Thanks for a Great Year, 2020

December 24, 2020
Confidence: certain

Southeast Asia

What a weird year 2020 has been. It started in Bangkok, having gone all the way down to the busiest place I’ve ever been in my entire life to see some fireworks. And then, when we got there 10 minutes before the fireworks, we somehow decided to not go watch them. Whoops.

After one of the most amazing jazz concerts of my life to see Tran Manh Tuan, Natalia and I then headed to Saigon, where we spent a week bickering and went on a truly awful walking tour of the city. N said she hated cities, so we took a 19 hour train ride into the rural middle of Vietnam. And promptly promptly broke up when we got there. Somehow she convinced me to pay for her flight out of the country. As far as getting rid of exes, $60 isn’t such a bad deal, but I think she got the better end of it.

So I trundled back to Koh Lanta, the first place since Denver to felt like home. I was there for about two months, having found a villa apartment, and hanging out at the Hub of Joys — an amazing hostel on the island. I’d chosen the apartment (furnished!) because it came with a kitchen and I was feeling optimistic about cooking, despite not knowing how, not having a grocery store, and living in a country where a restaurant meal will set you back less $1. The extremely sassy manager of the apartments gave me a tour of the place, and it was exactly what I wanted.

My evenings were spent at the Hub, schmoozing with new people on the daily. For whatever reason, the Hub mainly attracts young, single, German women, so between that and nightly karaoke, I was pretty occupied. The day I was supposed to take possession of my apartment, I’d convinced one such German woman to come check it out with me. When we got there, it wasn’t at all the place the sassy manager had shown me! Instead of a glorious king-sized bed with an ocean view, I was instead saddled with five(!) single beds. The German woman wasn’t impressed, and went home.

After complaining to the sassy manager, two Thai men came running up the hill carrying a giant mattress. I think it might have been a show to make me feel bad, but knowing that didn’t make it feel less bad. While we waited for the staff to make a new bedroom right before my eyes. It happened impressively fast, but it was still slow as hell. The sassy manager hung out the whole time, and asked me to play a song on the guitar for her. I sang the first thing that came to mind, and she said “oh, a love song? no thanks” — it wasn’t — and we spent the rest of the time in uncomfortable silence.

My neighbors eventually came around to say hi. They were grandparents from Sweden, and were very suspicious of this young man who had come to live in their community. They’d somehow heard about the fuss I made about having a kitchen, and would regularly check up on me to see if I’d been using it.

In the mornings, I’d work on writing my book. The afternoons were spent swimming, lounging around on the beach, and playing guitar. And in the evening, back to the Hub to hone my social skills and inevitably try to persuade Germans to come to karaoke. It didn’t often work, but when it did, great nights always followed.

What a life of luxury I led.

After a few weeks of this, it came to my attention that I was happy. Ask anyone; that’s not a feeling I’m particularly familiar with. That’s not to say I’m depressed or sad or anything. My life is excellent, but I’d never really felt it before, viscerally. Partly it was just unwinding; after living on couches for four months and breaking down, I really needed some “me” time. But also, for the first time in my life, I noticed how good I had become, socially.

For the vast majority of my life, I’d been a shy kid, who wasn’t particularly good at talking to new people, or dealing with social situations. I’d turned to alcohol as a crutch when I hit 19, but ten years later was now sober and, I realized, completely in control of social encounters. I could organize groups, change the energy level of the room, and get shy people engaged and opened-up. I could reliably get into deep, interesting conversations with people. And, amazingly to 16-year-old me, had women throwing themselves at me.

Somehow, I’d gotten really good at social situations, and hadn’t noticed it until early February. I think until then, I had been carrying around the memory of the person I used to be, while thinking it still applied. Shedding that false identity is the most powerful experience I’ve ever had. Funny that I needed to run to the other side of the world and play guitar and flirt with German girls in order to make that happen — it’s not exactly the hero’s journey.

Of the many incredible people I met and spent tie with, some exceptional ones were Liam, Tobi, Lucie and Katha — with whom I put more trust than I was comfortable, and was richly rewarded in the resulting interactions. I love you all, for our discussions about overthrowing governments, for our impromptu trip to Krabi Town, for using my head as a jenga platform, and just for your intellectual and emotional companionship.

