It’s been two months since we battled our battles and adventured our adventures in the beautiful, beautiful land of Cape Town, where we attended the 55th International Mathematical Olympiad.

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Team Malaysia at the University of Cape Town.

It was one of the best times of my life, and I have so many memories that I want to relive. The camaraderie of pre-departure camp (and even more during the trip to South Africa). The intense two days of competition. Shivering together in the cold winter night. Watching penguins waddle up the beach as we looked out at the sea. Visiting the southernmost tip of South Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. Climbing up to the lighthouse at Cape Point where the six of us watched silently as the waves crashed into the cape. Bonding tightly with the team over food, long conversations and math.

Luckily, I can rlieve all that through the pictures we took at Cape Town. :) For the next few weeks, I’m planning to write our story, the IMO 2014 story, bit by bit, until the entire journey has been written down.

Solving the IMO 2014 Problems

IMO 2014 – Justin’s math

To start things off, I’ve written a math post for this year’s IMO, walking through the competition from a mathematical perspective – follow the link below to the pdf. Happy reading!

 

IMO 2014 the star

 

The full article on The Star: http://www.thestar.com.my/News/Nation/2014/07/16/Maths-wizard-helps-capture-gold-in-fourth-attempt/

 

IMO 2014 result

 

Full results on imo-official: http://www.imo-official.org/team_r.aspx?code=MAS&year=2014

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We did it. 

We:

- broke the Malaysian points record for the 5th straight year, 129 points

- broke the Malaysian rank record for the 5th straight year, rank 23

- won the second and third gold medals in Malaysian history

- won the youngest bronze medal in Malaysian history, Zi Song12 years

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Jetlagged, emotional, overwhelmed, surreal. I will write a complete series of posts chronicling the 2014 Malaysian IMO team in the coming weeks.

#5 Colombian sunset the day before we left

#5 Colombian sunset the day before we left

One of my favorite memories: lying on a beach as the waves gently lap upon the pale white sand, leaving their cascading footprints and swirling back and forth; swallowing sand, then swallowed back into the sea. This is the night: stars shine brightly down on our bodies as we rest in silence, bodies exhausted after a weeks’ worth of adventure in Colombia, minds fatigued, thinking about the plane tomorrow that will rotate the world and bring us three thousand miles away from this secret paradise we managed to find. The stars are beautiful tonight.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a magnificent display of stars: shimmering against a backdrop of black (which was in turn masking who knows how many galaxies and planets, but even the ones we can see are beautiful enough) and a curiously round moon. Where I come from, the sky is a dark canvas that does not twinkle, and there really isn’t much reason to lift up your head to look up, save for the times when we decide to light it up with fireworks and explosions, but those are still not stars.

One by one our eyes closed, hearts synchronized to the rhythmic crashing of the waves, and at that moment it felt as if all of the frustrations and worry that rage within our minds had just been magically waved away, and all the damage that we once thought was irreparable was now undone. There are people who say that stars are illusions, that they have been dead for millions of years by the time their light enters our eyes. But perhaps we can take solace that in the beautiful chaos of the universe, what we have is now, and what we see now can sometimes be so beautiful that this moment…is all that matters.

Three weeks ago, I attended an interview program at the Central Bank of Malaysia for a scholarship. The program was structured in a format similar to an audition: prospective scholars go through various group sessions, and the lucky ones are shortlisted for the actual interview on the last day. On the eve of the last day, I was informed that I was, in fact, shortlisted, and I was obligated to attend the final interview.

That night I called my mother. I was halfway through a monologue about how nervous I was for the impending interview when my voice cracked and I broke down in tears. My mother paused for a second over the static waves and got my sister in Australia to talk to me on Skype. Then she told my father, who was on a conference in Melaka, to give me a call.

The truth is that I have no idea what I want to do with my life.

When filling out the scholarship application, I chose the default option when you’re a straight-A student and don’t know what to do: medicine. I didn’t think much about it until the night before I had to interview for it, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t have answers for ‘why do you want to study medicine?’ or ‘why medicine and not nursing?’ among others. I panicked, because how was I going to answer to four interview panels about how I’m a trainwreck on a messy path of life, floating without direction?

Over that weekend I mingled with the other potential scholars, and I was truly impressed by their intelligence and eloquence. They spoke well and held engaging conversations about interesting topics, but what most impressed me was the drive and vision some of these people had. You get to meet kids who want to do computer science at Carnegie Mellon, people well-versed in political happenings and want to do PPE for their degree…and people who are truly passionate about medicine. I admire them for being fortunate enough to have decided what they are becoming and will become, and I couldn’t help but feel, all at once, lost and disillusioned.

It was with this boiling pot of emotion that I made the call to my mother and broke down. Why didn’t I know what I wanted to be?

When I had calmed down and become more level-headed, we called my sister in Australia, asking her why she decided to become a doctor. I had a long talk with her, in which we talked about the different aspects of medicine, before deciding which parts I liked and didn’t like. I realized that there were actually a few things about medicine I did like – for instance, the academic nature of it, based on the fact that there is so vastly much to learn about the human body. I also liked the dynamic nature of the profession and the fact the research is constantly changing our approach to health. After that, I called my father and talked about life as an actual doctor. We talked about the stress and responsibility of being a doctor. I then realized that I also liked the personal connection between a doctor and a patient. By the time I hung up the phone, it was past midnight.

The following day I woke up with a level head, and I knew what I was going to say. I was going to be brutally honest.

As a result of this policy…my interviews were kind of unorthodox. I saw this coming: interviews are supposed to evaluate a candidate’s ability and passion towards an intended field of study, but this wasn’t applicable in my case. I was asked multiple times, that ‘you’re good at math, why not do math?’ to which I replied ‘actually, I might do math!’ I feel like I learned more about myself than they learned about me. It was more like a Confucian learning experience than an interview, more of a conversation than a Q&A session. I told them that I was just so curious about so many things, that I haven’t learned enough to know my direction in the future.

Why was I being asked to decide on my future?

I find it strange that as 17-year-olds we’re asked to summarize our futures in a word. I will become a ‘doctor’ or a ‘lawyer’, or god forbid, an ‘art historian’. In this world, ‘direction’ means putting yourself down in black and white while three quarters of your life still lie ahead of you. But isn’t being lost an inherently beautiful thing? There are a million shades of color that I can paint my days with, and so many things in this palette of futures seem so amazing. I want to be a cancer researcher. I want to be a pianist in an orchestra. I want to be a storyteller. The beautiful thing is that in my mind… all of these futures are possible.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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