My Notebook
#featured#new years#reflection#article
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my "favorite" year recapped!

2024-01-01 · 17 min readmaybe favorite is just a word i shouldn't use as oftendear past neelr,So so many things to catch you up on. I really can’t think of any way to write this in an interesting way that could be unique, so I’ll just do a quick stream of thought. I’ll start off with a quick summary of the year and then like probably some things that I think are different about me than you. So the summary:(okay this ended up being longer than expected so I’ll include my advice to past neel first then the summary)(imagine a giant long summary here)So ummm… that was a long summary. So what would I say to the 2022 version of me? A lesson learned throughout the year?There’s no such thing as favorites. Let me rephrase this a bit though, there definitely is such a thing as a favorite for most people, but ideally there shouldn’t be favorites.Favorite foods, favorite colleges, favorite places to sleep, sure you can have them but most importantly—do they contribute to your happiness? Sure you can wish for them as much as you want and strive towards them, but usually favorites tend to make the present more dull. A favorite food for example might make the food you’re currently eating more dull; A favorite bed might make the bed you have at college a little less comfortable; A favorite toy makes the time you spend without it just a little more dull.By embracing everything you see—whether it's the taste of a unique dish or a fresh scene—that should be your favorite at that moment. By devoting 100% of your time to the present, whatever is literally in front of your face, you can learn to enjoy more things in your life. Instead of dreaming about the time you were in the perfect place, with the perfect scenery, you should notice what makes the scenery you’re looking at perfect. All things are subjective, and anything could be your favorite.People, places, things, they’re all infinitely complex beneath seemingly simple exteriors. There are so many things to actually enjoy about anything, yet people almost always just look at the first couple layers. If you love stable ground, enjoy the instability of shaky ground; if you love the sunny sky, maybe look at some rain clouds; favorites can either limit your possibilities or make you not realize what's literally in front of you.Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t have goals or want to do anything, or have preferences in what you want to do in life. All I’m trying to say to 2023 Neel is that favorites aren’t usually all they’re made out to be. I can like and enjoy programming, but I don’t necessarily need to feel compelled to do it 24/7. Same with research and same with messing around with friends. I might want to do something like have an impact on AI research, but I don’t think that necessarily counts as a favorite, maybe a meta-favorite?I think this meshes with my long term goal of being able to do more of what I’m interested in—whatever it may be (hence why I absolutely love AI & CS as interdisciplinary tools). By not having any favorites, you can learn to enjoy the present moment.Instead of sticking to a compass or any other of your favorite navigation tools… maybe use a sextant?
P.S: Here's a cool little wrapped site for my locations this year: https://neel-wrapped.vercel.app! I aggregate locations on my website so this is a cool visual that I thought would be fun.P.P.S: Honestly I don’t know what to put here, I just really like the idea of putting lots of post scripts.P.P.P.S: LMK any book recs you might have or any comments or anything you want to talk about! I’m always free and would love to hear how terrible or amazing my takes are (maybe you could be the reason I add a P.P.P.P.S about how terrible this advice is!)==== === ==== ===== ====== ====== === ===== ===== ==== ==== ==(said summary, some parts left out, its a lot...)JanSubmitted all my apps! Was slightly stressed out about where I would go but it was mostly fine. I honestly didn’t care too much about where I would go, mostly if I would go to the same schools as my friends. I knew this would be unlikely but it would still be fun. Worked on refining my independent research project idea and ran a couple tests to see if it would work.Hung out with a lot more people now that I had time! It was honestly super fun compared to the rest of the year.7/10FebPresented at my first research conference! AAAI23 was honestly a blast where I got to try living by myself for the first time, and it was amazing. I did groceries, got lots of ice cream, had fun with friends, and just vibed in Washington DC. Of course the coolest part was the research (got pretty deep into federated learning/RL here, honestly the papers were the coolest), and meeting new people to talk to! I felt satisfied after this conference thinking I made full use of my time there to further my goals of 1) getting to know more people in the field 2) checking out if my ideas were interesting to people in the field. Met a very cool S and K.TREEHACKS!!! This was honestly even more fun than I thought it would be. I made a lot of friends and got my first intro to a lot of new communities that I hadn’t interacted with! Shoutout to W, J, C, & V for super cool late night conversations (can’t say they were violently productive though), but I feel like they were hilarious. Got closer to K which was great and I feel like I finally got to see what he thought about life & different issues. Made a cool thing on the side too https://devpost.com/software/accessize8/10
MarchBirthday!!! Had a really cool birthday party that combined a lot of people from a lot of different places. It turned out really good and I’m glad I turned 18.SO this was definitely the month of rejections. It hit pretty hard at the moment but now I guess it doesn’t? Maybe I’m also tricking myself into thinking that I’m in this mindset, honestly I’m not too sure. It was hard at the moment because there are mainly two downsides. The biggest one being friends—I’ve interacted with a certain subset of people throughout most of my life that would be going to more “prestigious” colleges (or “more prestigious”, I honestly don’t think the more qualifier would work because prestige can’t be quantitative), and I wouldn’t be able to interact with them in person day to day. Ideally I guess the best part of college would be meeting new people, but it just sounds much easier in the moment to say “yeah! me and my friends will live together for 4 years and just do fun things!” rather than “i’ll be on my own for 4+ years where there's a high probability i’ll make more, better, friends!”.I finished up my independent research and qualified for the International Science Fair in March! It was my first time qualifying through the county, so it was honestly cooler to have people locally recognize my work and I feel like I got the best of both worlds here.Factoring in the coolness from my research and the uncoolness (subjective still) of college rejections, I think I’d rate the month below average for a solid:3/10
AprilTHE MONTH OF FUN EXCURSIONS—prom, suzume, new york, going to LA for debate tournaments, and so much more.Met E for the first time and that was super cool! I also got to see a lot of people at random events as everyone was visiting colleges across the US, so that helped a lot with coping with the month before. Visited UCLA for the first time and though it wasn’t love at first sight it seemed like a place with lots of fun things to do (whether there IS a place without fun things to do is up for debate…). I met a ton of cool people there, and they were all amazing, so it made me much happier about my decision!Overall a good month, I worked on my research a little more to make the paper & presentation, but honestly not a super productive month. School was going great and I didn’t have to stress for classes almost at all which was great.5/10MayOkay, key events in this month were probably ISEF, Angelhacks, and just generally going out a lot more.I feel like my outings increased exponentially throughout the year, which honestly is how my ideal second semester senior year would go. Many iconic moments at ISEF, I honestly think the people were what carried it here though. In 2022 it was mainly focused on trying really hard and constantly practicing, but this year was a lot more chill. I talked with a lot more people, went out and explored Dallas! I loved going through random parts with other participants in the night and going on fun excursions. Definitely a net positive experience.~~AngelHacks! Happened! Yes! And it was so fun! we had swords and many cool things.~~AngelHacks was honestly an extremely fun experiment. We got to test out how a completely non-competitive hackathon would be—and I think it was a success! If the goal of a hackathon is to educate people, I think the current hackathon format is NOT the way to go here. I’ll probably write something on this later but humor is a much better incentive than large prizes, especially for people learning how to hack.You want to cultivate a mini caring environment with low stakes prizes—swords, slime, a hundred packs of ramen—rather than high value prizes. This way people can take risks, more people get a reward, and it's an environment where people can explore their creativity/feel less downside to just learning something new. The vibes also become much better + more collaborative than other hackathons.I think overall I went on a ton of walks this month and I loved it—thanks to everyone who went deep into the hills or any random park with me!2/10
