2019 retrospective

Published 2019-12-31.

Table of Contents

  1. Things that defined my 2019
  2. Trajectories for 2020

Things that defined my 2019


  • Imbellus continues to be an incredible place to work. My coworkers are smart, creative, compassionate, and mission-driven. I’ve grown and learned a ton this year, and gotten to do lots of interesting things that I’m proud of. I presented at two conferences, helped design a new assessment task, became much more confident conducting culture interviews, and finished an eight-month-long score programming project.
  • Teaching. For the third year in a row I taught DSCI 542 Communication & Argumentation, a one-month course in the Master of Data Science program at the University of British Columbia. It went well, and I enjoyed meeting another cohort of data scientists in training. But I think this will have been my last year teaching the course. For whatever reason, I don’t feel as excited about it as I used to.


  • Writing. I finally solidified my writing habit. Across my blog and newsletter, I published about 16,000 words. I recently looked at the analytics for this website, and was surprised to see that over 1700 unique people visited it in 2019, and about 450 were repeat visitors. These numbers are tiny by internet standards, but in real terms they’re huge—more than enough to be taking my writing seriously.
  • Bouldering. I joined a bouldering gym in the summer, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing strength-based exercise. It’s very gamelike; each route is unique, but composed of moves and techniques that can be abstracted. Barely any equipment is required. Socializing and collaboration are built into the experience. It takes a while to build up the grip strength and the callouses to have fun with it, but once you do, you’re hooked.
  • Travel. I was fortunate to travel a lot, both for work and for pleasure. I spent time in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Montreal, St. John’s, Toronto, Hamilton, Peterborough, Oliphant, Squamish, Salt Spring Island, Victoria, Deep Cove, and Nelson.
  • Chess. On Christmas of 2018 I signed up for chess.com, thinking I might play a game or two against a friend over the holidays. But chess turned into something of an obsession for me. I played thousands of online blitz games, watched hours of YouTube tutorials, drilled myself with spaced repetition, and went to several meetups at the Vancouver Central Library. I learned and improved steadily for the first six months, but then hit a plateau and haven’t improved much since. I’m happy with where I am, and I love playing daily games with my mother from across the continent, but in 2020 I’ll be playing much less.
  • Twitter. This year I started using Twitter as a platform for conversation rather than for passive consumption, and it’s become a great source of happiness in my life. Mainly this came from curating my feed better—unfollowing or muting people who complain, mock, or criticize, and following people who share earnestly and who reply as often as they post. I made several new friends, and even met a few of them in person.



Ranked by how much I loved them.

  1. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove. The best novel I’ve read in years. The characters walk right off the page. Highly recommended to everyone.
  2. Robert Caro, The Path to Power. First volume in Caro’s decade-spanning, multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The biographical equivalent of Breaking Bad or House of Cards, except it actually happened.
  3. Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes. An introduction to the Zettlekasten (or “slip box”) method of notetaking, invented by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Recommended to anyone who is serious about writing or learning.
  4. Tara Westover, Educated. Haunting memoir of a woman who was homeschooled… sort of. Beautifully written, and engaging throughout. Recommended to everyone.
  5. James Clear, Atomic Habits. A quick, useful read about habit formation. A bit too heavy on the anecdotes, but they can be skipped, and the rest is great. Recommended to anyone who likes this sort of stuff.
  6. N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season. I haven’t read much fantasy in the past decade, but I think this qualifies as a fresh take on the genre. Recommended to anyone who likes fantasy, but personally I don’t plan to read the next book in the series.

Made a good dent

  • William Finnegan, Barbarian Days. A compelling portrait of an obsession with surfing, but I lost interest about halfway through.
  • Ted Chiang, Exhalation. Incredible collection of sci-fi short stories. I read several of them, and plan to read more. If you want a taste, I highly recommend The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.
  • Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc. A memoir focused on the birth and growth of Pixar, written by one of its former presidents.
  • Stephen Moss, The Rookie. A chess memoir—slightly repetitive, but gives a great taste of what it would be like to take chess really seriously. (It sounds like hell.)


  • Bill Browder, Red Notice. Memoir of an investor who makes a lot of money in Russia and then gets into some trouble. I only made it about a quarter of the way in—perhaps it gets more interesting later, but I’ll never know. (I started reading it for a book club.)
  • Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash. A sci-fi classic, but just didn’t do it for me.

Top 10 articles

Ranked by the impact they had on my thinking or my behavior.

