Congratulations if you’re reading this: we made it through 2020! Sadly, viruses don’t respect the symbolism of the transition from December to January, so the early half of 2021 will likely be much the same as things have been, though with the added good news of vaccines rolling out.
Looking through the archives of my newsletter, the last one I sent was back in May — whoops. I think around that time, Life in Lockdown™ was becoming a bit too stale, and so I didn’t have anything novel to write, and even when things did start becoming more interesting closer to the end of the year, it proved difficult to get back into the swing of writing.
To compensate, here’s a small recap of the latter half of my 2020.
Originally, I was lukewarm on that idea, since I already have a MacBook Pro that I used as a “desktop”, but back in September the battery started to bulge quite badly. I figured it was from me running the machine in clamshell mode while streaming VALORANT on a fairly regular basis — a workload that it probably was intended for. Since one of my other friends built a dual-booting Hackintosh earlier this year without much trouble (allegedly), I was convinced to try myself. Also, Apple’s move to ditch Intel and move to their own silicon suggests that macOS compatibility will only become worse as time goes on, meaning now was the time to get in on the action.
Side note: getting my MacBook Pro repaired was the first time I had gone into the a shopping mall since the start of the pandemic, and it felt just as busy as it was pre-pandemic, only everyone was wearing masks and attempting to stay marginally further apart. The Apple Store had a great setup for Genius Bar appointments though; there was a pool of mobile carts that a Genius would wheel up to your spot in line when it was your turn, and diagnostics occurred outside of the store with all hardware being disinfected with alcohol wipes before changing hands.
In terms of hardware, I decided to choose a part list nearly identical to another one that I found online that reportedly worked well. My only non-negotiable was having Thunderbolt support; without it, running my monitor at native resolution would be a huge hassle. As nice as it would have been use an AMD CPU or an NVIDIA GPU, the benefits did not outweigh the lack of compatibility in my mind, so an i9-9900K and the RX 5700 XT was the best I could do.
Building a PC feels like a rite of passage for the types of people who spend the majority of their waking hours on a computer, so I was very excited to finally get to partake in it. I prepared myself by watching far too many build videos (primarily from Vancouver-based Linus Tech Tips). The build itself went fairly smoothly, except for the fact that the CPU cooler is so huge that once installed, it’s very tough to access a lot of other parts of the motherboard, including the PCIe release tabs.
I’m currently in the process of writing a blog post detailing the build to improve the collective Hackintosh wisdom of the Internet, though with M1 desktops on the horizon, it might become pretty useless fairly soon…
It’s interesting that it took a few months into the pandemic for a video game adaptation of the social deduction game to make it to the big leagues, but Among Us has proven to be not just a flavour-of-the-month fad, but a game with long-lasting appeal. Given the size of InnerSloth (~5 people), it’s pretty remarkable how they were able to scale up to support a game that, even a couple months after the sudden spike in activity, still retained >250k simultaneous viewers on Twitch.
Among Us is perhaps the greatest proof that shipping a great idea is more important than the actual “quality” of the game. It was objectively pretty rough around the edges up until a few months after it became popular, and during that time, the servers would struggle to stay afloat whenever 6pm Pacific Time rolled around. To the credit of the dev team, the game has since been polished up, but the fact that these shortcomings didn’t hinder its growth at all was still impressive to see.
It’s also interesting how the community rallied around the game by augmenting it with things like a standalone proximity chat client that hooks into the game to determine player locations and automatically manage communications, unlocking an entirely new way of playing.
I feel like Among Us has introduced a lot of people who are unfamiliar with social deduction games to the genre, and I’m hoping to see more games explore the space, especially since virtual gaming sessions will continue to be the norm rather than the exception for the vast majority of 2021.
I was also roped into playing Genshin Impact. On the surface it seems like a copy of Breath of the Wild, injected with the DNA of a mobile gacha game, and that’s basically true. It turns out though that the open world format of Breath of the Wild is so good that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, Genshin improves on its counterpart in aspects like weapons not breaking (and instead being exponentially more difficult to upgrade), cliffs not being unclimbable whenever it’s raining, and being able to cook in bulk after cooking a certain recipe enough times.
(It really is a blatant rip-off, though — everything from the “pan to the horizon when walking onto the cliff overlooking the world” during the prologue to the Korokian puzzles scattered around the overworld and the enemy archetypes are derived straight from BotW.)
However, I did get quite into it due to its pseudo-MMORPG feel; the daily quests and dungeons give the satisfaction of playing an MMORPG, without the game actually being massively multiplayer. One downside is that after a couple of months of grinding the same dungeons for level-up rewards, they started to become really stale, since level progression is exponential, so the rate of novel gameplay slows down drastically.
Although I had several false starts with this in the past, last year I started taking learning chess more seriously, mostly as something to do when video games became stale. Chess is nice because games can be as slow or as fast as you want. Between the surge of chess streamers on Twitch and The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, a lot of other friends have wanted to get into chess too, meaning there’s a lot of other people to practice against.
The nice part about chess being so popular is that content creators have started publishing a lot of incredible free resources online, and in this case, content creators are IMs and GMs as opposed to random charismatic Internet people.
With December comes Advent of Code, a yearly holiday-themed programming competition. Even though my goal was ending up in the top 100 of the global leaderboard this year (as always), I ended up as 128th (a nice power-of-two, at least). I think this was a due to a number of factors: the sheer popularity of the event (nearly 50% more participants in 2020 compared to last year, judging by the number of solves for the Day 1); everyone being stuck at home (meaning stiffer competition every night); and my own rustiness (I spent a lot of free time during university doing interview prep and competitive programming, and spend significantly less time doing so while working).
Despite this, I’m happy that I was able to stream all 25 days of my solves, and (with a tiny bit of friendly collaboration for a couple of the days) was able to solve every problem in the initial sitting. To my surprise, people who I didn’t know even dropped in on my stream, including one CS undergraduate who ended up reaching out via Twitter to tell me how much they appreciated it.
I do think that Advent of Code is a great way to introduce some basic data structure concepts and/or learn a new language, so at some point I will likely go through some problems from one of the earlier years and use it as an opportunity to do a more pedagogical stream, something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while now.
Other than that, I read through Educated by Tara Westover, and am currently making my way through President Obama’s A Promised Land, which are both very interesting memoirs describing vastly different American experiences.
That’s it for this issue; here’s hoping the next one will appear in your inbox before June 2021.