2018: Hackathons I went to and what I built

In 2018, I went to 2 hackathons (YC October hackathon and Science Hack Day) as a hacker and 2 hackathons as a speaker and judge (CryptoChicks and Violet Hacks).

YC October Hackathon 

I didn’t like YC hackathon one bit. Too many businesspeople and product managers pitching their ambitious sounding ideas and making simple prototypes in InvisionApp or worse, Powerpoint presentation. Only about 25% of the attendees were actually technical people. I ended up joining a team building software to count cells in a photo for biologists. We built a very simple iOS app that would return a photo marked with white circles around a photo (using OpenCV). 

Science Hack Day

Absolutely loved Science Hack Day! Wonderful people, brilliant ideas, working prototypes, and my team won a prize!

I had a few project ideas but I decided that the best idea would be to join a great team working on either brain-computer interfaces or autonomous vehicles so I could learn from people who’ve been working in the fields for longer. After much searching around, I decided to join the team working on making two autonomous RC cars and mess around with them with swapped inputs (like car B acting on car A’s input). I liked the people and the project idea! The hackathon started with a few talks by some amazing speakers like Helen Lurie (who works at Lyft Level 5 self-driving car division), Lenore Edman from Evil Mad Scientist, and Indre Viskontas. 

After the talks, we got to work. We started out buying two RC cars and started dismantling them so we could control its motors with an Arduino. After that, I started working on an iOS app that’d be the “eyes” of the cars. The camera input would be classified (I used the ResNet50 model through CoreML) and we selected a few objects we were going to put on the track of the cars and I wrote a simple conditional that’d send a Boolean value 1 to the backend if an obstacle was detected and Boolean value 0 if none were. The backend communicated with the Arduino controlling the motors. By the end of Day 1, we had an almost working car. We decided to pivot to make just one car that’s autonomous instead of the original plan of two cars. 

Day 2 was all the presentations. We presented and our demo worked for 2 obstacles but failed at the third one because the battery died. But since the project worked, they awarded us “Best in Public Safety”!  

Some photos! 

No automatic alt text available.
Our project: an autonomous RC car that uses a smartphone camera for obstacle detection
Image may contain: 9 people, including Jeff Catania and Meng Shang, people smiling, people standing
After being awarded! 🙂

For 2019, I have Developer’s Camp, TreeHacks, and Science Hack Day on my calendar! If you have any suggestions for hackathons I should go to or if you’d like to hack with me, let me know at harshita@harshitaapps.com!

2018: Best books I read all year

The favorite book of the year award goes to: Logicomix! I will publish a detailed review of it soon. This isn’t the most impactful book you can read, but it’s a very enjoyable and thought-provoking book. 

Here’s a list of the books I enjoyed and learned the most from in 2018. This list has no order. 

Non-fiction : 

  1. Coders at Work. My favorite interview was the one with Peter Norvig. Liked it so much that I ordered 5 copies of it and gifted it to my “judge-favorite” team at Violet Hacks hackathon.
  2. Red Notice 
  3. The Teenage Liberation Guide
  4. The Brain by David Eagleman. More of a philosophy book than neuroscience, but an enjoyable read nonetheless. 
  5. Founders at Work. Favorite interview: Max Levchin. 
  6. Bad Blood. The book is very engaging and so it’s hard to put it down once you start reading. When I recommended it to a mentor, he replied, “figured it was about pretty obvious stuff not to do; whereas I like to look for unexpected things to do”. Are there any books about *successful* biotech startups besides Sally Hughes’ Genentech? 
  7. Thinking and reasoning: a very short introduction.
  8. The Art of Living by Epictetus. Nifty.


The textbooks in this list are not finished since they’re usually very long and each chapter takes several days to completely grasp all the concepts and the problems at the end take their time too. But since most of my time this year was spent with textbooks, I think I should mention all the ones I read and worked through at least three chapters from!