  1. One-Touch to Inbox Zero, by Tiago Forte. How and why to process your email inbox. Reading this article caused me to implement a set of systems that drove healthy feedback loops in many areas of my life.
  2. The Tyranny of Ideas, by Nadia Eghbal. What if people don’t have ideas, but ideas have people?
  3. Theory of Constraints 101, by Tiago Forte. To increase the throughput of a system, you need to increase the throughput at its tightest bottleneck.
  4. Status as a Service, by Eugene Wei. Social media companies make money off ads, but what they provide to users is an efficient means of acquiring social status.
  5. Deep Laziness, by Sarah Perry. Find activities and behaviors that resonate with the core of your being, then elaborate on them to create still deeper resonance.
  6. Going Critical, by Kevin Simler. An intuition pump for how networks thrive or die.
  7. Being basic as a virtue, by Nadia Eghbal. A counterweight to the idea, which I’ve mostly bought into, that it’s good to relentlessly externalize your learning by writing online.
  8. always bet on text, by graydon2. It’s fine to focus your creative energy on text rather than other forms of media.
  9. What the success of rock climbing tells us about economic growth, by John H. Cochrane. The first climb of El Capitan, in 1958, took 47 days; in 2017, Alex Honnold climbed it in three hours. This vast improvement is due not to better equipment or stronger muscles, but to increased knowledge—of climbing technique, and of El Capitan itself.
  10. Why books don’t work, by Andy Matuschak. Reading informational non-fiction is an unreliable way to learn.


  • A Very Vulfy Christmas, by Woody Goss. A 15-minute cartoon in the style of A Charlie Brown Christmas. A must-see for Vulfpeck fans, but others might not get it.
  • Beauty, by Contrapoints. If you haven’t seen any Contrapoints videos yet, you really should. Sharp-as-a-knife social commentary, always amusing and stylistically one-of-a-kind.
  • Climbing the Rating Ladder (playlist), by John Bartholomew. A chess international master thinks aloud while playing chess players at different skill levels. Probably the best existing resource for improving at chess.


Top 5 albums

  1. The Beths, Future Me Hates Me (2018). Infectious rock debut by a jazz-inspired group from New Zealand.
  2. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride (2019). A delicious feast of melodies, weird lyrics, and inexplicably rolled Rs.
  3. Theo Katzman & Four Fine Gentlemen, My Heart is Live in Berlin (2019). Glorious live concert that reminds me I’m already in the good ol’ days. I plan to one day subject my future kid(s?) to this album.
  4. Ariana Grande, thank u, next (2019). Sparse, dark, and evocative.
  5. Emily King, Scenery (2019). Soulful and melodic.

Notable EPs

Top 20 songs

Ranked by how much I loved them, here they are in a Spotify playlist.

  1. Future Me Hates Me, by The Beths
  2. Want Me Back, by Cody Fry, Cory Wong, & Dynamo
  3. (I Don’t Want to Be A) Billionaire, by Theo Katzman
  4. Better, by Cody Fry, Cory Wong, & Dynamo
  5. Deep, by Julia Michaels
  6. boyfriend, by Ariana Grande & Social House
  7. Look At Me Now - Acoustic, by Emily King
  8. This Life, by Vampire Weekend
  9. Harmony Hall, by Vampire Weekend
  10. Cosmic Sans, by Cory Wong & Tom Misch
  11. All At Once, by Madison Cunningham
  12. Make It Better (feat. Smokey Robinson), by Anderson .Paak
  13. The Death of Us, by Theo Katzman
  14. Casualty, by Lawrence
  15. The Feels, by Maren Morris
  16. Never Really Over, by Katy Perry
  17. Next To You, by Dirty Loops
  18. Northsiders, by Christian Lee Hutson
  19. I Forgot That You Existed, by Taylor Swift
  20. Want You In My Room, by Carly Rae Jepsen

Concerts & Musicals

  • Scary Pockets in Los Angeles. Funky as all hell.
  • Anderson .Paak in Vancouver. I was shocked at how flawlessly he performed, especially when drumming and singing at the same time.
  • Jacob Collier in Vancouver. Frantic, prodigious, magical.
  • Vulfpeck at Madison Square Gardens (seen on YouTube). The Avengers Endgame of the Vulfverse.
  • Come From Away in Toronto. Watch if you want to alternately dance, cry, and laugh for two hours straight.
  • Cats in Toronto. Pretty strange, if I’m being honest. But impressive choreography, and some great tunes.


Ranked by how much I loved them.

