2019 Annual Review

Wed Jan 01 2020

In my 2018 review post I decided to end my annual review in June 2018. There were (are) good reasons for it, but nonetheless I have now decided to change the system:

  • I will continue to write "big" reviews in December and June. They will now be called Annual and Semiannual reviews respectively;
  • I probably will continue to write "small" reviews every quarter or thereabouts.

Main changes to make

  • Be more systematic in blocking out my time. Pick up the habit of planning the next day before going to bed the night before: make use of my notebook for this.
  • Relatedly, establish a bedtime routine, where I reflect on the day, plan the next day, and get ready for bed. (Ask Celine for help about this).
  • Figure out why I often feel lethargic despite ostensibly getting a full night's sleep, why I get sick so often
  • Set aside time for flashcards

Overview of what I did this year

Since the last review post (July 2019 review), I have:

  • completed my internship,
  • started my third and final year at Oxford,
  • made some progress on my politics and BEE thesis,
  • made some progress on my co-authored paper,
  • decided what Master's programmes to apply for,
  • applied to Master's programmes,
  • finished MT 2019,
  • went on the OUMSSA ski trip,
  • went on a Switzerland trip with Marc and Toh,
  • visited Celine's family in Darmstadt.

As usual, I'll give an account of my year so far, then offer some general thoughts, and finally use Alex Vermeer's 12 categories to take stock of where I am, where I want to be, and how to get there.

Chronological account of 2019

I completed my internship with Inzura. As I've written before, I greatly enjoyed and cherished the opportunity. The internship made me realise that my comparative advantage lay in data science, and thus I decided to apply for Statistics/Data Science Master's instead. Once again, I must sincerely thank Mrs Hauw and Richard.

I used the rest of the summer to work on my Politics thesis and revise for QE. Rodden and Eubank replied to my email, which pleasantly surprised me, and we were able to hash out a collaboration!

During the term, I focused on working on my thesis, and finding ideas for BEE. All was going well for the first five weeks of term, until I suddenly took ill in W5, which sapped a lot of my momentum. In Week 6, I took the GRE---or attempted to, anyway---I did not read the "What to Bring to Test Day" article, which stipulated that any ID must contain a signature. I was unceremoniously turned away. This really panicked me and dealt quite a blow, as I thought that my GRE scores would not be scored in time. I had to spend many hours on the phone calling the Prometrics staff and sending desperate emails to the various admissions offices.

Thankfully things worked out in the end. I was able to take a test in Birmingham on the 27th, did pretty well, and the official scores reached every school in time. Nonetheless, this dealt a blow to my motivation and stress levels.

I also applied to several programmes: Stanford Statistics (Data Science), Harvard Data Science, CMU Computational Data Science, and ETH Zurich Statistics/Data Science. This took a hell of a lot out of me and I really didn't want to do it, which led me to do a lot of things last-minute. In fact I had to enlist the help of my friends to i) help me record the scholarship video during my ski trip and ii) help me submit my hard copy application to ETH Zurich, which further stressed me out and placed me further in their debt.

I therefore ended MT 2019 not with a bang, but with a whimper. Thankfully, the next three weeks were very enjoyable. Having missed the previous two OUMSSA ski trips, I was finally able to make it to one and enjoyed it very much. I learned how to snowboard for the first time and it was exhilarating. It was really good to have an instructor to teach us: "Carving" is really enjoyable. I also made some new friends and got to know existing friends better; had a great time with Giresh, Kuang, Wilfred and Sly. Kuang and I are definitely planning a ski trip in HT W9 next year.

After the ski trip, I travelled with Toh (who was with me for the ski trip) and Marc, who joined us from London. We went to Geneva, then Lausanne, and finally Zurich. I didn't like Geneva very much; the buildings were ugly and it seemed like the whole place was covered with watch shops. I don't really like cities: I prefer nature, and in this respect Geneva proved rather disappointing. The lake was crystal-clear, though, and it afforded a lovely view of the Alps. Lausanne was lovely. It was a very lovely town with very lovely old European buildings. We took a day trip hiking up a hill in Lausanne, which gave us a great view of the Alps and the city. Zurich was quite nice as well, a modern city that was beautiful and clean. We visited ETH Zurich and went ice-skating.

