Author Archives: amyn

Balance and mental health

COVID-19 has made me pretty unhappy lately. I’m trying really hard to stay balanced, so I wanted to say all of this to make sure I have something to read later.

Back when I was in university, I was in a pretty deep spiral of anxiety and depression. I kept getting advice around that time that I should practice gratitude and positive thinking; for example, I should write down a list of all of the things I’m grateful for or all the ways that I’m privileged. That advice was infuriating to me. I lashed out at a lot of the people who gave me that advice and told them off for being insensitive because my mind was in such a bad state that I couldn’t think of anything positive or anything I was grateful for. At that time, I really wanted to say, I can’t stop thinking about dying all the time because I don’t want to have any of this life, so stop telling me to be grateful for the things that are hurting me.

I still think telling a person with depression to practice positive thinking is pretty insensitive and unempathetic. I don’t give that advice to people because I know how it made me feel even worse.

I switched to a new therapist a little while after that period of time in my life and her office was in Palo Alto. I started having to take a ~20 minute bike ride off campus to her office (I rarely left campus otherwise) and I started noticing things like children playing in the streets, or how beautiful it is that Palo Alto is covered in trees. Biking under the shady streets with light streaming through the leaves and blasting “Cool For The Summer” on repeat made me feel at peace. I didn’t really notice all of those small things before. I started feeling better and I guess now I’m here today.

I was talking to my therapist (the same one!) a few weeks ago about this period of time in my life and I said that I was scared because I couldn’t figure out the difference between the me of today and the me who was dangerously depressed. The me of today still feels anxiety and depression sometimes, but generally I feel really happy when I get to enjoy the small joys of life, like drinking a cup of tea or looking outside my window at some trees or doing some stretches. The me of today totally gets what it means to practice gratitude and positive thinking. I was scared of becoming like my old self again because I hadn’t ever found a “solution” for explaining what I felt or answering myself for how to get out of my depressive spiral. What was I going to do if one day, looking at some trees made me feel worse instead of making me feel better?

I think it’s some kind of engineering personality problem – I really was worried because I thought, if I was rational back then and I’m rational now, then it is impossible for me to have the same experiences and have such different reactions. Depression isn’t rational but I somehow am still convinced that my depression mind wasn’t wrong.

I’m writing all of this out to finally conclude with my therapist’s answer that relieved my fears. She said that years ago, I had spent too much time being out of balance with my mental health. There are small things people can do to keep their minds in balance (not overstimulated with too much joy, and not too much depression). For me, it’s keeping a routine, maintaining sleep/hygiene, and staying socially connected (against my own tendency to self-isolate). In my regular day-to-day, doing those things can help me maintain my energy levels and help me bounce back from smaller bouts of depression. But back then, I was so far off balance on the energy spectrum (extremely depressed) that I was lashing out at the suggestions that I do these small things to make myself feel better because they really weren’t working anymore to keep me balanced. The difference between the me of today and the me of back then was all of the months before that point and how much I was taking care of myself. I don’t know a lot about biology, but now I think of it as like, maybe my brain chemistry was thrown off and needed to reach healthy levels of “brain chemicals” to function properly. (This is a metaphor, not real science.) Now I know how important it is for me to have a toolbox of ways to keep myself balanced regularly because of how difficult it is to bounce back once it’s too late.

I know some people will ask how I “snapped out of it” if I’m saying that nothing was making me feel better at that time. I want to answer to give people who are in these shoes some kind of an answer, but I don’t really want to dwell on it, so all I will say is: through some intervention from friends, therapy, antidepressants, sleeping for about 72 hours straight, and withdrawing from some classes, I came out on the other end of that situation. It’s not glamorous or reproducible, but that’s what happened. I’m really grateful after all.

Japan 2020 trip notes

Over Christmas/New Years, I went to Hakone, Tokyo, and Hokkaido. I posted a ton of pictures on social media and got some messages from people saying they wanted to visit the places I went to.

I dumped all of my links into a table below so you can sort by location/type and plan your own trip. Below the table, you’ll also find my rough itinerary.

