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?
"AH YES, THE BAD YEAR IS NEARLY OVER" I SAID FOOLISHLY FOR THE FOURTH YEAR IN A ROW, UNAWARE OF WHAT FRESH HORRORS 2019 WOULD BRING
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:
This is two days late and it’s not even the post that was supposed to be here. That will have to wait until I’m less hosed. ESP just finished running Splash, our largest annual event in which thousands of high school students come to MIT’s campus, and MIT community members (mostly) teach whatever they want to the students. This was the first big program I participated really deeply in as an ESP admin, and it has this way of eating you alive and spitting you out full of joy and immersion in life but devoid of energy and buffer zones for finishing other things by their deadlines.
On a similar note, thanks for all the birthday wishes from everyone everywhere. I’m sorry I haven’t found the time to respond or sometimes reciprocate. This made my day, and probably last couple of weeks too.
I had this 5,000-word draft, but I half-abandoned it for being sappy, boring, pointless, and impossible to rewrite to be satisfactorily un-cringeworthy. Instead, let me just tell you a couple random stories and anecdotes that went somewhere near the start. Maybe posting them will motivate me to salvage something from the 4,500 words that go after it and post it. Eventually.
Some time ago, Namecheap had a discount, so I bought a domain name for 88¢. Unfortunately, the discount only lasted for one year; afterwards, it would cost $29/year to renew. Even though I bought it on a whim and didn’t have much use for it, I found myself wanting to keep it more and more and had a huge mental struggle over whether I could afford it, because wow, $29 is a lot!
Meanwhile, during the same school year, more or less:
One of the most unexpectedly different facets of life during my internship has been the meals.
I’m not talking about the food; it’s certainly different in a fantastic way (Dropbox’s food (link to Facebook page) is like something out of a high-end restaurant), but I knew that before coming already. Also of note is the way I started eating ∞% more ramen over the weekends than I did over the entire school year at MIT, because here I can’t buy that many groceries without them spoiling and am amazingly lazy in this new environment.
No, this (deadlined, so not that well-thought-out, but whatever) post is about conversations at meals, which happen basically every lunch and some dinners when my team eats together.
I’ve never had any regular experience like it. Of course I’ve had many meals at home with family, but they feel different because, well, it’s family and we have so many topics in common. I went to the same school for twelve years and we didn’t generally use a cafeteria; we just ate at our desks in our classrooms, or while doing things like attending club meetings or taking makeup tests. Sometimes if people felt like it they would push desks together to eat, but eating by oneself was totally normal. (At last, I feel like that was what it was. It seems so far away now that I don’t trust my memory, which is pretty sad… I faintly suspect I would have this experience in a more stereotypical American high school. But this is mostly just based off the cafeteria in Mean Girls, a movie I only watched in its entirety on the flight here, which is weird because I know I’ve seen the “The limit does not exist!” part much much earlier. /aside)
And at MIT? “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
I am glad for these conversations over lunch because I get to know my team more personally (and don’t have to awkwardly eat alone in the bathroom), but they’ve also given me a lot of time to ponder my (lack of) conversation skills.