In February, my old friend and occasional lover Erin came to visit. There are no words to describe the joy I experienced as she walked across the hotel lobby to come say hi. The next ten days were a flurry of terrible tourist islands, non-air-conditioned bungalows, witnessing a child bride be married off, never-ending intellectual discussions. Oh, and I kicked a sea urchin at some point, so also hobbling around and spending hours soaking my toes in vinegar held in an empty cup-noodles container.

After too many days on Koh Lipe, we decided to leave, and I brought Erin back to Koh Lanta. We got some excellent khao soi, some iffy sushi, and the karaoke performance of a lifetime. I introduced her to my Thai hostel family. Tong and Noisy knew there was something special about the way Erin and I felt about each other, and they presented us with chop sticks on our final goodbye — apparently a Thai wedding tradition. Portent.

Erin sugared us with fancy hotel rooms when we went to Phuket, but was unable to deal with it due to getting probably-covid. We’re not sure what it was exactly, but she was out of commission for a few days and we were both genuinely — though momentarily — concerned she might die. But she didn’t! And instead we shared a cab to the airport, where she headed back to Canada, and I made my way to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai was where my previous transformation happened, back in 2017, when I decided to quit my job and retire. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that it was the circumstances (and more importantly, the people) who made Chiang Mai magical the last time around. Without Sam, Job and Dan, the place just wasn’t the same. My week in Chiang Mai was lonely, but I did make some geo-tagging stickers of my face that I distributed to the random travelers I met. To date, they’ve been scanned in 18 different cities across the globe, and I still have like 500 in my closet to put up when the world reopens.

My Thai visa was about to expire, so my plan was to head to Korea and then to Japan. But COVID struck in full force, and both countries were closed to me. Due to lots of unsolicited advice from back home, I was convinced to return to Canada, but still had a week to kill. I spent it in a quiet hostel in Bangkok on Erin’s recommendation where I met some cute Thai nurses whom I liked (“you are very strong and handsome boy”), and a tech-bro-startup-dude that I didn’t. That week I made some incredible breakthroughs on my book, eventually stumbling across the eventual linchpin of the final product.

While I was there, I discovered a love for Japanese curry, and also discovered my first real security vulnerability in the website for Japanese curry. Mark one of my yearly goals off!

I ran into my ex-girlfriend Dana in Bangkok, who had been traveling continuously since we’d broken up (on good terms) in 2017. It was great to see her, and we had a few fun days bopping around the city and catching up. I was headed for the Canadian winter in two days, and she helped me put together a last-minute, weather-appropriate outfit for it.

Getting Settled

March 9th, and I whooshed back to Canada. I got into the country a few hours before they started telling people to self-quarantine at the border, so I get off scot free. The next few days were spent with my friend Andrew, who was kind enough to host a potentially deadly human on his couch. That night we got a few of the lads together and witnessed the genesis of the spectacular ∞-groupoid chat. I was en-route for Victoria During my stay, I convinced Andrew to move to Victoria with me, and we hit the island.

Victoria. My new home. But I didn’t yet have a place to live, so I hit the only hostel in town that was still open — the unfortunately named Hostelling Internation Victoria. And my god did HIV live up to its name. Without a doubt, it was the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed at. My dorm was full of 40 men, with the exact smell you’d expect from a dorm full of 40 semi-homeless men. There were bed-bugs, no community vibe whatsoever, and it was cold as shit. I was supposed to stay 14 days but only managed two; it was the man snoring at a record 78dB — louder than a vacuum cleaner. I know, because I measured it.

Instead I found a room in a shared airbnb apartment, run by some chill people. It would have been fine, but they smoked a loooot of weed, which I find exceptionally distracting. Although they didn’t say anything, I could tell they were uncomfortable having me there during the days of our GLOBAL PANDEMIC. It was nice base of operations while I recovered from the HIV, but it was time to move on and find a place of my own. Before I took off, my hosts set me up on a blind date because, and I quote, “you both like candy.” Needless to say, the date didn’t go well, nor was it helped by her grandfather dying earlier in the day.

I’d bought a skateboard since moving to Victoria, and the early days of the lockdown were amazing. There were no cars on the road, so I moved house by skating down the middle of the street, tugging my roller suitcase behind me. Sandy “King of the Road” Maguire.

What followed was an endless procession of airbnbs. There was a weird executive suite. A loft apartment with bad sound-proofing where all of the neighbors would complain if you had the audacity to go up to your loft. The very Chinese apartment, owned by a white man and his latina wife. I stayed at the last of these for a month, and used the opportunity to buy a piano as something to help keep me sane. I played an hour-long concert on my balcony, to the thunderous applause of three homeless people and one racist man.