Name Type Location Notes Tweet
Yumoto Fujiya Hotel Hotel, hot spring Hakone
  • Booked on
  • Less than 5 minute walk from Hakone Yumoto Station
  • Great onsen with indoor and outdoor bath
Owakudani Sightseeing Hakone
  • Overall pretty cool area, active sulphur vents were interesting and I love taking cable cars
  • The black eggs boiled in hot spring water were not worth it! They tasted like regular boiled eggs
  • Not recommended for people with respiratory issues due to sulphur


Hakone Yuryo Hot spring Hakone
  • There is a frequent free shuttle that takes 5 minutes from outside of Hakone Yumoto Station.
  • You can reserve private baths by the hour!
  • I’ve heard this place gets pretty busy on the weekends; I went on a quiet weekday, so I got lucky and was able to book a private bath on the spot. I think normally people should make reservations ahead of time.
  • I got the type 1 private bath for 2 people for one hour and paid an extra fee to have access to the rest of the facilities too. I saw some pictures online of the larger private baths and they looked pretty luxurious.
  • They have a great sauna there with something called “Loyly service” – someone comes every hour and fans steam onto you. It was unbearable for me but other people seemed to enjoy it.
  • They have a restaurant where you can charcoal grill your own food.
Private bath

Charcoal grill

Naokichi Food, restaurant Hakone
  • Naokichi is famous for yubadon (tofu skin rice bowl). Their yuba is made with Hakone hot spring water!
  • They have an English menu
  • To join the queue, you have to put in your info on a Japanese-only kiosk and you’ll receive a number. The tablet shows which number is next, so you can kind of keep track of where you are if you don’t speak Japanese
  • There’s only 3 options on the menu – tofu omelet, or tofu omelet + other tofu dishes, or tofu omelet + other tofu dishes + drink/dessert. You should definitely order the combo (#2 or #3) – the tofu “sashimi” and the soft tofu are incredible.
  • I don’t like yuba that much, but I still really enjoyed this place!
Chimoto Food, cafe Hakone
  • You can get a beautiful, proper bowl of matcha here (hand whisked, no milk or sugar)
  • The cafe has a great atmosphere
  • They also serve traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) and have some seasonal options. You should get their mochi (yumochi)
  • They have a shop next door where you can buy their sweets for takeaway
Hatsuhana Soba Food, restaurant Hakone
  • Soba made with grated mountain yam from Hakone!
  • Very very popular – go right when they open if you don’t want to wait too long
  • It was definitely tasty soba, but I’m not sure if I could tell the difference between it and other soba
nana’s green tea Food, cafe Tokyo (Shinjuku LUMINE EST)
  • I didn’t realize this is a chain – they even have a location in Singapore
  • Glorious parfaits
  • Not a great simple tea selection – ended up with a sweetened green tea latte
  • Their food selection was nice but nothing mindblowing – I had a salmon rice bowl
  • Disturbingly noisy. I was stressed out just from sitting there because the place was jampacked with young people talking loudly at every table
Maidreamin Food, maid cafe Tokyo (Akihabara, Shinjuku)
  • My travel companions wanted to see a maid cafe so we randomly picked this one right next to Akihabara station.
  • I realized afterward that it is a large chain, so you shouldn’t go here if you want to support a smaller cafe.
  • It’s kind of pricy. Food is mediocre as expected. You can pay for a performance, which is nice.
Coco Ichibanya Food, fast food Tokyo (everywhere)
  • Coco is a huge fast food curry chain. I love it and had it multiple times.
  • Personally, I like chicken katsu much more than pork katsu. I also liked it with a spicy level of 2-3 out of 10. I tried 5 and 8 spicy off of my friends’ plates and it was unbearable.
  • They have all-halal locations!
  • If you want katsu, say “katsu”. They have fried chicken on the menu as a totally different item (more like karaage) so you should be clear what you want when ordering.
Ichiran Food, fast food Tokyo (everywhere)
  • Ichiran is probably the most famous ramen restaurant in Japan. I recommend going during off hours (e.g., find a 24/7 one and go at 6am when you’re jetlagged).
  • My preference is strong both, light richness, lots of garlic, extra green onions, egg, extra chashu, 0-2 spicy.
Junisoh Food, omakase sushi Tokyo (Shinjuku)
  • Junisoh is inside of the Hilton Tokyo (Shinjuku) hotel. I found it by searching for highly rated sushi restaurants on Tabelog (Japanese restaurant review website) and looking for places with online reservation forms.
  • The online reservation system is great!
  • The omakase was reasonable priced and quite nice. I recommend the 8 piece nigiri set. My group went with the 9 piece + sashimi and we were way too stuffed.
  • I recommend this if you’re looking for good omakase but procrastinated on making plans and need to book a place online.
  • I don’t recommend this if you’re looking for a place where the chef speaks English. (There are multiple sushi chefs though.)
Sushiro Food, conveyor belt sushi Tokyo (everywhere)
  • Sushiro is the biggest conveyor belt sushi chain in Japan. If you’re looking for a great conveyor belt experience, I recommend it.
Hedgehog Cafe HARRY Animal cafe Tokyo (Harajuku)
  • They have otters, groundhogs, hedgehogs, chinchillas, and rabbits
  • You get to sit with a chinchilla in a basket on your lap – they are mindblowingly soft
  • The two otters are just okay – you can feed them and touch their paws from a hole
  • It was kind of expensive (I think around USD$30 for one hour, includes two drinks)
Penguin Bar Animal cafe Tokyo (Ikebukuro)
  • This place was pretty depressing – it was a regular smoky bar with a cover charge and crappy drinks with penguins in a tank/cage near the back
  • I did get to feed the penguins though
  • I wouldn’t recommend it now that I’ve seen it… I didn’t realize it was a real bar
One penguin
Ouroji Food, restaurant Tokyo (Shinjuku)
  • Nice old school tonkatsu curry, recommended if you like going slightly off the beaten track
APA Hotel Shinjuku Kabukicho Tower Hotel, public bath Tokyo (Shinjuku)
  • There are quite a few APA Hotel locations, so make sure you’re looking at the right one on Google Maps. This is Kabukicho Tower.
  • Good location near Shinjuku Station and near night life
  • They have a small public bath section with several tubs!
Hotel Hokke Club Sapporo Hotel, public bath Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • Good location, 5-10 minute straight walk from Sapporo Station and also 5-10 minute walk to Odori station
  • Very small public bath
  • Nice receptionists, were helpful in English when I wanted help with a reservation
Nijo Market (Nijo Kani Ichiba – literally Nijo Crab market) Food, fish market Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • I went in the winter, so there were no local fruits in season
  • You can get sea urchin (uni) / crab / salmon roe on a rice bowl for a pretty good price! I strongly recommend getting sea urchin here even if you haven’t liked it in the past. I think most sea urchin tastes unpleasant and bitter because it’s not fresh, but I love fresh, creamy, no-aftertaste sea urchin.
  • You can also get crab, of course
Sea urchin / salmon roe bowl
Teshikaga Ramen (Ramen Alley) Food, restaurant Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • The crab option is tourist bait, don’t bother unless you really need to do it for the ‘gram (as I did)
  • Really great broth
  • I think this place is a great option if you want to try Hokkaido-style ramen (miso broth, corn with butter)
TK36 Bar Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • It’s not a particularly special bar, but the staff do speak quite a bit of English
北海道焼肉プライム (“Hokkaido Yakiniku Prime”) Food, restaurant Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • My brother really wanted to go to a nice restauran with A5 wagyu at some point in our trip, so I found this place with reasonable reviews on Tabelog. They take reservations on Hot Pepper, but I wasn’t able to leave a Japanese phone number, so I had to call them. They accepted my reservation for the following day and we had a nice sectioned off table for 4.
  • Pretty good price, high-quality meat, and had fun grilling it
Sapporo Beer Museum Sightseeing, museum Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • Surprisingly more fun than expected! I learned a lot about Sapporo’s history and didn’t realize how colorful it was.
  • I took the bus to get there and it was quite difficult to find the actual museum – look for the information desk signs.
Soup Curry GARAKU Food, restaurant Hokkaido (Sapporo)
  • Hokkaido is famous for soup curry!
  • Their menu recommends the chicken curry and the roasted broccoli topping. I had both and they were quite good!
Soup curry
Sankaku Fish Market Food, fish market Hokkaido (Otaru)
  • This is a great place to get crab (grilled or hot pot), fresh sea urchin, and sashimi. There’s a ton of locations and you don’t really have to wait in line for long even if you show up in the late morning.
  • I told my brother once that I have dreams like, I wish I could just buy an uncut block of sashimi fish and take a bite out of it, or buy one of those boxes of sea urchin and just eat it with a spoon… well at least I fulfilled the second dream for 5500 yen (USD$50).
Hakkaku sashimi, crab, sea urchin
Noboribetsu Bear Park Animal park Hokkaido (Noboribetsu)
  • Pretty small place with two enclosures for bears and a small museum
  • You get to feed the bears!!!!
  • I recommend shelling out for the the 300 yen salmon treats. The bears don’t care much for the 100 yen biscuits
  • The crows are evil and will try to snatch your treat, so don’t throw it when they’re around
  • You get to take a cable car to the park!!!
  • During other seasons, I believe they have squirrels, but I wasn’t able to see them this time
Waving bear
Dai-ichi Takimotokan Hotel, public bath Hokkaido (Noboribetsu)
  • I would absolutely shell out for this ryokan again if I went back to Hokkaido. It was amazing!
  • They have one of the largest hot spring baths in all of Asia with five different types of hot spring water. The facilities are huge. It was my hot spring dream. Seriously, check out their photos on their website.
  • I had the deluxe kaiseki meal served in my room. I thought it was a lot of fun to get to try a kaiseki meal because I’d never tried it before and the arrangement was beautiful. That said, I think I was better off eating at specific restaurants (e.g., a steakhouse for wagyu, a seafood restaurant for seafood…).
MUJI Hotel Ginza Hotel Tokyo (Ginza)
  • It was an absolute delight, and I’d strongly recommend it for anyone who loves really great design or MUJI products. Everything in the hotel made me feel the “spark joy” heart pounding feeling.
  • I originally booked the type A room for USD$138 for one night, but they gave me a free upgrade to a Type C room with a larger bed. Yay!
  • You can take home some of their sample toiletries and the room slippers!
  • I enjoyed getting to try their essential oil diffuser and other fun products.
Room (Type C)
WA (MUJI Hotel) Food, restaurant Tokyo (Ginza)
  • This is the restaurant on the lobby floor of the MUJI Hotel.
  • They are a traditional Japanese restaurant focusing on fresh local ingredients.
  • I thought the atmosphere was great, the food was delicious, and it was fun to use MUJI tableware.

