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Last Edit: 2022-12-25

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And what I've been doing over the last two years

Merry Christmas.

It's been about two years since my last blog post, anti-goals in which I outlined some things to avoid for the next year. I'm happy to say these goals were accomplished and I've come full circle to one of my classic goals over the years: blog more.

There's a couple of reasons for this, other than the usual industry reasons of improving communication skills or self-aggrandizing:

  1. I've been getting deeper into some of my hobbies recently and I'd like to share.
  2. I love tweaking my personal site and writing setup with some fun Git workflows.
  3. I need training data for my eventual language model replacement.

In a practical sense, taking a two year gap in writing has been useful. I've lived more life, accumulated more thoughts, and gained more confidence in my output. My time and perspectives were almost tunnel visioned as an undergrad, which isn't very condusive to writing. Hopefully, watching my writing craft and body of work improve will be an awesome highlight for 2023. This blog is my personal creative space, and I'd like to maintain it as my own corner of the internet.

(camping in Canada with the squad)

Ahead of getting more into particular topics to write about, I think it's worth catching the blog up on what I've been doing for the past two years to give some context to readers. If anything I'm writing about sounds interesting to you, please DM me at @arundotai on Twitter or @arunkirubarajan on Telegram!

And before you ask, no. This post was not written with GPT, or the assistance of any other language model. As an NLP academic, I certainly will do this at some point but I'll mention it at the end along with a survey to collect data!

What Happened Over the Last Two Years

Living in NYC, Having Interests

I think living in New York City and generally just being an adult now was a great catalyst for a lot of personal development. I'm surrounded by the intersection of close friends from both home in Canada and college at Penn, and there's no shortage of other loved ones visiting the city. There's also no shortage of professional experiences either, and I never feel like I'm giving up much living here, especially since it's only an hour flight to my family in Mississauga, Canada.

ferry (a picture I took from the ferry in Kips Bay)

Being an adult meant I could pursue a lot of my childhood hobbies in earnest recently, and there's no better place to have a shit-ton of hobbies than New York City. I lived alone for my first year in the city, and as such I had a lot of time to get back into skateboarding, game development, photography, and simracing.

Some personal highlights in these respects:

  • Skateboarding: I rode my electric longboard to work in SoHo everyday in the summer and I'm currently getting back into traditional skateboarding now that I live close to a skate park to practice more than just flip tricks. My new apartment is super close to the Lower East Side, which is a skateboarding culture hub!
  • Game Development: I spend a lot of time making video games and digital experiences. To me, it's the cumulative total of a lot of creative mediums (digital painting, music composing, storytelling) made interactive. My girlfriend and I play a lot of indie games together, so I've had a lot of inspiration recently as well. Gamedev is how I originally started programming, so it's awesome coming full circle and having programming not being the difficult part anymore.
  • Sim-Racing: I somehow manage to fit a VR sim-racing rig into each apartment I move into, and I still find iRacing to be such an enthralling experience that I like to sometimes do it before the work day to stay sharp. As a driver, my patience and craft has improved considerably since the pandemic first hit. My first real sim-racing accomplishment was placing 1st at a McLaren Sim-Racing Challenge in Singapore, and winning Lando Norris' worn race suit from that Gran Prix!
  • Photography + Digital Painting: I've had a lot of inspiration moving to a city, and snapping interesting photos on my trusted Fujifilm camera has been another really reflective passtime for me, where I like to journal with an accompanying photo. I also like to attempt re-painting the original photograph to practice creating assets for my game development.

My new perspective on my hobbies is that so long as they're soothing to some degree and personally fulfulling, I'm perfectly happy with them being a grind. A good example of this is skateboarding, where I am falling like 99% of the time trying to land the right kickflip or front-side 180. Despite technically "failing", the act of just being on my board at the Tompkins Square Skatepark and maybe landing a killer trick is enough to keep me coming back.

