2018 in review

Introduction

Although this is entitled “2018 in review”, it ends in June 2018. There are two reasons for this. First, dividing up the year by the academic term is a much more natural way to do it; I’ve just wrapped up my first year in Oxford and my thoughts are much fresher than they would be if I waited until December to write this post. Besides, in December I’ll probably be writing my blog post about Michaelmas 2018.

Secondly, I realised that I didn’t write a 2017 year-in-review post so I’ll use this post to do that. Truth be told my memory of 2017 at this point is rather hazy; I’ll have to look at my old posts to bootstrap my memory.

The older I get, the more grateful I am for having started this blog in 2016. Otherwise I don’t remember the things I have done, but more importantly, I forget many of the thoughts I had! The latter is critical to me because it’s incredibly illuminating to look back on my past and see the anxieties I suffered from. Do I still hold the fears I used to, or no longer, and why if so—have I overcome them, or were they just idle worries? If the latter, can I update my worry-heuristic so that I can better distinguish between “I need to fix this NOW” and “this too shall pass”?

Calendar of events

Month What I did
Jan 17 Went to Cebu, got a diving license, iGlobe internship
Feb 17 iGlobe, started Andrew Ng’s ML course
Mar 17 iGlobe – Form Letterer and Form Emailer
Apr 17 iGlobe, applied for scholarships, finished ML
May 17 iGlobe, applied for scholarships, went to Japan, built Raspi console
Jun 17 Went to Yunnan, did 3D printing, went to NTU
Jul 17 Accepted the IMDA scholarship, won CodeXtreme 2017
Aug 17 Completed Inspector’s Gadget (Electron)
Sep 17 Chiong MOOCs: Algos I, N2TI, How to Code
Oct 17 Enrolled in Oxford
Nov 17 MT 2017: rowing, powerlifting, Micro, Logic
Dec 17 Finished N2T II, failed driving test
Jan 18 HT 2018: powerlifting, Pracpol, GP/MP
Feb 18 HT 2018
Mar 18 Ended HT 2018, telethon
Apr 18 TT 2018: traveled Europe (Berlin, Warsaw, Holland)
May 18 TT 2018: Theopol, Macro, revision
Jun 18 Prelims, ended TT 2018, IMDA internship

Thoughts about this year-and-a-half?

I have had a great year and a half. Some of it is helped by the fact that I have moved to a different stage of life, which has been incredibly exciting and liberating. In September 2017 I wrote that “this post marks the end of an era… the chrysalid years are over, and I fly to Heathrow to begin my new life as a student tomorrow night”. And that’s exactly right. The start of 2017 marked my transition from soldier to layabout, and 2018 the transition from layabout to student and young adult. The challenges I face now are far more interesting and I feel like I have more agency to tackle them.

Academic

I decided to go to Oxford instead of NTU, and (while it’s difficult to know the counterfactual) I think I made the right decision. I am flourishing. I’m enjoying myself greatly. The rigour of writing essays twice a week clarifies my thinking and stretches myself academically. Living out is a source of great joy as I enjoy cooking for myself and my friends. I greatly cherish the privacy and self-actualisation granted by my own independence. Being in a highly proximate environment with like-minded friends means that I always feel enriched by their close company and conversation.

I had doubts about PPE lacking rigour at the start but I now believe that if I take the right quantitative modules and keep up my technology self-study, I will be able to compete favourably with CS graduates. If nothing else, I have a comparative advantage in the specific intersection of finance/econ and coding—although I have heard that they still do prefer physics/maths/CS grads. It will be up to me to pivot myself career-wise.

But as a degree I greatly enjoy the work I do in PPE—it is a truly multidisciplinary degree, particularly in the first year. I enjoyed writing essays more than I expected. There’s something about writing essays that forces you to know your stuff and construct a clear argument in your head—You don’t know you don’t know something until you’re forced to write an essay about it. I’ve gotten better at this over time (as I should; setting aside Economics essays, I wrote a total of 21 essays in 16 weeks and one more substantial Q-STEP essay), and I look forward to increasing the speed with which I can formulate a clear, succinct, and powerful argument.

I still lack clarity. I can put forward most relatively straightforward arguments with aplomb, but struggle with conveying certain more nuanced arguments (that have multiple conditional premises/branching forks). For example, A can either be B or C. If B, then D, which is not what we want, and if C, then E, which contradicts A. Hence, ~A. I wrote two Theopol essays with this structure (Rousseau and Marx) and they didn’t go well.

