet our students afterwards, it turns out they have not managed any progress there. However, they claim an almost full set of solutions to Questions 4 and 5, which, if accurate, is a very good return. Everyone is in a good mood, and after I explain a couple of approaches to Q6, no-one seems too disappointed that they didn’t spot these.

There are various schedules floating around, listing multiple locations and times for lunch, but our space-time trajectory intersects none of them, so we follow the Chinese team to a recommended cheap Szechuan restaurant round the corner. Various circle theorems are explored via the Lazy Susan, and there is a grand reveal of the marks we’ve recently confirmed. There’s time for another pair of escape rooms while the second day scripts arrive. As Rosie remarks, two in two days can lead to excessive outside-the-box thinking. Sometimes a radiator really isn’t a sinister prop, a device for encoding five-digit numbers, or a clue to a Templar tunnel; it’s just a radiator. Otherwise we’d be cold.

When the scripts arrive, as expected the cupboard is pretty bare on Q6. If there were marks for quantity, Neel might get some, and if there were marks for most uses of esoteric theory in a single page, Alexander might get one. No set of scripts for an international-level medium combinatorics problem will ever be perfect, but our Q5s come close. It’s therefore not a long evening, and we can join the students for dinner with the American team. For most of them it’s their first visit to Europe, and there’s much comparing of culture and maths training programmes. There’s also a long discussion of whether it’s sensible to teach maths in primary school. Those present who have small children or younger siblings weigh in on the mysteries of the ‘grid method’, and whether toddlers implicitly understand commutativity, even if they can’t spell it.

Sunday 26 February

The UK leaders gather early in the ‘philosophical anti-cafe’ opposite Vianu school, to ponder the final scripts with a coffee and a view of an artfully-arranged folio of Spinoza. James has a loyalty card here. Unfortunately two of our students have clear algebraic errors in Q4, but apart from that everything is very straightforward. Though following last night’s conversation, we note that maybe a revision clinic on mathematical spelling might prove useful. Anonymous student X thinks there’s one L in ‘ellipse’, counterbalanced by anonymous student Y who thinks there are two in ‘column’. The word ‘parallel’ comes in many disguises.

Of course, the coordinators couldn’t care less about that, and they don’t even mind Neel’s two-cases-at-once inductive step, so again we get what we ask for on Q5 immediately, and on Q4 in the time it takes James to draw a lozenge tiling representing Thomas’s shearing argument. For Q6, it turns out there clearly is a mark for most uses of esoteric theory in a single page, so Alexander gets it. They show us a diagram with over a hundred lines which suggests that the exotic equivalence he claims is actually true. There we go. Overall, the quality of our written solutions has been extremely high. It feels like I say this every time now, but it isn’t idle propaganda. We remember the horrors that used to emerge occasionally, and the effort to make this improvement permanent feels well worth it.

Meanwhile, to fill the day, the students have gone to Sinaia. Two of their guides went with them to help with tickets at the station, apparently under the impression that never having taken a train before wouldn’t be an obstacle to this role. Either way, they made it, and following my request for material for this report, I receive a trickle of presentable photos, though there is talk afterwards of some rather more informal versions which are apparently not suitable. The Transylvanian winter is thawing, but slowly and messily, and Harvey reports that several of the group spent more time horizontal than vertical. Irrespective of their preferred axis, there’s no comment on whether they saw my bear, or any other bear. But since my bear was scared of me, one wonders what it would make of MT’s telling-off face? (Last seen by me during the notorious ‘balcony incident’ at a summer school in 2005, but hardly forgotten.)

The students return in time for confirmation of the results and their medals. As so often, there is pleasure that we have done so well collectively, mixed with mild disappointment for those who ended up just short of a boundary, and that the UK was so close to placing first. Because of the strength of the invited countries, earning a medal of any colour is a very worthwhile achievement, and so Rosie is impressively sanguine about missing out so narrowly in such an unfortunate manner. Alexander was closer than it appears, and could have two more opportunities to take part.

The closing ceremony at Vianu school proceeds rapidly. There is the usual challenge of photographing the students receiving their prizes, but this time is easy. Thomas is about a foot taller than everyone else on the stage, while Neel is flanked by almost the entire Russian team, but his chutzpah trumps their numerical advantage, with laughter all round. Joe claims this year’s gold medal is substantially weightier. He hasn’t brought his previous pair, so the chance to verify this and recreate a Mark Spitz moment goes begging.

