## Tag → writing

part of the “what I learned after four years at MIT” series, I guess?

I hated timed essays in high school. It’s pretty clear if you skim that part of the blog archives:

My [SAT] essay got a 10 out of 12. It’s an essay I’d be ashamed of posting anywhere else; it’s disgustingly traditional and formulaic. […] This was simply because I knew that using my normal essay-writing mindset, I’d get maybe a 3, because I’d spend the first twenty minutes debating myself over which side I was on and rewrite the introduction ten times. Too bad. I wasn’t there to write a good essay; I was there to get a good score on the SAT.

The worst issue is that students do not need to give in-depth explanation of anything they learned. Due to its stringent time limit, the essay portion rewards quick reckless writing much more than deep thought. […] encouraging students to practice writing 25-minute essays in order to improve their college-bound skills is like encouraging people to play Grand Theft Auto in order to improve their driving skills.

I took the Grand Theft Auto analogy pretty far. I’m not proud enough of these posts to link them, but you can find them if you try. In short, past me thought timed essays rewarded writing too quickly, with a disregard not only for facts but for the opportunity to lay out your opinions and thoughts so you could clarify and revise them, which was actually the most valuable part of writing.1 I conceded that the time limits made sense as a practical concession to allow you to test students’ writing skills fairly,2 but I felt like there was still way too much emphasis on the raw speed.

I hate doing things under time pressure, but I have to admit I do a lot more things when time pressure exists. One of the things is writing. Another is posting the things I write. They aren’t very good, but they’re better than writing that doesn’t exist.

(in case you forgot, I’m still posting this pretty much only because I made myself post once every weekend)

It’s interesting that I can impose time pressure on myself by declaring commitment devices by fiat and it works. Other people have developed other methods of doing this — I recently discovered The Most Dangerous Writing App, which puts time pressure on you to type every five seconds or it deletes everything you wrote. There are many other ways it’s done.

This post’s topic might be the most controversial thing I’ve posted here ever. I hope the points I want to make aren’t.

One of the excuses for not blogging I came up with and then deleted while rambling about not blogging was that I’m getting more feelings about real-world real-person issues, things that people take heated positions on — it’s not topics like what food I ate or what games I’m playing in fourth grade any more — and my identity is pretty public here, so who knows what’ll happen. Oh well. I’m probably just paranoid.

It’s also delayed, as the articles I’m talking about are old; the latest two news items are the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and then the police shooting at the Dallas rally. That was also really sad, but I don’t think I have anything insightful to say about it. Let me point you to the MIT Admissions post, “Black Lives Matter”, and then for something a bit more optimistic out of a huge range of possible choices, this Medium article.

Although after I started writing this post, the story about a Muslim man preventing an ISIS suicide bomber came out, so now this is mildly relevant again. Anyway, I guess the delay is no different from how I put up life posts weeks after the life event happens. So today, I bring you two old news articles about Islam that my friends shared and discussed:

The second one first, whose argument is, to be frank, weak. I think this piece from The Atlantic by Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants”, is a better-researched overview of ISIS while still being pretty readable. One caveat is that it’s somewhat old. But its central claim is quite the opposite:

After a misstep on the fourth day I managed to post one post every day, completing the rest of the streak! This post is scheduled to go out around the time my plane takes off.

I’m free!

I’d insert a Frozen gif here if I could find a good one, but I don’t like any of the ones I found and besides, copyright is an issue. So instead:

IMO2007.C6. In a mathematical competition some competitors are friends. Friendship is always mutual. Call a group of competitors a clique if each two of them are friends. (In particular, any group of fewer than two competitiors is a clique.) The number of members of a clique is called its size.

Given that, in this competition, the largest size of a clique is even, prove that the competitors can be arranged into two rooms such that the largest size of a clique contained in one room is the same as the largest size of a clique contained in the other room.

Author: Vasily Astakhov, Russia

If you remember where I first posted this to break a combo, you have an excellent memory and/or spend too much time stalking me. If you remember the context under which I posted this to break a combo, you have a better memory than I do.

Was my streak a success? On the bright side, I definitely generated lots of posts, many of which were radical departures from my old blogging habits:

I also had lots of fun conversations about my posts, such as:

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.

Hi, Michael. You’re probably not reading this, but the character I created in 2004 is not in any way based on or inspired by you, especially not this image. And unlike later in this post where I name a character after myself, I’m not being sarcastic, really.

See, this is awkward.

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…

Well, obviously, I can’t predict things in my own plot. But I can develop riddles in the plot, set up expectations and drop subtle clues and use Chekhov’s Tropes. Can I?

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:

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

Blogging is weird. I’m still nervous when I post stuff because I’m concerned I’m wrong, and end up looking unprofessional or attracting a bunch of Cueballs or something.

Before I told people about this blog, during the time when 100% of its traffic came from its coincidental placement in search results, I didn’t have to worry about this. Now, I choose my words. Because some Important Person™ might show up. Maybe even misinterpret something I said and/or get furiously offended at a badly phrased joke.

I also fear that I’ll update my beliefs quickly; maybe I’ll change my mind or discover a much better argument for the other side really soon. But the blog post would still be there, displaying my old belief, giving the reader an inaccurate or misleading impression of myself. People might even chat with me to argue about it, and then I have to admit I’m wrong oh no! It feels a lot better admitting I’m wrong on my own turf, in my own time.

This passage from Lord of the Flies comes to mind (I had hurriedly reread the book as ammunition for the AP Literature test and noticed that my past self had marked it):

Obligatory life update: I have graduated [from] high school.

But that’s not what this post is about. I contemplated setting up a schedule for my blogging three long years ago, and decided against it, because I didn’t think writing was a high enough priority for me. Well, I am setting up a schedule now: I am going to post something on this blog every day until I have to leave the country (which is happening once before college, so it’s not for as long as you think; but I might decide to continue the schedule anyway after I get back. We’ll see when the time comes.)

Indexing debates are boring. Especially when you can just flagrantly disregard all concerns about memory safety (because C++ never had any in the first place) and write int _array[100008], array = _array + 2; I do this alarmingly often; hence, the title. Hashtag firstworldanarchists. Three ± 1 cheers for Haskell arrays.

Anyway. One of the disadvantages of entering an international competition as the home team is a lack of time to completely absorb the idea that what is about to happen is a Big Thing. There was lots of time before the other international competitions I went to to spend uncomfortably on airplanes trying to adjust for the timezone difference.

Not so for a competition in one’s own country. Right up to the night before entering the hotel that marks the beginning of everything, I’m still at home, furiously refreshing the AoPS IMO fora and Facebook for news (!!!), lazily solving trivial Codeforces Div II problems with pointless point-free Haskell one-liners, and blogging. (There’s more, but I kind of want it to be a surprise.)

Anyway, let’s set the rules. Well, there’s only one, honestly: