…it’s still you. Looking at yourself in the window. The second afternoon after you finally get COVID for the first time.
As previously reported, I left Zoom late last year and spent a bit of time unemployed, traveling for some of it but mostly staying home. In the process, I got COVID, though not with a particularly interesting story. Would not recommend.
Then I started work at Anthropic doing interpretability research — moving way back into my comfort zone in a way by returning to my web dev roots to create many of the visualizations we cared about, and way out of it in another by jumping into the deeply theoretical end of research, in a field where my total experience is one college course and one casual reading group. Still, I figured some things out and we published Towards Monosemanticity in early October.
I don’t have much to add to the research results in the paper, though I can share some trivial, mildly entertaining anecdotes about the process:
One day I’m going to run out of the energy to find barely adequate allusions for the titles and thematic music videos for the openings of these end-of-year posts, and they’ll just be called “2095 in Review” or whatever. Or maybe I’ll just stop making them. But not today.
Good song. Good animation. Incredibly out of place on its YouTube channel, in the most inspiring chaotic good way.
I closed out last year by saying that I wanted to accomplish a “big milestone” this year. I actually had a specific milestone in mind that I did not actually achieve and will not reveal, but I made good progress towards it, and a lot of other things happened, enough that I think I’ll count that as achieved.
The big thing is that I left my job at Zoom to have some time for myself and family… though not before helping to give feedback on a draft internet standard, publish a cryptography research paper (on which I’m the “first author”, strictly due to the vagaries of the English alphabet), and launch end-to-end encrypted email. It was a productive year! I feel like I should have more to say about all this, but it’s hard to think of anything that I didn’t already write about last year and also doesn’t require a blockbuster-length list of prerequisites. However, if you ever want to hear about the difficulties of actually getting end-to-end encryption into production in excruciating detail, invite me to a cocktail party with a lot of whiteboards.
2021 is the first year during which I held a full-time job continuously. My disposable income and discretionary spending have both increased the most sharply since, well, ever. It’s weird.
We are still in a pandemic. Greek letters continue to be associated with uncool things. I got vaccinated and started taking measured (but still small) risks. Funny story: my first vaccination was a complete surprise, as my roommate knocked on my door mid-day to inform me that somebody he knew had extra vaccines to give out — except that the night before I had a dream about being vaccinated, which was weird enough that I wrote that dream down, something I do only once every few months. I also got boosted just a few days ago.
It’s a strange and darkly funny story — Tim Minchin wrote the album this is from, Apart Together, well before the pandemic hit and social distancing became the norm, and I assume I am not alone in finding that the song resonates unusually strongly as a result.1 By Jove, it resonates.
Nobody needs me to say that it’s been a rough year. People have been complaining that each of the last few years were terrible, and looking forward to the next one, and being disappointed — as if years were coherent bundles of quality, and there was any reason to expect discontinuities in how things are going to occur around January 1st — and as if there were additionally any reason to expect such discontinuities, if they did exist, to be positive ones.
Seriously, do you remember when we thought 2015–2018 were bad?
And yet… I feel like overall, 2020 went quite a bit better than expectations for me. Which maybe means it’s astronomically better than the average person’s 2020. I had a long draft for this post that slowly accumulated words over the year as usual, but a lot of the ramblings I’d usually include now seem unusually vapid, and a lot of the deeper trends and experiences I might normally reflect on are things I don’t think I’ve really gone through or thought about for long enough to achieve closure on. This is partly due to the pandemic scrambling a lot of plans and partly because last January, nearly a full year ago, ✈✈✈ Galactic Trendsetters ✈✈✈ won Mystery Hunt and so we’re writing the 2021 hunt. The ramifications are still being felt and will accelerate until it actually happens two weeks from now, and that’s all I’ll say about it here.
Not a very completionist run. I graded myself pretty strictly though — both sides of every “and” need to count; “all” means literally all; fuzzy actions and phrases require full psychological commitment to qualify.
This is a weird song choice — I have not even watched the movie. But there is a story, and there is a thematic correspondence.
The story is that I was interning remotely at a coworking space over the summer. One night, I attended a karaoke event hosted there, the kind where adult human beings socialize and where I didn’t know anybody else, and I sang this song. Afterwards, another attendee told me that her kid (yeah, you know, people in my reference class have children) loved Moana and was really excited about my performance.
