2020 retrospective

Published 2020-12-31

Table of Contents

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

Things that defined my 2020


  • I got engaged! In November I proposed to Meg, my partner of four years, and she said yes. It was the happiest moment of my life, and it punctuated one of the happiest years of my life—which was so happy, despite the pandemic, because of all the time I got to spend with Meg.
  • I started a new job. The startup I worked for since 2018, Imbellus, was acquired by Roblox at the end of November. On December 1st I started my new job at Roblox as a senior data scientist on the Assessment Tools team. I’m grateful for the new opportunity, and I’m excited for all the learning and growing I’ll do at Roblox in 2021.


  • Write a Micro-Textbook. I designed an online course with Hyperlink Academy, and facilitated the first cohort in October. It was a lot of fun, and I’m going to run another cohort at some point in 2021.
  • Curing the Curse of Knowledge. Over the summer, my friend Matthew and I co-wrote a series of five essays on how to write clearly, and I’m really proud of the result.
  • Website redesign. In the spring, I redesigned my personal website from scratch, using Jekyll. It feels wonderful to finally understand every line of code that goes into it.
  • AWS Cloud Practitioner certification. I spent much of September and October learning about AWS through Adrian Cantrill’s course. I had originally planned to write the solutions architect exam, which is more advanced than the cloud practitioner exam. But after watching 25 hours of videos, it started to feel a bit too theoretical, so I decided to cut my losses and write the easier exam.


  • Piano. I bought myself an electric piano in January, and spent the next several months playing almost every day. I wanted to be able to learn pop songs by ear, and I achieved that a bit sooner than I expected. I didn’t play as much in the second half of the year, but I’m happy with how much I’ve learned, and still enjoy playing regularly.
  • Crosswords. In the fall I started doing the New York Times crossword. It makes me feel quite slow a lot of the time, but I’m gradually improving, and last month I finished my first Saturday puzzle without aid. (Saturday puzzles are the hardest.)



  • Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels (2012-2015). A series of four novels about a lifelong friendship between two Italian women. The best fiction I read this year.
  • Miller, Know My Name (2019). A moving memoir about the aftermath of sexual assault.
  • Starnone, Ties (2017). A short novel that pairs well with Ferrante.
  • Thomas & Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth (1994). One of the best books I’ve read on writing, and I’ve read quite a few.
  • Wilson, Teaching Tech Together (2018). A superb guide for people who teach programming, and has lots of offer to teachers of other subjects too.


  • Barabási, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success (2018). Quite insightful but also quite easy to summarize, which I did.
  • Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009). Made me wonder whether I should become a carpenter.
  • Hargrove, Playing With Movement (2014). Convinced me I needed to walk a lot more.
  • Housel, The Psychology of Money (2020). Probably the wisest book about money I’ve read, but you could probably get just as much out of the blog post that spawned it.
  • Huston, Teaching What You Don’t Know (2009). Recommended for teachers, especially those who teach on the side or in post-secondary institutions.
  • Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011). The second half dragged on quite a bit, but I’d recommend the first half to anyone who feels dissatisfied with their reading habits.
  • Lang, Small Teaching (2016). Another one that could be easily summarized, but still a great read for anyone interested in teaching.
  • McMurtry, Dead Man’s Walk (2000). The first prequel to Lonesome Dove, my favorite read from 2019. I liked it a lot, but not as much as Lonesome Dove.
  • Meadows, Thinking In Systems (2008). I liked it, but I felt like I got the point pretty quickly.
  • Payne & Barnett, The Economists’ Diet (2018). Much longer than needed, but some great suggestions.
  • Millhauser, Martin Dressler (1996). I read this for the first time when I was fifteen. I don’t think it’s a great book, but for some reason I think about it all the time, hence the reread.

Mixed feelings

  • Adler & Van Doren, How to Read a Book (1972). Some good suggestions, but I find the general spirit of this book to be a bit depressing. It seems to want to turn reading, which I find inherently pleasurable, into homework.
  • Butler, Wild Seed (1980). I picked this one up because Orson Scott Card raves about it in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. I enjoyed most of it, but the ending felt like a bit of a shrug on Butler’s part, so I was let down.
  • Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart (1999). This book contains one of the spookiest scenes I’ve ever read, and it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. I wish the rest of the book had been as thrilling, but for the most part I found it frustrating and boring.

Articles I loved

  • Young, Weekly/Daily To-Do Lists (2008). This simple idea changed how I think about work and leisure. It was especially useful during a year of working from home.
  • Nguyen, The Arts of Action (2020). This paper enriched my life by opening my eyes to the observation that activities (say, rock climbing, or chess, or cooking) have aesthetic qualities, just like art.
  • Chin, The Mental Model Fallacy (2018). This post made me rethink one of my core assumptions about learning.
  • @ssica3003, Tips for a longer life (2020). This post drove home for me the importance of regularly seeking novelty.
  • Andy Matuschak’s Evergreen notes. Totally transformed my idea of what ‘note-taking’ can be.

