[IOI 2014 Part 4] Shades of Xanthous

No, I didn’t forget. Not for one minute. I was doing homework. I am very happy because that means I was actually carrying out my priorities as I envisioned them. I’ve probably edited this post too many times, though. Meh. But it’s the first weekend after finishing summer homework, so here we go again!

Fun fact: This is by far my favorite post title in the entire series. Possibly in the entire history of this blog.

In the morning of the last day of official IOI activities, there were a bunch of cultural activities, e.g. writing Chinese characters calligraphically, doing tricks with the diabolo, or picking up beans with chopsticks, and noncultural activities, e.g. getting somebody to pour water into a cup on your head while he or she was blindfolded. Due to the last activity I got wet, but my shirt dried really quickly. And alas, even though I had taken calligraphy summer classes a long time ago, my calligraphy was awful — robotic, lifeless strokes without the right aesthetic proportions to make up for it. Blargh.

Anyway, lunch followed, and then it was time for the closing ceremony, in the same building as the other ceremonies and contests. Our team caught the ending song of in a Chinese musical being rehearsed as we walked into the auditorium. While we waited for everybody, we milled about waving flags that our various teachers had brought, including not only Taiwan’s flag but also flags of my school, thoughtfully brought by teachers who had volunteered. A little later our leader told us that all the leaders had discussed the matter during a meeting and decided that we shouldn’t bring any flags to the stage while receiving our medals, so we were going to have to make do with being patriotic and school-respecting off stage.

There were a few performances, including two aboriginal music performances and the musical we had seen rehearsed ealier, which was a fun rock musical rendition of some Chinese tale that seemed to have been sharply abridged, giving it the plot depth of a Wikipedia stub-article synopsis — a conflict, boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love, and a lamenting Aesop song conclusion with thrillingly vague general applicability. But the singing and counterpointing and atmosphere were good. I guess it was proportional to the relative importance of the performance to the closing ceremony. The program interleaved them with the long-awaited medal presentations: one round of bronze medalists, one round of silver, one round of gold.

Dum-dum-dum-dum, medals! The home team advantage was really obvious here; the cheering and the medal-presenter handshakes were both significantly more forceful for Taiwan’s medalists.

I think our leader made this. Thanks.
I think our leader made this. Thanks.

Naturally, after the normal medals had been exhausted, the three full scorers received bags with prizes that may forever remain unknown to my sorry self, as well as a standing ovation from everybody in the auditorium. The orchestra had been going through ABBA songs during the ceremony, and very considerately played “The Winner Takes It All” for this part. It was impossible not to mentally fill in the lyrics.

The winner takes it all
The loser has to fall
It’s simple and it’s plain
Why should I complaiiiiiiiin?

Speeches followed. Most were just average forgettable speeches, but Forster gave another speech that was somehow even better than the one he gave at the opening ceremony, with nonstop golden quotables such as:

  • “I’m sad because next week is going to be so boring, but happy, so very happy, that I’m going to be able to sleep.”
  • “This is my last year as president. … It’s too late to fire me now.”
  • A list of twenty-six adjectives for the IOI, one for each letter of the alphabet. There was lots of cheering. I only heard the very last bit, but I can’t describe the satisfaction I have from knowing that he used “xenial” for X.
  • “Work out on the plane home how you’re going to explain the tasks to your mother, and if you’re really brave, the solutions.”

At the end, a distinguished service award was given to Forisek, whom I remembered on the IPSC list (I’m pretty sure it’s him but I don’t know what official first name I ought to use). This brought back a few pleasant memories and made my 13th place much more acceptable.

Around this time, Taiwan’s contestants got snagged from the auditorium for interviews and thousands of pictures. We posed with our country flag and our medals, interminably shuffling around to suit the photographers’ professional judgment, then moved upstairs to an area with suitable seats for the interviews. In front of the camera, I started rambling far less discreetly than I had planned about home and school and college. Thankfully, I don’t think any of my incoherent babbling made it to the news screen or papers. (Any faith I had gained in Taiwan’s sensationalist media only lasted very briefly; the reporting a few weeks later exaggerating my tenuous connection with X + Y, the movie, was much worse. Where in Zarquon’s prophecies did they get the idea that the movie was originally supposed to be about me?) Less objectionably, my parents had arrived with my sister and grandparents, enabling my family to take pictures of its own. At the end, the farewell party gave us an excuse to extract ourselves from the interviewing before the heat death of the universe.

The farewell party was nearly the last leg of the IOI, held back at the main campus of NTNU, the university that had trained us and organized much of the event. It was a down-to-earth place, compared to the fancy auditorium with its rug-activated escalators or the hotel with its oddly-designed curtain. It felt like we had finally “come back to Taiwan”, even though we didn’t know the place better than the other contestants — we had only ever slept at the main campus during training; all our classes and meals and daytime activities were at the Gongguan campus, a fifteen-minute bus ride away.


We were led to the gym for dinner via a long walk and lots of poor volunteers standing in the blistering heat pointing out directions for us. Yes, dinner was served in the gym. I had never seen a gym set up as a buffet table before this place; there were basketball hoops still lined up on the sides behind the tables. However, there was a lot of confusion since we entered from the second floor, which only contained a seating area on the sidelines. It took us a while before we found the staircase, after which we had the dinner tables within arm’s reach. Then somebody relayed to me that a contestant from Georgia wanted to play my guitar.

Ah, yes, the surprise I wanted to use as a hook to keep my pseudofictional readership invested. I hope it worked. I brought a guitar to IOI, and it didn’t have to suffer through bruising by airplane shipments or weight limit concerns; I think this one beats all the other home team advantages.

This sort of gig was definitely the sort of opportunity I learned it for, and I had brushed up on a few songs before coming to IOI, not to mention that I had been practicing in the secret room since day 1. I thought it would be easier to excuse mediocre singing and playing at a small gathering of people selected through metrics mostly orthogonal to performance talent.

Right? No, not really. Anyway, the Georgian contestant and I sat on a stairwell behind the stage and played a few songs. Or rather, he listed a dozen or so songs I had at best faint impressions of, and he played them. He also asked me questions about my guitar — what brand it was, how much it cost, and so on. Then he broke into a deeply technical discussion about string quality that I didn’t understand and told me I should switch my guitar strings to some other number or something. I couldn’t follow the conversation — I’m just an amateur, and I expect to stay one — life’s too short.

I wandered off a few times to check on dinner. When I really wanted to start eating because I was concerned that there might not be much food left soon, it took me a while to get him to stop playing.

After dinner, there was a very loud and very long break dancing crew performance, and then I prepared to sing “Yellow”.

That makes the second Coldplay song I’ve performed at an international science olympiad. It was also funny because a Spanish contestant asked my teammates about my Codeforces rating. “He’s red.” “Then why is he singing ‘Yellow’?” Alas, it’s not a reference to my medal color, either. It was my favorite nontrivial (read: not Bruno Mars) song from the complete chords my guitar teacher had given me; I didn’t like my strumming pattern for “We Are Young” enough. That was all.


I did okay, I hope. Holding the pick with a death grip was enough to prevent it from dropping.

After this, word about the guitar spread and three or four other contestants gathered at the stage, inquiring about whether they could play it.

From my conversations with the volunteers before this night, particularly my classmates among them, I knew that they were concerned that not enough performances had been planned to last the long farewell party, which would make the empty stage awkward. They ended up having the inverse problem once my guitar entered the picture. Too many people wanted to play. Evidently the guitar is a popular instrument and I am not at all special. Lesson learned.

We played and sang and had lots of fun, although our fun was mainly confined to the stage and the front of the gym because there were lots of other fun booths set up in the back and on the sides. “Dead Flowers”, “Someone Like You”, “Demons”, some other songs I don’t remember.

There was then a lottery, as a reward for people who faithfully completed the cultural activities in the morning and elsewhere in the gym.

Then a bunch of people went up to the stage to take exactly one lesson from a volunteer doing t’ai chi (was it some other martial art? My memory fails me), which means basically frantically twisting our necks to follow his movements and poorly mimic them.

