Some Thoughts on Olympiad Material Design

(This is a bit of a follow-up to the solution reading post last month. Spoiler warnings: USAMO 2014/6, USAMO 2012/2, TSTST 2016/4, and hints for ELMO 2013/1, IMO 2016/2.)

I want to say a little about the process which I use to design my olympiad handouts and classes these days (and thus by extension the way I personally think about problems). The short summary is that my teaching style is centered around showing connections and recurring themes between problems.

Now let me explain this in more detail.

1. Main ideas

Solutions to olympiad problems can look quite different from one another at a surface level, but typically they center around one or two main ideas, as I describe in my post on reading solutions. Because details are easy to work out once you have the main idea, as far as learning is concerned you can more or less throw away the details and pay most of your attention to main ideas.

Thus whenever I solve an olympiad problem, I make a deliberate effort to summarize the solution in a few sentences, such that I basically know how to do it from there. I also make a deliberate effort, whenever I write up a solution in my notes, to structure it so that my future self can see all the key ideas at a glance and thus be able to understand the general path of the solution immediately.

The example I’ve previously mentioned is USAMO 2014/6.

Example 1 (USAMO 2014, Gabriel Dospinescu)

Prove that there is a constant {c>0} with the following property: If {a, b, n} are positive integers such that {\gcd(a+i, b+j)>1} for all {i, j \in \{0, 1, \dots, n\}}, then

\displaystyle  \min\{a, b\}> (cn)^n.

If you look at any complete solution to the problem, you will see a lot of technical estimates involving {\zeta(2)} and the like. But the main idea is very simple: “consider an {N \times N} table of primes and note the small primes cannot adequately cover the board, since {\sum p^{-2} < \frac{1}{2}}”. Once you have this main idea the technical estimates are just the grunt work that you force yourself to do if you’re a contestant (and don’t do if you’re retired like me).

Thus the study of olympiad problems is reduced to the study of main ideas behind these problems.

2. Taxonomy

So how do we come up with the main ideas? Of course I won’t be able to answer this question completely, because therein lies most of the difficulty of olympiads.

But I do have some progress in this way. It comes down to seeing how main ideas are similar to each other. I spend a lot of time trying to classify the main ideas into categories or themes, based on how similar they feel to one another. If I see one theme pop up over and over, then I can make it into a class.

I think olympiad taxonomy is severely underrated, and generally not done correctly. The status quo is that people do bucket sorts based on the particular technical details which are present in the problem. This is correlated with the main ideas, but the two do not always coincide.

An example where technical sort works okay is Euclidean geometry. Here is a simple example: harmonic bundles in projective geometry. As I explain in my book, there are a few “basic” configurations involved:

  • Midpoints and parallel lines
  • The Ceva / Menelaus configuration
  • Harmonic quadrilateral / symmedian configuration
  • Apollonian circle (right angle and bisectors)

(For a reference, see Lemmas 2, 4, 5 and Exercise 0 here.) Thus from experience, any time I see one of these pictures inside the current diagram, I think to myself that “this problem feels projective”; and if there is a way to do so I try to use harmonic bundles on it.

An example where technical sort fails is the “pigeonhole principle”. A typical problem in such a class looks something like USAMO 2012/2.

Example 2 (USAMO 2012, Gregory Galperin)

A circle is divided into congruent arcs by {432} points. The points are colored in four colors such that some {108} points are colored Red, some {108} points are colored Green, some {108} points are colored Blue, and the remaining {108} points are colored Yellow. Prove that one can choose three points of each color in such a way that the four triangles formed by the chosen points of the same color are congruent.

It’s true that the official solution uses the words “pigeonhole principle” but that is not really the heart of the matter; the key idea is that you consider all possible rotations and count the number of incidences. (In any case, such calculations are better done using expected value anyways.)

Now why is taxonomy a good thing for learning and teaching? The reason is that building connections and seeing similarities is most easily done by simultaneously presenting several related problems. I’ve actually mentioned this already in a different blog post, but let me give the demonstration again.

Suppose I wrote down the following:

\displaystyle  \begin{array}{lll} A1 & B11 & C8 \\ A9 & B44 & C27 \\ A49 & B33 & C343 \\ A16 & B99 & C1 \\ A25 & B22 & C125 \end{array}

You can tell what each of the {A}‘s, {B}‘s, {C}‘s have in common by looking for a few moments. But what happens if I intertwine them?

\displaystyle  \begin{array}{lllll} B11 & C27 & C343 & A1 & A9 \\ C125 & B33 & A49 & B44 & A25 \\ A16 & B99 & B22 & C8 & C1 \end{array}

This is the same information, but now you have to work much harder to notice the association between the letters and the numbers they’re next to.

This is why, if you are an olympiad student, I strongly encourage you to keep a journal or blog of the problems you’ve done. Solving olympiad problems takes lots of time and so it’s worth it to spend at least a few minutes jotting down the main ideas. And once you have enough of these, you can start to see new connections between problems you haven’t seen before, rather than being confined to thinking about individual problems in isolation. (Additionally, it means you will never have redo problems to which you forgot the solution — learn from my mistake here.)

3. Ten buckets of geometry

I want to elaborate more on geometry in general. These days, if I see a solution to a Euclidean geometry problem, then I mentally store the problem and solution into one (or more) buckets. I can even tell you what my buckets are:

  1. Direct angle chasing
  2. Power of a point / radical axis
  3. Homothety, similar triangles, ratios
  4. Recognizing some standard configuration (see Yufei for a list)
  5. Doing some length calculations
  6. Complex numbers
  7. Barycentric coordinates
  8. Inversion
  9. Harmonic bundles or pole/polar and homography
  10. Spiral similarity, Miquel points

which my dedicated fans probably recognize as the ten chapters of my textbook. (Problems may also fall in more than one bucket if for example they are difficult and require multiple key ideas, or if there are multiple solutions.)

Now whenever I see a new geometry problem, the diagram will often “feel” similar to problems in a certain bucket. Exactly what I mean by “feel” is hard to formalize — it’s a certain gut feeling that you pick up by doing enough examples. There are some things you can say, such as “problems which feature a central circle and feet of altitudes tend to fall in bucket 6”, or “problems which only involve incidence always fall in bucket 9”. But it seems hard to come up with an exhaustive list of hard rules that will do better than human intuition.

4. How do problems feel?

But as I said in my post on reading solutions, there are deeper lessons to teach than just technical details.

For examples of themes on opposite ends of the spectrum, let’s move on to combinatorics. Geometry is quite structured and so the themes in the main ideas tend to translate to specific theorems used in the solution. Combinatorics is much less structured and many of the themes I use in combinatorics cannot really be formalized. (Consequently, since everyone else seems to mostly teach technical themes, several of the combinatorics themes I teach are idiosyncratic, and to my knowledge are not taught by anyone else.)

For example, one of the unusual themes I teach is called Global. It’s about the idea that to solve a problem, you can just kind of “add up everything at once”, for example using linearity of expectation, or by double-counting, or whatever. In particular these kinds of approach ignore the “local” details of the problem. It’s hard to make this precise, so I’ll just give two recent examples.

Example 3 (ELMO 2013, Ray Li)

Let {a_1,a_2,\dots,a_9} be nine real numbers, not necessarily distinct, with average {m}. Let {A} denote the number of triples {1 \le i < j < k \le 9} for which {a_i + a_j + a_k \ge 3m}. What is the minimum possible value of {A}?

Example 4 (IMO 2016)

Find all integers {n} for which each cell of {n \times n} table can be filled with one of the letters {I}, {M} and {O} in such a way that:

  • In each row and column, one third of the entries are {I}, one third are {M} and one third are {O}; and
  • in any diagonal, if the number of entries on the diagonal is a multiple of three, then one third of the entries are {I}, one third are {M} and one third are {O}.

If you look at the solutions to these problems, they have the same “feeling” of adding everything up, even though the specific techniques are somewhat different (double-counting for the former, diagonals modulo {3} for the latter). Nonetheless, my experience with problems similar to the former was immensely helpful for the latter, and it’s why I was able to solve the IMO problem.

5. Gaps

This perspective also explains why I’m relatively bad at functional equations. There are some things I can say that may be useful (see my handouts), but much of the time these are just technical tricks. (When sorting functional equations in my head, I have a bucket called “standard fare” meaning that you “just do work”; as far I can tell this bucket is pretty useless.) I always feel stupid teaching functional equations, because I never have many good insights to say.

Part of the reason is that functional equations often don’t have a main idea at all. Consequently it’s hard for me to do useful taxonomy on them.

Then sometimes you run into something like the windmill problem, the solution of which is fairly “novel”, not being similar to problems that come up in training. I have yet to figure out a good way to train students to be able to solve windmill-like problems.

6. Surprise

I’ll close by mentioning one common way I come up with a theme.

Sometimes I will run across an olympiad problem {P} which I solve quickly, and think should be very easy, and yet once I start grading {P} I find that the scores are much lower than I expected. Since the way I solve problems is by drawing experience from similar previous problems, this must mean that I’ve subconsciously found a general framework to solve problems like {P}, which is not obvious to my students yet. So if I can put my finger on what that framework is, then I have something new to say.

