Looking Back on 2021

January 1, 2022
Confidence: certain

Well, 2021 is over. I’ve been dreading writing this retrospective blog post for a few weeks, because every time I tried to think about what happened last year, I couldn’t come up with anything. The GLOBAL PANDEMIC of yesteryear has shown modest signs of abatement, but life remains pretty weird. Personally I’ve stopped caring about the GLOBAL PANDEMIC and would be happy to just get the thing and have it over and done with, but I appear to be in the minority on this one. I digress.

So what happened in 2021? It’s a little hard to remember, as my specific memories are usually attached to weird places I found myself, people I was hanging out with, or particular projects I was working on. Due to UNCERTAIN TIMES, most of those hooks are unavailable, so this post comes with no promises that it is comprehensive. But that’s OK.

Erin and I rang in the new year in my old apartment. We’d gone out for fancy cocktails, but previously unbeknownst to us, the bar started the new years countdown at 7:30pm. Why? Bonnie had announced at the eleventh hour that new years was canceled, and that all establishments had to be closed by 8. So we took our fancy cocktails, and spent the rest of the night at my place, in rather low spirits. To celebrate the new year, we screamed “fuck 2020” off the balcony, and most of the nearby apartment blocks joined us in our fury. It was the closest thing to “community” I’d felt in Victoria up to that point.

January was spent trying to emulate George Hotz and throw knowledge of computation at a field that was explicitly non-computational. My target was Canadian case law, trying to mine as much insight out of the field without knowing anything about it. I wrote about the process.

In 2020, Erin had also expressed interest in having me build a robot for her. I decided to make an (ill-fated) roomba. It wasn’t the world’s best robot, but I learned a lot about how to not build robots for next time. There hasn’t yet been a next time though, and for good reason.

In February, my alma matter reached out, asking if I wanted to be a mentor for Women In Engineering. I get a few weird invitations like this every year, usually from people incorrectly assuming I’m a woman based on my name. I replied saying I’d be interested to mentor a Woman In Engineering, so long as they were OK with me not being a Woman In Engineering. Surprisingly they said yes, and so I was matched with Rebecca, a biomedical engineering student, who clearly thought about me as a boomer. We spent the year doing biweekly calls, with me ostensibly doing Mentoring, but all things considered I don’t think I did a very good job of it. Regardless, it was cool watching Rebecca’s growth over the year, and I don’t mind taking credit for it — even though she did way more work than I did!

Also in February, someone started paying me to tutor them in Haskell! It was a cool experience, but ultimately fizzled out. I learned a lot about teaching, and about learning, and perhaps most importantly about the value of setting expectations. It was lots of fun, and I’d love to do more of this! Feel free to hit me up if you’re interested and diligent.

I did two podcasts in March, one for the University of Waterloo Software Engineering podcast, and another for Haskell Weekly. Both were tons of fun, and briefly amplified my message — lots of really cool people reached out to me to chat about life.

Erin got a fancy job at a fancy law firm in Vancouver for the summer, so we made plans to move to Vancouver. We both gave up our apartments, and immediately after her law firm informed everyone that the job would be remote due to THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC. Rude. We spent a huge amount of energy house hunting in Vancouver, and found a great place, which fell through a few days before we were supposed to move in. Assuming the whole thing was cursed, we decided to stay in Victoria, and found a great place a few blocks away from my old place. We moved in together, and it was by far the best change in my life of the last year.

While we were still house hunting in Vancouver, Erin and I accidentally crossed paths with a world-famous Youtube celebrity. Erin was mortified when I called her over and asked “excuse me, but are you a world-famous Youtube celebrity?”

THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC had me down, so I decided to join a “rock band class” at the royal conservatory. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I thought it would be nice to play music with people, since playing bass by oneself sorta defeats the point. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t what I got. What I got was to paired up with a handful of super boomers. There was Bill and Mike, Rob and Bob, and John and Mustafar. They were all pushing 70, and only wanted to play Herman’s Hermits. And they already had a bass player, and he was better than I was. We had to play behind GIANT PLEXI-GLASS SHEETS, and the entire experience was just terrible.

At the time, I was reading an excellent book about orthodox Jews, and somehow got myself all excited to celebrate the Sabbath. Erin and I started taking Saturday off, avoiding work and technology, trying to make time and space for friends and family. I started studying “how to study the Torah”, which turned into a fantastic reading club of Hamming with my friend Andrew. It was a blast of a time, even though we got through like one page an hour.

