More Fiction (Part 2.5)

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.

      Illustration courtesy Brian2004

      Illustration courtesy Brian2004

      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.

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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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Chi Banner

Okay, I think I’m figuring this out. When I make a filler post for the streak, it should be an unabashed filler post, so I can accumulate some of the blogging time I find each day to work on a serious post (and for doing the other important stuff I should be doing!) instead of wasting it right away.

Life. I’m programming something for Dad involving a parser using Jison, and one of the tasks involved stuffing a custom lexer into the parser. I was struggling to get my custom lexer to track locations properly. I thought this might be because I didn’t properly understand which components of which location went in which variables of the lexer, which seemed to be a plausible source of trouble since I had glanced at the sample code and it seemed to have a weird half-open range of columns and lines that I didn’t understand how to mimic in my code.

Then I looked more closely at the sample code.

this.yyloc = {
    first_column: 0,
    first_line: 1,
    last_line: 1,
    last_column: 0
};

In literary terms, this is called a chiasmus — the term comes from the shape of the Greek letter χ, chi — or possibly the more specific variant antimetabole. Both of these terms are courtesy of my TIL log, 2014/11/16. (Wow, it’s been a while.)

But why would you ever build an object like this?? Why???? This pattern of declarations doesn’t belong in code. It should be banned.

So, anyway, that wasn’t the issue; the issue turned out to be that neither my code nor the parser code made defensive copies of .yylloc (the l stands for “lookahead”), so my mutations leaked into the rest of the parser. Darn. It’s my fault, but I miss the functional paradigm.

(Bonus puzzle: as you might have suspected, the title and its incorporation into the narrative is quite forced. What is its significance?)

Bilingualism II

我本來還想把這一篇用英文跟中文各打一次來實際比較看看,但這已經被困在草稿匣夠久了。一直做重複、吹毛求疵、沒有效率的修改本來就是我寫心情文時的弊病,如果再要求修改時要保持兩種語言版本的同步的話,大概寫到天荒地老都寫不完。(如果讀者沒有讀過我最近亂發的文章,故事都是這樣的:我覺得我在草稿匣累積了太多寫一半的文章,所以在畢業後,我在六月十一號決定從那天開始每天發文,直到我出國,目的是強迫自己把那些草稿寫完,中間還亂發很多其他我本來大概不會寫下來的東西。其實還滿有成就感的。另外,如果你的中文沒有很爛的話,如果你在任何地方認為我寫的中文不流暢或是可以寫得更好,請毫不留情的留言批評。這也是一件我發現我在寫中文方面很缺乏的經驗,我會很感謝。當然,根據以往經驗,懇求讀者留言沒什麼機會成功。)

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.

常常有人訝異我的英文這麼好。有時候這些人還會問我怎麼學的--碰到這種問題我都不知道要怎麼回答。喔,很簡單啊,只要選擇在一個主要說英文的國家出生,然後跟一群從國外回來的同學一起讀有80%的課是用英文上的學校連續讀十二年就好了。

偶爾也有人知道我是雙語部的或在不同的情況下認識我,反而會覺得我的中文比他們預期的好,例如我的駕訓班教練。其實我在雙語部還是上了十二年的國文課,進度理論上跟其他學校一樣(「理論上」三個字要強調),我也跟身旁很多親戚朋友用中文溝通了更久。比奧林匹亞競賽的經驗應該也讓我認識的上普通國語教學學校的學生,比其他雙語部同學認識的多。所以這應該也不奇怪吧。

但是。其實我對這兩個語言的精熟度其實還是差很多。日常對話沒問題,不過我對英文細枝末節的部分瞭解的比中文多太多太多了。家裡有不止一本「常見英語錯誤」類的書,我小時候會當小說讀--我是一個很奇怪的人。在學校課程中,我編輯自己或他人的英文文章是一天到晚的事情,什麼奇怪的句子跟構造都碰過、想過、修理過。還有些時候,我會很自然的寫出一個英文單字,然後發現我不知道為什麼自己會知道這個單字的意思,但就是有一種感覺告訴我,對,subsist的意思就是「存活於只有最基本的需求被滿足的情況」。跟中文比較:有時候,直覺也會告訴我有某一個成語是可以用的,但我只能清楚想到這個成語的兩、三個字。聽起來很「對」,不過我就是想不到第四個字是什麼,或是怕前三個字換成錯別字,再加上懷疑整個成語意思根本不是我模糊腦袋裡現在浮現的,因為我認得這些字字面上的意思,但無法說服自己為什麼它們合在一起可以解釋成這種意思,最後只好放棄,用國小白話文的措詞就好了。

「總覺得,我在用任何偏離國小程度的白話文的詞彙的時候都是假裝的。」

我在舊一點的草稿寫出了這個句子,不過那一串「的」字讓我覺得怪怪的,現在想想,沒有人跟我討論過寫出這種或其他奇怪的句子時應該怎麼辦。哪一些「的」可以省略?有辦法把句子重寫(recast)避開嗎?還是不管它,我覺得它聽起來很奇怪純粹是錯覺,多讀一點中文就會發現根本沒什麼大不了的?

使用兩種語言的方法也差很多。看看這個部落格就知道了。我相信我在學校雙語部外的大部分台灣朋友不會試著去理解我關於自己長篇大論的英文作文,但長篇大論的文章還是我最認真表達自己的地方。反觀我的中文短文,都通常是那種搞笑、釣讚、裝弱的文。(不,我真的很弱。)我不時會發現自己在網上逛到一個陌生人的心情文,看得津津有味。我們之間的關係頂多是朋友的朋友的朋友,我只知道我跟他應該都喜歡數學這個共同點罷了,但因為語言,我在那些瞬間覺得自己瞭解他勝於瞭解幾乎所有在我身邊講中文的朋友。我自己怎麼看這件事都覺得不合理,有點慚愧。

我回去讀了我第一次寫的關於雙語的文章,可能有一點過火:後來證實,在我的朋友中似乎真的有會純粹為了抒發感情而寫七言律詩的人。而且,我講中文的朋友圈裡,文學類佔的比例本來就應該比他們在整個社會裡佔的比例少很多。在學校跟在生活裡,吸收英文多於中文(而且數學多於英文)是我做的選擇,只是我自己不知道選擇的中介點好不好罷了。是否,我花在跟講中文的親戚朋友互動的力氣不夠?

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More Fiction (Part 2)

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?

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More Fiction (Part 1)

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:

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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.