I still keep up with some other micro-hobbies, like my love for coffee brewing, but I find myself sinking a lot of time into some of these core hobbies in order to hit some more personal milestones for myself. My enjoyment of these hobbies has been scaling with my experience with the hobbies, which has made "the grind" quite enjoyable for me. I'm not that good at any of these hobbies, but I find that motivating above all else since I only put in a few hours per week into my hobbies. Also, not included here would be exercising and working out, and I've successfully made my personal wellbeing a priority over the last year as well thanks to a lot of active friends in NYC (special shoutout to Kanwar for getting me into yoga).

The main reason I'm reviving the blog is just to write about my hobbies, since I don't currently have a lot of IRL friends to share a lot of these passions with. (that I know of!)

Doing Lots of Building

If you read my preceding posts, you'd think I'm still researching machine learning and language model evaluation at Penn. Although this is some-what still true, (helping my old research lab maintain some of the systems I've built + working on some side-projects) I actually run a crypto/fintech start-up full-time in NYC called Magna. And before that after graduation, I was doing quantiative research at one of the largest hedge funds in the world, Millennium, for designing trading stragies using natural language processing.

There's a lot of personal discoveries and lessons I had for each of those three sub-careers that I don't have the headspace to describe at the moment. For now, I'll say each of these was seemingly quite orthogonal in value, but ended up compounding in some very exciting ways very recently.

Some computer science related highlights:

  • AI Research: being a co-author on one of Google's big NLP evaluation dataset papers (BIG-Bench), crossing hundreds of researchers using ChatEval, and RoFT being featured in the MIT Technology Review. The AI industry (NLP in particular) popping off has made a lot of my old projects relevant and exciting again organically, which feels nice after taking a long breather from my AI stress!
  • Quant: gaining experience in designing alpha-based trading stragies, which is a rather guarded commodity in the industry. I always found this work super technically exciting (just a somewhat hollow early career path), so it's been fun to do some independent research given my experiences in the crypto markets.
  • Startups: building + selling a real product used by thousands of people, and launching an engineering organization culture ground up that I'd have loved to work at when I was on the job market. Crypto as a culture can be somewhat cringe sometimes, but at it's core it's a highly technical system that rewards go-getter technical folks and that's ultimately what's got me excited. Shoutout to my co-founder and all my co-workers!
  • Open Source: in the original spirit of research, doing more building out in the public with other dedicated and talented engineers and dedicating otherwise personal time to projects.

(Magna downtown Manhattan office rooftop mid-party)

Working at a startup in particular forced me to accumulate a lot of experience very quickly. Not just for founder-related responsibilities, but especially as an engineer working at the intersection of financial rigour and distributed systems thinking. Managing engineers is still a scary thing for me, but I'm realizing how valuable of a skill it can be to accomplish great engineering feats. One of the most freeing things for me about work despite market turmoil is knowing that I'm learning tons about what my flavour of leadership is, and learning even more about what it means to be an impactful engineer.

As a founder, you're pressured to tie yourself to your startup and dedicate all your time to the company (which contrary to what this post entails, is what I do for about 10h every day). But I think what's made me a strong engineer and leader was actually spending time outside of work honing my craft in a more free-form and deliberate fashion. Working with other like-minded individuals on some of my tech-related interests is one of my largest goals for 2023 as well. As an academic and hackathon goer, I love working on new projects with other dedicated people so never hesitate to reach out!

Now what?

I think for the first time in my life, I can honestly say I just want more of what I'm already getting. I'm aware that growing older, new classes of problems tend to rise up so I'm cherishing the level of balance I'm having right between professional and personal fulfillment.

In terms of concrete plans, I think my main goal is just to continue with my upward progression into various hobbies that I enjoy doing (i.e. don't burn out please), and to share these interests more with like-minded people via my blog or otherwise. I also hope to be a bit more economic with how I spend my "hobby time", given how time-intensive my full-time job normally is. Hopefully you can expect more frequent (probably shorter, rougher, more first-person) entries from me in the New Year!

Thanks for reading!

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