IOL, days 1-4: We need to remove Andy's brain
posted on 2017-07-30 with tags [iol]

I'm going to the International Linguistics Olympiad! So I figured I'd document what happens along the way.

The IOL is a competition attended by nations all over the world (this year, 40 teams from 29 countries) that tests the contestants' skills of, to quote their official website, "logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners." Having somehow managed to do well enough in the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad to get on the US team, I now get to push my luck even further at Dublin, the site of this year's IOL.

But first, the US and Canada teams flew to Boston and met at MIT for a few days of practice together. (We'd been doing practices over Skype, but we'd never actually all been in the same place.) The airline somehow managed to lose my bag on a direct flight and take multiple days to return it (one of the coaches claims that there's a tradition that people who lose their bags tend to become IOL winners, which I can only hope continues), but other than that everything went fairly smoothly.

When we arrived at MIT, we fittingly spent a lot of time in the linguistics and philosophy department. In fact, we were in the very department that contained Chomsky's office:

Chomsky nameplate

Sadly, he wasn't around to see us.

We also found this sculpture, which we thought aptly suited the occasion:

MIT symbols and numbers sculpture

We spent a large portion of our time at MIT listening to various presentations about linguistics, ranging from computational linguistics and neural networks to phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Some were given by professors at MIT, some by our coaches, and all of them were decidedly fascinating.

A few of us also went on a sightseeing trip around Boston led by one of our coaches:


The trip involved crossing Harvard Bridge ("it's called Harvard Bridge because no MIT students would build such an ugly bridge," according to a coach), with its idiosyncratic unit of measurement:

Smoot plaque

After crossing the bridge, we went on to visit Boston Common:

Boston Common

Other than the talks and the sightseeing, we played some board and card games and also did a full IOL team problem in our actual teams as practice. The one we did was 2011, Sanskrit Poetry, which was... an unusual one, to say the least. (Of course, it helped that one of the prior lectures was dedicated entirely to poetry.) In the case of USA Red, we learned that we are apparently incapable of counting; the problem requested that we name syllables by number, and it took a worryingly long time for us to finally settle on whether a certain syllable was the eighth or ninth one.

We got our t-shirts, too!

USA red t-shirt

This was my design, although it went through about a hundred iterations before approaching anything near something decent. Here's the team blue shirt, except as the original design instead of an extremely low quality picture:

USA blue t-shirt

Some other highlights:

Coach: "I'm passing around this IPA chart, so if you want anything from CVS just write it on the back."

One of my teammates: "We need to remove Andy's brain."

(This was during a game of Fluxx, at a point where the goal was to obtain the brain card as well as another card, and I had the brain card.)

Coach: "Undergrads talking to graduate students talking to professors... it's like a multilayer network."
Some people: (turn to look at him)
Coach: "And then there's backpropogation."
More people: (turn and look)
Coach: "It's called graduate student descent."
Everyone: (bursts out laughing)

(For context, this is the same coach who gave us a presentation about neural networks the day before.)

Airport employee: "So, what sport do you all play?"

Coach's daughter: "I want to take a picture of that sign, but I'm literally not allowed to."

(This is referring to one of the first Irish words we saw upon arriving in Dublin. It was a sign that said "No photography," and the Irish translation was "Cosc ar ghrianghrafadóireacht.")

I'll leave you with this mysteriously flat building we passed on the way to the airport:

weirdly flat building

Tomorrow is the first actual day of the IOL, its main highlight being the opening ceremony. I'm writing this right before we have dinner with all the other teams that have arrived so far. We've met Team Sweden already, since they came from the airport with us (effortlessly switching between Swedish and English, of course, much to my monolingual chagrin), and as mentioned we've been working with Team Canada. But in general, I'm feeling both incredibly excited for IOL and incredibly terrified at actually participating in it!