Translation Party

Just a short anecdote for the streak today. Hmm, I guess this developed beyond being just another filler post, which is good.

In addition to preparing my presentation, the other job I have to do for the math competition I’m attending in a week or so (not as a participant, okay?) is translating various guests’ speeches between English and Chinese.

The speeches’ length and formulaicness really get on my nerves, but then again my standards for speeches were skewed upward by Richard Forster’s speeches during the opening and closing ceremony of IOI 2014, but on the gripping hand I don’t think it’s that hard to at least try not to be formulaic and I really can’t see any effort on their part whatsoever. Off the top of my head, pretty much all the speeches tend to go like this:

  1. Welcome!
  2. Math is great!
  3. This competition is great!
  4. The city hosting this competition is great!
  5. The college hosting this competition is great!
  6. You contestants are great!
  7. Good luck!

Except each bullet point is a paragraph that lasts a minute.

(Ninja edit: Which is not to say they didn’t put any effort into their speeches at all, but that much of the effort seem misguided to me. I don’t see how anybody who has been in the audience for one of these speeches can overlook the same flaws in their own. Unless it’s like, at some point in the natural life cycle of the human brain, people spontaneously start enjoying these safe and repetitive speech topics instead of some earnest and maybe lighthearted advice and anecdotes and jokes? Like how people somehow start enjoying spicy stuff, or the bitter flavor of beer and wine, or writing teenage-angsty ranty posts complaining to nobody in particular like this one? Tough questions.)

Anyway. My mom actually does most of the translation but I am the grammar stickler post-processor and we work together on the hard parts. The second hardest things to translate are idioms. The hardest things to translate are quotes. It turns out that lots of people find translated quotes to Chinese and it can be incredibly difficult to reconstruct their English versions. Here is the quote that today’s story is about, which we were tasked with providing the English translation (or original) for and which the speech attributed to 克莱因 (trad.: 克萊因).

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Variance

It’s olympiad season. Taiwan placed 18th in the IMO rankings1. Next day there are news stories about how it’s our “third worst performance in history”, and commenters drawing casual arrows from changes in Taiwan’s standardized tests and curriculum to this result, and the Ministry of Education saying they’d review their procedures or something.

What.

Did you forget our performance last year? Do you think our olympiad training system is completely overhauled on an annual basis, or has even a tangential relationship with the overall education system?? Do you think people can be turned towards or away from mathematical olympiads because of standardized tests?? Do you think these contestants’ training plans are so transient that they’d be completely overthrown by one year of progress towards the implementation of faraway edicts about math topics for the layman???? If a measurement gives you a result of 3rd place one year and 18th place the next — both of which are more than 1.5 standard deviations from the mean2 — how can your first (or second, or third) thought possibly be “we performed 15 places worse so something needs to be changed” instead of “oh wait this is not a very precise metric, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into it”?

Yes, I’m ranting here, but even though these things are so clear to me, I know it’s not obvious to most people at all because they don’t understand just how huge the variance in mathematics competitions are. Or in any similar competition, really. (And I know I’m likely preaching to the choir here by writing on my blog — a very understaffed choir to boot. But I have to do this. Remember? Streak?)

It’s like… I’m trying to come up with a suitably crazy analogy, but it’s not easy… it’s like, you decide one day to look at the front pages of The New York Times and of Al Jazeera. You don’t even read any articles, you just look at the front page layout and graphics and text, and you notice that Al Jazeera has a video on its front page and the NYT doesn’t. You don’t even come back the next day to check again, you just conclude based on that one day’s whim that the New York Times needs more variety in its journalism, and you write and publish an article to that effect.

Where do I even begin.

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Two Points on Photography

(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?

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Empty

I feel a little empty right now, for several reasons.

One is that I haven’t blogged about anything here for one month, almost two. There is absolutely no possible way to apply an excuse about not having anything to blog about. No zarking way, self. What happened? My dozens of drafts have all gotten stuck in draft limbo, occasionally getting pulled out to have a few words added or deleted but otherwise completely idle. There are a lot of posts in that box that will probably never be posted. I cannot deceive myself that they haven’t been posted because they’re not worth posting. Of course I didn’t feel as strongly about them as I did about the SAT post, but there’s still a lot of me in them.

