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.
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 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:
I wasn’t sure what would be the right song for 2015 until I set foot on MIT. Then it was a no-brainer.
Where do I even begin?
I thought cooking was hard. Then I ended up in the kitchen on the third floor of the west parallel of East Campus and had to produce something edible. So I figured out how to acquire chicken and put it in a pan with some onions and heat the whole thing up. It wasn’t even that bad! A few weeks later, I graduated to cooking in a rotation for six people. All this from a guy whose culinary abilities only went as far as frying eggs a few months ago. It’s incredible where life takes you sometimes.
I thought I couldn’t productively listen to lyrical music while doing homework, because I get distracted and/or bogged down by the feels. Turns out there’s a category of metal songs with great atmosphere and terrible lyrics that does the trick.
I had planned to suffer through introductory chemistry my freshman fall and introductory biology my freshman spring, and thereafter be done with required classes. Well, I took chemistry, but there was barely any suffering involved, and now biology fits nowhere on my freshman spring schedule.
I had some outlandish hopes I’d walk into college and be able to become mildly financially independent because people would throw high-paying jobs at me that I could learn from, but I didn’t expect it to happen. Life isn’t that easy!
Well… it happened.
An incredible number of redacted things.
I’ve never been that kind of guy. Honest and innocent to a fault, no secrets except those arising from paranoid self-assigned concern about others’ privacy: that’s me. Until this year.
Oh well, I can’t blog about it.
But mostly, of course, I actually graduated. The teacher-appreciation dinner happened (6/4), where I debuted my graduation song (woo!) and ate some good cake (double woo!); senior prom happened (6/7), with some awesome photos; and then, actually, the graduation ceremony. (6/10, same day I realized I had recently passed 100 starred things on GitHub.)
::looks at self:: I’m actually a college student now.
Every one of these stages of life seems like it should be a big deal, like I should pass through and suddenly know all the things about maturity and aspirations and life that are expected of college students, but it never happens that way.
At least, all things considered, I think this transition was very successful at taking my mind off the angsty side of things. This post is actually surprisingly unangsty. Sorry to disappoint if that’s what you’re here for!
Well, there are better memory-triggering songs but I think this pretty much sums up how I feel about blogging right now (possibly including the very act of choosing that song.) And college apps. And life. Plus, the music video is silly in its own incredible way.
Anyway. Around this time a year ago, I made a post talking about how around a year before that,
I paused my participation in big high-school competitions, for a variety of reasons.
And then I rambled on life and programming competitions.
If you didn’t get it yet, this post so far has been written to meaningfully echo the last one. Nothing so abrupt has happened this year, but I just realized how nice it was to have a paragraph humorously listing the weird stuff I had gotten myself into over the course of 2013, so I’m going to do so again, even more completely.
Random video! Although I feel that I’ve heard it earlier, my first conscious memory of getting linked to it is from this post. At first I thought it would be the right background music for this post, but upon further reflection I think it mainly suited me while I was writing this post. Well, it’s topical if you mentally replace “day” with “year”.
Anyway. Around this time a year ago, I paused my participation in big high-school competitions, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, I stopped attempting to make IMO both because I wouldn’t get that much from the training and because other people ought to have the opportunity. I was concerned that I might condition myself to only be able to do math with the short-term motivation of contests. Better to focus on college math and maybe some original research, I thought. During the year, I did lots of the former and very little of the latter. Meh.
As for the IOI, my obvious next target: I was tired of training and going abroad while paranoid about whether my immune system would hold up. I didn’t feel that the IOI was worth that. To some degree, I also felt burned out about programming. Long story short, my treatment should end soon, and learning Haskell completely resolved the burnout problem.
But the most important reason, I think, was that “high school was too short”. I started math competitions ridiculously early and didn’t spend much time exploring other interests. I thought I knew myself well enough that I could say I didn’t have many more interests at all, but I was completely wrong (psych nerds will reflexively note this to be the Dunning-Kruger effect). I coded lots in weird languages — Haskell, as mentioned previously, plus Scala, plus all manner of other magical command line tools. I wrote my first math problem and submitted it officially, picked up a new instrument, went to a debate competition, served as an unimportant tech guy for MUN, discovered and became hooked on Pentatonix, participated in three puzzle hunts in Australia and one in Massachusetts, figured out my rough political stance, rode a boat, got retweeted by @eevee and @Kyrgyzstan_News, increased my Neopets™ fortune by over 3400%, and lurked on FurAffinity a little too much.