It’s Complicated

On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Along with a Republican House and Senate majority, to boot.

The world around me is still hurting and reeling from the shock.

Make no mistake, I am scared. I am scared of the policies and executive orders and legal decisions to come that may strip away many civil rights and send the environment down a worse track faster than anyone expected, and I’m barely in any of the groups that have the most to lose. I have no idea what it’s like to go through this as any of you. I am sorry.

But I am also scared that this fear is driving my friends and my community away from talking to the people we need to talk to if we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

I’ve heard a lot of people vilify Trump and Trump supporters. Anecdotally, so have others. It’s an understandable reaction, but a fragile one. 60 million people voted for Trump. Quoting Wait But Why, “[P]eople with kids and parents and jobs and dogs and calendars on their wall with piano lessons and doctors appointments and birthday parties written in the squares. Full, three-dimensional people who voted for what they hope will be a better future for themselves and their family.”

People voted for Trump. Why?

Here’s FiveThirtyEight profiling a few blue-collar voters. The Washington Post interviewing an author who spent a lot of time in rural Wisconsin. The New York Times on women. If the articles’ reasons for voting Trump could be summarized in one word, it would certainly be “economy”.

But then FiveThirtyEight tempers it a little bit with this reminder that Trump’s supporters are on average more well-off than others. Here’s The New Yorker visiting a bunch of Trump rallies. SupChina discusses first-generation Chinese immigrants supporting Trump and racism is a bullet point there, but apparently it’s partly rallied around rap lyrics about robbery that advise to “find a Chinese neighborhood” to steal from, so…? I am not going to go any deeper into this rabbit hole. Then here’s Mother Jones arguing against the economy being a big factor at all, and Vox saying it is about racial resentment. Here’s Bloomberg on the Clinton campaign’s failure to persuade and The Federalist on “hyper-liberal late-night comedy” and The Washington Times on Trump’s optimism. I could find hundreds more out there just by Googling, and so could you; and chances are if you’re enough of a voracious reader to be reading my humble blog, you’ve already read some of these.

It’s complicated.

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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.


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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[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:

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[IOI 2014 Part 1] Everything is More Exciting with Lightsabers

Okay, I guess it was really naïve of me to suppose that I could get any considerable amount of blogging done before the IOI ended. Onward…

We left off at the end of the practice session. As if somebody were taking revenge against us for not having to suffer through any airplane trips, we were served a cold airplane meal for lunch.

Seriously, the box had a sticker that noted its manufacturer as something something Air Kitchen and another translucent sticker that badly covered an inscription saying the same thing in much bigger letters. It contained a cold apple salad, a cold chicken bun, a cold flat plastic cylinder of orange juice, and a package of plastic utensils that was exactly like the utensils that came with every airplane meal ever. I was disappointed, but at least the salad tasted okay, and I ate an extra one because two of my teammates volunteered theirs.

To pass the time, we played an extra-evil ninety-nine variant. Apparently this is a very Taiwanese game because lots of student guides were teaching their teams the game, although our special cards differ from the ones Wikipedia lists in a lot of ways and our evil variant created more opportunity for sabotage and counter-sabotage and bluffing. 7s are used to draw your replacement card from somebody else’s hand, and that person cannot draw again and will have one less card; aces are used to swap your entire hand with somebody else, who also cannot draw a card; small-value cards can be combined to form special values (e.g. play a 2 and 5 for the effect of a 7) but after playing a combination you can only draw one replacement card; and later, to speed up the game, we added a rule where all 9s had to be unconditionally discarded without replacement but would still get shuffled back into the draw pile. Players lose if it’s their turn and they have no playable cards, including no cards at all.

While we were playing and repeatedly reveling in everybody ganging up to beat the winner from the last round, an instrumental version of “You Are My Sunshine” played on repeat in the background for literally the entire time. It wasn’t a very good version either. If you didn’t listen carefully for the fade-out and few seconds of silence at the end of each loop, you’d think that the loop was only one verse long.

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English Names

For some reason, everybody around here seems to think that adding English characters, no matter how broken or meaningless, confers an added sense of quality or superiority. I don’t really understand the mindset here but it’s the only explanation I can come up with. It’s certainly not to make the lives of our English-speaking population any easier.

We were sharing songs in Chinese class with literary techniques, and there were a bunch of songs, including mine, by this pretty famous singer with the stage name Fish Leong. Okay, it’s kind of cute and it’s a translated homophonic Cantonese pun, so it makes some sense, although I wonder what people would think the name meant if mentioned without any context. There was this more obscure guy a couple seasons back in the reality TV singing competition (see, no original shows around here) whose name was Quack. *smacks head* It’s also kind of cute if you only know that the word is the sound a duck makes, which probably holds for most of the audience. But still, it takes just five seconds to put it into Wikipedia. Oops?
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Let us talk about Taiwan’s media.

There’s a lot of stuff I don’t have anything to say about. There are health discussion programs and English-teaching programs and cooking programs and the toddler-education program where the guy dresses up as a grandmother and tells stories to puppets. Not enough satiric commentary on the news, but I guess our news stations are reliable enough (go ahead, guess which country I’m talking about; I’m pretty sure of this image despite it being mostly indirect inferences from Reddit. Zing!)

