## Category → thoughts

Short blog content for daily posting streak. Standard disclaimers apply. Not much to see here. At some point in the past, because I was a bored teenager, I memorized this. So now, in theory, I can tell you the capital of each state of the U.S. This is already a lame trick, but as I realized yesterday, it’s made even lamer by the fact that the data structure I chose only supports O(n) lookup.

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:

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…

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

(comments on this statement are also welcome) I think some clarifications and updates on how I feel are in order.

(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.

Why do people take photographs?

(Disorganized and probably incomplete blog content, posted as part of a daily posting streak I have openly committed to; standard disclaimers apply)

Okay, I’m actually going to try starting this blog post and posting it in the same day.

Story: As a sort of extracurricular activity slash side job, I taught a math class after school once a week to six fifth-graders. It was nominally geared towards some Australian Math Competitions, which my math teacher administers in Taiwan, although in the end I don’t think I achieved this end very well.

After writing this brain dump I realized this was a pretty terrible hackjob; I had absolutely no idea how to teach fifth-graders or how to organize an after-school class, and I still mostly don’t. Parents did most of the organizing, really. And provided refreshments.

And I get paid for this????

Bulleted list of other thoughts:

• Wow, I didn’t realize / remember how serious the gender gap between elementary-school students is. I don’t mean the difference between their performance (that might have been the case, but I don’t think I felt a significant enough difference to conclude anything); I mean how fifth-grade boys and fifth-grade girls don’t like to mingle.

When given the opportunity, they would pick team names like, “[members of my gender] Rule, [members of other gender] Drool!” They wouldn’t discuss with each other either. If prompted, they would sometimes point out mistakes in each others’ work, though.

I think this is a phase that people grow out of, and I probably did it myself when I was young. I don’t remember when it ends, but in any case, ugh, it’s so unproductive that boys and girls separate themselves for any length of time at all.

Sigh.

Darn, I only lasted four days. That’s pretty bad.

And I broke like 90% of my HabitRPG streaks too. I was busy running Monte-Carlo calculations to estimate the number of domino logic puzzles, and forgot about midnight. Okay, before that I spent twice as much time on Flight Rising for whatever reason. Bad life decisions.

I guess that means today I have to post one now, before going to sleep, and one later. Eh, time to harvest really weird mini-posts from nowhere.

(Faux-philosophical blog content, posted as part of a daily posting streak I have openly committed to; standard disclaimers apply)

This is a hard essay to write because (1) it’s very irrational and I should (and I do) know better — death by car accident is much more likely than death by an airplane crash, but the latter is scarier because it’s more vivid and we have less control over it, and (2) people don’t like talking about it. When I tried writing it, though, I realized I already burned through most of the down-to-earth worries in the posts I made between April and August of 2010. They still coherently and accurately sum up my current thoughts surprisingly well. And most of the irrational, overly philosophical fears appeared in Thoughts at Midnight. So there used to be a lot of fluff here like this, which was inducing procrastination because I don’t know what to include and what to cut, but now that I have a daily deadline, I cut most of it. Here’s what’s left.

One, xkcd:

Two, bonus quote: As really-long-term readers know, I have had a reason to think that I might actually die in the past few years, a real reason that has stayed with me and gotten me thinking now and then about what my meaning of life is, instead of a short-lived fuzzy philosophical feeling obtained from reading Tuesdays with Morrie (which is not to say that Tuesdays with Morrie isn’t a good book; I just suspect no book can convey everything a personal experience can.) Anyway, it’s over in all likelihood, but the point is that in the middle, I wrote an essay for class in ninth grade, which I find equally coherent and equally representative of my views. The conclusion runs thus:

These are the thoughts that sometimes keep me awake at night.

These are things I don’t want to think about. These are things I’ve spent hours thinking about, never productively. They are worrying, but unlike typical worries in my life, it is fundamentally impractical to take steps to resolve or mitigate them, after which I may rest assured that I’ve done my best. The reason is that they also happen to be either untestable/unfalsifiable or only testable if one incurs absurd and irreversible costs, mainly dying.