The most recent example I can think of when this happened was TSTST 2016/4 which was given last June (and was also a very elegant problem, at least in my opinion).

Example 5 (TSTST 2016, Linus Hamilton)

Let {n > 1} be a positive integers. Prove that we must apply the Euler {\varphi} function at least {\log_3 n} times before reaching {1}.

I solved this problem very quickly when we were drafting the TSTST exam, figuring out the solution while walking to dinner. So I was quite surprised when I looked at the scores for the problem and found out that empirically it was not that easy.

After I thought about this, I have a new tentative idea. You see, when doing this problem I really was thinking about “what does this {\varphi} operation do?”. You can think of {n} as an infinite tuple

\displaystyle  \left(\nu_2(n), \nu_3(n), \nu_5(n), \nu_7(n), \dots \right)

of prime exponents. Then the {\varphi} can be thought of as an operation which takes each nonzero component, decreases it by one, and then adds some particular vector back. For example, if {\nu_7(n) > 0} then {\nu_7} is decreased by one and each of {\nu_2(n)} and {\nu_3(n)} are increased by one. In any case, if you look at this behavior for long enough you will see that the {\nu_2} coordinate is a natural way to “track time” in successive {\varphi} operations; once you figure this out, getting the bound of {\log_3 n} is quite natural. (Details left as exercise to reader.)

Now when I read through the solutions, I found that many of them had not really tried to think of the problem in such a “structured” way, and had tried to directly solve it by for example trying to prove {\varphi(n) \ge n/3} (which is false) or something similar to this. I realized that had the students just ignored the task “prove {n \le 3^k}” and spent some time getting a better understanding of the {\varphi} structure, they would have had a much better chance at solving the problem. Why had I known that structural thinking would be helpful? I couldn’t quite explain it, but it had something to do with the fact that the “main object” of the question was “set in stone”; there was no “degrees of freedom” in it, and it was concrete enough that I felt like I could understand it. Once I understood how multiple {\varphi} operations behaved, the bit about {\log_3 n} almost served as an “answer extraction” mechanism.

These thoughts led to the recent development of a class which I named Rigid, which is all about problems where the point is not to immediately try to prove what the question asks for, but to first step back and understand completely how a particular rigid structure (like the {\varphi} in this problem) behaves, and to then solve the problem using this understanding.

On Reading Solutions

(Ed Note: This was earlier posted under the incorrect title “On Designing Olympiad Training”. How I managed to mess that up is a long story involving some incompetence with Python scripts, but this is fixed now.)

Spoiler warnings: USAMO 2014/1, and hints for Putnam 2014 A4 and B2. You may want to work on these problems yourself before reading this post.

1. An Apology

At last year’s USA IMO training camp, I prepared a handout on writing/style for the students at MOP. One of the things I talked about was the “ocean-crossing point”, which for our purposes you can think of as the discrete jump from a problem being “essentially not solved” ({0+}) to “essentially solved” ({7-}). The name comes from a Scott Aaronson post:

Suppose your friend in Boston blindfolded you, drove you around for twenty minutes, then took the blindfold off and claimed you were now in Beijing. Yes, you do see Chinese signs and pagoda roofs, and no, you can’t immediately disprove him — but based on your knowledge of both cars and geography, isn’t it more likely you’re just in Chinatown? . . . We start in Boston, we end up in Beijing, and at no point is anything resembling an ocean ever crossed.

I then gave two examples of how to write a solution to the following example problem.

Problem 1 (USAMO 2014)

Let {a}, {b}, {c}, {d} be real numbers such that {b-d \ge 5} and all zeros {x_1}, {x_2}, {x_3}, and {x_4} of the polynomial {P(x)=x^4+ax^3+bx^2+cx+d} are real. Find the smallest value the product

\displaystyle  (x_1^2+1)(x_2^2+1)(x_3^2+1)(x_4^2+1)

can take.

Proof: (Not-so-good write-up) Since {x_j^2+1 = (x+i)(x-i)} for every {j=1,2,3,4} (where {i=\sqrt{-1}}), we get {\prod_{j=1}^4 (x_j^2+1) = \prod_{j=1}^4 (x_j+i)(x_j-i) = P(i)P(-i)} which equals to {|P(i)|^2 = (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2}. If {x_1 = x_2 = x_3 = x_4 = 1} this is {16} and {b-d = 5}. Also, {b-d \ge 5}, this is {\ge 16}. \Box

Proof: (Better write-up) The answer is {16}. This can be achieved by taking {x_1 = x_2 = x_3 = x_4 = 1}, whence the product is {2^4 = 16}, and {b-d = 5}.

Now, we prove this is a lower bound. Let {i = \sqrt{-1}}. The key observation is that

\displaystyle  \prod_{j=1}^4 \left( x_j^2 + 1 \right) 		= \prod_{j=1}^4 (x_j - i)(x_j + i) 		= P(i)P(-i).

Consequently, we have

\displaystyle  \begin{aligned} 		\left( x_1^2 + 1 \right) 		\left( x_2^2 + 1 \right) 		\left( x_3^2 + 1 \right) 		\left( x_1^2 + 1 \right) 		&= (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2 \\ 		&\ge (5-1)^2 + 0^2 = 16. 	\end{aligned}

This proves the lower bound. \Box

You’ll notice that it’s much easier to see the key idea in the second solution: namely,

\displaystyle  \prod_j (x_j^2+1) = P(i)P(-i) = (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2

which allows you use the enigmatic condition {b-d \ge 5}.

Unfortunately I have the following confession to make:

In practice, most solutions are written more like the first one than the second one.

The truth is that writing up solutions is sort of a chore that people never really want to do but have to — much like washing dishes. So must solutions won’t be written in a way that helps you learn from them. This means that when you read solutions, you should assume that the thing you really want (i.e., the ocean-crossing point) is buried somewhere amidst a haystack of other unimportant details.

2. Diff

But in practice even the “better write-up” I mentioned above still has too much information in it.

Suppose you were explaining how to solve this problem to a friend. You would probably not start your explanation by saying that the minimum is {16}, achieved by {x_1 = x_2 = x_3 = x_4 = 1} — even though this is indeed a logically necessary part of the solution. Instead, the first thing you would probably tell them is to notice that

\displaystyle  \prod_{j=1}^4 \left( x_j^2 + 1 \right) = P(i)P(-i) 	= (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2 \ge 4^2 = 16.

In fact, if your friend has been working on the problem for more than ten minutes, this is probably the only thing you need to tell them. They probably already figured out by themselves that there was a good chance the answer would be {2^4 = 16}, just based on the condition {b-d \ge 5}. This “one-liner” is all that they need to finish the problem. You don’t need to spell out to them the rest of the details.

When you explain a problem to a friend in this way, you’re communicating just the difference: the one or two sentences such that your friend could work out the rest of the details themselves with these directions. When reading the solution yourself, you should try to extract the main idea in the same way. Olympiad problems generally have only a few main ideas in them, from which the rest of the details can be derived. So reading the solution should feel much like searching for a needle in a haystack.

3. Don’t Read Line by Line

In particular: you should rarely read most of the words in the solution, and you should almost never read every word of the solution.

Whenever I read solutions to problems I didn’t solve, I often read less than 10% of the words in the solution. Instead I search aggressively for the one or two sentences which tell me the key step that I couldn’t find myself. (Functional equations are the glaring exception to this rule, since in these problems there sometimes isn’t any main idea other than “stumble around randomly”, and the steps really are all about equally important. But this is rarer than you might guess.)

I think a common mistake students make is to treat the solution as a sequence of logical steps: that is, reading the solution line by line, and then verifying that each line follows from the previous ones. This seems to entirely miss the point, because not all lines are created equal, and most lines can be easily derived once you figure out the main idea.

If you find that the only way that you can understand the solution is reading it step by step, then the problem may simply be too hard for you. This is because what counts as “details” and “main ideas” are relative to the absolute difficulty of the problem. Here’s an example of what I mean: the solution to a USAMO 3/6 level geometry problem, call it {P}, might look as follows.

Proof: First, we prove lemma {L_1}. (Proof of {L_1}, which is USAMO 1/4 level.)

Then, we prove lemma {L_2}. (Proof of {L_2}, which is USAMO 1/4 level.)

Finally, we remark that putting together {L_1} and {L_2} solves the problem. \Box

Likely the main difficulty of {P} is actually finding {L_1} and {L_2}. So a very experienced student might think of the sub-proofs {L_i} as “easy details”. But younger students might find {L_i} challenging in their own right, and be unable to solve the problem even after being told what the lemmas are: which is why it is hard for them to tell that {\{L_1, L_2\}} were the main ideas to begin with. In that case, the problem {P} is probably way over their head.

This is also why it doesn’t make sense to read solutions to problems which you have not worked on at all — there are often details, natural steps and notation, et cetera which are obvious to you if and only if you have actually tried the problem for a little while yourself.

4. Reflection

The earlier sections describe how to extract the main idea of an olympiad solution. This is neat because instead of having to remember an entire solution, you only need to remember a few sentences now, and it gives you a good understanding of the solution at hand.

