Category → thoughts

[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.)

Old Tests (and a Mysterious New Student)

(Short streak post. And for the uninformed, I’m using Spivak pronouns for this post just because.)

Generally, when people I don’t already know through math competitions ask me or my parents about something like how to teach their intelligent child to make em really good at math, or even English or whatever, I am skeptical by default because there seem to be a lot of Taiwanese parents who have alarmingly rigid and largely baseless expectations or assumptions about what their children ought to be interested in and excel at.

You can lead a horse to water, and honestly I think you could find a way to force it to drink if you really wanted to, but you can’t make it enjoy the process of being force-fed. Um. Force-watered? Force-hydrated?

You can teach your child math and English, and you could make em ace all eir tests, but you probably can’t make em enjoy the test so much that e decides to create more diabolical versions of these tests to give to eir fictional characters in eir stories for fun!

These are all actual illustrations from the old stories I mentioned in part 2.5 of “More Fiction”. Stories I wrote in 2004. As a first-grader.

This is kind of horrifying.

test6blurred test7

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.

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…

More Fiction (Part 1)

I’m going to do it again! I’m going to break a post into parts to milk it for the daily posting streak. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

This is mostly a self-analysis post though.

WARNING: This post contains many, many TVTropes links. If you are like me and need to be productive but are liable to being sucked into TVTropes, maybe you should find a way to commit to not clicking on any of these links, or just stop reading. The obligatory xkcd is kind of long and also featured on one of the TVTropes links I’ve already made, so I’m not going to embed it.

I blogged about this before in 2013 — how I felt that the analysis trained into me by English class was dulling my ability to appreciate and write the types of fiction I really enjoyed. After thinking about it I realized the mismatch goes deeper than that. Because the things I seek the most in fiction are escapism and entertainment. I like simple fiction with obvious (though maybe not that obvious) Aesops and extreme economy of characters via making all the reveals being of the form “X and Y are the same person” (which does not quite seem to be a trope but may be an occurrence of Connected All Along, with the most famous subtrope being Luke, I Am Your Father (which is a misquote!), and is also one common Stock Epileptic Tree, so maybe this isn’t the best example), because not only are such reveals fun, they make the plot simpler. What can I say, it works.

The qualities of being thought-provoking or heartwarming are only bonuses for me; needless complexity in the number of characters or plots is a strict negative. Sorry, I don’t want to spend effort trying to remember which person is which and how a hundred different storylines relate to each other if they don’t build to a convincing, cohesive, and awesome Reveal, and often not even then. And I like closure, so I feel pretty miserable when writers resolve a long-awaited plot point just to add a bunch more. Because of this I am ambivalent about long book series; most of my favorite works of fiction have come in long series but starting a new one always gives me Commitment Anxiety. Even when there’s closure, when I finish an immersive movie or book I’m always left kind of disoriented, like I’ve just been lifted out of a deep pool and have to readjust to breathing and seeing the world from the perspective of a normal person on land. I like when I’m reading good fiction, but I don’t like going through withdrawal symptoms. If I want to read complicated open-ended events, I’ll go read a history textbook, because at least the trivia might come up useful some day; if I want tough problems I’ll just look at real life and think about the possibility of college debt and having to find a job and everything. (If it wasn’t obvious yet, this is why I hyperbolically hate on Game of Thrones often.) Even worse than all of this is multiple paragraphs full of scenery and nothing else, unless of course parts or maybe all of the scenery are Chekhov’s Guns.

Some part of me is embarrassed to admit this because I’ve been educated for so long about deep literature that makes social commentary or reveals an inner evil of humanity or whatever. But then again, I don’t really need an education to appreciate the simple, fun fiction I apparently do.

So: there are a lot of famous classics or mainstream works I can’t really enjoy too much, or in some cases, at all. And yet, sometimes a random story or webcomic will appear and I just won’t be able to stop reading. Why? I decided to try making a list of things I like in fiction:

Quixotic Reimagining of Standardized Tests (Part 2)

If you remember, Part 1 was here and my goal is to construct a theoretical system of standardized tests that I would be satisfied by. Here’s what I’ve got. As usual, because of the daily posting streak I have openly committed to, standard disclaimers apply.

  • We’d have a first-tier test like the SAT, except this will be explicitly designed not to distinguish among the high performers.

    The goal of the test is to assess basic proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. Nothing else. Most good students, those who have a shot at “good colleges” and know it, will be able to ace this test with minimal effort and can spend their time studying for other things or engaging in other pursuits. Students who don’t will still have to study and it will probably be boring, but the hope is that, especially if you’re motivated to get into a good college, there won’t be much of that studying.