Videos I loved


Albums I loved

  • Theo Katzman, Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe (2020). Katzman was touring this album before the lockdown, and luckily I got to attend the show in Vancouver. It was the only concert I went to in 2020, and was one of the best I’ve ever been to.
  • Earth, Wind & Fire, I Am (1979). Hit after hit after hit.
  • The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers (2020). I don’t listen to much rock music nowadays, but I can’t get enough of The Beths.
  • Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971). I don’t know why it took me so long to listen to this one.
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Deja Vu (1970). Same as above.
  • Burt Bacharach & Daniel Tashian, Blue Umbrella (2020). Unbelievable songs, for a 92-year-old composer.

Songs I loved

Here they are in a Spotify playlist.

Movies I loved

  • Parasite (2019). The best movie I saw this year.
  • Knives Out (2019). A very fun murder mystery.
  • Jojo Rabbit (2019). Set during WW2, a boy in the Hitler Youth befriends a Jewish girl hiding in his mother’s home.
  • 1917 (2019). Set during WW1, two British soldiers are sent on a mission through dangerous territory to deliver a message to a battalion that is about to walk into a trap.



  • Better Call Saul, Seasons 1-5. SO GOOD. (If you enjoyed Breaking Bad, you really must watch this too. And if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, make that your #1 priority.)


  • Ted Lasso, Season 1. Charming series about an American football coach who gets a job coaching soccer in the UK.
  • The Last Dance. Probably could have been two episodes shorter than it was, because it got a bit repetitive by the end, but other than that, fantastic.
  • TaskMaster, Season 7. Watched it because James Acaster is one of the contestants, and had a lot of fun.

Mixed feelings

  • Queen’s Gambit. I’ve only watched the first four episodes, so I can’t pass a full judgment yet, but so far it seems a bit two-dimensional. I don’t feel particularly drawn to continue watching, but I probably will since everyone is raving about it.

Comedy I loved

  • Acaster, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999. This show was what made me laugh the hardest this year. If you haven’t watched Acaster’s Netflix specials, I highly recommend them. (This particular special was streamed live, and it’s not currently available.)
  • Gadsby, Nanette. Made me squirm as much as it made me laugh.
  • Middleditch and Schwartz, Middleditch and Schwartz (2020). Hilarious improv shows.


  • Minimalist shoes. I was having some knee pain early in the year, so I went to see a pedorthist. I’d been wearing orthotics since I was thirteen, so I thought maybe I needed to be refitted. Instead, he told me I would do better to strengthen the muscles in my feet by wearing ‘minimalist’ shoes. I was a bit skeptical, but I followed his advice, and I’m really glad I did. My knee pain went away and my feet are very happy. I now have both walking shoes and running shoes made by Vivobarefoot, and I can’t see myself going back to regular shoes any time soon.
  • Ultrawide monitor. I had no idea what I was missing. Paired with a window management tool (I use BetterSnapTool), it’s been a huge upgrade to my experience of using a computer.


All three of these are vegetarian, easy, cheap, and delicious:

Trajectories for 2021

Projects I’d like to complete

  • In February I’ll be teaching DSCI 542 Communication and Argumentation again in the Master of Data Science program at UBC. This year, I want to publish all my lessons online.
  • I also want to publish my micro-textbook, “How to Write a Micro-Textbook”, which I drafted during the first cohort of my Hyperlink Academy course in October. I also plan to run another cohort of the course.

Things I want to do

  • Learn how to snowboard. I tried it once in 2015, and this winter I’d like to pick it back up and try to get comfortable. I’ll aim to go snowboarding three times this season.
  • Spend more time exploring the mountains around Vancouver, both in winter and summer. I’ve lived here for four years and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
  • Read more of the books that I already own. (I’m a sucker for bookstores…) A few books I own that I’d like to read this year:
    • Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey
    • Moby Dick
    • I Am A Strange Loop
    • The Three Body Problem
    • The Making of the Atomic Bomb
    • Means of Ascent
    • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Watch more movies. This year I think I watched less than 15, and only a handful that I really enjoyed. (I recently made an account on Letterboxd, which is like Goodreads but for movies. Maybe this will help.)

Things I’m going to stop doing, for now

The only way to start doing new activities is to stop doing existing ones, so here’s what I’m going to take a break from:

  • Playing chess. In my 2019 retrospective I resolved to cut down my chess time to 20 minutes per day. I held that up for the first six months or so, but then I let myself start playing more. This year I’ve decided to make a clean break and delete the app off my phone.
  • Writing monthly “links” newsletters. I basically stopped doing this in July, but never allowed myself to feel okay about it. I’ll still continue sending updates, but only when I have something to share or announce.

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