But this still isn’t achieving your ultimate goal in learning: you are trying to maximize your scores on future problems. Unless you are extremely fortunate, you will probably never see the exact same problem on an exam again.

So one question you should often ask is:

“How could I have thought of that?”

(Or in my case, “how could I train a student to think of this?”.)

There are probably some surface-level skills that you can pick out of this. The lowest hanging fruit is things that are technical. A small number of examples, with varying amounts of depth:

  • This problem is “purely projective”, so we can take a projective transformation!
  • This problem had a segment {AB} with midpoint {M}, and a line {\ell} parallel to {AB}, so I should consider projecting {(AB;M\infty)} through a point on {\ell}.
  • Drawing a grid of primes is the only real idea in this problem, and the rest of it is just calculations.
  • This main claim is easy to guess since in some small cases, the frogs have “violating points” in a large circle.
  • In this problem there are {n} numbers on a circle, {n} odd. The counterexamples for {n} even alternate up and down, which motivates proving that no three consecutive numbers are in sorted order.
  • This is a juggling problem!

(Brownie points if any contest enthusiasts can figure out which problems I’m talking about in this list!)

5. Learn Philosophy, not Formalism

But now I want to point out that the best answers to the above question are often not formalizable. Lists of triggers and actions are “cheap forms of understanding”, because going through a list of methods will only get so far.

On the other hand, the un-formalizable philosophy that you can extract from reading a question, is part of that legendary “intuition” that people are always talking about: you can’t describe it in words, but it’s certainly there. Maybe I would even be better if I reframed the question as:

“What does this problem feel like?”

So let’s talk about our feelings. Here is David Yang’s take on it:

Whenever you see a problem you really like, store it (and the solution) in your mind like a cherished memory . . . The point of this is that you will see problems which will remind you of that problem despite having no obvious relation. You will not be able to say concretely what the relation is, but think a lot about it and give a name to the common aspect of the two problems. Eventually, you will see new problems for which you feel like could also be described by that name.

Do this enough, and you will have a very powerful intuition that cannot be described easily concretely (and in particular, that nobody else will have).

This itself doesn’t make sense without an example, so here is an example of one philosophy I’ve developed. Here are two problems on Putnam 2014:

Problem 2 (Putnam 2014 A4)

Suppose {X} is a random variable that takes on only nonnegative integer values, with {\mathbb E[X] = 1}, {\mathbb E[X^2] = 2}, and {\mathbb E[X^3] = 5}. Determine the smallest possible value of the probability of the event {X=0}.

Problem 3 (Putnam 2014 B2)

Suppose that {f} is a function on the interval {[1,3]} such that {-1\le f(x)\le 1} for all {x} and

\displaystyle  \int_1^3 f(x) \; dx=0.

How large can {\int_1^3 \frac{f(x)}{x} \; dx} be?

At a glance there seems to be nearly no connection between these problems. One of them is a combinatorics/algebra question, and the other is an integral. Moreover, if you read the official solutions or even my own write-ups, you will find very little in common joining them.

Yet it turns out that these two problems do have something in common to me, which I’ll try to describe below. My thought process in solving either question went as follows:

In both problems, I was able to quickly make a good guess as to what the optimal {X}/{f} was, and then come up with a heuristic explanation (not a proof) why that guess had to be correct, namely, “by smoothing, you should put all the weight on the left”. Let me call this optimal argument {A}.

That conjectured {A} gave a numerical answer to the actual problem: but for both of these problems, it turns out that numerical answer is completely uninteresting, as are the exact details of {A}. It should be philosophically be interpreted as “this is the number that happens to pop out when you plug in the optimal choice”. And indeed that’s what both solutions feel like. These solutions don’t actually care what the exact values of {A} are, they only care about the properties that made me think they were optimal in the first place.

I gave this philosophy the name Equality, with poster description “problems where looking at the equality case is important”. This text description feels more or less useless to me; I suppose it’s the thought that counts. But ever since I came up with this name, it has helped me solve new problems that come up, because they would give me the same feeling that these two problems did.

Two more examples of these themes that I’ve come up with are Global and Rigid, which will be described in a future post on how I design training materials.

Against the “Research vs. Olympiads” Mantra

There’s a Mantra that you often hear in math contest discussions: “math olympiads are very different from math research”. (For known instances, see O’Neil, Tao, and more. More neutral stances: Monks, Xu.)

It’s true. And I wish people would stop saying it.

Every time I’ve heard the Mantra, it set off a little red siren in my head: something felt wrong. And I could never figure out quite why until last July. There was some (silly) forum discussion about how Allen Liu had done extraordinarily on math contests over the past year. Then someone says:

A: Darn, what math problem can he not do?!

B: I’ll go out on a limb and say that the answer to this is “most of the problems worth asking.” We’ll see where this stands in two years, at which point the answer will almost certainly change, but research \neq Olympiads.

Then it hit me.

Ping-pong vs. Tennis

Let’s try the following thought experiment. Consider a world-class ping-pong player, call her Sarah. She has a fan-base talking about her pr0 ping-pong skills. Then someone comes along as says:

Well, table tennis isn’t the same as tennis.

To which I and everyone else reasonable would say, “uh, so what?”. It’s true, but totally irrelevant; ping-pong and tennis are just not related. Maybe Sarah will be better than average at tennis, but there’s no reason to expect her to be world-class in that too.

And yet we say exactly the same thing for olympiads versus research. Someone wins the IMO, out pops the Mantra. Even if the Mantra is true when taken literally, it’s implicitly sending the message there’s something wrong with being good at contests and not good at research.

So now I ask: just what is wrong with that? To answer this question, I first need to answer: “what is math?”.

There’s been a trick played with this debate, and you can’t see it unless you taboo the word “math”. The word “math” can refer to a bunch of things, like:

  • Training for contest problems like USAMO/IMO, or
  • Learning undergraduate/graduate materials like algebra and analysis, or
  • Working on open problems and conjectures (“research”).

So here’s the trick. The research community managed to claim the name “math”, leaving only “math contests” for the olympiad community. Now the sentence

“Math contests should be relevant to math”

seems totally innocuous. But taboo the world “math”, and you get

“Olympiads should be relevant to research”

and then you notice something’s wrong. In other words, since “math” is a substring of “math contests”, it suddenly seems like the olympiads are subordinate to research. All because of an accident in naming.

Since when? Everyone agrees that olympiads and research are different things, but it does not then follow that “olympiads are useless”. Even if ping-pong is called “table tennis”, that doesn’t mean the top ping-pong players are somehow inferior to top tennis players. (And the scary thing is that in a world without the name “ping-pong”, I can imagine some people actually thinking so.)

I think for many students, olympiads do a lot of good, independent of any value to future math research. Math olympiads give high school students something interesting to work on, and even the training process for a contest such that the IMO carries valuable life lessons: it teaches you how to work hard even in the face of possible failure, and what it’s like to be competitive at an international level (i.e. what it’s like to become really good at something after years of hard work). The peer group that math contests give is also wonderful, and quite similar to the kind of people you’d meet at a top-tier university (and in some cases, they’re more or less the same people). And the problem solving ability you gain from math contests is indisputably helpful elsewhere in life. Consequently, I’m well on record as saying the biggest benefits of math contests have nothing to do with math.

There are also more mundane (but valid) reasons (they help get students out of the classroom, and other standard blurbs about STEM and so on). And as a matter of taste I also think contest problems are interesting and beautiful in their own right. You could even try to make more direct comparisons (for example, I’d guess the average arXiv paper in algebraic geometry gets less attention than the average IMO geometry problem), but that’s a point for another blog post entirely.

The Right and Virtuous Path

Which now leads me to what I think is a culture issue.

MOP alumni prior to maybe 2010 or so were classified into two groups. They would either go on to math research, which was somehow seen as the “right and virtuous path“, or they would defect to software/finance/applied math/etc. Somehow there is always this implicit, unspoken message that the smart MOPpers do math research and the dumb MOPpers drop out.

I’ll tell you how I realized why I didn’t like the Mantra: it’s because the only time I hear the Mantra is when someone is belittling olympiad medalists.

The Mantra says that the USA winning the IMO is no big deal. The Mantra says Allen Liu isn’t part of the “smart club” until he succeeds in research too. The Mantra says that the countless time and energy put into running each year’s MOP are a waste of time. The Mantra says that the students who eventually drop out of math research are “not actually good at math” and “just good at taking tests”. The Mantra even tells outsiders that they, too, can be great researchers, because olympiads are useless anyways.

The Mantra is math research’s recruiting slogan.

And I think this is harmful. The purpose of olympiads was never to produce more math researchers. If it’s really the case that olympiads and research are totally different, then we should expect relatively few olympiad students to go into research; yet in practice, a lot of them do. I think one could make a case that a lot of the past olympiad students are going into math research without realizing that they’re getting into something totally unrelated, just because the sign at the door said “math”. One could also make a case that it’s very harmful for those that don’t do research, or try research and then decide they don’t like it: suddenly these students don’t think they’re “good at math” any more, they’re not smart enough be a mathematician, etc.

