It’s been another strange year. The global pandemic rages on and I’m still stuck at home. The scary part is that it’s starting to feel like a new normal. So much so that without vacations or social interactions, a lot of this year has flew by with many days blending into each other — something that is a little bit scary. Perhaps one of the only things that helps stave off the monotony of this life is my daughter, who has progressed from infant to toddler along with all of the associated changes. It’s a joy to watch her learn and grow, and it makes most days fun and enjoyable. A few other important changes have shaken things up a bit as well but I still long for the days where I could go out, meet up with family and friends, and enjoy some good food and drink. It’ll come eventually but for now I’ve lowered my expectations and instead I am trying to find balance within the current situation. Life can be so unpredictable and strange but all we can do is choose how we react, and in my case I choose to make the most I can out of a global pandemic. So with that, let’s get on to the review!
Family: Almost all of my free time has been taken up raising my daughter, this is probably a very familiar experience to most new parents. It’s been such joy seeing her grow this past year. There is a saying: “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with”, and without a doubt my daughter is one of the people I spend the most time with and has affected me in a dramatic way.
Seeing her delight in the simplest of acts somehow gives me a new perspective on life. In many ways, most other things have decreased in importance. Notwithstanding the pandemic, things that I used to do regularly such as going out to eat, hanging out with friends, or lazily sleeping in on the weekend are things that I still miss but not urgently. I get more than enough entertainment and joy from playing with her (even when I’m dead tired!). In other areas such as work, I’m less stressed than I was previously. It’s a bit easier for me to take a step back away because I have this totally different world (my daughter) that keeps me occupied. Having said that, a bunch of new worries all related to my daughter are starting to surface starting with COVID. As I understand that is only going to get worse as she grows up, but for now I’ll do my best not to think too hard about all of those things.
As an aside, one really cute thing I did on her birthday was write a letter to her. It was an idea I got from somewhere on the interweb. The idea is that you write a new letter each year and when she’s an adult she can have some insight into her childhood and what it was like raising her. Other things like journaling and taking lots of photos and videos are still things that I do, but probably not as often as I should. It’s a very unnatural habit that I never really picked up but it’s never too late to start!
Staying at Home: We’ve been trying to keep extra safe taking many precautions and severely limiting outside contact. We have frequent visits from the grandparents, less frequent visits from my siblings (and their kids), and maybe one or two visits from friends. For my wife and me, this is fine because we have a really nice setup at home. My main worry is about my daughter who hasn’t had much interaction with other kids (or people). She’s still young so I’m not too worried but parents will be parents.
Friends: My only regret during this time has been that I’ve been out of touch with many of my friends. Part of it was expected because of the time with the baby, part of it was because I dislike socializing over virtual media. I spend all day staring at a screen that the thought of spending more time in front of it to socialize seems unpleasant. The few times that I have chatted with some friends virtually, it has been fun but those times have been few and far between. Perhaps it’s time to change my stance on it, in the back of my mind I’ve been hoping for a return to normalcy but I should know that it’s going to take longer than I think.
Health & Fitness: Due to the aforementioned lack of time, my fitness has really taken a hit. Even before having kids it was challenging to find time to work out, but now it’s taken a back seat to the other things (mainly my daughter) that come before it in priority. I’ve probably gone to the gym only a dozen times in the last year, and that is considering that I have a home gym in the basement! The upside is that I get some light activity when I play with my daughter who loves running around the house but it’s far from what I should be getting. Hopefully as she gets older, it’ll be easier to find some time to do more explicit exercise.
Apart from exercise, one achievement that I’m quite proud of is managing my weight. Over the past six months, I’ve lost more than 10 lbs (average 1-2 lbs/month), which is the first time ever that I have intentionally lost weight! Since the pandemic, I’ve had pretty terrible eating habits and much less movement so I gained a bit of weight (maybe 5 lbs or so). But since around June I decided to cut back. What I’ve found works is cutting back on sweets and generally eating less each meal. At first it felt like I was under eating at each meal, but then I realized that my stomach doesn’t signal my brain that it’s full right away. Moreover, I had the habit of drinking liquids after I ate, which contributed to the delayed stomach-full signal. My current rule of thumb is that my plate should look like it doesn’t have a lot of food on it (based on my old standards). Cutting sweets out was also tough since I have a big sweet tooth. In general, I’ve tried to substitute fruit in its place (sometimes several pieces), and when I do eat something unhealthy, I try to limit the portion instead of binging as I used to do.