It’s 7pm, and UK student enthusiasm for the closing disco (not my words) is about as high as MT’s enthusiasm to chaperone the closing disco. Instead we find a Middle Eastern restaurant, and it’s refreshing to eat hummus in a place which doesn’t claim to be the ‘best in Israel’ though I don’t think Abu Said in Akko will be rushing to steal the recipe. Po-Shen outlines his vision of a year-long maths camp. I think present company are tired enough after five days here. Some are interested to view, if not actually participate in, the protests in Victory Square, but it seems tonight is a quiet one and nothing is being burned, so late-night cards and a perusal of each others’ scripts will have to do.

Monday 27th February

The rest of the group have a flight back to London later today which apparently cost 99p per person before tax. I don’t know how much less the 5am option was, but I think it’s probably worth it. My own flight is truly at 5am tomorrow and I plan to stay up all night. The students return to school tomorrow, doubtless to receive a glorious mix of adulation and apathy. Harvey requests whether next year this trip can be timed differently so that he can miss the whole of his local Eisteddfod, rather than just one day. I promise to ask the organisers, say goodbye, then head for the hills on a train journey long enough to write the entirety of this report.

3am at Bucharest airport, and thoughts can now turn to the future. Many of us will meet in five weeks’ for another round of mathematics in the more tranquil setting of Cambridge. Meanwhile, I certainly enjoyed, admittedly through red eyes, the entertainment of a flight to Israel where baggage size regulations are actually enforced at the boarding gate, and apparently everyone else made it back safely too.

RMM 2015 – UK Team Blog Part Two

Saturday 28th Feburary

There is much to squeeze into the programme, and so the second paper starts an hour earlier. James and I spend the day based at Tudor Vianu, the specialist maths and computing school that has hosted this competition since its first incarnation in 2008. Even coming from schools which regularly send students to such international competitions, we find it remarkable to see how much explicit emphasis they place on academic excellence here. Where British observers might expect lists of prefects and photos of glorious football teams, here instead we see students posing with medals and Romanian flags from contests around the world.

Our first task is to coordinate yesterday’s problems. Qs 1 and 3 are agreed extremely rapidly, with the problem captains very complimentary of the UK boys’ number theory solutions. Q2 has all the ingredients to suggest a long slog, but coordinators Lucian Turea and Radu Gologan have clearly thought very carefully about the UK scripts. Everything they say is sensible and easy to make consistent, so we are finished and happy comfortably within our 20 minute slot.

James and I also have to supervise the Romanian scripts for Qs 2 and 3 as these are British submissions. My schoolboy Latin helps a little bit, and we eventually agree on how to pair up comments in the solutions with points on the markscheme just in time to meet our students as they finish. Joe is full of excitement, having completed all three in the closing moments, while others are disappointed, having been slightly thrown by the geometry, but overall spirits are high.

The team are squirrelled off by the guides, and I have the afternoon to engage with the Q5 scripts. We have five solutions, and all are fine, but might not appear fine to a casual observer. Liam has opted for the Jackson Pollock approach to truth, where statements of various levels of interest and veracity are independently sprayed freely across three pages, though after a while I am convinced that every line does follow from something somewhere else on the page.

While working, I realise that having a ground floor room in an Eastern European hostel has its drawbacks. That said, opening the window gives the chance for an experiment to determine exactly which genre of music is found least appealing by lingering smokers. Enescu’s sonate dans le caractere populaire roumain proves successful, despite its local heritage.

I have a better idea what’s going on in all our students’ arguments in time to venture down to the slightly baffling Bucharest metro towards the farewell dinner, which retains its name despite not falling on the final evening. The students are deliberately separated from the leaders, but no attempt is made to enforce this and everyone mingles freely. This year the Chinese team comes from the Shanghai area, and their leader teaches at their high school. He has recently spent a term in Reading and, together with Warren and Harvey, we have a highly enthusiastic conversation about differences in education systems between our countries.

The UK students’ table seems to have been chosen for especially ponderous service, but the 30 seconds they are given between their desserts arriving and the bus arriving proves sufficient. I feel judged when I arrive back at my room and find the Hungarian deputy leader still working on his problematic geometry, so make sure to have at least a nominal further glance at our Q5s before setting an early alarm.

Sunday 1st March

The only people in Victory Square at 6.30am are stray dogs, and stray leaders heading to the school to prepare for their coordinations. I’m apprehensive about being asked to go through Harry’s solution to Q5 line-by-line, but though the effort to understand everything felt purposeful, it wasn’t necessary, as we get what we request almost immediately. Exactly the same thing happens on the other second day questions, so James and I are kicking our heels by 9.30, and the possibility of a return to bed feels very inviting while we wait for the other countries’ scores to clear.

