We get up at 3:40 AM. By 4 AM we have left our house, speeding like a bullet into the dark.
(Ohai. Somehow it slipped my mind that I was ending my streak by leaving the country for a competition that would likely be highly bloggable, like my last two international olympiads, both of which led to notable post sequences on this blog. (Admittedly, the first one was never really completed…) My only excuse was that I was worried I might not be able to access my blog from inside the Great Firewall, but I did (via vpn.mit.edu) and even if I hadn’t, I could still have drafted posts locally in Markdown as I usually do, so I don’t know what I was thinking.)
(Also: because, as I’ve said way too many times recently, I need to do linear algebra homework, these posts aren’t going to be as complete or as perfect as I’d like them to be. Although I’m probably just saying this to persuade myself; I tend to include many of the boring parts as well as the interesting parts of the trip, which maybe benefits my future self at the expense of other readers. I probably need to get out of this habit more if I want to blog for a wider audience, though. Oh well.)
The International Mathematics Competition (IMC) is, as it says, an international mathematics competition. But I should add that it is for elementary and middle-school students (in other words, I am not competing, okay??). (edit: Also, one or two letters are often prefixed to indicate the host country, for whatever reason. This year it would be CIMC, C for China.) I am tagging along because I am a student of Dr. Sun, one of the chief organizers, and have been slotted to give a talk and possibly help with grading the papers and translating. My father is coming to help arrange a side event, a domino puzzle game competition, which he programmed the system for; and my mom and sister are also coming to help with translation and other duties. Other people in our group: Dr. Sun himself, his longtime assistant slash fellow teacher Mr. Li (wow I’m sorry I forgot you while first writing this), my friend and fellow math student Hsin-Po, who is an expert at making polyhedra from origami or binder clips (and at Deemo); Chin-Ling, my father’s student/employee who also programmed lots of the domino puzzle server and possesses a professional camera; and, of course, all the elementary- and middle-school contestants, as well as most of their parents.
I don’t think I’ve ever given this amount of background exposition about any event I’ve attended to my not-so-imaginary audience before. It feels weird. Some part of me is worried about breaking these people’s privacy by posting this, which makes a little bit of sense but not enough for me to think that it’s actually a valid reason to avoid or procrastinate blogging. I think it’s a rationalization.
Here we go.
The only interesting thing that happens at the airport is a short loud argument in the queues for luggage check-in, perhaps partly fueled by our high number of people and of heavy boxes (gifts for other countries and raw materials for Hsin-Po’s polyhedra). I don’t know whose fault it is.
In case I fail to scale the firewall, I attempt to download Facebook on my phone for one last look before boarding, but it fails during installation twice and I give up.
Our plane is not fancy enough to offer personal screens and entertainment centers for everybody, but thankfully the ride lasts only three hours, so this is tolerable. Instead, the plane plays the second Divergence movie on overhead screens, which I watch half-heartedly. The plot setup seems interesting but the ending seems to me to involve two Ass Pulls™, although since I haven’t been paying much attention I am not confident if I just missed some foreshadowing or character development. On the flight, I also read the proof of the irrationality of powers of e in Proofs from THE BOOK and leaf through the magazines.
I don’t hear any good music on-board, except maybe “Space Oddity”, which is a little freaky to be listening to while cruising at so may kilometers in the sky. Perhaps because of this, I find myself singing and humming “Space Oddity” unexpectedly often over the next few days.
The very first sign we see after alighting the plane consists entirely of characters that are the same in Simplified and Traditional Chinese — if I remember correctly, 「前有坡道，小心慢走」1. The Changchun airport looks like any other airport, coolly blue-themed with moving platforms. The restrooms have fancy bright purple soap. Even though I consciously think about how I have suddenly arrived in a country that places notable restrictions on freedom of speech and Internet access, I don’t feel it. Eep, what an anticlimax.
We move lots of boxes around. The ground outside the airport is incredibly gravelly and bumpy; it is a struggle of both mind and body to push our carts full of precarious boxes over them. But we get on the bus and make it to the high school where everything will happen.
Along the way I see huge yellow signs overhead, telling people not to litter and not to drive while tired, and note that the minimum speed signs are stylized differently. Otherwise the traffic is unremarkable. Near the end of our journey, we are surprised to see blue official-looking traffic signs, the kind usually reserved for permanent landmarks or facilities, that indicate the way to CIMC.