Why? I don’t know; perfectionist tendencies, procrastination, and a constantly looming sense of I-should-be-doing-something-else-because-I-want-to-make-the-IOI-team-and-get-into-a-good-college are among the suspects. The usual ones.

Two is that I’m beginning to feel a general deterioration of my writing skills under AP English Langugage & Composition. There’s more time for each essay in the test than the essay in the you-know-which-standardized-test, but it’s still vomit-inducingly formulaic. Writing should be about free thought and deep introspection. Writing should not be a blitz game of whack-the-mole built on adrenaline-soaked reflexes. My last two practice forty-minute essays included rambling about Galileo and Emerson and Allie Brosh and other people who came to mind after free-associating with the topic. They are all terrible, boring, clichéd-as-cake examples, but there is no time for anything else. There is no time for actual thinking.

I feel that I can survive with my writing style and skills unscathed if I write enough on my own, but as evidenced by point one, I’m not doing that. Plus, I may still have one more year of similar English testing to grind through.

Which brings us to point three, a recent guidance (euphemism for “college-counseling”, which is euphemism for “game the system with all your heart”) class all about college selectivity and senior AP courseloads during which I was confronted with a lot of unanticipated claims and revelations.

AP courseload! I should take the next AP English (Literature & Composition), right? I’ve been on the honor track with high enough grades for long enough that it would be folly to expect anything else, right? What a no-brainer; why is this even up for debate?

It’s funny, I like English, and I enjoy literature to some degree (especially if the word is defined generally enough to include fantasy and sci-fi (but exclude Game of Thrones (hashtag #unpopularopinion))). But after being led into the college mindset and system, just the “AP” thing by itself makes me suspicious.

AP means “college-level”. Big deal; calling the course that doesn’t magically make it so. The number of AP courses at our school that are actually taught and taken at college-level standards is probably countable on one hand. There’s this… human component to things. This cuts both ways.

AP means “we expect to take a complete assessment of your skill and learning in three to four hours”. This is due to the physical limitations of time, people, the real world. It’s logistics. That’s, at the very least, understandable.

AP implies “you will be pushed to learn how to provide evidence of your skill and learning in three to four hours”, which is a big problem.

This is exactly the same argument I finally used against the SAT — it’s just that now the courses where students are taught how to game the test is given much more legitimacy. Our teacher is good and there are lots of actual real-world English lessons and exposure in addition to mock tests. Nevertheless, the test format is still imposed rigorously enough on us that I feel my writing and blogging style being stifled. I’m learning, but not what I want to learn. That’s disappointing.

Now, I think this is really only a problem for subjective and artistic subjects like English. For a subject such as, say, AP Biology, the topics you learn to write essays and answer multiple-choice questions are just biology topics. There are some strategies to keep in mind, like blatantly mentioning the “hot-button terms” or whatever, but you’re still studying the same underlying set of biology facts and theories.

Writing is not like this. Writing cannot be made like this. I think English is worth knowing, Language and Literature and Composition and everything they entail are worth knowing, but I cannot appreciate them after the AP test format has been applied. To this day I have not written anything I’m proud of while under a time limit measured in minutes or hours. It’s just words strung together into a first draft. Anybody can write a first draft. It takes a strong writer to throw it away because it’s utter rubbish;t takes a stronger writer to persevere and polish that utter rubbish into a gem.

And that’s only really doable if you can feel for the subject. I’m worked up enough over all the real-life controversies happening around me — the Sunflower Movement right next door, Twitter fighting over Mozilla’s CEO, the last day of the MH370’s black box — and these are just the recent incidents projected onto a backscreen perpetually filled with climate change denial and backhanded pharmaceutical business practices and wars over water sources and the entire godforsaken PRISM business.

How do you expect me to get behind an essay about locavores, to feel or express the slightest modicum of emotion or strength? Who am I supposed to be convincing?

(But… do I expect the regular English course to be better?)