Near the very end, somebody put “Waving Flag” on the loudspeakers and people started waving their country signs. I looked around and couldn’t find Taiwan’s sign so I hopped off the stage and grabbed a folding chair and waved it. No regrets. I’m a weird person.

The night was concluded with Jolin’s song about Taiwan, the soundtrack to which the IOI website introduced the country to everybody, which probably goes on my list of songs to learn.

Somewhere among the commotion I gave away some souvenirs and received a crappy pen from Finland (paraphrasing their words, not mine) and two keychains from Indonesia and Thailand.

Then we started walking back to the bus, during which I played some more (mostly the simple four-chord-loop Radioactive, because it was dark). We met a contestant who chatted about his trip and his Chinese name, which he had composed by asking two random girls he met on the metro to give him one character each.

I played more on the bus, largely to please my team and very strongly annoy one of them. Somehow, this led to both of my picks disappearing, even though I flipped through my pockets a hundred times for them and scoured the bus floor until the driver got angry at me. One reappeared in the same pocket, stuck between the folds of a souvenir keychain box. The other somehow fell out of that same pocket much later after going through the laundry. I don’t know how it happened. I swear it was one of those glitch-in-the-matrix moments when I found that second pick after IOI.

But anyway, it was night and I tried to get a picture of the US team but too many people interested in the guitar intervened for questions and cuddles.

(One guy asked me, “Is it like a violin?” Um, I don’t know what a violin is like. Yes, they both have strings, and the strings both vibrate (right?), and that’s how they make sound. Is that similar enough?)

Afterwards, since there was now no rational reason not to stay up late, we partied.

Okay, my definition of “party” is probably a little off base; I know there was a “real party” downstairs, where contestants sat around chugging six-packs of beer in a gathering of slightly dubious legality, but the Taiwan team gathered in our guide’s room, where we finally got to play a few legitimate eight-player games of The Resistance without people playing against their win-con.

In one game the missions alternated success and failure, with the resistance winning the last round by choosing all five mission members correctly. Sadly, I can’t claim any responsibility; I was part of the resistance but voted against that team.

Unfortunately I still tired pretty quickly, and the party didn’t last too long.

But I got those pictures with the US team the next day, after once again getting assaulted by a bunch of reporters (for whom I played “Yellow” again.) (I didn’t dance despite multiple requests; I still have a sense of dignity.) In a following lull as the reporters latched onto somebody else, I talked to Steven Hao about AoPS and Quora and summer internships and people using dual citizenship to take part in two countries’ olympiad selection processes.

And then much too soon, it was over.

Common sense and my life experience suggests I should have written a flowery conclusion much earlier if I wanted to still have enough emotions to write about. But I don’t think that’s true; my emotions are just as whole, and just as hard to express, as they were on that last day.

One, well, I’m happy. Really happy I got this opportunity.

Everything turned out just as well as I could ever have hoped — a front-50% gold, so many new friends, that unreplaceable experience of getting totally pwned in a roomful of people who are better than me in immeasurably more dimensions. Not to mention getting trolled by an easy problem. It’s the most time-efficient way to learn and I get an in-joke for thousands more blog posts and maybe even a future avatar. (That’s the die-hard optimism in me :) )

All good things come to an end, but I couldn’t have planned a better plausible ending.

There are feelings of loss too, all the moments with my friends I’ll never experience again, but I’ve done my best to capture them, so I’m not too overwhelmed.

But of course: my deepest thanks to all the volunteers and organizers and contestants from other countries I got to talk to; it was great to know you; you made this a great experience. Thanks to my teammates for all the shared solving and debugging experiences (especially std::function<...>, John) and coaches for pelting us with mock IOIs and other competitions nonstop, without which I would probably not be here. Thanks to my family and classmates and teachers back at school for the continued support.

And thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me too.

ahem Wow, this is getting sappy.

Just one more missing feeling — about being sad about never meeting anybody else again? Well, to be honest, I think that’s a bit premature. How about, here’s to the hopes of seeing a significant number of you all again some day in Cambridge, Massachusetts? :)

P.S. This isn’t the last post in the series. The last one is much easier to write and much harder to hold up to difficult standards, so I probably won’t put it off too long.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)