  1. Soonish by Zach and Kelly Weinersmith. A wonderful chapter on brain-computer interfaces!
  2. Brain-computer interfacing by Rajesh Rao. The only good textbook on BCIs. It’s the most in-depth resource to learn about EEG-based BCIs, IMO. 
  3. Chemistry by Zumdahl and Zumdahl
  4. Fundamentals of Physics by David Halliday et al.
  5. Calculus by Michael Spivak.
  6. Campbell Biology
  7. Principles of Neural Science by Eric Kandel
  8. Neuroscience by Mark Bear
  9. The cartoon guide to Calculus. I love the cartoon guide series! They’re so engaging and the concepts are well-explained. 
  10. The cartoon guide to Physics
  11. The cartoon guide to Chemistry
  12. Programming Arduino by Simon Monk
  13. Programming Raspberry Pi by Simon Monk
  14. The Electronics Cookbook by Simon Monk (fav electronics author) 
  15. Make electronics
  16. What’s your bio strategy? by John Cumbers and Karl Schmieder. I got a copy at SynBioBeta conference and read it during one of their after-parties. It’s a good collection of interviews of some of the pioneers in the synthetic biology space. 
  17. Letters to a young scientist. A very valuable book. If you’re young and interested in science, this is the first book you should read.
  18. The Secret Life of Science. Such an underrated book.
  19. The Brain: a very short introduction 
  20. The Scientists by John Gribbin
  21. What If?


  1. Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance.

This year I didn’t read any fiction (that I can remember). But next year, I hope to read more science fiction (The Diamond Age, Life 3.0, The first 15 lives of Harry August, and more on my list!). I also want to spend more time reading books by economists. The Age of Em by Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen’s books are on my list (his blog, Marginal Revolution, is one of my favorites). 

I’m currently reading Autonomy and this book by Scott Adams. 

If you have any suggestions of books that influenced you a lot, please send them at harshita@harshitaapps.com!

2018: Favorite places and restaurants in the Bay Area

Intellectual Stimulation:

  1. The Exploratorium! Best museum I’ve ever been to. I posted photos from my visit here
  2. Noisebridge. A wonderful hackerspace with an industrial 3D printer, a whole bunch of electronic components, soldering station, woodwork room, other specialized equipment like VR and EEG headsets, an amazing ~1000 books library, and really smart and kind people! I’ll visit it more often in 2019 to work there. 


  1. Sandbox VR! Fun VR games. I posted photos and a video from my visit here

In no particular order, here is a list of restaurants I remember liking a lot. Nom nom nom. 

Favorite Restaurants: 

  1. La Fondue. 5/5 stars. My favorite restaurant, ever. Love their cheese and chocolate fondue. A little expensive, however. 
  2. Lolo. 4/5 stars. Great Mexican food. The shrimp rice were amazing. 
  3. Little Star Pizza. 3/5. Good deep dish pizza. Not the best I’ve had, but still pretty good! 
  4. La Fringale. 3/5 stars. Okay-ish Italian food. 
  5. Panda Express. 5/5 stars. I ❤ Panda Express. My friends laugh at me when I say this and nobody wants to go to Panda Express with me 😦 I love everything there, but my favorites are orange chicken, honey walnut shrimp, teriyaki chicken, and broccoli beef. I’ve been to Panda Express so many times this year that I’ve probably tried out everything. 
  6. Mayflower Seafood restaurant in Milpitas. 4/5 stars. Best dim sum I’ve had. People go to Chinatown for dim sum. I tried that once and found the dim sum at Chinatown to be pretty disgusting. 
  7. One Waan. 4/5 stars. Best Thai food I’ve found in the Bay Area. 
  8. Kasa Indian eatery. 4/5 stars. Fantastic mango lassi, butter chicken, and paneer tikka. 
  9. Amber India. 4/5 stars. Liked their shrimp curry and rice. 
  10. Dandelion Chocolate. 3/5 stars. Good place for meetings, coffee, and chocolate. A bit overpriced I think.
  11. Chocolate Covered. 5/5 stars. Wonderful store with so much variety of chocolate. 
  12. MY China. 5/5 stars. Amazing Chinese food. Recommended: spicy seafood dumplings, spicy chicken wings, seafood noodles, duck, beef fried rice — all very delicious.
  13. La Taqueria. 3/5 stars. Nice Mexican restaurant. I go here often because it’s very close to where I live.  

I searched through my images gallery to find photos of food from the above restaurants. Found exactly one photo — from Dandelion Chocolate. Please enjoy a photo of their Chef Tasting Plate!