Finally, I spent a very lovely Christmas with Celine and her family. Her family treated me so well and I got along quite nicely with her friends too. Celine is lovely, kindhearted, and beautiful: I am very lucky to have her.

Some general thoughts

The work on my Politics thesis bore fruit. I had been thinking about it in some capacity since April 2019. I hit many dead ends and frequently second-guessed myself but I believe I now have a strong idea and theoretical justification. I'm quietly confident that if I am able to implement my metric for the things Andy suggested (seat-vote-share curve, media congruence), my thesis will be strong.

Traveling around Europe and living in Europe made me realise that Europe actually has a lot to offer. In many ways the Europeans are more "enlightened" than us Singaporeans. There's a widespread acceptance of vegetarianism and environmentalism that just isn't present in Singapore. The car is very much a status symbol here, even though with the proper infrastructure Singapore could be very bike-friendly.

Singapore is a fantastic place, but there are many things it will never have. The weather is a big one, and has many knock-on effects. The weather in Singapore can be very oppressive, and there's just that sticky layer of dried sweat that accumulates just from existing in Singapore. And as someone who cooks a lot I appreciate very much the lack of insects in Europe. At least for most of the year, there are no flies, no ants, no cockroaches, no mosquitoes. You can leave stuff outside during winter to naturally chill it down; in contrast, back home I have to put my jar of sugar in the fridge or the ants will get it.

The weather has knock-on effects on other things as well. When I was visiting Bea and Chen in Munich, I was struck by how the family of four could go about their day-to-day lives without a car. They ferry the younger around with a little buggy that attaches to the back of the bike. Chen lives close enough to work that he can actually walk to work, which is brilliant. But I think the heat in Singapore is bad enough that nobody really considers biking to work, and maybe that's why the cycling infrastructure is neglected as a result. We've got cycling lanes, but they're obviously meant for recreation and not commuting. The infrastructure is not there yet and I'm not sure if it will ever be.

Singapore isn't devoid of natural beauty: one can always hop over to Malaysia or Indonesia and enjoy some very nice beaches/islands/diving spots. But I think nothing really comes close to having the Alps on one's doorstep, and being able to ski at a moment's notice. I visited Ober-Ramstadt and it too was beautiful: big, rolling hills and clean, fresh air. I know we have a lot of nature reserves and forests here in Singapore but---once again---the heat and the insects make such things much less enjoyable.

I recall with amusement Filip's comment that governing Singapore is like "playing SimCity with cheat codes" because of its tiny land area.

Some general thoughts on productivity

Summer was very productive, the start of Michaelmas was passable, the end of Michaelmas very unproductive.

"Productivity" I define as my ability to put effort toward my goals: this doesn't just include my academic work, but also my fitness and social goals.

Summer was very productive because I had a fixed schedule: I had to go to work every morning and work on interesting work. Then I had the evenings free to go to the gym, cook dinner, and work on my thesis. If anything, this further impresses upon me the usefulness of habit/routine.

The end of Michaelmas was very unproductive because there the GRE debacle took a lot out of me, then I got sick sometime in W5, and then again in W7, and afterwards I just felt drained and unmotivated. It didn't help that applying for Master's was an incredibly draining and uninteresting exercise.

I don't think I have it in me to power through these funks; instead, I should try and identify why I fall into funks, and how to "ride the wave" of these funks to be deposited as gently as possible back to productivity.

I've realised I'm possibly not gritty enough --- I have to be in a "good" state (well-rested, not sleepy, not sick, not uninterested) in order to do work. Otherwise I'll start procrastinating and do something easier (like idly browsing Reddit/YouTube) instead. However, I'm sabotaging myself by watching YouTube/Reddit when I should be resting and getting better. Those things sap my energy and "eye power".

Values and purpose

What do I value? What don't I value? Why am I here? What do I want to achieve?

Not much has changed since my previous review. I still value the following traits: rationality, openness and honesty, intelligence, intellectual curiosity, compassion, competence, diligence, ambition, and above all, constant, relentless introspection and self-improvement.

Might I have a bigger purpose? I'm quite fond of saying that my goal is to do difficult, interesting and impactful work. That means improving my skills and work ethic. It might mean amassing the necessary resources. It might mean getting to know the right people. And of course it means identifying the right problem to pursue.