But we need this kind of problem-solving skill and talent too much for it to all be spent on computing R(6,6). Richard Rusczyk’s take from Math Prize for Girls 2014 is:

When people ask me, am I disappointed when my students don’t go off and be mathematicians, my answer is I’d be very disappointed if they all did. We need people who can think about these complex problems and solve really hard problems they haven’t seen before everywhere. It’s not just in math, it’s not just in the sciences, it’s not just in medicine — I mean, what we’d give to get some of them in Congress!

Academia is a fine career, but there’s tons of other options out there: the research community may denounce those who switch out as failures, but I’m sure society will take them with open arms.

To close, I really like this (sarcastic) comment from Steven Karp (near bottom):

Contest math is inaccessible to over 90% of people as it is, and then we’re supposed to tell those that get it that even that isn’t real math? While we’re at it, let’s tell Vi Hart to stop making videos because they don’t accurately represent math research.

Addendums (response to comments)

Thanks first of all for the many long and thoughtful comments from everyone (both here, on Facebook, in private, and so on). It’s given me a lot to think about.

Here’s my responses to some of the points that were raised, which is necessarily incomplete because of the volume of discussion.

  1. To start off, it was suggested I should explicitly clarify: I do not mean to imply that people who didn’t do well on contests cannot do well in math research. So let me say that now.

  2. My favorite comment that I got was that in fact this whole post pattern matches with bravery debates.

    On one hand you have lots of olympiad students who actually FEEL BAD about winning medals because they “weren’t doing real math”. But on the other hand there are students whose parents tell them to not pursue math as a major or career because of low contest scores. These students (and their parents) would benefit a lot from the Mantra; so I concede that there are indeed good use cases of the Mantra (such as those that Anonymous Chicken, betaveros describe below) and in particular the Mantra is not intrinsically bad.

    Which of these use is the “common use” probably depends on which tribes you are part of (guess which one I see more?). It’s interesting in that in this case, the two sides actually agree on the basic fact (that contests and research are not so correlated).

  3. Some people point out that research is a career while contests aren’t. I am not convinced by this; I don’t think “is a career” is a good metric for measuring value to society, and can think of several examples of actual jobs that I think really should not exist (not saying any names). In addition, I think that if the general public understood what mathematicians actually do for a career, they just might be a little less willing to pay us.

    I think there’s an interesting discussion about whether contests / research are “valuable” or not, but I don’t think the answer is one-sided; this would warrant a whole different debate (and would derail the entire post if I tried to address it).

  4. Some people point out that training for olympiads yields diminishing returns (e.g. learning Muirhead and Schur is probably not useful for anything else). I guess this is true, but isn’t it true of almost anything? Maybe the point is supposed to be “olympiads aren’t everything”, which is agreeable (see below).

  5. The other favorite comment I got was from Another Chicken, who points out below that the olympiad tribe itself is elitist: they tend to wall themselves off from outsiders (I certainly do this), and undervalue anything that isn’t hard technical problems.

    I concede these are real problems with the olympiad community. Again, this could be a whole different blog post.

    But I think this comment missed the point of this post. It is probably fine (albeit patronizing) to encourage olympiad students to expand; but I have a big problem with framing it as “spend time on not-contests because research“. That’s the real issue with the Mantra: it is often used as a recruitment slogan, telling students that research is the next true test after the IMO has been conquered.

    Changing the Golden Metric from olympiads to research seems to just make the world more egotistic than it already is.

Against Perfect Scores

One of the pieces of advice I constantly give to young students preparing for math contests is that they should probably do harder problems. But perhaps I don’t preach this zealously enough for them to listen, so here’s a concrete reason (with actual math!) why I give this advice.

1. The AIME and USAMO

In the USA many students who seriously prepare for math contests eventually qualify for an exam called the AIME (American Invitational Math Exam). This is a 3-hour exam with 15 short-answer problems; the median score is maybe about 5 problems.

Correctly solving maybe 10 of the problems qualifies for the much more difficult USAMO. This national olympiad is much more daunting, with six proof-based problems given over nine hours. It is not uncommon for olympiad contestants to not solve a single problem (this certainly happened to me a fair share of times!).

You’ll notice the stark difference in the scale of these contests (Tanya Khovanova has a longer complaint about this here). For students who are qualifying for USAMO for the first time, the olympiad is terrifying: I certainly remember the first time I took the olympiad with a super lofty goal of solving any problem.

Now, my personal opinion is that the difference between AIME and USAMO is generally exaggerated, and less drastic than appearances suggest. But even then, the psychological fear is still there — so what do you think happens to this demographic of students?

Answer: they don’t move on from AIME training. They think, “oh, the USAMO is too hard, I can only solve 10 problems on the AIME so I should stick to solving hard problems on the AIME until I can comfortably solve most of them”. So they keep on working through old AIME papers.

This is a bad idea.

2. Perfect Scores

To understand why this is a bad idea, let’s ask the following question: how good to you have to be to consistently get a perfect score on the AIME?

Consider first a student averages a score of {10} on the AIME, which is a fairly comfortable qualifying score. For illustration, let’s crudely simplify and assume that on a 15-question exam, he has a independent {\frac23} probability of getting each question right. Then the chance he sweeps the AIME is

\displaystyle \left( \frac23 \right)^{15} \approx 0.228\%.

This is pretty low, which makes sense: {10} and {15} on the AIME feel like quite different scores.

Now suppose we bump that up to averaging {12} problems on the AIME, which is almost certainly enough to qualify for the USAMO. This time, the chance of sweeping is

\displaystyle \left( \frac{4}{5} \right)^{15} \approx 3.52\%.

This should feel kind of low to you as well. So if you consistently solve {80\%} of problems in training, your chance at netting a perfect score is still dismal, even though on average you’re only three problems away.

Well, that’s annoying, so let’s push this as far as we can: consider a student who’s averaging {14} problems (thus, {93\%} success), id est a near-perfect score. Then the probability of getting a perfect score

\displaystyle \left( \frac{14}{15} \right)^{15} \approx 35.5\%.

Which is\dots just over {\frac 13}.

At which point you throw up your hands and say, what more could you ask for? I’m already averaging one less than a perfect score, and I still don’t have a good chance of acing the exam? This should feel very unfair: on average you’re only one problem away from full marks, and yet doing one problem better than normal is still a splotchy hit-or-miss.

3. Some Combinatorics

Those of you who either know statistics / combinatorics might be able to see what’s going on now. The problem is that

\displaystyle (1-\varepsilon)^{15} \approx 1 - 15\varepsilon

for small {\varepsilon}. That is, if your accuracy is even a little {\varepsilon} away from perfect, that difference gets amplified by a factor of {15} against you.

Below is a nice chart that shows you, based on this oversimplified naïve model, how likely you are to do a little better than your average.

\displaystyle \begin{array}{lrrrrrr} \textbf{Avg} & \ge 10 & \ge 11 & \ge 12 & \ge 13 & \ge 14 & \ge 15 \\ \hline \mathbf{10} & 61.84\% & 40.41\% & 20.92\% & 7.94\% & 1.94\% & 0.23\% \\ \mathbf{11} & & 63.04\% & 40.27\% & 19.40\% & 6.16\% & 0.95\% \\ \mathbf{12} & & & 64.82\% & 39.80\% & 16.71\% & 3.52\% \\ \mathbf{13} & & & & 67.71\% & 38.66\% & 11.69\% \\ \mathbf{14} & & & & & 73.59\% & 35.53\% \\ \mathbf{15} & & & & & & 100.00\% \\ \end{array}

Even if you’re not aiming for that lofty perfect score, we see the same repulsion effect: it’s quite hard to do even a little better than average. If you get an average score of {k}, the probability of getting {k+1} looks to be about {\frac25}. As for {k+2} the chances are even more dismal. In fact, merely staying afloat (getting at least your average score) isn’t a comfortable proposition.

And this is in my simplified model of “independent events”. Those of you who actually take the AIME know just how costly small arithmetic errors are, and just how steep the difficulty curve on this exam is.

All of this goes to show: to reliably and consistently ace the AIME, it’s not enough to be able to do 95% of AIME problems (which is already quite a feat). You almost need to be able to solve AIME problems in your sleep. On any given AIME some people will get luckier than others, but coming out with a perfect score every time is a huge undertaking.

4. 90% Confidence?

By the way, did I ever mention that it’s really hard to be 90% confident in something? In most contexts, 90% is a really big number.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about:

take three or four minutes and do the following quiz.

This is also the first page of this worksheet. The idea of this quiz is to give you a sense of just how high 90% is. To do this, you are asked 10 numerical questions and must provide an interval which you think the answer lies within with probability 90%. (So ideally, you would get exactly 9 intervals correct.)

As a hint: almost everyone is overconfident. Second hint: almost everyone is overconfident even after being told that their intervals should be embarrassingly wide. Third hint: I just tried this again and got a low score.

(For more fun of this form: calibration game.)

5. Practice

So what do you do if you really want to get a perfect score on the AIME?

Well, first of all, my advice is that you have better things to do (like USAMO). But even if you are unshakeable on your desire to get a 15, my advice still remains the same: do some USAMO problems.

Why? The reason is that going from average {14} to average {15} means going from 95% accuracy to 99% accuracy, as I’ve discussed above.