Erin coincidentally lives in Victoria — so we started hanging out. Our history has been a long, twisted one, going back seven years. In all that time, we’d been interested in one another, but never simultaneously single and co-located. Possibly aided by the GLOBAL PANDEMIC, we ended up spending a lot of time together and, despite our best efforts, couldn’t manage to stay apart.

I finally found an apartment — unfurnished — at a bit of a steal; the landlord clearly couldn’t afford the mortgage, so I picked it up at well below rental prices. The neighborhood seemed really nice, lots of food options, a grocery store, a jazz bar, but everything was closed due to the GLOBAL PANDEMIC. Erin helped me move my one suitcase and piano across town on foot, and we spent a romantic evening on the floor of my empty apartment, eating burgers and singlehandedly keeping the Canadian potato farmers in business.

With an apartment lined up, all that was left were the necessities of modern living: furniture, a bed, wifi and a phone so I could buzz people into the building. Furniture was surprisingly easy; IKEA just dropped it off and I spent a few days pounding dowels, twirling Allen keys, and watching Jackie Chan movies. But the other three? Very challenging.

All of the mattress stores were closed, which meant I was resigned to the dreaded bed-in-a-box internet shopping experience. After what felt like 10 hours of doing MATTRESS-RELATED RESEARCH, learning about what sort of sleeper I was, and where my sleep pressure points were, and what sort of hardness sleepers like me should, and what my pillow shams said about me as a person, I was ready to do shopping. I splurged and bought the best bed for me according to the internet. But supply chains were backed up, so it got lost in the mail. And then they kept trying to deliver it at 8 in the morning, but because of the combination of not having a phone to buzz them in (a forthcoming story in this saga) and not sleeping at the apartment because I didn’t have a bed there, they failed to deliver it for an additional four days. Let me tell you, after two weeks of sleeping on floors and couches, nothing has ever felt better than taking that damn mattress of it its box. Not even the realization that my research was for naught and it was ridiculously uncomfortable could sully my spirits.

Throughout all of this time, I didn’t even have internet to help. I’d called the internet people well in advance, but you know how they are. They can never show for a week. When the guy did, he hooked up some cables in the control room, and told me to go plug in the modem and see if it worked. Unfortunately the modem hadn’t yet arrived in the mail, so he left, assuming it would just work. The delivery company tried to deliver the modem, but because my phone didn’t work (still forthcoming,) they decided that instead of leaving it, they should drive it 100km away and leave a note telling me to pick it up at my earliest convenience. There was no “we will attempt redelivery” info, nor was there a website, nor did they actually say where they were holding my package. They didn’t pick up the phone for 45 minutes when I called on a borrowed phone.

Thankfully the telco did pick up the phone, and I berated them until someone bit the bullet and waited on hold for two hours to get in touch with the delivery company. When my modem finally arrived, it didn’t just work. Apparently my apartment wasn’t in fact wired for ADSL, but the modem didn’t come with a cable, so I had to run across town to pick one up before I could learn that. Tech support then refused to help me until I tried a different cable, so I had to go back across town to get another cable. It also didn’t work. The telco said they could send a guy in a week, but he’d probably have to cut holes in the wall to install it. Yeah right, pull the other one. It has bells on it.

So I called around, and finally found a cable reseller in town. Their office was a five minute walk away, but due to the GLOBAL PANDEMIC, I wasn’t allowed to go pick up a modem from them. Instead they’d have to mail one. Another week of waiting, and, guess what! It’s a lemon! For christ’s sake. Two excruciating hours on the phone with tech support where they ask me if I was sure that I’d turned it on. And that I’d plugged it in. Oh, and are you POSITIVE that it’s turned on? Maybe try wiggling the cable. Eventually I convinced them to send another modem. Thankfully there were no delivery issues this time, and it worked the first time I plugged it in.

And during this whole ordeal, I was trying to get a cheap cellphone, just something that the front door of my building could call to get buzzed in. But all of the phone companies were closed due to the GLOBAL PANDEMIC. “Did you know that most problems can be solved at our website?” Not this one, and even if it were, not without internet, you bastards. Eventually they opened up in person, so I biked across town to wait outside for an hour while they allowed one person maximum into the store. I convinced them no thank you, I wouldn’t like the latest iphone. Yes, that’s right, a $10 plan is sufficient. No, I don’t need data with that. The man looked dejected, but took my credit card, and sent me on my way. Blissfully, the phone worked without any issues.