    For colleges, the intention of this test is to allow them to require this test score from everybody without having to put up disclaimers that go like,

    there is really not a difference in our process between someone who scores, say, a 740 on the SAT math, and someone who scores an 800 on the SAT math. So why, as the commentor asks, is there such a difference in the admit rate? Aha! Clearly we DO prefer higher SAT scores!

    Well no, we don’t. What we prefer are things which may coincide with higher SAT scores…

Quixotic Reimagining of Standardized Tests (Part 1)

Life update: I got my driver’s license from the place where I learned to drive. Then I drove home from there with my mom, and it was zarking terrifying.

Also, WordPress says it has protected my blog from 38 spam comments.

Early in the morning tomorrow, I have a small surgical operation, so I can’t sleep too late. (Well, it ended up being pretty late anyway. Darn.) Therefore I think I’m going to do something unprecedented on this blog for the daily posting streak: I’m going to post an incomplete non-expository post.

Yes, the only purpose of the title is to get initials that are four consecutive letters of the alphabet..


One of the more argumentative post sequences on my blog involved ranting against standardized tests.

My very first stab was probably the silly satire directed at the test everybody has to take that takes up two hours per day of an entire week. Once college became a thing in my life, I wrote a humblebrag rant after I took the SAT and then a summary post after I snagged this subject for an English class research paper and finished said paper.

It should be plenty clear that I am not ranting against this part of the system because it’s disadvantageous to me.

But it should also be said that I’ve read some convincing arguments for using standardized tests more in college admissions (Pinker, then Aaronson). Despite the imperfections of tests, they argue, the alternatives are likely to be less fair and more easily gamed. The fear that selecting only high test-scorers will yield a class of one-dimensional boring thinkers is unfounded. And the idea that standardized tests “reduce a human being to a number” may be uncomfortable for some, but it makes no sense to prioritize avoiding a vague feeling of discomfort over trusting reliable social science studies. Neither article, you will note, advocates selecting all of one’s college admits based on highest score. Just a certain unspecified proportion, one that’s probably a lot larger than it is today.

And although I wish the first article linked its studies, I mostly agree with their arguments. So this puts me in a tricky position. These positions I’ve expressed seem hard to reconcile! So, after arguing about all this with a friend who told me things like

I think you fail to understand how anti-intellectual american society is

Two Points on Photography

(Uncohesive blog content, posted as part of a daily posting streak I have openly committed to; standard disclaimers apply. Whew, made it by a few minutes…)

This essay was partly inspired by but mostly orthogonal in purpose to dzaefn’s essay on a similar subject, Humans, Photographs, and Names. I agree with many of its points, although I deviate in that I think it’s more important for my Facebook picture to identify me than to inform about me (there’s the rest of Facebook, plus my maybe half a dozen other sites, for doing so). Part of the problem for me there, and part of the reason I hang on to my nine-letter random handle from fourth grade, is that my names, first and last, are so commonplace. Among the people who share them (according to DuckDuckGo) are a New York Times tech writer, more than one computer science professor, a photographer, a couple doctors, and some guy who did some sort of graphics work for a short clip and two movies. This means that, to somebody not already in my social circles trying to match me to my account, my Facebook photo is my primary tool for disambiguating myself from all these other people, and I don’t think there is anything that could do that job quite as precisely as a picture of my actual face and body.

Still, I agree enough to be bothered by having a profile picture suffering from “the whole extent of photographic informational void”. I always planned to add some GIMP layers to the photo to indicate context and content more precisely. Except I procrastinated and it got more and more awkward to do this as time went by, since as far as I know, normal people update their profile pictures only to reflect more recent events, especially when they’re important. Like, you know, graduating from high school? So yes, I’ve been waiting to do this for an entire year now.

Eh, to hell with awkwardness. That’s the spirit of this daily-posting exercise.

(Fun fact: The code in what I’m about to set as my profile picture, if I don’t procrastinate even more, is real IOI 2014 code I submitted successfully (for rail, as previously featured; the visually selected fragment was the key fix for the final bug I fixed). Except I actually had to manually retype my code printout to get the picture because I lacked the foresight (sound familiar?) to save an electronic copy of my IOI submissions.)

Also, I’m glad this isn’t a smiling photo because I feel like it’s easier to appreciate happy posts from a person whom one associates with a serious face, than serious posts from a person whom one associates with a happy face, and I want both types of posts to impact people when I post them. I could be overgeneralizing from my own feelings though. If you are reading this and want to chat me feedback (as way more than one of you has been doing), I’d welcome more data points on this issue.

That’s not what I really wanted to rant about in this post, though.