HT 2019 report and plans for the summer

Introduction

In this post, I’ll first report on new things that have happened since my last progress report. These are, in rough chronological order:

Calendar

Month What I did
Jan 19 HT 2019: Macro, Theopol
Feb 19 HT 2019, cooking for OUCS, OUAPS
Mar 19 Finished HT2019, went to Finland and Romania
Apr 19 Back to SG, failed technical interview, broke up, found internship

Overview of the past four months

I want to give special attention to the failures in my life. I generally maintain a healthy optimism about my life and my future prospects. But I think it’s important to highlight my failures, both for myself and for readers of this blog: firstly, because I want to be honest about why I failed, identify areas of improvement, and chronicle whether I’ve been able to learn from my mistakes and apply these lessons to future situations; secondly, because it strikes me as dishonest, self-serving, and boastful to talk selectively about my successes and not about my failures. I’m going to place the things that I failed at front-and-center before talking about anything else.

Broke up with Judy

I want to put this front and center, because it is the failure that hurts the most, and the one that fills me most with doubt.

Broadly speaking, I feel like I have my life dialed down. I know what needs to be done to achieve academic/career/physical success. I have been lucky to find academic work easy. The habits and traits I’ve cultivated over the years may not be optimal, but they’ve been sufficient for me to do well in my studies without too much effort or stress on my part.

While I haven’t had much success in the job search, I have had the support of my benefactor, Mrs Hauw. I am greatly indebted to her, all the way from 2015—when she agreed to let me teach Python to her kids, to 2017, when she allowed me to intern at iGlobe, to 2019, where she got me an internship with Inzura. And of course the advice she has given me over the years has been invaluable. Lest I seem ungrateful, I am also incredibly thankful that IMDA has given me a scholarship to study at Oxford, a job waiting for me, and a head start to financial independence.

But the one thing I haven’t been able to figure out is cultivating strong, long-term personal relationships…

NB: I had originally planned to write a post-mortem of why Judy and I broke up here. But it turned out to be so long that I pushed it into a separate post here.

The reason why I believe personal relationships are harder is because (to some degree) it’s quite subjective. With academic work and the job search, while there’s certainly an element of luck involved, you know that it’s your fault and can hopefully fix the problem.

Whereas for relationships there is this notion of “compatibility”. If you and your partner disagree on something, maybe you should change yourself. Or maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should adhere to your principles. Or maybe not? I suppose the difference here is that there are no objective metrics about this whole thing, which makes it difficult to determine whether you or the other person should change.

This is further complicated by the fact that people are individuals, and what works for someone may not work for someone else. If there’s something about you that one partner doesn’t like, maybe this is something that you have to change—or maybe it’s something that another partner may actually appreciate. This is all awfully complicated and I haven’t got any good intuitions regarding the matter.

Failed the Stripe technical interview

I spent two weeks preparing for the upcoming technical interview using Jeremy Aguilon’s Ranking Interview Questions by Cram Score list. I initialised a GitHub repo here where I write down the time taken for each solution. I was very rusty when I started, but luckily I’d remembered the algorithms in the MOOCs I took (especially Tim Roughgarden’s Algorithms course), and it was easy to recall the algorithms I forgot (as I’d previously internalised the intuitions behind the algorithms). Progress was promising—I was relearning C++ at a nice clip, and my comfort level and time taken in solving the problems was improving.

Sadly the task given in the Stripe technical interview was to implement a lexer/parser…in Python! I hadn’t touched Python in about a year and had completely forgot how to manipulate strings and dictionaries (which there were a lot of). The task was easy (especially so as I had built something much more complicated in the NAND to Tetris course); I was simply too slow.

Unsurprisingly, I received a rejection from Stripe soon after. This was a bummer, but I don’t regret the practice. However, I will have to consider practicing in Python than in C++, because it’s more versatile and the probability of me being blindsided is lower. I will be using a lot of R and Python for my upcoming thesis,

Failed to turn a profit selling tau huay for OUAPS’s food fair

The main reason for the failure, I believe, is because we didn’t choose the right thing to sell. Jovin had a spreadsheet for vendors to declare what they’d want to sell. Jing Long and I took a look and saw that many people had declared savoury food, so we decided not to fight with them and make a dessert instead. It turned out that everyone changed their mind because savoury food is hard; people who went there were very hungry, and were not really in the mood for dessert. Lesson learned — we do savoury food well, others don’t :P

Making tauhuey is actually very difficult, almost like baking —there’s no room for error. Tauhuey is made with two main ingredients: soy milk and a setting agent. Traditionally, the setting agent is gypsum powder, but gypsum powder is (supposedly — epistemic status very dubious) associated with kidney stones??? and also imparts a bitter, chalky taste to the tau huey. There is also a new style (also called “lao ban” style, named after the company who pioneered it) which uses agar-agar or gelatine for the setting agent. This doesn’t have the bitter taste or the supposed health effect, but the texture is not quite the same, and if too much gelatine/agar-agar is used can come out very pudding-y.

Unlike cooking, there’s no way to tweak as you go: you have to mix everything together in one go and the proportions have to be perfect. Jing Long and I tried multiple batches (I think 10+ batches) to perfect the ideal tau huey. First we tried the gypsum powder one, which was successful, but not scalable (traditional tau huey is served hot). Then we tried agar-agar, but the agar-agar that we bought refused to dissolve in water. So we did gelatine. But even that wasn’t trivial: we had to play with the right ratio of gelatine, soy milk, sugar and vanilla extract to get the correct consistency. How you add the gelatine is also important: I found out the hard way that if you add it to hot water and stir, (a very intuitive thing to do!) it forms clumps with itself^[1]. You have to add the gelatine to cold water in a very thin layer and let it form a “film”, before stirring it.

^[1]: https://cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/22648/why-do-some-powders-clump-in-hot-water

Interestingly enough, a byproduct of tau huey is tau kee. As you heat the soy milk mixture, a film starts to form at the top, which can be skimmed off to get tau kee—although it’s so delicate I don’t know how they deep-fry it.

Here’s a video of Jarel skimming off the top layer:

And here’s what it looks like in a bowl:

Glamour shot tau kee

Ladling the tau huey out into bowls

Letting tau huey cool out so that it would set

Our not very pretty stall

Glamour shot

Glamour shot

I would call this a “qualified failure”. Profit was never really the terminal goal. However, I am a bit sad that Jing Long’s “last hurrah” with me ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Things that went rather well

Hosted Judy in Oxford

For her last term in school Judy didn’t have to stay on campus, so she decided to visit me in Oxford and to see her Oxford friends again. We had a lot of fun: I cooked many of her favourite foods like soondubu jigae and mango sticky rice, and it was just a very nice, chill time. We didn’t argue much (at all?) either — it was a very positive trip.

Finished HT 2018 (Macroeconomics, Theory of Politics)

I didn’t put so much effort into Macro and Theory; really was rather lazy this term. I’ll have to put in the effort to learn it properly during the summer.

Cooked 滷肉飯 for ~150 people at the OUCS Chinese New Year Ball

This was super enjoyable. Jing Long and I had a much easier time here compared to last year. This is because we were very strategic in choosing what to sell. Last year when we sold chicken rice there was a lot of stuff that we had to prepare separately (and serially): first, 20 whole chickens had to be sous vided (in two batches) the night before. Then we had to take the chicken stock from the whole chicken and use it to cook the rice (making sure to cut off the excess skin from the whole chickens and fry it to render the fat first). Then we had to make the chilli sauce. Then we had to chop a lot of slices of cucumber and tomatoes. Then on the day itself we had so many things to arrange: first, Jing Long needed to debone the chicken, get the meat out, smash into little pieces. I had to scoop the rice and put the cucumber and tomatoes very nicely on the plate, then put the chicken on and drizzle the sesame oil sauce, then add chilli on the side and garnish with coriander. It was a lot of work, which meant that we served plates very slowly.

Learning from the previous year’s experience, we brainstormed for a long time to choose a dish. We knew we wanted something that was one-pot, or as close to it as possible, to minimise serving time. Ideally it would be something we could prepare in advance. We also didn’t want to do a Chinese Chinese dish: we wanted to showcase Singaporean food.