Character and identity

I'm still very poor at estimating the time it takes for a specific task, and have been bitten several times already. I've missed buses, flights and trains at significant personal expense. I often have unrealistically optimistic deadlines about how long a task (like my thesis) will take to complete and therefore miss those deadlines.

Duty binds me to Singapore, but not much besides; I don't feel much love or nostalgia for the place.

Contribution and impact

Nothing for now

Location and tangibles

Having just finished MT 2019, I've become acutely aware of two things: i) my time in Oxford is soon coming to an end, ii) I really like Oxford a lot.

At least part of the reason is that I am constantly surrounded by my friends. Living in Holywell means I get to see Filip/Martin/Oskar/Rayhan on a daily basis, and the rest of my friends serendipitously when I walk on the street or drop by college. Having a house that's nearby to my friends means that I can host social events at the drop of a hat and people can come join me anytime. Living in the city center of town means that everyone is a 15-minute walk (or 5-minute cycle) away from each other. Singapore is a well-connected city, to be sure, but the inertia of leaving one's house is much greater if one has to take the train or bus even for a short duration (and it means that serendipity decreases, and then there are worries about catching the last train etc...

A related thing is that we live with our parents here in Singapore, so we don't really have our own space. My sister lives in my room so I haven't got a room of my own, and my schedule is otherwise dictated by the people living with me. For instance, I won't be able to fall asleep if someone is watching TV in the living room.

What I have in Oxford is so incredibly special --- a confluence/concentration of all my friends --- and I'll be very sorry to give it up. I've been idly thinking about how one could replicate that collegial environment. One way to do it in Singapore would be to rent a HDB flat. A five-room HDB flat usually has three bedrooms, so there might be three couples living in that five-room flat sharing a common kitchen and living space. I really like this idea because it strikes a balance between autonomy and community.

More ambitiously, I was dreaming of having a three- or four-storey building, like a hostel but nicer. The ground floor would be the common living area and gym, the first floor the kitchen, and the upper floors private rooms. Presumably one would closely vet the tenants such that they'd be the right kind of tenants, and build a community that way. I'd keep it small: something less than 20 people (10 rooms maximum). I'm not sure if such a living arrangement would be desired by other Singaporeans, however.

Tangibles: I have too many shoes and clothes. I want to throw a lot of them away and really just keep clothes that are versatile and high-quality. In general I want to have less stuff; I really like living as an international student in Oxford because having to pack and unpack all my stuff every term makes me hyperaware of all my possessions and what I really need.

Something that I've been loathe to throw away is my Prelims revision notes/worksheets/rough work. I know I won't ever need them anymore, but I can't bear to throw them away. In general I'm comfortable with throwing away possessions but quite sentimental about paper documents. I'm not sure what the correct thing to do is. I could digitise it all and then throw it all away, but that would be i) a huge time-consuming undertaking and ii) having the paper documents are nicer/more serendipitious as it's nice to flip through them occasionally.

My last year at Oxford will catalyse throwing stuff away that I don't need, and I hope to throw away many unwanted things.

Money and finances

Have an intuitive grasp of how much money I spend, and can therefore take a more intuitive (and generous!) approach to spending money. Most of my money goes to traveling.

When I first arrived at Oxford I kept a much tighter leash on my expenses, as I didn't know how much I would spend. Having spent two years in Oxford, however, I've got a good grasp of how much I spend, and now am much more intuitive with my money. Specifically, I know that my daily life in Oxford is extremely inexpensive (cook own food, no expensive hobbies), and therefore don't bother tracking how much I spend. Something else that helps a lot is the fact that I "pay myself first", and I've been able to "pay myself first" because I now know how much I need to set aside for the year. The key takeaway for me, therefore, is that tracking one's spending becomes largely superfluous once you're settled into a routine.

I've tried to be more generous both with myself and with my friends. I no longer bother asking other people for groceries money if it's a small one-time event, and I don't pay much attention to the cost of traveling because I know I naturally live frugally.

Overall, I'm quite happy with how I comport my finances, and I wouldn't change anything about it.