I caved temporarily on the data front while I sat in my unfurnished, unconnected apartment, with the rest of the world closed, while I waited for all of the problems in my life to get ironed out. But I couldn’t add the data plan, because they couldn’t charge my credit card. This was mysterious; the card was fine. I had used it to buy the phone originally, it wasn’t blocked, and I could still use it to make purchases elsewhere. It turns out the telco doesn’t know the difference between billing and mailing addresses, and always assume that those are the same thing. But my billing address was still in America, and for whatever idiotic reason, their online system wouldn’t let you fill in an American postal code. So, they could accept my money in person, but the online system couldn’t handle it. After an hour talking to escalating tiers of managers, the eventual suggestion was to “change my billing address.” Thanks so much, guys. I don’t think this one ever got sorted out.

I’m sure the system works really well when you’re all set up, but MY GOD things shouldn’t have been this hard.

Routine Life

In late April(?), Erin and I decided to “go steady.” We were already inseparable, but this made it official. Out of all the marvelous things that happened in 2020, this event tops the charts.

Now that I was back in Canada, I decided to go visit my parents, who lived only a breezy eight hours’ drive away. It sounds crazy, but that’s pretty damn proximate for Canada. I rented a car, and went up for a week. It was great to see them, but I left as a firm believer that familial relationships are much better with some distance. While I was there, I spent a few hours cutting and sanding styrofoam that I eventually turned into homemade speakers. This was the beginning of what turned out to be quite an active year technically and electronically for me.

The rest of the summer passed without much ceremony. My cousins moved to town, and their parents followed them, and their daughter and fiance followed them, so all of a sudden I had lots of family in town. However, in SUCH UNCERTAIN TIMES, due to the GLOBAL PANDEMIC, we didn’t see much of one another. In fact, I didn’t see much of anyone. Of the fifteen people I knew in town, only one of them was willing to hang out with me with any sort of regular cadence (thanks Nash! you’re dope!) The others, whether it be due to GLOBAL PANDEMIC, social anxiety, or maybe just not liking me, refused.

In an attempt to stay social, I started calling old people from my life whom I’d really liked. At one point I was averaging over 20 hours of calls a week, It was fun reconnecting with great people. Some calls didn’t go so well, but others — like with Ehsaan — we went for five hours straight. After two weeks or so of this, I burned out on social activity, and curled up, putting the same amount of energy into writing a book. But this wasn’t the end of my social issues for the year.

It came to a head when I attempted to throw a joint house-warming/birthday party for myself, after extreme social isolation for five months. All I wanted was for my friends to come hang out with me. Only two people RSVP’d. It was one of the worst feelings of my life. Instead, Erin and my cousins took me out for korean BBQ — more meat than our bodies had room for. A nice consolation prize.

The birthday marked the beginning of my third decade. To celebrate, I decided to finally delete my Facebook account. Not just stop posting, like I’d done for the last year, but to actually delete the account and all of its associated data. At one point in my life I truly loved Facebook, but those days are no more. I haven’t regretted it, and it wasn’t hard for more than three days. Strongly recommended. I switched to Signal, updated everyone I cared to stay in touch with about my new info, and took the plunge. The result is that I talk to fewer people, but the ones I do stay in touch with are the people I really want to stay in touch with. Good trade.

To do a bit of time travel, in July, Erin and I and another couple went to see a band. Live music! Joyous occasion! In retrospect I don’t think the performance was amazing, but the circumstances of being out in the world and hearing music was enough to make any event memorable. I spent the entire show watching the bass player, and in particular, noticing both how good he sounded, and how little work he seemed to be doing. My infrequent musical gatherings always had me unpromptedly ending up playing a bass line on piano, which never really worked out. Combined with the fact that I wanted to play more music with people, and that everybody needs a bass player, the solution to both problems was obvious. The day after I went to buy a bass guitar (giant scale!) and an amp, and walk the hour home with them. Uncomfortable, but worth it.

On September 1st, I finished writing my second book. Taking an uncomfortable action, I decided to reach out to one of the pivotal researchers in the field, and ask him to write a foreword. This man is not only the creator of some core pieces of technology used in the book, he’s also a personal hero of mine, and approaching him was scary as hell. But he turned out to be super cool, and agreed to write the foreword so long as I gave him a few weeks of lead time. He returned with a beautifully-written foreword on September 10th, and having received it, my book immediately started sales. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the software I write has dramatically changed for the better. Thanks to everyone who’s helped support me throughout the writing process; each and every one of you is fantastic.