The thematic correspondence is less obvious and harder for me to describe. I’m going much less further this year than I could be, and am less sure about next year than I expected to be at this point for reasons I’m not ready to share yet (this seems to be happening more and more on this blog, but there’s not much I can do about it — so it goes). But it really is the case that there are some things I can’t deny about myself, some attractor states that my values and way of thinking keep dragging me towards.
Frivolous examples: I went through another online Dominion phase and at least two Protobowl phases, the highlight of which is learning a good deal about Émile Durkheim and then buzzing on him the next day. I did Advent of Code again, with the same golfing setup as last year, a foray into making an auxiliary over-the-top leaderboard in Svelte, and (surprisingly to myself) getting first. I have a shiny Charizard with Blast Burn now.
I put this question in my FAQ, because at least two people have asked me this question, and that’s how frequent a question needs to be to be on my FAQ: I got an IMO1 gold medal in 2012, as a ninth grader, and an IOI gold medal in 2014, as an eleventh grader. I could have kept going to either, or even decided to try taking the IPhO or something, but I didn’t. Why not?
The short answer: It was a rough utilitarian calculation. By continuing, I would probably displace somebody else who would gain more from being on an IMO/IOI team than I would. Besides, I wanted to do other things in high school, so I wasn’t losing much.
I think the short answer actually captures most of my thinking when I made the decision back then, and it’s not really new; I said as much at the end of 2013. But behind it was a lot of complex thoughts and feelings that I’ve been ruminating over and trying to put into words for the better part of a decade. Hence, this post.
There is a natural question that precedes the frequently asked one that I have never been asked, something I am now realizing I never honestly asked myself and never tried to answer deeply: Why did I participate in the IMO and the IOI in the first place?
I was pretty torn between this and “The Future Soon” as the Year-End Song on this blog, but in the end I think I feel more threatened by the bland existence of the soulless adult than inspired by the starry-eyed-idealism-with-misogynist-undertones of the twelve-year-old, plus I get to show you the best kinetic typography video I have ever seen.
Halfway through 2018 I thought this would be the year of ephemeral phases. I felt like I went through a different phase every month — Online Dominion in April, crosswords in June, Only Connect in July, Jonathan Coulton in August, a brief stint of trying really hard to barre my guitar chords in October. Somewhere in the middle, I discovered Kittens Game (“the Dark Souls of Incremental Gaming”) and my summer internship mentor got me to pick up Pokémon Go again. A few intense periods of typographical study were interspersed, which involved watching the above music video dozens of times, teaching a Splash class on typography, and developing a new awareness of how Avenir was everywhere. During the last month, I went hard on Advent of Code and got second place, apparently the only person to make it on every single leaderboard. I also did a related golf side contest and poured a couple more hours into Paradoc, my personal golfing language, for rather unclear gain. At least I got a lot of GitHub followers?
It would turn out, though, that a lot of these phases had more staying power than I expected. Pokémon Go is a much better game than it was two years ago and has actually fostered a significant real-life community, which seems like one of the best possible outcomes of an augmented reality game, and I’ve found a steady pace to play at. I spread the Only Connect bug and people on my hall, intrigued by the format but annoyed by the overwhelmingly British trivia1, started writing and hosting full games for each other, with our own MIT-slanted set of trivia. One of us developed a custom site and tool to host these games. It took me a while to warm up to Jonathan Coulton’s latest album, but since it happened, I cannot get Ordinary Man or Sunshine out of my head; I’m still listening to JoCo as I finish typing up this post. Although I never got back to the peak of my crossword frenzy, I still study crosswordese from time to time and compose crosswords for some special occasions, like this one (.puz file).
The academics and technical aspects of this year have all blurred together, but I think my interests are finally crystallizing:
I love the music and the animation. The music video spells out the central conceit somewhat explicitly, but I think the lyrics by themselves have a hint of ambiguity — is it a harmful addiction that you just can’t escape from, or an essential part of your identity that you just can’t deny?
What parts of me can I just not deny, huh? Unfortunately 2017 is also the year I decide my online presence should probably be a little more professional, so you might have to read between the lines a bit.
It seems to me like lots of people want this year to be over. Among all the other things, 2016 is also apparently the year I totally abandon this blog and put off certain planned posts by several months.
I guess this is what happens when you take five technical classes at MIT. The extracurriculars aren’t helping. And the fastest and most confident writing I do is still reactive, when there’s an externally-imposed deadline or when “somebody is wrong on the internet”. This blog isn’t.
Oh well, time to make up for it in 2017.
What happened this year? I’ll start with some serious categories: