Category → self-analysis

Olympiads: The Infinitely Overdue Retrospective

I put this question in my FAQ, because at least two people have asked me this question, and that’s how frequent a question needs to be to be on my FAQ: I got an IMO1 gold medal in 2012, as a ninth grader, and an IOI gold medal in 2014, as an eleventh grader. I could have kept going to either, or even decided to try taking the IPhO or something, but I didn’t. Why not?

The short answer: It was a rough utilitarian calculation. By continuing, I would probably displace somebody else who would gain more from being on an IMO/IOI team than I would. Besides, I wanted to do other things in high school, so I wasn’t losing much.

I think the short answer actually captures most of my thinking when I made the decision back then, and it’s not really new; I said as much at the end of 2013. But behind it was a lot of complex thoughts and feelings that I’ve been ruminating over and trying to put into words for the better part of a decade. Hence, this post.


There is a natural question that precedes the frequently asked one that I have never been asked, something I am now realizing I never honestly asked myself and never tried to answer deeply: Why did I participate in the IMO and the IOI in the first place?

Music II

When I first made myself commit to posting weekly, I was trying to make myself spend a little time every day of the week thinking and writing and whittling away at old drafts. Instead I’m here at 10:40 PM basically starting a brand-new post. Oh well.

I last blogged about music in 2013. I tagged two other posts with “music” since then, but neither is particularly deep: 8 Songs for 18 Years and Drop-In Filler. Let’s continue the tradition of self-analysis part IIs from nowhere…


I meditated a little bit in Conversations about “lacking experience or interest in a lot of the commonly discussed culture.” I think this applies to me and music as well, although not as fully. Back in Taiwan, when mentally bracing myself for coming to the U.S. for college, I sometimes worried about not knowing enough about pop music and bands and not listening enough to popular albums, and having trouble integrating into the culture for this.

Turns out, among the communities I wandered into and friends I made, it was a more frequent obstacle that I didn’t know enough about classical music and composers. Whoops. Some of the names rang faint bells from either music class or conversations with high school friends who did do classical music, but I could not identify or remember any styles or eras, and would remember composers only by unreliable first letters or unusual substrings of their names.

Gaming

It’s another weekend, isn’t it.

I’m out of deep things to say. I don’t usually have deep things to say. Sorry to anybody who subscribed hoping for more things like the last post. This is basically going to be a personal stream of consciousness post. But it’s a stream with a long ancestry, since I apparently wrote 400 words about it in a WordPress draft four years ago. This was way back before I even started writing post drafts in Markdown on my computer instead of directly in WordPress, so I guess it must be an interesting topic.

Four years ago, Brian2012 was suddenly struck by how many of the people he knew were such serious gamers. But let’s go back even earlier, shall we?


A long long time ago, when I was in elementary school or so, my parents had some sort of reward system where I had to do productive things, like study or do chores or write diary entries or practice the piano or something, to earn time on the computer for games. “Gaming time” was a currency. I enjoyed saving up lots of thirty-minute increments and knowing I had the freedom to using them slowly.

That much I remember; the details of how it worked are very fuzzy and I’m not sure what I played in those thirty-minute increments either. I think there was Neopets and Runescape and Club Penguin. (My Neopets account still sees sporadic activity, because I get really really bored sometimes…)

Conversations

One of the most unexpectedly different facets of life during my internship has been the meals.

I’m not talking about the food; it’s certainly different in a fantastic way (Dropbox’s food (link to Facebook page) is like something out of a high-end restaurant), but I knew that before coming already. Also of note is the way I started eating ∞% more ramen over the weekends than I did over the entire school year at MIT, because here I can’t buy that many groceries without them spoiling and am amazingly lazy in this new environment.

No, this (deadlined, so not that well-thought-out, but whatever) post is about conversations at meals, which happen basically every lunch and some dinners when my team eats together.

I’ve never had any regular experience like it. Of course I’ve had many meals at home with family, but they feel different because, well, it’s family and we have so many topics in common. I went to the same school for twelve years and we didn’t generally use a cafeteria; we just ate at our desks in our classrooms, or while doing things like attending club meetings or taking makeup tests. Sometimes if people felt like it they would push desks together to eat, but eating by oneself was totally normal. (At last, I feel like that was what it was. It seems so far away now that I don’t trust my memory, which is pretty sad… I faintly suspect I would have this experience in a more stereotypical American high school. But this is mostly just based off the cafeteria in Mean Girls, a movie I only watched in its entirety on the flight here, which is weird because I know I’ve seen the “The limit does not exist!” part much much earlier. /aside)

And at MIT? “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

[insert name here]

(I’m making random short posts to entertain certain people during spring break.)