Career and work

Very pleased with my internship. Won't do anything career-related in 2020; will focus on my studies.

As I've mentioned several times before, I'm grateful for the data scientist internship with Inzura as it i) opened my eyes to a new field, ii) clarified my competitive advantage, and iii) put me in a better position to apply for Master's programs.

I'll hold off on any career moves for now: I want to focus on my studies. After I graduate, I'd like to apply to many data scientist jobs just so I can get the interviewing practice.

Health and fitness

Good progress (all-time PR) until October 2019, then fell of the wagon. But tried judo and frisbee, which I'm happy with.

Hit all-time PR for bench in mid-October, but fell off the wagon afterward and didn't manage to get back until end December.

14 October 2019: Bench 97.5 4, 100 4/3/3. Fulfilled the dream of benching 2 plates for reps.

Apart from that, I have been playing frisbee semi-regularly, which has improved my frisbee skills. I don't think it's increased my cardiovascular capacity, though.

I've also dabbled in judo and snowboarding, both of which I find very fun.

Next year, I'll need to be more structured with my training. I won't try to go to the gym every day, but I will try to go four times a week, and hit each body part for 10-20 weekly sets.

Thinking of a PPR (push-pull-rest, lol) split that looks something like the following:

Day 1 (Push)

  • Bench variation, 5 sets
  • OHP, 5 sets
  • Cable flies, 3 sets
  • Tricep pushdowns, 3 sets
  • Skullcrushers, 3 sets

Day 2 (Pull)

  • Row variation, 5 sets
  • Pull-up variation, 5 sets
  • Bicep curl variation, 5 sets
  • Face pulls, 3 sets

Day 3 (Push)

  • Bench variation, 5 sets
  • OHP, 5 sets
  • Cable flies, 3 sets
  • Tricep pushdowns, 3 sets
  • Skullcrushers, 3 sets

Day 4 (Pull)

  • Row variation, 5 sets
  • Pull-up variation, 5 sets
  • Bicep curl variation, 5 sets
  • Face pulls, 3 sets

Chest is well-hit, shoulders, arms, back all good, with both horizontal and vertical pulling/pushing motions balanced. Main issue with this program is the conspicuous lack of deadlifts.

I am generally quite tired and get sick easily, and I'm not sure how to fix this. I find myself often very lethargic and low-energy even if I've gotten a solid seven or eight hours of sleep. My sleep hygiene is also good seeing as I use earplugs and a sleep mask, so I'm really at my wit's end about this. I cook home-cooked meals almost every day and eat vegetables and drink water and exercise regularly, so what else could be the reason? I therefore wonder if I might have some undiagnosed condition that is harshing my vibe, but I wouldn't know where to begin to diagnose it.

My lack of sleep negatively impacts my productivity. It's easy to be motivated and productive if I've had a good night's sleep, but if I'm not well-rested then a fog hangs over me for the entire day. I think slower, don't generate the insights that I need, and don't have the motivation to do anything: I only feel like sleeping but often can't fall asleep so I do low-energy activities like browse Youtube or Reddit instead.

Education and skill development

Pretty decent job for QE, but revision still incomplete. Lots of time spent on politics and behavioural econs: need to wrap them up. Happy I spent so much time on politics thesis: gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Rodden and Eubank. Applied for Master's programs.

I think I did a good job revising for QE. I still need to revise time series, hypo testing and R syntax, but I reckon another 50 or so hours will put me in exam-ready condition.

I have given so much time and energy to my politics and behavioural economics theses. But it's been a very good experience as I have i) understood the power of deep work and ii) gained a new appreciation for how difficult research is.

I have spent at least a hundred hours on thinking about behavioural economics in some form or another, and have very little to show for it. I kept trying to salvage the "freeform communication" idea because Johannes said it was good, but I've concluded that it isn't. As a result, therefore, I've not been able to devote my attention to my politics thesis.

Applied to Master's programs. I consider myself very lucky that I have done many computer science MOOCs previously, as I could cite them in my applications.

Social life and relationships

Third-year life somewhat ossified. Have to make an effort to incorporate new friends in my circle. (Chat?) Happy with OXCAR, very happy with Celine.