If you have any restaurant suggestions or would like to explore food together, email me at harshita@harshitaapps.com! 🙂

A guide on getting an O-1 visa.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. If you follow the advice in this article and screw up, I’m sorry but I’m not personally liable for any damage.  

I get a lot of messages from my online friends asking how I got my O-1. There’s not a lot of very useful information on O-1 besides articles repeating the same jargon from USCIS articles. Sadly, I’ve had to spend hundreds of hours of my time and over $10k on dealing with immigration, and that sucks. I hope this helps save you some time and encourages you to move to the US!

First of all, my O-1 wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing people at Bay Immigration Law who worked hard on my petition and tolerated my 3 am panic attacks about a change in the petition. They were amazingly patient and I’d highly recommend them!

So…what is O-1?

If you (or your biological parents) were not born on the US territory and you don’t have an American passport or green card, you need a visa to enter or work in the US. There are many types of work visas, with H-1B being the most popular. But there’s another, slightly lesser known visa category called O-1, which is a non-immigrant visa that lets you stay in the US for up to 3 years (can be extended) working for an employer (which can be your own company too!). O-1 requires you to prove that you’re in the top 1% of your field with evidence (discussed below). O-1 is more flexible and takes lesser time to process (15 calendar days with premium processing). And in some cases, it can be your only option because H-1B requires at least a bachelor’s degree.
If you’ve been wanting to move to the US to work on your startup, or do research, or work on anything, you should consider the O-1 visa!

What do I need to get an O-1?

You need two things: evidence that you meet at least 3/8 criteria listed here AND an employer to petition for you.

a) Evidentiary Criteria:
In simple words, the criteria mean you have: 1) Awards 2) Membership in exclusive groups 3) Media and news about you 4) Patents or something else original and significant 5) Publications authored by you 6) High remuneration (usually that means 2x the average salary of a person in your profession in your country, which is sourced from something like Glassdoor. So if you’re a software engineer from India where the average salary is $10k/year and if you had your app acquired for $20k+, you have satisfactory evidence for this criterion). 7) Spoke at a conference/ panel or judged a hackathon 8) Work experience somewhere in a non-intern role.

My lawyers applied for all 8 criteria in my petition.

Something that is not mentioned on the USCIS website but is very important and you may have probably heard about it from someone, is getting letters of recommendation from experts in your field. Typically, these letters have a specific format and most lawyers write the letters themselves after researching on the person, which you can send to the recommender to review and sign.

b) Petitioner/employer to file your petition:
Now you could just apply for a job in the US and if you get hired, your employer will fill out some forms and hire a lawyer for your O-1 petition.
But if you want to work on a startup or do independent research and things of that sort, you can form a company using Stripe Atlas which incorporates a company (LLC or C Corp) for you, opens a bank account for you, and more for just $500. I spent 10 minutes filling out a few forms for incorporating Harshita Apps, LLC, which petitioned for my O-1.
Keep in mind that O-1 requires that you either own ≤49% equity in the petitioning company or have an odd number of Board of Directions so that you can be fired. I went with the former. I added my aunt as a 51% equity owner.
Also, you’d need to submit a business plan for your company in the petition.

If you’re under 18 and are using Stripe Atlas to form an LLC, their banking partner, Azlo, will not be able to open a bank account for your company. In principle, they would love to support founders under 18 but there are significant compliance hurdles to figure out first. So when I was told this, I went to every bank in the Bay Area asking them to open a business bank account for my company (and before you wonder why I bothered with that if I could just open a personal bank account, check out the consequences of the O-1 section). None of them agreed. Chase said that my parents would need to be physically present at the bank to consent. Wells Fargo said that all founders need to be physically present. I didn’t want to spend ~$1k in flying my Dad or aunt from India for an administrative task. Even Silicon Valley Bank said no when I phoned them up. Eventually, several weeks later, a friend of mine contacted his connection at SVB, who assigned a Bank Advisor who called me up and it all worked out from there! I opened an account with my Dad as the manager (and he just signed the agreements online) and I don’t have transactional authority on the account until I turn 18.

I have an employer and meet the criteria, what’s next?

Hire a lawyer to write your petition. Your petition will include evidence for each criterion. So things like your media and news printed, letters of recommendation from people, etc. You should make a Google Drive folder with all proof for each criterion that you think you qualify for and share with your lawyers. My lawyers took about 3 weeks to write letters of recommendation, conduct research, and write the petition. You’ll also fill out Forms I-907 (Request for premium processing), I-129 (non-immigrant worker petition), and G-28 (another form).

