A Word to Future Academic Decathletes

I went in to visit and help out the Taylor AD team today, and I had come up with a sort of motivational speech for the occasion. I, however, was never actually called on to talk to them as a group, and thus, the speech ended up being unnecessary. Instead, it’ll reside here in my blog, half because I didn’t want it to go to waste, and half because I’m trying to fill in for an entry.

Forewarning: there’s some off-color humor, and a couple references that may not be entirely correct. Sorry for the messy nature of it, but that’s probably how I’d talk if I were giving a presentation to high school students.

Hi, I’m Kevin, as you probably know. And to be honest, I have some beef with AD.
Chances are that you are no more motivated than I was my junior year. You want to do well, but you don’t really want to study for it. You’re proud about how well you’ve done for how much work you’ve put into it.

Which is fine. Heck, you’ve worked harder than most people in this school. Out of the 1200-ish upperclassmen, you’re in the 1% who’ve cut it to be on Taylor AD team, which is one of 27 schools in the nation to have won the national championships. And we’ve done it twice.

But let’s be honest: that wasn’t actually either you or me. We’re recipients to expectations that we should be kicking butt, and things would be a lot easier if it weren’t that way. Equivalently, there’s an expectation that you should study. A lot. Shellum and Sweatnum worked their kids hard, to the point where the story goes that the kids who made the team never ever took an English test on time. And I’ve even been told that their students received chemical boosts to improve their focus. Okay, maybe I heard that from a very unreliable source, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they put their kids on crack to make them better. Just throwing that out there.

So I’m very sorry to say, but you’re not going to get drugs from Scott to do AD. Taylor still has too much pride to let the white trash take over like that. Go to Cinco if you want to do that.

Anyways, that means you guys are mostly on your own. So that doesn’t sound that hard. Study a lot and win a lot. But up till now, I’ve left one huge gap in talking to you. Allow me to digress.

I took a modern algebra class this last quarter at college, and it was the first proof-based math class I’ve ever taken. I had taken linear algebra my freshmen year, but that was a pretty high school class, as it was mostly focused on learning formulas and doing computation. I pretty thoroughly hated math after that class, but I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge it so harshly without having taken a real college-level math class. As a summary, I took the class, got crushed by it, and now know I do not want to take another math class ever again.

But I’m okay with that, because I know I got crushed by a legit math class, and the class is one of two gateway classes into all math classes, and I had taken the hardest version of the class. And I learned a lot. I learned so much. One of the major parts of the class is to essentially write a section out of a textbook and learn how to do math writing, so we had to write our own proof for the Fundamental Theorem of Finite Abelian Groups. Don’t worry; I still don’t really know what that means either. What I did learn from constructing the proof, though, is that when explaining something and giving steps for something, you have to give the motivation for it before you start explaining, or else your audience doesn’t know what you’re getting at.

Which is how I wrap it back around into this speech that you’re now realizing is far more intense than you had originally thought it was going to be. But the point: the motivation. Yes, the motivation. I’m sure at some point, you’ve asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?” When I was at region, I had about 10 minutes of disillusionment with AD and began to question the purpose of the last half-year of my life. There are a lot of reasons the coaches might have given you as to why you want to study this. And there are a lot of things you’ve discovered while studying AD. Well, let me lay things straight for you.

First, Scott or Irish probably told you that AD looks good on a college app. That’s a terrible reason to do AD. Not only does that make you just as bad as any GPA whore, it doesn’t even really count. Some of you are probably seniors who didn’t do it your junior year, and to be honest, that means that AD doesn’t count for squat. You barely found out you actually made it on the team in time for college apps, and even state isn’t until after mid-semester reports. My college apps only said that I had made the AD team. There was no actual proof that I was a good AD student, battle-hardened in competition. So having that on there is probably about as valuable as saying that you’re treasurer of the anime club. Maybe the admissions officer will pat you on the head for that.

Second, maybe they talked about the scholarship money. There’s not THAT much money in it. If I did the math on how much I made hourly for my scholarship, I would estimate that I made about two or three dollars on the hour. Go work for HEB if you want money. They’ll pay you twice that much.

Third, maybe they told you that the subjects would be interesting. This one is a mixed bag. Changes are that they are not interesting. And even if they were, you probably aren’t excited about the subjects after reading the same 40-page packet the twentieth time.

Even if the subjects were interesting, you’d hate them anyways because USAD stinks. If you haven’t realized already, the people who work at USAD are utterly incompetent. For example, my senior year was China. They failed at writing the packets. For one of the songs, they claimed that the performer of the piece was xibeifeng. If you don’t know Chinese, that translates to northwest wind, which was the name of the song. And they managed to use two different romanizations of Chinese in two different packets, so the same guy had two different names in two different packets, and if you didn’t know Chinese, you’d be none the smarter.

On the otherhand, maybe you know my good friend Willie. Very smart kid, love him to death. He’s studying at Rice right now, and his topic of interest? Doing economic development for green technologies in China. As a reminder, my senior year, the theme was china, and SQ was climatology, particularly climate change. So he’s basically turned AD into his life goal.

I’m going to tell you now, though, that he’s the exception. You’re going to study and study to memorize every fact, but the day after your last competition, it won’t matter ever again. I promise. Which is maybe the fourth point that the coaches tried to sell you on: that you’d learn something useful. Maybe you’ll remember it for a week. Or maybe a month. Or if you’re really hardcore, you’ll remember your stuff for a couple months, so you can help the octathlon kids. But you’re not going to remember most of it. I don’t remember most of what I learned. The method that USAD tests you ensures that most of what you do will be completely worthless, because facts are worthless. The dimensions of a piece of art hanging in a museum in Washington DC just really don’t matter that much in real life.

But they didn’t entirely lie to you. AD is an excellent 5.0 study hall.

So yeah, I have some beef with AD. AD sucks. It really does. And the coaches are looking to give me the cane right now for telling you all of this. But I promise it’s okay, because I didn’t come here to make you hate AD. I came here to make you hate AD, but realize that it’s absolutely worth your time.

You know, when I talk to my college friends, sometimes we talk about our high school days, and we were all over the place. Take my draw group, for example. 5 of my best friends. Most of us were mathletes, but we all had different priorities.

My friend Ben from LA went to a math and science magnet school, so he was legitimately good at math, such that he’s still good at math at Stanford.

My friend George from Oregon was a debator. One of those debators, such that he still talks about it from time to time.

My friend Jordan from Virginia is pretty messed up. First, I should note that you should under no circumstances watch Rudolph the Five-Legged Reindeer. But anyways, Jordan; to be honest, I don’t know what he did.

My friend Tom, from the scary side of LA, was the king of his high school. President of every club, a football player and a wrestler, and even on the AD team there.

My roommate RJ from quiet little Bedford, New Hampshire, was all about robotics, which I think his team won nationals for.

And me? Well, here at Taylor, my big things were band, cs, and AD. Band and CS I did seriously for 4 years. AD, I only really got into it my senior year. But when we talk over lunch about high school, I talk about AD.

Which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was a lot more successful with CS, and that had far more apparent impact on my career path, as my major is very closely related to CS. Having thought about it a lot, though, I think I know a couple reasons.

First, speech. When I told you that you don’t learn anything useful in AD, I was 90% lying. Speech and impromptu was so good for me. Being able to speak off the cuff in an intelligent way is super-valuable. This last quarter, I had to take the 2nd of two classes in writing and rhetoric, and the second is focused on oral communication. We had to do a bunch of 2 minute presentations, and while some people had difficulty with them, I cruised through it. That’s all prep from AD impromptu. Maybe debate teaches you how to speak better, but AD was far more efficient than that.

Second, people. If the 8 other people on the team aren’t your best friends or worst enemies, they should be. You should be partying with these people all the time. I remember my junior year, I watched the AD team dissolve because of terrible team relationships and dynamics. Not every team is meant to jive perfectly. But you should absolutely know whether that’s the case or not. Studying for AD isn’t fun, but partying definitely is, so you should absolutely do that. The AD team from my senior year is actually putting some good thought into how we’re going to do our reunion later this break, and it should be excellent. I’m going to be meeting up with some of my best friends who I very much want to see even after parting with them for college. You can make some of the best friends in AD if you put the effort into it.

Third, study habits. If you’re on the AD team, chances are that you don’t have to work really hard for school. For those of you that this is true of, listen up. If it’s not, don’t worry about it, because you’re way ahead of us.

I’m fairly confident most of you don’t work hard on school, and believe it across all 3 levels. A kids? You made the team because you don’t have to study for school, and decided to devote some of the time you slack off during on AD. C kids? If you studied for school, you wouldn’t be a C kid. Chances are that you don’t think school is worth your time. Which is debatable. In some ways, I admire you guys, because you were smart enough to not spend your time on educationally worthless pursuits. Regardless, you’re probably pretty lazy. B kids? You have the best chance of being hard workers, but probably not.

So I say this from experience: my study habits in high school sucked. When I think back to how productive I was during those years compared to now, I’m thoroughly unimpressed. I think, in some ways, AD was my chance to prove that I wasn’t a slacker, and that I was just as capable of studying hard as anyone else.

And to be honest, maybe you don’t need it to prepare for college. I’ve talked to some of my friends who insist that college is easier and less work than high school, that they slack off even more than they did here at Taylor. So maybe it won’t matter. That, however, isn’t me. If I hadn’t improved my study habits, I’d definitely be in dire straits right now. And I realize that part of that was just a kick in the pants in going to college, but I still believe that AD helped to psyche me up to be able to sit silently for hours, just reading and reading.

So those are all things I discovered that were great things that came out of AD. But none of those were why I really went for it, why I harassed my teammates to study, why I got working for DemiDec. When I think back, I only decided to really do AD at the beginning of the summer before my senior year, long before I realized all the things I’ve told you so far. It just kind of came to me that this was my chance to actually be successful at AD, and that it should become my biggest priority. And I think it was the chance of failure and the knowledge that I completely controlled what happened that motivated me so strongly.

When I thought about my other activities, I had never really failed. When I went up for region band, my sophomore year, there were no expectations for me, though I lucked out when one of the tubas had to back out. And I knew I would make it the next year, and again my senior year. I could’ve gone for state or something, but I knew there were a couple tubas in my region who I could never beat. In marching band, I mattered as much as any other student; individually, not very much. In CS, my team had been very successful very early, but unfortunately, the ceiling in that arena is pretty low.

Which is not at all the case with AD. I knew from my junior year that I could do very poorly. I also knew, though, that there’s no clear advantage for one person over another. Natural talent didn’t matter nearly as much as in band, and the ability to grasp clear, algorithmic thinking didn’t matter either. AD is 100% about working at it, and it was my choice that I should.

Because I don’t think I had ever committed myself to seeing something through like that. I had been fortunate in my other pursuits to have been successful enough early that I could largely depend on that to carry me through. But AD was a legitimate challenge that I had to overcome.

So that’s about all I have for my schpeel. Chances are, you haven’t had the same foolish motivation that I did, and in some ways, I hope you don’t, because I very well could’ve been owned by putting all my stock in AD. So I absolutely recommend that you study hard for the next three months, because I promise you, if you actually dedicate yourself to it, you will absolutely be proud of yourself for it.

Life Back to Normal

So we had the Texas State Academic Decathlon competition this past weekend, and it was quite a success. We ended up 3rd in the large school division, and 4th overall, netting each one of us a nice little batch of scholarship money. Hans wiped the floor on the objective tests, but only ended up 3rd in varsity because of the awesome job done by our subjective graders. Frank, on the otherhand, pretty much dominated everyone the entire time, and got 1st place honors by a good 700 pts. Congratulate him if you see the chance.
Getting that done with was quite a relief. It’s an interesting feeling to just go through the climax of your entire school year, to go in and take a series of tests to tell you how hard you’ve been studying for more than 1/2 of a year. Some good, some bad, of course. I’ve developed immensely from having gone through with this, but I am a little disappointed from how things panned out officially, and a little frustrated with USAD right now on their means to ensure fairness on subjectives. Regardless, I can now move on and value what I’ve gained.

Talking about moving on, it’s quite liberating to have one constant worry off your mind. I knew it was coming, and always told myself, “You know you should take these 5 minutes to study, because those 5 minutes might get you one more fact to get one more question right to win you another $500 in scholarships.” AD is just one of those perpetual things, where you can never be too ready, and when you care, it can definitely ruin a person. I appear to be in one piece, however, and can now spend the time on other important stuff.
Like exercise. I went running for the first time today, and it felt good. That was my one resolution on the year, and it’s definitely something that needs to happen. Thanks to wiki howto, I have a rough layout of what I need to do, and plan on running at least 3 times a week. Hopefully I’ll manage to stick to that one.
And reading. I had bought “Society of Mind” by Marvin Minsky over the winter break, and never got around to reading it. It’s a brilliant series of mind experiments where Minsky explains how the mind works, how unthinking parts can form thoughts. It’s a much better night-time read than Climatology, and I highly recommend it to just about ‘neone, especially those with even an outside interest in psychology.
And tuba. Haven’t practiced since the day of S&E, and so I got around to jumping back on the horn yesterday. Unfortunately, I guess I wasn’t ready for it. Did my full range lip slurs, and must’ve busted my chops doing it, because I could feel some muscle in my upper-lip tighten, and just couldn’t play quite the same. Gotta build that back up again.
And UIL. No sooner do my AD coaches let me off on AD before they pick up UIL. Off-chance I might also do Calculator this year. It’s easily the most retarded thing I’ve ever done in my life (even more than reading 7 packets over and over again), but it’s one more chance to make a trip to state.
And my story blog. Gimme a week to develop characters and plot and such, and I’ll post again. Hopefully I’ll be able to stick to it, with AD out of the way. A blueprint will really speed it along.
And my friends. Holy crap, it’s crazy how much I’ve just ignored my friends to study. Had a crazy party Saturday night to blow steam and see a couple kids I really haven’t in awhile, and that was great. Go me, putting a competition ahead of people.


So we had our regional contest this past weekend, and Taylor did an amazing job. We got lots of individual medals, and came away with 1st in region and 1st in superquiz after a pretty amazing bout on the relay. We did well.
Unfortunately, that’s just one step. I normally try to avoid this, but I’ve found myself anxiously awaiting the scores from other schools. In my head, I know that the idealistic view would be to ignore them, because even though this is a competition, seeing their scores doesn’t change anything, because in any case, the team should be studying as hard as it can. Simpler said than done, of course.
I find myself in a bit of an awkward spot right now, because early in the season, I was extremely pessimistic. Now, we’re in great shape, and if no one pulls on emergency brakes, our lead foot is keeping us floored. It’s just a bit shocking to me to think that we’re where we are. I had always thought that this level of competition required students who had dedicated their lives solely to AD, studying like crazy and sleeping with a book under and on top of their pillow. While that now seems exaggerated, I am confused at exactly what it takes.
On a completely unrelated note, my old “Gillette” deodorant ran out. I’m on “Right Guard” now (in the off-chance you care, I have no brand loyalty in deodorants. It’s all about what’s on sale).
I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with me and AD right now, actually. Now that I think about it, things haven’t quite been the same since marching season ended. When it was going on, there was a lot of complaining going on, in my head if nowhere else. I told myself that after marching season finished, it would be game over. But then I was just kind of cooked. Thanksgiving came around and that was just filled with random stuff. That lead into December, where the end of the semester kind of held me off really committing, then the trip to China had its own distractions. Since I’ve gotten back to school, I’m definitely not where I should be.
I’ve heard it before, and Scott mentioned it again this weekend, but really, I seem to be more productive when time is tight. At first glance, it doesn’t make sense; I should be able to do more with more time, right? What’s really weird is that after a day like today, I look back, and I think myself productive; other than a 1/2 hr stopover in video game-land, I didn’t really not use my time. Yet in the end, it feels like I did less than I would have on a day where I got home from marching band at 630.
Apparently I’m not the only one, as I mentioned that others had related similar circumstance, but looking back at today, I’m guessing that the lost 2 hrs were on just stuff. Going between doing this and that, I might spend 10 min cleaning my room, or checking facebook, or surfing the web, or something. And I guess it adds up. Good job me, and thwarting my own attempts at productivity.

Public vow: I’m depending on everyone of you to hold me to this; AD must consume me.
Mostly. Gotta check on a vector.

Great Expectations

I was writing one of my college essays when I started thinking about how we live our lives. It always seems like we’re waiting for something to happen, looking forward to the next big event. During marching rehearsal, I’m looking forward to it being over, and while typing up college apps, I’m dying to get out of high school. We anticipate things, and when they happen, at least for me, things are kind of anti-climactic. “Thank goodness rehearsal is over”, I might hear, but what does that mean? Yeah, sure, rehearsal might not be a lot of fun at times, but clearly, we’re making a conscious decision to stay up band, suggesting that at some level we want to be out of that practice field in the heat. Or perhaps we’re just anticipating the fun we’ll have later, at the game.
Perhaps I do mean this in the “seize the day” sense. When you get to that moment, that time that you had been anticipating all that time, is it really that great that it was worth the time you spent thinking about it? By thinking about that, and not the present, we lose focus on what brilliant things are all around, and what we are doing at that time. Live in the present, for the future will never come, and if you’re going to enjoy life, live it.
Yet, in a sense, that sounds so short-sighted. If we live for the momentary enjoyment, we never think about the future and might be sacrificing the present of the future to appease ourselves now. As humans, our goal should be to better ourselves and others.
This duality may not make a whole lot of sense. So, we need to embrace the moment, yet keep our eyes on the future? Well, in my life, the most salient example right now is AD. I’m sure you’ve heard about how much work it is, and honestly, it’s all that, and more. True, perhaps I haven’t embraced the philosophy above entirely, but it is what I’m shooting for. I have to ignore the competitions, the possibility of Hawaii, or all such other things. I can’t anticipate those moments, because when they come, I will have wasted the time beforehand, too absorbed with what could be. Instead, I have to focus on the moment. Now. Studying may not be a party, but I’ve accepted that. As I like to say, “Everything that happens happens for the best, if you make it that way”.
I could plug in another couple hours to CS or some other diversion, but I have to keep an eye on the future. Everything we do is progress towards later, and the more we do, the more later is. So, why not work harder? And why not enjoy it?
My (relatively) new AD motto: Ignore the predictions, ignore Hawaii. Study more. It can’t hurt.
(And I’m sure that was all extremely incoherent and meaningless because I’m really tired, but meh. At least I enjoyed it.)

One More Thing Out of the Way…

So I’m sure that most of you know that the AD district competition was this week (well, of the ppl who actually read this). It’s been pretty sucky, until today that is.
Pretty much the entire week was hardcore studying. We seemed to have a crazy amount of afterschool crap to do, and by the time that was done, I had to get home and study for a normal test (which turned out pretty okay as well). After doing that, I had to squeeze in AD time, ended up getting several hrs less sleep than normal every day, then waking up early to go into school a bit earlier to study for AD.
I’m still wondering why I did it, since we pretty much already knew the team, but I felt empowered ‘neways.
Well, we finally get to yesterday, when we have our speech and interview at mayde (details at http://www.xanga.com/chiefooo). As for myself, my interview was probably the crappiest thing that I’ve ever done. Since I’ve come to high school, I have never EVER been nervous about this type of stuff. Region band? Whatever. Romeo & Juliet? Just get it over with. But for once, I was actually pretty nervous, for reasons I still can’t figure out. I pretty much got owned on it, just like all the subjective tests (speech, interview, and essay), which are supposed to be score pullers, not droppers. Well, they ask me some questions, and it ends up on some pretty predictable topics, but they kept going back to “What are you doing after high school”, “Where are you going to college”, “How do you plan to research what you want to do”, blah blah blah. I pretty much went flat out honest (which I now know is a terrible thing to do; in an interview, lie. It’s for the best, really), which was “I honestly have not thought about it, so I don’t know”. Now that I think about it, I think they kept asking to give me another chance to answer it how they wanted, but I guess I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I made a couple other minors mistakes (several umm’s, and I think one “like”), but that whole not knowing what to do with my life really hurt me.
Speech was interesting. If you haven’t heard my speech and happen to care ‘nething about human cognitive functions (I swear it’s much easier to understand than you think), I’ll recite it, but ya. So my speech is normally about in time (time requirement 3:30 to 4:00), even when I rush, since I normally rush. But apparently I was going superspeed at districts, even though I thought I was going slower, so I had to add on a fake sentence at the time to sneak in at 3:35. Then impromptu.
Impromptu is 3 unknown prompts (stuff like “What do you think is your greatest asset and why”, “If you could go back in time, where would you go”, or “What is the biggest problem int he world today”, but more specific) that I get to see and pick one of, and think about in 1 minute, then give a 1 1/2 to 2 min speech on it. I’m normally okay at it, managing at least to have a basic structure with relatively good fluency, but I completely blew it yesterday. There were 2 really stupid prompts, and then “Obese kids sue McD. Explain the social impact of this”, so I’m thinking, “okay, I can talk about our inability to take responsibility, our lack of willpower, our greed, how stupid americans look to other nations, etc”, and I had it all planned out in my mind. But I start talking, and I have absolutely no clue how to find the words I was looking for. I would say something like, “These children face the…. *10 sec pause*… osctracism” and so on. It was pretty darn terrible. But PAST the actual AD part of it, it was a blast in the room.
Today we had the written part of districts, which involves 7 tests in a row. Once again at Mayde, I felt that I had done less than I should have, guessing on way too many and so on, which bothered me a lot, but it ended up okay. When we got to SQ relay (the exciting part of AD where they put 5 consecutive questions up on an overhead and then you answer and get scored on the spot, then the next person on the team does the same), me and willie got lumped into the same round, both going 3/5, missing the same problems. I felt pretty good about that, since I only ended up reading half of that packet in my emergency studying during the past 2 weeks.
Well, we get back to the school, where the teachers announce the scores. David Neville totally owns, about 400 pts ahead of the next (sizable, but not THAT big; out of 10000), whom I was very proud of. Steven and Shashank are about 20 pts away from each other behind DNev, finishing out the honors spots. Me and Willie were about 200 pts behind them, with willie about 70 pts (basically nothing) behind me, both having the “alternate” spot (AKA do nothing). While I didn’t make the cut, I felt pretty good about it, scoring quite well for what I know was less than my best effort studying before. Fortunately, our team was quite congradulatory about it all, with none of the stupid drama and petty jealously that I know often plagues other organizations within the school. Kennan, Ankita, and Rodrigo (w/ Nick alternate) take the B spots, while Kosine, Alex, and Aseem made C team.
Perhaps I should be disappointed, having spent $75 and countless hours *cough cough* studying for this and worrying way too much, all for nothing, but I figure that I’ve gained something. I’ll be ready for next year.