There are also other course choices and considerations for next year to be concerned about, such as this one-year fine arts requirement that (quoth the counselor) “lots of colleges” have, notably the UC system. I have not yet found evidence that the colleges I’m considering have such a requirement or recommendation. I thought my classes and extracurriculars would already make me well-rounded enough. Now I’m just confused.

If I had to fulfill such a requirement, it would likely make for a painfully empty senior year. There simply aren’t any art electives left that I want to take, except in the sense that taking them will free up my schedule for other things.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m very good at sustained self-motivating. Not in this environment, I tell myself; not for the limited things that this school can expose me to. Maybe things will be different when I’m surrounded by equally passionate people, but I can’t do that year-round in high school. Alas.

And finally, more test-taking: according to this counselor, everybody is supposed to have taken the AP Chinese test — because free AP credits, duh. I haven’t, because our previous counselor said otherwise (what’s the point? What score do you expect a guy to get, if he’s taken twelve years of courses on an island where 99.99% of people speak the language natively?) and because the cost is still high enough to bother me.

There are no more opportunities before application season now. I’m still mostly skeptical, but this guy is supposed to be good at his job.

I have reasons to doubt that any of these things will be the game-changer, of course. But I’m still loss averse, and when everything is added up there’s enough of it to be emotionally troubling. A much larger commitment is required here if I want to “play it safe”. As I said, the prices of taking the actual tests are significant. But more importantly, these are year-long courses!

Decisions are hard.


Sometimes I feel like going through the college admissions process is like picking a religion.

The average religious person believes in the numbers. They worship test scores and GPAs and the number of APs taken. They work hard to get these numbers and burn them as offerings to please the great admission deities. There’s not much else that can be done with those numbers, anyway.

There are degrees of religiousness, of course. The zealots consecrate their entire lives to getting those numbers: they take daily test prep classes, they pick courses based on how lenient the teacher’s grading standards are, they found a few clubs or serve as officers on the side in the name of HYPSM their Savior. The more liberal people instead posit that the gods use “holistic admissions” and that test scores don’t matter that much; as long as you have a pure, intellectual, inquisitive heart and follow it, you will be rewarded. Of course, usually that intellectual spirit will generate a good test score as a side effect, because intelligence is intelligence, right?

The nonbelievers have decided that it doesn’t matter which college you go to; it’s more important to motivate yourself to get job experience, build stuff, make the most of high-school when it lasts. College admission works in mysterious ways. If decisions day come and you don’t get accepted, well, that just shows the colleges can’t appreciate intellectual integrity and you wouldn’t have wanted to patronize them anyway.

Finally there are the cultists, who primarily brainwash people into paying them lots of money with promises of getting accepted. And sometimes it works.

Whom to trust? What evidence do we have?

The holy books of Ivy League college websites are full of vague messages that can be freely interpreted.

There are prophets who have seen the light and can offer wonderful anecdotal evidence that X route of preparation works or that Y route doesn’t, for wildly varying and usually overlapping values of X and Y. There are entire websites dedicated to such prophets. But the liberals and nonbelievers have mostly long since transcended that, due to selection bias and trolls.

Unlike the average religion, the deities regularly make announcements. Still, the announcements are usually cryptic and indirect towards the issue at hand, which is “How do I get into your school?” Some of them will kindly tell you that test scores don’t matter that much, and then turn around and release a crazy statistic about the average SAT. Do what you love… you don’t have to cure cancer or build a nuclear reactor in your garage… but you also have to take challenging courses, have a complex life story, serve your community, and so on ad nauseam. Besides, they say, college is meant to be a match for you instead of a prize, so you should just be honest and you’ll end up at the college where you belong, however prestigious it is or isn’t. Yes, try telling that to our parents.

That’s the other thing: the admissions deities know a whole lot, but they’re not omniscient, so there can objectively said to be room for second-guessing and gaming the system. Estimates of how much room there is differ wildly, of course.

So, all in all, the evidence is scattered enough that there’s no really good way to debate (“defend, challenge, or qualify”) any of these stances.