Since air-dropping into this crazy cultural salad bowl of a place, I’ve met a lot of people whose names get mispronounced. All sorts of long vowels and short vowels and consonants and word boundaries that jump across languages unpredictably. As a result, people often acquire nicknames or alternative names to get called by, whether actively, passively, or somewhere in between.

In contrast, my name is easy and boring. Now, I rather doubt I’d want an exciting name, in the sense of a name that everybody mangles in excitingly different ways. I’m not exactly dissatisfied with people calling me “Brian”. It just strikes me that I think I’ve gone my entire life without a meaningful nickname or even meaningful derivative of my name.

Zootopia

(So. It’s spring break. Two-week-late post, and somehow by the end it’s all aboard the angst train again?)

Two Sundays ago, I mobbed with a small group of MIT furries to watch Zootopia, the recent highly-reputed Disney movie.

(Before anything else, first there were the previews. I was impressed that every single one of them — there were six or so — was about an upcoming movie featuring anthropomorphic animals front and center. Let me see if I can remember all of them… in no particular order, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Storks, Finding Dory, and Ice Age: Collision Course. edit: Oh, also Angry Birds. Wow, I said, they know their audience.)

I went into the movie with a vague impression that Zootopia was more adult-oriented than most Disney films — not in the naughty way, but in general making a lot of jokes and invoking a lot of parallels that I think only adults might have the experience to get. My suspicions were confirmed a few lines into the movie, where there was a joke about taxes I cracked up at but can’t imagine that children a few years younger would have found funny. If you the reader haven’t watched it, I hope that was vague enough not to ruin the start for you.

(To be fair — and, uh, some parts of the internet are kind of big on this fact — the film also at one point enters a nudist colony. Fortunately (?), Animals Lack Attributes.)

More Fiction (Part 2.5)

This is not Part 3. It’s just two things I thought of tacking on to part 2.

What can I say? Part 2s are easy blog post fodder; Part 2 appendixes are even easier.

  • One, there’s one other wall I run into often during those rare attempts when I get motivated enough to try to write a story: naming characters is hard. At least, it provides an excellent motivational roadblock whenever I even consider committing a story to paper, a point before I’ve actually written anything at which I think “maybe I should give up and go on Facebook instead” and proceed to do so. Aggh. And I think there’s more than one reason for this:

    • I have trouble coming up with names to some degree. Sure, it’s easy to browse BabyNames.com and look for choices, but a lot of the names there are really weird and contemplating them for every unimportant character kind of rips me out of the immersed mindset.
    • Reading great stories in English class and elsewhere may have gotten me feeling like every name ought to be a deep meaningful allusion, or at least pun fodder. I feel like I will regret it if I write a story and, a few months and/or chapters down the road, realize I missed a better name or the name I chose has some undesirable connotations in context or provides an atmosphere-ruining coincidence.
    • But I think the real kicker is simply that some part of me is terrified of the awkwardness of giving a character the same name as anybody I know, because then they might read the story and wonder if the character is somehow based on them. And too many of the names that I consider common enough to not lure readers off into looking for hidden meanings are used up that way. This is obviously worst if the character is an antagonist. But it seems just as awkward if the character is a protagonist in accord with everything I’ve written, i.e. a paper-thin character blatantly created for escapist purposes. I am already kind of terrified I might ever meet anybody with the same name as one of my mentally established characters even though I haven’t actually written anything about him. And there’s a well-established convention of not reusing a first name in a work, so this gets even harder with every work; I’m just as worried, what if somebody thinks this character is related to the other character in that story I wrote in second grade? Oh no!!

      It’s like not reusing variable names in a programming language where everything is in the same scope. Positively nightmarish.

