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?
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 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.
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…)
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.”
(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.
(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. 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.