The whole weight loss experience was pretty tough at first. Some days I’d revert to my old habits and overeat at dinner or have a bit too many sweets during the day, but the important part was just pick myself up and start eating healthier the next day. My mindset was different from past attempts to cut back. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I was instead trying to develop better habits. The focus on trying to change behavior was the important part for me. Another key aspect that worked for me is weighing myself almost everyday. I’ve heard that it’s generally not a good idea but I’ve found it works incredibly well for the way my mind works. Whenever I see my new weight, it helps me think back and try to “explain” why my weight suddenly went up or down. Over time, I’ve started to develop an intuition of what will affect my weight, which in turn helps me make better choices during the day. For me, this works much better than calorie counting which I’ve found it hard to develop an intuition for. (Fun fact: Red meat and salty food are big confounders because they can add temporary weight over multi-day periods, while a reasonable portion of ice cream won’t do too much damage.) I hope this change in behavior is durable to get me down to my target weight. I’m the lightest that I’ve been in the last 5 years and down a couple of belt notches too. So far so good.
Borealis: In July, I moved over from Kinaxis to Borealis AI. Borealis AI is Royal Bank of Canada’s industrial AI research lab. At first, it seemed like an awkward place to have an AI lab given that most labs are part of some consumer facing tech company, but after thinking about it a bit more it makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, traditional banks are getting disrupted from many different sides, evidenced by the numerous fintechs, so they need to adopt innovative technologies or risk falling behind (in the long term). On the other hand, large banks (like RBC) have the scale to make small improvements matter. In the same way that a slight improvement in Google’s ad system can create tens of millions of dollars in value, adopting AI at scale in a large bank can also lead to some potentially high returns as well. One hypothesis that I have is that you need this massive scale in order to make this type of industrial AI research lab viable (or I guess a never ending source of VC funding?). Otherwise, it’s difficult to justify the cost of hiring so many AI experts.
Specifically about Borealis though, I’m quite happy with my experience so far. All the people have been extremely friendly and welcoming, the hours and compensation are good, and most of all my background in leading large scale enterprise AI projects and organizations is providing a lot of value. Borealis is mostly a separate organization within the bank, so we have lots of freedom in how we operate (relatively). It feels like a small-ish (~100 people) organization and one where I can make a big impact. This meshes well with my background at smaller startups and medium size companies (even though the greater RBC is massive).
It’s still pretty early but I’m enjoying my time there and I’ve always had a background interest in finance. Learning about all the various parts of what make a bank work is very interesting. From personal banking to risk to capital markets, it’s all very interesting to me. Most of all, the team we have here is incredibly intelligent and working on state-of-the-art ML. I’m in the fortunate position that I have visibility in most of the projects that we do so there is a lot of learning by osmosis that happens (there’s also a lot direct learning too). The best part is that some of the ML topics that I’ve been studying on my own have come up once or twice already at Borealis (including one of my technical blog posts someone at Borealis noticed even before hearing about me). The dream is to be able to align the two worlds of personal interests and job. Of course, it’s not a perfect alignment (nor will it ever be) but I think it’s a good start.
Rotman: I’m continuing my role as an Adjunct Professor and Data Science in Residence at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. My main duties are in the Master’s of Management Analytics program teaching a course of deep learning x marketing along with organizing several events. I enjoy the teaching and interacting with students but maybe for an uncommon reason: it forces me to break down concepts into simple explanations that can be practically used. This in turn helps me better understand the material. I deeply enjoy this type of knowledge acquisition and it’s also fun helping others understand it as well.
This past year was the first time I taught fully remote. It’s been a tough year for everyone but especially students. Outside of courses, a big part of the program is all the networking and other related events that go on, but all of those had to be held virtually. Although the virtual events that have gone on are among the best I’ve seen, ultimately they cannot replace face to face interactions. Everyone is making the best out of a bad situation I guess.
My course delivered virtually worked out well since mostly of the course is lectures plus assignments and projects. I also have some built-in interaction with students throughout my lectures so that forced some engagement, but there’s definitely something missing in terms of connection with students and, as a result, learning. It’s hard for the teacher’s passion to come through virtually to movitate the students to learn, and it’s these intangibles that are really lost. I’m slated to teach in person next year, but who knows what’s going to happen with the pandemic. Let’s hope for the best.
