These past few weeks (and at this rate, the next few weeks) have been ridiculous.

It all started when I got my SPM results. There was a little ceremony during the revealing of the results, and my name was the first called. It went like this ‘first up is Justin L-” and I get up (great, straight A’s) “who achieved straight A+ in t-” - holy crap. I walked up to the stage all giddy.

As we ran through the 38 names, the chatter at the back of the stage was already turning to scholarships and bursaries, a subject that by now has become slightly sour after all these weeks of applications. The 3 of us who had nine pluses felt great, because we would get the bursary by the ministry. There were so many questions: IB or A-levels? July intake or March?

There was a lot of confusion in the whole delirium, and things got worse when I couldn’t register for the bursary the next day. I woke up after a tip from a friend, put in my IC, clicked submit, only to be greeted by an error. After many phone calls that turned futile, I gave up and proceeded to apply for other scholarships.

I was back in KL at the office when I got the call. An email arrived shortly after, confirming the news. I was in the top 50.

nationalscholarThe ceremony was held last Monday at Kuala Lumpur. In this picture I’m holding the offer letter for the national scholarship, which was presented to us by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. When it was my turn, I walked up to the stage and offered my hand, but he looked at me and said ‘amboi tingginya, berapa kaki?’ I lost my composure for a while, but managed a weak ‘enam’ before turning for the cameras.

After the ceremony, I had a long talk with my father and we made some decisions: I will not be going to Sunway College as planned, but will instead enroll in another college for A-Levels, under the national scholarship program. It’s called Kolej Yayasan UEM, in Lembah Beringin. I visited the college last Saturday, and I actually really liked it: it is literally in the middle of the forest, but I really like the feeling of being part of their community.

As for me, I’ve finally settled back in Kluang after spending so long in the capital – I’m going to take a deep breath for these next few months, and just go where the wind takes me. Perhaps it’s actually good for me to slow down and rest for a while. :)

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On Monday I left work slightly disoriented. I feel like a feather drifting in the air desperately trying to touch ground. Over the three weeks I’ve been at this internship, I’ve grudgingly grown accustomed to this strange feeling, and nowadays…I just feel so lost.

I should have seen this coming. Kuala Lumpur is after all the capital, the busy hub with all the hubbub and glitz of an ‘international’ city, and I’m not sure why I walked into this world with the faint hope that Kuala Lumpur might turn out to be a lion that I could tame. Maybe I could find pockets of small city in the landscape of the big city, a la the silver lining in the grey clouds…in a way I was hoping that KL would be something like Kluang, something I’m trying to wrap my head around, given how fiercely I used to dislike my little hometown.

These days I feel like a stranger in this strange, strange city. The other day I was on the train and my hand brushed against my empty pocket, and I was suddenly struck with panic: did I leave my phone at the station? I rummaged my bag in search of it and I distinctly remember the dread I felt – like the time I thought I lost my passport at the airport in Bogota – and I must have made a huge show of it because everyone on the train was looking at this strange man flipping out. In the end I found it tucked into a small compartment in my bag and I turned red and smiled apologetically at the curious commuters.

And then the other day I was on the monorail, and as I walked into the carriage I knocked my head against the bars at the top because I was too tall – perhaps the contractors forgot to account for people above average height? And I thought it was so funny that I started to laugh quietly (ignoring all the stares again), I instinctively turned around to tell somebody about it. Then I realized that I had no one to tell it to, and it suddenly struck me how much I miss home.

I miss everyone back home.

On Tuesday I met up with a friend from Kluang – we were planning to go to Chinatown but it rained, of all things – and I had the first meal I’ve had in KL that lasted over an hour. Its incredible how in a city of a million people, it’s so hard to find someone you can hold a conversation with – and not the bogus type of conversations that I’ve also frustratingly grown used to (the ones with lots of filler words like ‘cool’, ‘sounds great’, and where you desperately try to think of different topics to avoid awkward silences), but the real type of conversation, where you actually care about the other person, and the other person cares about you.

On Wednesday, Jobstreet.com was sold for 1.73 billion ringgit. I guess I got one thing right about this city: cities are just as non-living as they are non-loving – it doesn’t owe you anything and certainly not the affection you feel towards it. I am just another piece of the puzzle, and the cogs of the city will keep turning even if I become stagnant. But I remain adamant that my hometown is different, and for some reason, the humans in Kluang feel much more human than people here. It’s just funny how it took Kuala Lumpur to make me realize that.