  1. Toy Story 4. Best film of the year for me. Made me laugh harder than I have in years.
  2. The Lighthouse. As disturbing as it looks, but surprisingly funny too, and entertaining throughout.
  3. Marriage Story. Incredible writing and acting. I hope I never have to watch it again.
  4. Avengers: Endgame. Say what you will about Marvel; I loved this one.
  5. Jumanji: The Next Level. Pleasantly surprised—hilarious performance by The Rock in particular.


Products and services

  • Roam. A note-taking app that fits the mind like a glove. Here is a demo.
  • Amazing Marvin. Easily the best task management app I’ve ever used. Makes me wonder why it took so long for this to exist.
  • Instapaper. A read-it-later app that has been indispensable to my reading and browsing this year.
  • Python Morsels. An email service that sends a python practice problem every week. Geared towards people who are experienced programmers but who want to learn more about python specifically.
  • Gum soft-picks. Far more effective than tooth floss.
  • Mug warmer. No need to microwave my coffee when my coaster keeps it warm.
  • Programmable Kettle. I swear it makes a difference to brew your coffee at the right temperature.
  • Bellroy Note Sleeve. A beautiful, functional wallet—lovely birthday gift from my partner.


  • Second brain / Zettlekasten / memex. The project of building and interacting with an evolving set of digital notes, as a way to consolidate learning and create new combinations of ideas. The most prominent stewards of this idea, in my mind, are Tiago Forte (see The 10 Principles of Building a Second Brain) and Conor White-Sullivan, the founder of Roam (see Roam as a second brain, or this Twitter thread where he describes Twitter as a Zettlekasten).

  • Antilibrary. An antilibrary is a collection of books you haven’t read, but are aware of. The best steward of this idea is Brendan Schlagel, on his Antilibraries site. After following Brendan’s writing (and his excellent tweeting) over the past six months or so, I’ve become much more deliberate about managing my want-to-read list.


Trajectories for 2020

🆕 Piano. I’ve played the guitar since I was a kid, but haven’t felt as excited about it in the past few years. I’ve always wanted to learn the piano, so I hope this will be a fun new challenge. By the end of 2020 I would like to be able to learn a random pop song by ear in under an hour.

🆕 Note-taking. After reading Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes, I want to give the slip-box method a test drive. By April 1st I would like to have written 60 literature notes and 30 permanent notes. I’ll reassess my trajectory at that point.

Goal-setting & monthly/quarterly reviews. In the second half of 2019 I got in the swing of doing weekly reviews, but haven’t habitually done monthly or quarterly reviews, or completed any significant side projects. In 2020 I would like to do this consistently.

Blogging. In 2019 I published 7 blog posts, for a total of 6700 words. By the end of 2020 I would like to have published 15,000 words, an average of 1250 every month.

Reading books. In 2019 I finished six books, and read parts of six more. I estimate that I read about 3500 pages. Reading isn’t a race, but I’m happier the more time I spend reading books, so in 2020 I’m going to shoot for 5000 pages, an average of 400 every month.

Time with friends. In 2019 I barely ever called my friends, and only spent a few quality weekends with them. In 2020 I’m going reach out to my friends more, and plan more trips and experiences with the ones who live nearby. I’m also going to try to meet more internet friends in person than I did this year (two).

Local/regional travel & exploration. In 2019 I did a good amount of this—went to Squamish, Nelson, Deep Cove, Salt Spring Island, and Victoria. In 2020 I’d like to do even more, ideally with friends. I’ll work it into my monthly reviews to plan trips and make sure this doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Newsletter. I started my newsletter on August 15th 2019, and I sent one issue per week for 19 weeks straight, taking a one-week break during the Christmas holidays. In 2020 I plan to keep the same schedule, with perhaps one additional buffer week at some point, for a total of 50 issues.

Twitter. In 2019 I spent much more time on Twitter than ever before, especially after publishing If you’re good, you need to talk more. I plan to continue using it as much as I have been, but won’t be too heavy-handed with myself if I feel like ramping up or down throughout the year.

Bouldering. Unless I stop enjoying it, I plan to go the bouldering gym at least 100 times in 2020.

Python skill development. In December I started a subscription to Python Morsels, a service for learning and practicing pythonic programming. Unless the service declines in quality, or unless it no longer seems valuable to me, I plan to attempt 50 practice problems throughout 2020.

Chess. For better or worse, 2019 was my year of obsession with chess. In 2020 I want to continue playing, but much less. I’ll start by committing to never playing for more than 20 minutes a day before April 1st.

Plane travel. In 2019 I boarded a grand total of 18 planes. Although I had fun and made lots of memories, this was expensive and often exhausting, never mind the massive carbon footprint. In 2020 I would like to visit Ontario fewer times and take vacations that require only car or train travel.

Pages that link to this page