So what you don’t want to do is keep doing AIME problems. You are not using your time well if you get 95% accuracy in training. I’m well on record saying that you learn the most from problems that are just a little above your ability level, and massing AIME problems is basically the exact opposite of that. You’d maybe only run into a problem you couldn’t solve once every 10 or 20 or 30 problems. That’s just grossly inefficient.

The way out of this is to do harder problems, and that’s why I explicitly suggest people start working on USAMO problems even before they’re 90% confident they will qualify for it. At the very least, you certainly won’t be bored.

Stop Paying Me Per Hour

Occasionally I am approached by parents who ask me if I am available to teach their child in olympiad math. This is flattering enough that I’ve even said yes a few times, but I’m always confused why the question is “can you tutor my child?” instead of “do you think tutoring would help, and if so, can you tutor my child?”.

Here are my thoughts on the latter question.

Charging by Salt

I’m going to start by clearing up the big misconception which inspired the title of this post.

The way tutoring works is very roughly like the following: I meet with the student once every week, with custom-made materials. Then I give them some practice problems to work on (“homework”), which I also grade. I throw in some mock olympiads. I strongly encourage my students to email me with questions as they come up. Rinse and repeat.

The actual logistics vary; for example, for small in-person groups I prefer to do every other week for 3 hours. But the thing that never changes is how the parents pay me. It’s always the same: I get N \gg 0 dollars per hour for the actual in-person meeting, and 0 dollars per hour for preparing materials, grading homework, responding to questions, and writing the mock olympiads.

Now I’m not complaining because N is embarrassingly large. But one day I realized that this pricing system is giving parents the wrong impression. They now think the bulk of the work is from me taking the time to meet with their child, and that the homework is to help reinforce what I talk about in class. After all, this is what high school does, right?

I’m here to tell you that this is completely wrong.

It’s the other way around: the class is meant to supplement the homework. Think salt: for most dishes you can’t get away with having zero salt, but you still don’t price a dish based on how much salt is in it. Similarly, you can’t excise the in-person meeting altogether, but the dirty secret is that the classtime isn’t the core component.

I mean, here’s the thing.

  • When you take the IMO, you are alone with a sheet of paper that says “Problem 1”, “Problem 2”, “Problem 3”.
  • When you do my homework, you are alone with a sheet of paper that says “Problem 1”, “Problem 2”, “Problem 3”.
  • When you’re in my class, you get to see my beautiful smiling face plus a sheet of paper that says “Theorem 1”, “Example 2”, “Example 3”.

Which of these is not like the other?

Active Ingredients

So we’ve established that the main active ingredient is actually you working on problems alone in your room. If so, why do you need a teacher at all?

The answer depends on what the word “need” means. No USA IMO contestant in my recent memory has had a coach, so you don’t need a coach. But there are some good reasons why one might be helpful.

Some obvious reasons are social:

  • Forces you to work regularly; though most top students don’t really have a problem with self-motivation
  • You have a person to talk to. This can be nice if you are relatively isolated from the rest of the math community (e.g. due to geography).
  • You have someone who will answer your questions. (I can’t tell you how jealous I am right now.)
  • Feedback on solutions to problems. This includes student’s written solutions (stylistic remarks, or things like “this lemma you proved in your solution is actually just a special case of X” and so on) as well as explaining solutions to problems the student fails to solve.

In short, it’s much more engaging to study math with a real person.

Those reasons don’t depend so much on the instructor’s actual ability. Here are some reasons which do:

  • Guidance. An instructor can tell you what things to learn or work on based on their own experience in the past, and can often point you to things that you didn’t know existed.
  • It’s a big plus if the instructor has a good taste in problems. Some problems are bad and don’t teach you anything; some (old) problems don’t resemble the flavor of problems that actually appear on olympiads. On the flip side, some problems are very instructive or very pretty, and it’s great if your teacher knows what these are.
  • Ideally, also a good taste in topics. For example, I strongly object to classes titled “collinearity and concurrence” because this may as well be called “geometry”, and I think that such global classes are too broad to do anything useful. Conversely, examples of topics I think should be classes but aren’t: “looking at equality cases”, “explicit constructions”, “Hall’s marriage theorem”, “greedy algorithms”. I make this point a lot more explicitly in Section 2 of this blog post of mine.

In short, you’re also paying for the material and expertise. Past IMO medalists know how the contest scene works. Parents and (beginning) students less so.

Lastly, the reason which I personally think is most important:

  • Conveys strong intuition/heuristics, both globally and for specific problems. It’s hard to give concrete examples of this, but a few global ones I know were particularly helpful for me: “look at maximal things” (Po-Shen Loh on greedy algorithms), “DURR WE WANT STUFF TO CANCEL” (David Yang on FE’s), “use obvious inequalities” (Gabriel Dospinescu on analytic NT), which are take-aways that have gotten me a lot of points. This is also my biggest criteria for evaluating my own written exposition.

You guys know this feeling, I’m sure: when your English teacher assigned you an passage to read, the fastest way to understand it is to not read the passage but to ask the person sitting next to you what it’s saying. I think this is in part because most people are awful at writing and don’t even know how to write for other human beings.

The situation in olympiads is the same. I estimate listening to me explain a solution is maybe 4 to 10 times faster than reading the official solution. Turns out that writing up official solutions for contests is a huge chore, so most people just throw a sequence of steps at the reader without even bothering to identify the main ideas. (As a contest organizer, I’m certainly guilty of this laziness too!)

Aside: I think this is a large part of why my olympiad handouts and other writings have been so well-received. Disclaimer: this was supposed to be a list of what makes a good instructor, but due to narcissism it ended up being a list of things I focus on when teaching.

Caveat Emptor

And now I explain why the top IMO candidates still got by without teachers.

It turns out that the amount of math preparation time that students put in doesn’t seem to be a normal distribution. It’s a log normal distribution. And the reason is this: it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Officially, when I was a contestant I spent maybe 20 hours a week doing math contest preparation. But the actual amount of time is higher. The reason is that I would think about math contests more like 24/7. During English class, I would often be daydreaming about the inequality I worked on last night. On the car ride home, I would idly think about what I was going to teach my middle school students the next week. To say nothing of showers: during my showers I would draw geometry diagrams on the wall with water on my finger.

So spiritually, I maybe spent 10 times as much time on math olympiads compared to an average USA(J)MO qualifier.

And that factor of 10 is enormous. Even if I as a coach can cause you to learn two or three or four times more efficiently, you will still lose to that factor of 10. I’d guess my actual multiplier is somewhere between 2 and 3, so there you go. (Edit: this used to say 3 to 4, I think that’s too high now.)

The best I can do is hope that, in addition to making my student’s training more efficient, I also cause my students to like math more.

Some Advice for Olympiad Geometry

I know some friends who are fantastic at synthetic geometry. I can give them any problem and they’ll come up with an incredibly impressive synthetic solution. I also have some friends who are very bad at synthetic geometry, but have such good fortitude at computations that they can get away with using Cartesian coordinates for everything.

I don’t consider myself either of these types; I don’t have much ingenuity when it comes to my solutions, and I’m actually quite clumsy when it comes to long calculations. But nonetheless I have a high success rate with olympiad geometry problems. Not only that, but my solutions are often very algorithmic, in the sense that any well-trained student should be able to come up with this solution.

In this article I try to describe how I come up which such solutions.

1. The Three Reductions

Very roughly, there are three different ways I try to make progress on a geometry problem.

  • (I) The standard synthetic techniques; angle chasing, cyclic quadrilaterals, homothety, radical axis / power of a point, etc. My own personal arsenal contains some weapons not known to many contestants as well, most notably inversion, harmonic bundles and quadrilaterals, and spiral similarity / Miquel points.For this part, it’s highly advantageous to be well-versed with “standard” configurations and tricks. To give an extreme example: to solve Iran TST 2009, Problem 9 one essentially needs only recognize two configurations: a lemma about the midpoint of an altitude (2002 G7) and another lemma about the line {EF} (USAJMO 2014/6). Not knowing either of these makes it more difficult to solve the problem synthetically in the time limit. As a reference, Yufei Zhao’s lemmas handout contains a fairly comprehensive list of these configurations.

    Easier problems don’t require as much in this way of configuration recognition.

  • (II) Standard computational techniques (aka bashing). Personally, I prefer complex numbers and barycentric coordinates but I know other students who will use Cartesian coordinates and trigonometry to great success. The advantage of such methods is that they are straightforward and reliable, albeit tedious and time-consuming. It is mostly a matter of experience to understand whether a calculation can be carried out within the time limit — I can basically tell just by looking at a setup whether it can be solved in this time.
  • (III) Most surprisingly: simply finding crucial claims. Especially for harder problems like IMO 3/6 much of the time the key to solving a problem is making some key observation. Said another way: a difficult IMO 3/6 problem which asks you to prove {A \implies B} might have a solution which goes like,

    \displaystyle A \implies X \implies Y \implies B.