The rest of September was spent quietly, taking some time for myself. The book took a year to write, so it was nice to not have an overwhelming locus for my attention. But I couldn’t rest on my laurels, so I spent the month as a vegetarian. Just to try it, you understand. The goal was to learn to love vegetables, but what actually happened was that I just ate a lot of broccoli and tofu. Erin and I signed up for the gym, started going regularly, and in my case, started looking really good (she already did!)

Or maybe the vegetarian thing was in July. It’s hard to keep track sometimes.

October (or maybe September) was thankfully the end of being vegetarian, so on a whim, I decided to try being keto instead. I’m not much of a planner, so I sorta just dived in, eating lots of cauliflower and ground beef for the first two weeks. It was fine, until it wasn’t. I’m not convinced I really got into ketosis at any point, but I sure got the keto flu a lot, so maybe that was me going in and out of ketosis lots of times. Under that lens, my weird food experiment was wildly successful — I entered ketosis something like five times in a month!!

During my Erdos project, James King had the idea of a new way to write software. It’s an amazing idea and has always stuck in my mind. I made some progress towards it last year, but the underling infrastructure simply wasn’t ready for the sorts of things we had in mind. But in October, I read a blog post that suggested the technology was now ready for what we had in mind. I enlisted the help of my friend Reed, and we went heads down. By the end of the month, we had a working tactics plugin for the Haskell language server, It’s now out in the hands of a few thousand people, and I hear a few times a week how much people love it.

My time lines are all screwy from here on out. During my month of keto, I realized my energy levels had completely leveled out. I used to take a giant nap every afternoon, thinking that I just got tired in the afternoon. But this didn’t happen while on keto. What was happening in fact was I was experiencing a massive sugar crash, and weathered it out by taking a nap. No sugar, no crash, no naps. So I spent a month just not eating sugar. It was amazing how good I felt, though I did have nightly dreams of skittles. These days I’m back on the sugar, but only in the evening, when I want to crash anyway.

I also bought a 3D printer sometime around here. It was an impulse purchase, but I thought it would be fun to have a way of turning software ideas into reality. That’s always been my biggest qualm with software: it’s hard to show normies what it is you do. There are no tangible products of an elegant algorithm other than the algorithm itself, which most people simply can’t appreciate. Thankfully my ego and vanity are both huge so I can appreciate it for them for me, but all in all, it’s been really cool to be able to make physical things.

In November I decided to take on a hard project and make a self-balancing skateboard. I failed pretty miserably on this front, but in my defense, it’s now late December and I still haven’t received the GIANT SELF-DRIVING WHEEL that is a linchpin in the project. If I were truly dedicated to the idea, I probably could have made one myself, but I wasn’t and I didn’t. I still plan to build this thing, but I’m hoping the parts will come in first.

For December, I decided to make a roomba for Erin. It was my first true foray into CAD, and I immediately realized that I hated all of the CAD software. Of course, there’s a nascent Haskell library for doing CAD, so I picked that up and started trying to model the roomba. It was a much better experience than any of the other software, but it still crashed all the time. I made friends with the maintainer, and have spent a good chunk of my waking time since then contributing to the project with whatever things I find in the course of making the roomba.

Getting the robot to suck has been a surprisingly challenge; did you know not all fans are made equal? I think I bought three or four before I found one that does the job, and then I immediately wasted it by designing a bad intake system. Turns out fans move a constant volume of air, not a constant mass, and so, contrary to first thought, you actually lose a lot of suction if you have internally small pipe cross-sections. The software for the roomba was pretty trivial, and he wanders around the house and doesn’t bump into things. It’s cute to watch. The goal was to have him finished for 2021, but a few of the last parts I need will arrive in January.

All in all, it’s been a spectacular year. I’m feeling truly self-actualized; like the principled teenage-me, but with the confidence I was sorely lacking. I learned a lot of new skills, from security pen-testing, to algebra-driven design, to electronics and fan design, to the acoustics of what you want in a speaker. I wrote an excellent book, and nailed a few cool software projects. I’ve been sober for a year. I started dating the love of my life, and have set a lot of serious relationship milestone records with her.

In the words of Moist — I love my life; it’s getting better every day.