2020 H1 Retrospective

August 09, 2020

Reading time ~17 minutes

The obvious thing to do when talking about 2020 is talking about how COVID-19 impacted me, and I could certainly do that, but instead I'm going to stick to what I normally do.

  • Midsummer's Message
  • Goal Review
  • The Last Six Months
  • Reading Updates

Some past retrospectives on reading and thoughts:

Midsummer's Message

Thoughts on Culture

The last six months have been a time of great social turbulence, both in America and internationally, from nature and man.

Honestly, there have been more takes on both COVID and the George Floyd protests than anyone could read in a lifetime, and the marginal value of my speech on the topic is minimal. I will briefly say that I believe in seeking to improve justice in America, and that it is achievable with discrete policy changes.

All that said, I think some ways we're moving into an era where a not insignificant portion of the population that is responsible for distribution of ideas likes to dress up attempts to economically or socially harm individuals as 'criticism', and dress up preaching as a 'discussion'. To step in a mire, I generally support the sort of direction the Harper Letter gestures at, and I have an issue with 'cancel culture', which I'll narrowly define as attempting to change the expression of an opinion through economic and moral sanctions, rather than civic and social engagement.

Overall, I would like to take a generally approving stance towards a civic attitude of approval of free speech. It is important to call this out as a civic attitude and not merely the first amendment, because our civic beliefs are often as or more critical than the laws that bracket them.

Let people believe things you disagree with. Let them believe things you find utterly abhorrent. Let them try to persuade you, persuade them in turn, or merely live your life and ignore them. Do you find their beliefs to be damaging by their mere existence, or by some kind of philosophical or epistemic harm upon your person? It is unfortunately easy to construct a framework by which this can be turned back on you. At the end of the day it may be a matter of power relations and who gets to define their direction in the overculture, but I certainly don't endorse that sort of cynical approach.

I of course recognize the Paradox of Tolerance, but believe that people who invoke it could stand to read a few more sentences, and perhaps read Locke on A Letter Concerning Toleration.

For the sake of ease, I have reproduced Popper's note on the Paradox of Tolerance here.

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

I would especially like to call attention to the fact that he specifically calls out actively violent ideologies that are not being suppressed by public opinion. I have spent more time than I'd like to admit arguing with extremists, and have argued some of the most extreme out of their opinions, when others who like to cite this quote would grant them nothing but a concussion or a bullet. And while I cannot argue everyone around to my perspective on tolerance, I can at least respond to the first response I often get, which is it's easy when you aren't the target: In some cases, these extremists were ones who absolutely hated me for my Jewish heritage.

As far as A Letter Concerning Toleration, the entirety has been made available via Wikisource.

Living Well in Theory and Practice

Aside from the immediacy of the culture that we live in, and the efforts I go to to try to understand what's happening, I spend a fairly significant portion of my time thinking about virtue, the meaning of life, and living a good life.

I have a lot of writing on this topic coming soon! Honestly, writing about it is part of the reason that I started this website.

I do want to say, however, that you should seek to live skillfully. Seek to live your life such that at any given moment, the your life up to that point has justified all of its trials and tribulations, that the only regret you truly have is that you have not yet had a chance to live more.

I think much of this comes from a mixture of a balanced life and a life filled with legacy (and these are related in their own way). As some of the readers may know, I spend a significant amount of time reading classical literature, philosophy, and other old content --- derived primarily from the Great Books of the Western World collection.

Prior to July 2020, I had been working on reading approximately 110 pages a week following a schedule put together by a Professor who runs a Humanities department that works on this curriculum as well. However, in conjunction with my promotion, this had essentially squeezed out everything else I wanted to achieve in evenings. I can of course explain precisely what I mean by this, but if you look at my 2019 in review, I have not made nearly the progress on the listed goals that I'd like. Towards improving this, I've shifted to 3 reading sections a month, rather than 4. This will extend the curriculum but hopefully leave more time for reading other things, writing, guitar, etc.