JuneI think this is the month where the nostalgia definitely started to hit me. Before I didn’t really care too much about school or missing everyone—but “memetics” prevails once again. Surrounded by people reminiscing over their childhood and remembering the past, I could feel myself also looking fondly on random events I had done while younger. With everyone getting super nostalgic about their highschool career, I wanted to just get up and do more things to make it more memorable.Graduation was amazing, very very fun, honestly nothing to complain about here. I loved the vibes and felt everyone was just enjoying themselves and the time.After lots of hanging out, fun, and shenanigans, Calhacks rolled around! This was super fun because not only did I get to reconnect with people, I got to build something that’s been on my mind for a while—https://devpost.com/software/caddy-92l74v—and work with someone I’ve wanted to work with E, which I’ve wanted to do for a while. I found it super therapeutic, Calhacks was definitely up there in my memorable hackathons because of the deep conversations and overall just fun vibes.8/10JulyMORE HANGING OUT. Lots of excursions and other things—highlights here are definitely spontaneous trips to SF and random hikes in the hills. New Hampshire: WOW I have never been so surprised to see the dark before. This had to be the first time I’ve seen the dark up close before. Truly not being able to see anything is and continues to be extremely scary. Met cool people though and that’s all that matters—https://notebook.neelr.dev/stories/kairos. The highlight definitely had to be my late night conversations with P and trying to build a compiler in Haskell.Boston: This was super fun, I got to see C again! Boston is honestly a cool place to be, I love the architecture and just thinking about the history that happened there. Met a ton of cool people here and got another glimpse of what it would be like to be with your friends for extended periods of time (queue Japan…)Cavetown: BEST CONCERT EVER! I love Cavetown and BoyWithUke so much, definitely the best concert of the year. The vocals, having Ricky Montgomery notice me was definitely the highlight though.Vermont: I would probably define this as a blast from the past. A little context, I went to Vermont on the Outernet! It was an outdoors hackathon where people literally went camping for a hackathon. This had been my dream setting for a hackathon, and it honestly went amazing. I enjoyed being a participant, eating marshmallows, and sitting around a fire with people programming! Interacting with people just coming into the hacking community (as someone who’s been here for 5+ years), was super inspiring and reminded me a lot of how I used to be. (nostalgia +100 but also inspiration +80). Tested out a couple cool things with NeRFs and tried to build a text => 3d reconstruction pipeline and 3d printed a (pretty cursed) orpheus!3/10
August
JAPANNNNNN~!I feel like in this month particularly so much happened. Spending time with family was amazing, getting to explore Japan and honestly take in the amazing views/culture is the highlight of my year. Getting to just relax with family, explore random places, and see interesting things is amazing and something I might not get often afterwards—so I’m super grateful for that. Tried an onsen, lots of matcha, petted a deer, and talked to random people on the train!The second half was spent with friends in Hakuba, honestly a crazy experience by itself. I didn’t meet too many new people, but of the new people I met, all of them were amazing. Getting to know U, D, & Y more was insightful because each had a unique story that I honestly related to so much. I was much more open (probably because of the crazy environment shift), which allowed me to have deeper/more meaningful conversations overall.THIS IS PROBABLY the best environment I could ask for. Hakuba was in the middle of nowhere, with a 7/11 closeby to get amazing food, a forest behind to explore, and friends everywhere to talk to. The only changes I would make are 1) less humidity and 2) bigger hallways (spacious spaces are cool too).Getting the gang back together w/ R & C was amazing, spending time in Tokyo was fun especially just enjoying the scenery. It really showed me a glimpse of what it would be like to just live in a small apartment with all your friends, and how enjoyable that life would actually be. Top highlights of Japan 2nd half (deserves a full bullet list just for itself)
  • Running around Tokyo station with C trying to find a place to put our bags
  • Walking around the house in Hakuba finding random (slightly creepy very Ghibli-esque) shrines deep in the woods and wondering if I’ll actually be able to find my way back
  • Wireheading D and quizzing him to try and see if he gets embarrassed
  • Late night conversations and hot tubs (even though it was hot and humid outside)
  • Rooming with R and still sleeping at completely different hours that barely overlapped
  • Taking a shower in a sink
  • I worked on trying to classify EEG signals here, but honestly I got derailed 24/7 from messing around rather than doing actual work.