I have done relatively well this year, earning Fowler prizes every term. I was well enough prepared for Prelims, particularly for Economics and Logic. I didn’t do much revision for Theory of Politics but not much is needed to write Theopol essays anyway. Unfortunately I made a wrong question selection for Microeconomics my best paper and the Distinction is now in jeopardy. Nonetheless, this is not a problem of insufficient preparation—it’s a problem of bad exam strategy which I’ll have to remedy in the future. The key is reducing variance: choosing questions I am sure I can do reasonably well rather than questions that I’m not sure I can do but could do very well on. I made the same mistake on Logic with choosing the Natural Deduction question (which was a huge departure from the norm), but luckily I managed to do it well.

Q-Step essay

I am extremely pleased to have won the Q-STEP First Year Political Essay prize for my essay “Does Consensus Democracy Improve Economic Outcomes? which I wrote during Hilary Term. This prize is awarded to the best essay (out of ~300) which all HPol and PPE students had to write in our Quantitative Political Analysis course, and it comes with 200 quid as well! It feels great to beat all the other smart Oxford fuckers and come top of the year for something.

insert image here

I can’t be too self-congratulatory, of course. It was more that I picked the right battle. As this is a quantitative assignment, I knew that many PPE and HPol students would not have the aptitude or interest to go above and beyond. Further, I spent a lot of time during Hilary Term working on this essay, when most people would have chosen to enjoy their term or revise for collections (in truth, probably a better use of one’s time). It’s vanishingly unlikely that I’ll be able to come top of the cohort in any other subsequent assignment or paper, so I’ll take what I can get… haha.

You can read the essay here. My “excellent and novel contribution” was simply to extend Lijphart’s analysis in two ways: i) using panel data and ii) bringing in more democracies. I showed that doing so causes Lijphart’s purported relationship between consensus democracy and social inequality (operationalised by the percentage of women in parliament) to disappear.

I must thank Jarel for speaking with me about my essay and providing me with my key theoretical insight, which came serendipitously two days before the essay deadline! I had ran the regressions earlier and were very frustrated that I couldn’t replicate Lijphart’s results. But Jarel said that in and of itself is a very significant finding!

Jarel: let me get this right: when you control for fixed effects, effects on gender become insignificant — right?

Me: yes

Jarel: ok that’s a very strong result

Jarel: i think i might have to rewrite the analysis bit as well

Me: im very excited now actually because of what you pointed out

Me: haha

and there we go: the absence of result is indeed an interesting result. So I quickly added this final keystone and submitted it the next day. I don’t think my essay would have been nearly as strong without this spin on the essay.

Reading the essay with a fresh eye (and with the help of the marker’s comments), there are a couple of things I could have done better, which would have pushed the essay from a 79 (High First; great work) to a 80 (Excellent First; pretty much impossible to achieve). First of all, the introduction/theoretical argument/methodological criticisms were written before I had the key insight; I edited them hastily after-the-fact which necessarily makes them a little disjointed and the key insight feel a bit tacked-on. I should have put front-and-center the criticism that Lijphart selects on the dependent variable by using FH to operationalise democracy. From the marker’s report,

Argument: Your theoretical section mediates between Tsebelis and Lijphart, whereas it would have been more convincing to derive unique theoretical argument capturing your own intuitions.

There we go.

I must thank Sergi and Tak Huen for taking the time to look at my essay; in particular my mentor Sergi, who was swamped running revision classes for the PPE finalists. But most importantly Jeffrey, who was my QSTEP mentor and actually Skyped me in Utah during the vac, and really went above and beyond.

What I’ve learned:

  1. Pick your battles
  2. Sometimes serendipity plays a big part
  3. I worked extra hard and was rewarded for it

Extracurricular

This is an area in which`I feel there is much room for improvement. By “extracurricular” I refer to my CS self-study (MOOCs, algorithms practice) and hobbies (cooking, lifting).

CS self-study

I was able to get some CS self-study done this Christmas (finished N2T II) but no work done in Hilary as I was focused on my QSTEP, which had very rudimentary R. I think I made the right choice focusing on QSTEP but I think that I could have done more; one problem on Leetcode per day would have been a good start, for example.

Lifting

I have always suffered from a lack of motivation going to the gym: two steps forward, one step back. This has caused my progress in the gym to be less than it could have been, although I have made progress nonetheless. In the very recent past due to my studying for Prelims (and spending time with my girlfriend) I did not go to the gym regularly (at all) during Trinity term. But I’m confident I will be able to make back my gains soon.