The past

As 2013 draws to a close, it is worth looking back at the ups and downs this year held for all of us. This curtain call marks the end of Part One of My Life – the end of my days in government school (no more uniforms!), the fact that I’m finally able to drive, and in so many ways, December has made me feel a lot like a proper adult.

Twenty-thirteen has been good to me. Save for the minor “existential crises” that I put myself into again and again…but I think that I’ve emerged wiser every time.

Math

I finally got gold in both the APMO and the AMC, and reclaimed my First Place title in the OMK. I should note that I practically did no math this year relative to previous years…I still didn’t manage to go higher than a bronze at the IMO in Colombia, but a medal is just a medal, and frankly, I’ve quite gotten over the gold chase.

That is not to say that I’ve lost my drive! It just really hit me that there are a lot of important things besides just blindly doing problems all day. For example, this year I had the opportunity to give a lecture at my good friend’s high school in Penang. This was a way cooler experience than winning stuff, and I’ve just realized that I really like teaching to an audience. I’ve become a lot more confident when teaching, and I prepare a lot better nowadays.

I’ve given quite a few talks at IMO camp: one as recently as a few weeks ago, on the fundamentals of geometry to the new batch of juniors, and one during the final IMO camp for the 2013 cycle, on harmonic division. I especially enjoyed the latter, and I talked with the feeling that I was teaching something really mind-blowing. ah this gets me a bit nostalgic.

Code

I learned C++ this year and got the hang of it…fast enough to bring me to the IOI Team Selection Test (TST) this year, where I placed 4th, a respectable position. :)

I always tell people that I learned it by myself, but that’s not entirely true: I found it really hard, relying solely on online resources, and by January I still hadn’t understood the point of iostream. However, when some friends demonstrated it during IMO camp in January, I immediately got it. It was a true light bulb moment, and I rapidly progressed through the syntax and started learning algorithms.

I’m also starting to learn Python, HTML and CSS all at once, and from a C++ standpoint, Python is basically a language for dummies. No more type declarations, no more worries about overflow, no more input/output nightmares. I was introduced to HTML and CSS last week with an awesome lecture – basically also my introduction to the world of web development, which is a whole new ball game altogether. I’m definitely going to do more stuff in this direction.

Music

I finally took my ATCL! At long last! I’ve been hesitating so long about giving it a try that I somehow managed to delay it three years after I took my Grade 8. I took my exam on 13 Dec, with results still pending – I screwed up royally on my favorite piece by Brahms, which is probably enough to guarantee a fail, but I still have hope.

There are a lot of people who say that graded exams and diplomas are a waste of both time and money. I disagree. At least for myself, preparing for ATCL really pushed me to think about music beyond the notes and markings on the score. When I restarted lessons at the beginning of the year, I was playing horribly – which wasn’t to say that I didn’t know my notes (I did), but my tone was too ‘hard’, my chords not ‘warm’ enough, my phrases not ‘closed’ enough.

This year I dealt a lot with abstract terms like these. I struggled a lot initially, and after 12 years of music education, I still didn’t understand why my music was different from the beautiful playing I always hear on recordings. So I began to learn…after a few months, I started really getting into my playing. Music is not one-dimensional, and the emotive part of it is very true and very real. You can make the piano as an extension of yourself, both mentally and physically.

It has also made me more adept at waxing lyrical about music in abstract terms like these! This was basically a very long-winded way to say that I truly rediscovered my love for music this year, and I can now say that I will never stop playing.

<<<<< // >>>>>

The future

So this brings us to the ‘great divide’: leaving home.

Internship

Through programming competitions, I came to know one of the higher-ups in this company, and I eventually hinted at an internship in one of my emails…which was thankfully noted!

From January till March, I will be taking up an internship at Jobstreet.com, a website for job-seekers to search through online listings. I will be working at Jobstreet headquarters near the Bukit Bintang area in KL. Accommodation is (hopefully) settled, and I already have my own @jobstreet.com email address! I’m going to be participating in the research group on job matching, which will involve programming and some algorithmic knowledge.

The main motivation for the internship, personally, is that I’m quite tired of studying all the time. SPM drained me out emotionally, and I don’t want to dive right back into the monotonous routine of eat, memorize, sleep, rinse, repeat. Time to get some real world skills: learning to network, refine my coding abilities, dressing and speaking well.