We thought of many ideas: bak chor mee, wonton mee (too fussy – noodles must be cooked on the spot), oden (not a “dish”), pumpkin rice (not sexy enough), laksa (cannot get the sea hum)… In the end, I had an epiphany and thought of lor bak. It’s just the right amount of foreign + familiar (this is a soupier, saltier Teochew (?) version: the version most non Singaporeans will be familiar with is a thicker, sweeter version made with minced pork).

In contrast, for 滷肉飯 there was not many steps: because all the ingredients are in one bowl, really all that needs to be done is to just ladle it out. The only thing Jing Long needed to do was to halve the eggs (easy) and chop the lor bak into bite-sized pieces (much easier than deboning a chicken).

We decided early on to have “five treasures”: braised pork belly, shitake mushrooms, tau pok, tau kee and soy sauce egg. We wanted to have a large variety of ingredients to make our food be more exciting and more value-for-money.

On the day itself the ball was scheduled to start at 730 pm. But we were already packing all our pots and pans and condiments at 130 pm. The soy sauce eggs had to be marinated overnight, and took on a lovely dark brown colour.

soy sauce eggs our utensils packing our utensils

Conveniently, the ball was held near Osney Mead, which meant that we could buy some of the ingredients from the Meatmasters’ nearby. This hugely reduced our transportation burden. It also meant that we could get the butchers’ to slice the pork belly more thinly, which is critical if we want the pork belly to become very tender.

Meatmasters'

We bought 12kg of pork belly and 2kg of onions from the Meatmasters’ just across the street, then started cutting up the onions and searing the pork belly. It turned out that everything just about fit—we could not possibly have cooked any more. So 12kg of pork belly was exactly the right amount to buy.

Learning from our previous chicken rice experience, we actually calculated the portion sizes: 200g white rice, 60g pork belly, 1/2 an egg, 1 tau pok, 1 mushroom, and Jing Long made sure to practice serving and plating several bowls of that quantity to make it look the most attractive.

Everything in one pot

Preparing bowls in advance cutting eggs

As people were almost about to come in, I realised belatedly that we had no signage! The ball committee printed signages for their own internal stalls, but not for us. Thinking quickly, I went to the calligraphy station and anyhowly wrote a name for our store, “Five Treasures Braised Meat Rice”.

The calligraphy is not very good, but it got the job done.

writing storefront Stallfront

I had to change into my shirt and trousers because I was scheduled to perform with OXCAR at the concert! I was very afraid that some of the ‘zaap’ would get on my white shirt.

Front view of stall

People really liked our food. Some complained that it was too expensive, but we completely sold out, which means that it was not too expensive.

People liked our food

Visited Venla in Finland

I spent four days in Finland (March 10–13th): Venla and her family very kindly hosted me, and I am very, very grateful.

Finland was incredibly beautiful, and made me realise that I don’t dislike traveling: I just like a specific type of traveling. I enjoy meeting new people and enjoying quiet, beautiful natural places. I don’t much enjoy seeing cities and I hate going to touristy places.

Many firsts: ice fishing, sauna, skiing, lying naked in the snow (no photos of that one, unfortunately ;))

I stayed in Venla’s house in Oulu for two nights. We then went to Venla’s cabin in the woods (their vacation home) for two nights.

Popo the puppy:

Popo the puppy Venla's dad cooking

Venla Venla

Venla looking very bougie

Venla looking bougie


On the first day, Venla took me to the Oulu city center, which was very beautiful covered in snow.

Here’s a panorama of the bridge and river of the city center:

Panorama of bridge

Bridge in city center Very nice white building Bridge in city center Bridge in city center panorama

The river that ran through the city center was frozen over, and one could walk on it.

Frozen lake

Some mad lad fishing in the middle of the lake

Bridge in city center panorama City center Me posing next to the Oulu mascot


After going to the city center, Venla took me cross-country skiing. It was a park ten minutes away from her house.

Here’s a panorama of the park:

Panorama of the park

Venla told me that she used to ski to school every day; I was dumbfounded. But I suppose for a Finn, skiing to work or to school is just as exotic as riding a bike!

Driving into the sunset Cross-country skiing with Venla Cross-country skiing with Venla

There are ski trails made by a machine, so I was basically on rails: I simply had to propel myself using my arms and my glutes. I was not very good at it (obviously), but I had a lot of fun.

