2020

It's been a long, long year marred by crisis after crisis. It definitely didn't turn out the way anyone expected, and at this point, I think most of us are just hoping for the year to end and for the next one to be better.

But even 2020 deserves some sort of review, to look back and reflect upon highlights, discoveries and achievements. So here's my piece, which I hope you'll enjoy reading as much as I did writing it.

Favourite reads

I did a lot more reading this year than the last, dabbling mostly non-fiction in the first few months and then heavy fiction reading towards the end of the year.

At the start, I tried to read more intentionally, picking up each book with a purpose and taking detailed notes on the ideas and explanations introduced within them. But I soon realised that having to take notes during every reading session made it hard to just pick up the Kindle and read. So I switched it up and just read whatever I wanted, which led me to some of the more memorable reads of the year.

Seveneves

This was the trigger to a chain of sci-fi reads that entertained me for a few months. I picked up this book on recommendation by Dan Wang in Definite Optimism as Human Capital — which is in itself an invigorating essay – and also wrote a review on it.

This book is a classic Neal Stephenson, complete with the mind-boggling technology and the meticulous technical explanations. The first two parts (spoiler) tell the story of humanity's desperate attempts at self-preservation, after an unexplained event shatters the moon into fragments that eventually rain destruction upon the Earth. After a huge time-skip, a third part prophesises the return of humanity from space and the discovery that others had also survived within Earth.

I think what ultimately struck me was how real the technology described in the book felt, and the distant yet possible future it painted for humanity.

The Dark Forest

Out of all the sci-fi books (including the whole Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy), I enjoyed this one the most. After a slow start, the pace increased dramatically, which led to me finishing the second half of the book in one sitting, heart pounding throughout.

The author truly reached new heights with his creativity and imagination of the technology in our future, and somehow found a way to bring everything to a satisfying close in the end.

This book inspired me to read way more into the theories espoused within the story, and I eventually published a discussion of one of them.

Kafka on the Shore

I picked up this Murakami masterpiece on a whim, as if I couldn't stray any further from my established interest in sci-fi.

Both the earlier reads were technical and logical, while this book completely defied any logic and was filled with contradictions. Despite that, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the read and discovered in myself a new fascination for such fantasy-surrealism novels, if not simply as a form of escape. I highly recommend this book for leisure reading.

Oh and I wrote a review for this too!

Major highlights

Even 2020 had its high points, so here are some of mine.

Graduation

I graduated from polytechnic this year! While it was unfortunate that the graduation ceremony was cancelled due to COVID, I feel glad to have reached this significant milestone in my life, and to start working on the next. I wrote a long reflection on my full journey in Singapore's education system, and was invited to write another for a local newspaper on missing out on graduation.

For the uninitiated, Singaporean students begin their tertiary education in either a polytechnic or junior college, the former of which provides more vocational training and a full diploma upon graduation while students of the latter typically move on to university for a degree.

I've done a lot and grown even more during my three years in polytechnic. From growing a community of programmers, to representing Singapore in an international skills competition, I'm happy with how I made full use of all the opportunities given by the school.

I've decided to further my education after serving my National Service, to dive deeper into the "nerd stuff" of computer science, and to meet and work with more amazing peers in school.

Taskade

I spent the first seven months of this year working at Taskade, and I wouldn't have spent them any other way. I learnt so much there, starting out a React novice then quickly becoming able to confidently navigate and work on a large codebase with "the entire history of React" living within it.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to witness the growth of Taskade engineering, from five to fifteen globally. Over time, we developed new workflows and organisational structures to accomadate the new engineers, and refined our onboarding process. We even expanded the office twice!

I also had my first onboarding experience, where I talked several new interns through the codebase and the tools surrounding it. I was glad to have been given the opportunity to do so, since I myself had only been onboarded a few months ago.

Looking back to when I first started, uncertain about Taskade and unsure about my skills, I'm proud of my individual growth as a developer and happy with how evrrything turned out :)

Circuit breaker

This would be the 3-month lockdown in Singapore, named as such to "break" the cycle of COVID spread in Singapore. And "break" it did! Thanks to the relatively early lockdown and other measures like masks being compulsory, COVID cases in Singapore are down to a single digit today.

I took the circuit breaker as an opportunity to bond more with my family, spending more time out of my room to talk, play games, exercise and hang out with them.