Plus, I visited the offices last weekend during the MCO camp! I was quite pleased to learn that the dress code was casual, and that a monorail station is smack right outside the building. KLCC and Pavilion is just a few stops away. Convenience ftw.

A-levels

After March, I am planning to further my studies through the A-level program at Sunway College, KL. The choice of Sunway is mainly due to the partial scholarship I received in Sunway’s math competition earlier this year. The intake is on 31 March – by then, SPM results will be out, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good news, hopefully leading to a full scholarship somewhere?

All is tentative, but what is certain is that I’m stepping into quite a different life now, godspeed, and good luck to myself!

I wake up on the morning of Day 2 – strangely feeling more exhausted off an 8-hour sleep than the 3 hours the night before. Breakfast went as normal, and I walked into the exam hall hoping that problem 5 was a geometry one.

Day Two

Oops, P4 was a geometry and P5 was an algebra. P6 was on combinatorics, which meant that it would probably be pretty hard. I wasn’t good at algebra, but I was strong in geometry, so the plan for the day was pretty obvious: solve P4 as fast as possible, then dump all the time on P5.

P4: I drew the diagram. I saw the two circles intersecting on BC, and I intuitively draw the second intersection of these two circles. I draw X and Y. I guess that this second intersection must be also collinear, and then I see how to prove it. I start writing the solution 5 minutes into the exam. I’m not kidding: this was a really fast solve, and I’m sure I was not the only one who did this.

The reason for this was because of the second intersection. Once you drew it and stared at it, you were already this close to the solution. The problem is knowing why you should draw this point. For me, it was because I’d done too many problems involving two circles and a line passing through the intersection points to know that the second intersection holds many special properties. In this case, it led to a quick solve. I shoved the paper into the folder and exhaled, this was good!

P5: I stare at the three conditions and go, well (i) means I can combine products, (ii) means that I can split sums, and (iii) is probably for convenience. So right off the bat you get f(1) >= 1, then after that you get f(n) >= n for all natural n.

So then I think some more and decide to assume the existence of natural a > 1 such that f(a) = a. Then we can get f(n) = n for all natural n, then after that f(x) = x for all positive rationals. All this in 10 minutes, and I only had to prove the existence of such a! This is good, right?

As it turns out…no. It’s been a long time since the IMO, and I forget the details about what I did then, but the frustration I felt is still fresh in my mind. I tried everything I could think of (thanks to the huge amount of time I had): the ‘enlarging-the-error-term’ arguments, driving everything to zero and trying to reach a contradiction…and I didn’t seem to get anywhere. Darn it.

P6: Erm lol, I just wrote Euler’s totient function for this.

- – -

Facing my teammates wasn’t easy. I tried looking for them, hoping that they’d managed to get P5. I first meet Si Wei, who dejectedly tells me that he failed this one too. We then meet the rest, with better news: two solves for P5, and everyone reports solves for P4.

But at this point, I didn’t really care anymore. The exams were over, the IMO had begun!

Graduation bros

Today we graduated in a brew of sadness and joy, an atmosphere so rich that I sometimes forgot what to feel…it’s crazy how much you guys have changed me in the short span of a few months. Last year I told someone that I wouldn’t miss this place when I take my final step here, but today I find myself bitterly biting my words, because I am going to miss the heck out of you guys when we inevitably part, one by one.

July 23 – Day One

It’s 1am. I know it because I stole a glance at the clock two minutes ago and it said 12.58am, and I’ve been counting the seconds that pass, one after one after one, tick tock tick tock. I face the IMO in the morning, and I can’t sleep.

I’ve always had sleeping problems, but I can’t believe that it’s happening right here right now, at the worst possible time in the worst possible place. If you’ve ever had insomnia, you know the feeling – the sick crawling feeling as you lie perfectly still in bed and feel exhausted but your mind is running a goddamn marathon. I went to bed at 9 and I’m still awake at 1. This cannot be happening.

I got out of bed and went onto the balcony. Irotama was right next to the sea, so the sounds of the rolling waves crashing onto the sea were audible. I sit down and just stare into space blankly. I’m still not sure how long I was outside, but that was the kicker. I started to calm down, my heartbeat slowed, and I regained my logical train of thought. I inhaled and exhaled for god knows how many times. Meditation. It works. I went back to bed and woke up at around 4:30am. I felt great.