Also if you’re already in the US on a non-immigrant visa (like B-1/2), you can apply for a change of status to O-1 without having to travel to your home country for consular interviews. I did consular processing anyway because you can’t travel internationally without an O-1 stamp on the passport.

Filing a petition and next steps

Your lawyers will print out the entire petition and mail it to USCIS along with a check for filing fees. If you paid for premium processing, then you should receive a response within 15 calendar days. I got an acceptance email in 3 days!
There are two possible outcomes at this stage — an acceptance (which gets you an approval letter mailed to you or your lawyer) or an RFE (Request for more evidence). If you get an RFE, then you have 87 days to respond and my lawyer told me that typically they just add more letters of recommendation. About 35% of the petitions get an RFE. No petitions are rejected outright.

If your petition has been approved, congratulations! 😀 Once you have your approval letter, you need to go through a consular interview to get the stamp (unless you applied for change of status, in which case, you don’t need to do anything). Your next step is to fill out the DS-160 form here and book an appointment with the US embassy in your country which you can do here. And then go for the interview and biometrics (if your country requires it). Make sure you take your approval letter, passport, DS-160 confirmation, and appointment confirmation pages. While I wasn’t asked for it, my lawyer suggested me to print my petition just in case they ask. They will collect your passport after the interview and you will go and collect it once it’s ready or they’ll ship it to you. Once you have your passport with the O-1 stamp, you’re all set! Check the validity period on your approval letter before booking your flight to the US. You’re eligible for a grace period of up to 10 days before the validity during which you can enter the US.

Once you travel to the US, you’d need to register for SSN and open a personal bank account. Also, you’d need to find a place to live and all the other stuff one needs to do when they move to a new place. Also, pay your taxes!

How much does it all cost?

$460 is the government filing fees
$1225 is the premium processing fee (this is optional. If you want your O-1 to be processed in 15 calendar days instead of months, then you need to pay this fee)
$500 for Stripe Atlas to incorporate your company, if you do
$7,500 for a law firm to prepare your petition (this is also optional. And the lawyer fee can vary, but $7.5k is the standard, I’ve heard).

Also, include the money you’d spend on traveling to your home country to do consular interviews (if you do consular processing instead of change of status and you’re already in the US).

Remember that you’re making an investment in yourself and your career!

Consequences of O-1:

1. You need to keep a paycheck stub that your employer gives you every month or biweekly or however often you’re paid. If you incorporated a company for O-1 purposes, this means that you need to make enough revenue to pay the promised salary from your company’s business bank account to your personal bank account. If you don’t have the paycheck stub, you won’t be able to apply for O-1 extensions or do a change of status to some other non-immigrant visas, and it’d basically be illegal if you’re not getting paid by your employer.
And this means you need to pay taxes, both your company and you. For LLC’s, I think it’s simpler and you can avoid double-taxation. Consult a tax lawyer if stuff like TurboTax is too confusing.

What’s next after O-1?

EB-1! This visa has the same criteria as O-1 but is harder to get. This visa gets you a green card and can be self-sponsored (unlike O-1 which needs to be employer sponsored). After getting a green card, you can apply for citizenship.
Personally, I plan on doing EB-1 in a year. Fingers crossed!
And you need to wait at least 90 days after entry on O-1 before you can petition for EB-1. Plus, you can’t travel internationally for 90 days prior to filing for EB-1.

If you don’t want to do EB-1, then you can extend your O-1 after the 3-year validity. My lawyer told me that you can extend it yearly, indefinitely, as long as you can prove that you’re adding value to the petitioning company (GitHub commits to show progress on the project would work if there’s nothing public/tangible).


  1. How big is an O-1 petition?
    My petition was a 795 paged document. Although my lawyer has told me that most O-1 petitions are 400-500 pages long. Mine was so long because they applied for each of the 8 criteria and I had about 50 media and news articles and I wanted to include all of them.
  2. How do I know if I qualify for O-1?
    Check out the criteria and talk to a lawyer to assess your case. Most lawyers do it for free.
  3. Can I go to college on O-1?
    Depends on the university’s policies. But usually yes, as long as you’re still full-time employed at the company that petitioned your O-1.
  4. What can I do to improve my chances of getting O-1?
    Apply to speak at conferences, go to hackathons and ideally win some, tap into your network to find important people in your field to get a letter of recommendation from, cold-email journalists to write an article about you and your work, win awards, etc. And don’t forget to document it all in a Google Doc!