    Each of the individual implications might be no harder than an IMO 1/4 but the difficulty rests in finding what to prove. The most reliable way to do such things is to draw large, in-scale diagrams. If you are good at recognizing cyclic quadrilaterals, collinear points, etc. then the correct claims will naturally suggest themselves; conversely, good diagrams will prevent you from wasting time trying to prove things that aren’t true (effectively letting you test your claims “experimentally” before trying to prove them).

Type (III) deserves some comment here. There is more to making progress on a problem than simply trying things you think will solve the problem: there is some “scouting” involved that you will need to do for any difficult problems. As a terrible analogy, in StarCraft you have to scout an experienced opponent to understand what they’re doing before you try to attack them. The situation with IMO 3/6 is no different: you have to have some understanding of the problem before you stand a chance of being able to solve it.

Easy problems can often succumb to just one class of attacks, but the interesting and difficult problems can require two or all three classes in order to solve. How much you use each type of strategy is in my opinion a matter of personal taste — some people don’t use (II) at all and rely on (I) to prove everything, and even vice versa! I like to think I balance (I) and (II) evenly. But (III) is indispensable, and in any case I think part of the reason I have been so successful with geometry problems is precisely that I can draw on all three strategies in tandem, rather than being limited to one or two.

In fact, a good rule of thumb that I use for judging the difficulty of a problem is how many of the above methods I had to use: the {n}th problem on an IMO paper should require me to resort to about {n} of these strategies.

2. Concrete Examples

I’ll now give some concrete examples of the things I said above. Warning: spoilers follow, and hyperlinks lead to my solutions on Art of Problem Solving. You are encouraged to try the problems yourself before reading the comments.

Example [EGMO 2012/1] Let {ABC} be a triangle with circumcenter {O}. The points {D}, {E}, {F} lie in the interiors of the sides {BC}, {CA}, {AB} respectively, such that {\overline{DE}} is perpendicular to {\overline{CO}} and {\overline{DF}} is perpendicular to {\overline{BO}}. Let {K} be the circumcenter of triangle {AFE}. Prove that the lines {\overline{DK}} and {\overline{BC}} are perpendicular.

This is a pretty typical entry-level geometry problem. Do some angle chasing (I) to find one cyclic quad (III), and then follow through to solve the problem (I). If you are good enough, you don’t even need to find the cyclic quad in advance; just play around with the angles until you notice it.

Example [IMO 2014, Problem 4] Let {P} and {Q} be on segment {BC} of an acute triangle {ABC} such that {\angle PAB=\angle BCA} and {\angle CAQ=\angle ABC}. Let {M} and {N} be the points on {AP} and {AQ}, respectively, such that {P} is the midpoint of {AM} and {Q} is the midpoint of {AN}. Prove that the intersection of {BM} and {CN} is on the circumference of triangle {ABC}.

You can solve this problem by barycentric coordinates (II) instantly (textbook example). Also similar triangles (I) solves the problem pretty quickly as well. Again, this problem is “easy” in the sense that one can directly approach it with either (I) or (II), not needing (III) at all.

Example [USAMO 2015/2] Quadrilateral {APBQ} is inscribed in circle {\omega} with {\angle P = \angle Q = 90^{\circ}} and {AP = AQ < BP}. Let {X} be a variable point on segment {\overline{PQ}}. Line {AX} meets {\omega} again at {S} (other than {A}). Point {T} lies on arc {AQB} of {\omega} such that {\overline{XT}} is perpendicular to {\overline{AX}}. Let {M} denote the midpoint of chord {\overline{ST}}. As {X} varies on segment {\overline{PQ}}, show that {M} moves along a circle.

This was not supposed to be a very difficult problem, but it seems to have nearly swept the JMO group. Essentially, the key to this problem is to notice that the center of the desired circle is in fact the midpoint of {AO} (with {O} the center of the circle). This is a huge example of (III) — after this observation, one can solve the problem very quickly using complex numbers (II). It is much harder (though not impossible) to solve the problem without knowing the desired center.

Example [USAMO 2014/5] Let {ABC} be a triangle with orthocenter {H} and let {P} be the second intersection of the circumcircle of triangle {AHC} with the internal bisector of the angle {\angle BAC}. Let {X} be the circumcenter of triangle {APB} and {Y} the orthocenter of triangle {APC}. Prove that the length of segment {XY} is equal to the circumradius of triangle {ABC}.

Personally I think the most straightforward solution is to use (I) to eliminate the orthocenter condition, and then finish with complex numbers (II). Normally, you won’t see a medium-level problem that dies immediately to (II), and the only reason a problem like this could end up as a problem 5 is that there is a tiny bit of (I) that needs to happen before the complex numbers becomes feasible.

Example [IMO 2014/3] Convex quadrilateral {ABCD} has {\angle ABC = \angle CDA = 90^{\circ}}. Point {H} is the foot of the perpendicular from {A} to {BD}. Points {S} and {T} lie on sides {AB} and {AD}, respectively, such that {H} lies inside triangle {SCT} and

\displaystyle \angle CHS - \angle CSB = 90^{\circ}, \quad \angle THC - \angle DTC = 90^{\circ}.

Prove that line {BD} is tangent to the circumcircle of triangle {TSH}.

Like most IMO 3/6’s I had to resort to using all three methods in order to solve this problem. The first important step was finding out what to do with the angle condition. It turns out that in fact, it’s equivalent to the circumcenter of triangle {TCH} lying on side {AD} of the triangle (III); proving this is then a matter of angle chasing (I). Afterwards, one has to recognize a tricky usage of the angle bisector theorem (I) to reduce it to something that can be computed with trigonometry (II). This leads to a direct solution that, while not elegant, also requires much less ingenuity then most of the solutions found by friends I know.

I really want to stress that being proficient in all three strategies is key to getting “straightforward” solutions like this to IMO 3/6 caliber problems. If you miss any of these components, you are not going to solve the problem.

Example [IMO 2011/6] Let {ABC} be an acute triangle with circumcircle {\Gamma}. Let {\ell} be a tangent line to {\Gamma}, and let {\ell_a}, {\ell_b}, {\ell_c} be the lines obtained by reflecting {\ell} in the lines {BC}, {CA}, and {AB}, respectively. Show that the circumcircle of the triangle determined by the lines {\ell_a}, {\ell_b}, and {\ell_c} is tangent to the circle {\Gamma}.

The ultimate example of these three principles. Using a trick that showed up on APMO 2014/5 and RMM 2013/3, one constructs the tangency point {T} and connects the points {A_1}, {B_1}, {C_1}, as I explain in this post, yielding points {A_2}, {B_2}, {C_2}. After that, a very careful examination of the diagram (possibly several diagrams) leads to a conjecture that {A_1A=AP}, et cetera. This is the key observation (III), and leads to highly direct solution via (II). But the point of this problem is that you need to have the guts to construct those auxiliary points and then boldly claim they are the desired “squared” points.

3. Comparison with Other Subjects

The approaches I’ve described highlight some of the features of olympiad geometry which distinguish it from other subjects.

  • Unlike other olympiad subjects, you can actually obtain a big advantage by just knowing lots of theory. Experienced contestants simply “recognize” a large body of common configurations that those without access to training materials have never seen before. Similarly, there are a lot of fancy techniques that can make a big difference. This is much less true of other subjects (for example combinatorics is the opposite extreme).
  • There’s less variance in the subject: lots of Euclidean geometry problems feel the same, and all of them use the same body of techniques. It reminds me of chess: it’s very “narrow” in the sense that at the end of the day, there are only so many possible moves. (Olympiad inequalities also has this kind of behavior.) Again combinatorics is the opposite of this.
  • You have a reliable backup in case you can’t find the official solution: bash. Moreover, in general there are often many different ways to solve a problem; not true of other subjects.
  • If you want to make some “critical claim” you can quickly test it empirically (by drawing a good diagram).


Rant: Matrices Are Not Arrays of Numbers

The following is an excerpt from a current work of mine. I thought I’d share it here, as some people have told me they enjoyed it.

As I’ll stress repeatedly, a matrix represents a linear map between two vector spaces. Writing it in the form of an {m \times n} matrix is merely a very convenient way to see the map concretely. But it obfuscates the fact that this map is, well, a map, not an array of numbers.

If you took high school precalculus, you’ll see everything done in terms of matrices. To any typical high school student, a matrix is an array of numbers. No one is sure what exactly these numbers represent, but they’re told how to magically multiply these arrays to get more arrays. They’re told that the matrix

\displaystyle \left( \begin{array}{cccc} 1 & 0 & \dots & 0 \\ 0 & 1 & \dots & 0 \\ \vdots & \vdots & \ddots & \vdots \\ 0 & 0 & \dots & 1 \\ \end{array} \right)

is an “identity matrix”, because when you multiply by another matrix it doesn’t change. Then they’re told that the determinant is some magical combination of these numbers formed by this weird multiplication rule. No one knows what this determinant does, other than the fact that {\det(AB) = \det A \det B}, and something about areas and row operations and Cramer’s rule.

Then you go into linear algebra in college, and you do more magic with these arrays of numbers. You’re told that two matrices {T_1} and {T_2} are similar if

\displaystyle T_2 = ST_1S^{-1}

for some invertible matrix {S}. You’re told that the trace of a matrix {\text{Tr } T} is the sum of the diagonal entries. Somehow this doesn’t change if you look at a similar matrix, but you’re not sure why. Then you define the characteristic polynomial as

\displaystyle p_T = \det (XI - T).