Relatedly, one time we were studying the “Torah” (read: Hamming) in the park, when a crazy man started harassing some poor woman. We intervened, the thing turned into a fracas, and ended with us dodging a gallon projectile of orange juice hurled directly at us.

Sometime in March, I decided to grab the GLOBAL PANDEMIC by its ugly horns. There’s a project called RaDVaC, which is an open-source vaccine project. It was unclear how much longer the (official) vaccines were going to take, and I figured I had some idle capital to throw at weird projects. Two of my friends were interested in collaborating, and we figured we could make 500 doses at a little less than $300 each. Unfortunately, it seems quite hard to get peptide synthesized in Canada, and nobody got back to me. Still, I think this was a worthwhile way to spend a few weeks. I want to train my “protagonist” muscles, and get into a headspace where the next time a big world-scale problem comes along, I won’t just give up two years of my life without trying.

Erin and I decided we’d avoid a lot of marriage-like-relationship problems if we just hired someone to clean our apartment, rather than doing it ourselves. We hired an agency, who sent a man that I googled immediately before his arrival. Turns out he was recently acquitted from a giant sexual-abuse scandal. Acquitted is a good thing, but it didn’t make us feel particularly good about the whole affair. We sat down and had a discussion about what sort of citizens we wanted to be — do we trust in the legal system to have done its job properly? And even if it didn’t, what should society do about people like this? We decided to keep him, but after a few disappointing cleans, the moral quandary was put behind us and we hired a friend of a friend who did a much better job.

In June, I applied for a super-cool sounding job involving making specialized hardware for accelerating machine learning. It sounded right up my alley, and was a pretty unique fit for my skills, so I was keen! But the interviewer didn’t show up. It took a week to reschedule, during which time I remembered that “machine learning” is just a code word for “AI that doesn’t work very well” and I remembered that I don’t actually want to speed up bad AI. Also there was probably something in there about not wanting to have a job. But a big chunk of it was the “don’t help cause the apocalypse” thing. Shame, really.

Concurrently, Erin and I got into a giant fight. Neither of us are sure what it was about, but man was it rough. Erin can be actively passive aggressive when she’s angry, and that wasn’t a very pleasant few days. I thought it would be funny if I got us a plaque memorializing the end of our fight, but didn’t actually do it. When our fight was over, I mentioned this idea to Erin, who thought it was hilarious. And so thus was born the “Sarin Board of Relationship Growth and Development” award. To this day there is only the single fight engraved on it, and we’d like to keep it that way. To avoid meta-fights, we’ve decided that the fights are remembered only by their dates: they don’t come with a title, so we can’t disagree about what the fights were about. Also, I get the odd numbered fights engraved, and Erin does the even ones. It’s a smooth system.

Since wrapping up my book last year, my main intellectual project for the year was Wingman. I was invited to give a talk on it at ZuriHac, which was a nice culmination of all of my work. It garnered a lot of attention, and felt good to finally show off in full glory.

My parents came to visit in July. It was fantastic to see them, and in an attempt to show them a good time, I bought us tickets to a Cuban music concert. But the restaurant I took them to beforehand had a mouse running around (they thought it was less charming than Erin and I did), and then I misread the starting time of the concert so got us there 90 minute early. And then the Cubans started 45 minutes late, so by the time they got started everyone was already tired and cranky. The show itself was a marvel of modern art. The musicians did a bit about how they were just practicing for a big show, and every song was punctuated with a 5 minute intermission with bad acting. It was not the hit for my parents that I was hoping.

After last year’s underwhelming birthday party, I wanted to make this year special, so I reached out to everyone I’d ever met, and invited them to A BIG SHINDIG. The turnout was OK, but special props to Malcolm, Sarah, and Eric for taking a ferry to come! THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC was not kind to everyone’s partying skills — we’d all sorta forgotten how to do it. Thankfully Erin peer pressured us all into shotgunning beers, which helped get the energy restarted!

Erin’s summer was rough. We canceled something like four weekend vacations because the workload was overwhelming. So when it was over, we decided to take a two-week vacation to the UK to visit her family. But the UK required a 10 day quarantine, which was going to aggressively eat up our vacation time. So we booked tickets to go to Texas, but then there was a huge GLOBAL PANDEMIC outbreak in Texas. So then we booked tickets to go to New Orleans, but it was hit with a hurricane. So then we booked tickets to Guatemala.

But Guatemala kinded sucked. It was soured by our stress levels, and wasn’t helped by all the stories we heard about just how dangerous Guatemala is. The guys walking around at every street corner with giant shotguns didn’t improve things. And the air quality was bad, and there were no sidewalks. Rough!