Here’s a rough sketch of how I spent my time and how I handled transportation:

  • Tokyo (0 nights)
    • Landed at NRT, took Narita Express to Shinjuku Station (~1.5 hours)
  • Hakone (4 nights)
    • Immediately took Hakone Romancecar from Shinjuku Station to Hakone Yumoto station (~1 hour)
    • Probably should have looked into the Hakone Free Pass but didn’t know about it
    • Pretty much stuck to walking around the Hakone Yumoto area and didn’t venture out much because I was tired and there was lots of stuff to do there
  • Tokyo (Shinjuku) (7 nights)
    • Took the Romancecar back to Shinjuku Station, stayed in Shinjuku the whole time
    • Probably should have squeeze in a few days in Kyoto, but I planned this trip while super busy at work and didn’t have much time to think about it
  • Sapporo (4 nights)
    • Took Narita Express, flew Jetstar from NRT to CTS
    • Regretted not booking from HND because getting to NRT is such a pain
    • So much snow
    • Took a day trip to Otaru during this time via a ~1 hour rapid subway
  • Noboribetsu (1 night)
    • I really wish I had stayed here for more than 1 night! It was great and there were so many things I wanted to do that I didn’t have time for.
    • I took a 1400 yen bus from Dai-ichi Takimotokan (my ryokan) straight to CTS airport.
  • Tokyo (Ginza) (1 night)
    • I landed in Terminal 3 at NRT and was surprised to find out that there is a 1000 yen bus that will take you to Tokyo Station or Ginza Station in about 90 minutes. I now feel like a chump for having taken the Narita Express (roughly USD$30 for a 70 minute trip) this whole time. The bus was great.
    • I took the bus back to NRT the next day for my return flight.
    • It was silly of me to go all the way back into the city for just one night, but I wasn’t thinking clearly when I booked all of this, and in retrospect I probably wouldn’t have done this. All’s well that ends well, though – I had such a blast at the MUJI Hotel that I don’t really regret how this turned out.