Goal Review

I published a series of goals in my 2020 retrospective. Here's the status. A significant number of these were impaired by COVID, but others have no good excuse.

I would say that I still agree with these goals, but I need to tackle them harder. There are roughly 4.5 months left in the year at the time of this writing (although it's a retrospective through end of June). That's plenty of time to accomplish all of the remaining tasks that aren't directly hampered by COVID.

Some of it has been hard though due to my promotion --- I have even less time in evenings than I had before to pursue a number of these.

Please note that when speaking in the future tense, they were done from the perspective of the start of the year.


  • Deadlift 540 lbs
  • Compete at a powerlifting competition
  • Go rock climbing 4x (Delayed)
  • Hit a 20 minute 5k on the treadmill, participate in an actual 5k (Almost hit, then our apartment gym shut down. Still targeting by end of year).
  • Practice dance more than 1 hour a month (FAILED)
  • Attend at least one yoga class (Not started)
  • Increase my fat and vegetable intake, vary my evening meals, cook a 'full' multi-course meal with paired dishes at least 12 times (I've done a bit more variety, mostly in the opening months of COVID, but I need to do more.)


  • High level: Read 30 'book equivalents' of a quality between ‘high quality genre fiction’ and ‘literary and philosophical classics’ (ON TRACK)
  • Read an additional 5k pages of the Great Books of the Western World (ON TRACK --- Reduced target)
  • Read the collected works of HP Lovecraft (ON TRACK)
  • Read the collected works of Robert E Howard (Not started)
  • Tackle at least 3-6 high value non-fiction books not covered by my Great Books reading (1 down)


  • Improve knowledge of Category Theory
    • David Spivak's 'Category Theory for Scientists' (WIP)
    • Baez's 'Applied Category Theory' class (leveraging Spivak's 'Seven Sketches in Compositionality') (Not Started)
  • Controls Theory, Python, ML
  • Finally, I'd like to begin learning about quantum computing as well as increase my breadth of knowledge of finance. I am lucky to know the author of "Learn Quantum Computing with Python and Q#". (Not started)


  • I will be launching a website to publish writing this next year, as I seem unable to stop giving my opinions on why, how, and what a life well lived looks like—as well as having a number of opinions around both systems and product management (although much easier to call my bluff on those, so perhaps I'll be more constrained!) (Complete)
  • I'll be hopefully giving a review of Graphical Linear Algebra and what I learned from it in greater depth early in the year. (Not started)
  • I have at least one project I hope to launch in February but am not yet ready to talk about. (I don't even know what it was!)
  • Finally, I may be interested in collaborating with someone on writing fiction. (Not started)


  • We'd like to host at least 3 non-wedding events (Delayed)
  • I have a publicly unannounced project that will take quite a bit of coordination (Delayed)
  • I'd like to hang out 1-1 and have a good, long conversation with at least 6 new people (On track, somewhat delayed)

Life Events

  • Have the wedding ceremony (Delayed)
  • Buy a house (On track)
  • Prepare to start a family (On track)
  • Travel overseas for our honeymoon (Delayed)
  • Travel at least one other place in the year (Delayed)

The Last Six Months

As I write this section of my retrospective, in early August, I'm aware that I'm not exactly covering the year to date. At the same time, I'll cover what's going on now when I write my year end review.


In January, Sami and I were preparing for the Tacoma Rookie Classic. Not doing as much volume, focusing on consistently hitting singles with good form, running a 'practice' comp of the 9 work singles, taking a week off before competition.

I become somewhat aware of what was going on in Wuhan regarding the Coronavirus, but unfortunately not enough to speak up significantly about it. As proof, an Amazon receipt. My sources here were sketchy --- various places on the internet discussing leaking videos from China, changes in the weather they attributed to crematoriums (which turned out to mostly be validated), looking at behavior from bordering countries. All the same, I took it seriously enough to prep a little bit. Turns out I prepped more than I needed to in some ways, but not nearly enough for if disaster had actually struck.


I took 1st in the entire competition, and Sami took 3rd in women in the competition. Full results can be found here.

On top of this, I began doing more coronavirus preparation. Some things I was unfortunately late on, but I managed to get more sanitary supplies. I warned a few friends of what I was seeing. I knew that I should be stocking up on supplies but kept putting it off.


By March I was certain things were going to utterly go south. I started making excuses to not go into the office, and warned my boss that we'd all be sent home, and for a good while, a few days before the decision was made. We began work from home, and I set up a miniature gym in my living room. The gym was comprised of a very small standalone rack, PowerBlocks borrowed from a friend (who had a nicer full gym), a PowerBlocks straight bar that I purchased, a set of EliteFTS bands for deadlift, and an Amazon Basics bench.


Everything was shut down, we weren't traveling or socializing. Working, reading, studying, gaming. Not much else to say. Some very cautious socializing.

I made a number of pizzas from scratch, rather than the pre-made ones I normally use (Red Baron Cheese Trio, which I more or less consider to be the best consistent option). The made from scratch pizzas were delicious but time consuming.


Like April, but moreso. Some baking burnout. At this point we were hoping things would calm down enough to get socialization into the summer, before a second anticipated lockdown.

We started doing a lot of house hunting, identifying a number of nice places, none of which were really 'right' for us.


I was lucky enough to be promoted, from the 'lower' level of the Senior band at Microsoft to the 'upper' level of the Senior band at Microsoft. Correspondingly, my workload increased (which had already been somewhat higher due to observed longer hours from WFH), cutting down on my free time with additional responsibilities.

In June, we actually got to the point of signing a contract for a house --- I received an exploding offer and was able to sign it about 29 seconds before the offer ended --- only to be notified that they wanted to back out about 6 hours later. Turns out that there was a dispute between the people selling and the people they'd sold a portion of the land to before about who was responsible for hooking up the sewer to the septic tank.

Not wanting to be on the hook for up to $80,000 in additional costs, we regrettably acquiesced. It was a lovely house, with an incredibly huge shed, but it wasn't worth the nearly a million dollars we might have ended up paying all told.


The last six months of reading have been incredibly intense. I'd say that the work that left the single greatest impression on me is also the one I haven't yet finished, despite the schedule saying that I should have, which was Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason". I got behind on my reading there, and I have about 200 pages remaining.It's more than possible that when I finish it finally, I will try to summarize the parts that matter to me. I might also have to reread it, or at least my notes, which are now nearly the length of a novella in themselves.

This is, flat out, the most difficult reading I've undertaken that still was meaningful to me. What I mean by this is much of geometry slips out of my total aphantasic mind like so much water through a sieve. The Critique of Pure Reason doesn't do this --- I find it an incredible read --- but it is truly dense.

I decided as a result of this, on top of the decreased free time to both read and pursue other hobbies (guitar, cooking, firearms, technical studies like controls theory, etc.) that I would make my study schedule slightly less strenuous. For the second half of the year, and moving forward (until I change it again) I've moved to targeting 3 sets of readings a month instead of 4. The "week's reading" that I follow comes from the Western Tradition blog, run by a Great Books professor.

Finally, I thought about the balance between speed and retention of reading, and changed how I read. If, for example, I can read 2,000 more books in a natural human timespan without taking notes, but only 1,500 with taking notes, then I only have to compare what I think my retention is. If, for example, I think my retention is 50% without notes and 75% with notes, that turns that 2,000 into effectively 1,000, and the 1,500 into 1,125.

These numbers obviously aren't so rigid in real life, but just the same I've been taking notes on everything I've been reading in my serious curriculum since the first day of 2020.

Between January 1, 2020, and August 8, 2020 (the time of this writing), I took ~271,330 words in notes, or just over the length of Joyce's Ulysses. Hopefully, however, they are a tad more structured in review. This is also somewhere between 675 and 1000 pages of printed content.