Joe write: Meanwhile, we are at the mysterious ‘Hostel X’, in order to visit an ‘escape room‘. This was not actually as dubious as it first sounds. As Dominic explained, we were to be locked in a room for an hour during which we would have to solve a number of puzzles in order to escape. [DY: think of The Crystal Maze but with less leopard-print.] This turns out to be extremely enjoyable, as we gradually discover the collective significance of some masks, a chessboard and a couple of UV torches, but also quite difficult. Sam, Harvey, Andrei and I manage to escape with barely five minutes to spare but the others do not quite finish, although they assure us that their room was by far the more difficult of the two…

We meet the students, who are discussing Morse decoding and similar things with great enthusiasm. En route home, James thinks that we have been too hasty to accept a flaw in Joe’s solution to Q6, since it suddenly dawns that it could be fixed with the addition of a single \ge sign. Our original coordinators have gone home, but chief coordinator Mihai Baluna graciously takes a second look, and agrees with our re-assessment, so James’ defibrillator can go back in the box.

The bronze and silver medal boundaries have settled naturally, and after brief discussion the jury decides to round up the number of golds to ten, which is surely the right decision. This leaves the UK with three honourable mentions, two silvers, and a gold. Though some of our students might be disappointed to lie just below a boundary, they all recognise that this contest features challenging problems and experienced contestants, many from countries with far more strenuous training programmes than ours. By any measure, this is a fantastic team performance, and James and I are very proud of them.

The closing ceremony is held in the atrium of Vianu school, and after an encouraging speech from the headteacher, the medals are awarded fairly swiftly. Joe reports that the hardest aspect of winning a gold at RMM is the necessity to smile on stage continuously for three minutes. Russia is announced as the winner of the team competition, with a very impressive set of performances, closely followed by the USA.

With the entire evening clear, the UK and USA teams head to Piata Romana to celebrate each other’s successes. The Romanian guides and the UK leadership have slightly different views about what constitutes an appropriate venue for this, but in the end everyone is entirely happy to gather in the common area at James’ hotel. This has been an excellent competition, and it is wonderful to see students, guides and leaders from all teams finding so much in common and much to learn from one another.

Monday 2nd March

My roommate departs for a train to Budapest at 4am, and the accommodation staff are enthusiastically dismantling the bunkbeds in the adjacent room at 6am, so it is fair to say I might have slept better. Two cars take us out to the airport, precisely one of which thinks we are having a race through the rush hour traffic. Suffice it to say, I would probably like to cycle round the Arcul de Triumf even less than its Parisian counterpart.

The students’ recently acquired metalwork doesn’t quite take us over the baggage weight limit. The Wizzair boarding procedure leaves a little to be desired, but the party looks keen for little except sleep, so it makes no difference to do this sparsely. As ever, the arrivals barriers at Luton only just manage to hold back the legions of adoring fans. Goodbyes are exchanged before we head our separate ways, though we will meet again for more worthwhile mathematics in just over three weeks at our next training camp in Cambridge.

RMM 2015 – UK Team Blog Part One

The UK was invited to send a team to the Romanian Master of Mathematics competition, held in Bucharest for the seventh time in 2015. This is a short account of what happened. There are moments when I wasn’t present, for which Joe reports on behalf of the students.

A pdf version with more details about the organisation of the contest, statements of the problems and a brief summary of results can be found here. Background and reports on similar competitions can be found here, including links to more comprehensive registers of hosted elsewhere.

Wednesday 25th February

We have spent the night at a hotel close to Luton Airport, so we can proceed to our flight on foot. Walking in front of a bright red sunrise to a bright orange terminal to depart on a bright pink plane leaves me with a sense of colour overload not experienced since I last watched South Pacific. The three hour flight to Bucharest is unremarkable. Sam has fallen asleep with pencil poised halfway through a long expression where every other term is 2012^{2012}, and Harvey makes rapid progress on a dodecahedronal Rubik’s Cube.

Soon afterwards we arrive in Romania and get lifts to the Moxa accommodation complex of the University of Economics where the students will stay. There are clearly mild cultural differences concerning what levels of privacy middle-aged adults might expect to enjoy, but the organisers have done a good job, and all is resolved satisfactorily. Of the students, Harry and Sam will share with two Brazilian boys who are due to arrive in the middle of the night, and the remaining four have a dorm to themselves, complete with precarious looking upper bunks.