9/10SeptemberThis was honestly a month full of flights too. Orientation was amazing where I met so many new people and went on amazing walks—super fun and met my roommate today! Going immediately from Japan to LAX though was pretty jarring, but still fun.Davidson was a really cool weekend overall—met up with new friends and saw C again, had tacos with Bob Davidson where he asked a lot of hard hitting questions. Honestly the whole experience was a blast, but also not exactly what I thought it would be. After Japan it felt a little watered down?Inbound to UCLA!!! Saying goodbye to everyone was definitely a challenge, but afterwards I spent the first weeks in UCLA in December. Met V, C, P, A, S, A and so many people I can’t introduce them all. Played a scavenger hunt game that was interesting and many many sidequests (redacted for “brevity”).Highlights:
  • Built a bot to get concert tickets for Bruin Bash! Worked relatively well and secured floor tickets (was fun)
  • Attended lots of club meetings trying to get integrated into the UCLA lifestyle
  • Set up the infamous rope ladder in my room because room service was too slow
  • Secured bean bag in dorm room
  • Got my dorm floor to be super social which is fun!
7/10OctoberMet so many people and did so many serendipitous things…One super big highlight I would point out here is classes vs fun. First quarter I took ridiculously easy classes—an introduction to programming (oh my days…), philosophy, and math. This way I could audit cooler and maybe more advanced classes like grad level reinforcement learning and parallel computing. This was really fun in general, made school more low stakes, and gave me breathing room to just have fun and let things happen. This was around the time I submitted my paper to NeurIPS for fun, and just relaxed after getting into college!(also i started saying oh my days around now…)Highlights:
  • Slept on the roof of the engineering building
  • Fixed a 3d printer in a random lab I found
  • Went around many different areas in UCLA (various parts of various buildings)
  • Fixed a CRT machine I found in a dumpster with K!
  • Built a cardboard costume for Halloweekend!!!
8/10NovemberAlmost at the end of the year!! Here I mostly had fun by doing random things… which I had the time and space to do because of my course load!Highlights:
  • Joined two research labs!
  • Peng lab to work on reinforcement learning with diffusion models, possibly decreasing the search space and adding monte carlo methods on top
  • Yang Yang to see if I could cross apply my material science research to actual labs!
  • Won an EV grant so that I could attend NeurIPS (my research was independent so I didn’t really get to get any lab funding)
  • Made bread, cookies, and other baked goods in the AI Safety house on campus
  • Had times where K visited which was super fun every single time, also K came to visit once which was fun
  • Celebrated birthdays, thanksgiving, and so so much more
Most importantly though—I got a new phone case and got shampoo.9/10December
The stress of finals definitely hit this month because I felt like I had no prep at all for anything, which created a magnifying feedback loop of just procrastinating studying until around two weeks beforehand where I just started grinding as hard as possible. A lot of early
December was prep for late December which contained mostly two things:NeurIPS: NeurIPS was super cool! I’ll link the summary soon but I think everything when amazing, though I don’t know if I had enough time while studying finals to milk 110% out of the experience. Having to balance taking/studying finals with that was honestly so stressful.Estonia: Debrief coming soon!Highlights (excluding NeurIPS and Estonia)
  • Spontaneous trip to Boston to meet friends and celebrate an early Christmas!
  • Learned how to press vinyl on shirts and made a stop bullying t-shirt
  • Started https://hackin.la and convinced the makerspace to host it
  • Went to Irvine with S—was super cool and fun, I live for random train rides and trips to nowhere
3/10Overall it was a fun year, I traveled quite a bit and saw extremely cool things—though productivity-wise I did a lot less. More often than not, I chose going out or trying something new, over other side projects. I’m not sure what's better, but hopefully in the future I can strike more of a balance.
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