...And They Don't Stop Coming

It’s another year, huh.

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.

What else happened to me in 2021?


After a year as a full-timer, have I become a better software engineer? It’s hard for me to confidently say. If I have, most of it is through intangibles. I would say I’m a more experienced software engineer — I have, literally, experienced more software. Not just in the obvious sense of, well, working with it for a year; but in that I’ve gotten to work with many more different kinds of code, used in different contexts and built under different constraints. I also know a lot more about information security now, obviously.

I also started spending time working in our cryptography research and design subteam. I’m a researcher now!? In some sense, it wasn’t as hard as I expected: the exceptionally poor analogy my brain wishes to barge in and present to the entire class is that it’s like how some of the difficulty of doing IMO 3s and 6s is just in believing that you can do them — not a large fraction, but more than you might expect. Doing research well, efficiently and innovatively, is hard; but if any progress counts, you can just make a Google doc and paste things into it.

I didn’t do much blog-worthy programming outside of work, but I continued making small improvements to the same puzzlehunt projects as before, and I got to see many more puzzlehunts use those projects than I would have imagined even a year ago. And I placed first on the Advent of Code leaderboard again. I’m really only mentioning this at all because the proportion of hits this blog gets from Advent of Code is so high. I suspect I’ll take a break from competing for the leaderboard next year, and find some other way to participate instead… but it’s really hard for me to say and I probably won’t be thinking about it until right before next December.


If I had a nickel for every puzzlehunt I helped run this year, I would have three nickels. Does that snowclone work?

In January, we ran Mystery Hunt, which I won’t rehash. A few months later, we ran the 2020 Galactic Puzzle hunt, featuring, among other things, the first music recordings I’ve ever published anywhere. A few months later, with a different team of people, I helped with Silph Puzzle Hunt.

If Mystery Hunt taught me “how to write an uninspired puzzle, the kind based on one mildly interesting idea or data set and little else”, then Silph Puzzle Hunt taught me how to write an uninspired puzzle based on nothing at all. Given just an answer and a reasonable amount of time, I’m a lot more confident that I can brainstorm and glom together mechanics to make a passable puzzle. Which is honestly a neat skill I have wanted to develop for a while. So I got that going for me this year. This will hopefully become a blog post one day.

Everything Else

Another soft goal I had for this year was just to “know more stuff”. Without going on too far a tangent, I think when I was younger, I was really interested in looking for and learning general principles in every domain I dabbled in. I vaguely looked down on learning overly specific facts, the kind about specific people in specific times at specific places, and tended to avoid fields of human inquiry that I thought depended too much on such facts. Although there are certainly advantages to seeking general principles, my younger self’s philosophy probably went overboard. In theory, timeless facts are infinitely more useful than facts with an “expiry date” of, say, ten years; but in practice, you need both kinds of knowledge, valuing the difference in time-usefulness as more than a factor of ten is sort of absurd, and anyway, ten years is a long time.

In any case, I started doing and thinking about trivia a little more seriously and regularly than my once-a-year Protobowl binges of the past. I joined LearnedLeague, an online trivia league, late last year, and after a few seasons quickly converged into a middling position in the bottom E rundle. Relatedly, I got pretty deeply into crosswords for a few months. My personal speed record for solving a NYT Friday crossword cleanly is 7:36 for the 07/02 crossword, which is honestly wild given that I don’t think I could finish a single Friday crossword by myself a year ago. Finally, I started seriously maintaining an Anki deck.

Picture break:

Terminal in the /lost+found directory, which is full of files. Picture of screen.

Around midyear, my computer started suffering what I can only assume was a hard drive failure, spontaneously unmounting with fsck errors. After backing everything up and preparing myself to live for maybe two weeks without a personal laptop, I sent it in to Dell on a Tuesday evening and got it back that Friday.

Other assorted goings-on: Some of my discretionary spending went to a few music purchases: a moderately pricey second-hand guitar last November, FL Studio and some simple recording equipment this March. (Some readers may know that Intersections, the puzzle involving the music recordings I mentioned earlier, arose from my “occupational hazard of wanting to incorporate every possible hobby into a puzzlehunt puzzle”.) I hung out on Twitch a lot more and attempted to stream about twice. I kept this blog going, of course, slowly but weightily; I broke my own record for longest post again. I went to EA Global Reconnect and donated $42,000 to GiveWell.

2021 in media (mostly video games) consumption:

  • Right after Mystery Hunt, I got (the now Hugo Award–winning!) Hades. I think its winning was totally reasonable and don’t have anything to add.
  • In April, in short succession, I learned of two upcoming releases that I almost couldn’t believe: the English localization of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles and Bo Burnham’s new special “Inside”. The former game was so amazing that I watched another streamer play the entire thing again, and I listened to the songs from the latter on repeat for a few days.
  • In February I was drawn into Final Fantasy XIV through a combination of realizing a lot of my college friends were playing it and reuniting with a high school friend who is now a vtuber and streamed it. I played a bit of that, stopped for a while, then in October turbocharged through something like the last three-quarters of the main story questline to date (around 400 quests, if that means anything) in about a month and a half, just in time to not play the newest expansion release because there were always thousands of other people trying to. I still play sporadically especially when the queues are short.
  • I finally beat (saw the credits of) Ring Fit Adventure!
  • On the backburner, something I came back to from time to time was Monster Train, a deckbuilder with big numbers. I like deckbuilders and I like big numbers, what more can I say.
  • Finally, late in the year, Babble Royale came out and I started playing it with a lot of my puzzle friends. It’s a Scrabble–battle royale that seems absurd, but actually works; I don’t play battle royale games generally, but this one turned out to be (obviously) different.

Overall, I think 2021 wasn’t a “big milestone” kind of year for me. Even running Mystery Hunt feels like it belongs to the 2020 ledger because the bulk of the work was then. Which I think is fine, I still successfully followed through on many plans and continued many threads from the past; I choose to heed the genre of 2021 inspirational essays that say it’s okay to have realistic expectations for yourself when you and everybody else are still living through a pandemic and things are Not Okay. Life can’t be all climaxes and triumphs; sometimes you just need a few filler episodes. Or feeder puzzles for the meta.

Still, I’ve been tossing around some ideas for goals to set for 2022, and although I have a few private candidates in mind, I think this is a simple enough goal to make public: I would like to be able to say otherwise for 2022, and accomplish something I can call a “big milestone” instead of just a continuation of things I’m already doing.

See you then.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)