So we arrive. The auditorium is full of labeled seats. While surveying the environment, I am worried at first that Taiwan does not even get an euphemistic name because the labels seem to go alphabetically and the seats behind South Korea and Sri Lanka are just labeled China, but then I discover the alphabetical ordering is not absolute and there is a big block of seats simply labeled Taiwan. No political evasion here. Excellent. 2
Beyond the auditorium, there is a hallway packed full of small square tables, which has doors to a bunch of other classrooms that are also packed full of small square tables. No doubt the contestants will take the math tests here. Upon reflection, I realize the IMC actually has more contestants than the IMO, because even though far fewer countries participate, each country can send many, many more people; so the impressive multitude of tables isn’t that surprising.
From the hallway, we can also see a wall with equations and textual scientific allusions: we don’t recognize the two on top.
There is also an IMC photo backdrop3, which hilariously doesn’t contain math at all in its blue background. Instead it contains cringeworthy HTML that appears to be generated by Macromedia. Ewww. What is with all the
<p> </p>s? And holy zarking Babelfish, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:
<font> tags were deprecated in 1998. I’ve encountered them before — coincidentally (or not??), as it turns out, hacking on the website for this very mathematics competition back in 2012.
Somebody gives us lunch, which consists of sandwiches, milk, and a curious sweet vitamin drink called “Buff”. Over lunch, we talk about the etymologies of “buff” and “nerf” and various other linguistic phenomena like the pronunciation of “Pythagorean”. Hsin-Po looks it up on one of his phone’s dictionary apps. I am surprised. Later, bottles of this “Buff” drink show up ridiculously frequently during every aspect of the competition.
After lunch, it’s time to get down to work. The computer classroom is stocked with about 100 Lenovo laptops running Windows 8.1. So this is the stage for my first taste of China’s internet!
There are two browsers, Internet Explorer and something called 360 whose UI looks Chrome-based (in particular, the image it displays to indicate a broken website is identical to Chrome’s) but whose icon is, confusingly, more or less a green version of IE’s. I opt for IE. It has a large page (URL:
res://ieframe.dll/defaultbrowser.htm) prompting the user to set IE as their default browser. I learn from this page that in this dialect of Chinese, “default” translates as “默認” (in Taiwan we use “預設”). Anyway, nobody ever told me what it’s like to try to access a blocked site from behind the firewall. It’s not as exciting as a big red page that says “This site has been blocked by ordinance of the Communist China Party!” or anything. Sometimes it struggles for a while before redirecting to a Baidu query for the same URL; sometimes it redirects to a Chinese counterpart, like a different search engine instead of Google; sometimes it just fails with the same page as any other 404. (Some of these could be phenomena caused by browser add-ons. I don’t know.)
The obvious sites — Google, Facebook, Twitter — fail. Bing works, however, and Hsin-Po uses it to figure out how to make the laptops give us the wi-fi password (which turns out to be just the same as the network name). AoPS works, as expected. reddit is also accessible, so at least I won’t run out of entertainment options over the next few days even if I don’t manage to get around the firewall. I scroll through /r/haskell. And wordpress.com straight-out fails even though it seemed to work when I tested it on greatfirewallofchina.org back in Taiwan. Meanwhile, some sites I tested beforehand that had been reported to be blocked instead turn out to be accessible, including snopes.com and mit.edu (the latter of which is as I expected — surely the party wouldn’t want to prevent citizens from studying abroad and repaying their study efforts to the MOTHER COUNTRY?? — and is also crucial if I want to stand a chance of scaling this thing.)
My mom takes me to try hooking my computer up to the auditorium screen. We walk there and talk to a Mr. Wu who looks confused, makes a few phone calls, and eventually says they’re planning to rehearse in the auditorium during that block of time the next day. Later we work out the details and I am moved to another classroom.
But anyway, now that my computer is out I can try to scale the firewall!
First, I try to use Tunnelblick to connect to a free VPNBook network. This doesn’t work, so I resort to my normal plan, vpn.mit.edu. (I was paranoid enough to prepare a plan to try a free VPN, just in case the authorities decided to suddenly block it after noticing my activity or something.) This works alarmingly well — I don’t even have to use Safari like I did previously. I go on Facebook and post a short victory message. Then I check my email; predictably, it is mostly pingbacks from my streak-ending post, which, as it says, I had scheduled to post for that morning’s flight. I check out my blog and note that somehow I cannot see my header image and my menu is not the customized one either. But I think this might be explained by my shady VPN connection, so I send a half-hearted chat to phenomist to see if my blog looks different to him and then head to the WordPress admin panel to approve all my pingbacks at once. At this point, my internet abruptly goes down for a while. My paranoid instinct is that my VPN has indeed been discovered and blocked already, but then I realize it’s just that the local wi-fi has failed.
Oops. Instead of using the internet, I type this. After about twenty minutes the wi-fi comes back up so I reconnect the VPN and it works equally smoothly. phenomist has returned my chat; it’s not just me. I Google for recent WordPress bugs and find a thread full of anxious people whose customizations have been lost, just like me. So it’s not a problem on my end. Furthermore it seems to be a problem that was only first reported about 45 minutes ago. Impressive timing on my part.
Oh well, there’s nothing I can do. (It gets fixed after less than two more hours.)
Mom tells me they’ve switched my classroom for tomorrow yet again: now I’m in the classroom where Hsin-Po was originally and he’s moving to a the different classroom from before. But he’s currently already teaching people how to make binder clip polyhedra in his old slash my new classroom, so Mom tells me to test my computer in his new classroom instead. The Moshi-brand Mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter my family brought works without a hitch. The colors are a bit off because the projector projects onto a pale yellow wall, but it’s tolerable.
All is good. I wander around and gawk at the ridiculous stack of Sonobe units that Hsin-Po has prepared. Then, in the classroom where the Domino competition is about to occur, I spend some time with my dad and Chin-Ling and lots of other guides manually adding shady shortcuts to several versions of the tournament page on the desktops of every computer. Later, I am tasked with proofreading the opening ceremony Powerpoint that shows all the team names. Mostly, I just pluralize words where appropriate: “leaders”, “contestants”, “Netherlands”.
Dinner is rice and meat and eggs in boxes, and a very salty pickled vegetable thing. Afterwards, I finish adding the S’s and copy the PDF that we’re prepared to present at the opening ceremony. Then we are taken via bus to the hotel where the leaders meet, which is far from the high school but relatively close to our hotel. In the lobby, I finally see a decked-out glorious portrait of Chairman Mao. But we go to a meeting hall on the top floor and wait here for some missing leaders; I play a few domino games live on the screen, then get bored, find the animated factorizations I really like and had considered showing during my programming presentation, and let it play on fast-forward.
After more waiting, my mom suggests we recruit one of the leaders to try playing the domino game on my laptop on the stage there. One guy volunteers and does so, mostly through trial-and-error and backtracking instead of any logical deductions. Oh well. Eventually the leaders come and we introduce our domino game, strategies for solving puzzles, and the schedule for the side competition. I also translate live for Dr. Sun a bit, saying “um” a lot. Then we’re free!
Except not really, because there isn’t any car ready to take us to our hotel. So we get some staff member to call us a taxi and take it, despite mild trepidation about getting conned or stolen from or worse. The worst thing happens is that the driver requests one more dollar than the number on the meter at the end without really being clear on why. My mother just gives it to him. ::shrugs:: I would have done the same.
The taxi trip is also what finally convinces me that drivers here honk significantly more often than Taiwanese, and it’s not just me being confirmation biased and paying attention selectively to all the honking. I am 99.9% confident of this and add two or three more 9’s to the end of that number over the next few days.
June Hotel Room
That’s the name of our hotel. It’s kind of funny because the competition is in July and because my mom was tripped up once when translating a speech that used the adjective august to describe the gathering of people for the competition. I room with Hsin-Po. I will dump all thoughts about this here, out of chronological order:
Our room looks super VIP. There are two intricately patterned chairs with pillows. The bed has three additional pairwise distinct pillows for each person. The bathroom is huge and includes two sinks (I don’t know why that would be the facility they decided to install two of in a two-person room), as well as a proportionally huge bathtub and eight-legged friggin’ chandelier, covered in extravagant dangly crystals.