I will likely write more in the future about my methodology and goals with notetaking.

As a recap from the previous post:

Bold will be things I believe are the most important to read.

The asterisk symbol * I will mark things I wish to reread.

The dagger symbol † (ironically Unicode symbol 2020!) I will mark things that struck me, stuck with me, left an impression—even if I neither consider them highest priority for you or for me to review. This is not quite a superset of the preceding classes.

  1. The Clouds by Aristophanes†
  2. Of Refinement in the Arts by Hume
  3. Cicero by Plutarch*
  4. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (completed from prior report)†
  5. The Decline of the Mechanical View by Einstein and Infeld
  6. Rappacini's Daugheter by Nathaniel Hawthorne†
  7. The Prince by Machiavelli†*
  8. Demosthenes and Cicero Compared by Plutarch*
  9. The Posterior Analytics of Aristotle*
  10. Customs and Opinions of the Erewhonians by Samuel Butler†
  11. Machiavelli by Thomas Babington Macaulay†
  12. The Summa Theological by St. Thomas Aquinas (Prologue, First Part Question 1-Question 4 )
  13. Youth by Joseph Conrad
  14. Demetrius by Plutarch†*
  15. Of Sadness by Michel de Montaigne
  16. The Advancement of Learning by Francis Bacon†
  17. Paradise Lost by John Milton†
  18. Antony by Plutarch†*
  19. Our Feelings Reach out beyond Us by Michel de Montaigne
  20. On the Relation of Man to the Lower Animals by Thomas H. Huxley†
  21. Antony and Demetrius Compared by Plutarch†*
  22. On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings by William James
  23. An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen†
  24. The Book of Prognostics by Hippocrates
  25. Agesilaus by Plutarch†*
  26. How the Soul Discharges Its Passions on False Objects When the True Are Wanting by Michel de Montaigne
  27. Mathematics and the Metaphysicians by Bertrand Russell*
  28. Pompey by Plutarch*
  29. The Postulates of the Science of Space by William Kingdon Clifford
  30. Agesilaus and Pompey Compared†*
  31. Herodotus by John Bagnell Bury†
  32. On the Natural Faculties by Galen†
  33. Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
  34. The Geometry by Rene Descartes
  35. Whether the Governor of a Besieged Place Should Go Out to Parley by Michel de Montaigne
  36. The Principle of Population by Thomas Malthu†s
  37. A Lasting Peace through the Federation of Europe by Jean-Jacques Rousseau*
  38. The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan†
  39. The Genesis of a Law of Nature by Dmitri Mendeleev
  40. The Charmides of Plato
  41. The Physics of Aristotle*
  42. An Idealist's Arraignment of the Age by John Ruskin
  43. On the Sacred Disease by Hippocrates†
  44. The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant†*
  45. Definition of a Number by Bertrand Russell
  46. The Concurrent Majority by John C. Calhoun
  47. Scientific Study of the So-Called Psychical Processes in the Higher Animals by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov†
  48. The Balance of Trade by David Hume
  49. The Almagest of Ptolemy (In Progress)†
  50. The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol†
  51. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (In Progress)†*
  52. Of Money by David Hume
  53. Passion in the Desert by Honore de Balzac†
  54. Parley Time is Dangerous by Michel de Montaigne
  55. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens†
  56. Oedipus the King by Sophocles
  57. That Intention is Judge of Our Actions by Michel de Montaigne
  58. Medea by Euripides
  59. On Style by Arthur Schopenhauer†*
  60. Of the Standard of Taste by David Hume†
  61. The Metaphysics of Aristotle (In Progress)†
  62. Of Liars by Michel de Montaigne
  63. The Gorgias of Plato
  64. Novum Organum by Francis Bacon (Complete now, was in progress as of July 1)†*
  65. A Defence of Poetry by Percy Shelley†*
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