Me trying to ski

I got derailed, and couldn’t go back on. The bottom ot the skiis were very sticky (Venla’s brother had put sticky gum on the bottom — she explained the reason to me but I can’t quite remember) so I got stuck momentarily.

Stuck

The scenery was breathtaking.

Cross-country sunset Cross-country sunset


On the second day we drove up to Venla’s vacation log cabin. One of Venla’s friends joined us for the journey. The weather wasn’t ideal, and made for a very interesting drive. Visibility was horrendous.

After two hours of driving we finally reached the log cabin. There was almost a meter of snow. Towards the end of the video you can see us pulling up to the cabin.

There’s a lake just behind her house, so Venla suggested ice fishing. I’d never even heard of ice fishing before.

Pathway to the lake

The snow was so thick that you couldn’t even walk properly: here’s a video of Venla trudging through the snow.

Venla trudging through snow Venla trudging through snow Me lying in snow

In order to ice fish, you first need to clear away the snow with shovel, to expose the ice. Then you have to drill a hole into the ice with a special screw. Here’s a video of Venla doing it:

Venla digging the hole for ice fishing Digging the hole for ice fishing More digging Digging and screwing

You then start fishing! You attach a worm to the end of your line, drop the line into the hole, and bob it up and down. We didn’t manage to catch anything, unfortunately.

Venla fishing Me fishing

We cooked dinner. We made our own pasta, pan-fried salmon, and Venla even prepared a traditional Finnish dessert: cloudberries and leipäjuusto (a Finnish cheese). It was very good, and the cheese was very squeaky. Apparently three cloudberries contains the same amount of Vitamin C as an orange (epistemic status: dubious), so it’s very good for you (or at least very rich in Vitamin C, anyway).

Dinner Dessert


On the third day, we went to the ski resort, which was beautiful.

panorama Mountain

I look like Mario

Mario Panorama

On top of the summit Us on top of a slope Me on top of a slope


Apart from these wonderful things, I also got to experience some other more low-key things, which were just as, if not more, sublime.

The Finnish have a very interesting tradition of sauna. It’s a very hot room, heated by a hot box of coals (though nowadays usually it’s electric). The whole family goes in naked and sits in the sauna.

You bring a big bucket of water in, but it’s not for cooling yourself: you splash water on the coals, which then release (incredibly hot) steam. I first found it very uncomfortable, but it soon grew on me. Eliel and I must have spent hours in the sauna, talking about life. I really wanted to know what Finns are like and what sort of culture Finnish culture is.

It’s very comfortable to go from the sauna—where you’re sweating like crazy and hot as hell—to the outside, where it’s -15 degrees Celsius. Your sweat evaporates instantly and you feel a very enjoyable cold wave.

Eliel told me that it’s a Finnish tradition to lie naked in the snow after sauna. So we went out at 10pm after sauna and I did so.

It was fucking cold!!!! I could last only about 15 seconds before quickly running back into the sauna. Afterwards Eliel told me that he was quite surprised I actually did it, because he’s never done it before…

The log cabin is in the middle of nowhere, and it was quiet and serene. I loved it. Especially at night: I’d never seen so many stars before. There were thousands of stars, actually twinkling. It was magical.

Looking at the thousands of stars I could finally understand why the ancients were so captivated by the night sky. Having lived in Singapore my whole life with all the light pollution I could never really see anything except the moon. I would have spent much longer just looking at the stars, but it was getting very cold—especially in the nude…


I had such a wonderful, magical time, and I am sincerely grateful to Venla and her parents for having me.

Road trip in Romania with OG

This was decent; Romania was honestly a bit boring. But I liked being on a road trip. The beer and food were cheap and it was good to be with OG mates.

Practiced algorithmic problems

I did a good job working through the problems consistently and in a disciplined manner, which I am happy with.

Found a summer internship

This summer, I will be interning at Inzura, a B2B startup that does auto insurance infomatics. Not exactly sure what the scope of work is, but it will involve data analysis and machine learning.

It irks me a little bit that I found an internship not strictly speaking through my own ability, but through a recommendation of my ex-boss. But I believe almost all jobs work this way—for instance, one gets into Google not by sending in one’s resume, but by getting a referral from someone who’s already inside.

Conclusion

HT 2019 was a very eventful term, and overall a good one, I think.

Good things:

Bad things:

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