I also did some deep introspection as I approached my 20th birthday, which conincidentally occured a day before the lockdown was lifted! During this time, I started a daily journal and wrote more both online and offline.

All in all, it was a good break to relax and recharge, bond with family and improve fitness as well.

Conscription

And of course, the pinnacle of this year's events and the rite of passage of every Singaporean son — mandatory military conscription. For the entirety of 2021 and most of 2022, I'll be serving in the military full-time and playing my part for national defence.

Unfortunately, this means I will no longer be able to keep up with the pace of work I had in the past few years, since I only have one to two hours of free time every day, the rest of which goes to work or training.

This year, I completed my Basic Military Training and was posted to the supply branch of the Army, where I'll be training for another 9 months to be a specialist.

While my posting wasn't the best, I still consider myself pretty lucky since I'll be learning about logistics and supply chain management instead of training to fight in wars (aka "chiong-sua" in local slang) and survive in the jungle.

I'll do my best to continue working on my own projects during this year and the next, and I will try to pick up some useful experience in leadership along the way.

Important lessons

Each year brings with it its own lessons. The following lessons have helped me in improving myself through the year, but there's still someways to go before truly internalising them.

  • Don't write about your end-goal, write about your progress. Looking back on many of my posts on this blog, I am pretty guilty of this, often adopting an overly optimistic tone when discussing future goals and consistently underestimating the effort it will take to achieve them in the end. Writing about your end-goals lulls you into a false sense of completion of the goals you've set out for yourself, which results in more complacency and procrastination, as if to say "I'm almost there already, let me take a break".
  • Your environment matters more than you think. Sarv Kulpati wrote an excellent essay discussing this phenomenon, which simply means that your behaviour and habits actually tie in pretty closely with your environment. It is why you can sometimes experience a major productvity boost in a new office, or when alone instead of working alongside others. The moment you step into a new environment, you will begin to build new habits within it, so ensure that you perform the right ones consistently.
  • Don't wait for "free time" to work on your own projects. While still in school, I thought to myself, "If only I had more time to code", and thus didn't code much. While at Taskade, I thought to myself, "If only I had more time to work on my side projects.", and ended up not working on them. Waiting for "free time" or "more time" will never work, and it simply gives yourself an excuse to not think about how to work around present constraints to get working on whatever one desires.

*Perhaps it's also worth noting the first important lesson was stolen from another essay in the depths of my memory, the title of which I can no longer remember or Google. If that's you, contact me and I will credit you appropriately.

Projects released

I probably started some 30+ projects this year, most of which unforunately are resting peacefully in my GitHub graveyard now. While I might revisit them someday (some of them had really interesting premises), I'll focus on the few I did manage to ship in this post.

  • Zuko is a basic Lisp-like programming language written in Rust. I first started working on it in February this year and started working on it again towards the end of November, having found renewed interest in building programming languages. I really enjoyed designing every aspect of Zuko, from the parser to the (tiny) standard library. I now see Zuko as a stepping stone towards more complex programming language design and implementation.
  • hereismy.link is a quick way to create your own online profile page with all your important links, such as social media and projects. I worked on it with my friend, who was the one who first suggested building it in competition with Linktree.
  • Bookshelves is a renderer for Tom Critchlow's specification of library.json files, which I hacked together in a few hours. I still like the idea of decentralised social reading, and hope to explore the idea further in the future.

Final thoughts

Sitting down to write this reflection, lots of thoughts are floating around in my head, most of them unfortunately expressing disappointment at what I've achieved this year. Despite the long break without school or work, I shipped way slower than I expected and got even less done outside of my projects, like with university applications and obtaining my driving license.

I think the issue lies in how reactive I've been, as opposed to being more proactive in my pursuits. Having been in school the past 12 years of my life, I unconsciously developed a dependence on it for my lifestyle cadence, and what projects I worked on would simply be whatever my time out of school or even during school afforded me. Now that school's out, I no longer had that constant pacer in my life and everything else went out of whack, amplified by lockdown and isolation.

I did learn a lot about myself this year. I realised how much of my identity was defined from my relative success in school, and conversely how little I was outside of that. I realised that truly expressing myself through writing or conversations was incredibly tough for me. I pushed myself to my physical and mental limits and even crashed and burned on one occasion.

Despite all that has happened, I think that I have been incredibly fortunate this year, from living in Singapore where COVID is pretty much non-existent, to having strong support from family at home. I have a lot to be grateful for, and a lot to look forward to in the year ahead.