Sometimes I explain them away to myself successfully and move on. Sometimes I read what I’ve written and think about these thoughts and do the cognitive equivalent of looking at them funny, as I’m expecting most readers to feel if they get that far — why would anybody be bothered, or afraid, or soul-crushingly panicked about these things? Life is so busy, there are literally more than sixty-four items on my HabitRPG to-do list, and besides, there are so many serious global issues humanity is actually facing right now, and people who are actually deprived of basic rights and resources and have to struggle to stay alive. How can I possibly be bothered by these absurd remote thoughts?

But I know that other times I do feel those emotions exactly. And if I stare just right, I can feel those emotions bubbling beneath the surface in me. Sometimes I can’t explain the issues away to myself, and a deep soul-sucking pang grows in my stomach. I’m irrational — I’m afraid of some of these thoughts — and I have submitted to the fact that there are some edges of my irrationality that would not be worth the effort to fix if just not thinking about them is better.

Sometimes these thoughts make me wish I were not so rational. Sometimes they even make me wish I were religious; it would be easier if (I believed) consciousness were, somehow, special. I suspect if I tried really hard, I could make myself believe something like that sincerely. But I think that’s a betrayal of myself I’m not willing to take. I think there are better ways to remain happy.

I want to maximize happiness. Thinking about more general moral principles will help with that, but the remoteness of these particular thoughts is such that I doubt I’ll ever have to make a choice that would benefit from me having thought about them. At least, I think the chance is small enough to not be worth the negative utility spent thinking about them.

So: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

But I feel frustrated: not thinking about something just doesn’t seem like a solution. I don’t know how to come to terms with just how irrational happiness fundamentally is. And I still can’t resist thinking about them sometimes…

First, I got worked up about the test. Then I got a score and ranted about it on this blog. (I’m still uncertainly hoping that didn’t come off as arrogant. Let me add, I did not get a perfect PSAT.) Then a friend pitched to me the idea that I write an article about it for my school newspaper, which I did. It was far too long. As if that weren’t enough, I then decided to examine whether the SAT was an accurate prediction of “academic ability and success” for my English research paper. Now I’ve come full circle to this blog, where I’m going to try to synthesize and conclude everything, free of the shackles of the research paper format, to allow me to move on with my life. This post contains bits lifted from all three essays and lots of new stuff; I’ve been editing it for so long that I feel like I have it memorized. Its word count is around that of the newspaper article plus the research paper, i.e. far far far too long.

But whatever, nobody reads this blog anyway and I have to get this out of my system. When I said I wanted to “move on with my life”, I really meant my winter homework. Oops!

Disclaimer: I am not an admissions officer. I have not yet even been accepted to a prestigious university (despite rumors to the contrary…), for whatever definition of “prestigious”, unlike some of the bloggers I’m referencing. So some of this is pure speculation. On the other hand, some of it is researched and referenced, and I think the pure speculation still makes sense. That’s why I’m posting it.

Okay, here we go…

Let’s start with the question of accurate prediction. The SAT is a useful predictor, but not as useful as one might assume. Intuitively, it ought to be more accurate than other metrics because it’s a standardized test, whereas GPAs other awards vary by habits of teacher and region and are hard to compare objectively. But as a study from the College Board itself (PDF) found:

the correlation of HSGPA [high-school GPA] and FYGPA [first-year GPA in college] is 0.36 (Adj. r = 0.54), which is slightly higher than the multiple correlation of the SAT (critical reading, math, and writing combined) with FYGPA (r = 0.35, Adj. r = 0.53).

Of course, that doesn’t mean the SAT is worthless, because combining the SAT score and high school GPA results in a more accurate metric than either one alone. But by “more accurate” I refer to a marginal improvement of 0.08 correlation.