But the pragmatic aspects leave a lot to be desired. There are no locks, not even the pretense of locks, on any of the doors between the toilet and shower stalls and the rest of the bathroom. And there are no doors between the bathroom and the bedroom. It’s one big connected toroidal space centered around the sinks, and the shower stalls are too tiny to hold dry clothes or towels, so before and after showering you pretty much have to step in sight of the bedroom to access those things. This is not an issue between Hsin-Po and me because we are mature consenting adults (yay!) who can tactfully just avoid facing the bathroom when necessary, but it leaves me morbidly curious what would happen if I had had to live here as one of a group of elementary- or middle-school contestants — or, hell, even as part of a grad trip with my fellow seniors.
And we somehow don’t have shampoo and body wash. At least there is a piece of soap, which I abuse for everything the first day. (The shampoo and body wash appear after the first day, but the body wash is just the right viscosity and comes in a tiny squat bottle with just the right dimensions so as to ensure you always pour out more body wash than you want; and it is capped with a metal cap that makes it trivial for you to screw it onto the bottle too tightly, rendering the contents of the bottle inaccessible to soapy fingers.)
Finally, the outlet next to my bed is really loose and it takes some tricky improvisation to get my phone charger to stay in it. But on the bright side of pragmatics, we can (and do) hang clothes on the chandelier.
Day 2We get two morning calls, one at 5:30 and one at 6:00. I get up groggily and change into my suit and tie in preparation for the opening ceremony. We sleep through a long bus trip taking us there, then eat breakfast in ridiculous queues, and then the opening ceremony happens. Apparently, because some high-ranking official can’t stay for too long, our translations are mostly called off because translating every speech would take too long and translating only most or half of them wouldn’t be fair. Dr. Sun is pretty disappointed over this, but doesn’t get his way. My sister still has to translate one speech; but I’m free, and I’ve already seen the speeches and their formulaicness, and I get a seat in the Taiwan area where I literally cannot see any part of the stage if sitting in a relaxed posture, so I sleep through most of the ceremony guiltlessly. So, pretty excellent.
At the end, my sister and I introduce the domino puzzle game rules, strategies, and schedule again on stage. Then there is another super long queue for lunch. I also finally open the live IOI scoreboard around noon. I am mildly annoyed at myself when I see that the competition is already one hour underway — it seems that I miscalculated the timezones by one hour — but I guess I didn’t miss much of the excitement. I am puzzled by
scales at first because even though the fractional scores suggest a smooth scoring formula, the scores that have actually been achieved separate into neat strata. After a while, though, somebody gets 2-ish more points than somebody else and I’m convinced the formula is smooth. (This problem is mislinked on the IOI site throughout the whole competition, so I couldn’t check it for along time.)
When I switch to the other classroom and fiddle with wi-fi (one network is much better than the other) and get a scoreboard again, I see that John (Pochang (Chen (902))) is now top of the Taiwan team, but as part of a rather precarious band of people with a single 100 on the first problem,
boxes, whatever it is. Indeed, a few minutes later the 100 stratum is below the gold cutoff.
It is probably time to prepare for my presentation. I find that my computer refuses to play nice with the projector. Hsin-Po warned me beforehand that my computer would try a resolution too high for my graphics card to handle, but I didn’t appreciate all the ramifications. Although my computer seems to know a projector is connected to it, the projector doesn’t show anything. Then after I go into the graphics settings through my laptop screen and click “Mirror Displays”, both displays are blank. Now my laptop’s screen works normally when it’s not connected to the projector, but completely fails when connected, so I can’t even uncheck “Mirror Displays” because it only shows up in the dialog in the latter case. I call for help. My dad and some tech people arrive, and we try to connect one of the Lenovo laptops and transfer my presentation files via a USB, but the programming demo does not work very satisfactorily on them.
Eventually I get my laptop working by readying the mouse near a suitable place on the Display settings dialog, connecting the screen, and blindly clicking nearby to try to select a saner resolution. Whew! Okay, so now there’s nothing to do but wait. I load the live IOI scoreboard and watch it on the screen. People gradually trickle in; some of them come up to me, at that point as well as after each of my presentations, and request to look at their countries’ teams on the IOI 2015 scoreboard. Some of us chat more about programming competitions; when the conversation turns to my background, one guy is very impressed when I tell him I placed 13th in 2014.
Also, one student comes up to me and calls me 「叔叔」 (lit. “uncle”, also used generally for children to politely greet male adult strangers), which gives me various maturity feels.