“Working with me” / README template for individual contributors

I keep a living document for my coworkers that covers the basics about me. I started the document at a time when I realized that I’d be going through several manager transitions in a short period of time and I wanted some control over how I was going to come across and what I’d say to each of my managers. Now I maintain the document because it turned out my teammates liked reading it too.

In terms of overall principles, here’s what I think makes a good README for an individual contributor (someone who is not managing people):

  • Keep it brief. This isn’t your Myspace profile. With this type of document, I think it’s hard to toe the line between demonstrating self-awareness and… self-absorbed preening.
  • Values and philosophies are best discussed verbally and discovered over time. Treat the document as a conversation starter, not as a series of essays.
  • There’s a difference between what people can learn from working with you over time and what you can state in a document like this. Even if you say things like, “I have no ego, feel free to call me out whenever”, no one will believe that until they get to know you. There’s no shortcut for getting people to trust you faster, so I try to stick to topics that I feel need to be covered up-front without the need for that kind of trust. (This is difficult with topics like “how to give me feedback”, but it’s a best effort kind of thing.)

In the rest of this blog post, you’ll find an edited version of my document in case you want to start your own.

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Video Game Probability #1: How to Grow 5 Golden Crops in Stardew Valley

Welcome to the first installment of Video Game Probability! You can read the introduction and motivation for this series here along with a list of all posts. This post contains mild spoilers for probability distributions in Stardew Valley. Without further ado, I’m going to jump in!

Stardew Valley is a farming/lifestyle RPG where you grow crops, fish, find love, fight monsters, go on quests, and so much more. I have so much to say about this game and I’m trying so hard to hold in my enthusiasm – I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I make in the name of succinct writing. (But no really I love this game, it’s on Steam, it’s on Switch, it’s even on iOS and Android, so you have no excuse not to play it, please give it a try, it has something for everyone.)

One of your major tasks in Stardew Valley is to fix the Community Center. If you have no soul, you can go corporate and pay a ton of money, but most people go for the Bundle route because they’re not dead inside. A bundle is a set of items (crops, foraged goods, etc) that you donate to the spirits of the forest in exchange for rewards. Once you complete every bundle, you fix the Community Center!

Today, we’re going to talk about the Quality Crops bundle: you must gather 5 golden parsnips, melons, pumpkins, and corn to complete the bundle. The pesky thing about these crops is that parsnips are only grown in spring, melons are only grown in summer, pumpkins are only grown in fall, and corn can be grown in summer or fall. So if you reach the end of spring or summer and didn’t manage to collect the 5 crops for that season, you have to wait a whole year for another chance!

When you harvest a crop, it has a chance of being regular, silver, or gold quality. The game calculates your chances based on your farming level and what fertilizer, if any, was used. (Note: While “luck” is a mechanic in the game that I’d love to explore further, I don’t think your daily luck affects your harvests – correct me if I’m wrong!)

Here’s our big question for this post: How many crops should we plant with what fertilizer in order to guarantee a certain probability of getting at least 5 golden crops?

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Video Game Probability: Introduction

A big theme of my computer-science-related content is that I have a hard time understanding concepts unless they’re connected to a real-world use case. I was required to take introduction to probability to complete my degree, and I really struggled because of the abstractness of terms like “geometric distribution” and “expected value.” I didn’t do enough work to understand how probability could connect back to real problems I’d want to solve, so I didn’t manage to internalize its value or develop an intuition for it.

(It took me weeks to understand that “expected value” really meant something like “weighted average” because I didn’t make the connection and no one pointed it out to me… those weeks were tough.)

Probability still doesn’t really come up at work a lot now (phew!), but I still wish I’d paid more attention because it keeps coming up in video games that I’m playing. And while I have enough vocabulary saved up to know what to look up to solve a problem, I haven’t practiced enough to be able to work out the math quickly. So I’m going to start sharing a couple of problems that interest me in hopes of helping out anyone who’s in my shoes.

I make no promises on how frequently I’ll add to this series, but I’m hoping to cover situations in Hearthstone (calculating lethal, chances of drawing a certain outcome) and Stardew Valley (growing certain crops, lightning). I’m open to requests for well-defined and motivated problems in your favorite video games too!