      And I actually discovered some evidence this is a thing in my past: I found some stories I wrote in 2004. They are possibly the most extreme exemplification of Write What You Know imaginable: the main character, Michael, goes to school and makes friends. That’s all.
      Illustration courtesy Brian2004
      Illustration courtesy Brian2004

      I kind of want to share these stories, but fast-forward a few years and you’ll see that a classmate named Michael entered my grade and we stayed in the same grade until we graduated.

Time Management

All through high school I had really high standards for myself. Not the grades, mind you (I admit, humblebrag, my grades were always uncomfortably high, probably as an expected but still sad byproduct of this process (yes, I’m actually complaining about grades being too high. I don’t want my report card to have lots of Bs or Cs, but I really didn’t need to pour enough resources into schoolwork that I graduated as valedictorian, when there were so many other personally and socially meaningful things I could be dedicating effort into creating — but that’s a subject for another post (humblebrags all the way down. Somebody get some internet pitchforks and poke some sense into me))), but simply how I managed my time for doing homework.

In my opinion: not very well. I always spent too much time surfing the internet and doing things less urgent than homework, then ended up sleeping at midnight or one o’clock or whenever often to finish what I should have done earlier.

And yet, compared to many of my friends (definitely not all, though), that’s not late at all and the amount of buffer time I had between finishing work and having it due was positively luxurious. But then, I suppose, I didn’t have the same amount of math homework. But to counter my excuse, I had additional responsibilities such as practicing olympiad problems and preparing weekend presentations and translating the school newsletter. So I don’t actually know if my workload was significantly lighter than average or not, ergo I don’t know whether my time management skills were significantly better than average or not. It seriously doesn’t feel like they would be.

And allegedly, even when I’m procrastinating, it’s more productive than my friends’ procrastination, maybe even Paul Graham’s good type of procrastination. Often when I gripe about how much my former self procrastinated they will ask me what I’ve been doing and, after hearing the answer, tell me this. What have I done to put off homework? Oh, I did some olympiad math problems, committed to my GitHub projects, read a bunch of programming blogs, organized my old chemistry notes from two years ago, and surfed the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Yeah. Total waste of time. Meanwhile certain friends surf 9GAG whenever they get the chance. (Which is not to say that I don’t procrastinate in obviously unproductive ways sometimes — I surf reddit, YouTube, and TVTropes of course. Sometimes I even just read my own blog or dig through old folders in my computer. I’m weird. But anyway.) So, I don’t think much of my time management skills, but I also wonder if I’m being too harsh on myself. Then again, I think conventional wisdom says competing with yourself is psychologically healthier than competing with others, and I agree, so I guess that’s that: I have lots of room for improvement.

Bilingualism II

我本來還想把這一篇用英文跟中文各打一次來實際比較看看,但這已經被困在草稿匣夠久了。一直做重複、吹毛求疵、沒有效率的修改本來就是我寫心情文時的弊病,如果再要求修改時要保持兩種語言版本的同步的話,大概寫到天荒地老都寫不完。(如果讀者沒有讀過我最近亂發的文章,故事都是這樣的:我覺得我在草稿匣累積了太多寫一半的文章,所以在畢業後,我在六月十一號決定從那天開始每天發文,直到我出國,目的是強迫自己把那些草稿寫完,中間還亂發很多其他我本來大概不會寫下來的東西。其實還滿有成就感的。另外,如果你的中文沒有很爛的話,如果你在任何地方認為我寫的中文不流暢或是可以寫得更好,請毫不留情的留言批評。這也是一件我發現我在寫中文方面很缺乏的經驗,我會很感謝。當然,根據以往經驗,懇求讀者留言沒什麼機會成功。)

If you came to this blog or this post hoping to read English, sorry not sorry. It’s only fair, really, given how many people on Facebook can’t read the massive English textwall posts I’ve spammed them with for so long.