Fun Fact: I think I may be the youngest recipient of O-1A at 16 years of age. Not the O-1 visa though because Kristina Pimenova got an O-1B (Extraordinary Ability in Arts) when she was 10.

If you want to speak to a lawyer, email my law firm’s Director of Operations (tj@bayimmigrationlaw.com). He happily gets on a call to discuss a case for free (and has done so for a couple of my friends!). I didn’t have to pay his firm for months while I was trying to figure out my future plans and he answered hundreds of questions that I had. He’s the most friendly, humble, and hard-working lawyer I’ve known. I got introduced to him through a Quora friend of mine, Dima Korolev.

Their firm charges $7,500. Though you can pay only $2.5k at the start, $2.5k after your petition is finished, and $2.5k conditional on whether you get the approval. And FYI, $7.5k is the like the standard rate. I know other friends who hired lawyers like Peter Roberts, Chris Wright, etc, and they charge the same.

A few friends have asked me if they need to hire a lawyer. While in theory, you could prepare your own O-1 petition by referring to approved petitions and mail it to USCIS yourself. That’d be a lot of work and your lack of experience with the legal jargon could put you at risk of an RFE. And if your case is unique/not that strong (like mine was being a 16 year old with barely 2 years of work experience), you’re better off with a lawyer. If you’re going to be working for a company that’s not yours, your company should be paying for the lawyer.

Good luck! Immigration is never fun to deal with. But you gotta persevere! All the hard work will pay off when you get your hands on this! 🙂



The US and specifically the Bay Area (if you’re interested in technology and science) is a great place to be. You’ll get to meet other smart and ambitious people who will give you great ideas, support, and they’ll motivate you to do amazing things! And you’ll get to know about fantastic career and personal growth opportunities that you won’t find anywhere else. America is rightly called the land of opportunity! 🙂
If you move to the Bay Area, consider living in intellectual group houses like the Topos house (disclaimer: I’m a super happy resident of Topos!).

As much as I’d have loved to share, I can’t post my petition publicly. However, if you’re applying for your O-1 without a lawyer and would benefit from looking at an approved petition, email me. Also, feel free to email me any questions at harshita@harshitaapps.com!
If this guide helped you get an O-1 approval, please let me know — it’d make my day! ^_^


List of problems in the world

Inspired by Nat Friedman’s tweet asking people about the future technology they’re excited about, I put a list of unsolved problems I think are huge. I believe it’s great to discuss important unsolved problems in the world so that ambitious young people who are looking for problems to educate themselves about have a resource to refer to.

In the future, I think I should add my unique take on each problem — like current challenges, what people in the field are trying to build, what could work, etc. But for now, here’s a rough list of problems or areas where humanity needs to make progress:

  1. Lack of understanding of how the brain (and the nervous system) works and communicates. A deeper understanding would lead to tools for augmentation and enhancement. Current technologies for “reading the brain” like EEG (which is like sticking voltmeters to the brain for recording electrical activity and finding patterns in the data) are very limited in their use.
  2. Life Extension. Some common arguments against longevity are:
    a) Philosophical: “The rush of passing time gives people meaning. Life is short because it’s meant to be….”
    I typically don’t argue with people on their beliefs (I argue about facts and data) because I’ve come to realize that most disagreement arises from a difference in fundamental axioms that one believes in. But for me, a longer and healthier lifespan sounds exciting, because I can spend more time pursuing my intellectual interests 🙂
    If you’re up for changing your opinion, check out the comments on this tweet.
    b) Economic: “If people live 1000 times longer, then we’d need 1000 times more resources!”
    I heard someone say this at SynBioBeta this year. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that longer living humans benefit societies more because they’ve already attained an education and have accumulated work experience, unlike “untrained” new humans. More humans results in more time spent producing goods.
    But how will we accommodate if people live so long? Taller buildings and efficient transportation to minimize waste of space! Smarter humans will figure out.As for the science, my roommate and good friend Laura Deming, who’s an investor in longevity companies wrote an excellent guide on the longevity science which I highly recommend you to read.
  3. Automation. Autonomous vehicles and automation of repetitive tasks currently performed by humans.
    I once had a chat with an engineer at Aurora and I asked if getting self-driving cars to the road is a technical or regulatory challenge. He said both. But mostly a technical challenge in getting cars to drive on the same road with human drivers where you can’t make predictions.
    Boston Dynamics is working on useful robots. But we’re quite far from affordable robots that do tasks like cleaning (Roomba is cute, but not very useful), cooking, and other chores.
  4. Better and more efficient governments, systems for managing and governing people, etc. Why is such a large portion of the world miserable, starving, and unproductive? How can we do make it possible for a larger number of people to live a better quality of life and contribute to the economy?
    Why should you care? Here’s a great explanation for why it’s in your best interests if everyone on earth is better off.
  5. Gene-editing to augment our default selves. If brain-computer interfaces can augment our intellectual abilities, we might use some gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to augment our physical abilities! Learn more about CRISPR from these excellent explanations: https://youtu.be/0KZmCF3GezM and https://youtu.be/BFdINWL6Hao
  6. A better understanding of biology. A lot of literature on biology is just memorization of facts, unlike physics and chemistry, where there are fundamental laws and scientific theories that answer the why’s and how’s. If we can gain a deeper understanding of living things, we can cure or prevent diseases, augment ourselves, understand sleep and nutrition, and more!
  7. Space exploration and understanding more about the universe.
  8. Faster, cheaper, portable, and easier to learn to use way of transporting. Do we need flying cars if we can efficiently manage space on the ground?
  9. Food. Decreasing waste and increasing crop yield. This project by three teenage Irish girls looks promising to me!
  10. Better tools for managing information for people in all professions and of all intellectual interests. As a science lover, I’m bombarded with 1000s of research papers on brain-computer interfaces I could read. What do I choose to read? Perhaps, a more personalized Internet?

I’ll update the list with more!

Update: Have a look at this amazing list on Wikipedia.

If you have any suggestions or feedback, email me at harshita@harshitaapps.com! 🙂

A poem on science

When I close my eyes and go to sleep,

I think all about Science, quite deep.

I can see the invisible microbes moving around,

And hear the below 20 Hz frequency sound.

I can see the sun, the moon, and the stars,

And the CO2 gas coming out of the cars.

I can see a satellite flying in the orbit,

And the current flowing in the circuit.

I can see the crops getting ready for the harvest,

And a man cutting down the last forest.

I can see a chemical reaction between an acid and a base,

And also myself smiling in the space.

I can see the seven colors of the white light,

And the fungi causing the potato blight.

I can see the light traveling so fast,

Also, the universe getting even more vast.

I can feel the earthquake jolting my bed,

And the yeast fermenting my bread.

I can see the electrical impulses in my brain

And the blood carried by my vein.

I can see my Earth going in the black hole,

And also the electrons going on a stroll.

I couldn’t think about a place where there wasn’t Science,

Science is in me and in every appliance.


Originally published on this blog I created when I was 14 years old. 🙂

Why are people “trained” to behave a certain way?

When I  asked for feedback, one of my co-workers at my internship this past summer told me that I do a lot of things (like asking a lot of questions from people kind of like Socrates used to) that make me come off as a child — things that are totally considered weird/not normal in the “adult world”. He said that going to high school (something I dropped out from) gives you some training of social skills and what is acceptable and what isn’t because you hang around with other people your age who will mock you and exclude you from social circles for not fitting the norm and behaving normally.

This is something I disagree with. Why would you want to end up in a world where everyone is literally the same and says the same stuff based on “acceptable” ideas and acceptable social behaviors? Diversity in thoughts and in behaviors (as long as those behaviors are not illegal) should be encouraged because then we live in a world that is not totally vanilla.

And this is another reason I’m glad I didn’t go through high school. I shouldn’t change myself to a worse version of myself to get accepted in more social circles. I think I enjoy hanging around with people who appreciate eccentric people like myself.

After this incident, I spoke with Tyler Cowen about it and he mentioned that in his experience, most of the very successful people he’s known had excellence in something and were socially unorthodox in some way.

What do you think?