Cooking

Being in Oxford for a year and cooking for myself every day has thrown me in the deep end. I’ve taken to this task with aplomb. In the first few months I got used to stir-frying with a wok (the first time I did it I set off the smoke alarm), and afterwards I branched out to oven baking/roasting and finally cooking soup and cooking in the pressure cooker.

The cooking highlight of my year was cooking 500 portions of chicken rice. It was Jing Long who recruited me for this event, an “Asian Food Festival” hosted by Jovin. Jing Long bought an enormous rice cooker that purported to be able to cook 200 portions of rice. We filled it up with water and used it to sous vide ten whole chickens at a time, and it came out quite like the real thing. Unfortunately the rice cooker let us down—the rice was not evenly cooked, raw in parts and mushy in others—but the chicken was gucci juicy.

I plan to further improve my culinary skills with Jing Long this summer. We’re going down to Jurong fish market this weekend at an ungodly hour—4am—to get the freshest fish. We’re going to do sashimi and some other seafood, JL wants to do chilli crab. I have a pressure cooker at home so I’m going to be exploring all the recipes I can, particularly in making thick, rich soups and broths.

Next year JL and I want to do a “tasting menu” where we pull out all the stops every month and cook fine dining for people.

Interpersonal

Relationship

The largest interpersonal change in my life is that I am now in a relationship, which has been very educational, quite challenging, and immensely rewarding.

at_formal punting in_sg x

A relationship takes up a lot of one’s time and I can better appreciate the freedom one has as a single person. However I think our raison d’etre is to have the free time to spend it with our loved ones: family, friends, and oneself. So it is a balance between loving oneself (striving for self-improvement) and loving others (giving to our loved ones). A life only loving oneself is a very lonely existence, so it’s important to give back to others after an extended period of monk mode.

I don’t mean to insinuate that getting into a relationship is purely selfless. Obviously I derive pleasure and learning from a relationship. But a relationship requires sacrifice that isn’t needed when one is single and focused purely on improving oneself.

Here I’ll very frankly list out some of the challenges that I’ve faced despite the fact that my blog is now read by more than one person, as I have a strong commitment to honesty (telling only the truth) and openness (telling the whole truth).

  1. Low emotional sensitivity

My fatal flaw is I am not able to divine the feelings of others. This has often made me say the wrong thing in the past but I think I’ve gotten better at this. Right now the problem is that I am not able to tell when my girlfriend is angry or sad at something I’ve done or not done. When we first got together I told her of this weakness and stressed the need for her to tell me exactly how she feels. To her credit she has done so to a great extent, although not for everything—but this is still incredibly admirable, because it’s very hard to bare one’s feelings and I am sometimes guilty of not doing this myself.

She has done her part. On my part, it’s not fair to ask her to hold herself up to a standard that even I can’t reach; I have to further improve my emotional sensitivity despite my innate ineptitude, as well as to hold myself to the standard I asked of my girlfriend to communicate honestly what I feel.

  1. Conflict management

We’ve argued a couple of times. There are two aspects to this: first, how do I not say or do things that will cause conflict; second, how do I best defuse conflicts when they inevitably erupt?

There is no need to die on every hill; one can win battles and lose the war. A relationship is predicated on give and take and if you want to win everything you will lose your loved one. Nonetheless, there are of course important things you want to change (the hills you’re willing to die on)

  1. An uncertain future

The prospect of a long-distance relationship is an uncertain one. We will not be studying in the same university next year, and we live in different countries.

I have to serve a bond with IMDA, so my future for at least the next 7 years is completely fixed. I told her that circumstances dictate I will have to walk this path with or without her; I won’t be able to move to the US or the UK, for example. I had to tell her because I don’t want to give anybody false hope, or for her to have any possible misapprehension about what staying with me entails.

  1. Some closing thoughts

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to love and to be loved; where it’s acceptable to be needy/clingy/emotionally dependent on another person. The conventional wisdom is that one should not be clingy but I find that if one is so independent then what really is the point of a relationship?

Friends

I have forged friends

I really, really like my tutors. Bassel, Sergi, Tia, Ralf—absolutely fantastic. Their enthusiasm for the subject really shows through. In particular, the politics tutors really sold me on the subject, when I wasn’t expecting to like it at all. I was fully planning to drop politics… but now find myself wanting to do a quantitative thesis!

The tutorial on state paternalism was truly life-changing. It completely systematised and clarified my worldview.

Once again, I’m grateful to have come to Oxford: the tiny student-teacher ratio means that I can forge close relationships with my tutors that wouldn’t be possible at NTU. We go for drinks in the college bar, for example. I even invited Bassel over and cooked Mapo tofu and egg fried rice for him!