It wasn’t all bad — we went to visit our friends Christian and Paula, who had just left Canada to live in Guate. It was great to see them, and they took us to some pretty incredible places, including the most amazing beach house. The beach house was custom designed by two architects, in a crescent shape around a giant tree, complete with a cook and a guy whose job it was to drive us around in the boat. And the house was hidden behind a fake wall in the middle of a field outside of the sketchiest town I’ve ever seen. On one of our boat outings we met a woman who lived in the forest and who is “you, and you, and you.” We didn’t exactly get along.

Erin signed us up to hike up a damn (dormant) volcano. I was expecting like, a Canada-level hike. But this wasn’t that. It was six hours of steep, muddy climbing, carrying six liters of water in tow, through wet cloud cover. The Europeans (Erin included) gracefully leaped up the mountain like gazelles, while a few Middle Eastern men, some extremely unprepared Americans, and I trudged up, bonding in our shared misery.

We had been promised stellar views of active volcanoes when we reached the top, but all we got was thick clouds. It was damp and cold and there was nothing to see and the guides were unable to make a fire because it was too damp and cold, which didn’t add much to the damp/cold problem. But all sins were forgotten when in a magical moment, the cloud cover disappeared, and the crack of a nearby volcano erupting shook our (dormant) volcano. To date, it was one of the most magical sights I’ve ever seen, and might have been worth the cold, the damp, the almost dying from hypothermia overnight, the aggressive wildlife that tried to break into our cabin, the mouse that ate all of our food, and the searing pain in my knees by the time we got to the bottom.

But I also got to see an Austrian law professor squirm when I asked about his favorite administrative decision maker. “We don’t do that in Austria” he said.

After a week in Guatemala, we decided to cut our losses and head to Mexico. My cousin had recommended a place called San Cristobal de la Casas, citing it as a magical place. So we packed up and arrived there on a Friday night. The city was fully alive, with music on every corner, and more tacos and street merchants than you could shake a stick at. What a delightful change of pace after two years of THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC. I asked a local if there were any GLOBAL PANDEMIC restrictions and she laughed at me — “if they tried to stop us from dancing we would revolt.” Sentiments I wished my countrymen shared.

Erin and I took an awkward cooking class while in SCdlC. She went to the market to help buy ingredients, but I ducked in half way through. Erin greeted me at the door and whispered “we’ve made a huge mistake.” But the food was great, even if our compatriots’ conversational skills weren’t.

With our vacation time up, Erin headed for home. But I decided to stick around for another week or so, since I had nowhere to be and SCdlC was good for the soul. I spent the week exploring the city, hitting up cool jazz bars, reading lots of books, and generally reorganizing my life trying to get over an existential crisis. While in retrospect I didn’t solve it, I made great progress and came back raring to go.

While in SCdlC, I negotiated a contract for my newly-created business, and took on my first work as an independent contractor. The task was to help a business port their system to use one of my open-source libraries. It was fun work for a while, but I ran out of steam for the project due to some logistical problems. The result was less-than-stellar work on my part, and I’m mortified about the whole thing. I’m still trying to figure out how to sort everything out.

Also while in SCdlC, I applied to join an entrepreneur incubator. Essentially they pay your room and board to come spend three months meeting cool people and forming companies with a fixed investment for any good idea that comes through. It seemed like low risk (and I was the new owner of a new business) so I figured I’d give it a go. I got in, but ultimately turned it down because it was in Toronto and I couldn’t bear the thought of spending 3 months without Erin. More on this later.

Back in Victoria, I decided to try to make the most of the GLOBAL PANDEMIC. I took up improv classes, and Erin and I started taking swing dancing classes. Both were a blast, in completely different ways. Swing has continued to be awesome, but improv fizzled out. Erin and I have been having a blast with swing — it’s so cool how a particular lead on my end forces her to twirl without either of us understanding the dynamics. The art form itself has internalized lots of rules of physics that I can exploit as a lead. I can see how people get really into dance.

Mid-October I hopped on a plane to go visit some friends in Ontario. I was reunited with the excellent Jonathan Lorimer, and we pushed out a cool software package over the weekend — very reminiscent of my Erdos project. I took a “train” to Waterloo, but it turned out to be a bus that happened to be driven by a train conductor. We were like two hours behind schedule, and then the bus went rogue and went right past the terminal stop. For like 20 minutes. But Austin was waiting to pick me up when the dust settled, and I got to hang out with him and his partner whom I was ostensibly there to vet before they got married. I’m happy to report that Rosie passed with flying colors, and would make a great match for my heterosexual life-partner Austin.