The regular news are quite acceptable, I suppose, if a bit deficient of international stuff. There’s a little political party bias in many of the news channels whenever anything involving election comes up, but it’s well within tolerance range (to me, but I’m only starting to grasp why we need so many people arguing over such meager stuff.) And there are the off-peak specials on absolutely whatever. Some have reasonable depth; some involve a bunch of people with sequences of letters after their name talking pseudoscience. There is Evidence for Bigfoot and the Big Mayan Prophecy of 2012 and Cool Japanese Inventions That Look Like Food But Are Totally Inedible. (Apparently they made a makeup bag that looks like a hamburger, because, I don’t know, it’s special?) Oh, and there was this time they were tooting about the toothbrushes with suction cups on their bottoms that could be put on a surface vertically, which I know can’t be a recent invention.

These few days, though, everything is about “Linsanity!” I’m not interested in spectating sports in general, and I’m not going to go out of my way to follow what’s happening too deeply in the NBA with Jeremy Lin, like everybody else seems to be intent on doing simply because everybody else is as well. (Facebook is overflowing with related posts. Tsk tsk.) In the news coverage, there are absolutely every sort of report on him possible. Reasonable bits on: Oh look the Knicks (I know that’s the team he’s on, but nothing else) beat this team and that team, watch Jeremy make three-pointers and assists, watch his after-game interviews, repeat about two hundred times. Then: Look at Jeremy’s family, they’re so excited for him. Watch his mom cheering and jumping! Again, in slow motion! (Why? Seriously? Is there something to be gleaned from her posture or motion? What is the meaning of this?) Then: Official Person X is excited and is going to watch him play, never mind that he’s supposed to be working in the government for our tax dollars. Then: Look at all the girls who made videos on YouTube proposing to him! (Can anybody actually think something like this has a chance of working?) Then: Jeremy Lin ate at this restaurant this evening to celebrate his dad’s birthday! They had a shrimp appetizer which costs Y dollars, and spaghetti which costs Z dollars, and for dessert, man, look at that chocolate cake, doesn’t it look delicious? By this point the news has crossed the so-bad-it’s-good threshold and the amount of enjoyment derived from watching is actually increasing. His name gets dragged into even the most unrelated topics: there was another debate on ractopamine-laced beef imports from the U.S. which is probably the single big international topic that everybody in Taiwan cares about now and a subtitle in the corner asked if Jeremy Lin ate this stuff.

This is the sort of inaccurate hype that gets me the most, and now I’m going to go on to the board-game anecdote. Some random day a while ago Dr. Sun called us and said that the news channels were looking for some stories (read: filler content) for the off-peak period. The reporter wanted to do a segment on board games, and we were invited to play them in front of the camera (and they need me to read/remember/explain the English rules). Everything went as planned. The reporter rehearsed her tag line a couple times and films me explaining that you get 10 points if your pen with six spaces is completely full at the end.

The interviewing got serious. Dr. Sun talked about board games requiring more brain power than all those online flashy kill-everything-around-you RPGs (despite no longer actively playing anything like that on the computer, I disagree; to me the thing that makes board games worthwhile is the high depth and complexity of player interaction. An even further aside: I remember the time in sixth grade I was writing about the game our classmates had started and describing it as “a MMORPG in real life with friends!” I remembered all six letters in the acronym but not what they stood for or what they meant. I did not have any idea what people did before computers.) Then a friend gave a boolean response to “Is it fun?”. I felt sad I wasn’t asked for anything, as I could have said much more; I guess I wasn’t very telegenic with my face mask.

The footage was used up, the reporter rushed away to her next appointment, and the same evening we were struggling through hours of irrelevant segments for our fifteen seconds of fame. We learned that the news stations actually replayed some segments three or four times in the space of an hour. Finally the dramatically-truncated episode came up, and we discovered that the guys at the studio decided to append a table with four examples of board games. We mentioned Carcassonne, which is a great choice to give for an example: so far so good. Then Ticket to Ride and Zooloretto, the two games we actually did play in front of the camera: I’m not sure if they’re classic/mainstream enough but okay. Then, without any justification or research or quotes, the fourth “European board game” was revealed to be… Sudoku.

The news was already segueing (badly, I should mention) to some guy who gave head massages or something before I could react. Wat. How did they get that? How was forming this kind of misconception even possible? These are supposed to be professionals. They’re running a news channel, for goodness’s sake. Sudoku doesn’t even sound European. Consonant vowel consonant vowel consonant vowel, no accents or silent Es… it’s hard to think that it’s not Japanese. Have these people never flipped open a newspaper before? I am amazed.

Then there are the game shows. I believe that 90% of our game shows are copied — brutally and shamelessly plagiarized from other countries’ programs. There was this particularly egregious instance when the Japanese show in question, composed of a sequence of brief episodes with different people playing or trying different challenges for a million dollars or some nearby large amount in yen, found out about this. There was this electric current avoiding thingamajig where you had to slide a metal pole through a path of wire without it actually touching either side and completing a circuit, you know? Our show had duplicated the entire layout of the path pretty exactly, and they gathered all the Japanese contestants who had won the million dollars through that game and came over to participate.

It was a long time ago, and I don’t remember/know the details, although I think there were four contestants and one got the prize. The thing is that I learned all this from a sub-episode in the original Japanese program, which was also showing on a channel in Taiwan. I had never seen the copied show run, though. Dude. If you’re going to plagiarize and show the results on television, at least pick something not all of your viewers can see. This makes me ashamed of my country. Or rather, species.

What is there to be gathered from all this? Do the media suck because the media suck? Or is the lowest common denominator around here really that shallow? Matilda (the psychic-levitation Roald Dahl character)’s parents thought books were a waste of time because they had the telly. The reality, in our terrible unattentive society, is clearly the opposite.

(Oh no, now that I’m on WordPress I must choose tags responsibly!)