My subject is “The Joy of Programming”. I give two versions of this, the first in English and the second in Chinese, each about 50 minutes long. I start with an overview about applications and creative power of programming, largely jumping off this Mario AI video:
Then there’s a little bit of live programming showing off conditionals and loops in a prototype-version of the programming environment my dad and I developed before the talk, which concludes with a program showing how a table of binary AND leads quickly to the Sierpinski gasket. Finally I talk about how programming can help solve mathematical problems, including the big ones like Haken and Appel’s four-color theorem as well as my personal brush with my phone lock, as documented with Literate Haskell.
I think it goes okay. I say “um” few enough times that I’m satisfied. I think the Mario video somewhat audibly wows a few people in the English version. Fewer people listen to the Chinese version, but after the talk I have more deep conversations with students who want to know more; I tell one curious guy about trial division and the Miller-Rabin algorithm, and list a few competitive programming sites as well as the word “Python” on some paper for a girl, and tell one other guy (or it might have been the same guy, darn) how to randomly shuffle a list, and leave my email to a few more people.
My mom praises it highly, at least. Everything seems to go more quickly than expected. I’m free!
I wander out; dinner is served already but I’m not hungry. The domino competition is successful (which is actually somewhat surprising given the state of our tests at home, but I’m not complaining about good surprises) and we are passing out prizes to the winners. This part is also mostly okay except for a few people who believe and insist, with varying degrees of forcefulness and acrimoniousness, that they should get prizes due to bugs in the system.
During this, one girl comes up to me, asks my age, then grins like a maniac and rushes off ecstatically to report this to another girl. Readers are invited to submit their own interpretations of this occurrence.
We wait, then wait, then grab our posters and head for the buses. The bus ride home is maybe 50 minutes. I fall asleep and drool somewhere.
After I shower back at the hotel, my mom calls our room and tells us to go down later; we’re going to take a walk outside. Or something.
This happens. I didn’t bring my phone because I thought this would be a much briefer excursion than it turned out to be, so I don’t have photos. The walking part is fine, but somehow my parents have their sights set on visiting a Walmart that’s reported to be nearby, and when we don’t find it, we end up sitting down at a barbecue place outdoors. I am grumpy because I’m not hungry and don’t even have my phone so I can’t even take pictures for my blog. One curious thing: even though the utensils offered here, plate and bowl and spoon (IIRC), aren’t the disposable kind, they come in tightly shrink-wrapped bundles that advertise a company that cleans and sanitizes such utensils. If this is a signal that’s so useful people outsource their utensil-cleaning to third parties, I’m guessing the norms of sanitation are pretty bad…
But we eat mysterious meat and one baked potato, and I drink one glass of 1:2 beer-to-Sprite, then one glass of 1:1. (The legal drinking age in both China and Taiwan is 18 so this is totally fine!) I am finally moving into the last Kübler-Ross stage when it starts raining gently. We move to a table under the cover somewhat hurriedly; the barbecue place staff move a huge covering and fold up tables. The rain steadily grows until it’s pattering continuously, then until tiny rivers are forming wherever the contours of the road allows them, then until there’s a zarking mist spraying in my face even when I’m well inside the area covered by the covering, then it KEEPS GROWING. And there’s thunder. Hoo boy.
Fortunately there’s a grocery store nearby so Mom buys three umbrellas and we rush back to the hotel. Alas, my feet still get completely wet, to the point where I can feel my feet squishing in liquid water inside the shoe.
I have to shower again. And my shoes are more or less unwearable so I go out the next day in that staple of lazy Taiwanese footwear, blue-white slippers.
Stay tuned for the next installment!
Okay, Google Translate seems to suggest 道 changes: the 辵部 seems to lose one of its jags. But who cares, right?↩
As far as I know, there are two bits of political slighting later: one, we are prevented from calling Taiwan a “beautiful country” during our Cultural Night performance have to settle for “beautiful island” instead; two, during the closing ceremony, our prizes are awarded near the end next to Hong Kong and Macau and before China’s, instead of in alphabetical order like all the other countries. Still, it’s probably better than being called “Chinese Taipei”, which is still the norm at Olympics and also happened at IOI this year. It’s probably only possible to get even this because of Dr. Sun’s influence.↩
I might be missing a useful or idiomatic English phrase here. Does anybody who is more of a native English speaker than I am have a better alternative phrasing to describe this board?↩