While in Waterloo, I got to spend a few days on the university campus, haunting the old stomping grounds, and made friends with some of the baby software engineering students. It was a blast, and I tried to impart lots of good wisdom onto them. They didn’t care and went on with their homework, as is exactly the right response to old people butting in with advice. God knows I did the same.

I also ran into Alec Strong while in Waterloo, whom I have always really liked, but never known that well. We caught up over beers, and the night was one of the highlights of my year.

November came. Or more specifically, it didn’t, because on a whim I decided to participate in No-Nut November. Which is an online meme where you go for a month without having any orgasms. I made a valiant effort, but was thwarted in the final days by a brilliant ploy on Erin’s part. All in all it was great fun, and I’d strongly recommend NNN to everyone.

Some other stuff happened, like trying to volunteer for the local jazz bar. But I only made it a few shifts in because it was a horrible experience, impressively managing to not only give me no training, but also to schedule a bunch of new, untrained people to have a shift together, and also to write a really aggressive email when it predictably didn’t go well. It was a nice thought. But this is a long enough post already, so the remainder of the year’s anecdotes will stay mysteries.

Quantified Stuff

I read 49 books in 2021. Lots of them were light fiction, which I like reading before bed because otherwise my brain gets too engaged and I sleep poorly. But of the 49, five especially stood out:

  • The Brothers Ashkenazi — it’s hard to pin down exactly what I liked about this book, but it’s probably the best fiction I’ve ever read. The experience feels a lot like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is also a hard book to pin down why it’s as good as it is.
  • Art and Fear — musings on how to be artistic, and how to actually get art done. Most of art is pouring your soul into things and having it be misunderstood or ignored. This book really resonated with me as an independent researcher, where I feel like most of the things I pour my soul into get misunderstood and ignored.
  • The Fourth Phase of Water — water is way more interesting than anyone thinks. It has all of these funky physical properties, like you can use it as a battery. Sounds crazy, except that this is exactly how cells work. Reading this book really changed my everyday experience, and inspired a huge amount of wonder whenever I interacted with water.
  • Endless Forms Most Beautiful — like the above, except about life forms. The idea is “what can we learn when we start treating biology quantitatively?” Like, if you classify families of life by what percentage of DNA they share, rather than what things seem to be the same, you can all of a sudden start tracking the evolutionary timeline. What tools in the toolkit of life developed when? Which things evolved repeatedly? For example, animal wings happened three times in three flavors: “arm wings” for birds, “hand wings” for bats, and “finger wings” for pterodactyls. Fascinating stuff.
  • Where’s My Flying Car? — some boomer grew up in the golden age of science fiction, and took all of its promises to heart. This book is him trying to figure out where it all went wrong and why all of the predictions from the 50s didn’t shape out. It’s an inspiring book, if only to get a sense of what the future might look like if we set our sights higher than “our phones might be faster.”

In addition to reading books, I also sold a bunch of books in 2021. Last year I sold 209 copies of Thinking with Types, and 266 copies of Algebra-Driven Design. If you put those numbers together, I sold more than one book a day, which is a pretty cool passive income stream. At time of writing, I’m 13 sales away from 1000 copies of Algebra-Driven Design sold. Go buy some!

Over the last year, I did 963 hours of deep, focused work, 294 of which were spent on Wingman.

I spent 737 hours watching TV which is about 2h a day and a disgusting amount and I am ashamed. I will do better next year.

I spent 285 hours playing video games, mostly in the form of Civilization, which I have since uninstalled and unpurchased because it’s not even fun.

I also spent 163 hours breaking my new years resolution, which is not so good, but also I think the resolution might have been missing judicious thought.

I made 1208 commits last year and published 30,422 words.

I listened to 23,920 songs, and my favorite new artist of the year is Marlowe.

Wrapping Up

When I started out to write this post, I was feeling quite glum about the whole year. But having written everything out, I’m actually quite pleased with how it went and how much I grew during it.

My feelings were that I didn’t accomplish much during the year, but this isn’t true. While no, I didn’t publish a new book or anything, I did make a really fucking cool piece of technology. More importantly however, I realized that my crowning achievement of 2021 was the relationship I’ve built with Erin. That’s where the majority of my energy went, and it shows. I’ve never been so happy with anyone ever before. Not by a long shot.

However you want to cut it, 2021 was a good year and 2022 is going to be much better again.