My 2021 goals

This is the last post of 2020. Before the start of every new year I write a list of goals. These aren't resolutions— for me instilling multiple new habits on January 1st and sticking to them through the year is impossible. Instead, I continuously build up objectives and break them down into habits. I do the end of year exercise to review progress, reaffirm plans for the coming year, and project a year into the future for extra motivation. This year I thought it would be fun to do this in public.

The objectives are strategic. If necessary I allow them to be vague— sometimes an objective is nothing more than a sense of direction. Then I compile them down to SMART goals. These are incremental inputs defined on a timescale of days. To use weight loss as an example, "get within a healthy BMI range" is an objective. "Eat less than 2,000 calories per day on most days" is a habit under my control. Rather than try to do something every day, I'm satisfied with following through on most days. My psychology rebels against draconian expectations.

I have three active objectives I'm working on— learn history of invention, get better at Go, and read Spivak's Calculus. All these will carry over into 2021.

Learn history of invention. For years I've been shooting to read ~40 pages/day on most days, and pick clusters of five books to construct mental instruments to examine the world. More on that here. That works out to ~10k pages/year, which is about 20 books and four instruments.

I have two clusters in mind for 2021. The first is history of the computer revolution— stories of how iconic companies were started, what it was like on the inside, and biographies of iconic founders. (There are so many good books on this topic I might extend it into two clusters and read ten books in this area.) The next cluster is books on history of technology before the computer revolution— electricity, telegraph, human flight, radio, and space flight.

Interests change and there is slack for 5-10 more books this year. I'll likely end up learning about a variety of other topics, but my primary objective for 2021 is to have a more detailed picture of invention, inventors, and the intersection of invention and commerce.

Get better at Go. A year ago friends taught me to play Go. We'd get together weekly, go through a few problems, and play a couple of games. After COVID lockdowns all that stopped and I started playing on OGS with the rank of 25k. This is a complete beginner— from there the ranks come down to 1k, and then go up from 1-7d.

I didn't see any improvement for a while, so on recommendations from internet forums I bought the Level Up! series. These are Korean books designed to help children learn to play Go. There are ten books and two review books. Each book introduces new concepts and then reinforces them through a large number of easy problems. As you progress through the books, the problems get harder. The pitch is that once you get through the series, you get to a 10k rank.

Level Up! has the best pedagogy I've seen. In 2020 I've been doing a chapter a day on most days. I'm currently on book 10 (and have one more review book to finish after that). My rank steadily improved— right now I'm at 17k on OGS. Not the 10k promised, but a non-trivial improvement, and I suspect I'll get 1-2 stones better by the time I'm done with the series.

There is another series of books by the same publisher called Jump Level Up! that has the same teaching style and picks up where Level Up! leaves off. There are five Jump Level Up! books that promise to get you from 10k to 1k. My goal for 2021 is to finish the last two books in the Level Up! series, then continue with doing a Jump Level Up! chapter a day on most days. I doubt this will get me to the desired 1k, but if I get below 10k in 2021 I'll be happy.

My objective for Go is to get to 1d in my lifetime. I don't know how much time that will take, but I'm in no rush. For now working through the series is doing a good job helping me improve. The pace is slow, but the exercises are fun, the time commitment is small, and the improvement is steady. As long as I maintain this trend, I'm happy with the progress.

Read Spivak's Calculus. When I was a kid in Ukraine I learned to program computers. I was also pretty good at math. Far from the top in my city of ~1.5m, but above 99th percentile. Then my math career took a downward turn. We moved to the US and I went to a high school in inner city Brooklyn. I took a math placement test and the administration let me skip a year. I was really happy. They let me skip a year! Then I went to class. I remember being shocked that fifteen year olds had trouble solving basic equations. It took the teacher about twenty minutes to get the class to solve 2x - 3 = 5. And the problems never got harder.

So I coasted through high school. Then I got to college and math was suddenly dramatically harder. But being good at programming I decided that I don't need no fancy pants math. I already know everything I need! In my youthful ignorance I did the absolute bare minimum to pass math requirements, and instead spent all my time writing game engines.

I've been meaning to fix this, but always put it off for later. I finally started this year. Spivak is 606 pages, which means I can finish it in 2021 if I get through ~2-3 pages on most days. I'm doing homework assignments from here, in case anyone wants to follow along. My grander plan is to cultivate the habit of getting through ~2-3 pages per day of math or hard science and then never stop.


A year from now I'll revisit this post and tell you how I did. In the meantime I hope you have wonderful holidays. Here’s to a productive and hopefully less turbulent 2021! There is much to learn and much to build. See you in a week and happy New Year!