On to the exam, then.

Day One

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First impressions of the paper are pretty important. Right off the bat, we have a number theory for P1, combinatorics for P2, and a geometry for P3. What else could I do other than feel good? Let’s go.

P1: I traditionally take quite a while to solve NT’s, and I chose to do it this way instead of trying to find some magic path to the solution. Small cases first: for k=1 everything was trivial, so let’s move on to k=2. This took up quite a chunk of time before I found the odd/even solution. Firstly I was convinced that there wasn’t an obvious closed form construction, so I thought of induction.

As it turns out, induction actually works, but I didn’t find it. After some more thinking, I went, “OK, we have 2^k and k terms, so um, binary.” I played around with this idea for a while. Somewhere along the way I wrote down the m_i for n equals power of 2. There was something strange going on with my examples because they were just too nice. After a minute two things hit me:

1. the terms telescope from the denominators and numerators, and

2. I just had to ensure that the numerator divides the denominator.

So then from this point it was really clear that it was equivalent to just bitwise flipping on n with the restriction that you can’t flip bits after the last 1, and that you only could use each bit once. So…that was it, 9:45 solve.

CCF08102013_00001After writing a second page linking this game and the actual problem, I moved on to P2 at 10am, knowing that I had went a little overtime on this one.

P2: Problem statement was rather long-winded, but it was pretty clear. Given some red and blue points in the plane, split them into regions with straight lines such that no region contains two points of the same color.

This didn’t seem hard at all. Looking at the small cases, I found upper bounds for the small cases, then proved the respective lower bounds through case analysis. By this time it was quite clear what the answer should be for the general problem. I took a chance and started off trying to prove the upper bound. After some thinking I found a short proof for my upper bound: a convex polygon with points grouped on both sides of the polygon. This was good: one direction already done, and I had 3 hours left. Time for the lower bound. I tried the first thing: an explicit construction.

This turned out pretty badly, so I changed my approach quickly. After several failed attempts, I was beginning to get frustrated. I had 2 hours left, and this may leave me with insufficient time to solve problem 3, even if it was a geometry problem. I raised my WC card and went for a bathroom break. Mind cleared, I returned to my seat, and spontaneously started induction.

This…turned out to be the right approach: I soon saw how I could remove two points if I considered the convex hull. This was, however, assuming that there would be points of both colors on the convex hull, which still left a huge case to be considered. I played around with this notion for a while before giving it up and restarting induction. This was when I thought of the halving line argument from two years ago. I soon found a suitable line to split the plane into two smaller configurations that worked, after an extension of the result to the even numbers. I started writing my proof, which took quite a few pages. Finished, I glanced at the clock. 1 hour left. This was bad.

P3: I went into hyper drive. Reading the problem statement for problem 3, I decided that it would be good to construct it with the incircle instead of the excircles and I began drawing my diagrams. I noticed that the converse of the problem statement seemed to be true, and moreover, the given circle seemed to be quite easy to access just by using the properties of the tangency points. I stared at the diagram for 15 minutes as I became increasingly flustered. One shot at a perfect day 1, and I had 30 minutes left. Oh no oh no oh no…I couldn’t see anything. 15 minutes before the end of the competition, I gave up on problem 3 in favor of checking my solutions to the first two problems. I read and reread my proofs, making sure that I didn’t miss any special cases, no wording errors, no silly mistakes. A loud beeping startled me, and the invigilators announced the end of the competition. Ding ding ding. Day 1 was over. I put my solutions in the folders and walked out of the exam hall feeling frustrated.

- – -

I walked into the sea of contestants and found my teammates. ‘How many did you get?’ was the question that was repeated over and over again by everyone. ’1 and 2′, I would reply. It turned out that none of us had managed to settle problem 3, but four of us had complete solutions to the second problem, and another had made significant progress on it. Five of us claimed complete solutions to the first problem. We discussed our solutions as buses arrived to ferry us back to the official hotel.

I talked to Si Wei about the second problem. He was saying how he had misunderstood the problem statement and only discovered the error an hour before the end of the exam, but managed to fix it in the end. I was amused at how he could misunderstand a problem on such an important competition, and started describing my solution to him.

While talking about my extension to the even cases, I explained my answer to him. Upon hearing this, he looked confused. ‘No, this isn’t the answer,’ he said, and presented me with a smaller case of 4 points and said that it was impossible to split this configuration with only one line. I pointed out the obvious solution to him: a line dividing it into two with one point of each color in each region. “But there’s still two points of different color in this region,” he replied.