常常有人訝異我的英文這麼好。有時候這些人還會問我怎麼學的--碰到這種問題我都不知道要怎麼回答。喔,很簡單啊,只要選擇在一個主要說英文的國家出生,然後跟一群從國外回來的同學一起讀有80%的課是用英文上的學校連續讀十二年就好了。

偶爾也有人知道我是雙語部的或在不同的情況下認識我,反而會覺得我的中文比他們預期的好,例如我的駕訓班教練。其實我在雙語部還是上了十二年的國文課,進度理論上跟其他學校一樣(「理論上」三個字要強調),我也跟身旁很多親戚朋友用中文溝通了更久。比奧林匹亞競賽的經驗應該也讓我認識的上普通國語教學學校的學生,比其他雙語部同學認識的多。所以這應該也不奇怪吧。

但是。其實我對這兩個語言的精熟度其實還是差很多。日常對話沒問題,不過我對英文細枝末節的部分瞭解的比中文多太多太多了。家裡有不止一本「常見英語錯誤」類的書,我小時候會當小說讀--我是一個很奇怪的人。在學校課程中,我編輯自己或他人的英文文章是一天到晚的事情,什麼奇怪的句子跟構造都碰過、想過、修理過。還有些時候,我會很自然的寫出一個英文單字,然後發現我不知道為什麼自己會知道這個單字的意思,但就是有一種感覺告訴我,對,subsist的意思就是「存活於只有最基本的需求被滿足的情況」。跟中文比較:有時候,直覺也會告訴我有某一個成語是可以用的,但我只能清楚想到這個成語的兩、三個字。聽起來很「對」,不過我就是想不到第四個字是什麼,或是怕前三個字換成錯別字,再加上懷疑整個成語意思根本不是我模糊腦袋裡現在浮現的,因為我認得這些字字面上的意思,但無法說服自己為什麼它們合在一起可以解釋成這種意思,最後只好放棄,用國小白話文的措詞就好了。

「總覺得,我在用任何偏離國小程度的白話文的詞彙的時候都是假裝的。」

我在舊一點的草稿寫出了這個句子,不過那一串「的」字讓我覺得怪怪的,現在想想,沒有人跟我討論過寫出這種或其他奇怪的句子時應該怎麼辦。哪一些「的」可以省略?有辦法把句子重寫(recast)避開嗎?還是不管它,我覺得它聽起來很奇怪純粹是錯覺,多讀一點中文就會發現根本沒什麼大不了的?

使用兩種語言的方法也差很多。看看這個部落格就知道了。我相信我在學校雙語部外的大部分台灣朋友不會試著去理解我關於自己長篇大論的英文作文,但長篇大論的文章還是我最認真表達自己的地方。反觀我的中文短文,都通常是那種搞笑、釣讚、裝弱的文。(不,我真的很弱。)我不時會發現自己在網上逛到一個陌生人的心情文,看得津津有味。我們之間的關係頂多是朋友的朋友的朋友,我只知道我跟他應該都喜歡數學這個共同點罷了,但因為語言,我在那些瞬間覺得自己瞭解他勝於瞭解幾乎所有在我身邊講中文的朋友。我自己怎麼看這件事都覺得不合理,有點慚愧。

我回去讀了我第一次寫的關於雙語的文章,可能有一點過火:後來證實,在我的朋友中似乎真的有會純粹為了抒發感情而寫七言律詩的人。而且,我講中文的朋友圈裡,文學類佔的比例本來就應該比他們在整個社會裡佔的比例少很多。在學校跟在生活裡,吸收英文多於中文(而且數學多於英文)是我做的選擇,只是我自己不知道選擇的中介點好不好罷了。是否,我花在跟講中文的親戚朋友互動的力氣不夠?

想寫這一堆字的靈感有一部分來自一次返校活動(九月,可以算出這篇文章停滯在草稿期的時間的下界)。我跟同學在玩一些返校活動的遊戲,我在同學之間嘴裡不停的蹦出笑話,開玩笑的挑逗人。有可能有一點過火,沒有很嚴重不過我的確覺得說了一些我希望我沒說的話。之後,我又跟同學坐在教室暢談了一段時間,聊各種高三、準畢業生的事情。可能有一個小時吧,細節不重要,重點是這引發我想到我說中文的時候好像只會有想說的話沒有說,而好像幾乎沒有過類似的交談。我跟家人、親戚、其他學校的同學沒有辦法以同樣自然的方式交談。

More Fiction (Part 2)

Part 1 was here. This is still part of the daily posting streak I have openly committed to and standard disclaimers still apply. Just as in my original post, back to the flip side — let’s see what I have to do to write fiction to my own satisfaction. And this time I have a guide: the list I made in the first part of this post. Could I create fiction I would enjoy reading?

1: I enjoy calling things before they happen…

2: …I also enjoy the Reveal for questions when the author has done something clever I didn’t catch…