Somehow this also doesn’t change if you take a similar matrix, but now you really don’t know why. And then you have the Cayley-Hamilton Theorem in all its black magic: {p_T(T)} is the zero map. Out of curiosity you Google the proof, and you find some ad-hoc procedure which still leaves you with no idea why it’s true.

This is terrible. Who gives a — about {T_2 = ST_1S^{-1}}? Only if you know that the matrices are linear maps does this make sense: {T_2} is just {T_1} rewritten with a different choice of basis.

In my eyes, this mess is evil. Linear algebra is the study of linear maps, but it is taught as the study of arrays of numbers, and no one knows what these numbers mean. And for a good reason: the numbers are meaningless. They are a highly convenient way of encoding the matrix, but they are not the main objects of study, any more than the dates of events are the main objects of study in history.

When I took Math 55a as a freshman at Harvard, I got the exact opposite treatment: we did all of linear algebra without writing down a single matrix. During all this time I was quite confused. What’s wrong with a basis? I didn’t appreciate until later that this approach was the morally correct way to treat the subject: it made it clear what was happening.

Throughout this project, I’ve tried to strike a balance between these two approaches, using matrices to illustrate the maps and to simplify proofs, but writing theorems and definitions in their morally correct form. I hope that this has both the advantage of giving the “right” definitions while being concrete enough to be digested. But I would just like to say for the record that, if I had to pick between the high school approach and the 55a approach, I would pick 55a in a heartbeat.

On Problem Sets

(It appears to be May 7 — good luck to all the national MathCounts competitors tomorrow!)

1. An 8.044 Problem

Recently I saw a 8.044 physics problem set which contained the problem

Consider a system of {N} almost independent harmonic oscillators whose energy in a microcanonical ensemble is given by {E = \frac 12 \hbar \omega N + \hbar \omega M}. Show that this energy can be obtained is {\frac{(M+N-1)!}{M!(N-1)!}}.

Once you remove the physics fluff, it immediately reduces to

Show the number of nonnegative integer solutions to {M = \sum_{i=1}^N n_i} is {\frac{(M+N-1)!}{M!(N-1)!}}.

And as anyone who has done lots of math contests knows, this is the famous stars and bars problem (also known as balls and urns).

This made me really upset when I saw it, for two reasons. One, the main difficulty of the question isn’t related to the physics at hand at all. Once you plug in the definition you get a fairly elegant combinatorics problem, not a physics problem. And secondly, although the solution to the (unrelated) combinatorics is nice, it’s very tricky. I don’t think I could have come up with it easily if I hadn’t seen it before. Either you’ve seen the stars-and-bars trick before and the problem is trivial, or you haven’t seen the trick, and you could easily spend a couple hours trying to come up with a solution — and none of that two hours is teaching you any physics.

You can see why a physics instructor might give this as a homework problem. The solution is short and elementary, something that a undergraduate student could understand and write down. But somewhere at MIT, some poor non-mathematician just spent a good chunk of their evening struggling with this one-trick classic and probably not learning much from it.

2. Don’t I Like Hard Problems?

Well, “not learning much from it” is not entirely accurate\dots

Something that bothered me (and which I hope also bothers the reader) was I complained that the problem was “tricky”. That seems off, because as you might already know, I like hard problems; in fact, in high school I was well despised for helping teachers find hard extra credit problems to pose. (“Hard” isn’t quite the same as “tricky”, but that’s a different direction altogether.) After all, hard problems from math contests taught me to think, isn’t that right?

Well, maybe what’s wrong is that there’s no physics in the hard part of the problem; the bonus problems I provided for my teachers were all closely tied to the material at hand. But that doesn’t seem right either. Euclidean geometry might be useless outside of high school, but nonetheless all the time I spent developing barycentric coordinates still made me a smarter person. Similarly, Richard Rusczyk will often tell you that geometry problems trained him for running the business that is now the Art of Problem Solving. For exactly the same reason, thinking about the stars and bars problem is certainly good for the mind, isn’t that right? Why was I upset about it?

Well, I still hold my objection that there’s no physics in the problem. Why? So at this point we’re naturally led to ask: what was the point of the problem set in the first place? And that answer this, you have to ask: what was the point of the class in the first place?

On paper, it’s to learn physics. Is that really all? Maybe the professor thinks it’s important to teach students how to think as well. Does she? And the answer here is I really don’t know, because I have no idea who’s teaching the class. So I’ll instead ask the more idealistic question: should she?

And surprisingly, I think the answer can be very different from place to place.

On one extreme, I think high school math should be mainly about teaching students to think. Virtually none of the students will actually use the specific content being taught in the class. Why does the average high school student need to know what {\int_{[0,1]} x^2 \; dx} is? They don’t, and that shouldn’t be the point of the class; not the least of reasons being that in ten years half of them won’t even remember what {\int} means anymore.

But on the other extreme, if you have a math major trying to learn the undergraduate curriculum the picture can change entirely, just because there is so much math to cover. It’s kind of ridiculous, honestly: take the average incoming freshman and the average senior math major, and the latter will know so much more than the former. So in this case I would be much more worried about the content of the course; assuming for example that I’m hoping to be a math major, the chance that the (main ideas of) the specific content will be useful later on is far higher.

This is especially true for, say, students who did math contests extensively in high school, because that ability to solve hard problems is already there; it’s not an interesting use of time to be slowly doing challenging exercises in group theory when there’s still modules, rings, fields, categories, algebraic geometry, homological algebra, all untouched (to say nothing of analysis).

What this boils down to is trying to distinguish between the actual content of the given class (something very local) versus the more general skill of problem-solving or thinking. In high school I focused almost exclusively on the latter; as time passes I’ve been shifting my focus farther and farther to the former.

3. {\text{A} \ge 90\%}

Now suppose that we are interested in teaching how to think on these problem sets. There’s one other difference between the problem sets and math contests. You’re expected to finish your problem sets and you’re not expected to finish math contests.

I want to complain that there seems to be a stigma that you have to do exercises in order to learn math or physics or whatever, and that people who give up on them are somehow lazy or something. It is true in some sense that you can only learn math by doing. It is probably true that thinking about a hard problem will teach you something. What is not true is that you should always stare at a problem until either it or you cracks.

This is obviously true in math contests too. One of the things I was really bad at was giving up on a problem after hours of no progress. In some sense the time limit of contests is kind of nice; it cuts you off from spending too long on any one problem. You can’t be expected to be able to solve all hard problems, or else they’re not hard.

Problem sets fare much more poorly in this respect. The benefit of thinking about the hard problem diminishes over time (e.g. a typical exercise can teach you more in the first hour than it does in the next six) and sometimes you’re just totally dead in the water after a couple hours of staring. The big guy seem to implicitly tell you that you should keep working because it’s supposed to be hard. Is that really true? It certainly wasn’t true in the math contest world, so I don’t see any reason why it’s true here.

In other words, I don’t think our poor physics student would have lost much by giving up on balls and urns after a few hours. And really, for all the warnings that looking up problems online is immoral, is asking your friend to help really that different?

Teaching A* USAMO Camp

In the last week of December I got a position as the morning instructor for the A* USAMO winter camp. Having long lost interest in coaching for short-answer contests, I’d been looking forward to an opportunity to teach an olympiad class for ages, and so I was absolutely psyched for that week. In this post I’ll talk about some of the thoughts I had while teaching, in no particular order.

1. Class Format

Here were the constraints I was working with. After removing guest lectures, exams, and so on I had four days of teaching time, one for each of the four olympiad subjects (algebra, geometry, combinatorics, number theory). I taught the morning session, meaning I had a three-hour block each day (with a 15-minute break). I had a wonderfully small class — just five students.

Here’s the format I used for the class, which seemed to work reasonably well (as in, if I were to teach the class again I would probably not change it very much.)

  • (0:00-0:10) I usually started the class with a quick warm-up problem (something pretty easy), just to soak up time from latecomers and give students a chance to get ready and glance through the handout. (If you give smart students a pretty handout, the first thing they will do is look through it, regardless of what you tell them to actually do.)
  • (0:10-1:30) Afterwards I would go through the lecture, both theory and examples, up until the break. On average this got split up with about half the time for the theory and half the time for the examples. I typically let students try the examples themselves for five minutes (again, smart students will automatically start on the problems regardless of whether you tell them to or not) before I discuss the solution, just so they at least have a feeling for what it is — I consider it immoral to start talking about a solution before students have had a chance to try a problem.
  • (1:30-2:40) After a break, I would give the students a long period (a little over an hour) to try the practice problems in the last section of the handout. Since the class was so small, I would prepare about 5-7 practice problems and then let each of them pick a different problem to start working on. (Once they solved their own problem, they would go on and try other ones.)During this time, I was able to take advantage of the small class size in a pretty great way: throughout the hour I would walk around the room talking to each of the students about the problem they were working on. In particular, I tried to make sure every student at least solved the problem they started with.
  • (2:40-3:00) In the last 20 minutes of class or so, I had each student present the solution to the problem which they worked on. I think the main utility of this is that it forces the present-er to know clearly in their head what their solution is. This was actually possibly more useful for my feedback than for the students: if a student could present the solution to their problem to the class then I knew they understood at least each of the individual steps.Overall I think this format did more or less what I intended it to do, and will definitely be re-using it if I ever teach an olympiad class in this style again. Though I don’t know how well the second half might work in a bigger room: I actually had to do a bit of running to keep up with questions and ideas that the students came up with while working, and of course the presentation time is proportional to the number of students you have (maybe 3-5 minutes each). So if I had, say, 10 students, I would probably re-think how to run the end.