I felt a little irrelevant as a third year: particularly in Oxbridge games, where I was the only third-year. In the ski trip Norman and I were the only third years, but that wasn't so bad because I knew a couple of second-years. It's very easy for third-years to fade into obscurity, and it's very easy for me to remain in my existing social circles and have them ossify.

Under Bryce/Yifei/Marcus/Martin, OXCAR went from strength to strength. We had what I feel was the best concert so far, and I feel that socially-speaking, OXCAR is stronger than ever before. I'm not sure whether I want to commit to OXCAR next term --- on the one hand, it's just a Monday evening, but there may be additional rehearsals and so on.

Something I've learned from Celine is that it's good to just hit people up and chat (or even video call) them out of the blue. That's how you let people know that you're thinking of them.

Speaking of Celine: I shan't say too much here, but Celine is a beautiful and kind person and I am very happy and grateful to have her.

Emotions and well-being

How do I feel about my life? Am I enjoying life? Am I generally optimistic or pessimistic? Am I quick to notice how my emotions are influencing my thoughts, actions and decisions?

I have been in a poor emotional state for the past one and a half months. The Master's application process was tiring and stressful, and missing my first GRE only added to the stress. Then I fell sick (twice) and I also got frustrated at not being able to think of a good behavioural economic experiment idea. Coming back to Singapore has further frustrated me. In Oxford, I am carefree and independent: I set my own schedule, have my own privacy, and don't have to worry about anything else. Back home, I haven't got a room of my own, my schedule is dictated by my family members, I have to deal with my overbearing mother, hear her complain about my father, and worry about/take care of my grandfather. This has made me very frustrated and helpless, and I'm sure it has sapped my motivation and focus too.

Nonetheless, I am generally optimistic about my own prospects, and I enjoy my life in Oxford very much. I have the feeling that I'm moving towards bigger and better things (or at least moving toward stages in life with more and more autonomy).

Productivity and organisation

Complice started off useful, but lost its lustre. Was very productive during summer and for the first few weeks of term, but---again---lost momentum. Flashcards are too difficult to get through: have to block out time daily or else I will never do them.

I started using Complice: it was useful at the start but now it isn't any more. I don't have a reason why it failed to be effective, but I think part of it was because I kept it in the background always and it therefore failed to be a useful productivity tool.

I am not doing enough deep work and the reason is because I'm just not allocating myself enough time in which to do it. The first four weeks were pretty good; I did at least four hours of deep work a day. I just couldn't keep the momentum.

Biggest thing holding me back is how onerous going through flashcards is, especially because my flashcards are quite difficult and there's no further way to break them up. For instance a derivation question can easily run to 10-15 minutes, and many flashcards build upon others, so I can easily go down a rabbit hole trying to find/derive the chain of necessary knowledge for that singular flashcard. I've made attempts to try and work on flashcards daily but they haven't worked. I think there are two main reasons for this: i) flashcards are too difficult and painful, ii) I can never seem to find the time for it.

In order to combat this, I'll start to explicitly block out time for working on flashcards, treating it as a "first-class citizen" rather than a maintenance activity (like brushing one's teeth). Additionally, I'll make sure to actually read and study through anew before going through the flashcards, as flashcards become balls-hard when you don't know the material well. This should be easier now that I'm supposed to study for those papers in Hilary.

Adventure and creativity

I continue to express myself with cooking, although I may have to tone it down this year. Picked up painting, frisbee, snowboarding, judo.

I did pick up some painting earlier in the year thanks to Merton's Creative Arts Visiting Fellow (Kieran Stiles), and really enjoyed it.

I've done a little bit of calligraphy practice but not much.

Fun things I've done: frisbee, snowboarding, judo

I continue to explore cooking new things; I've done ramen from scratch, buns and dumplings, youtiao, "fake pizza", chicken karaage, korean fried chicken, whole roast turkey, and many more ...

Final thoughts

Despite my poor mood towards the end of the year, I'm optimistic about 2020. As long as I put in the effort, I'm confident that I will get a First, and I am cautiously optimistic that I'll get a place in a Master's program.

I have enjoyed my time in Oxford very much and will be sad to leave the place and all my friends. I very much look forward to squeezing out all I can in my last 6 months in Oxford ("sucking the marrow out of Oxford", lol).