It’s hard to find time for hobbies when almost all your free time is spent hanging out with your kids! In some sense, it’s the ultimate “hobby” that takes priority over all others. Fortunately, my daughter’s sleep has started to stabilize (sort of) over the past six months, so I have one or two hours at night before bed where I prioritize between chores, hobbies, and spending time with my wife. Weekends are a total write-off because we’re spending almost all our time with her (such a big contrast from before!). One thing that all parents will tell you is how much more efficient they are with their time, that is definitely true for me. With the little time I have, I have managed to do a few things listed below.
Reading: I haven’t done much deep book reading lately. It’s primarily because it’s hard for me to find a solid 15+ mins of time (ideally 30+ mins). I’ve probably only read a few books this year, mostly 5-10 pages at a time when I get a few quiet minutes. The thing I think I’m missing is finding a consistent time slot to do deep reading. I’m still searching but my schedule is changing every few months adapting to my daughter’s schedule, so this still remains elusive.
One area that I have done more reading has been online newsletters send to my email. There has been a boom of expertly written newsletters (some paid) that I’m eagerly consuming. These are easier to read because I can read them on my phone while having lunch, or while taking a short break from work. These newsletters remind me very much of magazine articles in length and content that I used to read. Nothing as well researched or deep as a good book, but at the same time they are much more substantial than most online news articles. If an author has to read dozens of primary sources to write a single well researched book, these newsletter writers probably read one or two. Still relatively well researched for the format and frequency.
The nice thing about newsletters is that they are more timely than books but more well researched than newspaper articles (or worse social). It’s a really good trade-off in terms of time invested vs. benefit. Additionally, these newsletters give me great perspectives on areas that I’m interested in and want to learn more about (e.g. business, investing, finance). Two of my favorites are Money Stuff by Matt Levine and The Diff by Byrne Hobart, both of which I highly recommend.
Blog: As you can see from my personal blog and technical blog, I’ve hardly posted anything. Most of my writing either occurs during the newly found hour or two at night or when I’m on vacation and we have some extra help around the house to watch my daughter. Even weekends, which used to be a great time to sit down for a couple of quiet hours, are now full-time parent duty. Not that I’m complaining, my prioritization of time has been good in retrospect. I hope that as my daughter grows up, I’ll find a bit more free time to write a bit more. There’s something very satisfying about writing that you don’t often get in other activities. For me, I think it’s the combination of deep thinking (which I love to do) and creating something that really does it for me. Hopefully I’ll get more time to work on it going forward but I’m okay with the current slow pace of progress for now.
Chinese: A goal that I’ve had for a long time has been to become fluent in Chinese (Mandarin). One of the main reasons was so that I could teach it to my kids. Now that my daughter is learning a bit of it, I joke that my goal has shifted to becoming better than her at Chinese (which I am winning but to be fair, she’s not even two years old)! I picked up Chinese lessons again this year, shifting to private virtual lessons so that I could have more flexible hours. I would estimate that my current status is barely maintaining my current level. I’ve found the only way to progress is to actually do the homework assignments, which I’ve rarely done. Having a lesson every week or two is barely enough to keep my language muscles working, but the past year has been quite the challenge in many different respects. This is relatively low on my priority list so I’m happy enough just maintaining baseline until I can free up a bit more time.
Music: I stopped music lessons during the pandemic. Along with Chinese, it’s relatively low on my priority list. The only guitar I play nowadays is the few minutes when my daughter wants to hear it before she gets bored and moves on to the next toy. On the flip side, I’m doing much more singing but only of kids songs that my daughter wants to hear. I’m happy enough for now but, as most parents probably feel, I often long for the days when I had more free time to work on my hobbies. That feeling quickly disappears though when I see my daughter running towards me shouting “Baba” (Dad in Chinese).
2022 and Beyond
I’m not sure why but I have a lot fewer expectations of 2022. It might be due to the long drawn out pandemic, it might be that I’m becoming more like my daughter with a shorter attention span, or it just might be me maturing and becoming more of a stoic. In either case, I don’t have much time to have expectations. Half of the time I’m just trying to get through the day when I’m dead tired, and the other half I’m living in the moment playing with my daughter. I guess this is what parenthood is all about. For now, my mind is primarily on my family and I’m quite happy with that.