Joe writes: Slightly surprisingly, we have been given seven guides, an entire Year 11 class at the Vianu school. Four of them take us on a walking tour round the central area of Bucharest, including the imposing Victory Square, and Herastrau Park. A sign informs us we should not toboggan down the brief slope between the path and the lake. We heed this advice.

Later in the evening, James and I diverge for the first leaders’ meeting. Old friendships are renewed, and the proceedings are informal and brief, allowing as much time as possible to get to grips with the questions. A proposed pair of papers is circulated by chief problem selector Ilya Bogdanov, and we get to work in James’ room. Our immediate impression is that we like them a lot, and this is reaffirmed over the coming hours as we explore them further.

Thursday 26th February

The leaders get to work finalising the papers. My confidence in the quality of the questions has grown even stronger overnight, and so I am not surprised when these are approved fairly rapidly. I propose swapping questions 3 and 5 based entirely on my own prejudice regarding their relative difficulty, and it turns out that others feel similarly, and this is approved.

Next, we must finalise a definitive wording of the questions before they are translated into languages for 14 other countries. Various people have strong views on commas, how many times one should use the word `let’ in a given sentence, and whether `open’ or `interior’ are more likely to be found ambiguous by students. Perhaps unexpectedly, a question submitted by the UK, courtesy of Lex Betts, causes the most problems for wording. In the end, it seems easiest to avoid ambiguity by completely rephrasing it in terms of the blackboard setup that will now appear as Q3 on the paper, accompanying Q2, the work of our own Jeremy King.

Joe writes: Meanwhile we enjoy a more comprehensive tour of Bucharest, past the old city and the Palace of the Parliament, then on to an excellent lecture by Calin Popescu. He tells us about topological dimension, and we learn that triangles are two-dimensional, though unsurprisingly the real challenge is deciding precisely what `triangle’ and `two-dimensional’ actually mean.

The opening ceremony is a well-organised affair in the grand university hall with several generous speeches from the mayor and other local dignitaries, and representatives of Tudor Vianu school. On the way home, the students examine their goodie bags, featuring various stationery and an RMM polo shirt. The leaders have not been missed out, though I wonder whether their guesses at sizes may have been informed by my predecessors? Certainly I will have to eat a lot of the omnipresent potato salad to run any danger of fitting into this item before the end of the competition…

After our winter camp in Hungary, the students are now connoisseurs of Eastern European cuisine, and remain unfazed by even the most remarkable display of gherkins. While James and I catch up on work, they relax before tomorrow’s festivities by starting another round of the card game which I am apparently not allowed to name. Suffice it to say, it has a similar quality to The Archers, offering a nonsensical background murmur which proves surprisingly supportive to research productivity.

Friday 27th February

Harry reports over breakfast that he spent some of the night helping dismantle a hyperactive burglar alarm, but it seems everyone is feeling well-prepared for the first day of the contest. James and I have carefully assembled a selection of fruit for the UK team’s refreshment, but, after Snow White themed questions regarding our intentions, the apples prove substantially more popular with the Hungarian students.

After approving answers to a handful of questions, mostly about the nature of the `first turn’ in Q2, we are free, so I return for a walk around the serpentine Herastrau Lake. The boundary of the lake seems to have Hausdorff dimension slightly greater than 1, but in any case, it is pleasant to stop halfway round its seemingly infinite perimeter to work on some problems about multitype branching processes. I also stop at the orthodox cathedral, from which my own college chapel could learn plenty about how a solemn space can be gold without being gauche.

Our students seem unsure whether to be upbeat or not, but we have a complete set of solutions claimed for Q1, and some cautious reports of progress on Q2. To avoid wasting time worrying about the recent past, some of the guides scoop up the Russian, American and UK teams for a walking tour of Bucharest old town and the stylish Cismigiu park. As in 2008, I observe that Bucharest enjoys a surfeit of excellently-equipped playgrounds almost everywhere, but a total absence of children using them. On this occasion, the younger members of our team are reluctant to rectify this.

I get started on the Q2s after dinner, and in a pleasing reversal of what often happens at some competitions, our two students claiming partial solutions have actually done rather better than they suggested. Sam in particular has been very clear about what he can and cannot do, and might even end up scoring seven. James and I convene at his hotel to discuss the challenging Q3 which seems to be equally clear-cut, so it is a hard-working evening, but a lot less drawn-out than it might have been. It is good to see that our recent active efforts to encourage the students to improve their write-up style are paying dividends.