2. Picking Topics

I think it’s general kind of useless to teach a class where you do a mix of unrelated problems. For example, I never really liked “functional equations” as a class. And don’t even get me started on the typical “divisibility” class. That’s what the IMO Shortlist is for, and the students already have that. Anyone competing at this level already knows how to pick up a collection of problems and practice against it. Class needs to something more than that.

My idea is that problems in an olympiad class should be linked by some underlying, specific theme. It doesn’t have to be a specific technique, but it can be. The reason is that this way, you can see the theme re-appear over and over again. By the time you see it the fifth time, hopefully things start to click.

Let me phrase this another way. Suppose I gave wrote down the following:

\displaystyle \begin{array}{lll} A1 & B11 & C8 \\ A9 & B44 & C27 \\ A49 & B33 & C343 \\ A16 & B99 & C1 \\ A25 & B22 & C125 \end{array}

You can tell what each of the {A}‘s, {B}‘s, {C}‘s have in common by looking for a few moments. But what happens if I intertwine them?

\displaystyle \begin{array}{lllll} B11 & C27 & C343 & A1 & A9 \\ C125 & B33 & A49 & B44 & A25 \\ A16 & B99 & B22 & C8 & C1 \end{array}

This is the same information, but now you have to work much harder to notice the association between the letters and the numbers they’re next to.

I think the class is kind of the same idea. If you want to draw out the idea of orders, pick a bunch of problems that involve orders in spirit. They don’t have to be exactly the same problem, but they should be reasonably related.

So to produce a good olympiad handout, you need to have something to say. I think my Chinese Remainder Theorem handout is a good example (it was actually something I was considering using for the NT session, but I decided on something else eventually). I want to point out how CRT is used in constructions, so the examples and practice problems are all designed to illustrate this point. There’s a large degree of micro-control throughout the entire thing.

Honestly, I think it’s really easy to teach olympiad math badly: just pick a bunch of unrelated problems, go through the solutions one by one, then give some more unrelated problems for practice. The students will still get better, because they are practicing. But is that all you can do as a teacher?

For the record, here’s the topics I ended up using for the camp.

  • Orders / Lifting the Exponent
  • Irreducibility of Polynomials
  • Projective Geometry
  • Double Summation

3. Narrowing Problems

Something new I tried for this lecture was trimming a lot.

At MOP, I’d often get a handout for a MOP class with something like 30 problems on it. We’d get to pick which ones we worked on, and then we’d see or present some of the solutions in class. The issue is that, well, a class isn’t that long, so I would only be able to work on two or three problems, and these wouldn’t be the same as the two or three problems other people worked on or presented.

I think the hope was that when we went home we’d still have like 20 various problems to work on. The problem is that I couldn’t possibly have worked on the left-over 20 problems from every class even if I wanted to — there were just too many.

I fought this issue at A* by trimming down the practice problems a lot. My handouts essentially had only 5-7 problems to work on. This way, more people had looked at the same problems when it came time for presentations.

The reason I picked 5-7 was so that every student could work on (and hence present) a different problem. In retrospect I’m not sure this was a good idea. If I were to teach again, I might even cut it down to fewer than that, maybe four problems or so. That way, everyone really works on the same problems, and presentations of solutions are infinitely more useful. I would just have to work around the fact that on any given day, not all students would have a chance to present.

4. Things I Did Badly

Finally, here’s a couple things I wish I had fixed.

First, I made a lot of assumptions about what people knew and didn’t knew. I thought I had made the NT lecture too hard because the room was very quiet, but it in fact turned out that it was because the students had actually seen most of the order material before.

The only reason I found out was because after I had finished presenting all the order material, I asked out of curiosity whether anyone had seen this already, not actually expecting anyone to raise their hands. Instead, the entire class did. Students really are too polite — I must have bored them to tears for those first 45 minutes.

The solution to this is really simple: just ask the students if they’ve seen it before. Any teacher knows that students are shy to admitting they don’t understand what you’re talking about, but if you just ask “have any of you seen this before?” the students will in general be pretty honest. (If you phrase it as “have any of you not seen this before” the results are less accurate.) So that’s something I will remember to do much more of later on.

The other thing is that I likely made the practice problems too hard. I felt like I had to give too many hints: at least the students understand the solution, but I’m not sure how helpful it is to only solve the problem because the hints given amounted to an outline of the solution. In my defense, I was guessing in the dark as to the abilities of the students, and erred on the side of hard. (Any of you who do math olympiads know how useless and boring a too-easy class is; in contrast, classes which are a tad too hard can often still be beneficial.) But the point stands that my estimate was wrong.

Finally, I think I wore the students out a bit too much. I was happy with their performance in my class, but apparently they were all pretty tired during afternoon. But I think that might just be because of the way the camp is set up — six hours of class a day is really a lot, even for the very hardcore.

5. Closings

Overall I was quite happy with how the classes turned out, and I think the students were too (either that or they were very generous with my instructor ratings). I can’t wait until I get an opportunity like this again, but that might be a long time in coming — there really aren’t that many USAMO-level students out there as I would like!

What leads to success at math contests?

I think this is an important question to answer, not the least of reasons being that understanding how to learn is extremely useful both for teaching and learning. [1]

About a year ago [2], I posted my thoughts on what the most important things were in math contest training. Now that I’m done with the IMO I felt I should probably revisit what I had written.

It looks like the main point of my post a year ago was mainly to debunk the idea that specific resources are important. Someone else phrased this pretty well in the replies to the thread

The issue is many people simply ask about how they should prepare for AIME or USAMO without any real question. They simply figure that AOPS has a lot of successful people that excel at both contests, so why not see what they did? Unfortunately, that’s not how it works – that’s what this post is saying. There is no “right” training.

This is so obvious to me now that I’m going to focus more on what I think actually matters. So I now have the following:

  1. Do lots of problems.
  2. Learn some standard tricks.
  3. Do problems which are just above your reach.
  4. Understand the motivation behind solutions to problems you do.
  5. Know when to give up.
  6. Do lots of problems.

Elaboration on the above:

  1. Self-explanatory. I can attest that the Contests section on AoPS suffices.
  2. One should, for example, know what a radical axis is. It may also help to know what harmonic quadrilaterals, Karamata, or Kobayashi is, for example, but increasingly obscure things are increasingly less necessary. This step can be achieved by using books/handouts or doing lots of problems.
  3. Basically, you improve when you do problems that are hard enough to challenge you but reasonable for you to solve. My rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t be confident that you can solve the practice problem, nor confident that you won’t solve it. There should be suspense.

    In my experience, people tend to underestimate themselves — probably my biggest regret was being scared of IMO/USAMO #3’s and #6’s until late in my IMO training, when I finally realized I needed to actually start solving some. I encourage prospective contestants to start earlier.

  4. I think the best phrasing of this is, “how would I train a student to be able to solve this problem?”, something I ask myself a lot. By answering this question you also understand

    a. Which parts of the solution are main ideas and which steps are routine details,
    b. Which parts of the problem are the “hard steps” of the problem,
    c. How one would think of the hard steps of the solution,
    and so on. I usually like to summarize the hard parts of the solution in a few sentences. As an example, “USAMO 2014 #6 is solved by considering the N \times N grid of primes and noting that small primes cannot cover the board adequately”. Or “ELMO 2013 #5 is solved by considering the 1D case, realizing the answer is cn^k, and then generalizing directly to the 3D case”.

    In general, after reading a solution, you should be able to state in a couple sentences all the main ideas of the solution, and basically know how to solve the problem from there.

  5. In 2011, JMO #5 took me two hours. In 2012, the same problem took me 30 seconds and SL 2011 G4 took me two hours. Today, SL 2011 G4 takes me about five minutes and IMO 2011 #6 took me seven hours. It would not have been a good use of my time in 2011 to spend several hundred hours on IMO #6.

    This is in part doing (3) correctly by not doing things way, way over your head and not doing things way below your ability. Regardless you should know when to move on to the next problem. It’s fine to try out really hard problems, just know when more time will not help.

    In the other direction, some students give up too early. You should only give up on a problem after you’ve made no progress for a while, and realize you are unlikely to get any further than you already are. My rule of thumb for olympiads is one or two hours without making progress.

  6. Self-explanatory.

I think the things I mentioned above are at least extremely useful (“necessary” is harder to argue, but I think you could make a case for it). Now is it sufficient? I have no idea.

  1. The least of reasons is that people ask me this all the time and I should properly prepare a single generic response.
  2. It’s only been a year? I could have sworn it was two or three.