Here’s the index of posts in this series:

Airplane packing list

The other day, I told my siblings that my packing list has messages to myself in it, like, “You have to pack a jacket. You’re always cold at the airport. Pack the jacket.” and “You always tell yourself you don’t need the neck pillow for a two hour flight and then your neck hurts and you regret it and say you’ll bring it next time but then next time you say it’s only two hours…” They made fun of me basically reliving my own version of Memento: “Don’t trust her lies. She always forgets.” I really do always forget. If you’re like me, I hope this list helps!

Backpack with suitcase sleeve and passport slot

I think my backpack from Briggs Riley is beautiful and well-made. The knurled hardware and soft fabric lining on the inside makes me happy every time I use the backpack. I love being able to rest it securely on top of my suitcase. I like having a dedicated slot for my passport because I never have to scramble and panic from not knowing which pocket I put my passport in. I like not having a giant tech company logo on my backpack!

My only gripe is that this backpack does not hold very much. It’s probably healthy for my back that it barely holds anything, but sometimes I just want to squeeze in that one last thing and can’t manage it. I recommend checking out backpacks from travel brands if you want a backpack with similar features. For example, TUMI, Away, and Lo & Sons all make backpacks with suitcase sleeves.

Neck pillow

I use the trtl neck pillow. I like it, but I’ve never tried the regular squishy neck pillow, so I don’t know how they compare. The trtl takes some getting used to and some people have said it feels too tight around their neck. It fits fine with my over-ear headphones, but I remember the first few times I had them on together, I had a hard time keeping the headphones on.

Eye mask

I bought the Alaska Bear sleep mask because it was the frugal pick on the Wirecutter. And then I lost it, rebought it, lost it again, got desperate at an airport, bought a random cheap one, and haven’t replaced that one since. Any eye mask is fine, just to keep yourself asleep when your asshole seatmate keeps opening and closing the shades.

Multi charging cable

I have this one I found on Amazon and I like that it has lightning cable, micro USB, and USB-C. Pretty great!

Floss in carry-on

I always put my floss into my toiletry bag in my checked luggage, and then regret having uncomfortable bits of food in my teeth during the flight that I can’t remove. Ideally, I would carry floss picks for hygiene, but I don’t always have them on me. I’m a really big fan of Cocofloss in general!

Hair ties.

Gotta get the hair out of the way.

Headphones with airplane adapter

I use the wireless bluetooth noise-canceling over-ear Bose QC35 headphones. I like that they have a dedicated slot inside the case for that weird two-prong thing that most airplanes still use. It makes watching movies so much better! The battery life is so good that the only time I’ve ever run out was about 10 hours into my flight when I started out with 60% battery.

I also bring an iPad and Nintendo Switch on flights these days for downloaded Netflix movies and video games. Yesterday, I cried while watching Taylor Swift’s concert on Netflix. I might get Youtube Premium just so I can download more whole concerts.

I moved to

I published my first blog post on here in March 2013 (6 years and I’m still at it!!) and I talked about how I get intimidated when thinking about doing things that I’ve never done before, such as installing WordPress. At that time, I wrote:

When I learn new things, I’ll try to document what I learned to delineate exactly why I reached the conclusion that it was simple. Installing WordPress, for example, is only simple after you do it.

Today, I finally sat down and moved from to this new domain, You know when you log onto Turbo Tax and they ask you “How are you feeling about doing your taxes?” before you get started? I would definitely choose the frowny face option for how I felt about getting through this today. And six years ago, I would have chosen the “don’t ask” extra frowny option.

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What would it take to start my own company the way I want to?

I’ve been having the same conversation with myself over the past few months. Whenever I end up in a cycle like this, I like to write everything down. I think writing gives my brain permission to stop ruminating because it feels assured that I won’t forget. So this time, I’m going to share a little about what I’ve been thinking regarding starting a business!

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Data structures to name-drop when you want to sound smart in an interview

I was originally planning to tweet this by itself:


  1. bloom filter
  2. prefix trie
  3. ring buffer

But I realized I actually wanted to say some earnest, not-shitposty things about each of these data structures, so I figured I should take it to my neglected blog instead. If you just wanted the clickbait version, you can stop reading now.

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