I’m so sick of this. Can I label myself an agnostic apatheist, say that I don’t have time to quintuple-check my blog post, and get this over with? I have two big selection tests in around two weeks.

Printing Woes

(This is one of those entries that got stuck in draft limbo for a really, really, really, really long time. I’m posting it now. Whatever. Also, I seem to be using a lot of dashes now.)

I complain about homework all the time. Who doesn’t? But I know that in reality my homework load is blatantly far from being overwhelming. My math workload is basically as flexible as I need it to be, and I didn’t take APUSH because I couldn’t bear spending twenty-five hours per day on it. But I can still complain about pettier things like how hard it was to print a paper.

There are three steps in the process to produce a nicely printed body of text, be it an essay, a report, fragments of a larger project, or anything else. First, you have to produce the actual content. You string words and punctuation together to satisfy certain grading rubric criteria, and depending on the nature of the project, you might need to add some citations, statistics, pictures, and the like. I guess I’m pretty good at this. Step two is producing a printable document with your content formatted just the right way according to the teacher’s whims: one-inch margins, double-spacing, “five-space indent”, and so on. And finally you have to send your properly-formatted document to the printer and get it onto paper — the simplest step of all. Except when it’s not.

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Unread Count

Why do so many people have these three- or four- or even five-digit inbox unread counts? I become uncomfortable when I have more than about five unread emails, or if there are twenty emails of whatever status in my inbox — the rest get archived, of course. Out of sight, out of mind. Whew. It’s hard for me to fathom how anybody can sleep knowing they have such a scary number of unread emails waiting for them.

Why does the status of being unread matter, one might ask? There are already so many ways to classify things in the typical inbox: stars or labels or folders or flags or whatever your mail service may call them. Well, the thing that makes the unread qualifier stand out is that it already has meaning; you don’t need to assign it any. It means you haven’t read it! Thank you, Captain Obvious.

If you know how to use email, there are no good reasons to ignore the status. Is the email actually not important to the point where you won’t even bother to read it? In that case, why is it even in your inbox? If it’s spam, mark it as such; spam filters are pretty effective nowadays, but only if you train them, and even if not it only takes one click to get rid of it. If it’s some notification you don’t care about, unsuscribe or fine-tune your subscription. As invasive as web services are getting nowadays, I haven’t yet seen a legitimate one that doesn’t provide a link to let you do one of these things, even if it’s concealed in small gray text at the bottom of the email. Should you encounter a notification that doesn’t have these links or doesn’t stop spawning evil clones after you tell it to, don’t think twice; it is spam and should be mercilessly filtered as such. And if you still have two hundred emails left after all that, you should either rethink your values or start reading them now.

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(On the scientific “theory”)

If you are ever bored online (I am, obviously) you will wander into the large silly debate over evolution and “God-did-it” aka creationism aka intelligent design etc. And somebody on the other side will say, “It’s just a theory!” And some fearless defender of science will have to explain, for the umpteenth time, that in science the word “theory” means a rather well-tested and well-developed broad explanation.

I thought this was a particularly silly point for the creationists to try to argue. They’re not even trying to invoke scripture or intuition here, which might even make conceivable arguments; they’re arguing over the terminology of their opponents that they don’t need anyway.

But recently I realized that I had not-quite-consciously attached the same wildly-speculative label to other “theories”, now that I’m in AP Biology and ever-so-slightly closer to the frontiers. For example, the endosymbiont theory. It’s not of course that I think I should accept these things dogmatically — that’s always against scientific values — but I still feel like I’ve been tricked into being overcautious.

So now I genuinely think the scientists, or just whoever came up with this crappy idea to use “theory”, are at fault here. A new made-up word or phrase would totally be worth it here. It’s not like you guys pulled any punches with naming the organelles, or amino acids, or nucleic acids, or polysaccharides, or functional groups, or the elements of the periodic table. Don’t even get me started on the blasted months of the year.

Seriously, anybody who is responsible for naming stuff in the future, think of all the memory that could be used for better purposes.

Seriously. Two mating types and you call them a and α. There are no words for this feeling.