Shanghai, Daejeon, Go

Lots of traveling and intensity.

  • Just finished a trip to Dartmouth where I gave a talk and did some collaborations. Dartmouth is, like Stanford, a fantasy land that one can live in, but seems utterly different from the surrounding community. Best phrase learned during the trip (from Sylvester Gates): “sports is men’s version of gossip.”
  • Started shooting around / doing drills at the neighborhood basketball court in mornings when I miss sprints (due to class preparation/sprint-specific pain, etc.). Supplemented by stealing moves from basketball videos and challenging people to one-on-one. Mikan drills have been really good for getting the left-hand.
  • just had another successful year of SPARC, with higher-profile guest speakers (Dustin Moskovitz and Scott Aaronson); 35 kids felt a lot more manageable than the 40 last year. I felt surprisingly less important this year, which is a good thing. I should hopefully be completely replaceable in the next 3 years. (my replaceability is a good trait for SPARC to have; this is orthogonal with my own wishes to stay with SPARC)

Life Savoring: Shanghai and Daejeon

  • I had not been in China for 20 years, so it was fairly emotional being back for the first time. Basically everyone thought I was Japanese in the first five minutes, though Korean would have been a better guess for them.
  • All the intellectuals I’ve talked to were lamenting about the lack of a “soul” in modern Chinese society, and had really weird views/curiosity about black people in the US, the kind which Americans would have about kangaroos.
  • One of my hosts was super-energetic and friendly, even to me being a stranger, in a way atypical of Chinese, which (the atypical part) reminded me of myself and my difficulties fitting in anywhere in society, having to straddle different cultures (she spent many years in Germany). I overheard people mocking her for basically being non-lady-like. She gave me a book as a present, which was a travelogue written by a Chinese girl who quit her finance job from Europe to go for a half-year trip around all of South America, so I can see what kind of heroes she has. She and her heroine give me hope that there are fresh personalities in young Chinese intellectuals, after all.
  • one of my most memorable interactions was seeing a dude on the subway holding an Audrey Hepburn book in his left hand and excitedly teaching English tenses and ways to memorize English mechanics to his friend. After his friend left, I asked him if he were an English teacher. Turns out he was a train mechanic, but English was his “hobby.”
  • South Korea’s got Seoul, but I didn’t get to see much of it, having spent most of my time in the low-key Daejeon. (my best comparison would be Stamford, Connecticut)
  • I felt like South Korea was the average of China and Japan in many ways (service, cleanliness, physical coordinates…) which was an observation my Korean friends were disgruntled about but did not disagree with. I’ve said the same about Taiwan, so I guess South Korea = Taiwan.
  • We played some pickup ultimate with locals, and met two American girls working in Daejeon this way (I totally ran one of them over while going for the disc too. Sorry!). They taught us a lot of drinking games (apparently drinking games are very organized and consistent across South Korea) and expectations. I found it particularly amusing that they were expected to act “demure” in professional outings, but otherwise they could get away with faux pas more than the average Korean women (gaijin smash!!!). They said the worst treatment is reserved for the Asian-looking foreigners (like me!) who don’t fit in culturally but have much higher expectations put on them due to their hair color. I was told to not to try to find a job there.
  • Still superconfused on why South Koreans are so damn good at all games. I’m usually a “culture over nature” supporter, but they are so consistent across all games that they like (and the best general game learners I know tend to be South Korean) that something is puzzling. Baduk TV (a TV channel that covers Go 24 hours a day) explains some of their incredible Go strength away, but I still feel I’m missing something.

Skill Extraction: Go

  • I think I can finally call myself an 1-dan at Go now (at least on average; my worst moves are still about 20 kyu), after about 900 (+/-100) hours lifetime. Some of the recent skills (focusing in critical moments, switching rapidly between strategic and tactical thinking in real-time) has been generalizable. It’s a great game and I recommend it to most people (as opposed to, Poker, which I also think is great but I recommend to very few people).
  • Two long-term goals now would be to get to 5-dan, which is something like being a “master” in Chess and a high amateur accomplishment, and thinking about Go AI. Currently predicting Go AI will beat top humans in 5 years.
  • Over the summer, as a (mostly for fun and sanity from the paper writing) side project, I decided to play some strategy games (mostly a mod for Civilization IV and Rebuild 3 for iPad) with a deliberate attempt to use Go-like thinking. I ended up raising a whole level of strength (somewhere between Monarch and Emperor) on the Civ 4 mod and coasting on the highest difficulty for Rebuild 3 (Then again, Rebuild 2, which I played 2 years ago, probably gave me a lot of strength for rebuild 3 so this observation is not that impressive).
  • I think the main useful heuristics are “play in a way that all your resources are doing the most work” and “once a resource has done its work, don’t be married to it.” A lot of mastery is involved in massaging the delicate democracy of these two often-opposing heuristics. (the way to compromise the two is that a strategy may optimize the expected “work” done by a move, but in the actual branch of the game being played it is not important for the move to always be locally optimal for later moves. For example, locally in warfare the most efficient work done by a mine may be to blow up a tank, but the benefit of the mine is already done even if the tank waltzs around the mine and the mine remains unused, as the tank has suffered in manueverability, options, and speed)
  • The Berkeley/SF Go community is a strange one – unlike my stereotypes of chess, the strongest members in the Berkeley Go Club are very “liberal artsy” people with very different intellectual and socio-economic backgrounds from the second-rate members (myself included) who are more stereotypically higher-educated, math-minded, etc. I don’t know how generalizable this observation is.
  • I’ve always found the idea of “strength” at a game clumsy, since a strength is a summary statistic but people treat it as the real thing from which other aspects of your game are derived. (example: people being surprised that you don’t know a particular thing at your “level” while knowing something else that’s too high for your level, whereas I just think of this in the same way I think the mean of a distribution tells very little about the distribution itself) This reminds me again of Naive Bayes vs Noisy-Or classification algorithms (and fundamental attribution error). It just seems so easy to reduce other people to numbers!


  • On Teaching, Y. brought up a confusion about whether it makes sense to make sure students know fundamental concepts or breeze ahead and backfill (grad school tends to advocate the second, undergrad the first). I think this is mainly dependent on how “urgent” things are. (Grad school timelines are strangely “urgent” since it takes a long time to really master something) Alec poignantly pointed out that the problem with trying a lot of teaching tactics is inherent in the fact that students will try to game whatever structure you give them because there is a game, not the particulars of the game you set up. If so (and I’m updating towards this), how to fight this inherent game? (well, maybe Sprout is the answer =D)
  • On saying “No,” D. (and a few others) have recommendations along the lines of putting a (fair) bit of work back on the asker to make the task easier for you (and so they can show that they are willing to do the work). A good example is asking people for specific ways to help you write their email that they are asking you to write, etc. I think this is a fair and efficient way of doing things. Delegation was also a common suggestion, and I think I should learn more about doing it since I do have friends who are wonderfully good at different things. Eventually, maybe my main value add will just be helping people network, as much as I myself want to be good at those things. =) I particularly like the remark “basically all thoughtful high achievers have hero or martyr complexes to some degree.”
  • On Negotiation, S. recommends thinking hard about the kind of value the other party wants and communicating it. I think feeling out what things people tend to want has been hard for me (because SPARC is weird), but I am definitely working harder in this direction. N. also talked about the importance of understanding the other side’s utility function, so I think it is pretty cool that these (and other) responses seem to have in common the data gathering phase on really understanding what the other party wants (empathy on an institutional level may be a good way of thinking about it)
  • I do want to reiterate that I read and think hard about every one of your responses, even if I don’t mention them here! Thanks to everyone!

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