Career

I interned at iGlobe from January to May 2017. I did market research, due diligence and wrote investment papers. I also wrote two programs, Form Letterer and Form Emailer, using Python.

I did well securing a scholarship. IMDA may not have the cachet of MAS/EDB/PSC, but it’s a very good fit with my interests and I think I will enjoy the work there more if I am given sufficient latitude. I’ve harped on this before but I derive significant happiness from being financially independent, no longer having to ask my parents for any money. It’s good too to be able to sock away some money every month to buy slowly my freedom.

I am now working in Next-Generation Platforms, specialising in the blockchain.

Future plans

Summer 2018 (July–September)

I want to do a good job in my internships at IMDA.

I want to take, and finish, Algorithms II, and I plan to spend an hour a day on it—no more, no less.

I borrowed the book Functional Programming with Haskell by Richard Bird and I intended to finish it but this is looking unlikely.

I will participate in a Codeforces educational challenge every week, as a way to utilise my theoretical knowledge on Algorithms.

Michaelmas 2018 (October–December)

I have more or less decided on the papers I’m going to offer for Finals. I’m still waiting on the Department to approve my appeal to do a Politics thesis without doing three other core Politics modules; Sergi and Tia are supportive, and so are Rachel (Senior Tutor) and Katy (Academic Registrar). It will help if I do well in my Prelims.

  1. Micro
  2. Macro
  3. Quantatitive Economics
  4. Microeconomic Analysis
  5. Econometrics
  6. Political Sociology
  7. Theory of Politics
  8. (Thesis?)

I’d love to take Game Theory and Behavioural Economics but I just don’t have the space to fit them in. I wish I could drop Macro (Ian Crawford is in talks with the PPE committee to do exactly this) but that won’t be available for our year. If I could drop Micro I would take BE or GT right away.

I am keeping Theory of Politics because I want to have a bit of Philosophy in my degree (I am doing PPE, after all) and because I do quite enjoy the topics, particularly on negative/positive liberty and paternalism.

In Michaelmas term, there will be no excuse. I will be heading to Iffley thrice a week and Merton gym thrice a week as well.

Medium-term plans

The next order of business is to secure an internship in my second year that leads to a full-time job offer. I would like to secure a “tech” job (meaning a job where I write code for the majority of my day), but failing that, would love to join IB or consulting with a focus in tech.

How I have changed since 2017

Compared to 2017, I feel more confident in my own abilities and my personality. There is a lot I can work on but I know now that there are people who like me for who I am, not despite who I am. I am still very much rough around the edges—I definitely could calibrate tact-being direct—but I am happy with the general shape of me.

I’m happier than I was. Going to Oxford has given me a “low-grade” happiness that’s not subject to hedonic adaptation. What that means is that occasionally every couple weeks or so I’ll wake up, walk out of the door, and feel so blessed to be here. This further cements my view that the things that truly give me happiness isn’t things nor one-off experiences but self-actualisation/self-improvement and having close relationships with my loved ones.

Some examples of things that don’t give me much happiness:

The last one took a bit of soul-searching. I enjoy some sorts of traveling but not others. I enjoy traveling that’s chill and relaxed, and when I’m going to see beautiful natural sights. I’m a bit of a homebody; I don’t feel the need to make the most of my time when I’m in a foreign country.

It was difficult to realise this because traveling seems to be something that everyone agrees is meaningful and worthwhile. But I feel like traveling is yet another form of consumption, albeit a form that’s somewhat more socially acceptable than purchasing material goods. I think it’s incorrect to draw an artificial dichotomy between the two; material goods can bring one lasting happiness (or at least freedom from a lasting annoyance), while the experience from traveling can be very ephemeral. I think the sort of traveling where you hop around countries and take photos of everything briefly is rather meaningless, but I do enjoy spending a long time in a country and meeting new friends or learning about new cultures. I did enjoy greatly my BSP experience, as well as my trip to Yunnan.

Some things that I have found do give me happiness:

Buying things make me happier insofar as they reduce or remove a consistent annoyance I suffer from. Everything else seems to be experiential or self-actualising. I am happy when I am the best that I can be, and I am happy when I am around the people I love.

Overall, I feel more content and satisfied and happier than I was in 2017. Thinking back to 2017, I was happy to have been done with NS, but not so happy with the drudgery of my work and still worried about choosing between Oxford or NTU. Now the grind and uncertainty still exists (I would never want it to go away) but I feel far more secure in my life and future plans.

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