Halfway through the debate, I suddenly realized that we were talking about different problems. Heart pounding, I read the problem again…and again, and again. Si Wei was right. I had misread the problem. I held my head in my hands, speechless for a minute, and tried to get over the fact that I had just virtually thrown away a shot at a silver or gold medal. I was speechless, struck dumb. I didn’t know how to react.

I misread an IMO problem.

Eventually I got over it. Regardless, we still had a pretty good performance on Day 1. Back at the resort, we went around asking teams how they performed. As it turns out, a surprising number of people reported that they couldn’t finish P2, including some members of the US team. Very few people claimed solutions to P3: one from the US, one from Canada (Calvin) and a few from China and Korea. The Hong Kong team got 5 solves for P2, and we were quite puzzled indeed by our survey.

I went straight to bed after dinner. Thankfully, I got a good sleep this time around.

July 18 – 22

photo 4Touchdown at Amsterdam. After a 12-hour flight, our exhausted bodies were greeted by a 7-hour transit at Schiphol Airport. We set up a base at Lounge 2 and got our math on. I went downstairs and picked up a new SD card for my camera. Next was a 10-hour flight to Panama City. Here’s us fighting the language barrier at a Subway in Panama. Unfortunately, our Spanish skills proved to be rather limited (we knew gracias, uno, dos, tres, quartro and not much else…) For some reason I kept switching into Malay while trying to communicate with the locals, dunno why…

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Here’s our route: Kuala Lumpur – Amsterdam – Panama City – Barranquilla, with an overnight stop at Panama. After an uneventful journey (thankfully no one put their compasses in their backpacks) we arrived in Colombia.

IMG_7574We arrived a day before Arrival Day, so we were staying overnight at another hotel before transferring to the official hotel the day after. It was a quaint little place called Tequendama Inn. The first order of business in any Colombian hotel (as you quickly learn) is making all the guests wear wristbands. I still haven’t figured out what practical purpose they serve, but there was no point asking, so we just went into our rooms.

IMG_7577As it turns out, all of us fell asleep pretty much immediately after the bed entered our field of sight. By the time everybody was conscious, it was dinner time. After taking a walk in which we failed to locate any restaurant in a small radius, we found out from the receptionist that the nearest restaurants were a taxi ride away. OK, so none of that, then: we’re eating at the inn.

Surprise, the menus were in English! After an impromptu arm wrestling tournament (in which none of the matches even ended, with the exception of Si Yu beating me in a left hand wrestle) the food arrived. Nothing much to say about it except that the mango juice was pretty much heaven.

IMG_7584The following morning we left for Irotama Resort, the official hotel for the contestants.

IMG_7592Above is the view from our rooms. Colombia is really pretty in the beach-like sense. Nothing much happened on arrival day because I went to bed early.

Now at this point it’s important to note that Colombia is at GMT -5, and Malaysia is GMT +8. Keeping this in mind, we had not yet adjusted to the monstrous time difference. I was having pretty big trouble with it: waking up at the most ungodly hours (wake up, check time, 1am, ???) and struggling to fall back into sleep. The others had to cope with the jet lag in their own way, with varying successes and even more varying strategies: Si Yu’s method was to just sleep all the time.

The following day was the day of the Opening Ceremony. The organizers made the brilliant decision to transport the 500 contestants to Barranquilla via a 2-hour bus ride, clearly keeping logistical considerations as a top priority.

The opening ceremony was actually pretty well executed. It had a theme: the Carnival of Barranquilla, which is one of the biggest carnivals in the world, behind Rio de Janiero. After some brilliant speeches, the main event commenced with the parade of the teams across the gymnasium. Romania had a pretty long flag that I really liked.

IMG_7633IMG_7636The ceremony ended in pretty much the most bizarrely fashioned manner: a full-fledged presentation of the Carnival, fueled with traditional Colombian music and all the energy of the actual event. It was pretty cool except for the fact that it ended up being a tad too long, so the crowd left while the performance was still on. I’m still not sure if this was the intended finish, but it worked I guess.

Another 2-hour bus ride later, we returned to the official hotel. At 6pm. There goes an entire day. We had dinner and retired early to our rooms, because after all, the next day was the day that actually mattered.

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